Kings of the Road (1976)

Aka Im Lauf der Zeit (In the Course of Time). How do you live? While travelling his route along the rural border between East and West Germany, solitary film projector repairman Bruno Winter (Rüdiger Vogler) meets depressive paediatrician and linguist Robert Lander (Hanns Zischler) when the latter attempts suicide by driving his car into a shallow lake following the breakup of his marriage. The two form a genuine friendship as Robert accompanies Bruno on the road to fix equipment in deserted and dilapidated cinemas. They discuss the decline of German film, the hegemony of America culture and their challenging relationships with women. Robert stops at his home where he discusses his unhappiness about his mother’s death eight years earlier with his printer father (Rudolf Schundler) whom he believes disrespected her. Bruno and Robert then encounter a third man (Marquard Bohm) whose wife drove their car into a tree the night before. They stay with him until the repair service turns up. Bruno decides to break off from his work to go to his childhood home on the Rhine and he and Robert take a motorbike with sidecar and a boat to get there but Bruno cannot bring himself to spend the night in the house. They return to the border where they ultimately part ways, with Bruno from his truck watching Robert on a train as their paths cross on the railway line. Then Bruno talks to a woman (Franziska Stoemmer) whose father refuses to screen new films at his cinema because he believes modern work exploits people … For the first time I see myself as someone who’s something in a certain time and that time is my history. Perhaps the quintessential Wim Wenders film, this road movie is an inky black and white portrait of the psychological state of Germany thirty years after the war, which has never really ended in its impact – empty roads, filled with signifiers of a depressed and separated nation and a people whose heads are singing along to American songs while contemplating suicide. The film ends at a border sign. For Wenders this is both an American-style film filled with air and space and music and occasional political references (including a funfair’s cigarette lighter made from a cast of Hitler’s head); and a conversation about the boundaries between geography and cinema, a dialogue about the colonising of the German consciousness, which he allows a character to state explicitly. This reflexive iteration gives the form a new European stamp, bringing it all back home, accidentally on purpose, colonising the ultimate American film form. In the end, film yields to the reality of geopolitics with American-ness a permanent inhabitant even if the troops are mostly dispersed and the Soviets are entrenched, at least for the time being. They are out of sight except as newspaper headlines. Hearts and minds:  the perverse antithesis to tourism as the uninvited guest lingers in ways that cannot be explained, only imagined. There are things that might shock, such as when Vogler defecates in the open air (an image that once seen is never forgotten) and the general sense of masculine despair. The third of Wenders’ road trilogy. Shot by Robby Muller with music by Axel Linstaedt. The Yanks have colonised our subconscious

Dangerous Minds (1995)

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Who are these kids – rejects from Hell? Divorced former US Marine LouAnne Johnson (Michelle Pfeiffer) wants to resume her teacher training and her ex-husband’s friend Hal Griffith (George Dzundza) lands her an interview at his inner city high school. To her surprise she is hired on the spot and soon finds out why. In this ‘academy’ class of black and Latino teens from impoverished backgrounds, involved in gangs and drugs she is met with a wall of sullen indifference. She dresses in leather and teaches them karate and then ditches traditional class and tries to teach them poetry using Bob Dylan’s work. She goes to the home of Raoul Sanchero (Renoly Santiago) to tell his family they should be proud of him. She tries to stop pregnant Callie (Bruklin Harris) from dropping out. She attempts to save the life of Emilio (Wade Dominquez) from a revenge shooting but the headmaster (Courtney B. Vance) and his rules about knocking on doors costs the boy his life… All you gotta do is get their attention – or quit.  Adapted from the autobiography My Posse Don’t Do Homework by retired US Marine LouAnne Johnson, this is an upbeat update of material familiar from The Blackboard Jungle and To Sir With Love but with a rap soundtrack and a boyz in the ‘hood feel. If Pfeiffer never has to unpack her military training and really engage physically at the level of tough love promised with that background (she’s got training in marketing and PR, too, natch), there are sufficient moments of danger in the smooth screenplay by Ronald Bass but nothing too worrisome in a narrative that manages to inflict as many stereotypes as it is presuming to unpick. Sentimental, good-natured and resolved rather well even if you think the songs on the soundtrack are the poetry that would really appeal to this particular audience who roll over far too easily at the prospect of a rollercoaster ride and a free meal. Directed by John N. Smith. So you start out all wrong and just keep going

Mask (1985)

Mask

I look weird but I’m real normal. Azusa, California. It’s 1978. Roy ‘Rocky’ Dennis (Eric Stoltz) is an intelligent, outgoing and humorous teenager who suffers from a disfiguring facial deformity called “lionitis” and has now outlived his life expectancy:  he’s always being told he’s got 6 to 8 months. He’s happy go lucky and indulges his passion for baseball card collecting. His single mother Florence ‘Rusty’ Dennis (Cher) struggles to fight for his acceptance in the mainstream public school system, where he proves himself to be a highly accomplished student at junior high and wins friends by tutoring them. Though Rocky endures ridicule and awkwardness for his appearance, and the classmate he’s sweet on has a boyfriend, he dreams of travelling to Europe with his best friend Ben (Lawrence Monoson). He finds love and respect from his mother’s biker gang family the Turks and particularly likes Gar (Sam Elliott) who eventually reconciles with Rusty and moves in, frequently acting as peacemaker between mother and son. He even experiences his first love when he is persuaded to volunteer at a summer camp for blind kids where he meets Diana (Laura Dern) but then her parents try to keep them separated and Ben lets him down when he says he’s got to move to Chicago ... I want to go to every place I ever read about. Absurdly moving, this wonderfully sympathetic evocation of real-life Rocky Dennis and his mom benefits immensely from being simply told, allowing the characters and the performances to do the heavy lifting. Stoltz has such a tough role but carries it with dignity and aplomb; while Cher is a revelation as the mom whose tough love and wild lifestyle add up to a complex emotional picture. Beautifully written by Anna Hamilton Phelan and sensitively directed by Peter Bogdanovich, this is a life-affirming story of real courage and love. When something bad happens to you you’ve gotta remember the good things that happened to you

England Is Mine (2017)

England Is Mine

Do you ever wake up and think, I wonder if I could have been a poet. Shy and sullen Steven Patrick Morrissey (Jack Lowden) is the unemployed and depressive son of Irish immigrants growing up in 1976 Manchester. Withdrawn and something of a loner, he goes out to rock gigs at night and then submits letters and reviews to music newspapers as well as keeping a diary. His father (Peter MacDonald) wants him to get a job, his mother (Simone Kirby) wants him to follow his passion for writing, and Steven doesn’t quite know what he wants to do. His friend, artist Linder Sterling (Jessica Brown Findlay) a nascent feminist, inspires him to continue to write lyrics and urges him to start to perform, but she eventually moves to London. Forced to earn a living and fit in with society his income from office work permits his gig-going but Steven’s frustrations and setbacks continue to mount. Although he eventually writes some songs with guitarist Billy Duffy (Adam Lawrence) for the band The Nosebleeds until Duffy breaks it off, and he tries his hand at singing and enjoys it, nothing substantially changes in his life, and Steven seems at the end of his rope until another teenage fanboy who can play guitar Johnny Marr (Laurie Kynaston) shows up on his doorstep in 1982… The past is everything I have failed to be.  A biography of The Smiths’ singer-songwriter and solo artist Morrissey before he became famous, this is hampered by the lack of The Smiths music (because the makers didn’t own the rights) but nonetheless forms another part of the puzzle that is is the man. In many respects it hymns the kitchen sink realist films that he himself paid homage in so many songs, colouring in his Irish background in the northern city of Manchester but pointedly avoiding his later songwriting and sexuality and stopping at the moment he meets Marr, the guitarist, which is where most of his fans come in. Instead it’s a portrait of a bedroom loner, a fan who fantasises about being famous and in that sense paints a fascinating picture Billy Liar-style of someone who manages to rise above their miserable circumstances and then (after the film) in protean style fashions fame from their influences and obsessions despite the apparent lack of propulsion in his life. In that sense, it’s a portrait of celebrity and how it can inspire people to escape their humdrum lives and find their own voice. The songs on the soundtrack from New York Dolls and Mott the Hoople to Sparks and Magazine are as much a part of the narrative as the arch teenage diary entries which echo the later mordantly amusing lyrics and the performance by The Nosebleeds is the most thrilling sequence in the film. Anyone who ever lived in Manchester will recognise the dreadful rainy place Morrissey wrote has so much to answer for. Director Mark Gill who co-wrote the screenplay with William Thacker gets into the head of one of the most singular talents ever produced on the British music scene and perhaps the best ever Irish band on the planet, The Smiths, the only band that mattered in the Eighties. He’s played quite charmingly by Lowden who livens up a drama that may cleave much too closely to the exhausting reality as lived in Northern England at the time. Today is Morrissey’s sixty-first birthday. Many happy returns! If there was ever a revolution in England, we’d form an orderly queue at the guillotine

East of Eden (1955)

East of Eden

The way he looks at you. Sorta like an animal. In 1917 Salinas Cal (James Dean) and Aaron (Richard Davalos) Trask are the sons of decent farmer Adam (Raymond Massey) who is chairman of the local wartime draft board. Both compete for his attention but Cal has discovered that the mother Kate (Jo Van Fleet) they were told was long dead is in fact the madam of a whorehouse in Monterey, 15 miles away. He borrows money from her to profit from a rise in the bean farming market intending to repay his father for his failed experiment in freezing food for long-haul shipping.  But his father prefers Aaron’s announcement of his engagement to Abra (Julie Harris) whom Cal starts to desire just as Aaron feels pressure to enlist and Cal decides to surprise him … I’ve been jealous all my life. Jealous, I couldn’t even stand it. Tonight, I even tried to buy your love, but now I don’t want it anymore… I can’t use it anymore. I don’t want any kind of love anymore. It doesn’t pay off. Was there ever a more important or sinuous entrance in the history of cinema than James Dean’s arrival here? The way he moves, coiled like a caged animal set to pounce, slinking along like a cat, then hunched and feral, infiltrating our consciousness and catalysing our puzzlement and desire? I first saw this aged 12 and that’s the perfect age to watch it for the first time, this story of bad parenting, bullying, abandonment, sibling rivalry, envy and first love, all choreographed to the backdrop of the outbreak of WW1 in a masterful adaptation (by Paul Osborn) of the last section of John Steinbeck’s great 1952 novel. Everything about it is right:  the shooting style laying out the gorgeous landscape of Salinas, alternately warm and sunny, chill and foggy; the wide screen that’s barely able to contain the raw emotionality; the marvellous, occasionally strident score by Leonard Rosenman with its soaring, sonorous swoops. And there’s the cast. Jo Van Fleet gives a great performance (in her screen debut) as the wild whoremongering mother  – just look at her strut when we first see her (this is a film of brilliant entrances), providing the angular example of difference to this half-grown boy of hers; Massey is upstanding, a self-righteous, arrogant man, given to sermonising, incapable of leading by empathy; Harris is generous to a fault, allowing Dean to be everything, all at once, boy, man, lover. He burns up the screen with playfulness, confusion and rage. His scenes with Davalos, the Abel to his Cain, bespeak a softness and eroticism rarely equalled and play into the latterday perceptions of his orientation – or perhaps director Elia Kazan just understood how he needed to be in the part, getting into your head by whatever means necessary. Kazan recalled the audience reaction to Dean at the first screening and said that kids were screaming and yelling and practically falling over the balcony to get closer to him, they went wild. That’s how he makes you feel, James Dean. You want to get closer to him. You want to be him. This is really where that sensation began:  of feelings being teased, opened up, acknowledged. Once seen, never forgotten. You’re a likeable kid

Instant Family (2018)

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Is it a problem, the whole white saviour thing? Building contractor Pete Wagner (Mark Wahlberg) and his interior designer wife Ellie (Rose Byrne) have a perfect life, flipping houses and making money. However their child-free status is starting to get to Ellie and she persuades Mark to think about fostering. They train under the supervision of social workers Karen (Octavia Spencer) and Sharon (Tig Notaro) and get overwhelmed when they encounter wisecracking 15-year old Lizzie (Isabela Moner) but she has a little brother Juan (Gustavo Quiroz) and sister Lita (Julianna Gamiz) and the couple don’t want to break up the family, whose crack addict mom is in jail.  The honeymoon period is followed by serious tantrums and disruption … If I chatted to a random kid in the park I could get arrested.  A film constructed on such a hideously sentimental premise you might not look beyond the awesome shabby chic interiors and hear some very shrewd and witty observations about race, parenting and family.  But what the hell were they thinking to deploy the great Joan Cusack as the weirdo in the last scene? Cringe! Must be the flu meds. Ahem. Written by John Morris and director Sean Anders. I never get tired of watching white people fight

The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)

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I just met a wonderful new man. He’s fictional but you can’t have everything. New Jersey in the 1930s. Unhappily married Depression-era waitress Cecilia (Mia Farrow) earns the money while her inattentive husband, Monk (Danny Aiello), blows their measly income on getting drunk and gambling. To deal with her loneliness, Cecilia escapes to the cinema and becomes transfixed with the RKO movie The Purple Rose of Cairo and especially its lead character, archaeologist Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels). When Tom notices this is her fifth time to see it he literally steps out of the black and white screen and into her life in full colour.  Both of their realities are thrown into chaos as he is confused by his actor’s identity of Gil Shepherd and the character he plays onscreen where he is indulged by Manhattan high society. Cecilia has to choose between Tom and Gil. Then the film’s producers discover that other Tom Baxters are attempting to leave the screen in other movie theatres ... You make love without fading out? Perfectly capturing the fantasy life of a moviegoer at the height of Thirties Hollywood, Allen blends Depression-era realism with the escape valve of Deco cinema against the backdrop of marital discord and domestic violence. The real ones want their lives fiction and the fictional ones want their lives real. The performances are pitch-perfect and the tone admirably sustained, Farrow enormously touching in capturing the bittersweet situation of a woman caught between what she has and what she wants:  When you kissed me, I felt like my heart faded out. I closed my eyes, and I was in some private place. In a role originally played by Michael Keaton until he and Allen agreed it wasn’t working ten days into production, Daniels has an existential crisis at the centre of his performance:  I don’t get hurt or bleed, hair doesn’t muss; it’s one of the advantages of being imaginary. The conceit is brilliant and it’s intelligently played out in one of Allen’s best screenplays with the film within the film wonderfully imagined and Gil’s belief that he created the character of Tom is an arrow across the parapet for screenwriters. I don’t wanna talk any more about what’s real and what’s illusion. Life’s too short to spend time thinking about life. Let’s just live it! Shot in shades of wistfulness and regret by Gordon Willis, this remains a classic interrogation of cinema’s power. I want what happened in the movie last week to happen this week; otherwise, what’s life all about anyway?

Radio Days (1987)

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Who is Pearl Harbour? Narrator Joe (Woody Allen) tells the story of two burglars in his childhood neighbourhood of Rockaway Beach, NY, who get caught when they answer the phone to participate in a live radio competition back in the medium’s golden age. The songs trigger childhood memories and we are taken back to his life as a child as Young Joe (Seth Green) immediately prior to and during World War 2 where his mother (Julie Kavner) served breakfast listening to Breakfast With Irene and Roger and his father Martin (Michael Tucker) keeps his occupation a secret from the family until Joe finds out he’s a taxi driver when he hails a cab.  Joe’s favourite show is The Masked Avenger so he has a healthy fantasy life but when he spots a Nazi submarine on the shoreline he fails to alert anyone because he thinks they won’t believe him. Unmarried Aunt Bea (Dianne Wiest) lives with them and is constantly going out with losers. Joe has heard stories about radio stars and we learn about Sally White (Mia Farrow) a hatcheck girl with acting dreams and a bad accent who sleeps with big names including Roger to get ahead but always gets left behind until she gets her big break when she witnesses a murder … He’s a ventriloquist on the radio! How can you tell he’s not moving his lips? As any fule kno, Rockaway Beach is one of the most inspiring spots in New York. Winning, winsome and witty, this series of vignettes is stitched together with what can only be described as love with nods to famous radio stories including Orson Welles’ infamous War of the Worlds broadcast, here interrupting a fogbound assignation. One of the funniest tales involves a sportscaster prone to melodrama regaling his audience with the story of a blind one-legged baseball star. Farrow and Wiest get two of the best character arcs, the former’s Singin’ in the Rain-ish storyline turning her from squeaky-voiced trampy wannabe actress to Louella Parsons-type gossip columnist via a run-in with a sympathetic mob hitman Rocco (Danny Aiello) from the old ‘hood; while the latter is terminally disappointed in love including a necessarily brief romance with a white-suited Tom Wolfe lookalike bemoaning the loss of his fiancée who turns out to have been a man called Leonard. Music and songs churn and curdle the endless embarrassment and kind hearted acts as friends, family and neighbours get on with their daily lives when war breaks out. Memories of Annie Hall abound in the voyeuristic kids whose new teacher Miss Gordon (Sydney Blake) turns out to be the exhibitionist they’ve been watching surreptitiously when they were out spotting German aircraft. Brimful of nostalgia and told with fond humour, this concludes on a bittersweet note as these little lives filled with crazy incidents and relatable attitudes acknowledge that they exist vicariously through what is the soundtrack of their lives, driven by the music of all the era’s greats with everyone from Artie Shaw to Duke Ellington and Xavier Cugat featured in the world of this kaleidoscopic narrative, like a lovingly reproduced living postcard. A beautiful, intensely funny and deeply affectionate work of art. I wonder if future generations will ever even hear about us

The Champ (1979)

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A man who can’t do up his own pants ain’t a man. Washed-up prizefighter Billy Flynn (Jon Voight) hangs up his gloves to try and make it as a horse trainer and be a good father to his eight-year old son TJ or Timmy (Ricky Schroder) who spends his time taking care of his dad who’s prone to drinking and gambling. Billy buys the kid a horse called She’s A Lady but the filly collapses in a race leading to a meeting with Billy’s ex-wife fashionista Annie (Faye Dunaway) but the child think his mom died years ago in a car wreck. Billy reluctantly agrees to allow her to spend a little time with the boy but after Billy gets into trouble at the track and faces a prison term she reveals to TJ that she’s his mother and it upsets him greatly. Despite a recurring headache Billy wants to win his son back and plans a comeback in the boxing ring with reluctant trainer Jackie (Jack Warden) and it seems like the father and son might be reunited … You’re dead! He’s got no mother! This remake of the earlier 1931 Wallace Beery/Jackie Coogan two-hander is a great tragic melodrama. Director Franco Zeffirelli wrings the very heartstrings and you’d have to be a brute not to respond in kind. Walter Newman updated the original screenplay by Frances Marion, one of the great screenwriters of early cinema and it sticks to the essentials with Voight and Dunaway superb in what could be very clichéd roles. However it’s the extraordinary Schroder you remember – his debut performance as the little boy exploding with love for his pop is one of the most startlingly emotive in cinema. Mary Jo Catlett, Joan Blondell and Strother Martin score in supporting roles. Voight lost out on the Golden Globe to Dustin Hoffman, his Midnight Cowboy co-star, who took it for the year’s other big male weepie, Kramer Versus Kramer. It looks as gorgeous as Zeffirelli’s productions always do, courtesy of cinematographer Fred J. Kroenekamp while Dave Grusin’s score was nominated for the Academy Award. Totally manipulative, utterly irresistible and completely heartbreaking! What about my heart? What about my mind? What about me? What about me?