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

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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

 

Under the Volcano (1984)

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He on whose heart the dust of Mexico has lain, will find no peace in any other land. A day in the life of a man in 1938. Geoffrey Firmin (Albert Finney) is an alcoholic former British consul living in Quauhnahuac, a small Mexican town. As the local Day of the Dead celebration gets underway, Geoffrey drowns himself in the bottle, having cut himself off from his family, friends and job. When he goes missing, his ex-wife, actress Yvonne (Jacqueline Bisset), who has returned from the US in the hopes of resurrecting their relationship, convinces his half-brother Hugh (Anthony Andrews) to conduct a last-ditch search for him, hoping that Hugh might be able to rescue her self-destructing husband… How, unless you drink as I do, can you hope to understand the beauty of an old Indian woman playing dominoes with a chicken? Adapted by Guy Gallo (his only screenplay to date) from Malcolm Lowry’s 1947 masterpiece, this late John Huston film (and he rejected over 20 versions of the screenplay over the decades) is a powerhouse film: brilliantly interpreted by everyone concerned. Reunited with his director following Annie, Finney offers one of his great performances, committed and charismatic, as the dissolute man who nonetheless has a core of humanity. Huston said of it, I think it’s the finest performance I have ever witnessed, let alone directed.  Huston had lived in Puerto Vallarta for a period and shot The Night of the Iguana there as well of course as having made one of his other films in Mexico – maybe his best ever, full stop – The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Clearly the country brought something special to his aesthetic – and vice versa. There is nothing more real than magic. Here the various elements churn and dissect a life, symbolised in the wonderful titles sequence. It’s marvellous to see Katy Jurado as Senora Gregoria, a key supporting character in this drama that constantly threatens us with being on the brink of something – death? Truth? War? It was originally written by Lowry in 1936 but underwent many rewrites. It’s so special it’s the subject of two documentaries including the Oscar-nominated Volcano: An Inquiry into the Life and Death of Malcolm Lowry, in which Lowry’s words are read by Richard Burton, who Huston had hoped to cast as the lead right after they shot Iguana. Quite, quite the film then, with a legacy all its own. Hell is my natural habitat

Melody (1971)

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Aka S.W.A.L.K. I’ve loved you a whole week already, haven’t I? Pre-teens Melody Perkins (Tracy Hyde) and Daniel Latimer (Mark Lester) are from very different backgrounds but are completely sincere in their desire to wed one another. Unfortunately, this leads to mockery by their classmates at their south London primary school. Nobody seems to understand their bond. First of all, Melody is embarrassed by the strength of this middle class boy’s feelings, then she succumbs and they bunk off one day to go to the beach. Their parents and teachers find the marriage proposal ridiculous, and Daniel’s closest mate Ornshaw (Jack Wild), doesn’t want to lose his best friend to a girl. But mischievous Ornshaw eventually warms to the idea, and helps Daniel and Melody escape the cruel  adults... It’s not bloody Cape Kennedy, it’s only an Ovaltine tin with a bit of weedkilller! A totally disarming, charming and perceptive account of life and puppy love from kids’ perspective shot with documentary-style realism (by DoP Peter Suchitzky) in an utterly recognisable London, mainly around Lambeth. People really do say, I’m going up West. The differences in class are clearly signalled but never so well as when two contrasting dinners are crosscut – at Daniel’s the grown up are jovially discussing religion while at Melody’s the women are sitting with plates on their laps watching a movie on the gogglebox. The kids are just so subtle, giving utterly believable performances: reunited from Oliver!  Lester and Wild are established stars from that production but Hyde is just as earnestly compelling as the girl. How she comes to replace Ornshaw as Daniel’s best friend is beautifully described. All the kindness, purity of feeling and poignancy is caught not just by writer Alan Parker but also by the brilliant Bee Gees and Crosby, Stills & Nash soundtrack. This is also great fun, adhering to Chekhov’s admonition that if there’s a gun in the first act, it must go off in the third – only these boys are building bombs! Directed by Waris Hussein. Fantastic. We’ll have the last laugh on this lot!

Up With the Lark (1943)

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Don’t be so effeminate. Call me Bill.  Ethel (Ethel Revnell) and Gracie (Gracie West) lose their jobs as telephone operators when the hotel where they work is burgled. They are persuaded by the police to pose as Land Girls in the countryside where the gang of black marketeers is headquartered… This is no ordinary gaol. We take pride in making people feel at home. In which the radio comedy stars play intrepid dimwits caught up in something bigger than they are and inadvertently help catch criminals.  A true relic of its time, this B flick is done on the cheap with some very strange performances albeit Ivor Barnard’s multiple roles should be seen. Directed by Phil Brandon from a story by Val Valentine and a screenplay by James Seymour. If you can’t go cuckoo go cock-a-doodle-doo!

The Reptile (1966)

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Half woman – half snake! England in the early twentieth century. Harry Spalding (Ray Barrett) inherits his brother Charles’s cottage in Clagmoor Heath following the man’s mysterious death. He moves in with his new wife Valerie (Jennifer Daniel). They are not welcomed by any of the locals save for the publican Tom Bailey (Michael Ripper) who tells him Charles died of the Black Death. The local crazy Mad Peter (John Laurie) may be the only person who knows what’s going on:  a Malayan curse has turned the daughter Anna (Jacqueline Pearce) of Dr Franklyn (Noel Willman) into a snake woman… You’re like your brother – obstinate! With a screenplay by Anthony Hinds (as John Elder), this was filmed by director John Gilling back-to-back with The Plague of the Zombies for Hammer and it shares its elegance and controlled atmosphere (and some of its major cast and sets) but let’s face it, it’s fairly silly. The actors are splendid – particularly Pearce as Cobra Girl and Laurie as Mad Peter, with Ripper great as ever – and there’s a flavourful score by Don Banks, making this a most enjoyable excursion into mind control with some terrific set pieces. This was cut to avoid an ‘X’ rating and was then passed in full in 1994.  If you take my advice you won’t live there

 

The Plague of the Zombies (1966)

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Please take care not to stray from the path.  In 1860 young local doctor Peter Tompson (Brooks Williams) cannot stop the spread of an epidemic in his Cornish village. He contacts his old professor Sir James Forbes (Andre Morell) who arrives with his daughter Sylvia (Diane Clare). She notices that Peter’s sister Alice (Jacqueline Pearce) is unwell. When the men disinter coffins and find them empty they link the plague to Squire Clive Hamilton (John Carson) and his voodoo practices which he learned in his time in the West Indies so when the men act against him it’s time to assemble his zombie army … Do you believe in life after death? A terrifically effective thriller from Hammer, beautifully made and endlessly influential:  the green-tinted zombie ‘mare an hour in is chillingly convincing. Screenwriter Peter Bryan had already written the studio’s Hound of the Baskervilles and The Brides of Dracula and the conventions of the graveyard standoff, the doctor’s intervention and the possessed women are all here in this restrained horror. Carson does a good vocal impersonation of James Mason. Stylish as heck. Directed by John Gilling.  I dreamed I saw the dead rise

Gone With the Wind (1939)

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

Morvern Callar (2002)

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Aka Le Voyage de Morvern Callar. There’s nothing wrong with here. It’s the same crapness everywhere, so stop dreaming.When her boyfriend commits suicide, supermarket clerk Morvern Callar (Samantha Morton) passes off his unpublished novel as her own after inventing stories to explain his absence then chopping up and burying him, ignoring his instructions for a funeral.  She gets money from a publisher for the book and departs Scotland to bliss out in Ibiza with her closest friend Lanna (Kathleen McDermott) on a druggy odyssey but finds she cannot settle…Fuck work Lana, we can go anywhere you like. Lynne Ramsay’s work always has a striking quality, a visual enquiry into the spaces between but also within people. This adaptation of Alan Warner’s 1995 debut novel spans north to south in Europe so that the journey (internal as well as external) is also filled with an increasing but confusing warmth, from Scotland to Spain, from blood seeping across a kitchen floor to dry dusty roads cracking in the sun. The sense of emotion is silently portrayed as a kind of ennui tangled with growing grief, a bereavement that cannot be danced or drugged away, disaffection through a lack of emotion camouflaged with the simple theft of a book. Morvern is no writer, she doesn’t have the poetry: she’s a shop girl. The pictures shimmer and sing while Morton oozes with sorrow in a thriller without tension, expressing the affectlessness of the unambitious passive aggressive Morvern herself, adrift everywhere. Written by Ramsay and Liana Dognini.  Where are we going?/Somewhere beautiful

Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (1965)

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Schreck? That’s a German word isn’t it? Means fear or horror. On board a train, fortune teller Dr Schreck (Peter Cushing) uses a set of tarot cards to reveal to his fellow passengers (Christopher Lee, Donald Sutherland, Roy Castle, Neil McCallum, Alan Freeman) what destiny awaits each of them … This town isn’t big enough for two doctors… or two vampires.  The first Amicus anthology film and influenced by the great Dead of Night, combining five stories comprising a vampire, a severed hand, a man-eating plant, a voodoo curse and a werewolf – that’s what you get for talking to the Grim Reaper on the way to work. It’s one of my favourite childhood Saturday night horrors with some nice effects and not a little black humour. Written by producer Milton Subotsky and directed by Freddie Francis. Plant like that… could take over the world!