Esther Waters (1948)

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Esther Waters (Kathleen Ryan) is the maid at a big house where she is seduced by handsome footman William Latch (Dirk Bogarde) – but when he disappears with another woman Esther finds herself pregnant. She leaves for home but her mother is dead and she gives birth alone in a workhouse in Lambeth. Returning to service her childminder offers to kill her baby boy Jackie for a fiver. A kindly policeman helps her and then she meets a nice vicar, Fred (Cyril Cusack) who romances her. When William spots her on a tram however she allows him see her now six-year old son.  He’s a bookmaker with his ex long gone after his forays in Europe. Fred wants to marry her but she protests I’m a woman too and we know her sexual desire for William is overwhelming. It’s quite a moment in a British film of the era. She and William marry and she has to get over her disdain for his profession of gambling – until he falls mortally ill and she must enter the world of risk. The first section of the story is quite visually inventive with a particularly nice moment happening in silhouette. Bogarde is an excellent and louche romantic lead in his first such role. Then it descends into a social problem tract as Esther gets the Dickensian treatment in the city after her abandonment. Their reunion is as a fairly average married couple when he purveys his business – until medical issues twist everything … So the film both in terms of content and style works naturalism and melodrama into the fashion of the post-war period.  Ryan is very good in a complex role, never turning on the tears despite her desperation but it really works best when that attractive man Bogarde is front and centre. There’s a terrific climax at the Derby.  Adapted from George Moore’s novel by Michael Gordon and William Rose with additional dialogue by Gerard Tyrrell. Directed by Ian Dalyrymple and Peter Proud.

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The Birth of a Nation (2016)

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William Kienzle once wrote that nothing beats religion, sex and murder. This almost-true (ish) story of Nat Turner (Nate Parker) a literate slave and preacher in antebellum Virginia has all of the above plus a sense of righteousness that along with Twelve Years a Slave risks a new era of blaxploitation with rather different text than in the Seventies.  We are dealing with archetypes rather than real characters despite its biographical origins. Year in year out, another brutal beating, unwatchable torture and horrible violence. From his childhood to his inevitable death by hanging after taking revenge on the supposedly kindly owner Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) who betrays him after persuading him to suppress rebellion through religion we are not remotely surprised by any of the narrative turns. Worthy but not really memorable, from the quadruple threat Parker – who directs and produces as well as co-writing with Jean McGianni Celestin.

The Real Glory (1939)

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I can start a fire by rubbing two boy scouts together. This loose reworking of Lives of a Bengal Lancer reunites that film’s director Henry Hathaway with star Gary Cooper, transposing the action to the Philippines mid-uprising by the Moro (Moslem) guerillas. Colonel Hatch (Roy Gordon) is ordered to withdraw his troops from their island station.  There’s an insurgent army threatening the Filipinos so he lines up some of his best men to train the locals – military doctor Bill Canavan (Cooper),  along with McCool (David Niven) and Larson (Broderick Crawford), who make a lively pair of heroes.  When Linda (Andrea Leeds) the daughter of Captain Steve Hartley (Reginald Owen) enters the fray there are the usual romantic complications but these are second to the action which is at times horribly violent but excellently handled by Hathaway who was by now an expert at the genre and made a total of seven films with Cooper. (He had also previously made another Philippines-set film, Come On Marines!). When Hatch is killed by the guerillas Manning (Russell Hicks) takes over and after the local river is dammed there’s a cholera outbreak. Canavan befriends ‘Mike’ and infiltrates a Moro camp. Lines get crossed and a rescue attempt turns into an ambush …  Hartley meanwhile is going blind and doesn’t want to admit it. Who will blow up the dam? Jo Swerling and Robert Presnell Sr. adapted the novel by Charles L. Clifford which dealt with the real rebellion during US occupation at the beginning of the last century. Niven isn’t used remotely often enough in this Samuel Goldwyn Production but Leeds makes a very good impression as an atypical romantic lead. This was her third last film before her marriage into the Howard family who bred racehorses – including that little fella that could, Seabiscuit.

Churchill (2017)

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There was a Prime Minister called Churchill, he was married to Clementine, World War Two happened, and Operation Overlord aka D-Day was planned with or without him leading the charge. And that’s what concerns this film written by an historian called Alex Von Tunzelmann. Other than that, this film bears scant relation to documented historical fact. Brian Cox gives the cigar-chomping depressive egotist with his finger on the nation’s pulse some wellie, Miranda Richardson does her best as his long-suffering but intuitive other half, and John Slattery does nothing to enhance his reputation as Ike. Why? Etc. At least the map room is nice. Directed by Jonathan Teplitzky.

Detroit (2017)

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I’m still so 1997 I thought Kathryn Bigelow was making a film about Kent State, which I at least knew about. Instead, it appears she and writer Mark Boal teamed up again to make another political film, this time about the race riots in Detroit in July 1967 and an incident of astonishing police brutality in the Algiers Motel during which three innocent black men were murdered and a handful more were beaten to a pulp. Adapted from witness testimony, this isn’t quite biographical but attempts to be factual and realistic. When the police break up a party for returning Nam vets in an illegal after-hours venue the black community responds by firing at them, looting stores and rioting leading to a city-wide curfew. You gotta agree with the councillor who asks an assembled crowd why they feel compelled to burn down their own property. And therein lieth the problem, at least at the beginning. This is a most unreasonable riot. Out of context. Then a bunch of cracker cops led by Krauss (Will Poulter) open fire on looters and he chases one, shooting him in the back. Back at the PD, they can’t decide to prefer murder charges against him so he and his compadres Flynn (Ben O’Toole) and Demens (Jack Reynor, looking particularly gormless, like Dougal in Father Ted) are let back on the streets where the Army and the National Guard are swarming, taking potshots at perceived sniper fire. Dismukes (John Boyega) is security at a grocery store and when he saves a black kid from the Army he earns the title Uncle Tom.  A new band in town The Dramatics are about to go onstage when their showcase is shut down and one of them, Larry (Algee Smith) takes refuge at the Algiers with Fred (Jacob Latimore) where they befriend two white girls hanging out at the pool. One of the girls’ black friends Carl (Jason Mitchell) is also holed up at the motel’s annex and he fires a starter pistol.  It brings the cracker cops down on them with Dismukes attending the scene to try to prevent any violence but Krauss has already shot Carl in the back . Their interrogation technique involves pretending to shoot the men one by one as they separate them from the group in an attempt to get them to reveal the whereabouts of the non-existent rifle and a soldier Dismukes brought coffee joins in the party … This is more impressive the longer it goes on, but it does go on. And on.  It starts problematically and the characterisation is in many ways too on-the-nose if not stereotypical but the revelation of systemic corruption, the decision of the eventual trial jury (it all seems like a preview of coming OJ attractions in reverse) and the racism inherent in society so overwhelming that even without knowing the conclusion (included in a text over real-life photographs) we figure it out for ourselves,  is finally wearying. The persona of Dismukes seems deployed to present a good – if stupid – black man:  he’s predictably identified as a perpetrator for the police in a lineup despite having protected the white girl in question. Maybe it’s true but it doesn’t ring right for this dramatic purpose. The overlength (and underwritten) sequence of mind-numbing violence in the annex doesn’t help. It feels like it’s straight out of a seventies exploitationer, particularly in the shots of Flynn, sweating out his hatred before applying the butt of his gun to another black man’s head. Perhaps it’s a story that needed to be told but it’s unbalanced. There simply isn’t enough drama to portray a story of innocent people caught up in something that – as presented here – was woefully avoidable in a context that is under-explained. This is a failure of screenwriting, with the lingering suspicion that a true depiction of a police conspiracy, social destruction and legal corruption was literally beyond the pale. What a pity.

Back to the Future (1985)

 

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Are you telling me you made a time machine out of a DeLorean?! Simply great storytelling here in a knotty, brilliantly constructed time travel-adventure-comedy that has a great big throbbing heart bursting with love at its centre. When you consider it came from the wickedly funny minds of Roberts Gale and Zemeckis – remember the amazing Used Cars?! – it seems an even bigger achievement. Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is an average teenager in Twin Pines, a small town with a nice square boasting a clock that hasn’t worked since 1955, a cinema running soft porn, and screwed up parents with an alkie mom (Lea Thompson), a meek dad (Crispin Glover), loser sister and a thirty year old brother in a MacJob. He has a cute girlfriend, a skateboard and an eccentric friend called Doc (Christopher Lloyd) a scientist who has wasted his family’s fortune making a ‘flux capacitor’ fuelled by plutonium. Just when the nutty professor manages to prove he can travel back in time with an Eighties sports car (to die for!) the Libyans come calling and when Doc is mown down in a hail of gunfire Marty guns the engines of the DeLorean and at 88mph is catapulted back to the week the town clock stopped working in a lightning storm. He’s initially mistaken for a spaceman and finds that his housing estate is only just being constructed.  He needs to ensure that his parents get together in high school or the future will look very different as he and his siblings’ images begin to disappear from the family photo back in 1985 and Marty’s mom begins to fall for him in one of the more brilliant takes on incest in film history!  Plus he has to get back to 1985 to save Doc’s life in what is literally a race against time! … Fast, sharp-witted and brilliantly inventive, this has the kind of gleaming detail (skateboards, digital watches, Diet Pepsi, puffa jackets for 1985;  Davy Crockett, sci-fi comics, a classic diner, a Barbara Stanwyck oater at the movie theatre for 1955) that makes it almost documentary-like in resonance and relatability. The organisation of the narrative is mind-boggling when you consider the complexity of the story elements. Add in hugely likeable stars, great one-liners, and a genuine sense of fun,  this is proof that you can rewrite history and even get some very subtle revenge on the school bully!  One of the cinema’s evergreen classics, this is tonally perfect:  it just sings with joy. Brilliant.

The Sense of an Ending (2017)

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Literariness is embedded in the very loins of this, utilising as it does the title of theorist Frank Kermode’s famous 1967 volume. Julian Barnes is a determinedly literary writer but his 2011 novel isn’t just about verbal and written narrative, it’s also a story told in pictures, photographs which document the early life of retired camera shop proprietor Tony (Jim Broadbent), divorced from Margaret (Harriet Walter) and whose daughter Susie (Michelle Dockery) is about to give birth to a child she is having on her own. He receives notice that he has been left a small sum of money and an item (which turns out to be a diary) by Sarah Ford, the mother (Emily Mortimer) of his first lover, the mysterious Veronica (Charlotte Rampling), and whom he only met once at their home 50 years earlier when the older woman flirted with him and Veronica’s brother made clear his attraction to him too. The diary is not forthcoming and Tony pursues it relentlessly when he finds out it belonged not to Sarah but to Adrian Finn (Joe Alwyn) his academically gifted classmate who cheated with Veronica. The unravelling of this mystery hinges on a horrible letter the young Tony (Billy Howle) wrote to Veronica (Freya Mavor) when they were all at Cambridge. What caused Adrian to commit suicide and what is the mature Veronica now withholding from him? He embarks on what his wife and daughter call the ‘stalking’ of his former girlfriend and the earlier story unspools in parallel. What this lacks in tension it makes up for in the carefully observed minutiae of performance and appearance, appropriately for a text that is all about the accumulation and capture of such information. It’s shot beautifully by Christopher Ross in an anti-nostalgic attempt to uncover a meaning to life in London’s leafy northern suburbs with tastefully restrained middle class homes:  a little ornamentation is always enough to hint at discernment if not understanding. When all the threads are gradually united there is a patina of sorrow, bringing together the book’s philosophical core interests in history and action. Adapted by Nick Payne and directed by Ritesh Batra.

She (1965)

 

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This Hammer adaptation of the Rider Haggard novel works because it takes it seriously and never really slides into camp territory, which the material always threatened. The performances are dedicated, Ursula Andress is so extremely beautiful and the narrative is well handled by screenwriter David T. Chantler.  Robert Day makes sure the archaeologists Major Holly (Peter Cushing) and Leo Vincey (John Richardson) the reincarnated love interest and their valet Job (Bernard Cribbins) are credibly established to include their initial scepticism about a lost Pharaonic city. The saga of She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed is ultimately a tragic tale of romance, culminating in horrible self-sacrifice and immolation. Andress was re-voiced by Nikki Van der Zyl who did a lot of voiceovers for Bond girls and wound up becoming a lawyer and a painter. It was shot in Israel (which leads to a dialogue gaffe…) The handsome Richardson would be Raquel Welch’s co-star in the following year’s One Million Years BC and he was briefly considered to replace Sean Connery as Bond.  He gave up a long career in Italian films to become a photographer.  This was a huge hit back in the day and perfect entertainment for a rainy weekend afternoon.

The Stanford Prison Experiment (2015)

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This isn’t an experiment!  This is real! That’s what Prisoner 8612 (Ezra Miller) declares one hour into this dramatisation of psychologist Philip Zimbardo’s controversial 1971 study (or demonstration?) of perceived power and authority, paying self-selecting students to participate in a two-week faked prison on the grounds of the University. He leaves and is swiftly followed by Prisoner 819 (Tye Sheridan). They know their rights even if the guards, aping the mirror-shaded Southern-accented sadists from Cool Hand Luke,  led by Michael Angarano, are getting deeper into character and don’t care. The other fools stay to be preyed upon.  These are not prisoners. They are not subjects. They are not students. They are boys. Zimbardo’s girlfriend (Olivia Thirlby) arrives to participate on the parole board and watching the ‘prisoners’ make no attempt to just leave this horrifying situation she tells Zimbardo (Billy Crudup) what is going on is truly disturbing. But he is on a power trip himself and it isn’t until he finally observes the degree of abuse and destruction while left alone watching it unfold on the surveillance cameras that he finally calls a halt just 6 days in. This won’t tell you anything new about human behaviour. The faux interviews (based on the original recordings) at the end won’t clarify anything except that people seem to slide into preordained institutional roles and succumb to punishment which is dealt them entirely arbitarily by alleged superiors. And everyone’s kinda surprised that other people would treat them like dogs. But nobody got harmed during the making of this ego trip for a University professor. Go figure. Reality’s a bitch. Just! Say! No!  Or beat them up right back. Adapted by Tim Talbott from Zimbardo’s The Lucifer Effect and directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez.

The Day of the Jackal (1973)

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Frederick Forsyth was my gateway drug to faction:  novels based more or less truly on historical incident. You could trust him because he had a long history as a respected and conscientious journalist. And what a way with plot! This story of a 1960s assassination attempt on the despised French President Charles de Gaulle by disgruntled members of the exiled OAS (the militant underground) would seem to have nothing much going for it on the surface:  the outcome, for one. But the trick here is brilliant.  These patriots hire a British hitman (Edward Fox) who is completely unknown to the authorities. And as he gathers the materiel required for such an audacious once-in-a-lifetime evenement and removes all the human obstacles in his path, we realise, at the foregone but nail-biting conclusion, that we know absolutely nothing about him at all.  This is narrative sleight of hand at its best. And it is crucial to the tension that the ruthless professional Jackal remains a complete enigma, a mystery at the heart of a brilliantly staged action thriller with a great supporting cast. His nemesis proves to be a Parisian police detective (Michael Lonsdale) determined to root out this threat to democracy.  Adapted by Scottish-American screenwriter Kenneth Ross who would perform the same miracle with The Odessa File. Gripping outing by director Fred Zinnemann who meshes his predilection for documentary-style realism with all the tricks of a cinema of attractions. Flawlessly executed.