Top Hat (1935)

Top Hat

For the women the kiss, for the men the sword! American dancer Jerry Travers (Fred Astaire) comes to London to star in a show produced by Horace Hardwick (Edward Everett Horton). He meets and attempts to impress model Dale Tremont (Ginger Rogers) to win her affection, but she mistakes him for Horace. Jerry pursues her to Venice where she is promoting the work of Jerry’s love rival, fashion designer Alberto Beddini (Erik Rhodes) and visiting her friend Madge (Helen Broderick) who is Horace’s wife … My dear, when you’re as old as I am, you take your men as you find them – if you can find them. With a score by Max Steiner and songs by Irving Berlin, who couldn’t love this arch, witty treatise on love? And there are also all those extra tasty treats for connoisseurs of the period – particularly our favourite, Eric Blore as Bates, Hardwick’s fussy valet; incredible gowns designed by Bernard Newman; and the high Art Deco production design typical of the era’s screwball romances but specifically the Big White Set by Van Nest Polglase constructed for the Astaire/Rogers musicals. It’s probably the best loved of the duo’s ten pairings and with good reason, the combination of song and dance reaching peaks of sheer perfection in this the fourth time they co-starred. In fact, it’s Heaven. Swoonsome, amusing entertainment in the smooth classical style. Written specifically for Astaire and Rogers by Dwight Taylor and Allan Scott, adapted from a stage play, this was RKO’s most profitable film of the decade. Directed by Mark Sandrich. In dealing with a girl or horse, one just lets nature take its course

Great Expectations (1946)

Great Expectations 1946

Pip – a young gentleman of great expectations! Orphaned Philip ‘Pip’ Pirrip (Anthony Wager) lives with his older sister and her blacksmith husband Joe (Bernard Miles). He encounters runaway convict Magwitch (Finlay Currie) on the marshes and assists him with food and helps him cut himself free. However Magwitch is recaptured when he has a fight with a fellow escapee. An eccentric elderly spinster Miss Havisham (Martita Hunt) wants company for herself and her teenage ward Estella (Jean Simmons) a cruel but beautiful teenager who mocks Pip but with whom he falls in love from afar. Pip is apprenticed to a blacksmith when he turns 14 and Estella goes to France to become a lady. Years later Pip (John Mills) is visited by Miss Havisham’s lawyer Jaggers (Francis L. Sullivan) and he is to be the beneficiary of a mysterious benefactor to become a gentleman of great expectations in London where he befriends Herbert Pocket (Alec Guinness) who tells him that Miss Havisham’s life is dedicated to revenge against men because she was jilted at the altar and Estella was brought up likewise. They are reunited when Pip is 21 and he visits Miss Havisham after getting his living stipend of £500 a year and he finds that Estella (Valerie Hobson) is engaged to a man she doesn’t love. Pip is visited by Magwitch who reveals he was his benefactor and that Miss Havisham was using him. He confronts her and she realises the great harm she has done and as Pip is leaving a terrible accident occurs. Magwitch should not be on the territory and is commiting a felony and Pip undertakes to help him escape England … I want to be a gentleman on her account. Director David Lean recalled a perfectly condensed theatre adaptation of the Dickens novel and wrote the screenplay with producer Anthony Havelock-Allan, Cecil McGivern, Ronald Neame and Kay Walsh. From its magnificent opening sequence on the marshes (shot by Robert Krasker) and the atmosphere conjured by the decaying mansion housing Miss Havisham, this is a film of such dazzling detail and character, brilliant playing and staging and flawless pacing, as to merit the description perfect. Lean came of age as a director and the cinematography by Guy Green and the soaring score by Walter Goehr pick out, express and complement the heart of the drama. It never dodges the little social critiques (Mills’ reaction to the public hangings) or the touches of humour (Pip popping Pocket in the jaw; his silly fashionable get up) nor the ideas of snobbery, stupidity, guilt or social injustice that characterise the text of the novel. The final scene, when Pip returns and throws light upon Estella is heartbreaking and delightful. A simply bewitching masterpiece. What larks!

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

Manhunter (1986)

Manhunter

You want the scent? Smell yourself! Former FBI Agent Will Graham (William Petersen) is called out of early retirement by his boss Jack Crawford (Denis Farina) to catch a serial killer.  The media have dubbed him The Tooth Fairy (Tom Noonan) because he kills random families in their homes. Will is a profiler whose speciality is psychic empathy, getting inside the minds of his prey. The horror of the murders takes its toll on him. He asks for the help of his imprisoned arch-nemesis, Dr Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox) who gets to him like nobody else and nearly murdered him years earlier yet has insights into the methodology of the killer that could unlock the case… He butchers whole families to pursue trivial fantasies. As an adult, someone should blow the sick fuck out of his socks. The mindbending antics of Thomas Harris’ narcissistic creation Lecktor were first espied here but it’s really Will Graham’s story and what a surprise casting choice the introspective pigeon-toed Petersen seemed.  He carries this oppressively chilling thriller where he is the masochist to his targets’ sadistic mechanisms. The dispassionate style, the modernist interiors, the internal machinations of the protagonist’s obsessive inner voice while he inhabits the minds of his relentlessly morbid prey, lend this a hypnotic mood. As the action increases in intensity the colours and style of cinematographer Dante Spinotti become cooler and more distancing. The diegetic score by bands including Shriekback and The Reds is an immersive trip into the nightmarish vision. An extraordinary spin on terror that is as far from the camp baroque theatrics of The Silence of the Lambs as it is possible to imagine, this masterpiece has yet to be equalled in the genre and feels like a worm has infected your brain and is burrowing through it, out of your control, colouring your dreams, imprinting you with a thought pattern that may never depart. A dazzling exercise in perspective and perception, this is a stunning work of art. Adapted from Red Dragon by director Michael Mann. Does this kind of understanding make you uncomfortable?

Ray & Liz (2018)

Ray and Liz

They can do anything nowadays. In England’s Black Country in the Thatcher era, Ray (Justin Salinger) and Liz (Ella Smith) raise their two sons Richard (Jacob Tuton/Sam Jacobs) and his younger brother Jason (Callum Slater/Joshua Millard-Lyon) on the margins of society in a Dudley council flat… A horrifying and virtually unwatchable portrait of the underclass with gruelling depictions of heavy drinking, parental neglect and familial dysfunction on a fathomless scale, told over a period of eight years as Richard becomes a teenager.  It’s framed within a flashback when Ray (Patrick Romer) is now an alcoholic separated from Liz (Deirdre Kelly) and neighbour Sid (Richard Ashton) is vying for his welfare benefits by keeping him drunk. Made by photographer and artist Richard Billingham about his impoverished upbringing and developed from a short film, this unsentimental fragmentary narrative is not without the odd millisecond of humour – perhaps when Jason runs away and meets his mother the following day wheeling a rabbit in a pram in a local park we are in the realm of Lewis Carroll. Her maintenance of a menagerie in their squalid surroundings is given a correlative in a visit to a zoo. Spot the difference between that and council accommodation. Then the social workers intervene, as you might expect but only Jason gets to go to a foster family: Richard is told he is almost old enough to leave and his coping mechanism to record and photograph his family throughout his childhood is the key to his freedom. It’s his recording that proved the nasty lodger Will (Sam Gittins) forced drink down the throat of retarded Uncle Lol (Tony Way) but tattooed drinker and smoker Liz destroys the evidence after she’s inflicted mindless violence. And returns to her jigsaw puzzles. Stylistically it’s slow, disconnected, anti-dramatic for the most part and pitiless and may remind you of Terence Davies’ work but other than feeling gutted for feral children born into such gob smacking fecklessness, when you look away from a work that refuses all possibility of empathy you’ll wind up thinking perhaps eugenics isn’t such a rotten idea after all – because bad people do bad things to the children they should never be permitted to have. Perhaps not the appropriate reaction. Kitchen sink realism for a new era, it’s a staggering if emotionless indictment of the kind of Britain that still exists for millions of people. This is what happens when you enact official policies of social isolation, austerity and poverty. It really is Grim Up North. Brutal.

Lonely are the Brave (1962)

Lonely Are the Brave

The more fences there are, the more he hates it. Roaming ranch hand John W. ‘Jack’ Burns (Kirk Douglas) feels out of place in the modern world. He visits his friend Paul Bondi’s loving wife Jerry (Gena Rowlands) and little son. He deliberately gets into a bar room fight with a one-armed Mexican (Paul Raisch) in order to be imprisoned alongside Paul (Michael Kane) who was arrested for helping illegal aliens and is serving a two-year term in the penitentiary. They decide to let him go but he punches one of them to get re-arrested and jailed. Jack tries to convince Paul to flee with him, but, as a family man, Paul has too much at stake and abandons the plan. Jack escapes after a beating from a sadistic Mexican police deputy Gutierrez (George Kennedy) and heads for the hills. An extensive manhunt breaks out, led by sympathetic Sheriff Johnson (Walter Matthau) who watches helpless as the decorated war vet sharpshooter takes on an Air Force helicopter in his attempt to make it over the border to Mexico … Our cowboy’s just shot down the Air Force. With a wonderful feel for landscape and animal life and juxtaposition of the natural world with the restrictive modernity of technocratic praxis, this beautiful looking monochrome production never seemed so resonant or relevant. Douglas’ sense of what’s right is perfectly communicated in this sympathetic Dalton Trumbo adaptation of environmentalist Edward Abbey’s The Brave Cowboy.  Matthau’s is a more complex character than he first appears, making for a wonderfully exposed twist in the tale. Tautly directed by David Miller and told in four principal movements, this makes good bedfellows with The Misfits, another elegiac presentation of man versus nature. You’re worse than a woman

Lucy Gallant (1955)

Lucy Gallant

Don’t get people mixed up with flowers. That only works for the birds and the bees or didn’t anyone tell you? 1941. Stranded by a storm in Sage City Texas en route to Mexico, Lucy Gallant (Jane Wyman) is assisted by handsome rancher Casey Cole (Charlton Heston) who helps find her suitable lodging in a town celebrating recent oil strikes. Local women’s reaction starting with Irma Wilson (Mary Field) and her daughter Laura (Gloria Talbott) to her fashion persuades Lucy to sell the contents of her trousseau and she decides to stay and open a dress shop with the backing of the local bank manager Charles Madden (William Demarest). Lucy lives at Molly Basserman’s (Thelma Ritter) boarding house and runs her store out of Lady ‘Mac’ MacBeth’s (Claire Trevor) brothel, The Red Derrick. She resists newly rich Casey’s romantic approaches explaining that she’d been on the verge of marriage when her fiancé jilted her following her father’s indictment for fraud. Casey proposes to her but only if she gives up business. She returns to find her store has burned down. He underwrites a bank loan for her to rebuild bigger and better without her knowledge. When WW2 breaks out Casey enlists and after the war he returns and they quarrel. He becomes engaged to a fashion model in  Paris but the relationship breaks up and Casey returns to Texas just when Lucy believes she is about to have her greatest success … Some champagne please, I feel like breaking glasses. Adapted from a novella by prolific short story writer Margaret Cousins, the screenplay by John Lee Mahin and Winston Miller feels somewhat laboured and the leads have little to do. The salty presence of Trevor and Ritter as Lucy’s solid female backup is welcome relief from a fairly turgid romance and the sexism is rather unpleasant. The brightest spot is towards the end with a spectacular fashion show guest hosted by legendary Edith Head (who designed the costumes) in a rare appearance (minus her signature blue lenses); while real-life Texas Governor Allan Shivers appears as himself. It can’t hold a candle to Giant, which also tells the story of modern Texas up to the same period. Directed by Robert Parrish. I really shouldn’t let you do it but I will

 

About a Boy (2002)

About a Boy

I’ll tell you one thing. Men are bastards.  Will Freeman (Hugh Grant) is a wealthy child-free and hedonistic thirtysomething London bachelor who, in search of available women, invents an imaginary son and starts attending single parent meetings claiming he’s been left with a two year-old son. As a result of his attraction to Suzie (Victoria Smurfit), he meets Marcus (Nicholas Hoult) a solemn twelve-year-old boy with problems at school and a suicidal hippie mother Fiona (Toni Collette). Gradually, Will and Marcus become friends and Marcus pretends to be his son so Will can pursue a relationship with single mother Rachel (Rachel Weisz).  As Will teaches Marcus how to fit in, Marcus helps Will to finally be a man ... Two people aren’t enough. You need backup. Adapted from Nick Hornby’s novel by Peter Hedges and co-directors Chris and Paul Weitz, this has all the elements of a mawkish soap but the performances and humour raise it to another level. Grant’s always been a great cad but here he also learns lessons – he already knows he doesn’t want to be a conventional husband or have responsibility but through friendship with this odd kid he learns how to be authentically emotional and to be a good guy. The fact that he’s hanging out with a twelve-year old boy leads Fiona to confront him in a restaurant where everyone immediately assumes he’s a pederast in one of the best scenes in the film. Hoult is properly strange looking (the wonder is that Will takes him shoe shopping rather than for a haircut) but the point is that both of them are outcasts in their own way and need to grow up by facing their fears – which brings the film to its penultimate scene at a school concert which presents the potential for lifelong humiliation. The songs are intrinsic to the storytelling as is customary with Hornby’s work and it’s a mosaic of cool and cringe, including the horrible Christmas song composed by Will’s father which afforded him his louche lifestyle in the first place. A film of exceptional charm. As I sat there I had a strange feeling. I was enjoying myself

Dark Shadows (2012)

Dark Shadows

I killed your parents, and every one of your lovers. They kept us apart. AD 1972.  Two hundred years after he’s been condemned to a living death as a vampire by Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green) a spurned servant who happens to be a witch, Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) is accidentally exhumed and vows to help his impoverished dysfunctional descendants while falling for his reincarnated lost love Victoria/Josette (Bella Heathcote). He returns to Collinwood where he hypnotises caretaker Willie (Jackie Earle Haley) into being his servant, introduces matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer) to the family’s treasure trove, ordering her to keep it secret from her nee’er do well brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), his eccentric little boy David (Gully McGrath) and her own rebellious teenage daughter Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz). They have a permanent houseguest in Dr Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), David’s hard-drinking psychiatrist. They also have a rival in the local fishing business in Angel Bay Cannery run by Angie Bouchard (Green) who is still alive and well and determined to finally win Barnabas for herself but he is still in love with Josette… She has the most fertile birthing hips I have ever laid eyes upon. Just your everyday story of immigrants to the New World who turn into vampires because of an ancestral curse, this is one of those Tim Burton films that seems to fall between two stools:  homage and nostalgia, in this earnest adaptation/pastiche of a TV daytime drama hitherto unknown to me but certainly filed nowadays under the heading of Cult. The screenplay by Seth Grahame-Smith is from a story credited to him and John August and adapted from Dan Curtis’ original show and was reportedly being regularly rewritten on set which is not unusual. It might account for the strangely disconnected feel of the production, which however looks incredible thanks to the designer Rick Heinrichs. At its heart it’s a morality tale about family:  Family is the only real wealth. While the plot’s construction is of the laborious join the dots variety, there are some cute generation gap and proto feminist threads, good time shift moments, like Barnabas’ shocked reaction to television (What sorcery is this?), rock star Alice Cooper (who else?!) performing a concert and of course Depp, who gives a superbly physical Max Schreck-like performance and has very amusing sparring exchanges with all concerned. Not really sure if it wants to be a straight-up horror or a campy comedy and falls between both stools. Luckily Christopher Lee shows up as the king of the fishermen. Green would go on to replace Bonham Carter as Burton’s long term companion. Okay. If you wanna get with her, you’re gonna have to change your approach. Drop the whole weird Swinging London thing and hang out with a few normal people

When Eight Bells Toll (1971)

When Eight Bells Toll

Operates best under conditions of extreme pressure. Philip Calvert (Anthony Hopkins) is a tough British Navy secret service agent called in by ‘Uncle Arthur’ (Robert Morley) to track down gold bullion smugglers after two agents are murdered on the job tracking cargo ships that have been hijacked in the Irish Sea. He follows the trail off the Scottish coast to a close-mouthed community where Greek tycoon Sir Anthony Skouras (Jack Hawkins) has moored yacht off and finds the well-connected aristo is married for the second time to the stunning much younger Charlotte (Nathalie Delon). After his colleague Hunslett (Corin Redgrave) is murdered and he escapes from his Royal Navy helicopter following the shooting of his pilot, who is conducting the heists? … You can’t go round acting like a one-man execution squad. This is England! Alistair MacLean’s 1965 adventure bestseller was eyed up as a potential starter for a series to rival the James Bond franchise but that’s not what happened. Despite ample action, jaw-droppingly witty lines and a lovely lady who may or may not be one of the good guys, this isn’t quite slick enough looking to fit a 007-shaped hole following Sean Connery’s departure. Hopkins is a rather unlikely romantic lead but his scenes with Delon feel like they’re straight out of screwball comedy: The nights would be good but the days would be a drag. Morley is playing a role he’s done before but putting this portly gent out in the field and into a rowing boat is a stroke of genius – literally an outsize fish out of water in water. We’re going to prove that Britannia rules the waves. Every line hits the bullseye. This is a story about class distinction and clubbable men too:  Working-his-way-through-the-ranks type, he comments disdainfully of Hopkins. Any time the action flags a little the robust score by Angela Morley lifts it into another dimension. The only thing they couldn’t alter is the miserable grey sky. We can sympathise with Delon and close our eyes and reimagine this in the Med but for MacLean who adapted his book for producer Elliott Kastner (who had also made Where Eagles Dare) this was of course coming home. An unsung and fast-moving gem of its era with an inventive approach to the enemy lair.  Jack Hawkins had to be dubbed by Charles Gray following the removal of his larynx (nothing to do with the action here however). Directed by Étienne Périer. There’s always peril in the water