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

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

Magic Town (1947)

Magic Town

The air becomes charged with electricity around desperate men. WW2 vet Lawrence ‘Rip’ Smith (James Stewart) is looking to find a way to beat fellow pollster George Stringer and his military colleague Professor Frederick Hoopendecker (Kent Smith) tells him about Grandview, a town that offers a precisely representative model for the entire United States. Rip promises a client a result within 24 hours that Stringer has been working on for a long time and he and his team arrive in the town posing as insurance salesmen. He has to deal with Mary Peterman  (Jane Wyman) who is trying to persuade the Mayor (Harry Holman) to build more property and give the town a civic centre – which would alter the demographic. It forces Rip to address the town and they side with him, not Mary who writes an editorial about him in her family newspaper. While they are attracted to each other, he is gathering information as well as coaching the school basketball team. When she overhears him calling a client, she writes another story about the reason for his being in Grandview and a national paper picks it up and Rip’s mission is made known in the ‘public opinion capital of the U.S.’ … Okay now. You’re a typical American – act like it! Robert Riskin’s script is rather reminiscent of a Frank Capra film – but then he wrote most of them, despite Capra’s self-aggrandising public line that his was The Name Above the Title. And yet this isn’t directed by Capra, but by William Wellman. While it readily captures much of the kind of atmosphere and social concerns of Riskin’s pre-WW2 work in that partnership the shifts from comedy to drama aren’t managed in the same way – with Riskin as producer from a story he wrote with Joseph Krumgold and Wellman directing, the sharp ends of the story are confronted directly, suggesting the compromises the screenwriter might have been making prior to this production. Rip wants money, Mary is after a good story with a political edge. This exists almost in inverse relationship to Riskin’s previous narratives, with the kinds of conversations that Capra softened into sentiment given a much tougher emphasis here (underlined by the Roy Webb’s score). So it’s the same type of material as before but given a much different treatment, although it all comes together in the end with the people creating their own destiny.  This as ever with Riskin is a blue-sky picture asking people what kind of country they want the United States to be and to make it happen democratically – but he never takes his eye off the ball, locating the peculiar way in which families run towns and thereby society as a whole. Fascinating as a prism through which to view Stewart’s stuttering post-war career (It’s a Wonderful Life was also a box office failure) as well as clarifying what Riskin had done for Capra now that they were separate entities. That’s Mickey Rooney’s dad Joe Yule as the radio comic. How do you like your fancy beautiful circus of a town now?

First Blood (1982)

First Blood theatrical

Killed for vagrancy in Jerkwater USA. Former ‘Nam vet, Green Beret John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) arrives in a small town in the Pacific North West looking for his former colleague whom he discovers has died from a cancer caused by Agent Orange. Sheriff Will Teasle (Brian Dennehy) doesn’t like the look of him and tells him to get out of his town but Rambo is hungry and comes back because he just wants something to eat. Teasle cites him for vagrancy and hands him to his colleagues to teach him a lesson. Rambo has flashbacks to his torture at the hands of the Viet Cong and beats up his assailants before escaping into the local woods where he is hunted by the police and then Teasle gets unwanted help from Rambo’s senior officer, Colonel Sam Trautman (Richard Crenna), who declares of the war hero, God didn’t make Rambo – I made him. He contacts Rambo by radio and tries to reason with him, promising him an escape route. But Rambo has a score to settle, escaping from the cave where he has secured a hiding place and confronting the National Guard before he has his revenge on Teasle  … I’m going to pin that Congressional Medal of Honour to his liver. It may lack the irony and subtlety of the original 1972 novel about PTSD by David Morrell but it makes up for it in the pure thrill of pursuit, sustained justifiable violence and its morality narrative about what really separates the men from the boys:  war. Let it go. Let it go! Crenna’s almost paternal pride in his killer progeny is laugh out loud enjoyable, Stallone’s ingenuity at survival is a must-see in these lockdown self-sufficiency days and the overall affect is one of sheer unadorned (but not unmotivated) violence. It’s wonderful when the police realise, He’s hunting us! Gripping and visceral by turn, it’s short, sharp and brilliant with a couple of really smart scenes between the marvellous Crenna and the late great Dennehy, who really doesn’t understand what he’s dealing with. People start fuckin’ around with the law, all hell breaks loose. A young David Caruso has a good role as a policeman disgusted by his co-workers’ attack on Rambo; while if you look quickly you’ll notice Bruce Greenwood as a Guardsman. Stallone rewrote the original screenplay by Michael Kozzoll and William Sackheim to make the protagonist more sympathetic and you truly empathise with this misunderstood soldier. There’s a notable score by Jerry Goldsmith with a theme song that enhances Rambo’s persona as more victim than villain. It’s all directed by Ted Kotcheff. The first of three in the series, this is iconic. Nothing is over. You just don’t turn it off

Run Silent Run Deep (1958)

Run Silent Run Deep

Not even Pearl knows where we are. The deskbound captain ‘Rich’ Richardson (Clark Gable) of a submarine sunk by the Japanese during WWII is finally given a chance to skipper another sub but he demands an Executive Officer with recent experience and is assigned a resentful Lt. Jim Bledsoe (Burt Lancaster). Richardson’s singleminded determination for revenge against the destroyer that sunk his previous vessel puts his new crew in unneccessary danger as he trains the USS Nerka in the Bungo Straits despite express orders to avoid that section of the seas in order to sink his nemesis whom he christens Bungo Pete. Richardson begins to rigorously drill the crew on a rapid bow shot: firing at the bow of an approaching ship – what’s considered an act of desperation due to a vessel’s extremely narrow profile. He then bypasses one target, only to take on a Japanese destroyer with. The crew realises that Richardson is avoiding legitimate targets, then they encounter a large convoy. Soon after blowing up a cargo ship and engaging Bungo Pete, they are attacked by aircraft that had somehow been alerted to their presence and were waiting in ambush. They are forced to dive and barely survive depth charges. Three of the crew are killed and Richardson suffers an incapacitating concussion. Bledsoe takes charge and sets the course for Pearl Harbour while Tokyo Rose announces their deaths – by name – and they chase Bungo Pete, who doesn’t even know they are there… With all due respect to your rank, may I say you’re an ass. The model for all sub movies, this superb John Gay adaptation of the 1955 book by (Commander) Edward L. Beach Jr. is an exercise in tension. Lancaster produced it through his own company and gives his usual acrobat compadre Nick Cravat a small speaking role, for once. Gable is supreme as the skipper who pisses off his executive officer (Lancaster), setting up the rattled crew for a shouty standoff with the final ironic battle pitched against the Japs in the coolest of terms. It helps that Gable is concussed. A young Jack Warden acquits himself very well as Yeoman Mueller in a claustrophobic, drastically compromised setting while Don Rickles makes his debut. Wonderfully handled by director Robert Wise with a marvellous score from Franz Waxman. Let no one here ever say we never had a captain

Dorian Gray (1970)

Dorian Gray

Aka The Secret of Dorian Gray/Il dio chiamato Dorian/Das Bildnis des Dorian Gray. One day when even you’ve become an old and hideous puppet this will still be young. London student Dorian Gray (Helmut Berger) is the subject of a portrait by society painter Basil Hallward (Richard Todd) whose clients hedonistic aristos Lord Henry Wotton (Herbert Lom) and his wife Gwendolyn (Margaret Lee) take a fancy to him. Meanwhile he has fallen in love with aspiring actress Sybil Vane (Marie Liljedahl) as she rehearses Romeo and Juliet. She makes him think about someone other than himself for a change. As Basil completes his portrait Dorian finds himself obsessed with his painted image and swears that he will trade his soul to remain young. His relationship with Sybil grows complicated and argumentative and she is killed when she is knocked down by a car. Dorian is heavily influenced by Henry who has him sleep with Gwendolyn and Dorian then becomes immersed in society as a kind of gigolo who makes other people famous, be they men or women. However as the portrait begins to reveal his age and escalating depravity he hides it away from sight where it changes appearance and becomes ugly and Dorian ends up killing Basil when he says he’s not responsible for the alterations.  Dorian is conscious of the peril of his situation, particularly when Henry introduces him to Sybil’s double, a woman married to a scientist embarking on research into rejuvenation … Everything is yours. Take it. Enjoy it. The most beautiful man of this or any time stars in a European co-production of the greatest work of literature by the greatest Irish author and it’s updated to the flashy, groovesome Seventies. What bliss is this?! With equal parts tragic romance and fetishistic kink it easily falls into the category of trash yet the moral at the centre – the idea that youth is beautiful in itself, not just for what it can obtain – gives it a lingering value. The god-like Berger is perfectly cast as the impossibly erotic creature who transitions from youthful selfishness to graceless decadence, and his sleazy polymorphous journey through the fashionable world of swinging London is both quaintly dated and oddly touching, principally because of the relationship with Liljedahl (best known for her soft-core films in her home country of Sweden) and Berger’s consistent performance, beset by narcissistic fascination, bewildered by loss. It is precisely because this plugs into the truly pornographic ideas behind the 1890s textual aesthetics that it seems oddly perfect as an adaptation despite the occasional surprise – a bit of S&M in a stables, plus it’s not every day you see Lom approach a beautiful young man to have his wicked way with him. The screenplay is credited to giallo director Massimo Dallamano, Renato Romano, Marcello Coscia and Günter Ebert, from  Oscar Wilde’s indelible novel. The contemporary score is composed by Peppino De Luca and Carlo Pes. Produced by Samuel Z. Arkoff and Harry Alan Towers for American International Pictures. You only have a few years to live really fully

Vita and Virginia (2019)

Vita and Virginia

I’m exhausted with this sapphic pageant. Lauded author Virginia Woolf (Elizabeth Debicki) meets fellow author best-selling Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton) in London in the 1920s when their paths cross unexpectedly since they usually move in very different social circles. Vita is a married bisexual adventuress who envies fragile Virginia’s literary abilities which have earned her a reputation as an eccentric. Vita’s public escapades with women have earned the wrath of her mother (Isabella Rossellini) who regularly threatens her with losing custody of her young sons, especially after her latest foray to France which she did while dressed as a man. Despite both of the writers being married, they embark on an affair that disturbs Virginia but later inspires one of her novels, Orlando, about a hero who turns into a heroine who turns out to be a fiction …. A fearless adventuress who trades on passion, pain and fantasy. Those famously fashionable writerly Bright Young Things Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West get a New Romantic makeover with a few disquisitions about the state of things gender thrown in for good measure and an electronic score (from Isobel Waller-Bridge to enhance the feel of a retro prism being applied. Thus are modern values impressed upon a story that commences with Vita and her gay diplomat husband Harold Nicolson (Rupert Penry-Jones) discussing the idea of the marriage contract on the radio. Eileen Atkins adapts her play with director Chanya Button and despite the talents involved and the ghastly Bloomsbury characters it’s a fairly stillborn affair. The big ironic trope operating across the narrative is Vita’s capacity for experience while Virginia is the only writer of the two capable of actual feeling and expressivity:  she is the more literary gifted and the one who can translate their experience (or her view of it) into something like a great book. The other irony is perhaps that the script is never elevated to the quality of Woolf’s writing. There are some horrifically camp men, terrible scenes with Virginia losing her sanity for brief periods of time (cunningly evoked by visual effects) and some nice letter-reading when Vita goes abroad and tells Virginia about the travels she has been unable to persuade her to take with her. Basically Vita is an incorrigible, conscience-free flirt and Virginia is an incredible intellect, barely of this earth, all shadow to Vita’s colours.  I have fallen in love with your vision of me, Vita tells the woman who has immortalised her as Orlando. We can see she’s not like that at all. It’s not just the men who can’t deal with women’s grey matter. With notable costume design by Lorna Marie Mugan, perhaps the most truly shocking thing about this is that Sky Cinema screened it as a 12s despite the graphic sexual content. Mary Whitehouse, where are you when you’re needed?! It’s all rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words

The Pumpkin Eater (1964)

The Pumpkin Eater

You should see the way men look at me. They still look at me. Jo (Anne Bancroft) leaves her second husband Giles (Richard Johnson) with whom she has five children in the countryside where they live in a rundown ramshackle barn and marries his screenwriter friend, Jake Armitage (Peter Finch). She moves with six of her eight children to his big house in Hampstead while her eldest are at boarding school. She soon finds that Jake doesn’t want more children and is playing around, including with Philpott (Maggie Smith), a young woman lodging with them. When he impregnates Jo, she doesn’t tell him but reveals it to her mother at her father’s (Cedric Hardwicke) funeral.  Her mother (Rosalind Atkinson) subsequently tells Jake and he asks Jo to have an abortion. Afterwards she is approached by his colleague Bob Conway (James Mason) who informs her that his wife is now pregnant by Jake …… Perhaps sex is something you feel you must sanctify by incessant reproduction. Harold Pinter’s scrupulous adaptation of Penelope Mortimer’s landmark semi-autobiographical novel is scalpel-sharp, lethally aimed at men who are never satisfied with women – when they have children, when they have none. And the men take no responsibility for the situation, either way.  Everything is the woman’s fault. The picture of fathers is damning but fascinating, as Hardwicke and Alan Webb’s (as the elder Armitage) scenes demonstrate. This battle of the sexes drama seems relentlessly classist yet is a universal story with a terrible message for the female of the species, forever destined to be deemed slatternly mother or hopeless whore. Bancroft is harrowing and superb as the vulnerable protagonist, but so too is Finch as the self-justifying philanderer. And what startling scenes there are – Jo being confronted by a total stranger (Yootha Joyce) in the hairdresser’s after her photo is featured in a magazine; her meltdown, in Harrods, of all places!;  her mother revealing in her bereavement to an unwitting and horrified Jake that Jo is pregnant yet again;  the meeting with Conway at the zoo when he reveals that while she was having her abortion and being sterilised Jake had impregnated his wife in yet another of his endless infidelities. The sleight of hand never stops; the loneliness and emotional violence of a fecund marriage is stripped bare; while living with someone is dramatised as a gaslighting paranoia-inducing nightmare of betrayals, lies and extreme humiliation in a society where femininity is medicalised, motherhood a branch of psychiatry, civility a very thin veneer over insecurity and terminal delusion. Eric Porter as the psychiatrist to whom Jo pours out her supposed problems has a great scene, culminating in Bancroft advising him to steer clear of Tenerife for his water-skiiing holiday. It’s absurd and ridiculous and brilliantly Pinteresque. Still a deeply disturbing narrative of men and women in what is indubitably a man’s world, equality a fairytale ending never to be. Directed by Jack Clayton. All she wants is to sit in a corner and give birth

 

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