Times Square (1980)

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We are having our own renaissance. We don’t need anti-depressants, we need your understanding. Nicky Marotta (Robin Johnson) is a Brooklyn runaway and street musician constantly hassled by the New York City cops and when she fakes a fit they dispatch her to a psych ward for some scans because there doesn’t seem to be anything really wrong with her. Pam Pearl (Trini Alvarado) is a dreamy kid who wants to escape her overbearing politico father (Peter Coffield) the wonder boy at the mayor’s office and  she writes to a late night DJ Johnny Laguardia (Tim Curry) as Zombie Girl. She winds up in the same hospital room as Nicky and they form an uneasy friendship. Nicky is convinced that Pam’s poems could help her with her music and they run away, taking refuge in an abandoned warehouse on the Hudson and working at a strip club (with their clothes on). Nicky writes music and their story as The Sleez Sisters is covered by Johnny as they grow an army of teen girl fans … A new iconoclast has come to save us – it’s The Sleez Sisters! A Thelma and Louise for teens, this is the soundtrack of my young life – starting with Roxy Music’s Same Old Scene and featuring everything from Gary Numan’s Down in the Park to Patti Smith’s Pissing in the Street, it’s a hugely sympathetic, fascinating time capsule of the Times Square Renaissance when it was apparently safe to be a girl on the street and Hard Times, Oklahoma Crude and The Onion Field were playing in the local fleapit. There is a fairytale fantasy quality to the setting and this mismatched pair’s adventure as they tear through the city and recognise each other’s characters as they truly are – I’m brave, you’re pretty, declares Nicky. She is so on it, it’s not true. And she says what everyone feels when they’re young:  I don’t expect to live past twenty-one that’s why I’ve gotta jam it all in now. Her Jaggeresque affect is emphasised on several levels – her appearance, her cockiness, and the line, This is for Brian Jones and all the dinosaurs that disappeared as well as the blond guitarist who backs her onstage. Johnson gives a towering performance as the husky-voiced freak destined to be a frontwoman in a band; and Alvarado is immensely appealing as the rich girl who needs to break free; while Curry is definitely the sideshow, offering pithy comments as he narrates their runaway journey with all the astonishment and empathy he can muster as someone keen to up his 4AM listenership as well as feeling some adult concern for a troubled starstruck kid who’s probably off her meds. When the girls have got what they need from each other their response to the schism is radically different and it’s moving.  They are both artists seeking an outlet for their expressivity but feel the limits of their age – 16 and 13 respectively. When they break free, you feel nothing will ever stop them – they are so brave in comparison with the adults who surround them. There is a father-daughter issue in the film and that scene of Aristotelian recognition when David sees Pam in the Cleo Club could have been horrible but it works okay.  Irony is writ large in the humorous use of I Wanna Be Sedated banging from the boombox Nicky totes around the hospital prior to the girls’ escape. There are lots of incidental pleasures in this prototypical essay on the culture wars – Elizabeth Pena in the opening scene; trying to spot author Billy Mernit as one of the band The Blondells (he’s written a great book on Hollywood romcoms); figuring out that the birthdate for Alvarado’s character is the actress’s own (it’s on the bus advert). And let’s not overstate the impact of the best soundtrack of any film of the Eighties, produced by David Johansen, who duets with Johnson. The Manic Street Preachers covered her song, Damn Dog. What a talent Johnson was but the producer Robert Stigwood who apparently promised much for her did not turn up the goods and she has completely disappeared off our radar. Written by the film critic, songwriter and King of Marvin Gardens scribe Jacob Brackman from a story by the director who has done so much to popularise disc jockeys in cinema, Mr Allan Moyle: may he take a bow for being so good to his female fan club by making this because running away and living a punk rock life never seemed like a great idea until this came out with its energy and spit and fury.  What is he telling us? That the amazing music you listen to is never quite as important as the music you hear within. All together now, Spic nigger faggot bum – Your daughter is one!

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The Spy in Black (1939)

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Aka U-Boat 29. Who’d be a U-boat captain? A German submarine under the command of Captain Hardt (Conrad Veidt) is sent to Hoy in the Orkney Islands in 1917 in order to determine British fleet movements around Scapa Flow where he is supposedly helped by The School Teacher (Valerie Hobson) assisted by disgraced British Naval Lt. Ashington (Sebastian Shaw).  However they are double agents who actually want Hardt to bring together many U-boats for the attack on the Grand Fleet and then have a destroyer flotilla wipe out the U-boats with depth charges. The arrival of the original schoolteacher’s fiancé (Cyril Raymond) complicates matters …What an idea, putting a motorbike in a submarine. From Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, brought together for the first time by Alexander Korda, armed with a scenario by Roland Pertwee (Jon’s dad) adapted from Joseph Storer Clouston’s novel, and the best German ever, Conrad Veidt (loved him since Terry Wogan used to play his Lighthouse song at the crack of doom), this World War One tale has all the best aspects of that new collaboration – an exciting premise, taut plotting, attractive characters and a great setting, these islands off Scotland. The early kidnapping of schoolteacher Anne Burnett (June Duprez) in a scene reminiscent of The Lady Vanishes, Hobson as a sort of femme fatale, the sight of Veidt with his big eyes and goggles and motorsickle leathers among the sheep, the fog shrouding night time action, witty banter, romantic betrayal, spy and counter-spy, memorable shot after memorable shot – all combine to make this much more than a propaganda film – it was released on the eve of World War Two (in August 1939). It’s a hugely entertaining and well-turned thriller that’s just bursting with atmosphere and irony because who wouldn’t begrudge Veidt? And yet, and yet … You almost persuade me to become a British subject

Juliet, Naked (2018)

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Every aspect of civilisation is going to the dogs, with the notable exception of TV. Annie (Rose Byrne) returned to her seaside hometown 15 years earlier to take over her late father’s history museum and is stuck in a long-term relationship with Duncan (Chris O’Dowd) – a media studies lecturer at the local further education college and an obsessive fan of obscure rocker Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke).  Crowe has been out of the spotlight for a quarter of a century and Duncan has gathered a couple of hundred of fellow devotees online on a website he has created in his honour. When the acoustic demo of Tucker’s hit record from 25 years ago surfaces at their house, its release leads to a life-changing encounter for Annie with the elusive rocker himself when he responds to a review she posts on Duncan’s website and they start to contact each other regularly, telling each other their problems. Duncan, meanwhile, is moving on and moving in with new colleague Gina (Denise Gough) leaving his Tucker shrine intact in Annie’s basement. Across the Atlantic Tucker’s life takes on a further twist when Lizzie (Ayoola Smart) one of his illegitimate children announces she is about to become a mother and he decides to pay a visit to the UK when she’s about to give birth. Tucker has children he doesn’t even know, while sharing a garage with the only boy who means anything to him, his newest son Jackson (Azhy Robertson).  The reality of his relationship with his famous muse from three decades earlier is gradually revealed following a medical emergency which brings all the children he has fathered to his hospital bedside..Are you telling me I have to know Antigone before I can understand The Wire? Adapted from Nick Hornby’s novel by Tamara Jenkins, Jim Taylor, Evgenia Peretz and Phil Alden Robinson,  this comic account of romantic mismatches, irresponsible breeding, inheritance, missed opportunities and fandom gets a lot of traction from the casting of Hawke, practically a poster boy for Generation X since, well, Generation X had a name and Evan Dando et al slid off our collective radar even if we still have the mixtapes to prove there was life before the internet – which then gave rise to this new outlet for sleb cultdom. As one Miss Morrisette used to wail, Isn’t it ironic. O’Dowd is his usual doofus self while Byrne shines as the long-suffering woman who ponders motherhood following the decision not to be a parent – well, with that guy, who would?! There is an amusing moment when the reality of Annie’s online musings materialises on the beach and Duncan simply doesn’t recognise his lifelong hero who he believes is living on a sheep farm in Pennsylvania sporting a long white beard. It’s an amiable amble down collective memory lane without much surface dressing and despite some weird editing early on, it coasts on the performances but never reaches emotional heights, reflecting the music that Hawke performs in character.  Directed by Jesse Peretz, who, entirely coincidentally one presumes, used to play with The Lemonheads and who made his directing debut long ago with another Brit writer, First Love, Last Rites, an Ian McEwan adaptation.  He is currently making a TV version of Hornby’s much-loved High Fidelity.  I love it, the internet! God, you’re finally entering the modern age. Which site was it? One for clever people, no doubt. Hornyhistorians.com?

Here and Now (2018)

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Aka Blue Night. I’m not done yet. Jazz singer/songwriter Vivienne (Sarah Jessica Parker) has just received a cancer diagnosis. She spends the day walking around New York City, meeting up with her manager Ben (Common) to discuss her upcoming tour, rehearsing with her backing band, telling her ex-husband Nick (Simon Baker) who has custody of their daughter Lucie (Gus Birney), dealing with her overbearing French-speaking mother Jeanne (Jacqueline Bisset), arguing with a taxi driver (Waleed Zuaiter), having an assignation with her drummer and romantic interest Jordan (Taylor Kinney) and reflecting on her life as she comes to terms with her mortality … First a tragedy, then a miracle. An homage to (if not a direct remake of) the late Agnès Varda’s 1962 nouvelle vague classic Cléo from  5 to 7, this is written by Laura Eason and capitalises on Parker’s association with NYC, that city which became so important televisually with Sex and the City in the same way that it has always been for cinema. Reconciling this star’s iconicity with latterday roles is proving problematic. Essentially this is about a woman in a state of perpetual avoidance (even in the course of just one day) and for a character and public persona notable for costume it will be a vast disappointment that until the very last scene she wears the same outfit throughout – save for a session in a boutique in a metaphorical attempt to alter her situation then she presents the dress as a gift to her truculent teenage daughter. This is an indication of a script that’s not altogether in tune with its somewhat dithering protagonist: Parker is not given enough to do and that is quite literally fatal considering this is a film concerning something going on in her head but despite the internalising of the dramatic performance at its centre there are some pithy lines. Vivienne (the irony extends to her name) is about to perform an anniversary gig at Birdland where 25 years earlier great things were forecast but a broken engagement last year somehow triggered a retreat. All of my albums have been triggered by all of my broken engagements, she deadpans to a noxious journalist who has never heard of Donald O’Connor. Renée Zellwegger as her friend Tessa brings a sharpness to a character which makes it more interesting than the scene that perhaps was written, while the scenes between Parker and Bisset are horribly convincing. The feature debut of commercials director Fabien Constant, this is notable for Parker’s quite odd performance of Rufus Wainwright’s marvellous song Unfollow the Rules, indicating that she’s not a jazz singer at all but a different animal entirely, a thread the narrative might have pursued (she still loves Belgian pop singer Lio), just like she should have kicked off her heels and got real, delving deeper into that fascinating hinterland where several interesting signposts are left dangling. I’d like to change the destination

Lucky (2017)

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The one thing worse than awkward silence is small talk. Every day in the desert town of Piru, California, 90-year old Lucky (Harry Dean Stanton) does 21 reps of his 5 yoga exercises, drinks some milk, shouts Cunts! at the botanic garden that barred him for smoking and enters a diner owned by Joe (Barry Shabaka Henley) where he has a large milky coffee and does the crossword. Then he buys some smokes in Bibi’s (Bertila Damas) shop on his way back home, where he settles down to his TV quiz shows before heading to Elaine’s (Beth Grant), the local bar, where he chews the fat with a group of friends:  Howard (David Lynch) gets depressed about President Roosevelt, who, it transpires, is his tortoise,who outlasted Howard’s two wives and who’s disappeared; Paulie (James Darren) misses his late wife and Lucky reckons he is fortunate never to have married. Lucky falls over when he’s home alone (he’s always home alone) and winds up in hospital where the doctor Christian Kneedley (Ed Begley Jr) tells him he’s a medical wonder. The diner waitress Loretta (Yvonne Huff) calls to his house and they watch Liberace on TV and smoke grass and Lucky insinuates that he is homosexual and asks Loretta not to talk about it. At Elaine’s Howard is treated ingratiatingly by a lawyer Bobby Lawrence (Ron Livingston) he hired for end of life bequests who Lucky thinks is gaming his friend. Back at the diner he chats with Fred (Tom Skerritt) a tourist and fellow WW2 veteran and they share stories about the Philippines. At the birthday party of Bibi’s son, Lucky sings in Spanish and that evening finds his friends once again … All I can think is it’s a combination of genetic good luck and you’re one tough son of a bitch. Harry Dean Stanton was always old, or so it seemed. The first time we see Lucky outside it’s a conscious re-staging of that famous low angle medium close up from Paris, Texas. But now he’s thirty-five years older and it’s a different hat and he’s not on the move any longer, save for those few exercises on the floor of his house, and the furthest he walks is shuffling down the street of his small town for his unvarying daily routine. He’s an atheist looking at death and trying to figure out what matters. Every scene is detailed and deals with an aspect of philosophy, a preparedness for the next phase, set in motion by the definition of realism which Lucky finds in a dictionary when doing the crossword. It’s funny and humane and brought to life by effervescent performances from a range of actors you never dreamed of putting together, but here they are. Written by Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja, this feels very elegiac but never depressing, more of a coming to terms with the inevitable, featuring some comic interludes which never intrude on the tone of the deep felt emotionality. Lynch has an extraordinary monologue about his tortoise that ends with the line: There are some thing in this universe that are bigger than all of us and that tortoise is one of them.  It’s a wonderfully humble moment and it crystallises the film’s central idea as well as reminding us what a lucky charm Stanton was for Lynch’s career. Those sunlit desert scenes are beautifully shot by Tim Suhrstedt while the songs are mostly by Elvis Kuehn but you’ll get a lump in your throat when you hear Johnny Cash singing Will Oldham’s I See a Darkness. Directed by veteran actor John Carroll Lynch, it ends on a shot of Lucky walking into the desert, sort of like President Roosevelt (the tortoise). A perfect conclusion to an incomparable career, this was the cherishable Stanton’s final film and he’s the leading man at last. I always thought that what we all agreed was what we were looking at

Only Yesterday (1933)

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Eden was never like this. A man considers committing suicide in the wake of the Wall Street Crash when he sees a letter marked Personal, Urgent! … In 1917 young Mary Lane (Margaret Sullavan) has a one-night stand with soldier James Stanton Emerson (John Boles) and she becomes pregnant. She moves away from her small town to live with her free-thinking aunt Julia (Billie Burke) and gives birth to Emerson’s son. Their paths cross again when he returns from France but he doesn’t even recognise her and she finds out in a newspaper that he has married. Ten years later when he is a successful businessman he seduces her again. She falls ill. Subsequently she learns she is dying and writes to him … I’ve never known anyone as lovely as you are. Adapted by William Hurlbut, Arthur Richman and George O’Neil from the 1931 non-fiction bestseller by Frederick Lewis Allan, but the relationship with the putative source is very loose and in fact this has the ring of Letter From an Unknown Woman (written by Stefan Zweig in 1922 and translated into English ten years later).  Nowadays this film is principally of interest as the screen debut and charming performance of the intensely charismatic Margaret Sullavan and as part of a rehabilitation of director John M. Stahl, renowned for his melodramas or women’s pictures, as they used to be called. I’m not ashamed. I suppose I ought to be, but I’m not. In a new volume about Stahl, historian Charles Barr makes the case for this being among the best films of the Thirties. I’m not sure that it is, but we should be grateful to director/producer Stahl for bringing Sullavan, his Broadway discovery, to Hollywood. As a Pre-Code narrative of illegitimacy and men and women’s very different experiences of romantic love, it’s very well dramatised, filled with moments of truth. If he had changed a thousand ways I would still know him. Some key lines on contemporary womanhood are delivered by Billie Burke playing Mary’s suffragist aunt: It’s just another of those biological events… It isn’t even good melodrama. It’s just something that happened. There is little indication of WW1 in terms of costume, everything speaks to the time it was made, but the characterisation is everything – Sullavan is sweet, Boles is a dirty cad.  It is truly terrible when he returns from the war and doesn’t even remember her. And any film with Edna May Oliver is something to love. We’ve turned that double standard on its head

Far From the Madding Crowd (1967)

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Don’t anyone suppose that because I’m a woman, I don’t understand the difference between bad goings-on and good. I shall be up before you’re awake, I shall be afield before you’re up, and I shall have breakfasted before you’re afield. In short, I shall astonish you all. In the late nineteenth century in England’s West Country beautiful young Bathsheba Everdene (Julie Christie) inherits a picturesque farm from her uncle and decides to run it herself. Three very different suitors – Francis Troy (Terence Stamp), an intense soldier who has impregnated a maid; William Boldwood (Peter Finch), a prosperous middle-aged farmer; and Gabriel Oak (Alan Bates), a neighbouring sheep farmer of modest means – all contend for her hand in marriage and her different attitudes to each of them cause conflict and tragedy … At home by the fire, whenever I look up, there you will be. And whenever you look up, there I shall be. Adapted by Frederic Raphael from Thomas Hardy’s classic novel, this is one of the most gloriously beautiful films of its era, starring some of the most attractive British performers, all shot in almost decadently luminous imagery by the great Nicolas Roeg, a few years from making his directing debut. However none of that would matter if it weren’t for the management of the material which clarifies the novel’s question – how is it possible for a woman to maintain her independence and property while claiming a romantic relationship for herself? The painful issues of patriarchy and community combine when Bathsheba turns down Gabriel’s offer of marriage and she inadvertently triggers a chain of horribly dramatic events in this bucolic setting. It’s director John Schlesinger’s third film with Christie and she’s at the peak of her beauty and charisma playing this passionate girl. You can understand why everybody loves her. A woman like you does more damage than she can conceivably imagine

Harper (1966)

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Why so fast, Harper? You trying to impress me? Struggling private eye Lew Harper (Paul Newman) takes a simple missing-person case that quickly spirals into something much more complex. Elaine Sampson (Lauren Bacall), recently paralysed in a horse-riding accident, wants Harper to find her missing oil baron husband Ralph, but her tempestuous teenage stepdaughter Miranda (Pamela Tiffin) thinks Mrs. Sampson knows more than she’s letting on… The bottom is loaded with nice people, Albert. Only cream and bastards rise. Brilliantly adapted by William Goldman from Ross Macdonald’s 1949 mystery The Moving Target featuring private eye Archer, renamed here because Newman believed the letter ‘H’ to be lucky following Hud and The Hustler. With that team you know it’s filled with zingers, like, Kinky is British for weird. Macdonald’s roots in the post-war noir world are called up in the casting of Bacall, who reminds us that it was The Big Sleep, among other films based on books by the great Raymond Chandler, that brought this style into being. Of course Macdonald’s own interpretation is consciously more mythical than the prototypical Chandler’s, with allusions to Greek tragedy in its familial iterations but it continues in that vein of a ferociously stylish, ironic, delightfully cool appraisal of California’s upper class denizens and their intractable problems. Newman is perfectly cast as a kind of wandering conscience with problems of his own, while Janet Leigh as his ex-wife, Robert Wagner as a playboy, Julie Harris as a junkie musician, Shelley Winters as a faded movie star, Robert Webber as her criminal husband and Albert Hill as a lovelorn lawyer, all add wonderful details to this portrait of a social clique. A flavoursome, perfectly pitched entertainment with lovely widescreen cinematography by Conrad Hall and oh so wittily and precisely staged by director Jack Smight, underscored by the smooth Sixties jazz orchestrations of Johnny Mandel with an original song by Dory and Andre Previn. I used to be a sheriff ’til I passed my literacy test

Sparrows Can’t Sing (1963)

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Aka Sparrers Can’t Sing. Don’t argue. If I hadn’t have liked you, I wouldn’t have bashed your head in, would I? Cockney merchant sailor Charlie (James Booth) comes home after two years at sea to find his house in London’s Bethnal Green razed and his wife Maggie (Barbara Windsor) missing. She’s now living with bus driver Bert (George Sewell) who has his own wife and Maggie has a new baby – but who’s the daddy?!  Charlie’s friends won’t tell him where Maggie is because he’s famed for his terrible temper. But he finally finds her and, after a fierce row with Bert, they are reconciled… Hey, bus driver! I can go away for *ten* years and get my own wife back! Interesting on so many levels, this, even if its experimental styling doesn’t wear so well with elements of raucous pantomime occasionally diverting the narrative thread. Developed from Stephen (On The Buses) Lewis’s play at director Joan Littlewood’s famed Theatre Workshop at Theatre Royal Stratford East in 1960, with improvised contributions from the performers, many of whom are featured here, this has sentimental value as a vehicle for Barbara Windsor (who was discovered by Littlewood), better known from the Carry On series and TV’s Eastenders. She earns her stripes in a heartwarming even startling performance.  It’s notable also as a southern variation on the British New Wave or kitchen sink realist style and for its use of language in conveying a sense of community in that part of London, with plenty of Yiddish and Cockney slang. The city gleams courtesy of Desmond Dickinson’s cinematography and the original score by Stanley Black coupled with original songs (including the title by Lionel Bart, sung by Windsor) marks it out from the pack. It also has a cracking cast of familiar faces including Roy Kinnear, Yootha Joyce, Brian Murphy, Harry H. Corbett, Murray Melvin, Victor Spinetti  and Arthur Mullard to name a few. Although the Krays were rumoured to appear in it, and they seem to make a cameo appearance, allegedly they don’t, but the parties celebrating the premiere were held at two of their clubs. Adapted by Littlewood and Lewis, this was Littlewood’s only feature aside from an earlier TVM based on a play by Aristophanes so this is really the only filmed record of her groundbreaking achievements. Shot around Limehouse, Stepney, Shadwell, Millwall, the Isle of Dogs, West Ham, Greenwich, Whitechapel and Blackheath, this gives an authentic picture of the city as the slums were being cleared and its face was quite literally changing. Some interiors were shot at Merton Park Studios. It wasn’t always your fault

Genius (2016)

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You took the words right out of my mouth. In 1929 Maxwell Perkins (Colin Firth) is the successful book editor known for working with F. Scott Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce) and Ernest Hemingway (Dominic West). He lives peaceably with wife Louise (Laura Linney) and their five daughters and is taken with the manuscript O, Lost by a new writer, Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law) and agrees to work with him. Its success (with the title Look Homeward, Angel) causes issues between Wolfe and theatre designer Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman) an older married woman with whom he is involved and the tensions escalate in the years it takes to produce his next book, Of Time and the River, which requires massive revision. He moves to Paris and upon his return to New York, he quarrels with Max and turns to another editor… Might want to read this one. Adapted by John Logan from the legendary biography of editor Perkins by A. Scott Berg, this was always going to be a tricky proposition:  how to you make the internal mechanics of the writing world interesting? How do you externalise the creative process? Here, it’s all about relationships. Perkins had the reputation he had because he knew how the writer’s mind worked and how to make a book sell and here it’s a talent dedicated specifically to the spectacularly gifted Wolfe, a seemingly rare genius who however needs someone to finesse his excessively prolix work. This is an acting masterclass with rhyming scenes and dialogue that must have been a dream to perform, rhythmic and quotable and filled with nuance and payoffs. To be a novelist, you have to select. You have to shape and sculpt. It’s telling that Fitzgerald and Hemingway are supporting characters working as a kind of echo chamber to the central story. Will anyone care about Thomas Wolfe in 100 years? Ten years? When I was young, I asked myself that question every day/ I used to trouble myself like that every day. Now I ask myself, “Can I write one good sentence.”  Wolfe and Berg are fully fleshed out, real and rumbustious and rich, with their letters used by Logan to create scenes that evoke difficulty and even jealousy with the women in their respective lives. The production design and editing are detailed and impactful but this is essentially illuminating about two men, big characters with a way with words, their working friendship and a thorough exposition of negotiating through a creative collaboration focusing on the importance of having the right editor for the right writer and the best book it is possible to produce. Fascinating and brilliantly acted, this is a buddy movie of a very different variety which ironically might need a little editing itself but it’s a great excursion into the business of big books and the world of the Great American Novelist. Directed by theatre grandee Michael Grandage. I don’t exist any more. I’ve been edited