A Taste of Honey (1961)

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We’re bloody marvellous!  Manchester teenager Jo (Rita Tushingham) struggles to find love in her bleak day-to-day life, which is dominated by her alcoholic mother, Helen (Dora Bryan). When Jo has a brief fling with black sailor Jimmy (Paul Danquah_ and Helen takes up with a new younger lover Peter Smith  (Robert Stephens) who offers to marry her, their already tense relationship is further strained. Jo faces more complications as she discovers she is pregnant, but finds support when she moves in with an odd but thoughtful gay textile student named Geoffrey (Murray Melvin)…  I dreamt about you last night – fell out of bed twice! Tushingham gives a breathtaking performance – mischievous, doleful, ambitious, resigned, thoughtful, in this adaptation of Shelagh Delaney’s play which portrays so many taboos of the era – interracial sex, illegitimate motherhood, homosexuality. It’s a classic of kitchen sink realism and director Tony Richardson (who had directed it on stage) handles it with just the right amount of playfulness balanced with seriousness, rewarded with splendid,  occasionally even startling performances in a gritty, funny, memorable production. Do you like me more than you don’t like me or do you not like me more than you do?

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Au revoir, les enfants (1987)

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I’m the only one in this school that thinks about death. It’s incredible! In 1943, Julien (Gaspard Manesse) is a student at a French boarding school run by Catholic priests. When three new students arrive, including clever Jean Bonnet (Raphael Fejto), Julien believes they are no different from the other boys. What he doesn’t realise is that they are actually Jews who are being sheltered from capture by the Nazis. Julien doesn’t care for Jean at first but the boys develop a tight bond with grudging admiration of each other – while the head of the school, Père Jean (Philippe Morier-Genoud), works to protect the boys from the Holocaust.I understand the anger of those who have nothing when the rich feast so arrogantly. Louis Malle’s autobiographical tale of his time at  school in Fontainebleau is an artful depiction of the country’s great shame – the level of collaboration with the occupying Nazis, some of whom are rather sympathetically portrayed. This is a beautifully composed, sensitively handled and measured portrait of childhood with its petty rivalries and quarrels, preceding an act of revenge, accidental betrayal and a chilling climax in an atmosphere of casual spitefulness, denunciations and anti-semitism. One of the very best films of its era, this is a perfect companion to Malle’s earlier masterpiece, Lacombe, Lucien. Those who should guide us betray us instead

Play It As It Lays (1972)

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I’ll tell you what I do. I try to live in the now. Burned-out B-movie actress Maria (Tuesday Weld), depressed and frustrated with her loveless marriage to an ambitious film director, Carter Lang (Adam Roarke) who would rather work on his career than on his relationship with her, numbs herself with drugs and sex with strangers. Only her friendship with a sensitive gay movie producer, B.Z. (Anthony Perkins), offers a semblance of solace. But even that relationship proves to be fleeting amidst the empty decadence of Hollywood as they both start to crack up ... How do you get to the desert? You drive there. Husband and wife screenwriting team Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne adapted Didion’s sensational novel of alienation and its transposition to the screen by director Frank Perry captures its existential sense of crisis. Weld is perfect as the model turned actress whose flashbacks are a faux-documentary and some biker movies she has made with her husband (and Roarke starred in some himself, of course). Her narrative is determined by movie business ghouls and Sidney Katz’s editing plays into her disjointed sense that she is losing control in a chilling world where her retarded daughter is locked away and she undergoes an illegal abortion.  Weld is teamed up again with Perkins after Pretty Poison and they work beautifully together – you really believe in their tender friendship. An overlooked gem which reminds us what a fine performer Weld is and also the fact that Charles Bukowski wrote about her in the poem the best way to get famous is to run away.  A cult classic. The fact is, when an actress walks off a picture people get the idea she doesn’t want to work

Judy (2019)

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I’m only Judy Garland for an hour a night. Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery) tells young Judy Garland (Darci Shaw) just how special she is while he bullies her and drugs her with her mother’s (Natasha Powell) collusion to keep her thin to star in The Wizard of Oz. Mickey Rooney turns her down and she is forced to endure a fake birthday party for the press. Thirty years later the beloved actress and singer (Renée Zellwegger) is bankrupt and scrabbling to play any gig she can with her young children Lorna (Bella Ramsey) and Joey (Lewin Llloyd) in order to get enough money for the next day – literally singing for her supper. She deposits the kids with her ex Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell) when no hotel in LA will have her because of her history of non-payment.  She attends a party at older daughter Liza Minnelli’s (Gemma-Leah Devereux ) where she marvels at Liza’s lack of nerves before her own next show. She encounters Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock) a young guy who clearly wants to impress her. Her only hope of getting her kids back and having a home of her own again is to sing concerts and she is bailed out by an offer from promoter Bernard Delfont (Michael Gambon) to play a long cabaret engagement at The Talk of the Town nightclub in London. Rosalyn Wilder (Jessie Buckley) is appointed her assistant and minder and has to help get her onstage each night as Judy battles nerves, drink and pills. While there, she reminisces with friends and fans and begins a whirlwind romance with Mickey who turns up to surprise her and she is smitten again … I see how great you are. I don’t see the problems. Adapted by Tom Edge from the play End of the Rainbow by Peter Quilter this never quite escapes its stage roots and each song (including Come Rain or Come ShineThe Trolley Song, Over the Rainbow) serves – performed either when she is late, drunk, nervous, or abusive – as a trigger for another flashback to the Thirties at MGM to explain the status quo. The trouble with this is that there is no joy in the performance, which may be true to life but this narrow focus ill-serves a biopic although there are moments when Zellwegger has an uncanny resemblance to Garland – facially, with gesture and movement as she nails the physique of a depleted, bag of bones Judy in her final months. She also sings the songs herself but the lip-syncing seems off.  Despite a two-hour running time her relationships feel underwritten and under-represented. Even the backstage antics with the talented Buckley (a glorious singer in her own right) don’t seem busy enough for that situation and while it may be true the idea that she never rehearsed with her music director (Matt Nalton) it seems preposterous whether or not she was always using the same music charts from Carnegie Hall. The highlights of her career are ignored but she enjoys the offstage attention of two diehard Friends of Dorothy (Andy Nyman and Daniel Cerquiera) in a subplot which feels tacked on even if it’s a serviceable nod to the gay fans that Judy so openly acknowledged (and her funeral occurred in NYC just a few hours before the Stonewall Riots – coincidence?). It has its moments and one occurs close to the end when Delfont is suing her after she has used the F word at a member of the audience. Buckley and Nalton take her for a farewell lunch and tempt her to eat something. She plays with a piece of delicious cake on her plate and finally takes a bite and savours the taste. She declares, I think maybe I was just hungry.  It’s a rare piece of black comedy referencing the starvation she endured as a teenager and finally lightens the mood as if this constant state of hanger might well explain her decades of poor decision-making and a bad rep. There’s an attempt at a feel-good ending onstage but it’s not enough and rings rather hollow, trying to squeeze more emotion out of that tiny diaphragm in a set of songs that aren’t especially well directed.  This is a film about performance, not feeling. It’s a BBC Films production and it seems under funded, threadbare and careworn, practically uncinematic. Surely such a star deserves better, even at the fag-end of her career. Directed by Rupert Goold. What have you ever done that would make anyone listen to you?

The Goldfinch (2019)

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We don’t say fake. It’s reproduction. Theodore Decker (Oakes Fegley/ Ansel Elgort) was 13 years old when his mother Audrey (Hailey Wist) was killed in a bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He is taken in by the Upper East Side Barbour family whose mother Samantha (Nicole Kidman) understands his fragility while his estranged friendship with her younger son Andy (Ryan Houst) is rekindled.  She discovers an engraved ring in Theo’s possession and he returns it to Hobie (Jeffrey Wright) at the antiques and restoration store Hobart & Blackwell where he recognises the lovely redheaded girl Pippa (Aimee Laurence/Ashleigh Cummings) who was standing beside him just before the bomb exploded and they become fast friends. She is the niece of Welty Blackwell (Robert Joy) whose dying words to Theo were to take his mom’s favourite painting the 1654 masterpiece The Goldfinch from the bomb site and a dazed Theo puts it in his backpack and stores it at his home.  All seems on an even keel until his freshly detoxed loser father Larry (Luke Wilson) reappears and abruptly takes him to Nevada to set up house with live-in cocktail waitress girlfriend Xandra (Sarah Paulson). Life in the desert has an alien quality and he is befriended by sun-hating Ukrainian Goth Boris (Finn Wolfhard/Aneurian Barnard) who introduces him to a supply of mind-numbing drugs and alcohol while he himself has to deal with a violent father. Theo realises his own father is trying to rip him off and use his private school funds to gamble so escapes back to NYC where we find him as a young man working for Hobie selling upscaled faux antiques and reunited with the Barbour family:  Andy and Mr Barbour (Boyd Gaines) have died in a sailing accident and Samantha is unhinged by depression but delighted to see him again.  He gets engaged to her daughter Kitsey (Willa Fitzgerald) but before long finds out he is not her true love, while Pippa remains out of reach.  After a bad sale to vicious art collector Lucius Reeve (Denis O’Hare) Theo discovers that The Goldfinch has been used as collateral in a criminal deal in Miami. When he runs into the grownup Boris in a bar he finds the beloved painting is not in the safe place where he stored it after all… In Amsterdam I dreamt I saw my mother again.  Adapted by Peter Straughan from Donna Tartt’s bestselling Bildungsroman, I arrive unburdened by reading the 880-page behemoth, an overlength only deserving of Tolstoy or someone of that order. Even without that experience, this has clear affinities with Dickens and allusions to Salinger, carrying with it an understanding of the difficulties of childhood and the intensity of friendship in a narrative dominated by the symbolic qualities of guilt. This is the opposite of a fast-moving art heist movie. It has an endearing shaggy dog style only broken by the fragmented nature of the storytelling and a late slackening in pace followed by the sudden violence of the ending in Amsterdam where the titular painting is eventually located and subject of a wild shootout. Much of the pleasure is in the juxtaposing of alienating landscapes of arid desert and rinky dink city locales. Kidman and Wolfhard are rivetting, Fegley is quite impenetrable but that’s not a bad thing given the story and how it is revealed, while Elgort is rather problematic as usual. Some of these performances might have been more effective had the story been told in sequence. There’s a wonderful, sonorous score by Trevor Gureckis and, if you allow it, much of this film will bring you into a world of childhood and loss rarely portrayed on screen. This, after all, is about the look of love and the love of looking and their complementary rewards and the only mystery is why this particular painting elicits such desire.

The Beach House (2019) (TVM)

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The beach house is not so much a place as a state of mind. Caretta (Minka Kelly) is a successful copywriter at a Chicago advertising firm but when she loses her job to her colleague and boyfriend she returns to South Carolina to Primrose Cottage, the beach house holiday home she thought she’d left behind.  She has rejected her Southern roots having left 15 years earlier, never wishing to go back until her mother Lovie (Andie McDowell) lures her there for a week in the summer. Lovie has taken in a young woman Toy (Makenzie Vega) whose family has thrown her out due to an unplanned pregnancy. Toy’s presence makes Caretta bristle with jealousy.  Flo (Donna Biscoe) helps out with the house and along with Lovie assists other locals to rescue wild loggerhead turtles during their spawning cycle but Caretta feigns disinterest in the area and the environment. She has not inherited her mother’s love of the place.  It is the only place I have ever felt like myself, says Lovie. It is my home. As Caretta helps repair the shabby house she renews acquaintance with an old boyfriend Brett Beauchamps (Chad Michael Murray) who has built up his boating business and never wants to leave.  Secrets soon start to emerge, starting with brother Palmer (Donny Boaz) who lives in the family home two hours away with his wife and children and who only sees dollar signs at the beach house which Lovie discovers he has mortgaged behind her back after leaving him to handle her finances. He has inherited far too much of his late father’s character and the brother and sister’s sibling rivalry reappears.  Eventually the rhythms of the island open Caretta’s heart in wonderful ways but she discovers that her mother has only one summer left to live and just prior to her unhappy marriage had a relationship of true love that could yet yield a welcome outcome … This may come as a surprise but not everyone wants to spend their day staking turtle rods. Executive produced by Andie McDowell, this adaptation by Maria Nation of Mary Alice Monroe’s almost literal fish out of water 2002 novel is so gorgeous that you may find yourself actively contemplating a picturesque death by the seaside, and not for the first time, when you consider that it is basically the adopted daughter of Beaches. Beautifully shot (by Peter Wunstorf), paced and performed, it’s skilfully handled by storied editor/writer/director/producer Roger Spottiswoode.  Lovely entertainment for a September Sunday. I’m still me, aren’t I?

A Dog’s Way Home (2019)

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As a puppy, Bella (played by Shelby and voiced by Bryce Dallas Howard) finds her way into the arms of med student Lucas (Jonah Hauer-King) a young man who with girlfriend Olivia (Alexandra Shipp) finds her in a demolition site with her friend Mother Cat and her kittens and gives her a good home with him and his mother Terri (Ashley Judd) a military vet who volunteers at the local Veterans’ Administration assisting the rehabilitating of fellow vets with PTSD and physical injuries. When Bella becomes separated from Lucas in an encounter with Animal Control, she is transported to the home in New Mexico of his Olivia’s family. She escapes and soon finds herself on an epic 400-mile journey across mountains and forest to reunite with her beloved owner. Along the way, the lost but spirited dog touches the lives of an orphaned cougar cub whom she calls Big Kitten, surviving hunters and predators, is kept in chains by a down-on-his-luck homeless alcoholic veteran Axel (Edward James Olmos) and briefly has a home with some friendly strangers, a gay couple (Barry Watson, Motell Gyn Foster) who happen to cross her path during an avalanche.  After two long years away from Lucas what will happen when she reaches her destination? … A reworking perhaps of Disney’s  The Incredible Journey, this had me at Woof. And in between the times I was blinking away tears and outright crying, it’s scary, tender, heartfelt and full of compassion. You might quibble with a CGI Big Kitten and the over-sentimentalising but there is real peril and some nasty human behaviour as well as an issue over how a dog should be classified when it comes to having a pit bull for a parent:  well, what’s new. And what’s not to love about a dog separated from her mother who finds a mother in a cat family?  And then a human family? And comforts soldiers suffering the after-effects of service? And who then befriends an orphaned cougar? At the end of the day, there’s no place like home. Sob. Adapted by W. Bruce Cameron and Cathryn Michon from Cameron’s book and directed by Charles Martin Smith, an actor who will always be Toad in American Graffiti here at Mondo Movies as well as Farley Mowat in that splendid wilderness film Never Cry Wolf. I knew now that my journey was much longer than I’d ever imagined

Annie Hall (1977)

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Boy I wish real life was like this. Neurotic NYC comic and TV gag writer Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) looks back on his relationship with insecure aspiring club singer Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) and wonders where it all went wrong. He recalls how they first met playing tennis with his actor friend Rob (Tony Roberts) who moves to LA;  his first marriage to Allison (Carol Kane); and his second to Robin (Janet Margolin);  and how when Annie moved in with him he became totally paranoid and thought everything she did spoke to infidelity. When they visit Rob in LA she meets music producer Tony Lacey (Paul Simon) at a party and on the couple’s return flight to NYC they agree they should split up and she returns to LA to be with Tony … That sex was the most fun I’ve ever had without laughing. Co-written with Marshall Brickman, this collage-like film is episodic, digressive, farcical, filled with running jokes, surreal flashbacks and pieces to camera on subjects as diverse as masturbation and being Jewish and Marshall McLuhan (who shows up in a line at the movies). Alvy’s whole problem is a premise derived from the great philosopher Groucho Marx – he can’t be with any woman who would want to be with him. In this battle of the sexes territory there are only departures and very few arrivals. It’s a breezy affair that exists on a tightrope of suspended disbelief and charming performances and Keaton’s is a delight. The supporting cast is outstanding and Jonathan Munk as the flame-haired kid Alvy constantly kissing girls in class is hilarious with adult Alvy moving through these flashbacks as though he’s in Wild Strawberries. Roberts is great as Alvy’s grasping sidekick. And Allen? Well it’s quintessential Woody and at least partly autobiographical. Hall is Keaton’s birth name while he calls himself ‘Singer’:  Freud is never too far away in a film which coasts on psychoanalytic concepts. Hey, don’t knock masturbation. It’s sex with someone I love. Elsewhere there’s Shelley Duvall, Colleen Dewhurst, Christopher Walken as Annie’s brother and for real nerds that’s Sigourney Weaver meeting Alvy at the movies in the last shot. The film’s surprisingly delicate piecemeal structure is held together by Alvy’s narration and according to editor Ralph Rosenblum was put together in post-production:  when Alvy is speaking to camera he’s making up the story that isn’t shot.  Allen is one of the best writers around though and these addresses don’t just fill gaps, they create allusions and deepen the theme. It’s a landmark Seventies film.  A relationship, I think, is like a shark. You know? It has to constantly move forward or it dies. And I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark

Death Defying Acts (2007)

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We had a real double act, my mam and me.  It’s 1926. Upon arriving in Edinburgh, Scotland for a series of mind-boggling performances, master illusionist and escapologist Harry Houdini (Guy Pearce) offers an impressive cash reward of $10,000 to any supposed psychic who can accurately tell him his beloved late mother’s exact last words. Gorgeous local swindler Mary McGarvie (Catherine Zeta-Jones) rises to the challenge and together with her streetwise daughter Benji (Saoirse Ronan) leads Houdini on in a dangerous flirtation that blurs the line between reality and paranoia –  but she has reckoned without the machinations of his canny manager Sugarman (Timothy Spall) who knows a con when he sees it but has his own reasons to let this Oedipal obsession play out in the world of spiritualists, fake or not … Nothing in this world’s free. It’s an engaging premise and well staged but this drama of who’s-fooling-who sadly won’t hoodwink the audience. Pearce is hardly Houdini although he’s a charmer whether tied up underwater or on the surface, and Jones’ and Ronan’s lively performances as grifters are marvellous but can’t conceal the dramatic deficit at the centre of the narrative. It looks wonderful and is beautifully staged but never really takes off, the mystery of Houdini’s personality is never convincingly exposed and of course as we know it ends in tragedy. Written by Tony Grisoni and Brian Ward, directed by Gillian Armstrong. I used to be a nice man you know. Do you believe me?

 

Ad Astra (2019)

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Most of us spend our entire lives in hiding. Sometime in the future. Following a mysterious global power surge, astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), a cool guy with a blissfully low pulse rate, travels to the outer edges of the solar system to find his father, heroic scientist Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones) who’s been missing for 29 years following the disappearance of the Lima Project.  Now apparently there are signs that he’s alive, out on Neptune. The purpose of the trip is to unravel a mystery that threatens the survival of humans on Earth and to uncover whether Clifford is somehow responsible for the weird imbalances that are killing tens of thousands back on Earth. Roy travels to the Moon in the company of Colonel Pruitt (Donald Sutherland) and they are set upon by violent assailants in a buggy chase across craters that endangers them both and kills a crew member. He suspects from his psychiatric evaluations that he’s being used as a stooge and hears from a woman called Helen Lantos (Ruth Negga) whose parents travelled with Clifford all those years ago that his father probably murdered them and others in the team. He determines to carry on with the trip to Neptune to locate his father and has to deceive Space Comm in order to do so … I don’t know whether to find him or to finally be free of him. What are the chances of Brad Pitt giving his finest two performances in back to back films? If the first, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, ponders the very contemporary question of whether movie stars serve a function in the new cinematic universe, this film, the second, is the proof that they do. And how. To the stars is a wonderfully ironic title in these circumstances. And what about the usually moribund director James Gray finally breaking out of the chains of realism (with his excursion to the jungle in The Lost City of Z he came close to greatness) and unsympathetic characters by shooting out of the earth’s atmosphere to infinity and beyond? It has set him free as a filmmaker. This has a lyricism and a beauty arising from the script by Gray and Ethan Gross, yet the resolutely familiar shooting style (by Hoyte van Hoytema and Caleb Deschanel (credited with ‘additional photography’) maintains a sober palette that permits the performances and the intrinsic ideas to shine, rather like when Godard did sci fi in Alphaville. We know this world.  We even believe that the Moon (‘the Earth’s Moon’, as one character puts it) could look like a shopping mall once humans colonise it. The brief sequence between Pitt and Lee Jones has more humanity in it than the entirety of the auteur’s preceding body of work: Roy’s lack of emotionality turns into something else when the reality of his father’s existence hits him:  this is a Conradian truth and this might be Apocalypse Now in space. We’re all we’ve got. In between we have a fabulously Freudian take on fathers and sons and space with some mileage gained from the diadic homonym son/sun and the movie’s existential philosophising pondering the father’s quest for alien intelligence; while the son’s ruminations take a decidedly more paternalistic twist despite his own lack of family, visions of an ignored wife Eve (Liv Tyler) chiefly accessible through old videophone messages notwithstanding. There are cute and clever references to other films but so intelligently do they unfold you won’t remotely care. It’s tremendous. It’s just what the cinema needs: a thrilling exploration of metaphor that oozes humanity, awe, wonder and acceptance as space becomes the past and the future, all at once. In the end the son suffers the sins of the father