The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978)

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Aka Die Ehe der Maria Braun. I don’t know a thing about business. But I do know what German women want. You might even say I’m an expert on it. Near the end of World War II, Maria (Hanna Schygulla) marries Hermann (Klaus Lowitsch), who is immediately sent off to battle at the Russian front before the marriage can be consummated. When the war concludes, Maria believes that Hermann is dead. The new widow tries to make a go of life on her own and she starts working at an Allied bar, where she meets black American GI Bill (George Byrd). They start a relationship that is interrupted when Hermann returns unexpectedlyyy. During a scuffle between the men, in the heat of the moment Maria accidentally kills Bill. Hermann takes the blame and goes to jail, while Maria begins a hard new life and builds an empire of her own … He kept me warm on those cold nights after the war. Practically a German take on Mildred Pierce with the miraculous Schygulla giving Joan Crawford a run for her money (Fassbinder had intended the role for Romy Schneider) in the post-war noir-ish businesswoman stakes, this is Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s fiercely sardonic take on marriage and money set in a new kind of Germany with a nod to Brecht. Life for women involves transactional sex which is justified as the ultimate practicality: I don’t care what people think. I do care what you think. And you’re not having an affair with me. I’m having an affair with you. The entire text bleeds fascism – how politics is funneled through culture to create a political landscape, whether we like it or not, infecting everyone who inhabits it.  This is the first of Fassbinder’s three Wirtschaftswunder films and is a key work of the New German Cinema with an ending that literally detonates before your eyes. Eva describes herself as the Mata Hari of the Economic Miracle and this dissects desire in all its forms. The screenplay is by Pea Fröhlich and Peter Mörthesheimer who also wrote the dialogue with director Fassbinder, based on his outline (and he plays a small role in the drama).  It’s a perfect blend of subject matter, realisation and performance, graced with stunning cinematography by Michael Ballhaus. Reality lags behind my consciousness

The Weaker Sex (1948)

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I wish I didn’t feel so cut off.   Widowed Martha Dacre (Ursula Jeans) tries to keep house and home together for her two serving daughters Helen (Joan Hopkins) who’s involved with radio officer Nigel (Derek Bond) and Lolly (Lana Morris) who’s going out with sailor Roddy (John Stone);  and servicemen billeted on her in Portsmouth, a naval base during WW2. While son Benjie (Digby Wolfe) is away in the Navy she has chosen to stay at home as a housewife, but when she learns that his ship has been damaged during the D Day landings, she regrets not taking a more active role in the war and works in a canteen and as a fire watcher. The family story moves forward from D-Day to VE-Day, the 1945 general election and on to 1948. Martha eventually re-marries to her late husband’s colleague, naval officer Geoffrey (Cecil Parker) who was one of those billeted on her and has become a father-figure to her son and daughters…  Oh dear, who’d be a mother? This British homefront drama was released three years following the conclusion of hostilities so it has the benefit of victorious hindsight as well as expressing the postwar era when everyone was completely obsessed with the lack of food. Adapted from actress Esther McCracken’s 1944 stage play No Medals by Paul Soskin with additional scenes created by Val Valentine to bring it up to the year of shooting, it’s a witty drama filled with resigned Keep Calm and Carry On messages underscored by dissatisfaction at the dreariness of housework and the plight of women whose life is dictated by the unavailability of food which becomes a thoroughly good running joke:  The housewives’ battle cry – the fishmonger’s got fish! cackles housekeeper Mrs Gaye (Thora Hird). Intended as post-war propaganda, a kind of decent British take on Hollywood’s Mrs Miniver (minus the Nazi in the garden) with added politics, it’s smart, unfussy and fair, yet trenchant and involving.  Jeans is terrific as the middle class woman finding herself rather (class) envious of Harriet Lessing (Marian Spencer) living in a serviced flat and volunteering:  there’s humour to be had in a lovely payoff when Harriet gets her public comeuppance after the war as rationing motivates her to head the local Militant Housewives League and she gets caught up in an unholy scrimmage which fetches up on the front page of the papers. Parker is a great casting choice – the guy not ashamed of being seen decked out in his uniform doing the vacuuming who can say unabashed to Jeans, I never had a genuinely platonic friendship with a woman before. Of course we know where that leads. He digs in and gets creative when he’s sick of being starved of regular food – and milks a goat. I slept and dreamed that life was beauty, I woke and found that life is duty. There is a great sense of warmth in the family relationships and a scene of remarkable tension when Helen and Martha play a card game awaiting a phonecall to find out whether Nigel has survived a bombing.  Jeans tells herself when awaiting more bad news, I mustn’t back down. I must try to be of some use. Parker responds, This language of ours is so completely inadequate. They are expressing the weariness of a nation almost done in yet somehow dragging itself up to cope with the inevitability of ongoing loss. There are occasional dips into newsreel montages to bring a context to the experiences as the story commences in the run up to D Day, through VE Day, the 1945 General Election, Hiroshima and after, but the footage is smoothly integrated and doesn’t disrupt the narrative flow. Hugely successful in its day it’s a really rather spiffing reminder of how and why Britain came through the war, the importance of family and sadly that tragic deaths don’t just occur in wartime. Crisply shot by Erwin Hillier amid exquisite sets by Alex Vetchinsky and this raft of wonderful performances are very well directed by Roy [Ward] Baker. Shabby perhaps, but not yet shoddy

Backstabbing for Beginners (2018)

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Information is everything  – the currency, the power. Young United Nations employee Michael Soussan (Theo James) has left his lucrative job at a bank because he wants to follow in his late diplomat father’s footsteps and travels to Iraq with his mentor Under-Secretary-General Costa ‘Pasha’ Passaris (Ben Kingsley), who is going to show him how successful the UN’s Oil-for-Food Programme has been. When Michael gets a deeper look at the organisation on the ground he listens to the concerns of local UN diplomat Christina Dupre (Jacqueline Bisset) and unveils a corruption conspiracy in which officials both inside and outside of the UN are skimming billions off the top of the aid meant for the Iraqi people. When he meets UN worker (and secret Kurdish activist) Nashim (Bilçim Bilgin) and she informs him his predecessor was murdered, he finds his head being turned yet he wants to do the right thing … There was nobody left who knew how to run the countryPitched as a political thriller, this reeks of the great Seventies paranoid conspiracy stories that Pakula and Pollack made so much their own – and even concludes in a visit to the Wall Street Journal, conjuring images of Robert Redford in his own cat and mouse chase. However this whistleblower drama is a bigger story with the bad guys less easy to identify simply because there are so many of them – thousands of global companies, some household brands, bribing Saddam Hussein, and, as we might recall from the news of 15 years ago, revolved around the United Nations. So basically everything we know is right – they’re all at it, as the overly truthful title indicates. Graft is good. Our shoulder-shrugging dismay is sealed by intermittent montages of newsreel, reminding us that we are watching, as it were, a true story, while some of the ensemble get killed in car bombs as Iraq is carved up by vested interests. Kingsley, unsurprisingly, gets all the best lines and this performance is meat and drink to him. James is more diffuse as the good guy constantly stunned into submission by the realisation that corruption is a way of life and he still scrabbles to do whatever is right, whatever that might be, at any given time as the tables are constantly turned on him in this story of a naïf’s progress.  Adapted from Soussan’s memoir by director Per Fly (isn’t that the best name ever?!) and Daniel Pyne. Admirable but not wholly effective.  What you call corruption is simply the growing pains of a new democracy

 

Circle of Danger (1951)

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It doesn’t do to go around sobbing and putting up monuments. American World War 2 veteran Clay Douglas (Ray Milland) arrives in London to find out how his little brother was the only casualty in a British commando operation in occupied France. He follows the trail to Scotland where he meets platoon officer Hamish McArran (Hugh Sinclair) who informs him that most of the men are now dead and he provides him with information to contact the few survivors. Clay encounters children’s novelist Elspeth Graham (Patricia Roc) who meets him again back in London where he starts to track down the remaining commandos and uncover what really happened while the pair begin a very uneasy romance …  If I were you I’d spank the little bastard – hard. Shot by the great British cinematographers Oswald Morris and Gilbert Taylor, this is a handsome production adapted by Philip MacDonald from his own novel. What it lacks in thrills it makes up for in a deceptive charm and there’s a good twist. Along the way we have a cold/hot/cold romance with Roc, whose motives remain a little clouded. Nonetheless it’s an interesting insight into necessary deaths in wartime, with the guy Peter Bogdanovich once called the roadshow Cary Grant acquitting himself well in the lead, working with director Jacques Tourneur to turn a vengeful character into a more understanding one. It doesn’t stand with Tourneur’s best work but there are nice supporting performances by Marius Goring, Naunton Wayne and Dora Bryan.  I think Hank was murdered by one of the other commandos in that raid

 

Seven Days to Noon (1950)

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When I was young I saw science as a means of serving God and my fellow men. When Professor Willingdon (Barry Jones) becomes wary of the nuclear weapons he is helping build, he steals a warhead and writes a letter to the Prime Minister threatening to detonate it in London in one week unless the government begins nuclear disarmament. As Willingdon goes into hiding in various locations around London, Detective Folland (Andre Morell) of Scotland Yard sets out to find him using all the resources at his disposal. Willingdon’s daughter Ann (Sheila Manahan) also joins the cause, hoping she can talk sense into her father before he causes a catastrophe but the Government decides evacuating the capital city is the only answer as time runs out and Willingdon takes up with an unwitting actress (Olive Sloane) when he needs a place to overnight … London – she’ll either make you or break you, isn’t that what they always say? Co-director Roy Boulting and Frank Harvey wrote the screenplay from an original story by Paul Dehn and James Bernard. From the cracking titles sequence to the wonderfully shot panoramas by Gilbert Taylor, we are taken on a grand tour of London from massage parlours, boarding houses and pubs, through the Underground and to the British Museum, the BBC and 10 Downing Street. The eerie silence of the streets when the trains leave the city is positively terrifying. When did you ever think you’d hear the words, Advancing into Belgravia?!  An absolutely cracking blackmail thriller about doomsday whose moral grip is intensified by the bristling inventive score from John Addison, that genius composer whose work we love so much. Directed by the Boulting Brothers. Repressing of fear is like trying to hold down the lid of a boiling kettle. Something’s got to give eventually

Dumbo (2019)

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You should listen to your kids more. Struggling travelling circus owner Max Medici (Danny DeVito) enlists a former equestrian star, WW1 amputee Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) and his two children Milly (Nico Parker) and son Joe (Finley Hobbins) to care for Dumbo, a baby elephant born with oversized ears to Mrs Jumbo. When the family discovers that the animal can fly, it soon becomes the main attraction — bringing in huge audiences and revitalizing the run-down circus. His mother is separated from him leaving him distraught then his magical ability draws the attention of V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) an entrepreneur who wants to showcase Dumbo in his latest, larger-than-life entertainment venture Dreamland where he intends his spirited  Parisian trapeze artiste Colette Marchant (Eva Green) will use the little fellow in her act…  You have something very rare. You have wonder. You have mystique. You have magic. In this latest pointless live-action remake of Disney’s brilliant animated features, Ehren Kruger’s screenplay (welcome back to the big leagues) has to tread a fine line between the exigencies of the House of Mouse with its unadulterated classic sentiment and the Gothic flourishes and flawed excesses of director Tim Burton who reassembles some of his usual actors (DeVito, Green, Keaton) alongside Disney’s latest humanoid fave, Farrell. Dumbo is the greatest animation ever made and a personal favourite, an utterly beguiling story of grave majesty and emotionality. This is never going to reach those heights no matter how many high wire acts, freakshows and armless motherless humans are dramatised as reactive tropes, how many of the circus’ darkest inclinations are exhibited, how many cartoon baddies (with Afrikaaner accents) are on standby, how good Keaton (as the anti-Walt Disney!) and DeVito are, how sweet the family message. The Art Deco interiors and production design are splendid, there is real jeopardy and the CGI elephants are beautiful, but you don’t need elephants to save your blank-eyed expressionless soul (Parker has no acting ability whatsoever) which is this film’s message. It expands on the original adaptation of Helen Alberson’s book and it’s not the anticipated travesty that  the horrific Alice in Wonderland was for the same auteur pairing but that’s not saying much.  If you really want to do something for the plight of their species stop all those vile African natives and American trophy hunters from brutally killing them and ensuring their imminent extinction. Back to the drawing board. Fly, Dumbo … fly

 

Rocketman (2019)

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You have to kill the person you were meant to be in order to become the person you want to be. A troubled Elton John (Taron Egerton) flounces offstage in full costume to attend an Alcoholics’ Anonymous meeting in 1990 to finally tackle his prodigious appetite for drink, drugs, sex, food and shopping. We revisit his life in flashbacks to his lonely childhood in post-war suburban Middlesex as Reggie Dwight with a desperately mismatched mother Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard) and father Stanley (Steven Mackintosh) and a grandmother Ivy (Gemma Jones) who encourages the young prodigy. He plays with a band called Bluesology supporting visiting US acts and gets picked up by A&R man Ray Williams (Charlie Rowe) to write for producer Dick James (Stephen Graham) and is teamed with teenage lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) whose words spark an astonishing array of songs in the young composer. They are sent to premiere the renamed ‘Elton John’ to perform at the Troubadour club in Los Angeles where he literally takes off overnight but the pressures of performing and an encounter with personal manager John Reid (Richard Madden) leads to a life of unhappiness and addiction … Do you know how disappointing it is to be your mother? The Elton John biopic that has been in the work for decades finally hits the ground running trailing tantrums, tiaras and all the sequinned flamboyance that the man has on his rider. It’s more than a jukebox musical – it’s a freewheeling fantasy that uses some of the best songs John and Taupin have written to explore the astronomical fame that exploded when they went to the US as soon as they created Your Song. Lee Hall’s script is sometimes too on the nose (if you show you don’t also tell, natch) but for the most part director Dexter Fletcher’s approach is wildly inventive, epic and oddly appropriate even when the time-travelling back and forth is anachronistic in terms of the songs themselves so it might confuse those expecting a more logical biography. It bucks convention and Fletcher has clearly watched the oeuvre of Ken Russell (appropriately enough considering John’s role in Tommy, referenced here), understanding fundamentally the possibilities of narrative playfulness, the sung-through sub-genre and of course the necessities of the backstage form. As brilliantly evoked as the concerts are, the high points take place in a livingroom in Pinner. The monstrousness of his parents is to the fore even if we don’t get into the horrors of his mother hiring an Elton John tribute act to appear at her 90th birthday party since the 1990 addiction therapy is as far as it goes chronologically.  The children who play the young Reggie should get a big shoutout because they are quite extraordinary – Matthew Illesley and especially Kit Connor – and there is a nice touch for Irish viewers with The Stripes (the band that got away from John’s record company and split last year, sob) appearing as members of Bluesology, the group he had before his breakthrough. Egerton lacks the nuance for tragedy but he has some fantastic moments principally as the beloved stage performer:  perhaps that’s enough – those lows are sequenced well in montages and anything resembling the sordid reality might be too tough for this high wire act to bear. Dramatically though it’s the relationships John has with Taupin and his grandmother that make the emotions land. Tate Donovan revels in his outrageousness as Doug Weston, the proprietor of LA’s Troubadour;  while Madden is a horror as the man who took John to the cleaners and stole his heart. Quite the morality tale in terms of his excesses (we never get to see him actually enjoy all those drugs) but the sheer wit and imagination on display is peculiarly apt when it comes to amplifying the content of all those great songs. A delightful evening at the cinema that simply bursts with all the zest a musical can muster and much better than Fletcher’s job on Bohemian Rhapsody but somehow it’s a tad less enjoyable. Go figure. Oh, just write the fucking songs, Bernie. Let me handle the rest!

Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950)

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A policeman who breaks the law is twice the sucker.  Career criminal Ralph Cotter (James Cagney) escapes from prison and then murders the partner-in-crime (Neville Brand) who grassed him up in the first place. He attempts to woo his ex-partner’s sister Holiday Carleton (Barbara Payton) by threatening to expose her role in his escape. Cotter quickly gets back into the crime business—only to be shaken down by corrupt local LA cops led by Inspector Weber (Ward Bond) and Lt. John Reece (Barton MacLane). When Cotter turns the tables on them, his real troubles have only started…  I don’t want the coroner to find the bruises on these birds. One of the purest expressions of violence committed to celluloid, this post-war gangster noir is dominated by the strutting sadism of James Cagney, who bestrides it as though he hadn’t been blown up at the end of White Heat. Co-star Barbara Payton was hand-picked by Cagney and is of course one of Hollywood’s most notorious party girl casualties whose own biography bore this film’s title and she gives us a direct line to sex in her interaction with Cagney, while rival Margaret Dobson (Helena Carter) is her visual and performative opposite; Bond is a locus of police corruption and revenge; and Group Theater founder Luther Adler bristles as the lawyer coerced into helping the gang. If I ever saw a crazy man, he’s it. Adapted by Harry Brown from Horace McCoy’s novel, and produced by Cagney’s brother William, this is an amazing exposition of Los Angeles as an exquisite corpse of genre tropes, the cinematic city responsible for most of noir’s topography where the cops are just another filthy gang.  We couldn’t tip ’em off if we sat on the roof of their car. In another stranger than fiction story from that metropolis’s Ripley’s lore, this is the film that Phil Spector and Lana Clarkson were watching the night of her killing. Utterly riveting, febrile and quite shocking. Directed by Gordon Douglas. All I saw were the guns

Scandalous Me: The Jacqueline Susann Story (1998) (TVM)

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I want to be loved. 1940s New York City: Jacqueline Susann (Michele Lee) is a second-string theatre actress and well-known party girl who turns to journalism following her marriage to press agent turned producer Irving Mansfield (Peter Riegert). Though constantly surrounded by the glitterati of the theatre and social scene she doesn’t achieve celebrity status herself and has to endure the tragedy of a brain-damaged son who has to be institutionalised. Then when she’s 47,  she publishes the raunchy bestselling novel Valley of the Dolls. Outwardly committed to publicising her work and involved in regular cross-country media campaigns, she privately battles cancer and constantly questions her troubled relationship with her society portraitist father Robert (Kenneth Welsh) who never got around to finishing her picture …  Everything I do is for you. Everything I make is for you. Treading much straighter territory than Isn’t She Great (the Bette Midler version) this adaptation by Michele Gallery of Barbara Seaman’s biography Lovely Me ironically strays indirectly and presumably unintentionally into camp now and then, and it doesn’t really do justice to the genius of its subject but Lee is excellent as this spiky confrontational woman who did things her own way. For anyone interested in the backstage antics of NYC’s post-war theatre scene with big personalities like Ethel Merman (Gloria Slade), the evolution of publishing and the making of the notorious film of Susann’s most famous novel with Barbara Parkins (Annie Laurie Williams), Patty Duke (Melanie Peterson) and the lovely Sharon Tate (Leila Johnson), there are residual attractions, but the drivers of this biopic are the private tragedies of the woman who revolutionised modern publishing by establishing her own critic-proof brand of sex and sass. Directed by Bruce McDonald. You don’t cook, you don’t clean, you never stay in. My life is never going to be dull

Cold War (2018)

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Time doesn’t matter when you’re in love.  In post-war Poland conductor and musicologist Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Irena (Agata Kulesza) are holding auditions for a state-sponsored folk music ensemble. Wiktor’s attention is immediately captured by Zula (Joanna Kulig), an ambitious and captivating young woman who is faking a peasant identity and is on probation after attacking her abusive father when he attempted to rape her. They commence a sexual relationship but Wiktor doesn’t want to incorporate more Stalinist propaganda in their productions and wants to escape to the West. Zula doesn’t join him when he escapes in Berlin but a couple of years later he finds her on tour in Yugoslavia where he is quickly removed back to his current base in Paris. Then Zula shows up and leaves her marriage and becomes a recording artist with his help. She can’t stand what he has become and flees to Poland the night her album is launched and Wiktor makes a tremendous sacrifice just to see her again … As far as we’re concerned you don’t exist. It starts with people singing folk songs, performed plaintively and sonorously against a mysterious monochrome backdrop which is rural Poland yet some images take a while to reveal themselves from abstraction. That’s all of a piece with the lives of these somewhat disembodied, disenfranchised individuals whose better existence is entwined with each other yet whose life together is messy, filled with bust-ups, disagreements, partings, border crossings, cultural preservation, propaganda and politics. Their identity – colonised, travelling, in denial – presents a kind of melancholy frankly incomprehensible to people who think they should be glad to be out of the hellhole of the Eastern Bloc.  Neither protagonist is especially likable and the underage relationship is at first shocking, even if she is sexually precocious. The gleaming black and white photography seems bleak at first but paradoxically heightens the romance because this is a film that rejoices in the possibilities of cities and how people can express themselves in one international language – music. Watching Zula finally let loose in the West to Rock Around the Clock is joyous, even if it further fractures her relationship. The architecture isn’t stressed but the common culture it expresses looms over the narrative – building styles, churches, bars, clubs, concert halls, the locations where this couple can find themselves and each other, over and over again. It’s sombre but passionate. Finally they wind up at a literal crossroads, decision made. Writer/director Pawel Pawlikowski traverses these ideas like a high-wire artist, never stooping to the obvious even if some of the melodramatic curves seem inevitable. When Zula tosses her eponymous record in a fountain and then takes off back to Poland it seems unlikely they can ever meet again. But Viktor returns to his home country only to be imprisoned? Well. If it wasn’t true, would you believe it? Yet that is what Pawlikowski’s own background looks like – complex, difficult, liminal, like all stories about affiliations and borders and political ideologies and exile. It’s about his parents. And it’s true. And it took years and years for them to get together and their relationship covers a continent of musical styles and idioms. Remarkable. Let’s go to the other side.