If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)

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Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street. In early 1970s Harlem, daughter and wife-to-be Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) vividly recalls the passion, respect and trust that have connected her and her artist fiancé Alonzo ‘Fonny’ Hunt (Stephan James), who goes by the nickname Fonny. Friends since childhood, the devoted couple dream of a future together, but their plans are derailed when Fonny is arrested for the rape of a Puerto Rican woman he has never met by a grudge-bearing beat cop Officer Bell (Ed Skrein). Tish’s mom Sharon (Regina King) determines to get justice for her prospective son-in-law and tracks down the rape victim who has disappeared to her home country; while her husband Joseph (Colman Domingo) and Fonny’s dad Frank (Michael Beach) have a more pragmatic approach and resort to theft to make money. Meanwhile, Tish is pregnant and Fonny is in prison …  Love brought you here. Barry Jenkins’ extraordinary success with the singular Moonlight has led him to adapting James Baldwin, a classic author who has been underrepresented insofar as screen adaptations are concerned and this shares that film’s flaws with scenes of charming and alarming domesticity alternating with slowed-down moments of expressionist beauty and entire sequences of unremitting tedium – Fonny’s conversations with Daniel Carty (Brian Tyree Henry) are a case in point. Not content to both under- and overdramatise the story, this draws into its narration a bigger issue about police brutality, corruption and racism, overloading the slight balance which then relies in turn on terrific performances which are rather unhinged by a comic book crooked cop as stooge. Enchantingly scored by Nicholas Britell who enlivens a very uneven, occasionally wearying experience. Written and directed by Jenkins. I’ve never been more ready for anything in my whole life

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All Is True (2018)

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I’ve just bought a pension. I can’t die for at least 10 years or I’ll be ruined. It’s 1613, and Shakespeare (Kenneth Branagh) is acknowledged as the greatest writer of the age. But disaster strikes when his renowned Globe Theatre in London burns to the ground and he decides he will never write again. Devastated, he returns to Stratford, where he must face a troubled past and a neglected family. Haunted by the death 17 years earlier of his only son, Hamnet (Sam Ellis) he struggles to mend the broken relationship with his wife Anne Hathaway (Judi Dench) and daughters, Hamnet’s twin sister, spirited spinster Judith (Kathryn Wilder) and unhappy Susanna (Lydia Wilson) who is married to a noxiously stern Puritan, John Hall (Hadley Fraser). He is forced to examine his failings as an absent husband and father when 28-year old Judith finally gets involved with a suitor alleged to have impregnated another woman and Susanna is accused of adultery … A garden ain’t a play. Screenwriter Ben Elton has been wowing on the small screen with his very clever parody of Shakespeare in Upstart Crow but this is only occasionally in the same pantomimic vein albeit its nod/wink title (the original title for The Life of Henry VIII) toys with the idea that this is anything other than a confection of falsehoods and assumptions.  And it is a bit of a joke to start with – an old conqueror finally comes home and gets in the way of his wife and has the temerity to mess up the garden she has so carefully cultivated for the last 20 years. And then there are all those long country evenings when all you have is a candle for company. Irony is writ large here. At its heart a melancholy meditation on age, family and what you leave behind, Shakespeare is confronted with the long-hidden truth of his young son’s death, a boy whom he believed to have been greatly talented but who had actually been presenting the work of his twin, who was left unable to read and write, being but a girl. The discovery is poignant indeed. There’s a sonnet-off  (# 29) when Will is confronted with another truth – that the now elderly object of his affection Henry Wriothesley (Ian McKellen) is not interested in him but appreciates his art. How wonderfully odd that two of the great contemporary exponents of the Bard are quoting him at each other. Anne’s feelings are nothing – when the poems were published (illegally, without Will’s consent), he never thought about her reputation or what people might say. I’ve never let the truth get in the way of a good story. The bedrock of his entire life it seems has been other people and what they say – what was said of his father, what was said of him, and now, what is said about his daughters, both caught up in scandals of their own. He is a man for whom all truth is literally relative. Retirement is not easy and revelations about what happened at home when he was enjoying fame and adulation come as a shock to someone for whom all the world’s a stage and now his daughters are ruining the name he literally wrote out of disgrace to redeem his father’s blackguarding. Branagh is very good, prosthetics and all, capable of being hurt and amusing and rueful. The motifs are striking in a beautifully shot production – two fires dominate the visuals: the opening conflagration at the Globe caused by a misfiring cannon in a production co-written with John Fletcher; and the smaller one in the grate when Judith attempts to destroy what Hamnet transcribed – because Will needs to believe it was his dead son who wrote the poetry and she is guilty at being a gifted woman because he has such a low opinion of her. And Will loves the word on the page – when he sees his son’s name written in the funeral record in the local church his face comes to life. Anne chides him that when Hamnet died he was busy writing The Merry Wives of Windsor. Dench is wise and moving in the role of the much older wife protecting him from terrible knowledge. However the slow pace and ruminative setting, autumnal and somewhat bucolic, hide the sad drama within. It’s stunningly shot by Zac Nicholson, not just allowing us to see the wide open spaces juxtaposed with interestingly shot and lit interiors – so many dimpled with pure candlelight as the sole source – but telling us that there is always a bigger story and hinting where to look. There are funny scenes with the ridiculously ingratiating local MP Sir Thomas Lucey (Alex Macqueen) and some wild put-downs. There’s even a jibe about authorship and how it was that a man who owns up to having lived such a little life could have ended up knowing everything. Lest we forget, Elton is the best Elizabethan historian we have, when you think about Blackadder. It’s not Shakespeare, but it is very lovely. Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Nothing is ever true

You, Me & Him (2017)

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A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle, and all that. Forty year old lawyer Olivia (Lucy Punch) is in a relationship with younger lazy pot-smoking artist Alex (Faye Marsay) and she desperately wants to have a baby so has fertility treatment and undergoes artificial insemination without consulting Alex, who really doesn’t want children. Then Alex gets mad drunk at party held by their freshly divorced womanising next door neighbour John (David Tennant) and has sex with him.  When Olivia does a pregnancy test Alex finds she is pregnant too. John wants to play a role in the baby’s life and their lives become incredibly complicated … You have just put my entire life into a salad spinner of fuck! This is a pot pourri of British acting talent. Actress Daisy Aitkens makes her directing debut with her own screenplay, produced by Georgia Moffett (Mrs Tennant) who appears briefly in a horrifying birthing class conducted by Sally Phillips, while another Doctor Who, Moffett’s father Peter Davison, plays a small role as a teacher trainer and her mother Sandra Dickinson appears as part of a jury. Familiar faces pop up everywhere – Sarah Parish is Alex’s friend, Simon Bird is Olivia’s brother while David Warner and Gemma Jones are her parents.  There are some truly squirmy moments as Olivia’s experience of pregnancy evinces all the worst problems – in public. Comedy lurches into tragedy 70 minutes into the running time and there is no signposting. The return to comic drama is slow but not completely unhappy, with a few scenes necessary to recalibrate the shrunken family relationship. Punch is fantastic – she’s such a fine comedienne and she gets more to play here, even if she and Marsay appear to be from very different even incompatible worlds while Tennant raises the stakes of every exchange, trying to figure out how to be the hipster daddy in a couple that has no place for him. Pain is being fisted by a 300lb rich white guy because you haven’t enough money to pay the rent

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

The Best of Everything (1959)

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Here’s to men. Bless their clean-cut faces and dirty little minds! 1950s Manhattan:  three young women meet in the typing pool at Fabian Publishing and later share a home together: glamorous Gregg Adams (Suzy Parker) is an aspiring actress secretly yearning for domesticity whose director David Savage (Louis Jourdan) is using her; naive country girl April Morrison (Diane Baker) is left pregnant and alone by callous playboy Dexter Key (Robert Evans); and ambitious Radcliffe graduate Caroline Bender (Hope Lange) finds solace in the arms of editor Mike Rice (Stephen Boyd) while her fiancé is abroad. Together the three contend with unwise entanglements, office politics and the threat that their dreams for a fulfilling career will be cut short by marriage and children, while their romantic obsessions attract tragedy and the office is ruled with an iron fist by bitter chief editor Amanda Farrow (Joan Crawford) ...What is it about women like us that make you hold us so cheaply? Aren’t we the special ones from the best homes and the best colleges? I know the world outside isn’t full of rainbows and happy endings, but to you, aren’t we even decent?  Rona Jaffe’s1958 novel was an electrifying publishing event – a book by a woman about women trying to make it with explosive stories of sex and illegitimate pregnancy, featuring a spectrum of female experience in the workplace. Its influence is all over the presentation of corporate NYC in Mad Men and its cast represents a showcase for stars new and old in an era just before Women’s Lib. Edith R. Sommer and Mann Rubin’s adaptation fillets the material yet the throughline of forging your way through a chauvinistic office and patriarchal world retains its edge and raw emotion. Crawford supposedly made some script revisions but whether they were retained in the released film (as opposed to the tantalising trailer) is up for debate. She sure gets the lion’s share of tough lines as office witch Amanda Farrow who at heart is just a lonely disappointed older woman albeit with a hell of a list. She is the benchmark for female achievement in a drama about the perils of settling for less and the sacrifices you have to make to succeed. She has a carapace of steel but it can be pierced  … Martha Hyer also impresses as Barbara, the divorced office siren, while Lange is a sympathetic heroine and Brian Aherne is fine as the loathsome Lothario Mr Shalimar. An entertaining romance about whether or not you can have it all which limns the realities of being female – the contemporary detail may be different but the song remains the same. Directed with his customary zest and smooth visual finesse by Jean Negulesco and produced by Jerry Wald.  Author Jaffe – who was a Radcliffe alumnus working at Fawcett Publishing in NYC when the book came out – appears briefly as an office pool stenographer. She graduated to writing extraordinary culture pieces at Cosmopolitan and enjoyed huge success with her subsequent books. I’m so ashamed. Now I’m just somebody who’s had an affair

St Agatha (2018)

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Your name is … Agatha! In October 1957 pregnant con woman Mary (Sabrina Kern) leaves her boyfriend Jimmy (Justin Miles) when a scam goes wrong and takes refuge at an isolated Georgia convent but soon finds out that things are not quite as they seem and has to escape before Mother Superior (Carolyn Hennessy) and her cohorts harm her and her baby … Get your hands off me you bitches! This hopped-up interpretation of what Catholic nuns do to single mothers starts with a claustrophobe’s nightmare – being locked in a coffin: so as someone who baled on my last MRI scan, I was duly entrapped in a story which is a very twisted take on Christian origins. Shot beautifully by Joseph White with gauzy filters lending the convent’s surrounding forest an air of supernature and the entire production an atmosphere which sustains the suspense with the backstory dropped in to illustrate Mary’s family issues. These bewitching scary nuns sure know how to welcome strangers – Mother Superior declares that she too was an unwed mother (the Senator dumped her!) and the scratching sounds in the attics and the bizarre bird-feed vomit in the coffin treatment just confirm Mary’s suspicions that all is not quite right. With its dense flock wallpaper and red lights in the basement this place resembles a brothel. Soon Mary aka Agatha recognises a fellow con in Mother Superior. When Jimmy shows up to try to get Mary back she finds the nuns have guns and they won’t stop short of murder to save the babies to sell them to donors! The books must be balanced and the story takes off. There is quite literally a twist ending when you can take succour from the uses to which you can put a freshly cut umbilical cord:  a logical conclusion to the mediaeval torture that is childbirth. All hail virgin martyrs! Written by Andy Demetrio, Shaun Michaels, Sara Sometti Michaels and Clint Sears.  Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman. You’ve seen what I’m capable of. What kind of mother would I be?

The Arrangement (1969)

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What happened to you, Eddie? Must kill you to think what you might have been. Eddie Anderson born Evangelos Arness (Kirk Douglas) is a Greek-American advertising executive who drives off the LA freeway in the morning traffic and into a tunnel and ducks his head as he goes straight under a truck. He is suicidally unhappy in his work, his marriage to Florence (Deborah Kerr) and his affair with a liberated woman ad exec Gwen (Faye Dunaway) who seems to be involved with someone else. His colleagues led by Arthur (Hume Cronyn) try to figure out how to lure him back to work using a psychiatrist (Harold Gould)  to help him work through his issues while his ageing father Sam (Richard Boone) manipulates him from a distance. However a spell in a mental hospital looms when he shows up with a gunshot wound and refuses to say how it happened … I want you to sell that house. And sell that place in the desert. Sell the cars, the paintings, that Bulgarian statue in the garden. Sell the books, the records, deep freezer, everything! Look, I’m the head of the house, that’s an order: sell it!  An adman in late Sixties Los Angeles letting it all hang out and going off the rails as he comes to terms with his double life and his obscure origins. Sounds familiar? Yes, it reeks of the themes and especially the concluding season of Mad Men, that astonishing TV portrait of midcentury masculinity. It will take some brain power without benefit of prior knowledge to work out that this muddled mor(t)ality tale is the work of Elia Kazan, that unparalleled interpreter of Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and William Inge on both stage and screen.  Not only is he the director, he wrote the (supposedly quasi autobiographical) novel on which it is based so you can’t even blame someone else for confused writing. You may then prefer the electively mute Douglas post-car wreck to the one that actively engages with his alter ego – the sight of Kirk lounging atop an upright piano while his other self blithely tinkles the keys may just make you bust a gut. Michelle Pfeiffer he ain’t. Kerr has a thankless role but ironically comes out of this respectably – a concerned wife finally sick of the arrangement that lets her free loving husband do exactly as he pleases with his mistress. Dunaway smirks her way through the film with funny tinted spectacles so goodness only knows what’s going on there. Maybe she knew she was playing Barbara Loden, Kazan’s second wife, an actress whom she had understudied for the Marilyn Monroe role in Arthur Miller’s After the Fall. Unlike Stanley Donen’s Two for the Road which expertly keeps the sense of mixed up timelines clear with a dramatic and emotional logic, this is a mishmash of cod psychology, family history and Freudian sex soup which does nobody’s reputation any favours but for all that … it’s fascinating, a good story, dreadfully told. The screwing I’m getting is not worth the screwing I’m getting

That Good Night (2017)

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The ultimate deadline. Ageing emigré novelist and screenwriter Ralph (John Hurt) discovers that he is terminally ill. He contacts his estranged illegitimate son Michael (Max Brown) to attempt to reconcile at his Portuguese home but when Michael shows up with his girlfriend Cassie (Erin Lynch) she irritates Ralph and things get off to a rocky start despite the intervention of Ralph’s wife Anna (Sofia Hellin) whom Ralph met when she nursed him following a heart attack years earlier.  He doesn’t want to be a burden to her and thinks a quick death in secret is what’s needed.  He hires a doctor (Charles Dance) to administer a drug that will allow him to die but he wakes and discovers he’s been double crossed but finds he’s enjoying his second chance at life … Your mother deliberately set out to get pregnant. Adapted by Charles Savage from N.J. Crisp’s play this is mildly spiky but underpowered family drama. With the spectral presence of Dance as Doctor Death, it is leavened by the witty and perceptive dialogue – Ralph isn’t trying to be unreasonable but he is in his awkward way determined to make amends. Hurt gives his final lead performance in a sadly appropriate context, growling out those lines with a wicked glint. Beautifully made and performed. Directed by Eric Styles. When you’re old you think you won’t die on time

The L-Shaped Room (1962)

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Everybody tells me how to get rid of it. Nobody tells me how to have it. 27-year old French woman Jane Fosset (Leslie Caron) moves into a seedy Ladbroke Grove boarding house and gets to know the other residents who are a motley crew of waifs and strays.  Toby (Tom Bell) is a lovelorn wannabe author;  Johnny (Brock Peters) is a black jazz musician  who hears everything in her living quarters through a paper-thin dividing wall; Mavis (Cicely Courtneidge) is an old unemployed actress who has hidden her Lesbian tendencies;  Sonia (Patricia Phoenix) is an ageing prostitute who runs her business from her basement room. When Jane starts a relationship with Toby, Johnny tells him she’s pregnant – she’s been in two minds about whether to keep the result of her sexual initiation with an actor from whom she’s split and she realises she loves Toby as she didn’t love the father of this baby and his departure prompts a crisis … As a child I was always in mourning. The novels of Lynne Reid Banks were something of a talisman for me and I would imagine for many other adolescent girls – and this adaptation of her key work does it justice, rooted in the kitchen sink realist style of the era. Bryan Forbes adapts and directs with some startling compositions (courtesy of Douglas Slocombe). Caron is wonderfully touching as the French woman (originally English) impregnated by her first ever lover; and while Bell wasn’t entirely my image of the Jewish writer created by Banks, he is nonetheless impressive. You believe their tentative friendship that blossoms into something else while their dealings with third parties hover at their shoulders. The whole ensemble embody their roles with real feeling. How fascinating to see the legendary Phoenix (Coronation Street‘s Elsie Tanner) while her long-time legendary love Tony Booth has a bit part (‘Youth in the street’). Nanette Newman aka Mrs Forbes plays the new girl in the L-shaped room at the end. There’s a credible jazz score by John Barry as well as some nicely chosen Brahms to enliven a sensitively told story, so very nicely played and staged in a ghastly London run by slum landlords, a few years before certain of its ‘burbs began to swing and before either legal abortion or the Pill were available. If you haven’t read the author, then for goodness’ sake do. She’s great – a proper Angry Young Woman capable of utterly unsentimental sentences about profoundly moving experiences. Don’t fall in love with me. You don’t know me