Mask (1985)

Mask

I look weird but I’m real normal. Azusa, California. It’s 1978. Roy ‘Rocky’ Dennis (Eric Stoltz) is an intelligent, outgoing and humorous teenager who suffers from a disfiguring facial deformity called “lionitis” and has now outlived his life expectancy:  he’s always being told he’s got 6 to 8 months. He’s happy go lucky and indulges his passion for baseball card collecting. His single mother Florence ‘Rusty’ Dennis (Cher) struggles to fight for his acceptance in the mainstream public school system, where he proves himself to be a highly accomplished student at junior high and wins friends by tutoring them. Though Rocky endures ridicule and awkwardness for his appearance, and the classmate he’s sweet on has a boyfriend, he dreams of travelling to Europe with his best friend Ben (Lawrence Monoson). He finds love and respect from his mother’s biker gang family the Turks and particularly likes Gar (Sam Elliott) who eventually reconciles with Rusty and moves in, frequently acting as peacemaker between mother and son. He even experiences his first love when he is persuaded to volunteer at a summer camp for blind kids where he meets Diana (Laura Dern) but then her parents try to keep them separated and Ben lets him down when he says he’s got to move to Chicago ... I want to go to every place I ever read about. Absurdly moving, this wonderfully sympathetic evocation of real-life Rocky Dennis and his mom benefits immensely from being simply told, allowing the characters and the performances to do the heavy lifting. Stoltz has such a tough role but carries it with dignity and aplomb; while Cher is a revelation as the mom whose tough love and wild lifestyle add up to a complex emotional picture. Beautifully written by Anna Hamilton Phelan and sensitively directed by Peter Bogdanovich, this is a life-affirming story of real courage and love. When something bad happens to you you’ve gotta remember the good things that happened to you

 

’71 (2014)

71 poster

Why aren’t you out there looking for him? Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) a new recruit to the British Army is sent to Belfast in 1971 at the beginning of The Troubles. Under the leadership of the inexperienced Second Lieutenant Armitage (Sam Reid) his platoon is deployed to a volatile area where Catholics and Protestants, Nationalists and Loyalists live side by side. The unit provides support for the local police force (the Royal Ulster Constabulary) as it inspects homes for firearms, shocking Hook with their rough treatment of civilians. A crowd gathers to protest and provoke the British troops who, though heavily armed, can only respond by trying to hold the crowd back. Abandoned inadvertently by his military unit, Gary has to survive the riot alone and make his way back to the barracks through unknown territory, taken to a pub that’s a front for Loyalists until a bomb being built in a back room by the Army’s counter-insurgency unit explodes. Local IRA factions don’t know it’s a mistake and blame each other while a Catholic father Eamon (Richard Dormer) and his daughter Brigid (Charlie Murphy) rescue Gary when they find him injured by shrapnel, contacting the Official IRA’s officer Boyle (David Wilmot) for assistance and he is offered up to the Military Reaction Force led by Captain Sandy Browning (Sean Harris) in exchange for murdering IRA leader James Quinn (Killian Scott) … Posh cunts telling thick cunts to kill poor cuntsThat’s the army for you It’s all a lie. A film whose notion of patriot games is ratcheted up a poetic notch by taking its inspiration from the classic Belfast film  Odd Man Out minus its sense of tragic romance (nor is this a symbolic rendering of that troubled locale:  it’s definitely Belfast).  This time the drama of entrapment centres on a wide-eyed British squaddie who is alternately running around the city and hiding wherever he can in a race against time and a contemplation of innocence versus harsh experience. Breathlessly shot and paced, this is the best Northern Irish film since the Carol Reed masterpiece, its genius perhaps deriving in part from the cold eye of strangers in a strange land – Scottish playwright Gregory Burke and French-Algerian director Yann Demange – but also because it cleaves to the rules of the best thrillers as well as loosely recalling the 1970 Falls Curfew, making a complex situation comprehensible by a never-ending series of kinetic events. This is about someone running for his life and he is brilliantly played by O’Connell who quickly learns that there are black ops and bad guys on both sides in this dirty war. Harris is terrifying as the brutally treacherous player Browning. This is no country for young men but there’s an awesome array of them here – Sam Reid, Barry Keoghan, Paul Anderson, Jack Lowden, Martin McCann, among others. It’s a rites of passage movie dialled up to 11 and then some;  politics are almost an afterthought until you remember they’re everything and nobody and nothing is as they appear. Brilliantly controlled and utterly gripping. For God’s sake will you never leaves us alone?

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (2019)

Maleficent 2

This is no fairytale. Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) travels to a grand old castle to celebrate young Aurora Queen of the Moors’ (Elle Fanning) upcoming wedding to Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson). While there, she meets Aurora’s future mother-in-law Queen Ingrith  (Michelle Pfeiffer) a conniving queen who hatches a devious plot to destroy the land’s fairies. Hoping to stop her, Maleficent joins forces with a seasoned warrior , the dark fae Borra (Ed Skrein) and a group of outcasts to battle the queen and her powerful army...  We have opened our home to a witch. The overblown sequel to the relatively charming first film in the series is as far from Disney’s delicate and spare Gothic Sleeping Beauty as it can be conceived. This was clearly dreamt up as a bastard concoction of Game of Thrones and to a lesser extent Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights trilogy. It’s a shame because the story is a decent face-off between rival mothers-in-law and it’s great to see some of the best cheekbones in the business (enhanced or otherwise) tussling with the special effects. At the centre of it is a treatise on motherhood but you might find yourself wondering more about the dragon and the bear and fairy army than some old fairytale tropes. So it goes. Written by Linda Woolverton and Noah Harpster & Micah Fitzerman-Blue. Directed by Joachim Rønning. Curses don’t end – they’re broken

Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead (1991)

Dont Tell Mom the Babysitters Dead

I’ve had a very rough thirty-seven years and I need a break. Sue Ellen Crandell (Christina Applegate) has just graduated high school and her plans to join friends on vacation in Europe are ruined when her divorced mom (Concetta Tomei) decides to take off for two months to Australia leaving an elderly woman Mrs Sturak (Eda Reiss Merin) in charge of Sue Ellen and her twin Kenny (Keith Coogan) a stoner and slacker, 14-year old romantic Zach (Christopher Pettiet), 13-year old tomboy Melissa (Danielle Harris) and 11-year old TV addict Walter (Robert Hy Gorman). However Mrs Sturak dies of shock at the state of Kenny’s bedroom and after disposing of her at the local mortuary they realise she has taken the money for the summer. Sue Ellen draws the short straw and has to find a job. After failing miserably at a fast food place where she hits it off with co-worker Bryan (Josh Charles) she fakes her age and her way into an admin position at General Apparel West where designer boss Rose Lindsey (Joanna Cassidy) thinks she’s found an heir apparent.  While waiting for a paycheque she has to use petty cash to make the grocery bills and conceal her identity from office rival Carolyn (Jayne Brook) because she’s Bryan’s sister. Then the company runs into trouble and Sue Ellen’s unique (and recent) insights into teen fashion might just save the day … Did he just finish reading Dianetics or something? In which a grisly black comedy premise mutates into a tale of an accidental teenage career woman and her stoner brother who turns house husband chef, this is a feast in more ways than one:  the Nineties fashion, the role reversal whereby the kids assume adult roles more convincingly than the grown ups, and there’s a hilarious scene when Kenny chastises Sue Ellen for acting like an ungrateful spouse, home late after he’s spent the day cooking using Julia Child’s TV show to tutor him. Cassidy is outstanding as Sue Ellen’s boss who regresses to a candy-guzzling kid when her job is on the line, and an attractive cast of kids give spirited performances but it’s Applegate all the way. The imaginative use by David Newman of the Psycho score to see off Mrs Sturak is highly amusing. Written by Neil Landau and Tara Ison and directed by Stephen Herek. A relic of its era, in the best possible sense. Babysitters suck

Good Posture (2019)

Good Posture

I’m not much of a reader. Lilian (Grace Van Patten) is a budding filmmaker living in New York City after her father Neil (Norbert Leo Butz) abruptly moved to Paris with his girlfriend. When her boyfriend Nate (Gary Richardson) dumps her for being immature, she moves in with family friends who she last saw when she was a baby. While musician Don (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) is welcoming and friendly his wife Julia (Emily Mortimer), a famous and reclusive British novelist, immediately clashes with lazy Lilian and it appears she bullies her husband. Lilian smokes marijuana with Don which leads to his having a fight with Julia and he promptly leaves the house. Julia sequesters herself in her room and begins communicating with Lilian through messages in Lilian’s private journal.  After running into Nate and his co-worker, filmmaker Laura (Condola Rashad), whom Lilian works out he is seeing, Lilian pretends she is working on a documentary about Julia to make herself look good. Rather than ask Julia for permission, Lilian begins scouting for cameramen and settles on Simon aka ‘Sol’ (John Early) and uses her father’s connections to contact famous writers and interview them about Julia.She finds out from Jonathan Ames that her father is back in New York and his girlfriend is pregnant. She also realises that Julia is using her as possible writing inspiration and has used her as inspiration before, when she was a child. Then Julia finds out about Lilian’s documentary when Lilian is late to meet Sol, and he enthusiastically tells Julia everything. Julia cuts off all communication with Lilian. Depressed, Lilian makes a move on Julia’s reclusive dog walker George (Timm Sharp) who rebuffs her. Then she reconciles with her father and meets his girlfriend Celeste (Emmanuelle Martin, the film’s costume designer) and they don’t even tell her what she already knows about their future plans … Tell Miss Havisham I’m on it. It’s difficult to tell what age our heroine Lillian might be even though when we meet her she is clearly (formerly) involved with an adult male but she wears pigtails, is parented by phone from Paris and also does drugs. She’s tricksy, unlikable and a bit ungrateful. Likewise her authoress host is prickly as a porcupine, sour and not exactly pleased to see her. A bit like real life then. A writer who doesn’t write, a musician husband who hasn’t made a record lately, a house guest of indeterminate duration who doesn’t read yet wants to make documentaries but admits that she has ‘never sat through one’ and fixes on making one about the woman she refers to as Miss Havisham whose books she doesn’t know. Yet we find out Lilian’s mother abandoned her (she died) and Julia lost a baby. It’s a film about people in the mass media who don’t know how to communicate with each other. Information is passed like contraband behind people’s backs. Julia writes in Lilian’s diary and uses it for a new novel. We find out about the story from the songs composed for the soundtrack by Heather Christian. It’s also about how the children of well known people coast through life using their parents’ contacts and money. It’s about how bereavement plays out for years and years.  It’s about how people can’t see what’s staring them in the face. It’s about the millennial generation’s sense of entitlement.  It’s replete with contradictions and human comedy and the film within a film boasts cameos from novelists Zadie Smith and Jonathan Ames who play along gamely with the witty script but leave it to Martin Amis (who is gleefully credited as ‘Self’) to deliver the zinger that is both dramatic and comically relevant: It’s not an intellectual stimulus, being happy. On the contrary. The performances are perfect. Mortimer is an underrated actress. She looks so harmless but one remark can hit right below the belt and power several scenes ahead when she’s nowhere to be seen. She has one employee solely to care for her dog whom he walks and cooks for yet she bullies her own husband out of the family home. Van Patten has a tough role and plays it excellently – spiky, spiteful, irritating and manipulative, eventually developing a degree of self-awareness. The epistolary nature of her relationship with Mortimer reminds us of nineteenth century literature. Low-key, writerly, amusing and ironic with an unpredictably clever romcom happy ending plot-engineered by master puppeteer Mortimer: I would expect no less from writer/director Dolly Wells, Mortimer’s co-star in the cherishable TV series Doll & Em, similarly set in Brooklyn.  Let’s keep it happy

Great Expectations (1946)

Great Expectations 1946

Pip – a young gentleman of great expectations! Orphaned Philip ‘Pip’ Pirrip (Anthony Wager) lives with his older sister and her blacksmith husband Joe (Bernard Miles). He encounters runaway convict Magwitch (Finlay Currie) on the marshes and assists him with food and helps him cut himself free. However Magwitch is recaptured when he has a fight with a fellow escapee. An eccentric elderly spinster Miss Havisham (Martita Hunt) wants company for herself and her teenage ward Estella (Jean Simmons) a cruel but beautiful teenager who mocks Pip but with whom he falls in love from afar. Pip is apprenticed to a blacksmith when he turns 14 and Estella goes to France to become a lady. Years later Pip (John Mills) is visited by Miss Havisham’s lawyer Jaggers (Francis L. Sullivan) and he is to be the beneficiary of a mysterious benefactor to become a gentleman of great expectations in London where he befriends Herbert Pocket (Alec Guinness) who tells him that Miss Havisham’s life is dedicated to revenge against men because she was jilted at the altar and Estella was brought up likewise. They are reunited when Pip is 21 and he visits Miss Havisham after getting his living stipend of £500 a year and he finds that Estella (Valerie Hobson) is engaged to a man she doesn’t love. Pip is visited by Magwitch who reveals he was his benefactor and that Miss Havisham was using him. He confronts her and she realises the great harm she has done and as Pip is leaving a terrible accident occurs. Magwitch should not be on the territory and is commiting a felony and Pip undertakes to help him escape England … I want to be a gentleman on her account. Director David Lean recalled a perfectly condensed theatre adaptation of the Dickens novel and wrote the screenplay with producer Anthony Havelock-Allan, Cecil McGivern, Ronald Neame and Kay Walsh. From its magnificent opening sequence on the marshes (shot by Robert Krasker) and the atmosphere conjured by the decaying mansion housing Miss Havisham, this is a film of such dazzling detail and character, brilliant playing and staging and flawless pacing, as to merit the description perfect. Lean came of age as a director and the cinematography by Guy Green and the soaring score by Walter Goehr pick out, express and complement the heart of the drama. It never dodges the little social critiques (Mills’ reaction to the public hangings) or the touches of humour (Pip popping Pocket in the jaw; his silly fashionable get up) nor the ideas of snobbery, stupidity, guilt or social injustice that characterise the text of the novel. The final scene, when Pip returns and throws light upon Estella is heartbreaking and delightful. A simply bewitching masterpiece. What larks!

England Is Mine (2017)

England Is Mine

Do you ever wake up and think, I wonder if I could have been a poet. Shy and sullen Steven Patrick Morrissey (Jack Lowden) is the unemployed and depressive son of Irish immigrants growing up in 1976 Manchester. Withdrawn and something of a loner, he goes out to rock gigs at night and then submits letters and reviews to music newspapers as well as keeping a diary. His father (Peter MacDonald) wants him to get a job, his mother (Simone Kirby) wants him to follow his passion for writing, and Steven doesn’t quite know what he wants to do. His friend, artist Linder Sterling (Jessica Brown Findlay) a nascent feminist, inspires him to continue to write lyrics and urges him to start to perform, but she eventually moves to London. Forced to earn a living and fit in with society his income from office work permits his gig-going but Steven’s frustrations and setbacks continue to mount. Although he eventually writes some songs with guitarist Billy Duffy (Adam Lawrence) for the band The Nosebleeds until Duffy breaks it off, and he tries his hand at singing and enjoys it, nothing substantially changes in his life, and Steven seems at the end of his rope until another teenage fanboy who can play guitar Johnny Marr (Laurie Kynaston) shows up on his doorstep in 1982… The past is everything I have failed to be.  A biography of The Smiths’ singer-songwriter and solo artist Morrissey before he became famous, this is hampered by the lack of The Smiths music (because the makers didn’t own the rights) but nonetheless forms another part of the puzzle that is is the man. In many respects it hymns the kitchen sink realist films that he himself paid homage in so many songs, colouring in his Irish background in the northern city of Manchester but pointedly avoiding his later songwriting and sexuality and stopping at the moment he meets Marr, the guitarist, which is where most of his fans come in. Instead it’s a portrait of a bedroom loner, a fan who fantasises about being famous and in that sense paints a fascinating picture Billy Liar-style of someone who manages to rise above their miserable circumstances and then (after the film) in protean style fashions fame from their influences and obsessions despite the apparent lack of propulsion in his life. In that sense, it’s a portrait of celebrity and how it can inspire people to escape their humdrum lives and find their own voice. The songs on the soundtrack from New York Dolls and Mott the Hoople to Sparks and Magazine are as much a part of the narrative as the arch teenage diary entries which echo the later mordantly amusing lyrics and the performance by The Nosebleeds is the most thrilling sequence in the film. Anyone who ever lived in Manchester will recognise the dreadful rainy place Morrissey wrote has so much to answer for. Director Mark Gill who co-wrote the screenplay with William Thacker gets into the head of one of the most singular talents ever produced on the British music scene and perhaps the best ever Irish band on the planet, The Smiths, the only band that mattered in the Eighties. He’s played quite charmingly by Lowden who livens up a drama that may cleave much too closely to the exhausting reality as lived in Northern England at the time. Today is Morrissey’s sixty-first birthday. Many happy returns! If there was ever a revolution in England, we’d form an orderly queue at the guillotine

Ray & Liz (2018)

Ray and Liz

They can do anything nowadays. In England’s Black Country in the Thatcher era, Ray (Justin Salinger) and Liz (Ella Smith) raise their two sons Richard (Jacob Tuton/Sam Jacobs) and his younger brother Jason (Callum Slater/Joshua Millard-Lyon) on the margins of society in a Dudley council flat… A horrifying and virtually unwatchable portrait of the underclass with gruelling depictions of heavy drinking, parental neglect and familial dysfunction on a fathomless scale, told over a period of eight years as Richard becomes a teenager.  It’s framed within a flashback when Ray (Patrick Romer) is now an alcoholic separated from Liz (Deirdre Kelly) and neighbour Sid (Richard Ashton) is vying for his welfare benefits by keeping him drunk. Made by photographer and artist Richard Billingham about his impoverished upbringing and developed from a short film, this unsentimental fragmentary narrative is not without the odd millisecond of humour – perhaps when Jason runs away and meets his mother the following day wheeling a rabbit in a pram in a local park we are in the realm of Lewis Carroll. Her maintenance of a menagerie in their squalid surroundings is given a correlative in a visit to a zoo. Spot the difference between that and council accommodation. Then the social workers intervene, as you might expect but only Jason gets to go to a foster family: Richard is told he is almost old enough to leave and his coping mechanism to record and photograph his family throughout his childhood is the key to his freedom. It’s his recording that proved the nasty lodger Will (Sam Gittins) forced drink down the throat of retarded Uncle Lol (Tony Way) but tattooed drinker and smoker Liz destroys the evidence after she’s inflicted mindless violence. And returns to her jigsaw puzzles. Stylistically it’s slow, disconnected, anti-dramatic for the most part and pitiless and may remind you of Terence Davies’ work but other than feeling gutted for feral children born into such gob smacking fecklessness, when you look away from a work that refuses all possibility of empathy you’ll wind up thinking perhaps eugenics isn’t such a rotten idea after all – because bad people do bad things to the children they should never be permitted to have. Perhaps not the appropriate reaction. Kitchen sink realism for a new era, it’s a staggering if emotionless indictment of the kind of Britain that still exists for millions of people. This is what happens when you enact official policies of social isolation, austerity and poverty. It really is Grim Up North. Brutal.

About a Boy (2002)

About a Boy

I’ll tell you one thing. Men are bastards.  Will Freeman (Hugh Grant) is a wealthy child-free and hedonistic thirtysomething London bachelor who, in search of available women, invents an imaginary son and starts attending single parent meetings claiming he’s been left with a two year-old son. As a result of his attraction to Suzie (Victoria Smurfit), he meets Marcus (Nicholas Hoult) a solemn twelve-year-old boy with problems at school and a suicidal hippie mother Fiona (Toni Collette). Gradually, Will and Marcus become friends and Marcus pretends to be his son so Will can pursue a relationship with single mother Rachel (Rachel Weisz).  As Will teaches Marcus how to fit in, Marcus helps Will to finally be a man ... Two people aren’t enough. You need backup. Adapted from Nick Hornby’s novel by Peter Hedges and co-directors Chris and Paul Weitz, this has all the elements of a mawkish soap but the performances and humour raise it to another level. Grant’s always been a great cad but here he also learns lessons – he already knows he doesn’t want to be a conventional husband or have responsibility but through friendship with this odd kid he learns how to be authentically emotional and to be a good guy. The fact that he’s hanging out with a twelve-year old boy leads Fiona to confront him in a restaurant where everyone immediately assumes he’s a pederast in one of the best scenes in the film. Hoult is properly strange looking (the wonder is that Will takes him shoe shopping rather than for a haircut) but the point is that both of them are outcasts in their own way and need to grow up by facing their fears – which brings the film to its penultimate scene at a school concert which presents the potential for lifelong humiliation. The songs are intrinsic to the storytelling as is customary with Hornby’s work and it’s a mosaic of cool and cringe, including the horrible Christmas song composed by Will’s father which afforded him his louche lifestyle in the first place. A film of exceptional charm. As I sat there I had a strange feeling. I was enjoying myself

Father of the Bride (1991)

Father of the Bride 1991

From that moment on I decided to shut my mouth and go with the flow. Los Angeles-based shoe factory proprietor George Banks (Steve Martin) leads the perfect life with his wife Nina (Diane Keaton), beloved twentysomething student architect daughter Annie (Kimberly Williams) and little son Mattie (Kieran Culkin). However, when Annie returns from her semester in Rome with Bryan Mackenzie (George Newbern) her new fiancé in tow, he has a hard time letting go of her. George makes a show of himself when he and Nina meet Bryan’s parents at their palatial Hollywood home; then Nina and Annie plan a grand celebration with bizarre wedding planner Franck Eggelhoffer (Martin Short) and the costs escalate wildly to the point where George believes the entire scheme is a conspiracy against him … It’s very nice. We’ll change it all though. Let’s go! This remake and update of the gold-plated classical Hollywood family comedy is much modernised by husband and wife writer/director Charles Shyer and screenwriter Nancy Meyers but retains a good heart. Carried by a marvellous cast with Martin superb in a difficult role – sentimental and farcical in equal measure as he confronts a crisis triggered by the loss of his darling little girl to another man!  – his voiceover narration is perfectly pitched between loss, self-pitying acceptance and mockery. It’s interesting to see Meyers lookalike Keaton back in the camp after Baby Boom (and not for the last time).  The early Nineties era of comedy is well represented with Short side-splitting as the insufferable but indispensable wedding planner with his impenetrable strangulated locutions; and Eugene Levy has a nice bit auditioning as a wedding singer. The ironies abound including the car parking issue forcing George to miss the whole thing; and the first snowfall in Los Angeles in 36 years that means the absurd swans have to be kept warm in a bathtub (if nothing else, a brilliant visual moment). The updating includes giving Annie a career and given the dramatic significance of homes in Meyers’ work it’s apt that she is (albeit briefly) an architect – a homemaker of a different variety. George and Nina’s marriage is a great relationship model without being sickening – a tribute to the spot-on performing by the leads in a scenario that has more than one outright slapstick sequence – meeting the future in-laws at their outrageous mansion is a highlight. Adapted by Meyers & Shyer from the original screenplay written by another husband and wife team, Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, which was adapted from Edward Streeter’s novel. The eagle-eyed will spot the filmmakers’ children Hallie and Annie as Williams’ flower girls. Hallie has of course continued in the business and is a now a writer/director herself. Hugely successful, this was followed four years later by an amusing sequel. For more on this you can read my book about Nancy Meyers:  https://www.amazon.co.uk/Pathways-Desire-Emotional-Architecture-Meyers-ebook/dp/B01BYFC4QW/ref=sr_1_1? dchild=1&keywords=elaine+lennon+pathways+of+desire&qid=1588162542&s=books&sr=1-1. Directed by Charles Shyer. That’s when it hit me like a Mack Truck. Annie was like me and Brian was like Nina. They were a perfect match