Sparrows Can’t Sing (1963)

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

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The Lost City of Z (2016)

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You’re a long way from Government now. At the dawn of the 20th century, British explorer Colonel Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) is encouraged by his superiors to redeem his family name following his father’s dissolute actions, ruining the Fawcett reputation.  Although married to the supportive Nina (Sienna Miller) with a young son and one on the way, he journeys across the Atlantic to South America to carry out a survey of the Amazon in order to help adjudicate borders and to establish national territories.  On board the ship he encounters Corporal Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson)  a man who knows the rainforest. He joins the party which includes aide-de-camp Arthur Manley (Edward Ashley) and they go into the Amazon, where they experience the surreal pleasures of an opera in the middle of the jungle and discover evidence of a previously unknown, advanced civilisation that may have once inhabited the region, triggered by stories told them by their guide. Despite being ridiculed by the scientific establishment back in London when he reports his findings, which contradicts their bias against indigenous populations as savages, the determined Fawcett, supported by his devoted wife, son, Costin and Manley, returns to his beloved jungle in an attempt to prove his case. After another set of discoveries he is challenged by biologist James Murray (Angus MacFadyen) who falsely claims they left him for dead so Fawcett leaves the Royal Geographical Society. He is injured on the Somme when he fights in WW1 but in 1925 when his son Jack (Tom Holland) grows up he wants to help his father pursue his obsession and find the City of Z that Nina found out about in a conquistador text at Trinity College Dublin... To look for what is beautiful is its own reward. A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for? It comes off a little like Fawcett of Amazonia at first but then this James Gray film establishes its own insistent rhythm with a hallucinatory bent that comes first from obsession and then with repetition. Indeed one is forced into a world recognisably that of David Lean but also Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (quite literally, at the opera) and perhaps Conrad. However the difference is in the doggedness and the feminine element – here Nina plays a crucial part in Percy’s evolving obsession when the document she finds fuels the fire in his belly and ironically leads to increased separation. Adapted from David Grann’s 2009 non-fiction book, this has some of the usual flaws besetting Gray’s films – a kind of muted incompleteness or psychological lack and a physical darkness – but the facts of the story, the deadly nature of the pursuit and the fascinating history compensate and it has a decent pace. Hunnam grows into the role as the story progresses, caring about slavery and native peoples and expressing proper awe at the sight of sculptures and ancient artefacts; and Miller is fine as the proto-feminist who reads from the letter she wrote when she thought she wouldn’t survive childbirth:  as she tells her husband, “You haven’t even seen it for two minutes,” when he protests the jungle is no place for a woman and takes off yet again leaving her pregnant. It’s an admirable corrective to the standard male-oriented expedition narratives, with an amazing coda. In the end, this is actually spellbinding. There is great irony deployed: Fawcett meets Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Ireland and years later in South America he sees the story about his assassination and is told it will trigger a great war:  his escape across the Atlantic was precisely to avoid conflict and now he is going to be catapulted back into something quite dreadful.  He has a wonderful wife and happy domestic life yet he is truly at home in an utterly alien environment where the natives happily shoot poison arrows. He goes back, again and again, despite ridicule and disputes. He has a higher aim and it becomes something verging on mystical. The cinematography by Darius Khondji and score by Christopher Spelman are quite wondrous at times. Executive produced by Brad Pitt. There is no going back. We are already here

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018)

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Do these animals deserve the same protection given to other species? Or should they just be left to die?  Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) and Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) rescue the remaining dinosaurs on Isla Nublar off Costa Rica following the volcanic eruption that is about to destroy the Jurassic World theme park.  They and their vet pals smuggle themselves into the transport led by mercenary Ken Wheatley  (Ted Levine) bringing everything to the Lockwood mansion where Hammond’s successor Lockwood (James Cromwell) is dying and unaware of the unfolding plot (lucky him). His granddaughter Maisie (Isabella Sermon) overhears company exec Eli Mills (Rafe Spall) with mad scientist Henry Wu ( BD Wong) and their plan to auction the dinosaurs. While Owen tracks down Blue, his lead raptor, they encounter terrifying new breeds of gigantic dinosaurs and uncover a conspiracy that threatens to disrupt the ecology of the entire planet… Do you remember the first time you saw a dinosaur? First time you see them, it’s like… a miracle. You read about them in books, you see the bones in museums but you don’t really… believe it. They’re like myths. And then you see… the first one aliveDerek Connolly & Colin Trevorrow return as the screenwriters working from Michael Crichton’s original characters and this is the fifth Jurassic film and the second in the proposed Jurassic World trilogy which seems to be about a kind of co-species Future Shock. Howard has lost the high heels. There’s an underwritten thread about the need for a mother and the dangers of cloning. Most of it takes place in the expanding Lockwood mansion which renders it Night of the Museum-ish. The bad guys get … eaten, quite frankly. And there’s an ending out of E.T. Thankfully Jeff Goldblum returns in a cameo as the chaos theorist, appearing before a Senate Committee. There are thrills and spills in the beginning but it’s a tale of sound and fury signifying a whole lot of nothing, bar a few nice images that Spielberg spawned 25 years ago, if you ask me. Yawn. Directed by J.A. Bayona.  How many times do you have to see the evidence? How many times must the point be made? We’re causing our own extinction.  One can but hope.

That Hamilton Woman (1941)

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Aka Lady Hamilton/The Enchantress.  They told us of your victories but not of the price you paid!  When small-town courtesan Emma Hart (Vivien Leigh) finds herself married off by her indebted uncle to British Ambassador to Naples, elderly widower Sir William Hamilton (Alan Mowbray), her world is turned upside down. Just as Emma is finally settling into her new life as Lady Hamilton, she meets British naval hero Horatio Nelson (Laurence Olivier) who vociferously opposes Napoleon’s growing empire and the two fall madly in love. However, their forbidden romance is soon threatened by the ever-growing shadow of the Napoleonic Wars... What a century it’s been: Marlborough rode to war, and Washington crossed the Delaware. Louis XVI, and Marie Antoinette. The last of the Stuarts. Peter the Great. Voltaire. Clive of India. Bonaparte. The framing story of this famous propaganda work created by producer/directorAlexander Korda is that of Emma Hamilton ensconced in debtor’s prison in France, regaling her incredulous fellow prisoners with her incredible life story and her grand romance. That this involved once notorious real-life lovers, then married couple, Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier (reunited by Korda from Fire Over England), must have been catnip to audiences. Indeed the film’s tagline boasted,  The Year’s Most Exciting Team of Screen Lovers! Its role in attracting the US into a total war nobody wanted is debatable. In fact Korda was accused of espionage, a charge he only escaped because his hearing coincided with Pearl Harbour:  special relationship?! There are always men, who for the sake of their insane ambition, want to destroy what other people build. The screenplay by Walter Reisch and R.C. Sheriff (with two of Nelson’s speeches contributed by Winston Churchill) condenses a lot of historical material and Olivier is perhaps a bit too slow but this is compensated for with the range of emotions Leigh explores to charismatic effect. Shot in the US, it looks gorgeous courtesy of Rudolph Maté’s intricate cinematography and the sumptuous design by Vincent Korda and Lyle Wheeler, with beautiful costuming by René Hubert,  while the romantic score is composed by Miklós Rózsa. There is no ‘then’. There is no ‘after’

Tiger Bay (1959)

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 I didn’t want to shoot anyone.  Twelve-year old tomboy and compulsive liar Gillie (Hayley Mills) witnesses the murder of a woman Anya (Yvonne Mitchell) by her Polish merchant seaman boyfriend Bronislav Korchinsky (Horst Buchholz) when he finds her cheating on him with a married man (Anthony Dawson). She bonds with him and thwarts the police led by Superintendent Graham (John Mills) as they investigate … I wouldn’t have you for a friend, Gillie. The film that earned Hayley Mills her stripes! And alongside her father, whom she effortlessly outacts by virtue of her astonishing screen presence. Adapted by John Hawkesworth & the novelist Shelley Smith from the short story Rodolphe et le Revolver by Noël Calef. With familiar faces like Megs Jenkins, Mitchell and Dawson, this is a confident and evocative thriller focusing on friendship and lies, expertly handled by director J. Lee Thompson. Its realistic approach to locations and its noir-ish inclinations make it a fascinating pointer to future British filmmaking styles. Particularly striking as a story if you’re a child:  Buchholz is so beautiful and Mills so relatable you simply don’t want any of it to be true. Where ever I am, you’re still my friend

Stan & Ollie (2018)

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I will miss us when we’re gone. Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver ‘Babe’ Hardy (John C. Reilly) – the world’s greatest comedy team – split in 1937 over contract issues with Hal Roach (Danny Huston) who has made a fortune from them. Years later they are trying to put their differences aside to face an uncertain future as their golden era of Hollywood films remain long behind them. The duo set out to reconnect with their adoring fans and rekindle their career by touring variety halls in Britain and Ireland in 1953 sponsored by the impresario Bernard Delfont (Rufus Jones). The shows only become a hit following a terrible start in dingy halls in the north of England when they agree to do some demeaning public appearances and then things take off and they stay at London’s Savoy Hotel.  However they can’t quite shake the past as long-buried tension and Hardy’s failing health start to threaten their precious partnership.  Then their wives arrive and the truth about an anticipated Robin Hood film project emergesTwo double acts for the price of one.  No double act can surpass the pair here (except maybe their wives, played by Shirley Henderson as Lucille Hardy and Nina Arianda as Ida Laurel) but this is no nostalgic tribute – there’s plenty of salt and a lot of vinegar in this story of how the ageing duo try to forget about why they had an acrimonious split leading to a difficult period offscreen. Stan is forever writing and doing ‘bits’ and Oliver just wants to earn some money and be nice to people. It’s a genuinely touching movie, unafraid to dissect the friendship and cleverly (and very humorously) interweaving familiar film sketches into the day-to-day experiences – their arrival at a terrible hotel in the middle of nowhere is masterful. Both Coogan and Reilly give uncanny performances, filled with humanity and authenticity. And the wives are pretty good too – not to be messed with and having some decent scenes of their own with some ripe exchanges.  There are really three marriages being examined here. The recreation of their arrival in Ireland to a rousing welcome with the church bells of Cork ringing out Dance of the Cuckoos is sure to put a lump in your throat:  they told film critic Derek Malcolm (all of 14 at the time) that it brought tears to their eyes. Adapted by Jeff Pope from A.J. Marriot’s book Laurel and Hardy – The British Tours and directed by Jon S. Baird. I love us./You love Laurel and Hardy

Anne of the Indies (1951)

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Have no fear – you’re under my protection! After Captain Anne Providence (Jean Peters), notorious female pirate captain of the Caribbean, picks up Pierre (Louis Jourdan), he claims he can find a treasure map in Jamaica. Some of her associates think he’s a traitor, but Anne has fallen in love with him. When she sails the Sheba Queen to Jamaica, Pierre goes inland to locate the map but secretly meets with British Navy officers, who have forced him to spy on the infamous Edward Teach better known as Blackbeard (Thomas Gomez ) and Anne.  He is really Captain LaRochelle, a former pirate captain.  When Anne finds out she swears revenge by kidnapping Pierre’s wife  Molly (Debra Paget) and planning to sell her into slavery ...  Blackbeard never forgets an insult. It’s not the best looking pirate film as the colour’s a little clogged and the darkness overwhelms the costuming and tone but it’s a fast-moving, lively affair, with plenty of opportunity for scenery-chewing.  On that front, Gomez takes the cake with Herbert Marshall running a close second as Dr Jameson. There are good sea battles and even a bit of bear wrestling. You’ll fetch one hundred English pounds, at least 99 more than you’re worth! The female rivalry is something to behold, redeemed by a great sacrifice at the fiery conclusion. Fun stuff that could have been a lot longer, given the real-life antecedents. Written by Philip Dunne, Arthur Caesar and Cyril Hume from a story by Herbert Ravenel Sass. Directed by Jacques Tourneur. No man sails with me who no longer respects me

 

Jamaica Inn (1939)

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Bah, stop crying! Stop it, you little fool! Be beautiful! Oh, ply those tears if you like, but you must be beautiful. Well, you have to be hard now. The Age of Chivalry is gone! England in 1819, the reign of George IV.  After the death of her mother, young orphan Mary Yellen (Maureen O’Hara) travels from Ireland to the Cornish coast to live with her Aunt Patience (Marie Ney). Stranded on a windswept, isolated road, Mary meets the bumptious Humphrey Pengallan (Charles Laughton), who escorts her to Jamaica Inn. There, Mary meets her aunt and bullying uncle, Merlyn Joss (Leslie Banks) – who secretly leads a band of pirates that pilfers the goods from wrecked ships. Suspicious, Mary turns to Pengallan for help, only to discover another dark secret… Why not a toast to beauty, Sir Humphrey?  Written by Alma Reville, Sidney Gilliat, Joan Harrison and J.B. Priestley, this adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s novel about wreckers still has some of that book’s atmospherics despite too much staginess and the overt theatricality of Laughton’s performance. O’Hara is luminous in her first major role and along with the gripping opening wrecking scene, it’s her scenes with Jem Trehearne (Robert Newton) that give this its tinge of excitement.  It’s disappointing in many production respects and Du Maurier reportedly wasn’t happy with the result.  It’s not really a Hitchcock picture – even he realised that, since it was produced by Laughton’s company – but it still has some touches of gallows humour and bright moments of dark humanity. That’s women for you – save your life one minute, frightened of you the next. I guess I’m not a very pretty sight at the moment, but I don’t bite, you know

Fire Over England (1937)

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Forgive him, Excellency. His father’s ashes blow in his eyes and he cannot see. Queen Elizabeth I (Flora Robson) is dealing with her country’s deteriorating relationship with Spain. Michael Ingolby (Laurence Olivier), a naval officer whose father was killed fighting the Spanish, volunteers to go undercover in the Spanish court when Hilary Vane (James Mason) is killed while spying but before the names of the conspirators are revealed.  He learns plans are afoot to send an armada to ambush the British navy. Meanwhile, the aging Elizabeth, who has fallen for the dashing Ingolby, struggles with his fixation on one of her beautiful ladies-in-waiting Cynthia (Vivien Leigh). In Spain things get complicated when Ingolby tells Elena (Tamara Desni) of his real identity and she tells her husband palace governor Don Pedro (Robert Newton)… In the Old, power. In the New, gold. The first time that Leigh was paired with Olivier in a vehicle tailored for her by Alexander Korda, this wonderful production is unfortunately shot in monochrome – a shame because the colour production stills of this gorgeous pair in each other’s arms are just swoonsome. Adapted from A.E.W. Mason’s novel by Clemence Dane and Sergei Nolbandov, this has a deal of wit, particularly a wonderful dinnertime disquisition on prudence by Ingolgy. Robson is superb as Queen Bess and Raymond Massey is excellent as Philip II. It’s effectively shot by James Wong Howe and scored by Richard Addinsell but languishes in comparison with the following year’s Technicolor Hollywood production The Adventures of Robin Hood. Directed by William K. Howard. Everybody should come to me first

Miss Congeniality 2: Armed & Fabulous (2005)

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I just don’t want to become FBI Barbie again. Gracie Hart (Sandra Bullock) is Amiable Agent according to the newspapers following her success at the Miss United States pageant but it fouls up her success in the middle of a bank heist. When her romance with a fellow agent ends she spends ten months being made over as the face of the FBI enduring book signings and teamed with bodyguard Sam Fuller (Regina King) who is far from impressed with her celebrity. The pair has to put aside their differences when one of Gracie’s former beauty queen pals, Cheryl Frasier (Heather Burns) is kidnapped with pageant MC Stan Fields (William Shatner) and the FBI is put on the case but Gracie decides this is one for her on her own.  Fuller has other ideas … The face of the FBI uses her words or her fists. Not a chair. And no snorting. Bullock returns a few weeks after becoming runner-up to Miss United States and she’s her old self, just dying to hit somebody except her fame is foiling her effectiveness on the job. Beauty queen rivalry is replaced with her violent new colleague Fuller, which sucks up the energy she used on her departed boyfriend now stationed in Miami. There are fun moments and a nice chase with a supposed Dolly Parton impersonator (with a nice cameo by you know who). Not as charming as its predecessor with more PC marks hit (gay, black, drag, kid, etc) but mildly entertaining. Bullock’s charm carries most of it and there are some good exchanges when she uses pageant clichés in highly inappropriate scenarios. King is good as the tough lady who beats up on anyone – even Regis Philbin and old people looking for Gracie’s autograph –  and it’s nice to see Treat Williams as the Vegas bureau chief and Eileen Brennan as Shatner’s mom but even in a comedy Enrique Marciano’s dimwit agent beggars belief. Great advertising for Vegas though! Written and produced by Marc Lawrence (based on characters by him, Caryn Lucas and Katie Ford) and directed by John Pasquin.  It’s been months since I had a good debriefing although I’m really more of a boxers man