East of Eden (1955)

East of Eden

The way he looks at you. Sorta like an animal. In 1917 Salinas Cal (James Dean) and Aaron (Richard Davalos) Trask are the sons of decent farmer Adam (Raymond Massey) who is chairman of the local wartime draft board. Both compete for his attention but Cal has discovered that the mother Kate (Jo Van Fleet) they were told was long dead is in fact the madam of a whorehouse in Monterey, 15 miles away. He borrows money from her to profit from a rise in the bean farming market intending to repay his father for his failed experiment in freezing food for long-haul shipping.  But his father prefers Aaron’s announcement of his engagement to Abra (Julie Harris) whom Cal starts to desire just as Aaron feels pressure to enlist and Cal decides to surprise him … I’ve been jealous all my life. Jealous, I couldn’t even stand it. Tonight, I even tried to buy your love, but now I don’t want it anymore… I can’t use it anymore. I don’t want any kind of love anymore. It doesn’t pay off. Was there ever a more important or sinuous entrance in the history of cinema than James Dean’s arrival here? The way he moves, coiled like a caged animal set to pounce, slinking along like a cat, then hunched and feral, infiltrating our consciousness and catalysing our puzzlement and desire? I first saw this aged 12 and that’s the perfect age to watch it for the first time, this story of bad parenting, bullying, abandonment, sibling rivalry, envy and first love, all choreographed to the backdrop of the outbreak of WW1 in a masterful adaptation (by Paul Osborn) of the last section of John Steinbeck’s great 1952 novel. Everything about it is right:  the shooting style laying out the gorgeous landscape of Salinas, alternately warm and sunny, chill and foggy; the wide screen that’s barely able to contain the raw emotionality; the marvellous, occasionally strident score by Leonard Rosenman with its soaring, sonorous swoops. And there’s the cast. Jo Van Fleet gives a great performance (in her screen debut) as the wild whoremongering mother  – just look at her strut when we first see her (this is a film of brilliant entrances), providing the angular example of difference to this half-grown boy of hers; Massey is upstanding, a self-righteous, arrogant man, given to sermonising, incapable of leading by empathy; Harris is generous to a fault, allowing Dean to be everything, all at once, boy, man, lover. He burns up the screen with playfulness, confusion and rage. His scenes with Davalos, the Abel to his Cain, bespeak a softness and eroticism rarely equalled and play into the latterday perceptions of his orientation – or perhaps director Elia Kazan just understood how he needed to be in the part, getting into your head by whatever means necessary. Kazan recalled the audience reaction to Dean at the first screening and said that kids were screaming and yelling and practically falling over the balcony to get closer to him, they went wild. That’s how he makes you feel, James Dean. You want to get closer to him. You want to be him. This is really where that sensation began:  of feelings being teased, opened up, acknowledged. Once seen, never forgotten. You’re a likeable kid

The Cure for the Coronavirus Lockdown, Part 1

The whole world appears to be wearing surgical masks and latex gloves. Finding toilet rolls and cleaning products on supermarket shelves is now as rare as locating a unicorn.  Your favourite foods are at a premium so your Lenten sacrifices just got even tougher. Or easier, actually.  You’ve stocked up on canned goods and all the pasta you can stuff in a string bag. But you don’t want to eat them. And restaurants and bars are closed! And The Who gig is off! And all the cinemas are shut!  And it’s only your bloody birthday! There’s only one solution for this wartime stay home edict … Escape!

My Brother Jonathan (1948)

My Brother Jonathan

There’s something I should have told you a long time ago. GP Jonathan Dakers (Michael Denison) welcomes home his son Tony (Pete Murray) from WW2 and when Tony reveals he’s seen too much and is quitting medicine, Jonathan tells him the story of his real background … Early 1900s. Jonathan is the older son of shady businessman Eugene (James Robertson Justice) and brother of Harold (Ronald Howard) and falls in love at a young age with Edie (Beatrice Campbell) daughter of landed gentry but she only ever had eyes for Harold. Jonathan trains as a doctor. When the mysterious Eugene dies his real job is revealed – corset salesman. His wife (Mary Clare) is none the wiser and believes he had social significance. However he’s spent their inheritance and Jonathan undertakes to save the family home and put Harold through his final year at Cambridge, sacrificing his own potential career as a surgeon. He works in the West Midlands in the general practice of Dr John Hammond (Finlay Currie) whose daughter Rachel (Dulcie Gray) is the practice nurse and she falls in love with Jonathan but he still has eyes for Edie.  The practice clientele are working class and he has to deal with the consequences of the regular accidents at the local foundry leading him to write a critical report which is conveniently lost. He is constantly criticised and when he saves a local child from diphteria in the hospital he has to face down the owner’s son-in-law and his medical rival Dr Craig (Stephen Murray) on charges of misconduct. Edie returns from Paris and intends wedding Harold, to Jonathan’s chagrin, but WW1 is declared and Harold is killed in action, leaving Edie pregnant and in a serious dilemma because she knows her parents will disown her … It must be nice to know what you want out of life. Adapted from Francis Brett Young’s novel by Adrian Alington and Leslie Landau, this was hugely popular at the British box office and unites real-life husband and wife Denison and Gray in one of their best films. It has all the ingredients of a melodrama but is supremely well-managed, beautifully shot and gracefully performed. The social message isn’t hammered home, it carefully underlines all the choices that the idealistic protagonist makes and is skillfully drawn as this picture of changing society emerges in intertwining plots of medicine and relationships. Directed by Harold French. They only have one idea in this country and that’s disgusting

Tawny Pipit (1944)

Tawny Pipit

This is meat and drink to me. Fighter pilot Jimmy Bancroft (Bernard Miles) is recuperating from injuries sustained during WW2 in a Cotswolds village. He and his nurse Hazel Broome (Rosamund John) come across two rare birds they find nesting in a wheat field and have to stop two evacuated boys from stealing the eggs. Together with Colonel Barton-Barrington (Bernard Miles) and others in the local community they band together to save the area from roads development that would encroach on the nesting place, stopping army tanks from crossing the field and getting a boost from a visiting Soviet sniper Olga Bokalova (Lucie Mannheim) …  Most people have to start from the bottom and work up. We’ll start from the top and work down! Written and directed by star Miles and Charles Saunders, they created a rare propaganda picture of the bucolic home front during World War Two. Not only that, it dares to paint a portrait of deep eccentricity, silly officialdom and a bizarre scene of a female Russian soldier who inspires a moment of flag-waving solidarity between Britain and the Soviet Union. And in the middle of this romance about birds is an affecting narrative about a pilot getting better from his war wounds by saving those feathered creatures while developing a relationship with his nurse. The link between the thriving pipits and his successful mission is encapsulated in the final images of his aeroplane Anthus campestris swooping over the village’s church tower. Barmy and lovely, with beautiful cinematography by Eric Cross and an uplifting score by Noel Mewton-Wood. These eggs are yours and mine and his and his and his … they belong to England!

Dolittle (2020)

Dolittle

The doctor is back. Eccentric Dr. John Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr) lives in self-imposed solitude behind the high walls of his lush manor in 19th-century England. Devastated by the death of his wife Lily (Kasia Smutniak), his only companionship comes from an array of exotic animals that he speaks to on a daily basis. But when little Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado), accompanied by young orphan Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett), asks him to assist young Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley) who has become gravely ill, the eccentric doctor and his furry friends embark with Stubbins, now his new apprentice, on an epic adventure to a mythical island to find the cure. He is pursued by Dr Blair Müdfly (Michael Sheen), a jealous medical school rival who is conspiring with evil courtier Lord Thomas Badgley (Jim Broadbent) to kill the monarch. However he must don a disguise to fool his former father-in-law, the wild brigand King Rassouli (Antonio Banderas) who still resents Dolittle for taking away his beloved late daughter. And to obtain the cure for the Queen of England, Dolittle must do battle with the mythical dragons that lie in his way but Müdfly gets there before himI’m too beautiful to die. A remake of the legendary 1967 musical flop (and Eddie Murphy’s 1998 dissociative iteration) based on Hugh Lofting’s Victorian friend of the animal world, from a screen story by Thomas Shepherd, this is written by director Stephen Gaghan & Dan Gregor & Dan Mand & Chris McKay. From squid and stick inset spies, to a parrot narrator (Emma Thompson), a gorilla answering the door and Downey essaying every accent in the British Isles while attempting to alight occasionally in Wales, this is a creature feature of a different variety. Unfairly maligned, this is mild entertainment determinedly pitched at a kiddie audience. It skips through a vaguely sketched plot that even has an Innermost Cave taken from the Hero’s Journey story model, giving Sheen mugging opportunities in another Blair-ite role; while Frances de la Tour has her impacted CGI dragon colon relieved in a leek-induced surgery clearly meant for bottom-obsessed children. This is wonky but it has a good heart and some inappropriately contemporary linguistic efforts to befriend an ethnic audience using a big-name voice cast for the CGI animals (including Ralph Fiennes as a troubled tiger called Barry, Rami Malek, Octavia Spencer, Selena Gomez, Kumail Nanjiani), plus some of that toilet humour to ruffle the feathers. It’s far from a masterpiece but you know that already and Downey is, well, Downey. For some of us that’s plenty, even when his charm is severely tested talking down to the youngsters. Team work is dream work

The Wrong Box (1966)

The Wrong Box

He who Fate sees fit to favour. The Finsbury brothers, Masterman (John Mills) and Joseph (Ralph Richardson), are the last two surviving members of a sixty-two year old tontine [a pool of money/investment scheme] that will pay a huge sum to whomever lives longest. Hoping to bankroll his perpetually bewildered grandson Michael (Michael Caine), Masterman asks Joseph to visit with the intention of killing him. However Joseph’s two scheming nephews John (Dudley Moore) and Morris (Peter Cook) also want the money. and mean to keep Joseph alive long enough to stake their claim. When they think Joseph has died en route to seeing his brother, they attempt to cover it up but they reckon without the complicating factor of Masterman’s apparent death, the intervention of Michael when he realises that Masterman has killed Joseph and the arrival of the Salvation Army led by Mrs Hackett (Irene Handl) who assume Masterman has attempted suicide in the Thames and return him to his home. Then there are questions about the whereabouts of the notorious Bournemouth Strangler …  One should always broaden one’s horizons. Adapted from the 1889 novel by Robert Louis Stevenson co-written with his stepson Lloyd Osbourne, the screenplay by Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove is a frequently hysterical and witty black comedy filled with incredible lines and boasting great performances – Peter Sellers has a marvellous couple of scenes as an aiurophile doctor, concluding with him blotting his signature using the bottom of a cute kitten called Mervyn. I specialise in rare marine diseases of the spleen. Mills and Richardson play the brothers to the hilt – an eccentric and a drag – Shut up, you pedantic boring old poop! It’s dotted with hilarious incidents including a chase involving horse-drawn hearses but the butler Peacock (Wilfrid Lawson, brilliant) has the best bits and Nanette Newman’s (Julia) romance with handsome Caine is choreographed to a gorgeous romantic theme composed by John Barry. Extremely funny with a superlative titles sequence – just watch what happens when Queen Victoria (Avis Bunnage) knights someone. Look out for Nicholas Parsons and Valentine Dyall among the first victims in a cast that represents most of the best comic performers of the era including Tony Hancock who turns up as a detective and that’s Juliet Mills as the cross-dressing Lesbian on a train. Directed by Bryan Forbes (in the third of his four films with Caine) and shot at Pinewood and in Bath with some very funny camera setups from cinematographer Gerry Turpin. Lawson sadly died aged 66 five months after this was released. He’s just extraordinary here and steals every scene he’s in. There are in certain parts of this city men – unscrupulous men! – who will perform unsavoury tasks

UFO (2019)

UFO

The guy on TV was lying.  College student Derek (Alex Sharp) tries to use his exceptional mathematical skills to interpret messages that appear to have been sent around a UFO sighting at a local airport, suggesting extra-terrestrial attempts at contact. Accompanied by his room mate Lee (Benjamin Beatty) and girlfriend Natalie (Ella Purnell) he is rebuffed by the airport staff and Government officials including FBI Agent Franklin Ahls (David Strathairn) and suspects a cover up. He requests the assistance of his professor Dr. Hendricks (Gillian Anderson) who thinks he is brilliant along the lines of a Thomas Edison but doesn’t really want anything to do with a gifted guy prepared to risk his scholarship by flunking her class. But he is haunted by memories of a childhood sighting which his mother refused to acknowledge … Do you know how many threats the airport gets every day? It’s not quite correct to describe this as suspenseful because it doesn’t conform to the usual tenets of dramatic pitch:  rather it settles for a flat realist line mirroring the landscape, leaving the maths to do the talking.  What’s marvellous is the lo-fi approach of paper, pencils and calculators to try and decrypt the probability and navigate the universe. Anderson is cannily cast, linking her meta-fashion to The X-Files, a shortcut to the idea dominating the story: We Are Not Alone. An intriguing exercise of singular focus utilising real-life information and TV newscasts about a 2006 incident at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. Written and directed by Ryan Eslinger with a smart score by West Dylan Thordson. They put the Fine Structure Constant in their message. The mathematical equations and graphs are a thing of beauty, no matter how impenetrable. Practically a Hipster PDA exercise in astrophysics. That’s Warren Beatty and Annette Bening’s son as Lee. The wavelength is the unit of the measurement – it IS co-ordinates

Tell it to the Bees (2018)

Tell it to the Bees

He said this town was too small for secrets. With her failing marriage to her estranged former soldier husband Robert (Emun Elliott) and a curious young son Charlie (Gregor Selkirk), Manchester-born Lydia Weekes (Holliday Grainger) does not fit into the small Scottish Borders town where she has ended up. She starts a friendship with the town’s new doctor Jean Markham (Ann Paquin) who has bonded with Charlie after he takes an interest in her bee colonies at the house she inherited from her late father, the town’s former doctor. However, in 1950s rural Scotland, the women’s relationship raises questions particularly because Jean is remembered from a terrible incident involving another girl in her schooldays which prompted her father to send her away.  When Lydia is evicted from her home and loses her job at the local lace factory where her boss is her sister-in-law Pam (Kate Dickie) she goes to live at Jean’s house with Charlie to work as her housekeeper. However they are drawn to each other and start a sexual relationship. Somehow the locals get wind of the arrangement and gossip spreads. Charlie witnesses them in bed together and runs to report to his father. Jean could lose her career if Lydia fights for custody of Charlie.  Meanwhile, Robert’s younger sister Annie (Lauren Lyle), who is friends with Lydia, is happily pregnant by her black boyfriend and the family want her dealt with before the pregnancy becomes public … How do I explain? Jessica Ashworth and Henrietta Ashworth adapted the 2009 novel by Fiona Shaw [not the actress]. What could occasionally be perceived as a contemporary story retro-fitted to critique the insular homophobic values of its Fifties setting, this mostly manages to overcome that fear by reducing the significance of the unlikeable child who is a prism for adult behaviour.  It broaches some tough situations (like a botched home abortion) with the refusing of sentiment and a modicum of unsettling violence. This steers it through the conventional posturing and clichéd setup which is nimbly handled by director Annabel Jankel.  The leads (particularly Grainger) are superb. The cinematography by Bartosz Nalazek is beautiful.  Those sort of people don’t change their minds