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.

Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)

Kramer Vs Kramer

I’m sorry I was late but I was busy making a living. Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman) is a workaholic ad man who returns home late on the biggest night of his career to find his wife Joanna (Meryl Streep) packing her suitcase claiming she needs to find herself. She deserts him and their young son Billy (Justin Henry) and he has to find a way of taking care of the boy while juggling a busy career. He initially blames their divorced neighbour Margaret (Jane Alexander) for putting Joanna up to it but they become friends as he muddles through cooking, school appointments, playing in the park and working at home late at night while managing life alone with Billy. Then 15 months later Joanna shows up looking for custody and Ted loses his job because he can’t balance his work and life commitments. A court battle looms with the courts already tilted in favour of the mother … I have worked very hard to become a whole human being and I don’t think I should be punished for that.  For film scholar Hannah Hamad this is the Ur-film of Hollywood post-feminist paternal dramas, a mode that has dominated the industry ever since (just watch every movie out of America since 1980, more or less!). It’s also the film that put domestic melodrama back at the forefront of American cinema, garnering most of the principal Academy Awards in its year for something that had it been made in France would have been just another humdrum if moving drama. But it has stars – and is simply brilliantly performed with a naturalism that is breathtaking. Hoffman is great as the guy who has to get to know how to live as a working and caretaking parent. The kitchen scenes between him and Henry doing father-son bonding are fantastic. It’s smart too about the working environment and the boys’ club it engenders; and tough on the idea that any woman would want more from life than catering to the needs of a small child:  when Ted sleeps with office lawyer Phyllis (JoBeth Williams) she leaves early not to go home and give a kid breakfast but to go downtown for a meeting. Writer/director Robert Benton adapted Avery Corman’s novel and exhibits none of the quaint, quirky humour that distinguishes his other films. Slickly done, touching and hot-button on all the social issues of the day:  not just a film, a cultural event. I didn’t know it would happen to me. MM #2800

Magic Town (1947)

Magic Town

The air becomes charged with electricity around desperate men. WW2 vet Lawrence ‘Rip’ Smith (James Stewart) is looking to find a way to beat fellow pollster George Stringer and his military colleague Professor Frederick Hoopendecker (Kent Smith) tells him about Grandview, a town that offers a precisely representative model for the entire United States. Rip promises a client a result within 24 hours that Stringer has been working on for a long time and he and his team arrive in the town posing as insurance salesmen. He has to deal with Mary Peterman  (Jane Wyman) who is trying to persuade the Mayor (Harry Holman) to build more property and give the town a civic centre – which would alter the demographic. It forces Rip to address the town and they side with him, not Mary who writes an editorial about him in her family newspaper. While they are attracted to each other, he is gathering information as well as coaching the school basketball team. When she overhears him calling a client, she writes another story about the reason for his being in Grandview and a national paper picks it up and Rip’s mission is made known in the ‘public opinion capital of the U.S.’ … Okay now. You’re a typical American – act like it! Robert Riskin’s script is rather reminiscent of a Frank Capra film – but then he wrote most of them, despite Capra’s self-aggrandising public line that his was The Name Above the Title. And yet this isn’t directed by Capra, but by William Wellman. While it readily captures much of the kind of atmosphere and social concerns of Riskin’s pre-WW2 work in that partnership the shifts from comedy to drama aren’t managed in the same way – with Riskin as producer from a story he wrote with Joseph Krumgold and Wellman directing, the sharp ends of the story are confronted directly, suggesting the compromises the screenwriter might have been making prior to this production. Rip wants money, Mary is after a good story with a political edge. This exists almost in inverse relationship to Riskin’s previous narratives, with the kinds of conversations that Capra softened into sentiment given a much tougher emphasis here (underlined by the Roy Webb’s score). So it’s the same type of material as before but given a much different treatment, although it all comes together in the end with the people creating their own destiny.  This as ever with Riskin is a blue-sky picture asking people what kind of country they want the United States to be and to make it happen democratically – but he never takes his eye off the ball, locating the peculiar way in which families run towns and thereby society as a whole. Fascinating as a prism through which to view Stewart’s stuttering post-war career (It’s a Wonderful Life was also a box office failure) as well as clarifying what Riskin had done for Capra now that they were separate entities. That’s Mickey Rooney’s dad Joe Yule as the radio comic. How do you like your fancy beautiful circus of a town now?

Tolkien (2019)

Tolkien

You’ll get your happy ending. Following the death of first his father then his mother, young John Ronald Reuel Tolkien finds love, friendship and artistic inspiration among a group of fellow outcasts at boarding school who play sports and go to a tearoom each week and regale each other with their interests prior to going to University. Their brotherhood soon strengthens as Tolkien (Harry Gilby/Nicholas Hoult) weathers the storm of a tumultuous courtship with fellow orphan Edith Bratt (Mimi Keen/Lily Collins). From this impoverished childhood and a reliance on the kindness of strangers – Catholic Father Francis (Colm Meaney) who himself was a protegé of Cardinal Newman; and sponsor Mrs Faulkner (Pam Ferris) who takes him in; through the need for a scholarship to Oxford where after being sent down he meets a philologist Professor Joseph Wright (Derek Jacobi) who saves his linguistic bacon:  Languages never steal;  and the outbreak of World War I – he finds both his intellectual calling and his writing voice as he tries to find out what has happened to his closest friend, Geoffrey Bache Smith (Anthony Boyle) while the explosions and gunfire rage and play into his hallucinatory thoughts and childhood memories of the stories his mother told him. These early life experiences later inspire the budding author to write the classic fantasy novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the RingsWe are your brothers through everything. We are an alliance – an invisible alliance.  The early life and influences of the legendary fantasy novelist are explored in this beautiful production which is engagingly staged and beguilingly played by a very sympathetic cast. The trench warfare scenes on the Somme in 1916 which frame the story are well done and transition extremely affectingly back and forth to Tolkien’s upbringing, the links with his novels well established without being laid on with a trowel (Ronald’s batman is called Sam). Rarer still is the fact that the younger incarnations of the protagonists are easily the match for their older namesakes in performing skill. If not now – when? Written by David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford and directed by Dome Karukoski, this was made without the approval of Tolkien’s family yet it has a sensitivity to war and youth and writing that are heartfelt and extremely winning. Things aren’t beautiful because of how they sound. They’re beautiful because of what they mean

The Operative (2019)

The Operative

We do not execute at any cost. If something is not according to plan you have the right to call it off.  British-Jewish Mossad agent Thomas (Martin Freeman) who is based in Germany is summoned to try and figure out the whereabouts of an agent he recruited following her father’s funeral in London because she is a valuable asset who has vanished without trace.  He met and persuaded this mysterious woman Anne/Rachel (Diane Kruger) to become an agent, sending her to Tehran on an undercover mission where she falls in love with Farhad (Casvar) whose business Mossad are hoping to use as cover for a nuclear weapons exchange to destabilise the national programme. When her missions become more dangerous and Farhad is kidnapped by her colleagues, she decides to quit, forcing her boss to find her before she becomes a threat to Israel… You should visit Israel. To connect to the place. The people. Adapted from the Hebrew novel The English Teacher by former intelligence officer Yiftach Reicher-Atir, writer/director Yuval Adler has made a smartly told, nuanced story benefitting from a defining performance by an almost unrecognisable dressed-down Kruger. The Tehran section is as educative as it is narrative, with Rachel’s love story an echo of her real feelings about the city and its people. Her enigmatic persona – she persists in telling people she’s adopted even though she isn’t – is not properly explored which suggests a hinterland the film doesn’t entirely reconcile. The letdown is Freeman, who apparently replaced Eric Bana as Rachel’s handler. Refreshing mainly because of its insights into the region’s geopolitics from a new perspective. I can’t believe I’m here. Doing this

Barnacle Bill (1957)

Barnacle Bill theatrical

Aka All At Sea. From the dawn of time we have always mixed in nautical circles. Royal Navy Captain William Horatio Ambrose (Alec Guinness) has an unfortunate problem – seasickness. It’s particularly embarrassing given his family’s 400-year history in the profession. He spent WW2 teaching in training schools and wasn’t exactly a success. He decides to invest in an amusement pier in the seaside town of Sandcastle but encounters opposition from the local Councillors when he attempts to establish the Victorian structure as a centre for entertainment for the young instead of the old codgers so decides upon a radical course – to have it registered as a foreign sailing vessel (the Arabella, in honour of his former foe now ally, beach hut proprietress Mrs Barringon, played by Irene Browne). He advertises cruises, to which the public flock in droves. When the councillors decide to charge him berthing fees he cuts off their land connection and his enemies plot a course of sabotage … For the price of my modest savings at last a command of my own. T.E.B. Clarke’s script might have a little too much quirk for modern tastes but it’s a lot of fun, with a couple of sequences featuring Bill’s ancestors that tip the nod to Guinness’ eight roles in Kind Hearts and Coronets – because Guinness plays them all. There are lots of other familiar faces including Percy Herbert as his first officer; Eric Pohlmann as the Ambassador from Liberama, happy to give his pier a boat number; Richard Wattis as a civil servant; and Victor Maddern as a treacherous dredge boater. There is a great sense of sly rather than vicious satire, backed up with lots of fun visual jokes – an escape artist rolling about stuck in a sack; a bunch of uniforms waging war in pedalos!; Bill and Mrs Barrington getting drunk and sliding up and down the floors of Crazy Cottage in wonderfully canted shots – and several good scenes mocking petty conspiracies and the backhanders people have to pay to councils, profiting off their situation. Ultimately cut off from the rest of his ‘ship,’ Bill arrives in France, to the delight of the locals. One might call it his Dunkirk. John Addison has a lot of fun pastiching seafaring tunes and shanties. Watch out for Jackie Collins as a beat girl. A massively underrated late Ealing feature, ripe for rediscovery. Directed by Charles Frend, also responsible for The Cruel Sea. What larks! What goes down must come up!

The Great St Trinian’s Train Robbery (1966)

The Great St Trinians Train Robbery

They’re only schoolgirls. “Alphonse of Monte Carolo” aka Alfred Askett (Frankie Howerd) is a hairdresser running ops for a gang of crooks led behind the scenes by an invisible mastermind (voiced by Stratford Johns). He gives instructions to Askett about a new train robbery, Operation Windfall, using a variety of gadgets. The crooks hide the money in Hamingwell Grange, a deserted country mansion, and after waiting for the fuss to die down they return to collect the mailbags which contain £2.5 million (the same amount as in the real Great Train Robbery). However, after the Labour Party win the election, the house has been converted into a new home for St Trinian’s School for Girls because the new Minister for Schools, Sir Horace (Raymond Huntley) is having an affair with the headmistress, Amber Spottiswood (Dora Bryan). The crooks decide to infiltrate the school by enrolling Askett’s delinquent daughters, Lavinia (Susan Jones) and Marcia Mary (Maureen Crombie) as pupils, in order to case the joint and retrieve the loot from its hiding place. The crooks’ attempt to recover the mailbags on Parents’ Day, disguised as caterers, results in a climactic train chase back and forth between the robbers and the girls… If a Labour Government gets in it means the end of all public schools – and that appalling school, St Trinian’s! The fourth and final installment about Ronald Searle’s anarchic schoolgirls under the original authors, Launder and Gilliat, this is a little more episodic than usual, using the recent real-life Great Train Robbery as the starting point, making satirical jibes about the current political situation, spoofing James Bond’s gadgets and that series’ criminal mastermind (the iteration here is voiced by Stratford Johns) and replacing Alastair Sim with Dora Bryan, who performs with gusto in this colour production. Richard Wattis, Terry Scott and George Cole return, and there are new faces familiar to TV comedy fans, like Eric Barker and Arthur Mullard. James Mason’s daughter Portland plays Georgina, one of the kids. Droll fun, with a terrific montage introducing not only the gang members (including Reg Varney as Gilbert the Wheel) but the teachers, including art teacher Susie Naphill played by Margaret Nolan (who was Bond’s masseuse Dink in Goldfinger), doing the real-life striptease she usually did in a Soho club, to music performed by the John Barry Seven! Directed by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder from a screenplay by Gilliat and Ivo Herbert, based on the directors’ story co-written with producer Leslie Gilliat. The final extended chase sequence is a doozy straight out of silent movies. A photograph of these sordid excesses could well unmask this whole imposture

School for Scoundrels (1960)

School for Scoundrels

Aka School for Scoundrels or How to Win Without Actually Cheating! Lifemanship is the science of being one up on your opponents at all times. Kind but gormless twit Henry Palfrey (Ian Carmichael) is cheated, bullied and abused by everyone he encounters – from car salesmen the Winsome Welshmen, Dunstan (Dennis Price) and Dudley Dorchester (Peter Jones ), to a restaurant head waiter (John le Mesurier) and upper-class cad Raymond Delauney (Terry-Thomas). Even his own employees are hoodwinking him. When the charming April Smith (Janette Scott) is stolen away from him by Delauney, Henry takes drastic action and enrols in the College of Lifemanship, run by Mr Potter (Alastair Sim) where he can learn to beat others in life through classes in Partymanship, Woomanship and general One-upmanship. Well equipped now in the means to manipulate others and get ahead, he embarks on a course of his own – revengeWe like our motor cars to go to good homes – like dogs. A sublime cast rises to the occasion for an adaptation of Stephen Potter’s books by Irish screenwriter Patricia Moyes and producer Hal E. Chester, with Carmichael going through an enlightening character arc as the hapless victim of everyone else’s ploys – until he comes up with one of his own. Sim is the usual delight while T-T is as awesomely smarmy as you’d expect. To say that Price and Jones are an utter joy as the dastardly used car salesmen is to do them a disservice. With a supremely witty score by John Addison, this is the final film directed by the great Robert Hamer who was succumbing to the alcoholism that would kill him a few years later, so some scenes were filmed by Cyril Frankel and Chester. He who is not one up is one down

Le Week-End (2013)

Le Weekend

I’m amazed at how mediocre I’ve turned out to be. Nick (Jim Broadbent) and Meg Burrows (Lindsay Duncan) are a married academic couple from Birmingham advancing in age and tension. To mark their 30th wedding anniversary, the two embark on a trip to the place they honeymooned three decades before: Paris. Hoping to rejuvenate their marriage, the couple arrives in Paris only for things not to go as planned. Their honeymoon hotel is horrifying so Meg insists on booking into the best hotel in town. They eat lavishly and run out of a restaurant without paying. Their hi jinks re-ignite their romance. Their son wants to move back in but Meg is adamant he can’t, Nick fields the calls from back in England as Meg rages that he is too tolerant. Eventually, the two bump into Nick’s former Cambridge acolyte Morgan (Jeff Goldblum) who is now a philosophy star and they attend a dinner party at his posh Rue de Rivoli home that ultimately opens up a new view of life and love for the ageing couple… I knew this trip would be a fucking disaster. Author and screenwriter Hanif Kureishi’s fourth collaboration with director Roger Michell is all at once delightful homage, biting meditation on ageing and a thoughtful discourse on the absurd difficulties of sustaining an enduring marriage. It’s also a sly commentary on academic rivalry, PC-ness (Nick is being retired early because he told a black woman student she should spend more time on the books and less on her hair), wrongful assumptions about the person you know best and the real problems of intimacy after decades living in someone else’s pocket. This last five to ten years your vagina has become something of a closed book. Sentimental Broadbent is angry beneath that pleading surface;  flinty Duncan is superficially icy but truly loyal – and hot. When Morgan takes Nick’s raucous and self-pitying dinner party confession for a kind of Situationist performance and both husband and wife are disgusted by his ignorance of the truth when it’s laid bare, it is a joy to behold them unite again. And then, the ending, a glorious homage to Bande à part, re-enacting a scene in a simple but uplifting manner that might make you fear growing old just a little bit less. You’ll recognise Morgan’s son as Olly Alexander, of the band Years and Years. This is where I want to be forever