Death Goes to School (1953)

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The children must always come first. The body of Miss Cooper a teacher is discovered by a pupil behind the sports ground at Abbotsham all-girls school with another teacher’s scarf cinched around her throat. Scotland Yard dispatches detective Campbell (Gordon Jackson) to lead the investigation along with his assistant Sergeant Harvey (Sam Kydd). Campbell interviews the teachers and pupils, but encounters one major issue: Everybody hated this teacher. This makes narrowing down the suspects rather difficult. But music teacher Miss Shepherd (Barbara Murray) has a very strong suspicion that the killer is a member of the staff and carries out her own investigation in parallel, bringing her to the home of the dead woman’s brother-in-law Mr Lawley (Robert Long) … You’re not like a woman at all. You have a mind like a man. This minor British murder mystery is lent an air of Gothic tension by the protagonist’s voiceover narration, a handsome dark-haired love interest and the use of fetish objects (scarves, shoes, matchbooks). But it’s hardly Shadow of a Doubt. Instead it’s a story of woman crushes, jealousy, suspicion and decidedly unsportsmanlike murder. The mini-drama comes from the grudging admiration between Jackson and Murray, who attributes the Scotsman’s language issues to his not being English. She’s a really good amateur sleuth and the clash is nicely done. She’s always streets ahead, of course. The girls’ school setting with its seething resentments in the staff room (where everyone calls each other Miss) is well established. A fine little suspenser with good performances and great hairdos, shot at Merton Park. Adapted by Maisie Sharman (aka Stratford Davis) from her novel Death in Seven Hours (Miss Shepherd’s alibi!) with director Stephen Clarkson.

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There Was a Little Boy (1993) (TVM)

There Was a Little Boy

Hey! She doesn’t want me! Fifteen years after their baby boy was stolen from their apartment, English teacher Julie (Cybill Shepherd) is expecting her second child with wealthy husband Gregg (John Heard). He has never given up on finding Robbie, she accepts his guilt despite it happening on her watch while she was taking a bath. She is teaching in a downtown high school and finds herself forced to deal with a difficult transfer student Jesse (Scott Bairstow) who appears functionally illiterate but is actually gifted and they form an uneasy connection. His own mother Esperanza (Elaine Kagan) is on welfare and ill with a lung condition and they get by with his thieving from the store. When Julie tries to sell off  Robbie’s baby cot, Gregg objects and finds in the base a necklace with a religious medal attached which doesn’t belong to either of them and which they trace to a local Catholic priest who is now gaga and cannot positively identify the owner. However Jesse’s own actions lead Julie in the right direction to find her long-lost son …  I am your worst nightmare:  a politically incorrect teacher who dares to flunk your ass. Adapted by Wesley Bishop from the novel by Claire R. Jacobs, this operates somewhere between Teacher in the Hood and Maternal Melo, The action scenes are well handled, the irony of Jesse’s identity well flagged (it’s not really the point), the trade-off in guilt between husband and wife completely believable, the acting good, and it’s directed by the admirable Mimi Leder who of course proceeded to make those terrific actioners Deep Impact and The Peacemaker before the wheels came off her cinema career for a long time after Pay It Forward. She returned to the fray late last year with the Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic On the Basis of Sex. Hurray for that. And if that doesn’t suffice, how about all those early 90s chintzy couches. I lost a son and a husband. I won’t let that happen again

The Hate U Give (2018)

The Hate U Give

Reasons to live give reasons to die.  Teenager Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) is constantly switching between two worlds – the poor, mostly black neighborhood of Garden Heights where she lives with her parents and brothers and the wealthy, mostly white private school Williamson Prep that she attends with her half-brother Seven (Lamar Johnson). They are in an extreme minority and she has a white boyfriend, Chris (K.J. Apa) and a white best friend, Hailey (Sabrina Carpenter). The uneasy balance between these worlds is soon shattered when she witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil (Algee Smith) at the hands of a police officer despite his having done nothing except driving while black. Facing pressure from all sides of the community, Starr must find her own voice and decide to stand up for what’s right while her father Maverick (Russell Hornsby) fears that speaking out will bring down the wrath of local drug dealer King (Anthony Mackie) his former gang leader; and mom Lisa (Regina Hall) tries to keep everyone on the right path ... If you don’t see my blackness you don’t see me. Sadly that terrific screenwriter Audrey Wells succumbed to cancer on the eve of this film’s release, an adaptation of a Young Adult novel (by Angie Thomas) which despite some structural flaws and a somewhat aphoristic and preachy line in virtue-signalling dialogue is a triumph of performance and to a lesser extent, presentation. Stenberg is very good as the protagonist, a girl who struggles with her identity living between two communities but who cannot leave her past behind because she can’t forget that’s her family, her race, her true self. You can see in this the traces of Boyz in the Hood and the legacy of that film lies in a story twist here: a father who actually sticks with his family following a spell in jail for the drug lord but who tries to change the course of his children’s experience by quoting from the Black Power handbook while the kids relate to Tupac (hence the title, from THUG LIFE).  It’s also about hypocrisy, peer pressure, racism and (dread the term) cultural appropriation. More than anything, it’s about doing the right thing. There are some very good narrative bumps – when Starr’s policeman uncle Carlos (Common) tells her precisely what goes through a cop’s head when he is alone on a traffic stop;  when Starr shows Hailey what happens when a hairbrush is mistaken for a gun; and when Tupac’s lyrical prediction comes true. The location is not specified but it’s stunningly shot by Mihai Mâlaimare Jr and well directed by George Tillman Jr.  Violence. Brutality. It’s the same story, just a different name

Eyewitness (1956)

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Did you see her buried?  After an argument with her husband Jay (Michael Craig) about his spending habits when he brings home a TV set on hire purchase, Lucy Church (Muriel Pavlow) storms out of her house and goes to see a film at the local cinema. While coming back from making a phone call, she stumbles across the office where she witnesses the murder of the cinema manager by two criminals Wade (Donald Sinden) and his soft-minded associate Barney (Nigel Stock) who are in the process of robbing the cinema’s safe. When they pursue her, she is hit by a bus and is taken to hospital. Unable to leave the town until they know what has happened to her, the two robbers head to the hospital to observe her. Meanwhile, her husband has grown concerned and scours the town searching for her. An older woman patient’s cries for help each time she sees two men skulking in the hospital garden are ignored while Wade and Barney enter the hospital to make sure Lucy is never able to bear witness … She’s a pretty little thing. Wouldn’t mind claiming her myself.  Low on both suspense and thrills, this Sydney Box production is based on the premise that Donald Sinden is a dangerous criminal – surely an in-joke at the expense of the audience and the story. What’s of infinitely more interest is the performance of tragic starlet and socialite Lee as the sexy bleached blonde nurse Penny Marston who has (inevitably) an American airman fiancé (David Knight).  The screenplay is by Janet Green, a playwright (including the work that would provide the basis for Doris Day’s Midnight Lace) and screenwriter who had many good films on her resumé like Sapphire and Victim and John Ford’s final film, 7 Women. This is mild stuff indeed, with the opening scene of domestic dissatisfaction soon sliding into an under-dramatised crime outing, enlivened only by the constant put-downs of the eagle-eyed patients by the bitchy nursing staff while Pavlow enjoys a very long beauty sleep.  Keen viewers will enjoy appearances  by Richard Wattis as an anaesthetist and Nicholas Parsons as a surgeon. Directed by Muriel Box.

Toy Story 4 (2019)

Toy Story 4

It’s time for the next kid. Nine years after Andy has left for college and he’s been separated from Bo Peep (Annie Potts), cowboy Woody (Tom Hanks) helps his new kid Bonnie (Madeline McGraw) when she gets upset at her first day of kindergarten where she makes her new toy Forky (Tony Hale) from a spork.  Forky believes he’s trash but Woody teaches him he’s Bonnie’s friend. When the family goes on an RV road trip and Forky jumps ship, Woody sets out to get him back and they fetch up in a secondhand shop where they get trapped by a doll called Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) who desperately wants a voicebox to nab a human friend and Woody has what she needs.  Her henchmen ventriloquist dolls The Dummies (Steve Purcell) help her. In their quest to reunite Bonnie with Forky, the gang assemble with Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) pressing his own buttons to access his inner voice and Woody is reunited with Bo who’s found a new existence living in the middle of a travelling carnival.  There’s a race against time to make sure Bonnie doesn’t take off before finding her new friend… I am not a toy, I was made for soups, salads, maybe chili, and then the trash. Freedom! We know over a quarter century pretty much everything that toys are thinking about and here the thread of the lost toy narrative continues with Bo having a life as an independent girl, Forky experiencing an existential crisis and Woody seeing that there can be a life beyond the needs of his human child owner. Perhaps the store where most of the action occurs is a limited palette in terms of narrative possibility but there are good in-jokes, real jeopardy, sorrow and lessons. The toys can be scared of other toys too – my goodness those dummies! Bolstered by another set of songs from Randy Newman, this is a bittersweet conclusion to one of cinema’s classic series, but here we have a child who has a stronger emotional bond with a utensil than with the toys purposed for human relationships and two and a half decades of our own responses. Maybe it’s Pixar’s way of saying to us all, Grow Up, as the gang is surplus to most requirements here and the narrative is not unified in the way one has come to expect. Ironically then, beware of leaving early – the credits are worth waiting for as we are deftly pushed away to lead our own off-screen lives. Directed by Josh Cooley from a screenplay by Andrew Stanton and Stephany Bolsom, based on a story by them and Rashida Jones, John Lasseter, Will MacCormack, Valerie LaPointe and Martin Hynes. He’s not lost. Not anymore. To infinity…

My Reputation (1946)

My Reputation

You have to start being yourself. Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck) is a newly widowed upper class mother to two boys Kim (Scotty Beckett) and Keith (Bobby Cooper) with a domineering mother (Lucile Watson). Her estate lawyer Frank Everett (Warner Anderson) dates her casually while her society friend George Van Orman (Jerome Cowan) decides she’d be the ideal mistress. Her friend Ginna (Eve Arden) whisks her away to Tahoe with her husband Cary (John Ridgely) where she meets Major Scott Landis (George Brent) when she’s lost skiing in the mountains. They become close very quickly part badly when he thinks she’s ready to be kissed but then he shows up in her hometown of Chicago where he’s temporarily stationed and she finally allows herself to think of another romantic relationship despite the gossips… The world allows considerable liberty to wives it has never allowed to widows. I notice, for instance, you’re no longer wearing black. One of Stanwyck’s greatest roles, she excels as the rather innocent widow who finally embarks on a relationship with a bluff man who won’t stand for any nonsense from the naysayers in her midst. And who better than Gorgeous George to save her from social suffocation?! Watson is great as the vicious old bat of a mother and Leona Maricle and Nancy Evans are good as the bitchy so-called friends. Arden is in good form as the real friend who does the necessary when Jess needs it. Expertly adapted by the estimable Catherine Turney from Claire Jaynes’ wartime novel Instruct My Sorrows, this plays to all of Warner Brothers’ strengths in female transformation stories – a woman who finds herself again despite a domineering mother, problem sons, pawsy males, social exile and doubt. A gloriously romantic drama with a wondrous score by Max Steiner. Directed by Curtis Bernhardt. I’ll never be lonely again

Submission (2017)

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I hope they crucify you. Married one-hit wonder novelist Ted Swenson (Stanley Tucci) is a creative writing professor at a college in Houston having difficulty producing his followup. His talented student Angela Argo (Addison Timlin) asks him to read the first chapter of her novel Eggs and when he reads poetry about a phone-sex worker she wrote for another professor, Magda Moynahan (Janeane Garofalo), he begins to fantasise about the sex acts she describes and gradually becomes obsessed with her while she manipulates him into doing things for her including bringing her to a town where she can buy a computer. Then she seduces him in her room but their coitus is interrupted when he breaks a tooth. When she finally presents her work to the class the other students repay her bullying by telling her what they really think of her writing and she becomes tearful.  She guilt trips Ted into bringing her pages to his New York editor Len (Peter Gallagher) and then files charges against him when she thinks he hasn’t done what he’s been asked … My father set himself on fire. Adapted from Francine Prose’s novel Blue Angel (and using that film and novel as its template), this is really an obvious story about how a young pricktease can stupefy a man into losing everything by dint of sexual suggestion and wearing thigh-high boots and black underwear. The problem for the viewer is that Angela’s act is so transparent – if I heard her say My pages one more time … that the outcome is inevitable if not quite depressingly tedious.  She is no Dietrich. (And anyone who’s ever had an irritatingly ambitious student in their class will find their teeth grinding in recognition.) That it concludes in the usual safe space of a hearing with an allegation backed up with a neat recording, the vixen dressed down in dungarees, says more about the state of things than any review could explain.  There are clever elements: how the narration of Angela’s work becomes the movie’s own unreliable narrator as well as Ted’s masturbation material; an excruciating dinner party (is there any other kind?) which exposes the hidebound nature of academia where moronic millennialist paranoia about sexual harassment actually operates as a duplicitous form of Salem-style censorship and has the adults on the run; Ted’s novel is based on his own life and his agent suggests he rewrite it as a memoir – forcing him to confront his own limitations and not just on the page. His life with delightful wife nurse Sherrie (Kyra Sedgwick) has an edge because of his difficulties with their adult daughter Ruby (Colby Minifie, who literally bears no resemblance to either biological parent!) – cue another awkward dinner, mirroring his inability to read the tricky women around him and deal with the everlasting fallout from that father who was a celebrity for the 15 minutes it took him to burn himself to death in an act of political outrage in the Sixties. Ah, sweet mysteries of life! Tucci is fine, or at least I hope he is. Written and directed by Richard Levine. He read her story. Then he became part of it

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018)

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That’s poetry, not proof. It’s 1927. The Magical Congress of the USA is transferring Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) to be tried for his crimes but he escapes with the aid of his associate Abernathy (Kevin Guthrie). In London, Magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) encounters Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz) an old pure-blood classmate from Hogwarts who has always been somewhat disturbed and is now engaged to Newt’s brother Theseus (Callum Turner), who works in the Auror office at the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. Newt turns down the request to find Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller) in Paris but Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) persuades him to change his mind because Grindelwald is searching for Credence in order to help him implement a New World Wizarding Order … She has eyes just like a salamander. The JK Rowling franchise trundles on and it gets off to a speedy start, with Grindelwald assuming someone else’s identity and making good his escape. This triumph of production design and effects has lots of things to recommend it, not least big plot moves in a heavily stuffed story that’s laced with humour and irony. It’s based on the pull of family ties – brothers, sisters, the need to know your true identity – and that’s what balances a fun adventure that has a lot of good moments, a more rounded and sympathetic Newt and a great sense of jeopardy from Depp as the deranged proto-fascist albino seeking to elevate wizards above muggles. Familiar faces, well developed characters, a lot of narrative threads and a lot more to come. Adapted by Rowling and directed by David Yates. We were closer than brothers

Mary Poppins Returns (2018)

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As I live and breathe. Grown up father Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) and his three children get some help from Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) when the bank closes in on their home where his sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) helps out following the death of Michael’s wife a year earlier … Cleaning is not a spectator sport. Perhaps it was inevitable that following the successful transposing of the classic film into musical theatre that Disney would go back to the toybox and raid one of their most significant creations, a live-animation hybrid that lingers long in the imagination and the heart. With songs by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman and set in ‘The Great Slump’ which we presume is sometime in the Thirties, this is a combination of race against time and treasure hunt, as the shares certificate that will save the family home is in the place least likely to be found – or the most obvious, if you know anything about movies/kites. There is a highly unlikely romance between Jane and Jack the lamplighter (Lin-Manuel Miranda), Mary is rather astringent and inconsistent, the dour interior and visual designs lack the antique spark of the original and there are real longeurs in between the fantasy sequences. Breaking the contract with the audience, there is jeopardy in these, featuring a kidnapping that harkens back to The 101 Dalmatians or The Aristocats. You might recognise Willie the Operatic Whale in ‘The Royal Doulton Music Hall’ but there seems to be a real disconnect with the story and some diversionary tactics – Miranda has a speechifying song part in ‘A Book is Not the Cover’ that could be out of his own Hamilton; Meryl Streep shows up as Mary’s foreign cousin and has an upside down song (‘Turning Turtle’) which has little to do with anything. It’s odd that the true heart of the original only starts to be suggested in the finale, a coda to the action that visually resonates and pops practically perfectly off the screen – at last. Directed as well as he directs everything else by Rob Marshall, who adapted with David Magee and John DeLuca, at least this isn’t a remake and James Corden isn’t in it but Angela Lansbury and Dick Van Dyke are. Everything is possible, even the impossible

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

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I was always afraid of being found out. I can’t specifically say that I regret my actions. I don’t. In New York City 1991 biographer Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) is struggling financially and her agent Marjorie (Jane Curtin) can’t get her an advance for a book about Fanny Brice so she sells off a treasured possession – a letter to her from Katharine Hepburn – to bookseller Anna (Dolly Wells).  She hatches a scheme to forge letters by famous writers and sell them to bookstores and collectors. When the dealers start to catch on and she is tipped off about being blacklisted, Lee recruits an old sometime acquaintance, drug dealer Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) to help her continue her self-destructive cycle of trickery and deceit but then the FBI move in You can be an asshole if you’re famous. You can’t be unknown and be such a bitch, Lee. This is the biography of a biographer (from Israel’s own autobiography…) so you can draw out many ideas and inferences about life imitating art, writers imitating genius, literary theft on a large or small scale.  Writing in their subject’s voice is just one of the outcomes of one writer inhabiting another writer’s life.  I thoroughly enjoyed writing these letters, living in the world of Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward, pretending I was something I am not. In other words (as it were) it is a logical extrapolation that a writer of biographical works should on some level be themselves a liberator of other people’s ideas. You might say, it’s their job.  Enough of the meta fiction. The screenplay is by the marvellous Nicole Holofcener (with Jeff Whitty) who is no mean director herself and yes, she was supposed to helm this. So what happened? Apparently Julianne Moore and Holofcener had ‘creative differences’ and both of them dropped out – both of them! But were those differences with each other?! Apparently Moore was fired by Holofcener. Something about wanting to wear a fat suit and a prosthetic nose. And so, six days before production it all stopped. And Sam Rockwell who was due to play Hock disappeared somewhere along the line. Then Marielle Heller was deployed on directing duties.  Ben Falcone, McCarthy’s husband, stayed in the cast (as Alan Schmidt) and McCarthy joined. And her performance is towering.  I’m a 51-year-old who likes cats better than people. She’s a lonely alcoholic middle-aged mess and utterly believable as the writer on the outs, a kind of midlife crisis on acid with huge money problems and lacking the funds to even secure veterinary assistance to care for Jersey her beloved cat. But somehow she’s a compelling, likeable figure, something real amid the poseurs (like Tom Clancy, lampooned here. Him and his $3,000,000 advance). Irony is writ large. She imitates Bette Davis in The Little Foxes on TV, watching on her couch with Jersey. Then the TV set becomes a light box to improve the fake signatures. Grant and she make a fine double act – he’s the louche lounge lizard à la Withnail (referenced here) to her fiercely bedraggled Lesbian, conniving to her inventive. They are both prone to a bit of larceny. His double betrayal is horrible, his death weirdly apposite. It’s a beautifully constructed odd couple tragicomedy and looks and feels like the real thing – entirely without sentiment, appropriately, considering that it is all about life in the literary margins, a kind of palimpsest of an overachiever who’s no longer marketable as herself. It all happens as Manhattan alters from a kind of bohemian haven into impossibly uninhabitable real estate. Really quite wonderful. I was hiding behind these people, their names. Because if I’d actually put myself out there, done my own work, then I would be opening myself up to criticism. And I’m too much of a coward for all of that  MM#2400