A wild imagination is the way Billy Fisher (Tom Courtenay – 45 Years, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner) copes with the boredom of a clerk’s role in an undertaker’s business in a dour industrial northern city. Trouble for Billy is that he’s not the uniformed dictator of Ambrosia watching his troops march through the local streets. Instead, Billy struggles with limitations as he finds himself at odds with his parents whilst keeping the two women he is engaged to separate from each other. The free spirited Liz (an early role for Julie Christie – Darling, Don’t Look Now) provides the ultimate challenge for the dreamer.
Director John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy, Darling) highlights the demands of an emergent generation following years of austerity as post-war industrial landscapes provide the backdrop for Billy’s tragi-comic need to escape from the mundanities of everyday life.
A minor work from director Howard Hawks (Sergeant York, Scarface) as two man-hunting showgirls head for Paris, travelling first class aboard a luxury cruise liner.
Adapted from the Broadway musical of the same name, itself based on a book from the 1920s, Gentlemen Prefers Blondes is candyfloss whimsy. But with the showstopping Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend at its core and Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell as the friends, it’s needless to say the film has gained iconic status. Oscar-winning Charles Coburn (The More the Merrier, The Devil and Miss Jones), as the owner of a South African diamond mine, provides the bling Monroe makes a beeline for as she rolls out the dumb blonde routine in a ludicrously dated narrative.
Attempting to escape her possessive and violent husband, Yella (Nina Hoss – Phoenix, Barbara) accepts a job in Hannover, a two-hour train journey from her home in the former East Germany. Only things are not what they seem as a menacing Ben (Hinnerk Schönemann – War Horse, The Lives of Others) refuses to accept their estrangement.
Haunted by the truths of her past, Yella looks to rebuild her life and self-respect as she drifts into a relationship with a dishonest contract manager (Devid Striesow – The Counterfeiters, Downfall).
With its cold sense of paranoia and delusion, a detached Yella is a parable of change, of past, of dashed hopes in all its banality of soulless business hotels and overly-lit corporate offices. Hoss is mesmerising in director Christian Petzold’s (Transit, Barbara) slow burn.
Unquestionably partisan – you’d expect nothing less from director Ken Loach (I Daniel Blake, Kes)- the Palme d’or winning The Wind That Shakes the Barley looks to the 1920s Irish War of Independence and the impact it has on two brothers.
It’s a sombre telling as would-be doctor, Damien (Cillian Murphy – 28 Days Later, Inception), cancels plans to to travel to England as conflict between the British security forces and Irish Unionists escalates. Winessing constant violent abuse in rural settings, he joins the local IRA brigade, commanded by his brother Teddy (Pádraic Delaney – Blackthorn, The Man Who Knew Infinity). But each has different expectations of the best outcome.
It’s easy to know what you are against, but quite another to know what you are for.
Deftly handled (script by longtime Loach collaborator Paul Laverty – I Daniel Blake, Sorry We Missed You), it’s an intimate, humane telling of huge events, of ideals that pitch country against country, community against community, brother against brother.
1959 St Louis, Missouri and Betsey Brown is a thirteen year old girl on the cusp of young adulthood. The eldest child of an extended family living in a large, rambling home in the city’s black community, the personal and the cultural are interwoven. For Betsey, court-ordered integration and mixed schooling are to be contended with alongside the everyday of boys and annoying brothers and male cousins.
Betsey Brown is vibrant, full of energy and humour of adolescence at a decisive point in the American Civil Rights movement. The family itself is pulled apart with Grandma representing the old ways of simply avoiding the white folk whilst dad, the laid back Greer, part-time musician, full-time doctor, looks to more equality. Mom, the beautiful Jane, is more concerned with the safety of her children and the dangers enforced integration at school could have.
Characters come and go – including Jane for a short while – as Betsey navigates her new life and, with the aide of siblings, attempt to rid the family home of the new live-in maids brought in to help Grandma bring order into the house when Jane ups and leaves. And that’s no easy matter. But its basketball star Eugene Betsey is mainly concerned with.
It’s sassy, it’s personal, it’s insightful. Ntozake Shange vividly captures adolescence and an immediacy of time and place and the potential of a changing world, heightened by the use of a poetic, fluid vernacular of the everyday.
A sense of menace pervades Xavier Dolan’s (Mommy, Matthias & Maxime) psychosexual thriller as Tom (Dolan) travels to the remote farm to attend his lover’s funeral. Only mom knows nothing about her son’s sexuality – and brother Francis intends to keep it that way.
Violence and desire collide as a brooding Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal – Nadia Butterfly, Mommy), with his increasingly ambiguous emotions, both threatens and appeals to the young Montreal resident. A claustrophobic nightmare unfolds, heightened as more is revealed of the brother Tom knew nothing about.
A better than average end-of-the-world adventure yarn as John Garrity (Gerard Butler – Olympus Has Fallen, P.S. I Love You) finds himself and his family on the ‘saved’ list of personnel – only to be separated from them as they are marshalled onto transport to safety.
As the comet bringing the natural disaster inches closer, news of cities around the world being leveled by burning fragments brings with it chaos and lawlessness. Garrity looks to find wife Morena Baccarin (Deadpool, Spy) and son (Roger Dale Floyd – Doctor Sleep, Kronos) as they navigate the panic around them.
Director Ric Roman Waugh (Angel Has Fallen, Felon) instills a sense of believability into a genre hardly renowned for its ‘believabliity’. There’s a great deal of desperate scrambling for survival within the chaos itself, with Baccarin proving more than able, away from hubbie, to navigate the pandemonium. Predictable it may be, hokum it certainly is, but it’s nevertheless entertaining hokum.
A powerful and historically insightful feature as, in the 1920s Australian outback, The Tracker (David Gulpilil – Rabbit Proof Fence, Australia – in one of his finest roles) leads three men in search of an indigenous male accused of murdering a white woman.
It’s confronting stuff as bullying, racist The Fanatic (Gary Sweet – Alexandra’s Project, Adore) threatens, cajoles, demands capture – and the murder of indigenous men, women and children along the way is part of the process if necessary. But The Tracker bides his time as they move further and further into the stark wilderness.
With its soundtrack of original songs composed by Graham Tardif and performed by Archie Roach along with cutaway shots of primitive-style paintings by Peter Coad of the scenes on-screen, writer/director Rolf de Heer (Ten Canoes, Charlie’s Country) provides a different presentation of a too familiar narrative. The songs are occasionally intrusive but The Tracker remains a forceful reminder of Australian history.
From his birth in a 5th-class carriage crossing the Russian Steppes to world acclaim as one of the greatest male ballet dancers, from his defection from the Soviet Union to his early death at the age of 54 from HIV/AIDS, Rudolf Nureyev’s life was extraordinary.
Acute poverty, a Tartar Muslim family, Nureyev’s path to dance was far from obvious. It was a 12 day train journey from home to the scholarship position in Leningrad and the Mariinsky! Just six years later, in 1961, a star of the renamed Kirov Ballet and performing in Paris, Nureyev defected. He was 23 years old.
His life from thereon in is well documented – his pop-star adoration, the partnering with Dame Margot Fonteyn at The Royal Ballet, a tempestuous love affair with dancer Erik Bruhn – and Nureyev, co-directed by David Morris and Jacqui Morris (McCullin, Attacking the Devil) covers this with archive footage, voiceovers and interviews.
Yet the documentary of the charismatic yet arrogant dancer is wholly unsatisfying. How can you do justice for such an enigma? Described as a panther on stage, there are few glimpses of Nureyev in action and, inexplicably, only a few seconds of his lifetime dream of mounting La Bayadere (his final work in Paris). Whilst beautifully choreographed by Russell Maliphant, interpretative scenes of his childhood are romanticised misplacements. Ultimately, Nureyev tries to achieve too much in too little time (109 minutes) and becomes a greatest hits selection. Rarely seen footage is a delight but why no mention of his partner of the last 15 years, Robert Tracy?
A three hour immersion in narrative and characterisation, The Green Mile sets out to tell its story and tell it well. And, adapted from the Stephen King novel by writer/director Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, The Majestic), it largely succeeds. How much you accept the gift of prisoner John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan – Redemption Road, SIn City) is a different matter.
Set in Death Row in a 1930s Louisiana prison, Coffey is sentenced to death for the murder of two young (white) girls. Senior guard Tom Hanks (Philadelphia, Sully) refuses to accept such a gentle giant could be guilty. Things come to head in the confines of the cells with the arrival of the psychotic Wild Bill Wharton (Sam Rockwell – Moon, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) and a sadistic guard (Doug Hutchison – I Am Sam, The Salton Sea).
Interweaving home-life drama with the day-to-day of prison, Darabont creates a humane, manipulative spiritual renewal drama. As a social commentary, The Green Mile draws the viewer in but Coffey’s gift (no spoilers) pushes the limit.
Nominated for 4 Oscars in 2000 (best film, supporting actor – Michael Clarke Duncan, adapted screenplay, sound).