URGH! A Music War

(UK 1982)

I really don’t expect Derek Burbidge’s rather pedestrian and no-frills URGH! A Music War to move all that many people — only those who landed somewhere between puberty and college during the early Eighties. This movie, a paean to punk, reggae, and new wave bands, reads like a playlist from the early days of MTV. It’s comprised of nothing but live performances, starting and ending with The Police.

Performances are in the following order:

The Police – “Driven to Tears”
Wall of Voodoo – “Back in Flesh”
Toyah Willcox – “Danced”
John Cooper Clarke – “Health Fanatic”
Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark – “Enola Gay”
Chelsea – “I’m on Fire”
Oingo Boingo – “Ain’t This the Life”
Echo & the Bunnymen – “The Puppet”
Jools Holland – “Foolish I Know”
XTC – “Respectable Street”
Klaus Nomi – “Total Eclipse”
Athletico Spizz 80 – “Clocks are Big; Machines are Heavy/Where’s Captain Kirk?”
The Go-Go’s – “We Got the Beat”
Dead Kennedys – “Bleed for Me”
Steel Pulse – “Ku Klux Klan”
Gary Numan – “Down in the Park”
Joan Jett and the Blackhearts – “Bad Reputation”
Magazine – “Model Worker”
Surf Punks – “My Beach”
The Members – “Offshore Banking Business”
Au Pairs – “Come Again”
The Cramps – “Tear It Up”
Invisible Sex – “Valium”
Pere Ubu – “Birdies”
Devo – “Uncontrollable Urge”
The Alley Cats – “Nothing Means Nothing Anymore”
John Otway – “Cheryl’s Going Home”
Gang of Four – “He’d Send in the Army”
999 – “Homicide”
The Fleshtones – “Shadowline”
X – “Beyond and Back”
Skafish – “Sign of the Cross”
Splodgenessabounds – “Two Little Boys”
UB40 – “Madame Medusa”
The Police – “Roxanne”
The Police – “So Lonely”

Generally speaking, concert films are as good as the band performing — unless you’ve never seen them. URGH! A Music War moved me because I know almost every band here but I had a chance to see only four of them live. I’ll let you figure out which four.

I came a little during The Police, OMD (called simply Orchestral Manoeuvres at this point, something I never knew), Echo, Klaus Nomi (fabulous!), The Go-Go’s, Dead Kennedys, Gary Numan, Joan Jett , Surf Punks (yum!), The Cramps, and yes, Devo. How the fuck did I miss Invisible Sex and Au Pairs all these years?

Bonus: The 35mm print screened was scratchy and scrappy and worked with the 50ish audience. I wish I had my Docs…

With Wall of Voodoo, Stan Ridgway, Marc Moreland, Chas T. Gray, Bruce Moreland, Joe Nanini, Toyah Willcox, Joel Bogen, Pete Bush, Charlie Francis, Steve Bray, John Cooper Clarke, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, OMD, Paul Humphreys, Andy McCluskey, David A. Hughes, Malcolm Holmes, Chelsea, Gene October, Barry Smith, Steve Ace, Mike Howell, Chris Bashford, Oingo Boingo, Danny Elfman, Steve Bartek, Sam Phipps, Dale Turner, Richard Gibbs, Leon Scheorman, Kerry Hatch, David Eagle, Echo & The Bunnymen, Will Sergeant, Ian McCulloch, Les Pattinson, Pete DeFreitas, Jools Holland, XTC, Andy Partridge, Terry Chambers, Colin Moulding, Dave Gregory, Klaus Nomi, Julie Berger, April Lang, Jon Cobert, Rick Pascual, Daniel Elfassy, Scott Woody, Athletico Spizz 80, Spizz, Jim Solar, C.P. Snare, Mark Coalfield, Dave Scott, The Go-Go’s, Belinda Carlisle, Jane Wiedlin, Margot Olaverra, Gina Schock, Charlotte Caffey, Steel Pulse, David Hinds, Selwyn Brown, Steve Nisbett, Phonso Martin, Basil Gabbidon, Gary Numan, Russell Bell, Paul Gardener, Roger Mason, Ced Sharpley, Chris Rime, Joan Jett, Lee Crystal, Howard Devoto, Magazine, Barry Adamson, John Doyle, Robin Simon, Dave Formula, Surf Punks, Dennis Dragon, Drew Steele, Ray Ban , Mark the Shark, Bill Dale, Andrew Jackson , The Members, Nicky Tesco, Chris Payne, J.C. Mainman, Nigel Bennett, Adrian Lilywhite, Au Pairs, Lesley Woods, Paul Foad, Jane Munro, Pete Hammond, The Cramps, Lux Interior, Nick Knox, Julien Griensnatch, Poison Ivy Rorschach, 999, Dave Allen, Gang of Four, The Alley Cats, Astro, UB40, Jello Biafra, Dead Kennedys, Steve Bodon, John Otway, D.J. Bonebrake, X, Ken Bronowski , Skafish, Jim Brown, Hugo Burnham, Ali Campbell, Robin Campbell, Bob Casale, Devo, Jerry Casale, Nick Cash, Exene Cervenka, Dianne Chai, Stewart Copeland, The Police, Javier Cruz, Guy Days, Devo, John Doe, Earl Falconer, The Fleshtones, Klaus Flouride, Mark Freeman, Andy Gill, Barbie Goodrich, Norman Hassan, Jon King, Scott Krauss, Pere Ubu, Pablo LaBritain, Tony Maimone, John McCarthy, Bill Milhizer, Mark Mothersbaugh, Robert Mothersbaugh, Alan Myers, Larry Mysliewiec, Alan Ofter, John Otway, Jan Marek Pakulski , Allen Ravenstine, East Bay Ray, Jim Skafish, Bruce Slesinger, Sting, Randy Stodola, Keith Streng, Andy Summers, David Thomas, Mayo Thompson, Brian Travers, Michael Virtue, Jon Watson, Peter Zaremba, Billy Zoom

Production: Lorimar Productions

Distribution: Filmways Pictures (USA), Pan-Canadian Film Distributors (Canada), Roadshow Film Distributors (Australia), Adams Filmi (Finland)

105 minutes
Rated PG

(Music Box) B-

Chicago Film Society

 

Man of Aran

(UK 1934)

It’s not very often that I’m torn on a film, but Robert J. Flaherty’s pseudo documentary Man of Aran is one where I am. First the good news: from a technical standpoint, this is a visually captivating film; crammed with impossibly rich and downright dangerous shots of the treacherous North Atlantic, the blacks are as dark as squid ink, the whites are as shimmeringly luminous as Tijuana silver, and the greys are a stunningly natural and lovely compromise between the two. These shades of grey are what impressed me most about this film. You’d be hard pressed to find a better fit for a nitrate print.

Now for the bad news: for all its visual allure, Man of Aran is boring. It unflinchingly shows what it takes to survive on a barren rock in the middle of the ocean, but it fails to explain why anyone would choose to do it. I was ready to leave after a half hour of watching waves crash on the rocks and men who look the Edge attack a shark. Yawn! I would have liked this better maybe if Sinead O’Connor’s “Jackie” were part of the soundtrack.

With Colman ‘Tiger’ King, Maggie Dirrane, Michael Dirrane, Pat Mullin, Patch ‘Red Beard’ Ruadh, Patcheen Faherty, Tommy O’Rourke, ‘Big Patcheen’ Conneely of the West, Stephen Dirrane, Pat McDonough

Production: Gainsborough Pictures

Distribution: Gaumont British Distributors (UK), Gaumont British Picture Corporation of America (USA), Éditions Montparnasse (France)

76 minutes
Not rated

(Dryden Theatre) A+ (visuals) / F (everything else) / C (average)

Nitrate Picture Show

Darkest Hour

(USA / UK 2017)

I’m coming clean on a few things. First, I had little to no interest in Darkest Hour; had it not been nominated for Best Picture, I wouldn’t be writing about it. Second, Dunkirk (https://moviebloke.com/2017/07/20/dunkirk/) already satisfied the WWII epic category earlier this year. Third, if I hear one more accolade for Gary Oldman transforming himself for this role, I’m going to pull out five or six DVDs of his earlier films and literally throw them at the person who says that. Like Meryl Streep, he’s made a career out of transforming himself. It’s what he does.

Okay, that’s off my chest.

Darkest Hour is a textbook historical war drama, this one about Winston Churchill (Oldman) and the obstacles he encountered early in his term as Prime Minister. His biggest though certainly not his only problem was mounting pressure from Conservatives and Parliament to negotiate a peace deal with Adolph Hitler as Europe fell to the Nazis in 1940. Churchill flatly refused because he didn’t trust Hitler. The predicament of British soldiers trapped at Dunkirk and Calais didn’t help his cause, at least not in the eyes of his peers.

Joe Wright’s directing and Anthony McCarten’s screenplay are both highly competent, buoyed nicely by Bruno Delbonnel’s luscious cinematography. I like that no bones are made about Franklin Roosevelt’s (David Strathairn) initial refusal to get involved. A later scene on the London Underground is amusing. The acting is exactly what you’d expect in a big budget historical drama like Darkest Hour, right down to the rousing eleventh hour do-or-die speech. Oldham is great, but frankly I’ve seen him do better, or at least more interesting roles.

I don’t mean to rip into this film. The finished product is fine for what it is. Darkest Hour just didn’t wow me. It’s conventional and predictable, working from the same template as other films of its ilk. The subject is overdone. I counted at least three recent movies made about events referenced here — the aforementioned Dunkirk, The King’s Speech, and W.E. Enough said. Speaking of Dunkirk, it moved me more than this did.

With Kristin Scott Thomas, Ben Mendelsohn, Lily James, Ronald Pickup, Stephen Dillane, Nicholas Jones, Samuel West, David Schofield, Richard Lumsden, Malcolm Storry, Hilton McRae, Benjamin Whitrow, Joe Armstrong, Adrian Rawlins, David Bamber, Paul Leonard, Eric MacLennan, Philip Martin Brown, Demetri Goritsas, Jordan Waller, Alex Clatworthy, Mary Antony, Bethany Muir, Anna Burnett, Jeremy Child, Hannah Steele, Nia Gwynne, Ade Haastrup, James Eeles, Flora Nicholson, Imogen King

Production: Perfect World Pictures, Working Title Films

Distribution: Focus Features

125 minutes
Rated PG-13

(Landmark Century) C+

http://focusfeatures.com/darkesthour

Phantom Thread

(USA / UK 2017)

“When I was a boy, I started to hide things in the lining of the garments. Things only I knew were there. Secrets.”

— Reynolds Woodcock

“I want you flat on your back. Helpless, tender, open. With only me to help. And then I want you strong again.”

— Alma Elson

London dress designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) wouldn’t be at the center of 1950s British haute couture without the women in his life — and all he has around him are women. He clothes royalty (Lujza Richter), models, and many a grande dame, some of them (Harriet Sansom Harris) crazy, in exquisite opulence he creates in his exclusive House of Woodcock. His stony sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) runs the business end of things. Part of that involves maintaining every detail of his affairs, keeping his life exactly like his clothing: meticulously crafted and custom tailored, just how he likes it.

Reynolds is a genius, but he’s also an insufferable control freak. A diva. A dick. This explains why he’s an “incurable” bachelor.

Women have come and gone, but not one has inspired Reynolds quite like Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps), a rather willful young waitress he meets in a café. He asks her out to dinner, then brings her back to his studio and fits her in a dress. It’s kind of weird and domineering, but it doesn’t repel her.

Alma moves in. Soon, she becomes lover and muse to Reynolds, forced to contend with his bizarre and condescending idiosyncrasies. Cyril takes note. Alma’s presence throws him off, sometimes provoking him to retreat into silence while other times sending him into a fit of rage. Serendipity leads Alma to the anecdote for his noxiousness.

Phantom Thread takes some work to digest — an unintended pun, but apt nonetheless. Writer/director/cinematographer Paul Thomas Anderson’s screenplay is subtle, which I assume is the reason his pace is so painstakingly measured. The result is a sublime slowburning masterpiece that leaves you pondering long after you’ve taken it all in. I’d like to see it again.

Reynolds struggles against the power that women hold over him, and Day-Lewis adroitly handles the nuance that this role requires. He’s particularly magnificent in a scene involving a hallucination: Reynolds talks to his deceased mother (Emma Clandon), and his dialogue sums up his existence. I can’t imagine anyone else in this role, which showcases his formidable talent. Day-Lewis announced his retirement before Phantom Thread came out (http://variety.com/2017/film/columns/daniel-day-lewis-retiring-1202477843/). Whether he actually does remains to be seen, but it’s certainly a high note in a long, storied, and impressive career.

I would be remiss not to mention Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s haunting score, which is foreboding, minimalist, and eloquent. It’s a perfect fit for the psychological drama that unfolds here.

As a small aside, we had the pleasure of catching Phantom Thread on 70mm. This is how it should be seen. We even got a special program — and I love stuff like that!

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With Sue Clark, Joan Brown, Harriet Leitch, Dinah Nicholson, Julie Duck, Maryanne Frost, Elli Banks, Amy Cunningham, Amber Brabant, Geneva Corlett, Juliet Glaves, Camilla Rutherford, Gina McKee, Brian Gleeson, Julia Davis, Nicholas Mander, Philip Franks, Phyllis MacMahon, Silas Carson, Richard Graham, Martin Dew, Ian Harrod, Jane Perry, Leopoldine Hugo

Production: Annapurna Pictures, Focus Features, Ghoulardi Film Company, Perfect World Pictures

Distribution: Focus Features (USA), United International Pictures (UIP) (International), Universal Pictures International (UPI) (International), NOS Audiovisuais (Portugal), CinemArt (Czech Republic), Bitters End (Japan), Parco Co. Ltd. (Japan)

130 minutes
Rated R

(Music Box) B+

http://www.focusfeatures.com/phantom-thread/

Hellraiser

(UK 1987)

“Oh, no tears, please. It’s a waste of good suffering!”

— “Pinhead” (the Lead Cenobite)

Roger Ebert famously derided Clive Barker’s directorial debut, the sadomasochistic horror classic Hellraiser, calling it “without wit, style, or reason” for its “bankruptcy of imagination” (http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/hellraiser-1987). Well, talk about tearing your soul apart!

Hellraiser isn’t particularly scary, but it is creepy and fucking weird. I certainly don’t find it lacking wit, style, or imagination; quite the opposite. It’s a ridiculous, kinky, and bloody telenovela. Based on Barker’s short novel The Hellbound Heart, Hellraiser takes the idea of something in the attic to a place no one else has.

Larry (Andrew Robinson) and Julia Cotton (Clare Higgins) have a strained marriage. After leaving Manhattan to go live in his abandoned boyhood home somewhere on the Atlantic coast, Julia finds Larry’s brother — who’s her ex lover — Frank (Sean Chapman in the flashbacks and Oliver Smith in the present) reanimated without skin in the attic. The movie doesn’t explain it, but the novel does: Larry cuts his hand and drips blood onto the attic floor, right where Frank’s comeshot dried up in the floorboards. Nice.

An unrelenting hedonist, Frank lost his body and soul to demons in his quest for sexual gratification. It started with an antique puzzle box that opened a portal to hell and summoned the Cenobites, led by “Pinhead” (Doug Bradley), the apparent spokesman for the motley foursome. Now, Frank needs blood, which is where Julia comes in. Too bad Frank’s daughter, Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), keeps getting in the way.

The special effects look cheap and the plot is choppy. It isn’t clear at first whether the cuts to Frank and Julia getting it on are flashbacks or fantasy, so this detail could have been done better. Nonetheless, Hellraiser is totally engrossing (and at points, just gross). Barker makes a silly story bizarre enough to keep you interested in what happens next. Higgins effectively channels a tortured melodramatic ’50s B-movie damsel in distress. And her big ’80s hair and sunglasses are fabulous!

Perhaps the best thing Hellraiser has going for it, though, is its twisted sense of humor: all of this happens — and will happen again — because Frank thinks with his dick. Now that’s funny.

With Nicholas Vince, Simon Bamford, Grace Kirby, Robert Hines, Anthony Allen, Leon Davis, Michael Cassidy, Frank Baker, Kenneth Nelson, Gay Baynes, Dave Atkins, Oliver Parker

Production: Cinemarque Entertainment BV, Film Futures, Rivdel Films

Distribution: New World Pictures (USA), Entertainment Film Distributors (UK), Highlight Film (West Germany), Paraiso Films S.A. (Spain), Prooptiki (Greece), Roadshow Film Distributors (Australia), Toei Classic (Japan), Vestron Benelux (Netherlands)

94 minutes
Rated R

(Music Box) B-

Music Box of Horrors

http://www.clivebarker.info/hellraiser.html

Swept Away

(UK / Italy 2002)

Guy Ritchie’s remake of Lina Wertmüller’s Swept Away, a film that looks like it would be Blue Lagoon but is far from it, was universally panned when it came out. I never saw it, and probably never would have bothered but for my recent discovery of Wertmüller’s work. A two-hour flight from Chicago to New York City and back seemed like the perfect time to get both of them out of the way.

I planned to watch Wertmüller’s original first because…well, that makes sense. Unfortunately, I didn’t start it early enough — the original is 25 minutes longer, and by the time I pulled out my iPad I didn’t have enough time for it. So, I had to settle for backward and watch Ritchie’s version first.

He sticks pretty close to the storyline of the original. Initially, I found Swept Away kind of boring but not offensively awful. Only after seeing Wertmüller’s version did it become painfully clear how lame this remake is; it’s utterly impotent by comparison.

Ritchie retains the critical plot elements of class tension and anticapitalist sentiment that color much of Wertmüller’s work, but here they don’t read the same way; they’re off. Trite, even. Ritchie injects dribs and drabs of his loutish brand of humor into his version, and I found that to be a plus. However, he turns Swept Away into a flaccid, neutered romantic dramedy that the original is not. His version is kinder, gentler, and softer. It has no edge to it whatsoever, which is unusual for him. Yawn.

Stiff and hollow, Madonna’s acting is par for the course. Her character, Amber, is suited to her image. She could’ve had fun with the role. Too bad she seriously overdoes the rich bitch bit and comes off as nasty, hateful, and angry. Not fun. Adriano Giannini, the son of Giancarlo Giannini who played the same role in the original, is nice to look at. That’s it, though; his character, Giuseppe, or as Amber calls him “Pee Pee,” is a turnoff — what a wimp!

The most interesting thing about Swept Away is that David Thornton, Cyndi Lauper’s husband, has a fairly substantial part. I wonder if that was awkward?

With Bruce Greenwood, Elizabeth Banks, Michael Beattie, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Yorgo Voyagis, Ricardo Perna, George Yiasoumi, Beatrice Luzzi, Lorenzo Ciompi, Patrizio Rispo, Francis Pardeilhan, Rosa Pianeta, Andrea Ragatzu

Production: CODI SpA, Ska Films

Distribution: Screen Gems (USA), Columbia TriStar Films (UK), Medusa Distribuzione (Italy)

89 minutes
Rated R

(iTunes rental) D

http://www.sonypictures.com/movies/sweptaway/

Whitney: Can I Be Me?

(UK / USA 2017)

Whitney Houston certainly needs no introduction, and I don’t need to remind anyone about her drug-fueled decline or her sad death five years ago. I saw her perform once when she toured for her first album, but I was never a fan. Still, I observed her career from the sidelines and know all her hits (and misses). To borrow from one of her songs, she almost had it all. Almost.

Co-director Nick Broomfield said that with Whitney: Can I Be Me?, he wanted to show another side of the story: “There was very little attempt to really understand where this was coming from or what it was about. I would like a lot of people to feel that there was a whole other way of looking at this.” (http://www.rollingstone.com/movies/features/whitney-houston-documentary-director-speaks-out-she-was-so-judged-w497676 ). It’s a good idea: fair and balanced, OK.

For better or for worse, Broomfield, who shares a directing credit with Rudi Dolezal for his footage from Houston’s 1999 My Love Is Your Love World Tour, takes a decidedly conventional and low key approach here. He eschews TMZ-like sensationalism, which is refreshing, even admirable. However, the finished product rings incomplete.

Broomfield shows Houston’s dirty laundry. We learn that she used drugs from adolescence. She wasn’t particularly polished. Her mother pushed her, hard. Her label, Arista, had a grand plan for her, and it specifically excluded drawing a black audience. Her BFF Robyn Crawford, who stayed involved with Houston’s career until the aforementioned 1999 tour, was (and still is) a lesbian, which led to rumors. Houston and Bobby Brown were in love, but it didn’t stop him from cheating on her — apparently, he preyed on Houston’s entourage. Crawford and Brown didn’t get along, which created tension. There was also that thing with Houston’s father that happened at the end of his life.

We gets hints and glimpses of what led to Houston’s downfall, but in the end the whole thing is shallow. Like her image throughout her career, Whitney: Can I Be Me? presents a sanitized or at least downplayed picture. Broomfield could’ve dug deeper. He was getting there with Houston’s former bodyguard, David Roberts, who claims that he was repeatedly ignored when he warned everyone around her that Houston was on a fatal trajectory. This documentary falls short; it’s flat and has nothing, shall we say, so emotional. It doesn’t reveal all that much. As a result, it isn’t all that moving.

Another biographical documentary about Houston is in the works (https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/apr/28/kevin-macdonald-official-whitney-houston-documentary ) ( http://www.whitneyhouston.com/news/director-kevin-macdonald-whitney-houston-documentary/ ). So, there’s more to come. Let’s hope Kevin MacDonald’s version is more compelling.

With David Roberts, Cissy Houston, John Russell Houston Jr., Bobbi Kristina Brown, Bobby Brown, Robyn Crawford

Production: Lafayette Films, Passion Pictures, Showtime Networks

Distribution: Showtime (USA), British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) (UK), Arsenal Filmverleih (Germany), Eagle Pictures (Italy), Periscoop Film (Netherlands)

105 minutes
Not rated

(Gene Siskel Film Center) C

http://www.sho.com/titles/3433528/whitney-can-i-be-me

Dunkirk

(USA / UK / France / Netherlands 2017)

I have mixed feelings about Christopher Nolan’s spectacular Dunkirk, a World War II military drama that has very little to do with battle. Told from three perspectives — land (“the mole”), sea, and air — the story here centers on an evacuation, that of British and allied soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk, a fishing village in northern France at the Belgian border, over a ten-day period in late Spring 1940 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunkirk_evacuation).

I have to admit ignorance here: I knew nothing about the Dunkirk evacuation going into this film. Nolan doesn’t spend any time on background or what led to this point; instead, he just picks up with British soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) fleeing German fire outside the beach. I wish I had known ahead of time because I would have done some research. I thought a better job could have been done telling the story.

The structure, jumping between the three perspectives, takes a little work to follow. What exactly is going on is unclear and confusing, and it creates a nice sense of claustrophobia and panic in many scenes — especially that boat scene. This is good. However, keeping track of the characters is a tough task not made any easier by giving all the soldiers the exact same black hair dye. I found it hard to relate to or care much about any of them because I was kept at arm’s length. I couldn’t get invested. While definitely not the same story, Dunkirk is a kind of a big budget Son of Saul — just not as good.

As a spectacle, though, Dunkirk is magnificent. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema shot it on 70 millimeter film, and he packs this picture with gorgeous wide shots of the beach, the sea, and throngs of desperate soldiers. He beautifully captures the hopelessness of the situation with a drab palette of only a few army colors: greens, greys, blues, and cold whites that convey a chill I could see and feel. The sound is over the top loud. If nothing else, Dunkirk is total sensory overload. It’s worth seeing for that alone.

Side note: I’m not sure which is the bigger surprise here — that 1D’s Harry Styles actually isn’t terrible, or that Tom Hardy is hidden under aviator goggles for the entire film. The latter is a bummer. He’s so hot!

With Mark Rylance, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Michael Caine

Production: Syncopy, Warner Brothers, Dombey Street Productions, Kaap Holland Film, Canal+, Ciné+, RatPac-Dune Entertainment

Distribution: Warner Brothers, Karo Premiere (Russia), NOS Audiovisuais (Portugal), Roadshow Entertainment (New Zealand), Roadshow Films (Australia)

106 minutes
Rated PG-13

(Music Box) C+

http://www.dunkirkmovie.com

God’s Own Country

(UK 2017)

Francis Lee’s first feature God’s Own Country isn’t something I’d expect to open a film festival, but already it’s opened two: the 71st Edinburgh International Film Festival and the 35th Outfest Los Angeles LGBT Film Festival. I caught it at the latter.

God’s Own Country is a slow burner about a romance between a frustrated young farmer and a migrant Romanian worker. It doesn’t start out like a typical love story, it doesn’t develop like one, and it certainly doesn’t end like one. Kudos to Lee for that. In the end, it succeeds on multiple levels.

Set in rural Yorkshire, Johnny Saxby (Josh O’Connor) is the isolated 20-something son of a middle-aged sheep farmer (Ian Hart) whose days are numbered. While his father is dying, Johnny plugs away caring for calves and sheep, obviously resenting every minute of it. Something is amiss, something that has nothing to do with the farm.

Why are you so weird, boy? Johnny are you queer, boy? Turns out, yes: we learn this early on in the film at a cattle market, where Johnny picks up a trick (John McCrea) and fucks him in the back of a trailer. This small scene tells us all we need to know about where Johnny is with his sexuality through his terse response at the end of this tryst: his trick invites him for a pint, which Johnny coldly, emphatically, and violently declines.

Enter Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), a hot Romanian farmhand who shows up just in time for “lambing,” or birthing lambs. He’s not a talker, but his eyes and his hands say everything. Johnny is intrigued. So are we in the audience.

Deliberately paced, God’s Own Country is a big statement composed of small, seemingly inconsequential moments. Each one is anything but. Like a horror movie, a few scenes literally make me call out to Johnny to ask him, “What are you doing?” Comparisons to Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain are inevitable, but this is not the same story. First of all, there’s no “I can’t quit you” moment. Second, I like to think the ending is much happier even if it leaves a lot to the imagination. I can’t wait to see what Lee does next.

With Gemma Jones, Harry Lister Smith, Melanie Kilburn, Liam Thomas , Patsy Ferran, Sarah White, Alexander Suvandjiev, Stefan Dermendjiev

Production: Inflammable Films, Magic Bear Productions, Shudder Films

Distribution: Picturehouse Entertainment (UK), Orion Pictures (USA), Samuel Goldwyn Films (USA)

Screening introduced and followed by a live Q and A with director Francis Lee and actor Alec Secareanu

104 minutes
Not rated

(Orpheum Theatre) B+

Outfest Los Angeles LGBT Film Festival 

http://www.godsowncountryfilm.com

Maurice

(UK 1987)

“England has always been disinclined to accept human nature.”

— Lasker-Jones

I’m not usually a fan of period pieces, especially those set in Victorian or Edwardian England. Somehow, they tend to be stuffy, grandiloquent affairs that warrant a great big yawn — and they turn me off. James Ivory’s adaptation of E.M. Forster’s novel Maurice, however, is an exception.

I caught a 30th anniversary screening, and something crucial struck me: Ivory and cowriter Kit Hesketh-Harvey’s screenplay is downright daring even for the time when Maurice came out (no pun intended). A sort of forbidden romance that one character sees as the love of his life while the other tosses it aside as the folly of youth, I was moved by the frank depiction of gay love as a tender yet treacherous battlefield, no different than any other love — measured by intensity, law, or social construct. For this, Maurice stands way ahead of its time, even today.

Maurice Hall (James Wilby) is essentially Oscar Wilde at Cambridge circa 1910. He makes a move on social climbing classmate Clive Durham (Hugh Grant), who surprisingly welcomes his advances. They can only go so far, though: Clive doesn’t want to jeopradize his social standing, so the two maintain a platonic relationship. This is the key to Maurice, and the thing that makes it monumental: this is a film that attacks appearances.

Time goes by, shit happens, and Maurice ends up with Clive’s gutter cleaner, Alec Scudder (Rupert Graves, who looks like a plebeian Paul Young). This upsets Clive and sends Maurice to therapy. In the end, Maurice makes a choice that so many of us gays have: to be gay, or not to be.

Maurice operates on a strange platitude, one that isn’t clear at first. Maurice is vulnerable, almost stupid. Clive is chilly, reserved, and completely repressed. Both skirt around their issue. I found myself rooting for and actually admiring Maurice, who stays true to himself — class, law, and sexuality be damned. That last look on Clive’s face in the final scene is devastating…for him.

With Denholm Elliott, Simon Callow, Billie Whitelaw, Barry Foster, Judy Parfitt, Phoebe Nicholls, Ben Kingsley, Patrick Godfrey, Mark Tandy, Kitty Aldridge, Helena Michell, Catherine Rabett, Peter Eyre, Helena Bonham Carter

Production: Merchant Ivory Productions, Film Four International

Distribution: Cinecom Pictures (USA), Enterprise Pictures Limited (UK), Concorde Film (Netherlands), Cohen Media Group (USA)

140 minutes
Rated R

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B

http://www.merchantivory.com/film/maurice