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Conduct Unbecoming (1975)
What my family would call 'a real it's-him'
If you're familiar with Fametracker and its 'Hey! It's that guy!' feature, you'll understand what I mean by an 'it's-him'. It's when you watch a film and all the way through you're pointing at second banana actors going 'Oh look, it's him'. One of the pleasures of this film is trying to work out exactly why so-and-so's face is familiar and then realising it's Prior Robert from TVs Cadfael, or something similar.
I read the play Conduct Unbecoming at school, and while this film does not go quite as deeply into the themes it throws up, ie moral bankruptcy in the British Raj/army and macho values in general, it remains a well-made, well acted period drama redolent of the distinctive spirit of the period.
Then again, I could be biased because I find Milington so dishy (he played Herod Agrippa in I, Claudius, in case you're stumped!)
A Month in the Country (1987)
The last movements of a phantom limb
When an arm or leg is removed, the amputee can continue to 'feel' it for some time afterwards. The phantom limb can hurt, or itch, or feel cold. But nothing is truly the same.
Similarly, the First World War irrevocably altered Britain, but in its immediate aftermath we limped on, unaware (or unwilling to admit) that anything had changed. It's this brief period of denial that Month in the Country illustrates: the moment when we teetered on the edge of the 19th century before toppling into the 20th.
Consequently, while it is a film of great heartbreak and loss, it is also one of great hope and triumph of the human spirit. There is one scene that perfectly illustrates this: a little girl visits her friend, who is sick in bed. She talks about the weather and her new hat and how they'll play together when her friend gets well. Then as she walks back home she says to Colin Firth
'She knows she's dying, doesn't she?'
It is as tragic for the girl to be so knowing and capable in the face of death as it is for young men to have experienced the hell of the trenches and return to indifference and hostility. But because of that tragedy they will go on to experience a more real, and potentially more joyful world, than the other inhabitants of comfortable and conventional Oxgodby.
Purely Belter (2000)
Pure class from Mark Herman
Rougher and less stylised than Herman's previous features Brassed Off and Little Voice, Purely Belter nevertheless contains elements fast becoming his trademark. Sharp comic dialogue sugaring a pill of biting social satire; life for the post-Thatcher working class; and those little things that make life bearable, but end up cutting you off from life. In Brassed Off it was Danny and his band, in Little Voice LV and her records, and for Gerry and Sewell it's football.
Like Gerry, I am a passionate football fan who has only just been to her first match - Glentoran v. Liverpool in Belfast. A pre-season friendly, not even at Anfield. But when Robbie Fowler - my favourite player - scored, my primal yell of 'YESS!!' started at my feet and rushed through all my veins. It was wonderful. Herman captures that feeling even when the lads enter the despised ground of their enemies Sunderland.
In Brassed Off and Little Voice, Danny and LV break free of their obsessions into lives which are far from perfect, but real. But Gerry and Sewell don't. Maybe because they're so much younger: Danny can remember when the mine was thriving, LV remembers when her Dad was alive. Gerry and Sewell have only ever known this life. Only ever been waiting for Saturday to come.
Perhaps that makes this the darkest of the three films. Perhaps not. Purely Belter will thoroughly entertain you, and if you let it, it will make you really think.
Chain of Command (2000)
A pleasant surprise
A by-the-numbers action thriller elevated by some intriguing situations and nice surprises. There are some unlikely plot contrivances, but these are balanced by (to me) convincing portrayals of the tense scenes that would arise from the 'football' falling into the wrong hands. I also liked the way that the standard shoot-em-up action is balanced with the negotiation scenes. And casting a Hispanic woman as the Vice President - hats off!
The Rage: Carrie 2 (1999)
For Eddie Kaye Thomas completists only
I remember reading Carrie cover-to-cover in one sitting when I was about 14 - scared the bejesus out of me. Yes it was generic horror, but it was generic horror with style, as was the original film. This was just generic horror. If you like gore you'll be well served (I had my hands over my eyes but I'm sure I made out a quivering brain at one point) but as for genuine soul-deep chills, which the best King adaptations (Carrie, The Shining) provide, there are none.
Don't know why Jason London was in it either: he's patently too old to be in high school and no one who's been in a Kevin Smith film should be reduced to this (even if it was Mallrats).
However, as my summary states, there is one ray of light in this, the incomparable Eddie Kaye Thomas. Only has about five lines and still steals the movie. Even in blue camouflage combat trousers and covered in eggs. Worship at the altar of Finch, my brethren.
Love's Labour's Lost (2000)
Wallow in unabashed romanticism
There are so many things to surprise and enjoy in this film: the way it's so obviously filmed on a soundstage; Patrick Doyle's arrangements of the classic songs; the fake Pathe newsreel; rent-a-nutter Matthew Lillard's unexpectedly sweet singing voice; the gorgeous clothes; Adrian Lester's breathtaking routine to 'I've Got A Crush On You'; and at the heart of it all, a script from a writer you can always trust to deliver.
Those who criticise this film do so with three arguments. Firstly they say it fails as a production of Shakespeare. Why? When I watched it, I was entertained, I was enchanted by the language, I got a vivid picture of the emotional landscape of the play and most of all, I wanted to watch more Shakespeare. Mission accomplished, surely? What Branagh's critics do no appreciate is that he makes not films of Shakespeare plays, but Shakespeare films: translating the stories into a modern medium so that people who will never pick up a book or set foot in a theatre can be touched by the most beautiful language ever written.
Secondly they say it fails as a musical, citing the cast's limitations as singers and dancers. But the days when Hollywood stars could dance as a matter of course are gone (imagine a director telling Adam Sandler to charleston). And if you go back and watch some of the great musicals, you'll see that the best voices (Sinatra, Judy Garland) were singers first, and actors second, a luxury that a director of Shakespeare cannot afford. And anyway, none of the cast are tone deaf with two left feet. They perform with competence and enthusiasm, and those who can really cut it (Lester, Nathan Lane) are given ample opportunity to showcase their talents.
Lastly they criticise its unabashed romanticism. Well, here I agree: if you haven't a romantic bone in your body, you'll hate this film. But if you've ever been tempted to sing 'I'm on the street where you live' under your lover's window (no matter how drunk you were), this is a delicious treat. Save it for when you've had a pig of a day and indulge yourself.