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Freeheld

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Release date: 19 February

Director: Peter Sollett

Starring: Julianne Moore, Ellen Page, Michael Shannon

In LGBT History Month, a genuine piece of LBGT history comes to the big screen and is given something of the Hollywood treatment.

“Freeheld” is based on the 2007 documentary of the same name, which traced the fight by New Jersey police officer, Laurel Hester, for her pension to pass on her death to her legal domestic partner.  Time was running out: Laurel had terminal cancer, and it turned out to be a local case that ultimately took on national and international significance, as well as changing American law.  In July 2015, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the right to marriage is guaranteed to all Americans, including same sex couples.  But the story starts in New Jersey in 2005…

Laurel (Julianne Moore) has been a police officer in Ocean County, New Jersey, for over 20 years.  She takes the job in her stride – drugs busts, murder investigations – but what her colleagues don’t know is that she’s gay.  When she meets the much younger Stacie Andree (Ellen Page), she finds the relationship she’s been looking for and the two set up home together, registering themselves as Domestic Partners.  When she’s diagnosed with terminal cancer, Laurel assumes their legal status means that, on her death, her benefits will pass to Stacie.  But the Ocean County legislature, known as the Board of Freeholders, have another view.

The original documentary lasted just 40 minutes, concentrating on Laurel’s campaign, and its length tells you something about this version.  Its essence lies in the second half – the campaign, the relationship between the two women and Laurel’s failing health.  Much of the first half is taken up with Laurel’s police work and her eventual meeting with Stacie: it feels stretched and, at times, almost like padding to make sure of fitting the feature film format. A look at the documentary’s website, www.freeheld.com, shows that some of its scenes have been faithfully re-created in this dramatized version.  But it’s also been Hollywood-ised.  The real Laurel’s post-chemo baldness is nowhere near as perfect as Julianne Moore’s smooth dome.

As a portrait of gay people, it’s uneven.  Heading up the local action group that becomes involved in Laurel’s case is Steve Goldstein (Steve Carell), who describes himself as “loud, gay and a Jew”.  And he’s most certainly all three, always wearing his kippah and calling everybody “honey”.  Yet, much as he causes some laughter, he’s little more than a caricature and a gay one at that, making it uncomfortable in a film that’s about equal rights for the gay community.

The relationship between Laurel and Stacie fares better, with one aspect especially well-drawn.  Laurel is in her mid to late 40s, born at a time when it was unacceptable to be gay.  That, combined with the attitudes on display in the police force, means she’s secretive about her sexuality.  She hasn’t even told her closest colleague, Dane Wells (Michael Shannon), even though it’s pretty obvious he has a crush on her.  Stacie, on the other hand, is not much past 20 and, without the constraints of a public job or social attitudes to contend with, is far more open.

It’s a given that Moore suffers beautifully, although this is the second time in recent years that she’s battled bravely against a disease we all dread.  This time it’s cancer and she does it with her customary conviction.  On the male side of the story is the consistently impressive Michael Shannon as the counterpoint to the women at the centre of the story: uncomfortable with emotions and gay issues, but strong enough to back his friend all the way, even if it means being the only cop in Ocean County openly supporting her.

“Freeheld” gives you a true and inspirational story through a soft focus lens, aiming straight for your tear ducts.  It hits the mark – until you realise what it’s doing and start resisting.  More than that, it’s too glossy and clumsily wears its heart on its sleeve: a quick glance at the poster tells you all you need to know.  Thankfully, it’s redeemed by its leading actors but this is a film which is brought down by its good intentions.

Freeheld is released in cinemas and online on 19 February and on DVD on 22 February.

DVD/Blu-ray

God’s Own Country (DVD/Blu-Ray Review)

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Released: 29th January 2018

Directed By: Francis Lee

Starring: Josh O’Connor, Alec Secareanu

Reviewed By: Barry Levitt

Last year may have been unbearable in many facets, but for queer cinema, 2017 was a landmark year. Starting the year with Moonlight winning Best Picture, a number of LGBT films were released around the world including the critically acclaimed Call Me By Your Name, A Fantastic Woman and Princess Cyd. But perhaps the finest of them all was Francis Lee’s debut feature God’s Own Country, a story of a young farmer in Yorkshire whose way of living is permanently altered when a Romanian worker comes to work at the farm for lambing season. The film is out via Picturehouse Entertainment on DVD, Blu-Ray and VOD on the 29th January.

Johnny (Josh O’Connor) spends his evenings drinking and searching for casual sex with other men in an effort to escape his own mundane existence. He lives and works with his father and grandmother on a quiet Yorkshire farm, though due to his father’s ailing health, Johnny is forced to take care of the day to day operations. As lambing season approaches, the farm is in need of extra help as Johnny’s drinking has prevented him from doing the work necessary to keep the farm afloat. Johnny’s father Martin (Ian Hart) hires a Romanian worker named Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) during the busy lambing season to help keep the farm going.

God’s Own Country has been often described as a British Brokeback Mountain, and while the film’s similarities are worth noting, they are remarkably different in approach. The main romance in question in Francis Lee’s film is warmly embraced. The sex scenes in particular are dealt with beautifully: free of mystery and shame, the scenes are explicit without being pornographic, and bursting with passion. Sure, the resistance is there – Johnny is deeply frustrated sexually, and his sexuality is kept secret from almost everyone, and he does not exactly instantly warm to Gheorghe’s presence. The film’s power comes from Lee’s excellent script and calm, patient direction. As a viewer, Johnny’s loneliness is almost palpable, making his motivations clear and as a result it is easy to empathise with him.

Lee also does a tremendous job bringing the Yorkshire farmlands to life. His camera evokes an almost tactile response, and it is as if you could feel the grass and the mud; this film is simply full of raw and unflinching moments. There is a particularly touching sequence which Gheorghe tends to a newborn lamb that wonderfully evokes everything that God’s Own Country represents, things that seem broken can be reborn and renewed with tender love and care.

The film’s beauty also comes down to tremendous performances from the principal cast. O’Connor and Secareanu bring a wonderful vulnerability that is vital to the film’s beating heart. Ian Hart and Gemma Jones, who plays Johnny’s grandmother, are both utterly exceptional. God’s Own Country is a tender, quiet and moving meditation on love and loneliness, and wouldn’t be half as powerful without these great performances.

The home entertainment release of God’s Own Country comes with a series of deleted and extended scenes. Though it is easy to see why they were cut down or removed entirely, there is some interesting stuff here that fleshes out some of their characters. The film looks and sounds great, but it is a shame that such an excellent film wasn’t given more bonus material. Still, for fans of the film and for those who have yet to see it, one of the best films of 2017 absolutely deserves a home in your collection.

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The Small World Of Sammy Lee – DVD Review

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Reviewer:  Freda Cooper

Director:  Ken Hughes

Stars:  Anthony Newley, Julia Foster, Robert Stephens, Wilfrid Brambell, Warren Mitchell, Roy Kinnear

Certificate: 12

Released 14th November 2016

 

In 1958, Ken Hughes’ half hour play, ‘Sammy’ appeared on British television.  It attracted huge acclaim and turned its solidary actor, Anthony Newley, into a star.  Several years later, he returned to the same part, this time in the much-expanded ‘The Small World Of Sammy Lee’, written and directed by Hughes and released in cinemas in 1963.  The response wasn’t so warm.

Now described by some as a lost gem of British cinema, it returned to the big screen in a newly restored version at the London Film Festival and is released on DVD and Blu-Ray this week.  Time for a re-assessment.

The Sammy Lee of the title (Newley) is the compere at a Soho strip joint and a fast talking chancer.  He’s also up to his neck in debt with the local bookie and has just five hours to raise the cash that will prevent paying up in a more painful way.  It’s a race against the clock for him to find the money, through all manner of dodgy deals.  At the same time, he has to cope with a major complication in his life, the young Patsy (Julia Foster) who fell for his showy offer of a job and has left home to pursue him. 

Right from the opening shot, this is a period piece and a large chunk of nostalgia for anybody familiar with the London of the 60s, Soho especially.  The early moments show streets that are empty, except for the bin men collecting the remains of the night before.  Them aside, there’s hardly anybody around, but all that changes as the day progresses.  You find yourself picking out street names and locations – Berwick Street market for one – while the black and white photography introduces the inherent seediness of the area, such as the strip club interior both back stage and front of house, the snooker halls, the pokey bed-sits.  It extends to the characters as well, from Sammy with his stock of hackneyed, vaguely smutty gags straight out of the Archie Rice joke book to the pathetic Harry (Wilfrid Brambell) who runs his errands and, inevitably, falls down on the job.

All of which makes the more law-abiding characters stand out.  There’s a one-scene portrait of Sammy’s family, his hard working brother Lou (Warren Mitchell) who runs a Whitechapel delicatessen and wife Milly (Miriam Karlin), dripping in costume jewellery and lacking any sympathy for Sammy when he arrives on the scrounge.  So much so, that you suspect there may have been something between the two before she settled for his brother.  And there’s the naïve Patsy who sees him for what he is but still adores him and finds promotion from waitress to “dancer” in the club upsetting and humiliating.

The scenes in the club give away the film’s 30 minute original, there’s one too many scene of Sammy running through the Soho streets and the Patsy love interest feels like padding, but why should a film with so much in the way of character and location fall so flat when it was released?  One reason could be timing.  It didn’t fit with the move towards “kitchen sink dramas” – it came out in the same year as ‘The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner’ and ‘This Sporting Life’, while ‘A Kind Of Loving’ had been released in 1962.  Sammy’s story isn’t a thriller either and doesn’t make the most of the dramatic potential of his limited time for raising that money.  Nor is it a comment on society.

But, despite its shortcomings, there is much to enjoy, particularly among the performances.  Newley is suitably nervy to the point of hyper as Sammy, while the oil positively drips off Robert Stephens’ club owner.  And it’s littered with cameos from other familiar faces, like Derek Nimmo, Roy Kinnear and even Linda Baron (Nurse Gladys Emmanuel from ‘Open All Hours’).  The street scenes in Soho are so evocative you can almost smell the garbage and the club interior is always viewed through a fug of cigarette smoke.

It adds up to a film rich in curiosity value for today’s audience, something of a love letter to the Soho of the 60s, but one that misses the dramatic target by a whisker.  Second time round, it seems destined to appeal to a limited audience all over again, one that treasures older, unsung British films.

 

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One Million Years BC – DVD Review

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Reviewer:  Freda Cooper

Director:  Don Chaffey

Stars:  Raquel Welch, John Richardson, Martine Beswick

Certificate: PG

Released: 24th October 2016

 

Cinema history may be littered with bikini moments, but only a few have achieved true iconic status.  Ursula Andress in ‘Dr No’ (1962) for one, followed by numerous other Bond girls who tried to re-create the moment, most notably Halle Berry in ‘Die Another Day’ (2002).  And there was Bo Derek in ‘10’ (1979).  But only one actress had the dubious honour of sporting a fur bikini.  She was the almost-unknown Raquel Welch in ‘One Million Years BC’ (1966) and the garment, with its remarkable adhesive properties, made her an international star. 

The film makes its return in a newly restored version on DVD to mark its 50th anniversary.  And, while Welch in her bikini is easily its best known image, it also overshadows the film’s other achievement.  Not only was it the most successful film ever to come out of Hammer Studios, it was also the big screen’s most famous dinosaur epic until the arrival of ‘Jurassic Park’ some 26 years later.  And much of that was down to the creations of the legendary Ray Harryhausen.  While some of them aren’t up to his usual standard – little more than enlarged versions of a lizard and a turtle – there’s a great dinosaur battle which shows the maestro at his best.

The audiences queuing to see the film in ’66 certainly didn’t go along for the plot.  It’s pretty basic stuff, all about two tribes.  The Stone People are a vicious lot, living in the mountains and regularly knocking seven bells out of each other.  They kick out Tumak (John Richardson), one of their leader’s sons, and he finds his way to the coast where he discovers the Shell People, who show him a different, more peaceful way of life.  It’s not long before the two tribes come into conflict, but then they eventually have to come together in a battle for survival.

Unsurprisingly, the dialogue isn’t up to much – the occasional word and a few grunts – so the demands on the cast are more physical than anything.  And, once director Don Chaffey has exhausted the appeal of Harryhausen’s dinosaurs, he throws the kitchen sink at the film in the shape of the final sequence, a volcanic eruption and earthquake, all of which is pretty spectacular for its day.

The restoration has certainly sharpened up the look of the film and the DVD comes complete with a variety of extras, including interviews with Welch and her co-star, Martine Beswick.  But comparisons with today’s special effects are inevitable and, while Harryhausen’s monsters are seriously impressive for their day, both they and the film are more of a period piece, laden with nostalgia for fans of the 60s.

 

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