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Poor Cow – DVD Review

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Poor Cow posterReviewer:  Freda Cooper

Director:  Ken Loach

Stars:  Carol White, Terence Stamp, John Binden

Certificate: 15

                                                           Released 25 July 2016

 

Earlier this year, Ken Loach won the Palme D’Or at Cannes for I, Daniel Blake. This year has also seen the restoration and re-release of his very first feature, Poor Cow, from 1967.  It returned to cinemas recently and is now out on DVD.  Loach’s film career – he started in TV – reaches a half century next year and Poor Cow was where it all started.  The tone has hardly changed.

Based on the novel by Nell Dunn, who co-wrote the screenplay in Loach (he didn’t start his collaboration with Paul Laverty until 1996 with Carla’s Song), it follows the life and misfortunes of the ironically named Joy (Carol White).  The film opens with her giving birth to her little boy, Johnny, in 1960s London.  Although married to the boy’s father, she soon finds she has to look after herself when goes to jail.  She finds temporary happiness with Dave (Terence Stamp) but they’re separated as well, so she is forced to provide for herself and her son in any way she knows how.

Interviewed recently on Radio Four about the film, Loach described it with typical modesty as being “better than I thought it was” and, to today’s eyes, there is a roughness around the edges.  Nell Dunn’s original book was a series of vignettes rather than a novel in the conventional sense: she and Loach have linked them together with a narration from Joy, contemporary music and chapter headings, again all Joy’s own words, to give us the story of one young woman’s life.  Not as overtly political as we’ve come to expect from Loach, but definitely a social commentary and, for today’s audiences, a piece of modern social history.

What are regarded as essentials nowadays – bathrooms, washing machines, disposal nappies – simply aren’t around and Joy’s accommodation isn’t much better, just threadbare flats or rooms.  Yet you can’t escape the contemporary resonance lingering just below the surface: life hasn’t changed that much for low-income families.  And women are expected to know their place, in other words look after the children and the home and do everything they’re told to do.  If not, a slap is usually their reward, often in public as we witness, along with Joy and Dave.

Joy fits the mould, believing that having a man in her life is the most important thing, but her choices are less than ideal.  Husband Tom (John Binden) is a burglar, which means sometimes they’re hard up and sometimes they’re not.  Or, as one of the chapter titles puts it “When Tom was in the money, the world was our oyster.  We chose Ruislip.”  But he’s also abusive, caring little about his son, and goes to prison after his latest “job”, leaving Joy to fend for herself.  Her relationship with his friend, Dave, is probably the closest she gets to happiness: they’re genuinely happy, he loves her little boy and treats her with tenderness and respect.  But, just like Tom, he’s a burglar: Joy knows this, but he deliberately conceals the whole truth about what he does from her – as she discovers at his trial.  What she hears just doesn’t equate with the man she knows and loves.

She then flits from man to man, and job to job, working as a barmaid and also modelling for amateur photographers with her friend Beryl (Kate Williams).  Her pretty smile and flirtatious nature mean that she’s rarely alone – something she admits to being scared of – and that she can get work easily.  And it’s a heartfelt performance from Carol White, whose acting career peaked in the 60s – she was TV’s Cathy in Loach’s Cathy Come Home – and saw her typecast as women who survived the hardships life threw at them.  Here, she’s bright but perhaps not as smart as she thinks she is, has terrible taste in men but still retains a vague ambition to “make it”, in other words have lots of money and a comfortable life.  How she intends to achieve that is less clear.

Loach doesn’t completely overcome the film-making challenges presented by the vignettes in the original book.  Chopping the film up into short chapters, linked by titles and music is functional, but produces a jerky feel.  What makes up for it is the quality of the performances and the semi-documentary realism that runs throughout: Terence Stamp has been quoted as saying that most of the scenes in the film were improvised and it very often looks like it.  It’s all intermingled with shots of real people, such as at the seaside or on the streets of East London.

It’s easy to view Poor Cow with 20/20 hindsight.  We know how life in this country, for women in particular, has changed and we know how Loach’s career has developed.  Look at it through 1960s eyes and you see something mould-breaking, shocking  – the opening shots of Joy giving birth leave little or nothing to the imagination – and sometimes too close to home.  And that’s how we should watch it.

 

Freda's been a film fan all her life - the best qualification for the job! As well as being a Movie Marker regular, she has her own blog, Talking Pictures - https://fredacooper.wordpress.com/ - and a podcast of the same name - https://soundcloud.com/freda-14/talkingpictures6october2016. She can even be heard burbling on about films every Friday morning on BBC Surrey and Sussex!

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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