Hustle (2022) ****

Never thought I’d be praising the acting of Adam Sandler –  or lasting to the end of a Netflix movie (yep that includes The Irishman). Except that this effort which appeared to be very off-message for the sports genre suddenly veered back on course towards the finishing line I thought it had the makings of a genuine five-star movie, almost the prequel to all those Kevin Costner-type picture where the washed-up sports star/coach ends up working with a team from Nowheresville.

For a long time the movie’s tension derives from it looking as if the career of wannabe basketball star Bo Cruz (Juancho Hernangomez) is going south before it has even begun, partly from self-inflicted issues and partly from the shenanigans of the all-powerful,  and in so doing exposes the rough and dirty underbelly of basketball.

Scout Stan Sugarman (Adam Sandler) achieves his lifetime ambition of being promoted by ageing owner Rex Merrick (Robert Duvall) to assistant coach of the Philadelphia 76ers. But Merrick’s sudden death sends Stanley back on the road where he discovers hustler Bo playing in an ordinary outdoor court. Having incurred the enmity of Vince (Ben Foster), Rex’s son and new team boss, and with Bo being denied a contract, Stan quits and tries to get Bo accepted into the national trials (known, for the uninitiated, as the Combine Draft).

But Bo, who has a conviction for assault, blows his chance, loses his potential breakthrough spot and except for Stan’s herculean efforts would be on a fast track back to Nowheresville. Which would have been an interesting picture in itself, there being far more losers in sport than winners, and always room in some lower league for a washed-up coach.

Sure, there’s the usual unusual training regime (this is the home of Rocky after all), and plenty one-to-one scrimmaging and amazing shots, but mostly it moves at a slower pace, a character study more than anything, as Stan learns to mentor his pupil and his pupil learns to cope with mental pressures. Opportunities to widen the picture’s scope – a potential romance with Stan’s daughter Alex (Jordan Hull) or crisis in the Sugarman home – are ignored in favour of a sharper character focus.

I’m no fan of basketball, never watched a game, couldn’t name a single player unless they starred in an animated feature, and yet I was fascinated by the way the game was played, the ins-and-outs of on-field play. Having watched it, I wouldn’t say I was any more educated, couldn’t even tell you how many people were in a team or even how long as game lasted, but for sure it kept my interest.

There’s contrasting use of social media – one that triggers the young man’s downfall, another that prompts his comeback. But in the main, especially if like me you are unfamiliar with the game, you are mostly gripped by the tension, the consequences of failure for Stan far greater than failure for Bo, and the eventuality that there is no way this can work out. And in that respect it’s not like Rocky or Any Given Sunday where the steps to success are more readily pinpointed.

Like Brad Pitt, Adam Sandler (Uncut Gems, 2109) is entering potentially the “last leg” of his career. He’s lost the annoying nasal whine and the manic comedic energy and transitioned the loser persona into a more recognisable human being. Denied the need to strive for laughs, his delivery is more conversational and realistic. Juancho Hernangomez, a basketball player, making his acting debut, sensibly restrains himself. Queen Latifah (The Tiger Rising, 2022) has also stepped away from comedy although she enjoys some good riffs with Sandler. Jordan Hull (The L Word: Generation Q, 2019-2020)  also makes her movie debut. Ben Foster (Hell or High Water, 2016) plays the mean boss. SNL graduate Heidi Gardner is another stepping out of her comfort zone.

There are some anomalies, most notable being that Sandler seems a few inches short of being a former basketball player. Also, you would have to imagine that a young man who came from a tough background and hustled for a living was unlikely to be deterred by a few insults coming his way and equally unlikely to throw away so much food. And also, I never knew the basketball find actually came from Spain, the location work confusing to say the least, I thought he just spoke Spanish, hardly a rare language in America. And who is this guy called “Himself” who appeared to be played by over a dozen people?

Jeremiah Zagers (We The Animals, 2018) does an excellent job or reining in Sandler and the fact that the ending turns this into a warm-hearted drama does not lessen the fact that for most of the time it felt like anything but is testament to his skill.

Available on Netflix.

Term of Trial (1962) ***

Notable for the debuts of Sarah Miles (Ryan’s Daughter, 1970) and Terence Stamp (The Collector, 1963) and an ending that even in those misogynistic times was wince-inducing. The halcyon era of dull English schoolteachers being celebrated (Goodbye, Mr Chips, 1939) or finding redemption or even just managing to overcome pupil hostility (The Browning Version, 1951) were long gone, replaced by a more realistic view of the casual warfare endemic in education establishments, not quite in The Blackboard Jungle (1956) vein but running it close, with bullying, sexual abuse and ridicule running riot.

Self-pitying Graham Weir (Laurence Olivier) has failed to achieve his ambitions in part due to alcoholism, in part to antipathy to his conscientious objection during World War Two. And although he has a sexy French wife Anna (Simone Signoret) in the days when any Frenchwoman was deemed a goddess, she is embittered that the future he promised has not materialized. Like To Sir, with Love (1967) his classroom is filled with no-hopers so that he responds to the meek and innocent wishing for educational betterment.  

Weir’s only defence against endless indignity is a stiff upper lip and slugs of whisky. His lack of character contrasts with a young lad who takes revenge against constantly being chucked out of his house by his mother’s lover (Derren Nesbitt) by blowing up the man’s sports car.  

Spanning the twin cultures of religion and the razor, one falling out of favor, the other holding violent sway, opportunity to rise above kitchen-sink England lies with the self-confident such as thug Mitchell (Terence Stamp) who smokes in class, gives the teachers lip, takes photographs of girls in their underwear in the toilets, physically threatens classmates and when his target is bigger gets older men to give him a good thumping.  

A somewhat unlikely development is an end-of-term trip to Paris where the infatuated Shirley (Sarah Miles), who the good-hearted Weir has been giving free private tuition, ends up in the teacher’s bedroom and later accuses him of abuse. The impending court case and threat of imprisonment scupper Weir’s chances of promotion, make him consider suicide, and Anna to leave him.

The court scenes allow a number of famous character actors a moment of acting glory. Laurence Olivier (Bunny Lake Is Missing, 1965) must in part have been attracted to the role by a terrific court monologue. The movie is very downbeat in a country universally known never to enjoy an ounce of sunshine justifying the black-and-white movie rendition. If there is liveliness in the streets, cinemas, shops, it never translates into any of the main adult characters, all determined to uphold ancient values and endure constricted lives.

Exploiting audience expectation for verbal fireworks, the tension in Laurence Olivier’s finely judged performance comes from his untypical, unshowy delivery. You can almost hear him grinding his teeth. Simone Signoret (The Sleeping Car Murder, 1965) also acts against the grain, battening down her inherent sexuality, and her very presence speaks of lost hope, the fact that she was once attracted to Weir indicating he was once a very different prospect.

Sarah Miles excels as the wannabe seducer, that hesitant voice that would become her hallmark, struggling here to turn innocence into lure, expressing her adoration in heart-breaking simplicity, and yet aware that to catch Weir would require more than just the submission a guy like Mitchell requires. While hers is a stunning debut, I’m at a loss to see what marked out Terence Stamp’s typical surly teenager for speedier stardom.     

Oscar-winner Hugh Griffiths (The Counterfeit Traitor, 1962) is the pick of the supporting roles. A remarkable scene-stealer, a shift of his head, a flicker of his eyelashes is all he needs while sitting in the background to attract the camera from another character in the foreground. Look out for Barbara Ferris (Interlude, 1968), Derren Nesbit (Where Eagles Dare, 1968), Allan Cuthbertson (The 7th Dawn, 1964), Roland Culver (Thunderball, 1965) and Thora Hird (television’s Last of the Summer Wine, 1986-2003).  

Surprisingly un-stagey direction from Peter Glenville (Becket, 1964) who was far better known as a theater director in London and Broadway. Probably in those days if you were setting a movie outside sophisticated London you had to present a gloomy version of Britain so you can’t really blame him for that and Olivier was hardly a major box office attraction so a budget trimmed of color would be a requisite. Although the older characters display grim determination, the younger ones have not had the spirit knocked out of them in the Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) manner and the location shots reveal a buzzy atmosphere.

Glenville also wrote the screenplay based on the bestseller by James Barlow.

The Bramble Bush (1960) ***

The secrecy business was working overtime in small-town America according to the Peyton Place template. And that wouldn’t be so bad here except returning big city doctor Guy (Richard Burton) has a few of his own in the locker but more importantly the unfolding of so many secrets detracts from the time available for the main dramatic premise which is an absolute corker.

We might as well account straight-off with the secret Guy drags around behind him like a two-ton weight thus explaining his general surliness, tight-lipped demeanor and occasional flashes of temper. As a twelve-year-old he told his father he had caught his mother in bed lover with Stew (James Dunn) which prompted his dad to chuck himself off a cliff.

The other big secret, dealt with fairly promptly, is that local nurse Fran (Angie Dickinson), who held a torch for Guy, now makes do with district attorney Bert (Jack Carson), that clandestine affair coming to light not so much in flagrante but in full beam when the illicit couple require treatment following a fire in a hotel bedroom.

The unravelling of both secrets impacts on Guy’s emotional state. The fire leads to Fran admitting her feelings to Guy, happy to have him use her for sex if love is not possible, “I love you so much I have no shame,” she proclaims, to no avail, but the hotel business also makes her fall prey to blackmail by local newshound Parker (Henry Jones), a budding amateur photographer of the unsavoury kind. Recounting his personal tragedy results in a Guy having a one-night stand with the married wannabe artist Margaret McFie (Barbara Rush).

But here’s the brilliant twist. Margaret’s husband Larry (Tom Drake) wants her to end up with Guy – but after his death. Larry, Guy’s best friend from childhood, is dying, the doctor scuttling back to a town that harbours too many bad memories in order to act as his personal physician. Larry’s never going to recover, he has the incurable illness Hodgkin’s Disease. His dying wish is that Guy marry Margaret.

Margaret is revolted by the idea, “I don’t want to be beautiful for anyone but Larry,” but unable to cope with his with illness is living on a cocktail of drink and drugs. And although Guy, who distrusts any woman, is similarly ill-inclined, Margaret becomes dependent on his medical ability, treating both husband and wife. Larry turns out to have another crazy idea – he wants Guy to kill him, medically speaking of course, some extra, illegal, doses of morphine would do the trick.

This incredible bucket list provides Guy with a huge dilemma, never mind what to do with Fran throwing herself at him and having to put up with the hypocritical Bert, and Stew, now the town drunk, begging for forgiveness, and Larry’s father Sam (Carl Benton Reid), who, for reasons unspecified, hates the doctor.  

There’s more twists to come, just in case you thought you had everything worked out. But you can see the problem over-complication creates. The euthanasia-please-have-sex-with-my-beautiful wife combination would have set the movie up nicely from the get-go. Guy wouldn’t need to have a deep secret to find himself in very deep waters. How he would react to either or both outcomes, how Margaret would equally react to the possibility of ending her husband’s suffering in a quick and painless manner, would be more than enough to provide the dynamic the picture required. The movie then pivots on Guy being charged with murder.

It’s certainly interesting enough but Guy is too buttoned-down to incur sympathy and his revelation, devastating though it is, doesn’t suddenly make him an instantly more attractive screen character. In fact, it’s Fran who elicits the greater sympathy, the woman bedding someone who views her only  as a sex object, yet willing to become a sex object for someone she does love if that’s all she can have. Eventually, the two key issues are put in the spotlight, which certainly puts a spark in the picture. But the poster promises a passion that just doesn’t exist.

Richard Burton (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, 1965) plays this character in a lower register than his screen persona, the sonorous voice toned down, and although the look of someone who doesn’t want to be back rings true the performance lacks variety and there are only occasional glimpses of the fiery actor. Barbara Rush (Robin and the 7 Hoods, 1964) has her own legitimate reasons for being dispassionate and the vibrant character her husband married never really gets an airing. Angie Dickinson (Jessica, 1962) comes across as a more human character with, in emotional terms, a greater flaw, and a more tragic figure, even though there is nothing life-or-death about her circumstances. Two veterans are showcased: Jack Carson (Mildred Pierce, 1945) and James Dunn (Bad Girl, 1931).

Television director Daniel Petrie (A Raisin in the Sun, 1961) was making his movie debut. The screenwriting team of Milton Sperling and Philip Yordan (Battle of the Bulge, 1965) drew on the bestselling novel by Charles Mergendahl.

Hard to find DVD so Ebay is the best source.

Last Summer (1969) ****

Given the severity of the crime involved, you leave Frank Perry’s coming-of-age-drama wondering what happened to the four principals. Did the aggressive three young demi-gods of a golden age go on to pursue similar acts of cruelty? While one of them might show remorse, or at least suffer from guilt, of the other two I have my doubts. They would find ways to blame the injured party. And what about the victim? Would she have the courage to report the crime, or suffer in shame for decades.

It’s odd how time changes entirely the shape of a movie. In its day this was seen as a bold exposition of frank adventure by teenagers seeking their first experiences of growing up and experimenting with sex and drugs (pilfered from a parental stash). Although there is little focus on dysfunctionality, both Sandy (Barbara Hershey) and Rhoda (Cathy Burns) are missing a parent, the former’s father running off with another woman, the latter’s mother drowned by stupid misadventure. Both have been abused, unable to prevent the wandering hands of males. All are vulnerable, if only by youth.

Of the boys, Dan (Bruce Davison) is the more confident, Peter (Richard Thomas), while easily swayed, the gentler of the two. Dan merely seeks his first taste of sex, Peter the more likely to need love as well. Sandy is sexually precocious, somewhat on the exhibitionist side, peeling off her bikini top with apparently at times no idea of the effect it will have on the boys, at other times clearly uncomfortable with the notion that the guys might have nothing else on their minds but staring at her breasts. But she is the one who wants to continue watching a gay couple cavorting on the beach while Dan is embarrassed. Sometimes the frank sexuality is rite-of-passage stuff, other times it is distinctly creepy. In the cinema both men grope her breasts. She claims to have been excited by the experience, but you can’t help thinking at least one of the men should have shown restraint, not treating her as if she was some kind of sex toy.

The movie begins on a clearer note. The guys come across Sandy nursing a wounded gull and perhaps entranced by her good looks help her remove a hook from the bird’s throat, provide convalescence and eventually help the bird recover the confidence to fly again. It’s a cosy trio, but edgy, too, Sandy allowing them considerable latitude. But, of course, the guys do the same to her. When she bludgeons the bird to death because it bit her (“the ungrateful bastard”), the pair, initially shocked, are not shocked enough to reject her, afflicted by unassailable male logic, the kind that drove film noir, that maintained a beautiful woman could not have a black heart. 

Separated from the other two, Peter displays a gentler side, teaching the shy Rhoda to swim, kissing her in far more considerate fashion than the boys treat Sandy. But, effectively, she is a pet, and it’s only a matter of time before the unsavory aspect of Sandy’s character breaks out. After setting Rhoda up on a date, the trio do everything they can to spoil it, angry at the poor girl for not getting the “joke.”

Worse is to follow. Date-rape we’d call it today. Retreating to the cool forest, Sandy taunts Rhoda by removing her bikini top. When the horrified Rhoda refuses to do the same, Sandy attacks her, holding her down along with Peter while Dan rapes her. That’s where the film ends, no consequences, no repercussion. Back in the day it was a shock ending, an act of violence to mar an otherwise relatively innocent summer. After the deed is done, the camera pulls back into an aerial shot to observe the  guilty trio walking back to the beach, but without drawing conclusion or offering moral judgement. It’s hard to know what to make of the ending. These days, of course, we’d be appalled. But back then it didn’t appear to appall, certainly not drawing the outrage that accompanied similar scenes in The Straw Dogs (1971) or A Clockwork Orange (1971) perhaps because the perpetrators were so attractive and it was, after all, a coming-of-age picture, as if such things could be expected.

Roger Ebert, writing in the Chicago Sun-Times, for example, judged that the conclusion “is not really important to the greatness of the movie.” Andrew Sarris of Village Voice noted that “Perry retreats from the carnal carnage” to end with a shot that “prefers symbolic evocation to psychological exploration.” In other words adolescence is fraught with risk and Rhoda is just collateral damage.

Certainly the acting is uniformly excellent for such inexperienced actors, coping with many changes in dramatic focus, from early exhilaration through growing pains to violence.  Barbara Hershey (Heaven with a Gun, 1969) would go on to become a major star. Amazing to realise that Bruce Davison (Willard, 1971) and Cathy Burns, Oscar-nominated for her role, were making their movie debuts and for Hershey and Richard Thomas (Winning, 1969) their sophomore outings.

Director Frank Perry (The Swimmer, 1968) had a special affinity with the young as he had proved with David and Lisa (1962) and at times the whole affair had an improvised free-wheeling style. Eleanor Perry (David and Lisa) wrote the screenplay based on the novel by Evan Hunter (The Birds, 1963).

This is very hard to find, it turns out, so Ebay might be your best bet.

My thanks to one of my readers, Mike, for digging up this story of the disappearance of Catherine Burns from the movie business.

https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/movies/movie-features/catherine-burns-inside-50-year-disappearance-an-oscar-nominee-1275646/

The Sweet Ride (1968) ***

Unusual drama mainlining on Californian surf, sex, bikers, a mystery of Blow-Up (1966) dimensions and the best entrance since Ursula Andress in Dr No (1962). Displays a 1960s vibe with a 1950s pay-off as the “hitchhiker” of responsibility rears its ugly head.

A woman thrown out of a car narrowly escapes being run over. The cops jack in the investigation after television actress Vickie (Jacqueline Bisset) refuses to explain why she’s been badly beaten up.  And so we enter flashback mode to supposedly find out. She makes a glorious entrance, emerging from the sea, minus bikini top, into the lives of surfer Denny (Michael Sarrazin), jazz pianist Choo-Choo (Bob Denver) and ageing beach bum and tennis hustler Collie (Tony Franciosca). From the off, she’s enigmatic, gives a false address, won’t explain bruises on her arm, has something clandestine going on with television producer Caswell (Warren Stevens) and like Blow-Up we are only privy to snippets of information.

She’s half-in half-out of a relationship with Dennis, with Collie hovering on the periphery hoping to pick up the pieces to his sexual advantage. Contemporary issues clog the background, Choo-Choo tries a camp number complete with pink dog to avoid the draft, a neighbor threatens to shoot Parker for wandering around in shorts and habitually stealing his newspaper, epithets like “degenerates” are tossed around, Choo Choo’s girlfriend Thumper, while appearing in movies with titles like Suburban Lust Queen acts den mother, there’s not much actual exciting surfing, and a biker called Mr. Clean is somehow involved.

The romance plays out well, Vicky unsure, Denny convinced but without a livelihood to offer and unable to get a straight answer out of her. Choo-Choo gets the gig of his dreams in Las Vegas and there’s an rape scene, more unsettling because it’s committed by Denny with the bizarre justification of getting “just for once something on my terms.”  And there’s the equally disquieting sense that the only explanation for Vickie’s behavior is to tab her a nymphomaniac, walking out of an argument with a mysterious man in a beach house to drop her clothes for a bout of sex with Mr Clean.

I must have seen a different picture from everyone else. A good few critics at the time and reviewers since appear to think Vickie was also victim of a gangbang by the bikers, but I can’t see why. When he sees Vickie coming down from the beach house, Mr. Clean shouts “everybody split” and his buddies clear the beach. However, Mr. Clean, ironically, gives the best indication of her state of mind, explaining that Vickie “kept staring back at the house and moaning about how she wanted to die” while he enjoyed the best night of his life sex-wise.

Denny and Collie prove not to be the pussycats they appear, bearding the bikers in their den and beating up Mr. Clean while Denny goes on to deliver a hiding to Caswell. But what this film turns out to be is an examination of vulnerability, how easily those with a new sense of freedom are trapped. An examination of contemporary mores, perhaps, but in not resolving the mystery of Vickie ultimately fails to deliver, especially as it does not, from the outset, carry the kind of artistic credentials of Antonioni in Blow-Up.

Perhaps the mystery needs no resolution, it’s just same old-same old dressed up in the novelty of sexual freedom. There’s no idea of why Vickie was beaten up, and essentially abandoned on the road to become accident fodder, and no hint really of why she fell foul of someone so badly she needed disposed of, no notion that she was a threat to anyone. (Or, for that matter, no explanation of what happened to her bikini top and why, if she was so apparently free with her charms, she was so shy about being seen half-naked.) On the other hand, victim may well have been Vicky’s destiny from the get-go, that kind of innocence only waiting to be defiled.

In any 1960s contemporary picture there’s always the temptation to accept as truthful or reject as phony the lives shown. The idea that sexual freedom bestows actual freedom is usually the issue until consequence (i.e. old-fashioned Hollywood morality) comes into play. This is less heavy-handed than, for example, Easy Rider (1969) or Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969). The characters make decisions to grow up or to stay locked in a world of easy sex, dope and money. There’s no grand finale, just a more realistic drifting apart, and it’s only Vickie who comes apart, although that process had begun long before she met the drifters.  

Jacqueline Bisset (The Detective, 1968), in her divinely posh British accent, comes over well as an attractive screen presence and complex character. In fact, she has a bigger part here than in Bullitt (1968) or The Detective (1968). If you wanted anyone to portray a soulful hippie you need look no further than tousle-haired Michael Sarrazin (In Search of Gregory, 1969) and normally if you required someone on the sly, despicable side, Tony Franciosca (Fathom, 1967) might well be your first port of call, but Franciosca proves the surprise here, classic wind-up merchant and predator who exhibits considerable vulnerability when he realizes he is losing the worship of the idealistic young.

Former British matinee idol Michael Wilding (A Girl Named Tamiko, 1962) and Norma Crane (Penelope, 1966) appear as Vickie’s parents.  Bob Denver (Who’s Minding the Mint, 1967) and Michele Carey (The Spy with My Face, 1965) are solid support. Director Harvey Hart (Fortune and Men’s Eyes, 1970) tries to cover too much ground and could have done with narrowing the focus. Future Bond screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz (son of Joseph L.) made his screenwriting debut adapting the book by William Murray.

The DVD is a bit on the pricey side, but if you just want to check it out, YouTube has a print.

Maverick: Top Gun (2022) **** – Seen at the Cinema

And just like that Old Hollywood thumped a nose at super-heroes and jumped back to the top of the tree. Of course, that’s if you discount Tom Cruise as being a super-hero of box office dimensions and one with his own franchise Mission Impossible which at times has single-handedly kept his marquee value alive.

Unusually, for a sequel, this has taken account of the passing of time. No shoe-horning Maverick (Tom Cruise) into the role of current hot-shot pilot and there is a past he has to deal with, two relationships in fact, with Rooster (Miles Teller) the son of Goose, whose death Maverick is accused of causing, and with Penny (Jennifer Connelly), an on-again off-again affair too often too easily fractured. But, of course, the main thrust of the picture is Maverick taking on everybody, the top brass in the shape of Admiral Simpson (Jon Hamm) and Admiral Bates (Charles Parnell), his pupils and the unnamed bad guys.

It’s pretty nifty in using character flaw to justify the plot. That Maverick is anywhere near being recruited as teacher and not gainfully employed as a high-flying Admiral somewhere – as is former-rival-cum-buddy Iceman (Val Kilmer) – is down to the fact that he has resisted well-justified promotion in order to keep flying and because, well, he tends to piss off his superiors. But he still has the juice, in the opening sequence taking an experimental plane way beyond its capabilities (another plot point, by the way).

Somewhat older, not necessarily that much wiser, Maverick’s introduction to the Top Gun base is a tad humiliating, drummed out of Penny’s bar for not being able to pay his tab, watching wistfully as younger guns batter out his favorite tune on the piano, and aware that he has personal bridges to mend, that maybe, just this time, he might have the maturity to manage.

There’s the usual cocky bunch led by Hangman (Glen Powell), Phoenix (Monica Barbaro)  and Payback (Jay Ellis) plus Bob (Lewis Pullman), his call sign apparently a contraction of first name Robert but in reality standing for baby-on-board. In true reality television style there are heats, only four pilots making the cut to fly the desperate mission against the enemy.

And here’s where the picture takes off (pardon the pun). The aeronautics are just breathtaking and if you happen to catch it in Imax or an equivalent you’re going to be rocked by the sound  as well. It’s unbelievable stuff.  If there’s any CGI in there it’s not in the shapes of aliens, and looks distinctly old Hollywood. The kind of epic airplane stunts for which you run out of superlatives. And in best James Bond fashion the clock is ticking.

A resoundingly human story, relationships that looked cut-and-dried proving more fluid, until a band of brothers are properly worked up. Even as you wonder just how they are going to involve Maverick in a finale in which he should be a back-seat driver, a deft screenplay provides the answer. Maverick stands up for older guys everywhere, like an ageing pro brought back to save a football game.

Nostalgia has never been more vividly utilized. In terms of satisfactory denouement this is along the lines of the resolutions in Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens (2015) rather than the desultory reappearance of Decker (Harrison Ford again) in Blade Runner 2049 (2017). Some great scenes from the original have been touchingly reinvented, snippets of the original themes inserted at vital points plus a Lady Gaga offering.

It could easily have sunk not so much from the weight of expectations (and the long Covid-induced delay) but from a clunky re-boot, as producers determined, story be damned, to get all their ducks in line. Instead, there’s enough recycling to catch satisfy the previous generation of fans and sufficient whip-smacking wizardry to pull in the new generation,  which determinedly steers clear of anything non-CGI.  

Cruise is just superb, potentially an Oscar-nominated performance, as the guy who refuses to be jaded, who requires not one wingman but a whole team of them, with still the individuality and self-confidence that manuals cannot deliver. Given a job that set him up not to be a scene-stealer (teachers just ain’t action heroes) Cruise effortlessly steals the show, and its maturity more than double-balls-out cojones that does the trick.

Full marks to Joseph Kosinski (Oblivion, 2103) for fulfilling those weighty expectations, for keeping the movie focused when the temptation must have been to insert more romance, buff up issues facing the rest of the gang, add too much more when what this always needed was so much less, let the action show the way and Cruise carry the story. Much as I like Miles Teller in this I was hoping he would go on to better top-billed parts after Whiplash (2014).  Glen Powell (Everybody Wants Some, 2016) is another one Hollywood should be trying to make more of. I could say the same for the gutsy Monica Barbero (The Cathedral, 2021). This is the kind of movie to make the next generation of stars, especially as it solidified the reputation of the last of the older generation in Tom Cruise.

Incidentally, while I was at the cinema for this I saw a cracking trailer for the next Mission Impossible picture so cruise is going to continue his box office roll for a while.

The Unfinished Task / I’ll Give My Life (1960) ***

Complete your Angie Dickinson collection with his long-lost number. Almost unrecognizable as a brunette, she carries much of the emotional weight of this tale about an outsider rejecting a chosen career. Hollywood pictures about creative outsiders such as artists and writers relied on charismatic actors – Kirk Douglas in Lust for Life (1956), Charlton Heston in The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965) – to bring the project to life. Similarly, you might think, in movies about another type of outsider, of the religious variety, having the likes of Gregory Peck (The Keys of the Kingdom, 1944) or Bing Crosby in Going My Way (1944) goes a long way to giving such ventures audience-appeal.

Here, Jim (John Bryant), the son of a successful construction tycoon, having completed a degree goes against the wishes of father John (Ray Collins) by becoming a minister instead. In due course he is sent overseas to a mission in New Guinea, and like Father Stu (2022) contracts a deadly disease. Jim is far from charismatic, just a plodding ordinary guy who has found “something more important than building skyscrapers.”

The story is instead told through the eyes of John, resentful of his son’s decision, and his girlfriend/fiancée/wife Alice (Angie Dickinson) who, expecting marriage to a wealthy engineer, instead has to set aside her own ambitions and go along with her husband’s wishes, this being post-WWII America, and independence hardly a prerequisite in a wife, never mind a woman.

This poster does not do the film justice. It’s nothing like as “heavenly” as that. Howco was an exhibition company that entered distribution in order to provide enough product for its cinemas.

But if this is a story of a conversion – as was the case in Father Stu – it’s about the conversion of the father and Alice and the bulk of the story hinges upon their reactions to the path taken by Jim rather than him taking center stage. So it’s cleverly done, and whether this is due to budgetary pressure, or creative decision, it proves the right choice. John is the kind of self-made man who would dominate any stage, forever making plans, spinning the world as he would like it to be. In Alice’s eyes we see nothing but her weighing up Jim’s choices, sometimes accompanied by shock, occasionally elation, but mostly resignation and infrequent resentment as she, too, is parted from family to follow her husband into an unknown in which she had considerably less faith.

Unlike Father Stu, conversion does not come easily. Jim is long dead, two-thirds of the way through the picture as it happens, before John comes to realize that his son’s demise should not be in vain and that he left behind “an unfinished task” for his father to complete, namely raising awareness of the power of missionaries to improve the lot of the miserable and poor in foreign parts. Bear in mind the era in which this was made, so there are some attitudes that will make you wince, but generally it is well done, not weighted down with platitudes and, in concentrating on the doubter, brings alive a difficult subject.

And although this was before questions were asked about the sexual corruption of priests and ministers, men who followed religion were still not as easily accommodated in the general community, seen as overly pious and, to the businessman, existing in a vacuum. The idea that the Church, of various kinds, had not done enough to ease global suffering, is continually raised and nobody here is giving themselves a pat on the back.

Alice is actually given more screen time than Jim, his father using her as a sounding board, and, while Jim is off in New Guinea, enjoying herself with the firm’s resident beau, Bob (Jon Sheppod), and finally taking on motherhood and coping with the premature death of her husband and still fighting to open the father’s eyes to the good being done.

Angie Dickinson (Jessica, 1962) gives a very good account of herself, especially as the narrative restricts her to the kind of wifely 1950s role rather than the frisky sexuality she exhibited in the 1960s. Her acting skill saved her from being lumbered with portentous dialogue since she could portray her feelings more easily with her eyes.

Ray Collins (famed for a running role in the Perry Mason series) is excellent as the father confused by his son’s decision, fighting him every inch of the way. John Bryant (The Bat, 1959), it has to be said, does not light up the screen, lacking the magnetism of a Peck or a Crosby but in some regard this kind of straight playing suits the film, since the character is not meant to be out of the ordinary.

William F. Claxton (Desire in the Dust, 1960) directed from a script by Herbert Moulton, better known as a producer of shorts. Although this film was released in 1960, it appears to have been made before that, some suggest as early as 1955. Given it was funded by the Lutheran Church, the script does not make heavy weather of the religious elements and John’s resistance to his son’s vocation reflected that of any father to a son embarking on as shaky a career as painting or writing.

You can catch this on YouTube, though it’s not a great print. And, yes, that is Angie Dickinson sitting demurely at a desk.

Father Stu (2022) **** – Seen at the Cinema

If Benedict Cumberbatch or Leonardo DiCaprio or Brad Pitt had essayed this role Oscar voters would already be sharpening their pencils, especially as dramatic weight gain (Robert DeNiro in Raging Bull) seems to attract more sympathy than dramatic weight loss (Christian Bale, The Machinist). Although Mark Wahlberg (Uncharted, 2022) has a brace of Oscar nominations to his name, this movie seems to have struck out with most critics due to prejudice against organised religion. And that’s a shame because Wahlberg gives the performance of his career as a self-destructive boxer who finds redemption in becoming a rebel priest.

Atheist Stuart Long (Mark Wahlberg) is a whip-smart, charming, cocky loser. But when it comes to lifestyle choices he hasn’t the brains of a toad. Washed up as a boxer, he decides, as one does, that he has missed his vocation – he should be an actor. So off he hoofs to California, taking a job in a supermarket, on the basis (obviously) that one of the customers is bound to work in the movies and provide the lucky break. Instead, he falls for Carmen (Teresa Ruiz) only to discover she is an avowed Catholic, so serious about religion there would none of that sex-before-marriage nonsense.

So smitten is Stuart that he agrees to get baptised and then proving a holy hell of a parishioner questions priests about everything sacred, dropping F*** bombs left, right and center. But when he almost dies in a drunken accident, he decides to turn his life around the hard way and determines to become a priest. That’s another almighty battle in the acceptance stakes, and his take on religion is certainly not what the Catholic Church expected, but just when it looks as if he is going to achieve his ambition he is diagnosed with an incurable wasting disease.

Three hankies at the ready? No way. This is not one of the lovestruck teenager dying of cancer pictures, but a thoughtful and hilarious account of, effectively, stoicism. I knew nothing about the story on which this is based and half-expected either a miracle cure or that Carmen would announce herself pregnant, having done the whole sex-before-marriage thing, and scupper his chances of a life of chastity helping others.

Instead, Stuart is the kind of guy whose suffering infuses others with a dynamic to accept their own, often as miserable, life. And he’s so far from a saint that nobody could be lobbying the Pope on his behalf. I’ve no idea why this has been tagged “faith-based” which seems to spell box office doom especially Stateside. Anyone wanting to know what religion means to someone for whom religion means a lot would learn a huge amount from this picture. Stuart challenges everyone – and that includes the Almighty – but in a very real and often very funny way.

Yes, there is discussion of doctrine, but this part is fascinating, as Stuart pulls apart long-held tenets and tackles one of the apparent hallmarks of the faith in the U.S. – that no disabled person is allowed to stand on the altar. That he’s not the one who personally mounts a campaign to change this, since he’s so accepting of the will of God, and that it’s left to others, helps make this movie character-based rather than virtue-signalling.

This is best I have ever seen Wahlberg, not just because of how far he goes, body-wise, but because it is an incredibly assured performance, the fast-talking screen persona given the bullet, and in its place a realistic human being who begins to understand the benefits of humility over brashness. If it wasn’t for religion Stuart would have been one of life’s washed-up characters, ending up like his father Bill (Mel Gibson) at the bottom of a bottle.

Mel Gibson, now firmly in the Nicolas-Cage-straight-to-dvd league, turns in a superb performance as the bitter father and the Oscar-nominated Jackie Weaver (The Silver Linings Playbook, 2012) is excellent as the buttoned-down lost mother.  Teresa Ruiz (The Marksman, 2021) is every bit as good. Cody Fern (Eden television series, 2021) as a buttoned-up priest who doubts his faith is one to watch and you might spot, under all his priestly garb and smug expression, Malcolm McDowell (A Clockwork Orange, 1971).  

Given the emphasis on equality I’m surprised writer-director Rosalind Ross has not received more acclaim, if any at all from what I can gather, for what is a very assured debut. And I can only hope this is not because she committed the terrible sin, apparently, of attempting to make a sincere picture about the effect of religion on peoples’ lives.  In Hollywood’s Golden Era all sorts of unlikely priests, step up Bing Crosby et al, and stars like Gary Cooper (The Pride of the Yankees, 1942) died of incurable diseases and the crowds would line up, but somehow this kind of storyline has become a box office affliction rather than carrying a banner for the kind of character-based straightforward story audiences used to love.

The Bedford Incident (1965) ****

A belated entry into the Cold War thriller genre that appeared to have peaked with Dr Strangelove (1964), Fail Safe (1964) and Seven Days in May (1964). The Bedford Incident, filmed in black-and-white with a less-than-stellar cast nonetheless holds its own as an examination of men under pressure, a cat-and-mouse actioner, as well as a stark warning of the dangers of nuclear war. Perhaps you could not find a more contemporary theme,

Capt Eric Finlander (Richard Widmark) is a maverick U.S. Navy destroyer commander hunting down Russian submarines should they stray into territorial waters. He has been passed over for promotion, despite having previously successfully forced a Russian sub to the surface. Into his meticulously-run ship are dropped photo journalist Ben Munceford (Sidney Poitier) – re-teamed with Widmark after The Long Ships – and Lt. Commander Chester Potter (Martin Balsam),  a ship’s doctor. In effect, their presence is a simple device to put Widmark under the spotlight, in some respects to  challenge his operational methods, and, as a narrative device, to provide an excuse to tell the audience everything they need to know.  Among the ship’s crew are young ensign Ralston (James MacArthur) and former  German former U-boat commander Commodore Wolfgang Schrepke (Eric Portman) who acts as an advisor.

The newcomers are afforded insight into how this ship is run and into its hunting methods, for example, dredging up waste from the sea in order to examine it for evidence of a Russian presence. There is a bundle of interesting technical data – a submarine has to surface for air, as another example – and the soundtrack mostly consists of endless sonar. Apart from the German, who appears to subsist on Schnapps, the crew is unusually top-quality, the sick bay deserted, the enterprise run under wartime conditions, every person on board dedicated to fulfilling the captain’s every wish.

The tension is in triplicate. First of all, there is the obsessive captain who could at any time just explode; secondly, there is the hunt for the submarine replete with tactical maneuvers and hunches; and finally, always in the background, there is the nuclear element and the fear that untoward action could trigger a holocaust. And there’s also time to take down a peg or two the holier-than-thou visitors, Dr Potter revealed as a civilian medic returning to the service as a refuge, Munceford as a rather spoiled individual who complains when dangerous maneuvers interrupt his shower. Schrepke has the unenviable task of trying to rein in his boss, Ralston one of the few on board finding the pressure hard to handle.  

But Widmark steals the show. His over-acting often stole the show when he had a supporting role, but this is a finely nuanced performance. An admirable, instinctive commander, he is loved by his men (such adoration not easily won) with a gift for battle and outfoxing an opponent, often barely containing his own tension. It would have been easy to ramp up the pressures he felt in the way of Humphrey Bogart as Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny (1954) but there’s a big difference between a man about to crack and one who loves battle and is desperate to score victory. 

Sidney Poitier (Duel at Diablo, 1966) is excellent in a more relaxed role, combative only in matters of intelligence, and probably benefitting from not having to carry the picture. James MacArthur (The Truth about Spring, 1964) shows acting maturity is moving away from the easier Disney roles in which he came to prominence.  Character actor Martin Balsam (Harlow, 1965) excels as always in this kind of role, a man with hidden weakness. Eric Portman (The Man Who Finally Died, 1963), somewhat typecast as a German officer, is given a deeper role where villainy is not his only ace.  If you keep your eyes peeled you might spot a fleeting glimpse of The Dirty Dozen (1967) alumni Donald Sutherland, as part of the medical crew, and Colin Maitland as a seaman.

The top-billed Richard Widmark turned producer on this one, as he had done for The Secret Ways (1961), not so much as to greenlight a pet project but to keep a place at Hollywood’s high table just when that seemed to be slipping out of his grasp after the commercially disastrous John Ford roadshow Cheyenne Autumn (1964). In truth, Widmark’s position as an outright star appeared questionable. He seemed to transition all too easily between top billing (Warlock, 1959, The Long Ships, 1964) and second billing (Two Rode Together, 1961,  Judgement at Nuremberg, 1961, and Flight from Ashiya 1964).   

But the billing oddity from today’s perspective if to find Sidney Poitier – coming off an Oscar win for Lilies of the Field (1963) and later a box office smash in his annus mirabilis of To Sir, With Love (1967), Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) and In the Heat of the Night (1967) – subordinate to Widmark in the credits department.  The Long Ships featured the same billing arrangement.

Also putting his neck on the line was James B. Harris who was making the jump to director from producer of Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956), Paths of Glory (1957) and Lolita (1962). Screenplay honors go to James Poe (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They, 1969) who adapted the bestseller by Mark Rascovich.

Harris makes a sound debut, the decision to film in black-and-white paying off, and enough going on through personality clash and the sub hunt to keep the pace taut. Authenticity was added by filming aboard naval vessels (although British in this case) and what little model work there is does not look out of place. A bigger budget would have made better use of the actual hunt (as The Hunt for Red October, 1990, later proved) but sound effects rather than visual effects suffice. I had not at all expected the shock ending. Another point in this film’s favor is that the threat of nuclear apocalypse has not gone away and the fact remains that the world as we know could disappear at the touch of a button.

Baby Love (1969) ****

Disturbing tale about grooming marking the debut of Linda Hayden could not more accurately reflect changes in public perception from over half a century ago.  What had originally seemed a movie about a young woman wreaking havoc on a middle-class family is now more easily recognized as a more sympathetic study of a young girl denied familial attention attempting to find a stable and welcoming home.

After the suicide of her mother (Diana Dors) Luci (Linda Hayden) is taken in by Robert (Keith Barron), a highly successful doctor and ex-lover of her mother, and his wife Amy (Ann Lynn). His marriage to sophisticated housewife Amy is distinctly rocky. They live in a fabulous three-storey house on the bank of the Thames with son Nick (Derek Lamden), a typical teenager the same age as Luci but who is sexually naive, confused and hypersensitive. Amy comforts Luci when the young girl has terrible nightmares and ends up sleeping in the same bed until she realizes how inappropriate is such behavior.

Nick chances his arm with Luci but is continually rejected, not surprisingly since his approach is more than a tad creepy, spying on her in the bathroom, entering her bedroom when she is naked, leching after her in the garden. Robert is the only one to try and keep his distance and in the absence of her own father becomes the subject of a father fixation.

Conditioned to accept the advances of older men finds her in potentially unsavory situations in a cinema, a club, and with a friend of the couple (Dick Emery). That she apparently welcomes such attention reveals the depth of her grooming, not just forced to watch her mother make love, but, as suggested in a flashback, the mother complicit in not preventing her lovers making a play for her. If Luci appears sexually confident that only disguises her inner turmoil, a desperate need to be loved, lack of proper parenting and setting of boundaries and having chanced on a proper home determined to do whatever it takes to remain there.

It is actually Ann who is the disturbing element, eventually overcoming her own inhibitions and not only seducing the girl but telling her that if she wants to remain in the house she will need to twist Robert round her little finger. And the only way she knows how to do that is follow her mother’s example and exploit her sexuality. If Luci appears exploitative in the context of the family that is only because they are not privy – as is the audience – to the depth of her nightmares, the constantly reappearing image of her mother dead in the bath, her mother’s leering lovers. Even when she goes over-the-top with make-up or clothing there is an innocence to such behavior, little more than a young woman testing boundaries and trying to find her way. Any intelligent assessment of what is going on would clearly see the child as the victim.

The grandeur of her new potential home bears no comparison to the poky working-class council house she occupied up north. For a child with such an impoverished upbringing, she is fairly grounded. She is not the wild child you might expect from her upbringing. She fits well into family life, happy to listen to classical music, and to Ann’s astonishment can actually cook breakfast and knows how to lay a table, skills her spoiled son patently lacks.

Considerable efforts are made to make each character more rounded. Robert hates his wife’s sophisticated parties and is an insomniac judging from the stack of books on his bedside.  The guilt he feels for abandoning Luci’s mother, apparently his one true love, in favor of ambition, is exacerbated by Luci’s presence that reminds him not only of a path wrongly chosen but of what he has lost, that relationship ripped asunder when abortion entered the frame.

Ann clearly needs to project success, expensive clothes and champagne the least of their lifestyle, and with little outlet for pent-up emotion and a need to mother settles on Luci as the object of, initially at last, her affection. Nick hides his cigarette ends in a matchbox, would accept Luci as just a friend, occasionally rising to the role of protector, delighted to be seen in the company of a beautiful girl. Teenage fantasy in other words but with an edge of entitlement that goes too far.

In her debut Linda Hayden (Taste the Blood of Dracula, 1970) is superb in an extremely difficult role and it was a shame that it was the sexual part of her portrayal that made its biggest impact on future movie producers rather than the sensitivity of her performance, the look in her eyes when she is shown her bedroom for the first time is amazing. Also making a  movie debut Keith Barron (Nothing But the Night, 1973) lacks the mellifluous tones that were later his hallmark and his performance as unloved husband and guilty ex-lover is very well observed.

Ann Lynn (I’ll Never Forget Whatsisname, 1967) has the most challenging role of a woman tortured by desire she has until now kept hidden or under control. Derek Lamden did not make another movie. Diana Dors (Hammerhead, 1968) has a fleeting role.

It wasn’t the fault of director Alasdair Reid that uber-producer and marketing kingpin Joseph E. Levine (The Carpetbaggers, 1964) wanted to sell a different movie from the one that was made, focusing on titillation and turning Luci’s sexual confusion into something predatory. The idea that this movie is a sexualized film noir is a marketing trick. Closer re-examination reveals that Luci is entering a disturbed household, one she lacks the skills to negotiate and is in reality the exploited one.

In fact, Reid (Something to Hide, 1972) did a very commendable job. He made some bold decisions especially relating to sound. The opening credits are accompanied by the sound of a dripping tap that would turn into a cascade of water. That would become a recurring motif, along with steam. Most scenes lacked music. Although most nightmares are image-driven, the initial one is full of clashing sound as well as disturbing sights. As the movie hits its stride, a clever device is adopted, showing disturbing images outside the house that are actually, you quickly discover, another nightmare. Mostly the camera remains fairly static but it occasionally swoops to represents anxiety from one point-of-view. The bulk of the story takes place in the house but when the camera goes outside, to a disturbing scene on the river for example there are original ideas, one character speaking through a megaphone.

Passed by the British censor with an X-certificate then and an 18-certificate DVD today, it still has the power to shock. However as far as I can see it was last classified in 1994 and I have written to the BBFC to see if that classification should still stand.

Well worth a reappraisal.

Network has this on DVD.

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