The Collection 1976 ****


Harold Pinter’s 1962 play is one of his best, a subtle yet dramatic slice of adultery in the upper-middle classes, observed with the playwright’s usual ear of language and fascination for discomfort. This 1976 filming was part of ITV’s big push to rival the BBC, and was created under the grand-sounding label Laurence Olivier Presents for Granada television. The Beeb’s Play for Today was something of an institution at the time, but The Collection was a heavy-hitter, bringing together top talent for a run-through of one of Pinter’s tightest efforts, with Michael Apted directing.

Harry (Olivier) and Bill (Malcolm McDowell) live together in an ambiguous relationship; Bill is something of a ladies man, and may or may not have had a hotel-room tryst with Stella (Helen Mirren), much to the chagrin of her husband James (Alan Bates). But when James confronts Bill, the accusation doesn’t land easily, and Bill seems defiant. Is there an attraction between the two men, or is Bill just deliberately confusing the issue? And did anything actually happen at all? (this is Pinter, after all, so don’t expect a big reveal).

The Collection is firmly made for TV; despite the big names, the canvas is small. But as a record of some great acting, Apted’s adaptation really works, with Olivier enjoying a small but weighty role, and McDowell really laying it on thick as the preening, aggressive Bill, taunting James and forcing him into a confrontation without the information he needs to be confident.

The Collection has been released as part of a boxed-set on DVD, but isn’t one that’s been repeated on tv, and remains something of a collector’s item. But at 63 minutes in length, it gives a flavour of Pinter in a darkly playful mode, without the slick gimmick of Betrayal, but with the same relentless probing of the characters and their motives. And yes, there are silences; Pinter says more with a suppressed line than most writers can do with a twenty page monologue.

A Clockwork Orange 1971 *****


Amidst all the blather about Doctor Sleep, and Kubrick’s radical changes to Stephen King’s book, it’s worth noting that the esteemed writer/director was more than happy to treat all manner of literature as a selective buffet or movable feast, from William Thackery to Arthur C Clarke; it can’t have been a huge surprise to King that his ideas were handled in a piecemeal fashion. Anthony Burgess’s book A Clockwork Orange was similarly ransacked for ideas before being discarded; the result shocked audiences and critics in 1971, and still has the air of a text both sacred and profane.

As a kid, A Clockwork Orange was a film to be read about, but not seen; Kubrick withdrew it from the marketplace in the UK after some copycat violence. Those willing to stump up the cash could purchase fuzzy VHS dupes; today, it’s something of a shock to see modernist, brutalist vistas featured in such sharp focus. There’s a celebrated production design, plus innovative use of classical music; rather than the beautiful images of 2001, Kubrick features a much more muddy, garish aesthetic, in line with the vulgarity of his protagonist, Alex (Malcolm McDowell) and his band of white-suited, masked Droogs, but also with the sinister world around him. A world where the black-suited government aim to subjugate the masses via thought control, and where the spirit of the individual is considered something to be worth eliminating. In this context, Alex’s deliberately mindless rebellion makes more sense, which casts a baleful light to view the notorious ultra-violence of the film’s shocking opening scenes.

Burgess created a writerly character, played by Patrick Macgee here, that clearly offers a surrogate for his own instincts. Frank Alexander’s wife is raped by Alex and his band of brothers, but when Alex unwittingly returns to his house, lobotomised and de-fanged, the writer is unable to put aside his own supposed sophistication, and seeks revenge. The message seems to be that our baser instincts are part of what makes us human; the idea seems valid, even if unpalatable at the same time.

Whether one agrees with the sentiment, and it’s one of the trickiest, most controversial ever dared to be expressed in a major motion picture, there’s plenty of striking details, from the music arcade that Alex visits, with artists like The Humpers or Heaven Seventeen providing the sounds, or Dave Prowse in chunky specs and cut-off shorts as an oddly supine bodyguard. The seedy setting, with social worker Mr Deltoid (Aubery Morris) a more than casual observer, is peculiarly British and plays up the banality of high-minded social interference. Ultimately it’s a non-binary parable that works best for adults; A Clockwork Orange is a sensational story of youth both revolting and betrayed, and observes standards falling due to a depreciating shortage of genuine human warmth; a grim world methodically lobotomised, with as little agency as a clockwork orange is predicated. It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that the film’s creator withdrew this misunderstood text from the public eye.

Easy A 2010 ****


Emma Stone rips it up in a star-making performance in Will Gluck’s lively and well-constructed teen movie. Gluck’s Fired Up! demonstrated that he knew his way about campus, and working from a script by Bart L Layton than has the dense deft feel of a good spec, he turns a few clichés inside out here. Stone plays Olive, a smart, sassy girl who pretends to have lost her virginity at the weekend. The notoriety appeals to her, not least because she’s writing a report on The Scarlet Letter (the book, not the Demi Moore film). Soon she’s faking it all over school, or rather, she’s faking being sexually active in return for gift cards provided by boys keen to have a reputation of their own. It’s a scenario that works well at exposing male-female hypocrisy, and Stone gives it her all. There’s support from Malcolm MacDowell as the school head, and Lisa Kudrow as a counsellor with a line in unhelpful advice. The referencing for John Hughes and The Breakfast Club isn’t needed here; Easy A is a teen classic on merit.

Moon 44 1990 ****

moon 44Some time before his Hollywood heyday, Roland Emmerich wrote and directed this unheralded little B-movie from 1990; released straight to video in the US, Moon 44 gets a new lease of life through an excellent print on Amazon Prime. Pan and scan cannot have been kind to the fresh widescreen compositions here, and even if there’s a gap between the film’s big ambitions and the budget, there’s more than enough here to sustain interest. Streets of Fire/ Philadelphia Experiment’s Michael Pare brings his leading man A-game to the role of Felix Stone, brought in to work with some ex-cons as helicopter pilots on the titular moon. Stone is actually working undercover to discover who is responsible for the theft of mining shuttles, but with Malcolm McDowell amongst the cast, it’s not hard to figure out who is responsible. Roscoe Lee Brown and Lisa Eichhorn make an impression in supporting roles, and while the action is brief, it looks great in an old-fashioned, physical way. Streaming has brought a few films back that no-one ever missed; as a B-movie gem, Moon 44 deserves a revival.

Royal Flash 1974 ***


Malcolm McDowell takes the lead in this period romp from Richard Lester, based on the Flashman books by the late George MacDonald Fraser. A period James Bond with cowardly tendencies, Flashman is enlisted by Bismarck (Oliver Reed) into impersonating a Prussian dignitary, but Flashman soon finds himself over his head in European intrigue. As well as a sexy turn from Florida Ballkan, Royal Flash offers an array of great supporting work from Alastair Sim, Alan Bates, Tom Bell, Joss Ackland, Britt Ekland and a tiny role for the late Bob Hoskins as a police officer. The mix of slapstick violence, fake patriotism and espionage doesn’t quite gel, but Royal Flash is worth seeing for its cheerful irreverence and lavish period detail.

Time After Time 1979 ****


Nicholas Meyer has been annoyingly un-prolific in his films as director; he also wrote the screenplay for this engaging romp of a time-travelling thriller from 1979. Malcolm McDowell plays HG Wells, who Meyer playfully suggests is building a time machine of his own. It’s stolen by Jack The Ripper (David Warner) and Welles follows him to 1979’s San Francisco to stop him from unleashing a killing spree in the unwitting public. Welles also find time to fall in love with Amy (Mary Steenbergen) and to eat at McDonalds, and even identifies himself as Sherlock Holmes to add to the confusion. Time After Time is an original and enjoyable sci-fi thriller that focuses on a clash of temperaments, and  handles the time-travel paradoxes with elan.

Excision 2012 ***


You probably have to be in just the right mood to enjoy a menstrual horror film, but if it’s getting to that time of the month, writer/director Richard Bates Jr’s Excision has plenty of pent-up angst to get out. AnnaLynne McCord is Pauline, whose negative relationship with her mother Phyllis (Traci Lords) manifests itself in graphic bloody nightmares. Her dad Bob (Roger Bart) struggles to understand, and instead dotes on her younger sister Grace (Ariel Winter) who has cystic fibrosis. Pauline’s alienation is astutely conveyed, while an accomplished supporting cast, including Ray Wise, Marlee Matlin, Malcolm McDowell and director John Waters, add to the otherworldly atmosphere. With strong warnings about the bloody content, Excision lives up to the surgical promise of the title.

Aces High 1976 ****


Adapted by Howard Barker from RC Sherriff’s play Journey’[s End, Jack Gold’s 1976 action films is a poignant reflection on the bravery of those who flew in World War One. Stephen Croft (Peter First) arrives on the Western Front to follow in the shoes of major John Gresham (Malcolm McDowell), only to find that the life expectancy of pilots is lamentably short. Christopher Plummer, Simon Ward, Ray Milland, Trevor Howard John Gielgud and Richard Johnson are amongst the top brass, and the climactic attack on a German dirigible is impressively rendered. Aces High brings mid 1970’s physicality to a 1930 play, but emerges as a heartfelt tribute to war dead as well as a caustic rebuke of Boys Own actioneers.

Blue Thunder 1983 ***


Post Saturday Night Fever, John Badham made quite a name for himself as a thriller director (Dracula, Wargames, Stakeout), and his 1983 airborne action film has plenty to offer in the way of entertainment. Roy Scheider is officer Frank Murphy, the pilot of a new, super-stealthy helicopter designed to keep the piece at the 1984 Olympics. When Murphy discovers that the authorities have plans for this powerful tool, he ends up using Blue Thunder for his own purposes, helping Kate (Candy Clark) evade the authorities in the hope of revealing the truth about their real intensions. Malcolm McDowell has fun as a rival pirate, and the copter chase scenes are vividly captured without the use of CGI.

O Lucky Man! 1972 *****


Lindsay Anderson’s 1972 magnum opus takes Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell) on an epic journey through the social strata of 70’s Britain. Starting out as a salesman, Travis becomes involved with pop music via Alan Price, Love with Helen Mirren, suicide, big business, international intrigue and some extremely strange scientific experiments. The recurring characters he meets are played by a stock company of actors including Arthur Lowe, Sir Ralph Richardson, Graham Crowden and Rachel Roberts, allowing Anderson to draw up a fierce polemic about the capitalist system and the struggle the individual faces to live within it. McDowell is excellent as Travis, Price’s songs are wonderfully expressive, and O Lucky Man!’s string of excellent, involving scenes from David Sherwin’s script add up to 184 minutes of ambitious, striking slice of British cinema at its most idiosyncratic.