UK Jewish Film Festival 2016 review: The Small World of Sammy Lee

Director: Ken Hughes

X | 1h 47min | Drama | April 1963 (UK)

Playing during the UK Jewish Film Festival 2016  at JW3 on 15 NOV 6.30pm.

See here for bluray details - out from 14 November.

RATING: ★★★★☆

Playing as part of the UK Jewish FIlm Festival 2016, and now remastered for a new bluray release courtesy of StudioCanal and their Vintage Classics Line, Ken Hughes’s (Alfie) The Small World of Sammy Lee is a dark, funny and stylish romp through a seedy Soho from decades past; a side of London that has long since been smothered by gentrification and tourism. In this 1963 British-Jewish crime thriller, Anthony Newley is pitch-perfect as strip-club compere Sammy, the kind of guy who keeps his shady dealings small-time, but has nevertheless used up almost all of his nine lives by the time the film’s main plot kicks off. Having screwed up one card game too many, Sammy has to go on the run from the heavies, managing to convince the surprisingly affable enforcer who is sicked onto him (this is one of those films packed full of gentlemen thieves) that he can muster up £300 by the end of the day.

The narrative is built around the remaining half a day Sammy has to scare up the dough; racing against the clock to chase up every debt he is owed, lining up several black market deals that pay cash up front but only require a (inevitably late) check from him, whilst rifling through the piles of ‘back of the lorry’ merch he has stashed in his flat to see what he can offload. There’s plenty of appeal in watching this cheeky chancer scrabble from cafes to pool halls, trying to see if his gift of the gab can get him out of one last scrape, and the film works well as a time capsule of a period when Soho really did have edge. Lensed in brooding black and white by cinematographer Wolfgang Suschitzky, the film also boasts an exceptional supporting cast that packs in Miriam Karlin, Wilfrid Brambell, Roy Kinnear and Warren Mitchell. Plus, the jazz score will nestle in your ear for hours after.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

BFI Black Star Season Review: Pool of London - the film that launched Earl Cameron's career

Director: Basil Deardon

A | 1h 25min | Crime, Drama | 13 August 1951 (Sweden)

On DVD/Bluray from StudioCanal from 25 October

RATING: ★★★★☆

Screening as part of the BFI’s Black Star season, and now released on bluray for the first time as part of Studiocanal’s Vintage Classics Collection, Pool of London is an enjoyable, compact Ealing Studios crime caper directed by Basil Deardon (The Blue Lamp, Dead of Night) that became notable for featuring veteran actor Earl Cameron CBE, known as one of the first black screen actors to break the colour bar in the UK. He has acted in 91 films and TV series, has over 70 years in the business, and is still working. His role in Ealing Studios’ classic thriller was a breakout opportunity for him.

In Pool of London, Cameron plays Johnny, a young and upbeat Jamaican ship worker earning his way on board the Durham; a British Empire merchant marine vessel with a mixed nationality crew. Johnny idolises Dan MacDonald (Bonar Colleano), a roguish American of Italian heritage who looks out for Johnny and has clearly enjoyed playing the older brother role. Arriving in the Docklands for shore leave and to offload the Dunbar’s cargo during the summer of 1951, the two men find themselves getting into troubled waters when ashore. Dan falls in with a gang of smugglers looking to use his boat to smuggle a diamond stash out of the country, whilst Johnny finds himself falling for Pat, a white girl (Susan Shaw) who’s race and nationality means it is impossible for him to really consider being with her. Dan ends up using Johnny to further the heist scheme, assuming he won’t get his pal into trouble so long as things go smoothly, but when the heist goes wrong and the police get onto his tail, he risks getting Johnny stitched up in it all. Dan has to face a choice: let Johnny fall under police suspicion which, given his race, will surely be fatal, or stick up for his friend.

Apart from offering the great Cameron a breakout role, Pool of London also was the first British-made post-Windrush film to feature an interracial relationship, and although the lack of seeing it consummated on screen might have been due to the conservative sensibilities of the time, this enforced distance between Johnny and Pat does serve the film’s wider purpose of commenting on race relations and gives the story quite a poignant tone. Restrained though the film might seem compared to today’s standards - there is no blood or harsh language to be seen or heard - the screenplay does not shy away from putting Johnny in situations where he is subjected to discrimination due to his colour. Though the “N” word is never used, the phrases “you people” and “your kind” are all too frequently thrown at the young Jamaican, usually following some kind of exclusionary act, whether it is a security guard moving him on when he is simply waiting near a door, or bouncers throwing him out of a gin joint.

And speaking of gin joints, the film pleasingly drinks in the rarefied air of such night life haunts, as well as underground dance halls, vaudeville theatres, and even those quaint places known as “milk bars”. The plot ranges across a London still visibly recovering from the Second World War and dotted with piles of rubble and half-repaired buildings, a place all the more striking for being without the hyper-gentrification of today. Trams still trundle through central (though Pat notes they are due to be closed down - the irony!), and the Thames bustles with commercial shipping. Thus, even though the crime at the centre of Pool of London’s central story arc could hardly be called epic (though the band of criminals have a nice touch of eccentricity to them, one being a circus performer who uses his jumping skills to get into the bank) the film functions as a compelling time capsule of a London long gone.

DVD/BR Special Features:

  • New interview with Earl Cameron.
  • New locations featurette with film historian Richard Dacre.
  • Production stills gallery.
Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Film Season Review: BFI Punk season showcases restored version of Alex Cox's cult film Sid & Nancy

Director: Alex Cox

18 | 1h 52min | Biography, Drama, Music

Available to buy on blu-ray and DVD from 29 August 2019

In cinemas from August 5 at BFI as part of the Don Letts presents Punk on Film season and Punk.London.

Film Rating: ★★★★☆

Re-released to coincide with the UK-wide celebration of 40 years of punk, cult director Alex Cox's (Repo Man) Sid and Nancy is a scuzzy, intense, but also deeply sad look at the dark side of the punk movement. Now 30 years old, the acclaimed film is back in a new blu-ray release courtesy of Studiocanal’s Vintage Classics Label, with the new restoration having been overseen by famed cinematographer Roger Deakins (No Country for Old Men, Sicario) himself.

In June 1976, the Sex Pistols performed their legendary gig at the Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall, inspiring a generation to dive into the punk movement and reject established principles and authority structures. Cox’s film isn't concerned with those days of success though, as it jumps forward several years from that to observe the tragic collateral damage from that heady rise to fame: the rapid downfall of the band’s notoriously unstable bassist, Sid Vicious, who is played here by a young Gary Oldman on blistering form. The film tracks the last few months of Sid Vicious’s life, beginning in 1978 as we see Sid arrested from the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan following his partner Nancy's sudden, tragic death, a loss over which a dark cloud of mystery still hangs and which preceded Vicious’s own death from an overdose not long after. Dragged to a police station and questioned, he flashes back to how he first met her. The story revealed to us is a relentlessly dismal one: already a heavy user of substances with a combustible attitude, Vicious’s random encounter with eager American groupie Nancy Spurgeon (a barnstorming turn from Chloe Webb) in London leads to them both spiralling down into a deep hole of heroin addiction. 

The film condemns both the vulgar nihilistic excesses of punk (whilst also sort of being in awe of the scale of it), and also the exploitation of human weaknesses by those keen to profit from the new wave. So low does Vicious fall that even his own shambolic bandmates want nothing to do with him, but their creepy svengli Malcolm McLaren sees capital to be made out of Vicious’s headline grabbing antics and makes no effort to get him the help he needs. Any musical talent Vicious may have had is shown to be truly secondary. As for Sid and Nancy, Cox and co-screenwriter Abbe Wool frame them as an obnoxious, self-destructive codependent duo who nevertheless are almost ludicrously childish, and therefore still deserving of sympathy. It is clear someone like Vicious could never have dealt with regular life, let alone a life where he has been gifted millions of dollars and hordes of admirers giving him license to act out. Vicious’s life is one long circus of binge drinking, fighting, falling off stage and general incoherence which ends with him crying on the floor of an increasingly clapped-out Chelsea hotel room where stale food and empty drug packets gather. Though he doesn’t pitch things at Wolf of Wall Street levels of hedonism, Cox gives us plenty of visions of excess, Sex Pistol-style, including breakfasts of champagne and baked beans interspersed with car demolition and graffiti writing, whilst Vicious is not seen sober once on stage. 

Aside from being a grimly fascinating study of a downward spiral, the film also functions as a irresistible time capsule of the two poles of the punk geography - London and New York - and because Cox shot his film before the rapid gentrification of both cities took hold, many of the locations the Sex Pistols would've frequented were still untouched. Both cities looked very different then: rawer and meaner. Cox also intersperses the death spiral narrative of Spurgeon and Vicious with some truly exhilarating (and stomach churning) gig sequences showing the Pistols in action: these were not the kind of music scenes for the faint hearted, as spit and punches are shown as par for the course. The soundtrack is superbly atmospheric: including contributions from Joe Strummer and The Pogues. A few surreal touches suggest things on screen shouldn't be taken at face value (this is, after all, Vicious’s POV), but that feels more than appropriate given the Sex Pistols wanted to be larger than life.

Disc Rating: ★★★★☆:

Special Features on the Blu-ray Special Edition

    ▪    New interview with Cinematographer Roger Deakins

    ▪    New interview with Director Alex Cox

    ▪    New interview with Don Letts 

    ▪    Trailer

 

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Smoke Screen reviews the bluray of hit 1982 comedy TOOTSIE, one of the first of The Criterion Collection's new UK re-releases

FILM REVIEW

RATING: ★★★★☆

As the esteemed American Criterion Collection label - think lavishly packaged, bonus feature-laden DVD and Blu-ray editions of classic and contemporary cinema - makes its way finally to UK shores (thanks to a multi-year distribution deal with Sony), the Smoke Screen was lucky to be able to take a peek at some of the first discs to be made available here. First up is Syndey Pollack’s 1982 cross-dressing comedy starring Dustin Hoffman; Tootsie.

Tootsie tells the story of on an out of work New York actor and acting coach- one Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman)- who, tired of being turned down for role after role because he, as his agent says (and he isn’t wrong, frankly) is a ‘difficult’ one, decides to go for a role on a bland hospital-based weekly drama disguised as “Dorothy Michaels”: a middle aged female performer with a southern twang to her voice and a bolshy-but-motherly attitude. Winning the role despite the misgivings of the chauvinistic director, in part because of Michael/Dorothy’s unexpected take-no-shit outbursts which please the frustrated female scriptwriter/showrunner, the character and “Dorothy” herself go on to become prime time hits and a nationwide sensation. This of course puts Michael in an absurd situation, as the longer this goes on, the greater the fallout will be when it is revealed he is pulling a fraud on both the network and the American public. And then there’s the not insignificant fact that Michael starts to fall in love with his female co-star Julie (Jessica Lange), who herself thinks “Dorothy” could be a perfect match for her widowed and distinctly old-school “man’s man” father.

Hilarity and hijinks ensue for Michael in short order, from hours lost to leg shaving, too much time spent avoiding the near-constant attentions of hungry males in his vicinity when in disguise, to having to handle the looming clash with his friend of six years (and recent sleeping partner) Sandy (Teri Garr): who has no idea about Michael’s alternate life and starts to think he his having an affair with whoever this “fat” woman is who she spies going up to Michael’s apartment every evening . But, though he went into this scheme purely interested in getting some cold hard cash to fund a play his flatmate and writing/acting partner Jeff Slater (Bill Murray, in a typically great deadpan supporting role) wants to put on, the experience Michael has of everyday sexism in the workplace and beyond starts to make him reflect on his own boorish and self-absorbed behaviour.

Tootsie certainly boasts an interesting writing team, aside from M.A.S.H TV series creator Larry Gelbart and writer/playwright Murray Schisgal, both famed directors Barry Levinson (Rain Man) and Elaine May (A New Leaf) also put in uncredited rewrites.  Pollack himself was already acclaimed for films like They Shoot Horses, Don't They? and Three Days of the Condor. Upon release, the film actually came second in terms of domestic US box office for the entire year of 1982, beaten only by Spielberg’s E.T, and it racked up an impressive number of Oscar nominations too (ten in total, including for actor, director and screenplay).  In 1998, the United States Library of Congress deemed the film "culturally significant" and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry. The film is frequently held up as a smart piece of commentary on sexism and male-female relationships, as well as just being a great example of how to craft a fast-paced, zany comedy. But how does it hold up some 34 years later?

In truth, Tootsie’s progressive credentials can be criticized, in many ways from the “it’s a product of its time” angle. Some of the gags are a bit stale and lazily play on stereotypes of female “issues”, and one recurring joke where the TV show’s bumbling lead actor Dr John van Horn(George Van Haynes, who played the hapless police commandant in the Police Academy films) basically carries on as the dirty old letch of the production “Dorothy” is starring in, really starts to move into awkward territory when he forces himself upon “Dorothy” after following her to her apartment in one third act scene. The whole farrago is played for laughs, and van Horn’s boorish advances are cut short by Jeff walking into the apartment, but this really doesn’t seem funny now. And for a film championing women, there could have been better roles for the actual females starring in the picture: with Jessica Lange a somewhat weak and uncharismatic presence, and Teri Garr stuck playing a bit of a flake (even if the scene where her character angrily claims the cherry chocolates Julie’s smitten father gave to “Dorothy”, which a desperate Michael is now trying to pass on to her to soothe her anger, is one of the film’s best).

On the other hand, Tootsie’s screenplay is interesting in how it does actually address some of the criticisms audience members might have of this concept: which, after all, is that of a straight, white man taking a job that should have gone to a woman in an already male-dominated industry (and yes, you could view it as creepy that, in a comedy, a disguise allows a man access to female private spaces like dressing rooms). Michael himself comes off as a bit of an asshole in the opening few minutes, flirting aggressively with women, treating his acting student and friend Sandy cruelly in coaching sessions, and later two-timing her once their relationship turns sexual: two-timing in a very strange double sense, given he is falling love with Julie and also neglecting their relationship due to the time he is spending dressed and acting as a woman. It seems at first that this is just all going to be passed off as a bit of light comedy.

But later in the film, whilst disguised as the finger-wagging and uncompromising “Dorothy”, and having starting to side with his female co-stars, Michael himself hears the same bullshit, chauvinistic justifications directed back at him from the male employees on the show. In one scene, the faintly sleazy director Ron Carlisle, who is two-timing Julie much to “Dorothy’s” displeasure, defends his behaviour using exactly the same words Michael used when explaining away his callous treatment of Sandy. In disguise, Michael’s retort to Ron - “I understand you better than you think” - has a self-lacerating undertone to it. But on the other hand, when Sandy angrily calls “Dorothy’ that “fat woman” who she has spied sneaking into Michael’s apartment at night, Michael is visibly hurt at the sharp language she uses, though he has probably said the same thing thoughtlessly a thousand times before.

 

It is a credit to the filmmakers though that Tootsie remains blisteringly funny no matter whether Michael is in disguise or not: the film never just relies on some of the more obvious gags of having him struggle to keep his composure in the ladies dressing room, or battle to keep his wig falling off. Watching Dustin Hoffman rant epically at his agent (played by Pollack himself) that he is spectacular at playing vegetables in commercials (“ I was even a great endive salad, dammit”!) and seeing he and Pollack get utterly tongue tied over trying to explain Michael/Dorothy’s increasingly bizarre situations whilst separating what is happening to who (by the third act Julie’s father wants to Marry Dorothy, Julie thinks Dorothy is a lesbian, Sandy thinks Michael is gay) is side-splittingly funny. So although Tootsie has dated somewhat when it comes to the progressive side of things, its comedy laurels remain well-deserved.

 

DISC REVIEW + EXTRAS
RATING: ★★★★☆

The film’s 4K bluray transfer delivers the goods in terms of audio/visuals.

Those unfamiliar with Criterion’s tradition of lavishing care and attention on the extras for their releases are in for a pleasant surprise: Tootsie is packed with informative bonus features, including a commentary Pollack recorded back in 1991 for an earlier release, a timeline chapter selection tool to help pinpoint particular scenes and points in the commentary, and several making of featurettes and interviews with the cast.


New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray

  Audio commentary featuring director Sydney Pollack

  New interviews with actor Dustin Hoffman and comedy writer Phil Rosenthal

  Interview with Dorothy Michaels by film critic Gene Shalit

  Making of “Tootsie” (1982) and A Better Man: The Making of “Tootsie” (2007), two documentaries featuring interviews with cast and crew

  Screen and wardrobe test footage

  Deleted scenes and trailers

  PLUS: An essay by critic Michael Srago

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.