If London was just starting to swing in the early ’60s, that cultural pendulum didn’t reach Manchester, which, in this film and others, resembles the dreary, trash-strewn wasteland described by Sweeney Todd more than the budding party hub for the Mod movement. Helen (Dora Bryan) is an exemplar of the city’s dimming population. She’s 40, but an old — nay, ancient — 40, resigned to a gypsy’s life of temporary boarding houses, escaping with her 17-year-old daughter Jo (Rita Tushingham) whenever she can’t pay the rent, and trawling nightclubs for a man to support to support them.
Playwright Shelagh Delaney wrote the theatrical source material for A Taste of Honey when she was just 18, and her adapted screenplay captures this mother-daughter relationship with unvarnished honesty, each member attempting to one-up the other with sardonic barbs. Jo describes their latest shared cot as “like a coffin, only half as comfortable.” When Helen discovers her daughter’s hidden cache of drawings, many of them self-portraits, she comments, “I suppose you’d have to draw yourself; nobody else will draw you.”
The narrative sticks mostly with Jo as she tries to break the Sisyphean cycle of her life, with its perpetual movement and paucity of progress. While Helen lures a younger man named Peter (Robert Stephens) — a hothead with a glass eye, thanks to the War — Jo falls for a confident black sailor on shore leave and, after his ship sails, acquiesces into a loveless domestic arrangement with a tragically sweet, and sexually conflicted, student named Geoff (Murray Melvin). Ultimately, she seems destined to repeat her mother’s mistakes.
Each character down the line, from Jo to Peter, is starved for affection, all of them damaged and flailing, forging an imperfect life with existential uncertainty. With sterling performances by all — especially Tushingham’s revelatory combination of spunk and fragility — A Taste of Honey is as relevant now as ever, and strikes the 21st-century viewer as a clear antecedent for modern broken-home bildungsromans like Fish Tank and Diary of a Teenage Girl. Criterion’s generously stocked edition includes new interviews with Tushingham and Melvin; an audio interview with director Richardson from the 1962 Cannes Film Festival; two featurettes about the movie’s groundbreaking source material; and the jazzy Richardson short film Mamma Don’t Allow, a 1956 precursor of Britain’s Free Cinema movement.A Hologram for the King: Tom Hanks’ All-Americanness, which includes an earned trustworthiness and a quizzical acceptance of life’s strangeness, make him an ideal surrogate for his nation in A Hologram for the King (Lionsgate, $15.32 Blu-ray, $1299 DVD), Tom Tykwer’s affable adaptation of Dave Eggers’ 2013 novel.
He plays Alan Clay, a washed-up salesman who, even when things are good, leads a life of quiet desperation. But things are not good: He’s divorced and jobless, he can no longer afford tuition for his daughter to attend university, and he has an increasingly bulbous cyst protruding near his spine. “I’ve lost direction,” he tells a doctor, and that’s putting it mildly. His hopes lie solely in a trip to Saudi Arabia as a freelance consultant for an IT firm, where he’ll pitch the king on the company’s hologram technology and, if all goes well, recoup enough income to rebuild his personal crumbling infrastructure.
The satirical cruelty of the next few days of Alan’s life is forecast by the Samuel Beckett quote that begins Eggers’ novel. The king is a perpetually absent, a Godot by any other name, and Alan and his skeleton crew of employees spend the hours in a desert pop-up tent, languishing without Wi-Fi or food, with Alan’s jetlag ensuring his tardiness for every meeting. Not that it matters, because his Saudi contact for the project, like the king, is never around.
A Hologram for the King is a travelogue of absurdity, in which a Westerner’s attempt to play and transact in Saudi Arabia is a series of bureaucratic cul-de-sacs and clandestine culture clashes: a secret rager in the Danish embassy, the contraband alcohol that leads to a regrettable bender, Alan’s potentially dangerous trip to the Muslim-restricted Mecca, after his eccentric driver misses the proper turnoff.
Buried under the comedy is plenty of sly, effective commentary on globalization, the deleterious effects of outsourcing, ugly Americanism and the gleaming steel dreams of a tribalist country’s metropolitan future. These are themes inevitably better expressed in literature, but Tykwer’s faithful rendering, accelerated by jolting flashbacks and fantasy sequences shot in his trademark hurtling style, delicately balances broad humor with economic unease.High-Rise: This anarcho-punk comedy by Ben Wheatley (Magnolia, $16.99 Blu-ray, $12.99 DVD) is based on the 1975 J.G. Ballard satire of the same, in which an immaculate luxury skyscraper becomes a societal microcosm, in a class structure as demarcated as the train in Snowpiercer (You half-expect Tilda Swinton to turn up in this crazy movie, too).
The wealthy, led by the building’s squash-playing architect Royal (Jeremy Irons), host cocktail parties with Victorian regalia and string quartets on the upper floors, towering above the proles on the lower levels. When a series of power outages affect those bottom floors, the natives grow restless, and the building, along with its built-in supermarket and gym, collapses into violence, looting and orgiastic nihilism.
Wheatley’s adaptation of Ballard is more than a cutting commentary; it slices, dices and ignites the social fabric, its prison-like location emerging as a potent allegory for the inequalities of capitalism. By the time Wheatley underlines his point with an audio postscript of a Margaret Thatcher quote, he’s abandoned all of the peculiar subtleties that defined the film’s slow-burning first hour. The second half of High-Rise wallows in the excesses we associate with Jarman, Jodorowsky and occasionally Greenaway; had Buñuel tackled this project, his softer hand would have affected us no less viscerally, and perhaps more cerebrally.
But when was revolution nuanced? There’s something easy to admire, if difficult to “like,” about High-Rise’s relentlessness of depravity, its operatic wallowing, that translates effectively to a 2016 American underclass that seems a few floors away from its own economic uprising. Where will you be when the tower falls?Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon: One of the most cumbersomely titled American films this side of Robert Altman’s Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, this 1970 Otto Preminger drama ($18.99 Blu-ray, $16.56 DVD) swept in and out of theaters like a tumbleweed in a cyclone, failing to catch on with critics or audiences and only now receiving a home video release. While it qualifies as minor Preminger, it’s still a worthwhile discovery that hardly merits its 45 years of neglect.
Screenwriter Marjorie Kellogg adapted her own novel of the same name, about a trio of society’s lepers — Junie Moon (Liza Minnelli), who was facially disfigured in a battery-acid attack; Warren (Robert Moore), a gay paraplegic; and Arthur (Ken Howard), a milquetoast epileptic — who attempt to rebuild their lives together after they’re released from an institution. They face inevitable setbacks and daily indignities, from mean-spirited dares and callous stares to public smears and traumatic lapses, but Preminger’s film is far from humorless, ultimately finding comedy, tragedy and beauty in an extended climax at an ocean-side resort.
An awkward ribald flashback early in the film is its most obvious misstep. Otherwise, this is a tender portrait of a segment of the population still overlooked and under-represented by Hollywood. Preminger draws naturalistic performances from his cast — especially Minnelli, who brings an improvisatory spark to Junie — and his canny craftsmanship keeps sentimentality at bay. There’s even a standout hallucination sequence that plays with distorted lenses, black-and-white and color visual clashes and expressionistic zooms. It suggests the Preminger of Bonjour Tristesse was still there somewhere, even in his waning years behind the camera.