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Tiger by the tail

By STEVE VINEBERG  |  November 18, 2008

HOPE AND GLORY (HFA: November 23 at 3 pm) was a 1987 Best Film Oscar nominee, but it's as subversive as anything Boorman has put out. It may also be the best thing he's ever done. Basing the screenplay on his own memories of growing up in London during the Blitz, he set out to provide a boy's-eye view of an epoch traditionally celebrated in British and Hollywood movies as dedicated to courage, selflessness, and sacrifice. In Hope and Glory, Billy (Sebastian Rice Edwards) and his friends and his randy teenage sister Dawn (Sammi Davies) are natural anarchists, and the mushy pieties of the adults are constantly — and good-naturedly — undercut. The rallying cry of the picture is the schoolboys' "Let's smash things up!", their response to the way the bombs lay waste to London and make it into an enormous playground. Boorman is a brilliant technician, but the screenplay is so funny and the performances (including those of David Hayman and Sarah Miles as the parents) are so marvelous that you barely notice how beautifully controlled the chaos is.

Other Boorman films underscore his wizardry at camera and editing, and they supply a different set of pleasures. His second picture, the 1967 POINT BLANK (Brattle: November 21 at 10 pm; November 22 at noon), an almost abstract revenge thriller, is so flamboyantly well assembled that you have to marvel at it, even if all subsequent attempts at this kind of thing (like the 1999 remake, Payback) leave you cold. In one virtuosic sequence, Boorman sums up the complicated overlapping sexual relationships (two ex-friends, two sisters) by dissolving each body into another. The 1972 DELIVERANCE (HFA: November 23 at 7 pm), which James Dickey adapted from his bestselling novel, is a macho adventure about four Atlanta buddies who set out on an ill-advised canoe trip down a wild river, and it's so gripping that whatever uneasiness you might have about its point of view is submerged — at least for the running time of the picture — in the visceral excitement and in admiration of Jon Voight's tense, intimate performance. Besides, Burt Reynolds, as the smug survivalist, puts quotation marks around every one of his lines and distances you from Dickey's terribly self-serious narrative. By contrast, the brutality in the 1998 THE GENERAL (HFA: November 21 at 7 pm), which stars the gifted Brendan Gleeson as the notorious Dublin thief Martin Cahill, is chilly and repugnant because the movie fails to get inside Cahill and lay his motives open to the camera.

EXCALIBUR (Brattle: November 20 at 9:30 pm; November 22 at 2 pm) is the case where Boorman's filmmaking mastery finds a subject it can fully serve: the myth of King Arthur. From 1981, this is a magical movie, with imagery that stays in your head for decades — like the greening of England when Sir Perceval (Paul Geoffrey) returns to his aging king (Nigel Terry) with the long-sought-after Holy Grail. And you won't want to miss Nicol Williamson as Merlin the necromancer, his voice, one of the sublime instruments in the English theater, silvery rich with glints of bronze and gold brogue.

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