Criterion Sunday 461: Hobson’s Choice (1954)

Not sure why I should be suspicious every time I start a David Lean film, but he knew how to craft a movie and most that I’ve seen have been exceptionally well crafted, and not all of them have attained the renown of, say, Lawrence of Arabia or Brief Encounter. The cannily observed The Passionate Friends is a personal highlight, for example, and while this particular film looks to be a rather knockabout comedy — it casts Charles Laughton as a drunken bootmaker in late-19th century Salford (just outside Manchester), and that’s a recipe for comic disaster — it turns out to be, if not social realism, still a fairly incisive work about the English working classes. The title comes from a phrase referring to having no effective control over a situation, and his daughter Maggie (Brenda De Banzie) is the one offering Henry Hobson that particular ‘choice’, as she takes control of her own future within the (fairly mean) terms that society is offering her. I wouldn’t call it a progressive film, but it feels moreso than some of what would come out of English society in the decades after this, and at its heart is a delightful romantic fantasy about getting one up on the small-minded mean-spirited small town forces of conformity.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director David Lean; Writers Wynyard Browne, Lean and Norman Spencer (based on the play by Harold Brighouse); Cinematographer Jack Hildyard; Starring Charles Laughton, Brenda De Banzie, John Mills, Daphne Anderson, Prunella Scales; Length 108 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 10 September 2021.

Criterion Sunday 368: Corridors of Blood (1958)

Appropriately, it’s Hallowe’en when I watched this horror film, the last film in Criterion’s “Monsters and Madmen” boxset, which has been a trove of mediocre late-50s genre pieces but just for that has made it somewhat interesting by comparison to their usual fare. This I think is probably one of the best, but it’s also the only one that doesn’t take the horror much beyond the actual period into aliens and monsters, because the real monster here (as in a lot of the best horror) is a very human hubris. Boris Karloff plays a doctor in 1840s London experimenting with various chemicals to create a viable anaesthetic, which inevitably drives him to darker and more morally dubious alleys as he needs access to the drugs. There’s a small role for a young rakish Christopher Lee as a resurrection man and a cabal of shady criminals who are more or less at war with the police. The film is filled with dark shadows and atmospheric sets, and if it never really takes off, it’s more than creditable as a period piece, I think.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Robert Day; Writer Jean Scott Rogers; Cinematographer Geoffrey Faithfull; Starring Boris Karloff, Betta St. John, Christopher Lee, Adrienne Corri, Francis de Wolff; Length 86 minutes.

Seen in hotel room (DVD), Hastings, Saturday 31 October 2020.

Criterion Sunday 367: Grip of the Strangler (aka The Haunted Strangler, 1958)

This late-50s monster movie starts out pretty straight, as a Victorian-set police thriller (it appears the original British title was Grip of the Strangler, but it’s more famous under the American title). James Rankin, a private investigator played by Boris Karloff (the casting of whom already tips you off as to the future direction the film might take), looks into the case of the ‘Haymarket Strangler’ 20 years earlier, whom he believes to have been wrongly executed. It’s all fairly clunky in the way it’s put together, as Rankin quickly figures out the whereabouts of the missing murder weapon that’s the key to the case, but you realise when he finds it that this screenwriterly haste is because this is where the film properly starts. Once that happens, there’s plenty of fun in Karloff’s gurning performance, even if it all feels fairly unadventurous. Still, it’s silly fun.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Robert Day; Writers John Croydon [as “John C. Cooper”] and Jan Read (based on Read’s story “Stranglehold”); Cinematographer Lionel Banes; Starring Boris Karloff, Jean Kent, Elizabeth Allan; Length 79 minutes.

Seen in hotel room (DVD), Auckland, Wednesday 28 October 2020.

Rocks (2019)

There’s a new American film out in cinemas that’s catching acclaim right now, Miss Juneteenth, but last week saw the belated UK release of Rocks, one of the stand-out films which premiered at last year’s London Film Festival (and Toronto too), and was originally slated for an April release. It’s great to finally have seen it, one of the recent highlights of a new crop of great British films that deal with real lives.


Watching this new and acclaimed British film, I find myself surprised because I sort of had director Sarah Gavron (unfairly no doubt!) pegged in my mind as a fairly bland middlebrow director, though perhaps I was just feeling uncharitable towards the very heritage-film-adjacent Suffragette (2015). However, this project is an entirely different story of quite different people in a different era (well, it’s set in the present). It’s clear, as the filmmakers discuss in a brief video intro that screens before the film, that this was very much a collaboration not just between the two writers but between them and the young first-time actors they found to play most of the roles. And it’s very persuasive (though co-writer Theresa Ikoko is right to question the meaning of the phrase “authentic”), if only — but not only, let me be clear — because it tells a story of characters who aren’t often foregrounded in British films.

Specifically it’s about a Black British girl of Nigerian descent, Olu, but nicknamed “Rocks” (Bukky Bakray), her small brother Emmanuel (D’angelou Osei Kissiedu) and her entirely believable set of friends, most notably the slightly gawky Sumaya (Kosar Ali). Rocks finds herself abandoned by her mother and takes a picaresque tour of all these friends’ lives and their disparate living situations. The film is shot by Hélène Louvart as a constant jumble of movement and faces against its East London backdrops (somewhat more close-in than perhaps intended for me, because the cinema I was in showed it in the wrong aspect ratio). Anyway, it’s a great film that deals believably with young British kids navigating their lives, played very much as teenagers with all the awkwardness with words and difficulty around emotions as is too little seen, and makes it into a moving drama.

Rocks film posterCREDITS
Director Sarah Gavron; Writers Theresa Ikoko and Claire Wilson; Cinematographer Hélène Louvart; Starring Bukky Bakray, Kosar Ali, D’angelou Osei Kissiedu; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Aldgate, London, Saturday 19 September 2020.

Criterion Sunday 341: A Canterbury Tale (1944)

I can see from reading others’ reviews that there are a lot of big fans of this Powell and Pressburger film, made in black-and-white and telling a wartime story of three people (pilgrims if you will) in Kent, a Women’s Land Army volunteer (Sheila Sim), and two sergeants (the British one played by Dennis Sim, the American by a real Sgt John Sweet). And to be fair by the end there were plenty of positive things to be said about it, but perhaps my own impressions were negatively affected by my first impressions, which are of the kind of British officers you get in contemporary films (and certainly in P&P productions) of clipped RP accents delivered peremptorily and with a fair dollop of condescension, competing for annoyance only with the (non-actor) American sergeant’s incomprehension at all the very British people around him treating him like dirt, until of course they finally relent and show some compassion. The plot, such as it is, revolves around a mysterious local putting glue in women’s hair, though this doesn’t remain a mystery for too long and is all resolved in a jolly and very English sort of understanding way (despite the unexamined underlying weird sexism of the whole thing). But this is a wartime film about people of different backgrounds coming together to learn something about what they are really united for, and if you’re willing to go along with that broadly patriotic premise (albeit executed without too much grandstanding insistence), then it’s a good film. It’s also — and this is perhaps key to my ultimate feeling of positivity towards the film in the end — absolutely gorgeously lit and photographed, with a deep focus and deep shadows, alongside shards of beautiful light punctuating each frame.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • When it was a box office failure in the UK, Powell re-edited the film heavily for the American market, dropping a lot of it, but also adding a prologue and epilogue with its American protagonist (Sgt Sweet) and his wife in NYC as he talks about Canterbury, then at the end, with her there, impressing upon her the closure he achieved in visiting. It’s a little heavy-handed, of course, rather eagerly over-explaining using stats why there was an American GI in England in the first place, which is probably why the distributor wanted it added.
  • It’s a packed double-disc edition, with a number of featurettes about the film, but one of the key extras that contextualises the feature film within its era is Humphrey Jennings and Stewart McAllister’s short film Listen to Britain (1942), a poetic propaganda film, bold in its use of sound to evoke a sense of a country united in wartime. Of course, it’s a very particular sense of nationality (and watching this on Mubi, I get the sense in their programming that putting this the day after a more recent British short film in which British Pakistani identities are examined is a pointed move), but that doesn’t detract from the artistry. The sound comes from fragments of speech in social settings, from news broadcasts, songs, the sounds of nature and of course the background drone of the warplanes and of industry. It’s all very compelling and beautiful, in its way.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors/Writers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; Cinematographer Erwin Hillier; Starring Sheila Sim, Dennis Price, John Sweet, Eric Portman; Length 124 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 28 July 2020.

बार बार देखो Baar Baar Dekho (2016)

This film is a bit of an oddity, a Bollywood film which takes the form of a sci-fi romance. It’s also the debut film from a woman director, Nitya Mehra, and though it wasn’t a big success, it still has plenty of its own distinct charms I think.


It seems it’s hardly been a critical hit, and to be fair it has plenty of silliness to its premise: that a man with doubts about his future (Sidharth Malhotra) gets to see a version of that future and thereby change his selfish behaviour (all a bit Groundhog Day I guess). However, it’s a multi-generational romance, so I think it’s fair to judge it by what it sets out to be, and I found it to be likeable and charming, even for lapses into occasional sentimentality (the film had earned it). There are sci-fi elements to some of the future settings which are nicely integrated, along with fetching touches (like a bus map suggesting Cambridge is just an outer suburb of London by the mid-21st century). The film uses — if I’m not mistaken — Glasgow for Cambridge, which doesn’t quite work but it’s less egregious than some British location work I’ve seen in other Bollywood films. It also goes through fewer tortuous tonal changes, sticking to its romantic central premise faithfully. All in all, it was sweet.

Baar Baar Dekho film posterCREDITS
Director Nitya Mehra नित्या मेहरा; Writers Mehra and Sri Rao श्री राव; Cinematographer Ravi K. Chandran रवि के चन्द्रन; Starring Sidharth Malhotra ਸਿਧਾਰਥ ਮਲਹੋਤਰਾ, Katrina Kaif, Sayani Gupta সায়ানী গুপ্তা; Length 141 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Monday 12 September 2016.

Two Netflix Films about Mediæval Kings in the British Isles: Outlaw/King (2018) and The King (2019)

Although Robert the Bruce (whose story is rendered in Outlaw/King) and Henry V (of The King) were two historical figures whose lives never overlapped, they did live within a few generations of one another (Henry was born around 60 years after Bruce died), and both lived in what was then a divided island, though part of that was down to the actions of Bruce himself. Neither film can probably claim to be great history — they are more invested in generic tropes of heroism and resistance, while The King isn’t even based on the history but on Shakespeare’s rendering of it some century and a half later — but both illuminate some of the ways that history is used and abused, also adding to that popular idea that Mediæval times were all about grim misery, mud and gore.

Continue reading “Two Netflix Films about Mediæval Kings in the British Isles: Outlaw/King (2018) and The King (2019)”

Three Historical Dramas by Raoul Peck: The Man by the Shore (1993), Lumumba (2000) and The Young Karl Marx (2017)

One filmmaker who has consistently engaged with (usually revolutionary) history is the Haitian Raoul Peck. Many of his films deal with the turbulent times of his home country, a country which has suffered no small amount of turbulence over the last fifty years, as testified by the five-film French DVD box set of his Haitian films (one of which is The Man by the Shore reviewed below). Elsewhere he has turned his attention to thinkers like the American James Baldwin (in the documentary I Am Not Your Negro), to leader Patrice Lumumba (of what was then called the Republic of the Congo, later Zaire and now the DRC, subject of a 1992 documentary as well as the biopic below), and of course to a formative period in the life of Karl Marx.

Continue reading “Three Historical Dramas by Raoul Peck: The Man by the Shore (1993), Lumumba (2000) and The Young Karl Marx (2017)”

White Riot (2019)

A film that’s just come out online at the end of last week is this documentary looking at the start of the Rock Against Racism movement and organisation. It expanded on an earlier short film by the same director and was premiered at the London Film Festival last year, where my mum saw it (she was in town), but it’s been good to catch up with it since, supported by a Q&A with the director and a couple of participants, hosted by Mark Kermode and which is on YouTube.


A documentary looking back at the work of the organisation Rock Against Racism, founded in the mid-70s amidst anger at the increasing pro-fascist rhetoric bandied around by big names like David Bowie, Rod Stewart and most of all Eric Clapton, whose fondness for Enoch Powell and his blood-soaked send-them-all-back-to-*waves hands vaguely* rhetoric, inspired not just anger but also the creation of this movement. Our main guide and entry into this story is “Red” Saunders, the founder of RAR, a man with a big desk and nary a modern device to be seen on it. There’s a certain nostalgia at work here, but I can’t deny it gets to me: the tactility of old zines pulled out, collective remembering of the turbulent times from Red and the people he pulled around him, whether his compatriots at RAR putting together the musical events and their punk publication, or else the musicians with whom he collaborated to get the message out. The archival clips are great, not just of the gigs but more interestingly of the ferment of the time, the rise of the National Front (NF) and their Nazi-embracing thuggery, the complicity of the police. It’s a film that tells a story and doesn’t spare those to blame, but as is only too evident to all of us watching it, has hardly dated in 40-45 years. They may not be called the NF anymore, but the same forces are still with us in British politics, and still need to be called out.

White Riot film posterCREDITS
Director Rubika Shah; Writers Ed Gibbs and Shah; Cinematographer Susanne Salavati; Length 80 minutes.
Seen at home (Curzon Home Cinema streaming), London, Thursday 30 April 2020.

Phantom Thread (2017)

Although the two principal characters do get married in this film, and there are certainly wedding dresses involved (for the lead character is a fashion designer), this isn’t really about marriage. It’s a relationship drama, though, and a rather twisted one at that, a three-way pull between Reynolds (Day-Lewis), his sister played by Lesley Manville, and a young woman who comes between them and tugs on Reynolds’ affections.


I was all ready to dismiss this film as yet another reworking of the eternal tropes of controlling older men and pliable younger women, an exercise in the manipulation of power dynamics via class, wealth, and the tedious tropes of masculine genius. After all, you can’t watch an awards contender, let alone a Paul Thomas Anderson film, without it being trailed in advance by untold reams of critical dissection that help you along to an opinion on a film you’ve not yet seen.

However, I think what I specifically like about it is the way that it moves from being one thing at the start — an idea of a handsomely mounted prestige costume drama (literally so: it’s about someone who makes clothes) — to something quite different by the end. To a certain extent this reflects the way the power dynamics shift, so that what starts as being about a controlling mercurial ‘genius’-like figure and the psychic toll you imagine he’ll inflict on this young ingenue-like woman, Alma (Vicky Krieps), to the way Alma starts to find power within their relationship and the way he starts to willingly submit to it, becomes really the heart of the piece.

There’s certainly something of Hitchcock to this story, as it seems to be about a man shaping a woman’s identity to his own needs (a hint of Vertigo), yet I think there’s a lot more care taken with the construction than that. For a start, Alma is really the key character here, the one who drives the film in ways that Day-Lewis’s fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock does not, for he is just a man. It’s quite fascinating the way she subsumes Reynolds’ gaze and turns his controlling behaviour back on him, to a certain extent. I won’t go into details, but I think the power dynamic (while clearly unequal) is very interestingly handled, and Lesley Manville as Reynolds’ sister Cyril/mother surrogate is a key to unpicking it. Everything, ultimately, seems to be bound up in that central metaphor of stitching and impermanence.

This isn’t all that’s going on, though. Every filmmaker at some point in their career (if they have one) will make a film about their own creativity, and this feels like that, with Reynolds being the director stand-in. He is, after all, very much just one person within an industry, and this industry relies on the labour of women, in particular. The scenes of the women arriving at the start, of his workers standing around in their smocks just quietly getting on with the work, and then when Reynolds falls ill near the end, the way they work all night on his (their) project are among the more magical sequences in the film, a sort of emotional backbone to his own fragility as an ‘artist’.

Along with its careful symbolism, Phantom Thread has the feel of classic in terms of the way it’s shot (by Anderson himself as far as I can tell, and what a lushly grainy look it has, especially on 35mm), and the period 50s fashions on display. It’s artfully studied, and that suits the story I think. Things resolve with a certain element of perversity, of wilful helplessness, articulated not least in the focus on eating. I’d not been a fan up until Inherent Vice, but I do believe Paul T. has entered the imperial phase of his filmmaking.

Phantom Thread film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Paul Thomas Anderson; Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho (35mm), London, Monday 5 February 2018 (and most recently on 70mm at Prince Charles Cinema, London, Sunday 5 January 2020).