Criterion Sunday 158: The Importance of Being Earnest (1952)

There’s a certain strain in English filmmaking — and I think it’s the best kind — that is very much upfront about the theatricality of their sources. This one starts with a proscenium framing, and never lets up reminding us about quite how staged it all is, in the manner of the best farces. Wilde’s lines are given weight — enunciated with an archness that seems to be playing to the back of a very large room — even if not always fully respected (or so I gather from the gasps of my wife at bits having been needlessly cut and rephrased), but it’s not really until the entrance of Edith Evans’ Lady Bracknell that the film starts to really work. The male leads (Redgrave and Denison), after all, seem far too old, even for the staid era the film is trying to portray. Still, those line readings are for the most part marvellous, and the director has small flourishes (a match-cut to a gardenia near the beginning) that betray some thought about staging.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Anthony Asquith (based on the play by Oscar Wilde) | Cinematographer Desmond Dickinson | Starring Michael Redgrave, Michael Denison, Edith Evans, Joan Greenwood | Length 95 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 7 September 2017

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Criterion Sunday 154: The Horse’s Mouth (1958)

Having never heard of it before it popped up on our Criterion watching project, this is a perfectly likeable colour film about a colourful character who paints colourful works of art and injects a bit of épater into those bourgeois lives he drifts through (well, more upper-class really), but I’m not sure what deeper meaning it really captures. The one the filmmakers presumably intend — that art is valuable, damn everything — comes through clearly though, and Alec Guinness in the lead as dishevelled painter Gulley Jimson is as ever reliable, not unlike the Meryl Streep of his day, all accents and imposture in the service of wit and well-crafted journeyman material. It has its diversions, and is pleasing on the eye.

Criterion Extras: There’s a short interview with Ronald Neame from before he died (around when the DVD was released, presumably), who is a genial host and tells of the film’s production. There’s also a trailer. However, the standout extra is a short film which was shown with the feature at its original New York run in the late-1950s, a short film by D.A. Pennebaker called Daybreak Express. For all its five minutes running time, it is far the superior work. It’s a jaunting work of jazzy cinematic propulsion, like a city symphony made my Soviet constructivists with a penchant for Duke Ellington. Rich and resonant colours, bold modern architecture, a train ride from the city to suburbs both exceeding that experience but also encapsulating it.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ronald Neame | Writer Alec Guinness (based on the novel by Joyce Cary) | Cinematographer Arthur Ibbetson | Starring Alec Guinness, Kay Walsh | Length 97 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 23 April 2017

Their Finest (2016)

I hardly expected to like this. It looks like the kind of unadventurous, softly patriotic nonsense that leads to dull dirges like that Vera Brittain adaptation with Alicia Vikander in it whose title I’ve already forgotten (it’s Testament of Youth now that I look it up), or thin jaunts like that one with Bel Powley as Princess Margaret and a bunch of other less enjoyable people that I sort of half-remember the title of (A Royal Night Out, it turns out). Well anyway, I might actually remember the title of Their Finest because I generally found it to be superior, and though it’s hardly a film for the ages, it does have a spirited Gemma Arterton playing Catrin, a Welsh screenwriter, with a scene-stealing Bill Nighy as, um… Bill Nighy, I guess (he plays an actor). A love story is present (not with Nighy, I should point out), but it feels to me that this film is about more than the romance, even if there is a certain romanticism to the idea of wartime England. I was manipulated duly by the film, overlong as it was (and that despite an actual line in the film about movies ideally being an hour and a half long!), and I feel fine about it, for it was all very jolly.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Lone Scherfig | Writer Gaby Chiappe (based on the novel Their Finest Hour and a Half by Lissa Evans) | Cinematographer Sebastian Blenkov | Starring Gemma Arterton, Bill Nighy, Sam Claflin | Length 117 minutes || Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Sunday 7 May 2017

Criterion Sunday 119: Withnail and I (1987)

I have, as it happens, already written a review of this on this blog so here it is. There’s little I’d want to add to it, aside from reaffirming that it does stand up under the weight of its cult status, not that it’s a film I myself am necessarily drawn back to, unlike…

Criterion Extras: … the fans depicted in the short piece Withnail and Us (1999), who show a fanatical fondness for the film that sometimes seems too much (obsessive quoting of movie lines has never been something I’ve been good at, nor had any inclination to do) but also reminds me of what’s genuinely appealing about the film’s bleak dark vision of England. Alongside the fans, the documentary also corrals a number of the actors to talk about the experience of making the film, and is an enjoyable half-hour for what it is.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Bruce Robinson | Cinematographer Peter Hannan | Starring Paul McGann, Richard E. Grant, Richard Griffiths | Length 107 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 26 January 2014

Criterion Sunday 107: Mona Lisa (1986)

Bob Hoskins once again plays a Cockney gangster, and though my initial instinct is to assume his character (who begins the film recently released from prison) was locked up just after the events of The Long Good Friday (1980), given he seems surprised his street now has a large number of black residents, maybe he’s been locked up since the 1940s. Perhaps the filmmakers just took ‘film noir’ a bit literally, but underlying it is a well-meaning attempt to grapple with societal changes that must have seemed like a chasm following a series of race-based riots in the early-1980s. I’m not convinced all the racial politics really hold up (and how many films do after a few decades?) but at least there’s representation, even in the form of that filmmakers’ favourite stereotype: a high-class prostitute and her pimp (who incidentally is played by a much younger Clarke Peters from The Wire, albeit with no dialogue that I noticed). It’s strictly geezers and seedy London locales, and it’s by no means a badly made or acted film. Hoskins, along with Cathy Tyson as the titular character — and even Michael Caine as a gang boss — do good work. Let’s just say it’s of its High Thatcherite era.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Neil Jordan | Writers Neil Jordan and David Leland | Cinematographer Roger Pratt | Starring Bob Hoskins, Cathy Tyson, Michael Caine, Robbie Coltrane | Length 104 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Monday 18 July 2016

Shoot the Messenger (2006)

A film made for TV in 2006 and rarely screened since, I saw this at a 10th anniversary show at the BFI (to tie in with their Black Star season focusing on black film talent), followed by a fascinating panel discussion afterwards which I think helped me appreciate it more by presenting a diverse range of responses and perspectives. It’s a film which sets up its unusual and challenging tone from the very opening shot of David Oyelowo’s character Joe stating direct to camera that all the problems he’s had in life are due to black people. It’s a deliberate provocation from a production with black writer, director and cast, and is said within a context of a drama which is hardly naturalistic — the film’s tone is much more black comedy or satire, even as it trades in some very harsh statements about systemic and ingrained racism within British society. Thus it’s made clear that Joe — a man who initially feels called upon to help improve the lives of minority ethnicities by becoming a teacher — is just the lightning rod for discussing these issues. From a stylistic perspective, the film also makes frequent use of direct-to-camera address from this unreliable protagonist — amplifying his voice and making it even more challenging — as he traverses a series of personal setbacks, all of which he pins to other black people. But the ostensible comedy in fact helps draw out all kinds of aspects of lived black experience — experiences within systems dedicated to education, mental health and employment, experiences with religion and the media, and within a society with deeply-ingrained messages around body shaming (specifically to do with hair, in this context). None of it feels like it should work — in some senses it comes across as quite a theatrical piece — but it’s in a great tradition of British television drama (I think back to the 1960s for the nearest comparisons, polemical films by directors like Alan Clarke). It’s rich in ideas, and Oyelowo is great in the lead.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW
Director Ngozi Onwurah | Writer Sharon Foster | Cinematographer David Katznelson | Starring David Oyelowo, Charles Mnene, Nikki Amuka-Bird | Length 89 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Tuesday 15 November 2016

Generation Revolution (2016)

Seeing this kind of politically-committed documentary — about youthful revolutionary protestors (specifically people of colour in London) fighting against multiple intersections of oppression, whether racist, capitalist, sexist, imperialist — in a plush central London cinema feels strange. Indeed, this probably isn’t the kind of venue where it will get most traction; it’s surely more a means towards getting the message into at least the film columns of broadsheet newspapers. That said, although it’s about activists and conveys the potency of a very real and urgent struggle (ever more so since it was made, since events of even just the past week), it’s not simply a work of activist agitprop.

The film’s participants are careful and reflective about their voices and the ways they are trying to engage and confront a system of interrelated oppressions. They don’t always agree about either methods or ideology, but all of them are doing so much more than most of us, in our complacency (certainly those of us watching in posh central London cinemas, let’s be fair), and that’s important to see, just as it’s important to know and acknowledge this work is happening. My favourite participant is Tej, a sweet guy taking part in feminist consciousness raising, not to mention idealistically helping out homeless people and worrying over the details (whether his care packages are missing roll-on deodorant for example). There’s also the woman who calls out her fellow revolutionaries for being insufficiently inclusive, and the young woman near the end who bashfully admits she doesn’t know how to talk to people even as she strikes up an easy friendship with one unfortunate homeless woman outside Euston station.

Generation Revolution is filled with such portraits. It shows a side not just of political activism, but specifically of activism and community engagement amongst black and minority ethnicities in this country, that is rarely represented in the media, and gives me at least a strength of hope in future generations against what feels like a relentlessly cynical and ironic tone to much of the mainstream coverage of politics. It’s worth seeking out, as finding more ways to engage with political change is sadly becoming increasingly urgent in many parts of the western world.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Directors Cassie Quarless and Usayd Younis | Length 74 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Saturday 12 November 2016

LFF 2016 Day Nine

Two films after work on Thursday 13 October, both of them very solid outings, and seen in the same cinema, but with quite a different vibe. The first was a rammed, sold out house who responded with glee to the film, whereas the second was very much a half-empty auditorium with a sense of detached weariness (maybe that’s me just projecting onto French arthouse lovers, or maybe I was just grumpy because of the smell of someone’s kebab behind me).


Prevenge (2016)

Prevenge (2016, UK, dir./wr. Alice Lowe, DOP Ryan Eddleston)
At this point in my life there are plenty of films which only remind me of other films, and that’s fine, but it’s nice to see something that feels a bit unexpected. Prevenge is a film made by a pregnant woman about a pregnant woman who is systematically taking her murderous revenge on her perceived enemies (to say more would probably constitute spoilers), and it somehow feels a bit new. Both those pregnant roles are taken by Alice Lowe as director/lead actor, who threw the project together very quickly for biologically obvious reasons. In its blend of black comedy and jagged emotional turmoil, it is never unwatchable and sometimes both affecting and very funny, and Lowe is particularly good at turning suddenly from chattiness to a deathly unsettling stare. It seems to be allegorising aspects of motherhood, but it’s also good fun if you can stand a little bit of gore — a staple of both horror cinema and maternity. [***½]


Voir du pays (The Stopover, 2016)Voir du pays (The Stopover) (2016, France/Greece, dir./wr. Delphine Coulin/Muriel Coulin, DOP Jean-Louis Vialard)
This is a film about French soldiers on the way home from a tour of duty in Afghanistan, who go on a three-day retreat in Cyprus on what their army bosses call “decompression”, though I can’t think of a word further away from what happens in this film. Instead it’s very much a pressure cooker environment, as the soldiers go through group therapy reliving key incidents in their recent tour in which it quickly becomes clear that lives were lost and bad decisions were taken that various members of the group feel either responsible for or powerless in the face of. It’s also a film about women in the military and the specific pressures on them, not just in their job but especially from their male colleagues. Throughout there’s a tense atmosphere, as if hostilities are about to kick off at any moment, emphasised by the tight shot framing and the glass prison mise en scène of the luxury hotel, whose vistas promise such illusory freedom. In truth there are a lot of ideas kicking around here that never quite (for me) come together fully, but the actors are all excellent, not least Ariane Labed as Aurore — the reason I booked a ticket to the see the film in the first place, for she is among the finest currently working — and her tightly-wound friend Marine (played by a singer known as Soko). [***]

The Hard Stop (2015)

At a time when the US-focused Black Lives Matter movement is getting a lot of attention, it’s useful to remember that countries like the UK are no less problematic in the ways the authorities routinely target poorer, generally non-white, citizens. This documentary about Tottenham, a less affluent area of North London (representative of similar urban areas around the country), doesn’t have much that’s good to reveal about the police as it tracks the aftermath of the killing of Mark Duggan, via the prism of two of his friends, Marcus and Kurtis. Although Duggan’s killing kicked off a series of riots in 2011, the causes of those clearly are a lot wider and go a lot deeper than just police brutality. By closely tracking its protagonists and their lives in Tottenham — on the Broadwater Farm housing estate where they grew up (the site of the murder of a police offer at an earlier riot in the 1980s), their difficulties in finding housing and work (in one case requiring relocation to another county entirely), and above all their struggle to stay away from criminality — the documentary gives a sense of the background to those riots, even as its articulate subjects dissociate themselves from some of the ways that the 2011 rioting expressed itself. Clearly a lot of work still needs to be done — and there’s no real sense that similar riots aren’t still bubbling just under the surface of society — but it’s good to see two young men reflecting intelligently on their lives and the way they’ve been shaped by their surroundings, and looking for a way forward, both for themselves and for their community.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director George Amponsah | Cinematographers Colin Elves and Matthias Pilz | Length 85 minutes || Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Tuesday 19 July 2016

Criterion Sunday 58: Peeping Tom (1960)

© The Criterion Collection

Peeping Tom is famous for ruining Michael Powell’s career due to the venomous rage with which it was received on its release, yet there’s a lot now to say about it. Certainly you can see elements within it that might not have endeared it to a filmgoing public (or critics) brought up in an era before this film and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho of a few months later had such a profound effect on what it meant to do film horror. It’s a tortured allegory about the role of the filmmaker, as Michael Powell’s stand-in Mark Lewis (played by German actor Carl Boehm, later to star in a number of Fassbinder movies) is obsessed with filming women while he kills them, one of his victims being The Red Shoes star Moira Shearer. Powell himself shows up in cameos as Lewis’s sadistic father, an academic whose specialism was the concept of fear, so clearly this story of filmmaker-as-torturer was one that appealed to him personally (whether or not Powell himself was a particularly tyrannical director, though surely he was no Hitchcock in that regard). In any case, the result is a beautifully-crafted film, filled with rich saturated colours, and largely taking place in the London rooming house that Mark owns and partially lets out to a family, whose daughter (Anna Massey) strikes up a friendship with Mark. (For connoisseurs of London, there are also some fetching street corner scenes in Soho and Fitzrovia.) It may have inspired no end of graduate essays for its deconstruction of the wall between filmmaker, actors and audience, it’s also a fascinating film to watch and one which exerts a real psychological hold.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Michael Powell | Writer Leo Marks | Cinematographer Otto Heller | Starring Karlheinz Böhm [as “Carl Boehm”], Anna Massey, Moira Shearer | Length 101 minutes || Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Thursday 28 June 2001 (and more recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 18 October 2015)