Criterion Sunday 58: Peeping Tom (1960)

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)

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Criterion Sunday 56: The 39 Steps (1935)

It may not be the equal of some of director Alfred Hitchcock’s later works, but this early espionage thriller has plenty to recommend it in terms of propulsively silly plot dynamics, as Robert Donat’s fairly ordinary (albeit refined and elegant) bloke Richard is drawn into shenanigans at a music hall by bumping into a glamorous spy, who is soon murdered, but not before revealing a plot that he can help in exposing. This leads him into what is essentially an extended chase scene that takes up the rest of the movie as he heads north to Scotland, along the way encountering the even more elegant (and blonde, of course) Pamela, played by Madeleine Carroll, who believes him about as much as everyone else he meets — which is to say not at all. It’s all good fun, with plenty of hints towards comedy and some surprise plot twists. Good for a rainy afternoon, I suspect, and it may well be more unaffectedly enjoyable than much of Hitchcock’s more revered later output.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Alfred Hitchcock | Writers Charles Bennett and Ian Hay (based on the novel The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan) | Cinematographer Bernard Knowles | Starring Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll | Length 86 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 10 December 2015

Brand: A Second Coming (2015)

There’s not a great deal to say about this new film from Ondi Timoner, the director of the enjoyable bitter-rivalry music documentary Dig! (2004). It premiered at the London Film Festival, was in cinemas a week or two later, and now already is on Amazon Instant Video, which may suggest it’s not that good, but actually just means that its real audience is largely online. Most people in the UK, after all, are likely to have an opinion about Russell Brand, because he’s certainly not been shy in broadcasting his own personality and views far and wide. He’s already been the subject of one documentary this year (somewhat more hagiographic one presumes), but this one purports to dig a little deeper beneath the surface. Whatever my own opinion about the man, it’s certainly clear that many of his views have been misrepresented by the media, or — perhaps more accurately — not addressed at all, through gales of mocking laughter, a lot of which has the nasty tinge of classism (Brand comes from an impoverished Essex background). A few of those media figures (like news anchor Jeremy Paxman) are interviewed here about Brand’s political statements, while Timoner is able to convey a sense of Brand’s life, his comedy, and his very public struggles with his family, with his relationships, and with drug addiction. It’s never particularly boring, but it certainly may suffer in your opinion if you’ve already got a strong dislike for Brand’s antics. I can’t say it gave me a new-found insight into Russell Brand, but I do believe it at least gives his views a fair hearing.


FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Ondi Timoner | Cinematographer Svetlana Cvetko | Starring Russell Brand | Length 104 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Saturday 14 November 2015

Burnt (2015)

A friend enjoys food-related films, so what can I say, I went along to see Burnt despite its almost uniformly terrible reviews. Therefore my first observation is that the end product is nowhere near as bad as those suggest. Of course it’s still essentially that — Hollywood product, albeit set in London and ticking off a lot of the tourist views of that city — but it coasts by on the charisma of its lead actors, all of whose work I enjoyed even if they’re hardly stretching themselves. If it’s a “comedy”-drama, then the comedy is in the broad strokes; I wouldn’t call it laugh-out-loud funny or anything. It’s more of a character study of one borderline-unstable man trying to find himself by learning to work with and trust other people. The film’s greatest weakness then is undoubtedly in the screenplay. The characters are stock and overly familiar (Gordon Ramsay is an executive producer, and Bradley Cooper’s Adam Jones isn’t far from his own carefully-constructed and endlessly-repeated media stereotype of the highly-strung rebellious bad-boy chef). The exposition, too, is wretchedly clunky, with characters like Omar Sy’s sous-chef Michel expected to recount their past dealings with Adam when meeting him, so as to catch us all up (oh sure, Adam’s drink/drug-fuelled youth is called on as a reason why this is necessary, but it’s a thin veneer). There’s lots of tedious to-do about Michelin stars, which as someone who used to care about such things when eating out is boring enough (I’m so done with tasting menus by the by), but will surely be of less than no interest to the rest of us (Jon Favreau’s Chef dealt with street food last year, which may not have been any less predictable a script, but it was at least a more likeable milieu). Worst of all is Adam’s hackneyed character arc, plotted out with plodding predictability, as he learns to work with others, repair his relationships, learn to temper his controlling behaviour, blah blah blah. But it all looks very nice, the actors have an easy charm, and I quite like workplace dramas even if every plot point here is punctuated by food p0rn.


© The Weinstein Company

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director John Wells | Writer Steven Knight (based on a story by Michael Kalesniko) | Cinematographer Adriano Goldman | Starring Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Daniel Brühl, Omar Sy | Length 101 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Saturday 7 November 2015

An Education (2009)

Based on Lynn Barber’s memoir of growing up, this 1960s coming of age film put star Carey Mulligan in the spotlight, and deservedly so. She is excellent in the central role of Jenny, a smart and studious schoolgirl in the prim suburbs of ‘swinging’ London who meets socialite David (Peter Sarsgaard) by chance and soon gets caught up in the romance of his whirlwind life, itself largely built on lies and deception. Her education, then, is not of the academic variety, but amongst the chancers and hangers-on of the real world. It’s all very handsomely mounted in its period detail and settings (though one gets the sense that these leafy West London residential streets haven’t necessarily changed all that much), and tells its story with economy and verve, thanks to Nick Hornby’s script and the help of an extensive range of English acting talent.


FILM REVIEW
Director Lone Scherfig | Writer Nick Hornby (based on the memoir by Lynn Barber) | Cinematographer John de Borman | Starring Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Olivia Williams, Dominic Cooper, Rosamund Pike | Length 95 minutes || Seen at home (blu-ray), London, Tuesday 20 October 2015

Suffragette (2015)

As one of the big cinematic releases here in the UK this autumn, Suffragette goes back to a fertile period of modern history — the 1910s shortly before the outbreak of World War I — tackling a story that’s certainly well-known to people at least in passing, if rarely thus far attempted on the big screen. Partially that may be due to the rather limited scope of the so-called ‘suffragettes’, being the militant wing of the campaign for women’s suffrage (voting rights); they were, after all, engaged in a domestic form of terrorism, albeit directed at manifestly unjust laws (not even all men had the vote in this period). Moreover it’s debated amongst historians quite how effective their campaign was, and it’s suggested that women’s involvement in work during World War I was more decisive in swaying political opinion on the matter (in 1918 women over 30, along with all men over 18, were awarded voting rights). However, that doesn’t change the fact that this is a stirring story of a small number of women who campaigned passionately for something they believed in enough to suffer abuse and imprisonment (and in some cases even death), and which continues to have resonances today, judging from the list that ends the film of when various countries finally allowed women the vote. It’s unquestionably a handsomely-mounted piece, with plenty of detail in the costumes and setting, and although most of the central characters are fictional creations, they are in some cases (most notably Helena Bonham Carter’s militant pharmacist) based on some aspects of real life figures, while there are effectively cameos from the movement’s leading lights (including Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst, and Natalie Press as Emily Wilding Davison). However, in some ways the film’s real achievement is in focusing on one working-class family woman (Carey Mulligan’s Maud, married to Ben Whishaw’s Sonny), rather than the upper middle-class ladies who are usually the linchpin of such stories. It’s her realisation of the importance of political representation, as effectively contextualised within her unfavourable working environment in an East End laundry, that moves the narrative along, and all the details of her working life are the most persuasive aspects of the drama. There are indeed many more stories of this type to be told about women in history — the past hundred years of cinema has provided rather a surfeit of tales of chauvinist political machinations — and Suffragette should be welcomed as a big-budget evocation of an important, if under-represented, story.


© Focus Features

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Sarah Gavron | Writer Abi Morgan | Cinematographer Edu Grau | Starring Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne-Marie Duff, Ben Whishaw, Brendan Gleeson | Length 106 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Thursday 22 October 2015

LFF: Public House (2015)

BFI London Film Festival This film was presented at the London Film Festival as its world premiere, introduced by its director Sarah Turner, who brought up her cast and crew. She returned afterwards for a Q&A session.


Its director, Sarah Turner, introduced it as something of a multimedia installation presented in traditional documentary film form (or words to that effect), and certainly Public House feels like a film that would be suited well to a non-traditional setting. It is made up of a variety of styles and textures, and when it’s presented on a cinema screen as a linear two-hour experience, it feels somehow overextended — though that’s not to demean any of its individual parts or participants. The film is staged as a series of dialogues, leaning heavily on overlapping voices commingled with the sounds of the pub and of the neighbourhood, much in the nature of pub conversation, and touches on themes of gentrification (what does it mean to be a “local”), place and community. In this respect, it is a story of increasingly tenuous gathering places for people in our ever more commodified inner cities, and it takes as its specific subject The Ivy House pub in south-east London, though it could be any community pub in London. The Ivy House had been sold by its pub company to greedy property developers in 2013, and then rescued and bought by a group of locals to be run as a so-called ‘Asset of Community Value’ under recently-introduced localism laws. As part of the film’s focus on the community, the pub’s regulars are called on to take part in communally-organised events of the nature the pub now hosts, including poetry readings, dance lessons and folk music sessions. A few faces stick out, but mostly the film contents itself with presenting the group, and thus (poetry readings aside), no one person is allowed to dominate either the visual or aural space of the film. So, yes, on the one hand it’s unquestionably an art project (with all that this entails), but it’s also a passionate love letter to what it means to be part of a community, and the place the pub has within that.


FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival
Director/Writer Sarah Turner | Cinematographers Sarah Turner, Matthew Walter and Nicola Daley | Length 120 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Monday 12 October 2015

Bill (2015)

As far as kids-oriented comedy/thrillers based around the life of William Shakespeare go, this one is pretty good fun. In fact, for the quality of filmmaking and even set and costume design on show, I’d say it gives Shakespeare in Love a decent run for its money, and is frankly more enjoyable in many ways. If there’s a style it’s going for, then probably early Blackadder with a hint of Monty Python would about sum it up. Mathew Baynton’s Bill is a down-on-his-luck provincial type with a dream of making it in the big city as a writer, and so he ups sticks, leaving his wife Anne (Martha Howe-Douglas) behind and tries his luck — running into little success, but meeting Christopher Marlowe (Jim Howick) along the way. Meanwhile the Spanish King Philip (a properly moustache-twirling bad guy with a nifty line in stupid disguises, played by co-writer Ben Willbond) is plotting to kill Queen Elizabeth, all laid out courtesy of an actually rather thrilling pre-credits sequence. He duly takes advantage of the foppish Earl of Croydon (Simon Farnaby), who has been picked to write a play to be performed in front of the Queen (the perfect place for Philip’s plan), but knowing nothing of the dramatic arts has enlisted as ghost-writer… Bill! So it’s all very silly, and silliness really is the watchword, for while the film is not always as historically far-fetched as you might expect, it’s just mostly very silly indeed. Which turns out to be a good fit to the subject matter, hence an enjoyable film. I’m not sure if it’ll really play well to kids though, but what do I know. All I mean is, there’s plenty for grown-ups too.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Richard Bracewell | Writers Laurence Rickard and Ben Willbond | Cinematographer Laurie Rose | Starring Mathew Baynton, Ben Willbond, Simon Farnaby, Martha Howe-Douglas, Jim Howick | Length 94 minutes || Seen at Cineworld O2 Greenwich, London, Thursday 24 September 2015

Miss You Already (2015)

It appears to be the time of year for what are often dismissively termed “chick flicks”. I hate that term, like “women’s pictures” for the melodramas of the 1940s, it smacks of snobbish derision. There are already too many self-satisfied dude auteur films dealing with alienation and violence courting the film school pseuds, not to mention all those deadening superhero epics, so there can never be too many contrasting visions of the world. That all said, I’m not a huge fan exactly, though as far as a melodramatic ‘weepie’ goes, Miss You Already does fine. Drew Barrymore remains a potently charismatic and cheerful presence on any cinema screen even as she reaches her (shock!) 40s, but this film is all about Toni Collette’s English rock-n-roll chick (her accent doesn’t grate, thankfully), with whom Drew’s character grew up, as she acts out, gets into trouble, then has a family (apparently adjusting with ease) and, as we catch up with her, is now coping with a cancer diagnosis. Being set in London, everyone has those kind of perfect London homes that surely don’t really exist (Barrymore and boyfriend played by Paddy Considine live together on a boat overlooking Battersea Power Station!), and meaningful moments take place in picturesque locations — though at least the geography isn’t strained too far beyond credulity. More to the point, Collette gets through the tearful and angry scenes with her dignity intact, which is more than can always be said for whomever scored the film, though leaning on late-80s alt-indie classics is I suppose in keeping with the characters. It’s certainly not a bad film, and it’s even heartwarming in its way.


© Entertainment One

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Catherine Hardwicke | Writer Morwenna Banks | Cinematographer Elliot Davis | Starring Toni Collette, Drew Barrymore, Paddy Considine, Dominic Cooper, Jacqueline Bisset | Length 94 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Wandsworth, London, Sunday 27 September 2015

Dreams of a Life (2011)

As readers of the small print on my reviews may have noticed, I go to see films at the Cineworld in Wood Green a lot (it’s one of the closest cinemas to where I live), which is the last place I expected to see featured in a film, but that shows how much I know. But while Dreams of a Life might be memorable to me for that small fact — the woman whose life it presents met her end in a flat in that same building — it is instead a fantastic film with an emotional effect I can only pinpoint as Uncanny (or Unheimliche if you will). Of course, director Carol Morley has form with that: her most recent film, the eerie The Falling, was one of my favourites at last year’s London Film Festival.

Outwardly there’s not much to say about Dreams, for it’s ostensibly a documentary about a woman called Joyce who was discovered dead in her Wood Green flat in 2006, having lain undisturbed for over two years. But grisly details of her end aside, the film is more interested in trying to find out about Joyce’s life, largely filtered through the recollections of her friends and lovers. As part of this, and perhaps to make clear that this is a film interpreting who Joyce may have been, rather than merely presenting the strange facts of her case file, the film is built around dramatic reconstructions of her with actor Zawe Ashton portraying her onscreen. For it turns out that Joyce was no maladjusted outsider for whom such an end seemed predestined, but instead — it seems — a beautiful, intelligent and apparently happy person. There are darker hints that domestic violence and abuse have contributed, so in a way it’s as much a film about what people keep hidden and how that can be undetected by even those closest to them.

However, perhaps most of all, it’s a film filled with the hopefulness of human contact, and the sadness of losing touch, which is perhaps the real reason for my calling it uncanny, for there’s something strangely familiar that I imagine to it that all of us can relate to. Over its running time, the film casts a real spell, one that is only broken by the end credits, as we hear Joyce singing, her voice dreadfully out of key, almost painfully reminding us that this is still a real person who has died, no mere dream.


© Dogwoof Pictures

FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Carol Morley | Cinematographers Mary Farbrother and Lynda Hall | Starring Zawe Ashton | Length 95 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Tuesday 22 September 2015