“Make More Noise! Suffragettes in Silent Film” (2015)

BFI London Film Festival This compilation of early cinema short films was presented at the London Film Festival. It was given an introduction by one of the programmers.


What with the recent release of Suffragette, it being the opening gala for the London Film Festival, there’s been a recent resurgence of interest in the so-called “suffragettes”, a media term of derision originally, referring to the militant wing of women agitating for universal voter suffrage. Hence there’s this compilation film of early archival short films from 1899-1917 touching on their cause, which has had a short release at cinemas aside from its Festival screenings. The newsreel footage is relatively slender, but we get key events like the trampling of Emily Wilding Davison at the 1913 Derby (such a brief snippet within the coverage of the race overall that you need only blink to miss it). Padding out the running time are some comedy short films, including two featuring the ‘Tilly girls’, two young Edwardian women with little regard for the stuffy conventions of their era, not to mention a silly film in which a husband fantasises about violent retributions on his nagging suffragist wife. In any case, my friend Pam has written much more volubly and eloquently on its contents for The Guardian so you’d be better off just reading her piece. As for me, I found it largely likeable, if sometimes (necessarily) challenging in its period attitudes. The clips are well contextualised by modern intertitles, and there’s an excellent new piano score by Lillian Henley.


FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival
Length 75 minutes || Seen at Rich Mix, London, Sunday 18 October 2015

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She’s Funny That Way (2014)

At a certain level this film by ageing auteurist Peter Bogdanovich seems achingly archaic, a collection of neurotic New York archetypes owing more to a careful study of Woody Allen films (or indeed those of its producers, Noah Baumbach and Wes Anderson) than anything resembling what one might recognise as real life or believable behaviour. Its heroine, Izzy (Imogen Poots, an English actor going for a broad working-class Brooklyn accent, the success of which will probably depend on who’s listening), isn’t much more rounded a one-dimensional muse/prostitute character than Mira Sorvino played in Mighty Aphrodite (1995), and the pecuniary salvation offered by theatre director Arnold (Owen Wilson) is an almost offensively crass rehash of (the hardly any less crass) Richard Gere in Pretty Woman (1990). But that would be to miss the film’s point, as set up by its silent film-like title card invoking the ‘print the legend’ refrain of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), just one of many classical Hollywood films Bogdanovich tips his hat towards, i.e. that these are characters who exist solely in a self-referential world of films. That’s not to say it’s a consistent delight, as it still requires the viewer to sit through these hoary clichés (women as wives/mothers/whores, men as desperate cheating cads, a hundred scenarios you’ve seen a hundred times before), however knowingly they’re deployed. And yet there’s a simple pleasure to a lot of it, especially the screwball scenes of characters all converging on the same place in various configurations. There are also some fine performances in roles large and small, as it seems Bogdanovich has quite an address book to call upon — Joanna Lumley gets a credit at the end for a scene that only plays while her name is on screen, while other name actors appear only fleetingly. For me (being hardly a fan of her filmic work), the biggest surprise is probably Jennifer Aniston as a straight-talking psychiatrist (another character only ever found in the movies), who delivers some of the film’s biggest laughs through her energetic mugging. It may not amount to much more than a slight pleasure to anyone watching it, but that doesn’t feel like a failure.


© Lionsgate Premiere

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Peter Bogdanovich | Writers Peter Bogdanovich and Louise Stratten | Cinematographer Yaron Orbach | Starring Imogen Poots, Owen Wilson, Kathryn Hahn, Jennifer Aniston, Rhys Ifans, Will Forte | Length 93 minutes || Seen at Olympic Studios, London, Tuesday 14 July 2015

Second Hand Husband (2015)

As my knowledge of popular Indian cinema is still in its infancy, my understanding from commentary I found on the internet is that this film is a Bollywood (i.e. Hindi language) debut from Punjabi director Smeep Kang, but otherwise bears the stylistic imprint of films from that part of the world (the north-west of the country and Pakistan). It stars Punjabi singer Gippy Grewal as dashing divorcee Rajbir looking to remarry the sensible lawyer Gurpreet, though the actor playing her (Tina Ahuja) almost fades into the background, since most of the comedic to-do is given over to Rajbir’s philandering boss Ajit (Dharmendra, a stalwart of both Hindi and Punjabi cinema) and his ex-wife Neha (Geeta Basra), a colourful figure who is set on Rajbir’s alimony payments. There’s little point in me trying to recount the plot, which involves all kinds of slapstick endeavours by Rajbir to set up Neha with a new husband (not to mention playing match-maker and breaker with Ajit, Ajit’s wife, the local police sergeant, and others). Even the film seems to whizz through the various possible pairings with undue haste and little attention to believability, stopping entirely at one point, as is customary, to fit in what amounts to a music video. It’s probably a stretch to have set up the almost 80-year-old Dharmendra as a charming lothario, much though he’s looking good for his age, and too many of the slapstick setpieces are a stretch even for a script this slapdash. Added to this the comedy musical cues start to get wearing over the length of the film. That said, it coasts through on the photogenic charm of its leads, making it difficult to take against it too strongly.


© Gakhal Brothers Entertainment

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Smeep Kang | Writers Smeep Kang, Shreya Srivastava and Vaibhav Suman | Cinematographer Manoj Shaw | Starring Gippy Grewal, Geeta Basra, Dharmendra | Length 105 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Ilford, London, Thursday 16 July 2015

Accidental Love (2015)

Originally entitled Nailed and directed by David O. Russell, this troubled production began in 2008 and is only now getting a release, with Russell’s name removed from his directing and writing credits (in favour of “Stephen Greene”). If it remains remembered in future at all, it will almost certainly be for this story than anything actually in the film, though despite a healthy portfolio of negative critical reviews, it’s not actually all that awful. It’s disjointed certainly, with an uneven tone (slapstick is difficult to get right), and some of its jokes don’t land very well at all — there’s a scene of Gyllenhaal’s Congressman character Howard cringing through his fingers which could easily have been me at points. And yet Jessica Biel’s naive small-town girl Alice has a winning charm not unlike that of television’s Kimmy Schmidt. Alice gets a nail accidentally shot into her head but is uninsured and so needs a change in the law to allow her to have it removed, thus avoiding long-term damage. As a political satire, made at a time before President Obama brought in healthcare coverage, it does pretty well, giving a sense of the absurdity of the system, something you’d imagine the film’s writer might have experienced a little of as Al Gore’s daughter. It’s Catherine Keener’s conniving senior politician who is the film’s bad guy, though James Marsden’s schmuck-like local police officer Scott — engaged to Alice before taking it back, and overly fond of putting percentage chances on everything — comes close. I can’t in all honesty recommend Accidental Love wholeheartedly, but it certainly doesn’t deserve the beating it’s received from some quarters.


© Millennium Entertainment

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director David O. Russell [as “Stephen Greene”] | Writers David O. Russell [as “Stephen Greene”], Kristin Gore, Matthew Silverstein and Dave Jeser (based on the novel Sammy’s Hill by Gore) | Cinematographer Max Malkin | Starring Jessica Biel, Jake Gyllenhaal, Catherine Keener, James Marsden, Tracy Morgan | Length 100 minutes || Seen at Showcase Cinemas Newham, London, Sunday 28 June 2015

Crainquebille (1922)

The Cinema Museum logo As part of the regular monthly ‘Kennington Bioscope’ night, this feature was presented along with a number of short films, with an intermission between them. Piano accompaniment was provided by organisers Lillian Henley and Cyrus Gabrysch for the shorts, and by renowned silent film accompanist and concert pianist Costas Fotopoulos for the feature.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEWS | Seen at Cinema Museum, London, Wednesday 26 March 2014

Crainquebille (1922) || Director/Writer Jacques Feyder (based on the novel by Anatole France) | Cinematographers Léonce-Henri Burel and Maurice Forster | Starring Maurice de Féraudy | Length 76 minutes || My Rating 3.5 stars very good

© Pathé

The more silent films one watches, the more one realises there’s a huge range of expression beyond the kind of hyperactive slapstick we’ve at length come to associate with the era (though some of the shorts, see below, fulfil this function more than adequately). Instead with this film, we see Belgian director Jacques Feyder expressively try his hand at a kind of proletarian social realism, with moustachioed Maurice de Fléraudy playing an honest working class protagonist ground down by the unfeeling, pettifogging machinations of the authorities. In this respect, it’s not unlike, say, Bresson’s L’Argent (1983), in which a chain of minor events build into tragedy, but the film I’m most minded of is Fassbinder’s Händler der vier Jahreszeiten (The Merchant of Four Seasons, 1971), which also centres on a street peddler pushing around a cart of groceries.

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Go West (1925)

This screening was presented with live piano accompaniment from John Sweeney, whose work was excellent and deft as ever. I always worry I should try to have something more precise to say, but if he had been unduly drawing attention to his playing, it would hardly have been so successful; instead I was fully engrossed in the Keaton comedy.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW || Director Buster Keaton | Writers Raymond Cannon and Buster Keaton | Cinematographers Elgin Lessley and Bert Haines | Starring Buster Keaton, Howard Truesdale | Length 80 minutes | Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Tuesday 21 January 2014 || My Rating 3 stars good


© Metro-Goldwyn

There’s plenty of ink that’s been spilled over the years (although that’s not entirely an apt metaphor for this modern era) discussing the differences between the various silent film comedians, along with people’s personal preferences. I’ve not seen enough by any of them (although I did, rather briefly, review a screening of Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last! last year) to contribute much that’s worthwhile to that discussion — which I can only hope will be a blessed relief to readers, who should be free to make their own judgement on this matter. I will say that of the famous ones, I’ve seen the most films by Buster Keaton, a disparity that’s hardly going to be rectified by the BFI’s current Keaton retrospective season. Amongst his fine body of work, Go West is it seems a little underappreciated, but over a series of vignettes set in the Wild West, Keaton mines plenty of humour, and even a bit of pathos.

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Safety Last! (1923)

Organist Donald MacKenzie at the Odeon Leicester Square's Compton organ.

A new restoration of this silent classic would be the occasion for rejoicing at the best of times, but seeing it in London’s largest cinema (the Odeon Leicester Square) marking its 75th anniversary was a special treat, not least because it was a chance to enjoy the cinema’s Compton organ in its full, pulsatingly colourful splendour, rising from the bowels of the cinema’s orchestra pit. The cinema’s dedicated organist, Donald MacKenzie, put together a programme of short newsreel films about the cinema’s history, before playing the instrument both solo and with an old-time jazz band (The Hendo Washboard Kings) accompanying. He finally settled in to the feature film itself, using all the (at times, literal) bells and whistles that the organ provides the skilled accompanist.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW || Directors Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor | Writers Hal Roach, Sam Taylor and Bill Whelan | Cinematographer Walter Lundin | Starring Harold Lloyd, Mildred Davis | Length 76 minutes | Seen at Odeon Leicester Square, London, Saturday 3 August 2013 || My Rating 3.5 stars very good


© Pathé Exchange

This film is probably what comedian Harold Lloyd remains most famous for, and its image of him hanging off a building’s clockface high above the ground has become an iconic one (to the extent that one member of my audience tried repeatedly to take a photo of the screen — with flash — at this point).

Safety Last! is, broadly-speaking, a slapstick romantic comedy, with Harold playing The Boy to Mildred Davis’s The Girl (the latter would shortly become Lloyd’s actual wife). He goes off to the big city to make his fortune on the promise of marrying her when he does, but gets as far as a department store clerk before she comes to visit him, expecting from the lavish presents he regularly sends back to her that he is doing so much better. This motivates a series of swiftly-escalating comedy setpieces whereby he can make good, ultimately involving the building climb that leads to that iconic image of clock-faced peril.

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