Cheer up with Ealing Comdedies

Three of the finest contributions to British cinema have been Powell and Pressburger, British Documentary and the output of this famous studio from 1945 until 1955. If you want an excellent overview then the book to read is Charles Barr’s study, [a Movie Book, 1980 and 1993, Leeds Central Library have a copy when they reopen]. This is of a comparable quality to many of the best titles produced at Ealing.

As Stephen pointed out BBC 2 is screening one of the comedy classics every day this week. Three of them are, to mine mind, among the great classics of our own film industry.

The Man In The White Suit

BBC2 Tuesday 3.25 p.m.

1951, black and white, 85 minutes.

This is a superb film which is effectively a science fiction drama. It was directed by one of the finest film-makers in Britain in this period, Alexander Mackendrick. The director also worked on the script with two experienced writers John Dighton and Roger Macdougal.

Alec Guinness, in a decade that saw a string and variety of fine performances, plays inventor Sydney Stratton, with a new miraculous cloth. There are a fine cast of supporting players including Joan Greenwood, she of the memorable husky voice, as the romantic interest; as a key mill owner; Cecil Parker, the embodiment of pomposity; and a delightful cameo by Ernest Thesiger, as a wily capitalist

The invention has both positive and negative aspects, and this fuels the drama. The research laboratory sequences are marvelous and this film is replete with not only visual but also aural humour. The finale, with the joining of forces of both capital and labour, is a subtle critique of the entire British establishment.

Whisky Galore!

BBC2 Thursday, 3.35 p.m.

1949, black and white, 92 minutes.

Another masterwork from Alexander Mackendrick and on this occasion working on the script with Angus Macphail and the author of the source novel, Compton Mackenzie. This film enjoys another performance by Joan Greenwood, accompanied by a fine supporting cast including Gordon Jackson, James Robertson Justice and, as the film’s fall guy, Basil Radford.

The population of the small island of Toddy relish their malt whiskey but wartime brings restrictions. Then a miracle; a transport ship, laden with export whisky, is driven ashore, The rest of the film depicts the ploys of the islanders to rescue and enjoy the precious liquid whilst the authorities, representing far away Whitehall, attempt to recover the salvage.

This is a different type of comedy from The Man in the White Suit. At times whimsical and at time almost farcical, this is delightful portrait of a small, intimate community. The film manages to combine some sort of moral with a celebration of Scottish island culture. Presumably there will be many member of the Scottish National Party enjoying this outing.

The Lavender Hill Mob

BBC2 Friday 3.30 p.m.

1951, black and white, 81 minutes.

This is a fine heist movie; written by one of the key writers in the Ealing of this period, T. E. B. Clarke. The film was directed was Charles Crichton; his later A Fish Called Wanda (1988) is on BBC 1 next Sunday evening.

Once again Alec Guinness stars, this time as the ‘mastermind’ of the robbery of a van of gold bulletin. He is supported by Stanley Holloway and as fellow criminals Sid James and Alfie Bass. John Gregson makes an early appearance as the representative of law and order.

The film is told in a flashback and the opening sequence features a cameo by Audrey Hepburn, stopping off in Britain on her way to Hollywood. The plotting is ingenious, in particular the method used to dispose of the stolen merchandise. And the final chase sequence has some inspired moments.

These three titles are all representative of a particular period and a particular interpretation of this ‘sceptred isle’. But they all subtly undermine this representation.

Films on iPlayer

This year was always going to be a strange one for us but none of us expected it to be like this. I hope that you are all staying safe and finding plenty of things to keep you occupied. One good thing that I’ve seen is an amazing sense of community from so many people and there’s no shortage of film recommendations and opportunities for group watch alongs at home.

Hopefully you are already aware of the Hyde Park Picks, daily recommendations from the Hyde Park Picture House team along with some great extras. Our old friends at MiniCine have started a Self Isolation Season on Instagram, picking out two films each day. I’m trying to share as many of these recommendations as I can over on Twitter (and less so on Facebook) so do follow us there if you are not doing so already.

I was going to pick out some films coming up on Freeview TV this week but there are so many to go through and Mark Kermode already does a good job of this on his Radio 5 show/podcast. Instead I thought it would be worth pointing out that many of the films shown on the BBC are also available to watch on iPlayer. Here are my recommendations from what is currently available:

It’s also worth noting that from Monday BBC2 will be screening a classic film every afternoon around 3pm, usually preceded by an episode of the Talking Pictures documentary. This week it’s (mostly) Ealing comedies:

  • School For Scoundrals
  • The Man In The White Suit
  • The Titfield Thunderbolt
  • Whisky Galore
  • The Lavender Hill Mob

Enjoy, stay safe and do let us know if you spot anything else we should be watching.

 

 

Cineaste treats on Freeview

BBC 4 Thursday 26th March at 10 p.m. and Saturday March 28th at 4.10 p.m.

We still miss the Hyde Park screening programme but there are at least two well made film classics on terrestrial television over the next few days. On Thursday we can watch a fine biopic of England’s greatest leader, Oliver Cromwell.

Cromwell was written and directed by Ken Hughes. This is his best outing as director though an early ‘B’ movie, Joe Macbeth (1955) was an interesting variation of Shakespeare’s character; and The Trials of Oscar Wilde (1960) was a convincing portrait with Peter Finch playing against type as Wilde. The merit of Cromwell is that this is a sympathetic treatment of a historical figure often vilified by conservation and reactionaries. Whilst he should be criticised for the suppression of the Leveller movement and the brutal invasion of Ireland, he led possibly the greatest transition in English history.

The stand-out aspect of the production is Richard Harris as the lead character. Harris almost seems born to play this powerful and committed military and political leader. From his early parliamentary opposition, through his reorganization of the People’s Army and to the setting up of a Republic, he dominates the screen and the other characters.

Alex Guinness provides a graceful performance as the ill-fated king, Charles 1st. There are some excellent battle scenes and a number of skilled British actors in supporting roles. This is definitely a better version that them later 2008 Cromwell.

Geoffrey Unsworth’s cinematography is excellent. The costume design won an Academy Award for Vittorio Nino Novarese. John Stoll’s production design is also very well done. The film was shot in 35mm Panavision and Technicolor; fortunate film buffs could also see it in 70mm.

And if you like period dramas then there is also an adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s great novel, Jane Eyre on BBC2 on Saturday. This is the 1944 version with Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine. Any day on which you can watch Welles is a good day.

What to do on Saturday night

BBC2 (HD) Saturday March 21st at 9 pm and 10:40 pm.

Stay Home, walk the dog, watch …

My condolences to fellow cineastes, but the closure of the Hyde Park Picture House has only come forward by a week or so. And the development work will continue. So there is a future after the crisis.

Fortunately terrestrial television is still screening a few quality films and on HD channels; two of these you may have seen at the Hyde Park. Both are well worth revisiting. The two films are fairly different but both privilege performances by two of the finest actresses in English language cinema. Both were circulated to cinemas on 2K DCPs so on TV HD the loss of quality is less than with 35mm film. They were though both shot on wide screen formats so they will be reduced.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool

UK, 2017.

In fact this title offers two great Hollywood leading ladies; with Annette Bening playing the earlier star Gloria Grahame as she finds solace in later life and illness in one of Britain’s most distinctive cities. Gloria Grahame was a fine and attractive actress in the late 1940s and 1950s with a persona that fitted well in film noir; think In a Lonely Place (1950) and The Big Heat (1953). This story takes place between 1979 and 1981 when Grahame, acting in Britain, starts a relationship with a minor actor Peter Turner (James Bell). Later he takes her back to his home in Liverpool. The film apparently closely follows Turners own memoir of the same title.

The story is well acted by the leads and develops real emotion. And the film makes good use of Liverpool locations and a studio recreated California. A fine drama that only enjoyed a limited release.

You can read a fuller review;

Personal Shopper

France, Germany, Czech Republic, Belgium, 2016.

This film was written and directed by the French film-maker Oliver Assayas. He had Kristen Stewart in his mind as leading actor. He had already worked with her on Clouds of Sils Maria (2014); a film in which Stewart performed alongside Juliet Binoche. This was another fine film with both actors turning in excellent and convincing performances.

The ‘Personal Shopper’ of the title is Maureen (Stewart) who buys clothes and jewellery for a super-model Kyra. There are some intriguing sequences where Maureen selects commodities for her employer, not seen until late in the film. This is a situation in which a young American woman, with a strong sense of style, provides services for a wealthy and pampered celebrity. This aspect harks back to Clouds of Sils Maria.

However, the meat of the story is a dead relative and their house, apparently haunted. This is Lewis, Maureen’s recently deceased twin brother, with whom she shared both a heart condition and an interest in spiritualism. It is the exploration of this ‘other world’ that occupies most of the movie. There is though crime/thriller plotting late in the movie.

What the film does effectively is to conjure up the ‘other’ world, full of ambiguities for both the protagonist and for the viewer. Stewart is excellent; her performance here and in Clouds of Sils Maria made me go back and check out one of the ‘Twilight’ series. I was also impressed by her skills in the 2014 Still Alice.

The Guardian offered the release five stars, calling it

“uncategorisable yet undeniably terrifying”

I did not find the film at all terrifying though it does generate a disturbing air at times. But it is fascinating and fits more or less into the ‘haunted house’ / ‘ghost story’ genre. The languages – English, French, Swedish and German – have English subtitles where needed.

Review: Little Joe

Final screening today (Mon 9th March) 6pm at Leeds University Union.

Little Joe

Jessica Hausner’s chilling psychological thriller is visually masterful however lacks a storyline worthy of it. The dizzying camera shots combined with the ominous and unnerving score creates an element of paranoia from the outset. The colours which are at points quite Wes Anderson esque can beautifully slip into the shadowy under belly of Blade Runner (1982).

The film centres on Alice who is a single mum and a dedicated breeder at a corporation which genetically engineers plants. She is working on developing a new breed that will control human emotions. Against company policy, she takes one home as a gift for her teenage son and names it after him but soon, though, she starts to fear it. Films and literature throughout history have dealt with the raw unspoilt beauty of flowers and the untold secrets they might hold. Little Joe carries on this tradition. Although the immortal words “Life will find a way” did pop into my head a few times, the film manages to offer up enough which feels different. The theme of mental health, maybe not fully realised, raises some interesting ideas on the subject and the stigma surrounding it. It is also about relationships, which feels more fleshed out but still perhaps not fully explored.Jessica Hausner’s eastern European routes and filmmaking style are at odds with the English setting, leaving the viewer with the impression of a tourist eye view of Britain.

The acting which was sometimes deliciously creepy and understated, sometimes fell into mockery and felt quite wooden. The saving grace in regards to the acting was Ben Whishaw who was the stand out performance.


Sam Judd

Review: Parasite

Screening until Thursday 5th March.

Bong Joon Ho’s chilling satirical masterpiece addresses the age old theme of social class. Much like Bong Joon Ho’s previous work, Snowpiecer (2013), the question of why some people are seen as “lower” and some people are seen as “higher” class is asked. The film also explores what we have to sacrifice to change social classes under a capitalist system.

The narrative follows the Kims, a poor family who con their way into becoming the servants of a rich family, the Parks. Their easy life gets complicated when their deception is threatened with exposure. What follows is a fascinating spectacle which is sometimes operatic in nature and a sad reflection of modern life. Although it is all set in South Korea, the story works so well because it is universal and could have been set practically anywhere. It could be argued that there are no villains in the film, just people; however, it is anything but a soap opera. It is a commentary on the human condition. Nothing is black and white, just shades of grey.

Parasite offers a way of seeing the world which feels unlike anything most Western audiences have seen before. However, there are still some films which it does bear some stylistic similarities to. Hitchcock comes to mind with films such as Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963).

There is also a twist in the tail which does feel slightly Hitchcockian. I could also see traces of films with a more biblical and spiritual quality to them such as Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (1999).

The acting was convincing throughout with stand out performances from Kang-ho Song and Sun-kyun Lee which puts the audience on edge. The spider-like way Bong Joon Ho directed his cast to move added to the sense of uneasiness.

The writing is spot on with some razor sharp wit which, combined with the direction, made for some side-splitting moments. However as a contrast to the more humorous points in the film, there are moments of real sadness and pain. The contrasts beautifully represent life, because what is life if not a series of contrasts?


Sam Judd

The Lighthouse

Screening multiple times daily until Thursday 13th February

Willem Defoe and Robert Pattinson in The Lighthouse

Robert Eggers offers a mixture of a fantasy horror film and a turbulent sequence of potentially iconic imagery in The Lighthouse.

The narrow, nearly square framing of the film reflects the claustrophobia of Robert Pattinson’s 4 week shift as wickie, Ephrain Wilnslow, on a secluded lighthouse island, under Willem Defoes’ tyrannical lighthouse keeper, Thomas Wake. 

Given the impressive cinematography, this is recommended for big screen viewing for an immersive experience. However, after an hour of being visually delighted, the chaos sequences become, well, chaotic, and the stunning imagery fails to make up for the lack of narrative. 

Unable to understand Defoe apart from some of his more bombastic Shakespearean speeches, it isn’t possible to determine if the character is much more than a generic Jaws’ Quint “type” than a whole character to invest in.  It feels like watching a sinister, parallel Craggy Island, where Father Jack has been left alone for too long.  As Wake himself says, “Thirteen Christmases at sea. Little ones at home. She never forgave it”. Maybe it is Mrs Doyle who left.

The black and white format illuminates the Brando-esque angles Pattinson’s face, with his characters’ descent into a madman masturbating over a mermaid scrimshaw whilst obsessing over the lighthouse summit is at times, an unsettling watch and the more notable of the two lead performances.

A pessimistic view of the plot is a pair of depraved drunks, unable to cope with the isolation of lighthouse life, descending into mutual insanity. With farting, masturbating, and some disappointingly obvious metaphors, all wrapped up in a black and white format.  There is a sense that the film aims to be conspicuously arthouse, especially in the final scene.

The Lighthouse is a memorable film, that will no doubt be rated as significant by film buffs and art students. 

Review: 1917

Sam Mendes’ brilliant war epic, 1917, shows us the horrors which so many young men went through in the darkest days of the First World War. It also hints at the rare melancholic beauty of war, with scenes such as a soldier singing the American folk song (The Wayfairing Stranger) as his brothers in arms sit around him listening with intent. The way Mendes masterfully presents the contrasts of war to us signifies a director on the top of his game.

The plot is relatively simple and is loosely based on stories from Sam Mendes’ grandfather’s own experiences of the First World War.  Two soldiers, superbly played by Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay, are assigned to deliver a message behind enemy lines. It will stop 1,600 men, including one of the soldier’s brothers, from walking straight into a deadly trap. The film puts you in mind of Saving Private Ryan (1998) and the HBO mini-series Band of Brothers (2001), and even Peter Jackson’s First World War documentary They Shall Not Grow Old (2018). However none of them delivers the sense of urgency and hopelessness which 1917 exudes.

Interestingly, the film is told in real time through a sequence of long takes. Mendes isn’t new to the one shot idea, as shown in the opening sequence to 2015’s Spectre, but he has never done it for a whole feature length film before. While there are masks and cuts if you look hard enough, this does not subtract from the feeling of urgency at all, in fact it heightens it. There are other films that play with the one shot formal such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) and Victoria (2015) that arguably deal with relationships and characters more effectively. Technically, however, 1917 is something quite unique. What makes it remarkable is the work of cinematographer Roger Deakins, who creates a beautiful ballet with the camera, putting the audience into the shoes of the soldiers. This technique can get a bit distracting at points, nonetheless it generates images and emotions which you wouldn’t be able to achieve with multiple shots. For example, there is one shot where one of the characters is running through some ruins while flares go up all around him. In this sequence the lighting and camera work combine to make something truly breathtaking, and is the stuff that dreams (or nightmares) are made of. 

The film is carried throughout by its two leads. Both Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay are utterly mesmerising, and MacKay in particular gives a performance of a career, and is completely believable in the role. It is a wonder why neither of them were nominated at this year’s Oscars.  There are also numerous big name actors who appear in minor roles throughout the film, such as Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch and Mark Strong, but they just act as seasoning which punctuates the overall narrative. That is not to disregard their contribution; Andrew Scott gives a perfectly dry and callous performance as a cynical Lieutenant, while Colin Firth gives a solid matter of fact performance as General Erinmore. It is all credit to the filmmakers’ ingenuity for not making these cameos feel out of place or unduly dominate their respective scenes.

The tale of love, loyalty and friendship that Mendes presents to us is something which everyone should bear witness to. It acts as a reminder of what those brave young men sacrificed.  1917 is worthy of all the praise given to it. 

There are a few more screenings of 1917 at Hyde Park Picture House this week.


Sam Judd

Jojo Rabbit

Showing daily from Friday 17th January

As kids, many of us had invisible friends drawn from our heroes or storybook characters. Jojo’s invisible friend is Hitler.

Jojo is a boy who’s been indoctrinated; he’s 10 and a member of the Hitler Youth. He likes marching, he likes uniforms and he likes the camaraderie of an extra-militaristic version of Scout camp. Taika Waititi plays Hitler as seen through Jojo’s eyes – a camp and paunchy, child friendly version of the dictator who acts as a confidant and sounding board for Jojo’s thoughts and fears.

After leaving the Hitler Youth through injury, Jojo finds other ways to get stuck in to the war effort, collecting scrap metal and sticking up posters. Away from the marching and training, without any adult supervision he’s left to his own devices, playing with Hitler and exploring the house he shares with his mysteriously busy single mother. Upstairs she’s kept a secret and Jojo’s discovery of Elsa, a Jewish girl hidden in an attic room throws his devotion to the Nazi cause into disarray.

If you’ve seen Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) or What We Do In The Shadows (2014), Waititi’s off-kilter silliness will be no surprise. In Jojo Rabbit, he handles the heavy themes delicately with on-brand bursts of humour and irreverence that bring levity without ever quite tipping into disrespect. The casting throughout is incredible; Jojo is Roman Griffin Davis’ first role, his mother is played by Scarlett Johansson and Sam Rockwell is the one-eyed Hitler Youth Co-ordinator Captain Klenzendorf. Rebel Wilson, Alfie Allen and Stephen Merchant appear as improbable supporting Nazis.

Jojo Rabbit has been nominated for Best Picture at the 2020 Academy Awards. Scarlett Johansson has been nominated for best supporting actress and four more nominations (for best adapted screenplay, film editing, costume design and production design) bring the total to 6. It’s not just the big awards; audience reception has been rapturous and in 2019 the film won the People’s Choice award at the Toronto Film Festival and the Audience Favourite at LIFF.

Jojo Rabbit will be showing at the Hyde Park from Friday the 17th of January.

Bill’s 2019 delectable dozen

In alphabetical order:

  • Beanpole – gripping story of survival in Leningrad after World War 2
  • A Dog Called Money – after seeing this documentary I’m an even bigger PJ Harvey fan
  • The Favourite – Emma Stone, Olivia Colman and Rachel Weisz stretched my imagination in enjoyable ways
  • Foxtrot – a great anti-war film; something goes terribly wrong at an isolated Israeli military checkpoint
  • If Beale Street Could Talk – a beautifully made adaptation of a James Baldwin novel
  • It Must Be Heaven – a fresh angle on what it means to be Palestinian
  • Judy and Punch – Punch and Judy for feminists, a heady mix of anarchy, comedy and violence
  • La Belle Époque – for anyone (like me) who wants to revisit a key time in their life
  • The Lighthouse – what could be better than two lighthouse keepers losing their sanity, especially when they are Willem Defoe and Robert Pattinson?
  • Loro – everything you ever wanted to know about bunga bunga sex parties
  • Marriage Story – breaking up is the hardest thing to do, as Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver show us with sharpness and humanity
  • Shooting the Mafia – documentary about a remarkable Sicilian woman, Letizia Battaglia, who defies the odds by exposing the brutality of the Cosa Nostra

Bill Walton