Welcome to my movie blog, containing reviews and articles. I've been writing since 2004 - with a short break during 2009.

A Summer of British film

I live off the TV movie schedules. You can’t beat DVD for good quality image, but a pristine transfer does not a great film make. Films on TV are effectively free, instead of overpriced DVD and you don’t get landed with storing a lousy film you’ll never see again because you’re too embarrassed to be seen taking it into Oxfam. And yes, sometimes films are cut. This does annoy me - but what you don't have you don't miss. I'm worried about watching Requiem for a Dream TV though, because it's meant to be prone to trims. Mind you, I'm tuning in next time Pulp Fiction is on - it's meant to be borderline unwatchable.

So it was with some excitement I greeted BBC2’s “Summer of British Film”, 7 weeks, 7 genres and a whole whack of films to watch for free. I didn’t manage to see all of them – actually, most of them I didn’t even try. But here’s my evaluation of the ones I did…

To start with, the categories they’ve chosen says something about the Brit film industry. A Summer of American film wouldn’t lavish two weeks on Costume Dramas, nor on Social Realism. That’s what we Brits do best, along with Carry On movies, Hammer Horrors and stiff-upper-lip war movies.

Week 1 – Thriller
Week 2 – Love
Week 3 – Social Drama
Week 4 – Costume Drama
Week 5 – Horror
Week 6 – War
Week 7 – Comedy

Week 1 – Thriller
Saw: 5/17
(didn't bother with Goldfinger or From Russia with Love as I've seen 'em before)

It was so almost 8. The clock had almost reached midnight, and I was just brushing my teeth when Dirty Pretty Things came on. I hadn’t meant to watch it, but I got very quickly hooked. I forced myself to turn it off, a decision I’m still regretting. Twas a five minute masterpiece. Still, 7 films isn’t bad. Here's the roundup, in a vague order of preference.

Christopher Nolan's student film, and boy does it show. I don't mean it was made on a cheap budget with non-professional actors. I mean, it probably was - I refer to all those noiry influences which infused Memento, and are even more obvious here, with its B+W cinematography, skewed timescale and constantly shifting motives. It even has a femme fatale. This film draws you in so neatly, making you complicit in the lead character's alluring hobby - he follows people, just to see where they go. The trouble starts when he meets a like-minded crim, who breaks into houses more for the thrill of spying on their lives than actually taking anything. By the end, you'll remember that the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist, and trying to piece together the bits you missed. This is a little seen, highly recommended gem - especially for people who liked Memento. Keep an eye on the author's hairstyle for clues to which point of the story you're at.

The 39 Steps - Seen as a double bill with The Lady Vanishes. This was a far more successful foray into the work of Our Greatest Director (TM). You may recall - indeed, I haven't let you forget - that Vertigo and Psycho were both a bit lost on me (don't shoot straight away, there are mitigating factors. I saw the first half of Psycho in film studies - perhaps the second half is better, all I can say is that it didn't inspire me to see the rest. And Vertigo I watched at midnight, so you can forgive my critical powers being at a lull...). Thankfully, this was a bit more my thing - particularly 39 Steps, which was great. The Lady Vanishes was undeniably good, but a bit contrived. It seems unlikely that the villains would come up with a plan that unecessarily complicated. Watching films in twos is always a great experience anyway.

Odd Man Out - after a bank robbery gone wrong, one of the team is accidentally left behind, badly wounded. Is this sounding at all familiar? James Mason is great as the wounded gangster, staggering around in the snow, trying to find a friendly supporting character to help him out. While I felt it could have done with being a tiny bit shorter, this was a moving noir which at times seemed tailor made for me. And I loved it.

The Ipcress File Ah! The social realism spy movie. How very British. Harry Palmer was concieved as the ultimate anti-Bond - catching the bad guys by looking at their telephone records, filling in paperwork and not a martini in sight. As such, it was stripped of all the flair and silliness which makes Bond fun, turning espionage into an ordinary occupation and rather destroying the point. Still, I enjoyed it, and it would certainly be an amazing film to study for evidence of 60s ideas and attitudes. And the end is ace. Oh, and his superior is played by the first actor to appear as Number 2 in the Prisoner, which I feel is very fitting.

Incidentally, I also watched their accompanying program on British Crime Films, which was a disgrace to film journalism. They had nothing interesting to say about any of the films they highlighted, nothing critical, nothing new (heavenandearth, is there nothing new to be said about The Third Man? He wrote it himself, he was awol most of the time, it's the director's fingers, it's the assistant director's shadow, please), and insisted on giving away all the endings. Even if one was interested in seeing the film, what would be the point? I gave up on it pretty quickly. A wasted oppertunity.

Week 2 – Love
Saw: 0/18

Ce'est la vie. Meant to record The Red Shoes, but forgot. Seen Gregory's Girl before. Would have killed to see Brief Encounter, but alas they didn't broadcast it - merely put it into cinemas. Blech.

Week 3 – Social Drama
Saw: 1/13

I really don't like social realism. For me, cinema is escapism pure and simple. Anger, trauma and insanity are big emotions, easy to sympathise with. Boredom, quiet despair, monotony - all far too subtle for me. Give me a good murder any day - but the ordinary sufferings of ordinary people, troubled by unemployment and unfair odds...blech. Not a world I want to immerse myself in. Consiquently, only one took my eye from this selection - Ratcatcher - and only because we'd done a case study on the poster in film studies.

It was good for what it was. I enjoyed it as much as I reasonably could have. There were lots of good moments - the terrifying opening sequence, the balloon in space, the Tideland-tribute fields and the adorable bathtub scene. Any time the insanely watcheable lead was on his own. Everyone else just annoyed me, as they do in social dramas. If I wanted snippy arguments, frosty atmospheres and the mundanity of every day life, I'd just go downstairs. Realism is the direct opposite of romanticism. Romanticism makes Don Corleone an amazingly cuddly guy, turns Butch and Sundance from more than scruffy bandits and makes Mr Blonde look...merely misunderstood. but from a Realistic standpoint, all characters are necessarily ugly and vile. They pick their toes and go to the toilet, and they talk about ordinary stuff.

It reminded me of Mike Leigh's Meantime, a film I wouldn't have got to the end of ordinarily but for a casting quirk of fate: Messrs Oldman and Roth, who are so adorable in R+GaD, also share screen time in this early film. The childs viewpoint in Ratcatcher gave it far more joy than Meantime, which isn't saying much, but I can still throw the same criticisms at both:

Plotless only works so far - while it is sometimes enjoyable to be set loose from genre rules, it's also nice to know where you stand. i always feel uncomfortable if I don't know approxamately where it's going. Even "weird things are happening for no reason" is good enough, if it's Terry Gilliam or similar. these two take meandering to a new level. There is nothing to cling on to - where are they going? With no plot, can there be a proper resolution? Is the entire film going to be a drift through experiences, or should I prepare myself for some action? Somebody, give me some Todorov*!

*if I remember correctly, Todorov wrote a paper or book formalising the statement that a good stories should have a beginning, a middle and an end - films begin at a state of equilibrium, something happens to cause disequilibrium and by the end of the film it has been resolved to create a new equilibrium. If I remember incorrectly, the name I meant to use was Propp...but I think he was the Russian fairy tales guy.

For me, social realism is a bit like visiting dull relatives - it's not enjoyable at the time, but afterwards you have a warm fuzzy sense of contentment - like you've done a good deed. My experience of the genre is, admittedly, only Ratcatcher and Meantime, and for all their worthiness it hasn't inspired me to look further afield. Joyless, plotless meandering, leading up to a resolution in which virtually nothing changes ain't my thing. One great central performance does not a masterpiece make.

I'm not saying I didn't like Ratcatcher. I just couldn't entirely escape from my basic dislike of social realism, all those factors which drive me nuts. As for the end, I'm not happy with the suicide interpretation. It strikes me as...too violent, too much of a decision. Throughout the film, the characters are condemned by their lack of action. They drift around, they let things happen. On that basis, I don't believe James would choose to do something at that point. Yes, he's in a pit of despair for so many reasons, but I think it's more of a cathartic action. A rebirth by water, a rebaptism. Gum, that sounds deep. Perhaps he's trying to get the glasses again, perhaps he's testing himself in the manner of witch crowds - if I survive, then I am meant to survive - or as an action to wash away his guilt, or a sort of prayer. By putting himself through it, he's apologising. And he sees the golden fields hoping that will be his reward. I have done wrong, this is my punishment, and when I get out I will be forgiven, and all will be well. Perhaps this is too upbeat? I just wanted to find a happy ending? But his smile at the end only makes sense if it is a dream of a future - it clangs disjointed when set against a child hurling himself into a swamp. Final proof: Throughout, the canal has been shown as muddy, murky and sticky - but the water he falls into at the end is pure blue, and he's wearing white. Don't like happy endings, don't like symbolism and allegory. So when I accuse an ambiguous film of it, you gotta believe me...

Week 4 – Costume Drama
Saw: 2/17

These numbers are looking fairly low, but remember that several of that 17 weren't broadcast - just put back in cinemas. As such, the only one I recorded was Henry V - Branagh's one. I haven't seen it yet, I'm saving it. The last three weeks, Friend 4 and I have been having Hamlet Saturdays, and watching through the various adaps. It's stocked up for when we run out (how many can there be?), or desperately need another Branagh fix. His "eternity" Hamlet has been the runaway success so far. It's not that we didn't like Olivier's one, which had different merits. The Eternity version (so called because it doesn't cut a single foot, and as such lasts for about five hours) just swept us up...

...but I've counted two anyway, because I watched A Cock and Bull Story in this period too. Incidentally, I watched it as a double bill with Saw, which was a strangely satisfying combination. ACaBS was undeniably good, just not quite as entertaining as it could have been. Like Adaptation - very clever, but a bit dull. Fantasy and fiction intertwine - Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon play Tristram and Uncle Tobey in the film of Lawrence Sterne's unfilmable classic - and then the film takes us behind the scenes, where they play exaggerated versions of themselves and chat about Alan Partridge. Recognisable actors play both themselves - Gillian Anderson - and characters within the film - Jeremy Northam as the director. It's weird, but wonderful. Jennie is the highlight of the film - both lead actors keep flirting with this hot and - they presume - thick production assistant, who turns out to be a serious film nerd with a fascination for Fassbinder and Bresson...

Costume drama isn't particularly my thing either. I mean, I love guys in tailcoats with floppy hair challenging each other to duels, and I love women with unecessarily flouncy dresses; but only if they get on with it. Something in the water where they make these things slows them to a snails pace. And costume drama technically covers biopics too, which I loathe. I don't believe in real people.

Week 5 – Horror
Saw: 4/9

Though perhaps this score is cheating. I've seen Brazil and The Wicker Man before, and I haven't seen Witchfinder General yet. We did see Doctor Who and the Daleks though. It was forgivably awful. Cardboard sets, lousy dialogue and a flimsy plot - not to mention that a terrifying evil that has destroyed half the galaxy are destroyed by an old man, a six year old and a crowd of hippies. Finally, they choose to engage with the fact a Dalek is very badly designed - our heroes use their speed, stealth and abilities at sneaking up behind them and giving them a shove to defeat them. Horrah! But we did enjoy it.

If anything, this exercise has highlighted how few pure genres I actually enjoy. Romance, costume drama, horror, social realism. The next two catagories are war and comedy, neither of which I'm a big fan of. Not that I hate every one ever made, I just don't go out of my way to see them. I suppose that just leaves crime, and I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy that...

Week 6 – War
Saw: 3/13

Enigma, Dam Busters and Way to the Stars, all of which I've seen before. I was fond of Enigma...

Week 7 – Comedy
Saw: 6/17

By this point I had run out of enthusiasm entirely. But I've never liked pure emotion movies, and comedies can be so great if they have heart behind them, and so bad if they don't. If your comedy doesn't have charm beyond the jokes, then the jokes had better be pretty damn funny - some make it, some don't. That six are all things I've seen before - A Close Shave, Grand Day Out, Bend it like Beckham, Chicken Run and Withnail and I. However hard you try to defend the Brit film industry, you can't disguise Nick Parks made three on the list, and the Carry On team made two...Of those six, the three clayanimation ones are hilarious and great. I enjoyed Withnail and I, but it is a perfect showcase for that not-terribly-funny British-style humour. And Bend it like wasn't funny, it wasn't original, it wasn't sympathetic or moving. Setting it in an Indian family doesn't stop it being Billy Elliot. And even Keira Knightly has admitted she was abysmal in that film. I could have forgiven lousy acting if there had been a shred of something new in the plot.

Overal, I enjoyed the thrillers a lot - that was a brilliant week. The best films shown were Following, Odd Man Out, Cock and Bull Story, Brazil and - now I've finished watching it -Ratcatcher. The numbing boringness of some sections has gone away, and I'm only left with the bits I loved. Anyone else catch any of these? I'd love to run my own season of film. When I was running the school film club, I thought I could run seasons when it got popular. I was going to do the 30s - Bugsy Malone, Chicago, The Sting, Some Like It Hot - they'd have loved it...pity that didn't work.


Rob said...

I ordered Following off Amazon ages ago but haven't watched it yet. You've inspired me to finally check it out.

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