The Lady Vanishes (dir. Alfred Hitchcock) 1938

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The Lady Vanishes is a 1938 comedy/thriller classic of the British Film Industry. It was Hitchcock’s breakout success and convinced David O. Selznick to offer him a seven feature deal in Hollywood. It was Michael Redgrave’s first movie part. Margaret Lockwood was already a leading lady, but this was her biggest film to date. It is also notable for being the first appearance of Charters and Caldicott a cricket obsessed comedy duo who were very famous throughout the 1940s.

The film was a huge hit, not only in the UK but also in the US, where it won the New York Times award for best film of 1938. The crime/suspense element of the film is very good with a very clever intricate story. The comedy is genuinely funny, the leading couple have great chemistry and their bickering is arch and witty. The supporting characters add to the entertainment, whether its the whimsical humour of Wayne and Radford as Charters and Caldicott, the slapstick of  Emile Boreo as the Hotel Manager, or even the awkward situational comedy of “Mr and Mrs” Todhunter.

This movie is almost 80 years old, so there are parts which seem unsophisticated from a modern perspective, but for me, this adds to its charm. I love the opening scene, where the avalanche has delayed the train. To our refined eye, it is patently a set up model, but although we know this, it works perfectly well and sets the stage to start the story.

It is one of the films that contains the traditional Hitchcock cameo, very near the end of the film, he appears on Victoria station. Although he was nominated at the Academy awards, as best director, five times, he never won any of them. So this movie was his only award for best director, he won the New York Times award in 1939. This film is a significant piece of British cinema history as well as being a very enjoyable watch.

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Victim (dir. Basil Dearden) 1961

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Victim is a classic movie in so many different ways. It is a great representative of the black and white, crime thriller, genre of the early 1960s. The storyline is good, it is well told and the suspense will keep you interested right until the finale.  It is a fantastic British movie, made in the Pinewood studios with high production values. It has all the hallmarks of British film making at the time. The dialogue is clipped and the characters are bristling with repressed emotion.

It has a wonderful setting with splendid views of London just before the start of the swinging ’60s. St Martin’s Lane and Cecil Court are still recognisable, with Oliver! playing at what is now the Noel Coward Theatre. There are also nice shots of Millbank, Soho and the Thames. The pub scenes were filmed in a real pub, The Salisbury, on the corner of St Martins Lane, which was a gay pub until the 1980s. The pub is still there today and still has the Victorian fixtures and fittings seen in the film.

 

Victim has a courageous and dashing performance by Dirk Bogarde who risked his matinee idol status by taking on such a controversial role. He was a male romantic lead, so playing a man with homosexual tendencies, constrained though they may have been, would have put this career in jeopardy. He is excellent in the role and apparently he added the line “I wanted him!” which almost had the film banned. Sylvia Syms puts in a good performance as his unfulfilled wife, wavering between hurt and compassion. The whole cast is excellent and there are recognisable faces throughout the film.

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This was a shocking film when it came out in 1961 and it almost did not get past either the British or American censors at the time. It was the first film to use the word homosexual and it was the first mainstream movie to allude to it in a non negative manner.  It was this, that made it a danger to public morals and gave it the X rating that it received when it was released. Homosexuality is not the direct subject matter, but a blackmail ring that was targeting the frequenters of a gay pub. This was a common occurrence at the time as homosexual relations were an offence that could land one in jail and would certainly ruin a career.

While this film, itself, did not advocate gay rights, its sympathetic portrayal of some gay characters allowed the conversation to begin and this will have helped to bring about the change in the law six years later. Victim often appears in lists of all time greatest films, and it was certainly a brave and groundbreaking piece of film making.  Whether you are interested in the history of cinema, or the history of gay rights then you should see this movie. It is being shown currently at the BFI on the south bank as part of the gross indecency season, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain, but it very often included in retrospective seasons of gay film, British film, or classic crime thrillers.

Of course, most importantly of all, it is a very enjoyable film to watch!

Weekend (dir. Andrew Haigh) 2011

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Weekend is a beautifully written and wonderfully acted film. It was made and set in 2011. Two guys hook up in a bar on a Friday night and the film is the story of their gradually developing relationship between then and Sunday evening. Although In many ways it is a universal love story, it is firmly rooted in the British urban bar scene of the time, both in the casual drug taking and in the way that they have sex first and then begin to get to know each other afterwards. Andrew Haigh, the director has gone for ultra realism in his film style and this almost feels like a documentary in places.

The two leads, Tom Cullen and Chris New, both put in great performances, as they need to for this realism to work. They are fully committed to their characters and you believe in them wholeheartedly, coming to care for them as they risk sharing their vulnerabilities with each other. It is a warm film, and we get to know them, as they get to know each other. They both appear well rounded and honest, even though our knowledge of them is limited, and we want their burgeoning trust in each other to be repaid.  However it is a cold world and they have known each other for a weekend…………

This is not just a gay movie, but Weekend is one of the best British Gay Films and deserves to be commemorated as such. It is currently showing at Picturehouse Central as part of the 50 years since decriminalisation series. It is also showing on the BFI player as part of their LGBT+ series, also commemorating 50 years since partial decriminalisation. Whatever platform you choose to see it on, it is certainly worth watching.

Michael Clayton (dir. Tony Gilroy) 2007

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The story of a giant multi national company and the lawyers who sold their souls to defend them. Let’s get the bad out of the way first, the storyline seems a bit hackneyed now and there are a couple of minor plot holes where you have to work to suspend your disbelief. However, these points aside, this is a most enjoyable film. This movie is a thriller and although we aware right from the start which are the good guys and which are the baddies, we are never quite sure how it will all turn out.

The acting is spectacular. Tilda Swinton won, a well deserved, Oscar for her portrayal of a stressed out legal advisor. George Clooney and Tom Wilkinson were both nominated for theirs. The script is great; sharp, real, and occasionally bruising. The direction is clever and taut, even though it is just under two hours long, there is no let up in the action. It is hard to believe that this is Tony Gilroy’s first film, you wonder how he managed to get a studio to trust him with either the budget or stars. However the trust was justified,  he manages to keep the viewer on edge, even though you can sometimes guess where the plot is going. The ending is quick, clean and satisfying.

This film was on many best of year lists, it was nominated for 7 Academy Awards including best film and best director.  Michael Clayton is a classic example of its genre, definitely worth watching.

Side Effects (dir. Steven Soderbergh) 2013

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Side effects is an interesting psychological thriller. The story is good; with a number of twists and turns along the way. The subject matter is pretty dark; involving the marketing and side effects of prescribed medication.

None of the major characters in the film are nice people, all of them are manipulative and duplicitous, so it is hard to feel empathy when bad things happen to them.
Having said that, Rooney Mara and Jude Law both put in compelling performances. Steven Soderbergh is a reliably good director, and the direction of this film suits the subject matter well. The setting is modern urban and you are made to feel the adversity and frustrations of their day-to-day life.

The dialogue is sharp and the story is clever, a Hitchcock style chiller, that enjoyed a revival in the 1980s, but is out of fashion now.  I dislike how calculating everybody turns out to be; every character is using everybody else with no regard to their welfare or needs. Perhaps this is a comment on the pharmacological industry, but it feels implied of the world in general and this is too dystopian an outlook to make easy viewing. The problem is, the acting and directing are good, so you can see their motivation and at times it is tempting to believe that it could be true.

In summary, this is a well made movie, that seems little too cold and analytical for its own good now; however, in the future, with the benefit of hindsight, it is possible,  that this might be one of those films that we look back on as capturing the mood of the world at that time. I hope not, but I want someone remind me to watch it again in 15 years time.

Quartet (dir. Dustin Hoffman) 2012

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Don’t sit down to watch this expecting any deep revelations about the meaning of life. Think more in terms of an episode of Glee with opera music and old people.

Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut is full of visual metaphors for old age. The time of year is late autumn, there are beautiful sunsets and it is all set in a wonderfully maintained ancient building.  The acting is good, the direction is good, the setting is beautiful and the music is lovely. The story is undemanding, particularly predictable, in fact it is almost facile but it is all very likeable and chilled. It is probably perfect Sunday afternoon fare, you could doze off for a few minutes and when you come back you will still know exactly where you are in the storyline.

It has a cracking cast and the director has left them to do what they do best. Maggie Smith has some great arch put downs, which she delivers perfectly. Michael Gambon is a wonderfully camp, self obsessed director.  Pauline Collins is giddy and dizzy. Tom Courtenay is wounded and rueful, and Billy Connolly is a rude and distasteful old charmer. The dialogue is sharp and there a few nice cameos and set pieces.

Easy and comfortable, if films were shoes, then quartet would be the tartan slipper!

 

Shrek (dir. Andrew Adamson & Vicky Jensen) 2001

 

shrekShrek has just turned sixteen and it is now available on Netflix.  I remember having enjoyed it when it came out, so it is interesting to see how it has fared in the intervening years.

It has aged well. It is crammed full with jokes and these are still funny, the cultural references have remained relevant and the story is that rare mixture of knowing and sweet. The cast of fairytale characters are timeless and their lines are clever and likeable. The evil lord is wonderfully nasty without being either frightening or creepy.  The story has a nice uplifting moral tone and you are longing for the heroes to prevail. The animation and delivery are both well done, Eddie Murphy is particularly good as Donkey, how bittersweet to have your most enduring role as an animated ass!
This film won the first Oscar for Best Animated Film and it is a deserving opening winner. It is a big feat to have a movie that is principled and simple enough to entertain you as a child, but subversive and referential enough to provide a new set of pleasures when you watch with your own kids. I believe that I enjoyed it just as much now as I did then.

A lovely film that stands the test of time.