Freeview films from 30 April 2022

World Cinema

Saturday (30/4)    21:00    BBC4       By the Grace of God (2018). Writer-director François Ozon crafts a meticulous and quietly forceful fact-based drama recounting the shocking career of Bernard Preynat, Catholic Priest and serial child abuser, and the courageous campaign by a group of his male victims 30 years on to expose him and bring him to justice. Chillingly, Preynat readily admits his actions when initially confronted but rationalises it all as an ‘illness’, refusing to accept responsibility or even apologise. All too familiar also is the complicity of the Church hierarchy in protecting Preynart – an astonishingly creepy performance by Bernard Verney – while offering self-serving platitudes. 
To tell this story, Ozon focuses on three very different men: Alexandre, a still devout family man; François, an outgoing atheist; and a damaged outsider, Emmanuel. Each is seeking his own closure and form of justice. Many questions are left unanswered and cannot be answered, but this long, expertly paced film is rewarding, moving and thought provoking. (SF)

Sunday (1/5)         00:55    BBC2       A White, White Day (2019). Acclaimed Icelandic drama, directed by Hlynur Pálmason, about a widowed police chief begins to suspect a local man of having had an affair with his dead wife. A  study of grief and jealousy in a claustrophobic small town, led by an outstanding performance from Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson. Not everyone was convinced. Matt Brunson of Film Frenzy in South Carolina, said ‘This study of repression and depression mingling with machismo — the sort of story Paul Schrader could do in his sleep — is languid to a fault, with writer-director Hlynur Pálmason burying some intriguing moments in a sea of ennui.’ Not pleasant. I’m currently drowning in a sea of cat wee, which is possibly worse. Danny Leigh of the Financial Times (no link, because it’s paywalled) said ‘What now for a director this eye-poppingly talented? It would be unwise to miss the answer.’ Well, I can reveal he has a feature in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes. It’s called Godland, and it’s a about a young Danish priest in the 19th century who travels to a remote part of Iceland to build a church and photograph the locals. As happens, the locals seem to lead him astray. (JM)

Monday (2/5)       18:20    Film4       Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017). I picked this as ‘Film of the Week’ when I started this newsletter, more than a year ago now. This is what I said. ‘Luc Besson’s phantasmagorical vision of the 28th century. Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and his reluctant love-object Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are human police officers charged with maintaining peace throughout a Galaxy in which telepathy, time travel, teleportation and transitioning are all routine. The City is a floating community packed with alien life, descending from the Earth’s 1975 Apollo-Soyuz space station. As Valerian and Laureline struggle with their commitment issues, universal harmony gives way to discord. The film holds the record as the most expensive in both European and independent movie history, but the cash is on the screen. Featuring Britain’s Clive Owen as a nasty human imperialist – surprise, surprise – and Rihanna as a “shapeshifting Glamopod entertainer”, it has the strengths and weaknesses of its French comic-book source. Makes the Ring Cycle look like “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”.’ I also mentioned that valerian is a medicinal herb that eases stress, lets you sleep and gives you sweet dreams. This week, Sim Fox if volunteered to look at it. This is what he said: ‘I rarely have to give up on a movie, but about 25 mins in I had to relinquish my top-secret intergalactic virtual mission to simply get to the end. Made Avatar look like Ken Loach … and that’s saying something.’ (JM) 

Friday (6/5)           01:10    Film4       Racer and the Jailbird (2017). Belgian ‘amour-noir‘ (one for genre collectors) with Matthias Schoenaerts as a gangster and Adèle Exarchopoulos as a posh racing driver. Love, death and petrol fumes. Is there a more boring ‘sport’ than motor racing? Horse racing, possibly. Oh dear, I’m going to be run out of town again. (JM)

Stephen Ilott’s Picks

Saturday (30/4)      13:00   ITV4        The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) (also Monday 10:55). David Lean’s 1957 wartime epic, winner of the Best Picture Oscar, telling the story of the morally upright British Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness, who got the Best Actor gong) who heads a consignment of POWs in a Japanese concentration camp in Thailand. The prisoners are ordered to build a railway bridge for their captors. At first Nicholson resists, but relationships evolve and his natural perfectionism makes the project an obsession. A story of cultures clashing, adversity and British pluck in the face of oppression, plus a famously impressive stunt to finish. Voted by the BFI as the 11th greatest British film of the 20th Century. (MH)                  

16.15   ITV4        Spartacus (1960)  (also Monday 14:10). I’ve been reading Pauline Kael, the doyenne of American film criticism in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. She was unafraid, punchy and knew how to turn a phrase. Here she is on Stanley Kubrick’s early epic. ‘This may be the best-paced and most slyly entertaining of all the decadent-ancient-Rome spectacular fllms. It’s a great big cartoon drama, directed by Stanley Kubrick, with Kirk Douglas at his most muscular as the slave gladiator Spartacus who leads a rebellion of his fellow slaves against the might of Rome. Spartacus makes some conscientious speeches – out of Howard Fast (who wrote the novel) by way of Dalton Trumbo (who did the screenplay) – but there’s so much else going on that it’s easy to brush off the moralizing… After the rebellion, Spartacus’s group of men, women, children and animals, march to the sea, and it’s like a giant kibbutz on the move; they’re all hearty and earthy and good to each other – a bunch of picnicking folk singers. Is Kubrick dozing at the controls? He wakes up sharply. Crassus, who as taken command of Rome, is out to kill the spirit of revolutionary fervour; suddenly, Spartacus’s people are confronted with a demonstration of Roman might – acres and acres of soldiers in perfect military formation.’ Before the invention of the CGI crowd, too. (JM)

Sunday (1/5)           13:10   Film4       Howards End  (1992). James Ivory’s rendition of E M Forster’s novel about an archetypal English country house, the setting for a story about class, inheritance and patriarchal relationships. Emma Thompson and Helena Bonham Carter are bohemian sisters Margaret and Helen Schlegel, and Vanessa Redgrave is Ruth Wilcox, with whom they become friendly. Anthony Hopkins is Henry Wilcox, Ruth’s businessman husband.  Samuel West is Leonard Bast, a clerk who is also befriended by the Schlegels. When Ruth dies and unexpectedly bequeaths Howard’s End to Margaret, a quiet storm is unleashed. Darker than A Room With A View (1986) but undeniably powerful. (JR)

Wednesday (4/5)   01:25   Film4       The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974). Robert Shaw is a gangster who seizes a New York City underground train and threatens to shoot one passenger an hour unless he gets a million dollars from the city authorities. Walter Matthau is the world-weary, somewhat sour cop who has to sort things out. Funny and quite exciting. Here’s Michael Sragow in the New Yorker: ‘Taps into viewers’ paranoia over a decrepit, vulnerable infrastructure and then provides bitter laughs and a harrowing catharsis.’ Question: why aren’t people making films like this now – when there is no shortage of decrepit, vulnerable infrastructure – rather than ludicrous period soaps about a country that never existed? (JM)

Thursday (5/5)        21:00   BBC4       Top Hat (1935). At the height of the Great Depression, RKO Pictures developed a line of wildly glamorous escapist musicals starring Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. Top Hat is as ludicrous in outline as all the others – Ginger is a wealthy woman on holiday in Europe, Fred is an entertainer, Ginger thinks he is her best friend’s husband, and so on and so forth – but the dancing, all done in long, unbroken takes on Fred’s insistence, is a transcendent affirmation of humanity. The film was the first for which RKO commissioned Irving Berlin, and he produced five hits, including ‘Isn’t This a Lovely Day (To Be Caught in the Rain), ‘Cheek to Cheek’ and ‘Top Hat, White Tie and Tails’. Berlin is widely considered the greatest American songwriter. And yet, he could only play the piano in F#, and had a special instrument with a lever that he yanked if he needed to change key. Think about that, kids, when you’re sweating over those horrible Grades. I watched this film first at about the age of 15, at my boys’ grammar school, and I was transported. Roger Ebert’s review of the film on its rerelease in 2005 is hilarious and wise and well worth reading in its entirety, so I won’t spoil it by serving up a bleeding chunk. Kevin Maher in The Times said, ‘In short, perfection’. (JM)

22:40   BBC4       The Gay Divorcee (1934). This came before Top Hat, and was the first real Astaire/Rogers musical. With songs by Cole Porter, including the classic ‘Night and Day’, it began a a stage show called The Gay Divorce. The title was changed to The Gay Divorcee, because film censorship weirdly permitted the person involved in a marital break-up to be ‘gay’, but not the divorce itself. (Don’t get me started on ‘gay’. Here’s a page from my More Frantic Semantics from 2001, which is about the last time I cared about it.) Anyway, Astaire had not long split with his long-term dance partner, his sister Adele (she’d married a Lord and had to hang up her pumps), and he wasn’t keen to become half of another double-act. He told RKO producer Pandro S. Berman that Rogers was all wrong. The leading lady in the Porter show was supposed to be English and genteel. Rogers, he thought, was too earthy and should stick to the Charleston. According to Tony Thomas in That’s Dancing, ‘Berman agreed but pointed out to Astaire that he was now in Hollywood, with was in the business of getting people to place their money at the box office, and if it looked as if people might pay to see Rogers and Astaire together, that was what they would get.’ How odd that people in Hollywood used to know how to make money and great films. Perhaps it was because they were interested in movies and not recycling ‘intellectual property’.

Other modern films of interest

Saturday (30/4)      18:30   Sky Arts   The Hollies:  Look Through Any Window 1963 – 1975 (2011). Documentary about the British beat group who clocked up 27 UK hits, including 17 in the Top Ten. They were also part of the famous British Invasion, trailing behind the Beatles. Graham Nash, one of the luckiest journeymen in pop music, stayed there. Neil Young, Stephen Stills and David Crosby helped his musical career, while Joni Mitchell fell in love with him for a bit (and vice versa). He wrote a song about the very very very fine house they shared, with two cats in the yard. She didn’t want to play second fiddle to him and his drugs, though, and ended it after a couple of years, sending him a telegram that read ‘If you hold sand too tightly in your hand, it will run through your fingers. Love, Joan.’ She subsequently wrote three songs about him on her masterpiece, Blue, including the wonderful ‘River’. This film is directed by David Peck, about whom I know nothing at all except that he seems to own a music film and stills library called Reelin’ in the Years Productions. Shrewd man.                                              

22:00   BBC2        Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool (2019). A feature-length biographical documentary about the trumpeter, band-leader and composer, featuring archive footage, interviews, etc. Miles is one of those jazz musicians who, as we say, opened the door and closed it. Nobody previously had dared to play with such a thin, cracked tone (Philip Larkin wasn’t keen) and anyone who tried afterwards just sounded like an imitator. His invention of ‘cool’ modal improvisation sounded the death-knell of the frenzied hard-bop in which he had made his name. Like Gershwin and few others, he invented a platform on which many other musicians have been grateful to stand. The distinctive changes of ‘So What’ ended up on the GCSE Music syllabus. Stanley Nelson’s film covers a lot of ground, having to contextualise him against 50 years of music, but also attempts to crack the conundrum of his legendary bitterness and misogyny (like a lot of sensitive balladeers, he was very hard on women), not to mention his determined self-destruction through heroin. Jonita Davis, writing in something called The Fix, said something interesting: ‘Nelson frames Davis’ return to a reality in which he was not wanted – but his music was – as the catalyst for his addiction.’ Miles was always interested in new things. In 1988, the reluctant Welsh pop-star Green, of Scritti Politti, persuaded him to come and play on his tune ‘Oh Patti’. The plucky Brits must have been petrified, but Miles arrived on his own, with his dreads in a hairnet, laid down the solo, and left. A surprising man.

Sunday (1/5)            22.50   BBC2         Free State of Jones (2016). A true story from the American Civil War. Matthew McConaughey plays Newt Knight, a farmer and medic in the Confederate army, who opposed slavery, want home, was pursued as a deserter, and found common cause with a group of runaway slaves and fellow farmers in an insurrection. Unfortunately, Gary Ross does not seem to have been able to craft a particularly compelling narrative from all this. Here’s Wendy Ide in the Observer: ‘A fascinating and genuinely important period in American history is underserved here by an inelegant structure and unwieldy running time.’


Saturday (30/4)    14:25      Channel 5              The Secret Garden (1993). Thoughtful and beautifully photographed adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s children’s story, about Mary Lennox (Kate Maberly), an orphan who is sent to live with an uncle with a mansion and a neglected garden. She meets a crippled cousin she knew nothing about. Directed by Agnieszka Holland, who wrote scripts for Andrzej Wajda in Poland and studied under Milos Forman and Ivan Passer in Czechoslovakia, before moving to Paris and the US. She directed episodes of The Wire, Treme, and House of Cards, but has also made lots of features. In 2019, she directed Mr Jones, a very good little historical film about the Welshman, an inexperienced semi-pro journalist (the best sort) who discovered Stalin’s starvation tactics in what was then The Ukraine, while the rest of the world’s journalists (including the Americans who ran the Moscow press corps) continued to laud him as a great leader. It cost him his career. It was also pretty much the start of the mess that part of Europe is in today. (JM)

Sunday (1/5)          13:50     Talking Pictures     Western Union (1941). Fritz Lang directed this adventure story about an engineer (Dean Jagger) putting telegraph lines across America. He hires a bank robber (Randolph Scott) to lead him across Indian territory, but then another criminal arrives and things get complicated. Includes a classic sequence in which Scott escapes from captivity by holding his roped hands over a fire. (JM)

Monday (2/5)        01:30      Film4                      Drowning By Numbers (1988). In this typically visual and tricksy Peter Greenaway feature, Joan Plowright drowns her husband with the connivance of the local coroner (Bernard Hill), who has long been in thrall to her charms. Then her daughter (Juliet Stevenson) and granddaughter (Joely Richardson) take the same approach to their own marital difficulties. Don’t do it, girls. Bodies generally surface and then they’ll leave a terrible mess in the boot of your 4×4. In the 1980s, we were all mesmerised by the peculiar art-world aesthetics and strategies of Greenaway’s heavily subsidised and relentlessly uninvolving efforts. Can I say now that I really didn’t like them? Hilary Mantel was more keen. On the other hand, I always enjoyed Michael Nyman’s music, which in this one she damns as ‘ersatz-Mozart’. Check out the album If, with the counter-tenor Iestyn Davies and Fretwork performing a couple of the songs for his soundtrack for Akinori Nagaoka’s anime version of The Diary of Anne Frank (1995). Nice man, too. I’ve been round his house. I first met him when he was helping The Flying Lizards, famous for their barking cover version of Barrett Strong’s ‘Money’. (JM)                                              

21:00      ITV4                        Alien (1979). Classic sci-fi horror, directed by Ridley Scott, about the crew of a space craft diverted to an unexplored planet to investigate a strange signal. There they discover an alien life-form, which they are instructed by their company employers to bring back to Earth. Themes of invasion, parasitism, infection, maternity and sexuality are all touched on. The cast includes Sigourney Weaver in a career-defining role as the tough but sensitive Ripley, and John Hurt as Kane, who discovers he has tummy trouble. Ian Holm is also excellent as Ash, though saying more would spoil things.  It is quite unlike a film such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, in that the clinical surfaces are replaced with grim, dark spaces, reflecting the industrial, extractive nature of the mission. At one point the crew start arguing about their pay. The brilliant, mutating design of the alien is by the Swiss ‘biomechanical’ artist H R Giger (1940-2012), the sets by Ron Cobb, the haunting score by Jerry Goldsmith and the story and screenplay by Dan O’Bannon (who wrote Dark Star, a micro-budget film that pioneered the intergalactic grunge look). This was only Scott’s second feature, and he wasn’t even first choice as director: Peter Yates, Walter Hill and Robert Aldrich were all considered before him. If this were European or Japanese, it would be lauded as an art-house masterpiece, though that hasn’t stopped the critics going to town on it. One strand of thought sees it as a major work of abjection, signifying the breakdown of conventional borders and rules. No, I didn’t either. Instead, it is just a masterpiece. And like all great films, it has a cat. (JR)

Thursday (5/5)       06:00     Talking Pictures     The Country Girl (1954). Interesting melodrama about a washed-up alcoholic actor (Bing Crosby in a rare dramatic role), the director who gives him another chance (William Holden), and his sour wife (Grace Kelly), whom the director blames for his downfall. From a play by Clifford Odets.

14:25     Talking Pictures    Life with Father (1947). Michael Curtiz directed this creaky adaptation of a hit stage comedy, starring William Powell and Irene Dunne, about a stockbroker and his large unruly family. A 15-year-old girl named Elizabeth Taylor makes an appearance.

Friday (6/5)              22:45     ITV                         Speed (1994). Keanu Reeves stars as an LAPD SWAT officer, alongside Sandra Bullock and a villainous Dennis Hopper, in a classic of 90s action cinema. A bomb has been planted on a bus by a terrorist with a hidden past and will detonate if the vehicle’s speed drops below 50mph. It cannot be disarmed or disconnected, so they must find inventive ways of saving the passengers and keeping the speed up. With a tense, fast story and strong, likeable performances, the strengths of the film were somehow entirely reversed in the disastrous sequel, based on a slow boat moving slowly towards an island. That one apparently cost four times the original’s $30m budget. Keanu bailed out, and Sandra has rather disowned it. (MH)

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