World Cinema

Monday (31/10)      01:55   Film4   Savage (Xue bao) (2018 )

A straightforward but visually sumptuous action movie set on a frozen mountain in northeastern China. Two detectives are drinking in a bar and vying for the affections of a local doctor when three hoodlums arrive and kill one of the buddies. The other, breaking lots of rules, is then forced to track down and deal with the bad guys. Cui Suwei, formerly a successful screenwriter, directs. The producer is Terence Chang, who made his name sponsoring John Woo in his Hong Kong heyday. This is a high-budget extravaganza apparently designed to showcase the technical skills of the Chinese industry, putting scenery first, plot second and character complexity and societal insight nowhere at all. According to Clarence Tsui’s review for the Hollywood Reporter, ‘Savage harks back to an age when cops-and-robbers flicks were irony-free showdowns between good and evil, with a damsel in distress caught between the two …  The final face-off in a wood cabin wouldn’t look out of a place in a spaghetti Western. Indeed, most of Savage‘s characters remain as predictable as a Clint Eastwood turn in a Sergio Leone movie.’ On the other hand, they are walking in a Winter Wonderland, which is always bracing. (JM)

Wednesday (1/11   00:15    BBC2    I Got Life! (2017) (JM)

Agnes Jaoui (pictured above) is splendid as Aurore, a menopausal woman facing all sorts of tribulations, in Blandine Lenoir’s comedy-drama. Separated from her husband (Philippe Rebbot), tussling with a sexist boss (Nicolas Chupin) at the cafe where she works, and juggling the demands of her two daughters (Lou Roy Lecollinet and Sara Suco), one of whom is pregnant; and, as if that isn’t enough, she’s rekindling a thing with an old flame (Thibault de Montalembert). Through all this, she is supported by her best friend (Pascale Arbillot) and the film is a hymn to nourishing, life-affirming relationships between women. There’s a pretty funny scene with Aurore and a recruitment manager with a hot flush. (JR) 

[Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian said the ending was ‘fundamentally unreal and contrived’, but he’s a miserable git. (JM)]

Stephen Ilott’s Selection

Sunday (30/10)        01:55    BBC2       The Curse of the Cat People (1944)

The original Cat People (1942) was an odd, somewhat sexy noir-horror about a marine engineer who marries a Serbian fashion designer who has a morbid fear that she may turn into a big cat in the throes of passion. Then it happens (worse things have been known). In this sequel, the feline Serb is no more, and the engineer (called Oiver Reed) has remarried and has a young daughter. Unfortunately, the daughter starts having conversations with the spirit of the dead woman, and things go from bad to worse. Scorned as unspooky by straightforward thrill-seekers, the film has acquired a reputation as a character study. ‘Far from being a horror film, it’s a touching, perceptive and lyrical film about childhood, psychologically astute and occasionally disturbing as it focuses entirely on the child’s-eye view of a sad, cruel world,’ wrote notorious windbag Geoff Andrew in Time Out. Which I used to edit. Have I mentioned that? (JM)

                                   19:00    BBC3        Coraline (2009)

Gothic, Tim Burtonesque adult stop-motion animation with elements of surrealism and psychological horror. A young girl yearns to live her own life free of the domination of her frustrating parents. Before long, in the new family home, she finds a portal to a parallel world where her parents are exactly as she wanted. But be careful what you wish for. With an impressive voice cast, including Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher and French and Saunders, the film is directed by Henry Selick, who also brought us animated classics A Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach. (MH)

Monday (31/10)       11:00   Legend     The Invisible Man (1933)

H.G. Wells’s novel is a rambling, picaresque tale inspired by its creator’s rage at the smug suburban life of the Home Counties, which generally scorned his thoughtful autobiographical novels but embraced his science fiction. That was viewed as safe adventure ‘somewhat in the vein of Jules Verne’, to quote Chambers’s Cyclopedia of English Literature (1903), which has screeds on people we’ve forgotten and only a tiny paragraph on the promising young man from South London. This film was directed by James Whale from a script by R. C. Sherriff and Phillip Wylie. Claude Rains plays a mad scientist who invents a drug that makes him invisible: its side effect is that he becomes a killer. Not seen that one on the 4,000-word slip of paper inside my paracetamol, but it’s only a matter of time. Rains doesn’t appear in corporeal form for most of the film, so it’s all about his voice and the dialogue. Whale had directed Frankenstein and then made the sequel (see below). There are touches of humour. Pauline Kael liked it and tells us it features ‘blonde, bosomy Gloria Stuart – a fleshy heroine for a fleshy hero’. Note to self: make more use of the word ‘bosomy’. (JM)

                                    12:25   Legend     Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

 James Whale takes us to a new world of gods and monsters with his legendary sequel to the iconic Frankenstein. Bride is considered by many as a significant improvement on the first, owing to (among other feats) increased depth by presenting Frankenstein’s creation not as a monster, but a misunderstood soul who may prove to exhibit a complex, human personality who deserves a chance for happiness as much as anybody else. Boris Karloff returns alongside Elsa Lanchester, both in their iconic costumes. A wonderful scene of unveiling Homunculi, miniature humans in jars, is a personal all time great film moment. (MH)

Wednesday (2/11)   01:10   Film4         Mona Lisa (1986)

Neil Jordan’s romance-thriller is one of the gems of the brief golden period when British film seemed capable of reaching both commercial and critical heights. Michael Caine plays a sweaty gangster who recruits a low-level ex-con (Bob Hoskins) to bodyguard a troublingly beautiful and beautifully troublesome prostitute, played by Cathy Tyson. Hoskins is short, fat and bigoted, but falls heavily for the ‘thin black tart’. Taking pity on him, she asks him to help her find a friend who is lost in frightening 1980s Soho, heart of both the vice and cinema industries at the time. The Time Out critic Richard Rayner, who went on to write a film of his own book, L.A. Without A Map, astutely noted a resemblance to Scorsese’s Taxi Driver ‘although Hoskins, unlike Scorsese’s solipsistic avenger, is an utterly ordinary hero, romantic, lost among the pimps and hoods, at ease only when listening to old Nat King Cole numbers. A wonderful achievement; a dark film with a generous heart in the shape of an extraordinarily touching performance from Hoskins.’ Made by Handmade Productions, the company established by George Harrison and his manager Denis O’Brien, a risky venture that ended up costing the ex-Beatle some $25m. There’s a wonderful BFI briefing about the rise and fall of the British film industry of the 1980s here. (JM)

Saturday (5/11)        01:55   Film4         Skate Kitchen (2007)

Entertaining documentary-style drama about a female skateboarding crew in New York City. Lots of skateboarding action, but also a lot of chat from the girls as they navigate their educations and lovelies in a largely hostile atmosphere. One of those dramatised stories that looks so real you might take it for actual verité (or actualité) if it weren’t for the presence of Jaden Smith, who presumably ensured that the film was funded. He’s the only person in it who didn’t do his own skating. I blame the insurers. (JM)

Other modern films of interest

Saturday (29/10)    18:50   Sky Arts            Paul Simon: Under African Skies (2012) 

An acclaimed documentary that examines the apparently unending controversy about Simon’s album Graceland, which he made in South Africa with African musicians during apartheid, before bringing the American back to the country for a reunion concert with the old gang. I like Simon and I like Graceland very much indeed. I haven’t seen it, but I hope it restores my general sense that musicians get along fine until non-musicians poke their noses in and start talking about money, credits, exposure, profile, drugs and all the other nonsense. (JM)

                                  21:00   Sky Arts            Simon and Garfunkel: The Harmony Game (2011)

Another documentary about Simon, this time with his co-performer and sometime sparring partner Art Garfunkel. Directed by journeywoman Jennifer Lebeau, it is mostly about the making of their final, and most successful, album, Bridge over Troubled Water. It was a very expensive and glossy production, some distance from their folk roots. Both men, who fell out thereafter and never really worked together again, are producers of this film, which is not always a recipe for insight. It benefits, though, from the use of footage from a documentary made in 1969 by the actor Charles Grodin. I edited a book that included a chapter on the recording of the album in a former church in New York City. It’s called Studio Stories, by David Simons, and it is full of technical detail. I have uploaded a bit of it for people who like that kind of thing as much as I do. Interestingly, the book reveals that famous non-composer Garfunkel heard the instrumental break for ‘The Boxer’ in his head and hummed it to Simon, who (unusually) put it in. (JM)

Sunday (30/10)       12:50    Film 4              Song of the Sea (2014)

This is an Irish animated featured, directed by Tomm Moore and made in Kilkenny, with some stylistic nods to Japan’s all-conquering Studio Ghibli. It concerns the myth of Selkies or Silkies, found in Irish, Scottish and Icelandic folklore. They are seals in the sea, but take on human form on land. This film shows magic triumphing over dark and sad circumstances, a traditional arc in animation but one that Hollywood has largely replaced with a relentless sugar rush. The look of the film, in particular, was received with rapture. Here’s Donald Clarke in the Irish Times: ‘It seems unlikely that a more beautiful film will be released this year. Moore and his team manage the tricky art of varying their techniques – swirling backgrounds frame broad lines reminiscent of Genndy Tartakovsky’s work – while maintaining a visual consistency. The film swells with beautifully realised characters, including an adorable sheepdog who, rather than giving into anthropomorphism, retains his dogginess throughout.’ Brendan Gleeson leads the voice-cast, which also includes the notable folk singer Lisa Hannigan. At which point I will mention that The Unthanks’ new album, Sorrows Away, starts with a beguilingly grim song called ‘The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry’. (JM)

                                   14:35    BBC2               ParaNorman (2012)  (also Monday 19.00)

Supernatural animated feature that has been well received over the years. A child has the ability to speak to spirits and is contacted by a witch who was put to death centuries ago. Then zombies run amok, or something. A bit scary, a bit snarky: one for the whole family except possibly the tinies. (JM)

                                   22:15   Channel 4        Rocks (2019)

Teenage story set among black girls in London. ‘The most authentic film about British teens in years,’ according to Clarisse Loughrey of The Independent. Directed by Sarah Gavron, whose previous film was the expensive and somewhat dreary Sufragette, starring Carey Mulligan. This one seems to be more here style. (JM)

Tuesday (1/11)         21:30   BBC4                A Story of Bones (2022)

This is a documentary about an engineer called Annina van Neel, who goes to the British island of St Helena to build a new airport. There she discovers that the site was once a graveyard for many thousands of dumped African slaves. She decides to campaign for a memorial to them: there is a big memorial to Napoleon on the island. (JM)

Wednesday (2/11)   23:20   Film4               This Is England (2006)

Shane Meadows directs another exploration of working class England, this time the Thatcher-era North. The feature spawned a follow-up tv series. Shaun is a lonely, bullied, troubled pre-teen, being brought up by a single mother after the death of his father in the Falklands war. He finds an identity amongst a kindly group of skinheads, but becomes seduced by Combo, a fiercely white supremacist, fresh out of prison. Eventually, he is forced to examine his true feelings about the world and people around him. With a wonderful Ludovico Einaudi score, it includes great performances by a terrifying Stephen Graham, extremely relatable Joe Gilgun, and Thomas Turgoose in his first role. (MH)

Thursday (3/11)        22:50   BBC4               Woman in Gold (2015)

This is a drama based on a true story. Helen Mirren plays a Vienna-born Jewish woman in Los Angeles who fights the Austrian authorities to try and get back a Gustav Klimt painting, called Woman in Gold, that was stolen from her family during the Holocaust and has since been declared an Austrian cultural treasure. A young American lawyer, played by Ryan Reynolds, takes on the case. He is called Randy Schoenberg: his grandfather was Arnold, the composer who wrecked music for half a century. Anyway, it is apparently somewhat pedestrian and the inclusion of an action flashback of Maria Altmann’s family fleeing Nazi Austria doesn’t help much. Here’s Jonathan Romney in The Observer: ‘It won’t do the film any harm at the box office that Helen Mirren twinkles indomitably. She’s as good as ever, but really – of all the things you want to see Dame Helen doing indomitably, twinkling isn’t among them.’ (JM)

                                     23:15   Film4              Monster (2003)

The true story of prostitute-turned-serial-killer Aileen Wuornos, who was executed in 2002. Patty Jenkins’s debut film portrays her life as a journey through horrific abuse and violence, presenting her actions, at least at first, as a defence against constant pain rather than the result of evil. We follow Aileen as she finds love with a young woman, Selby (Christina Ricci), and fights to keep her happy. The highlight of this wonderful film has to be the chameleonic performance of Oscar-winning Charlize Theron; she does more in one scene here than in entire performances elsewhere. Please see my much fuller write-up of the film from a year or two ago, the very first review I published on my site.


Saturday (29/10)        22:05     Channel 5       The Sixth Sense (1999)

M Night Shyamalan’s spooky third offering, and still his best.  He went on to try and recreate the essence of surprise in other outings such as Unbreakable and Signs, but with less success; the under-rated The Visit doesn’t often get a mention. Here, Bruce Willis plays Malcolm Crowe , a child psychologist who has just received an award for his work. He is celebrating with his wife Anna (Olivia Williams) when he receives an unexpected visit.  Later, we see him counselling Cole (Haley Joel Osment) a nine-year-old boy having difficulties at school. To say more would spoil things, but the casting of Willis was inspired, and he turns in a restrained and sympathetic performance. Osment was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Cole, and Toni Collette is excellent as Lynn, his supportive but perplexed mother.  In all, a potent mix of suspense and tenderness that was a huge box office hit. (JR)

                                       23:35    Channel 4       Halloween (1978)  (also 4seven Monday 22:00)

John Carpenter’s 1978 milestone follows a psychopathic killer who murdered his sister as a young boy and 15 years later escapes from his mental hospital to return to Haddonfield, the scene of his terrible crime. It helped kick-start the slasher genre, and has become synonymous with understatedness, owing to its straightforward approach and sparing use of on-screen violence. It relies on rising tension, helped in no small way by its music and its killer, Michael Myers, both highly influential. As usual, there has been a slew of Halloween reboots which, perhaps unsurprisingly, fall far short of the mark. (MH)

                                       23:55    BBC2                The Exorcist (1973)  (also BBC3 Monday 22:00)

The mother and father of late night horror films, directed by William Friedkin and based on the novel by William Peter Blatty, right up there with Rosemary’s Baby, Night of the Living Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but with the additional attractions of rotating heads, defenestration and projectile vomit.  The original novel, which the film follows fairly closely, was based on the 1949 exorcism of an anonymous boy by the Jesuit priest William S Bowden, but changed crucial details. Here, the action is moved to Georgetown and the young person possessed by a demon is Regan (Linda Blair), the teenage daughter of actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), who consults local priest Damien Karras (Jason Miller) after Regan begins to behave out of character. As the situation escalates to shocking levels, Karras appeals to Father Lankester Merrin (Max Von Sydow), who has experience of exorcism. His arrival, climbing out of a cab and standing silhouetted in the streetlight, is one of the most famous moments in the movie.

The novel didn’t initially sell well but after Blatty appeared on the Dick Cavett show, speaking about demonic possession, it shot to the top of the New York Times bestseller list.  Similarly, on release the film was only shown in a small number of venues, but audiences loved it and takings eventually totalled over $440m. A reviewer for Cinefantastique said there was so much vomit in the bathroom at the showing he attended that it was impossible to reach the sinks. One man lasted only twenty minutes before having to be carried out on a stretcher.  Pauline Kael described it as a great recruiting agent for the Catholic Church, maybe out of fear, or a feeling that they had ways of dealing with this stuff.  Tom Breihan suggested that between Watergate and Vietnam ‘people were newly awake to a certain kind of pervading societal rot, something that the spectacle of The Exorcist might’ve mirrored’.  If you are planning to watch it late at night, maybe forgo the cocoa. (JR)

Sunday (30/10)            17:05   Channel 5        Beetlejuice (1988)

Tim Burton at his most wacky and cartoonish. A couple killed in a car crash haunt their old home and aren’t happy when a new family moves in. They call in Beetlejuice (Michael Keeton), a much less genteel ghost, and he causes everyone a lot of trouble. A comedy supernatural tale carried along cheerfully by a notably eccentric cast that also includes Geena Davis, Alec Baldwin and Winona Ryder. A cult classic now, it ws not particularly well received at the time. ‘More enjoyable in concept than in execution,’ wrote David Ansen of Newsweek. (JM)

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