In my current time-surplus status I’ve had plenty of opportunities to catch up on movies screening at the lovely Prince Charles Cinema in Leicester Square. Once you sign up for an annual membership card matinee prices are only a few quid, and the fare on offer is generally eclectic and interesting. Here’s a rundown on some of the films I’ve seen since I returned to the UK in November, both at the Prince Charles and on TV:
Gimme Shelter (dir. Albert & David Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin, 1970)
Well the Rolling Stones’ tour of the United States is over. It wound up with a free concert at the Altamont Speedway for more than 300,000 people. There were four births, four deaths, and an awful lot of scuffles reported. We’ve received word that someone was stabbed to death in front of the stage by a member of the Hell’s Angels…
As a document of the place and time this is priceless, but the music of the Altamont Free Concert in December 1969 almost takes a back seat as the festival turns sour and the hippie dream dies. I know it’s a fly-on-the-wall doco, but too much time is spent observing the almost mute reactions of the Stones to pre-Altamont concert footage and eavesdropping on tedious legal arrangements. But after the Woodstock-like trippy gathering of perhaps 300,000 is documented with all its freaks and heads loved up, blissed out and resplendent in beads and tie-dyes, and in its final third the film shows Altamont spiralling out of control. The Stones are helpless to prevent chaos spreading, and all the while the Hell’s Angels are lurking in the wings, ready to render the Love Generation’s truce irrelevant with an outpouring of blood. Lamentable yet strangely compelling, this is car-crash cinema that has to be seen to understand the death of '60s idealism.
The Damned United (dir. Tom Hooper, 2009)
A football dramatisation that's not just for football fans, Michael Sheen's somewhat fictionalised portrayal of the iconic Brian Clough captures the larger-than-life determination and stubborn flair of the cocksure coach. Real match footage is mixed with contemporary stagings, and in both it's a treat to see how weedy 70s footballers really were in comparison with today's buffed and honed athletes. As ever, Timothy Spall is excellent – all those years ago who would’ve thought that he would be the greatest acting legacy of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet?
Amelia (dir. Mira Nair, 2009)
A potentially intriguing story told in a workmanlike fashion with little flair, Amelia offers no stunning insights or originality into the determined rise to greatness of one of the 20th century's most prominent and successful women. Swank is appealing in the title role, but the remainder of the cast merely go through their paces: 60-year-old Gere is serviceable but can only stand with the aid of industrial quantities of botox, while Ewan McGregor and Christopher 'Dr Who' Eccleston are largely superfluous in supporting roles that could have been performed equally well by any unknown. While Swank's performance seems an accurate representation of the Earhart character, ultimately this is on a par with diCaprio's The Aviator - a film that will be remembered as an interesting curiosity but hardly essential viewing. (For more on Amelia, read my earlier review).
Blade Runner (dir. Ridley Scott, 1982)
Little more really needs to be said about the astonishing achievement of bringing this film to the screen: in Blade Runner Ridley Scott created one of the greatest and most memorable cinematic experiences of the 20th century, flecked with knowing glances forwards to the hyper-diverse society of the 21st century as envisaged by generations of sci-fi writers, and backwards to the laconic gumshoe noir of the ‘30s and ‘40s. Seeing the film once again reminds the viewer how Scott coaxed such gravitas and dramatic heft from its largely inexperienced cast (aside from Harrison Ford, of course, who is at his talented peak here). Ask yourselves this: if you were confronted with an unknown film with a cast list including Rutger Hauer, Sean Young and Daryl Hannah should you have any right to expect something as grand as this?
Bunny and the Bull (dir. Paul King, 2009)
The director of The Mighty Boosh has put together a likeable offbeat tale featuring two little-known actors who are quite similar to Julian Barratt and Noel Fielding of Boosh fame (who also appear in supporting roles). While it's only a tad less surreal than an average Boosh episode, it also contains some splendid and imaginative low-budget imagery, an enjoyable performance from Veronica Echegui as a Spanish manic dream pixie girl, and modern cinema's most commendably innovative use of a dachshund. The story: Stephen Turnbull hasn't been outside in months, and when he finds his mind hurtling back to a disastrous trek around Europe with his friend Bunny a catalogue of adventures unfold. Stephen's flat becomes the springboard for an extraordinary odyssey through lands made up of snapshots and souvenir replica landmarks within his imagination. Bunny & the Bull is an inventive and, in its own funny way, touching journey back from the brink of delusion.
The Remains of the Day (dir. James Ivory, 1993)
If Robert Altman’s Gosford Park was last decade’s best example of the traditional English stately home drama, then this is the 1990s’ strongest contender. Some might find all the pent-up social restraints frustrating, but that’s the point – it’s not about contemporary social mores, it’s about a bygone era. The lord of the manor’s dangerous flirtation with far-right politics in the lead-up to WW2 adds an intriguing dimension as the straight-jacketed, hesitant romance between the head butler (Anthony Hopkins) and the younger housekeeper (Emma Thompson) evolves in a fit of self-denial and accumulated regret. My only complaint? The film’s final shot, an aerial view of the manor house in its awe-inspiring verdant grounds (Dyrham Park, Gloucs.), is spoiled by a jerky camera. Couldn’t they afford a second take?
Secretary (dir. Steven Shainberg, 2002)
I know that to sell a small film you need to lead with the best-known actor’s name, but realistically this is Maggie Gyllenhaal’s film rather than James Spader’s, despite his good performance. This must have been such a difficult film to make and the role of Lee was particularly challenging, because any hint that Gyllenhaal’s character was in some way a victim of the piece would have rendered this a creepy exploitation flick. Gyllenhaal delivers what would become widely recognised as a star-making performance – one with real depth of character. As it stands, part of Secretary’s strength is that it flirts with the edges of what’s acceptable in modern mainstream cinema (see This Film Is Not Yet Rated [n.b. clip contains NSFW language] for the bigger picture) but at the same time it delivers believable and ultimately strangely likeable protagonists who just happen to have rather unusual coinciding worldviews.
La Vie en Rose (dir. Olivier Dahan, 2007)
The astonishing range of Marion Cotillard's performance as Piaf will surely see La Vie en Rose go down as one of the great music biopics. From a bug-eyed and skittish youth busking on Pigalle street corners and singing drunkenly in grubby clubs to international singing legend and crashing back down into the unearthly husk of a woman rendered old before her time by drugs and the accumulated impact of a lifetime of grief, Cottilard's Piaf is unmissable.
Fish Tank (dir. Andrea Arnold, 2009)
Ever wondered what it’s like growing up on a council estate? This could be your chance to learn, and witness a top performance along the way in this British film that shared the Jury Prize at the 2009 Cannes festival. Katie Jarvis, who was discovered arguing with her boyfriend at an Essex train station and went on to be named best newcomer at the British Independent Film Awards, is excellent as the unloved teen Mia, who finds the praise and attention offered by her mother's new boyfriend puncturing her hard-as-nails exterior. A drama with plenty of rough humour, Fish Tank also contains two scenes brimming with tension and genuine uncertainty. Particularly affecting is a scene shot along the factory-flecked fields of the Essex coast east of London, which is almost unbearably tense as the viewer witnesses Mia about to make an awful mistake. Throughout the film Rebecca Griffiths gets some good lines as Mia's younger sister, the foul-mouthed and hilarious Tyler. And the director finds glimpses of rare beauty amongst the run-down grime of the Essex council estates – sunlight reflecting on anti-pigeon spikes, clouds racing over the curves of artificial grassy knolls between tower blocks, and one memorably painterly shot in which Mia is framed in a massive DIY warehouse door with a dozen lifter cranes carefully arranged in the sky behind her like ghostly looming lanterns.
Bright Star (dir. Jane Campion, 2009)
The quality of the acting performances aside, the real star of Bright Star, Jane Campion's recounting of the doomed love of the poet Keats and Fanny Brawne, is the remarkable imagery. So many scenes beg for a pause button so you can sit back and admire this artfully constructed film. The heady lyrical bliss of young love in springtime is richly evoked by the beautiful Abbie Cornish in particular, but it is Campion's inventiveness that seals the deal with a flurry of memorable vignettes, from the perfect opening macro shot of a needle being threaded, to the riotous colours of the English woodlands in full bloom, to the inevitable sombre procession through the deserted streets of Rome. For those who found The Piano a touch too melodramatic or are reluctant to see a film featuring poetry, banish your fears, because this one's a real winner. And aside from the charming performance by little Edie Martin as Fanny’s sister Toots (the child actors were coached by New Zealand acting doyenne Miranda Harcourt) it also contains superb supporting acting by Topper the cat, who competes with Martin to steal the most scenes.