A dark thriller from Danny Boyle that crackles with wit
JOHN GORE, founder of StokeScreen Film Club, with his latest pick of the films coming to TV (from Saturday, February 20).
Harking back to my days as a boy scout and Bob-a-Job week, I can now post the yellow sticker in the window that says Jab Done, with a big tick.
Back in 1994, I went to the Edinburgh Film Festival and found myself billeted in a rather grand house in the New Town with a newspaper editor and his family. One evening, I ran into their son, Andrew, who enthusiastically told me that I really should go and see the film his friends had made. I did not wince visibly but said that I would try to do that. I was as good as my word and went to a screening a couple of days later. It was, indeed, very good.
It was called Shallow Grave 1994 (Film4 21.00 Tue 23 Feb). It is a cracking thriller about three young professionals sharing a flat in Edinburgh. There is unexpected death, a large sum of money, greed and suspicion: the standard ingredients. What I loved about it was that it played by Hollywood rules while being idiosyncratically British with a smart, witty script and a cracking soundtrack. This is where Brit Pop entered British cinema. Chatting to the director, Danny Boyle later, he told me that being a British film, there were no guns, although this does not mean no violence; here the violence is of an identifiably domestic nature.
Here are (pictured above) Christopher Ecclestone, Kerry Fox (The Dressmaker, whom young Andrew subsequently married) and a fresh-faced Ewan McGregor in his first major screen role.
Danny Boyle went on, even more famously, to make Trainspotting 1994 (Film4 22.50 Tue 23 Feb) which, courtesy of Irvine Welsh, redefined our impression of the Athens of the North as heroin capital of Britain. This film is justifiably renowned for its energy and visual invention, some of it stomach churning, some of it strangely beautiful. Incidentally, it is held up as a supreme example of how to run a film marketing campaign. I am sure that you will recognise the images even if you have not yet seen the film.
Completing the Tuesday night trilogy is The Acid House 1998 (Film4 00.40 Wed 24 Feb). This is a compilation of short stories by Irvine Welsh. It was designed to ride on the coat tails of Trainspotting. It has neither the cast nor the cinematic flare of the earlier film but it does revel in Welsh’s earthy language and taste for the underbelly of Edinburgh life.
My other trilogy of the week is the films by another British visual genius, Alfred Hitchcock. BBC2 presents three of his breakthrough movies, before he was allowed to play with Hollywood ‘A listers’. He had already made 10 features before sound arrived to upset the cinematographer’s influence on the action (c.f. Singin’ in the Rain: a brilliant guide to the problems of adapting to the introduction of sound to the movies). By 1935, technique and technology had advanced to such a degree that we would now recognise this as the modern cinema that was to dominate until the 1980s and the advent of the digital age. The Thirty Nine Steps 1935 (BBC2 13.00 Sat 20 Feb) is an adaptation of John Buchan’s thriller which becomes peppered with Hitchcock’s tropes: the wrong man suspected, the inefficiency of the authorities, long, dark Expressionist shadows and even darker humour. This is Hitch hitting his stride.
Three years later, he made The Lady Vanishes 1938 (BBC2 13.35 Sun 21 Feb) in which he mixes humour with suspense. Young and rich couple, Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave (yes, they were young once!) are travelling by train in Europe when an elderly passenger disappears. We then venture into Agatha Christie country but this was Hitch’s calling card to Hollywood. He went there the following year to make Rebecca and later Suspicion 1941 (BBC2 15.40 Sun 21 Feb) with Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine.
This is a tale of girl marries boy then worries that he might be planning to murder her. Ms Fontaine walked off with the Best Actress Oscar for the film. More of these to follow, I hope. It is classic Sunday afternoon viewing but as with all of Hitchcock, the product of a twisted and macabre imagination.
Cary Grant appears in one of the other classic highlights of the week, Bringing Up Baby 1938 (BBC2 13.00 Mon 22 Feb). He is a buttoned-up professor of archaeology in a prestigious museum who has his entire world turned upside down by scatty socialite, Katherine Hepburn. One of the first screwball comedies, the laughs come thick and fast and are expertly handled by the two stars. It never tires despite repeated viewing. On this occasion, it’s that age old story of boy meets girl, girl wrecks dinosaur, but somehow they manage to piece things together by the end.
Completing this particular daisy chain, Katherine Hepburn stars with Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen 1951 (Sony Classics 18.50 Fri 26 Feb), a tale of heroism during WW1 where a world-weary and less-than-sociable ship’s captain (Bogart) escorts a prim missionary (Hepburn) to relative safety in an African war zone. The African Queen of the title is the name of the rust bucket they sail in, which becomes the third principal character of the story.
Let’s move to more recent times. Wes Anderson is probably best known for Grand Budapest Hotel because it is one of the funniest creations of this century. It betrays his love of animation, which we saw in his adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox - a droll take on the children’s book. Isle of Dogs 2018 (Channel4 18.05 Sun 21 Feb) is also an animation which follows on from this, confident in appealing to
adults as much as children. Taking place in Japan, it follows a boy’s search for his lost dog on the island of isolation for the dogs of the city during a canine pandemic; meanwhile the dogs have their own plans. It is referred to as a story of a dystopian future. I am not so sure that it is not already here. This is smart and affecting stuff about love and loyalty. Important things to remember during any pandemic.
A Monster Calls 2016 (BBC2 23.15 Sun 21 Feb) is another anomaly. It is based on a children’s book exploring grief but plays above the target age group. This is possibly why it has been programmed at 11.15 at night. I remember looking at this and thinking, it is very good but I have no idea who it is aimed at. Still, it is worth a watch.
Should you have access to Sky Documentaries, I would recommend The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – the Touring Years 2016, Ron Howard’s documentary on Beatlemania in the States. There is a lot of newsreel and performance footage as well as interviews that will enlighten the young or sceptical about the power and glory of the Fab Four. It clearly demonstrates what all the fuss was about.
I have never seen Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun 1987 (BBC2 23.20 Fri 26 Feb), the adaptation of JG Ballard’s autobiographical novel of a boy marooned in Singapore as the Imperial Japanese Army invaded in 1942. It is the film that introduced a 13-year-old Christian Bale (Batman) to the world. The script is by Tom Stoppard. I can’t imagine why I have not seen it. I shall make a point of catching up with
it this time.
Finally, I omitted this film last week but it is back by the wonders of cyclical programming: Colin Firth
stars as a lecturer grieving of the loss of his partner in 1960s' Los Angeles in A Single Man 2009 (Sony Movies 01.35 Mon 22 Feb). It is handsomely and movingly realised by fashion designer Tom Ford. It has the wonderful Julianne Moore in the supporting cast and is really not bad for a first effort!
As ever, it is always good to hear from you, so please put your thoughts down and send them to us at Stokescreenfilmclub@aol.com Facebook: StokeScreen at CNWSC and www.StokeScreen.uk.
You could do this in person if you would like to join us on Zoom on Monday night 22/02/21 for our annual general meeting. There will be a brief business bit, but mostly it will be an opportunity to say hello to one another and share a virtual G&T. We look forward to seeing you there.