The Maltese Falcon (1941)

2016 #142
John Huston | 96 mins | DVD | 1.33:1 | USA / English | PG

The Maltese Falcon

Humphrey Bogart is private dick and consummate bullshitter Sam Spade in this (re-)adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s novel, considered the first major film noir.

The twisty plot of murder and thievery is enlivened by duplicitous performances from femme fatale Mary Astor, an effeminate Peter Lorre, the always welcome Elisha Cook Jr., and the humungous presence of Sydney Greenstreet, making his film debut at 60 and stealing every scene.

It’s also the directorial debut of John Huston, whose work alongside cinematographer Arthur Edeson is the greatest star: the low-key lighting and dramatic angles are (like the rest of the film) archetypal noir.

4 out of 5

The Maltese Falcon was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.

Tale of Tales (2015)

aka Il racconto dei racconti

2016 #148
Matteo Garrone | 134 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Italy, France & UK / English | 15 / R

Tale of Tales

Based on 17th Century Italian fairytales by Giambattista Basile, Tale of Tales relates three interlocking stories of dark fantasy. If there’s one thing that really connects them, it’s thematic: essentially, “be careful what you wish for”; or maybe “be grateful for what you’ve got”. There are primary characters in each tale who go to disgustingly extraordinary lengths to achieve what they desire — eating a sea-monster’s heart raw, breeding a giant flea, self-flaying — and it rarely turns out for the best.

If you can stomach the contents, there’s a quality cast, and the locations, production design, and cinematography are simply gorgeous.

4 out of 5

The Pianist (2002)

2016 #175
Roman Polanski | 143 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | France, Poland, Germany & UK / English, German & Russian | 15 / R

The PianistRoman Polanski’s semi-autobiographical biopic of Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody), who survived the Warsaw ghetto in World War 2 primarily through luck and good fortune, is a subtly powerful work. It may not poke at your emotions quite so readily as, say, Schindler’s List, but that’s because Polanski and screenwriter Ronald Harwood dodge histrionics or an operatic envisioning of events. Instead this feels like a grounded relation of the facts, with everyday heroism (and cruelty) the order of the day — but, of course, there’s nothing “everyday” about it.

If this were fiction it would seem improbable; because it’s true, it’s extraordinary.

5 out of 5

The Pianist was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.

Wuthering Heights (2011)

2016 #81
Andrea Arnold | 129 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.33:1 | UK / English | 15

Wuthering Heights

A world away from heritage adaptations of classic literature (or, indeed, that Kate Bush song), Andrea Arnold’s earthy, plausible take on Emily Brontë’s beloved novel (the first half of it, anyway) won’t be to all tastes — particularly anyone after an epic romance feel — but its sparse dialogue, Malickian attention to nature, and oppressive mood make for a benumbing work of cinematic art.

The claustrophobic 4:3 framing and mist-shrouded photography lock us into an isolated world, where rough people treat each other roughly and misery begets misery, from which neither we nor the characters can escape. It’s grim up north, indeed.

5 out of 5

Into the Wild (2007)

2017 #7
Sean Penn | 148 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English & Danish | 15 / R

Into the WildThe true story of Christopher McCandless, who abandoned regular life after college to go hitchhiking and become one with nature or something, then accidentally killed himself by being a pretentious wanker.

The filmmaking is driven by this same youthful pomposity, which when you consider it was “screenplay and directed by” (to quote the awkward credits) a 47-year-old Sean Penn makes it feel both inauthentic and also, frankly, a little pathetic.

At least there’s some stunning scenery; and Hal Holbrook’s performance as a lonely old man, whose outward cheerfulness masks inner sorrow and a need reengage with life, is suitably affecting.

2 out of 5

Into the Wild was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

2016 #157
Billy Wilder | 112 mins | DVD | 1.85:1 | USA / English | U

Witness for the ProsecutionCharles Laughton and Marlene Dietrich shine in this adaptation of Agatha Christie’s play (in turn based on her short story), about a man accused of murder but who proclaims his innocence (Tyrone Power), the barrister who decides to take the case (Laughton), and the man’s wife who agrees to alibi him but seems somehow suspicious (Dietrich).

Despite expanding the action from the play, it’s still dialogue-heavy and a little stagey in places — but between the engrossingly labyrinthine plot, those captivating performances, and some humour added by screenwriters Billy Wilder and Harry Kurnitz, such potential criticisms are irrelevant.

Helluva twist, too.

5 out of 5

A new adaptation of The Witness for the Prosecution begins on BBC One tonight at 9pm.

A Knight’s Tale (2001)

2016 #160
Brian Helgeland | 132 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG / PG-13

A Knight's TaleA squire fakes being a knight to win a jousting contest, and a lady’s affection, in this medieval comedy-adventure.

Renowned for its anachronistic use of rock music, there’s actually not much of that, but there’s plenty of comedy and adventure — too much: it’s a little long (that there’s an extended DVD beggars belief). An able cast keep it ticking: Heath Ledger hefts the derring-do and romance, with comic support from Mark Addy, Alan Tudyk, and Paul Bettany; but love interest Shannyn Sossamon is clearly miscast.

Though a favourite to some, I wouldn’t say it’s under-appreciated, but it’s a fun romp.

3 out of 5

The Survivalist (2015)

2016 #150
Stephen Fingleton | 99 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 18

The Survivalist’70s self-sufficiency sitcom The Good Life meets bleak post-apocalypse drama The Road* in this technically-science-fiction dramatic thriller, the BAFTA-nominated debut of writer-director Stephen Fingleton.

A man (Martin McCann) lives in a woodland cabin, farming just enough for himself and fending off raiders. When a woman (Olwen Fouéré) and her daughter (Mia Goth) turn up, they build an uneasy alliance in spite of mutual suspicion.

With a Malickian eye for both nature and pace, it has a grim plausibility about the end of the world and, more than that, the fundamentals of human nature. Depressing but truthful — and, post-Trump, possibly prescient!

4 out of 5

* I’ve still not actually seen The Road so this comparison may be faulty, but it was the first super-grim (so I’ve heard) post-apocalyptic drama that came to mind. ^

Cover Girl (1944)

2016 #168
Charles Vidor | 103 mins | TV | 4:3 | USA / English | U

Cover GirlRun-of-the-mill musical starring Rita Hayworth as a Brooklyn showgirl who finds fame after accidentally landing a prestigious magazine cover because the editor was in love with her spitting-image grandmother.

Gene Kelly co-stars as the owner of the low-rent joint she used to star in, and provides two decent dance numbers: the first alongside Hayworth and Phil Silvers, the second alongside himself, double exposure allowing his shop-window reflection to leap into the street.

Otherwise the songs are forgettable, despite the fact it won an Oscar for its score, and the predictable story is allowed too much leeway by the running time.

3 out of 5

Charlie Wilson’s War (2007)

2016 #135
Mike Nichols | 98 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA & Germany / English & Russian | 15 / R

Charlie Wilson's WarUnlikely stories can make great movies, or at least fun ones, and if this isn’t the former then it’s largely the latter.

It’s about a hard-partying US congressman (Tom Hanks) who suddenly becomes interested in the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, so increases support for the rebels by calling in the many favours he’s collected.

Boasting a typically witty script from Aaron Sorkin, and a cast (including Philip Seymour Hoffman) capable of delivering it, it makes a potentially grim topic surprisingly entertaining — which is presumably why acknowledgement of the aftereffects is reduced to one subtle, but chilling, nod to 9/11.

4 out of 5