Archive for ‘BFI Top 100 British Films’

May 21, 2012

The Life & Death Of Colonel Blimp (1943 – Cinema)

“Dear old Clive, this is not a gentleman’s war. This time you’re fighting for your very existence against the most devilish idea ever created by a human brain… Nazism. And if you lose, there won’t be a return match next year… perhaps not even for a hundred years”

I’ve been counting down the days until the promised re-release of the newly restored print of Director Michael Powell and Screenwriter Emeric Pressburger’s ‘The Life & Death Of Colonel Blimp’. So when I saw that Pressbuger’s grandsons Kevin MacDonald (Award winning Director) and Michael MacDonald (Award winning Producer) were doing a Q&A after a screening at the Curzon Soho last Tuesday, I had to attend. While acknowledging his personal bias, Kevin MacDonald introduced the movie as “The greatest film ever made” which in my humble opinion is almost true, with the slight modification “The greatest British film ever made”. The brothers revealed that Martin Scorsese put his weight and finances behind the restoration as well as George Harrison’s widow, who put in a million. It is a meticulous restoration more than four years in the making but it was well worth it as previously unseen (Even on its original release in 1943) levels of detail and colour can now be enjoyed.

If you’ve never seen ‘Blimp’ before, the plot follows dyed-in-the-wool military man Clive Candy from a young and energetic VC winner in the Boer war to a loveable yet outmoded old Colonel during WWII. Candy is played by perhaps Britain’s greatest and least known actor Roger Livesey. The seamless way Candy ages across 40 years isn’t all down to the superb makeup, as Livesey somehow morphs his whole body shape to convey the ravages of time. Across ‘Blimp’s epic 3 hour running time, Powell and Pressburger take in the themes of honour, loyalty, loss, love and most prominently aging. It is a film made in, set during and about war but it is notable that it contains no scenes of conflict. It’s actually all about how these conflicts tragically effect the people in them, while never being anti-war. It simultaneously mourns the loss of British chivalry as ‘Total War’ dawns yet stridently criticises dogmatic and old-fashioned military concepts. The miraculous thing is that ‘Blimp’ weaves all these deep and contrasting themes together while always being a warm and humorous portrait of Britain.

The MacDonald brothers also revealed a few personal recollections after the screening. Their grandfather was a Jew who sought refuge in Britain from Fascism so it’s easy to see the auto-biographical elements in the writing of Anton Walbrook’s ‘Theo’ character. The scene in the immigration office is astounding and the long slow close up of Theo’s anguished face will be etched on your mind. They also touched on Churchill’s opposition to the equivocal tone of ‘Blimp’ at a time when he wanted a simple message given to a nation still reeling from Dunkirk. When Pressburger heard that Churchill wanted it banned, he was greatly hurt, as he idolised our wartime Prime Minister with his lone stand in the face of Nazism. It’s a film that in 1943 just asked far too many questions.

To conclude, I urge you to go see this magnificent elegiac film while it’s on the big screen, although I’m hopeful that a Blu-Ray release will be imminent so a wider audience can get to know it’s quixotic charms.

Here’s a clip of Scorsese introducing a screening of ‘Blimp’:

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May 16, 2012

Fires Were Started (1943 – Blu-Ray)

“Alright Johnny, had a bad night?”

‘Fires Were Started’ is in my ‘1001 Movies To See Before You Die’ book and has a place in the BFI’s Top 100, so I bought a copy of the second volume in the complete Humphrey Jennings series.  The film is about a typical day in the life of a London firecrew during the Blitz featuring a cast made up entirely of the actual firemen and women themselves.  This lends the film a documentary feel and a neo-realist air with the minute and everyday detail being fascinating.  As such, the nervous performances leave a little to be desired in the first third of the film as we are introduced to the characters and the routines of the fire service. However this all changes as the night closes in and the bombers begin humming over head, the crew’s training kicks in and the grim horrors of countless other real nights become written in their expressions.  The steely gaze from one firefiighter (Pictured above) as he heroically holds the line to let his friend escape a burning warehouse will be etched on your mind.  It’s a powerful sequence now but it must have been positively harrowing to watch in a London cinema at the time, preceded by newsreels of the actual Blitz.

The sharpness of the image on this Blu-Ray is astounding but the negative was obviously scratched to buggery.  The amount of damage does sadly become a bit distracting during the night scenes but that can’t be helped.  Apart from ‘Fires Were Started’ the packed disc contains six other short films from Jennings chronicling life in 40s Britain.

Here’s a brief clip of the film:

Also here is a clip from a documentary by Kevin MacDonald about Jennings which covers ‘Fires Were Started’:

April 20, 2012

Henry V (1944 – Blu-Ray)

“Can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France, or may we cram within this wooden O the very casques that did affright the air at Agincourt?”

Another BFI top twenty Brit flick down in the shape of Laurence Olivier’s 1944 adaptation of Shakespeare’s play.  I rented it on Blu-Ray from LoveFilm knowing that it was a forties Technicolor film which I adore as they usually look eye-popping.  The radiant colours of the costumes do indeed look magnificent, especially the fiercesome reds and electric blues of the knights pageantry.  Unfortunately the image restoration seems to have employed a little too much smoothing, leading to a noticeably flat look on the actors faces in the mid ground shots.

The possibilities of Technicolor were used by Olivier to try to re-create the look of medieval illuminations moving in three dimensions, including their odd skewed perspectives.  This is mostly used in the second third of film creating some truly unique and magical images.  But I found this admittedly dazzling technique combined with the novel stage-bound intro to be interesting but ultimately alienating when trying to simply get involved with the story.  At the mid-point the style settles down a bit starting with a powerful scene following the king as he walks unrecognised through his nervous troops as they wait together for the dawn to come.  The light comes up almost imperceptibly during the extended sequence and the sun comes out on a new realistic looking landscape. Olivier populates this vista with what looks like thousands of soldiers and shoots the battle with huge sweeping camera moves and tracking shots of charging horses.  Olivier’s commanding delivery of the two big speeches are rightly praised and at the time it was released it must have delivered his desired uplifting patriotic message to war-weary brits. I’ll have to have a watch of Kenneth Branagh’s controversial 1989 version for comparison while this is still fresh in the memory.

April 15, 2012

Kes (1969 – Blu-Ray)

“I saw ‘er flyin’, she came like a bomb, about a yard off floor, like lightning”

A few weeks ago, I viewed Ken Loach’s powerful 1969 polemic ‘Kes’ for the first time on a DVD from MGM.  I loved the story but the image quality was like that of a battered old VHS that had been dropped into a puddle and the sound would’ve been captured better on a wax cylinder.  Knowing that my new Sony-Vaio laptop with Blu-Ray drive was in the post, I was aware that I could now view imported American Blu-Rays.  So I decided to make my first purchase a copy of the Criterion Collection’s restored HD version of ‘Kes’ and hold back writing my review until after I’d watched it.

I can now say that the US Blu-Ray is a revelation, a totally different film experience from the UK DVD.  The cinematography now has the autumnal colour palette and romantic feel of a Rembrandt painting and you can bask in the splendour of the image clarity.  The sound is also improved to the point were you can detect the merest rustle of leaves and the clink of milk bottles in the restored original production audio track.  The final surprise was noticing that a massive chunk of the image was actually missing all around on the DVD I viewed!  To think that a film this good (Ranked the BFI’s seventh best Brit flick ever no less!) is only viewable to its native audience in the shoddy version I first saw, it is a crime against Cinema!

Here is a comparison I made of the picture quality.  Notice the huge missing sections of the image above and to the left (Click to enlarge):

The best thing about ‘Kes’ is the earthy poetry of the Barnsley dialect used by Loach’s cast of local unknown’s. Lines like “For another, they wouldn’t ‘ave a weedy little twat like thee” are almost akin the baudy prose of Shakespeare.  Acting wise, the late Brian Glover almost steals the show in one scene, with his gruff P.E. teacher character, cheating so he win over his pupils, imagining himself to be Bobby Charlton.  I said almost, because young David Bradley‘s lead performance as little Billy Casper is heartbreakingly real, a gifted boy ready to soar like his Kestrel named Kes if his spirit isn’t crushed by the deprivation of the world around him.  Loach shows Billy’s talents for ornithology, gymnastics and even lecturing but they go almost unnoticed by his family, his teachers and the education system in general.  ‘Kes’ deserves its place in the BFI’s top ten but it deserves better care from the studio that made it.

April 12, 2012

The 39 Steps (1935 – Blu-Ray)

“There are 20 million women in this island and I get to be chained to you”

In another step in my quest to watch all of the BFI’s top 100 British films, I come to number five, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 thriller ‘The 39 Steps’.  I must declare a bias towards Robert ‘The definitive Jesus’ Powell’s 1978 version that I spent a rapt sunday afternoon watching as a nipper.  However I still enjoyed this less pacy but perhaps wittier version.  It feels like the earliest template for the classic Hitchcock film; innocent man is wrongly accused and relentlessly pursued across the land by shadowy forces, while still finding time for a spot of romance before ending with a tussle in/around or atop a famous landmark.  A formula that reached its zenith in 1959 with ‘North By Northwest’.

Robert Donat cuts an immaculately tailored profile as the dashing hero and Madeleine Carroll plays his love-interest/hostage.  As usual Hitchcock indulges his love of pushing sexual boundaries (For the time) in several scenes including an amusing discussion between two lingerie salesmen and the sight of Carroll slipping off her wet tights while closely handcuffed to Donat.  Sadly this Blu-Ray presentation disappoints, looking little better than my DVD version and the sound is atrocious.  While I certainly wouldn’t rank ‘The 39 Steps’ as the fourth best British film ever I did throughly enjoy it.

April 11, 2012

Chariots Of Fire (1981 – DVD)

“I’ve known the fear of losing but now I am almost too frightened to win”

Released in cinemas a month before I was born, I’ve never actually seen Hugh Hudson’s famous film ‘Chariots Of Fire’. In a perhaps ill-judged move I gave up my long wait for it to be restored on Blu-Ray a mere two months before a promised London-2012-Olympics cash-in Blu-Ray edition arrives.  I’m glad I watched this magnificent film but I’m sad I didn’t wait for the new version as the DVD transfer I’ve just watched was frankly awful!

The film is about the many athletic triumphs that Britain had at the 1924 Paris Olympics immediately following The Great War.  The first thing that hits you is the power and celestial beauty of Vangelis’ heart pumping synthesiser score.  This is fully matched by the soaring poetry of the screenplay, talking as much about faith in God and belief in one’s self as it does about running.  Colin Welland’s script focus on the twin struggles of Christian Scotsman Eric Liddell and Jewish Englishman Harold Abrahams in the leadup to the games.  The genius of his script has these two men neck and neck for your affections right up ’til the end.  But at that end, for these two runners, it becomes less about beating the other and more about reaching the high ideals by which they hold themselves.

As the credits roll ‘Chariots Of Fire’ does have you swelling with patriotic pride as the words of William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ flow from the soundtrack “Bring me my bow of burning gold, bring me my arrows of desire, bring me my spear, o clouds unfold, bring me my chariot of fire” (Billy Bragg has it so right, ‘Jerusalem’ should be our national anthem!).  Roll on the Blu-Ray!

April 4, 2012

Great Expectations (1946 – Blu-Ray)

“I realized that in becoming a gentleman, I had only succeeded in becoming a snob”

The all time BFI top five film is David Lean’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations’ from 1946, and I’d never seen it.  I spotted it was available on Blu-Ray so added it to my LoveFilm list and it turned out to be a treat.  The transfer, while very scratchy (Showing little digital restoration) is very sharp and looks wonderful if a little antique.  Lean brings a dark brooding Noirish feel to the story making use of his ever-present eery wind-swept landscape shots.

I’d heard John Mills (Then in his late 30s) looked way too old to pay the young character Pip but I thought he just about got away with it.  Alec Guinness (Also in his thirties) gives great support as Pip’s scampish young friend in the first of many roles he would play for Lean.  Francis L. Sullivan gets all the best comic moments as the imposing rotund lawyer Mr Jaggers.  But for me the 14-year-old Anthony Wager as the young Pip (In the first third of the film) steals the show from any of these seasoned old thesps.

March 27, 2012

Genevieve (1953 – DVD)

“This is the end! Making a public spectacle of yourselves. I couldn’t have believed you could have behaved like this, either of you. Just hauling like brooligans!”

My lovely ‘Rank Films’ box set has still got a few treats in store. One ‘BFI Top 100’ approved treat is 1953’s ‘Genevieve’, a comedy centred around the titular vintage-car and it’s passengers as they drive the London-to-Brighton run.  The question at the heart of the movie is does vintage-car nut Alan (John Gregson) love ‘Genevieve’ or his long-suffering wife Wendy (Dinah Sheridan) more.

Being an English film from 1953, I was expecting the central marriage to feature scenes of the couple reading books in separate twin beds. But instead we get Wendy sprawling drunk on the couples (Very definitely ‘Double’) bed begging Alan to make love to her. Back in the day this must have been considered as racy as the vintage cars themselves. The wager in the second half reminded me of Top Gear’s infamous prank contests but in the film it’s between two lovabley immature and eccentric gents instead of those three smug tits.  Excellent support is provided by Kenneth More as Alan’s friend/rival and Rosalind Peters as the poor lady he drags along.  The vibrant Technicolor splendour of the film is only slightly dimmed by this DVD transfer. But I’ll be treating myself to a Blu-Ray upgrade if they ever release it in the UK.

March 24, 2012

The Long Good Friday (1980 – Blu-Ray)

“You’d have noticed wouldn’t you? I mean, a geezer nailed to the floor.  A man of your education would definitely have spotted that wouldn’t he?”

I was perusing the BFI official list of the top 100 British films and realised I’d only seen about half.  So I’ve decided to make an effort to view them all and 1980’s ‘The Long Good Friday’ is one that I’m new to.  What you expect to get is a gritty “Laaarndan” set Gangster flick but I wasn’t expecting the prescient political dimensions of the story.  The film follows the turbulent day of Harold Shand (Bob Hoskins) an old-school Gang land boss whose empire is under attack just as he is trying to setup a lucrative property deal with a the US mob. Harry’s idea is to redevelop the London Docklands for a future Olympic games (Sound familiar people of 2012?!?), an idea that has the coming decades’ ‘Thatcherism’ written all over it.  Hoskins gives a bravura performance radiating pent-up anger that only fully spills out in a shocking scene towards the end.  Harry’s two closest confidants are Helen Mirren’s intelligent Gangster’s-Moll and his number two played by Derek Thompson of ‘Charlie from Casualty’ fame (Back when his acting consisted of much more than staring off into the distance!).  Someone has betrayed Harry, could it being either of them?

Francis Monkman’s pulsating Synthesiser score is magnificent bringing to mind Giorgio Moroder’s score for ‘Scarface’.  Considering that celebrated film’s similar subject matter the fact that it came 3 years after ‘The Long Good Friday’ shows the influence this film had.  The Blu-Ray transfer is wonderful combining a pinstripe-suit like sharpness while preserving the earthy realism of the cinematography.  The disc is also stuffed with superb extras about the making of the film.

Harry’s final angry speech to his timid American cousins seals the film’s classic British status by being both fiercely patriotic and a little bit laughable (See below):

March 8, 2012

Brief Encounter (1945 – Blu-Ray)

Do you know, I believe we should all behave quite differently if we lived in a warm, sunny climate all the time. We shouldn’t be so withdrawn and shy and difficult”

I’ve got a nice DVD box set of Rank films which is generally great. But when I started to watch the ‘Brief Encounter’ disc I found the transfer was so disappointing that I decided I’d wait for the Blu-Ray to watch this celebrated classic. I’m glad I did, as the BFI have done a great job, not only by cleaning up the picture but by bringing crystal clarity to the 70 year-old soundtrack. No wonder as the BFI rank ‘Brief Encounter’ as the official second greatest British film ever (Behind ‘The Third Man’).

From the outset I found Celia Johnson’s cut-glass, terribly, terribly, English accent annoying, as it sounds like some parody of Englishness. This however was the only niggle in an otherwise perfect movie. Noël Coward’s story and David Lean’s script portray a 1940s world of stifling repression that would be otherwise hard to imagine. The brief chaste romance between Johnson’s yearning housewife and Trevor Howard’s stoic Doctor is very touching.  When later films and actors would be ripping each other clothes off, Howard and Johnson only need the slightest glance to convey the volcanoes of desire they have beneath the surface.

David Lean’s direction is breathtaking from the smoky shadows of the railway station to the way he capturing his actors every nuance in closeup.  ‘Brief Encounter’ is rightly praised as a classic but I wouldn’t rank it as Britain’s second best.  In fact I’d rank it as David Lean’s fifth best film, which is still a rarified recommendation.