The Innocents (1961)

The Innocents poster

It seems almost incidental to mention that this was adapted from a story (The Turn of the Screw) by the master, Henry James.  It is not usual to have a great film sourced from a work of genius. But that is the case here. From the overlit photography by Freddie Francis (which led to Deborah Kerr as the governess wearing shades between shots) to the palpable dread created by the deliberate pace and focus on fetish objects, we are haunted. The growing lasciviousness of little Miles, the occasional appearances of the perverse gardener (Peter Wyngarde), from the ghostly singing at the beginning to the awful cry at the conclusion, we are subliminally involved in this tone poem of horror. Happy Halloween.

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Angels One Five (1952)

Angels One Five poster

The worthy British war film always stirred the heart but also caused a slight apprehension.  Too many stiff upper lips. This 1952 film is efficient, characterful and moving. It starts as it means to continue – mid-flight, tense, bracing you for the inevitable loss of life. ‘What you need to know about women is they need to keep busy to relax,’ is one of the deathless lines while one of  the worried air traffic controllers knits to stop her hands shaking. This was what went on behind the scenes during the Battle of Britain, that long summer of 1940. John Gregson is the med student ‘Septic,’ Jack Hawkins is ‘Tiger’ and the couple of Denison and Gray are the householders at the end of the runway who host more than their share of inflight visitors. A smart script, a realistic approach and a real gem of the Fifties.

Sicario (2015)

Sicario poster

As good as they come. An idealistic policewoman (Emily Blunt) is picked to participate in a task force to take on the drug cartels in the border states of the US. Too late she realises it’s a trojan horse manoeuvre for the CIA to act outside their legal jurisdiction. The action and terror and fear are relentless. For much of it she has to remain silent and just try to stay alive as the central protagonist, figuring almost as an absence at the heart of the film as reality dawns about what is really happening – and keeps happening, all around her, all the time. Her palpable innocence plays against a barnstorming Josh Brolin and a mysterious, near-silent Benicio Del Toro. The tension never flags from the first, blistering, horrifying sequence. The music is practically a heartbeat, reverberating like a drum, deep within. It is constantly surprising. A probable modern masterpiece by writer Taylor Sheridan, director Denis Villeneuve, composer Johann Johannsson and cinematographer Roger Deakins.

The Velvet Touch (1948)

The Velvet Touch poster 1948

There’s something very satisfying about backstage dramas and this witty theatre thriller is no different. Bearing the mark of humorist Leo Rosten, the principal screenwriter, it delves into the egotistical lives of the luvvies who create hits on Broadway.  As Valerie Stanton the elegantly skeletal Rosalind Russell excels in a role which requires light comedy and high drama (and that’s just the roles she occupies onstage). The always reliable father figure Leon Ames is in a different gear here as the threatening producer while the worldly Leo Genn enters stage right as an architect to woo the star:  this followed their successful pairing in the previous year’s Mourning Becomes Electra. Meanwhile, the marvellous Sidney Greenstreet enters stage left to investigate a murder that opens the story, permitting everyone to fulfil their preordained destinies. Claire Trevor does her suffering in some style while the brilliant Esther Howard plays a small role with typical bluster. The late 1940s produced some great claustrophobic films and this is one of them.

Something in the Air/Apres mai (2012)

Something in the Air 2012 poster

Oh to have been born in a well-to-do Parisian family and to have been an adolescent artist in revolutionary times. Such was the experience of estimable French director Olivier Assayas whose reminiscences form the basis of this tale, set in 1971 – three years After May (the original title). The lycee students Gilles, Christine and Alain are involved in an act of vandalism which hurts a security guard. They go their separate ways and take different paths to their own personal revolutions. The beautiful lighting, the tender display of friendships lost and retrieved, the political growth, the topless women and bottomless men, are but a somnolent groovy autumnal backdrop to the fetishising of paper in all its forms, a wonder in this digital age of ephemera. We are confronted with the texts of revolutionary writers in the classroom, screenplays for the TV series of Maigret, published by Gilles’ father; propaganda, sketches for Gilles’ artworks;  paintings and projections for the backdrops at rock happenings, books, letters, envelopes … paper is the basis for everything, intimately associated with feeling and memory and posterity.

Mr Holmes (2015)

Mr Holmes

One approached another film on the Sherlock Holmes bandwagon with a certain tentativeness.  Yet this wonderfully calm meditation on memory, reality, story, facts and fiction exerts an entrancement.  The adaptation of Mitch Cullin’s novel set after World War 2 about a famous but ageing retired detective (Ian McKellen), minus deerstalker (an embellishment of John Watson’s fantasy, we learn), tasked with surviving his amnaesiac episodes in the company of a housekeeper (Laura Linney) and her aspirational son (Milo Parker), is served up with knowing nods and gentle reminders. Past and present coalesce in a story which manages to confect Hiroshima and a thirty-year old mystery that haunts an old man desperately trying to remember people’s names while they stand in front of him. Masterful achievement by Bill Condon, who previously directed his star in the brilliant Gods and Monsters.

Chantal Akerman 1950-2015

Jeanne Dielman textJeanne Dielman

What a shame that on the day the film Suffragette opened the London Film Festival, the death should be announced of revolutionary feminist filmmaker Chantal Akerman. Her latest film, No Home Movie, is currently showing at the New York Film Festival, while the ICA in London is preparing a retrospective of her work at which she was due to speak. Her films changed everything.

Love & Mercy (2015)

Love and Mercy poster

Perhaps a filmmaker’s greatest challenge is to get inside the mind of the protagonist and to externalise his world. Only the truly great films manage to find a visual correlative and we might think of Psycho and Lawrence of Arabia as extraordinary exemplars. Here the difficulty is not merely visual but auditory:  how to convey the muscial genius of Brian Wilson. So it isn’t just the double timeframe or the two performers – Paul Dano and John Cusack – portraying the California native at different times in his troubled existence but the soundtrack by Atticus Ross that evokes worlds. We are dragged willingly into how a mind might hear sounds once cacophonous, then symphonic. This is a great film about creativity.