Rob Pearson’s Film Picks of the Week

February 26, 2009 by  
Filed under Features

lady-vanishesThe Lady Vanishes , BBC4, Saturday, 7.30pm

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This weekend, BBC4 are marking the life of one of the finest British directors by getting their Hitchcock out. But Psycho, The Birds, Vertigo et al are nowhere to be seen – they’re showing three of Hitch’s early classics, and The Lady Vanishes is awesome stuff. There’s none of the psychological intricacies of his later films, no freaky mother-son relationships, no overt trains-into-tunnels symbolism – this is a pure and simple delight.

Set in a fictional, rather-rubbishy central European country, we are introduced to our characters as they file in to a jam-packed hotel. We have the two English chaps, solely intent on getting home to see the final day of the test match, three cute girls, one of whom is getting married in London (Iris), an obnoxious musical travelling writer (Gilbert), and one doddery, whimsical and kind-hearted old lady.

Once these preliminary scenes are dealt with, the characters head for the train – but a plantpot falls on Iris’ head. The lady helps her onto the train, where they sit together. Strangely, when Iris awakes, the  lady has, well, vanished. All of the the Johnny Foreigners in the cabin claim that the lady was never there. Did she just imagine it all? Or is there a conspiracy at play? She’ll need help from that awful Gilbert if she wants to find out, and who knows, they may even fall in love…

You can probably tell by now how unapologetically English this film is, which always gives a few bonus points in my book – the dodgy continental types on the train are all treated with a raised eyebrow of suspicion. When the chips are down, the only people you can trust are the English! I say, old boy, a cracking sentiment if ever there was one.

It was all well and good, especially in 1938, but this was Hitchcock’s last British film. Filled to the brim with memorable characters and great acting chemistry, this film expertly combines a paranoid thriller/spy/action film with surprising touches of great humour and wit. Totally enjoyable, it was a bit hit with audiences, and buoyed by its successes, Hitchcock upped-sticks to Hollywood, made Rebecca (also being shown this weekend), and the rest is history.

strangers-on-a-trainThe 39 Steps, BBC4m, Sunday, 11pm

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More Hitchcock spy stuff, this is the story of Richard Hannay, a great literary character, and a sort of accidental, proto-Bond. When a spy dies in his apartment, she leaves him some clues about a  terrifying plot to smuggle national secrets out of the country. This sets him on a globe-trotting (well, Britain-trotting really, but that sounds rubbish) course to uncover the plot and do his duty to king and country!  One problem: he’s a wanted man, an assumed murderer, and his picture is in every paper in the country.

This was remade for TV at Christmas, and while that had more in the way of production values and action, this film – almost 75 years old now – still trumps it with sharp dialogue, excellent acting and a breathless pace. No surprise then, that it was voted the 4th best British film by the BFI.

shineShine – BBC1, Sunday, 11pm

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A lovely film about a slightly-mental-but-still-genius Aussie pianist, David Helfgott. A true story, this won Geoffrey Rush (playing the lead) an Oscar, and is often truly spellbinding. This cuts rather deeper than the usual biopic, as we see David’s problems with his father, and his eventual breakdown into mania, improbably pushed over the edge by Rachmaninov’s 3rd. Much like the main character, the film is at its best when the piano is involved… you might even say that it… Shines.

I’ll get my coat.

a-scanner-darklyA Scanner Darkly, FilmFour, Monday, 11:20pm

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Forget Harold & Kumar and wave goodbye to the Pineapple Express, because this is the real deal. A holy grail of drug movies that will appeal to the intelligentsia and stoner crowd alike. Set ‘seven years from now,’ America is riddled with a drug problem that makes Pete Doherty look like Cinderella. Substance D is the not-particularly-catchy name of the drug sweeping the streets – causing dreamy hallucinations. It also, like, totally screws you up, man! Chronicling paranoia and severe personality disorders, A Scanner Darkly is less Head Trip, more Mind F**k.

Keanu ‘Whoah’ Reeves stars as Bob Arctor, an undercover cop set the apparently super-easy task of infiltrating a group of addicts – including Iron Man hero Robert Downey Jr., No Country For Old Men alumni Woody Harrelson and Beverly Hills shoplifting legend Winona Ryder. For once, Keanu’s low-impact ‘acting’ is spot on, but it’s Downey Jr. who steals the show, takes it home, and doesn’t even get arrested, Winona. The film is very lo-fi, and interspersed with the police plot to bring down the drug trade, there are lots of scenes of, um, druggies sitting around a bit. Talking, too.

Following their conversations in spirals that hop across fences and eventually lead down rabbit holes, there often isn’t much story going on – but you’re drawn (if you can handle the rambling nonsense) into the characters’ world, which is important, considering how much this film relies on the understanding of rather unhinged mental states.

And here we come to the coolest part of the film: Rotoscoping. The film was filmed ‘normally,’ and then every frame was painted over, giving the effect of a slightly weird animation. As an effect, it’s super cool, no doubt. But it’s not like they’re giving you a scratch and sniff 3D Panavision Keanu Reeves in I-MAX (thankfully). This is no gimmick – it fits the subject matter perfectly,  woozily dancing the line between reality and hallucination.

There’s an overwhelming feeling of a reality lost, a broken mind harbouring the all-conquering paranoia – but not the Hitchcock kind of paranoia, no. Somehow, despite the surrealist weirdness, this feels more real, more honest, as their mental states decline. Transferred from Phillip K Dick’s story, this is seen as one of the most accurate adaptations of the Sci-Fi legend’s most personal work – so if you found Minority Report and Blade Runner simply too frothy, this will hit you hard. It’s vehemently an anti drug film, as the end credits show – many of Dick’s old friends are listed as dedicatees… as are their lasting medical and psychological problems, and in some cases – deaths.

This isn’t some kind of Requiem For A Dream miseryfest, though – often funny and vibrantly imaginative, right down to the details (notice the bugs in the clip above). The plot keeps you guessing as to who is who, and as brain food goes, it’s marvellous.

valley-of-the-dollsBeyond the Valley of the Dolls, FilmFour, Tuesday, 11.45pm

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This film is absolutely batsh*t insane. There’s no other way of putting it. Like they made a Carry On Girl Band film, but went absolutely bonkers, and added lashings of sex, violence and outrageousness – this was Fox’s first X-Rated film. Despite being made in 1970, this is 60s to the core. It was also written by the don of film criticism, Roger Ebert – though it appaers that no taste has been exercised here whatsoever. You’re half expecting Austin Powers to pop up. Directed by heroic boob-liberationist Russ Meyer, whose other films include Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and Mondo Topless. Yes, really. You’ve never seen anything like it.

wallace-and-grommitWallace And Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit BBC3, Wednesday, 8.40pm

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While the offensively-bad American trailer above helps explain why Aardman don’t work with Dreamworks any more, don’t be put off, because this is yet another extremely British classic. All this and with Slumdog Millionaire’s successes too – I may actually faint. This is the feature-length W&G, with none of the time constraints that squeezed a little bit too much into the slightly-squashed Matter of Loaf And Death that we saw at Christmas.

This time around, our claymation heroes pit their wits against a monster bunny which has been terrifying locals by… stealing their prize veggies. You at the back – stop sniggering. It’s set in an English village, you know – vegetable growing competitions are terribly important. Typically for Aardman, the animation is wonderful, the puns are deliciously awful, and the references (this time featuring loving nudges towards Hammer Horror) are great fun.

By Rob Pearson