A Trick of Light/Die Gebruder Skladanowsky (1995)
Wim Wenders’ ambitious documentary is complex in that it combines archive footage, a contemporary interview and fictional reenactments into one pot. It’s an intricate recipe that produces quite a result. Wenders focuses on two German brothers, Max and Emil Skladanowsky, who pioneered early film with their bioscope, a movie projector that showed moving images to stunned audiences. Their success would sadly be short-lived when their innovation was eclipsed by the Lumiere brothers in France. Wenders interviews Max’s daughter, Lucie, who was in her nineties during the making of the film. She talks through a lot of the history with archive footage and actors re-enacting the tale of the Skladanowsky brothers’ history. It’s a fascinating dive into the history of early film but poignant in the conclusion that the two brothers would have limited time in the limelight. Technology simply advanced too quickly for them.
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)
Billy Wilder’s 1970 take on Sherlock Holmes has Robert Stephens in the lead role with Colin Blakely slotting in as his erstwhile companion, Dr Watson. In this film a bored Holmes takes on the case of Gabrielle Valladon whose husband has gone missing. Holmes and Watson band together and their search takes them from the cosy fireplace in London to the misty waters of Loch Ness in Scotland where there are some strange goings on and even a sighting of a mysterious creature in the water. This was a thoroughly entertaining adaptation of Sherlock Holmes with Stephens excelling in the lead in both look and manner of the world’s most famous detective. There are plenty of twists and turns in this one to keep the viewer interested and a welcome appearance from one of the British greats – Christopher Lee.
They Caught the Ferry (1948)
Carl Theodor Dreyer’s short film focuses on a couple who have taken a ferry to Assens and upon arrival have a limited amount of time to drive their motorbike from one side of the island to the other to catch another ferry heading for Nyborg. The question is will they make it in time? Touted as something of a road safety film, this is fast-paced and tense throughout with minimal dialogue, just the high speed visuals for company. Danger is never far away for the young couple driving at ridiculous speed and you’ll be left guessing right to the end what happens.
The Fight Against Cancer (1947)
This short film from Carl Theodor Dreyer was an early attempt at addressing the danger that is cancer and the importance of seeking medical assistance. The film shows multiple examples of individuals that have been diagnosed with cancer and demonstrates what becomes of those that delay treatment compared to those that are prompt in listening to their doctor. It’s a brief but simple warning to the public.
Good Mothers (1942)
Carl Theodor Dreyer’s short film looks at the work of Mother’s Aid, an organisation in Denmark that was designed to help mothers across the country in a range of areas. Dreyer uses a case study of a young woman who is unmarried, pregnant and wanting an abortion. Mother’s Aid steps in to help the woman who goes through with the pregnancy and is given a plethora of advice about motherhood. While I couldn’t doubt the good work of Mother’s Aid this short film did make me uncomfortable at one point. The woman who forms the focal point of the film is essentially told she has no choice but to have her baby and that it is immoral to have an abortion. I don’t wish to delve into a lengthy debate on the subject but I am of the opinion that it is a woman’s right to choose what she does in terms of her body. This was the only concern I had with the film which did a good job of demonstrating the value of Mother’s Aid.
Une Histoire d’eau (1961)
The title translates as A Story of Water and is a collaboration between Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut. The short film focuses on a young woman who is desperate to get to Paris yet the area where she lives is heavily flooded. She manages to get a ride with a man and together they navigate a way through the flood plains to the heart of France, their relationship developing along the way. This is a very brief film so is understandably lacking a great deal of substance. What is there is certainly interesting but far superior projects would follow for both Godard and Truffaut.
All the Boys Are Called Patrick (1959)
Written by Eric Rohmer and directed by Jean Luc-Godard, this short film focuses on an inadvertent love triangle. Patrick (Jean-Claude Brialy) is a handsome ladies’ man who pursues any beautiful woman he sees in the streets. During the film he is drawn to both Charlotte (Anne Collette) and Veronique (Nicole Berger), applying slightly different approaches to win their affections. Attempting to woo two women at the same time would be problematic enough but it’s even more of a headache when you don’t realise they live together! The premise here is good but the finale doesn’t quite live up to the build up.
The Great Dictator (1941)
Starring, directed and written by Charlie Chaplin, The Great Dictator is considered to be one of the comedian’s greatest works. Somewhat controversial in its day, the film sees Chaplin take on two roles. The first is Adenoid Hynkel, leader and dictator of Tomainia whose brutal regime is impacting on the lives of the people with Jews in particular being persecuted. The second role Chaplin takes on is a Jewish barber who served in a previous war for Tomainia but now lives in fear of Hynkel’s soldiers. Chaplin wasn’t remotely subtle in this satire of Hitler, the Nazis, and fascist regimes in general. There is a lot of comedy here, some particularly fantastic scenes include the Barber eating pudding with other men and Hynkel playing around with a globe. The finale would raise eyebrows at the time of release but it’s a perfect denouement to what is a terrific film from Chaplin.
Adapted from the play of the same name, Fences is set in 1950s Pittsburgh where Troy (Denzil Washington) and Rose Maxson (Viola Davis) live with their teenage son. Troy works as a waste collector but has an eventful past including a stint in prison and another son from a previous relationship. Troy’s biggest regret is that he was a talented baseball player but never made it as a professional due to racial discrimination. He’s very much a man’s man, fond of the bottle and not shy about using force to teach his sons about life. As the story progresses Troy and Rose’s marriage comes increasingly under strain with Troy’s past and present life spiralling out of control. Washington and Davis both appeared in a Broadway run of Fences in 2013 and their performances here are exceptional. Viola Davis would win an Oscar for her role and it was justly deserved, showcasing her undoubted talent alongside other roles such as Annalise Keating in How to Get Away With Murder. I particularly liked the realism about Fences. The characters each have hard lives with little chance of anything getting better. While films are often hailed for their escapism, an injection of reality is still welcome and Fences ticks many of the boxes.
The Immigrant (1917)
One of Charlie Chaplin’s early films, The Immigrant sees him take on the role of an unnamed immigrant on board a ship across the Atlantic bound for the US. It doesn’t take long for the comedy to begin flowing with the swaying of the ship making life not only difficult for balance but also for those with sensitive stomachs. The second half sees Chaplin in America and adapting to life there and even hoping for the chance of romance. Though less than half an hour there isn’t a moment here you won’t savour with Chaplin’s impeccable comic timing standing up to the test of time.
Get Out (2017)
Jordan Peele’s directorial debut horror tells the story of black photographer, Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya), who is a few months into a relationship with his white girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams). Naturally, it is time for Chris to meet his girlfriend’s family so they decide to make a weekend of it. The only problem is that something strange is going on with Rose’s family. Chris is primarily surrounded by white people, the conversation is often awkward and the few black people he does come across are behaving very peculiarly. Get Out is very intriguing from start to finish with a sense of unease veering between dark comedy to tense horror. To say any more of the story is to risk spoiling it. Kaluuya excels in the lead as Chris and there is a good supporting cast to keep the audience on tenterhooks throughout.
T2 Trainspotting (2017)
It’s hard to imagine that it was 1996 when Ewan McGregor first told us to “Choose life” in Trainspotting. The original film was an exceptional look at drug addiction in 1990s Edinburgh. T2 Trainspotting picks up the story 20 years on with Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) back in Edinburgh having ended the first film by running off with a ton of money much to the chagrin of his friends Sick Boy (Johnny Lee Miller) and Begbie (Robert Carlyle). While Renton becomes reacquainted with Sick Boy, now referred to as Simon, and Spud (Ewan Bremner), Begbie is in prison but plotting his way out and home. T2 Trainspotting taps into many of the traits that made the first film so great and you really feel those 20 years as the characters reminisce and similar scenes play out in the present day. While it is an enjoyable film I was left with the overwhelming sense that had this not been made I wouldn’t have minded. The first film worked in every department whereas T2 Trainspotting feels patchy with not all storylines being completely satisfying. This is a must-watch for fans of the original but don’t except anything close to the first film.
The Rink (1916)
The short film from Charlie Chaplin sees him take on the role of a waiter who has two unwanted encounters with a man named Mr Stout. First up Charlie is far from delicate when it comes to being a waiter but he excels when it comes to skating at the nearby roller rink. Here he meets a young woman who is being hounded by Mr Stout and what follows is sheer pandemonium in the rink. Once again, Chaplin displays his gift for comic timing be it wandering from the kitchen to the restaurant floor serving meals, or avoiding the close attentions of angry people on the roller rink. It all looks so effortless for Chaplin but beyond the capabilities of so many of us looking on in awe.
Set in 1950s New York, Carol tells the story of an aspiring photographer, Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), who is working at a department store at Christmas. She helps a customer named Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) who is looking for a gift for her young daughter. What begins as a standard encounter in the store soon becomes a friendship and threatens to become something more intimate. The situation is not helped with Therese having unwanted attention from men who don’t seem to take no for an answer, while Carol is in the midst of a painful divorce. Blanchett and Mara are both excellent in the leading roles and the build up with their relationship is carefully paced. The only downside is the final scenes of the film. Having developed the story so carefully, the conclusion feels somewhat haphazard and ruins the overall impact leaving this as a good, rather than a great, film.
Behind the Screen (1916)
In this short film from Charlie Chaplin he takes on the role of a stagehand named David who is at the mercy of his towering supervisor, Goliath. David is accused of being lazy but is anything but. Thrown into the mix is a young woman that wants to be an actress but is turned down, only to return in disguise and becomes a stagehand as well. Soon David learns the truth about the young woman’s gender and decides it’s time to get one up on Goliath as well. There are plenty of crazy antics in this one involving film props, trapdoors, pies and other debacles that Chaplin effortlessly negotiates his way around. While not as strong as some of his other films, Behind the Screen still showcases the great man’s talent.
Doctor Strange (2016)
My latest venture into the Marvel Universe sees Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), an arrogant neurosurgeon, suffer a serious car accident that leaves his hands badly damaged and his career in tatters. Plunged into despair, Strange tries and fails to find ways to cure himself all to no avail. Eventually, he is advised to seek out Kamar-Taj in Kathmandu where the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) has the knowledge and power to help him. What begins as a selfish pursuit for Strange soon becomes an epic struggle he is encouraged to join as dark forces led by Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a former student of the Ancient One, threatens the world. I find that the origin stories in the Marvel Universe tend to be the best ones and that made Doctor Strange all the more enjoyable. Cumberbatch slots into the universe beautifully with little to like about him at the start but gradually you warm to him, especially the subtle quips thrown in. As with other Marvel films this one is heavy on special effects, a feast for the eyes, but the story interested me more and a strong supporting cast which also includes Rachel McAdams and Chiwetel Ejiofor enhances the experience.
The Fireman (1916)
Charlie Chaplin was certainly busy with his short films from 1916-1917 and this one sees him as an unnamed character in the fire service. As you can imagine, he is considered somewhat inferior to his peers, staying in bed while the others are dressed and ready for work. The Fire Chief (Eric Campbell) is contacted by a rich man (Lloyd Bacon) who has a plan to claim insurance by burning down his own house but doesn’t want the fire service to intervene. In exchange he promises the Fire Chief his daughter (Edna Purviance). Unfortunately, Chaplin ends up involved in the whole debacle and we are soon witnessing firefighting, out of control hoses and plenty of pandemonium. It’s another solid effort from Chaplin, albeit not his best one.
Bird Box (2018)
This adaptation of the post-apocalyptic novel by Josh Malerman had a lot of press when it premiered on Netflix last year, not to mention the minority of people that took up the Bird Box challenge. The story shifts between the present day and five years earlier. In the present Malorie Hayes (Sandra Bullock) is guiding two children, Girl and Boy, on a boat down a river. They are all blindfolded as they undertake a perilous journey. Five years earlier we learn Malorie was pregnant when unseen but mysterious supernatural forces began sweeping across the globe, compelling anyone that sees them for just a second to commit suicide. Safety can only be found indoors with all windows covered, while outside your eyes must be blindfolded. The film tells of Malorie’s journey down the river and how she came to be in that situation with events unfolding five years previous. The premise to the film is great and the plethora of characters that come and go for different reasons are equally intriguing. The conclusion is relatively satisfying but not as good as I had hoped.
The Cure (1917)
Charlie Chaplin combines alcohol and a health spa in this short film. He plays a drunkard who decides a few days at the spa may help him as those present insist one taste of the spa water makes one keen not to drink alcohol again. The only problem is he has a suitcase full of liquor and is far from keen to quit drinking just yet. Maybe the help of a beautiful young woman at the spa may make him think otherwise. It’s hard to picture just how prolific Chaplin was with these short films from 1916-1917. This one has the usual chaos as his character sees some unwanted consequences of his stay at the spa.
The Pawnshop (1916)
For this short film, Charlie Chaplin takes on the role of an assistant in a pawnshop who has a fractious relationship with his boss. Chaplin isn’t the best of assistants when dealing with the myriad of customers bringing items into the shop, especially a clock, but he gets his moment to shine when one particular customer pays a visit intent on some misdeeds. This was another strong showing from Chaplin and although there are elements that seem similar to other films they still don’t fail to raise a smile.
The Boy Who Turned Yellow (1972)
Directed by Michael Powell, The Boy Who Turned Yellow tells the story of schoolboy, John (Mark Dightam) who is sent home from school after losing a pet mouse on a trip to the Tower of London. On a train home, the passengers, including John, are mysteriously turned yellow with their skin and hair taking on this tinge. What has caused this is a mystery but doctors assume it will just go. However, this is just the start of a bizarre adventure for young John. I found this film to be too short when it had the potential for a much more interesting tale. Effects wise it shows its age from the 1970s. A young audience may find something appealing here but this one, sadly, wasn’t for me.
The Fifth Estate (2013)
Bill Condon’s drama tells the story of WikiLeaks, the controversial website that shared often confidential state information with the world. We watch as journalist, Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Bruhl) first corresponds with and then meets computer hacker, Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch). Together they create WikiLeaks which is designed to share information that is withheld from the public. Early assignments serve to increase the notoriety of the website and both Assange and Domscheit-Berg initially revel in the attention of what seems a glorious crusade. However, the further they go with the venture the more danger there is and their friendship threatens to unravel. This was a decent enough biopic of WikiLeaks with good performances from Cumberbatch and Bruhl who both demonstrate their versatility as actors given other roles I have seen them in. WikiLeaks remains a massive deal to this day and somehow The Fifth Estate did not quite get to the core of the story and convey the magnitude of the fallout that would befall Assange when governments began hitting back. If anything, the story of WikiLeaks warranted a much longer film.
The Adventurer (1917)
For this short film, Charlie Chaplin takes on the role of a prisoner who masterminds an ingenious escape from a state penitentiary and goes on the run. The first half of the film focuses on his escape. The second half sees Chaplin taken into the home of a woman and her daughter that he rescues from drowning during his escape. With the authorities on his back, can Chaplin remain hidden or will he end up back in prison? This was another solid effort from Chaplin, showcasing a variety of scenes for him to flex his comic muscles. A great supporting cast ensure that not just Chaplin steals the show, while the ending wasn’t what I expected.
A House for Us: From the Family of Reptiles (1974)
This is the first in a two-part TV programme from acclaimed director, Wim Wenders. It tells the story of Ute, an eight year old girl, who is something of an outcast at school. Her parents are respectively too busy to give her the attention she needs, while Ute finds socialising at school to be difficult. Through the concerns of school staff we learn that Ute has been finding solace in an unusual place. This is a short but watchable drama from a masterful director. It pales in comparison to most of his work but captures well a troubled family and the impact on their young daughter.
For Those in Peril (2013)
Paul Wright’s drama tells the story of Aaron (George MacKay) who lives in a remote Scottish fishing community and is something of an outcast. His maladjustment in society is not helped by a fishing accident in which Aaron is the only survivor with five men, including Aaron’s brother, all lost at sea. As a community mourns its lost sons, Aaron is determined to find his brother, but his isolation and obsession soon begin to impact on his mental health. Wright captures the hostile community well here with Aaron seeming a pleasant, well-meaning young man, but being surrounded by locals with an aversion to him. I found the film left some questions unanswered by its conclusion but there is enough here to highlight Paul Wright as a promising talent.
Frozen River (2008)
Courtney Hunt’s crime drama centres on struggling mother, Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo), who is raising two sons and has to contend with a husband that is a gambling addict. Her husband has left in the run up to Christmas, taking the family savings with him set aside to buy a mobile home, and Ray doesn’t have enough money from her part-time job to give her sons a decent meal and keep the debt collectors at bay. A chance meeting with Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham) offers both women the chance to earn some serious money from a dangerous venture – trafficking illegal immigrants. Melissa Leo is excellent in the lead role here as an under pressure mother trying to stop her family falling apart. The build up to her taking a desperate path into crime is well paced but the film fades in the second half.
A House for Us: The Island (1974)
The second and final part of Wim Wenders’ two-part TV programme picks up immediately after the first part. Eight year old Ute has been avoiding the youth club at school and seeking out another destination. The school are now aware of where she goes and inform her parents. Something must be done to help this young girl but can her parents and school get through to her? I found this second part inferior to the first with the mystery of Ute’s movements now uncovered. The story didn’t develop a great deal from there and it was a pretty standard conclusion. I enjoy watching any film by Wim Wenders but this is one of his weaker projects.
Carla’s Song (1996)
Ken Loach’s gritty 1996 drama focuses on the relationship between Scottish bus driver, George (Robert Carlyle) and Carla (Oyanka Cabezas), a refugee from Nicaragua. Theirs is a chance encounter that develops into a friendship and soon a romance. However, this isn’t an easy love story for Carla is haunted by memories of her years in Nicaragua and her flight from the violence and suffering to be found there. George does his best to help Carla but there is only one choice open to her to put her demons to rest. This film started in a way I expected but then took off in a completely unexpected direction. Carlyle and Cabezas work well together in the lead roles but as with many films from Loach, there is darkness and sorrow lurking around the next corner and it can make for a difficult watch in places.
The Vagabond (1916)
This short film sees Charlie Chaplin as the vagabond of the title, wandering around trying to earn a few extra coins by playing his violin. He falls for a young woman (Edna Purviance) who has been abducted by a group of gypsies and endeavours to rescue her. What seems like the smooth course of true love becomes anything but when the woman meets an artist who sees her as his muse. It seems Chaplin has some competition on his hands. This was one of the superior early films I have watched with Chaplin. As well as the excellent use of humour, Chaplin really showed off some versatility in his role as the troubled, lovestruck vagabond.
One A.M. (1916)
In this short film, Charlie Chaplin is largely solo aside from the very beginning when his character is dropped off at home. Although the film seems to depict daytime, the story goes that Chaplin’s very drunk protagonist has just got home at the end of the witching hour. His intent is now simple: to get to bed and sleep it off. However, getting to bed is no easy task and Chaplin has to fend off the temptation of more alcohol at home and let’s not get started on those tricky staircases. This one is comic gold and Chaplin largely is alone for the duration. He partakes of a series of mind boggling stunts and the laughs keep on coming. For such a simple premise, this is very entertaining.
Easy Street (1917)
In this short tale, Chaplin is a homeless man that wanders into a church and enjoys something of a religious awakening. Seeking to better his life, Chaplin responds to a notice ad asking for anyone who wants to be a police officer. No need for an interview or application here, it’s straight into the role and out on the beat. Chaplin takes on the policeman role of course and is immediately sent to Easy Street where criminals are rampant and chaos reigns. Can he restore order or will he be scared away like other police officers? This is another of Chaplin’s better early shorts. The scenes in the church made me think of a similar scenario with Rowan Atkinson as Mr Bean and I wonder if there was some influence here. Easy Street is the most ironic of names for where Chaplin ends up and there are plenty of hilarious stunts and shenanigans for him as he takes on the criminals.
Robert Fisk – The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East (2007)
Robert Fisk’s epic book about the modern history of the Middle East is without question one of the hardest books I have ever read. Its 1200+ pages took me many months to negotiate, not because the subject was too complex or monotonous, but because the content was so painful and disturbing that I could often only get through 10-20 pages a day. Imagine the worst possible violence, cruelty and atrocities you can and you will find all of it enhanced tenfold in what Fisk has witnessed in his long career. Fisk has been a journalist in the Middle East for decades and here he recounts many of his journeys and reporting. Most chilling are the interviews he conducted with Osama Bin Laden prior to the 9/11 attacks but this is a mere drop in the ocean of what Fisk has seen. This book covers the likes of Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Palestine and many other countries. What comes out is the horror of the West and its involvement in the Middle East, for better or worse, depending on whose perspective you look through the eyes of. There is so much here I have learned about the Middle East yet I’ve no doubt this is merely a smidgen of what it all means and what has taken place there. The involvement of the US and UK in particular leaves a bitter taste upon turning the final pages. I called this one of the hardest books I have ever read. In turn, it is also one of the most important books I have ever read.
Darryl Cunningham – Graphic Science: Seven Journeys of Discovery (2017)
Science gets the graphic novel treatment in this collection from Darryl Cunningham. Here, Cunningham moves away from the likes of Einstein and Newton and offers us the stories of seven other scientists not as well known but whose contributions were all important to science. Antoine Lavoisier, Mary Anning, George Washington Carver, Nikola Tesla, Alfred Wegener, Jocelyn Bell Burnell and Fred Hoyle, all have a chapter devoted to their lives and to their respective achievements. No one tale is more fascinating than the other, all are equally enjoyable to read but some end up being more poignant than others. I particularly enjoyed the focus on some of the women in the field of science, so often overlooked, and it is somewhat sad to read of those who contributed to a particular area only to see their peers be rewarded with a Nobel Prize while they had to look on without a mention. Of course, science should never be about winning prizes but about discovering new wonders of our world and advancing thinking. All seven individuals here are rightly honoured with these brief but enlightening summaries of remarkable lives and careers.
Dan Jones & Marina Amaral – The Colour of Time: A New History of the World 1850-1960 (2018)
This very special collaboration sees Marina Amaral, a Brazilian colorist, partner up with historian, Dan Jones. Amaral has made headlines by taking black and white photos from history and colouring them in to recreate the past in a new way. Extensive research enables her to colour each image as close to authenticity as possible. This book contains 200 such photos from Amaral with Dan Jones offering the historical context behind each one. The book is divided into decades beginning with the 1950s and concluding in the 1960s. Each image is a treat and Jones’ brief but insightful summaries make this an accessible book for many. Some of the photos impact heavier than others and leave nothing to the imagination. There are many pleasant images in here but there are also some painful ones from the darkest chapters of our history. Essential reading.
Florent Silloray – Robert Capa: A Graphic Biography (2017)
Silloray’s graphic novel depicts the career of war photographer, Robert Capa, who had a brief but extraordinary life behind the lens. The story covers the key moments in his life beginning with his fledgling start from poverty to earning good money from photography, his photos captured in the Spanish Civil War, World War II, Hollywood and ultimately in 1950s Indochina where the French were in retreat. There is powerful imagery throughout as Capa finds only maladjustment away from his assignments while the conflicts he witnesses first hand are haunting and recreated in the film he sends home for development. The only downside to the book is its length of less than 100 pages.