FILM OF THE WEEK
Trumbo (2015) was Bryan Cranston’s first big film role after his all-conquering lead in the TV hit Breaking Bad, and it wasn’t an obvious crowd-pleaser. It tells the story of Dalton Trumbo, who was, at least according to this account, the highest-paid screenwriter in 1940s Hollywood. He was also a Communist party member from 1943 onwards. This film dramatises his jailing and blacklisting after he was investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee: he continued to work, however, on trashy movies, under pseudonyms, and for a fraction of his previous pay.
The film is fast-moving and sumptuously photographed, and adorned with a rather nice cocktail-jazz score by Theodore Shapiro. The script is sparky, with Trumbo, a somewhat greedy and self-satisfied man, provided with a string of polished quips and portentous observations. His friend and fellow-blacklistee Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.) – an invented character – speaks for many when at one point he tells him to “Just shut up”.
Trumbo is shown as a man of mettle, but Hird identifies the ambiguity of his position when he suggests that the writer wants to break the blacklist (by penning a film so successful that the industry will have no choice but to recognise him again) to get his name on an Oscar statuette, not for any higher purpose. Writing relentlessly and bolstering the careers of his fellow banned writers, he turns his home and family into a kind of clandestine script-factory. Nonetheless, he is shown as a good husband (Diane Lane plays Cleo Trumbo) and father, and he constantly asserts his patriotism and lack of subversive intent: as revolutionaries go, he is remarkably unthreatening.
It’s not a particularly subtle film. Trumbo’s conflicts are external, with the poisonous columnist Hedda Hopper (gleefully embodied by Helen Mirren), with the politicians, and with the actor Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg), who stood with him at the outset, then changed his mind. Trumbo is not given to self-doubt and his single-mindedness is not all that attractive. Once Hird is killed off, there is no-one really to challenge him.
Nonetheless, this is a strong evocation of a fascinating period in cinema history, when the political elite of both superpowers recognised the influence of film and did their best to harness it. Those who fell foul of Stalin, however, lost more than their swimming pools. Trumbo is on BBC2 on Sunday (11/5) at 01:05.
On Tuesday (13/7) at 02:00, Film4 has A Young Man with High Potential. A German psychological thriller (in English) about a repressed young computer scientist whose frustrated desire for an attractive fellow student takes him in a grim direction.
On Friday (16/7) at 01:55, Film4 has Fire Will Come (2019). A convicted arsonist returns to his remote village to look after his ageing mother, braving the suspicion of his former neighbours. Directed by Oliver Laxe in the Galician language of damp, dark northern Spain. A prize-winner at Cannes in 2019.
Laurel and Hardy
The Talking Pictures celebration of 100 Years of Laurel and Hardy continues. Oliver Hardy appeared in the Stan Laurel comedy Lucky Dog in 1921 by chance, but it was 1926 before they began appearing in the same film again. Stan Laurel reckoned Putting Pants on Philip (1927) was when they officially became a team. This silent short has Stan getting the wind up his kilt, rather like Marilyn Monroe and her skirt in The Seven Year Itch three decades later. It is showing on Sunday (11/7) at 16:00. Double Whoopee (1929) is most famous for the appearance of another of the screen’s blonde sex bombs, the 18-year-old Jean Harlow, losing her dress in her brief appearance. This silent short is showing tomorrow (10/7) at 09:40. Both Putting Pants on Philip and Double Whoopee have plenty of laughs, as does County Hospital, showing tomorrow (10/7) at 17:40. This short, with Stan visiting Ollie in hospital, was actually shown by CFS in 1974. But the funniest of this week’s bunch is probably From Soup to Nuts (1928) in which the duo play inept waiters. This silent short is showing on Saturday (10/7) at 16:00.
Talking Pictures is also showing The Bullfighters (1945) tomorrow (10/7) at 16:25 (also Tuesday at 18.45) and Jitterbugs (1943) on Sunday at 16:30 (also Thursday 18:30). These are reckoned to be the best of the six films Laurel & Hardy made for 20th Century-Fox in the 1940s. Unfortunately, although the films were popular with wartime audiences, none of them were very good. The stars had a contract with the studio for ten films, but were so disappointed with the material they were given that they refused to continue and The Bullfighters became their last Hollywood film. Perhaps worth seeing for this reason, but your time would be better spent watching the 2018 film Stan and Ollie, with Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly, which touchingly captures the disappointments of their later days, and can be seen on BBCiPlayer.
Tomorrow (10/5) at 20:05, Talking Pictures has Hangover Square (1945). Dramatisation of Patrick Hamilton’s celebrated London thriller, time-shifted to the Edwardian period. With a score by Bernard Hermann that Stephen Sondheim said influenced his much later Sweeney Todd (also on Monday at 22:45).
On Monday (12/7) at 23:20, Film4 has Naked (1993). Mike Leigh’s darkest film. A young Mancunian misanthrope, something of an intellectual, wanders around disaffected 1990s London spouting conspiracy theories and abusing the men and – particularly – the women he meets. Intense, anarchic and somewhat gruelling, it made an international star out of the unknown David Thewlis. A must, if you haven’t seen it.
On Tuesday (13/7) at 23:25, Film4 has Beast (2017). A young woman living in claustrophobic Jersey falls for a mysterious outsider who may be responsible for several murders. Jessie Buckley and Johnny Flynn, as the young lovers, are both excellent. A bold and suspenseful debut from Michael Pearce.
Other modern films of interest
Tomorrow (10/7) at 19:35, BBC2 has Darkest Hour (2017). Ho-hum. Joe Wright’s Churchill movie, with Gary Oldman as Winston and Kristin Scott Thomas as Clemmie, both tremendous. Marred by an unlikely scene in which Winnie takes advice from a spontanteous focus group of common folk he meets on a tube train.
Three notable documentaries on Sky Arts on Sunday (11/7). At 01:30, Super Duper Alice Cooper (2014), a portrait of the 1970s shock rocker who once did unspeakable things with dolls, chickens, a scaffold and a snake. In 1973 he took up golf, a terrible addiction from which he has never recovered. At 13:00, there is Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me (2014), which accompanies the gentle country music star as he makes a farewell tour after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. (Also on Tuesday at 01:00.) At 21:00, there is McKellen: Playing the Part (2017). A biopic of Sir Ian, documenting his rise (or fall) from theatre legend to Tinseltown trusty as well as the gay rights campaigning that began when he abruptly came out on a live Radio 3 discussion programme. According to Wikipedia, he co-owns a London pub with Eugeny Lebedev. The Oligarch’s Arms?
More notable Sky Arts treats on Tuesday (13/7). At 21:00, there is Art & Mind (2019). This looks rather intriguing: an exploration of the way art has dealt with madness throughout history and in the present day. At 22:30, there is My Rembrandt (2019), an entertaining glimpse into the rarified world of those rich enough to buy, sell and own the Dutch master’s works.
On Wednesday (14/7) at 21:00, Film4 has The Hate U Give (2018). Strong adaptation of Angie Thomas’s impressive young adult novel, about a black American girl from a poor neighbourhood who goes to a posh mainly-white private school but is pressed to take sides when a friend dies in a police shooting. At 22:00, BBC4 has Carlos Ghosn: The Last Flight (2021), a documentary about the former CEO of Renault-Nissan, who escaped from house arrest in Japan in a cello case, after being accused of being on the fiddle. With exclusive interviews with the Brazilian-born, Lebanon-raised, French-educated former superstar businessman.
On Thursday (15/7) at 22:00, Sky Arts has I Am Bruce Lee (2012). Biography of the martial arts great. “Will sure take the urine off of real fans,” writes someone on IMDB. I think that means they didn’t like it.
On Friday (16/7) at 21:00, BBC4 has Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars (2017). Biography of the blues guitar great, who found out that at the age of nine that his elder sister was really his mother. Drugs, drink and the tragic loss of his little son. Directed by producer Lili Fini Zanuck, daughter-in-law of studio mogul Daryll F. At 23:00, Sky Arts has The Kinks: Echoes of a World (2018), a documentary about the legendary album The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society, a perennial influence on English bands who own up to being English. Directed by Charlie Thomas, who has also made a good film about Swindon cult stars XTC.
Tomorrow (10/7) at 21:35, Talking Pictures has The Driver (1978). Walter Hill action movie starring Ryan O’Neal, who got the job after Steve McQueen declined to make any more films involving fast cars. Also starring Bruce Dern and Isabelle Adjani, referred to as The Player. “Miss Adjani … gazes rigidly out of the screen, and talks as if overcoming lockjaw,” said Roger Ebert in his Chicago Sun-Times review. Harsh.
On Wednesday (14/7) at 15:15, Talking Pictures has The Keys of the Kingdom (1944). Gregory Peck is a priest sent to China to establish a mission. From a novel by the Scot A.J. Cronin, adapted by Joe ‘Mank’ Mankiewicz, who wrote Citizen Kane with and/or for Orson Welles.
On Thursday (15/7) at 22:55, BBC4 has Wilde (1997). Star-studded British biopic of the Irish-born author and aesthete, with Stephen Fry in the title role, a controversial piece of casting because he had no big-screen track record. Well received, but Janet Maslin in the New York Times complained that the script used so many of Wilde’s witticisms that the film “suffered a case of quip-lash”. Coming up with that zinger must have made her day.