Category: Film Reviews

Trumbo and a critic!


If there is one thing that depresses me as much as some of the programming by exhibitors it is some of the published criticisms of the films themselves. Trumbo (USA 2015) is essentially a biopic of one of the Hollywood Ten, the victims of the House Un-American Activities Committee of the US Congress, the heads of the major Hollywood Studios, cranky right-wingers who presumably would now be members of the Tea Party, and quite a few members of the film industry who owed their careers and their profits to this group, predominately writers of scripts.

The Guardian review (05-02-16), by Peter Bradshaw, opens on this

“heartfelt, stolid picture about an important period in American history”

and adds this peculiar comment,

“the petty Maoism of 1950s Hollywood…”

In fact, the target of this hysteria was the Communist Party USA who, by the late 1940s, were not even Leninist, let alone Maoist. Presumably Bradshaw or his editor thought the epithet would make a change from their regular target, Uncle Joe.

At least there is a greater sense of history and politics in the interview of the star Bryan Cranston by John Patterson. They do add the point made in the end titles of the film, that the victims of this witch-hunt came from all professions and all walks of life. I was a little surprised to find out recently that our own Richard Attenborough was honoured by inclusion in what was known as ‘the blacklist’. The latter term is slightly unfortunate given this is the period of a rising Civil Rights movement.

To be honest the production team, and certainly quite a few of the critics, should read the excellent

The Inquisition in Hollywood Politics in the Film Community, 1930 – 1960 by Larry Ceplair and Steven Englund, University of California Press 1979.

I also recommend it to our readers interested in the topic or indeed who just see the film.

Whatever its limitations Trumbo is a worthy addition to the films dealing with what became popularly known as ‘McCarthyism’. Intriguingly it offers a rather different slant on Woody Allen’s The Front (1976). And for a parallel story watch, [if you can], BBC Screen 2’s Fellow Traveller (1991).

2015 in the cinema

GIRLHOOD – my most viewed film of the year.

GIRLHOOD – my most viewed film of the year.

Here are the ten films, released in UK cinemas in 2015, that I enjoyed most or which made the most impression on me this year. I’ve placed them in alphabetical order:

Carol (UK-US-France 2015)

Girlhood (France 2014)

Mia Madre (Italy-France 2015)

OK Kanmani (India, Tamil 2015)

Phoenix (Germany 2014)

Piku (India, Hindi 2015)

Taxi Tehran (Iran 2015)

Theeb (Jordan 2015)

Timbuktu (Mauritania-France 2014)

West (Lagerfeuer, Germany 2013)

Because this is a list of ‘most enjoyed’, it’s obviously a list reflecting my taste. Although only one title was directed by a woman (Girlhood), four films could be described as female-centred melodramas, two as romance/family dramas, two as political ‘statements’ and just one as an ‘action narrative’ – and Theeb is an action adventure from a young boy’s perspective.

Half of the ten films above are  films that I have introduced, discussed or formally taught this year. Girlhood stands out as I saw it four times on four different cinema screens in the space of a year, as well as studying several scenes in detail. Each time I watched it I got something new from it. I also presented and discussed Ex Machina for students and it proved a good choice for a student event, provoking an interesting set of questions.

I don’t rank or ‘grade’ films since this seems a pointless exercise, based on a wide range of criteria that aren’t applicable to every film. There are several films that I missed which may well have appeared on my list. In my part of West Yorkshire we get most film releases but not all and I can only get to Manchester or Sheffield occasionally rather than all the time. I’m most sorry to have missed Alexei German’s Hard to be a God and several of the Polish classics in the touring season.

Even though more and more documentaries are released in cinemas each year, I tend to see only a handful. Amy has appeared in many end of year lists and I can understand why. For my own part, I need a documentary to offer three very different pleasures – an interesting subject, an aesthetic approach that works and a filmmaker whose viewpoint I can appreciate, even if I don’t agree with it. That’s a tall order and the nearest to meeting it this year was probably The Salt of the Earth.

I did watch some American films this year including Mad Max: Fury Road and Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2. I did enjoy both screenings, partly because of the public debates about the films and at the time I felt engaged by the debates – but the films themselves didn’t make a lasting impression. Spy proved to be good entertainment for a night out. But the best American films I saw tended to be archive films or restorations. Missouri Breaks surprised me and my love of Westerns is still there. Can I bring myself to spend three hours with Quentin Tarantino next month?

I only managed four festivals this year, all in the UK. Glasgow Film Festival was very enjoyable and most of the films I saw eventually got a UK release (except the Chinese films). I only made two films at Leeds and Crow’s Egg did get a very limited UK release (six screens) and perhaps should have been in my list of ten. ¡Viva! was in three parts this year and proved as fascinating as usual – but sadly Spanish and Latin American films rarely get a UK release. Travelling to Manchester to see these films, and often to listen to the directors, remains a surreal experience and the failure of UK film culture to properly embrace the films is a continual disappointment. Much the same can be said for the excellent films that turn up each year at the London Film Festival and rarely screen anywhere else in the UK. Thirst and Arianna were the two films that really stood out for me. What I’ve missed, most of all, is my local festival in Bradford. Will we ever get it back? It makes a mockery of Bradford’s title as the first ‘UNESCO City of Film’.

2015 has ended very badly for me. The triple whammy of Spectre, Hunger Games and Star Wars has driven out virtually every foreign language film (apart from Indian films) from UK cinema screens. It’s Christmas and I can’t find anything locally to go and see. Radio 4’s Film Programme on Christmas Eve was depressing with three guests giving each other DVDs of their pick of the year’s films as Christmas gifts. Predictably all were American. Only Francine Stock’s championing of Girlhood prevented me from switching off the programme. With the ‘awards season’ coming up and the prestige US pictures replacing the blockbusters, January also promises to be grim – but Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Assassin is due for a UK release. Even so, I think I’m going to be watching more DVDs in 2016.

Reviews in Sight and Sound


This prestigious magazine from the British Film Institute has suffered ravages in recent years. At one time there was the Monthly Film Bulletin which dealt with theatrical releases and S&S which addressed issues, theories and discussions. In the early 1990s they were amalgamated. Then, a few years back, the practice of providing complete production details was lost. More recently it seems that not every film that has a theatrical exhibition in the UK is covered. The magazine has added the video formats in a Home Cinema section [another oxymoron], but often at the expense of theatrical releases. I wrote expressing some concerns to the Letter Page:

I want express my concern at the increasing imbalance between reviews of films released into cinema and films made available in some video format. In the August edition we had a review of a new UK feature, The Legend of Barney Thompson. The review was only slightly longer than the plot synopsis and appeared to be shorter than every one of the Home Cinema reviews. A number of these referred to the techniques and style in their features: an aspect missing from the cinema release review. And quite a few of the Home Cinema reviews were of films already reviewed at an earlier date in S&S or the Monthly Film Bulletin.

Moreover the video reviews allow far more space for critical comment than they do for description on the technical aspects, such as the quality of the transfer. They also offered a minefield in terms of aspect ratios: 2.4:1, 1.85:1, 1.78:1, 16:9, 1.66:1, 1.33:1, and 4:3. But rarely did a review actually explain if this ratio matched the original release.

A similar fate to Legend befell the UK release North v South in the September issue. However, the treatment of aspect ratio has improved: a sound film is correctly given as 1.37:1. The disc information was fuller, but not uniformly so.

Given that S&S now relies heavily on the digital version and the library of previous editions, space could be saved by referencing original reviews in earlier issues. Then we could have proper reviews of features and adequate space for commenting on the actual disc quality of video releases.

The letter did not make it to the published October edition. Fair enough. However, the practices highlighted were still apparent. There were at least three films; from Australia, India and the USA; where the review was shorter than most of those in the Home Cinema section. There was a fourth theatrical release with no apparent country of origin. And the confusion over ratios continued . We had sound films listed as being in 1.33:1, though another was correctly given as 1.37:1. And then there were films released since the advent of widescreen film given as 16:9 – the European Television ratio.

Among the drawbacks of this approach is that it is just fuel to the mistaken view that watching films on video equates to seeing them at the cinema.

Distribution and Critics: How has reviewing changed since the 1960s?


Some time ago I acquired four copies of Monthly Film Bulletin (MFB) from 1969. MFB, published by the BFI, was incorporated into Sight and Sound (S&S) in May 1991. My own subscriptions to both MFB and S&S go back to 1971/2 and it is clear that both publications changed quite significantly at the start of the 1970s. Current digital subscribers can access archive copies of Sight & Sound and MFB going back to their origins in 1932 for an extra subscription fee.

This glimpse into the films reviewed in 1969 reveals several interesting changes in both distribution policies and critical attitudes. 1969 represents one of the last years in which the UK could still be described as a territory in which cinemagoing was a ‘mass media activity’ with 215 million admissions for the year. (In 1959 there had been 580 million and in 1949, 1.4 billion). The UK ‘studio system’ (Rank and ABPC/EMI) was on its last legs and the ‘inward investment’ of Hollywood money into the UK and elsewhere in Europe was beginning to dry up. Film studies was not yet established in UK universities but the first hints of a new generation of film scholars who would eventually challenge the rather cosy world of the 1950s/60s ‘critics circle’ were just beginning to appear. I want to try to explore what the most important changes might have been in both distribution and critical standpoints.

The number of titles

The first surprise is the relatively limited number of films released in the UK in 1969. MFB once prided itself on being a ‘journal of record’ – if a film was released in the UK it should be included in MFB. That hasn’t really been the case for several years now (e.g. most Indian and Turkish films released in the UK don’t appear in S&S) and in the July 2015 edition of S&S editor Nick James admits it is impossible to review everything. In 2014 there were 712 films released for a week or more in the UK and Republic of Ireland. In May this year in the UK there were between 15 and 20 films being released weekly. In four months in 1969 MFB reviewed a total of 160 films of which around 20 were ‘short films’ (fiction and non-fiction, including animations). MFB also published comprehensive listings of short films released, only some of which were in the reviews section. With only an average of 30 feature-length films released each month, 1969 saw fewer films on release than 2014 although there were more cinema sites and bigger audiences than in 2013:


Only a handful of cinemas had more than one screen in 1975 – but of course the average cinema auditorium was much bigger, often over 1,000 seats. Today the average screen has less than 400. (The  programme of ‘twinning’ and ‘tripling’ existing cinemas began in the UK in earnest in 1969 and surviving circuit cinemas were mainly converted in the 1970s.)

The sample

I looked through all the reviews for February, April, May and August 1969. I classified each film as ‘Foreign Language’ (noting dubbed and subtitled releases as two separate categories), Hollywood, UK, ‘Other English language releases’ and shorts. Here are the totals across the four months:

Foreign language (subtitles)    35
Foreign language (dubbed)      19
Hollywood                                   37
UK                                                 30
‘Other’ English language          18
‘Shorts’                                         21

I think there are some interesting figures here that need explaining. In 1969 the ‘American independent cinema’ we know now did not exist in the same form. The figures for ‘other English language films’ refer generally to American exploitation films (mainly horror) not distributed via a Hollywood major. But the figures also include several European films (mainly French-Italian co-productions) released in English language versions. These films were often relatively big budget films with European stars made sometimes with Hollywood studio support. They were effectively multiple language versions  and would be dubbed in the local language for release in the four big European markets (France, Italy, West Germany and Spain). There were no Australian or Canadian films in the sample (the Australian New Wave features came later in the 1970s). I haven’t analysed the shorts in detail but a significant number of these films were also foreign language productions. Overall, it is fair to say that nearly half of all the films reviewed were produced outside the UK or US.

I’m relieved that the figures confirm my personal memory of the number of dubbed films on release. In the sample these include thrillers, sex films, spaghetti Westerns, horror films etc. I was surprised to discover several subtitled films that were unknown to me. This was the period when Czech New Wave films were appearing in the UK alongside Swedish and Danish sex films (which were subtitled whereas German and Italian films were dubbed – perhaps reflecting the dubbing traditions of those countries?). This was also the period when auteurs such as Truffaut, Chabrol and Godard appeared alongside Buñuel and Miklós Jancsó.

It’s always difficult to distinguish between ‘British’ and ‘Hollywood’ films and the modern ‘UK/US’ identifier does not figure here so some films might be incorrectly included as ‘British’, but even so, there is evidence that what remained of the UK industry could still produce enough films to nearly match the Hollywood majors, at least in numbers of releases.


Critical practices

The most striking aspect of these 1969 reviews for me is the distinction between the long reviews in the first half of each MFB issue and the ‘shorter reviews’ in the second half. These shorter reviews are deemed to be less important and each is graded according to a dismissive set of criteria: ‘I’ Good (of its type); ‘II’ Average and ‘III’ Poor (these are the exact words used). The shorter reviews are not credited – allowing the reviewer to be as negative as they wish. The longer reviews are reserved for mainstream ‘quality films’ from the US/UK and auteur films. These are not graded in the reviews themselves but each month a selection of films is graded by a group of nine critics from the ‘quality press’ titles (including Sight & Sound). These films are not necessarily the same as those in the MFB reviews for that month since the latter will be reviewed in advance of the release and the former published in the week of release and then collated retrospectively. Even so, it is noticeable that this selection (around 20 titles) includes titles featured in both longer and shorter MFB reviews. The nine critics rate the films using 1 to 4 stars or with a large black dot to represent ‘critical antipathy’. Exactly the same process is still used by Screen International in its collation of critics’ views of the films in competition at Cannes each year. Something similar appears in UK newspapers, although not in so much detail. I’ve made reference to Sight & Sound here and I should point out that at this time (my earliest copy is Autumn 1971), S&S appeared quarterly and included several substantial reviews in each issue plus a single page of thumbnail reviews of around 34 titles, some given 1 to 4 stars.

The critics

Most of these reviews in MFB and Sight & Sound are by the same handful of distinguished film journalists – professional film critics such as David Wilson (MFB editor), Jan Dawson (MFB assistant editor), Penelope Houston (Sight & Sound editor), Tom Milne, Richard Roud etc. At this point, few of these writers were themselves film academics or had necessarily engaged directly with the kinds of theoretical work just beginning in some educational contexts – though there was already some tension between them and the new writers in a journal like Movie, begun by Oxford graduates in 1962 (see Victor Perkins’ comments in this tribute to Ian Cameron, Movie‘s prime instigator). The MFB reviewers were not all the same and new names were beginning to appear. The real changes would start just a few years later, especially when new recruits to BFI Publishing and other departments then began to write for the Institute’s publications. Part of the change in personnel would also be linked to the range of film titles covered.

The films

The 139 titles in 1969 referred to above had several glaring omissions when viewed from 2015. In the four issues sampled there are no films from Africa or the Middle East or Australia/NZ and only one from Latin America (Memories of Underdevelopment 1968, the first of several Cuban ‘New Cinema’ films to get a UK release). Besides a handful of Japanese art and exploitation films, the only Asian title is an Indian film by Tapan Sinha (Atithi/The Runaway, 1965). MFB does not give the language, but the director worked mainly in Bengali. European films are much more in evidence, including Czech and Polish as well as Swedish, Danish, German, Italian and, of course, French. One other oddity is that there are at least a couple of American ‘made for TV’ films given a UK cinema release. This practice carried on for several years into the 1970s when Steven Spielberg’s Duel (1972) and Michael Mann’s The Jericho Mile (1980) got UK cinema releases despite being shown only on US television.

Overall it is clear from the distinction of long/short reviews that MFB’s editor felt more comfortable dealing with well-known auteurs or other directors connected to a ‘new wave’ already validated such as the Czech New Wave in 1969. BFI members and UK cinemagoers generally would have to wait a few years for exploitation films and popular genre pictures to be treated as worthwhile subjects for discussion. To give just a couple of examples, Mario Bava’s Diabolik is given a short review and graded ‘III’ (presumably as a dubbed film it was instantly relegated in this way). The UK comedy Till Death Us Do Part, an early entrant in the cycle of TV comedy spin-offs which kept British film studios working during the 1970s, was similarly dismissed (Category ‘II’) but the children’s epic Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was given a long review. I haven’t seen either film but I believe both were popular with audiences and I suspect a certain kind of snobbery was involved in treating them differently. There is also some slippage in defining ‘short films’. Luis Buñuel’s Simon of the Desert and Orson Welles’ The Immortal Story are respectively 45 and 60 minutes long. They went out together as a double bill in 1969 and are given separate ‘long reviews’. Chris Marker’s Cuba Si! is a 55 minute ‘personal documentary’ and is reviewed (unsigned) as a Non-fiction/Short Film. Yet Marker was also a celebrated auteur – but presumably not as much in favour as the other two.


What does this mini-research study tell us? It does reveal the extent of dubbing in 1969 in the UK cinema market. Dubbing has remained important across the FIGS (France, Italy, Germany, Spain) countries but has virtually disappeared in the UK. Without it, European films in the UK get less exposure. The overall balance of UK/Hollywood/Europe that existed in 1969 has now gone but on the positive side we do now get a wide range of (mostly) subtitled South Asian films plus films from Latin America, East Asia and occasionally Africa. Shorts have disappeared from mainstream reviewing and programming.

Film reviewing has become more ‘democratic’ and less narrowly focused. Academic film studies has informed reviewers who now have a wider perspective on global cinema. Whether the reviews are now ‘better’ – better written, more entertaining, better informed – is a different question. It could be argued that the film exhibition sector in the UK now has a much wider range of venues and a much wider range of films on offer. In reality, however, the choice for most cinemagoers, especially outside London and a handful of big cities, is much more limited. The 2015 offer seems to me both more ‘bland’ in the mainstream and more ‘niche’ for the arthouse/specialised sector. Many people who want to watch films will find what they want online or on DVD rather than in cinemas. The UK exhibition has been relatively static in terms of admissions for several years now (despite a significant increase in the population over the last ten years). 2015 looks like pushing admissions up from last year’s 157.5 million but probably not over the 175.9 million of 2002, the highest total of recent years.

I hope that this will the first of several mini case studies of UK exhibition and distribution. What this sample wasn’t able to show is how admissions in 1969 were spread across all titles screened. My hypothesis is that in the 1960s, because films were released to two distinct ‘circuits’ (Odeon and ABC), each mainstream release received more or less the same promotion and that there was a much smaller gap between the most popular and least popular release in terms of admissions.