Review – The Riot Club

2014, 107 mins, 15, Dir. Lone Scherfig, starring Sam Claflin, Max Irons and Douglas Booth

The Riot Club
The Riot Club

The upper classes and their foibles have had a peculiar endurance though much of world cinema history. In La Regle du jeu (1939), Jean Renoir’s country-house gentry were potent allegories for the moral corruption of pre-WW2 French society; in turn many of Hitchcock’s characters were frustrated rich Americans with polished accents. There is something inexplicably fascinating in observing these financially empowered people and how they live, perhaps especially so when they behave in a way that is mortally, abominably offensive.

Lone Scherfig’s new film The Riot Club understands this fact. Drawing from the 2010 play Posh by Laura Wade, who also writes the screenplay, it depicts members of a fictionalised version of the Bullingdon Club, an infamous society at Oxford University known for its exclusive membership policy and drunken, ostentatious dinners. We quickly become acquainted with the ten impeccably-dressed members of the Riot Club, including two newly-inducted first-years, as they trash each other’s rooms and race around town in expensive cars. They use their parents’ money in profligate and unseemly ways and seem to have their futures planned out for them, as symbolised by Tom Hollander’s Jeremy, a Machiavellian MP. The club is not just for Oxford, Jeremy tells the boys, it is for life, as the political connections it offers can prove supremely useful to get out of any difficulties.

The film actually commences around the Georgian era, where we see a gloriously wigged Oxford don (hilariously referred to as that immortal student noun, ‘legend’) engaging in wild sexual acts worthy of A Rake’s Progress. He is stabbed by the unfortunate husband of one of his wenches, leading to the inauguration by his friends of the tradition-bound institution of the film’s title. These historical scenes only further underline the debauched behaviour of the modern-day club members; their elaborate drinking rituals, alcoholic snobbery and financial waste are as archaic as they are arcane. Scherfig assembles a sterling male cast that, combined with the consistently profane script, portray with great invention the views and traits of these characters. In particular, Sam Claflin proves deceptively destructive as Alistair Ryle, the first-year whose violent right-wing politics threaten to induce actual violence. Also impressive is Holliday Grainger as Lauren, the unpretentious Mancunian student who is caught up in the snobbish, machismo-heavy atmosphere of the richer male students.

This seems rather familiar...
This seems rather familiar…
...Ah yes. This.
…ah yes. This.

The central set-piece is an agonisingly long dinner at a local pub, a scene of heavy drinking and rampant class and sexual tensions. It is here that the problems of the film begin to emerge. For all its filming on Oxford rooftops and in country mansions, The Riot Club never quite escapes its stage origins. The dinner scene, confined mostly to a single room, is arguably stretched to excess in terms of actual running time, its cinematic impact diminished. Moreover the behaviour of the Riot Club members seems, ironically, very exaggerated. Sam Claflin’s astonishing line ‘I’m sick to f—ing death of poor people!’ seems absurd even when his character is intoxicated; the final act of stupendous masculine violence, following attempted prostitution and cocaine usage, is equally inconceivable through lack of real precedent. The film is of course an obviously fictional work in which excess is part of the overall effect. Yet if it tries to portray a class that does exist in England, it must surely do so accurately. When the Oxford admissions department continues earnestly to disassociate itself from ideas of wealth and privilege, and a national press often misunderstands the Oxbridge student experience, one can’t help thinking that a subtler take on the story could have been assumed with wholly greater success.

The Riot Club is very well acted by a superb cast of young performers and portrays Oxford in all its Medieval splendour. Yet it is mired in both its stage origins and its own self-conscious shock value, which troubles attempts at plausibility and empathy.

6/10

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Hitchcock Season: The Lodger

I surprised even myself when it took me ten days to finally get over to the BFI Southbank for their Hitchcock retrospective. The reason for this unprecedented delay? Why, the Olympics! The excitement of a sporting event that won’t be repeated in the host city for many years to come kept me away from even the most inviting of cinema screenings. Yet I gave in eventually; The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog was my choice of film, a 1927 silent Hitchcock with a new score by British-Indian composer Nitin Sawhney.

I was keen on seeing one of Hitchcock’s early works as he often remarked that the visual aspect of a motion picture was by far the most important; he didn’t immediately embrace the arrival of talking pictures. Of course, many of his later films would come to be regarded as masterpieces, but it was very interesting to trace many of Hitchcock’s motifs – the ‘wrong man’, and a strange fascination with blondes – back to The Lodger, which features both a man (innocent?) suspected of a murder and a fair-haired female as a protagonist.

The film opens with a dead body – well, no surprise there. We learn that a tall, mysterious man with a scarf covering the lower half of his face has been murdering blondes, one every week. This is where Hitchcock’s delicious black humour first comes into play, and an old female witness is terrified by the sight of a member of the crowd imitating the villain. Later on, a stranger with an ominous shadow emerges from the fog into the doorway of a London house, and points at a sign saying ‘Room to Let’. He conceals half of his face. He makes an effort to remove the pictures of blonde women that adorn the walls of his living space, and through his elusive behaviour suspicions begin to rise among the occupants of the house. Could this man be the feared murderer, and if so, could he strike next at the young lady who lives downstairs?

Ivor Novello as the mysterious Lodger.

As with all silent films, The Lodger is a very visual experience. The unsettling, sepia-toned sight of the stranger waiting at the door cannot be forgotten. The influence of German Expressionism is also witnessed in Hitchcock’s lighting and camera tricks, particularly in the shot when the lower ceiling of the house becomes transparent, and we glimpse the feet of the lodger pacing up and down the room above. It is clear from viewing the film that Hitchcock established his visual mastery early on, although it would be another 30 years before Vertigo, perhaps his boldest cinematic move, would be released.

The new score is decidedly hit-and-miss. While in most places it succeeds in propelling the story along with a nice modern twist, there are a few moments of weird incongruity. One part of the soundtrack includes some slightly cheesy lyrics being sung that accompany the images onscreen. I’m not a seasoned soundtrack listener, but it was definitely a distracting moment, and my friend and I shared a look of disbelief upon hearing the first lyric. I would have also liked more of a musical crescendo when we first meet the lodger, although that may be seen as clichéd. It’s a flawed score, but one that, for the most part, encourages you to stay with the film.

The Lodger isn’t a ‘great’ Hitchcock film. It’s inspiring, and should definitely be seen in comparison with his famed Hollywood productions, although it doesn’t quite reach the suspenseful heights that those productions achieve. It undoubtedly has some standalone moments, though; the night walk of our murderer-or-not is supremely tense, as is his onscreen introduction. As a silent film, it’s easy to look at the expressionistic faces of the actors as dated, but the creepiness of Ivor Novello’s performance as the titular character helps The Lodger to succeed as an early example of Hitchcock’s fixation with crime and morality.

 

Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge

My first full day in San Francisco was partially spent marvelling at the steep gradients of the hills. They are as jaw-droppingly large as the tourist images suggest and totally add to the unique brilliance of the city. I would later explore these angular roads via the iconic cable car, but before then I hopped on a ferry to take a tour round America’s most notorious high-security prison, a practically inescapable place surrounded by icy water and fast-moving currents: Alcatraz. We journeyed there in the evening, when it was covered with an ominous layer of fog:

Alcatraz Island

Upon our arrival we learned that Alcatraz had been selected and preserved as a US National Park; after all, there was so much history that lay inside its walls. Al Capone had served a four-year term on the island not long after his conviction for income tax evasion. The events of June 1962, in which three prisoners escaped to the bay after undertaking a very elaborate escape plan, are still widely discussed to this day. It is not known if these three prisoners survived or drowned and there are various theories for what actually happened (the events were dramatised in Don Siegel’s excellent Escape From Alcatraz starring Clint Eastwood).

The cell of Frank Morris – one of the prisoners who tunneled out of the moisture-damaged wall. Note the paper maché head that was used to distract the guards.

The prison itself is very atmospheric. You walk through the rows of cells as voices of guards and prisoners from the fantastic audio tour tell you about what it was like to live there fifty years ago. Tales of boredom, violence, escape attempts and solitary confinement emanate from behind the bars. You really have to go there and experience it for yourself; the myths still appear in popular culture, most recently in a short-lived eponymous television show airing on Fox.

A row of cells at Alcatraz Federal Prison

A number of films have also been shot at Alcatraz which no doubt appealed to me. Perhaps the most famous is Michael Bay’s The Rock (starring Sean Connery), probably his most critically successful film. Aside from Escape from Alcatraz, Clint Eastwood also went to the rock for The Enforcer, the surprisingly good third entry into the Dirty Harry series. On the arthouse side, John Boorman’s stellar Point Blank, a pioneering film in terms of its editing, was partially shot on Alcatraz, the first film to do so after its closure in 1963. I’m pretty sure this is one place where Boorman stuck his camera, the outside recreation area:

‘I want my 93,000!’ – Walker, Point Blank (1967)

Both before and after walking in the footsteps of some of the most violent and dangerous criminals, I visited the Golden Gate Bridge. We had driven across it when it was absolutely engulfed by an even thicker layer of fog, and when visiting it from beneath it hadn’t changed much. However, it wasn’t necessarily a disappointment; I was able to get a clearer picture the next day, and the mist added to the atmosphere of another movie location, the place of Kim Novak’s suicide leap in one of my favourite films, Vertigo.

The Golden Gate Bridge

The bridge itself is a stunning work of engineering. Since its opening in April 1937, it continues to be undamaged by earthquakes, and a team of hundreds work on it every day, painting it in the colour of international orange amongst other jobs. Just beneath the bridge is Fort Point, the military base that was intended to prevent an invasion should there be one (which there wasn’t). A great exhibition was on at the base celebrating 75 years of the bridge, but I was happy enough to just take a picture, as Fort Point was another location in Point Blank.

Fort Point

I’ve been travelling all over the place in the past few days and only spent a few days in San Francisco so I haven’t been able to blog every day. Tomorrow I’m off to the Grand Canyon, but who knows what will appear on this website next! I have no idea. See you then, anyway.

News – Alfred Hitchcock Retrospective

This is the first time I’ve done anything on this blog in the way of film news, not just because I don’t quite have enough time, but also because there are several dozen other places where you can read about every upcoming production, every cinematic hint, every update on directors with relative ease. However, the most recent development by the BFI in terms of film programming filled me with indescribable excitement, and I just had to write something brief about it.

This summer, to perhaps tie in with the Olympics season and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, the BFI Southbank (or, National Film Theatre) will show all of Alfred Hitchcock’s surviving films in a retrospective the scale of which has never yet before been seen at the repertory cinema. That’s right, all 58 films that are available, from the newly restored The Pleasure Garden to his final feature, Family Plot, will be shown over a period between August and October, while some of his earlier silent films will also be shown across the country with live scores.

The Pleasure Garden - Hitchcock's first film, newly restored.

The BFI will be ‘celebrating the genius of a man who, it said, was as important to modern cinema as Picasso to modern art or Le Corbusier to modern architecture. Heather Stewart, the BFI’s creative director, said: “The idea of popular cinema somehow being capable of being great art at the same time as being entertaining is still a problem for some people. Shakespeare is on the national curriculum, Hitchcock is not.“‘

Psycho - a compelling cinematic experience.

For me, this is an astonishing move. I was brought up on Hitchcock movies and they were among my first introduction to what might be called ‘classic cinema’. My mother showed me all his most iconic features and even took me to see North by Northwest at the NFT, my first trip to that brilliant cinema which continues to shape my film choices to this day. As I’ll (hopefully) be a BFI member by August, I will go and see as many Hitchcock movies as I can. That’s right, morning, afternoon and evening, I’ll be there, sitting in one of the three screens, helping to celebrate one of the greatest and most influential filmmakers that ever lived. And this blog will be home to my excited self, reviewing every film I see and complaining about my subsequent lack of bank balance. I hope you’ll look forward to it.

'Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.' - Alfred Hitchcock

Reviews – Hugo 3D and Melancholia

Over the past two days I have seen two films in two different cinemas in Leicester Square. One was the highly-praised children’s film Hugo which was sadly put on relatively limited release in the USA. The other was Lars Von Trier’s latest, Melancholia. The latter I saw at the rather excellent Prince Charles, the West End’s only independent cinema. Like the movie double-bills it is famous for, I present to you a double-bill of reviews: of Hugo and Melancholia.

Review – Hugo 3D

2011, 126 mins, U – Dir. Martin Scorsese; starring Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Asa Butterfield, Chloë Grace Moretz

Hugo

When it was announced that Brian Selznick’s historical fiction novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret (which relied as much on its numerous cinematic drawings as its text), was going to be made into a film, it seemed quite obvious that Martin Scorsese should be the man for the job. A cinema auteur and the inspiration for thousands of filmmakers, Scorsese was passionate about the novel which is a heartfelt ode to the early days of silent cinema. Hugo is his first U-rated film in eighteen years, as well as his first foray into the overused 3D format. Although many were skeptical about the great director utilising this, Scorsese treats 3D as an art form, not just a money-maker, and Hugo is an utter delight to watch on the big screen.

Events unfold in the Gare Montparnasse railway station in Paris in the 1930s. A young boy, Hugo Cabret, lives within the walls of the station. Every morning he winds up the clocks and avoids the station inspector who believes it is his late, “inebriated” uncle doing the job. Hugo manages to steal food and supplies from several shops and is eventually led to a small toy booth run by a certain old man. Gradually Hugo begins to unfold the mystery that involves this senior citizen (whose name is Georges Méliès), his deceased father and a rusted automaton that sits in his flat, waiting for the right part that will enable it to write out a message.

It was often commented by Alfred Hitchcock that the visual aspect of a film was by far the most important, and that “dialogue should simply be a sound among other sounds”. Hitchcock indeed started his career making silent films (The Lodger is perhaps his most famous) and Scorsese has worked very hard in order to make Hugo as visually breathtaking as the movies of that era. The film begins with a wonderful opening shot which swoops down from the snowy Parisian sky into the busy railway station platform; soon enough, Hugo is chased through the station and ends up dangling from the minute hand of a giant outside clock, echoing Harold Lloyd’s magnificent 1923 film Safety Last. It’s hard to tear your eyes away from the film’s beauty – the setting is, after all, quite magical.

Sacha Baron Cohen is an absolute hoot as the station inspector; clad in bright blue uniform, his injured leg supported by an awkward mechanism, he runs through the station with extreme difficulty, his every movement inducing laughter from the audience. The young actors Asa Butterfield and Chloë Moretz perform extremely well under Scorsese’s careful eye and Ben Kingsley gives a very emotional performance as Georges Méliès, the inspirational yet troubled filmmakerThe great Christopher Lee, 89 years old and still acting, makes an appearance alongside Jude Law, Richard Griffiths and many others. 

Hugo stays refreshingly faithful to Selznick’s novel and a great number of shots in the movie are near-identical to the pencil drawings found in the book. More importantly, though, the adaptation contains the same enthusiasm and affection for the subject matter as its source material. The issue of forgotten silent films is treated with the utmost care and admiration. Although it is marketed as a children’s film, Hugo has a lot more for adults, a sensitive look at the movies that excited those in the 1900s to the 1920s, a further display of Scorsese’s virtuosity and versatility. The scenes with the automaton hark back to the days when machinery, clockwork and invention was far more wondrous.

Is it the best use of 3D so far? It could be. Will other masterful filmmakers look at this film and contemplate switching to two lenses after Scorsese, Spielberg and Cameron? Only time will tell. One thing’s for sure, though: that Hugo is one of the most honest, insightful and entertaining films of 2011 – it’s just a shame it hasn’t made more money.

5 stars out of 5

Review – Melancholia

2011, 136 mins, 15 – Dir. Lars Von Trier; starring Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, John Hurt

Warning – contains spoilers

Melancholia

Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia has a superb opening and a superb ending. What happens for nearly two hours in between, however, is thoroughly disappointing and makes me want to commit as few words as possible to this review. It commences with a montage of slow-motion shots culminating in an impressive piece of CGI in which the earth is engulfed by a strange blue planet. We then transition to a few days prior to this, where Justine (Dunst) is late to her wedding reception. The reception itself takes up a huge chunk of the film and is shot almost entirely with dizzying handheld cameras. The second part involves the lead-up to the collision between the blue planet, Melancholia, and earth. While Von Trier engages in lacklustre self-indulgence, little thought is given to the actual audience as the disorientating camerawork and dull pace distracts from what is actually a very decent concept. It does have strokes of genius here and there, particularly in the disquieting music, but as a whole the film is overlong and frequently uninteresting. Dunst gives a good but vague performance and is rarely believable as a character. The ending, in which the earth is destroyed, is practically a relief.

It’s arthouse. It’s Lars Von Trier. But all in all, Melancholia feels utterly meaningless.

2 stars out of 5