Archive for the ‘Biopic’ Category

Ithaka (2021)

Dir.: Ben Lawrence; Documentary with John Shipton, Stella Moris, Ai Weiwei, Vivienne Westwood, John Pilger, Nils Melzer; Australia/UK 2021, 104 min.

The contraversial WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange (*1971) is the subject of this new documentary that takes the first lines of the titular 1911 poem by Greek writer Constantine Cavafy as its motto: As you set out for Ithaca /hope that your journey is a long one/full of adventure, full of discovery”.

Assange could not have asked for more: his discoveries are the stuff of nightmares, and the revenge of the governments he exposed has landed him in Britain’s High Security prison Belmarsh where he has languished for the last three years, actually managing to marry while in captivity: quite a feat for most people, particularly those accused of rape. Anyone who saw Laura Poitras’ hagiographic biopic Risk (2016/7) will have made up their minds about Assange’s persuasive powers where women are concerned, but Lawrence casts no judgement here, keeping his distance. An extradition order from the USA is pending, with British home secretary Priti Patel only too willing to oblige.

We meet Assange’s wife, the lawyer Stella Moris, at the unveiling of a statue of her husband in Geneva in November 2021. “I am here to remind you that Julian isn’t a name, he isn’t a symbol, he is a man and he is suffering”.

The couple have two young children, both conceived at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where Assange stayed between 2012 and 2019. There is CCTV footage from the embassy, showing Assange and Moris, the former skate-boarding in his room. A guard warned Moris that the footage was to be sent to the US secret service every fortnight – Moris stopped visiting Assange. She also learned there were plans to poison her husband. The UN Special Rapporteur for Torture, Nils Melzer said “Torture is a tool used as a warning to others. It’s most effective when inflicted in public. In Julian’s case it’s about intimidating everyone else”. In this particular case it was Chelsea Manning, ex-US officer, who blew the whistle on Afghan war crimes by the US Army, and went to prison, to avoid talking about Assange’s part in the operation after she found out that Assange was depressed, and suffered a ‘mini’ stroke in Belmarsh Prison.

The time at the embassy coincides more or less with the Swedish Justice system accusing Assange of sexual assault, a charge bought forward by two Swedish women in 2010. In 2019 the case was dismissed, due to the long intervening period since the original accusation.

Besides Moris, Assange’s main defender is his father John Shipton (76), who travels the world in search of a positive solution to the case, neglecting his own five-year old daughter in Australia. John stepped out of Julian’s live when he letter was three, but re-entered when John was in his early twenties. John is tired, so much time is lost for him and his daughter Severine. He likens Lawrence to “Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor”. “He keeps burrowing away”.

On January 10th 2022, the UK High Court ruled Assange could be extradited to the USA, overturning a Lower Court ruling from 2021. On March 3rd of this year, the High Court refused Assange permission to appeal. On June 17th 2022 Priti Patel, UK Home Secretary, approved the extradition order. Two weeks later Assange and his team appealed against the extradition order. The war in the Ukraine has led to strong statements in the western media. It is perhaps helpful to remember that one of the WikiLeaks posted on 12.7.2007 concerned the killing of journalist Namir Noor-Eidsen and Saeed Chmagh, who were shot dead from the air by a US helicopter.

A strong score by Brian Eno helps to round off this passionate plea for a man who, according to Melzer, “never wanted to be in the spotlight”. AS

ON GENERAL RELEASE FROM 8 July 2022

1341 Frames of Love and War (2022) Berlinale 2022

Dir: Ran Tal | Israel, Doc 82′

The career of renownd Israeli photo reporter Micha Bar-Am (1930-) is the subject of this new documentary from Ran Tal who makes use of the copious archive material, cleverly counterposing images of love and war as the film title expressively suggests.

Stark and staggeringly powerful in its simplicity each frame tells a story for Micha Bar-Am who admits (in voiceover): “not everything is worth remembering, sometimes you have to forget and move on”. As Micha takes us through 1341 iconic photos that form the bulk of his life’s work, his wife Orna, the assiduous curator of his archive, or one of his sons chips with comments or questions, and inevitably voices are often raised. Micha explains how as a young man it felt entirely natural just to grab a camera, some clothes and a rucksack and set off to capture Israel in 1960s and 1970s. after arriving there as a small boy of six.

A native German speaker Micha Bar Am spent his early childhood in Berlin under the name of Michael Anguli, and later moved to Israel. His family were never close or emotionally expressive, but he was happy to be there with them and Israel soon became his natural home, as it is for all Jews from the Diaspora: “I never felt like an immigrant and wanted a Hebrew name”. So soon he became a Zionist and took the name he still has today. After 20 years of reportage in Israel Micha returned to Germany where he became ‘an emissary at a dramatic point in time for the nation’ taking part in some scientific projects for the government.

Away from Israel his images took on a freer dimension, “the reality wasn’t so intense” – a swan in a park, people enjoying a picnic or a trip to the mountains, or a kibbutz`. Back in Israel his photos were more serious: a fire engulfing an office building in Tel Aviv; IDF soldiers guarding a checkpoint. One of his first photography awards proved that success can come out of someone else’s tragedy. The still showed army officers holding up a little girl who had been kidnapped and drowned in the river by her neighbour.

He would go on to document the history of Israel with his camera, including Adolf Eichmann’s trial in 1961, The Six-Day War in 1967, the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and the massacre of Sabra and Shatila in 1982. The 1967 war had given him a chance to cut his teeth at combat photography yet these images are accompanied by a light-hearted folk song about Rabin and Nasser. The Yom Kippur War also gets its moment with the terrible symmetry of the bodies of POWs bound and gagged and thrown into a ditch. Although he was not proud of these images, he knew it was his duty to record them: “you seek out danger to feel alive”. Another image shows a brief moment of triumph when an Israeli flag waved for five minutes in history over the Dome of the Rock; another sees a soldier wearing a string of bullets just like a prayer shawl that, on later reflection, seemed to represent religion and power, Micha grew to hate the image, along with one picturing desperate refugees carrying their suitcases away from their homeland.

These carry the same emotional freight as the birth of his son Barak in 1967, Orna is seen during labour (with baby Barak) and these intimate pictures were the first of their kind to published in a newspaper in Israel. The scenes are accompanied by cries and a heartbeat. Barak later complains of his embarrassment when the images were shown on television. But Micha was intensely happy at creating life, rather than capturing war or death in his lens. In stark contrast, the ‘bananas’ crater moment’ was a low point for him. The tortured images of ambushed PLO fighters lying dead in the road, made him feel ashamed: “it’s an ugly sight….of the hunters and the prey”. 

Lighter but no less meaningful shots picture Marlene Dietrich in a cafe in Tel Aviv’s Dizengof Street, and a high school trip across the mountains where Micha expressed his love for his new girlfriend Orna “by carrying things”. But behind the scenes, son Barak regrets the lack of family life when growing up, recalling how his father was often irritable rather than warm or emotional – his parents lived for their work and never had a family holiday, “you raised children incidentally as you rushed along”. A sentiment that most creative people will be familiar with. Orna complains that her husband never stopped taking photos even when he came home: “I tried to salvage the family-focused footage from the work-orientated stock, but eventually gave up”. But whether documenting family life or the horrors of conflict, Israel is always in the background, a land without peace. MT

1341 FRAMES OF LOVE AND WAR is supported by yesDOCU.

SCREENING DURING BERLINALE 2022

The Souvenir: Part II

Dir/Wri: Joanna Hogg | Cast; Honor Swinton Byrne, Tilda Swinton, James Spencer Ashworth, Richard Ayoade | UK Drama

Joanna Hogg continues the impressionistic reflection on her twenties in The Souvenir Part II that sees her coming to terms with the abusive relationship that ended in tragedy for her boyfriend, Anthony (an archly sardonic Tom Burke) the first part.

There’s a strong feeling that Julie (Swinton Byrne) invested far more in the relationship than did Anthony. Somehow his caddish manner, pinstriped suit and ‘foreign office’ job made her believe he was worthy of consideration, love even; yet behind it all he was a fantasist and a drug addict who undermined her (“you’re lost and you’ll always be lost”) and stole from her to fund his habit. Hogg brilliantly epitomises this kind of fucked up weirdness of the 1980s that many repressed middle class girls still tolerated in the name of love, and the decent straightforwardness of her comforting parents (Tilda Swinton and James Spencer Ashworth) who provide a welcome sense of equilibrium that kept her going off the rails. But Julie resolves to go back to her London flat where the ‘love story’ forms the more authentic ‘autobiographical’ narrative for her graduation film, after the bogus script about poverty stricken Sunderland is vehemently rejected by her tutors.

Anthony remains the glowering elephant in the room, her colleagues, friends and family tiptoeing around the issue, not wanting to offend Julie who continues to elevate his memory with a solemn respect when secretly he was despised by everyone else accept his long-suffering parents, who gradually fade into the background. At one point Julie tentatively asks her flighty filmmaker friend Patrick (a standout Ayoade): “do you think Anthony worked for the Foreign Office?” He firmly bursts her bubble with: “he was a junkie – move forward”.

Still processing her feelings of grief Julie understandably lacks the conviction to take charge and direct her cast and crew with the confidence they desperately need, and Hogg deftly handles the ‘film in a film’ structure with its scenes of naturalistic on-set mayhem between all of them. Ably supported by her real life mother (Swinton), Honor Swinton Byrne glides through her performance with decorum avoiding histrionics yet imbuing Julie with all the pent up anxiety and hurt her upbringing has forced her to internalise. MT

THE SOUVENIR II IS IN CINEMAS NATIONWIDE FROM 4 FEBRUARY 2022

 

 

England, My England (1995)

Dir.: Tony Palmer; Cast: Simon Callow, Michael Ball, Rebecca Front, Lucy Speed, Nina Young, Robert Stephens, Corin Redgrave, Guy Henry; UK 1995, 158 min.

Director Tony Palmer, excelling in portraits of composers like Shostakovich (Testimony), turns his talents to England’s foremost Baroque composer Henry ‘Harry’ Purcell (1659-1695) with a script by  This is no mean feat as Purcell was a reclusive character – and little is known of his origins. But he was a prolific composer, and conductor Sir John Eliot Gardener certainly does his music despite his verging on the pedantic.

The narrative works on two levels touching on Purcell’s involvement with Charles II (Callow) and Mary II (Front) of Purcell (Ball) and the subsequent monarchs James II (Henry) and William III (Redgrave), Callow doubles up with girlfriend Barbara (Speed who also acts the part of Neil Gwyn) in London anno 1960, to produce and direct G.B. Shaw’s “Good King Charles’s Golden Days” at the Royal Court Theatre. John Osborne, who died before the film premiered, turns his venom on the “Little Englanders” – bankers and merchants – in the more contemporary sequences. One of the settings is the same dressing room Osborne when he was a ‘mere’ actor, before “Look back in Anger” fame.

In England of the mind 1660s, freedom of speech was also an explosive topic, as it would continue to be three hundred years later. The first poet Laureate John Dryden (Stephens) has a word or two to say about while the bubonic plague ravished London, before the great fire destroyed most of the city. The later scenes were actually shot in Bulgaria, as part of the first Anglo-Bulgarian co-production.

Purcell’s life, as far as we know of it, was full of tragedy: his wife Frances (Young) was a prolific breeder before she succumbed to small pox, Henry went to an early grave with tuberculosis – other reports suggesting something more sinister.

But the music dominates, and Dido’s lament from ‘When I am laid in earth’ from Purcell’s opera “Dido and Aeneas” is deeply affecting.

Had Tony Palmer, now eighty years old and with 65 directional credits between him, been born in France, he would be famous and probably quite wealthy. His knowledge of history, music and the arts is encyclopaedic. Most of his features (he assisted Ken Russell in the latters early music portraits like Elgar for BBC2), have a striking visual tone, in this case provided by DoP Nic Knowland, who contra-points the 1660 with the decades of the mid-19th century in stunning fashion. The script has so many ideas, comparing and contrasting historical themes, forming a rounded treatise on culture and politics, like many of Palmer’s works about England and the English. Alas, as the saying goes, the prophet in his own land…AS

AVAILABLE ON DVD

The Hustler (1961) Prime

Dir: Robert Rossen | Cast: Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason, Piper Laurie, George C Scott | US Drama 134’

Like Rita Moreno, who was in the original West Side Story, Piper Laurie is now ninety. Since the recent remake of the former underperformed at the box office it’s unlikely to elbow aside the competition the way the original did sixty years ago.

But even then The Hustler collected Academy Awards for the photography of Eugen Schuften and design by Harry Horner, which demonstrated that Americans could use black & white and widescreen with the same intimacy and grace as the Japanese; the pool table lending itself well to CinemaScope, prompting Andrew Tudor to declare that it “remains an object lesson in framing and lighting the wide CinemaScope image”.

The film is also employs a cool score by Kenyon Hopkins and sleek editing by Dede Allen, concentrating for the most part on the actors’ faces rather than the balls; but which includes the participants actually wielding their cues enough times for you to feel you’re watching real games being played. @RichardChatten

NOW ON AMAZON PRIME

The Real Charlie Chaplin (2021)

Dir.: Peter Middleton, James Spinney; Documentary narrated by Pearl Mackie; UK 2021, 114 min.

Writers/directors Peter Middleton and James Spinney (Notes on Blindness) have tried with co-writer Oliver Kindeberg to explain the dualism between Chaplin’s professional and personal identity without the use of “talking heads”. A great idea but a flawed one – as it turns out – what we get instead is Pearl Mackie’s incoherent narration (Pearl Mackie) that takes the form of a “flow of consciousness” over-didactic commentary, without any inner artistic logic. The directors have also taken on more than they can chew. How do you do justice to an icon like Chaplin in under two hours? – his life deserves a mini-series. Middleton and Spinney do their best but the time factor makes mistakes unavoidable.

It begins in 1916, the first height of Chaplinmania. Across the US a hunt for the real Chaplin is on, whilst Chaplin-look-alike contests are very popular. The idol itself, Charles Spencer Chaplin was born in London in 1889, his drunken father soon made a runner, and Charlie had to witness his mother succumb to mental illness. The room in Kennington was re-created later in The Kid. A female voice tells us that the woman – played by an actor in one of many re-enactments -, is Effie Wisdom, who in an interview in 1983 – she was 92 years old at the time – talks about the late 19th century, when she used to play with Chaplin in the alleys, the latter promising to never forget her.

Chaplin joined Fred Karno’s comedy troupe, who later toured the US. Chaplin was a man of the Vaudeville theatre and considered film work beneath his aspirations – until the producers trebled his salary. In a 1966 “Life Magazine” interview he explains the haphazard creation of the ‘Tramp’ personality in February 1914: discarded costume parts of his own, the boots of a college and Fatty Arbuckle’s pants. But behind the camera Chaplin left nothing to chance. In City Lights he drove everyone mad with a 534 days long chase for the perfect pivotal take. Extended clips from The Kid, Gold Rush and Modern Times lead to The Great Dictator, when Charlie finally talks. Chaplin’s sad 1952 expulsion from the USA, J Edgar Hoover and Hedda Hopper combining, is not given enough space, the documentary comes to life again in the Swiss exile, with interviews with the children Chaplin sired with Oona O’Neill, who was seventeen when she met the 52-year old – a rather common age gap for Chaplin’s relationships with women. Jane and Geraldine speak of the loneliness their mother must have suffered, because their father was cool and distant. “I imagine it would be lonely being the wife of Charlie Chaplin”.

All the so-called revelations about Chaplin’s personal life were known during his life time, leaving the re-enactments of his work as director/writer/composer/editor as the most enjoyable elements. Paul Ryan is Chaplin age 58, Jeff Rawle portraits the 77-year old maestro. DoP James Blann finds just the right aesthetic for the dramatisations, whilst composer Robert Honstein’s aggressive score underlines the directors’ gutsy approach for a “kaleidoscopic documentary collage”, which is another way of admitting to a lack of structure. Still, there is so much archive material, new and old, that everyone will find something to enjoy. AS

ON RELEASE IN UK and IRELAND FROM FRIDAY, 18 FEBRUARY 2022

The Danish Collector: From Delacroix to Gauguin (2021)

Dir: David Bickerstaff | UK ART Doc

A private collection of modern art including works from Delacroix, Monet and Gauguin forms the subject of this latest documentary from David Bickerstaff, best known for bringing international art exhibitions to the big screen.

The Danish Collector: From Delacroix to Gauguin shows how a self made man and his savvy wife saved a treasure trove of priceless paintings from the ravages of war in Europe by transferring them to neutral Denmark.

Wilhelm Peter Henning Hansen (1868-1934) rose from modest beginnings to amass a fortune from the insurance business. At the age of 25 he bought his first painting, Monet’s ‘Waterloo Bridge’ (1903) exploring changing light and fog in the haze of industrial development, and by 1912 Hansen’s French realist and impressionist collection was well under way as he set out to acquire twelve works from each of his chosen artists mapping the development of Impressionism from its origins and early influences of Ingres and Delacroix. These included paintings by Sisley, Pisarro, Monet, Corot, Corbet and Renoir and works by female Impressionist painters Berthe Morisot and Eva Gonzales.

When war broke out in 1914 he capitalised on the conflict by sending the paintings to his wife Henny in Denmark where they were housed in a specially designed country house in Ordrupsgaard (near Copenhagen). He later joined a consortium of middle-class Danish collectors whose aim was to bring outstanding French art to Scandinavia during in a wave of Civic pride.

Accompanied by an occasional score of strings and more romantic vibes, Bickerstaff’s agile camera lingers over the detail – particularly lovely is Manet’s 1882 ‘Basket of Pears’ – as well as giving a broad-brush approach to the works in their various settings, interweaving informative on-screen interviews from relevant curators.

Eschewing a straightforward narrative the style here is to gather together the various specialists and then give them free rein to talk about their own research and insights. This gives the doc a random, freewheeling yet highly informative quality as the curators go off on their different tangents.

After an intro from London’s Royal Academy chief Axel Ruger we swing into the gallery where Bickerstaff takes us on a fleeting tour of the exhibition, double hanging reflecting the way Hansen hung the pictures in his own home, whetting our appetite for what is to follow.

Anna Ferrari takes over telling us how Henny Hansen realised that the works acquired by her husband were becoming increasingly becoming valuable amongst collectors, and shipping them back to Denmark. The couple were particularly keen on Monet’s ‘garden’ period and Sisley’s landscapes paintings that mapped a journey down the Seine, with smoking chimneys charting the burgeoning industrial era, his ‘September Morning’ (1887) shows leaves tussling in the fresh breeze, with the sky dominating. The film travels from London to Paris, the cradle of the Belle Époque, with its experimental artist scene, and then on to Denmark where Ordupsgaard’s curator Anne Brigitte Fonsmark enlightens with a tour of the house and its specially designed Danish furniture complimented by flower arrangements gathered from the lavish gardens, and the recently added extension by the later Zaha Hadid.

Art historian Professor Frances Fowle makes the most impact with her amusing stories about the illustrious women Impressionist collectors namely the Welsh sisters Gwendoline and Margaret Davies who built up the country’s largest and most important series of French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works in the 1920s and bequeathed it to the National Museum of Wales, and Kentucky philanthropist Berthe Palmer (and her husband Potter) whose collection now forms the core of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Impressionist collection. MT

NOW ON DVD

Rebel Dykes (2021)

Dir.: Harri Shanahan, Siân A. Williams; Documentary with DEBBIE, ROZ, FISCH, SIOBHAN, SEIJA, BAYA, DEL, LULU; UK 2021, 82 min.

The collective of Harri Shanahan, Siân A. Williams and producer Siobhan Fahey serve up a slice of subversiveness from the 1980s centred round a group of women activists who got together at Greenham Common, then decided to spice up the not-so-exciting London scene, taking over Women’s Centres and Gay Bars. In Brixton where squatting was not entirely legal, the DYKES started a vibrant underground culture with an SM club.

It was a time of revolt against Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s administration: to create a Lesbian Fetish Club was in itself an open protest against the government’s ‘mishandling’ of the Aids Crisis and the introduction of Section 28, which basically forbade any mention in school curriculums about the existence of non hetero-sexual activities. The animated title sequence leads the audience into wild discussions and graphic descriptions of sexual scenes. The group was constantly under homophobic attack in the streets, so they just lived by night. But the danger came also from another front: mainstream feminists picketed the club and forced entrance with crowbars and axes. They accused the Rebel Dykes of anti-feminism and violence. The Rebel Dykes counter with action: invading the BBC News and chaining themselves to the furniture; they also founded sex-toy businesses and erotic Magazines – often having to fight the incriminating laws.

1981-1991 was a pivotal time in the history of alternative culture: kink, fetish, hedonism, music, drugs and political activism developed, leading to the formulation of trans rights and black queer life. It should be mentioned, that The Rebel Dykes were an international set-up: Seija came from Finland, Baya fled repressive East Germany, and Lulu was a San Francisco based photographer. Music plays a central role in the feature: Britpop artist guitarist Debbie Smith, the “most celebrated Black female guitarist”, is the film’s leading narrator. The archive music used is of precious cultural importance since women musicians rarely signed contracts in a male dominated business. The film’s composer, Ellyott, who works with ‘Sister George’ and ‘Night Nurse’, is the founder of Rebel Dyke and Queercore. The archive, consisting of mini-discs, digitised cassettes and VHS tapes, will be house permanently in the Bishopsgate Archive, London. Overall, the story-telling has multiple viewpoints, not a singular perspective.

Co-director/co-editor/animator Harri Shanahan, who studied filmmaking at university and produced post punk/experimental music videos, wanted “to tell the story of the Rebel Dykes because they “felt a kinship with their punk rebelliousness and their DIY approach to art and culture. It has been an amazing experience to meet these trailblazing, kickass people and to have the opportunity to be part of telling their story”.

The Rebel Dykes’s have virtually been written out of the history of the Queer movement, but it is a true revolutionary movement of female, non-binary and trans voices, celebrating direct action. So far unseen archive footage shows the Lesbian Strength March (1988) and the “Lesbian Avengers” who ab-sailed into the House of Lords, the night when ‘Section 28’ was passed into law, not to be revoked until 2003. AS

In cinemas and on BFI Player and Bohemia Euphoria from 26 November

King Richard (2021)

Dir.: Reinaldo Marcus Green; Cast: Will smith, Aunjanue Ellis, Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton, John Bernthal, Tony Goldwyn; USA 2021, 138min.

The success story of mammoth tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams was already mapped out well before they hit a single ball, according to this extensive biopic whose focus is their father and tennis coach Richard Williams (a game by Will Smith).

Green and his writer Zach Baylin are keen to play on the sunny side of the former security guard’s character avoiding the more troubled aspects of a man who suffered from delusions of grandeur and narcissism.

We meet the Williams family in the seedy side of Compton, LA, were Richard and Oracene Williams (Ellis) are raising their five daughters, among them Venus (Sidney) and Serena (Singleton) who are coached by their father on the run-down tennis courts of the disadvantaged neighbourhood where a gang of youths give Richard a good kicking until he loses his temper and nearly shoots one of his attackers who is mowed down in front of him by bullets from a passing car.

At home Richard is a domestic tyrant with a work ethic high on his agenda. But he sometimes overdoes it, making the kids watch Cinderalla twice on TV to drill them on the virtues of humbleness. Richard is not a good advert for this particular style of parenting as he always knows best, even arguing with coach Cohen (Goldwyn), who teaches Venus for free.

Finally, Richard takes the whole family to the Florida training centre of coach Rick Macci (Bernthal), where there is a disagreement over how soon his daughters should play competitive matches before their mid-teens. Richard argues that the girls should have a ‘normal’ childhood, and just train hard. In the end, he gives in after Oracene takes Venus’ side. She will make her pro debut at the age of fourteen, falling to the World Number One player Sanchez-Vicario in three sets, after leading for a long time.

Richard struts around in tennis gear most of the time even though he has never played himself. Much time is spent on negotiations between the various companies wanting to sign Venus up for multi-million deals, with her father holding out for a better offer, infuriating Macci and well as his wife. Oracene finally reads Richard the riot act and it becomes clear how much the family relied on her contribution, even though Richard goes on hugging the limelight, turning the girls’ success story into his own triumph even when proved wrong.

DoP Robert Elswit’s images are on the conventional side, as befits a traditional bio-pic. King Richard is a star vehicle for Smith, who turns on the charm and totally  convinces as the prophet who makes things up as he goes along. The serious side of the story is hardly touched upon: William’s dealings with the Klu-Klux Klan is the elephant in the room. Overall, King Richard is overdone with a botched ending that leaves the characters of Oracene as well as Venus and Serena on the touchline, and worst of all, seem to believe in its message, that Father knows best. AS

NOW IN CINEMAS NATIONWIDE FROM 19 NOVEMBER 2021

House of Cardin (2019)

Dirs: P David Ebersole/Todd Hughes | US Doc | With: Hanae Mori, Dionne Warwick, Sharon Stone, Naomi Campbell, Hiroko Matsumoto, Jean-Michel Jarre, Philippe Starck | US Doc

P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes (Mansfield 66/67) look into the world of fashion icon Pierre Cardin (1922-2020) giving a real sense of who he was and how he shook things up in the early Sixties.

Cardin wasn’t just a fashion designer – he was all about futurism, transforming haute couture, watches, even sunglasses and cigarette lighters with a unique vision for the modern world in the late 1950s and 1960s. Always looking forward to the future and, crucially, maintaining control of his brand, and never selling out.

Born Pietro Costante Cardin near Treviso in summer 1922, his Italian wine merchant parents had fled to France to avoid Fascism, and Pierre grew up near St Etienne with his ten siblings, eventually drifting to Paris after the war to study architecture. Rather than designing buildings he was drawn to fashion tailoring eventually joining the Paris atelier of Paquin in 1945 where he was put to work on the fantasy costumes of Jean Cocteau’s classic Beauty and the Beast, and by 1947 he was heading up the tailleur atelier of Christian Dior. He was 25. Striking out on his own he founded the House of Cardin last three years later where his avantgarde designs focused on geometric Space age forms, rather like his fellow designer André Courrèges (1923-2016).

Ebersole and Hughes opt for a chronological structure and a punchy style of editing that pops with archive footage intercutting soundbites from Cardin’s catwalk models with collaborators from all over the world: this reflects how the designer pioneered international markets way beyond the West in a International branding furore that took  in Japan, China and Russia where he was the very first to develop an easy style of ready to wear fashions with a keen eye to the global possibilities on offer.

Cardin’s triumph was to offer women freedom after the constraints of those corsets and tight-fitting styles of the early 1950s, with bright primary colours and futuristic fabrics that were cutting edge: the “bubble dress” was a case in point, fashioned on the bias over a stiffened base. These were not elegant pieces but flirty, fun and functional, offering comfort and flexibility, they still look ultra modern even today. Apart from his global branding initiative, Cardin was also one of the first to choose models from different ethnic backgrounds such as Naomi Campbell and Hiroko Matsumoto.

But there was a price to pay for all Cardin’s maverick desire to spread his brand far and wide: in 1959 he decided to make a range of designer dresses for those with style but a shoestring budget, and  fell foul of the strict French federation of haute couture. This was seen as cheapening the designer ethos of the era – even today you will never see Chanel or Yves Saint Laurent in the sale.

Ever the enterprising innovator, Cardin moved on inexorably, branching out into new ventures such as cars, furniture and – in a musical twist – the Espace Cardin, a theatre in the former Cafe des Ambassadeurs in Paris which even featured Alice Cooper, and provided the springboard for Gerard Depardieu’s acting career.

Jean-Paul Gaultier is one of the most amusing talking heads, revealing how Cardin was turned away from Maxim’s restaurant for not wearing a tie in 1960, and duly brought the place two decades later, making it trendy and cool. In 2001 he acquired the former home of the Marquis de Sade, the Chateau Lacoste, where he ran a respected musical drama festival in the heart of the Vaucluse.

Cardin himself appears in footage as rather subversive and cheeky with a glint his eye and a ready quip: like a little boy he loved to be in the limelight, with the talent and foresight to back it all up. But we learn little of the man behind the persona, or of his love life  beyond his surface popularity as a sexual conquest – by his own admission “I was very much in demand”. Openly gay, he also enjoyed a long affair with Jeanne Moreau in the 1960s and rather like his countryman Yves Saint Laurent he later became romantically involved with his business partner Andre Oliver.  Still firing on all cylinders in his late 90s when this biopic was made, the legendary Pierre Cardin was more than just a designer, he was a major creative force to be reckoned with and is now a household name. MT

ON RELEASE FROM 26 APRIL 2021 ON MAJOR PLATFORMS

 

Pariah Dog (2020)

Dir.: Jesse Alk; Documentary with Kajal, Milly, Subrata, Pinku; Canada/US/India 2019, 77min.

This homage to the stray dogs of Kolkata is the first feature documentary from US Canadian director Jesse Alk. The decaying glory of the former capital of the Raj provides an evocative setting for his labour of love, and  possibly the saddest film of the year. Alk (whose father Howard, directed The Murder of Fred Hampton 1971) influenced by Charles Baudelaire’s ‘Paris Spleen’ a hymn to the street dogs of Paris, who inspired his poetry.

The Indian Pariah dog, aka South Asian Pye dog, has been forced out of its native habitat leaving nowhere left to go in the squalid backwaters of grandiose post-colonial decay: shoeless children play on a riverbank, a man urinates against a wall while a little girl disco dances, oblivious. Shot on the hazy waterways of the coastal delta or at night under velvety street lights where goats are herded through waterfronts and slums, Uber-Drivers dart like ghosts from another cosmos.

But Pariah Dog is more about the four souls who help strays survive. It’s a symbiotic relationship, the dogs are their raison d’etre and their extended family. Artist Pinku tools wooden sculptures by day and drives a taxi at night to pay the bills. A gentle, philosophical man he lives for his menagerie of dogs, a parrot, a rabbit and a monkey, all sharing a decrepit hovel not big enough to swing a cat. Meanwhile Subrata is possibly the first yodelling rickshaw driver. His efforts to raise money with his dog-themed songs are laudable and touching, but his pleas for animal welfare donations fall on deaf ears, so he resorts to street leftovers to feed his grateful pack of hounds. In 2013 he took part in a Bengali TV show, fading posters the proud testament to his moment of glory. Later in the film he transforms into a canine troubadour encouraging others to care for “humans, animals and plants”.

Two women make up the foursome: Milly and her helper Kajal come from different castes of Hindu society, often falling out over their rules of engagement. Millly is a highly educated disillusioned romantic whose husband left her in her decrepit family pile. Of Japanese-Russian descent, she pleads poverty: her land has been taken over by squatters but the authorities couldn’t care less. Kajal lives nearby in a hut the size of a kennel. Devoted to her strays, maimed by passing cars or unkind people, she cares for them until they die, burying them with a yellow garland, a sign of Hindu respect. A supreme love for life and the vulnerable has struck a chord with their feelings of dispossession, carrying these desperate women through ructions and reconciliations, their dignified street marches to raise awareness of animal welfare are to be admired.

For dog lovers, some of the footage is too difficult to watch. Alk conjures up enough poetry in his images without resorting to sentimentality, maintaining a dispassionate eye in this cruel metropolis of 15 million where only the fittest survive. In this ‘Black Hole of Calcutta’ the spirit of Mother Theresa still survives.

AVAILABLE TO VIEW ON TRUESTORY

Lost in La Mancha (2020)

Dir.: Keith Fulton, Lou Pepe; Documentary with Terry Gilliam, Amy Gilliam, Nicola Pecorini, Lena Mossum; UK 2019, 84 min.

After more than 20 years and multiple setbacks, Terry Gilliam finally got his dream project The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, to the big screen. This is the story behind the project that started with Lost in La Mancha back in 2002 and has now been remastered.

With production costs halved from the original budget of 32 million dollars, and minus Johnny Depp, Vanessa Paradise and Jean Rochefort  Rochefort (who had to leave because of illness) – a tornado destroyed some equipment and rain changed the colour of the sand from the earlier scenes. Then John Hurt, who was to play Don Quixote, was diagnosed with his fatal cancer. 

It’s good to see DoP Nicola Pecorini, costume designer Lena Mossum (who had kept all the designs from the original shoot) and PD Benjamin Fernandes back together again with Gilliam – they celebrate after shooting day seven: none of the cast had ever made it thus far. Fulton and Pepe decide on a rather sombre tone. After freely admitting to the two of them: “I don’t actually like making films”, and I have done the film too often in my head, is it better to leave it there?” One has to respect his sheer perseverance, a quality that is often more valuable these days than talent.

And in the 2018 interviews he talks about the ageing of Quixote: “An older man, with one last chance to make the world as interesting as he dreams it to be.” And about himself: “Did I get to change the world? Gillian looks, quite reasonably, irritated during the shoot, not helped by a kidney problem that required him to move around with a bag of blood, draining from a catheter, strapped to his leg. Even when it all comes together in the last day of shooting, Gilliam is vehement: “this is my last film. Then there’s a great void ahead of me, and that scares the shit out of me”.

Lost in La Mancha is padded out with clips from Gilliam’s successful features Brazil, Time Bandits and Baron Munchhausen; and the endless comparisons between Gilliam and Quixote become tiring. Interviews on the subject, given by Gilliam since 2000, give the feature even more of a disjointed feeling: There is so much to say about the filming of The Man who killed Don Quixote but with neither Driver nor Pryce having their say, much remains untold. DoPs Lou Pepe and Jeremy Royce succeed in showing the film within a film: their lively camerawork is certainly a reason to watch it. 

The ending is rather elegiac: a still of with Gilliam taking the applause at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, where the premiere was beset by legal controversy over the rights, The Man was screened at the Closing Night, is possibly the best way to remember this documentary – but somehow it feels like Terry Gillian deserved more. AS

Now on release

Fukushima 50 (2020) Digital release

Dir.: Setsuro Wakamatsu; Cast: Ken Watanabe, Koichi Sato, Shiro Sano; Japan 2020, 122 min.

Japanese director Setsuro Wakamatsu pays tribute to fifty courageous workers who averted a Chernobyl-style meltdown when a natural disaster hit a power plant in 2011. This is a blockbuster without any villains – the government and utility executes got away Scot-free, as we soon discover. All the characters are fictional, apart from Watanabe’s Masao Yoshida, the plant’s superintendent, who died – as a national hero – of cancer unrelated to the accident of 11.3. 2011 two years later.

Based on The Inside story of Fukushima Daiichi’ by Ryusho Kadota, Fukushima 50, takes its title from the fifty heroes who stayed to face the music after an earthquake (scale 9 on the Richter Scale) and a massive Tsunami threatened to wipe out the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, and the devastation of eastern Japan, including Tokyo.

All the men in the plant are tough and selfless (unlike today’s young generation in Japan), there are references to the WWII generation, “who lived for others”. Japan’s military forces are also featured, fighting from the front in great numbers. Toshio Isaki (Sato), the shift supervisor, is the embodiment of these attributes: he would have liked a more active role, but his men ask him to stay behind, whilst they try to cool the reactors down with seawater, or reduce the pressure so that the reactors do not explode.

The seawater solution, brought forward by Yoshida, is one of the few pivotal passages of the film: the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), who owns the plant, gives orders to Yoshida not to cool the reactors this way to the plant being damaged by seawater, but the superintendent goes against his orders. Heated arguments add a scintilla of drama but even the Prime Minister (Sano) gets away with a limp performance,oscillating between weakness and bullying.

The lack of a central villain reduces the film to a well meaning fight ballade, everyone striving for heroism. We never find out the cause of the disaster, nuclear power is never questioned, nobody asks if the disaster preparations were adequate or if the country needed to re-think their economic or cultural strategy – after all, idea of WWII being a time of heroism has been successfully propagated by the Japan’s Liberal Party which has been in power since WWII, with the exception of a handful of years.

Compared with the dark and eerie images of Chernobyl, which went for a systematic critique of the Soviet Union, Fukushima does not hold anybody responsible for the disaster – despite the collusion between regulators, government and TEPCO. Meanwhile law suits have been piling up amid ongoing international investigations, the report of the Japanese Parliament (DIET) calls the disaster “man-made”. Nothing has changed since March 2011, and the Japanese Anti-Nuclear movement has lost much of its urgency.

The blockbuster treatment leaves us with good production values (DoP Shoji Ehara), spirited performances by the saviours, but a hapless happy-end, with Isaki being re-united with his family, an unruly daughter and a critical father. Fukushima shows nothing has changed since March 2011, styling his actioner as a boys-only adventure story – thrilling and triumphant with the cherry blossom finale promising an uncritical pastel future where governments turn a blind eye. AS

FUKUSHIMA 50 OUT NOW ON ALTITUDE FILMS and all digital platforms across the UK & Ireland

 

My Father and Me (2021)

Dir.: Nick Broomfield; Documentary with Maurice Bloomfield, Nick Broomfield, Joan Churchill, Barney Bloomfield; UK 2019, 97 min.

British documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield (Marianne & Leonard – Words of Love) has created a loving portrait of his father, Britain’s pre-eminent industrial photographer Maurice (1916-2010), Despite their ups and downs what shines through here is a genuine warmth and filial respect My Father also serving as a social history of the British working class since the end of WWII.

Maurice’s photos and Nick’s creative output makes this an especially enjoyable father and son portrait: Maurice Broomfield (1916-2010) started his working life on the floor of the factories in Derby where he was born. Taking a degree in photography at night school, he became the chronicler of the excellence of British production, be it Phillips Nuclear Power or Rolls Royce – his brilliantly-crafted photos showed a glamorous, even romanticised image of the workplace, with the craftsman in midst of his products.

Maurice was a contentious objector in WWII and remained a pacifist all  his life, but he was still able to see the positive factors in life and work. In 1947, he married Sonja Lagusova, a Jewish emigrant from Czechoslovakia, who had lost half her family in the Nazi concentration camps. She hardly ever talked about her Jewish identity and Nick, born in 1948, only learnt the stark facts that had traumatised his mother for life, in his twenties. In Derby, Maurice’s parents had already picked a local girl for him to marry and were nonplussed at his choice of Sonja,  relations between them never recovering. Nick, like his father, was not a good student at all, he was expelled and later went to boarding school. Afterwards, he joined his father on his photographic tours around Britain’s factories, and had his first crush on Maurice’ assistant Barbara. Nick’s grandfather Gogo worked on the film about the liberation of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and he and his daughter were somewhat critical of Maurice’s rather optimistic attitude towards society and life in general.

Nick’s work, on the other hand, shared the more critical attitude of his mother’s side of the family. “My Dad and me were competing for Sonja’s approval”. Meanwhile, Maurice tried hard to “unlearn’ his working class accent, his first studio was located in the grounds of the  Lady Crossfield’s estate; he even met the Queen. The gulf between father and son widened after Nick married fellow documentarian Joan Churchill (now divorced), the couple have a son, Barney. Their documentary Juvenile Liaison (1976), about an eight-year old boy who stole a toy pistol, and is then shown the inside of a jail by a policeman who frightens the child with dark stories, was banned for thirty years, and could even then only be shown to criminologists.

Maurice did not accept that his son had a different outlook on society, after the private showing of Tattooed Tears (1982), he simply left the screening room without saying a word. After Sonja died at the age of 59 of skin cancer, Maurice fell into a long depression. Father and son reconciled in the wake of Maurice finding a new life with Suzy, who re-kindled his lust for life, taking on painting, and losing his inhibitions. The family saga ends with Maurice, Nick and Barney (who is one of the DoPs of Father) sitting happily together on a bench “talking about nothing in particular”.

The writer/director combines the generational conflict with a short history of how Britain changed from the hopeful new beginnings of 1945 to the social divisions that now face the country. Unfortunately, we are still far away from the reconciliation and mutual acceptance of the three generations of Broomfields. AS

The V&A museum will host a Q&A screening on 4 November of Nick Broomfield’s MY FATHER AND ME exploring his relationship with his father, photographer Maurice Broomfield, to tie in with a display of photographs and book Maurice Broomfield: Industrial Sublime opening at the V&A on 6 November.  BBC Four will also air the film in November and stream on BBC iPlayer. More info below and V&A info here – Link

 

     

Against the Tides (2019) VOD

Dir: Stefan Stuckert | UK Doc 87′

Let go of what’s stopping you. Let go of the doubt. 

Extreme swimming fans and psychologists, this is for you. Professionals go one step further and call long-distance sport ‘challenge’ swimming, and Beth French is a pro. Some may call her a fanatic. She is certainly courageous and comes across as extremely plucky and high-active in this Stefan Stuckert’s griping documentary that follows the self-employed, self-funding single mother of one as she takes on the Oceans Seven – a mammoth swimming challenge that could cost her life. It takes in seven terrifying open sea channels across the world, from New Zealand and Hawaii to Japan and Northern Ireland. And Beth will tackle them all in one year.

The sea between Northern Island and Scotland (for one) is certainly no walk in the park. One of the coldest stretches of water in Europe, it is fraught with marine craft not to mention marine life: if the tankers don’t get you the jelly might. And then there’s the inclement weather, tides and currents. During the endurance course she will be followed by a small boat and a canoe.

But there’s more to Beth than just swimming. And soon we begin to understand what motivates to seek out extreme and often dangerous challenges in the water. And it seems that a childhood illness that left her in a wheelchair is the key to her – some may say, fanatical – obsession with endurance swimming.

But that’s not all. Beth believes her young son could also be on the autistic spectrum, but it can’t be easy for a little child to live in constant fear of its only parent dying tragically albeit doing what she loves best. Beth obviously reassures her boy that everything will go according to plan, but she is so driven and single-minded her son takes a back seat, much to the concern of her mother at home in Somerset. Her support buddy Martin eventually parts company with Beth and leaves during the trip.

Beth lavishly shares her thoughts and feelings throughout the feature yet always remains a detached and unreachable character who clearly needs to prove herself, push herself ever harder, an enigmatic soul who seems haunted by a need to keep running, and Stuckert never really gets under her skin. There is clearly a family back story here but are left in the dark experiencing only the emotional fallout rather than the root of the trauma. It’s a shame that Beth never opens up fully about the past. This is a striking and intriguing film but one that leaves so many questions still open.

AGAINST THE TIDES IS ON DEMAND IN THE US/UK from 1st March 2021

UK iTunes link:

https://itunes.apple.com/gb/movie/against-the-tides/id1552700437

US iTunes links

Against the Tides – iTunes pre-order

Against the Tides – AppleTV pre-order

 

 

The Lesson | Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2021 | 18-26 March 2021

Dir: Elena Horn | Germany, Doc 60′

It is often said that those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. At the age of 14 every school child in Germany is taught about the atrocities that occurred under Nazi rule. Filmmaker Elena Horn returns to her hometown in rural Germany to follow four of these children as they first learn about the Holocaust.

Five years in the making (2014-19), the film touches upon important social and political issues including the resurgence of the far-right, xenophobia, the fractured, disparate collective memory of National Socialism, and the surprising lack of intimate knowledge of the younger generations on the subject.

Screening at this year’s HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH FILM FESTIVAL the documentary opens as the camera pans over the summer countryside where a girl from a village in West Germany (where not much has changed since 1932) recalls talking to a tall, dark athletic American after an evening out with college friends. He turns to her and says: “your grandparents killed my grandparents” this was her first meeting with a Jewish guy and she was 21.

Screening during this year’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival, the documentary goes on to explore with archive footage and clips from the contemporary German classroom how despite the perceived exemplary educational system, new generations are growing indifferent to their nation’s dark past and unwilling to apply the lessons learned to the realities of today. Filmed against the backdrop of changing political scenery during five years of production, in Germany and across the world, the film subtly suggests the urgency and importance in tackling the uncomfortable modern reality of truths therein. MT

Elena Horn is a young German filmmaker who started her career as a media psychologist researching the framing effects in the news coverage of the Iraq War in the US, Britain, and Sweden. Today she is working as a story producer for ZDF, WDR, SKY and SPIEGEL TV Wissen. Elena’s films focus on questions around education, migration, working culture, love, and ethnic conflict, employing visual inspirations from the world of music and dance. As a director, Elena is a fellow of the Logan Non-Fiction Program in New York. Her short documentary Pizza, Democracy and the Little Prince, co-directed with Alessandro Leonardi, earned the “Best Short Documentary Award 2019” at the Sedona Film Festival. Currently Elena is working as a director for ARTE, a French-German culture channel.

SCREENING DURING HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH FILM FESTIVAL 2021

ALL FILMS AVAILABLE TO SCREEN 

 

To Olivia (2021) Sky

Dir: John Hay | Cast: Hugh Bonneville, Keeley Hawes, Conleth Hill, Sam Heughan | UK Biopic drama, 99′

Roald Dahl (1916-90) was a celebrated English writer known for his children’s books and short stories with a deliciously subversive twist. But his life was also fraught with sadness as we discover in this lush Hollywood-style biopic – based on Stephen Michael Shearer’s biography, Patricia Neal: An Unquiet Life.

Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville and Keeley Hawes star as the slightly wacky Dahl and his famous American actress wife Patricia Neal (Hawes is a dead ringer in the role which she pulls off with aplomb).

Unfolding in the glorious Buckinghamshire countryside where the Dahls raise their large family during the 1960s and 70s, the focus is the tragic death of their eldest daughter Olivia in 1962, although director John Hay and his co-writer David Logan also flesh out the author’s life and marriage to Patricia, a formidable talent in her own right, who had previously dated Ronald Reagan and Gary Cooper before meeting Dahl, the couple eventually divorcing in 1983. Neal (1926-2010) would go on to win an Oscar, for Hud, the year after her daughter’s death, and Sam Heughan makes for a pale rider as Paul Newman (who also stars alongside her in Hud), not holding a candle to the legend but there again who could?). The late Geoffrey Palmer also puts in an appearance (his swansong) as the reverend who tries to console the couple in their grief. It’s also got Conieth Hall (from Game of Thrones) as Hud’s director Marty Ritt.

Most kids sailed through measles (I remember lying in bed with the curtains drawn in broad daylight, and a painful rash) and Patricia was advised: “let the girls get measles, it will be good for them”, but Olivia was unlucky and died from the effects of encephalitis, due to complications. Dahl would become a pro-vax advocate after the tragedy.

Hay and Logan show how Olivia Twenty Dahl’s death at only 7 had a profound affect on the couple’s turbulent marriage, plunging them into grief but also resilience in their respective careers, they had to be strong for the rest of their young family. Finally recovering they went on to have two more children, Ophelia and Lucy, sisters for Theo and Tessa (mother of Sophie Dahl). MT

TO OLIVIA, a Sky Original Film, available on Sky Cinema and Now TV from 19 February 2021.

 

The Investigation (2021) BBCiPlayer | DVD

 

Dir: Tobias Linholm | Cast: Soren Malling, Pilou Asbaek, Pernilla August, Rolf Lassgard, Laura Christensen, Dulfi Al-Jabouri, Hans Henrik Clemensen | Denmark, True crime drama, 2021

True crime doesn’t get any more gruesome than the murder of journalist Kim Wall. So the Danes have thrown their best talent behind this HBO miniseries (now also on BBC 2) written and directed by Tobias Lindholm (whose Another Round is Denmark’s Oscar hopeful) and starring Pernilla August, Borgen‘s Soren Malling, Pilou Asbaek (A Hijacking) and Rolf Lassgard.

This was a murder that shocked the world: a Danish inventor Peter Madsen invited Wall to visit his homemade submarine somewhere off the coast of Denmark. She then disappeared without trace and Madsen was rescued after his vessel sunk near to Copenhagen’s Koge bay. Interviewed by police Madsen later claimed Wall had slipped and hit her head, drowning in a watery grave. But then it gets weird. As Wall’s body parts were gradually washed up, the head some time later delaying identification, Madsen was arrested and charged with her murder, changing his story several times in the aftermath.

Sombre and sumptuously photographed by Magnus Nordenhof Jonck this plays out as a slow burning and evocative thriller that manages to be utterly compelling while respecting the delicate subject matter and Wall’s loved ones, as it carefully chronicles the unfolding investigation – day by day – under the guidance of Malling’s thoughtful Jens Moller. The detective really took it upon himself to ensure that no stone was left unturned in exploring the unpalatable facts, consulting oceanographers and tide experts to fathom out what happened during that fateful night of August 10th 2017.

Wall was an accomplished professional investigative journalist with everything to live for, yet her career was cut short by Madsen who not only ended her life, but in such a macabre way – presumably he hoped the evidence would be destroyed by marine life.

Moller works painstakingly in the suitably grim conditions of a rainy Danish autumn – the whole process took four months – to try and piece together enough evidence to nail Madsen. Dogs detectives join specialist divers and pathologists, and the scenes involving Walls’ parents are particularly moving. The six part structure enables Lindholm to fully flesh out the characters’ backstories in this deeply affecting criminal procedural that widens out into a slice of social history.

Although one tries to avoid the expression ‘Nordic Noir’ in this particular case, it’s just what it is. No disrespect to Wall, she just happened to be the victim. All things considered I think she would consider this a fitting tribute to her life. MT

ON BBC2 from 29 January 2021 | DVD on 1March 2021

 

 

The Capote Tapes (2020) VoD

Dir: Ebs Burnough | With Dick Cavett, Kate Harrington, Lewis Lapham, Andre Leon Talley, Jay McInerney, Sally Quinn, Dotson Radar, John Richardson, Sadie Stein, Colm Toibin| US, Doc, 91′

“A society that is the sum of its vanity and greed is not a society at all: it’s a state of war” (Mark Twain), and this is the society of Truman – Lewis Lapham

Cinematic catnip for all voyeurs, this new documentary about Truman Capote plays out like a thrilling cocktail party.

A first film Ebs Burnough – who once served as social secretary to Michelle Obama – the broad-brush biopic chronicles Capote’s life and times with his novels forming the background to a glittering social scene that was his lifeblood, and in the end his downfall.

Burnough focuses on interviews conducted by George Plimpton, the most intimate and revealing coming from his ‘protege’ Kate Harrington (the daughter of his “manager” – and lover, as she later discovered), who later moved in with the Manhattan-based author describing him as “calm and nurturing”. He taught her the requisite social graces for operating in New York Society (“you can be a big deal in Boise, Idaho, but the only place that matters is New York”).

Harrington (a costumer designer on The Thomas Crown Affair) describes how the author rose early to write for three hours before embarking on gossip-fuelled rendezvous. There are pithy commentaries from literary luminaries Jay McInerney, Lewis Lapham and Dotson Radar and the late John Richardson (Picasso’s biographer), along with chat show host Dick Cavett (all looking smooth-faced and soigné) who wittily chart Truman’s progress from society darling and ‘court jester’ to social pariah whose writing eventually suffered from his inadvisable over-sharing of gossip, and substance abuse.

Many claim that his obsession with convicted killer Perry (In Cold Blood) was the source of his downfall, but Burnough persuades us that the grandes dames of NY eventually put the boot in to the diminutive blond writer with an extraordinary vocal delivery. In fact, Harrington describes his speech as so bizarre on first meeting him (as a teenager) that she was forced to run from the room for fear of laughing in his face. And the self-deprecating Truman was fully aware that he came across as “a freak”, proclaiming that people only laughed in his company out of sheer horror at his strange voice. It soon emerges that Truman thought little of the socialites in his midst, and harboured resentment over they way he was apparently treated as a “servant” (according to Lapham). These rumours partly led to the suicide of his mother Nina Faulk Capote (1905-54), despite the fact she herself had tried to terminate her prenancy (ref: Capote: A Biography/Gerald Clarke) eventually bringing him up in Monroeville, Alabama where Truman grew close to his childhood friend Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird).

But on a lighter note, this fizzing cocktail of a film is not meant to be the definitive Capote biopic but serves as an endlessly amusing tonic in these days of the ‘doom documentary’, adding frothy context to Truman’s literary works capturing the zeitgeist of the era in which they were penned.

The Capote Tapes is further enlivened by archive clips featuring Norman Mailer and Truman’s ‘best friend’ the socialite Barbara”Babe” Cushing Paley (whose husband William founded CBS Records) and there are quotes from his various novels, ‘Other Voices, Other Rooms’ (1948); ‘Breakfast in Tiffany’s’ (1958); his ‘non-fiction’ effort ‘In Cold Blood’ (1965) which gets the lion’s share of Burnough’s attention on the book front, which was considered pivotal to Truman’s emotional unravelling, along with the repercussions of published excerpts from the author’s unfinished work ‘Answered Prayers’ (published posthumously in 1987 in the US) which was substantially delayed by the infamous Black and White Ball of 1966 – more later – and also purportedly led to his downfall.

The film them flips back to detail the Truman’s assignment with the New Yorker hat would take him away from the rigours of keeping up with the ‘NY Joneses’ to spend six months in Kansas covering the murder case that would form the basis for his ‘non-fiction’ classic ‘In Cold Blood’. On the downside, it also led to his fascination with Perry making it difficult to maintain distance from his source material (an aspect that really jumps out in Douglas McGrath’s 2006 screen adaptation of the novel Infamous .

Burnough culminates his expose by fleshing out the events surrounding the divisive 1966 ball that Truman threw at the Plaza Hotel, publishing a list of those invited in the papers (so that no-one could pretend to have been invited that wasn’t). The gossip columns shared salacious secrets the socialites has shared with Truman  – Babe Paley never spoke to him again, much to his chagrin. So the exclusive party that was in part intended to provide source material for a book backfired on its precipitating the end of his writing career, . Jay McInerney comments, quite harshly, that from then on Truman became more a ‘talk-show celebrity’ than a committed author, and was assigned to a life of ‘drugs and disco hopping’ rather than consorting with New York’s beau mode. A rather poignant film but certainly one of the most fascinating you’ll see this year. MT

The Capote Tapes will be available at www.altitude.film and on all digital platforms across the UK and Ireland from 29 January.

The Bee Gees: How Can you Mend a Broken Heart (2020)

Dir: Frank Marshall | Wri: Mark Monroe | Musical Biopic |  HBO Documentary Films

In this new biopic on HBO Frank Marshall takes on a mammoth task in charting the rise to fame and fortune of the legendary brothers Gibb. The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart shows how three guys from Manchester via the Isle of Man and Australia went from crooning popular ballads to the pulsating falsetto phenomenon that was Saturday Night Fever, as the ‘Kings of Disco’. The band were active for several decades generating one hit after another – over a thousand, including 20 No. One Hit singles – across a wide variety of genres.

In all started when brothers Barry, Maurice and Robin Gibb made up the trio taking over from The Beatles. The Bee Gees were Britain’s answer to the Osmonds and the Jackson 5, writing, harmonising and performing their own repertoire of songs and folksy ballads that included: Massachusetts, Words, and I’ve Just Gotta Get a Message to You. They had big hair and big teeth to match, and megawatt smiles.

A simple low budget disco hit of 1978 was the turning point of the ‘boys’ career. Masterminded by their producer Robert Stigwood and starring a snake hipped John Travolta, it captured the imagination of the New York press and set fire to a sizzling string of chart-topping, best-selling hits that had everyone jiving. Suddenly we were all rocking a Kevin Keegan haircut, and wincingly tight Satin trousers (the girls drawing the line at hairy chests). The Bee Gees music was percussive and dance-worthy but always deeply tuneful and their harmonies were made in heaven.

After a brief sashay through the 1960s and early 1970s, the film dedicates most of its running time to how band’s music achieved its famous sound after the producers arrived in the wake of the disco fever. We hear from Eric Clapton  whose input proved vital in moving the brothers to America in the mid 1970s and whose band Cream was also managed by Stigwood. Stateside they discovered a revitalising vein of creativity. Producing gurus Karl Richardson, Arif Marden (Atlantic Records), and Albhy Galuten emerge as the major musical facilitators behind the scenes providing engaging insight, particularly for those unfamiliar with their talents, and that included the lesser known band member Blue Weaver.

Barry Gibb is now the sole survivor of the Bee Gees and provides a thoughtful spokesman for the family’s eventful trajectory. From his home in Miami he comes across as a sensitive soul seemingly unaffected by superstardom, and reflecting poignantly on a past touched by the bitter rivalry of his younger (twin) brothers Maurice and Robin. Another clan member in the shape of Andy enabled the band to generate teenage fans with his own material, but he sadly lost his battle with addiction at only 30 (in 1988).

Enriched by interviews and archive footage, the only missing element is the romantic counterpoint so familiar in musical biopics (where were the groupies, the wives and the lovers? only Maurice’s first wife Lulu appears in interviews). The only surviver Barry Gibb emerges a unexpected musical hero who is still musically active and was awarded a Knights Batchelor for his services to the industry in 2018.

Surprisingly The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart is the first feature length doc about the band. An intensely enjoyable experience the film contains some cracking musical performances, and there’s much to discover about the brothers’ tremendous output even before they sang one falsetto note in their disco days and beyond. An ideal collectors item, then – to be revisited time and time again for the sheer dynamism of this musical archive. MT

NOW ON SKY DOCUMENTARIES | 13 December 2020 | DVD and DIGITAL DOWNLOAD | 14 December 2020

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dick Johnson is Dead (2020) **

Dir.: Kirsten Johnson; Documentary with Richard Johnson, Kirsten Johnson; USA 2020, 89 min.

US documentary filmmaker and FEMIS graduate Kirsten Johnson (Cameraperson) has directed – as well as co-written and co-produced – an usual escapist style movie that imagines the death of her father Richard Johnson MD, a psychiatrist born in 1932.

Upbeat and innovative it may be as a piece of entertainment, but as a documentary the film’s title is misleading – Mr. Johnson is still alive and kicking, albeit suffering advanced dementia – which sees the interests of filmmaker Kirsten Johnson and the dutiful daughter probably collide. However stunning the outcome, questions should be asked.

There is much to admire in this father/daughter ‘co-production’, the family history is fraught with sadness and poignancy, Kirsten’s mother suffered dementia and died in a care home, a move she resisted vehemently. As a devotee of several memory theories, this illness seems all the more tragic. Kirsten shows us a short video and has to confess that “After thirty years of being a filmmaker, this is all I have left of my mother”. Kirsten’s grandmother was killed on the day of her daughter’s graduation, sitting next to her on the passenger seat of her car. Kirsten muses about the impact this accident had on her own mother’s life.

Growing up in California Kristen would spend every Saturday of in church, her parents were passionate Seventh Day Adventists – the religion forbade, among other things, cinema visits. But when her father took her to Young Frankenstein (1974), she was hooked for good.

Taking her father plus crew on the road, they visit Loma Linda, California, where Dr. Johnson meets up with his college sweetheart, (another Adventist). Both discuss the subject of death, and feeling comforted by their belief in the resurrection. Which leads us to another major part of the feature: Heaven, realised in a colourful sequence where the”deceased” psychiatrist gets to have his cake and eat it, quite literally, as Jesus washes his feet.

A move to New York is inevitable as Dicks’ condition deteriorates, and most of us with empathise with his regret over selling the memory-filled family home. But he is philosophical and accepts his new life in the spare room of Kirsten’s flat, her husbands, and two children live nearby.

Once in the city, Kirsten (and her stuntmen) try their very best to enact Dick’s spectacular deaths – being hit by a metal fan unit falling from great height is one, falling down a steep wooden staircase and cracking his head open (with ample blood-spill) is another, but the scenario involving a knife and copious blood is possibly the most shocking, Dick freely admitting the pain was worse than his heart-attack thirty years previously.

These scenes might be impressive in their own way – and we learn a lot about how stunts work – but they do disturb Richard, and undoubtedly those affected (for me it brought back memories of finding my blood-soaked mother lying dead on a wooden floor, her scull fractured in twenty places). Let’s just remember that Dick is suffering from the disorientating effects of dementia and all the impairments involved.

We then watch an ambulance pull up and witness Dick’s cardiac arrest – or so we are led to believe. At a ‘funeral’ and 86th birthday celebration friends and patients pay their respects with tearful speeches in a packed church. One woman recalls her final meeting with the Doc, when he ‘forgot’ the recent death of her own husband (“The loss of memory is a great loss”). A close friend blows a Jewish ram’s horn in a pitiful goodbye, before he breaks down sobbing, unable to continue. Meanwhile Dick is alive and well and gleefully watching proceedings from a ‘peephole’ in the Vestry.

All this raises serious issues, Apart from these gruesome ‘serial’ deaths poor Dick is subject to during the shoot, there is the ethical question of how much the filmmaker must manipulate reality in order to pull off the ‘comedy’. As her father Dick is was certainly anxious to please her, and is totally under her power, desperate to avoid the same fate as his wife.

But you can’t help feeling Dick has been hoodwinked in some way, and that Kirsten has played with the audience’s emotions, making a mockery of the term documentary – which even at its best is hardly an objective art. Despite all these concerns, Dick Johnson is Dead is not a morose movie with its tour-de-force of compelling images but one that raises some serious issues, particularly regarding filmmaker responsibility. This is a slick and glibly amusing film but one that pokes fun at life-limiting illness. Rather like the blindfolded man whose disorientation raises a titter amongst his amused bystanders, Johnson’s film is a frivolous piece of escapism, but if we laugh, do we laugh in shame?. AS

DICK JOHNSON won the Special Jury Award for Innovative Non-fiction Storytelling at SUNDANCE 2020 

 

 

 

David Byrne’s American Utopia (2020) ***

Dir: Spike Lee | US Doc, 105′

Artists crave new audiences. So Spike Lee has filmed David Byrne’s Broadway stage-version of his solo album American Utopia in a bid to attract a younger following. Will it work? Memorable tunes capture moments in our life, and this is true for all ages who will forge new memories from these golden classics. Byrne created a string of them with his famous Talking Heads band in the 1980s and this musical trip down memory lane will have appeal for all audiences. Playing out in a slick re-showcasing American Utopia looks fresh and funky while also appealing to a loyal fanbase.

Agile as a silver fox Byrne sashays across the stage, an eminence gris on acid with his familiar gunmetal tailoring (and this time bare feet) recalling his Stop Making Sense concert movie directed by Jonathan Demme back in 1984 (now on BFI player).

Distant and slightly surreal the quixotic quirkiness is still there as he juts around in perfect symmetry with his musical acolytes: Glass, This Must Be the Place, Once in a Lifetime,  Concrete and Stone and many more number are there for your enjoyment in this trippy nostalgia-filled extravaganza. Even the Black Lives Matter box is ticked and dovetails neatly into the narrative with a version of Janelle Monáe’s Hell You Talmabout, Byrne exhorting the audience to recall those who  have lost their lives in police conflict.

Byrne is a star. Stars are there to capture our imagination. His allure lies in his unreachability. If he suddenly started sharing his problems or consumer bleats you’d be sadly disappointed. Luckily he remains distant. As he leaves the stage the camera sees him warming to colleagues in his dressing room, and riding home on his bike. For a moment he’s human. MT

IN CINEMAS FROM MONDAY 14 DECEMBER 2020

Athlete A (2020) **** Netflix

Dir.: Bonni Cohen, Jon Shenk | With Maggie Nichols, Rachael Denhollander, Jessia Howard, Jamie Dantzsher; US Doc 2020, 104 min.

Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk (Audrey&Daisy) get behind the camera for this worthwhile documentary that chronicles the ongoing sexual abuse of members of the USA Gymnastic team. The person responsible was none other that their trusted team physician Dr. Larry Nassar, who got a custodial sentence of 121 years in 2017 for molesting over a hundred young women. The feature is shot from the perspective of the investigating journalists of the Indianapolis Star, whose efforts are the basis for this documentary.

But the inquiry also uncovered complaints against 54 coaches were made during a course of many years. The President and CEO of USA Gymnastics , Steve Penny (who resigned and awaits trial), helped to cover up the abuses – and he was not alone. But if there is one weak point of the documentary, it pins the entire blame on Penny as the evil mastermind – in reality the whole organisation has to take the rap for the systemic abuse.

The account of survivors make heart-breaking listening: there is Maggie Nichols (the titular Athlete A, named so after her complaint which was followed by blackballing her); Rachael Denhollander; Jamie Dantzscher and Jessica Howard, their stories telling not only the actual abuse but the cover-up which went on for over a decade. Dantzscher states she was so proud of being an Olympian, but after Nassar abused her during the games in 2000, she associated the Olympics with this vestige of shame.

But this is also a story of the Cold War: Until the end of Stalinism in 1989, gymnasts from the Warsaw pact countries had dominated the sport. In 1981, Bela and Marta Karolyi, Hungarian-born coaches of the Romanian national gymnastic team (along with their choreographer Geza Poszar) defected to the USA. They had been responsible for the success of Nadia Comaneci among others. The Karolyis installed themselves in a training facility near Huntsville, Texas, which closed in 2018. They have both been sued for being part of the Nassar cover-up. There is a clip in Athlete A, with Marta Karolyi (who retired in 2016) admitting her awareness of  Nassar’s abuse at the “Ranch”. Poszar admitted the method of working with the young athletes “was total control over the girls.” Coaches, not only the Karolyis, abused the gymnasts verbally, emotionally and physically: they were slapped, and told that they were fat.

The norm for female gymnasts was to be 5.4 feet and anorexic. Poszar also claimed these method were acceptable in Romania – and obviously in the USA too. The gymnasts in the Huntsville were isolated, parents were not allowed to visit, the gymnasts were forbidden to phone friends or relatives outside the facilities. Former USA National Team gymnast Jennifer Sey (one of he co-producers of the feature), author of “Chalked Up” talked about merciless coaching, overzealous parents, eating disorders and above all, the dream of Olympic Gold. The line between coaching and abuse gets blurred, Athletes were often forced to compete in spite of serious injuries. We watch Kerri Strug winning a Gold Medal at the 1996 Olympics despite a severe ankle injury. But medals meant good business for the USA Team and their CEO Steve Perry.

Perhaps the most saddening statement comes from one of the victims: “Dr. Nassar was the nicest grown-up in the camp”. This most damning sentence calls for a complete reassessment of the next gymnastic competition in the sporting calendar. Shot with a lively camera by Jon Shenk, Athlete A is  another eye-opener: the perverted drive for Olympic medals, reducing young women to “little girls” to be objectified and abused, is just another example of the male gaze and its horrifying consequences, finally emerging after decades of cover-ups. AS

WINNER OF THE US CRITICS AWARD 2020 | coming to NETLIX

Mother (2019) Locarno

Dir.: Kristof Bilsen; Doc with Chutimon Sonsirichai (Pomm), Elisabeth Röhmer, Maya Gloor, Walter Gloor; Belgium 2019, 82 min.

People are living longer but not always enjoying a healthy or happy old age in Western Europe. Kristof Bilsen tackles the alarming truths behind our care home crisis in his heart-breaking documentary that sees a Swiss family sending their mother across the world to live out her final years with perfect strangers.  

But before you jump to condemn them, just consider this. Many Thai women come to the UK each year to enjoy the benefits of our strong economy that allows them to make a living by offering their unique talents as masseuses and alternative health professionals. Their kids are left with their extended families back in the East, and see their mothers only one or twice a year. Meanwhile UK care homes charge extortionate amounts of money just for bed and board ( BUPA charge a basic £100,o00 per annum in central London), while bosses cream off the profits and pay their care staff a pittance. Many of them are not trained carers, and are unable to communicate adequately with older residents due to their poor English skills. Often they have little aptitude or interest in their badly paid jobs. It’s a critical situation that seems to indicate that this Swiss family could be doing their mother a favour, and even saving her money, into the bargain.

In Thailand, Pomm looks after Alzheimers patients from German-speaking countries in the Baan Kamlangchay hospice near Chiang-Mai. Her own three children are looked after by her husband and extended family. She too is badly paid but infinitely more compassionate, working an eight hour shift, with another job to make ends meet, her relationship with her husband is strained.

In this tranquil sanctuary, Swiss citizen Elisabeth Röhmer is in the final stages of Alzheimers, but Pomm remembers when she loved to do the crossword and helped the carers learn English. After Elisabeth’s death, Pomm will be responsible for Maya, a mother of three from Zofingen in Switzerland. Her husband Walter and three daughters Joyce, Sara and Tanya are struggling to find suitable care for grandma Maya, so the clinic in Thailand seems the best solution. ”It would be selfish to keep her here so we could see her all the time. She gets much better care in Thailand”. And this true because Maya, like Elisabeth before her, will have three carers working round the clock.

Once she arrives with her family in Thailand Maya takes time to settle down in her new environment, awoken by exotic birdsong on her first morning. She is clearly not as happy about the move as the Gloor family would have us believe as they share their last Christmas together far from home. On a boat trip, they discuss how to say goodbye to Maya. Super 8 mm family films show a younger Maya in happier times. Back home in Switzerland, the Gloors Skype Maya who is still affected by their departure but adapting to her new circumstances.

So is there such a difference between East and West? Clearly in the Far East there is far more respect for adults, their wisdom and experience is highly valued both by the family and society as a whole. This extends to the process of dying as we saw in Locarno winner MRS FANG. It seems like a double whammy when elderly members of the family lose their dignity and need our care and patience while they remain critical, controlling and difficult, as in the case with dread diseases such as Alzheimers. Their dehumanisation process is disorientating, their loss of dignity strangely infantalises them in the eyes of those who once looked up to them and respected their seniority. We expect to look after our kids, but not our parents. And England has now become a child-centric culture, where children have become the objects of desire, admiration and wonder. Rather than wise elders we puts the young on a pedestal, as was seen recently in the case of Swedish teen, Greta Thunberg.

Bilsen remains objective in his fascinating and thought-provoking film, Pomm reflecting that her job has shown her the difference between rich and poor. Really? Maya has three care givers because the Swiss family can afford it, yet the carers in both countries are badly paid. The difference is that over here in the UK the care is poor even when you throw money at it; clearly compassion cannot be bought and that is reflected back in the attitude we have regarding the elderly, who also are our elders. Pomm wonders (as do we all) what will happen to her if she becomes a victim of Alzheimers. Who will care for her? All over the world we are relying on others to care for our loved ones because we are too busy looking after ourselves. MT

LOCARNO WORLD PREMIERE | AVAILABLE ON VOD ITUNES, AMAZON & GOOGLE | 11 JANUARY 2021

Oliver Sacks: His Own Life (2020)

Dir. : Ric Burns; Documentary with Oliver Sacks, Kate Edgar, Bill Hayes, Paul Theroux; USA 2019, 114 min.

The final six months in the life of eminent clinical neuro-psychologist Oliver Sacks (1933-2015) are the focus of Ric Burns’ immersive biopic. Filmed in the Sacks’ Greenwich village home and taking its title from his New York Times essay of February 2015, penned on discovering he was dying with terminal cancer, this warmly enjoyable portrait reflects Sacks’ compassionate nature as well as his courage.

Sacks appears to make a graceful exit from this world; writing, talking and loving to the end. Not that the doctor’s life had always been so harmonious and well-structured – on the contrary – his homosexuality and extreme shyness, which he blamed on his prosopagnosia (Face blindness), a neurological defect which some of his patients shared.

Born into an orthodox Jewish family in Cricklewood, London in 1933, he was destined to become a medical doctor: both his parents were members of the profession, so were two of his older brothers. Oliver was his mother’s favourite but when she found out he was homosexual (at the age of 18), she declared “I wish you had never been born.”

Oliver and his brother Michael had been evacuated during the Blitz to a boarding school in the Midlands where both were bullied and beaten. Michael was so disturbed he developed full-blown schizophrenia. Oliver was physically strong, but very timid, and on his 18th birthday let his parents know his plan to move to the USA. In San Francisco and LA he found a life very different from that in repressive London. Achieving a weight-lifting record from his body building he also became addicted to  amphetamines and his BMW motorcycle. His sex life was a disappointment: he constantly fell for straight men and after a birthday encounter in 1963 at the Hampstead Ponds, on a short-lived return to London, he turned celibate for 35 years.

Back in the Bronx Sacks’ life hung in the balance during a fellowship at the Albert Einstein College. And by New Year’s Day 1966, came the realisation his drug habit had to go. In its place came writing. Seeking the help of psychoanalyst Leonard S (the two where still “getting there” by the end), the late 1960s saw him working at Beth Abraham Hospital, where he discovered the beneficial effects of a dopamine replacement drug (L-DOPA) on victims of the encephalitis lethargica pandemic of the 1920s. His patients recovered and shared their experiences during “Lock-Ins”.

Unfortunately, Neurology had acquired a bad name largely as a result of the widespread practice of lobotomising difficult young schizophrenics, but Sacks’ work with kids in this area was too subjective and therefore regarded as ‘unscientific’. In 1973 he was sacked for criticising the practice of putting troublesome young patients suffering from Schizophrenia into solitary confinement.

But his book on EL, entitled ‘Awakenings’ was not well-received, and his colleagues shunned him. To make matters worse, he had written it during a rapprochement with his mother, who then died during a trip to Israel. So disturbed was he at her loss that he injured his leg during a hiking accident (an obvious act of self-harm/suicide) and it took him years to regain his full mobility. This was made worse by his relationship difficulties – homosexuality was a crime, and even an admittance would mean the end of a career. Prison terms and chemical castration were common punishments. (Ironically Penny Marshall’s 1990 film version of Awakenings, with Robin Williams and Robert de Niro, was nominated for three Oscars).

In 1982 Sacks met the editor Kate Edgar, who became his mother surrogate: organising not only his writing output but running his day-to-day life. Sacks output was prolific: his books are always centred around neurological topics, like the aforementioned Prosopagnosia, which he tackled in “The Man who mistook his Wife for a Hat” and “Egnosias”. His love for music was the main theme in “Musicophilia”, “The mind’s Eye” is a research into the brain recognition process of seeing moving images, where a neurological disorder can slow down our recognition process to a slow motion tempo.

Sacks was an explorer of the mind, observing and empathising with his patients, he became completely at one with them during the treatment process. He considered the hierarchical structures which dominate medicine to this day as deleterious to the profession.

DoP Buddy Squires close-ups of Sacks dominate the feature, with Burns keeping proper distance from his subject – apart from at the end, when he chronicles his late-life relationship with NY journalist Bill Hayes, whom Sacks met in 2008. This story of an outsider who became the part of a professional mainstream tainted by decades of patient mistreatment is an enjoyable and informative watch. AS

NOW ON release in Cinemas

Dear Werner – Walking on Cinema (2020) Seville Film Festival 2020

Dir.: Pablo Maqueda; Documentary narrated by Werner Herzog; Spain 2020, 80 min.

Spain’s Pablo Maqueda travels in the footsteps of Werner Herzog in this filmic foray that serves both as a tribute to the veteran’s 60 years in filmmaking and a study of the touchstones that brought it all to life.

The documentary is based on Herzog’s own diaries (Walking on Ice) that chronicle a winter journey in 1974, when the veteran filmmaker grabbed “a jacket, a compass, and a canvas bag of essentials” and set out on foot from Munich to Paris to visit his friend Lotte Eisner who was on her last legs – but in the end survived another decade.

The writer, critic, co-founder of the Cinematheque Francaise and ‘mother’ of New German Cinema was seriously ill, and Herzog hoped if he reached her apartment in the rue des Capucines, Eisner would recover and continue to be a fountain of knowledge for him and other young German filmmakers. The trip was a success on all fronts.

Dear Werner takes the form of a prologue, seven chapters and an epilogue, Herzog re-wrote some of his diary records, and narrated. “The book started out as a simple travel itinerary which led me deeper and deeper into Herzog’s filmography. Then I realised there was a film, in a sense, that wold talk about me through him and his cinema”. Maqueda echoes Herzog’s own doubts (he first features were slaughtered by the German press), when saying, “by making this film, I aimed to encourage and motivate my fellow filmmakers not to despair and to keep walking”. 

In “Cave of forgotten films”, Maqueda explores a real cave, imagining it as the setting for one of his own stories. He also chances upon in a huge listening device and a ski-jump hill – neither associates well with the nature-orientated images which dominate the film. Suddenly we see bears roaming around, only to discover they are actually behind the fences of a nature resort.

After crossing the border to France, Marqueda visits the War Cemetery in Charmes, and later monuments to Jean d’Arc. A chapter on Eisner’s history follows: she had to flee Germany when the Nazis came to power, but ended up nevertheless in a Camp in France, whence she fled. The future director of the Cinematheque Henri Langlois asked Eisner to hide some valuable German expressionist and Russian revolutionary films in the countryside, fearing their destruction. This meant Eisner had to refrain from lighting fires during her ordeal, the nitro material being highly inflammable,

When Herzog arrived in Paris a fortnight before Christmas 1974, he was so elated he asked the recovering Eisner to: “Open the window, from these last days onwards, I can fly”.

Dear Werner is a love letter to the German veteran and the cinema he represents. Maqueda comes over as a diligent pupil, sometimes waxing hagiographic about his idol – but then, so was Herzog when it came to Murnau. Maqueda presupposes his audience is as knowledgeable as he is about Herzog’s canon. And those new to the party may well miss some allusions. Otherwise, Dear Werner – dedicated by the director to Maqueda’s partner and producer Haizea – is a worthwhile journey. AS

SEVILLE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2020 

Martin Eden (2019)

Dir Pietro Marcello | Italy, Drama 129′

Based on the 1909 novel by Jack London, Pietro Marcello crafts a sweepingly timeless romantic epic that follows the fortunes of a sailor (Luca Marinelli) in his captivating quest to become a writer.

Martin Eden is a hero in the classic Southern Italian style: his passionate raw charisma hides a vulnerable but trusting heart.
Marcello’s film is set in a nameless Italian port city where it blends a variety of temporal cues while remaining timeless, a restless momentum driving the narrative forward, and keeping the audience absorbed for nearly three hours.

As Eden, Luca Marinelli has an energetic physicality that pulsates with his desire to overcome the odds of his skimpy education. We first meet him as a jobbing sailer, his imagination fired into action by a chance encounter with the sophisticated Elena (a fragile Jessica Cressy) and he becomes infatuated, for a while. But Martin’s intense preoccupation with bettering himself work-wise – and socially too –  soon becomes an obsession, alienating those who have helped him, As the saying goes: ‘you can take a boy out of Southern Italy but you can’t take Southern Italy out of a boy” and his humble start in life tugs at his conscience.

Marcello’s decision to shoot on Super 16mm gives the film an atmospheric retro quality that compliments the timeless romance of this aspirational story. The use of archival footage both illuminates and intensifies this haunting flight of human passion. The desire to seek a better life against all odds is both timely and universal. MT

New Wave Films is finally set to release Pietro Marcello’s ‘MARTIN EDEN‘ in UK cinemas on 9th July.

 

I Am Not a Hero (2019) *** Raindance Film Festival 2020

Dir:Pablo Diaz Crutzen, Stijn Deconinck and Robin Smit | Doc, Belgium 

I Am Not a Hero offers a Belgian perspective on the Covid19 Crisis and a serene view of fighting the disease from the experience of the medical staff at the Belgian Centre of Excellence of the Erasmus Hospital in Brussels.

Filmmakers Pablo Diaz Crutzen, Stijn Deconinck and Robin Smit explore the pandemic from the March 2019 lockdown until the situation was well under control in late May. Probably not the most popular release at London’s Raindance Film Festival this November, the film nevertheless offers a contrast of sorts given the lessons learnt as the UK and other major European countries face some kind of renewed lockdown this Autumn.

Not surprisingly Belgium experienced the same issues as Britain, and one of the nurses erupts in total rage with her comments intended for the Belgian government: “Where are the masks and equipments they promised? How can we work in these conditions? Why are the aprons now so thin?” Yep, sounds familiar.

We witness a nurse speaking to the family of a very sick patient who has spent most of her treatment lying face down – hence the marks on her face – the situation looks optimistic, but it’s still early days.  Another nurse shares a grim experience of having to deal with the body bag of a patient who died alone without their family – or anyone – for comfort.

Belgium is rather like Britain where hospitals are staffed by multicultural nurses and doctors who nevertheless all get on like a house on fire. And the atmosphere is for the most part cheerful if soberly so. The main commentator here is a ‘bubbly’ Moroccan nurse Meryem –  who describes how she copes with having a growing family to look after, and the need to spend a few days with them now and again to keep everyone happy. There is also a pleasant consultant called Fabio who comments encouragingly. “Most of the patients eventually pull though” Those we do see (although faces are hidden) are white, middle-aged men.. But there is also an in-depth chat with a plump, white nurse who describes her symptoms as a dry cough, loss of smell, and she undergoes a really painful nasal swab.

Fabio does allow the family of a dying patient to visit in the final hours of life. And this is particularly difficult to watch as Fabio organises another visit for a man who will certainly die that night. He has been in the hospital for a month and the shock of his deterioration is clearly hard to accept for his nearest and dearest. Belgium is one of the few countries that have allowed these humane visits.

Filmed on the widescreen as the camera hovers over the hospital and impersonal close-ups on the ward and in the morgue, I Am Not a Hero is always respectfully – the focus is a random hand or the fleeting glance of a wheelchair going into an ambulance ensures discretion. As we leave Fabio and his team, the worst of the crisis is over with a jubilant patient leaving the ward and later arriving home, a little shaky but walking on air.

Maryam feels she has enforced her commitment to her profession and is looking forward to going back to ‘normal’. Sadly that ‘normal’ time is still to come as we face the Winter with our unwelcome visitor from China. MT

RAINDANCE FILM FESTIVAL | 2020

 

Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project ****

Dir.: Matt Wolf; Documentary with Marion Stokes; USA 2019, 87 min.

Director Matt Wolf (Teenage) has created a immersive portrait of Marion Stokes (1929-2012): socialist organiser, civil rights activist, librarian, TV presenter and archivist. Of  her many achievements is a collection of recorded American TV News programmes, spanning the years from 1977 to her death. This valuable reference is an achievement that will keep her name alive as long as TV history is being made.

Stokes’ personal history is as uncommon as her prodigious output: she was given up by her mother for adoption and later traced her birthmother to learn that now had brought up a family after Marion had left. A child of the big Depression, the memory of poverty never left her: her first husband testifies to her membershop of the USA Socialist Party, which he calls “a very unattractive organisation”. This, and the fact that she was a civil rights campaigner, cost her the librarian job. Nevertheless, Stokes was anything but a victim or martyr, with her future husband John Stokes (from a family of ‘Old Money’ in Philadelphia), she hosted a local TV programme researching, among other topics, the way news shows were produced.

Her relationship with her own son Michael Metelits (from her first marriage) was frosty, as were her feelings for John Stokes’s own kids from his first marital relationship. For many years she couldn’t forgive Michael for lacking her intellectual rigour. One of John’s daughters relates how she had to sneak up secretly to talk to her father who later begged her not to mention their meeting.

Marion and John led a more and more secluded life, helped by a chauffeur, an assistant and a nurse, who all spoke highly of Marion. The couples’ huge flat in a luxury apartment block on Ritterhouse Square, a prime location, was soon too small to house the 40,000 books even more tapes the couple collected – they rented multiple flats to cope with the overflow. Strangely enough, Marion was a great fan of Steve Jobs, talking about him like he where her own son. She also bought Apple shares when they were valued at only USD 7.00, and collected all 192 Apple computers from the very beginning of ‘The Classic’.

Long before Kellyanne Conway and Donald Trump coined the term ‘Fake News’, Marion had already cottoned on to the questionable coverage of the Iraq/Iran wars. But it was not only the main stories that fascinated Wolf: “Ultimately it was things we were not looking for, that were most interesting”. Such as a 1998 story, of 84-year old Rose Martin, who was buried in her white Cevrolet Corvair. 

It took over fifty volunteers to catalogue the 70 000 EP (extended play) tapes with Marion’s comments on the spine giving a clue for the Google spreadsheets. This is a stunning documentary. Keiko Deguchi has done a superb editing job, and Chris Dapkins and Matt Mitchell’s talking head images are one of the better ones. Marion Stokes died on the day the school massacre of Sandy Hooks (Connecticut) unfolded on TV – luckily, accordingly to her son, she died before the news showed the grim images. AS

NOW ON RELEASE.

    

 

Havel (2019) *** Czech Film Week

Dir.: Slavek Horak; Cast: Jan Dvorak, Anna Geislorova, Pavel Landdovsky, Anna Kohoutova, Stanislav Majer; Czech Republic 2020, 104 min.

Slavek Horak fails to do his subject justice in this ‘buddy movie’ about Czechoslovakia’s final president and human rights activist Vaclav Havel (1936-2011) framing him as a lecherous womaniser and coward while playing down a prodigious literary talent and author of 245 plays, nine books of non-fiction and six volumes of poetry.

The film focuses on Havel’s adult life leading up to his election as first president of the Czech Republic in 1993, several years after the nation’s “Velvet Revolution” in 1989. There are two time scales: the first one covers his Havel’s life at the theatre in the 1960s the second his imprisonment and dealings in the aftermath to the invasion in 1968. Clearly Horak is not a big fan of the Czech statesman; his treatment plays fast and losse with history, paraphrasing and over-simplifying as it goes along, And this approach is born out in the dialogue. When Havel (played by a game Jan Dvorak) confesses to his wife Olga (Geislorava) “I haven’t been as morally strong as you deserved. But you have always been my First Lady”; Olga replies: “I’d rather be your only lady”. When Havel tries to be philosophical, the result is not much better: “The most interesting thing about the conscience is, that we carry it with us always”.

Havel does not fare any better with his temperamental co-conspirator, the actor Pavel Landovsky (Hofmann), during their illegal battle against the regime after 1968: “You can’t push people to join!…They join us when there are more of us, but there won’t be more of us, if they don’t join us”. Logic prevails. Most complaints come from Olga, who also had to listen to Havel’s ‘confessions’ of his adultery: “for once, would you just NOT tell me”. Further critique follows: “act like a man for once” and “you still think you can have it all?” This plays out during illegality and subversion, after Havel was expelled from the theatre and had to work at a brewery.

But pride of place goes to the exchange between Havel and his mistress Anna Kohoutova (Seidlova), the wife of fellow playwright and conspirator Pavel Kohout (Majer): “My husband is a great fan of yours.” meanwhile “My wife is my biggest critic”. Finally, having declared: “I don’t want to protest, I want to do Theatre”, Havel becomes one of the founder Members of Charter 77, which is smuggled to the West. Again Horak tackles this with platitudes, and not just verbal ones. During interrogation Havel is accused of being a martyr “You are playing the martyr, but when they pressed, you sh.t yourself”. And afterwards, he tells Olga that he only told the authorities what they already knew. “What you don’t know, you can’t tell”. Olga then counters with “Not even to yourself?”

Despite its rather lamentable content this is an elegantly crafted piece of filmmaking. DoP Petr Malasek creates an attractively muted aesthetic all in hued of gunmetal grey and dark blue. Vladimir Hruska’s set design reflects the era but still feels fresh and imaginative. But Horak’s choice of music, scored by Petr Malasek, gives into sensationalism, creating an overwhelming emotional pull that would do any Hollywood blockbuster proud. Surely Vaclav Havel deserves better than this. AS

+ Q&A WITH DIRECTOR SLÁVEK HORÁK
1 – 4 Nov 2020 Czech Centre Vimeo on Demand / PRE-ORDER NOW

Leap of Faith (2019) ****

Dir: Alexandre O Philippe | Doc, 105

Leap of Faith, a lyrical and spiritual cinematic essay on The Exorcist, explores the uncharted depths of William Friedkin’s mind’s eye, the nuances of his filmmaking process, and the mysteries of faith and fate that have shaped his life and filmography. The film unpacks Friedkin’s filmmaking process focusing here exclusively on The Exorcist, a mystery of faith inspired – according to Friedkin – by Dreyer’s 1955 drama Ordet

Already well known for his documentaries 78/52 and Memory: The Origins of Alien, Philippe jumped at this opportunity of a cosy fireside chat with the iconic director who describes himself of instinctive “one-take kind of guy” who has always relied on his gut reaction and spontaneity to make a film. Spontaneity interests him more than perfection. And this was particularly the case when it came to creating The Exorcist which he calls a ‘chamber piece’ rather than a horror movie.

Friedkin grew up with his parents in a one room apartment in Chicago where he was taken by his mother to see Clifford Odet’s None But the Lonely Heart (1944). A lowly postboy, he wanted to discover more about cinema. But the film that propelled him into a career in film was Welles’ Citizen Kane.

By the early 1970s he had already become a successful director when he happened to  read William Peter Blatty’s paperback The Exorcist. Friedkin describes wanting to make the book into a movie against all odds – it seems the whole film popped into his mind fully formed from the novel but Blatty’s script was a fractured narrative with flashbacks. The singleminded Friedkin describes how he had what Fritz Lang once called “sleepwalkers security” about the script. He knew he wanted to tell a straight ahead realist story, just like the book.

The introduction is the underpinning to the whole piece and takes place in ancient Niniver, Iraq. At some point in the town’s early history the citizens had all been beheaded along with the statues and this tragic event sets the tone for the story, the director following his instincts throughout the shoot. Another crucial factor in deciding Regan’s behaviour was an incident during his Chicago, childhood when a local girl was decapitated, her body cut up and thrown into the garden. An ancient medal found in the sands becomes the McGuffin, a significant device providing the motivation for what happens next.

Music had an overriding influence for Friedkin in the The Exorcist. But he wanted to avoid a score that drove the plot forward, and chose instead to soundscape that slowly builds into a powerful force. An overriding sense of dread that stays throughout, starting with a the lowkey opening in Iraq and ending in a quiet crescendo. Father Merrin’s premonition had to be an instinctual moment that the audience has to sense. The supernatural in our midst. An ordinary girl slowly becomes a demon. This “Expectancy set” describes how the audience comes to the cinema wanting to be scared from the outset.  Bernard Herrmann was top of the list score-wise but was quite rude about the film. “If you know St Giles Cripplegate’s organ that would be a great inspiration” said Herrmann, who by now was living in London. But what the film needed was music that “felt like a cold hand on the back of your neck” – he found it with a score made up by composer Lalo Schiffer. But that didn’t work either and drowned the subtleness of the early scenes. The score was left untouched, and they haven’t spoken since. Friedkin wanted more of a Brahms lullaby. Then Mike Oldfield then came along.

Friedkin’s use of subliminal cuts and sounds makes the movie into an experimental sound museum. Old colleague Ken Nordine was called on to create Regan’s demon voice – it needed to be a male/female voice of the kind that Mercedes McCambridge had used in the Western (Johnny Guitar/1954). She used a concoction of heavily booze, eggs and cigarettes to produce an un-God-like sound which brought about the required timbre.

Casting was another complex matter that took some time to get right. Max Von Sidow had a problem getting the intensity to play Father Merrin because he didn’t believe in God, although he had played a convincing Jesus in George Steven’s The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965).  In the end he played Merrin as an ordinary man because his acting skill came from understatement rather than histrionic emotion. Blatty, who has studied for the priesthood and then dropped out, was desperate to play Father Karras but then Jason Miller stepped forward and he just embodied the priest, although he was a non-pro. Stacey Keach had been signed to the role but was immediately dropped, his contract settled in full. The Reverend William O’Malley was another non-pro perfect for the role as Father Dyer because he understood the territory. Friedkin often shot a gun in the air to achieve the right facial expression from his actors – John Ford and George Stevens also regularly used these techniques. Although he claims this kind of ploy was never needed with a great actor. Lee J Cobb, who played Lt Kinderman, was one.

Friedkin talks a great about ‘rosebud moments’ and ‘grace-notes’ during this engaging documentary which draws on his wide taste in culture and art. Regan’s makeup was inspired by the Belgian surrealist Ensor’s paintings of masks. Magritte is also an influence, the artist’s Empire of Light giving the film its iconic image.Moments of truth such as in Cartier Bressons’ photos and Caravaggio’s tortured figures were also an inspiration. Friedkin’s way of lighting the sides of his character’s faces was taken from Vermeer and Rembrandt. Particularly Vermeer’s View of Delft in 17th century. He describes the scene with the white-robed nuns walking by as one the grace notes in this otherwise grim film. Grace notes are the lovely things you remember forever, and are more significent than the larger events.

Just like Kubrick’s Obelisk in 2001 A Space Odyssey, so the silver medal appears to various characters in the film including Father Karras and Father Merrin, along with a constant subliminal theme of ascension throughout the film. Karras is a figure with an inner torment of his own: taunted by guilt about his mother and his fears for the loss of his own faith, he is the tragic hero of the piece. The Father gives up his life for the life of the young girl. He jumps out of the window taking the demon with him, having invited it into his own body, even though suicide is against the Catholic Church (an idea that departs from the book), and remains an ambiguity in the film. Blatty insists that the devil comes out of his body again before Karras leaps out of the window. He then confesses to Father Dyer at the end but Friedkin is still unhappy about this dilemma, considering it the only flaw in the film.

It seems neither Blatty not the director are convinced about the ending. “Life is so ambiguous and that’s why my films are” he claims. This informative documentary ends with Friedkin reminiscing on life and his visit to the Zen garden in Kyoto where he found peace and a series of rocks surrounded by raked gravel. “The rocks represent continents that will never come together. We are in this World alone, completely separate from each other. Driven to tears he sites this as one his grace notes. MT

VENICE FILM FESTIVAL | 29 August – 7 September 2019

Hoop Dreams (1994) **** Blu-ray release

Dir.: Steve James; Documentary with Arthur Agee, William Gates; USA 1994, 172′.

A sporting dream based on basketball spawned this multi-award winning documentary about two becoming NBA stars.

Hoop Dreams started life as a thirty-minute documentary short for first time director Steve James. But after nearly five years of shooting and two years of editing 250 minutes the running time grew into nearly three-hours.

Arthur Agee and William Gates were fourteen year old Afro-Americans living in different housing projects in the West Garfield neighbourhood in Chicago. Their flair for the basketball that saw them beating their elders and competitors captured the attention of a scout who ‘encouraged’ them to enrol at St. Joseph’s, a middle-class (and therefore nearly completely white school) in a leafy suburb.

The star pupil there was Isiah Thomas an NBA legend. It took the two boys three hours a day for the roundtrip (something quite normal in the US unlike here). But it turned out Arthur was not as promising as they had hoped, so the school literally throw him out in the middle of the academic year, his now estranged parents being unable to pay their part of the school fees, so Arthur had to join his local community school.

William, on the other hand, found a wealthy sponsor in Mrs. Wier, who helped with his family’s finances. No such luck for Arthur, whose parents Arthur sen. (‘Bo’) and Sheila had split up, his father spending seven months in prison, selling drugs on the open-air playground where Arthur often played with his friends. When Sheila lost her job as nursing assistant, electricity and gas in the home was turned off. So the filmmakers decided to help out.

Gene Pingatore, the team’s basketball coach at St. Joseph’s, turned out to be a bully and particularly so towards William who suffered two serious knee injuries, nearly ending his career. Curtis Gates, Williams’ older brother, had been an outstanding player himself, but was called “un-coachable”. He would be shot dead just after the turn of the century. Bo, Arthur’s father, also was murdered in 2004.

Not surprisingly, Sheila was thankful that Arthur was still alive and able to celebrate his 18th birthday. For William, St. Joseph more than supportive: they ‘massaged’ his academic grades so he could attend Marquette University. Arthur too reached university level at Arkansas State, after a detour via the Mineral Area College. Neither men would play in the NBA, though William came nearest in 2001. After training with Michael Jordan, he missed his trial with Washington Wizards because of a foot injury. He is now a Pastor and Youth Team coach in Texas, Arthur does community work in Chicago, funding himself with the USD 200,000 bursary the producers gave each of their subjects after the surprise success of the documentary.

Watching Hoop Dreams, you can understand the Americans’ fixation for ball games of all sorts. Spectators become hysterical in their thousands, and on a scale that far surpasses anything we’ve come to appreciate in Britain. Hoop Dreams could be called the first reality doc: not a second has been wasted on Hollywood structures – a reason, the feature was boycotted by the Oscar jury for Documentaries. The three filmmakers capture the essence of the American Dream: sport and music as an escape from the poverty trap. Sadly, drugs and poverty are now the only release for the huge majority who fail to reach the promised land. AS

NOW ON BLU-RAY

Ronnie’s (2020)

Dir: Oliver Murray | Doc with:

The sheer exhilaration of live music is one of life’s pleasures. And Oliver Murray conjurs up the vibrant spirit of Jazz in this documentary tribute to a man who was always “gracious, inviting and free to share his ideas with everybody” in the words of American record producer Quincy Jones. This is the story of Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club. Soho’s storied jazz club in London.

Ronnie Scott (1927-1996) was an English jazz tenor saxophonist who played alongside some of the most famous figures in the world of Jazz in a small basement location in London’s Frith Street in the heart of Soho.

Once described as a “very nice bunch of guys”, Ronnie was all things to all people, everyone describing a different side of his charismatic personality. And Murray saves the darker side for the final chapter of this layered biopic. Scott grew up in a working class Jewish family in the East End of London where he trained on the saxophone just like his father before him, founding his iconic jazz club in 1959 and unintentionally creating a den of cool and a meeting place for luminaries of the jazz world and their aficionados.

Still going after 60 years, Ronnie Scotts is now a household name, inextricably linked to the word Jazz, the current manager (and talking head) Simon Cooke has been keeping the place going for the past 25 years. Owned by theatre impresario Sally Greene and the entrepreneur Michael Watt since 2005

Fascinating archive footage forms the background to a later interview with Ronnie – taking us through the history of his East and West End childhood and early adulthood in the 1940s where he became a dance-band saxophonist (like his father) and then falling in love with Bebop and learning his Jazz style on board oceans liners bound for New York. Here he discovered Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and eventually, sailing back to London, he dreamed up the idea of his own jazz club – he would be the star-power – starting the evening in compare mode with a series of dry jokes – his fellow musician Pete King was the business brain. The idea came together with the aspiration to provide keen musicians with the first ever place to perform in Gerrard Street (just round the corner), although Americans were forbidden by the Musician’s Union to play in English venues. This made the financing complicated because only the Americans bought in the money. This led to a long-standing feud with the UK musician’s union.

Five bob (UK shillings) was the charge for the Saturday ‘all-nighter” and there was generous hospitality shown to regulars and those who worked there. Later the club moved to bigger premises at 47 Frith Street and welcomed the likes of Sonny Rollins, Dizzie Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Roland Kirk, Miles Davis, Nina Simone, Oscar Peterson, Buddy Rich, Thelonious Monk, Chet Baker and Sarah Vaughan, and even Van Morrison all of whom perform in the clips that Murray interweaves into this lively biopic.

Scott was the frontman while macho straight-talker King took care of the business. Their close relationship was likened to a marriage, by King’s wife Stella, who describes Ronnie as a complicated man who, unknown to friends and fellow musicians, suffered from low moods that he shook off by playing his music. And bankruptcy was often round the corner, Ronnie recalling the bailiffs being on site one time even pricing up the piano while the show went on. Ronnie often gambled away the takings but he was also the life and soul of a place fondly remembered here by those who enjoyed it over the years amongst them Mel Brooks, music journalist John Fordham, Ronnie’s daughter Rebecca, and his various wives and partners Mary Scott, Francoise Venet, and others who help flesh out the complicated artist he was.

But the unique feel of the place and Ronnie’s soulful charisma dominant this jubilant often deeply poignant biopic about a man with a vision, and a club that still attracts crowds as never before and will hopefully carry on. MT

ON QUALITY PLATFORMS

 

 

Nocturnal (2019) ***

Dir.: Nathalie Biancheri; Cast: Laura Coe, Cosmo Jarvis, Sadie Frost, Amber Jean Rowan; UK 2019, 86 min.

Nathalie Biancheri gets off to a great start as a filmmaker with this appealing indie drama that really benefits from Michal Dymek’s imaginative visuals, but the narrative’s ambitious underlying conflict is let down by an underworked script.

At the titles suggests the film plays out mostly at night in a small English coastal town where sixteen-year old Laurie (Coe) has recently arrived. Her emotional is far more difficult to handle than would have us know. An experienced athlete she is now running middle-distance at club level, but even professional life sees her as an outsider. Her mother Jean (Frost) seems uncomfortable too. Meanwhile she crosses paths with Pete (Cosmo) a 33-year old decorator in an unsatisfactory relationship with Jade (Rowan). Pete is a drifter who avoids any commitment, but falls into a laid back friendship with Laurie. But Laurie wants more, and when Pete re-coils – the long telegraphed -secret is out. When Pete moves to Rotterdam, Laurie is left to pick up the pieces, and her mother is unable to make her realise what has actually happened.

Biancheri and her co-writers rely on atmosphere and enigma to make up for their undeveloped script: skimming over characterisations to pack it all into into 86 minutes. We only get to know the bare essentials about the main trio, most is left unsaid. There is no real introduction to the characters, and whilst we very soon cotton on to the secret, there is no dramatic arc, because the building blocks are missing. Jean is particularly under-sketched, and there’s no explanation as to why she is so cold to her daughter. We are left with a great atmosphere, the nights are full of shimmering lights and the desolate amusement pier is captured with enticing allure. But this cannot make up for a script needing much more work. AS

IN CINEMAS AND CURZON WORLD FROM 18 SEPTEMBER 2020

      

 

Pinocchio (2019) ****

Dir: Matteo Garrone | Fantasy Drama, Italy 122′

Matteo Garrone’s enchanting version of Carlo Callodi’s 1883 classic has appeal for adults and pre-teens with its endearing characters and sharp social commentary.

Best described as a bedtime cautionary tale in the dark style of the Grimm or Hoffman, Garrone’s latest has shades of his 2015 Tale of Tales in the extravagant costumes. But here animals pose as humans and vice versa, although clearly it’s not salacious, veering more into terrifying territory in warning of the disastrous consequences of childhood misbehaviour in an exaggerated way.

This Pinocchio stays faithful to the page, Roberto Benigni is the woodcutter Geppetto, who begs a trunk of wood from his friend and crafts a puppet to replace the son he never had. But Garrone keeps Benigni under control – his weird 2002 adaptation in which he also starred clearly came to mind – and he’s gone after the first couple of scenes, 8 year-old Federico Ielapi’s Pinocchio running away to seek his fortune armed with 5 gold coins, as a naive but disobedient wooden puppet child. But not before burning his feet by the fireside, in one of the film’s more sinister sequences.

The ancient fishing villages near Bari and the baked landscapes of Sienna provide the vivid backdrop to a story that is certainly compelling, and the Berlinale press audience looked on with a childish fascination and very few walk-outs.

Pinocchio and some of the other puppets have authentic looking wood-grained faces and eyes that are living behind them. A tiny talking cricket (Davide Marotta) is particularly cute and so is the money-like judge (Teco Celio) who sends Pinocchio down “because the innocent always go to jail, and the guilty go free”. This is the tenor of its social satire. In one delightful scene, Pinocchio’s nose grows out when he lies, serving as a branch for starlings to peck at.

Garrone and Massimo Ceccherini collaborate on the script that is essentially as series of adventures showcasing how Pinocchio refuses to do his homework, and keeps making mistakes, as all boys do, eventually turning into a donkey sold into a life of slavery. He is also almost eaten alive and falls prey to a pair of feline fraudsters (played by Ceccherini and Rocco Papaleo), desperate to get their paws on his money. Enter the famous “magic money tree.” well known to Jeremy Corbyn, although that particular fantasist doesn’t have a part in this fairy story. The Blue Fairy does, however, and she grows into a beautiful woman (Marine Vacth) who looks after Pinocchio, assisted by her snail-like housekeeper. And eventually the boy comes good, and his reward arrives in a moving and magical finale that drags its heels but finally delivers the classic happy ending. MT

OUT ON 14 August 2020 | premiered at BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL | 20 February – 1 March 2020

My Rembrandt (2020) *****

Dir: Oeke Hoogendijk | Doc, 97′

Oeke Hoogendijk (The New Rijksmuseum) once again delves into the art world in her visually ravishing new documentary that plays out like a thriller. Set amidst the world of the elite in a multi-stranded narrative that grows more exciting by the minute My Rembrandt is a story of art dealers, connoisseurs and collectors whose lives revolve around the sale and acquisition of masters old and new.

Hoogendijk certainly knows how to build suspense and has a good nose for a story. It also helps to be on first name terms with her illustrious characters: The Duke of Buccleuch; Dutch art scion Jan Six, Baron Eric de Rothschild; and billionaire philanthropist Thomas S Kaplan. She finds herself in a discrete Scottish castle, Champs Elysses apartments, and canal houses of Amsterdam where this fascinating film takes place. Ironically there’s not an ounce of avarice in the faces of these extraordinary collectors who are genuinely charming and pleasant. My Rembrandt is a seductive film with a surprising finale whether the subject is of interest of not.

We meet businessman and philanthropist Thomas Kaplan, who is a passionate Rembrandt collector who set himself the noble task of making these works available in the public domain and who has buying up canvases for the past few decades. Kaplan is an appealing man Kaplan who confesses to having actually kissed a Rembrandt portrait of a woman. Clearly well-connected he goes about his business amongst world leaders at media events connected to his pastime. The Duke of Buccleuch is more lowkey in his approach and we see him celebrating his looking his Rembrandt, Old Woman Reading, in the privacy of his sitting room. Rijksmuseum director Taco Dibbits helping him to select a safe place to hang the portrait in order to involve the old woman in everyday life as a true member of the family.

Meanwhile Baron Roschild is a kindly man who has reluctantly parted with two Rembrandts – the wedding portraits of Marten and Oopjen – which have been in the family for generations, in order to help his brother pay taxes. The sale of these masterpieces threatens to derail the entente cordiale between the Louvre in France and Holland’s Rijksmuseum as they each bid for paintings.

All these titbits are brought together by the work of Dutch art dealer Jan Six XI, the ancestor of a 17th-century art dealer whose portrait was actually painted by Rembrandt and stills hangs in the family home. The film opens with his discovery of an as yet unknown canvas by Rembrandt, and a second follows shortly after the first. Jan Jnr is not just a pretty face but a Rembrandt expert, and what he doesn’t know about the painter could be written on a Holbein miniature. Jan has also made a career out of the old master. He recently spotted both canvases at a Christies auction and snapped them up for a relatively low price. But he needs to prove these paintings are actually by Rembrandt and not just one of his disciples. And this is where Rembrand authority Professor Ernst van de Wetering comes in. The ‘Fake or Fortune’ twist then takes over as we are compelled to discover whether Jan has made a clever purchase or bough himself a proverbial ‘pup’. And the finale is spiced up by a fellow trader coming into the fray, accusing Jan of cheating him.

What is remarkable is that Rembrandt’s paintings have lost none of their appeal in the 350 years since his death. Collectors worldwide relish the Dutch master’s work. My Rembrandt offers insight into what makes the work of this Dutch master technically so extraordinary, and why people are so passionate about paintings in general. In her brilliant documentary Hoogendijk shows how the sober art world can be a source of drama and gripping plot twists. MT

ON RELEASE IN UK CINEMAS and ON DEMAND from  on 14th August.

Proxima (2019) **** Rotterdam Film Festival 2020

Dir: Alice Winocour | Wri: Alice Winocour, Jean-Stephane Bron | Cast: Eva Green, Lars Eidinger, Matt Dillon, Sandra Huller | Sci-fi Drama 107′

Proxima is Alice Winocour’s most ambitious film to date and certainly her most unique and cinematic. It depicts the struggle of an ordinary mother (Green) who is an outstanding engineer and cosmonaut. Melding docudrama with a moving love story, Proxima is full of haunting images heightened by Ryuichi Sakamoto’s ethereal score, all enveloped in a gripping storyline: Will a woman deeply attached to her young daughter make it into Space and back.

Green’s female engineer Sarah is at the heart of Proxima. She is a luminous presence – fragile tough and strangely otherworldly. Given the opportunity to join the European Space Agency’s Mars probe mission along with other seasoned spacemen – including Matt Dillon’s macho but golden-hearted leader – she takes the plunge. What starts out as matter of fact preparation for the long term mission soon becomes a fraught and increasingly affecting exploration of what is means to love, to be a parent, to meet professional goals, and to thrive and appreciate our own planet. Proxima is a ground-breaking and beautiful film as much about our life here on Earth as is about this perilous journey into the unknown.

The Parisian-born part Russian director, who has Russian blood, avoids melodrama until the final remarkable scenes. And she doesn’t stint on detail when describing the gruelling physical and emotional preparations for space travel. The final titles include a roll-call of famous cosmonaut mothers – because the crucial twist here is that Sarah must leave her daughter Stella (a determined Zelie Boulant) for six months to join the mission. Convincingly shot on location in the ESA facilities in Cologne and in Star City near Moscow, Winocour spent two years researching and writing the script (with regular Jean-Stephane Bron). It shows how motherhood can thwart ambition particular when along comes a small, needy child. And it cuts both ways – Sarah often being driven to tears of doubt and remorse rather than her toddler Stella – kids are tough! And this element gives the drama its rich emotional underbelly.

Green is convincing both as the highly driven scientist and the tender-hearted parent who may lose her life. Lars Eidinger is a lowkey but supportive presence as the astrophysicist dad. There is a subtle suspense at play throughout this remarkable journey and the moving love story at its core. MT

NOW AT UK PICTUREHOUSES| ROTTERDAM FILM FESTIVAL 2020 |

Vision Nocturna | Night Shot (2019) ***** FID Marseille

Dir.: Carolina Muscoso Briceño; Documentary; Chile 2019, 80 min.

Pain, Rage and Acceptance: the various stages of rape. Chilean first-time director/co-writer and DoP Carolina Muscoso Briceño has dared to go where very few have gone before her: having been a rape victim almost a decade ago while studying at the Film School in Santiago, she has since made a film diary of her life still rocked to this day by the rape trauma. Intercut with her reflexions on the assault – and not only her own experience – Night Shot is a testament to gradual liberation.

“Rape victims are ashamed of what happened to them. The first thing that mobilised me was to break with that shameful legacy and to think of a way of exposing it to cross that barrier” says the director.

Everyday life go on, in various formats. Her experiences about the attack itself and the bureaucratic engendered are set mostly against a black background. On the beach near Santiago, Carolina became separated from her friends, and came across Gary. The two decided to go for something to eat nearby, but on the way he raped her. “Afterwards I did as he told me. I stayed motionless in the bushes. He said he would kill me if I followed him. I cleaned the blood off my face, picked up my ripped shirt and headed for the highway”.  The distress was further compounded by her father’s comments when he picked her up in his car: “a friend of mine got raped by her father. That’s much worse.”

Carolina went to a hospital, and was examined two hours after the rape. But the Catholic female doctor was against offering her a morning-after-pill, on the grounds of being against aborton “on principle”. What follows adds insult to injury and later Gary Raul Lopez Montero categorically refused any connection with Carolina. “I never knew anybody called Carolina. I met no one that night. I have a one-year-old daughter, I deny any involvement in this event” His brashness compared with Carolina’s answers still under the influence of the rape, made the DA drop the case.

Eight years later, Carolina makes another attempt to get justice, seeking advice from her lawyer friend Slvio who describes recourse as an uphill struggle for the victim, particularly where they refused to complete  hospital tests and seemed to lack conviction about their own role in the matter. Chile’s systemic structure of ‘justice’, in which the rape victim had to prove the guilt of the attacker, is common in most countries. Carolina’s first psychologist had told her “You are in the middle of an emergency landing”, and whilst she talked, Carolina imagined the different ways of falling.

Later Silvio has even worse news: The time limit for prosecution of rape is usually ten years, but since Gary was a minor at the time of the attack, the limit is just five years. Carolina eventually returns to the scene of the crime: “To be back feels like a big fire, this fire accompanies me, as well as the feeling that Gary is right here. That nine years later, he never has left this place”. She films and photographs the terrain, and is asked by a rider on horseback, why she is taking the photos. Her response is candid: “I am recording this place here, because something has happened here. Yes, here in Papudo. A long time ago, seven or eight years.” The rider asks: “Something good or bad”. Caroline’s answer is “good and bad”, before stating that she did not know her feelings are ambivalent. and: “I don’t know why I think I’ll find the wallet I lost that day”. Breathtakingly honest, Night Shot is an absolute masterpiece of form and context. AS

FID MARSEILLE 2020 | INTERNATIONAL COMPETITION.

BUÑUEL in the Labyrinth of the Turtles (2020)

Dir.: Salvador Simo; Animation with the voices of Jorge Uson, Fernando Ramos, Cyril Corral, Luis Enrique de Tomas; Spain/Netherlands/Germany 2019, 80 min.

Salvador Simo’s fluid animated feature is a treasure chest for film historians, and an entertaining jewel of inspiration for newcomers to the legendary artist’s work.

Based on Fermin Solis’ graphic novel about the making of Luis Bunuel’s 1933 documentary Land without Bread (Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan) it all starts at the premiere of his scandal ridden feature L’Age d’Or 1928 in the Paris cinema “Studio 28”. With the audience leaving in great numbers, there is clearly no doubt that Bunuel (Uson) will have difficulty finding backers for a new project. But luck is on his side in the shape of a winning Christmas lottery ticket purchased by his friend, the anarchist painter Ramon Acin (Ramos). The money provides finance for Land without Bread. Surrealism is victorious again. The jackpot also provides Bunuel with a new car, and he sets off with Acin and the photographer Eli Lotar (Corral), armed with  Mauricio Legendres’ book about the region of Las Hurdes (Western Spain). Pierre Unik (de Tomas) makes up the foursome, who will serve as ‘Girl Friday’ during the shoot

But the journey to Las Hurdes is full of surprises. In a small village they come across a bizarre wedding ceremony: the prospective brides riding on horseback through streets, tearing off the heads of live chickens hanging from a rope. A later scene sees the filmmakers paying a farmer to repeat the act, as they stand by in trepidation. Bunuel soon goes a step further, shooting a mountain goat, who tumbles down spectacularly into a steep ravine.

Meanwhile Bunuel comments to Acid.: “We are here to help these people, not to mess around and pretend to be artists”.  At night he plagued by dreams of his traumatic childhood, and his constant fear of death. In one dream, he encounters death, begging to live longer, because “I have so much more to do” Death simply replies: “you are not important, who says I have come for you?”

Other dreams feature his tyrannical father, who shows him a giraffe from whose open stomach birds fly. Yellow butterflies recur in many of these dreams, showing how Bunuel was trying to shake off Dali’s influence. 

Land Without Bread was banned in Spain and France. Only in 1936 did the Spanish Republic allow screenings, but the name of Ramon Acin – who had been executed along his wife by the Spanish Fascists – at the beginning of the Guerra Civil – had to be scratched off because of his anarchist past. In 1960, when Bunuel created a restored version, Acin’s name was re-instated, and Bunuel gave the money from the re-release to Acin’s daughters Katia and Sol.

The animation is about simplicity and clear lines, there is no grandstanding, and this approach goes well with the many clips from the original documentary: in both cases, the lighting is crucial and central to the aesthetic. Arturo Cardelos’ plangent piano score subtly champions the struggle between surrealism and realism, fought out by Luis Bunuel. AS    

PREMIERING ON BFI PLAYER ON 9 JULY 2020                       

Spaceship Earth (2020) **** VOD release

Dir.: Matt Wolf; Documentary with John Allen; USA 2019, 113 min.

Larger and much stranger than life, director/producer Matt Wolf (The Marion Stokes Project) has followed the eight ecologists, who, in 1991, were locked into Biosphere 1, a glass dome in Arizona, to live under conditions aping those on Mars. Animals and plants thrived, but it was not so much the conditions inside, but the human disconnections outside that clouded the experiment in controversy. Still, for a documentary that takes its time – exactly one hour – to get to the main event, Spaceship manages brilliantly to keep us enthralled.

In all starts in San Francisco in 1966: young Kathelin Gray meets a much older John Allen, whilst reading René Daumal’s ‘Mount Analogue’, Allen promises her much more than books, and together with other enthusiasts, they found the travelling theatre group Theatre of All Possibilities. Deciding that Frisco has become too commercialised, they take roots (literally) in New Mexico, living on the land, guided by the Synergy principle, naming the ranch after their motto. Later they built a ship, called the ‘Hereclitus’, naming it after the man who left his privileged life to live in harmony with everyone on earth. They met Burroughs, and adored Buckminster Fuller. Unlike most commune dwellers, they worked very hard, for little profit. But Allen, who had a sense of capitalist reality and soon found a helping hand in form of Ed Bass, a billionaire, who bought a hotel in Kathmandu for the collective, before bankrolling the Biosphere 2 dome.

The eight people, looking rather strange in their red astronaut suits were Roy Walford, Jane Poynter. Taber MacCallum, Mark Nelson, Sally Silverstone from Essex, Abigail Alling, Mark van Thillo and Linda Leigh. The hermetically sealed three-acre paradise of plants and animals suffered an overdose of CO2 (and  therefore a lack of oxygen), which led Dr. Walford come to the conclusion he would have to eat even less thanks to the low levels of oxygen , and could live for another 120 years. Soon oxygen was pumped in, but it degraded the scientific data. Jane Poynter got her finger stuck in the hay cutting machine, and had to leave for the hospital – coming back with an extra bag – another no-no according to the rules set up before. Media and scientists called the ecologists a ‘cult’, the grass grew limp and tempers frayed. Afterwards, Bass invited a young Steve Bannon (yes, that Bannon!), straight from Goldman Sachs, and this meant the end of the Bass/Allen relationship.  

Spaceship Earth reaches a melancholic conclusion: the founder members, John Allen and Marie Harding, – who have since married – among them, sit around a table amid an air of nostalgia. All of them have kept to the good life of the synergy days, and have stayed out of the commercial rat race, which now includes bio products and anything ‘alternative’. Watching them, we get keen sense of how far away from their heydays we have moved. DoP Sam Wootton underlines feeling of loss with his camerawork which mirrors the archive footage of the original group. To think that something as repulsive as the rip-off Bio-dome made millions at the box office, breaks your heart. AS

ON DEMAND | 10 JULY 2020 |

 

It Couldn’t Happen Here (1987) *** Blu-ray release

Dir/Jack Bond | 86′ Biopic Drama

Jack Bond throws every English icon into this absurdist outing. It sees the Pet Shop Boy’s Neil Tennant dolled up In evening garb and ready to party, rather soberly, alongside his partner in crime Chris Lowe rocking a beanie and leather jacket. The two fetch up in the English seaside resort of Clacton where they befriend a bonkers blind priest (Joss Acland); a camp Gareth Hunt; nuns in drag; a ventriloquist’s dummy and marauding school boys for an existential day that spills into a neon night.

Scored by their legendary classics, one of the best scenes features Lowe in a biplane soaring over the English countryside in Summer, Tennant riding below in an old Humber banger complete with a bunch of dice. At a funfair pervy bovver boys threaten to queer the pitch as they whizz by on a big wheel. Tennant finally returns his mother’s call (an unlikely Barbara Windsor in curlers and psychedelic lipstick). Zeebras, cows and snakes roam through the Victorian station of Horsted Keynes where a train is – naturally – derailed.

If you’re an avid fan this nostalgic trip to those glory days will have you singing from the rafters – but it’s a kitsch bridge too far for most audiences, feeling very dated in its 1980s ponceyness. MT

NOW ON BFI BLURAY | 15 JUNE 2020

Gagarine (2020)

Dir.: Fanny Liatard, Jérémy Trouilh; Cast: Alseni Bathily, Lyna Khoudri, Jamil McCraven, Farida Rahouadj, Finnegan Oldfield; France 2020, 97 min.

The world’s first Space traveller Yuri Gagarin gives his name to this impressive debut from Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh. Cité Gagarine, a housing estate in the Parisian suburb of Ivry-sur-Seine, had a less illustrious time of things than its namesake, and has now been almost totally demolished along with other buildings of the HLM (habitation à Loyer Modéré), once home to many thousands.

This long version of the directors’ 2015 short starts with a newsreel showing Mr Gagarin (1934-1968), when he visited the site in 1963, enjoying a rapturous welcome from the tenants. Fast forward to 2019, and our new hero teenager Youri (effervescent newcomer Bathily) has not quite come to terms with losing his longterm home. His parents have long left the nest: his mother is now living with a new partner and baby. So his only close tie is with friend of the family Fari (Rahouadj) who will soon leave for pastures new in the South of France. That leaves Youri’s friend and sidekick Houssam (McCraven) and of course Diana (Khoudri), a teenager from a nearby Roma settlement, who shares Youri’s passion for Space travel.

When engineers from the council declare the block of flats unfit for habitation, Youri is determined to save his home, constructing an elaborate space shuttle within its walls. A solar eclipse is the ‘last hurrah’ before the old block is to be detonated. After a valedictory night of passion, Diana goes on her way, Youri agreeing to take care of the dog, renaming it Laika. Everything is now set for the great detonation, and the former residents assemble outside for the final time. Suddenly, a coordinated light show flashes from their former home. Diana and Houssam realise Youri must still be hiding inside in some outlandish act of denial.   

This French film is a revitalising tonic after so much drab British sink estate realism: Yes, bad things happen, but there is always love, and dreams. Even the drug dealer (Oldfield) is not the “bad guy” sent by central casting, but a rather disturbed young man with suicidal tendencies.

Youri’s escapist new ‘home’ is a marvel of imagination and gives DoP Victor Seguin the basis for imaginative ‘space travel’ in Youri’s parallel world. And there’s astringent humour here too: Diana having to help her acrophobic lover up the ladder to the command unit. Ever the optimist, Youri sums it all up with his starry-eyed observation “we are neighbours with the moon”.

Gagarine gives us hope at the end of the rainbow that stretches beyond our day-to-day tunnel of trauma, to infinity and beyond. Youri shows we all have the power to re-create another universe, however parlous our life may be. Far from idealising poverty, Gagarine is proof that escapism offers redemption – we just need to explore our own imagination for salvation in these unworldly times.

NOW IM CINEMAS NATIONWIDE | CANNES COMPETITION SELECTION |  2020     

True History of the Kelly Gang (2019) ****

Dir: Justin Kurzel | Cast: George MacKay, Essie Davis, Nicholas Hoult, Thomasin McKenzie | Biopic 124′

Australian thrillers are usually brutal and anarchic, emblematic of the scorched earth savagery of their remote and often desiccated homeland. Justin (Snowtown) Kurzel’s latest foray into fiendishness is adapted by Shaun Grant from Peter Carey’s novel, and inspired by the infamous Ned Kelly, who raged through the bush in a melodramatic meltdown during 19th-century English colonial occupation. 

This incarnation of Kelly is a tightly muscled racier beast that Carey’s animal, bred out dysfunction to become a macho psychopath of the worst order, and obsessed by an abusive mother Ellen (Essie Davis) who sold him as an apprentice to local bandit Harry Power (a scabrous Russell Crowe ) who taught him the tricks of the trade. Kurzel excels in creating vicious villains. Here he shows us the how Ned Kelly (an outlandish George MacKay) became such a hell-raiser, through a serious of episodic accounts that link the past with his criminal activities as leader of the gang. These encompass a weirdly mixed-up sexual ambivalence and a predilection for homoeroticism and cross-dressing. 

Kelly emerges a weak-willed brothel-creeper from the outset, unable to avenge his mother’s sexual abuse at the hands of an English sergeant (Charlie Hunnam), and drawn to the company of other low-life members of the English regiment. One is Nicholas Hoult’s Constable Fitzpatrick who frequents a local brothel, where Kelly falls into the clutches of Mary (Thomasin McKenzie) and morphs into full-blown insurgency against the British (The Nightingale here we go again). And it’s at this stage that film starts to visually resonate with Kurzel’s 2015 outing  Macbeth and there are also echoes of Snowtown (2012) but it’s also here that is starts to unravel into something unhinged but also hypnotic, breaking free from its period drama into a psychedelic thriller.

Mesmerising for the most part, True History is an ultimately an uneven experience unable to maintain the sheer pace of its early scenes. But its vehemence, passion and visual allure burn bright, and the final part of the film descends into extraordinary surreal psychodrama. Kelly is a chameleon character who always knows where his bread is buttered, and is able to ingratiate himself with the right people at the right time – and George Mackay once again shows his amazing talents in this transformative role. A psychedelic and shatteringly violent experience but one that is compelling despite its flaws. MT

LIVE YOUTUBE Q&A WITH DIRECTOR & CAST 28 JUNE 2020

 

WITH DIRECTOR JUSTIN KURZEL

AND ACTORS GEORGE MACKAY, ESSIE DAVIS, AND EARL CAVE

 

Sisters with Transistors (2020) Bfi player

Dir.: Lisa Rovner; Documentary narrated by Laurie Anderson; France 2019, 85 min.

Paris based writer/director Lisa Rovner looks at the women pioneers behind electronic music in a lively new documentary. Sisters With Transistors shows how women opened up new avenues of creativity, despite prevailing male attitudes at the time  to these talented musicians having to wait a lifetime to hear their own compositions on the airwaves.

The honour of being first goes to Lithuanian born Clara Rockmore (1911-1998). Trained as a violinist at the conservatoire, she then took up an early synthesiser style instrument. We watch her in the garden of her New York house in 1934, with the sound artist Aura Satz commenting how Rockmore describes her art  allowing “the self-created sound to change the music”.

British composer Delia Derbyshire (1937-2001) was also an early pioneer working in the BBC’s Radiophonic workshop, surrounded by electronic generators, producing music via a TV monitor, culminating in a structural version of ‘white noise’. In her own living room she worked with huge radios, up to two meters high. At Oxford, she was part of just ten percent of female students. The Nazi bombing of Coventry, and the London Blitz, inspired her to a new world of sounds. Equally, the CND marches inspired her to compose music “from the Cold War”. But her greatest and most lasting achievement is the eerie, a-tonal intro-music for Dr. Who, a series starting in 1963. 

Daphne Oram (1925-2003), co-founder of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, composed prolifically: Amphitryon 1958, Private Dreams and Public Places – both pieces evoking Huxley’s SciFi novels. Oram worked with paint on the glass plates, which distributed the music onto the tape recorder. Her Birds of Parallax is a sort of dance music and shown with a newsreel film clip of ‘modern’ dancing’.

Eliane Radigue (*1932) grew up near Nice airport, her music was based on the very different sounds the planes made. She created a sound stage, which became a musical universe. Working as an assistant to composer Pierre Schaeffer in an otherwise male-only crew, she was told by a co-worker “How nice it is, to have you in the studio, it smells good”. At the end of the 60s when working with Pierre Henry, Radigue discovered the feedback technique, by “finding the sweet spot between a speaker and a microphone, making the sound evolve.” She called it “Sonic propositions”. 

Meanwhile, in 1952, in New York’s Greenwich Village, electronic composers Bebe Baron (1926-2008) and her husband Louis wrote the music to Belle of Atlantis by Ian Hugo and Anias Nin. In 1956 they composed the soundtrack to Forbidden Planet, but the musicians union fought successful against a credit on the feature – they had to be happy with being mentioned as “Electronic tonalities” contributors. 

Pauline Oliveros (193-2016) was a lesbian, a revolutionary and a composer of electronic music in 1950s San Francisco which was, at the time, nearly as conservative as the rest of USA. But, it was also a time, when some artists wanted to be not like anybody else. Having been given a tape recorder for her birthday in 1965, Pauline went on to make a career as a composer, starting with’ Bye, bye Butterfly’, a Japanese influenced ballet. Many composers had in common “They they were ghost riding on different frequencies”, as Mayanne Amacher put it.

All these women had to fight simply to stay alive, Wendy Carlos (*1939) is the exception. Invited by a very young David Letterman to appear on his show, she amazed him with her music producing equipment that saw her becoming arguably the first woman to secure lucrative commercials, and a staring role in Hollywood production of The Incredible Shrinking woman“.   

Rovner returns to Eliane Radiguet, who was interviewed in 2018 in Paris, listening to some of her music for the first time. “Thirty, forty years ago, it would have been impossible for musicians to play my music. I am hearing it for the first time. In the past, if often thought, I was crazy”.

In her impressive debut, Rovner wisely avoids the talking heads approach that can often spoil the integrity of a documentary, interweaving her film instead with informative historical newsreels and fascinating archive footage. AS

NOW ON BFI PLAYER

  

 

Radioactive (2020) ***

Dir: Marjane Satrapi | Wri: Jack Thorne | Cast: Rosamund Pike, Sam Riley, Anya Taylor-Joy, Jonathan Aris, Simon Russell Beale, Aneurin Bernard,

Iranian director Marjane Satrapi’s film about Nobel prize winner Marie Curie may be flawed but it’s certainly not boring. Hampered by Jack Thorne’s sprawling script, Radioactive isn’t sure whether it wants to be a love story about a woman’s fight for professional recognition, or a costume drama about the discovery of radium – with plenty of ideas flying around. In the end we get an over-ambitious but fascinating film that starts in the 1890s and continues to the present day and beyond. 

Radioactive opens in 1934 just as an ageing Marie Curie (aka Maria Skłodowska ) is living out her final days. Death comes with a message from the grave in the moving bedside finale which shows how love impacted on the amazing mind of the celebrated Polish scientist. She was much maligned by her male peers, but reached her professional potential, and had a crack and love and motherhood into the bargain: quite an achievement back in the day.

The story then swings back to the 1890s where the febrile but earnest young Maria Sadowska (Pike) is having a hard time with her crusty old colleagues in a Paris laboratory where she is desperate to make her way in the world of science. After being given the professional heave-ho from the lab by Simon Russell Beale’s Professor Lipmann, Marie comes across a fellow scientist Pierre Curie (played convincingly by Sam Riley) and the two fall in love despite her efforts to repel him and forge her own path. Motherhood will eventually prevent her from triumphing over Pierre, who steals her professional fire, but then falls prey to tuberculosis and a roadside tragedy, his death recreated in a captivating dream sequence. This is an emotional setback for Marie (“I don’t want be strong, I want to be weak”) but she still goes on indomitably to save lives with her X ray discovery and cancer radiation therapy – and although it isn’t all plain sailing, her perseverance and brainpower win through.

Marred by its over-ambitiousness and an eerie electronic score that doesn’t quite gel with the early scenes, Radioactive is informative but often bewildering as it romps through Marie Curie’s ground-breaking work. Rosamund Pike is stunning as the steely medical pioneer, her allure keeps us captivated throughout the sprawling storyline with its tonally awkward twists and turns. The science is carried along by the couple’s tender love story bonding them as they form a joint venture, discovering radium and polonium by condensing soil samples. Their life-saving discoveries not only made medical history but also captured the imagination of the public: polonium and radium were found to emit rays that started a craze for all things radioactive – even a dance in Parisian nightclubs called the “pif paf pouf”.  

Satrapi goes for an art nouveau aesthetic throughout, not always pulling it off – the scenes with the legendary Loie Fuller (The Dancer) work best in conveying the fin de siecle mystique in Paris and beyond. Despite its setbacks on a critical level this is an enjoyable romp through medical history with some inspired visual wizardry. The pic also visits the 1950s with a focus on cancer therapy; the First World War where Curie’s X-rays saved thousands from amputations; Hiroshima and even Chernobyl. What emerges through all the pioneering strife is the Curie’s love for each other, and Marie’s fierce commitment to science that won her respectability as one of the key figures in modern medicine. As Pierre Curie comments: “There are things to be scared of, but so much to celebrate” and Marie Curie’s legacy continues to save lives and help all of us still today. MT

ON RELEASE FROM June 19 2020

 

Joan of Arc | Jeanne (2019) **** Digital release

Dir: Bruno Dumont | Drama, France 137′

Bruno Dumont follows his musical biopic on the childhood of France’s martyred heroine, Jeannette, with this chronological drama exploring the final years of the Maid of Orléans (1412-31, who became a Roman Catholic saint for her part in reinstating Charles VII to the throne contested by England during the Hundred Years War.

Basing his narrative on the writings of Charles Péguy, his dignified and painterly portrait is suffused with an air of fantasy and opens in 1429 with the same actor Lise Leplat Prudhomme – who was ten at the time – in the title role of Joan. In Jeannette (2017) she was about eight but now now she is has developed into a confident, aspirational teenager with that same air of vulnerability and spiritual purity, not unlike that of Jesus. And Prudhomme is extraordinarily  convincing in the role, exuding a rare maturity. Dumont is clearly both in awe and in love with Joan and determined to clear her name and debunk the myths that led to her burning at the stake as a heretic. The story may be medieval but it still resonates today.

The wildness and clarity of light recalls that of Dumont’s Hors Satan (2012) which was also filmed in the dunes around Pas de Calais near where Joan underwent her trial for heresy. The internal scene takes place in the staggeringly majestic Amiens Cathedral. Dumont eschews the fussiness often connected with historical drama, instead opting for this fresh Neo-realistic approach that allows the focus to rest on the starkly sober message and dialogues between Prudhomme and the cast of non-pros made up of local academics and historians. MT

JOAN OF ARC on digital platforms from 19th June | CANNES 2019 | UN CERTAIN REGARD – SPECIAL MENTION

 

 

Resistance (2020) *** Streaming

Dir.: Jonathan Jacubowicz; Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Clemence Poesy, Matthias Schweighöfer, Felix Moati, Karl Markovics, Geza Röhrig, Vica Kerekes, Bella Ramsey, Ed Harris; USA 2020, 121 min.

Hollywood and Holocaust are often poor bedfellows: One hugging the duvet the other suffering in silence, as in this biopic on Jewish hero and mime legend Marcel Marceau, that gives centre stage to the infamous Klaus Barbie who already hogged the limelight in Max Ophuls’ definitive documentary Hotel Terminus. Barbie may provide the stuff of melodramas but here the focus should have been Marceau.

Venezuelan born filmmaker Jonathan Jacubowicz (Hands of Stone) bills this son of a Jewish butcher, who started life in Strasbourg as Marcel Mangel, as a ‘Piped Piper of Hamlyn’ figure who played a significant role in smuggling Jewish kids to safety. The director has clearly done his homework in a script informed by Marceau’s cousin Georges Loinger (Geza Röhrig). The result is Life is Beautiful meets Inglorious Basterds: once again the Hollywood playbook wins the day.

The film joins young Mangel just before War breaks out, he’s running the shop with his father (Markovics) and keen to marry French resistance worker Emma (Poesy) impressed by her knowledge of Freud and attempts to smuggle Jewish orphans into Switzerland. Joined by his  brother Alain (Moati), cousin Georges and his girl-friend Mila (Kerekes) Mangel soon discovers his gift for mime, communicating silently with the children, one is Elsbeth (Ramsey) traumatised by the brutal murder of her parents in the “Kristall Nacht” pogrom of November 1938, pictured in the opening sequence. Once the Germans occupy France, the group moves on to Limoges, then Lyon where Mangel takes up forgery changing his ID documents to Marceau, and comes up against the Gestapo, led by the infamous Klaus Barbie, the “butcher of Lyon” who soon imprisons Emma and Mila in the city’s Hotel Terminus that has become his private torture chamber After Marcel’s father is deported Auschwitz, the film culminates in a “great escape” of sorts.

DoP Miguel I. Littin-Menz sets this on a grandiose scale with breathtaking panorama shots and intimate close-ups of Klaus Barbie and his young family, upstaging Marcel and his troupe who feel like pale riders in comparison. A terrible quote from Anna Karenina forms the backdrop to one eerie scene round the hotel’s empty swimming pool. Despite his idiosyncratic talent for facial subtlety, mime is clearly not Eisenberg’s metier but he makes for a compelling He relies on his spoken language, but makes for a thoughtful Marceau. With a running time not warranted by the narrative, Resistance is certainly revealing, but fails on the finer points: the Shoah was not a colourful spectacle – we shouldn’t honour the dead by giving so much time and attention to the murderers. 

ON MAJOR STREAMING PLATFORMS | 19 JUNE 2020

https://youtu.be/hkE7daIvkeM

On the Record (2020) **** Streaming

Directors: Kirby Dick, Amy Ziering | Cast: Drew Dixon, Si Lai Abrams, Jenny Lumet, Tarana Burke, Kierna Mayo, Joan Morgan, Kimberle Williams Crenshaw | USA, 96′

More #MeToo stories, this time from Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering whose controversial new documentary puts the spotlight on women who have come out to denounce hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons. The focus here is Drew Dixon.

This is the filmmakers’ third foray into #MeToo territory and Drew Dixon takes centre along with  two other victims – out of twenty – who have filed sexual assault and rape charges against record producer and hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons. The incident became a news story before the film premiered at this year’s Sundance Festival. Oprah Winfrey, one of the executive producers, withdrew from the project she had fostered for a long time, thus destroying any chances of it being acquired by Apple+. The reasons are very opaque: there were threats from Russell, film critic and Ava DuVernay allegedly told Winfrey, that the documentary did not accurately flesh out the hip-hop world of the setting. Finally, Winfrey decided “there were inconsistencies in Dixon’s story that gave me pause” and the feature had been rushed to appear at Sundance. What ever the true reasons for Winfrey’s jumping ship, HBOmax won the screening rights for what turns out to be a worthy companion to Leaving Neverland, Surviving R. Kelly and Untouchable.

Drew Dixon (*1971) is the daughter of former Washington DC mayor Sharon Pratt and went to Stanford University. Becoming a record producer for Def Jam, a label led by mogul Russell Simmons, was her dream job. She overlooked the fact that Simmons would often come into her office, showing his member. In a milieu where the culture of celebrity “bad-ass” men was celebrated, Simmons’ behaviour did not seem to be totally out of place. Dixon became an A&R executive, responsible for the soundtrack of the 1995 documentary “The Show”, helping to build the careers of Method Man among others, whom she later paired with Mary J. Bilge. It all came crashing down for Dixon, when Simmons invited her to his apartment after a party. He appeared naked with a condom and asked her in a very harsh voice “to stop fighting”. Later, the writer Sil Lai Abrams would report a similar incidence with Simmons. After leaving Def Jam, Dixon worked for Clive Davis at Arista, but CEO L.A. Reid started to harass her. Out of spite, to destroy her career, he passed on signing a new talent, a certain Kanye West. Dixon left the industry all together, and it took her until 2017 to pen an article in the New York Times, to make the public listen to her story.

There are two issues which make the case of the three black women appearing on the documentary (Dixon, Abrams and Jenny Lumet) complex: until now, any public critique of the black community, by fellow blacks, is seen by the majority as treachery – helping the enemy, ie. the white majority. Secondly, black women still feel excluded from the #MeToo movement. Dixon claims she felt enormous pressure to denounce somebody of the standing of Russell Simmons. It took her twenty years – being alone with her trauma – to overcome the barriers.

As for Simmons, he decided not to appear in the documentary but send a written statement, issuing countless denials of he false accusations: “I have lived an honourable life as an open book for decades, devoid of any kind of violence against anybody”. In 2018 he nevertheless emigrated to Bali, Indonesia, a country which has no extradition arrangement with the USA. Reid too repudiated all allegations. He left his position as CEO of Sony Epic, and raised 75 $ Million to form a new company. Drew Dixon has recently gone back to the drawing board with a new career in the music business, working from her flat. AS

ON STREAMING PLATFORMS FROM 18 JUNE 2020 | Available on iTunes, Apple TV, Amazon Video, BFI Player, Curzon Home Cinema, Dogwoof, Google Play, Rakuten TV, Sky Store, Virgin Media, YouTube

 

Schlingsensief: A Voice that Shook the Silence (2020) *** Sheffield Doc Fest 2020

Dir.: Bettina Böhler; Documentary with Christoph Schlingensief, Tilda Swinton, Udo Kier, Irm Herrmann, Elfriede Jelinek; Germany 2020, 124 min.

Christian Petzold’s longtime editor Bettina Böhler looks at the life of the controversial German filmmaker Christoph Schlingensief (1960-2010). His creative energy was certainly impressive: with twelve features and his his own TV Show, he also directed ‘Parsifal’ at Bayreuth and went on to garner a posthumous Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale 2010 for his German Pavilion – which had as its focus the church he served in as a teenage altar boy.

Böhler kicks off this colourful portrait with a foray into Schlingensief’s graphic design work. A blend of  astronomy, politics and psycho-therapy: it’s a very symbolic opening, trying to explain the Schlingensief’s urge to imbue his persona in everything. Although this is occasional relevant, it often took the focus away from the art itself; Schlingensief was never able to shake off his provocative identity as the’ Bogey-man of the Middle-classes’. His narcissism always taking centre stage, like it did in his TV Show ‘Talk 2000’, where he interrupted his guests to talk about his own personal problems. 

After having been rejected twice by the Munich Film School, Schlingensief, like Fassbinder, chose the auto-didactic way of becoming a filmmaker. His debut “Die Kisten sind da (The Boxes have arrived) in 1984 got positive reviews. Using many of Fassbinder’s cast members, like Irm Herrmann and Udo Kier, Schlingensief’s German Trilogy of The Last Hours in the Führerbunker (1989), The German Chainsaw Massacre (1990) and Terror 2000 (1992), dealt with fascism and re-unification – in a provocative way, it showed West Germans greeting their eastern brothers and sisters with chainsaws. In The 120 Days of Bottrop (1997) he took a pop at Pasolini, with Helmut Berger starring in the ‘remake’ of The 120 Days of Salo.

In 2004 Schlingensief directed Wagner’s ‘Parsifal’ in Bayreuth, using experience he had gained from many theatres in the German speaking countries, including the “Schaubühne am Halleschen Tor’ in Berlin. His installations always drew the public’s attention, but he was creative impulse also had ballast: after his death, his widow Aino Laberenz followed up his plans to build an opera house; a theatre; a film school and an infirmary in Ouagodougou, capital of Burkina Faso, with the German government’s help. His “Cancer Diary” was a moving comment on his life, crammed full of achievements, and – again like Fassbinder – suspecting time was running out. Tilda Swinton and Austrian Nobel Price winner Elfriede Jelinek were amongst many mourning his death at the age of only forty-nine.

Böhler just manages to steer clear of a hagiographic approach, this is a comprehensive debut enlivened by some 8 mm films from Schlingensief’s youth – he started filming at the age of seven. She shows a little boy clamouring for attention in a petty-bourgeois Germany, which had not shed its fascist past, and later, was not ready for a re-unification. Schlingensief grew up in an environment where provocation the only route to attention. And he remained a prisoner of his childhood til the end. AS

SHEFFIELD DOC FESTIVAL 2020

Seasons in Quincy: The Four Portraits of John Berger (2016) *** MUBI

Dir.: Colin McCabe, Christopher Roth, Bartek Dziadosz, Tilda Swinton; Documentary/Essay with John Berger, Tilda Swinton; UK 2016, 90 min.

To call the novelist, art historian, painter and poet John Berger a Renaissance man is for once no hyperbole. In 1972 he won the Booker Prize for G, and in the same year was the main contributor to the influential BBC series “Ways of Seeing” – at a time when television tried to edify audiences rather than anaesthetising them.

Berger, who died in January 2017, aged 90, also wrote film scripts during the mid 1970s, notably for the Swiss auteur Alain Tanner (La Salamandre, Le milieu du Monde, Jonah who will be 25 in 2000). He left London for good in 1973 to spend the rest of his life in the French mountain village of Quincy in Haute-Savoie. Seasons is an omnibus edition of four short films that illuminates his way of thinking.

The first sequel, “Ways of Listening”, directed by McCabe, was shot in 2010 when Tilda Swinton (who wrote the script) visited Berger in Quincy just before Christmas. It is a discourse about friendship and art. Berger and Swinton not only share a birthday (34 years apart) and place of birth (London), but also fathers who had been active soldiers, fighting in WWI and WWII respectively – and would never talk about their experiences, in spite of being severely wounded. While Swinton peels apples for a crumble, Berger sketches her. They also talk about his “Bento’s Sketchbook” to explain the workings of his mind – a deeper diver into this would have been welcome!.

Christopher Roth’s second part “Spring” is mainly a discourse about humans and animals – no surprise, since Berger’s work is often centred around the relationship between the two. Some of Berger’s texts on the subject are read out, and we see samples of his TV work. But the episode is very much coloured by grief: Berger had recently lost his wife of nearly forty years, Beverly, to cancer and Roth’s mother had also died. Feeling like a collage, “Spring” is the most emotional chapter of the quartet.

“A Song for Politics”, directed by McCabe and Bartek Dziadosz (also editor and cinematographer of the other parts and director of the Derek Jarman Lab, which co-produced Seasons), consists mainy of a black-and-white TV style discussion between Berger, McCabe, and the writers Akshi Sing and Ben Lerner, about the plight of today’s Europe. Berger bemoans the fact that a society which only exists “to do the next deal” lacks historical input. They agree that old-fashioned capitalism is dead, But a discussion is needed about what has replaced it. There are rousing songs from the early years of the 20th century when ‘Solidarity’ was the slogan. Ironically, Berger states, “solidarity is only needed in Hell, not in Heaven”. Paradoxes and contradictions are flying around, and it’s no surprise the come to no conclusions.

“Harvest”, directed by Tilda Swinton, is filmed in Quincy and Paris – Berger had to move for health reasons to the French capital where he would later die. Swinton takes her teenage twins, Xavier and Honor to Quincy, to meet Ives, Berger’s son of his marriage with Beverly. There is a resonance from “Ways of Listening”, as far as father/son relationships are concerned, Ives being an artist. But it is also a tribute to Beverly who planted a huge raspberry garden, the children enjoy the fruit “giving Beverly pleasure”. In Paris, Berger, in spite of his frailty, is keen on teaching Honor how to ride a motorbike, whilst her mother looks on in horror. But “Harvest” feels like a long goodbye between Berger and Swinton: not sentimental, but deeply felt.

Seasons is proof that you only need some existential ‘old-fashioned’ ideas, and a mini-budget to produce something worthwhile. In spite of its small faults, this essay/documentary makes the audience curious – and if it ‘only’ encourages us to find out more about the work of John Berger, it has fulfilled its purpose. AS

ON GENERAL RELEASE FROM 23 JUNE 2017 | CURZON CINEMAS

Acasa My Home (2020) **** Krakow Film Festival 2020

Dir.: Radu Ciorniciuc; Documentary with Gica Enache, Nicolina Nedelcu, Vali Enache, Rica Enache; Romania/Finland 2019, 86 min.

The Enache Roma clan are the subject of this powerful ethnographical portrait from Romanian first time filmmaker Radu Ciorniciuc.

The wilderness surrounding Bucharest’s Lake Vacaresti has for the past eighteen years been home to a couple and their  nine children on the banks of a former reservoir dwarfed by tower blocks. Four year’s in the making Cioroniciuc has followed their existence which is so radically unconventional compared to the average Romanian lived through decades of change as Bucharest moves into the 21st century.

We meet parents Gica Enache, a former chemistry lab assistant, who left the ‘wicked’ city with his wife Nicolina Nedelcu 18 years ago. Their nine children frolic around unsupervised, taking advantage of the beautiful countryside, particularly the lake. The family survive despite their financial poverty, putting a meal on the table from the farm stock that shares their dilapidated shack (we see the offscreen slaughter of a pig).

Social services has long tried to get hold of the children, and we witness another unsuccessful attempt by the authorities, when Gica asking the oldest, Vali, to take his younger siblings into a hiding constructed specifically for this purpose. Meanwhile Gica prefers to lounge around smoking rather than being involved in family matters, which are left to emaciated Nicolina, who is totally overwhelmed by the lack of amenities. Her husband is the model of an authoritarian patriarch playing the role of a free-wheeling hippy. But their days in anarchic freedom are limited: The Romanian government declares the Bucharest Delta a Nature Reserve, the Prime Minister and Prince Charles (!) appear on the scene to celebrate the occasion – followed by the bulldozers. 

The clan has no alternative but to agree to a move to the nearby capital, where they are housed and the children integrated into the school system – a traumatic event for most of them, because their contemporaries are far more sophisticated. Only Vali, soon to be eighteen, has a go at fitting in and this brings him into conflict with his father who burns the books the younger children have been given. Vali moves out to live with his girl friend, who is soon pregnant. With great insight he tells her they should not have a child “because then we would be three children”. On a visit home, Vali listens to his father who, in his usual long-winded speeches, blames everybody else for the family’s plight. He excludes his wife: “Only Nicolina has given me any hope” which Vali counters with “and what have you given her?”. The ending is melancholic: the family, who has not looked after the flat, is put into inferior accommodations’, whilst Vali works in the new Nature Reserve, which was once had been his play ground.        

Lyrical and poetic despite the challenging topic, Acasa is a powerful and passionate long term study about was freedom really means. Their upbringing in mother nature certainly appealed to the young kids, but poverty and isolation had a greater impact on their upbringing. As Vali shows, there is an alternative to strict ideological-based country living. As for his younger siblings, integration meant discovering a whole new world. Ciorniciuc maintains a detached approach never letting the growing familiarity with the clan cloud his judgement. A labour of love and a memorable one. AS

60th KRAKOW FILM FESTIVAL 2020 | CINEMATOGRAPHY AWARD WINNER | WORLD CINEMA DOCUMENTARY SUNDANCE 2020

An Ordinary Country | Zwyczajmy Kraj (2019) **** Krakow Film Festival 2020

Dir.: Tomasza Wolskiego; Documentary, Poland 2019, 53 min.

Polish writer/director Tomasza Wolskiego (Gold Fish) has created a devastating and filmic portrait of the work of the Stalinist Security Services and the Citizen’s Militia in Poland in the 1970s and 80s.

Enriched by found footage from the agencies, it paints a sombre snapshot of everyday life: we are not talking here about people being victimised or wanting to overthrow the system – far from it, the sins are purely those of the flesh brought on by their persecution complex and neurosis.

The footage, shot in black-and-white, bears witness to state operatives busy recording and arresting with a self-importance associated with some massive nationwide conspiracy. This paranoia  is transferred to ordinary people inducing misplaced feelings of guilty, and even shame for crimes not even contemplated. Hunter and hunted often look the same, particularly when the agents try to turn their victims into informers – in 1989 the number of officers in the two services was 24 000, the number of informers 90, 000. In a way, this was like a pandemic, slowly eating up more and more of the population. 

The pathetic nature of it all is best seen in the case of an ordinary house wife whose husband works for Ocean Sailing, and is accused of illegal dealings in foreign currency. Whilst the woman is interrogated, another officer tapes the conversation, his co-worker trying to trip the woman up: he wants to know the exact price she paid for a radio, a washing machine, a vacuum cleaner and a fridge. Not getting anywhere, he switches his focus the price of meat, the number of loaves of bread, the amount of butter and margarine consumed. He then announces pompously that conversation is being recorded “and will be used as evidence in the case of prosecution.” Switching tack, he asks her how much her husband earns. Did he have a foreign exchange supplement? How much? When the woman pleads ignorance, the interrogator gets indignant: “Come on, you are a house wife, you know the figures”. Finally, he gets to the main question: “How much did you get for the blouses?”. When the woman insists she has no need for blouses because she has everything at home, he gives up for the moment: “You sold nothing and have everything at home. Fine. Thank you”. 

Then there is the case of diplomat caught in flagrant for two-timing his wife. Polaroid photos of crumpled bed sheets are brought out to indicate “intimate purposes”. The officers record their conversation with the diplomat in his flat, the kitchen door is plastered with pornographic images, under the bed old “Playboy” and lesbian magazines. “But we come here to you like friends. If you are with us, we will take care of you. We’ll take care of everything, to keep you safe. From your wife in particular. We should make a deal. We are aware of your contacts in Germany and America. They are looking for links to Solidarnosc. Help for help. We close your case” After promising not to ruin his career but make it flourish, the deal is struck.: “I, the undersigned will help the Polish Special Service. I will keep this fact strictly confidential”. Then: “Put a dot there, and start with a capital letter”. Afterwards he is released with a final warning: “We do punish ignorance.”  

The overall impression is that of great sadness: more or less innocent people are coerced into becoming informers, or face long prison sentences for minor offences. But the real culprits are not the men or women, phoning relatives abroad for haemorrhoid medication because the shelves are empty in Poland, but a State who treats its citizens as criminals, for simply wanting to survive.

This is a paradise for Kafkaesque officers, who spend their days denying others the smallest of pleasure in this grey morass of officialdom. Meanwhile, faceless bureaucrats at the top let loose an army of petty policemen, posing as a ‘service for the people’. Ironically these weasels are as much victims as those they persecute, denying others a soul, having lost their own. AS

KRAKOW FILM FESTIVAL | BEST FILM NATIONAL COMPETITION 2020 

A Scandal in Paris (1946) **** Curzon online

Dir.: Douglas Sirk; Cast: George Sanders, Signe Hasso, Carole Landis, Akim Tamiroff, Alma Kruger, Gene Lockart; USA 1946, 100 min.

Douglas Sirk (1897-1987) started life as Detlef Sierck in Berlin (UFA), before emigrating via France to Los Angeles just before the Second World War. Best known for his florid Hollywood melodramas of the 1950s, Magnificent Obsession and All I DesireSummer Storm (1944) and A Scandal in Paris (1946) are beasts of another feather and throwbacks to his German career. Scandal is based on the autobiography of Francois Eugene Vidocq, erstwhile criminal who became the Police Chief of Paris. Adapted by Ellis St. Joseph, Vidocq tries his best to camouflage his real past: His father was a wealthy man, and probably the first victim of his criminal son.  

In 1775, we meet Vidocq (Sanders) and his sidekick Emile (Tamiroff) on the verge of fleeing prison with the help of a file hidden in a cake. Thanks to a forger, part of Emile’s large criminal family, Vidocq is made a lieutenant in the French army, a perfect foil for stealing jewellery from wealthy women who fall under his spell.

Next on the list is the chanteuse Loretta de Richet (Landis), who is married to Chief of Police Richet (Lockhart). After successfully completing his assignment, Vidocq sets his eyes on the jewels of the de Pierremont family, represented by the Marquise de Pierremont (Kruger) and her daughter Therese (Hasso). But having trousered the gems, Vidocq changes tack after Richet being sacked by the Marquis de Pierremont, his superior. The master thief not only ‘solves’ the case, but also ‘recovers’ the jewels, becoming Richet’s successor, a move that will give him access to the vault of the Paris Bank.

Loretta blackmails Vidoqc, asking him to give up Therese and rekindle their relationship. But this leads to a chain of events culminating in a deadly struggle at a merry-go-round in the woodlands, the exact same place where Therese revealed she knew everything about Vidocq’s shady past.

DoP Eugen Schuftan (1983-1977), a legend who shot Menschen am Sonntag and early Hitchcock features, goes uncredited, with Guy Rose getting the only camerawork mention. Schuftan gives the feature a decisively European look reminiscent of Max Ophuls’ pre-war fare. Hans Eisler’s score echoes this arrestingly stylish look and Hungarian born producer Emeric Pressburger makes up the team whose roots were cultured in the old continent before the rise of fascism.

George Sanders is brilliant as the ambivalent anti-hero, the same goes for Carole Landis who, in one of her scenes as a chanteuse, very much impersonates Marlene Dietrich in Der Blaue Engel. But, alas both actors had a string of unhappy relationships and would go on to commit suicide: Landis in 1948 at the age of twenty-nine and Sanders in 1972, plagued by dementia and depression. Signe Hasso on the other hand never lived up to her billing as Greta Garbo’s successor, living a long and happy life, mainly starring in TV commercials. 

Fellow émigré director Edgar Ulmer mentioned Scandal‘s sublime quality unique to Sirk’s oeuvre, that lends an ethereal touch to this romantic drama with is exquisite costumes by Norma (Koch). AS

NOW ON CURZON ONLINE AS PART OF THE COHEN VINTAGE COLLECTION

La Frontière de nos Rèves (1996) | A Bridge to Christo | Tribute (1935-2020)

Dir.: Georgui Balabanov; Documentary with Christo, Jeanne-Claude, Anani Yavashev; Bulgaria 1996, 72 min.

In his thought-provoking biopic, Bulgarian director Georgui Balabanov (The Petrov File) portrays two very different brothers who have been living apart for 26 years on the opposite sides of the iron curtain. Christo (1935-2020), who died on 31 May 2020, travelled abroad to become an celebrated environmental artist and his actor brother Anani Yavashev, who deeply regrets his wasted years in Bulgaria under Stalinist censorship. Two destines embody the hopes and illusions of two different worlds.

Balabanov’s documentary flips between Gabrovo, the village where the brothers grew up, and the Paris flat Christo shared with Moroccan born Jeanne-Claude, whom he met in Paris in 1958. Both not only share the same birthday (13.6.1935), but a passion for art, while understanding that their work is transient – apart from one installation, the 400k oil barrels at Mastaba, all their projects have vanished: the wrappings of the Berlin Reichstag and the Pont-Neuf Bridge as well as The Gates of Central Park in New York.

The busy Paris flat, with Jeanne-Claude chain smoking whilst organising their projects, is in great contrast to Anani’s inertia shared with his artist friends. The Sofia theatre they called home for decades is being torn down and even if they are not too fond of their memories, it is still their past lives, which are bulldozed to the ground. Anani could never play Lenin, since he was “politically not trusted”. The brother’s father Vladimir, a former business man, was imprisoned at the beginning of the Stalinist regime of terror, for “sabotage”. As an old “Class Enemy” he took the punishment for a drunken worker, who burned the cloth production for the whole week. His sons were suspects too, Anani got into drama school only with the help of a benevolent friend in the bureaucratic system.

1957 was the year of decision for Christo, who went to Prague and was smuggled in a locked train-compartment to Vienna. The rest is history – but Anani and his friends, paid heavily for their compromise with the system. Modernism in all art forms was tantamount to treason, painters and playwrights had to smuggle progressive elements into their work – hoping all the time that the censors would overlook it. But they are also honest enough, to admit they had a free reign in their private lives: long, passionate nights are mentioned. One feels sorry for this resigned bunch, and can sympathise with their plight: it comes as no co-incidence that only a few escaped the artistic prisons of the Soviet Block: risk-taking is seen as a virtue in the West either – human nature is preponderantly opportunistic.

Shot in intimate close-up by DoP Radoslav Spassov, La Frontiere is very much a celebration of artistic work represented by Christo and Jeanne-Claude – and a “Trauerarbeit” for the lost souls who staid behind, sharing with others the loss of artistic identity. AS

Tribute to Christo who died in May 2020

MS Slavic 7 (2019) ***

Dir.: Sofia Bohdanowiez; Cast: Deragh Campbell/co-dir, Aaron Danby, Elizabeth Rucker; Canada 2019, 64 min.

MS Slavic 7 is an intriguing title for a film. It refers to the catalogue number of a collection of 25 letters archived in Harvard University’s Houghton Library, and written by the director’s great-grandmother, the Polish poet Zofia Bohdanowieczowa, to her fellow poet Jozef Wittlin during their exile after the Second World War.

This melancholic essay film is a paean to poetry and displacement, and the filmmaker Sofia Bohdanowiez and co-director/lead actor Deragh Campbell do their best to bring the correspondence  to life. Wittlin (who lived in NY City) wrote between 1957 and 1964, first from Penrhos in Wales, then later from Toronto, Canada. Sofia is the literary executor of her great-grandmother’s output, and in this function she visits Houghton Library, meets a Polish scholar (Danby) and has a few contretemps with a Polish lady (Rucker), whom she has meets at a get-together of elderly Polish exiles. 

The trauma of permanent exile is documented in Zofia’s letter to Wittlin after she arrives in Toronto: “I still don’t write, I am still exhausted by the change, and feel like a fish out of water. I have always been terribly provincial and sedentary. Even in Poland, each trip to Warsaw terrified me, and only when coming back to Grodno where the crew changed and a train inspector had asked me melodiously: ‘tickets, please’, it felt like home”. In another letter she thanks him for sending her a photo comparing his gesture “with Polish bees”. Late she sends him “a hastily and confused letter” after the sudden death of her husband; with hopes that Wittlin “would be spared from parting and loneliness”. Later, she still complains about alienation in Toronto: “I sense a hostility in the grey city. The movement of the people and the traffic feels at once absent and menacing. Still, I hope that my stupid and sterile period is going to end soon”. When they meet for the first time “it is like an apocalypse”. 

Sofia is rather less expressive when it comes dealing with her great-great grandmother’s letters, her discussions with the scholar (who ends up in her bed – both of them reading the letters) show her difficulty in grasping the poet’s personality – Sofia can only imagine what exile meant for ‘Zofia’.

One of Zofia’s last letters to Wittlin is very much like a testament: “Still, you are right indeed. There was a veil of sadness over our meeting. That might have been because Toronto (in my opinion) is a sad city. Or even because everyone has sadness in themselves – how could it be otherwise for people without their homeland nor families?. And then came this meeting along with the uncertainty if we would ever see each other again”.  

Although the director’s own input is somehow hit-and-miss, Zofia’s letters provide compulsive reading with their thoughts from one permanently displaced person to another, piecing together their musings on a new place that is alien to both of them. Their homeland becomes a distant and poignant fading memory as they waste away slowly in the cold climate of exile. A valuable and worthwhile film that will offer comfort and context to all those living forced to live away from their families or in exile.AS

NOW ON MUBI 4 JUNE 2020 | BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL 2019 | FORUM 7 -17 FEBRUARY 2019

 

 

The Dead and the Others (2018)| New Brazilian Cinema | Mubi

Docudrama | 114’ | Brazil/Portugal

Brazilian cinema is entering a new era in the wake of the country’s unprecedented political turmoil. Several new films are now available online along with this look at the Directed by Palme d’Or winner João Salaviza and Renée Nader Messora, The Dead and the Others is a haunting docudrama based on their experiences of living for nearly a year in Pedra Branca, a village inhabited by the indigenous community of the Kraho people in Northern Brazil. The Kraho very much want to continue their way of life and traditions in their rural community, striving to be self-sufficient. Their plight connects with a global narrative of survival for small communities all over the world.

Fifteen year old Ihjãc has been suffering from nightmares since he lost his father and in the opening scene he walks through the rain forest in the light of the moon. A distant sound of chanting comes through the palm trees. His father’s voice calls him to the waterfall. It is now time to organise the funeral feast so his father’s spirit can depart to the village of the Dead and mourning for him can come to an end. Although his baby son Tepto was born in the local hospital, Ihjãc still spends most of his life with his family in the remote forest and although the village elders are urging him to fulfil his duty to undergo the crucial process of becoming a shaman, Ihjãc escapes back to the local town to avoid the transition. There, far from his people and culture, he faces the reality of being an indigenous native in contemporary Brazil.

With its themes of loss, displacement and cultural identity this eerie and woozily impressionistic piece that has a poignant urgency in its message, glowingly conveyed in vibrant, high contrast cinematography. MT

NEW BRAZILIAN CINEMA | UN CERTAIN REGARD JURY PRIZE 2018 | LET IT BURN

Stop Making Sense (1984) **** Bfi Player

Dir: Jonathan Demme | With David Byrne and Talking Heads |Biopic, 84′
A musical biopic in the best sense of the word. In Hollywood December 1983, Jonathan Demme films three concerts from Scottish maverick music maker David Byrne, rolling them out without explanation or talking heads – although Talking Heads are very much part of the scene. The bands speaks for itself and we get the best seats – on stage, up close and personal and from the back of the auditorium, even loitering in the wings.
Demme’s film is an energising experience made at the climax of what would be the band’s final major tour. The show starts with the beat-driven Pyscho Killer and works its way through a classic repertoire with hits such as, Take Me to the Water tThis Must be the Place that scored Paolo Sorrentino’s film of the same name in 2011 and of course, Once in a Lifetime. Byrne gradually relaxes from taut jutting-faced uncertainty to a more smiling and febrile intensity, a style icon in white plimsolls and oversized concrete-coloured suits. Hypnotic to look at, his moves are as funky, smooth and syncopated as Bing Crosby or even Elvis without the sexual magnetism: Byrne is a performer more artfully ambivalent in his erotic appeal, but none the less legendary. And he feels very much at home on his own or surrounded by his family of Talking Heads. A nostalgic, diverting, happy film. MT
NOW ON BFI PLAYER
https://youtu.be/yCXT5Fs-V10

Hector Babenco: Tell Me When I Die (2019) ****

Dir: Barbara Paz | Doc, Brazilian 75′

“What do you have to do to become a movie director? You have to know how to tell a story. And for that, you have to live”.

Brazilian actor and director Barbara Paz honours her husband Hector Babenco (1946-2016) with this cinematic love letter to his final days in Brazil.

Taking as its appropriate opening score Radiohead’s ‘Exit Music (for a film)’ this is a lush and woozy widescreen affair that solemnly luxuriates in the couple’s tenderness for each other through excerpts of home videos and private photographs, but also explores their close collaboration work-wise, Paz a keen disciple in learning the tricks of the craft that have served her so well, Babenco a patient and softly spoken instructor teaching his wife about camera lenses and depth of field, and lacing his knowledge with amusing anecdotes.

A hagiographic approach is always going to be the danger when making a film about someone you admire, and when love is also involved there is a clear need for perspective. But Paz pulls it off in this charismatically poignant piece that won Best Documentary on Cinema at Venice Classics in 2019. At the same time her admiration shines through in testament to his unique talents and varied output, together with his dreams of being the next Luchino Visconti: well he will certainly go down in film history, but for different reasons.

Although Babenco avoids facts and chronology, by way of background Hector Eduardo Babenco was born into a Jewish family in Buenos Aires, his parents were of Polish/Ukrainian origin. Best known for his Oscar-nominated Kiss of the Spider Woman (Out of Africa (1985) took the award); Babenco’s work raised awareness of the human plight in Brazil with the Sao Paulo set Golden Globe winner Pixote (1981), that sees a young boy abandoned in the streets, and Carandiru (2003) an impassioned drama about AIDS in the renowned prison in the Brazilian capital, which spawned a TV series. An accomplished documentarian he also made films about the racing driver Emerson Fittipaldi and the Brazilian bandit Lucio Flavio whose crimes in Rio de Janeiro captured the public’s imagination in the early 1970s.

Paz enlivens her film with footage of Babenco going about the set of his autobiographical last film My Hindu Friend (2015) where Willem Dafoe plays a dying director during his final hospital days, and she also pictures him there during treatment for cancer, expressing his determination to eat well – avoiding hospital food – and preferably with some friends sharing Capirinhas, roast beef and salad.

Thematically rich the film also dives into universal experiences: the intimacy of loving moments captured on camera; the comfort and joy of friendship; and death, which Babenco had already come to terms with by the time his life was over, due to a previous brush with cancer at 37:  these thoughts are interweaved with dialogue from his films to produce a seamless and intensely personal biopic that shows a man not only at the height of his talent, but also at one with himself. MT

SCREENED DURING VISIONS DU REEL 2020 | NYON SWITZERLAND

Tell Me When I Die is heading to DOK.fest München (6-24 May) | Jeonju International Film Festival (28 May – 6 June 2020)

https://youtu.be/bVbqlvVy-90

Curtiz (2019) *** NETFLIX

Dir.: Tamas Yvan Topolanzky; Cast: Ferenc Lengyel, Evelin Dobos, Andrew Hefler, Scott Alexander Young, Declan Hannigan, Nicolett Barabas, Caroline Boulton, Christopher Krieg; Hungary 2018, 98 min.

The shooting of Casablanca, one of the most iconic Hollywood features, is the centrepiece of this ambitious debut drama from Swiss-Hungarian writer/director Tamas Yvan Topolanzky. The result is not a disaster, but underwhelming: Curtiz will be best remembered for making us want to see the 1942 classic again, and with new eyes. The film also explores the troubled relationship between Curtiz and his daughter, which was never resolved (according to the final credits).

Born in Budapest in 1886 as Mano Kaminer, Michael Curtiz arrived in Hollywood in 1926 and would direct a string of masterpieces: The Adventures of Robin Hood and Mildred Pierce being the most outstanding in a career that would showcase his talents across the genres, with 177 feature films. Casablanca, for which he won his only Oscar, was bedevilled from the very beginning. Studio boss Jack L. Warner (Hefler) and producer Hal B. Wallis (Young) had a fight on their hands to keep Curtiz and Johnson (Hannigan), the censorship head, from tearing each other’s heads off. Curtiz was a mixture of fellow Austro-Hungarian directors Erich von Stroheim and Otto Preminger. But Warner was a bottom line man (“I don’t want it great. I want it Tuesday”), and the spiralling production budget made him concerned that Bogart and Bergman would walk away – they were critical of the  script. Curtiz (“Don’t talk to me when I am interrupting) was a well known womaniser and but his grasp of English led to some hilarious misunderstandings during the making of Casablanca: there is an amusing interlude when the prop master misinterprets Curtiz’ request for ‘puddles’ during the rainy scene at the Gare de Lyon, bringing five poodles on the set, amid much consternation. But the joke was on Curtiz who also had a long running argument with actor Conrad Veidt (Krieg), a German emigrant who often cast as a Nazi; but vehemently insisting that not all Germans were Nazis, a fair point.

The director flagrantly cheated on his third wife Bess Meredyth (Barabas), an accomplished actor and writer, seducing young women, by using his director star power. The arrival of his daughter Kitty (Dobos), from an earlier marriage in Hungary, made things even more complicated. In a very ugly scene, we see see Wallis trying to rape Kitty, unaware she is Curtiz’ daughter. The director (“Magic happens on the casting couch”) was also disinclined to help his sister leave a Hungarian ghetto. She and her family were eventually deported to Auschwitz, she was the only survivor. Finally, we come to the end of shooting, when the small cardboard plane, which will carry Elsa and Laszlo to the USA, is half hidden in fog and surrounded by Lilliputian soldiers, to make it look bigger.

Curtiz is stylishly shot by DoP Zoltan Devenyi, his roving camera often mimicking the style of Christian Matras in La Ronde: the re-imagining of the original black-and-white photography is stunning, although the crane and circular rotation shots are overdone. This is a film where the aesthetics beat out a script clinging to the sensational, and parlously uncritical of any sexism. AS

NOW ON NETFLIX

 

   

Jihad Jane (2019) **** Digital release

Dir.: Ciarán Cassidy | Doc with Colleen LaRose, Jamie Paulin Ramirez, Lars Vilks; ROI 2019, 94 min.

The fear of terrorism looms large.  And nowhere less so than America where isolated communities are particularly prey to online influences. In her first feature length documentary Irish director/writer Ciarán Cassidy shows how easily the disenchanted can be taken over by terrorism. Jihad Jane examines how two American women sought refuge on the internet – sucked into terrorist propaganda as a means of making something of their lives.

Colleen LaRose (*1963) is described by her former boyfriend Kurt “as a normal country girl”. How wrong he was. In actual fact, Colleen, from Pennsylvania, had been raped by her father since the age of seven. Running away at only thirteen, she found herself coerced into becoming a sex worker before marrying a ‘client’ two years later. Jamie Paulin Ramirez (*1979), from Colorado, has a less obvious history of abuse: she had been married three times, her first husband who she married when barely a teenager, was abusive. They became known as ‘Jihad Jane’ and ‘Jihad Jamie’, ‘the new face of terrorism”. Arrested in 2010 in Waterford, Ireland, they were given lengthy prison sentences. The ‘third’ man of the “terror cell” was an autistic teenager, Mohammed Hassan Khalid from Baltimore/Maryland. He was only fifteen at the time of his arrest – but fared not much better than then two women at his trial.

Their supposed victim was the Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks, who had ‘insulted’ Islam, by putting the head of the prophet Mohammed on a dog. Vilks seems to be a provocateur with the super-ego of a narcissist. He actually comes off much worse than the women: somebody who makes a living from gathering negative attention, much like the right-wing propagandists in the US media, who are being paid handsomely for their efforts.

Everyday life for Collen LaRose meant looking after her elderly mother and her partner’s ailing father. Not much time for romance. But on the net, Jihad promised both: marriage to a fighter and a life life with purpose, creating self-esteem for the first time. For Colleen the dream came true – even if it was short. She shared the fanatical beliefs of a man she met on holiday in Amsterdam – just a brief sexual encounter was enough to raise her self-worth, as she imagined herself punishing ‘infidels’ including Vilks, who had been targeted with a ‘fatwa’. And Jamie Paulin Ramirez took her six-year old son with her to Waterford to enforce said fatwa – but not before she married Ali Damache a day after her arrival, after meeting him in a chatroom. The personal and the political – so closely connected. No surprise then that LaRose grassed the plot to the authorities because the gratification was taking too long for her: like all would-be revolutionaries, she wanted action NOW.

There is a rather sad epilogue: although the documentary is set between 2008 and 2010, LaRose did not get a prison release until 2018. She is a Trump voter – after eight years in jail. “I’m somebody now”, she proclaims, clutching an armful of hand-knitted stuffed animals.

DoP Ross McDonald shows an impressive snowy Colorado, a welcome change to the ‘talking heads’. Cassidy’s portrait of evil is compelling and makes for an intriguing insight into middle America without denouncing LaRose whose life could have put to a better purpose than terrorism had she had a secure childhood. AS

ON ALL MAJOR PLATFORMS FROM 11 MAY 2020

https://youtu.be/iPVu1ukjkhA

Rachmaninoff: The Harvest of Sorrow (1998) ****

Dir: Tony Palmer | UK Doc, 102′

Tony Palmer’s extensive documentary about the one of the world’s most loved composers(1873-1943) is a vibrant memoire, enlivened by musical interludes, ample archive footage of his life and times in Russia, Sweden and the United States where he finally died in 1943, unable to return to his beloved homeland: “a ghost wandering forever in the world”.

Playing out as a long autobiographical letter to his daughters Tatiana and Irina, voiced by Gielgud in slightly sardonic but wistful tone, the film covers the composer’s life until his final months in New York. But it starts at a low point, with the Rachmaninoff family leaving Russia in 1917, escaping from the Bolshevik devastation of Petrograd (soon to be Leningrad) set for musical adventures in Stockholm, and thence to America. Desperate about leaving his homeland, the composer also felt at a low ebb creatively: “Nowadays I am never satisfied with myself, I am burdened with a harvest of sorrow: I almost never feel that what I do is successful”.
Quite the opposite: Rachmaninoff would become a celebrated figure, but a very private man, who would tell interviewers: “if you want to know me, listen to my music”. Avoiding the intellectual approach, his wanted his music “to go direct to the heart, bypassing the brain”. Remembered by his niece, Sofia Satina, as a happy, tall, elegantly dressed gentleman who loved his Savile Row suits and driving his car, although he was never wealthy, and ironically ended his days as a concert pianist playing for money until his fingers were literally bruised, to maintain his family during gruelling tours of the United States, which he hated: “now I play without joy, just mechanically”. His friend Igor Stravinsky remembered him in those times as “a six-foot scowl”.
Sergei Rachmaninoff was born in Moscow to a musical family, taking up the piano from the age of four and gaining a place at the Conservatoire whence he graduated at nineteen, having already composed several orchestral and piano pieces. Although he dreamed of the Mariinsky Theatre, his philandering father broke the family up and Rachmaninov started his career with family in Moscow where he became friendly with Tchaikovsky, the last of Russian Romantics, and the two formed a close friendship. But the composer was always most at home in the small town of Ivanovka, where he spent his summers as a young boy, and his grandson is seen returning here in an exhaustive sequence that pictures the refurbished family home – a fairytale blue and white wooden clad affair (destroyed by the Bolsheviks) during celebrations to honour the musical legend. It was in Ivanovka that local folkloric musicians became a big influence on the young composer’s, along with the Russian Orthodox chants. He is also know for his fugal writing, which is even more of a throwback to the classical era.
It took Rachmaninoff until the late 1890s to free himself from his friend and idol Tchaikovsky. He is best classified as a neo-romantic, in the style of Bruckner and Mahler, but in reality he is much closer to Elgar. The distinguishing feature of intra-tonal chromaticism runs through the whole of Rachmaninoff’s work. He is also known for his widely spaced chords, used in the Second Symphony ‘The Bells’. But towards the end he was less concerned with melody, his emotional and impressionistic style is best experienced in the 39 Etudes Tableaux, which is a deeply affecting rollercoaster.
The other important contributor to the film is conductor and composer Valery Gergiev (Widowmaker) who is seen at work in the Mariinsky Theatre of St. Petersburg. It was Rachmaninoff himself who said that his life had been ‘a harvest of sorrow’, and Tony Palmer certainly brings that poignancy to bear in this deeply affecting film that brings the spirit of Rachmaninoff alive. MT
https://youtu.be/43dF4wg0r2o
NOW ON BLURAY | STREAMING ONLINE

Elgar (1962) **** Streaming and on Blu-ray

Dir: Ken Russell | UK, Doc 55′

Elgar was Ken Russell making a straightforward musical biopic under the strict control of Huw Wheldon’s guidance. And it certainly works to the film’s advantage when compared to the bloated and faintly ludicrous charades notably: Tommy and Lisztomania.

With its velvety black and white visuals and soaring score of orchestral masterpieces and more delicate pieces for the violin and cello, Russell was able to convey another portrait of creative angst while retaining the composer’s lofty romantic vision inspired by his walks in the rolling Malvern Hills. Weldon was the Head of the BBC and had put a dampener on Russell by banning dramatisations of the lives of real people. Russell used the difficulty cleverly getting round this by using actors filmed at a distance and no dialogue allowing the music too do its tour de force. Although Elgar sometimes veers on the didactic with Weldon’s stentorious narration overlaying the graceful set pieces showing a young boy (‘Elgar’ ) riding across the English landscape or through country lanes on a bicycle (with the love of his life Alice), this ethereal melding of sound and vision showed Russell at his best, despite – and perhaps because of – the limitations.

Elgar had a love of the countryside and it served as his muse when composing during his daily forays in the open air. By the time he returned home the compositions were fully formed in his mind, he had only to write them down. Russell traces the composer’s lowly background; his meeting Alice (Caroline Alice (1889-1920) who pioneered the way forward, never giving up on her arrant belief in his talent.

Elgar’s music captured the imagination of the Germans and finally took flight during the First World War, when the British public finally took him to their hearts with his talent for rousing marching music, and Russell’s film is enriched with brilliant archive footage showing all the pomp and circumstance of these celebrations, but also the quiet moments of self-doubt and reflection. But above all this is a true love story of the best kind: Where belief and perseverance drive the romance forward to great heights. Real love is not staring into each other’s eye, but looking in the same direction, as Elgar discovered. Alice was the making of this most English of our composers. And Russell’s Elgar is a small gem.

NOW ON BLURAY | STREAMING ONLINE

 

Mahler (1974) **** Russell and the Music Makers

Dir.: Ken Russell; Cast: Robert Powell, Georgina Hale, Les Montague, Rosalie Crutchley, Gary Rich, Richard Morant, Antonia Ellis, Peter Eyre, David Collings; UK 1974, 115 min.

Mahler is a picture of elegant restraint compared with the crudely salacious Gothic, Lisztomania and Tommy. Ken Russell’s portrait of Austro-Hungarian composer and conductor Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) is full of poignancy, Robert Powell conveying the composer’s inner angst and but also his finesse, despite the endless turmoil of his troubled personal life that was pierced by tragedy that defines but never quite engulfs this subdued but redolent arthouse masterpiece with its nuanced colour palette that reflects the highs and lows . Being Jewish, Mahler had to convert to Catholicism in order to be chief-conductor of the Vienna Court Opera, even though a campaign was launched to have him removed from the position. In 1902 he married Alma Schindler, a fellow composer, who was twenty-five years his junior. Until near the end of his life, she insisted he refrain from composing. The couple had two daughters, one of them, Maria, died in 1907 of scarlet fever. Russell tells his life story in flashbacks, starting with his last journey to Vienna, a month before his death, after he had returned from New York.

The story begins as Mahler is returning to his home in Austria with Alma (Hale) after time spent in New York conducting at the Metropolitan opera. In the first flashback, Mahler (Powell) is pictured composing in Maiernigg, his summer house, where he demands absolute quietness for his creative process to flow. Next we see little Gustav (Rich) at home with his parents, his father Bernhard (Montague) abusing his mother Marie (Crutchley) so badly that the boy runs away. Gustav was very close to his brother Otto (Eyre), whose financial worries  and later contributed to his suicide, just after Mahler’s appointment at the Vienna Court Opera.

Meanwhile back in the train, Gustav is suddenly confronted with Alma’s lover Max (Morant), a character representative of Alma’s real lover, the architect Walter Gropius whom she would marry after Mahler’s death. Mahler is so traumatised by seeing Max, he faints and dreams of his own death. The couple discuss their troubled marriage set against another flashback, Mahler’s fight to become Chief Conductor at the Court Opera. These emotional scenes jostle with sequences picturing the nervous breakdown of his friend, the composer Hugo Wolff (Collings).

Cosima Wagner (Ellis) appears as an Aryan Viking amazon, barring Mahler from becoming Chief Conductor. We witness the fight between the Alma and Gustav, just after the death of Maria, Alma complaining Mahler provoked her fate with his composition the KinderTotenLieder. In the end, Mahler and Alma reconcile, and Max leaves the train. In real life, Mahler shared his wife with Gropius for the last two years of his life, after having met Freud in Leyden in August 1910 for a consultation – the latter episode surprisingly not part of Russell’s feature. 

DoP Dick Bush (Yanks) uses vibrant colours for certain sequences, such as Cosima’s Valkyrie appearance, but whenever Mahler’s music is played the palette is suffused with mellow warmth. A dull sepia for the train journey underlines the funereal atmosphere of the whole endeavour. Powell and Hale’s onscreen chemistry is real and convincing, but Russell lets Mahler’s music take centre stage. AS

NOW ON PRIME VIDEO

   

Camino Skies (2020) *** Digital release

Dir.: Noel Smyth, Fergus Grady; Documentary with Julie Zarifeh, Sue Morris, Terry, Mark Thompson; New Zealand/Australia 2019, 80 min.

Antipodian first time documentary filmmakers Noel Smyth and Fergus Grady set off with six of their countrymen and women for a 800 km pilgrimage from Saint Jean Pied de Port, France to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. The holy walk started in the Middle Ages, and for the last sixty years, 300 000 yearly tried to come to terms with God, after their lives took a change for the worse, by undertaking this mammoth hike.

Sue Morris is first up, seventy, the oldest of the half dozen. She is suffering from degenerative arthritis. It is short of a miracle that she manages to stay the course, only once taking a bus and a taxi ride. But her stoic appearance hides a deeply traumatised inner life – and the journey seems not to have given her any answers.

It is much more straightforward for Terry and his son-in-law Mark Thompson – the former wearing a vest, claiming the 1.6 million steps are for Maddie, the daughter of Mark, who died from complications of Cystic Fibrosis at the age of seventeen. While not wishing to grade suffering,  Julie Zarifeh (54), seems to be hardest hit: in less than a month she lost her husband and son – basically her life. This certainly a Via Dolorosa for her, and her grief is utterly compelling.

The participants seem not to be overly religious, it is more the self torture which appeals to them, most of them suffering from survivor guilt. One listens to ‘Black Sabbath’, without the directors mentioning it. Dogs, horses, donkeys, beetles, lizards and snails are being cuddled and stared at, much to their alarm. The participants visit hairdressers and bars, the women sometimes dancing together, the men more interested in drinking. Small stones on the paths play a major role: Julie re-arranges them into a heart form: ‘For Paul and Sam’. The arrival in Santiago de Compostela lacks any triumph – a rather sobering ending. For Julie, the journey goes on to Muxia, on the Coast of Death, near the ocean. There she climbs the rocks and empties the content of an urn into the waves.

Even at eighty minutes, Camino Skies overstays its welcome. There is only so much to watch, and the repetitiousness of muddy pathways and ordinary day-to-day activities detract from the real physical and emotional suffering of these modern pilgrims. Yet despite the potential offered by the dramatic locations Smyth’s images are often too bland to be cinematically engaging, the filmmakers’ lack of inexperience diminishing the overall impact of these traumatised souls on their journey to salvation. AS

ON CURZON HOME CINEMA FROM 8 MAY 2020 | other platforms TBC

                       

                                       

The Debussy Film (1965) **** Blu-ray release

Dir: Ken Russell | UK Doc-drama 82′

The longest of his outings for the BBC Monitor series, this is an ambitious and gently flamboyant biopic that certainly reflects the hazy impressionism and subversive imagination of its subject, the French composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918) who was around at the same time as Claude Monet, both trying to reject the creative formalism of what had gone before.

The Debussy Film oscillates between several strands in evoking the emotionally complex life of Debussy. Essentially a film within a film, there is a dramatisation of his relationships with his friends, lovers and collaborators played by an eclectic cast of Vladek Sheybal (as ‘the director’ and Debussy’s own Svengali who is juggling his own demons while trying to capture those of the composer).

Sheybal had risen to fame for his role in Dr No. and adds an exotic touch to proceedings, along with Vernon Dobtcheff. Oliver Reed, only 27 at the time, makes for a smoulderingly seductive Debussy, his roving eye constantly alighting on a succession of nubile females notable of whom is the small but perfectly formed Annette Robertson (an ex wife of John Hurt) and Penny Service.

Russell co-scripts with Melvyn Bragg and the often frothy mise en scene is shot in schmoozey black and white by Ken Westbury with a very 1960s feel to the fashions – Courrèges often springs to mind in the costume department, although this was clearly the mid 19th century. And despite Huw Weldon’s beady eye on proceedings, Russell manages to get away with some outré ideas while largely sticking to the facts embellished,  of course, by his vivid imagination. MT

NOW ON BLU-RAY

 

Lisztomania (1975) ** Russell and the Music Makers

Dir.: Ken Russell; Cast: Roger Daltrey, Sara Kestelman, Paul Nicholas, Ringo Starr, Fiona Lewis, Veronica Quilligan; UK 1975, 103 min.

Ken Russell was really impressed with Roger Daltrey: so much so he cast him in two features released in 1975: Tommy and Lisztomania, an expression invented by German opera impresario Heinrich Heiner to describe the craze for Liszt that developed at the Bolshoi in the 1840s  – akin to Beatlemania (Ringo Star is ironically cast here as The Pope). Accused of being too crass and self-indulgent for the first, Russell easily surpassed all limits of taste and showmanship in his biopic of the Hungarian composer Franz Liszt, successfully taking the cinema back to where it first began: as a sensational fairground attraction for the masses.

We meet Liszt (Daltrey) in bed with Countess d’Agoult (Lewis). The Count discovers them ‘in flagrante’ and nails them into the body of a piano, placing it on the railway track. This serves as a start of flashbacks in which Liszt meets Richard Wagner (Nicholas), putting him off with his flashy piano interpretation of the German’s opera Rienzi, whilst courting rich women in the audience. One of them, Princess Carolyn (Kestelman) gives Liszt her address in Russia. Two of Liszt’s children are killed, and he is left with Cosima (Quilligan). He tells her he would do everything, even enter a pact with the Devil, to compose brilliant music again. Following the Princess to Russia, she promises he will compose the music he longs for if she is put in charge of his life. Hallucinating, Liszt sees the women of the Princess’ household assaulting him, before they become seduced by his music – and his ten feet penis.

In Dresden, Germany, Wagner becomes embroiled in the May Uprising. Wagner is injured in the fighting, and when Liszt is tending to his wounds, Wagner drugs Liszt, who passes out. Wagner turns into a vampire, sucking Liszt’s blood. Later Liszt and Carolyn travel to Rome to  persuade the the Pope (Starr) to allow Carolyn to divorce. The marriage is annulled at final stage by Carolyn’s husband. Liszt enters a cloister, but is soon found in bed with a woman. Meanwhile Wagner has seduced Cosima, while evil Jews are seen raping blond Aryan girls. Cosima and Wagner wear Superman outfits, promising to kill all Jews to cement the advent of the super race. Wagner later confesses he has built a mechanical Viking Siegfried. But Liszt plays his music, and Wagner is nearly exorcised, when Cosima kills Liszt. Finally, Liszt is re-united with the women he loved and Cosima (sic), singing, that he has finally found peace.

Together with Mahler and Tchaikovsky’s The Music Lovers, Lisztomania is the third outlandishly baroque composer biopic Russell directed in stark contrast to the sober, factual and deeply affecting black-and-white BBC portraits of Elgar, Debussy and Delius he made accompanied by Huw Weldon’s sonorous narrations, before been taken over by his own hyperbole. Legendary DoP Peter Suschitzky, who would also photograph Russell’s next feature Valentino, tries his best to keep up a carnival atmosphere. The spectacular moments – and the in-voluntary Chaplin imitations, produce a distorted mix of an orchestrated party. It would be wrong to talk about Lisztomania in terms of having aged badly – it was never more than a miserable, self-indulgent trip by a director, who had fallen victim to his own folly de grandeur. AS

AVAILABLE ON BLURAY and PRIME VIDEO and BFIPLAYER

      

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall (2020) *** Visions du Reel 2020

Dir: Sascha Schöberl | Germany, Doc 84′ 

The cult of beauty and celebrity coalesce in this deeply unsettling documentary that looks at Beijing-based plastic surgeon Dr Han and his permanent quest for perfection, not only for himself but for his clients. The film once again connects to the narrative of live-streaming, a big business in China, as we saw in Present, Perfect (2019) the Tiger Award winner at Rotterdam last year.

In her sophomore feature, German filmmaker Sascha Schoberl makes no judgement on Han’s own self-focus. This is not a case of a little nip and tuck here and there, done discretely for women of a certainly age. Dr Han’s patients are young slim, and business orientated, and their surgery is plain for all to see.

Live fashion photos of the Dr Han in various natty outfits decorate the walls of his practice. In the firmament of China’s burgeoning plastic surgery industry, he is a star. Nor does the director question his unusual professional approach, allowing a roomful of spectators to attend the and record the live surgery on their mobile phones. The patient, a young Chinese model who undergoes the procedure without general anaesthetic, has given permission because this is all part of the process of monetising live-streaming, And it cuts both ways. The participants all garner something from the process, although why the camera looks at the patient’s face rather than the operation itself, is unclear. Clearly her stoicism – and tacit endurance – adds to the compelling nature of the footage. 

But beyond achieving beauty, girls in China are really looking to make money from the process of improvement surgery. And this is made possible and achievable thanks to Chinese massive social media platforms WeChat and Weibo who attract millions of followers to experience the surgery – live-streamed from the operating theatre to art fairs via fashion shows, and the private homes of this vast nation – they will use their mobiles not only as a form of contact and entertainment, but also to finance their lives. 

Drone footage hovers over Beijing’s vast tower blocks in the opening scenes as the camera descends on Dr Han’s substantial headquarters in the centre of the Chinese capital. Dr Han goes through his spiel encouraging and mentoring as the women congregate to attend the breast enlargement operation for a young flat-chested model whose sole aim, apart from achieving her desired breast size, is to create a platform where she can showcase her assets and make money from garnering followers on social media. The only slight criticism here is a lack of backstory: who are these girls, what are their personal stories, and how about some more clarity on Dr Han?

The procedure completed, the good doctor is not relieved that things have gone well, and that the patient has emerged fit and fulsome; he is clearly dismayed not to have attracted more followers, just click bait. Meanwhile, the enhanced model is pouting happily in her white bed holding a bunch of flowers for her followers delights, having been forced to look chipper throughout the procedure, her face having being filmed continuously by another woman encouraging her to smile, despite her nervousness.

Being a woman is highly competitive business all over the World, as increasingly so. Intelligence and personality are clearly not enough, and surgeons like Dr Han have cottoned on these women’s susceptibility and panders to their vanity and insecurity. A compelling film that questions beauty as a simultaneously essential yet vain element of society in the era of selfies. MT

Visions du Reel 2020 Online | April – May 2020, Nyon, Switzerland 

 

Nothing Fancy: Diana Kennedy (2019) **** Now on iTunes

Dir.: Elizabeth Carroll, Documentary with Diane Kennedy; USA/Mexico 2019, 82 min.

In her informative feature debut Elizabeth Carroll celebrates the British chef and cookbook supremo Diana Kennedy, a 97-year-old widely regarded as the world’s authority on Mexican cuisine. Standing barely five feet tall with a cut-glass English accent, Diana is the author of nine cookbooks and has spent the last 70 years exploring and documenting the many and varied regional cuisines of Mexico. It’s clear from the outset her ferocity is borderline: “if her enthusiasm were not beautiful, it would border on mania.”

Diana is a force of nature, living entirely in harmony with all things natural. She designed and built her ecologically sustainable property outside Zitácuaro, Michoacán in 1974, where she continues to cook, recycle rainwater, use solar power, and grow her own vegetables, coffee, and corn. She was decorated with an Order of the Aztec Eagle from the Mexican government in 1982; received a Member of the Order of the British Empire for strengthening cultural ties between Mexico and the UK in 2002.

An inspirational figure she is always on the lookout for natural ingredients at the wheel of her Nissan pick-u truck she zips through the Mexican countryside or shops in markets near her  home in Zitacuaro, Michoacan, where she grows her food ingredients organically.

The film’s title is the same as one of her nine cookbooks, and is also a very apt description of the gruff nonagenarian who sets the agenda for everyone: “People who want to live here have to realise they have to live with nature”. Her eco drive never stops: she has campaigned against the bleaching of table clothes in restaurants and the gentrification of the market in nearby Oaxaca is certainly not to her taste: “Before it was all more natural and untidy. And tasty.” 

After the war she went to the USA and Canada, before meeting her husband Paul P. Kennedy, the foreign correspondent for the NY Times in Porto Prince, Haiti. In 1957 they went to Vera Cruz, and Diana became inspired by the recipes of Josefina Velazuez de Leon. She wanted to be more than a housewife, and Craig Clayborne, Food editor of the NY Times from 1957-1986, helped to establish her. In 1965, Kennedy became ill, and they moved to New York for his treatment. After his death in 1967 – she never married again – Diana became depressed, and only her Mexican cooking classes, as featured in the NY Times, kept her spirits up, whilst actors and writers were her dinner guests in the restaurant. All this fired her up for the future and eventually he decamped down south to Mexico City in 1976. She now has “boot camps” for aspiring cooks in her house, and shows that she is not a very forgiving teacher. Nowadays she is a harsh critic of contemporary:  “The more we are connected electronically, the less we are united”. And she is as sober about herself as she is with others: “When I am blind, or can’t cook or eat any more, than I am out”.

But Carroll has managed to make Diana and her life’s story into an entertaining and upbeat experience – not only of food. DoPs Paul Mailman and Andrei Zakow have contributed with vibrant and refreshing aesthetic which gives Nothing Fancy a story book background. AS

AVAILABLE ONLINE FROM 2 MAY 2020 | COURTESY OF DOGWOOF | iTUNES 

 

ONLINE AT DOGWOOF
                               

The Russian Woodpecker (2015) **** Now on Prime Video

RUSSIANWOODPECKER_still2_FedorAlexandrovich__byArtemRyzhykov_2014-11-20_05-25-34PMDirector: Chad Gracia 80min | War Documentary |

In his darkly informative documentary Chad Gracia has found and an amusing interpreter in the shape of wild-haired Russian artist Fedor Alexandrovich who does his best to enlighten with a potted history of Ukraine from the hungry thirties of to the Chernobyl conspiracy and culminating in the Maidan uprising in Ukraine. But his story reveals a troubling secret.

THE RUSSIAN WOODPECKER, rightly awarded Grand Jury Prize, World Cinema at Sundance this year, refers to the telegraphic pecking sound made by a transmitter that had been in operation since the Cold War days in 1976, as an early warning system. The “Duga” was a low frequency device that worked by grabbing information and then bouncing it back to base thanks to the Earth’s shape. A Russian speaker, American-born Gracia allows Alexandrovich, a Chernobyl survivor himself, free rein to expound his conspiracy theory on why the  reactor blew up (or was detonated in his view) in 1986, causing lethal and widespread damage. Flighty and fleet of foot, Feodor whisks us through his Iron-Curtai controversy incorporating his own family memoir of being radiated by strontium at the age of four – but he wears this experience patriotically as a badge of honour. In a fortuitous natural twist, it emerges America was protected from the Duga, a massive mesh of secret military ironwork, by the Northern Lights. Remarkable footage shows the frighteningly vast metal transmitter surging up, maniacally victorious, over the surrounding forests.

Fedor is convinced that the Duga was connected to the Chernobyl disaster and he sets off with Gracia, and his friend and cinematograapher Artem Ryzhykov, to investigate the Exclusion Zone around Chernobyl. The place is full of mangled metalwork, broken glass and overgrown buildings and Fedor sees fit to strip naked at this point as he fashions himself as part of the scary scenery, shooting his own film in the process.

Later, Fedor, Chas and Artem chat informally to elderly Soviet scientists, military men and Communist Party faithfuls, filming some of them clandestinely, and discover that the Duga was actually a failure due to its vast cost which ran into the billions. Feodor hatches his theory round the premise that the Chernobyl reactor was blown ‘on purpose’ by the Russians in 1986 so as to destroy the Duga radar, in an attempt to cover their error.  At this point Feodor becomes emphatic and almost beligerant as he expounds his tenuous theory while Ukrainian secret police make ominous threats against him and his family, at which point he attempts to renege on his claims and is seen fleeing the country. It does seems that the Russian are still very much feared by the Ukrainians. There are scenes shot during the Independence Square protests, which were gradually dispersed by Russian troops. Some of the footage is extraordinary showing the Russian riot Police in action, fires blazing, and flashbacks to Fedor patrolling the Duga naked in his suit of plastic cladding. Artem himself is shot and nearly killed during the protests but is later speaks to the camera claiming: “it was a peaceful protest” before he breaks down in tears.

Gracia manages to inject absurdist humour into this melancholy and disturbing documentary but this is raw, real and compelling filmmaking. Feodor claims: “Ukraine is just the first step in the re-birth of the Soviet Union – the second step is World War III”. During the riots we learn that 100 protesters were shot dead. And in a hair-raising final scene we see Fedor tuning it to his radio system: After 23 years of silence, the Woodpecker signal has returned to the airwaves and been traced to the heart of Russia. MT

ON PRIME VIDEO

 

Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat (2017)

Dir: Sara Driver | Doc | US | 78′

Sara Driver’s first documentary Boom for Real is a lively loose-limbed look at the high octane force of nature that was Jean-Michel Basquiat – arguably one of America’s most mercurial and influential artists of late 20th century, whose work is now more valuable than ever, a painting selling for USD 81 million in Christie’s New York in May 2021.

Under a pseudonym SAMO (which was originally the duo of Basquiat and Al Diaz) Basquiat was barely out of his teens when he sprang to fame in the Lower East Side art scene by means of sharply sardonic graffiti epigrams that were posted on school walls – US Bansky-style, announcing his critical talent to amuse, for want of a gallery to sponsor him. And it’s through Basquiat’s prodigious teen and twenty-something output that Sara Driver chronicles the early days of hip hop, punk and street art, brought to life with sparky commentary from his friends and collaborators. With its choppy editing style and blitzy soundtrack, Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat  sketches out a life pulsating with vim and vitality that soared like a meteor but would eventually crash and burn in New York’s Neon nightclubs and graffitied backwaters.

Chipping in with wit and repartee there is Jim Jarmusch, Fab 5 Freddy, and Patricia Field who offer intimate access to Basquiat’s electric personality and creative energy and the effect it had on the contemporary art scene. This impressionistic documentary catapults us right into the era, picturing the pivotal sociocultural switch from the 70s to the 80s. Driver invigorates her film with a plethora of paintings, posters, audio recordings, original film and archive footage.

Intriguing and entertaining, Driver’s film captures the free-wheeling, chaotic intensity of a time in history where she was also a protagonist working as a director in her own right, and an actor featuring in Jarmusch’s Permanent Vacation and Stranger Than Paradise. Despite its rather scattergun approach, actually working to its advantage, Boom for Real is chockfull of insight and pithy commentary, conjuring up the sporadic nature of this drug-fuelled creative geyser.

Serving as the perfect companion piece to Celine Danhier’s Blank City (2010) Sara Driver’s doc further fleshes out that Neo-expressionist era, with a highly personalised and first hand testament to a time of gritty uncertainty – danger even – when the New York’s power structures and politics where artistically critiqued by the clever creative genius of this legendary wild child. MT

NOW ON AMAZON PRIME

Talking About Trees (2019) **** Digital release

Dir|Writer|DoP: Suhaib Gasmelbari

Director Suhaib Gasmelbari scripts and photographs this sorrowful love letter to the demise of Sudanese cinema that explores the efforts of a group of retired directors hoping to revive their country’s love of film.

Talking About Trees is also about the impactful and collective experience of watching films in the cinema, sharing the buzz of humour or sadness, and the cultural exchanges that come through the medium of sight and sound on the silver screen.

The Sudanese Film Club consists of a group of directors: Ibrahim Shadad, Manar Al Hilo, Suleiman Mohamed Ibrahim and Altayeb Mahdi, who have been forced into retirement against their own volition. Efforts to reopen a cinema in their city of Omdourman, near of Khartoum, have been unsuccessful to date. The country’s dominating Islamist regime and its restrictions has put paid to any enjoyment film-wise taking place in the public domain.

These filmmakers were trained outside the country and they share clips of their impressive oeuvres throughout the documentary. Clearly influenced by French New Wave and Soviet montage, their visual language is muted and reflective of political regimes that conflict with the current status quo in Sudan. After a military coup in 1989, the government fell under the control of Islamic fundamentalists, and Sharia law has prevailed since the early 1990s.  Khartoum still has a few theatres showing mainstream fare, but indie features are banned.

Shadad and his friends host free screenings in their town squares, and these are massively popular and stimulate interest with young and old alike. But red tape soon strangles their efforts, even before the finances run out. The country’s culture becomes moribund before our eyes: it’s akin to seeing someone losing their life right in front of you as you look on powerless to intervene.  “We are smarter, but they are stronger,” is the comment one of them makes. But they persevere, upbeat and full of hope tinged with remorse. A tragic and deeply moving experience. Let’s hope Martin Scorsese comes to the rescue, as he has done before. The film ends with a salient takeaway that says it all. “Seeing a movie with friends is better than watching one alone at home.” MT

ON RELEASE from 27 APRIL | Curzon HOME CINEMA

 

 

Marta Meszaros | Retro | Bergamo Film Meeting 2021

Márta Mészáros occupies a unique position in Hungarian and world film history. The director, Kossuth and Prima Prize laureate, winner of awards at the Berlinale, Chicago, Cannes and many other international film festivals, is in herself a historical legend. Together with her contemporaries Agnès Varda, Larisa Shepitko e Věra Chytilová, she ranks as one of the most significant female authors in the world.

She is the first Hungarian woman to be awarded a diploma in film directing, she has dedicated her movies to depicting the lives of women (their identity, deviance, female rebelliousness, erotic intimacy and Hungarian history of Stalinism), and her directorial debut attracted global attention.

Even as a young child she had struggled with being orphaned, with hunger and the vicissitudes of history. She was born in Budapest in 1931. Her father, the avant-garde sculptor László Mészáros, in fleeing fascism moved the family to Kirgizia, where on the outbreak of World War II he fell victim to Stalin’s purges. Her mother also died. She was placed in a Soviet orphanage and only returned to Hungary after the war.

Between 1954-56 she studied at the film academy in Moscow and until 1968 she made Romanian and Hungarian documentaries. These autobiographical motifs inspired the Diary series that garnered considerable international acclaim.

Diary for my Children (Naplo Gyermekeimnek) Hungary 1983, 106 min.

Hungarian writer/director Marta Meszaros (*1931) chronicles a decade of Hungarian social history (1947-1958) in this autobiographical trilogy of just under six hours, where she is represented by the teenage character Juli. Meszaros actually made a fourth feature, Little Vilma (Kisvilma – az utolso naplo) in 2000, which runs along similar lines but its realisation differs from the original format. Of the three Diary for my Children is by far the most impressive, winning the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes in the year of its making. The colour versions of Diary for my Lovers and Diary for my Mother and Father, descends into simplicity, with Meszaros losing her objective documentarian’s viewpoint. All three parts were shot by DoP Nyika Jansco, her husband Miklos Jansco’s son from a previous relationship before their marriage which lasted from 1960 to 1973.    

In 1947, teenage Juli (Czinkoczi) arrives in Budapest from exile in Moscow to stay with her foster mother Magda (Polony), and her grandparents (Pal Zolnay/Mari Szemes). Magda is a member of the Communist Party, courageously opposing Nazism and Stalin, but recently her opinions of the Communist set-up have softened. Most of her friends have mixed views about her political affiliations. Old friend Janos (Nowicki) disagrees with her stance, her flatmate Judith Kardos (Margitai) more or less supports her. Juli’s mother died during the war, and her sculptor father had been imprisoned during one of the purges in the late 1930s. So she takes a dim view of Stalin, suspecting he may have had a hand in her father’s ‘disappearance’. The dynamic of these relationships forms the rich backcloth to this intimate character study.

Juli idolises Janos as a father figure. In her dream sequences, Janos actually becomes her father, working in a huge quarry. Much later, when Janos is married to Ildi (Bansagi), she also is the same person as her mother in Juli’s dreams. Not one for school, Juli does steals Magda’s cinema pass and discovers the classics: She identifies with Greta Garbo in ‘Mata Hari’, and make a fancy dress of her idol. But Juli has a harsh side, treating her boyfriend meanly by refusing to sleep with him. Janos gets arrested for “sabotage” in the factory he is working in, but he buys his freedom, denouncing a co-worker – and also relying on Magda’s help “for the sake of the old days”. Finally, Juli is thrown out of the school and has to work in a factory before she moves out of Magda’s flat, to live with Janos and his son (Toth), who has to spend his days in a wheelchair.

Diary for my Lovers (Napok Szerelmeinnek) Hungary 1987, 141 min.

Diary for my Lovers starts in 1953 and explores her sexual forays in Moscow. Juli has gone back to school and is chosen (with some help by Magda) to study economics but then has a change of heart, talking the Russians into letting her swop places with a young Hungarian whose dream to be an economist gives her the opportunity realise her own wish to become a filmmaker. At film school she meets the glamorous actress Anna Pavlova (Kouberskaya), who has a relationship with an older and senior party functionary. She also discovers how her father met his fate and angered by the revelations she decides to go home when the  1956 revolution breaks out in Hungary, despite becoming emotionally close to Janos and his son. Back in Budapest Magda has joined the security forces is nearly lynched during public unrest.  by the revolting citizens. Ildi asks Juli to flee to Vienna with Janos “and keep him there.” But they end up in Budapest.

Part three, A Diary for my Mother and Father (Naplo Apamnak, Anyamnak) Hungary 1990, 119 min.

This begins with a New Year’s Eve party in Magda’s flat, celebrating the end of a traumatic 1956. Magda and the Party have regained power after the Russian invasion, and Juli, who is working for the newsreel section of he Party, comes to blows with her mother. Janos is now part of an independent worker’s union in the factory, and convinces his co-workers not to give in to the regime, and continue their strike. But this all ends in a gruelling drawn-out tragedy

Meszaros combines the opposing forms of documentary and fiction, the film’s aesthetic and narrative becomes a notion of film as art, entertainment and record. The quasi documentary style and the inclusion of archive footage is a clear reflection of earlier Meszaros films. And this is all conveyed in the subtle acting performances, which remind us of Rossellini’s work in Italian Neo-Realism. We become attached observers, looking in from the outside as flies on the wall catching snippets of conversation at the dinner table, when working conditions in the factories are discussed, before Juli escapes into her dream world. There is a quietly devastating sequence with Juli sitting alone in the room after her grandfather has scolded her for bring up the story of her father’s tragic disappearance. A recurring dream imagine her father in the quarry; and we even get a glimpse of her as a child – her voice echoing as she calls for her father. Lacking a family in the traditional sense, she invents her own: as one where only Janos will discuss the past. Juli’s real world is the cinema.

Zsuzsa Czinkoczi gives an astounding performance considering she was only fifteen-years old when the film was shot. She dream-walks through the six hours, never putting a foot wrong. Subtly evoking tone and pace, and her life and circumstances change. Anna Polony’s Magda is a study in ambivalence. Both she and Juli somehow need each for a time: Juli to get to film school, Magda to repress her guilt regarding the death of Juli’s father. But they start out more or less on an even footing: life choices see them move farther apart. The truth here is that any totalitarian regime – rather like a religion- is extremely demanding of its believers, Magda becoming someone she didn’t set out to be. The only way out is total emotional rejection of the status quo, which Juli achieves in the end – but not before she entertained the idea of a silent truce with the system.

Whilst Meszaros always refused to be called a feminist, she was one of the first women directors who won major awards, and she was the first ever female filmmaker to win the Golden Bear in Berlin 1975, for Adoption. AS

MARTA MESZAROS RETROSPECTIVE | BERGAMO FILM MEETING 2021 | AVAILABLE FREE ONLINE WITH KIND PERMISSION OF THE HUNGARIAN CULTURAL CENTRE LONDON UK |

  

   

 

80 Hussars | 80 Huszár (1978) **** Online

Dir.: Sára Sándor; Cast: Lászlo Dózsa, Josezsef Madaras, György Csenhalmi, Jacint Juhász, Geza Tordy; Hungary 1978, 124 min.

Prolific Hungarian director Sára Sándor (1933-2019) is best known for this patriotic historical drama, based on the true story of Captain Janos Lenkey (here known as Paal Farkas), set during the 1848 revolution. Europe is seething with rebellions against the tyrannical Austrian Empire, and the emperor even abdicates the throne. A regiment of Hungarian hussars are stationed in Galician Poland, serving out their enlistment time in the Imperial Austrian Army. The hussars just want to return to Hungary, but their superiors in Vienna have no intention of allowing that, knowing full well that they’d fight on the side of the revolution and not maintain their loyalty to the Austrians. When they receive orders to fire on rebelling Poles in Krakow, they refuse and head back to their homes.

András Korsos (Madaras) absconds from the army aiming to kick start a revolution in Hungary, overthrowing the hated Viennese. But he is soon captured and dragged to a small town where he is made to run the gauntlet, and is nearly whipped to death. Stories of his ill-treatment soon spread throughout the community leading to widespread protests, and a student is shot dead for hanging an effigy of an Austrian soldier during a Polish seminar. His rebellion is also derided by  an Austrian general, shown as pompous and arrogant, who lectures the leader of the seminar about the fruitless hope for a revolution: “Just a revolt, nothing more” His words are also meant for the Hungarian soldiers, who are furious about the treatment meted out to Korsos.

With its widescreen set pieces demonstrating the skill and rigorous training of the hussars in the mountainous terrain of the Carpathian Mountains this is a rousing drama, and there are moments of brutal violence as they trudge through the inhospitable landscape on their way back to their homeland under the leadership of Captain Farkas (Dózsa). Their downhill struggle is difficult to watch, many of the horses dying along with their masters who are bedraggled by the poor weather conditions, petty disagreements undermining their integrity. Finally, having made a prisoner from the Austrian army, who has followed them relentlessly, they tie him to a tree, setting off joyfully, after having heard Hungarian voices. But they run straight into a trap. After being captured, Farkas is courageous to the last, saluting his co-leaders Lieutenant Bodogh Szilvevezter (Tordy), and corporals Peter Acs (Jacint Juhász) and Istvan Csorgas (Csenhalmi) with his sword that has been broken in half by the commanding Austrian officer.

Petöfi, Hungary’s most famous poet raised the profile of Lenkey inspired by his bravery and sense of moral restitude. Co-scripter, Sàndor Csoóri, a poet himself instills the march through the fog and mist of the swamps with a lyrical brilliance that adds a heroic poignance to the endless misery. Korsos is so enraged by the loss of his men that he attacks his horse in a fit of madness, whilst another hussar threatens his starving fellow soldiers with a gun, in case they dare make a meal of his dead horse. There are many cross references to the failed revolution of 1956, asking questions about this recurrent theme in Hungary’s history. A powerful and often violent feature, 80 Hussars leaves the audience spellbound, but also traumatised. AS

AVAILABLE ONLINE WITH KIND PERMISSION FROM THE HUNGARIAN CULTURAL CENTRE IN LONDON UK         

https://vimeo.com/288005139

Martin Margiela: In His Own Words (2019) London Fashion Week

Dir: Reiner Holzemer | With Sandrine Dumas, Pierre Rougier, Lidewij Edelkoort, Cathy Horyn, Jean Paul Gaultier, Carine Roitfield  | Doc, 90′

Early on in his transformative career elusive clothes designer Martin Margiela cottoned on to the fact that anonymity and exclusivity meant power in the fashion world. During his career Margiela reinvented with his innovative designs and revolutionary shows; never compromising on his vision. After abruptly leaving fashion in 2009 he is now regarded as one of the most influential designers of modern times. Reiner Holzemer’s (DRIES) film presents a never-before-seen, exclusive look inside the creative mind and vision of Martin Margiela.

This frank and fascinating new biopic is the third film to scope out the life of the 62-year-old Belgian maverick whose vision turned the tables on high glamour to offer a softly deconstructed version of Rei Kawakubo’s Avantgarde label Comme des Garçons.

We don’t meet him but we do get to see his graceful hands moving swiftly on the pattern cutting table (“I liked his hands,” comments one model, “When he dressed you backstage it was with finesse.”). Meanwhile his soothing narration conveys a slightly insolent, provocatively subversive figure. Margiela gives a reason for this reclusiveness, and we discover it was not a sales ploy: “Anonymity, for me, was a kind of a protection — that I could work. And the work was hard. And that I had nothing on my schedule, like all the appointments one can have with press. I’m not against those appointments. But I could not cope with them. They would bring me out of my balance.”

Using the usual talking heads approach combined with archive footage of the shows and the models, seasoned fashion documentarian Holzeme conveys Margiela’s subtle thoughtfulness as he prepares for the “Margiela/Galliera, 1989-2009” exhibition, a 10-year retrospective that took place in the Palais Galliera fashion museum in Paris.

Born on the 9th of April 1957 in Leuven, Belgium, Martin Margiela remembers watching his dressmaker grandmother cutting patterns and then making them up. She was the most important influence in his life, but he also impressed by the Courreges models at a show on TV in 1966 – they wore opaque white glasses and white toeless boots with a white cotton summer dresses and that captured the young Margiela’s imagination. Attending the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp he graduated in 1979 just a year ahead of the design collective known as the  ‘Antwerp Six’ which included Dries Van Noten and Ann Demeulemeester. From the early 1980s he developed his distinct concept and vision and after a spell with Gaultier’s mentoring (“Martin you don’t realise you have a style and a taste, and you should stick with that taste for your future”) he went on to found the ready to wear label Maison Martin Margiela with fellow Belgian Jenny Meirens in 1987.

The first show in 1989 embraced the label’s deconstructed aesthetic, taking place in an abandoned kids’ playground in the suburbs of Paris where fashion luminaries mingled with ordinary locals hanging out and cheering in a rock concert ambiance (echoed here by a offbeat soundtrack by the Belgian rock band dEus). Margiela models wore heavy make-up and messy hair and were heavily scented with Patchouli when they took the catwalk.

Rather than concentrating on intricate couture and exquisite fabrics like Dior and St Laurent, he focused on the look and image and the message he was sending out to his fans: One iconic design involved photographing a garment in black and white and then printing the flat image directly onto the fabric to achieve a tromp l’oeil look. Another was his cloven hoof “Tabi” high-heel boots. Often he shot black-and-white cinema verité-style short films to showcase his collections.

Margiela put the counter-culture on a pedestal and made it cool. But the often violent reaction against his rebellion was another factor that sent him behind closed doors, shunning the press and avoiding interviews. In this way his anonymity became vital to his work, helping him to retain his integrity of vision which he felt would be dissipated by negative reactions if he allowed the outside in. In the end, his lack of a public persona became irreverent because of the strong message of his work. Other standout shows would see his models wearing masks or with wigs covering their faces giving them a ‘back to front look’ that somehow evoked insularity. Garments were often fashioned from bits and pieces of socks made into tailored garments. The silhouette was long and wide at the bottom, with a focus on the shoes. “When you look at the shoulders and the shoes, they dictate the movement of the body, and that’s what I’m interested in.”  Mixing second hand clothes with new designs – his 1991 collection involved long dresses often worn coat-like over teeshirt and jeans, and left open at the back.

Paris allowed him to experiment and be free. Rather like Prada’s little red tag, the calling card of Margiela’s brand was the invisible label framed by four whites stitch marks. Margiela would enjoy working with a number of fashion houses, one in particular was the supremely classic house of Hermès where he was creative director for six years from 1998. Seeing the big picture, he went to the essence of the brand and managed to create something unique but at the same time classically elegant; balancing grace, comfort and timelessness in subtle tones and hues.

During the 1990s the label generated a keen celebrity following of Cher, Gwyneth Paltrow and Amanda Peet and there were flagship boutiques in Los Angeles. But he suddenly stepped back claiming he had drifted away from his focus: “By the end, I became, in a certain way, an artistic director in my own company. And that bothered me, because I’m a designer. I’m really a fashion designer, and a designer who creates, and I’m not just a creative director who directs his assistants.” His abrupt parting with the brand in 2008 meant he was unable to say goodbye to his collaborators and contacts. And this film is another tribute them.

Today Margiela paints and sculpts and continues to live in solitude. But the takeaway from this informative film is his response when asked if he is done with fashion. The answer is a firm’No’. MT

ON DEMAND COURTESY OF DOGWOOF

 

 

Crazy, Not Insane (2020) ***** CPH: DOX 2020

Dir: Alex Gibney | With Forensic Psychiatrist Dorothy Lewis MD, Richard Burr, Park Dietz, Catherine Yeager; USA 2020, 117 min.

What happens in the brains of serial killers? Oscar winner Alex Gibney, who won an Oscar for his documentary Taxi To The Dark Side, examines the facts and the psychology of murderers based on research by forensic psychiatrist Dorothy Ontov Lewis, in this chilling but sober film about criminal psychology.

Professor Dorothy Otnov Lewis, forensic psychiatrist and lecturer at Yale and NY university, is best known for Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), a phenomenon she continues to question since coining the term in 1984. Her work with serial killers Arthur Shawcross and Ted Bundy brought her to the conclusion that DID was the result of brain dysfunction, abuse in childhood and psychotic paranoia.

Otnov Lewis is a lively and voluble medic who makes this comprehensive study engaging and enjoyable despite the gravity of the subject matter. She describes how brain dysfunction affects the frontal lobes responsible for controlling  (among other things) our emotional responses and empathy. Injury of this vital part of the brain leads to impulsiveness, poor judgement and emotional liability. Together with childhood abuse and a tendency to paranoia, this is, as it turns out, a deadly combination. 

By way of background she describes going to kindergarten during WWII her main concerns were not being picked last for team games and her disappointment that Hitler’s suicide robbed her of insight into the motives for his genocidal politics, and she later eagerly followed the Nuremberg trials. A career as a Freudian analyst seemed the logical next step. But her studies at Yale School of Medicine led her via New Haven Juvenile Court and saw her running a clinic specialising in the neuro-psychiatric characteristics of young people in Long Lane School, a detention facility for violent juvenile offenders in Middleton (Connecticut). This experience changed her mind. She worked with the neurologist Professor Martin Pincus, a collaboration they continued at NYU, where they had access to Bellevue Hospital prison.

An interview with CBS TV in 1983 focused on children who kill and brought her into contact with a lawyer defending two juvenile children on death row. Lewis and Pincus interviewed all the death row inmates in Starke/Florida. Among them was Lucky Larson (not his real name), who was sentenced to die for hacking his two victims to death. Tests revealed his frontal lobes had been injured. In course of their investigation, Lewis and Pincus uncovered that Lucky’s mother had started sexually abusing him when he was six. His jealous father became violent with his son. But despite this revelation the jury in his re-trail still found him guilty. Lewis’ only consolation was his inability to see the reality of his situation: his frontal lobes had been disconnected from the rest of the brain.

Lewis had more success in trial with Arthur Shawcross, a notorious serial killer. He was saved from the electric chair in November 1990, thanks to Lewis’ intervention. Shawcross, whose mother bit his penis when he was young, said in an interview with Lewis “I am here, but I am not really here. I am fighting with myself. I am two people doing something bad.” Lewis used the MRI of his brain for her defence, but the prosecutor’s forensic witness Park Dietz, a medical bigwig who Lewis would continue to cross horns with during her career, tried to destroy her testimony.

Then there was the case of Johnny Frank Garrett, 17 years old, who had murdered a nun. He was a schizophrenic whose brain damage led to seizures. Lewis and the defence asked for clemency, but the states of Florida and Texas were in competition to secure the most death penalties. The Texas governor basically washed his hands off the case and let the Clemency Board decide. The result was a 17:1 vote for execution.

The Clinton administration was in power at the time and the president had already shown in his home state of Arkansas that he was tough on crime. Although there were some counter demonstrations against the executions, the majority literally celebrated the perpetrators’ deaths. Arcade games featured executions on the electric chair, where a dummy was put to death by the player for 25 cents. It is interesting in this context, that Lewis would interview Ben Johnson, the travelling executioner, who was also a part-time electrician. He proudly told Lewis about his grandson’s encouragement in his work: “Zap them, Grand Pa.” Strangely enough, Lewis is much more concerned about the little children sitting on his lap (“I will get accused of molestation”) than the nineteen people he had executed. Johnson states candidly that he had no nightmares, but the paintings he did after every execution show a tortured soul.

Dorothy Lewis was the last person Ted Bundy spoke to just before his execution on 24.1.1993. Bundy had made a performance of his trial, and everything he said was seen as a part of his grandstanding. But in her interviews with Bundy, Lewis discovered that Bundy’s grandfather Sam had been a violent person and an pornography user. Bundy’s grandmother had depression and his own mother, Eleanor Louise had taken “pills” to abort the boy. Bundy spent two months in an orphanage before his mother united him with his siblings. Ted run away from his violent grandfather, and there were rumours that Sam was his biological father, which DNA tests proved to be wrong. When Lewis got a collection of love letters from his wife, she found out that Bundy had signed some of them with ‘Sam’, the name of his grandfather. Bundy told Lewis that “in late Winter 1969, this ‘entity’ reached the point were it was necessary to act out. The ‘entity’ takes over the basic conscious mechanism of the brain and more or less dictates what’s going to be done. It was unobtrusive at first, something that sort of grew on me. It began to visualise and phantasies’ about more violent things. But by the time I realised how powerful it was, I was in big trouble.” He had become his grandfather, and while the public was celebrating his execution Lewis, who never wanted the perpetrators she interviewed to be released, lamented “how much could we have learned from Bundy had he been allowed to live. But we have gone back to the Middle Ages, burning witches.”

Gibney has made this dark chapter in America’s history even grimmer by incorporating 2d, and 3d black-and-white animation which pictures Lewis sitting on both the electric chair and outside the death chamber, looking into her Alter Ego’s eyes. Lewis is also seen painting in stark black strokes the Hell, her patients inhabited. DoP Ben Bloodwell makes this a disturbing masterpiece enriched by Lewis’ gracious presence. AS

CPH:DOX 2020 and on HBO DIGITAL TV in certain territories. 

    

        

 

Le Mans 66 (2019) ***** Home Ent

Dir: James Mangold | Cast: Christian Bale, Matt Damon, Caitriona Balfe, Jon Bernthal, Josh Lucas, Noah Jupe, Tracy Letts. | US Drama 152′

A dynamite duo of Christian Bale and Matt Damon powers this petrolhead portrait of the feud between Ford Motor Company and Ferrari at Le Mans in 1966. They play racing legends Ken Miles and Carroll Shelby in James Mangold’s finely crafted high octane vehicle. 

Back in the 1960s motor racing was still a raw and dangerous game. But James Mangold makes it into a meaningful drama for all the family, exploring the real lives and loves behind the dynamic days of Formula One.

In those days Ferrari dominated the circuit, combining speed with stylish design. But as the film opens Ferrari is experiencing financial problems and Henry Ford II and his lieutenant Lee Iacocca – famous for the Mustang – see a gap in the market to make a racing car that could compete with the Italians – and win.

Straighforwardly told by Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller, this is a well-paced and suspenceful piece of kit that revs up from the start with some magnificent widescreen camerawork, a cast of likeable and dastardly characters adding sparky dynamics to the action drama’s historic underpinnings. From the riveting race scenes to the poignant personal stories this is enjoyable and intensely moving.

James Mangold adds steely humour in constrasting the rival’s corporate culture. Boring old Ford’s budget for lavatory paper alone exceeds stylish Ferrari’s spend on show cars. And it’s the attention to detail and personal touch that wins through for the charismatic Enzo Ferrari who presides over his empire like a feudal Medici. And these scenes are a breath of fresh air when compared to the posturing ego of Tracy Letts’ flaccid Ford and his simpering sidekick Leo Beebe (a suitably mincing Josh Lucas).

Ford is bored with his beige output and desperate to make his name with something more interesting that can compete on the racetrack. He puts his money on the table and sets his minions to finding a winning solution. But at the heart of the film is a more thoughtful story: the strong working friendship between former Le Mans winner turned designer Shelby and maverick mechanic Ken Miles. The winning focus for Shelby is to create a hot car for Ford, and get Miles – who has already rubbed up against Beebe – behind the wheel.

Bale brings a breath of fresh air in the shape of lone wolf mechanic Miles who is an awkward and unpredictable perfectionist tempered by his appealing wife Mollie (Caitriona Balfe) and intelligent son Peter (Noah Jupe). The share a mutual respect for one another but aren’t afraid to air their differences, ending up at one point in a punch-up. and this all adds grist to the film’s feisty dramatics.

The nerve-shedding third act takes us through the gruelling 1966 24-hour French marathon that sees the drivers pit their wits against the harsh conditions in a competition that never fails to impress with its viciousness and verve. But Shelby and Miles are past masters in an endeavour that doesn’t always end well. The crucial element here is the Ford car’s breaks which have been subject to failure. Bale and Damon’s energetic chemistry provides for a thrilling watch with a fair share of tear-pricking tenderness and angry set-to’s. The male centric cast showcases an era when men were men and women watched on, encouragingly. What shines through here is their courage to achieve or to fade into the background. MT

ON DIGITAL DOWNLOAD 9 MARCH | ON 4 K ULTRA HD, BLU-RAY, DVD and VOD 23 MARCH 2020

Cunningham (2019) *****

Dir: Alla Kovgan | US Doc, 93′

Mercier Philip Cunningham or “Merce” (1919-2009) was an American dancer and choreographer whose groundbreaking style is celebrated here in a stunning 3D documentary. Cunningham is a first feature for documentarian Alla Kovgan. In keeping with Merce’s innovative approach, she combines archive footage and new works never performed in public in this dynamic front row experience of visionary dance style. The dancer refused to describe his work as Avantgarde or even modern: “I don’t describe it, I do it” he opines during the VoiceOver narration. The film refreshingly avoids a talking heads approach, focusing on dance as a purely visual expression of “animal authority and human passion”, rather than an accompaniment to music.

Merce was also passionate about working with artists from other disciplines including composer John Cage, Cunningham’s longterm partner; the painter Robert Rauschenberg; and Andy Warhol whose collaboration is particularly striking in Merce’s 1968 Sci-fi themed dance work Rainforest which featured Warhol’s metallic helium-filled silver balloons (the Silver Clouds) that float around the dancers like something from outer space.

Born in Centralia, Washington in 1919 Merce was always adamant about his craft that was at the forefront of American dance for more that 50 years until his death in 2009, age 90. He performed in 1999 with Mikhail Baryshnikov at the New York State Theater for his 80th birthday. In common with virtually all artists he describes the endless need to practice from dawn ’til dusk, and his battered feet are pictured in close-up going through the motions of a dance routine.

Kovgan explores the first 30 years of a career that would play a part in transforming ballet and dance. Most of the movements are radical – bestial even – neck muscles ripple and pulsate, torsos quiver. The film’s structure is fluidly organic rather than chronological, making striking use of DoP Mko Malkhasyan’s aerial photography and ground-level camerawork that allows sequences to flood off the screen making us feel part of the dance routine. The 3D adds to the dancers’ lithe physicality, and their syncopating movements — the New York skylines stand out in pin-sharp vibrancy, as do the vivid outdoor settings that zing with freshness and acuity. The soundscape adds weight and depth but is never intrusive.

Conversations and correspondence between his contemporaries Cage, Rauschenberg, Warhol and Jasper Johns contextualise Cunningham’s vision; his disciplined, prolific and experimental concepts facilitating a counterculture that transformed the postwar dance-scene – although it wasn’t well-received by everyone. During an international tour in 1964 Parisians threw tomatoes during performances – “if only that had been apples”, claims Rauschenberg, “we were hungry and wanted something to eat”.

Money was tight in the early years when the troupe took off across America in a minibus but gradually this new and expressive form took off during a 1964 world tour when his reputation for being outlandish slowly faded – to his chagrin: his aim was always to cutting edge. Eventually Merce became an old father rather than a instructive companion to his fellow dancers but his inspiration lives on in his disciples Paul Taylor, Karole Armitage and Alice Reyes who have gone on to form their own companies with memorable routines such as Suite for Two; Winterbranch and Second Hand. MT

CUNNINGHAM IS ON RELEASE FROM 13 MARCH 2020 | ANDY WARHOL’S SILVER CLOUDS CAN BE SEEN AT THE TATE MODERN, LONDON, IN A MAJOR EXHIBITION OF HIS WORK | 11 MARCH 2020

A League of Their Own (1992) *** International Women’s Day

Dir: Penny Marshall | US Sports Drama, 123′

The re-release of Penny Marshall’s classic female-centric sports drama comes at a time when women’s team games were never more popular, or more successful. Baseball, football, basketball, ice hockey, even curling: you name it and women are out there competing with each other in a way that seems entirely normal yet was often viewed with scepticism.

A League of Their Own was made in 1992 but it portrays an era when baseball was strictly for the men.  Tom Hanks embodies the crass and often thoroughly disgusting behaviour that males could get away with back in the day when vile habits were permissible; he plays the spitting, foul-mouthed Jimmy Duggan in this enjoyable trip down memory lane that sees young American ladies taking over baseball during wartime in the early 1940s when the men had taken off their baseball kits to don army uniforms to join the war effort. He joins a starry cast along with Madonna, who certainly has the chops.

But the star turn is Geena Davis whose cheerful smile and rangy physique makes her perfect in the role of Dotty Hinson an Oregon farmer’s wife who captured the imagination a baseball scout (Jon Lovitz) who signs her, along with her younger sister (Lori Petty) to form a professional baseball team called the Peaches. The idea was to carry on the sporting fun with an All American Girls Professional Baseball League of the Midwest.

Initially baulking at wearing shortish skirts to charm male fans, they eventually fell in with the plan, cajoled by a Chocolate manufacturer who is putting up the finance (Garry Marshall plays Walter Harvey, David Strathairn his sidekick). Scripted by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, the story centres around petty and sibling rivalry, showcasing wartime views about women, and men, that seem extremely dated nowadays. The schmaltzy reunion ending is beyond the pale, and should be edited out. Apart from that the film is well-paced and professionally crafted with its action-packed set pieces, dramatic tension built around the final competition between the two teams: The Peaches and another team from Racine, where Petty ends up playing, providing a counterpoint to the girls’ rivalry. Hans Zimmer’s big-band score is a rousing compliment to the action. MT

RELEASES NATIONWIDE TO MARK INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY | MARCH 2020

Paris Calligrammes (2020)

Dir.: Ulrike Ottinger; Documentary; France/Germany 2020, 129 min.

German painter, photographer and filmmaker Ulrike Ottinger (Joan of Arc of Mongolia) a “Berlinale Kamera” in 2020 for her oeuvre. The  biographical documentary Paris Calligrammes is a lively inventory of her artistic roots, starting in 1962 when she left her hometown of Konstanz at the age of 21. In Paris she meets other German artists forced to emigrate due to the Nazi scourge. 

Ulrike arrives in the French capital as a hitch-hiker after her car breaks down, Paris in the Sixties providing her with enough creative inspiration to drive her own ambitions. And where better to start an artistic journey than the second-hand bookshop run by Fritz Picard in rue de Dragon in the Sixieme? She helped curate his book collection from street vendors. These were traded along with other works acquired from German emigrants of the 1930s and 40s who had been forced to travel light.

It was here that Ottinger discovered the titular Calligrammes: Poemes de Paix et de la Guerre by Apollinaire. Dada and the surrealist movement were her next discovery, she also met authors and artists including Anne Kolb; Hans Arps; Erich Jünger and Franz Jung – all of them had been forced to leave Germany, for their part in the Weimarer Avantgarde. The filmmaker Hans Richter and the writer Walter Mehring were also  acquaintances, the latter bemoaning the death in exile of Ernst Toller, Kurt Tucholsky, Joseph Roth, Ernst Weiss, Walter Hasenclever and Carl Einstein, whose books were still sold by Picard.

Back in Konstanz, Ottinger’s paintings were gaining repute. Meanwhile in Paris, in the atelier of Johnny Friedländer, she mastered the art of eau-forte, aquatint and etchings. Living in a small unheated attic in Saint German des Pres, she joined more famous artists: Simone Signoret, Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. They worked in well-heated cafes, where a cup of coffee was enough to buy a place for a whole day. She also met Jean Rouch who was shooting Chronology of a Summer. On the streets Ottinger talked to the “Universal genius” Raymond Duncan, who wandered around in his toga telling everyone to “make everything you need, yourself.” She also visited the “temple of books” La Hune. 

But it wasn’t all rosy. Back in Konstanz she had met some French soldiers who had deserted the army so as not to serve in Algeria. She had stolen a suit from her father and given it to one of the deserters. On the night of the 17th October1961 the Parisian police, under the control of Maurice Papin (who had led the deportations of Jews to the death camps) butcher over three hundred Algerians near the Grand Rex Cinema. The government stopped the news reaching the headlines, even opposition newspapers failed to report the killings.

Jean Genet brought the carnage to life in his 1964 play The Screens. It was finally allowed staged in 1966, directed by Jean-Louis Barrault. By this time, Ottinger had moved to the Latin Quarter, near the many art-house cinemas, and Pop Art was now her thing, making Comic strip paintings in 3D. She also visited the American galleries showing Warhol, Rauschenbach and Wesselmann. But all the time she was confronted with the history of her homeland, bumping into the painter Lou-Albert-Lasard, whose pictorial tribute of the Gurs camp reminded her of her own internment past.

Ottinger did not overlook the bloody French colonial history, visits to the Musee Colonies or the Jardin Colonial were a sight for sore eyes. With Jean Rouch she toured the Musee d’ Homme, while he was preparing his films on ethnographic developments. Ottinger found a home, at least three times a week, in the Cinematheque Francaise, which had just moved to the Palais de Chaillot under its director Henri Langlois. Opened by Pompidou and Malraux, the new home had a film museum where Langlois showed off the Mummy from Psycho, donated by Hitchcock. But the German connections always re-surfaced: well known Berlin film critic Lotte Eisner talked about the founding of the Cinematheque, when Langlois was young and slim. Finally, Ottinger reports from her visit to a Goya exhibition which inspired her feature film Freak Orlando.

An extensive and exhaustive documentary about the artist as a young woman – always haunted by the Germany of her childhood. The theme of displacement would continue to feature in many of her films. AS

PARIS CALLIGRAMMES will open on 27 August 2021at Bertha DocHouse, Ciné Lumière, ICA Cinema and JW3 in London and at independent cinemas throughout the UK and Ireland.

PARIS CALLIGRAMMES celebrated its world premiere at the 70th Berlin International Film Festival. where the director was awarded the Berlinale Camera by the festival.

 

 

         

Uppercase Print (2020) Mubi

Dir.: Radu Jude; Cast: Serban Lazarovic; Ionna Iacob, Bogdan Zamfir; Romania 2020, 128 min.

Director/co-writer Radu Jude won the Silver Bear in 2015 for his 19th century adventure drama (Aferim!) and his 2018 satire I Don’t Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians won the Crystal Globe at Karlovy Vary. He is back in Berlin with another episode from Romanian history, a biopic of the famous Botosani teenager Mugur Calinescu (1965-1985) who chalked anti-state slogans all over the town and was hounded down by the feared Securitas, and crushed by president Ceausescu’s secret police.

Uppercase Print is based on Securitas files and the play by Gianina Carbunarius, and adapted for the screen by Jude and the playwright himself. Jude interweaves the narrative with police re-enactment sequences during the time of the case and after the fall of the regime, and domestic scenes featuring Mugur (Lazarovic) and his parents (Iacob and Zamfir). These are enriched by  newsreel and short films from Romanian State Television, giving the docudrama a convincing historical perspective.

In September 1981 Mugur was disenchanted by things in his native town of Botosani, and expressed his concern by chalking relatively harmless messages on the walls of the Cultural Centre: “We can’t take the injustice any longer… I consider we should remove it”.  Often commenting on developments in Poland, where Solidarity and Rural were formed – Mugur wanted this progress for Romania. He continued to raise awareness about long food queues in the shops and called for an end to “the filth and injustice in our country”. The messages were written in the upper-case letters, hence the film’s title. On the kerb Mugur wrote “We want Freedom” At the same time, TV images were mildly misogynist showcasing women’s beauty, all thanks to the regime.

Mugur got caught by the Securitas, and ended up in a file, code name “Pupil”. Policemen bugged the flat where he lived with his mother – his father had left the family. The secret police accused him of asking state enemies for help. And despite his efforts to apologise, the police closed in on him and his friends, his mother was pressurised in her workplace. All during this time young men were being conscripted: the Fatherland was worth any sacrifice. The class enemy in the West was accused of Human Rights violations. Mugur told the authorities be believed Romania to be a backward country, even compared to other the socialist nations.

In November 1981 school and security services got together to rule in the “Pupil” case. Mugur was regarded an enemy of the state and the Securitas cross-examination continued. A thoughtful re-enactment of his funeral ensues, his old case officers in attendance and now living happily in Bucharest, shrugging off any guilt about his fate. The authorities stated: “Ceausescu did not want political cases any more. In 1964 Mugur would have got 15 years in prison”. Mugur left the world with a dim opinion of his fellow countrymen:” My friends betrayed me, that’s the worst. I confessed so Securitas could not act indifferently. Among cowards you can’t do anything”.

Radu Jude’s sensitively crafted biopic drama pays heartfelt homage to a young man who tried to make the world aware of the social injustice in his homeland, illuminating a little known snapshot of history outside the confines of the Totalitarian State. Today Mugur is remembered as a hero by all Romanians, and it’s thanks to Jude that we all now know his story. AS

NOW ON MUBI | BERLINALE 2020 PREMIERE           

Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue (2020) **** Berlinale Special

My New York Year (2020)

Dir: Philippe Falardeau | Cast: Sigourney Weaver, Margaret Qualley | Canadian Drama, 101′

Most people have heard of Catcher in the Rye and its intriguing author, J D Salinger. Canadian filmmaker Philippe Falardeau choses to focus on the 2014 memoirs of Joanna Rakoff who served served as an intern to Salinger’s literary agent, and Sigourney Weaver does her utmost to breath life into her character in this rather flaccid adaptation of even though she gives its a certain a damn good try.

My Salinger Year – now renamed  My New York Year – presumably to give it a push into more mainstream audiences – run along similar lines the The Devil Wears Prada without the chutzpah: country girl goes to the city and is given a jolly good hiding by an urbane sophisticate, triumph and then to move on. Joanna has to deal with the writer’s fan mail, with a concise and polite generic response.

Margaret Qualley plays Joanna, the college graduate in question, as socially gauche but spunky enough to snare this rather plumb job that puts her in phone contact with the urbane novelist, but gives her a rough ride from the mercurial Margaret who enjoys upstaging Joanna and toys with her like a cat with a mouse. We are treated to dramatised excerpts from the rather idolatrous fan letters, and a subplot involving Joanna’s love interest Don (Douglas Booth) and her trials and tribulations of being a newcomer in the New York metropolis.

The problem here is really Falardeau’s lacklustre script that doesn’t stoke the kind of incendiary sparkle Anne Hathaway shared with Meryl Streep in Devil. In fact, quite the reverse happens here and the writing – faithful to the introspective nature of Rakoff’s page memoirs – represses the women into a dignified torpor rather than feisty fun and repartee. And we experience nothing of Salinger himself – after all the most intriguing character – not only for literary fans but anyone who has vaguely heard of the book. MT

IN CINEMAS 20 May 2021 | BERLINALE FILM premiere 2020.

 

 

 

 

 

Dream Horse (2020)

Dir: Euros Lyn | Cast: Toni Collette, Damian Lewis, Owen Teale, Joanna Page, Karl Johnson, Nicholas Farrell and Siân Phillips | US Drama

It was only a matter of time before Louise Osmond’s loveable award-winning Dark Horse (2015) got its glossy Warner Brothers’ makeover in the shape of Dream Horse. And to be fair, Euros Lyn has made a reasonable job of it in this effervescent crowd-pleasing drama with its fizzing feel-good storyline.

The success of Dream Horse is largely down to Toni Colette and Damian Lewis and Neil McKay’s well-paced and punchy screenplay. The film also looks ravishing in its scenic Welsh locations.

Dream Horse is all about how Jan Vokes (a spunky Colette) turns her ordinary life in a Welsh village into a success story uniting her community and creating a racehorse into the bargain. Initially reluctant her couch potato husband Brian soon rallies round and with the help of local accountant Howard Davies (Lewis) and a syndicate of local people, Jan breeds a foal – which they name Dream Alliance.

On the racetrack, Dream proves himself to be more than a match for the multi-million pound racehorses he comes up against – a true working-class champion, taking on the establishment at their own game. But much more than this, Dream begins to alter the lives of everyone in the syndicate, and Jan raison d’être. A simple story then, but one with everlasting appeal. Dream Horse is a winnerl. MT

ON RELEASE 4 JUNE 2021

Eminent Monsters: A Manual for Modern Torture (2019) ****

Dir.: Stephen Bennett, Documentary with Mark Fallon, Dr Stephen Reisner, Moazzam Begg, Francis McGuigan; UK 2019, 89 min.

In 2020 the UN Special Reporter on Torture, Prof Nils Melzer, publishes a dossier on psychological torture to the UN Human Rights Council. Prof Melzer cites Eminent Monsters as being a key motivation in his research.

Scottish born psychologist Dr Ewen Cameron (1901-1967) first came under scrutiny during the Nuremberg trials, where he and two colleagues were invited to investigate the mind of Hitler’s Deputy, Rudolf Hess, who was later sentenced to a life sentence. This seems absurdly ironic, considering Cameron’s next step in the 1950s was to set up a treatment programme of Sensory Deprivation for his patients, which included enforced comas, LSD injections and “sleep cures”. These either deprived patients of sleep, or forced them to sleep much longer than needed. The programme was called MKULTRA Subproject 68 and was financed by the CIA and the Canadian government in Dr Cameron’s Allan Memorial Institute. The results were later published as Kubark Counter Intelligence Interrogation Manual.

Surviving relatives of Cameron’s private patients describe the victims of his therapies as “having completely lost their personalities”. Val Orlivow’s husband had to sell their house, Cameron insisting on her need for more private and expensive therapy. At a secret meeting in 1957, a British representative of the MOD, a scientist from the Canadian Defence Board and the co-ordinator Donald Heather, met to publish a paper for the CIA based on Cameron’s research to assist the US government in training soldiers to resist torture by their communist captors. Students were used as guinea pigs in the re-enaction. NKUltra, another name for Cameron’s study, was then used to interrogate communist soldiers and agents. The total cost of the programme was over a million dollars, literally in the name of  torture – although it would help to win the Cold War.

In 1963, KUBARK became the fully fledged ‘go to’ psychological torture manual of the CIA. The British Army used the techniques, complete with horrendous helicopter noises, strobe lights and a special punishment for captured IRA prisoners (including Francis McGuigan, Liam Shannon and Brian Turley); it involved leaning against a wall. In 1971 the ROI took the UK to European Courts, accusing them of torture. In 1978 the court returned the verdict that the prisoners had not been tortured, “but their treatment had been inhuman and degrading”. The same verdict, by majority vote of six to one, was reached in 2017.

Thanks to whistle blower Dr Stephan Reisner, the practice of US torture in the interrogation centre in Guantanamo Bay and other secret sides all over the world had been revealed. The “Enhanced Interrogation Experience” included “waterboarding” and ‘special’ psychological terror. One of the Guantanamo prisoners, who was released after 14 years without  a charge, remembers that the CIA put a continuously screaming woman next door to his cell  The interrogators told him it was his wife, and they would rape her if he refused to confess. Moazam Begg, another prisoner on the Cuban island, wanted to be killed after the interrogators used their strategy of “demonstrated omnipotence” against him.

The American Psychologist Association (APA) played a poor part in all this, whitewashing their members, who had worked form the CIA. Even though there has been some sort of repudiation of the programme, one psychologist said “that we are one terrorist attempt away from a repeat of the torture interrogations”. Popular TV series like “24” have legitimised torture in the minds of the broad public.

Naomi Klein can be quoted that “MK Ultra was not about mind control and brainwashing, but a design for a scientifically based system for extracting information from ‘resistant’ sources. It laid the scientific foundations for the CIA’s two-stage psychological torture method”. The 1978 and 2017 verdicts of the European Court of Human rights have legitimised these techniques.

Eminent Monsters starts with Ronald Reagan’s voice over on one of his pictures, where he warns us in this film that ‘the baddies will prevail’. How right he was – for once. AS

BAFTA-winner Stephen Bennett’s extraordinary debut feature documentary about Scotland’s notorious psychiatrist Dr Ewen Cameron and his role in the darkest program of psychological experimentation in modern history on release nationwide from 16 February

https://vimeo.com/313860363

Glasgow Film Festival 2020 | 26 February – 8 March 2020

Glasgow is Scotland’s creative capital. Famed for its Art Nouveau architecture and home to the Scottish Ballet, Scottish Opera and National Theatre of Scotland, the Clyde-side metropolis throbs with artistic vibes and plays host to one of the UK’s leading annual film festivals. Across 12 days GIFF2020 will screen 9 World premieres, 10 European premieres, and 102 UK premieres.

There will be a chance to see World premieres of Sulphur & White, and Flint, Anthony Baxter’s water-themed follow-up to You’ve Been Trumped Too. And fresh from the international film festival circuit is Justin Kurzel’s latest thriller The True History of the Kelly Gang, award-winning Spanish Western Luz, The Flower of Evil, and Igor Tuveri’s stylish 5 is the Perfect Number adapted from his graphic novel and featuring Italian megastar Toni Servillo (The Great Beauty).  

Documentary wise: Ebs Burnough’s The Capote Tapes takes us back through the archives to revisit the iconic American novelist, while Nanni Moretti’s Santiago, Italia (left) explores the Italian role in rescuing exiles out of Chile after Pinochet’s Coup d’Etat.  Michael Paszt tells a story definitely stranger than fiction in his feature documentary Nail in the Coffin: The Fall and Rise of Vampiro, which follows a professional wrestler juggling dual roles of running Lucha Libre AAA in Mexico and parenting his teenage daughter. Meanwhile Billie aims to be the definitive documentary on Lady Day herself, featuring never-before-seen interviews with those who knew one of the world’s greatest jazz singers

Classic films to look out for are Tarkovsky’s sinister masterpiece Stalker (1979) and Richard Fleischer’s cult Sci-fi thriller Soylent Green (1973) starring Charlton Heston and Edward G Robinson. There is also a chance to revisit two classics directed by women: Dorothy Arzner’s 1932 comedy Merrily We Go to Hell and Nietzchka Keene’s Bjork-starring fantasy fable The Juniper Tree (1990). Both shot in luminous black and white.

Women filmmakers will be also championed in Mark Cousins’ 2018 epic homage to the history of female talent: Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema. This groundbreaking 14-hour documentary is narrated by Tilda Swinton and Jane Fonda and takes place in five instalments (main pic). And celebrated photographer Susan Wood will talk about her life behind the camera in Susan Wood: A life in Pictures (left).

The festival will open and close with UK premieres of films directed by women – Alice Winocour’s Proxima starring Eva Green as an astronaut preparing for a mission to the International Space Station and Beanie Feldstein’s star turn in the big screen adaptation of Caitlin Moran’s blockbusting memoir How to Build a Girl, directed by Coky Giedroyc.

Glasgow Film Festival closes on International Women’s Day with a celebratory showcase of female talent – with every film screened either directed or written by a woman or starring a female lead.

Glasgow Film Festival | 28 FEBRUARY – 8 MARCH 2020

 

 

 

  

 

 

 

 

Mr Jones (2021) Ukrainian Relief

Dir: Agnieszka Holland | Cast: James Norton, Vanessa Kirby, Peter Sarsgaard, Joseph Mawle, Fenella Woolgar, Kenneth Cranham, Celyn Jones, Krzysztof Pieczyński, Michalina Olszańska, Patricia Volny | Poland, United Kingdom, Ukraine 2019 | Cinematography: Tomasz Naumiuk, Editing: Michał Czarnecki | Music: Antoni Komasa-Łazarkiewicz | 141′

This riveting romp through Russian history follows a young Welsh journalist who ventured into the Soviet Union in 1933 to discover the sinister background to Stalin’s Communist regime. Stalin was feeding Moscow while millions of Ukrainians were dying of famine due to forced state control of their farms and food. Andrea Chalupa has been developing the script for 14 years, conflating the story with that of Animal Farm, based on her own book: Orwell and the Refugees: The Untold Story of Animal Farm.

The man in question is Gareth Jones (Norton), a respected attache of Lloyd George (Cranham) who sets off for Moscow where he comes up against pro-Stalin press supremo and Pulitzer prize-winner Walter Duranty (a cold-eyed Sarsgaard) tasked with keeping the famine under wraps from the World.

During his stay, Duranty invites Jones to luxuriate in the excesses of the State budget, but the Welsh gentleman gracefully declines, preferring the intellectual stimulation of one Ada Brooks, a journalist for the New York Times, and in thrall to Duranty. Against advice from all sides, Jones then makes a perilous journey south and nearly dies himself of hunger- and Holland makes this second act a gruelling one to impress upon us the suffering endured by the rural population, women and children. Jones then exposes the story to the World, via Randolph Heart, putting Sarsgaard’s nose out of joint. But tragedy is to follow – as it often does when Russian secrets are shared.

Holland’s ambitious attempt to pull the various strands together leaves a subplot showing Orwell writing Animal Farm slightly adrift, and the use of montage to invigorate the various train journeys is rather hammy. But the entertainment factor rides over the structural imperfections and superb performances make this a really entertaining romp. Norton is simply brilliant as Jones, a decent and persevering professional gifted with integrity and a pioneering spirit. Kirby also shines as the conflicted woman at the centre of the furore. In thrall to Duranty, she shuts down Jones’ romantic advances, unable to develop them, despite their chemistry. There is great support from Fenella Woolgard; Kenneth Cranham does Lloyd George with a charming Welsh accent; and Sarsgaard seethes with shifty antagonism tempered by a veneer of supercilious charm.

Shot in Poland, Scotland (not Wales) and in original locations in the snowbound Ukraine, the homecoming scenes in Barry with Jones and his father are particularly poignant. Chulapa’s script and dialogue shows an acute English sensibility. It’s a mammoth achievement. Agnieszka Holland works with her Polish craftsman to make this a thoroughly engrossing experience which flashes by despite a running time of over two hours. MT

LONDON SOUTH BANK UNIVERSITY HOSTS SPECIAL FILM SCREENING FOR MR JONES  | TO HELP RAISE FUNDS FOR UKRAINIAN RELIEF  |TUESDAY 10TH MAY | 5:45 FOR 6:05PM START | LSBU KEYWORTH CENTRE  KEYWORTH STREET LONDON SE1 6LN

Show Me the Picture: The Story of Jim Marshall (2019) ****

Dir: Alfred George Bailey | With: Amelia Davis, Anton Corbijn, Michael Douglas, Bruce Talaman, Michelle Marghetts | Editor: Adam Biskupski | US Doc 

 “Jim Marshall held up a mirror to a white hot era that will never come again”. B Talaman

George Bailey’s immersive documentary tells the story of the photographer behind some of the music industry’s most evocative images. Jim Marshall was a true maverick who elevated some of music’s lesser known players to star status with his inspired professional shots. And naturally HE snapped the greats: Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, Dinah Washington and John Coltrane all trusted him to join them on stage where he created some of the most enduring black and white images of the 20th century. He also captured The Beatles fated last concert at Candlestick Park in August 1966.

Copyright Jim Marshall Photography LLC On Tour with the Mamas and Papas 1967

Marshall  (left) never left home without his Leica camera strung over his shoulder. But he was also a self-destructive man who could be his own worse enemy. He even served time for his occasional use of guns. Cars and cameras were also the lifetime obsession of this ebullient guy with a magnetic personality who was also described as a “little malevolent gnome” by Sicilian writer Michelle Marghetts who would become his girlfriend, and goes on to share some of the most salient revelations in this enjoyable biopic.

Born into an immigrant family in 1930s Chicago, James Joseph Marshall was of Syrian Catholic origin – according to Michael Douglas who got to know him on The Streets of San Francisco series and who is one of the film’s most insightful talking heads. Another is Amelia Davis, his assistant for a dozen years until his death in 2010. According to her Marshall sniffed more cocaine than the Rolling Stones when he joined them for a Life magazine shoot. He communicated with her through scrawled notes pinned to his front door, these became the barometer of his psychological state – “no work today Davis”. Close to Marjorie, his mother, Jim had a troubled relationship with his distant, womanising father, who left when he was 10 and died when he was 15. Jim remembers him making a delicious pancake one day, and then bashing Jim’s head against the table the next, knocking two teeth out.

Rather like its acid-tripping subject, the biopic flips backward and forward to highlight different phases of Marshall’s career. After an early time in New York’s early 1960s, where he became close to Bob Dylan, Marshall moved to San Francisco in the thick of the Haight-Ashbury era for the Summer of Love, and stayed there. A consummate professional he was proud of his talents: “people think they can copy my pictures, but it’s taken me half my life (to learn how) to do them” He captured impromptu moments in turbulent careers, but had to work hard to win his subjects over – Miles Davis is seen relaxing; Coltrane is pictured as “a quiet genius”.

Johnny Cash flipping the bird at San Quentin Prison 1969. Copyright Jim Marshall Photography LLC

Other famous photographers also join the fray: Bruce Talaman explains Jim’s lensing style, and Anton Corbijn posits:  “no matter how good you are, if you don’t have the access, you don’t have the pic.” “People trusted Jim, but not immediately” says Graham Nash — who went to LA and never came back.

But it wasn’t just the guns and drugs that saw Marshall’s glittering career crash from the starry rock n roll firmament. There were outside reasons. Stars became more aware of their fame, and employed people to guard it: those famous PRs who often stand in the middle of artists and those that chronicle them.

Show Me the Picture is a fascinating snapshot of the jazz, soul and rock n roll era showcasing a brief moment in time “when you could still say and do what you wanted before the world became controlled and politically correct”. The final act covers Marshall’s efforts to document the ‘Peace’ symbol. Clearly he had a highly inventive mind and an inquiring one. He also stressed the need for artists to hold on to their copyright at all costs, a wise step that bankrolled his life even after his commissions dwindled and left something tangible for Davis. Show Me the Picture jumps around bit like its acid-tipping subject – but for aficionados of  rock and roll, jazz and soul of the 1960s onwards, it’s an hour and a half of unmitigated bliss. MT

ON RELEASE FROM 31 JANUARY 2020

The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019) ****

Dir: Armando Iannucci | Cast: Dev Patel, Hugh Laurie, Ben Wishaw, Peter Capaldi | UK. 2019. 116mins

Armando Iannucci brings a wonderful exuberance to this nimble adaptation of the novel Dickens considered his favourite. The autobiographical account of an author’s formative years unfolds in a dazzling swirl of engaging vignettes and enduring characters. Often riotously funny, the drama never lose sight of the novel’s underlying central themes of poverty, class, and importance of friends. It also conveys Dickens’ sense of humour, whether dark or upbeat, that permeates nearly all his novels. Personal History Of David Copperfield should also appeal to new and younger audiences put off by the weighty and worthy tomes lining their parents books shelves. Dev Patel is wonderful in the central role, his dark looks and vivaciousness lighting up every scene.

Many directors have mined the rich dramatic potential that David Copperfield offers to the big screen and TV. Most notable is the 1935 version that perfectly showcased W.C.Fields talents and portliness in the role of Mr. Micawber. Iannucci brings an effervescent energy to his film, which feels thoroughly modern while retaining its old worldy aesthetic. New is the idea of sentences literally written across the screen, and it works due to the manic pacing and visual busyness, colours and characters vibrate with enthusiasm.

David Copperfield relied on the kindness of strangers after a childhood of abuse at the hands of his wicked stepfather. And he runs the gamut of gruelling jobs and uncomfortable dwellings remaining chipper and optimistic throughout. He is a role model for children nowadays channelling that well known phrase: through hard work, to the stars. His philanthropic nature is also to be applauded. Copperfield grows up clever, self-aware and a skilled judge of character; traits that will go on to serve him well in this great writings.

Sumptuously mounted the film looks like a jewel box and is equally uplifting with its elegant costumes and beautiful frocks. An all star cast includes Tilda Swinton as a febrile Betsey Trotwood and Ben Whishaw’s ‘everso humble’ hand-wringing Uriah Heep. Hugh Laurie’s is also back from the US with a droll and debonair Mr. Dick. A delightful  film and the perfect tonic for January. MT

NOW OUT ON RELEASE FROM 31 JANUARY 2020

 

Quezon’s Game (2019) *** Holocaust Memorial Day 2020

Dir.: Matthew Rosen; Cast: Raymond Bagatsing, Rachel Alejandro, Kate Alejandrino, Billy Gallion, David Bianco, James Paoleli; Philippines 2018, 127 min.

This bio-pic chronicles the final years of President Manuel L. Quezon (1878-1944), who helped to rescue 1200 Jews from Europe and gave them a home in the Philippines. Despite an over-emotional approach and the slight manipulation of historical dates, Matthew Rosen makes an important contribution to the history of the Holocaust. Few of us were aware of Quezon’s mission, which was cut short in 1941 when Japan invaded Quezon’s country, the latter spending his last years in exile in the USA, where he died from Tuberculosis.

Quezon (Bagatsing) is shown as a reformer and humanist, who, upon learning about the plight of German and Austrian Jews, set in motion a rescue programme, putting him at odds with President Roosevelt and Congress, who then rejected a rise in the quota of Jewish emigrants to the USA. Quezon’s action is particular courageous, since the Philippines were (until 1946) part of Commonwealth of the USA, and de facto a colony. Quezon was helped by a young Dwight Eisenhower (Bianco) and Roosevelt’s political associate Paul McNutt (Paoleli). Help also came in the from of a Jewish lawyer, Alex Fiedler (Gallion) who (together with his brother Herbert) found a way to get the exit visas into the hands of the waiting Jews, before the death camps made escape impossible.

Meanwhile, Quezon’s wife Aurora (Alejandro) and daughter Baby (Alejandrino), who would go on to be assassinated in 1949, provide the dutiful supporting cast. It also emerges that the real Quezon was quite a lady’s man and, so much so that “Aurora had to seek refuge in prayers” (according to her biographer). Even though Quezon was sixty when the film starts, Rosen casts a much younger actor to play his part, Bagatsing portrays the president as a Dandy who coughs  non-stop.

There are some inconsistencies: It is hardly likely that Eisenhower would have been posted to a regional backwater like the Philippines just five years before Operation Overlord. Also, the bookends of the feature, showing Manuel and Aurora watching newsreels from the liberation of the death camps (Manuel whispering, like Schindler, that he did not do enough) is hardly credible, since Quezon died in the of August 1944. 

But whatever the machinations of writers Janice Y. Perez and Dean Rosen, Manuel L. Quezon was a beacon of light of light in a dark time – much more than his American counterparts: Democrats and Republicans both condoned segregation; Jews, People of Colour and Dogs were advised by signs not to enter restaurants and other public places, and the Statue of Liberty was an empty symbol long before Donald Trump. Quezon’s Game might be aesthetically questionable at times, but it it does not detract from its importance.AS

IN HONOUR OF HOLOCAUST REMEMBRANCE DAY | 75th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz. 

  

Richard Jewell (2019) ***

Dir: Clint Eastwood | Wri: Marie Brenner | Cast: Sam Rockwell, Paul Walter Hauser, Olivia Wilde, Jon Hamm, Kathy Bates | US Drama 131′

Richard Jewell was an Atlanta security guard falsely accused of planting a bomb in Centennial Olympic Park during the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. Clint Eastwood directs his latest ‘underdog’ story with sleek and workmanlike economy. Visually Richard Jewell is bland, but narratively straightforward, although some critics (who tend on the whole to be left-wing) may argue that Eastwood overlays the feature with his famous right-wing gaze.

Paul Walter Hauser plays Jewell, a pleasantly portly figure who we first meet working as a janitor in a law firm, plying his lawyer boss (Sam Rockwell) with Snicker bars. Keen to get back into law enforcement with the police he is clearly doing his best to make a good impression and soon lands a job in security at the Centennial Olympic Park. A jovial and modest character he takes his job seriously and immediately calls a bomb expert when spotting a backpack under a park bench – although his colleagues accusing him of ‘crying wolf’. The bomb goes off as Jewell, the police and the FBI are clearing the area where Kenny Rogers has been entertaining a large crowd of merrymakers. Several people lose their lives and Jewell is named the hero of the day. But the tables are turned when the FBI decide to finger him as the lone-wolf bomber, taking him in for questioning. A nightmarish saga develops as Jewell and his homely mother – Kathy Bates plays a convincing Mrs Jewell who spends her time popping cakes in the oven to feed his paunch.

Eastwood does make us question Jewell’s innocence at first, but by the end of the investigation, Jewell seethes with a quietly affecting conviction as the former roly poly policeman whose life is put on hold and traumatised by the gross intrusion. The losers are the FBI, and of course the media. Kathy Scruggs, the brash journalist at the centre of the furore is also slated – but Wilde makes her glib and unlikeable, so no love lost there. But it’s due to her diligence – or over-zealousness – that Jewell suddenly becomes the villain of the piece, his status as a prime suspect is leaked to the press, Scruggs nabbing the story. After coming under intense scrutiny by the FBI, he is then defended by his former boss Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), who was impressed by his Snicker habit, probity and upbeat disposition when they worked together. Jewell eventually gets off scot free due to a total lack of evidence.

Eastwood makes some salient points in this enjoyable moral tale that shows how democracy can work to the advantage of ordinary citizens, protecting them from the Police – as long as they can afford a good lawyer. Eastward also enforces his usual points about common decency and neighbourliness. Once an accuser becomes the accused – and this applies to false claims of all kinds: rape, robbery, stalking – society has clearly lost its way. MT

ON RELEASE FROM 31 JANUARY 2020

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The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (2018) ***

Dir: Terry Gilliam | Cast: Jonathan Price, Adam Driver, Stellan Skarsgard, Jason Watkins and Olga Kurylenko | Drama, UK 133′

Terry Gilliam’s struggle to film Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote has been as epic as the title itself. The finished version of his fantasy adventure – that sees a disillusioned advertising executive mistaken for Sancho Panza – was beset by legal potholes as it fought its way stoically towards the Red Carpet in Cannes two years ago, with a beleaguered but indomitable cast of Jonathan Pryce, who stars as El Don himself, Adam Driver, Stellan Skarsgard, Jason Watkins and Olga Kurylenko.

Miguel de Cervantes crafted a likeable story with everlasting appeal – its simple premise: that Chivalry should not die out in the ‘modern age’, a timely tenet that very much applies today. Even back in the 17th century, it was Don Quixote’s bee in his iron helmet, and he was said to be rendered mad by reading too many books on the subject of good manners. So he sets off with his trusty squire Sancho Panza and his lady Dulcinea, to make things right in the world from his titular hometown in La Mancha – where clearly he was stumbling on the foothills of dementia. During his confused and eventful journey, his worried family desperately try to get him home.

Terry Gilliam’s passion project has been two decades in the making. He had no idea that the saga would develop into its own quixotic tragedy. Keith Fulton’s 2002 documentary charts Gilliam’s doomed attempt blighted by the well-known chestnut the ‘rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain” – filming was abandoned when the set was flooded. This put the mockers on Gilliam’s cherished dream, but he pushed on undeterred and blissfully unaware that his passion project would soon develop into a nightmare.

Over the years, several actors have been attached to the film including John Hurt, Ewan MacGregor and even Robert Duvall. But not all attempts to bring Cervantes’ legendary novel to the screen have been so problematic. Some have been roaring tributes. In 1926 Danish director Lau Lauritzen cast the leading comedians of his era in the main roles: Carl Schendstrom and Harald Madsen were Denmark’s answer to Laurel and Hardy. Then Georg Wilhelm Pabst chose the esteemed Russian actor Feodor Chaliapin Sr to play the chevalier in Adventures of Quixote (1933), which appeared in three languages (German, French and English). Rafael Gil successfully followed, filming the story as a comedy in 1947 with Rafael Rivelles in the saddle as Quixote, and Juan Calvo as Sancho Panza. Orson Welles then made a valiant stab in his (unfinished) 1972 endeavour that followed a similarly tortuous path as Gilliam’s, starting in 1957. Typically, Welles run out of money and was forced to abandon filming, the project was later developed by Jesus Franco who released the dubbed version in 1992 to uninspired reviews. Robert Helpmann directed and also starred in the main role of his 1973 ballet version, with Rudolf Nureyev as Basilio. And David Beier’s 2015 version actually starred James Franco, but the less said about this one, the better. Needless to say, there have been numerous TV adaptations.

The curse continued to blight other films in Cannes 2018 when Quixote was finally screened. In a strange twist, Russian filmmaker Kirill Serebrennikov had won the Don Quixote award at Locarno for his film Yuri’s Day (2008) but was placed under house arrest, forbidden to attend the 71st Cannes festival to accompany his competition title Summer (Leto). And Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi shared the same plight. He first appeared in Cannes with his debut White Balloon (1995) which went on to win the Camera d’Or, the first major award won by an Iranian film at the world’s most famous film festival. He was forced to stay at home while his drama Three Faces screened in the main 71st competition. Luckily The Man Who Killed Dox Quixote survived its arduous journey and finally makes it to the Croisette but shlepped home empty handed, but has since won Spanish and Belgian awards for its production and make-up. MT

ON RELEASE NATIONWIDE FROM 31 JANUARY 2020  | FESTIVAL DE CANNES

 

Merry Christmas, Yiwu (2020) **** Merry Christmas, Yiwu (2020)

Dir: Mladen Kovacevic | Doc, Serbia, Sweden, France, Germany, Belgium, Qatar | 94’

China has cashed in on Christmas. In this socialist pre-dominantly non-Christian superpower  capitalism reigns in a city just south of Shanghai. Yiwu is best known for its Christmas-related merchandise. And that’s a tall figure –  accounting for 90% of the domestic output of festive fare, and around 70% of the world’s total. As early as May the industrial heartlands pound with preparations for the Christmas season amid strong demand from all over the globe.

Mladen Kovacevic focuses on the smaller more intimate story: that of the workers caught up in the still relatively new Chinese Dream. In his first full length documentary feature the Serbian filmmaker has no trouble in making this a cinematic experience – the bright colours and sparkly decorations providing a striking visual foreground to the subdued underlying narrative. Behind the tinsel and pizazz there are more serious issues at play. The workers producing these goods are under pressure to perform. Despite rising wages offering them the ability to have the latest smart phones they are still forced to work long hours in airless conditions returning to their meagre lodgings at night where they miss friends and family left behind in their rural hometowns. The dream of wealth in the prosperous new China is a distant one. the truth is a different story.

Keeping dialogue to a minimum the film shares the stark reality of the human story at its core: and we feel increasingly sympathetic of these stressed individuals who try to smile and think positively despite the gruelling workload as they choke back traces of glitter and dehydrate beneath the harsh overhead lighting. Work has become the family, their colleagues are their new sisters and brothers and they joke and share their lives far away from home and ask each other: “what is celebrated on Christmas”.

Kovacevic then explores the other side of the coin. The bosses who have built a fortune from this risky business venture with a view to exploring new markets through cross-border e-shopping platforms, adapting the decorations to suit the cultural sensibilities of the overseas clients in Russia, South America, and Europe. They too have made sacrifices, rarely seeing their families living miles away. They are conscious of the gruelling work load placed on staff but are keenly aware they must not push them too hard. There are 470,000 market dealers in Yiwu. Merry Christmas, Yiwu presents the reality of modern China: a thriving capitalist nation enveloped within the iron claws of modern day communism. MT

ROTTERDAM FILM FESTIVAL 2020 | Bright Future Main Programme

 

 

 

Invitation | Nimtoh (2019) ***

Wri/Dir: Saurav Rai | With: Pravesh Gurung, Chandra Dewan, Suni Rai, Teresa Rai, Digbijay Singh Rai | Drama India, 85′

There is a farcical nature to this quirky human drama set in rural Darjeeling where a war of attrition plays out between a boy and the feudal landowner who puts a roof over his head. The humour is offbeat but appealing.

Based on the filmmaker’s own experiences growing up in a village in West Bengal near Darjeeling,  Saurav Rai’s family make up the cast and provide naturalistic performances along with the local people. Invitation (Nimtoh) sees its 10-year-old protagonist Tashi being naughty and spiteful from the outset when he is tasked with delivering wedding invitations on behalf of the landowner he works for. Not only does he throw some of the invites away, but he also shouts rudely at their intended recipients. Apparently one complained about him stealing a guava from a tree on their property. But this does not endear us to Tashi, despite his lament. The strange thing about the characters is that everyone looks poverty-stricken and disheveled by western standards – even the landowner’s house is a meagre rambling place with crumbling interiors, and he is forced to milk his own cow – so we don’t particularly have sympathy for the underdogs whose life appears to runs on similar lines to their overlords – on the surface of it.

All that said, Invitation is certainly a breath of fresh air with its irreverent humour and unpredictable storyline. Tashi attends the local school and is seen disappearing down the hillside but clearly wants an easier life. His old granny is certainly not to be messed with as she rushes around the hillside banging a tin dinner bowl at the slightest opportunity. Although set in the present there a feeling of being in the past, and a beguiling one, the exotic landscapes of the tea plantation off-season give the film a lush and verdant backcloth. Clearly Tashi has had a difficult start in life, but nothing is said of his parents of siblings.

Tashi and his grandmother live in a tithe dwelling opposite the old man and his wife but must service them by doing odds jobs. The son who is going to be married seems ambivalent about it all, but goes along with his parent’s plans. Family and staff seem to muck in together, Tashi sneaking into his master’s living room to watch TV, the old man pulling rank by quickly turning over the channel to something more serious. Although the film often cues the audience how to feel about a little Tashi, he’s not a particularly likeable child and neither is his grandmother.

The wedding is a desultory affair that once again seems low key and disorganised, and we wonder if it will happen at all. The son is a portly young city boy, his bride encumbered by her traditional costume seems keener to have a cigarette and get back to the city, rather than join him on their wedding night. In fact the only thing the couple are wedded to are their jobs. Tashi wants to be there for the nuptials but is made busy collecting pig fodder, which he then throws away. Another subversive trick to needle the old landowner and his wife.

Later Tashi is seen tied to a tree in the nearby wooded hillside so clearly more naughtiness has gone on in the interim, although quite what, seems almost insignificant by this stage in the game. This enigmatic approach to the narrative does not always work in the film’s favour but the quirky tone lets things ride for the most part as there is plenty to admire in the glorious locations and random goings on, making our understanding of the cultural significance less and less clear. The accent here is on the laidback nature of this tight community locked between the past and the future in a rural idyll. MT

ROTTERDAM INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2020

Mrs Lowry & Son (2019) ****

Dir.: Adrian Noble; Cast: Vanesssa Redgrave, Timothy Spall, Wendy Morgan, Stephen Lord; UK 2019, 91 min.

Director Adrian Noble cut his teeth in theatre and was artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company from 1990 t0 2003. Mrs Lowry & Son is adapted from Martyn Hesfords’ script, based on his own stage play about L.S. Lowry (1887 – 1976)  It is perfect portrait of how a mother can stunt her son’s confidence irrespective of talent. Vanessa Redgrave plays the mother in question with waspish defiance. But Lowry (a thoughtful but dogged Spall) toughed it out to become a major British figurative and landscape painter best known for his iconic ‘matchstick men’.  He still holds the record for the most honours declined: a knighthood, a CBE, OBE and CH.

Set in 1934 the focus is a maudlin episode of Lowry’s middle age (he was 47 –   although Spall is, and looks, much older) when he is forced to look after his mother Elizabeth in a humdrum house with an outside latrine and curtain-twitching neighbours in Pendlebury, on the outskirts of Manchester. Elizabeth is still very much in charge in spite of being frail and bed-ridden. A former teacher, she had hoped for a more glamorous career as a pianist but this never materialised mainly because her husband has recently died and squandered all the family money. As such the film feels like more like a pinched but accurate description of the disillusioned life and pettiness of an elderly Provincial woman during in the interwar years, harking back to a glorious past in the leafy suburb of nearby Victoria Park (Elizabeth Gaskell and Emmeline Pankurst were neighbours). Meanwhile, Lowry is trying to gain recognition as an artist, but is saddled with the shame of his father’s debt and is forced to work as rent collector. Painting is his way of escaping this miserable existence and he finds a kind of happiness and contentment there, painting between ten and two at night, in his little attic studio. Lowry sees beauty in this industrial wasteland outside his window.“Hope gets a lot of people through life” he ruminates philosophically but there is also despair peeping through the rain-filled clouds: “None of us is free. We are all captured in a picture, a stranger to everyone else”. Hesford’s script does have some drole moments, capturing the era’s zeitgeist through Elizabeth constant sniping. She talks of shopping in “Marshall and Snelgrove” (a posh department store that later became Debenhams); she also mentions Nottingham lace and Sheffield steel, and the ugliness of the nearby mills, depicted in Lowry’s paintings. These were the days when British manufacturing and craftsmanship was appreciated, and still one of our valuable assets.

When Lowry receives encouragement from the outside world in the shape of a letter from an art dealer in London, praising his work; his mother damns the victory with faint praise and dire warnings. Of course, it all changes when snobbish neighbour, Doreen Stanhope (Morgan) shows an interest in Lowry’s painting of a sea-scape with boats. Elizabeth sees a mutual kinship in Doreen but this is not to be. And when her husband, a Labour-councillor f0rced t0 live in the area, has one of Lowry’s industrial landscapes exhibited at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition in London, Elizabeth throws a tantrum, upsetting her son so much that he destroys nearly all his canvases.

Apart the irritating score and rosy-tinted flashbacks of happier times between Elizabeth and her young son, Noble manages to deliver a poignant, darkly humorous portrait of the Northern artist, enriched by really enjoyable performances from Spall and Redgrave, despite their closeted in the confines on their home for most of the film’s running time. Lowry briefly escapes onto the Moors allowing Josep Civit’s cinematography to break free of its domestic interiors. But the real question is why did Noble decide to limit the his film to this maudlin episode of Lowry’s life, when he would go on for another 40 years eventually moving to Derbyshire. Lowry claimed “I never had a woman” but he did have extensive female relationships, and his work flourished and took hold of the nation’s imagination, as he eventually became one of our best loved British artists. That’s the film we would like to see. MT

ON RELEASE FROM 20 JANUARY 2020 |     

Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blache (2018) Prime

Dir: Pamela B. Green | Writers: Pamela B. Green, Joan Simon| with Jodie Foster, Evan Rachel Wood, Ava Duvernay, Julie Delpy, Agnes Varda, Ben Kingsley, Michel Hazanavicius, Catherine Hardwicke, Julie Taymor, Gale Anne Hurd, Andy Sandberg, John Bailey, Walter Murch, Peter Bogdanovich, Marjane Satrapi, Anne Fontaine, Peter Farrelly, Jonathan Glickman, Mark Romanek, Kevin Brownlow, Kevin Macdonald, Geena Davis, Pierre William Glenn, Jan-Christopher Horak, Glenn Myrent, Serge Bromberg, Howard Cohen, Valerie Steele, Jean-Michel Frodon, Diablo Cody, Patty Jenkins, Janeane Garofalo, Jon M. Chu, Mark Stetson, Anastasia Masaro, Dino Everett, Stephanie Allain, Claire Clouzot, Anthony Slide, Cecile Starr | US Doc 103′

Pamela B. Green’s fast-moving and fascinating first film chronicles the life of one of cinema’s early pioneers and female filmmakers, Alice Guy-Blaché

Green started her own career as a title sequence director and that very much comes to the fore in this well-crafted and informative documentary that uses a wide variety of visual effects to enliven a collection of old photographs and drawings, including Guy-Blaché’s own film archives (The Cabbage Fairy (1896) is a particular delight), and even interview footage taken just before she died in her early 90s. There are a few too many random talking heads making this often feel bitty. Some don’t have anything to say beyond admitting they had never heard of the French director, but it could well have been condition of funding that each contributor had their ‘say’.

Guy-Blaché (1873-1968) was born in Paris and would go on to make over a 1,000 films, including silents and those with sound (which she pre-recorded), although many of these were attributed to men. Clearly luck played a big part in her success: women in the late 19th century were – on the whole – housewives and mothers. But Guy-Blaché had dogged perseverance along with her talent, working as a secretary for inventor Leon Gaumont – considered a plum job at the time – she was there when the Lumiere Brothers first set their apparatus running on everyday life in their local town of Lyon.

Narrated by Jodie Foster, the film (funded through Kickstarter) charts the early days of cinema from Paris to New Jersey and California before going back to Europe, tracing an art form where women seem to be very involved, much more so than nowadays, possibly because commercialisation hadn’t quite taken hold of the cottage industry: films were still considered the domain of the female chattering classes and kids. Something to keep women amused while men were doing more important things.

But the film’s co-writer Joan Simon and curators and historians such as Kevin Brownlow and Claire Clouzot offer the most salient contribution to the film, outlining the cultural significance of Gay-Blaché’s contribution, including the invention of synchronised sound. Above all, she was a highly inventive pioneer who just happened to be a woman, and whose talent and perseverance is celebrated in this valuable feature debut. MT

NOW ON AMAZON PRIME

Lucian Freud: A Self-Portrait (2019) ****

Dir: David Bickerstaff | Writers: David Bickerstaff/Phil Grabsky | With: William Feaver, James Hall, Tim Marlow (RA Artistic Director 2014-19, Jasper Sharp, Curator, Kunthistorisches Museum Vienna | Andrea Tarsia (Head of Exhitibitions RA) | Doc, 85′

“I wanted to shock and amaze” says Lucian Freud in faintly-accented English. Sitting in his workshop where he fought, struggled and experimented tirelessly with his craft – Freud was well into his eighties when he died in 2011 – the renowned Berlin-born portraitist is an intense and furtive figure in the early scenes of this new biopic by David Bickerstaff. The filmmaker’s previous subjects have included Van Gogh, Picasso and Monet. Co-written by Phil Grabsky, the doc interweaves filmed interviews with Freud in his final years, with the usual talking heads approach. Curators and specialists add valuable insight, although a few of the contributors bring little to the party.

The former artistic director of the Royal Academy Tim Marlow takes us round Lucian Freud’s first and only exhibition at the London gallery (until 26 January 2020). Although Freud is seen as a modern artist his work is very much connected to that ‘old master’, painterly tradition of Titian and Rembrandt: Few modern artists have explored the human body with such intensity, and such determination. Of course, he was a gambler, a playboy and a bon viveur, but few artists spent as much time in their studio as Lucian Freud. The RA’s Andrea Tarsia explains how he pitted his developing style against his personal life, scrutinising himself as much as his subjects. His single-minded passion focused on self-portraiture as much as on those his was painting:. “Everything is a self-portrait”. Often his subjects are not even named: what mattered more to him was the immediacy of the situation, the spontaneity of the gaze. Accompanied by a jazzy score the doc conveys the energy and charisma that seems to spin off each hypnotic portrait, even a small canvas can dominate a room.

Born into an eminent but non-religious Jewish family on the 8th December 1922, Lucian Freud’s father was an architect and the youngest son of the analyst Sigmund Freud. The middle son of three, Lucian was his mother’s favourite and as such he was deeply resented by his brothers. His biographer William Feaver (The Lives of Lucian Freud) reports how as a popular teenager he was taken by surprise when the family came under scrutiny by the authorities and had to move to London in the autumn of 1933. He was sent to the progressive Dartington school where he developed an interest in plants and horses, and thence Bryanston whence he was expelled for mooning in Bournemouth High Street, on a bet. A stone sculpture of a horse secured him a place in a London art school in 1937 but this was also short-lived. Eventually Freud fetched up in what he told his parents was “the only decent art school” of the time run by Sir Cedric Morris in East Anglia. Subversive to the last, Freud once again disgraced himself and “burnt the school down”.

But Morris had by this time instilled some discipline into the 18 year old Freud and he produced his first work – a tight and rather flattened oil painting simply entitled ‘Self-portrait,1940′. An ability to draw was the first step on the ladder and led to commissions for various book covers but impetuosity led to Freud joining the Navy for a spell. Returning to London he shared a St Johns Wood flat with fellow painter John Craxston who introduced him to an influential circle of friends. For nearly ten years he and John experimented with architects sample pots producing glossy-looking abstracts and portraits.

In the early 1940s Lucian Freud moved to the more seedy area of Paddington and settled down to a more committed painting style, ‘Man With a Feather’ (1943) was exhibited at his first solo show at London’s Lefevre Gallery. Now in his early twenties, women fell for Freud’s mesmerising allure and powerful presence, and he was able to navigate his way round English society marrying Kitty Garman. But he made a hopeless husband; although he could be sensitive and sociable, focusing on you with an intense gaze, he could also be callous and cruel.

In Paris in 1946 he met Picasso and soon realised the dedication that painting required. By now he was using oils and honing his style of self-portraiture, his face creeping into the frame with surprise, suggestion or a quizzical expression that calls to mind the ‘fourth wall’.  ‘Still Life with Green Lemon’ was a case in point, painted during a visit to Greece in 1946. Ostensibly these were self-portraits – Freud’s face only just intruding into the edges of a work dominated by another subject – he was already displaying the prickly illusiveness that was to become his style. ‘Startled Man’ (1948) ushered in a period of clean, conte-work. This is an extremely accomplished drawing that really flaunts his capabilities. ‘Sleeping Nude’ (1950) and the surrealist ‘Interior at Paddington’ (1951) were actually hyper-realist paintings. By this time John Minton had become a friend, and Freud had also met and painted Francis Bacon. His marriage to Lady Caroline Blackwood saw her being incorporated into various works, and she appears in bed in his self-portrait ‘Lucian Freud, 1949’ which was exhibited at the Venice Biennale that year. She left him four years later due to his infidelities. Like most artists Freud wanted his life to be his work, and it was impossible for him to be committed to any woman. His only focus was himself and whoever he was painting at the time.

A sensuality entered the artist’s work in the late 1950s and early 1960 where an emphasis on touch starts to appear. This is most noticeable during a trip to Ian Fleming’s Golden Eye when he painted a Flemish style portrait on a small scrap of copper. It sees him putting his finger on his lips and was the start of this sensuous awareness. The 1960s also marked a switch to hog-hair brushes with ‘Man’s Head’ (1963) and the restless associated portraits, smooth backgrounds allowing the face to stand out. Although Freud admired Francis Bacon’s style of working in a gestural way, his own work increasingly gained a more structural, almost architectural element, as he slotted colours together with pasty brushstrokes, trying to make the paint tell the story.

The film’s focus then switches from Freud’s own work to visit Amsterdam where he often visited the Rijksmuseum to study Rembrandt and understand his approach. Back in London at the Royal Academy’s Exhibition, the film shows how Freud’s portraits  actually hold and dominate the room. ‘Man with a Blue Scarf’ (2004) was a canvas that required exactitude, the sitter under as much pressure to perform as Freud himself. This portrait of art critic Martin Gayford offers further evidence of the Freud’s obsession with detail. The relationship was intense and required the sitter to be totally committed and, crucially, to return to the studio for sittings that went on several times a week for at least a year. But during this time Freud engaged in avid conversation: highly entertaining he was a raconteur who was as focused on the sitter as he was in himself. But Freud was certainly not an expressionist painter.

Lucian Freud’s large 1993 self-portrait is defiant – he was 71, but still emanated power and excitement; his greatest fear was losing his mind, but he was also concerned about his physical vigour. ‘Benefits Supervisor Sleeping’ (1995) sold in 2008 for 33.6million dollars – the highest price ever paid for a work by a living artist. Freud carried on painting voraciously until his death on 20 July 2011. He was 88. “Being with him was like being plugged into the National Grid for an hour” said one sitter. “Freud was one of the great European painters of the last 500 years. He’s one of those big figures across the centuries, rather than representative of an era or a movement” says Tim Marlow. “Tradition is a big word but Lucian challenged tradition constantly”. Jasper Sharp adds him to a list that goes back to Holbein; Durer; Cranach and Rembrandt. And he goes on: “Freud gives that list a little shuffle, making us look at Rembrandt a bit differently and Holbein a bit differently through his eyes, and through himself”. And that is a remarkable achievement for any artist. MT

LUCIAN FREUD: A SELF PORTRAIT | ON RELEASE FROM 14 JANUARY 2020 | SEVENTH ART PRODUCTIONS | ROYAL ACADEMY LUCIAN FREUD 

Catherine the Great (2019) **** Home Ent

Catherine the Great is a sweeping, romantic epic masterpiece series following the power, politics, and passions of the legendary monarch. In the sumptuous bonkbuster Helen Mirren is magnificent and still seriously sexy at 74, with Jason Clarke as a raunchy Grigory Potemkin riding roughshod over Nigel Williams’ frigid script. In reality, Catherine was decades younger when she came to the throne, yet Mirren carries it all off with graceful allure as the monarch in her final years. She became  Empress in 1762 after her husband Peter III was murdered by her lover, Count Orlov (Richard Roxburgh) – who she refuses to marry – and his brother, Alexei (Kevin McNally).

Surrounded by untrustworthy men: her son, Paul (Joseph Quinn), a weak and conniving dipstick; her adviser, Minister Panin (Rory Kinnear) and even Count Orlov, Catherine feels vulnerable yet she is also wise and steely. Then along comes Potemkin whose role was pivotal in the coup that brought her to the throne. She has possibly one ally in the shape of Countess Bruce (Gina McKee). But McKee cleverly paints herself into the background as an amusing and helpful ally. 

The tete a tetes with Potemkin sound louche rather than witty and urbane in the awkward script:. Mirren is a Russian version of le Roi de Soleil surrounded by disappointing acolytes, although Clarke and McKee do their best to add piquancy to the lacklustre dialogue, along with Rory Kinnear.

The small screen doesn’t do justice to the sumptuous recreation of the era and the grandiosity of it all. But Catherine the Great still manages to be an amusing snapshot of Russian history thanks to its performances rather than its mise en scene

Catherine the Great out now on Blu-ray, DVD & Digital

Amazon: https://amzn.to/2ltnpih 

Anna Karina (1940-2019) Obituary

Danish born actor Anna Karina (Hanne Karin Bayer), face of the Nouvelle Vague, has died in Paris. Her eventful life reads like a film script: She was seventeen, when she came arrived in Paris to find herself living on the streets and speaking very little French. She became a supermodel a few years later helped, among others, by Coco Chanel, who invented her screen name. Karina’s face was plastered on advertising boards on both sides of the Champs Elysee. She met Jean-Luc Godard when he was casting for his first film in 1960, A bout de Souffle. He offered her a small part, but Karina rejected it, because of the nudity involved. Godard accused her of double standards, claiming she was naked in a Palmolive advert. Karina called him naïve: she actually wore a Bikini hidden by the bubbles for the shoot. But the following year they were married.

Karina went on to star in seven of his films, the first was Le Petit Soldat that same year. She won Best Actress at the Berlin Film Festival in 1961 for Une Femme est une Femme. While marriage to Godard was stormy to say the least – he neglected her emotionally – “he was the sort of man who would go for a packet of cigarettes and return three weeks later” – their artistic relationship blossomed with a string of New Wave hits: Vivre sa Vie (1962); Bande a Part (1964); Pierrot Le Fou (1965); Alphaville (1965) and Made in USA (1966). When Godard cast her in his episode ‘Anticipation’ for The Oldest Profession (1966), they were already divorced and not on speaking terms. But Karina stayed loyal to Godard and a few years ago at the BFI she talked about him in glowing terms.

Karina would go on working for other directors from the Nouvelle Vague: Jacques Rivette (La Religeuse, Haut, Bas, Fragile) and also starring in Lucino Visconti’s L’Etranger, 1967, George Cukor’s Justine, Tony Richardson’s Nabokov adaption Laughter in the Dark (1969); and Fassbinder’s Chinese Roulette (1967).  She also directed Vivre Ensemble (1973) and Victoria (2008).

Anna Karina will especially be remembered for the dance number in Bande a Part, her heart- breaking Nana in Vivre sa Vie, when Godard made her ugly on purpose by cutting off her long hair. And as Natascha von Braun in Alphaville, a woman desperate to reconnect with her feelings.

The French Minister of Culture Franck Riester said today: “French Film has become an orphan” with Karina’s death – but we have all been orphaned worldwide. AS

QT8: The First 21 Years (2019) ***

Dir.: Tara Wood, Documentary with Zoë Bell, Bruce Dern, Jamie Foxx, Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Jason Lee, Lucy Liu, Michael Madsen, Tim Roth, Kurt Russell, Christoph Waltz; USA 2019, 120 min.

It has been said that 21 years defines the career of an artist. And Tara Wood, who co-directed 21 Years: Richard Linklater (2014), has used this premise to define a new documentary about Quentin Tarantino’s first eight films.

Her idolatrous approach echoes that of the legends who have ranked around Tarantino’s meteoric rise from video archives clerk to multi-million dollar director whose features are a cultural event – no less. This film is full of the love Tarantino’s collaborators feel for the maverick director, put simply by James Wood : “it’s just fun to work with him”.

Directors are well known to be strict taskmasters  but QT8 also gives a palpable sense of the ebullient passion the Tennessee born filmmaker brings to his work. His natural charisma inspires his actors to enter into the spirit of their characters with extraordinary freedom and verve, while managing to maintain a strict ‘no nonsense’ approach on set.

Tarantino fills his scripts with multiple ways for his actors to interpret their roles. A case in point was the opening monologue for Inglourious Basterds recalled by Christoph Waltz who played the nefarious Nazi Colonel Landa with great gusto, very much defining Tarantino’s approach: “If you just love movies enough, you can make a good one”. Or eight.

Adulation or controversy are never far away. When a new Tarantino masterpiece hits the cinema screens, the box office figures usually prove him right: QT is a genius, and Wood will have us all repeating it. Strangely enough, the only missing person in this phalanx of admirers is the director himself – he is his own toughest critic. Wood also explores how ideas get off the ground particularly with reference to the script/story origins for True Romance and Natural Born Killers. We hear how Harvey Keitel arrived to pick up the script for Reservoir Dogs, which led to Cannes – and then straight to Pulp Fiction and Cannes again. A neat transition indeed. But to compare this boyish blood and guts artist with the combined talents of French Nouvelle Vague legends, Godard, Truffaut, Rohmer, and Rivette, is really stretching it a bit. 

Wood goes on as if Tarantino’s career was only ever plain sailing. No mention of the mega bust-up with Pulp Fiction co-writer Roger Avary or Natural Born Killer producers Jane Hamsher and Don Murphy, which led to a brawl in a restaurant. Or the serious car accident on set which damaged Una Thurman’s neck for life – an event which only gets  a three second mention in QT8 – wonder why she didn’t show up?. Then there is Tarantino’s over-fondness for the N-word, to which black director Spike Lee took offence. Wood ordered a character assassination by Jamie Foxx, obliterating Lee – without Lee having the right to respond. The extensive but entertaining eulogy is mostly centred around the sets, with clever animation flicks by Brad Greber and Shane Minshew keeping the tone light.

Apart from his love for people of colour, Tarantino is equally fond of women and should be celebrated for creating strong, feisty female roles. When the Weinstein scandal broke, Tarantino cut all ties with the producer, even though he was a major shareholder in the production company (‘The house that Quentin built’). Wood tries her best in the last six minutes to avoid any serious questions. Wood and QT8 were, at one point, in a legal battle over the Weinstein Company right’s to distribute the documentary – the battle itself and how it was solved is never mentioned. This latest development has to be factored in to the whole tableau. Wood’s accusation of Harvey Weinstein’s criminal acts sound righteous but unconvincing – and somehow feel tacked on as a crowd-pleaser in this otherwise rip-roaring romp through the Tarantino canon. AS

IN CINEMAS, ON DVD, BLURAY and DIGITAL HD from 13 DECEMBER 2019

 

 

Alva – White (2019) ***

Dir.: Ico Costa; Cast: Henrique Bonacho; Portugal 2018, 98 min.

Renowned Portuguese short-film director Ico Costa creates an impressive first feature which he also wrote. It tells the story of Henrique Bonacho who has been abandoned by family and driven delirious, punishing the ones he held responsible. 

We first meet Henrique (a very intense Henrique Bonacho) as a shepherd, living in a dilapidated  hovel in the mountains. Uncommunicative, he also looks unkempt and lost. We later learn that his wife Vitoria and his two daughters have left him. Driving into the local village he kills a woman psychologist and puts her male college into a coma, punishing the people he holds responsible for the break-up of his family. He then threatens Vitoria’s mother, demanding to see his daughters. When she calls the police, he flees into the mountains where he cannot live with with the unbearable isolation for long and, so he soon returns to his home. This time he decides to put on his best clothes: a beautiful white suit. But Henrique’s problems are not over.

Alva plays out in an elliptical way, the title stands for Henrique’s re-birth: the white suit representing the old, unspoiled self. In between he looks more like a hunted animal than a human. DoP Hugo Azevedo makes imaginative use of the wild woods and mountains crafting glorious images as a hideout for the fugitive. The colours in town are more subdued, the streets become a labyrinth for Henrique. Only at the end, when he has found his place again, do we get some sunlight. But there is a powerful impression that this happy-end will not last forever. Alva is a study in loss, and eventual redemption. A small gem told in a minimalist cinematic language, with a towering performance by Bonacho. AS

NOW AT AT THE ICA LONDON

Kingmaker (2019) ****

Dir/scr: Lauren Greenfield. US. 2019. 100mins

Known for her legendary appetite for shoes – 3000 pairs at one point – Imelda Marcos certainly uses them to ride roughshod over her own people. Lauren Greenfield reveals her steps to power in this eye-popping biopic exposing the gilded lifestyle of the politician and one time First Lady of the Philippines.

The Kingmaker is the latest of Greenfield’s studies of entitlement that began with The Queen Of Versailles and Generation Wealth. Clearly Marcos is a character with delusional as well as narcissistic traits, capable of styling her own persona to serve a flexible narrative. Greenfield goes back to basics to examine how this entitled 90 year old antiheroine and her husband Ferdinand first robbed their nation of its riches, and now are now shamelessly re-tracing their steps to come back to power.

Marcos takes centre stage showing us round her opulently vulgar apartment, showcasing her wealth. We learn how she quickly bagged Ferdinand using him as a vehicle to step into power as the backseat driver of a regime that instigated martial law. Now in the driving seat herself, since his death, she is busily working on her son’s path to the vice-presidency, the next step will be clear.

Condescending and manipulative she is also prides herself of her fake largesse: handing out “candy for the kids” in the shape of gifts for charities and the poor. But this cuts both ways,  barely compensating for the misery she and her husband have doled out in spades. Meanwhile the Philippines is still languishing in the third world with Rodrigo Détente waiting in the wings to be president. The Kingmaker is a detached but delicious dive into the mind of a modern day machiavellian, delivered with sleek aplomb by a filmmaker at the top of her game. MT

IN CINEMAS NOW

Welcome to Sodom (2018) **** WatchAUT 2019

Dir.: Florian Weigensamer, Christian Krönes; Documentary; Austria 2018, 90 min.

Austrian directors/writers Florian Weigensamer and Christian Krönes are attracted to radical material, that brings to mind the work of their compatriot, the noted documentarian Michael Glawogger (1959-2014)  Their first film A German Life, explored the life of  104 year-old Brunhilde Pomsel, Goebbels stenographer. Here they have chosen something completely different but just as fascinating.  Near the Ghanaian capital Accra is Agbogbloshie a swampland, where 250 000 tons of first world electronic dump is ‘recycled’ by about 6000 women, men and children.

The title refers to the biblical place, and Agbogbloshie is certainly making its name proud. The ground itself is unsafe, it sucks people in – after all, it’s a lagoon. Starting with a close-up of a chameleon, emaciated goats and cows roam the wasteland, where ancient dump trucks discharge old computer monitors, TV sets, fridges, printers, mobiles and cars. The mostly teenage work force are looking for aluminium, copper or zinc, anything they can glean with their self-made magnets, working away with crude mallets to break down the chassis. When they have collected enough material they take it to the dealer, who weighs their collection, before trying – usually successfully – to cheat them, reducing a meagre payment even further. Woman and girls are used as water carriers, they too inhale the poisonous dirt, the earth squelches, their health gradually deteriorates. To take their mind off things there is rap music, and even a newspaper, the ‘Daily Graphic’. And oddities, like a make-shift funeral parlour selling some expensive coffins that nobody on the site can afford to buy. A gay Jewish man from Zimbawe sells used water packets.

But there is a sense of pride among the detritus: a teenage boy declares “it’s rubbish for them, but we are the best re-cyclers”. But the common goal is to make it to France, or anywhere in Europe, “and be somebody”. Only few would admit that “this place eats up your life very fast”. Flies and filth are everywhere as the sulphur clouds hang heavy on the air. Cholera and malaria are the inevitable outcome.

Sodom makes for grim viewing but the directors avoid making this a depressing documentary, and some of the artfully framed scenes have a strange appeal, such as those when the men are burning down the metal pipes. The film plays out almost like a poem to industrial waste, dumped from all over the world. But the well-crafted images fit well with the narrative, and the sophisticated sound design conjures up the spirit of those who work in this Armageddon. There may not be much hope here; but you watch in stark  admiration, and a certain sense of shame that your next new gadget or smart phone will eventually end up polluted this dystopian hell hole and the people who spend their short lives dedicated to its daily grind. AS

WatchAUT | 13 -15 DECEMBER 2019 | Picturehouse Cinema W1       

Valley of Souls (2019) MUBI

Dir|Wri: Nicolás Rincón Gille | Doc 136′ | Columbia, Belgium

Valley of Souls revisits a devastating chapter in Colombian history when locals were killed or forced out of their own country by right-wing militia. Belgian director Nicolás Rincón Gille makes the social realist drama even more haunting by casting Colombians who were directly affected by the tragedy back in 2002.

This Neo-Western sees its hero Jose on a quest for the truth, his striking features and epic intensity burning fearlessly against the rain forest and riverbanks of this subtropical paradise.

Jose has returned from a day’s fishing to discover the forces have killed his two sons Rafaele and Dionisio, and thrown their bodies into the river. These thugs are known locally as the United Self-Defenders of Colombia (AUC) – but worse – they have sprayed the slogan “Death and Purification” onto Jose’s fishing hut.

Honourable in the face of anger and sadness, Jose must find their bodies and give them a decent Christian burial. So he sets off fearlessly into the unknown on a journey that some may find rather too slow-burning, but echoes of Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent and even Argentinian drama Rojo are clearly felt. Survival with be difficult in this hostile territory and, even if he finds his children, removing their bodies from the water is an act punishable by death. The river he once loved and relied upon for his livelihood is now transformed into a place of horror and mourning and the macabre backdrop to his sons’ final moments.

He finds Rafael very soon after setting off and the young man’s body becomes a weirdly comforting companion in his canoe as he continues his odyssey into the heart of darkness. One encounter sees him bravely confronting two violent paramilitaries who goad him into stripping the hapless body of a dead friend of his, just to give them the watch and necklace. Another finds him face to face with the head honcho who force feeds him a thin soup until he manages to slip away as the soldiers are celebrating a win for their sporting hero on TV.

D0P Juan Sarmiento G. shoots on an Arri mini Alexa his magnificent widescreen images doing justice to the enormity of the situation and offering up a visual masterpiece even when the story starts to slow down midway.

But Jose is certainly a tragic hero who perseveres indomitably even when this involves digging up an entire graveyard of fresh corpses to see if his son is amongst them. Naturally, this is done with gravity and respect; he even uses his own green and yellow Brazilian football T-shirt as a shroud in an act that carries with it an almost poetic sense of dignity.

Colombian cinema has really taken off recently and Valley of Souls is just another in the vast wealth of films coming out of South America today. MT

ON MUBI 15 APRIL 2021 | MARRAKECH FILM FESTIVAL 2019 | Winner ETOILE D’OR 2019

Britain on Film

As part of The National Lottery’s 25th birthday celebrations, British comedian and broadcaster Paul Merton hosted a funny video countdown of the top ten most watched films on BFI Player’s Britain on Film.

Made possible directly through funding from the national lottery, the BFI’s ambitious Britain on Film project saw the mass digitisation of over 10,000 films from the BFI and regional and national archive partners with titles representing all corners of the UK and spanning 120 years of film and all types of filmmaking, from home movies and news footage to feature films, travelogues, educational documentaries and government sponsored films. A truly national success the films on the platform have received over 75 million online views on BFI Player since 2015, with 78% audience reach outside London and the South East, transforming the level of free public access to our shared film heritage across the UK.

Aberdeen

Belfast no way out

Changing face of Camberwell

Chichester tour

Christmas in Belfast

Day in Liverpool

Milton Keynes and the Area

Portsmouth Charlotte Street

Sunshine in Soho

Train Rides through Nottingham 

For the US: https://www.youtube.com/user/BFIfilms/playlists?view=50&sort=dd&shelf_id=65

 

Sorokin Trip (2019) *** Russian Film Week 2019

Dir: Ilya Belov | Doc with Vladimir Sorokin, Russia, 90’

Director Ilya Belov (Brodsky is Not a Poet) and writer Anton Zhelnov have painted a lively portrait of prolific Russian underground artist Vladimir Sorokin (*1955), who has markedly calmed down since setting fire to Soviet literary tradition and building his own world on its ashes. He now lives in Moscow and Berlin, hugging trees and believing in God.

Sorokin who grew up outside Moscow, had the misfortune to be the only student in his class whose parents had a higher education. He was physically bullied, but refrained from retribution. His emotionally cold father had mental health issues,, his mother trained as an engineer but retired at 35 due to ill health. Sorokin first published in a newspaper: ‘For the Workers in the Petroleum Industry’. But he went on to make his living illustrating books, and was one of the leading figures of Soviet Underground culture. Like many students all over the world, he skipped lectures and enjoyed provoking the authoritarian Soviet establishment, which fell for his stunts, which were nowhere near as radical as the Underground scene of New York. 

Sorokin draws most of his inspiration from Fine Art, and is an accomplished painter. His first publicised book was Ochered (The Que) in 1983; his most famous novel Den Oprichnika (Day of the Oprichnik) in 2006. It describes a dystopian Russia in 2027, when a Tsar rules in the Kremlin. The ruler has a “Great Russian Wall” built, separating the country from its neighbours; with Sorokin positing that he wrote this all before Brexit. His plays include “Dostoevsky Trip” (1997), whilst his libretto for the Opera “The Children of Rosenthal”  caused uproar at the Bolshoi Theatre, watched by the author and his twin daughters.  Sorokin’s novella ‘Blue Bacon Fat’ (2002) drew the ire of not only the authorities, Putin’s men inflamed the affair by in a massive book-ripping event that carried the slogan ‘down with pornography’. The courts got involved, but the matter was dropped due to lack of evidence.

It is a shame that Belov concentrates so much on the confrontational nature of Sorokin’s output, his juvenile posturing is hardly worth the time. After all, Sorokin has written eighteen books, ten plays and four film scripts, among the Rotterdam Winner Four (2004), which was directed by Ilya Khrzhovsky. DoP Mikhail Krichman does a much better job, keeping the audience interested with his free flowing images, somehow capturing the soul of the writer much more than Belov’s overly verbose outpourings. Overall Sorokin Trip does Sorokin a disservice. Thi is an underwhelming biopic, not because of its main subject, but because Belov tries too hard to match the antics of the young author and creative genius. AS

Screening as part of RUSSIAN FILM WEEK Saturday 30 November 3.00pm | Curzon Mayfair

https://youtu.be/mAWn4WK4Gig

Citizen K (2019) ****

Dir: Alex Gibney | US Doc, 128′
Alex Gibney explores Vladimir Putin’s Russia through the story of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a highly controversial figure: oligarch, turned political prisoner and exiled dissident who is still alive and kicking at the president’s back door.
CITIZEN K is a rip-roaring ebullient documentary rich in fascinating revelations fuelled by authoritative talking heads, captivating archive footage and a thundering original score that powers forward this ironic testament to the indomitable spirit of one time oligarch Mikhail Khodorovsky.
This is the latest of Gibney’s biopics and one of the most engaging to date, exposing the ironies of Putin’s Russia, although he loses his distance in the final stages. Ambitious in scope and striking to look with its glossy widescreen travelogue-style panoramas CITIZEN K delves into its subject matter with gusto to convey a clear message: that Putin has arch enemies and an unhappy electorate who will not be silenced, both at home and abroad.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky is one of them. As the likeable antihero of the real life gangster movie that is contemporary Russia, he is living in exile in London. Once of the wealthiest men in Russia with a fortune worth billions, he has spent the last five years on a self-funded London-based human rights project ‘Open Russia’, but admits he cannot change the nation’s system from the outside. Khodorkovsky’s dark looks and winning smile belie a will of iron.
Narrated by Gibney and chockfull of expert opinion from top journalists, amongst them the BBC’s Martin Sixsmith who explains the finer details of Russian social politics and how Putin’s rise to power and how he came from nowhere to join the Kremlin thereby eventually becoming president in 1999.  The collapse of the USSR had ushered in an era of chaos and opportunity. Russians were used to being looked after. Naively they believed their new free-market regime was axiomatically going to create them personal wealth, but they failed to realise that Capitalism involves choices not automatic riches. Pretty soon the place was bankrupt and the people were once again starving. So with Boris Yeltsin out the way, newcomer Putin struck a Faustian bargain where the oligarchs could offer money to the cash-stripped government who then handed over Russia’s assets. Soon 7 oligarchs controlled 50 percent of the economy basically creating a new form of communism controlled by the oligarchs. Not only this, but also Gangster capitalism was taking over and murder was rife – anyone with any money was in threat of being murdered.
Born into a humble but professional family in Moscow in 1963, where as a child he once built a rocket, Mikhail Khodorkovsky built his fortune from oil prospecting in the vast Russian regions to the North of Moscow using Western technology – and a certain amount of skulduggery – he took advantage of the privatisation of state assets to form Russia’s first commercial bank and set up Russia’s biggest oil company Yukos. But when he used his money to try to enter politics, he become unstuck with President Putin and ended up serving a ten-years behind behind in a Siberian prison on the Chinese border, accused by Putin of corruption and asset-stripping – basically amounting to him stealing his own oil, in what many recognised as a show trial.
Putin realised his mistake with the oligarchs but cleverly used the situation to his advantage by recalibrating his relationships with these powerful while at the same time capturing the people’s imagination by appealing to their sense of nationalism. Aware he needed to make Russia strong again – not mocked internationally for its failed transition into liberalism.
In recent years the UK has seen the mysterious death of many Russian public figures, but Khodorovsky has made it him home and continues his anti-Putin fight, helping to uncover the truth behind the Novichok scandal and supporting the outspoken female journalist Ksenija Sobchak. Hardened by his experiences, he now plays the long game against Putin, appealing to the vast the internet media that has a great influence with young people in his efforts to quell a president who 18 years after coming to power still holds sway. MT
ON RELEASE NATIONWIDE FROM 13 DECEMBER 2019
https://youtu.be/rv4EZIivr2s

 

Marrakech International Film Festival 2019 | Tributes Australian Film

MARRAKECH INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL is set to pay tribute to screen legend and Sundance pioneer Robert Redford in its 18th edition which also showcases an extensive retrospective of Australian Cinema. November 29th to December 7th 2019.

Marrakech Film Festival is one of the most glamorous events in the film festival circuit attracting professionals and film lovers from all over the World and honouring global film in all its forms. This year’s International Competition Jury is headed by Tilda Swinton, who has starred in over 70 feature films, most recently in The Personal History of David Copperfield, and Wes Anderson latest comedy drama The French Dispatch which will premiere early next year.

This year’s 18th edition taking place from November 29th until December 7th also plays host to an impressive tribute to Australian cinema, considered to be one of the oldest in the world. This year’s tribute is also the biggest get-together of Australian actors and directors ever to take place at a film festival. Australia has a tradition of a gutsy hard-nosed crime thrillers but also lyrical arthouse dramas and comedies that embody the infinite variety of the vast nation. From the hostile outback of Ayer’s Rock to the sophisticated urban centres Australia’s spectacular landscape provides a remarkable background for its visual arts. And although the average cinema-goer may only be able to remember Crocodile Dundee, the country has an impressive array of movies to draw on and one of the world’s most active film industries boasting memorable commercial and indie titles and directors as diverse as Baz Lurhmann, Gillian Armstong, Mel Gibson, Ivan Sen and film pioneer and screenwriter Lottie Lyell  (1890-1925) considered to be Australia’s first film star. During her short life she made an important contribution to the industry in the silent era with The Blue Mountains Mystery (1921) which she co-directed with Raymond Longford. Here is a selection of some outstanding Australian cult classics to put us in mind of what we might look forward during the Marrakech official selection in November 2019.

WALKABOUT (1971)

In Nicolas Roeg’s moving mystical coming of age drama an Aboriginal boy comes to the rescue to two teenagers abandoned by their father in the remote corner of the Outback. Walkabout is a bleak but beguiling feature that riffs on the theme of human kindness and cultural differences. Although Roeg and most of the cast are British, the film has been taken to Australias’s heart because it launched the remarkable career of Indigenous Australian actor David Gulpilil.

WAKE IN FRIGHT (1971)

Directed by Toronto born maverick Ted Kotcheff and also known as Outback, Wake in Fright kicked off the Australian New Wave and is now considered one of the most extraordinary Australian features ever made. Blending horror with an immersive character drama, it was ‘lost’ for many years, until veteran producer Anthony Buckley finally tracked it down in 20o4 in a Pittsburgh warehouse. Remastered and given a theatrical release and the Bluray treatment in 2014 (courtesy of Eureka) this is one film you simply must see with its standout performances from Donald Pleasence, Chips Rafferty and Sylvia Kay.

PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK (1975)

A mesmerising and unsolved mystery about a group of school girls who disappear during a school picnic on Hanging Rock. Peter Weir’s haunting drama stays in the memory with its luminous cast and glowering background of Ayer’s Rock. Based on the novel by Joan Lindsey it was adapted for the big screen – and I mean big – by Cliff Green.

GALLIPOLI (1981)

Another haunting tragedy that tells a poignant tale of war and guarantees a tearful audience. Set in Australia just before the First World War, it follows a group of Western Australian soldiers who will eventually meet their fate during the Gallipoli campaign on Turkish soil. Mel Gibson leads a cast of men whose lost innocence and dedication to duty continue to resonate nearly forty years later.

DEAD CALM (1989) not showing

Where would Australian cinema be without British-born Sam Neill and his leading lady Nicole Kidman. Alone on a yacht off the Great Barrier Reef they face up to a psychotic monster Billy Zane in this tensely gripping thriller.

ROMPER STOMPER (1992) not showing

Russell Crowe embodies stomping but he is an actor who can also do subtlety and infinite gentleness. Here in Geoffrey Wright’s urban thriller he does the former with gusto. Set in a working class Melbourne suburb, Romper Stomper sees a motley crew of neo-Nazi skinheads rise up against their changing neighbourhood with devastating consequences.

LANTANA (2001)

Kerry Armstrong, Anthony LaPaglia and Geoffrey Rush star in this taut and emotional thriller elegantly enveloped in a characterful study of human relationships in suburban Sydney. A dead body, a detective caught in flagrante, a psychiatrist whose own marriage is floundering: these are the elements that gentle stew for two engrossing hours in Ray Lawrence’s memorable mystery movie.

JAPANESE STORY (2003) not showing

In the Australian desert, a guide and a Japanese businessman who can’t stand each other are suddenly drawn together in an awkward situation that ends in tragedy. Toni Collette gives an outstanding performance as the guide in this memorable multi-award-winning psychological drama. Sue Brooks directs Alison Tilson’s brilliant script with aplomb.

THE PROPOSITION (2005) not showing

John Hillcoat directs a superb cast of Ray Winstone, Guy Pearce and Emily Watson in this bleak and feral outback Western scripted and scored by Nick Cave. What can go wrong? The answer is absolutely nothing. The Proposition won awards across the board for its thorny depiction of a criminal  family that sees an outlaw ordered to kill his older brother in order to save the life of his younger one.

ANIMAL KINGDOM (2010)

David Michod’s tense and brutal urban epic sees a mafia-style family locked in bitter conflict in 1980s Melbourne. Based on a real life Pettingill family it stars Oscar-nominated Jacki Weaver as a machiavellian matriarch playing each relative off against the other as she protects her 17 year old son (James Frecheville) without a shred of sentimentality.

SNOWTOWN (2011) not showing

With its unforgettable clanging score, Snowtown sent critics into a cold sweat. This Adelaide-based real crime thriller explores the descent into hell of a young man (Lucas Pittaway) at the hands of his charismatic mentor turned vicious serial killer, the infamous John Bunting – who went on to kill 11 people (chillingly played by Douglas Henshall). Snowtown was the feature debut of Justin Kurzel who  has gone on to deliver The Turning (2013), Macbeth (2015) and historical fact-based drama The True History of the Kelly Gang (2019).  

THE BABBADOOK (2014) not showing 

One of the best horror films in memory is Jennifer Kent’s truly terrifying and formally splendid psychological chiller. Melding a suspenseful narrative with finely crafted horror tropes, the film swept the board at the global film genre awards and is still popular with horror enthusiasts everywhere.

MAD MAX (1979)

Cinema goers didn’t know what had hit them when George Miller’s sadistic motor cycle thriller revved onto the big screen fuelled by murder and mayhem. It was a mesmerising experience and still is, with its odd combination of eccentric characters, stunning scenery and throat-grabbing barbarism that would spawn several sequels, but this was the weirdest yet.

PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK (1975)

The 1970s was a standout decade for Australian film not least because of the Peter Weir’s languorous mystery drama suffused with an eerie delicacy and based on Joan Lindsay’s novel that sees a group of school girls go missing on Valentine’s Day 1900 in the sizzling heat of summer. Starring Rachel Roberts, Helen Morse and Jacki Weaver, the drama went on to win a BAFTA for cinematography.

MY BRILLIANT CAREER (1979)

Judy Davis won a BAFTA for her performance as a writer and contemporary female role model Sybylla Melvyn in this 19th century set debut feature for Gillian Armstrong. It garnered awards across the board but went home empty handed from Cannes in the year of release.

THE YEAR MY VOICE BROKE (1987)

A young man (Noah Taylor) suffers teenage angst as his crush and best friend (Leone Carmen) falls in love with an older guy in John Duigan’s poignantly funny 1960s set coming of age drama. A budding Ben Mendelsohn triumphs as the thuggish rugby playing criminal whose violence sets off an irreversible chain of events.

A CRY IN THE DARK (1988)

Based on John Bryson’s novel Evil Angels, Meryl Streep inspires terrifying evil as she fights to prove her innocence in Fred Schepisi’s biopic drama about the woman whose child was supposedly killed by a dingo in the Australian Outback.

During this year’s festival a distinguished delegation of Australian actors and directors will make the trip to Marrakech to enjoy this exceptional tribute and take part in a range of stage appearances and lives events in the Moroccan capital and its lush locations.

MARRAKECH INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2019 | 29 NOVEMBER – 7 DECEMBER 2019

 

The Biggest Little Farm (2019) ****

Dir/Wri John Chester, Mark Monroe | Cinematographer: John Chester | US Doc 91’

Thinking a making a success of sustainable farming? – it’ll take around a decade. These could be the best years of your life – and you could make you thousands of pounds worth of produce. Indie filmmaker John Chester and his wife Molly managed to do it. But creating an environmentally friendly farm – one that is harmonious with nature – is no walk in the park. 

Often playing out like an eco thriller – the big bad wolves killing the chickens, amongst other murders – this is an entertaining and informative film revealing home truths and discoveries about nature, sustainability, ecosystems and extreme animal behaviour that will shock and surprise you, as it did them. 

The intention to farm harmoniously with nature all started out as an accident when the couple were forced to move house due to their noisy Collie dog Todd. Molly was a health conscious An hour north of LA they found a patch of 200 acres. But the soil was as dead as the dodo – impacted and dry as a bone. Dead bee hives the result of poor eco management. This was a wilderness that needed to be brought back to life. Then Alan York an Amish style farmer cane along. Emulate how natural ecosystems work. Relying of a finite source of water from a well.  The soil needed regeneration, hydration and fertilisation. The plan was to break up the earth and create a heal-basis for growth. And s harmonious environment with cover in the form of trees.

To help them in their endeavour Molly and Alan invited volunteers from all over the world to get the endeavour under way with worms, irrigation, composting and then replanting. Then cane the animals. Ducks, chickens, sheep, and cows. and two livestock guarding dogs. The animals poop will bring the soil back to work. Biodiversity was almost there. They needed animals to make their soil even better.  A pig completed the picture. That arrived as Ugly Better renames Emma who gave birth to 15 piglets. And a ‘fruit basket’ with  75 different varieties of stone fruit came next – all sold at the local market

But the gophers and cayotes arrive and do catastrophic damage, killing over 29 chickens. they have to electrify the fence. And so begins a delicate dance of coexistence. But pests and diseases are continue disrupting this paradise. Along with the weather: fires and strong winds  And then comes the drought. “Observation followed by creativity is becoming our greatest ally” says John at one point.

The sting in the tail comes in the eventful third act. And in the form of illness, for both man and beast. And once again it’s about harmony and balance,  and Mr Greasy, a rejected old rooster  with a dapper red comb who comes to rule the roost. John also realises, to his chagrin, that violence becomes a necessary evil that he hoped he wouldn’t have to resort to. To control the enemy is to kill it. Gradually a delicate ecosystem comes together as John and Molly welcome a child of their own into the world. “The dance may be familiar but the partners are always changing”.

Enriched with hand-drawn animated sequences and a lively, if sometimes overbearing, score. wildlife cameraman John reveals the wonder of nature in a stunningly captured visuals and time-lapse photography. The Biggest Little Farm is an extraordinary journey, it’s battles and joys mirroring life as a whole.

ON RELEASE NATIONWIDE 29 November  2019

 

The Two Popes (2019) *****

Dir: Fernando Meirelles | Wri: Anthony McCarten | Cast: Jonathan Pryce, Anthony Hopkins | Drama, Brazil 125′

Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins add weight and sophistication to this soigné and sumptuously mounted tale of Papal spirituality and responsibility. As the two great minds on the opposite ends of the spiritual debate they chew over and elegantly digest Anthony McCarten’s witty and thoughtful script that imagines the conservative Pope Benedict (Hopkins) paving the way for the liberal Pope Francis (Pryce) to forge a new future for the Catholic Church.

Pope Benedict XVI quotes from Plato when he makes his unprecedented decision to abdicate into order to guide Pope Francis into his vacant chair: “Those who don’t want to lead are the best leaders”. Yet the pontiffs couldn’t be more different, Francis is a warm, generous and garrulous soul who enjoys football and travelling to visit his vast congregations. Benedict is a detached and fastidious intellectual who dines alone and plays classical music on the papal piano.

The two are first seen meeting for a private tete a tete in the peaceful gardens of the Castel Gandolpho – and we are transported there by Cesar Charlone’s impressive widescreen camerawork that also captures the intimate spaces and vast crowd scenes in this thoughtful and and surprisingly moving drama.

They discuss world poverty, the migrant crisis and climate change and these are skilfully woven into black and white flashbacks picturing Pope Francis as a young Argentinian Jorge Mario Bergoglio (played convincingly by Juan Minujin), who found himself receiving the calling just before his intention to marry.

Hopkins is steely and often vituperative as Benedict. He stresses their crucial conflicts and is dour in his discussions – although he occasionally lightens up with acerbic one liners: “It’s a German joke. It doesn’t have to be funny.” Pryce adopts an gentle, over-awed expression and sometimes appears back-footed as Francis, and we genuinely warm to him – this is Oscar level stuff.

And we see him journeying to the backstreets of Lima and Lampedusa, cooking in soup kitchens and visiting the needy and poverty-stricken. At this point Meirelles delves into striking archive footage of mid 1970s Chile showing the desperation on the streets when people where disappearing during the Coup d’Etat.

Eventually the two reach a common agreement cleverly conceived in the spry and intelligent script. And Benedict gradually shows the silver lining to his heart of stone as a really warm friendship develops. Hopkins gives luminous and considered performance full of quiet integrity in fitting with the Pontiff’s perceived wisdom. After all, these are two players at the zenith of their game – and it shows – in this highly enjoyable and inspirational piece of filmmaking. Let’s hope God approves. MT

COMING TO NETFLIX

 

 

 

Shooting the Mafia (2019) ***

Director: Kim Longinotto | With: Letizia Battaglia, Maria Chiara Di Trepani, Santi Caleca, Eduardo Rebulla, Franco Zecchin, Roberto Timperi | UK, 94′

Kim Longinotto chronicles the work of the very much alive photojournalist Letizia Battaglia in this moving but rather hagiographic affair. 

A Sicilian to the core, Battaglia has a visceral connection with Palermo where the Mafia was particularly active during the 1970s and ’80s. Her keen eye for a poignant picture captures everyday life in the impoverished capital. But she is best known for her photos of the Mafia’s brutality and, crucially, the affect it had on the victims concerned. Shocking snapshots reveal dead women and children bathed in their own blood; the startling aftermath of a street shooting, the victim’s wife tortured in agony at the scene of the crime. The documentary particularly highlights those fighting for justice, retribution and an end to the reign of terror: Judge Giovanni Falcone and his successor Paolo Borsellino who both lost their lives.

English documentarian Kim Longinotto won the World Cinema Directing Award at Sundance 2015 for Dreamcatcher her illuminating film on prostitution in Chicago. Clearly she is impressed with Battaglia, now 83,  who comes across as confident, hard-bitten and down to earth. Pink-haired and smoking her way through her story Shooting the Mafia is enlivened by TV footage, archival material and her own photographs. The film culminates with the important Mafia trial in 1986. The judge Giovanni Falcone was blown to bits in 1992. She talks of his fearless honesty and dedication. In some ways he is the hero of the piece.

Battaglia’s early life took place behind closed doors, her highly protective father shielding her jealously from the gaze of his friends and associates. This was quite normal back then. And so was an incident where a man exposed himself to her, leaving her bewildered and bemused. She married at 16 to the first man who asked, and had two daughters. Her story is interwoven with clips from Italian films the ’50s starring a blond Silvana Magnano, adding an upbeat vibe to an otherwise depressing tale of poverty, corruption and violence. Divorced in 1971, Battaglia fell into journalism, preferring to take photos rather than write for the liberal newspaper L’Ora. Her job was her life and she gradually worked her way through a series of impressionable – often much younger – lovers attracted by her earthy nonchalance and solid sense of self.  Two men, in particular, take part as her long term partners, both of them photographers who worked alongside her. And these men seem to feature more heavily in her world than her family: “I could talk about it but I don’t want to,”

There’s an impression that photography was a given rather than an ambition, almost as a default position due to her being employed by the paper. Mafia violence was an everyday occurrence in Palermo and someone had to go and record it for the paper. Although competently captured, there’s no evidence of any aesthetic behind the pictures. Indeed, she soon drifted from journalism and into politics as a Green Party local councillor, which is where she came across Giovanni Falcone. She felt too connected to the killing to take photos after his death, but this is the only time she discusses the equivocal nature of the photographer’s role. Her only relevant comment is personal: “When I look at my photos, I just see blood, blood, blood.”

The sensationalist nature of the subject matter is clearly the compulsion here. We experience a certain detachment to the photos of Mafia killings, and this is due in part to our familiarity with a theme that is so much a part of cinema history, with films like Goodfellas, The Godfather and Once Upon a Time in America. The most affecting segments of the film are those featuring the real victims and particularly the clip where the wife of one of Falcone’s bodyguards breaks down during the funeral. That said, this is a surface affair that often lets the peripheral life of its protagonist dominate the important nature of her work. MT

BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL 2019 | PANORAMA

 

 

 

Murer: Anatomy of a Trial | Murer: Anatomie Eines Prozesses (2018) UKJFF

Dir.: Christian Frosch; Cast: Karl Fischer, Alexander E. Fennon, Karl Markovics, Roland Jaeger, Ursula Ofner, Luc Veit, Matthias Forberg; Austria/Luxembourg 2018, 138 min.

Austrian director/writer Christian Frosch (Rough Road Ahead) captures the cumulative intensity of the trial of his compatriot SA Oberscharführer Franz Murer (1912-1994), commandant of the Vilnius Ghetto from 1941 to 1943, which was held in Graz in 1963.

Known as the “butcher” of Vilnius, Murer was known for the sadistic killings during his watch on the liquidation of the Vilnius ghetto once ‘home’ to over 80,000 Jews, only a few hundred lived to tell the tale. After the war he was spotted by accident by one of the survivors, and stood trial in the USSR, where he was sentenced to 25 years for the killings of the Soviet denizens. In 1955, having only served six years of his sentence, he was repatriated as part of the Austrian Treaty which re-established the country of Austria after ten years of rule by the Four Allies. One of the conditions for his release was that he be re-tried in Austria. Only thanks to Simon Wiesenthal, this finally happened in 1963.

We are introduced to Murer (Fischer) and his wife Elisabeth (Ofner) on the first day of the trial: they kiss passionately in his cell, before his lawyer Böck (Fennon) makes an entrance, insisting Murer wears an old traditional jacket instead of the expensive coat chosen by Elisabeth. Clearly Böck is trying to make Murer look like an Austrian Everyman; the victim of Jewish propaganda. But Murer is anything but: it is rumoured that he stole gold from the ghetto finances, paying for the large agricultural holdings he then acquired. He is also a well-known regional member of the governing Austrian People’s Party.

Prosecutor Schuhmann (Jaeger) is no match for the defence lawyer, who uses every trick in the book to discredit the Jewish witnesses, accusing a father of lying when he witnessed his son’s murder at Murer’s own hands: “This was a case of mistaken identity, Jewish people under orders of Wiesenthal and other Zionists, do not care if they accuse the wrong person, as long as it is a German or an Austrian”. Murer’s defence is helped by a particular witness, Martin Weiss (Veit), De-facto commander of the ghetto, who then takes responsibility for the boy’s killing. Oberscharführer Weiss, member of the ruthless Einsatzgruppe 3 and the SD, was responsible for the massacre of Ponary, where 100,000 Jews and Communists were shot. He was convicted to a life sentence in West Germany in 1950, which was first suspended in 1970, then revoked in 1977. Like Murer, Weiss would live well into his eighties. 

Judge Peyer (Forberg) is clearly seeking ‘a non-guilty’ verdict, his own murky past makes him inclined to “be lenient on people like Murer, who have repented – if we don’t show mercy to people like him, what do we do with the hard-core Nazis?” He is joined by the majority of the Graz citizens, who throw stones through the window of the restaurant where the press, the Jewish witnesses and Simon Wiesenthal (a brilliant Karl Markovics) are being hosted. Frosch establishes Murer as “an ordinary man of evil”, whose supreme arrogance in the face of guilt is backed up by the huge majority of Austrians, not only his own town folk. It is not only the verdict which proves him right: Until June 2019, when an interim government took over from the discredited OVP/FPO coalition, as well as in the post-war past, the right wing “Freedom Party of Austria (FPO)” formed part of the government, their Law makers helping to deny the country’s questionable past.  

DoP Frank Amann’s mobile camera brings the trial to life, avoiding a static pot-boiling drama, which runs for over two hours. That said, this is much more than a historical trial: its showcases a contemporary history in Europe where  countries like Austria, who participated in the Holocaust, but never owned up to their culpability, are now creating an ideal environment for the resurgence of Fascism by forming an alliance of denial at all cost. AS

UK JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL 2019   

Advocate (2018) **** UK Jewish Film Festival 2019

Dir.: Rachel Leah Jones, Philippe Bellaïche; Documentary with Lea Tsemel; Canada, Switzerland, Israel 2019, 110 min.

Advocate explores the work of Israeli defence lawyer Lea Tsemel, who defends Palestinians – suicide bombers as well as innocent clients – earning her the name “Devil’s Advocate” in her home country where the Law often stands alone in the ongoing war between Israel and Palestinians.

Born in 1945 in Haifa, Tsemel volunteered for the 1967 Six Day War and was one of the first Israeli women to visit the Western Wall. Somehow the conflict politicised her – she could not believe in the Government slogan ”War for Peace”. After studying law, she served as an apprentice to Human Right’s Lawyer Felicia Langer.

One of Tsemel’s first trials was the defence of Ahmed, a 13 year-old Palestinian boy in 1972.  Ahmed and his cousin Hassan were captured with knives and accused of an attempted suicide bombing, even though video evidence was to the contrary. Under Israeli Law, nobody under the age of fourteen can be prosecuted for a crime. But a sensationalist media called for the death penalty for Ahmed. As it is often the case when innocent Palestinians are involved, the Israeli prosecution went for a plea bargaining, and reached a guilty verdict in spite of the lack of evidence.

Tsemel’s next got her teeth into the case of Israa Jabis, a young Palestinian mother who was also accused of an attempted suicide bombing after her propane gas tank in the back of her car exploded. Although Israa was the only one injured, the case made legal history, making it illegal to use evidence from admissions gained under torture and duress at court. 

The directors use “Fly-on-the wall” techniques to show Tsemel working on two concurrent cases, one professional, the other personal – and it soon becomes clear that she is not an easy person to work for. The directors made fluent use of historical footage and TV appearances of Tsemel,  juxtaposing them with the here and now. But the application of Rotoscope and split-screens (to hide the identities of many involved), as well as the sparse use of music by Marcel Lepage, create a very unsettling atmosphere. Tsemel’s husband, Michel Warschawsky, a director of a Palestinian project, also becomes one of her clients after being arrested for his activities. Interviews with him and the couple’s son and daughter are illuminating. But Advocate would have been more convincing as a document had the filmmakers questioned Tsemel more insistently about her motives to defend violent perpetrators. Calling herself a “very angry, optimistic woman” and a “losing lawyer” she has the last word with her life’s motto “All I want is Palestinians to find justice in Israeli courts”. Tsemel has gone on to win  international Law awards in France and Germany, Tsemel’s is not as powerful in her homeland and is possibly should be. Advocate is certainly proof that truth is often the first victim during wartime. AS

WINNER BEST DOCUMETNARY | UK JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL 2019

KRAKOW FILM FESTIVAL 2019 | WINNER DOCUMENTARY AWARD.

 

 

Harriet (2019) **

Dir/Wri: Kasi Lemmons | Cast: Cynthia Erivo, Jennifer Nettles, Mike Marunde, Joe Alwyn | Historical Drama | US 125′

Cynthia Erivo plays gutsy slavery heroine Harriet Tubman is this uninspiring biopic drama that feels lofty and pedantic rather than rousing and radically original. 

Harriet is the latest drama from Eve’s Bayou director Kasi Lemmons who squanders her big budget on flashy settings rather on script development and a cast to match Erivo’s nuanced appeal. Growing in stature from a lowly slave girl in the Deep South of 1849 to a commanding presence who leads 70 other workers to freedom – inspired by the past – (seen in vivid flashback), Erivo makes for a quietly convincing visionary, eventually gaining the nickname “Moses” from the plantation owners who are brought to their knees by her extraordinary will to free her fellow men and women.

Playing out as a heavy-handed historical potboiler against the glowering skies of the Deep South, Harriet occasionally hints at Porgy and Bess (1959) but never really achieves Preminger’s spirituality and dramatic heft, or that of 12 Years a Slave that conveyed the desperation of the down trodden and traumatised sub-class. Lemmons ticks off the boxes, cueing us all the time as to how we should feel; making her white men objectionable and ultra violent and her ‘people of colour’ benign and put-upon victims  – with only one exception.

Starting off in the household of the draconian plantation owners (Jennifer Nettles and Mike Marunde): this is a drama that gradually grows in proportions and ambitions finally rolling out its heroine’s achievements in the rather cramped third act that resorts to didacticism in pathing the way to Civil War, and further danger for the enslaved protagonists.

Lemmons, writing with Gregory Allan Howard, makes Erivo the uncontested standout in a morass of middling support performances, namely Joe Alwyn’s slave owner Gideon who is both her boss but also has unrequited passions fostered since their childhood growing up together on the plantation. Her husband (C J McBath) is an insignificant cypher who ends up marrying someone else, thinking she has run away, and disappeared forever. There is a muddled attempt to finesse the lines between black slaves and those who have never lived in bondage but are still not free, despite owning property. There are also black slave catchers, and the American equivalent of South African’s Cape Coloureds – those who have mixed parentage. All said and done, Harriet feels like it should be shown in classrooms rather than in movie theatres. Get the point? MT

ON RELEASE NATIONWIDE FROM 22 NOVEMBER 2019

 

 

The Amazing Johnathan Documentary (2019) ***

Director: Ben Berman | US Doc, 91′

First time documentarian Ben Berman blurs the line between reality and fantasy in this often bizarre bag of tricks that follows the final tour of Magic-comedy star The Amazing Johnathan.

Most of us have never heard of The Amazing Johnathan aka John Edward Szeles (b.1958). But to Americans he is a well-known stand-up comedian whose Las Vegas career spanned nearly thirteen years. So it really deserved better than this half-baked treatment showing that Berman didn’t really do his homework before embarking on the endeavour. Nevertheless it raises the odd chuckle and gasp along the way.

A committed cocaine-user, Johnathan’s schtick was the standard stuff that went down well with a mainstream crowd of adults and kids alike: he would pretend to saw off arms and legs; or indulge in card tricks. He was then diagnosed with a heart complaint and that he only had a year left to live. As it happens, it’s only a chronic condition known as cardiomyopathy. And the film begins in the third year of his survival, when he and his wife Anastasia Synn are enjoying a relaxed retirement, so much so that Szeles decides to stage a come-back in the shape of a “farewell tour”.

As his profession would suggest, Szeles is a bit of a maverick whose quirkiness puts a surprise spanner in the works of Berman’s filming schedule which goes decidedly pear-shaped, questioning his ability to go forward given the increasingly bizarre behaviour of his subject, and also reflecting back on his own lack of experience and naivety when dealing with the ambiguities of the human condition – but also of commercial life.

Berman relies on talking head interviews (Eric Andre, Judy Gold, “Weird Al” Yankovic) who sing the praises of the magic man. He also wheels in some of his own family and friends to bolster his own credibility. What emerges is rather silly at best but also holds a certain value entertainment wise in this bonkers but bookable biopic. MT

Louis Theroux will host a special Q&A screening of the film on 19 November, to be simulcast nationwide across the UK. https://www.tajdfilm.co.uk/

ON RELEASE NATIONWIDE FROM 19 NOVEMBER 2019

 

 

Nuri Bilge Ceylan | The Complete Works

Nuri Bilge’s langorously contemplative dramas draw on Turkish life and offer a unique style of visual storytelling often reflecting his personal experiences as exponents of the disillusionment and unfairness of Turkish life, particularly where family trauma or social injustice implodes on the individual.

The past collides with the present, the countryside with the city and the rich with the poor in these gorgeously rendered reveries that muse on fraught domestic scenarios, betrayal or officialdom calling to mind the work of Tolstoy, Ibsen or even Terence Davies. 

Social realism shapes his early work that observes everyday life in thoughtful moments of reflection. His beguiling moody cinematic style and need for spontaneity combines magnificent widescreen images with a potent intimacy that draws us into the minds of his often troubled characters whose lives are exposed through vibrant visual storytelling. His delicately rendered black and white feature debut Kasaba (The Small Town, 1997) sees the changing seasons through the eyes of two school children whose family is at odds with the local set-up in and forms part of the unofficial “Provincial Trilogy” along with Clouds of May and Uzak.

Uzak is a study in alienation which sees a man’s life imploding after his marriage breaks down and he is forced to re-adjust to changing circumstances of his personal life. In some ways this same theme is teased out in Climates that explores the deteriorating relationship of a married couple and the repercussions as their marriage slows spins out of control. Two crime thrillers follow: The powerful Three Monkeys is a visual metaphor for anxiety, a moody reflection on family guilt echoed after a tragedy under the glowering skies of Istanbul. The darkly amusing Once Upon a Time in Anatolia burns through the torpor of a stifling summer afternoon where the impact of crime and officialdom weighs down on the lives of those involved in a local murder and their tight-knit families. Clouds of May (2009) actually stars his own father as a filmmaker returning to his village to cast the locals in a feature about their daily trials and tribulations.

In his Palme d’Or winner Winter Sleep (2014) Ceylan hones his discursive style in an intense meditation on the ties that bind. Set in the snow-swept panoramas of his beloved Anatolia, a couple engage at length on the complexities of their relationship and their family. This brings us full circle to his most recent and resonant work The Wild Pear Tree that once again sees the present connecting with the past when a troubled writer returns to his hometown in Marmara to seek financing for a book while dealing with his ageing father’s gambling debts.

ON BLURAY/DVD from 11 NOVEMBER at NEW WAVE FILMS 

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Russian Film Week 2019

The fourth annual Russian Film Week is back at various major venues in London from November 24 to December 1, 2019 

The eight-day festival brings the latest Russian films to London with the aim of providing a varied picture of Russian culture across this enormous nation. This year’s programme showcases a glittering array of thirty seven features and 18 shorts including several documentaries. The celebration culminates in the Golden Unicorn Awards.

The newly refurbished Odeon Luxe Leicester Square will host the world premiere of Klim Shipenko’s comedy The Peasant. It sees a modern young Moscovite being sent to a ‘boot camp’ of sorts, where he is forced to live according to the peasant traditions of the 19th century.  

Woman’s Day is one of several female-directed features in this year’s line-up. Dolya Gavanski’s feature debut shares experiences from women in the USSR who reveal their lives from the 1917 revolution to the present day. Intimate, surprising, funny, eccentric, painful and contradictory – this is the unknown history of Russian feminism. Based on the filmmaker’s own extensive research, the film focuses on rare archive footage of women experiencing at first hand the siege of Leningrad in subzero temperatures, living in communal flats, smuggling forbidden literature, flying into Space, performing the perfect Soviet ballet pirouette or even giving a new name to a husband, not to mention the political and cultural complexities. These women were brought up in a culture that had officially proclaimed women equal to men. They were told they could achieve it all. So what was their reality?

Russian filmmaker Eva Bass makes her feature debut with an impressive drama Kettle that contemplates freewill in the face of desperate circumstances. In Moscow, twenty five year old Savva is a misfit and intellectual, bored with his life running a computer club called ‘The Kettle’.  Savva’s existential crisis deepens after his old friend Roman commits suicide. Bass directs with confidence in this inquiring drama written by Nikita Kasimtsev.

Irina Zhuravleva and Vladislav Grishin have developed a meditative approach to studying the lives of bears in the South Kamchatka Federal Sanctuary. In Kamchatka Bears: Life Begins, music, ambient sounds and the absence of a human voices makes this a chance to experience nature at its purest form.

Meanwhile, war is experienced at first hand in Andrey Volgin’s gripping action drama The Balkan Line. Set in Yugoslavia, 1999, a young commander is tasked to take control of the Slatina airport in Kosovo and hold it until the arrival of the reinforcements discovers his girlfriend is among the hostages at the airport.

Critically acclaimed Uzbek filmmaker Yusup Razykov won the FIPRESCI award at Karlovy Vary several years ago for Shame his claustrophobic drama about an isolated community of women. This year the Russian Critics’ Circle awarded his a gong for his drama Kerosin. His second film this year is Sabre Dance a wartime drama set in the city of Molotov in 1942 where the Leningrad Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet (after Kirov) has been evacuated during the stressful preparations for the premiere of the Gayane ballet. The world of a theatre in evacuation is mysterious and rather cold. The privations of war give rise to half-starved ballerinas, corps de ballet members, who turn into “Pink Ladies” on stage along with performances in hospitals, defence factories and endless rehearsals. Final efforts to create Gayane coincide with the creation of the first tact of the 2nd symphony, often overlapping. Meanwhile, in 8 hours, Khachaturian dashes off his most performed creation.

Great Poetry is a portrait of loneliness, friendship and betrayal that sees two  men clinging together for survival as cash collectors in the outskirts of Moscow where their time is spent moving money for other people and gaming on cockfights at a dorm of migrant workers. Dreaming of a better future, they enrol on a poetry class but sadly find it easier to make a living as petty criminals in this wistful reflection on 19th ideals. Aleksandr Kutznetsov was awarded Best Actor or his performance in the film that also won Lungin Best Director at this year’s Sochi Russian Open Film Festival 

Although Yury Bykov’s The Factory is firmly set in the world of Russian capitalism, it harks back to the glory of the revolution. Many of the workers in a remote industrial factory have been employed there before the change from state regulation to capitalist privatisation. So when owner Kalugin, a well-connected local oligarch, announces the redundancy, a group of workers who haven’t been paid for months kidnap him for a ransom. Led by the mysterious Alexei whose motives are far from clear, the heist doesn’t end well. Kalugin’s private security guards and a police SWAT team quickly have the building surrounded and the comrades are forced to experience the coal face of their so-called camaraderie.

Alexander Zolotukhin’s elegiac portrait of a young Russian soldier pieces together the early days of the The First World War when tragedy strikes even before glory is allowed to show its face. Three decades later, at the beginning of the Second World War, Rachmaninoff will create “Symphonic dances” op.45, an even more grand and vigorous work which was also his swansong. A tender tragedy suffused with courage and melancholy.

Russian Film Week and The Golden Unicorn Awards was founded in 2016 by Filip Perkon (Perkon Productions Ltd.). The festival is supported by the Russian Ministry of Culture.

https://youtu.be/D-Rt3ENvVLo

 

Golda (2019) ****

Dir.: Sagi Borenstein, Udi Nir, Shani Rozanes; Documentary with Golda Meir, Uri Avneri, Zivi Zamir; Israel, Germany 2019, 85 min.

This new biopic on Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir is based on a recently discovered interview from 1978, done just before her death. It tells the important story of her time in office – from her surprising rise to power to her lonely demise. And although the Israeli State TV channel  and the interviewee maintain this meeting was “off-record”, both parties must have been aware that the recording equipment was working.

The trio of directors – Borenstein, Nir and Rozanes (Uploading_Holocaust) – have decided to play it fair and let Zivi Zamir, ex-boss of the Mossad, do a hagiography of Meir. But the former MP and peace activist Uri Avneri can barely hide his contempt for the ex-premier.

Born in 1898 in Kiev (then the Russian Empire) Golda Mabovitch emigrated with her family to Milwaukee in the USA at the age of 8, before settling with her husband in Palestine, a British Protectorate, in 1921. She joined the Hisdadrut, a union movement, before making a quick career in Mpai (later the Labour Party), serving as a Minister for Labour (1949-1956) and Foreign Secretary (1956-1966), before becoming Prime Minister in 1969, beating rivals generals Moshe Dayan and Yitzhak Rabin. Her premiership coincides with the mass immigration of Jews from North Africa and the Middle East. Meir, an Ashkenazi Jew, could not relate to the culture of these new citizens, the latter founding the “Black Panthers”, that rose up against the lack of opportunities in Israel and were unable to establish any common ground during their meeting with the premier. Avneri complains about Meir’s lack of understanding of anything Arab, he nearly goes so far as calling her a racist. On the other hand, Zamir is full of praise for Meir, particularly for letting him and his Mossad organisation off the leash, in hunting down the “Black September” cell responsible for the murder of Jewish athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972. The Yom Kippur War of 1973 signalled the end of Meir’s political career. She had been seen as “The Mother of the Nation” but 3000 dead soldiers were too much for a public who could only contemplate glorious victory on the battle field. Although Dayan and the other generals had played down any threat of an attack, Meir was more tuned in to an impending disaster. And she turned out to be the main culprit. With her health deteriorating – one photo shows her having chemotherapy whilst still smoking – she eventually threw in the towel in 1974.

Golda Meir is somehow symbolic of the trouble Israel finds itself in today. With Avneri rightfully criticising her policy of opening up the building of new Jewish settlements in the West Bank, Meir was one of many politicians who made it now near-impossible for a two state solution to be found. And when president Anwar Sadat of Egypt offered her peace talks in 1971, she refused. Worse, when Premier Menachem Begin invited Sadat to Israel in 1977, which amounted to a de-facto recognition of Israel by an Arab state, Meir was cynical: she told journalists that Begin and Sadat deserved the Oscar – not the Nobel Peace Price for their Camp David accord. Golda Meir was a strong woman in a man’s world – no doubt about it – but she shared a long-time strategy which relied only on continuous war with most of her male competitors.

Borenstein completes his engaging portrait of one of the first woman PMs ever with archive footage and photos. Eitan Hatuka’s pertinent images reveal the truth behind Avneri and Zamir’s body language,  Thankfully, the directors leave the audience to make their own judgement. AS

GOLDA 

 

                 

  

Meeting Gorbachev (2018) ***

Dir: Werner Herzog, Andre Singer | Wri/Narr: Werner Herzog | 96′

The thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall also marks the UK release of a new film that gets close up and personal with the former Russian leader who helped end the Cold War.

Award-winning Russian filmmaker Vitaly Manskiy’s made for TV doc Gorbachev. After Empire (2001) put the spotlight Gorbachev during a year in Russian politics but this a more intensive, face to face affair.

Werner Herzog is a seasoned documentarian, with nearly 50 year’s experience in the form. But for some reason here he comes over all smily and deferential, unable to maintain a distance from the admittedly affable former head of the Soviet Union. The two clearly hit it off and even share the odd joke.

Meeting Gorbachev consists of a series of interviews with Gorbachev, now 88, who considers his career with considerable regret despite his numerous achievements. Born in 1931 into poverty in Privolnoye, a remote village in the ‘middle of nowhere’ according to Herzog’s narration, he was brought up largely by his grandparents, his father being away at the War. Later Gorbachev remembers his  father saying: “Fight til the fight goes out of you, that’s the way to live”. And it’s certainly a maxim that has served the leader well as he reflects over the past and his legacy as the last Communist head.

Herzog opens up the archives with a brief history of earlier Russian leaders – and the footage here is quite gruesome – featuring the state funerals of Leonid Brezhnev and Yuri Andropov who peek out from their red-dressed caskets as Chopin’s sombre classic march plays on. Eventually Gorbachev became General Secretary in 1985, one of the youngest leaders, and brought about a remarkable feat considering our own Brexit intransigence: the Cold War ended as a direct results of his reforms. This victory set the stage for a slew of Eastern Bloc countries finally to gain independence, with Germany coming together in 1990. Gorbachev also worked closely with Ronald Reagan to reduce nuclear armaments that had caused the parlous environmental disaster of Chernobyl.

Gorbachev also shares with Herzog the continuing pain of his personal life: a happy marriage to his college sweetheart Raisa that ended in her death at only 45 from leukaemia. By the same turn, colleagues talk almost fondly of the contribution Gorbachev has made during his career. George Shultz, Reagan’s secretary of state, remarks on his negotiating skills and his strength of purpose. Margaret Thatcher discusses their respect for one another, despite their polarised political positions. Horst Teltschik, national security advisor to German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, also comments on Gorbachev’s many achievements.

But a great deal of Gorbachev’s democratic measures have now been swept under the carpet by a more authoritarian leader in the shape of Vladimir Putin, who is seen briefly giving his condolences at Raisa’s funeral. It is not discussed whether the two leaders see eye to eye, and clearly Putin has a major task on his hands in trying to restore Russia’s ‘Soviet glory’.

Although the documentary is mildly hagiographic in flavour, by the end we start to feel a certain sympathy for this warm-hearted and hard-working man who clearly did his best to improve the lives of ordinary Russians with his well-thought-out reforms, which now appear to have gone by the wayside. It seems the modern world is gradually moving back to the past in many countries. Sadly progress can often be derailed. MT

ON RELEASE FROM 8 NOVEMBER 2019

 

Femmes Fatales of Fashion | London Fashion Week 2021

The sinister crime-laden dramas that came out of post war Hollywood were the visual expressions of anxiety. Film Noir featured venal antiheroes, mysterious femme fatales, and rain-soaked urban settings where shadows and intrigue played upon the inner consciousness. The tightly scripted stories were also richly thematic, compellingly seductive and wonderful to look at. And that iconic look was often created by women designers. 

Based on hard-edged detective stories from the likes of Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain and Cornell Woolrich, ‘Crime Noir’ was spiced up by the wartime influx of sophisticated European craftsman such as Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Jacques Tourneur and Robert Siodmak whose edgy expressionism and Avantgarde lighting techniques added zest to the predominantly black & white post war genre. 

By the mid 1940s Film Noir reigned supreme. Nightly screenings – and each night was different – saw the stars of the day strutting their stuff but also looking amazing into the bargain: Barbara Stanwyck, Humphrey Bogarde, Gene Tierney and June Vincent all had their particular allure. And some Noir actors also directed the genre such as The Big Combo‘s Cornel Wilde with Storm Fear (1955). But while the narratives were unsavoury the costumes were quite the opposite: the elegant couture, hairstyles and even jewellery made style icons of these scheming antiheroes, adding charisma to their public profiles in stark contrast to the characters they played. By association, film noir became arguably the most strikingly seductive genre in the film firmament.   

But while the filmmakers arrived from Europe, the costume designers were often American woman with noirish backstories of their own to the bring to the party. Universal’s head of costume design for twenty years VERA WEST (1898-1947), met a tragic death drowning in her own swimming pool, dressed in one of her signature silk dressing gowns (ironically her designs for Virginia Grey had the been the star turn in Charles Barton’s film-noir Smooth as Silk the previous year ). Although the evidence pointed towards suicide as a result of a troubled past, there have since been rumours that her husband was to blame.

West had trained in Philadelphia and worked as apprentice to the pioneering British catwalk designer Lady Duff Gordon (Lucile) before being hired by Stanley Kubrick to create Ava Gardner’s look in The Killers (1946). She also designed for June Vincent in Roy William Neill’s Black Angel (1946); for Teresa Wright in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and the outfits for Lewis D Collins’ Danger Woman (1946). Despite these high-profile commissions, she never received an award until finally winning the Costume Designers Guild Hall of Fame in 2005. 

Another female Hollywood designer shrouded in intrigue was IRENE LENZ GIBBONS – known simply as Irene (1900-1962), whose private life was as colourful as her gowns. A shrewd business woman she ran a series of boutiques and was also appointed head of costume design at MGM, replacing the well-known legend Adrian. Her Noir credentials included couture for Katherine Hepburn, Robert Taylor and Robert Mitchum in Vincente Minnelli’s Undercurrent (1946) based on a story by Thelma Shrabel.

She also was credited for the couture creations in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) where a married Lana Turner and her lover plan to kill her husband (Cecil Kellaway). Other Noir and thriller projects included Roy Rowland’s Scene of the Crime (1949) and Gaslight (1944). Reports of her long-standing love affair with Gary Cooper were never confirmed but she committed suicide after slashing her wrists and jumping out of Los Angeles’ Knickerbocker Hotel a year after his death. 

One of the most successful female designers of film noir was undoubtedly BONNIE CASHIN (1915-2000). Cashin was already making dresses from the age of 8. By 16 her talent was making her a living as designer for the chorus line based in Los Angeles which led her into theatre work in New York. Returning West in the early 1940s she signed with 20th Century Fox where she made a name for herself with the gowns in Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944) and Fallen Angel (1945); Robert Siodmak’s Cry of the City (1948) – Shelley Winter’s leopard skin coat would have the activists up in arms, but back then it certainly made her stand out in the sleazy night scenes.

Cashin’s style worked wonders for Signe Hasso in Hathaway’s Oscar-winning The House on 92nd Street (1944) and for Gene Tierney in Laura. Nightmare Alley (1947) gave her the opportunity to work with a leading cast of Tyrone Power (as antihero Stan Carlyle), Joan Blondell, Coleen Gray and Helen Walker. Power’s untimely death of a heart attack aged 44, saw the film gain wider circulation over the years due to his popularity, and Cashin’s costumes lived on into the late 1950s and beyond. MT

London Fashion Week 2021

LAURA is now on Bluray courtesy of EUREKA (MASTERS OF CINEMA) 

The Irishman (2019) *****

Dir: Martin Scorsese | Wri: Steven Zaillian | Cast: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel, Anna Paquin, Stephen Graham, Bobby Cannavale, Jesse Plemons | US Crime Drama, 2019, 208mins

Much of the hype surrounding The Irishman has focused on the fact that it reunites Martin Scorsese with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci for the first time since 1995’s Casino. It also throws Al Pacino into the mix, and marks a return to the mob-infused crime dramas with which Scorsese made his name. The excitement is understandable – Scorsese made a string of iconic hits while working with De Niro, and it was through these that he established himself as one of the great American filmmakers. 

And yet… Scorsese’s body of work has a depth and breadth to it which is often obscured by a focus on certain titles (notably GoodFellas, 1990), and there was, perhaps, a fear that Scorsese’s return to this world might present if not a step backwards, at least a retread of ground already covered. 

Fortunately, such worries prove to be unfounded: the world of The Irishman may be familiar – it even touches on the mob’s involvement in Las Vegas, which formed the backbone of Casino – but the tone is something new: though not without Scorsese’s trademark humour, the film trades the baroque exuberance of his earlier work for a more reflective pace, closer to the ruminations of Silence (2016) than the crashing excess of Casino. 

Spanning multiple timelines set over several decades, The Irishman spends as much time examining the wiles of old age as the wilds of youth. In parts, the film almost plays like a eulogy: throughout, Scorsese uses titles to tell us how characters will die, and the film’s focus on death and aging seems like a lament for the end of an era – of a certain type of lifestyle, and a certain type of cinema. In the past, Scorsese has faced accusations that he glamorises mobsters, but here everyone seems to end up worn out, tired or dead, as if those are the only possible outcomes. The religious angst which has fuelled Scorsese’s work since Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1967) has here transmuted into a nihilistic acceptance of life as it is.

The story itself is drawn from the nonfiction book I Heard You Paint Houses, by former investigator Charles Brandt, and follows Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran’s career as a hitman for the mob, painting houses with other people’s blood. After being introduced by head mobster Russell Bufalino (Pesci), Sheeran becomes right-hand man to Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino), President of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and a loan-shark to the mob, supplying them with funds from the Union’s pension fund. As the decades pass, the mob’s machinations extend from the union to the White House, installing and removing presidents to suit their needs – an offhand remark about one of the Teamsters’ love of golf makes for some interesting contemporary commentary. 

Throughout the years, Sheeran’s conscience is troubled by disapproving glances from his daughter (for Sheeran has a personal family as well as his mobster family), but it is Sheeran’s friendships with Bufalino and Hoffa that really form the heart of the epic narrative, and which drive it towards its tragically moving conclusion. Given that the film serves, in so many ways, as a family reunion, it’s a fitting thematic thread and one which, thankfully, weaves a powerful tribute to the legacy of what’s come before it. Alex Barrett

NOW ON NETFLIX

 

The Forum (2019) *** DOK Leipzig 2019

Dir.: Marcus Vetter; Documentary; Germany/Switzerland 2019, 116 min.

DOK Leipzig opens with this fly on the wall look at the the World Economic Forum, a not-for-profit organisation that takes place in Davos aiming to improve the state of the world through dialogue between leaders across all areas of society. The film centres on Klaus Schwab, the 81-year-old founder of this get together. 

German filmmaker Marcus Vetter follows Schwab annual world get together is dealing with burning issues such as climate change, Brexit, the  ‘gilets jaunes’ protests in Paris, and the destruction of the Amazon rainforest among others. Trying to get inside so-called clandestine meetings, And while we learn a great deal, Schwab actually seems ambivalent about the merits of these secret get-togethers of the world’s elite – and for good reason. 

The Forum is intended to redress the imbalance between rich and poor, but history tells us that during the 50 years of the WEF’s existence, the gap between the haves and have-nots has grown exponentially – the middle classes, once the heartbeat of any society, are being slowly eroded.

Vetter sees the annual Davos meetings in a critical light, although Schwab claims he has always invited candidates seeking to question the way things are run by politicians and business leaders. There have been cancellations in the past by the self-acclaimed elite: a case in point was when Schwab invited a Brazilian Catholic leader, whose opinion were very left-wing. And while we watch Donald Trump being fawned over at the 2018 meeting, Greta Thurnberg and Jennifer Morgan of Greenpeace have much to say. The rainforest discussion between the Al Gore and the Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro must also have been worthwhile.

Vetter obviously likes Schwab but he maintains his detached approach: “I believe he has achieved a lot, but that does not mean the meetings are not questionable affairs”. What is most interesting is the role of the invited CEOs. Discussed issues involving imported cotton, they dictate the terms and the many head of states concur. It is clear who is in charge and who is simply the executor of big business. The protests against climate change, Brexit and the rise of populists all over the world are directed against the current head of states, but it would be much more honest and efficient to discuss these burning issues with the CEO instead of the politicians. They can hardly be more intransigent than Donald Trump.

DoP Georg Zengerling’s images of Davos feel like a parody; the head of states arriving in their helicopters; the security details – like something out of a James Bond movie. And the small talk of the self-styled elite is no more lofty than that of a group of provincial business men. Clearly, this is not the tenor of a debate Schwab might have had in mind fifty years ago when he dreamt about how to discuss future problems and reflect; it is just an opportunity for big business, to cultivate new contacts and deals, whilst the politicians look on, waiting to be replaced without any one noticing. AS

DOK LEIPZIG DOCUMENTARY FESTIVAL 2019

Campo (2018) ***

Dir: Tiago Hespanha | Doc, Portugal 106′

At first a vast expanse of verdant pasture seems a bucolic paradise buzzing with bees, grazing sheep and deer. But appearances can be deceptive. Only a handful of people live here under strictly controlled conditions – for reasons that soon become obvious. At first Bees go on making honey and the lambing season also seems oblivious to the combative nature surrounding them. This is Alcochete, home to Europe’s largest military base, on the outskirts of Lisbon.

Clearly this place is not the rural idyll it appears to be. Quite to the contrary. Soldiers are  preparing for active combat:Bombs explode, shots ring out across the fields, and troops undergo mock incursions, often with fake blood. And their impact on the local environment gradually starts to take hold. Bees are dying, not in their hives, but because they cannot get back to them. Something in the atmosphere is adversely affecting their ability to navigate. Ironically, scientists have finding a way to create man-made bees who are capable of joining the war effort, and being used in combat missions. At the same time, a sheep is found dying, unable to give birth to her stillborn lamb. This is also seems counterintuitive to what nature originally intended when the gods looks down from the starry obsidian skies and created humanity in all its entirety.

Bringing his architectural sense of framing, lighting and visual awareness,  Hespanha directs a documentary feature with thematic concerns that feel atavistic yet totally contemporary in exploring the origins of the word ‘campo’. Often abstract and abstruse, Campo is nevertheless a spell-binding and often mundane film that contemplates the transcendental wonder of the universe and nature while also considering the baseness of man’s inhumanity towards his fellow man. Etymologically speaking ‘Campo’ is both a simple field (in Italian) and a perilous battlefield: the Campus Martius was an area of Rome dedicated to Mars, the God of War, who was parodoxically also the patron of agriculture. So this natural breeding ground where flora and fauna innocently thrive and procreate is also a place of warfare and death. MT

ON RELEASE FROM 1ST NOVEMBER 2019 |  PREMIERE Cinéma du Réel 15 – 24 MARCH 2019 | PARIS.

Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound (2018) ****

Dir.: Midge Costin; Documentary with Walter Murch, Ben Burtt, Gary Rydstrom, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Sofia Coppola, David Lynch, Barbara Streisand, Ang Lee; USA 2019, 94 min.

Sound designer Midge Costin (Armageddon, Crimson Tide) is well placed to tell the history of cinema sound in her first outing as a feature length documentarian. In telling this engrossing story she is ably assisted by sound pioneers such as Ben Burtt and Gary Rydstrom. But it was Walter Murch who coined the title Sound Designer during his work on Apocalypse Now, sexing up the more mundane role of Sound Editor.

Costin makes the crucial point that the movies were never silent: live orchestras, off-stage voice actors and travelling bands for sound effects were very common in the first decade of cinema. And when Al Jolson spoke and sang in The Jazz Singer (1927), it was his spoken words and not not the songs which impressed the public most. Orson Welles used the technique of his radio play War of the Worlds to excellent effect in Citizen Kane. King Kong (1933) was instrumental in implementing further progress: sound designer Murray Spivak was responsible for using recordings of zoo animals and some extra curricula sounds to make the predators even more frightening.

Much later, in 1986 Top Gun’s sound designer Cece Hall also thought that the original noises of jet engines were much too “wimpy”, and cooked up some more extreme sounds. The 70s saw sound innovations with George Martin’s avant-garde approach to The Beatles’ films. But it all changed with Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse now, when sound designer Murch invented a sound system, which is still the norm today. Up to then, in spite of all innovations, there was only one loudspeaker behind the screen, Murch trumped this with six, creating a stereo sound, which is today known as Dolby Surround. One surprising sound pioneer is Barbara Streisand, who convinced director William Wyler to use on-set music recordings for Funny Girl (1968) and A Star is Born (1976). She even invested one million Dollar of her own money, but Columbia was so nice not to take her by her word. In Coppola’s The Godfather (ten directors had rejected the project, which would save Zoetrope Studio), Murch used a subjective audio in the scene, when Michael Corleone murders Sollozzo and McCluskey. He took the audience into the head of Michael, and let them listen to the neurons in the Mafiosi’s head, who are on fire during the murder. George Lucas becomes an admiring teenager again, when he talks about the creation of Chewbacca’s voice. Ben Burrt could not find any sound he needed in real animals, and let his team whack a power line with a wrench, in order to create the sound of a blaster. Private Ryan by Steven Spielberg was another example of Rydstrom’s genius. After the troops land on Omaha beach, the bullets and shrapnel’s create a cacophony of noise, but most traumatic is a sudden silence, which shows the traumatic experience of Ryan. Apart from being extremely informative, Costin’sapproach is not without emotion: she still suffers from the neglect of her craft, which has been a step-child of the industry, which is dominated by directors, stars and and, very rarely, directors of photography. Her highlight reel is proof her profession has much more to offer than just creating a mood with background noises. AS

ON RELEASE NATIONWIDE FROM FRIDAY, 1 NOVEMBER 2019

Helena Třeštíková – Czech Velvet | 17-19 November 2019

November marks the 30th anniversary of the 1989 Velvet Revolution that saw a non-violent transition of power in what was then Czechoslovakia. Taking place from 17 November to 29 December 1989 it resulted in the end of 41 years of one-party rule and the subsequent transformation of the country to a parliamentary republic.

In celebration of these years London Czech centre is to pay hommage to the first lady of time-lapse documentaries, Czech filmmaker Helena Třeštíková, whose impressive film career spans over 40 years and features more than 50 documentaries including the 2008 European Film Academy the Prix Arte winner, René.

Following people’s stories over the course of several years, even decades, Trestikova builds up with openness and intimacy full character studies of her protagonists whether these are married couples (A Marriage Story), young delinquents (René) or women (Malloy). Finding the universal in her subjects and their life dramas, an unsensational excitement in their everyday adventures, Trestikova bears witness to the human condition as lives evolve before our eyes recalling of Richard Linklater´s film Boyhood.

An hommage will feature the UK premiere of her latest film Forman vs Forman, a fascinating portrayal of the Academy Award-winning director of Amadeus, Milos Forman, which premiered at Cannes Classics 2019, and MalloryTřeštíková’s long-term observation project from her series Trapped In, Trapped Out, and A Marriage Story, representing her signature series.

AT VARIOUS VENUES IN LONDON | 17-19 November 2019

A New Environment: Heinrich Klotz on Architecture and New Media | Doclisboa 2019

Dir.: Christian Haardt; Documentary; Germany 2019, 77 min.

This portrait of German Art Historian, Architectural Theorist and publicist Professor Heinrich Klotz (1935-1999) is a collage of archive material from German TV and Radio programmes, as well as Super Eight images shot by Klotz. After lecturing at the University of Marburg, Klotz founded the German Architectural Museum in Frankfurt/M in 1979. Eleven years later he founded and became the first director of the Centre for Art and Media Technology in Karlsruhe, a position he gave up a year before his death to found the Museum for Contemporary Art in Karlsruhe, which is a Museum for Collections. 

As it befits an academic, the documentary is told in chapters, bookended by a sort of preface/epilogue by Klotz. Here he calls himself a member of the “white” generations of Germans, who had seen war as children, and were exempted from military service because they had life experience of war and were therefore inadequately equipped to deal with it a second time around. Klotz’s sole tribute is to his wife.

His approach to life is pragmatic and functional – even though he would later criticise Modernism for having erected functionality as a dogma. In chapter one, A New Environment, he discusses urban regeneration, particularly with reference to  Frankfurt/M that only began in the middle of the 20th century. In the immediate post-war period (1945-1955) functionality was primarily a practical consideration: people needed to be re-housed after wartime destruction. By the same token, he bemoans the three decades where apartment blocks were merely “white boxes”. There are images of Frankfurt’s old town, and his own house which he renovated to save a Renaissance ceiling, after moving to the city from the countryside.

In chapter two, Functionalism, he criticises the concept of the “Märkisches Viertel” in West Berlin, a “Trabantenstadt”, which was erected in the countryside after the old city had been declared obsolete by the planners. But, like the modern buildings at Kottbusser Tor in Berlin, the “Märkisches Viertel” was inhuman: instead of “buildings of the future”, these projects were like consumer goods: empty and devoid of style. Klotz reminds us that the Bauhaus architecture of the 1920s and 30s was built on the premise of a “classical Modernity”, and that Buildings like the Neue Gedenkbibliothek or the Philharmony in West Berlin were erected in a democratic tradition, unlike “Container Cities” such as the “Märkisches Viertel”.

Chapter three sees Klotz visiting Disneyland in “Post Modernism and Kitsch”. He calls it an artificial paradise built against the impact of the new grey cities. But at the same time, the permanent music (muzag), drives him mad. He feels he can only be passive, no interaction is possible. Chapter four, Interactivity, bears witness to the first interactive TV Art in the Centre for Art and Media, Karlsruhe. The visitors could watch themselves moving on the sofa on the TV next to them. Jeffrey Shaw’s “bicycle ride through NY, features simulations, illusion. When “cycling” through the city, the visitor is confronted by huge letters, explaining what he would see, rather than actual buildings and parks. He has no desire to visit old-fashioned museums where the experience is passive, instead he looks for Playfulness. Then he goes a step further, discussing Adorno, quoting “After Auschwitz it is not possible any more to write a poem”. But Klotz himself hopes for a new Utopia, unlike Modernism which created a dogma, but in a democratic way.

Although this is a rather arcane and esoteric documentary, it certainly confirms Klotz as an original thinker, something rather unusual in post-war Germany. First time director Christian Haardt, who was a student and associate of Klotz, does his best to celebrate his mentor. AS       

https://youtu.be/zR6SaG-5H_E

Cavern Club: The Beat Goes On (2019) *** DocLisboa 2019

Dir: Christian Francis-Davies, John Keats | Wri: Bill Heckle | Doc UK 60′

This new documentary tells the colourful history of Liverpool’s iconic jazz club. Best know as The Beatles spiritual home it has also hosted some of rocks greatest bands over the years of its winding road to fame that started in 1957. The club’s location on Mathew Street in the city centre had also served as an air-raid shelter during the Second World War.

Founded by jazz fan Alan Sytner who was hoping to recreate the heady atmosphere redolent of his Parisian jazz cellar experiences, the club became synonymous with Skiffle (a hybrid of jazz, blues and folk) that was popular in the 1950s and later became a major influence on Paul McCartney and John Lennon’s band The Quarrymen even before they became The Beatles. The Fab Four have since returned to the venue for the odd gig. Another megastar in the shape of Adele also played there as recently at 2011

Director Christian Francis-Davies adopts the usual mix of archive footage and talking heads approach to an informative film that also shares grainy footage of the band in the claustrophobic confines of the club’s brick interior playing to a motley collection of young Liverpudlians who would witness and take part in a musical revolution.

After the Skiffle era of the 1950s the 1960 saw The Cavern Club host rock ‘n’ roll gigs headlined by an upcoming band called The Beatles  who went on playing there until   August 1963. From then onwards a variety of iconic bands such as The Kinks; The Who and The Rolling Stones made it their home.

Liverpool saw a downturn in its economic fortunes during the 197os and ’80s and the club suffered too, closing twice and relocating to its current address in Mathew Street where the current owner took over in 1991. Now forming an important part of Liverpool’s social history the Cavern Club today features on a bus tour of the city’s hotspots.

SCREENING DURING DOC LISBOA FILM FESTIVAL | 17-27 OCTOBER 2019

Mystify: Michael Hutchence (2019) ****

Dir.: Richard Lowenstein; Documentary with Michael Hutchence, Kylie Minogue, Helena Christensen, Michèlle Bennett, Tina Hutchence, Rhett Hutchence, Martha Troup; Australia 2019,

As writer and director Richard Lowenstein is more than qualified to put together this melancholic portrait of his endearing, snake-hipped compatriot Michael Hutchence (1960-1997), whose career as singer and frontman for INXS put him into the pantheon of rock music. Lowenstein not only shot most of the group’s music videos between the mid 1980s and the early90s, he also directed the singer in his only feature film appearance Dogs in Space (1986). Lowenstein certainly succeeded in “wanting to leave a legacy that was not the cliché rock star legacy”.

Low on musical performances but informative about Hutchence’s romantic interludes, these clearly shaped a life affected by the fault-lines of his childhood. There is a short interview with some close friends of Michael’s at primary school which informs the narrative early one:. “He did not seem to want to go home, he just lingered around”. When the future rock star’s parents, Kelland, a businessman, and Patricia, a model turned make-up artist, split up, Patricia took Michael with her to the USA, leaving Rhett with the father. Rhett later developed a drug problem which Michael thought was caused by his separation from his mother. His guilt complex went untreated, but later incidents, banal as well as dramatic, show that Michael’s personality was very much damaged from the outset.

His music was very much that of an undomitable hero, his relationships with women were full-blooded but short-lived – apart from the the relationship with Michèlle Bennett, today a film producer, which lasted seven years. Bennett was the only person who still knew him by the end of his life: ‘Never Tear Us Apart’ was a song which followed their breakup. There is a charming home movie of Michael and Kylie Minogue, lovers for two years, holidaying on a boat. Michael tried to explain to Kylie the motives of the murderer in Patrick Süskind’s Perfume, a dark, obsessional novel, which collided very much with Michael’s sunny music stage personality.

His relationship with Danish model Helena Christensen was overshadowed by an incident in 1992, when Michael suffered an unprovoked attack from a taxi driver in Copenhagen. The singer hit his head on the kerb, fracturing his skull. For one month Hutchence lay in a dark room, vomiting and eating next to nothing, before Helena was able to convince him to look for medical help. As it turned out, he had lost his sense of smell and taste. This lead to a personality change: Michael became moody, showing bi-polar symptoms, and spurts of aggression.

His relationship with Paula Yates started late in 1994, even though they were intimate long before. Yates, a famous writer and TV presenter, was married to the Boomtown Rats lead singer Bob Geldorf, the pioneer of “Band-Aid’. The couple had two daughters, and Geldorf took their divorce two years later very badly. After Yates gave birth to Michael’s first and only child Tiger Lily in the same year, Geldorf started a legal campaign trying to get custody of all three daughters. Geldorf was a celebrity, and Yates and Hutchence were hounded by the popular media. When Hutchence returned to Australia in preparation for an INXS concert tour at the end of 1997, he hoped Paula would visit him in Australia with the three daughters. But Geldof won an injunction, and the court case was adjourned to December. Hutchence was unable to bear being separated from his daughter, and committed suicide by hanging himself on 22nd November 1997. Yates died of an overdose in January 2000, her daughter Peaches in 2014, at the age of 25. Bob Geldorf adopted Tiger Lily, against the will of the Hutchence family.

Apart from Bono and Hutchence’s manager Martha Troup, we listen to the testimonies of band members Andrew, Jon and Tim Farris, as well as bassist Gary Beers, with Kirk Pengilly being not available. There are nine tracks from Hutchence and INXS, courtesy of Tiger Lily’s intervention with the copyright holders, who had blocked Lowenstein’s approaches before. Although their youthful faces appear on film, the comments we hear are the contemporary voices of the musicians. DoP Andrew de Groot mixes Hutchence’s own films, the home movies of his childhood and concert clips, avoiding Talking Heads as much as possible. We are left with a profound sadness, as Michael Hutchence, like most really gifted performers, was never sure of his talent, often believing he only “got the applause, because I wiggled my arse”. Lowenstein’s documentary is a true testament to sorrow.AS

IN CINEMAS 18 OCTOBER 2019

Celebration (2019) MUBI

Dir: Olivier Meyrou | Doc, France

Olivier Meyrou’s long-shelved biopic on Yves Saint Laurent‘s final collection (aka Yves Saint Laurent: the last collections) has come to light again after screening at Berlinale 2007. The reason for its disappearance from the circuit was due to the legendary couturier’s partner and former lover Pierre Bergé, who ordered the film to be taken out of circulation after its world premiere. His subsequent death has now freed up the rights.

Don’t expect a glamorous film full of stars, celebrities and glossy locations. Meyrou takes a serious, anti-glamour approach showing just how serious the French are about the business of haute couture in a film that showcases ‘the devil in the detail’ and the often gruelling, hand-sewn meticulousness of it all. Meyrou also reveals tensions in the distance in the relationship between Yves Saint Laurent and Bergé who are seen from a warts and all perspective.

Seven years before the tall, rangy designer’s death, he cuts a dedicated but troubled  figure in his elegant tailoring and soigné accoutrements. Looking frail and wan, he gives tentative answers during a press interview where he tries to be positive about the future, while appearing decidedly diffident: “I’m the last couture house with a living couturier.” The others in the triumvirate: Balenciaga and Chanel have long lost their eminences grises.

YSL was founded in 1961 by Saint Laurent and Bergé, and later purchased by Gucci in 1999. The films opens in the former offices in rue Georges V where two women employees are effervescing about the past. This film is very much about the “backroom boys”- the people who made it all happen: the seamstresses, designers and assistants and the members of the press so vital in disseminating news during the final collections – renowned fashion journalist Suzy Menkes (now editor of Vogue International) is seen eagerly greeting Pierre Bergé, pen and paper at hand. The models too played a vital part – and each one is remembered for the outfit she wore, and for the particular strengths she bought to the catwalk. A case in point is the elegant model Katoucha Niane whose appearance is a poignant reminder of her accidental death in the Seine in 2008.

As the title suggests Meyrou’s documentary revolves around the preparations for what would turn out to be his final solo collection. He appears taciturn and introspective, the gurning movements of his jaw bear witness to the punctiliousness with which he treats his craft. And although Yves says very little, Bergé makes up for it with imperious obnoxiousness. At one point snatching a tribute from his partner after the show: “Probably, I have a part of that”.  As we all know from extensive film cannon on the designer: Bergé was the brains behind the business while Saint Laurent the heart, soul and talent. His obsession and eagle eye for getting it all absolutely right was well known and respected by all those who worked with him. Yet Bergé seems to has the upper hand and treats him with a boorishness bordering on contempt: “”Don’t lean over like a doddering old man!” he says to his partner at one point.

In immaculate monochrome Meyrou captures and contemplates the fraught energy of these behind the scenes encounters: the twittering tête à têtes of the seamstresses, the endless deliberations between Saint Laurent and his acolytes, and those responsible for the ‘tapie rouge’ and catwalk protocol.

Colour finally splashes into the film heralding the triumphant catwalk defilés: a spectacular tribute to French culture. Celebration quietly captures the era in a film that is memorable for its cool approach that feels impressionistic rather than hyped and over-talky. But those with a keen appreciation of the subject matter will find it thoroughly enjoyable and applaud Meyrou’s restrained approach. MT

NOW ON MUBI

 

Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool (2019) Netflix

Dir: Stanley Nelson | 115 mins | Music Biopic 

Stanley Nelson’s expansive documentary takes an entertaining breeze through the musical career of Miles Davis eclipsing Don Cheadle’s movie 2015 drama Miles Ahead 

“All I ever wanted to do was communicate through music”. The iconic jazz trumpeter and composer developed smooth romantic vibes and invented a cool, sophisticated masculinity that came to be known as the ‘Miles Davis Mystique’. For over five decades Miles developed various jazz styles from bebop, cool jazz and jazz fusion working with Prestige, Columbia, and Warner Brothers despite a rocky personal life that was full of love but fraught by ill health and emotional instability.

The film delves into the archives opening with seductive slew of stills that capture Miles’ style through the ages. This all plays out in velvet black and white to the iconic melody Kind of Blue while Davis’ deep husky voice making sporadic contributions to the drive the story forward. 

Miles Davis (1926-1991) grew up in a well to do family in Illinois where his father was a dentist. His mother was keen for him to get a classical music education and so in 1944 he started at the New York’s Juilliard School during the day and headed to the famous 52nd Street in the evenings where the music scene hung out in its many with Jazz clubs. And it was here that he discovered B-Bop and gradually taught himself to develop his own iconic style. It was not an easy time personally because his girlfriend Irene soon turned up with their child so his spare time was spoken for with the domestic demands. But music was his first love and the end of the 1940s saw him working with one of his major collaborators Gil Evans.

Drifting over tp Paris in 1949 he met and fell in love with Juliette Greco. Suddenly the world was opening up and he found himself treated as an equal by some of the intellectual giants of the day: “I was living in an illusion of possibility”. Amongst these luminaries was was Jean Paul Sartre who saw asked him why he wasn’t already married to Greco. Davis simply answered: “Because I love her.” The love lasted nearly all his life but it couldn’t work in the confines of the US where racism was still rife.

Returning to New York he was”back to the bullshit white people put a black person through in this country”. He describes how he hit rock bottom again and lost his sense of discipline, turning eventually to heroine and losing direction in his career. Eventually his father took him back to his own birth place of East St Louis hoping to bring him back to normal in the family farm. And according to childhood friend, Lee Annie Bonner, he eventually got himself clean. 

By the mid 1955s, age 29, his career was looking positive again and he found himself playing in the Newport Jazz Festival where Columbia Records selected its artists – and he would become one of them. Suddenly Bebop found a mainstream appeal for white people – Miles Davis made his name during the festival playing vulnerable ballads and hit a romantic vibe that resonated with audiences everywhere. He developed a unique voice: one with a sense of romance that avoided sentimentality born out of richly sophisticated vibes that touched on waves of emotion as they built their pure and elegant melodies. 

But tragedy struck again when he discovered a growth on his larynx and had to stay silence for several months. Bizarrely this is how he developed the gravelly voice that still defines him today. He met and fell for dancer Frances Taylor who was much sought as an artist and pursued by all the stars of the day for her beauty and particularly he long legs. Miles saw her appearing in Sammy Davis Junior’s Mr Wonderful on Broadway and the two found stability and love during a time when he was producing some of his most ground-breaking work: “Now I’ve found you I’ll never let you go” was according to Frances his opening gambit. 

One of his most incandescent musical journeys is the one that tracks Jean Moreau through the streets of Paris in Louis Malle’s 1958 French New Wave drama Ascenceur pour l’échafaud (Lift to the Scaffold). The pianist René Urtreger – who played piano for the piece talks at length about one of the film’s best known jazz scores.

Nelson highlights how Davis’ music gained popularity not just with jazz lovers but the mainstream crowd. His 1959 album Kind of Blue appealed to just about anyone interested in music. The album also introduced saxophonist John Coltrane. His style developed in his next album Bitches Brew which he describes as “cosmic jungle music.”

But when Frances was signed for Westside Story, Davis was back on the cocaine trail and deeply jealous of her admirers in the musical’s cast. He told Frances to quit the show and the two of them set up home with his own kids. But Frances sparked a jealousy in Davis he could not overcome and she realised the marriage was doomed. He deeply regretted her leaving and later commented: “Whoever gets her is a lucky son of a bitch”. 

Dark years passed but once again Miles re-invented himself during the late 1970s experiencing funk and a more loose way of playing. This segment covers his meeting with actress Cicely Tyson, a bond which continued to enrich his inventiveness until the early 1990s when once again, his career hits the buffers.

Nelson tells it all in the usual talking heads style – Frances Taylor, Greg Tate, Carlos Santana, Herbie Hancock and his final manager Mark Rothbaum all appear and a straightforward narrative structure enlivened by many photos and clips from the archives. The film luxuriates in its musical interludes which are enjoyable and plentiful making this possibly the definitive biopic of one of the most inventive jazz musicians of the 20th century. MT

NOW ON NETFLIX

 

Watergate (2018) **** Home Ent release

Dir/Wri: Charles Ferguson | With: David Mixner, Daniel Ellsberg, John Farrell, Patrick Buchanan, John Dean, Richard Reeves, Carl Bernstein, Bob Woodward, Lesley Stahl, Hugh Sloan, Paul Magallanes, John Mindermann, Betty Medsger, Lowell Weicker, William Ruckelshaus, Richard Ben-Veniste, Jill Wine-Banks, George Frampton, John McCain, Dan Rather, Elizabeth Holtzman, Pete McCloskey, Evan Davis | US Doc 271′

Spanning over four hours Charles Ferguson’s biopic of Nixon delves into the archives to offer up an immersive if plodding look at a political scandal that almost pales into significance when compared to our current situation in Westminster and The Whitehouse.

The Oscar-winning documentarian has really done his homework in a film that builds on Penny Lane’s tape-focused Our Nixon (2013) to offer interviews from key players in the episode including Dan Rather, Carl Bernstein and John McCain, and first hand accounts from Kissinger, Liddy, Ehrlichman and Mitchell. Watergate showcases a series events that sent shockwaves into the World as it was back then in the 1970s in a massive undertaking that will inform today’s audiences and those yet to come.

Ferguson clearly sets out his stall examining the events that led up to Nixon’s election in November 1968 and eventually culminated in the resignation of the 37th president of the United States of America in 1976. The tortuous process of cover-ups, lies and bogus explanations continued until eventually the inexorable machine of government took over during the summer of 1974. Ferguson incorporates dramatic re-imaginings of what went on and this enlivens what  – for some – could be considered rather dry material. Although it is difficult to find actors that resemble real people: the only successful incidence of this was where Michael Sheen played Tony Blair in Peter Morgan’s trilogy.

As history reveals, the Nixon administration eventually wound up in 1976 with over 41 people convicted and serving time in prison for crimes relating to Watergate. It remains to be seen whether Ferguson will ever turn his hand to taking on the story of President Donald Trump. It certainly would be a colourful epic providing and interesting day’s programming on political intrigue at some festival in the future. This one is a collector’s item. MT

NOW AVAILABLE ON DVD AND ON DEMAND from 16 September 2019 | COURTESY OF DOGWOOF

 

 

The Birdcatcher (2018) ***

Dir.: Ross Clarke; Cast: Sofie Boussnina, Arthur Hakalahti, Jacob Cedergen, Laura Birn; Norway/UK 2019, 100′.

Ross Clarke has adapted Trond Morten Venaasen’s script in this gripping thriller that uncovers a relatively unknown slice of Norwegian Second World War history. It follows an enterprising Jewish teenager who takes refuge in a farm belonging to a Nazi sympathiser in a bid to escape persecution and deportation. From collaboration to resistance, the local population’s reaction to their Nazi conquerors was not always clear-cut. And while some of the action pieces here feel unconvincing, strong performances make this an absorbing drama.

In 1942 Trondheim, Esther (Boussnina) dreams of becoming a Hollywood actress despite her humble beginnings. Her father has planned their escape to the USA, but Nazi raids on the Jewish population condemn Esther to a lonely struggle in the remote countryside, after escaping a deportation convoy.

She ends up at a farm house, dressed as a boy and calling herself Ula. Although the owner Johann (Cedergen) supports the Nazi occupation, he does little to help his son Aksel (Hakalahti), despite his disabilities. The only person who rumbles Esther is Johann’s wife Anna, who is having a affair with a Nazi officer, and keeps quiet about the girl in defiance of her husband. During a bloody shoot-out between Johann and his wife’s lover, Esther and Aksel try to escape on a sleigh over the frozen sea to Sweden. An epilogue set in Trondheim after the war delivers the final surprise.

Clarke uncovers some original takes on Nazi politics during the occupation. Johann goes with Esther to the local cinema where German propaganda films are casually screened alongside dance-features and bogus propaganda newsreels showing unanimous Norwegian support for their German occupiers. Boussnina is outstanding as Esther, and the rest of the ensemble offers convincing support. DoP John Christian Rosenlund creates an impressive sense of place, with glorious widescreen images and realistic shots of Nazi Party meetings. AS

ON RELEASE in Cinemas, Digital HD & DVD from 4th October 2019

 

 

 

Churchill and the Movie Mogul (2019) ****

Dir: John Fleet | Cast: Stephen Fry, David Thomson, Charles Drazin, Jonathan Rose and David Lough | UK Doc

Churchill was not only a politician and writer he was also an avid film buff. And he used his knowledge of the cinema as a political tool to further Britain’s interest in the Second World War, according to this new documentary by director and writer John Fleet.

Archive footage shows how Churchill – down on his luck in the ‘wilderness years” of the early 1930s – made a fruitful alliance with a Hungarian Jew who had started life penniless but went to be one of Britain’s most celebrated film producers. Alexander Korda took Churchill on as a screenwriter and historical advisor in his production company London Films. Churchill had already honed his writing talents in books and newspapers but also proved to be creative in other ways providing script notes for Korda’s productions and an epic screenplay.

When war broke out in 1938, this politician filmmaker collaboration would be significant in bringing victory for Britain and the Allies. US support was vital in overcoming the Germans and Churchill knew a radical approach was needed. Korda by this time was wealthy on the profits of his rousing historical dramas made in Hollywood and Europe. The Academy Award-winning Private Life of Henry VIII established him on the international stage.

By 1940 Churchill was Prime Minister and appealed to his friend Korda to make a film that would boost pro-British sentiment and strengthen the resolve against Hitler. “Many Americans saw Britain as an old-fashioned imperial nation,” remarks Sir Winston’s secretary, John Peck. So Korda offered to turn the whole of Denham Film Studios’ resources over to making a propaganda movie that would screen in the US and put Britain not only on in the map but also in America’s hearts. Korda set off to Hollywood on a mission to complete his silent epic The Thief of Bagdad. While there he directed That Hamilton Woman (1941) another rousing patriotic drama based on Nelson’s sea victory, starring Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh – the couple of the moment both on and off the stage and screen – with spectacular results.

John Fleet makes a convincing case and a lively documentary enriched by treasures from the archives, previously undiscovered documents and photographs – including one stunner showing Americans supposedly watching the crucial film in an enormous drive-by. Informative talking heads include Stephen Fry. MT

CHURCHILL AND THE MOVIE MOGUL on BBC FOUR at 9pm 25 SEPTEMBER 2019

 

 

 

 

Andrei Tarkovsky: A Cinema Prayer (2019) **** Venice Film Festival 2019

Dir: Andrey A Tarkovskiy | Russia Doc 97’

In his debut feature Andrey Tarkovskiy immediately trashes the theory that his father, the Soviet filmmaker Andrei (1932-1986) was some kind of intellectual mystic. Instead this well-organised biopic Andrei Tarkovsky: A Cinema Prayer paints a portrait of a mildly religious and loving family man who often felt misunderstood, especially by the critics (“as usual they didnt’t understand anything”)  but who was at pains to pass on his own father’s ideas on Russian 19th century culture throughout the years of revolution (Arseniy Tarkovsky (1907-1989). Andrei emerges as a joyful, kind and deeply spiritual man whose ‘screen poetry’ was his creative attempt at praying. Although he never considered himself as a good filmmaker he is now regarded as a luminary, who would go on to influence cinema in the latter part of the 20th century and continues to do so today,

Instead of the usual talking heads A CINEMA PRAYER offers a more cinematic approach: family photos and recordings distilled from hours of his father’s personal footage, and excerpts from his diaries relating to his wife and  Larisa Tarkovskaya along with his friends and the people he worked with.

Divided into chapters, the straightforward chronological narrative deals with each of his films; sharing thoughts and memorise; debunking popularly held theories and debating ideas under the headings: Childhood and youth; Work in cinema; Leaving Russia: (his time dealing with Western culture and working in Italy and subsequent conflict with Soviet authorities; and finally: The artist as a prophet, where he muses about his own faith and the meaning of life. The film does not attempts to analyse or even separate his films from each other claiming they were inter-related, and autobiographical at heart. And the director provides exact location shots for Mirror (a screen memoir of his close relationship with his mother, with poems by his father ); Stalker and Nostalghia.

Fascinating and moving, the film includes location shots of the family homes and places from where his films where made in Russia, France Italy and Sweden (where The Sacrifce was shot). MT

VENICE FILM FESTIVAL | 29 AUGUST – 7 SEPTEMBER 2019

 

Psykosia (2019) Undiscovered festival gems

Dir.: Marie Grahto Sorensen | Cast: Lisa Carlehed, Victoria Carmen Sonne, Trine Dyrholm, Bebiane Ivalo Kreutzmann; Denmark/Finland 2019, 87 min.

Danish director/co-writer Marie Grahto had great success with her medium-length films, particularly Teenland. Her first feature film Psykosia, is an enigmatic story set in a psychiatric ward, where the limits of patient/doctor relationships are tested to the full.

When middle-aged Viktoria (Carlehed) enters a psychiatric institution ran by Dr. Anna Klein (Dyrholm) to help with a particular case, we can’t help finding the environment and the relationship between the two odd. The whole place has a distinct mid-twentieth century twist making it feel like a place lost in time.

Viktoria is a researcher specialising in suicide, but she has no clinical experience so it’s surprising that Dr. Klein employs her at all. The only patient Viktoria will look after is a teenage girl, Jenny Lilith (Viktoria Carmen Sonne of Holiday fame), who has a history of suicide attempts, and so far has allowed none of the therapists to come close to her.

Jenny is close to another patient, Zarah (Kreutzmann), the two of them have been hospitalised together on numerous occasions, and they even end up sharing a bath, the water turning red after Jenny slashed her arm. Jenny tells Viktoria “death is purity, in death you are free”. Their therapeutic sessions have also helped the women to bond, but one gets the impression this is due to transference, Viktoria trying to get to Jenny via self-disclosure, mentioning her own strict upbringing.

In a chapel, next to an enormous abandoned church, Viktoria tells Jenny “that psychoanalysis is a form of art, like this chapel. After Viktoria tries to hang herself on several occasions, claiming her thoughts of suicide “can be a comfort, keeping you alive”.

When Zarah commits suicide, Dr. Klein asks Viktoria to tell Jenny the truth, but the former is unwilling, not wanting to risk the therapeutic progress she has made with her patient. Dr. Klein, looking out of the window like a threatening Super-Ego, seems to will Viktoria to make the announcement, just before the denouncement of the mysterious conundrum.

There are many coded clues to what is going on here: Jenny’s full name is Lilith, a wanton woman in Jewish mythology; Anna Klein is an amalgamation of Anna Freud and Melanie Klein, founder and rivals of theories in child development. And certainly the closeness and identification between Viktoria and Jenny is a play on transference, used by analysts to get close to patients – but leaving them often helpless when patients use counter-transference to draw the analyst in.

Subtle and nuanced performances from a strong female cast, DoP Catherine Pattinama Coleman (part of an all-women crew) using her long takes in the institutional corridors to mesmerising effect, recalling the atmosphere in Kubrick’s The Shining. Music by Schubert (Der Leiermann) and the Francoise Hardy song Il est trop loin’ help to create an atmosphere of utter bewilderment, where the borders between reality and spirituality, patients and analysts are not the only things breaking down. Sheer genius. Shame the film is still waiting for a UK release. AS

PREMIERED Venice Film Festival 2019

Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy (2018) ***

Dir/Wri: Justin Kelly | Cast: Kristen Stewart, Laura Dern, Diane Kruger, Jim Sturgess | US Biopic Dram | 108′

The story behind the literary persona JT LeRoy, created by American author Laura Albert, has certainly had some cinematic mileage. Albert took part in the documentary Author: The JT Leroy Story (2016) that screened a few years ago at the BFI Flare’s Film Festival, Here she is played by Laura Dern in Justin Kelly’s slick and lively re-imagining of one of the most brazen literary hoaxes known to mankind. Albert published three books in the early years of the 21st century, under her nom de plume JT LeRoy. They explored the life of a sexually confused teenage boy, abused in childhood. A gamine Kristen Stewart plays her sister-in-law, Savannah Knoop, who comes to stay and ends up being persuaded by Albert to pose as JT for a promotional photo session. And it doesn’t end there. Dern and Stewart give luminous performances in this seamlessly pleasurable and darkly amusing drama that explores themes of gender fluidity, moral ambiguity and fraud. MT
NOW ON GENERAL RELEASE | premiered at BFI FLARE FILM FESTIVAL | 21 -31 MARCH 2019

Endless Night | Longa Noite (2019) Locarno Film Festival 2019

Wri/Dir: Eloy Enciso | Celsa Araujo, Misha Bies Golas, Nuria Lestegas, Suso Meilan, Manuel Pumares | Gallego | 93′ Historical Drama

Eloy Enciso embarks on an ambitious historical narrative for his third feature, a drama that journeys through three decades of Franco’s dictatorship, but in a meditative and poetic way. With Mauro Herce, the awarded cinematographer behind Mimosas (2016), Dead and Slow Ahead (2015) and Fire will Come (2019), Longo Noite has the sumptuous gravitas needed to showcase the tales of those who went through this unsettling era after the war, and also those who were prisoners in concentration camps in Galicia during the 1940s and look back on their lives and choices with inquietude, having all endured and been repressed in an authoritarian system, but who were later where able to relate their experiences. The choice of Gallego also adds a twist of authenticity – Franco was born in Galicia and gave his name to the town El Ferrol del Caudillio – the suffix having now been dropped, for obvious reasons.

Enciso has chosen a cast of non-pros in order to evoke a human insecurity of being out of their comfort this certainly comes across in their troubled faces. The woman forced on the streets to beg, the man who has made his fortune abroad and coming home to Galicia after Civil war and finding it taken over by a Fascist set-up. These are people clinging to the past and finding  comfort in nature and the certainty of the countryside; of night predictably following day; the stars following the sun. All this is is overlaid by their thoughts and meditations on a Fascist-governed Spain.

Although clearly set in a moment in time this universal endeavour also feels highly contemporary echoing the instability of the present, and resonating with political and social flux now occurring all over the world, as it swings from Communism to Fascism, Nationalism and Patriotism. Even the grounding force of nature is now under threat. A thematically rich and transcendent film that ripples out with vast implications. MT

LOCARNO FILM FESTIVAL | COMPETITION | 7-17 AUGUST 2019

 

Franz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask (1995) **** Locarno Film Festival | Black Light

Dir: Isaac Julien | Writers: Isaac Julien, Mark Nash | Doc, UK 70′

Franz Fanon: Black Skin White Mask is one of the most important films about Martinique and racial identity, along with Euzhan Palcy’s Rue Cases Nègres (1985). And here in Locarno 72 to present a re-master of the poetic film essay is its British film-maker Isaac Julien.

Julien co-wrote this vibrant, collage-style biopic that explores the life and work of psychoanalytic theorist Franz Fanon (1925-1961), who emerges a controversial and restless figure as remembered by those who knew him. Born in Martinique, he was educated in Paris then worked in Algeria, where he felt he could make most impact with his psychoanalysis during the 1950s. His life’s work was to support the anti-colonial struggle and those suffering from its repercussions, but he sadly died of leukaemia in his thirties before publication of his most famous book, The Wretched of the Earth, which became an indispensable study tool during 1960s.

This documentary-drama hybrid is really brought to life by British actor Colin Salmon who is rather too suave, tall and good-looking to be like the man himself, although we get the gist of Fanon’s charisma in these colourful vignettes where he appears in various dapper outfits, stoking a pose and glaring suitably. And there are the usual talking heads, mostly intellectuals, and his brother

There’s a bit of poetic licence when we see Fanon (Salmon) removing the chains from a mental patient in one of Algeria’s psychiatric hospitals where sallow-skinned, emaciated men peer out of their grim existence. No doubt this serves as a metaphor for him unburdening their souls. And this is what Fanon was all about. The bitter conflict takes up the lion’s share of the shortish feature and Julien offers up fascinating black and white archive footage of street battles during the War of Independence. The rest of the film wades through rather dense intellectual debate as to the various definitions of racism as seen by gay men, women and arch feminists – and this comes across as rather complex, and depends from which angle you approach it as to whether it makes any sense. Fanon himself married a white woman but another woman, identifying as a feminist, claims that Fanon regarded black women who were attracted to white men as, by definition, ‘victims of the slave mentality’.

Fanon had some fascinating and quite revealing ideas about the veil which he expounds by illustrating how, in Algeria, veiled women often carried guns and grenades to their male counterparts during the war, without attracting suspicion. And these women where regarded as “beyond reproach”. That certainly resonates now decades later with the war on terrorism.

Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask does reveal some important issues although some of his ideas and perhaps his untimely death precluded his exploring further and resolving some of the more complex and controversial matters he highlights, such as colonialism being made up of “visual experiences, ‘the gaze that appropriates and depersonalises”. But this is also the case with the gender debate that is still raging and is part of our experience as humans. As a gay filmmaker Julien comments on the white man’s desire for the black man’s body. But this is also true of the white (heterosexual) woman for the dark male. This is not racism but merely sexual preference. Don’t opposites attract? An engrossing and fascinating film. MT
BLACK LIGHT RETROSPECTIVE | LOCARNO FILM FESTIVAL | 7-17 AUGUST 2019

Bob Dylan: Don’t Look Back (1967) | Tribute to D.A. Pennebaker

DYLAN-Dont-Look-Back-DROPDirector\Writer: D A Pennebaker

With: Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Donovan, Alan Price, Marianne Faithfull, Allen Ginsberg

96min | Documentary | US

Although it may not have meant much back in 1967, D.A. Pennebaker’s full-length documentary DON’T LOOK BACK now offers an absorbing and resonant tribute to a handful of folk heroes of the ’60s and particularly Bob Dylan who it follows on his 1965 British tour.

This freewheeling and voyeuristic trip down memory lane offers a rare and real portrait of the recalcitrant singer songwriter performing impromptu in hotels and more formal venues showcasing his laid back but often prickly approach which won the hearts and minds of his young audience of the time, Dylan went on to capture the imagination of many and achieve iconic cult status. Whether the film pictures the real Dylan or just his facade is a matter for consideration but Pennebaker makes us feel the intimacy of these encounters.

Surrounded by an entourage of contempo cronies: his rebarbative manager Albert Grossman; his long-term companion Joan Baez; the Scottish balladier Donovan; helmer of The Animals, Alan Price, the film offers behind the scenes glimpses of their convivial gatherings offering up ad hoc renditions of their work: Dylan strums and sings “The Times They Are A-Changing,” and Donovan ‘To Sing for You”. There is a chance to see Baez’ gentle beauty and spiky humour in offguard moments that capture her feral beauty.

The awkward approach of some of the interviewers – particularly a journalist from Time Magazine – is very amateurish, and it’s a wonder that Dylan didn’t punch him in the nose – but he adopts his usual acerbic style, hiding behind a public persona, ruffled hair and sunglasses, refusing to be riled but engaging nevertheless.

D. A. Pennebaker has since made several impressive biopics: Monterey Pop (1968) and Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars being among the best. His handheld camera offers a grainy indie feel with jump cuts that keep the pace lively despite the relaxed tone that often hints at an underlying anger, that eventually seeps out in a scene featuring an ugly encounter between Grossman and a hotel manager. The film’s finale sees Dylan kicking backing after a successful concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall, happy to be seen as an artist peddling no particular message and who no one understands. MT

OUT ON CRITERION UK | Amazon BLURAY

 

Weapon of Choice (2018) *** Home Ent release

Dir: Fritz Ofner and Eva Hausberger | Doc | Austria | 91′

How the man who invented the world’s most popular gun ironically became the victim of contract killers and a multi million dollar fraud in a story of corruption and fetishisation.

In 1981 Austrian engineer Gaston Glock (1929) invented the handgun that bears his name and would eventually become the gun of choice for criminals, law enforcement and private citizens in the United States. What started in a small Austrian village as a struggling firearms business soon became a multi-billion dollar concern after the company rebranded from a gunmakers to manufactorers  of ‘‘law enforcement equipment’ with a weapon that never blocked.

Little is known about the reclusive cultish 89-year-old which is probably why the filmmakers decide to focus most of their film on the ‘piece’ and its pistol-packing public, rather than than Glock himself and his rise to success, via tragedy. All we know is that he’s recently become a father again with his decades younger wife. But you’ll have to wade through over an hour of perifera to get to the real meat of the movie: the story of the elusive Mr Glock himself. 

Plastic except for its barrel, the topselling Glock handgun’s claim to fame is that “it never fails”. As such – along with the car-manufacturer Mercedes – it has piggy-backed onto one of the US’ most successful pop-cultural references – gangster rap. The Glock is also the weapon of choice for the average US citizen in a nation where guns are important everyday accessories, just as mobile phones are in the UK. 

This tonally uneven investigation at times feels like a paean to the Black community and its sad history of violence, at others like an advertisement for the Glock firearm and its wide-ranging enthusiasts, as it weaves through well-researched episodes that start in US neighbourhoods and gradually move on to distant war zones: we meet Black rappers, little old ladies and their trainers, gun-sellers and the Police force – all rave about their Glocks. The unifying message here is a depressing one: in the US there is widespread acceptance of firearms as an everyday accessory: like a phone or even an umbrella. When one woman’s dog died, she brought a gun to keep her company.

Eventually the Austrian filmmakers delve into even darker territory to uncover a sinister trail of politics, power, and corruption which sees crooks, politicians and industrialists using the same weapon of choice to defend themselves. Weapon of Choice is both intriguing and depressing. MT

NOW ON AMAZON PRIME

The Cockleshell Heroes (1955) ****

Dir: José Ferrer | US drama 97′

Based on a true story and a book by George Kent, US filmmaker José Ferrer directs and stars in this popular and quintessentially British wartime caper that sees Royal Marines embark on a daring mission to destroy enemy shipping at the height of the Second World War. Trevor Howard and Ferrer lead a strong cast of commandoes who undertake an intense night-time sortie on collapsible canoes into the comparative safety of the port of Bordeaux where the German ships are tucked away. The plan is to blow them all up with limpet mines, but the execution is far more perilous and gruelling affair, making for a grippingly tense drama. Christopher Lee, Anthony Newley and Dora Bryan also star, MT

Eureka Classics is proud to present the film in its worldwide debut on Blu-ray.

Available to order from:

Eureka Store https://eurekavideo.co.uk/movie/the-cockleshell-heroes/  

Amazon https://amzn.to/2DXwzJV

Le Sang d’un Poète | Le Testament d’Orphee – re-mastered on Bluray

Jean Cocteau – poet, playwright, novelist, designer, visual artist and one of the avant-garde movement’s most inventive and influential filmmakers was born in 1889, and grew up in Paris, immersed in the theatre and art world. He published his first volume of poems at just 15 and began mixing in bohemian circles becoming known as the Frivolous Prince.

He associated with Marcel Proust, Maurice Barres, Pablo Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani and numerous other writers and artists with whom he later collaborated. At a time when society condemned it, he was openly homosexual and homoerotic undertones, imagery and symbolism pervade all aspects of his writings, art and films. Despite financial constraints he continued to work even through the war years when he was forced to ad-lib often making do with bric-a-brak and bed sheets as part of the scenery in Le Belle et la Bête (1946). It still looked ravishing.

Made thirty years apart, these two recent 4k restorations effectively frame his filmic career and are both considered masterpieces of the avant-garde movement. 

LE SANG D’UN POÊTE – is an exploration of the tortuous relationship between the artist and his creations. LE SANG D’UN POÊTE, seeks to explore the feelings within a poet’s heart and soul, beginning in an artist’s studio where an unfinished statue comes to life. The lips of its androgynous face move, pressing a kiss to the artist’s hand. At the statues demand, he plunges it into a mirror.

LE TESTAMENT D’ORPHÉE brings full circle the journey made in 1932, the first part of the ‘Orphic’ trilogy LE TESTAMENT D’ORPHÉE (1960)

This last film is a truly abstract piece of work. Portraying an 18th century poet who travels through time on a quest for divine wisdom, it is another finely crafted, surreal and magical piece set in a mysterious, post-apocalyptic desert where Cocteau meets a series of enigmatic characters, joining them to muse about about the nature of art. Often gently poignant and whimsical in tone, this ethereal drama resonates with his Spanish roots – he settled in Andalucia for a while, in common with Picasso. Cocteau assembles an eclectic cast that includes vignettes with  Pablo Picasso himself, Jean Marais, Brigitte Bardot, Charles Aznavour, Roger Vadim and Yul Brenner in a piece that veers between gentle irony and low-key pessimism. Cocteau admirers will probably find it very moving.

LE SANG D’UN POÊTE (The Blood of a Poet) and LE TESTAMENT D’ORPHÉE (The Testament of Orpheus) will be released on ON BLU-RAY, DVD AND DIGITAL DOWNLOAD – 5TH AUGUST 2019

Pre-order now: http://po.st/TestamentOrphee; http://po.st/SangPoete.

https://youtu.be/qW84uNnNv0Y

For the Birds (2018) ****

Dir.: Richard Miron; Documentary with Kathy Murphy, Gary Murphy, Sheila Hyslop; USA 2019, 92 min.

Over five years in the making, Richard Miron’s debut documentary is an astonishing portrait of a very special kind of hoarder: Kathy Murphy’s love for her feathered friends started with a helping hand to a baby duckling ten years ago –  now over 200 ducks, chicken, geese and turkeys invade the family’s mobile home in Warwasing, up-state New York.

No wonder husband Gary feels upstaged by the animals: “With her, you don’t seem to get anywhere”, he confesses to the filmmaker. And while Kathy feels a unique closeness to the feathered members of her family, it soon becomes clear that she uses them as a barricade between herself and Gary: “He knows I’m attached to them, but not just how much I’m really attached to them. I would die for them”.

Things boil over when her case is referred to the Woodstock Farm Animal Society, where manager Sheila Hyslop shares Kathy’s love for animals and tries to keep an amicable relationship going. That is not always easy, since Kathy’s “feathered children” are not only destroying the couple’s home, but also their marriage. Gary plays Bob Dylan blaring through the night, to get to sleep, before the start of an early shift. 

To save the animals, Nicole and Ted, two volunteers of the Bird Sanctuary, have to trick Kathy into letting some of her “children” go. But success is limited, and finally we get a court trial. Gary is caught in the middle: he teams up with the Sanctuary’s team, which makes him a traitor in Kathy’s eyes. Her lawyer, William Brenner, a tax attorney, fits in well: he has an office, which resembles Kathy’s home – minus the animals.

Eventually tragedy will reconcile Kathy with her daughter and grandchild – and some money to make a new start. The more we learn about her, the more we realise how Kathy uses the birds to block off the rest of her life, affecting her mental health. Her ability to connect with the animals is part of a deep-seated emotional fear of humans – and it takes a long time to save Kathy and the birds.

Miron tries to avoid a deeper context, and stays focused on Kathy. His intimate portrait illustrates how the animals are just vehicles for her to postpone a mental breakdown. 

Miron’s cinema vérité style is enlivened by old photos and Super Eight family films, which show Kathy emotionally well-connected with her family. And even at the end, the audience has no idea what drove her to isolate herself from humankind. A very sensitive and emphatic case study AS

ON DEMAND WORLDWIDE FROM JULY 30 2019 | Amazon Prime Video; Apple TV; Google Play; iTunes, Chili TV; Microsoft; Sky Store

     

Varda by Agnès (2019) ****

Dir: Agnes Varda |Writers: Agnes Varda, Didiet Rouget | Doc France

Agnès Varda’s final film plays out as a masterclass, the maverick 90-year old filmmaker talking us through her life and legacy, in no particular order, giving fresh insight into her the methods behind her genius as the pioneer of the French New Wave movement, in a meaty two hour documentary. Composed of reels of archive footage, clips from her films and newly shot material – we also get to meet the star of her Venice awarded Vagabond, Sandrine Bonnaire, the two sit in a field sheltered by plastic umbrellas, a sign of her determination to take the rough with the smooth. You could call it providence.

Born in Brussels as ‘Arlette’ Varda in 1928, she would go on to make 55 films in her fruitful career. Sitting comfortably in a classic director’s chair on a stage before her audience, Varda comes across as modest and approachable and despite her ardent feminism and trenchant intellect, amiable and quietly self-assured. Her canvas was always the familiar or domestic, filming subjects she knew about or felt deserving of attention. On her documentary style she muses: “The idea was to film people, whether they realised it or not, Nothing is trite if you film people with empathy and love”.

There are plenty of quintessentially Varda moments in this final adieu. At one point she is seen sitting on a beach surrounded by cardboard seagulls: “we love to talk to birds, but of course they don’t understand”. And her fear of playing to an empty cinema, or not engaging with the audience have enforced her belief that cinema is very much a two-way process. And Varda By Agnès is a film that is both introspective and expansively outward-looking at the same time. And with her previous outing Faces, Places having had an Oscar nomination last year Varda is pretty guaranteed to reach wider audiences beyond Europe.

Varda started life as a photographer and her pictures are testament to her frank and witty approach to life. The film takes us through the last century and into the present day starting with The Gleaners and I that showcases the freedom of digital. Her personal life is very much integrated into her work as an artist and there is much candid and unsentimental mention both vocal and visual of her partner Jacques Demy, making it all the more appealing particularly during his failing health.

Music features heavily in all her films: “Early on, I realised that contemporary composers were my allies.” And Varda certainly made plenty of allies in her work in the cinema and outside it. Her career as a visual artist has given rise to impressive installations and performance art, most noticeably in Faces Places –  and she often turned up to events dressed as a potato – her voluptuously rotund figure ideally suited for the long-running joke.

It seems both apposite and poignant that this informative career retrospective should be her last hurrah. Perfectly timed and with a sense of completion and hope Varda By Agnès is a memorable auto-biopic from the grand dame of cinema herself. MT

NOW ON RELEASE FROM 19 JULY 2019

https://youtu.be/IcpnEMCx-7g

 

Tenzo (2019) **** FID Marseille 2019

Dir.: Katsuya Tomita; Documentary with Chiken Kawaguchi, Ryugyo Kurashima; Japan 2019, 59 min.

Director/co-writer Katsuya Tomita (Bangkok Nights) finances his films from his sideline as a truck-driver although this seems counter intuitive to his latest – a portrait of two Zen Buddhist monks who have immersed themselves into community life after the Tsunami and Fukushima disasters.

In Zen temples, there are six prestigious posts – cooking, care, hospitality, attentiveness towards others and, more generally, the issue of community. Tenzo is the name of the position given to the person responsible for meals and Tomita film echoes this with is chapters named after flavours: “spicy”, “sweet” etc. The post incumbant must also teach important aspects of the doctrine.

The monks are called Chiken and Ryugyo. Both of them were deeply affected by the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, and both of them decided to spend their lives serving their fellow countrymen and women. Chiken, teaches culinary practice as an art of living and devotes some of his time to working on a suicide prevention hotline. The other, Ryugyo, supports the earthquake victims in his own modest but very practical way.

But life in Japan has changed fundamentally since the Tsunami and Fukushima Daiichi nuclear catastrophes. Chiken and Ryyugyo are trying to follow the teachings of Dogen, who was the Dojo of the Soto Buddhist school. Dogen saw himself as a vessel of Buddha’s teaching, which should be practised every day for twenty-four hours. He asked his students to answer the question what is the best way to live this short life. Every second is precious. Eating meals is another way to practise Buddha’s teaching. But so is washing your face and going to the toilet. According to Dogen everything we do in life can teach us something. So he devised the titular Tenzo regimes, including an outline for the monk’s meal duties. Chiken lives now in a temple in Yamanashi and offers cooking classes, after having learned the importance of food, since his son Hiro has suffered from many food allergies. He is in charge of daily ceremonies, but also runs a suicide hotline. Ryugyo is working mainly as a construction worker, helping the community in Fukushima to rebuilt their lives after the twin disasters.     

The images of DoPs Takuma Fuuruya and Masahiro Mukoyama are ludic and transparent, like Dogen’s teachings. The lighting in the temple sequences is remarkable and otherworldly. On the other hand, the realism of the everyday life Chiken and Ryugyo are facing now is shown in all its hardship. Tenzo is surreal yet socially relevant, a small gem. AS

FID MARSEILLE | 9 -15 JULY 2019

The Brink (2019) ***

DIR: Alison Klayman | US Doc 98′

Alison Klayman shadows political operative Steve Bannon from the time he leaves the White House to the 2018 midterms.

Political strategist Steve Bannon (1953-) is best known for being the co-founder of Breitbart, and is also a former investment banker, educated at Georgetown and Harvard. He served in the United States Navy for seven years and then went on to exec produce 18 Hollywood films, between 1991 and 2016. Thereafter he was the White House chief strategist from January to August 2017, and founder of nonprofit organisation The Movement designed to promote economic nationalism in Europe. Eventually he was ejected from the White House after the infamous Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville.

Not as informative and intriguing as Errol Morris’ American Dharma that screened at Venice  last year, this fly on the wall affair manages at least to avoid glorification, hardly bringing anything new to the table – although Bannon clearly had his knees firmly under the metaphorical one in the Whitehouse during the early stages of the Trump administration.

Klayman’s (Ai Wei: Never Sorry) cinema vérité style treatment is the result of her following Bannon as part of his elite during the course of a year’s media tour intended to rebrand his image as the leader of a global populist movement. A strong and engaging orator (in the style of Ken Livingstone, Gladstone and Nigel Farage) he is clearly clubbable, and we see him taking his movement on the road, talking to various advisors on how best to support congressional candidates, and showing his support to European populist parties – including Farage’s – in preparation for the European Parliament elections in 2019.

In Europe there’s obviously the high birth rate among Muslims to consider (in Belgium), and these far-righters all agree that “immigration is a bad thing”. Bannon then sets off on a US tour, promoting Republican candidates such as Roy Moore, and those running in the 2018 midterms. This involves attending fundraiser dinners and rallies. A heckler interrupts him during a speech and he smirks, “Who invited my ex-wife?” Klayman intercuts all this with news clips from the Brett Kavanaugh hearing to the Tree of Life shooting. He keeps on keeping on. He also talks to journalists, who seem to have a low opinion of him. Meanwhile, his film TRUMP @WAR (the media) is released, about the President’s victory in the face of the violent left.

The Brink is another documentary about the general mayhem that exists in US politics, focusing on one extreme figure to another (Weiner and Get Me Roger Stone). Klayman avoids talking head interviews but there’s no mistaking her take on her subject matter.

Very much like Brexit for the UK, the Trump era is a thorn in America’s side. And The Brink tries to analyse how it all came about, but without much success. Basically politicians see themselves as in the game for the love of humanity, despite the majority of them being self-seeking, bottom-feeding forms of life. In Dante’s journey to Hell, Klayman is simply trying to explore some of the characters on the way. MT

NOW ON GENERAL RELEASE

 

The Last Autumn | Sidasta Haustio (2019) Bergamo Film Meeting

Dir.: Yrsa Roca Fannberg; Documentary with Ulfare Eyjolfsson, Oddny Snjolang Bordardottir; Iceland 2019, 78 min.

Icelandic writer/director Yrsa Roca Fannberg follows Salome with this thematically related story set in the Icelandic arctic ocean village of Norourfjordur where a couple are getting ready to sell their sheep. This is their last autumn on the farmland they have occupied all their lives, and their daughter and grandchildren, who live in Reykjavik, come and pay their final farewells.

The black and white footage of the opening sequences reflects their contented past, the rough landscape and the sea, making an imposing background where humans are dwarfed by mother nature. Soon we switch to colour and intimate domestic interiors where Ulfar and Oddny are listening to a radio broadcast about the ecological tragedy that led to the entire population of Iceland being evacuated to Denmark after a volcano eruption during the18th century.

The old sheep dog Loppa watches Ulfar bottle-feed two lambs. Later, he drives out to sea in his fishing boat coming back with a decent catch, then cutting wood to repair the barn wall – even though he knows very well that there will be no more sheep to shelter there. His daughter arrives on a small plane and they reminisce about the barn repairs: “It is beautiful to sustain life, even if it is not for yourself”.

This honest existence has been the mainstay of their lives together, but eventually the day arrives for them to round up the sheep. Loppa, his master and some other farmers go into the mountains to collect the animals, about 75 of them, herd them into the barn, and then huge travel containers. Ulfar seems to live in the past, his only contact with the outside world is the radio which brings news of those who have recently passed away. Afterwards Ulfar gives his granddaughter a ride on the tractor regaling her with an old fairy tale about Vera, a woman who fell down the cliffs.

Focusing on long panoramic panning shots, and connecting with the narrative of surviving communities and rural existence this is a melancholic journey. Carlos Vasquez’ images focus on the close interaction of humans and nature, showing that animals are far more intelligent than we often give them credit for. The relationship between Ulfare and his dog is particularly close. Dialogue is sparing reflecting the importance of action and reflection rather than ideas. Fannberg handles this slow-burner with care and patience, every shot has a function – an enchanting portrait of another disappearing world. AS

BERGAMO FILM FESTIVAL 2021 | KARLOVY VARY 2019 PREMIERE

The Cold Blue (2018) ***

Dir: Erik Nelson | US Doc, 72′

Erik Nelson has unearthed a treasure trove of recently discovered colour footage shot in 1943 by Hollywood director William Wyler for his WWII classic The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress (1944). The result is a quietly moving audio memoir of those surviving members of the Eighth Air Force who calmly talk us through their unique experiences transporting us back to the final years of the war. Set to Richard Thompson’s tuneful musical score the 16mm footage has the added advantage of being in colour, making it all the more extraordinary in its immediacy. Wyler risked life and limb to make his documentary, flying on more than 25 B-17 bombing missions during 1943, and one of the cameramen, Harold J. Tannenbaum, was actually shot down and killed over France. Surviving veterans take us back to the trauma with a calm dignity and pride. Clearly this was a daunting experience but they share their sense of excitement, even 75 years later. Many of them died serving their country, and in the Eighth Air Force the fatalities were particularly heavy, one man is driven to tears as he remembers losing a friend. Another recalls the mixed blessing of real eggs for breakfast -rather than the powdered variety. This usually meant they were in for a particularly perilous mission. But they never regretted killing the enemy, as one remembers “Never gave it a thought, they were just Germans….They’re gonna do it to us, we’re better off doing it to them first”. Fascinating stuff!. MT

ON RELEASE AT SELECTED ARTHOUSE CINEMAS on 4 July 2019

 

 

Never Look Away (2018) **

Dir.: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck; Cast: Tom Schilling, Sebastian Koch, Paula Beer, Saskia Rosendahl, Oliver Masucci; Italy/Germany 2018, 188 min.

After The Life of Others Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck makes another ambitious but deeply unfilmic foray that tackles three decades of his country’s history from Nazi Germany of the late 1930s right through to the GDR, and finally the FRG. The focus is an anti-hero and his sympathetic counterpart. 

In Dresden 1937 the young Elisabeth May takes her young nephew Kurt Barnert to see an exibition of ‘Entartete Kunst’, showing paintings by Picasso, Kandinsky and others forbidden in the Third Reich. The guide tells Kurt that he could do better than said works of art. But Elisabeth, a free spirit, tells the boy “never to look away” from beauty. Soon she is playing the piano naked. Her desperate family send her to Prof. Seeband (Koch), who is in charge of the local Euthanasia programme, thence to a special hospital where she is gassed with other citizens who are not “worth being kept alive”. 

Seeband is later captured by the Russians but helps to deliver the baby of a high-ranking officer who offers him a career in the GDR. The story then flips forward to see Kurt (Schilling), now in his twenties, falling in love with Ellie Barnert (who very much resembles Elisabeth), the two men begin an uneasy relationship. And when Ellie gets pregnant, her father carries out an abortion, making sure his daughter can no longer produce and have the Barnert family poison his own bloodline: Kurt’s father had committed suicide. 

Ellie and Kurt, both fed up with social realism at university, flee to West Berlin, and later settle in Dusseldorf where Kurt studies with a Beus-look-alike, professor von Verten (Masucci). Here Kurt finds his artistic calling, and also the true identity of his father-in-law, who had also settled very sucessfully in the FRG.

Von Donnersmarck is spot on in picturing life in Nazi Germany and the GDR, but his vision of the FRG, where the majority of ex-Nazis made a career, as far too easygoing. After all, cultural institutions such as the Art Academy in Dusseldorf, were unique places of artistic refuge. Where the film really falls down though is in the bland description of life. Considering Kurt is a painter, the cinematography is unimpressive and stale, calling to mind the “Alfred Weidemann” films of the late 50s and set in the FRG, where UFA veterans where still shooting in the style of the 1930s. Furthermore the acting is patchy, Beer the standout in a sea of rather hammy male performances. Despite a narrative spanning nearly thirty years nothing seems to change, the action is caught in a permanent time-warp where even Kurt’s final liberation feels unconvincing and artificial. Never Look Away is an uninventive saga that drags laboriously feeling even longer than its 3+ hours, AS

ON RELEASE AT ARTHOUSE CINEMAS | PREMIERED AT VENICE FILM FESTIVAL 2018

Mother (2019) **** Sheffield Doc Festival 2019

Dir.: Kristof Bilsen; Doc with Chutimon Sonsirichai (Pomm), Elisabeth Röhmer, Maya Gloor, Walter Gloor; Belgium 2019, 82 min.

People are living longer but not always enjoying a healthy or happy old age in Western Europe. Kristof Bilsen tackles the alarming truths behind our care home crisis in his heart-breaking documentary that sees a Swiss family sending their mother across the world to be looked after by strangers in her final years.  

But before you jump to condemn them, just consider this. Thai women come to the UK in their droves every year to enjoy the benefits of our strong economy that allows them to make a living by offering their unique talents as masseuses and alternative health professionals. Their kids are left with their  extended families and see their mothers only one or twice a year in some cases. Meanwhile UK care homes charge extortionate amounts of money just for bed and board (at BUPA you pay a basic £100,o00 per annum in central London), while bosses cream off the profits and pay their care staff a pittance. These substandard employees are sometimes unable to communicate with residents due to their poor English skills, and often have little aptitude or interest in their badly paid jobs. It’s a critical situation that seems to indicate that this Swiss family could be doing their mother a favour, and even saving money into the bargain.

In Thailand, Pomm looks after Alzheimers patients from German-speaking countries in the Baan Kamlangchay hospice near Chiang-Mai. Her own three children are looked after by her husband and extended family. She too is badly paid but infinitely more compassionate, working an eight hour shift, with another job to make ends meet, her relationship with her husband is strained.

In this tranquil sanctuary, Elisabeth Röhmer is in the last stages of Alzheimers, but Pomm remembers when she loved to do the crossword and helped the carers learn English. After Elisabeth’s death, Pomm will be responsible for Maya, a mother of three from Zofingen in Switzerland. Her husband Walter and three daughters Joyce, Sara and Tanya are struggling to find suitable care for grandma Maya, so the clinic in Thailand seems the best solution. ”It would be selfish to keep her here so we could see her all the time. She gets much better care in Thailand”. And this true because Maya, like Elisabeth before her, will have three carers working round the clock.

Once she arrives with her family in Thailand Maya takes time to settle down in her new environment, awoken by exotic birdsong on her first morning. She is clearly not as happy about the move as the Gloor family would have us believe as they share their last Christmas together far from home. On a boat trip, they discuss how to say goodbye to Maya. Super 8 mm family films show a younger Maya in happier times. Back home in Switzerland, the Gloors Skype Maya who is still at odds with their departure but adapting to her new circumstances.

So is there such a difference between East and West? Clearly in the Far East there is far more respect for adults, their wisdom and experience is highly valued both by the family and in society as a whole. This extends to the process of dying as we saw in Locarno winner MRS FANG. It seems like a double whammy when elderly members of the family lose their dignity and need our care and patience while they remain critical, controlling and difficult, as in the case with dread diseases such as Alzheimers. Their dehumanisation process is disorientating, their loss of dignity strangely infantalises them in the eyes of those who once looked up to them and respected their seniority. We expect to look after our kids, but not our parents. And England has now become a child-centric culture, where children have become objects of desire, admired and put on a pedestal, as we saw recently in the case of Swedish teen, Greta Thunberg.

Bilsen remains objective in his fascinating and thought-provoking film,. Pomm reflecting that her job has shown her the difference between rich and poor. Really? Maya has three care givers because the Swiss family can afford it, yet the carers in both countries are badly paid. The difference is that over here in the UK the care is poor even when you throw money at it; clearly compassion cannot be bought. Pomm wonders (as we all do) what will happen to her if she becomes a victim of Alzheimers. Who will care for her? All over the world we are relying on others to care for our loved ones because we are too busy looking after ourselves.

THE WORLD PREMIER OF MOTHER SCREENS AT SHEFFIELD DOCFEST 9 JUNE 2019 

Five Seasons: The Gardens of Piet Oudolf (2017) ***

Dir: Thomas Piper | Doc, 73′

Dutch landscape designer and plantsman Pete Oudolf has dedicated his life to creating some of the most iconic gardens around the world and this documentary celebrates his contributions in the US and England.

Five Seasons‘ stunning widescreen panoramas showcase Oudolf’s own gardens at Hummelo in Holland, and his signature public works in New York (The High Line); Chicago (Lurie Gardens) and designs for Durslade – a garden he considers his best work yet. The documentary flits about a bit chronologically, but provides a stunning visual and meditative experience. Piper’s skilful time-lapse sequences take us through the whole year at Hummelo, from Autumn to the following Autumn, timelapse sequences offering an immersive look at Oudolf’s planting techniques and creative process, from his beautifully abstract sketches, to his general ethos and feelings about the natural world. Oudolf paints with plants. But unlike painting, his creations develop in a multi-dimensional way, not only according to the changing seasons, soil and climate but also to the particular ambience they inhabit. Oudolf posits: “I put plants on stage and let them perform”.

When he started out 35 years ago Oudolf ‘s abiding desire was to escape from traditional planting and design.. He wanted to get to know his living ‘building blocks’ spontaneously and from the experience of growing and living with plants rather than studying them in a college or from a book, “discovering beauty in things that are initially not beautiful”. Tall, commanding and rocking a killer blond hair cut, he comes across as a reserved – almost spiky – man in discussions with designer Noel Kingsbury and photographer Richard Dark.

Growing up in a bar with his publican father, he never had that intimate family life. Instead he learnt to observe. Moving to Harlem with his girlfriend Anya (still the guiding light in his life) gave him the space to experiment and with her support he looked at various careers, finally ending up in a garden nursery. His method is to list a series of plants that will create the right atmosphere for his particular project, he calculates the dominant plant groups to achieve his overall effect: “Gardening is also a promise you’re creating for your client. It’s about getting the look right even during the bad moments, in the depths or winter or in drought”.

Celebrated by gardeners for his revolutionary designs, by ecologists for his significant contributions to bio-diversity, by horticulturalists and botanists for his unrivalled knowledge of plants, and by the art, architecture, design and fashion worlds for his innovative aesthetics, Piet Oudolf has now achieved a level of influence and cultural relevance, rarely, if ever, attained by, in his own words, a modest plantsman.

Oudolf has achieved international acclaim, and has recently been awarded an Honorary Fellowship from the RIBA for developing radical ideas in Planting Design (2012) and the Prince Bernhard Cultural Foundation Award (2013).

FIVE SEASONS: THE GARDENS OF Piet Oudolf | 13 June 2019 PICTUREHOUSE CENTRAL

Haut les Filles (2019) ****

Dir.: Francois Armanet; Cast: Jeanne Added, Jehnny Beth, Lou Doillon, Brigitte Fontaine, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Francoise Hardy, Imany, Camelia Jordana, Elli Medeiros, Vanessa Paradis; France 2019, 78 min.

What if Edith Piaf had invented Rock-n-Roll, rather than Elvis Presley? Francois Armanet’s excellent Cannes documentary showcases the musings of ten popular French singers from the Sixties to the present day. The upshot is that Rock-n’-Roll is female and French.

Edith Piaf opens with a raunchy love song for her lover, the boxer Marcel Cerdan, who died in a plane crash in 1949. In the Sixties, it was the likes of Françoise Hardy and Brigitte Fontaine who challenged the predominance of men. Hardy remembers how naïve she and other chanteuses were at a time of total male dominance: When France Gall sang the saucy “Sucettes” songs with composer Serge Gainsbourg, she hadn’t the faintest idea of the double meaning of that ‘lollipop’.

Things have changed since. Camelia Jordana and Jeanne Added felt the freedom of being on stage, describing it as  “lifting me out into space”. Sixties photos of Françoise Hardy and singing partner Jacques Dutronc show a different picture, and one that was re-affirmed when she met Mick Jagger and Anita Pallenberg in the UK “where men expected women to look like Brigitte Bardot” – rather than Hardy’s androgynous look. Jagger claimed “she was his ideal woman”. Ironically even nowadays Charlotte Gainsbourg is hampered by old-fashioned male chauvinism. “I wish I looked more like my mother, but unfortunately I look like my father…he could not understand that I did not like to be on the cover of magazines”. She goes on to talk about the beautiful women in her family, such as Lou Doillon, daughter of filmmaker Jacques Doillon, although the two women had the same mother in the shape of Jane Birkin. Gainsbourg always thinks about herself as pretty and ugly (une jolie-laide), like the teenager she played in her film debut film La Voleuse by Claude Miller. Lou Doillon remembers the burden of having to be interesting to adults who were all creative. But although he father directed, her mother was very much in front of the camera.

Camelia Jordana also remembers that her voice only made an impression when it sounded sweet and sexy, when she got older. Jordana lately found her identity as a strong feminist via the works of Simone de Beauvoir, a signatory of Women’s Manifest, a group that fought to de-criminalise abortion in France. Of the ten, Fontaine is the most radical – and much more so now than in the Sixties. “Stop Talking and take arms. Down with the stronger sex. Death to it” is only one of her provocative songs on stage.

Elli Medeiros, who was born in Montevideo, started her career with the Stinky Toys and was discovered by Malcolm McLaren, who invited the band to London, where they appeared at the ‘100 Club’ in Oxford Street. Having arrived without gear, they asked the Sex Pistols to lend them their outfits, but the band declined. Stinky Toys ended up singing in garb belonging to The Clash. Medeiros reflects that she stopped ‘screaming out her rage on stage’, after she had learned to sing properly.

Vanessa Paradis “feels on stage like a shipmaster” and Lou Doillon compares her music “with making love, forgetting everything else, like religion”. Whilst Paradis was awakened to feminism by Beatrice Dalle, Doillon had to watch TV in her nanny’s room, where she was fascinated by Catherine Ringer of Rita Mitsouko fame. Doillon finally sums up the development of female Rock-n’-Roll stars: “In the Seventies and Eighties, girl bands were more violent on stage then male musicians. They paid the price for being on stage, having to be more mannish than the blokes.” Whilst for Lou Doillon and others, gender fluidity is the order of the day, Fontaine remains a radical feminist: “Fuck l’amour!”

When all is said and done, it’s a shame that women have always had to struggle just to maintain the status quo with men. Oh Les Filles will be remembered mainly for its fabulous music and TV archive clips which certainly prove that female talent is more than skin deep. AS

SCREENING DURING CANNES FILM FESTIVAL 2019

Halston (2019) London Fashion Week

Dir/Wri: Frederic Tcheng | With: Tavi Gevinson, Liza Minnelli, Marisa Berenson, Joel Schumacher, Pat Cleveland, Bob Calacello, Carl Epstein, Lesley Frowick, Sassy Johnson, Naeem Khan, John David Ridge | US Doc, 120′

Well known for his insightful portraits of the fashion world: Dior and I (2014); Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel (2011), which he co-directed; and for Valentino: The Last Emperor, (2008), which he co-produced, Tcheng gets top marks for this exposé on Roy Halston Frowick the all American boy from De Moines, Iowa who put America in the frame with his flare for flattering the female form.

After the boxy styles and artificial fabrics of the Sixties, Halston’s voluptuous dresses enveloped and caressed curves and cleavages as they “danced around you” according to Liza Minelli, one of his biggest advocates and a firm friend. All this was in part thanks to his master tailor Gino Balsamo whose clever crafting created single-seam clothes that ‘freed the female body” and swirled and seduced due to the unique simplicity of their genius bias-cut.

Apart from its length the only slight criticism of this biopic is the gimmicky structure that sees actor Tavi Gevinson as an innocent bystander, sleuthing through the Halston company archives and VHS tapes to needlessly sex up the sinister nature of Halston’s final fall from grace. It’s a device that feels tacky and counterintuitive to the sophisticated slimline slinkiness of the designer’s raison d’être.

Born during the Depression in 1932, Halston was an ordinary gay man who instinctively knew how to re-invent himself as a suave mover and shaker. Starting out in the 60s as a milliner to Bergdorf Goodman famous clients (Jackie Onassis wore his pillbox hat), he rapidly moved on to create his own brand through celebrity endorsement in New York’s 70s and 80s. Sashaying onto the dance floor of Studio 54 with his beautiful entourage, known as the Halsonettes, he moved on with movie stars, and invented “hot pants”. Andy Warhol and Elizabeth Taylor were amongst his friends and clients. He also dressed the American athletes at the ’76 Olympics, the girl scout leaders, the NYPD and Avis car rental staff, as well as the Martha Graham dance troupe.

His all American freeform fashion parade at Paris’ Palace of Versailles in 1973 featured black American models and set the night alight with a fizzing floor show, despite French domination of the event. China was the next step and we sample previously unseen footage from NBC visiting a silk factory where workers got a chance to try on creations made from their own fabrics.

But Halston was to grow too big for his own boots. Soon he moved offices to the glamorous mirrored interiors of New York’s Olympic Tower. His keenness to develop the brand saw high signing a multi-million dollar deal with conglomerate Norton Simon. This took away his rights to his designs and name, while offering him continued creative control, allowing him to jump into bed with the likes of Max Factor, facilitating the launch of his first fragrance, Halston, with a bottle designed by longterm collaborator Elsa Peretti. The brand was soon on sheets, towels, even leather goods. But gradually new bosses with scant appreciation of fashion or design would take over, and one by the name of Jacob Epstein would be his nemesis.

Halston launched a worthy endeavour to dress mainstream America through a deal with JCPenney (a sort of US Marks & Spencer). Termed “From class to mass” the venture focused on volume rather than artistry, and did not go down with well with Bergdorf Goodman, or his high-net-worth clientele, many of whom cancelled orders.

By this time Halston’s lavish lifestyle was also becoming financially exhausting, along with his on-off Venezuelan lover Victor Hugo, who had arrived on the scene purely for his looks (“One night Halston dialed a dick”) and then became involved in the business, upsetting several members of his team. The final segment sees Halston re-connecting with his family and employing his niece, Lesley Frowick, who emotes on his HIV/AIDS demise rather too copiously.

Halston works best as a chronicle of his fashion design artistry with its eye-catching footage and fascinating characters of the era. The business side of things often feels over-laboured and detailed. But it’s still an entertaining biopic to watch. Clearly Halston was a force to be reckoned with, totally redefining the fashion world, and bringing America to the forefront with his fabulous legacy. MT

ON RELEASE On various platforms including Dogwoof.com

 

 

 

 

The Men’s Room (2018) **** Krakow Film Festival 2019

Dir. Petter Sommer, Jo Vemud Svendsen, 75 min., Norway

This watchable award-winning tribute to male friendship and vulnerability positively glows with a lowkey charm so redolent of its Northern European origins, and so real it could never quite work as a drama, avoiding sentimentality and cliche to achieve something rare. 

It sees a group of 25 Norwegian men in their prime getting together every Tuesday to sing and drink beer. The joke is that they have promised to sing at each other’s funerals and it soon looks like the choir’s conductor will prove the first one to go. It turns out that one of them is diagnosed with cancer and the doctor has given him just a few months to live. Naturally he feels fine. But it’s roughly the time that the choir has to prepare for its biggest gig to date: a warm-up job for Black Sabbath before their concert in Norway 2016. . The countdown has started, and the cancer-stricken conductor and desultory band of ‘choirboys’ try to keep their spirits high with songs about the hardships of middle-age, while they also prepare to say farewell. Soft-peddling over their feelings for the opposite sex, their irreverent banter is always respectfully playful and well-received in this middle-class milieu of contemporary Oslo. The  mood is kept buoyant by their community singing that provides the vehicle for sharing their thoughts and opening up, joshing with each other as they do. Rarely has a film been so quietly amusing, and surprisingly moving. The Men’s Room goes straight to the heart and stays there. MT

KRAKOW FILM FESTIVAL | 26 May – 5 June 2019

Van Gogh & Japan (2019) ***

Dir: David Bickerstaff | Doc, 90′

Van Gogh was one of the most influential and prolific artists of the 19th Century so it seems reasonable that another biopic should be dedicated to him, this time looking at his influence in Japan.

David Bickerstaff once again directs with a similar format to Van Gogh, A New Way of Seeing using the artist’s personal letters from close friends and his brother Theo to reveal Van Gogh’s deep connection to Japanese visual culture, and its importance in understanding his most iconic works. 

Although the Dutch artist never infact visited to Japan, his work had a profound impact on his contemporaries there including calligrapher Tomoko Kawao and performance artist Tatsumi Orimoto, and film provides a modern perspective on the rich, symbiotic relationship between Van Gogh and Japan.

Dramas such as At Eternity’s Gate and Loving Vincent have helped to flesh out what the Dutch artist was like as a man. Van Gogh & Japan shows how the European avant-garde went hand in hand with Japan art in the 19th century, and how artists such as Hokusai, Utagawa Kinuyoshi and Hiroshige captured the imagination of those painters who laid the foundations of modernism in Europe, on the other side of the world: Manet’s American friend Whistler was influenced by Japanese artwork in his painting Nocture: Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge.

Bickerstaff films in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam where there is perhaps the most direct example of how Van Gogh was influenced by Hiroshige’s prints, The Residence with Plum Trees at Kameido, 1857; and he went on to paint his own version in 1887, Flowering Plum Orchard (after Hiroshige).