Archive for the ‘Latest releases’ Category

The Menu (2022)

Dir: Mark Mylod | Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Anya Taylor Joy, Nicholas Hoult, Janet McTeer, John Leguizamo, Judith Light, Hong Chau | Drama, 107’

A puzzle lies at the heart of this deceptively simple satirical drama from Succession director Mark Mylod. And no prizes for guessing who eventually finds their way successfully through the trial that takes the form of a puffed-up haute cuisine soiree, a sort of ‘masterclass’ lead by Ralph Fiennes’s condescending chef and his prim assistant Elsa (Hong Chau).

The Menu is the latest in the recent spate of films that lampoon the rich and privileged. But also those who slavishly follow the crowd – here it’s a brace of bankers, a washed up wealthy couple; an actor beyond his sell by date. And at the end of the meal their lives will end in tragedy – no less – as the mood shifts into horror.

Then there’s Margot (Anya Taylor Joy) a last minute stand-in date for fearful foodie Tyler (Nicolas Hoult) who is in awe of the whole set-up. The Menu is clever, amusing and very proud of its smug credentials. But Margot will call it all out and foist Fiennes’s eminence grise masterchef by his starched, shroud-like overalls. As a footnote when it comes to over-inflated food descriptions, I first heard the phrase ‘freshly harvested baby carrots tossed in creamy butter’ back in the early 1980s, on a flight to San Francisco. Who would of have known that this ridiculous food gentrification fetish would get so out of hand. MT

THE MENU IS NOW ON RELEASE NATIONWIDE

A Lonely Island in the Distant Sea (2021) London Korean Film Festival 2022

Dir: Kim Mi-young | Cast: Park Jong-hwan, Lee Yeon, Kang Kyung-hun, Park Hyun-suk
110 mins | 2021 | South Korea

Life is what happens when you’re making plans is very much the order of the day in this inspired drama from Kim Mi-young. The story follows Yuncheol (Park Jong-hwan) who, now in his forties, has failed in his marriage, and his early promise as a talented sculptor has gone off the boil. But the winds of change bring a refreshing new boost to life when his artistically gifted daughter Gina (Lee Yeon) decides to drop out of college and enter a Buddhist temple.

Yuncheol, who himself once imagined becoming a monk, is not sure what to think of his daughter’s decision, but her confidence inspires him to explore pastures green and this leads to a romantic attachment with an independent-minded history lecturer (Kang Kyung-hun). A Lonely Island just goes to prove that even when we think are stuck in the doldrums the winds of change can suddenly blow in alter this mindset triggering a different perspective on life.

A sensitive and profound drama about the dynamics of social interaction and the meaning of life that resonates more profoundly at the narrative develops. Yuncheol’s life may seem static but his close relationships help him to develop and deepen in unexpected ways.

LONDON KOREAN FILM FESTIVAL 2022 | Wed 09 Nov, 8:45pm, ICA London 

She is Love (2022)

Wri/Dir: Jamie Adams | US Drama 83′

Ever wondered what happened to Sam Riley after his breakout role as frontman Ian Curtis in the much-acclaimed biopic Joy Division? He plays Idris in this perky romcom that sees a long divorced couple revisiting their past in a bid to salvage the good times. Idris is now in a new relationship with Louise (Marisa Abela) and running a hotel in Cornwall where Patricia (Haley Bennett) checks in for a few day’s holiday. Clearly still very fond of each other their awkwardness at suddenly meeting up again soon gives way to a fun-filled vibe touched with soulfulness as they reminisce, write songs and share the odd tear. Although She is Love treads familiar ground and brings nothing new to the party it provides limpid light-hearted entertainment for just over an hour. MT

BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2022

 

 

 

 

 

Smile (2022)

Dir.: Parker Finn, Cast: Sosie Bacon, Jessie T. Usher, Kyle Gallner, Caitlin Stasey, Robin Weigert, Gillian Zinser, Kal Penn; USA 2022, 115 min.

Horror flick Smile brings nothing new to the sub-genre, although Christobal Tapia de Veer’s inventive soundscape will echo eerily in your head long after the film’s forgettable mundane plot has faded; the second half is particularly absurd and surreal. Parker Finn developed the feature debut from his eleven minute short Laura hasn’t slept and borrows heavily from J-horror especially The Ring and It Follows.

Over-worked and on call 80 plus hours a day Dr Rose Cotter is barely holding down a job in the trauma department of a psychiatric ward in a large hospital where she is also receiving treatment from therapist Dr Madeline Northcott (Weigert) for the damage caused by her mother’s suicide. Backstory-wise Rose also has issues with her sister Holly (Zinser) for leaving Rose to deal with her mother. When Holly’s son celebrates his seventh birthday, he unpacks Rose’ present, only to find the dead body of Rose’ missing cat Moustache. Then comes the more recent shock of Rose seeing her patient Laura (Stasey) die before her very eyes by slicing her throat with a piece of porcelain, having confessed to being unable to cope with the strangely smiling faces of strangers hunting her down.

Soon, Rose is experiencing the same symptoms as her dead patient, and researching Laura’s past she discovers that her university lecturer also committed suicide in front of her. Rose’s fiancé Trevor (Usher), is unwilling to discuss the issue, so Rose turns to ex-boyfriend Joel (Gallner) who happens to be a cop. She has to escape the deadly curse and has only four or five days to do so.

Visually DoP Charlie Sarroff shocks with the some decent horror tropes, jump-cuts and gory set pieces. Sosie Bacon (daughter of Kevin) feels real as a mental health professional coming up against something no textbook has prepared her for. In the end, Smile looks convincing, but no prizes here for the unimaginative storyline. AS

NOW IN CINEMAS NATIONWIDE

Hidden Letters (2022)

Dir.: Violet Du Feng; co-dir.: Zhao Quing; Documentary with Hu Xin, Wu Simu, He Yanxin; China 2022, 89 min.

A fascinating new documentary sheds light on a secret language used by Chinese women to communicate with each other imprisoned in their homes before Chairman Mao’s “Big Leap Forward”

First time director, producer and co-writer Violet Du Feng has, with co-director Zhao Quing (Please remember Me) offers up a passionate expose showing how even nowadays Chinese women are still hemmed in by traditional roles despite a more commercialised society. The sisterhood’s covert means of contact away from the prying eyes of the male population was made possibly by a clandestine language – Nushu was their only way out.

Hu Xin, a woman in her mid 30s, takes lessons in Nushu from He Yan Xin, the last living Nushu mistress of the art. Xin works in the Nushu Museum in Jianyong Township, formed by seven villages where she met her ex-husband after joining the National Youth Council. Her parents were complicit in China’s male-dominated society, wanted her to marry and have children rather than a career. But her spouse was brutal and even made her abort a six-month old daughter, because he wanted a son.

Even Xin herself seems to fall in with this traditional view, seeing herself as having failed as a woman and mother. Yan Xin remembers boycotting sex with her husband for several years, talks about a time when it was impolite to look at a man while doing the housework. “We were merely slaves”, she recalls. Her husband beat her up but never touched her face, and forbade her to cry within earshot of his cousins who lived next door. Yan Xin sang Nushu lullabies to her children, and kept up a lengthy correspondence with other repressed women.

Wu Simu, a music teacher who also teaches Nushu songs and dances, thought her Shanghai-based fiancé Simu was quite progressive but it soon turned out that all he wanted was a workhorse who would hold down a job and look after the children single-handed. After all his own mother worked the land all day and did the household chores in the evening. He orders Simu to give up Nushu – seeing it as worthless hobby that detracts her from earning more in a proper job. Simu, to the great disappointment of her parents, gives him the push.

Talking about commercial values. both Simu and Hu Xin are involved in an exhibition featuring Nushu products in Macao where local politicians take the position that Nushi products would have no future without the adherence to market trends. They also considerate the language to be subversive, undermining the ideology of the state by diminishing the fundamental the female tenets of Obedience, Acceptance and Resilience.

A $300 mobile ‘phone capable of translating from Mandarin to Nishu is not exactly selling like hot cakes either. Simu confesses she is frustrated that men are still “the Heaven”. Hu Xin and Wu Simu wanted the exhibition to be called “Women for Modern Times”, but the politicians insisted on “Modern Women” ie ‘Modern’ had to precede ‘Women’. So the future of this secret language  Hu Xin and Wu Simu think about the future of Nushu at schools, the State bureaucrats prefer “Cross branding”‘ which is very popular. In their studio, Hu Xin and Wu Simu plan for participation of Nushu artists in an exhibition about Women artists – not video games.

Du Feng weaves together a rather pessimistic image of Women’s rights – past and present – in China. DoPs Feng Tiebing and Wei Gao show a technocratic state of the art, but in the country side the rules of the last century are still intact. And for all the progress in technologies: the cut-throat business of competition has no place for subtle subjects like Nushu. AS

BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2022 | 5 – 16 OCTOBER 2022

Blackbird (2022)

Dir/Wri: Michael Flatley | Drama, 97′

Michael Flatley’s self-financed spy thriller has a checkered history, premiering briefly four years ago, and now back in cinemas in the UK and Ireland.

The Riverdance supremo directs and also stars as a James Bond style spy turned luxury hotel owner, retired to Barbados for some peace and quiet after his fiancée is killed in a mission. But the past comes back to haunt him when another old flame (Nicole Evans) reappears on the arm of an arch villain (Eric Roberts) whose game plan is not unlike Hitler’s idea of exterminating the Jews. 

Flatley has certainly splashed out budget-wise in a story that flips between lush Irish countryside, rainy London and beachside Barbados, but although his moves may be slick on the dance floor Flatley’s directing skills are less so. Blackbird is certainly a watchable if rather predictable little thriller with its heart in the right place. MT

IN CINEMAS FROM FRIDAY 2 SEPTEMBER

Queen of Glory (2021)

Dir.: Nana Mensah; Cast: Nana Mensah, Meeko Gattuso, Oberon K.A. Adjepong, Adam Leon, Christie Mensah, Madeleine Weinstein; USA 2021, 78 min

A first time feature for American Ghanian filmmaker Nana Mensah who directs and stars in this lively female empowerment drama, short-changed by her rather uneven script.

In “Little Ghana”, New York’s Bronx, we meet Mensah’s Sarah Obeng studying for a PhD on Molecular Neuro-Oncology at Columbia University. She has a married boyfriend, Lyle (Leon), who works in the same department, and has promised Sarah he will leave his family and move with her to Ohio. We know how this will turn out.

But then tragedy suddenly enters the picture: Sarah’s mother Grace dies of an aneurism, leaving her with a house in Accra, and a shop selling kitsch Christian merchandise run by Pitt (Gattuso), an ex-convict, whose whole body is covered in tattoos. Sarah’s estranger father Godwin (Adjepong) soon fetches up from Accra, angling for a part of the inheritance. Thwarted, he slaps Sarah and treats her like a servant, asking her to follow him to Ghana, but Sarah hits back.

Life in Ghana is very much a family affair. Sarah is sucked into back into domestic scene and has to dress accordingly, her aunts hoping she will soon produce a child. Faced with the appalling misogyny amongst the menfolk, Sarah ends up running the Cult shop with Pitt.

In an interview with ‘Vogue’, the director made it clear she had intended Sarah to be a cis-woman. But this doesn’t quite work with the acceptance of her marginal existence for Sarah – working in the shop, instead of pursuing her scientific career. Going to Ohio State, just to be with her lover was bad enough – exchanging the prestigious Columbia University for an academic backwater – but giving up her profession altogether is a bridge too far.

DoP Cybel Martin underlines the realism of the script, her images brilliantly evoke the choice facing Sarah with the “Tracey Towers” block in Pelham Parkway, Bronx, and the university atmosphere of an environment dominated by academia.

Mensah’s protagonists are cyphers rather than fully-fleshed out personalities: Lyle remains sullen and tight-lipped, and even Gattuso’s Pitt is just a caricature of a semi-reformed convict. Mensah is a committed director and a convincing actor, but even with a running time of 78 minutes and a few laughs, the reductive characters lack authenticity. AS

RELEASED IN THE UK ON 26 AUGUST 2022

The Banshees of Inisherin (2022)

Wri/Dir: Martin McDonagh | Cast: Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Kerry Condon, Barry Keoghan, David Pearse, Pat Shortt | Ireland, Drama, 109′

Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson star in this big screen bittersweet dramady that reunites them with In Bruges director Martin McDonagh completing his “Aran islands Trilogy” of plays set in the early 1920s during civil war. The first two stage outings: “The Cripple of Inishmaan” and “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” had been a great success in theatres McDonagh opted for a   film version for this final part that never quite escapes its stage bound origins, although the drole deadpan humour saves the day along with the natural beauty of the emerald island landscapes of Inishmore.

Colm (Gleason) and Pádraic (Farrell) have always been the best of buddies. But one day, out of the blue, Colm calls time on their friendship for no apparent reason apart from wanting to spend the rest of his life with his fiddle and his border Collie. There is no place for Pádraic any more. End of story. And the last straw is an incident with Jenny, Pádraic’s mini donkey.

But Pádraic is having none of it and gets his sister Siobhan (Condon), and Barry Keoghan (Kearney), the unstable son of the hated village policeman, to beg Colm to reconsider.  It all comes down to Colm threatening to cut off one finger at a time if Pádraic ever speaks to him again. Siobhan takes in these wider implications brought on by the battle raging on the mainland, but the men go, as men do, for all out victory – or nothing.

The allegory of civil war is clear, but the hostilities always take a back seat in Banshees. The focus here is on personal relationships , and about how friendship can often turn to hatred overnight, usually rippling out from a petty slight or disagreement, the fault line for deep-seated resentment, the straw that breaks the camel’s back, or this case the donkey’s. McDonagh gradually fleshes out his three main characters but never enough to explain the war of attrition between them. Regret, sadness or a simple lack of fulfilment is channelled out into the open, into hurting the nearest and dearest, and the injured party is left bewildered and bereft.

The Banshees of Inisherin met with critical success and an award for Colin Farrell and “Best script” for McDonagh in Venice 2022. The pointlessness of war comes home on a human level through the sheer inanity of the broken friendship. It’s silly, childish and without real grounding. And McDonagh showcases this vacuity through the solemnity of his drama that unfolds like a procession without any core belief. The formal brilliance of the confrontation is based on trivial home-spun philosophy. Underneath the smouldering fractures, there is a vacuum – and that is the pity of war.

NOW ON GENERAL RELEASE NATIONWIDE

Fall (2022)

Dir: Scott Mann | UK Action Thriller, 107′

British director Scott Mann Takes a shoe string budget and turns it into one of the best action thrillers of the summer with ‘a feel the fear and do it anyway’ premise.

Totally far-fetched and ludicrous it may be but certainly effectlve (and aimed at the GenZ generation) it all starts with accident when experienced climber Dan (Mason Gooding) falls to his death from a vertiginous mountain face leaving his wife Becky (Grace Fulton) and her and best friend Hunter (Virginia Gardner) stranded thousands of feet above ground level, and then left to cope with his tragic loss.

Becky is still drowning her sorrows a year later when Hunter, now a unfeasibly fearless extreme sports fanatic with a massive online following, suggests they scatter Dan’s ashes in style, rather than moping around mourning his death. But what Hunter actually has in mind actually beggars belief: the two will climb 2,000 feet to the top of a rusty old pylon support – the same height as the Eiffel Tower – for the ceremony, it’s the stuff of nightmares.

Mann and his DoP MacGregor and team make terrific use of cutting edge visual effects to make us believe the girls are really up there in the skies where its searingly hot and scorching) but what’s beyond belief and most impressive is their clear-eyed vision and steely resolve to survive once things start to go wrong. Admittedly Becky is hard-nosed and cruel as we’ve already discovered in an earlier scene where she leaves a coyote to be eaten alive by vultures, relaying the spectacle to her followers, she also admits to feeling hungry when the smell of a BBQ drifts up to the skimpy metal platform they are standing on (surely the last thing on your mind on the brink of death). With its simple but effective plot-line Fall is a buddy survival movie that never outstays its welcome in delivering watchable, stylishly artful thrills – in contrast to the summer’s overblown blockbusters such as Nope and Bullet Train.

Fall is out in the UK on 2 September

 

Loving Highsmith (2022) Locarno Film Festival

Dir/Wri: Eva Vitija | Doc, 73′

“I shall travel the world and still feel lonely: I am the forever-seeking”. Patricia Highsmith

The American novelist Patricia Highsmith (1921-95) is seen through the prism of her sexuality and personal life in this engaging documentary written and directed by Swiss filmmaker Eva Vitija, based on the author’s diaries and journals, and voiced by Gwendoline Christie giving an illusion of remarkable intimacy with Highsmith herself.

Patricia Highsmith is well known for her stealthily-plotted psychological novels and their various film adaptations such as Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, and The Talented Mr Ripley raising her profile to international status. But she also blazed a smouldering trail as a pioneering writer of gay literature, most notably in The Price of Salt, that found its way onto the big screen in Tod Haynes’ glossy, award-winning drama Carol. Ironically the films garnered more financial successful than her literature.

Vitija’s film reveals a sad childhood in Forth Worth Texas and New York where Highsmith was rejected by her emotionally distant mother Mary and grew up as a darkly attractive woman much admired for her stylish looks in the discrete lesbian bars of 1950s New York, yet held back by her mother’s hurtful comments about her appearance: “Why don’t you dress like a woman?”, and oppressive attempts to interest her in potential husbands.

Despite her homosexuality Highsmith was far from liberal in her outlook, veering towards racism and even antisemitism, although three of her lovers were infact Jewish. In common with many writers, Highsmith kept herself to herself, preferring the company of cats – even snails – to people, although she had several enduring relationships, most notably with Marijane Meaker, a friend, lover and biographer who is one of the film’s most enlightening ‘talking heads’. The two shared a house with their five cats in Pennsylvania at a time when women living together were assumed to be simply pooling their resources rather than satisfying their romantic needs. Highsmith’s complex dual identity is further fleshed out as Vitija explores the author’s other former lovers including Tabea Blumenschein, Marion Aboudaram and Monique Buffet.

Highsmith’s main protagonists were men, and she once claimed: “Women want to read about men and men want to read about men”. Meeker comments: “even though her mother had a career and was strong and independent, Highsmith maintained women in general still see themselves in terms of their relationships with men. Vitija puts forward the idea that the misanthropist character Tom Ripley, the protagonist of five of her books, was actually based on the author herself.

Relatives from her Texan family, on her mother’s side, talk at length about the need for women to be ultra feminine in an era dominated by masculine men. And this male prerogative is backed up by footage of rodeos and ranches that featured heavily in Highsmith’s early life, forcing the author on to an endless quest for identity. Even at the height of her international career she was eclipsed by her radio announcer cousin, back home in Forth Worth.

Highsmith also resided for a time in England where she bought a house to be near a woman only described as Caroline. But the affair ended in bitter rejection re-enforcing the self-internalised feelings of negativity projected onto her by her mother, and Highsmith later took refuge in France where gardening became an absorbing pastime providing solace for her disillusionment with love. The author would end her days in Switzerland where an architect was commissioned to design her a low level modernist house in Locarno where this biopic screened at the 75th Locarno Film Festival.

Enriched with plentiful photographs, cine-film footage of Highsmith herself, and clips from Carol, Mr Ripley and Strangers on a Train, the film provides intimate access to the inner life of a highly complex writer who always considered interviews a “profound indignity”. MT

LOCARNO FILM FESTIVAL 2022

I have Electric Dreams | Tengo suenos electricos (2022) Locarno Film Festival

Dir: Valentina Maurel | Cast: Vivian Rodriguez, Daniela Marin Navarro, Jose Pablo Segrada Johanning, Reinaldo Amien

A 16-year-old girl blazes a trail towards female empowerment in this sultry cinematic snapshot of contempo Costa Rica from writer director Valentina Maurel.

Impressionistic and with a lubricious eye for detail Tengo Suenos Electricos oozes sensuality in exploring every angle of Eva’s world as she struggles to make sense of her parent’s ugly separation. Held together by a stunning debut from Daniela Marin Navarra as Eva this raw but enchanting drama is one of the standouts of this year’s Golden Leopard competition lineup at Locarno Film Festival.  

Eva really gets on with her father and wants to move in with him, but all the warning signs are there in a squalid opening scene where he struts violently away from the family car leaving her mother and younger sister quaking in the abandoned vehicle.

Overwhelmed by confuson, anger and bewilderment intermingled with all the mysterious changes of puberty Eva struggles to cope before finally taking control of the jealous mistrust she feels for her mother and a love/hate relationship with her broke and mentally unstable father who is experiencing a crisis of his own and has moved into a shabby apartment with his friend Dove who will give her a first taste of lust and disappointment. Eva’s baptism of fire smoulders into an often confrontational but more confident future. At least her mother has left her in no doubt about what to expect from men, she also learns that women like to talk about the ‘sisterhood’ but are in fact just competitors vying for the same sordid male gene pool.

Daniela Marin Navarra navigates the role of Eva with instinct, developing her character from sullen vulnerability to surprising maturity until she finally calls time on her father’s behaviour in a film that drenches and scalds you with its tropical charm inculcated by Nicolas Wong Diaz captivating camerawork and Bertand Conard’s inspired editing. Valentina Maurel won the Cannes Cinefondation Award for her short Paul Est La in 2017, and with Suenos Electricos now has all the makings of a very accomplished filmmaker. MT

LOCARNO FILM FESTIVAL 2022

Nope (2022)

Dir.: Jordan Peele; Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, Keith David, Brandon Perea, Michael Wincott, Steven Yeun; USA 2022, 131 min.

Best known for his much acclaimed feature debut Get Out, the mantle of ‘cult director’ is now sitting comfortably on Jordan Peele’s shoulders with this latest, rather confused epic, an accomplished B-movie that runs at over two hours. His backers, who budgeted a quarter of a billion dollars on his first two flics, are waiting with baited breath to see if Peele can score a hatrick with Nope – (yes, seems the answer could be there).

OJ (Kaluuya) and his sister Emerald (Palmer) live on a ranch in the Californian desert where they train horses for Hollywood productions, after their father Otis Sr (David) was killed in a freak accident when metallic UFOs rained down from the sky.

Divided into chapters named after the ranch’s horses, OJ and Em are alarmed by ‘phone and electricity black-outs, and spot some saucer-like apparitions in the night sky. Emerging from a cloud, the creatures resemble birds caught in the mist, but soon morph into a manta ray or a peculiar form of octopus. OJ treats them like animals and avoids starring at them, hoping to keep them at bay.

Meanwhile the siblings see a chance of making it big in Hollywood, and team up with a salesman (Perea) and cameraman Antlers Holst (Wincott) in the hope of capturing images of the entities with his advanced equipment.

In an unrelated plot-line, OJ sells some of the horses to Ricky ‘Jupe’ Park (Yeung), who runs a tacky Western show in the valley. Jupe has a weird backstory: he has been traumatised for life after playing a boy called Jupiter in the 1990 sitcom Gordy. In one of the episodes, a chimpanzee suddenly runs riot, killing all human cast members apart from Park.

At this point it’s worth mentioning that the Gordy massacre was telegraphed by a bible quote from ‘Nahum’ Chapter three, in which the citizens of Nineveh are threatened with punishment: “I will cast abominable filth upon you, make you vile and make you a spectacle”. Peele somehow connects the quote with the massacre, having the chimp pull off his garish birthday hat off and throws it to the ground. He certainly had enough.

This is certainly a Hollywood spectacle, but too far-fetched to give it much credit – it’s not even on par with the overrated Once upon a Time in Hollywood – without the historical underpinnings. There are gaps in the narrative, and some sort of structure would have helped. What makes it really worthwhile are DoP Hoyte van Hoytema’s brilliant 65 mm images (Ratio 1:2.39), unfortunately only available in Imax theatres.

Overall, NOPE is certainly a bit of fun, but the lack of depth – despite some allusions to history and politics – reduces its impact to just another fairground attraction. AS

ON RELEASE IN CINEMAS FROM FRIDAY 12 AUGUST 2022

Love-Lights (2022) Locarno Film Festival

 

 

Dir.: Acacio de Almeida, Marie Carré; Cast: Oscar Cruz, Sabel Ruth, Luis Miguel; Portugal 2022, 67 min.

Portuguese directors  Acacio de Almeida and Marie Carré expand their short but poignant essay on light and film into a full length feature, a poetic love letter to Portuguese cinema and romance with spectacular sequences of space.

A VoiceOver by camera man Oscar (Cruz) explains: “The main link is between all forms of light, but particularly the film camera”. Light illuminates the central character in every film. “The face of an actor is also a luminous point, full of emotions and feelings”. Bruno Ganz, Ornella Muti, Joaquim de Almeida and Marie Trintignant have all been illuminated for eternity. But, there are dangers too: Silver nitrate can ignite and obliterate everything in voracious flames.

Cinema is also a kind of jail, images are captured and locked down for eternity. It bears testament to the class struggle down the ages with archive footage of demonstrations in Oporto, during the 1974 Portuguese revolution. In a filmic obituary of Maria Cabal (1941-2017), the Anna Karina of Portuguese cinema, we see her in a dressing room, looking into a mirror, alongside excerpts of her films – a young ingénue and an old woman.

Oscar asks: what could light be if it does not reflect us? He also muses on the stars leaving messages of their death. Maria Cabal, in one of her most famous roles as Illda, reflected “The objects in film are imprisoned images. Films and settings belong to each for ever, places undergo transformations, the time of a film is a moment frozen in eternity, it will never exist again but remain in the memory for those who shared the experience”. Cabal appears again, as Illda, with Oscar observing: “We are composed of light, are an intrinsic piece of light.

The ending is rather grim: a piece of celluloid is held against a candle, Oscar talks about how “Man has invented light, which can destroy the whole planet in seconds. Light gives light, but also kills life.” All this in stark contrast to a long rural love scene where the man licks the breasts of his lover with milk just milked from a lamb.

Imaginative and always full of surprises, Love-Lights is a delight that never outstays its 60 odd minute welcome as a concise compendium of Portuguese cinema, with excerpts from films by Botellho, Villaverde, Gil, Monteiro and Paula Rocha among others. A worthwhile experience. AS

LOCARNO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2022

Rifkin’s Festival (2020)

Dir/Wri: Woody Allen | Cast: Wallace Shawn, Gina Gershon, Christoph Waltz, Louis Garrel, Elena Anaya, Sergi López | US comedy 92′

Woody Allen’s latest addition to the archive needed more oomph. The weary reverie tinged with wistful melancholy reflecting on the golden age of arthouse cinema and the nature of longterm love is let down by dreary characters.

The annual San Sebastián Film Festival is in full swing and jaded novelist, the shrew-like Mort Rifkin (Shawn), is there with his hard-faced publicist wife Sue (Gershon). But their marriage is in trouble. Super busy Sue is handling press for a breakout hit directed by popular French filmmaker Philippe (Garrel) who who will inadvertently seduce her with his signature brand of self-obsessed seriousness while hot-footing it from interview to press conference.

The Basque capital positively glows in the gilded tints of Autumn (captured by Woody’s regular cinematographer Vittorio Storaro) but this drama feels dour and decidedly lacklustre, largely due to a charmless set of one-dimensional characters. Mort and Sue seem a mismatched couple from the start – hard to imagine they ever had much in common. Her lack of empathy sends his hypochondria into overdrive, and heart palpitations soon see him in the arms of local cardiologist Jo Rojas (Anaya) whose marriage to the cartoonish creative Paco (Lopez) is also on the rocks. Dreams of a putative future together and a trip round the scenic coastline provide us with cinematic relief, but all Mort needs is another neurotic – and Jo is certainly no picnic in the park – falling asleep through sheer emotional exhaustion after finding Paco in bed with another woman.

Rifkin’s Festival is certainly a highly intelligent film full of insight and spirited humour largely lost . Woody takes scenes from his own film favourites: Citizen Kane to Jules et Jim and The Seventh Seal (Christophe Waltz the standout as the grim reaper) re-staging and re-shooting them as black & white parodies representing Mort’s own experiences. The trouble is, we feel nothing for any of these people and their turgid marriages and lifeless new love affairs despite the very real and relatable nature of their problems. MT

NOW ON RELEASE IN FRANCE

 

 

 

 

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

Paloma’s Wedding (2022) Munich Film Festival 2022

Dir.: Marcelo Gomes; Cast: Kika Sena, Ridson Rice, Ze Maria, Suzy Lopes, Samya De Lavor, Anita Souza Macedo, Ana Marinho; Brazil/Portugal 2022, 104 min.

Brazilian director/co-writer Marcelo Gomes (Waiting for the Carnival) combines the classical South American melodrama with a modern twist: In a remote village best known as Brazil’s capital of jeans, Paloma, a transgender woman with a daughter, wants to marry the love of her life in church. The tension finally erupts from all directions.

Paloma (Sena) works as a hairdresser and harvest mangoes the nearby fields. José (‘Ze’) (Rice) is very much in love with his motorcycle, but his commitment to Paloma is sometimes shaky. He tries to talk her out of wanting to marry in church but Paloma asks the local priest to perform the marriage ceremony. Jose is adamant that only the Pope can change the rules around church marriages where only a man and woman can be united in holy matrimony.

But Paloma’s not for turning and digs her heels in with a letter to the Pope, expecting a positive answer. When the priest reads the pontiff’s reply giving Paloma the bum’s rush, Paloma indulges in a one-night-stand with Ivanzilo, the driver who ferries the workers from the village to the mango fields.

Meeting up with old friends in the town of Saloa, one of them, Rikely, reminds Paloma of the wild times they used to have. Despite varies setback Paloma doesn’t lose sight of her goal and soon the local media gets hold of the story, causing more drama.

DoP Pierre De Kerchove creates vibrant images on the widescreen and in intimate closeup, the sex scenes are provocative and despite the darkness they have a poetic quality. Kika Sena’s Paloma is a brilliant portrait of a vulnerable person taking on the whole community while bringing up a child in challenging circumstances.

There is a very subtle scene featuring casual racism at a hotel swimming pool and Gomes never lets up: Paloma is always on the move, trying to fix problems – but never forgetting the dream of a church wedding. Few features have packed in so many diverse conflicts in a running time of just over a hundred minutes. Passionate and emotionally charged, Paloma is an ambiguous heroine, who wants all what heaven allows – and more. AS

PREMIERING AT MUNICH FILM FESTIVAL | 24 June 2022

Elvis (2022)

Dir.: Baz Luhrmann; Cast: Tom Hanks, Austin Butler, Olivia DeJonge, Helen Thomson, Kodi Smit McPhee, Richard Roxburgh; US/Australia 2022, 159 min.

Elvis Aaron Presley (1935-1977) was – and still is – the most successful recording artist on this planet, so hiring Baz Luhrmann, well known for his baroque output, to make a film of the entertainer’s life, and turn in a handsome profit seemed like a brilliant idea.

But casting Tom Hanks as the singer’s gambling, cheating and lying manager Colonel Tom Parker put Austin Butler’s Presley at a glaring disadvantage. Parker, who voices the linear narrative, is also a rather unreliable witness to the story; Butler is certainly entertaining and charismatic as the titular hero, but does he do a convincing job as the hip-swivelling legend? Let’s just say few performers would have fared better opposite a behemoth like Hanks. Olivia DeJonge, as Elvis’ wife Priscilla, is even more short-changed: she brings up their daughter and suffers in silence, while her husband shags and devours pills like candies. And no mention is made of her being a teen bride; Priscilla was fourteen when she met the twenty-four-year-old Elvis for the first time in 1959.

The writers offer no real explanation as to why Elvis left for the army as a rebel in 1958, only to return two years later his bad boy instincts buttoned down. Amateur psychology is used to lay the blame on the shady Parker and his greed – we are led to believe the scrupulous manager of dubious Dutch origins had a hold over Elvis using the star as a cash cow to payoff his own mounting debts. Presley’s father Vernon (Roxburgh) was a weak role model and ended up in jail. Elvis’ actress mother Gladys (Thomson) is also just an underwritten sketch.

Luhrmann dishes up the legend’s mammoth musical history in all its glittering details weaving in a strand about his formative musical associations with the  segregated black artists Little Richard and Mahalia Jackson who lend vibrance to the story. DoP Mandy Walker, who worked with Luhrmann on Australia, pulls out all the stops in a biopic that runs for nearly three hours. Rather than zero-in on a pivotal era of the star’s career, Luhrmann merely touches on his entire life, and any depth or resonance is lost in the cacophony of flashing lights and noise.

Behind the cinematic showcase lies a hollow heart. Luhrmann, an obsessive showman himself, again goes overboard with his obsession for split screens in another sparkling montage that will satisfy the lowest common denominator. But having spent all his budget on appearances there’s nothing left for the script. The story is a classic but the straightforward chronicle approach takes away the element of surprise leaving us with an ‘all singing all dancing’ cabaret showpiece that ends in tears; a burnished biopic to please the investors rather than arthouse enthusiasts with discerning minds. AS

IN CINEMAS FROM JUNE 24TH 2022

It Snows in Benidorm (2021)

Dir/Wri: Isabelle Coixet | Cast: Timothy Spall, Sarita Choudhury, Carmen Machi, Pedro Casablanc | Spain Drama, 117′

Lost souls are marooned in an artificial ‘paradise’ in this meandering drama from Catalan writer director Isabelle Coixet.

The best thing about It Snows in Benidorm is Timothy Spall who carries the film with a permanently perplexed and world weary expression as Peter Riordan, a kindly but disillusioned bank clerk given early retirement when his ethics fall out of favour with the bank’s modern approach to lending.

Peter, also a keen meteorologist, heads off to Spain to visit his brother Daniel who he hasn’t seen for years, and who never appears either, providing the first in a long list of unanswered questions in this overlong and often farcical feature with its stagey internal scenes set against the towering skyscrapers of its panoramic backdrop of the Costa Blanca. Benidorm emerges a touristy retirement backwater for garishly dressed hysterical pensioners on their second lease of life; a sunny place for shady Spaniards, as Somerset Maugham who say, where people regularly disappear into its criminal underworld.

The dispeptic Peter does find love of sorts in burlesque dancer Sarita Choudhury who fails to bring out the humanity in the lonely ‘Pearl’ resigned to a life of displacement after a questionable past. Peter discovers his brother was embroiled in dodgy dealings in the property market, and ends up in a phoney kidnap attempt courtesy of Daniel’s business partner Esteban Campos (Casablanc) a longtime lamb butcher hellbent on making a killing of a different kind. There’s also a part for Almodovar regular Carmen Machi as the spunky seaside police chief: an awkward scene involving a tryst with her muscled young lover feels ridiculous.

Coixet has had some successes in her long career but with Snows it looks like she made a list of socially relevant themes to be incorporated into her storyline, and they crop up in offbeat scenes that sit incoherently alongside the main thrust of the narrative – the search for Daniel – robbing the piece of a much needed dramatic tension, rather like the adverts on TV. Whether It Snows in Benidorm is meant to be a dark comedy, or a comedy of manners, is unclear but it doesn’t succeed as either. And as the story draws to its cryptic conclusion we are left as uninspired and perplexed as Peter himself. MT

ON RELEASE FROM 23 `June 2022.

 

 

 

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The Princess (2022)

Dir.: Ed Perkins; Documentary about Princess Diana; UK 2022, 106 min.

Hot on the heels of Spencer, The Crown and the musical Diana, THE PRINCESS does not promise or deliver any new insight into the life and tragic death of our much loved, Princess of Wales. Instead Ed Perkins pieces together a documentary made up exclusively of television news footage and public records, once again showing the Diana we have seen in the media and watched on TV for over 40 years – 25 of them after her death in a Parisian car crash. This is a digest of what was fed to the general public – rather than a feast of new information revealing the truth what really happened.

When the TV camera spotlight first fell on Lady Diana Spencer, it was 1981, she was an innocent twenty year old nursery teacher;  Prince Charles a well-travelled, sophisticated 32 year old prince. They harding knew each other, let alone loved each other, as the first TV interview shows. The media version of what happened next was “The Fairy Story”. In the midst of social and political turbulence, a fairy story was badly needed. But the fairy tale ended when Prince Charles, even after the birth of his first son William, continued to lead the life of a bachelor – including his adulterous affair with Camilla Parker Bowles, who was also married and a mother of two.

Much later, in the scandalous TV interview with Martin Bashir,  Diana spilt the beans: her own romantic affairs; the self harm; Bulimia; and a suicide attempt. Now the second phase, a “Soap Opera” was to begin. A collision between the royal family, representing traditional values, and Diana’s 20th Century lifestyle was played out before a public. A Disney movie perhaps, but nothing to do with the fact that the couple had never been in love in the first place. The so-called heart-break was the base the relationship was built on. Once again the British media drove the narrative forward, as it still does today, serving the public with what it thought they wanted, rather than the real truth of the matter.

Writer/director Ed Perkins (Tell me, who I am) and his editors Jinx Godfrey and Daniel Lapira have certainly cobbled together a hoard of information but for whose benefit? Certainly not the ones who have worshipped “the princess of the people”, who was clearly at the cash cow for everyone who benefitted from her tragic story. Perhaps the best use of this documentary is as material for media students – as an example of reality television of the worst kind. AS

ON RELEASE FROM 30 JUNE 2022 FOR A SPECIAL ONE NIGHT ONLY EVENT ACROSS THE UK/IRELAND

 

Fire of Love (2022)

Dir.: Sara Dosa; Cast: Documentary with Maurice Krafft, Katia Krafft; narrator Miranda July; Canada/USA 2022, 93 min.

French volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft are the focus of this new documentary cum love story that records a life-changing visit to the island of Stromboli that would see them developing early warning systems for volcano eruptions from the early 1970s and lead to a worldwide research project that ended abruptly in June 1991, when they were killed, with 41 others, by a pyroclastic flow at Mount Unzen in Japan.

Sara Dosa (The Seer and the Unseen) bases her film on on a script by Shane Boris, Erin Caspar and Jocelyne Chaput that tells how the couple had met in Strasbourg and decided to devote their life to the beauty – and danger – of volcanos. Maurice maintained that rather than having “a long, monotonous life he would rather have a short, exciting one, dicing with danger in getting his legs burnt in boiling mud and risking life and limb to cross a lake in a rubber dingy containing sulphuric acid, making Katia, a chemist, incensed. Meanwhile she was famous for wearing metal helmets and walking along the edge of active volcano craters, captured in stunning camerawork by Pablo Alvarez-Mesa along with stunning images of the volcano Krakatoa, situated between the islands of Java and Sumatra.

Dosa and her writers flesh out the personal side of the couples’ obsession – just like Werner Herzog in A Fire within: A Requiem for Katia and Maurice Krafft – yet their immense scientific oeuvre of over twenty publications is not even mentioned once which is a shame since the Kraffts warned the filipino president Cory Aquino about the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo, allowing for the area to be evacuated. One of the Kraffts’ final publications before their death was “Understanding Volcanic Hazards and reducing volcanic risks”. In their own words, they “may have lived kamikaze existence”, but they contributed enormously to an arcane science. And like veritable pioneers they also paid the price. AS

NOW ON GENERAL RELEASE | SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL LONDON JUNE 2022

Good Luck to You, Leo Grande (2022) Sundance London

Dir.: Sophie Hide; Cast: Emma Thompson, Daryl McCormack, Isabella Laughland; UK 2022, 97 min.

Emma Thompson is the star turn in this comedy of manners between a male sex worker and a middle-aged, widowed woman – unfortunately the outcome is not as funny as planned.

Nancy Stokes (Thompson) feels rather short-changed on the sex front after a long marriage leaves her unsatisfied and determined to remedy the situation. And she hopes hunky sex worker Leo Grande (McCormack) will make her life complete, between the sheets. The two meet in a hotel room in Norwich with the aim of giving Nancy her first orgasm – although McCormack is no Richard Gere from American Gigolo, he is certainly pleasant and playful in dealing with Nancy’s technical list driven approach to intercourse which sees him coming up against barriers, and we don’t mean just on the condom front.  Soon the two are in a psychological clinch: Leo has obvious Mummy issues – being rejected for enjoying girls and drugs. The outcome is never in doubt, after all, this is a British feel-good fuck flick.

Good Luck suffers from the rather claustrophobic setting set – the hotel bedroom (and its Norwich location, bringing to mind Alan Partridge) gives DoP Bryan Mason very little to play with in a film spoilt by its rather clumsy script.

Thompson once again makes this warchable, McCormack tries his best to make his part believable. But Good Luck doesn’t flow – possibly intentionally: this is theatre, the verbal exchanges are awkward, the whole exercise hampered by the need for witty repartee. Not a big screen outing then but ideal for a rainy Sunday afternoon in front of the TV. AS

SUNDANCE LONDON | JUNE 2022

January (2022) Tribeca Film Festival 2022

Dir.: Viesturs Kairiss; Cast: Kärlis Arnolds, Avots, Alise Dzene, Baliba Broka, Aleksas Kazanavicius, Juhars Ulfsack; Latvia/Lithuvania/Poland 2022, 95 min.

Latvian director/co-writer Viesturs Kairiss recreates the turbulent days of January 1991 when Latvia – and other Baltic countries – were fighting for independence from the collapsing Soviet Union. Centred around a young student at the film school in Riga, January is shot in eight and sixteen mm, giving the feature a very intimate atmosphere. Dedicated to all the documentary filmmakers who died during the period, this is a chronicle of a lost youth set against a nation in crisis.

Jazis (Avots) is facing a crisis of a different kind: that of his own identity: he fancies himself as the new Tarkovsky, and manages to impress co-student Anna (Dzene) who is fascinated by his rather pretentious lectures, but when they end up in bed incapable of satisfying his new girlfriend, and he retreats into a depression. But the main problem in Jazis’ life are his parents: His mother Biruta (Broka) has fallen out with Communism and now activates for independence. Father Andrejs (Kazanavicius) is still a believer, even though he can see the crumbling Empire.

Then Podnieks (Ulfsack), a famous filmmaker, turns up to make matters worse for Jazis, especially when he hires Anna as his assistant. But their attraction for each other soon dies and Anna turns her affections back to Jazis who has almost lost interest in her. Everything comes to a head during the mid January demonstrations when barricades are erected in the streets of Riga and soon Jazis finds himself conscripted into the Russian army because his doctor refuses to attest to his “depression”. But when violence erupts on the streets, and demonstrators storm the Interior Ministry, Jazis problems are forced onto the back burner: “I will never find out who I am really’, he laments.

DoP Wojciech Staron frenetic handheld images capture the mayhem not only in Jazis’ mind but also in the disruption brewing around him.  January is very much a testament to the liberation movement, but the lovers are still the main protagonists: caught up in radical new ideas, but very much the victims of contradictions beyond their influence. A paean to revolutionary passion with a touch of early Truffaut.

TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL 2022 | WORLD PREMIERE JUNE 12

Men (2021)

Dir: Alex Garland | Cast: Jessie Buckley, Rory Kinear, Paapa Essiedu | US Fantasy horror

English director Alex Garland (Annihilation) dices with horror and comedy in his weird and wonderful hybrid set in a picturesque village in the depths of the English countryside where the male of the species appears in various guises – none of them favourable.

A secluded English country house with manicured gardens should be the perfect place to recuperate for a woman whose ex husband (Essiedu) has just committed suicide. But the Herefordshire hideaway where Harper (Buckley) seeks solace is more akin to the sinister Cornish village of The Wicker Man , and the owner, Geoffrey (Kinnear), an uppercrust oddball, is a dead ringer for TVs Harry Enfield complete with buck teeth and dandruff and a penchant for cavorting stark naked in the grounds. Other incarnations in his repertoire include the famous ‘loadsa money’ lookalike; a leery, misogynist vicar; and a schoolboy who looks like Anthony’s Hopkins’ puppet Corky from Magic.

Clearly Garland had a big budget to throw at this production that takes a tokenistic swipe at toxic masculinity, and gives lip service to domestic violence. But it does no favours for Jessie Buckley who is left incredulously hung out to dry with her character, a ballsy career woman who feels completely out of place in this meaningless ‘Midsomer Murders’ style charade, she seems to be in a different film.

For a time Buckley lends credibility to the film’s initial shock value but then our patience wears thin as Kinnear gets the more gratifying job of pulling different disguises out of his pantomime box of tricks. The overriding comedy element soon punches a hole in any vestigial tension the film has tried to instil, leaving Harper’s tragic backstory somehow diminished by the garish absurdity of the rest of the antics, and leaving us not sure whether to laugh or scream. A bizarre but watchable film. MT

ON RELEASE NATIONWIDE FROM FRIDAY 3 JUNE 2022 

 

Luzzu (2021)

Dir/Wri: Alex Camilleri | Cast: Jesmark Scicluna, Marlene Schranz, David Scicluna, Marta Vella | Drama 94′

Fisherman all over the world are under pressure in what is surely one of the most honourable professions since the time of Jesus: bringing home the catch.

Maltese American filmmaker Alex Camilleri backed by award-winning screenwriter Ramin Bahrani casts a real working fisherman (Jesmark Scicluna) in his intelligent debut feature that plays out like an agonising arthouse thriller set in a fishing Mediterranean community struggling to survive. Jesmark is one of a long line of locals making (or not making) their living from the sea. Each days he sets sails in his colourful painted luzzu – a traditional man-made wooden boat – hoping to support his newborn son who needs medical treatment. The alternative is to decommission his vessel for an EU payout and possibly getting tied up in EU red tape, or go on the black market with the island’s criminal underclass. Seemingly a no-win situation. Interestingly Malta joined the European Union in 2004 and their exotic language sounds like a cross between Sicilian and North African Arabic.

So the odds are really stacked against Jesmark who manages to look resentful, hurt and bewildered in a convincing performance that won him Best Acting award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Meanwhile, his wife Denise (Michela Farrugia) manages to make everything look like his fault, along with his mother in law. And to makes matters worse he now has to rely on a friend (David Scicluna) to help him.

Their daily catch yields a mixture of sea bream, mullet and bass, but they are forced to throw a lucrative swordfish back in the sea, although the fish is already dead,  because it contravenes EU regulations, and this is a tense moment for Jesmark who clearly feels back-footed and diminished. Clearly this is not working. So he joins forces with the unscrupulous Uday (Uday Maclean) in a soulless (!) foray that goes his integrity. This black market option requires him to go back on his tracks after dark and collect the leftover fish which can then be sold on to restaurants.

With disappointment and anger etched on his weatherbeaten face Jesmark is the embodiment of male failure. Luzzu serves a vibrant snapshot of this ancient Southern European archipelago with its age-old traditions and tightknit community dogged by global economic turndown and EU restrictions. MT

SUNDANCE SPECIAL JURY AWARD – ACTING | OUT ON 27 MAY 2022

Cannes Classics – 2022 restorations

This year’s Cannes Classics strand opens with Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore in celebrating of its restoration 50 years after shooting began in 1972. The mammoth undertaking runs for over three hours and would later go on to win the Grand de Jury presided by Ingrid Bergmann, and the Prix de la Critique, causing riots back in the 1973. A full retrospective of the director’s work will in slated for 2023 in French cinemas.

Sciuscià | Vittorio de Sica | 1946, 1h33, Italy

Presented by The Film Foundation and Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna. Restored in 4K by The Film Foundation and Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna at L’Immagine Ritrovata in association with Orium S.A. Restoration funding provided by the Hobson/Lucas Family Foundation

Thamp (The Circus Tent) | Aravindan Govindan | 1978, 2h09, India

A presentation of Film Heritage Foundation, India. Restored by Film Heritage Foundation, The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project, Cineteca di Bologna at Prasad Corporation Pvt. Ltd.’s Post – Studios, Chennai, and L’Immagine Ritrovata Laboratory, and in association with General Pictures, National Film Archive of India and the family of Aravindan Govindan. Funding provided by Prasad Corporation Pvt. Ltd. and Film Heritage Foundation.

The Trial  | Orson Welles | 1962, 2h, France / Germany / Italy

This restoration was produced in 2022 by STUDIOCANAL and the Cinémathèque Française. The image and sound restoration were done at the Immagine Ritrovata Laboratory (Paris-Bologne), using the original 35mm negative. This project was supervised by STUDIOCANAL, Sophie Boyer and Jean-Pierre Boiget. The restoration was funded thanks to the patronage of Chanel.

If I Were a Spy… | Bertrand Blier | 1967, 1h34, France

Presented by Pathé. 4k restoration, done scanning the original negative film. A project undertaken by the Immagine Ritrovata Laboratory (Paris-Bologne). Restoration funded by the Centre national du cinema et de l’image animée (CNC).

Poil de Carotte | Julien Duvivier | 1932, 1h31, France

A TF1 presentation. New 4K restoration done by TF1 studios, with the backing of CNC, using the original nitrate negative and a combined dupe negative on non-flammable film. Digital and photochemical work done in 2021 by the Hiventy laboratory.

The Last Waltz | Martin Scorsese | 1978, 1h57, USA

MGM Studios’ The Last Waltz (1978) is presented by Park Circus thanks to a new 4K digital restoration from the Criterion Collection, approved by director Martin Scorsese.

Itim | Mike De Leon | 1976, 1h45, Philippines

A Mike De Leon presentation, distributed in France by Carlotta Films. Restoration done using the original 35mm negative and optical soundtrack, stored at the British Film Institute. This presentation is a preview of the French release of Mike De Leon’s entire restored body of work, slated 2022-2023.

Deus e o Diabo na Terra do Sol | Glauber Rocha  | 1964, 2h, Brazil

Presented by Metropoles.com and Paloma Cinematográfica. Restored from the original 35mm negative preserved at Cinemateca Brasileira and with a brand new 4K restoration by Estudios Cinecolor and Estudios JLS, Cinematographer Luis Abramo/Rogerio Moraes and with the supervision of Rodrigo Mercês.

Sedmikrásky (Daisies)  | Vera Chytilová | 1966, 1h14, Czech Republic

Digital restoration of this film funded by the donation of Mrs. Milada Kučerová and Mr. Eduard Kučera was carried out by Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in collaboration with the Národní filmový archiv, Prague and the Czech Film Fund in UPP and Soundsquare.

Viva la muerte  | Fernando Arrabal | 1971, 1h30, France / Tunisia

Viva la Muerte! was scanned and restored in 4K by the Cinémathèque de Toulouse using the original 35mm image negative, the original 35mm sound negative of the French version, and a 35mm interpositive element containing the end credits missing from the original negative.

Documentaries

Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman by Ethan Hawke The Last Movie Stars
Ethan Hawke, episodes 3 and 4 | 1h47, USA

Paul Newman and Joanne Woodwind enjoyed one of the most enduring relationships in Hollywood. Actor, director and producer Ethan Hawke and executive producer Martin Scorsese explore their lives and careers in a captivating, intellectual, and moving documentary. Divided into six chapters the film features Karen Allen, George Clooney, Oscar Isaac, Zoe Kazan, Laura Linney and Sam Rockwell, with archive interviews of Elia Kazan, Sydney Pollock, Paul Newman, who discuss the iconic couple and American cinema. Screened in the presence of Ethan Hawke and Clea Newman Soderlund

Romy, A Free Woman | written by Lucie Cariès and Clémentine Déroudille, Dir: Lucie Cariès | 1h31, France

Romy Schneider was a regular in Competition at Cannes, starting in 1957 with Sissi, and notably with Claude Sautet’s Les Choses de la Vie. This exceptional documentary recounts her illustrious career with passion and dedication.
Screening in the presence of Lucie Cariès and Clémentine Deroudille

Jane Campion, Cinema Woman | Dir: Julie Bertuccelli | 1h38, France

Director Julie Bertuccelli paints Jane Campion’s portrait with great sensitivity, humour and admiration, telling the tale of the first-ever woman to win the Palme d’Or in 1993.
Screening in the presence of Julie Bertuccelli.

Gérard Philipe, le dernier hiver du Cid Dir: Patrick Jeudy, 1h06, France

An adaptation of Jérôme Garcin’s novel Le dernier hiver du cid, this documentary built exclusively on archive footage and a delicate storytelling style celebrates the 100th anniversary of Cannois Gerard Philipe. His memory will flood back to the Croisette through a screening of Fanfan la tulipe.
Screening in the presence of Patrick Jeudy, Jérôme Garcin and Anne-Marie Philipe.

Patrick Dewaere, mon héros (Patrick Dewaere, My Hero) | Dir: Alexandre Moix, 1h30, France

The actress Lola Dewaere chronicles the film career and traumatic life of celebrated actor Patrick Dewaere, the father she never knew, under the watchful eye of director Alexandre Moix.
Screening in the presence of Alexandre Moix and Lola Dewaere.

Hommage d’une fille à son père Dir: Fatou Cissé, 1h11, Mali

Fatou Cissé accompanies her father, Malien director Souleymane Cissé, in a trip through his film career, painting an intimate and poetic picture of one of Africa’s most celebrated actors. Screening in the presence of Fatou Cissé and Souleymane Cissé.

L’Ombre de Goya par Jean-Claude Carrière | Dir:José Luis Lopez-Linares, 1h30, France

A restoration that rediscovers the magical language of the late screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, as he researches the painter Goya. An incredible trip through culture, emotion, cinema, painting and Spain. A French-Hispanic-Portugese coproduction: Screening in the presence of José Luis Lopez Linares.

Tres en la deriva del acto creativo (Three in the Drift of the Creative Act) Fernando Solanas | 1h36, Argentina

Last homage to the great director Fernando Solanas who came many times to the Festival En Competition and two times to Cannes Classics.  .

Screening in the presence of Victoria and Juan Solanas, and Gaspar Noé.

CANNES CLASSICS  | 17-28 May 2022

Outside the Law ( 1920)

Dir: Tod Browning | Cast: Priscilla Dean, Wheeler Oakman, Lon Chaney, Ralph Lewis | US Horror 75′

While under contract at Universal Studies Tod Browning crafted a series of melodramas featuring powerful female protagonists who stood defiantly against the men who tried to control them on the wrong side of the law. Here the leading lady is Priscilla Dean.

Although recalled today as an early Chaney collaboration with Browning – Chaney playing both a gangster and a Chinaman! – both Chaneys are actually offscreen for much of the film’s tedious mid-section where lady Priscilla Dean and boyfriend Wheeler Oakman agonise over whether or not to go straight while holed up in their Knob (sic) Hill hideout. 

Fortunately “Black Mike” Chaney finally tracks them down and actually calls Oakman “you dirty rat”! (did the line make it into Browning’s own remake ten years later in which Chaney’s role was played by Edward G. Robinson?) before a remarkably violent climax in which ferocious punches are thrown that draw blood, the aggro heightened by incredibly fast cutting that surpasses Griffith. @RichardChatten. 

NOW ON BLU-RAY COURTESY OF EUREKA MASTERS OF CINEMA

Casablanca Beats (2021)

Dir/Wri.: Nabil Ayouch, Cast: Anas Basbousi, Ismail Adouab, Amina Kannan, Meriem Nekkach, Nouhaila Arif, Zineb Boujemaa, Samah Barigou, Abdelilah Basbousi, Maha Menan, Mehdi Razzouk, Marwa Kniniche, Soufiane Belali, Zineb Boujemaa; Morocco/France 2021, 101 min.

French-Moroccan director Nabil Ayouch is no stranger to controversy: His feature Much Loved about prostitution in his home country was banned, and Horses of God is a sober fictionalisation of the the suicide bombing that killed 33 people in Sidi Moumen, a deprived neighbourhood in Casablanca.

Ayoch has returned to Sidi Moumen with CASABLANCA BEATS, the first Moroccan feature in competition at Cannes since 1962. An uplifting story of local teenagers, uses rap and hip hop to hit back at the male-dominated set-up, and the religious bigotry that condones it. All actors are playing out their own lives with Anas Basbousi being the central character. Basbousi is a rapper, who founded the ‘Positive School’ in a cultural centre in Sidi Moumen where he clashes with the leader who feels his progressive style of music will alienate the centre from the rest of the community. In real life, Ayouch was instrumental in setting up the cultural Centre ‘Les Etoiles’ in Sidi Moumen back in 2014, together with author Mahi Binebine, on whose novel ‘Les Etoiles de Sidi Moumen’ Horses of God was based.

“Hip hop is an art form”, exclaims Anas, but not everyone shares his enthusiasm. It certainly proves to be a divisive art form, particularly for the parents of teenager Maha Menan who protest “Not for us”, as they drag their daughter out of the centre. Meriem Nekkach’s brother even tries to prevent her visits. But her counter attack makes things clear: “For you, women are slaves/It makes me sick/For you, being a man, means dominating us/look at our mother in chains/never had a voice, and never complained. While all this is happening the male religious enforcers (known at The “Beards”) patrol the streets extolling the teachings of the Quran: “Everything that lures us from God’s path is a sin”.

But the dance craze is refusing to back down. More centres along the lines of the Sidi Moumen “Positive School”, have now been stablished in Morocco, and Casablanca Beats’ main dancers, Ismail and Mehdi have now turned semi-professional. The film comes to a head with the long anticipated ‘big concert’, which should have won over hearts and minds – but ends in a violent confrontation with the “Beards” and their supporters, leaving Anas’ future in the balance.

This effervescent feature fizzes with fun thanks to the lively camerawork of Amine Messadi and Virginie Surdej. Casablanca Beats is not simply a North African version of the Bronx or Paris sub-culture, but an indigenous approach to rap/hip hop artists, defined by the fighting spirit of a youth rising up against a repressive and often violent parental and authoritarian regime. In true Middle Eastern style Casablanca Beats is a feisty but fervent hymn to music, life and love. AS

IN CINEMAS AND ON CURZON HOME  FROM FRIDAY 29 APRIL 2022

Eric Ravilious: Drawn to War (2022)

Dir: Margy Kinmonth | UK Doc, 87′

“I find it hard to say what it is to be English, but Ravilious is part of it” says writer Alan Bennett in a new film on the artist.

Eric Ravilious by the British architect Serge Chermayeff @copyright Foxtrot Films

 

Eric Ravilious (1903-1942) was one of Britain’s most iconic creative forces defining the English landscape in the British pastoral tradition with his unique engravings and prints. What other wartime painter has captured Englishness with such gentle passion. And although his short life was touched by joy and tragedy his paintings, engravings and lithographs are accessible and so easy to like. His softly nostalgic subject: the countryside during wartime, the soft rolling hills of the South Downs; the chalky fields of the Chilterns and white cliffs of Dover. But his work would soon document the war effort with fishing boats, barage balloons and a painting entitled ‘Rendering mines safe: “He’s so loved and appreciated but somehow remains a shared secret”. says Alan Bennett, one of the talking heads in this new film by the Bafta-winning director Margy Kinmonth, along with Grayson Perry and Eric’s daughter Anne Ullmann and granddaughter  Profoundly serene yet profoundly disturbing, the documentary also serves as a visual record of war.

Born in 1903 into a family that fell on hard times after the Great War Ravilious won a scholarship to the RCA where he met his mentor the artist Paul Nash. He developed his own precise but elegiac style while sharing a house in Great Bardfield in Essex with the fellow artist Eric Bawden, who he met at Morley College. Inspiration came from the nature surrounding them and was chosen for its documentary quality, the two brought watercolours back into fashion as both Eric and Bawden detested oils (too much like toothpaste).

HMS Glorious in the Arctic @copyright Foxtrot Films

 

A satirical first project in 1930 offered the opportunity of meeting his wife, fellow artist Tirza Garwood and the two started painting a mural of a seascape with parachutes raining down from the sky, an undertaking that financed the first four years of their marriage. Times were hard but Tirza made an income from marbling paper for walls while Eric combined teaching in London with his design work. Anne Ullmann explains how his boyish good looks, wit and infectious sense of fun soon led to several affairs during which time his paintings became freer and more colourful. But Tirza’s first child John arrived with a marital reconciliation and she would keep the home fires burning alone with the children for most of their married life, although Eric wrote often and affectionately, and some of his letters are interweaved into the linear narrative along with ample illustrations and personal photographs from the family collection.

What drew Ravilious to work for the War Office was the chance of excitement but also the responsibility. It gave him a salary which was welcome after struggling financially for so long. War also gave him tremendous scope to broaden his horizons, painting things he would have never dreamt of had it not been for the conflict, although much of his work was destroyed when Morley College was bombed.

Submarine Dream @copyright Foxtrot Films

 

In April 1940 Ravilious was stationed in Norway on HMS Glorious which was later to be destroyed. Ready to fight as a soldier he was also trying to paint British battleships and Germans U-boats in the deep fjords and raging seas. From then on he travelled far and wide documenting wartime in Scotland and Iceland where he found himself painting warplanes that helped to inform today’s pilots. In Newhaven his drawings were censored on the grounds of them being ‘too informative for the enemy’.

HMS Arc Royal in action @copyright Foxtrot Films

 

Two years later in 1942 Tirza’s ill health brought Eric back down to earth and he was posted at RAF Sawbridgeworth (now defunct) in Hertfordshire, where he produced a series of watercolours providing a flavour of everyday life, from the types of aircraft to the activities that took place in the interior of the airfield’s ‘mobile operations room’. He wrote to Tirza: “the weather gets finer all the time but I feel bored of pictures of planes on the ground and want to go flying”.

Eric’s affection for the watercolours of Francis Towner took him next to RAF Kaldadarnes in Iceland where he would capture ice and snow and crater scenery. In August 30th 1942 Eric went missing, aged 39, in his plane on a royal marine Air Sea Rescue patrol. These imaginative scenes are hazily recreated showing him floating down through the heavens to a watery grave surrounded by leaves from his sketch book. “From the artistic side his loss is deplorable and he will be quite impossible to replace”. Tirzah would die nine years later of cancer leaving their children orphaned.

Eric Ravilious was the first Britist artist to die on active service in the Second World War. His paintings were forgotten for 40 years until they were discovered under Edward Bawden’s bed, by Eric’s children James, John and Anne. Now how romantic is that? MT

ERIC RAVILIOUS: DRAWN TO WAR | in cinemas 1st July 2022

Atabai (2021)

Dir.: Niki Karimi; Cast: Hadi Hejazifar, Sahar Dolatshahi, Javaad Ezzati, Danial Noorvash, Yousefali Daryadel, Mahlagha Meynoosh, Masoumeh Robaninia; Iran 2020, 106 min.

The Iranian countryside is the setting for this visually vibrantly but brooding feature that sees modern and traditional values colliding for Kazem (co-writer Had Hejazifar) a middle-aged man who left university without completing his architecture studies, and is now designing holidays villas for the rich and powerful who he desperately resents.

Kazem often resorts to physical violence, his secretive past seems more meaningful to than the present and he has not moved emotionally after an unhappy relationship during his student years, although he has changed his name from Atabai. He has never forgotten Sima, the most attractive woman on campus, and has not been able to have another relationship since their break-up.

Kazem’s emotional centre is his nephew Aydin (Noorvash), but he is unaware of  repressing the teenager, who has internalised his uncle as a Super Ego. Aydin has grown fond of Jeyran (Robaninia), but  is much more interested in the much older Kazem: “Marry me and get me out of this village” she implores Kazem,  Kazem’s relationship with his own father (Daryadel) is fraught to say the least. It will get even worse, when Kazem learns, that his father has sold an orchard to the realtor Parviz, whom Kazem blames for the death of his sister Farokhlagha, who set fire to herself at the age of fifteen. Kazem explodes, blaming his father for “selling” his daughter to a man of his own age, to pay for his opium habit. Parviz has two daughters, Sima (Dolatshahi) and the much younger Simin (Meynoosh), who are on a visit to the orchard. Aydin falls for Sima, but ends up at the wrong end of Kazem’s violent tantrums: “You have disgraced the family, this man murdered my sister”. But then, the wife of Yahya (Ezzati) dies, and Kazem and the bereaved husband, best friends for a long time, have the first serious talk for years. We learn, that Yahya had a relationship with Farokhlagha, with Kazem making sure, that the two could meet in secret. When Yahya told Farokhlagha, that he would marry his cousin, she told him, that she would commit suicide by setting fire to herself; with everybody believing, that she killed herself it to escape Parviz. Both men have much soul searching to do, particularly Kazem, who is falling in love with Sima, who by coincidence, shares the first name with Kazem’s great love. But will he be able to care more for the present than the past?

DoP Saman Lotfian has created a wide-ranging palette of colours for the outside action, whilst his close-ups of the the heavy emotional battles are set against the background of a landscape, which is never idealised. Somehow, the two go together, and Kazem finds no solace in being home – still hankering for Tehran. Karimi is very self assured regarding the aesthetically choices, but she is overloading the feature with too man conflicts; ATABAI does not always flow easily, and one has the feeling of an overly constructed structure. Still, it is a well worth a watch. AS

IN CINEMAS FROM 6 MAY 2022

Happening (2021)

Dir.: Audrey Diwan; Cast: Anamaria Vartolomei, Luana Bajrami, Louise Orry-Diquero, Sandrine Bonnaire, Eric Verdin, Anna Mouglalis, Pio Marmaï, Kacey Mottet Klein | France 2021, 99 min.

It was bold of the Jury at Venice 2021 to award the Golden Lion to Happening, a fervent drama exposing the mental and physical cruelty aimed at women when abortion was illegal in France.

Based on Annie Ernaux’s 2001 semi-biographical novel Audrey Diwan’s sophomore feature is a powerful, uncompromising plea for women to be in charge of their reproductive rights at a time when the pro-choice movement is being pushed back; and not only in Catholic strongholds such as Poland and Republican controlled states in the USA. Carried by a brilliant cast, the harsh realism of DoP’s Laurent Tangy’s often handheld camera makes certain scenes in the final reel nearly unwatchable – but this is a past many male politicians want to recreate.

In Angoulême 1963, Anne Duchesme (Vartolomei), 23, is a dedicated student making her way successfully out of the rut lower-middle class women were condemned to. She is forced to tolerate insults from more well to do co-students who call her “a slut”. Anne is best friends with Helene (Bazrami) and Brigitte (Orry-Diquero); the three talk a lot about sex, imagining what the real thing would look like – all fun and games – but sex is taboo.

But when it finally happens at a party with Jean (Mottet Klein) a student from another college, Anne feels underwhelmed by the experience. Her world collapses when the doctor confirms her pregnancy during a routine check-up. Jean is unimpressed by the news – believing is to be her responsibility. And none of her friends, however caring, want to get involved. Abortion is a punishable offence for all involved, including the medical establishment.

At home, her parents (Sandrine Bonnaire/Eric Verdin) are proud of their daughter being the first person in the family to go to university. Anne cannot bring herself to tell them the truth, not wanting to destroy their illusions. Even her university tutor (Pio Marmaï) notices her mind is not on her studies. 

For Anne/Ernaux the choice is still clear: reproductive choice means the same nowadays as it did back then: “to have the illness that turns French women into house-wives”. Anne contemplates her own situation: “I’d like a child one day. But not instead of a life of my own”.

The feature’s rawness is underlined by the 4:3 format, conveying Anne’s isolation from her friends, and society as a whole. A minimalist score by Sacha and Evgueni Galperine, just piano and violins, also focuses on 12 weeks of hell,  Anne going from one humiliation to another. Abortion became legal in France in 1975. AS

NOW ON GENERAL RELEASE

Navalny (2022)

Dir.: Daniel Roher; Documentary with Alexei Navalny, Yulia Navalnaya, Dasha Navalny, Zakhar Navalny; USA 2022, 98 min.

When Canadian documentary filmmaker Daniel Roher (Once were Brothers) met Bulgarian investigative journalist Christo Grozev, they had different agendas in mind. But the poisoning of Alexei Navalny (*1976) on 20.8.2020 in the Xander Hotel in Tomsk, changed everything. Suddenly Roher was sitting opposite Navalny to discuss a film that could be his epitaph. And it may still be for the dissident politician who is currently languishing in a Russian penal colony on bogus charges.

Navalny had led two different political organisations – “Russia of the Future” and the “Progress Party” – and neither were permitted to run in the 2018 Presidential Elections on account of “Corruption charges” as well as accusations of “Embezzlement”, according to Putin controlled jurisdiction.

But Putin and the FSB (a new name for the old KGB) were not finished with Navalny. Agents of the FSB poisoned his boxer shorts with the nerve agent novichok (known as LP9 (Love potion No. 9) in the FSB handbook. On the flight from Omsk to Moscow Navalny suffered convulsions. His life was saved by an emergency landing in Omsk where he was treated in hospital and Roher and his crew met the dissident and his wife Yulia. They declined to be photographed preferring to maintain the image of a strong and healthy politician. A few days later, Novalny was flown to Berlin for further treatment, where the novichok diagnosis was confirmed. The recovering Navalny could only laugh about the attack: “How stupid, they can’t be so stupid”. But they were.

At home in his Black Forest retreat Alexei, his family and the film team discovered with the help of hackers, the names of the four FSB operatives involved in the assassination attempt. In late December, Navalny put a call through to them, impersonating a leading officer of the FSB, wanting to discuss “what went wrong” during the ‘operation’. The first three agents declined to talk to Alexei, one even pointing out he knew the real identity of the caller. But the forth member, Konstantin Kudryavstev, was only too willing to talk, and confessed that without the emergency landing in Omsk, the victim would have died. A few hours more in the air, without help and the antidote “would have done the trick” according to Kudryavstev. “He is dead, the poor man is dead”, exclaimed Alexei after the end of phone conversation.

On January 17th 2021, Navalny was back in Moscow. At Vnukovo airport, huge crowds gathered, to welcome back their hero and his family. The authorities quickly diverted the plane to Sheremetyevo, and even though supporters crowded round the disembarking politician, the authorities prevailed, and Alexei was arrested on arrival.

His original punishment for the alleged embezzlement and contempt of court was two years and eight months, but since then Putin’s regime has come up with a nine-year sentence, to be served in a maximum security prison. All the organisations Alexei belonged to, have been declared “extremist” and are therefore illegal. Despite all this, Navalny started a hunger strike, only ending when he was on death’s door. After the start of the Ukraine invasion by Russia, he sent out messages from the penal colony, condemning the war.

DoP Niki Walti uses his often handheld camera to great effect, particularly in the scenes when Alexei engages with the corrupt FSB agents. Perhaps, Roher could have forced Navalny more on the extreme nationalist, part of his coalition. But overall his film is a great coup: audience bearing witness to living history: to a man’s courage, and the cowardliness of the murderous organisation known as the FSB. Echoes are already sounding in Ukraine on a daily basis. A remarkable document. AS

ON GENERAL RELEASE FROM 8 APRIL 2022

The Eclipse (2022) CPH:DOX 2022 | Winner Dox:Award 2022

Dir.: Natasa Urban; Documentary; Norway 2022, 110 min.

A memoire of war-torn Serbia seems even more relevant in the light of the current Russian invasion of Ukraine. What happened in Yugoslavia is clearly not an isolated case: peace in Europe is much more fragile than we thought.

Natasa Urban – who has now settled in Norway – chronicles her memoire of war-torn Serbia between the two last eclipses, 1960 and 1999. A whole country vanished, being replaced after genocide and war by new states, based purely on ethnic composition – a result only made possible by brutal ethnic cleansing.

For the Yugoslavian-born documentarian, it was a reason to dissociate herself from her country. Serbia was the principal, if not the only, aggressor during the civil wars which cost over one hundred thousand lives, and one million refugees – all in the name of ethnic cleansing. Becoming a filmmaker in 2005 was not enough for Urban, she, like thousands others, left Serbia for exile “not only to change our existence, but to become some other people; this tells a lot about the country we left, and the sate of identity we tried to relinquish”.

ECLIPSE works on two levels: there is her father’s diary, retracing his steps to the  family’s previous homes where, in the end, he loads everything, including the ‘kitchen sink’ on the top of his car and leaves the heavily controlled militia zone. The other strand consists of Urban’s diary of interviews with family and friends in what is now Serbia.

Aunt Branislava has some tales to tell: Neighbour Dara dragged every postman through the door of her house, to do what you’d expect… On a more serious note, Branislava tells stories about militia soldiers who enjoyed killing animals sadistically. And when war broke out, they played football with the heads of their enemies. Slobodan Milosevic still loved violence after being elected president with a two-third’s majority; tanks killed demonstrators on the streets of Belgrade. And after the citizens of Vukovar voted to be part of Croatia in August 1991, Milosevic destroyed the city after a prolonged siege. The same city which had been praised for the high number of marriages between Serbs and Croats.

The clerics of the Serbian Orthodox Church put oil on the flames campaigning for a Greater Serbia: “Wherever there are Serbian graves, there should be Serbian land”. One of Urban’s aunts claims that on the day, the state of Croatia was recognised by the world community: “Good luck to them, if they want it so much”. Her work colleagues got angry, shouting “Fuck you”, you are a Romanian minority, if you are not happy here, go to Romania. This is Serbia.” Even the aunt’s boss remained silent. In Novi Sad, Urban meets a girlfriend whose Croatian father had been beaten up in Vukovar by Serbians, because he was married to a Serbian woman. In the POW camp, both sides beat him up.

Nothing remains any more of the POW camp near Vukovar. People came in 1992 and transported the camp’s bricks to their own dwellings, to build extensions. There was even a weekend army: Bosnian Serbs, the ‘Chetniks’, who came to Bosnia over the weekend to share in the spoils of war. The director’s family meanwhile hiked up the mountains. “When we descended, we learned that Kraiina had fallen”. Natasa’s Dad is still questioning what went on. “I cannot understand why our troops had to kill in Srebenica.” Natasa, could not believe what she heard: “Dad, they killed over 8000 people in two days.” Natasa’s brother Igor never slept during the bombardments. Only when the empty planes returned could he fall asleep. His only link to the outside was the news on TV. But the NATO planes destroyed the nearby TV tower. He begged his parents to let him go to Vukovar, but they refused.

The last chapter is the titular solar eclipse of 11.8.1999. Serbian TV and media had warned the population to stay inside because the solar radiation was particularly harmful during the eclipse. Having planted this paranoia, the streets were deserted and people literally locked themselves in.

DoP Ivan Markovic follows both the travels of father and daughter with clear images of the impressive landscapes, and the citizens’ ruined souls. Natasa is asked by relatives “why couldn’t you say something good about Serbia, like mentioning the beautiful Obedska swamps or the Laguna book store”

Meanwhile, since 2012, Serbia has been ruled by former allies of Milosevic, who died three years before the trial verdict in Den Hague was passed. “This new circle of nationalism stops the painful process of the Serbian public addressing its involvement in the war crimes”. AS

WINNER DOX:AWARD CPH:DOX COPENHAGEN DOCUMENTARY FILM FESTIVAL 2022

Boulevard! A Hollywood Story (2021) Bfi Flare

Dir.: Jeffrey Schwarz; Documentary with Gloria Swanson, Dick Hughes, Richard Stapley, Brooke Anderson, Elizabeth Wyler, Barbara Fixx, Steven Wilson, Alan Eichler, Carl Beauchamp; USA 2021, 85 min.

Veteran documentarian Jeffrey Schwarz unearths a musical version of Sunset Boulevard (1950) and a 1950s love triangle that pictures three victims of the Hollywood system where ageism and homophobia played a dominant role.

The three were Gloria Swanson, star of Billy Wilder’s original 1950 feature,  Dick Hughes, and his lover Richard Stapley (aka Richard Wyler).  Hugh was the composer of the musical “Swanson on Sunset”, with Stapley responsible for the lyrics. It ran for six weeks at the “Cinegrill” in Los Angeles, from November 1994, with revivals until 1997.

The original version dates from 1955 when two young artists and lovers, Dick Hughes and Richard Stapley met Gloria Swanson (still smarting from being pipped to the post by Judy Holliday for the Best Actress Oscar in 1951). During the early fifties , the trio worked on “Swanson and Sunset”, but a lack of finance, as well as Paramount’s refusal to grant Swanson the rights to the Wilder classic, eventually nuxed the project.

Swanson then fell for Stapley and his relationship with Hughes came to an abrupt end. Stapley re-invented himself, becoming a popular actor: The Girl from Rio, and the TV series The Troubleshooters and a bit part in Frenzy being highlights of his career. The film’s focus then swings to its gay theme with Richard’s second wife Elizabeth being well aware of his sexuality, just another ploy to hide his gayness for the Hollywood system. She was prepared to share the limelight and the two remained “just good friends”.

But Dick Hughes could not let go of the musical that never was, and remained obsessed with the feature until his death. He continued to play the piano in exclusive clubs and later became a conductor. Gloria Swanson also remained fixed on the project. According to her granddaughter Brooke Anderson, she never forgot the music written by Hughes, “it never died for her”. Yet, curiously, Swanson never mentioned the Sunset project or even Hughes or Stapley in her autobiography “Swanson on Swanson”. In 1990 Hughes revived “Swanson and Sunset”, playing the role of his younger self despite being well into his sixties. And when he heard about the success of Lloyd Webber’s 1994 musical “Sunset Boulevard”, he reconciled with Richard, who had morphed back from Wyler into his Stapley identity.

Despite their up and downs the two completed the musical for its 1994 premiere at the “Cinegrill”. With the help of Steven Wilson, from the University of Texas in Austin, Schwarz cobbles together enormous amounts of material but the story of the (probably unconsummated) love triangle is never quite divorced from film history, Schwarz clearly felt empathy for his subject and avoids voyeurism at all costs sticking to a mostly conventional approach with multiple talking heads enlivened by animated cartoons of the trio in action. AS

SCREENING DURING BFI FLARE 2022

Mujde (2021))

Dir.: Alphan Eseli; Cast: Lale Mansur, Salim Kechiouche, Onur Bilge, Erdeniz Kurucan; Turkey 2021, 48 min.

MUJDE shines a critical light on Turkey packing a pithy story into an hour unlike so many features nowadays that drag on interminably relying on atmosphere to carry a paper thin narrative.

Recently widowed Mujde (a brilliant Lale Mansur) rightly suspects her son Okan (Kurucan) and his estate agent friend Berat (Bilge) of having ulterior motives in persuading her to sell the large family house and move to a poky flat in central Istanbul. But she goes ahead nevertheless and employs three Syrian immigrants to help with the move. One of the them, Sayyid (Kechiouche), has lost his son in the Syrian conflict, and his vulnerability leads to romance with the lonely widow. The two make an odd couple, Mujde’s friends disapproving either on the grounds of jealousy or general hostility towards Syrian immigrants who are seen as second class citizens by the local Turks. An unexpected turn of events leads to tragedy on Shakespearean proportions when Sayyid is called back to Syria leaving Mujde in the lurch.

Set amongst Istanbul’s colourful shops and bazars and domestic interiors that bring to mind Fassbinder’s Fear eats up the soul, Mujde is an affirmation of contemporary cinema, proving a strong script is still central to successful filmmaking. Best known for his critically acclaimed drama The Long Way Home (2013) Alphan Eseli is also co-founder of the Art and Culture platform ISTANBUL’74. AS

NOW ON MUBI

 

Murder Party (2022)

Dir: Nicolas Pleskof | Cast: Alice Pol, Eddy Mitchell, Miou Miou, Pablo Pauly, Pascale Arbillot, Zabou Breitman, Adiren Guionnet | France, Comedy 93′

With the jaunty wit of US TV sitcom ‘Caroline in the City’ and the colourful look of Wes Anderson’s this inspired comedy drama is the feature debut of TV writers Nicolas Pleskof and Elsa Marpeau.

It follows Jeanne, an architect and engineer, whose latest scheme is the redesign of a 19th century mansion and home to the Daguerres, a strange family at the head of a board game empire. Enlisting the help of her mother Josephine (Miou Miou) to put the final touches on the model Jeanne motors into the countryside to meet the scion Cesar Daguerre, a morose moustachioed monster decked out in tartan whose fortune comes from toys and games. 

But Jeanne’s presentation doesn’t go down well and Cesar challenges her to a round of Russian roulette that goes mysteriously wrong, the whole family finding themselves locked in the walled and crenellated confines of their home to play the ludicrous ‘murder party’. This involves a series of announcements over the tannoy goading them to decipher the riddles in a bid to track down Cesar’s ‘murderer’ before they in turn ‘die’.

Jeanne is the only dispassionate player and has no time for all the hysteria that ensues. Alice Pol is brilliant as the spunky Jeanne striking just the right balance between kookiness and steely control. Joining forces with his Cesar’s son Theo (Pauly) she finds herself dealing with a family hellbent on settling long-standing scores, bringing to mind the mischievous playfulness of Francois Ozon’s Eight Women set in a scenario reminiscent of Bruno Podalydes’ Le Perfume de la dame en noir. The riddles are entertaining and take their inspiration from Agatha Christie, Cluedo or even Trivial Pursuit but the repercussions are often sinister so it’s down to outside Jeanne to save the day. Driven forward by a furious percussive score and some artful camerawork from Gilles Porte and Jeremie Duchier’s set design this is an amusing tragicomedy that doesn’t pretend to be anything deeper. MT

ON RELEASE IN FRANCE from 9 March 2022

 

Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (2021)

Dir: Ahmir ‘Questlove” Thompson | US Doc, 118’

The 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival is the subject of this dynamite documentary from Ahmir ‘Questlove” Thompson ‘proudly’ showcasing that musical celebration of Black culture, fashion and history.

Back in the day – and we’re talking about the Sixties (and even the 1920s, 30, and ’40s) – everyone loved Black music, not because it was Black but because it was rhythmic, soulful and cool. But maybe that’s because I had a father who hummed, danced and played on the piano those heady tunes from Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday, Charlie Parker, Count Basie, Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, Artie Shaw and more.

Soul followed on in the same effervescent way, the syncopated jazz of his era becoming the sinuous and sensual soul of my student days: music from Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Gladys Knight, Marvyn Gaye, Mahalia Jackson and the Supremes.

Thompson revisits this darkly glamorous era in a New York concert that coincided with the much higher profile of Woodstock just down the road. Now that was my brother’s territory: The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young, Led Zeppelin, The Doors and Joni Mitchell. The Harlem affair somehow got buried under the weight of Woodstock, but why, when the music was just as fabulous – I never thought about ‘Black’ music – just music I liked…and I would been there like a shot given the opportunity…years later.

In Harlem’s Mount Morris 300,000 – mostly Black- fans gathered to enjoy a series of free ‘gigs’ and Thompson has assembled a treasure trove of archive footage that tethers the era to the present with just a smattering of talk heads that enrich rather than diminish the musical experience. MT

OSCAR WINNER FOR BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE | BEST DOCUMENTARY EE BAFTAS 2022 | NOW IN CINEMAS

Return to Dust (2022)

Dir: Li Ruijin | Cast: Renlin Wu, Hai-Qing | China, Drama 131′

“Love is not about staring at each other, but looking in the same direction”

The sun shines and each frame glows with painterly charm in this modest but momentous story of love and adversity for two people rejected by their family after an arranged marriage, and forced into a humble existence on their isolated homestead in rural northwestern China, 

Return to Dust is the latest from Chinese independent director Li Ruijin who scores subtle political points behind his perfectly pitched storyline that speaks volumes about the China’s rapid urban shift. The focus is farming couple Ma (Renlin Wu) and Gui (Hai-Qing) as they face the odds together in the rugged landscape with only their livestock for company. Tenderness contrasts with dark humour as Ruijin depicts the crass materialism of modern China with the poetic honesty of the past: one scene features their donkey alongside a flash new BMW signalling that time, inevitably, must move on. 

Each day a new challenge presents itself and Ma and Cao seem to cope without drama fronting up placidly seemingly unsurmountable hardship in the haunting beauty of the remote setting. Li Ruijun – best known for his 2015 feature River Road – focuses on the growing strength of their relationship as it transforms from initial diffidence to enduring love. MT

ON RELEASE NATIONWIDE FROM FRIDAY | BERLINALE 2022 | GOLDEN BEAR COMPETITION 

 

Cinema Made in Italy 3 – 7 March 2022

CINEMA MADE IN ITALY is back in a live edition to kick off the Spring with the latest crop of Italian releases. The 12th edition takes place at Cine Lumiere, in London’s South Kensington, and is supported by Istituto Luce Cinecitta and the Italian Cultural Institute.

 

THREE FLOORS (Tre piani) | Director: Nanni Moretti

Nanni Moretti pictures everyday life in a Rome apartment in his latest domestic drama in which he also stars alongside an stunning cast of Adriano Giannini, Margherita Buy, Riccardo Scamarcio and Alba Rohrwacher. Enjoyable if rather conventional this is solid entertainment, the pithy plot turning on a series of events that will have a far reaching impact on all concerned: the women are the peacemakers; the men the troublemakers. Beautifully written and well performed Three Floors had its world premiere at last year’s Cannes film festival and is released in UK cinemas on 18 March

CALIFORNIE | Directors: Alessandro Cassigoli, Casey Kauffman

The five-year journey of a young woman from Morocco who tries to find her place in the sun after moving to a village near Naples: her dreams, her disappointments and her loneliness.

FREAKS OUT – Director: Gabriele Mainetti

Franz Rogowski is the reason to see this needlessly violent drama that follows the lives of three circus performers in 1940s Rome.

FUTURA | Directors: Pietro Marcello, Francesco Munzi, Alice Rohrwacher

A portmanteau travelogue that travels the length and breadth of Italy focusing on teenagers’ hopes and dreams for the future.

THE PEACOCK’S PARADISE (IL PARADISO DEL PAVONE) | Director: Laura Bispuri

After her impressive debut Sworn Virgin  and follow-up Daughter of Mine Laura Bispuri’s latest feature is an underpowered domestic drama that drifts around aimlessly despite its impressive cast led by Veteran star Dominique Sanda who plays a mother celebrating her birthday with daughter Caterina (Maya Sansa) and daughter in law Adelina (Alba Rohrwacher who won Best Actress for her central role in Sworn Virgin.

AMERICA LATINA | Director: Damiano D’Innocenzo, Fabio D’Innocenzo

Stylishly empty psychodrama that starts with promise but rapidly goes downhill from the much feted D’Innocenzo brothers who brought us Berlinale winner Bad Tales and wrote the multi-garlanded Dogman it sees a happy and successful man brought down by his own paranoia.

A CHIARA | Director: Jonas Carpignano

The Guerrasio family and their friends gather to celebrate Claudio and Carmela’s oldest daughter’s 18th birthday. There is a healthy rivalry between the birthday girl and her 16-year-old sister Chiara, as they compete on the dancefloor. It is a happy occasion, and the close-knit family is in top form. However, everything changes the next day when Claudio disappears. Chiara starts to investigate; as she gets closer to the truth, she is forced to decide what kind of future she wants for herself.

THE TALE OF KING CRAB (RE GRANCHIO | Directors: Alessio Rigo de Righi, Matteo Zoppis

Italy, nowadays. Some elderly hunters reminisce about the tale of Luciano together.
Late 19th century, Luciano lives as a wandering drunkard in the Tuscan countryside. His lifestyle and constant opposition to the despotic local prince have turned him into an outcast for the community. In an ultimate vengeful move to protect (from the lord) the woman he loves, Luciano commits the unforgivable. Now an unfortunate criminal, he is exiled to Tierra del Fuego.
There, with the help of ruthless gold diggers, he seeks a mythical treasure, paving his way towards redemption. Yet, little but greed and madness can grow on these barren lands.

WELCOME VENICE | Director: Andrea Segre

Two brothers are in conflict over the way the Venetian lagoon has been transformed, and the identity of the city and its residents has drastically changed.

COMEDIANS | Director: Gabriele Salvatores
Theatrical adaptation: a group of aspiring comedians at a Manchester evening school reunite for their last rehearsal before performing for an agent from London.

CINEMA MADE IN ITALY | 3 -7 March 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

 

 

Lingui, The Sacred Bonds (2021)

Dir/Wri: Mahamat-Saleh Haroun | Achouackh Abakar Souleymane, Rihane KHALIL ALIO BRAHIM Youssouf DJAORO FANTA Briya GOMDIGUE | Chad, Drama, 87′

Visual storytelling at its most resplendent Lingui is a simple tale gracefully crafted by a director at the top of his game and brought to life by his talented cast.

In a landlocked Muslim country Lingui (The Sacred Ties) follows Amina an observant single mother living on the margins of a male-dominated society with her teenage daughter Maria. The men not only hold sway, they hold themselves above the law, laying it down harshly for their womenfolk. So the women are forced to play them at their game as we discover when Maria falls pregnant and cannot, by law, have an abortion.

With his vibrant compositions and exquisite framing the director keeps dialogue to a minimum in this filmic ‘whodunnit’ relying on strong cinematic language and a propulsive occasional score by Wasis Diop to show how pleasure occasionally breaks into the harsh realities of life in Chad’s main city of N’Djamena, where a tribal society has given way to strictly enforced Islam with mosque attendance ‘de rigueur’. Woman are expected to be subservient and cover themselves up in public, ritual circumcision is routinely practiced and performed by the women themselves when the girls are still very young. To be an unmarried mother is considered sinful whatever the circumstances and so for Maria the future looks especially bleak. And rumours spread fast.

Amina makes metal household equipment which she sells for a pittance by the roadside, but not enough to pay for illegal medical intervention. Maria is a typical young teenager: proudly defiant and living by her own modern standards, but her pregnancy will take her back to the dark ages of backstreet abortions. Worse still, she won’t reveal the truth until circumstances suddenly point to a solution. MT

Born in Chad, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun first won critical acclaim for his short films before directing his first feature, Bye-bye Africa (Best First Film, Venice Film Festival 1999). In 2010, the Venice Mostra gave him the Robert Bresson Award for his complete works and in 2013, the Fellini Medal awarded by UNESCO.

ON MUBI FROM 4 FEBRUARY 2022

Love it was Not (2020)

Dir.: Maya Sarfaty; Documentary with Helena Citron, Roza Citron, Frank Wunsch; Israel/Austria 2020, 86 min.

Israeli writer/director Maya Sarfaty builds on her award-winning graduation short film The Most Beautiful Woman (2016) with this ‘impossible love’ story that took place in Auschwitz-Birkenau  between Helena Citron, a Slovakian Jew, and one of her captors, Viennese SS Unterscharführer (Sergeant) Franz Wunsch. Although the title suggests otherwise, witness reports from seven close female camp survivors claim ‘he loved her to the point of madness”.

And somehow Sarfaty helps, however involuntarily, to cement this statement. True, Wunsch, born in 1922 like Helena, was a sadist who beat male prisoners to death and helped at the infamous ‘Rampen’ selections. But he also risked his life to save Helena and her sister Roza (1932-2005) from certain death, literally storming into the corridor leading to the infamous “Shower Rooms” to free Roza, although he could not save her two children, much to Helena’s chagrin.

Helena and Roza were amongst several thousand Slovakian Jews deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1942, before the Death Camp was fully functioning. The women helped with the demolition of older buildings and many were killed during the TNT explosions, where they were literally at the ‘coal face’. “We had become animals, ready to push our best friends to the front, just to survive ourselves”.

Helena first met Franz Wunsch on his birthday when he asked the women prisoners to sing a song in his honour. Helena chose the titular German hit song “Liebe war es nie” (Love it was Not) and Franz politely asked her for an encore. This was the beginning. Soon afterwards Helena caught typhoid, which was usually fatal, but Wunsch instructed the camp medics to look after her, and she recovered.

In an interview in 2003, Wunsch shares his memories of Dr. Josef Mengele who warned him “we are all going to be persecuted’ and promised not to denounce Wunsch, who had been wounded at the front and walked with a limp before being assigned to guard duty in Auschwitz. He found himself in active service again after the camp internees were sent on a death march. Helena and Roza were amongst the few who survived.

After the end of WWII Wunsch tried to pursue the relationship, but his letters were ignored and eventually he gave up. In 1972, Helena, who had emigrated to Tel Aviv in Israel, got a letter from Wunsch’s wife, pleading her to come to Vienna, where her husband was on trial for murder. “I know the two of you had been close, and I want you tell the court about it”. Under pressure to stay put, Helena still made the journey to Vienna and told the court about Wunsch’s crimes, but also how he saved her sister’s life. Wunsch was acquitted, the jury members, in an interview, claimed to have been on his side. “It was difficult in Austria to get a guilty-verdict in cases of concentration camp guards” said the state prosecutor of the Wunsch inquiry, very much resigned to the fact.

Wunsch’s daughter Dagmar also has her say, indignant that her father wore a medallion with two only photos: that of Helena and himself. “It should have been Mutti’s photo” says Dagmar, visibly upset. Bizarrely Franz Wunsch cut Helena’s face out of one of the photos, and superimposed it onto that of another woman, adding himself into the collage to make out they were just ordinary lovers in real life.

Artists Shlomit Goper and Ayelet Albeuda assemble a multilevel 3D photo montage together with the cuttings of Wunsch superimposed on the reality of the death camp. DoPs Itay Gross and Ziv Berkovich have taken great care filming the survivors, two of them having died before the feature was released. Helena Citron died in 2007, Franz Wunsch two years later. Their relationship in the hell of Auschwitz was a sort of ‘follie a deux’, unimaginable in the real world, rather like the death camps themselves. AS

FROM 26-28 January 2022 | JW3 Cinema LONDON NW3 | HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL DAY

 

Boris Karloff: The Man behind the Monster (2021)

Dir: Thomas Hamilton, Wri: Ron MacCloskey | With Caroline Munro, Guillermo del Toro, Ron Perlman, Christopher Plummer, Peter Bogdanovich, Stephanie Powers, John Landis, Joe Dante, Roger Corman, Sara Karloff | US Doc, 99′

Ron MacCloskey has poured 23 years of his life into this comprehensive 99 minute romp through the life and times of Boris Karloff, directed by co-writer Thomas Hamilton and based on the 2010 biography ‘Boris Karloff: More Than A Monster’ by Karloff’s official biographer Stephen Jacobs.

Enlivened by copious clips and archive material, the film takes us through the early years of Karloff’s debut in the 1920s, his breakthrough as Universal’s ‘monster’ Frankenstein during the 1930s and ’40s, up until to death in 1969, after a dazzling career as one of the icons of horror cinema – along with Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney and Vincent Price.

Although best known for his ‘monster’ roles Karloff was also a fully fledged actor of stage and radio: his mellow bass voice, saturnine looks and striking bone structure lending itself well to a multitude of characters. Far from just a sinister, terrifying screen presence Karloff also exuded masterful integrity, and even managed to be vulnerable in many of his horror roles, notably in Frankenstein itself where as a creepy but kindly creature he is befriended by seven-year-old Maria (Marilyn Harris) who he subsequently throws into the lake.

A little top heavy on talking heads: the most entertaining here are Joe Dante, John Landis, and Roger Corman although a laconic Peter Bogdanovich, Guillermo del Toro, and Christopher Plummer also have their say sharing their extensive knowledge on the subject of Karloff’s career which spanned 150 films. Clearly Karloff made a big impression on his audiences; daughter Sara waxes lyrical with gratitude to her father’s considerable fan base: memorabilia and personal letters continue to flood in, 50 odd years after the actor’s death.

Film-wise most intriguing of Karloff’s appearances are in The Black Cat (1934), The Body Snatcher (1945) Isle of the Dead (1945); Howard Hawks prison thriller The Criminal Code (1930) and George Schaefer’s made for TV version of Joan of Arc, The Lark (1957) in which he stars as Bishop Cauchon alongside alongside Eli Wallach, Basil Rathbone and Denholm Elliott.

The Man Behind the Monster serves as a vigorous and definitive tribute to Karloff himself and traces back through the history of horror cinema in the early part of the 20th century, and although production values could have been stronger, the meat on the bone is certainly enjoyable. MT

NOW ON SHUDDER

Parallel Mothers (2021)

Dir.: Pedro Almodóvar; Cast: Penélope Cruz; Milena Smit, Aitana Sánchez-Gijón, Israel Elejalde; Spain 2021, 123 min.

This so-called women-centric drama from writer director Pedro Almodóvar promises more than it delivers –  many of the Spanish director’s features it peters out into a soppy soap-opera, overstaying its welcome like an overdue baby after a self-indulgent running time of over two hours.

Janis (Cruz) a fortyish fashion photographer meets teenage run-away Ana (Smit) in the maternity ward, both giving birth at the same day. They are going it alone: Janis’ love-interest Arturo (Elejalde) wants to say with his wife who is undergoing chemotherapy, and Ana has been blackmailed by two men into having intercourse. The baby mix-up is telegraphed, and Ana loses ‘her’ child to cot death. Meanwhile Janis has confirmed her suspicion regarding the baby’s identities, having done maternity tests on the sly. Janis then gets Ana involved as a babysitter: she jumps at the opportunity to escape her overbearing actor mother Teresa (Sánchez-Gijón) and emotionally distant father – and is only too ready to accept Janis as a replacement mother. But will Janis spill he beans? And will Arturo, a forensic archaeologist, leave his wife after her recovery?

In the lush interiors Penélope Cruz takes centre stage, dominating the cast, particularly Smit, who is the sacrificial lamb. Almodóvar even finds time for a political lecture with Arturo leading an excavation of a mass grave of victims of the Spanish Falange of the Spanish Civil War, among them members of Janis’ family. DoP JoséLuis Alcaine conjures up decorus images on the widescreen but fails on the close-ups which somehow come across as wooden and artificial.

Parallel Mothers is on par in the context of Almodóvar’s prolific output a minor work – a showcase of everything he is good at – but falls between entertainment and serious satire, leaving the audience disappointed on all accounts. AS

Nationwide from 28 January 2022

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

Funeral in Berlin (1966) Prime video

Dir: Guy Hamilton | Cast: Michael Caine, Oskar Homolka, Eva Renzi, Paul Hubschmid | UK Thriller 102′

Probably the least familiar these days of the original Harry Palmer trio, brought to us by Len Deighton, it shows just what a difference a director makes.

Michael Caine returns as “that shrewd little cockney” from the original, transplanted from Blighty to Berlin, the presence of Oscar Homolka anticipates Billion Dollar Brain, and this time we get to see Major Ross doing the garden with his missus (“How can you work for that dreadful man?”).

The directors of the other two Deighton’s were show-offs; the helmsman on this old pro Guy Hamilton (earlier an assistant on The Third Man – and it shows – and recently in charge of Goldfinger), which ensures a film less flashy than the two that bookend it, but is still good fun nevertheless; and Palmer’s objection to his alias bears a suspicious resemblance to the gang quibbling over their colours in Reservoir Dogs.@RichardChatten

Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road (2021)

Dir.: Brent Wilson; Documentary with Brian Wilson, Linda Perry, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, Jason Fine; USA 2021, 95 min.

Do we need another Brian Wilson documentary? I Just Wasn’t made for These Times and Love & Mercy have already told his story, but the billion or so the super-fans will always ask for more. And The Beach Boys were America’s answer to The Beatles, back in the day, they epitomised an era and their harmonies are almost as divine – so yes, we do!.

Director Brent Wilson (no relation), veteran of music docs like Streetlight Harmonies, has tried the linear angle, confronting the images of the ‘Beach Boy’ founder with today’s survivor of schizoid-affective and bi-polar disorders, who enjoys being on tour again, even though the hallucinatory voices still haunt him – and have done for the last 60 years – when he is performing, in spite of all the medication available.

‘Rolling Stone’ editor Jason Fine, a close friend of Wilson, drives the megastar composer/singer round his favourite haunts, sadly only getting monosyllabic answers to his leading questions. Brian is very much in the shell he has created to survive. And there is more that enough pain for anybody to deal with, let alone a highly-strung artist.

There is the Hawthorne home of his childhood, where his father Murry (who died in 1973) played sadistic games while managing the bank with Brian and his brothers Carl (who died of lung cancer in 1998) and Dennis, who drowned in 1963. The two then visit the house Brian shared with his wife Marilyn, and their two children Carnie and Wendy.

They even take in the darker times: The “Malibu Prison” where Brian spend the 1980s under the influence of psychiatrist Eugen Landy, whose infamous 24-hour therapy led to a total inter-dependency, and was only solved when Landy started to mingle in the music business. Landy too was responsible for Brian breaking up with Melinda Ledbetter, but the two then married after Brian’s ‘release’ from Landy – the couple have adopted six children, and Melinda still works hard as Brian’s business manager. Brian insists today “that Landy saved me”.

Music-wise there is extensive time devoted to the iconic “Pet Sounds” and SMiLE, that came into being in  the mid-1960s and finished thirty years later. There are few revelations, the bitter chapter of Brian’s relationship with fellow Beach Boy Mike Love is nearly brushed out of the picture. Only once the mask of self-defence slips, when Brian tells Jason “I have not talked to a real friend in three years.” At the Beverly Glen Deli, where Brian and Jason stop for lunch, Brian devours his ice cream sundae with almost childlike enjoyment: and its with this same soulful devotion that he plays the piano (again) for an audience who adores him. Oh yes, about the surfing: “Yeah, Dennis surfed, I never learned it”.

The movie poster says it all: the young Brian looking over the shoulders if his older self at the piano. But this is not a psychoanalytical study, but a love letter to the music of Brian Wilson. As Bruce Springsteen says of “Pet Sounds”: “The beauty of it carries a sense of joyfulness even in the pain of living. The joyfulness of an emotional life”. AS

ON RELEASE NATIONWIDE | UK and Eire

Here Before (2021)

Wri/Dir: Stacey Greggs | Cast: Andrea Riseborough, Jonjo O’Neill, Niamh Dornan, Eileen O’HIggins | UK Drama 83′

Andre Riseborough always choses interesting roles and here she once again proves her talents as grieving Belfast mother Laura in this inventive thriller written and directed by Stacey Gregg who is best known for his TV work.

Profound grief is not only about depression. Tragic loss can play tricks with the mind inducing nightmares and even thoughts of reincarnation for the recently bereaved. And this is exactly what happens to Laura. Greggs clearly had Don’t Look Now in mind when writing the lead character who can’t get over the loss of her little girl in a car accident when her husband Brendan (O’Neil) was driving.

In the rainy rural outskirts of Belfast Laura lives in a semi with Brendan and their preteen son Tadhg (McAskie). Their next door neighbour’s daughter Megan (Dornan) bears a striking resemblance to her own little girl, and soon Laura is giving her lifts to school and even dreaming about her, but it soon turns out her suspicions are justified. What happens next is pivotal in this surprisingly tense thriller with surreal undertones and more than a few skeletons in its chilly cupboard. Greggs’ strong narrative keeps us intrigued in a story that doesn’t rely on atmosphere to carry the plot forward, as it so often the case with inexperienced filmmakers, and although the denouement teeters on melodrama the emotional fallout feels more than justified in the circumstances. MT

OUT NATIONWIDE ON 18 FEBRUARY 2022

Lynx (2021)

Dir/Wri/DoP: Laurent Geslin | Swiss/French Doc, 82′

In the heart of the Jura mountains, a raucous call resounds through the forest. The perfectly camouflaged Eurasian lynx creeps through the trees in search of a mate. After its release into the wild, cinematographer Laurent Geslin has spent the past few years tracking the daily life of this elusive and endangered beast as it forms a new family in the remote Alpine region that stretches between France and Switzerland.

In this full length feature documentary, a follow-up to Geslin’s pursuit of the London-based urban fox, the award-winning cinematographer enchants us with poetic almost Disney-like wonder in his self-narrated study that softens the act of killing without ever sentimentalising the subject matter, making it feel entirely in keeping with the delicate ecological scheme of things as the lynx goes about its seasonal struggle in often hostile terrain.

This is Northern Europe so the Alpine fauna is familiar to most of us but somehow magical and enchanting in Geslin’s limpid lens: owls, stoats, woodpeckers, eagles and mountain goats are so daintily captured in their natural daytime habitat or in the moonlight of starry time-lapsed nights that there are none of those awful ‘lookaway’ moments when the lynx – or any other animal – takes out it prey, as it inevitably does to survive. The feline’s only natural predator seems to come in human form: poachers are still active despite being illegal, and cars are getting faster. Absolutely mesmerising. MT

ON RELEASE FROM 17 JANUARY 2022 | LOCARNO FILM FESTIVAL 2021

Onoda (2021)

Dir.: Arthur Harari; Cast: Yuya Endo, Kanji Tsuda, Yuya Matsuura, Testsuya Chiba, Issei Taniguchi, Taiga Nakano, Shinsuke Kato | Action drama, 2021, 165 min.

French director/co-writer Arthur Harari collaborates with Vincent Poymiro and Bernhard Cendron in chronicling 29 years in the life of the titular Japanese soldier Hiroo Onoda (1922-2014), who for nearly thirty years hid in the jungle of the Philippine island of Lubang, fighting a war which ended in September 1945.

Towards the end of WWII, young Hiroo Onoda (Endo) is chosen to be a Kamikaze pilot. But Hiroo – in contrast to many of his peer group – does not want to die, and he refuses to fly, citing vertigo for his decision. This brings him to the attention of Major Taniguchi (Ogata), who runs a school for secret war activities: Hiroo is told never to commit suicide, or surrender to the fast advancing American troops.

On the Philippine island of Lubang, Onoda is witness to the overwhelming power of the American army. But true to the promise he has given to Taniguchi, he refuses to concede defeat, and gathers a motley crew of three other soldiers embarking on a guerrilla war against the island’s population: “The four of us can kill hundreds”. One of the resisters, Akatsu, deserts in 1949 but Onoda battles on in his own private war still believing the islanders are in alliance with the Americans.

History this may be, but Onoda would be very much at home today: refusing to believe that the war has ended, despite all signs to the contrary. Everything signalling the truth is hailed as ‘Fake News’; even Hiroo’s father speaking with a loudhailer to make his son accept reality. For Hiroo, it is not the voice of his father, but an actor paid by the Americans. And on New Year’s Day in 1950, Onoda and Kozuka await a rescue party after they have “decoded” leaflets and other written material left for them by the population.

Harari tells the story from the POV of Hiroo: we live in his head, hear his inner dialogue, and apart from the overwhelming running time of nearly three hours, there is much to appreciate: Kanji Tsuda as the older Onoda is outstanding amidst an impressive cast. And there is always humour and irony: when Hiroo and Kozuka make a map of the island, they use names from their pre-war life experiences. And, strangely, there is sometimes a sort of beauty in the wild phantasies of a man who cannot give up his dream of becoming a hero, the guilt of his refusal to sacrifice himself as a pilot driving himself on. AS

ON RELEASE AT SELECTED ARTHOUSE CINEMAS

 

Licorice Pizza (2021) Best Original Screenplay BAFTA

Dir/Wri: Paul Thomas Anderson | Cast: Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Sean Penn, Tom Waits, Bradley Cooper, Will Angarola, Ben Safdie, Mary Elizabeth Ellis, Skylar Gisondo | US Comedy Drama,131′

The excitement and enthusiasm of being a teenager in search of the American Dream is captured in this satirical trip down memory lane set in the early 1970s during the politically turbulent years of Vietnam and the Watergate scandal.

Paul Thomas Anderson follows a string of memorable and diverse classics: Boogie Nights, Punch Drunk Love, Phantom Thread and There Will Be Blood with a soulful romantic comedy that unfolds in California’s San Fernando Valley where Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman, son of Philip Seymour) is a chubby spirited high school actor experiencing first love with his much older crush Alana Kane (Alana Haim), a gutsy Jewish girl with plenty of chutzpah and an overbearing father.

Much more than just a punchy coming of age story Licorice Pizza is a nostalgic journey through America in the Nixon era with echoes of Taxi Driver and The Graduate – and the same grainy look – and a soundtrack of iconic recalling a time where opportunities were endless and brushing up against Hollywood stars was still possible in the everyday scheme of things before they became a protected species. And the teenage realisation that they are just flawed, ordinary people, not gods to be aspired to gives the film some of its most enjoyable scenes.

Gary is not held back from pursuing Alana despite his puppy fat and pubescent acne. His inherent self-belief and entrepreneurial flair soon sees him capitalising on ‘start-ups’ involving pinball machines and the famous craze for water beds: a doomed endeavour involving a celebrity client in the shape of Bradley Cooper’s egocentric Jon Peters is one of the funnier detours the film takes, and there’s a surprisingly sinister undertone to Alana’s episode with Ben Safdie’s aspiring political candidate. This adds a dose of tension to her on/off relationship with Gary making it feel all the more genuine in its avoidance of sentimentality both in sunny and sombre moments – the two of them always feel real and endearingly human in their spiky single-minded belligerence. A bit of an odd couple at first Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman’s gradually emerging on screen chemistry is why the film is so compulsively watchable.

The film goes to unexpected places but always keeps us onboard with its compelling teenage love story that is charming, quirky and totally unpredictable – just like real life. We are drawn further and further into Gary and Alana’s world with its soap-opera elements in a narrative so rich and surprising it could go on forever.

Another part of the film’s success – and a great deal of the subversive fun – comes from trying to guess the real people behind the made up names (apart from Jon Peters): Sean Penn’s character Jack Holden and John Michael Higgins’ Jerry Frick are so familiar yet there’s a inclusive quality that makes them feel absolutely right for the era, whoever they are. Featuring a seemingly endless cast of well-tuned interconnecting characters Liquorice Pizza builds an entire world in the Valley that is both intimate and far-reaching in its scale. MT

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY EE BAFTAS 2022

Yamabuki (2022) Rotterdam International Film Festival

Dir.: Juichiro Yamasaki; Cast: Kang Yoon-Soo, Kilala Inori, Yohta Kawase, Misa Wada; Japan/France 2022, 96 min.

Japanese writer/director Juichiro Yamasaki has set this fraught drama in his hometown of Minawa, a multicultural mining community where the influx of foreign workers has added a radical vibe to the once rural backwater.

The story revolves around two South-Korean immigrants Chang-Su (Yoon-Soo) and motherless teenager, the titular Yamabuki (Inori). Chang-Su once had a privileged life in his homeland, but when his father went bankrupt, he not only had to give up riding (he was one of the top national equestrians), but had to leave the country in order to pay back considerable debts. He lives with his partner Minami (Kawase) and her daughter Uzuki (Wada) and works at the local quarry as an extractor driver, where he is promised a full-time position.

But fate intervenes: Yamabuki, a rebellious teenager, who demonstrates at street corners against the attacks on foreigners, takes a mountain hike with her father, a senior police officer and his colleague. Whilst digging out a Yamabuki flower, the father sets off an avalanche of stones, which hit Chang-Su’s car, causing an accident. In the hospital with a broken leg, he learns, that his full-time job is gone. But worse is to come in a feature with some deeply affecting elements: in one scene Yamabuki watches a Zoom conversation she had with her mother, a war journalist killed at the Syrian/Turkish border. Her desire to be independent often affects her relationship with her conservative father. Her boyfriend Yusake is not much help and is off to join the army. Ironically, the two alienated protagonists meet accidentally at a street corner, not knowing anything about each other, with Chang-Su not particularly impressed with Yamabuki’s protests.

YAMABUKI is not an easy watch: too often the protagonists talk at cross purposes, and neither the teenager nor the immigrant have any clue about the powers they face – they are just uprooted to this foreign town with totally different expectations. Yamasaki leaves the audience to work out much for themselves. DoP Kenta Tawara films the harsh settings in grainy 16mm, achieving a documentary effect and evoking a society very much at unease with itself. Yamasaki avoids sentimentality and didactic undertones, featuring off-beat emotional turmoil with poetic interludes. AS

ROTTERDAM INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL | TIGER COMPETITION 2022

The King’s Man (2021)

Wri/Dir: Matthew Vaughn | UK, Action Comedy, 130’

Ralph Fiennes and Rhys Ifans lead a magnificent cast in this entertaining if occasionally ridiculous romp, a historical re-write riffing on an eponymous secret spy organisation active in preventing global conflict during the First World War .

Don’t worry if you haven’t followed the other episodes this stand alone comedy sees Fiennes’s back again as the dapper aristo Orlando Oxford, a patriotic pacifist war veteran who rapidly converts to killer mode when his family is slowly decimated by the war effort.

After his wife is killed by a stray bullet in the opening scenes Oxford actively discourages his only son Conrad (Harris Dickinson) from enlisting in the army – but boys will be boys. Aided and abetted by his game comrades Djimon Hounsou (who plays the token black guy) and Gemma Arterton (the token female with an unfeasible Yorkshire accent), Fiennes plays a chivalrous James Bond-style gentleman hero, impeccably suave in Savile Row suiting, and dashingly daring til the end.

Tonally off-kilter for most of its running time – patriotically reverent melodrama making an awkward bedfellow to ‘boys own’ rambunctiousness and silly humour, there are some rip-roaring set pieces, notably the hair-raising hike up a stratospheric mountain-side to find the home of a storied cashmere-bearing goat.

Rhys Ifans is terrific as the anti-hero Rasputin – although the accent is definitely more Gary Oldman’s 1992 Dracula than the sinister Russian mystic. There are various subplots that feel totally redundant to the main thrust of the narrative – a resentful Scotsman whose identity is only revealed at the end (who even cares?). A bit of a mess then, but a really enjoyable one. MT

ON RELEASE NATIONWIDE

Minyan (2021)

Dir.: Eric Steel; Cast: Samuel H. Levine, Ron Rifkin, Christopher McCann, Mark Margolis, Brooke Blom, Alex Hurt, Carson Meyer; USA 2020, 119 min.

Eric Steel’s documentary The Bridge was a shockingly realistic study of suicide attempts from the Golden Gate Bridge. Here he turns his camera on a more sentimental subject, a gay coming of age drama set during the winters of 1986 and 1987 the rapidly changing milieu of Brighton Beach, NYC. Based on David Bezmozgis’ tale about Holocaust survivors from Europe, the title refers to a Jewish prayer meeting, requiring the quorum of ten men to go ahead.

David (Levine) is a seventeen-year-old yeshiva student at an ultra-orthodox institution, and wants nothing more than to leave his parents, an abusive father and over-protective mother (Blum) to start a new life at a state school. Close to his grandfather Josef (Rifkin), whose wife has died.

Josef wants to leave the flat he shared with his wife understandably because there are too many memories there. He and David try to get an apartment in a block of flats subsidised by a Jewish charity. David gets on much better with his grandfather’s generation, is drawn to Itzik (Margolis) and his partner Herschel (McCann), who share a flat, their relationship sanctioned by the other tenants.

With David discovering his sexual orientation, despite attention from the attractive Alicia (Meyer), he feels more and more out-of-synch with his family background. His first lover, super macho Bruno (Hurt), is a revelation for David, but also introduces him to the raging death count in the gay community as the AIDS epidemic claims many victims. More and more liberated, David joins a school in Greenwich village and is properly introduced to the writing of James Baldwin (who died in December 1987) having found out that Bruno used Baldwins’s “Giovanni’s Room” simply as a calling card for pick-ups. After Itzik’s death, his son selling all his furniture, Herschel is left homeless with David drawn into the complex undertaking to find flats for the two homeless old men.

There are too many flaws in what could have been a stunning feature: to start with the running time of two hours is indulgent, since there is no proper story, just a series of episodes. Steel wanted DoP Ole Bratt Birkeland to use images which could have been at home in any up-market Hollywood feature. Dull brown and grey colours give the proceedings an artificial background. And Steel, like many before him, does not do justice to the survivors of the Holocaust, whose lives are blighted by traumata and survivors’ guilt. Like many features set in the death camps, the post-life of the survivors cannot be caught in any way realistically – there is always too much of a chasm between reality and film set staging.

IN UK CINEMAS FROM 7 JANUARY 2022

Ailey (2021)

Dir.: Jamila Wignot; Documentary with Alvin Ailey, Judith Jameson, Carmen de Lavallade , Robert Battle; USA 2021, 90 min.

Alvin Ailey (1931-1989), founder of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre (AAADT), remains pretty much a mystery in this lyrical portrait of the dancer and choreographer – a black, closeted gay man. Cicely Tyson called him the “Pied Piper of modern dance”, and when Ailey received his award during the Kennedy Honours ceremony in 1988, ironically presented by Ronald whose policies had punished the gay community.

In her first outing as solo writer/director, Jamila Wignot works with Ailey archive interviews often as a commentator, escaping the ‘talking heads’ malaise which blights many documentaries. Alvin Ailey was born in 1931 in rural Texas, he never met his father, but his mother worked on the cotton fields and as a cleaning lady for white homeowners. In 1941 they moved to Los Angeles where their relationship became the corner stone of Alvin’s psychological world for the rest of his life. Later, when he suffered from Bi-Polar disorder and was institutionalised in a psychiatric ward, it was his mother who took him home and looked after him. Alvin was very protective of his mother, right to the end, when he made his doctor sign the cause of his death as a result of a blood disorder, so that she would not be stigmatised by him being a victim of AIDS.

Ballet was for Ailey a form of escape, he was captivated by the Ballets Russes Monte Carlo and Catherine Dunham even though his football coach at High school tried in vain to interest him in the sport. Alvin was taught by Martha Graham, among others, and founded the AAADT in 1958 at the age of only twenty-seven, after having moved to NYC, where he replaced Lester Horton as choreographer at his last engagement.

Perhaps Ailey’s most famous ballet, “Revelations” (1960) was called a “re-enactment’ of life, a mixture of passion and sorrows” by members of the ensemble. In 1970, AAADT was nearly bankrupt, and the Foreign Office sent the ensemble on a tour of Asia and Europe. They were extremely popular, particularly in Stuttgart (Germany) “where the sell-out crowd hollered and stomped, like they had an orgasm”. The audience called the troupe for 80 curtain raisers. But Alvin remained an enigma even for his closest collaborators, he was just another person when he left the building after performing. His work was sometimes criticised for not being political enough in the wake of the rising Civil Rights movement, but he answered “that his protest was on the stage, not the streets”.

Further successes were “The River” (1970) and a year later, “Cry”, a birthday present for his mother, and a solo performance for Judith Jameson. There is interesting footage from an interview of Alvin with Harry Belafonte, where they discuss race integration, which for Alvin did progress too slowly. After the death of close collaborator Joyce Trisher, he was shocked and honoured her with “Memoria” (1979). But the experience in Texas stayed with him forever: after successful performances in Paris, he claimed that he could not adjust to such different experiences, and left. He soon returned with “Fever Swamp” (1983). Alvin Ailey spent the last days of his life on a sofa, watching his troupe rehearse.

Apart from archive footage and Newsreel snippets, Wignot uses rehearsals by the new artistic director, Robert Battle, of “Lazarus” by Rennie Harris, to celebrate 60 years of the AAADT, with Masazumi Chaya, another co-director of the company, also commenting on the continuation of Alvin Ailey’s work.

AILEY flows like a dream, languid and indulgent. Perhaps Alvin Ailey was too much of a contradictory personality to have everything revealed in one feature. But Wignot has achieved enough, to make us curious to get to know him better. AS

IN CINEMAS AND ON DEMAND from 7 JANUARY 2022

Petrov’s Flu (2021)

Dir: Kiril Serebrennikov | Cast: Semyon Serzin, Chulpan Khamatova, Yulia Boris and Yuri Kolokolnikov | USSR, Drama

Petrov’s Flu unites Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov with Semyon Serzin, the star of his 2018 drama Leto. His standout thought-provoking religious drama The Student (2016) screened at Un Certain Regard. It won that year’s Francois Chalais Award.

Based on the novel “The Petrovs In and Around the Flu” by Alexey Salnikov this film version is a deadpan, hallucinatory romp through post-Soviet Russia. With the city in the throes of a flu epidemic, the Petrov family struggles through yet another day in a country where the past is never past, the present is a booze-fueled, icy fever dream of violence and tenderness, and where – beneath layers of the ordinary – things turn out to be quite extraordinary. Set somewhere between reality and imagination, Petrov’s Flu is a visually captivating: rough, funny, violent and psychedelic, and yet at the same time tender and poetic. It’s not quite a good as The Student .but its ideas and striking visual aesthetic make it well worth watching. MT

ON RELEASE FROM FRIDAY 11 February 2022

Taming the Garden (2021)

Dir.: Salomé Jashi; Documentary; Germany/Netherlands/Switzerland/Georgia 2021, 91 min.

Georgian writer/director/co-DoP Salomé Jashi (The dazzling sight of Sunset) has portrayed her fellow Georgians justified but remorseless: whilst ex-premier Bidzina Ivanishvili, a Dollar billionaire, robs the country of its natural beauty, the ones directly concerned take the money and moan. Ivanishvili, who also has a private zoo with with kangaroos, penguins and zebras in one of his many villas near the Black Sea, has decided to re-plant old trees near his country mansion, overlooking the capital Tbilisi, were flamingos mingle near lakes. Jashi follows the re-planting on a 135-year old tulip tree, weighing 650 tonnes, on its journey to its new home.

The beginning is surreal, Fellini and Herzog could not have done it better: two men fish at the banks of the Black Sea, when suddenly a tree a tree floats along the waves, only when it comes closer, we make out the barge, which carries it. Cut to to the village of Tsikhisdziri in western Georgia, were the tree, “legally bought” by Ivanishvili, “because giant trees are my hobby, I am developing a park, I think tis is all appropriate”, is dug out from the ground, to go on a journey of forty km along the Black sea coast. Workers use diggers of all sorts and seizes, drills and pipes to extricate tree and roots, and load it on two coupled up HGVs, to drive to the coast.

The job will take about three months, and the crew of workmen compare the current enterprise with other jobs of the same kind, which they have done for Ivanishvili in the past. Planks are laid out, a new road is being constructed, leading to the coast of the Black Sea, where the tree will be loaded on to a barge. It goes without saying, that there will be collateral damage: trees in the neighbourhood of the prize object will be cut down or severely trimmed. The same goes for the trees of the neighbours, next to dirt street, where the tree will be transported. Five hundred Lai is the price per tree. The recipients of the compensation are muted about their response: “Never mind, what sort of villain Ivanishvili is, he is doing something. People never gave a shit about the trees.” One man, slightly drunk swears “I’ll never give way to the transportation workers, I am going for death”. When the deed is done, their is some regret, but also optimism: “The trimmed trees will bloom again in two years”, to which an elderly lady answers “But will I be alive then?”

Celia Stroom’s choral score ends the feature with close-ups of barge and tree, before we cut to Ivanishvili’s new park, were a bamboo forest is next to the newly up-rooted trees’, leaving the audience with the question if this is home or prison.

In foregoing the usual commentary, which tells the audience the obvious, Jashi concentrates on the images and Vox populi: the harsh realism of the work environment clashes with the poetic lyricism of he Black Sea travel. Taming the Garden is harbinger of a world to come, where not only the souls of trees will be up for sale. AS

In UK & Irish cinemas 28th January 2022

House of Gucci (2021)

Dir: Ridley Scott | Cast: Adam Driver, Lady Gaga, Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons, Jared Leto, Camille Cottin, Jack Huston, Salma Hayek | Drama, 157′

Ridley Scott’s tragicomedy about the downfall of the Gucci family is a real epic: flawed, flamboyant but highly entertaining. A perfect clash between style and bravado. Adam Driver is the driving force behind it all. And he’s brilliant as the starchy patrician lawyer Maurizio Gucci seduced and ultimately murdered by Lady Gaga’s buxom firecracker, Patrizia Reggiani, the daughter of a haulage contractor, whose elbows are as sharp as her husband to be’s tailoring.

Maurizio is the son of suave Gucci scion Rodolfo played by Jeremy Irons whose well-tuned antenna has already spotted Gaga as a gold-digger. And predictably it all ends in tears when Rodolfo dies leaving Maurizio as the majority shareholder whose ideas for the family business conflict with those of his cousin Paolo Gucci – Al Pacino knows all the ropes here as the New York cousin who kept the brand exclusive offering his celebrity clientele loafers lined with gold leaf.

So the social side and the business story go hand in hand in a patchy drama that careers all over the place tone-wise – the bits with Jared Leto as Paolo’s idiotic son are awkwardly painful – but it speeds along like a Ferrari when Driver and Gaga are in the frame, their chemistry and glitzy lifestyle providing most of the fun, Pacino giving one of his best performances in recent years as the savvy businessman who finally loses out when Maurizio, and ultimately the Arab investors gain control. And Rodolfo’s predictions come true, and Maurizio eventually tires of his little wife’s unbridled ambition, and he moves onto the elegant charms of Paola, a woman from his own background in the shape of Camille Cottin (there’s a lovely scene where she shimmies, fireside).

House of Gucci is largely about a clash of cultures, and House of Gucci (based on a book by Sara Gay Forden) is spot on in its retelling of how the once chic emblem of the 1970s – anything by Gucci back then was considered highly desirable – is soon tarnished by family disagreements and over-exposure, so eroding the core values it represented as a brand. But never mind all that, House of Gucci is flamboyant fun. MT

IN CINEMAS FROM FRIDAY 26 NOVEMBER 2021

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

Dying to Divorce (2021)

Dir: Chloe Fairweather | UK Doc, 84′

This grim but worthwhile documentary – the UK’s Oscar Academy hopeful – greets us with the news that one in three Turkish women experience domestic abuse.

Yes. And we meet two of them now living with life-changing injuries, merely for wanting a divorce on entirely reasonable grounds. One husband had openly taken a lover, and reduced his wife Arzu to a wheelchair-bound invalid leaving her unable to care for their five kids. Another,  caused catastrophic head injuries during a petty argument, leaving his wife Kubra – a former presenter for Bloomberg – virtually ‘gaga’, quite literally. And nothing to do with that famous celebrity.

English filmmaker Chloe Fairweather follows a typical day in the life of Istanbul lawyer Ipek Bozkurt who supports these courageous women in court standing up to their husbands in a male-dominated authoritarian regime that is modern day Turkey. At one point we actually see the Turkish president Recep Tayep Erdogan extolling the virtues of child-rearing as women’s only purpose in life in his increasingly authoritarian regime that continues to crack down on all forms of opposition since the attempted coup in July 2016. There is also ample archive footage showing how protestors demonstrated in the streets of the capital on International Women’s Day in March 2019, Police dispersing what looks like teargas into the crown.

We genuinely feel devastated by these women’s horrific injuries and humbled at their perseverance in seeking justice in a climate where men have the upper hand. Without the support of their families these women simply could not carry on.

Dying to Divorce is not a pleasant film but a vital document in the battle to raise awareness that femicide, toxic masculinity and domestic abuse is still an ongoing  occurrence in all societies where women are treated as second class citizens. MT

DYING TO DIVORCE – In UK cinemas from 24th November | Official UK Entry for the Academy Awards for: Best International Feature Film

Playground (2021)

Die: Laura Wandel | Drama, Belgium, 62′

Bullying and the casual cruelty of children is the focus of this schoolground psychological thriller – Belgian’s Oscar hopeful in next year’s academy award.

Everyone remembers a school bully or being at the receiving end of acts of nastiness that caused emotional if not physical pain. The old adage “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” was regularly trotted out by parents attempting to rationalise the situation but offered scant comfort as the next day at school loomed with trepidation.     

Playground launches us straight into the tearful time seven year old Nora is having when her father (Karim Leklou) drops her off at the school gates. And we feel for her, and it’s a touching and impassioned and astonishingly subtle performance from Maya Vanderbegue. She will gradually toughen up during the course of Laura Wandel’s debut feature but you get the impression there is a steely, not altogether, healthy resolve behind her wilful behaviour in the finale stretch, the camera lingering at the kids’ eye level, as the adult world seems far away, irrelevant, any grown up authority unable to intervene or limit the taunts and vicious outbursts of a playground transformed into a gladiatorial arena from the scared children’s’ perspective .

Nora clings to her elder brother Abel (Günter Duret) who soon becomes an unreliable ally: he’s got his own adversaries to deal with in the schoolyard pecking order, and resents Nora’s babyish demands for sibling allegiance when he has to protect his own interests and not appear weak, or involve her by association. Seen through the naturalistic gaze of Frederic Noirhomme’s camera kids are just as complex as fully grown adults but not yet capable of guile and disingenuousness in their facial expressions, making them fascinating subjects to watch.

Eventually Abel will turn the tables on his child tormentors in this impressive first feature which explores how kids separate from the parental comfort zone and learn to fight their own battles – quite literally. MT

PLAYGROUND wins the Grand Prix in Tallinn’s Just Film | FIPRESCI prize for Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival and the Sutherland Prize for Best First Feature at the London Film Festival.

 

 

 

The Great Freedom (2021) MUBI

Fir: Sebastian Meise | Drama 104’

Franz Rogowski is the dynamite that burns through this outré arthouse portrait of illicit homosexuality in post war Berlin from Austrian filmmaker Sebastian Meise.

Arrested for cottaging in the grubby confines of a public lavatory in the claustrophobic early cine-camera scenes he is Hans Hoffmann, a man who will spend the remainder of the film in prison surrounded by murderers and thieves, before homosexuality was decriminalised in 1969.

Meise makes no attempt to make his characters likeable in this sordid slice of social realism but Rogowski always brings an appealing sense of vulnerability that softens the hard edges of this overlong sober prison drama with its flecks of brilliance. The final scene is a memorable masterstroke.

The narrative unfolds across three interlinking timelines seeing Hans in a series of sexual encounters in the same sordid prison where he often finds himself in solitary confinement for doing so. The touchstones are 1945, 1957 and 1968 where he forms a close relationship with homophobe Viktor (Georg Freidrich) who is serving time for murder but whose sexual yearnings are for women, not men.

But Meise plays on the theme of sexual fluidity here in a story that very much explores sex as a physical release as much as an emotional need in a pivotal part of the storyline that leads to the men’s relationship soon developing into a close bond of friendship and reliance that touches on love but never speaks its name.

Hans dabbles in other affairs in the story’s most poignant scenes and here he gives full throttle to his signatory romantic sensuality in a gutsy performance that carries the film through its rather low-key narrative where tighter writing in the middle act could have made this more intense.

Nevertheless this is a nakedly unflinching look at a time when men weren’t allowed to show their love for each other and a worthwhile warts of all expose of the German prison system of the era. MT

ON MUBI FROM 11 MARCH 2022

Best Austrian Film, VIENNALE 2021:
GROSSE FREIHEIT (GREAT FREEDOM), Sebastian Meise, Austria/Germany 2021

Dune (2021)

Dir.: Denis Villeneuve; Cast: Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Zendaya, Stellan Skarsgard, Javier Bardem, Charlotte Rampling, Josh Brolin, Jason Momoa; USA/ Canada 2021, 155 min.

The forth realised adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 cult novel Dune, directed by Québécoise filmaker Denis Villeneuve (2049) is big news – with a budget of 165 million dollars Warner Brothers have taken a gamble in the hope that streaming on their platform HBO Max and good receipts at the cinema box office will guarantee a sequel covering the second half of Herbert’s book.

After the David Lynch version of 1984 was butchered by the producers (from 180 to 137 minutes), and two TV mini-series, Villeneuve’s almost two hour version could be seen as a mere set-up for the all-revealing two-and-half hour denouement – or even part of a new franchise. But Part Two is not a certainty at all, if you cast your mind back to the troubles Alejandro Jodorowsky had in the early 1970s, when even Salvatore Dali failed to get the Chilean helmer’s project off the ground, spawning only Frank Pavich’s 2013 doc exploring its contingent failure.

To their credit, Villeneuve and co-writers Eric Roth and Jon Spaiths, have played down only the background of the saga, so that non-aficionados of the Herbert novel can enjoy the more entertaining intrigues and endless battles: in the far, far future humankind has conquered the universe due to a super, life-enhancing spice that super-charges the brain endowing humans with preternatural powers of rapid mobility in space travel, that today would take millions of years. The downside is that this super-dust, called Spice, is only found on the planet Arrakis, aka Dune, where giant sandworms contribute to a very inhospitable environment.

The indigenous population known as Fremen (read Free Men) are engaged in an ongoing battle to combat the colonisation of the Emperor’s armies. Enter the House of Atreides, a noble family who is ordered by the Emperor to take charge of Dune and its rebellious population. They take over from the House of Harkonnen, but it is not clear if the Atreides are getting a promotion, or are just a toy in the hands of the Imperial ruler. Duke Leto (Isaac) of Atreides, his concubine Jessica (Ferguson) and their son Paul (Chalamet) arrive on Dune, only to be ambushed by evil Baron Harkonnen (Skarsgard). Paul’s mother belongs to a tribe of women known as the ‘Bene Gesserit’,who have been engaged for centuries in creating “The One” – but it’s still uncertain if Paul is really this long-awaited saviour.

Jessica trains her son in the art of “Voice”, which allows its user total mind control. Paul is being prepared for battle by Gurney (Brolin) and Idaho (Momoa), so he can lead the stranded family on their way to salvation on Dune, whilst taking the Spice and dreaming of Chani (Zendaya), a Fremen woman, whom we only see in Paul’s dreams. Will the enigmatic Paul and Jessica become allies of the Fremen, or is this just the start of hostilities with the black-clad Harkonnen?

The two-part script structure is clearly flawed but Villeneuve, DoP Greig Fraser and PD Patrice Vermette have created a totally unique universe where sandstorms (aka climate change?) pose an even greater threat than the mayhem caused by human armies. This is brutalist futurism where helicopters fly like birds with insect wings, and the Harkonnen army, with their hairless, pale faces bring to mind the SS ‘Angels of Death’. But the graphic descriptions of the battle scenes often feel  repetitive and gradually lose their power to shock, becoming ineffectual. DUNE is certainly a visual masterpiece, so let’s hope the producers’ pay-as-you-go strategy pays off with Part II. Shame though the the whole thing couldn’t have been down in one go. AS

NOW In CINEMAS

 

Prayers for the Stolen (2021)

 

 

Dir/Wri: Tatiana Huezo | Cast: Ana Cristina Ordonez Gonzalez, Marya Membreno, Norma Pablo, Mayra Batalla, Eileen Yanez, Emeo Villegas Olivia Lagunas | Drama 100′

A lush and haunting tale of friendship and survival draws us into the vortex of oppression and fear felt by three girls growing up during wartime in rural Mexico. Recent figures from Amnesty suggest that around ten women and girls are killed in Mexico alone, every day.

Based on the 2014 novel by Jennifer Clement this is the latest human drama from Tatiana Huezo who has been quietly raising the profile of social and personal abuse for woman all over Latin America – from Civil War in El Salvador (in El Lugar mas pequeno in 2011) to human trafficking in Mexico (Tempestad (2016)). This is her third and most accomplished feature to date.

In a tight-knit community nestled in the Mexican mountains, we first meet eight year old Ana (Ordonez Gonzalez), digging a hole in the ground with her mother Rita (Batalla). Ana will ‘bury’ herself here when the guerrilla soldiers come to kidnap the local girls who will be turned into captives and slaves. In the bosky remote hillside violence is an everyday part of growing up for young Mexican girls. So Ana and her two friends create their own impenetrable parallel universe where they play at being women, comforting each other with an affectionate bond of friendship, singing and painting their lips with beetroot. Soon Ana’s long hair will be cut into a boyish crop to avoid detection. On lonely days she hides out in the empty houses of villagers who have long disappeared or fled, such as Juana and Don Pancho, whose abandoned flock of cows now roams free in the village.

Strong on atmosphere the film is cinematic study of what it means to grow up as a girl in a hostile environment where men are almost constantly the enemy. Ana’s father is supposedly working on the other side of the valley, but he has not sent money back for several years, and so Ana and her mother are forced to fend for themselves on the brink of poverty. One surreal scene pictures Rita desperately trying to get a mobile signal on the top of a mountain, along the other abandoned women whose ‘phones light up the darkness like mini torches glowing in the gloom.

Five years later, at thirteen, the girls become teenagers as they face the harsh reality of what being a woman really entails in this toxic climate of war and macho culture. Abstract danger becomes an inescapable threat, as a Russian roulette plays out one day when soldiers arrive to take Ana, forcing her into the dugout as her mother is threatened with death.

Some films are moving but this rich character drama is actually harrowing too, as we become emotionally invested in the girls’ story fleshed out in Huezo’s richly textured script, joining them in their descent into traumatised hell as a daily experience. The casual involuntary abuse from Ana’s mother is echoed by the disorientating fear she feels from the outside male threat. Ana – both as a child and a teenager – is impressively performed by two newcomers (Ordonez Gonzalez and Membreno), and is matched by Huezo’s assured direction and luminous camerawork by Dariela Ludlow.

IN CINEMAS FROM 8 April 2022, and exclusively on MUBI from 29 April 2022 | San Sebastian FILM FESTIVAL | Latin American Prix HORIZONTES WINNER

CANNES FILM FESTIVAL 2021 | UN CERTAIN REGARD SPECIAL MENTION AWARD

 

Copilot (2021)

Dir.: Anna Zohar Berrached; Cast: Canan Kir, Roger Azar, Ozay Fecht, Julia Roth, Ceci Chuh; Germany/France 2021, 118 min.

German director Anna Zohra Berrached is the daughter of an Algerian immigrant who grew up in the GDR. Her sophomore feature, a complex character study, follows a Muslim couple in late 1999s Germany before the world was changed forever by the turbulent events of 9/11. Based loosely on one of the pilots (Ziad Jarrah) who actually took part in the atrocity (Ziad Jarrah), the film asks the question: how much do we really know about people close to us?

Asli (Kir) is a brilliant medical student, shy and insecure. She falls for a Lebanese student Saeed (Azar), whose dream is to be a pilot, but his wealthy traditional family refuse to support him, Asli’s Turkish just wanting her to marry the ‘right’ husband. Saeed is certainly not on this list partly because of his Arabic background. so the lovers will later marry in secret, but not before Saeed becomes more radical in his views, giving up alcohol and avoiding sex with Asli, telling her: “I don’t want to be like the Germans, who sleep around”.

But there are warning signs from the beginning. Saaed’s anti-Israel remarks soon make the two of them social outcasts amongst their group of friends as Saaed starts proselytising Islam to them and eventually Saeed disappears off to Yemen for a while. And when he comes back his behaviour has changed radically. Suddenly, he decides to take up his pilot licence in Florida, the cheapest and quickest way possible. Asli joins him and they fly together as she gradually becoming his titular co-pilot. Returning to Germany for an operation, Asli comes round from the anaesthetic to see breaking news about the 9/11 disaster on her beside TV. But Saeed’s mobile is switched off.

With its multi-lingual cast and differing cultural touchstones Copilot had quite a laborious scripting and filming process, and as the story unfolds hope gradually fades as Asil loses her focus on reality, preoccupied with work. As for Saeed, he lived in a dream world, sustained by a nightmare: his final letter to his wife is proof of his ghastly fantasy: “The world will be a different one, and happier for all”.

RELEASED IN UK & IRELAND IN CINEMAS 10 SEPTEMBER 2021

Marceline. A Woman. A Century. (2021)

Dir.: Cordelia Dvoràk; Documentary with Marceline Loridan-Ivens, Simone Veil, Judith Perignin, Jean-Pierre Sergent; France/Netherlands 2018, 76 min.

Cordelia Dvoràk’s biopic about the life of filmmaker and author Marceline Loridan-Ivens (1928- 2018) is an example of the triumph of opposition: Fourteen year-old Marceline Rozenberg was imprisoned in Bollène (Vaucluse) then deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau on 13.4,1944, having worked with her father Szlama for the resistance. She did not only survive Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and Terezin (Theresienstadt), but became a filmmaker, working with her husband Joris Ivens (1898-1989) in Vietnam and China.

Loridan-Ivens was one of only 2500 French Jews who survived deportation, just under three percent of the total of 76 000 victims. After watching Loridan-Ivens signing copies of her auto-biography ‘Et tu n’es pas Revenu’, she meets co-author Judith Perignon in her Parisian flat, a cheerful place with flowers everywhere. This sets the tone of an upbeat documentary: the old Marceline talking to her young self. “Hunger, beatings, thirst. People die, and you instantly forget them. No soul is left. I can see her clearly, that little girl that is still inside me to this day. She is fairly shy”. Marceline met Simone Veil in Block 9, and the once Minister of Culture makes a (too) short visit.

After her liberation by the Red Army in May 1945, she returned to Paris where her mother “wanted her daughter to marry into Jewish families, have children and erase the past”. But “sexuality was a form of disobedience”, and Marceline, who never wanted children on her own, preferred to visit the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris and sit in bistros to discuss the past and present. This is how she met documentary filmmakers Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin, whose star she became in Cronique d’un Ete (Chronicle of a Summer) in 1961. It also led to a liaison with 18 year-old journalist Jean-Pierre Sergent, who was supposed to teach Marceline all about Philosophy so that she could prepare to study at the university. But the two became lovers and later filmmakers in their own right, having discovered that filmmaking was not that difficult. The duo was very much a supporter of the FNL, Marceline even carrying suitcases for the FNL. The result was the documentary Algeria Année Zero. Today, Loridan-Ivens is very critical of herself: “We thought the FLN was led by progressive militants, little did we know the majority had their roots in Islamic fundamentalism.”

She met Joris Ivens whilst watching his feature A Valparaiso. He was impressed by Marceline, sending her flowers, but then disappearing for months. When they met again, they stayed together until Ivens’ death. The couple lived like vagabonds, Ivens being “very macho” at the beginning, but Marceline “imposed her will on him.” The past suddenly becomes the present, when Mrs. Phuong arrives from Vietnam to invite Marceline for the 50th Anniversary screening of The 17. Parallel, the couple’s iconic Vietnam documentary, with Mrs. Phuong not only doing the translating, but was also offering technical support. Next for the filmmakers was China, then ostracised by the whole world, after their split with the Soviet-Union.

Joris and Marceline documented the last two years of the cultural Revolution in the 763-minute epic How Yu Kong moved the Mountains (1976), which was to be shown in twelve parts. With “The Band of Four” making a power-grab, Premier Zhou Enlai told the filmmakers to leave the country immediately. Jean Bigiaoui, who worked with the crew, gives a lively commentary on the (film)adventure. We watch clips from Franck Leplat’s 2015 documentary Marceline Loridan-Ivens racontant sou passage a la prison de Sainte-Anneavant (2015). Loridan-Ivens is, for once, very bitter on the commentary. She remembers singing for her father, whose cell was near to her own. But this sets her off into an angry monologue about “never forgiving” the perpetrators.

Marceline is the only Auschwitz-Birkenau survivor who returned to the camp and made her own feature film about her incarceration there: La Petite Prairie aux Bouleaux (The Birch Tree Meadow) 2003. Anouk Aimée plays Marceline’s Alter Ego, who meets a German photographer and questions him about his motives for taking photos in the ruins of the camp. Marceline was not quiet satisfied with her effort: “The concept of a documentary was not enough, because I wanted a representation. I should have played myself.”

Marceline Loridan-Ivens died on 18.9.2018, six weeks after this documentary was finished. She wanted to be buried, even though it frightened her. “But everything is better than being burned”. AS

NOW ON TRUE STORY at all leading platforms | From September 17

Django and Django (2021)

Dir.: Luca Rea; Documentary about Sergio Corbucci with Quentin Tarantino, Franco Nero, Ruggero Deodato; USA/Italy 2021, 80 min.

Italian director/co-writer Luca Rea (Cacao) pays tribute to compatriot director Sergio Corbucci (1926-1990), who, with Sergio Leone, dominated the short era of the Italo-Western in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Corbucci, who made 63 feature films, is usually shunned by mainstream critics, even though he directed huge box office successes with Adriano Celantano and Toto, as well as the later Terence Hill and Bud Spencer Western comedies. Quentin Tarantino is the main source, leading us through Corbucci’s career in seven chapters.

Sergio Corbucci, like Leone, started out as a film critic, and via screen writing became an assistant director. In 1959 Leone and Corbucci worked for Mario Bonnard in The Last Days of Pompei and their valuable contribution set them both up for a great future, even though both Sergios’ insisted the glory belonged to Bonnard alone. Tarantino maintained that Corbucci’s ‘Spaghetti Westerns’ were a settlement of his scores with Fascism, since the young Sergio grew up under the Mussolini dictatorship and WWII. He even had the ‘honour’ – as a member of the Fascist Youth Choir – to be five feet away from Mussolini and Hitler he visited Rome. Corbucci’s villains rode roughshod through all his features as sadistic, misogynist and racist monsters, in love with spilling blood – particularly the one of innocents.

Romulo and Remo (Duel of the Titans) 1961 was Corbucci’s first attempt to show a prototype of the violent men which would later dominate his Westerns. His first, Minnesota Clan (1964) was shot in the same year as Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, starring Clint Eastwood. The shooting of Django (1966) didn’t go to plan: all the horses bolted, and nobody was sure which of the film lots they were shooing on. Nevertheless, the Kurosawa-inspired revenge story (nearly all Corbucci Westerns fall into this category), “was the most violent film, before Peckinpah’s Wild Bunch came along in 1969″.

Corbucci’s Mexican Revolution trilogy of The Mercenary (1968), Companeros (1970) and What Am I Doing in the Middle of a Revolution (1972) is perhaps his most popular, but the most violent by far is The great Silence (1968). The role of Gordon, the mute avenger, was meant for Franco Nero but he decided to go to Hollywood, making an angry Corbucci cast Jean-Louis Trintignant. Klaus Kinski acted the sadistic killer Tigero, who survives, whilst Gordon is killed. Shot in an eerie, snowy landscape, The great Silence also featured another re-occurring theme of the Corbucci’s Western: the cowardly citizens of the hamlets, who would rather obey the repressor than take the side of the avenger. “It feels like Corbucci is taking a swing at John Ford. The latter’s films show the town building and solidarity of the citizens, whilst Corbucci’s folks are rather meek and cowardly”. One of Corbucci’s last Western was Sid & Jed (1972), a Bonnie and Clyde story set in a Western milieu.

Tarantino offers a clever solution to an unsolved riddle in Django. When the titular hero arrives, we see him laying flowers on the grave of a certain Mercedes. Tarantino conjures up an explanation, in which Django is a soldier who has fought the Confederates, and now returns to give a keepsake to Mercedes, the wife of his black friend who was killed in the war. He then encounters the hooded KKK, who have done away with the black population, and are targeting the Mexicans. All set in Missouri, where slavery was not abolished.

Filmmaker Ruggero Deodato, once Rossellini’s assistant, who worked with Corbucci on 13 films, gives insight into the director’s work, as do many private videos sharing some hilariously funny and candid incidents during shooting. They also show a director who certainly enjoyed his work, and who was always ready for a good laugh – even at himself. AS

NOW ON NETFLIX | Premiered at VENICE FILM FESTIVAL 2021

Spencer (2021)

Dir: Pablo Larain | Wri Steven Knight  Cast: Kristen Stewart, Timothy Spall, Sally Hawkins, Sean Harris | Drama 113’

An imagined Christmas at Sandringham is the latest showcase showdown in the tortured saga of Princess Diana’s fated marriage to Prince Charles.

Pablo Larraín’s Venice competition hopeful Spencer makes for extremely painful viewing as an atmospheric arthouse portrait of isolation and emotional disintegration. But the fact that it portrays two well known figures representing the British royal family makes it all the more poignant. A story of two of unhappy people struggling within the confines of tight security and rigorous protocol was never going to be joyful especially when each one is a mannered caricature of their putative selves.

Chilean auteur Pablo Larain has become somewhat of a dab hand at painting marginalised characters: from Jackie Onassis to a group of distressed priests in his 2015 feature The Club. And those who hate the monarchy will have a field day with how dreadful a royal weekend is made to look.

Diana  – who died 24 years ago – is victimised to within an inch of her life by the regal system, eventually falling victim to her psychosis in Sandringham’s splendour during a visit that would send anyone screaming for a taxi to Norwich, if they didn’t have their own Porsche parked outside. The film’s timing is even more significant in a year where Her Majesty the Queen has had enough to contend with, not least the death of her husband.

Kristen Stewart couldn’t be more suited to her role as Diana, her wan pallor and delicately chiselled features mirror those of the tragic Princess who doted on her boys and wanted a normal life despite her wealth and privilege. That said, she lacks the vivacious charisma of the princess – who I once met. It’s a performance that plays to the crowd rather than the cognoscenti. Spencer will prove divisive: Some will find it brittle, glib and shallow; others will delight in its sullen melodrama.

The film starts with Diana literally losing her way in the depths of the Norfolk countryside, the film was actually shot in Germany, on a bleak winter’s day. Pitching up at a roadside cafe to ask directions, she eventually finds herself in the safe hands of Sean Harris’ Sandringham chef Darren who guides her back to face the music over her late arrival.

Larrain draws clever but rather chilling comparisons with Diana’s situation and that of Anne Boleyn (Manson). Dream sequences picture the hapless wife of Henry VIII drifting through Sandringham’s gilded corridors. In fact, there’s a great deal of drifting and floating in this often haunting tragedy, as Diana frequently goes awol in frosty nights and foggy mornings, in a bid to avoid the strictures of this regimented family ‘holiday’.

Playing out as a series of grim episodes during the festive break, Diana gradually implodes:.And if she’s not hounded by equerries (Timothy Spall makes for a ghastly bully) and dressers (her only trusted aide is Maggie played by Sally Hawkins), then the press are on her tail with their long distance lenses. Forced into wearing a series of specially selected twee outfits (Christmas lunch, boxing day tea etc) Diana erupts in anguish, biting into a rope of pearls that clatters into her pea soup – a scene that leads to a bulimia attack. The pearls were a gift from Charles (played by Poldark’s Jack Farthing) who offered the same jewels (known as a symbol of tears) to his lover Camilla Parker-Bowles. Only Diana, Maggie and Spall’s equerry are fully fleshed out, the other characters are cyphers only there to serve the narrative.

Diana is seen making the most of joy-filled moments with her boys (played gamely by Jack Nielen and Freddie) and eventually there is a happy ending to this particular episode which culminates with a liberating car ride to Mike and the Mechanics. A dismally depressing, washed out watch, fraught with sorrow. A terrible tribute to the real people it depicts. MT

NOW ON RELEASE IN UK CINEMAS | VENICE FILM FESTIVAL 2021

Nitram (2021)

Dir: Justin Kurzel | Cast: Caleb Landry Jones, Judy Davis, Essie Davis, Anthony LaPaglia, Sean Keenan, Conrad Brandt | Australia: Drama 118′

Justin Kurzel blows us away with this scorching arthouse psychodrama commemorating the Port Arthur tragedy, exploring the milieu that created a murderer (Martin Bryant) who would kill 35 people on that fateful day in 1996.

Not since Snowtown has a film engendered such utter terror through its central character – the titular Nitram – played by a coruscating Caleb Landry Jones – as a fully formed enfant terrible who lives with his long-suffering parents (Judy Davis and Anthony LaPaglia) in the sleepy seaside town.

Snowtown writer Shaun Grant again shows how long-term parental abuse and a casually toxic environment turns Nitram ((Martin backwards his hated school nickname) into a vulnerable, isolated loner who wreaks havoc wherever he goes. A display of his anti-social behaviour opens a story driven forward by an unpredictable behaviour even more frightening than his brutal strength: like a firecracker he goes off without warning, but is also capable of loving affection for his mother who diminishes him with constant putdowns.

But his unpredictability is nerve-shredder here. And the film open with a typical episode of antisocial behaviour when Nitram sets off firecrackers  from the rooftop of his parent’s house in a bid to dispel his sense of ennui and hopelessness – there’s nothing else to do here but surf, and we watch him floundering in the waves, driven to tears by another failed attempt to stay onboard.

Port Arthur feels more like an English seaside town in the 1960s, charmingly down-at-heel and raffling. Redolent of its faded but questionable glory as a colonial outpost, basking in the lush green landscapes leading down to the sea. But when Nitram meets ditzy local heiress and Gilbert & Sullivan fan Helen (Essie Davis) things are set to change. An offer to mow the extensive lawns of her rambling mansion with its menagerie of dogs leads to a touching friendship, Nitram finding acceptance and a contentment of sorts as the misunderstood misfits rub along together in a ‘folie a deux’ before thunder clouds once again gather and his fate is finally sealed.

Kurzel and Grant show how Nitram is unable to empathise as a result of his dysfunctional family dynamic. Davis and LaPaglia are charismatic as his callous mother and depressive father, Nitram’s flawed emotional touchstones as the story seethes towards a devastating finale. All this contrasts with the serene shambolic beauty of the painterly settings – particularly of Helen’s home. This is a mesmerising look at mental illness made all the more pitiful by the tragedy that could have been avoided. As a master of quirky psychological dramas Kurzel is back at the top of his game. MT

IN CINEMAS FROM 1 JULY 2022

The Innocents (2021)

Dir/Wri” Eskil Vogt | Cast: Rakel Lenora Flottum, Alva Brynsmo Ramstad, Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim, Sam Ashraf, Ellen Dorrit Pedersen, Morten Svartveit, Kadra Yusuf, Lise Tonne | Norway, 117′

The Omen meets Jack Clayton’s 1961 titular original in this haunting arthouse horror trip from Eskil Vogt who explores the parallel world of children in his chilling second feature.

The Innocents follows his eerie experimental drama Blind with this textured thematic look at casual violence and subversive behaviour in a group of young friends growing up in small-town rural Norway.

Seen entirely from the children’s point of view this is a deeply sinister and often violent film, at times frighteningly so, but subtle as a whisper. A sense of terrible dread seethes as the plot unfolds, Vogt spending rather too much time establishing the milieu of a modest domestic set-up before hitting the jugular in full blown psychological horror that dives deep below the surface of ordinary young lives.

Freed from the mundanity of running their lives kids are free to let their imaginations wander. And wander they certainly do in a serene suburban idyll surrounded by pine forests and sparkling blue skies that create an oppressive sense of isolation for the blonde-haired angel-faced Ida, played by Rakel Lenora Flottum, her autistic and mute older sister Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad) and their kindly but ineffectual parents (Ellen Dorrit Pedersen and Morten Svartveit).

The kids are free to roam far and wide and soon become firm friends with tousled-haired Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim) and the levantine Ben (Sam Ashraf impressive in debut) whose background is more troubled, in one violent scene he throws Ida’s pet kitten from the top of the stairs and crushes the crippled animal’s skull – without any remorse. Ben also develops telekinetic powers not unlike Danny in The Shining but Ben’s are put to nefarious use in sending a boiling pan of water over his single mother (Lise Tonne) while he carries on oblivious.

An eerie soundscape from Gustaf Berger and Gisle Tveito ramps up the tension as Ben’s powers come into conflict with Anna’s benign psychic sense as a turbulent battle of wills plays out completely beyond the radar of the adult world.

As the film edges towards its startling finale Vogt creates a distinctive and highly-tuned alter universe in a lushly cinematic supernatural horror that remains tethered in reality while sending out shockwaves of terror with lowkey but chilling affect. MT

Now ON RELEASE AT SELECTED ARTHOUSE CINEMAS

 

Everything Went Fine | Tout est bien passe (2021)

Dir: François Ozon | Cast: Sophie Marceau, André Dussollier, Géraldine Pailhas, Charlotte Rampling, Éric Caravaca, Hanna Schygulla, Grégory Gadebois, Jacques Nolot, Judith Magre, Daniel Mesguich, Nathalie Richard | France 98′

Francois Ozon always has a cheeky grin in his films. And Everything Went Fine is no exception. This candid end of life drama is a delightful follow-up to the darkly drole Summer of 85, a funny version of The Father with the same piquancy and sharp attention to detail. It could be anyone’s family story once parents get to ‘un certain age’. It could even be yours.

Charlotte Rampling is back, along with his regular collaborator the late novelist Emmanuèle Bernheim who wrote Under The Sand, Swimming Pool and 5X2 and on whose book this new story is based. Refreshingly honest and laced with Ozon’s classic subversiveness, André Dussollier plays the classic stroke-ridden 84 year old with an arch naughtiness and poignancy. The relationship with his long-suffering middle-aged daughters Emmanuelle and Pascale is spiky, to say the least. There’s even a cameo role for veteran Hanna Schygulla who advises on euthanasia.

What elevates this from trite comedy territory is the cast who really capture the essence of fraught family life with an honesty that tonally transcends sentimentality. Some may call it a ‘love hate relationship’ but this is exactly what happens with life and death, and Ozon craftily navigates these prickly relationships making us believe that he’s really been there himself.

Emmanuèle’s father André Bernheim is a cultured man with an ego not unlike Dustin Hoffman’s character in The Meyerowitz Stories that premiered at the festival in 2017. A rather selfish gay art collector who rediscovered his sexuality after marrying the girls’ sculptress mother – a cool-handed Charlotte Rampling – he keeps on the ball despite his stroke leaving him physically challenged.

Many may baulk at the humour Ozon playfully uses to convey a desperate family tragedy but this is really how it is – as those affected can frankly testify. And it’s this complete authenticity that keeps you glued to the screen and nodding in agreement, rather than the cardboard worthy scenario many may envisage.

Euthanasia is also thoughtfully handled, offering the film a morally meaty maze with plenty to chew on. This is a satisfyling mouthful that will make you laugh to self rather than out loud. A light-hearted comedy that unflinchingly faces reality with heart and humanity. MT

ON RELEASE from 17 June COURTESY OF CURZON | CANNES FILM FESTIVAL 2021

 

Freaky (2020)

Dir: Christopher Landon | US Comedy Horror 98′

A fun and freaky body-swap film that sees a bullied beauty become the target of a serial killer on the run whose mystical dagger sets in motion an unlikely switcheroo. Worse still the young schoolgirl has only twenty four hours to return to her original form before she is stuck as the hideous “Blissfield butcher” forever.

Vince Vaughn is astonishingly complex in his teenage girl guise carrying this film through a largely predictable storyline with some inspired gore-filled set pieces echoing Freaky Friday in a comedy slasher that’s more weird than scary, but certainly entertaining and confidently put together by Landon who is best known for his 2017 outing Happy Death Day.

Meanwhile Millie (Kathryn Newton) recruits her friends (Misha Osherovich and Celeste O’Connor) to help her get back to normal and garners considerable emotional and physical power as a 6.5 foot man – offering some food for thought with the boot on the other foot. There’s also a flirty frisson going on in the background between Vaughn’s teen transformation and Millie’s high school crush (Uriah Shelton). And you don’t often see that kind of subplot is this kind of movie. MT

OUT IN CINEMAS FROM 1 July 2021

Wildmen – Vildmaend (2021)

Dir/Wri: Thomas Dakeskov | Denmark Drama 101′

Another amusing absurdist Danish comedy along the same lines as male midlife crisis films Klown and Another Round.

Written and directed by Thomas Dakeskov it sees married man Martin escape to the wilderness of Norway – aka his ‘man cave’ – in a bid to escape growing up in the modern world and reverting to ‘hunter-gather’ mode, regretting the loss of his bankcard when the going gets tough.

Although somewhat derivative in its narrative pretensions, this is guaranteed to make you laugh – especially the scene where a ‘people carrier’ collides with a moose – and the animal comes out on top. There are some hairy moments, quite literally, when Martin dons an animal skin for a shopping trip to the supermarket – an episode which ends, inevitably  in tears – of hilarity.

On the run from life in the Norwegian mountains Martin (Rasmus Bjerg), freely engages in acts of supreme physical prowess which contrast wildly with his normal humdrum existence, but goes on to confront uncomfortable truths about the masculine reality. The film pokes fun at his macho attempts to look butch in the wild, as opposed to mild-mannered and sophisticated in his urban habitat. And while his ludicrous antics are clearly entertaining to the audience, the humour points a rather derogatory finger at Martin, making him into a pathetic figure of fun, rather than a renaissance renegade. That all said this inventive caper doesn’t aim to plumb the depths of the human psyche, merely to entertain and upliFt. And it does so admirably despite its obvious limitations, never taking itself too seriously. A little gem. MT

NOW ON RELEASE NATIONWIDE \ Tribeca Film Festival 2021

 

 

In the Heights (2020)

Dir.: Jon M. Chu; Cast: Anthony Ramos, Melissa Barrera, Leslie Grace, Corey Hawkins, Jimmy Smits, Gregory Diaz IV, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Stephanie Beatriz, Olga Merediz; USA 2021, 143 min.

Director Jon M. Chu (Filthy Rich Asians) is behind this dizzying adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In The Heights (written before Hamilton, when Miranda was still a student), based on the script of the original writer Quiara Alegria Hudes.

Released a year late due to the Pandemic, Heights is a musical extravaganza, combining Hollywood, hip hop and pop, with the narrative serving primarily as a bridge between the dance numbers, brilliantly choreographed by Christopher Scott.

The titular Heights are in Washington Heights, a 40-block ‘hood in New York City, that starts at 155th Street. Originally home to Jewish and Irish immigrants, and is now dominated by Latinos; with Miranda writing very much about his own experience. There is a permanent carnival atmosphere, spiced by social commentary – the fight for the much coveted “Green Cards”, while avoiding the clutches of the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), commonly known as ‘Dreamers’.

The action is centred around two couples: bodega-owner Usnavi de la Vega (Ramos) is supported by his sidekick Sonny (Diaz IV), and madly in love with Vanessa (Barrera), who works for fierce real-life couple Daniela (Rubin-Vega) and Carla (Beatriz). Vanessa dreams of moving downtown and becoming a designer, but can’t get the finance.

Then there is Benny (Hawkins), a black guy who is dating Nina (Grace), the daughter of the cab company owner Kevin Rosario (Smits), Benny’s boss. Kevin is helping his daughters through law school at Stanford University, But Nina is unhappy at the ‘posh’ place of learning when she is mistaken for a waitress at faculty meetings. Nina decided to quit to the chagrin of her father.  Benny wants Nina to stay for his own sake, and the knowledge, that she help the fight against the authorities. Finally, there is Abuela Claudia (Merediz), the community ‘matriarch’, who, like many of her generation, wonder whether the sacrifices made for their kids have really helped in realising the American Dream.

Powerful songs”Carnival del Barrio” and the jubilant “96,000 Dollars” really set the night on fire along with a dancing couple in the sizzling set piece outside a tower building, the tenants looking down in disbelief. But the visual highlight captures the spirit of Busby Berkeley and Esther Williams, with 500 extras celebrating summer in the local lido.

In the Heights is intoxicated by its permanent carnival atmosphere, a barely disguised feeling of melancholia permeates this need for make-believe, best symbolised by Usnavi, an unreliable narrator, who relates the story to a small group of children at a more than perfect beach in the Dominican Republic. But overall this is a big party, the plot a side-show with its sleek social commentary, vibrant visuals provided by DoP Alice Brooks. The film strikes just the note for the re-opening of cinemas. It might be overlong, overdue, and still threatened, but relentless in spirit, nevertheless. AS

Shiva Baby (2020)

Dir.: Emma Seligman; Cast: Rachel Sennott, Polly Draper, Fred Melamed, Molly Gordon, Danny Deferrari, Dianna Agron; USA 2020, 77min.

Rachel Sennott is the star turn in Emma Seligman’s inspired featured debut Shiva Baby. She is Danielle, a Jewish woman caught up in her parents’ plans to get her a husband – or at least a job – in this hilarious comedy.

During happier times we see Danielle in bed with her sugar daddy, Max (Deferrari), who will save her from the woes the world has in stall for her. But that was then. A Jewish funeral get-together (Shiva) provides an ideal networking opportunity for the family’s machinations, never mind that one of their loved ones has actually died.

So parents Debbie (Draper) and Joel (Melamed) head off to the Shiva, Danielle making a last unsuccessful attempt to learn the name of the deceased. Still not having made her way in the right circles, her parents are well aware of the seriousness of the task that lies ahead: Danielle is earning a pittance as a ‘babysitter’ but the fruits of her labours seem to stem from another, more dubious source. Professional ambitions are still unclear university-wise, and her parents are covering all the bills.

Friendships are fraught – she had a stormy relationship with Maya (Gordon) who is also at the Shiva. Debbie warns her daughter “not to experiment today”. But before Danielle has time to internalise this parental guidance and critique (“You look like Gwyneth Paltrow on food stamps, and not in a good way”), enter Max, followed by his wife Kim (Agron) and baby daughter Rose. The lovers can’t agree on their opening gambit, “where did the two of you meet”, finally settling for ‘schul’ (the synagogue). It soon turns out Kim is the major breadwinner in the family, and she carps half-jokingly about her husband’s penchant for expensive restaurants.

Meanwhile, Daneille’s parents have cornered Max in the hope of an internship for their daughter. Kim joins the conversation, expressing the need for a babysitter – Debbie praising her daughter’s (non-existent) experience. Danielle mislays her ‘phone number in the bathroom, having sent Max a rather daring selfie. Maya finds the phone but promises to keep schtum: “I don’t want your parents to know their daughter is a whore.” After much bickering and desert-guzzling, nervous exhaustion finally takes over as furtive hands find each other in the back of a crammed car.

Seligman gets away with her not very likeable heroine in a mishmash of sharp-elbowed characters trying to get into pole position on the back of each other. Danielle hasn’t the slightest idea what she wants from life – apart from not ending up like the rest of the Shiva crowd. Her only virtue is a foggy idea about feminism – something that doesn’t follow through in her relationship with Maya.

DoP Maria Rusche takes her lead from Robert Altman in crowd scenes that zero in on the individual players, a bleached-out aesthetic echoing Danielle’s efforts to stay sane. Editor Hannah A. Park keeps the encounters lined up, the interplay amusing and insightful. Shiva Baby is funny, but the humour is as sharp as the lemons the characters chew on, Seligman bringing the curtain down while the going’s still good. AS

IN SELECT UK CINEMAS FOR ONE NIGHT ONLY
WITH SPECIAL Q&A
9 JUNE 2021  ON MUBI FROM 11 JUNE 2021

Zebra Girl (2021)

Dir.: Stephanie Zari; Cast: Sarah Roy, Jade Anouka, Tom Cullen, Daisy Mayer, Isabelle Connolly; UK 2021, 79 min.

In leafy suburbia Catherine (Roy) lives a seemingly blissful life with husband Dan (Cullen) when suddenly she stabs though the eye with an eight-inch knife in the opening scenes. Not altogether surprising when we later learn the same thing happened to her father who abused her as a teenager. All this is all delivered in ‘comic mode’.

Based on the one-woman-play “Catherine and Anita” performed by Roy to apparently rave reviews at Edinburgh Festival Fringe and King’s Head Theatre in London, Zari’s film debut is not so successful, mixing ultra-realism, horror elements and psychological traumata into an awkward narrative,

Catherine Derry’s stirring camerawork keeps things interesting from a visual point of view: dicing with inventive changes of perspective and frightening dolly-zooms. Derry also makes affective use of rush cuts, signalling that Catherine is clearly schizophrenic. Meanwhile Caspar Leonard’s score keeps the unsettling atmosphere alive.

But horror and real trauma do not make good bedfellows – apart from in gothic masterpieces – and Zebra Girl is set very much in a realist present where Catherine’s suffering is equally real. There is also an uneasy humour at play, particularly between Catherine and her friend Anita, which is far too flippant in the context of narrative. And these contradictory elements reduce Zebra Girl to a superficial, good-looking horror flic undermining the heroine’s tragic history. AS

David Hockney: the Arrival of Spring in Normandy 2020

David Hockney ‘Britain’s most expensive living artist’ (1937-) made a snap decision at the outbreak of Covid. Travelling to Normandy from his home in California his express intention was to capture the arrival of Spring – nature couldn’t be cancelled by the pandemic. 

Staying in a small wattle and daub house surrounded by four acres of countryside, he observed the blossoming of a new year frame by frame as spring emerged and took hold with all its drama and glory.

Hockney had first depicted this ‘most classical of subjects’ in his native Yorkshire in 2011 in a fifty two part work. This was the first time he took to his iPad and a show was later organised at the RA. Two years later he was back again working this time in charcoal on paper.

The Arrival of Spring in Normandy sees him taking to his iPad again but this time with a new app, adapted and developed to his specific requirements, allowing a freedom of expression and mobility to capture the fresh zinging elements in a ‘naif’ style that perfectly compliments foliage and flower, from March until July 2020. Working very much like the French Impressionists two hundred years ago, his pictures are captured ‘en plain air’, just like Monet in nearby Giverny. There is also an animated work featuring gentle rain falling a meadow. At 86 the much loved painter is still inspired and inspiring. MT

The Arrival of Spring in Normandy – is now showing at London’s Royal Academy of Arts 

 

Surge (2020)

Dir.: Aneil Karia; Cast: Ben Whishaw, Jasmine Jobson, Ellie Haddington, Ian Gelder, UK 2020, 100 min.

Director/co-writer Aneil Karia shows how easy it is to lose our grip on reality in these gruelling Covid times. Ben Whishaw is a man in flight, running away from himself and caring less and less about the consequences, or anyone he meets.

The story takes place over 24 hours in London where Joseph works in a soulless job in security at Stansted Airport. We first meet him enjoying a cake with his colleagues – only later do we get to know that this is Joseph’s birthday celebration. Unsatisfied and disillusioned for all sorts of reasons, not least his unresolved relationship with a colleague Lily,  Joseph’s life soon spins out of control after a minor incident involving a broken glass.

On the run again and making a bid to help Lily (Jobson) with some computer issue, Joseph soon loses control due to another minor setback. The narrative here is familiar, Karia focusing on mood and atmosphere to create a palpable feeling of desperation and disorientation in her first feature film.

Whishaw gives a flawless performance as the disenchanted Joseph who seems less and less affected by the unfolding mayhem. The graver the situation, the more nonchalant Joseph becomes as he disconnects from reality. Karia brings her feature to a soft landing, Joseph’s outburst of manic anger having run out of steam. DoP Stuart Bentley’s handheld camera follows the path of the tornado, a needling electronic score by Tujiko Noriko underlining the chaos of Joseph’s everyday life. A few cuts would make the result even more impressive, but Karia’s debut is nevertheless a confident tour-de-force. AS

SURGE WILL BE RELEASED IN UK CINEMAS AND ON DIGITAL PLATFORMS FROM 28TH MAY 2021.

Wall of Shadows (2021)

Dir/Wri: Eliza Kubarska | Polish Doc 98′

As Buddhists, Sherpas are very respectful of spirituality of their mountain habitat as we discovered in Jennifer Preedom’s award-winning documentary Sherpa. Their habitat of the Himalayas has long been exploited by an increasing number of tourists who they depend on for their livelihood, offering expert knowledge of the unique mountain range in return. But recently things have got out of hand with tourists expecting an increasingly luxurious experience that has led to overcrowding of the region that often results in tailbacks and risk-taking.  

The focus here in Wall of Shadows, that took a prize at the Bergen International Film Festival in Norway, is once again the intrinsic spirituality of this visually stunning but highly treacherous part of the world, where the weather can change in minutes leaving climbers stranded and in danger.

The film takes place in Nepal’s Kumbhakarna Mountain, the 32nd highest in the World and an outlier to Kangchenjunga, the 3rd highest peak with some highly challenging weather conditions and steep ascents. This is home to a Sherpa family who agree, against their better judgement, to take some experienced climbers who push the guides to uncomfortable emotional limits in order to reach the top. The Sherpas continually voice their concerns, but equally realise they won’t get paid if they don’t complete their contract, forcing them between a rock and a hard place. Meanwhile the Sherpas are clearly uneasy but continue to pray to the mountain spirits.

Their clients are three leading alpinists, the outstanding Polish climber Marcin Tomaszewski and two-time winners of the climbing Oscar (Golden Ice Axe) Dmitry Golovchenko and Sergei Nilov from Russia, take part in the expedition on the eastern face of the mountain which, at 7,400 metres, is one of the most difficult challenges in alpinism today. This is the first time they’ve worked as a team and tensions start to emerge surrounding their different strengths and weaknesses.

DoPs Piotr Rosolowski (who also co-wrote the script) and Keith Partridge conjure up a real sense of awe in the majesty of the locations making this feel like a spiritual journey while at the same time a highly dangerous one. Barbara Toennieshen creates a sense of slowly building tension with her clever editing which never cuts corners in allowing the unique serenity of the place to beguile the audience. To this day, Kumbhakarna’s East Face (7710m) remains unconquered. MT

The film is the third collaboration between director Eliza Kubarska and producer Monika Braid and is a Polish-German-Swiss co-production. MT

IN CINEMAS in the UK and Ireland on Friday 22nd April 2022.

 

Spring Blossom (2020) Curzon

Dir/Wri | Cast: Suzanne Lindon, Arnaud Valois, Frédéric Pierrot, Florence Viala | France, Drama 78′

A delicate sensuous coming of age story from Suzanne Lindon who stars as the film’s subversive heroine who is also rather a dark horse.

In her directing and acting debut Lindon has clearly inherited her parents’ talents – she’s the 20-year-old daughter of Vincent Lindon and Sandrine Kiberlain, but wrote the film when she was only 15. They clearly said: “write about what you know” and this is exactly what’s she’s done, Spring Blossom has a freshness of touch that perfectly compliments its subtle narrative.

Spring Blossom is slim but evocatively recherché – avoiding gauche thrills or flirty silliness it feels its way intuitively forward. There’s a palpable sensuality to the heady taste of first love that slowly simmers and smoulders between the stylish but vulnerable high-school girl and her older crush Raphaël (Arnaud Valois), an actor performing in the local theatre and experiencing the ennui of performance fatigue. In a sun-dappled Southern France the amorous feelings gradually well up in her teenage heart but Suzanne remains dignified and secretive around her parents, sharing the odd complicit tete a tete with her younger sister.

There’s a sense that Suzanne will grow up to be subversively sensual like Jacqueline Bisset or Charlotte Rampling, still retaining that edgy sexiness that sets women like her apart from the crowd. And in a way Lindon’s slight narrative plays to the film’s advantage, hinting at the mysteries of female sexuality as Suzanne’s febrile imagination considers the art of seduction.

There’s something provocative but eminently natural about this suggestive love affair that seems grown-up and plausible, each character possessing calm dignity and an alluring sense of self. Seen from the young woman’s perspective, there’s nothing smutty about the concept of a teenager with an ‘older’ man, although you’d hardly notice the age different, Raphaël not coming across as a lothario,  but a ‘bon chic bon genre’ type of guy. The pairing has very much the clean-cut top drawer allure of Joanna Hogg’s recent The Souvenir, but the brittle cruelty of Tom Burke’s Anglo Saxon public school boy turned roguish love rat contrasts with the rather lowkey laidback loucheness of Valois’Raphaël. This is very much a French love story with a hint of Louis Garel’s early films about it all. MT

ON CURZON ONLINE FROM 23 APRIL 2021

 

Aviva (2021) Curzon

Dir.: Boaz Yakin; Cast: Zina Zinchenko, Tyler Philips, Bobbi Jene Smith, Or Schraiber; USA/France 2020, 116 min.

This fluid, romantic drama from American-Israeli writer director Boaz Yakin explores a fluid relationship between Parisian Aviva and her New York lover Eden. Dance and sex scenes dominate but the standout here in that the couple are in reality a quartet: Aviva has a male double, Eden a female one. They interact on all levels and in all combinations.

It all starts with a film-in-film scene where Aviva (Zinchenko), declares her love for the camera that follows them in their most banal and intimate moments. Her love object is Eden (Philips), the two are very intimate online – but after Aviva has moved to New York, their love-making is awkward, to say the least, Aviva complaining that Eden doesn’t look at her. Closeness, it seems, it much more easily achievable online. The couple’s gender alternatives are surprising: Eden’s female identity is acted out by Bobbi Jene Smith, Aviva’s male soul partner is Or Schraiber; with Smith and Schraiber, who are connected to the Israeli dance company Batsheva, responsible for the feature’s choreography.

An early rather enigmatic chapter, titled “Anatomy of a Kiss” deals with Aviva’s childhood: a montage of babies and fathers, parents having sex and lots of giggling teenagers. Eden’s backlog memories are a little more to the point with the little boy discovering that his boy friend is actually a little girl. “Paradise is lost” for Eden.

But there is a hint to adult Eden’s inability to come to terms with Aviva and his own female self. Dancing (and lovemaking) dominate: Eden’s history is told in flash-backs where lively kids dance and play in Coney Island. Eden has the most problematic rapport with his female self: his sullen behaviour while flat-hunting with Aviva is typically male (as well as the boy he was). When not the centre of attention, he shouts at his inner woman. This all constitutes a form of misogyny, which has so far not been shown on screen.

The wedding scene is therefore, logically, acted out by the two female selves. Unfortunately, the love story is rather gloomy with banal dialogue, Eden coming across as more and more insecure. Aviva is much more able to come to terms with her dual existence. A rather morbid injury to the titular heroine and a late announced pregnancy propel the action forward – until the audience has to guess the identity of the ‘couples’ walking off in the park.

Yakin has difficulty developing the threadbare storyline into a two-hour feature, edging dangerously near to pretentiousness. DoP Arseni Khachaturian saves the day with a dreamlike atmosphere that somehow softens the sex scenes, creating something wild and other-worldly heightened by Asaf Avidan’s, enthusiastic score. Zina Zinchenko leads an inspired cast, transforming the rather tepid script into something extraordinary. AS

CURZON HOME CINEMA | 30 April 2021

The Red Kimona (1925)

Dir: Walter Lang | Wri: Dorothy Arzner, Adela Rogers St Johns | Cast: Priscilla Bonner, Nellie Bly Baker, Carl Miller, Mary Carr, Virginia Pearson | US Silent 76′

One of the most sought after missing Hollywood silents is Human Wreckage (1923), a drama about drug addiction that was the first of three crusading independent productions produced by and featuring the actress Dorothy Davenport under the name “Mrs Wallace Reid”.

Number Three was The Crimson Kimona which manages to pack an incredible amount of plot into under eighty minutes while addressing the thorny subjects of prostitution and the rehabilitation of offenders; and, like Human Wreckage, was banned by the British Board of Censors. Unlike the former this happily still survives.

The surprises start early with the name of Walter Lang – whose debut feature this was – prominently displayed as director. For 25 years from the mid-thirties until the early sixties, Lang was a competent ‘A’ feature workhorse for Fox whose name adorns such bland big budget fodder as The King and I without his name ever on its own account ever exciting much interest among scholars. Lang gets solo credit on The Red Kimona (Mrs Wallace Reid getting a separate supervisory one), and does a remarkably good job, aided by excellent photography by James Diamond and uniformly good performances, not all of them credited. (Tyrone Powers Sr, for example, plays Gabrielle’s brutish father, but the pinched-faced actress playing her mother is uncredited). In order to sugar the pill of the earnest Sunday school nature of the subject (complete with biblical quotations), The Red Kimona is replete throughout with blandishments that keep the audience attentive, ranging from coloured inserts of the eponymous Red Kimona (presumably designed to symbolise the heroine’s fall from polite society) to an invigorating car chase through Santa Fe.

Making much of being based on a genuine criminal case in New Orleans in 1917, and scripted by Adela Rogers St. Johns and Dorothy Arzner, the film begins and ends with Mrs Wallace Reid speaking directly to camera, her words conveyed by subtitles; a device routinely used in sound films and on television, but which I’ve never before encountered in a silent film.

Gabrielle’s suitor Howard Blaine (played by Carl Miller) is so repulsive – significantly a bruise can be seen on her upper arm in one scene, and the only kindness she receives later is from the prison matron – one suspects a diatribe against men is in the offing; but socialite Mrs. Fontaine, her Mrs Danvers like housekeeper (played with crow-like malice by Emily Fitzroy) and her coven of clucking lady friends get equally short shrift (another eye-catching performance by an uncredited performer is by the actress who plays Mrs. Fontaine’s cynical maid). Gabrielle meanwhile finds her knight in shining armour in a chauffeur’s uniform in the form of Mrs. Fontaine’s chauffeur Freddy, engagingly played by Theodore Von Eltz.

As Gabrielle herself, Priscilla Bonner’s performance grows on you as the film progresses (which is not in straight chronological sequence) and her character evolves as she rolls her big round eyes lovingly filmed in close up. (Like historical detective fiction author Anne Perry when the release of Heavenly Creatures [1994] outed her forty years after the event as the fifties teenage killer Juliet Hulme, the real life Gabrielle Darley was less than thrilled at having the spotlight again turned on her without her permission using her real name; and in 1931 she successfully sued Mrs Wallace Reid for substantial damages.) @Richard Chatten

 

Palm Springs (2020)

Dir: Max Barbakow | Cast: Andy Sandberg, Cristin Milioti, J K Simmons, Peter Gallagher | US Romcom 90′

As romcoms go this is a blast of sunshine at a grim time when cheerful moving pictures are just what you need when you can’t be bothered with anything deep. Well that’s not exactly fair – Groundhog Day-style buddy movie with a time-loop conceit is probably the best way to describe a film that seeks to escape the infernal repetitiveness of you know what, powered forward by the frisky frolics of a dynamite duo that is Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti whose budding romance feels real and adds meaning – although nothing surprising – to the party as wedding guests forced to go through the same day again and again. There are laughs to be had and it doesn’t overstay its welcome, perfect for an easy night in (again!). MT

NOW ON DIGITAL PLATFORMS

Symphony of Noise (2021) CPH:DOX

as

 

Dir.: Enrique Sanchez Lansch; Documentary with Matthew Herbert; Germany 2021, 93 min.

Spanish director Enrique Sanchez Lansch has followed British composer Matthew Herbert for ten years to record his experimental sounds in this rather experimental film that plays out like a performance.

Herbert’s credo is that mankind should listen more closely to sounds, if they want to topple right-wing governments – even though the Kent born composer admits that this target may be too fanciful. The genre-breaker Herbert has a proven track record: over 30 albums, film scores, among one for Ridley Scott, and an Oscar for the score of A Fantastic Woman (although the opening track was actually Alan Parson’s Project classic ‘Time’. 

Whether underwater or in outer space, Herbert feels entirely at home, composing even for audiences who are asleep. But it all started much closer to home when Herbert recorded the noises of his newly-born piglets for the rest of their lives – even during their slaughter. He is tired of the repetitive approach to piano and violin, so has learned to play both instruments from scratch, transferring his critique to the cooking of an omelette.

Forty-four eggs are first selected, a bared-footed woman then crunches the shells, the sound creating a sort of entirely new sounds while the omelette is being made. Other sound mixes include people having sex; forests being cut down; and an over-ground train in Berlin. Having lived in the city, Herbert has created a sound Symphony of people dying (79) and being born (183), with his “orchestra” performing the applicable noises like the final breath and first cry.

Mahler’s music is certainly appropriate for a staged funeral, with the composer combining this performance, and discovering that Mahler had to use a flute for a birdsong, whilst the teenage boy Herbert could use a recorder to catch the original sound of the birds.

In the RIAS Berlin radio station, Herbert rehearses his BrexitBig Band“, to protest against the vote in favour of leaving the EU. “Leave all the fuckers and their hatred behind” is one of the refrains. Having watched Emma swim for 14 hours in the English Channel, we then imagine a love song between an English and French person on the shores of the English channel aka ‘La Manche’.

Tree cutting sounds remind the composer that “we are all living in an emergency situation. Nevertheless, he still has time to deep-fry his trumpet in a Fish and Chip shop, before ending in space with “the impossible sound of solar winds” and “the sound of virgin lights hurtling through space.”

DoPs Thilo Schmidt and Anne Misselwitz use appropriate images for this cacophony of sounds. And although Sanchez Lansch starts to feel like a mischievous magician pulling too many rabbits to pull out of a hat with his myriad exotic recordings Symphony is certainly inventive and full of weird ideas that occasionally stun and surprise the audience. AS

CPH:DOX COPENHAGEN 2021

The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) Prime Video

Dir: Anthony Mann | Cast: Christopher Plummer, Sophia Loren, James Mason, Alex Guinness | US Action drama

Samuel Bronston’s answer to Heaven’s Gate is usually dismissed as inferior to El Cid, but The Fall of the Roman Empire still has recent Desert Island Disks castaway Sophia Loren in it (according to George MacDonald Fraser the historical Livia was “a murderous adultress who tried to assassinate her brother”, so maybe Lollobrigida should have played her after all); plus the inevitable Finlay Currie clinching this film’s credentials as a bona fide vintage historical epic. There is also the bonus of Alec Guinness and James Mason.

The late Christopher Plummer meanwhile hit his stride as a screen actor as the seriously mad Emperor Commodus. (He and director Anthony Mann had a such a blast working together they were keen to do another picture together; but Mann sadly died only four years and one and a half films later before that could happen.)

The fact that it was a colossal financial (and critical) flop simply enhances its grandeur and the money is certainly all there up on the screen, with impressively wintry location work shot outside Madrid; while the recreation of the Forum in Rome made it into the ‘Guinness Book of Records’ as the largest set ever built for a movie. (There is none of that fake-looking CGI or wobbly steadicam that ruins 21st Century epics. And what colours!)

Robert Krasker and composer Dimitri Tiomkin both surpassed their work on the previous film, and although like most epics it’s at least an hour too long, Plummer comes into his own in that final lap; his emergence from a giant hand worth of Brigitte Helm flaunting herself in Metropolis and Dietrich shedding a gorilla skin in Blonde Venus. @Richard Chatten

NOW ON PRIME VIDEO

 

Bellum – The Daemon of War (2021) Visions du Reel 2021

Dir.: David Herdies, Georg Götmark; Documentary with Bill Lyon, Fredrik Bruhn, Paula Bonstein, Aisha Lyon, Sweed, Karolina Bruhn; narrated by Johannes Anyuru; Sweden/ Denmark 2021, 87 min.

War is in the DNA of humans, always has been. The Romans were masters of conquering countries on more than one continent. Their motto was “War pays for itself, so soldiers do not need to be paid, there is always plenty to plunder”. Statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 – 43 BC) was an early warmonger, ending his speeches in front of the Senate for years with the call for war: “Anyhow, I am of the opinion, that we should destroy Cartago”. After a few years, his peers got the message and the African city, capital of a kingdom, was indeed conquered.

This essay film from Swedish director duo David Herdies and Georg Götmark traces the history of war, present and future: veteran war photographer Paula Bronstein delivering some cruel images from Kabul.

But amidst the doom and gloom AI scientist Fredrick Bruhn has a surprisingly upbeat theory about the end of armed conflict, and US veterans Sweed and Bill Lyon are the living examples of survivors of the recent outings of the US war machine.

Not that far from Los Alamos in New Mexico, where Robert Oppenheimer and his team developed the first nuclear bomb in the State of Nevada (his prophetical warnings open the feature) is the location of the US Army’s Drone Operations and Training Base – AFB. Demonstrators with placards protest outside the gates, while veterans Sweed and co, cheer on every car leaving or entering the compound, making fun of the demonstrators. “I bet she borrowed the baby”, comments Sweed on a mother carrying her child.

Later we listen to Sweed and his friend Bill Lyon talking about their active service experience that destroyed people rather than buildings. In training, the drones attacked the simulated town of Kandahar, creating the atmosphere of an arcade game. The images are not just circles any more, but human forms, the intention is to blur the lines between the lines between practice and real actions. But for the veterans, the question is just survival: “When your compound has been hit, you are either dead, or you go back to sleep. For most people this is crazy, but I loved it. It was boring when you get home.”

Meanwhile Bronstein shows the photos of the Kabul victims she asks a boy to give her a smile. He refuses. Paula explains” I want to put some beauty into my photos, some life. To make the victims human. Meanwhile AI developer Fredrik Bruhn is hopeful about the future: “We are twenty years away from the point, when a computer can build the next generations of AI himself, he will replicate human brains, but goes much further than the 500 billion synapses of our brains. I do not see that we can have a world without war, as long as humans are in control. But robots do not have our DNA inheritance, they do not need to act like us. In the end the question will be about human existence, or the survival of digital humanity.

Bellum is perhaps too complex for its limited running time. But it certainly shows the existential question flagging up the need to write humankind out of the script. The documentary is dedicated to Bill Lyon, who, like Sweed, passed away. AS

INTERNATIONAL FEATURE FILM COMP | VISIONS DU REEL 2021

Iorram | Boat Song (2021) Glasgow Film Festival 2021

Dir: Alistair Cole | UK Doc 96′

The first ever film in Scots Gaelic and none the worse for it, the native tongue – which has possibly only a year to live in its native setting – adding considerable atmosphere and poignancy to this impressionistic and informative portrait about fishing past and present before globalisation, climate change and Brexit decimated the stock. This film will certainly be meat ‘n bread (and possibly fish?) for dear old Nicola Sturgeon who is very much the poster girl for her country’s fishing industry. Livelihoods are at risk, not to mention the Scottish cultural heritage.

Back in the good old days fishing was the main industry up in the Western Isles around Barra, Vatersay and Cape Wrath, over a hundred miles North of Glasgow where the film screens at this year’s festival. The inhabitants of the islands today are observed on land and on water going about the business of fishing, while the ghostly voices of their ancestors tell stories and sing songs about life at the mercy of the sea.

In the mid-20th century, with the advent of portable sound recording, researchers started visiting the Outer Hebrides to preserve the voices of the islands for future generations. These were the first recordings to capture the oral history of Scottish Gaelic culture which stretches back thousands of years, and once covered the whole of Scotland, but now survives mainly in the island communities off the west coast.

Iorram is a second feature documentary for Alistair Cole whose work explores the link between language and the environment, as here where the evocative seascapes of the Outer Hebrides light up every frame. Music and fishing go very much hand in hand with being a sailor, songs and shanties keeping up the spirits and camaraderie during long or arduous forays into the blue yonder, and award-winning folk musician Aidan O’Rourke provides the film’s entrancing soundscape. Interestingly the word for rabbit sounds similar to the Spanish ‘conijo’.

Gaelic was once spoken across most of Scotland, but sadly Scottish Gaelic has now only around 11,000 habitual speakers, mainly in the Outer Hebrides, according to a recent study by the University of Highlands & Islands. Ironically, interest in Scots Gaelic is booming, with Gaelic schools flourishing in Glasgow and Edinburgh, and world interest in learning the the language has come via the internet and a ‘phone app (Duolingo has more than 560,000 registered learners worldwide signed up to Scots Gaelic).

Alistair Cole works as his own DoP to create stunning 4k observational footage of island life today. While the sailers prepare their creels to set out for the lobster and langoustine catch, and these action sequences are combined with imaginative land and seascapes captured on the widescreen. Meanwhile the film’s narration is composed of archive sound recordings of Gaelic speakers in the Outer Hebrides from the 1940s to 1970s reminiscing about the past when fish were so plentiful that the boats were often out all summer, and the locals time on land was spent busy with the harvest and looking after livestock. Holidays were never even considered, let alone taken. Other filmed footage shows local woman going about the meticulous preparation of the prized catch destined for restaurants all over Europe and these contrast with the lilting voices of the past sharing magical tales of fairies, mermaids and patron saints of the islands keeping the folklore alive.

Over the past decade, the School of Scottish Studies Archives has digitised and restored these recordings. Cole has selected the most emotional and lyrical voices in exploring the often fraught relationship between the fishing community and the stormy Atlantic Ocean.

World Premiere at the Glasgow Film Festival on February 28th 2021, followed by a virtual UK theatrical release from March 5th 2021 via the Modern Films ( in collaboration with key independent cinemas across the UK, and other partner organisations.

 

 

 

Breeder (2021) Digital/Bluray

Dir: Jens Dahl | Cast: Signe Egholm Olsen, Sara Hjort Ditlevsen | Thriller, Denmark

This brutal survival horror outing from Denmark’s Jens Dahl’s – who actually wrote Nic Winding Refn’s drug thriller Pusher – is set in rather sophisticated surroundings in a smart part of Copenhagen.

‘Women beware women’ is very much the order of the day here as female themselves are the victims of a curious bio-hacking experiment, run by a ruthless businesswoman (Signe Egholm Olsen) who is using her health supplement company as a front for selecting and abducting them as part of an experiment to reverse the ageing process, which most of the female population could end up benefiting from if only they could survive.

The central character Mia (Sara Hjort Ditlevsen, Borgman) tries to get to the bottom of it all and ends up trapped, branded and tortured in a grim underground facility. Familiar faces start to appear, and Mia realises she is not alone in all this. But does she have the will to survive and escape from the nightmare? Or do we really care?

Dahl has some interesting ideas but lacks the directing experience to pull it all off successfully, and despite his considerable talents as a writer he relies on a  script by Sissel Dalsgaard Thomsen. Slack pacing and an unremarkable cast are supported by Nikolai Lok’s camerawork that certainly looks impressive, but you can’t rely on images alone to make a gripping horror film.

Clearly Dahl is harking back to the New French Extreme films at the turn of this century from filmmakers such as Gaspar Noé’s, Catherine Breillat and Leo Carax but Breeder is rather a pale rider in comparison to Polar X, Baise Moi or even Trouble Every Day. MT

NOW ON BLURAY & DIGITAL from MONTAGE PICTURES

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 

 

The Great Adventure | Det stora äventyret (1953) Netflix

Dir: Arne Sucksdorff | Cast: Arne Sucksdorff, Anders Nohrborg, Kjell Sucksdorff, Gunnar Sjoberg | Sweden, 93′

The Great Adventure is a lyrical Swedish cinema verite drama that pictures a year on a farm in remote Sweden seen through the eyes of the family who live in the heart of the forest, the director doubling up as the pipe-smoking father.

 

Arne Sucksdorff’s film won prizes at Cannes (1954) and Berlin, appropriately taking a Silver Bear for the poetic way he combined truly magical wildlife photography with a gripping storyline and evocative score to create a nature tale that plays out like a thriller with touches of humour and sadness  – the feel is a cross between Tarka the Otter, My Life as a Dog and Mikhail Kalatozov’s Letter Never Sent. And all the time Arne is offering us a fascinating nature study with the most beautifully observed shots of owls, otters, pine martins, rabbits, squirrels and lynx, in their natural habitat, ever committed to celluloid film in the depths of 1950s Sweden.

Working with his composer Lars-Erik Larsson, and it took Arne two years to film and edit the material for his Berlin winner. Mysterious yet majestic the sly vixen is pivotal to the narrative, somehow emerging the tragic heroine with her family of cubs. Arne’s agile contre-jour camerawork following her antics from Midsummer’s white nights through to the snowbound winter, stealthily slinking through moonshine or broad daylight – one scene shows her toying with silk stockings on a washing line. Always fleeing at the last minute with a plump chicken she darts across swaying curtains of corn or flowery meadows, to feed the cubs.

Man is the villain in this rural adventure, determined to kill the beast, his shotgun poised at the ready. One scene sees the old fisherman springing a vicious iron trap, then opportunistically tracking an otter with an axe. As the otter bobs away across the twinkling snow drifts, the chase gains momentum, a fox cub joining in the chase. Eventually the kids come to the rescue (Kjell is Arne’s son) saving the otter from a burrow and keeping it as their secret pet. Sometimes the mood is upbeat, others more sinister, the animals unwitting players in this often nightmarish murder story, that often ends in tragedy, but there are surprises in store in this incredible journey. MT

THE GREAT ADVENTURE IS ON NETFLIX

MLK/FBI (2020)

Dir.: Sam Pollard; Documentary with Clarence Jones, Charles Know, James Comey, Donna March , Beverly Gage, Andrew Young; USA 2020, 104 min.

Seasoned documentarian Sam Pollard takes a deep dive into the FBI’s surveillance on Dr Martin Luther King (1929-68) in this searing study  proving that systemic racism is still alive and kicking in the USA today.

Enriched by newly released material, Pollard’s findings are inspired by David Garrow’s book ‘The FBI and Martin Luther King’ and cleverly put together by editor Laura Tomaselli and Benjamin Hedin.

There’s still more to this story because the actual wire tapes of the FBI surveillance of MLK won’t be be released until 2027 – but what emerges is a fervent obsession with the subject on the part of the FBI’s director Edgar J. Hoover (who headed the agency from 1924 until his death in 1972). It tells how the cross-dressing Hoover invested at least as much energy in the Civil Rights leader’s political activities as in his sexual conquests.

Hoover directed William Sullivan (for ten years the chief of the FBI’s Domestic Intelligence Operations) to wire tap King, not only at home, but during his hotel stays on the campaign trail throughout America. Hoover wanted to probe MLK’s extra-marital affairs to discredit his leadership and his campaign. He and his G-men used the white man’s prejudice with Black male sexuality, to denigrate ‘Black Men’ as animalistic beasts, endangering the sexual purity of white women and the racial integrity of the white race as a whole. This racist pathology, as shown in Griffith’ Birth of a Nation, is still alive today, with White Supremacists storming the Capitol on 6th of January. Back in the 1960s, all polls showed the popularity of Hoover’s agenda: the majority of the nation wanted him to defeat King and his movement.

Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, made him a household name, Hoover and MLK met only once, in November 1964, but sides reported the meeting as amicable, although many supporters on both sides, had a different opinion. Even though MLK was instrumental in the 1956 Montgomery (Alabama) Bus Strike, the FBI did not pay special attention to him back then. MLK only emerged as a one to watch, at least for the FBI, in 1963, when he led the March to Washington and the events of that same year in Birmingham (Alabama)  when Governor Wallace, a supporter of KKK, provoked an uproar.

It was unfortunate that one of MLK’s closest advisers, the NY lawyer Stanley Levison, who had faced HUAC trials and was supposed to help communist front organisations, gave Hoover the excuse to build King up into a “Black Messiah” figure, who wanted to destroy the USA with the help of the Communists. Footage of McCarthy-era Hollywood films Walk a Crooked Mile (1948) and I Was a Communist for the FBI (1951) show a real paranoia since the CPUS hardly played any real role in the political arena.

But Hoover and the FBI declared, that Black men and women were particularly suggestible to Communist propaganda. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert, the Attorney General, authorised the FBI wiretapping King and his inner circle. This led to the discovery of King’s extra-marital affairs.

In 1964, President LB Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, and MLK was awarded the Nobel Price for Peace, meanwhile Hoover sent ‘salacious’ material to King’s wife Coretta Scott King suggesting her husband consider suicide before Hoover made the material public – including a sort of ‘hit list’ of his sexual conquests.

The FBI’s actions did not stop with wire-tapping: they had two very influential sources in the MLK campaign who reported back daily on his moves. One was Ernest C. Withers, the “un-official” photographer of the Civil Rights movement, who worked for the FBI for 18 years. Then there was James D. Harrison, who gave the FBI all details of MLK’s personal and political assignations.

In 1965 protests against the Vietnam War become more numerous in the US and President Johnson is quoted as saying “we can’t be defenceless”, while accelerating the USA involvement in the war. King meanwhile was engaged in Southern Christian Leadership Conference ( SCLC), which led to the “Poor People’s Campaign” and the March to Washington in March 1968.

King was very much against the Vietnam War, but he was also aware of a need to support President Johnson. He broke his silence after 18 months of deliberations, stating “silence is traitorous”. At the same time, in March 1968, Sullivan began preparations for “Rape Allegations”, which were supposed to be made public.

On 4th of April 1968 MLK was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis. The perpetrator James Earl Ray was convicted of his murder, even though many questioned how Ray could have acted alone, with the area swarming with FBI agents.

MLK/FBI leaves a bitter taste particularly in the light of the current political situation in the US after the storming of the Capitol. White Supremacis violence threatens the existence of a democratic USA. With the Republican Party hell-bent on destroying the very Constitution, their former President Trump was supposed to be guarding just please supremacist supporters happy, the nation has clearly reached a point when, 43 years after Martin Luther King’s murder, racism is threatening the country in an even more existential way. AS

DOGWOOF RELEASES THIS BAFTA-LONGLISTED DOC TO DVD and BLURAY on 22 FEBRUARY 2021

The Dog Who Wouldn’t be Quiet | El Perro que no calla (2020)

Dri: Ana Katz | Argentina, Drama 73′

A dreamy absurdist meditation on life with man’s best friend seems well-pitched for this time when many increasingly rely on their pets – particularly dogs – to see them through loneliness and crisis. Screaming kids are part of life but not everyone tolerates a barking dog. But our canine friends can often highlight the general mood better than humans.

In her offbeat debut feature Argentinian filmmaker Ana Katz offers a gentle lowkey reflection of the life and times of Sebastian and his canine companion, that gradually opens out to touch on wider concerns. Set in a community struggling to survive economic turndown, Sebastian is struggling to hold down a job but his dog Rita spends her lonely days howling, much to the annoyance of his neighbours. Watching calmly and intelligently as Sebastian deals with the negative comments  about her at his place of work, the realisation dawns that he will have to leave his job. But on a walk through the surrounding countryside, the decision is made for him. And this is delicately conveyed in a series of black and white sketches that carry a poignant sorrowful message.

The dog’s anxiety ripples out into a widespread ‘cri de coeur’ expressing the collective concern of a population lacking in agency and forced into passive endurance of their uneventful daily lives.

Essentially this is a series of episodes in Sebastian’s life as he goes from place to place gamely looking for work, while also playing an active part in his mother’s days with her sophisticated friends. This all culminates in a romantic meeting on the dance-floor and a family of his own.

A comet disaster, shown again in drawing form, provides an ecological watershed and the film’s lowkey Sci-fi twist that sees the Earth’s atmosphere become contaminated above ground level. Sebastian, who is now working in a farming collective, is forced to adapt to the confusing changes, including wearing a glass bubble mask (you can appreciate the social resonance here). This new normal situation becomes a routine that Sebastian and his fiends will have to accept. But it somehow is the making of him.

Filming in black-and-white film with an inconsequential original score, this is a promising debut that doesn’t quite manage to hang together despite some strong ideas, and the comedy angle is amongst them. Ana Katz get some naturalistic performances from her cast, and Daniel Katz makes for a likeable Sebastian in the central role. Rita is rather underwritten, and it’s a shame her role is so truncated as she could have provided the link to bringing the narrative together and garnering empathy from dog lovers everywhere. MT.

ON CURZON HOME CINEMA | 21 MAY 2021

ROTTERDAM FILM FEST | WINNER – BIG SCREEN AWARD 2021

Black Medusa (2021) Mubi

Dir: Ismael & Youssef Chebbi | Drama, Tunisia, 95′

The Black Medusa Nada is in some ways emblematic of her home town of Tunis in this enigmatic fantasy thriller portrait of contemporary North African womanhood.

In this first feature Tunisian filmmakers Ismael and Youssef Chebbi are clearly supportive of their embittered main character – who choses not to communicate verbally – investing her with the power to hit back at the male-dominated Arab society where she has grown up in the aftermath of the revolution. Nour Hajri makes for a mesmerising Nada – the aptly named Black Medusa – who modestly goes her about her daily routine before diving into the nighttime shadows to prey on unsuspecting suitors.

Nada’s modus operandi is a ritual of revenge unfolding over nine. First, she poses as a sympathetic confidante to her male suitors – then she stabs them viciously, and seemingly with impunity. But her murderous behaviour soon rouses the suspicions of her workplace colleague Noura, who discovers a knife used in the attacks, and die is cast.

Underwritten characters and a slim but suggestive premise are clearly the result of the filmmakers budget constraints in a feature shot at lightening speed, and scripted in only two weeks. Enigma somehow works to their advantage here but not in the way they had anticipated with Nada serving the narrative as a beguiling counterpoint to the film’s much stronger (and in some ways more interesting) character – Tunis itself, gradually emerging in the nocturnal odyssey through this intriguing capital.

Stylistically brave in its striking black and white beauty and eclectic soundscape, the film makes for a slow and sinuous study of the nighttime antics of urban Tunisians in a voyeuristic expose of this classic coastal city with its ancient medinas and modern architectural flourishes and broad palm-fringed boulevards that will eventually lead to Carthage and Sidi Bou Said.

The directors meld Noir and Giallo styles satisfyingly in a memorable revenge thriller that serves as a sophisticated showcase to a siren-like capital city where a serial killer is on a voyage of discovery to liberate herself from the past. MT

ON MUBI FROM 25 January 2022

 

 

 

Madalena (2021) Mubi

Dir: Madiano Marcheti | Thriller Brazil 85′

More transexuals are killed in Brazil than anywhere else in the world and this sobering thought provides the touchstone to Madiano Marcheti’s assured feature debut that premiered exactly a year ago at Rotterdam’s film festival’s 50th celebration.

Madalena is a murder mystery that is never solved. We see a broken body lying in a field of lushly swaying soya, but we never discover much more – this is not a crime procedural or a whodunnit. What Madalena does provide is a haunting and unsettling snapshot of the cultural and societal references that support intolerance in this deeply religious, patriarchal and macho part of rural Brazil that remains connected and influenced by the modern world and yet at the same time, tethered in the past. In this sense the setting (where the director himself grew up) is very much a character that influences what has gone before. In this eerie tropical landscape, ostriches strut like creatures out of a Sci-fi thriller and drones trawl the skies patrolling the vast acres of farmland. Meanwhile monsters are being bred in the frivolous disco-dancing, vape-smoking, body-conscious urban hinterland, and they’re called men.

Capturing the vast open skyscapes and deathly silences of the spooky agrarian setting Marcheti stealthily explores the aftermath to Madalena’s death through three protagonists who are unknown to each other as they gradually become aware of her disappearance. The details are left unclear and we never find out how the death eventually leaks out into the news.

Club hostess Luziane calls round at Madalena’s simple village home several times, her mother pressurising her to borrow money, but Madalena is nowhere to be found. The narrative then shifts to body-builder Cristiano who works for his land-owning father, spending his time smoking drinking and injecting himself with hormones. He can’t forget what he’s seen in the soyafields, so he takes his friend Gildo back to where he originally saw the body but it’s a hostile and inhospitable terrain that keeps its secret well hidden.

In a mellow and soft-centred finale it’s left to trans woman Bianca and her girlfriends to pack up Madalena’s possessions as they share memories of happier times with their friend. Marcheti never passes judgement on his characters, they are merely there to serve the narrative – but none is particularly likeable, leaving us to reach our own conclusions on this sinister story and the hostile and unknowable place where it all unfolds. MT

NOW ON MUBI I TIGER COMPETITION

Berlinale 2021 | Jury Announced

Six Golden Bear winning directors will head up this year’s Berlinale main competition jury and decide on the prizes in Competition at the 71st Berlinale.

The festival’s Aristic Director Carlo Chatrian announced there would be no president this year. But expressed his gratitude to the jury members:

They express not only different ways of making uncompromising films and creating bold stories but also they represent a part of the history of the Berlinale. In this moment in time, it is meaningful and a great sign of hope that the Golden Bear winners will be in Berlin watching films in a theatre and finding a way to support their colleagues“,
The members of the 2021 International Jury:

Mohammad Rasoulof (Iran)
Director of the Golden Bear winning-film There is No Evil, 2020

Nadav Lapid (Israel)
Director of the Golden Bear winning-film Synonyms, 2019

Adina Pintilie (Romania)
Director of the Golden Bear winning-film Touch Me Not, 2018

Ildikó Enyedi (Hungary)
Director of the Golden Bear winning-film On Body and Soul, 2017

Gianfranco Rosi (Italy)
Director of the Golden Bear winning-film Fire At Sea, 2016

Jasmila Žbanić (Bosnia and Herzegovina)
Director of the Golden Bear winning-film Grbavica, 2006

Summer Special

From June 9 to 20, the festival offers a Summer Special featuring numerous physical cinema screenings and the opportunity to experience a large portion of the films in the presence of the filmmakers themselves. The start of the Summer Special on June 9 will be celebrated with a festive opening event.

BERLINALE 2021 | MARCH & JUNE 2021

Mighty Flash (2021)

Dir: Ainhoa Rodrigues | Spain, Fantasy Drama 90′

Life in Southern Spain hasn’t changed much for the God-fearing and deeply suspicious repressed but dying to burst out from their in rural communities in Extremadura. And women are the keenest to break free. Or at least that’s the impression we get from Ainhoa Rodriguez’ deliciously dark and delightfully observed first feature that unfolds with a cast of non-pros on the widescreen and in intimate – often voyeuristic – closeup.

Mighty Flash is an amusing story of country folk and their sexual frustrations and ethnographical portrait of a remote group of people, spiced up with magic realist touches. These country dwellers may be cut off from the rest of Spain but they are as thick as thieves amongst themselves, supporting one another and sharing tales of farming exploits, folklore and strange happenings in the surrounding countryside – not to mention vicious social gossip. Like Dickens’ Mr Micawber they are constantly waiting for something to turn up, not just the Second Coming or the Madonna at the local Semana Santa processions. 

Isa records suggestive messages to herself that speak of strange events: “A mighty flash of light will appear above the village, which will change everything”, she hears herself say. “It is magnificent. We will all get a headache, we will lose our memories and we will disappear.” Cita is a deeply unsatisfied with her life and one morning leaves her warm matrimonial bed and heads to the church to pray, all dolled up in a mini dress and blow-dry. This naturally sparks criticism and wagging tongues amongst the other women: “nothing will come of her” they chunter conspiratorially. 

Although the womenfolk are frustrated in the deadbeat backwater, the men seem more contented with their daily grind. Nothing happens but actually everything happens. High hopes are met with unrealised dreams. But the tone here is drole and upbeat, always positive, never bitter.

Loneliness has no place in this community, despite its lack of potential. Days are fraught with the social round. All done up in pearls and fur coats – not to mention high heels – ladies lunch together and talk of sexual desire and personal fulfilment – and their dissatisfaction with the menfolk is fully realised in scenes enlivened by surrealist flourishes. María mourns her deceased husband, Paco. Sometimes, someone hears a sound that escapes everyone else. Can it be real or just a fantasy.? Female imagination catches fire while the men simply hunker down with their mates and animals – especially the little goat farmer who describes tricking a female goat into bringing up a kid from another litter.

Cleverly observed, pert and well-paced with its punchy electronic soundtrack and touches of magic realism deftly woven into the narrative, Mighty Flash is a real one off. Working hard – and successfully – to build a bond of trust with her cast Rodriquez’ first feature fizzes with intrigue behind its zipped-up facade. A brilliantly observed portrait of modern Spain that could be from the dark ages. Ironic, inspired and in the delicate spirit of Victor Erice. MT

NOW ON MUBI | ROTTERDAM FILM FESTIVAL | TIGER COMPETITION | VILNIUS FILM FESTIVAL | EUROPEAN DEBUT COMPETITION Best Director: Ainhoa Rodríguez

 

 

 

The Dig (2021) Netflix

Dir.: Simon Stone; Cast: Carey Mulligan, Ralph Fiennes, Archie Barnes, Monica Dolan, Johnny Flynn, Ken Stott, Lily James, Peggy Piggott; UK 2021, 112 min.

This tender and touching tale about loss and the fragility of life takes place in the soft landscape of Suffolk just as England is entering another World War in 1938.

The Dig is ostensibly about the discovery of an ancient burial site at  Sutton Hoo but its historical significance pales into insignificance and the human story is what we remember, sensitively brought to life by Moira Buffini’s skilful adaptation of John Preston’s novel, and Carey Mulligan’s deeply affecting performance as young world-weary widow Edith Pretty who lives at the Hoo with her young son Robert (Barnes).

The repercussions of the Great War are still being felt even in rural Suffolk where Edith maintains a noblesse oblige approach despite her life-limiting heart condition brought on by rheumatic fever. Robert is gently traumatised by the thought of losing another parent, in a household where everyone is crying silently but putting a brave face on things. Ralph Fiennes gradually becomes an unlikely saviour as the stern, pipe-smoking amateur archeologist Basil Brown who Edith hires to investigate mounds of soil on her land. Robert takes very well to the individualist Brown, but it gradually emerges he is married to local lass Mary Brown (Dolan) and that’s another sad story.

Naturally being England, emotions are well buttoned-up despite the balmy summer setting; director Simon Stone possibly had LP Hartley’s The Go-Between in mind with his imagining of events, Buffini making Mrs Pretty decades younger than the book, thus adding a frisson between her and Basil.

But that’s not the only touch of romance going on. There’s a low key flutter between Edith’s cousin Rory (Johnny Flynn) and Lily James -who is curiously underpowered as Peggy, the sexually starved wife of a (gay) RAF officer (Ben Chaplin, looking worried) – although it certainly provides light relief from the rather underwhelming burial discovery which brings with it a motley crew of ‘official’ specialists from London headed by British Museum expert Ken Stott. Pulling rank he places the site under Government control, although Edith is adamant that Brown should finish what he started, especially as he is nearly killed in a landslide.

Drama also comes from the looming shadow of war. A plane crashes in a nearby lake, Rory trying in vain to rescue the pilot. And although Edith is fading away slowly she still lights up every scene with her understated class and decorum, keeping up “a good show”, and trouncing Peggy’s discrete ecstasy with Rory – yes, they do get a coy minute of passion just before he leaves to join the RAF. MT

NOW ON NETFLIX

 

 

My French Film Festival | Online festival 2021

 

Now in its 11th year, MyFrenchFilmFestival shines a spotlight on new generation French-language filmmakers and gives audiences around the world the chance to share their love of French cinema. The 2021 Festival runs from 15 January – 15 February with screenings online and in cinemas around the world. Audiences in the UK can watch these 11 features from this year’s Festival on BFI Player on Prime Video Channels, free to subscribers:

ADOLESCENTES (Sébastien Lifshitz, 2019)
CAMILLE (Boris Lojkine, 2019)
ÉNORME (Sophie Letourneur, 2019)
FELICITÀ (Bruno Merle, 2020)
FILLES DE JOIE (Frédéric Fonteyne, Anne Paulicevich, 2020)
JOSEP (Aurel, 2020)
JUST KIDS (Christophe Blanc, 2019)
KUESSIPAN (Myriam Verreault, 2019)
LES HÉROS NE MEURENT JAMAIS (Aude Léa Rapin, 2019)
MADAME (Stéphane Riethauser, 2019)
TU MÉRITES UN AMOUR (Hafsia Herzi, 2019)

MY FRENCH FILM FESTIVAL 15 JANUARY – 15 FEBRUARY 2021

The White Tiger (2020) Netflix

Dir: Ramin Bahrani | Wri: Aravind Adiga, Ramin Bahrani | Cast: Priyanka Chopra, Rajkummar Rao, Adarsh Gourav | Drama 125′

This stylish snapshot of modern india glints with cynism and snarky humour its sharp social contrasts bared like the titular tiger’s teeth.

Netflix has the pleasure of hosting this little brute from 99 Homes’ Ramin Bahrani, adapting Aravind Adiga’s 2008 Booker Prize-winning novel that sees a poor guy from rural India rise from servitude to success as a global entrepreneur in Bangalore. The wider world opens up through his experiences along the way as a driver for the spoilt and privileged son of a corrupt local industrialist.

The first person voiceover brings to mind Slumdog Millionnaire but that’s where the similarities end – this is a much edgier beast powered forward by the appealing character of young Delhi tea-maker Balram (Adarsh Gourav), who one day lands a job far beyond village life, ferrying round US educated Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) and his liberated wife Pinky (Chopra). This lowly gig leads Balram to a rocky but glittering future by keeping his nose to the grindstone and his eyes to the stars.

Bahrani’s focus is very much on bumpy road ahead as his hero Balram navigates potholes in this journey of self-awareness and nouse-gathering. And this angel-faced servant soon has to toughen up if he’s to survive and thrive. Rather like Balzac’s rags to riches hero Eugene de Rastignac, Balram is a socially challenged but highly intelligent young ingenue equipped with guile, charisma and a low cunning as he wades through a morass of corruption, deceit and betrayal of India’s myriad social divide. Adarsh Gourav is entertaining to watch as he masters Balham’s dextrous human complexities, ducking and diving and wising up through the exotic ever-challenging landscape that lies before him.

Bahrani shows a real understanding of the delicate social structures at play, conjuring up the dark continent convincingly with its intoxicating chemistry of sights, sounds and contemporary social scenery which is magically conveyed by Paolo Carnera’s dazzling camerawork and set to an original soundscape from Oscar-tipped Danny Bensi and Saunder Juriaans. MT

Available on Netflix worldwide Jan 22.

 

The Dissident (2020) Bfi player

Dir: Bryan Fogel | Wri: Mark Monroe, Bryan Fogel | US Doc, 119′

Academy Award winner Bryan Fogel’s latest doc dives into the ghastly murder of Washington Post journalist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi.

It offers a comprehensive and sobering an account of the execution as one could possibly imagine. Fogel won an Oscar for Icarus (2017), a look into the Russian sports doping scandal, and has now assembled this immersive investigation in an impressively short amount of time; Khashoggi was killed at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018, but one feels no stone was left unturned in researching and conveying the story in grim horror. As the crime famously implicates the Saudi ruling family at the highest levels, there will be a keen interest in this riveting work across the globe.

Anyone who follows world events knows that Khashoggi, a member of the Saudi royal family who had moved to the United States and wrote for The Washington Post, went into the consulate early in the afternoon on the date in question to obtain a marriage licence. But he never came out. The Saudis denied, delayed and dissembled as long as they possibly could, but finally had to admit that Khashoggi had died on the premises. This resulted in great embarrassment for the royal family and diplomatic distancing by many countries, at least for a while. Eventually 11 men were tried in Saudi Arabia, with three acquitted, three others sentenced to prison terms and five given the death penalty.

Fogel’s investigation is vigorous, thorough  and comprehensive. It centres first on one of Khashoggi’s closest friends, fellow dissident Omar Abdulaziz, who lives in Montreal in a state of near paralysing fear of being tracked down by Saudi agents. We then meet Khashoggi’s fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, who waited outside the consulate all afternoon for him to come out. Both of these intimates stand as living testament to their friend’s resolve, the wages of exile and the high anxiety all too plausibly connected with any opposition to the all-powerful ruling authorities.

The Dissident is cut and scored like a dramatic Hollywood thriller, making impressive use of suspense-engendering editing techniques, mystery-building music and other devices to tease out all aspects of the drama, with the entirely reasonable objective of drawing in viewers who might otherwise not readily watch a political documentary. There is absolutely nothing lost with this technique, especially as the film tends to its essential business of revealing the nature of the Saudi regime and its refusal to countenance any dissent.

In a shrewd and discreet way, the film casts a bigger and stronger net as it progresses. References to other comparable events in the Arab world, such as those in Egypt some years before, are useful, as are comments about liberation movements in other countries. It charts the sacrifices made in becoming an outsider in middle life after having so long been an insider in an insular country. And there are extraordinary random sights, such as the crown prince’s commercial-sized private plane being accompanied by six fighter jets flying alongside when he travels.

Building his case as shrewdly as a skilled lawyer, Fogel finally, and shockingly, offers conclusive evidence that Khashoggi was treated like “a sacrificed animal,” cut up with a bone saw after apparently having been suffocated. The deep penetration of the Saudis’ surveillance and, especially, their hacking of private phones and computers, is brought to startling light; it even compromised Jeff Bezos. Especially impressive are the statements by United Nations special rapporteur Agnes Callamard in which she accused the Saudi government of “premeditated extrajudicial killing by high-level authorized agents.”

This is a documentary both tragic and poignant, not to mention maddening – in that only a few acolytes, rather than the perpetrators themselves – will pay for the crime committed in Istanbul. The evidence is all here for the world to see. AS

NOW ON BFI PLAYER | AMAZON PRIME | premiered at Glasow Film Festival 

 

The Last Warning (1928) *** Bluray

Dir.: Paul Leni; Cast: Laura La Plante, Montague Love, Roy D’Arcy, Burr McIntosh, Margaret Livingston, Carrie Daumery, John Boles)Bert Roach, D’Arcy Corrigan; USA 1928, 89 min.

Universal intended The Last Warning as a companion piece to Leni’s more famous (and superior) The Cat and the Canary (1927), and it was also German born director Paul Leni’s final: he died at the age of forty four eight months after the film’s premiere, contracting sepsis from an untreated tooth infection.

Based on the novel by Wordsworth Camp, the Broadway play by Thomas F. Fallon and then adapted for the screen by Alfred A. Cohn, The Last Warning is a mystery-thriller ‘who-done-it’, with a clunky and complicated narrative dominated by Leni’s direction and Hal Mohr’s jerky camerawork. Charles D. Hall’s art direction is inspired by German expressionism, with Leni’s Das Wachsfigurenkabinett/ Waxworks (1924) perhaps his greatest achievement.

Leni made use of the Phantom of the Opera (1925) set for his last outing which begins with one of the actors (Woodford’s D’Arcy Corrigan) being electrocuted on stage. There is rumour Woodford was part of a menage-a-trois, but more confusion occurs when the body disappears without trace. The theatre is closed but five years later producer Mike Brody (Roach) re-opens the place to catch the murderer by staging a re-run of the play with the original cast members.

During the rehearsals falling scenery, a fire and frightening noises occur, and the purse of leading lady Doris (La Plante) is stolen. Stage manager Josia Bunce (McIntosh) receives a telegram,  signed by John Woodford, telling him to abandon the play and this sets the stage, quite literally, for a series of disasters, involving a 400 volt cable electrocution and worse was to come.

After the shooting, some spoken dialogue and audio effects were added, but this version has been lost. We are left with great moments of camera work, such as in a scene where veteran actress Barbara Morgan leaps from the stage and plummets to the ground, with the camera taking on her POV. Whilst Phantom of the Opera would play a great role in future Universal canon of horror features, The Last Warning, with its masked killer, is a prelude to the Italian ‘Gialli’ features of directors Dario Argento and Mario Bava. AS

ON EUREKA MASTERS OF CINEMA 15 FEBRUARY 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.

Assassins (2020) VOD

Dir: Ryan White | US Doc 104’

In an extraordinary story of deceit and subterfuge Assassins travels from Pyongyang to Indonesia, Vietnam and Kuala Lumpur to investigate what really happened to Kim Jong-nam, the older half brother of the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un who lost his life nearly fours years ago.

This story of a public murder, filmed in the grainy footage of CCTV at Kuala Lumpur International airport on 13.2.2017 is as bizarre as it is mysterious. American director/writer Ryan White (Ask Dr Ruth) has chronicled the murder case and the ensuing trial, the upshot is no   cause celebre but a very human story, involved a calculating dictator and two ordinary women.

Photos show a middle-aged man in the airport hall, suddenly being attacked by two young women seemingly rubbing some substance into his eyes before running off, openly looking at the CCTV monitors. The man stumbles on and is taken away by airport security, the two women taking separate taxis back to the city. The victim was Kim Jong-nam. He would die twenty minutes after having been smeared with the deadly nerve gas agent VX. The two women are identified as Vietnamese Doan Thi Huong (28) and Indonesian Siti Aisyah (25), who would soon be arrested for the murder, facing a trial and a certain death sentence by hanging, if found guilty.

Kim Jong-nam (*1971), the oldest son of former North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il, was seen as his eventual successor. But after a scandal regarding his visit to Disneyland Tokyo in 2001, his brother Jong-un took over the regime after the death of his father. Kim Jong-nam, who had renounced any participation in the government of his country, had survived at least two assassination attempts, one at Ferihegy airport in Budapest in 2009, another one in 2012.

Both women “assassins” came from a rural background, where the director visited their distraught parents. Doan had moved to the capital Hanoi, went to college and moved in search of fame to Kuala Lumpur, wanting to become an actress. Siti’s CV is much more dramatic: she had worked in a clothing factory in Jakarta, married the boss and had a daughter at age seventeen, which she lost to her husband after a divorce custody battle. She became a sex worker, still dreaming of fame. Both met a chauffeur called John who promised the women easy work: Video pranks, reminiscent of the “Jackass” trilogy. The payment of nearly 100 US Dollar was good, and preferable to sex work. What happened next is recounted by journalists Hadi Azmir (Bloomberg), and Anna Fifeld, chief of the ‘Washington Post’ in their Bejing office. The operation was masterminded by Mr Y, also known as Hanamori, and a chemist Ri Jong Chol, as well as the Godfather OJong-Gil, all members of the North Koran Secret Service. An airport employee Kim Uk Il was also part of the deadly plot, all operatives got away to North Korea, leaving the two women to fight for themselves.

Their mobiles did not contain any links to North Korea, just rather sad accounts of video pranks which were anything but professional. But the Malaysian government was only too happy to have found two scapegoats who fitted the bill. The trail began on 2.10.2017. The court judge was clearly biased, and Siti and Doan feared for their lives, but what happens next is hardly outlandish but certainly emotionally overwhelming.

DoP John Benam’s camera adds to the tension fly-on-wall camerawork, the ‘Talking-Heads’ often reduced by voice-overs. Although the outcome is positive it could have been quite the opposite. What is shocking is the audacity of the North Korean agents who blithely set people up for the death penalty, with scant regard for their human rights. “They treated us as if we were nothing” comments Siti, in a fitting last word. AS

VOD NOW AT WATCH.DOGWOOF.COM

 

I Comete: A Corsican Summer (2021) IFFR Rotterdam Film Festival

Dir: Pascal Tagnati | France, Drama 124′

Warm, light-hearted and drôle : this free-wheeling cinema verite take on Corsican village life dances away from a formal narrative capturing the gentle offbeat nature of the Mediterranean island in summer. The first feature film from Corsican ‘theatre-maker’, actor and author Pascal Tagnati plays out in a series of quirky inconsequential vignettes – some of them quite risqué – that picture the locals at play, swimming, flirting, arguing (and even crying) as they enjoy the sumptuous scenery of this hilly island paradise at a time where villagers get together to enjoy the last days of the summer holidays.

Beautifully composed and refreshing, Tagnati’s observational approach cleverly combines drama and fiction, relying on a natural soundscape of birdsong and breeze, occasionally traditional folksongs are heard in the distance, sung in Corsican dialect (which sounds a bit like Italian, unsurprisingly), culminating in the heartrending ‘La mort de Filicone’.

I Comete is very much a collaborative effort between Tagnati and the local villagers in a cast of predominately non-pros – apart from the major roles – ad-libbing most of the way, it certainly offers an essence of the island and its people for those who’ve never been there, it works as an accidental travelogue stimulating an interest to discover more about the place. Franje, appears to be the only black resident of the village, and the kids make an older character the butt of their jokes although he seems a kind and resourceful type, and we feel quite sorry for him in his undeserved role as the ‘village idiot’. In other more downbeat moments Theo reflects on the possibility of the less happier times in his life, and Lucienne talks of freedom.

At the end of the day, the Corsicans are just like everybody else in Europe where daily life centres on friends, football, infidelity and fertility, family traditions probably loom slightly larger here than in Northern Europe but the pace is certainly slower, Tagnati lulling us into a pleasant reverie about his home, that brims with a sense of national pride and a collective joie de vivre. MT

ROTTERDAM INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL | 1-7 FEBRUARY 2021 | TIGER COMPETITION | SPECIAL JURY PRIZE

In Cold Blood (1967) DVD

Dir: Richard Brooks | Cast: Robert Blake, Scott Wilson, John Forsythe, Tex Smith, Paul Stewart, Jeff Corey, Gerald S O’Loughlin | US Crime Thriller, 130′

Truman Capote’s celebrated reporting of a Kansas murder case, In Cold Blood, is the basis for Richard Brooks’s disturbing docudrama. The film opens as a Greyhound bus roars into the darkness of a desolate prairie night, bound for Kansas City. Black silhouetted figures stand out, one is a man with a guitar. A girl passenger sees a boot with the famous catspaw soles (‘catspaws won’t slip’), and this is the clue that will eventually lead to the murderer – and the Capote’s nemesis.

Formally ambitious yet elegantly restrained the film crisply evokes the small-town Sixties Kansas in Conrad Hall’s stylish black and white visuals with a classy score by Quincy Jones. New Yorker Capote had spent over six months getting to know the Kansas locals for his ‘non-fiction novel’, and one local in particular would be his unravelling. He trusted Brooks to transfer his own ideas to the screen, and they were both sold on black and white, Hall creating a gritty true crime feel, and some stunning Wild West style panoramas, Brooks carrying the authenticity through by filming in the town and the exact house where the murders actually happened, but Capote became mesmerised by one of the perpetrators, Perry Smith.

The events of the case grippingly unfold in a chronological narrative recounting how four members of the ‘God-fearing’ Clutter family were slaughtered in cold blood one night in 1959 by two two ex-convicts looking for cash during a random burglary in the remote  rural property. They stole a radio and a few dollars and left few clues as to their identity, but Brooks shows how Kansas Police (lead by a superb John Forsythe) embark on a lengthy and painstaking investigation eventually catching and convicting the killers and bringing them to justice in 1965.

Robert Blake (Perry Smith) and Scott Wilson (Dick Hickock) are utterly convincing as the ruthless killers. And although we already know that they committed the murders from the early scenes Brooks generates a palpable tension while he fleshes out the investigation and we get a chance to fathom the broken minds of the perpetrators.

At the end of the day, who can really understand why two people only intending to rob the Clutters, and who had not committed murder before, suddenly decided to sadistically murder four innocent people on a quiet night in 1959? And what did the modest Clutters do provoke such vicious violence?

Richard Brooks’s fractured narrative flips nervously back and forth brilliantly evoking both the frenzied minds of the killers and the fervent need of detectives to nail and endite their suspects. Conrad Hall’s noirish visuals re-visit the rain-soaked scene of the crime, the remote locations and the fugitives’ brief escape to Mexico and their chance arrest in Las Vegas, while allowing brief glimpses of the genesis of their disfunctional family stories.

Brooks skilfully avoids showing bloodshed, violence or macabre crime scenes, allowing the terror to haunt our minds rather than the cinema screen. The mercilessness of the intruders and the abject fear and vulnerability of Clutters in their final moments is more evocative than any blood-soaked bedroom scene. By the time we reach the trial and imprisonment, we are glad to be done with these sordid criminals, although Brooks a scintilla of sympathy for Perry Smith who seems to have been led on. Robert Blake and Scott Wilson give chilling and resonant portrayals in the leading roles. MT

ON DVD | REMASTERED COURTESY OF PARK CIRCUS FILMS.

 

Six films to look out for in 2021

2021 promises a bright new slate of films – here are six of this year’s most anticipated releases to get us through the next few months until the jabs bring freedom again. 

DEAR COMRADES | releases 15 January 2021 nationwide

Veteran Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky uncovers a little known episode of the Nikita Krushchev era – the Novocherkassk Massacre of June 1962 – in this elegant and restrained black and white feature filmed on academy ratio and starring his muse (and wife) Yuliya Vysotskaya. A follow-up to his last Venice offering – Sin – an imagined drama about Michelangelo – this is a more down to earth film but its refined gracefulness captures the gravitas of the incident with a lightness of touch and even a dash of sardonic humour. MT

TRUFFLE HUNTERS | releases 5 February 2021 nationwide

When it comes to the ancient art of truffle hunting dogs are worth their weight in gold, according to a new documentary that shows how man’s best friend is also a canny breadwinner. Truffles are prized delicacies in gastronomy. These ugly-looking tubers are part of the mushroom family but actually grow underground, and only dogs have the delicate skills to root them out. A single truffle can sell for thousands of euros. The sumptuously crafted doc plays out as a devotional tribute to these knobbly delicacies, elevating the earthy foodstuff into a food for the Gods in an appreciation for those who painstakingly dedicate their lives to tracking down the truffle and cherishing its storied gastronomic potential. MT

THE CAPOTE TAPES | releases 5 February nationwide

More from Truman Capote, this time in documentary form. A deep dive into the archives and fresh interviews, especially one with Kate Harrington who is introduced as Capote’s adopted daughter, (born to Capote’s “manager”) and who became his protege, living with him in Manhattan and learning the ways of New York society. The film explores the legendary writer’s fascination with this beau monde and then visits the many haunts where the good and the great hung out. An informative  companion piece to both Truman dramas: Capote (2005, with Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Infamous (2006, with Toby Jones). MT


ANOTHER ROUND | releases on 5 February 2021 nationwide

Vinterberg’s latest is a freewheeling comedy that trades on false bonhomie to reveal the hollow desperation at its core. Set in affluent semi-rural Denmark, the Mads Mikkelsen starrer has a wise and worthwhile look at a community sleep-walking into mediocrity, in a haze of alcohol. Like Festen and The Hunt before it, there is a deeper message to the gently imploding farce. The focus is a close-knit circle of friends united by their common ground as teachers in the local school. The drama ponders a reliance on alcohol and drugs in a bid to find meaning in comfortable but aimless lives. MT

PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN | 12 February 2021

Killing Eve’s Emerald Fennell is behind this sardonic female revenge flic but the firepower comes courtesy of Carey Mulligan. The writing is spot on in its feminine guile and intelligence but Mulligan takes it a notch even further adding gutsy gravitas to her outwardly ditzy blond lead. She plays 30 year old part time coffee barista Cassandra who seems to have her sh*t together despite being half-cut most of the time: what is her secret?. Much like the sparky heroine of Fleabag, Cassie is a mistress of the putdown, toying with her male suitors while being bored rigid by their facile advances. But there’s vulnerability too behind her sassy facade – and we soon find out why in the film’s tragic volte face. MT

APPLES |  releases 19 March 2021 nationwide

When it comes to films about pandemics nothing could be more appropriate than this lucid and gently-crafted Weird Wave debut drama from Greek director Christos Nikou, not to say that Apples isn’s subversive in a charming way.  The idea came to Nikou long before the coronavirus crisis outbreak and yet it perfectly captures the disarming effects of its character’s gradual meltdown. Aris (Aris Servetalis) becomes a victim of amnesia that slowly spreads through his local community and beyond. An interesting reflection on the creeping hysteria that has forced us into ‘limited personality syndrome’ over the past 6 months, all set to Alexander Voulgaris’ magical soundscape. MT

Konchalovsky and Vysotskaya | copyright BSS/AFP, Venice

SIX FILMS TO LOOK OUT FOR | January – March 2021

The Woman Who Ran (2020) Silver Bear for Best Director Berlinale 2020

Wri/Dir: Hong Sang-soo | Cast: Kim Min-hee, Lee Eun-mi, Song Seon-mi | 77′ S Korea Drama

Love and attraction is explored through the eyes of three very different women in this quirky but sage domestic drama from prolific South Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo.

Once again his muse Kim Min-hee (as Gam-hee) is the focus of this female centric affair that revolves around a get together with old friends while her husband is away travelling. The tentative conversation is pleasant and banal occasionally spiced by a quirky humour unique to this veteran filmmaker. Gradually the pleasantries and layers of her character’s quiet neuroticism are stripped away to reveal serious concerns for her marriage. What emerges is unexpected but also amusingly familiar.

The Woman Who Ran is not as funny as his best drama In Another Country (2012) that had Isabelle Huppert in a lost in translation merry-go-round in a beachside resort. Many find these films tedious but others thrill to the subtleties of the writing and the hidden depths in the seemingly slight encounters.

Each new meeting involves Gam-hee divulging her marital secrets until gradually she’s answering her own questions. Her feelings are at odds with husband’s needs and desires but she has unwittingly submitting to his rather controlling behaviour, until gradually the penny drops.

The various encounters feel slightly awkward and gauche, the parties retreating to safe ground at the first sign of potential conflict, and this is particularly the case with the first visit. Gam-hee is invited to supper at the house of recent divorcee Young-soon (Seo Younghwa) and her roommate Youngji (Lee Eunmi). The three women discuss the topic of eating meat, and discuss Youngji’s grilling skills before finally exploring the possibility of going vegetarian. There is a difficult doorstep discussion with a neighbour who comes round to address the issue of their feeding his cat. They all pussy foot around the subject before elegantly stepping away from any slight contretemps, the neighbour backs off gracefully having achieved nothing, but making it clear he not best pleased.

Gam-hee then goes to visit her slightly older friend Suyoung (Song Seonmi) who talks about a potential new boyfriend in the flat above. Later she confesses her fear of him finding out about her one night stand with another neighbour, who is now pestering her for more. But it is the final meeting that leaves us in the dark as to the film’s title. Woojin (Kim Saebyuk) says she has something important to tell Gam-hee but she never reveals what it is. The film’s enigmatic approach feels rather unsatisfactory, appearing to have been given a random title. The Woman Who Ran is engaging while it lasts but ultimately forgettable once we have left the cinema. MT

The Woman Who Ran is out Friday CURZON curzoncinemas.com/bloomsbury/films

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Limbo (2020)

Dir/Wri: Ben Sharrock | Cast: Amir El-Masry, Sidse Babett-Knudsen, Vikash Bhai, Ola Orebiyi, Kwabena Ansah, Kenneth Collard | UK Drama, 103′

A group of refugees fetch up on a remote Scottish island in this artful and darkly amusing comedy drama lampooning the migrant crisis.

The common denominator is their single, masculine status. If they were married with kids they would be placed in a stylish new-build in the centre of Edinburgh, or even London. But it’s a grim lot for the single male of the species who arrives in these rain soaked islands looking for a home. And the Scotts director shows the same sober look and lugubrious humour as Pablo Stoll’s cult classic Whisky (2004) or Aki Kaurismaki’s Berlinale winner The Other Side of Hope (2017). However, his visually imaginative style and symmetrical framing also make this a sumptuous treat.

The migrant crisis is certainly no joke. In fact it has become somewhat of a political hot potato as the lost and disenfranchised arrive here hoping for the legendary streets of gold and find instead cold tarmac, wind-lashed landscapes and little to comfort them in their time of need. Sticking out like proverbial pork pies at a Jewish wedding these likeable and nice-looking men are jeered at and taunted as they make their way through chilly seascapes in search of something to keep their minds occupied in the inclement weather.

The painterly piece unfolds in the sparsely populated Western Isles of the Outer Hebrides (North and South Uist) under smoky grey clouds and gentle hilltops stroked by softly wavering grasses and purple skies. “If you’re lucky enough to be here in Winter you may experience the Northern Lights” says their English teacher as he instructs them on the past imperfect, asking for an example of its use in a sentence: one bright spark suggests: “I USED to have a home until it was destroyed by allied forces”.

Essentially a series of carefully crafted episodes – each playing out like an individual comedy vignette – the story follows Syrian Oud musician and war victim Omar (Amir El-Masry) who left his older brother still fighting; Afghani Farhad (Vikash Bhai) and two West African brothers suffering from sibling rivalry. Wasef (Ola Orebiyi) and Abedi (Kwabena Ansah) bicker the hell out of the squalid damp-ridden cottage the men share, warmed only by a two-bar electric fire. They all have convincing backstories and are ridden with guilt and worry about the families they have left behind. Poor internet coverage makes matters worst.

Writing and directing this second feature, Sharrock calls on his own life experience working in a refugee camp in the Middle East where he was inspired by the sorrowful characters he met, all hoping against hope for a positive outcome. Here at least they get “cultural awareness” lessons hosted by a well-meaning couple, Helga (a strangely underused Sidse Babett-Knudsen (The Duke of Burgundy) and Boris (Kenneth Collard). But the even-handed narrative eventually gives way to a grudging mutual respect with their pale-skinned hosts who recognise they are well-educated and versed in the ways of the world. And the tone darkens when a crisis arrives for the sheep farmers during a snowstorm, and Omar is required to pitch in.

The sheep incident unleashes a disturbing magic realist reverie for Omar, transporting him back to his roots in scenes that hint at a gravitas the film does not possess compared with the levity that has gone before. But despite the slight tonal flaw Limbo is a highly accomplished and thoughtful film that cements Sharrock’s place as a promising British talent on the international scene. MT

In Cinemas from 30 July | The International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI) Award: CAIRO FILM FESTIVAL 

 

 

 

Beanpole (2019) **** MUBI

Dir: Kantemir Balagov | Writers: Kantemir Balagov, Aleksandr Terekhov | Drama | Russia 114′

A bitter bond of revenge and inter-dependence keeps two Russian women viscerally entwined in Leningrad after the Second World War comes to a close.

Beanpole is Kantemir Balagov’s follow up to his kidnap thriller Closeness which took the FIPRESCI prize in Un Certain Regard two years ago. Based on a story from The Unwomanly Face of War by Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexeievich, it sees the two women brought to their knees physically and mentally after the war has devastated their city. But life goes on for Iya, a tall rangy blond known as Beanpole (Miroshnichenko), and her friend Masha (Perelygina) who served together on the front, Iya returning early due to a neurological condition, bringing back with her Masha’s little son Pashka (Glazkov) in the autumn of 1945.

This gruelling slow-burner is softened by its gorgeously vibrant aesthetic that lends a jewel-like radiance to the girls’ misery, captured in Kseniya Sereda’s brilliant camerawork. Masha is wilful, mercurial and playfully charismatic – Perelygina is simply mesmerising to watch as she plots her way forward, emotions floating across her face like clouds on a winter’s day – Beanpole is a sullen and introverted soul but the two have no one left in the world but each other, and a terrible tragedy that threatens to destroy or deepen their fraught friendship. This close friendship contrasts with the sheer scale of the horror they have experienced on the front. Confined to stuffy interiors and hospital wards   the enormity of their emotional pain and suffering swells to bursting point. In the late Autumn of 1945 Iya is a nurse in a local hospital and her neurological affects hermivement. But Pashka is her pride and joy and their closeness is deeply moving. 

By the time Masha returns from the front, a dreadful event has taken place. Balagov explores the shifting dynamic between these two women with impressive maturity for a filmmaker still in his twenties, particularly with this female centric story, men taking a backseat – the world-weary head doctor Nikolai Ivanovich (Andrei Bykov) and Masha’s irritating suitor Sasha (Igor Shirokov) who is the son of a Communist party official. Somehow Sasha’s mother and the doctor get drawn into the complex web of need, revenge, and power.

Leningrad is almost romantic in its postwar atmosphere and Sergei Ivanov’s set design adds a homely folkloric touch to the interiors. Memorable scenes are those outside Sasha’s family dacha, and Masha’s tram ride in the final moments of this striking, intense and emotionally resonant drama. MT

NOW ON MUBU : UN CERTAIN REGARD | BEST DIRECTOR | FIPRESCI 2019

Sundance 2021 | 28 January – 3 February 2021

2021 gets off to a lowkey start with Sundance film festival announcing a mostly virtual edition, along with Rotterdam that follows in its footsteps on February 7th.

Sundance welcomes fewer features to this year’s line-up with 72 feature films as apposed to last year’s 118,  but nearly half are female directed and 15% from the LGBTQ+ community.

Themes of retreat, regeneration and renewal are the touchstones to this year’s programme and this seems entirely appropriate given our global experience since March 2020. The world has taken stock of itself but not necessarily come up with the answers. Many film festivals are congratulating themselves for ‘increased attendance record’ with a boost from their online community. Watching films, and attending festivals online works as a complementary form of entertainment in extremis, but make no mistake, the vast majority of viewers still prefer the buzz of the festival experience and the human element that it brings.

As we stand of the brink of 2021 most of us are experiencing some sense of disconnection with our previous existence, and Robin Wright echoes this sentiment in her directorial debut, in which she also stars ,as a woman who seeks a life off grid after bereavement. Very much in the same vein as the Venice 2020 triumph Nomadland, Wright’s film Land is one of the most apposite and  buzz-worthy films in the premiere lineup at this year’s Utah festival.


Sundance Institute founder and president Robert Redford is deeply aware of this social and emotional disenfranchisement and comments “Togetherness has been an animating principle here at the Sundance Institute as we’ve worked to reimagine the festival for 2021, because there is no Sundance without our community,”

And this sentiment resonates through the competition line-up. with other narrative features directly alluding to the tragedy that has affected, possibly more than we realise going forward.

A list of films confirmed for the 2021 Sundance Film Festival are as follows.

World Cinema Dramatic Competition

The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet | Argentina (Dir: Ana Katz, writers: Ana Katz, Gonzalo Delgado | World Premiere

Sebastian, a man in his 30s, works a series of temporary jobs and he embraces love at every opportunity. He transforms, through a series of short encounters, as the world flirts with possible apocalypse. Cast: Daniel Katz, Julieta Zylberberg, Valeria Lois, Mirella Pascual, Carlos Portaluppi.

Passing / UK/US (Dir/wri: Rebecca Hall | World Premiere

Based on the 19th century novel by Chicago born writer Nella Larsen, this first feature for Rebecca Hall sees two high old school friends reunited in a  mutual obsession that threatens both of their carefully constructed realities.

El Planeta / US/Spain (Dir/Wri Amalia Ulman | World Premiere

Amid the devastation of post-crisis Spain, mother and daughter bluff and grift to keep up the lifestyle they think they deserve, bonding over common tragedy and an impending eviction. Cast: Amalia Ulman, Ale Ulman, Nacho Vigalondo, Zhou Chen, Saoirse Bertram.

Fire in the Mountains / India (Dir/Wri: Ajitpal Singh | World Premiere

A mother toils to save money to build a road in a Himalayan village to take her wheelchair-bound son for physiotherapy, but her husband, who believes that an expensive religious ritual is the remedy, steals her savings. Cast: Vinamrata Rai, Chandan Bisht, Mayank Singh Jaira, Harshita Tewari, Sonal Jha.

Hive / Kos, Switzerland, Macedonia, Albania (Dir/Wri: Blerta Basholli | World Premiere

Fahrije’s husband has been missing since the war in Kosovo. She sets up her own small business to provide for her kids, but as she fights against a patriarchal society that does not support her, she faces a crucial decision: to wait for his return, or to continue to persevere. Cast: Yllka Gashi, Çun Lajçi, Aurita Agushi, Kumrije Hoxha, Adriana Matoshi, Kaona Sylejmani.

Human Factors / Ger, Italy, Denmark (Dir/Wri: Ronny Trocker | World Premiere

A mysterious housebreaking exposes the agony of an exemplary middle-class family. Cast: Sabine Timoteo, Mark Waschke, Jule Hermann, Wanja Valentin Kube, Hannes Perkmann, Daniel Séjourné.

Luzzu / Malta (Dir/Wri): Alex Camilleri | World Premiere

Jesmark, a struggling fisherman on the island of Malta, is forced to turn his back on generations of tradition and risk everything by entering the world of black-market fishing to provide for his girlfriend and newborn baby. Cast: Jesmark Scicluna, Michela Farrugia, David Scicluna.

One for the Road / China,Hong Kong, Thailand (Dir: Baz Poonpiriya, Wri: Baz Poonpiriya, Nottapon Boonprakob, Puangsoi Aksornsawang, Wong Kar Wai) | World Premiere

Boss is a consummate ladies’ man, a free spirit and a bar owner in NYC. One day, he gets a surprise call from Aood, an estranged friend who has returned home to Thailand. Dying of cancer, Aood enlists Boss’ help to complete a bucket list — but both are hiding something. Cast: Tor Thanapob, Ice Natara, Violette Wautier, Aokbab Chutimon, Ploi Horwang, Noon Siraphun.

The Pink Cloud / Brazil (Dir/Wri: Iuli Gerbase, | World Premiere

A mysterious and deadly pink cloud appears across the globe, forcing everyone to stay home. Strangers at the outset, Giovana and Yago try to invent themselves as a couple as years of shared lockdown pass. While Yago is living in his own utopia, Giovana feels trapped deep inside. Cast: Renata de Lélis, Eduardo Mendonça.

Pleasure / Swed/Neth/France (Dir,Wri: Ninja Thyberg | World Prem

A 20-year-old girl moves from her small town in Sweden to L.A. for a shot at a career in the adult film industry. Cast: Sofia Kappel, Revika Anne Reustle, Evelyn Claire, Chris Cock, Dana DeArmond, Kendra Spade.

Prime Time / Poland (Dir: Jakub Piątek, Writers: Jakub Piątek, Lukasz Czapski | World Premierę

On the last day of 1999, 20-year-old Sebastian locks himself in a TV studio. He has two hostages, a gun and an important message for the world. The story of the attack explores a rebel’s extreme measures and last resort. Cast: Bartosz Bielenia, Magdalena Poplawska, Andrzej Klak, Malgorzata Hajewska-Krzysztofik, Dobromir Dymecki, Monika Frajczyk.

World Cinema Documentary Competition

Faya Dayi / Ethiopia/US (Dir/Wri: Jessica Beshir) | World Premiere

A spiritual journey into the highlands of Harar, immersed in the rituals of khat, a leaf Sufi Muslims chewed for centuries for religious meditations — and Ethiopia’s most lucrative cash crop today. A tapestry of intimate stories offers a window into the dreams of youth under a repressive regime.

Flee / Den/Norway/Sweden/France (Dir Jonas Poher Rasmussen | World Premiere

Amin arrived as an unaccompanied minor in Denmark from Afghanistan. Today, he is a successful academic and is getting married to his longtime boyfriend. A secret he has been hiding for 20 years threatens to ruin the life he has built. W

Inconvenient Indian | Canada (Dir/Wri: Michelle Latimer | International premiere

An examination of Thomas King’s brilliant dismantling of North America’s colonial narrative, which reframes history with the powerful voices of those continuing the tradition of Indigenous resistance.

Misha and the Wolves

United Kingdom, Belgium (Dir/Wri: Sam Hobkinson) | World Premiere

A woman’s Holocaust memoir takes the world by storm, but a fallout with her publisher turned detective reveals her story as an audacious deception created to hide a darker truth.

The Most Beautiful Boy in the World / Sweden (Dir: Kristina Lindström, Kristian Petri | World Premiere

Swedish actor/musician Björn Andresen’s life was forever changed at the age of 15, when he played Tadzio, the object of Dirk Bogarde’s obsession in Death in Venice — a role that led Italian maestro Luchino Visconti to dub him “the world’s most beautiful boy.”

Playing With Sharks / Australia (Dir/Wri: Sally Aitken | World Premier

Valerie Taylor is a shark fanatic and an Australian icon — a marine maverick who forged her way as a fearless diver, cinematographer and conservationist. She filmed the real sharks for Jaws and famously wore a chainmail suit, using herself as shark bait, changing our scientific understanding of sharks forever.

President / Denmark/US, Norway (Dir: Camilla Nielsson | World Premiere

Zimbabwe is at a crossroads. The leader of the opposition MDC party, Nelson Chamisa, challenges the old guard ZANU-PF led by Emmerson Mnangagwa, known as “The Crocodile.” The election tests both the ruling party and the opposition — how do they interpret principles of democracy in discourse and in practice?

Sabaya / Sweden (Dir/Wri: Hogir Hirori | World Premiere

With just a mobile phone and a gun, Mahmud, Ziyad and their group risk their lives trying to save Yazidi women and girls being held by ISIS as Sabaya (abducted sex slaves) in the most dangerous camp in the Middle East, Al-Hol in Syria

Taming the Garden / Swit/Ger, Georgia (Dir: Salomé Jashi | World Premiere

A poetic ode to the rivalry between men and nature. World Premiere

Writing With Fire / India (Dir/Wris: Rintu Thomas, Sushmit Ghosh | World Premiere

In a cluttered news landscape dominated by men, emerges India’s only newspaper run by Dalit women. Armed with smartphones, chief reporter Meera and her journalists break traditions on the front lines of India’s biggest issues and within the confines of their own homes, redefining what it means to be powerful.

The Blazing World / U.S.A. (Dir: Carlson Young, Wri: Carlson Young, Pierce Brown | World Premiere

Decades after the accidental drowning of her twin sister, a self-destructive young woman returns to her family home, finding herself drawn to an alternate dimension where her sister may still be alive. Cast: Udo Kier, Carlson Young, Dermot Mulroney, Vinessa Shaw, John Karna, Soko.

Cryptozoo / US (Dir/Wr: Dash Shaw) | World Premiere

As cryptozookeepers struggle to capture a Baku (a legendary dream-eating hybrid creature) they begin to wonder if they should display these rare beasts in the confines of a cryptozoo, or if these mythical creatures should remain hidden and unknown. Cast: Lake Bell, Michael Cera, Angeliki Papoulia, Zoe Kazan, Peter Stormare, Grace Zabriskie

First Date / US. (Dir/Wri: Manuel Crosby, Darren Knapp | World Premiere

Conned into buying a shady ’65 Chrysler, Mike’s first date with the girl next door, Kelsey, implodes as he finds himself targeted by criminals, cops and a crazy cat lady. A night fueled by desire, bullets and burning rubber makes any other first date seem like a walk in the park. Cast: Tyson Brown, Shelby Duclos, Jesse Janzen, Nicole Berry, Ryan Quinn Adams, Brandon Kraus.

Ma Belle, My Beauty / US., France (Dir/Wri: Marion Hill | World Premiere

A surprise reunion in southern France reignites passions and jealousies between two women who were formerly polyamorous lovers. Cast: Idella Johnson, Hannah Pepper, Lucien Guignard, Sivan Noam Shimon.

R#J / US (Dir/Wri Carey William | World Premiere

A reimagining of Romeo and Juliet, taking place through their cellphones, in a mash-up of Shakespearean dialogue with current social media communication. Cast: Camaron Engels, Francesca Noel, David Zayas, Diego Tinoco, Siddiq Saunderson, Russell Hornsby.

Searchers / US. (Dir: Pacho Velez | World Premiere

In encounters alternately humorous and touching, a diverse set of New Yorkers navigate their preferred dating apps in search of their special someone.

Strawberry Mansion / US (Dir/Wri: Albert Birney, Kentucker Audley | World Premiere

In a world where the government records and taxes dreams, an unassuming dream auditor gets swept up in a cosmic journey through the life and dreams of an aging eccentric named Bella. Together, they must find a way back home. Cast: Penny Fuller, Kentucker Audley, Grace Glowicki, Reed Birney, Linas Phillips, Constance Shulman.

We’re All Going to the World’s Fair / US (Dir/Wri: Jane Schoenbrun | World Premiere

A teenage girl becomes immersed in an online role-playing game. Cast: Anna Cobb, Michael J. Rogers.

Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir / US. (Director: James Redford | World Premiere

Amy Tan has established herself as one of America’s most respected literary voices. Born to Chinese immigrant parents, it would be decades before the author of The Joy Luck Club would fully understand the inherited trauma rooted in the legacies of women who survived the Chinese tradition of concubinage.

Bring Your Own Brigade / US. (Dir/wri: Lucy Walker | World Premiere

A character-driven verité and revelatory investigation takes us on a journey embedded with firefighters and residents on a mission to understand the causes of historically large wildfires and how to survive them, discovering that the solution has been here all along.

Eight for Silver / U.S.A., France (Dir/Wri Sean Ellis | World Premiere

In the late 1800s, a man arrives in a remote country village to investigate an attack by a wild animal but discovers a much deeper, sinister force that has both the manor and the townspeople in its grip. Cast: Boyd Holbrook, Kelly Reilly, Alistair Petrie, Roxane Duran, Aine Rose Daly.

How It Ends / US (Dir/Wri Daryl Wein, Zoe Lister-Jones | World Premiere

On the last day on Earth, one woman goes on a journey through L.A. to make it to her last party before the world ends, running into an eclectic cast of characters along the way. Cast: Zoe Lister-Jones, Cailee Spaeny, Olivia Wilde, Fred Armisen, Helen Hunt, Lamorne Morris.

In the Earth / UK (Dir/Wri: Ben Wheatley | World Premiere

As a disastrous virus grips the planet, a scientist and a park scout venture deep into the forest for a routine equipment run. Through the night, their journey becomes a terrifying voyage through the heart of darkness as the forest comes to life around them. Cast: Joel Fry, Ellora Torchia, Hayley Squires, Reece Shearsmith

In the Same Breath / US. (Dir: Nanfu Wang) | World Premiere

How did the Chinese government turn pandemic coverups in Wuhan into a triumph for the Communist party? An essential narrative of firsthand accounts of the novel coronavirus, and a revelatory examination of how propaganda and patriotism shaped the outbreak’s course — both in China and in the U.S. World Premiere, Documentary. DAY ONE

Marvelous and the Black Hole / US (Dir/Wri Kate Tsang, Producer | World Premiere

A teenage delinquent befriends a surly magician who helps her navigate her inner demons and dysfunctional family with sleight of hand magic, in a coming-of-age comedy that touches on unlikely friendships, grief and finding hope in the darkest moments. Cast: Miya Cech, Rhea Perlman, Leonardo Nam, Kannon Omachi, Paulina Lule, Keith Powell.

Mass / US (Dir/Wri: Fran Kranz | World Premiere

Years after a tragic shooting, the parents of both the victim and the perpetrator meet face to face. Cast: Jason Isaacs, Ann Dowd, Martha Plimpton, Reed Birney.

My Name Is Pauli Murray / US (Dirs: Betsy West, Julie Cohen |World premiere

Overlooked by history, Pauli Murray was a legal trailblazer whose ideas influenced RBG’s fight for gender equality and Thurgood Marshall’s landmark civil rights arguments. Featuring never-before-seen footage and audio recordings, a portrait of Murray’s impact as a nonbinary Black luminary: lawyer, activist, poet and priest who transformed our world.

Philly D.A. / US. (Dirs: Ted Passon, Yoni Brook | World Premiere

A groundbreaking inside look at the long-shot election and tumultuous first term of Larry Krasner, Philadelphia’s unapologetic district attorney, and his experiment to upend the criminal justice system from the inside out.

Prisoners of the Ghostland / US. (Dir: Sion Sono, Wri: Aaron Hendry, Reza Sixo Safai | World Premiere

A notorious criminal is sent to rescue an abducted woman who has disappeared into a dark supernatural universe. They must break the evil curse that binds them and escape the mysterious revenants that rule the Ghostland, an East-meets-West vortex of beauty and violence. Cast: Nicolas Cage, Sofia Boutella, Nick Cassavetes, Bill Moseley, Tak Sakaguchi, Yuzuka Nakaya.

The Sparks Brothers / UK (Dir: Edgar Wright | World Premiere

How can one rock band be successful, underrated, hugely influential and criminally overlooked all at the same time? Take a musical odyssey through five weird and wonderful decades with brothers Russell & Ron Mael, celebrating the inspiring legacy of Sparks: your favorite band’s favourite band.

Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street / US. (Dir/: Marilyn Agrelo | World Premiere

How did a group of rebels create the world’s most famous street? In 1969 New York, this “gang” of mission-driven artists, writers and educators catalyzed a moment of civil awakening, transforming it into Sesame Street, one of the most influential and impactful television programs in history.

Midnight

Censor / UK  (Dir/Wri: Prano Bailey-Bond, Aris: Prano Bailey-Bond, Anthony Fletcher | World Premiere

When film censor Enid discovers an eerie horror that speaks directly to her sister’s mysterious disappearance, she resolves to unravel the puzzle behind the film and its enigmatic director — a quest blurring the lines between fiction and reality in terrifying ways. Cast: Niamh Algar, Nicholas Burns, Vincent Franklin, Sophia La Porta, Adrian Schiller, Michael Smiley.

Coming Home in the Dark / NZ (Dir: James Ashcroft, Wri: Eli Kent, James Ashcroft | World Premiere

A family’s outing descends into terror when teacher Alan Hoaganraad, his wife Jill, and stepsons Maika and Jordon explore an isolated coastline. An unexpected meeting with a pair of drifters, the enigmatic psychopath Mandrake and his accomplice Tubs, thrusts the family into a nightmare when they find themselves captured. Cast: Daniel Gillies, Erik Thomson, Miriama McDowell, Matthias Luafutu.

A Glitch in the Matrix / US (Dir Rodney Ascher | World Premiere

A multimedia exploration of simulation theory — an idea as old as Plato’s Republic and as current as Elon Musk’s Twitter feed — through the eyes of those who suspect our world isn’t real. Part sci-fi mind-scrambler, part horror story, this is a digital journey to the limits of radical doubt.

Knocking / Sweden (Dir: Frida Kempff, Wri: Emma Broström | World Premiere

When Molly moves into her new apartment after a tragic accident, a strange noise from upstairs begins to unnerve her. As its intensity grows, she confronts her neighbors — but no one seems to hear what she is hearing. Cast: Cecilia Milocco.

Mother Schmuckers / Belgium (Dir/Wri: Lenny Guit, Harpo Guit | World Premiere

Issachar & Zabulon, two brothers in their 20s, are supremely stupid and never bored, as madness is part of their daily lives. When they lose their mother’s beloved dog, they have 24 hours to find it — or she will kick them out. Cast: Harpo Guit, Maxi Delmelle, Claire Bodson, Mathieu Amalric, Habib Ben Tanfous.

Special Screenings

Life in a Day 2020 / US/UK. (Dir: Kevin Macdonald | World Premier

An extraordinary, intimate, global portrait of life on our planet, filmed by thousands of people across the world, on a single day: 25th July 2020.

Sundance Film Festival | 28 January – 3 February 2021

 

Il Mio Corpo (2020) ****

Dir.: Michele Pennetta; Documentary with Oscar, Roberto and Marco Prestifilippo, Stanley Abhulimen, Blessed Idahosa; Switzerland/Italy 2020, 81 min.

In 2012 Italy had the highest child poverty in Europe and the struggle for these kids to survive and seek a better life is the focus of Italian filmmaker Michele Pennetta. Following in the footsteps of his award-winning compatriot Gianfranco Rosi (Fire at Sea), this thoughtful approach examines lives shattered by conflict, for very difference reasons.

After Pescatori di Corpi, which looked at illegal Syrian fisherman in Italy, Pennetta’s full length documentary hybrid chronicles two parallel lives: teenagers Oscar and Stanley. Stanley hails from Nigeria and is living on a limited visa. Oscar’s mother left his overbearing father Roberto with four children, who are looked after by her sister. Oscar takes the brunt of his father’s anger while his younger brother Marco is the favourite, the family making a meagre living from collecting scrap metal from illegal dumping sites.

The poetic opening scenes see Marco unearthing a miraculously unscathed Madonna in a dump site. They heave her up onto the road, a close-up looking very much like the Jesus statute transported by the helicopter in Fellini’s Otto e Mezzo. Labels are everything in Italy and Oscar hopes to gain social traction with a t-shirt emblazoned “Member of the Club Prive”. But the magic doesn’t rub off. He remains subdued by his father’s animosity and threat to “exchange him for a black man”. An insult as mean as it is racist.

We soon learn the secret of the Prestifilippo family: Roberto accused Oscar of siding with their mother when she snitched on him to the court. The two older brothers (a boy and a girl toddler are always in the background) defend themselves: “Mother beat me, there were no toys promised, no Super Mario, she said ‘I kill you if you don’t obey'”. Roberto relents in the end: “My fault was always caring too much for you guys, your mother’s mistake was leaving for this bastard. If she loved you, she would come back.” But the family dynamics are set in stone, and Oscar will not forgive either of his parents. Later, Roberto tells his oldest son: “The truck is our breadwinner, not you!”

On the other side of the island, life is on hold for Stanley and his Nigerian compatriot Blessed. Both are affected by their visa status and Blessed’s case in still pending. Blessed is critical of Stanley: “If I had a visa, I would leave Sicily immediately”. Stanley’s response is adamant: “You are a parasite, you will be a beggar for the rest of your life.” Stanley has a point: he is eking out an existence doing jobs for the local priest, Blessed just waits for a decision to be made. Eventually the two fetch up at the local tribunal which doesn’t end well for Blessed, Stanley reluctant to translate the  the verdict. Blessed is never seen again in a poignant final sequence.

We end on a scripted passage that finally brings Oscar and Stanley together in a dilapidated farmhouse. DoP Paolo Ferrari takes major credit for the success of this melancholic story: his softly lensed images of the rugged countryside where the sun shines mercilessly, will stay in the memory for a long time afterwards. The strength of the feature lies in the contrast between the magic of this island paradise and the tragedy of its broken inhabitants, locked in a cycle of enforced indolence and resignation. Marginalised, for very different reasons, characters like Oscar and Stanley are wasting their lives away, unable to find a meaningful existence beyond hope and brief interludes of joy garnered from youthful bravado. In this craggy mountain idyl their future will be an uphill struggle. AS

IN CINEMAS AND EXCLUSIVELY ON CURZO HOME CINEMA | 11 DECEMBER 2020

The White Reindeer | Valkoinen Peura (1952)

Almost entirely dialogue-free and relying on a spellbinding score from Swedish composer Einar England to drive the narrative forward, it sees a beautiful young bride Pirita – the director’s own wife Mirjami Kuosmanen, who also co-wrote the script – fall prey to a tragic curse when she seeks advice on her love-life from a macabre Norse shamen.

Capturing the ethereal beauty of Finnish Lapland’s panoramic snowscapes, and picturing real herdsman at work in the icebound countryside, The White Reindeer is a magnificent example of low budget effectiveness and magic neo-realism in a simple but thematically rich storyline. Starting out in an upbeat mood Pirita is seen in full Nordic costume riding a sleigh alongside her lover and soon to be husband. But after their wedding night he is frequently absent.

Longing to capture his affection, she takes the shamen’s love potion and is transformed into an elegant white reindeer by night, drinking the blood of local hunters. This lyrical parable is both intriguing and mesmerising melding documentary footage with exquisite lighting techniques and elegant framing to produce a film that echoes Polanski’s Fearless Vampire Killers and Dreyer’s Vampyr with potent references to Norse mythology and themes of longing, loneliness and fear of abandonment. MT

THE WHITE REINDEER (Masters of Cinema) https://youtu.be/ECyp3fJBI20

Amazon https://amzn.to/2RUdXON

 

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

Personal Shopper (2016) **** Bfi player

Director: Olivier Assayas

Cast: Kristen Stewart, Nora vonWaltstätten, Anders Danielsen Lie | 101mins | Fantasy drama | France

Paris has always had a sinister side inspiring Poe’s Murders in The Rue Morgue and Balzac’s Pere Goriot, a story of social realism set near the Pierre Lachaise Cemetery: French literature is redolent with macabre stories conjured up by the dark side of the capital. So it seems somehow feels fitting that Olivier Assayas should add other chilling chapter to this spectrally charged city with his ghost-themed story PERSONAL SHOPPER.

The film is creepy, charismatic and as quirkily inventive as the director’s typical fare but his first ever ghost story. And Kristen Stewart is the star shimmering in a sombrely subtle turn that is as dark as its subject matter. She plays the unlikely named Maureen Cartwright, a 27 year old American girl who is bored with life and living out a meaningingless few months as a personal shopper to bitchy German media figure Kyra (Nora vonWaltstätten), while mourning the death of her twin brother Lewis.

Paris is the capital of the fashion world and Assayas works this elegantly into the plot as Maureen glides through a series of glitzy ateliers garnering hand-styled garments for her boss along with jewelled accoutrements from Chanel and Cartier. This is a job that fills Maureen with ennui as she considers herself worthy of better things and idly sketches the days away researching a yen for the supernatural and the psychic experiments of Victor Hugo and the avant garde Swedish artist Hilma af Klint.

On the sly, she guiltily slips into Kyra’s couturier gowns and fetishistic footwear before pleasuring herself on Kyra’s bed during her trips abroad. Kristen Stewart brings a gamine insouciant sensuality to her role that feels both menacing and intriguing in its sexual ambivalence.

Maureen is also developing her psychic skills in trying to contact her brother Lewis who died of a congenital heart condition in a dreary nearby fin de siecle mansion where they both grew up. Spending several spooky nights there a ghostly presence is felt as Maureen whispers inaudibly in scenes that are genuinely scary and entirely plausible given the undercurrent of glowering spitefulness that vibes through the increasingly dark narrative. This leads us to believe that Maureen is herself conjuring up the devil’s work. Olivier Assayas’s wickedly inventive vision is one of his most exciting this far. But there’s always 2021 to look forward to. MT

ON Bfi Player | Best Director for Olivier Assayas Cannes 2016

Murder me, Monster (2018) ***

Dir Alejandro Fadel. Argentina. 2018. 106′

Murder Me Monster’s widescreen solemnity might bring to mind the murder investigation in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia – and there are vague echoes of Amat Escalante’s The Untamed, but that’s where the similarity ends. This brooding Andes-set crime mystery is the gruesome work of Los Selvajes director Alejandro Fadel, and it is certainly not for the feint hearted with its bestial themes and deformed zombie-like characters. Infact everyone in this stomach-turning horror fantasy is on edge and whispering morosely, for one reason or another. And a series of macabre murders, where heads are torn from bodies, seem to be the reason why.

The opening scene sees the dying moments of a woman whose throat has been severed. As a herd of sheep and some other livestock are slowly make their supper of her remains, a blind man mumbles on about the murder. A feeling of unease creeps over proceedings when it transpires that the bloodshed is connected to a feral beast on the prowl and out of control in this desolate and remote corner of Argentina where the sun rarely shines.

Rural police officer Cruz (Victor Lopez) is tasked with investigating the murders and the finger seems to point to local thick-lipped weirdo David (Esteban Bigliardi) who claims that a savage creature is using certain phrases to commune with him, as if through telepathy, with a ‘silly’ voice that repeats ‘Murder Me, Monster’.

Cinematographers Manuel Rebella and Julian Apezteguia evoke nightmarish visuals often using the same technique as the painter El Greco – where the characters’ faces are often starkly backlit against a murky darkness. There’s a garish otherworldly quality to the outdoor mountain scenes in a film that takes on an increasingly Lynchian feel as the plot thickens. Pus-yellow, murky mustard and puke green make up the colour palette of costume and set designers Florencia and Laura Caligiuri. An atmospheric ambient score keeps the tension brewing.

This is intriguing stuff, if rather too enigmatic for its own good, eventually leaving us stranded in its own mysterious backwater. This study of fear and perversion in a Pampas backwater will certainly made you feel nauseous and bewildered by the end. MT

UK releasee to stream or download or own | 4th December 2020 AVAILABLE

 

LIBERTÉ (2019) **** MUBI

Dir: Albert Serra | Cast: Cast: Helmut Berger, Marc Susini, Iliana Zabeth, Laura Poulvet, Baptiste Pinteaux, Théodora Marcadé, Alexander García Düttmann | Drama | Spain 132′

Catalan auteur Albert Serra was born in 1975 in Girona and is known for his delicately drawn and exquisitely mounted historical dramas such as La Mort de Louis XIV (2016); Honour of the Knights (Quixotic) 2006; and Story of My Death (2013). And there’s a great deal of mounting in his latest feature which stars veteran arthouse star Helmut Berger and competes in last year’s Un Certain Regard sidebar at Cannes Film Festival.

The theme in Liberté  is essentially voyeurism. If you should find yourself in Hampstead Heath on a balmy afternoon you will notice male figures darting surrepticiousy in the shady vegetation. You may even chance upon a secret tryst (if you are unlucky enough while walking your dog). Take this image and sashay back to the 18th century, somewhere between Potsdam and Berlin, and you bring to mind the scenario in Liberté – only here both male and female characters are taking part.

The year is 1774, shortly before the French Revolution. Madame de Dumeval, the Duc de Tesis and the Duc de Wand, all libertines expelled from the puritanical French court of Louis XVI, and seeking the support of the legendary Duc de Walchen, a German seducer and freethinker in a country where hypocrisy and false virtue reign. Their mission is to export libertinage, a philosophy of enlightenment founded on the rejection of moral boundaries and authorities. Most of all they are looking for a safe place to pursue their quest for pleasure.

This louche cruising amongst elegantly attired courtiers and aristocrats sounds fascinating, and it is for a while  Slightly more portly but nevertheless soigné individuals duck and dive in the undergrowth, in various stages of undress, their white linens contrasting with tanned breasts and buttocks, larded legs and bloated beerguts. Very much like Sade, Serra explores the darker side of human desire but always with graceful discretion. The louche antic gradually become more and more explicit to the point where they actually gets a little close for comfort, eventually verging on the pornographic. Suggestive but never lewd Liberte is a clever game of subterfuge that plays on our curiosity and makes use of a richly textured soundscape to create a atmosphere of sultry expectancy. There is no narrative as such just a series of enigmatic vignettes that take place during the hours of darkness one balmy summer night.

Arriving in painted palanquin borne by his henchmen the Duc de Wand (Baptiste Pinteaux) is recalling the execution of an unfortunate individual whose limbs were pulled one by one from his body. Obsessed by bestiality and golden showers, he loves to salivate over his lascivious encounters, that often involve dogs or farm animals. Fortunately were are spared the most lurid encounters due to the bosky nocturnal shadows as Artur Tort’s roving camera spies voyeuristically on the other outré encounters taking place in the semi-darkness of the eucalyptus trees (eucalyptus trees in the 18th century? – check continuity).

Decadence is the watchword here as none of the trysts is particularly joy-filled unless you are into sado masochism or subjugation. The tone is subdued rather that lascivious, poe-faced even. The film’s enigmatic title suggests that these aristos have too much time on their hands and nothing left to lose as they skip the light fantastic in the lush setting of a midnight night’s dream: Serra’s film may not appeal to everyone but it is certainly a brave and visually alluring meditation on permissiveness. MT

NOW ON MUBI | UN CERTAIN REGARD 2019 | SPECIAL JURY PRIZE

 

Falling (2020) ***

Dir/Wri: Viggo Mortensen | Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Lance Henriksen, Laura Linney, Sverrir Gudnason, | US Drama, 112′

In his first foray into filmmaking Viggo Mortensen writes and also stars in this insightful, semi-autobiographical story of family dysfunction. It sees an irascible old farmer (a feisty Lance Henrikson) gradually losing his grip to dementia as his bewildered gay son grapples for largely unwanted control of the family.

The subject of dementia is so increasingly widespread nowadays it almost needs a genre of its own. And as such this could have been more humorous in the style of Bruce Dern’s Nebraska, or even poetic and whimsical like Miroslav Mandic’s recent arthouse gem Sanremo, but that’s not the point. Falling is a well-made if sombre family drama exploring the fallout of this dread disease, and a decent debut for this seasoned actor. MT

NOW ON RELEASE NATIONWIDE

Evolution (2015) **** MUBI

Dir.: Lucile Hadzihalilovic | Cast: Max Brebant, Roxanne Duran, Julie-Marie Parmentier France/Belgium 2015, 81 min.

Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s memorable debut feature Innocence dealt with a teenage girl in a boarding school. EVOLUTION centres this time on a group of boys on the crest of adolescence. Living a frigid existence by an eerie seashore with their mothers, there are no adult males to be seen. Hadzihalilovic presents a joyless antiseptic world where even the meals of strained seaweed broth appear medicinal rather than satisfying. Cinematographer Manuel Dacosses’s spare and pristine interior visuals give the impression of a wide-scale marine laboratory where a sci-fi experiment is underway and the boys are the victims.

Young Nicolas (Brebant) and his mother (Parmentier) live in this dreary community: their spartan lifestyle is marked by robotic rituals: dinner is always followed by the intake of an inky medicine, which appears to be therapeutic. Somehow Nicolas suspects that something is going on beyond the surface of enforced rigour: he follows his mother to the beach at night, where he observes her writhe in ecstacy with other women. Before he can unravel the mysterious plan, he is sent to a dilapidated early 20th century hospital where some of his friends are also patients. Weird experiments are carried out and one boy disappears completely. Nicolas is befriended by one of the nurses, Stella (Duran), who supplies him with material for his drawings. When the dreadful secret emerges, Stella tries to help Nicolas to escape.

The boys in EVOLUTION have no rights over their bodies, but what emerges is that they are the unwitting victims of some kind of freaky, gender-reversal surgery. The dreamlike atmosphere evokes a past we can not see, but the boys’ dreams  suggest they have been taken away from their real families to take part in a medical experiment destined to help mankind’s survival. But dreams and reality are indistinguishable, the underwater scenes suggest more sinister plans are underway: perhaps mankind has to become amphibious to survive. The ghastly hospitals are horror institutions located underground and under the control of the sullen – all female – doctors and nurses. Syringes and scalpels take on a sadistic undertone creating a frightening parallel with medical experiments in Nazi concentration camps.

EVOLUTION haunts and beguiles for just over an hour. Hadzihalilovic and her co-scripter Alante Kavaite (Summer of Sangaile) cleverly keep the tension taught requiring the audience to invest a great deal in the narrative before any salient clues emerge – but even then much remains unexplained and enigmatic; not that EVOLUTION wants to be understood. Part of its allure is this inaccessibility, unsettlingly evoking a world far beyond any genre, it is esoteric and anguished in its unique otherworldliness. Too many films feature repetitive images and schematic self-indulgent narratives: how refreshing to find a true original revealing a totally new world in just 81 minutes. MT

NOW ON MUBI

Cape Fear (1991) **** Blu-ray

Dir: Martin Scorsese | Wri: Wesley Strick from the novel by Joh D MacDonald | Cast: Robert De Niro, Nick Nolte, Jessica Lange, Juliette Lewis,

J Lee Thompson’s cult classic 1961 thriller is undoubtedly a more sober and classy reflection on recidivism with its serious and starkly realised legal procedural, you cannot deny the appealing immediacy of Martin Scorsese’s version, its characters are certainly more relatable in our contemporary gaze. The 1991 Cape Fear  has  four colourful central performances to enjoy, as well as cameos from key characters from the original, including Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck (in what would be his final film). As a piece of entertainment the 1991 version has everything, including Freddie Francis behind the camera, although some may argue its melodrama and schlocky sensationalism verges on the extreme. It’s a thriller and a fiery one at that, Scorsese finding a brilliant way of bringing things to a climax in the coruscating final act.

Scorsese’s decision to stage the final denouement during a tempestuous rainstorm on the bayou was a masterstroke, the turbulence of the rushing water serving as a magnificent metaphor for the emotional turmoil felt by all the characters, and for different reasons: Nolte’s defence lawyer is hellbent on protecting his family (Lange’s histrionic wife, the innocence of her daughter (Lewis). And a felon just keen to survive as the waves gradually claim the psychotic victim.

Scorsese leaves us in no doubt that his married couple are still enjoying each other, whereas the Peck and his staid onscreen wife Bergen seem to have veered off that avenue of pleasure, despite their relative youth. Robert De Niro makes for a terrifying villain as bible-bashing Max Cady; all quietly persuasive and self-righteous, he emerges a viciously twisted misogynist when riled, and a chilling sociopathic monster in a finale that will remain seared to the memory, alongside Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men (2017). In preparation for the role De Niro paid a doctor USD 5,000 to grind his teeth down and then USD 20,000 to have them restored after shooting had finished. He also used vegetable dyes for the horrific tattoos, that faded a few moths later.

In contrast Robert Mitchum’s 1962 Cady is a standard nasty piece of work, but he doesn’t make our blood run cold, certainly not from a woman’s point of view, coming across moreover as a suave operator who just happens to be a sadistic small time criminal. But Mitchum comes up trumps in the Scorsese version as the heavyweight Lieutenant Elgart. In contrast J Lee Thomson’s womenfolk are twee coffee morning folk, particularly Polly Bergen’s prissy housewife, Peggy. Admittedly it was early Sixties Georgia in America’s staid Deep South (where race riots were still raging).

Martin Scorsese regular casting director Ellen Lewis makes a wise choice with Juliette Lewis for the role of Danielle Bowden, and both she and De Niro garnered Oscar nods for their performances. She gives a great deal of texture to the flirty vulnerable teenager: on the cusp of adulthood, and  hormonally charged, she is sexually curious yet still possessing of a young girl’s fragile charm.

Nolte’s Bowden has clearly put a foot wrong in his legal judgement by suppressing evidence that may have kept De Niro’s Cady out of jail, and he continues to blot his copybook on this misdemeanour, flirting with Douglas’s unstable Lori Davis rather than making amends with a decent apology to Cody.

Casting and performance-wise Gregory Peck comes across as a morally superior Bowden, with his finally chiselled jawline, matinee idol demeanour and clean-suited integrity, as against Nolte’s rather scuzzy married man nursing a nascent midlife crisis and sniffing around before the inevitable onset of sexual disfunction. Bernard Herrmann’s thundering score also unites these two films (remastered for the 1991 version), it’s a magnificent and memorable musical calling card to what will follow. As an elegantly realised moral drama the award goes to J Lee Thompson, but as a rip-roaring riveting thriller Scorsese wins with Cape Fear. MT

CAPE FEAR IS NOW ON BLU-RAY | 14 DECEMBER 2020 | COURTESY OF FABULOUSFILMS.COM

 

 

Rotterdam Film Festival 2021 – a hybrid two-parter

 

The 50th celebration of Rotterdam Film Festival (IFFR) will take place in two parts, kicking off in the first week of February followed a physical event from June 2-6, 2021,

A light-hearted comedy opener seems fitting for this special edition: Anders Thomas Jensen’s Riders of Justice  stars Mads Mikkelsen and Nicolaj Lie Kaas. The first week of the festival is dedicated to The Tiger Competition this year feature 16 titles (a larger competition line-up for the future) , Big Screen Competition and its Ammodo Tiger Shorts and Limelight sections which will see 60 titles taking part. Other talent in competition includes Benoît Jacquot, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Mosese, Dea Kulumbegashvili and Nicolás Jaar.

The Tiger Competition winner will be announced on 7 February by a (virtual) jury headed this year by Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese joining IDFA’s artistic director Orwa Nyrabia, visual artist and filmmaker Hala Elkoussy, critic Helena van der Meulen and film producer Ilse Hughan.

Taking over from IFFR’s artistic director Beyro Beyer, Vanja Kaludjercic has faced a challenging year where filmmakers “have gone above and beyond to complete works in challenging circumstances, and there has been no shortage of great films looking for a home at IFFR”.

Once again the selection aims to ‘encapsulate IFFR’s spirit as a platform for the discovery of visions that pique our curiosity and capture our imagination. The sheer determination of these striking new voices is exhilarating, and I’m proud that we can bring an outstanding selection to our film-loving audiences in new ways that captivate the collective spirit.”

This is reflected in the one-off festival re-design in response to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, which is expected to keep much of Europe under full or partial lockdown in the early months of 2021. In a very welcome move, IFFR has awarded US director First Cow director Kelly Reichardt the festival’s honorary Robby Müller Award named after the late Dutch cinematographer and granted to a filmmaker who has ”created authentic, credible and emotionally striking visual language throughout their work”. The festival has been a platform for her features Old Joy, Meek’s Cutoff and Wendy And Lucy. 

TIGER COMPETITION |  1-7 FEBRUARY 2021

Agate Mousse (Lebanon) world premiere
Dir. Selim Mourad

Bebia, à mon seul désir (Georgia, UK) world premiere
Dir. Juja Dobrachkous

Bipolar (China) world premiere
Dir. Queena Li

Black Medusa (Tunisia) world premire
Dir. ismaël, Youssef Chebbi

A Corsican Summer (France) world premiere
Dir. Pascal Tagnat

The Edge of Daybreak (Thailand/Switzerland) world premiere
Dir. Taiki Sakpisit

Feast (Netherlands) world premiere
Dir. Tim Leyendekker

Friends and Strangers (Australia) world premiere
Dir. James Vaughan

Gritt (Norway) international premiere
Dir, Itonje Søimer Guttormsen

Landscapes of Resistance (Serbia/Germany/France) world premiere
Dir. Marta Popivoda

Liborio (Dominican Republic/Puerto Rico/Qatar) world premiere
Dir. Nino Martínez Sosa

Looking for Venera ( Kosovo/Macedonia) world premiere
Dir. Norika Sefa, 2021

Madalena
Dir. Madiano Marcheti

Mayday (US) international premiere
Dir, Karen Cinorre

Mighty Flash (Spain) world premiere
Dir. Ainhoa Rodríguez

BIG SCREEN Competition

Archipel (Canada) world premiere
Dir. Félix Dufour-Laperrière

Aristocrats (Japan) international premiere
Dir. Sode Yukiko

As We Like It (Taiwan) world premiere
Dir. Chen Hung-i & Muni Wei.

Aurora (Costa Rica, Mexico) world premiere
Dir. Paz Fábrega

Carro Rei (Brazil) world premiere
Dir. Renata Pinheiro

The Cemil Show (Turkey) world premiere
Dir. Bariş Sarhan

Drifting (Hong Kong) world premiere
Dir. Li Jun

The Harbour (India), world premiere
Dir. Rajeev Ravi

The Last Farmer (India) world premiere
Dir. M. Manikandan

Lone Wolf (Australia) world premiere
Dir. Jonathan Ogilvie

The North Wind (Russia) world premiere
Dir. Renata Litvinova

El perro que no calla (Argentina) European premiere
Dir. Ana Katz

Sexual Drive (Japan) world premiere
Dir. Yoshida Kota

Les Sorcières de l’Orient (France) world premiere
Dir. Julien Faraut

The Year Before the War (Latvia) world premiere
Dir. Dāvis Sīmanis

Limelight (World Premieres)

Dead & Beautiful (Netherlands, Taiwan) world premiere
Dir. David Verbeek

Mitra (Netherlands) world premiere
Dir. Kaweh Modiri

IFFR | 1-7 FEBRUARY | 2-6 JUNE 2021

 

Sing me a Song (2020) ****

Dir.: Thomas Balmès; Documentary with Peyangki, Ugyen Pelden, Pemba Dorji; France/Germany/Switzerland 2019,101 min.

In a follow-up to an earlier documentary, French director Thomas Balmes returns to a village in Bhutan to explore the impact of modern technology on a once-sheltered society.

Ten years ago French director/DoP/producer Thomas Balmès had visited the remote village of Laya at the foot of the Himalayas. Electricity was coming to the village, and everyone was excited, including eight-year old Peyangki, a monk, who became the star of Happiness. Ten years later, Balmès returned to Laya for Sing Me a Song, probing what TV and internet had done to the village, and Peyangki in particular.

We start with footage from Happiness, with Peyangki frolicking in the fields and looking forward to the electrification of the village but, at the same time, being adamant it would not interfere with his religious study in the monastery. We cut to the classroom of today and see all the monks, including Peyangki, emerged in prayers – but when the camera pans out again they are all stuck into their mobiles, the chanting just enough to cover the din of the devices.

Peyangki, who has now found an admirer in Pemba Dorji, a young monk about the same age as Peyangki was in Happiness, is “moving away from Buddha”. Like his fellow monks he is sold on the internet, particularly WeChat, which opens their world to female companionship. When visiting the local market, the young men find a basket with plastic weapons and start a hilarious war game, with firecrackers replacing life ammunition.

Sadly neither Peyangki’s teacher, not his mother can stop the young man from leaving the monastery for the capital Thimpu where his ‘girlfriend’ Ugyen Pelden is pictured singing with three other young females in a bar. Peyangki has made enough money by selling medical mushrooms (which he has harvested with his sister) to start a new life with Ugyen, who – unknown to the monk – already has a baby daughter from a previous marriage, and plans to emigrate to Kuwait, leaving her daughter behind.

Peyangki is taken back by all this, and Pemba, who has been sent by his teacher to convince his older friend to return to the monastery, is forced to return home alone. Peyangki is consoled by one of the other singers who fills him with positive thoughts, but for Peyangki the world has come to an end

The message of this delightfully poignant coming of age story is clear: devices which help us to connect, can easily tear us apart and destroy our sense of self and alter our identity. Peyangki feels obligated to join modern and his nativity leaves him unprepared for the Pandora’s box, and is unable to rediscover his innocence. The reaction of his fellow monks, their easy way of dealing with consumer goods as well as armed conflicts, show the regressive nature of the online world, where everything is levelled out to mean more or less nothing. For Peyangki, who had once been called the “re-incarnation of a Lama”, the choice is clear: the safety of isolation or the unstructured life of an empty gratification in a world where everything is replaceable at a moments notice, including the people closest to you.

Happiness won a cinematography award at Sundance. The results of this return odyssey are less positive although equally beautiful in their visual allure, the immaculate scenes in the monastery contrasting starkly with the hustle and bustle of the  urban environment. The film won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s One World International Human Rights Doc Film Festival. AS

On Demand from 1 January 2021

News of the World (2020) ***

Dir: Paul Greengrass| Cast: Tom Hanks, Elizabeth Marvel, Ray McKinnon, Helena Zengel | US Drama 114′

The American Civil War has come to a close and in Texas a virulent epidemic is sweeping through the panhandle. Tom Hanks and German newcomer Helena Zengel star as two lost souls drawn together in the aftermath of the tragedy, this once happened 150 years ago but Greengrass gives a contemporary feel with its migrant central characters.

Set on the wide open panoramas of the Southern desert yet intimate in its personal story of survival, the theme of storytelling is at the heart of this ambitious Western adventure, both for Greengrass and his lead, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd. The soldier has seen active service during the war but several years later has turned to ‘newscasting’ – making a crust out of telling spirited, often didactic stories that connect his audiences with the wider world. As he makes his way across the vast desert landscape, Hanks is believable and appealing as the strong and benign warrior.

Piqued with lively action sequences, News of the World is contemplative rather than swashbuckling but impressive nevertheless, wearing its burnished period detail on a war-torn sleeve, this is a well-mounted and poetic frontier adventure, and a departure from the director’s usual slick modern thrillers such as The Bourne Ultimatum and United 93. 

Greengrass quickly establishes his statesman-like hero’s credentials in the opening scenes, a respectable horseman now down on his luck but making the best in his reduced circumstances, he still cuts dash spinning his newsy yarns with languorous dignity during long evenings in candlelit hostelries. One topical item relates to the opening of a new railway line from the Kansas border all the way to Galveston, that was the Pacific Railway’s first foray across Indian reservations.

Essentially a two-hander though with the occasional side-lining vignette, the slow-burning storyline carries a distinct whiff of cultural diversity, the Captain journeying through this lawless territory with a blond 10 year-old he meets while hitching up his waggon in the frontier town of Wichita Falls. And this relationship sets the reflective tone of their odyssey; he is mentor, protector and father-figure, a role Hanks pulls off with a respectable swagger, though the two lack a noticeable chemistry: Johanna is sullen, unreachable, but turns out to be a German orphan raised by a Native American tribe. Hanks finds himself tasked with relaying her to blood relatives in another part of Texas, against her will.

Writing with Bafta-award winner Luke Davies, Greengrass bases his script on Paulette Jiles’ 2016 bestseller that centres on two unlikely companions who gradually develop a mutual bond. Shooting took place in the magnificent scenery of New Mexico by Dariusz Wolski, his jerky intense handheld ‘urban’ scenes contrasting with the feral beauty of big desert countryside where the two encounter all kinds of surprises during their eventful escapade.

It soon emerges that Johanna is subject to some kind of kidnapping and is bound for San Antonio, so Kidd’s wings are clipped by the presence of the minor, who becomes his responsibility in the hostile terrain. The child has been let down by so many adults she proves unruly although vulnerable and lost in this turbulent country where settlers are at war with Native Indians and vice versa. And this milieu of conflict and danger provides a heady atmosphere to the couple’s journey. One episode sees their carriage involved in a terrible accident when the horse loses control over a mountainside. Another involves an ugly skirmish with some Confederate former soldiers (Covino, James and Lilley) who try to ‘buy’ the little girl, and have to be fended off. Johanna’s upbringing in Indian culture brings a spiritual and folkloric element to the Western adventure showing Hanks at his best in a gritty role of guardian for this tough but also thoughtful kid in a surprisingly lyrical piece of Americana. MT

NOW ON NETFLIX

 

 

Wonder Woman 1984 (2020) ***

Dir: Patty Jenkins | Gal Gadot, Kirsten Wiig, Pedro Pascal, Chris Pine | US Action Drama, 151′

Women are the superheroes of this Amazonian flight of fantasy that soon crashes down to earth in an over-bloated final hour. As blockbusters go Wonder Woman 84 is tremendous fun, swinging us back to the Eighties in a blousy, big haired way, and with a heroine who is clever, kind, gorgeous, and vulnerable – but not a fool for love, as we soon discover.

That’s Gal Gadot in the title role of Diana Prince. Since her last appearance in the 2017 original there are new tricks up her sleeve: the ability to make mincemeat out of cheesy dialogue, and add emotional ballast to the splashy set pieces that see her young self defying gravity as the pint size heroine (Lilly Aspell) in the film’s opening sequence. Learning life’s lessons early, she cheats and gets a ticking off from her mother Hippolyta (Nielsen) “No hero is born from lies”. All well and good, so far.

This sequel to brilliant original epic is set in greedy mid-1980s America. This time around, there’s a plot device involving a mysterious crystal that will grant a single wish to its possessor, but that works both ways too – life’s never easy, even for wonder women.

Diana now finds herself gainly employed at the Washington’s Smithsonian where her most cherished wish is the return of the – now dead – love of her life  – Steve (Pine), although the chemistry has certainly fizzled out of that affair. She also meets the geeky be-spectacled Barbara (a fab Kirsten Wiig), who is a dashing blond beneath her bookish exterior. And must contend with a power-crazy profligate Maxwell (Pascal) an overblown twat looking to dominate the world wearing a wig and false teeth (not to mention ‘too much info’ trousers). Naturally good triumphs over evil in a happy ending, but one which ends up confused, strung out, and far too excited to keep us entertained for two and a half hours. . MT

Wonder Woman 1984 is now on release

Cat in the Wall (2019) Locarno

Dir: Mina Mileva and Vesela Kazakova | Drama | 

Award-winning Bulgarian duo Mina Mileva and Vesela Kazakova are no strangers to controversy. Their popular award-winning documentary Uncle Tony, Three Fools and the Secret Service was widely condemned by the authorities for exposing the corrupt totalitarian regime in their homeland.

Undeterred, they have pushed on with another potential firecracker in the shape of Cat in the Wall, this time based on real events in a Peckham council estate as experienced by a professional Bulgarian single mother trying to make it in London. This English-language sink-estate drama playfully deals with inflammatory themes such a Brexit, gentrification and the pitfalls of home-owning through the endearing tale of a wayward cat who also reserves his right to roam into pastures new.

Atanasova plays the main character Irina, an architect who has bought and renovated a council flat in a Peckham Estate where she lives with her young son Jojo (Orlin Asenov) and her brother Vlado (Angel Genov), a well-qualified historian who has turned his hand to installing Satellite dishes. Hoping to leave the corrupt post-communist set-up in Bulgaria to start a new life in Britain she soon discovers the grim reality of ‘playing the game’ in Britain.

Naturalistic performances from a cast of non-pros and experienced thesps and a refreshing script are the strengths of this light-hearted bit of social realism, piqued by dark humour. Utterly refusing to cow-tow to the usual Loachian style of Tory-bashing, this film still exposes some uncomfortable truths in a storyline that builds quite a head of steam and some set-tos that make it tense but also thoroughly grounded in reality. Unsurprisingly it never got a release in Britain.

Irina, Vlado and Jojo inject a much-needed breath of fresh air into a hackneyed scenario, where they uncover the usual set-backs to living in social housing – the urine-drenched lift is a classic example. But soon they find themselves face to face with a ginger tabby cat, and after adopting it for Jojo they are soon accused of animal theft by a neighbouring family.

As an educated immigrant who is well-placed to comment on Bulgaria and Brexit-Britain, Irina comes across as sympathetic and thoroughly likeable, eking out an existence that sees her pitching for architectural schemes while supplementing her meagre salary with bar work. Meanwhile she notices how most of her neighbours are living on generous state benefits that make finding paid work nonsensical.

“I didn’t come here to be a leech,” says the politically-savvy Irina who may well prove unpopular with diehard socialists in the audience. The recent words of Trump also echo: ‘if she doesn’t like it she can go back home”. And then there is her little son Jojo who is trying to make the best of his rather isolated existence as an immigrant child with no local friends, but who thinks he has found one in Goldie.

The directors maintain their distance, serving up all this ‘near the bone controversy’ with such a lightness of touch that it is difficult to take offence in a social satire that mostly feels even-handed. The character of Irina’s neighbour Camilla is a case in point. Played by veteran actress Camilla Godard she brings a gentleness to her part as a drug-smoking depressive who, it later emerges, bought the cat as a present for her special needs granddaughter, another example of the more hapless denizens of the estate. And while we feel for Camilla she also conveys an ambivalence that somehow cuts both ways. We can sympathise but also condemn her. Cat in the Wall is a clever and highly enjoyable drama that really shines a light on some shadowy issues in the home we now call post-Brexit ‘broken Britain’. At least we have our ‘Sovereignty’ despite losing our freedom of movement. Full marks to Irina and those pioneers like her, she will be sorely missed. MT

NOW FREE TO WATCH ON ARTEKINO | LOCARNO FILM FESTIVAL premiere

Harmonium (2016) | Fuchi Ni Tatsu **** Mubi

Dir.: Koji Fukada | Cast: Mariko Tsutsui, Kanji Furutacki, Momone Shinokawa, Taiga, Tadnubo Asano | Japan | 120 min.

The habitual genteel family set-up is turned upside down in Koji Fukada’s noir thriller Harmonium where a Japanese home becomes an unsettling place fraught with underlying guilt from  which resurfaces when a strange figure from the past disrupts the domestic harmony of one small family.

The Japanese title Fuchi Ni Tatsu alludes to the edgy atmosphere that envelopes the lives of Toshio (Furutacki) a regular church-goer who runs a small engineering workshop from home where he lives with his wife Akie (Tsutsui) and young daughter Hotaru (Shinokawa).

Life is fairly uneventful, Hotaru is learning to play the harmonium, her musical talent eclipsed by her pretentious and argumentative nature. But when Toshio takes pity on a old friend Yasaka (Asano) who has just been released from jail for committing murder, not only employing him, but also giving him a room in his house, the story takes a sinister turn for the worst.

The reason for Toshio’s generosity appears to stem from their collaboration in the murder, but Yasaka initially seems to have turned over a new leaf, making himself an affable guest, even offering to help Hotaru with her music studies. Can a leopard ever change his spots? This is the premise on which the narrative unfolds. And without giving too much away, it seems –  as ever – that this is unlikely.

What makes Harmonium so remarkable is that all the adult protagonists are terrible ordinary, banal even: there is no whiff of any sculduggery, just smalltime folk going through the daily grind – we see Toshio toiling in his workshop and Akie sewing – they only speak to each other at mealtimes; Toshio seems totally detached from the other members of his family, and has more in common with Yasaka, his guilt for having avoided prison appears to be his only emotion.

DoP Ken’ichi Negishi’s camera closes in on the characters, underlining their isolation from each other. This is a tense and cleverly misleading thriller with some impressive performances, particularly from Tsutsui who feels betrayed by the men, and yet helpless in her attempts at making her daughter’s life meaningful. A clinical study of the banality of evil. AS

NOW ON MUBI

Persian Lessons (2020) ****

Dir: Vadim Perelman. Russia/Germany/Belarus. 2020. 128mins

A war of attrition plays out between Belgian Jew and Nazi in this clever and darkly amusing ride to hell and back from Ukrainian born director Vadim Perelman (House of Fog).

Set in occupied France in 1942 and based on a short story by Wolfgang Kohlhaase, a young Belgian prisoner of war is forced to change his nationality and invent an entire language – pretending to being Persian – in order to escape the clutches of an ego-driven commandant who saves him from the firing squad – simply because he has a penchant for learning the lingo (Farsi).

The physical tortures of war are one thing, but the psychological effects can be equally painful, and this film makes a nonsense of the popular saying: “sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me”. The young Belgian is played with considerably aplomb by (man of the moment) Nahuel Perez Biscayart. As Reza he not only has to lie but also remember the lies. The payback of these mental gymnastics comes in the film’s stunning reveal that is almost as moving as the final scene in Polanski’s The Pianist.

These were the tortuous hoops that people had to jump through during the Second World War. And Persian Lessons is another astonishing angle on conflict, and another tribute to our collective memory of the Holocaust. Meanwhile the gruelling tension of the folie-a-deux between Commandant and POW is lightened by a deliciously salacious undercurrent of flirtatiousness that burbles away between the Nazi staff running the camp. And although there is a slight longueur towards the final stretch in a story that requires a leap of faith, the strength of the performances and of Ilya Zofin’s brilliant writing combined with the impressive mise en scene blow these minor flaws away.

Reza is an extremely smart young guy and while he quivers in his boots, he also works out how to massage Commandant Koch’s fragile ego. And Lars Eidinger – in one of the best performances of his career – is deeply sinister as the vain and deeply insecure Commandant, who has no access to the internet or even a smart phone to check the Farsi words and phrases, so the plot pivots between his desire to trust Reza and his deep fear of leaving himself exposed to ridicule by his peers and his young teacher, who is living his life on a knife edge.

Elegantly framed and lit by DoP Vladislav Opelyants, the only flaw is the irritating score that incessantly needles away when silence would occasionally be preferable. But even that can’t detract from this really gripping and intelligent wartime thriller. MT

On DIGITAL 22 JANUARY and DVD on 8 FEBRUARY

 

 

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Toni Erdmann (2016) **** Mubi

Director: Maren Ade| Cast: Peter Simonischek, Sandra Huller, Michael Wittenborn, Thomas Loibl, Trystan Putter | 142min | Comedy | Germany

This quirky and hilarious satire from German  filmmaker Maren Ade is a European arthouse  classic that celebrates the intergenerational gap with humour rather than strife.

Maren Ade explores whether comedy is the right way to fix family issues – or whether we should just try to be more sympathetic and understanding. In a film that runs just short of three hours, she achieves a blend of situational comedy, embarrassing incidents, pervy sex scenes and even a good old German nudist party in the style of Ulrich Seidl or even Aki Kaurismaki .

TONI ERDMANN‘s hero is Austrian: Peter Simonichek plays Winifried, a divorced music teacher who loves playing inappropriate practical jokes on his friends but his latest pranks involve his adult daughter Ines  (Sandra Hüller). We first meet Winifried in the throes of arranging a surprise musical tribute to an old colleague’s retirement. But not everyone likes surprises or to be part of this harmless fun, least of all his serious-minded daughter who has to be at the top of her game as management consultant in the competitive macho world of Romania. When she realises her father has been up to his tricks in a bid to poke fun at her childless state and perceived loneliness, it’s already too late to block his impromptu visit in Bucharest, after the death of his dog Willi leaves him footloose and a bit down in the dumps.

As a little girl she loved his tomfoolery, but his casual arrival at her offices in fancy dress, makes her extremely irritated. Rejecting his bid to offer fatherly appreciation, Winifried then starts to behave like a stalker, popping up at Ines’ dinner dates pretending to be his alter ego ‘Toni Erdmann’ complete with wig and grotesque false teeth which he claims are from cosmetic dentistry “I wanted something different – fiercer”.

Only a woman can appreciate the intricacies of life in the competitive corporate world where women are supposed to “go on shopping trips” when they travel with their CEO husbands. Rather than hanging with the guys after work, poor Ines is forced to show the women round the shops while the men ‘kick back’ over drinks. Extremely galling. At one point she tells her boss “if I was a feminist, I wouldn’t tolerate guys like you”. Ade’s script is really spot on, brilliantly manipulating this father daughter relationship and drawing some subtle and intricately-played performances from Simonischek and Huller, who start as polar opposites in their frosty stand-off but gradually grow more sympathetic and human during the course of the film. Beneath Winifried’s silliness lies a heart of gold, he appreciates the real world but has withdrawn from it to reflect  and his daughter emerges to be far more caring and worldly than he gives her credit for.

Winifried’s old dog Willi sets the furry leitmotive for rest of the film, and he pops up in various shaggy wigs and even a full blown Bulgarian scarecrow outfit. The irony comes from the way Ines intuitively manages her difficult colleagues and local friends; her secretary Anca is the only sympathetic female character and there are some really poignant scenes at the end where Ines and her father finally let their guards down to acknowledge that blood really is thicker than water. MT

NOW ON MUBI  | WINNER OF THE FIPRESCI AWARD CANNES 2016

The Exit of the Trains (2020) DocLisboa

Dir: Radu Jude, Adrian Cioflânca | Doc, România 175′

Screening as part of the So Many Stories Left Untold strand in DOCLISBOA’s 18th Edition (14-20 January, 2021), this essay film directed by Radu Jude and first timer Adrian Cioflânca makes use of extensive archive material to reflect on the Romanian genocide of June 26th, 1941, in the town of Iasi, near the Moldovan border. It’s a gruelling testament to man’s inhumanity towards his neighbour, and makes for grim viewing not least for its rather overlong treatment.

The pogrom lasted four days and wiped out most of its  Jewish male population. Although occupying German forces had a hand in the tragedy the main perpetrators were actually locals who looted their Jewish neighbours’ property after killing them.

Jude opts for a similar, minimalistic style to his 2017 essay film Dead Nation  to chronicle this sudden outbreak of wartime ethnic cleansing. Playing out as ‘an exhibition of the dead’, a voice-over commentary by relatives or neighbours of the victims accompanies the grim images. There are also witness reports of the few who survived. The final segment shares an array of photos of the pogrom itself, shown in chronological order.

The heat of that June morning in 1941 was in stark contrast to the chilling events that would unfold in the Eastern Romanian town. Jewish citizens were assembled in front of the police station where they were beaten and kicked, some were shot. Later the perpetrators sent women and children home,  deporting the men in airtight cattle trains (150 per sealed waggon) to Podulloaiei, or Targu Frumos, whence the few survivors were taken to the labour camp of Ialomita.

The witnesses reflect on their next-door neighbours’ role in the genocide, their focus was to steal from the victims, stripping them of their flats, jewellery and money, having already exhorted money for failing to fulfil clemency appeals. Some of the photos are gruesome: particularly the face of a Mr. Lehrer, who was slaughtered right in front of his shop. One women was ordered by the authorities to pay a military duty for her soldier son, even though he had been killed. She was forced to sell her only means of livelihood – a Singer sewing machine. Most of the victims died of asphyxiation: “He died of his injuries and lack of air”. It’s a chilling mantra that resonates with the mass suffering going on today.

Survivors talk about the hours endured with the bodies of the dead or dying, before any escape was possible. The trains were transformed into mortuaries and some of the images are particularly harrowing. Finally, we see a photo of a ‘normal’ passenger train which stopped during the mayhem. It shows the carriages with bodies bundled together, like wood or bricks, before a mass burning – only a few were buried in the Jewish cemetery of Targu Frumos.

The Exit of the Trains is far more than a mere documentary: it is a witness report of how humans suddenly lose their humanity and descend into depravity. What sort of people put petrol into water bottles, then charge inflated prices to revel in the pain and slow death of their captives. AS

DOCLISBOA | 2021 | SO MANY STORIES LEFT UNTOLD | Berlinale 2020

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Under the Tree | Undir Trenu (2018) **** Mubi

Dir.: Hafstein Gunnar Sigurdsson; Cast.: Steinthor Steinporsson, Edda Bjorgvinsdottir, Sigurdur Sigurjonsson, Lara Johanna Jonsdottir, Pornsteinn Bachmann, Selma Bjornsdottir; Iceland//Denmark/Poland/Germany 2017, 89 min.

In this urban satire, Hafstein Gunnar Sigurdsson (Rams) pulls off a comedy feat, making us laugh at our own small mindedness. A great ensemble showcases this tour-de-force of middle-class nimby-ism with much the same dark humour as Rams.

It all starts with male embarrassment: husband Atli (Steinporsson) is surprised by his wife Agnes (Jonsdottir) in the early morning, masturbating to pornographic images of himself on his laptop  – or so he claims. Agnes throws him out, not realising that his next place of residence back home with his parents – will soon be a war zone. Meanwhile Atli’s brother is heading for suicide, and his mother Inga (Bjorgvinsdottir) – suffering from depression – has chosen the next-door neighbours Konrad (Bachman) and Eybjorg (Bjornsdottir) as the butt of her deflected self-hatred. Konrad and Eyborg, not unreasonably, want the huge tree on his parents’ property trimmed, at it blocks the sun from their front porch. While Inga’s husband Baldvin (Sigurjonsson) is ready to compromise, Inga herself does not want to sacrifice a leaf – she goes on the warpath blowing a gasket of pent up emotion. So Atli moves into a tent in the garden, his parent’s Persian cat disappears without a trace and Inga is convinced the neighbours have abducted the puss.

Since said neighbours own a proud German shepherd, Inga takes matters in her own hands: impersonating Eybjorg opts for extreme measures with the animal. And when husband Baldvin criticises her for being over the top, she tells him “at least they know where he is, unlike me” – referring to the missing body of her son. Then Konrad, in the middle of the night, takes his saw to the tree in question, setting in motion a bloody Shakespearean tragedy.

Violence simmers under the suface: Atli cannot stand the thought of Agnes getting custody of their four-year old daughter Asa: who he abducts from Kindergarten. later smashing his wife’s mobile and threatening violence. Unlike his mother, Atli is too phlegmatic to escalate the conflict, listening to his father’s solution for compromise  – the apple never falls far from this tree either.

The film never takes itself too seriously: at a tenants’ meeting in Agnes’ flat, she complains about him being there, blurting out at the meeting “Atli masturbates to his girlfriend’s pictures. That’s not right, is it?”, to which the male half of a couple, whose nightly lovemaking keeps the neighbourhood awake, responds with a curt “why not, it’s okay”.

Under the Tree is chock-full of witty one-liners as hilarious as they are absurd: but underneath there lurks a nimbyism and an intolerance of anyone not sharing their own values (while also claiming to be ‘liberal’). By the end, Sigurdsson, fed up with  humans, leaves the last word to the cat. AS

NOW ON MUBI

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

Archive (2020)

Dir/Wri: Gavin Rothery | Cast: Theo James, Stacy Martin, Rhona Mitra, Toby Jones, Peter Ferdinando, Richard Glover, Lia Williams

Just before my father died I thought about how brilliant it would be if I could download his personality along with all the vast knowledge and experience gathered during his eventful life, and save it for posterity. Gavin Rothery has taken that idea and made it into an impressive AI Sci-fi drama, and it’s the human element that makes Archive so appealing.

It persuades us that sex and romance still exist in 2038, and so does humour. It’s also got Toby Jones which is always a good thing. And the robots are surprisingly intuitive, with acute sensibilities, and also enjoy listening to rock music.

Theo James plays George Elmore, an American computer working on a  human-equivalent AI. Holed up in a remote Japanese facility deep in a snowbound forest he has been tasked by his draconian boss Simone (Mitra) with finessing the model of a rudimentary female robot, who has also cleverly sussed Simone out (“I don’t like her, she’s a bitch”).

But he’s actually more focused on another state of the art humanoid prototype which is at a critical stage, and this personal and highly secretive project will reunite him with his late wife Jules (Stacy Martin) who he speaks to through a system called ‘archive’ that allows the living to communicate with the dead for a brief space of time. Her personality and memories have been downloaded into the robot’s shell. It’s a brilliant idea and the ideal solution for preserving the essence, vast experiences and knowledge of the people we’ve loved. But woman are complex, especially robot ones, and so Elmore really has his work cut out. Then Toby Jones arrives to inspect the archive and George realises his days are numbered.

Archive is the feature debut of Gavin Rothery who also wrote the script. Rather like the recent Sci-fi outing Ex Machina it looks stylish and wizzy largely because Rothery is also a graphic designer and special effects guru but it’s his plotting and a strong cast that makes this enjoyable, although Elmore doesn’t get the happy ending he’s hoping for. MT

ON DIGITAL DOWNLOAD FROM 18 JANUARY 2021

 

 

 

 

 

Dear Comrades! (2020) **** VOD

Dir: Andrei Konchalovsky | Drama, Russia 120′

Veteran Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky uncovers a little known episode of the Nikita Krushchev era – the Novercherkassk Massacre  of June 1962 – in this elegant and restrained black and white feature filmed on academy ratio.

A follow-up to his last Venice offering – Sin – an imagined drama about Michelangelo – this is a more down to earth film but its refined gracefulness pictures the seriousness of the incident with a lightness of touch and even a dash of sardonic humour.

Dear Comrades! plays out during three days and is viewed through the eyes of a working woman played often vehemently by the director’s wife and regular collaborator Julia Vysotskaya. Lyuda is divorced and living with her daughter and father in the Southern city where she is a committed Communist Party official who yearns for the days of Stalin, despite its abuses which would lead to millions of Russians losing their lives. We instantly connect with her from the opening scene where she is in a rush to leave her married lover’s bed, keen to get in the supermarket queue before the shelves are emptied – due to the political regime rather than Covid19 shortages.

A strike is later announced at a local factory where Lyuda’s wilful teenage daughter Sveta (Julia Burova) is a worker and desperate to join her co-workers as they mass for the protest. Lyuda is watching the crowd swell from the balcony of her spacious offices but when the workers surge forward and break into the building she and her colleagues are advised to leave through the basement. Soon thousands are joining in the protest and the following days sees a KGB sniper shoots indiscriminately into the crowd and many civilians are killed and injured as they scatter for cover. .

The balanced script uncovers some fascinating contradictions about the Soviet era: Konchalovsky and his co-writer Elena Kiseleva are keen to point out that  the army are odds with the KGB and the forces end up taking the rap. The authorities crack down immediately ordering the main roads to be resurfaced with fresh tar macadam to hide the indelible bloodshed which has seeped into the cracks and dried in the searing sun. There is a rapid cover-up: locals are forced to sign non-disclosure agreements and sworn to secrecy upon pain of death. Meanwhile, Sveta has disappeared and Lyuda urges a KGB captain Viktor (Andrei Gusev) to help track her down.

In many ways Lyuda is a conflicted character not only for her political ideals but also for her personal ones: “Are you ashamed to share a bed with another woman’s husband?” complains her daughter when Lyuda complains about her daughter’s tarty habit of not wearing a bra.  Lyuda supports a crack-down on the protesters but when Sveta upholds her own constitutional right to protest, Lyuda tells her she should be disciplined. And the following vignette involving her father (Sergei Erlish) is a telling one as he dresses up in his military uniform and dusts down a religious icon of the Virgin Mary while reminiscing over past state abuses.

After a dignified irritation in the early scenes Lyuda start to let her emotions out of the bag in the final act, her anxiety bubbling to the surface but also her nihilistic acceptance of life under a regime which she has both aided and abetted, and is now suffering under. The final reveal topples over into a romantic sentimentalism bordering on melodrama that sits awkwardly with her stiff upper-lipped persona of the early part of the film, but this human drama is richly rewarding snapshot of life in 1960s Russia that doesn’t appear to have moved under Putin nearly sixty years later, according to Andre Konchalovsky. MT

NOW ON CURZON VOD from 15 January | Venice Film Festival 2020  | SPECIAL JURY PRIZE 2020

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cocoon (2020) *** VOD, Bluray

Dir.: Leonie Krippendorff; Cast: Lena Urzendowsky, Lena Klenke, Jella Haase, Elina Vildanova, Anja Schneider, Bill Becker; Germany 2020, 99 min.

Over a decade ago Celine Sciamma burst onto the scene with her refreshing look at lesbian romance in Water Lilies. Native Berliner Leonie Krippendorff’s seductive spin on teenage love is a contempo coming-of-age story that just manages to avoid symbolic overdrive and sentimentality.

Set in the sweltering summer heat of Kreuzberg, the capital’s answer to Hackney, the story revolves around Nora (played by an impressive Lena Urzendowsky, with already has over twenty screen credits to her name). Hanging out with her older sister  Jule (Klenke) and friend Aylin (Vildanova) and her boozy mother Vivienne (Schneider) who appears to be somewhat of an intellectual who come to life when she gets a birthday present of Judith Butler’s novel ‘Bodies that matter’, dedicated to her by a certain Twiggy, a friend from a happier chapter in her life.

Nora’s curiosity is woken when she meets the older Romy (Haase), who comes to her aid during an embarrassing poolside incident, and the girls become instant best friends bonding over boyfriends, but Romy’s not just interested in boys, or so it seems. A good deal of hazy camerawork seems appropriate for the lust-fuelled summer reverie, not unlike Pawel Pawlikovski created in My Summer of Love.

Cocoon is not that revealing, or particularly noteworthy in its love story, what stand out is the social background, showing how the girls prefer Muslim boyfriends because of their apparent faithfulness, nearly all of them repeating “I swear on the Koran”!. Perhaps this successful integration is overdone, but nevertheless, some progress has been made.

DoP Martin Neumeyer is clearly influenced by Spring Breakers, although sadly Berlin’s public swimming pools are a far cry from Florida’s beaches. Still, he captures the uniqueness of the borough of Kreuzberg which retains a certain bohemian charm in an otherwise gentrified capital city. AS

DVD, BLURAY and VOD release from 25 JANUARY 2021

Crash (1996)

Dir.: David Cronenberg; Cast: James Spader, Holly Hunter, Deborah Kara Unger, Elias Koteas, Rosanna Arquette; Canada 1996, 100 min.

Crash certainly broke ground on its release in 1996. Cronenberg adapted the screen hit from the 1973 novel by JG Ballard’s 1973 who was declared “beyond any psychiatric help” by a publishing house critic back in the day.

The thriller won the Special Jury Prize “for Audacity” at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival, where it was talk of the town, Crash feels rather trite in the age of the Pandemic, twenty five years later.

James Spader plays Ballard, a TV producer ‘enjoying’ an open relationship with his wife Catherine (Unger). The two entertain each other with salacious titbits from their extra-marital affairs. But even this kinky variation does not satisfy them – there is still something missing.

The ‘something’ is rather shockingly (at least at the start) a love for car crash related sex. After one such incident Ballard just pulls through although the other driver is killed. He gets together with the female accident survivor Dr. Helen Remington (Hunter) and she introduces him to fellow crash fanatic Vaughan (Koteas), a veteran of staged accidents, and James is entranced by their post crash sex.

Poor Catherine has to wait for her own crash before she can join the elite circle of sex-crash survivors. Vaughan meanwhile re-stages the 1955 deadly crash which killed James Dean, complete with Dean’s ‘Porsche Spyder’. Not satisfied with his endeavour, Vaughan plans for the re-construction of the Jane Mansfield decapitation. After Catherine finally had her own collision – not a particularly impressive one – she can join her husband again. But this time Rosanna Arquette joins the party in a chrome body suit and leg braces, and the re-united couple and Helen can have a three-some of sorts. 

DoP Peter Suschitzky shows a barren, snowbound Toronto in keeping with Cronenberg’s habitual bleak dystopian world inhabited by these  hybrid characters. For once the director shares a different view: “Even though people think the movie is cold, I don’t think it’s cold. It begins cold, but gradually fills with emotions. It is subtle and not delivered the normal way it’s delivered in movies.” Viewers might find it difficult to come to terms with this new subculture where the addicts seek “to re-experience the mortality they so narrowly escaped by purposefully getting into more accidents where the only goal is to have sex with fellow survivors”. Cronenberg paints the small elite “of people who understand the crash epiphany, which allows them to relate each other”. By definition, there is a whole outside world, where everyone is irrelevant to the self-styled elite of death-seekers – Freud would have had his fun with analysing them. But Cronenberg seems unaware of his closeness to Nietzsche’s postulate of “Mensch and Übermensch: “The subject of the film is there is no moral stance that you can take. And if impose my own art artificial standards, then I am completely spoiling my experiment, which is to let these creatures have their head and try to re-invent all these things they are trying to re-invent”.

Some films are made to be just for a particular moment, that’s were Crash belongs, a piece of utter decadence, great to look at, but ultimately driving on empty. AS

CRASH IS NOW A DIGITAL RELEASE ON 30 NOVEMBER 2020

The Son’s Room (2001) La Stanza del Figlio | MUBI

Dir: Nanni Moretti | Drama, Italy 89′

Nanni Moretti’s portrait of tragedy is an emotionally intelligent and cumulatively moving drama that won him the Palme d’Or in 2001. Naturalistic, unsentimental yet eventually quite shattering the film unpicks the slow and surprising way the sudden death of a close relative can completely change the way we see each other and the person we lost.

In the first half-hour or so this family is living life as normal in the pleasant coastal town of Ancona. The Sermontis are a happily married professional couple: Moretti plays the psychiatrist father Giovanni, Laura Morante is Paola his wife. Their teenagers Irene (Trinca) and Andrea (Sanfelice) are going through the usual teenage ups and downs at school. But when Andrea dies suddenly in a diving accident, his parents and sister find themselves so lost in sadness, anger and confusion their world is blown apart. But then the bombshell – there is another person involved in the equation: a girlfriend they never even knew existed. Nothing surprising – yet this stranger is pivotal in a drama so strangely gripping and psychologically profound, it forces each member of the family to re-examine life up to the event and going forward. Some films make a big impact but are instantly forgettable, this moving story will stay with you for a long time. MT

NOW ON MUBI | BLU-RAY, DVD & DIGITAL

 

The Father | Bashtata (2019) Oscars 2021 | Glasgow Film Festival 2021

Dir: Kristina Grozeva, Petar Vlachanov | Bulgaria Drama 87′

The Father is the third collaboration for Bulgarian auteurs Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov. This superbly scripted psychological drama follows in the wake of The Lesson (2014) and Glory (2016/7) and explores a son’s attempts to rescue his father from the hands of an unscrupulous psychic healer.

Fraught with darkly piquant humour this comedy will resonate with anyone experiencing similar issues with their own ageing parents, the judicious mixture of farce and satire intertwining to deliver an enjoyable watch while skewering the situation down to a tee.

The Father in question is a dreadful dominating demon. Vasil (Ivan Savov) has no respect for his respectable married middle-aged son Pavel (an appealing Ivan Barnev) who is almost diminished to a blithering idiot in his presence, despite being a successful businessman.

During his wife Valentina’s funeral, Vasil behaves in a disgraceful manner by asking Pavel to take some final photographs of his mother’s corpse in its coffin. When Pavel refuses, Vassil berates him in front of the assembled mourners and insists on doing it himself, belittling Pavel in the process, who later deletes the macabre snaps.

But it doesn’t end there. Vasil becomes obsessed with the idea that his wife is trying to contact him from beyond the grave (by mobile) and decides to consult with a local medium, Dr Ruvi, involving Pavel in the process. Pavel feels responsible for his father, while not liking him terribly much: thoughts of getting back to his wife and business are subsumed by those of guilt; somehow he feels drawn into Vasil’s web of madness, unable to extricate himself from the parental ties that bind. Very much in the same vein as Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, Vasil exerts the same vulnerable power as Bruce Dern’s paternal figure. Clearly Vasil needs protecting from the strange requests made by Ruvi, but in helping him, Pavel takes on an irritating and undignified mission.

Pavel is also consumed by latent anger and constantly back-footed by his father’s unreasonable demands. Meanwhile Vasil become more and more absurd and desperate – the interplay between the two men providing a rich vein of humour. This entertaining two-hander (we never actually meet Ruvi or Pavel’s wife) cleverly sees Pavel emerging as the ultimate hero of the piece, Grozeva and Valchanov adding plenty of textural grist to the duo’s convincingly volatile relationship. MT

NOW SCREENING AT GLASGOW FILM FESTIVAL ONLINE | THE FATHER IS BULGARIA’S OFFICIAL ENTRY TO THE OSCARS 2021

CRYSTAL GLOBE WINNER | KARLOVY VARY FILM FESTIVAL 2019

Overseas (2019) Locarno 2019

Dir: Yoon Sung-a | Doc, 90′

It you are bored with the daily grind of working from home in these tedious Covid times then spare a thought for Filipino domestic workers in the Far and Middle East. In this startling expose of modern slavery that brings us up to speed on the acceptable ways of serving lunch to a Singaporean lady, or cleaning a lavatory in a Dubai household, there are some shocking revelations, tears and sadness for these young women who are often 0ver-worked and badly treated by their employers. But their training instructors urge them: “Never cry in front of your boss, it’s a sign of weakness and Filipinos are not weak”.

Overseas is the sophomore documentary of South Korea’s Yoon Sung-a, and makes for compelling viewing although it often lingers too long on each repetitive scene. There has been a long tradition of employing Filipino workers and these women are often treated as members of the family throughout Europe. But Yoon concentrates on those destined for the Middle and Far East where the working conditions are considerably more harsh, and employment laws less kind. Clearly the financial incentives to work abroad are worthwhile and makes sense, despite the hardships. Working mothers in the Far East are fully accustomed to leaving their kids with members of their own family while they pursue the financial incentives available overseas in order to provide a home of their own when they finally return retire.

Some of the workers are lucky, but many are made to work long hours in poor conditions: one girl talks of sleeping on the kitchen floor and being woken at 5am to start her day; another was constantly given orders even while eating her meals. There is also talk of sexual abuse in a household in the Middle East.

Overseas resonates with Davide Maldi’s recent feature The Apprentice that examines the service industry in Italy and the ongoing attitudes of those employed in the sector, while Lila Aviles has explored the life of a hotel worker in Mexico City in her darkly amusing, award-winning film The Chambermaid (2018). Throughout the Europe domestic workers are more in demand than ever with middle class families paying to having help at home – both parents are often out working and their adult (working) offspring are still in residence. In the Far and Middle East the class system is more rigidly in place but times are changing and these domestic workers are justifiably become more dissatisfied with their lot. These girls are caught in the crosswinds of change.

Yoon adopts a quietly observational approach to demonstrate how the collective experience of these women is broadly negative – yet is at pains to show that they are individuals rather than just a collective mass known for their placid and obedient nature. MT

NOW ON VOD PLATFORMS

LOCARNO FILM FESTIVAL | COMPETITION | 7-17 AUGUST 2019

Billie (2020)

Dir: James Erskine | US Biopic, 97′

James Erskine’s documentary about one of the greatest jazz legends of all time pays exuberant tribute to its focus: Billie Holiday. Born Eleanor Fagan in Philadelphia, 1915, she would go on to enjoy a career spanning 47 years. Perhaps ‘enjoy’ is not the best way to describe Billie’s Holiday’s often troubled existence echoed through her plangent vocal style and sensual ability to manipulate phrasing and tempo. What lives on is her extraordinary talent in singing the blues through these unique recordings.

Erkine bases his impressionistic film on a stash of recording interviews by the late Washington based writer Linda Lipnack Kuehl, who dedicated eight years during the ’60s and ’70s to her informative book about Billie Holiday. And these interviews and recordings breathe new life into our knowledge of a talented jazz singer who rose to fame in the Harlem of the 30s and 40s and lost her life at just 44 after several decades of heartache.

Heartache is a soulful motif that floods Billie’s repertoire with 30′ tunes ‘If You Were Mine’ and “You Let Me Down” with band accompaniment from Count Basie, Teddy Wilson or Artie Shaw. But there were also more upbeat tunes about love such as “I’m Painting The Town Red to hide a Heart that’s Blue”. And the lively ballads “Twenty Four Hours a Day”; ‘Yanky Doodle Never Went to Town’. and the chirpy “Miss Brown to You” with Teddy Wilson’s wonderful orchestra (from the album ‘Lady Day’).

Through Linda’s recordings Erskine shines a light on a time fraught with poverty, misogyny and racism where women certainly got the rough end of the deal particularly in the music business. Billie inhabited these times with gusto and courage, lamenting them in her songs that reflect back on her deep need to be loved by men – and women, using drugs and alcohol to numb her emotional pain. Living in the fast lane also took its toll: “We try to live one hundred days in one day”. Her story was a sad one, recorded here for the first time from the other side of the microphone – through the memories of those who knew and loved her.

Harsher memories contrast with the warmth of these tribute echoing the exuberance of those early days of jazz, and the darker times – we hear from a vicious pimp who remembers beating the women under his power in an era where such events were commonplace in the backstreets of New York. But the police were often as venal in their approach to Billie, pursuing her day and night throughout her life because of her success as a black woman. “Wasn’t she entitled to have a Cadillac?” says drummer Jo Jones. But often Billie couldn’t even get service when dining in a restaurant. After leaving the Count, she was a black singer in a white band. Eventually she served time for drug abuse but on her release still filled Carnegie Hall with queues round the block.

Erskine doesn’t hero worship or quail away from controversy surrounding  the ‘false memory’ of many talking heads, reflecting how time can alter the perspective. Linda Lipnack Kuehl doesn’t let her interviewees off the hook, demanding they justify their recollections. A case in point is Jo Jones’s strident claim that producer John Hammond sacked Billie from Count Basie’s band for not sticking to the blues. Hammond vehemently claims the sacking was for financial reasons.

What emerges is the soulful emotion of a talented artist who by definition was subject to highs and lows in giving of herself to her art and this comes across in visceral archive footage – particularly of ‘Strange Fruit’ – and live recordings that celebrate this timeless singer whose talent will never diminish.

It eventually becomes clear that one of her biggest fans was Linda Lipnack Keuhl who was there throughout her career, feeling a close affinity with Billie and her struggle to succeed, despite their different backgrounds at a time of racial segregation and strife. As Linda points out – the musicians were black but the critics, agents and managers were white. Thanks to Linda’s inquisitive style of journalism this tribute to Billie comes alive. MT

BILLIE is available, on demand, from 13th November on BFI, IFI, Curzon Home Cinema, Barbican. There is a live Q&A with James Erskine on 15 November as part of EFG London Jazz festival and it will be available to buy on Amazon and iTunes on 16 November.

THE QUINTESSENTIAL BILLIE HOLIDAY | Volumes 1,2,3 accompanied by Teddy Wilson and his Orchestra. 

Silent Running (1971) ***

Dir: Douglas Trumball | Cast: Bruce Dern, Cliff Potts, Ron Rifkin, Jesse Vinterberg | US Sci-fi, 86′

Douglas Trumball’s ecological Sci-fi outing s now nearly 50 years old yet feels more relevant that ever despite its slightly wacky mise-en-scene and a score performed by Joan Baez.

The year is 2001 and 36 year old fresh-faced blue-eyed Bruce Dern plays an evangelical botanist adrift in space in a Garden of Eden. His message is loud and clear, re-working that of 2001: A Space Odyssey (Trumbull was in charge of the special effects): The planet needed saving – and humans were the ones to do it. The Garden planet ‘Valley Forge’ has been carefully nurtured by Dern’s Freeman Lovell to nourish and preserve plant specimens rescued before Earth’s apocalyptic meltdown during nuclear war. But afterwards Lovell defies orders to destroy his nurtured slice of paradise, instead taking off for a spin around space (with Drone robots Huey and Dewey), on a mission to save the Earth in perpetuity.

Working with Deric Washburn, Steven Bochco (Hill Street Blues) and The Deer Hunter‘s Michael Cimino, Trumball’s feature debut is a fabulous ground-breaking idea full of fun and fantastic visuals. Dern brings a  febrile intensity to the part keeping things weird and wonderful, striking the perfect tone for a fantasy thriller with more up its sleeve than just space travel. MT

OUT ON DVD | 9 NOVEMBER 2020

The Vigil (2019) ****

Dir: Keith Thomas | Cast: Dave Davis, Lynn Cohen, Menashe Lustig, Malky Goldman, Fred Melamed | US Horror, 89′

A malevolent spirit is the suggestible unseen character in this Keith Thomas’s unique horror debut set amidst Brooklyn’s Hasidic community.

A religious practice known as ‘sitting shiva’ is the premise of the claustrophobic funereal spine-chiller. Jewish family members are required to provide comfort and protection to the deceased by sitting with the body and saying prayers for a seven days and nights. Sometimes a ‘shomer’ is paid to do the honours, as is the case here with Yakov (a convincing Dave Davis) a young Jewish guy who is ingratiating himself back into the tightly-knit community and finds this a respectable and fairly easy way of making money. But clearly a deeply unsettling if redemptive one, as we soon find out.

Thomas creates a palpable sense of terror with his seriously spooky soundscape and nauseous colour palette soaked in ghastly dried bloods and neon greens all shrouded in deathly shadows. Much of the dialogue is in Yiddish adding an exotic twist to proceedings delivering a unique cultural experience. It soon turns out that the deceased, Ruben Litvak, a Holocaust survivor, was himself haunted by a dybbuk (or evil spirit) who followed him back from wartime Buchenwald. Meanwhile his ageing wife Mrs Litvak (Lynn Cohen) is a menacing character who has also suffered in concentration camps and is now scratching around on the foothills of Alzheimers. All this feeds on Yakov’s own mental instability over a tragic event in his past forcing him to make a midnight call to his psychotherapist for some emotional support. Or at least he thinks he’s talking to Dr Kohlberg.

DoP Zach Kuperstein must get some of the credit with his spooky camerawork and lighting techniques during this night of terror and spiritual retribution. This is an intelligent piece of filmmaking that shows how trauma can feed on itself and actually perpetuate mental anguish and paranoia until eventually this scenario becoming hard-wired into the brains of those affected and their descendants. MT

THE VIGIL WILL BE RELEASED ON DIGITAL PLATFORMS ON 30TH NOVEMBER AND ON DVD ON 4TH JANUARY IN THE UK AND IRELAND

 

Luxor (2020) ****

Dir/Wri: Zeina Durra | Cast: Andrea Riseborough, Janie Aziz, Michael Landers | Drama, 85′

A war zone doctor’s inner turmoil gradually surfaces in this serene second feature from British director Zeina Durra (The Imperialists are Still Alive!).

Never before has heartache appeared so muted and contemplative than in Andrea Riseborough’s portrait of post-traumatic stress disorder. She plays Hanna, a thirty-something aid worker who has just completed a stressful tour of duty in a wartorn corner of the Middle East. In Luxor, she finds herself physically and emotionally depleted, quietly contemplating her next move in the gentle faded splendour of the legendary Winter Palace Hotel on the banks of the Nile.

The genteel location is the stuff of dreams providing solace and a sanctuary for exhausted minds, damaged souls or simply those seeking a seasonal break in Eygpt’s pleasant climate. Luxor also lends a luminous spiritual dimension of this portrait of midlife crisis. A professional woman who has seen things “no human should have to witness” finds herself slipping down a path of increasing melancholy bordering on misery with the gradual realisation that normality and nurturing is now the order of the day, rather than more frontline trauma. Recuperating on quiet days of solitude amongst the ancient sites, she comes across a lover from a more light-hearted era. The passage of time – some twenty years it soon emerges –  has not dimmed the candle she once held for Sultan (Karim Saleh), an archaeologist from America. Quite to the contrary, it now burns even brighter leaving the void inside her soul crying out to be healed rather than temporarily satisfied.

Surrounded by the pharaonic tombs and towering temples, Luxor is very much the star turn. The peaceful city exudes a majestic energy empowering the film with an ethereal feeling of calm beneficence. Hana’s hotel companions, predominantly female, are genial and considerate, the only awkwardness comes after a one night stand she meets in the bar (played gamely Michael Landes) and provides a twist of humour rather than annoyance. Durra keeps dialogue to a minimum focusing on mood and feeling to sublime effect. Days spent reconnecting with her ex-lover soon expose a desperate longing that sees Hana quietly dissolving into tears, a raw nerve he unwittingly triggers in moments that are palpable in their intensity. 

Riseborough is gloriously lowkey at first, her perfect manners and placidity belying the simmering turmoil that gradually makes her more inhibited. She gives an understated physical performance, all blue-eyes, loose limbs and creamy complexion. Luxor has echoes of Columbus its scenic settings and philosophical discussions providing the peaceful backdrop for Hana’s story to unravel. And although the final scenes feel trite in contrast to the film’s thematic concerns the redemptive journey has been a beautiful and illuminating one. MT

NOW AVAILABLE online from next week | LUXOR PREMIERED AT SUNDANCE and KVIFF 2020 | KVIFF Competition returns in 2021

Looted (2019) ****

Dir: Rene van Pannevis | Charley Palmer Rothwell, Morgane Polanski, Tom Fisher, Tom Turgoose | UK Drama 90′

Looted is a refreshing departure from those run-of-the-mill British  indies made under the UK Tax haven purely to serve a purpose. Based on the director’s own experience as a troubled teen growing up in Hartlepool on the North East coast, it feels real and is often genuinely amusing despite the sombre storyline.

Set against a background of industrial decline – Hartlepool was a major centre for fishing – there’s a poetic poignance to the troubled wasteland where young sensibilities are beautifully brought to life in Aadel Nodeh-Farahani’s limpid camerawork.

Teenager Rob (Charley Palmer Rothwell) lives with his father Oswald, a retired sailer dying of asbestos poisoning. During the day Rob cares for Oswald (a gently humorous Tom Fisher) or hangs out on the docks with his mouthy friend Leo (Thomas Turgoose). Morgane Polanski is terrific as Rob’s knowing Polish girlfriend Kasha, adding cachet and integrity to the piece despite her limited role. When night falls Rob and Leo hit the streets of the seaside town for a spot of car-jacking, until their luck turns sour. With a solid script and convincing performances Looted takes a thoughtful look at the complexity behind criminal life without condoning it or seeking to pass judgement. MT

FIPRESCI PRIZE WINNER | TALLINN BLACK NIGHTS 2019 | NOW on all major VOD platforms including Curzon Home Cinema. 

 

 

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Two of Us – Nous Deux (2020)

Dir.: Filippo Meneghetti; Cast: Martine Chevallier, Barbara Sukowa, Lea Drucker, Jerome Varanfrain, Muriel Bemazaref, Augustine Reyes; France/Lux/Belgium 2019, 95 min.

Filippo Meneghetti’s first film tells an unusual love story, somewhere between realism and fairy tale. Nina and Madeleine are neighbours in a small town in the Moselle region of France. But the ladies have been lovers for decades although coming out will be problem, particularly for Madeleine (Mado), whose children Anne (Drucker) and Frederique (Varanfrain) are self-righteous conformists.                                  

German émigré Nina (Sukowa) is the driving force in the relationship: she is keen for Mado to sell her flat and move to Rome. But Mado is only too aware of divorced hairdresser Anne’s feelings, and her son is a misogynist at the best of times, and takes her property off the market angering Nina.  But things deteriorate even further when Mado suffers a stroke and is rendered speechless and immobile needing a full time carer in the shape of Muriel (Benazaref), who is quietly possessive of her new charge. Although Anne tries to take over but love eventually finds a way – via Bingo of all things.

Beautifully crafted and sensitively performed Two of Us is a worthwhile and unique lesbian love story that joins films such as in in showing that Love and emotional intimacy is so important at any age and this mature love affair feels fresh and authentic despite its bourgeois provincial setting that gives the drama its glorious settings.

Although the script suffers inexperience plot development wise, veering between fairy-tale comedy and a dramatic critique of Mado’s blinkered children who stay in the way of the elderly couples’ happiness, this is an intelligent film pointing out how small town values are not necessarily ageist ones. That an un-offensive couple like Nina and Mado should live in fear of being ostracised for being lesbians is very dernier siecle – particularly since it would stay in the family, a family Mado would love to leave despite her visceral connection to her children. There is much to enjoy and admire here, but a much clearer approach on genre identification would have been welcome. AS

ON BFI | JW3 NW3 |SELECTED FOR THE 2021 ACADEMY AWARDS.

     

Mogul Mowgli (2020) ***

Dir: Bassam Tariq | UK Drama, 90 min

Riz Ahmed is screen dynamite as a British Pakistani rapper afflicted by a wasting disease in this dazzling and deeply personal portrait of racial identity and the ties that bind.

Bassam Tariq takes a thematically rich subtext based on Ahmed’s background and sideline in the music world, and winds it into a trippy visual experience with a throbbing soundscape but less punchy script fuelled by the inner turmoil of its main character.

Ahmed plays New-York based rapper Zed on a visit to his parent’s modest London home in the wake of a European-wide concert tour. The homecoming drudges up disorientating memories of racial and religious tension and a longing for the warmth of home life in the light of his imploding romantic relationship with girlfriend Bina. Suddenly he is a brother and son again (to his devout and hard-working father Bashir (Alyy Khan) rather than just a music star with a growing fanbase.

Worryingly Zed also experiences signs of physical weakness and is admitted into hospital for tests which reveal an autoimmune condition, possibly a metaphor for his suffocating family. Despite his family’s religious concerns Zed decides to take up the offer of a promising clinical trial which may however threaten his fertility.

His time in hospital is fraught with anxiety and tension and Tariq channels this into febrile hallucinatory sequences that tap into the social and cultural heritage that Zed left behind him in his struggle for musical and material success. Although this all looks exciting the script fails to mine the dramatic potential to any affect, leaving us constantly on the outside looking in. The constant repetition of ‘Toba Tek Singh’ – a phrase Zed chants obsessively with his father in the final scene – will leave most viewers baffled, given the film’s Muslim sensibilities.

Ahmed is extraordinary to watch lighting up every frame with his febrile intensity, particularly in the scene where he tries to persuade Bina to help him with a ‘sample’. Clearly heartfelt and well-intentioned this portrait of a sensitive artist also occasionally feels self-indulgent and contextually bewildering due to the complexity of the issues involved, but that is clearly the nature of the world we now live in, and the root of society’s modern malaise. MT

OUT ON 30 OCTOBER 2020

 

 

 

 

 

Apostasy (2017) ***

Dir.: Dan Kokotajlo; Cast: Siobhan Finneran, Sacha Parkinson, Molly Wright, Robert Emms; UK 2017, 96 min

Dan Kokotajlo’s debut feature is an intelligent  study in emotional fascism based on his own experiences. It tells the heart-breaking story of a family in Oldham where three women fall victim to the dogmatic pressures of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, an evangelic organisation with no empathy for its members, and certainly not if they are female.

Ivanna (Finneran) is a middle-aged woman living with her two daughters, college student Luisa (Parkinson) and Alex (Wright) who is still at school. The father is never mentioned, and Ivanna has made sure that both of her daughters are committed to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose ‘Elders’ are, unsurprisingly, all male.

Ivanna embraces every word preached down to her from the institution’s dogmatic Elders and belittles the Catholic Church – hardly a liberal institution – as “airy-fairy, they believe in something like the soul”. Whereas the Jehovah’s Witnesses credo is that the blood of its members is the pure manifestation of the Master God – and should not be messed with, particularly not by medical staff trying to save life.

Apostasy (meaning abandonment of belief) begins in a hospital where a nurse is secretly offering the anaemic Alex a much-needed blood transfusion knowing very well that she has already been stigmatised for having a blood transfusion as a new born. Alex is shy and full of self-doubt largely because she too believes her blood is not “pure” anymore. 

Meanwhile, Luisa not only falls in love with an “unbeliever”, but also gets pregnant by him. This causes a great deal of friction between between the sisters and provides most of the film’s dramatic tension. Luisa’s mother’s darkest fears have come true and Ivanna is only too ready to have her oldest daughter thrown out of the church: in an act euphemistically called a “disfellowship”.  In reality this means that her family is forbidden to communicate with Luisa.

Ivanna is only to ready to follow these orders, and making sure that the same ‘misfortune’ does not befall Alex, finds immediately a suitable husband for her in Stephen (Emms) a shy, insecure young man with hardly any social manners. He, like Ivanna, repeats the church’s dogmas in everyday life, and seems the perfect partner for Alex, who tries hard to be the perfect little soldier for Jehovah. All members wait for the Armageddon to happen soon (even though there was false alarm in 1975), the new system will replace everything known today, and, needless to say, only true disciples of the church will survive to live in this new paradise.

A shocking event then intervenes to slightly destabilise and dilute this rich character study between the women, as the narrative then focuses largely on the church and its influences, which are nonetheless intriguing, but somehow manage to carry the film through.

This is true horror (Kokotajlo grew up in a household of Jehovah’s Witnesses), and impressively acted, particularly by Finneran. It seems unbelievable that the earnest members of the church, who we all encounter at tube stations or at the front door, are capable of such emotional warfare against anybody who disobeys their commands.  Adam Scarth’s images are sparse and lean like the whole production, proving again, that one can create a small masterpiece on a minibudget. AS

NOW ON BBC IPLAYER

The Other Lamb (2019) **** MUBI

Dir: Malgorzata Szumowska | Wri: Catherine S McMullen | Cast: Raffey Cassidy, Michiel Huisman, Denise Gough | Ireland-Belgium, US. 92′

Malgorzata Szumowska’s first English language film has a striking visual aesthetic and a storyline that bears a distinct resonance with Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale. Szumowska’s regular cinematographer Michal Englert creates a heady mystical feel that magics up a sinister sense of place in the wild, windswept landscapes of this quirky dreamlike horror feature.

The Other Lamb is a young girl who refuses to kowtow Michael Huisman’s butchly pretty cult leader ‘The Shepherd’ who rules over his flock of febrile females deep in their forest commune. The women followers compete cattily for his favours in a way that makes this movie, directed by a woman, vaguely unpalatable with its themes of toxic masculinity and hero worship. But Szumowska has a string of cultish fantasy dramas under her belt, amongst them In the Name of; Body and Mug. marking out her distinct talents as a pioneering filmmaker with a unique offbeat style. The latest is Never Gonna Snow Again (2020).

The subject of cults has long been a source of inspiration for filmmakers  (Midsommar and Mandy are recent outings), and the women’s devotion to their leader feels akin to Vanessa Redgrave’s adoration of Oliver Reed in Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971). Australian writer Catherine S McMullen gives an otherworldly twist to this female centric set-up that thrives tucked away from modern civilisation in an enduring fairytale that speaks to the past, present and future. The dank misty murkiness of the setting adds to its doom laden morose atmosphere.

Two groups vie for attention, the children are clad in blue, and the wives in red, but when they grow older the Shepherd gives them the pushover. Selah (a glowering Raffey Cassidy) is one of the children born into the community. Wayword and bewildered by the cult worship of The Shepherd she forms her own opinion – partly due to fear, and partly due to ignorance of what is happening to her changing body as she reaches womanhood – and The Shepherd turns his attention on her like a search light in the fog. Visions of dead birds, hostile rams and stillborn lambs haunt her daytime reveries and at night she experiences strange longings for The Shepherd, willing her to take action. Slowly it dawns that Selah represents women everywhere who not only question but are also minded to disrupt and dismantle the accepted patriarchy, male domination and misogyny of any kind.

THE OTHER LAMB is available on MUBI from 16 October 2020

 

 

Limbo (2020) **** Bfi London Film Festival 2020

Dir/Wri: Ben Sharrock | Cast: Amir El-Masry, Sidse Babett-Knudsen, Vikash Bhai, Ola Orebiyi, Kwabena Ansah, Kenneth Collard | UK Drama, 103′

A group of refugees fetch up on a remote Scottish island in this artful and darkly amusing comedy drama lampooning the migrant crisis.

The common denominator is their single, masculine status. If they were married with kids they would be placed in a stylish new-build in the centre of Edinburgh, or even London. But it’s a grim lot for the male of the species who arrives in these rain soaked islands looking for a home. And the Scotts director shows the same sober look and lugubrious humour as Pablo Stoll’s cult classic Whisky (2004) or Aki Kaurismaki’s Berlinale winner The Other Side of Hope (2017). However, his visually imaginative style and symmetrical framing also make this a sumptuous treat.

The migrant crisis is certainly no joke. In fact it has become somewhat of a political hot potato as the lost and disenfranchised arrive here hoping for the legendary streets of gold and find instead cold tarmac, wind-lashed landscapes and little to comfort them in their time of need. Sticking out like proverbial pork pies at a Jewish wedding these likeable and nice-looking men are jeered at and taunted as they make their way through chilly seascapes in search of something to keep their minds occupied in the inclement weather.

The painterly piece unfolds in the sparsely populated Western Isles of the Outer Hebrides (North and South Uist) under smoky grey clouds and gentle hilltops stroked by softly wavering grasses and purple skies. “If you’re lucky enough to be here in Winter you may experience the Northern Lights” says their English teacher as he instructs them on the past imperfect, asking for an example of its use in a sentence: one bright spark suggests: “I USED to have a home until it was destroyed by allied forces”.

Essentially a series of carefully crafted episodes – each playing out like an individual comedy vignette – the story follows Syrian Oud musician and war victim Omar (Amir El-Masry) who left his older brother still fighting; Afghani Farhad (Vikash Bhai) and two West African brothers suffering from sibling rivalry. Wasef (Ola Orebiyi) and Abedi (Kwabena Ansah) bicker the hell out of the squalid damp-ridden cottage the men share, warmed only by a two-bar electric fire. They all have convincing backstories and are ridden with guilt and worry about the families they have left behind. Poor internet coverage makes matters worst.

Writing and directing this second feature, Sharrock calls on his own life experience working in a refugee camp in the Middle East where he was inspired by the sorrowful characters he met, all hoping against hope for a positive outcome. Here at least they get “cultural awareness” lessons hosted by a well-meaning couple, Helga (a strangely underused Sidse Babett-Knudsen (The Duke of Burgundy) and Boris (Kenneth Collard). But the even-handed narrative eventually gives way to a grudging mutual respect with their pale-skinned hosts who recognise they are well-educated and versed in the ways of the world. And the tone darkens when a crisis arrives for the sheep farmers during a snowstorm, and Omar is required to pitch in.

The sheep incident unleashes a disturbing magic realist reverie for Omar, transporting him back to his roots in scenes that hint at a gravitas the film does not possess compared with the levity that has gone before. But despite the slight tonal flaw Limbo is a highly accomplished and thoughtful film that cements Sharrock’s place as a promising British talent on the international scene. MT

BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2020

 

 

 

African Apocalypse (2020) ***

Dir.: Rob Lemkin; Documentary with Femi Nylander, Amina Weira; UK 2020, 88 min.

This new documentary sees Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novel ‘Heart of Darkness’ from the natives’ perspective. Oxford University student Femi Nylander goes on a real voyage of discovery to illuminate the bloody massacres in Niger at the end of the 19th century when the French government to unite the French colonies in West Africa backfired with tragic consequences and costing over 15,000 African lives.

Following in the footsteps of French officers Captain Voulet and his adjutant Lt. Julian Chanoines were tasked with unifying the colonies of what is now Chad, Niger and Burkina Faso, to fend off British colonial forces. After Voulet’s worst massacres in Birnin Konni, word of Voulet’s depravity and violence reached Paris, and Army Command sent Lt. Colonel Jean Francois Klobb to relieve Voulet. On Bastille Day in July 1899 Klobb confronted Voulet and was later killed.

Lemkin accompanies Nylander and his co-researcher and translator Amina Weira on their journey through West Africa, where they discover written material relating to Voulet’s massacres and his descent into madness, declaring: “I have become an African, and would be the King of Paris”. They also dredge up a tape recording from the 1970s narrated by an old women retelling the gory details, which was tantamount to genocide, and would land Voulet in front of the Den Hague Court.

Nylander feels like in outsider in the old Etonian world of Oxford, and he is also to made to feel a stranger once in Africa: his interviewees challenge him on his lack of empathy with the victims’ grand children. DoPs Claude Garnier and Shaun Harley Lee sustain a fly-on-the-wall presence, keeping a welcome intimacy; whilst their panoramic impressions of he river landscapes are of exceptional beauty. Lemkin’s attempt to integrate Nylander with his current BLM activities is not always successful, since the ‘retelling’ of the Conrad narrative can very much stand on its own. But the African images are much stronger than contemporary, middle-class dominated UK protest meetings, which feel anaemic in comparison. AS

SCREENED DURING BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2020

 

 

 

    

Supernova (2020)

Dir/Wri: Harry Macqueen | Cast: Colin Firth, Stanley Tucci, Lori Campbell, James Dreyfus, Ian Drysdale, Pippa Haywood

Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci play long-term lovers on holiday in the Lake District in Harry Macqueen’s gently poignant follow-up to his first film Hinterland.

Colin Firth (Sam) and Stanley Tucci (Tusker) have an easy chemistry that makes this two-hander all the more enjoyable even though tragedy is the order of the day. On a romantic break in scenic Cumbria it soon emerges that the quietly amusing Tusker is suffering from early-onset dementia overshadowing their future together as a successful professional couple who are still in love.

Many actors have gone from Britain to the US but Stanley Tucci has done the reverse and already made several features together with Colin Firth: Conspiracy (2001) and Gambit (2012). Meanwhile Mcqueen cements his career as a writer and director joining fellow creative talents from Leicester including: Stephen Frears, Michael Kitchen, Una Stubs, and the Attenborough brothers. Firth and Tucci perfectly compliment one another’s star power with Sam being the more thoughtfully anxious of the two and a perfect foil for Tusker’s sardonic charm.

Whether or not Firth entirely suits a beard as a renown semi-retired concert pianist Sam, is up for question, but he is deeply enamoured of novelist Tusker and their warmth and genuine feeling for another is what really powers the film forward – along with Tucci’s caustic sense of comic timing.

The brooding hills and dales of the Lake District give this soberly-toned piece an added chill of encroaching winter – not only thematically but visually – in Dick Pope’s painterly camerawork. Old age, lasting love and mental decline are issues of universal concern, even more so in these pandemic days that have rocked our emotional wellbeing to the core.

After the jokey, love-affirming scenes of the camper van journey and the bonhomie of a shared evening with friends and family, the tone becomes more downbeat as the two plummet the depths of despair in their tortured soul-searching. But Mcqueen does not labour the point, taking a less is more approach and focussing on the wit and repartee that makes these two so close as a couple. All we need to know is conveyed by the emotional weight of the performances, and Tusker’s comment : “I want to be remembered for what I was, and not for who I’m about to become”, putting the focus on the positive side of their relationship. It is a dreaded phrase that speaks volumes for those affected by illness and has a uniquely 21st century ring in these days of dread disease. Sam retorts: “You’re not supposed to mourn somebody when they are still alive” But sometimes this is the best way.

Mcqueen also addresses a less obvious aspect of mental illness showing how an unexpected change in dynamic can derail the most stable of relationships and put the status quo into question. And this is the dark stain that slowly spreads across the film as the pair consider the future. Mcqueen’s deft scripting handles these dark night of the soul moments with a lightness of touch that hints at the trauma while avoiding a full blown meltdown. And this is where Firth and Tucci really come into their own, giving the film a textural richness and humour that is vital to make it all watchable and enjoyable, rather than mentally exhausting. Firth has the emotional range to explore the issues and Tucci the dexterity to deliver tenderness with just the right gravitas.

After the spectacular countryside of the expansive early scenes the film becomes more of an introspective chamber-piece as it gradually closes in on an intimate finale. Supernova brilliantly exudes a sense of Englishness: decent, noble, restrained and strangely satisfying. MT

NOW IN CINEMAS 2021

 

I Am Woman (2020) ****

Dir: Unjoo Moon | Cast: Tilda Cobham-Hervey, Evan Peters, Danielle Macdonald | Biopic Drama 116′

There are two iconic feminist anthems that stand out in the memory: one is Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive, the other is I Am Woman.

Written and sung by the not quite so famous Seventies singer Helen Reddy, her theme tune nonetheless comes from a place of calm confidence. Is not strident, desperate or defiant but sure of its positive message. Yes, I am a woman but I’m also warm, approachable and secure.
Of course Reddy – played here by a fabulously feline Tilda Cobham-Hervey – was an accomplished artist who made a number of hit records during the late 1960s and 1970s. And Unjoo Moon’s fond but enjoyable rags to riches debut biopic shows how she made it from nowhere to become one of the most popular singers of her generation.
Her story starts in 1966. The mother of a 3 year girl Tracey, she arrives in New York from Sydney hoping for a recording contract from a major music producer who immediately patronises her in a film fraught with the ingrained prejudice of the era: “you really flew over from Australia all by yourself?” He denies her a contract claiming the trend is for male bands  “the Beatles are all the rage”. Trying to make her way, she is later denied equal pay as a nightclub singer on the grounds of her status as an illegal alien. But she is not deterred. And with Emma Jensens’ script painting her as a purring lowkey diva, Cobham-Hervey’s Reddy has to figure out how she can keep her canny charisma and move on from being just another talented female vocalist to an assertive, no-bullshit ballbreaker – just like a man – to get to the top. But the Seventies is the era of the singer-songwriter (with a selection of gracefully performed numbers featuring here, dubbed by Chelsea Cullen) so Helen has come to America at just the right time.
Based on Reddy’s own memoirs The Woman I Am, Moon and Jensen do their best to tether the feature to the current upswell of gender parity issues. But it’s not only fame and success as a female Reddy has to conquer but also several tricky relationships, not least her budding romance with potential agent Jeff Wald (Evan Peters), who becomes Helen’s second husband, putting his own life first along with the other high level clients in his portfolio, mostly notable being the rock band Deep Purple. The two form a feisty partnership Jeff spurred on by his wife’s calm determination to pioneer her gently feministic easy listening style. The couple are now living in California where Reddy has bought a poolside mansion with cash.
Meanwhile, the ego-driven Jeff is proving a handful and needs to be managed with an iron fist. Reddy’s other key relationship is with her compatriot Lillian Roxon (Danielle Macdonald), who is making her way in music journalism and is known for the first rock encyclopedia in 1969. But both these relationships will falter: Jeff turns into a belligerent, megalomaniac coke head running through all the couple’s money, and Lillian dies of an asthma attack.
The film’s focus is very much Reddy’s invidious relationship with Jeff but fails to examine why the singer stuck to easy listening style in a career that was successful (Angie Baby, I don’t know How to Love Him and Ain’t No Way to Treat a Lady) but never really had a narrative arc of its own or a progression beyond her female-centric ballads. We do see her attempting to break into the Jazz style she had always been keen on, but this desire is stymied by Jeff and her advisors who control her activities to secure their own profits. And the sheer will and perseverance of making it anyway must have taken up most of her emotional energy, with two children to rear and a mercurial misogynist husband and manager to deal with.
Dubbed “the queen of housewife rock” by Alice Cooper, Reddy is clearly a symbol of female empowerment but more in the style of Phyllis Schlafly than her fellow chanteuses of the era Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon or Carol King. Cleverly the film never comes across as women’s lib story – and in a one certainly doesn’t get the impression Reddy was a ‘bra-burner’, more as a tribute to a woman whose talents as a singer is showcased in Cobham-Hervey’s sinuously stylish performances that make her really appealing to watch and listen in the film. Yet looking back on her music as a teen of that era Reddy was never on the radar as being remotely ‘cool’ or ground-breaking in the style Mitchell and Simon.
Superbly lensed by Oscar winning DoP Dion Beebe, the film’s final scenes therefore come across as an afterthought and tonally out of kilter with what has gone before. That said, this minor flaw does nothing to detract our enjoyment of Cobham-Hervey’s performance that carries the film through with an astonishing tour de force of grace, poise and fervent femininity. MT
IN CINEMAS FROM FRIDAY 9 OCTOBER 2020

 

 

 

 

 

Stray (2020) Bfi player

Dir/DoP/Editor: Elizabeth Lo, Doc 78′

In Istanbul every dog has its day. Especially the city’s stray dogs who enjoy an almost charmed existence in this luminous documentary debut from newbie Elizabeth Lo.

The best thing about Stray is that no dogs loses its life, at least not during filming. There are fights and skirmishes but these take place between the beasts themselves, the locals showing a keen almost kindly affinity with their canine city companions. In her finely calibrated camerawork Lo shows how these dignified dogs take centre stage in widescreen panoramas of the ancient capital as well as close-up, and their soulful expressions will melt even the hardest heart, hinting at a life of hardship and uncertainty. Night and day they navigate urban highways and byways foraging for food and forging bonds of friendship with their canine compatriots. Meanwhile, ordinary city dwellers’ lives go on in the background, the petty contretemps and snippets of conversation are greeted with nonchalance by the dogs whose higher concerns for food and survival add a touch of deadpan irony along the way.

Intertitles highlight Turkey’s compassionate attitude towards their street dogs who, for decades, were subject to widespread culls. Today the authorities take a more laissez-faire attitude and it is now illegal to capture or euthanise the strays. Lo keeps her agile camera near to the ground as the dogs scamper through parks and along the banks of the Bosphorus, scavenging for food and water is their main occupation. .

Although usually pack animals, these noble-looking dogs live independent lives of dignity as we see them going about their business – real and figurative – in the early scenes that follow Kartan, Nazar and Zeytin. All three are big enough to look after themselves, but also take a keen interest in each other and the humans they befriend. Contrary to expectations the locals are very kind to their urban fauna and watching them all interact is enjoyable and sometimes amusing, the odd canine tiff adding texture to the otherwise freewheeling proceedings.

Six months in the making, Lo’s thoughtful doc is one of several recent animal-themed outings – Gunda at Berlin in 2020, and IDFA Special Jury awarded Chilean indie Los Reyes (2018) that followed a pair of canny canine caretakers living in Santiago’s largest skatepark. All three challenge us to reconsider preconceived ideas about our lives with man’s best friend. The most heart-rending sequence here involves a little black and white puppy who is picked up as a companion by a young Syria refugee. What seems like a kindly gesture at first soon feels rather sad for the little mite as it looks sadly around for the family pack, eventually unable to keep its eyes open from exhaustion.

In a poetic twist Lo peppers her self-edited piece with apposite quotes from Diogenes and other ancient philosophers. On a comedic note, two copulating dogs interrupt proceedings in a Women’s Day demonstration, clearly these canines would rather make love not war. Lo leaves us with a tenderly haunting final scene that shows that strays may be loners but they are still very much part of the community, atuned to spiritual awareness, just as much as they are to the more banal aspects of everyday life in Turkey’s capital. MT

NOW ON BFI player

 

 

Beyond the Visible: Hilma af Klint (2020) ****

Dir.: Halina Dyrschka, Documentary with Iris Müller-Westermann, Julia Voss, Josiah McElheny, Johan af Klint, Ulla af Klint; Germany 2019, 93 min. 

The life of abstract artist and mystic Hilma af Klint (1862-1944) – who purportedly created the first abstract work in 1906 – is the subject of this impressive first feature from German director Halina Dyrschka.

Painted out of art history by male supremacists, it shows how the pioneering Swede was creating colourful visionary works – inspired by her interest in Theosophy – five years before Kandinsky, who is supposed the first in this field – the dubious circumstances of which add a controversial twist to this informative arthouse documentary.

They tens mainstay IV (1907)

When Hilma af Klint died at the age of nearly eighty-two, she left 1200 paintings and 26 000 pages of diary to her nephew Erik, with the clear proviso that nothing should be sold from a body of work that would only be exhibited twenty years after death, because she felt the world was not ready for her groundbreaking ideas. She was dead right – the first major exhibition had to wait until 2013, the Moderna Museet in Stockholm having refused to take her paintings as a gift from the Hilma af Klint Foundation during the 1970s. 

In 1882, at the age of twenty af Klint was admitted to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm, where she set about successfully creating traditional portraits and landscapes earning substantial sums. At the Academy she met Anna Cassel, the first of four women who would join her in the collective The Five (De Fem), the others being Cornelia Cederberg, Sigrid Hedman and Matilda Nilsson. But there was another more spiritual side to her life and she was actively involved in Theosophy, participating in séances, a normal pastime for middle class Avantgarde intellectuals at the turn of the century.

Theosophy was the only spiritual movement which allowed women to be ordained as priests, teaching the oneness of all human beings. Af Klint’s interest in the theories of fellow Theosophist Madame Blavatsky led her to geometrical paintings where: “the pictures were painted directly through me, without any preliminary drawings and with great force. I had no idea what the the paintings were supposed to depict; nevertheless, I worked swiftly and surely, without changing a single brush stroke.”  

In 1908 Af Klint met up with her longterm friend Rudolf Steiner, but her abstract work made little impact on the Swiss anthropologist. He would later show her paintings to a fellow Theosophist Kandinsky who claimed his 1910 “Untitled” to be the first ever abstract work ever produced. Nobody will ever know if af Klint’s paintings had influenced  Kandinsky.

The Ten Largest: Adulthood No 7 (1907)

Steiner’s rejection of her work led to a four-year-long creative block for af Klint, lasting until 1912. Her confidence had been battered, but her work on the Temple series carried on and was prodigious, counting 193 paintings divided into sub-series. One theme gave rise to massive canvasses in a series entitled, ‘The Ten Largest” (1907) describing the various stages of life (childhood, youth, adulthood, old age etc).

Clearly af Klint’s work is still an influential creative force over a hundred years after her first foray into the art world. Looking at Warhol’s quartet of Monroe paintings, we find an exact duplicate in af Klints’s oeuvre, showing four identical portraits of an elderly woman. The experts and the film’s Talking Heads agree: Art History has to be re-written to find a place for Hilma af Klint, a courageous woman who only unveiled her abstract talent once during her lifetime: at ‘Friends House’ in London, 1928. AS

IN CINEMAS from 9 OCTOBER 2020

 

 

Beginning (2020) MUBI

Dir: Dea Kulumbegashvili | Cast: Ia Sukhitashvili, Rati Oneli, Kakha Kintsurashvili, Saba Gogichaishvili | Drama, Georgia/France 125′

Dea Kulumbegashvili won the top prize at San Sebastian 2020 for her serenely self-assured yet sorrowful portrait of dispossession that ripples out into wider concerns for her native Georgia and the world in general.

Seen through the eyes of a disenchanted woman living in provincial Georgia this debut feature is a sensual and stunningly cinematic exploration of all that is wrong with society from religious intolerance to misogyny and the erosion of rural life pictured in the film’s devastating scorched earth finale.

On the crossroads between Europe and Asia, Georgia is an independent country and of the most ancient Christian nations dating back to the 4th century. The film opens in a small town in the Caucasus Mountains bordering on Azerbaijan where, as the wife of a Jehovah’s Witness leader, Jana (Sukhitashvili) must play a rather subservient role to her husband David (Oneli). This film opens during a chapel service which is firebombed by an explosion, causing the frightened congregation to flee into nearby countryside. The incandescent blaze glows on silently for a while afterwards igniting Yaha’s own inner turmoil that will smoulder through this slow-burn Tarkovskian drama, delicately touching on its thematic concerns in a way that nevertheless speaks volumes for the audience.

 

Light plays a vital role in Beginning. Playing out as a series of vivid tableaux vivants, the jewel-like frames are often glow with a viridescent pool of light, Arseni Khachaturan’s fixed camera scrutinises the main character in each frame who is often bathed in a shaft of light, or closely observed while the speaking character is out of sight. One sublime take sees Yana lying in a bed of autumn leaves, the ambient bird song slowly dying out as she is transformed into a bliss-like state. Captivating for some viewers (it lasts for around 7 minutes), it may however test other’s powers of endurance. What Dea achieves here is a meditative intimacy with her character. And as we are drawn more closely into Yana’s orbit, we feel a deep affinity with her state of mind; the affect is quite astonishing and deeply calming.

Yana emerges tolerant and forbearing, inspiring our sympathy despite her inner discontent; she is never angry or histrionic even when the children she is preparing for their first religious communion collapse in a fit of giggles. She exudes an almost saint-like endurance except when talking to her self-absorbed husband who professes his deep neediness of her despite his inattentiveness. Shutting down her feelings of futility, he responds patronisingly during a conversation early on in the film: “Let’s find you a job”. Yet as she toils away in the kitchen, Sukhitashvili’s Yana is a luminously compelling heroine, resembling a latter day Jeanne Dielman, a woman who carries on calmly amidst gruelling domestic trivia, a loving mother bewildered by the lurid sexual abuse meted out on her by a visiting police detective come to investigate the chapel fire.

There is one scene where David and Yana appear to be on the same page in their tender pillow talk although David’s chief concern is rebuilding the chapel so his career path is not derailed despite his wife’s calmly-voiced inertia, her own work as an actor having been on the back-burner since their son’s birth.

The film’s painterly views of nature evoke Dea’s appreciation of her homeland and concerns for a rural existence threatened by the future. In a scene towards the end of the film a uniformed hunter looks menacingly into the camera possibly hinting at Georgia’s ongoing tricky relationship with Russia. One more puzzling scene contrasts a violent rape attack (Yana and the detective?) with the wild beauty of its rocky riverside setting where two figures tussle violently at the extreme right of the frame where they are almost indistinguishable from the flow-strewn purple and white undergrowth.

A visit to her mother reinforces Yana’s feelings of subjugation and disempowerment as a woman. Recalling her own difficult marriage, her mother warns Yana not to mention the incident for fear of rocking the boat. Yana is clearly alone in the world with two males who depend on her but never consider her own emotional well-being.

Finally, on a drive home one night David discusses their future in small-town Georgia. A move to Tbilisi is on the cards but David sees it from his own perspective as the camera looks out onto a dark and rainy road ahead. Yana remains locked in silence, a receptacle for everyone’s needs but her own. MT

NOW ON MUBI | San Sebastian | WINNER OF THE GOLDEN SHELL AWARD 2020

 

Capital in the 21st Century (2020) ****

Dir.: Justin Pemberton; Co-Dir.: Thomas Piketty; Doc with Rana Foroohar, Professor Joseph Stiglitz, Thomas Piketty, Ian Bremmer, Francis Fukuyama; France/New Zealand 2019, 102′ 

Justin Pemberton makes economics anything but dry in his thrilling – and frightening – screen adjunct to Thomas Piketty’s ground-breaking book. Brisk and entertaining like a filmic history lesson, some 400 years are condensed into a palatable mouthful that lacks somehow the depth of the page.

The New-Zealander has raided the archives enlivening Capital in the 21st Century with TV clips as well as graphics and archive footage of newsreels, financial ‘experts’ adding their pennyworth in a bid to clarify the mess we are in. According to Piketty – who also appears as a talking head – nothing has changed since the 17th century when feudalism ruled and the medium life expectancy was seventeen. So what does that tell you?

Feudalism saw one per cent of the population own seventy percent of land. Back then the only way of earning a living (apart from servitude) was itinerant farm work. In films terms, the world was like just like Elysium (2013), where a charmed few lived in splendour and the rest in grinding poverty. The French  Revolution tried to break the mould but the real change came with the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century when machines took over the manual work but the power structure was the same: workers being in hock to their employers (who took all the risks), strikers ending up in jail.

Many Europeans emigrating to North America for a new start soon discovered that hard land-based work was still the order of the day, the small family unit unable to compete with land-owners, who bought in slaves and exploited them on the cotton fields of the Deep South. Meanwhile Europeans were out colonising and exploiting the natural resources of the newfound territories, finding unchallenged markets for their products and building fortunes and empires into the bargain.    ,

European workers’ resentment  increased between 1870 and 1914, while an emerging Middle Class got used to a new term: fashion. In the US meanwhile, the class struggle was much more vicious, employers hiring their own militia, backed by a Federal Army who quelled many strikes. The outbreak of World War I channelled class envy into a national identity, the aftermath saw the suffragettes making inroads into male dominance with their fight for the right to vote.

Pemberton then leads us through the more erratic midsection of the documentary which deals with the 20th domination by banking power, nationalism, Depression, war, the welfare system and workers rights. Working class lives improved immeasurably during the late 1950s when prime minister Harold Macmillan proclaimed: “You’ve never had it so good”. He was probably right. The establishment of a Welfare State led to a vigorous middle class which would become the backbone of society, but that backbone has since been severely tested by an erosion of values that has polarised society, particularly now as the gulf widens again between rich and poor. Since the 1970s Oil Crisis, middle class income has sharply declined in the US, where ‘stagflation’ soon became the order of the day.

In the 1980s, President Reagan dismantled the welfare state, and Wall Street and Main Street diverged: what was good for the City and the big corporations (with Joseph Stiglitz’s ideas of trickle down economics) was not seen as a benefit to Main Street with its mainly family-owned small businesses. The US was suffering from competition from Japan and Europe, and Reagan’s battle cry “to make America great again” created a war against trade unions, and native workers disgruntled by a growing number of immigrant labourers. With the slogans like “Greed is good” dominating, more deregulation was supposed to facilitate a “trickle down” of wealth, which never happened. The result is that the bottom 90% of the population has suffered a loss in family income, and the real wages (purchasing power) are on a level last experienced in 1960.

The credit boom, another contributing factor of the 2008 crash, camouflaged a dire situation: since 1970 wages have increased for 90% of the population by 800%, but for the top ten percent the increase in capital was 2000%. This has led to the Super Rich not re-investing their capital in production, but in keeping their wealth in an endless loop, where the same people buy and sell capital commodities, bringing a 4.5% average return. This compared with 1.6% return on investments in industry or other productive enterprises.

When all is said and done, the super rich will always be able to employ the best legal advice to fight their way out of taxation. In 2015, Google Alphabet had made a profit of 15.5. billion USD – offshore in Bermuda. shell companies and numbered accounts for the Elite keep them free from punitive taxes.

Meanwhile, new technologies create new jobs. More than ever ,individuals are setting up companies and gaining financial freedom and clout. But when robots replace humans, humans will slide down the pecking order. Vehicle drivers now make up the second largest group of people in employment. With the advent of the driverless car, what will eventually happen to them?

So the outlook is grim. But it always was. The rich will always be rich, and the poor will always be poor, but the disadvantaged have more opportunities that ever before. Pemberton includes a psychology experiment that exposes a sinister side to human nature suggestive of a positive mind set that also comes into play.

The consequences can only be controlled politically. But who will be controlling capitalism? Certainly not the middle classes, if their erosion continues. The film tries to end on a positive note: “Creating a more equal society is possible from a technical standpoint”. But in reality we all know this is unlikely to happen due to the inherent flaws of human nature. AS

NOW ON RELEASE IN CINEMAS | 25 SEPTEMBER 2020

                                               

7 Films to look forward to this Autumn | LFF 2020

This Autumn’s scaled down Covid special has some treasures to look forward in a real/online melange that plays out across the UK from October 7-18.

Undine, Ammonite and Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland, starring Frances McDormand, are films to look out for in this slimmed down version which opens with Steve McQueen’s latest Mangrove.

In this strange and subdued year for the cinema world, the virtual premieres will play at a set time and have the bonus of an introduction or Q&A with the talent or programmers. But it won’t be quite the same as the usual jamboree which fills the streets of Soho with a jubilant crowd of cineastes.

UNDINE (2020) Berlinale premiere

Christian Petzold’s fantasy love story reworks the myth of Undine, the water nymph, wrapped up in a contemporary story that reflects on the history of Berlin. Petzold’s latest muse Paula Beer is united with her star-crossed beau from Transit Frank Rogowski in this tone-shifting tale interlacing romance with suspense.

GENUS PAN (Lahi, Hayop) 2020 Venice premiere

Philippine filmmaker Lav Diaz is know for his valuable contribution to the slow cinema movement and this latest drama (a mere 150 minutes) is another colourful human story involving murder and mayhem – set on the island of Hugaw during the Japanese occupation.

THE DISCIPLE (2020) Venice premiere

Arguably the definitive film about Indian Hindustani classical music The Disciple explores creative endeavour and perseverance in our climate of quick fix celebrity and overnight success, through the life of an earnest  young musician in modern Mumbai. Chiatanya Tamhane imbues his story with the same intensity and sense of detail as his 2014 debut Court, but ironically the film works best in the freewheeling scenes picturing ordinary life.

NOMADLAND (2020) Venice premiere

Chloe Zhao’s indie breakout hit The Rider (2017) followed a modern day cowboy in his search for a new identity in America’s midwest. Nomadland does this again from a female perspective and the phenomenal, flinty performance of Frances McDormand as the sixty-something Fern who embarks on a cinematically reflective journey this time in a white camper van.

NEVER GONNA SNOW AGAIN (2020) Venice premiere

Malgozarta Szumowska’s latest is a flawed but fabulously entertaining Polish-set social satire with a score that makes it all worthwhile. Alec Utgoff is hypnotic and quietly muscular in the leading role as an enigmatic guru-like dark horse drawing us in to a story that is both intriguing and unsatisfying.

NOTTURNO (2020) Venice premiere

Award-winning documentarian Gianfranco Rosi (Fire at Sea) turns his compassionate camera on ordinary lives in the wartorn Middle East. Banal and tragic, the film’s intensity lies in the raw intimacy of these everyday moments. Luminous camerawork gives the piece a poetic quality.

AMMONITE  (2020) Toronto premiere

Francis Lee set gay hearts a flutter with his earthy tale of Yorkshire farming folk, God’s Own Country. Cut from the same cloth, this sumptuous-looking 1840s costume drama soon gets down and dirty in telling the lesbian story of paleontologist Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) and her close companion Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan).

And one to avoid…

SIBERIA (2020) Berlinale premiere

A raddled old swinger looks back on his life and concludes nothing from his self-indulgent navel gazing in this turkey from veteran talent Abel Ferrara. Not so much a feature, more a series of random widescreen sequences, Siberia is a drama without any meaningful dramatic arc, let alone any heft in addressing a cliched and well-worn theme.

BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2020 | 7 – 18 OCTOBER 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Petite Fille (Little Girl) 2020 ****

Dir.: Sebastien Lifshitz; Documentary with Sasha; France 2020, 90 min.

French filmmaker Sebastien Lifshitz is particularly interested in gender issues (Les Invisibles) and his latest documentary explores Gender Disphoria (GD), through the eyes of a girl who was born a boy living in provincial France.

Sasha is now seven year. Her mother explains the ramifications of her GD to a psychologist. It all started when she was just a toddler: “if I grow up, I want to be a girl”. She was mortified when told this was not going to be the case. Her school head is unwilling to work with the family so a referral to a specialist in Paris seems the only way forward. Problem is, Sasha wants to stay with her friends. The only time Sasha can dress up is in her ballet lessons but at school she still has to keep up the pretence of being a boy.

A great deal of soul-searching goes on for her mother. Naturally she feels responsible in some way, because she actually wanted a girl. But the Paris specialist Dr Bargiacci allays her fears. Surprisingly Sasha’s father and brother supports Sasha desire to be male and so a series of hormone treatments is on the cards in preparation for puberty. Once this happens there is no going back. Sasha goes on her summer holidays, armed with a bikini and new dresses. Then comes the breakthrough the family were waiting for: the school will allow Sasha back, as a girl, beginning her After the holidays, finally the break-throw the family was waiting for: The director, after having talked to the specialist from Paris over the phone, will allow Sasha back to school. She is now eight. But there is bad news too: the Russian ballet teacher literally shoves her out the class, telling her mother: “such things do not happen in her homeland”. The child is naturally dismayed by all this and her mother fears a lifetime of abuse for her child, but at the same time supports her. “We all have a mission in life, and mine is to look after my daughter”.

Moving and passionate, Little Girl is simple but not at all simplistic. DoP Paul Guilhaume’s camera is not intrusive option for a fly-on-the-wall approach. What emerges more than anything is the Sasha’s innocence and nativity in contrast to the prejudice shown her by adults. Do they know better? Will she change her mind? These are the salient issues the film raises. But the overriding feeling is that of Sasha’s confidence in her achievement, staying true to herself and telling the director proudly, after showing him photos of her when she was much younger: “You can see, how much I have changed”. A fascinating snapshot of modern times. AS

IN CINEMAS NOW and INCLUSIVELY on CURZON HOME CINEMA from 25 SEPTEMBER 2020 | UK PREMIER AT CURZON X CAMDEN MARKET ON 17 SEPTEMBER 2020

 

The Painted Bird (2019)

Dir.: Vaclav Marhoul, Cast: Petr Kotlar, Stellan Skarsgard, Harvei Keitel, Udo Kier, Julia Vidrnakova, Nina Sunevic, Jitka Cvancarova, Julian Sands, Czechia/Ukraine/Slovakia 2019, 159 min.

The Painted Bird is inspired by Jerzy Kosinski’s 1965 novel based on on real interviews with holocaust survivors in Poland makes for grim viewing with some of the most horrific scenes ever committed to celluloid. Don’t be seduced by the colourful title – the film is shot in black and white, more appropriate in conveying the stark nature of its contents. 

Some might accuse the Czech director of anti-Polish sentiments – but Poland has actually faced enormous difficulties coming to terms antisemitism during WWII. And that’s not only based on the violence and racism shown in this drama. The Polish government recently legislated to make it a crime to talk about Polish collaboration in the Holocaust. The law had to be withdrawn, but the unease remains.

It sees a young Jewish boy Joshka (Kotlar) whose parents have left him with a relative (Martha/Sunevic) in the belief he will be safer in the countryside. But after Martha dies the boy starts an epic journey of deprivation. Eventually captured by the Germans, he manages to escape his elderly ambivalent guard (Skarsgard) whose mournful eyes shows he has seen enough of death. He then witnesses German soldiers killing a group of Jews trying to escape from a cattle train, heading for  an extermination camp. A sick old priest (Keitel) saves his life but Garbos (Sands), the man charged with looking after him, brutally rapes him, and suffers a particularly gruesome death: the boy has learnt his lesson and is able to be as savage as the others.

The horrific violence continues when Joshka is befriended by a miller’s wife who saves him from drowning. But worse is to come at the hands of her husband (Kier). When he eventually finds sanctuary with Labina (Vidrnakova), it seems his luck has turned. But the young woman needs a lover, not a boy. Soon it becomes clear he has switched allegiances in this descent into hell.

Vladimir Smutny creates a devastating landscape where the characters cling to life stripped of any capacity to care or love in an apocalyptic orgy of destruction and self-destruction echoing scenes from Hieronymus Bosch. AS

NOW ON BFI PLAYER

Apples (2020) Curzon online

Dir: Christos Nikou | Drama Greece, 90

When it comes to films about pandemics nothing could be more serene than this lucid and gently crafted weird wave debut drama from Greek director Christos Nikou.

Not to say that Apples isn’s subversive in a charming way.  The idea came to Nikou long before the coronavirus crisis and yet it perfectly captures the disarming effects of its character’s quiet meltdown. Aris (Aris Servetalis) becomes a victim of amnesia that slowly spreads through his local community and beyond.

There’s nothing of the mass hysteria experienced through the globe just recently. Here the treatment is not a vaccine but involves a series of exercises to re-build his memory. And at first Aris submits willingly the tasks under the care of his amiable medical consultant. Every single event must be dutifully recorded on a camera  – visits to the cinema or shops, even amorous encounters. Everyone submits to the same regime but Aris slowly starts to object to this authoritarian situation.

There are subtle echoes of Yorgos Lanthimos here: Nikou actually trained under the director so it comes as no surprise. But the wry and slightly soporific tone makes this pleasurable to watch allowing languid time out for our own thoughts and feelings. MT

Exclusively on Curzon Home Cinema from Friday 7 May | Apples will also be available to cinemas nationwide as they reopen from lockdown closures | VENICE FILM FESTIVAL | HORIZONS 2020 review

Ava (2019) ****

Dir.: Sadaf Foroughi; Cast: Mahour Jabhari, Shayesteh Sajadi, Bahaar Noohiaw, Sarah Alimoradi, Vahid Aghapoor, Leili Rashidi, Houman Hoursan, Mona Ghiasi; Iran/Qatar/Canada 2017, 103 min.

Born in Teheran in 1976, writer/director Sadaf Foroughi later went on to study in France and now lives in Canada. Her first feature Ava, is a coming of age story that won the FIPRESCI Discovery Prize at the 42nd Toronto International Film Festival for its depiction of teenage life in today’s Tehran.

Brilliant newcomer Jabhari plays the main character Ava, a girl from a comfortable background who rebels against her professional parents and her all girls school, where she is encouraged towards Science rather than the Arts, ironic as her father (Aghapoor) is an architect. She is keen on music and is competing for a place at the capital’s Conservatoire.

School days are never easy for teenagers and particularly in Iran’s restrictive society where young women are scrutinised at every turn. This provides plenty of dramatic potential for Foroughi to make the most innocent behaviour seemingly outlandish. Ava and her friends Melody (Sajadi) and Shirin (Alimoradi)  are no different from Western teenagers, and her parents’ marriage is clearly coming under strain like any modern marriage with today’s pressures.  The school’s supervisor Ms. Dehkhoda (Rashidi) is a bit of a martinet, who makes Ava’s life particularly difficult.  Her father is the more liberal of the parents, but he too claims not to understand his daughter and there is no physical contact between them, not even as basic as holding hands.

Ava has much in common with the features of Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira (1908-2015): Sina Kermanizadeh keeps his camera static, the protagonists moving slowly around the frame, sometimes even leaving. Ava, is stubborn and wilful, very much like Ema in de Oliveira’s Vale Abraäo, based on the Portuguese version of Flaubert’s Emma. Foroughi is clearly influenced by de Oliveira, her heroine subject to the paternalistic constraints of Iranian society where women will always be under the control of their parents. In one scene, her parents discuss Ava’s failings – and their own marital conflicts, Ava meanwhile is packing her rucksack for school – only a thin wall separating them, but the teenager may as well not exist. Many of the authoritative admonishments are made in the third person: teacher and parents making announcement indirectly. A case in point is Dekhoda’s insinuation to the whole class, that “over-eating” is taking place in her school: “girls getting up at night, while everyone is sleeping and sneaking over to the fridge”.  

Passionate but aesthetically restrained, Ava is a mature debut from a talented and assured newcomer. AS

OUT ON 21 AUGUST 2020 | BFI PLAYER

Wonders in the Suburbs | Merveilles a Montfermeil (2019) **

Wri/Dir: Jeanne Balibar | Cast: Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Beart, Ramzy Bedia, Bulle Ogier | Comedy | France, 109′

Seasoned actress turned Jean Balibar first satirised France in Par Example, Electre, starring and directing alongside Pierre Leon. Six years later her stylish but structureless solo attempt at anarchic comedy is far from wonderful but certainly colourful. Shot on location in the Parisian suburbs of Seine St. Denis and Montfermeil, it features over seventy locals and a star-studded cast, but sinks under the weight of conflicting ideas.

Kamel Mrabti (Bedia) and his wife Joëlle (Balibar) are a divorcing couple at the centre of the unfolding political farce. As active members of a new task force they are working to revitalise the locale with some exciting ideas, and although their marriage is over and new lovers have already entered the fray, the two must support their latest mayor Emmanuelle Joly (a fine Beart) in implementing a set of initiatives that include the new Montfermeil International School of Languages with the teaching 62 local languages; the ‘slowing of urban rhythms’; the introduction of a ‘Nap programme’; and social support for sexual satisfaction.

Marijuana is not only legalised under this new regime, it’s actually provided by the council, along with fresh vegetables. Naturally this is all very New Age and exciting. But behind the scenes chaos rules: the Mayor is losing it slowly, undermined but a more senior government official, and Kamel is suspected of being in league with Paris – the big enemy of devolution. Meanwhile, Joly’s secretary is learning Mandinka to keep up with her Malian lover, and the Army is lurking in the woods nearby, ready to strike.

DoP Andre Chemotoff’s visuals vamp up the histrionic mayhem in a production that looks slick and very professional. And although Amalric, Beart and Balibar shine in the leading roles they can’t rescue Balibar’s rather flawed script: breaking eggs on a sculpture of President Macon is, like the whole affair, not particularly original or impressive. MT

NOW ON MUBI | LOCARNO FILM FESTIVAL 7-17 AUGUST 2019   

 

A Matter of Life and Death (1946) | New 4k Restoration | Poetry

Dir: Michael Powell | Writer: Emeric Pressburger | Cast: David Niven, Roger Livesey, Raymond Massey, Kim Hunter, Marius Goring, Abraham Sofaer, Robert Coote, Joan Maude, Kathleen Byron, Bonar Colleano, Richard Attenborough | UK / Fantasy / 104min

Although by general consensus it is now accorded the status of a classic, it actually took quite a while for this beautiful and unique film to be considered as such. Lindsay Anderson at the time actually used it as his yardstick for mediocrity when he despaired in ‘Sequence’ of audiences that “allow themselves to be diverted by A Matter of Life and Death, but confess themselves too lazy for Ivan the Terrible“, while as recently as 1973 it had been dismissed by Angela & Elkan Allan in ‘The Sunday Times Guide to Movies on Television’ as “[e]xtravagantly awful… told not as a comedy, but as a serious, ludicrous drama”.

Matter-870When it first appeared plenty of critics grumbled at its lack of realism, although director Michael Powell himself took great satisfaction in the fact that everything in the film was psychologically explicable as a hallucination on the part of the hero, Peter Carter (engaging played by a young David Niven). The light-hearted backdrop of fantasy, however, made palatable the graphic depiction of the violent death of two of the film’s characters (we first see Bob Trubshawe [Robert Coote] looking very realistically dead with his eyes open), since within the context of the film’s narrative they are both soon depicted jauntily bounding back to life, when in reality at the film’s conclusion they would both have been very much dead, and remained so for all eternity.

 Under the baton of maestro Michael Powell, A Matter of Life and Death is an enormously satisfying exercise in organisation, with the many components that make up  a feature film – Emeric Pressburger’s literate script, the enthusiastic performances by a uniformly fine cast, Jack Cardiff’s Technicolor photography, Allan Gray’s music, Alfred Junge’s production design, Reginald Mills’ editing and so on – smoothly coalescing into a sublime whole, which Powell himself prided himself on making it all look so easy, when it had been anything but.  It was typically audacious that the film chose at so early to reverse the convention already emerging in cinematic fantasy by depicting real life in Technicolor and Heaven in black & white. The transitions are smoothly organised, although some took exception at Marius Goring’s line – breaching the fourth wall – that “One is starved for Technicolor up zere…!”  Depicting Heaven in black & white was perceived by Raymond Durgnat as satirising the welfare state, and in an odd little book published in 1947 called ‘The World is My Cinema’ E.W. & M.M. Robson heaped page upon page of abuse on the heads of Powell & Pressburger accusing them of being unpatriotic fascist sympathisers (although it’s worth noting that nobody from the Axis Powers is anywhere to be seen, the Chief Recorder is a woman (Joan Maude) and The Judge is played by an Asian actor [Abraham Sofaer]).

matter-4A remarkable amount of Britain’s imperial dirty linen indeed receives a very public airing during the heavenly tribunal (including a laugh-out-loud moment depicting the introduction of an Irish juror in standard IRA uniform of trilby and trenchcoat) led Richard Winnington of the News Chronicle to suppose it was there just for “American box-office purposes”, which ironically attests to the artfulness with which Powell & Pressburger’s company The Archers had camouflaged their propaganda, since the whole reason for the film’s existence had been a request from the Ministry of Information to make a film stressing Anglo-American friendship (relations between the Allies were becoming strained even before Germany surrendered). Anyone else would have simply obliged with a conventional romance between a Brit and a Yank, but The Archers didn’t do conventional, and only they would erect such a formidable edifice to get their message across.

It’s hard to imagine any other national cinema or filmmakers combining such technical and philosophical ambition with such boundless exuberance in its telling. The whole film looks so extraordinary, it’s easy not to notice the skilful use of sound throughout – from the hollow, echoing acoustics of the opening scene narrated by John Longden taking us on a tour of outer space, through the ominously ticking clock in the control room at the air base, to Allan Gray’s exquisite and atmospheric score, his last for an Archers production.

A Matter of Life and Death represents both the culmination and conclusion of The Archers’ first phase, since as their later productions became more ornate they in the process lost much of the gusto and graceful good humour which had characterised their earlier productions. ©RChatten

The film also inspired Alan Price to compose this poem:

A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH (1946) 

No one has ever dramatised a brain seizure like you guys. 

An airman hallucinating on earth and its WW2 ‘heaven.’ 

Pilot Peter Carter, so English a fighting poet. One moment 

in a three-strip Technicolor village, the next on a staircase 

to a monochrome beyond. Blaze of aircraft crashing down. 

A beach. Her cycling. You meet; grab the falling handlebars, 

embrace and kiss. Not some visionary sight of a nether world. 

Nor a surgeon spying the street with his camera obscura. 

Nor the French messenger who lost his head. Nor the smell 

of fried onions can change my mind: the idea of a sacrifice

for love. June got her man. Peter got his woman. Emeric and 

you Michael got the film you wanted. AMOLAD determined 

my fantasy after-life. I was born premature three years later: 

taken out of my pram; nurtured in a cinema, entranced by 

black & white pearls with the option for wide screen rainbows. 

Hovering betwixt and between, knowing I’d never starve.

©ALAN PRICE

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.

The Woman in Black (1989) **** Blu-ray

Dir: Herbert Wise | Cast: Adrian Rawlins, Bernard Hepton, Pauline Moran, David Ryall, Clare Holman | UK Horror Thriller, 100′

Originally made for TV and screening on Christmas Eve 1989, Herbert Wise directed this well made and effective thriller that takes us back to the Gothic tradition of storytelling in a Victorian ghost fantasy based on Susan Hill’s original 1983 novel. The Woman in Black follows the same formula as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, minus the blood-sucking Count who is replaced by an equally menacing woman in black, and the boxes of earth by a trunk full of evil trappings.

On the request of his crusty old boss young lawyer Arthur Kipps (Adrian Rawlins) travels from London to the North Eastern coastal town of Crythin Gifford, and out across the eerie salt marshes to attend the funeral of a friendless old widow, Alice Drablow. During the church service a be-hatted, black-robed woman appears to be watching Arthur Kidd from a distance and reappears on the marshes later that day, her face set in a ghastly grimace.

Wise’s film is chockfull of ghastly horror tropes. The wind moans and gulls screech as Kipps makes his way in the swirling mists to Eel Marsh House, only to discover a mournful legacy of untimely death and ghostly appearances in this miserable corner of Victorian England. A talented British cast includes Bernhard Hepton who plays a kindly professional Sam Toovey a sort of Devil’s advocate in explaining away the terrifying sounds and occurrences. The other locals are a sceptical bunch. And no one can explain how a ball comes to be bouncing and a little boy’s voice greets Kipps laughingly in a room that has apparently been locked since Alice’s death. Not to mention a recurring sound of a carriage crashing amid blood-curdling screams outside the house. All this has been recorded on a phonograph by Mrs Drablow herself. Meanwhile, Kipps seems to be losing his mind – not surprisingly. And things don’t improve when he returns to London, freaked out by the whole affair which continues to haunt him in the film’s shocking finale. Made in the late 1980s this reliable horror story  still has an undeniable kick thanks to Wise’s able direction. MT

https://youtu.be/wYfKkf_0Pnc
The worldwide Blu-ray debut of The Woman in Black is available exclusively from the Network website on 10 August 

The Plot Against America (2019) HBO Series 1-6

Dir.: Minkie Spiro, Thomas Schlamme; Winona Ryder, Morgan Spector, Zoe Kazan, John Turturro, Caleb Malis, Azhy Robertson, Anthony Boyle, Jacob Laval, Kristen Sieh, Eleanor Reissa, Michael Kostroff, Caroline Kaplan, Ben Cole, Graydon Josowitz); USA 2020, 360 min.

This ground breaking six-part HBO TV series is outstanding. Written by David Simon and Ed Burns (The Wire) and based on Philip Roth’s 2004 alternative history novel of the same name, it shows how Fascism came to America in 1940. A brilliant cast, imposing re-creation by PDs Dina Goldman and Richard Hoover, who, like the directors Minkie Spiro (Jessica Jones) and Thomas Schlamme (Westwing) share the six episodes of this staggering production of alternative US history: “It Could Happen Here”.

Many will remember the theme tune “The Road is open Again”, an old Warner Brother’s short film score promoting Roosevelt’s New Deal episodes. This ushers in the Levin family in their home in Weequahic, Newark/New Jersey in the summer of 1940, a few months before the Presidential Election in the autumn of the year. ‘Its a done thing’, that Franklin Delano Roosevelt will be elected, at least for his staunch supports Hermann Levin (Spector), selling life insurance for a living, and his wife Bess (Kazan), who keeps the family tightly organised. Their oldest son, teenager Sandy (Malis) has a talent for drawing but disagrees with his father’s outlook on life, that only Jewish affairs matter. The youngest, Philip (born like the author in 1933), is much more interested in his friends than in politics. Hermann has just given up the idea of a promotion which would enable the family to move into a bigger house, having seen beer-slurping members of the Fascist “German-American Bund” in what would have been his new neighbourhood.

Opposing Roosevelt in the election is the pilot-hero “Lindy” Lindbergh (Ben Cole) of ‘Spirit of St. Louis’ fame, who is a believer in eugenics, a supporter of ‘America First’ and a vicious Anti-Semite. The real Lindbergh, who shared the political outlook of his fictional double, was not selected as candidate of the Republican Party. Lindbergh put a simple phrase forward and repeated it at nauseam: “This is between Lindbergh and War”, implying that President Roosevelt would ‘drag’ the USA into the European War. Lindbergh won in a landslide.

Meanwhile Bess’s sister Evelyn (Winona Ryder back and better than ever) is looking after their mother (Reissa), and has fallen for conservative Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf (Turturro), an avid supporter of Lindbergh. A grateful president gives Bengelsdorf the leadership of the “Office of American Absorption”, a scheme designed to evict Jewish families from their homes on the East Coast, to the American “Heartland” of the South, where the KKK and other racist organisations hold sway supported by the authorities. This brings about another conflict between Sandy and his father, the teenager claiming to not having seen KKK members when he spent six weeks in Kentucky with a farmer. Cousin Alvin (Krumholtz) is a small-time gangster and clashes with Hermann, but gets the thumbs up from Sandy. Alvin finally flees to Canada, where he joins the Army, losing a part of his leg. In a bid to bury their differences Hermann invites Alvin (“family is family”) to live with them again.  Alvin is able to gain the attention of his boss’s daughter, helping her father to fight off a gang robbing his arcade machines, and setting up a lucrative future and marriage, thanks to his skills as radar operator acquired in the in the war. 

But Lindbergh has changed the political climate: with slogans such as “the USA will not be part of the war in Europe, because it was caused by Jews”, the Jewish minority is victimised, Anti-Semitic attacks having become common. Hermann is hassled by FBI agents for offering a home to a ‘criminal’ like Alvin: the young man has contravened the American Neutrality Act which forbids any involvement in the War.

Philip is ‘introduced’ by his wealthy friend Earl Axman (Yosowitz) to the world of female underwear. Meanwhile the father of his friend Seldon (Laval), the Levin’s next door neighbour suddenly dies. Jews start to emigrate to Canada, including Hermann’s best friend Shepsie (Kostroff), the projectionist of the newsreel cinema in Weequahic, where the two watched Hitler’s rise in Europe. The Levins are now put on a list for a new “home”, Hermann has been “transferred” to Kentucky by his company. He resigns and works for a greengrocer. Bess insists on emigrating to Canada, after begging her sister Evelyn in vain to be taken off the list for the ‘exile’ in Kentucky. Seldon and his mother Selma (Sieh) are not so lucky, they have been put on the list for Kentucky, because Philip told his aunt Evelyn that he would miss Seldon, if only the Levins would have to move. One day, the troubles rising, Bess gets a phone call from Seldon: his mother is missing. Hermann and his two sons drive to Kentucky, only to learn that Selma has been burned alive in her car by the KKK. Even though the roads in the South are full of patrolling KKK members, Hermann brings Seldon ‘home’. Then, in the midst of a looming civil war in the country, President Lindbergh, flying his own plane, is reported missing.

There is so much to enjoy and admire in this series: Turturro’s operatic appeaser; Evelyn’s social climbing – she even dances with Nazi Foreign Secretary Joachim von Rippentrop at the White House during his visit; history unfolding as Hermann and Shepsie watch from the projection room at the cinema; the entire social dynamic of the Levin family.

Put at its simplest, The Plot Against America is an eye opener: the ‘America First’ and White Supremacist movement has always been virulent – but it takes a populist president to give them credence and light the fire. Never has history been so cleverly and affectively foretold. AS

ON SKY ATLANTIC | NOW TV

 

     

 

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.

Homeland (Domovine) (2020) **** FID Marseille

Dir.: Jelena Maksimovic; Cast: Jelena Angelovski, Trifonas Siapalinis; Serbia 2020, 63 min.

Jelena Maksimovic is inspired by her own life experience in this feature debut, a lament about loss but above all, a feminist reckoning dedicated to the filmmaker’s grandmother Elina Gacu (1928-2017), evacuated from civil wartorn Greece to what was then Yugoslavia, now North Macedonia.

The stark winter setting makes this all the more foreboding: A car approaching a wild mountainside, a young woman behind the wheel, a banal, romantic song on the car stereo. Not the best of welcomes for the ‘homecoming’ of someone who has never set foot in her country before.

The changing seasons mark a year’s stay in this village, and her growing unfulfilled longing to find a place which connects to her grandmother who has lived here since being exiled from her homeland during the Civil War (1946-1949), the first proxy war of the global Cold War.

This young woman is a visitor but not a tourist, wanting to claim something of the place for herself. Fragments of war of are everywhere: in fortifications, ruined houses and the reminiscences of old men who recall partisans coming from the mountains to fight government troops before vanishing back into their hideouts.

The woman befriends a restaurant owner, they cook together, he and his friends perform an old folk dance. But for the most part she tries to connect with the inhospitable terrain where animals are her only friends.  Hidden traces of the combat are everywhere. Finally, after so much silence she breaks into a final poetic outburst, accusing the men of bringing warfare to the place and repressing women. She claims the trees in the woods are the only true communists, and mourns the fate of her grandmother.

DoP Dusan Grubin makes an unobtrusive foray into this melancholy setting  – his harrowing panorama shots are just a foretaste of what is to come in a paean to lost identity. The main unnamed character is a victim of fragmentation and alienation: her trial to find anything like home is hampered by the silence around her. The past is the past – whatever the partisans stood for – or whatever the war was about. Her grandmother is a bridge to this past and will lead her back to herself. Homeland is for every soul searching for a place to call their own, moored somewhere in their dreams. AS

FID Marseille | 2020 | INTERNATIONAL COMPETITION 

The Rifleman | Dveselu Putensis (2019) *** Digital and DVD

Dir.: Dzintars Dreibergs; Cast: Otto Brantevics, Taimonds Celms, Martin Vilsons, Greta Trusina; Latvia 2019, 104 min.

The Rifleman pays stark witness to the horrors and brutality of the First World War, as seen through the eyes of an innocent 17-year-old farm-boy turned soldier and the tragic fate of his family.

Written by Boris Frumin and based on the 1933/34 novel by Aleksanders Grins, which was forbidden in the USSR, its author shot down in 1941. This lushly mounted historical drama was, not surprisingly, a huge success at the box-office in Latvia, and an impressive first feature for Latvia’s Dzintars Dreibergs, who made his name as sports documentarian.

The Rifleman is an unashamedly male and patriotic affair, filmed as an eyewitness report from the POV of 17-tear-old Arthurs Vanags (Brantevics), it opens in 1914 giving full emotional throttle to the murder of the young man’s mother by German soldiers, who, for good measure also kill the family’s dog. Arthur’s father (Vilsons) has served in the Russian Imperial Army, and burns down the farmhouse and shoots the cattle, before enlisting with Arthurs and his brother Edgars (Celms) in Latvia’s first National Battalion, part of the Russian forces overrun by the Germans.

Wounded in a skirmish, Arthurs soon falls for Marta (Trusina), a nurse in the field hospital. But more tragedy follows when Arthurs is asked by Red Army commanders to shoot Latvian soldiers who have disobeyed their Russian officers. Returning home, Arthurs catches up with Marta who is now working as a farmhand in Latvia, before setting out to liberate his homeland from “Tsars, Red Army and the Germans who all want to repress Latvian independence.”

DoP Valdis Celmins does a great job with his grizzly images of foggy snowbound battles, the frozen bodies reduced to ghostly spectres. Lolita Ritmanis’ evocative score is in line with this heroic approach to war, providing the emotional underpinnings to this rousing feature (1917 it is not) depicting a grim episode in Latvian history. AS

In the Showcase Cinema circuit nationwide | Sunday 26th July  
On Digital from 10th August | On DVD from 24th August 
 

Las Ninas Bien | The Good Girls (2018) Mubi

Dir.: Alejandra Marquez Abella; Cast: Ilse Salas, Flavio Medina, Paulina Gaitan; Mexico 2018, 93 min.

Alejandra Marquez Abella’s flawed sophomore feature is a social anthropologist’s dream: based on characters by Guadelupe Loaeza, a group of bitchy competitive Mexican wives whose the crowning glory is having Julio Iglesias for dinner. Sofia, leads the cast of mere cyphers in an episodic narrative that drains out patience even with the modest running time.

Sofia (Salas) is desperate to deny her Latin American heritage. Sending her three children off to summer camp, she warns them “don’t hang out with Mexicans”. A European background is what she and her female rivals long for. In the social whirl, Sofia’s parties are epic productions,  funded by her husband Fernando (Medina) whose   family is of Spanish heritage. Everything is a competition for Sofia, the smallest bum note could lead to a loss of face among her female friends. But we are in the early 1980s, and the Mexican Peso suddenly bottoms out. As Sofia and her circle rely on imported goods, this is a major catastrophe all round. So when credit cards get politely refused and the servants don’t get paid, doom is imminent. To make matters worse, Sofia’s arch rival, the noveau-riche Ana Paula (Gaitan), is still quids in. Her default-position is resigned acceptance, but with the Peso tumbling further, even this seems beyond the pail.

Salas is always brilliant, cool and contained, she carries the film as much as possible. DoP Daniela Ludlow succeeds in conjuring up this lush environment of petty mini-me’s in meltdown, keeping everything close and personal, despite the widescreen format. As a chick-flick study of vanity and self-deceit this is promising but lacks emotional depth and an absorbing dramatic arc. AS

NOW ON MUBI

They Came to a City **** (1944) | Dual format release

Dir.: Basil Dearden; Cast: Googie Withers, John Clements, Raymond Huntley, Renee Gadd, Mabe; Terry-Lewis, Fanny Rowe, A.E. Matthews; UK 1944, 77 min.


Basil Dearden (1911-1971) was one of the most undervalued of British directors. His films featured the persecution of homosexuals (Victim, 1961) and the not so latent racism in Sapphire (1959). No surprise therefore that J B Priestley’s little known but worthwhile play They Came to a City (premiered 1943) should capture his imagination in the final days of the Second World War. Taking its title from the Walt Whitman poem ‘The City’, it is a Sartre-like scenario set in a transient underworld, ever more relevant in the current climate.

Nine characters, picked from every stratum of British society, are stranded at the entrance to a city; the huge door is locked, and the protagonists feel unsure of the way ahead. But after the door opens and they are (unlike the audience) allowed into the ‘magic’ city, and soon recover their mindsets, very much the product of their individual places in society. It emerges that this city offers the option of social equality, but  only two will stay. The rest, for whatever reasons, will return to the life they had. 

Of the minor characters, Sir George Gedney (Matthews), is every inch the upper-class gentleman, kept away from his game of golf, and only too ready to forget all the arguments arising from their encounter. Lady Loxfield (Terry-Lewis) is his equal, but her daughter Philippa (Rowe) finds enough strength to cut loose from her over-bearing mother, who is too stunned by her daughter’s sudden resistance, to react. Malcolm Stratton (Huntley) is a bank manager, who looks through the charade of the hierarchy he is working for, calling the chairman of the bank a pompous idiot. But his wife Dorothy (Gadd), totally dependent on him, is fearful of any change, and even promises to be more outgoing if Malcolm returns with her to their middle-class existence. The main couple, barmaid/shop girl Alice (a sparkling Googie Withers) and the explosive seaman Joe (Clements), might be falling in love with each other but nevertheless argue non-stop. She reacts against his aggressive masculinity, and talks of the sexual harassment she encounters at work. He raves on about this new opportunity but has no idea how to make it happen. These two soon become aware that neither they, nor society as a whole, is ready for change.  

Using most of the original stage cast, Dearden directs thoughtfully, letting all the characters explore themselves as much as their hopes for a future. Whilst this often feels stuck in its stagey setting, and would have possibly worked better as a radio play, DoP Stanley Pavey (Home is the Hero) brings a certain poetic realism to the proceedings. In many ways, the doomed affairs of French films such as Quai de Brumes, are re-enacted through a British gaze. Needless to say, They came to a City was a disaster at he box-office, and it is to the credit of Ealing supremo Michael Bacon, that the brave feature came to be be produced at all. MT

ON RELEASE ON A NEW 2K FORMAT FOR THE BEST SURVIVING 35 mm ELEMENT  COMPLETE WITH AUDIO NFT LECTURE BY MICHAEL BALCON IN 1969 | BFI

 

 

 

 

 

Maborosi (1995) **** Blu-ray release

Dir.: Hirokazu Kore-eda; Cast: Makiko Esumi, Takashi Naito, Gohki Kashima, Tadanobo Asanao; Japan 1995, 110 min.

Born in 1962, Hirokazu Kore-eda studied literature at university with plans to become a novelist, later establishing himself as a documentarian in the late 1980s, working in television, were he directed several prize-winning programmes. Maborosi brought him and his DoP Masao Nakabori international acclaim, winning awards at Venice film festival. He would later win the Palme d’Or at Cannes with Shoplifters (2018).

Maborosi is a mature, poetic discourse on the meaning of loss and longing. Scripted by Yoshihisa Ogita and based on a novel by Teru Miyanoto. Maborosi takes its title from the Japanese word for mirage, and resonates with Feu Follet, Louis Malle’s feature about a suicide. Kore-eda was 34 when he shot Maborosi; contrasting modern and traditional life, rather like Japanese master Ozu.

In Osaka, Yumiko (Esumi) is content with her easy-going husband Ikuo (Asano) and their baby-boy Yuichi. One morning she finds the police on her doorstep: Ikuo has been killed on the nearby railroad tracks. Yumiko is shattered, the tragedy bringing back memories of the disappearance and death of her grandmother Kyo, when Yumiko was twelve years old. For a long time Yumiko lives in limbo, not able to accept the death of her husband. An arranged marriage brings her to the remote windswept coast of Uniumachi on the Noto peninsula. Her new husband Tamio (Naito) and his daughter live with an extended family and Yuichi (Kashima) bonds easily with the two. But Yumiko takes time to adjust to her new life, unable to forget her the deep affectionate love she shared with Ikuo. And when she returns to Osaka for a visit, all the old wounds open – particularly when she re-connects with Ikuo’s friends about the circumstances of his death. She goes back to Uniumachi but the past stays with her.

The hustle and bustle of city life in Osako contrast with the tranquil setting of the fishing village. Although in both places Kore-eda shows the warmth and humanity of close neighbours and the daily routine. Yumiko’s anxiousness and the barriers she puts between herself and a new life are palpable: for most of the film we see her as an observer, looking in from outside. The languid tempo also brings to mind Ozu, as do the frequent near static shots, featuring the rough landscape around the village. The feeling that fate could once again We observe this grieving process with a shared feeling of ambivalence: Yumiko has lost confidence in happiness, doom is constantly waiting round the corner. She is not yet ready to say goodbye to her former life and the limbo between the past and an unknown future, where “she brings death to the ones she is close to” – like her first husband and her grandmother.

Moborosi is a story that also paints an emotional portrait; music, light and weather express the heroine’s sate of mind while her serene persona is also deeply troubled. The spoken word is often replaced often by an inner monologue. In the end she has to make up her mind whether she, like Ikuo, wants to ‘listen’ to the siren songs in the light of death, or whether she is ready to progress with her life and new family. Like his compatriot Hsiao Hsien Ho, Kore-eda takes care of every frame: nothing is superfluous, everything is stripped down to the minimum. Kore-eda’s whole oeuvre is about using the screen to paint poetry, his protagonists seek to overcome their banal reality with something more meaningful which, as in this case, can also be destructive. AS

NOW ON BLU-RAY

 

Clemency (2019) Prime Video

Dir.: Chinonye Chukwu; Cast: Alfre Woodard, Aldis Hodge, Richard Schiff, Danielle Brooks, Michael O’Neill, Wendell Pierce, Richard Gunn, Vernee Watson; USA 2019, 113 min.

Director/writer Chinonye Chukwu certainly knows her subject. The founder of a filmmaking collective dedicated to teaching incarcerated women, she has also worked as a volunteer on many clemency appeal cases. But despite a towering performance by Alfre Woodard in the lead role, Clemency is surprisingly under-whelming.

Bernadine Williams (Chukwu) is the chief warden of a High Security prison, facing the twelfth execution of her tenure. The previous one was a botched job, the anaesthetic injection and lethal substance just didn’t work. So Williams was forced to close the curtains between the execution chamber and the witness booth to the chagrin of family members.

Case number twelve is a certain Anthony Woods (Hodge), on death row for more than a decade after  killing a police officer – even though he maintains his innocence. The proceedings will test Bernadine to the last: Defence attorney Marty Lumetta (Schiff), also a fighter, and like Bernadine, on his final job before retirement. He’s hoping for a reprieve for his client. Meanwhile her deputy (Gunn) is going for another job in a prison without an execution facility. The Prison Chaplain (O’Neill), is equally disenchanted and opting for a transfer.

Bernadine is somehow left high and dry, her co-workers making her look cold and over-efficient. Her school teacher husband (Pierce) is sententious but not unsympathetic. Reading Ralph Ellison’s ‘Invisible Man’ to his students, he clearly considers himself special and somehow shames his wife into re-examining their marriage, driving her to the bottle with his prim attitude. Bernadine also has to deal with histrionics from the dead policeman’s mother (Watson), and by now we have come to understand Bernadine is fighting a one-woman battle, the writer/director letting her down badly, somehow making her look incapable. Meanwhile Woods’ discovers he is now a father, and the demonstrators outside the prison are getting louder as the day of execution approaches.

Clemency is a heavy film to watch not because of its subject matter but because it is seriously down on its heroine despite her diligent and likeable personality. Eric Branco provides stylish, if somewhat over-symbolic, widescreen images and Kathryn Bostic’s score is subtle. Despite all this it feels as if Chukwu has abandoned the quietly thoughtful heroine Bernadine in favour of those who question the system. AS

GRAND JURY PRIZE | Sundance Film Festival | FRIDAY 17 JULY 2020 | CURZON HOME CINEMA  

Parasite (2019) **** In Black and White

Dir: Bong Joon Ho | Cast: Song Kang-ho, Choi Woo-shik, Chang Hyae-jin, Park So-dam, Lee Sun-kyun, Cho Yeo-jeong, Jung Ziso, Lee Jung-em, Jung Hyeon-jun | Drama | Korea 131′

The black and white cut of this wickedly thrilling upstairs downstairs social satire Korean-style seems even more resonant, relevant and appealing in its monochrome format.

This scabrous story is the latest in a line of hits from the South Korean master along with The Host, Snowpiercer and Okja. But this time the gloves are off as Boon Joon offers up shameless social reality and makes no bones it, dishing the dirt on the rigid class system in his homeland.

Thematically rather too similar to last year’s Plane d’Or winner Shopkeepers to offer any big surprises about South Korean life, this is nonetheless startling in its candour. The characters are ordinary people making their way as best they can. But this is a flashier film that wears its satire on its slick sleeve for all to access, and there’s nothing subtle about its social message. The ‘parasites’ are sharp individuals who cunningly see their way to the main chance. Bong Joon calls the film “a comedy without clowns, a tragedy without villains.” Yet in the natural world, parasites live off their hosts, depending on them for survival, but often causing disease or harm. This certainly was the case in The Servant, but does it happen here?

Head of the family Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) lives with his wife Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin), son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) and daughter Ki-jung (Park So-dam) in a squalid slum, grafting a living by preparing cardboard pizza boxes. Through his backstreet contacts, young Ki-woo inveigles himself into a wealthy household of a captain of industry Mr. Park (Lee Sun-kyun) where he is tasked with tutoring his teenage daughter Da-hye (Jung Ziso). Her mother Yeon-kyo (Cho Yeo-jeong) is a typically vacuous trophy wife who prances around their pristine modernist mansion all day, doing a spot of shopping when she occasionally ventures out with . Without giving any clues away, the Ki-woo’s entire family are drafted into the vast mansion, taking various guises, and booting out the old guard. As the narrative spools out with a series of plot twists, the tension gradually mounts and the gulf between rich and poor is ramped up to the maximum. No one comes out a winner after a lavish garden party where they all take part in some form or another, as blood mingles with the champagne.

Winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2019 and four Academy Awards in 2020, including the Oscar for Best International Feature, this is a confident and entertaining drama that beats as it sweeps, its production values as smooth as silk and laced with a dread-laden score. The kids give as good as the adults performance-wise and leave us pondering which is best: North Korea with its oppressively restrictive communist regime or the South with its dog eat dog capitalism based on the law of the jungle? MT

PARASITE WON THE PALME D’OR 2019 | ACADEMY AWARDS FOR BEST DIRECTOR, BEST MOTION PICTURE, BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY, BEST INTERNATIONAL FEATURE.

NOW in Black and White COURTESY OF CURZON ARTIFICIAL EYE | IN CINEMAS from 24 July 2020

 

 

 

Villa Empain (2019) **** MUBI

Dir: Katharina Kastner | Doc, Belg/France/Ger/ 25′

Katerina Kastner’s impressionistic documentary debut captures the essence of the Villa Empain, one of the most beautiful architectural masterpieces of Art Deco in Brussels. In 1930, at the age of 21, Baron Louis Empain commissioned the building of a private mansion in 55 acres on the prestigious Avenue de la Nation which was later on renamed as Franklin Roosevelt Avenue.

Using the finest materials available in those interwar years (marble, bronze and precious wood), the luxurious house consisted of four polished granite facades, surrounded by a large garden with a pergola and swimming pool. A collector and curator, Louis Empain eventually decided that the property was better served as a museum of decorative and contemporary art, and it was donated to the Belgian Nation in 1937. But the Second World War changed everything and the villa languished until 1943, when it was requisitioned by the German army, eventually becoming an embassy for the USSR in peacetime when Empain recovered his property in the beginning of the sixties, before reselling it in 1973. For nearly ten years it was rented to the TV channel RTL then falling to semi-rack and ruin during the 1990s. It was eventually saved by a wealthy family who set up the Boghossian Foundation in 2007, transforming the building into an East West cultural centre and guaranteeing the revival of its fortunes.

Shot in 16mm this is a sensual creation that resonates with the passage of time, showcasing the the house’s former glory through its trials and tribulations to its present reincarnation. The clever editing brings an eerie and fleeting sense of human presence drifting through the empty rooms and light-filled gardens where leaves swirl and valuable materials shimmer in shafts of sunlight. This short but ravishing documentary takes us on a dreamy distant journey to the coast where the family once enjoyed beach holidays in a space reflected by evocative fantasies and haunted by the war years. A century of memories recorded in a treasured place in time. MT

COMES TO MUBI ON 15 JULY 2020 |

Litigante (2019) **** Curzon | Edinborough Film Festival 2020

Dir.: Franco Lolli; Cast: Carolina Sanin, Leticia Gomez, Antonio Martinez, Vladimir Duran, Alejandra Sarria; France/Columbia 2019, 95 min.

South America is delivering some really good films at the moment and Colombian filmmaker Franco Lolli (Gente de Bien) continues the trend with LITIGANTE. Aiming successfully for psychological hyper-realism it centres on an upper-middle class family where mother and daughter, both top-lawyers, argue each other, quite literally, to death.

Middle-aged Silvia (Sanin) is having a hard time: as chief lawyer for the public works department in Columbia’s capital Bogota, her boss has implicated her in a scandal. On the local radio she holds her own against the host Abel (Duran), and then bumps into him later at a party where he apologises. The two end up in bed, but other conflicts threaten to overwhelm Silvia: her controlling mother Letitia (Gomez) is dying of lung cancer, but is still very much in fighting mood as far as her daughter is concerned, even from her deathbed. When Letitia complains about her relationship with Abel: “he took you down in front of the entire population of Bogota in that interview”, exasperated Silvia exclaims: “You never want me to have a life that’s independent from yours”.

Then Silvia’s pre-school son Antonio (Martinez) has a tantrum, destroying toys and endangering other children. Apparently the other kids are bullying him about not having a father. And this is all because his mother refused to admit that his biological father, a high-ranking judge, actually sired her son. Silvia doesn’t even get on with the family’s housekeeper  ‘Majo’ and so her budding relationship with Able collapses even before getting off the ground.

Lolli manages the turmoil with great aplomb, creating a scenario where high octane emotional output is the norm. We watch Silvia and Letitia competing for the role of victim, trying to make each feel guilty in a classic family dynamic. Their sparring is the raison d’être of their lives – in a perverse way, they enjoy it. 

Litigante is not only much more honest than Cuaron’s Roma, it also has a stronger dramatic impact and a more convincing cast, led by the indomitable Carolina Sanin, who seemingly conquers all. DoP Pablo Romero Garcia uses handheld close-ups of the warring factions and his panoramic shots of Bogota evoke the chaos of a family in crisis.

LITIGANTE IN NOW STREAMING ON CURZON WORLD | 10 JULY 2020

Au Bout des Doigts | In Her Hands (2019) *** Curzon Home Cinema

Dir: Ludovic Bernard | Cast Karidja Touré, Lambert Wilson | Kristin Scott Thomas | Jules Benchetrit | Drama French, 106 minutes
Music is the redeeming force in this Parisian prodigy drama from Luc Besson’s former assistant director Ludovic Bernard (Lucy).
Social realism clashes with the soigné world of the National Music Conservatory in an elliptical story that sees a disadvantaged young man develop his hidden talent thanks to a well-meaning protegé inspired by a tragedy of his own. Lambert Wilson is Pierre Geithner the director of the music college where Kristin Scott Thomas is draconian piano teacher, La Comtesse. Both will help Mathieu Malinski (Benchetrit) to become a concert pianist in this French riff on ‘My Fair Lady’.
As French dramas go this is solid rather than inspiring. Both Geitner and Malinski have the most scope as characters with their troubled backstories which are well-sketched out – although Benchetrit doesn’t always make the most of his complex role. The reverse is true for Scott Thomas, who tries hard to add nuance to her rather one dimensional Countess. Fortunately she has enough experience and talent to flesh out this severe woman, not so Malinski’s mother, a rather weak performance from Else Lepoivre. Karidja Toure is a breath of fresh air as Mathieu’s girlfriend Anna, a talented musician who possesses enough carefree elan to give Mathieu the confidence to believe in himself, in this casebook study of young male empowerment.
Jean Nouvel’s slick contemporary culture complex provides a slick counterpoint to the scenes in the down-at-heel banlieu where Malinski hangs out with his gang. In flashback we see him being inspired by a kindly old relative before the chic Countess swings in with her no nonsense approach, that often clashes with Malinski’s laid back style. And although she almost gives up in the end, Geitner’s continued passion for his discovery offers the most surprising reveal. MT
UK Release Date | 10th July 2020 | On Curzon Home Cinema

The Garden Left Behind (2019) *** SXSW 2020

Dir.: Flavio Alves; Cast: Carlie Guevara, Ed Asner, Michael Madsen, Miriam Cruz, Tamara M. Williams, Anthony Abdo, Alex Cruz; USA/Brazil, 88 min.

Brazilian-born first time director/co-writer Flavio Alves, granted asylum for political reasons in the USA, has created a moving but structurally erratic portrait of a Mexican transgender woman, who lives with her grandmother as an undocumented immigrant in New York. Shot elegantly in the Bronx and Brooklyn by DoP Koshi Kiyokawa with support of the local transgender community, The Garden is carried by debutant Carlie Guevara in the central role.

Tina (Guevara) is walking along a deserted street at night when she is accosted by a carload of belligerent men shouting insults. Walking towards the camera, we sense trouble for Tina, but Alves cuts to tell her story in flashback. Tina lives with her grandmother Eliana (Cruz) in a small apartment, making money as a Uber driver. Her gender reassignment has been an expensive process, psychiatrist (Asner of ‘Lou Grant’ fame), supporting her through the different stages of the treatment. Tina has a longstanding boyfriend, Jason (Kruz), who is still ashamed to be seen with her in public, particularly in their favourite bar, tended by Kevin (Madsen). Her best friend Carol (Williams) drags Tina into the local activist scene which becomes the main focus of the feature. Support characters include a strange young man, Chris (Abdo), he seems to be negatively obsessed by Tina, scowling angrily at her during shopping trips to the local supermarket. The day-to-day scenes are strongest, we see Tina buying Eliana a new hoover, and her lovemaking scenes, to which grandma listens attentively. Both Guevara and Cruz give understated, naturalistic performances, newcomer Guevara is particular convincing, looking backwards to a past she hardly remembers, whilst being afraid of the future. Unfortunately, Alves decides on a shock-horror ending, and one which is amply telegraphed at that.

Raising the profile of escalating violence towards the transgender community, features like the The Garden Left Behind are certainly worthwhile, if not vital. In times of unrest,  these vulnerable members of society often suffer disproportionately, along with other minorities, and Alves succeeds by only featuring local members of the community – which should be a given, but is not part of the Hollywood standard. It is therefore disappointing the filmmaker lets everyone down with a melodramatic ending, attempting to tug on heartstrings in a double whammy of “revelation”. Guevara and the transgender community deserve a more subtle approach that feels real in today’s developing crisis. AS

SXSW AUDIENCE AWARD WINNER 2020
     

Let it Burn | Dis a era due me via Chorar (2019) *** Mubi

Dir.: Maira Bühler; Documentary; Brazil 2019, 81 min.

In her remarkable documentary Brazilian filmmaker Maira Bühler follows the residents of a hotel turned hostel for crack addicts trying to put their lives together again.

The original title Tell Her That She Saw Me Cry is actually much more suitable. What we are really dealing with here is a domestic drama about lost souls whose emotions are so raw that they can only be released in forceful, often self harming, ways often counterproductive to their recovery. In 28 rooms on 7 floors, 107 residents live out their grim existence in the centre of Sao Paulo. Not that we see very much of Brazil’s capital – only the noise of passing trains reminds us of the vast metropolis outside and the brutal streets where hope was decimated long ago for these hapless inhabitants in their lost ark of social abandonment. But at least a den of iniquity is preferable to the jungle outside.

A trade mark of today’s Brazilian documentary style is the obsession with detail combined with an objectivity that captures an out-pouring of emotions often frightening to witness. A man shouts into his phone, desperately declaring his love for a woman who might not even be listening – but his cri de coeur is at the same time proof of him being alive. A lonely woman in a deserted dormitory waits for a lover who might never return. The longing for company is what keeps the majority of the tenants alive. The camera searches out the human links and reveals little groups clinging on to each other for survival. An aching love song reminds us what this is all about: love, however fleeting, is vital for survival.

The social gulf between film crew and their subjects is enormous. But when the crew has installed a tripod in the lift and starts filming, one woman reveals to the director that she is completed uneducated. But even though there is an uncomfortable feeling of voyeurism, the woman never prevents the camera from intruding into her misery. The strength of the film is that it allows ambiguity to develop without letting fragility and vulnerability mask the gradual humanisation. Sadly, this last chance saloon of salvation has now been shut down as part of the cutbacks in psychiatric support instigated by President Bolsonaro’s far right government. AS

SCREENING DURING SHEFFIELD DOC FESTIVAL 2019

 

War of the Worlds (1953) **** Blu-ray release

Dir: Byron Haskin | Wri: H G Wells (novel) Barre Lyndon | Cast: Gene Barry, Ann Robinson, Les Tremayne, Robert Cornthwaite | US Fantasy/Sci-fi 85′

Although a brash travesty of H.G.Wells’ original 1898 novel, and despite Steven Spielberg’s 2005 ‘upgrade’ and last autumn’s well-received TV version, George Pal’s original big screen version is still for many the last word in fifties Technicolor destruction on the grand scale (blessed as John Baxter described it with “the smooth unreality of a comic strip”).

With Oscar-winning special effects (which took so long to complete the award went posthumously to Paramount special effects veteran Gordon Jennings), the elegant fire-spewing war machines like dragons based on manta rays by Japanese-American designer Albert Nozaki bring a touch of eastern elegance to their menace, while the sophisticated use of sound throughout to mount up suspense at key moments remains exemplary.

In all it adds up to a film with a power that remains in the words of critic Richard Mallett “in places quite hypnotic”. And it can now be savoured in all it’s pristine glory on Blu-Ray! Richard Chatten

OUT ON BLU-RAY FROM 7 JULY 2020

Anne at 13,000ft (2019) MUBI

Dir/scr: Kazik Radwanski. USA/Canada | 75 mins

Deragh Campbell is terrific as a troubled nursery school teacher at the centre of this often raw and intimate look at mental illness. Kazik Radwanski’s fractured narrative and dizzy handheld camerawork gives a close up and personal feel to this evocative third study of people in challenging situations. This time the focus is Anne whose work in a children’s daycare centre comes under scrutiny from her colleagues who start to object to her random behaviour. Her best friend and colleague Sarah (Dorothea Paas) is supportive but busy with preparations for her wedding.

One of the key issues is Anne’s tendency to trivialise matters to mask her inner turmoil and she often plays around when she should be taking her work around special needs kids more seriously. Life in the school interweaves with Anne’s first experience of skydiving which presents an opportunity to disengage from the sober world and set herself free. Sarah’s wedding is another difficult occasion for Anne who makes a heartfelt speech before drinking too much and ending up in the arms of Matt, a lovely, light-hearted guy (Matt Johnson) who looks after her when she gets post party food-poisoning. Radwanski keeps the lid on Anne’s mental status but it’s clear she is on the verge, or has recently emerged from some kind of crisis.

Matt is particularly good in the way he gradually becomes part of Anne’s day to day life and the scenes when they visit her family fizz and feel good in contrast to the fraught and buttoned-up interactions with her colleagues. But when she later meets her mother things spin out of control as Anne becomes increasingly neurotic over a trivial issue. This is clever filmmaking and Radwanski shows considerable aplomb in the way he shows Anne being ultra-patient with kids but is reduced to tears after relating her pet cat story to them later completing losing her cool in the car despite Sarah’s kindness and support. But the natural chemistry between Anne and Matt are what makes this so lovely as a snapshot of a woman coping with the past and the man who is loves her, against the odds. MT

NOW ON MUBI

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

 

Shepherd: The Hero Dog (2019) *** Digital

Dir.: Lynn Roth; Cast: August Maturo, Ken Duken, Ayelet Zurer, Victoria Stefanovsky, Victor Denes; USA 2019,93 min.

Filtering the darkest, most dramatic period of modern Jewish history through the instinctive gaze of a dog was an ambitious idea for the best selling Israeli author Asher Kravitz. So Lynn Roth’s efforts to accommodate a young audience in her screen version are laudable but the upshot often cringeworthy.

In 1930s Berlin the Schoenmann family are excited by the arrival of a litter of German shepherd puppies. The kids Joshua (Maturo) and Rachel (Stefanovszky) want to keep the dogs but their mother Shoshona (Zurer) has her hands full, and the recent Nuremberg Laws mean the Schoenmanns must say goodbye to even Joshua’s favourite Caleb, who is collected by his new owner. Kaleb will later abscond and find his way to the family flat of but by now even they have been evicted.

But Caleb is the lucky one and finds a home with SS officer Ralph (Duken), who becomes really attached to the dog, training him to attack Jews. Joshua and Kaleb meet again in a concentration camp where Kaleb recognises his former owner, and helps him and other prisoners to escape. After some adventures, dog and boy are send by partisans on their way to the British protectorate Palestine.

DoP Gabor Szabo uses Budapest as a stunning background to this canine wartime drama, but some concentration scenes are naturally grim, Joshua the only child among male adults. Caleb’s dreaming sequence involving the Schoenmanns and then Ralph, is another questionable device. And the filmmakers should have known that SS uniforms were black, not green or grey. Overall, perhaps romanticising and simplifying would have helped the course, whatever the target audience. Maturo is convincing as a plucky survivor, and Stefanovsky, makes a wonderful mother; the only member of the family who sees the Shoah coming. Over fifty thousands dogs served during the Second World War, and for them it is a worthwhile tribute. AS

ON DIGITAL HD FROM JUNE 29 2020

   

  

Summertime | La Belle Saison (2015) *** MUBI

Dir: Catherine Corsini | Cast: Cecile de France, Izia Higelin, Noemie Lvovsky, Benjamin Bellecour | 104min  | Drama | France

Catherine Corsini brings a sizzling energy to her lesbian love story set in Paris and the glorious landscapes of Le Limousin. Summertime will appeal to arthouse lovers and the LGBT crowd alike with its fresh and feisty turns from Cécile de France and Izia Higelin as unlikely bedfellows who come together during the French feminist uprisings in 1971.

Izia Higelin plays Delphine, a simple country girl arriving in Paris from her parents’ farm to seek her fortune in the capital. Feeling gauche and naive she soon gets caught up in the vortex of female political activism attracted by the strong and earthy women who appeal to her nascent lesbian leanings. Working at that well known grocery store Félix Potin, she falls in love with 35-year-old Carole (Cécile de France) who is dating the dishy writer Manuel (Benjamin Bellecour). After an awkward first act focusing on the feminist fervour of the time – which sadly feels embarrassing and rather contrived – the two begin a torrid affair that takes them back to the countryside where Delphine’s father becomes seriously ill and her mother Monique (Noemie Lvovsky) is left to run the business. They all get on like a house on fire in this sunny second act that serves as a genuinely delightful introduction to  daily life on a small working farm. Here we meet Antoine, a family friend and Delphine’s intended – according to her mother – and he immediately takes on the role of a sexual voyeur, tuning into couple’s romantic vibes, while giving Carole a wide berth. Delphine’s heart is in the ‘terroir’ but her love for Carole grows. Cécile de France gives a gutsy go at being Carole, torn between her life in Paris with Manuel and her budding feelings for Delphine.

Corsini conveys the strong physical urges of her lovers with scenes of earthy nudity and splashy sex. And although the two are a potent match, it’s clear Carole is experimenting while Delphine is  committed. Higelin brings a natural vulnerability to her part, not dissimilar from that of Adèle Exarchopoulos in Blue is the Warmest Colour. The younger of the two, she exudes a natural affection for Carole as well as a healthy lust, but Carole is a more complex girl whose ego demands to be worshipped.

Corsini is no stranger to big-screen lesbian love affairs, best known in this context for her 2001 Cannes competition hopeful Replay, featuring a gutsy yet tragic relationship between Emmanuelle Beart, a successful actress, and her less accomplished partner. Here the focus is more on innocence versus experience.  In a welcome twist, Delphine pursues Carole initially in a cat and mouse chase that spices up the storyline. But tradition starts to take over as the family responsibilities take over, throwing her back into Antoine’s orbit.

Although the film struggles for a feminist political agenda this often feels forced and less convincing than the scenes in the traditional farmstead. Lvovsky is a natural as Delphine’s mother whose straightforwardness and feral protection of her daughter and farm provides lush contrast to the more liberated Parisian style of Carole. Azais’ character masks an emotionally buttoned-up man, hesitant to pursue his personal agenda, a quality her shares with his object of affection Delphine.

Jeanne Lapoirie’s widescreen cinematography is resplendent but doesn’t idolise the Rubenesque voluptuousness of the naked women making love in the meadows, and Gregoire Hetzel’s occasional score adds a zeitgeisty ’70s twang to the soundtrack. MT

On MUBI THIS WEEKEND | 19 JUNE 2020

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

 

The Bigamist (1953) *** MUBI

Director: Ida Lupino. Screenplay: Collier Young. Cast: Edmond O’Brien, Joan Fontaine, Ida Lupino, Edmund Gwenn, Kenneth Tobey, Jane Darwell. Drama / United States / 80′.

Ida Lupino directs and stars in  this final feature for her production company The Filmakers before moving into television.

The blunt title serves as a massive spoiler from the word Go. There’s no doubt as to where the plot is going, but strange as it may seem today, bigamy was surprisingly common at the time, as this film is at pains to point out.

A British film called The Bigamist had been made as early as 1916; but during the 195os the subject was usually treated light-heartedly as a subject of comedy (as in the same year’s The Captain’s Paradise, with Alec Guinness, Celia Johnson and Yvonne de Carlo). But when children are involved – as is the case here – it really becomes significant; and bigamy is just one of a whole raft of issues – including unplanned pregnancy and adoption (where do most adopted children come from in the first place?) – the film explores in just eighty minutes.

With so many people raising kids these days without bothering to get married, the mores of this era seem rather quaint and as remote as the silent era. The earnest tone of the film rather recalls the silent ‘social problem’ films of pioneer women directors Lois Weber and Mrs Wallace Reid in whose footsteps Lupino was following.

The Bigamist is rather like a silent film in the way Lupino’s pregnancy is implied to be the result of the sole occasion she had slept with her lover (O’Brien) as a “birthday treat” for him. And she becomes pregnant the very first time she had slept with a man since she got a ‘Dear Phyllis’ letter from a previous boyfriend several years earlier. O’Brien never squares with her that he’s married; but the thought must have crossed her mind.

It was brave of Edmond O’Brien to take on such an unheroic role, and interesting that Lupino chose to cast herself as the Other Woman rather than the wife. Under any other circumstances it would have been refreshing to see Joan Fontaine as the wife so confidently holding forth on technical matters at the dinner table were she not shown immediately afterwards to be neglecting O’Brien’s need for physical intimacy by immediately turning her back on him in bed (they sleep in separate beds and have been unable to have children).

Could there have been some way of engineering a happy resolution by having O’Brien present Lupino’s child to Fontaine to raise as their own? Perhaps. But Lupino probably wasn’t seeking a tidy resolution, and instead it all ends messily in court with O’Brien getting his knuckles sternly but regretfully rapped by a judge. Richard Chatten.

THE BIGAMIST IS now SCREENING ON MUBI

Phantom Thread (2017) **** Blu-ray release

Dir: Paul Anderson | Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville, 130′ | US | Drama

The latest film from Paul Thomas Anderson is quite unlike anything he has done before. PHANTOM THREAD is a deliciously thrilling love story with a slow-burning tight-lipped tension bred partly out of the discrete haute couture world of its gracefully dapper central character Reynolds Woodcock. Played peerlessly by Daniel Day-Lewis in his ‘swan song’, Reynolds is a Hardy Amies-style fashion designer who lives and works in London’s Fitzroy Square where he presides over a celebrated 1950s fashion house specialising in dressing high society and the Royals.

This stylishly buttoned-up affair is all about control, power and prestige in maintaining a veneer of respectability through discipline, dedication and duty that drives Reynolds forward, preventing him from acknowledging the hole in his soul, left by the death of his dear mother, and the absence of true love in his life.  Anderson constructs a world of superlative elegance where the daily round involves the pristine almost priestly preparation of his dress, coiffure, floral arrangements and particularly his breakfast: “I can’t begin my day with a confrontation.” Says Reynolds primly as he goes through the motions of his morning tea ceremony (lapsong, please) and silently buttered toast. “Nothing stodgy”. And no “loud sounds”. His sister Cyril (Lesley Manville at the top of her game), trundles in all red-puckered lips and seamed stockings. She rules the roost with utmost decorum, helping Reynolds as his business advisor and mentor. Reynolds is a disillusioned romantic, a bachelor in his fifties secretly yearning for love, but unable to let it into his tightly-corseted schedule. So his lust for carnal pleasure is channelled into luscious food – runny egg yolks and jugs of cream – until the real thing comes along to unleash his passion in the shape of a scrubbed up waitress named Alma (Luxumbourgeoise actor Vicky Krieps).

In his weekend retreat, he delicately delivers a breakfast order to her: poached eggs, butter, bacon, and jam – but not strawberry, raspberry…and some sausages –  is the verbal equivalent of an orgasm. And beneath Reynolds’ fussy exterior there really does lie a highly sensual man capable – we feel – of giving sexual pleasure to a woman, as well as tailored perfection, and this is the fine line that prevents Day-Lewis’ performance from being too prissy, although it sometimes veers in the direction. Alma is slightly gauche but also sensuous – like a ripe peach that won’t yet yield its stone. And so love gently blossoms in the autumn of Reynolds’ life while storm clouds linger on the horizon.

PHANTOM THREAD feels like a perfect metaphor for the well-known adage: AISLE ALTER HYMN (I’ll alter him, for the uninitiated) and this is just what the innocent-looking Alma has in mind when the two start working together in the West End atelier. This is a drama that sums up the utter dread many men feel about losing control of themselves to a woman. Reynolds will not cede to Alma’s charms and refuses to sacrifice his precious craft by allowing her control of his inner sanctum – the House of Woodcock – which represents his heart and life blood. She remains tough but loving – the perfect replica of his beloved mother, tempting him yet repulsing him by equal measure. Day-Lewis is adamant as the tortured artist, every subtle nuance flickers across his face in a display of mesmerising petulance. It’s impossible not to admire his gentle delivery and his chiselled, tousled allure. As an actor his economy of movement is unparalleled; he possesses the feline grace of Roger Federer and the innate style of breeding of George Sanders. During a delirious night of Alma-induced food-poisoning, Reynolds reveals his deep love attachment to his mother (whose ghost appears to him in her wedding dress)  and somehow her power is magically transferred to Alma, who from then on gets to wear the tailored trousers.

PHANTOM THREAD is Anderson’s eighth feature, and refreshingly is not based on anything but his own inventiveness. It perfectly suits its 1950s setting, an era where England was still on its knees after the war and rationing, and duty and pride in one’s work was paramount – people were so glad to have a job – and this is conveyed by a team of first rate unflappable seamstresses (with names like Biddy and Nana) who understand implicitly when a deadline looms, and a wedding dress must be tweaked or repaired for the following morning at 9am.

There is an erotic charge to PHANTOM that cannot be underestimated despite its immaculate and primped aesthetic. And the acerbically brittle Reynolds is no high-performing borderline psycho. He can transform at the doff of a cap into an amorous and extremely tender lover.  As in “The Master (2012) this is a film about the power and control dynamic between man and woman, and who eventually wins. It moves like the well-oiled engine of Reynolds’ blood red Bristol he drives down country lanes to his retreat. “I think you’re only acting strong,” says Alma, to which he replies, “I am strong.” And the two continue their power play in a way that never resorts to extreme physical or extreme verbal displays, although there is an extremely sinister side to Alma’s methods that make her the perfect antiheroine of the piece, Reynolds, like some overtly powerful  men, emerging the weaker of the two.

Jonny Greenwood’s music is the crowning glory, setting a tuneful rhythm of piano and strings for the soigné scenario that often feels quite claustrophobic, particularly in the final scenes, where we find ourselves shouting: “Don’t!” (you’ll soon see what I mean). At one point Reynolds says: Are you sent here to ruin my evening? And possibly my entire life?” These are the long-held suspicions of the committed bachelor who desperately longs for love, but constantly suspects the worst from his loving mate. Regretfully PHANTOM THREAD is our last chance to see Day-Lewis on the screen. He will be much missed from the films that he has graced. And this is possibly his best. MT

PHANTOM THREAD IS ON Blu-ray

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

 

Cross of Iron (1977) **** Amazon Prime

Dir: Sam Peckinpah | US War Drama, 132′

How many English language films, realised by an American director, portray German combatants in trenches and dugouts during the first and Second World War? At first four films spring to mind depicting the German army at the end of the two wars. For the First World War there is All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). For the Second World War we have The Young Lions (1958); Cross of Iron (1977) and Inglorious Besterds (2009.) Yet there are really only two films that deal with the practicalities of German combatant warfare, solely from the viewpoint of approaching defeat, and remaining resolutely determined in their anti- war stance. They are All Quiet on the Western Front (the 1980 remake could be included but that poor film is negligible) and Cross of Iron. The other films I’ve mentioned, that potentially stand alongside the German-centred The Eagle Has Landed (1976) or Where Eagles Dare (1968), may show German soldiers over-heroically or ineptly fighting, but don’t attempt to describe the day to day life of an army trying grimly to survive. 

Cross of Iron deals with a German platoon involved in the 1943 retreat from the Russian front. The ordinary soldiers and officer class are equally disillusioned and realise they have probably lost the war. An aristocratic Prussian officer Captain von Stransky (Maximillian Schell) arrives as the new commander of the platoon. The regimental commander Colonel Brandt (James Mason) and his adjutant Captain Kiesel (David Warner) express surprise that Stransky deliberately applied for transfer to the Eastern front, as he had a greater chance of winning the Iron Cross from this standpoint. What he fails to mention is his lack of loyalty to the Nazi state, a medal will serve as a symbol of pride for his family. The arrogant Stransky immediately clashes with Corporal Steiner (James Coburn) who disrespects officers and appears to conduct his own form of anarchic warfare. The conflict between the ambitions of Stransky and the cynicism of Steiner takes centre stage.

This was the only war film made by Peckinpah but he directs with the aplomb of a war veteran. Cross of Iron contains some of the best staged minor battles in any WW2 film. The sound design captures explosions and gunfire with an intensity not fully developed until Speilberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998) which is a precursor, sound-bombardment wise, to Nolan’s Dunkirk (2017). Yet because Cross of Iron is not aiming to be an immersive experience (As Ryan and Dunkirk often are) an argument for realism can be credited to it more than the other films. Peckinpah has an instinctive feel for the relentless bombardment of war – true, you could argue that his slow motion killing effects (apropos The Wild Bunch) has a stylising effect on proceedings, somehow Peckinpah manages successfully to integrate these slow-mo sequences and the noisy hell of battle into a plausible and intelligently written storyline. 

Ultimately, the all too human clash of class conflict, military authority, ambition and personal freedom is what makes Cross of Iron so engrossing. As in Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957) the film attempts to be analytical about a military power structure and the questioning of motivations and needs. Stransky wants his cross, Brandt wants to maintain a semblance of order, and Steiner seems to escape into his own bitter anti-authoritarian war game.

“Do you know how much I hate this uniform and everything it stands for? 

“I believe God is a sadist but probably doesn’t know it.”

“What will we do when we lose the war? Prepare for the next one.”

All these utterances are from Corporal Steiner, who rejects his promotion to Sergeant when in arrives, continuing to act as a partly shell-shocked outsider. James Coburn is very good and very watchable in this part but sometimes appears to  respond like an outlaw or renegade in a Western, rather than a war film. Is he fighting a private war against the Nazi war machine (that he’s part of) or merely being self- destructive? Arguably a bit of both. Cross of Iron depicts Steiner hallucinating about a Russia boy soldier whom he saves and sets free, only for him to be mistakenly shot by the Russian army. The splits in Steiner are only an exaggeration of conflicts to be found muted in Brandt and sadistically expressed by Stransky who would lie, cheat, blackmail – he discovers two gay soldiers in his platoon – and have men killed in order to get his iron cross.

Cross of Iron has strong performances from not only Coburn but Maximillian Schell (who makes a repellent aristocrat seem sympathetic) and James Mason (the General’s hurt and shock at Steiner’s disrespectful behaviour is superbly conveyed.) I’ve mentioned the soundstage but the editing by Michael Lewis and Tony Lawson is terrific whilst John Coquillon’s photography has a dusty war-weary beauty. There are weak episodes: Steiner’s convalescing and subsequent brief relationship with a nurse (Senta Berger) at the hospital fails to convince and feels all a bit hurried and undeveloped. The sequence when the platoon captures an all-female Russian detachment certainly raises a familiar accusation made about Peckinpah’s films that he’s a misogynist. And powerful though Coburn’s performance is, his character has an untrammelled and violent energy that feels too much at odds with the film. But perhaps I am wrong here. Steiner is certainly not a despicable Rambo action man. Steiner’s character is much more reflective and intelligent. Not a brute, but a crazed, even philosophic force?

All Quiet on the Western Front ends with that unforgettable shot of a German soldier reaching out for a butterfly, just beyond his trench, only to be shot down by an enemy sniper. There is no such poetic ending for Sam Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron. In fact, it doesn’t quite appear to have an ending,  more an abrupt, though perfectly satisfying, anti-conclusion; the film’s producers ran out of money and had to halt filming prematurely, but this proves an aesthetic bonus. For at its ‘end’ the bitter laughter of James Coburn is heard off-screen, scornfully indicating that this hellish defeat of the German army will be a recurrent bad dream. It would be a shame to disclose the finale. Let’s just say that Cross of Iron’s final bleak sense of a death-trap has none of the tragic ‘release’ of the young soldier’s death in All Quiet on the Western Front. 

 “Don’t rejoice in his defeat, you men. For though the world stood up and stopped the bastard, the bitch that bore him is in heat again.”

Those lines from Bertolt Brecht’s play about Hitler, The Resistible Rise of Aturo Ui appear in the end of the film’s titles sequence. However a line before that has been cut out, “This was the thing that nearly had us mastered”. I wonder if Peckinpah dropped that line because it was another reference to Hitler, and by losing such specificity he wanted to generalise more about men in war fighting on madly and uncontrollably, to erase the ‘heat’ of their own private all consuming war? Certainly in the figure of James Coburn as Sergeant Rolf Steiner he looks, at the ‘end’ of Cross of Iron as if he has lost, along with the war, the plot (his sanity) and can only self-destructively fight on.

Cross of Iron reminded me of a Brechtian experience at London’s Riverside Studies in the 1980s while watching “The Berliner Theatre Ensemble” reciting Brecht’s poetry, in German, on stage. I had an English language translation sheet in my hand but what gave me most pleasure that evening was listening to the harsh, rasping sound of an East-German dialect. The sounds of that all male ‘chorus’ had an unforgettable and meaningful sting of anger, compassion and political concern. This memory resonated with the considerable sting of Peckinpah’s remarkable film. Alan Price

CROSS OF IRON  IS NOW ON BLU-RAY

On a Magical Night, Room 212 (2019) ** Curzon World

Dir Christophe Honoré  | France, Drama 93′

What happens when a marriage goes plutonic? Christophe Honoré covers familiar ground in this Parisian drama that turns an old chestnut into a half-baked potboiler despite its arthouse pretensions and an award-winning turn from his regular muse Chiara Mastroianni as the leading star.

She is self-possessed and feisty as Maria married to Richard (her one-time partner Benjamin Biolay). Their relationship is as stale as an old baguette and nothing can warm things up between the sheets on frigid nights in their apartment in Montparnasse. Refreshingly, it is Maria who has strayed from the marital bed rather than Richard. And not just once: Maria has played the field with half a dozen handsome young studs during the course of her 25 year relationship with uber faithful Richard. After he discovers incriminating texts on her ‘phone, they have a low-key bust up that sees him crying into his cups, while she moves into the hotel opposite (hence the titular Room 212) to text pouty paramours who are then paraded before our eyes in an upbeat playful way as Maria revisits the past in this rather twee chamber piece.

On a Magical Night is Honoré’s follow-up to his sombre Sorry Angel, a gay melodrama that screened at Cannes 2018 in the competition section. Although Magical Night attempts to explore the theme of marital stagnation it doesn’t do so in a meaningful or entertaining way, actually looking more like a cheeky drama from the late 1970s. Mastroianni tries to liven things up but Briolay is rather tepid as her husband – this no melodrama – he simply mopes about tearfully as she secretly watches him from the 2 star hotel opposite.

Vincent Lacoste plays a younger puppyish version of Briolay, and his piano teacher ex, Irene, is Camille Cottin, who also breaks into charmless impromptu song. Decent at first this soon becomes tedious, leaving us checking our watches after an hour of frivolous nonsense, Mastroianni parading in various states of undress and in different positions as she attempts to straddle Lacoste in faux love-making. An interesting idea, but forgettably frothy in execution. MT

CURZON WORLD | CANNES UN CERTAIN REGARD WINNER – BEST ACTRESS

 

 

The Ornithologist (2016) **** BFiplayer

Dir: Joao Pedro Rodrigues Cast: Paul Hamy, Xelo Cagiao, Joao Pedro Rodrigues, Han Wen, Chan Suan, Juliane Elting | Fantasy Drama | Portugal | 118min |

Portuguese auteur Joao Pedro Rodrigues won the main prize at Locarno for his avantgarde fifth feature. Good and evil collide during a Hearts of Darkness style odyssey through the verdant landscapes and lush forests of Northern Portugal.

The journeyman is gay birdwatcher Fernando (Paul Hamy) who is undertaking research, although his attitude to wildlife appears somewhat ambivalent. Paddling his kayak through the limpid waters of the River Douro, he is surprised by sudden rapids and disappears under water until he is later found and rescued by two Chinese girls (Han Wen, Chan Suan) purporting to be devout Christians on a pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago (in Spain). But there is a price to pay for  saving his life. Clearly they pari have lost their way literally and metaphorically. But they are not the only untrustworthy people Fernando is to come across during his trip. A deaf mute shepherd called Jesus; a group of exuberant Careto revellers and a trio of Latin-speaking Amazonian girls on horseback, all appear to be have dubious intentions. Although Rodrigues’ film is a modern gay-themed version of the parable of Saint Anthony of Lisbon (and of Padua) patron saint of lost things and devotion to the poor and sick, this stylish arthouse offering could also serve as a metaphor for our journey through the 21st century’s pitfalls.

A visionary freethinker and consummate storyteller, Rodrigues brings a resonant stillness and contemplativeness to his film along with bursts of joie de vivre – as in the scene where Jesus drinks milk straight from a goat’s teet. Animals play a significant part here from exotic birds to dogs and local fauna. Cinematographer, Rui Pocas, cleverly evokes the interaction between man and beast. Fernando becomes irritated when a white dove he has tried to cure – possibly representing the Holy Spirit – then seems to be following him. Rodrigues leads us into all sorts of blind alleys with an immersive narrative full of textural richness that also echoes the journey seen in the recent Embrace of the Serpent. Those flumuxed by Miguel Gomes Arabian Nights will be encouraged to hear that The Ornithologist is also a great deal more accessible than the Inebriated Chorus of Chaffinches segment in the trilogy.

There does seem to be some poetic licence over geography in the piece: the Chinese girls are heading for Santiago de Compostela but somehow have wandered into Portugal and the film ends up in Padua, Italy presumably in reference to St Anthony dying there, although this is initially bewildering unless you know the religious background. The gay elements of the film feel entirely in the natural in the milieu and Fernando’s transformation into Saint Anthony dovetailing elegantly into the final scenes show we are never far from salvation. MT

FREE ON BFiPLAYER |

https://player.bfi.org.uk/rentals/film/watch-the-ornithologist-2016-online

 

Camagroga (2020) **** Sheffield Doc Fest 2020

Dir/Wri: Alfonso Amador, | Doc, Catalan, Spain, 111′

If you’ve ever enjoyed the Spanish milkshake “horchata de chufas” this is a simple story well told. By the end we know everything there is to know about the tiger nut.

Spanish filmmaker Alfonso Amador’s lush cinematic tribute to the humble ‘chufa’ glows with local colour – as much a piece of social, political and agricultural history as it is a pictorial guide to how the crop is grown, nurtured and finally turned into a Vitamin E rich snack or foodstuff in the village of Alboraya in the fertile region of “La Huerta (the orchard) near Valencia. Originally a small farming community, the region has expanded in recent years with the Valencia’s development as a metropolitan city. La Huerta was originally cultivated with irrigation canals at the time of Spain’s Moorish invasion, and its fertile soil later provided food for the Roman armies who occupied Iberia. Nowadays this fertile plain is divided into three areas bordered by the Mediterranean Sea.

The film, co-scripted with Sergi Dies, follows the tiger nut growers, particularly Antonio and Inma Ramon, as they work their way through the farming year starting with Winter (Inverno) and ending with Autumn (Tardor). Elegantly captured on the widescreen and in vibrant personal close-ups, most of footage is silent but occasionally a pithy dialogue breaks through in Valencian dialect, very close to Catalan: to discuss lunch (sometimes a lavish get together, or simply a sandwich and swig of local wine) or past methods of growing or – on a broader canvas – the reasons why and how the world has impacted on this small but indomitable farming corner of North Eastern Spain, that continues to produce fine vegetables – particularly artichokes and potatoes – thanks to its rich soil, fine weather and near maritime climate. The tiger nut crop is alternated with onions.

One elderly farmer has been involved in tiger nut farming all his life – since the age of 8 – and shows us his trusty equipment that includes a dung basket and hundred-year old shovel. But women take part in the growing too. Another farmer who works land tirelessly with this wife, explains his life’s work to his grandson: “La Huerta catches you, and there’s nothing more beautiful, because you live the land, you live life”. Tiger nut farming even has its own vocabulary: “Sao” refers to the ideal state of soil humidity for planting. The definition of plowing is “the art of unravelling the earth”.

Sadly, as a result of mass globalisation the farmers are struggling to survive because all the added value there was when the goods used to be sold at market has now dissipated. The large corporations have taken over and stock pile the tiger nuts, choking prices, and thus taking the profit margins. Migrant workers are useful but don’t have the same inherent sensitivity towards crop cultivation and handling as the locals. There is also talk amongst the locals of the land being sold to build a large commercial shopping centre – the idea being of creating more jobs. Pressure groups are encouraging locals to gather together and protest against this commercialisation but sadly time marches on. Camagroga is a sombre but dignified portrait of a struggling community: as the old generation dies out, a new one emerges keen to till the soil of their ancestors, and continue their heritage with the slogan: “Land for those who work on it”. MT

SHEFFIELD DOC FESTIVAL | INTO THE WORLD STRAND | JUNE 2020

 

 

 

 

Prince Avalanche (2012) **** MUBI

Dir/Wri:: David Gordon Green | Original: Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson | Cast: Paul Rudd, Emile Hirsch, Lance Le Gault, Joyce Payne | 94min  Comedy  US

David Gordon Green plunders the Icelandic comedy original Either Way (2011) for this deliciously quirky re-make of male bonding and reflective melancholy. It all kicks off when an unlikely couple of friends spend the summer of 1988 Texas repainting traffic lines on a Texan country highway ravaged by wildfire.

Prince_Avalanche_1_PUBS copy

Ostensibly a recipe for disaster: Lance (Hirsch) is an insecure extrovert looking for casual weekend hook-ups and conversation, Alvin (Rudd) is shy and self-contained but, crucially, dating Lance’s elder sister and is corresponding with her by letter, it being the eighties. A rich vein of comedy lies in their gradual falling out and re-grouping as they discover weird and wonderful things about themselves and about each other that creates a strange and appealing chemistry. Occasionally wandering into whimsey with the arrival of a local elderly woman who lost her home in the fire, and an old man who offers them a slug of the local hooch, the film maintains an offbeat feel true to Gordon Green’s indie roots.

Tim Orr’s cinematography focuses on the stunning natural environment picking out the local wildlife to stunning effect. An evocative original score from David Wingo and Explosion in the Sky (The Kite Runner) really captures the hazy, mood. MT

ON MUBI FROM 13 JUNE 2020 | Best Director Silver Bear Berlinale 2013

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

Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence (1983)**** Blu-ray

Dir.: Nagisa Ôshima; Cast: David Bowie, Tom Conti, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Takeshi Kitano, Jack Thompson, Johnny Okura; Japan/UK/New Zealand 1983, 123 min.

David Bowie is the star of this emotional rollercoaster from Japanese New Wave director  Nagisa Ôshima (1932-2013) Empire of Passion).

Mr. Lawrence has aged very well and has lost nothing of its impact as an analysis of male short-comings. Adapted from Laurens van Der Post’s The Seed and the  Sower, the film takes place in a Japanese POW camp during the Second World War and is centred on four men: British POWs Major Jack ‘Strafer’ Celliers (Bowie) and Lt. Col. John Lawrence (Conti), and two Japanese soldiers, camp commander Capt. Yonoi (Sakamoto, who also composed the score) and sergeant Gengo Hara, a brute with a softer side.

Group Captain Hicksley (Thompson), the camp’s highest ranking officer and the spokesmen for the prisoners plays a minor, but catalysing role. Celliers’ stubbornness sees him locked in a battle of wills with the camp’s new commandant, a man obsessed with discipline and the glory of Imperial Japan. Lieutenant Colonel Lawrence (Tom Conti) is the only inmate with a degree of sympathy for Japanese culture and an understanding of the language, and attempts to bridge the divide through his friendship with Yonoi’s second-in-command, Sergeant Hara (Takeshi Kitano), a man possessing a surprising degree of compassion beneath his cruel façade. Celliers is also living with a guilty secret: he has betrayed his younger brother at boarding school. Captain Yonoi is also secretly ashamed of himself for being part of a military uprising in 1936, but unlike his comrades-in-arms, he escaped execution. Yonei develops a homo-erotic crush on Celliers, provoking him into a duel with the salve: “if you kill me, you will be free”. Celliers declines.

When a secret radio is discovered at the base , Yonoi makes Celliers and Lawrence take responsibility, sentencing them to death. But on Christmas Day, Hara frees the two prisoners, wishing Lawrence a titular “Merry Christmas”. Hara gets a light ticking off for showing mercy. But when Group Captain Hicksley learns about Yonoi’s plan to replace him, a fracas develops, with the Japanese camp commander ordering Hicksley to have all men stand up on the parade ground, including the sick. When Hicksley refuses, Yonoi wants to kill him, but Celliers kisses him on the cheek. With his honour in tatters, Yonoi retreats and is replaced as camp commandant who doesn’t give Celliers such a wide birth, “unlike my predecessor, I am not a romantic” and buries Celliers up to his neck in sand as a punishment. At an epilogue set in 1946, Lawrence makes a trip to visit Hara, who has been sentenced to death. Yonoi has already been executed, and Hara tells Lawrence that Yonoi gave him the lock from Celliers hair to place in a shrine in Yonoi’s home village.

David Bowie commented later that during the shooting he had been surprised Ôshima only showed the perimeters of the prison camp – yet when he saw the film afterwards he was able to appreciate how much more terrifying the threat of the compound was in contrast to the detail of the camp itself. DoP Toichiro Naushima (Double Suicide) shows how the mens’ emotions reflect the harshness of their surroundings (filming took place on the Polynesian island of Rarotonga) by continuously changing the angles of close-ups and the long tracking shots. Merry Christmas avoids the moral judgements made by David Lean on Bridge on the River Kwai.  In his valedictory chat to Hara, Lawrence makes a shrewd observation: “there are times when victory is very hard to take“. Ôshima always keeps the balance, avoiding sentimentality, without shrinking from this very emotional conflict. AS  

ON RELEASE 15 JUNE | ARROW BLU-RAY 

                                        

   

 

 

Magic Mountains (2020) **** Cannes Market 2020

Dir: Urzula Antoniak | Thriller, Holland/Poland 82′

Poland’s Urzula Antoniak follows her enigmatic displacement drama Beyond Words with another spare and haunting psychological thriller that relies on magnificent mountain settings, evocative lighting and intense atmosphere to explore the complex aftermath of love and longing for a couple whose relationship lies in tatters.

Dutch actors Thomas Ryckewaert and Hannah Hoekstra play Lex and Hannah, still on speaking terms despite their recent break-up, instigated by Hannah for reasons unknown. In order to lay his own emotional demons to rest, Lex makes the unusual request of asking Hannah to join him in a final climbing holiday, led by Voytek (the Polish actor Marcin Dorocinski (Anthropoid, 2016) whose unsettling presence lends a sinister vibe to this doomed emotional exploration fraught with vertiginous moments of its own.

Quite why Hannah decides to continue on this challenging odyssey is anyone’s guess. But mesmerised by Voytek’s mysterious allure and Lex’s ambivalent motivations, she presses on increasingly disturbed by her strange companions and the dizzying surroundings. Magic Mountains is a simple but effective metaphor for our troubling times. Antoniak’s enigmatic storyline and Lennert Hillege’s atmospheric visuals provide the needling tension fuelling this complex mood piece that takes us to the unknown reaches of the human mind with a  devastating finale. MT

The Vanishing | Spoorloos (1988) **** Blu-ray release

Dir: George Sluizer | Gene Bervoets, Johanna Ter Steege, Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu | Thriller | 107′

A simple plot grows into a suffocatingly desolate psychodrama exploring the depraved wickedness of the human mind. Although Stanley Kubrick claimed it was the most terrifying film he’d ever seen, George Sluizer was unable to find distribution for his film that screened at the Sydney film festival to critical acclaim. And it’s not difficult to see why. A group of singularly unappealing characters fill a narrative so bleak and uncharitable it leaves you utterly dejected by the time the credits roll. What starts as a tender love story in the sun-drenched South of France ends in an autumnal Amsterdam as leaves fall on human tragedy.

A young Dutch couple, Rex and Saskia  (Bervoets and Ter Steege) are on their way to her French holiday home, in a battered old Peugeot. After stopping for drinks and petrol at a service station near Nimes, Saskia vanishes into thin air. A protracted and febrile search by Rex draws a blank. Scripted by Tim Krabbe from his own novel The Golden Egg, a parallel narrative introduces Raymond Lemorne, a devious and conceited father of two who starts to contact Rex claiming to know the whereabouts of Saskia, via taunting postcards that reveal a disturbed mind.

In this portrait of obsession and frustrated desire, Sluizer focuses on Rex’s desperation but also on Donnadieu’s conniving Raymond who makes for a cynically asexual psychopath with his immaculately trimmed goatee beard. He lives a banal quotidian existence with his two daughters and pleasant wife, who starts to question his protracted lone visits to the family’s country house.

Rex, by contrast, cannot move on emotionally after losing Saskia and is tortured into an angry mess of a man by his troubled dreams, despite a supportive new girlfriend. Eaten up by his desire for closure, Rex confronts his nemesis and ends up in a Faustian pact, submitting himself to Raymond’s unfeasible requests just to satisfy his inner demons. Clinically plotted and devoid of any humanity after the upbeat opening sequences Sluizer’s thriller makes for a critically watertight but thoroughly unpleasant watch.MT.

ON VOD, EST and Blu-ray from 8 JUNE 2020

 

Vampir Cuadecuc (1971) **** BfiPlayer

Dir: Pere Portabella | Christopher Lee, Herbert Lom, Soledad Miranda | Sound Design: Carles Santos, Jordi Sangenis | Horror | Spain 67′

Made in 1970 by the Catalan avant-garde filmmaker Pere Portabella (1929-), Vampir Cuadecuc is a weirdly effective experimental slice of ‘Hammer’ horror that rides on the back of the filming of Jesus Franco’s Count Dracula (El Conde Dracula) that styles Christopher Lee as a grey-haired blood-sucker who is seen rocking sunglasses like some 1970s version of Karl Lagerfeld.

Almost entirely dialogue-free and driven forward by a sinister and occasionally seductively languorous soundscape, the film is curiously watchable, its silent moments as beguiling as the discordant outbursts that threaten to dominate proceedings, even more than Count Dracula himself, who remains and elusive but mesmerising presence throughout. Filmed in lush black and white on a 16 millimetre camera, it almost feels as if Portabella and his crew where lurking in the bushes like a posse of predatory voyeurs. .

Impressionistic and highly suggestive the film swings between deranged docudrama and heightened melodrama, Bram Stoker’s storyline running along the same lines as F W Murnau’s silent classic Nosferatu (1922), but lacking the lyrical romanticism of Werner Herzog’s 1979 Nosferatu the Vampire (1979). The narrative here is fractured by the scenes being played in different sequences and often repeated, but Cuadecuc (which apparently means ‘worm’s tail in Catalan) still retains an hypnotic fascination because we all know the storyline and the vicariousness actually adds allure to the original, Portabella creating a piece of cinema verite. The final scene featuring Christopher Lee is the icing on the cake of this highly original curio. MT

NOW ON BFiPLAYER 

 

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

Woman at War (2018) **** Mubi

Dir.: Benedict Erlingsson; Cast: Haldora Geirhardsdottir, Johann Sigurdason, Juan Camillo Roman Estrada; France/Iceland/Ukraine 101 min.

Benedict Erlingsson’s follow-up to Of Horses and Men is an energetic eco-warrior drama that sees a feisty woman taking on the state of Iceland with surprising results. Lead actress Haldora Geirhardsdottir has an athletic schedule, running all over the rugged  countryside, with helicopters and drones circling overhead.

Halla Haldora (Geirhardsdottir) lives a double life: one minute she is a mild-mannered physical therapist and choir leader, the next she’s roaming the countryside, bringing down electricity pylons with a bow and arrow and wire cutters. The only person aware of her war against the multi-nationals’ new technology is Sweinbjorn (Sigurdason), who works for the government and sings in her choir. She gets support from a local farmer, who could be a distant relative, and has a sheep dog called ‘woman’.

But her adventures have more severe repercussions for Juan Camillo (Estrada), who is under suspicion himself for bringing down the pylons. Another running gag in this amusing drama involves three women wearing the Icelandic national costume, who stand at the wayside during Halla’s adventures; a trio of musicians playing drums, the tuba and accordion. Halla’s twin sister Asa, also played by Geirhardsdottir, is a yoga teacher and is about to set off for an ashram in south-east Asia, when Halla gets the news that her adoption application has been granted. As a result four-year old Nika, whose whole family has been wiped out in the Ukraine conflict, is now waiting for Halla to pick her up. But misfortune intervenes.

With a magnificent twist at the end, Woman at War is a stormy but often amusing affair. There are echoes of Aki Kaurismaki, with the dead pan humour taking away some of the tension of the countryside hunt for Halla. And Erlingsson makes a refreshing break from tradition in the super hero genre, by casting a super-fit middle-aged woman in the central role.

Making good use of the stunning country side, DoP Bergsteinn Björgulfsson’s widescreen images and towering panorama shots are truly magnificent, along with the road movie sequences that showcase Iceland’s wild scenery. Perhaps a little too generous on the running time, this feature combines hilarious scenes with a well-structured narrative and a convincing female heroine. AS

FROM FRIDAY, 3 MAY 2019 | CANNES FILM FESTIVAL SACD WINNER 2018

Only the Animals (2019) Netflix

Dir.: Dominik Moll; Cast: Damien Bonnard, Bastien Boillon, Laura Calamy, Denis Menochet, Nadia Tereszkiewicz, Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi, Roger ‘Bibesse’ N’drin, France/Germany 2019, 116′.

German born director Dominik Moll has been sadly neglected of late. Best known for his psychological thrillers Harry He’s Here to Help and Lemming and the hilarious News from Planet Mars (which never got a UK release) he came to Venice last year with one of the best features in the Venice Days line-up . Adapted from Colin Niel’s 2014 novel of the same name, this is an intense non-linear study of human behaviour, showing greed and possessiveness as the motivator that drives us all forward in the belief we are in love.

Most of the action takes part in a remote snowbound part of the French Massif Central, but the drama opens in the port city of Abidjan in Ivory Coast. There Armand (N’drin) sets in motion a sort of Ariadne trail, with one woman paying with her life for the sins of others. Armand is a small time grafter who finds photos of Marion (Tereszkiewicz) on the net, setting her up as bait for the French farmer Denis (Menochet), who is married to insurance saleswoman Alice (Calamy).

She has fallen for one of her clients, Joseph, an unstable farmhand in Denis’ employer who has been disturbed by hallucinations since the death of his mother: “I only talk to the animals”, he tells Alice. Meanwhile back in Abidjan, Armand has succeeded in making Denis fall for Marion, extracting the first tranche of the money transfers from the farmer. Armand, who nicknames Marion ‘Armandine’ – even though he has never met her – then invents a precarious story making Denis fall into the trap of wanting to rescue Armandine – whatever the cost. But the real Marion in in a relationship with Evelyne (Tedeschi), who shares a holiday home with her husband Guillaume just down the road from Alice and Denis.

This is a complex plot, intricately put together by Moll and his co-writer Gilles Marchand (who worked with him on Harry). Suffice to say it keeps up absolutely glued to the screen, enthralled by a seductively simmering plot line, Patrick Ghiringhell’s camerawork providing plenty of visual thrills including panoramic images of the magnificent mountain region and the lively African port city. A spine-tingling score of strings primps the moments of tension.

The saying “money makes the world go round”  has never been so true, and in this particular drama it is spot on: internet and money transfers connect every part of the globe. And every character wants a part of the action. Apart from Joseph, who leaves no clues to his disappearance from the scene in this enigmatic mystery thriller. AS

NOW ON NETFLIX
https://youtu.be/5HYJ6CjOzi8

Take Me Somewhere Nice (2019) *** MUBI

Dir: Ewa Sendijarevic | Drama | 91′

In her impressive debut feature, Ewa Sendijarevic takes a fresh and playfully cinematic approach to this semi-autobiographical expression of ‘positive experience of loneliness’ for the average multi-cultural person. To put it more simply, her central character Alma has grown up in Holland from Bosnian parentage and returns there to visit her father for the first time, with the gaze of an alien. Although this theme has been done before, most recently in a radical way by Jonathan Glazer in his mystery thriller Under The Skin, Take Me Somewhere Nice is a much more down to earth affair, enriched by its stunning visual approach and minimal dialogue. Alma is an Alice in Wonderland like character who goes on a Kafkaesque journey to visit her origins. She is accompanied by her cousin and his best friend, both from Bosnia, both unemployed and just as “care free” as Alma herself.

This triangle of characters represents a West-East European power balance between the privileged, and those left behind; the bitter and the opportunistic, the ones who would like to join the West and the ones who actively turn their back to it. This tension between the three bright young things occasionally becomes recklessly sexual, at other times gently attempts to forge a meaningful connection. Each frame completes the brightly coloured jigsaw of Alma’s eventful story, and even when it ventures into darker themes – a road kill incident and beach attack – still feels hopeful and energetic, in contrast to the clichéd portrayals of migrant misery and put-upon womanhood in the beleaguered Balkans.

Sometimes Sendijarevic inverts expectations, making us uncomfortable in a Brechtian way, and more acutely aware of traditional approaches the buzzy subject matter. TAKE ME SOMEWHERE NICE is also a film about using our contact with nature and the animal kingdom to celebrate being alive and being present in our world, wherever we lay our hats. Spirited performances and a lively colour palette make this journey fun and highly watchable. Sendijarevic believes in the Romantic – and laudable – idea that in “the moments we spend alone, preferably in nature, we can connect to our true selves in a spectacular way”. a sentiment that holds true now more that ever. A delightedly inventive and lively first feature. MT

NOW ON MUBI from 21 MAY 2020 | THE SPECIAL JURY AWARD WINNER | ROTTERDAM FILM FESTIVAL 2019 |

 

Heat & Dust (1983) **** Curzon World

Dir.: James Ivory; Cast: Julie Christie, Greta Scacchi, Shashi Kapoor, Christopher Cazenove, Zakir Hussain, Charles McCaughan, Patrick Geoffrey; UK 1983, 132 min. 

Heat and Dust was the twelfth (of twenty-seven) collaborations between director James Ivory, producer Ismail Merchant and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Based on the Booker Prize winning novel, the screen adaptation is a break with the social realism of the trio’s earlier features such as Shakespeare Wallah (1965). Its visual opulence made it by far their most successful feature at the box office to date.

Heat and Dust is a lush evocation of the sensuous beauty of India, sashaying between the 1920s and the 1980s in an epic of self-discovery, starring Julie Christie, Shashi Kapoor, and Greta Scacchi in her breakthrough role, with a strong supporting cast

When BBC researcher Anne (Christie) inherits the writings of her great aunt Olivia in 1982, she travels to India to find out more about the ‘scandal’ Olivia caused in 1923. The narrative tells the parallel story of both women. Olivia was married to the naïve and conventional Colonial Civil Servant Douglas Rivers (Cazenove), who had no clue about Olivia’s emotions. Bored by the stifling narrow-mindedness of the ex-patriate community, Olivia soon meets the sophisticated maverick Nawab (Kapoor) who, in his role as Viceroy, runs his private army, often indulging in violence on a grand scale. Olivia falls in love with him, but when she gets pregnant, decides on an abortion for fear of the obvious repercussions. Running away from the British hospital and the reactionary Chief Medical officer (Geoffrey) after the botched surgery, she flees to Kapoor, spending the last years of her life in a villa in the mountains where Kapoor, now deposed by the British, rarely visits her.

Anne traces Olivia’s steps, meeting on her way a young boisterous American would-be-monk (McCaughan), who is only interested in sleeping with her. But his body cannot cope with the foreign lifestyle and diet: Anne puts him into a train back to the USA. In her rooming house, she falls in love with Indor Lai (Hussain), her landlord. She too becomes pregnant, wanting to abort the baby at first, but changing her mind and planning to give birth in a hospital, near the villa, where Olivia lives out her lonely days.

Very much influenced by the writing of E.M. Forster – whose novels would be filmed later by Merchant/Ivory/Jhabvala – Heat and Dust is a not so nostalgic look back to the days of the Raj, carried by the spirited Scacchi, who injects a feeling of joie de vivre to the role, growing increasingly melancholy. The 1980s segments are comparably less remarkable. But the feature belongs to DoP Walter Lassally, who not only shot the New English Cinema (A Taste of Honey, Tom Jones) but also won an Oscar for Zorba the Greek. The languid but vivid images of British rule in India would go on to inspire a generation of cinematographers, taking their cue from Walter Lassally. Heat and Dust, whilst not as stunning as the more mature Howards End, is nevertheless a trend setter: The legendary David Lean finished his career with the Forster adaption Passage to India in 1984. AS

NOW ON CURZON WORLD AS PART OF THE James Ivory series. 

      

To the Stars (2019) **** Streaming

Dir: Martha Stephens | Cast: Kara Hayward, Jordana Spiro, Tina Parker, Shea Whigham | US Drama 101′

Oklahoma is the setting for this retro rites of passage drama that transports us back to Bible Belt country of the 1960s where segregation was still in force, and poverty from the Dust Bowl years not such a distant memory.

In her fourth feature, Stephens soon establishes the film’s East of Eden vibe that blends  with the saccharine cattiness of this female-focused story: Kara Hayward is Iris a repressed and be-spectacled late developer who is taken under the wing of the spunky Liana Liberato (Maggie). The girls’ hopes and dreams are the same, but Liana is more able to express her feelings in God-fearing Wakita where narrow-mindedness contrasts with the wide open spaces, and men and women are at still at odds with each other, unable or unwilling to meet on common ground.

But this flourishing female friendship is the driving force of a drama that soon becomes compelling with its familiar terrain of bitchy schoolgirl hierarchy well sketched out in Shannon Bradley-Colleary’s slightly uneven script that oscillates between poetic and pulpy, Andrew Reed’s faded aesthetic giving the piece a soft-edged nostalgic wholesomeness boosted by Heather McIntosh’s perky score of popular hits.

The 1960s was a time when women where proud to be housewives – as most of the them were – looking after their families, covertly competing for male attention, while pretending to support one another. And this is very much the case for Iris whose mother Francie (Spiro)) is desperate to keep her daughter down, even flirting with her boyfriends. The film opens as the bibulous Francie is finishing off a frothy ballroom dress for Iris, who looks on disdainfully; clearly the two don’t see eye to eye, and we feel for Iris – although her father Hank is much more understanding of his daughter’s timid disposition and urinary incontinence that has made her somewhat of a social pariah.

Iris develops a crush on a local boy Jeff (Lucas Jade Zumann) – a solid choice, as it turns out. Most of the boys jeer at her, but Maggie comes to her defence during another early scene that will see them warm to each other in their teenage trauma. And gradually we discover that Maggie’s shiny family is not all it’s cracked up to be either – the two share secrets and lies that will deepen their friendship as much as challenge it.

Meanwhile, Maggie’s father (Tony Hale) is not the soigné character she’s cracked him up to be, and her mother has a haunted look (Malin Akerman) that suggests the move to Wakita came as a result of skeletons in a previous cupboard. Maggie is an urbane, intelligent girl who rapidly outgrows the strictures of her new surroundings. And this brings out the nascent rebel in Iris as the two are forced to accept this petty female environment that cramps their style. Gradually  inspire each other to survive and thrive against the odds in a hopeful human journey where despair is often just below the surface in small town Oklahoma. MT

ON DIGITAL DOWNLOAD FROM 1 JUNE 2020 ON iTUNES, AMAZON, GOOGLE PLAY, SKY, VIRGIN, CHILI

Revenge (2018) **** Blu-ray release

Wri/Dir: Coralie Fargeat | France, Thriller 106′

Dirty weekends don’t come any dirtier than the one in this ferocious indie revenge thriller that has ravishing locations, a twisty storyline, and a female lead who is not just a pretty face.

Revenge is the impressive debut from French filmmaker Coralie Fargeat. This is a movie that will resonate with women everywhere with its feminist humour, from the dreaded chipped nail polish to the unwelcome male attention, especially the unwanted male attention. Bathed in garish technicolor and pulsed forward by a pounding electronic soundscape, Revenge snakes its way through the Moroccan desert where its heroine, the cheeky bummed hottie Jen, fetches up with her smugly married lover Richard (Kevin Janssens) for a sexy sun-drenched ménage à deux. But this French woman (Mathilde Lutz) is not just gorgeous, she is also extremely cute. And although she can play the seductive siren at will, she can also be as tough as old boots. And when two of Richard’s friends suddenly appear on the scene, their company is distinctly ‘de trop’.

Revenge is a playful film that teeters on the brink of fantasy: combining surreal Grande Guignol with down to earth horror in a gore fest so stylishly achieved it actually becomes vital to the plot line in the incendiary finale laced with spurts of subversive humour, along the lines of I Spit on Your Grave. Jen is seen rocking raunchy tops and a seductive smile that makes up for her monosyllabic part, she is just there to perform on the shag carpet which is perfect for soaking up the bloodshed that will follow.

Meanwhile the misogynist love rat Richard makes disingenuous phone calls to his wife back in France, discussing the canapés for a forthcoming event, and pretending he’s there just to enjoy some downtime with pals Stan (Vincent Colombe) and Dimitri (Guillaume Bouchede), who are later seen leering at Jen through the enormous windows of the glamorous modern villa.

Fargeat makes brilliant use of the local flora and fauna echoing the over the top, tongue in cheek decadence of it all: insects crawl over a rotten apple core, as Dimitri urinates over a scorpion emerging from the sands. But it all turns nasty when Stan takes a shine to Jen and ignores her clear rejection of him. Just because Jen presents herself as a purring sex kitten it doesn’t follow that these men can stroke her at their own volition. What comes next will set this cat amongst the pigeons in a prolonged showcase showdown that sweats out between the foursome in the dazzling desert heat. A woman behind the camera allows a licence for extremes, and Fargeat pushes her story to the limits in a thriller with appeal for every sexual persuasion. And the moral of the tale: if you have a secret lover, keep them strictly to yourself. MT

LIMITED ADDITION BLU-RAY FROM 11 MAY 2020

https://youtu.be/YTJrztVvmx0

A Paris Education | Mes Provinciales (2018) **** DVD

Dir.: Jean-Paul Civeyrac; Cast: Andranic Manet, Diane Rouxel, Jenna Thiam, Gonzague van Bervesseles, Corentin Fila, Valentine Catzeflis, Sophie Verbeck, Christine Brucher, Gregori Manoukov; France 2018, 137 min.

Jean-Paul Civeyrac’s passionate cocktail of Sex, cinema and politics is a seductive distillation of what it means to be French. Based on the novel Lettres Provinciales by Blaise Pascal, it follows the adventures of Etienne who arrived from Lyons to study filmmaking in Paris, Saint-Denis, leaving his family and friend Lucie (Rouxel) behind. Shot in ravishing black-and-white by Pierre-Hubert Martin, A Paris Education feels very much like La Maman et la Putain by Eustache, transported into contemporary times.

Etienne (Manet) is a shy, immature young man – and extremely naïve – he’s looking for a mother/father figure. Shacking up with a new flat mate Valentina (Thiam), he soon falls under the spell of the enigmatic Mathias (Fila), a fellow student and troubled provocateur who would rather criticise than actually put himself out there and make a film. Then there is Jean-Noel (Bervesseles), who is just the opposite: caring and balanced – Etienne’s two new friends could not be more different. Yet he seems to be more passionate about Mathias than anybody else – even though he hardly knows him. Meanwhile Valentina moves to Berlin and is replaced by fierce eco-warrior Annabelle (Verbeck). Etienne tries to get close to this vulnerable woman but she falls for Mathias, until his violent outbursts jeopardise their love, Mathias turning his aggression on himself; Etienne has lost both his friends – and he is literally picked up by Barbara (Catzeflis), who was only briefly introduced to him by Annabelle in the flat.

Etienne appears vulnerable but he is primarily a non-committal, both in love and work. He sails through the film like a ship without a flag: his only constant concern is to make films, people come second in every way – with the exception of Mathias. Even his relationship with his parents (Brucher/Manoukov) is far from straightforward. When they visit him in Paris he seems embarrassed and aloof. The endless discussions with his friends and co-students seem to be a way to avoid growing up, and also full-time work. In a sad epilogue, we see him gradually withdraw from Barbara: how can he commit when he only loves himself.

Music plays a central part in this affecting drama; editor Louise Narboni has worked in opera, and Bach and Mahler dominate (particularly his 5th symphony that scored Death in Venice), and underline how marginalised Etienne has become since leaving provincial life made him a big fish in small bowl.  In Paris his lack of real identity and commitment turn him into Musil’s titular hero in A Man without Attributes. A Paris Education is a tour-de-force of art and psychology, and for once, the running time of over two hours is appropriate. AS

NOW ON DVD FROM 11 MAY 2020  

The Assistant (2019) ** Bfi Player

Dir: Kitty Green | Drama, 87′

The Assistant follows the day to day life of an office worker during her trial period in a new company. The film captured the imagination of critics in Berlin this year when a rumour went round it was based on the empire of one Harvey Weinstein, the disgraced film producer, and so plausibly chimed with the #MeToo movement. Although the setting here is New York.

Jane is a rather glum and introverted character who never smiles or shows a spark of enthusiasm or enterprise when she lands her dream job, beating hundreds of others to the post as a production company assistant. We first see her outside her Queens apartment, where a cab is waiting to drive her to the office in the early morning. Shot in a subdued colour palette, this is a tonally subdued affair that sees the film’s executives deeply involved in their workload; not a sparky creative atmosphere – so clearly the action takes place in the ‘backroom’ ie the legal or administrative side of the business – although this is never made clear.

Jane is a diligent and dedicated worker who maintains a sombre presence, rarely smiling and rocking a drab teeshirt, and dowdy trousers as her work outfit, her pop-socks drifting down to show her bare ankles as she goes about the daily routine of checking travel itineraries, photocopying, and making refreshments in the large office she shares with two other more senior assistants who are mostly absorbed in their own work. Her own poker-face certainly doesn’t invite a positive dynamic between them, and none of these characters has any chance to inject a sardonic twist to their performances given the dumbed down almost monosyllabic dialogue.

Although clearly a film with a serious and worthwhile message to offer, as a piece of entertainment  The Assistant is light years away from its obvious companion drama The Devil Wears Prada, a more sparky affair with some fireworks and fun and games up its sleeve, although roughly the same agenda.

Jane’s boss, Tony Torn, never appears but we certainly get a jist of his iron fist on his staff through various ‘phoncalls. But this could be any office, in any town, in any country with a strong hierarchy and a bottom line driven by profit and a need to deliver. And besides, Jane has no backlife, as far as we’re led to believe, apart from the final scene where she receives a loving phone call from her father, just as warm and convincing as the rest is cold and alienating. This brief scenes is the only tonal shift in the narrative. Other moments like this, amid the buttoned down drabness, could have added dramatic tension – and a more enjoyable outcome.

The fact that Jane is chauffeur-driven to work is a perk that many office workers would welcome, as they tool in from the suburbs to put in the hours in another gruelling day. This is what work is like for most people. It is not a party, but a hard graft to the top – and the only thing that can make it enjoyable is the positive attitude and determination that you bring with you to work. And Jane seems an isolated character whose simmering discontent comes to a head when a new assistant Sienna (Kristine Froseth) appears on the scene and appears to receive a more favourable reception. Sienna is just as pretty, but perkier, and brings a breath of fresh air to proceedings. Although Jane assumes that – wrongly or rightly – through a few randoms clues, that the young girl from Boise, Idaho, is a product of the casting couch. But because Jane has no confidents – in or out of the office – this strand cannot proffer any grist to her character’s mill to empower her. And this is the big flaw in Green’s script. Although our sympathies should be with her, she emerges an irritating morose, moaner by the end of the story: is that really what Green intended? Certainly a film to set tongues wagging. MT

NOW SHOWING ON BFI PLAYER

The Whistlers (2019)

Dir/Wri: Corneliu Porumboiu | Cast: Vlad Ivanov, Catrinel Marlon, Rodica Lazar, Antonio Buil, Agusti Villaronga, Sabin Tambrea, George Pisterneanu | Thriller, 97′

This Noirish Romanian arthouse thriller is not the first to use whistling as a vital part of its storyline. Last year’s Locarno Critics’ prize winner Sibel showed how vital this ancient style of communication is in isolated parts of the World. And La Gomera is one of them. The craggy hideaway in the Canaries is where a dark and sinuous double-crossing drama plays out. It also travels to the Romanian capital Bucharest, and Singapore. Swinging backwards and forwards in time tense The Whistlers is a rather forboding film with a retro feeling of the Sixties and another saturnine performance from Porumboiu’s regular Vlad Ivanov (who appearing in Tegnap and Sunset).

He is Cristi, a detective under surveillance from his colleagues who is rapidly finds out that this special language from local Spanish-speaking gangsters can keep him under the radar. Porumboiu’s clever lighting techniques and a ravishing score of modern classics and operatic arias keeps the action pumping to a surprising finale.

You may find the plot rather complicated and the crooks hard to identify (I did), but basically it goes as follows: Vast wads of illegal euros are being laundered in a mattress factory outside Bucharest whence they’re transported to the crime ring in Spain and Venezuela. The factory owner and middle-man is a petty criminal called Zsolt (Sabin Tambrea) and his girlfriend Gilda (Catrinel Marlon) seduces Cristi in the sexually-charged opening sequence (which takes us back to Basic Instinct). Meanwhile Zsolt’s boss Paco (Agusti Villaronga) instructs another honcho Kiko (Antonio Buil) to teach Cristi the whistling lingo. The place is riddled with surveillance cameras and no one can really be trusted in this edgy atmosphere of uncertainty so the arcane hissing comes in handy as a form of covert communication.

Meanwhile, Cristi’s sidekick Alin (George Pisterneanu) and their boss Magda (Rodica Lazar) make up the Police contingent. All these characters are out for themselves. La Gomera takes a leading role   with its inaccessible stony beaches, crystal waters and dense wooded hillsides. The final coda in Singapore doesn’t quite dovetail into the film and has a whiff of being added just to spice things up for the glamorous reveal in a light show taking place at the Gardens by the Bay.

In true noir style The Whistlers is not a long film and slips down easily – there are no deep messages here – despite its rather intractable plot. An ambitious and intriguing addition to the Romanian filmmaker’s oeuvre. MT

ON CURZON WORLD FROM FRIDAY 8 MAY 2020

 

 

Magic Medicine (2018)

Dir/Writer: Monty Wates | UK Doc | 79′

In 2012 a team of medical researchers explored what would happen if psilocybin was given to long term depressives.

Four years in the making, Monty Wates’ intriguing documentary chronicles the progress of the first ever medical trial offering the psychoactive ingredient of magic mushrooms to three volunteers suffering from clinical depression. We also meet the pioneering staff running the trial.

The hope is that this controversial substance will have the power to transform millions of lives, by scrambling and re-setting the brain’s function and enabling patients to identify what happened, to process it and, crucially, to move on. As David Lynch put in the recent biopic The Art Life (2016) “there has to be a big mess, before something can change”. The main setback has been government controls that strictly limit human testing.

Monty’s ground-breaking film reveals what happens when each of the candidates undergoes a supervised “trip” in a darkened room. During the short procedure, each is taken back into the deep recesses of their childhood to unlock trauma that has affected their lives and caused them to suffer deep sadness, impinging their ability to function at an optimum level. One of the trail volunteers had felt rejected and unwanted by his father, another was lost in a state of insecurity waiting for others to tell him what to do. The third feels generally worthless in his life.

Wates adopts an observational approach and a linear narrative, always maintaining a humanistic approach to the subject matter. With deeply moving footage of the “trips” the patients experience, this intimate film is an absorbing portrait of the human cost of depression, and the inspirational people contributing to this unique psychedelic research. The results are remarkable, varied and often lasting, suggesting the treatment is positive. So far. And certainly more effective than with conventional drugs. But whether the substance will be licensed for general use remains to be seen. MAGIC MEDICINE is an instructive, absorbing and fascinating piece of filmmaking. MT

A 2021 study led by the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN), found that the drug can be safely administered in up to six patients using doses of either 10mg or 25mg.

 

The Man with X-Ray Eyes (1963) **** Blu-ray release

Dir/Wri: Roger Corman | Cast: Ray Milland, Diana Van der Vils, Harold J Stone, John Hoyt | Sci-fi Thriller UK, 79′

Drawing comparisons with Jack Arnold’s Incredible Shrinking Man this gripping foray into Sci-fi showed Roger Corman capable of inventive storytelling as well as horror in this enterprising low budget thriller with a razor sharp wit that stars Ray Milland in the leading role. It even has a forward- thinking female role in the shape of Diana Van der Vils who plays a vampish pearl-rocking blond Dr Diane Fairfax, who also provides the romantic twist.

Space exploration had captured the collective imagination of the cinema-going public for all things scientifically ground-breaking in the early 1960s and The Man with X-Ray Eyes buys into this vibe. There’s also ‘something of the night’ about Ray Milland, despite his sparkling blue eyes, and these take on a superhuman power for his character Dr James Xavier who has invented a serum for championing human vision.

Set in Las Vegas, Nevada – we get to see blue skies and palm trees – but the action mainly takes place in the confines of labs and domestic interiors (aka the studio). At first his vision leads to cheeky revelations about women’s underwear and even their spines! Twisting with a blond who picks him up at a party he comments on her (hidden) birthmark and underwear: “Remember I’m a man”: he jokes lasciviously, and she quips back:”Remember I’m a woman” taking him off guard, realising he has been successfully pulled, and gets his coat.

But things get serious when he discovers that his serum has a cumulative affect, giving him the ability to see inside a patient’s body to their veins and organs during an operation, and his colleague threatens him with malpractice. But Xavier is not afraid: “Soon I’ll be able to see what no man has ever seen”. And this knowledge is power. So much power that he accidentally throws his colleague out of the window during the ensuing contretemps.

Forced to go on the run, Corman gets the chance to cast the brilliant Don Rickles as Dr Xavier’s stooge/compare when he embarks on a foray as a fortune teller in a bizarre turn of events. And soon he’s seeing to much for his own liking, donning an enormous pair of dark glasses that give him a striking resemblance to Ricky Gervais.

Overnight he becomes a miracle worker, treating the sick but also seeing the downside of his gift, which works both ways, showing him the sinister, seamy side of humanity warts and explores the ethics of power: In the process he loses his empathy for the common man.

Corman avoids sensationalism creating some rather clever visual affects that are in keeping with the integrity of the performances and thematic strength of a story that explores the moral side of Xavier’s powers, and the nature of what it is to be human. Corman was forced into a studio-dictated ending which is nevertheless reasonably satisfying, Ray Milland carrying the film from start to finish. And whatever the question was at the beginning, love was always going to be the answer. MT

NOW ON BLURAY from 4th May 2020 COURTESY OF SECOND SIGHT FILMS

 

A Russian Youth (2019) *** on Mubi

Wri/Dir: Alexander Zolotukhin, Russian, 72 min | with: Vladimir Korolev, Mikhail Buturlov, Artem Leshik, Danil Tyabin, Sergey Goncharenko, Filipp Dyachkov

A poetic and lyrical First World War trench memoir set to a live orchestra playing Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 Op. 30 (1909) and Symphonic Dances Op. 45 (1940).

A Russian Youth sees its freckled hero blithely setting out for the ‘Great War’. But the pastural romance of the early scenes soon gives way to the terrors of trench warfare. Our vulnerable hero loses his accordion, and then his sight. But his keenness to continue the battle keeps him at the front and deployed to listen out for enemy planes at the giant metal pipes that form a kind of early-warning system. Talk about using the difficulty!

Capturing the evocative poignance of Wilfrid Owen’s poetry, especially his keen ear for sound and his instinct for the modulating of rhythm, this small gem certainly conveys the “pity of war”. Its faded images transport us back to the greatest tragedy of the early 20th century: life would never be the same again. But there’s also a stylised, abstract quality to the grainy sepia-tinted footage. The camera follows the febrile action with an atmospheric, jerky quality, so reminiscent of the age. Cutting away frequently from the action slightly spoils the narrative flow of this delicate fragment of yesteryear, re-ignited by contemporary relevance. MT

NOW ON MUBI

The Carer (2016) *** Vimeo on demand

Dir.: Janos Edelenyi; Cast: Brian Cox, Anna Chancellor, Emilia Fox, Coco König | UK 2016, 88 min.

Veteran Hungarian director/co-writer Janos Edelenyi (Prima Primavera), who has mainly worked for Hungarian Television, misses the beat in this rather simplistic comedy – despite Brian Cox as the main character.

He is Sir Michael, a Shakespearian actor in the final stages of Parkinsons, living on his opulent estate in Kent where he rails against “the dying of the light”. His daughter Sophia (Fox) and ex-flame Milly (Chancellor) try to be kind and sympathetic, but he has no time for either of them, or any of his carers, who have left after falling out this him.

Then a young Hungarian women called Dorottya arrives (König). She is trying to make it on the British stage, but eventually wins Sir Michael over, even discussing his incontinence openly. His rather scheming daughter Sophia feels threatened by the newcomer and dismisses her. Declaiming King Lear in anger, Sir Michael suffers a heart attack, but that brings Dorottya back on the scene: taking him to an award ceremony in his honour, and thwarting Sophia’s plans for a million pound donation.

The end credits contain photos and extensive information about happy-endings for all concerned. What could have been an enjoyable romp is, at best, a show-case for Cox and at worse a cliché-ridden, rather soulless and confused primitive farce. DoP Tibor Mathe’s visuals aim to convey an emotional story: but that would require a texture he doesn’t bring to the aesthetic. Using digital cameras to convey emotion has been successfully tried with the use of vintage lenses or post-productions means. Neither were applied in this case, and the result is a smooth, undefined and damp image. The overall result brings nothing to the care-giving merry go round, a theme that has endless potential yet to be mined. AS

OUT ON VIMEO ON DEMAND

Ema (2019) ** Curzon World

Cast: Mariana Di Girolamo, Gael Garcia Bernal, Paola Giannini, Santiago Cabrera, Cristian Suarez, Catalina Saavedra

Director: Pablo Larrain | Drama Chile 102’

Music is the only star of Pablo Larrain’s story of parental irresponsibility that unfolds amidst the cool vibes of seaside Valparaiso. This South American idyll is also home to the pumping sounds of the reggaetón dance world that is only authentic element of this glib story. 

Back in the present after his lush 1960s drama Jackie, Larrain casts newcomer Mariana Di Girolamo and a reliable Gael Garcia Bernal as a couple who clash due to their immaturity and lack of life experience when juggling their artistic collaboration with a desire to have a child.

Taking on such an emotive theme exposes Larrain’s ineptitude in handling the delicate subject matter, and questions whether he has personally been affected by the issues involved – clearly not, otherwise he would have have given it more thoughtful treatment.  And although he brings his edgy cinematic talents to the party, the experiment fails. Ema is a drama that is neither engaging nor convincingly performed, even Gael Garcia Bernal cannot inject any depth to his character, apart from his incendiary outburst at Ema and her dancing troupe.

After a dynamic opening sequence featuring a massive fire at a traffic lights junctions, the film scatterguns into a series of stilted episodes as Larrain attempts to establish the storyline using the rhythm of his pulsating score as the driving factor. It’s a clever idea that fails in a drama that never gains a satisfying momentum.

Ema (Di Girolamo) is a bleached blond dancer in her early twenties who has recently adopted a 7 year old orphan from Columbia, named Polo (Cristian Suarez), because her choreographer husband Gaston (Bernal) has been declared infertile. Coming from a troubled start in life Polo soon becomes too much of a handful for his naive parents and sets their home on fire, leaving Ema’s sister with facial injuries.

So back Polo goes into the system, Ema and Gaston bemoaning their loss as if the boy was a psychopathic pet rabbit, with Ema blithely declaring she’ll ‘pick another one’, laying the blame squarely at Gaston’s feet. Gaston is the less irritating of the two but even his star-power fails to makes this rewarding or meaningful, remaining cold and distant throughout. And the visually arresting dance sequences and pumping vibes just feel incongruous, somehow reducing this to a trivial soap opera, rather than offering tonal relief from the couple’s fraught situation. A simpering social worker (Catalina Saavedra) who had pulled strings to get the couple a child, just adds to the woeful mistreatment. Is this an inditement on Chilean youth, a lowkey expose on the perils of adoption, or a novel way of raising awareness of reggaeton, either way, it does feel mildly offensive. Larrain’s co-writer Guillermo Calderon did some brilliant work on The Club and Neruda so hopefully this is just a bum note for this duo. MT

NOW ON DIGITAL RELEASE | VENICE FILM FESTIVAL Review 2019 

Becky Sharp (1935) Blu-ray release

Dir Rouben Mamoulian | Cast: Miriam Hopkins, Frances Dee, Cedric Hardwicke, Billie Burke | US Drama 84’

The first feature film shot entirely in the newly perfected Technicolor process, Becky Sharp – which had cost an estimated $950,000 – was dismissed at the time by Otis Ferguson as “As pleasing to the eye as a fresh fruit sundae, but not much more”. Unlike The Jazz Singer – which had blazed an equivalent technological trail eight years earlier – Becky Sharp was not a box office hit, and colour was to take another thirty years to become the cinema’s default setting the way sound did; more associated with historical rather than contemporary subjects.

Becky Sharp was in fact the third film version to be made of Thackeray’s sprawling 1847-48 novel (which had originally appeared in serial form) set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic wars. This version was based upon the hit 1899 Broadway dramatisation by Langdon Mitchell, and as meticulously designed by acclaimed theatre designer Robert Edmond Jones. The rigours of early Technicolor filmmaking resulted in an extremely stagy and studio-bound experience which whizzes in just 84 minutes through an originally very long and convoluted narrative under the punishingly hot lights that made early Technicolor films such a trial to act in. (Mira Nair’s 2004 remake with Reece Witherspoon, by comparison, clocks in at 141 minutes!)

The men at whom Miss Sharp sets her cap are all inclined to be pompous middle-aged caricatures (with the honourable exception of Alan Mowbray as Rawdon Crawley), since she is after financial security rather than romance. Opinion continues to remain divided over Miriam Hopkins in the title role, whose stature as an actress has dimmed considerably since she received an Oscar nomination for this film; but she does bring sparkling blue eyes to the part, seldom apparent in her other movies. Although the most eye-catching moments involve red British army uniforms, much of the rest of the film actually employs blue (a hue hitherto absent from the Technicolor palette) to attractive effect. The credits, for example, are in blue, and the first shot of the film itself is of a blue stage curtain being pushed aside.

For over forty years the film languished in the public domain in a cheap 67 minute 16mm Cinecolor travesty until finally restored in 1984. It subsequently received only one British TV screening ten years later; but now be enjoyed on BluRay as the “triumph for colour” Graham Greene declared it on its first appearance. Richard Chatten

BECKY SHARP (1935) NOW AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY

Kwaidan (1964) **** Blu-ray release

Dir.: Massaki Kobayashi; Cast: Michiyo Aratama, Misako Watanabe, Renaro Mikuni, Tatsuya Nakadai, Keiko Kishi, Katsuo Nakamura, Tetsuo Tanba, Takashi Shimura, Hanuko Sugimura, Osamu Takizawa, Ganjiro Nakamura, Noburo Nakaya; Japan 1964, 183 min.

Japanese director Massaki Kobayashi (1916-1996), best known for his Human Condition trilogy, adapted writer Yoko Mizuki’s script based on four short stories by Lafkadio Hearn, into a sumptuous, eerie and beguiling horror feature, with the images of DoP Yoshio Miyajima of carrying the sometimes rather slim narrative. To use the term horror is perhaps a little misleading since the storyline often focuses on supernatural forces invading the human sphere and re-creating a balance, which was disturbed by the protagonists. The quartet are more or less fairy-stories, all told with a didactic undertone. 

In The Black Hair (Kurokami), a poor Samurai (Mikuni) leaves his loving wife (Aratama) because he can not stand the poverty any more. He marries the daughter of a wealthy family (Watanabe), but soon tires of her, telling the lday-in-waiting he had only married for her inheritance, sending her back to the family in shame. After years of wandering around, the Samurai returns to his first wife’s house, finding it in disrepair. She surprisingly takes him back and, before falling asleep, the re-united couple make plans for a happy future. When the warrior wakes up next morning he discovers, he has slept next to her rotting corpse and tries to run away in horror, but the titular hair of his wife keeps him back.

The Snow Maiden  (Yukionna) is the tale of two woodcutters who seek refuge from the cold in a fisherman’s hut. One of them, Mosaku is killed by a Yuki-Onna (Keiko Kishi), a ghost-like creature. When it is Minokishi’s (Tatsuya Nakadai) turn, the spirit spares him because he is so handsome. But she tells him never to share her secret. Minokoshi returns home, and obeys her. One day she meets a beautiful woman, called Yuki, another incarnation of the Yuki-Onna. When she stitches a kimono at night, he sees the resemblance and tells her. Yuki forgives him for breaking his word because of their two children, but leaves him behind, heartbroken.

In Hoichi the Earless (Miminashi Hoichi no Hanashi), a blind musician/monk, Hoichi (Nakamura) is an accomplished biwa player. He is singing about the battle between two clans at the height of the Genpei War. One night a Samurai (Taba) visits him in the garden, asking him to play for his master, the Warlord. The High Priest of the monastery (Shimura) finds out about Hoichi’s nightly adventures, and tells him he is in great danger. The monks paint the text of the war ballad all over Hoichi’s body, but forget the ears. This has dire consequences for Hoichi, but there is still a happy-end waiting for him.

The last episode, In a Cup of Tea  (Chawan no naka) is rather tame in comparison with the previous trio. A writer (Takizawa), who is also the narrator, hears the story about the attendant Sekinai, who sees the face of un unknown man in a cup of water. Even though he refills the cup many times, the face will not go away. Later on, the person’s face comes alive, calling himself Shikibu (Nakaya). He brings two friends with him, the trio trying to kill Sekinai. The writer leaves the end of the story open, leaving the solution to the imagination of the readers.

Kwaidan went on to win the Special Jury Price at the Cannes Festival in 1964. Today it is mainly considered a masterpiece due to Miyajima’s masterly photography. The whole set was located in a huge aircraft hangar, with the hand-painted sets reflecting the changing seasons and settings. Kwaidan needs to be watched, not seen or interpreted. It has all the qualities of a Grimm fairy-tales, coupled with a specific Japanese form of angst and fatalism. AS

NOW ON BLURAY COURTESY OF MASTERS OF CINEMA | 27 APRIL 2020

Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer (2013) *** Streaming with Q&A

Dir: Mike Lerner/Maxim Pozdorovkin | Cast: Mariya Alyokhina, Dmitry Medvedev, Vladimir Putin, Ekaterina Samutsevich, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova. | 90min  Documentary, Russian

Three young women face seven years in a Russian prison after an explosive performance at Moscow Cathedral in 2012

Along with Andrei Gryazev’s Tomorrow, Pussy Riot furthers the dialogue on freedom of speech and the individual in the Russian Federation with this stirring and well-crafted documentary.  Even if you don’t like the band’s particular brand of music: a blend of early British Punk Rock with jazzed-up ecclesiastical overtones, you have to give the Pussy Rioters top marks for raising awareness of the country’s current social and cultural climate.

Opening with an apposite Bertholt Brecht quote, this snapshot of modern Moscow kicks off with one of the trio, Nadya Kolonikova, airing her feelings in a pleasant and gentle way about the cause she fervently espouses, stating candidly that her hatred of Putin stems from his overzealous nationalism on the World stage. Meanwhile on the Church stage in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ, the band sport brightly coloured ‘fluor’ balaclavas. They look like jokey bank-robbers but their only crime is violating the Church’s dress code, genuflecting with guitars and offending local worshippers with their insulting riff, along the lines of “Occupy Red Square”; and “Rid Us Of Putin”.  This leads to forcible arrest.

The film has an experimental feel: A handheld camera yields dizzying footage of the streets of Moscow intercut with timelapse sequences of the skyline at night, contrasting with the drab interiors of the court room and the detention centre where the girls are taken on their arrest in February 2012.  The tone of the piece is calm and inquiring rather than dramatic or subversive and interviews with the girls and their families are measured and informative without a hint of bitterness or anger.  Nadia speaks softly and convincingly of her plight and love for her father.  He decided to support her musical talent and gives insight into her rebellious streak, hinting at his divorce from her mother as possible grounds for her need to seek recognition in this way: it’s a portrait of a loving and affectionate dad.

To Western eyes there’s nothing scandalous about these girls in hooded balaclavas rampaging around with guitars, albeit in a Church. It all rather feels like a storm in a teacup. What is serious though is the image that emerges of modern Russia as an old-fashioned society full of traditional and draconian figures and a repressive legal system that forces petty criminals to give their evidence from within metal cages in the city court rooms, while outside frenzied protesters chant slogans for freedom amid the whirring of cameras from the Press pack . For his part, in dour interview mode, Putin claims he has a duty to protect the views of the orthodox mainstream. As a result, two of the girls are sentenced to serve seven years in a penal colony.

In a flash of glamour, Madonna wades in to Moscow to lend her support or maybe just to garner publicity for yet another physical transformation: it’s difficult not to be cynical but it feels as if the Russian Federal Republic, from a human rights perspective at least, is still hiding behind a rather dishevelled ‘Iron Curtain’ of sorts, despite its pretensions as a 21st century World power. MT

Watch Pussy Riot – A Punk Player on BBC iPlayer, Amazon Prime, Youtube, iTunes, or Google Play.

Then watch the DocHouse Q&A with co-director Mike Lerner here.

PUSSY RIOT: A PUNK PRAYER TOOK THE SPECIAL JURY PRIZE AT SUNDANCE 2013

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Sense of an Ending (2017) ****

Dir.: Ritesh Batra | Script: Nick Payne | Cast: Jim Broadbent, Charlotte Rampling, Harriet Walker, Michelle Dockery, Freya Mavor, Billy Howle, Emily Mortimer, Joe Alvyn, Matthew Goode UK | Drama | 108 min.

The past is how we choose to remember it. Sometimes significant events are forgotten or edited out. This is the premise of Julian Barnes’ 2011 Booker Prize winning novella that explores the psyche of a quintessential Englishman and his selective memories of youth.

Thoughtfully adapted for the screen by Nick Payne, THE SENSE OF AN ENDING is a dispassionate film in many ways, not least because the characters are so repellent, thornily portrayed by the subtle support trio of Rampling, Walter and Dockery with a nuanced Jim Broadbent as Tony Webster, the main focus in this amusing drama from Indian director Ritesh Batra who is so clever at making this feel so classically and insightfully British. The story is certainly gripping and keeps us invested in Barnes’ intricate storytelling but the flashbacks, so vital to informing the plot, are actually key to understanding the main character’s motivations and there is a strand of sardonic humour that makes this another brilliant observation of emotional suppression that often follows a false start in youth. The 1960s scenes are teasingly repressive and so representative of how damaging an unsatisfactory first relationship can be, particularly for sensitive souls such as young Tony.

The story revolves around Tony Webster, divorced and busily keeping life at bay as the proprietor of a small speciality camera shop in leafy North London. This unfruitful foray into passionate love during his college years has sent him scurrying for cover, and after coasting through his marriage to QC Margaret (a brilliant Walter), which produced a (now pregnant) lesbian daughter Susie (Dockery), he has managed to avoid emotional entanglements of any kind. And although he enjoys Margaret’s caustic company over dinner he still doesn’t get why their marriage is over.

But the past returns to bite Tony when he is left a strange bequest in a will, encouraging him to track down his enigmatic first love Veronica Ford who is still as evasive as ever in responding to his requests. Their eventual meeting drudges up an unfortunate episode that Tony had chosen to forget and reveals how the Young Tony (Howle) fell for the ambivalent Veronica (Mavor) during an awkward weekend at her family home in rural England, where he is entranced by Veronica’s mother Sarah (played by a winsomely suggestive Emily Mortimer).

Tony discovers subsequently that Veronica has taken up with his maverick friend Adrian (Alvyn), who fancies himself as a cool Camus-quoiting intellectual (later committing suicide). Disillusioned by love and bewildered by his feelings for Veronica, Tony is forced to confront a past that offers the key to his future.

According to Margaret and Susie, Tony has become an emotional avoidant dinosaur, a ‘curmudgeon’ who regards the modern world with disappointment and disdain. Having successfully cleansed his memory of any wrongdoing regarding Veronica – and subsequently Margaret – his self-glorification shows him up to be exactly the same person he was as a young man: an arrogant but misunderstood bystander, proud to have chosen a life in his shell.

Suicide, sexual repression and unrequited love are themes of incendiary dramatic potential, and this film, with its thoughtful musical choices, trades passion for emotional restraint and typical English poignance. Clearly, Tony has lost contact with his feelings and shut the door on romance without even realising the effect this has had on his wife and family. But his emotional day of reckoning will strangely be the making of him. MT

ON BBC IPLAYER

 

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

 

 

White God (2014) | Bfi Player

Dir/Wri: Kornél Mundruczó | Cast: Zsofia Psotta, Sandor Zsoter, Lili Horvath, Szabolcs Thuroczy, Lili Momori, Gergely Banki, Karoly Ascher | 119min  Drama/Thriller  Hungary

Hungarian director, Kornél Mundruczó’s art house thriller is also a revenge flick with a touch of the “Pied Piper of Hamlin’ about it. Serving as an elusive parable on human supremacy, it scratches the edges of fantasy with some bizarre and brutal elements.

Dogs, or more correctly, mutts are the stars of the story which opens with a little girl cycling through the mysteriously empty streets of Budapest, followed by a pack of barking beasts. With is canine cast of Alsations to Labradors, Rottweilers and even little terriers, WHITE GOD also brings to mind The Incredible Journey with a darkly sinister twist. Is she escaping a virus, or a human enemy?

These dogs are clearly well-trained and credit goes to the Mundruczo for his ambitious undertaking, but then Magyars have a reputation for their horsemanship and this clearly extends to the canine species. It transpires that Lilli (Zsofia Psotta) the girl on the bike, has adopted a large street dog called Hagen. Lilli’s mum is off on a business trip with her new boyfriend, leaving her in the care of her emotionally distant but rather sensitive father who ironically works as an abattoir inspector.

Their relationship is not a close one and Lilli becomes even more distant from him when he insists on her getting rid of her loveable pet. Budapest is a city full of street dogs and the Hungarians appear to be a great deal less keen on animal welfare than most European countries. Hagen is soon picked up by a new owner, an unscrupulous dog fighter, who sets about turning him into a savage warrior-dog, before he escapes and ends up in the Police dog pound, where he stages a mass canine uprising. The transformation is both sad and frightening but there are also poignant moments as Hagen as his ‘mate,’ a sweet Jack Russell, desperately try to evade re-capture by their enemies – human beings. And it is this balance of power that underpins Mundruczó’s unique drama transforming it from an animal adventure to a satire with universal appeal. WHITE DOG is quite literally, a tale of the ‘underdog’ rising up and claiming his rightful place in society: on a more sinister level it could represent the masses over-taking society. A captivating and provocative piece of filmmaking. MT

NOW ON BFI PLAYER | Dedicated to the late Miklós Jancsó, WHITE GOD won PRIX UN CERTAIN REGARD in Cannes 2014.

They Live By Night (1948) **** Blu-ray release

Dir: Nicholas Ray | Cast: Farley Granger, Cathy O’Donnell | US, Film Noir 95′

Legendary director Nicholas Ray began his career with this lyrical film noir, the first in a series of existential genre films overflowing with sympathy for America’s outcasts and underdogs. When the wide-eyed fugitive Bowie (Farley Granger), having broken out of prison with some bank robbers, meets the innocent Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell), each recognizes something in the other that no one else ever has.

The young lovers dream of a new, decent life together, but as they flee the cops and contend with Bowie’s fellow crims, who aren’t about to let him go straight, they come to realise there’s nowhere left to hide. Ray brought an outsider’s sensibility honed in the theatre to this debut, using revolutionary camera techniques and naturalistic performances to craft a profoundly romantic crime drama that paved the way for decades of lovers-on-the-run thrillers to come.

Available on Amazon from 20 April 2020

The Church (2020) *** Streaming

Dir: Anat Tel | Anat Tel, Naom Amit | Israel, Doc 52′

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is more than a place a worship for many Christians, it is also a spiritual and physical home according to this wry new documentary from Israeli provocateur Anat Tel (Mom, Dad, I’m Muslim).

Concise and pithy, this colourful film is narrated on camera by Samuel Aghoyan, the Superior of the Armenian Church, who takes us through a potted history of his own arrival as a child in the Holy City, and gives a sardonic take on the internecine tiffs that add spice to the daily life of this legendary ecclesiastical HQ sitting proudly in the Christian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem.

Today the Church also serves as the main office of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, while control of the place itself is shared among various Christian denominations and secular entities in complicated arrangements essentially unchanged for over 160 years, and some for much longer. The main denominations partaking in the property are the Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodoxy and Armenian Apostolics, and to a lesser degree the Coptic Orthodoxy, Syriac Orthodoxy and Ethiopian Orthodoxy, who have actually been given the bum’s rush, and are now relegating to the roof.

According to traditions, dating back to at least the fourth century, the building houses the two holiest sites in Christianity: the site where Jesus was crucified, at a place known as Calvary or Golgotha, and Jesus’s empty tomb, where he was buried and resurrected. The tomb is enclosed by a 19th-century shrine called the Aedicula. According to the history books, Jerusalem has had a chequered and controversial religious past. But eventually 260 years ago, the English were back in town and set up ‘The Status Quo’, an understanding between religious communities that must be respected across the board.

The upshot of this agreement is that each of the six denominations has a two-hour slot in which to conduct their services, leaving the poor Ethiopians to do their stuff on the roof. The iron key to the site is held by two Muslim families, who argue the toss about who is the real custodian: each day a smiling, besuited Muslim makes it his duty to open the doors, and as soon as he does, the onslaught begins, as worshippers are seen fighting their way towards the entrance. Meanwhile, Jonny, an Arab Christian policeman, is responsible for making sure things go according to plan. Enriched by vibrant camerawork, this is a lively and lyrical look at the latest modus Vivendi in this ancient monument to Christianity. MT

Now streaming on Go2Films

 

 

 

Woman in Chains (1968) | Classic Clouzot on Mubi

French director Henri-Georges Clouzot (1907-1977) is best remembered for his dark thrillers and some of the greatest films of the 1950s.  The Wages of Fear won him the Palme d’Or at Cannes and the Berlinale Golden Bear in 1953, and rounded off the hat trick with a BAFTA two years later.

Even Alfred Hitchcock docked his hat to his French contemporary whose documentary Mystere de Picasso records the legendary artist painting various canvasses for the camera, allowing us to understand his creative purpose at work.  Le Corbeau is now available to watch at home, together with Elizabeth Wiener’s distinctive performance in Woman in Chains  (aka La Prisonniere, Clouzot’s last film and his only one in colour). Quai des Orfevres, completes the trio, of stylish films from the French Master of Suspense now emerging from the shadows to watch online at MUBI. With striking visuals and an unforgettably tense style, Clouzot’s films make classic noir viewing.

Le Corbeau (1942)

A stylish masterpiece of French cinema, Le Corbeau is a dark and subversive study of human nature starring Pierre Fresnay and Ginette Leclerc. In a nod to the Vichy regime of the era (not to mention Nazism), a wave of hysteria sweeps the small provincial town of St. Robin when a series of poison-pen letters signed ‘Le Corbeau’ (The Raven) begin to appear, denouncing several prominent members of society. The slow trickle of unsettling letters soon becomes a flood, and no one is safe from their mysterious accusations. Upon its release in 1943, Le Corbeau was condemned by the political left and right and the church, and Clouzot was banned from filmmaking for two years.

Woman in Chains (1968)

Josée (Elizabeth Wiener) is the wife of an artist whose work is exhibited in Stan Hassler’s modern art gallery. Stan (Laurent Terzieff), impotent and depraved, satisfies himself by photographing women in humiliating poses. Josée is fascinated by the man and soon falls completely in love with him.

Quai des Orfèvres (1947)

A marriage that has fallen on hard times is further tested by the couple’s implication in a murder. Jenny Lamour (Suzy Delair) is a music hall chanteuse married to her pianist husband Maurice (Bernard Blier). Keen to get ahead, Jenny leaps at the chance when an ageing wealthy businessman (Charles Dullin) offers her the chance of some gigs. However, when she agrees to a meeting at his home and he is found dead later in the evening – Maurice’s untamed jealousy is in the frame. A Maigret-esque detective, Antoine, played by Louis Jouvet, leaves no stone unturned in his exceedingly private investigations of the down-at-heel showbiz couple’s sad, tempestuous life.

Henri-Georges Clouzot Focus now on MUBI.com

 

 

 

 

Moffie (2019) Digital release

Wri/Dir. Oliver Hermanus. South Africa/UK. 2019. 103 mins.

The last time South African director Oliver Hermanus was in Venice was for his Golden Lion hopeful Endless River. He returned last summer with MOFFIE, a magnetically intense drama that explores the sexual awakening of a young white male soldier conscripted into the army during early 1980s apartheid.

Based on the fictionalised memoir by André-Carl van der Merwe, this sumptuously cinematic film stands in contrast to the depiction of brutal army training in a ruthlessly homophobic Afrikaner platoon tasked with keeping the borders safe from neighbouring Angola, and the moffies – or gay cadets – at bay, homosexuality is considered a crime again God and the Christian nation.

Kai Luke Brummer is the driving force of the drama, convincingly showing how Nick develops from a shy ingenue to a confident and fully- fledged soldier. It traces his emotional arc making use of flashback to explore his incipient leanings towards gayness as a young boy in the local ‘whites only’ swimming club. Hermanus makes use of an evocative classical score lending a poignant undertone to this drama of stark contrasts. The film opens as 18-year-old Nicholas van der Swart is saying goodbye to his family before reporting his journey over inhospitable terrain to the army boot camp. His divorced father hands him a girlie magazine, as a private joke while his mother gives him a last cuddle in the chintzy home she shares with her new Afrikaner husband.

He soon makes a friend of the sympathetic recruit Sachs (Matthew Vey) who shares his views about the draconian training methods – bearing a glancing resemble to those in Full Metal Jacket – intended to prepare the men for a Communist enemy across he border but Nick is also drawn to a dark adonis in the shape of Stassen (Ryan de Villiers), who nuzzles up to him one stormy night during a training exercise when the two recruits are forced to share a sleeping bag. Nick is also forced to contend with the vicious and sweary Sergeant Brand (Hilton Pelser) who makes no bones about disciplining using violence on every occasion.

Hermanus leaves Nick’s sexuality fluid throughout although it is clear he has homosexual feelings for Stassen but needs to keep these under wraps for his own survival. Apartheid is illustrated on several scenes where the recruits verbally abuse a lone black man on a station platform but their own humanity is keenly brought to the surface demonstrating the ambivalent climate of their own masculinity and vulnerability. Music from Detroit artist Sugar Man provides a touchstone to the times – the USmusician was ‘discovered’ in Johannesburg and became the emblem of the young white South African music scene.

Dominated by a cast of talented non-pros obviously recruited for their striking physicality, Moffie makes for absorbing viewing. Jamie D. Ramsey’s lush camerawork captures the spectacular beauty of the Cape where Nick’s final encounter with Stassen in the ice cold waters of the Atlantic reminding us of the ambiguous nature of life and attraction. MT

SCREENING ON CURZON HOME CINEMA

Henri-Georges Cluzot | Mubi

LA PRISONNIЀRE (1968)

Josée (Elizabeth Wiener) is the wife of an artist whose work is exhibited in Stan Hassler’s modern art gallery. Stan (Laurent Terzieff), impotent and depraved, satisfies himself by photographing women in humiliating poses. Josée is fascinated by the man and soon falls completely in love with him.

LE CORBEAU (1942)

A veritable masterpiece of French cinema, LE CORBEAU is a dark and subversive study of human nature starring Pierre Fresnay and Ginette Leclerc. A wave of hysteria sweeps the small provincial town of St. Robin when a series of poison-pen letters signed ‘Le Corbeau’ (The Raven) begin to appear, denouncing several prominent members of society. The slow trickle of sinister letters soon becomes a flood and no one is safe from their mysterious accusations. Upon its release in 1943, Le Corbeau was condemned by the political left and right and the church, and Clouzot was banned from filmmaking for two years.

QUAI DES ORFEVRES (1947)

A marriage that has fallen on hard times is further tested by the couple’s implication in a murder. Jenny Lamour (Suzy Delair) is a music hall chanteuse married to her pianist husband Maurice (Bernard Blier). Keen to get ahead, Jenny leaps at the chance when an ageing wealthy businessman (Charles Dullin) offers her the chance of some gigs.

However, when she agrees to a meeting at his home and he is found dead later in the evening – Maurice’s untamed jealousy is in the frame. A Maigret-esque detective, Antoine, played by Louis Jouvet, leaves no stone unturned in his exceedingly private investigations of the down-at-heel showbiz couple’s sad, tempestuous life.

MUBI | 14 April 2020 |  BLURAY, DVD AND DIGITAL | STUDIOCANAL

La Soledad (2016) **** Free online

UnknownDir: Jorge Thielen Armand | Writer: Rodrigo Michelangeli | Docu-Drama | 89′ | Venezuela | Canada

A crumbling old villa in contemporary Caracas is haunted by seething resentment from occupying former retainers providing a fitting metaphor for Venezuela’s current economic crisis. Jorge Thielen Armand’s poetic paean to his grandparents home is a mournful one full of exotic birdsong, plants peeping through cracks in the walls and old photo albums covered in the dust. Cine footage shows the filmmaker playing in the gardens of La Soledad back in the 1960s, now only memories remain as ghosts of the past. A plan to restore the villa has been abandoned leaving handyman Jose and his 72-year-old mother Rosina (a former housekeeper), wife and daughter homeless as the economic situation worsens each day. Jose combs the streets for his mother’s medication and even food is hard to come as the empty shop shelves testify.

Amand avoids bombastic statements about his country’s woes preferring this softly softly approach. The cinema verite drama remains tethered to the local neighbourhood making no attempt to broaden its view of Venezuela’s political woes beyond the concerns of the poorest people here in Caracas. And although Amand is respectful and sympathetic towards the current occupants, it soon emerges that only Rosina has a right to live in the property. Her family – as she points out herself- should really only be there on a temporary basis. But Jose’s only hope of work is re-building the villa whose history dates back to a time when valuable coins were purportedly buried in parts of the building. He taps the peeling walls and hires a metal detector in the hope of making a quick buck. Some of his friends are considering kidnapping as a way to raise funds; others are leaving to look for work in Colombia and Ecuador, including his wife. But like a Venezuelan Mr Micawber, Jose has no desire to move on preferring to stay put in the hope that his boss and co-worker Jorge will offer him a future. But even bosses have to move on when crisis is the order of the day. MT

FREE ONLINE | THIS WEEKEND ONLY

 

 

Storm Boy (2019) ***

Dir: Shawn Seet |Cast: Geoffrey Rush, Trevor Jamieson, David Galpilil, Finn Little, Jai Courtney, Eric Thomson | Drama Aus 95′

Geoffrey Rush and Trevor Jamieson are the stars of this tender-hearted tale of animal magic between a boy and his pet pelican. Trevor Jamieson plays kindly beachcomber Fingerbone Bill who joins forces with a kindred nature boy Mike (Finn Little) who lives with his reclusive widower father (Jai Courtney), known locally as “Hideaway Tom.”

Based on Colin Thiele’s popular children’s novel that originally found its way on to the screen in 1976 courtesy of Henri Safran’s able direction, this less vaunted version turns into a damp squib rather than an uplifting message of hope, due to Seet’s messy direction.

The wild and windswept beaches of Australia’s Coorong National Park lend luminosity to the bittersweet boyhood saga that sees retired property developer Michael Kingley (Rush) as the grown-up version of the book’s child character, recounting his version of events to his schoolgirl granddaughter Maddy (Morgan Davies) who lives in a modernist beach villa, adding property porn allure and making it all the more easy on the eye.

But storm clouds loom over this seaside idyll in the shape of a proposal from Kingley’s old property firm to lease land on the untrammelled eco-lagoon to a mining company. Kingley is against the deal, his son-in-law Malcolm (Eric Thomson) all for it, as the new MD. But that’s not all. Nasty poachers are threatening to shoot down Mr Percival the Pelican, adding to the family’s saucerful of sorrows.

Little Mike has formed a close bond with Mr Percival having raised the sea bird and its fellow chicks when its mother was killed by the very same poachers. Gradually they have become inseparable, as is the case with many lonely or isolated kids, Mike describing Mr P as “the best friend I ever had” the bird nestling affectionately into his arms. But as you can imagine, it doesn’t end well, although the ecological upshot takes the sting out of this crowd-pleaser which also welcomes back the original Fingerbone Bill in a great cameo from David Gulpilil. MT

ON DIGITAL RELEASE FROM 6 APRIL 2020

 

 

Calm with Horses (2019) ****

Dir: Nick Rowland | Wri: Joe Murtagh | Cast: Cosmo Jarvis, Barry Keoghan, Niamh Algar, Ned Dennehy, David Wilmot, Kiljan Moroney 

This ultra violent Irish crime thriller is a tale of love lost and vehement revenge that starts well but shoots itself in the foot slightly with a smaltzy ending. The wafer thin plot is a lowkey version of Mean Streets bulked out by shed-loads of atmosphere and a seething central performance by Cosmo Jarvis as an addled ex-boxer stuck between raising his son and serving as a mob enforcer for the dreaded Devers family. The drug-dealing Devers are a fearful bunch of thugs and interpersonal skills are parlous.

Calm with Horses is Nick Rowland’s feature debut adapted by Joe Murtagh from a selection of stories by Irish author Colin Barrett. The terrific Irish cast are what makes this so compelling: all seasoned pros you wouldn’t want to meet on a dark night, or even a sunny day, for that matter. Douglas Armstrong (Jarvis) is a dim-witted explosive henchman for drug-runner Dymphna (a nose-picking Keoghan) and his family, headed by the monstrous Paudi (veteran Ned Dennehy), for whom loyalty is the watchword. ‘Arm’ also has an autistic son from his ex Ursula (Niamh Algar) who wants him to help finance the boy’s education. They’re a heavy-drinking, snooker-playing mob who speed around this remote rural backwater of Ireland. It’s the sort of  downtrodden place where an abandoned settee is left rotting in the High Street.

The title refers to a nearby horse-training farm where Ursula’s boyfriend Rob (Welsh) is teaching the boy to ride, but Calm With Horses works best in the scenes involving the Devers family and their sculduggery. Efforts to make this into a love story revolving around Arm and Ursula fall flat, that’s for another film, and thus the final misjudged scene takes the sting out the thriller’s tail. Rowland sets up a superb showcase showdown in a country house deep in the wilds, but then spoils it all by turning it into a sob story. But for those who like a happy ending of sorts this is an impressive start to a promising career. MT

UK & Irish Digital release available on a broad range of VOD platforms including iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, Sky Store, Virgin Movies, Talk Talk, BT TV, Curzon Home Cinema, BFI Player, Rakuten TV and Volta  from 27th April 2020.

2020

 

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

The Ponds (2018) Netflix

Dirs: Patrick McLennan, Samuel Smith | UK Doc | 76′

“If you can face the water at 5 degrees, you can face anything”  

Hampstead is still reeling from the unauthentic romcom that took its name in 2017. So hurrah for this  documentary that reflects the real Hampstead, London’s hilly heartland and home to 320 hectares of woods and pastures. Hampstead Heath also has several fresh water ponds where all year round visitors can wallow and frolic or simply just swim.

The Ponds is Patrick McLennan’s debut as co-director/producer along with Samuel Smith, and he also wrote the script. Drone footage captures the changing seasons chronologically, beginning with early Spring. We meet regulars Dan, David and Jim who extol the virtues – and rigours – of this open air communal bathing experience. There are even some local swimmers in their 80s who consider it a must for their health and social life – even though at times the water is a spine-tingling 2 or 3 degrees. But the endorphin rush is addictive and life-affirming.

From the 1880s these ponds were regulated for the local community. Tom is part of a hard core of 60 or so bathers who take a dip at least once or twice a week in the chilly brackish waters. He considers it his place of ‘religious’ worship. From the 1920s local women got their own segregated pond which is regarded by the female regulars as a spiritual place to reunite against life’s hardships, and maintain confidence in their bodies – even though they may not even know each other names. And although the men’s ponds see more nude swimmers, some female interviewees gives us a flash of their assets, just to be going on with.

Tom forms the connective tissue of the film with his eventful life story. He sees his swim as a chance to disassociate from the “silliness of life”. This was particularly important when he was nearly killed in a road accident in Oxford Circus. Another regular Carrie, has battled cancer and found the Ponds invaluable for keeping her hope alive. And she doesn’t get so many colds!

Oliver completely fell in love with the Heath and its ponds and when his romance finished. He felt bereft moving back to Camberwell. He now returns to the Heath every day. Another keen bather suffers from degenerative blindness and describes how his daily fresh water exercise is a life-saver.

Whilst the older swimmers talk of the spirituality, social and health benefits of pond swimming, the young express their joy of escaping the city to enjoy the open air with their friends in the heat of the summer. It’s a melting pot for rich and poor, old and young, gay and bisexual, families and singles. David now prefers the open-air freshness to his local gym experience and he’s incorporated his workout into his swimming time. In his youth he even used to wear a weighted vest to improve his strength and endurance.

Made on a shoestring budget, and none the worse for it, The Ponds is a graceful and cinematic documentary that shows how the trend for fresh water swimming can provide a bonding experience, enriching and supporting the local community. The film ends on a high note at the end of the season – with a competitive swim for Christmas. Keeping up with the zeitgeist, some locals air mixed feelings about trans-gender bathing, but a more burning issues is why the women’s pond has no diving board. “We want to bounce ourself in”, said one feisty female. I’ll second that. MT

NOW ON NETFLIX

Rio Grande (1950) ** Bluray

Dir.: John Ford; Cast: John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, Claude Jarman jr., Ben Johnson; USA 1950, 105 min.

John Ford’s Rio Grande is the final part of the “cavalry” trilogy that started with Fort Apache and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and continues in the same vein: the Indians are dastardly, real men – when on the right side – are above the law, and women get to see what’s good for them, even if it takes them a long time.

Colonel Kirby Yorke (Wayne) is fighting the Indians at the titular river, but the cowards always decamp into Mexico when things get rough. And the high command allows him not to go in hot pursuit, since Mexico is a foreign country. Enter Jefferson Yorke, a son Kirby hasn’t seen for fifteen years. Jeff’ has just flunked West Point, but still wants to be a good soldier under Dad’s command. Hot on his heels comes mother Kathleen (O’Hara) – who has also has not seen Kirby since the latter burned down her family mansion during the Civil War. Kathleen wants to buy her son out of the army, but Jeff is hellbent on following Dad, and earning his spurs. Up comes trooper Tyree (Johnson), who is on the run for manslaughter, but is given a helping hand by the Colonel and his mates. Eventually, the Colonel finds a way to track the Indians down – even if it means breaking the law. But hell, if a certain Lt. General Sheridan is your best friend, you can take a chance or two.

Rio Grande now seems so dated, not only in look but also in theme. And there are many little ‘Trumps’ at work: misogynists for whom the law means nothing. The Indians are shown as a wild bunch who need to be killed lest they further endanger white women and children. The script by James Kevin McGuiness is as vapid as a plume of pipe-smoke, the downtime between fighting scenes filled with songs by the Sons of the Pioneers. DoP Bert Glennon (Stagecoach) does his best, but General Sheridan didn’t need to worry  (“I wonder what history will say about this”): all is now being revealed in the White House today. AS

NOW ON BLURAY COURTESY OF EUREKA MASTERS OF CINEMA | APRIL 6TH   

  

 

Portrait of a Lady on fire (2019) **** Curzon Home Cinema

Dir: Céline Sciamma | Adèle Haenel, Noemie Merlant | Drama, France 120′
Sciamma is back with a enigmatic and delicate drama that glows like a jewel box in its pristine settings yet feels pure and confident at the same time. Turning her camera from the contemporary (Girlhood and Tomboy) she also shows a talent for classical fare in this latest drama set in a chateau in 18th-century Brittany. Here a member of the Italian upper classes (Valeria Golino) has commissioned a portrait of her daughter Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) so she can marry her off to a wealthy suitor abroad.
Rather than risk a male painter becoming too close to her convent-educated offspring, the mother invites artist Marianne (Noémie Merlant) to be her companion, and she arrives at the seaside location in a boat rowing, almost losing her prepared canvasses during the journey. What develops is a tentative friendship between the women that slowly grows into something more ardent. Intimate glances and long walks lead to candlelit evenings where passion burns over their needlework and literary discussions. Or is Héloïse imagining things?
Isolation is to important as it distances their story from the rest of the world. Sciamma relies on the hush of the sea and some subtle sound design, instead of a formal score. Soon the portrait painting becomes secondary to the girls’ relationship. All this is handled with a lightness of touch and the utmost decorum. And the painting sessions turn from taciturn encounters to warmer and more meaningful tetes a tetes. There are shades of Choderlos de Laclos here and the sensuality is undeniable. A faint eeriness comes into play when Marianne has repeated visions of Héloïse in her white wedding dress – luminous for a while, she then disappears. We’re used to seeing lesbian love affairs in the present day so this hark back to the 18th century is refreshing and entrancing. And their mesmerising on screen chemistry gives the film a life of its own. MT
NOW ON RELEASE | CANNES FILM FESTIVAL | 14-25 MAY 2019 | Winner: Best Screenplay

The Green Fog (2018) **** Now on Vimeo

Dir.: Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson, Galen Johnson; USA 2017,63 min.

Guy Maddin’s’ love letter to San Francisco and Hitchcock’s Vertigo is a montage of clips from features shot in around the Californian coastal city: around one hundred or so – no new material was filmed. Aesthetically, Green Fog settles somewhere in between Christian Marclay’s The Clock (2010) and another Maddin/Johnson collaboration, Forbidden Room from 2015. There’s no real narrative to speak of, but Green Fog will appeal to those who like their film history served with a dizzy twist of the insane.

Oblique and opaque, Green Fog shows an overbearing obsession with Hitchcock: morbid and melancholy, we follow Scottie and Judy on a drive through the city, morphing into a hell-raising ride, where love turns to disillusionment. Novak and Stewart are played by various actors: Faye Dunaway, Susan Saint James, Gina Lolabrigida; Anthony Franciosa and Dean Martin. As one actor melds into another, one forgets that they look different in this headlong rush, on foot and in automobiles, as they’re drawn to the Golden Gate Bridge and oblivion.The film’s quotes range from the thrilling (The Lady from Shanghai, 1947) to the downright bizarre (Confessions of an Opium Eater of 1962 and So I married an Axe Murderer of 1993), via obscure gems such as Obayashi’s Take Me Away! 1978, and Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983). The common thread is their Vertigo locations; if not directly then metaphorically. The titular fog, which saturates Judy from the neon street sign, re-appears throughout: under water, most menacingly in a hospital corridor. And there are even in the clips from The Great Fire, – which was started by a film fan no less.

Hitchcock’s obsession with voyeurism is celebrated in many scenes, from surveillance rooms, to men gazing at the screens, unsure of their targets – rather like Rock Hudson, on being quizzed “what are we looking for, Sir?” by a tape operator, to which Rock retorted: “I don’t know, but at this point I’ll take anything”. Karl Malden and Michael Douglas from The Streets of San Francisco are frequently found in their search for more contemporary perpetrators. Green Fog is a ghost story, a collage of landscapes and rooms (echoing Un Chien Andalou) which are haunted by loss and death, their doom underpinned by a Hermannesque score from Jacob Gavchik. Despite of the gravity of it all, Maddin still manages to be playful and impish throughout. AS

NOW AVAILABLE ON VIMEO

 

Beat the Devil (1953) *** Bluray release

Dir.: John Huston; Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Jennifer Jones, Gina Lollobrigida, Edward Underdown, Peter Lorre, Robert Morley, Ivor Bernhard, Marco Tully; USA 1953, 95 min.

Beat the Devil is based on a novel by James Helwick, written by Claud Cockburn and a 28 year-old Truman Capote.  What would become the first Camp movie, started out as an earnest endeavour about the evils of colonialism. But when the location was switched from France to Italy, with Capote writing the script in daily instalments, putting in a call to his pet raven in Rome, the narrative became secondary. Bogart had put his own money into the project but thought ‘only phoneys’ would like the box-office flop. Meanwhile, Huston told Jennifer Jones she would be remembered much longer for Devil than for her previous role in Song of Bernadette.

Billy and Maria Dannreuther (Bogart/Lollobrigida) and Harry and Gwendolyn Chelm (Jones/Underdown) play two couples down on their luck but pretending otherwise. They team up with four villains, O’Hara (Lorre) Peterson (Morley), Major Ross (Bernhard) and Ravello (Tully) to exploit uranium resources in British East Africa, biding their time in an Italian resort while their decrepit ship is made seaworthy. Then on the voyage to Africa, Major Ross tries to kill Harry, but Billy thwarts him. Once in Africa they are arrested by Arabian soldiers; Billy convincing the troops to send them back to Italian shores, where they are interrogated by Scotland Yard. The crooks are charged – Peterson for the murder of a British Colonial officer, who had discovered his scheme – Harry buys the land containing the uranium and sends a telegram to Gwendolyn, forgiving her for her affair with Billy.

There are some corny jokes, like the Major exclaiming “Mussolini, Hitler – and now Peterson” after the latter appeared to have been killed in a car accident. Overall the chaos of the shooting has a liberating effect in the finale, nobody grasping what was going on. Things are made murkier by the Hays’ Office insistence that no extra-marital sex should be shown on set. The grainy black-and-white images of British DoP Oswald Morris are very evocative, and the self-written dialogues by Morley and Lorre often hilarious. Ironically Beat the Devil looks more modern today than it did at the premiere when neither the public nor the critics saw the funny side of things. AS

BLURAY/DVD RELEASE | 16 MARCH 2020 WITH SIMULTANEOUS RELEASE ON BFI PLAYER, iTUNES and AMAZON

 

 

 

 

Aether (2019) **** Visions du Reel 2019

DIR: Rûken Tekes | Doc, Turkey 82′

Time is up for the past in Hasankeyf. This ancient town in southeastern Turkey, declared a conservation area in 1981, is now at risk of being flooded due to the completion of the controversial Ilisu Dam.

Many have known exile, but to lose an entire homeland forever without trace is an unimaginable tragedy. But that is what will happen to the 20,000 or so inhabitants who will be displaced forever, torn from their roots by the project. In her debut feature, Rûken Tekes uses a lightness of touch to raise the profile of this eco-tragedy, distilling the unique mysterious essence of this ancient city doomed to disappear forever.

With over 12,000 years of rich history behind its location in the valley of the Tigris River, in the Kurdish part of Turkey, Hasankeyf will soon sink beneath an artificial lake, in order to allow for the construction of the hydroelectric dam. Tekes doesn’t try to explain the details of this annihilation but instead creates a space in which the spirit of the place can express itself in its final months. A space that transcends time and reveals the natural cycles of creation, and destruction that lie at the heart of the film.

History transcends mere words and explanations. So her portrait is a dialogue-free sensory one told through a series of exquisite widescreen tableaux vivants accompanied by an ambient , Tekes reflects on the meaning of a past so primordial and unimaginable to our modern eyes we can only watch with awe and wonder as the images unfold the ambient sound of birds and nature enhancing an experience that feels otherworldly yet very much connected to this unique place. This is a remote corner of the earth where centuries of inbreeding has taken its toll on those who have struggled to survive. A death mute woman expresses her tangible disdain for the project in the only way she is able, her lack of words enhancing the emotional pain expressed in her whole body. Another mute man attempts with sign language to convey his feelings about the movement of strategic monuments to another location so that the future can take over. Some resort to playing folkloric music, or even performing ritualistic dances.  Others just sit silently in bars, their facial expressions signalling deep sadness and disappointment for their forthcoming loss. Rather than listing the treasures that will soon be lost, the film transmit a palpable sense of doom as the heavy machinery arrives in silence in preparation for the translocation. But soon whirring engines signal the start of construction. Aether is a delicately drawn, awe-inspiring love letter to loss. MT

VISIONS DU REEL | 5 -14 APRIL 2019

Vitalina Varega (2019) Golden Leopard Winner Locarno

Dir: Pedro Costa | Cast: Vitalina Varela, Ventura, Manuel Tavares Almeida, Marina Alves Domingues, Francisco Brito, Imidio Monteiro | Portugal 124′

Portuguese director won Best Director in Locarno five years ago with Horse Money. He makes his return with Vitalina Varela a dour and enigmatic portrait of grief that has a certain resonance with his previous Golden Lion winner.

Not helped by a fractured narrative the drama drifts around but certainly looks impressive in Leonardo Simoes’ striking Tourneur-esque chiaroscuro cinematography that enriches the mostly nocturnal setting in a Lisbon backwater. The morose foreground activity of its intense and self-assured heroine (played by Vitalina Varela herself) plays out against a reassuring lowkey background hum of voices and music. It soon emerges that Varela originally fetched up in the capital from the former Portuguese colony of Cape Verde Islands after her husband had left her many years previously to return to Lisbon, dying shortly after her arrival in Portugal. But the mystery surrounding her current existence is shrouded in more enigma – she very much embodies the Fado tradition – finding it hard to adapt to her reduced circumstances in Lisbon,, and she clearly regrets leaving. But eventually Varela finds meagre solace in another lost character, a lapsed Christian played by Ventura. Varela holds her own as a series of desultory characters occasionally enter the fray in this spectacular Demi-monde. MT

NOW ON RELEASE | WINNER OF THE GOLDEN LEOPARD and Best Actress Award for  Vitalina Varela| LOCARNO FILM FESTIVAL

 

 

 

 

 

Sea Without Shore (2015) ****

Dir.: André Semenza, Fernanda Lippi | Cast: Livia Rangel, Fernanda Lippi | Sweden/UK/Brazil 2015, 89 min.

Set in the 19th century on a remote rural island in Sweden, Sea Without A Shore is a choreographed love poem featuring two nameless women whose intense relationship is abruptly terminated.

First premiered at Glasgow Film Festival five years ago the film finally finds its way onto general release. Directors André Semenza and Fernanda Lippi (who worked together on Ashes of God (2003), the latter setting up the Anglo/Brazilian ballet company ‘Zikzira Physical Theatre’, have brought to life this unique combination of ballet, images and words. Defying categorisation, it is absolutely stunning in its gloomy intensity.

The two women, one in a lace dress (Rangel), the other one with long, black hair (Lippi) move gracefully through a spooky fin-de-siècle setting, until forced apart by mythical forces. We see them in a house, resting on a sofa, then writhing around on the floor. They cycle in the woods, float in the water, holding hands – their bodies are on the back of two horses who carry them through the fields and woods, led by the women of the forest. Their dialogue, voiced by Marcela Rosas and Fernanda Lippi quoting from works by Charles Algernon Swinburne, Renée Vivien, and 17th century Lesbian poet Katherine Philips, is a stream-of-consciousness about love and loss. With the narrative slidin backwards and forwards in time, the couple seems caught in a vicious circle from which there is no escape. Their approach to love is all-or-nothing, oscillating between ecstasy and abject loneliness; haunted by their future, even when they are ‘in love’. The landscape, brilliantly photographed in cinema-scope by Marcus Waterloo, is the third character in this two-hander: the two women seem to be always in contact with the ground or the water, echoing their emotional bond. Carrying the weights of the women solemnly, the horses seem integrated in this procession of doomed love. The sound is supervised by multi-award-winning Glenn Freemantle (Gravity).

This is a unique piece yet there are echoes of Gabor Body’s NÁRCISZ ÉS PSYCHÉ. Sea Without A Shore stands alone as a commingle of poetry and ballet, painted with images to create desire and loss in a most absolute form. AS

NOW ON RELEASE AT SELECTED ARTHOUSE CINEMAS

 

Push (2019) ****

Dir.: Fredrik Gerrten; Documentary with Leilani Farha, Saskia Sassen, Roberto Salvino, Michael Müller, Joseph Steglitz; Sweden, Canada, UK 2019, 92 min.

Swedish writer/director Fredrik Gerrten (Bikes vs Cars) explores the urban housing crisis in his latest film which won the audience award at one of Europe’s major documentary festivals CPH:DOX last year.

It centres on one of the UN’s Housing Reporters Leilani Farha who sets out to investigate and implement one of organisation’s basic Human Rights tenets: to be housed adequately and affordably. What emerges is a fight between David and Goliath. Farha relies on the help of local political figures to stem the tide against a housing market which excludes more and more citizens in urban centres all over the world, making it impossible for them to remain in their chosen environment. 

The global property market is worth a cool £ 176 Trillion – more than twice the worldwide GDP. Farha tries to have a meeting with one of the giants of international properties, the Private Equity firm Blackstone. They were one of the main beneficiaries of the financial crisis of 2008, and spent about £ 7.75 billion buying up properties around the USA. One of these projects was in Harlem, were Farha interviews a tenant who spends 90% (2920 $) of his income on monthly rent. But this being a global economy, Blackstone has reached out as far as Sweden, where it is the biggest private owner of low-income housing. Farha visits an estate in the university city of Uppsala, where Blackstone is “upgrading” – the net result is that tenants will not be able to live in their properties any more. Shades of Michael Moore’s Roger and Me are apparent, when Blackstone cancels the meeting with Farha, wishing her a “productive time in New York.”

It would be wrong to condemn companies like Blackstone for the housing market crisis. Sociologist Saskia Sassen blames the whole of financial sector, “selling something they do not have, having invented brilliant instruments facilitating the move into other sectors”. Economist Joseph Steglitz explains that “companies do not want inexpensive real estate. They want to pay as much as possible to be able to hide more money.” Because offshore money does not always come from the Royal Family and the like, but from profits in the drug and slavery market. Italian author Roberto Saviano (Gomorrah), under police protection and riding in a bullet proof car explains how offshore companies work in laundering money: “You buy things with legal money – restaurants, hotels, houses – then you sell those properties to your companies in a tax heaven. If you want to bring your dirty money back into your country, you simply buy it from yourself at a much higher price than you paid”.

It is not surprising that London is one of most sought after cities for such schemes. The empty houses and office blocks are not loss-making – on the contrary, even without much maintenance their rising value offsets any lack of rental income. One of the 2019 projects on Blackstone’s book is to buy up the properties from what was once Network Rail. Under the railway arches in central London there are 5200 rental units, mainly small businesses and entrepreneurs. 

Local authorities in Barcelona and Berlin try to stem the flood, deciding not to sell any properties.  Farha talked with Michael Müller, mayor of Berlin and a bakery owner in Kreuzberg. Both were adamant they would fight, but the baker had to put up prices to compensate for the rent rise of over 600 Euros a month – and although he knows his customers might comprehend his situation –  but they too have a budget.

Push illuminates some controversial issues in a meaty film enlivened by location shots as it travels round the globe. The conflict between rights and profits is uneven, and Farha might have the Universal Declaration of Human Rights law on her side, as quoted in the International Covenant on economics, Social and Culture Rights of 1966. You can read up on it. AS

https://vimeo.com/324962587 

ON RELEASE FROM 28 FEBRUARY 2020 

     

Hope (2020)

Dir: Maria Sodahl | Drama, Norway/Sweden, 122′

Tragedy proves the turning point for a woman and her long term partner in Maria Sodahl’s raw and resonant semi-autobiographical second feature starring Andrea Bræin Hovig and Stellen Skarsgard. No fireworks here just good, well-crafted storytelling.

Sodahl started her career as a casting director before turning her talents to writing and directing and this stylish film which has a way of making the morbid subject appealing and somehow full of hope, as the title suggests.

The story revolves around Anja (Hovig) who runs a dance company and has just returned from a successful international tour to spend Christmas with her extended family. A meeting with her doctor suggests a need for further investigation which reveals an inoperable brain tumour, possibly connected to the lung cancer she had overcome the previous Christmas. Anja is faced with only months to live. Stellan Skarsgard once again provides solid ballast finding new expressions for his concern, supported by the couple’s various kids and Anja’s likeable father. She gradually works her way through the trauma in a way that is compelling and full of insight, humour and courage. Maria Sodahl drew on her own life experience of the disease which she faced with her husband, Norwegian director Hans Petter Moland (Out Stealing Horses also starring Stellan Skarsgard). The couple’s grief has a transformative affect on their relationship and the ending is surprisingly moving and well thought out. MT

In CINEMAS FROM 10 DECEMBER 2021 | Berlinale Premierr

Servants | Sluzobnici (2020)

Dir.: Ivan Ostrochovsky; Cast: Samuel Skyva, Samuel Olakovic, Vladimir Miculcik, Vladimir Obsil, Vlad Ivanov, Martin Sulik, Vladimir Strnisco; Slovakia/Romania/Czech Republic/Ireland 2020, 78 min.

Slovakian director/co-writer Ivan Ostrochovsky creates a Bresson-like study of resistance set in a religious seminary in 1980 Bratislava (which back then was the capital of the Slovak Socialist Republic in  Czechoslovakia).

Shot in luminous black-and-white by DoP Juraj Chipikin in the old-fashioned 4:3 ratio, The Servants is a tightly-scripted Noirish portrait of temptation and belief.

The 1980s was a tough time for the Catholic Church whose religious freedom came under threat from the draconian cosh of the continuing communist regime. The clergy was divided into the regime-critical “catacomb church” which maintains contact with the Vatican and Western media, and the “ecclesiastical hierarchy” which cooperated with those in power and was represented by the state-sponsored priests’ association Pacem in Terris. (1971-1989).

Two young seminarians, Juraj (Skyva) and Michal (Polakovic) enter the Catholic institution in Bratislava to take the priesthood. Each must decide whether to collaborate with the regime or whether to remain faithful to their idealist views, and submitting to the surveillance of the secret police.

Most of the priests in the seminary are members of the Pacem in Terris group. Unfortunately for the two newcomers, their confessor is even worse: not only has he killed a man in a hit-and-ran accident, he is also an informer for the local Secret Service, led by Frantisek (Sulik), a medic who is in league with the Dean, Tibor (Strnisco).

Coufar (Obsil) meanwhile has been disciplined by the authorities but still organises secret meetings with scholars in his house and reports incidents to Radio Free Europe. Frantisek kills him, making it look like a road accident. But nobody is fooled and Michal joins the resistance group. Juraj is then threatened with being drafted into the army by Frantisek, but withstands the temptation. Michal, who does not know that Juraj has been interrogated, posts a leaflet on the noticeboard asking the seminarians to join a hunger strike in support of Coufar’s murder.

Ostrochovsky and his co-writers are particularly scathing about the collaborators in Pacem in Terris. The Dean and Frantsisek have a relationship founded on mutual collaboration – as Frantisek puts it: “if we fail to find the ringleader of the revolt in the seminary, both our heads will roll”. Coufar is the more cynical of the two: he produces Michal’s Secret Police File and tells him “You need to understand that we are not here to be happy”.

This is an austere but laudable drama enhanced by its stunning visual allure: there are astonishing shots of the inner courtyard of the seminary, showcasing an arena which serves both as a football pitch and a place for collective punishment. The Noirish atmosphere prevails, underlined by the protagonists’ long shadows, the night scenes artfully shot with one single light source. Servants is true to the spirit of Bresson whose hero Francois Leterrier from Un Condamne a Mort s’est Echappe is recreated in the resisters. AS

On Curzon Home Cinema on May 14th. As a virtual cinema screenings at HOME Manchester and ArtHouse, Crouch End as well as IFI@Home in Ireland | BERLINALE premiere in 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.

 

 

         

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.

 

 

 

 

 

The Twentieth Century (2019) MUBI

Dir.: Matthew Rankin; Cast: Dan Beirne, Sarianne Cormier, Catherine St. Laurent, Mikhail Ahooja, Louis Vegin; Canada 2019, 87 min.

This first feature by Canadian writer/director Matthew Rankin tries to follow in the footsteps of his compatriot Guy Maddin – without his flair and quirky idiosyncratic style. Rankin’s ‘autobiography’ of Mackenzie King, who was Canada’s Prime Minister for 22 years between 1921 and 1948, is a mad-cap race with animation showing the politician as an arrant dilettante, in love with his mother and Doc Marten boots.

King (Beirne) is one of the candidates for the position as Prime Minister. Acid tests are conducted, among them butter churning, endurance tickling and baby seal clubbing. King ends up joint second, but his nemesis, the good-looking sunny-boy Bert Harper (Ahooja), will win outright. After talking to a TB-suffering girl and her rather masculine mother (Vegin) at an orphanage, King falls for the beautiful Ruby Elliot (St. Laurent), neglecting his own mother’s nurse Lapoint (Cormier), who he is the real love of his life.

An exploding cactus and many pairs of Doc Martens later Harper wins Ruby’s heart and the trio fights a battle to the death with some whales in the frozen waters of Canada, King surviving alone. Meanwhile, Ruby and Bert scarify their lives for Canada, ending up like pieces of meat on a skewer tied to a whale.

Shot completely within the confines of a studio, this absurdist drama is full of innovative ideas but lacks the glue to hold them all together. DoP Vincent Biron and the actors enjoy themselves, but the free rein given to them by Rankin makes the outcome look more like a shambolic school play. AS

NOW on MUBI

First Love (2019) ***

Dir.: Takashi Miike; Cast: Masataka Kubota, Nao Omori, Shota Sometani, Sakurako Konishi, Rebecca Eri Rabane, Takashiro Miura, Mami Fujioka; Japan/UK, 108 min.

Japanese director Takashi Miike, who will be sixty this year, has made over a hundred films in a career spanning 28 years. Many have gone straight to video, but there are standout treasures like Ichi the Killer and 13 Assassinst offering Miike cult status amongst an avid fanbase who love his fast and furious style. His latest, First Love was shown at last year’s Director’s Fortnight in Cannes. Written by Masaru Nakamura, it explores the changing world of the Yakuza who are under threat from Chinese triads.

Leo (Kubota) a young boxer who has just lost an easy fight, discovers he has an aggressive brain tumour. His parents had dumped him in a box as a baby giving him rather a negative outlook on life, so he seems resigned to his fate. Wandering on the streets, he meets a woman who cries for help: Juri has been abused by her father for as long as she can remember, and now she is making up for his debts, being used as a sex worker for the Yazuka. She is also an hallucinating drug addict, often seeing a half-naked man in a bed sheet following her.

Leo beats up her attacker without knowing that it is Otomo (Omori), a corrupt cop. Otomo is in league with Kase (Sometani) who is stealing drugs from his Yakuza gang. The baby-faced killer has just killed Yasu (Miura) who came close to finding out what Kaso was planning. With Otomo and Kase scheming, Yasu’s girl friend Julie (Rabane) is on her way to revenge Yasu with her huge sword. Leo and Yuri (her work name is Monica) try to get away from it all, but the Chinese triad  Chiachi (Fujioka) appears on the scene. During the showdown in a warehouse Leo gets a phone call from his doctor, arms and heads flying around during a rising body count.

This is strictly for committed fans. That said, you have to admire the choreographed action sequences, particularly the car chases. And when all fails, Miike makes use of state of the art pop-art style animation to show a car turning into a plane. The acting is convincing, and the innocent leads Kubota and newcomer Konishi win our sympathies among the professional baddies. Somehow Miiki manages not to take himself too seriously. Slick production values make for a brilliant rollercoaster ride, but like sushi, an instantly forgettable one, and the next Takashi Miiki feature is just around the corner. AS

ON BLURAY AND IN CINEMAS FROM 14 FEBRUARY 2019

Little Joe (2019) ****

Dir. Jessica Hausner | Sci-fi Drama | Austria, UK, Germany | 105′

Austrian auteuse Jessica Hausner creates films that are intelligent and refreshing. And none more so than her recent Cannes competition entry Little Joe. A challenging, coldly humorous hyper-realist Sci-fi that explores the unique human condition known as happiness.

Sometime in the future Emily Beecham plays Alice, an emotionally buttoned up ‘plant designer’ who develops a scarlet thistle-like flower whose scent makes people happy, and is sure to catch on  commercially. But there’s a snag: the plant also makes subtle changes in the personalities of those who inhale its pollen. It also causes seems to destroy neighbouring plants in the laboratory.

Little Joe is a mesmerising film to look at: its brightly synthetic colour schemes, geometric framing and slightly off-kilter performances are undeniably eye-catching and entirely appropriate given the subject matter: genetic modification. This is not a film to love but a film to admire, the strange storyline keeping us agog in fascination until the surprising finale.

Once her pioneering plant is in full flower Alice names it Little Joe, and brings a sample home for her teenage son Joe (Kit Connor) to tend – she’s a rotten workaholic mother hooked on Deliveroo dinners, but hopes the plant will bring out her son’s nurturing side.

Meanwhile, in their slick laboratories and mint green uniforms, Alice and her colleague Chris (Ben Whishaw) are certainly more commercial scientists than traditional plants people, but Chris is the more appealing and emotionally intelligent of the two. Their chief designer Bella is an earth mother and soon notices that her beloved shaggy dog Bello has undergone a complete change of personality since sniffing pollen from the odd-looking thistles. The staff put this down to Bella’s mental health issues and move swiftly back to their microscopes. But these weird changes cannot be ignored for long.

Sound plays an important role throughout this unsettling story and Japanese composer Teiji has devised a spooky electronic soundscape for each phase of plant development. Hausner has seemingly gone out of her way to assemble an eclectic multi-racial cast and this certainly adds flavour to this exotic con concoction but Beecham, Wishaw, Kit Connor and his dad (Goran Costic) are particularly affective in striking the right mood. And if you think Little Joe bears a strange visual resemblance to another recent Austrian chiller you’d be right: DoP Martin Gschlacht also filmed Goodnight Mommie (2014). MT

ON RELEASE FROM 21 FEBRUARY 2020

CANNES FILM FESTIVAL 2019 | Best Actress Emily Beecham
https://youtu.be/eKy7Iaco_rU

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

 

Filles de Joie | Working Girls (2020) Rotterdam International Film Festival 2020

Dir: Frédéric Fonteyne | Wri: Anne Paulicevich | Cast: Noemie Lvovsky, Jonas Bloquet, Sara Forestier | Drama Belgium 91′

Belgian filmmaker Frédéric Fonteyne (1968) studied film at Institut des arts de diffusion in Louvain-la-Neuve. He realised several successful short films before his two acclaimed features, Max & Bobo (1998) and Une liaison pornografique (1999), which were both screened at IFFR. This drama about sex workers starts on a light note but soon develops into a more dejected tale of life and death. An excellent cast cannot always overcome Paulicevich’s uneven script.

Sarah Forestier’s thirty-something sex worker Axelle (aka Athena) lives with her three unruly children and a cantankerous mother in a council flat. Every morning she joins neighbour Conso (Legronne) and Dominique (Lvovsky) in a battered car to drive over the border to Belgium, where they ply their trade. Conso, a long legged black women has to run a scary racist gauntlet from the youth of the estate. Axelle is separated from her husband Yann, who still has his fingers in the pie. Their their youngest son is caught in a violent incident at Kindergarten, shouting ‘Allah Akbar’ before his attack – even though he is not a Muslim. Conso meanwhile has a boyfriend, Jean-Philippe, who gives her an expensive pendant for her birthday, raising her hopes for a way out of her depressing life.

But the women’s light hearted banter soon gives way to darker developments. Axelle’s husband Yann trails her, and confronts her as a ‘customer’, threatening to take the children away from her. Then Conso is invited to a special party by Jean-Philippe. It turns out that he is celebrating the very recent birth of his first child. The devastated Conso nearly overdoses, and Dominique and Axelle decide to teach J-P a lesson. Meanwhile, the former is appalled to find her daughter Zoe (Dewaels) “earning some pocket money”, but the real drama starts when Yann attacks Axelle in a domestic set-to defused with the help of a hammer.

Suddenly this bitter-sweet comedy gets serious morphing to a real life and death scenario in a sobering and awkward tonal shift. But these feisty women have learnt to deal with their work related ups and downs – quite literally – so anything else is all in a day’s work.

DoP Juliette Van Dormael’s nimble camera-work captures the raucous near heart-breaking hysteria. Lvovsky is the leader of the pack, looking after ‘her’ girls like a lioness with her cubs  – but failing to keep her own domestic life on track. Forestier is the most ambivalent, often attacking Conso for not being ‘serious’ enough. Working Girls doesn’t always succeed in conveying the complexities of life for sex-working parents. But Fonteyne has a good certainly crack of the whip at it nonetheless . AS

ROTTERDAM INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2020

 

 

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

 

Fidelity | Vernost (2020) **** Rotterdam Film Festival 2020

Dir: Nigina Sayfullaeva | Drama, Russia 82′

Nigina Sayfullaeva’s erotic drama makes a brave and unbridled bid to explore and unravel the complex nature of human desire through the story of young Russian obstetrician and her husband whose relationship has hit the buffers.

They say sex – or the lack of it – is the barometer of a healthy relationship. And Lena is not getting anywhere with her actor husband Stergey despite her best efforts to cajole him into some action between the sheets – and this is a drama that doesn’t hold back on scenes of an explicit sexual nature – despite its endorsement from the Russian authorities announced as the opening credits role. Russia has always been keep to promote (same sex) marriage, and actively encourages procreation – so the sexual taboo is clearly out of the bag now and this ratification is as an intriguing and welcome prelude to what follows in this raunchy affair.

Obviously Lena suspects Sergey (Pal) of having an affair, particularly when she notices a palpable chemistry with one of his fellow actors, but she decides to keep her own counsel – and Evgeniya Gromova gives a teasingly guarded performance in the lead, but one that gradually builds to a head of steam. The lack of sexual attention from her husband eventually drives her to a series of one night stands in an effort to satisfy her pent up natural urges in the summer heat.

Comparisons with Steve McQueen’s Shame are ill-founded: Lena is not an avoidant, not is she a nymphomaniac – she is just driven to distraction by her husband’s lack of interest in her. Gromova’s performance makes it amply clear that she still loves Sergey and would prefer to have sex with him rather than the muscled lifeguard who pays for a room in a local hotel, an tepid encounter that leaves her amused and ambivalent. But when she meets Ivan beachside, things heat up. Is it his top of the range 4X4 that attracts her? The two enjoy a lusty encounter before the Police arrive and Ivan scarpers along the dunes.

Writing again with Lyubov Mulmenk (Name Me was their feature debut in 2014) Fidelity at times has the feel of a Russian-style telenovela but it is a courageous and sensitively thought out for the most part, with some convincing characterisations as well as some more cartoonish figures – Ivan is a case in point and is clearly just there to serve the rather snaky plot which eventually sees these saucy scenarios jeopardising Lena’s job at a plush private clinic in a western Russian coastal town. And the film does shed light on a woman’s point of view – and should be celebrated as such. Lena is not immoral, she is just forced to breaking point, and that happens to women as well as men. Although, as surveys keep telling us: Women only tend to cheat when they are being ignored and by inattentive partners. Just saving. The film has its international premiere here in Rotterdam Festival. 

ROTTERDAM INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2020 

Cosh Boy (1953) ***

Dir: Lewis Gilbert | Cast: James Kenney; Joan Collins; Betty Ann Davies; Hermione Baddeley, Bob Stevens Robert Ayres | UK Crime Drama

Lewis Gilbert’s searing slice of British neo realism sees a juvenile delinquent commit a swathe of brutal robberies on innocent victims, aided and abetted by his rather puny sidekicks. Cosh Boy was a tamer, noirish version of what was to follow teenage crime-wise with Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Alan Clarke’s Scum (1979). And although it all seems fairly quaint nowadays, the film scandalised audiences back in post war days when kids mostly respected their parents and were glad of a return to normality after the war, despite the simmering social tensions provoked by the years of privation.

Roy (Kenney) is a brash, chain-smoking thug who bullies his friends into subservience (including Rene, played by a luminous young Joan Collins). He and his gang are not died in the wool criminals but possess a certain hard-nosed opportunism, and things get increasingly dangerous when their behaviour escalates, with tragic consequences.

Best known for his more upbeat fare: Alfie and The Spy Who Loved Me, Gilbert’s punchy direction certainly gives the crime drama some gritty wellie, providing an acerbic and sinister portrait of the backstreets of South London, although the film was actually shot at Riverside Studios, Hammersmith W6.

On 20 January 2020, Cosh Boy will become the 40threlease in the BFI Flipside series, released in a Dual Format Edition with extras including short films by Lewis Gilbert and more. It will be launched with a special screening event and discussion with Flipside founders at BFI Southbank – details below.

Dual Format Edition (Blu-ray/DVD), release on 20 January 2020, with simultaneous BFI Player, iTunes and Amazon Prime release

Flipside at 40 – Special event & discussion, Wednesday 15 January, 18:30, NFT1 at BFI Southbank – special guest actor Caroline Munro

 

No Fathers in Kashmir (2019) ****

Dir.: Ashvin Kumar; Cast: Zara Webb, Shivam Raina, Ashvin Kumar, Shushil Dahiya, Natasha Mago, Abdul Rashid; UK/India 2019, 108 min.

Oscar-nominated writer and director Ashvin Kumar (The Forest) is well known for his active support of Kashmiri independence. Claimed both by Pakistan and India, the region has recently lost its autonomous status inside India, and is now governed with an iron fist by the nationalist Indian government who is fighting militants in the region, often sponsored by Pakistan. But this is really a proxy war between Hindu nationalism of India and Muslim annexation orientated Pakistan – with the local population caught between the two nuclear powers.

The film centres in sixteen year old British Kashmiri teenager Noor (Webb) who is wedded to her mobile like most of her generation, and lives with her grandparents in a Kashmiri village. Her mother Zainab (Mago) is trying to convince her missing husband’s parents to sign his death certificate so she can marry politically well connected Wahid (Dahiya). Said husband was arrested by the Indian army and never returned home. Noor has fallen for the slightly younger Majid (Raina) whose father has also disappeared. Noor, unaware of the tensions in the village, challenges her grandparents and mother, wanting to know more about her father’s fate. Zainab finally manages to get the old couple to declare their son dead –  Wahid helps by offering to secure them a good pension – but then Noor strikes up a friendship with a Arshid (Kumar), who seems to be collaborating with the Indian army, and at the same time hiding militants from the authorities. 

There is a telegraphed solution to it all when Arshid tells the village teacher Kharbanda (Rashid) that his son. along with his fellow fighters, were “just revolutionary romantics. What kind of freedom would this have been for Kashmir without the Muslim faith?” Noor pushes on, and talks Zaina into a nighttime trip into the mountains bordering Pakistan where the political prisoners like her father had been interrogated. When they are captured by the Indian soldiers, the adults’ lies unravel – in spite of Noor’s release – thanks to the powerful Wahid.

Kumar, also co-editor and co-producer, needed crowdfunding for this project and also had to be sanctioned by the Indian Central Board of Film Certification, more or less a censorship agency. He directs with great skill but his script is an awkward mix of coming-of-age love story and political rant. There are just too many programmatic speeches. Neither Noor nor Majid are really at an age to be spouting these moral lessons, and particularly not Noor, who is a total stranger. DoPs Jean Marc Selva and Jean Marie Delorme make good use of the overpowering landscape all captured impressively on handheld cameras. Overall, No Fathers is more worthy than convincing, but held together by a brilliant cast. AS

ON RELEASE FROM 24 JANUARY 2020

 

Present. Perfect (2019) ***

Dir: Zhu Shengze. USA/Hong Kong. 2019. 124mins

Live-streaming in China is big business. The severely disabled, wheelchair-ridden and low-paid have finally found a nifty way of making an extra yuan. Sharing their everyday lives on the internet brings them an income as well as garnering support and emotional inter-dependence. It works both ways as the streams establish a mutually beneficial connection.

Present.Perfect makes for compelling viewing – up to a point. It’s a strong premise but the execution is flawed.  What initially seems intriguing to watch eventually becomes tedious. And by the end the doc does its worthy subject matter a disservice, playing out as a laborious and repetitive slog, without any kind of narrative or real explanation. Zhu Shengze made the film from more than 800 hours of filmed footage taken from an output of 12 ‘anchors’ (sharers of their footage) over a period of 10 months. Tighter editing would have made the film more pithy and enjoyable. What we do learn is that 2016 was apparently “Year Zero” for live streaming – and now the industry has expanded exponentially. In 2017, over 422 million Chinese shared streamed films on the internet. But it’s not all doom and gloom, content-wise.

The segments from each showroom are often overlong, and the content can be extremely dull, made more so by the black and white camerawork. Do we really want to watch a woman’s gruelling trip down the road – wheel-chair bound, while she stares pitifully into the camera? Or a physically challenged guy do his washing? And then there’s a man showing his wounds bleeding, clearly he’s into self-harm. But clearly these Chinese audiences do, and they’re prepared to pay for it, finding comfort in these banal everyday lives fraught with trauma (Eastenders, anyone?). Besides the obvious need for recognition, fostered by all types of social media, there is the loneliness and alienation out there, and the streamers have tapped into this rich vein of income, benefiting in more ways than one from the comfort-seeking connection with others. Our hearts go out to the ‘anchors’ but most of us don’t need to experience their pain to understand their suffering. despite their cheerful perseverance. But that’s not the point. For those who become invested in their daily struggle to survive, the film tells a valuable story. One of mutual support, and even entertainment. Distances in China are vast and many peoplelive alone in remote locations miles away from any form of social contact. These ‘anchors’ are actually their keeping them on the straight and narrow, emotionally at least.  

Other anchors have used the streaming device as a way to drum up business. A case in point is a farmer keen on branding his particular form of labour as ‘agritainment’. There is a bored crane driver, who invites us to visit him way up in his cab that towers above a vast building site. Another, a woman, is tooling away at making men’s underpants. She shares the trials and tribulations of her love life with all her followers, as she peddles away at her gruelling work. The more you watch the stories the more you understand how compulsive the experience becomes in providing a vital support system for those reaching out from the desperation of their own lives. In the end, the banal almost becomes beautiful; providing comfort and consistency: we need never be alone. MT

ON RELEASE AT ARTHOUSE CINEMAS | ICA CINEMA from 24 January.

ROTTERDAM INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL | TIGER AWARD WINNER  2019

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 

Dracula (2020) BBC mini Series ****

Dirs: Jonny Campbell, Paul McGuigan, Damon Thomas | Writers: Mark Gatiss, Steven Moffat | Cast: Claes Bang, Dolly Wells, Morfydd Clark, John Heffernan | UK Drama | 270′

The BBC rejuvenates the Dracula story with this bracingly biting blood-splattered three parter that references all the usual iconography: crucifixes, coffins and cloaks – but adds multiracial underpinnings and fluidly sexual characters that include a strong female lead in Sister Agatha van Hellsing. The story wanders peripatetically through a Romanian castle, a nocturnal sea voyage aboard a ancient schooner and the nightscapes of contenporary London.

Writers Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat create a modern masterpiece that feels fresh, complex and surprisingly witty, sending up the vampire legend led by the dazzlingly daunting and dishy Danish actor Claes Bang who terrorises the living cast with a performance that blends condescending camp with arch horror. The cunning count doesn’t seem to mind whether his victims are male or female as long as they invite him to sink his vicious gnashers into their fresh supply of warm blood and tap their credentials into the bargain.

Dolly Wells is simply magnificent as the faithless Hungarian nun who in the opening scenes interviews the (by now) undead and decrepit Jonathan Harker about his experiences with the Count while in thrall to his dubious hospitality. The action cuts back to Transylvania 1897 where Dracula was  planning a move to Victorian London from the turreted terror of his creepy castle where he had perfected his English at every bite of his unsuspecting guest. The dark dungeons light up their sparklingly glib repartee: “You’re a monster”, screams Harker, the count retorts: “And you’re a lawyer, nobody’s perfect”. The following episode takes place on board the HMS Demeter bound for England and introducing fresh blood in the shape of a Romanian crew, a professor from Calcutta, a German Arch Duchess (whom he ravages, having perfected his German on another  deckhand titbit), and a lavender married couple, the husband falling prey to Dracula’s masterful charms. Needless to say, the Count “ absorbs” all their cultural attributes feeding off their jugulars with glib satisfaction only to wash up 123 years later on a Whitby beach in the present day where a tousled haired special branch Agatha meets him with all guns blaring from her Police vehicle.

Once in 2020 the narrative suffers a couple of blips with a collection of millennial characters that don’t pass master with what’s gone before. A Savile Row besuited Prince of Darkness minus his gothic backdrop struggles to retain his chilly persona, but Bang’s towering physique and his suave and sardonic allure restores our belief in his predatory nature, tempered with a cheeky line when he is momentarily confined to a Perspex prison cell: “I’m a vampire: why have you given me a toilet? Writer Gatiss finally gets his on scene moment of glory as Dracula’s dapper and deferential lawyer, a role he also created. The character of Lucy is less inspiring as a modern day source of sustenance for the Count, in the guise of a smug, selfie-seeking psychopath whose millennial magnetism and dusky draw is proved to be only skin deep, after she survives the grotesque cremation scene (most audiences will be crossing this off as an option in their own funeral arrangements). And Zoe (as Agatha’s great great niece) makes for a convincing modern day cancer victim, wasting away before our eyes, her wan charms creating soulful chemistry with the Count as she poisons him with her diseased blood in an inspired plot-twist. She throws down the gauntlet to her doomed lover, taunting him with the steely words: “You seek to conquer death but you cannot until you face it without fear”. So he capitulates by actually facing up to the challenge, walking into the brilliant sunlight his features flooded with its golden rays.  The final scene is both surprising and ultimately satisfying, serving both Agatha’s latent fantasies and Dracula’s atavistic longings. It’s a triumph that creates new hope for the legend while maintaining his gothic allure. MT

 

 

 

The Miracle Worker (1962) **** Blu-ray release

Dir: Arthur Penn | Cast: Anne Bancroft, Patty Dukes | US Drama, 106′

The Miracle Worker is a Southern Gothic melodrama about the remarkable life of Helen Keller (1880-198), who was born deaf and blind but went on to achieve great things in the world of literature and politics. Directed by Arthur Penn and based on William Gibson’s Broadway play, the film avoids sentimentality achieving a rare emotional power due to its raw and uninhibited performances from Patty Duke (Keller) and Anne Bancroft as her Irish governess Anne Sullivan whose patience and dedication helps her overcome her physical and emotional setbacks and live a full life. The Academy Award-winning story is set in 19th century Bible Belt Alabama where Helen is born into a middle class family who are frightened and devastated when they realise their newborn daughter is unable to see or hear. The real Helen Keller’s illness was attributed to meningitis – or possibly Scarlet Fever at the age of seven, but in Penn’s version Keller is afflicted from birth. Hope arrives in the shape of Anne Sullivan, a 20-year old specialist teacher from Boston whose empathy comes largely due to her own recently regained ability to see. Anne responds to Helen through the power of touch —the only tool they have in common—and leads her frightened pupil on a challenging journey from fear and isolation to enlightenment and self-determination. MT

The Miracle Worker on UK Blu-ray for the first time | EUREKA

Long Day’s Journey into Night (2018) ****

Dir/scr: Bi Gan | Cast: Huang Jue, Tang Wei, Sylvia Chang, Lee Hong-Chi, Chen Yongzhong, Luo Feiyang | Music: Lim Giong, Point Hsu | China/France. 2018. 130 mins.

A lush and painterly visual poem that loses much of its allure to enigma. Chinese director Bi Gan’s Noirish second feature is nonetheless a captivating fantasy reverie in the style of Wong Ka Wai.

It concerns a man’s spiritual and physical odyssey to recapture his lost love. It all takes place in Gan’s rain-soaked sub-tropical hometown of Kaili in Southern China. The resonance with his 2o15 debut Kaili Blues is clear, but this is an even more languorous drama that sizzles with regret and longing scored by a dulcet electronic soundscape and crowned by a final 3D sequence, shot in one take by DoP David Chizallet (Mustang).

Long Day’s Journey into Night shares the same title as Eugene O’Neill’s  play but there the similarities end. This drama explores the soul-searching of the main character (Huang Jue) who yearns for his former lover Wan Qiwen (Tang Wei). We first meet him in a restaurant where his father was purportedly murdered a decade previously. Luo is guided to a women’s prison where he learns that Wan stole a green book of fairy tales that somehow provides further clues to the mystery through a series of charms and spells.

Gan spins his story into a shadowy cyclical affair full of smoke and mirrors, infused with memories, incantations and seductive sequences in a surreal backwater that was again referred to in Kaili Blues – Dangmai. Here the natives speak Kaili rather than Mandarin.

In this dizzy and dazzling dance through time, water and clocks also feature heavily as Luo’s obsession eventually leads him through a post-apocalyptic industrial setting in search of his dream. This is not a film to understand but an experience to wallow in. MT

NOW ON RELEASE AT SELECTED ARTHOUSE CINEMAS

Un Certain Regard section of the 2018 Cannes festival

 

 

Top Films of the Decade | 2010 – 2020

The past decade has seen independent film grow from strength to strength: Arthouse theatres are now more sophisticated than ever, offering lush surroundings and state of the art facilities. Streaming services Netflix and Amazon have also broadened the reach of mid-budget films to a wider audience who are now able to access films without paying expensive ticket prices: Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story and Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman in the comfort and your own home.

Here is another selection of art house gems from across the decade from 2010 to the end of 2019.
AMOUR (2012)  Michael Haneke, Austria
Surviving well into old age – or not dying – has become a timely topic in the past decade as our parents’ and grandparents’ generation live well into their nineties and beyond thanks to medical science and a lean wartime diet. Michael Haneke conveys all this with grace and subtlety in his Cannes Palme d’Or Winner which saw Jean-Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva united once again (since their 1959 Last Year in Marienbab) in this spare and understated portrait of enduring love, commitment and companionship.
PARADISE TRILOGY (2012-13) Ulrich Seidl, Austria 
Ulrich Seidl’s lays bare the human race and all its foibles in this darkly amusing and often tragic trilogy of studies, Paradise: Love (2012); Paradise: Faith (2012); Paradise: Hope (2013). With wicked humour and a sinister twist, Seidl and his long-time collaborator, Veronika Franz, have tapped into a raw nerve of the female psyche with three interlocking stories based on Odon von Horvath’s 1932 play ‘Faith, Hope and Charity’. The “Paradise” trilogy eloquently and provocatively probes the trans-generational experiences and differing concerns of a contemporary Austrian family of three women: a young girl, Melanie; her mother, Teresa and aunt Anna Maria. These focus on teenage issues, sex and religion. The first in the trilogy, Paradise: Love, follows Teresa (Margarethe Tiesel), a voluptuous but matronly blonde in her forties who has disappeared below the search radar of most men on the local dating scene. When she heads off to Kenya for a much needed blast of sun, her prospects seem to improve.

20 FEET FROM STARDOM | Morgan Neville, US (2013)

Winning an Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2015, it’s clear to see why Morgan Neville’s 20 Feet From Stardom (2014) was triumphant as a compelling, heartwarming and unaffected exploration into the fascinating world of backing singers. From the contentiously salacious vocals on Ray Charles ‘What’d I Say’, to the graceful arrangement of ‘Lean on Me’ by Bill Withers, backing vocals are integral to our enjoyment of music across the decades. Having spent years in the shadows of some of the finest, most prominent recording artists of all time, now the likes of Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer and Darlene Love are given the platform to shine, and showcase their unique, and somewhat breathtaking abilities.

THE GREAT BEAUTY |  Paolo Sorrentino, Italy (2013)  

The heart and soul of Italy leaps off the screen in all its beauty and decadence in this cornucopia of delights. Paolo Sorrentino’s sensual Italian overload transports us to Rome for a paean to pleasure and pain, gaiety and melancholy seen through the eyes of writer and roué, Jep Gambardella, played exultantly by Sorrentino regular, Toni Servillo (The Consequences of Love). This is possibly Sorrentino’s best film, a satire capturing the essence of his homeland’s beauty and culture with an appealing and bittersweet languor that was first experienced in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita,  and now in the context of the 21st century.

WINTER SLEEP (2014) Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey

Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Palme D’Or Winner is, in spite of its considerable length, a densely discursive and often confrontational portrait of human fallibility. Even though it takes place inside a claustrophobic hotel, the outdoor scenes are riveting, set against the background of the majestic mountains. Men are usually out of touch in all of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s films, and in WINTER SLEEP, his new anti-hero Aydin (Bilginer) is no exception. An ex-actor, Aydin sees himself as an enlightened feudal lord; spending his days in the hotel where he writes a daily column for the local newspaper. Ceylan pays homage to Bergman and Bresson in the long, vicious arguments between Aydin and his wife and sister, the camera catches the protagonists in shot/contra-shot movement, the close-ups showing the hurt on the faces of the women, who are treated with contempt and often impudence.

UNDER THE SKIN (2014) |  Jonathan Glazer, UK

Glazer developed Under the Skin for over a decade; he and co-screenwriter Walter Campbell pared it back from an elaborate, special effects-heavy concept to a sparse story focusing on an alien perspective of the human world. Most characters were played by non-actors, and many scenes were filmed with hidden cameras. With a total worldwide gross of £5.2 million, Under the Skin was failed at the box office. With its timely themes of migration, sexual politics and safety, it received critical acclaim, particularly for Johansson’s performance, Glazer’s direction, and Mica Levi‘s score. It garnered multiple awards for its groundbreaking visual allure and was named one of 2014’s best films by several publications. It ranks 61st on the BBC’s 100 Greatest Films of the 21st century.

Indiewire ranked it the 2nd best film of the 2010s.

POSTMAN’S WHITE NIGHTS (2014) | Andrey Konchalovsky, USSR

The best work happens in the quieter, contemplative moments of this reflective fable from  Russian master Andrey Konchalovsky. A moving scene captures a village elder’s funeral, where the community talk of the “socialistic romanticism” of her era, a time unlike, apparently, a present Russia in which their humble roles in society seem almost obsolete. Why should Russians pay humble fishermen in rural villages for their fish, rather than modern, faceless dragnet fishing, as one sequence depicts? And as the young Timur is wont to say to Aleksey, “do we need postmen when we can email?” Konchalovksy’s art reveals a beauty to a rustic life that is being lost – as if this is the last chance to witness this kind of small-town life. If it is, Konchalovsky has crafted a beautiful record of this world.

THE ASSASSIN (2015) | Hsiao-hsien Hou, Taiwan

Taiwanese director Hsiao-hsien Hou’s spectacular drama is a graceful and sumptuously composed masterpiece – in the true sense of the word. Hou brings a sense of uncompromising formal brilliance to the wuxia material. THE ASSASSIN is a work of spiritual resonance and historical importance, but it is also exquisite. Set during the Tang dynasty, the story opens as a young girl (played by Shu Qi) undergoes training to be an assassin. But her female sympathies stand in the way of her killing instinct, and after failing an important mission she is sent back to her hometown. Some time later, she is again tasked with killing an important governor (played by Chang Chen) who questions the Emperor’s authority. The task involves a moral twist: not only is the governor her cousin, but also her first love.

EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT (2015) | Ciro Guerra, Colombia

Colombian writer|director Ciro Guerra’s third feature is a visually stunning exploration to a heart of darkness that brings to mind Miguel Gomes’ Tabu or Werner Herzog’s Cobra Verde or even Nicolas Roeg’s Belize-set drama Heart of Darkness (1993).

Serving as a backlash on organised Religion and Colonialism, the film’s slow-burn intensity has a morose and unsettling undercurrent that threatens to submerge you in the sweaty waters of the Amazon River whence its token German explorer, Theodor Koch-Grunberg (Jan Bijvoet) meanders fitfully in search of a rare and exotic flower with restorative powers.

FIRE AT SEA (2016) Gianfranco Rosi, Italy 

Gianfranco Rosi’s spare yet absorbing documentary offers an important and non-judgemental portrait of the immigration crisis facing Southern Italy, where both immigrants and islanders are given ample weight in story of their struggle to survive. Pictures can tell a thousand words and that’s the way Rosi leaves it: we must draw our own impressions and conclusions from this poignant human story.

PHANTOM THREAD (2017) Paul Thomas Anderson, US

This is arthouse drama at its best. Exploring the negative impulses of love, it is a delicately drawn tale about man’s fear of  losing control to a woman. The man in question, a fashion designer played by Daniel Day-Lewis, is captivated by a young woman’s grace and charm but refuses to let her into his business life, which is really his heart and soul. She remains tough but loving – the perfect replica of his beloved mother, tempting him but paradoxically also repulsing him. Day-Lewis remains adamant as the tortured artist, every subtle nuance of his adamance flickers across his face in a subtle display of petulance. Day-Lewis gives another remarkable performance this time as the classic gentleman artist delivered with finesse and his idiosyncratic  allure. His economy of movement is admirable capturing the feline grace of Federer and the innate style and sardonic humour of Cary Grant. When his resistance is lowered by a bout of illness, Reynolds’ reveals a deep weakness for his mother (whose ghost appears to him in her wedding dress) and her power is magically transferred to his assistant Alma, who then gets to wear the trousers – immaculately tailored – of course. MT

BEST INDIE FILMS of the Decade | 2010 – 2020

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 

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

WatchAUT | Austrian Film weekend 13 – 15 December 2019

London’s Picturehouse Central will play host to a weekend of Austrian cinema from 13-15 December 2019. WatchAUT provides a glimpse of the world as perceived by the current generation of Austrian filmmakers. 
 
The festival opens with a special gala preview of LITTLE JOE, director Jessica Hausner’s foreboding tale of genetically modified flowers starring Emily Beecham (a role that won Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival), Ben Whitshaw and Kerry Fox. Emily Beecham and Kerry Fox are both due to attend and take part in a post screening Q&A.
 
Festival titles focus on today’s hottest issues including the environment, women, and migrationOther acclaimed Austrian features to watch out for include multi-award winning STYX followed by a Q&A with director Wolfgang Fischer, plus other female-focused films THE GROUND BENEATH MY FEET and MADEMOISELLE PARADIS. The documentary programme comprises CHAOS, a compelling story of three Syrian women exposed to war, while EARTHWELCOME TO SODOM and THE GREEN LIE explore the many environmental issues that afflict our planet.
watchAUT | 13 -15 DECEMBER 2019

Aquarela (2018) *** Venice Film Festival 2018

Dir: Viktor Kossakovsky | Doc | UK | 89’

A picture tells a thousands words when it comes to climate change. And this new eco doc on the subject literally drenches us in water in its mission to drive the point home. Aquarela is  the aquatic version of Jeff Orlowski’s remarkable Chasing Ice (2012).  delivering its vital message with any dire warnings or preachy dialogue. 

Russian filmmaker Viktor Kossakovsky has shot hours of footage aiming, in a structureless but gloriously visual way, to portray the global tragedy of climate change. His vehement eco doc demonstrates how the havoc caused by the melting ice-cap in the Arctic Circle  cascades down to provoke events in Siberia’s Lake Baikal; Angel Falls in Venezuela and tornado strewn California, as nature and humanity clash in a monstrous eco-war. Put simply: while man is slowly destroying nature, the planet is hellbent on destroying us.

Cinematographer Ben Bernhard works with the latest high-tech stabilisation equipment and waterproof cameras at a rate of 96 frames per second, and these HD images record the gushing, cascading floods of glaciers, magnific