Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

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

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Brazil Indigenous Film Festival 22 – 24 October 2021

Inspired by the UN Climate Summit this first edition of the Brazil Indigenous Film Festival takes place in London’s ICA cinema on the Mall from October 22 -24, featuring a dozen or so features and shorts from indigenous filmmakers sharing their stories – both fact and fiction – from all over Brazil.

Twelve films, in six languages, from seven different groups will be showing in the three-day festivalbetween 22 – 24 October 2021. The programme is split into three strands: The Right toEarth combines work on different forms of Indigenous struggle – symbolic, practical, political, mythological – for the right to land; The Ritual Dimension documents and celebrates the Maxakali andKisedjê in rural Brazil, exploring their political rituals, and Orality, Film and History brings historical, social and philosophical perspectives from the Parakanã, Guarani–Nhandewa and Guarani–Kaiowácommunities.

A few highlights from the programme: Equilibrium, an ethno-media video art by Tupinamba journalist and educator Olinda Muniz Wenderley. The female filmmaker explores through an experimental narrative the connection of the Indigenous People with the Earth and their spirituality. Two animations explore colours of nature and traditions. The Celebration of the Spirits tells the saga of a Guajajara man, who, during a search for his lost brother, ends up on a voyage of self-discovery.

Other films to look out for are Tatakox, a hypnotic ritual film that documents celebrations evoking the spirits of dead children, and Nũhũ yãg yõg hãm: This land is our land!, winner of the Best International Film prize at this year’s SheffieldDoc/Fest.

The festival also presents two productions from Alberto Alvares: Dream of Fire, an interpretation of a dream – an omen of disease, according to Guarani Nhandewa traditions, and Tekowenhepyrun: The Origin of the Soul, is based on the belief that the soul is the connection between the body and the spirit. Alberto has had works exhibited in Arts Biennales and international film festivals.

FreeLandCamp a documentary by photographer and anthropologist Edgar Kanaykõ, portraying the massive 2017 demonstration organised by APIB, when diverse ethnic groups got together in the country’s capital, Brasília to demand their rights. Ava Yvy Vera: The Land of the People of Lightning, is a depiction of the Guarani–Kaiowá peoples’ struggle for land rights that gained international recognition after the release of a joint letter in 2012, protesting against the assaults and advances of Brazilian agribusiness.

The thought-provoking Zawxiperkwer Kaa explores the activities of the Guardians of the Forest, a group that has been fighting against illegal logging and working to protect the Awá-Guajá, one of the most threatened isolated Indigenous groups on the eastern coast of the Amazon.

This festival has the support of APIB, a national reference of the Indigenous movement in Brazil. Raising international awareness about Indigenous peoples as protagonists in the fight against climatechange and resisting the destruction of their traditional ways of living is urgently needed.

Festival Schedule:

Friday, 22 Oct @18h30 (Opening Night followed by a Q&A with festival curators and special guests)

Saturday, 23 Oct @16:20

Sunday, 24 Oct @16:20

Full programme can be seen here.

The Gravedigger’s Wife (2021)

Dir.: Khadar Ayderus Ahmed; Cast: Omar Abdi, Yasmin Warsame, Kadar Abdout Aziz Ibrahim.Somalia/Finland/Qatar/Germany/France 2021, 82 min.

This first feature from Somalian born writer/director Khadar Ayderus Ahmed – who moved to Finland aged sixteen – is full of feeling and emotional depth.

In Djibouti City, the capital of the smallest country on the African continent, employment, or the lack of it, is a major issue for nearly a million who live in and around the capital.

Guled (Abdi) and his wife Nasra (Warsame) are true romantics: they eloped as teenagers, Nasra’s family wanting her to marry an older, wealthy man. Even now, they only have eyes for each other, their teenage son Mahad (Aziz Ibrahim) has the freedom to roam the streets with his mates, but his truanting only comes to light after he has missed months of school.

Guled competes with his friends for the ‘bounty’: they are all lined up at the gate of the local hospital, ready to chase the arriving ambulances. Guled and Nasra never had much money, he left his herd of goats to his brother in their home village, after he and Nasra were expelled for disobeying the wishes of the elders.

The couple light-heartedly “borrows” a goat, presenting it as a wedding gift at a wedding they gate-crash. But their playful attitude has to stop, when Nasra develops a kidney infection requiring surgery at a specialist hospital in Ethiopia at the cost of $500 000

When Nasra’s condition worsens, the doctor has good and bad news: On a positive note the surgery can be managed locally by a visiting anaesthetist, but the price tag remains the same. So Mahad and his friends take on all kind of jobs to contribute to the staggering costs, Guled swallowing his pride, as he sets off for his home village to reclaim his goat herd.

You could call Ahmed’s debut a road movie, since most of it plays out in the streets of suburban Djibouti and the long desert road between the city and his home village. But the most intimate scenes are set in the modest family home where hope fades with day that passes, Nasra’s presence a pale comparison with her former strength in the local community, she now stays at home, her pain all too visible.

DoP Arttn Peltomaa contrasts the sun-dappled colours of the desert surroundings with sombre earthy colours of the intimate domestic interiors where the family fears for the worst.

Khadar Ayderus Ahmed adopts a less is more approach to the narrative, but the way he deals with conflicting emotions augurs well  for the future: this being the first Somali film nominated for the Oscars in the Foreign Features category. AS

LONDON FILM FESTIVAL UNTIL 17 OCTOBER 2021 | CANNES CRITICS WEEK PREMIERE

 

The Last Duel (2021)

Dir: Ridley Scott | US Action Drama 153′

This medieval parable based on a true story feels utterly up to date with its modern rape-revenge theme told from three perspectives: a savvy noblewoman, her pompous husband and the silver-tongued ‘Squire’ who rapes her. Ridley’s Scott’s latest is a magnificently mounted and gory epic, crowned by a string of charismatic performances: Jodie Comer is Marquerite de Carrouges, Matt Damon her husband Sir Jean, and Adam Driver. the squire, Jacques Le Gris. Ben Alffleck is dynamite as his close friend and ally Count Pierre d’Alencon, rocking a saucy blond wig; Alex Lawther plays a mincing King Charles VI. Strange accents are the order of the day – Laurence Olivier would turn in his grave.

Back in the 14th century chivalry was a big thing. And men took their gallantry seriously, and were even prepared to stake their lives on it. Women were merely impotent bystanders in this honour-bound society, and that’s – to an extent – the only flaw in the rape-centred story. Co-writer Nicole Holofcener (Gladiator) serves up revenge from a female point of view primped with contemporary credentials, showing that a woman’s mental resolve can be just as strong as the sword when her own honour is called into question.

Freighted by the gravity of its subject matter, The Last Duel bristles with intrigue from start to finish, a gripping crowd-pleaser that wears its ethical and moral emblems proudly on its 14th-century sleeve. Ridley Scott jostles us through the early part of his film establishing the milieu of brutal battlefield set-pieces finally getting down to business with the crux of the narrative: land-ownership and property in 1386. Norman knight Carrouges is locked in a bitter dispute with his nemesis Le Gris over parcels of land and military preferment. But when his wife Marguerite accuses Le Gris of rape, the feud turns murderous, Carrouges asking King Charles VI for the right to challenge his enemy to a duel.

Based on Eric Jager’s bestseller: The Last Duel: A True Story of Trial By Combat in Medieval France, the macho premise morphs into a female-centric tale reflecting on the putative assault from the three different angles, growing more persuasive as they pass from assailant to victim.

Once again Jodie Comer is the star of the show even through she only grabs part of the screen time from the macho male contingent  in a lavish and entertaining Hollywood style arthouse action drama. MT

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Unpublished Story (1942

Dir: Harold French | Cast: Richard Greene, Valerie Hobson, Basil Radford, Roland Culver | UK Drama 82′

The British wartime authorities’ perennial obsession with fifth columnists (‘enemy agents’ were serving as baddies as early as the 1940 George Formby vehicle Let George Do It!) here finds elaborate expression in an ambitious production set in London during the Blitz. It took five credited writers to concoct this frequently hard to follow propaganda piece in which actual footage from the Blitz is adroitly combined with recreated studio footage. Censorship is benignly depicted as an essential part of the war effort (hence the title), while a pacifist organisation called ‘People for Peace’ is revealed to be not simply a Nazi front organisation run by British reactionaries but headed by authentic German ‘sleepers’ who privately converse among themselves in German. (With acts of terrorism in Europe by refugees from the Middle East now becoming almost everyday occurrences, the sequence depicting the arrival of a German agent masquerading as a Belgian refugee has disturbing contemporary resonances.)

Richard Greene and Valerie Hobson are colourless leads, and dependable supporting actors like Basil Radford, Roland Culver and André Morell are generally given remarkably little to do; with the notable exception of Brefni O’Rorke as the editor of ‘The Gazette’, the newspaper the plot revolves around, who gets to deliver the film’s stirring final speech at the fadeout. @Richard Chatten

 

A.rtificial I.mmortality | Warsaw Film Festival 2021

Dir: Ann Shin | Doc Canada, 74’

If you could create an immortal version of yourself, would you?

Don’t be put off by its tricksy title, this new documentary from award-winning Toronto-based Korean filmmaker Ann Shin is fascinating from start to finish. 

A.rtifical I.mmortality opens with a welter of technical experts fast-talking their way through their ground-breaking research. But the focus soon narrows on Shin, best known for her HBO title The Defector: Escape from North Korea, who is now working on how to capture the essence of her dying father who is rapidly sliding down the slippery slope of dementia. Is there a way to keep part of him alive, and leave something of herself for her own kids to reflect on? – she ponders while chopping away at those ubiquitous veg in her kitchen?.

Apparently there is. And Shin showcases each new discovery in a film that uncovers the cutting-edge world of AI: “what is it that makes us uniquely human, and cannot be recreated by a robot, however sophisticated?. The film’s first episode is possibly the least plausible and most confusing: we meet Lincoln Cannon, a leading proponent of the ‘Trans humanist Movement’ which believes in the ‘ethical use of technology to transcend human limits, even making death “optional”.’ Is this a load tosh, you may wonder? Well, watch on, it does get better.   

What follows is a deep dive into the realms of artificial intelligence, machine learning and biotechnology. Shin interviews specialists from the world of religion, robotic science, technology, philosophy and neuroscience.

She 52 year old mother of two then explores ‘mind-files’. Facebook and Twitter all possess these intensely personal impressions of us from the social posts that we share with them. So what if these could be downloaded onto a personal file and then uploaded and stored privately for our benefit on an avatar?. She talks to Dr Deepak Chopra has already created his own “digital Deepak” from his mind-file. The idea is to pass on the essence of himself and his accumulated knowledge for his grandkids.

Mind files can also be used for Chopra’s own commercial benefit, as a virtual mentor and guru.  He explains the difference between this unique personal version and, say, Siri. With your digital avatar you have a direct relationship with that tailored made ‘person’.  It can interpret your own feelings based on a personal knowledge bank, created by you in an AI version of yourself that you compile well before you die. 

Meanwhile in California, Profesor Alysson Muotri has found a way to replicate actual human brain cells in a petri dish using stem cellls known as organoids. These can produce a more complex and nuanced artificial brain material. So sometime in the future brains may be able to grow this material for positive uses, including the treatment of traumatic injury, and even to tackle mental illnesses such as depression or motor neurone disease.

Over in Japan where robots are very much part of everyday life, Hiroshi Ishiguro has pioneered ‘intelligent’ robotics. So lifelike is his own android that it actually fooled audiences into believing it was Ishiguro himself – but that’s possibly because he looks and acts more like an Android than a human, in the nicest possible way. 

One of the sceptics of the AI world is neuroscientist Dr Taufik Valiante who has been finding out exactly how memories are made in the brain. Very little is actually known about the brain and how it processes memory. But the significant issue here is how malleable memory is, and how much it is subject to individual and personal reflections. Memories are a ‘loved experience’ with a richness that AI does not have the capability of recording. Human cognition is an “embodied cognition’ far more complex that any AI can replicate. Robots, no matter how sophisticated, can’t smell, feel or touch. How could those elements be replicated by a computer?  Taufik heads up a think-tank at the neurological department of Toronto’s Krembil Research Institute and reminds us, reassuringly, that humans are capable of feeling exquisitely subtle qualities including ‘body memory’ that avatars are just not able to sense. This all very encouraging for those fearing a takeover by robots. The Japanese have coined an expression “sonzaikan” that refers to the unique presence of another being. So there’s hope for us real humans yet in the scary world of future intelligence. MT

WARSAW FILM FESTIVAL 2021

Money Has Four Legs (2021) Bfi London Film Festivali

Dir.: Maung Sun; Cast: Okkar, Khin Khin Hsu, Hein Thiori San, Kio Thu; Myanmar 2021, 98 min.

Mynamar’s Maung Sun opts for a light comedy style to get this debut feature past the censors. Set in the capital Naypyidaw Money Has Four Legs is a semi-autobiographical portrait of a contemporary filmmaker and his trials and tribulations trying to get a movie in a country seemingly down on its knees.

We first meet Sun’s alter ego, Wai Bhone, arguing over his script in the censor’s office. All this unwelcome interference radically alters the finished product, proposing a scenario where the police force is the guiding force and sex scenes are symbolic rather than graphic. And Bhone could do without it. Back home in his living room, decorated with his awards and photos of his father, a famous director, Bhone contemplates an uncertain future, his wife Seazir (Khin Khin Su) is about to lose her job ay the bank, and there’s their daughter Meemi (Thiori San) to think about too. Seazir’s brother Zaw Mynth (Ko Thu), a film extra, is prone to violent episodes when drunk – which is nearly always. The film’s producer is at the end of his tether, considering replacing Bhone with another helmer. Luckily, he manages to keep the show on the road after digging up some some dirt on his producer, and when Seazir’s bank goes into liquidation, as anticipated, Bhone and his brother turn the situation to their advantage in a denouement that feels like a tribute to Jules Dassin.

DoP Thaiddhi conjures up fairytale images that certainly sum up the chaotic upbeat style  Sun had in mind: the colours are bright, the scenes in the hustling streets are well-observed. But behind all the bungling – in real life and film-making – this is a cry for help: if the banks are going under, what hope is there for an out-of-work population? Sun’s debut is a subversive attack, a welcome celebration of 100 Years of Burmese cinema. AS

SCREENING DURING BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 6-17 OCTOBER 2021

 

Who Dares Wins (1982) Prime

Dir: Ian Sharp | UK Drama

Interviewed on the set, Lewis Collins said the situation depicted was ambivalent since although his character deplored the terrorists’ methods he sympathised with their aims. The film itself naturally displays no such nuance; and the late Philip French described it at the time as the most ludicrous political picture he’d seen since the Boultings’ ‘High Treason’ over thirty years earlier. (An apt comparison, although the earlier production was plainly a much better film.)

After the Iranian Embassy Siege, Collins – always the less introspective half of ‘The Professionals’ – was quickly snapped up by producer Euan Lloyd for the lead for this fascinating document of the mood that prevailed in Britain during the bleak winter of 1982 between the Toxteth riots and the war in the Falkland Islands that reunites the writer and one of the stars of ’12 Angry Men’.

No such film would of course be complete without a voluptuous female psycho from Europe with an itchy trigger finger (played by Ingrid Pitt in fatigues), and despite being idyllically married to a wife in Laura Ashley (played by Lloyd’s daughter Rosalind) big-haired Judy Davis says Collins makes love like he “just got out of prison” while her glowering entourage of lefty malcontents look on enviously. (Since they have to to get their hair cut and be smartened up to impersonate a military band a fascinating scene that didn’t make the final cut must have been Ms Davis impatiently showing her confederates the correct way to do up their bow ties.) @RichardChatten

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Italian Films at the BFI London Film Festival 2021 | 6-17 October

Italian cinema has had a good summer so far. So expect to see a good selection at this autumn’s BFI London Film Festival, courtesy of Cinecittaluce.

SMALL BODY is a delicate fantasy drama from Laura Samani and had its premiere at Cannes Critics’ Week. MARX CAN WAIT is Marco Bellocchio’s documentary tribute to a much loved twin brother, and also screened at Cannes, where the veteran director was awarded the 2021 Honorary Palme D’Or for his body of work.

Paolo Sorrentino was on the Lido with his latest lush drama THE HAND OF GOD which took the Grand Jury Prize, its lead, Filippo Scotti, was awarded the Marcello Mastroianni Award for best young actor. Meanwhile, Michelangelo Frammartino’s Special Jury Prize winner IL BUCO captured the hearts and minds of Italian and international critics at Venice: Il Buco is his long-awaited follow-up to Le Quattro Volte.

ITALIAN FILMS | BFI FILM FESTIVAL 2021 

Eugenie Grandet (2021)

 

Dir: Marc Dugain | Cast: Josephine Japy, Olivier Gourmet, Valerie Bonneton, Cesar Domboy | Drama, France/Belgium 103′

Another Balzac novel hits the big screen: this time his early 19th tale about the evils of capitalism and family inheritance, sombrely adapted by Senegal born director Marc Dugain.

Eugenie Grandet is a dour and joyless story and Dugain does little to lift it above the confines of the page despite thoughtful performances from Josephine Japy in the lead role, and Olivier Gourmet as her vehement property-dealer father Felix whose stinginess and greed makes her life a misery at a time when self-realisation was impossible for ordinary women.

Saumur 1819 during the Bourbon Restoration is the setting, and endless views of dripping rain and dank mornings establish the grim milieu where Eugenie Grandet and her mother (Bonneton) endure a monotonous bourgeois existence, her father poncing around the countryside doing deals and pretending to be down on his luck. Although the reality is quite different.

Felix Grandet is not a good father. Frugal, possessive and emotionally remote, he keeps his wife and daughter on a tight budget, making a big deal out of giving Eugenie a single gold coin for her dowry. Eugénie spends her days sewing and dreaming of love and when her cousin Charles (Domboy) arrives to stay she is completely taken with his dashing good looks and suave Parisian manners. So much so she falls in love with him – rather too quickly – offering her only worldly possession when it emerges that his father has killed himself due to mounting debts. And when the mean-spirited Felix finds out what has happened he further castigates Eugenie, imprisoning her in her bedroom.

Gilles Porte creates a morose atmosphere in the darkened interiors of the Grandet household, often softly highlighting the characters’ faces in the style of Caravaggio, and in Eugenie’s case this accentuates  her qualities of gentleness and devotion. And although Dugrain’s script successfully condenses the novel into a reasonable running time, it doesn’t quite give enough weight to Charles and Eugenie’s love affair which after all carries the novel’s uplifting emotional freight, much needed to counterbalance all the endless misery. Joséphine Japy is brilliant as the innocent, long-suffering heroine in a world where women’s happiness and wellbeing depended entirely on the integrity of their menfolk. MT

 

Shepherd (2021)

Dir/Wri: Russell Owen | UK Horror 103’

A little bit style over substance Shepherd is an effective but rather overwrought third feature from Welsh writer/director Russell Owen with Greta Scachi as the star turn and Tom Hughes as angst ridden widow Eric Black.

Devastated after the mysterious death of his wife, who is pictured teasing him in menacing early flashbacks, Eric takes a job as a shepherd heading for the solitude of ramshackle  house on a remote island with only his faithful Collie Baxter for company.

Front-loading the narrative with foreboding tropes and jump scares before really establishing Eric’s grievances with his wife makes it difficult for us to really feel for him or appreciate his troubled state of mind. So Owen keeps things ambiguous with a recurring motif of gloomy mountains and a roaring soundscape, an ominous tolling bell driving the narrative forward in this wind-beaten setting. The island is purportedly uninhabited but soon after arriving on a lighter steered by a gaunt boatsman, Eric spies a sinister hooded figure darting around a disused lighthouse, and discovers human remains in a stream.

Trauma from the past resurfaces in a scary vignette from Greta Scacchi as his widowed mother who has somehow tracked him down and was clearly not a fan of Rachel. But is she alive or dead, a nightmare or reality?  Then Baxter goes missing and Eric’s state of mind down-spirals into a glowering night of the soul as the truth comes back to haunt him. MT

ON RELEASE FROM 13 OCTOBER 2021

Raphael Revealed (2020)

Dir: Phil Grabsky | Doc

Marking the 500th anniversary of Raphael’s death, director Phil Grabsky was in Rome with his camera to document the greatest exhibition that has ever taken place of the Italian master’s work. Raphael Revealed celebrates the life of Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino on the big screen allowing viewers all over the world access to several hundred masterpieces, including paintings and drawings – over a hundred of which have been brought together for the first time.

Director and cinematographer Phil Grabsky has made a name for himself recording a series of major art exhibitions and adding value with informative commentary from experts – in this case Nicholas Penny, Tom Henry and Dr Angelamaria Aceto, of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford – who bring the artists’ creativity to life for those unable to be there in person.

Raphael 1483-1520) is widely regarded as one of the three great masters of Renaissance Italy, along with Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. Mixing in eclectic circles from Popes to paupers his work reflects the diversity of 15th century society, not just through paintings but also in his skilful draughtsmanship of building design and architecture. Raphael also wrote poetry in his brief life of just 37 years.

Grabsky takes us on a tour of the exhibition itself interweaving vibrant shots of the paintings with outdoor vistas picturing Raphael’s forays to Florence and Rome as well as his his daily life in Urbino. The exhibition unfolds in reverse chronological order, starting in Rome, where he dies at the age of 37 – with a life-size facsimile of his tomb “built with cutting edge technologies” (which will later rest in his hometown of Urbino) – and then tracing his story back to Florence and Umbria.

Raphael honed his craft by drawing in pencil, a skill that enabled him to understand the intricacies of the human form and learn about spacial perspectives. His father was the official painter and poet of the Duke Montefeltro, and Raphael took over this role when he was still only a teenager on his father’s death.

At the age of 25 Raphael was commissioned to decorate the rooms in the Vatican where he spent the rest of life perfecting his skills not only as a painter but also as architect to the serving Popes, a role that allowed him to develop his artistic expression in sculpture, tapestry design and drawing in ink, charcoal, metal point and chalk.

During his lifetime Raphael also crafted two self-portraits and these bookend the exhibition – one from the Louvre, known as Self-Portrait with his Fencing Master (1518) and the other portraying the maestro as a young man.

Raphael Revealed also includes significant paintings from the Uffizi, Pinacoteca di Bologna and the National Gallery of Washington along with sculptures, tapestries and other works. The highlight for many devotees of the Italian artist are the portraits of the two popes hung together for the first time: Julius II from the National Gallery in London and Leo X with the cardinals Giulio de’ Medici and Luigi de’ Rossi from the Uffizi.

Along with Chopin, Mozart and the poet Shelley who also died in their thirties, Raphael’s incredible body of work puts him in the league of the world’s most revered creative geniuses. At his death he was still working on a graphic reconstruction of Ancient Rome  MT

IN CINEMAS FROM 12 OCTOBER 2021

Le Frisson des Vampires (1971)

Dir: Jean Rollin | French, Horror

Disinterred from it’s crypt in the small hours by London Live, not a lot really happens in this fanciful little trifle by Jean Rollin – who David Pirie wrote “it is tempting to see as the Claude Lelouch of the vampire cinema” – but it contains some beautiful colour effects, and an attractively lit chateau housing a coven of female vampires who glide about in big hair and little else.

Vampiress-in-chief, Isolde, is given to making dramatic entrances from hiding places as varied as a grandfather clock (whose door swings open in an image worthy of Nosferatu, from behind a curtain and up a chimney; while her handmaidens dance off into the night together before the film’s conclusion on the director’s favourite location, the beach at Normandy. Richard Chatten

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Getting Away with Murder(s) (2021)

Dir.: David Wilkinson; Wri: David Wilkinson, Emlyn Price | Documentary with Philip Rubenstein, Benjamin B. Ferencz, Fritz Bauer, Donald M. Ferencz, Jens Rommel; UK 2021, 175 min.

Yorkshire born director David Wilkinson (Postcards from the 48%) has co-written and produced a unique, sober and frightening report on Holocaust murderers that have somehow avoided prosecution. How did it happen? How did the executioners of six million Jews get away it? Only one percent of the million or so perpetrators were actually brought to justice.

On his mission to uncover the truth Wilkinson has travelled the globe interviewing Nazi-hunters and survivors, horrifying clips from the camps make for testament of utter contempt for retribution that begs the question: what would the US government have done had the Nazis decimated the entire State of Maryland? And how would the British government have reacted, had the entire population of   Yorkshire lost their in the same way? Surely, the rate of successful prosecutions in both cases would have run into double-figures.

The (West) German government and the Allies played their part by turning a blind eye to the atrocities The victors all fell out, starting a Cold War which saw the USA, Great Britain and France freeing already convicted war criminals who would then see active service against the USSR. From the late 1949 to the mid 1960s the West German government was led by Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, who in 1934 had begged the Nazi Interior Minister Frick to have his state pension restored: “I have always treated the NSDAP properly, against ministerial instructions. I allowed the NSDA to meet in the city sports ground, moreover I allowed the Party to hoist up the Swastika”. His plea was successful. As Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), Adenauer surrounded himself with a cabinet that included Hans Globke, author or the Nuremberg laws of 1938 for the Nazis. Theodor Oberländer was Minister for Refugees and had been a member of the SA, having participated in the Hitler putsch of 1923, and had been directly involved in the plans to exploit the occupied countries in Eastern Europe. In 1965, Adenauer was replaced by Ludwig Erhard who had the dubious honour of being a member of the Nazi “Arbeitskreis für Aussenwirtschaftsfragen (AAF)” along with Ludger Westrick, Karl Blessing and Hermann Josef Abs. All played a major role both in Nazi Germany and the FRG,

But the government of the time merely reflected the view of the German population: war criminals lived on at liberty, often without having to change their names. Some even returned from exile in   South America to bury their dead: Dr. Joseph Mengele, the “Angel of Death” was a prime example, having ‘selected’ Jews on the ramps of Auschwitz for his infamous experiments. Reunited with his family in Switzerland in 1956, he returned to his birthplace in Günzburg/Bavaria in 1959, for his father’s funeral. Everyone in the small town knew that he was present – apart from the police. Mengele died of a stroke swimming in Sao Paulo in 1979, aged sixty-seven.

German justice actually made it extremely difficult for Nazi war criminals to be prosecuted, as Benjamin B. Ferenc, Chief prosecutor of the 1948 trial against the members of the Einsatzgruppen explained: German law did not allow retrospective interpretations of any criminal action, which meant that since it was lawful to kill Jews, Communists, gays and Roma in Nazi Germany, one had to prove, that the accused acted “in a way beyond the legal (!) requirement” – for example showing more than average brutality or indulged in extra-curricular actions. It was a reasonable defence to clam the Jews were the enemies of Germany. In many trials in Germany and Austria, witnesses were asked for the exact time when the atrocities took place – as if any camp inmate had a watch. Defence lawyers hunted down the witnesses, and the population in many towns joined in. Thus the trials became more a second punishment for the Jews and other victims, than for the perpetrators themselves. Even though, the names of Fritz Bauer and Jens Rommel, both having been in charge of the Central Agency for the Prosecution of Nazi Criminals in Ludwigsburg, should be mentioned – Bauer gave the Mossad a tip off about Eichmann’s whereabouts in Argentina, because Bauer believed his trial in Germany would not serve justice.

The number of major war criminals who got away it is long: Walter Rauff, who designed the specialised carriages where 100 000 victims met their deaths, fled to Chile, were he died in 1984 aged seventy-seven. Karl Jaeger, Nazi Colonel, carried out the murder of Lithuanian Jews, his diary showed that he killed over 100,000 men and women, of which 4273 were children. In the 1965 Sobibor trail in Germany, the main defendant Alfred Ittner was convicted of the murder of 68 000 Jews – his punishment was seven years in prison. Johanna Altvater, a mere secretary, killed Jewish babies, throwing them out of the window. She was never prosecuted and died aged at the ripe old age on 84, in 2003.

Dr Herta Oberweiler was responsible for the deaths of thousands of children who lost their lives as a result of her sepsis “research’. She was sentenced to twenty years prison, later reduced to five. After her release, she actually got her licence back, and it took years for her to struck off the register. Alois Brunner, Eichmann’s deputy, responsible for the murder of over 100,000 Jews, got the death penalty in absentia in France, but fled to Syria, where he advised the government on torture methods, dying in his late 90s. Herberts Cukurs, the “Butcher of Riga”, was not so lucky. He was responsible for killing 30 000 Latvian Jews. In a macabre incident, Cukurs asked an old Jewish man to rape a young Jewish woman, and then shot all Jews who looked away. He fled to Brazil, where he was killed by Mossad agents in 1965, aged sixty-four. But in 2014, a musical was produced in his home town, showing him as a hero.

The British government’s role in all this is rather shameful. Foreign Secretary Sir Anthony Eden was asked by the Bulgarian government in the early 1940s, to allow over ten thousand Jews, threatened by the Germans, to emigrate to the British Protectorate of Palestine. Eden refused, and all Bulgarian Jews were murdered subsequently in Treblinka. Later, the UK Government clamed to be too broke, to contribute to the 1948 trial against members of the murderous Einsatzgruppen. Even though the trial went ahead, few of Einsatzgruppen were prosecuted. After the war, the UK became a safe heaven for Nazi war criminals; and Wilkinson visits places in Oldham and Selby, were many had hidden, a map showing that the perpetrators managed to settle throughout the UK. Philip Rubenstein, former director of the All Party Parliamentary War Crime Group, was instrumental in changing the law to allow for Nazi prosecution in the UK. He reports, that since 1943 Civil Servants were actively employed in avoiding Nazi prosecution, claiming that it “smelled of laws made by the victors.” Needless to say, the Holocaust is not on the main curriculum in UK schools.

GETTING AWAY WITH MURDER(S) is an epochal work, much more than a feature documentary. It is disturbing and asks grave questions of our judicial system? AS

ON RELEASE in UK CINEMAS FROM 1 OCTOBER 2021

 

The Astonished Heart (1950)

Dir: Anthony Darnborough Terence Fisher | Cast: Celia Johnson, Noel Coward, Margaret Leighton, Joyce Carey  UK Drama 85′

Like Brief Encounter based on one of the theatrical pieces that comprised ‘Tonight at 8.30’, this reunion of that classic’s writer and star is an equally garrulous but far more grandiose affair that failed as spectacularly as their previous collaboration had succeeded (although the scenes depicting the neuroses exhibited by Noel Coward’s patients are still haunting after the film is over; particularly the scene where John Salew is challenged to read a certain word Coward claims to have written down for him to look at.

All involved were as genuinely unhappy making this epic folly as they looked acting in it; Coward having taken on the lead only after Michael Redgrave took one look at the rushes and walked.

After lumbering through the wreckage like Frankenstein’s monster (Alan Strachan later observed that “Coward’s performance of ravaged heterosexual ardour is riotous”) the star subsequently found himself a far more congenial niche making guest appearances in other people’s films. @Richard Chatten

From the Wild Sea (2021) Zurich Film Festival 2021

Dir: Robin Petré | Doc, 77′

Weather conditions are becoming much more extreme. Marine animals are needing emergency care due to injuries caused by the effects of climate change on tides and changing oceanography.

The caring efforts of marine conservationists are at the heart of this cinematic nature doc From the Wild Sea from Danish documentarian Robin Petré known for her unconventional short nature films (Pulse, Stream and Distant Water) that push the borders beyond the norm. Along similar lines to Leviathan and Bird Island (2019) this deeply sensory film shows how vets in coastal regions are building up a strong support system of rescue centres to rehabilitate mammals and sea birds.

The sheer power of an image is all that’s needed to convey the tragedy of our changing climate which has given rise to powerful storms raging into Europe from the Atlantic, bringing with them injured and confused animals such as seals, dolphins, whales and seabirds. The film is swift to point out that untrained human interference in nature – however well-intentioned – is not helpful. Moving injured animals that have been washed up on the shore should be avoided at all costs. The changing tides have had a deleterious effect on seal mammals who rely on echolocation to get their bearings and forage of food: One such seal recently lost its sense of direction and headed to Morocco, wildly off course. After rehabilitation in Cornwall it made its way back north, then took a wrong turn at the Continental Shelf and headed South again only to be re-homed in the Cornish sanctuary. The release of these healthy seals back into the wild is the film’s highpoint.

Although the work being done in animal rehabilitation is an admirable labour of love, this is a really upsetting film to watch: we see seals in great distress – some of them uttering almost human cries as they struggle to breathe, their airways caught up with plastic or infection as the trained staff work to help them recover. We watch another seal gradually losing its fight for life, flippers twitching as it cries out in pain, its mottled fur coat is a thing of exquisite beauty, its soulful eyes speak volumes of the tragic marine odyssey that has led to its death.

Many animals are suffering the effects of starvation. One seal enjoys a basinful of fish, while another waits patiently for attention by the side of a ceramic bath. It’s extraordinary to imagine that an animal that spends most of its time under the sea can demonstrate so much awareness of a human setting on dry land. But it’s also worth bearing in mind that thousands of years ago we too came from out of the sea.

Whales fare particularly badly: we watch as a 19-metre-long whale lies beached like a massive, punctured tyre, off the coast of Cornwall. The team rushes to help but it’s already too late. The animal will not just die from its bleeding injuries but because its sheer weight will crush the organs, unless the tide favours transport back into the sea. Many whales die due to head-butting from a boat, or multiple injuries from propellers. An autopsy takes place on the beach itself, it must be one of the few times the pathologist actually gets inside a body to do his work. We also witness a fascinating autopsy of a small 4-5 year-old dolphin who has been terribly badly scarred by marine craft and survived and healed, before finally dying of other injuries.

Birds are particularly difficult to handle, and a white swan hisses savagely when it is given a bubble bath to wash off black marine diesel in the clinic, and here the camera offers intense close-ups of the meticulous cleaning process, including a blow-dry to return the bird to its snow white beauty before release. Frequently the camera pulls out to pan the coast in widescreen images of waves crashing down on the raging ocean. Nicholas (de) Montsarrat was not wrong when he called his 1951 war novel: “The Cruel Sea”.

Robin Petre maintains a respectful distance from her subject matter avoiding anthropomorphism at all times while filming with a deeply humane perspective.  A really immersive film for those interested in animal welfare and suitable for all the family (except for the very young). MT

ZURICH FILM FESTIVAL 25 SEPTEMBER – 3 OCTOBER 2021

Ascension (2021) Zurich Film Festival 2021

Dir.: Jessica Kingdon | Documentary; China 2021, 97′

Mesmerising in its imagery, Ascension is a frightening impressionistic portrait of China’s growing class divide through staggering observations of labour, consumerism and wealth.

In her documentary debut Chinese-American Jessica Kingdon explores this study of Chinese superiority by those whose crafted the system. But there is also the hankering after western values and traditions, coupled with a search for perfection in every aspect of working life. Through sheer determination this stealthy dragon will soon be the number economic power on the globe – a nightmarish vision.

The film is structured in three parts, ascending through the hierarchical levels: workers running factory production, the middle class selling to aspirational consumers, and the elites revelling in a new level of hedonistic enjoyment. In traveling up the rungs of China’s social ladder, we see how each level supports and makes possible the next while recognizing the contemporary “Chinese Dream” remains an elusive fantasy for most.

Job-seekers gather in front of buses which will ferry the chosen ones to their factories and dorms. The pay is a couple of dollars an hour, but there are restrictions: Only applicants between 18 and 38 are welcome, men are not allowed to have tattoos or ear-studs – and no illegals will be accepted let alone those with a criminal record. Then there is the roll call for the HUWAI bus, under a big sign of “Work hard, and all wishes come true” the workers put their luggage away before entering the bus. Other poster slogans tell the workers “Be civilised, set good examples” before we set off for the factories.

In a plant producing water bottles from plastic, the female workers discuss the role of the manager: “It does not matter how many days you work, the manager will decide how many days you get paid for. I buy the boss lunch, right after having been paid. We all plead to buy lunch for him so he can pull some strings for us.” In a factory producing jeans, the workers are told “to work harder”, because these jeans are for export: the stitching reads “Keep America great”. In front of a factory producing sex dolls, the chorus shouts slogans like “I love my company, I love my colleagues, I love my career even more. My fate is tied to the company’s, my glory bound to the company”.

Books are given out to workers and they are exhorted to study them with diligence, since the boss spend much time on writing the advice for his workers. During work hours, role play about how to be a perfect workmate is transmitted via loud speakers. We see workers marching like soldiers in front of factories. Meanwhile in the sex doll factory, the workers earnestly discuss the colour of the nipples and the trimming of the pubic hair.

A little more up the food chain, the middle-managers are equally enthusiastic about paying good money to listen to champion managers, who have a large fan base. “Monetise your personal brand. Knowledge must be monetised”. Others have participated in a two-day course and promise “to make millions and millions” in the coming months and years. There are other expensive courses that tell you how to smile (show eight teeth), nod and hug, the latter not being very popular in China.

At a lecture by the Senior International trainer we learn “either you influence me, or I influence you”. There is a training school for butlers too: The new Chinese ruling classes want to copy their European counterparts. “You may not have much time for your personal life, or your family. The rich people do what they want to do, and you have to accept it. They are the people who pay you, no matter how much they humiliate you”.

We watch a group of young men being trained as body guards for the big bosses – unfortunately the applicants fail: the boss has been killed. A group of rich Chinese business people complain about the West calling them out for their Human Rights violations. “They don’t understand the poor have to learn to survive, there is no place for human rights, just survival.” One of the directors tells the audience of employees that “If your intelligence does not match your wealth, Chinese society has hundreds of ways to take your wealth away”.

Before a rather melancholic ending, we are reminded again “that dreams are”. Kingdon keeps the tone understated, letting images and the slogans talk. The result is a mixture of false naivety – on behalf of the upper classes – and a kind of religious fervour of obedience from the workers. But whatever the future holds, the mixture of state capitalism (after all the Party rules supreme) and expanding consumerism, which will see China overtake the USA’s GDP by five times, is a reason for trepidation – to say the least. A brilliant study of a communist nation on the march. AS

ZURICH FILM FESTIVAL 2021 | 25 SEPTEMBER – 3 OCTOBER 2021 | THE 2021 ALBERT MAYSLES AWARD BEST NEW DOCUMENTARY DIRECTOR to JESSICA KINGDON AT Tribeca Film Festival | JUNE 2021

Next Door | Nebenan (2021)

Dir.: Daniel Brühl; Cast: Daniel Brühl, Vicki Krieps, Peter Kurth, Rike Eckermann, Aenne Schwarz, Gode Bendix; Germany 2021, 92 min.

Spanish-German actor Daniel Brühl, who shot to fame in 2003 with Wolfgang Becker’s GDR satire Goodbye Lenin, also stars in his autobiographical themed feature debut, a political satire that riffs on Berlin’s modern day gentrification.

Essentially a two-hander It all takes place in a bar in Berlin’s now upmarket Mitte district where Brühl is self-important film and TV thespian Daniel preparing for a screen test in London. After the obligatory early morning work-out he swings by his favourite cafe (where owner Hilde jokes about the ‘new’ craze for espresso), and shoots the breeze with his East Berliner night-worker neighbour Bruno (Kurth), who regrets voting for re-unification ultimately handing over the power to the capitalist West.

Daniel has a private lift to his lush penthouse but relationships wise the two are on the same page:. Bruno listens to Daniel’s marital up and downs with Clara (Schwarz), who is now having him followed, Bruno knows the territory having had to put up with his wife’s unfaithfulness. But the men also share a chequered past with each other: Daniel’s father also cheated Bruno’s over the ownership of the flat Daniel now lives in. And the security agent has also found out that Clara herself has been playing the field and that Daniel himself is hardly pure as the driven snow as we will discover in the film’s end titles.

Daniel Kehlmann’s script is laced with satirical subtexts but these are only relayed verbally making the whole things feel rather claustrophobic: Next Door could have worked better on the stage or even as a radio play. We only see Clara for a few minutes groaning at being woken up early, and Hilde holds court as a sort of a verbal umpire who eventually falls out with Daniel.

DoP Jens Harant does his best to liven things up with overhead shots of the bar, the few street scenes make a welcome change from the interior bound verbal duel between Daniel and Bruno. The dialogue is sharp, and Bruno’s grievances are certainly plausible. but there are too many characters serving as bland window-dressing: Daniel’s two children and a particularly aggressive drunkard, and Vicki Krieps is under-used in the support.  Next Door makes a good point regarding gentrification and social inequality in Germany today, but cinematographically it misses the mark. AS

AT CURZON CINEMAS AND HOME FROM 1 OCTOBER 2021

 

 

 

Wild Indian (2021)

Dir: Lyle Mirchell Corbine Jr. | Cast: Michael Greyeyes, Chaske Spencer, Jesse Eisenberg, Kate Bosworth | US Drama 90’

Native Americans justifiably have an axe to grind in these post colonial retribution times. Coming from this background himself, Lyle Mitchell Corbine certainly knows the territory. His feature debut, “Wild Indian,” captures the zeitgeist in a sober debut that opens with scenes of past glory where a proud warrior is seen brandishing a bow and arrow, but is sadly unable to deal with his traumatic past and male prowess in modern day America.

But let’s forget all the stuff about tomahawk spirit guides and dusky squaws bedecked in chamois leather. This is actually a classic female abuse drama couched in a Native American heritage drama. It sees a disenfranchised man called Michael taking his traumatic past out on women, then asking Jesus for mercy in a phoney act of confession .

We first meet Michael as Ojibwe teenager Makwa (Phoenix Wilson) with his best friend and cousin, Ted-O (Julian Gopal), living on a Midwest reservation. Makwa is clearly a troubled individual whether as a result of his upbringing or his heritage is never really explored in-depth. Messing about in the woods one day with Ted-O, Makwa comes across a former classmate who he shoots and kills, unable to reconcile a long held grievance from the past.. Ted-O is so shocked he actually helps his friend bury the body – something he will live to regret as the crime comes back to haunt him in later years.

Fast forward to 2019 and the pigtailed Mawka, now Michael (Greyeyes), is living in another part of the US and married to an ex dancer Greta (Kate Bosworth) with whom he has a son. Enjoying the uplift his heritage proffers him in the context of workplace diversity Michael enjoys all the perks of his job in a successful marketing company alongside colleague Jesse Eisenberg (who is also the film’s producer). Ted-do (Gopal), on the other hand, has just served time for a drugs-related offence and looks the epitome of a hard bitten criminal covered in tattoos. Despite attempts to ingratiate himself with his sister Cammy (Lisa Cromarty) and her five-year-old boy, he bizarrely decides to sleep outside in a tent, rather than in her house. His manual job in a restaurant is not something he is not proud of, but he clearly feels remorse for the woods incident and tries to make it up to the family of the boy Makwa killed, an episode that ends in tears.

Greyeyes gives a convincing performance as the hard-eyed Michael emerging a vicious bully where women are concerned, and they are forced to deal with the full brunt of his particularly toxic brand of machismo throughout this feature, Michael continuing to cause havoc, many years after killing his school friend in cold blood.

Corbine manages the two-stranded narrative well enough although there is not enough about Michael’s American heritage – details of which could have been fleshed out in flashbacks rather than a ‘before and after scenario’ that leaves us wondering whether his abusive childhood was not the only factor contributing towards his becoming a psychopath.

Instead, the thrust of this fraught psychological drama focuses on his everyday casual violence in the present day as he struggles with the perceived injustices of his background while outwardly presenting as a high-performing almost seductive   psychopath prone to visiting lap dancing venues where he asks one ‘hostess’ to indulge him in his predilection for choking.

Well performed by the ensemble cast – Greyeyes is really chilling in the central role – Wild Indian is a brave attempt to highlight the issues facing Native Americans in the present day, but sadly rather a lost opportunity. MT

Vengeance is Mine (1949)

Dir: Alan Cullimore | Cast : Valentine Dyall, Anne Firth, Sam Kydd | ,UK Drama 59’

The unmistakable voice of Valentine Dyall as the Man in Black sent shivers down the spines of radio listeners in postwar Britain and led to a few leading roles in horror thrillers during the late forties, of which this comes nearest to a ‘straight’ lead.

Packing a remarkable number of twists and turns into less than an hour’s running time, the central premise of this film has seen service several times, usually played for laughs, and dates back at least as far as Robert Siodmak’s ‘Der Mann, der seinen Mörder sucht’ in 1931. Unusually it here serves as the basic for a luridly enjoyable thriller that as photographed by the reliable Jimmy Wilson vividly evokes a sleazy postwar London of spivs and a still-flourishing black market; suitably embellished by a noisy jazz score by Ken Thorne that sounds more 50’s than 40’s.

Veteran character actor Richard Goolden makes a rare but memorable film appearance in the pivotal role of Sammy Parsons, Anne Firth provides Dyall with a handsome Girl Friday and Sam Kydd has a much more substantial role than we’re used to seeing him in. The atmosphere is further enhanced by the casting of the smaller parts, such as Russell Westwood as an oily-haired henchman in a zoot suit and Betty Taylor as the silent but unnervingly watchful “The Little Girl”. Great fun. @Richard Chatten

Five Films for London Film Festival 2021

 

The BFI Film Festival is the highlight of the Autumn calendar for London cinema lovers. This year has seen a bumper crop of new films at major festivals all over Europe and America, as the post-pandemic backlog finally clears. So expect to see the best of them  – with a few premieres thrown in for good measure – along with virtual reality and shorts. Blockbusters Dune, The Last Duel and The Green Knight may have captured the limelight. But this is what we recommend off the beaten track:

HINTERLAND (2021)

This stylish noir thriller from Austrian director Stefan Ruzowitzky sees Germany and Austria brought to their knees after gruelling defeat in the Great War. While soldiers limp home to a decadent poverty-ridden Vienna a serial killer on the loose sets the scene for a desperate homecoming where their surviving comrades are being preyed upon by the grisly murderer. Wonky German expressionist framing and a sombre mood creates a jagged-edged, rather quaint feeling, echoing M by Fritz Lang or even Grimms’ Fairy tales. All this is suffused with Klimt’s Secessionist jewel-like paintings transporting us rather evocatively back to early 1920s Vienna where a mood of mistrust prevails. The background photograph technique works wonders in conjuring up the contrast between doom and the squalid splendour of the Austrian capital. But our war hero Peter Perg (Murathan Muslu) is still haunted by the nightmarish terror of the trenches looming up in dream sequences on the vast wall behind his bed. LOCARNO 2021

BROTHER’S KEEPER (2021)

Ferit Karahan’s stunningly captured second feature takes place in a draconian boarding school deep in the snowbound mountains of Anatolia. Bringing back memories of many British public schools where caning and freezing cold showers were commonplace, this study of cold-hearted repression serves as an artful metaphor for the ongoing conflict between Turks and their Kurdish underclass whose cultural identity has been repressed since the 1980 coup. In this chilly hellhole – and the cold here is palpable – Turkish teachers subject the poor but gifted Kurdish pupils to regular beatings in spartan conditions where internet connection is random. Once a week, the boys are allowed to shower, and on one such occasion twelve year-old Memo catches a chill in the freezing dorm and by the morning is very ill indeed. His friend Yusuf tries to alert the masters to the boy’s plight but they carry on their collective neglect of Memo – so desperate are they to keep up the macho facade – until the boy becomes unresponsive, along with the mobile connection to the emergency services. BERLINALE 2021

LAMB (2021)

This surreal sci-fi for animals lovers is one of a new breed of arthouse films that blends folklore and fantasy horror with a surprising touch of dark humour. A first feature for Icelandic director Valdimar Johannsson, its intriguing premise invites us to suspend disbelief when a childless couple in a remote farmstead in Iceland unexpectedly become parents during the lambing season. Ingvar (Hilmir Snaer Guonason) and Maria (Noomi Rapace) realise this is no ordinary newborn. But the sense of joy they feel at finally being a family of sorts fills the couple with a warm contentment. The docile baby takes pride of place in their bedroom, and life goes on as normal. But there’s an unsettling undertone to this birth that leaves a nagging doubt in our minds and fuels this sober arthouse curio with eerie dread. The reason for their muted joy soon becomes apparent in a way that is both amusing and bizarre, with its distinct references to Cannes 2021 title Annette and even the recent Swedish fantasy flic Border. CANNES 2021

NITRAM (2021)

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 – 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 kicks off a story driven forward by his 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, unleashing a monster which roars through this splintering psychodrama. CANNES 2021 – Winner Best Actor Caleb Landry-Jones.

 

EUROPA (1931) Photo credit: Themerson Estate 

Stefan and Franciszka Themersons’ long lost 1931 anti-fascist masterpiece Europa will be screening at this year’s festival, 80 years after it was seized in Paris during the Second World War. Originally believed to have been destroyed by the Nazis, Stefan and Franciszka Themersons’ incendiary film was rediscovered by chance in the Bundesarchiv, Berlin, in 2019. On behalf of the Themerson Estate, the Commission for Looted Art in Europe negotiated the restitution of the film from the Bundesarchiv, which had preserved the original nitrate film since the reunification of Germany in the 1990s. LONDON FILM FESTIVAL (photo credit: Themerson Estate).

BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL | 6 – 17 OCTOBER 2021

 

 

Earwig (2021) Toronto Film Festival 2021

Dir:  | Wri: Lucile Hadžhalilović, Geoff Cox | Cast: Paul Hilton, Romola Garai, Alex Lawther, Romane Hemelaers | 114′

French auteuse Lucile Hadžhalilović offers another exquisitely unreachable but compulsive arthouse psychodrama, this time in the surgical horror sub genre, upping her game with a star cast of Romola Garai and Alex Lawther.

Arcane and edgy Earwig is immaculately crafted with its surreal Lynchian credentials that subtly inveigle us into the horror bound story of little Mia (Romane Hemelaers) who is forced to undergo the painful daily procedure of having her teeth surgically replaced by ice-cubes due to some unexplained medical condition. Yes, it’s not for everyone but fans of her quirky style will thrill to Earwig’s macabre charm.

The Lyonnaise filmmaker’s previous film Evolution (2015) saw a young boy hospitalised and subjected to strange interventions performed by a series of female cyphers dressed as nurses. Once again writing with her Evolution collaborator Geoff Cox, Hadžhalilović keeps the storyline enigmatic in a dialogue starved scenario: no explanation is offered for the arcane procedure as we peer at the screen desperately looking for clues, our own teeth almost twinging with the agony of expectation. Ken Yasumoto’s scraping sound design recalls the abject terror of the dentist’s chair, brought to cinematic life in Marathon Man, but there are also feint echoes of Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz’ Goodnight Mommy (2014).

Closely based on a book by sculptor and performance artist Brian Catling, the film actually takes its title from the male central character Albert (Paul Hilton), a singularly morose carer who tends to Mia in the confines of a squalid flat in mid century Liege, Belgium, redolently captured in Jonathan Ricquebourg’s dingy visuals where the weather is as grim as the storyline.

Part of Albert’s misery is being under the cosh of a telephone taskmaster, a mysterious man who hounds him unpredictably, demanding updates on Mia’s condition. Meanwhile he continues the meticulous molar replacement mission until forced into the outside world with Mia on a hospital visit which ends in more pain, this time in a local bar where Romula Garai is another hapless victim. MT

ALSO PLAYING AT San Sebastian AND LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2021

 

Falling for Figaro (2021) Netflix

Dir: Ben Lewin | Cast: Joanna Lumley, Hugh Skinner, Danielle Macdonald, Shazad Latif | UK Comedy 104′

Hugh Skinner is the reason to see this instantly forgettable bit of fun. Just one look at him brings a smile, along with Joanna Lumley who has the finest English voice and diction in living memory. Bringing to mind the true story of Florence Foster Jenkins, although the chanteuse in Ben Lewin’s comedy is American, and sees a jaded city whizz kid leaving her dead end romance and heading for the Scottish highlands to chase her dream of becoming an opera singer.

Unfortunately, Millie, a brilliant Danielle Macdonald, doesn’t realise that Rome wasn’t built in a day, and also has a voice strangely similar to Susan Boyle, despite the efforts of her talented but overbearing coach Megan Geoffrey-Bishop (Lumley). Amusing and light-hearted with Lumley carrying the film to its predicable conclusion. Worth a watch if you’re in the mood for unchallenging comedy. MT

ON RELEASE FROM October 1st | On demand on most platforms 

 

The Severed Arm (1973) Plex TV

Wri/Dir: Tom Alderman | Cast: Deborah Walley, Paul Carr, Marvin Kaplan, John Crawford | US Horror, 89′

Thomas S Alderman’s exploitation movie sees five trapped miners on the bring of starvation resort to butchering one of their mates, before rescue brings retribution for all concerned. The Severed Arm follows that old chestnut about a group of men haunted by a guilty shared secret, who receive a nasty surprise in the mail followed by scary nightly visits.

Dated by the seventies haircuts and moustaches, constant zooms and a synthesised score, and seemingly edited with the same axe their nemesis employs; it’s all played straight (including by veteran comedy actor Marvin Kaplan as nighttime D. J. ‘Wild Man Herman’) and reasonably effective on what was plainly half a shoestring.

Although top billed, early sixties teenage actress Deborah Walley is largely absent for most of the duration; although she certainly makes up for lost time at the conclusion. Richard Chatten

NOW ON PLEX TV AND YOUTUBE

The Alpinist (2021)

Dirs: Peter Mortimer, Nick Rosen | US Doc 93’

Almost everyone is entranced by the thrill of mountains. And so another documentary about man pitting his wits and physical stamina against the elements is always welcome.

Just the sheer elation of being overwhelmed by stratospheric heights and snowcapped peaks only adds to the nail-biting suspense of the ascent: will the mountaineer make it to the top, or will nature hold sway. And then there’s the descent – the most critical part of any top-tier climber’s mission. More people die going back to base camp then scaling the summit in this perilous pastime

Mortimer and Rosen’s taut documentary offers much of the intensity Mountain and Free Solo and is probably more realistic about the pitfalls and realities of mountaineering. Not for the vertigo prone, the directors occasionally going off piste themselves in their storytelling, occasionally there’s a sense that the film teeters on the brink of a mockumentary in style.

The Alpinist does not refer to its namesake, the European Alps, but to the practice of tackling complex and perilous peaks, and here the focus is a complex climb in Patagonia where Canadian climber Marc-André Leclerc challenges perilous conditions. Best known for his derring-do in tackling mountain paths less travelled with the added challenge of racing against time to compete with established records, Leclerc is a courageous climber who pits himself against the elements. No mean feat considering he suffered ADHD as a child. A case in point is an ascent in Canada where he beat the record-holding alpinist Honnold in a complex endeavour given the challenging circumstances: like every sport nowadays enhanced gadgetry and equipment is increasingly de rigueur. Solo climbs are a speciality for Leclerc who gets his buzz from the spiritual experience that alpinism offers. Although he is occasionally accompanied by his girlfriend Brette Harrington, who is an accomplished climber herself.

Mortimer is not over-awed by Leclerc’s courage or the stratospheric scenery conjured up in The Alpinist’s dizzying visuals, keeping his distance – literally and metaphorically, although he doesn’t quite get under the Canadian’s skin. Leclerc is an unintentionally evasive character, and the shoot was not without its own ups and downs given the peripatetic and often haphazard nature of his life, when the spirit moves him he’s up and at it like a true pro. Talking heads help to break up the tonal intensity of Leclerc’s experience as fellow alpinists share their stories — some amusing, some intriguing in this heady foray into this extreme sport. MT

IN CINEMAS FROM 24 SEPTEMBER 2021

IL Buco (2021)

Dir.: Michelangelo Frammartino; Documentary with Paolo Cossi, Jacobo Elia, Denise Trombin, Nicola Lanza; Italy/France/Germany 2021, 93 min.

Milan born director/co-writer Michelangelo Frammartino is not one to hurry: more than a decade after Le Quattro Volte his languorous essay on nature and the limited influence of humans, is a re-staging of the 1961 speleogical expedition, the doco-fiction hybrid paints a rather sober picture of the Abisso del Bifurto at the Pollino plateau in Calabria, where the -then – third largest cave of nearly 700 m was discovered and meticulously measured.

Once underground, there is only artificial light: the team’s helmet lamps illuminate the usual detritus: old newspapers with recognisable idols such as JFK and Sophia Loren their images going up in flames to provide firelight for those men and women toiling meticulously in the abyss. It being Italy, a football match takes place underground, the two players overground unable to keep the ball away from the cave entrance. Other team members snooze, whilst a horse peeks into their tent.

In the nearby village, locals gather round a TV screen as if it was a cinema: the fuzzy black-and-white picture shows the 24-story high Pirelli building in Milan, and some crackly old dancing numbers. Strangely enough, one of the old villagers, a man in his eighties, steals the show. He is a bystander, collecting wood borne by his donkey to the hut where he lives with other farm workers. Somehow we expect him to be there forever (like the old boy in Quattro Volte), even when the film crew is long gone – but nature intervenes. The men transport him to his home where a doctor arrives later on a donkey. We’re prepared for the grim outcome reminding us of our own mortality and the fragility of life.

Meanwhile in the cave, the speleologists tool their way down, encumbered by ropes and other instruments. Afterwards they sit in the sunshine copying their measurements on old-fashioned writing paper with a quill. It all ends in a puddle in a cul-de-sac, without fanfares and celebrations.

DoP Renato Berta lets his camera glide lovingly about the landscape and the animals, showing the descent like in a glowing string of beads. Somehow we cannot take it all seriously, the animals and farmers overground seem much more real than the heroes with their determination to discover and measure. If there is any message, it is that so-called progress is very limited – as is fame. The age-old railway which brought the climbers to their destination, and the their motley collection of tents remain in the memory, along with the old man who has ‘sneaked’ in grabbing the limelight as a major attraction. Progress is measured by human patience and observance of nature, records of all kinds are fleeting. AS

SCREENING AT THE LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2021 | SPECIAL JURY PRIZE VENICE 2021

Buñuel: A Surrealist Filmmaker (2021) San Sebastian

Dir; Javier Espada | Spain, Doc 90′

Spanish filmmaker Javier Espada shares his birthplace of Calanda (Aragon) with the legendary Spanish surrealist and Palme d’Or winner Luis Buñuel Portolés (1900-83) whose story forms the subject of his engaging new documentary that premiered in the Cannes Film Festival Classics section.

As a teen during the Easter Semana Santa processions Espada escaped the loud drums of the ceremony for the relative calm of his local fleapit and was instantly bewitched by Luis  Buñuel’s The Milky Way (1969), the image of Christ fusing with the character of the Marquis de Sade in his subconscious, creating subversive undertones.

Although far from a full-bloodied biopic of Buñuel’s films, this plays out as nostalgic tribute to the legendary director from one of his most ardent admirers. Espada’s obsession would also provide the springboard to a lifelong friendship with Buñuel’s regular screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière whose script for Diary Of A Chambermaid would continue with cult classics such as Belle De Jour and The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie, and would also pave the way for Buñuel’s memoirs ‘My Last Breath.’

A recently restored archive from stereoscopic glass plates, clips and personal photos – provided by his sons Juan Luis and Rafael – and the Luis Bunuel Film Institute is enlivened by Espada’s own thoughts and those of the director providing insight into a charismatic career that started with his traditional upbringing in a well to do influential family in Calanda. But a tragic incident involving a donkey would put a subversive spin on the director’s output and much of his work would be banned banned by Franco’s regime due to its controversial subject matter. DoP Ignacio Ferrando Margeli provides a pristine black and white aesthetic in this dive into cinema history. MT

SAN SEBASTIAN FILM FESTIVAL 2021 | CANNES FILM FESTIVAL 2021 | CANNES CLASSICS

 

 

I Want to Talk About Duras (2021) San Sebastián Film Festival 2021

Dir.: Claire Simon; Cast: Emmanuelle Devos, Swann Arlaud; France 2021, Drama 95 min.

US born, French director Claire Simon explores one of the most obsessive love affairs in literary history: between Marguerite Duras (1914-96) and her much young partner Yann Andréa (1952-2014) that continued for sixteen years despite the age difference and his being gay.

Simon draws her material from the 1982 interviews made by Duras’ close friend, the writer Michèle Manceaux, who became Yann’s confidante in Neauphie-le-Chateau. The intimate two-handed drama sees a chain-smoking Yann (Arlaud) talking to Marie Claire columnist Manceaux (Devos) while the tape recorder is running. All this is intercut with archive footage and wordless dramatised sequences where the two lovers are pictured in romantic rendezvous. After Manceaux’ death, Yann entrusted the tapes to a friend who later handed them over to Andréa’s sister Pascale Lemée in 2015.

Marguerite Duras is possibly best remembered for her script of Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour.  But it was in Caen during a 1975 screening of her film India Song, starring Delphine Seyrig, that she met postgraduate student Yann Andréa. He was an avid fan of her novels and initiated a – mostly one-sided – correspondence with Duras for the remainder of that decade. Then, in 1980, Duras invited Yann, who was gay, to live with her in a hotel in Trouville. Thus began an extraordinary relationship which lasted until Duras’ death sixteen years later.

Covering more or less the same ground as Josee Dayan’s Cet Amour Là, starring Jeanne Moreau as Duras and Aymeric Demarigny as Andréa, based on Andréa’s memoire, the interview is a sharp reminder of the closeness of love and death. Manceaux insistently but gently probes him with personal questions, Yann confessing “total love for Duras and her work. It was eternity that completely belonged to me. Passion yes, but passion struck by death”. He would leave his job, apartment and friends to be with Duras and was soon eclipsed and dominated by her. He tried to pull back, ending the relationship several times and even attempting suicide. Duras challenged his sexual orientation: “I am not just a writer, I am also a woman. You are not gay, I am all your desire”. Yann was soon convinced that his homosexuality was a form of solidarity that allowed him to escape his true feelings. But it went much deeper than that: “She was the master. She re-created me. And un-created my old self, to create me.” Passion and fiction overlapped. “I existed but at the same time I felt projected into her imagination.”

Duras emerges a bit of a control freak, reformulating her lover, changing the way he dressed and even his perfume, discouraging his personal friendships and forbidding him to read any  novels but her own. Even his rapport with Manceaux “felt like a betrayal of her”. His entire existence was subsumed by Duras, who opined “You only exist through me”. Yann felt like the main character in her book ‘The Malady of Death’. Andréa also played a part in Duras’ film L’Homme Atlantique (1981), “but I realised later, that she made me die by filming me; always in a chair, never moving. And finally, Yann actually felt inadequate and unable to satisfy his lover: “Maybe I love her less than she loves me, I am always a step behind, she wants to raise me to her intensity. She sees that I can not do it. That hurts her a lot.” But whatever went on between them Duras set him a monument in words: ‘Yann Andrea Steiner’, her final book.

DoP Céline Bozon uses a gap in the interview (which went on for two days) to focus on the countryside settings where Yann is pursued by alluring men. Enlivened by paintings of the couple’s sexual relationship and excerpts from India Song and L’Homme Atlantique this is a captivating piece of filmmaking that avoids sensationalism in portraying a remarkable, real-life relationship between a man and a woman. AS

SAN SEBASTIAN FILM FESTIVAL 2021 | COMPETITION

Small World (2021)

Dir.: Patryk Vega; Cast: Piotr Adamczyk, Enrique Arce, Julia Wieniawa-Narkiewicz, Montserrat Roig de Puig, Andris Keiss, Sally Day; Poland 2021, 117 min.

Poland’s Patryk Vega is well known for his unpretentious action thrillers like The Plagues of Breslau, usually mitigating the hyper violence with a certain glossy style, making it all worthwhile. But SMALL WORLD is a singularly unpalatable and relentlessly uncomfortable watch, the narrative – about victims of under-age sex trafficking – is ham-fisted and full of gratuitous violence, with its anti-hero policeman looking for vengeance, while morphing into a vile super-hero of the worst kind.

It all looks terrific: Norbert Modrzejewski’s brutal images leave nothing to the imagination, the camera gleefully recording unmitigated violence, making it all look like a titillating videogame for adults. Vega sinks to his nadir when his antihero Police officer Robert Goc (Adamczyk) is seen groping a young girl in the flume of a public bath. Ultimately the detective is just as depraved as the felon he’s chasing.

In the opening scenes Got is seen pursuing the abductors of four-year old Ola and her mother, but they narrowly miss a truck of under-aged kids being waived through the Russian border by a corrupt police officer. In Russia, years later, a gas explosion rips through the apartment belonging to Oleg (Keiss). In the wreckage are photos of under-age girls, including one of Ola. Goc re-opens the investigation, and the obsessive hunt for Ola. But once again he is too late, with Oleg’s brother whisking the girls away.

Later Goc meets Jasmina (de Puig), the evil leader of a satanic paedophile ring, celebrating a masked ball with her follows, But the police officer manages to slip through her clutches,  finally tracking down the (now) 16-year old Ola (Wieniawa-Narkiewicz) in Bangkok, where she lives with her wealthy abuser John (Arce), and his coterie of prostitutes. In reality, Goc is a bit of a nonce himself, and gets off on underage girls. But he manages to save Ola sending her back to her mother in Poland, before tackling the nefarious Jasmina and her masked followers. AS

NOW ON RELEASE IN CINEMAS NATIONWIDE

The Djinn (2021)

Dir.: David Charbonier, Justin Powell; Cast: Ezra Dewey, Tevy Poe, Donald Pitts, John Erickson, Rob Brownstein; USA 2021, 82 min.

After their successful collaboration in Behind the Door, US writers/directors David Charbonier (also the PD) and Justin Powell (editor) get together to torture 12 year-old Dylan, whose new home is the battleground for a fight with an intrusive evil spirit, the titular Djinn. The mute boy is driven to the end of his tether for not heeding the warning, “be aware of the Djinn’s toll, for the gift you seek might cost your soul”. In other words that trusty old chestnut “be careful what you wish for”.

Set in 1989, and aesthetically beholden to this period, Dylan (Dewey) is left to his own devices when his father (Brownstein) goes off to work the night shift, after reading his son a bedtime story from ‘Pinochhio’, with the warning “What’s done, can’t be undone” ringing in our ears. Dylan finds ‘The Book of Shadows’, and asks the Djinn to grant him a voice. The nefarious entity is apt at switching into multiple personalities: Dylan’s mother Michelle (Poe), or an old man who recently died, are amongst its repertoire. The Djinn (Erickson) then chases the boy round the house, leaving him gasping for breath, his Asthma inhaler running out. Come the morning, Dylan is only grateful to be alive, welcoming his father with open arms.

Lacking tempo, and resorting to corny dialogue: “Would Mum have stayed if I was not …. different”, The Djinn is often tedious and predictable plot-wise, right up to the anticlimactic finale. Inventive production values mask a tiny budget, and save this from sinking without trace. AS

OUT ON FRIDAY 17 September

 

Balloon (2019)

Dir: Pema Tseden | Drama, Tibet 100”

Tibetan director Pema Tseden brings a tender sense of beauty and tragedy to this inspirational family drama, his seventh feature, exploring ordinary life in the early 1980s for a Tibetan farming community.

Vibrantly captured and delicately observed The Balloon initially appears to be a straightforward modern fable, but there’s much to it than that. Tseden’s clever script is underpinned by a subtle socio-political commentary and a contemporary female empowerment theme (in the style of Tulpan) highlighting women’s pivotal place in the East Asian pecking pecking order, running contrary to outward appearances.

In this much fought over territory an extended family of grandfather (Konchok), mother Drolkar (Sonam Wangmo), father Dargye (Jinpa) and two cheeky young sons (Druklha Dorje and ​Palden Nyima) eke out an existence from their cramped living conditions where privacy is impossible, so one of the boys soon finds a condom tucked under his mother’s pillow. Mistaking it for a balloon, the boys have great fun the following day, blowing it up in broad daylight, much to the amusement of the older menfolk.

Despite demure outward appearances their demure mother Drolkar is not just a pretty face, nor is she under her husband’s thumb. But China has just adopted a strict population-control policy with crippling fines extending to Tibet. Drolkar is anxious not to have any more children, but needs to satisfy her husband’s rampant sex drive into the bargain.

Ironically the Chinese birth policy does not apply to the family’s flock of sheep which are actively being encouraged to breed and the couple’s teenage son is tasked with engaging the services of a young ram to do the job. All this is further complicated when Dargye’s Buddhist father suddenly dies, leaving the grieving farmer with the obligation of having to provide another soul to allow for his father’s reincarnation, this religious touchstone adding further complexity to The Balloon‘s seemingly straightforward storyline.

Meanwhile, Drolkar has secretly consulted a savvy female doctor (Kangchen Tsering) providing her with the wherewithal to call the shots family-planning wise. The couple already have a teenage son who is running their ram breeding programme. But somehow Drolkar falls pregnant again and knows she must have an abortion but how she proceeds is both intriguing and amusing.

Peyman Yazdanian’s atmospheric score and Lu Songye’s stunning handheld photography     capture the sheer beauty of Tibet’s magnificent scenery boosting the wide-ranging appeal of this charming ethnological drama. MT

ON RELEASE IN CINEMAS FROM FRIDAY 24 SEPTEMBER 2021

 

Whether the Weather Is Fine (2021) Toronto Film Festival

Dir: Carlo Francisco Manatad | Cast: Charo Santos-Concio, Daniel Padilla, Rans Rifol | Thriller, 105′

For his debut feature, a post apocalyptic fantasy thriller, Filippino director Carlo Francisco Manatad explores how the aftermath of catastrophe changes life for three individuals in his native city of Tacloban.

Hayan is not the first typhoon to devastate his hometown in the coastal region of Eastern Visayas and it won’t be the last. A young man wakes up one morning to discover that two close friends have disappeared in the utter chaos – his mother Norma (Santos), and Andrea (Rifol) the woman with whom he was a planning a new life.

But worst of all, the authorities impose strict regulations on the region leaving Miguel (Padilla) in a state of emotional turmoil that swings between cynicism and obdurance in a bid to survive food shortages and lack of shelter.  In their hour of need many of the religious villagers seeks recourse to their faith, even folklore. Others desperately clamber onto ships offering to take them to the nearby capital of Manila.

Spiked with flashes of dark humour, and the occasional foray into fantasy as a way of evoking the climate of loss, fear and confusion, Manatad directs with confidence in this follow-up to his short film The Imminent Immanent (2018). Whether the Weather is Fine serves as a rousing tribute to the people of Tacloban whose stoicism and resourcefulness is another example of the human will to survive in times of adversity. MT

TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL 2021

 

 

Terrorizers (2021) Toronto Film Festival 2021

Dir.: Wi Ding Ho; Cast: JC Lin, Moon Lee, Po Hung Lin, Jie-Fei Huang, Pipi Jao, Cheng Ko, Annie Chen; Taiwan 2021, 127 min.

Taiwanese director/co-writer Wi Ding Ho is clearly disturbed by the youth of modern day Taipei judging by his nihilistic thriller Terrorizers playing at this year’s Toronto Film Festival.

Not to be confused with Edward Yang’s Taiwanese masterpiece The Terrorizers from 1986, there are clearly parallels to be drawn in the melancholy bleakness of the settings. But Wi Ding’s version deals with the VR world, now infringing what is called reality.

After six gruelling years in the kitchens washing dishes Xiao Zhang (Lin) returns to Taipeh, now a qualified chef on an ocean cruiser, hopes to open his own luxury restaurant with an uncle. Then up pops his old flame Yu Fang (Lee), now an actress in rehearsal for The Seagull, and soon they’re talking about moving in together. Yu has some doubts, she’s had a trail of doomed relationships that started when her mother left when she was a little girl, and an affair with a porn star called Monica (Chen), leaving her in the lurch. Family-wise her political father has just married his pregnant secretary and is on the verge of moving to another city, so Yu, once again, is alone.

In downtown Taipei Yu shares her apartment with Ming Liang (Hung Lin), the son of a politician, and her father’s financial backer. Liang and Yu are not on speaking terms but the psychotic Ming is somehow convinced that they’re an item. But worse is to follow: Ming has filmed Monica making love to her, and now wants to kill Yu for “deserting” him.

In spiteful act of revenge, Ming attacks Yu with a machete, Xiao narrowly saving her life. And Ming’s nasty side surfaces again when he gives the police the video showing the two women in bed together, claiming his attack was motivated by Yu’s betrayal of him.

All this dystopian darkness reveals Taipei to be a toxic male environment that seems to be particularly down on women: Yu’s father now forcing her to leave town, afraid that her staying in Taipei will harm his career. It’s ironic that a monster like Ming can sway public opinion to be on his side, denouncing the two women as perpetrators, and getting away with it, when we are all made aware of his monstrous nature, possibly inculcated by his abusive alcoholic mother, a ‘masseuse’ who regularly  gives her son a ‘full service’ – fortunately off screen.  But Ming is not the only villain of the piece: teenagers Kiki and Billy also prey upon randomly chosen strangers to get their kicks.

DoP Jean Louis Vialand shows the VR world for what it is: a fake construct where humans create substitutes of themselves and, in the process, become dependent on the media circus generated. Ming is the ultimate voyeur and ‘director’ of his sick universe. Chopin’s mournful Nocturne in e-flat accompanies this soulless descent into Hell.AS

TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL 2021

La Cha Cha (2021)

Dir: Kevin Allen | Cast: Liam Hourican, Ruby Ashbourne Serkis, Sonny Ashbourne Serkis, Rhys Ifans, Llyr Evans, Dougray Scott, Keith Allen, Alfie Allen | UK Comedy

Rhys Ifans and Dougray Scott are the stars of this light-hearted bit of fun that follows the residents of a campsite in the North Wales who are hiding a dark secret.

Solti Buttering (Liam Hourican) is on a road trip to scatter his grandfathers ashes. Finding everywhere closed, he stumbles across La Cha Cha, a holiday park where a motley crew of pensioners are having time of their lives. Meanwhile spirited owner Libby Rees (Ruby Ashbourne Serkis) and her brother Damien (Sonny Ashbourne Serkis) are struggling to keep the place alive and kicking with a very unusual plan.

LA CHA CHA is essentially a romantic comedy that riffs on that famous Under Milk Wood quote: “do not going gentle into that good night”. Set on the Gower Peninsula with a sterling cast of British talent, it’s aimed at an audience sick an tired of doom and gloom and look for some genuine comedy relief.

Kevin Allen (Twin Town, Under Milk Wood), wrote and shot the feature in a mobile film studio in Wales during lockdown, uniting the entire cast of the cult classic Twin Town for his ‘companion piece’, and adding a few young rising stars into the bargain. Essentially it’s a series of amusing cameos featuring real musical performances combined with the original soundtrack by Mark Thomas and, of course, a few Cha Cha Chas.

ON RELEASE IN CINEMAS FROM 17 SEPTEMBER 2021

London Spanish Film Festival 2021

A chance to see a selection of recent Spanish films which may not get a general release in the UK. Most are UK premieres from new talent and established filmmakers

LA ISLA DE LAS MENTIRAS | The Island of Lies

dir. Paula Cons, with Nerea Barros, Ana Oca, Sergio Quintana, Celso Bugallo, Darío Grandinetti | Spain/Argentina/Portugal | 2020 | 93 min | cert. 15 | UK premiere | In Galician and Spanish with English subtitles

In dense fog of a Christmas morning in 1921, a boat with 260 emigrants bound to Buenos Aires sinks off the coast of Sálvora, Galicia. Three courageous women row out in a bid to save as many people as they can. The tragedy captures the imagination of an Argentine journalist who investigate the many fatal coincidences that happened on the night of the shipwreck. | Fri 24 Sep | 6.30pm

 

UN EFECTO ÓPTICO | An Optical Illusion

dir. Juan Cavestany, with Carmen Machi, Pepón Nieto, Luis Bermejo | Spain | 2020 | 80 min | cert. 15 | UK premiere | In Spanish with English subtitles

Alfredo and Teresa, a married couple from Burgos, decide to take a deserved trip to New York. Shortly after their arrival Teresa starts to feel strangely uncomfortable. Then Alfredo’s pictures of monuments don’t match what they remember they saw. Cavestany’s film is a distinctive and daring take on tourism, globalised provincialism, the banality of a steady couple’s daily life… and much more. | Sat 25 Sep | 6.30pm

EL SUSTITUTO | The Replacement

dir. Oscar Aibar, with Ricardo Gómez, Pere Ponce, Joaquín Climent, Bruna Cusí, Vicky Luengo, Pol López | Spain | 2021 | 117 min | cert. 18 | UK premiere | In Spanish with English subtitles

In 1982 a young father and hardened police officer moves his family from Madrid to a small Mediterranean sea town where he is to replace an inspector, murdered in mysterious circumstances. During his investigation, strange links between the inspector’s assassination, drugs and property speculation come to light. Based on real events, Oscar Aibar’s beautifully made thriller takes us to a happy retirement spot on the Mediterranean coast that Nazi’s gained possession of due to Franco’s regime and kept through the Transition | Sat 25 Sep | 8.30pm, Mon 27 Sep | 6.05pm

EL PLANETA | Planet

dir. Amalia Ulman, with Ale Ulman, Amalia Ulman, Nacho Vigalondo, Zhou Chen | USA | 2021 | 79 min | cert. 15 |London premiere | In English and Spanish with English subtitles

A jobless young woman is forced to leave London and return home to live with her eccentric mother, after the death of her father. The wolf is at the door but they continue to live beyond their means in Gijon. El Planeta explores contemporary poverty, class awareness and female desires as well as mother-daughter relationships in post-crisis Spain all throughout with a charming and subtle sense of humour. | Sun 26 Sep |6.20pm

NIEVA EN BENIDORM | It Snows in Benidorm

dir. Isabel Coixet, with Timothy Spall, Sarita Choudhury, Anna Torrent, Carmen Machi, Pedro Casablanc | Spain/UK | 2020 | 117 min | cert. 15 | UK premiere | In English and Spanish with English subtitles

After a long career at his bank Peter is “awarded” early retirement and sets off to visit his brother in Benidorm on a trip that doesn’t quite turn out as expected. A poetic take by veteran Isabel Coixet on Benidorm’s particular beauty, its gloomy side and its “unpoetic” real estate mafias as well as on love at an older age. | Fri 24 Sep | 8.35pm

CATALAN Strand

SENTIMENTAL | The People Upstairs

dir. Cesc Gay, with Javier Cámara, Griselda Siciliani, Alberto San Juan, Belén Cuesta | Spain | 2020 | 82 min | cert. 15 | UK premiere | In Spanish with English subtitles

Ana and Julio are a couple who seem to spend most of their time together arguing. Salva and Laura, on the other hand, never stop having sex.  Julio is extremely annoyed when Ana invites them for dinner for an eventful evening where secrets, fears and insecurities soon surface, spiced up by witty dialogue written by Catalan Cesc Gay. The result is a highly enjoyable and intimate comedy exploring the complexities of modern relationships. | Thu 23 Sep | 8.30p,

UN BLUES PARA TEHERÁN | Tehran Blues

dir. Javier Tolentino, with Golmehr Alami, Sina Derakhshan, Pezhman Dishad | 2020 | 80 min | cert. PG |doc | UK premiere | In Spanish, Persian and Kurdish with English subtitles

Javier Tolentino’s documentary debut  transports us to some of Iran’s most remote corners, discovering a truly sophisticated culture seen through the eyes of Erfan, a young Kurdish man who sings, writes poetry and dreams of being a film director. Tolentino is one of Spain’s most established journalists and film critics, now turned director.| Sun 26 Sep | 4.10pm

CHAVALAS | Girlfriends

dir. Carol Rodríguez Colás, with Vicky Luengo, Carolina Yuste, Elisabet Casanovas, Cristina Plazas, José Mota | Spain | 2021 | 91 min | cert. PG | UK premiere | In Spanish with English subtitles

After an initial stint as a professional photographer, jobless Marta finds herself having to go back to live with her parents in a suburban flat in Barcelona, where she grew up. There she reconnects with her childhood girlfriends Desi, Soraya and Bea, sharing the bond of their teenage years. Carol Rodríguez Colás’s first feature film is a sincere and tragicomic take on friendship. | Tue 28 Sep | 8.45pm

BASQUE strand

ANE | Ane is Missing

dir. David Pérez Sañudo, with Patricia López Arnaiz, Jone Laspiur, Mikel Losada, Luis Callejo | Spain | 2020 | 100 min | cert. 15 | UK premiere | In Basque and Spanish with English subtitles

When Lide discovers her teenage daugher, Ane, is missing, she teams up with ex-husband, Fernando, to track her down. As the troubled Lide’s determination grows Fernando’s fear of Ane becomes more evident. Throughout most of the film Ane feels like a ghost and an oppressing and spectral unseen presence. A first feature for awarded shorts director David Pérez Sañudo,   moves seemlessly from from mystery to family drama and then to political thriller.

Preceded by the short:

QUEBRANTOS | Breaches

dir. Koldo Almandoz, Maria Elorza | Spain | 2021 | 7 min | doc | cert. PG | In Basque with English subtitles

Living with fear… Based o an interview on Euskadi Irratia Radio. | Tue 28 Sep | 6.30pm

NORA

dir. Lara Izaguirre, with Ane Pikaza, Héctor Alterio, Ramón Barea, Itziar Ituño | Spain | 2020 | 100 min | cert. 15 | UK premiere | In Spanish, Basque and French with English subtitles and English

Lara Izaguirre’s sophomore feature is a fresh and optimistic reflection on the road less travelled for a young Spanish woman prepared to put her self out there, and take a few risks. As the saying goes, “bad weather, good face” (in Spanish, “al mal tiempo, buena cara”). | Wed 29 Sep | 8.30pm

London Spanish FILM FESTIVAL 23-29 SEPTEMBER 2021

Courageous Mr Penn (1942)

Dir: Lance Comfort | Cast: Clifford Evans, Deborah Kerr, Dennis Arundell, Aubrey Mallalieu | UK Drama 78′

A straightforward history lesson plainly aimed at drumming up support from the isolationist United States of 1941, Penn of Pennsylvania wasn’t ready for cinemas until Pearl Harbor had already forced America’s hand and thus rendered this film obsolete by the time it finally opened in Britain at the end of January 1942. It received only a perfunctory New York airing at the end of 1943 retitled Courageous Mr. Penn to suggest action rather than history and was then quietly forgotten. (The print on YouTube is of the US version, with hasty-looking credits containing errors and omissions – Edmund Willard is billed as ‘Edward’ and the name of director of photography Ernest Palmer is missing altogether.)

Precisely because it’s moment was so brief makes Penn of Pennsylvania extremely interesting viewing today. In many respects it ironically resembles a German ‘genius’ film of the same period such as Friedrich Schiller (1940), in which a fiery young hero back in the Bad Old Days defies convention and outrages the reactionary old establishment. Both a jury of Penn’s peers and Charles II himself (played by Dennis Arundell) are shown taking the side of the dashing young Mr. Penn against the dead weight of the establishment.

The Merry Monarch thoughtfully opines for the benefit of any future waverers across the Pond that “We could take America and turn it into a vast continent whose freedom of thought and liberty of conscience will be the birthright of every man”. Penn goes one better by declaring “We would treat the Indians as brothers and gain their friendship”; although he’s later required to show himself handy with his fists to prevent the lynching of one of his new brethren. Penn also makes a point of obliging his colleagues to leave their weapons at home when he comes to negotiate with the local chief.

(A strange moment occurs when the King himself solicits the opinion of a gentlemen that he addresses as “My Lord Halifax”, who we then cut to in close-up – the actor himself is like many others in the film unidentified in the credits – so that he can respond “I think that Mr. Penn is an extremely brave gentlemen, and I should like to wish him luck.”)

The cast includes many familiar faces in wigs – including Henry Oscar as Samuel Pepys and Gibb McLaughlin as the Indian Chief (fortunately the latter isn’t playing a speaking part) – embellished with handsome sets and photography and William Alwyn’s first score for a feature film. A radiant young Deborah Kerr plays his wife Guli, whose memory a title informs us “was always with him” after her death in 1696. The film omits to mention that he remarried two years later and fathered nine more children. @RichardChatten

NOW ON YOUTUBE

A Brixton Tale (2021)

Dir: Darragh Carey, Bertrand Desrochers | Cast: Barney Harris, Lily Newmark, Ola Orebiyi, Michael Mahoney, Jaime Winstone | UK Drama 76′

Worlds collide in downtown Brixton where confident, coke-snorting Leah (Newmark) is making a film about thoughtful black guy Benji (Orebiyi) who she falls for in a big way. 

Her producer friend Tilda (Winstone) is impressed enough with Leah’s first rushes to offer her a potential screening, although Benji doesn’t always welcome the intrusion of Leah’s probing lens as their romance gets heavier, somehow softening the tone of Leah’s narrative, much to Tilda’s irritation. But the love affair is soon over.

When Leah finds out that a video of her making out with her ex (Charles/Harris) has gone viral, Benji is determined to defend her honour with tragic consequences for all concerned.

There’s a suitably experimental feel to this upbeat urban fable with its convincing performances, driven forward by a sensory soundscape and strong visual storytelling. Derek Holland’s lively editing offers a snapshot of the South London ‘hood, rainy streets and sweary locals epitomising this edgy part of town. MT

ON RELEASE FROM FRIDAY 17 SEPTEMBER

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 resistance: 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 start 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 her, send Marceline flowers, and than disappeared for months. When they met again, they staid 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 iconic Vietnam documentary of the couple, where Mrs. Phuong not only did the translating, but was also helpful regarding the technical support. Next for the couple of 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 show 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). When commenting, Loridan-Ivens is, for once, very bitter. 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 the camp: La Petite Prairie aux Bouleaux (The Birch Tree Meadow) 2003. Anouk Aimée plays Marceline’s Alter Ego, who meets a German photographer, whom she questions 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

The Hand of God (2021) Venice Film Festival

Wri/Dir: Paolo Sorrentino Cast: Filippo Scotti, Toni Servillo, Teresa Saponangelo, Marlon Joubert, Luisa Ranieri, Renato Carpentieri, Massimiliano Gallo, Betti Pedrazzi, Biagio Manna, Ciro Capano, Enzo Decaro, Lino Musella, Sofya Gershevich, Lino Musella, Dora Romano, Alessandro Bressanello, Birte Berg, Roberto Oliveri, Alfonso Perugini | Italy Drama 129’

Oscar-winner Paolo Sorrentino returns to Naples in the 1980s with this melodramatic coming of age drama fuelled by football, family and Fellini.

The Hand of God has all the hallmarks of Sorrentino’s signature style: the violent men, corrupt officials and voluptuous women who inhabit a larger than life landscape vibrantly brought to life by Daria D’Antonio’s lush camerawork. But this is a tragedy in the Greek style complete with folkloric undertones and a soulful, often strident chorus-line scoring the mosaic of magnificent vignettes that make up a poignant feature tainted by tragedy, and possibly Sorrentino’s most personal yet.

Naples is the star of the show from the majestic Campania coastline of the opening scenes to the mauve mountains of Capri shimmering in the Tyrrhenian sea. In the traffic strewn Spaccanoli a big-breasted woman (Ranieri) waits wearily for her bus home. A limousine pulls up and a blue-eyed man (Decaro) claiming to be San Genaro, patron saint of Napoli, offers her a welcome life home and the promise of a much wanted child to heal her marriage to Franco (Gallo), who he appears to know by name. Astonished, the woman climbs on board but her arrival home is greeted with a brutal beating forcing her to  summon her happily married sister Maria (Saponangelo) and husband Saverio (Servillo) who soon arrive with their teenage son Fabietto (Scotti) from whose perspective the story continues.

At this point it becomes clear that Fabietto is Sorrentino’s younger self: a gentle, thoughtful, football-mad teenager, desperate to lose his virginity: “just get the first time out of the way” urges his conspiratorial father Severio, a warm and loving pater familias with a fine line in suits and a solid job.

But Fabietto’s first love is football, hence the film’s Diego Maradona linked title – referring to a divisive goal he scored in the 1986 World Cup quarterfinal. Welcome news for the lustful but lowkey Fabietto arrives when the Argentine player is signed for Naples and will turn out to be his saving grace in the final denouement.

But until then the film swelters with Neopolitan summer indulgences: robust encounters, raucous al fresco lunches and volatile viragos busting out of bikinis or stripping naked to bask in the sun. There’s a cheeky scene where Fabietto’s eventually scores, not at football but with his neighbour (Pedrazzi). In another his creativity is stimulated by the charismatic film director Antonio Capuano (Capano) – whose 1998 feature The Dust of Naples, was co-written by Sorrentino.

Sorrentino recalls all this with nostalgia and a tender affection that steers clear of sentimentality in bearing its heart on an elegantly crafted sleeve. Scotti’s Fabietto makes for an appealing, introspective alter ego capable of extreme emotion and utter devotion in fervently pursuing his future career. MT

VENICE FILM FESTIVAL 2021 | SILVER LION – GRAND JURY PRIZE 2021 | BEST YOUNG ACTOR – FILIPPO SCOTTI

Stateless (2020) Latinx cinema at Casa Festival 2021

Dir.: Michèle Stephenson; Documentary with Rosa Iris Diendomi Alvarez, Gladys Feliz-Pimental, Teofilo Murat; USA/Canada/Dominican Republic 2020, 97 min.

Stateless, a documentary debut for Canadian writer/producer Michèle Stephenson, follows the turbulent lives of two feisty women at the opposite end of the political spectrum in the Dominican Republic (DR), a country undergoing a long history of conflict, not least the massacre of 30 000 citizens under the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo in 1937.

In Trujillo’s drive to “whiten” the population of the DR he ordered the slaughter not only of Haitians, but also the darker skinned DR population. To cap it all, in 2013, a decree by the nation’s Supreme Court stripped about a few hundred citizens of their rights (dating back to 1929) despite their heritage, making them effectively stateless in their own country.

Human rights lawyer Rosa Iris Diendomi Alvarez sums up the status quo: “They are here, but they don’t exist”. We watch her touring the country, and helping the disenfranchised to claim their rights, keeping up with the often conflicting stance of the authorities, who try to keep as many people as possible disenfranchised. Alvarez is also actively campaigning against electoral corruption and is an advocate of social justice. Later, she will run for congress, but the game is rigged, her opponent is able to triumph with the help of many 100 pesos notes.

Meanwhile, her cousin Juan Teofilo Murat, who has spent all his life in the DR, now lives in Belladere, Haiti, close to the border. He is one of the many “dispossessed”, even though his documents, according to Alvarez, are proof of his DR citizenship. Their trip together into the DR, the pair are wearing hidden body cameras, is an ordeal. They are countless times stopped for no reason, always being asked “Are you Dominican?” On TV, we listen to DR president Danilo Medina, responding to claims that his government is currently expelling Haitian Dominicans, although he claims the opposite, introducing an identification document under a “national regularisation plan”.

His ‘benevolence’ is in stark contrast to the behaviour of his political allies, such as Gladys Feliz-Pimentel, a member of the Dominican Nationalist Party, who is a direct descendant of one of the nation’s founding fathers. She was once married to a black Dominican man, whom she divorced. Both her children are black. We meet her at a bridge crossing between the to countries, where she pontificates that “the Haitians coming into the country only want to murder DR citizens, chopping them up”. She recalls, the Israeli government telling the then President Hipolito Mejia to ‘build a wall’. But he, unfortunately, did not listen. Pimentel and her party are making up for it, we see many posters advocating the building of a wall, which, so Pimentel “is the basis for nation building”. Later we see her on the podium during a party congress, quoting Philippine president Duarte as a positive example of how things should be done, before starting to sing the country’s National Anthem.

Alvarez also recounts the story of Moraime, a young, black girl, who had to flee the country during the genocide of 1937. Her spirit now lives in the rivers of the country, where she takes care no harm comes to children. The wonderful images of magic realism are in stark contrast to the grim political reality of white supremacy – in a country were 80%of the population is black or of mixed race.

Stateless is a sober document. More evidence of Trump’s ideology has poisoned other countries. Six DoPs share the work, avoiding “Talking Heads” as much as possible. But there is no happy-ending: Rosa Iris Alvarez, harassed and threatened, has asked for political Asylum in the USA. It was eventually granted. AS

LATINX CINEMA AT LONDON’S CASA FESTIVAL

Calling All Stars (1937)

Dir: Herbert Smith | With: Larry Adler, Arthur Askey, Bert Ambrose, Caroll Gibbons, Evelyn Dall | UK Musical 75′

Shown in the small hours by Talking Pictures, this tinny Joe Rock potboiler is of archival interest for the visual record it provides of the likes of The Mills Brothers, Mantovani and Nat Gonella, loosely held together by a farcical plot involving Clapham & Dwyer in the doghouse for saying a naughty word on the air and getting involved with Claude Dampier as a gormless rat poison salesman rejoicing in the name of Pomphrey Featherstone-Chew.

Purportedly the film debut of Arthur Askey, a sassy young Evelyn Dall supplies the glamour; and the finale is broadcast using television technology far in advance of that actually then available. @Richard Chatten.

TALKING PICTURES TV

Silent Land (2021) Toronto Film Festival

Dir: Aga Woszczyńska | Poland, Drama 112′

In Aga Woszczyńska’s impressive first feature, a Polish couple’s relationship exposes serious fault-lines during a stressful Italian vacation where everything goes wrong,

Polish filmmakers certainly know how to be provocative and push the boundaries where love and sex are concerned and Silent Land excels in ramping up the tension in this subversive and acutely piquant two hander.

A cleverly written script and choice visuals keep us engaged with an all too familiar holiday scenario, primped with surprising twists and turns that are enough to derail the most loved-up up romantic break. And what initially feels like an ideal marriage soon shows cracks that run deeper than those in the dirty and disused swimming pool that awaits them in their dream villa.

Confronted by builders who can’t speak English – or Polish for that matter (Adam and black are from – they head for the idyllic beach for some rest and relaxation. On their return the pool has been repainted but it still lacks the requisite water, and a serious accident poolside involving the immigrant builder then deep-sixes any chance of a late afternoon swim, Soon the owner and the paramedics arrive, as the two holidaymakers give evidence in the ensuing police investigation, a dark vein of humour creeping into the narrative ‘lost in translation style’ when the carabinieri also turn up, and clearly don’t speak much English.

The compliant Poles are only too delighted to accompany the police to the station to help with inquiries, their holiday clearly heading into a disaster zone for no fault of their own, as a kaftesque scenario develops, the detective leading the inquiry picks apart their statement and asks them to return for further questioning. The tables a gradually turned as the justifiably disgruntled clients soon become unwitting suspects in an accidental death inquiry.

There are certainly touches of Michael Haneke’s observational storytelling in the precise framing as the voyeuristic camerawork tracks the couple in silent contemplation or sharing a private joke. The Colombo style police procedural has a understandably unsettling and de-stabilising affect on the couples’ sense of integrity and tranquility as they start to question their own response to the tragedy as foreigners in a unfamiliar environment increasingly coming under the xenophobic spotlight of a tightly knit community far away from home. Tense and highly intelligent filmmaking. MT

TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL

 

 

Annette (2021)

Dir/Wri: Leos Carax | Marion Cotillard, Adam Driver, Simon Helberg | Drama France, 139′

French auteur Leos Carax last graced the Croisette with Holy Motors a weird and mysterious odyssey into the mind of one man. Annette his latest creation sees him back in Cannes nine years later with another cinematic sensation: another journey into the complexities of male psyche that explores the nature of fame and the fragility of love through his first English language film.

Adam Driver haunts this moody modern opera with a muscular expressiveness that lurches from rage to almost religious fervour as offbeat comedian Henry, although his comedy act sequences are overlong and not particularly amusing and detract from the central narrative which already has more than enough references to his anger issues. Marion Cotillard shimmers exquisitely as the diva he falls for but the baby they make together is simply out of the world.

Visually stunning in the style of Holy Motors, is Caroline Champetier once again beguiles with her luscious cinematography in a highly original film that blends its bizarre ideas and tonal switches with elegance, always surprising the audience: particularly with erotic sex scenes laced with obsidian black humour: this is a richly thematic modern classic with a focus firmly in the future.

The cult rock band Sparks performs and composes a score that is daringly racy and poignant in the style of a Greek tragedy (complete with a black female chorus) where its central character Henry (Driver) is a meglamaniac narcissist whose lust for new experiences and extreme carnal compulsion will be his devastating downfall, destroying everything challenging his dominance.

Opera singer Ann (Marion Cotillard) melts his heart with her dulcet tones – for a while at least – and the two wander deliriously in a verdant garden of Eden crooning the film’s catchy musical leit-motif “We Love Each Other So Much”. and soon their baby Annette is born and their joy now complete.

But storm clouds soon gather over on the loved-up paradise in a melodramatic tone shift. Carax goes into overdrive in a full-blown expose of macho toxicity where passions are given full throttle during Henry’s hysterical nighttime motorbike rides home to his tropical hideaway, the dizzying camerawork  recalling Holy Motors’ nocturnal taxi forays. There is a third narrative strand in shape of Simon Helberg’s compelling turn as Ann’s spurned lover now reduced to her accompanying pianist at her elegantly-staged opera gigs. Once again Cotillard get the chance to play Lady Macbeth and this will be teased out suggestively in the film’s third act.

Baby Annette is like a benign female version of ‘Chucky’, her blue eyes and auburn locks adding an endearing appeal and vulnerability to the subtle scariness she engenders but also hinting at A.I. She will grow up to be a thoughtful and intuitive little girl, whose presence pivotal to the storyline. At this point Carax uses the female chorus to clever effect as a #MeToo theme kicks in and this feeds into Henry’s violent anger management issues which are now the central focus of the story and pivotal to the final reveal.

Annette is a compelling visual masterpiece that utterly captivates and confuses for nearly two and half hours. An atmospheric soundscape, dreamlike images and extraordinary performances coalesce in a contemporary rock melodrama the like of which has never been seen before, and it world premieres here at Cannes. MT

NOW ON RELEASE AT CURZON

The King of Laughter | Qui Rido Io (2021) Venice Film Festival 2021

Dir: Marco Martone | Cast: Toni Servillo

Toni Servillo is the star turn in theatre director Mario Martone’s resplendent portrait of Neopolitan comic theatre legend Eduardo Scarpetta, making its bow here in Competition at the 78th Venice Film Festival.

Scarpetta (1853-1925) who first took to the stage as a four year old, was best known for his role as the light-hearted slightly air-headed Felice Siociammocca, a typical Neopolitano who, in a break from tradition, was more good-natured than the darker stereotype of Pulcinella whose origins lay in 17th century ‘commedia dell’arte’ as a stock character from puppetry. Scarpetta was also celebrated for his plays – of which he wrote more that fifty – one in particular: ‘Poverty and Nobility'(1888), was later made into a film starring starring Sophia Loren and comedy star Totò. Scarpetta’s main achievement off stage was to translate into Neapolitan the standard Parisian farce of the era: Hennequin, Meilhac, Labiche and Feydeau. He also fathered actor and playwright Eduardo De Filippo along with two other children.

Martone’s begins his story at the beginning of 1900s, when Eduardo Scarpetta has already made his name as the most successful Italian comedian of the era, his plays are all box office hits, and the stage is his exclusive kingdom. But behind the scenes his unconventional family life is proving challenging, the drama tracing his eventually descent into darker times, including the his trial with the magniloquent poet Gabriele D’Annunzio.

Servillo lends his ebullient joie de vivre to the role in this lavish production which follows the star on stage and in real life in an around Naples and Rome in the mid 18th century. Martone and his writer Ippolita Di Majo keeping us entertained for over two hours with the gracefully-paced storyline, partly in Italian, and partly in Neapolitan dialect, and classically captured by Swiss Italian DoP Renato Berta (Au Revoir Les Enfants). MT

Venice Film Festival | COMPETITION 2021

Gaia (2021)

Dir: Jaco Bouwer | Cast: Monique Rockman, Carel Nel, Alex van Dyk, Anthony Oseyemi | US Eco-thriller, 97′

South African director Jaco Bouwer delivers a stunning eco thriller that’s less impressive on the narrative front despite a beguiling premise that unfolds in the mysterious depths of the country’s atavistic Tsitsikamma rain forest, home to some terrifying species.

South Africa’s rangers are well known for their intricate knowledge of the animals that inhabit the wild untamed landscapes of the Cape and beyond. But during a routine mission with her colleague Winston (Oseyemi), nothing prepares Bouwer’s heroine Gabi (Rockman) for the terrifying alien predators that lurk in the undergrowth. And when she is injured by a poisoned spear, help arrives in the shape of two mysterious human beings who initially save her life. These ‘post-apocalyptic survivalists’, father and son Barend and Stefan, are clearly versed in all sorts of natural medicine, but lying in a state of semi-sedation, Gabi starts to wonder whether they are as benign as they appear, while trying to contact Winston who has disappeared into the forest. Communicating exclusively in Africaans with the surreal cavemen-like couple Gabi is nevertheless none the wiser as to their motives. Things take a sinister turn when Winston is invaded by flesh-eating lichen like funghi and Gabi’s hopes of escape start to diminish. Bouwer comes up with some stunningly imaginative special effects captured by Jorrie van Der Walt’s immaculate lensing. But Tertius Kapp’s storyline is just too slow-burning and enigmatic to keep us engaged despite the film’s modest running time. Although highly entertaining for body horror fans, Gaia is perhaps best described as style over substance. MT

IN CINEMAS FROM 27 SEPTEMBER 2021

 

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

Dir: Michael Curtiz | Cast: Bette Davis, Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Vincent Price, Harry Stephenson | US Drama 106′

This depiction of the love/hate relationship between Queen Elizabeth I and Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex is obviously based on a play (the Irish debacle is plainly staged on a single Germanic-looking set, and Cadiz – although frequently referred to – is only talked about).

The film is sumptuously produced with an incredible supporting cast; some of them practically just glimpsed (with Olivia de Havilland – in reality one the few woman who resisted Flynn’s advances – as usual while she was under contract to Warners wasted but radiant as Davis’s most serious rival in love).

At the centre of course are two star performances, although Daves’ makeup is grotesquely aged but completely unlined with those famous eyes darting hither and thither as the elderly Queen, and – the vaguely ‘naughty’ title notwithstanding – they are shown doing little more in private than playing cards together. Richard Chatten

BETTE DAVIS: HOLLYWOOD REBEL SEASON IS NOW PLAYING AT THE BFI Southbank FOR THE REMAINDER OF AUGUST 2021

 

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Dir.: John Huston; Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Lee Patrick, Gladys George, Jerome Cowan, Elisha Cook Jr; USA 1941, 101 min.

The second film adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s novel ‘The Maltese Falcon’, which was serialised in the ‘Black Mask’ before being published by Knopf in 1930, became a corner-stone of a new sub-genre: the Film Noir. Directed by debutant John Huston, who makes good use of Hammett’s dialogue in his analytical script, the star of the show is Humphrey Bogart who plays Private Eye, Sam Spade. With Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet – the latter another newcomer at the rip of age of 61 – it made film history. John Huston would direct his most famous film The Asphalt Jungle nearly a decade later.

Partners Sam Spade (Bogart) and Miles Archer (Cowan) run a sleazy detective agency. One of their clients, the enigmatic Bridget O’Shaughness (Astor), using a false name, wants to track down a relative. The same night Archer is shot dead. The finger points at Spade due to his affair with Archer’s wife Iva (George). Spade and the widow are seen in a passionate embrace by ‘Girl Friday’ Effie Parine (Patrick). But it soon turns out that Bridget is one of four of crooks on the hunt for the titular Maltese Falcon, a bird emblazoned with priceless jewels. Bridget had shot Archer to get rid of a fifth bounty hunter, Thursby, who is the number one suspect in the Archer murder case. Kaspar Gutman (Greenstreet) leads the hunt for the bird, aided and abetted by his minions Joel Cairo (Lorre) and Wilmer Cook (Elisha Cook Jr) who are subjected to Spade’s robustness on more than one occasion. In the end, the Falcon turns out to be a fake, and the three men land in prison. But the worst fate awaits Bridget, Spade following head before heart in giving her up to the police: “You might get away with twenty years, I’ll wait for you. If they hang you, I will never forget you”.

Warner Brothers had first asked George Raft to play Spade, but the big star was not keen to put his reputation on the line with a newcomer like Huston. Greenstreet and Lorre would act together in nine more features, Bogart occasionally joining them. The highlight for DoP Arthur Edeson, who shot Casablanca, is a seven-minute take in a hotel room the highlight, shot over two days. But the feature belongs to Bogart: a violent detective, cynical womaniser, and crass opportunist in a nest of vipers. AS

ON RELEASE from Friday 17th September | IN UK CINEMAS NATIONWIDE

Captain Volkonogov Escaped (2021) Venice Film Festival 2021

Dir: Aleksey Chupov, Natasha Merkulova | Cast: Yuriy Borisov, Timofey Tribuntsev, Aleksandr Yatsenko | USSR Drama 120′

A muscular yet strangely poetic drama suffused with human emotion by Russian directing duo Aleksey Chupov and Natasha Merkalova whose feature The Man Who Surprised Everyone, did just that.

Classically styled and set against the backdrop of the 1938 political persecutions – the colour red serving as a thematic touchstone for Soviet ideals of valour, sportsmanship and nationalistic allegiance – it stars man of the moment Yuriy Borisov fresh from his triumphs in Cannes with Compartment Number 6.

He plays Fyodor a hard-boiled, weightlifting law-enforcer in a Russia pulsating with subversive wartime undercurrents where cowing-towing to the Soviet system is the only way to go. But when Fyodor sees his peers being interrogated by the authorities he decides to abscond. Once on the run (to rousing sounds of ‘The Russian Red Army’ and a propulsive electronic score) Fodor is hotly pursued by his wiry, tuberculosis ridden superior Golovnya (Tribuntsev), haunted by the past as it plays out in a series of haunting hallucinatory sequences featuring his old comrades. So he decides to return as surreptitiously as possible while surrounded by a seething climate of savage mistrust.

Immaculate lensing by ace Estonian cinematographer Mart Taniel makes this a visually captivating as well as thrilling with its storyline that tracks Fodor’s evasion from his steely band of brothers with a pervasive feeling of danger and gritty authentic characters who feel real in their struggle to survive against the odds in a climate of fear and suspicion that forces them to root for themselves while keeping their backs against wall in their putative allegiance to the state. That said, the few female characters are seen as weak and febrile, the men physically and emotionally rigorous.

Powered forward but some really shocking violence: an execution scene is one of the most starling: a state employee priding himself by dispatching his firing squad victims with just one shot; in another a little girl recounts how her father was tortured by Spanish Fascists and then Russian Communists, the latter the more affective in sending him to him to his grisly death. Unorthodox weapons come in all shapes and sizes – an old fashioned telephone proving an effective stunning device. But the harsh brutality is tempered by some potently transcendent moments that Andrey Konchalovskiy or Tarkovskiy would be proud of: an enormous red zeppelin glides by silently framed between two buildings; a wild dog scampers along joyfully in the morning mist, and an emaciated man breathes his last moments of life cradled in Volkonogov’s tender embrace. MT

Venice Film Festival | 1 – 11 September 2021 | COMPETITION

Prophecy (1979) Blu-ray

Dir.: John Frankenheimer; Cast: Talia Shire, Robert Foxworth, Richard Dysart; USA 1979, 102 min.

US filmmaker John Frankenheimer (1930-2002), director of the original Manchurian Candidate, started out, like Sidney Lumet, directing TV fare including numerous reputable ‘Playhouse’ episodes. He never lost feel for a good newsworthy story, and Prophecy is a good example with its focus on environmental issues.

Written by David Seltzer (The Omen), Prophecy takes place near Maine, where strange findings are reported in the river Ossipee. Considering, the Flint Water Crisis in Michigan went on from 2014 to 2019, Seltzer’s script is very much ahead of its time.

Doctor Robert Verne (Foxworth) and wife Maggie (Shire) are working in Washington DC, and hope that a holiday in Maine might take their minds off the polluted capital. But soon they are witnessing strange incidents in the river Ossippee, near the paper mill run by Bethel Isley (Dysart). Babies are being born with physical defects, people are walking around in a drunken stupor even though they have not consumed a drop of alcohol, and in the local river salmon and tadpoles are growing to monstrous proportions, while on dry land racoon are running riot.

When a group of lumberjacks go missing, Isley blames the indigenous population, who in turn claim that the Katahdin, a Sasquatch monster, is responsible for the mysterious happenings. Maggie, who is pregnant, but has not told Robert, grows increasingly nervous – she has eaten fish caught in the vicinity. But worse is to come in the shape of an enormous bear with diseased skin that causes total mayhem for all concerned.

Bad timing saw Prophecy premiering only a few weeks before Alien, and Ridley’s Scott’s monsters were very far superior to the giant bear. DoP Harry Stradling jun. (Convoy, Little Big Man) is on fine form, and the mixture of conspiracy and horror is a potent brew. When the survivors leave the scene, a bear cub is left behind – but unlike Alien, a sequel to Frankenheimer’s outing never saw the light of day. AS

OUT ON BLURAY courtesy of Eureka Classics

Promises (2021) Venice – Orizzonti 2021

Dir.: Thomas Kruithof; Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Reda Kateb, Naidra Ayadi, Jean-Paul Bordres, Vincent Garayer; France 2021, 98 min.

Isabelle Huppert is the guiding light of this socio-political drama that centres on a deprived Parisian housing estate where she is Clemence Collombet the ambitious mayor with her eye on the main chance.

Modelled on local authorities like St. Denis or Bobigny, Thomas Kruithof’s sophomore feature accurately portrays the sort of self-seeking politician we have grown used to of late: Clemence has a wilful, authoritarian streak and limitless ambition. From her upmarket home she hopes the struggle on the decaying housing estate Les Bernardins will define her future, and has promised to resign after two terms, her deputy Naidra (Ayadi) – whose parents have immigrated from North Africa – is her chosen successor.

Clemence is keen to further her career and only to happy take on a ministerial post in central government when it is offered. Her chief of staff Yazid  – Reda Kateb on top form – is kept busy by her many machiavellian moves. Les Bernardins is run by the shady developer Chaumette (Garayer) and Clemence wants to replace him. The real victims are the tenants of the estate, who have seen promises constantly broken while the building falls into a parlous state of disrepair.

But the real villain is Jean-Marc Forgeat, the local Mafia boss. On the opposite side is Michel Kupka (Bordres), chair of the tenants’ association, trying to keep up a deal for renovation with the mayor and Yazid, even though Kupka does not trust the politicians. Then everything changes when Clemence’s ministerial appointment fails to materialise, and all she gets is a place in the Senate. In a furious volte face she reneges on her promise not to run again – offering the disappointed Naidra the job of mayor in three year’s time. Meanwhile Yadiz is involved in a race against time to get the renovation project off the ground, and into the hands of the local MP at an Elysee meeting.

Kruithof shows two different levels of the playing field, the mayor using the tenants merely to advance her own career. Yazid is shown as the beavering ‘nuts and bolts’ man who has still a little bit of engagement left, but is dependent on people on the ground, like Kupka, who is fighting a battle on two fronts, trying to unite the tenants in the hope that Yadiz keeps his promise.

DoP Alexandre Lamarque offers up a sophisticated looking feature reflecting the changing milieu, from council house to corridors of power, but there is simply two many plot lines going on for the audience to see things clearly. Isabelle Huppert once again running the show like a seasoned professional with composite ease.  AS

The Noise of Engines | Le Bruit des Moteurs (2021) San Sebastian Film Festival

Dir.: Philippe Grégoire; Cast: Robert Naylor, Tanja Björk, Marie-Therese Forline, Naila Robel, Alexandrine Agostini; Canada 2021, 90 min.

The bizarre debut feature of Canadian writer/director Philippe Grégoire is too clever by half, hurtling into cul-de-sacs, before petering out with a limp. There are some interesting moments, but overall The Noise is simply too pretentious and immature.

Gregoire kicks off in semi-documentary style with a group of Canadian customs officers being introduced by Alexandre Mastrogiuseppe (Naylor) to the use of firearms. Later Alex has sex with Laura (Rabel), one of the the trainees – all rather awkward as her efforts to wear a mask bring on an asthma attack, Alexandre coming to the rescue. He is nevertheless suspended from work by the strange unit chief (Agostini) who admits she is in an open marriage while she claws the underside her desk in frustration, enviously alluding to his multiple sexual escapades. Alexandre is then sent home to his mother (Forline), who owns a race course in a small town.

On the race course Alexandre is accosted by two police officers who accuse him of sticking an obscene drawing on the church door. Next he embarks on a treasure hunt instigated by Icelandic racing driver  Adalbjörg (Björg) a big fan of filmmaker Andre Forcier, the two eventually fetching up in a deserted backwater. The two policemen appear again, burning Alexandre’s hands on the hot plates of an oven, and other unspeakable parts of his body. Needless to say, things go from bad to worse for Alexandre who embarks on a journey to discover the holy grail of drag racing

Essentially The Noise is a series of disconnected episodes where everything feels unnatural, performed by an unexceptional cast, Shawn Pavlin’s images are as anaemic as the whole undertaking. So not a strong  debut for Gregoire despite some interesting ideas. AS

San Sebastian FILM FESTIVAL 2021 | 17 – 27 SEPTEMBER 2021

The Pawnbroker (1964)

Dir: Sidney Lumet | Wri: Morton S Fine | Cast: Rod Steiger, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Brock Peters, Jaime Sanchez | US Thriller 116′

Director Sidney Lumet’s gritty New-York set Nazi survivalist movie made Rod Steiger a star with his unforgettable portrayal of a Holocaust survivor. Jewish refugee Sol Nazerman is a broken holocaust victim eking out an existence as a pawnbroker in Harlem’s squalid mean streets. His world-weary cynical approach to his customers is a study of indifference occasionally erupting in irritation – he’s too exhausted by misery and the memories of the wife he lost in the Death Camps to be angry or even sad any more, although at one point he’s reduced to tears of sheer emotional exhaustion by his tyrannical business partner, the gangsterish Rodriquez (Brock Peters).

Haunted by the lost and the misunderstood, The Pawnbroker is given a certain poignance with its louche jazz score from debut film composer Quincy Jones. Based on Edward Lewis Wallant’s cult novel – the film evocatively recreates a not so swinging Sixties America where life limps on in the shadows of the past. MT

THE PAWNBROKER IS OUT ON BFI BLURAY/DVD 16 August 2021

Wendy (2020)

Dir.: Benh Zeitlin; Cast: Devin France, Yashua Mack, Gage Naquin, Gavin Naquin, Kevin Pugh, Shay Walker; USA 2020, 111 min.

Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild was a breakout hit with its endearing little heroine. This take on the J.M. Barrie classic Peter Pan doesn’t quite have the same magic although is still a much worthier drama than Steven Spielberg’s Hook. WENDY’s long journey into being – principal photography started in 2017 – has left its imprint on the finished feature.

Siblings Wendy (France) and twins Douglas (Gr. Naquin) and James Ga. Naquin) live with their mother (Walker), who runs a diner in Louisiana where the adventurous trio hop on a freight train, following a black boy called Peter ((Mack). They eventually land on an island, vowing never to grow old in their partly submerged world ruled by an octopus-like creature the children call ‘Mother’. But the inevitable    ageing process arrives leading to a rather unconvincing ending

The whole undertaking is somehow spoiled by Wendy’s twee voice-over, which takes away from the magic of the settings – WENDY was partly shot on Montserrat – the stunning island captured by Sturla Brandth Grovlen. Devin France’s Wendy carries the film through some questionable plot twists: One somehow has the feeling that Zeitlin’s siblings never got far enough away from the Barrie original. Their re-imagining is also hampered by having to pull off some brutal shock-effects, which oversteps the suitability for younger viewers. WENDY is not a failure, but proves the curse of the sophomore feature is still alive and kicking. AS

NOW IN CINEMAS

The Last Bus (2020)

Dir.: Gillies MacKinnon; Cast: Timothy Spall, Phyllis Logan, Natalie Mitson, Ben Ewing; UK 2021, 86 min.

The Last Bus is something between a feel-good-movie and an elegy on death in modern Britain seen through rose-tinted specs. Carried by the great Timothy Spall, it somehow lacks enough information on the character he plays, eighty-something Tom Harper, who is taking his wife Mary’s ashes all the way from John O’Groats to Lands End, making the 838-mile journey on public transport thanks to his bus pass.

After Mary’s death Tom’s reverse journey is a nod to the past, with flashbacks of their married life together as a young couple (Natalie Mitson/Ben Ewing) when they first made the trip, through to the present day. Undeterred by terminal cancer, Tom still firing on most of his cylinders: helping when the bus breaks down and rooting for a racially abused fellow passenger. As the bus travels southwards we’ll get to know more about Tom’s trails and tribulations finishing on a high note on his arrival in Lands End

The contrast between the early 1950s and today Britain seems more positive than realistic: the good old days reflect the happiness of Tom’s married bliss with Mary, nothing seemingly dimming their nirvana, even 70 years later. The goodwill shown by nearly everyone towards the pensioner seems idealist given what most older people have to put up with. Nostalgia rules visual and tonally, the characters reflecting this bland idealism in their conventional rather make-believe lives. A touch of irony would have been welcome to take the edge off the sweetness, Spall breathing life into a chocolate box existence. AS

ON RELEASE FROM 20 August 2021

Mandragore (1952)

Dir: Arthur Maria Rabenalt | Cast: Hildegard Knef, Erich von Stroheim, Trude Hesterberg, Denise Vernac, Harry Holm | Fantasy Drama 92′

The fifth and – to date – last film version of Hanns Heinz Ewers’ 1911 bestseller is handsomely mounted, interestingly cast but far too talky. It worked far better as a silent film, with Brigitte Helm much more convincing than dear Hildegard Knef as the soulless product of artificial insemination.

By bestowing such inauspicious parenthood upon his creation Professor Jacob ten Brinken (Erich von Stroheim!) explicitly states that his desire is to inject a bit of depravity in the female genes in order to create a more  exotic bloom by unnatural means than two upstanding citizens could ever hope to produce; although real life is constantly demonstrating that Mother Nature can always be depended on to bring into the world plenty of young women with more conventional antecedents that would be capable of wreaking just as much havoc among the male sex.

Although Ewers was initially an enthusiastic supporter of the New Order and joined the NSDAP in 1931 – and Alraune clearly reflected the eugenics debate that Hitler brought into disrepute – it wasn’t filmed during the Nazi era. The director of this postwar version, Arthur Maria Rabenalt, had been an enthusiastic propagandist for the Nazi regime, which makes him an ironic choice for such potentially touchy subject matter. @Richard Chatten

Black Diamonds (1932)

Wri/Dir: Charles Hammer Cast: Beckett Bould, Jennie Stevens, Norman Astridge, Jenny Morgan | UK 53′

Black Diamonds was made by working miner and amateur filmmaker Charles Hanmer “without the usual Studio facilities, or professional resources” as a follow up to his earlier documentary Tour of a British Coal Mine (1928), from which he reused footage to create a public relations film to promote awareness of the hazardous conditions worked in and to drum up public support for Britain’s miners. Starting with a recreation of the Cadeby mine disaster of 1912, it depicts the efforts of miner John Morgan to convince an initially unsympathetic MP to finance a film about pit life. Hanmer plainly didn’t know the first thing about filmmaking, but as a document of working life it still resonates. Nearly thirty years later, Beckett Bould, who plays Morgan, ironically played a small part in the union-bashing The Angry Silence (1960). Richard Chatten

NOW ON BFI PLAYER

 

Escher: Journey Into Infinity (2020)

Dir.: Robin Lutz; Documentary with George and Jan Eschen, Liesbeth Escher-Hogenhout; Netherlands 2018, 80 min.

Like many before him Dutch graphic artist M(aurits) C(ornells) Eschen (1898-1972) came late to fame. But his influence, particularly in pop-culture, is still growing. This might seem to be a contradiction, since Escher was a modest creative who told his admirers he was not clever enough to be an academic and had to wait until 1970 for his first exhibition. But he doubted his artistic talents because he believed a ‘real’ artist should not enjoy his work but be tortured in creating it

Escher met his wife, 24-year old Russian émigré Yetta Umica, in Ravello in 1923. The couple married in Viareggio a year later and settled in Italy where Escher marvelled at the blue skies “colour was needed, but I did not want colour”. He often sketched at nigh-time although he maintained: “the reality of the day is like a dream”.

Escher and his wife travelled on a cargo ship to Valencia, paying their way with ten drawings, which the company used for advertising. They then travelled through southern Spain to Granada where he worked every day in the Alhambra. Escher was particularly struck by the geometric figures used by the Moors. Back home in the Netherlands he worked from dawn to dusk “so that the inner images came out”. One of his most famous drawings was of people living in the ‘second and third dimension’ but never meeting on imaged of stairs, one person going up as the other went down. Mathematics became increasingly important to his work leading him to pose the question: “Is it still art?”. But as son Jan comments, “work was opium for him.”

By now, the Germans had occupied the country, and Jewish artists could not exhibit any more. Escher cancelled his membership of the Artists’ Society and the Graphic Association. He rescued over two hundred drawings from his art teacher, one of the many deported to the death camps. When the wartime food supply dwindled Yetta sacrificed her own well-being, saving what little was available for the three sons.

After the end of WWII, she became more and more fragile and her mental health deteriorated. She would later travel to Switzerland and live with her son and his wife Liesbeth, but they eventually had to put her into a nursing home. She survived her husband who died after numerous operations for cancer.

MC Escher had been supported by his wealthy parents for most of his life, but an interview with ‘Time-Life’ in the 1960s raised the profile of his work and he became famous virtually overnight. One of his most famous concepts pictured people as wheels, rolling forward. When he listened to Bach’s St. Matthew oratorio, he imaged the cathedral floating over the ocean to New York and San Francisco. And this drawing with its psychedelic beauty found many admirers in the growing counter-culture, even though Escher had little in common with the flower-power generation.

Stephen Fry reads Escher’s letters as a v.o. Music by Bach dominates the feature, hardly a co-incidence since the composer himself admired mathematics. Escher was a certainly a person of substance and wild imagination, and deserves all the plaudits he gets after a life of self-doubt. AS

NOW ON RELEASE

A Walk with Angels (2020) Locarno Film Festival

Dir.: Tomasz Wysokinski; Documentary with Jeremaiah Marobyane, Thandi Mbatha, Louisa Mbatha, Ma Mbatha; Poland 2021, 84 min.

Polish director Tomasz Wysokinski spent four years in the shanti Town of Kliptown, Soweto for this labour of love that follows ex-child soldier and civil war commander Jeremaiah Marobyaneon on his search for missing children. “Every sixty minutes a child is lost in South Africa” is the cruel premise of the raw and resonant documentary.

The focus is his search for Angie, kidnapped six months previously from her mother Thandi Mbatha and her family. Jeremaiah sets out on gruelling mission during which he’ll come across, always coming across children exposed to violence on an everyday basis. Soweto is a hotbed of superstition and Satanists are actively kidnapping kids for ritual execution. The members of the local show clear signs of mental disorder: “by day I am a boy, but at night a girl ‘they’ want to use”.

The perpetrators practising exorcism, “taking the genital parts from the babies, like penis and testicles from boys and breasts from girls”. The cult members are convinced that “demon power will give them power to kill”. Meanwhile, Jeremaiah has arrived in the small town of Witbank where he is told that Angie is no longer alive is told, and that the witch doctors have got hold of her. Unperturbed, he pushes on further to Johannesburg, a city “which looks good in the glittering lights from a distance”, but when he arrives we see colonies of children sleeping in the streets. In the borough of Hillbrow, Jeremaiah puts up the poster of Angie, who has a distinct birthmark near her eye. The children, sleeping in boxes on the pavement, go through the rubbish in the day time, often finding the corpses of babies. One shot is particularly disturbing. “The witch doctors crush the babies, mix their blood with herbal medicine and throw them into pots while they are still alive.

Finally, Jeremaiah finds a young woman who has interviewed Angie’s father Mbengeni, who apparently confessed to having abducted his daughter. Undeterred, and walking with the titular angels, Jeremaiah makes his way to meet Mbengeni.

This no-frills documentary is highly disturbing and makes for a grim watch. It shows a South Africa still suffering from abject poverty and dangerous superstition. Jeremiah is well aware that “Apartheid has destroyed South Africa’s people”, causing bitter conflict between the various factions, but the total absence of state intervention points to some serious underlying reason for this discord.

LOCARNO FILM FESTIVAL 2021

The Nest (2020)

Dir.: Sean Dirkin; Cast: Jude Law, Carrie Coon, Oona Roche, Charlie Shotwell, Anne Reid, Michael Culkin; USA 2020, 107 min.

After the breakout success of his debut Martha, Mary, May Marlene Sean Dirkin’s follow up is a dark story of greed, lies and  – aptly set in the early 1980s during the high tide of Reagan and Thatcher. An alternative title could have been “Lie with me”, a crime story by British author Sabine Durrant.

In both book and feature film the two main protagonists are fully aware their other half is lying, but go along with it, as long as it suits them. Commodity broker Rory O’Hara (Law), born in London, returns to the city of his birth from the USA with wife Allison (Coom) with their ten-year old son Ben (Shotwell), teenager Sam(antha) and Allison’s daughter from an earlier relationship. This is not the first upheaval for the family, Allison has experienced four moves in the last decade alone. At one point Rory was a high roller, thinking he would be a big swinging dick forever, and this move to London is motivated by those good old working for tycoon Arthur (Culkin), running the show in his posh London office.

A bit of a flash git, Rory is keen to make a big impression: rentimg a huge mansion in Surrey, dishing out hefty school fees for the children, even transporting Allison’s horse from the USA (which will have dramatic consequences). He brags about ‘a Central Park apartment’ when looking for a Mayfair pad. But the reality is quite the reverse: the couple can’t even afford an expensive meal, using the issue to score points. And whilst Rory plans to trouser big bucks from the merger of Arthur’s company with a US outfit, he hasn’t checked the fine print and his boss has already written the move off.

As things go from bad to worse his relationship with Alison deteriorates Rory emerging a snarky bully, Jude Law is perfect for the part. Dirkin shows us a glittering balloon of material wealth, waiting to pop and deflate at any minute. Particularly harrowing is a meeting between Rory and his mother (Reed), whom he has not seen for more than a decade. Hungarian DoP Mátyás Ederly, who shot Saul and Sunset, really does his stuff here creating a visual masterpiece of riches beyond the dreams of avarice splicing horror and thriller elements with startling effect at home in the world of business his images convincingly conveying the business world as if it were an entertainment industry Rory soon finding out that they belong to neither. AS

SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2021 | ON RELEASE from 27 August 2021

Victory of the Faith | Der Sieg des Glaubens (1933)

Dir: Leni Riefenstahl | Germany, Doc 64’

One gets a sense of déjà vu all the way through this trial run for Triumph des Willens, as so many of its images were deliberately recreated by Leni Riefenstahl a year later for the more famous film, which also reuses Herbert Windt’s music; although sadly there is no zeppelin in Triumph des Willens.

In addition to being almost exactly half the running time of the interminable ‘Triumph’, it’s the mismatches and the occasional moments of spontaneity that makes Der Sieg des Glaubens the more endurable of the two films. The presence throughout of Ernst Röhm is naturally the most remarkable feature; usually at Hitler’s side but otherwise not unduly prominent (the film overall contains mercifully far less speeches – and marching – although there do seem to be rather more shots of Goebbels this time round).

After years of being accustomed to seeing the aerial view of the threesome of Hitler, Himmler and Lutze (Röhm’s tame replacement as head of the SA) approaching the Ehrenhalle in ‘Triumph’, the sight of just Hitler and Röhm giving the salute comes as a jolt. The presence of Vice-Chancellor Papen (soon to be sidelined by the Führer until collared by the Allies in 1945 and brought back to Nuremberg as one of the defendants) reminds us that this is still very early days for the New Order, and Riefenstahl occasionally cuts to a suitably overwhelmed looking Italian delegation.

 

 

image coutesy of @wikiwand.

Two amusing moments depicting the Führer caught slightly off-guard are early on when he immediately thrusts a bouquet of flowers two little girls have just presented him with in Rudolf Hess’s direction; and the unaccustomed slouching posture he adopts while the leader of the Hitler Youth, Baldur von Schirach, attempts to quieten them down so that he can begin his address.@Richard Chatten

 

Rose (2021) Locarno Film Festival 2021

Dir/Wri: Aurelie Saada | Cast: Francoise Fabian, Aure Atika, Gregory Montel, Damien Chapelle, Pascal Elbe, Mehdi Nebbou | France Romantic Drama, 102′

Aurelie Saada brings her musical training as a composer to this brilliantly executed and vivacious film about love, family life and second chances.

A crowd-pleasing winner which will particularly resonate with Jewish audiences who will appreciate its finer details, Rose is a riff on Sebastian Lielo’s Berlinale winner Gloria, Francoise Fabian is absolutely magnificent as the grieving widow Rose. Elegant and graceful in her seventy-eighth year the opening scenes see her celebrating a joyous family occasion with her debonair husband (Bernard Murat in cameo) whose subsequent death sends her spiralling into overwhelming grief and confining her to the safety of her comfortable Parisian apartment.

Family and friends offer support but bring their own issues to the party, and this familiar outpouring of collective misery is not always welcome to the person most closely affected, Rose retreating into a world of her own, understanding yet unable to offer guidance or even deal with her three middle-aged children who are all experiencing emotional trauma unconnected to their father’s death. Her daughter Sarah (Aure Atika) is in the final throes of a separation for her straying husband (Mehdi Nebbou); Pierre (Gregory Montel), a doctor with his own marital issues, and Leon (Damien Chapelle) is a prickly man-child in trouble with the law.

In her feature debut Saada brings a maturity and wisdom to this hopeful story with its convincing characterisations and perfectly pitched mise en scene. Francoise Fabian understand her role and strikes just the right balance between vulnerability and self-possession as a woman who has dedicated her life to husband and children but now realises she needs an outside stimulus, and she finds one – quite unexpectedly – in the shape of a local restaurateur (Pascal Elbe) who restores her raison d’être and offers a sympathetic ear at a time when Rose needs it most.

A powerfully emotive score of well known classics and Saada’s own compositions give this soigne romantic drama a potent kick along with Martin De Chabaneix’ lush and sophisticated cinematography. Gracefully paced, smart and highly enjoyable Rose is an upbeat flight of fantasy and a tonic for those looking for a silver lining when family is actually the last thing we need. MT

LOCARNO FILM FESTIVAL 2021 | PIAZZA GRANDE

 

Zola (2020)

Dir.: Janicza Bravo; Cast: Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, Nicholas Brown, Colman Domingo; USA 2020, 96 min.

Sex has never been so ugly in this rollercoaster ride on the sleazy side that makes Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers look like a film for kids. Sexploitation, kidnapping and a suicide attempt are just some of the highlights of this unsavoury tale, teetering self-parody and something much nastier. It’s the work of Janicza Brava who directs a script by Jeremy O. Harris, and the author of the original 148 tweets, A’Ziah King.

Still, it’s worth bearing in mind that Jim Thompson got the same treatment of disbelief from the established literati, back in the day (never mind during his lifetime) and his books are now sought after cult classics, analysed by academics.

Trailer trash white stripper/hooker Stefani (Keough) picks up titular waitress Zola (Paige) and they set off for Florida where they will be well paid well for working the poles, although they have to contend with Stefani’s nerdy boyfriend Derrek (Brown) who whinges non-stop. But when Zola sees X (Domingo), Stefani’s pimp, she gets cold feet: this is prostitution of the most sordid kind. Taking pity on Stefani, she organises more lucrative tricks which pay $500 instead of150, X is impressed and makes Zola his deputy.

Whenever Zola has to watch any bodily contact, she spits out “Gross” and turns her back on all kinds of graphic degradation – including Derrek’s suicide attempt: half desperation, half cry for help, which defines very much the whole enterprise.

DoP Ari Wegner just lets the camera roam around the sleaziness of it all, the scenes in the dystopian luxury hotels are a treat, and his night images on the road are some of the best recently commited to celluloid. Meanwhile Paige clearly enjoys every second, and so does Keough, who just gets the balance right between vulnerability and arrant naughtiness. When it comes to women’s sexual depravity it appears they are worse than men –  there are simply no limits for bad taste. No one can pretend its in any way a critique of anything: This is X-rated stuff with a mental health warning, but just enjoy the spectacle and have fun AS

In cinemas from 6 AUGUST 2021

House of Gucci (2021)

Directed by Ridley Scott from a script by Becky Johnston and Roberto Bentivegna based on Sara Gay Forden’s bestseller The House of Gucci brings to the big screen the shocking true story of the family empire behind the Italian fashion house of Gucci. Spanning three decades of love, betrayal, decadence, revenge, and ultimately murder, we see what a name means, what it’s worth, and how far a family will go for control.

 

COMING TO CINEMAS THIS NOVEMBER

 

 

Girl in the Headlines (1963)

Dir: Michael Truman | Cast: Ian Hendry, Ronald Fraser, Margaret Johnston, Natasha Parry | UK Drama 93’

Based on a 1961 novel by the actor Laurence Payne called The Nose on My Face. This enjoyable little murder mystery with an interesting cast – most of them still relatively young – and shot on familiar London locations seems on the surface charmingly old-fashioned (everybody is so immaculately dressed, and ball-point pens were still sufficiently novel for one to be an important plot point).

Yet the the victim is described as “a little nympho…without morals or scruples of any kind” who came to London to have “an operation” after getting pregnant by her mother’s fiancée. “Reefers” and “cocaine” are also mentioned by name and a character (described as “a rich and successful TV thing”) is stabbed to death in what is obviously a gay club. Incredibly this only carried an ‘A’ certificate in 1963, which shows how rapidly times were then changing.

Like Inspector Morse, Ian Hendry (who was still young and dashing then before his drinking got the better of him) as the detective drives a Bentley and knows his opera. Coincidence? @Richard Chatten

TALKING PICTURES

Misha and the Wolves (2021)

Dir.: Sam Hobkinson; Documentary with Misha Defonseca, Jane Daniel, Evelyn Haendel, Sharon Seargant; Belgium/UK 2021, 89 min.

Sam Hobkinson (Fear City) tells one of the most bizarre stories of modern times. Misha and the Wolves could be a fairy tale, but it turns into a nightmare – and then into something completely beyond the wildest imagination.

In the remote town of Millis, Massachusetts. Belgian immigrant Misha Defonseca regaled friends and neighbours with her experiences during the Holocaust. She told the members of Temple Bel Torah how, as a little girl in during wartime 1941, she left her loveless foster home and began to search for her biological  parents who had been deported to a death camp. Taking up with a pack of wolves she walked on foot from Belgium to Germany, it what would be an eventful and violent journey.

One of her neighbours of Defonseca Jane Daniel, ran a small publishing company, the Mt. Ivy Press and offered to publish the memoir as ‘Misha: A memoire of the Holocaust Years’. It came out in 1997 and was a great success, as was the French version. In 2007, the French filmmaker Vera Belmont shot the story as Survivre avec les Loups. But the cracks started to show: Defonseca took Daniel to court, over her refusal to be interviewed by Oprah Winfrey. Next came a major discovery: Defonseca had used two different versions of her birth name: one for the America edition, one for the French one. Than everything unravelled quickly, thanks to forensic genealogist Sharon Sergeant, and Evelyne Haendel, a Belgian researcher and Holocaust survivor. What emerged was a completely different version of events.  Misha was born in 1937 as Monique de Wael to catholic parents in Etterbeek, Belgium. She never left home as a child.

Hobkinson then uses the Errol Morris technique, turning the narrative into a Patricia Highsmith style story where the focus is no longer Defonseca – but a gullible public on both sides of the Atlantic intrigued to have discered just another plucky Jewish survivor. The guilt surrounding lack of social responsibility during the Shoah still haunts communities who react with denial (as in Poland) or half-truths as they do in France. Misha’s real story is also chained to this process of uncovering the kindness of strangers who courageously risked their own safety to help Jews. Opportunism is still rife in the publishing world, Jane Daniel being only one example. DoP Will Pugh documents this torrid tale of a deception that provides a welcome version of the truth, an antidote to bestseller spin. Misha Forenseca still lives in Millis. AS

NOW ON RELEASE

Writing With Fire (2021) Sundance London 2021

Dir.: Sushmit Gosh, Rinta Thomas; Documentary with Meere Devi, Shyonkali Devi, Suneeta Prajapate; India 2021, 92 min.

A new documentary by first time feature directors Rinta Thomas and Sushmit Gosh (also co-DoP) once again exposes an endemic culture of police corruption, bribery and misogyny in Indian culture seen through the ‘Khabar Lahariya’ (‘News Wave’) newspaper. The publication was founded just after the turn of the century by women of India’s lowest cast – the Dalit, and operates out of Uttar Pradesh, a region which usually votes for the winning Party in the General election – and this will play a big part later.

We begin with chief reporter Meere interviewing the victim of a brutal rape, and her shocked husband. Meere then walks straight into the police station to demand why nobody has been charged with the assault. Alarmingly the police are not interested in helping the victim. Clearly they are not there to serve the people or enforce law and order, but to trouser lavish bribes from their venal local overlords who continue to operate with impunity.

Although the “Khabar Lahariya’ is now digital, at the end, with 125 million followers on You Tube, the journalists are not really taken not seriously – even by their own husbands – one proclaiming the whole operation will fail.

During the 2019 election, the sitting candidate of the region left his own party, and joined Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP. When interviewed by the women he gives the usual lip service to fighting corruption, if re-elected, since the BJP will allow him to be active on this front, unlike his old Party. Modi and the BJP won in a landslide, not only in Uttar Pradesh. But already a week later, the journalists are repressed by members of the BJP, wearing orange outfits, and pretending to represent religious groups. The danger of absolute Hindu nationalism is obvious.

The fate of the individual members of the newspaper is also told, centring around Suneeta, Meere’s best ‘student’. Disappointingly she then decides to give up her profession and marry. Lost in that immediacy is a deeper historical look at the paper itself; while we understand its creation was unique, Writing with Fire is so invested in the present that the filmmakers fail to offer key information about its founding.

Still, now is as good a time as any to follow the paper and its evolving reporters as we watch Khabar Lahariya grow in size and influence. It’s a double-sided coin: Increased visibility means increased impact, for the journalists and their subjects, but it also places the women in the crossfire of anyone opposed to them (and that’s plenty of people, especially as the country enters a key election period).

The personal toll is never far from the frame, and while some of the documentary drags as its filmmakers cycle through repetitive scenes (a husband rolling his eyes at his wife’s work, a family railing against the impossibility of marrying off their daughter, a puffed-up subject refusing to talk to female journalists), they also put the audience very much inside the world of Meera, Suneeta, and Shyamkali.

A startling finale makes Writing with Fire one of the finest features ever made about journalism, a true eye opener. AS

SUNDANCE LONDON JULY 28 2021

The Sparks Brothers (2021) Sundance London 2021

Dir.: Edgar Wright; Documentary with Ron Mael, Russell Mael, Mike Myers, Giorgio Moroder, Tony Visconti, Christl Haydon, Steve Jones, Alex Kapranos; UK 2021, 135 min.

At first glance, The Sparks Brothers is an odd choice as a first documentary for director/writer Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Baby Driver). They were the operatic star turn with their score for Annette at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and their music has endured half a century. Hits like ‘This town is not not big enough for Both of Us’, was a great success in the UK, but ignored in the US, leaving many fans with the impression they were British – but they were born and bred LA. The Sparks have produced twenty-five albums, and Wright (a self-confessed fan) has given everyone enough space here – which accounts for a self-indulgent running time of two hour fifteen minutes.

Ron and Russell Mael had a proper cinema upbringing with their parents, who, idiosyncratically, took their kids to the cinema whenever they saw fit. No surprise then that Ron and Russell wanted to compose for the big screen. But early efforts with Jacques Tati and Tim Burton came to nothing. Luckily, they ‘escaped’ the dud Rollercoaster from 1977, which fell instead to poor Lalo Schifrin while we get an uncredited glimpse of the brothers. Finally Ron and Russell got their just reward: this year’s opening feature at Cannes directed by Leos Carax, scored by the Maels. Not bad for a duo who inspired New Order, Duran Duran and The Human League.

The brothers Mael are great entertainers, even performing with a dummy. And Wright mocks the genre roles of the documentary, with animation and CGI inlets. Wright hits the spirit of the Maels: the 1979 album produced by Giorgio Moroder, featured classics like ‘Try outs for the Human Race’, just the sort of anarchy Wright reproduced in his feature films. The Sparks Brothers is a proper head banger, celebrating the feeling of anarchic creativity. AS

SUNDANCE LONDON | July 29 – August 1st 2021

Jungle Cruise (2021)

Dir.: Jaume Collet-Serra; Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt, Jack Whitehall, Jesse Plemons, Edgar Ramirez; USA 2021, 127 min.

Fizzing with feelgood vibes Jungle Cruise is a blockbuster extravaganza that takes its name from the famous Disney Land theme park ride and brought alive here by Catalonian born director Jaume Collet-Serra and his writers Glenn Ficarra and John Requa.

After the overwhelming success of Pirates of the Caribbean it comes as no surprise that Disney would chose another fairground theme for a feature film, Taking place1916 during WWI, the action-packed prologue is set in London, where Dr. Lily Houghton (Blunt) and her gay brother MacGregor (Whitehall) hope that some dusty old relics will lead them to a magical tree in the Amazon jungle so they  can harness its much needed healing powers amid the slaughter of the trenches.

Arriving at the Amazons, Lily takes her wuss of a brother in hand and hires Captain Frank Wolff (Johnson) to lead them to the mystical  tree. But despite a massive ego the debit-ridden Frank is not really up to it and neither is his shambolic boat. His real name is Francisco and he fetched up here 400 years ago with the conquistadores. Over the centuries his quest for the legendary tree has been in vain in a desperate search to help his soldier friend Aguirre (Ramirez), who needs the petals for his sick daughter Anna. Aguirre still haunts Frank in his nightmares.  Meanwhile Prince Joachim, a relative of the German Kaiser, is also after the tree’s petals, hot on the heels of Frank’s motley crew in their U-boat. Luckily, Frank’s pet leopard is there to defend them – despite getting drunk and throwing up. The foursome face a fearful battle before a happy-end delivers them back to London.

Basque DoP Flavio Martinez Labiano can take all the credit for this spectacle. His roving camera almost makes you throw up – never mind the leopard – and his rapid change of lighting angles creates a hostile, supernatural atmosphere of dread. Johnson is, as always ‘The Rock’, but Blunt is no shrinking violet either in the petal quest. Whitehall’s understated MacGregor is just shy of a caricature.  Fabulous production values more than make up for the narrative torpor. Just enjoy the fun. AS

IN CINEMAS FROM 30 July 2021

 

The Collini Case | Der Fall Collini (2019)

Dir.: Marco Kreuzpaintner; Cast: Elyas M’Barek, Alexandria Maria Lara, Franco Nero, Heiner Lauterbach, Manfred Zapatka, Jannis Niewöhner, Catrin Striebeck, Peter Prager; Germany 2019, 123 min.

A gripping courtroom drama based on a real events sees a modest man tried for a motiveless murder.

Even today war crimes are still being committed all over the world. German director Marco Kreuzpaintner‘s feature serves as a timely reminder of the Dreher Law that allowed many war criminals to get off by a technicality.

Inspired by Ferdinand con Schirach’s bestseller of the same name and adapted by Christian Zübot, Robert Gold and Jens-Friedrich Otto, The Collini Case brought the scandal to the international stage. It’s an impressive undertaking that rather overstays its welcome despite Franco Nero’s engaging performance as defendant Franco Collini.

It maintains that the German justice system and the majority of politicians wilfully obstructed the persecution of war criminals, in the majority members of the Waffen SS.

Lawyer Caspar Leinen (M’ Barek) is appointed by the court to defend Fabrizio Collini (Nero), who has killed the German industrialist Hans Meyer (Zapatka) with three shots to the head. Collini is not willing to defend himself, and refuses to talk to Leinen, whose mother was Turkish, and was abandoned by his father (Prager) when Caspar was two.

Leinen is inexperienced in court dealings and his position is not helped by his close ties to the Meyer family: Meyer senior has financed his studies and treated him like a son and he has been enjoying an affair with Meyer’s grand daughter Johanna (Lara). Flashbacks flesh out how  Leinen’s  relationship with the influential Meyer family ended after several members of were killed in gruesome car accident, and bring to light Meyer’s senior’s controversial past: he was a member of the Waffen SS and responsible for a massacre in Montecatino when he saved little Fabrizio from being shot as a hostage. instead the child had to watch his father being killed, with Meyer ending his life in a coupe de grace.

In 1969 Fabrizio and his family filed a law suit against Meyer, but were then told that the German parliament had adopted the so-called Dreher law, which meant that all German war criminals were guilty of Murder Two – in other words the statue of limitation run out after twenty years, whilst Murder One had no time limit for prosecution.

In tense but protracted court scenes Lenien is locked in a battle of wits with his mentor the Public Prosecutor Prof. Mattinger (Lauterbach) part of a committee which formulated the Dreher law.

Although some may consider the flashbacks self indulgent, distracting from the central narrative. DoP Jacub Bejnarowicz does a brilliant job of enlivening the court proceedings with his visualisation of a contemporary Berlin still full of reminders of a murderous past. But his flashback images are rather on the kitsch side. Franco shines in a central tour de force but the support cast is not always convincing. Somehow there is too much pathos, partly due to the script.

The Collini Case needed a touch of irony to lighten its ever-relevant themes: But despite its worthwhile and ever-relevant themes of corruption, judiciary ethics, and toxic masculinity. Nero adds allure in a film marred by a rather stuffy support cast, the whole ensemble resembling a fighting unit, ready to attack rather than engage. AS

IN CINEMAS 10 September 2021

The Plough and the Stars (1936)

Dir: John Ford | Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Preston Foster, Barry Fitzgerald, Denis O’Dea | US Drama 72’

Made during John Ford’s ten-year 1930s sabbatical from making westerns; he’d just won an Oscar for The Informer, so he could insist upon yet another Irish subject. The opening caption “Dublin — Ireland”, however, straight away betrays its Hollywood provenance, and despite photography by the great Joseph August, lurches throughout between beautifully designed and lit interiors and obvious studio exteriors.

RKO imposed upon him Barbara Stanwyck, who Ford treated very badly on the set before eventually withdrawing to his yacht in a huff when shooting wrapped. Of the Abbey Players themselves, F.J.McCormick is visibly younger and healthier here than in the role of Shell ten years later in Odd Man Out for which he is known today and Arthur Shields looks very dashing as Padraic Pearse. But considering how notoriously truncated a version of the play this is, far too much time is devoted to depicting Barry Fitzgerald’s ‘hilarious’ fondness for a tipple. @RichardChatten

TALKING PICTURES TV

European Arthouse Film | ARTEKino Selection Summer 2021

The ARTEKino Festival is an innovative online film festival presented by ARTE.tv and Festival Scope aimed at movie goers from all over Europe. The festival strives to celebrate and promote European films from new filmmakers to larger audiences in less accessible countries.

This year the ARTEKino Selection is also available free at ARTE.tv. Each month a new film is featured representing the richness and diversity of European cinema.

In July, the ARTEKino Selection features Claire Denis’s 2008 film 35 Shots of Rum, currently streaming onARTE.tv. For August, Tereza Nvotová’s powerful debut feature Filthy, explores hard-hitting issues of rape, trauma and secondary victimisation. In September ARTEKino presents the potent real-world feminist fable Sibel featuring a mesmerising performance by Damla Sönmez.

The ARTEKino Selection – August 

FILTHY

Slovakia, 2017

Director: Tereza Nvotová
Available at ARTE.tv from 1 August to 31 August

Seventeen-year-old Lena’s carefree world comes crashing down when she is raped at home by her maths teacher. The attacker calmly walks away, but Lena ends up in a psychiatric hospital. But even there she can’t bring herself to tell anyone what happened to her, since it doesn’t appear the staff are prepared to combat secondary victimisation. Tereza Nvotová offers up a drama which clearly demonstrates that rape only marks the beginning of a series of distressing experiences and brings to light an often-marginalised problem exacerbated by inadequate professional help. The oppressive subject matter acquires form as an assured study of the main character and of those around her, their contours nuanced by Marek Dvořák’s camerawork and by Dominika Morávková, whose Lena comes to realise that only she can find the strength that lies within her.

The ARTEKino Selection – September

SIBEL

Turkey, 2018

Directors: Çagla Zencirci & Guillaume Giovanetti
Available at ARTE.tv from 1 September to 30 September

25-year-old Sibel lives with her father and sister in a secluded village in the mountains of Turkey’s Black Sea region. Sibel is a mute, but she communicates by using the ancestral whistled language of the area. Rejected by her fellow villagers, she relentlessly hunts down a wolf that is said to be prowling in the neighbouring forest, sparking off fears and fantasies among the village women. There she crosses path with a fugitive. Injured, threatening and vulnerable, he is the first one to take a fresh look at her.

Watch free of charge, on ARTE.tv, via the ARTE mobile app and the Smart TV app  @ARTEen

 

Old (2021)

Dir.: M. Night Shyamalan; Cast: Gael Garcia Bernal, Vicky Krisp, Rufus Sewell, Abbey Lee, Elizabeth Scanlen, Kathleen Chalfant, Ken Leung Nikki Amuka-Bird, Aaron Bird, Alex Wolf, Thomasin McKenzie, Embeth Davidtz, Emun Elliot; USA 2021, 108 min.

Somebody once said that M. Night Shyamalan more or less recreates an episode of ‘Twilight Zone’ in all his features. We wish! In reality this is filmmaking by numbers, aiming for mystery yet putting his cards on the table one by one the writer director is caught in his own universe with a tried and tested formula – OLD is just that. 

Based on the graphic novel ‘Sandcastle’ by Frederick Peters and Pierre-Oscar Levy, it sees a group of hotel guests unable to escape their a nightmare tropical holiday when they find themselves trapped on their beautiful beach ageing rapidly at an alarming rate in fanciful camerawork provided by DoP Mike Gureckis.

Married couple Guy (Bernal) and Prisca (Krieps) are giving their relationship a final try on the island idyll, with their two young children Trent and Maddox. Prisca develops a tumour in the blink of an eye – shock-horror-gasp. Another couple, Charles (Sewell) and wife Chrystal (Abbey Lee) and their young daughter Kara (Scanlen) are also victims of the ageing process; whilst a third couple, Jarin (Lesung) and Patricia (Amuka-Bird) are written out of the narrative early on. Prisca and Guy eventually make peace in the evening but by now the adult Trent (Elliot) and Maddox (Davidtz) are desperate to get away. A famous rapper (Pierre), going by the name of Mid-Sized Sedan, is not even spared, despite his fame.

Meanwhile Charles, who may or may not be a schizophrenic, is trying to remove Prisca’s tumour hampered by his inability to the film that starred Brando and Nicholson together. You guessed it: Missouri Break.

A solid premise – age gets to us all in the end – could have led to a twist in the tale, instead Old goes out with a whimper. Rod Serling of ‘Twilight Zone’ fame would have winced. AS

IN CINEMAS

The Most Beautiful Boy in the World (2020)

Dir.: Kristina Lindstrom, Kristian Petri; Documentary with Björn Andrésen, Robine Roman, Annike Andrésen, Jessica Vennberg, Miriam Sambol, Margareta Krantz, Ryoko Ikeda; Sweden 2021, 93 min.

Swedish directors/writers Kristina Lindstrom (Palme) and Kristian Petri (Sommaren) explore the blighted life of actor/musician Björn Andrésen (*1955) who shot to international fame in 1971 as the blond youth Tadzio in Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice.

The remainder of the young man’s life resembles a Greek tragedy after a world-wide advertising campaign based on Andrésen’s androgynous image inspired, among others, Japanese Manga writers Ryoko Ikeda, sealing  his fate. But What’s crucial here is that Visconti ‘owned’ the image of the under-aged actor via a copyright agreement for three years.

Björn was the fifth of six actors Visconti tested in 1970 in Stockholm for role of Tadzio, the nemesis of gay composer Von Aschenbach, in the novel of the same name by Thomas Mann. Visconti intended to direct the movie for the big screen, having been obsessed by it for a long time. Paradoxically Visconti somehow got away with being a prominent member of the Italian Communist Party and a very wealthy aristocrat. He was openly gay (exceptional in Catholic Italy after WWII) and his film crew consisted mostly of members of the the same sexual orientation.
At the screening test, Visconti made Björn strip to his pants, making the teenager highly uneasy.

Visconti emerges a stern and authoritarian figure, issuing an edict: nobody could even so much as look at Björn. Meanwhile the director touted the teenager around at gay nightclubs during the film’s shoot in Venice, where – acceding to teenager “the waiters looked at me as if I was a particular rare food which they would devour at any time”.

Miriam Samboli was engaged by the production company to look after Björn as a governess, helping him with his homework, and Casting Agent Margareta Krantz. Word had it that Visconti was completely smitten by Björn:”Whenever he was with Björn, his whole body came alive.” The media circus gathered speed in 1971 after Death in Venice had its premiere in London with The Queen and Princess Anne in attendance. The festival in Cannes, a few few months later, made the young man into a worldwide star. He was particularly famous in Japan as the first ‘Western Idol’, and made some music records. Next came Paris, where a certain Mr. Durant paid Björn 500 francs a month as pocket money, and rented a flat for him. “I had never any of my own money during my travels round the world”.

But Björn still had his education to think about and at school the boys sneered at him for his ‘femininity’: “I only had to snap my fingers and ten girls would come running – I never learned the social skills to communicate with the other gender”.

Björn Andrésen amassed credits for 16 TV films and series (40 TV episodes), as well as eleven feature films. He had asked not to be cast in the “Tadzio” mould, because he wanted to escape the gay image. It goes without saying he never gained the same attention as he did in 1971.

But it would be wrong simply to blame the Visconti episode for Bjorn’s post 1971 career, there were clearly aspects in his childhood that contributed to his lack of ongoing success: Björn never knew his biological father and his mother Barbro, a writer and painter, committed suicide. We watch him in a heart-breaking scene with an archivist who shows him the police report of Barbro’s suicide. His sister Annike Andrésen, the siblings were born in the same year, and daughter Robine Roman paint a picture of a haunted man who never came to terms with fame. But the worst was still to come: Björn’s son Elvin died, nine months old, of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. He is convinced he died “because I loved him not enough, I was not up to it”.

The present sees him with supportive girlfriend Jessica Vennberg, who helps Björn clean his flat and fight off an eviction order from a Housing Association. A an adult he cuts a shy figure, hiding behind masses of hair: clearly not wanting to be seen.

DoP Erik Vallsten follows Björn Andrésen’s journey with a respectful distance: Here is a man so much hurt by the past  he is a whisper away from disaster, totally lacking agency or self determination. Lindstrom’s biopic echoes an uneasy silence, captured with empathy in this diligent and dignified portrait. AS

IN CINEMAS FROM 30 July 2021

The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960) Prime

Dir: Budd Boetticher | Cast: Ray Danton, Karen Steele, Elaine Stewart, Jesse Whir | US Neo-Noir 107’

After a run of intelligent and highly-regarded colour westerns, director Budd Boetticher made a remarkable about turn with this classic recreation of the roaring twenties. The Production Code was by 1960 losing its iron grip on Hollywood, and The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond came at just the right moment to recapture both the breezy amorality of the pre-Code crime films of thirty years earlier, while Lucien Ballard’s crisp black & white photography vividly evokes the look of the era.

The absurdly good-looking Ray Danton is unforgettable in the lead, and the amused charm he brings to the part rather subverts the film’s message that he owed his fall to his lack of basic humanity, since you’ve spent most the film enthusiastically rooting for him  @Richard Chatten

ON AMAZON PRIME

Sabaya (2021)

Dir.: Hogir Hirori; Documentary with Mahmud, Siham, Shadi, Sheik Zyad; Sweden 2021, 91 min.

Kurdish director/writer/DoP/editor Hogir Hirori (The Deminer) has certainly ventured where few other filmmakers dare to go: he follows Kurdish resistance fighters, both men and women, in their efforts to liberate young Kurdish women who have been abducted, raped and sold by members of Daesh, during their reign of terror which lasted from 2014 to 2019. The Yazidi, a Kurdish minority religion, was one of their fiercest opponents, and Daesh took it out on them: By 2016 over two thousand six hundred women and girls – some still babies – were abducted, 3793 remain as sex slaves until now, given the titular name of Sabaya by their captors.

Mahmud, a Syrian, seems to live where he works, the ‘Yazidi Home Centre’ in north-east Syria. Mahmud and Sheik Zyad, the director of the Centre, lead a group sending female “infiltrators” into the nearby ‘Al-Hol’ refuge camp to locate Yazidi women. Daesh is trying to reconstitute itself by selling Yazidi women to sex trafficking groups. Bereft of any political aim, they are simply a Mafia organisation. Some of the Yazidi women are sold up to 15 times to different sex-slave operators. The fighter’s most important allies are older Arabic women who “look after” the captured Kurdish women evading Mahmud and his female spies by changing tents when the liberators arrive. The search is hampered by their inability to identify the women, post capture, and this is their main setback. Even when a positive identification is made, the real trouble begins: the liberators – including Hirori – are shot at in their cars, and near the end there is an armed attack on the Centre itself. Eylol, the commander of the female troops, also has to use rifles. The number of nationalities in the Camp makes is even more difficult and dangerous to spring the Yazidi women: 58 nationalities are involved, among them citizens of Morocco, Tunisia, Russia, Chechnya, France and Somalia.

Mahmund, whose wife Siham and young son Shadi suffer from his regular absence; but when he visits the nearby Hassaker Prison, where Daesh prisoners are kept, he can confirm the identity of Leila and Dilsoz, who were abducted from the city of Sinjar. Leila has a baby from her Daesh rapist/husband, but when even if her family are alive it’s doubtful they will welcome her with open arms. Finally, young Mitra, who is unable to speak or understand anything but Arabic, will be re-united with her parents – if they can be found. To date, 206 Yazidi women and girls have been rescued, 52 had children born after a rape. When Mahmud takes five of the liberated women to Sinjar, he brings back the same number of female infiltrators.

Like his ‘hosts’, Hirori certainly put his life at stake during the nightly raids. Sabaya is a chronicle of courage, it is filmed like a diary, avoiding dramatic arcs – the continuous action speaks for itself. It could be considered a thriller – but that would sensationalise its sad subject matter. The reality can be found in the faces of the ‘liberated’ women – to call hem the lucky ones would be a sad euphemism. Brutal and unforgiving, Sabaya is a unique tale, told under the most hazardous circumstances. AS

IN CINEMAS FROM 20 AUGUST 2021

 

The Fan (1949)

Dir: Otto Preminger | US Drama

Towards the end of his journeyman years at Fox, having recently completed Ernst Lubitsch’s final film, ‘That Lady in Ermine’ (1948); Otto Preminger next remade one his illustrious predecessor’s silent hits with strange results.

Although fluidly photographed by his collaborator on ‘Laura’, Joseph LaShelle, he later admitted that it was “one of the few pictures I already disliked while making it” and rather than a droll comedy of manners it bizarrely resembles a Victorian film noir in which characters occasionally come out with familiar Wildean epigrams (a sense compounded by the postwar framing story, from which it flashes back in the style of the forties).

Martita Hunt is menacing rather than comical during her fleeting appearances as the Duchess of Berwick; while Madeleine Carroll in what proved her final screen appearance as Mrs Erlynne is far from the glacial blonde we remember from her thirties films. @RichardChatten

The Worst Person in the World (2021) Cannes Film Festival

Dir: Joachim Trier | Wris Eskil Vogt, Joachim Trier | Norway, Romantic comedy 121′

Renate Reinsve won the Best Actress award at Cannes for being ‘the worst person in the world’ in Joachim Trier’s latest film. But her only crime is indecision in this morally complex character drama about freedom of choice for beautiful young things in the 21st century.

Julie is 30. A perfect age to be alive in Oslo where she lives with her boyfriend Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie, who also stars in Bergman’s Island), a successful cartoonist who adds a thoughtful stability to Julie’s spirited self-focus. The choppily edited early scenes see Julie reinventing herself in various career choices: medicine then psychoanalysis, then photography. Her mother is supportive then exasperated in an upbeat narrative that regularly spins off in various directions but never loses its central focus in a script co-written by Eskil Vogt.

Aksel’s career is going from strength to strength and he wants to start a family. But Julie’s is conflicted and even more so after the two spend a fraught weekend with his family where other smug couples make her feel uncomfortable with her lack of decision. What follows is series of episodes where Julie toys with her career choices and the men in her life, Aksel becoming more and more disenchanted with her constant forays into pastures new.

Divided into twelve chapters, a prologue and epilogue, the film fizzes with light-hearted fun never making Julie out to be callous – she is sensitive and likeable – but feels a genuine uncertainty about her emotional status in a society that seems to funnel us into a lemming like direction of commitment. There is melancholy too especially in the final chapter where Julie is made aware of the impact of her choices, or lack of them. Sometimes splashy but always entertaining this is a watchable chronicle of modern millennial life. MT

The Single Standard (1929)

Dir: John S Robertson | Cast: Greta Garbo, Nils Asther, Johnny Mack Brown, Dorothy Sebastian | US Drama 89′ Silent

The second of three silent features featuring Garbo released in 1929 while MGM scratched its head pondering how they were to promote her as an attraction in talkies; The Single Standard was also her second feature in a row pairing her with fellow Swede Nils Asther.

Garbo is improbably introduced as All-American party girl Arden Stuart, presumably loaded, but of whose life and means prior to the wild party in an enormous Art Deco mansion with which the film begins we learn nothing. Despite the provocative title – vaguely advanced at one point as some sort of feminist statement about the social constraints placed upon women – The Single Standard swiftly turns into a standard Garbo vehicle in which after flirting with modernity in the form of motor rides at seventy m.p.h. and a dalliance with pugilist turned artist Asther she ultimately embraces respectability and parenthood with John Mack Brown for the sake of her cute little curly-haired moppet of a son.

The name of director John S. Robertson isn’t much recalled today, even by connoisseurs of silent cinema (unless they’re also connoisseurs of horror cinema, since he directed the John Barrymore version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in 1920), but he does a good job here with the assistance of high-priced Metro talent like cameraman Oliver Marsh, art director Cedric Gibbons, costume designer Adrian and whoever was responsible for Garbo’s various hairstyles which subtly changed as the film ran its course to reflect her developing emotional state. @Richard Chatten

 

All Things Bakelite (2018)

Dir.: John E. Maher; Documentary about Leo Hendrik Baekeland, narrated by Adam Behr; USA 2018, 59 min.

Everything you needed to know about the origins of plastic is here in John E Maher’s watchable docu-drama that sheds a light Leo Hendrik Baekeland (1863-1944), the Belgian born inventor of Bakelite, which under its common name, Plastic, has dominated our lives since 1907.

Plastic is a dirty word nowadays, but it was hailed as a miracle back in the day when Baekeland first invented the substance. His biographer, Carl Kaufmann, and even a flamenco dancer sing his praises, Mark Ferreira, re-creating dramatised insight into the genius who was not keen on other people.

Born in Ghent, Baekeland married Celine Swarts, the daughter of his professor at the town’s university. But instead of following in the footsteps of his father-in-law, he emigrated with his wife to the USA in 1889. The couple would have three children, two of which survived their childhood. An inventor at heart, Baekeland struck gold first by coming up with a new photographic paper in 1893, the rights of which were bought up by the Eastman company making Baekeland independent and ready for the big step forward in 1907.

Bakelite was a mixture of phenol and formaldehyde, but Baekeland “hit a wall, like his competitors, but he found a door”. The original mixture was too sticky to be formatted, and it took Baekeland 680 attempts to find a solution for its adaption in all forms possible. Radio, telephone, cars – all mass-produced articles soon relied on the new invention. Others copied Baekeland, and only in 1923 did a judge gave him he sole right for the production of the new formulary.

Baekeland was in love with cars, he even got a speeding ticket for driving at 30 in a 20 mph zone. But behind the scenes, he was an anxious, lonely and nervous man, just the opposite his wife, a socialite who loved to give parties. Her husband felt safest on his yacht, where he spent hours on his own: “He was not a people person”.

But Bakelite would soon find its way into Hollywood: art-deco design dominated the features of Busby Berkeley, and, on the other end of the spectrum, the invention of the first Baby Monitor in 1937. In 1940 Bakelite was the foundation for the first Hawaiian guitar, which was played later on SNL. But crucially the film points to the inevitable downside: plastic is not bio-degradable and will be with us forever – even if, in the future new components make it more eco friendly.

That hydrogen bombs also have a use for Bakelite, is another irony and makes a quote by Kaufmann particularly poignant: “Plastic is the finest and worst expression of mankind”. Baekeland, who was nocturnal in his habits, often feeling like a ‘wandering ghost’, leaves us with pithy food for thought, a Professor of the History of Design at Pratt Institute exclaiming “the heart of Bakelite is the American soul”.

Short and to the point, Maher uses archive material to make his points, his re-staging of Baekeland life is not always successful, and his admiration for chemistry as a whole is obviously questionable. Still, we get to know the man who left us with a major long-term problem, by solving all our daily needs. AS

ON DIGITAL PLATFORMS WORLDWIDE

Joy Womack: The White Swan (2020)

Dir.: Dina Burlis, Sergey Gawrilov; Documentary with Joy Annabelle Womack, Nikita Ivanov-Goncharov, Masha Beck, Elizabeth Shockman; USA 2021, 91 min.

A culture of bribery and corruption in Russia’s Bolshoi Ballet provides the cut and thrust of this new documentary, seen through eyes of Prima ballerina Joy Womack.

Born in 1994, Womack grew up in California and Texas, even though she is ethnically Russian. At the age of 15 she left her family and went to train at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in 2009, later becomeing a member of the Bolshoi Ballet proper – quite an achievement and a ‘first’ for an American. But she would resign in 2013 when the scandal became public, later joining the Kremlin Ballet Theatre Moscow where she performed the leading role in ‘Swan Lake’ and other iconic parts in the repertoire.

Told in a series of flashbacks that culminate in her performance in ‘Swan Lake’ at the Kremlin Ballet Theatre – the film is a hotchpotch of episodes  in Womack’s life: there are highlights of her training and rehearsals, and her close relationship with ex-partner Nikita Ivanov-Goncharov. Two biographers, Masha Beck and Elizabeth Shockman are the main commentators, often rather too gushing in style giving the undertaking a hagiographic flavour. Training to be a dancer is gruelling and psychologically stressful: at one point Womack needed complex and expensive surgery after dancing with a fractured foot, just because no understudy was available. Fortunately her church provided the financing for her operation, because her family had gone bankrupt.

Most dancers suffer from weight problems, and Joy is no different. Weighing at one point only 38 kg, she developed an eating disorder, along with many of her colleagues. One point of contention between Joy and Nikita, also a dancer, was her total commitment to work. Womack is clear about her goals in life: “More work is good, no compromises. I train at the gym, practice my yoga, run a bible group and attend church. I could not do all this if I was still with Nikita. Many things make me into a better dancer and a better person. For me, works comes first, and I consider it impossible to combine work and personal life”.

Sadly, Nikita, now a choreographer, has to accept she’s married to her work with almost religious devotion. But it wasn’t a happy decision and she misses him: “He does not understand it, he is heartbroken. My heart aches for him.” When she left the Kremlin Ballet Theatre for a position in Seoul, she was adamant to burn no bridges: “Moscow will be always my home, I think of it as a base”.

Structurally flawed due to its confusing non-linear timeline – makes this a confusing to watch, but Womack herself is very much a documentary filmmaker’s dream: outspoken and always willing to take centre stage, she is a force of nature to be reckoned with, even if her underlying need for entitlement is sometimes grating.

Lively and action-packed throughout its running time, this portrait of a woman bulldozing herself through life, taking no prisoners is impressive. AS

OUT ON 19 JULY 2021

Handsome (2021)

Dir.: Luke White; Documentary with Nick and Alex Bourne, Molly and Charles Somers, Amber and Armand Maillard, Krich and Sachit Matrega, Thanh Nam and Tranh Viet; UK 2021, 98 min.

This adventurous new documentary from writer/filmmaker Luke White (Blood Money) who embarks on a international search for care-givers for those suffering from Down’s Syndrome. The idea was inspired by his friend Nick Bourne who also looks after an affected sibling, and has come to the stage where he wants to develop his own life. So he takes his brother Alex on a journey round the world, to explore others are coping in his position.

First stop is Cornwall, where Molly Somers looks after her brother Charles (Charlie). Their home is in an idyllic country setting, and Molly is fiercely protective of her brother who clearly brings out her motherly instincts. Compared with Alex, Charlie’s Down’s is quite mild, and he gets on well with his sister, Nick feeling rather envious of their closeness. Obviously it helps if you can through money at the situation, but despite family wealth Molly is determined not to hide reality from Charlie: “He knows he is different.”

Next stop is New York, where Nick and Alex visit City worker Amber who in naturally concerned that caring for her brother Armand will have a negative impact of her own career.  Again, it looks like Nick is over-estimating his brother’s mental capacity and lack of verbal dexterity – which he blames on his parents for sending the boy for speech therapy. Alex can also be overbearing and this is another area Nick must confront as his brother matures into a manhood. There is a tendency for both Amber and Nick to refer to their siblings in the third party, even when they’re actually in the same room, they also need to keep them in the loop, so this in part understandable.

Government help is non-existent, but funding would their lives so much easier. At its the same in Mumbai, where Nick and Alex meet Krich and Sachit Matrega. To start with, Sachit is not badly affected by his Down’s: an accomplished cook, he can also organise his domestic life. Krich shows Nick some self-help organisations in the slums.

On their final stop, in Hanoi, Vietnam, Nick and Alex meet brothers Than Nam and Tranh Viet. The situation here is dire, religious fortune-tellers spin their lies for profit, and even worse, unqualified doctors perform brain-surgery offering false hope to all involved. The two also come across victims of “Agent Orange”, the toxic nerve gas sprayed from planes by American troops from their planes during the war. At the end of the fact-finding mission Nick has reached a decision.

Handsome is often hard to watch, the emotions are so raw. Somehow it feels like we’re intruding into the intimate lives of those affected, and that often feels wrong. Handsome is simply overloaded with human suffering. There are complex issues at stake but White does his best in the  cannot be worked out in a mere 98 minutes. AS

ON DEMAND FROM 30 AUGUST

 

Shorta (2020)

Dir.: Frederik Louis Hviid, Anders Olholm; Cast: Jacob Lohmann. Simon Sears, Tarek Zayat, Al Jabouri, Issa Khattab; Denmark 2020, 108 min.

Shorta is an intelligent a police thriller tucking a range of weighty social issues firmly under its belt for an adrenaline-powered ride.

Danish first time directors/writers Frederik Hviid and Anders Olholm unpack the role of the today’s police in a crime caper that never lets up in dealing with racism, immigration and misogyny. The violence is hard-hitting but never gratuitous.

We start with the familiar good cop/bad cop routine: a day after a teenage immigrant is gravely injured by police, the squad boss asks officer Jens Hoyer (Sears) to keep an eye on fellow officer Jacob Lohmann (Andersen) who has a track records of open racism and misogyny, and enjoys provoking immigrants – something to be avoided on a day of high tension, even so when their patrol covers the infamous Svalegarden estate where the young victim lived.

At first the cops’ behaviour is true to form: Hoyer the voice of reason, Lohmann a brutal bully. Their relationship is made even more fraught by Jens having been a witness when the teenager was put in an arm lock by the police. Lohmann more or less threatens Hoyer to lie to the internal investigators maintaining that no excess force was used during the incident – appealing to his esprit de corps. Enter Amos (Zayat), a teenager from the same estate, deliberately throwing a milkshake at the two officers in the squad car. Amos is arrested and it soon emerges that  the victim of police brutality has died in hospital and more violence follows for all concerned.

Although the director keeps his distance, his message is clear as day: the police cannot be expected to deal with issues caused by politics and parents who are no longer responsible or even interested in their kids. There are two scenes which really are heart-breaking: Lohmann fighting a German Shepherd in a lift: no prizes for guessing who survives. When are filmmakers going to stop kill off their dog characters? Still, Shorta makes its point and is entertaining – if you disconnect from reality. AS

ON RELEASE IN CINEMAS FROM 30 AUGUST 2021

Souad (2021)

Dir.: Ayten Amin; Cast: Bassant Ahmed, Basmala Elghaiesh, Hager Mahmoud, Hussain Ghanem, Carol Ackad, Sarah Shedid, Islam Shalaby, Mona Elnamoury; Egypt/Germany/ Tunisia, 96 min.

Egyptian director/co-writer Ayten Anin (Villa 69) offers a snapshot of the younger female generation symbolising all the contradictions of Muslim countries like Egypt, where their modern world is on collusion course with the more traditional background of their families. Amin has her narrative structured in chapters, the headings go with the main protagonists.

Chapter one, named after the titular heroine, nineteen-year old Souad (Bassant), begins in a commuter bus where Souad tells a woman seated next to her all about her fiancé Ahmed who is serving in the army, a fact that frightens her – but she can’t wait to get married and loves his family.  Next, she is in another bus with another woman, and this time Souad’s fiancé is still Ahmed, but this time he’s a surgeon in Cairo, and Souad herself is studying medicine, coming from a family of doctors.

The reality is very different, when we watch Souad in the small flat she shares with her younger sister Rabab (Elgaiesh) and her traditional parents (Shalaby/Elnamoury). They live in Zagazig, a fraught industrial town. Souad and her girfriends Yara (Ackad), Amira (Shedid) and Rabab are addicted to their mobiles – to the exclusion of nearly everything else.

Souad likes to flirt, particularly with the rather wild Wessam (Mahmoud), but her true love is Ahmed (Ghanem) although he lives 300 miles away in an upmarket part of Alexandria. Ahmed is a budding influencer on the insta, and the two share photos and poems, even engaging in phone sex. They will never meet, because Souad, anxious about her exam results, throws herself from the balcony of the flat.

For her parents it’s enough that she died a virgin, the rest is “God’s will”. Basically, the feature starts again when Rabab, who has inherited Souad’s mobile, travels to Alexandria to meet Ahmed, to “give him a present from Souad”. Rabab falls for Ahmed’s charm, just like her sister, but at only sixteen she is more realistic, far too young to have a fiancé. Ahmed is now betrothed to an upper-class girl from a leading family but he’s decent enough to admit to Rabab that he did love Souad although she well aware of the situation. Ironically, she passed all her exams.

Souad’s confabulations are not uncommon for a young woman of her age, but is also clear, that she – and her friends – are used to living in a parallel universe, where shopping with her mother for a new hijab, collides with her activities on the mobile. What is also pivotal is the lack of understand about her depression. The friends’ rivalry is certainly part of it – they argued about the use of cosmetics to make them look whiter, among other issues. But rather than explore her psyche Amin is more interested in the impact her death made on her family and friends. What is crucial here the affects of societal repression on a whole generation of young Muslim women in countries dominated by a male-orientated religion.

The ensemble acting is brilliant; Ahmed and Elghaiesh won joint “Best Actress” at Tribeca this year. DoP Maged Nader excels both in close-ups and a roaming camera in the cities of Zagazig and Alexandria, underscoring the social divide that impacted on Souad’s wellbeing. Ayten Amin directs with great sensibility in this moving expose of Arab society. AS

ON RELEASE IN AUGUST 2021

Goodbye Morons | Adieu les cons (2021)

Dir.: Albert Dupontel; Cast: Virginie Efira, Albert Dupontel, Nicholas Marie, Jackie Berroyer, Bsstian Ughetto, Marilou Aussilloux, Josephine Helin; France 2020, 87 min.

Winning no fewer than six César’s at this March’s ceremony, Goodbye Morons is populist and playfully anarchic hitting just the right tone despite the odd cliché.

Comedy meets tragedy in the lives of three people: a dying woman and a suicidal software programmer in charge of national security who team up with a blind archivist to locate the woman’s long lost child.

Forty-three year-old hairdresser Suze Trappet (Efira) has fallen victim to the longterm hazard of aerosol hairsprays used in her saloon. But making contact with her son, given up for adoption, is her main priority before she goes. What follows is a fraught and hilarious struggle to see the teenage Alter Ego (Helin), assisted by soft-ware developer Jean-Baptiste Cuchas (Dupontel) whose attempts to end it all, after being sacked, only end up injuring a colleague in the next room.

Blind archivist Monsieur Blin, already a victim of police brutality, comes to Suze and JB’s rescue and their research leads them to Dr. Lint (Berroyer), the obstetrician who delivered young Suze’s baby boy. But Dr. Lint is suffering from Alzheimer’s and lives in a care home. To make matters worse his handwritten diaries are illegible, only his wife can decipher them. Eventually the trio finds success of sorts but this happy-end is overshadowed by a showcase showdown in true ‘Thelma and Louise’ fashion.

DoP Alexis Kavyrchine uses all the tricks in the book with his avant-garde electronic surveillance methods. Nobody is safe from the government, thanks to JB, but turning the tables on them proves counterproductive. Once again the comedy lies in the ridiculous red-tape. Dupontel melding machines with the mindless men in charge. A comedy enforcing a barbed message: our technicians are even less humane than the systems themselves. AS

NOW ON RELEASE AT CURZON CINEMAS NATIONWIDE

Don’t Take it to Heart (1944)

Dir: Jeffrey Dell | Cast: Richard Bird, Edward Rigby, Esma Cannon, Ivor Barnard | UK Drama 90′

Jeffrey Dell’s best remembered credit as a director is probably Carlton-Browne of the F. O., which he co-directed fifteen years later with Roy Boulting; and which looks like Ken Loach compared to this frenzied exercise in garrulous lunacy set in Chaunduyt (pronounced ‘Condit’), a fictitious rural community with an inbred population whose surnames tend to be either ‘Bucket’ or ‘Pail’.

Richard Greene is just a hole in the screen as the supposed ‘hero’ (compensated for by a very young Patricia Medina as a button-eyed socialist in jodhpurs). However, it looks good and has a typically wondrous supporting cast of the period. But it’s never actually as funny as it should be (despite the exclamation mark in the title and the soundtrack’s strenuous efforts to convince us how hilarious this all is), and the interminable courtroom section that takes up much of the second half of the film is a pale (or should that be ‘Pail’?) echo of the equivalent sequence in Passport to Pimlico.@Richard Chatten

 

The Surrogate (2020)

Dir.: Jeremy Hersh; Cast: Jasmine Batchelor, Chris Perfetti, Sullivan Jones, Brook Bloom, Tonya Pinkins; USA 2020, 93 min.

Made on a (crowd funded) mini-budget, The Surrogate is one of those worthy films you really want to like: Take a pregnancy, a Down’s Syndrome baby, a surrogate mother and two gay ‘fathers’ and you have the recipe for a success. But no, Hersh’s script lets him down, and the actors can’t help.

The titular surrogate mother is Jess Harris (Batchelor), who, in spite of an MA, is having difficulties as a web designer for a Non-Profit outfit which does nothing to value to her efforts. Jess throws all her energies into becoming a surrogate mother for best friends Josh (Perfetti) and Aaron  Jones (a lawyer for a prestigious law firm, who has drawn up a contract between Jess and the gay couple).

Since surrogacy is illegal in the State of New York, money cannot change hands. But after the first euphoria, it turns out the baby’s genetic make-up points to Down’s Syndrome. At first, Jess intends to leave the abortion option to the men, but after they voice support for a termination, Jess becomes a saint-like fighter for the unborn baby, taking the couple to a Help Centre for those affected and a visit to family with a Special Needs child. Eventually she literally rail-roads a mother of an afflicted child into answering all her questions about why she, Jess, should not terminate the pregnancy. The bemused mother just can’t give an affirmative answer. From selfless helper, Jess becomes increasingly judgemental when the men decide, once and for all, to opt for a termination.

Hersh’s characters are rather one dimensional, the gay couple only defined by their sexuality. Jess’ family members come and go, so does a sudden love interest. We are left with a hectoring main character who pushes forward ideological points of view, rather that a real person full of contradictions and doubts.

DoP Mia Cioffi Henry tries her best with the mundane environment, but the narrative only really offers her talking-head shots, All the performances suffer from Jess’s central position – the feature being determined by a morality-play insincerity. Many valid questions are raised, but are left hanging in the air. AS

IN CINEMAS FROM 9 JULY

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

West 11 (1963) Blu-ray

Dir: Michael Winner | Cast: Diana Dors, Eric Portman, Alfred Lynch, Kathleen Breck | UK Crime Drama 93′

Michael Winner’s social realist crime caper is not his best by long chalk, lacking the heft to transport into the realms of a gritty thriller or an involving drama. Captured by Otto Heller’s inventive camera it certainly evokes the seedy squalor of 1960s Kensington well before gentrification made it trendy ‘Notting Hill’. The cast was intended to include Oliver Reed for the lead role of Joe Beckett. Instead Alfred Lynch stepped in as an aimless office worker recruited into crime by Eric Portman’s lowlife gangster. Beckett’s two complementary love interests are a smouldering Diana Dors and coquettish Kathleen Breck but the feature the lacks the verve of so many other outings of the era despite a decent script from Keith Waterhouse, based on Laura del Rivo’s ‘The Furnished Room’. MT

NOW ON STUDIO CANAL DVD, BLURAY and DIGITAL DOWNLOAD FROM 5 JULY 2021

 

Ultraviolence (2020) Bfi player

Dir.: Ken Fero; Documentary with Vivian Figueiredo, Lucy Chadwill, Brenda Weinberg, Amy Sey, Myrna Simpson; UK 2020, 75 min.

Director Ken Fero has teamed up again with writer Tariq Mehmood, the co-director of their 2001 documentary Injustice, to follow up on the topic of death in police custody in the UK: a thousand people died between 1969 and 2006, most of them people of colour. Fero has framed Ultraviolence as a letter to his son using Godard and Marker, among others, for the non-linear chapter structure dedicated to a victim of police brutality.

Injustice more or less killed off Fero’s career. It won several awards but was never shown on TV after the Police Federation threatened all media platforms with legal action, Fero threatened to sue them for loss of earnings but never received a reply. But it took a personal case for the director to engage again: Brian Douglas, a sports- and music promoter, happened to be a class mate of Fero at secondary school; he was stopped in May 1995 by constables Mark Tuffey and Paul Harrison in Clapham. Brian was struck with an American-style long-handled baton by PC Tuffey. Despite vomiting in his cell in Kennington Police Station, Douglas was only taken to hospital 14 hours later. He had a fractured skull and damage to his brain stem, dying five days later. At the inquest Tulley said his baton slipped accidentally when he hit Douglas on the shoulder. Evidence at the inquest revealed that the force of the blow was the equivalent of being dropped from eleven times his own height onto his head. The jury returned a verdict of misadventure, a verdict later challenged unsuccessfully by the Douglas family at the High Court.

Nuur Saeed, Paul Coker and Christopher Alder suffered equally gruesome deaths. The most clear-cut case of manslaughter (if not worse), is the case of Brazilian electrician Jean Charles de Menezes, who was shot after running away from Metropolitan Police hunting the Middle-Eastern perpetrators of a recent London suicide bombing. The policemen shot de Menezes seven time in the head, without even making an effort to talk to him in Stockwell Station. Vivian Figueiredo, Charles’ cousin, is one the many family members to this day is asking for justice. “Unity will give us strength to win” is one of her battle cries. Only, they do not win. An Independent Police Complaints Commission report concludes that the then Commissioner, Ian Blair, “was not served well by his staff, that his private office failed to keep him informed, but does not uphold allegations of a cover-up against him. No police officer is charged.” The family is left bewildered: “A man is shot in the head and yet their conclusion is no one is accountable?”

The most disturbing CCTV footage is from Plumstead Police Station, where Paul Coker died in August 2005. He became slightly paranoid in the flat of his girlfriend Lucy Chadick. She called the police, who arrested him. Chadwick told the police, that she heard Paul crying out to the police “You are hurting me, I can’t breathe, you are killing me”. He was carried by the police down the stairs, his head lolling from site to site. Later in the Police station, the policemen laughed about him “He is an evil fucker”. “He has already assaulted four officers”. “Its amazing the strength of the fucker to try and do that.”

There is at least one moment of redemption for the family of Brian Douglas. In 2006, eleven years after the killing of Brian, Mark Tuffey was in court, facing criminal charges. He had been reported by a fellow officer of kicking a black man and calling him a “dirty black cxxx”. Tuffey was convicted of aggravated behaviour and ordered to pay £400 fine and £400 cost. “It felt good to know he would no longer be a serving officer, as he had continued after Brian’s death. I walked away from court not necessarily victorious but that a little piece of justice had been done”, said Douglas’ sister Brenda Weinberg.

There is a certain overreach by Fero: He tries to connect the topic of his feature with wars like Vietnam and Iraq, trying to find a common strategy to end all violence. But the lively images of DoPs Koutaiba Al Janabi and Souleman Garcia are enough to support the continuous fight of the families of the victims. Their dedication stands for itself. AS

ON RELEASE FROM 16 JULY 2021

Joan of Arc (1948)

Dir: Victor Fleming | Cast: Ingrid Bergman, Jose Ferrer, Selena Royle, Robert Barrat, Jimmy Lydon, Rand Brooks | US Drama 145′

As befits a film based on a play, this independent production is a slow, talky, studio-bound affair, shot in the rather cramped confines of the Hal Roach Studios in Culver City (with most of the exteriors and even the very perfunctory battle scenes obviously shot on sound stages under immobile clouds); rendered slower still by the number of close-ups (ravishing as they are) shot by director Victor Fleming of his beautiful (and expensive) old flame Ingrid Bergman.

Although naturally nominated for several Academy Awards – receiving Oscars for its costume design and Technicolor photography – the latter accolade immediately lost its lustre when Natalie Kalmus of Technicolor went over the heads of the Academy by presenting a special award to The Red Shoes.

Joan’s army is populated by bruisers like Ward Bond and Ray Teal in pudding bowl haircuts; while as the “poor, mad maid from Lorraine”, big, strapping Scandinavian Ingrid Bergman makes (as her own father observes after she has her hair bobbed) “a handsome lad”. She looks fitter still in armour. But the film, alas, isn’t even halfway through before (SPOILER COMING:) she receives a crossbow bolt to the shoulder. @Richard Chatten

NOW ON PRIME VIDEO

Violet Evergarden: The Movie (2020)

Dir.: Taiochi Ishidate; Voices of Yui Ishikawa, Daisuke Namikawa, Haruka Tomatsu, Sumire Morohoshi; Takehito Koyasu; Japan 2020, 140 min.

It all started with a series of novels by Kana Akatsuki, featuring Violet Evergarden, a child soldier from an unspecified conflict in the early 20th century. A TV anime version was created in 2018 and streamed at Netflix.

A spin-off feature, Violet Evergarden: Eternity and the Auto Memory Doll was released in 2019, the first release at Kyoto Animation Studio after the deadly arson fire. But Violet Evergarden; The Movie (written by Reiko Yoshida), the final chapter of the series, had to be postponed twice: first as a result of the studio fire, then because of Covid-19.

The feature is delivered in the typical Kyoto animation (‘KyoAni’) style: a romantic melodrama with phantasy elements. Whilst Violet (Ishikawa) dominates the proceedings, Yuris, a young, terminally ill boy is the narrator. He asks Violet, a ‘memory doll’, to write letters to his parents and a friend he fell out with. Violet’s profession as a letter-writer for people who cannot express their feelings in words is also very much a self-help project.

At the end of war, the dying Major Gilbert (Namikawa) confessed to object of his dreams: “I love you”. Violet never really understood the concept of romantic love so he tries to come to terms with her past by expressing emotions on behalf of others as a sort of ghost writer. Eventually her skills become more and more redundant, with the  invention of the telephone, and conflicting memories of Major Gilbert start to surface.

The Movie also takes up strands from the series, with characters Anne and Daisy, whom she had helped with her letters during over the generations featuring in the storyline. The narrative brings to together the interplay between the episodic strands and the overarching history of Violet. It all culminates on a remote island where Gilbert, who lost an eye and an arm during the war, is very much alive. A letter gets Violet to the island, but Gilbert does not want to see her. Spoiler alert: there will be a happy end after the final credits – don’t leave before!

The story plays out against vast and shimmering cityscapes. Computer-generated water sometimes collides with the hand-painted background . Character design is very elegant, conjuring up the many decades of the past the narrative is covering. Equally impressive are the fantastical elements of the mechanical arms. The images focus on small objects in the rooms, the characters are caught in long panning shots, in which the background signifies their emotional state. The very detailed animation of tears – making sobbing really look gorgeous – is certainly a speciality of ‘KyoAni’. But overall, the expressive characters archive a lot with minimal exaggeration.

Violet Evergarden is a feast of visual fireworks, there is so much to admire, feelings and emotions taking centre stage, absorbing us in a storyline that never out stays its welcome despite the prodigious running. A real joy. AS

ON RELEASE FROM 1 JULY 2021

False Positive (2021) TriBeCa 2021

Dir/Wri: John Lee | Cast: Ilana Glazer, Justin Theroux, Pierce Brosnan, Gretchen Mol, Sophia Bush, Zainab Jah, Josh Hamilton, Sabina Gadecki, Jaygee Macapugay, Danielle Slavick, Lucy Walters, Kelly AuCoin, Nils Lawton, Sullivan Jones | US Fantasy thriller 92′

Ilana Glazer co-wrote the script for False Positive in which she also stars as Lucy, a desperate New Yorker trying to get pregnant with her husband Adrian (Theroux). But this is no ordinary fertility drama – there are quirky bits like the scene where Adrian jacks off to an extreme bondage video to provide the sperm for the procedure – and so we’re not surprised when events turn more sinister as the psychological thriller unfolds with its feint echoes of Rosemary’s Baby, naturally minus Polanski’s iconic allure.

A pompous Pierce Brosnan (channelling Vincent Price) is the archetypal maverick fertility expert (and cosmetic surgeon) Dr Hindle who treats Lucy in his new age clinic where he has masterminded an enigmatic ground-breaking technique. After jumping the queue thanks to Adrian’s medical connections with the good doctor, all goes according to plan and soon Lucy is pregnant with – not one – but three potential babies: twin boys and a singleton girl. But something’s not right. And there’s not room for the three foetuses to develop, so amidst growing paranoia and a need for ‘selective reduction’ Lucy and Adrian must a harrowing decision to abort either the two boys or the girl. And they decide to keep the girl naming her ‘Wendy’ in line with the film’s burgeoning ‘Peter Pan’ motif.

Midsommer and Hereditory DoP Pawel Pogorzelski creates some sinuous visuals which add to a sinister soundscape pulsing away in the background (including a dulcet performance from Marcia Henderson of “Who Am I” from the 1950 Broadway musical Peter Pan). False Positive makes for a chilling addition to the small but perfectly formed fertility horror genre which relies on women’s natural fears and anxieties surrounding safe pregnancy and birth to drive the story forward sending it soaring into stratospheric realms of terror.

To add grist to the fearful misogynist maelstrom, derogatory phrases such as “mummy brain” are frequently bandied about in a patriarchal culture that still seems to persist in today’s medical establishment. Lee interweaves photos from the archives showing the gruesome possibilities when childbirth goes wrong, but this feels tonally out of kilter with the otherwise slick drama unfolding that even hints at artificial selection.

Meanwhile, Lucy is desperately trying to keep her job as a marketing consultant on track. Late in the day she decides to change her ‘birthplan’ after bizarre developments with Dr Hindle cause her to seek out a new midwife, the mysterious Grace Singleton (Zainab Jha).

Convincing performances from the central trio are what makes this compelling, based on an original story by John Lee and Alissa Nutting. This is a stealthy psychological thriller that keeps us glued to the screen despite some awkward elements showing that when the chips are down women can trust no one – least of all other women. That all said, the conclusion is definitely positive. MT

Tribeca Film Festival 2021

 

 

 

The Krays (1990) Blu-ray

Director:Peter Medak Screenwriter: Philip Ridley Cast: Billie Whitelaw Tom Bell Gary Kemp Martin Kemp Susan Fleetwood Charlotte Cornwell, Stephen Berkoff, Alfred Lynch | UK Drama 115′

Peter Medak’s thrilling drama about the Kray twins rattles with wartime angst – there’s an evocative scene in the underground the sound of bombs thundering overhead. The Krays (1933-95/2000) were a product of that stoical generation weaned on rations by a mother as tough as old boots who fought tooth and nail for them – here played by the indomitable Billie Whitelaw in a rather painterly portrayal of the legendary story. That said there’s some brutal violence, and plenty of scarlet bloodshed mostly involving swords.

Although we think of the Ronnie and Reggie Kray as 1960s mobsters it was all over for them by 1968 (they spent the rest of their lives in confinement). Their story really started in in the 1930s where we see them as nasty little boys growing up in the grimy backstreets of Haggerston well before they became the instigators of organised East End crime.

Their’s was not a pleasant household – and the family milieu seems to dominate here, their mother Violet threatening to slit their father’s throat in one of the more feisty scenes, the boys defending their mum against an emasculated father, their consumptive aunt Rose (Fleetwood) hovering in the background with her horror stories of being left at home while the men were being ‘heroes’ on the front.

The twins rise to glory in seen in sedate night clubs and fairground settings where their heyday played out against swing bands, Matt Munro and early Beatles. The deft touchstones of Philip Ridley’s textured script are school life, army service, mob and murder. There’s a sensitive turn from Kate Hardie as Reggie’s put-upon wife Frances. Martin and Gary Kemp are more psychopathic than thuggish as the sleek, twinkly-eyed twins – Medak brushed up against them in the East End while shooting another movie and felt the full force of their power. There’s an iconic turn from Tom Bell as Jack ‘the Hat’ McVitie, and where would we be without the snarling Steven Berkoff as George Cornell. And Jimmy Jewel as the grandad. The action is more glamorous than dark and dastardly but, as I said, this is more of a family drama. A social document of backstreet London in the aftermath to the Second World War. MT

NOW ON RELEASE COURTESY OF SECOND SIGHT | 12 JULY 2021

Vier um der Frau (2021)

Dir: Fritz Lang | Cast: Hermann Bottcher, Carola Toelle, Lilli Lohrer, Ludwig Hartau | Germany, Silent, 52′

Now a hundred years old! Despite resurfacing in Brazil in 1987 and now available on YouTube, this dynamic, good-looking little gem by Fritz Lang remains stubbornly overlooked by most film historians, yet is probably as lively as anything Lang ever made, based on a play by Rolf E, Vanloo, and a script by Thea von Harbou.

Like his earlier serial Die Spinnen, Lang’s template at the time was Louis Feuillade’s melodramatic tales of arch criminals transposed to what is presumably contemporary Berlin (although the time it was made is now far closer to Dickens than us), in which morals were loose, most of the characters wear large overcoats and hats signalling their social status (and one of the employees at the local restaurant is a little black kid). The production company plugs itself by making the local cinema prominently on view the Decla-Bioscop; while Teutonic thespians like Rudolf Klein-Rogge play characters with Anglo-Saxon names like ‘Upton’. @Richard Chatten

NOW ON YOUTUBE

Jazz on a Summer’s Day (1958) Curzon

Dir.: Bert Stern, Aram Avakian; Documentary with Theolonious Monk, Anita O’Day, Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson, Chico Hamilton, Chuck Berry; USA 1959, 85 min.

This documentary of the Newport Jazz Festival that took place at Freebody Park, Newport, Rhode Island in July 1958 is the only directional credit of fashion photographer Bert Stern; also one of three credited cameramen of Jazz. (His co-director Aram Avakian is best known for helming End of the Road (1970), which got a X-rating for showing an abortion).

Jazz is a lively interactive blast from the past, the crowd are major players in an event that captures the heady atmosphere of a free-wheeling and jubilant world on the cusp of the 1960s: the best was yet to come in this brave and promising new era. Of course, behind the scenes Behind Vietnam was raging and the filmmakers make a conscious decision not to include the mayhem caused by an influx of black citizens into the luxury enclave of Rhode Island. But they are big players as musicians and onlookers enjoying the pleasant July seaside resort.

The music is very mainstream, even by standards of the late 1950s. Looking at the list of omissions by the filmmakers – Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Duke Ellington with his band, and Mary Lou Williams – it becomes clear Jazz was meant to appeal to the widest audience possible. Still, it works, mainly because the lack if commentary, just the voice of emcee Willis Connover. The directors drift around the harbour too where yachts were competed in trials for the ‘America Cup’, adding a salty maritime edge to the sultry Southern singers. Their camera catches the Hamilton Quintet rehearsing in a nearby house, after which cellist Nathan Gershman plays Bach’s Cello Suite number one – just for himself.

Having said all this, there is a towering cast of musicians, dominated by female artists – Louis Armstrong (joyful as ever) and his “All Stars”, Anita O’Day (Sweet Georgia Brown), Dinah Washington (All of Me), R&B star Big Maybelle and Mahalia Jackson. At the beginning we get only a short glance of Theolonious Monk, playing “Blue Monk” with his trio, totally immersed in playing the piano, oblivious to what was going on around him. Chuck Berry enjoyed great applause for his version of “Sweet little sixteen”, even though it was originally a rock hit. But the night belonged to Mahalia Jackson, whose “The Lord’s Prayer” ran into Sunday morning.

The audience is shown intimately, not just a decorative backdrop, but a real participant. Some are serious devotees, others have brought their children and even babies to boogie along. A vicar and fan with his own 8mm camera are also on show. The consensus was to give the impression of a united nation, helped along by a decade of affluence. But the undocumented police interference was a sign of things to come. The near future would bring the murders of John F. Kennedy, his brother Bobby and the slaying of Martin Luther King amongst a growing Civil Rights movement. So looking back Newport 1958 appeared like a beacon of hope, in a world now lost for ever. We are left wondering how many of the earnest young citizens went on to the streets in the 1960s, protesting against the Vietnam War.

The film was shown at the Venice Film Festival in 1959 and the restored copy is much more than a Jazz documentary: A snapshot of a nation just before major turmoil would jumble the pieces leaving nothing in its place any more. Only the jazz survived. AS

A 4K RESTORATION ON CURZON | 30 AUGUST 2021

 

Last Man Standing: Suge Knight and the Murders of Biggie and Tupac (2021)

Dir.: Nick Broomfield; Documentary with Suge Knight, Tupac Shakur, Biggie, Pam Brooks, Russell Poole, Faith Evans, Greg Kading, Bernard Parks; USA 2021, 105 min.

Director/writer Nick Broomfield provides the sequel to his own documentary Biggie & Tupac (2002) about the founder and CEO of LA’s Death Row Records Suge Knight. Back in 2018 Knight was sentenced to 28 years in jail for the voluntary manslaughter of fellow music producer Terry Carter, CEO of Heavy Weight Records on 29.1.2015 in Compton, California.

The two had been friends; the same can be said about Knight’s relationship with the murdered Rappers Biggie and Tupac. Knight’s incarceration loosened the tongues of many witnesses, and opened up new avenues, including the involvement of the LAPD.

Suge Knight, born 1965 in Compton, Cal., was raised by his mother, keeping him away from the gang violence of the area: he was not allowed to play with certain groups and later had a college career as a footballer, followed by a short stint with the NFL team LA Raiders in 1987. Two years later, he began his career as music producer, which led to his founding of Death Row Records.

The company was soon involved in the Bloods versus Crypts gang warfare which overshadowed the music business along with the ultra violence and abusive lifestyle of his star performers. Substance abuse also featured heavily. Rapper Tupac Shakur was born in 1971 East Harlem to parents who were members of the Black Panther organisation. When he was jailed in 1995 for sexual offences, Knight paid his bail and added Tupac to his DRR stable a year later. Friends of Tupac (amongst them the producer Pam Brooks) remember how prison had changed Shakur: he was no longer interested in the progressive politics of his parents, but indulged in extreme behaviour: the henchmen of DRR even had women fighting each other, watching the proceedings like dog fights.

After Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg had left DRR, Shakur was the victim of a shooting in September 1996 in the aftermath to watching a Mike Tyson fight in Las Vegas. He died six days later. Biggie’s drive-by murder a year later in LA, again was credited to Knight, even though some members of DRR claim Tupac had a relationship with Faith Evans, Biggie’s wife.

But LAPD officer Russell Poole (1956-2015) was convinced that two of his colleges from the LAPD, Rafael Perez and David Mack, were involved in the shootings of both men. Poole died of a heart attack, after fighting in vain to uncover the guilt of the two officers. Mack was a former middle-distance runner, participating in the World Championship, but later became a bank robber and was sentenced to fourteen years in prison, until his release in 2010.

Even LAPD Police Chief Bernard Parks admitted to the involvement of the two officers. Meanwhile, Biggie’s mother, Voletta Wallace, claimed the LAPD knew the identity of her son’s murderers at the 20th anniversary of his death: A photo of three people, all clad in the red of the Blood gangs, features the daughter of LAPD chief Bernard Parks. It had since disappeared under mysterious circumstances.

Last Man Standing is a like an old fashioned who-done-it, with the background of sex and drugs fuelling an over-the-top atmosphere. DoP Joan Churchill adds a certain sense of realism, but Broomfield’s pursuit of the truth still feels very much like fiction. A roller-coaster ride of a very deadly music business. AS

WORLD PREMIERE SCREENING + EXCLUSIVE Q&A WITH NICK BROOMFIELD | HOSTED BY TREVOR NELSON | IN CINEMAS ONE NIGHT ONLY 30TH JUNE  | TICKETS:WWW.LASTMANSTANDING.FILM
| ON GENERAL RELEASE FROM 2ND JULY

Piccadilly (1929)

Dir.: Ewald André Dupont; Cast: Jameson Thomas, Gilda Gray, Cyril Ritchart, Anna May Wong, King Hou Chang, Charles Laughton; UK 1929, 109 min.

German director E.A. Dupont (1891-1956) did not make a success of the talkies in the advent of sound cinema, although his features set in the show-biz world: Variety (1925) Salto Mortale and Trapeze (1931) were visually ravishing.

Emigrating to Hollywood in 1933 brought him mostly failure, his twelve US films include the infamous Neanderthal Man from 1953. Piccadilly, based on the script by Arnold Bennett, was later ‘updated’ with scores and sound effects provided by Harry Gordon.

London Nightclub owner Valentine Wilmot (Thomas) is in love with dancer Mabel (Gray), brought in to boost the club’s clientele with her partner Vic (Ritchart). But one night an irate diner (Laughton) complaining about a dirty plate, interrupts Mabel’s performance, sending Wilmot into the kitchen where Shosho (Wong) is entrancing the workers with her table-top dancing routine. Wilmot fires her, and next morning Vic also resigns in a move that will lead to betrayal, lust and murder as he fights to save his club.

Wong captivates with her smouldering charisma DoP Werner Brandes showing the glamorous side of the glittering London nightlife with dreamy images, light and shadow transforming the set into an ethereal fantasy.

Unfortunately, Brandes would stay in Nazi Germany, shooting, among others, Veit Harlan’s propaganda film Der Herrscher (1937). Dupont would follow up with Atlantic, the Titanic story (1929), the major production resulting in a very costly flop despite its star turn Madeleine Caroll.

Anna May Wong soon left Hollywood, disenchanted by the portrayal of Asian characters as evil. Her European career never caught fire, so she returned to Hollywood to co-star in Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express (1932) alongside Marlene Dietrich. AS

PICCADILLY NOW ON BFI BLURAY ON 21 JUNE 2021

 

 

Flame in the Streets (1961)

Dir. Roy Ward Baker | Cast: John Mills, Sylvia Syms, Brenda de Banzie, Earl Cameron, Johnny Sekka | UK Drama 93′

Sixty years ago Sylvia Syms bravely accepted two parts as women facing ostracism because of their choice of partner. Most people know about Victim, but far fewer have seen this film, ironically preceded on Talking Pictures by a disclaimer warning audiences that the offensive language belonged to 1961, in those far off days when the opening credits were accompanied by a brief snatch of calypso rather than reggae or rap.

Yet the characters using such language are shown to be in the wrong; while the sentiments expressed – by members of all communities – are still routinely expressed today, but with less candour. And you only have to pick up any newspaper today at random to discover the sores this film reveals are still fresh. @Richard Chatten

The Christine Jorgensen Story (1970)

Dir: Irving Rapper |  US Drama 98′

Described by David Thomson as “possibly the most bizarre departure by any director once in steady work”. The Christine Jorgensen Story that explores identity confusion, is virtually a remake by Irving Rapper, the veteran gay director of Hollywood ‘women’s pictures’- then in his seventies – of his 1942 classic Now, Voyager.  Yet Bette Davis looked far more butch in her Warner Bros. prime than John Hansen ever does here.

Rapper was doubtless equipped to empathise with what was troubling his confused young ‘heroine’, and it shows in the film; although the Danish ‘heroine’s transformation is here brought about by surgery, rather than psychoanalysis and a makeover by Perc Westmore and Orry-Kelly.

Based on Jorgensen’s autobiography the film feels like a TV movie of the period, complete with a 50’s-style piano & violin score by the veteran team of Paul Sawtell & Bert Shefter, but with the addition of words like ‘clitoris’ and ‘testicles’ to the script, and a glimpse of a penis in a shower-room sequence (was this a Hollywood first?). With women today clamouring to be taken seriously as footballers and for basic training for the armed forces, young George’s dislike for these activities and preference for wearing dresses would not necessarily today be seen as evidence that he’s ‘really’ a woman. The discovery by Professor Estabrook (Will Kuluva) that George’s glands are secreting more oestrogen than testosterone curiously leads him to recommend cutting them off altogether rather than simply injecting him with testosterone. So off to Denmark it is, where the operation he is about to undergo is described in quite some detail by Dr.Dahlman (Oscar Beregi).

We finally meet Christine about two-thirds into the film, when Hansen is transformed into a better-looking version of John Lithgow in The World According to Garp rather than the elegant and articulate woman Jorgensen actually became. That his father is discovered to be waiting for ‘her’ at the airport upon her arrival back in America provides a genuinely touching conclusion. Jorgensen declared herself satisfied with the result; as well as relieved that it didn’t end up as another ‘Myra Breckinridge’ @Richard Chatten

 

Cannes Selection…now complete

There are always a few last minute additions to the official film line-up at Cannes Film Festival, and today Thierry Fremaux completed the Official Selection for the 74th ‘all live edition’ running from 5 -18 July 2021with FROM AFRICA WITH LOVE. Nicolas Bedos, Jean Dujardin and Pierre Niney star in the Final Screening of the 74th Festival de Cannes!

By renaming the closing film as the “Final Screening”, the Festival de Cannes aims to rekindle the tradition of the last screening, drawing inspiration from huge evening galas gone by like the screening of Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (in the old Palais in 1982) or Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise (in the new Palais in 1991).

This year, the 74th Festival will round off with the premier of the latest chapter in the adventures of Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath, code name OSS 117, played by Jean Dujardin who will appear onscreen alongside Fatou N’Diaye, Pierre Niney, Natacha Lindinger and the late Wladimir Yordanoff.

Gaspar Noe is back with a docu-drama Vortex, starring Dario Argento, and focusing on the final days of an elderly couple. Press queued all evening at the Marriott Hotel for his previous film Climax in 2018, but this – by its very nature – promises to be a more sober affaire, although with Argento at the helm one never knows.

Once again the films are distinctly Gallic in flavour with three music-themed outings joining the party: TraLaLa is a musical comedy from Arnaud and Jean-Marie Larrieu, and Supremes looks at the French band NTM, directed by Audrey Estrougo. Of the Special screenings New Worlds, The Cradle of a Civilisation is Andrew Muscato’s musical documentary, set in Athens, Greece. It captures the final performance of Bill Murray and Jan Vogler’s European “New Worlds” tour.

Mi iubta Mon amour is the directorial debut of actor-turned-filmmaker Noemie Merlant whose smouldering performance in Portrait of a Young Lady on Fire was one of the highlights of Cannes 2019.

For his latest film Where is Anne Frank? the Oscar-nominated Israeli animator Ari Folman has gained special access to the diaries of the tragic young Jewish girl who went into hiding in wartime Holland. Seen through the eyes of her imaginary friend Kitty, to whom Anne dedicated her diary, she wakes up in contemporary Amsterdam and tries to find Anne in modern day Europe. The film plays out of competition.

Mes Freres Et Moi by Yohan Manca completes the line-up at the Un Certain Regard sidebar.

Jodie Foster will receive an honorary Palme d’Or. Spike Lee will preside over the Jury, and the world premiere of Annette with Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard will open proceedings.

OUT OF COMPETITION

Where is Anne Frank ? by Ari Folman (Israel)

Animated film

CANNES PREMIERE

Vortex by Gaspar Noé (Argentina – Italy)

starring Dario Argento, Françoise Lebrun and Alex Lutz

UN CERTAIN REGARD

Mes frères et moi by Yohan Manca (France)

starring Sofian Khammes, Dali Benssalah, Judith Chemla, Maël Rouin Berrandou

First feature

MIDNIGHT SCREENINGS

Tralala by Arnaud and Jean-Marie Larrieu (France)

starring Mathieu Amalric, Mélanie Thierry, Bertrand Belin, Maïwenn, Josiane Balasko, Denis Lavant

Suprêmes by Audrey Estrougo (France)

starring Théo Christine, Sandor Funtek

SPECIAL SCREENINGS

Bill Murray’s party: New Worlds, the cradle of a civilization by Andrew Muscato (Greece-USA)

starring Bill Murray and the musicians from New Worlds: Jan Vogler, Mira Wang and Vanessa Perez

Mi iubita, Mon amour by Noémie Merlant (France)

starring Gimi-Nicolae Covaci and Noémie Merlant

First feature

Les Héroïques by Maxime Roy (France)

starring François Creton, Richard Bohringer, Ariane Ascaride, Clotilde Courau, Patrick D’Assumçao

First feature

Are you lonesome tonight ? by Wen Shipei (China)

starring Sylvia Chang, Eddie Peng

First feature

CANNES FILM FESTIVAL 2021 | 6 – 18 JULY 2021

 

The Savior For Sale: The Story of Salvator Mundi (2020) Sheffield Doc Festival 2021

Dir: Antoine Vitkine | France Doc 95′

Controversy has long surrounded this emotive work of art purportedly by Leonardo da Vinci. Like a beautiful woman, many men have struggled to win her and have succeeded, but then been deceived or outwitted. But the ‘Salvator Mundi’ represents more than just a depiction of Christ, it has a deeper resonance thanks to its title: ‘Saviour of the World’ capturing the zeitgeist of our fragile planet, that resonates beyond Christendom.

Best known in France for his TV outings: ‘Magda Goebels, First Lady of the Third Reich’ (2017) and ‘The President and the Dictator: Sarkozy-Kadafi’ (2015), journalist, writer and director Antoine Vitkine explores the painting’s eventful journey from discovery to oblivion so exposing the vagaries of the international art market. This is a lushly mounted sinuously-scored thriller, its twists and turns revealing some of the most powerful players in the art world, and those making money out of them. It’s a tale of backbiting, greed and hype that shows how leverage from a handful of key players can transform a virtually valueless piece to a painting commanding millions the following day in the hurly burly of market credibility.

From the opening scenes The Savior For Sale bristles with intrigue and skulduggery transporting us into the hushed homes and yachts of the super-rich from Paris to New York, London to Monaco. A masterpiece in investigative journalism the film’s cut and thrust only adds to its allure, showing how the ‘Salvator’s’ attribution to the legendary old Italian master would see its value rise to stellar heights, becoming “the most expensive – and coveted – painting in the world”.

Modest yet deeply resonant its depiction of a serene Christ – not unlike that of the Mona Lisa – the painting’s route to success comes courtesy of a fascinating group of protagonists whose roll-call plays out like a game of Cluedo. There is “The Expert” Martin Kemp; “The Dealer” Warren Adelson; “The Journalist” Scott Reyburn; “The Oligarch” Dmitri Rybolovlev and his Swiss right-hand man Yves Bouvier. Belgian art specialist Chris Deacon also makes his case, and soon the Saudis wade in with their billions. The aim is to prove that Leornardo was the painter, not simply his studio, and there’s a great deal to be gained – and lost – financially in the process. MT

SCREENING DURING SHEFFIELD DOC FESTIVAL 2021

Almost Liverpool 8 (2021)

Dir: Daniel Draper | UK Doc, 89′

Daniel Draper makes the Toxteth area of Liverpool cinematic in his summery trip through the streets of the neighbourhood known 50 years ago for its race riots.

Billed as Don McCullin: Almost Liverpool 8 in the Sheffield Doc Festival programme, we were hoping for another look at the renowned photographer’s life. But he only bookends the film chipping in occasionally with memories of a time when he worked on the railways in the 1950s as a teenager, wending his way back and forth between London and the deprived place he recalls as “dark and Satanic” back in the day. As a war photojournalist decades later he would capture the Toxteth community during an era of transition and decline.

McCullin is joined by a motley crew of friendly, laid-back locals who shoot the breeze on camera with Draper, their chats interweaved with Allan Melia’s artfully framed long takes. What emerges is a calm and reflective love letter to a working class district now home to a multicultural bunch who now get along like a house on fire – or so they would have us believe: Victorian churches and mosques standing cheek by jowl.

Liverpool was once a major industrial seaport the maritime trade providing the lucrative backbone of a place whose well built low rise red-brick housing now offers ample opportunity for a chat over the fence or a neighbourly meeting on the doorstep. Roads are named after composers (Brahms, Beethoven etc) and Dickens characters, but there is little evidence of the high-rise housing blocks, crime or the rank social deprivation we had come to associate with the place.

Local Poet Roger McGough is joined by salt of the earth beekeeper Barry Chang; a hairdresser tells of her regular Somalian clientele. Then there’s   community organiser Joe Farrag who laments the loss of local shops that once energised the area when sailors regularly passed through on their way from the docks. An lyrical look at a proud and welcoming Toxteth in 2021.MT

NOW ON RELEASE

SHEFFIELD DOCFEST 2021 UK COMPETITION

 

 

Nashville (1975) Robert Altman Retrospective

Dir.: Rosbert Altman; Cast: Karen Black, Keith Carradine, Henry Gibson. Geraldine Chaplin, Lily Tomlin, Keenan Wynn, Ronee Blakley, Barbara Harris, Scott Glennon, Shelley Duvall, David Hayword, Gwen Welles, Barbara Baxley, David Peel; USA 1975; 160′.

Nashville, undoubtedly director Robert Altman’s greatest feature, was scripted by Joan Tewkesbury and shot by Paul Lohmann: it is still, 26 years later, a magnificent portrait of the American South.

Set in Nashville, Tennessee, is tells the stories of stars, drifters and wanna-bee singers, all fascinated by country music and unaware of anything political going on: the most important agitator is never seen during the Presidential primaries for 1976 election: Hal Philip Walker, an early Donald Trump version, candidate and founder of the radical right ‘Replacement Party’, sends his PR man on a mission to win over musicians for his campaign.

Twenty-four central characters pass the baton around, the playing field gradually growing until violent fragments destroy nearly everyone’s life. Barbara Jean (Blakley) is the archetypal Loretta Young type, mismanaged by her punitive husband, living in her own world, even if on stage – but still remaining the ‘Queen Bee’.

Rival Connie White (Black) makes a good enough stand-in after Barbara, just recovered from treatment on the East-Coast for a burn treatment, has lost it completely in front of a bewildered audience. Singer and promoter Haven Hamilton (Gibson) had opened proceedings with his recording of “We must have done something right to last 200 Years” hymn on the United States. Hamilton is upset with his son Bud (Peel), who has hired the “wrong” pianist. Haven breaks off the session and tells the pianist: “Get a haircut, you do not belong in Nashville”. His companion Lady Pearl (Baxley) is certainly living in the past: she had had worked for the Kennedy brothers in the 1960s and 1968 elections, and can’t get over her frustration about Nixon winning Tennessee by a small margin over JFK in 1960.

Then there is Tom Frank (Carradine) a narcissistic womaniser and singer – Carradine would win the only Oscar for Nashville, for his original song. Tom spends all day and night in bed, inviting women to join him. One of them is Linnea Reese (Tomlin, in her debut), a mother of two deaf children and member of a Gospel Choir. Also to be found between his sheets is BBC reporter Opal (G. Chaplin), who makes the most inappropriate racial comments when interviewing members of the music scene. When she visits a disused car lot, her take on this hyperbole is more suited for the millennium.

Two women try their luck as newcomers: Albuquerque (Harris) is running away from a husband, and trying to get a debut as a singer. She has no idea how her wish will eventually become reality. Sueleen Gay (Welles) is a waitress, who in spite being tone-deaf, tries her luck as a singer: The rowdy audience cajoles her into stripping. There is a quartet of more lowkey participants, led by Mr. Green (Wynn), who is looking after his dying wife in hospital. His niece Joan (Duvall) is an incompetent groupie who never gets to see her aunt or meets the musicians. A uniformed soldier (Glennon) is lurking around Barbara Jean during most of the film, we fear the worst, but the shots at the ending are fired by smart and pleasant Kenny (Hayward).

Nashville is a kaleidoscope of celebrity fandom showcasing the early stages of political manipulating through culture. Haven Hamilton has been given the nod to become the next Governor of the State if he supports Walker. But the drifters and onlookers are given equal screen time for their shattered dreams. A marvellous script which is acted out by a stellar ensemble cast. Nashville remains the benchmark for everything following in its wake. AS

ROBERT ALTMANN RETROSPECTIVE AT BFI Southbank 2021

Rendezvous in July (1949)

Dir/Wri: Jacques Becker | Cast: Daniel Gelin, Brigitte Auber, Nicole Courcel, Pierre Trabaud, Maurice Ronet | France, Drama 102′

One of Jacques Becker’s most financially successful films, this exhilarating slice of postwar Parisian life isn’t quite the first ‘slacker’ film (that distinction probably belongs to Val Guest’s Give Us the Moon five years earlier) – but its freewheeling portrait of the young at play around Saint-Germain-des-Prés and the Latin Quarter, aided by tremendous photography by Claude Renoir, vibrantly captures the look and feel of a Paris only recently freed from the dead weight of the Occupation and discovering jazz (and amphicars!).

Strongly anticipating later ‘youth’ subjects like Fellini’s I Vitelloni (1953) and Marcel Carné’s ‘beat’ film Les Tricheurs (1958), a full ten years before the Nouvelle Vague Becker’s film also discreetly employs the whimsical archaism of irises in and out that later became one of the hallmarks of the new kids on the arrondissement during the early sixties. Among the attractive cast of newcomers, watch out for veteran Gaston Modot playing a professor. @Richard Chatten

NOW ON AMAZON

Directors’ Fortnight | Quinzaine des Réalisateurs (2021)

Cannes Film Festival is only weeks away and the Directors’ Fortnight selection has just been announced screening from 7 to 17 July 202. It’s surprising how many new filmmakers feature in this year’s slate with Britain’s Clio Barnard and Joanna Hogg joining the party with her sequel to her personal feature Souvenir (2019). 

Other noteworthy directors are Romania’s Radu Muntean (One Floor Below), Italy’s Alice Rohrwacher (Happy as Lazzaro), who joins fellow directors Pietro Marcello (Martin Eden) and Francesco Munzi (Anime Neri) in a documentary portrait of Italy’s up and coming generation. Also to look forward to is the latest from Portuguese auteur Miguel Gomes (Arabian Nights).

A Chiara – Jonas Carpignano 98′

A Night of Knowing Nothing Payal Kapadia (debut) 90′

Ali & Ava – Clio Barnard 93′

Clara Sola – Nathalie Álvarez Mesen (debut) 108′

De bas étage (A Brighter Tomorrow) – Yassine Qnia (debut) 86′

Diários de Otsoga (The Tsugua Diaries) – Miguel Gomes, Maureen Fazendeiro 108′

El empleado y el patron (The Employer and the Employee) de Manuel Nieto Zas 108′

Entre les Vagues (The Braves) d’Anaïs Volpé | 99’1h39

Europa de Haider Rashid – 1h15

Futura de Pietro Marcello, Francesco Munzi, Alice Rohrwacher 105′

Întregalde – Radu Muntean – 1h44

Jadde khaki (Hit the Road) – Panah Panahi (Debut) 93′

Les Magnétiques (Magnetic Beats) de Vincent Maël Cardona (debut) 98′

Luaneshat e kodrës (The Hill where Lionesses Roar) de Luàna Bajrami
(debut) 82′

Medusa d’Anita Rocha da Silveira 127′ 2h07

Mon légionnaire (Our Men) de Rachel Lang 106′ Closing Film

Murina d’Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović (debut) 92′

Neptune Frost de Saul Williams, Anisia Uzeyman 105′

Ouistreham (Between Two Worlds) – Emmanuel Carrère 107′ Opening
1h47 – Film d’ouverture

Re Granchio (The Tale of King Crab) d’Alessio Rigo de Righi, Matteo Zoppis 90′

Retour à Reims (Fragments) – (Returning to Reims (Fragments) – Jean-Gabriel Périot 83′

The Souvenir Part II de Joanna Hogg – 106′
1h46

Yong an zhen gu shi ji (Ripples of Life) de Shujun Wei – 120′

The Sea Ahead d’Ely Dagher (debut) – 116′

SÉANCE SPECIALE
The Souvenir de Joanna Hogg – 120′

QUINZAINE DES REALISATEURS | 7 -17 JULY 2021

 

Sheffield Doc Festival 2021 | TV highlights

Among an exciting array of the latest big screen documentaries, this year’s SHEFFIELD DOC FESTIVAL highlights two new digital and TV productions heading to our screens with a series of quintessentially British stories

All at Sea: Fishing for Britain (w/t)

So disappointing that the British Fishing industry has been suffering of late with the new Brexit regulations. My own great grandfather was a sea captain with his own fleet of trawlers on the Lincolnshire coast so it seems only fitting that the BBC should explore our fishing heritage in this new six part series showcasing the British fishing fleet on a scale not seen before.

It follows boats from all around the nations’ shores plying their trade across a vast expanse of UK waters. Focusing on deep-sea fishing fleets, a key industry in communities from Shetland to Newlyn, this series will dramatically intercut the stories of fishermen who put to sea for a week at a time, work round the clock in all weathers, and do one of the most dangerous, high stakes jobs in Britain.

Each episode will be set over a week at sea, with multiple crews filming simultaneously, capturing the contrasting fortunes of different vessels. With access to boats in every kind of fishery, from multi-million-pound pelagics and supercrabbers to wreck-netters and trawlers, we’ll see characters facing unique challenges and shifting odds as they battle to bring home their catch – hundreds of miles apart, but all sailing the same fine line between risk and reward.

The series will use satellite tracking technology to drive graphics that link these stories and set them in the epic big picture of fishing activity around our coast. While latest-generation camera technology on board the boats captures this most dramatic of precincts.

All at Sea: Fishing for Britain (w/t) (6×60) for BBC One and iPlayer is made by Frank Films

The Nilsen Files: A Very British Crime Stories

In the wake of the BAFTA-winning Yorkshire Ripper Files and the extraordinary revelations of The Shipman Files, filmmaker Michael Ogden will re-examine the case of Dennis Nilsen, convicted in 1983 for the murders of six young men. Focusing on the lives of the victims, he’ll ask why 40 years on they remain just a footnote in this terrible case. Michael will explore not just who these boys and young men were, but also how attitudes at the time allowed their disappearance and murders to be overlooked.

Meeting with former police officers, he’ll discover their regrets about the premature closure of the case, leaving seven murder victims unidentified and families without answers about the fate of their missing children.

This series will upend everything we think we know about this case; exploring the homophobic attitudes that allowed Nilsen’s crimes to go un-investigated for many years. And how attitudes suggested that there was little interest in missing young men, often dismissed simply as ‘drifters’. Understanding the case anew, Michael will seek to show how these attitudes are as dangerous to young men’s lives today as they were almost forty years ago.

The Nilsen Files: A Very British Crime Story (3×60) for BBC Two and iPlayer 

SHEFFIELD DOC FESTIVAL 2021 | JUNE 3 – 14 2021

The Father (2020) Blu-ray

Dir: Florian Zeller | Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Olivia Colman, Mark Gatiss, Olivia Williams, Imogen Poots, Rufus Sewell | Drama 97′

If ever there was a film for now it’s The Father. Dementia has become today’s most dread disease – along with cancer – not least because of its emotive and devastating effects on sufferers and loved ones alike as the personality disintegrates in a frightening and often hurtful way casting a dark shadow on entire families as they struggle to make sense of it all as everything changes.

Based on the acclaimed, award-winning play, The Father starts out with a simple idea based on the situation familiar to many of us. Anne (Olivia Colman) realises her 80-year-old father, Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) is losing his mind but can do nothing to help him. Anthony refuses a carer determined to control his own destiny while exerting an invidious grip on his frustrated and desperate daughter, who is moving to Paris and needs to ensure his wellbeing.

The Father is rather a triumph for director and playwright Florian Zeller who has already won an Oscar for his clever script nailing the anxiety, frustration and sadness surrounding dementia, and the confusion it causes for the sufferer and those affected who increasingly find themselves at odds with each other.

Anthony thinks a conspiracy is playing out as he continues his life ‘as normal’ believing his daughter (Colman) to be overplaying the situation as she becomes increasingly neurotic and overbearing, according to him. One of the features of the disease it that sufferers confuse members of their family, and Olivia Williams steps in to play the ‘other’ person. Meanwhile Anthony suspects (wrongfully) that things are being done behind his back and this all too familiar aspect of dementia often gives rise to a dark humour that Zeller thoughtfully interweaves into the fractured narrative through a series of surprise events and changes adding a bizarre twist to proceedings.

Hopkins pulls this off brilliantly in a totally convincing performance that sways from outrage to pitiful vulnerability building on his reputation as one of the world’s finest actors. Colman too is impressive as she struggles convincingly between anger and deep sadness. A sibling set-to would have added grist to the storyline, so often family members fall out as they are pitted against one another amid stress and confusion in a battle to comply with the sufferer’s need to divide and rule in the descent in mental mayhem.

The Father is a difficult film to watch – and it will touch a nerve with so many of us – but Hopkins and Colman deliver their best and that’s all that can be hoped for in the circumstances. MT

The Father is on Digital Download 27 August and Blu-ray & DVD 30 August from Lionsgate UK

The Brothers (1947)

Dir: David MacDonald | Cast: Patricia Roc, Will Fyffe, Maxwell Reed, Finely Currie | UK Drama 98′

It’s hard to tell if this barnstorming adaptation of L. A. G. Strong’s novel is ‘serious’ melodrama or a spoof until John Laurie (already rolling his eyes like he was on something) turns up in another even more eccentric additional role in whiskers and pebble lens glasses looking like Corporal Jones’ elderly father as ‘Alistair McDonald’, when you realise the humour must be intentional (although the late Will Fyfe, who compares the heroine to “a daffodil growing on a dung heap” seems the only cast member actually in on the joke).

Maybe the authorities thought it would reconcile audiences mired in drab postwar austerity by showing the Isle of Skye nearly fifty years earlier more visually majestic but less fun to actually experience. (Stephen Dade’s camera – noisily pursued by Cedric Thorpe Davie’s’ music – creates majestic exteriors and interiors worthy of a German silent film).

Arriving at this sty of “crossbred pigs” (where the ratio of males to females already seems unhealthily high) young Patricia Roc finds Scotland even more of a trial than Nova Pilbeam did Wales a year later in The Three Weird Sisters. @ Richard Chatten

 

 

Petrov’s Flu (2021) | Cannes 2021

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

Petrov’s Flu, the new film by Kirill Serebrennikov marks the third time in a row for the Russian director at the Cannes Film Festival, uniting him once again with Semyon Serzin, the star of his 2018 drama Leto. His standout thought-provoking religious drama The Student (2016) screened at Un Certain Regard and won that year’s Francois Chalais Award.

Based on the novel “The Petrovs In and Around the Flu” by Alexey Salnikov, PETROV’S FLU 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 arresting experience: rough, funny, violent and psychedelic, and yet tender and poetic. A tale that is going to stick in the viewer’s mind for a long time after the credits roll. MT

CANNES FILM FESTIVAL 2021 | COMPETITION

 

The Last Film Show (2021) TriBeCa 2021

Dir/Wri: Pan Nalin | Cast: Bhavin Rabari, Richa Meena, Dipen Raval, Rahul Koli | India, Drama 110′

The Last Film Show is one of the most buzz worthy titles at this year’s TriBeCa film festival. Essentially India’s answer to Giuseppe Tournatore’s 1988 cult classic Cinema Paradiso it’s a lush nostalgic crowdpleaser beautifully written and directed by Pan Nalin whose Angry Indian Goddesses garnered acclaim as India’s first female buddy movie back in 2015.

A mischievous nine-year-old boy called Samay is the film’s pre-teen hero, a cross between between Toto’s child and teenager – as he never gets any older in this version – he’s altogether more sullen too without the endearing charm of Toto, but cheekily played by the tousled-haired Richa Meena who is savagely beaten by his father when he plays truant after discovering his secret new hobby.

In early scenes we see Samay (Rabari) and his mates hitching a ride on a train  trundling through the remote Gujarat village where he lives with his parents and younger sister, finding their way to a rundown cinema where the boy bribes the hungry projectionist (Dipen Raval channelling a much leaner Philippe Noiret) with the lunchbox prepared for him by his mother.

Samay slips into a daily routine captivated by his newfound love for cinema, offering Bapuji his lunch box in exchange for the best seat in the house – the projection booth. And when the cinema goes digital from 35mm, the rites of passage narrative sees Samay and his mates setting up their own projection suite, as their parental ties finally loosen.

Pan Nalin pays tribute to the cinema of yesterday with this vibrantly cinematic homage to the magic of film, its ability to unite and uplift seen through the eyes of a naughty young boy. MT

Tribeca Film Festival 2021 | 10 JUNE, 2021 WORLD PREMIERE

The Committee (1968)

Dir: Peter Sykes, Wri: Max Steuer | Musical Drama | Cast: Paul Jones, Tom Kempinski, Robert Langdon, Pauline Munro | UK 58′

To grasp where this film is coming from I guess you’d have to read the short story by Max Steuer (originally a dream) on which it is based. It plays as a bargain basement melange of Robbe-Grillet and Kafka, with the attention immediately grabbed by the arresting title sequence juggling mug-shots of the three main protagonists to a sinister blurping accompaniment on the soundtrack; but which is soon allowed to dissipate by what follows. For a film that begins with the central figure decapitating a total stranger on a whim, The Committee is an incongruously well-mannered, very British affair – albeit with hip sixties trimmings in the form of a soundtrack by Pink Floyd and a personal appearance by Arthur Brown.

Ian Wilson’s cool black & white photography is presumably intended to evoke L’Année Dernière à Marienbad, and as in Marienbad there’s a lot of talk but very little actually said. The plush backdrop is here provided by the London School of Economics, where Steuer – author of ‘The Scientific Study of Society’ (2003) has been ensconced in the philosophy department since 1959, and was at the time of the making of ‘The Committee’ a lecturer in economics and social sciences. The endless gnomic prattle may be a joke at the expense of his colleagues there. @Richard Chatten

THE COMMITTEE is available on Amazon

La Civil (2021) Cannes – Un Certain Regard 2021

Dir: Teodora Ana Mihai | Cast: Arcelia Ramirez, Alvaro Guerrero, Jorge A Jimenez, Ayelen Muzo | Belgium. Drama 140′

La Civil is only the third Belgian Flemish feature of recent years to be included in the prestigious official Un Certain Regard sidebar at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

Another startling episode in the history of Latin America was the inspiration for this feature debut from Belgian-Romanian director, Teodora Ana Mihai. This time we’re in Mexico channelling the tragic real life experience of Miriam Rodríguez through the character of a young mother Cielo who is desperately looking for her daughter abducted by members of a drug cartel. Once again, the authorities are not much use so Cielo (a feisty Arcelia Ramirez ) takes things into her own hands gradually turning from ordinary housewife into avenging activist, all for the love of her daughter.

Visually striking and packed with gritty authenticity thanks to a script from Texan born Mexican author Habacuc Antonio de Rosario the film comes alive in relating the ongoing horror of families blown apart by drug cartels, not unlike the British equivalent in the recent County Lines. At its heart La Civil is about unconditional parental love, a mother refusing to back down in the face of a venal enemy, prepared to do anything to save her child, rather like this year’s other Mexican survival drama Amparo playing in the Semaine de la Critique section.

Here the camera sees things from the victim’s point of view with strong atmospheric echoes of the US TV crime series Narcos. MT

UN CERTAIN REGARD CANNES | JULY 12TH PREMIERE

Basic Instinct (1992) Blu-ray release

Dir: Paul Verhoeven, Wri: Joe Eszterhas | Cast: Sharon Stone, Michael Douglas, George Dzundza, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Leilani Sarelle | US Thriller, 127′

A lush and stylish Neo noir thriller capturing an era of permissiveness and danger its sultry assured heroine remaining mysteriously foxy until the final reveal, the taut and twisty narrative overpowered by the cinematic allure. Basic Instinct has a potent whiff of sex and seduction about it, and that’s what sealed in the public imagination.

San Francisco seemed the right setting, more alluring that LA and laid back than New York, Jerry Goldsmith languorous score striking just the right mood for love, and murder. Sharon Stone at the height of her powers, the perfect choice to play Joe Eszterhas’ liberated woman (the script garnering him a $3 million pay check), attractive, sexually voracious, Mustang driving and smart, with just a hint of vulnerability setting the detectives against each other in their bid to prove her guilty of a crime. But one of them falls prey to her charms. And the thrill of the chase is his undoing. To be fair, he’s ripe for exploitation by this femme fatale.

Michael Douglas was also at the top of his game having won an Oscar and a Golden Globe for Oliver’s Stones’ Wall Street. As detective Nick “Shooter” Curran, Stone’s Tramell whips him up into a frenzy, his addictive personality unleashed into a toxic brew of indignation and lust. So his ditches his on off girlfriend/mentor (Tripplehorn): “We went to bed ten maybe fifteen times – it wasn’t memorable enough to call a relationship”.

The film walks a fine line between revelation and enigma, giving us just enough to draw us further into the murder mystery, never revealing the truth in a finale that will remain ambiguous. MT

ON 4K UHD COLLECTOR’S EDITION STEELBOOK, BLU-RAY DVD and DIGITAL JUNE 14, 2021

 

 

Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror (2021) IFFR 2021

Dir: Kier-La Janisse | US, Doc 193’

Everything you wanted to know about horror films: this immersive three hour documentary is an expansive study of the macabre genre of “folk horror”  from the lurid to the surreal and downright ghastly. A gruesome and immersive trip to Hell signposted by the trilogy of cult classics: Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General (1968) Piers Haggard’s  Blood of Satan’s Claw and Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man. 

Canadian filmmaker and scholar Kier-La Janisse embellishes her film with insightful talking heads and over a 100 clips from the archives, to explore how “Folk horror” came into being relatively recently, casting a spell over a growing audience with enigmatic qualities often escaping definition yet firmly rooted in the countryside with local mores and primitive superstitions providing its down to earth life blood, sustained by a fear of the unknown. This “juxtaposition of prosaic and uncanny”, coined by author and actor Jonathan Rigby, lies at its heart.

A must for genre fans Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched also provides a valuable potted history for newcomers, divided into six chapters, for ease of reference. Commentatory from occult experts, historians and cult filmmakers enriches the informative brew.

The only two surviving directors from the unholy trilogy also give their pennyworth on their rural cult outings: Robin Hardy’s terrifying ‘pagan meets pious’ tale The Wicker Man (1973) and Piers Haggard’s The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) a tale of villagers fearing possession by the Devil in 17th century Christian England.

Britain has always harked back to past socially and architecturally, and so UK folklore provides a particularly rich trove to draw with its rural  traditions and literary heritage of ghost stories and the supernatural. American directors can mine the puritan sensibilities of the pilgrim fathers onwards for their source of folk horror. Here Robert Eggers talks about his breakout revivalist features The Witch and The Lighthouse. Janisse then skates more broadly over the international scene showing how folk horror in countries such as Australia and South America is largely influenced by Colonialism and its literary traditions of magic realism. Canadian cult filmmaker Guy Maddin also makes an appearance talking about his surreal, award-winning work.

Janisse has crafted a worthwhile and entertaining compendium film that can be enjoyed in an afternoon, or dipped into from time to time. MT

ROTTERAM FILM FESTIVAL | SUMMER SEASON June 4-6 2021

 

 

 

The Skull (1965) TPTV

Dir; Freddie Francis | Peter Cushing, Patrick Wymark, Jill Bennett, Nigerl Green, Patrick McGee, Christopher Lee | UK Horror

Shrewdly packaged from a 1945 short story by Robert Bloch for his recently formed company Amicus by Milton Subotsky, vividly designed in Technicolor and directed by Freddie Francis when he still cared. The film also follows Hammer precedent by employing a classy British composer, Elizabeth Lutyens, whose music carries the long sections without dialogue.

Although headlining Hammer alumni like Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and Michael Gough, the cast includes many others of Britain’s finest, including Patrick Wymark and Nigel Green (both of whom died not long afterwards) and Patrick Magee fresh from Corman’s Masque of the Red Death. The fanciful use of colour, weird visuals and general mood suggest familiarity both with Corman’s Poe pictures and the Italian horrors of directors like Bava & Freda. @Richard Chatten

NOW ON TALKING PICTURES TV | PRIME VIDEO

Scarecrow | Pugalo (2021) IFFR 2021

Dir: Dmitri Davydov | Cast; Valentina Romanova-Chyskyyray, Anatoly Struchkov, Artur Zakharov, Sargylana Lukovtseva | USSR Drama 72′

Sakha director Dmitry Davydov, a rising star internationally, has built an intriguing drama with horror genre elements on the basis of this frosty story about a social outcast ostracised by uncompromising locals whose obdurate demeanour reflects their dour surroundings and harsh outlook on life.

A modern day fable of witchery is wrapped round an astonishing central performance from Valentina Romanova-Chyskyyray who plays a healer who lives in the vast, snowy expanse of the Sakha Republic in Russia. Ostracised by the local population despite her proven supernatural powers, she is clearly a neutralising conduit of disease and toxic negativity, suffering grotesquely- or even entering a trance-like state each time she treats a patient, making this feel authentic as well as intriguing and visually arresting with its evocative occasional score that features the ‘krymppa’, a rustic violin-like instrument.

Enigmatic, spare on dialogue and immaculately photographed in picturesque widescreen long takes and in intimate close-up by Ivan Semyonov in a monochrome palette of taupe and snowy greys, Scarecrow is one of the strongest, recent examples of the flourishing Sakha cinema, where local makers stray beyond the confines of Russian cinema, creating their own cinematic identity.

Like many other Sakha makers, Davydov is a self-taught director who combines serious drama with genre elements, Sakha folklore and landscapes. The disturbing scene, shot in one long take, in which the troubled lead takes great gulps from a vodka bottle whilst crying, is haunting, mesmerising and memorable. MT

ROTTERDAM FILM FESTIVAL | SUMMER SEASON | 3 -6 JUNE 2021

The Day Today | Au jour d’aujourd’hui (2021) IFFR June 2021

Dir/scr: Maxence Stamatiadis | Doc with Suzanne Mouradian, Edouard Mouradian. Sci-fi mokumentary, France. 67′

Artificial intelligence can unite us with a loved one, as we saw in the recent British sci-fi flick Archive. In his documentary debut Franco-Greek director Maxence Stamatiadis goes a step further showing what could happen in real life.

The mockumentary mishmash of art installation, archive footage, sci-fi,  and droll satire is very much redolent of recent Greek ‘weird wave’ fare. Close-up camerawork projects us forward to the near future in Paris where an elderly couple are going through the motions of everyday life. Still very much in love with her husband Edouard, 88 year old Suzanne Mouradian is addicted to sharing kitten videos and her innermost thoughts on losing her soulmate on social media through her various devices, Edouard (1929-2013) meanwhile puts up with her tender overtures, secretly yearning for a second chance as he struggles on resentfully with his pills, and his glasses, their obnoxious grand-daughter laying down the law on impromptu visits.

My own father once said to me: just because you’re old you don’t change, ‘you still have the same ideals, and romantic desires’. And Stamatiadis captures this couple’s romantic affection and closeness drenching his story in documentary-like authenticity, using his grandparents as the lead characters clearly intensifies the experience; the knowledge that life is coming to and end lacing the film with a melancholic tristesse heightened barely disguising his subversive humour with a sultry Claude Chabrol style occasional score.

The narrative slides back and forward beginning in Les Pavillons-sous-Bois in 2013 where the couple live out a claustrophobic domestic existence darkened to assist their addiction to technology. Moving on to 2024, Suzanne is now a nostalgic widow and has found an internet site (The Day Today) that bizarrely enables her to recreate Edouard, right down to that burgundy jacket he wore the time that love was in the air (“il etait si chouette”) courtesy of a volunteer ‘swapper’.

So along comes the new version of Edouard his latent dark side this time ramped up: he tools with a flick-knife and sports gaudy knucke-dusters along with his pink halo. Monosyllabic, churlish and generally unbiddable to Suzanne’s constant need to control, he even darts demonic looks in her direction while she slaves over his ‘petites tartines’ and lovely prepared dinners. While Edouard is own on his mysterious evening strolls, Suzanne resorts to her devices, describing him as “tragic”, the whole endeavour as “mal foutu” but carries on all the same with a “better the devil you know” acceptance of her new hubby.

The Day Today is a darkly delicious satire of modern life, highlighting the perils of internet dating, artificial intelligence and even our human tendency to go with the flow even when the going gets rough. MT

IFFR CONTINUES ITS SUMMER FESTIVAL | 2 – 6 June 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

The Silent Enemy (1930)

Dir: H P Carver, Wri: W Douglas Burden | US Doc 84′

The makers of this dramatised documentary, following in the footsteps of Nanook of the North (1922) about the Ojibway Indians, returned after spending a year in Northern Ontario. They brought with them 25,000 feet of silent footage shot by the veteran Hollywood cameraman Marcel Le Picard. By the time the footage had been made into a feature, silent film had long since become a thing of the past.

Before Paramount could release it, The Silent Enemy had to be transformed into a part-talkie through the addition of a short opening speech to camera by Chief Yellow Robe – who had played Chetoga in the film – along with a synchronised organ score.

As usual the villain of the piece is the witch doctor, and as previous reviewers have commented some of the scenes must have been staged for the makers to have been able to have had their cameras in precisely the right place at the right time; and some of the wildlife is extremely roughly treated (including a couple of extremely cute bear cubs that the hero has just orphaned) in a way that would draw screams today from the American Humane Association, amongst others. The title by the way refers to hunger. @Richard Chatten

Cannes Film Festival | Programme 2021 announced

Thierry Fremaux looked proud and relaxed to confirm that the 74th Cannes Film Festival programme will go ahead from 6 – 17 July, two months later than its normal May edition.

Only one journalist looked on at the Paris Press conference as Thierry announced this year’s programme during a cosy chat with Festival president Pierre Lescure. The two Frenchmen laughed and bantered voluably – it seems that all is well on the Cote d’Azur, so far. It remains to be seen whether the British press corps and distributors will be able to make it due to government restrictions.

The twenty four films selected from almost 20,000 will include festival regulars Hong Sang-soo, Arnaud Desplechin, Mathieu Amalric, Asghar Farhadi and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Sean Penn will also be there with Flag Day  – his previous feature The Last Face screened to mass walkouts back in 2016.

Appropriately, female directors are there in force, and Spike Lee will finally get a chance to head up the main jury after last year’s fiasco was cancelled due to the pandemic.

French director Leos Carax is also back with the festival opener Annette – also in competition – his last Cannes feature was the astonishing Denis Lavant starring Holy Motors (2013, now a firm cult classic. And Finnish director Juho Kuosmenan whose breakout Un Certain Regard winner The Happiest Day in the Life of Olii Maki enters the main competition with Compartment Number 6. Justin Kurzel is also back with Nitram after his stunning version of Macbeth, in comp five years ago.

Britain will also feature with Andrea Arnold’s latest Cow, and Mothering Sunday, based on a novel by Graham Swift (who also wrote Last Orders and Waterland), forming part of the new Cannes Premiere strand, dedicated to first features.

From the US, Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch, will also finally get a premiere, after missing its chance last year. And Todd Haynes will be there with a new documentary The Velvet Underground. 

The Un Certain Regard sidebar, the home for edgier competition fare features Kagonada’s latest After Yang, Alexei German Jr’s follow up to Dovlatov, Delo (House Arrest) and Tatiana Huezo’s Noche de Fuego.

Competition

Annette – Leos Carax (also opening night film)
Benedetta – Paul Verhoeven
Bergman Island – Mia Hansen-Love
Drive My Car – Ryusuke Hamaguchi
A feleségem története (The Story of My Wife) – Ildikó Enyedi
Flag Day – Sean Penn
La Fracture – Catherine Corsini
The French Dispatch – Wes Anderson
Ha’berech (Ahed’s Knee) – Nadav Lapid
Haut et Fort (Casablanca Beats) – Nabil Ayouch
Un héros (A Hero) – Asghar Farhadi
Hytti Nro 6 (Compartment No.6) – Juho Kuosmanen
Les Intranquilles (The Restless) – Joachim Lafosse
Julie (The Worst Person in the World) – Joachim Trier
Lingui – Mahamat-Saleh Haroun
Memoria – Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Nitram – Justin Kurzel
Les Olympiades (Paris 13th District) – Jacques Audiard
Par un demi clair matin – Bruno Dumont
Petrov’s Flu – Kirill Serebrennikov
Red Rocket – Sean Baker
Titane by Julia Ducournau
Tout s’est bien passé – François Ozon
Tre piani by Nanni Moretti

Un Certain Regard

After Yang – Kogonada
Blue Bayou – Justin Chon
Bonne Mère – Hafsia Herzi
Commitment Hasan – Hasan Semih Kaplanoglu
Delo (House Arrest) – Alexey German Jr.
Freda – Gessica Geneus
The Innocents – Eskil Vogt
Lamb – Valdimar Jóhansson
Moneyboys – C.b Yi
Noche de fuego – Tatiana Huezo
Un monde – Laura Wandel

Cannes Premiere

Cette musique ne joue pour personne (Love Songs for Tough Guys) – Samuel Benchetrit
Cow – Andrea Arnold
Evolution – Kornél Mundruczo
In Front of Your Face – Hong Sang-Soo
Mothering Sunday – Eva Husson
Serre-moi fort (Hold Me Tight) – Mathieu Amalric
Tromperie (Deception) – Arnaud Desplechin
Val – Ting Poo and Leo Scott

Out of Competition

Aline – Valérie Lemercier
Bac Nord – Cédric Jimenez
De son vivant – Emmanuelle Bercot
Emergency Declaration – Han Jae-Rim
Stillwater – Tom McCarthy
The Velvet Underground – Todd Haynes

Special screenings

Cahiers noirs (Black Notebooks) – Shlomi Elkabetz H6 – Yé Yé
JFK Revisited: Through the Looking Glass – Oliver Stone
Jane par Charlotte – Charlotte Gainsbourg
O marinheiro das montanhas (Mariner of the Mountains) – Karim Ainouz

Midnight screenings

Oranges sanguines (Bloody Oranges) – Jean-Christophe Meurisse

CANNES FILM FESTIVAL 6 – 17 JULY 2021

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (2017) Prime

Dir: Paul McGuigan | Cast: Annette Bening, Jamie Bell, Kenneth Cranham, Julie Walters | UK Drama 105′

Years later I discovered that during the late sixties, Veronica Lake and I had both been living in Ipswich at the same time; and at the Sheffield Crucible in 1979 I actually saw Gloria Grahame in the same production of ‘The Glass Menagerie’ we see her preparing for in the opening scene (I also later watched my own mother succumb to cancer.) Gloria had looked just as she had in her Hollywood prime, and I was astonished when only a couple of years later she joined the ages.

Annette Bening is too distinctive-looking in her own right, doesn’t have Ms Grahame’s slinky eyes, pouting lips, or even attempt her distinctive gurgling voice; but brings her own authentic movie star quality to the part – along with the appropriate vulnerability; it also seamlessly synchronises archive footage of the real Grahame into the narrative, based on the book by Peter Turner.

It’s strange to see a time I was actually living through now part of history, a fact underlined when a publican informs the young hero that his pint is 90p. @Richard Chatten

NOW ON PRIME VIDEO

Running Against the Wind (2021)

Dir: Jan Philipp Weyl | Cast: Ashenafi Nigusu, Mikayas Wolde | Drama, 119′

A feel good film about sport, friendship and ambition Running Against the Wind, sees two friends growing up in a remote village drawn together by their love of running, a sport that has long been associated with this now beleaguered nation which has produced two-time Olympic gold medal winner Haile Gebrselassie – who has a cameo in the film – and long-distance runner Muktar Edris.

But the boys’ lives diverge when Solomon (Wolde) leaves for Addis Ababa to become a professional photographer and Abdi (Nigusu) pursues his running career. They will meet again under darker skies.

German filmmaker Weyl has put a great deal of thought into his feature debut – clearly a ‘method director’ he has immersed himself in the country’s history and culture, even learning Amharic, one of Ethiopia’s eight major languages, to make a story that feels gritty and authentic with the bond of friendship at its core. Mateusz Smolka’s widescreen visuals capture the magnificent scenery and the intimacy of the human story with its universal appeal. MT

NOW ON BLURAY and QUALITY DIGITAL PLATFORMS from 11 JUNE 2021

 

Mandabi (1968)

Directed by Ousmane Sembène. Starring Makhouredia Gueye, Ynousse N’Diaye, Isseu Niang, Mustapha Ture, Farba Sarr.

Directed, written and produced by the legendary, ‘father of African film’ Ousmane Sembène, Mandabi was originally made in 1968 and won the Special Jury Prize at Venice Film Festival. 

There’s an elegant simplicity to Sembène‘s cinema that makes it a joy to watch. This second feature was the first ever made in the Wolof language—and glows with its involving narrative, convincing overblown characters and spectacular sense of place.

Adapting his own novella – Sembène crafts a scathing satire of society in his native Senegal, scarred by corruption, greed, and poverty in a post-colonial disarray with its own hierarchical system led by head honcho, Ibahima Dieng, an obnoxious self-entitled bully (Gueye) who is pictured enjoying the attentions of a local street barber in the opening scenes.

Presiding over his large family and two wives who pander to his every need, Ibrahima is a penniless proligate who lives on a mountain of debt. And when a nephew in Paris sends a generous money order back home to Dakar, for a time is looks like Ibrahima’s lucky break, but it isn’t. And French colonialism is to blame for what happens next – as a Kafkaesque nightmare unfolds.

While we hate him for his pompousness, Ibrahima also has our sympathy. The trials and tribulations he experiences are only too familiar red-tape wise. Absurdist humour takes the edge off the harsh realities of life in this beautiful but impoverished corner of Africa, Paul Soulignac’camerawork adding to the allure of this neorealist gem. MT

MANDABI is in cinemas June 11, available on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital from June 28 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L3LJ5RJ8wOg

Treasure City | Bekeido (2020)

Director: Hajdu Szabolcs; Cast: Abel Krocovay, Orsolya Töth, Arpad Schilling, Fanni Wrochna; Hungary/Romania 2020, 92 min.

Hungary has lost the will to live according to Hajdu Szabolcs (The Gambler) who looks at the lives of a handful of disorientated Hungarians struggling to make sense of it all.

Demonstrators are seen clashing with police, while opposition activists accuse Victor Orban’s semi-fascist government of rising violence and mass immigration. Weirder still, Treasure City is actually set in the Romanian city city of Cluj-Napoca.

A subtle mix of nocturnal urban tales Treasure City pictures the dark side of sexual, political and romantic relationships. Dorottya (Wrochna) is accused by her female boss of lying and incompetence and begs for another chance. A row breaks out in a florists where Alma (Töth) and her daughter Johanna (Palfi) insults the female shop assistant with an unprovoked, racist attack, apologising profusely when the worker phones the police

In Treasure City one event connects to another in a post-covid metaphor exposing anger, frustration and inertia. Life is no worse than it was, in the 21st century there are just many more ways to complain about it all. And the pandemic has pushed everyone to the brink emotionally and physically, the gulf widening between native and foreigner, rich and poor, teen and parent. Even friendships have suffered as we are pushed into banal backwaters stifled of creativity, the window of freedom turned into a mirror focussing on our own inadequacies and shortcomings.

Essentially a series of twenty two interconnecting storylines Treasure City is really a metaphor for our post-covid world, exposing the anger, frustration and inertia.

DoP Banto Csaba uses magic realism to create a nightly universe of turmoil, misunderstandings and emotional frustration. Treasure City is very much a case of Bunuel meets Michael Haneke: not for everyone, but the committed will certainly enjoy themselves. AS

ON RELEASE FROM 18 JUNE 2021

 

Two Way Stretch (1960)

Dir: Robert Day | Cast; Peter Sellers, David Lodge, Bernard Cribbins, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Irene Handly | UK Comedy 78′

In 1973 the Allans opined of this little gem that “looking back, Sellers may feel was the peak of his career. After this, he became a major international star and the fun seemed to go out of his films.” An ego like Sellers is unlikely to have agreed with such a verdict and in 1960 his career was in fact ascending fast until his traumatic near-death experience in 1964.

However, his obsession shortly after making this film with the very married Sophia Loren marked a further decline in his mental state and his increasingly self-centred behaviour on set culminated in various psychotic episodes during the making of Dr. Strangelove, (for which he was nominated for a Oscar and which definitely DID constitute the peak of his career), and he had made himself absolutely detested on the set of Kiss Me Stupid before being forced to drop out by a near-fatal series of heart attacks; after which his films became almost consistently unwatchable.

To return to happier days, however, among a wonderful supporting cast particular credit is due to Lionel Jeffries as the first of two extremely stupid upholders of the law (the second being Parker of the Yard in The Wrong Arm of the Law). The latter was stupid but harmless, but Sidney Crout (“Shut up, I’m talking!!”) is almost as terrifying as his Queensbury in the same year’s The Trials of Oscar Wilde and makes Mackay in ‘Porridge’ look as soft-hearted as Mr.Barrowclough. It’s hard to believe Jeffries was only 33 when he made this. @Richard Chatten

 

The Killing of Two Lovers (2020)

Dir/Wri: Robert Machoian | Cast: Clayne Crawford, Sepideh Moafi, Chris Coy, Avery Pizzuto, Arri Graham, Ezra Graham, Jonah Graham, Bruce Graham, Barbara Whinnery | US Drama 84′

A searingly honest portrait of relationship breakdown plays out like a social realist thriller in the bleak big sky country of snowy Utah.

Wrapped around a simmering central performance from Clayne Crawford who co-wrote the script and plays David, a mixed-up musician who is barely tolerating a break from his marriage to Niki while they ‘work things out”. Niki meanwhile has taken a lover – Derek – into the family home she shares with their four kids, two boys and a teenage girl, who are all apposed to this new set-up.

David is out on limb in many ways – rather like Adam Driver’s character in Marriage Story – he’s in a no-win situation, an articulate wife holding all the cards. An unemployed musician and part-time carer for his ageing father – Bruce Graham in amusing vignette – David also acts as house husband to Niki and the kids. But his self esteem has hit rock bottom, and we see him toying with a gun in the opening scene as he agonises over killing the titular sleeping couple now occupying his own marital home.

The background to this sorry story is left to our imagination – but we can scope out the scene: Niki is sick of running the show financially, David possibly not pulling his weight, so they go for a trial separation, David unable to get Niki or his beloved kids out of his head. We also see the couple declaring love for one another – it’s a familiar situation, and we feel for them both.

The tautly spare narrative gives nothing away and wastes no time in words. It’s an astonishing first feature for writer-director Robert Machoian who joins Clayne Crawford in the writing of an intimate, intense and incendiary realist drama that bursts into flames in the breathtaking final scene that will leave you gasping with its brutal impact.

An angsty occasional percussive score drives the action forward, sometimes echoing gunfire: it’s a bewildering sound technique. Worth mentioning also is the grainy look of the film shot by Oscar Ignacio Jiménez in the boxy claustrophobic 4:3 aspect ratio used in the silent era, making the emotional impact more keenly felt. MT

IN CINEMAS & ON CURZON HOME CINEMAS 4 JUNE 2021

 

 

 

The Red Pony (1949) Prime

Dir: Lewis Milestone | Cast: Robert Mitchum, Myrna Loy, Shepperd Strudwick, Louis Calhern | US Drama 89′

Ten years after his classic version of Of Mice and Men for Hal Roach, Lewis Milestone this time went to Republic (the title design is the same as on their John Ford westerns) to again film John Steinbeck (this time adapted by Steinbeck himself), who professed himself satisfied with the results.

In addition to Steinbeck & Milestone this stagy but affecting little fable recalling The Yearling and The Boy with Green Hair marshals various disparate talents including composer Aaron Copland (who had also scored Of Mice and Men) and veteran cameraman Tony Gaudio doing a lovely job behind the camera on his final film; while Bob Mitchum is in his only Technicolor film of the 1940s and Myrna Loy of course looks ravishing in her first since the two-colour days and coming as close as she ever came to her long-cherished desire to play a frontierswoman.

The brash little blond kid with blue eyes is a seven year-old Beau Bridges, Louis Calhern as Loy’s garrulous pappy looks and sounds almost exactly as he did the following year as Buffalo Bill in Annie Get Your Gun; while Margaret Hamilton as the local schoolmarm appropriately looks as if she just stepped out of a painting by Grant Wood. @Richard Chatten

NOW ON PRIME VIDEO

The Babadook (2014) Bluray release

Dir: Jennifer Kent | Cast: Essie Davies, Noah Wiseman, Douglas Henshall Aus Horror, 94′

When it comes to home invasion thrillers it doesn’t get much scarier than this Australian shocker from Jennifer Kent that started life as a short film called The Monster in 2005. Over the next decade Kent tooled away at the narrative and in 2014 THE BABADOOK was born. It went on to win over fifty international awards from critics and viewers alike. Kent successfully employs every horror trope in the book along with a discombobulating soundscape to create a cumulatively distressing psychological thriller that feels real and yet completely outlandish at the same time with its violent visual and emotional onslaught .

Amazingly THE BABADOOK was also Kent’s first full length feature, and worth watching for its sensational central performance from Essie Davis as Amelia, a bereaved single mother still going through the trauma of her husband’s death in a car crash minutes before she gave birth to her only child, Samuel (Wiseman). The two hunker down in their dour Victorian house on the outskirts of Adelaide, where the boy becomes obsessed with a children’s book entitled Mr Babadook, a dark demonic raven-like creature who gradually becomes the vehement vector for their mutual misery and paranoia.     

At times unbearable to watch it’s the way little Samuel bears the brunt of his mother’s violent anguish that makes this so horrifying and heartfelt. There’s a visceral longing and a sexual yearning in Amelia that tips the feature into full blown Gothic territory. And as usual the family dog has to die. MT

The Babadook: Limited Edition 4K/ Blu-ray is now 28th June 2021 from Second Sight Films.

Death on the Streets (2021) IFFR 2021

Dir.: Johan Carlsen; Cast: Zack Mulligan, Katie Folger, Chris Abel, Tammy Hansard Hernandez; Germany/Denmark/Greece 2020, 93 min.

Homelessness has reached a critical level in these pandemic times where businesses have simply disappeared overnight leaving those previously gainfully employed on the scrap heap.

Danish born director/co-writer Johan Carlsen looks at the plight of Kurt a casual worker in rural northern Illinois. Death of the Streets shows how Kurt simply falls out of a society that doesn’t need him any more. Playing out like a research project the film is done with great dignity and understatement.

Kurt (Mulligan) is a tractor driver helping with the maize harvest. He loses his job at the end of the season in a “don’t ring us, we’ll ring you” fashion. There is an offer of a loan. But Kurt is perplexed, he never bargained for this to happen. His caring wife, Sarah (Folger) looks after the couple’s two boys, but Kurt is deeply affected by his new unemployed status and changing dynamic in his role as former head of the family. Old wounds also open with his father-in-law (Abel) who has never respected him, believing that his attractive and intelligent daughter deserved better.

The family has a whip round but Kurt rejects their offer of help. His mother (Hernandez) turns to God asking Kurt to join her in church. But Kurt is adamant. He refuses to take any “hand-outs”. A job interview comes up in the insurance business. But Kurt is clearly not a salesman and has difficultly presenting himself well at interview.

Shamed by his loss of face, Kurt packs his bags and makes his way to Atlanta City where he sleeps under the piers, his mental health gradually going down hill as a chasm opens up between him and his family. Somehow Kurt seems pre-destined to end up a drifter. Like a puppy-dog, he’s willing and keen but unable to understand the basic structures of society, raising questions about his own childhood upbringing. Even at the end of the film his face looks totally unmarked – as if nothing has happened.

DoPs Eric Ferranti and Jide Tom Akileminu creates a great sense of place in the hostile environment seen from Kurt’s POV as he drifts into nothingness, echoed in a bleached out aesthetic eventually morphing into black and white. Death on the Streets is not a political movie, more an intense study chronicling a soul who falls through the cracks of a society he struggled to join. AS

IFFR 2021 CONTINUES ITS LIVE SUMMER SHOW | JUNE 2021

Agony (2020)

Dir: Michele Civetta | Cast: Asia Argento, Jonathan Caouette, Claudia Salerno, Nick Daly, Ninetto Davoli, Franco Nero, Monica Guerritore |

In this fantasy melodrama, New Yorker Isidora (Argento) gets hit by a bombshell in the opening scene – the mother she thought had died in the 1970s has only just departed this world leaving her troubled daughter Isadora the marchese of an extensive Tuscan estate.

Once in Tuscany (actually Viterbo slightly further south) strange things start to happen and Isadora is plagued by hallucinations of a grey-haired wailing woman who haunts the medieval castle in psychedelic magic realist sequences that dovetail seamlessly into Nicola Pecorini’s lushly rendered visuals that create a great sense place in the rural Italian settings. A pig-trailed Franco Nero (Carlo) is the only person she feels she can trust and the two instantly bond when he confesses to a close friendship with her mother (“she saved me from a haze booze and baccarat”) claiming she fell victim to a religious curse in the village back in the time of the Spanish Inquisition.

Driven forward by Bardi Johannson’s sinister soundscape Michele Civetta’s feature debut has echoes of Jane Eyre and an impressive Italian cast (Franco Nero joins fellow Pasolini veteran Ninetto Davoli) – but there’s also something spooky going on with his script (co-written by the film’s producer Joseph Schulman) that seems tonally out of kilter with the histrionic New Yorkers who are crass and cartoonish in the context of the otherwise rather enjoyably lowkey poetic narrative that grows increasingly outlandish in their wake. MT

OUT ON 14 JUNE 2021

 

 

The Singer Not the Song (1961)

Dir: Roy Baker | Cast: Dirk Bogarde, John Mills, Mylene Demongeot | UK Drama

Anybody who thought Dirk Bogarde’s performance as a homosexual in Victim blazed a trail should acquaint themself with this camp classic in which kitted out in leather trousers (his wardrobe “a fetishist’s dream”, as Peter John Dyer observed at the time) he strokes kittens, his left eyebrow permanently arched as the third corner of a very unlikely triangle of which the other two members comprise Mylene Demongeot (referred to as “the child” and with whom Bogarde commiserates “It must be heartbreaking to fall in love with a man you can never have”) and John Mills.

John Mills?! Director Roy Baker understandably would have rather had Richard Burton (who preferred the role of the bandit) or Paul Schofield (who Baker knew better than to ask), but considering how awful towards him Bogarde was throughout shooting his final film under contract with Rank, he clearly just wanted to pack his bags and get out.

In small town Mexico (actually Alhaurin de la Torre on the Costa del Sol) Mills does his best as a Catholic priest who ultimately wins respect from the outlaw, despite his feeble attempt at an Irish accent. It would have been fun to see Burton rise to the occasion after trying to be a gangster in Villain.@Richard Chatten

Miracle in Soho (1957)

Dir: Julian Amyes | Cast: John Gregson, Belinda Lee, Cyril Cusack, Rosalie Crutchley, Ian Bannen | UK Drama 93′

Miracle in Soho begins with the proud declaration “An Emeric Pressburger Production”. The elevation of Michael Powell to the Pantheon of great directors has not been without muted grumbles; and has even lead some to claim Pressburger was the one with the talent.

But such talk tends to ignore the two 1950s films Pressburger made without Powell, starting with the only one he actually directed, Twice Upon a Time (1953). Always conspicuous by its absence from Powell & Pressburger seasons, the experience evidently cured him of the desire ever to direct again, this time hiring Julian Aymes to take on that onerous task. Based on a script called ‘St Anthony’s Lane’, which he had written in 1934 and was in his suitcase when he arrived in Britain the following year, the film follows Michael Morgan (Grigson) an ordinary bloke whose life is turned around by the ‘miracle’ of love. Neither Pressburger nor Aymes ever made another film; and Miracle in Soho proves that whereas Pressburger gave the Archers’ their heart, Powell definitely supplied the muscle.

Ten years earlier Powell had done an amazing job of recreating the Himalayas without leaving Britain in Black Narcissus; and three years later he too would set a fanciful Eastman Colour production in Soho. But Peeping Tom was a vision of Hell compared to the studio-bound whimsy of Miracle in Soho. Like Black Narcussus before it Miracle in Soho was also shot at Pinewood, but although set in a location far closer to home it’s far less convincingly evoked than Black Narcissus. A previous writer on the IMDb has speculated that the final cut had a hefty edit, which would account for the brevity of Billie Whitelaw’s role and the haunting but fleeting presence of an un-billed Wilfred Lawson as John Gregson’s father (ironically seen sipping tea from a saucer in the second of his two very brief appearances; since he’s obviously been tippling on something a lot stronger). @Richard Chatten

TALKING PICTURES TV

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

The Woman in his House (1932) Amazon

Dir: Edward H Griffith | Wri: Horace Jackson | Cast: Myrna Loy, Les Howard, Ann Harding, William Gargan, Ilka Chase | US Comedy Drama 85′

Four years after this film was made, Myrna Loy – then Queen to Clark Gable’s King of Hollywood – played his wife in a glossy ‘A’ list trifle suggestively called Wife vs. Secretary (1936). The wife of the title is a whiny gold-digging shrew whose charm resides solely in the enormous charisma of the actress playing her; while the racy title is belied by making the newly ‘brownette’ Harlow brisk, efficient and wholly honorable in her intentions toward husband Clark Gable.

When I saw it I thought it would have been a much more interesting film if it had been made Pre-Code with Loy playing the secretary and Harlow at her sluttiest and most peroxided as the wife (as in Dinner at Eight). The same thought occurred to me watching The Animal Kingdom. Being pre-Code, it’s able to be frank about the role that sex plays in the various characters’ interrelations without being too flippant about it either, since it’s really about relationships rather than sex (rather as Douglas Sirk’s glossy melodramas of the fifties tended to be) and views a husband leaving his lawful wedded for his on again-off again mistress with active approval.

@wikipedia

Loy’s name isn’t even included on the title card but she actually gets far more screen time than Ann Harding as the mistress and is obviously offering husband Leslie Howard passion (when she feels he’s earned it) of an order he plainly hasn’t known with Harding for some time. As in real life the characters have made exasperating life choices (Loy herself in reality notoriously made four wholly unsuitable choices of husband).

Loy is here charming but mercenary and manipulative, while Harding seems very prim for a supposedly “promiscuous” (yes!, that’s the word that Loy – no less – uses to describe her) bohemian who has allowed her physical relationship with Howard to wither on the vine, yet is still affronted that Howard should have the temerity to seek more… stimulating companionship elsewhere. The fact that he nonchalantly leaves her apartment while she just carries on talking in the next room speaks volumes about the state of the relationship.

Within minutes of primly branding Harding “a promiscuous little…!” Loy reveals herself to be not above finally stopping teasing poor Neil Hamilton and giving him a little of the “excitement” he’s plainly been gagging for since the film began if he’ll perform a professional service on her behalf. Having until now shown himself to be weak and easily manipulated, Howard at the film’s conclusion draws upon hitherto unsuspected reserves of iron self-control – that would certainly have been well beyond me – to turn his back on a bedroom door on the other side of which the delectable Loy is undressed and waiting for him.

All the acting is good – particularly William Gargan recreating his stage role – and Loy was always effusive in her praise for the guidance she received from the film’s largely forgotten director Edward H. Griffith. Also fascinating is the diorama of the Brooklyn Bridge visible through the window of the New York apartment occupied by the supposedly penniless Harding. @Richard Chatten

NOW ON AMAZON

Joan the Woman (1916)

Dir: Cecil B DeMille | Wri: Jeannie Macpherson, William C de Mille | Cast: Geraldine Farrar, Raymond Hatton, Hobart Bosworth, Theodore Roberts | US Drama, Silent 138′

Premiering over a hundred years ago on Christmas Day 1916, this marked the first of the historical epics with which Cecil B. DeMille’s name became synonymous. Joan the Woman far excels his later sound spectacles, by which time he’d lost his enthusiasm for location shooting, his films becoming painfully studio bound, with just a few token exterior sequences left in the hands of second-unit directors. Handsomely designed by Wilfred Buckland and photographed by Alvin Wyckoff, at 138 minutes, it is almost as long as Victor Fleming’s Technicolor folly of 1948 with Ingrid Bergman, but far surpasses it as spectacle.

Imposing a contemporary WWI framing story was probably prompted by Griffith’s Intolerance and pushes the feature over the two hour mark, making it a long even by today’s standards; and the first third of the film drags a bit. The other weak link in the chainmail is Farrar herself. The title ‘Joan the Woman’ (compared to later versions with titles like ‘Das Mädchen Johanna’ and ‘Jeanne la Pucelle’) already seems to acknowledge that DeMille is aware that the 34 year-old soprano Geraldine Farrar looks extremely matronly as Joan (much more so than the 32 year-old Ingrid Bergman in 1948). In the rare close-ups where DeMille has her lit for effect from below, Farrar actually looks strikingly like the 43 year-old Hedy Lamarr in The Story of Mankind (1957). Sadly she also gives possibly the worst performance in the film, constantly playing to the camera rather than the other actors.

However when Joan finally gets into her armour and lays siege to Orléans the film really gets going. The screen positively swarms with extras, some of whom look as if they’re genuinely getting hurt (you can actually see some of them flinching). Joan’s imprisonment and trial also captures DeMille’s imagination and provides him with the opportunity to indulge in one of the torture sequences he developed a penchant for, to the accompaniment of appropriately dramatic ‘Rembrandt’ lighting. Now in the clutches of tombstone-faced Theodore Roberts as Cauchon, the faces of the menacing-looking extras DeMille amassed to fill the courtroom during Joan’s trial are really something; as is her execution, when a flaming orange firebrand is applied to her pyre. Courtesy of the Handschiegl colour process she expires in an eye-boggling blaze of orange flames. @Richard Chatten

NOW AVAILABLE ON AMAZON

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1916)

Dir: Stuart Paton | Allen Holubar, Dan Hanlon, Edna Pendleton, Curtis Benton | UK, Action Drama 105′

A remarkably lavish production that seems not content with merely filming Jules Verne’s 1870 novel but for good measure also throws in his later novel ‘L’Île Mystérieuse’ and a concluding flashback that – as the subtitles themselves admit – owes nothing to Verne but must have made an already expensive production needlessly extravagant (Universal’s Carl Laemmle took a bath – if you’ll pardon the expression – on the reported $500,000 he spent on it).

The most remarkable aspect of the film is the pioneering underwater photography supervised by the brothers Ernest & George Williamson (some of it shot in the Bahamas) depicting the view from Captain Nemo’s famous picture window, the camera lingering lovingly on strikingly modern-looking actuality footage of coral reefs and shoals of fish. When Nemo’s crew get into their diving suits there is then remarkable footage of them interacting with actual sharks; although the realism abruptly evaporates in a later scene involving an extremely phony looking octopus.

The film’s makers quickly lose interest in a straight adaptation of Verne’s novel at this point, and the action transfers to a mysterious desert island whose one human inhabitant is initially a boisterous ‘child of nature’ played by Jane Gail in dusky body makeup, who jauntily trades in her cheetah skin sarong for a fetching combination of blouse and trousers provided by one of the visitors. (Quite a few adventure films from this period that I’ve seen have put the leading lady in trousers.) Nemo, alias Daaker, turns out to have been an Indian prince in a previous life, and Miss Gail turns out to be his daughter, as is explained in a flashback thrown in climaxing in a native uprising. The film had at this point seemed to be drawing to its conclusion; which makes the insertion of this very expensive looking sequence reportedly featuring almost 2,000 extras all the more bewildering.

The extraordinary underwater footage aside, the handsome and atmospheric look of the rest of the film probably owes more to the photography of Eugene Gaudio (whose elder brother Tony’s long career at Warner Bros. included The Adventures of Robin Hood) than to the rather perfunctory direction of Stuart Paton, who should have told Allen Holubar as Nemo and the unidentified actress playing his late wife not to wave their arms around so much. Other reviewers have commented on the resemblance of the uniform worn by Captain Nemo and his crew to the one traditionally worn by Santa Claus. @Richard Chatten

NOW AVAILABLE ON AMAZON

The Toth Family | Isten Hozta Örnagy (1969)

Dir.: Zoltan Fabri (1917-1994); Cast: Zoltan Latinovits, Imre Sinkovits, Marta Fonay, Vera Venczel; Hungary 1969, 95 min.

Zoltan Fabri’s amusing dramatic farce serves as a well-veiled metaphor for Stalinism. Adapting from Istvan Orkeny’s novel ‘Totek’, the Hungarian director was first and foremost a humanist whose films successfully smuggled their subversive subtexts through the censors as here in this lively social satire that couldn’t really offend anyone.

It all takes place during 1942 in a village in Northern Hungary where the peaceful existence of the Toth family comes to an abrupt end with the arrival of their son’s regimental superior, on sick leave. Father Lajos (Sinkovits) the naive head of the fire brigade, his plump wife Mariska (Fonay) and their doting daughter Agika (Venczel) find themselves lodging and entertaining the paranoid war-weary Major Ornagy (Latinovits), catering to his every whim in a bid to promote their son’s army career.

The major really is in a state: the slightest noise makes him jump as he imagines enemy soldiers at every corner and mistakes nighttime shadows for trenches, desperate to avoid them. In an effort to exert control over the locals he puts in place a laborious new system the villages must adhere to involving a series of boxes. Agika develops a crush as chaos reigns and the mentally impaired village postman Gyuri mislays the family’s post, including a letter of vital importance leading to the film’s dramatic finale.

The Toth Family has aged well: its Brechtian narrative serves the farcical content well – the family forced into a futile labour of love while the major is blissfully unaware of the havoc his demanding behaviour is causing. The output of useless boxes is the only direct connection to every-day live under Stalinism, where production of everything but consumer goods was the mantra of the system.

DoP Györgi Illes painterly images and saturated prime colours give the film a traditional, almost fairytale feel. Fabri’s classical approach helped him package his messages discretely – never attracting the same negative attention from the authorities as Miklòs Janscò with his eye-catching modernist style. But the death of Communism also marked the end of Fabri’s output. His final feature Housewarming was made in 1983. AS

COURTESY OF THE HUNGARIAN CULTURAL INSTITUTE

After Love (2020)

Dir/scr: Aleem Khan | Joanna Scanlan, Natalie Richard, Talid Arris | UK, Drama 89 mins

A spare but transcendent feature debut that takes place between Calais and Dover in the aftermath of a cross-channel menage-a-trois. Happily married Muslim convert Mary/Fatima (Scanlan) discovers her husband’s secret on his mobile ‘phone, shortly after his sudden death. Curiosity sees her travelling to France where she tracks down Genevieve the middle-aged mother of his love child Solomon, now an unruly teenager much loved by both his parents. Through a understandable mix-up the women’s lives come together, but only Mary is aware of Genevieve’s identity. Both women are forced to deal with loss and longing in different ways.

Writer director Aleem Khan delivers an accomplished and insightful drama that speaks volumes about race, identity and the nature of love and faithfulness through a storyline that goes to unexpected places. Joanna Scanlan is quietly tremendous as a woman exploring grief and bereavement in a graceful and philosophical way that never descends into melodrama or histrionics, so commonplace in this kind of story. And it’s also down to Khan’s economic style of writing that follows the saying: ‘speech is silver, but silence is golden’.

Instead the two women discretely and gradually explore the past and the present in a way that is both surprising and satisfying. Khan leaves a great deal to the imagination – we are left to make up our own minds about Mary and Genevieve’s life, the focus here is the dynamic between them as they feel their way forward, largely in the dark, as the truth gradually emerges questioning their core beliefs and feelings.

One scene in particularly mirrors the women’s crushing loss of faith seen through a section of Dover’s white cliffs literally crumbling into the sea. It’s a stunning metaphor for this graceful two-hander that portrays women at their best, coping calmly with disappointment and bewilderment, reflecting on their lot with dignity and philosophy. A stunning and mature drama in the classic tradition of storytelling. MT

Released on Blu-ray and digitally as a BFI Player Subscription Exclusive on 23 August 202

 

 

 

The Best of Men (2012)

Dir.: Tim Whitby; Cast: Eddie Marsan, George Mackay, Leigh Quinn, Niamh Cusack, Rob Brydon, Richard McCabe, Tracy-Ann Oberman; UK 2012, 87 min.

This upbeat crowd-pleaser takes place in leafy Buckinghamshire where the Paraplegic Games first kicked off courtesy of one Ludwig Guttmann (1899-1980), a Jewish neurologist who revolutionised life for injured veterans, after fleeing Nazi Germany at the beginning of the Second World War.

TV Director Tim Whitby and his writer Lucy Gannon are best known for their popular TV series Bramwell and their star-strewn big screen production shows how the pioneering Jewish doctor’s groundbreaking work at Stoke Mandeville Hospital eventually led to him founding the centre’s Para-Olympics, held parallel with the London Olympic Games of 1948. Guttmann also founded the International Medical Society of Paraplegia and was later knighted.

Eddie Marsan plays the good doctor who arrives at Stoke Mandeville where paraplegic soldiers injured in the war effort are more or less being left to die, plagued by bed sores and suicidal with chronic pain. At first the medical staff are totally opposed to Guttmann’s methods with a great deal of tutting from Nurse Carr (Quinn) and Sister Edwards (Cusack) and  pompous resident Doctor Cowan (McCabe) who tries to obstruct the newcomer, there’s even talk of a transfer.

The storyline follows twenty year old William Heat (Mackay) – who we see in happier days with his fiancée – he now wants to die after a prognosis of being confined to a wheelchair. Then there is Wynne ((Brydon), a Welshman who wants a divorce from his wife on the grounds of him not being man enough anymore. With the help of a PE instructor, Guttmann gets the men out of bed – and the rest is history.

The good old British stiff up lip makes light of the sombre topic, Rob Brydon and George McKay are lively and amusing. Guttmann’s fight against the stolid traditions of British bureaucracy has an upbeat feel – but Guttmann doesn’t get an easy ride of it – he too can be difficult at times. The men rise to the occasion with banter and witty repartee. An outing to the local pub underlines the film’s firmly British credentials.  DoP Matt Gray captures the English countryside with roving panorama shots, his interiors are full of inventive angels. Marsan is convincing as the knowledgeable intruder whose solemn bedside manner fails on the empathy front with his British hosts. A tad didactic at times, The Best of Men is a wonderfully entertaining insight into a sporting triumph. AS

DVD & DIGITAL RELEASE ON 14 JUNE 2021

Topkapi (1964)

Dir: Jules Dessin | Cast: Melina Mercouri, Peter Ustinov, Maximillian Schell, Robert Morley, Akim Tamiroff | 120′

The second of two glossy international adventures Istanbul played host to in 1963 (the first was From Russia with Love), this much-copied (especially the scene with the cat burglar suspended from the skylight) adaptation of Eric Ambler’s 1962 novel The Light of Day’ is the sort of slick entertainment Losey thought he was making – but wasn’t – when he made Modesty Blaise two years later.

Effectively a sumptuous, less clinical Technicolor remake by Jules Dassin of his own classic fifties heist movie Riffifi. Henry Alekan’s photography is as fluidly mobile as it is ravishing to the eye (notably in the scene clambering across the roof of Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace Museum in brilliant sunshine).

With the cast including Peter Ustinov playing a schmoo “who aims low and misses”, Robert Morley and Akim Tamiroff you know you’re not going to get method acting; even without queen bee Melina Mercouri. (Ustinov later opined that director Dassin “could have had a more remarkable career if he had not dedicated himself so devotedly to her service”.) Yet despite the gleaming presence of Ms Mercouri as a voracious nymphomaniac there are occasional scenes with a strong homoerotic character; and not just the one with the oiled-up wrestlers. @Richard Chatten

 

In a Quiet Place: Part II (2021)

Dir: John Krasinski | Cast: Emily Blunt, Noel Jupe, Millicent Simmonds, Cillian Murphy | US thriller 97′

It’s a novel idea: an anthropod alien attracted to earthbound prey merely by sound. In a Quiet Place (2018), essentially a survivalist Sci-Fi thriller, was the brainwave of John Krasinski who wrote and stars alongside his wife Emily Blunt. As Evelyn and Lee Abbott they spend the entire film cowering in silence in the family farm in New York State while the predator  – who arrives from the heavens – rages outside. Part II sees Evelyn and the kids escaping across the Appalachian mountains where other dangers lurk.

Thriller-wise there are some clever beats here: the exquisitely sound-sensitive predator is an animal – not a robot – and can be destroyed by gunfire – keeping the story grounded, relatively speaking. This spider-like critter can also be repelled (for a time) by a loud transistor radio, held up like a cross to a vampire. Meahwile its horrified potential victims tiptoe around – in the serene splendour of the bucolic Buffalo countryside where they hide out in a disused factory. The well-honed family members feel real and relatable, Evelyn and her clever kids Marcus (Jupe) and hearing-impaired Regan (Simmonds) love each other, and it shows. There’s also a newborn in tow.

Krasinski successfully develops the storyline with a sequel that combines likeable heroes with stunning Sci-fi set pieces moving on from the ground-breaking reveal of ‘part one’. Pitting man against monster in a post-apocalyptic world feels entirely ‘now’. Horror lovers will enjoy plenty of jump scares and skeletons popping out of nowwhere to a pounding soundscape that jostles thunderous vibes with suspenseful interludes of silvan silence. Somehow this could be happening to you. MT

NOW ON RELEASE IN CINEMAS NATIONWIDE

The Last Days (1998) Netflix

Dir.: James Moll; Documentary with Bill Basch, Irene Zisblatt, Renee Firestone, Alice Lok Cahana, Tom Lantos, Dario Gabbai, Randolph Braham,Hans Munch; USA 1998, 87 min.

Five Hungarian Holocaust survivors, now settled in the USA, share their memories of Dachau, Auschwitz, and Bergen-Belsen in this astonishing Oscar-winning documentary that sees James Moll (Inheritance) taking them back to their tragic past. The Last Days, was only the American director’s second feature yet it manages to stun with its trenchant insight and archive footage showing the human spirit at its darkest. But there are glimmers of hope.

In March 1944 Germany occupied Hungary with the help of the Hungarian Fascists, the Arrow Cross Party. Nearly half a million Jews were ferried in cattle trucks between 15th of May 1944 and 9th of July 1944 to Concentrations camps in Poland and Germany, where they were murdered. The Jews of Budapest were saved by the arrival of the Red Army. But elsewhere in the country the occupying Germans (and their allies) focussed on annihilating Jewish Hungarians at the expense of the war effort, which was admittedly by this time a busted flush.

Irene Zisblatt, now a grandmother, remembers the day, when her mother sewed diamonds into hem of her skirt – the girl would swallow these and wash them again and and again in Auschwitz, they would provide bread when the going got tough. These diamonds have been fashioned into pendants, given to the first girl in each new generation in the USA.

Alice Lok-Cahana, a painter, is joined by her children, husband and grandchildren for a prayer in KZ Bergen Belsen. Art is her way of re-emerging from the ashes of the Second World War. But there is also survivor’s guilt: business man Billy Basch recalls how he swore everlasting friendship with two fellow inmates. But when the Germans ordered the Auschwitz prisoners on a death march in the winter of 1945, a foot injury prevented one of them from continuing, the SS guard putting paid to their solidarity threatening to shoot all three, leaving their friend to a certain death.

Renee Firestone, a teacher, literally interrogates Hans Munch, a German doctor who experimented with women prisoners: sterilisation and changing the eye colour of prisoners were his speciality. Her sister Klara, who died in June 1945, was one of his victims, Renee is seen putting flowers on her grave. Munch managed to escape indictment at numerous court cases claiming his parents would have been executed had he not obeyed. His mitigating ‘decency’ acted in his favour, compared to the sadism of the other doctors. But when he talks cold-bloodedly about the smell of human fat, the facade slips.

And there is Tom Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor elected to the US Senate, singing the praises of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg who hid him and others in houses belonging to Swedish diplomats. Lantos is now the proud grandfather of seventeen grandchildren.

DoP Harris Done has a delicate hand, always knowing when to cut if the witnesses are too overcome by grief. With a memorable score by Hans Zimmer, The  Last Days leaves us in no doubt. Over 75 years later the psychological wounds still run deep. AS

NOW ON NETFLIX

Suspect (1960)

Dir: John & Roy Boulting | Cast: Tony Britton, Virginia Maskell, Ian Bannen, Peter Cushing, Donald Pleasence, Spike Milligan, Raymond Huntley | UK Thriller, 81′

Sadly forgotten today. This sober adaptation of his own 1949 novel ‘A Sort of Traitors’ by Nigel Balchin is one of the very few films by the Boulting twins signed by both as co-directors, and the third of an unofficial trilogy of Cold War dramas that recalls the earnestness of the brothers’ films of the thirties and forties (the monstrously unfunny comedy relief by Spike Milligan being ironically by far the weakest component).

Instead of the atom bomb ten years earlier in Seven Days to Noon the threat to humanity here is the unfortunately only too topical menace of virulent contagions like Bubonic Plague or Typhus. Sixty years later it remains one of the very few British films to mention Korea (where Ian Bannen lost both his arms), and the presence of such a singular character as Bannen plays could only happen in a film based upon a novel. Rather than the saintly figure the disabled are usually portrayed as (“People are usually reliably sentimental about the maimed”) Bannen has obviously been destroyed mentally as well as physically by his ordeal.

Pragmatism is favoured over idealism (“The slippery ones are easy, but these honest chaps turn you grey” laments deceptively vague spymaster Thorley Walters). Although supposedly the hero, Tony Britton incredibly dismisses the disabled as “of no social value”; while Raymond Huntley’s obstructive minister (despite his distractingly obvious toupee) demonstrates to be sharper than he seems throughout the rest of the film in an incisive speech cogently stating that political realities trump heady idealism (“Matters of judgment are our business”).

Despite its ultra-low budget, the efficient production design and use of locations – cleanly lit by veteran Boulting’s cameraman Max Greene – makes the film looks austere rather than cheap; while the economical use of excerpts from Scriabin and Chopin also adds to the melancholy of the piece, and is possibly a discreet reminder that Bannen’s dashed dream had been of becoming a concert pianist.@Richard Chatten

NOW ON TALKING PICTURES

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 

 

The Rise of the Krays (2015)

Dir: Zackary Adler | Cast: Matt Vael, Simon Cotton, Kevin Leslie, Olivia Moyles

With a new series ‘Secrets of the Krays’ now on TV the endless fascination with the terrible twins continues, here played by Simon Cotton (Ronnie) and Kevin Leslie (Reggie) who appropriately won Best Actor at that year’s Marbella Film Festival.

Although it supposedly begins in Hackney in 1951, this movie takes its sartorial and visual lead from David Bailey’s 1965 portrait of the Kray Twins and its technique from A Clockwork Orange rather than The Blue Lamp; while the saturated Edward Hopper colours evoke the swinging sixties rather than the drab Britain of the fifties where the action mostly takes place. Likewise the saturnine young blades depicted here bear little resemblance to the beefy, cold-eyed bruisers of Bailey’s double portrait (while naturally no attempt has been made to cast actors who resemble Alec Douglas-Home or Henry Brooke in the brief scene with the Prime Minister and Home Secretary at Number 10).

Amidst all this testosterone a couple of ladies from Albert Square make all too fleeting appearances in the form of Anita Dobson as a barmaid and Nicola Stapleton as the twins’ mother, Violet. @Richard Chatten

NOW ON PRIME

Those That Wish Me Dead (2020)

Dir: Taylor Sheridan | Cast: Angeline Jolie, Medina Senghore, Aiden Gillen, Nicholas Hoult, Finn Little, John Bernthal, Jake Webber | US Action Thriller, 100′

A flash and burn action thriller that really doesn’t set the night on fire despite a solid cast and a smouldering Angelina Jolie who plays a Montana firefighter recovering from one too many forest tragedies. And in the midst of this she rescues and befriends a traumatised orphan (Little) whose father (Webber) has been blown to bits in escaping an incendiary couple of cypher-like assassins (Gillen and Hoult) who kill people for reasons that never really makes sense – destroying swathes of bosky Montana countryside in some spectacular set pieces that will make nature-lovers and environmentalists weep.

Taylor Sheridan was heralded a promising new talent on the indie circuit with his spunky scripts for the lauded Hell or High Water and Sicario. Here he gets behind the camera sharing the virtue-signalling narrative in a group effort – and it shows – a big budget fails to paper over the cracks in the muddled, multi-stranded storyline takes a while to shape up, based on a book by Michael Koryta – who joins Charles Leavitt and Taylor in the writing department.

One thing it does have is two feisty female characters in the shape of Jolie (the more convincing of the two, taking over from Emily Blunt’s FBI agent in Sicario) and Medina Senghore who gets the cheesy option as a simpering pregnant sheriff’s wife whose gloves go on in the fraught finale. Between them they save the day amid endless mayhem – and that’s something to welcome in this otherwise rather forgettable pulpy production. MT

NOW IN CINEMAS NATIONWIDE

The Monster Maker (1944) Plex TV

Dir: Sam Newfield | Cast: J Carrol Naish, Ralph Morgan, Talia Birell, Wanda McKay | US Horror fantasy, 62′

1944 was the year in which a hitherto obscure glandular disorder called acromegaly hit the Hollywood mainstream. In the Sherlock Holmes adventure ‘The Pearl of Death’ a crowd player named Rondo Hatton (1894-1946) who suffered the affliction was promoted to featured billing as the backbreaking Hoxton Creeper and achieved transitory stardom as the only movie monster who didn’t require makeup. And it was also a central plot element in The Monster Maker; stored in a bottle in the drugs cabinet of a certain Dr.Markoff bearing a professionally printed label reading “Acromegaly A.5.B2”, as if he’d bought it at his local branch of Boots.

It was probably tasteless for a mere horror movie to use the authentic condition which in reality afflicted poor Hatton (a picture of whom will show you what a genuine sufferer actually looks like); but the film is nowhere near as sleazy as authorities like Leonard Maltin and the late Denis Gifford made it sound (and that it’s provenance as a production of ‘Z’ budget studio PRC might lead one to expect). J.Carroll Naish and Ralph Morgan are both urbanely professional as the oily Dr Markoff and the concert pianist whose daughter he covets. The acromegalic makeup by Maurice Seiderman (who worked on Citizen Kane) is actually not bad (although is wisely not lingered on for too long by director Sam Newfield); and is more convincing than that later worn by Leo G. Carroll when afflicted with the same condition in Tarantula. Oddly enough, cinematographer Robert Cline’s name isn’t in the credits (at least in the prints posted on YouTube), but he does a fluid and elegant job; as does editor Holbrook N. Todd.

Previous IMDb reviewers have pointed up similarities to The Raven (1935); and schlockmeister Herman Cohen in turn probably drew upon youthful memories of this when he produced the laugh-out-loud funny Konga (1961), with which it shares in common a very mad scientist (hilariously overacted in Konga by Michael Gough) with a fondness for injecting serums, a besotted female assistant frustrated by her boss’s infatuation with a younger, cuter and blonder girl on whom he forces his creepy attentions to a predictably unenthusiastic response, and a pet gorilla in a cage (who looks as if he’s even wearing the same gorilla suit) who he occasionally lets out at night to deal with people who are making a nuisance of themselves.

One of the most improbable elements in the film is also one of its strengths. As played by Tala Birell, Markoff’s assistant Maxine is a smart, handsome woman who knows her way around a laboratory. But, knowing what he did to the real Markoff and his wife, why is she so besotted with this jerk in the first place? Happily she avoids the fate suffered by lab assistants in most horror movies and survives until the end, seems to take Markoff’s death in her stride and hopefully went on to settle down with someone more worthy of her. @Richard Chatten

NOW ON PLEX TV

Cairo Station | Bab el Hadid (1958) Netflix

Dir.: Youssef Chahine; Cast: Youssef Chahine, Hind Rostom, Farid Sawqi, Hasan al-Barudi; Egypt 1958, 75 min.

Cairo Station was the eleventh of over thirty feature films by prolific Egyptian filmmaker Youssef Chahine (1926-2008) providing a snapshot of Egyptian society that appears, on the face of it more, permissive than today.

Chahine was born into a multi-lingual family of Coptic Christians in British-occupied Alexandria where his lawyer father was a supporter of the Wafd nationalist party; his Greek mother sent him to the Christian English-speaking Victoria College. His desire for a theatrical career was first prompted in childhood by seeing shadow plays, then 9.5mm films.

Chahine rose to the international stage with his autobiographical trilogy set in the bustling Mediterranean port of Alexandria, the place of his birth and a creative melting pot where the Egyptian film industry was born in the 1920s: Iskindiria … Leh? (Alexandria … Why?, 1978); Haddouta Misriyya (An Egyptian Story, 1982); and Eskandarai Kaman We Kaman (Alexandria Again and Forever, 1989). But although he was highly regarded by European directors his films were rarely shown beyond the festival circuit in the West, apart from in France where he won a Palme d’Or for his oeuvre in 1997. Cairo Station was Chahine first auteur feature: far ahead of his time aesthetically and contents wise and now getting a international showing on Netflix.

Radical and very much ahead of its time – when you consider the step back that the Arab world has since taken – Cairo Station was later banned and Chahine forced to leave Egypt.

The station is seen as a microcosm of Egyptian society in the late 1950s. The country had undergone drastic changes: In 1956 Gamer Abdel Nasser had overthrown the monarchy and nationalised the Suez Canal. Everything was being questioned, particularly the role of women and the status quo between employers and workers. Despite the ebullient liveliness of some of the scenes, there’s a sinister thread of misogyny running through this psycho-sexual melodrama, Chahine was not for nothing an ardent admirer of Alfred Hitchcock, and DoP Alvise Orfanelli mirrors his use of light and shadow both on the widescreen images of the station and in intimate close-ups that convey the lust, fear and longing in the characters’ eyes. Considered Neo-realist by some critics, the element of male sexual obsession belongs very much to the early 1970s films of Brian de Palma, another Hitchcock disciple.

Told by the elderly narrator Madbouli (Al Barudi), a newspaper seller at the station, the narrative focus is his club-footed employee Quinawi (also played by Chahine) who lives in a porn-decked hovel where he drools over photos of semi-clad females dreaming of the flirtatious drinks seller Hanuma (Rostom). Quinawi is besotted by Hanuma, who sometimes plays him along if it suits her, although she is really in love with station porter and trade unionist Abu Serih (Sawqi), who is active in cutting out the middlemen, who take much of their earnings, giving the film its political angle.

One day Quinawi reads in the papers that a serial killer is on the loose. And while Abu Serih is busy with his union business, Hanuma plays a wicked game with Quinawi: toying with his offer of marriage and taking him up on his idea of going back to his village, where they will marry and raise a family. When Quinawi finds out he has been duped, he strikes out in the same style as the serial killer, blinded by rage and anger, making a fatal error that leads to the shocking finale where he emerges a tragic and pitiful victim.

There are two impressive highlights: the first is a Be-Bop interlude with “Mike and the Skyrockets”, performing in a train, Hanuma dancing along with gusto. The other one shows Quinawi taking revenge for his frustration on a little kitten. There is nothing muted or tender about the film’s characters who are seen in all the cruelty and splendour of the Middle East. AS

NOW ON NETFLIX

Maniac (1934) Prime Video

Dir: Dwain Esper | Cast: Bill Woods, Horace B Carpenter, Ted Edwards, Phyllis Diller | US, Horror 51′

Although copyrighted in September 1934, Maniac feels as if it were made five years earlier, both technically and in its extraordinary subject matter; the latter because it was never intended to be exhibited by any of the major theatre chains and thus beyond the reach of the newly enforced Production Code.

To watch Maniac is as if the Production Code had never happened, as it abounds with such brazen flouting of the Code as four young girls sitting about in their underwear discussing current stories in the press in surprisingly highfalutin’ language, a couple of fleeting glimpses of bare breasts, eye-watering and jaw-dropping violence such as a scene involving cruelty to a cat lifted (along with much of the rest of the plot) from Poe’s ‘The Black Cat’ and a remarkably energetic, hair-pulling, clothes-ripping catfight in a cellar between Thea Ramsey and Phyllis Diller that escalates from hypodermics to a baseball bat. (Ms Diller – whose name regularly provokes comment – as the scheming Mrs Buckley is an elegantly dressed, bun-faced middle-aged woman who sounds as if she’s reading her lines off cue-cards and couldn’t less resemble her much younger namesake.)

Crudely made but with a nodding acquaintance with rudimentary cinematic technique, this film is obviously cheap but far from inept. The veteran editor William Austin makes competent use of cutting and dissolves (as well as footage apparently lifted from Maciste all’Inferno), the laboratory scenes are actually quite good-looking and reasonably competently framed and lit by cameraman William Thompson (who also shot Plan 9 from Outer Space!), there’s a satisfactory amount of outdoor photography (although the night scenes are far too dark), including exterior shots of the back yard of a Hollywood bungalow, and the climax looks as if it’s shot in a real cellar.

The script is by the director’s wife Hildegarde Stadie, and she plainly knows her Poe, who is actually name checked at one point. Some of her dialogue is also quite a salty commentary on modern life, like the exchange between the two embalmers: “between the gangsters and the auto drivers, we won’t need another war to carry off the population. You didn’t even mention the suicides”. A lot of the humour is plainly blackly intentional, like the neighbour discussing breeding cats for their furs while feeding them on (and to) rats.

One narrative device that heightens the film’s rather archaic Pre-Code feel is its use of intertitles which periodically interrupt the plot to describe various abnormal mental conditions (all of which sound applicable to the former incumbent of the White House). Plainly fig leaves to maintain the pretence that the film has a Serious Educational Purpose (and accompanied by the only music in the film, apart from the final movement of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth over the opening credits), normally this medical stuff would have been delivered at some point by an actor pretending to be a doctor, but here it’s done with passages cribbed from medical publications. One of these conditions, Dementia Praecox, was a quarter of a century later the condition Elizabeth Taylor was diagnosed with in Suddenly Last Summer and compared by Katherine Hepburn to an exotic bloom (“Night-blooming Dementia Praecox”) in a purple passage that wouldn’t have been out of place here. @Richard Chatten

MANIAC IS ON PRIME VIDEO

Calibre (2018) Netflix

Dir/Wri: Matt Palmer | Cast: Jack Lowden, Martin McCann, Tony Curran, Ian Pirie, Cal MacAninch | UK Thriller 101′

A wee weekend in the Scotlish highlands has no happy outcome for anyone concerned in this gritty thriller that sees the usual low budget British gangland flick evocatively transposed to north of the border.

Calibre is the feature debut of seasoned shorts director Matt Palmer whose canny script certainly makes for gripping if uncomfortable viewing. The only downside is the lack of a spunky female character to counterbalance the fearsome  red-bloodied males in a cast led by Jack Lowden (Dunkirk/Small Axe).

After a romantic opening scene the engines start firing when suburban, soon to be father Vaughn (Lowden) bids farewell to his fiancé Anna (Morgan) and heads off with close friend Marcus (McCann) into the wild and rather hostile territory of West Lothian for a spot of deer shooting.

Palmer and his Hungarian DoP Mark Gyori establish the dour milieu of the tartan-shrewn hunting lodge where the two settle down to a night of heavy drinking, you can almost hear the bagpipes grinding ominously in the gloaming. Dawn sees them venturing into bristling gorse-lands nursing hangovers that clearly skew their shooting skills. What happens next is pivotal to the remaining hour or so of the film where the two wish they had spent the weekend quietly at home in Edinburgh rather than drenched in dread and despair up north. A gross error of judgement leaves Vaughn and Marcus toughing it out at the lodge, rather than reporting events to the local police, or even heading home – there’s also a suggestion that some kind of business deal is attached to the trip to explain their staying, but this is a minor flaw in an otherwise gripping little thriller. One mistake leads to another as soon all hell breaks loose with the locals who are not able to forgive or forget. There’s a Straw Dogs feel to the way the film plays out, and it’s brutal and not for wimps.

Most of the violence occurs off-camera with Chris Wyatt’s clever editing skills conveying an unbearable tension that gnaws away as the vehement locals prepare to take matters into their own hands. MT

NOW ON NETFLIX | Calibre won the Michael Powell Award for best new British feature at Edinburgh 2018.

Hitler: Dead or Alive (1942) Prime video

Dir: Nick Grinde | Cast: Dorothy Tree, Ward Bond, Warren Hymer, Paul Fix | US Drama 70′

This isn’t really very good, but is nevertheless a historically fascinating film that needs to be seen to be believed; if only for the incredible ending, whih is no more far-fetched than that dreamed up by Quentin Tarantino for Inglorious Basterds.

The previous year Geoffrey Household’s pre-war novel about stalking Hitler, Rogue Male, had already been filmed by Fritz Lang as Man Hunt, and I had settled down to this expecting another piece of crass hokum like Desperate Journey with Errol Flynn, which had recently treated killing Nazis as a bit of a lark. At first it seems as if we’re in for more of the same, but the tone darkens considerably as the film progresses, with obvious references to the massacre of civilians at Lidice the previous spring.

Despite being warned that in Germany they speak German, this proves not to be the case; and absurd inaccuracies like the claim that Hitler grew his moustache to cover a scar acquired in a Bavarian brawl in the early 20’s (presumably the First World War photographs of Corporal Hitler sporting an enormous Kaiser Wilhelm moustache were less familiar to the American public at the time of the Second World War) nestle side by side with depictions of cozy confinement in Dachau and children going before a firing squad that would seem offensive in a mere ‘Z’ budget quickie were the serious intentions of the film’s makers to bring in under the radar a passionate piece of anti-Nazi propaganda under the guise of a simple minded action movie not increasingly evident. All the actors give of their best, and Ward Bond in particular grows in the lead and when he later disguises himself with a moustache to look older, he bears a remarkable resemblance to how he actually did look in his later years.

All in all it compares favourably with The Dirty Dozen and Inglorious Basterds on a fraction of the budget. @Richard Chatten

NOW ON PRIME VIDEO

The Human Voice (2020)

Dir: Pedro Almodovar | Tilda Swinton | Drama, 30′

This one-hander is a loose take of the original 1930 stage play by Jean Cocteau, which was itself adapted in 1948 by Roberto Rossellini for Anna Magnani

Pedro Almodóvar’s first outing in English premiered last year at Venice and is now on general release. It’s a play that’s ideally suited to an Intimate collaboration between actor and director – not to mention a beautifully behaved dog – and Swinton and Almodovar work together. There is also Ted Kotcheff’s 1966 version starring Ingrid Bergman, and no doubt there will be others to look forward to.

A graceful and imposing Tilda Swinton is ‘the voice’ in question here, a jilted woman suppressing discretely controlled but mounting histrionics as she glides exquisitely around her chic city apartment all dolled up in bright red Balenciaga and various other stylish accoutrements – and welding an axe, the dog picking up on her anxiety.

She is hoping her lover will change his mind about their relationship, but there’s a masterful quality to Swinton’s performance: she is no moaning Minnie but a woman empowered by her pain and driven by a dignified sense of decorum. Powerful stuff. Alberto Iglesias composed the needling violin score. MT

NOW ON RELEASE | Streaming here 

 

My Mexican Bretzel (2019) IFFR 2020

Dir.: Nuria Gimenez; Documentary with Ilse G. Ringier, Frank A. Lorang; Spain 2019, 73 min.

“Lies are just another way of telling the truth”.

Spanish first time director/writer/co-editor Nuria Gimenez pulls off one of on of the greatest coup’s in the history of the “Found Films” genre.

My Mexican Bretzel is one of those documentaries where spoilers are unavoidable. Gimenez was clearing out her grandparents’s attic and came across the 8 mm footage of a film shot by grandfather Frank A, Lorang and featuring his wife Ilse G. Ringier who she calls Vivian and Leon Barrett in her film. The other thing to mention is the flowery quotes from a certain guru Kanvar Khajappali, which are spread through the silent footage enlivened by newspaper cuttings that give a time frame.. These are based on fantasy as Kanvar Khajappali never existing. It’s a fascinating story that shows how life can be complicated and messy behind the facade of family respectability.

As the film rolls we meet Nuria’s well-to-do grandparents in their comfortable home in Switzerland where Leon B. had made money from his involvement in a new drug “Lovedyn”. But a flying accident curtailed his activities and caused him chronic pain and Vivian is not keen on the  luxury boat her husband bought, to compensate for the plane, he could never fly again. And when she is allowed to steer the boat he just lets the action roll, to her chagrin, as his obsession behind the camera takes over: “I am fed up with him looking at me through the lens. As if he was aiming at me with a gun, ready to shoot at any time”. Vivian prefers writing but does admit: “I think filming is the best form of self-delusion. And a beautiful way to vanish, and become an animal or God. If you film, you don’t have to live or give explanations.”

Eventually she falls for Leonard or Leo, a Mexican. “I was dragged towards him without thought or willpower. I feel guilty for not feeling guilty”. After a brief affair with Leo she flies back to meet her husband in New York. Vivian and Leon go on living together, but Leo remains the elephant in the room. Later Vivian notices that a friend of theirs, Olivia, is wearing the bracelet Leon gave her some time previously. And she gravitates back to Leo again. “I want to be young again and be with Leo.”

Meanwhile Leon makes up for his lack of desire for her with excessive bouts of attention. Vivian becomes obsessed with death, dreaming she would die on the same day as Pope Pius XII. But when his death is announced in October 1958, Vivian is still resolutely alive and holidaying in Venice.

This is an audacious retelling of a woman’s true story through the 1940s to the end of the 1960s. On the face of it, Vivian/Ilse seems to have the best of both worlds – her life is materially rich, but lacking in emotional fulfilment. And although the couple enjoy their endless trips around the world, the constant movement seems to point to a lack a spiritual serenity or any real meaning – echoed in the meaningless Khajappali quotes.

Gimenez creates a story from images these revealing images, discovering her family heritage quite by chance. My Mexican Bretzel is a little gem, winning Best Film in the “Found Film” section of the IFF Rotterdam 2020. AS

NOW SHOWING AT THE SPANISH CINEMA WEEKEND 2021

 

 

London Spanish Film Festival 2021

London Spanish Film Festival
10th Spring Weekend 28 – 30 May 2021

The 10th Spring Weekend of the London Spanish Film Festival is back full of energy and positive vibes setting the mood for an exciting 17th edition in September.

You’ll find the latest film by veteran Fernando Trueba, three decent debuts from women filmmakers, a hopeful and moving reflexion on what life is and a special screening of the latest treat from Maestro Almodóvar.

LAS NIÑAS  | Schoolgirls

Dir. Pilar Palomero | with Andrea Fandos, Natalia de Molina, Zoe Arnao | Spain | 2020 | 97 min | cert. 15 | London premiere | In Spanish with English subtitles

Celia is an 11-year-old girl studying at a nun’s school in 1992. She’s a responsible student and a considerate daughter but the arrival of a new classmate will open a little window Celia is willing to look out from to discover about the outside world. Together with her group of friends she’ll give her first steps into adolescence and first-times even if that means confronting her mother and questioning everything that meant comfort and security. The film has won several awards among which Best Film, Best New Director, Best Cinematography and Best Original Screenplay Goya Awards.

Fri 28 May | 6.30pm | £13, conc. £11

EL OLVIDO QUE SEREMOS Memories of My Father

Dir. Fernando Trueba, with Javier Cámara, Nicolás Reyes Cano, Juan Pablo Urrego | Colombia | 2020 | 136 min | cert. PG | In Spanish, Italian and English with English subtitles | Distributed by Curzon

Trueba’s latest film tells the story of Héctor Abad Gómez, one of Colombia’s most beloved national heroes, through the eyes of his son. He balances a nuanced portrait of Abad Gómez’s family life in Medellín and the harsh reality of the country in the turbulent 1970s and 1980s, in which corruption is common and the government cannot be criticised. Based on the book written by Abad Gómez’s son, Memories of My Father is a memorable work, a love story and the portrait of a man fighting for the basic human rights of his people: food, water and adequate shelter.

Fri 28 May | 8.35pm | £13, conc. £11 Sat 29 May | 5.50pm | £13, conc. £11

LA VOZ HUMANAThe Human Voice

Dir. Pedro Almodóvar, with Tilda Swinton | Spain | 2020 | 30 min | cert. PG | In English and Spanish with English subtitles

Jean Cocteau wrote The Human Voice in 1928 and, since then, many artists have staged or filmed their own vision of this woman’s dramatic moments after her lover of the last few years leaves her to get married with to another woman. Almodóvar’s stunning version brings to The Human Voice his sense of aesthetics, of rhythm and his peculiar, subtle sense of humour, making the pièce his own. Chameleonic Swinton, in what seems a wonderful and perfect tuning with Almodóvar, captures the essence of his style bringing to it some delightful British exquisiteness. A must.

The film will be followed by a 40 min video-Q&A with Pedro Almodóvar and Tilda Swinton with Mark Kermode. It will be preceded by a video-presentation by Prof. Maria Delgado

Sat 29 May | 4.15pm | £13, conc. £11

LA INNOCÈNCIA | La inocencia | The Innocence

Dir. Lucia Alemany | with Carmen Arrufat, Laia Marull, Sergi López, Joel Bosqued | Spain | 2019 | 92 min | cert. 15 | London premiere | In Catalan and Spanish with English subtitles

Lis is a teenager whose dream is to become a circus artist and go traveling. While she knows she’ll have to confront her parents and fight for it, she spends the summer playing around with her friends and with her boyfriend, a few years older than herself and the relationship with whom she tries to keep hidden from the constant gossip of the neighbours. Lucia Alemany’s impressive first feature film is a fresh coming-of-age story that captures perfectly the rural and festive mood without losing any realism nor honesty.

Sat 29 May | 8.45pm | £13, conc. £11

MY MEXICAN BRETZEL 

Dir: Nuria Giménez | Spain | 2019 | 73 min | cert. PG | London premiere | In English

Giménez’s debut film offers, through archive footage of home made movies, a glimpse into the life of a wealthy European couple, Léon and Vivian Barrett, after WW2 and up to the 1960s. The quality of the footage is superb and is accompanied by text from Vivian’s diary offering details of their lives, her thoughts, gossip… Mesmerising and compelling, this is a clever work of direction and of editing by Giménez, and has won her, among others, the Found Footage Award at the Internation Film Festival of Rotterdam last year.

Sun 30 May | 6.10pm | £13, conc. £11

LA VIDA ERA ESO That Was Life

Dir. David Martín de los Santos, with Petra Martínez, Anna Castillo, Florin Piersic Jr., Ramón Barea | Spain/Belgium | 2020 | 109 min | cert. PG | UK premiere | In Spanish and French with English subtitles

When María and Verónica end up meeting and sharing a hospital room in Belgium, the only thing they have in common is that they are Spaniards who came to work to this country with the hope to find more opportunities than back at home. Slowly a bond grows between them and one of them will start a journey to Almería, where the roots of the other are, initially to meet her family, finally to discover principles beyond those on which she had based her whole life. The film is poignant in his humble and intimate approach. The subtly nuanced acting of Petra Martínez in the lead role as a woman pushing herself out of the boundaries of the role in which she felt confined, adds emotion to this wonderful film.

Sun 30 May | 7.55pm | £13, conc. £11

LONDON SPANISH FILM FESTIVAL 2021 

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.

Mosley: It’s Complicated (2020)

Dir: Michael Shevloff | Doc, 82′

For most people the name Mosley is often synonymous with Fascism. And Sir Oswald Mosley’s son Max (1940-) – who has died age 81  laboured all his life to overcome his unfortunate family connection, and done a decent job of it with his tireless charity work and successful Formula One racing career. He went on to use the Formula 1 brand to promote road safety both on the track and on the road with Euro ENCAP. But his life is not without scandal and setback.

Tall and elegant, Max Mosley certainly cuts a suave dash in this documentary portrait that chronicles the qualified barrister’s often controversial life and times as the former FIA president and at the head of F1’s governing body from 1993 to 2005, and who now holds the Legion of Honour.

US Director and producer Michael Shevloff teams up with TV producer Alexandra Orton in an even-handed, no holds-barred approach to the story of Mosley’s career and his efforts to raise levels of road safety all over the world. Mosley has cooperated with the filmmakers but this is not an authorised documentary.

The focus here is obviously motor racing but those not interested in Formula 1 will be watching with a beady eye on the emerging private life of this high profile figure born into an illustrious family: his aristocratic mother Diana was one of the Mitford sisters and a ‘Bright Young Things’ during the 1920s and his politician father formed the British Union of Fascists in 1932 for which he was interned during the Second World War, is now a character gracing the BBC’s Peaky Blinders (season 5).

The fearless lawyer presents an inscrutable persona with his fine manners and dapper mien but one cannot help musing about certain elements that emerge from the engaging narrative: Mosley’s spats with Italian racing supremo Flavio Briatore; his penchant for sex parties (admittedly in the privacy of his own home); his landmark victory over the News of the World who tried to put a Nazi spin on their story; his contribution towards the Leveson Inquiry; and the tragic death by overdose of his son Alexander. Despite all this you can’t deny his affable appeal, although his steely stare suggests subversiveness and a strong resolve. Married to Jean since 1960, he is also close friends with billionaire businessman Bernie Ecclestone, another former racing driver who built his empire around broadcasting the sport.

But back to motor racing, and petrolheads who will find this a fascinating watch particularly as Hugh Grant, David Ward, Alan Parr, Gerhard Berger, Jean Todt and Charlie Whiting also add their two penny worth. But former Ferrari team principal Marco Piccinini puts in all in a nutshell “His brain has the most powerful acceleration…but some problem with the brakes”. And Hugh Grant agrees: “I wouldn’t want him as my enemy”. When all is said and done, you come away from the film with a positive impression of a man who was not afraid to stand up for his beliefs. Someone who has tried to improve certain standards of modern life and challenge the gutter press and who clearly had strong friendships despite his detractors – Hugh Grant, who appears in the documentary on the subject of privacy, recently described Max in a Tweet as “very bright, very kind and very, very brave”. MT

Mosley: It’s Complicated will be in UK Cinemas from 9th July, and on Digital Download & DVD/Blu-ray from 19th July. The DVD / Blu-ray can be pre-ordered through Dazzler Media.

 

Daisy Kenyon (1947) Prime Video

Dir: Otto Preminger | Cast: Joan Crawford, Dana Andrews, Henry Fonda, Ruth Warwick | US Drama 99’

In the hands of George Cukor, this script – which boasts some priceless one-liners rather earnestly delivered – could have been an effervescent marital romp like ‘Adam’s Rib’, but is here directed as melodrama by Otto Preminger, with lighting to match.

The most interesting scenes tend to be those with Dana Andrews, whose amiable fellowship that forms between him and his supposed romantic rival Henry Fonda has definite screwball possibilities, with Crawford – despite the film having been titled after her to appeal to memories of ‘Mildred Pierce’ – somewhat sidelined by their unlikely camaraderie.

Ruth Warrick as Andrews’ histrionic, high-maintenance harpy of a wife (taking her woes out on their teenaged daughters played charmingly by Peggy Ann Garner & Connie Marshall) goes out of her way to make Crawford seem a better catch; but the eventual likely outcome can be guessed at if you bear in mind the Breen Office’s prevailing view at the time of the sanctity of marriage. @Richard Chatten

NOW ON PRIME VIDEO

Graft (1931)

Dir: Christy Cabanne | Cast: Regis Toomey, Sue Carol, Dorothy Revier, Boris Karloff | US Drama 54′

At the time this unambitious quickie with a distinctively terse title came and went unnoticed. It’s title today remains more familiar to connoisseurs of old horror movies than of pre-Code cinema, as it occasionally crops up in histories of the horror genre as the film Boris Karloff was making when in June 1931 he was spotted in the Universal commissary by James Whale and offered the role of Frankenstein’s monster. For the remainder of its brief production, Karloff would stay at the studio after finishing his day job on ‘Graft’ for nighttime make-up tests with Jack Pierce.

Few people have seen this movie, and horror authority Carlos Clarens erroneously refers to it as a gangster movie rather than yet another newspaper picture about a rookie reporter going after a big story. The jaunty music over the credits sounds more like something from a Laurel & Hardy picture, and sets the tone for the inconsequentiality of the piece; a point thuddingly underlined by the presence of its dim-witted though ultimately triumphant hero, Dustin Hotchkiss.

Although the film is well directed by Griffith alumnus Christy Cabanne, with superb photography by Jerome Ash, Hotchkiss is so annoying you can’t wait for the thing to end. Regis Toomey was fine in later classics like ‘The Big Sleep’, so the blame lies with the character rather than him. Of the two female leads, bad girl Dorothy Revier easily outshines good girl Sue Carol; but the most striking female presence in the film is Carmelita Geraghty – a leading lady in silent films remembered today for Hitchcock’s debut feature ‘The Pleasure Garden’ (1925) – but here demoted to the uncredited but eye-catching role of the villain’s slinky secretary.

And then there’s Karloff as his henchman “Terry”. Immaculately turned out in what Karloff himself later said was “my best suit”, his unique appearance and diction, allied to an expressed dislike of women, suggests that he bats for the other side. It further attests to Hotchkiss’s uselessness as a reporter that immediately after a murder he runs slap into BORIS KARLOFF – for chrissakes! – yet all he can recall of his appearance was that he wore a hat and a dark coat. @Richard Chatten

The Big Chance (1957) TPTV

Dir: Peter Graham Scott | Cast: Adrienne Corri, William Russell, Ian Colin, Penelope Bartley | UK Drama 59′

Yet another long-forgotten gem doing the rounds on Talking Pictures, the big chance – seized by both with both hands – those of director Peter Graham Scott and leading man William Russell (back then starting to make a name for himself as TVs Sir Lancelot).

Although billed second to femme fatale Adrienne Corri, Russell carries the film just like Joseph Cotton did in Andrew Stone’s The Steel Trap five years earlier, which seems to be its model; dreaming of escape to Honolulu, as Cotton had wanted to get away to Rio. Except here it gets even more complicated than Stone’s film when Corri enters the picture as a high maintenance dame in a fur coat.

Like Stone’s film vividly shot on location, the feature’s rough edges simply enhance the drama; and instead of Dimitri Tiomkin thundering away on the soundtrack we initially get Russell himself narrating the action (actually anticipating Stone’s Cry Terror the following year) and Eric Spear bringing out the cornet he later immortalised in his theme for ‘Coronation Street’.

Amazingly this all is all dealt with in under an hour during which you haven’t the foggiest idea how it’s all going to resolve itself; frequently thinking, as it grows more relentless, that it’s all going to have turned out to be a dream. Or a nightmare. @Richard Chatten

NOW ON TALKING PICTURES TV

The Human Factor (2021)

Dir.: Dror Moreh; Documentary with Dennis Ross, James Baker, Aaron David Miller; USA 2019, 106 min.

Israeli documentarian Dror Moreh (The Gatekeepers) takes a look behind the scenes of the US-led peace mediations between Israel and Palestine, revealing failure on an epic scale, starting under the administration of President Herbert W. Bush and his Secretary of State, James Baker.

The wake up call to pursue his documentary project coincided with the assassination of one of the main protagonists of the peace process, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was killed by an orthodox religious fanatic at a peace rally in Tel Aviv on 4th November 1995, also Moreh’s birthday.

When Bush senior came to power he inherited a new world order: the Cold War had ended in 1991, leaving the USA as the only world Super Power. But President and his Secretary of State still faced unsurmountable difficulties. Baker was known for “getting things done”. He succeeded in getting Israeli and Arab state leaders around the table – a first – but that is as far as it got.

The major part of this documentary is devoted to the efforts of the Clinton administration who felt they had a real chance of success. Mediator Dennis Ross (still affected emotionally by Rabin’s murder) and his chief assistant Aaron David Miller really felt they had the bit between their teeth during some positive years of negotiation but they couldn’t bring things to a satisfactory conclusions. There were two elections in 1992, as Baker stated, “the first one was won by the ‘right’ person, Yitzhak Rabin”.

November 1993 saw Bill Clinton beat George H. Bush to the presidency, which meant an exit for James Baker. Miller was of the opinion that peace could never be achieved between two sworn enemy states at war since 1948, and using the word “peace” would always doom the process to failure.

The preparation for a meeting between PLO leader Yasser Arafat and the US mediators was farcical, the Arafat team were filmed watching the US Soap ‘Golden Girls’ on TV. When Arafat and Rabin first got together on September 13th 1993, most of the meeting was taken up with ironing out the many pre-conditions set by the two men: Rabin agreed to shake Arafat’s hand (whilst keeping him away with his other hand), in exchange Arafat had to forgo his uniform and his gun. In the end he wore a Safari suit and promised not to kiss Rabin.

The body language between the two leaders spoke of their mutual distrust. But by 28th September 1995, when both men signed the “Oslo B Agreement” this had all changed. In a a speech at the reception, Rabin called “Arafat close to being Jewish, for excelling in Israel’s national sport of speech-making”. A month later Rabin was dead. His successor, Shimon Peres, lost the election to ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu (Likud) who was not interested in any long term settlement. In 1999, Ehud Barak’s Labour Party came to power. A general like Rabin, he withdrew Israeli troops from Lebanon and gave the Clinton administration new hope, but the Monica Lewinsky scandal weakened his credibility, and he only just avoided empeachment.

Barak stated openly that he was negotiating in the spirit of Rabin. At the Camp David Peace talks in 2000, he pushed for Arafat to sign over control of the largest Mosque in Jerusalem to Israel – which would have led to a Fatwa being placed on the Palestinian leader. Arafat later wrote to Clinton, calling him ‘a great man’, but Clinton’s response was that he “felt like a failure, because you made me one”. The American negotiators, many of them Jewish, believe in hindsight, that they acted more like lawyers for the US government, viewing the world “as they wanted it to be, not like it really was”. Failure continued to dog the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama who were both complete non-events when it came to a peace settlement. Donald Trump did no better, and actually poured oil on troubled waters particularly on the West Bank.

Moreh ends on a sober note, stating that the demonisation of the enemy has led to growing intolerance. According to Amos Gitai, Arab children associate Israelis with a gun culture, some of them never even seeing a Jew without a weapon. And both sides still claim the right to military intervention. The martyr death of Yitzhak Rabin seems, sadly, to be in vain. AS

IN REAL CINEMAS FROM FRIDAY 28 MAY 2021

The Cry Baby Killer (1958) Amazon

Dir: Justus Addiss | Cast: Jack Nicholson, Carolyn Mitchell, Brett Halsey , Lyn Cartwright | US Drama 70′

Jack Nicholson makes his screen debut in this economy-sized Le Jour se Lève’ for the Drive-Ins where he is second billed to veteran TV and ‘B’ movie tough guy Harry Lauter; here representing the law. Although Roger Corman is credited as Executive Producer, and has one line as a TV cameraman (after which all we see of him for the rest of the film is his right hand resting on the side of the camera), the film is a United Artists release rather than one of AIP’s quickies, with slightly bigger production values; a mixed blessing in the face of TV director Justus Addiss’s lethargic direction.

Corman regulars Leo Gordon (who co-wrote the script) and Bruno Ve Sota (who the same year directed The Brain Eaters) fill out the throng gathered to ogle; and Gordon generously gives Ve Sota one of the script’s best lines, “Teenagers, never had ’em when I was a kid!”

The basic situation dates back at least as far as Jean Gabin in Le Jour se Lève’ (1939), and was probably more immediately inspired by the siege at the end of Rebel Without a Cause. Nicholson doesn’t actually get that much screen time, as much of the action taking place back in the diner and in the forecourt. The script flits from character to character, including Gordon’s own wife Lynn Cartwright, who gives an attractive performance as waitress Julie, united with Ruth Swanson as Nicholson’s mother in her contempt for poison maiden Carolyn Mitchell who started all the trouble in the first place by ditching Nicholson for obnoxious alpha male bully Brett Halsey. (Swanson sums her up as “selfish, vulgar, cruel…rotten!!”)

The film’s unsung hero is Jordan Whitfield as Sam, the black dishwasher who keeps his head throughout the crisis. That we don’t see him get his due as Hero of the Hour at the film’s conclusion is one of several issues left unresolved (including the ultimate fates of both Nicholson and Halsey) when the end credits roll. @Richard Chatten

 

Sunflowers (2021) Exhibition on Screen

Dir: David Bickerstaff | Prod: Phil Grabsky | UK Do

Exhibition On Screen is a series of documentary portraits of painters and their iconic works. It goes behind the scenes at major galleries and museums offering insight from experts and curators and dramatised scenes that bring the artists to life.

David Bickerstaff and Phil Grabsky have already highlighted the letters and paintings of Van Gogh. This time the focus is on his famous paintings of sunflowers and how they inspired the artist to create a series of pictures that have become synonymous with the Dutch master and his tragic and extraordinary life. The image of the Sunflowers nowadays stands alongside the Mona Lisa as one of the best known and best loved images around the globe.

Van Gogh’s broad brush strokes and vibrant colour palette embody his passionate and intense nature in a prolific and struggling career that was partly funded by his brother Theo, whose letters to Vincent form part of an earlier film by the director duo (Van Gogh: A New Way of Seeing) and Van Gogh in Japan. Other films focusing on the Dutch master are the animated 2017 drama Loving Vincent with Helen McCrory, and Maurice Pialat’s drama Van Gogh 

Here the focus is on the sunflowers that inspired five related paintings. These bold and honest flowers that embody beauty, strength and vulnerability somehow grew in significance. The weed-like crop native to the arid fields of France, Italy and Spain, became the subject of a work of art now worth millions of pounds. In the same way, the flowers connect with Van Gogh’s simple and soulful nature and his struggle to find meaning through his art that still resonates deeply with audiences today.

World authorities on Van Gogh’s work provide valuable insight amongst them Louis Van Tilborg from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and Chris Riopelle from the London’s National Gallery who take us behind the scenes to reveal the complexities surrounding the five famous depictions of the Arles Sunflowers from collections in London, Philadelphia, Tokyo, Munich and Amsterdam.

Meanwhile actor Jamie de Courcey (from A New Way of Seeing) again fleshes out the artist in dramatised sequences that attempt to show Van Gogh’s innermost thoughts about what the flowers really meant to him. MT

Sunflowers is released in cinemas across the UK from 8 June, including Curzon, Everyman, Odeon, Picturehouse, Showcase, Vue and independent cinemas. Find your nearest cinema at exhibitiononscreen.com

Vom Reiche der Sechs Punkte (1927) Mubi

Dir: Hugo Rütters | Doc, Silent 95′

A staple genre in Germany during the mid-twenties, and also popular abroad, were these upbeat documentaries known as ‘Kulturfilm’. Of these, Wege zu Kraft und Schönheit (‘Ways to Strength and Beauty‘, 1925) – which can be viewed on YouTube – gained postwar notoriety as the film debut of Leni Riefenstahl, and for being singled out by Siegfried Kracauer in his postwar book ‘From Caligari to Hitler’ for its declared aim to promote the “regeneration of the human race” while Kracauer castigated the ‘Kulturfilm’ as a whole for “their amazing indifference to human problems”.

The new broom that swept Germany after 1933 may indeed have had little concern for the physically vulnerable; but Vom Reiche der sechs Punkte attests to a concern in the days of the Weimar Republic to strengthen Germany by means other than mass murder.

A feature-length dramatised documentary covering the attempts by the medical profession in the Rhineland to equip the blind for lives as productive members of society, this engrossing film intersperses documentary sequences featuring genuine staff and patients along with scenes where actors portray young steel worker Hermann and his fiancée Luise who learn that that he’s going to lose his eyesight through not seeking medical treatment soon enough; and Luise’s discovery of the help available in a home for the blind. (The point that his eyesight might have been saved if he’d seen a doctor soon enough is underlined by the fact that the other patient in the ophthalmologist’s waiting room is a small boy whose eyesight is also impossible to save because his mother didn’t bring him in to get his eyes examined soon enough). Gradually Hermann regains his hope for the future, while Luise joins the home as an assistant.

The documentary portion of the film provides distressing evidence of the damage childhood infections and other afflictions can do to infants’ eyesight, before moving on to the treatment available, including a brief history of various aids to communication culminating in braille (the ‘six dots’ of the title), the manufacture of glass eyes, and outdoor excursions into the country for the kids. Most of the emphasis is on children, although we see Hermann in a class being taught basketmaking and a concert by blind musicians fronted by a blind pianist. A scene with a blind beggar serves as a reminder of the fate in store for so many disabled people between the wars, but strangely enough no mention is ever made of all the soldiers blinded in The Great War.

Purely by dint of having been shot during the 1920s, much of the film appears charmingly picturesque in the handsome tinted and toned print found in the Finnish Film Archive. It would be interesting to learn what a modern ophthalmologist would make of the standard of treatment depicted. @Richard Chatten

 

The Reunions (2020) Chinese cinema season

Dir.: Da Peng aka Dong Chengpeng; Documentary with Liu Lu, Wang Jixang, Da Pen; China 2020, 80 min.

Chinese writer/director Dong Chengpeng had great success with his comedy City of Rock. But The Reunions is a different beast altogether. Actually, it’s two films in one, conflating the 40-minute doc-drama A Reunion (2018), whose cinema premiere we witness, with a second part, A Final Reunion, exploring contradictions of modern China: the price of success, the chasm between big cities and the countryside and the loosening of traditional family ties. Its languid mood is full of resignation and regret.

The director’s first foray into arthouse territory was inspired on a trip back to his rural hometown of Tonghua, where the family New Year get together will celebrate his ailing grandmother, who has held to the family together. But she died during the shooting, leaving Chengpeng’s original script in tatters. So the real drama unfolding is not the death, but the problem of what to do with Uncle Wang Jixang, a man in his early sixties who has suffered brain damage leaving him with the mental age of a baby, his vocabulary reduced to mumbling the names of his relatives, but leaving out his own.

Structured a little bit like Michael Frayn’s play ‘Noises Off’, we see both sides of the enfolding drama: the docu-drama elements are set against the filmmaking itself, as crew and cast come together as Chengpeng’s intentions are put to the test.

Throughout the film a musical motif glorifies the Chinese Communist Party and its Chairman Mao. Wang had been a high ranking Security official before his illness, and helped many of his relatives to settle in the city, no mean feat. Among those is his thirty-something daughter Lili (Liu Lu), who sided with her mother and benefited from a financial settlement when the family was divided. Lili has a young child and is unable to look after her father, who needs constant care.

Reality and script collide in a pause during filmmaking when Lili asks one of the relatives why ‘she’ had stayed away for ten years from the family: instead of an answer, there is silence – with her real life counterpart looking on. All the feuding family can agree on is that the making of the film had motivated them to attend the gathering – which may well be the last.

Dong Chengpeng serves as his own DoP along with Wang Quinyl to capture the generalised feeling of sadness as well as the colourful New Year’s celebrations with the its impressive fireworks. The director is clearly moved by his own remorse: this long goodbye to the village where he grew up and the slow erosion of the family have finally taken their toll. @AS

CHINESE CINEMA SEASON continues in online screens the Rio, GENESIS, HOME (Manchester), Kinoculture, Sheffield Workstation, Chapter Cardiff, Reading Film Theatre.

Generation Utøya (2021) HotDocs 2021

Dir.: Aslaug Holm, Sigve Endresen; Documentary with Ina Rangones Libak, Kamzy Gunaratnam, Renate Tarnes, Line Hoem; Norway 2021, 104 min.

Commemorating  that fateful day of 22th July 2011 when Anders Behring Breivik killed 77 young people on the island of Utøya just off Norway. Aslaug Holm and Sigve Endresen have created a passionate portrait of four women who survived to tell their tale, and they couldn’t be more different.

Kamzy Gunaratnam is the child of modest Sri Lankan’ emigrants at pains to keep their daughter away from politics after their own experiences in the homeland. Kamzy believed in that ‘old chestnut’: ‘It couldn’t happen here’. But it did. On that fateful summer day, Kamzy swam away from the shore in the midst of Breivik’s killing spree that went on for over an hour. Today she is the Deputy Mayor of Oslo, a position she has to fight for at every turn, the Labour Party fully aware that her background may not win her as many votes as a native candidate. But Kamzy is indomitable, she travels the country visiting schools to bring her message into classrooms.

Ina Rangones Libak was shot three times by Breivik – she recalls her experience with an almost clinical detachment: “First he shot my hands, and I thought -that’s not too bad, then he shot at my jaw and finally my chest. I knew I might die, my last thought, at least what I believed it to be, was a drop of water falling on a leaf”. Friends kept her warm, and stemmed the bleeding and after a long battle she recovered. From 2016 to 2018 Ina was Deputy leader of the AUF, before leading the organisation in the following two years. She still has treatment for PTSD, and receives permanent online abuse, particularly after the Justice Minister of the ruling ‘Progress’ Party, Sylvi Listhaug called the Labour Party to task for “putting the interests of radical Muslims before the safety of the Norwegian people”. Ina reminded the Minister that she and her Party had been the target of a terrorist attack.

We watch Line Hoem as she works with her therapist to help overcome the debilitating psychological after-effects of her ordeal. She also finds regular exercise – particularly running – is a helpful way of easing anxiety.

Renate Tarnes has coped with her ordeal in a community-based way, helping to restore the island of Utøya as a meeting place for people who shared the same beliefs as those who lost their lives there 10 years ago: they pick flowers, and put them onto the names of the sixty-nine who were actually shot down on the island, and whose names are engraved in a large ring structure.

The directors avoid sentimentality even though the emotional consequences are never glossed over. Generation Utøya is a testament to survival – not to victimhood – but to the enduring strength of those women who live on. AS

NOW AT HOTDOCS Toronto Canada

End of Sentence (2019)

Dir: Elfar Adalsteins | Cast: John Hawkes, Logan Lerman, Sarah Bolger, Olafur Darri Olafsson | US, Drama 97′

There’s a dicey moment in the opening scenes of this road movie when a grieving husband nearly drops his wife’s ashes on the way back from her funeral in small-town Alabama. This is one of the lighter moments in Michael Armbruster’s tragicomic script that takes the edge off a bitterly violent reunion between likeable father Frank (Johan Hawkes) and his bullying son Sean (Logan Lerman).

Anna’s dying wish was that her husband and their ex-con son would scatter her remains back home in Ireland near her favourite lake. The casket of ashes will become the MacGuffin providing some humorous plot twists in this father and son journey that starts in the Southern States and ends in County Wicklow, the American spiritual home.

We see Sean checking out of a correctional facility where he has served time for crimes unknown. Frank has arrived to meet him only to be rudely rebuffed by the miscast felon, a hardened brute who clearly hates his dad, again, for reasons unknown.

But Frank finally persuades him to go on the trip to Ireland in the hope of burying the hatchet, along with the casket. Once in Dublin there’s no peace for the grieving Frank, Sean giving him an impromptu battering before heading for the hotel bar. He soon takes up with Jewel (Bolger), a savvy call girl who also knows a thing or two about spark plugs, clearly she’s no dumb blonde, just a rather one-dimensional one.

Soon they’re snogging in the carpark, Sean promptly throwing up all over the hire car’s velour seats. It doesn’t take us long to realise that the only good guy on this ‘road to redemption’ is Frank. Sean – his polar opposite – is somehow miscast in a role which has no backstory to give ballast to his fall from grace. Jewel will turn out to be a hollow hooker, minus the heart of gold.

We know exactly what will happen in End of Sentence, John Hawkes making it all watchable with his subtle take on grief. Upbeat for the most part, and lushly photographed in Southern Ireland, the sentimental final scene and earnest score is what you’d expect for a film pitched at an American audience where it premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. MT

BLUE FINCH FILMS on UK digital download | 10 May 2021

 

 

The Doll (2021) Winner of Hot Docs Best International Short Documentary

Dir: Elahe Esmaili | Iran, Doc 32′

A teenage marriage is viewed through the eyes of friends and family in this weirdly tragic ‘smoke and mirrors’ snapshot of modern Tehran from first time filmmaker Elahe Esmaili.

The ‘bride to be’ in question is 14 year-old Asil, a child trapped in a naive middle-aged woman’s persona, from her bright red nails to her fuddy duddy fashion sense, she cuts an odd figure, simpering like the cat that got the cream. It’s an arranged marriage of sorts. It turns out that a man saw her portrait in her father’s photography studio and decided she could make a good match for his son, who doesn’t make much of an appearance although we understand he is much older and has just finished college. We are fed snippets of information. And as the story unfolds an ‘smoke and mirrors’ story emerges making this intriguing viewing.

Their engaged status means the couple are allowed to spend more time together, Asil’s intended courting his giggling sweetheart with fluffy toys and sweeties, much to her delight. No whiff of pheromones or onscreen chemistry here. In fact, there’s something distinctly unconvincing about this young romance that leads us to believe that Esmaili is not giving us the full facts. Asil’s grandmother suspects there’s more to the match than meets the eye, and we tend to agree – Although Asil is not letting on. She may just be out of her depth, or desperately trying to hide the truth. Family photos from the past see her as a cosseted little angel used to being the centre of attention. Is she caught in a trap of her own making, unable to see the unfolding reality of her situation. Or is the romance wishful thinking?.

The family set-up soon reveals cracks in the facade. Asil’s father Alireza is divorced from her mother – although it’s complicated – and there’s a big question mark about his new relationship. The 35-year old father is struggling to bring up two teenagers in a pokey flat, so money is clearly an issue, raising questions about Asil’s boyfriend’s financial status. Meanwhile, Asil’s intended gives lip service to her pretensions at getting an education. Although you get the impression she may follow the more traditional route once celebrations are over. And as Esmaili delves deeper through a series of telling insights provided by members of the family, radical views emerge along with anecdotal stories. The Doll is a cleverly-scripted tightly-packed look at modern Iran where the paternalistic fist still waits in the wings for those who think freedom is now within their grasp. MT

THE DOLL PREMIERES AT HOTDOCS 

Winner of Hot Docs Best International Short Documentary

 

 

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)

Dir: Stanley Kramer | Writers: William and Tania Rose | Cast: Spencer Tracy, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Ethel Merman, Mickey Rooney, Dick Shawn, Phil Silvers, Terry Thomas, Edie Adams | US Comedy drama 215′

Stanley Kramer continues to be damned with faint praise to this day, so his one attempt at crazy comedy was never going to get an easy ride from the critics. But that doesn’t stop it being very very very very funny!!

A group of motorists hear about a crook’s hidden stash of loot, and race against each other across country to get their paws on it.

When it first opened nearly sixty years ago it seemed the height of modern folly. More time having now elapsed since the silent era than when it was itself made now makes it’s shiny colour, sharp suits, classic cars (treated with a lack of respect that would make modern audiences weep) and lack of swearing render it charmingly dated; as does the presence of the likes of long-gone Hollywood legends like Spencer Tracy and Buster Keaton. (It even includes Zasu Pitts, forty years after she starred in ‘Greed’, which would have made an apt title for this). @Richard Chatten

NOW ON PRIME VIDEO

Trezor (2018) Netflix

Dir.: Peter Bergendy; Cast: Zsolt Anger, Peter Scherer, Bence Tasnadi, Zoltan Bezeredi, Gabriella Hamori; Hungary 2018, 85 min.

Set against the last knockings of the Hungarian Uprising in Autumn 1956, Peter Bergendy spins a story of police corruption into a fast and furious action thriller with some whip-smart plot twists, finally abandoning grim ultra-realism in a saccharine showdown.

Safe-cracker Janos Beck (Anger), a locksmith by trade, is serving a twenty year sentence for murder after a theft of gold bullion went wrong in the mid 1940s. But the murder was actually committed by secret police officer Kalman Honti (Scherer) during the bungled safe robbery that resulted in the death of one of the perpetrators.

By the Autumn of 1956 Soviet tanks have finally put paid to the Hungarian insurgence, and Honti offers to cut Beck’s remaining time in prison in exchange for opening the same safe, but time the quarry is Honti’s personal file in the Secret Police archives. Beck falls for the plan, but there’s a surprise in store in the vaults: a corpse and man in a tuxedo: pianist Geza Ivanyi (Tasnadi), who overwhelms Beck and chains him to the heating pipe. It turns out, the piano player was celebrating the success of the Uprising a few days previously, and is unaware that Russian tanks have reversed the situation. The two of them get into a philosophical debate, with Beck, who has educated himself while in prison, defending the Stalinist regime. Meanwhile, Honti is tasked with finding a way into the vault by Interior Minister Ferenc Münnich (Bezeridi). Suddenly Beck’s life is once again in danger.

Norbert Kobli’s script adds gravitas with some weighty political debates between Beck and Ivanyi, the former defending his jailers, while the pianist takes a libertarian line. Filming in and around Budapest, DoP Andras Nagy captures the dour prison atmosphere in a cold-blooded totalitarian regime that has long abandoned the credo it started out with. @AS

TREZOR IS NOW ON NETFLIX.

 

The Mother and the Whore (1973)

Dir; Jean Eustache | Cast: Jean-Pierre Leaud, Bernadette Lefont, Francoise LeBrun | France, Drama, 215’

Three Parisians drink, smoke, copulate and talk, and talk, copulate, smoke and drink for three and a half hours. Much of the talk (in very basic language) is also about copulation, but, being an art movie from that brief, long ago idyll between the introduction of the Pill and before AIDS, no one actually seems to derive much pleasure from all this joyless rutting. For anyone whose first language is not French, keeping up with the subtitles is a daunting challenge throughout.

Jean-Pierre Léaud plays his usual self-centred, garrulous perpetual adolescent, and Bernadette Lafont disappointingly gets a fraction of the screen time of the other two corners of this particular triangle. Shot by Pierre Lhomme in what is presumably deliberately some of the ugliest black & white photography I’ve ever seen, it would be tempting to say that only in a movie could a prick like Alexandre find himself at the centre of a harem comprising two such formidable and willing females. But that, alas, is one aspect of the film that rings only too true. @RichardChatten

 

Inside the Mafia (1959)

Dir: Edward L Cahn | Cast: Cameron Mitchell, Robert Strauss, Grant Richards, James Brown | Elaine Edwards | US Thriller 72′

The title of this film suggests a “now it can be told” drama-documentary along the lines of The House on 92nd Street and I Was a Communist for the FBI, but for most of its running time it’s actually more a remake of Lewis Allen’s Suddenly (1954), which had depicted a hit man holding people hostage while lying in wait for his intended target.

The enormous success of the TV series ‘The Untouchables’ having recently sparked a wave of gangster films that nostalgically returned to the 1920s, this lively exploitation quickie from Allied Artists brought the on screen depiction of organised crime bang up to date by purporting to recreate the Apalachin criminal summit of 14 November 1957 at which about 100 underworld bosses were swooped on by the law (rather more than the budget of this film permitted), which had forced FBI director J.Edgar Hoover finally to acknowledge the presence in the United States of the Cosa Nostra and brought both public and official perception of contemporary organised crime bang up to date.

The amount of plot Orville H. Hampton’s script manages to cram into just 72 minutes – engrossingly juggling high-level mafia power politics with a ticking clock and the drama of hostage taking – recalls the classic pre-code crime films of 25 years earlier, as do the sharp suits (although the ponytail and slacks worn by Carol Nugent as the more pert of the two sisters taken hostage serve as a continuous visual reminder that it’s now the 1950s). There is a probably deliberately tongue-in-cheek quality to the way these Mafiosi couldn’t be more conspicuous if they tried. Cameron Mitchell, nattily attired in dark glasses and felt hat (like his equally immaculately dressed henchmen Robert Strauss he keeps the hat on indoors; maybe to signify that he’s on duty) visibly still cared about his acting in those days, and plays the hit man to the hilt. As his intended victim, Grant Richards brings real authority to his role as crime boss Johnny Lucero when he finally appears. Great fun. @Richard Chatten

https://youtu.be/q3TZKB8u69w

 

Montparnasse 19 (1958)

Dir: Jacques Becker | Cast: Gerard Philipe, Anouk Aimée | Lilli Palmer | Drama France, 108′

The Grim Reaper casts a long shadow over this film depicting the final declining months of Amedeo Modigliani – one of the giants of 20th Century art – who, in January 1920, died in Paris in poverty of tubercular meningitis aged just 35. The original director Max Ophuls had died suddenly at the age of 54, and both his replacement as director and the film’s star were dead within two years of its completion.

Had Ophuls lived we would now be contemplating a very different film – probably in colour and alive with his trademark dolly shots. Having already shown the seamier side of the Belle Époque in Casque d’Or, Jacques Becker wasn’t about to romanticise Parisian life after The Great War. In addition to making drastic changes to Henri Jeanson’s script – which led to rows – Becker (who had just made his two worst films, both in colour, which put him off making a third), instead of lifting the soul by concentrating on the art as posterity’s triumph over the life – as had Lust for Life – takes us on a bleak, monochromatic tour of the lower depths of Modigliani’s cramped and thwarted mortal existence; his mental and physical decline reflected in Paul Misraki’s sinister score.

The film already carries an on-screen disclaimer that it takes liberties with historical fact; and good as they both are as the two doomed lovers, it’s hard to believe the ethereal Gerard Philipe as the sort of brute who could possibly strike a woman, while Anouk Aimée – who has just celebrated her 89th birthday – looks more like a chic fifties left bank existentialist than a vulnerable little waif. A vibrant Lili Palmer, however, is spot-on as Modigliani’s bohemian ex-lover. Representing the art trade, Lino Ventura looks as if he’s barged in from the set of ‘Touchez Pas au Grisbi’; and the final shot of him greedily rifling through Modigliani’s artistic legacy is not for the faint-hearted @Richard Chatten

 

Blue Box (2021) Hot Docs 2021

Dir.: Michal Weits; Documentary about Joseph Weits; Israel 2021, 83 min.

Israeli director/co-writer Michal Weits sheds light on a fragile episode Isreaeli history. Examining the Jewish National Fund’s Blue Boxes – part of a successful fundraising campaign to support the purchase of land in Palestine – in which her grandfather took an active part – Weits comes face to face with her own family history that unveils a painful and enlightening exploration of a nation’s past but also some unpleasant home truths.

There’s nothing more depressing than discovering skeletons in your own family cupboard. But this is exactly what happened when Weits delved deeper into the story of her mythological family figure: in this case her own great grandfather, Joseph Weits. Born in 1890 in the small Russian town of Boremal he emigrated to Palestine in 1908 where he joined the struggle for independence helping to lay the foundations for the new State of Israel. He is known as the “Father of Trees”, planting over 80 million trees in the Jewish state.

But further examination of his extensive diary, reveals Weits senior was also the “Father of Transfer”: helping Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion to ‘legally’ annexe villages and towns of Arabs, who had to flee after the “War of Independence” in 1948. The majority of the Weits family reacted with an outright denial of the facts.

When Joseph Weits arrived in Palestine, Arabs outnumbered Jews. In 1933, nearly a million Arabs lived with several thousand Jews in what was then the British Protectorate of Palestine. Both sides were unhappy with the status quo, and Jews started to pour into the country, after the rise of fascism in Europe. Zionists, encouraged by Theodor Herzl, tried to organise a steady Jewish immigration. In 1937, the British had plans to partition Palestine in two states. Joseph Weits was aware that the number of Jews living in Palestine would determine the nation’s future size. So he bought villages and land from ‘Effendis’, who lived outside Palestine, and sold the land of their small-holders. He also encouraged to buy directly from Palestine farmers, paying with the money of the Jewish National Fund (JNF), which had been founded in 1901. In his diary Weits writes: “The man was selling his homeland, and the Jews are buying it up. And: “It’s Them or Us. We want to be clear: There is no room for both of us. If the Arabs remain, the country will be crammed and impoverished. The only solution is Israel with no Arabs. There is no room for compromise. Transfer them all!”.

At the beginning of WWII, two of Joseph’s son, Raaman and Sharon, joined the British Army, whilst the third, Yehiam, was a member of the Zionist Underground, and later killed. After the end of WWII, and the discovery of the Concentrations Camps, Joseph writes: “Building the state of Israel will be our revenge”. After the War of Independence in 1948, nearly a million Arabs fled into neighbouring countries, only a few thousand staying put. Meanwhile, the Jewish population had risen to replace what had been an Arab majority.

In Haifa, only a few thousand were left of the once burgeoning Arab population. Joseph was leading the ‘transfer’ of properties, even though “Jaffa’s silence frightens me”. By annexing land and buildings, creating a “Transfer post factum”, the Arab exodus was made permanent. The members of the Transfer Committee, Joseph was one of them, had four guiding principles: 1. Preventing the Arabs from returning to their land; 2. Assisting the Arabs to settle in other countries; 3. Settling Jews in several villages and cities; 4. Destroying as many Arab villages as possible through military action”;

Old newsreels show the bulldozers doing their job. The UN resolution 194 stated clearly that all Arab refugees could return to their properties. Weits and his committee avoided the consequences by selling 250, 000 acres of land from the absentee landlords to the JNF, since the latter was not beholden to International Law. At this point, the filmmaker is confronted by a family member: “I have no idea how this this Transfer business worked. I am not comfortable with you doing this. You would have done the same had you been around in 1948/9. I want no part of this film”.

But Joseph Weits was less in denial than parts of his family: “There are 52 refuge camps, surrounding us. The Prime Minister thinks, the problem will go away with time. But they are surrounding us with hate, they will not desist in years to come. They will be a barrier to peace making. The illusion of occupation is convenient, but the intoxication of our victory has muddled our long term thinking. We have the land, but we did not pay the Arab refugees for their land. If we paid with the blood of our soldiers to get peace, why do we not pay with money now”. In 1966, 2.4 million Jews lived in what was Palestine, in contrast with just half a million Arabs. Joseph Weits left the JNF after 35 years. He was isolated, not even asking for advice anymore. “The West Bank annexation is a burden, now and for the coming generations.”

His great grand-daughter, the filmmaker, and her family have to live with the demystified Joseph Weits: yes, he planted 80 million trees, but he was also the “Father of Transfer”. But his fate is the fate of the nation he served, where good and evil live side by side for the coming generations to solve. With an insightful array of historical documentary material, this is a honest account of a family who grew up believing in the mythos of greatness. AS

SCREENING DURING HOTDOCS FILM FESTIVAL | CANADA 2021

Antoine et Antoinette (1947) Prime Video

Dir: Jacque Becker | Cast: Roger Pigaut, Claire Maffei, Noel Roquevert, Gaston Modot | France, Drama 78′

This charming slice of Parisian street life throbs with vibrant energy in the dependable hands of its gifted director Jacques Becker, whose fourth feature it was. It contains relatively few of the sweeping dollies and tracks that characterised his previous film Falbalas, instead bombarding the viewer with a collage of dramatic compositions (including some of the biggest closeups seen before Sergio Leone got behind a camera) cut together at breakneck speed by his regular editor Marguerite Renoir. All the acting, down to the smallest part, is superb.

The sheer gusto with which this film is put together helps gloss over the bleak reality of its eponymous young lovers’ existence in their tiny attic flat; the lottery ticket that occupies the final leg of the film being something of a red herring. Like the sudden windfall that rescues Emil Jannings from destitution at the conclusion of Der Letzte Mann, the release from a world of petty privations and even more petty employers their lottery win represents is poignant for the fact that it will in actuality never become reality for most young people like Antoine & Antoinette.

The incredibly phoney looking back-projection behind the two young lovers as they head off to the horizon on his new motorcycle at the film’s conclusion may well be intended to highlight the fact that real life, alas, rarely provides endings like this. @Richard Chatten

NOW ON PRIME VIDEO

Fair Wind to Java (1953) Prime Video

Dir: Joseph Kane | Wri: Richard Tregaskis | Cast: Fred MacMurray, Vera Ralston, Robert Douglas, Victor McLaglen | US Action Drama, 92′

Barnstorming South Seas hokum in chewy Trucolor of the type Republic Pictures was churning out by the yard at this time, full of plot elements that had earlier done service in their westerns & serials, such as diamonds being sought by a plummy-voiced villain in a carnival mask, endless fisticuffs, and of course Vera Hruba Ralston, wife of Republic’s president, Herbert J. Yates.

On this occasion she pays Kim Kim, a dusky Eurasian exotic dancer with extraordinary eyebrows, and her mere presence causes a stir with the menfolk who all vy for her attention aboard McMurray’s rigger the ‘Gerrymander’. He is later flogged to reveal the location of the diamonds. This was well after his suave double-crossing insurance exec role as Walter Neff in Double Indemnity. 

The phoniness of the studio scenes on board the deck of the ‘Gerrymander’ is complimented by the usual overacting by Republic stalwarts Victor McLaglen and Paul Fix, in marked contrast to superb model work by the Lydecker brothers depicting the ‘Gerrymander’ battling pirates at sea and climaxing in the 1883 eruption of the volcano Krakatau and the resulting tidal wave. @Richard Chatten

NOW ON PRIME VIDEO

Wall of Shadows (2021) Kinoteka 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

SCREENING DURING KINOTEKA FILM FESTIVAL 2021

 

 

What If? Ehud Barak on War and Peace (2020) Moscow Film Festival 2021

Dir.: Ran Tal; Documentary with Elud Barak; Israel 2020, 85 min.

In his immersive new documentary Israeli director/writer Ran Tal (The Museum), interviews former Prime Minister Ehud Barak. The upshot? That war has dominated Israel’s history – from before its foundation of to the ongoing stalemate.

Since the State of Israel came into being, the Premier also served as Defence Minister. This changed in 1967, after the war when battlefield hero General Moshe Dayan became Minister of Defence. Since then, five Prime Ministers have been high ranking military men: Yitzak Rabin, Ygal Allon, Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu. Some people may include Menachem Begin, who was a leading proponent of the Zionist Underground, responsible for the death of over 80 British soldiers in the bombing of the Hotel King David in 1946. Barak was only PM for two years at the turn of the 20th century when he met Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at the failed Camp David meeting in 2000, where President Clinton tried in vain to broker an agreement between the two leaders. It turned out to be the last time a peace agreement seemed possible.

Ehud Barak (*1942) grew up in Mishmar Ha Sharon, a small Kibbutz. He remembers nights round the camp fire when the young members of the modest Kibbutz – a family room was a just 11 square meters, and there was no loo – they sang patriotic songs that told how “it was worthwhile to die for one’s country”. 300 meters down the road was the Arab village, the inhabitants “looking like our biblical forefather”. There was no tension between the two communities, but one day, the Arabs disappeared. The Kibbutz suddenly grew, taking, over the land which had belonged to the Arabs. When Barak became Chief of Staff of the Israeli Army he once asked the Chief of Military Intelligence if they should assassinate Yasser Arafat. The answer was negative, since Arafat was deemed to be a political leader.

A few years later, the situation had changed. Barak saw active service in the 1967 war, which, so he believes, was won, “because we attacked first”. In the Yom Kippur War of 1973 (Barak flew in from California, where he was studying), the roles were reversed: Barak was part of heavy fighting in the Sinai peninsula.

After the murder of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972, Barak became leader of an Elite Corps, called the ‘Wrath of God’ who targeted terrorist all over Europe, killing, among others, Abbas al-Musawi, the Secretary General of the Hezbollah which he had co-founded. Asked about the civilian victims of these killings, Barak is clear: “When you operate, not to kill civilians, you won’t do anything.”  Referring to the assassination of Sadam Hussain, he claims history could have been entirely different: “Over a hundred thousand lives lost in the Iraq war, might have been saved”.

Strangely enough, the Rabin assassination “is not comparable with the aforementioned terror acts”. Sometimes Barak sounds reasonable: defending the reason to withdraw Israeli troops from Lebanon, or offering to divide Jerusalem in four sections, an offer Arafat refused at Camp David. But then he slips back into the warrior position: “We can not offer the Palestinians an enlightened occupation, that would be an oxymoron”. In 2001 Elud Barak lost the General Election to Ariel Sharon – an ex-general, responsible for the massacre at Sabre and Shatila.

No doubt Palestinian leaders are thinking on the same lines as the Israeli commanders – but how can you sit down and negotiate a peace treaty with somebody you would have assassinated, had you had the chance. This is the real oxymoron. Ran Tal’s feature is sad proof the military conflict between Israel and the Palestinians will go on for a long time: the language of war speaks loudest. AS

SCREEEING DURING THE MOSCOW FILM FESTIVAL 2021

Picture Mommy Dead (1966)

Dir: Bert I Gordon | Wri: Robert Sherman | Cast: Don Ameche, Martha Hyer, Susan Gordon, Zsa Zsa Gabor | Fantasy horror, 82

“The Past is Like a Tiger, and No Matter How You Pet It or Pretend That It’s Tame One Day It Will Turn…”

If I’d missed the start and hadn’t caught the director credit, I would have taken this for the work of William Castle rather than sci-fi and horror specialist Bert I. Gordon briefly venturing into Psycho/Baby Jane territory. The production values are in fact rather more impressive than one would have got with Castle. Greystone, the Beverly Hills mansion in which most of the action takes place is well served by Ellsworth Fredericks’s elegant photography, which gives the film the feeling of an Italian ‘giallo’ (complete with spooky close-ups of dolls, portraits and various childhood relics) produced as a glossy sixties TV movie. Unfortunately, shorn of Castle’s gimmicks Gordon’s direction manages to be even more pedestrian than Castle’s would have been; and fails utterly to energise a talky script in which things are constantly spelled out through dialogue rather than conveyed visually.

In an interesting cast of has-beens, Ameche is wasted as the heroine’s weak and corrupt father; but as the ghastly stepmom – who having already maxed out hubby’s nest egg is now making absolutely no secret of her desire to have her stepdaughter committed so she can gets her mitts on HER inheritance too – Martha Hyer rises to the challenge of convincingly playing a wife even more high maintenance than her predecessor Zsa Zsa Gabor must doubtless have been. (If she hadn’t been busy at the time making ‘Green Acres’, it would have been interesting to see Zsa Zsa and her sister Eva in the role played by the not dissimilar Hyer squaring up against each other in the same movie.) Signe Hasso pops up ominously in a nun’s habit, Wendell Corey is obviously drunk (he died from cirrhosis of the liver two years later) but enjoyably intimidating as the family lawyer; as is Maxwell Reed, who does justice to some wonderfully fruity dialogue as a male Miss Danvers. Anna Lee’s role as a family friend promises to be nicely bitchy too, but she unfortunately disappears almost as soon as she appears. @Richard Chatten

 

 

Man of God (2021) Moscow Film Festival 2021

Dir: Yelena Popovic | biopic Drama, 110’ |

Venerated Eastern Orthodox Saint Nektarios of Aegina (1846-1920)  certainly had a hard time of it, according to Man of God, screening in  Moscow Film Festival’s competition line-up, chronicling the life of this beloved and highly revered religious figure.

Exiled, slandered and convicted without trial, Saint Nektarios gets a worthy but rather lifeless, sepia-tinted drama dedicated to his memory with clunky dialogue more suited Silicon Valley than a 19th-set religious biopic following the trials and tribulations of the ‘Metropolitan’ who was canonised in 1961. Overall Man of God is well-researched and informative in raising the international profile of a lesser known religious figure. It’s a film that will have great appeal to those of an Eastern Orthodox persuasion.

In her first feature as solo director, and producer Yelena Popovic (who scripted L A Superheroes) adopts a straightforward narrative quickly establishing our hero as a pious and quietly-spoken miracle worker serving his community with abject humbleness – in early scenes we see him offering his shoes to a beggar – and Aris Servetalis (Apples) plays him with conviction although never quite achieving the saintly aura of Enrique Irazoqui in Pasolini’s Gospel According to Matthew.

Nektarios is soon ordained as the Metropolitan of Pentapolis (named after the five sacred places in Italy). But his acts of Godliness and virtue and his popularity amongst his flock, but incur the envy of the Egyptian clergy who fear he might become the next Patriarch of Egypt. He is discredited and quietly ushered out of Egypt, one high official still believing in him (“you seem to be the real deal”) securing him a posting in Mount Athos, Northern Greece.

Despite the magnificent scenery, DoP Panagiotis Vasilakis keeps his colour palette muted in religious respect as Nektarios who continues to impress the locals at the same time honing his literary skills which see him promoted to the Rizarios Ecclesiastical School where he becomes a Christian mentor and prolific author. Retiring to Aegina on the grounds of ill health (he still manages to rebuild a monastery with his own hands) he somehow falls foul of the system once again, accused of immorality, and goes to join his maker. The unlikely casting of Mickey Rourke (as a leper) seems appropriate for this tale of saintly redemption and purity, and he becomes the fortunate recipient of Nekarios’ posthumous final miracle at Aretaieion Hospital, in Greece. MT

MOSCOW FILM FESTIVAL | COMPETITION 2021

Gli Indifferenti | The Time of Indifference (2020) Moscow Film Festival 2021

Dir.: Leonardo Guerra Seragnoli; Cast: Valeria Bruni Tedesci, Eduardo Pece, Vinzenzo Crea, Beatrice Granno, Awa Ly, Giovanna Mezzogiorno; Italy 2020, 82 min.

The Time of Indifference is a modern-day take on Alberto Moravia’s first novel Gli Indifferenti written in 1929 (when the author was twenty-one) about a Roman family’s changing fortunes during Fascism.

Remakes are a tough call – and this one is a pale rider in comparison with Franceso Maselli’s 1964 original, adapted for the screen by award-winning Suso Cecchi D’Amico who worked with virtually all the Neo-Realist post war directors on Bicycle Thieves, The Leopard and Miracle In Milan. Screen legends Claudia Cardinale, Rod Steiger and Shelley Winters are also a tough act to follow.

Leonardo Guerra Seragnoli’s stylish version is lavishly-mounted and entertaining up to a point, but you can’t replace a strong script with visual and theatrical flourishes, and the director’s attempts to integrate a social media/gaming angle feels flaccid. Moravia’s story has lashings of dramatic potential, a salacious page turner oozing sexual politics, corruption, and intergenerational conflict in a down-spiralling economy – it’s all there for the taking, quite literally, in a “fiddle while Rome burns’ kind of way”. All very much in keeping with the unsettling climate today.

That said The Time of Indifference is not without its merits, and one is Valeria Bruni Tedeschi. Always a pleasure to watch, she makes for a supremely sensitive Maria Grazia, a widowed countess who has fallen from grace, unable to escape the pretences of her former glory or its material excesses. Edoardo Pesce is utterly convincing as her conniving lover, a suave conman who has his eyes set on her property, and her daughter, Carla (Granno), while her ineffectual son Michele (Crea) is unable to take the family forward, despite his better judgement.

Maria Grazia is in love with Leo, but her sexual power is waning, despite her graceful attributes. And we feel for her. But like most men of her own age, Leo is obsessed with youth, and fancies her 18-year-old daughter Carla (Granno). Meanwhile Michele (Crea) affair with his mother’s best friend (and Leo’s former lover) Lisa (Mezzogiorno), also doesn’t work, largely down to miscasting.

What is missing in this version is the elegant decadence of Moravia’s novel. While looking down on Mussolini as an upstart, the Italian upper classes and intelligentsia had made peace with his regime. This status quo gave no quarter to the tragedy unfolding, they just kept going by selling their properties and status no a new middle-class, of which Leo is a symbolic member.

In the end Leo’s greed and desperation shows his true colours, and is pivotal to the family’s salvation – of sorts – due to an act of female empowerment that buys the family time. This all plays out off-scene, resulting in a rather vapid denouement in the scheme of things. Enjoyable Saturday night fare. MT

SCREENING DURING MOSCOW INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2021

 

 

Fängelse | Prison (1949)

Dir/Wri: Ingmar Bergman | Cast: Doris Svedlund, Birger Malmsten, Eva Henning, Hasse Ekman | Sweden Drama 79′

Fängelse, like För att inte tala om alla dessa kvinnor fifteen years later, is a fascinating film that throbs with energy and enthusiasm but came a cropper when it opened and was later disowned by Bergman; although it’s by no means a car wreck of the order of the later catastrophe, and was actually acclaimed as “a masterpiece” by Variety’s reviewer on its first appearance. But even on the tiny budget Bergman had to play with it was a commercial flop, and he made far more coherent use of the non-linear narrative techniques flamboyantly used in his attempt to dazzle us with here in his next superficially less ambitious film, Törst.

Fängelse remains an experience to be savoured, superbly shot by Göran Strindberg and punctuated by virtuoso sequences such as the silent movie and the heroine’s dream. The extraordinary face of Doris Svedlund – on display in a whole range of angles and lighting styles – also lingers in the memory. And all packed into less than 80 minutes! @Richard Chatten

 

 

Volker Schlöndorff Retro | Bergamo Film Meeting 2021

Bergamo is back with another film festival to mark the city’s triumphant return after the setbacks of the past year.

This 73rd edition – which runs from Friday 24 April  2 May – celebrates a major retrospective dedicated to director, screenwriter, producer and actor Volker Schlöndorff, one of the most significant talents of post-war German cinema. Bergamo is also set to pay homage to Polish director, writer and artist Jerzy Skolimowsky and one of the key figures of  Hungarian cinema, director and writer Márta Mészáros.

But first let’s look at Volker Schlöndorff  (*1939) whose career to date spans over 50 years with 23 feature films, nine segments for feature films, seven TV movies, three documentary and seven TV documentaries, an impressive rollcall. If there is one common factor in his feature film output, it’s his penchant for literary adaptations, starting with his 1966 debut, the Musil version of The Young Törless.

Of all the directors of the “New German” cinema – Wenders, Fassbinder and Reitz – Schlöndorff has relied most heavily on others’ work for his inspiration and has courted the critics, even more so than the audience. It is no co-incidence that Schlöndorff took on the leadership of the old Babelsberg Studios after re-unification in 1990, serving as CEO between 1992-1997.

Training in Paris at the prestigious IDHEC, Schlöndorff  worked as an assistant to Louis Malle, Jean-Pierre Melville and Alain Resnais. His sophomore feature Törless, shot in black-and-white, bears the influence of the French masters: the story of a boarding school cabal with home-erotic undertones is told with great sensibility and relies very much on the unity between aesthetic and content. Törless is arguably the most mature feature of the fledging New German Cinema.

Michael Kohlhaas – Rebel (1969), based on the novel by German classicist Heinrich von Kleist, is a melancholic study of a failed revolutionary in the 18th century. But Schlöndorff’s major breakthrough onto the international stage was with Heinrich Böll’s adaption of The Lost Honour of Katherina Blum (1975) a film that showcased corruption in the West German establishment, Baader-Meinhoff’s activities undermining the freedom of expression and re-establishing the old Nazi power structure.

Two years late Schlöndorff directed three segments of Germany in the Autumn, a critical portrait of eight directors, Kluge and Fassbinder amongst them, seen against the background of ongoing West German reconstruction. His next feature, The Tin Drum (1979) was to place him firmly in the spotlight, winning the Palme d’Or Golden at Cannes (alongside Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now). German cinema was now a force to be reckoned with. Based on the novel by Günther Grass, The Tim Drum pictures the advent of fascism in Germany from the POV of a little boy reluctant to grow up, self-denial jostling with opportunistic desire.

Success in Europe paved the way for heavyweight productions in the US: Arthur Miller’s Dustin Hoffman starrer Death of a Salesman (1985) and Marcel Proust’s Swann in Love (1984) with Jeremy Irons and Alain Delon. Competent yet indistinctive in their style, these dramas could have been made by any talented director. In 1990 The Handmaid’s Tale followed, based on the novel of Margaret Atwood (that would later spawn the ongoing TV series).

In the mid nineties Schlöndorff was back on form again with The Ogre (1996), based on the novel by Michel Tournier. The film plays out like a horror story, a naive German (John Malkovich) inadvertently taking part in the Holocaust. In 2000 The Legend of Rita, another biographical piece, this time about Inge Viett, a member of the RAF underground, who fled to East Germany, where she settled with the help of the STASI. Based on the play by Cyril Gely, Diplomacy (2014) saw Schlöndorff returning again to German history, a combative wartime episode outlining Hitler’s order to burn Paris to the ground . Swedish diplomat Raoul Nording finally succeeds in convincing the German commander, General Dietrich von Choltiz, to defy the Nazi leader.

Overall, Schlöndorff is more comfortable working with these historical dramas plundering German history, than with blockbuster adaptations of successful novels. But he is still an important part of the German cinema of the early 1960s, whose proponents finally laid to rest the unholy UFA tradition. AS

Retrospective | BERGAMO FILM MEETING 2021

Full Moon | Pun Mjesec (2019) Bergamo Film Meeting

Dir.: Nermin Hamzagic; Cast: Alban Ukaj, Ermin Sijamija, Muhamed Hadzovic, Jasua Diklic, Boris Lehr; Bosnia and Herzegovina 2019, 85 min.

Tales of ‘bent coppers’ are all the rage at the moment. This first feature for Bosnian director/co-writer Nermin Hamzagic is a tense, psychologically brutal account of everyday life in Bosnia Herzegovina where bribery rules, the law protecting the country’s new elite. What makes it even more scathing, is that Full Moon is set in a police station, with the would-be-hero a highly ranked officer.

Rather than making this a moralist roll call portraying the region’s turbulent past and present what develeps is a rich character study centring on Hamza, his homeland and his life.

It all starts with Hamza (Kosovar-born Ukaj) having to be on duty, even though his wife is experiencing a difficult birth in the nearby hospital. A government delegation is in town and needs police protection. The precinct is in chaos and Hamza will spend the rest of the night dealing with the upshot of the lawless corrupt set-up.

Full Moon certainly feels very convincing, Hamzagić and his co-writer Emina Omerović sticking to a traditional narrative structure, the storyline veering into surprising places: Hamza is hardly whiter than white – it turns out he too has had his fingers in the till (which is how he paid for his wife’s IVF). And his decent behaviour doesn’t necessarily reap rewards. Ukaj leads with a gutsy central performance and each character resonates on its own merits. And although Full Moon occasionally falls into the trap of over-the-top sentimentality, there is plenty of textural nuance to break it all up: One of the detainees is a real hard-nosed criminal.

An element that doesn’t quite ring true is the appearance of a young boy in the precinct in the middle of the night, and only Hamza seems able to see him. He could be a metaphor for Hamza’s higher self, a sort of guardian angel, but we are left bemused.

Visually more Nordic noir in style, than grim post Soviet squalor. Full Moon is debut full of rage, filmed with finesse and compassion. AS

BERGAMO FILM MEETING 2021

 

Hitler: The Last Ten Days (1973)

Dir: Ennio De Concini | Cast: Alex Guinness, Simon Ward, Adolfo Celi, Diane Cilento, Joss Ackland, Sheila Gish | Gabriele Ferzetti, Eric Porter | Drama, 106′

Even before Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Der Untergang (2004) became in most people’s minds the definitive big screen treatment of the last days of Hitler, this 1973 version was already overshadowed by G.W.Pabst’s Der Letzte Akt (1955) with Albin Skoda as Hitler. That said, it’s still a reasonably accurate breeze through the known facts of Hitler’s final days enlivened throughout by the succession of familiar British faces ranging from Diane Cilento’s strapping aviatrix Hanna Reitsch (who in reality was a tiny, elfin little woman) to Andrew Sachs as the notary summoned to the bunker to officiate at Hitler’s wedding; all to the accompaniment of an incongruously jolly Viennese score by Mischa Spoliansky.

Sir Alec, bless him, is marginally less unbelievable casting as Hitler than Liberace or Jerry Lewis might have been. The Führer’s legendary, carpet-chewing tantrums, for example, are wholly beyond him. Like all fictional depictions of the final days in the bunker this film fails utterly to accurately depict the doped-up, trembling, rheumy-eyed physical wreck that Hitler by then was (the famous moustache, for example, had gone completely grey); but Guinness’s frequent ramblings convey extremely well the opinionated, self-absorbed bore described, for example, by Alfred Speer in Inside the Third Reich.

Occasionally the film can’t resist putting words into the Führer’s mouth (Guinness actually uses the word “exterminate” with reference to the Jews, when in reality Hitler just left such tedious details entirely to subordinates like Himmler who actually did his dirty work and were painstakingly careful to avoid explicitly stating such things); and the final scene between Hitler and Eva Braun is particularly unbelievable. But its still worth a look. @Richard Chatten

 

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

 

The High and the Mighty (1954) Prime

Dir: William A Wellman | Cast: John Wayne, Claire Trevor, Laraine Day, Robert Stack, Jan Sterling | US Disaster Movie 147′

Indispensable viewing for anyone interested in Hollywood in general and the 1950s in particular, when air travel was glamorous. Former WWI pilot William A. Wellman immediately snapped up the 1953 novel by aviation specialist Ernest K. Gann and the result couldn’t fail to be irresistible box office fodder in the classic tradition of Grand Hotel and Stagecoach (the stars of which it reunites). Sidney Blackmer’s role recalls Berton Churchill in ‘Stagecoach’ and anticipates Van Heflin in Airport while Robert Stack actually parodied his role in this in Airplane!

It’s all very easy to sneer at the way the movie throws in everything but the kitchen sink, and the relentless promotion of Dimitri Tompkin’s Oscar-winning score (the theme of which John Wayne even whistles occasionally), complete with heavenly choirs. There’s also the oversight of not casting any black actors (although it does include an Asian). But with immaculate photography in CinemaScope and Warnercolor by Archie Stout and a fabulous cast there’s something for everyone. So just enjoy! @Richard Chatten

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Ghost Tropic (2020) Bergamo Film Meeting 2021

Dir.: Bas Devos; Cast: Saadia Bentaieb, Nora Diri, Stefan Gorm, Guy Dermul, Maaike Neuville; Belgium 2019, 85 min.

Simple but never simplistic Ghost Tropic is a nighttime odyssey in Brussels seen through the eyes of a Maghreb domestic cleaner, after missing her metro stop.

Bas Devos establishes himself as a leading talent in filmmaking with this upbeat picture of a woman but also a city; a melting pot of race, religion and cultures, short vignettes gradually building up a picture of middle-aged Khadija and of Belgium’s capital city.

Khadija’s living room is seen at the beginning with the light giving way to darkness. “What might people think about the person who lives here?” asks a voice-over. The answer is given in the small encounters which amplify Khadija’s experience and the kindness of strangers at the end of the metro line, with no services running till morning.

A night bus is cancelled, and the nearest ATM yields a blank, so she sets out on foot to find her way home amongst those living on the margins of society, stumbling across a dog and a tramp (Dermul), one of them won’t make it through the night. A friendly petrol station worker (Neuville) worker offers her a lift home and another story of misfortune, and we learn that Khadija’s husband Munir died some years ago. A call to her son Bilal, reveals he lives alone, and she spots her seventeen-year old daughter (Diri), with a group of youngsters. She follows at a distance noting her daughter’s burgeoning relationship with a boy, a serendipitous meeting outside another building yields a lucky outcome for Khadija and gradually as daylight dawns we see her home in a reverse proceeding of the opening shot.

Shot on rich Kodak stock by DoP Grimm Vanderckhove, the night seems to shimmer with hope despite her ordeal, the darkness is never threatening, with small moments of beauty thrown in. Buildings loom like lighthouses, illuminating her passage through the gloaming, a journey that started in darkness dawns with a ray of hope – a gradual realisation that life has come full circle – what at first seemed daunting now radiates with light. Full of humanity, Ghost Tropic is a real pleasure to watch – and to admire. AS

BERGAMO FILM MEETING  | 24 April – 2 May 2021 | WINNER CAIRO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2019

 

The Penthouse (1967)

Dir: Peter Collinson | Wri: Scott Forbes | Cast: Terence Morgan, Suzy Kendall, Tony Beckley, Norman Rodway | UK Thriller

British director Peter Collinson was probably best known for his comedy caper The Italian Job with its unlikely casting of Michael Caine, Noel Coward and Benny Hill. But before that he made TV outing The Penthouse which belongs to the extremely nasty genre of the home invasion film.

Two earlier examples, Leslie Stevens’ Private Property (1960) and Walter Grauman’s Lady in a Cage (1964) had already been denied circuit releases in Britain, and in 1967 The Penthouse was following close on the heels of Dutchman and The Incident, both located the same situation, this time in railway carriages.

Far and away the most frightening of these films was The Incident, starring Martin Sheen and Beau Bridges, a powerfully vicious thriller never to released in Britain, with the emotive tagline “hits like a switchblade knife”. Later films that have been structured around similar situations include A Clockwork Orange, Straw Dogs and Funny Games, while real life – alas – got in on the act during 1968-69 with the hideous murders of Ramon Novarro and Sharon Tate.

Pretty obviously based on a play (‘The Meter Man’ by C.Scott Forbes), and directed, for all it’s worth, by first-timer Peter Collinson with Gothic lighting by Arthur Lavis (and occasional strident intrusions by John Hawksworth’s score), The Penthouse draws strongly for its content on Private Property and for its ambiance and dialogue on Harold Pinter.

In reality, Tom (Tony Beckley) and Dick (Norman Rodway), the pair of gurning cretins who invade the adulterous couple’s luxury penthouse suite (£15,000 at 1967 prices we’re told!) would never talk so much or be so articulate; and both their bizarre behaviour and that of the girlfriend (Suzy Kendall) who loses her fear and then her inhibitions remarkably quickly after being plied with booze and marijuana, suggests that gritty realism is not exactly what the film’s makers were striving for.

The film becomes more unbelievable still when less that twenty minutes from the end the couple actually let Harry in, who proceeds to bring the two goons back into the apartment to continue their mind games. But since Harry is played by Martine Beswick at her most fabulous (which is saying something!) I can forgive the film a lot. Well, a bit. @Richard Chatten

 

 

Children of the Enemy (2021) CPH:DOX 2021

Dir: Gorki Glaser-Muller | Sweden, Denmark, Qatar | Doc With Patricio Galves, Clive Stafford Smith, Isabel Coles 95′

Like most stories coming out of Syria since the recent reign of terror this is a familiar one chronicling days of anguish amid political turmoil. Children of the Enemy centres on one man’s Kafkaesque journey to rescue his family and take them back to their homeland of Sweden. Meanwhile the Swedish authorities and even the media keep a low profile for fear of repercussions.

Chilean Swede Patricio Galvez cuts a tragic figure as shares his pain with filmmaker Gorki Glaser-Muller. Told simply, its tone of ongoing desperation being the focus, it tells how another unsuspecting victim – his nubile daughter – became radicalised and married one of Sweden’s most notorious ISIS terrorists.

After both were killed in the fight for a caliphate their children were left high and dry, lost somewhere in the Al-Hol prison camp in Northeast Syria. A moving phone montage on Patricio’s mobile phone is all he has left to identify the kids during his nightmarish 45 day recovery mission through Iraq and Syria. Meanwhile every minute could be their last. Days of desperation and disbelief add to the ongoing narrative of this ‘missing persons diary’ in a world that grows more and more hostile, less compassionate as allies and enemies become increasingly indistinguishable. MT

CPH:DOX | WORLD PREMIERE|  INTERNATIONAL COMPETITION  | COPENHAGEN DOC FESTIVAL 2021

 

 

Return to the City 2021 | June 2021 at the Barbican

A hopeful mini series of films that celebrates the return to cinema screens with some urban-themed lesser known documentaries reflecting life in bustling capital cities all round the globe including Paris, Cairo, Lima, New York, Las Vegas and Kaili in South East China.

New Yorkers take in the sights, sounds and rhythms of the 1950s in the UK premiere of Manfred Kirchheimer’s Free Time, US 1960/2020

The filmmaker has meticulously restored and constructed the 16mm black-and-white footage that he and Walter Hess shot in New York between 1958 and 1960. Free Time captures the in-between moments – kids playing stickball, window washers, Manhattanites reading newspapers on their stoops – and the architectural beauty of urban spaces, set to the stirring sounds of Ravel, Bach and Count Basie.

This screening will be introduced by visual artist and writer Will Jennings.

In contemporary Lima the sounds of punk, psychedelia and experimental electronica are the backdrop for Ximena Valdivia and Dana Bonilla’s Lima Screams (Peru, 2018), an ecstatic and visually thrilling journey through Lima, where marginalised communities make beautiful music, and political protests are backed by fierce electronic sounds.

Introduced by writer and curator Awa Konaté, Nationalité: Immigré (France 1975) by Mauritanian filmmaker Sidney Sokhona, blends fiction with documentary in a staggering and radical account of African migrants at the margins of Parisian society in the 1970s.

Cairo Station (Egypt 1958), directed by and starring Youssef Chahine, blends melodrama, neorealism and thriller conventions to tell an unforgettable, disturbing story of love and madness set in Cairo’s train station

Nina Menkes’ Queen of Diamonds (US 1991) offers a glimpse of Las Vegas seen through the eyes of a casino croupier, a place of garish, windowless interiors, but also huge blue skies and desolate desertscapes dotted with burned-out mobile homes, cheaply-furnished apartments, and dried-up lakes

Long Day’s Journey into Night (China, 2018) Bi Gan’s sensuous, dream-like drama set in Kaili in South East China, a labyrinthine cityscape is captured in single, hour-long, gravity-defying take – a must-see on the big screen in 3D.

All films will be shown in Cinema 1 in June. Lima Screams, Long Day’s Journey Into Night (2D version), Nationalité: Immigré and Queen of Diamonds will also be available to watch on Cinema on Demand throughout July.

Donations can be made here: barbican.org.uk/donate

UK Premiere: Free Time (U*) + intro by writer Will Jennings
US 1960/2020 Dir Manfred Kirchheimer 61 min Digital presentation
Tue 8 Jun 6.15pm, Cinema 1

1950s footage of New York comes alive in this beautifully restored city symphony from celebrated filmmaker Manfred Kirchheimer.
In his latest work, Manfred Kirchheimer has meticulously restored and constructed 16mm black- and-white footage that he and Walter Hess shot in New York between 1958 and 1960. Free Time captures the in-between moments—kids playing stickball, window washers, Manhattanites reading newspapers on their stoops—and the architectural beauty of urban spaces, set to the stirring sounds of Ravel, Bach and Count Basie.

The footage was shot in several distinct New York neighbourhoods, including Washington Heights, the Upper West Side, and Hell’s Kitchen, and features evocative stops throughout the city, making time for an auto junkyard in Inwood and a cemetery in Queens.
This screening is introduced by Will Jennings. Will Jennings is a visual artist and writer interested in architecture, politics, history and how built form interacts with wider culture and society.

Lima Screams (12A*)

Peru 2018 Dir Dana Bonilla, Ximena Valdivia 77 min
Thu 10 Jun 6.20 pm, Cinema 1
A pulsing and immersive city symphony dedicated to Peru’s capital city, pumping with the sounds of punk, psychedelia and experimental electronica.

Directors Ximena Valdivia and Dana Bonilla take us on an exciting dive through the streets and music venues of Lima, showing the eclectic and diverse musical talents of the city’s artists against a collage of moments and sensations.

Lima Screams is an ecstatic and visually thrilling journey through the city’s spaces, as marginalised communities make beautiful music and political protests are backed by fierce electronic sounds. As the city screams, you have no choice but to be carried along with it…

Long Day’s Journey into Night 3D (12A)

China/France 2018 Dir Bi Gan 139 min Digital presentation
Sun 13 Jun 2.30 pm, Cinema 1

A search for a lost love animates this sensuous, dream-like drama set in the city of Kaili in south-east China.
After many years away, a solitary man, Luo Hongwu, returns to his hometown for his father’s funeral. There, he is assailed by memories of a former lover, Wan Quiwen, triggering an obsessive need to find her again. Luo’s present-day quest and his memories of their romance intertwine; both play out against a backdrop of marginal, semi-derelict urban spaces – with a weird, near-hallucinatory quality.
The film’s dazzling second act opens when Luo wanders into a dingy cinema and puts on a pair of 3D glasses, whereupon he re-emerges on-screen in a film-within-a-film that begins in a tunnel, then proceeds to a pool hall and an open-air karaoke bar.

His journey through this labyrinthine cityscape is captured in single, hour-long, gravity-defying take – a must-see on the big screen in 3D.
Nationalité immigré (12A*) + intro by curator Awa Konaté
France 1975 Dir Sidney Sokhona 69 min
Tue 15 Jun 6.20pm, Cinema 1

Mauritanian filmmaker Sidney Sokhona blends fiction with documentary in a staggering and radical account of African migrants at the margins of Parisian society in the 1970s.

Nationalité: Immigré dramatises the real-life housing strikes undertaken by Sokhona and his fellow migrant neighbours in a Parisian working-class slum dwelling. Centring identity, socio-economic injustices, and the bureaucratic exploitations of migrants, we are offered a depiction that positions community organising as crucial to simply exist.

With Western capitalism, anti-blackness, and migration at its fore, the film’s politics is more than ever relevant to current public debates on inequalities. Its expressions of resistance and resilience invite us to reflect and inquire, what does life and survival look like on the periphery?

This screening is curated by Awa Konaté, a Danish-Ivorian writer, curator, and founder of the interdisciplinary research platform Culture Art Society (CAS) that methodises African archives for public arts programming.

Queen of Diamonds (15*)

US 1991 Dir Nina Menkes 77 min Digital presentation
Sat 19 Jun 6.15pm, Cinema 1

An alienated blackjack dealer is at the centre of this slantwise portrait of Las Vegas. The many cinematic depictions of Las Vegas typically glory in the glittering casino lights and the drama of the gambling table: the thrill of risk, the joy of winning, the devastation of loss.

Not so this film, which shows the flipside of the city from the point-of-view of one of its worker-residents, a casino croupier, for whom each wager, each hand, carries no excitement, but is part of one long round of drudgery.
Our heroine drifts through a series of encounters. But events are beside the point, the appeal of this film are its images – sad, gorgeous, strange. This is Las Vegas as seen from the margins, a place of garish, windowless interiors, but also huge blue skies and desolate desertscapes dotted with burned-out mobile homes, cheaply-furnished apartments, and dried-up lakes.

Cairo Station (12A)

Egypt 1958 Dir Youssef Chahine 77 min Digital presentation
Sun 27 Jun 3pm, Cinema 1
A disabled newspaper vendor falls obsessively in love with an engaged drinks seller in Youssef Chahine’s thrilling study of passion, sexuality and violence.

BARBICAN | JUNE 2021

Black Bear (2020)

Dir.: Lawrence Michael Levine; Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Christopher Abbott, Sarah Gadon; USA 2020, 104 min.

Writer/director Lawrence Michael Levine should have heeded home truths: if you have a good subject, stick with it, don’t shut it down halfway through. Particularly when your second part is a film-in-film story – a conceit that has frustrated countless directors – François Truffaut’s, Day for Night serving as an exceptional along with The Exorcist .

Part one (‘The Bear on the Road’) has an often re-played beginning, with actor turned filmmaker Allison (Plaza) sitting near a foggy lake, very decorative in her red one-piece swim suit. Finally, she gets up and leaves for the lake house, starting her script. Writer’s block sets in shortly after the opening title. Instead she goes, Cassavetes style, into war with her hosts, out-of work musician Gabe (Abbott) and his  pregnant wife Blair (Gadon). The couple bicker and fight, but instead of staying out of it Allison takes sides in a very underhand way.

The outcome is a coitus-interrupted and a rush for the hospital, all cut short by the titular bear appearing on the road. That’s a pity, because we really want to know what happens next. But the narrative makes a swerve into the same lake house scene, but this time we watch a film being shot. This time around Plaza deftly becomes Allison, the insecure actress, bullied and belittled by husband director Gabe (Abbott again) and threatened by Gabon’s Blair, who seems desperate to change roles after what went on in part one. But Levine doesn’t pull it off with this complicated, over talky second part, even the bear re-appearing near the end. Black Bears tries to be too clever, only to deliver second-hand histrionics in part two’s ‘Bear by the Boathouse’; ending in a rather lame repeat of the introductory shot.

Apart from the symbolic meaning of the titular bear, Levine withholds any reasonable explanations in part two. DoP Robert Leitzell cannot make up his mind if he is shooting a horror flick, or one of Woody Allen’s Bergmanesque features, falling, along with Levine’s script just between two chairs. The actors do there best, the peerless Plaza is always watchable, desperate a difficult role. Black Bear takes a rather tepid story and treats it like an exercise in meta-physics. In the end it’s just a blown-up B-picture. AS

BLACK BEAR – RELEASED ON DIGITAL 23 APRIL 2021

 

 

The Strange Woman (1946) Prime Video

Dir: Edgar G Ulmer | Herb Meadow | Cast: Hedy Lamarr, George Sanders, Louis Hayward, Gene Lockhart, Hillary Brooke | US Noir, 90′

Based on a 1941 novel by Ben Ames Williams, whose Leave Her to Heaven had just provided the 40’s Hollywood melodrama with one of its most memorably manipulative female psychos in the form of Gene Tierney as Ellen Berent. Hedy Lamarr chose this as her first independent production and cannily selected Edgar Ulmer to direct, who makes the most of the opportunities provided by unaccustomedly decent production values and a solid supporting cast, while giving Ms Lamarr her head to create a memorable femme fatale.

In early 19th Century Maine, Hedy learns as a child how to manipulate boys for her own spiteful ends. So far, so promising – particularly as portrayed as a worldly, spiteful little vixen by Jo Ann Marlowe – but one apprehensively suspects she will inevitably prove less enjoyably sociopathic when she grows up to be Hedy Lamarr.

Hedy herself as a young woman initially shows promise, wearing lots of lipstick and making eloquent use of her eyes while otherwise cultivating an intriguing stillness as she twists men round her little finger and declares “I don’t want the youngest. I want the richest!”. Learning to cultivate her feminine wiles in the face of brutal patriarchy in the person of her drunken and violent father (played by Inspector Lestrade, Denis Hoey), she promises to become a more alluringly damaged adult than she ultimately proves to be. SPOILER COMING: Ms Lamarr – whose accent increasingly slips as the film approaches its conclusion – loses her nerve towards the end of the film, when she falls victim to true love and dies misguided rather than Bad.

The title is taken from Proverbs 5:3 and doesn’t really fit Ms Lamarr; but The Wicked Lady was already taken, although she doesn’t prove that wicked either. @Richard Chatten

NOW ON PRIME VIDEO

Dancing With Crime (1948) Prime Video

Dir: John Paddy Carstairs | Wri: Brock Williams | Cast: Richard Attenborough, Barry K Barnes, Barry Jones, Sheila Sim, Garry Marsh | UK Thriller 83′

London was awash immediately after the war with zoot-suited black marketeers, and this gritty little crime thriller directed by John Paddy Carstairs (remembered for his Norman Wisdom comedies) and slickly shot by Stanley Pavey involves innocent young taxi driver Dickie Attenborough in one of his first starring roles along with his real-life wife Sheila Sim, led by a slightly younger-than-usual Barry Jones and pre-war leading man Barry K. Barnes. Attenborough is a young cabbie who gets mixed up with a criminal gang and sets out to expose them for what they are.

It boasts several formidable females with big hair and even bigger shoulders, none of them with bigger hair or bigger shoulders than reluctant moll Judy Kelly. Most of the rest of the cast are uncredited: including a highly conspicuous Diana Dors and an ironically very inconspicuous Dirk Bogarde (whose bit with his back to the camera – sounding nothing like him – near the end of the film as a police dispatcher is the sole reason the picture is now recalled). @Richard Chatten

NOW ON PRIME VIDEO

The Battle of the Sexes (1928) Prime Video

Dir: D W Griffith | Cast: Jean Hersholt, Phyllis Haver, Belle Bennett, Sally O’Neil | US Drama 88′

It tends to be forgotten that D.W.Griffith continued busily turning out feature films into the talkie era, and on the rare occasions that these later films are ever acknowledged it’s usually just to dismiss them as the dying embers of a burned-out career.

Griffith’s 1928 remake of his lost 1914 feature film The Battle of the Sexes – historically noteworthy as his last entirely silent film – turns out to be a lively, intimate contemporary comedy-drama embellished with little visual flourishes like indoor tracking shots and overhead shots (probably suggested by cameraman Karl Struss) rather than the more saucy piece of fluff the rather schematic title seems to promise.

The opening sequence with Phyllis Haver having her frizzy peroxide blonde hair dressed in a salon adjacent to millionaire Jean Hersholt on whom her gold-digging eye alights suggests a typical jazz age comedy vehicle for Miss Haver fresh from playing Roxie Hart in Chicago; an impression reinforced by the sequence that follows in which she engineers their ‘accidental’ meeting in the apartment building in which he and his family live and she has somehow managed to rent a place for herself.

So far so amusing. But this is Griffith we are talking about, and the devastating impact of Hersholt’s dalliance on his family is conveyed with sufficient force to turn the comedy into drama; and the focal point of the film becomes Sally O’Neil as the daughter. (The visual contrast between the petite, bird-like brunette O’Neil and big blonde Phyllis also adds additional weight to their confrontation). Although all eventually ends well, Hersholt hasn’t returned to his wife because of his love for her overcome his desire for Haver, but only because he is presented with incontrovertible evidence even he can’t ignore that she was only ever after his money. The formulaic happy ending remains overshadowed by the mother’s earlier despairing words “It’s too late now” delivered by a drained-looking Belle Bennett; and it seems unlikely that this family will ever return to the idyllic state we witnessed at the beginning of the film. @Richard Chatten

ON PRIME VIDEO

Ostrov – Lost Island (2021) | Visions du Reel 2021

Dir.: Swetlana Rodina, Laurent Stoop; Documentary with Ivan, Anna, Alina, Anton, Galina, Valera, Tatiana, Roman Tamangiz; Switzerland 2021, 93 min.

Time warps still exist even in the 21st century. And one is the island of Ostrov deep in the Caspian Sea. During Soviet times it was home to over 3000 people. Nowadays only a few survive, and most belong to a large extended family. Their existence very much connects to a global narrative of survival for small communities all over the world.

Writers/directors Swetlana Rodina and Laurent Stoop (Citizen Khodorkovsky) take a look at how life has changed there in past thirty years. There is still a hospital, a school and a kindergarten. Ivan (50) and Anna (45), occupy one of the homely wooden houses with their kids Alina and Anton. But their patriarch Tolya is not the only one living in the past.

Every day Ivan takes his ramshackle fishing boat out to sea, always aware of the coast guards who are keen to catch them fishing sturgeon, which for reasons not explained, is forbidden. In the “old days” of the Soviet Union, according to Anna, the family was prosperous, making a good living with sturgeon’s black caviar: another restriction not explained. Military police inspects the island every so often: what they are looking for is one of the many open questions.

Roman and Tamangiz have fled the mainland town to the island – but both are unhappy, being used to city life. Roman admits their poverty has destroyed their relationship, only the cats and dogs are contented stretching lazily in the sun. ‘Make do and mend’ values still survive here out of necessity,  Ivan is always repairing something or another – mainly his motorcycle, which has surely seen better days, probably built in the Soviet era. There is a war memorial for the dead of WWII, and the anniversary of 9th of May 1945 is celebrated.

On the newly acquired TV – it works, in spite of Ivan telling us there is no electricity – President Putin is the star attraction. In Donetsk, Russian soldiers give out Russian passports to Ukrainians, the annexation of the Crimea is celebrated. In Germany, meanwhile, Neo-Nazis are marching, revenge hungry, and one more reason for the war in Ukraine.

Anton has had enough of the propaganda but Ivan stays and complains the younger generation does not appreciate the old war songs any more. Not surprisingly, apart from getting drunk and listening to the army radio, there is not much for the youngsters on the island to do.

Tolya dies and is buried in coffin with an orthodox cross. Ivan asks his daughter Alina to take a letter to Putin – and when he doesn’t get a reply, he plans to write another. Meanwhile Putin plays the role of the humble statesman on TV.  Ivan refuses to blame Putin for the poverty on Orlov – he believes it is all down to the corrupt and incompetent administration. New Year’s Eve 2020 offers a chance to celebrate all round with drinking and dancing. Meanwhile, Putin hectors on about a bright future, Ivan praising him for building a strong army.

Dop Laurent Stoop is perfectly placed to play the “Fly on the Wall” – unobtrusive his pictures tell a thousand words. The soft limpid colours of the maritime setting give a lyrical feel to this contemporary story, that could be set a hundred years ago.

Orlov is one of many documentaries about Putin’s Russia, showing the parallels to the Soviet Union – minus the social structure of the era. Like Stalin before him, Putin’s obdurate strength is what makes him popular. The fault always lies with his underlings. Orlov tells a poignant story of  yesteryear, and displaced youngsters trapped in time between utter boredom and a glorious past. AS

NOW AT VISIONS DU REEL | NYON 2021

 

The Queen of Versailles (2012) Prime Video

Dir: Lauren Greenfield | US Doc 103′ | With Jacqueline and Davie Siegel

An instructive companion to The Grapes of Wrath and the South Park episode ‘Asspen’, in which the hunter becomes the hunted as – after becoming a billionaire pressuring ‘moochers’ into living beyond their means by investing in his timeshire holiday homes – ‘timeshare king’ David Siegel gets a taste of his own medicine following the financial crash of September 2008.

In The Grapes of Wrath (the novel, not the film), the bank is fatalistically described as ‘The Monster’, which must continue to be fed profits or it will die. Hence the mass evictions of honest, hard-working tenant farmers like the Joads so ‘The Monster’ can devour their assets. In 2008, the bankers who encouraged Siegel in the first place to overstretch himself financially are, instead of going to jail, shored up with taxpayers’ money and show their appreciation in an orgy of foreclosures and asset-stripping of their own victims to sustain profitability as usual.

David’s amiable trophy wife Jackie compares the bank to vultures circling her husband’s business waiting for it to die the better for them to devour its corpse. The modest little home of Jackie’s old school friend faces foreclosure even after Jackie gives her $5,000 to cover a debt that had started out at just $1,700; while David’s bank is putting the screws on him to surrender his own assets to them at knockdown prices.

Jackie initially seems remarkably unspoiled by her immense wealth, and remains seemingly stoical as her husband’s fortunes unravel and she is reduced to travelling by commercial airliner and shopping at Wall-Mart. But the visible deflation of David is painful to watch as for the first time he has to worry about meeting his electricity bill. (It usually takes financial reversals for people to start conducting themselves in an environmentally responsible manner.)

The almost comical lack of irony with which Jackie described the Siegels as “ordinary people like us” lays bare the sheer incomprehension of the 1% of how the 99% live, the political ramifications of which in a plutocracy like the United States include the casual vindictiveness its political leaders (and their paymasters like the Siegels) routinely display and enshrine in legislation against those less fortunate than themselves. (While Jackie stressed her “need” for the additional living space Versailles would have provided, in Britain the same year that this film was released the government of Old Etonian David Cameron introduced a punitive “bedroom tax” in the Welfare Reform Act of 2012 whereby council house tenants with any room considered “spare” automatically had their housing benefit docked.)

We see the reality of ‘trickle-down’ economics in the impact upon the Siegel’s vast army of employees and dependents all the way down the food chain in the fate of their pet lizard, who amidst the confusion is allowed to die of thirst. @Richard Chatten

NOW ON PRIME VIDEO

Lost Boys (2021) CPH:DOX 2021

Dir.: Joonas Neuvonen, Sadri Cetinkaya; Documentary with Joonas Neuvonen, Jani Raappana, Antti , Lee Lee, Thi, narrated by Pekka Strang; Finland 2020, 99 min.

It all started with Reindeerspotting-Escape from Santaland back in 2010. Its Finnish director Joonas Neuvonen turned out to be a drug dealer from a middle class background, and this fuelled the storyline for Lost Boys, a drug-powered tour of Thailand and Cambodia to celebrate the film’s success. Joining him were petty thief and addict Jani Raappana, and his mate Annti. Reindeerspotting co-writer Sadri Cetinkaya co-wrote the script.

Three months later Jani would be found dead in Phnom Penh. How he met his fate is still uncertain. Indications are he was murdered. Pekka Strang narrates, as the voice of Neuvonen, commenting from his cell. The trio were heavy users of ‘ya ba’, formerly known as yama, a potent mixture of methamphetamine and caffeine, also used as a horse drug, and favoured by soldiers, taxi drivers and sex workers.

Lost Boys chronicles their down-spiralling nightmare into Hell, a modern day, sordid version of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The drug culture inevitably leads to debt, organised crime holds sway with death squads enforcing control. Sex workers are all part of the picture, the exploited leading their clients into the hands of the drug lords. Cambodia’s turbulent past has contributed to the country’s post traumatic stress disorder that started with colonisation and culminated with the Khmer Rouge. Sex tourism involving adults and children is now rampant throughout Cambodia. The country’s horrific history – past and present – plays out in a gruesome montage to the strains of La Marseillaise, as colonialism meets today’s sex tourism.

Neuvonen maintains his sole interest is in saving Annti and finding Jani’s murderer, but at the same he seems ambivalent about his mate, coming clean about the anti-hero of his first film: “I wanted him to vanish. I wanted him to die”. But will he be the only survivor of this trip to Hell?

Meanwhile Jani’s girlfriend Lee Lee and her friend Thi are compliant vessels for the sins of others and Annti is the victim of paranoid psychosis believing the nearby radio masts are there to stalk his thoughts and send the messages to a company called “Sky”.

What makes this quasi detective story so compelling is the way we’re led by its unreliable narrator in a non-linear narrative full of elliptical deceits imbued with hallucinatory visuals from dizzying handheld cameras. More than just a story, Lost Boys captures a state of mind – lies coalesce to cause the downfall of all three men whose paradise of sex and drugs leads them into a maze of death. Colour grading and editing sustain the scratchy edges of the documentary that floats in a woozy soundscape, leading us on a fractious journey as the men drift into a harrowing cul-de-sac. Lost Boys is a visual poem of the cruellest most nihilistic kind.

CPH:DOX | APRIL 2021

Miss Zombie (2013)

Dir: SABU | Japan, Horror 85′

In Hammer’s The Plague of the Zombies (1966) the local squire was resuscitating recently deceased Cornish villagers in 1860 to work in his tin mine, while the American writer William Seabrook claimed to have watched zombies in the late 20’s working on plantations in Haiti.

George Romero later parodied contemporary society in his Living Dead trilogy, so it was only a matter of time – on screen at least – before 21st Century zombie farmers would eventually be supplying zombies (complete with instruction manuals) to do household chores for the affluent.

Shot for the most part in grungy black & black minus the breathless pace that characterised SABU’s earlier thrillers, Miss Zombie – SABU’s first horror film – is pretty evidently an allegory of the developed world’s increasingly insatiable appetite for cheap imported labour, and the bullying and exploitation – including sexual – that goes with it. When Shara starts collecting knives we seem to be entering Jimmie Blacksmith territory and order eventually breaks down with consequences that should be sufficiently bloody to satisfy the gorehounds in the audience. @Richard Chatten

 

The Artist’s Wife (2020)

Dir: Tom Dolby | Cast: Lena Olin, Bruce Dern, Juliet Rylance, Avan Jogia, Stephanie Powers, Catherine Curtin, Tonya Pinkins, Caryn West, Ravi Cabot-Conyers | US Drama

Dementia is not a happy affliction so Tom Dolby’s film is bound to make for painful viewing despite thoughtful turns from Bruce Dern who plays an ageing artist stumbling on the foothills of mental decline, and his wife Lena Olin who somehow gains strength from the experience.

Claire Smythson (Olin) is a sympathetic character who has sidelined her own painting career to support her husband, a renowned abstract artist Richard Smythson. And it all starts breezily with the two being interviewed as she snuggles up affectionately to her husband: “I create the art, and Claire creates the rest of our life.”

The drama plays along similar lines to The Wife which is a shame because you can’t help feeling a sense of deja vu despite Olin and Dern who are always enjoyable to watch and bring head-nodding subtext to their respective roles.

Dern is particularly good as the vulnerable ego-driven sweetheart who realises his life – and control – is ebbing away making him hit out and occasionally become obnoxious. He’s not as funny as he was in Nebraska, but this is inspired by Dolby’s own experience so his script is all the more personal (yet sketchy – despite involving two other writers).

Olin gets the surprisingly insightful role that sees her increasingly empowered to develop her own craft, and then there’s her prickly daughter in law Angela (Juliet Rylance) a lesbian who’s – predictably – ‘so busy’ and also has a child with her partner – but  it’s a hapless “you were never there for me role” vis a vis her estranged father. There’s a bit of a romantic frisson between Angela’s nanny Danny (Jogia) and Claire but nothing happens.

The focus is Richard’s recent diagnosis which comes in the wake of some erratic behaviour. The timing couldn’t be worse as he’s preparing for a major show which also make things feel rather schematic.

Beautifully filmed in the Hamptons and occasionally moving despite its irritating score, this goes down easily – and predictably, there are no surprises. MT

ON DIGITAL PLATFORMS + UK & IRISH CINEMAS FROM 30 APRIL

Laddie: The Man Behind the Movies (2017)

Dir.: Amanda Ladd-Jones; Documentary with Alan Ladd jr, Mel Brooks, George Lucas, Ridley Scott, Richard Donner; USA 2017, 83 min.

Amanda Ladd-Jones films countless members of the industry in this eulogy to her talented father, the director and movie mogul Alan Ladd jr (*1937) whom we have to thank for Star Wars, Alien and Blade Runner to name but a few. It’s true to say that Ladd is a winner, and everyone loves a winner, particularly in Hollywood.

Ladd jr started his career in 1963 as a motion picture talent agent with clients including Judy Garland, Warren Beatty and Robert Redford. In 1968 he moved to London to produce, among other features, Villain with Richard Burton (in arguably his most miscast role). Then a return to Hollywood in 1973 saw Ladd becoming Head of Creative Affairs and three years later President of Twenty Century Fox where he was instrumental in fighting for George Lucas’ Star Wars projects, against the majority of the company’s board.

Ladd also turned his magic touch to art house features such as Julia (1977) and would cleverly change the ending of The Omen directed by Richard Donner, letting the malicious child survive, instead of killing him off, thereby spawning a whole new franchise.

The success story continues with Kurosawa’s Kagemusha, which had run into financial difficulties in 1980. The Rocky Horror Picture Show and An Unmarried Woman were also among the projects Ladd supported against a conservative board. His corporate career prospered and in the  mid-1970s Ladd named Ashly Boone Fox’s President of Marketing, the first Afro-American woman to rise to this status in the USA. Later, Boone joined Ladd jr at the Ladd Company and MGM, winning the first of his Oscars for Chariot of Fire (1981).

By comparison Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) was a financial disappointment, only to rise to cult status a decade later and showing how masterpieces need to stand the test of time rather the sensation of the moment. Rush (1991) was directed by Lili Fini Zanuck at a time when women directors were nearly unheard of in mainstream cinema. At MGM Ladd jr was responsible for very diverse projects, like Rocky IV and A Fish called Wanda.

In the early 1990s Ladd jr left the executive world for good and established The Ladd Company, winning his second Oscar for Braveheart in 1995. Gone Baby Gone, the debut movie of director Ben Affleck, was to be the last feature Ladd jr produced in 2007.

If this reads like a rather boring celebrity roll call, it unfortunately reflects this documentary itself which is overlaid by Amanda’s over-talkie narration competing with an incessant ‘musak style’ score. Ladd jr himself seems the only participant not praising his own talents and achievements in giving the Midas touch to even doomed projects and transforming putative B movies into Oscar-worthy outings such as Fear is the Key (1972).

Certainly worth a watch for its juicy cinema titbits Laddie could have invested more time in exploring the director’s tragic relationship with his actor father Alan Ladd – or Amanda’s own lonely childhood, when she saw her Dad only in-between films, instead of claiming “He loved me the best he could.” But that would be a documentary expose rather than a eulogy, and Amanda’s telling statement shows great insight into the nature of success from a daughter who was proud of her father and recognised his limitations in the scheme of things. Laddie will certainly be appreciated by fans and cineastes alike as a worthwhile trip down Hollywood’s memory lane. AS

ON SKY STORE, iTunes, Apple, Youtube, Google Play and Rakuten from 26 April 2021

Broken Blossoms (1936) Prime Video

Dir: John Brahm | Cast: Dolly Haas, Emlyn Williams, Arthur Margetson, CV France, Basil Radford, Edith Sharpe | UK Drama

“An effective, if old-fashioned melodrama”: such was the verdict  passed by the not easily impressed Rachel Low, and Julius Hagen’s fanciful remake of the Griffith classic – while yet another step in Hagen’s headlong plunge into bankruptcy – looks good today precisely because it’s so old-fashioned. (David Lean had worked at Twickenham Films during the early thirties, and this film probably influenced his equally stylised Dickens adaptations, particularly the cutaway to a shot of a door banging against a sapling when Battling Burrows takes a whip to Lucy.)

Hagen had originally brought D.W.Griffith himself over to direct the film, but when Griffith proved too drunk for the task Hagen instead assigned Hans Brahm (still using his real name), who cast his soulful-eyed wife Dolly Haas as Lucy; so both leads Haas and Emlyn Williams (also credited with adapting the original) have unlikely accents. (If there’s one thing modern audiences sneer at in old British films it’s the accents, especially if they belong to familiar British thespians like Donald Calthrop & Gibb McLaughlin – both of whom later worked for Lean – pretending to be Chinese.)

Bernard Vorhaus had hoped to direct it but was passed over and fobbed of with serving as technical advisor, so he not surprisingly badmouthed the film that resulted. Brahms also brought in German exiles Curt Courant & Karol Rathaus to light and score the film. Brahms’ later Hollywood version of Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square was a travesty of the original but rightly regarded as a classic Hollywood melodrama. His version of Broken Blossoms deserves more sympathetic reappraisal. @Richard Chatten

AVAILABLE ON PRIME VIDEO

Radu Jude Retro 2021

Streaming service DAFilms offers a chance to revisit five films from Romanian director Radu Jude in celebration of his Golden Bear win  for Best Film: Bad Luck Banging, or Looney Porn (2021).

This special programme will run from Friday 16th to 30th April 2021 and includes the online debut of his 2020 The Exit of the Trains (Berlinale Forum) in certain territories.

Accompanying the launch of this special programme of the Romanian auteur filmmaker’s work will be a live online conversation with respected Argentinian critic, programmer, and filmmaker Lucía Salas who talks to Radu Jude on Facebook and on DAFilms Live on Monday 19th April at 19:00 CET / 13:00 EST / 10:00 PT.

In English | During the stream, viewers will be able to submit their own questions.

 

Some Kind of Heaven (2020) digital release

Dir: Lance Oppenheim | US Doc

A life of eternal holidays beckons in a Florida retirement complex in the opening scenes of Lance Oppenheim’s  thought-provoking first feature.

Days of sun-drenched relaxation by the pool or a round of golf before cocktails with other mature singles – 130,000 to be precise – all sounds ideal at first, but we all know the reality is quite different. And so does Lance Oppenheim who has made a series of shorts exploring the world of leisure and here digs deeper in his complex exposé of the Florida retirement community who on the surface appear to be thriving in their golden days of freedom.

A sunny place for shady people is how Somerset Maugham described the Cote d’Azur. And South Florida seems to be the US equivalent. A cheerful opening sees well-preserved residents frolicking in palm-fringed paradise. But gradually the clouds gather and the tone grows almost sinister as Oppenheim reveals the truth behind The Villages idyl. Party time gradually descends into a nauseating round of chipper chat-up lines as seedy gold-diggers and petty criminals bask ill-disguised in dapper sombreros, perma tans and Pierre Cardin sportswear, blonde brush-overs barely ruffled by the sultry breeze.

And it doesn’t come cheap. The Villages’ brochure boasts a 401K price tag for this idyllic existence. Most denizens have traded in their urban lifestyles for this semi-tropical resting place – so there’s going back to normality however jaded the guilded cage becomes.

Marriages forged for decades can finally take a turn for the worse, and it’s the women we sympathise with, rather than the men: Anne and Reggie have been married for 47 years, but now find themselves seeking counselling as Reggie turned to cocaine to make his newfound ‘bliss’ bearable. The judge calls him “the rudest person he has ever met” during his court hearing. You feel for Anne as she calmly hopes for the best, patiently talking Reggie through another day.

Barbara is another appealing character whose soulful expression speaks of tragedy back in Boston where she was widowed, and now works full-time in The Villages, hoping to find a soul mate. 81-year-old man-child Dennis is clearly not the answer. Currently living in an illegal camper van on the grounds he hopes to find a rich widow, a ‘nurse and purse’to see him through his final stretch. The Villages is simple a microcosm of real life but the sun shines nearly every day and the garrulous are never lonely.

Some Kind of Heaven is a stomach-sinking experience, a salutary warning that sunny climes and social clubs are not the answer to most people’s dreams. As Anne puts it, all we really want is someone to cherish and respect us, who listens to our thoughts, and cares.

Oppenheim never ridicules his protagonists despite the modern trend of belittling the elderly. There is beauty here in the souls and faces of these people and it shines through clearly, particularly with Barbara who gives a moving reflection of her childhood, or Anne whose gentle eyes belie her tortured tale. Dennis does eventually find a pleasant companion who inadvertently exposes him as two-faced and shallow without really knowing the truth behind his orange tan.

Some Kind of Heaven is quite simply an unforgettable documentary debut that speaks volumes about the final chapter in the human condition. It shows that even though the flesh is weaker, beauty still shines through in Anne’s sensual disco dancing or Barbara’s poetic take on her complex past. MT

ON DIGITAL PLATFORMS FROM 14 MAY 2021

Behind the Door (1919) Prime Video

Dir: Irvin Willat | Wri: Gouverneur Morris, Luther Reed  | Cast: Hobert Bosworth, Jane Novak, Wallace Beery, James Gordon | US 70′

Walter Schwieger, the U-boat commander who on 7 May 1915 ordered the torpedoing of the ‘Lusitania’ could never of dreamt of the bloodlust against his countrymen that his action fuelled in the United States. It certainly kept Wallace Beery in steady employment playing bestial huns as late as Rex Ingram’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), when he chomps on a chicken leg while instructing a firing squad; and it’s when he makes his first appearance in Behind the Door as a dastardly U-boat commander that this film – which shows hatred of the Hun unabated a full year after Germany’s surrender – comes to life.

It comes as no surprise that Gouverneur Morris’s original 1918 short story was barely two pages long, as most of ‘Behind the Door’ feels simply like preparation for Hobart Bosworth’s vengeance on Beery for what he does to his wife. Bosworth is taxidermist Oscar Krug, who after sampling the hostility welling up in small town America against those like himself of German extraction, shows his patriotism by rolling up his sleeves and commanding a ship to fight the German navy.

It would be interesting to know if submarines in wartime actually did make off with shipwrecked female passengers as spoils of war as Beery does with Bosworth’s wife, but it’s not hard to imagine. Harder to anticipate is the incredible vengeance Bosworth exacts on him when fate bring them together again two months later.

Having already failed to recognise Bosworth as the grimacing face pressed against a porthole as his U-boat dived, Beery is then stupid enough to brag in detail over a cup of coffee about what he did to his wife. The first of two visual shocks that follow is the shot of her being tossed through a doorway to Beery’s sex-starved crew like a bone to a pack of starving Alsations (when they’re through with her she’s then fired out of a torpedo tube); the second is a close-up of Bosworth’s taxidermy tool kit, which Bosworth had conveniently brought along with him. What he does with this kit is not shown, but we’re left in no doubt.

Bela Lugosi did the same to Boris Karloff at the conclusion of The Black Cat (1934) fifteen years later, and in Intolerance (1916) a man has his head lopped off on camera. Doubtless equally gruesome moments exists elsewhere in pre-Code cinema, but in those days such moments were all the more effective for being unexpected; unlike the depressing competition modern filmmakers seem to be constantly engaged in of drawing attention to themselves by outdoing each other in pushing the limits in the depiction of ultra-violence on the big screen. @Richard Chatten

 

Escape (1948)

Dir: Joseph L Mankiewicz | Philip Dunne | Cast: Rex Harrison, Peggy Cummins, William Hartnell, Norman Woodland, Jill Esmond | US Drama

In the hands of Joseph Mankiewicz, this version of John Galsworthy’s play originally produced in the West End in 1926 with Leslie Howard, and first filmed in 1930 with Gerald du Maurier is predictably verbose, but, like Joseph Losey’s Figures in a Landscape works equally well as a location-shot thriller and as an existential drama.

The law is depicting going about its usual business of persecuting the law-abiding when a boorish detective ends up hitting his head in one of those accidents so common in the movies; for this, war hero Rex Harrison gets three years in Dartmoor for manslaughter. The film doesn’t make it clear how much of his time he’s served when he makes a break for it in the fog, but his chances don’t seem very good; and the evident irony of the title is compounded by plot contrivances like the way Peggy Cummins’ path keeps crossing that of Harrison. Miss Cummins is obviously in a trap of her own, betrothed to a man she doesn’t love; and she’s given a lot of didactic dialogue which it seems as unlikely that a human being would actually say in conversation as some of the things the script requires detective William Hartnell to say.

Never mind. Although you know this can’t end well, there’s plenty of action, enlivened by Freddie Young’s location photography on Dartmoor; and it builds up to a satisfying – and moderately hopeful – conclusion for which we have been prepared by a tremendous scene with Norman Wooland as the sympathetic parson. He talks a lot of sense (“The church was endowed by God, but is managed by men; and where there are men there are doubts and confusion”); and since he has just said “Our human laws are as fallible as the men who make them”, the quotation from Galsworthy with which the film concludes (“The law is what it is – a majestic edifice sheltering all of us, each stone rests on another”) seems intended either to placate the censors or to be taken with a pinch of salt. @Richard Chatten

 

House of Cardin (2019)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ON RELEASE FROM 26 APRIL 2021 ON MAJOR PLATFORMS

 

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 Hands of Orlac (1924) Blu-ray

Dir.: Robert Wiene; Cast: Conrad Veidt, Alexandra Sorina, Fritz Kortner, Hans Homma, Fritz Strassny, Carmen Catellieri; Osterreich 1924, 92 min.

Four years after his most emblematic feature, Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, director Robert Wiene (1873-1938) filmed Ludwig Nerz’ adaption of Maurice Renard’s novel as a psychological horror feature blending Grand Guignol with German Expressionism. It starred two of the great stars of the German speaking cinema of the first half of the 20th century, Conrad Veidt and Fritz Kortner; both of whom emigrated to the USA, where Veidt would go on to play Major Strasser in Casablanca. The film would be later be reworked as Mad Love in 1935, directed by emigrant Karl Freund and starring fellow émigré Peter Lorre in his Hollywood debuta. Amongst others, there is also a 1960s version of the original which stars Mel Ferrer, Christopher Lee and Donald Pleasence.

Veidt is mesmerising here as creepy tormented concert pianist Paul Orlac (Veidt) who is gravely injured returning from a concert tour when his train collides with one coming in the other direction. At the nearby sanatorium, Dr. Seral (Homma) saves his life by amputating the pianist’s hands, replacing them with those of a convicted murderer. But it’s not only the criminal’s hands he inherits in the ground-breaking surgery, as we discover in a grim twist in the finale.

Based on a novel by Maurice Renard, Wiene vividly brings to life Orlac’s horrifying descent into madness as his genius suffers and his reputation slowly disintegrates, his career in tatters. He is blackmailed by Nera (Kortner) and his father is mysteriously murdered, Orlac’s fingerprints appearing on the weapon. .

DoPs Günther Krampf and Hans Androschin use light and shadow to deft effects in the cavernous set design, making Orlac much more of a genre horror feature than Caligari. Mad Love was Freund’s last feature as a director, but he would go on shooting 45 features, including Key Largo). Meanwhile, Robert Wiene died in 1938 on the set of Ultimatum while in exile in Paris, the feature – starring Erich von Stroheim and Lila Kedrova (The Tenant) was finished by yet another future Hollywood great, Robert Siodmak. AS

COURTESY OF MASTERS OF CINEMA | MAY 2021

West of Shanghai (1937)

Dir: John Farrow | Cast: Boris Karloff, Beverly Roberts, Ricardo Cortez, Gordon Oliver, Sheila Bromley, Vladimir Sokoloff | US 64′

West of Shanghai was the third of four film versions of a play by Porter Emerson Browne (best remembered today for ‘A Fool That There Was’), and was the only version not filmed under the play’s original title of ‘The Bad Man’ or in the original Mexican setting.

Successfully produced on Broadway in 1920, The Bad Man had originally been a comedy, which explains the beguiling flashes of humour sprinkled throughout Ralph Spence’s script; notably in the sassier quips by Lola Galt, and a vaudeville routine in which Fang divests Creed, then Galt, then Dr. Abernathy of $50,000, only for it to eventually end up in Fang’s own wallet.

Boris Karloff is obviously enjoying himself as Chinese warlord General Wu Yen Fang (“I am Fang!!”), despite the uncomfortable-looking makeup, which genuinely gave him blurred vision on the set. His opposite number General Chow Fu-Shan is played by Moscow-born Vladimir Sokoloff, while the authentically Chinese-American actor Richard Loo is the only one not required to adopt an accent as Fang’s US-raised right-hand man Mr. Cheng.

The script does a sort of reverse Psycho by setting up Ricardo Cortez as Gordon Creed as the film’s hero, only to switch allegiance to the boring Jim Hallet (played by Gordon Oliver) and casually have Creed killed off, enabling Hallet to ride off with Creed’s estranged wife Jane (as if anyone cared). Sheila Bromley is so sassy as Lola Galt and Beverly Roberts such a pudding as Jane Creed the film’s switch of emphasis from the former to the latter, and Fang’s unlikely preference for Jane to Lola (“Hair like straw, eye like fog; have wide mouth of fish”) suggests that the script was insufficiently revised to accommodate the casting.

Photography by L. William O’Connell and direction by John Farrow are both up to their usual standard. @Richard Chatten

 

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

In the Mist | I Dimma Dold | (1953) Netflix

Dir: Lars Eric Kjellgren | Cast: Eva Henning, Sonja Wigert, Hjordis Petterson, Dagmar Ebbesen, Georg Rydeberg, Sven Lindberg | Noir thriller Sweden 82′

A valuable collection of films by the Swedish director Lars Eric Kjellgren have recently appeared on Netflix, including this rather stylish arthouse noir starring Eva Henning as the kittenish femme fatale Lora (a Nordic Lizabeth Scott).

Based on his own novel Vic Suneson’s script begins as Lora is driving away from her comfortable mansion where her husband Walter (a rather ghoulish Georg Rydeberg) is later discovered shot dead. But the murderer remains a mystery as the glacially elegant Lora demurely teases a coterie of locals – including an earnest detective (Sven Lindberg) and a ludicrous pair of old biddies, into solving the crime.

Boasting bold black and white photography by Gunnar Fischer (Wild Strawberries) this is a joy to watch as it gracefully combines vivid realist street scenes of 1950s Stockholm with lush interiors culminating in a ‘Cluedo’ style dinner party denouement primped by Erik Nordgren’s needling score. MT

ON NETFLIX 

Symphony of Noise (2021) CPH:DOX

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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

Eternal Love (1929) Prime Video

Dir: Ernst Lubitsch | Cast: John Barrymore, Camilla Horn | German, 61′

Eternal Love was the final silent film made by Ernst Lubitsch and John Barrymore. Based on a 1900 novel by J.C.Heer called ‘Der Koenig der Bernina’, the feature is fairly typical of the cross-pollination then common between Europe and Hollywood, with a German director and scriptwriter and female leading actress, sets and costumes by Caligari veteran Walter Reimann and Banff National Park in Canada standing in for the Swiss Alps in 1806.

Despite the high-powered talent brought to bear on it, Eternal Love for the most part lacks Lubitsch’s customary saucy wit promised in the earlier scenes featuring the saucy Mona Rico, and seems rather perfunctory compared to G.W.Pabst’s similar but far superior Weiße Hölle vom Piz Palü released later the same year. Oliver Marsh’s photography would plainly be far more impressive in its pristine nitrate form than the rather blurry version available today, while the drab Vitaphone score by Hugo Riesenfeld also rather holds it back.

The luminescent final shot of the moon emerging as the clouds part strikingly anticipates Crack in the World (1965), directed 35 years later by Eternal Love’s editor Andrew Marton, which ends with a shot almost identical to that of Eternal Love, except that at the end of Marton’s later film there are two moons…@Richard Chatten

NOW ON PRIME VIDEO

Les Enfants Terribles (2021) Visions du Reel 2021

Dir.: Ahmet Necdet Cupur; Documentary with Zeynep Cupur, Mahmud Cupur, Nezahat Cupur, Ahmet Cupur; Turkey/Germany 2021, 92 mins.

Taking the title from Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1950 film adaptation of Cocteau’s play this reflection on the past is also a study of a family fighting tradition – and each other – in a world that has seen so many changes.

First time director Ahmet Necdet Cupur is back home in the village of Keskincek, twenty years after freeing himself from the stifling family set-up in south eastern Turkey. Three year’s in the making, the film revisits a bitter domestic battlefield: his brother and sister-in-law on one side; his old-fashioned parents on the other. Nothing changes, or so it seems.

Starting in January 2018 Ahmet makes contact with his sister Zeynep and her audio description of what’s going on with her parents hits a raw nerve: “Keep on writing, you have shown me exactly how your life is”. Now he’s back in situ with a camera to film the goings-on. Teenage Zeynep works in a cloth factory in the nearby city of Antalya but feels too young to be married off by her father who keeps her earnings for himself, whilst mostly loafing around all day. Her dream is to study and go to university, a plan, which both her parents object to, because she is a female.

The family is in a mess and forced to marry the kids off for financial reasons: brother Mahmut was made to marry Nezahat, so as to secure her dowry (known as a ‘mahr’), but the two have never slept together, Mahmut preferring a certain Birsen, whom we never meet. Meanwhile his rather has been trying to unlock his son’s mobile, to check what’s going on.

Mahmut is no spring chicken having already held down a job in Kuwait. But the family Imam Hüseyim Cupur, won’t grant him a divorce on any grounds. And now the village gossipers are out in force wondering if he is ‘a real man’. Zeynep is fully aware that the woman is always at fault in Turkish divorce proceedings, even her own mother won’t support her.

Election Day arrives and the whole family is forced to vote for the father’s choice.  Zeynep is particularly annoyed, since this candidate has been in office for donkey’s years and hasn’t made any changes for the better. She takes it all out on her religious mother :”You say, you are old and wise. But you are not, you have never read a book in your life”. But the complaint falls on deaf ears: “Good created us to live here, in our home. And the only book I am going to read is the Koran”.

Ahmet’s involvement certainly a certain tension in the family dynamics  – never has “the fly on the wall” been closer to the action. The tone is hyper-aggressive, with both parents and children vowing to kill each other. But in the end,

But despite the conflict, things do eventually move on for both kids, Ahmet delivering a positive, if not ‘happy’ ending. The young generation is slowly taking over: religion and patriarchy are on the back foot. Ahmet’s debut is a vociferous and direct testament. AS

INTERNATIONAL FEATURE COMPETITION | VISIONS DU REEL | NYON | SWITZERLAND | Shared Special Jury Prize Winner 2021

 

 

Lifeboat (1944) TPTV

Dir: Alfred Hitchcock | Cast: Tallulah Bankhead, John Hodiak, Walter Slezak, William Bendix, Mary Anderson, Henry Hull | US Drama  97′

That the celebrity of Hitchcock’s films bears no relation to their actual achievement is attested to by the obscurity in which this little beauty continues to languish.

Having already set The Lady Vanishes largely on a train, although Hitchcock never got to make a film entirely set in a phone booth (as he once longingly speculated), he comes close with this bold and stylish exercise that anticipates his own Rope and 12 Angry Men by making a film consisting entirely of people talking within a confined space. (And also contains a ferocious murder unaccompanied by music like that in Torn Curtain.)

Although obviously shot entirely in the studio tank, it’s still a thoroughly cinematic experience thanks to a script as raw as the strictures of the Hays Office would then permit, gothic photography by Glenn MacWilliams capable of virtuoso effects like sweat breaking on a man’s brow and consistently superb performances (one of them from Hume Cronyn, who latter collaborated on the screenplay of Rope), including a typically ambivalent Hitchcock ambivalent villain, as ruthless and resourceful as Eric Portman had been in 49th Parallel.

(Also as in Rope, Hitchcock himself got round the problem of making his appearance by featuring in an advertisement for Reduco – the “Obesity Slayer”. @Richard Chatten

NOW ON TALKING PICTURES TV | PRIME VIDEO

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

Black Oxen (1923)

Dir: Frank Lloyd | Cast: Corinne Griffith, Conway Tearle, Tom Ricketts, Clara Bow, Tom Guise | US Drama 81′

This film version of 65 year-old feminist writer Gertrude Atherton’s controversial 1923 novel, based upon her own treatment with an early form of hormone therapy, was on cinema screens by the end of the year and generated a lot of discussion at the height of the flapper era; and it remains increasingly topical today.

Aged 45 (but like many matinée idols of the era looking much older), Conway Tearle as eligible bachelor Lee Clavering has the dilemma that dizzy flappers like Janet Ogelthorpe (played by Clara Bow) bore him, yet has “a vague idea that Autumnal love is – is rather indecent”. He indeed looks pretty long in the tooth for 28 year-old Corinne Griffith as the mysterious Mary Ogden, referred to in the opening credits simply as “The Woman”; about whom an awful lot of footage is squandered upon speculation as to her true identity until she finally fesses up and confirms that she is really sixty year-old Madame Zatianny. In a flashback in which she is supposed to be in her late fifties, but is made up and shuffles about like an infirm eighty year-old, she is rejuvenated in Austria by a medical procedure that is alluded to only very vaguely.

At this point it gets interesting, as her old friends digest the implications of this revelation; notably Claire McDowell as Agnes Trevor, who bitterly regrets her own lost opportunities to find love when young and thus sorely envies Madame Zatianny the second chance her treatment has gifted her. (McDowell was actually less than six months older than Tearle and would probably have benefited enormously just from a more contemporary makeup and wardrobe like Griffith’s.) Unfortunately, with twenty minutes still to go this is the point at which the only currently available version of Black Oxen abruptly ends. Or maybe it’s not so unfortunate. We know from original reviews that her old Austrian beau Prince Rohenhauer (played by Alan Hale) shows up, persuades her to act her age and return with him to Austria, leaving Lee to find true happiness with the flapper who had so bored him earlier, provoking ‘Variety’s original reviewer to ironically state that the film’s “only fault seems to be the disappointing ending”.

An epilogue to Black Oxen that proves yet again how much stranger real life can be even than a silent movie came in 1966 (the year that Claire McDowell died at the age of 88) when 72 year-old Griffith divorced her 45 year-old fourth husband of a few days and testified in court (contradicting testimony from Betty Blythe and Claire Windsor, who had both known her during the 1920s) that she was not Corinne Griffith, but her younger sister who had taken her place upon her elder sibling’s death. @Richard Chatten

 

Peril for the Guy (1956)

Dir: James Hill | Cast: Frazer Hines, Mandy Harper, Christopher Warbey, Ali Allen | UK Drama, 55′

A delightful CFF lark that starts well with a jaunty title sequence, after which it’s elegantly directed by James Hill against the atmospheric backdrop of a freezing fifties London fog.

Blandishments that would satisfy the most politically correct modern audience include a little black kid called ‘Ali’, with an oil company the guys in black hats rather than the usual gormless spivs (although Ian Whittaker is gormless enough for an entire gang), Paul Daneman suitably dashing as the young inventor whose invention they’re after, Katherine Kath a glacial, buttoned-down dragon lady and today’s cameo appearance provided by an unbilled Arthur Mullard.

The makers actually managed to commandeer a helicopter for the finale, while as befits a film set around Guy Fawkes night the climax involves fireworks rather than water. Without being too preachy about it the audience is discretely reminded to be careful around fireworks and the final display is conducted under the stewardship of (reasonably) responsible adults. ©Richard Chatten

NOW ON BFI PLAYER

Karloff at Columbia 1935-42

 

Boris Karloff was born in London as William Henry Pratt on 23 November 1887. His parents shared Indian ancestry and his mother’s maternal aunt was Anna Leonowens whose writings inspired The King and I musical. Pratt was tall and well built but suffered from a lisp which adds a rasp to his deep, melodious voice. The youngest of nine children, he was privately educated at Uppingham and went up to King’s College, London with a view to joining the Foreign Office, but eventually ended up travelling to Canada where he fell into acting adopting his stage name of Boris Karloff. He would marry six times, clearly his big break in Frankenstein in 1931 at the age of 45 didn’t put women off.

As one of the legends horror cinema he made six horror films during his time at Columbia, three with Nick Grinde, one with Robert Dymtryk and a final comedy spoof, joining forces with Peter Lorre: The Boogie Man Will Get You directed by Lew Landers.

The Black Room (1935)

Writing for The Spectator in 1935, Graham Greene described Roy William Neil’s thriller as “absurd and exciting”, and “wildly artificial.” praising both the acting of Karloff and the direction of Neill, and noting that Karloff had been given a long speaking part and “allowed to act at last”, and that Neill had “caught the genuine Gothic note” in a manner that displayed more historical sense than any of Alexander Korda’s films.

In the early 19th century twins are born to the DeBerghman family who rule a Czech province from their majestic medieval castle, bizarrely located in the Tyrol and designed by Stephen Goosson (Columbia art director who won an Oscar for Lost Horizon). A curse on the family states that the birth of twin boys will destroy the dynasty forever, the younger will murder the elder one in the infamous Black Room, betrayed by the family dog.

Made for Columbia Pictures at the height of his career, an eloquent Karloff has  fun here fleshing out the characters of the gallantly endearing gentleman Anton and his arrantly fiendish older brother Baron Gregor (who women both fear and detest). Magically captured in Allen G Siegler’s luminous black and white camerawork, it’s fascinating to see Karloff getting his teeth into a fully formed, non horror role. The pet mastiff Tor is terrific in support.

The Man They Could Not Hang (1939)

Columbia’s prescient sci-fi themed riff on the Old Dark House theme sees Karloff directed by Nick Grinde in the first (and arguably most intelligent) of his ‘mad scientist’ roles as Dr. Henryk Savaard a kindly and convincing psychopath bringing the dead back to life through the use of an artificial heart, twenty five years before reality. But when his healthy patient dies in a ‘failsafe’ experiment Savaard is tried in a pithy courtroom procedural (“I offered you Life, but you gave me Death”) and condemned to swing. Using the doc’s same methods his assistant, Lang (Byron Foulger), revives him, but Savaard is bitter for revenge.

The Devil Commands (1941)

Karloff really brings out the humanity of a bereaved husband mourning his beloved wife in Edward Dmytryk’s Gothic horror outing based on William Sloane’s novel The Edge of Running Water. It’s a convincing beast from the ‘mad doctor’ stable that explores the afterlife where science meets the surreal in a sorrowful romantic love story stylishly captured by Allen G Siegler’s spooky shadowplay making Karloff look raffishly sexy.

Nick Grinde collaborated with Karloff in two other ‘mad scientist’ films: The Man with Nine Lives (1940) and Before I Hang (1940). MT

NOW ON BLU-RAY EUREKA CLASSICS | 3 May 2021

The Last Shelter (2021) CHP:DOX Winner 2021

Dir.: Ousmane Samassekou; Documentary; Mali/France/ Germany, 2021, 85 min.

Malian director Ousmane Samassekou has filmed random travellers from all over North Africa in a transit home in Gao, near the Sahara Desert. Most have come a long way, the nearest from the Malian capital of Bamako which is 496 km away – and some as far away as Burkina Faso. Their common goal is Algeria, a stepping stepping stone away from France and Italy where there are magic money trees and streets of gold. The reality is migrant camps and years of misery.

The Caritas –  House of Migrants caters for mostly young people whose aim is to cross the desert, however reluctantly, to their families in Bamako or more far-flung destinations. Many of the girls and women have spent time in captivity and have been raped. Yet they travel on regardless, risking it all. One 16-year old girl talks about the usual teenage pipe dreams of becoming a celebrity, an actress or a boxing champion. Far from this reverie is the reality of road blocks, where they often robbed on the money to pay the people smugglers taking them over the border. They’d have been much safer staying at home with their families.

Esther doesn’t want to share details of her relative, ashamed that she has not made it to France, even though her family has given her money to support them from Europe. So her dreams are largely built on wild ideas from unrealistic parents who are simply living in the cloud cuckoo land of social media, and she is caught in an invidious trap. Another young woman had ended up in captivity, and only thanks to a benevolent older woman, has been released – but she still wants to try again to get to Europe from this Sahara’s hostile terrain and treacherous sandstorms.

Mariko, an older man, begs staff not to send him to Bamako where they will give him injections which make him sleep all the time. Another young woman was sold by the man who was supposed to be looking after her. Endless stories from Sahara crossings are told: “You die without warning. No matter why, they shoot us like chickens.” The staff warns them over and over again: “Your dreams and illusions make you feel clever, but you will not reach your destinations, it is better to have a job at home, than to dream of abroad.”

Made on a shoestring budget, The Last Shelter could do with a re-edit. But the rawness of the material lends itself to some structural inadequacies, a more polished version would only mask the terror these migrants have been through – and, worse, want to risk all over again. Their lives are so far removed from the dream of the places they want to reach – they think that wearing the logo teeshirt of a millionaire footballer from Barcelona and Arsenal – will transport them on a magic carpet to that lifestyle. They as well might try and reach Mars. AS

|
CPH:DOX | DOX:AWARD Winner – Main Competition
The Last Shelter celebrated its world premiere in the main competition of CPH:DOX where it won the main prize | Hot Docs (World Showcase strand) | DOK.fest Munich (5-13 May), 

Studio One in Hollywood: 1984

Dir: Paul Nickell | Creator/Wri: Fletcher Markle | US Drama

As a huge admirer of Orwell’s original novel I was pleasantly surprised that although inevitably not in the same league as Nigel Kneale’s BBC adaptation broadcast the following year, how much of the basic storyline – and more importantly the mood – adaptor William Templeton’s distillation managed to get into just 50 minutes (minus commercials) broadcast live on a TV budget.

A modern viewer will approach this version with scepticism, knowing that it was made at the height of anti-Red hysteria in the United States and of the blacklist. An opening narration underlined by Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony has been added to Orwell’s story to convey Soviet-style totalitarianism and stresses that “What happens to the people in this story might happen to us. Might happen to you. If we should ever relax in our fight for freedom, if we should allow any individuals or any group of individuals to reduce our freedom of thought, our freedom of speech, our freedom of religion, then what happens to the people in this story will happen to us.” However, the irony implicit in this exhortation forcefully delivered by CBS newscaster Don Hollenbeck in the context of the McCarthyite America of 1953 is probably deliberate; and Hollenbeck himself was hounded into committing suicide by gassing himself the following year by a relentless campaign of press harassment headed by a Hearst columnist named – I kid you not! – O’Brian. (Hollenbeck is played by Ray Wise in the 2005 film ‘Good Night, and Good Luck’).

The production looks suitably expressionistic (the bizarre, vaguely abstract portrait of Big Brother somewhat resembling Dr. Mabuse), and although big, strapping Eddie Albert is as miscast as the undernourished, downtrodden Winston Smith as Edmond O’Brien was in the film version three years later, like O’Brien he gives his usual excellent performance. Fans of ‘Bonzana’ will be surprised to see Lorne Greene as an incisive O’Brien. Norma Crane (little known to film viewers, but memorable as Ellie Martin in ‘Tea and Sympathy’ and Golde in ‘Fiddler on the Roof’) is a sassy Julia who I personally found far sexier in her regulation-issue dungarees & blouse and leather greatcoat than the fifties party frock she changes into during her trysts with Winston (in this version of the future it’s mainly the women rather than the men who wear ties), and the moment when she undoes and discards her Anti-Sex League sash carries quite an erotic charge. @Richard Chatten

NOW ON AMAZON

The Last Photograph (2017)

Dir: Danny Huston | Cast: Danny Huston, Jonah Hauer-King, Sarita Choudary, Stacy Martin, Vincent Regan, Jaime Winstone | Drama, 85′

“everybody’s unhappy, you’ll learn that in time”.

Danny Huston stars and directs for the first time in this slight but thoughtful paean to loss and longing set in a summery Chelsea in the run up to the Lockerbie air tragedy in 1988. Financed by the Rausings and photographed partly in monochrome partly in a washed out aesthetic by ace photographer Ed Rutherford it is based on the best-selling novel by Simon Astaire (who also wrote the script).

Dominating the cast with his star quality and allure Huston plays troubled and tousled-haired pater familias Tom Hammond who finds himself alone in a fusty old mews house, running a dilettante book shop and driving a vintage car (obviously not at the same time). Nobody quite knows what this Hollywood hard-hitter is doing in town with his teenage son Luke (Jonah Hauer-King) who is loved up in a long distance affair with New York based Stacy Martin – referred to as simply ‘the bird’. But the Rausings clearly wrote an open cheque for the project so money was no object although the result feels rather underpowered as we never really feel invested in Hammond’s character before we’re required to feel his pain.

What starts as an everyday story of disgruntled Londoners going about their business, suddenly branches out something more imaginative when Hammond’s life is blown apart by two random events, first his bag is stolen containing the titular photo, then his son gets caught up in the Lockerbie incident on his way to New York.

Clearly Huston had Nic Roeg and Terrence Malick in mind with his melange of dreamy slowmo sequences combined with archive footage and mournful reflections on the River Thames as Hammond mournfully reflects on the tragedy and its implications on a personal and universal level. And although the shifts in tone feel quite abrupt from the banal scenes as the film establishes its plot to the aftermath of the tragedy it doesn’t fall into the trap of easy answers or bogus love affairs, although Sarita Choudary’s character tries desperately to seduce Hammond at his lowest ebb after antagonising him in the opening scenes as his neighbour in the Chelsea Market. Stacy Martin is her usual vapid self as Luke’s girlfriend. Huston light up every scene with his charismatic presence but more about how he came to be this rather morose central character would have been welcome MT

THE LAST PHOTOGRAPH is released in the UK and Ireland to download / stream 

from 26th April 2021 from all good digital platforms

 

 

 

 

A Man and A Camera 2021 | CPH:DOX 2021

Dir.: Guido Hendrikx; Documentary; Netherlands 2021, 64 min,

“What are you doing here? Why are you filming me?” is exactly the reaction you’d expect if you rang someone’s doorbell and randomly pointed a camera at them without any permission. But this uncontrived candid camera approach also throws up some unexpected results.

But this exactly what Dutch director Guido Hendrikx did in his observational documentary that sees him wandering around a small, unnamed town in the Netherlands, candid camera at the ready when doors are opened. The film also works as a fascinating exploration of front doors, many of them works of art.

The reactions of the homeowners in not unexpected. One person threatens quite reasonably to trash his camera, another one attempts it un successfully. Somebody wants to know “is there a deeper meaning” – apparently not. The man with the camera is told by one rather stoic man, who lets him into his house, where he carries on filming, ” he should be aware that the police may take an interest in him, you know, there are group chats, and one may get frightened”. His grandchildren are certainly not afraid.

In the town square we watch two female police officers looking at their mobiles, but no action is taken. Another couple lets him into their home and he keeps filming, whilst coffee is prepared. Gradually people let him into their homes, and their hearts as the film becomes a surprising arm’s length confessional: The wife tells him “I’ll only work for another three weeks, then it’s over. I’ve worked for the same employer 31 years. My husband was laid off two years ago, because of his age, that’s not nice, is it?” But when she goes into the kitchen, she tells her husband: “Keep an eye on him, yes”.

Soon our cameraman is becoming part of the wallpaper for several of his subjects, gaining their confidence as he inveigles himself into their lives. The soon to be pensioners are a case in point. The grandfather is also unfazed by the filming, asks the filming guest to “Leave me a note if you go, and tell me why you were here”. Left alone, the cameraman films the family leaving as Leonard Cohen’s ‘Going Home’ ends a rather enigmatic feature.

At heart we are all social animals in the right conditions. A Man and A Camera is another example of how people often accept unconfrontational intrusion in their lives, taking things a step further than their voluntarily offerings shared on social media. This uninvited guest here offers an opportunity for people to unburden themselves, a non-religious confessional, almost, once a level of trust has been established. Given the placid, unquestioning nature this unsolicited interloper, people are only to happy to let him into their lives. Hendrikx observational film makes insightful impact as an informal social study. He observes and we observe too – no questions asked, or explanations needed. AS

SCREENING AT CPH:DOX | 21 April – May 2021

CPH:DOX | DOX:AWARD – Main Competition

Stella Dallas (1925)

Dir: Henry King | Wri: Frances Marion | Cast: Ronald Colman, Belle Bennett, Alice Joyce, Jean Hersholt | US Drama

I learned an important lesson the hard way when I had a chance to see this film slap in the middle of revising for my exams in the summer of 1979. I was both depressed and exhausted, so I didn’t bother; and have had to wait 37 years until finally seeing it today. (Now of course, I will always wonder how the film would have affected me had I seen it then at the age of twenty…)

Anybody even vaguely familiar with the subject of Olive Higgins Prouty’s 1923 novel should know about the famous ending; so I won’t bother spoiling it by discussing it here. More people will be familiar with the 1937 remake made by a better director and with a greater actress in the lead. But moving as she is to watch at the remake’s conclusion, Barbara Stanwyck comes across as naturally more capable and resilient than the rather simple and child-like loser portrayed by Belle Bennett, which is what makes Bennett so heart-breaking to watch.

Although top-billed, Ronald Colman gets only a fraction of the screen time of Bennett and never gets the opportunity to project himself as much more than a bit of a prig as Stella’s husband; and one never really appreciates what drew them to each other in the first place other than on the rebound from other disappointments in love. One can certainly warm, however, to the almost unbearably beautiful Lois Moran as their daughter Laurel, who ages very convincingly from a child to a young woman and whose scenes with Bennett powerfully convey the bond between them. One would have thought that Laurel could have had a quiet word with her mother offering her advice on fitting in with her new up-market circle of friends with a few hints on dress and make-up, and keeping her voice down in polite company (as well as spending a lot less time carousing with the egregious Ed Munn, played by Jean Hersholt, who would cramp anyone’s style; but who she later rather cruelly uses). But it’s in the nature of heart-rending tales of mother-love like this that her sacrifice for her daughter has to go far far beyond the necessary call of duty. @Richard Chatten

 

White Heat (1949) Prime Video

Dir: Raoul Walsh | Cast: James Cagney, Virginia Mayo, Edmond O’Brian, Margaret Wycherly | US Crime Drama 116′

Jimmy Cagney was in his fiftieth year when he made this return to the gangster genre, and looks it. But age has neither mellowed him nor slowed him down in this consummate star vehicle with all the trimmings (including a haunting score by Max Steiner – who gets a separate title card all to himself).

White Heat is inconceivable without Cagney, but he’s surrounded by a top supporting cast, most of whom aren’t even named in the credits (I particularly liked G.Pat Collins as the old lag with the hearing aid), with Margaret Wycherley unforgettable as the meanest mama since Ma Barker.

White Heat begins by showing it means business with an incredibly violent train hold-up; after which Cagney continues to display a wanton lack of respect for human life right up to the end. But being Cagney you can’t help rooting for him, and he and Edmond O’Brien (usually unfairly overlooked in discussions of this movie) are both such charismatic presences that it’s almost heartbreaking to see them bond while knowing all along that O’Brien is simply a police plant. Although we’re told well before the end that Cagney is by now hopelessly insane with only brief periods of lucidity, he still seems perfectly functional until the very, very end. (His retelling of the story of the Trojan Horse is particularly cherishable.)

For a late 1940s thriller much of the film actually takes place in the Southern California sun; and the use of locations throughout is exemplary, culminating in the oil refinery on 198th Street and Figueroa, near Torrance, which provides Cagney with a suitably imposing backdrop for his big scene at the end. @Richard Chatten.

NOW ON PRIME VIDEO

Backyard Village (2021)

Dir.: Marteinn Thorsson; Cast: Laufey Eliasdottir, Tim Plester, Soley Eliasdottir, Eyglo Eliasdottir, Sara Dögg Asgeiersdottir, Johann Gunnarson; Iceland 2021, 92 min.

Icelandic director Marteinn Thorsson (XL) has adapted Gudmundut Oskarson’s script about grief and how not to deal with it in this zany and often bizarre tragic comedy, set in what can only be described as the back of beyond. Iceland’s hostile terrain and freezing weather lend an icy chill to the tricky human interactions, Thorsson steering his ‘ship of fools’ through to a surprising ending – narrowly avoiding self-parody,.

Colour comes from a few brightly painted wooden huts near a spa where Bryna (L. Eliasdottir) fetches up needing psychiatric help more than physical rehab. Equally disturbed is her next door neighbour, middle-aged Mark (Pelster) from England, who knocks on her door, looking for paprika (yes, it’s a weird one). Both bear the scars of family trauma: Bryna at odds with her mother for leaving when she was only five. Mark is a lone traveller dealing with a recent bereavement. Awkward conversation and a meal cooked by Mark in his self-catering ‘chalet’ allow the two to get to know one another. But their lack of knowing themselves makes it impossible for them to engage in a meaningful way. The next morning the two set off to a remote spot where Mark’s son was discovered after a two-year police search. Meanwhile Bryna’s mother has declared her ‘a missing person’ unable to reach her by ‘phone.

Later, back at base, Johanna (S. Eliasdottir) and sister Gunnhildur (E. Eliasdottir), are livid at Bryna’s sudden disappearance and concerned for her wellbeing. Mark turns up on the scene anxious to defend Bryna with a sudden intrusion that forms the quirky catalyst for a Chekovian showdown of as each desperate character revisits the past.

The feature’s shifting, twisting mood from drama, comedy and outright farce keeps us guessing in an unsettling scenario inflamed by surreal settings, DoP Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson’s stunning camerawork reflecting the magnificent terrain where humans strive to make sense of their existence in an absurd tragic-comedy. AS

Santa Barbara International Film Festival

 

Rascal (2020) Vilnius Film Festival (2021)

Dir/scr: Peter Dourountzis | Cast: Pierre Deladonchamps, Ophelie Bau, Sebastien Houbani | France, Thriller. 96′

Rascal is a an everyday story of a psychopath played with hard-eyed nonchalance by Pierre Delardonchamps.

There’s nothing sensationalist about the story of Dje. The title might suggest a cheeky playfulness but this couldn’t be far from the truth. Not without charm when he wants something, Dje he can also being quietly menacing as he goes with the flow living by his wits, casually violent if he needs to be. In fact, ‘casual’ sums up a man who never gets worked up about anything. This homeless opportunist is none too shabby in his stylish anorak. A recidivist bottom-feeder who gets by on the streets of Limoges, where we first meet him on a train, rudely intruding on the privacy of his neighbour in a train carriage. But that’s the most harmless trait in his repertoire of antisocial behaviour.

Peter Dourountzis’ first feature takes a detached view of his psychopathic protagonist seen through the steely lens of DoP Jean-Marc Fabre. Limoges is seen as a joyless urban centre where danger lurks at every turn as Dje slips unnoticed in the crowd until he spots an unsuspecting female glance and returns it with a smirking stare. What follows could be a seduction or something more deadly but it mostly occurs off camera, and some women can be extraordinarily accommodating to this enigmatic stranger who is never there when the going gets tough. Of no fixed abode he has no identity papers. Meanwhile, street signs in bus shelters warn women to be vigilant. There’s a killer on the loose. But why would anyone suspect Dje with his boyish looks and clean complexion?.

Rascal was originally made as a short film, Dourountzis cutting himself plenty of slack with the textured script that plays to our fertile imagination and works in a subplot about Dje connecting with an underground network of homeless misfits who offer him room in their squat. Here he meets Maya (Ophelie Bau Mektoub, My Love) and the two have a thing for a while until Dje loses control and needs to move out of the spotlight and back into the shadows. MT

EUROPEAN DEBUT COMPETITION  | Best Actor: Pierre Deladonchamps | AT VILNIUS FILM FESTIVAL | 18 MARCH – 6 APRIL 2021 |

 

 

 

 

The Snorkel (1958) Blu-ray

Dir: Guy Green | Cast: Peter van Eyck, Betta St John, Mandy Miller, Gregoire Aslan | UK Psycho Drama, 90′

In 1968, when I was nine years old, I was about 10 minutes from the end of this gripping Hammer psycho-thriller on Anglia Television when my father amused himself by suddenly packing me off to bed. It’s taken me forty-nine years, but I finally got to see the ending of this film.

Hammer’s psychological thrillers of the early sixties are usually deemed sub-Hitchcock copies of Psycho; but since The Snorkel was released a full two years before Psycho their inspiration is more obviously Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques (1955), from the mystery novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narjejac, who also wrote the book on which Vertigo was based. (Peter van Eyck, the evil stepfather in The Snorkel, actually starred in Clouzot’s previous film, Le Salaire de la Peur.)

The Snorkel was the last film lead played by the unique Mandy Miller, then 13, whose dramatically arched eyebrows and full lips render her still recognisable as the pretty little deaf & dumb girl from Ealing Studio’s classic Mandy (1952). Already convinced that her mother is simply the second of her two parents to be murdered by Van Eyck, a poster of Cousteau’s ‘Le Monde du Silence’ provides her with the clue she needs as to how he did it, and she enters with gusto into a game of cat and mouse with her wicked stepfather. Thus provoked, van Eyck puts on his striped jersey and rubber gloves again, slips her a Mickey Finn, seals off all the windows and doors and turns on the gas, and then…

It’s taken me nearly fifty years to find out what happened next, but it’s a beaut! ©Richard Chatten

NOW ON BLURAY AT AMAZON 

Zee and Co. (1972)

Dir: Brian G Hutton | Wri: Edna O’Brian | Cast: Elizabeth Taylor, Michael Caine, Susannah York, Margaret Leighton | US Drama 110′

For anyone who ever hankered to see what a collaboration between the novelist Edna O’Brien and the director of Where Eagles Dare would have looked like, look no further! After two war movies in a row, Brian G. Hutton obviously felt the need to try his hand at something a bit more dangerous; and Elizabeth Taylor in all her big-haired, loud-mouthed and even more loudly dressed glory dominates this delirious spectacle in a way rarely seen since the heyday of Bette Davis.

Taylor and Caine give their all as a self-absorbed pair who make George & Martha from ‘Virginia Woolf’ look like The Brady Bunch. In reality Caine would probably have abandoned or murdered Taylor long ago; but she’s entertaining to watch and listen to – at least for the duration of the movie – and shows a delightful flair for mimicry mocking some of her co-stars. (spoiler coming up: I thought she jumped the shark, however, with her suicide attempt.)

Susannah York understandably seems more than a little overwhelmed by the madhouse she’s wandered into. A few spoilsports have already revealed the twist at the end of this tale. As a bloke I was as surprised and delighted as I was relieved that a woman wrote it; so it absolved me of feeling guilty at being served up with one of my favourite male fantasies about two women.

Whatever happened to these three after the closing credits is anybody’s guess; but the audience I watched it with at the Barbican tonight laughed appreciatively all the way through and gave it an enthusiastic round of applause as the lights went up. @Richard Chatten.

AVAILABLE ON AMAZON

Bad Roads (2021) Vilnius Film Festival 2021

Dir.: Natalya Vorozhbit; Cast: Igor Koltovskyy, Andrey Lelyukh, Vladimir Gurin, Ekaterina Zhurakovskaya, Ekaterina Zahdanovich, Anastasia Parshina, Yulia Matrosova, Marina Klimova, Yuri Kulinich, Zoya Baranovskaya, Oksana Voronina, Sergej Solovyov; Ukraine 2020, 105 min.

Ukraine’s Natalya Vorozhbit shows how women are exploited sexually and emotionally during wartime in this award-winning feature debut adapted from her play of the same name that staged at the Royal Court Theatre in London.

In 2014 Ukraine’s Donbass region was the setting for ongoing hostilities with neighbouring Russia. Women bore the brunt of both sides of the conflict, humanitarian rules were abandoned in the survival of the fittest. Bad Roads explores four episodes in very different settings detailing man’s barbaric treatment of the opposite sex during wartime.

At a casual road stop in the war zone, a headmaster (Koltovskyy) of a nearby school is trapped in a Kafkaesque showdown with two soldiers. The teacher clearly came out with the wrong passport, that morning, and the Kalashnikov rifle in his boot doesn’t help matters. He claims it is a toy model for teaching the students, but the militia men are suspicious. Then it becomes clear why the teacher is driving around: he is looking for a female student; after spotting her, he asks the soldiers to let her go: “You are saying that you defend us, but you are fucking our children. Please leave this one alone, she is an orphan”. The headmaster retrieves his passport and the Captain (Lelyukh), gives the him “the word of honour of an officer that there is no girl in the compound of the militia”. These assurances fall on deaf ears: Both know that he is lying.

Three school girls wait at a bus stop for their soldier friends who bring them cigarettes and cosmetics in return for sex. There’s nothing new in this transactional relationship, but it has a brutal edge as the girls know full well they may be lynched when the soldiers retreat. A grandmother (Matrosova) recounts the past when she and her friends sat on the same bench waiting for their boyfriends to come home from work.

In the most inhumane scenario a human rights journalist (Klimova) has suffers an attempted rape after being detained by soldiers one of whom (Kulinich) shares his childhood memory of a pet hamster who bit him so hard he made the animal drown in his own blood. War makes monsters of these men, death becomes meaningless “at first, you were glad that you were alive, but now there are no feelings left”. The episode ends shockingly.

A young woman (Baranovskaya) driving in the countryside accidentally runs over a chicken. She tries to compensate the old couple (Voronina/Solovyov), who think she has stopped for another reason. “Have you been raped? We can call the police”. They ask candidly. Later on the couple try to bargain with the woman, putting a priceless value on their hen. Bitterness and desperation turn ordinary people to irrational acts of mental cruelty. And there are no happy endings in Bad Roads: Later on the old people hear on their radio that a young local woman was severely injured when her car ran over a landmine.

DoP Voladymir Ivanov oscillates between hyper-realism in the Spa episode, poetic realism in the episode with the three girls and a bit of horror-treatment in the last section. The ensemble cast is brilliant, particularly the three girls, who are non-professionals. But the narratives are grim and unforgiving. Bad Roads is a Hieronymus Bosch painting come to life: utter depravity of mind and body.

VILNIUS FILM FESTIVAL ONLINE | 18 MARCH – 5 APRIL 2021

People We Know Are Confused | Vilnius Film Festival (2021)

Dir.: Tomas Smulkis; Cast: Milda Noreikaite, Gabija Jaraminaite, Arunas Sakalauskas, Paulius Markevicius, Dainus Svobanas, Jolante Dapkunaite; Drama, Lithuania 2021, 102 min.

Hanging on in quiet desperation is the Lithuanian way. 

Founded in 1387, Vilnius is still shifting on the fault-lines of its turbulent past according to debut filmmaker Thomas Smulkis, who has made this resonant, unworldly feature debut with a distinct cinematic voice.

Over four summer days Smulkis distills the essence of a modern capital in flux through the surreality of three bewildered inhabitants calling it home – for the time being. An airy feeling of serenity wafts through the summery settings in the limpid light of the Northern hemisphere softened by Sigita Simkuaite’s stylish hues of eau de nil and taupe. Nature plays a signicant part here and Smulkis’ dazzling eye for detail captures everyday life on the streets in unexpected and eerily serendipitous ways.

Goda (Jaraminaite) is the most straightforward of the trio, even though her glorified existence is anything but stable. Will she be able to see the gilded trap she has built for herself? We first meet her overladen with designer shopping bags making her way into a chic apartment in a smart part of town. Goda lives alone so why are a pair of men’s shoes in the hallway? Her sister has invited a colleague to stay, although she lives somewhere else. Clearly Goda is put out, to say the least, calmly asking the stranger to leave via  email. But he stays on oblivious taking his leave on his own terms while she wanders round displaced and uncomfortable longing to regain the peace of her sanctuary.

In another part of town, medic Juste (Norakaite) and her partner and co-worker Paulius (Markevicius) are also going through a confusing time. Paulius has been offered a flat in a high rise block outside the city, but Juste does not want to live “in the middle of nowhere”. They carry on oblivious until a negative pregnancy leaves her relieved at the result. The two cycle off, and at the lights Paulius has a something unexpected to say.

In their stylish urban kitchen Vytas (Sakalauskas) placidly asks his wife of twenty years for a divorce. Later he visits his old flame Audrius (Svobanas), who is dying of cancer. A literal and metaphorical car crash sees Elena (Dapkunaite) quietly reflecting on how her ife carried for so many years in tacit denial of an emotional truth that has always been obvious for everyone concerned.

DoP Vytautas Plukas pictures these characters silently reeling in the face of calm contradiction. Vilnius reflects the silent chaos in the rubbish-strewn building sites of the centre: the character of the old city has changed forever, the capital will soon look like any other metropolis in Europe as the past is gently aid to rest – without reflection. Mostly relying on an ambient soundscape, the occasional score by Lina Lapelyte makes a weird intrusion into this perplexed but passionless world. A sensitive and aesthetically mature debut feature. AS

SCREENING AT VILNIUS FILM FESTIVAL 2021

The Naked Kiss (1964)

Dir/Wri: Sam Fuller | Cast: Constance Thomas, Anthony Eisley, Michael Dante, Virginia Grey | US Drama 90′

It was always hard to tell if Sam Fuller was pulling your leg or in earnest in his 1964 follow up to Shock Corridor another potent psychodrama. Female lead Constance Towers (who had recently featured in two productions for John Ford) is yet another otherwise little-known actress only fleetingly given the opportunity to show on screen just what she was capable of. As late as 1994 she still brought a glacial elegance to the role of a sophisticated older woman in an episode of ‘Frazier’, and as photographed by Stanley Cortez in Fuller’s last film in black & white, thirty years years earlier, she is amazing; entirely worthy of Cortez’s previous collaborations with Orson Welles & Charles Laughton. The Naked Kiss resembles a silent film, and parts of it an underground film of the 1970s; (and like them the supporting cast includes a former silent star, in this case in the form of Betty Bronson, who forty years earlier had played Peter Pan).

The Naked Kiss continues to divide the relatively small number of those who have actually seen it. Some consider it a masterpiece, others an utter bore. That said, it remains ahead of its time while exuding retro glamour (especially when Virginia Grey turns up in a beehive and business suit playing a madam). Rejected by the British Board of Film Censors in 1964 it would probably continue to encounter censorship problems today. @RichardChatten

NOW ON PRIME VIDEO

Pariah Dog (2020)

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

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

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

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

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

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

AVAILABLE TO VIEW ON TRUESTORY

No Ordinary Man (2020)

Dir: Aisling Chin-Yee, Chase Joynt | US Doc

The story of jazz musician Billy Tipton (1914-89) is seen from the perspective of his sexuality rather than his musical talent in this new, experimental documentary from Canadian filmmakers Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt (who is trans). They see Tipton as a trans trailblazer, a jazzy gender bender. But his common-law wife Kitty Kelly claims never to have realised he was a woman. And it didn’t end there. Another three ‘wives’ under his belt and three adopted kids later, this trans legend still had everyone fooled almost everyone.  And who really cared when he played the piano so divinely and was always ready to improvise when another musician dropped out.

By way of background, Billy was born Dorothy Lucille Tipton in Oklahoma City on December 29, 1914 and was raised by an aunt in Alabama, but later adopted Spokane, Washington as his home. Tipton had shown a keen interest in jazz but was barred from joining the all-male school band at Southwest High School. But perseverance paid off and he eventually developed a serious musical career as a ‘male musician’ by concealing his female form and calling himself Billy Lee Tipton in the early 1930s. By 1940, Tipton was living as a man in private life as well in public.

But rather than sensationalising the reveal of his being transexual, the filmmakers’ focus here is laudably Tipton’s legacy as a ‘transmasculine’ icon, inspiring the lives of many. During his lifetime he was successfully all things to all people: Kelly claiming. “Billy Tipton was a man in every sense of the word,” – “he was the best husband anyone could have dreamed of” adding “He will always be a man. He will be nothing more than a man” to a stunned audience in one of Oprah Winfrey’s chat shows.

Enriched by archive material, newspaper clips and excerpts from Stanford professor Diane Middlebrook’s 1998 biog ‘Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton’, this is an intellectually bracing film informed by a welter of authoritative talking heads, most poignantly Tipton Jr.  Amongst them is also author and gender theorist Kate Bornstein who asserts “there was no such thing as a trans man back in the 1980s. But one can hardly blame Billy for embracing the idea that being a ‘man’, rather than a woman, would path the way to success in the music business (or any business) back then. Had he stayed cisgender we may never have enjoyed his brilliant contribution to the world of jazz. Tunes like “Please Don’t Be that Way”.

Susan Stryker, a filmmaker, author and professor of Gender and Woman’s Studies comments on the rampant transphobia of the 1980s, hardly surprising when even nowadays the whole idea of trans sexuality still has some people run, screaming for the hills. But no-one has any proof that Tipton, who began presenting as a man from the ago of 19, made any fuss about his conception of gender identity, one must assume he just got on and did it, joining the party with so many other artists of the era who freely indulged their queer sexuality while being married to ‘women or men’.

What makes this film so innovative is the filmmakers’ framing device that sees a group of talented trans-masculine actors auditioning for the main role in a putative Tipton documentary, taking their cues from the (offscreen) directors in order to perform Billy at pivotal moments during his career – such as his first meeting with Duke Ellington, and so on. This offers them a collaborative springboard to then voice their own experiences and impressions of trans-masculinity with reference to Tipton – a very popular device nowadays – but not if you’re just yearning for a straight up biopic of the legendary musician himself, which hasn’t been done before.

No Ordinary Man does fall into the trap of allowing judgement of the past to be made by today’s standards, with a double time line – twenty years after the Middlebrook biog, and another nearly ninety, since Billy first put on masculine garb. We are living in a hyper-sensitive age where there are so many differing viewpoints and so many platforms available to give these varying stances voice, it’s almost impossible not to offend. But in this instance the film provides pithy insight into the trans experience, widening the debate for those affected by the issues, and offering worthwhile insight into how trans stories are often framed from the cisgender viewpoint – all in a meaty 83 minutes. Poignant also to that Tipton junior is able to hear more about his famous forebear. Well made, engaging and powerful. MT

SCREENING DURING BFI FLARE 2021

 

 

 

Call Northside 777 (1948)

Dir: Henry Hathaway Wri: Jerome Cady | | Cast: James Stewart, Richard Conte, Lee J Cobb, Helen Walker, Betty Garde | US, Noir thriller 112′

The postwar Jimmy Stewart demonstrates his new, hard-won gravitas in this engrossing drama in which background music and narration are largely absent as he investigates a conviction he becomes increasingly convinced is unsafe; while Richard Conte plays a downtrodden Pole rather than a downtrodden Italian as the innocent man sentenced to 99 years.

Most viewers already know (even before Truman Bradley informs us in the opening narration) that Conte is released, so it’s HOW rather than WHETHER he’s cleared that holds the attention; and it all gets rather involved. That those in authority found it convenient to leave Conte in jail is touched upon, while high-tech gadgets like polygraphs and microfilm cameras further the narrative, and such a gadget makes for satisfyingly cinematic climax that anticipates ‘Blowup’ by twenty years. But (MASSIVE SPOILERS COMING:) was it really possible in 1944 to blow up the date on a newspaper as sharply as is done here, and (as my predecessor observed) why did they ignore the pictures on the front page, which we never see sharpened up and would in themselves have confirmed which edition the newsboy was holding?

Real life as usual inevitably denies us such a tidy conclusion as ends the film; since the real Joseph Majcek, actually led a troubled life following his eventual release from prison in 1945 and ultimately ended his days in a mental institution in 1983. ©Richard Chatten

NOW ON TALKING PICTURES TV | AMAZON

Truman and Tennessee: An Intimate Conversation (2020)

Dir: Lisa Immordino Vreeland | Cast: David Frost, Dick Cavett, Voices of Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto; USA 2021, 96 min.

Apart from in chat shows few people have actually heard the real voices of Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams but Zachary Quinto and Jim Parsons sound realistic in this enjoyable documentary about the friendship between two of the most charismatic personalities in American 20th century culture.

Lisa Immordino Vreeland is a dab hand at as a documentary filmmaker having already showcased the lives of Peggy Guggenheim, Cecil Beaton and Diana Vreeland (her grandmother-in-law). And here she brings the forty-year long relationship between Capote (1924-1984) and Williams (1911-1983) into focus – whilst private secrets are spilled, Vreeland never falls into the trap of sensationalism, the overall structure is enlivened by TV interviews of both men by David Frost and Dick Cavett.

courtesy of Getty Images

Capote and Williams both grew up in the South and had troublesome and relationships with their overbearing fathers, turned to books early on as a way to escape, and had a life-long struggle with drugs and alcohol. They met when Capote was sixteen, and spent most of the years between 1940 and and 1960 enjoying Spain, Italy, France and Morocco with their respective partners: Williams with the actor Frank Merlo (1921-1963) and Capote with the author Jack Dunphy (1914-1992). Truman says, that their relationship was purely “an intellectual friendship”, which did not hinder either of them from making bitchy remarks about the opposite’s spouses.

Courtesy of the Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Capote’s first success came with ‘Other Voices, other Rooms’ in 1948, three years after Williams’ ‘The Glass Menagerie’, which was followed by ‘A Street named Desire’. It may come as a surprise that Williams, who confessed to being “just terribly, terribly over-sexed”, did not have his first (heterosexual) affair before 27, having taken up masturbation only a year earlier, before consummating his first gay affair aged 28 with Frank Merlo.

Truman was blunt about his sexuality stating that it would have been easier to have been a girl, but “I was homosexual and I had never any guilt about it what so ever. I was the only character who was beyond the pale. I didn’t care”.

Williams, assuming rightly, that he would be judged by the many feature films based on his plays, regretted that censorship ruined many endings, even to the point of negating what had gone on before. Capote felt let down by the producers of Breakfast at Tiffany’s claiming he had been promised Marilyn Monroe, his first choice, as Holly Golightly. But they “cheated”, and “cast Audrey Hepburn, who was not right for the part, because Holly was based on a real person, and she was very tough, unlike anything Hepburn was”.

The docu-feature film of Capote’s non-fiction novel In Cold Blood, about two drifters who murdered a Kansas family, “scraped me right down, to the marrow of my bones. It nearly killed me. I think, in a way, it did kill me. I had been a stable person. Afterwards, something happened to me”.

The 1970s and 80s saw both men in decline, Williams complaining he never had a positive review after 1961. “Everything went wrong, private and professional, and ultimately my mind broke”. They died within 18 months of each other. Getting together for the last time at a party a few weeks before William’s death, the latter asked Capote “Where will we meet again?”. To which Truman answered “in paradise”.

Overall Truman & Tennessee does feel like a very private affair, dominated by the revealing ‘conversations’ of these literally giants who lived and breathed through for their writing. DoP Shane Sigler integrates the still photos, feature film clips and the TV interviews into an aesthetically convincing form, with Vreeland showing enough empathy with her subjects, bringing their Icarus-like careers into perspective in this cinematic catnip for literary lovers. AS

Truman & Tennessee: An Intimate Conversation is available on Dogwoof on Demandand other platforms from 30 April.

Main image credit: At Sotheby’s 1978 Globe Photos/Media Punch/Shutterstock & Tennessee Williams courtesy of the Cecil Beaton Studio. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

True Mothers | Asa Ga Kuru (2020)

Dir.: Naomi Kawase; Cast: Hiromi Nagasaku, Arata Iura, Aju Makita, Reo Sato, Hiroko Nakajima, Telsu Hirahara, Myoko Asada, Ren Komai, Taketo Takata); Japan 2020, 139 min.

Naomi Kawase’s films are an acquired taste but have a firm following. Here she adapts Mizuki Tsujimura’s mystery novel about motherhood from two different perspectives and frequently departing from the narrative to delve into arthouse-style reverie exploring maternal feelings and emotions, rather like her Cannes Grand Prix winner Mourning Forest. And although True Mothers is more accessible than many of Kawase’s films, the flashbacks and epic length require commitment.

The first hour focuses on the dawning realisation and gradual resignation to the sadness that haunts every childless couple. Satoko (Nagasaku) and Kiyokazu (Iura) can’t have their own family so after much soul-searching they turn to Mrs Asami’s adoption agency (Baby Baton) for a child, and are overjoyed when the big day finally arrives. Baby Asato is handed over to his new parents by his mother, 14-year old schoolgirl Hikaru Katakura. who apologises, her parents cowering in shame.

Five years later, the couple get a strange phonecall from someone claiming to be their son’s real birth mother, demanding her baby back – or a great deal of money. When the woman arrives, looking rough and disheveled, she doesn’t resemble the meek and submissive Hikari who handed over their child, and the Kuriharas make it clear they are in doubt of their son’s real background, but can’t help wondering if they’ve been scammed.

We now learn more about Hikari’s fate. Her family never forgave her for “bringing shame” on the family. In one disturbing scene her uncle tells her “I know about it, horrible business, really” during a family meeting that descends into a brawl. Leaving her family, and finding no support from the child’s father Takumi (Takata), who simply ignores her, Hikari starts work as a paper seller, and meets Tomoko, one of girls who was at Baby Baton. Tomoko is a sex worker, and forges Hikari’s signature as a guarantor on a loan agreement. The money lenders are vicious, making desperate Hikari phone the Kuriharas. When all seems lost for Hikari, True Mothers takes a very surprising turn.

The multiple flashbacks are the strength and the weakness of the feature: the intercutting results in a languid rhythm where nature is often involved as a healing source, while, at the same time, the audience is somehow frustrated by just another plot twist. The half hour spent on the Kuriharas’ pondering their childless status before finding a solution is certainly worth a re-edit. Although this clearly underlines the gravity for some viewers, for natural parents it might seem tedious. And Kawase could have concentrated more on the titular protagonists, particularly since Aju Makita (whom we saw in some minor roles in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s recent features) is brilliant in being the centre of a melodrama, whilst Nagasaku is really convincing in her proprietary approach, as the mother, who has ‘waited’ too long for a child. DoP Yuta Tsukinage uses a sunny, limid colours, dwelling long on detail, with wonderful expressive close-ups. With a little less self-indulgence by Kawase, this could have been a real masterpiece. AS

TRUE MOTHERS | CURZON home cinema | 16 April 2021

 

 

 

 

 

Catch Us if You Can (1965)

Dir: John Boorman | Wri: Peter Nichols | Cast: Dave Clark, Barbara Ferris, David Lodge, Robin Bailey, Clive Swift, Marianne Stone, Ronald Lacey, Yootha Joyce, David de Keyser,

John Boorman’s calling card for Point Blank wasn’t a straight-up musical biopic of the famous early 1960s band (whose 1964 hit ‘Glad All Over’ knocked the Beatles off the top of the UK Singles Chart) but something altogether more interesting, the DC5s music providing the score for a ‘Youth Culture’ escapade. Taking its title from another band hit Catch Us if You Can starts in London then broadens out into an eventful auteurish travelogue of the West Country in an E-type Jag, captured by Manny Wynn’s evocative black and white camerawork. There are some memorable turns – particularly from Barbara Ferris as a model running away with a stuntman (played by Clark) while filming a promo for an ad agency – who then capitalise on the caper. The Five boys don’t have the chops, but they certainly held the tunes – and add a certain cocky verve as ‘Beatle competitors’, and Ferris is amusingly perky as Dinah. Watch out for Yootha Joyce, Clive Swift, Michael Gwynn, Peter Nichols (who wrote the script) and a mellow David de Keyser (who is still with us) as the quintessential Sixties adman adding a touch of edgy class. MT

NOW OUT ON BLURAY, DVD, DIGITAL PLATFORMS – 5th April 2021

The Man Who Reclaimed His Head (1934)

Dir: Edward Ludwig | Cast: Joan Bennett, Claude Rains, Lionel Atwell, Juanita Quigley | US Drama 80′

The few people likely to be familiar with this title today will probably already know enough of the plot to be aware of the spectacular final retribution taken by Claude Rains against Lionel Atwill and assume that it was a follow up to Rains’ auspicious talkie film debut the year before as Universal’s new horror star in the title role of The Invisible Man.

However, Rains had already played the role on Broadway – under that title – the year before he made The Invisible Man, and the film is actually a very thirties pacifist diatribe (albeit garnished with an eye-catching title and plot gimmick) set in France just before and during the first year of The Great War.

No attempt seems to have been made to dress the cast convincingly in period attire, probably to heighten its topicality to the troubled 1930s, when fear of lethal new weapons ran hand in hand with munitions manufacturers in wing collars rubbing their hands with poorly concealed glee at the prospect of the vast fortunes to be made out of another war.

Director Edward Ludwig’s only other brush with political filmmaking ironically appears to have been John Wayne’s red-baiting love letter to the HUAC, Big Jim McLain, nearly twenty years later. ©Richard Chatten

 

Theodora Goes Wild (1936)

Dir: Richard Boleslawski | Wri: Sidney Buchman/Mary McCarthy | Cast: Irene Dunne, Melvyn Douglas, Thomas Mitchell | US Comedy

Seen today, accustomed as we are to seeing the adorable Irene Dunne in her later comedies slinkily casting those lovely eyes sideways and laughing that distinctive gurgling laugh it’s hard to believe that after several years as a celebrated drama queen Theodora Goes Wild represented for her a leap in the dark into the hitherto unaccustomed territory of farce; at which she immediately proved adept.

Thomas Mitchell as the town’s abrasive newspaper editor figures prominently in the opening and closing scenes, promising a more satirical subject than we actually get. Theodora’s ‘scandalous’ novel ‘The Sinner’ was by now inevitably required by the proprieties of the Production Code to be wholly a work of her imagination and is largely forgotten as the film progresses; post-Code, the Hays Office would never permit the notion that there could possibly have actually been any men in the life of the demure, unmarried Ms Dunne before she put pen to paper. Five years earlier it would have been a very different story indeed and the escapist fantasy of Theodora Goes Wild – even down to its innocently racy title – recalls a silent film of ten years earlier rather than the earthier fare of the early sound era.

Ms Dunne was approaching forty when she made this film, and although the title holds out the promise of her eventually letting her hair down, she never reveals half as much in the film as she does baring her arms and shoulders in the figure-hugging dress she wears on the poster; revealing her inner hussy by instead piling on feathers and sashaying about in expensive bad taste while the plot ties itself into knots attempting to subvert the requirements of The Code while simultaneously observing its constraints and parodying the very rural bluestockings it was introduced to appease.

This was the last film completed by the always interesting Richard Boleslawski before his sudden death the following year at the age of 47. Aided by luminous photography by Frank Capra’s regular cameraman Joseph Walker and superb performances by a first-rate supporting cast, the end result is a handsome piece of fluff wholly devoid of the bite and contemporary relevance it would have had if made five years earlier. Melvyn Douglas does his best to bestow some charm on the obnoxious Michael Grant, but the two lead characters have absolutely nothing in common, and Theodora deserves much better than this mischief-making jerk who doesn’t even let her know that he’s married. ©Richard Chatten

Wilderness (2021)

Dir.: Justin John Doherty; Cast: Katharine Davenport, James Barnes, Sebastian Badarau, Bean Downes; UK 2017, 84 min.

The first feature for Justin John Doherty, scripted by Neil Fox, is a melancholic tract on the impossibility of true love. Set during the 1960s Wilderness is two films in one: a passionate and playful love affair influenced by Godard’s wordy confrontation of the genders in Contempt all coupled with a brilliant jazz score reminiscent of Louis Malle’s Ascenseur pour l’echefaud .

John (Barnes), a black jazz musician, who shuttles between Europe and the US, meets Alice (Davenport), the two of them stealing moments between concerts and travel. Their relationship is fired by a palpable physical attraction that powers their idealistic affair. This loved-up dynamic changes when they spend a long weekend beachside in Cornwall meeting strangers and friends only to discover (like the audience) they hardly know each other beyond a sexual bond.

At a drunken party with John’s friend Charlie (Baderau) and his partner Francis (Downes), the tenuous nature of their relationship becomes obvious. Alice starts dancing rather too intimately with Charlie, and then joins Francis in criticising ‘men’ for keeping old affairs to themselves.

While Alice is interested in finding out about John – particularly his past – John is often unable to voice his feelings. Alice is shown as a rather moody character, her randomness often leaving John bewildered. “Are we over?” he asks at one point. But that would be too easy for Alice who involves John, not for the first time, in a game of strip poker. Side by side on the floor, they mourn the loss of their idealised passion. Gender and race politics raise their heads but are integrated into the narrative.

Shot with four professional actors and the same number of filmmakers, Wilderness feels very much a work in progress, and this has pro and cons: the poetic, non-linear element of the first part confidently reflects the more daring student element, but the rather wobbly second part, particularly the clunky dialogue and the lack of visual strength, might have been avoided by a more self-critical crew. Overall, Wilderness feels like a promising feature in its draft process, the completed version still waiting to be unveiled. AS

WILDERNESS IS ON 5 APRIL 2021 ON SKY STORE, iTUNES, AMAZON, GOOGLE, and BT

An Impossible Project (2021)

Dir.: Jens Meurer; Documentary with Dr. Florian Kaps, Oskar Smolokowski, Slava Smolokowski; Austria/Germany/UK 2020, 99 min.

The Digital age may be upon us but humans are still analogue. Austrian documentarian Jens Meurer (Public Enemy) has chosen sides and this bid to champion and hold on to everything analogue is quietly amusing and informative.

Paradoxically Meurer was responsible for the very first digital entry at the Cannes Film Festival back in 2002. His 99 minute uninterrupted digital shot for Alexander Sukuorow’s Russian Ark (2002) was filmed on Sony Cine Alta HDW-F90.

Science and politics dominate and in keeping with his sentiment everything is shot on 35mm film (Arricamera), even the score by Haley Reinhart was recorded direct onto vinyl. In 2008, whilst techno-freaks were celebrating the first i-Phone, Dr Florian Kaps, a former biologist, known as Doc, was invited to Enschede (Netherlands) to the closure of the last Polaroid factory.

Instead of last rites, the Doc proscribed a resurrection somehow managing to scrape together 180 000 Euro to keep the factory going. And while he persuaded the workforce to co-operate, the first products were rather disappointing. Even if their artistic value was cool – the forty minute development time was certainly not. The machines did work again, but the chemicals and formulas for the development of the famous instant photos had been lost. Doc was unperturbed, and the worldwide community of Analogue fanatics helped as much as possible.

Kaps was not allowed to use the name Polaroid for a long time, and called the enterprise ‘Impossible’, with its HQ in Berlin. Meeting the New York based photographer Oscar Smolokowski and his investor father Slava, turned out to be a poison chalice for the Doc: the duo helped to launch a fully functioning Polaroid revival (in 2018 over one million films were sold), but the Doc had the same fate as Steve Jobs: he had to leave the company, the reasons not really explained.

Undeterred, Kaps soon found a new project, the Viennese Grand Hotel Moleskine, build in 1900. At the end, Haley Reinhart and the Sascha Peres Orchestra perform in the presence of the Doc in the restored hotel ‘Ball Saal’ – directly recorded for Europe’s largest Vinyl company, contributing to a yearly sale of 300 million vinyl records in 2019.

Even though Meurer introduces some polemic: “Digital is not real, it’s just a simulation of reality”. There is something to be said for regaining the use of our senses, all five of them – not just the two that are digital, but also taste, smell and touch because they make us happier and healthier”. Overall there is enough humour and self-deprecation in coming to terms with the fact that humans are the most analogue beings on the planet. AS

NOW ON DIGITAL PLATFORMS

The Terror (2021)

When it comes to TV drama this surreal and sinister epic is a real corker with its gripping plot lines and creeping sense of dread all handsomely shot in Northern Canada.

Of course Ridley Scott put his money behind it, and it shows with a sterling British cast – shame that Ciaran Hands drops out in the early episodes, leaving Jared Harris and Tobias Menzies at the helm of The Terror with its crew inspired by a real life Royal Naval expedition.

Tobias Menzies as James Fitzjames – The Terror _ Season 1, Episode 3 – Photo AMC

 

Nive Nielsen as Lady Silence – The Terror _ Season 1, Episode 3 – Photo Credit: Aidan Monaghan/AMC

 

Based on Canadian writer Dan Simmons’ best-selling novel it follows the fated mission led by three captains, Sir John Franklin (Hinds) Francis Crozier (Harris) and James Fitzjames (Menzies), who venture out into to explore the Arctic’s fabled treacherous Northwest Passage in 1847, but instead discover a monstrous polar bear-like predator, a cunning and vicious Gothic horror that stalks the ships in a desperate game of survival. The men reach out in desperation to a mysterious Inuit woman Lady Silence (played by Greenlander Nive Nielsen) who may or may not be the key to the horrifying and macabre death toll.

As morale amongst the men deteriorates and rations putrify, a terror of a different kind rears its head in the shape of Cornelius Hickey a self-seeking villainous member of the crew who causes a seething mutiny amongst the men as, one by one, they are picked off in a terrifying ordeal that invariably ends in death as they battle the elements, the supernatural and eventually – their own crew-members,

Stunning to look at and compelling throughout, the standout performances comes from the three captains and their medic Paul Ready as a doc with a really human touch who falls for Lady Silence’s luminous charms. Even without the monster this is a compelling and memorable drama series.

Following its run on BBC Two, The Terror is on Blu-ray, DVD and digital debut on 3 May 2021.

The Man Who Sold His Skin (2020)

Dir: Kaouther Ben Hania | Cast: Yahya Mahayni, Dea Liane, Koen De Bouw, Monica Bellucci, Saad Lostan, Darina Al Joundi, Jan Dahdouh, Christian Vadim | Tunisia, Drama 104′

A Syrian man turns difficulty into success in this stunning exploitation love story set in the international art world.

This Oscar-nominated follow-up to Beauty and the Dogs gives Tunisian writer director Kaouther Ben Hania another opportunity to question social injustice with her signature sensuous cinematic language.

Powered forward by an unabashedly angry performance from newcomer Yahya Mahayni as Syrian refugee Sam Ali – whose chance meeting with a famous artist sees him agreeing to be transformed into an artwork himself:. a Schengen visa is then tattooed on Ali’s back, securing him a coveted air passage to Europe, Belgium to be precise, where he reconnects with girlfriend Abeer (Dea Liane).

To say that Sam has a plucky attitude is an understatement. But his-blind-sided sense of self-belief certainly opens doors and gets him what he wants. First of all the sympathy of the controversial artist himself, Jeffrey Godefroi (De Bouw) who takes him onboard as a ‘canvas’, despite his chippiness. It also ensures the utter dedication of the artist’s assistant (a blond-haired Monica Bellucci, no less) who panders to his every whim, even after being told “F**k you”.

But what Ali really wants is the woman of his dreams who he proposes to in the deliriously romantic opening scenes, but who is now married to somebody else, and living comfortably in Belgium.

There is a dark Shakespearean downside to the story and one that gives the film a potent message: Ali must agree to give his skin back after his death, as it remains (ironically) the copyright of the artist. And there’s more, poor Ali must also acquiesce to being ‘auctioned’ which seems a gross act of human commodification, in a plotlline that makes this relevant all over the world, not just locally.

This stylish production is shot by award-winning Christopher Aoun (Capernaum). And although the rather schematic plot falls into place rather too easily, the sheer verve of the performances and the highly controversial civil liberty and refugee issues at its core makes it a soulful winner. MT

IN CINEMAS FROM 23 SEPTEMBER 2021

 

Firebird (2021) Bfi Flare 2021

Dir: Peeter Rebane | Cast: Tom Prior, Nicholas Woodeson, Diana Pozharskaya, Oleg Zagorordnii | US Drama 107′

Firebird runs along similar lines to the recent South African services drama Moffie, this version inspired by late Russian actor Sergey Fetisov’s memoir and set in the Soviet Air Force during the Cold War.

Screening as part of the Hearts strand of this year’s Bfi Flare Festival, the lavishly mounted feature debut draws on the director’s own experience of growing up in Soviet occupied Estonia, yet fails to mine the incendiary potential of a dramatic episode in European history.

Tom Prior co-wrote the script and stars as the unsettled soldier Sergey who is drafted into the services but really has dreams of being an actor. He soon gets involved in an illicit love triangle with a dashing fighter pilot Roman (Oleg Zagorodnii) who invites him to see Stravinsky’s Firebird at the opera. But Roman is also kindling a desire for his female comrade Luisa (Diana Pozharskaya) amid the high octane backdrop of a Soviet Air Force Base.

A friendship across the ranks soon sparks into an amorous escapade involving all three comrades in arms, once again highlighting the risks of love affairs in the time of war, this one spiced up by its forbidden nature, punishable by five years in a hard labour camp. The men’s interest in photography is brought to life by the vibrant aesthetic of Mait Maekivi’s colour-drenched camerawork.

Firebird certainly looks impressive with its authentic settings and lush production values but the film never quite generates enough heat to make us care for its underwritten characters who remain cartoonish and rather glib throughout, Luisa hardly getting a look in as a staid and sketchy also-ran in this so-called menage a trois.

Clearly Prior – so affective in Kingsman – has been brought in to lend star power but here joins the rest of cast of rather robotic stormtroopers bringing to mind Kraftwerk’s heroes rather than real people who we can empathise with in their tortured love lives. MT

FIREBIRD is premiering at BFi Flare

 

 

Groundswell (2020) Earth Day 2021

Dir.: Johnny Goran; Documentary with Mark Ruffalo, Nuala McNulty, Olivia Mitchell, Kate Ruddock, Joe McHugh; ROI 2021, 80 min.

Activist and filmmaker Johnny Gogan’s Groundswell explores how Ireland banned the practice of fracking (releasing oil or gas from shale rock) and how Northern Ireland still faces a prospect that has led to tremors, and poisoned water in NE Pennsylvania, where fracking is common.

Gogan guides us through his powerful film showing what is possible with direct action on the ground from his base in Fermanaugh. Political campaigner Nuala McNulty started the fight against fracking in Northern Ireland after the Irish Parliament, the Deil, had given licenses for exploratory drillings to Canadian company Tamboran Resources, whose agent Tony Bazley promised that no chemicals would be used in the process.

Jamie Murphy from ‘Love Leitrim”, remembers the police action in the Northern Irish fight against Shell, one of their slogans was “Farming, not Fracking”. Later a moratorium was reached in the Deil, pending the feasibility study into gas mining in the licensed areas near the border. The area was still suffering confrontations during the “Troubles”.

Arlene Foster, a staunch Fermanaugh activist and Northern Ireland’s First Minister, had an ambiguous relationship with fracking that drew criticism from the Irish border population. Meanwhile Gogan visited campaigners in NE Pennsylvania where diagnosis of cancer had almost doubled in the population, particularly in young people indicating a clear correlation with the fracking activities. The Good Energies Alliance Ireland (GEAI) joined the fight, as did Friends of the Earth: “Fracking is leaving more carbon footprints on the planet than coal.”

A Private Members Bill to legislate for the banning of fracking was introduced in the Deil, but was a victim of the General Election in 2016. Finally, a motion was passed in October 2016, to ban the import of gas gained from fracking, the only bill of its kind in the world. Nevertheless, not all is won: we listen to ex-president Trump announcing that the EU is planning to import fracking products, and in June 2019 Tamboran Resources was given permission to explore for Shale Gas in Northern Ireland – the decision of the restored NI executive is pending…

Gogan’s detailed chronicle is a laudable testament to the fight but instead of appealing to heart and minds, it often bogs the audience down with too much detail, names and organisations making Groundswell a valuable insider documentary rather than for mainstream entertainment. AS

Groundswell will be released on Friday 16th April, ahead of Earth Day 2021 and will be available via the Modern Films virtual cinema platform. It will screen theatrically later in the year.

 

 

 

The Quiller Memorandum (1966) TPTV

Dir: Michael Anderson | Cast: George Segal, Alex Guinness, Max Von Sydow, Sent Berger, George Sanders, Robert Flemyng, Philip Madoc | Uk Drama 106′

Adapted from Adam Hall’s novel ‘The Berlin Memorandum’, this was the only spy film written by Harold Pinter; a sad loss, since he and the genre – with their ambiguous motivations and outright deceptions, complicated here by the fact that almost everybody around him is speaking amongst themselves in a foreign language – were made for each other.

The dialogue scenes between spymasters George Sanders and Robert Flemyng in Whitehall are pure Pinter. While back in Berlin the second most Pinteresque scenes are those where our disarmingly offbeat hero is interrogated by knuckle-cracking neo-Nazi Max von Sydow. Alec Guinness puts in a sinister appearance in the mammoth Olympiastadion at Charlottenburg. Truly the stuff of nightmares.

Senta Berger is the heroine. Meester Quiller!! (She is currently shooting her latest film in Bavaria). While the final scene is a wonderfully Hitchcockian denouement, all the more shocking for taking place in glorious morning sunshine to an appropriately wistful accompaniment from John Barry’s score sung by the mellow Matt Munro. ©Richard Chatten.

NOW ON TALKING PICTURES TV | AVAILABLE ON AMAZON

Human Rights Watch Festival 2021 | Women have their say

Opening this Thursday 18 March, this year’s HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH FESTIVAL  kicks off with The 8th about Ireland’s women-led campaign to engineer the impossible – to overturn the 8th Amendment, a constitutional ban on abortion.

In Belly of the Beast two women wage a near impossible battle against the US Department of Corrections to expose modern-day eugenics and reproductive injustice in California prisons.

Mujer de Soldado reveals a deeply moving picture of female solidarity among four Peruvian women, who are bringing charges of historical rape against their abusers.

And in the Closing Night film on 26 March Unapologetic new talent Ashley O’Shay spent four years chronicling the lives of two young, black, queer women within the Black Lives movement in Chicago. In Ashley’s words: Unapologetic serves as a blueprint to that moment (last summer)…. I hope you walk away feeling inspired, and hopeful, and righteously rageful at the systems that have failed women.

HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH FILM FESTIVAL 2021 | Tickets go on sale February 18 and can be purchased via the Human Rights Watch Film Festival or Barbican Cinema On Demand.

Tove (2020)

Dir: Zaida Bergroth | Finland, Drama | 100′

This drama about Moomins creator Tove Jansson (1914-2001) is as enchanting as her hippo-like cartoon characters that are celebrated by kids and adults all over the world.

Finnish filmmaker Zaida Bergroth brings the Finnish bisexual artist to life in this delicately sensuous and affecting biopic that showcases her unconventional loves as much as her talent as an author, artist and creator, played here by a captivating Alma Pöysti and scored by evocative soundtrack of tunes from the era from jazz to swing, Benny Goodman’s Sing Sing Sing being the musical motif throughout with Stefan Grapelli and Edith Piaf enlivening the Parisian sequences of the early 1950s.

Eeva Putro’s gracefully paced script focuses on the immediate aftermath to WWII in a discretely decadent Helsinki where Soviet bomb raids fail to spoil Tove’s fun at lively cocktail parties where champagne continues to flow during illustrious soirees. Home is a stylish bohemian milieu where Swedish is spoken. Tove is often put down by her renown but competitive sculptor father (Enckel), although her graphic artist mother (Kajsa Ernst) adores and encourages her creative potential.

Later at art school Tove is nudged by her father towards the more highbrow artistic expression of painting, but prefers illustrating and doodling cartoons for a subversive magazine, and this is where she will eventually make her name and earn a meagre living. All this creativity naturally spills over into amorous encounters. Soon Tove is involved with a married politician (Shanti Roney as Artos Wirtanen) and a wealthy female client Viveca Bandler (Kosonen) in dizzying sexual encounters, both leaving her troubled and unsatisfied as she seeks solace in her art. Bergroth keeps the tempo romantically-charged and touching rather than tortured or soul-searching. Artos eventually proposes but Paris beckons promising other opportunities on the horizon as well as a reunion with the past.

This is such a wonderful film about female creative and sensory expression made more so by its gentle, often handheld, camerawork in Helsinki and Paris – DoP Linda Wassberg often uses that atmospheric technique of fading out the scenes in slow-mo to an echoing soundtrack lending emotional depth and a dreamlike quality to the narrative leaving us contemplating what has gone before and appreciating the intensity of Tove’s artistic and emotional truth. MT

On release from 9 July 2021

Johnny Cool (1963)

Dir: William Asher | Wri: Joseph Landon | Cast: Henry Silva, Elizabeth Montgomery, Richard Anderson, Jim Backus, Wanda Hendrix | US Crime Drama 103’

Before Lee Marvin in The Killers and Point Blank there was Johnny Cool. The name ‘Johnny’ in the title usually means a romantic loner; but this Johnny was such a reptilian thug that by the end I was rooting for him to get what was coming to him in a way that I never did with the likes of Jimmy Cagney.

After possibly the worst title song I’ve ever heard (sung by Sammy Davis Jr., who also contributes a cameo as a dealer in a gambling den in an eye-patch and loud check jacket named “Educated”), what follows is a real curate’s egg vividly shot on location by Sam Leavitt in deliberately ugly black & white with an astonishing cast of cameo players (I particularly liked Mort Sahl’s contribution). The bewitching Elizabeth Montgomery is wasted as a bored socialite who takes a shine to Johnny after seeing him karate someone in a restaurant, yet seems a bit slow to realise that maybe he’s not really a very nice person. (She and director William Asher married the same year and together embarked the following year on the evergreen TV hit ‘Bewitched’, and she was lost to movies forever.)

That the Production Code was by now on its last legs is attested to by macabre details such as the fact that he takes a knife rather than a gun with him to settle one particular score; while he improbably uses a big heavy suitcase with a bomb in it to blow up one victim rather than simply shooting him. And how did he make his getaway after machine-gunning someone else through the top floor window of a high rise office block from a window cleaner’s cradle? However, the film is obliged to show sufficient restraint in its denouement to leave enough to the imagination to make the conclusion far more chilling than had we seen more. (And it’s refreshing to see Elisha Cook Jr. come out on top for once). ©Richard Chatten

 

Memories of My Father | El Olvido Que Seremos (2020)

Dir.: Fernando Trueba; Cast: Javier Camara, Juan Pablo Urrego, Nikola Reyes Cano, Patricia Tamayo, Maria Teresa Barretyo, Laura Londano, Elisabeth Minotta, Kami Zea; Columbia 2020, 136 min.

Memories of My Father in a spirited family saga set against the background of Columbia’s darkest days.

Based on the (auto)biographical novel ‘El Olvido Que Seremos’ by Hector Abad Faciolince, Spanish director Fernando Trueba and his brother David set their story in the city of Medellin, where fiery militias took the law into their own hands. Both novel and film are a tribute to the Columbian human rights advocate and doctor Hector Abad Gomez, by his son Hector ‘Quiquin’ Abad Faciolince.

The story opens in a monochrome Turin in the early 1980s where student Hector Abdad (Urrego) is watching a South American gangster movie with a girl friend. We hear him later on the phone to his mother Cecilia Faciolence de Abad (Tamayo) discussing his father’s rebellious nature. Glorious colours then flood the screen as we revisit Hector’s ‘Quiquin’ (Cano) childhood world, dominated by his compassionate father (Camara) and his four sisters: teenage Mariluz(Barreto), Clara (Londano), Marta (Zea) and Vicky (Minotta.)

Medellin was a turbulent place to grow up: bombs went off regularly, right-wing militia terrorised the population, drug cartels fought it out, and at university fascist professors made life difficult for Abad Gomez. At home, matriarch Cecilia keeps the family finances in order, whilst Clara changes boyfriends regularly and Marta sings melancholic songs, playing the guitar.

Quiquin and his school friend are up to no good – throwing stones at the window of a Jewish family living next door. The school boys are victims of a reactionary aunt, a nun, who tells Quiquin that the Jews killed Jesus Christ and should be punished. Father Hector takes his son to the neighbours and makes him apologize. The same school friend asks Quiquin “if his father was gay” – since Hector senior likes to cuddle his only boy. The youngster is soon fed up with religion and God, and is ordered by his father to attend church to please his mother. The grandmother is sent to a care home, and Cecilia’s brother, a bishop, warns Hector to be more careful with his critique of the government and militia.

But the lack of sanitation in the poor quarters is appalling, and the doctor is the only one, who cares to get prosthesis’ for the victims of bomb attacks.  On the radio, the family listens to accusations against the patriarch, he is branded a Marxist, soon having to leave the country to teach abroad. Then tragedy strikes at the heart of the family and life is never the same.

The feature then circles back to 1983 and black-and-white footage seeing Hector returning to Medellin, where father and son are more and more estranged, since the young man does not understand his father’s social engagement. The first grandchild in the family is born, and Doctor Gomez announces that he is going to run for mayor of the city in 1987. After family tragedy, the scene is now set for confrontation.

DoP Sergi Ivan Castano can take much credit for this engrossing family saga, sometimes told in the style of a tele-novella. The black-and-white images are wonderfully lit, and the colour scenes at the heart of the feature are so vibrant in their crystalline intensity you almost have to squint. The directors avoids a political treaty, focus on the emotional conflicts. Memories is a testament to a man of passion and compassion. ©AS

CURZON HOME CINEMA exclusively from 26th March 2021

 

Viy (1967) and Sveto Mesto (1990) | Bluray

Dirs: Konstantin Yershov, Georgi Kropachyov | Cast: Leonid Kuravlyov, Natalya Varley, Aleksey Glazyrin, Nikolay Kutuzov, Vadim Zakharchen | USSR Fantasy/Horror 77′

In 19th century Ukraine a young priest is forced to undergo a macabre test of his faith in this whimsical gothic ‘folktale’ based on the 1835 novella by Nikolai Gogol – more Arthur Rackham or Grimm’s than Tarkovsky in feel – inviting us to reflect on the temptations of Lent, with a twist that taunts Russian Orthodoxy with its nihilistic overtones.

Surprisingly avoiding censorship due to Gogol’s revered status in Russia, this first slice of Soviet fantasy horror vividly brings to life the writer’s atmospheric prose and erotic and fantastical elements spiced with a little irony, all glowingly designed by communism’s answer to Walt Disney, Aleksandr Ptushko whose special effects in the delicately creepy haunting scenes make this particularly enjoyable, and include a 360-degree camera movement to create the illusion of a protective circle around Khoma, all enhanced by Karen Khachaturyan’s evocative score.

The film was previously adapted by Mario Bava as Black Sunday (1960) in the same simple storyline. As the purple twilight of a midsummer evening descends three lost novices bed down for the night in a remote wooden farmhouse after persuading the old lady who lives there to give them sanctuary from the wolves. Later she overpowers Khoma (Leonid Kuravlyov) in a bid to seduce him, literally riding him broomstick-style into the twinkly night sky as she turns into a witch. Beating her to death after landing, Khoma sees the crone morph into a dark-haired maiden (Natalya Varley) who later emerges as the dead daughter of a local nobleman who begs him, on pain of a flogging, to pray for her soul on three nightly vigils in the locked church, each ending with the crowing of a rather handsome cock.

Viy could be set in the 15th century of Andrei Rublev with its medieval-looking peasant farmers, but the grotesque humour of Khoma’s weird dance routine echoes Polanski’s Fearless Vampire Killers – made in the same year – and also based on a 19th legend in Transylvania. Romanian actress Natalya Varley is alluring in the role of the young temptress, at just under five feet tall.

Djordje Kadijevic‘s Serbian gothic film Sveto Mesto (A Holy Place) (1990) is a distinctly more scary and unsettling South Slavic take on Gogol’s story, directed as a straightforward gothic drama here by Djordje Kadijevic and starring the darkly alluring Dragon Jovanovic (as the priest Toma), the real life partner of Branko Pujic who plays his onscreen temptress Katerina.

Kadijevic loses the humour but sexes up the storyline of his version where Katerina is an altogether more nasty character: in a lesbian tryst with her maid, an incestuous one with her father, she also castrates one of her manservants after seducing him in a barn.

After dark, Katerina turns into a wailing banshee, needless to say, Toma goes grey. These chapel scenes are really quite terrifying, not to mention the wincingly brutal finale where Toma gets it in the neck and somewhere even more painful, in contrast to Khoma fate in Viy’s wittier fantasy style.

Sveto Mesto was made during the wartorn era of Balkan history when audiences were not looking for more horror in their lives so the film more or less sank without trace, only to re-emerge in recent years to serve as a worthwhile companion piece to Viy. Although technically less innovative, Kadijevic had a much tighter budget than the Soviets, and a dimmer view of society in general. His trump card was to secure as DoP Alexandar Petrovic, one Yugoslavia’s most talented filmmakers of the era, who gives the film a baroque visual style. Particularly choice is the line of dialogue “every woman who grows old becomes a witch”. MT

On Blu-ray from 15 March 2021 courtesy of Eureka

The October Man (1947) Talking Pictures TPTV

Dir: Roy Ward Baker | Wri: Eric Ambler | Cast: John Mills, Joan Greenwood, Edward Chapman, Kay Walsh, Joyce Carey | UK Drama 85′

John Mills has the good fortune to attract the interest of throaty-voiced enchantress Joan Greenwood (like Alec Guinness in ‘The Man in the White Suit’, also playing an industrial chemist, but one far less assailed by doubts and far less appreciative of her) in this atmospheric psycho-drama vividly designed by Alex Vetchinsky, gothically lit by Erwin Hillier, personally produced by Eric Ambler from his novel and marking an auspicious directorial debut for Roy Baker. ©Richard Chatten

ON TALKING PICTURES TV

Enfant Terrible (2020) BFI FLARE

Dir: Oskar Roehler | Cast: Oliver Masucci, Hary Prinz, Katja Riemann, Felix Hellmann, Lucas Gregorowicz | Germany, Biopic drama 134′

German film director and novelist Oskar Roehler (The Untouchable/Die Unberührbare) certainly has the provocative passion of his countryman Reiner Werner Fassbinder to judge by his incendiary homage to one of Germany’s greatest filmmakers screening at this year’s London annual Bfi Flare Festival festival.

Roehler has blazed a trail through New German cinema of the 1990s – and fires this visually alluring biopic with a wild and wilful ardor that would make Fassbinder proud. The German ‘wild child’ comes alive like never before in his heyday of the late 1960s-1980s when he made 41 films in 14 years.

Roehler has had to tread carefully because the source material belongs to the Fassbinder estate, the RWFF, fiercely guarded and controlled by Fassbinder’s editor and “widow” Juliane Lorenz, who is feared and respected in the industry for protecting the director’s reputation, so Roehler and his producers have had their work cut out to remain accurate while also not treading on anyone’s toes.

Successfully sliding under the skin of the private man behind the public facade, this is a biopic that feels uproariously nihilistic rather than uplifting, showcasing a driven and passionately rebellious provocateur addicted to love and politics and whose passions spilled out into his short but prolific career – Fassbinder was dead by the time most of us get going career-wise. At times it feels like Roehler identifies himself with his subject  veering into a romantic longing for his wild boy. This heady production certainly echoes Fassbinder’s milieu in taught, neon-lit scenes of sexual jealousy, megalomania and power play in a seedy Berlin’s underworld of1967, crisply lit and shot by Carl-Friedrich Koschnick as a play within a film in the confines of a studio designed by Berlin Babylon’s Markus Schutz.

All trussed up in a leather jacket, fedora and Aviators (and occasionally considerably less) Oliver Masucci – who played Hitler in Look Who’s Back – certainly fills the part of the Enfant Terrible in a beltering performance. Like his fellow mavericks Kubrick, Hitchcock and Von Trier, Fassbinder was utterly committed to his art and demanded the same from his crew and actors: “Why is the idiot looking at the camera? What are you doing man?? We’re shooting a movie here!

Fassbinder enjoyed turbulent relationships with men and women (he was once married to a woman after coming out at the age of 15) but the focus here is on his male partners and collaborators, and he greets a tousled haired besuited Ulli Lommel (Lucas Gregorowicz) when he offers his services, with a snide acknowledgement: “If you don’t want to keep doing your TV shit”

Masucci plays him as a chain-smoking, moustachioed mensch of explosive laughter, sneering repartee and excessive appetites who embraced life with gusto. For Fassbinder his life was his work and he existed in a collective with his collaborators sealed off from the rest of the world, everything playing out within the confines of this interdependent – often toxic – dynamic. Were his collaborators merely there to fire up his own personal narrative or was he just the train-crash victim of theirs? Arguably the former judging by Roehler and his co-writer Klaus Richter. Fassbinder once stated in an interview that it was this “exploitability of feelings” that fascinated him most. And he certainly comes over as a colourfully robust figure who would do anything to get what he wanted for his art. Interleaved with dramatised scenes of many of Fassbinder’s films it’s an entertaining, accomplished and beautifully made feature. MT

NOW SCREENING AT BFI FLARE 2021 | OTHER TITLES AVAILABLE AT

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Strange Journey | El Extrano Viaje (1964)

Dir: Fernando Fernan Gomez | Cast: Carlos Larranaga, Tota Alba, Lina Canalejas, Rafaela Aparicio | Spain, Drama 92’

It’s a wonder this very black comedy got past Franco’s censors in the first place. After the premiere it received only a very limited release, but has since enjoyed considerable acclaim. Based on the notorious unsolved death of two brothers found dead on a beach in Mazarrón in 1956, in the film they have become brother and sister; a pair of moon-faced simpletons completely under the thumb of their terrifying big sister Ignacia. The setting is a small coastal town in which old women in black shawls cluck with disapproval at swinging young sixties chicks in leopardskin slacks; while Ignacia presides over a Gothic old house deliberately reminiscent of the Bates mansion in Psycho.

Described by Pedro Almodóvar as an “accursed masterpiece”, the film’s director Fernando Fernán Gómez (1921-2007) was best known in Spain as an actor, and fleetingly appeared as Penelope Cruz’s senile father in Almodóvar’s All About My Mother (1999).

After Tota Alba’s Ignacia discovers passion she undergoes a startling visual transformation from the housekeeper in The Cat and the Canary into a dead ringer for one of Almodóvar’s short-skirted, big-haired cougars of the eighties and nineties. And as if the film wasn’t already weird enough, her downtrodden brother Venancio is played by international sleazemeister Jesús Franco, who although he often played small parts in his own films, here makes an extremely rare appearance in a substantial acting role in a ‘respectable’ film. ©Richard Chatten

 

Night World (1932)

Dir: Hobart Henley | Cast: Lew Ayres, Mae Clarke, Boris Karloff, Dorothy Revier | US Drama 58′

The opening montage of this delirious slice of pre-Code life amounts virtually to a declaration of intent, as various New Yorkers hit the town in pursuit of sex, booze and violence. You can practically hear the scratch of pencils from the bluestockings in the audience whose increasingly persistent calls to put a stop to the depiction of just this sort of depravity would soon, alas, be calling the shots in Hollywood.

In just 58 minutes, Night World depicts illegal booze (“they can make it faster than you can drink it”), homosexuality (in the flouncing form of “MISTER Baby”, played by a very young Byron Foulger before he grew his moustache) and adultery as facts of life; and comes dangerously close to condoning the latter in the scene in which Hedda Hopper appears as Lew Ayres’ ghastly mother who shot his father for an improbably innocent dalliance with another woman. (It also takes a rather callously casual view of violent death when the bullets start seriously flying in the film’s finale).

A couple of previous reviewers have compared Night World to a low rent Grand Hotel; with Merritt Gerstad’s extraordinarily mobile camera weaving it’s way throughout the joint picking up one set of characters and then another rather as Robert Altman would later do. Presiding over ‘Happy’s Place’ is a tall, lisping, English-accented proprietor called “Happy” MacDonald, played by – of all people – a third-billed and fascinatingly miscast Boris Karloff. The women all look magnificent – all that bobbed hair and bare shoulders! – and a sweet blonde Mae Clarke is permitted a sunnier characterisation than we are accustomed to seeing her get a chance to play. It’s a blast to see her actually dancing in the lineup on the floor show (with appropriately lascivious choreography courtesy of Busby Berkeley himself)!

The name of the prolific Hobart Henley often crops up in filmographies from the early thirties, but after Night World he only directed one more film. On the strength of this I’d sure like to see some of his others. ©Richard Chatten

 

Night Games (1966)

Dir: Mai Zetterling | Cast: Ingrid Thulin, Keve Hjelm, Lena Brundin, Jorgen Lindstrom | Sweden, Drama 105′

Even in her days working in the Hollywood mainstream as Danny Kaye’s leading lady Mai Zetterling always had an air of menace about her; which she more than amply confirmed when she finally got behind the camera herself. Night Games was in its day considered the last word in shocking, but is today largely forgotten; and it’s hard to figure out just how seriously we’re supposed to be taking it all until the Hal Roach-style slapstick and music behind the end credits finally clinches it: we’re not.

Zetterling’s second feature film as a director evokes Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957) both through its elegant shifts back and forth between the hero’s childhood and adulthood; and by the presence of Ingrid Thulin as the hero’s long-dead mother whose hedonistic lifestyle has left him marked for life, and of Naima Wifstrand (who had played Isak Borg’s terrifying mother in Wild Strawberries) as Jan’s dotty old aunt (while Jörgen Lindström, who plays the young Jan, had been Thulin’s nephew in Bergman’s The Silence).

Most of the mother’s entourage disport themselves more like characters out of TV commercials than recognisable human beings; recalling the orgiasts of late Fellini and the decadent weirdos who invade Tony’s home at the conclusion of Joseph Losey’s The Servant. For good measure, the final sordid scramble for expensive goodies resembles the conclusion of The Magic Christian; before Jan finally purges himself once and for all of a lifetime of Oedipal baggage by dynamiting the palatial family home to kingdom come. ©Richard Chatten

 

He Dreams of Giants (2020)

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

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

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

It’s good to see DoP Nicola Pecorini, costume designer Lena Mossum (who had kept all the designs from the original shoot) and PD Benjamin Fernandes back together again with Gilliam – they celebrate after shooting day seven: all of them had never come so far. Fulton and Pepe decide on a rather sombre tone. After freely admitting to the two of them: “I don’t actually like making films”, and I have done the film too often in my head, is it better to leave it there?” One has to respect his sheer perseverance, a quality that is often more valuable these days than talent.

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

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

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

ON DIGITAL PLATFORMS FROM 29 MARCH 2021

Zana (2019) digital release

Dir: Antoneta Kastrati | Cast: Adriana Matoshi, Astrit Kabashi, Fatmire Sahiti, Mensur Safqui | Serbia Drama 93′

The legacy of a war on a Kosovar woman’s life are insightfully portrayed in this hauntingly lyrical debut feature from Kosovo-born, LA-based writer/director Antoneta Kastrati.

Lume (Matoshi) lives with her loving husband Ilir (Kabashi) in a farming village of Kosovar Muslims, dominated by rituals and superstitions and caught between the past and the present in the lush Albanian countryside. Psychological scars run deep years after the war is over and Lume is suffering the double blow of losing a child and being unable to conceive another. Her bereavement is made all the more insufferable as she is defined by her childlessness in a community where family is the entire focus of a woman’s life.

Lume experiences the emotional fallout in all kinds of ways: nightmares and hallucinations – involving dead or wounded animals and a mysterious bloody corpse – and these are cleverly woven into the narrative providing a constant reminder of the atrocities of the 1990s – while daily village life sees grotesque interference from her mother in law, Lume emerging a detached and morose figure lost in a world of hopeless misery and indignity.

So backward is the set-up here that the family believe Lume to be possessed by an evil spirit rather than needing medical advice. But she soon resorts to village healers in the hope of a much desired pregnancy, and these intimate scenes are evocatively captured and contrast with the bucolic images of farming in the Balkan countryside that could be set in the 18th century.

Ilir is the most likeable character supporting his wife with genuine love and concern even when Lume’s father threatens to burn the couple’s house down when his daughter asks to come home after a visiting her mother. And this is where Kastrati makes us aware of the superstitious attitudes that are still very much alive, with constant talk of spells, curses and Black Magic freely banded around by a community still locked in the past, mobile phones their only acknowledgement of contemporary life.

Lume keeps her calm distance throughout until Ilir takes her to a witch doctor to rid her of ‘inner demons’. And she objects to his violent methods. But life improves dramatically when Lume finally conceives and once again we experience the full force of traditional rituals, her mother in law dominating family life and undermining her in every way. And gradually as winter sets in, the trauma of the past catches up with the present in a grim reveal which finally clarifies Lume’s rich dream life in a deeply felt tribute to Kastrati’s own family. MT

ON CURZON HOME CINEMA, BFI PLAYER AND BARBICAN CINEMA ON DEMAND from 2nd APRIL 2021

 

 

Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (1971) TPTV


Dir: Seth Holt | Starring Andrew Keir, Valerie Leon | UK | 1971 | 89 mins

Adapted from Bram Stoker’s mystical thriller The Jewel of the Seven Stars, this supernatural shocker is one of Hammer’s most enduring classics.

A British expedition team in Egypt discovers the ancient sealed tomb of the evil Queen Tera but when one of the archaeologists steals a mysterious ring from the corpse’s severed hand, he unleashes a relentless curse upon his beautiful daughter. Is the voluptuous young woman now a reincarnation of the diabolical sorceress or has the curse of the mummy returned to reveal its horrific revenge?

Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb was plagued by the sudden deaths of director Seth Holt and the wife of original star Peter Cushing, leading to rumours of a real-life curse. Michael Carreras completed the movie that made a Scream Queen of Valerie Leon as the Mummy who, in a titillating twist, forgoes the usual rotting-bandages and is instead resurrected sporting a rather recherché negligée.

Extras: New featurette – The Pharaoh’s Curse: Inside Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb | NOW ON TALKING PICTURES TV

The Columnist (2020)

Dir.: Ivo van Art; Cast: Katja Herbers, Bran van der Kelen, Claire Porro, Genio de Grot, Achraf Koutet; Netherlands 2019, 86 min.

A writer gets her own back in this provocative ‘woman-sees-red’ dramady that is funny up to a point, going for the jugular in an all out revenge movie that may give some viewers the wrong idea.

In his first big screen feature TV director Ivan van Art cleverly opts for a topical theme that kills two birds with one stone: trolling and female empowerment. The woman in question is journalist and author Femke Boot (Herbers) who is in the firing line from both her editors and readers. A typical day will include sordid e-mails from the public, and readers of the popular rag The Volksrant (a Dutch Daily Mail) calling for her resignation on the grounds of ‘paedophilia’ – she once dated a sixteen-year-old boy three year’s her junior, back in the day. To make matters worse her latest book is in the doldrums becalmed by writing block and a looming deadline.

So Femke strikes back with some online research, and it soon turns out one of the trolls is a neighbour. At this point spoilers are inevitable  – Femke pushes him off the roof, and symbolically, severs his middle-finger. Surprisingly she then falls for the laid back Steven Dood (van der Kelen), who runs a popular cookery website, and moves in with Femke (funny how men are always looking for somewhere to live) and her daughter Anna (Porro) and soon, writing side by side, creative juices finally begin to flow.

Strangely though, and this is a questionable plot point – Dood’s positive influence makes no impact on Femke’s state of mind. Her bloodlust powers on, hardbitten by Megxit-style revenge – her next victim is Anna’s teacher who censures a poster penned by the students.

At this point the narrative spins into overdrive with a ludicrous killing spree that seemingly knows no end. DoP Marttijn Cousijn handles the ultra-realism with imagination as the film – scripted by Daan Windhorst – tracks Femke’s decent into darkness. Arbers feels very real as a woman pushed over the top, Porro is also convincing as the apple falling not too far from the tree. There is a surprise ending as the The Columnist endlessly peddles itself as full-throttle entertainment, but you can’t help feeling there’s a subtext here, and it’s not just about the serious conflicts arising from internet trolling. AS

IN UK AND IRELAND from 12 MARCH 2021

Senso (1954) DVD/blu-ray

Dir: Luchino Visconti | Cast: Farley Grainger, Marcella Mariani, Alida Valli, Massimo Girotti, Heinz Moog, Rina Morelli | Italy, Drama 123′

Visconti’s first film in colour and his first with a patrician 19th Century backdrop, Senso is a squalid tale of base animal passion with an epic grandeur that raises it to the pantheon of Great Screen Romances by courtesy of Visconti having robed his sixth feature in the trappings of the momentous historical backdrop of the Risorgimento of 1866, Venetian locations, plush interiors, immaculate costumes and Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony (which wasn’t actually composed until fifteen years later).

The plot actually has marked similarities to Joseph Losey’s The Sleeping Tiger, made concurrently in drab monochrome in postwar austerity Britain; in which refined Alexis Smith (married to decent but dull Alexander Knox) completely loses her head over delinquent Dirk Bogarde. Ten years earlier, Visconti himself made a much more unadorned treatment of greed and destructive passion with Ossessione (1942) an adaptation of James M. Cain’s sweaty tale of blue-collar adultery and murder, The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Maria Callas had been Visconti’s first choice for the part of Countess Livia Serpieri – a society wife who becomes infatuated with good-looking creep Lieutenant Franz Mahler (played in a gleaming white uniform by an obviously dubbed Farley Granger), but she had too many theatre commitments to take time out for the shoot which eventually took nine months to complete, and Ingrid Bergman was too wrapped up working with her husband Roberto Rossellini, so the role eventually went to Alida Valli. Still stunning, but already perceptibly older than during her late forties Hollywood sojourn, in the arms of Lt. Mahler Valli discovers an erotic fulfilment entirely new to her; but to Franz she’s just another notch on his bedpost, and someone to sponge off.

Marcella Mariani (who died in a plane crash aged 19, just six weeks after Senso‘s premiere) is rather sweet and vulnerable as the young prostitute Clara who is spitefully exploited by Franz to further rub Livia’s nose in his rejection of her. Rina Morelli has an eye-catching cameo flitting about Livia’s villa in Aldeno as her maid, who seems to be actively enjoying the thrill of her mistress’s affair. But the most blackly comic element in the film is the way that as momentous historical events escalate around them, she and her idealistic cousin Roberto Ussoni (played by Massimo Girotti) are shown to be completely oblivious to what is making the other tick.

Under the impression that Franz is waiting for her at an address to which she has been followed by her stuffy husband (Heinz Moog) she melodramatically declares, with her back to the door, that YES SHE HAS A LOVER!!!, only to discover the place occupied by Roberto and his revolutionaries eagerly making plans; as oblivious of the turmoil raging inside Livia as she is by now indifferent to their cause. She commits treason by sheltering Franz from the Italians, and then gets even deeper into corruption by helping him to avoid combat by giving money meant for The Cause to him. One of a number of loose ends in the plot is that we never find out what happens when it’s discovered that 200,000 florins have gone missing from the fund intended to finance The Revolution, has been filched by yours truly.

As her grip on sanity loosens, Livia’s wardrobe (the work of Marcel Escoffier & Piero Tosi) becomes more and more buttoned down and severe, the black dress she wears in her final scenes making her resemble some ferocious bird of prey. The distinguished Italian cameraman G.R. Aldo was killed in a car crash during filming (this was also his first colour production); and the opening scene in Venice’s Fenice Theatre is the work of his successor Robert Krasker, who himself walked out on the production after falling out with Visconti, leaving the film to be completed by Giuseppe Rotunno. Whoever shot the amazing close-ups of Valli – her eyes wildly darting from side to side as she becomes more and more unhinged – merits particular kudos. During the final confrontation in the hotel you’re expecting her to produce a gun and shoot Franz; but she achieves the same end by more deliciously vindictive means, and he ends up in front of a firing squad assembled at remarkably short notice while she careens into the night to a very uncertain fate.

Having ended with a bang, the final credits still have one more surprise to serve up when the first two names we see after Visconti’s turn out to be those of the future directors (on this occasion humble assistants), Francesco Rosi and Franco Zeffirelli.

Senso was shot in English, and there are a couple of excerpts on YouTube from the truncated 94 minute English-language version, ‘The Wanton Countess’ which enable you to hear Granger in his own voice speaking dialogue written by no less than Tennessee Williams and Paul Bowles (thus confirming suspicions that we are witnessing a Venetian variation on A Streetcar Named Desire).

By the 1970s Visconti could finally make a film truer to his own inclinations in Death in Venice (1971), with Dirk Bogarde – once the object of infatuation himself in The Sleeping Tiger, but now the one smitten – in a production again dressed up to the nines, handsomely set in period, again using beautiful Venetian locations and this time almost entirely dispensing with dialogue in favour of Mahler, his favourite composer; whose name he had co-opted for the young officer in Senso (who had been called Remigio Ruz in Camillo Boito’s original novella). Richard Chatten.

NOW AVAILABLE ON DVD on AMAZON + CRITERION COLLECTION

The Little Things (2020) Digital release

Dir: John Lee Hancock | Cast: Denzel Washington, Rami Malek, Jared Leto, Chris Bauer | US Crime thriller 128′

John Lee Hancock proves that casting three Oscar winners isn’t always guaranteed to set the night on fire in his pensive police potboiler that ignites in the final hour.

The Little Things is a workmanlike Neo-Noir thriller that sees Denzel Washington’s Deputy Sheriff Deke Deacon join forces with Rami Malek’s Sargent Jim Baxter to track down a serial killer in a moody retro Los Angeles (the 1990s). And the sultry cinematic scenes are what makes this moody cat and mouse procedural watchable thanks to John Schwartman’s stylish visuals that keep us amused while the action gets going. Chemistry-wise Sargent and Sheriff are a mismatched pair who seem to be in different films that suddenly fuse once catalyst Jared Leto (Albert Sparma) appears as the scary suspect of their investigation.

Jim Baxter is basically an awkward bugger with a long-suffering wife, and troubled by past memories stoked up by the serial killer haunting the streets of downtown LA. And he lets it get to him. Deke has seen it all before and is far too laconic to allow ‘the little things’ to bother him, plodding along placidly before he pounces like a jaguar on his pray. Of the two you’ll be rooting for Deke.

These well-crafted characters feel real and believable but they just don’t gel – or at least that’s the impression given by Hancock’s rather loose script and treatment. Support comes in the shape of Chris Bauer’s genial Detective Sal Rizoli, and a cute little cop played by Natalie Morales.

As the net closes in around Sparma, Baxter’s mental instability gets in the way of the investigation, and Deke puts his foot down, tired of the suspect taking the law for a ride in the confines of the interrogation suite. Photos of the victims are bandied about but there’s no suspense to speak of – this is more a film about the cats than the mice, although Leto creates an unsettling crim with his haunting eyes, Robert Peston style vocal delivery, and a strangely incongruous pot belly.

The Little Things leaves us with too many unanswered questions as it trundles into a rather subdued character study of midlife crisis: Baxter’s coiled anger and petulant navel-gazing and Deke’s avuncular musings. The likeable Deke has no backstory as such but he’s living in a trailer in his run up to retirement, and making tentative advances towards Judith Scott’s calm and confident pathologist (far the most interesting and powerful female character of the piece) who doesn’t encourage him, so no love interest to speak of. What starts as a promise of Noirish excitement eventually finds its way into the crowed annuls of ‘also-rans’ as an everyday story of world-weary perfunctoriness that provides decent entertainment but certainly nothing to challenge your heart rate. I quite liked it. MT

THE LITTLE THINGS IS AVAILABLE TO RENT AT HOME ON PREMIUM VIDEO ON DEMAND

The Frightened Man (1952)

Dir: John Gilling | Cast: Dermot Walsh, Barbara Murray, Charles Victor, John Blythe | UK Drama 69′

An ultra-noirish cautionary tale (like most Tempean productions superlatively lit by Monty Berman) sternly warning audiences in postwar austerity Britain against the lure of apparently easy money; such as that stands to be acquired from frequent target Hatton Garden in a diamond heist.

Making the most of a meagre budget, John Gilling writes and directs a tighly-plotted and rather unpredicable little heist thriller that sees the profligate Julius Rosselli (Walsh) paying a visit to his adoring, antique shop-owner father (Charles Victor) after being sent down from Oxford University in disgrace. Julius plunders his father’s savings, flirts with the lodger (Murray) and soon falls in with a criminal element in a bid to make money without working for it, in a heist that runs into complications.

The first of two films by Tempean in which Charles Victor played the lead (the second being the title role in The Embezzler) flanked by the usual choice cast many of whom later featured in TV comedy series (Peter Bayliss in ‘The Fenn Street Gang’, Ballard Berkeley in ‘Fawlty Towers’, John Horsley in ‘The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin’, Martin Benson in ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ and Thora Hird and Michael Ward in just about everything else). Richard Chatten.

NOW ON PRIME VIDEO | TALKING PICTURES TV

Fukushima 50 (2020) Digital release

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Five Films for Freedom | BFI Flare 2021

During the FLARE LGBTIQ+ BFI’s annual celebration of all things gay five festival films have been selected to screen free internationally from 17-28 March

Five Films For Freedom 2021 sees filmmakers exploring emerging sexuality, trans-activism, homophobia and genderless love at a time when people may have been adversely impacted by the pandemic.

In a new twist for 2021, audiences will be invited to nominate their Five Films Favourite via a British Council web poll, the winners will be announced via British Council social media channels prior to 28 March. Voting opens 17 March via the #Five FilmsForFreedom homepage.

The FIVE FILMS FOR FREEDOM campaign has been going since 2015 and over 15 million people from more than 200 countries have engaged with it particularly in places where homosexuality can be prosecuted and, in some cases, punishable by death.

Five Film For Freedom programme 2021:

Bodies of Desire (India/Dir. Varsha Panikar & Saad Nawab/3 mins), directed by Varsha Panikar and multi-award-winner Saad Nawab, uses Indian poet Panikar’s work as the basis for a visual, poetic film capturing four sets of lovers in a sensual celebration of genderless love and desire.

Land of the Free (Sweden/Dir. Dawid Ullgren/10 mins) – Ullgren’s tense Swedish drama follows the fictional David and friends as they celebrate his birthday with a nightly swim at the beach. The good mood swiftly changes after two straight couples walk by and laugh – was the laughter directed at them, or something else? Who owns the truth of exactly what happened?

Pure (USA/Dir. Natalie Jasmine Harris/12 mins) is the fictional debut from 2020 Directors Guild of America Student Film Award winner Natalie Jasmine Harris, centring on a young Black girl grappling with her queer identity and ideas of ‘purity’. The film is written, produced and directed by Harris – a filmmaker passionate about the intersection between filmmaking and social justice.

Trans Happiness is Real (UK/Dir. Quinton Baker/8 mins) – a moving documentary from first-time filmmaker Quinton Baker – sees transgender activists take to the streets of Oxford, England to fight anti-trans sentiments using the power of graffiti and street art.

Victoria (Spain/Dir. Daniel Toledo/7 mins) follows a bittersweet reunion between a trans woman and her ex, sparking tension and long buried resentment. Directed by award-winning filmmaker, Daniel Toledo, Victoria also features acclaimed trans actress, writer and director Abril Zamora (The Life Ahead, The Mess You Leave Behind).

All films will be available to view from 17 – 28 March 2021 via the British Council Arts YouTube channel as well as being part of the BFI Flare digital programme on BFI Player and associated platforms.

My Father and Me (2021)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ON BBC2 MARCH 20th and stream on BBCiPlayer

 

     

Ballad of a White Cow (2021) Berlinale Competition 2021

Dir: Maryam Moghadam, Behtash Saneaeeha | Cast: Maryam Moghadam, Alireza Sani Far, Pouria Rahimi Sam, Avin Poor Raoufi | Iran/France, Drama 105′

Black clothed women make their way mournfully through grim corridors in this doleful drama screening in competition at this year’s Berlin Film Festival. It could be medieval times but this is modern day Iran, a million miles away from the thriving colourful capital of the 1970s. The film paints a dour fate for women, now at the bottom of the scrap heap, dogs don’t even get a look in, while men hold sway in modern attire, smoking and drinking tea together. And you can go to the cinema.

But like its deeply-religious Western counterpart Texas, Iran still carries the death penalty. The lead character Mina (Moghadam who also co-directs with Saneaeeha) is distraught because her husband Babak is condemned to death for a crime he did not commit in a miscarriage of justice. Thus begins Mina’s fight for the truth in a tense modern parable.

Ballad of a White Cow is social realism at the coal face, a restrained and thoughtful second feature fraught with hand-ringing introspection contemplating justice and the plight of women in a broken system, down on its knees and dominated by red tape, religious dogma and a corrupt judicial. And with an unexpected sting in the tail. Elegantly framed in long takes the dour monochrome monotony shows Tehran as a a grey place where Mina works in a factory to support her mute daughter Bita. Meanwhile Babak’s brother wants custody of the little girl and his father has her thrown out of their home.

Then along comes wealthy businessman Reza (Sani Far) who has friends in high places and takes pity on Mina offering her a lovely bright flat even helping her to move in. But Reza is a dark horse and Mina’s crisis is far from over. Just when Reza comes into her life with friendship it transpires he has problems of his own erupting during a spring storm and adding a welcome touch of drama, Mina rushing to his rescue, only to discover Bita is also in trouble. And then bad penny Babak’s brother is back.

Moghadam is simply staggering as a put upon woman struggling to do her best for her friends and family, clearly she needs help of her own, and we feel for her. There’s a wonderfully thoughtful scene where she opens her heart to Reza in a subtle display of vulnerability, but it falls on deaf ears. What could she expect? The finale comes like a bolt from the blue.  MT

 

The Last Forest | A Ultima Foresta (2021) Berlinale Panorama 2021

Dir.: Luiz Bolognesi; Documentary with Davi Kopenawa Yanorami and members of his indigenous community; Brazil 2021, 75 min.

The Yanomami tribe have lived in the Brazilian Rain Forest for over a 1000 years. Survival is the focus of this indigenous tribe, who are extremely smart, despite their primitive way of life. In his ravishing docudrama Luiz Bolognesi dives deep into the jungle on the borders of Venezuela and Brazil to uncover their story.

Bolognesi has already filmed the Yanomami back in 2018 gaining the trust of a group with the help of their Shaman and elder Davi Kopeneva Yanomami, who reveals the history of a tribe whose existence predates Brazil as a nation, by 500 years. But there is a new strand to their struggle. Since taking power in 2019, right-winger Jair Bolsonaro has sanctioned continuing deforestation of the Amazon encouraging gold prospectors who dig up the land occupied by the Yanomami, polluting the waters with Mercury and bringing disease, including Covid-19, into the community.

Above all this is a film to watch and marvel at, its enchanting images show an atavistic tribe unalloyed by the march of time, both men and women contributing to their daily subsistence by hunting with bows and arrow and poisoned darts. But there is an important message in Bolognesi’s narrative, and that’s the real thrust of his film.

Legend has it that there were two brothers, Omama and Yoasi who purportedly dug up the forest ground creating rivers and lakes. But the bothers were lonely and longed for women. Then Omama met the water goddess Thuëyoma, who came out of the river to join him, later admitting she had also slept with Yoasi who had treated her badly. Omama found his brother, rubbing his miss-shaped penis against a rock and banned him from the land to the other side of the ocean. “You are not my brother any more”. And Yoasi went away for good, and created death. Yoasi became the spirit of evil, whilst Omama buried the gold deep into the earth, so that Yoasi’s spirit could not be awoken to bring back the smoke of disease, which made us mortal.

Davi has lived with the ‘white men’, but he was lonely, and their ‘products’ put a spell on him. Making use of modern technology, he looks out of place making a phone-call, but this is all for the good of the tribe to organise resistance against the gold prospectors who have already made their negative presence known: In 1986 over 45000 gold prospectors forced the Yanomami deeper into the rain forest, killing between 1500-1800 natives. Six years later, despite of a change in the law granting this territory to the Yanorami. During the infamous Haxima massacre sixteen people lost their lives at the hands of the ‘white people’.Meanwhile back in the village, one woman mourns the loss of her husband: she believes the water goddess has taken him into the river with her, and begs the Shaman to help retrieve her husband.

Despite their primitive credentials the women here are very enterprising and have formed a co-operative to improve production of baskets which they can barter for food from the men, making them less reliant. Davi too is highly intelligent, demonstrating nous and a grasp of capitalism: “Gold prospectors dream a lot, but only about money. But it is the business men who keep the money, the ones who come here, the workers stay poor. It is all about greed”. He also remembers the plight of his relatives’ further north, whose water was poisoned with mercury.

The Yanomami are savvy and sociable people. DoP Pedro Márquez, who also photographed Ex-Shaman (2018), talks of their willingness to facilitate the making of the film, but ensuring they never looked into the  camera, believing it would steal their souls. The filmmakers’ hope is that they can persuade investors who work with the Bolsanaro administration, upholding the 1986 law so that the Yanomami can return to their way of life. AS

BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL 

 

Voyagers (2021) Coming soon…

VOYAGERS stars Tye Sheridan, Lily-Rose Depp and Colin Farrell coming soon to UK cinemas.

Sounding very much like a remake of Claire Denis’ 2018 Sci-Fi outing High Life  Voyagers sees the future of the human race at stake, and a group of young men and women, bred for intelligence and obedience, embarking on an expedition to colonise a distant planet. But when they uncover disturbing secrets about the mission, their training plan is soon abandoned in favour of exploring their most primitive natures, only to be consumed by fear, lust, and the unsatiable hunger for power.

VOYAGERS coming soon

 

Introduction (2021) Best Screenplay Berlinale 2021

Dir: Hong Sang-soo | South Korea, Drama 66′

Hong Sang-soo serves up his first slice of suggestible social drama for the year, at Berlinale’s 71st edition. Along with his muse (Kim Min-he) the usual sympathetic suspects join the party, the title has us hoping there may be a sudden dramatic epiphany but we’re not surprised when no such breakthrough occurs as the narrative soft-peddles enjoyably through to the end.

This is another short and sweet story, running at just 66 minutes, but make no mistake, the script is rich enough to stretch along for much longer, although the welcome brevity will always keep us coming back for more. No film festival would be complete without the South Korean master’s lightness of touch and teasing humour, and Introduction is no different.

Korean society is so coy and polite reflected once again in this delicate intergenerational piece, that will see the lowkey conflict play out between mother and son, and son and father. In one early scene a young couple meet again ever so formally after spending the previous one together. Maybe they are playing some sort of seductive game by adding an air of detachment to the rendezvous, a ploy that is always guaranteed to add a frisson of sexual tension to each new meeting. They are obviously in love. We have become accustomed to these winsome moments which are part of the director’s idiosyncratic cinema language but why this is called Introduction remains an enigma, and it could just be for no reason at all.

The film drifts peripatetically from South Korea to Germany. But one of the most interesting interludes involves the likeable Young-ho (Shin Seok-ho) who we first meet visiting his father (Kim Young-ho) at his acupuncture clinic in Seoul. The two clearly don’t see eye to eye and his father is under great emotional stress as he desperately tries to take a moment to relax in his private office, before placing strategic needles in one of his patients, famous actor (Ki Joo-bong), who, it soon emerges. dated Young-ho’s mother (Cho Yun-hee), and could be the reason for their marriage breakdown.

Meanwhile Young-ho’s timid girlfriend Ju-won (Park Mi-so) is off to study fashion in Berlin where she stays in a flat owned by a leading artist, and a friend of Ju-won’s mother (Seo Young-hwa), another rather fraught character who wants the best for her daughter in the rather controlling way mothers often do. Young-ho is also at odds with his own mother over his choice of acting as a career. Clearly she disapproves.

The film is full of these moments of tension that are so delicately appealing in their self-containment and so deftly handled with the director’s usual lightness of touch. MT

BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL | Best SCREENPLAY

Petite Maman (2021) Berlinale Competition 2021

Dir: Celine Sciamma | Cast: Nina Meurisse, Margot Abascal, Josephine Sanz, Gabrielle Sanz, Stephane Varupenne | Drama France, 72′

Petite Maman shows France’s Celine Sciamma at the height of her powers with an enchanting ghost story contemplating loss and longing through young eyes.

In competition at this year’s Berlinale, the French auteuse once again evokes the subtle sensibilities of human dynamics through her cast of child performers capturing naiveté but also resilience in the wake of a family bereavement.

The director showed a keen appreciation of childhood dynamics in her 2011 film Tomboy. Here the focus is little Nelly and how she copes in the aftermath of her grandma’s death as the family clears out the home so familiar and comforting in the first years of her life.

Avoiding sentimentality Sciamma maintains a pensive ambiguity for most of this almost spellbound drama that sees solemn 8-year-old Nelly (Josephine Sanz) wondering into the nearby woods where she meets  Marion (played by identical twin sister Gabrielle), the two striking up a tentative friendship as they build a tree house. These two are so po-faced they almost resemble the couple in Kubrick’s The Shining with their chilly demeanour, but we are far removed from any horror story here in a style that is best described at fantastical realism.

Mature beyond her years Nelly views her bereft mother with detatchment although she cares for her in the days after her own mother’s death, doing chores around the house with her father (Varupenne) who she regards with scepticism chiding him over his chain-smoking smoking. Sciamma gradually abandons enigma in the second half but also keeps us guessing as the story gradually unfolds in an eerie and suspended moment in time.

Building a gentle but detached camaraderie throughout the Sanz sisters give captivating debut performances that evoke confidence but also vulnerability. Meurisse is full of sensitivity as Nelly’s mother carrying her grief with a doleful dignity. MT

BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL 2021 |

 

 

The End of St Petersburg (1927) DVD

Dir: Vasevolod Pudovkin, Mikhail Dollar | Cast: Aleksandr Chistyakov, Vera Baranovska, Ivan Chuvelyov, V Obolensky | USSR Drama 87′


Despite the grandiose and specific title, and crammed with the usual magnificent images one expects of Soviet silent cinema (aided by Pudovkin’s regular cameraman Anatoli Golovnya), this worm’s eye view of the Revolution is as frustrating to watch as Spielberg’s remake of The War of the Worlds in electing to show momentous events from the perspective of a humble onlooker (Ivan Chuvelev) stuck at the back with a rather poor view of what is unfolding, and assumes a detailed knowledge on the part the audience (which may well have existed in 1927) of – say – the role of the First World War in the fall of the Romanov dynasty to fill in the gaps.

Pudovkin, like Eisenstein, had considerable resources at his disposal when he made this tenth anniversary celebration of the Russian Revolution, and the money’s up there on the screen, but without the cinematic exhilaration of Eisenstein’s October. No film about the Revolution seems complete without its visit to the Winter Palace, however, and The End of St.Petersburg concludes with Pudovkin’s original ‘Mother’, Vera Baranovskaya, wandering into the Palace and up the central staircase without encountering a single other person. How many authentic proletarians in 1917 really wandered about the building so casually in the Revolution’s aftermath? (Just as how many shareholders ever actually visit the sweatshops from which their wealth derives, like the guy in the Hitler moustache and stiff collar who introduces himself to the hero while he’s stoking a furnace?) Richard Chatten

NOW ON AMAZON

Tina (2021) Berlinale Film Festival | Specials 2021

Dir: Daniel Lindsay, T J Martin | With Tina Turner, Oprah Winfrey, Angela Bassett, Kurt Loder | US Doc 118′

The most surprising quality about Tina Turner, according to Dan Lindsay and T J Martin’s revealing biopic about the superstar, is her sheer determination, given her crushing start in life. This new new film chronicles Turner’s early rise to fame, her personal and professional struggles and her musical renaissance in the early 1980s. There are snatches of her iconic stage moments, with the American singer’s performance of her dynamite R&B hit:- River Deep…Mountain High being the most notable. The hit marked a move away from her controlling partner Ike, thanks to producer Phil Spector.

And there are snatches of Rolling Down the River, Heartbreak Tonight and Simple the Best – but mostly the focus is on the singer herself, revisited via the original interview audio tapes as well as commentary from the famous celebrity journalist Carl Arrington, in conversation in her Swiss lakeside chateau. Kurt Loder (the Rolling Stone editor), Angela Bassett (who played her in What’s Love Got to Do With It ), Oprah Winfrey and playwright Katori Hall, who wrote the book for the musical, are the most informative talking heads in a film whose first half is, appropriately, still haunted by the shadow of Ike.

She was born in 1939 in Nutbush, Tennessee, the child of cotton farmers. Her parents fought endlessly and her mother hit back – a defiance that clearly gave Tina her get up go after the two eventually disappeared leaving her and her siblings with a cousin. They never came back.

And she speaks out about her turbulent life and marriage to Ike who beat her with coat hangers, even when she was pregnant, during those Motown years. She admits to being “insanely afraid of him” so much so she attempted suicide two or three times due to his womanising and cruelty, and she finally left him-  ironically on the 4th July – finding salvation in Buddhism which changed her life and set her free to be resilient and self-determining – not a victim  – during her fifty year career in music. She left her marriage to Ike with nothing but her ‘name’ which is now a brand. So she had to go back on the road to make some money.

The turning point came in the 1980s when she came into contact with the engaging Australian manager Roger Davies who asked her how she saw a new solo career. She told him she wanted to be “the first female roll’n’roll singer to fill a stadium”.

And so he sent her to Britain for a new chapter in her life, setting off with a song she at first detested ‘What’s Love Got to Do with It’, written by Manchester born Terry Britten (and originally recorded for Bucks Fizz) that became the breakout number in an album ‘Private Dancer’, that sold out in two weeks and went on to spawn 50 concerts. Tina was 50. At this point manager Kurt Loder suggested she author a book to ward off the tacky stories that still dogged her time before and after Ike. And they didn’t go away – although the book ‘I, Tina Turner’ became a bestseller.

Restyled and booted, Tina’s terrific body and gyrating hips – not to mention her dynamite vocal delivery – made her a stunning stage presence and the film captures this jubilant wave of female emancipation that lit up London’s Wembley Arena and everywhere else she played.

The final scenes are gilded with a blissful aura as Tina reveals the love in her life in the shape of German music pro Erwin Bach, whom she met in 1986 and married 27 years later. And it’s these golden moments that really shine in a biopic that quietly reflects on the past and joyfully celebrates the tremendous feminine force of nature that is Tina Turner. MT

BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL | SPECIALS

Ted K (2021) Berlinale Panorama 2021

Dir: Tony Stone | Cast: Sharlto Copley, Drew Powell, Amber Rose Mason, Travis Bruyer, Megan Folsom, Andrew Senn | USA 2021 121′

We’ve all felt stressed out by noise and leaf blowers or that Tesco doesn’t stock our favourite break anymore but terrorist Ted Kaczynski took things a stage further killing three people and injuring 23 in his attempt to bring about “a revolution against the industrial system”.

“Yesterday was quite good, the only disruptive sounds were nine evil jets.” wrote Ted, a Harvard Maths professor, in his diary of 25,000 pages penned in the seclusion of a wood cabin in deepest Montana and his sanctuary after dropping out of a society he had grown to hate with a vengeance, Ted is the infamous Unabomber.

Tony Stone’s study of mental disintegration is a slick and engaging procedural drama that moves tensely through its paces to show how a brilliant albeit emotionally disconnected son and brother become a domestic terrorist, prompting the largest manhunt in FBI history. The film focuses on the final seven years from the late 1980s to his capture in 1996 and is screening in Berlin’s Panorama section at this year’s festival.

But Ted K never uncovers what drove Kaczynski  into isolation in the first place although we certainly get a glimpse of his family background, through fraught conversations, particularly with his mother who had possibly played her part in his complex personality disorder, and he rails at her in one phone booth conversation, blaming her for his dysfunctional relationship with the opposite sex, claiming to have never touched a woman despite being, by now, well into his forties.

Sharlto Copley makes a formidable lead as the geekishly sinister ‘Basil Fawly’ type character. An unknowable action man who vehemently competes against the elements in the stunningly photographed landscapes of the Big Sky Country on the borders of Canada. There’s a distinct retro feel to the small-town locations where Ted arrives on his easy rider bike to research his victims in computer shops, where one assistant shows him how to correct a sentence on a new-fangled word processor. You can feel the anger coiled like spring beneath his well-formed physique – Christian Bale could have been another contender for the part – although Copley has a meaner look to his craggy features and although irritated by noise and machinery, we see him carefully blow-drying his hair in the mirror after hitting himself on the nose with a brick. And there’s a fascination to watching him go about his daily tasks, often swearing under his breath in terse exchanges, especially when confronted by women.

Stone clearly speculates about Ted – clearly he’s no charmer in the style of Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dharmer who were more intimately concerned with killing their victims. Ted K is all about reclusiveness but he still talks of the tremendous relief at ‘getting his own back’ after after sending mail bombs to his imagined adversaries. Ted’s concern is a more ‘noble’ one aimed at those he blames for destroying nature and allowing technology to take over society’s wellbeing. Rather than intellectually engaging with those causing the damage, he strikes back like a wounded animal, killing them.

Stone makes atmospheric use of an electronic score by Blanck Mass that alternates with soothing classical vibes from Schubert’s No 2, Op 100 (that Kubrick memorably used in Barry Lyndon) But Copley makes no attempt to embroider or dress up the banal evil of his character playing him as a straightforward Mr Angry from Montana whose dour prickly introspection does lighten up a touch when a pleasant woman smiles at him in a shop. Stone’s portrait is more fascinating than thrilling but he doesn’t attempt to fashion it into an arthouse extravaganza – in the style of The True History of the Kelly Gang, and in some ways this is to film’s credit in portraying Kaczynski’s ordinariness and social dislocation. He is a deeply wounded man crying out for attention and rehabilitation. Or at least that’s what comes across in this watchable study of loneliness and desperation. MT

BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL 2021

 

I’m Your Man | Ich Bin Dein Mensch (2021) Best Leading Performance Berlinale 2021

Dir: Maria Schrader, Wri: Maria Schrader, Jan Schomburg, Emma Braslavsky | Cast: Dan Stevens, Maren Eggert, Sandra Hüller, Hans Löw, Wolfgang Hübsch, Annika Meier, Falilou Seck, Jürgen Tarrach, Henriette Richter-Röhl, Monika Oschek | Sci-fi Drama Germany 105’

Dan Stevens plays a sycophantic male escort in Maria Schrader’s darkly comic Sci-fi drama screening in competition at Berlinale 2021.

Slick, sophisticated and satisfying this dating movie with a difference sees things from a distinctly female perspective exploring love and desire in a scenario may remind you of another recent German comedy Toni Erdmann which also starred Sandra Huller as a put-upon professional. Here Maren Eggert plays a similar character, a hard-working scientist at the famous Pergamon Museum in Berlin, struggling to care for her dementia-ridden dad (Hubsch). She accepts an invitation to participate in an extraordinary experiment that will fund her research. For three weeks, she is to live with a humanoid robot. And this is where Dan Stevens comes in as ‘Tom’ a dating machine in human form, with the intention of fulfilling her dreams. But although Tom’s artificial intelligence has been designed to allow it to morph into the man of Alma’s dreams, sadly it is on the spectrum feelings-wise, unable to appreciate human emotion, forcing the couple to seek professional help, from a relationship counsellor in the shape of Sandra Huller.

Maria Schrader, who won a Silver Bear for acting and is the director behind breakout TV mini series Unorthodox and award-winning biopic drama about Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig, directs with supreme confidence adapting her script from a book by Emma Braslavsky, and adding a suggestive cinematic spin to her intuitive grasp of the subtle dynamics of love and dating, and the chemistry behind acting, in a film that reflects the reality that love relies just as much on the lows as the as the highs to be emotionally fulfilling for the human psyche. Maren Eggert is superb as the thinking woman’s love interest in a performance that is fraught with emotion as well as thoughtful dignity, never resorting to histrionics or melodrama. Benedict Neuenfels makes this a pleasure to look at with his lush summery landscapes of Germany and Denmark.

But the film belongs to Dan Stevens who gives a nuanced performance in a difficult role as a robot that teeters between the ideal emotionally intelligent man and a geeky robotic guy you may even and have dated yourself and eventually grown to love – and even fancy – for his truly masculine take on life. I’m Your Man shows a bright future, where women (and men!) can get what they really want. But do they really know what it is? MT

IN CINEMAS FROM 13 AUGUST 2021 | BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL 2021

Blast of Silence (1961) DVD

Dir: Allen Baron | Cast: Allen Baron, Molly McCarthy, Larry Tucker, Peter Clune | US Noir Thriller 77′

The most valuable asset to an ambitious young filmmaker of the 21st Century would probably be a time machine capable of returning you to the year 1960. Clocking in at just 77 minutes but seeming much longer, Blast of Silence is further evidence that in those days it would have taken genius for an independent filmmaker NOT to create a classic city ‘noir’. Just make sure there’s film in your camera and take your pick from all the breathtaking compositions – complete with vintage cars and sharply dressed passers-by – constantly forming around you; even Michael Winner couldn’t fail to turn in a black & white urban gem three years later with West 11 (1963).

It certainly anticipates Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai (1967) – but then so do Kubrick’s Killer’s Kiss (1955) and Robert Wise’s Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) – and plenty have been seduced by Blast of Silence’s aura of monochrome period cool into extravagantly overpraising it. Allen Baron’s inexpressive performance as hit-man Frankie Bono (he resembles a young George C. Scott) certainly provides a perfect blank slate on which to inscribe any profundities or angst that grab you. In his capacity as writer-director Baron at some point late in production evidently felt the need to do just that, calling upon two eminent blacklistees whose services at the time would have been available at an affordable price.

The insistent narration reminiscent of Mark Hellinger’s in The Naked City was written under the pseudonym Mel Davenport by Waldo Salt (who later won Academy Awards for Midnight Cowboy and Coming Home), while the rasping voice of Lionel Stander is uncredited but unmistakable on the soundtrack, providing the glue which with Merrill Brody’s photography holds the film together. Unfortunately much of what Stander keeps telling us on the soundtrack doesn’t really need to be spelled out so relentlessly; while Meyer Kupferman’s jazz score is extremely effective in moderation, but gets very noisy in places.

Despite supposedly being such a pro, Frankie Bono’s murder of Big Ralph (played by Larry Tucker, who I recognised from Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor) is remarkably amateurishly executed, his long-anticipated hit of Troiano no big deal, and he proves remarkably easy to ambush at the film’s conclusion. Richard Chatten

NOW ON AMAZON

The Taking of Pelham 123 (1974) Bluray

Dir: Joseph Sargent | Cast: Walter Matthau, Robert Shaw, Martin Balsam, Hector Elizondo, James Broderick, Dick O’Neill, Lee Wallace | US Thriller 104′

A depressing sign of the times is that Ridley Scott’s underpowered 2009 remake of this classic thriller has far more posts on IMDb, after ten years, than the original after twenty. Mind you, even older viewers would be hard-pushed to recall the name of the actual director. But Joseph Sargent (whose long career in TV included James Cagney’s final role in Terrible Joe Moran) put his long career directing actors to good use in his one major cinema release, filmed in New York with a cast recruited largely from Broadway (including Rudy Bond – who played the judge in the opening scene of 12 Angry Men – as the police commissioner).

A slow-burner with a terrific score by David Shire (whose other films include The Conversation and Zodiac). During filming everyone knew they were making a winner, but at the box office back in the day failed to come up trumps, and the thriller rarely showed up on tv during the eighties. It was eventually resurrected twenty years later as a cult movie after inspiring Reservoir Dogs, which turned the film inside out by not actually showing the caper itself, dealing instead which its planning and aftermath.

In Reservoir Dogs we instead see the squabbling among grown men over who gets what colour, while the black suits worn in Tarantino’s film reflect the simple but effective disguises employed by the original desperadoes (it comes as quite a shock when Mr Grey turns out to be bald underneath his hat).

Frederick Raphael cited the use of the word ‘Gesundheit’ and its implications in the final scene as exemplary of the high standard of the writing; evident throughout the film as when one of the security men observes that “You’d think a million dollars would look like more” or when Garber is surprised to discover that Inspector Daniels is black. The one major flaw is when Blue behaves wholly out of character by going back into the tunnel to kill the plainclothes man solely so that he can get caught (Matthau’s line that they don’t “at the moment” have the death penalty in New York State shows just how long ago this film was made). The scene where Blue kills the guard is genuinely shocking since we have come to care about him, but demonstrates just how ruthless Blue is and justifies his own sticky ending. Richard Chatten

NOW ON AMAZON

Gunman on the Streets (1950) DVD

Dir: Frank Tuttle | Cast: Dane Clark, Simone Signoret, Fernand Gravey, Robert Duke, Michel Andre | US Noir thriller 86′

Atmospherically shot by the veteran Oscar-winning cameraman Eugen Schüfftan, Gunman in the Streets is the English-language version of a co-production released in France as Le Traqué. The French version is now even more obscure than this, and since it had a different credited director (Borys Lewin, normally an editor) may be substantially different from this one. All those obviously Gallic types speaking English seem a little incongruous and it would be easy to imagine this with subtitles (Dane Clark and Robert Duke were presumably dubbed). Jean-Pierre Melville probably saw Le Traqué, and Fernand Gravet’s police commissioner, suavely hot on Clark’s trail, strongly resembles Paul Meurisse’s Commissaire Blot in Le Deuxième Souffle (1966).

The English-language version bears the name of blacklisted Hollywood veteran Frank Tuttle (before he yielded in 1951 to pressure to name names to the HUAC), which may be why it was never released theatrically in the United States. But it can’t have helped that it’s so relentlessly sordid, grim and claustrophobic, with a hero unlikeable even by Dane Clark’s usual charmless standard.

It starts like Odd Man Out, with Clark on the run on the streets of Paris with a bullet in his shoulder after shooting his way to freedom. He contacts former girlfriend Simone Signoret, curtly informs her that he needs 300,000 francs pronto to get out of the country, and they hole up in the apartment of a creepy admirer of Signoret’s (Michel André) who Clark handles predictably roughly. What Signoret (then in her absolute youthful prime) ever saw in this vicious little runt was beyond me; I guess he must have been dynamite in the sack. Richard Chatten

NOW ON DVD FROM AMAZON

The Mauritanian (2021) Amazon Prime 2021

Dir: Kevin Macdonald | Cast: Jodie Foster, Tahar Rahim, Shailene Woodley, Benedict Cumberbatch, Zachary Levi, Saamer Usmani, Baya Belal | US Thriller 129′

Tahar Rahim plays a longtime Guantánamo Bay detainee accused of masterminding 9/11, in Kevin Mcdonald’s worthy biopic, based on the memoirs of one Mohamedou Ould Slahi – aka The Mauritanian.

The film’s opening scenes unfold in an exotic North African desert location where a tented wedding ceremony is reaching its climax. But not for the white-robed Slahi (Rahim) who is whisked away and later brutally tortured in scenes of extreme violence, after his incarceration. Next we meet ‘no nonsense’ lawyer Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) tasked with batting for Slahi in his habeas corpus case, after he fails to be charged or given a trial. Her opponent in the ensuing courtroom potboiler is prosecutor Stuart Couch (Cumberbatch rocking a Louisiana accent is the highpoint of the film) and they make a formidable pair investigating what really happened to Slahi in the infamous prison. Denis Menochet, Shailene Woodley and Zachery Levi offer strong support but feel sadly underused in the scheme of things.

There’s incendiary dramatic potential here, and considerable humanitarian clout – not to mention a fabulous cast – and some swanky locations: New York, Cape Town and Mauritania itself – but somehow Macdonald delivers and underwhelming thriller whose finger-wagging script is so focused on the parlous state of US Democracy it starts to feel preachy rather than powerful in convincing us to care about those affected, particularly Slahi himself. And he comes across – mostly in flashback – as rather a glib character which is disappointing considering his stunning track record in a variety of roles. MT

PREMIERS ON PRIME VIDEO 1 APRIL 2021 IN THE UK | Premiered at Berlin Film Festival 2021

BERLINALE SPECIALS 

 

 

 

Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (2021) Golden Bear 2021

Dir: Radu Jude | Drama, Romania, Luxembourg, Czech Republic, Croatia 2021 | 106 min| Romanian | Cast: Katia Pescaru, Claudia Ieremia, Olimpia Malai, Nicoldim Ungureanu

The moral of Radu Jude’s latest film is simple: don’t put anything incriminating on film. But Bad Luck Banging addresses far wider concerns that its title suggests: hypocrisy, misogyny, tyranny, racism and of course sex are the elements of this intoxicating, indigestible cocktail – you may even feel sick by the end. If not, you’ll be left with a real mouthful to chew over. This thematically thorny Berlinale competition hopeful is not for the timid, and unfolds in three distinct parts.

Known for his unbridled dramas, snide social satires and several sombre documentaries the Romanian provocateur is back to his tricks with a mordant social satire laced with his usual brand of dark and irreverent humour and set in a crumbling Bucharest. Jude describes his treatise as a sketchbook, a work in progress – an unedited collage of ideas. It’s demanding, aggressive and visually stimulating – and opens, appropriately, with a bout of raunchy sex, between school teacher Emi and her partner Eugen.

Emi, (Katia Pescariu, who ironically last played a nun in Beyond the Hills) finds her career at stake when a video of her carnal encounter, shared on an adult only porn site, ends up on the general Internet. Discovering her flirty faux-pas Emi flees through the streets of Bucharest. And this febrile odyssey forms the film’s extensive second part which starts as an enlightening architectural tour of the centre, its crumbling facades and landmarks such as the Roman Orthodox cathedral and Nicolae Ceausescu’s Palace, but soon widens into an opportunity for the director to air his outspoken views on the state of the nation in a provocative pot-pourri of archive footage that reeks of subversion with its salacious snapshots and facts from the capital’s colourful past; these include Jewish and Roma atrocities, Orthodox Christian ceremonies, folklore and fables. As images flash before us – a row of pigs heads and a woman performing fellatio contrast with icons and ancient texts and more or less anything the director could lay his hands on to back up his view that society as a whole is hypocritical, pornographic and deeply misanthropic.

The third act takes us back to Emi who must now face the music in a socially distanced kangaroo court of teachers, religious officials, random citizens, and a man in an unfeasibly large teacosy, who all watch the tape – some quite attentively (especially the males) before holding forth with their vehement views in raucous and melodramatic debate on the rights and wrongs of Emi’s behaviour, working up to the film’s over-excited finale. This is an exhausting film to watch, and one that presents Romanian society as intelligent, fervent in its beliefs and proud to stand by them. And although we never really get to know – or even like – Emi as a woman, she serves the narrative as a fearless self-determining female of the future who refuses to take things lying down. MT

BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL | WINNER GOLDEN BEAR

 

 

Eye of the Storm (2020) Glasgow Film Festival 2021

Dir: Anthony Baxter | UK Doc 78 mins

“In the kingdom of the blind the one-eyed man is king” Desiderius Erasmus

James Morrison (1932-2020) was one of Britain’s finest Scottish landscape painters and a founder member of the Glasgow Group of artists. A new documentary set to premiere at this year’s Glasgow Film Festival paints a lively and amusing portrait of the painter himself and his vision of climate change that became his focus in the final years of his life when failing eyesight putting an impressionistic spin on what many regard as his finest work. Apart from offering insight into the painter’s substantial body of work and methods, this is the fascinating story of his greatest challenge. With his eyesight failing, one of Britain’s greatest landscape painters attempts one final masterpiece.

Hooking us in with its climate change credentials Eye of the Storm offers much much more. Entertaining and enjoyable, this artist’s impression of our changing world, also works as a mini Scottish travelogue, brought to the screen by Anthony Baxter (You’ve Been Trumped) who shows how the laid back and likeable character was inspired to paint Glasgow’s shipyards, and the countryside of Scotland, France and South Africa, and a series of works reflecting the impact of climate change after travelling to the Arctic. The artist had long be fascinated by the changing face of his native Scotland and the countryside in general was an issue close to his heart.

In his bright and airy studio the tousled haired Morrison shares his horror of not being able to paint – his eyesight dwindling – in the build up to a retrospective of his work in The Scottish Gallery in Edinburgh. His watercolour Green Valley (1972) will feature, amongst other works, in an exhibition dedicated to Angus landscapes. He began to paint the Angus outdoors in the 1970s ‘The Rolling Landscapes of Angus (1973). The following decade would see him moving to the north-west Highlands where he befriended a number of local artists, including the renowned figurative painter Joan Eardley. Yet even his famous landscapes avoid human presence:”I don’t want people, they seem an irrelevance to what the landscape is about”.

After studying art in Glasgow under David Donaldson, who taught him a technique of using a spent match (struck on his shoe heel) to get a head start on his life drawing classes, quite literally starting from a top down approach. Then after consciously moving away from the leftwing vibe of his early fellow painters in Glasgow. Morrison describes how he became increasingly drawn to painting the city’s built environment – some areas which no longer exist – and these sequences are enlivened by archive footage of tenement demolition, along with animated drawings and inter-titles featuring quotes from Cezanne, and pictures of Matisse.

In 1960 a move to the ancient East Coast town of Catterline (Scotland’s answer to St Ives with its artist community led by Joan Eardley) saw Morrison being drawn to seascapes with the fishing boats a frequent subject, a painting from the era ‘East Coast Fishing Boat’ (1962) describes in monochrome detail the magnificent fishing vessels which had already done decades of service in the unforgiving North Sea.

In 1971 Morrison found himself moving down the coast to teach at Dundee’s wellknown Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art where he made the next twenty years of his life about opening the horizons for those learning to paint, rather than setting a curriculum. During these exciting years, Morrison gave his students as much scope as possible. And it was in Dundee that he started painting ‘en plein air’ like the original impressionists, with their famous technique of getting the paint straight onto the canvas, after painting out the white, and without preparatory sketching. His hands on approach included mixing his own paints and stretching his own canvases, and it’s here that we get an impromptu visit to the famous French paintbrush shop Sénnélier in Paris.

His first visit to the Arctic came about after he met a biologist, Dr Jean Balfour (who suggested he should paint there), and these sequences are beautifully brought to life by Catriona Black’s animations and archive footage of Morrison at work. The documentary reaches its finale with a sense of anticipation as the artist goes ‘into the eye of the storm’ with his much anticipated, triumphant final work.

Talking heads include Catriona Black who animated key moments of Morrison’s life for the film, his art historian son Professor John Morrison, and the Montrose writer Dennis Rice. MT

EYE OF THE STORM is released in virtual cinemas from 5th March 2021 

McManus Gallery, Dundee

The Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jesus Egon Christus (2021) Berlinale Perspektive Deutsches Kino 2021

Dir.: David and Sasa Vajda; Cast: Paul Arámbula, Sascha Alexander Gersak, Roxanna Stewens, Angelo Martone, Benjamin Stein, Zora Schemm; BR Deutschland 2021, 51 min.

David and Sasa Vajda’s debut feature is an uneasy docu-fiction hybrid that follows a motley crew of drug addicts who have found refuge in an evangelical psychosocial support group at the outskirts of Berlin. Rumour has it that one former member Angelo (Martone) was a Mafia boss. Run by a self-proclaimed priest, a self-confessed junkie himself, who often insults and humiliates his ‘flock’, there is no structure in their day-to-day life, just an endless flow of psychotic people, left more or less to themselves.

Egon (Arámbula) is the main focus. Recently new to the group he does his best to fit in having to repeat even short utterances at least twice as he is sinks further and further in his psychosis during the filming. When Ben (Stein), beats the priest at chess, Egon compares him to Michael Jordan: “Ben is a Pro”. It soon emerges that Ben nearly overdosed, and that Egon avoids having a shower, apparently sharing his reluctance with Jesus to clean himself (clearly this is the key to the film’s title).

Egon is full of the usual gestures common to his particular mental illness. Out on the street he waves at the cars flying by, “allowing” them to pass. When a dumpster lorry stops to collect rubbish, Egon gracefully permits the men to get on with their work. Pinky (Schlemm) sings badly into a microphone, before declaring that Jesus is dead. Egon grabs the micro from her, sharing his ‘encounter’ with Jesus the previous night. “He said, he loved me, and does not like to shower. And he smoked cigars. And I said to Jesus, ‘laugh, at least once’.” As the film plays out Egon refers to himself increasingly in the third person singular – a sure sign of an impending split in his personality. He asks the priest if he will go to Heaven. “I want to know now”. At one point during dinner, the priest asks Egon to hoot like an owl, and the latter acquiesces.

We suddenly cut to a Super 8 home movie with the young Jenny (Stewans), who had been sexually abused by her father since the age of ten. Her torment went on for years. The voice-over also confesses Jenny and the family watched TV, a broadcast featuring child prodigies, one of them could remember all street names in Oslo.

DoP Antonia Lange contributes with her very realistic images to this perturbing and very unsettling narrative. Clearly all participants are suffering from major psychosis, and should be looked after in a proper psychiatric unit. The filmmakers’ neutrality is somehow infuriating – even though they stay true to their fly-on-the-wall cinema-verite approach. Benjamin Stein died and the feature is dedicated to him. AS

BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL

Natural Light | Termeszetes feny (2021) Silver Bear | Best Director | Berlinale 2021

Dir: Dénes Nagy | Cast: Ferenc Szabó, Tamás Garbacz, László Bajkó, Gyula Franczia, Ernő Stuhl, Gyula Szilágyi, Mareks Lapeskis, Krisztián Kozó, Csaba Nánási, Zsolt Fodor | Hu/Latvia /France/Ger | War drama Hungarian, Russian | 103’

“My subject is War and the pity of War. The poetry is in the pity’ Wilfred Owen.

Natural Pine is an unusual name for a Second World War film but refers here to the vast snowbound forests of deepest Russia during the long winter of 1943 where Hungarian director Denes Nagy takes us for his powerfully evocative debut feature, screening in competition at this year’s Berlinale.

If ever there was a film to be enjoyed on the big screen it is this one, its inhospitable landscapes, incandescent skylines and sombrely lit scenes of grim human endurance install a feeling of unsettling gloom from the outset as we are plunged into a Russian heart of darkness. The story is simple, the emotional toll is the main focus. Hungarian farmer turned infantryman István Semetka (Ferenc Szabo) is part of a Hungarian task force sent out on a gruelling eight month stint in the snowy wastelands, looking for partisans. This is no action movie but a thoughtful and cinematic contemplation of the moral dilemmas he faces along with his comrades face, and the emotional and physical repercussions that follow. It’s a unique war film. And one that commands respect.

While heading towards a remote village, the company falls under enemy fire and their commander is killed. So as the highest ranking officer, Semetka must take over, guiding his men through a swamp to an occupied village where they regroup and begin to question the locals. In time Sergeant Major Koleszar (Bajko) arrives to take over, his story of a bear attack is restrained and moving. Several villagers escape and, at his own risk, the courageous Koleszar stays on with the weapons and seven of the men, sending Semetka back to base with those injured. At a solemn meeting with his commander in chief, he is ordered to take two weeks leave with his family before returning to his ordeal.

This meticulous film takes its sober subject seriously in portentous, slow-burn sequences that convey the pity of war in the faces of the characters. There is a intimate reportage quality to the way Tamas Dobos’ camera reflects and lingers on the human face of the conflict, alighting on details: an insect on a civilian’s ear, a baby bawling in its mother’s arms, a woman begging for food – echoing the style of Don McCullin or Robert Capa. Each frame brims with restrained feeling. A picture conveys a thousand words. And it’s these painterly frames that carry most weight in Sbabo’s impressionistic first feature. MT

BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL | BEST DIRECTOR | Denes Nagy

Minari (2021)

Dir/Wri: Lee Isaac Chung | Cast: Steven Yeun, Yeri Han, Yuh-Jung Youn, Alan S. Kim, Will Patton, Noel Kate Cho | Drama

Lee Isaac Chung’s endearing portrait of a Korean-American family, Minari won the hearts and minds at this year’s Sundance, taking home both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award, and Yuh-Jung Youn went on to win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

The pace is gentle and upbeat as Chung unspools his autobiographical immigrant story – mostly in English- that feels real in its depiction of rural American in the 1980s (filmed in Oklahoma) then quite a difference place than the albeit modern Korea of his birth. Brimming with warmth and a touch of nostalgia, this is a universal experience of adjustment but the details are personal, imbued with the Korean sense of humour, and always delivered with a lightness of touch.

Originally starting off in California, farming-minded father Jacob (Steven Yeun) decides that the wide open spaces of Arkansas may be a better option for his family of four — mother Monica (Yeri Han), daughter Soonj (Noel Kate Cho) and son David (Alan S. Kim) — and they soon settle into a prefab with fifty acres in the hope of building up  a small-holding. With this idea in mind, Jacob and Monica take a job in the agricultural sector separating male and female baby chicks (or “chicken sexing”).

Monica is the only one who finds this new life a strain, the kids are only too happy to amuse themselves with plenty of land to play on. Grandma’s arrival helps to lighten things up providing a welcome buffer zone between Monica and Jacob – who are now barely talking – and helping with the kids who are the focus with their cheeky antics and naturalistic performances.

Jacob teams up for company with the local Bible-fearing eccentric (Will Patton) who spends a great deal of his time channeling Jesus, dragging a full-sized wooden cross along the main road. Feeling back-footed in his attempts thus far in providing for the family, Jacob’s business hunch finally shows signs of potentially coming good. But dramatic heft and gentle tension is provided when little David is in need of emergency medical treatment. No NHS to help here in the wilds of rural America. And although Minari doesn’t come through with a satisfactory conclusion to all the issues it raises, charisma and a real feelgood factor carries it through, along with winning performances from an impressive cast. MT

Now on release nationwide from 17th May | Oscar Winning for Best Supporting Actress: Yuh-Jung Youn |  Glasgow Film Festival 2021

 

 

 

 

From Where They Stood | À Pas Aveugles (2021) Berlinale Forum

Dir.: Christophe Cognet; Documentary with photos by Rudolf Cisar, Jean Brichaux, Georges Angéli, Wenzel Polack, Joanna Szydlowska, Alberto Errera; France 2021, 110 min.

In his groundbreaking new documentary French director/writer Christophe Cognet shines a light on photographs taken by inmates incarcerated in the Nazi camps of Dachau, Buchenwald, Mittelbau Dora, Ravensbrück and Auschwitz Birkenau. This creative act of resistance is another testament to the horror of the Holocaust.

The film’s French title From Where they Stood is best translated as “Shot Blindly”: Photographers had to work quickly – and undercover – as detection would have meant certain death. Newspapers or odd items of clothing came in handy for their covert reportage of their experiences – a sort of photographic message in a bottle – showing what they all went through during those tragic years.

Cognet unearthed the treasure trove, carefully locating and enlarging the images, before mounting them, framed, on a mini-dolly, so they could be matched with the help of trees to the exact positions in each camp.

Dachau survivor Rudolf Cisar made an album of 50 photos, today housed in the National Archives of Prague. During his time in Dachau Cisar led the resistance group ‘Ruda’ and shot his images of the camp’s sordid SS Museum, providing a day-to-day glimpse of life in the camps. The photos of the overcrowded infirmary, packed with typhoid sufferers, are particularly moving. Cisar also photographed the empty camp during Sundays, a day off, when most inmates stayed in their barracks, with only a few venturing out to talk to friends.

In Dachau Cisar chronicled executions, well aware that he could easily join the victims should he be caught. Jean Brichaux snapped French prisoners arriving and being put into barracks, they were joined by the Spanish writer Jorge Semprun, who had fled his country for France. Georges Angéli’s photos of the Brothel and the Cinema are particularly cruel when you consider that women from Ravensbrück camp were forced here into prostitution, having arrived in cattle trucks. The Germans used the cinema as a torture chamber, a macabre memory of their soullessness.

In Mittelbau Dora camp, Czech prisoner Wenzel Polack recorded the underground factory where inmates where forced to work day and night. His images serve as a courageous act of resistance that saw the inmates take back control of what really happened, even if doing so could have cost them their lives.

In Ravensbrück, Polish inmate Joanna Szydlowska recorded the terrible injuries she, and two of her friends suffered during medical experiments in the “hospital”. Dressed up in the best clothes possible, she bravely tries to smile while showing the long gash in her leg. Szydlowska later gave the photo to the French inmate Anise Postel-Vinay, who stood a better chance of surviving. In the end, both women survived, with Postel-Vinay taking the photos to Paris in 1945.These women were known as “rabbits” – the German word for Guinea Pig is “Versuchskaninchen” (Test Rabbit). The women were injected with gas to provoke gangrene, they were then re-injected with the bacilli, before the wound was sewn up. Prisoners’ limbs were repeatedly broken, severed muscles slashed, the results of these experiments would all be recorded.

Alberto Errera, a Greek-Jewish officer and camp resistance member, took part in the preparations for the Sonderkommando Uprising of 1944 – the same year he was murdered – his photos featured the interior of Crematorium 5 from inside the Gas Chambers, through the very same opening used by the SS to drop deadly gas capsules into the void where inmates would be sealed. The Sonderkommando (featured in Son of Saul) was a special unit of Jewish prisoners, whose task it was to clear the gas chambers, stack up the corpses and take them to the Crematorium to be burned (Sonderkommando members were always executed after a certain time limit by the SS, as not to have any witnesses). Whilst Errera was taking the photos, prisoners watched his back.

From Where They Stood avoids sensationalism at all costs, the filmmaker and his team treat the subject matter with the utmost respect and dignity, echoing Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah: Cognet lets the images tell the story, the trial-and-error attempts of the film team to pinpoint the locations adding a sense of tension to the ensemble as viewer is transformed into a first-hand witness. Another utterly compelling tribute to man’s will to survive and tell the real story. AS

BERLINALE FORUM 2021

 

Apache Drums (1951)

Dir: Hugo Fregonese | Wri: David Chandler | Cast: Stephen McNally, Coleen Grey, Willard Parker, Arthur Shields, James Griffith, Armando Silvestre | US Western 76′

Growing older makes you release just how shockingly young some of cinema’s luminaries were when they passed on (I have now outlived Max Ophuls by seven years, for example) and that Val Lewton was practically a boy when he exited film history aged a mere 46.

Lewton’s next move would have been to join Stanley Kramer at Columbia, but (having just tread water with two duff programmers for Metro) he went out on a high note with this, his only western, for Universal, that strikingly anticipates Zulu (right down to those under siege bursting lustily into ‘Men of Harlech’) and Assault on Precinct 13.

It was also his only Technicolor production and the potential for colour to heighten thrills is adroitly exploited in judiciously applied splashes of colour, like the green dress heroine Coleen Gray wears and the war paint the attackers come covered in when dramatically hurling themselves through the windows. Those almost expressionistically stylised windows (often visible in the background preparing us for attacks that don’t necessarily come) gradually change colour as the sky goes orange from Spanish Boot ablaze, and night becomes dawn (like the Manhattan skyline in Hitchcock’s Rope) until the door itself is finally devoured by flames when the final onslaught eventually arrives. Richard Chatten

NOW ON PARAMOUNT

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.

 

 

 

The Girl and the Spider (2021) Best Director Ex-aequo | Berlinale Encounters 20201

Dir: Ramon Zürcher, Silvan Zürcher | Cast: Henriette Confurius, Liliane Amuat, Ursina Lardi, Flurin Giger, André M. Hennicke, Ivan Georgiev, Dagna Litzenberger Vinet, Lea Draeger, Sabine Timoteo, Birte Schnöink | Switzerland 2021German 98’

The Girl and the Spider is an ambiguous puzzle of a film exploring the anatomy of a messy break-up. Dreams and anecdotes keep us entertained, while pets – a cat and a dog – steal the limelight.

This second feature from Swiss twins Ramon and Silvain Züricher (Das merkwürdige Kätzchen) sees Lisa (Amuat) leaving Mara (Confurius) to stay in their polyamorous flatshare. Chaos reigns throughout, Lisa’s mum (Ladri) flirts with removal man Jurek  (Hennicke) while overseeing the move. Mara swears “Fuck you!”, with Lisa answering “Later, first I move out”. suggesting that all may not be lost.

Clearly though the relationship has hit rock-bottom when Lisa insists on taking the dishwasher, telling Mara “you will never leave this dump, you’ll kick the bucket here”. To complicate matters Jan (Geiger) and Kerstin (Litzenberger-Vinet) also share this female centric ‘love-in’. Jan seems to be keen on Mara. Then there is Nora (Draeger), who spends a great deal of her time in bed asleep.

A young boy and a girl, possibly neighbours, add to the mayhem. And  Mrs. Arnold (Schoch), who stole the neighbour’s cat (who is now biting through cables), but has since returned it. The piano will stay in the flat as it belongs to the chambermaid (Schnöink), who once owned the place and is now working as a cleaning supervisor on a cruise ship – not that her short story makes anything clearer.

DoP Alexander Haßkerl conveys the general claustrophobia of this polyamorous set-up that takes place entirely within the confines of the cramped scenario, an obvious nod to the pandemic age, its residents and relationships in continual flux. The titular Spider story creates a constant formal tension in an aesthetically convincing, jumbled mayhem, but the lack of a satisfying narrative arc leaves us wanting more. AS

BERLINALE | SILVER BEAR | Best Director Ex aequo | ENCOUNTERS

 

 

Brother’s Keeper (2021) Berlinale Panorama 2021

Dir: Ferit Karahan | Cast: Samet Yıldız, Ekin Koç, Mahir İpek, Melih Selçuk, Cansu Fırıncı, Nurullah Alaca | Turkey / Romania 2021 | Turkish, Kurdish | 85’

Ferit Karahan’s stunningly captured second feature takes place in a draconian boarding school deep in the snowbound mountains of Anatolia. Bringing back memories of many British public schools where caning and freezing cold showers were commonplace, this study of cold-hearted repression serves as an artful metaphor for the ongoing conflict between Turks and their Kurdish underclass whose cultural identity has been repressed since the 1980 coup.

In this chilly hellhole – and the cold here is palpable – Turkish teachers subject the poor but gifted Kurdish pupils to regular beatings in spartan conditions where internet connection is random. Once a week, the boys are allowed to shower, and on one such occasion twelve year-old Memo catches a chill in the freezing dorm and by the morning is very ill indeed. His friend Yusuf tries to alert the masters to the boy’s plight but they carry on their collective neglect of Memo’s condition – so desperate are they to keep up the macho facade – until the boy becomes unresponsive, along with the mobile connection to the emergency services.

The tension is spiked by moments of hilarious situational humour – one involving a repetitive slipping sequence, another sees a puppy repeatedly trying to suckle its recalcitrant mother – Karahan – himself a Kurd – uses his largely non-pro cast to impressive effect. Elegantly framed and bitingly relevant this tightly packed drama unfolds in 85 enjoyable minutes. My Brother’s Keeper is an intelligent piece of film-making that makes impressive use of a low budget to create a memorable gem. At the heart of the story is Samet Yildiz’s haunting performance as Memo’s friend Yusuf, a boy whose knowing expression and sad eyes seem to speak volumes for the continuing plight of the Kurdish people. MT

BROTHER’S KEEPER won the FIPRESCI prize at Berlinale 2021 |

BEST SCRIPT, BEST FILM, ANTALYA FILM FESTIVAL 2021

 

Herr Bachmann and his Class (2021) Jury Prize Berlinale 2021

Dir: Maria Speth | with Dieter Bachmann, Aynur Bal, Önder Cavdar, Schüler*innen der Klasse 6 b, Schüler*innen der Klasse 6f | Germany, Doc 217’

A teacher nearing retirement decides to do his bit for international entente cordiale in Maria Speth’s immersive look at contemporary schoolroom dynamics. In Stadtallendorf, a German city with a complex history of both excluding and integrating foreigners, genial teacher Dieter Bachmann believes that social integration starts at grass roots level, offfering his ethnically diverse pupils a welcome entree into modern Germany

Aged between twelve and fourteen, these pupils come from twelve different nations; some have not quite mastered the German language, so Bachmann adopts a kindly approach to confidence-building, eager to inspire them with a sense of curiosity for a wide range of crafts, subjects, cultures and opinions.

Teaching is not just about loving your subject – it’s about being able to convey information clearly and engagingly. And Dieter Bachmann certainly has the emotional intelligence and patience to inspire his kids helping them to understand that discussion and dialogue is the way forward when dealing with others. His vision of utopia sensitively conveyed here in by Maria Speth and her cinematographer Reinhold Vorschneider, is a testament to something quite ordinary and yet so vital for children everywhere. MT

BERLINALE | COMPETITON 2021

Tag der Freiheit – Unsere Wehrmacht | Day of Freedom (1935)

Dir: Leni Riefenstahl | With Adolf Hitler, Hermann Goring, Rudolf Hess, Heinrich Himmler | Germany, Doc, 28′

As we approach the much awaited days of freedom the renowned German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl was focusing on a Day of Freedom of another kind. Tag der Freiheit marked Riefenstahl’s third and final visit to Nuremberg for the rally of September 1935. Although she would doubtless have preferred for it to have  remained missing; the film resurfaced in the 1970s to further challenge her claims of being present at the rallies merely as an impartial observer.

The early 1930s saw her limbering up to film the 1936 Olympics, and both the photography and editing of Tag der Freiheit mark considerable advances on its ponderous predecessor Triumph of the Will; and watching this bellicose display of military machismo it’s again extraordinary to reflect that a woman was directing it.

Subtitled ‘Unsere Wehrmacht’ (‘Our Wehrmacht’), the emphasis is this time squarely on the armed forces rather than the NSDAP, and the film was shrewdly sneaked into cinemas as part of the supporting program for the popular costume drama Der höhere Befehl – thus ensuring plenty of people saw it – as well as screened it in schools until 1938.

The ‘freedom’ to which the title refers to here is from the constraints of the Treaty of Versailles, the disarmament clauses of which had been denounced by Hitler the previous March and which are here shown being brazenly flouted by an aggressive display of military might with cutaways to the Führer looking on in approval. (The fellow with the monocle on Hitler’s left is the newly appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Army, General Werner von Fritsch, later forced to resign on 4 February 1938 following trumped-up accusations of homosexuality by Himmler and Goering.) Exactly where all the bullets and shells supposedly being fired are ending up within the confines of the zeppelin field on which it was staged is alarmingly unclear. For the sake of the spectators and the aircraft shown being fired at, hopefully they’re all firing blanks.

Triumph of the Will had begun with the arrival on the tarmac at Nuremberg of a lone private plane carrying Germany’s new saviour. Tag der Freiheit by contrast ends with the sky filled with military aircraft flying in formation (including a swastika), soon to be deployed in the Rhineland, which showed the direction in which the new Germany was now decisively and irrevocably moving. Richard Chatten.

AVAILABLE ON AMAZON AS A BOX SET

Gatecrash (2021) Digital release

Dir: Lawrence Gough Cast: Olivia Bonamy, Ben Cura, Anton Lesser and

Adapted from a play by Terry Hughes, Gatecrash is a slick home invasion thriller that retains its stagey claustrophobic credentials by keeping things mostly indoors, thus keeping the budget down. As usual with these contempo British indie films, the female character is the victim.

Samuel West has been persuaded to join the decent cast of what is a slim but effective four-hander that ultimately leaves too many questions unanswered. It sees a French woman Nicole (Olivia Bonamy) trapped in an abusive relationship with her hard-edged and controlling husband Steve (Ben Cura). After a night out in their flashy car the couple return to the confines of a plush garage where a vicious row breaks out. Clearly something has gone wrong and they both blame each other, although Steve is clearly the culprit and coerces Nicole to keep schtum.

But it gets worse. Two other characters know what’s happened and they’re not going to let Steve get away with it. As the innocent party, Olivia’s feelings of isolation and fear intensify grow as the pair are increasingly pressurised to fess up – at any cost. MT

Gatecrash will be available for rent or Digital Download from 22nd February in the UK and Ireland.

A River Runs, Turns, Erases, Replaces (2021) Bfi London Film Festival

Dir: Shengze Zhu | China, Doc

“it is not the voice that commands the story: it is the ear.” Italo Calvino

Chicago based Chinese filmmaker Shengze Zhu follows her Tiger award-winning documentary Present. Perfect (2019) with this acutely personal almost Proustian love letter to the past. Serving as a paean to pre-pandemic times but also a poignant reflection on how the world continues to change, not always for the better. It also serves as a humble apology for a town she never particularly liked anyway. The town is Wuhan.

Several years ago no-one had ever heard of the infamous city that sprawls along the Yangtze River in Northern China, and whose wet markets would soon breed a global health crisis that would help to decimate our lives. Many of us now feel a complete dislocation from our pre-Covid past. The life we knew, before the pandemic took hold of ‘normality’, is changed forever. The innocence of spontaneity is also gone, another nail in the coffin of freedom – rather like that of post 9/11.

Back in 2010 when she left for America, Shengze remembers the burgeoning industrial metropolis of Wuhan as ‘a stage on which people perform in various ways’ a landscape formed by nature and then dramatically assaulted by roaring machines and rapidly rising infrastructure. A place where ‘memories are buried. The lost place’. But it’s the little things that count here, rather than Wuhan itself. The shop that sold her favourite spicy beef noodles, has shut down, the friendly owner moved away.

In her restrained and strangely alluring treatment Wuhan is very much a character who she remembers – but not always with pleasure. Casting her mind back to the past Shengze avoids nostalgia, instead reflecting on consequences in this contemplation of the past and the lost in a bid to revaluate what happened, and what could still happen.

Five years in the making the film starts in the very recent past, recorded on surveillance footage that pictures empty streets gradually filling again after April 2020 with figures standing in tacit obedience. The images of ‘before’ in the empty streets play out in a series of vignettes held for several minutes in a static camera, a ‘symphony without music’ is how Shengze describes them. Her decision to use the distant ambient soundscape is a wise one, making this so much more transcendent in its eerie beauty, picturing the bustling metropolis with surprising grandeur. There are also scenes of meditative calm – the neon lights of the suspension bridge are strikingly beautiful as they shimmer in the darkness.

A River is imbued with a vague feeling of wistful regret, the whirring neon-lit industrial present slowly pans out into the purple past in the fields beyond where buffalo still graze in contented torpor. And the Yangtze River is the endless glowing connective tissue that keeps on flowing, renewing, cleansing. No one can imagine just how vast Chinese cities are until they visit. But Shengze conveys some of this enormity in a way that never feels frightening or aggressive. Her memories are now locked in the past but the future keeps on coming. A reflective, positive, graceful film that brings hope from so much tragedy. MT

NOW SCREENING AT BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL | BERLINALE FORUM 2021.

The Good Fairy (1935)

Dir: William Wyler | Wri: Preston Sturges | Cast: Margaret Sullavan, Herbert Marshall, Frank Morgan, Cesar Romero, June Clayworth | US Drama 98′

In her short life, the ethereally radiant Margaret Sullavan (1909-1960) did not last the night, but the lovely light she briefly gave is preserved for posterity in charming mementoes such as this. Deeply touching in drama, Sullavan’s best remembered comedy role was in Ernst Lubitsch’s evergreen The Shop Around the Corner (1940), which was the second romantic comedy she made set in Budapest. ‘The Good Fairy’ was the first.

Scripted by Preston Sturges from a play by Ferenc Molnár produced on Broadway in 1931, The Good Fairy would have been a very different film indeed but for the introduction of the strict new Production Code of June 1934 just three months before shooting commenced. Sturges had to keep one step ahead of the film throughout production as he extensively rewrote the script, which has the Hays Office’s fingerprints all over it; as well as a generally disjointed feeling – such as the early disappearance of Alan Hale from the narrative, never to return; and the late appearance of Herbert Marshall, never to leave – and a LOT of talk. The droll film-within-the-film which reduces Ms Sullavan to tears which was added to the script by Sturges is among a number of hints earlier on in the film that we were going to something sharper and more sophisticated than the bowdlerised romcom that we actually get. (The same plot played as drama might have made better use of Ms Sullavan’s talents and made a more interesting film).

Sullavan plays Luisa Ginglebusher, a charming, accident-prone orphan who is vastly more innocent and unworldly than the sweetly manipulative little vixen played on Broadway by Helen Hayes. Rather bizarrely plucked from the orphanage to become a cinema usherette – for which Luisa is kitted out in a magnificent uniform that looks more like one of Marlene Dietrich’s cast-offs from ‘The Scarlet Empress’ – as Miss Ginglebusher ventures out into the big wicked city, one initially fears for the safety of this seeming cross between Prince Myshkin and a more garrulous version of Chauncey Gardner.

But salvation is at hand in the form of Detlaff, a brusquely kind-hearted waiter played by Reginald Owen; who looks younger than I’m used to seeing him and gives the most engaging performance I’ve ever seen him give (he befriends her while cautiously removing her knife when she reveals to him during dinner that she was released from an asylum that morning, but quietly returns it when it turns out that the asylum was for orphans); and takes it upon himself to protect her from the wolves that prowl the city (an extremely wolfish-looking Cesar Romero puts in a brief appearance as one such).

The film, unfortunately, soon tires of giving us a heroine who’s just a simple working girl (we never actually see where she lives, for example), and is irrevocably derailed by the introduction of Frank Morgan as Konrad – one of those vague, benevolent millionaires encountered so often in Hollywood movies – who agrees to become Sullavan’s sugar daddy without ever suggesting he might eventually be expecting some sugar in return. Ironically, considering he is today principally remembered for later playing the title role in The Wizard of Oz, Morgan actually describes himself at one point as “a wizard” and offers to demonstrate his magic powers to Luisa by pulling out his cheque book to enhance the life of the non-existent husband she has just made up to ward of his advances.

I agree with ‘kyrat’, who said in an earlier IMDb review nearly fifteen years ago that it would have been more fitting to have bestowed Konrad’s windfall upon her own good fairy Detlaff rather than just randomly take a name from the ‘phone book; and the romance that develops between Luisa and the thus gifted Dr. Sporum (Herbert Marshall in a goatee and wing collar) – whose greatest excitement at his sudden good fortune is that he can now afford a proper office pencil-sharpener – seems dictated by Hollywood convention rather than any actual chemistry between them. (Surprise! Surprise! the film ends in a wedding; and I would have liked to have had a better look at the very striking wet-look art deco bridal gown we fleetingly see Ms Sullavan walk down the aisle in just before the end credits.)

As the film progresses Luisa frankly comes across as a bit of a simpleton rather than just a pure simple soul; and the 25 year-old Sullavan is playing a girl nearly ten years younger than her real age surrounded by middle-aged men whose motives all remain impeccably but rather improbably chaste (there’s some supposedly innocent but I found decidedly creepy horseplay in Konrad’s hotel room with him pretending that he’s a mountain lion and Luisa’s a lamb).

But this is all A-grade Hollywood hokum done to a turn by rising young director William Wyler (who ran off with Sullavan to get married in the middle of production), and all very pleasant if you don’t take it too seriously; which I’m sure nobody involved in the production did. Richard Chatten

NOW ON AMAZON

The Ace of Hearts (1921)

Dir: Wallace Worsley | Wri: Gouverneur Morris, Ruth Wightman | Cast: Lon Chaney, Leatrice Joy, John Bowers, Raymond Hatton, Hardee Kirkland | US Silent, Drama 65′

At noon on 16 September 1920 the United States suffered the most destructive act of terrorism yet committed on American soil when a bomb believed to have been planted by Italian anarchists exploded on Wall Street, killing 30 people outright and injuring hundreds of others.

Already in cinemas, Wallace Worsley’s The Penalty (1920), had recently starred Lon Chaney as the head of a gang of anarchists plotting a spectacular robbery; and a year later the director and star released a similarly themed follow-up based upon another novel by Gouverneur Morris.

Obviously a pot-boiler compared to The Penalty (but like its predecessor handsomely shot by Donovan Short), Chaney has top billing but a very secondary role as a member of a secret society who resemble the anarchists in Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907), the conspirators in Thorold Dickinson’s Secret People (1952) and the vigilante judges in Peter Hyams’ The Star Chamber (1983). They decide to rid society of a vile plutocrat (Raymond Hatton, called “The Menace” in the cast list but referred to throughout the film as “The Man Who Has Lived Too Long”) by cutting cards to choose the assassin. This scheme is complicated by an extremely uninteresting love triangle comprising Farallone (Chaney), Forrest (John Bowers) and the intriguingly named Lilith (Leatrice Joy); the last being the brotherhood’s only sister, a prig whose infatuation with “the Cause” means she has zero interest in romantic matters.

Although selected on the basis of cutting cards (an obvious nod to Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘The Suicide Club’), Forrest should have been the obvious candidate to carry out the assassination in the first place; since for the past three months he’s been working as a waiter in the restaurant where The Menace has breakfast every morning at 9.00, and thus perfectly placed to shoot him in the head at point blank range.

Instead their chosen method of execution takes the form of an entirely indiscriminate act of terror employing a bomb capable of destroying an entire building; which it should already have been obvious to Forrest and his associates would mean that The Menace would not be the only casualty (like the little Kenyan girl in Eye in the Sky). Sure enough, when it finally dawns upon Forrest that there will be collateral damage the entire operation is compromised.

The bomb itself looks like a cigarette case and neatly fits into a jacket pocket: yet another example of movie technology far in advance of anything available in real life. The Wall Street bomb itself had had to be brought to the site where it exploded on a horse-drawn wagon.Richard Chatten

NOW ON YOUTUBE

 

Film Memories from Korea: Five of the Best

Sweet Dream (Lullaby of Death) (1936) Yang Ju-Nam

One of the few lost films from the Japanese colonial era (1910-45) that has been rediscovered in recent years tells the story of Ae-sun, the vain wife of a middle-class man who has no interest in looking after her family and is chased out by her husband, only to find out her lover is not the prosperous entrepreneur she thought he was but a poor student and criminal.

Madame Freedom (1956) Han Hyeong-Mo

Films of the 1950s confronted some of the key issues facing Korean society as it rebuilt itself again. Madame Freedom, an adaptation of the decade’s most scandalous serial novel, centred on a woman whose troubled marriage symbolises the tension between collapsing traditional values and the influence of Western capitalism, as she goes from one torrid encounter to the next. The box-office success of this film encouraged a renewed flow of investment into a film industry hit hard by the war.

Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter…and Spring (2003) Kim Ki-duk

A sublime, poetic, transcendental trip that explores the essence of the human condition with wit and poignancy. Sadly Kim Ki-duk died in December 2020 but his often provocative award-winning work defined Korean arthouse cinema at the turn of the 21st century, with often striking visual allure.

Thirst (2009) Park Chan-Wook

An intelligent take on Zola’s Therese Raquin this opulent and topical vampire melodrama seethes with irony in its Grand Guignol lyricism. A priest offers himself up to be infected with a virus that eventually takes over forcing him to abandon his ascetic existance. 

In Another Country (2012) Sang-soo Hong

This low budget comedy drama starring Isabelle is one of funniest Korean films I’ve ever seen and competed for the Palme d’Or in 2012. Huppert plays three different versions of a French woman who visits a small fishing village, the humour lying in the ‘lost in translation’ situational comedy in her interactions with various locals.

NOW ON YOUTUBE | ON DEMAND | DVD/BLU

The Wheel of Fantasy and Fortune | Guzen to Sozo | Grand Jury Prize Berlinale 2021

Dir.: Ryusuke Hamaguchi: Cast: Kotone Furukowa, Katsuki Mori, Kyohiko Shibukawa, Ayumu Nakajima, Hyunri, Shouma Kei, Katsuke Mori, Aoba Kawai, Fusoko Urabe; Japan 2021, 121′.

Director/writer Ryusuke Hamaguchi (Happy Hour) weaves three short stories into an emotionally powerful feature with a richly crafted script that could spin out into three more full length dramas. The Wheel is well acted and visually alluring and a strong contender for this year’s Golden Bear

In chapter One, ‘Magic – Or Something Less Assuring’, two actresses, Meiko (Furukawa) and Tsugumi (Mori) drive home in a taxi after a shoot. Tsugumi tells Meiko all about a guy called Kazu (Nakajiima). She’s has clearly fallen in love. She also tells Meiko about his emotional trauma with an ex who cheated on him. Little does Tsugumi know that her friend Meiko is the woman in question. And once Tsugumi has got out of the taxi, Meiko goes straight round to Kazu’s office. Clearly things are not over for the couple. When Tsugumi and Kazu meet up in a cafe Meiko casually walks by the window. She is invited in, and the audience are invited to choose one of two alternative endings.

Episode Two – Door Wide Open – follows a humiliated college student, Sasaki (Kei) take revenge on his professor, Segawa (Shibukawa) with the help of his lover Nao (Hyunri) also a ex-student of the professor, and  now married with a daughter. Together they hatch a plan that sees Nao walking into Segawe’s office at the university with the aim of securing incriminating evidence of the professor’s unseemly behaviour. She reads him a pornographic excerpt from his prizewinning novel, but despite his reluctance to be drawn into the trap the poor man ends up becoming involved in a salacious encounter, Nao taping the incident and sending the evidence to Segawe’s university mail address, losing hum his job. Nao and Sasaki meet by accident five years later, and all has changed.

The third – Once Again – is by far the most intriguing segment that sees three characters involved in a lose love triangle originally meeting in college and going on to live their lives before becoming involved again in a drama of mixed identities and role play. Natsuko Higuchi (Kawei) meets up with her class of 1998. She is obviously an outsider, hardly bothering to socialise. Next day in Tokyo she meets Aya Kobayashi (Urabe). Natsuko is convinced Aya is really her ex-girl friend Mika Yulli, a girl she wanted to spend her life with, but who decided to marry a man. It takes Aya ages to convince Natsuko she is not Yulli. Aya is married with two children before the virus Xeron ruined electronic communications, and sent the world back to mailed post and telegrams. Aya is helpless, before she decides to participate in a role play, in which she plays Yulli. Natsuko tells ‘Yulli’ how much she was hurt by her decision to leave her. Now Natsuko regrets the past, she has never fallen in love again. After the women re-bond Aya agrees to play the role of a girl in her class, Nozumi, a boyish girl, on whom Aya had a crush. Aya and Natsuko part as friends, having created a romantic past.

The is an elegantly crafted romantic drama full of twists and turns, a mature masterpiece, with Hamaguchi effortlessly playing all emotional nuances in a satisfying trilogy of different passionate styles. Apart from being a master class in narrative structuring, Wheel is also full of ambiguity and ambivalence: human emotions being shown as destructive as well as healing. Outstanding. AS

BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL | GRAND JURY PRIZE  2021

Fabian: Going to the Dogs (2021) Berlinale Competition 2021

Dir: Dominik Graf | Cast: Tom Schilling, Saskia Rosendahl, Albrecht Schuch, Petra Kalkutschke, Elmar Gutmann, Aljoscha Stadelmann, Meret Becker, Michael Hanemann; Germany/Austria 2021, 176 min.

Fabian: Going to the Dogs is the second big screen adaptation of Erich Kästner’s 1931 novel Fabian: Die Geschichte eines Moralisten, and much more successful than Wolf Gremm’s rather facile 1980 attempt.

Directed and co-written by German veteran director Domink Graf (The Invincibles) it does justice to the novel and its author. Erich Kästner (1899-1974) best known for his children books, which often found their way into screen versions, like Das Doppelte Lottchen, filmed as The Parent Trap in 1961. Fabian was his only mature adult novel. His poems and lyrical texts are rather whimsical in their romanticism echoing the of his contemporary Kurt Tucholsky, who emigrated to Sweden where he committed suicide in 1935

But Kästner stayed in Nazi Germany, even though he was present when his books (with many others) were burned as ‘Entartete Kunst’ by the Nazis. The author visited exiled colleagues, but “wanted to remain in Germany as a chronicler”. Unable to write anything but children books, he was not even allowed to join the ‘Reichsschriftstumkammer’, the global Nazi organisation for writers, but nevertheless managed to write (uncredited) the scripts for Munchhausen (1943) and the adaption of his own novel ‘Der kleine Grenzverkehr’ as Salzburg Comedy, also in 1943, under the pseudonym of Berthold Burger.

Kästner was an individualist not given to joining groups in the post-war Federal Republic, he nevertheless remained true to his pacifism demonstrating on the ‘Easter Marches’ against re-militarisation and nuclear weapons, and later against the Vietnam War. Fabian‘s two leading male characters correspond quite closely to the author’s personality .

Fabian is set in and around Berlin in the final years of the Weimar Republic, where Dr. Jacob Fabian (Schilling), in his twenties, works in an advertising agency, enjoying a nightlife of sexual escapades. He meets Irene Moll (Becker) whose husband pays other men to sleep with his wife – if he approves of them beforehand. Fabian will meet Irene on two more occasions: on the first, she gives him work as her assistant in a brothel offering female sex workers for heterosexual men. Later on in a train to Dresden, she offers to take him to Budapest for another sexually charged enterprise. Fabian’s close coterie of male friends includes Dr. Stephan Labude (Schuch) an emotionally unstable intellectual champagne socialist who is writing his post-doctoral thesis on Lessing. Fabian, on the other hand, avoids politics, devoting his time to his lyrical writings. All this changes when he meets meets the young Cornelia Battenberg (Rosendahl), an aspiring actress.

The two fall in love, and their magical nighttime foray in Berlin is one of the film’s highlights, before the two return to the cheap pension where they both live. But money will be their downfall, and after visiting Labude at his posh family estate, Fabian finds himself dismissed from the agency on the grounds of his lack of focus. Enter Cornelia’s more illustrious suitor, the film producer Markart (Stadelmann). At a lunch with Fabian’s mother, Cornelia leaves her lover and sits at Markart’s table. This is the beginning of the end for their relationship, and both struggle to maintain contact.

But worse is to come for the romantically inclined pals who are both subsumed by their political and amorous ideals. Labude falls foul of a prank at the university where the Nazi Germany had considerable support: far from being the party of the underdog the Nazis were a major contingent of the intellectual establishment.

Meanwhile Fabian returns to his parents in Dresden where he continues his life supported by regular phone calls with Cornelia, who visits their favourite cafe every afternoon to wait for him. Having ignored countless public posters of “Learn to Swim”, Fabian ignores them, and goes to the rescue of a boy who jumped from a railway bridge into a river. The boy survives and uncovers Fabian’s bag, full of writings and personal memorabilia.

The is a visually alluring drama despite some tricksy multi-screen images which feel out of place in the period setting. DoP Hanno Lentz and PD Klaus-Jürgen Pfeiffer recreate the era with avantgarde flair. Schilling and Rosendahl have chemistry and make for a believable couple caught in the midst of a ‘coup de foudre’.

But it’s Graf’s direction that really wins the day, creating a German epos full of contradictions, but with universal appeal. Yes, the running length is questionable, the overbearing sex scenes are filmed with the male gaze, women are either total victims or scheming traitors (like Cornelia), – but overall Graf comes close to Bernhard Wicki’s 1989 masterpiece of  Spider’s Web, set in the same period in Germany, and based on the novel by Joseph Roth who, like Kästner, was an immigrant with addiction issues. Graf pulls off the “double-suicide” of two romantic idealists unable to face a world that did not reflect their longings. AS

IN COMPETITION BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL 2021

 

Courage (2021) Berlinale Competition 2021

Dir.: Aliaksei Paluyan; documentary with Maryna Yakubovich, Pavel Haradnizky, Dzianis Tarasenka; BR Deutschland, 89 min.

A spirited and heartfelt documentary debut from Belarusian director Aliaksei Paluyan who explores the aftermath of last year’s presidential election that saw the country’s authoritarian incumbent Alexander Lukashenko (their first and only elected president since 1994) simply staying in office despite mounting mass demonstrations on the grounds of vote rigging. Paluyan anchors his story in the experiences of three actors three from the Free Theatre of Minsk, who left the State Theatre 15 years ago to combine art and politics.

Maryna lives with Dzianis and their baby – the father resentful at having to work as a car mechanic: “I have betrayed art and I am aware of it. Three years ago I left, because the play was only on for eight days before it was censored for Satanism.” Pavel, the third of the actor’s trio, lives with Nadya, the two discussing a way out of the situation: “Everyone in the Free Theatre is blacklisted by the Secret Police”.

During the mass demonstration after the August election, the theatre has to plan their protests carefully: “Not every member of the theatre can demonstrate, leaving only one person in charge of care parcels and lawyers”. The only way they can all show their disdain for the Lukashenko is by building up mountains of lavatory paper in front of the Presidential Palace. Meanwhile the President is safely ensconced behind the walls guarded by the OMON, a Special Police Force inside the Militsya.

A demonstrator shows off his “gentleman’s travel bag”: toothpaste, toothbrush and 3 changes of underwear”. The OMON throws stun grenades at the crowd, who shout back “Join us, for Belarus!” The few who put their shields down are hugged by demonstrators. Maryna and Dzianis discuss breaking headlines that accuse OMON of using live munition in Brest (on the border with Poland) where one man was killed. Obviously their priority is the baby. Dzianis discusses the news with his father, a former OMON member. It’s very much a case of the load being passed down to the next generation. But naturally Dzianis does not want his child to carry the baggage he leaves.

The only route to freedom is through Poland and Lithuania, who accept political prisoners from Belarus, so the actors discuss an escape plan. Meanwhile we join rehearsals in the Free Theatre where the play’s director – Nikolay Khalezin, watched up with the production on Skype from London – one tense scene features an interrogator officiously demanding a confession from a demonstrator. When asked ‘why’ by the defendant, the secret policeman answers: “Because my job is necessary, yours is not.”

These fraught scenes are juxtaposed with more mellow ones – Pavel and Nadya trying to let a wasp out of the window of their pokey flat: in Belarus even insects want to be set free. Every weekend there are mass demonstrations all over the country, OMON answering with charges, huge military vehicles and water cannons. And finally, we see Maryna on stage in “Discover Love”, the story of Iryna Krasaouskaya whose husband was one of the first who “disappeared” and was found murdered in 1999. The number of forced disappearances in authoritarian states all over the world are read out: a staggering figure runs that into millions.

DoPs Tanja Hanrylchik and Jesse Mazuch follow the action with their handheld cameras, taking us to the heart of the crisis with febrile footage desperately conveying these troubled and tumultuous times. AS

BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL | COMPETITION

 

What Do We See When We Look at the Sky (2021) Berlinale Competition 2021

Dir/Wri: Alexandre Koberidze | Cast: Giorgi Bochorishvili, Vakhtang Panchulidze, Ani Karseladze, Oliko Bakradze and Giorgi Ambroladze | Georgia, drama 126′

Everyone hopes for love at first sight. And this serendipitous human miracle lights up everyday life in a Georgian city in the whimsical sophomore feature of Georgia’s Alexandre Koberidze, in completion at this year’s Berlinale.

The lovers in question Lisa and Giorgi meet quite by chance in their home town of Kutaisi (north west of Tbilisi) agreeing to see each other the next day without exchanging details. But a stranger has cast the evil eye on their happiness making them look completely different during the night and in the morning they desperately try to recapture the magic of their first flirtatious flight of fantasy.

Emerging brain-washed from their respective abodes these two are now played by different actors but still remember the passionate feelings of the day before. The tone is light-hearted, Koberidze making use of magic realism to show how they both fall into news jobs in a local cafe (owned by Vakhtang Panchulidze).

Meanwhile, Koberidze offers a glimpse of other lives in this city on the banks of the Rioni Rivier where everyone is going about their daily activities. Colourful disconnected vignettes spin out one after the other, in a city looking forward to the World Cup, even the local dogs. All the while people are singing and enjoying themselves in the leisurely atmosphere viewed up close and on the widescreen, there’s a magical feeling of camaraderie and a quiet contemplative glow but also a hint of wistfulness in the air giving the film a gently poetic feel. We never get to know the protagonists and so they remain distant, locked in this modern fairy tale.

Intoxicated by its own joie de vivre the gently tragic docudrama rather overstays its welcome at well over two hours but  DoP Faraz Fesharaki does his best to keep us entertained and enthralled with glowing images, using a static camera to enhance the film’s dialogue light often sorrowful final sequences. In a world with so much tragedy, conflict and seriousness, Koberidze shows us there is still room for dreams and serendipity.

The last film Georgian film in Berlin’s main competition was Temur Babluani’s 1993 Silver Bear winner The Sun of the Sleepless which garnered ‘outstanding artistic achievement at the event in 1993.

BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL | COMPETITION. 

 

The High Bright Sun (1965)

Dir: Ralph Thomas | Wri: Ian Stuart Black, Brian Forbes | Cast: Dirk Bogarde, Susan Strasberg, George Chakiris, Denholm Elliot, Colin Campbell | UK, 96′

Dirk Bogarde’s ninth and final film for Betty Box and Ralph Thomas. Although King & Country (from which Bogarde went straight into this slick, good-looking guilty pleasure) had been set during the Great War, and this as recently as 1957, this seems more of a throwback than Losey’s film.

The whole thing takes place during Cyprus’ war of independence from Britain in 1957/ Strasberg is Juno Kozani an American archeology student who gets caught up in conflict not only with war but also between a local guerrilla fighter (George Chakiris) and Bogarde’s British Army Intelligence officer who tries to protect her.

Despite the glossy sixties veneer, James Bond-style bouzouki & trumpet score by Angelo Lavagnino (and bona fide Cypriots George Pastell & Paul Stassino in supporting roles who both appeared in Bond films) this is more like one of Bogarde’s fifties war films. One of them, They Who Dare (ironically made by the director of All Quiet on the Western Front), also co-starring Denholm Elliot, had actually been made in Cyprus. Obviously Cyprus was out this time round so the picturesque backdrop is provided by Italy.

In the final scene on the flight to Athens I had long assumed the blonde BOAC stewardess was in league with the bad guy, and it was quite a while before I realised the significant looks she kept throwing his way during the flight were those of a concerned innocent bystander rather than a confederate.) Richard Chatten.

DVD AVAILABLE

 

Jack’s Ride | No Táxi do Jack (2021) Berlinale Forum 2021

Dir: Susana Nobre | Cast: Joaquim Calcada | Portugal, 87′

Portuguese director Susana Nobre won the prestigious La Femis Scholars’ Award with her short film Provas, Exorcismos. She comes to Berlin with her unusual first feature No Táxi do Jack which is part road movie part ethnological portrait of small-town rural Portugal but there’s a sting in the tale to the concentric narrative.

Jack’s Ride seems quite straightforward at first as we follow the main character Joaquim Calçada, 63, now semi-retired and back home in his village after spending his working life as a taxi driver New York. Joaquim’s day is full of the usual chores, organising his pension arrangements and shopping for food. Nobre establishes the milieu of this rural backwater with its industrial outcrop and traditional neighbourly values, more 1970s in feel than the present day, and this is reflected in the film’s rather florid visual aesthetic, Joaquim is locked in a time warp looking like a character from Scorsese’s Taxi Driver with his dyed black hair, leather jacket and lifts. That said he is a decent, respectful man who cares for his wife, his long-dead parents, and his blind friend, a wheelchair user with diabetes. Nobre paints a portrait of a contented but rather backward place where traditional values still matter.

The rather mundane daily drama plays out against the more intriguing narration by Joaquim – and here there is a dramatic trip over New York’s skyline, provided by archive footage, as he reminisces about his old emigrant days in New York’s mean streets where life was tough as he struggled to make it in the urban jungle, particularly when the law of the jungle saw him challenging someone he thought was his friend. MT

BERLINALE | FORUM 2021

 

Social Hygiene | Hygene Sociale | Best Director | Berlinale Encounters 2021

Dir: Denis Cote | Maxim Gaudette, Eve Duranceau, Eleonore Loiselle, Larissa Corriveau, Kathleen Fortin, Evelyne Rompre | Drama, Canada,

Singular, original and always refreshing Canadian auteur Denis Cote continues to push cinematic boundaries with a body of work that avoids convention in its freedom of expression.

His latest film – screening in this year’s Berlinale Encounters section – is another curio that defies categorisation, it is certainly highly individual it its style. In a bid to fly in the face of Covid restrictions the film is appropriately set in the wide sweeping landscapes of Cote’s verdant homeland of Canada, this beautiful bucolic setting very much playing a leading role of its own.

Dressed up as a filmed play, the characters pronounce their lines at the top of their voices competing with ambient birdsong in the forest setting, and the dialogue itself is delivered like a piece of 17th century French theatre – in the sonorous style of Racine or Molière – it could almost be Le Misanthrope (with Antonin being the philander Philinte), its characters each representing a distinct point of view. Some members of the cast wear period costume, but not always. Essentially a series of long shots like scenes in a play are broken by an interlude where a young man walks aimlessness across the screen, ‘the play’ then continues its story about a hapless loser Antonin (Gaudette) who looks to his female friends and consorts for guidance and savvy advice.

His sister Solveig (Corriveau) wears modern dress most of the time, whereas Antonin’s ex-wife Eglantine (Rompre) is dressed in period garb. And although the play is delivered in a 17th – or even early 18th – century style the content is very much contempo with its social media allusions and references to the present day.

Eglantine, it turns out, is now involved with another man, but flirts with Antonin suggesting she is opens to rekindling their relationship, on condition that he mends his ways. Meanwhile Antonin still carries a candle for another love, in the shape of Cassiopee (Duranceau), although she has apparently moved on to pastures new. Various other characters highlight Antonin’s crimes and misdemeanours: Rose (Fortin) claims he has not paid his taxes and Aurore (Loiselle), that he has stolen from her car.

Social Hygiene will certainly be remembered as a film made during the time of Covid. But what this comedy of manners is satirising is open for interpretation. MT

BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL 2021| Best Director Ex-AEQUO with The Girl and the Spider.

District Terminal (2021) Berlinale Encounters 2021

Dirs: Bardia Yadegari/ Ehsan Mirhosseini | Drama, Iran/Germ 117′

In the near Tehran future will be reduced to a broken down backwater. At least that’s the view envisaged in District Terminal a rather stylish but overlong social and political drama from first time Iranian filmmakers Yadegari and Mirhosseini, screening in the Encounters strand in this year’s 71st edition of Berlinale.

This vision of dystopia and existential angst is seen from the perspective of a mother and her junkie son Peyman (played by Yadegari) who are struggling to make sense of their daily lives as they face a grim and uncertain future in a pokey flat near Tehran’s eponymous transport hub. A lethal virus, possibly the result of environmental pollution, has brought the city to its knees and their local neighbourhood has been placed under round-the-clock surveillance by quarantine officers.

The film’s premise is universal, especially in these Covid times, but District Terminal feels distinctly Iranian in flavour, making use of use of his exotic poems written (and he often chants them in hushed tones in Farsi) on the peeling walls of his bedroom. The junkie moments are given an artful spin by the cinematographer.

There’s nothing unusual about this doom-laden scenario. While his long-suffering mother gets on with the business of running the domestic side of his life, the self-obsessed loser Peyman spends his time shooting up and listening to jazz; over-thinking the status quo (and these moments are envigorated by menacing archive footage of ecological disasters); attending his alcoholics support group; and Skyping a skanky-looking woman in the USA who he has married to get a visa, and who is hoping for great things from this ‘marriage’. Meanwhile Peyman is desperately learning English, while his teeth are falling out one by one.

Sometimes his daughter swings round to see him, chanting Amy Winehouse songs and rocking a beanie – rather than a headscarf – she confesses to her father that she loves dating “assholes” and promptly leaves in a white Mercedes.

His two closest friends Ramin and Mozhgan seem the most edifying companions but Peyman is also in hopelessly involved in an illicit love affair. There’s absolutely nothing appealing about these any of these characters who are locked, almost contentedly so, in their aimlessly existence. After a while living in lockdown does induce people to settle for the lowest common denominator, but there’s also something deeply irritating about the way these characters refuse to aspire to anything more than their days of emptiness, drug-taking and navel gazing. MT

BERLINALE | ENCOUNTERS 2021

 

Bloodsuckers – A Marxist Vampire Comedy (2021) Berlinale

Dir.: Julian Radlmaier; Cast: Aleksandre Koberidze, Lilith Stangenberg, Alexander Herbst, Corinna Harfouch, Andreas Döhler, Anton Gonopolski, Daniel Hoesl, Mareike Beykirch; Ger/France/Switz 2021, Drama,125 min.

A tour de force of German cinema of the 1960s and 70s slips through the cracks in this riotous summer seaside sortie that sees a penniless Soviet refugee in thrall to an exotic vampire and her love-sick manservant a decade after the First World War.

Gloriously set on the verdant Baltic coast in 1928, Bloodsuckers channels the wacky humour of Woody Allen’s Love & Death with a touch of Bruno Dumont’s Slack Bay thrown in. Just falling short of self-parody in a bizarre two hours, this is high-octane stuff intellectually-speaking; a nuts and bolts grasp of Marxism or the ins-and-outs of Soviet film history will partly explain Radlmaier’s arcane comedy caper and third feature. That said, you’ll either love it, or hate it – to death.

The film unfolds in three chapters with incomprehensible titles but the settings are sumptuously photographed, although not always in keeping with the era costume-wise – occasionally striking a bum note that gives the film the amateurish look of a high school production. Another scene featuring modern Mercedes cars also sticks out like a sore thumb.

Breaking away from an earnest beachside chat between members of a Marxist study group we witness a more intriguing rendezvous taking place between rich heiress Octavia (Stangenberg) and the ‘soi-disant’ Count Ljowushka (Koberidze), who shares his sob story of starting life as a poor factory worker before being discovered by filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein (Gonopolski), who cast him as Trotsky. (Unfortunately, the real Trotsky fell out with Stalin and Ljowushka’s part ended up on the cutting room floor, along with his budding romance).

The Countess invites the young man to stay in her lushly appointed villa where Jakob (Herbst) serves a supper of snails, before they repair to bed. In the dead of night the impoverished Count attempts to crack open the safe but is nipped in the bud by Jakob, and the Countess graciously excuses him – in the spirit of true Marxist values – before the two hatch plans to make a film together in the villa’s ample grounds. Unknown to the Count, Octavia is a vampire (not the only one) and Jakob does the honours with daily supplies of his blood.

Various characters join in the fun including a Chinaman whose stock in trade is a healing ointment for vampire bites, that naturally none of the workforce can afford. The exploitative factory owner turns out to be one Dr. Humburg (Döhler), whose own father is rather tight-fisted with the family purse strings, and is being egged on by his aunt Erkentrud (Harfouch) to marry Octavia and get his hands on her money. Meanwhile Rosa falls for Jakob who isn’t the slightest bit interested and is too taken up with Octavia, desperately trying to impress her by reading Proust, (quite apart from offering her his own fresh blood).

A certain Bonin (Hoesl) then fetches up at the villa, Ocatvia and Auntie had met him on a skiing holiday in St. Moritz. Filming gets under way with Jakob behind the camera and Octavia and the (false) Count cast as the lovers, where the jealous Jakob eats a poisonous mushroom and dies.

Chapter Three  (A Wrong Life cannot be Lived Rightfully) brings the feature to a close with Döhler, who is also a vampire, attempting to tap the Russian ‘Count’. Döhler invites Octavia to come on a capitalist-themed jaunt to Budapest, to invest in a sort of early television. A costume ball provides a showcase showdown, with Jacob coming back to life, remembering that famous day in 1917 when the revolution set him free from his serfdom. The Study Group makes a re-appearance, but their leader is shot dead by some fascists, after everyone has watched the Vampire film.

There are some interesting ideas to be had in this ambitious third feature for Julian Radlmaier, who doesn’t quite pull off the comedy element in a film that’s more weird than funny. Performances are game and high-spirited throughout, DoP Markus Koob successfully conveying the painterly feel of the Baltic seaside in summer. AS

BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL 2021

 

The Kentuckian (1955)

Dir: Burt Lancaster | A B Guthrie Jr | Cast: Burt Lancaster, Diana Lynn, Dianne Foster, Walter Matthau | US Action Drama 104′

An attractive slice of Americana shot in rich autumnal colours and in widescreen to accommodate all Burt Lancaster’s teeth. Making this adaptation of Felix Holt’s 1951 novel ‘The Gabriel Horn’ (“with his own face in front of the camera most of of the time”, as the Allans disrespectfully put it) thereafter largely cured Lancaster of his yen to direct.

Set in the 1820s the film follows Lancaster’s Texas-bound Kentucky frontiersman gamely trying to raise his young son while desperately fighting off the evils of liquor and the charms of women, not to mention Walter Matthau’s whip-cracking local businessman.

With an appropriately recherché score by Bernard Hermann, the supporting cast includes John McIntyre as Lancaster’s brother (only their mother could tell them apart) and two blue-eyed elfin charmers in the form of Una Merkel and Diana Lynn. Villainy was supplied by Walter Matthau – looking older and heavier here in his film debut than he did ten years later; while Douglas Spencer & Paul Wexler as the cold-eyed Fromes brothers are a pair of ghouls that look like models for Grant Wood executed by Charles Addams.

The scene depicting the time it actually took to reload a shotgun in those days should be seen by all modern advocates of the Second Amendment. Richard Chatten.

NOW ON PRIME VIDEO

Against the Tides (2019) VOD

Dir: Stefan Stuckert | UK Doc 87′

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UK iTunes link:

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

US iTunes links

Against the Tides – iTunes pre-order

Against the Tides – AppleTV pre-order

 

 

Tabija – The White Fortress | (2021)

Dir.: Igor Drljaca; Cast: Pavle Cemerikic, Sumeja Dardagan, Jasmin Geljo, Kerim Cuyana, Bilal Halilovic, Irena Mulamuhic, Farah Hadzic, Ermin Bravo; Canada/Bosnia and Herzegovina, 85 min.

Writer/director Igor Drljaca follows his 2018 feature The Stone Speakers with another from his native Bosnia-Herzegovina, an alluring and bitter-sweet teenage love story showcasing the elegiac beauty of Sarajevo in lush widescreen images. The White Fortress is an intensive character study, the social background playing a major role.

Teenage Faruk (Cemerikic has the same soulful fragility as Christopher Walken), scratches a living collecting scrap metal with his uncle Mirsad (Geljo). At night he works with his neighbour Almir (Kerim Cutura) ferrying sex workers around for the big boss Cedo (Bravo), who fancies himself as a star gangster, making the two boys bark like dogs in a cafe, to bolster his ego.

Sharing a home with his grandmother (Mulamuhic) who spends her days in bed, revisiting recordings of Faruk’s mother, a concert pianist with the Sarajevo Philharmonic. She died when he was very young, and having never known his father, the young man is at a loss, sleeping with different girls to try and make up for the emotional deficit and hiding his vulnerability with bombastic behaviour.

When he meets Mona (Dardagan) in a shopping mall, it seems like another casual encounter, but the slightly older Mona falls for Faruk. After one of Cedo’s girls (Minela/Hadzic) dies of an overdose after he drove her to a gig, Faruk decides he’s done with the overbearing boss. Mona too is getting tired of her parents, both work as ‘bureaucrats for hire’ for any party who wants them. Mona moans her parents only live together for professional reasons, shouting at her Mum, “you don’t even know where he spends the nights.” Later Mona tells Faruk that her parents have formed a sort of company, where they exchange favours for feelings they do not have at all

Meanwhile the ongoing election campaign echoes along in the background seemingly making no impact on the locals. The reason for Mona’s anger is her parents’ intention to make her move to live with relatives in Toronto. This plan for next year has been forwarded, and deep down Mona knows that she will go. Faruk, whose Hawaii posters on his bedroom wall signal his romantic wanderlust, is also a romantic and both wander around the countryside, on bright sunny days, Mona expressing a desire to live deep in the woods where Faruk will hunt for her with a pack of wild dogs .The romantic leanings of the couple seem to crash with the social reality in a crumbling Sarajevo caught between crass materialism and poverty. But Faruk’s own future looks likely to be dismal, inheriting his uncle’s van, and taking over his business. Meanwhile the pragmatic Vreco wants Faruk to continue pimping for Cedo ,

Backlit nightscapes create a dreamy poetic setting in a Sarajevo that echoes and glows in perpetual twilight, the long poetic panning shots in the streets of the city unfurl like a love letter to a wartorn victim, on its last legs, but with so much still to tell. One can only hope one day the Sarajevans can rediscover laughter and happiness, like in The Book of Fairytales the young lovers are drawn to. Scored by delicate occasional piano music often by Schumann, this elegiac, languid love story, filmed with a fine eye for detail and a magical finale is a gleaming gem.

BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL 2021|

 

The World After Us | Le Monde Après Nous | Berlinale Panorama 2021

Dir.: Louda Ben Salah-Cazanas; Cast: Aurelien Gabrielli, Louise Chevilotte, Sadia Bentaïeb, Jacques Nolot, Leon Cunha Da Costa, Mikhaël Chirinian, Noémie Schmidt, Hyacinthe Blanc; France 2021, 84 min.

Louda Ben Salah-Cazanas’ first feature is best described as ‘Truffaut for the 21st century’. The struggling main protagonist, a young writer, suffers all sorts of setbacks and a strained parental relationship but it will all come together (rather too) neatly in the end. Well acted and photographed by Amine Berrada in realistic images of the two main cities of France, this is a surprisingly tame debut.

Young Labidi (Gabrielli) has written a successful short story and his much older friend Vincent (Chirinian) drags him to off to a publisher, who signs an option for the forthcoming novel after reading the two first chapters. But Labidi, who spends much time in the cafe run by his parents (Bentaïeb/Molot) falls spontaneous in love with another cafe habitué in the shape of student Elisa (Chevilotte).

Love at first sight is a challenge for Labidi, forced to share his living space with the obese but caring Aleksei (Da Costa), so he decides to  an expensive flat for some privacy with his new love, although his work for Deliveroo doesn’t even cover the rent, and the writing slips to the back burner in a frantic search for new income streams.

After pulling off a successful insurance fraud, he gets work at an optician where his superior Suzanne (Schmidt) tests his knowledge on customer service. Elisa then go back to live with her mother, and his father dies leaving him with a huge guilt complex: he’s lived off the bank of Mum & Dad for most of his life.

Aleksei turns out to be a really good friend after Labidi suffers more bad luck, Vincent accidentally viewing Labidi’s autobiographical sob story – rather than the putative novel. Vincent is particularly infuriated by the title of the outpouring  – which happens to be the film’s title: “This is a title for a bloody French independent film!” While Labidi makes a last ditch attempt to get Elisa back, Aleksei complains about his girlfriend Hyacinthe (Blanc) never giving him a ring. Asked by Labidi “When did you speak to her last”, Aleksei responds “Two hours ago, but I think of her more than she thinks about me”.

The witty dialogue is very amusing but there’s something missing here – and it’s a general lack of social context and thematic monotony. The characters live in a bubble with Labidi’s need for money being the only source of tension; no mention is made of wider-ranging themes. Nowadays a feature debut where the narrative is so disengaged from the general zeitgeist is unusual, particularly in a world where there is so much dramatic potential to be mined and where gender stereotypes are seen as unfashionable. AS

BERLINALE | PANORAMA STRAND.

 

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