Archive for the ‘STREAMING’ Category

Doberman (1997)

Dir.: Jan Kounen; Cast: Vincent Cassel, Monica Bellucci, Tchéky Karyo, Dominique Bettenfeld, Romain Duris, Stephane Metzger; France 1997, 104 min.

A tour-de-force of misogyny and profanities Doberman champions its anti-intellectual stance with an unrelenting orgy of violence that would make the first time director later fare look comparatively sane and docile. After cutting his teeth with a strong cast of Vincent Cassel, Monica Bellucci and Romain Duris, the Dutch director would graduate to more sober features in the shape of quasi western Renegade and stylish biopic Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky.

Cassel and Bellucci were already real life lovers setting the tone here as an ’80s Bonnie and Clyde duo, based on the comic strip series by Joël Houssin, who adapted the film version with the director.  It all kicks off with Yann (Cassel) still wet behind the ears at his Christening, after the CGI Dobermann had lifted his leg over a dead cameraman in the opening credits. Just in time for young Yann to end up with a .357 Magnum in his stroller.

Twenty years later he has teamed up with mute Roma beauty Nat (Bellucci) and a crew of violent misfits: narcissistic L’Abbe (Bettenfeld) enjoys his fake priest outfit, while Nat’s brother Manu (Duris) has incestuous longings for his sister. The gang specialises in bank heists, driving psychotic police inspector Christini (Karyo) mad with nightmares of revenge. After successfully managing three parallel robberies, Christini again being foiled, the inspector and his men raid the family home of Sonia (Metzger) who lives a double life of law student and trans sex worker. Threatening Sonia’s baby son, the policeman then finds the gang is celebrating with raids in an S&M techno club.

Hard core sex and strobe lights accompany an orgy of brutality in a prolonged police raid that gradually loses its sting and shock impact: the stylish, glittering surface gliding over the film’s rotten core. DoP Michel Amathien’s cross cutting with extreme wide-angle shots, split screens and frenetic editing by Benedict Brunet and Eric Carlier only makes this feel more remote, less reachable. What remains is an exercise in nihilistic violence. Symbolically, near the end, one of the gangsters uses a copy of Cahiers du cinema’ to wipe his bottom in full view of the police cars. Kounen might have aimed for something like Nikita by Luc Besson, but he ended up with a third rate self-parody. AS

IN CELEBRATION OF ITS 25th ANNIVERSARY DOBERMAN IN CINEMAS AND ON DIGITAL DOWNLOAD | 13 MAY 2022

Dear Pyongyang (2005)


Dir.: Yonghi Yang; Documentary; Japan 2005, 107 min.

In this intensely personal documentary Osaka born writer/director/DoP Yonghi Yang explores her father’s blind loyalty to North Korea.

It’s a long running story of exile and displacement. Yang was born in 1964 in Osaka, her parents were members of the North-Korean leaning Chongryun movement, who fought for a re-unification under the rule of Kim Il Sung, rather like their counterparts in the Mindan movement in Japan, Koreans who fought for the South, and wanted their country united under capitalist rule. Both movements each had about 100, 000 supporters, a small percentage of the Korean population which had been brought to Japan under Imperial rule.

Yonghi had three older teenage brothers: Kono, Kona and 14 year-old Konmin. They were fully integrated into Japanese society; Kono loving classical music and strong coffee. But in the early 1970s their parents packed them off on the ferry to North Korea, the Stalinist paradise Kim Il Sung had in mind. But Yonghi was left behind with her parents, trying to please them. In 1983 she visited North Korea for the first time as part of a youth delegation. Instead of spending time with her brothers, she and her friends were ferried around the country on a ‘cultural tour’ of monuments erected in honour of the wise leader.

Returning home, Yonghi soon find out that her parents had supported her brothers and their growing families with regular food supplies and other packages of ordinary consumer goods, which were unavailable in North Korea. Meanwhile the director’s father, a staunch supporter of the authoritarian leadership clique in the titular Pyongyang, lectured his daughter about staying true to the values he had espoused all his life – but only too glad to enjoy her financial generosity at his birthdays’ and other holidays. For his 70th birthday, the trio went on another ferry pilgrimage to the North, were Yang senior was the celebrated guest of honour, wearing all his medals and extolling the regime to all and his sons and many of their friends who were also received financial support from their parents from Japan. Eventually Yonghi put her foot down and her father agreed to her becoming a South Korean national. But his allegiance to Kim Il Sung never swayed, Yonghi’s mother claiming: “Beliefs get stronger, the longer you hold them”.

The personal and the political clash head-on here, the dualism occasionally becoming unbearably tense. At one point Yang senior puts on his medal-adorned jacket and announced: “I had no choice”. The director remained close to the sibling, and her niece Sona (leading to her subsequent 2010 feature Sona, the other Myself 2010) but was banned from visiting North Korea. AS

YAMAGATA: EXCLUSIVE SHOWCASE OF JAPANESE DOCUMENTARY FILMMAKING ONLINE FOR FREE. | The complete selection will be available entirely for free on DAFilms.com from January 17 – 23 at this link: https://dafilms.com/program/1126-made-in-japan-yamagata-1989-2021

 

 

5 Branded Women (1960)

Dir: Martin Ritt | Cast: Van Heflin, Silvana Mangano, Jeanne Moreau, Vera Miles, Barbara Bel Geddes | US War Drama 94′

Martin Ritt’s only war movie is a strange hybrid which has the thumb prints all over it of producer Dino De Laurentiis – whose bright idea the inevitable communal nude bathing scene doubtless was, and saw to it that his wife Silvana Mangano gets most of the close ups. That said, the film comes a very poor second to the same year’s La Ciociara; also a gritty Italian war movie, which won Carlo Ponti’s wife Sophia Loren the Oscar for best actress.

While all given Yugoslav names, the five women of the title are plainly cast with the international box office in mind; although neither of the American contingent – Vera Miles and Barbara Bel Geddes – get sufficient screen time to make much of an impression. With the exception of Richard Basehart’s Good German, the male lead characters all come across as creeps. Van Heflin’s partisan leader is a sanctimonious bore, while Harry Guardino’s overactive loins (spoiler coming) directly lead to Miles’ death. (He plainly made no attempt to enlighten the court martial that it was entirely him who was responsible, and that it was he who left his post to get his paws on Miles; instead he just brags about all the Germans he’s killed. The other partisans meanwhile are far too quick to stick her in front of the firing squad by his side.

Despite the interesting cast, the whole thing leaves a pretty bad taste in the mouth, and you certainly come away feeling soiled at the waste and squalor depicted, although not necessarily in the ways that the film’s makers intended. @RichardChatten

 

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

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

 

 

Slalom (2020) Curzon VOD

Dir: Charlène Favier | Writers: Charlène Favier, Marie Talon | Cast: Noée Abita, Jérémie Renier, Marie Denarnaud, Muriel Combeau, Maïra Schmitt, Axel Auriant | France, Drama

Noée Abita made a name for herself in Lea Mysius’ poignant drama Ava (2017) about a girl gradually losing her sight. In Slalom she stars alongside Jérémie Renier in a love story set in the snowy French Alps.

This coming of age sports drama is an impressive debut for writer-director Charlène Favier who made the Cannes 2020 official selection. Abita plays 15-year-old ski professional-in- training Lyz who falls for her sexually voracious power-tripping coach Max (Renier), already in a relationship with another team member (Marie Denarnaud), in a drama that echoes real life cases in the world of tennis and swimming in France and the US.

Favier and her co-writer Talon show how kids of that age are emotionally vulnerable and subject to hero-worshipping in a world where their collaborative and professional relationship is particularly vital, especially when they have little support from their parents. In this case her mother (Muriel Combeau) makes a new boyfriend a priority, rather than the stability and wellbeing of her daughter who she abandons to rush off on a romantic break over Christmas. Lyz is understanding heartbroken. But not for long.

Deftly interweaving the heart-pumping slalom competitions that will shape her into an Olympic hopeful, and the intense love story at its core, this snowbound affair is as hot as they come – especially when its focus is first love – set in the spectacular mountain scenery of the French Alps where Yann Maritaud creates a real sense of drama on the sparking icebound slopes and frosty moonlit nights-capes not to mention those intimate close-ups.

Lyz experiences a whirlwind of emotions from anxiety surrounding her sporting prowess, to confusion in lust-ridden days of wondering whether Max will be there for her in bed – and on the slopes. Of course, we can all see Max’s own adrenalin- fuelled turmoil as he barks orders, and commands his star pupil’s respect, while being confused by his own feelings.

Abita is terrific as she gradually develops stamina, independence and self-belief – physically, as well as mentally – straining every core of her body to reach peak performance, Her gamine insecurity gathers storm as she develops a fierce sense of pride and integrity. If there was ever a drama perfect for teenage girls – (or adult girls who’ve already been there) this is it!.MT

ON CURZON VOD from 12 February 2021

 

 

 

 

Murder me, Monster (2018) ***

Dir Alejandro Fadel. Argentina. 2018. 106′

Murder Me Monster’s widescreen solemnity might bring to mind the murder investigation in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia – and there are vague echoes of Amat Escalante’s The Untamed, but that’s where the similarity ends. This brooding Andes-set crime mystery is the gruesome work of Los Selvajes director Alejandro Fadel, and it is certainly not for the feint hearted with its bestial themes and deformed zombie-like characters. Infact everyone in this stomach-turning horror fantasy is on edge and whispering morosely, for one reason or another. And a series of macabre murders, where heads are torn from bodies, seem to be the reason why.

The opening scene sees the dying moments of a woman whose throat has been severed. As a herd of sheep and some other livestock are slowly make their supper of her remains, a blind man mumbles on about the murder. A feeling of unease creeps over proceedings when it transpires that the bloodshed is connected to a feral beast on the prowl and out of control in this desolate and remote corner of Argentina where the sun rarely shines.

Rural police officer Cruz (Victor Lopez) is tasked with investigating the murders and the finger seems to point to local thick-lipped weirdo David (Esteban Bigliardi) who claims that a savage creature is using certain phrases to commune with him, as if through telepathy, with a ‘silly’ voice that repeats ‘Murder Me, Monster’.

Cinematographers Manuel Rebella and Julian Apezteguia evoke nightmarish visuals often using the same technique as the painter El Greco – where the characters’ faces are often starkly backlit against a murky darkness. There’s a garish otherworldly quality to the outdoor mountain scenes in a film that takes on an increasingly Lynchian feel as the plot thickens. Pus-yellow, murky mustard and puke green make up the colour palette of costume and set designers Florencia and Laura Caligiuri. An atmospheric ambient score keeps the tension brewing.

This is intriguing stuff, if rather too enigmatic for its own good, eventually leaving us stranded in its own mysterious backwater. This study of fear and perversion in a Pampas backwater will certainly made you feel nauseous and bewildered by the end. MT

UK releasee to stream or download or own | 4th December 2020 AVAILABLE

 

Sing me a Song (2020) ****

Dir.: Thomas Balmès; Documentary with Peyangki, Ugyen Pelden, Pemba Dorji; France/Germany/Switzerland 2019,101 min.

In a follow-up to an earlier documentary, French director Thomas Balmes returns to a village in Bhutan to explore the impact of modern technology on a once-sheltered society.

Ten years ago French director/DoP/producer Thomas Balmès had visited the remote village of Laya at the foot of the Himalayas. Electricity was coming to the village, and everyone was excited, including eight-year old Peyangki, a monk, who became the star of Happiness. Ten years later, Balmès returned to Laya for Sing Me a Song, probing what TV and internet had done to the village, and Peyangki in particular.

We start with footage from Happiness, with Peyangki frolicking in the fields and looking forward to the electrification of the village but, at the same time, being adamant it would not interfere with his religious study in the monastery. We cut to the classroom of today and see all the monks, including Peyangki, emerged in prayers – but when the camera pans out again they are all stuck into their mobiles, the chanting just enough to cover the din of the devices.

Peyangki, who has now found an admirer in Pemba Dorji, a young monk about the same age as Peyangki was in Happiness, is “moving away from Buddha”. Like his fellow monks he is sold on the internet, particularly WeChat, which opens their world to female companionship. When visiting the local market, the young men find a basket with plastic weapons and start a hilarious war game, with firecrackers replacing life ammunition.

Sadly neither Peyangki’s teacher, not his mother can stop the young man from leaving the monastery for the capital Thimpu where his ‘girlfriend’ Ugyen Pelden is pictured singing with three other young females in a bar. Peyangki has made enough money by selling medical mushrooms (which he has harvested with his sister) to start a new life with Ugyen, who – unknown to the monk – already has a baby daughter from a previous marriage, and plans to emigrate to Kuwait, leaving her daughter behind.

Peyangki is taken back by all this, and Pemba, who has been sent by his teacher to convince his older friend to return to the monastery, is forced to return home alone. Peyangki is consoled by one of the other singers who fills him with positive thoughts, but for Peyangki the world has come to an end

The message of this delightfully poignant coming of age story is clear: devices which help us to connect, can easily tear us apart and destroy our sense of self and alter our identity. Peyangki feels obligated to join modern and his nativity leaves him unprepared for the Pandora’s box, and is unable to rediscover his innocence. The reaction of his fellow monks, their easy way of dealing with consumer goods as well as armed conflicts, show the regressive nature of the online world, where everything is levelled out to mean more or less nothing. For Peyangki, who had once been called the “re-incarnation of a Lama”, the choice is clear: the safety of isolation or the unstructured life of an empty gratification in a world where everything is replaceable at a moments notice, including the people closest to you.

Happiness won a cinematography award at Sundance. The results of this return odyssey are less positive although equally beautiful in their visual allure, the immaculate scenes in the monastery contrasting starkly with the hustle and bustle of the  urban environment. The film won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s One World International Human Rights Doc Film Festival. AS

On Demand from 1 January 2021

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1970) ****

Dir.: Vittorio De Sica; Cast: Dominque Sanda, Lino Capollicchio, Fabrio Testi, Romolo Valli, Helmut Berger, Camillo Cesarei; Italy/West Germany 1970, 74 min.

The Garden of the Finzi-Contini won director Vittorio De Sica (1901-1974) his third Oscar (after Ladri di Biciclette and Ieri Oggi Domani), as well as ‘Golden Bear’ at the Berlin Film Festival. Based on the novel by Giorgio Bassani (who later tried to distance himself from the feature) and written by Ugo Pirro and Vittorio Bonicelli  – as well as the uncredited De Sica regulars Cesare Zavattini and Valerio Zurlini – is one of the the very few Italian films shedding light on the murder of Italian Jews by the Fascists. The general consensus was/is that Germany was uniquely responsible for the genocide of the Holocaust.

Set in Ferrara between 1938 and 1943 (with flash-backs to 1920s) the narrative centres around the relationship between Micol Finzi-Contini (Sanda) and Giorgio (Capollicchio) who are in their early twenties. The couple are chalk and cheese, their only common bond is their Jewishness. Micol comes from one of Emilia Romagna’s most distinguished families and lives like a princess, ferried around in a carriage to and from her lush country villa, surrounded by its huge titular garden. Her old school crush Giorgio, meanwhile, is unhappily stuck with his middle-class family.

At the time, Jews are banned from places of public entertainment and the Finzi-Contini’s are no exception – so the capo di famiglia, Professor Ermano, has provided his family with a tennis court, where le tout Ferrara comes to play. Micol flirts with hunky Gianpiero Malnate (Testi), even though he is a gentile and, ‘even worse’, a socialist. Poor Giorgio suffers in silence, watching the lovers until his worst suspicions come true, Micol leaving nothing to the imagination.

Giorgio is so upset he confides in his father (Valli), although blaming him guilty for bribing the authorities with donations. No such compromises in the Finzi-Contini household where Micol proudly points to an old tree, remarking to Giorgio that it might have been planted by Lucrezia Borgia. The Finzi Continis see themselves as part of a ruling class going back centuries – their Jewishness is just a side issue. Giorgio’s father tells his son “they are not really Jewish”. But most of them will meet on their way to the death camps, with Giorgio’s father telling Micol “we are hopefully staying together, we Jews from Ferrara”.

There is much to be admired in the soft-lens images of DoP Ennio Guarnieri (Ginger&Fred, Medea). The family enjoy a charmed, unhurried existence, the camera passing languidly over the estate in deference to their status as upper intellectuals and scholars. Sanda is the epitome of all this refined breeding, but she still prefers the guy from the wrong side of the track. Poor Giorgio has to take comfort in his brotherly relationship with her, not unlike her real brother Alberto: “We all live in our memories”. Real life, like the political noose which is put around their necks, is just a passing feature.

Even after fifty years, The Garden has lost little of its poignancy: the victims sleep walking into annihilation, feeling safe behind the walls surrounding their lives – whilst the silent shadow of the pogrom grows darker and darker. AS

 

Persian Lessons (2020) ****

Dir: Vadim Perelman. Russia/Germany/Belarus. 2020. 128mins

A war of attrition plays out between Belgian Jew and Nazi in this clever and darkly amusing ride to hell and back from Ukrainian born director Vadim Perelman (House of Fog).

Set in occupied France in 1942 and based on a short story by Wolfgang Kohlhaase, a young Belgian prisoner of war is forced to change his nationality and invent an entire language – pretending to being Persian – in order to escape the clutches of an ego-driven commandant who saves him from the firing squad – simply because he has a penchant for learning the lingo (Farsi).

The physical tortures of war are one thing, but the psychological effects can be equally painful, and this film makes a nonsense of the popular saying: “sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me”. The young Belgian is played with considerably aplomb by (man of the moment) Nahuel Perez Biscayart. As Reza he not only has to lie but also remember the lies. The payback of these mental gymnastics comes in the film’s stunning reveal that is almost as moving as the final scene in Polanski’s The Pianist.

These were the tortuous hoops that people had to jump through during the Second World War. And Persian Lessons is another astonishing angle on conflict, and another tribute to our collective memory of the Holocaust. Meanwhile the gruelling tension of the folie-a-deux between Commandant and POW is lightened by a deliciously salacious undercurrent of flirtatiousness that burbles away between the Nazi staff running the camp. And although there is a slight longueur towards the final stretch in a story that requires a leap of faith, the strength of the performances and of Ilya Zofin’s brilliant writing combined with the impressive mise en scene blow these minor flaws away.

Reza is an extremely smart young guy and while he quivers in his boots, he also works out how to massage Commandant Koch’s fragile ego. And Lars Eidinger – in one of the best performances of his career – is deeply sinister as the vain and deeply insecure Commandant, who has no access to the internet or even a smart phone to check the Farsi words and phrases, so the plot pivots between his desire to trust Reza and his deep fear of leaving himself exposed to ridicule by his peers and his young teacher, who is living his life on a knife edge.

Elegantly framed and lit by DoP Vladislav Opelyants, the only flaw is the irritating score that incessantly needles away when silence would occasionally be preferable. But even that can’t detract from this really gripping and intelligent wartime thriller. MT

On DIGITAL 22 JANUARY and DVD on 8 FEBRUARY

 

 

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La Haine (1995) re-release

Dir.: Mathieu Kassovitz; Cast: Vincent Cassel, Hubert Kuondé, Said Taghmaoui, Francois Levental, Karim Belkhadra, Edoard Montoute, Ahmed Ghilli; France 1995, 97 min.

French writer and director Matthieu Kassovitz was just 27 years old when he won Best Director for his second feature La Haine at the Cannes Film Festival. Yet he has only made six more features since his debut Cafe au Lait – and nothing since Rebellion (2011). La Haine turned out to be the blue-print for films about disaffected youth violence, not only in France. And unlike the “Hood” features in the USA, La Haine took sides.

The 24 hour chronicle is mainly shot in the HLMs (habitations à loyer modéré) of Chantel up-les-Vignes, forty kilometres northwest of Paris, in grainy black-and-white by DoPs Pierre Aim and Vincent Tulli. La Haine had a personal connection for the director through friends of Makome Bowole, a Zairian emigrant, who was killed by the police in 1993.

Vinz (Cassel) is from Jewish working class stock and lives with his grandmother and sister. He fantasises about murdering a cop, and his impersonations of Robert de Niro in Taxi Driver, are not just wishful thinking. Most of his days are spent hanging out with Said (Taghmaoui), a chameleon-like character looking for an identity, and Hubert (Koundé), a black French African boxer with ambitions to make a better life for himself. Race riots kick off after the police beat up their neighbour Abdel (Ghili) and suddenly something shifts in the dynamic between the three men.

Vinz picks up a gun, dropped by a cop during the hostilities, and swears vengeance on the force if Abdel dies in hospital. The three then take a ‘trip’ to Paris where they feel humiliated by their material poverty. Luxury shops and cultural hotspots are all out of their reach. Vinz feels solidarity with a gang of Nazi-skinheads but lets them get away – somehow he identifies with these other have-nots. But the next day Vinz is accidentally shot by the police and Said stays with him while he dies. A cop cocks his gun at Hubert who aims back with the piece Vinz recovered. We hear only one shot.

There are echoes of Scorsese and Spike Lee in this gang thriller, but La Haine is marked out by its gritty surrealism, a million miles away from the sassy slickness of the US directors. Kassovitz doesn’t point a finger or level any accusations: these three young men have too many contradictions in their beliefs and actions in a feature fuelled by hatred and anger: the melting pot France had become is not a comfortable place for anybody any more. Kassovitz was one of the first directors to flag up to his own nation that everyone in his film is French. Twenty-five years later, the Mouvment de Gilets Jaunes have taken the fight into the heart of Paris. AS

NOW ON BFI PLAYER | re-released by BFI Distribution for its 25th Anniversary

 

 

Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds (2020) Apple TV

Dir: Werner Herzog | Doc 97′

Close encounters of the cosmic kind are the focus of Werner Herzog’s latest documentary as he joins up again with volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer (Into the Inferno) for a peripatetic odyssey into the world of asteroids and meteorites that could fall to Earth and one day destroy us. Captured on the pristine camerawork of Herzog’s

collaborator Richard Blanchard, whose wizardry makes this all the more astounding.

Arcane and sometimes darkly amusing in its fervent boy’s own adventure style of cosmology – you wonder whether Ulrich Seidl has been involved – this is another of Herzog’s mammoth undertakings and the protagonists get very excited about their subject, often waxing lyrical – in the case of the ‘Brothers of the Stone’: “meteorites have a meaning and it’s up to us to interpret what this is”.

Werner Herzog is obviously deeply worried but remains chipper while communicating his concern about this planetary devastation through a series of eager talking heads compered by Oppenheimer himself. There is Bavarian four-times cancer surviver Jan Braly Kihle (straight out of Im Keller), Jon Larsen, a Norwegian violinist with a penchant for cosmic dust (“Cosmic dust looks eternity in the eye, it is the oldest thing that exists on earth”); Brother Guy Consolmagno, a jolly Jesuit astronomer who heads up the Vatican Observatory; and Paul Steinhardt an expert in natural ‘quasicrystal’ whose field experience had hitherto not extended beyond the lawns of Princeton University but he bravely undertakes to locate and prove these crystals had actually been formed in space.

But the principle concern of Fireball is the exploration of things that fall from space, and the myriad artistic rituals and myths associated with these “visitors from darker worlds”. In tones that can only be described as conspiratorial and febrile, Herzog delivers a killer statement: “We do not know what in the future is coming at us, eventually destroying us” but “untold numbers are still on their way.”

Although Fireball may at first seem rather glib and ridiculous the film soon takes on a more contemplative vibe laced with moments of sheer joy and wonder – visually speaking. We visit no fewer than 17 of the planet’s most remote  geographic corners, not to mention university laboratories and  government facilities. In Mecca we experience the religious fervour when pilgrims are able to touch the famous Black Stone in the Kaaba (here Herzog relies on footage from ‘a believer’). In Mexico (where people believe that shooting stars transport the souls of the departed) we join a Mayan ceremonial procession featuring a fireball on the famous Day of the Dead. But most impressive of all are the sites where asteroids have actually wreaked palpable damage. An enormous crater in Australia has inspired local native aboriginal artist Katie Darkie to create some highly colourful paintings. And according to local folklore another 300 asteroid purportedly fell on a field in Alsace back in 1492. But the most extraordinary comes later.

Occasionally even Oppenheimer seems fazed by the boyish enthusiam of the experts, especially one who hands him a meteorite called ‘The Dog House’ that apparently fell on a dog’s kennel in Costa Rica (luckily the dog lived to bark again). Apparently heavier meteorites landed in the same region the ground underneath was totally destroyed and turned to glass: “if you were sitting there having a cup of tea, you would undoubtedly be turned to glass” he reflects joyfully. Elsewhere in the same Arizona facility, Oppenheimer gets rather flirty when he meets a highly attractive female meteor expert who giggles excitedly when he points out that some of the samples look like the work of Barbara Hepworth. “We’re all stardust – eventually”; she retorts, and at this point Herzog cannot help joining in the cheeky banter.

In a crater in Rajasthan – near to 11th century Hindu Temples — geochemist Nita Sahai comments that meteorites actually contain protein. “What do you think of Panspermia?” asks Oppenheimer rather sheepishly. Nita answers gamely that Shiva is a god of both creation and destruction in the Hindu religion.

Narrating, Herzog judiciously keeps a firm control on pacing, cutting away from experts who are getting over-excited. From India we move to Chicxulub Puerto on the Yucatan Peninsula, where the most cataclysmic asteroid hit ever occurred over 66 million years ago leaving a hole 30 kilometres deep. Although dinosaurs were destroyed in the event, mammals made it through the catastrophe and were able to regroup – although the crater was not discovered until the 70s.

What is certain is that “a big one is going to hit us fairly soon”. That’s the view of a couple of scientists in Maui who have got it covered when it comes to watching out for these ‘unwelcome visitors’, using telescopes equipped with the world’s largest digital cameras. Luckily NASA is also active in this regard with their Planetary Defence Coordination Office responsible for letting us all known when the moment of doom finally arrives.

Fireball includes footage from recent feature films picturing the arrival of unwelcome celestial visitors and a final sequence that sees Herzog back on top form as a master documentarian in a film that needs to be seen to be believed. MT

NOW ON APPLETV

 

Queen of Hearts (2019) ****

Dir.: May el-Toukhy; Cast: Trine Dyrholm, Magnus Kepper, Gustav Lindt, Liv Esmar Dannemann, Silja Esmar Dannemann; Sweden/Denmark 2018, 127 min.

May el-Toukhy (Long Story Short, Cairo) has made a name for herself on Danish radio and TV with the series Borgen. Her third feature is a chilling portrait of the Nordic bourgeoisie. Set in an almost perfect environment, Trine Dyrholm shimmers as an elegant working wife and mother acting out a tragedy which is as heartless as avoidable. The complex narrative is structured like a thriller: guilt, lust and power dominate the proceedings.

Anne (Dyrholm), a counsellor for abused minors, and her doctor husband Magnus (Kepper) live with their blond/blue-eyed twins Frida and Fanny (Liv and Silja Esmar Dannemann) in a fabulous modernist house surrounded by woods. But the couple are living a lie: Anne is a control freak, and Magnus too keen on his work. The twins are clearly an afterthought and make up the perfect façade, but they are emotionally neglected. Then Gustav (Lindt), Magnus’s son from his first, failed marriage, joins the household. He has been excluded from school and thrown of the house by his mother – he is a godsend for Magnus, to assuage his guilt. All goes well at the beginning, the twins are thrilled with their new brother, who gives them lots of attention and reads them bed stories. But Anne is overcome by lust for the young man, and kicks off a passionate sexual relationship with Gustav, right in the family home. But her passion does not last long; eventually her intellect takes over and she ends the relationship abruptly. On an outing with his father, Gustav tells all, and Magnus confronts Anne – who plays the innocent victim. All very convincing. Magnus actually believes his son instinctively, but fears the consequences.  And it’s easier for him to send his son away. Gustav confronts Anne at her work place, but she shuts him down with the words: ”Who will be believed, you or me?” Gustav make a last ditch attempt during the Christmas holidays. But the drawbridge is up and it all ends with a family outing, everyone dressed in black.

Gustav is by no means idealised: he is a nasty piece of work who really wants to ruin the family. But that does not alter the fact that he is a minor, and Anne has taken advantage of him. Yes, he consented, but a minor who consents is still – in the eyes of the law -a victim. Nobody knows that better than Anne. But the truth would ruin her reputation.

This is a slick and enjoyable arthouse drama complimented by its stylish visual aesthetic. Jon Ekstrand’s eerie score – a mixture of late Janacek and early Schnittke – fits perfectly in a saga of icy, calculating relationships.

Queen of Hearts is available to stream and on Prime Video

The Interrupted Journey (1949) ***

Dir: Daniel Birt | UK Thriller, 80′

A title that the producers once thought for The Interrupted Journey is The Cord. And in some ways it better describes this compelling nightmarish noir directed by Daniel Birt. A writer eloping with his lover pulls the alarm cord on a late night train throwing his future into doubt and implicating himself in a murder. But did the man really pull the cord, or was it just a dream?

Richard Todd stars alongside Valerie Hobson in this British crime thriller a follow up to No Room at the Inn (1948). Todd is budding author John North in love with his publisher’s wife Susan (Norden) while still married to Carol (Hobson). At a certain point in their train getaway the communication cord is pulled twice. But mystery surrounds who actually pulled the cord that stopped the train, resulting in a crash, or perhaps only a temporary standstill? And did such a thing really happen after all?

The pulling of that emergency cord is nevertheless pivotal to the storyline and its conclusion. The Interrupted Journey’s dramatic twists or contrived let-downs (depending on your point of view) reveal an intriguing dilemma between the depiction of dreams in cinema, and the consequences for realising a plausible thriller. But does this really matter – if you successfully create your own invented world you’ll carry the audience with you? Hitchcock did this time and time again.

At this point if you don’t want to hear spoilers, then stop reading and head straight to the conclusion. In the meantime, let’s examine the plot. John North leaves his wife and runs away with Susan Wilding. On the train he gets cold feet, pulls the communication cord and leaves the carriage. The emergency stop causes a major collision with another train causing considerable casualties. North confesses to Carol that he planned to leave her for another woman. The police discover that Susan was shot dead before the crash. The authorities try to arrest North. He tracks down Susan’s husband Clayton (Tom Walls) who didn’t die in the collision and is  the real murderer, who then goes on to shoot North. At this point North wakes up on the train to discover it’s all been a very bad dream. Susan realises that John isn’t prepared to leave his wife. She pulls the cord, the train stops, and John returns home to his wife and a potentially happy ending.

Looking through the reactions of reviewers in IMDB there is a clear divide between those who go with the dream theory and those who don’t. So is the film’s finale insipid or intriguing? I’m on the side of an intriguing dream narrative because the film’s sense of reality is constantly being subverted by a nightmarish apprehension. John Pertwee, in a supposed real sequence of events, seeds his script with self-conscious references to dreaming: all these dream pointers become more apparent on revisiting The Interrupted Journey.

“Now I know it’s a nightmare.’ says Carol to John when she realises the police are on his tail. At this point we cut to a strong reaction shot of Carol that conveys a sense of displacement from her surroundings – we leave her home to go to an insert of an ill-defined studio space where she might in fact be dreaming. She then says angrily, “You shouldn’t talk in your sleep”. This refers back to John’s sleep-talking while in bed with his wife. But he’s talking about Susan, having returned from the train crash.

So we have North’s guilt creating a dream within dream. And Carol’s anxiety about the reality she is experiencing. Such ambiguity is subtly drawn and paced by Michael Pertwee’s deft script, Daniel Birt’s fluid direction and Irwin Hillier’s expressive photography.

There are other small details in The Interrupted Journey that make for a dreamlike atmosphere. Just before the runaway couple board their train they order coffee and cakes in the station cafe. Susan notices that the coffee tastes more like tea, and they leave with their rock cakes uneaten. Later at North’s home, the railway official who has come to investigate the crash is offered the rock cakes, with a cup of tea, as Carol remarks– “Well you can’t just throw rock cakes at detectives!” (A memorable line!)  – leftover food and coffee masquerading as tea help to create an uneasy dream-sense of surreal repetition.

Another small detail is the North’s grandfather clock that runs ten minutes slow. This features at the beginning of the film and John casually reminds himself to get it fixed one day. Yet near the climax Carol corrects the time from nine fifty to ten o’clock: a routine reality, hence normality is restored for Carol and John’s relationship. He has arrived home and there wasn’t a crash. But, for a moment, Todd is disturbed by the hooting of the passing train  (a lovely edgy twist here). Was it really a dream? Will reality kick in? It does kick in but not for a crash to happen again but only to create a short halt on the track. John’s relieved and embraces his wife. But there is the small matter of him having (in reality?) mailed Carol a letter explaining his affair with Susan. And that letter will arrive in the morning post – now only in the thoughts of the audience: requiring an explanation, long after the credits have rolled up. But will Richard Todd be able to destroy the letter before Valerie Hobson sees it, as he did, once before, in the bad reality or bad dream he suffered earlier?

Two films, both made in 1945, immediately come to mind as having possibly influenced The Interrupted Journey and they are Dead of Night (1945) and Lang’s The Woman in the Window. (1944). A further link with Lang is photographer Irwin Hillier who worked with the director on M (1931) at the UFA studios and later with Michael Powell supplying luminous photography for Powell and Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale (1944), and I know where I’m going. Hillier contributes strongly to the sweaty, expressionist fear experienced here by North, through often beautiful lighting and a palpable subjective camera positioning.

More than likely then that Daniel Birt and Michael Pertwee watched those earlier films – a supernatural chiller and a noir of sexual obsession. In The Woman in the Window a murder, committed by Edward G.Robinson, proves to be a nightmare after his waking up to the chiming of a clock in his gentleman’s club (Fritz Lang has convincingly defended his film’s happy ending, for like The Interrupted Journey, I feel there is a wish-fulfilment fantasy at play here). And in Dead of Night we are left with the cyclic horror of repetition on discovering we will never wake up from the architect’s nightmare – but we will, sooner or later, awake from our train reverie..

The Interrupted Journey may hints at no way out yet never descends into morbid psychological horror. And like Woman in the Window, Birt’s melodrama combines thrills with romantic desire and emotional fulfilment. Underneath the trappings of a brilliantly shot and excellently acted noir, marital longing and rejection flourish in Valerie Hobson’s wonderful performance. She was often criticised for portraying the decent, domesticated wife in British Cinema. Yet here she touchingly plays that role with a warmth and unsentimental honesty that convinces us of her sincere love for the Richard Todd character. The railway official repeatedly says to John North, “Don’t you know you have woman in a million?” And this reminder of Carol’s affection and concern voiced by a stranger who soon turns into a prosecutor intent on extracting not only a murder confession from North, but also an acknowledge of his love for a devoted wife. The Interrupted Journey is never a case of surreal ‘amour fou’, more an intense request for fidelity of an English and very late-forties kind. Think of David Lean’s Brief Encounter rather than Luis Bunuel.

The Interrupted Journey is by no means a masterpiece. Its dream content is never as coherently realised as The Woman in the Window nor does it ever suggest a satisfying Freudian sub-text. It can best be described as a modest, technically astute and enjoyably intuitive but finally not as psychologically complex as the Lang feature. Yet as with Lang the film exudes a confident sense of the working out of fate, alternative outcomes and, unlike Lang, the power and responsibility of love.

Coming straight after Birt’s 1948 films No Room at the Inn and Three Weird Sisters then The Interrupted Journey strongly completes a strange threesome, and is by any standards a remarkable directorial achievement for British Cinema in the post war era. And you can currently join the journey and pull, in disappointment or pleasure, its regulation cord, on Talking Pictures TV or Youtube. © ALAN PRICE

Dede (2017) **** Georgian Retrospective DOCLISBOA 2020

Dir.: Mariam Khatchvani; Cast: George Babluani, Nukri Khatchvani, Natia Vibliani, Girshel Chelidze; Georgia/Croatia/UK/Ireland/Netherlands/Qatar 2017, 97 min.

This first feature from Georgian documentarian Mariam Khatchvani is based on true events that took place at the outset of the Georgian Civil War in the remote mountainous community of Svaneti, far removed from the modern world. It pictures a patriarchal society where forced marriages, pride and tradition dictate the code of daily life. Dina is a young woman promised by her draconian grandfather to David, one of the soldiers returning from the war. Once a marriage arrangement is brokered by two families, failure to follow through on the commitment is unthinkable.

Khatchvani uses an evocative visual approach with minimal dialogue to tell the story of this woman essentially trapped by men. Gegi (Babluani) has just saved his best friend’s David’s life. Ironically this leaves David (N. Khtachvani) free to marry Dina (Vibliani). But in reality Gegi is in love with her – the two fell for each other, though their original meeting was so brief they never even exchanged names. When Dina reveals her true feelings to David, he simply replies: “you will marry me, even if you are unhappy for the rest of your life”. David then suggests Gegi join him for a hunting trip which ends in tragedy leaving this intelligent woman thwarted by the controlling men in her life.

DoP Mindia Esadze impresses with towering panoramas of the mountains, and the more domestic-based clashes between progress and tradition. Babluani is really convincing in her passionate fight for happiness, even though she hardly raises her voice. 

Khatchvani shows the backward life for Georgian women in a country where traditional Spiritualism and the Muslim faith both conspire against them, and men end arguments by simply stating: “a woman has no say in this matter”. The director is living proof that women can succeed – with this atmospheric arthouse indie made on a restricted budge. The feature leaves only one question: since both fatal accidents were shown off-camera, we are left wondering whether Girshel might have been the perpetrator in both cases. AS

SCREENING AT DOCLISBOA, GEORGIAN RETROSPECTIVE 2020 | AVAILABLE ON AMAZON VIDEO & PRIME, DVD (AMAZON) VIMEO ON DEMAND AND INDIEFLIX

 

The Prowler (1951) ****

Dir.: Joseph Losey; Cast: Van Heflin, Evelyn Keyes, Emerson Tracey, Wheaton Chambers, John Maxwell; USA 1951, 92 min.

The Prowler was Losey’s favourite among the five Hollywood features he directed before blacklisting forced him to emigrate to Europe. The HU-AC witch hunt also affected the film’s writers Dalton Trumbo, Hugo Butler, PD John Hubley and German émigré writer/director Hans Wilhelm, who co-scripted the project.

The alternative title The Cost of Living, is actually a more appropriate one for this rather nasty little noir thriller that takes its cue from Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity. Losey’s feature has nothing of the grandeur of the Wilder film, being simply a story of mundane greed and lust. Fred MacMurray’s insurance salesman Walter Neff has a a shred of charm and a conscience, even though he ‘mislays’ it. His equivalent here, police officer Webb Garwood (Van Heflin), is just in it for the money and the sex.

LA socialite Susan Gilvray (Keyes, married at the time to co-producer John Huston) has been disturbed by a prowler. Inspector Webb Garwood (Heflin) fetches up at her mock Spanish villa with his partner Bud Crocker (Maxwell) – the good cop – who will shadow his buddy to the bitter end.

Webb is smitten by the lady, but much more impressed by her wealth. Susan is married to William (Tracey)M a late-night radio host who is infertile. After rebuffing Webb at first, Susan falls for him, and they have an affair. Webb then sets up a scene where the “prowler” (who is none other than Webb, having the foresight to use the William’s revolver) shoots the husband dead, grazing his skin.

The inquest is quickly over, but Susan discovers she is four months pregnant by Webb – something the couple clearly need to keep a secret. They travel to a quiet backwater in Yermo, California, to wait for the birth of the child. But complications arise, and Webb fetches Dr. James (Chambers) from LA. Susan, who now knows the truth, is afraid Webb will also do away with Dr. James after he is no longer needed. Webb flees when the cops show up in town, but instead of surrendering, he takes the bullets from his former collegues.

The Prowler is bleak and also rather squalid with its petit-bourgeois values. Webb is corrupt, using his position in society for murder. He is the “typical” victim of circumstances: a former basket ball player, whose career had been cut short by injury. Webb wants to take revenge for his misfortune, and has no qualms about his victims. Susan is a superficial woman, only in the end mustering some moral fibre. This was the last feature for veteran DoP Arthur C. Miller (The Song of Bernadette), who was elected as President of the American Society of Cameramen, dying in 1970.

Producer SP Eagle (Sam Spiegel) had a lot in common with the anti-hero of the piece: making Losey and his writer Trumbo sing for their supper, and in the end having to seek recourse to justice for their fees – including the USD35 Trumbo was paid for giving his voice to the radio host. AS

A GOOD PRINT IS AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE

      

A Call to Spy (2019) Netflix

Dir: Lydia Dean Pilcher | Cast: Sarah Megan Thomas, Stana Katic, Radhka Apte, Linus Roache, Rossif Sutherland, Samuel Roukin | US Drama 123′

US director Dean Pilcher lifts the lid on a little known Americanised account of World War II history about a group of women recruited by Churchill’s Special Operations Executive a “club unlike any other”. The proviso was that they should know all about France, be passionately against Hitler, and pretty.  The film is coincides with this year’s 75 anniversary of the D Day Landings.

Slick, affecting and brilliantly acted this impressive feature never takes itself too seriously thanks to Megan Thomas’ zesty script (she also produces and plays one of the spies) and the film has that distinctive look of TV zipping along at a brisk pace in establishing how the women were recruited and the stumbling blocks they will encounter professionally and personally in the field.

Stana Katic is a chic, no-nonsense Vera Atkins, a Romanian Jew whose accent occasionally lets her down, but she is keen for promotion and in charge of the recruitment drive as secretary to the head of the French section of the SOE (Roache). Keen for promotion, she begins the recruitment drive in the lush countryside of occupied France selecting Noor Inayat Khan (Apte) a French Sufi Muslim, and Virginia Hall (Megan Thomas). All are experiencing the discrimination of British society at the time: Virginia has lost part of her leg in a hunting accident; Noor has been held back by racism, along with her religion’s pacifist credo. But she is a talented wireless operator and her winning personality will clearly be an asset.

The multi-stranded plot is often bewildering as it wears on – there are too many unanswered questions – although this flaw could easily be attributed to inexperience, and the inherent confusion that prevailed during wartime. Strong performances carry the feature through, particularly that of Apte as Noor. Set on the widescreen and in intimate close-up, Baumgartner and Goodall’s atmospheric camerawork evokes the claustrophobia of their secret situation and the perilous, frenzied atmosphere of the covert operations.

The stakes are high and the constant sense danger is ever present as the women soldier on coping not only with the fear of detection and capture from the enemy, but also making quick decisions that affect their lives – not just their jobs – and the frequent errors of judgement made by their male counterparts back at base. And not all will survive to tell their tale.

Enjoyable and passionate A Call to Spy is also confusing at times and may have worked better as a TV series allowing the characters to expand into real people with rounded lives not women just caught up in a difficult war. The women were courageous heroes in the true sense of the word, and will be an inspiration to many who think that success is just about celebrity. MT

Signature Entertainment presents WWII espionage thriller A Call to Spy now on Netflix

The Other Lamb (2019) **** MUBI

Dir: Malgorzata Szumowska | Wri: Catherine S McMullen | Cast: Raffey Cassidy, Michiel Huisman, Denise Gough | Ireland-Belgium, US. 92′

Malgorzata Szumowska’s first English language film has a striking visual aesthetic and a storyline that bears a distinct resonance with Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale. Szumowska’s regular cinematographer Michal Englert creates a heady mystical feel that magics up a sinister sense of place in the wild, windswept landscapes of this quirky dreamlike horror feature.

The Other Lamb is a young girl who refuses to kowtow Michael Huisman’s butchly pretty cult leader ‘The Shepherd’ who rules over his flock of febrile females deep in their forest commune. The women followers compete cattily for his favours in a way that makes this movie, directed by a woman, vaguely unpalatable with its themes of toxic masculinity and hero worship. But Szumowska has a string of cultish fantasy dramas under her belt, amongst them In the Name of; Body and Mug. marking out her distinct talents as a pioneering filmmaker with a unique offbeat style. The latest is Never Gonna Snow Again (2020).

The subject of cults has long been a source of inspiration for filmmakers  (Midsommar and Mandy are recent outings), and the women’s devotion to their leader feels akin to Vanessa Redgrave’s adoration of Oliver Reed in Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971). Australian writer Catherine S McMullen gives an otherworldly twist to this female centric set-up that thrives tucked away from modern civilisation in an enduring fairytale that speaks to the past, present and future. The dank misty murkiness of the setting adds to its doom laden morose atmosphere.

Two groups vie for attention, the children are clad in blue, and the wives in red, but when they grow older the Shepherd gives them the pushover. Selah (a glowering Raffey Cassidy) is one of the children born into the community. Wayword and bewildered by the cult worship of The Shepherd she forms her own opinion – partly due to fear, and partly due to ignorance of what is happening to her changing body as she reaches womanhood – and The Shepherd turns his attention on her like a search light in the fog. Visions of dead birds, hostile rams and stillborn lambs haunt her daytime reveries and at night she experiences strange longings for The Shepherd, willing her to take action. Slowly it dawns that Selah represents women everywhere who not only question but are also minded to disrupt and dismantle the accepted patriarchy, male domination and misogyny of any kind.

THE OTHER LAMB is available on MUBI from 16 October 2020

 

 

Dementia (1953/55) ****

Wri/Dir: John Parker | UK Drama 56mins

A woman’s paranoia proves to be more than just a nightmare, in John Parker’s influential 1953 horror film Dementia.

Made on a shoestring and certainly none the worse for it, the film shows how much can be achieved with a slim budget.

Attracting a great deal of controversy surrounding censorship, Dementia had a doomed start in life: it fell foul of the New York State Film Board in 1953, who deemed it “inhuman, indecent, and the quintessence of gruesomeness”. It had a limited release two years later, and was then re-named Daughter of Horror in 1957, and given a VoiceOver narration by Ed McMahon. Well ahead of its time, it is a startling portrait of a woman working through vivid emotional trauma to come to terms with her troubled family past.

Dementia was Parker’s only film, expanded from a short, it barely makes the full length feature category. Garnering cult status after appearing on TCM’s late night horror spot ‘The Underground’, furore for the film’s strange blend of Gothic and fantasy horror gradually developed.

It came into being as a result of a dream experienced by John Parker’s then secretary Adrienne Barrett, who plays the main character. Awakening from a nightmare in a squalid hotel room in the back streets of Los Angeles (where the film was also shot), ‘the gamin’ begins her journey into the deep recesses of her mind – whether real or imagined. Clearly her reverie connects with some deep hidden anxiety. Armed with a flick-knife she sets off into the night where darkness envelopes her, along with a string of menacing and exploitative characters.

An interesting companion piece to The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920), Dementia is also a harbinger of the sinister brand of psychological drama  that would follow: The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) : Roman Polanski’s 1965 outing Repulsion strikes a chord, although visually Dementia connects with Guy Maddin’s hallucinatory fantasy outings such as Keyhole (2011) or even the cult classic Blue Velvet (1986). There are film noir and expressionist elements in the oblique black and white camerawork, the shadow-warped backstreets and pervasive paranoia. Narrative-wise Dementia could even come out of the pages of a Shirley Jackson novel with its chillingly sinister sense of foreboding; the heroine sinking into madness, consumed by terror.

Dialogue is minimal – apart from the occasional scream or laughter – the focus is on tone and atmosphere, with an unsettling soundscape by George Anthiel (Ballet Mécanique). ‘The gamin’ rushes through the empty streets where she collides with a series of weirdos and wayfarers (including a deranged flower-girl), culminating in a salutary meeting with the lascivious, cigar-chomping Bruno Ve Sota. He takes her on the town, only to be mesmerised by a suggestive nightclub performer.

Meanwhile the woman is gripped by a fantasy of her own which takes the shape of a foggy graveyard vignette, where she is approached by a black-hooded man carrying a lamp. As she stares down at her mother’s grave, the incongruous figure of a glamorous woman is seen smoking on a chaise-long. The woman – potentially her mother – is involved in a violent encounter with a smirking man. These characters are clearly symbolic yet shrouded in mystery, and the evening comes to a dreadful end.

The director (1899-1980) remains an elusive figure. According to a back copy of Variety magazine he was the son of Hazel H Parker who owned a chain of cinemas in Oregon.

ON BFI DUAL FORMAT BLU-RAY/DVD/DIGITAL on 19 OCTOBER 2020 | simultaneous release on iTunes and Amazon Prime |EXTRAS include a newly recorded commentary, and an alternative cut of the film, retitled Daughter of Horror (1957) which has added narration by actor Ed McMahon.

Stray (2020) Bfi player

Dir/DoP/Editor: Elizabeth Lo, Doc 78′

In Istanbul every dog has its day. Especially the city’s stray dogs who enjoy an almost charmed existence in this luminous documentary debut from newbie Elizabeth Lo.

The best thing about Stray is that no dogs loses its life, at least not during filming. There are fights and skirmishes but these take place between the beasts themselves, the locals showing a keen almost kindly affinity with their canine city companions. In her finely calibrated camerawork Lo shows how these dignified dogs take centre stage in widescreen panoramas of the ancient capital as well as close-up, and their soulful expressions will melt even the hardest heart, hinting at a life of hardship and uncertainty. Night and day they navigate urban highways and byways foraging for food and forging bonds of friendship with their canine compatriots. Meanwhile, ordinary city dwellers’ lives go on in the background, the petty contretemps and snippets of conversation are greeted with nonchalance by the dogs whose higher concerns for food and survival add a touch of deadpan irony along the way.

Intertitles highlight Turkey’s compassionate attitude towards their street dogs who, for decades, were subject to widespread culls. Today the authorities take a more laissez-faire attitude and it is now illegal to capture or euthanise the strays. Lo keeps her agile camera near to the ground as the dogs scamper through parks and along the banks of the Bosphorus, scavenging for food and water is their main occupation. .

Although usually pack animals, these noble-looking dogs live independent lives of dignity as we see them going about their business – real and figurative – in the early scenes that follow Kartan, Nazar and Zeytin. All three are big enough to look after themselves, but also take a keen interest in each other and the humans they befriend. Contrary to expectations the locals are very kind to their urban fauna and watching them all interact is enjoyable and sometimes amusing, the odd canine tiff adding texture to the otherwise freewheeling proceedings.

Six months in the making, Lo’s thoughtful doc is one of several recent animal-themed outings – Gunda at Berlin in 2020, and IDFA Special Jury awarded Chilean indie Los Reyes (2018) that followed a pair of canny canine caretakers living in Santiago’s largest skatepark. All three challenge us to reconsider preconceived ideas about our lives with man’s best friend. The most heart-rending sequence here involves a little black and white puppy who is picked up as a companion by a young Syria refugee. What seems like a kindly gesture at first soon feels rather sad for the little mite as it looks sadly around for the family pack, eventually unable to keep its eyes open from exhaustion.

In a poetic twist Lo peppers her self-edited piece with apposite quotes from Diogenes and other ancient philosophers. On a comedic note, two copulating dogs interrupt proceedings in a Women’s Day demonstration, clearly these canines would rather make love not war. Lo leaves us with a tenderly haunting final scene that shows that strays may be loners but they are still very much part of the community, atuned to spiritual awareness, just as much as they are to the more banal aspects of everyday life in Turkey’s capital. MT

NOW ON BFI player

 

 

Private Information (1952) *** Talking Pictures

Dir: Fergus McDonell. Sr: Gordon Glennon, John Baines (from the former’s play). Cast: Jill Esmond, Jack Watling, Carol Marsh, Gerard Heinz, Mercy Haystead, Norman Shelley, Lloyd Pearson, Henry Caine, Brenda de Banzie. Drama, 65′.

Another topical little gem hiding in plain sight on Talking Pictures is this British drama cheaply shot at Nettlefold Studios directed by veteran editor Fergus McDonell (the last of three) on behalf of ACT Films.

As relevant today as it was nearly seventy years ago (except that most council houses were long ago sold off). In barely an hour it updates and transposes the plot of ‘An Enemy of the People’ to the fictitious small  English town of Hamington in postwar Britain.

Female characters and their concerns take centre stage, principally those of Lawrence Olivier’s first wife Jill Esmond as a middle-aged council house tenant against whom a venal male establishment automatically close ranks and use their financial clout to attempt to muzzle her when she learns of the health risks posed by defective drains; which sure enough leads to an outbreak of typhus. Richard Chatten

SCREENING ON TALKING PICTURES TV

The Ground Beneath my Feet (2019) **** Mubi

Dir.: Marie Kreutzer; Cast: Valerie Pachner, Pia Hierzegger, Mavie Hörbiger, Michelle Barthel, Marc Benjamin; Austria 2019, 108 min.

This gripping arthouse psychodrama sees two different characters drawn together by circumstance in modern Vienna. Austrian auteuse Marie Kreutzer avoids genre clichés in steering the idiosyncratic characters through a turbulent, and sometimes mysterious course. 

Sisters Lola (Pachner) and Conny (Hierzegger) are polar opposites, on the surface of it Lola is a hard-working business consultant who is always on the move from her Vienna base, Conny is forty and by far the oldest, and suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. Not for the first time she has tries to take her life, swallowing a handful of tranquillisers. Lola finds out about this attempt on a business trip to the east German city of Rostock (a rather original setting), where she is hoping to land a contract from a company on the verge of bankruptcy. Lola is also having an affair with her boss Elise (Hörbiger), who promises her promotion, and a glamorous job in Sydney for both of them.

Conny was once Lola’s legal guardian after the untimely death of their parents. She wants to check out of the psychiatric ward immediately, and move in with her sister. But Lola has other plans, and is juggling work commitments not least fighting off competition from colleague Sebastian (Benjamin), and Birgit (Barthel) in the office. Then the strange ‘phone calls begin. They seem to be coming from Conny even though she has no access to a ‘phone. Even more bizarrely, Conny appears to be in Rostock, attempting to gas-light her younger sister – are Elise and Sebastian behind this odd conspiracy? Lola’s professional facade slips when Sebastian gets the plum job in Sydney. And soon the two sisters start to rely on each other when Conny is forced to move in.

Kreuzer imbues her drama with keen social commentary, contrasting well-heeled Vienna and its nouveau riche atmosphere with the once poor harbour city down on its knees behind the iron curtain. Lola is a modern business woman who takes pride in her professional attitude and is always well turned out in a smart suit and stilettos. Conny is a wreck who clings to Lola for support. Both Pachner and Hierzegger are brilliant, but Hörbiger is an ice maiden instilling a frosty froideur to her nuanced performance; sensitive between the sheets, but hyper-efficient in the board room. “Why do you have difficulties accepting me as your boss, Lola?” There are shades of Christian Petzold and Kreutzer’s compatriot Jessica Hausner here, but overall the Austrian auteuse is blazing her own trail.

The Ground Beneath My Feet | stream or download on MUBI

Waiting for the Barbarians (2019) ***

Dir: Ciro Guerra | Cast: Mark Rylance, Robert Pattinson, Johnny Depp | Historical drama 110′

Colombian filmmaker Ciro Guerra continues his exploration of imperialist oppression with this stunningly scenic saga set in magnificent desert surroundings where Mark Rylance plays the humanitarian face of colonialism.

WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS is the Oscar nominated director’s third drama and his English language debut following on from Embrace of the Serpent and Birds of Passage. Based on the novel by Nobel Prize-winning South African writer J.M. Coetzee, who also wrote the script, it takes place in an unspecified country and feels like a small scale version of Lawrence of Arabia with its exotic magnetism. But this is a far more sober parable that sees Rylance’s archaeologist ‘Magistrate’ falls prey to his own desires – there’s no fool like an old fool – when he falls for a young nomadic woman who has been captured in a desert raid by soldiers in the remote outpost where the he has made a niche for himself and gained the trust and respect of the locals.

‘The Magistrate’ is a cultured gentleman who speaks the local language and understands the customs – although the characters are made up of a multi racial group from North African to Mongolian and the locations are in Morocco. His experience of the country is a peaceful one very much in the vein of “live and let live”. His view is that Colonial rule is an imposition rather than a civilising influence, and that forcing the local populace to accept the ways of the interloper is tantamount to to war.

When Johnny Depp arrives as the po-faced effete Police Chief Joll he has other ideas. A couple of local “barbarians” have been arrested for thieving, Inspector Joll insists on a draconian interrogation, leaving them bloody and beaten and extracting from them a putative admission of treachery that enables him to maintain his position of colonial oppression.

All this power-posturing is as relevant now as it ever was but the choice of a non-specific cultural backdrop is more difficult to reconcile on film than it is on the page, left to our imagination. And its odd to see Mongolian tribesmen roaming around in the Moroccan desert. But the hero of the piece eventually turns into an outcast after he becomes sexually obsessed by the “barbarian” girl (Mongolian actress Gana Bayarsaikhan). His subsequent decision to return her to her family is deemed a dereliction of duty, allowing Joll to come down heavily with his metal cosh – another fantasy element to the narrative, along with the alarming finale.

Waiting for the Barbarians is an admirable drama but one that leaves us contemplating its message rather than its characters, who unreachable despite the best efforts of a stellar cast. Robert Pattinson is handed a rather bum role as Joll’s sneering secretary Officer Mandel, a farcry from his strong recent run with the French Dauphin in The KingHigh Life and The Lighthouse. Rylance manages to make us pity and root for The Magistrate up to a point, even though he becomes a figure of fun in the end for his Christ-like goodness. Fortunately the baddies get their come-uppance: and Rylance eventually finds redemption giving the film a satisfactory conclusion and some scary moments such as the menacing final scene. MT

NOW AVAILABLE TO WATCH ONLINE

 

 

 

Coup 53 (2019) joins the Rotten Tomatoes 100 percent club

Dir.: Taghi Amirani, Documentary; UK/USA/Iran 2019, 118 min.

Director/co-writer Taghi Amirani (Red Lines and Deadlines) fled Iran as a teenager and brings his life experience to bear in this detailed examination of the British/American coup of 1953, which brought down the government of the democratically elected Iranian Prime Minster Mohamad Mosaddegh (1882-1967).

With the help of editor Walter Murch (Godfather), who is credited as co-writer, Amirani has plunged the archives to piece together the events of August 1953 which still reverberate not only in the region but all over the world.

The suggestion that Mosaddegh was a communist was not far from the truth. And the British and American propagandists certainly concurred with this line of thinking. Apart from being a staunch nationalist, Mosaddegh was a member of the royal Qajar dynasty, a much older Institution than that of his opponent Shah Mohammed Raza Pahlavi, whose father had forcefully overthrown the Qajar dynasty in 1925. In the eyes of Prime Minister Mosaddegh, Shah Raza, of the house of Pahlavi, was an upstart. Mosaddegh had studied law in Europe and went on to nationalise the oil industry which was run by the Anglo-Iranian Oil company (AIOC) back in 1951.

News reels show the company’s tearful British employees leaving Iran. In reality, Mosaddegh had asked them to stay. But Britain and the USA did not want a functioning oil industry run by Iran: they organised a world-wide boycott of Iranian oil on the world market. When this plan did not work out, British Prime Minister Churchill and US president Eisenhower met in 1953 and decided to get rid of Mosaddegh during a coup. Organised by CIA chief Allen Dulles (brother of US foreign minister John Foster), and executed on the ground by Kermit Roosevelt (grandson of President T. Roosevelt) and Britain’s Norman Darbyshire, chief of the Iranian branch of MI6, the so-called operation Ajax was not always plain sailing. Only after Tehran’s police chief Mahmoud Afshartous, a staunch supporter of the Prime Minister, was abducted, tortured and murdered by General and Prime Minister Fazlollah Zahedi, did the coup look like succeeding.

One reason for the remaining question marks lay with Shah Mohammad Raza Pahlavi himself. He had fled the country and retreated to a luxury hotel in Rome with his wife Soraya, and continued to live his previous life of privilege, albeit in exile. His twin sister, Princess Ashhraf, was much more wily and helped the plotters actively. It was Kermit Roosevelt who made the difference in the end: he organised a “spontaneous” popular uprising against the Prime Minister, paying just 60 thousand US dollars for his rented mob. Mosaddegh was put on trial and ended his life alone under house arrest and in solitary confinement for the last fourteen years of his life.

There is a particular British transcript to the affair: In 1985 a TV production of End of the Empire interviewed some participants of the 1953 Coup, among them Norman Darbyshire, who, according to the transcript of the interview, was very open about his contribution. But he never appears in the finished documentary. The quotes used for the interview were neatly cut out and seemed lost – before an anonymous person sent the missing lines of Darbyshire’s interview to the Observer. Amirani landed his own coup, letting Ralph Fiennes read the incriminating sections.

Coup 53 allows us to imagine what could have happened in the region if democracy in Iran had been allowed to flourish. Today we are still confronted with the clerical-fascist Islamist regime of Iran –  belated vengeance for the Coup for oil. AS

REAL-LIFE THRILLER COUP 53 JOINS THE 100% CLUB ON ROTTEN TOMATOES 

NOW ON DIGITAL RELEASE | LONDON FILM FESTIVAL review 2019

Ava (2019) ****

Dir.: Sadaf Foroughi; Cast: Mahour Jabhari, Shayesteh Sajadi, Bahaar Noohiaw, Sarah Alimoradi, Vahid Aghapoor, Leili Rashidi, Houman Hoursan, Mona Ghiasi; Iran/Qatar/Canada 2017, 103 min.

Born in Teheran in 1976, writer/director Sadaf Foroughi later went on to study in France and now lives in Canada. Her first feature Ava, is a coming of age story that won the FIPRESCI Discovery Prize at the 42nd Toronto International Film Festival for its depiction of teenage life in today’s Tehran.

Brilliant newcomer Jabhari plays the main character Ava, a girl from a comfortable background who rebels against her professional parents and her all girls school, where she is encouraged towards Science rather than the Arts, ironic as her father (Aghapoor) is an architect. She is keen on music and is competing for a place at the capital’s Conservatoire.

School days are never easy for teenagers and particularly in Iran’s restrictive society where young women are scrutinised at every turn. This provides plenty of dramatic potential for Foroughi to make the most innocent behaviour seemingly outlandish. Ava and her friends Melody (Sajadi) and Shirin (Alimoradi)  are no different from Western teenagers, and her parents’ marriage is clearly coming under strain like any modern marriage with today’s pressures.  The school’s supervisor Ms. Dehkhoda (Rashidi) is a bit of a martinet, who makes Ava’s life particularly difficult.  Her father is the more liberal of the parents, but he too claims not to understand his daughter and there is no physical contact between them, not even as basic as holding hands.

Ava has much in common with the features of Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira (1908-2015): Sina Kermanizadeh keeps his camera static, the protagonists moving slowly around the frame, sometimes even leaving. Ava, is stubborn and wilful, very much like Ema in de Oliveira’s Vale Abraäo, based on the Portuguese version of Flaubert’s Emma. Foroughi is clearly influenced by de Oliveira, her heroine subject to the paternalistic constraints of Iranian society where women will always be under the control of their parents. In one scene, her parents discuss Ava’s failings – and their own marital conflicts, Ava meanwhile is packing her rucksack for school – only a thin wall separating them, but the teenager may as well not exist. Many of the authoritative admonishments are made in the third person: teacher and parents making announcement indirectly. A case in point is Dekhoda’s insinuation to the whole class, that “over-eating” is taking place in her school: “girls getting up at night, while everyone is sleeping and sneaking over to the fridge”.  

Passionate but aesthetically restrained, Ava is a mature debut from a talented and assured newcomer. AS

OUT ON 21 AUGUST 2020 | BFI PLAYER

Wonders in the Suburbs | Merveilles a Montfermeil (2019) **

Wri/Dir: Jeanne Balibar | Cast: Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Beart, Ramzy Bedia, Bulle Ogier | Comedy | France, 109′

Seasoned actress turned Jean Balibar first satirised France in Par Example, Electre, starring and directing alongside Pierre Leon. Six years later her stylish but structureless solo attempt at anarchic comedy is far from wonderful but certainly colourful. Shot on location in the Parisian suburbs of Seine St. Denis and Montfermeil, it features over seventy locals and a star-studded cast, but sinks under the weight of conflicting ideas.

Kamel Mrabti (Bedia) and his wife Joëlle (Balibar) are a divorcing couple at the centre of the unfolding political farce. As active members of a new task force they are working to revitalise the locale with some exciting ideas, and although their marriage is over and new lovers have already entered the fray, the two must support their latest mayor Emmanuelle Joly (a fine Beart) in implementing a set of initiatives that include the new Montfermeil International School of Languages with the teaching 62 local languages; the ‘slowing of urban rhythms’; the introduction of a ‘Nap programme’; and social support for sexual satisfaction.

Marijuana is not only legalised under this new regime, it’s actually provided by the council, along with fresh vegetables. Naturally this is all very New Age and exciting. But behind the scenes chaos rules: the Mayor is losing it slowly, undermined but a more senior government official, and Kamel is suspected of being in league with Paris – the big enemy of devolution. Meanwhile, Joly’s secretary is learning Mandinka to keep up with her Malian lover, and the Army is lurking in the woods nearby, ready to strike.

DoP Andre Chemotoff’s visuals vamp up the histrionic mayhem in a production that looks slick and very professional. And although Amalric, Beart and Balibar shine in the leading roles they can’t rescue Balibar’s rather flawed script: breaking eggs on a sculpture of President Macon is, like the whole affair, not particularly original or impressive. MT

NOW ON MUBI | LOCARNO FILM FESTIVAL 7-17 AUGUST 2019   

 

The Ninth Gate (1999) **** Prime video

Dir: Roman Polanski | Cast: Johnny Depp, Frank Langella, Lena Olin, Emmanuelle Seigner, Barbara Jefford | DoP: Darius Khondji | Wri: Roman Polanski, John Brownjohn, Enrique Urbizu | 133mins   Horror Thriller

A book collector pops his clogs quite literally during the title sequence of this amusingly sardonic thriller starring Johnny Depp as Dean Corso, a shady book dealer hired to locate the last remaining copies of a demonic manuscript purportedly written to raise the Devil.

Perfectly indulging Polanski’s penchant for the macabre, the idea was taken from ‘El Club Dumas’ a novel by Spanish writer Arturo Perez-Reverte, and is one of five horror films the maverick filmmaker has made so far in his eclectic career.

Wojciech Kilar (The Pianist) conjures up an atmosphere of sinuous evil with pristine camerawork from Darius Khondji (Funny Games), Polanski once again surrounding himself with the crème de la crème to create an enjoyably unsettling foray into a world of conspiracy, murder and satanic ritual.

The Ninth Gate (which gets its title from a fictional work ‘The Nine Gates Of the Kingdom of The Shadows’ (1666)  by Aristide Torcia) was not well received critically, despite a well-judged turn from Depp as a tough and noirishly scuzzy lead who is soon joined by a foxy and sinister sidekick in the shape of Emmanuelle Seigner, who follows him around in an anorak in similar mode to her Mimi from Bitter Moon (1992). But the film did pave the way for The Pianist (2002) which was greeted as a much-awaited return to ‘form’ and won his an Oscar for Best Director.

Judge for yourself. Ninth Gate is a good-looking, globe-trotting tale of intrigue with Hitchcockian overtones that unspools in shadowy New York and travels to the more edgy corners of fading 20th century Europe (Sintra, Toledo and Cathar France) involving a range of seedy characters – and it’s the performances that really make this worthwhile. It then wanders down a rather absurdist plotline until its denouement which strangely echoes Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999).  In The Ninth Gate Polanski blends style and technical finesse with the playful nonchalance of a director who has already done it all and can afford to have some fun with this outlandish but engaging tale. MT

THE NINTH GATE IS NOW ON PRIME VIDEO

Perfumes (2019) ***

Dir: Gregory Magne | Emmanuelle Devos, Gregory Montel, Gustav Kervern, Sergi Lopez | Drama France,

We can always rely on the French to make good-looking and believable middle age love stories, grounded in reality with appealing characters, and style to boot. Their poverty stricken single dads have sex appeal, and the camera loves their selfish divas, especially when have the soigné nonchalance of Emmanuelle Devos who stars here as a once-famous ‘nose’ in the perfume industry.

She plays Anne Walberg in Gregory Magne’s second outing into light-hearted romcom territory. The story kicks off in one of those warm French Octobers where the sun adds a glow of expectancy to this roundabout autumn romance. Anne is kitted out in her chic winter coat and ready to promote the fragrances she creates. Collecting her in a black Mercedes Limo is chauffeur Guillaume Favre, a single dad down on his luck whose dark good looks inject a subtle frisson to their taxi journey.

Still waters run deep, and neither are aware just how much they are going to need each other on this earthy odyssey that goes to unexpected places. Not hot to trot, but certainly persuasive and enjoyable, Perfume’s wayward narrative has a convincing end game. It’s flirty and original just like Anne’s perfumes. MT

NOW ON CURZON WORLD | on Curzon Cinemas | Friday 21st August

The Hater | Sala Samobojcow Nejter (2020) **** Netflix

Dir.: Jan Komasa; Cast: Maciej Musialowski, Gabi Krasucka, Danuta Stenka, Jacek Koman, Agata Kulesza, Adam Grandowski, Maciej Stuhr, Piotr Biedrom; Poland 2020, 135 min.

Polish director Jan Komasa (here teaming up with again with his script writer Mateusz Pacewicz from Corpus Christi fame), goes from strength to strength, his latest outing Hater, a blend of sexual and party politics, went on to win this year’s Best International Narrative Feature Award at Tribeca.

It follows Tomasz (a strong Maciej Musialowski) who has just been sent down from his Law studies for plagiarism, and is licking his wounds in the company of God parents Robert (Koman) and Zofia (Stenka) and their daughter Gabi (Aleksander) in their plush Warsaw flat. Leaving his mobile behind on purpose so he can eavesdrop on their negative comments about him, he is left deflated. Their relationship goes back a long way, the Krasuckas and Tomasz’ family often holidayed together, and the young man has always carried a candle for Gabi, who is already involved, and has dropped out of university due to drug problems.

Tomasz is hungry for affection from the Krasuckas, but also hell bent on revenge. He joins the social media agency run by the devious Beata Santorska (Kulesza), and soon he is on the staff of liberal politician Pawel Rudnicki (Stuhr), who is running for mayor, Krasucka family are among his main followers. Tomasz wins Rudnicki’s trust, the young man ‘thanking’ him by luring the seemingly bi-sexual candidate into an LGTB club. But the scandal doesn’t impact negatively on Rudnicki. Then Tomasz goes for broke, arranging a march by Rudnicki’s supporters next to a “White Power” demonstration. Failing again, he uses his last ace, Stephan ‘Guzek’ (Grandowski), a mentally impaired right-wing weapons addict. The ensuing bloodbath is nothing compared with the brilliant twist at the end.

Tomasz is a baby-faced psychopath who does everything to undermine the Krasuckas, but still is desperate for Gabi’s love. There is a world of difference between Tomasz’ behaviour at work (where he cruelly dismisses his former boss Kamil, having overtaken him in usefulness for Beata), and his miserable home life. Tomasz is almost reduced to tears when Gabi leaves with her new boyfriend for New York. Komasa shows how social media can become the last resort for the frustrated, masochistic loser, desperate for revenge and needy of love. DoP Radek Ladczuk’s hard-edged images leave nothing to the imagination: Kieslowski would have been proud of his soulless city where superficial consumerism and racist hatred has replaced the drabness of Stalinism. AS

NOW ON NETFLIX.
    

         

Casting (2017) *** Digital release

Dir.: Nicolas Wackerbarth; Cast: Judith Engel, Gerwin Haas, Corinna Kirchhoff, Ursina Lardi, Stephen Grossmann, Milena Dreissig; Germany 2017, 91 min.

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant was a study in female sado-masochism and one of the best films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s short-lived but sparkling career. Casting is a pale rider in comparison. The play within a film sees Nicolas Wackerbarth attempting to update the original. It requires the audience’s familiarity with the 1972 feature, and the fate of the Fassbinder crew and cast, who were a close-knit family. Here Petra becomes a man – in line with the assumption that Fassbinder himself was the model for Petra (Margit Carstensen) – who sexually objectifies  younger lover Karin Thimm (Hanna Schygulla).

Newbie director Vera (Engel) is five days away from the first day of filming, but she still hasn’t found her lead. Well – she thought she had, in the shape of Almut (Lardi), but rumour has it that Vera and producer Manfred (Grossmann) are now looking for a younger actress, possibly Mila Ury-Teche (Sellem). The action gradually closes in on Karl (Haas), who is just a ‘prop’ reading the parts of the actors who can’t be on set. But he somehow fits the part of Petra, and hassled by the commissioning TV editor and the producer, Vera gets more and more keen on the idea of the part being male, and gradually Karl seems to fit the bill in resembling the original Petra. But will it all work?

Casting settles down to an odd mixture of comedy and drama: the majority of films in Germany are TV co-productions and rely on the goodwill of commissioning TV editors. Although the lampooning works successfully here, the narrative is too episodic to keep us interested and the haphazard handheld camerawork makes this worse, the protagonists dodging in and out of the frame in a  ‘running gag’ that becomes irritating, undermining its original intention. 

Wackerbarth’s description of his female characters stays true to that of Fassbinder who once commented “women use their repression as terror weapons. I am not a misogynist, I am just honest”. The message here is the same. Michael Ballhaus’s images are light years away from Jurgen Carle’s would-be-avant-garde approach. On the whole, progress still seems an uphill struggle for German Cinema. AS

CASTING IS SET FOR A DIGITAL RELEASE ON 31 JULY 2020

 

The Plot Against America (2019) HBO Series 1-6

Dir.: Minkie Spiro, Thomas Schlamme; Winona Ryder, Morgan Spector, Zoe Kazan, John Turturro, Caleb Malis, Azhy Robertson, Anthony Boyle, Jacob Laval, Kristen Sieh, Eleanor Reissa, Michael Kostroff, Caroline Kaplan, Ben Cole, Graydon Josowitz); USA 2020, 360 min.

This ground breaking six-part HBO TV series is outstanding. Written by David Simon and Ed Burns (The Wire) and based on Philip Roth’s 2004 alternative history novel of the same name, it shows how Fascism came to America in 1940. A brilliant cast, imposing re-creation by PDs Dina Goldman and Richard Hoover, who, like the directors Minkie Spiro (Jessica Jones) and Thomas Schlamme (Westwing) share the six episodes of this staggering production of alternative US history: “It Could Happen Here”.

Many will remember the theme tune “The Road is open Again”, an old Warner Brother’s short film score promoting Roosevelt’s New Deal episodes. This ushers in the Levin family in their home in Weequahic, Newark/New Jersey in the summer of 1940, a few months before the Presidential Election in the autumn of the year. ‘Its a done thing’, that Franklin Delano Roosevelt will be elected, at least for his staunch supports Hermann Levin (Spector), selling life insurance for a living, and his wife Bess (Kazan), who keeps the family tightly organised. Their oldest son, teenager Sandy (Malis) has a talent for drawing but disagrees with his father’s outlook on life, that only Jewish affairs matter. The youngest, Philip (born like the author in 1933), is much more interested in his friends than in politics. Hermann has just given up the idea of a promotion which would enable the family to move into a bigger house, having seen beer-slurping members of the Fascist “German-American Bund” in what would have been his new neighbourhood.

Opposing Roosevelt in the election is the pilot-hero “Lindy” Lindbergh (Ben Cole) of ‘Spirit of St. Louis’ fame, who is a believer in eugenics, a supporter of ‘America First’ and a vicious Anti-Semite. The real Lindbergh, who shared the political outlook of his fictional double, was not selected as candidate of the Republican Party. Lindbergh put a simple phrase forward and repeated it at nauseam: “This is between Lindbergh and War”, implying that President Roosevelt would ‘drag’ the USA into the European War. Lindbergh won in a landslide.

Meanwhile Bess’s sister Evelyn (Winona Ryder back and better than ever) is looking after their mother (Reissa), and has fallen for conservative Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf (Turturro), an avid supporter of Lindbergh. A grateful president gives Bengelsdorf the leadership of the “Office of American Absorption”, a scheme designed to evict Jewish families from their homes on the East Coast, to the American “Heartland” of the South, where the KKK and other racist organisations hold sway supported by the authorities. This brings about another conflict between Sandy and his father, the teenager claiming to not having seen KKK members when he spent six weeks in Kentucky with a farmer. Cousin Alvin (Krumholtz) is a small-time gangster and clashes with Hermann, but gets the thumbs up from Sandy. Alvin finally flees to Canada, where he joins the Army, losing a part of his leg. In a bid to bury their differences Hermann invites Alvin (“family is family”) to live with them again.  Alvin is able to gain the attention of his boss’s daughter, helping her father to fight off a gang robbing his arcade machines, and setting up a lucrative future and marriage, thanks to his skills as radar operator acquired in the in the war. 

But Lindbergh has changed the political climate: with slogans such as “the USA will not be part of the war in Europe, because it was caused by Jews”, the Jewish minority is victimised, Anti-Semitic attacks having become common. Hermann is hassled by FBI agents for offering a home to a ‘criminal’ like Alvin: the young man has contravened the American Neutrality Act which forbids any involvement in the War.

Philip is ‘introduced’ by his wealthy friend Earl Axman (Yosowitz) to the world of female underwear. Meanwhile the father of his friend Seldon (Laval), the Levin’s next door neighbour suddenly dies. Jews start to emigrate to Canada, including Hermann’s best friend Shepsie (Kostroff), the projectionist of the newsreel cinema in Weequahic, where the two watched Hitler’s rise in Europe. The Levins are now put on a list for a new “home”, Hermann has been “transferred” to Kentucky by his company. He resigns and works for a greengrocer. Bess insists on emigrating to Canada, after begging her sister Evelyn in vain to be taken off the list for the ‘exile’ in Kentucky. Seldon and his mother Selma (Sieh) are not so lucky, they have been put on the list for Kentucky, because Philip told his aunt Evelyn that he would miss Seldon, if only the Levins would have to move. One day, the troubles rising, Bess gets a phone call from Seldon: his mother is missing. Hermann and his two sons drive to Kentucky, only to learn that Selma has been burned alive in her car by the KKK. Even though the roads in the South are full of patrolling KKK members, Hermann brings Seldon ‘home’. Then, in the midst of a looming civil war in the country, President Lindbergh, flying his own plane, is reported missing.

There is so much to enjoy and admire in this series: Turturro’s operatic appeaser; Evelyn’s social climbing – she even dances with Nazi Foreign Secretary Joachim von Rippentrop at the White House during his visit; history unfolding as Hermann and Shepsie watch from the projection room at the cinema; the entire social dynamic of the Levin family.

Put at its simplest, The Plot Against America is an eye opener: the ‘America First’ and White Supremacist movement has always been virulent – but it takes a populist president to give them credence and light the fire. Never has history been so cleverly and affectively foretold. AS

ON SKY ATLANTIC | NOW TV

 

     

 

Once in a New Moon (1934) ** Talking Pictures

Dir-Scr: Anthony Kimmins/ Cast: Eliot Makeham, Rene Ray, Morton Selten, Wally Patch, Derrick de Marney, John Clements, Mary Hinton. Sci-fi/Fantasy. Fox British. 63 mins

Lurking on Talking Pictures at 6 in the morning is this extraordinary relic of the troubled 1930s (a front page briefly glimpsed during a montage bears the secondary headline ‘Nazi Terrorism in Europe’) in the form of this bizarre British hybrid of Duck Soup and Passport to Pimlico with a large ensemble cast (including a young Thorley Walters glimpsed in his film debut) headed by perennial ‘little man’ Eliot Makeham that anticipates the sort of thing that would soon become associated with the name of Frank Capra.

Much of it attractively shot on rural locations – with a noisy music score, Russian-style editing & directed with a restless camera by the always unpredictable Anthony Kimmins from a 1929 novel by Owen Rutter called ‘Lucky Star’ – the thing is fantasy rather than sci-fi as a tiny village called Shrimpton is blown into space precipitating civil war. There’s a lot of political talk but the suspiciously short running time of 63 minutes suggests substantial pruning before it was passed for exhibition. R Chatten

NOW ON TALKING PICTURES TV

Las Ninas Bien | The Good Girls (2018) Mubi

Dir.: Alejandra Marquez Abella; Cast: Ilse Salas, Flavio Medina, Paulina Gaitan; Mexico 2018, 93 min.

Alejandra Marquez Abella’s flawed sophomore feature is a social anthropologist’s dream: based on characters by Guadelupe Loaeza, a group of bitchy competitive Mexican wives whose the crowning glory is having Julio Iglesias for dinner. Sofia, leads the cast of mere cyphers in an episodic narrative that drains out patience even with the modest running time.

Sofia (Salas) is desperate to deny her Latin American heritage. Sending her three children off to summer camp, she warns them “don’t hang out with Mexicans”. A European background is what she and her female rivals long for. In the social whirl, Sofia’s parties are epic productions,  funded by her husband Fernando (Medina) whose   family is of Spanish heritage. Everything is a competition for Sofia, the smallest bum note could lead to a loss of face among her female friends. But we are in the early 1980s, and the Mexican Peso suddenly bottoms out. As Sofia and her circle rely on imported goods, this is a major catastrophe all round. So when credit cards get politely refused and the servants don’t get paid, doom is imminent. To make matters worse, Sofia’s arch rival, the noveau-riche Ana Paula (Gaitan), is still quids in. Her default-position is resigned acceptance, but with the Peso tumbling further, even this seems beyond the pail.

Salas is always brilliant, cool and contained, she carries the film as much as possible. DoP Daniela Ludlow succeeds in conjuring up this lush environment of petty mini-me’s in meltdown, keeping everything close and personal, despite the widescreen format. As a chick-flick study of vanity and self-deceit this is promising but lacks emotional depth and an absorbing dramatic arc. AS

NOW ON MUBI

The Portuguese Woman | A Portuguesa (2019) **** Mubi

Dir.: Rita Azevedo Gomes; Cast: Clara Riedenstein, Marcello Urgeghe, Ingrid Caven, Joao Vicente, Alexandre Alves Costa; Portugal 2018, 136 min.

A languid and painterly reflection on art, feminism and beauty and the latest drama from award-winning filmmaker Rita Azevedo Gomes whose debut A Coleccaio Invisivel was based on a 1924 novella by Robert Musil, a contemporary of Stephen Zweig.

Although the timeframe is ambiguous, the setting is Europe – possibly Sintra – somewhere between the 17th/18th century. The film opens with “Unter den Linden”, sung by Ingrid Caven, who accompanies the narrative like a Brechtian chorus as we meet the recently married Lord Von Hutten (Urgeghe) and his wife, the titular Portuguese woman (Riedenstein) whose year-long honeymoon has been brought to an abrupt end when Von Hutten is called to battle by the rather combative Bishop of Trento (Costa): “War is made of debt, and peace is the conduit of corruption and vice”.

When Von Hutten finally returns to his wife and child, who are living in his decrepit castle, she has been enjoying a lengthy visit from her cousin Dom Pero Loboto (Vicente), whose stay has given rise to local gossip, and murderous jealousy on the part of the conquering soldier.

Lavishly mounted and sumptuously captured by DoP Acacio de Almeida whose intense images bring to mind the paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Gomes cleverly transforms Musil’s mysticism, his metaphors for humankind’s failure to retain traditional values, above all love, into landscapes shrouded in mist where the derelict castle represents a refuge from the outside world of strife. Manoel de Oliveira regular Agustina Bessa-Luis comes up with some brilliant dialogue pieces performed with languorous resonance by a superb ensemble cast. In the style of Oliveira, Gomes draws from literature and the world of art to create intentionally static scenes enriched by transcendental poetic realism in this enchanting and magical drama. MT

NOW ON MUBI | VIENNALE 2019 | 24 October – 26 November 2019

 

       

The Fight (2020) **** VOD

Dir.: Elyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegman, Eli Despres; Documentary with Lee Gelernt, Brigitte Amiri, Dale Ho, Joshua Block, Chase Strangio; USA 2020, 96 min.

Directors Elyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegman and Eli Despres (the former two already well-known for Weiner (2016), take a look inside battles faced by lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) via four cases that had particular impact on the road ahead in American politics.

There was a time when ACLU members were called “Fellow travellers”, a derogative term used by presidential candidate HW Bush in 1988 with great success against his democratic opponent Michael Dukakis. Today the ACLU is seen as a bastion against the Trump government. The ACLU has filed 147 (!) cases against the Trump administration, including the infamous Muslim travel ban.

According to Anthony D. Romero, executive director of ACLU, the core support of the organisation dates back to the Nixon era.  ACLU is seen as “cool” today, donations have rocketed since Trump took over in 2017 from three million USD three million to nearly 120 million, whilst the membership has almost reached two million. Not that this matters much to Dale Ho, one of the lawyers we will follow on the day of the judgement: “We are just several floors in a building in New York, we cannot keep the government with all its resources at bay. ” He calls for more volunteers and donations. Meanwhile the ACLU task force is taking phone calls, many accusing them of being pedophiles. ACLU has also come under fire for supporting the members of “alt-right” to demonstrate in Charlottesville, where a counter-demonstrator Heather Heyes was killed by a car driven by ‘white supremacists’. Romero points out that already in 1977, the ACLU defended a Nazi rally in Skokie (Ill.). Back then the demonstrators were not armed, or defended by the President of the USA.    

The finale is at judgement day in the four show cases. ACLU Deputy Director and team veteran Lee Gelernt, is – like the rest of the crew – exhausted. Gelernt has taken on the government in a family separation case, claiming the Trump administration had withheld constitutional rights from the plaintiffs, causing harm for both parents and children. Gelernt’s brief conveys the emotional impact of it all to the Supreme Court judges. Clearly breaking up undocumented immigrant families has caused untold grief going forward and there are emotive scenes of family reunion after the verdict is delivered. Joshua Block and Chase Strangio have been picked to challenge the Trump government on the Transgender Military ban.

The Trump administration subsequently banned any new recruitment of LGTB members into the army. “The guy never gives up” sighs Block. This labour of love is the perfect birthday present for the  ACLU’s centenary. And hopefully, our five heroes, and the rest of the two-and-half floors in New York, will be less busy come January 2021. AS

ON DEMAND FROM 31 JULY 2020 COURTESY OF DOGWOOF FILMS               

Alice (2019) *** Digital release

Dir/Wri: Josephine Mackerras | Cast: Emilie Piponnier, Martin Swabey, Chloe Boreham | Drama, France 103′

Could you have sex with a man you had no feelings for, and possibly didn’t even fancy? When disaster strikes sex work is the only way forward for a respectable Parisian mother in this watchable first film from Australian writer director Josephine Mackerras.

Emilie Piponnier gives it her all as Alice the impressive woman in question, forced to the brink when her affectionate, poetry quoting husband François (Martin Swabey) suddenly disappears, taking all their money. Left with nothing but debt and her adorable toddler she has to act quickly. And learn not just to be a paid lover, but one who also calls the shots. A situation which ends up being empowering, and potentially lucrative.

All easier said than done. And Mackerras certainly has a rosy view of  prostitution. At times this veers into Celine and Julie go Boating territory but it does help that the men who enter Alice’s ‘professional’ love life are mostly easy on the eye. Some are even intelligent and attractive. So no beer-gutted, baldies to deal with – although one man breaks down in tears. But mastering the art of seduction is only half the battle for this sexually rather naive young mother. And she learns the psychological tricks of the trade from a frisky female she meets in a bar, who turns out to be Lisa (Chloe Boreham) an escort at an agency. The tricky bit comes in keeping the debtors as bay in tense scenes that will frighten the life out of anyone who has experienced the issues involved. Then Francois comes up with a sob story about how his father took him to a prostitute at the age of thirteen, begging for forgiveness, so Alice uses him as a babysitter. Then the worm turns, and Francois threatens to takes Jules away in scenes that culminate in an over-the-top happy ending.

This is a sunny insightful story that goes to fraught and unexpected places in showing how women are often tougher than they imagine, and how earning money from pleasing men can be infinitely more satisfying that not being paid to massage their egos within a dysfunctional marriage. MT

Alice will be released on selected digital platforms (Curzon Home Cinema, The BFI Player, Amazon Prime Video) from 24 July 2020. 

Clemency (2019) Prime Video

Dir.: Chinonye Chukwu; Cast: Alfre Woodard, Aldis Hodge, Richard Schiff, Danielle Brooks, Michael O’Neill, Wendell Pierce, Richard Gunn, Vernee Watson; USA 2019, 113 min.

Director/writer Chinonye Chukwu certainly knows her subject. The founder of a filmmaking collective dedicated to teaching incarcerated women, she has also worked as a volunteer on many clemency appeal cases. But despite a towering performance by Alfre Woodard in the lead role, Clemency is surprisingly under-whelming.

Bernadine Williams (Chukwu) is the chief warden of a High Security prison, facing the twelfth execution of her tenure. The previous one was a botched job, the anaesthetic injection and lethal substance just didn’t work. So Williams was forced to close the curtains between the execution chamber and the witness booth to the chagrin of family members.

Case number twelve is a certain Anthony Woods (Hodge), on death row for more than a decade after  killing a police officer – even though he maintains his innocence. The proceedings will test Bernadine to the last: Defence attorney Marty Lumetta (Schiff), also a fighter, and like Bernadine, on his final job before retirement. He’s hoping for a reprieve for his client. Meanwhile her deputy (Gunn) is going for another job in a prison without an execution facility. The Prison Chaplain (O’Neill), is equally disenchanted and opting for a transfer.

Bernadine is somehow left high and dry, her co-workers making her look cold and over-efficient. Her school teacher husband (Pierce) is sententious but not unsympathetic. Reading Ralph Ellison’s ‘Invisible Man’ to his students, he clearly considers himself special and somehow shames his wife into re-examining their marriage, driving her to the bottle with his prim attitude. Bernadine also has to deal with histrionics from the dead policeman’s mother (Watson), and by now we have come to understand Bernadine is fighting a one-woman battle, the writer/director letting her down badly, somehow making her look incapable. Meanwhile Woods’ discovers he is now a father, and the demonstrators outside the prison are getting louder as the day of execution approaches.

Clemency is a heavy film to watch not because of its subject matter but because it is seriously down on its heroine despite her diligent and likeable personality. Eric Branco provides stylish, if somewhat over-symbolic, widescreen images and Kathryn Bostic’s score is subtle. Despite all this it feels as if Chukwu has abandoned the quietly thoughtful heroine Bernadine in favour of those who question the system. AS

GRAND JURY PRIZE | Sundance Film Festival | FRIDAY 17 JULY 2020 | CURZON HOME CINEMA  

Maserati: A Hundred Years Against All Odds (2020) **

Dir: Philip Selkirik; Documentary with Carlo Maserati, Stirling Moss, Juan Manuel Fangio; Germany 2020, 89 min.

Unlike the sleek and streamlined vehicle in question this new documentary is a dreary journey through detail weighed down by a monotonous voice-over and too many backseat talking heads.

Maserati originates from Bologna where brothers Alfieri, Ettore and Ernesto had a fight on their hands to keep their legendary company on the road, surviving thanks to take-overs by Orsi, Citroën, Fiat, even sharing the same owners as arch rivals Ferrari. Henry Ford II was keen on producing Maserati models for the mass market in the USA – rather like he was with Ferrari and the late British GP driver Stirling Moss talks about “spare girls and spare cars”, before lauding the Maserati as the best car he has ever driven.

Philip Selkirk does his best occasionally enlivening his film with archive footage of races such as Nuvolari’s triumphs in 1930s. But the focus seems to be company politics: and we learn that Maserati will soon be re-united with old rivals, made possible by the forthcoming merger of PSA (Fiat Chrysler Automobiles Group) and Peugeot /Citroën/DS/Opel and Vauxhall. Maserati has not driven in F1 for 50 years, unlike Mercedes or Ferrari.

Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason’s comments dovetail into the avalanche of technical data. Selkirk bills the Fascist movement in Germany and Italy as “just a change in politics”, mentioned in passing between the more glorious successes of the Maserati “Trident” car: The symbol of Neptune’s powerful weapon was adapted in 1920 as a company symbol, copying the spear of the Fountain of Neptune statue in the Piazza Maggiore in Bologna, before the factory was moved to Modena. Unfortunately for Maserati, the brand’s trident symbol has recently been closely associated with far-right organisations such as ‘For Britain’ and fascist groups such as Trident Antifa.

Maserati is hard work, as one critic put it, “make sure of adequate food and drink supplies”. Intended as a doc for mainstream audiences Maserati somehow misses the Zeitgeist of our times – by a mile and more. It’s more likely to please diehard fans of the brand or petrol-heads. AS

AVAILABLE ON DIGITAL DOWNLOAD 20TH JULY, DVD & DIGITAL RENTAL FROM 27THJULY

The Truman Show (1998) **** Netflix

Dir.: Peter Weir; Cast: Jim Carrey, Laura Linney, Ed Harris, Noah Emmerich, Natalie McElhone, Brian Delate; US 1998, 103 min.

A pioneer of arthouse cinema in his native Australia Peter Weir (*1944) has made fourteen features in a career spanning 44 years. The Cars that Ate Paris (1974) was followed by string of cult classics: Gallipoli (1981), Picnic Rock on Hanging (1975) Dead Poet’s Society (1981) and Witness (1985) to name a few. The Truman Show is an underrated gem, a stinging satire of meticulous execution. Written by Andrew Niccol (who directed Gattica), who clearly had in mind the ‘Twilight Zone”, Weir in the end insisted on a more upbeat approach for this amusing state of the nation allegory which is increasingly relevant today.

Thirty-year-old insurance salesman Truman Burbank (Carrey) lives a toy town existence in smalltime Florida with his preternaturally chipper wife Meryl (Linney). Everything appears to be perfect but Truman somehow feels incomplete in this saccharine existence and we soon discover why. He is actually taking part in a global reality TV show which has been running world-wide for with more than 10, 000 eps, kicking off with Truman’s live birth on TV.

Life becomes even more disjointed when when his drowned father, appears to resurface. Or is it his father? A radio car message, not meant for him but for ‘actors’ in his vicinity, makes Truman even more suspicious and then completely bewildered when the beam from a Klieg light narrowly misses him from somewhere up in the sky. College girl friend Sylvia (McElhone) has to be written out of the show when she tries to spill the beans, finding her way to Seahaven, to warn Truman before being dragged away by her ‘father’, claiming his daughter is schizophrenic and will be taken to the Fiji Islands.

One feeling persists for Truman in this anodyne nightmare. The love he felt for an enigmatic woman, and his efforts to reach her provide the film’s dramatic thrust and the underlying truth behind life’s charade. Meanwhile Cristof (Harris) the director and creator of the TV show, would rather drown him than release his money-making hero into the real world. Credits must go to PD Dennis Gassner for creating a Stepford Wives-like environment, and DoP Peter Biziou for executing the different forms of reality in all its fine detail.

In an interview in 1999 Weir told me he and his fellow Australian filmmakers, amongst them Bruce Beresford and Gillian Armstrong, really benefitted from the imported culture from the USA and Europe. “Culturally, we had a diet similar to Americans of our generation. Australians had no culture. We were simple people until recent times. We were Europeans in the bottom end of the world. As with a new colony, the Arts are the last thing to be developed. I think, my generation was the first to not withdraw, but go to London, as did the generation before us. But we stayed there. We were determined to make our mark, like the kid who has been the shortest at school and been bullied.”

Understatement is very much the watchword of Weir’s features, even those as placative as The Truman Show. Later on in his career with Witness and The year of Living Dangerously, he brought a delicate voyeurism to sex scenes, unlike many 1970 features, which showed too much naked skin. His response to why he chose this approach was revealing: “When the Hays Code operated between 1930 and 1966, directors were far more inventive in the way they showed love and lust. With the Hays Code gone, I tried to use the lessons I learnt; that less is more. You allow the viewers to join in making the film and apply their imagination. They are joining in and completing the movie with me”. AS

NOW ON NETFLIX

https://youtu.be/c3gI9ms8Fdc

 

 

Krabi 2562 (2019) *** Bfi Player

Dir: Ben Rivers, Anocha Suwichakornpong | Experimental, Drama | UK 97 minutes

Krabi is not just an exotic beach location in Thailand where you can ‘get a massage”, as a one banal Western couple found out. In this offbeat cinema vérité experiment Ben Rivers joins fellow director Anocha Suwichakornpong to explore the landscape and stories within the wider community of this well-known beauty spot rich in Mangrove forests, limestone cliffs and offshore islands. 

The meditative often mysterious drama works chronologically, ethnologically and socially, the atmospheric use of sound – whether ambient or man-made – captures and distils the often eerie enigmatic essence of the place in a specific moment in time where the pre-historic, the recent past and the contemporary world collide. Tonally, Rivers conjures up that same resonant serenity and offbeat humour often associated with the Far East in a story that feels very much like that of Hong Sang-soo’s humorous In Another Country (2012). 

A Thai filmmaker arrives in the area to research locations. She is escorted by a guide offering insight into local folklore and a chance to discover the area’s more undiscovered corners: remote caves where they come across a wild-haired shaman in a loin-cloth, stoking his glowing campfire. Bizarrely, a film shoot is also taking place nearby jolting us back into reality as the scantily clad actor clocks the shaman, Rivers contrasts this with her trip to the highly commercialised shopping area where every type of cuisine is on offer. Deep in the lush rainforest we meet an octogenarian who has lived his entire life in a wooden house. The farmstead is also home to a humpback pig and cockerels. The news that Krabi has a Biennale of its own plays out against the background of gently flowing water as a group of rowers glides by gigantic cliffs. Another black and white scene features enormous shells and skeletons in a depths of a coastal cave giving the piece at atavistic twist.

It soon turns out that the location scouting filmmaker is researching the town’s cinema that has been shut since 1981; a banner announcing the latest releases “Comming soon!” – is a dusty testament to a cinematic past where screenings ran for 24 hours a day, and were packed full. But her presence seems to be a concern only to the local police, as bats and flocks of birds flit past the ghostlike temples of spiritualism and commerce, and dusk falls in this dreamy backwater. Langourously the strands come together to exert an unsettling pull over us as we muse over this fascinating but rather enigmatic trail of events. Intriguing nonetheless. MT

BFI PLAYER from 20 JULY 2020 | LOCARNO FILM FESTIVAL 2019 |  7 -17 AUGUST 2019

BUÑUEL in the Labyrinth of the Turtles (2020)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PREMIERING ON BFI PLAYER ON 9 JULY 2020                       

Villa Empain (2019) **** MUBI

Dir: Katharina Kastner | Doc, Belg/France/Ger/ 25′

Katerina Kastner’s impressionistic documentary debut captures the essence of the Villa Empain, one of the most beautiful architectural masterpieces of Art Deco in Brussels. In 1930, at the age of 21, Baron Louis Empain commissioned the building of a private mansion in 55 acres on the prestigious Avenue de la Nation which was later on renamed as Franklin Roosevelt Avenue.

Using the finest materials available in those interwar years (marble, bronze and precious wood), the luxurious house consisted of four polished granite facades, surrounded by a large garden with a pergola and swimming pool. A collector and curator, Louis Empain eventually decided that the property was better served as a museum of decorative and contemporary art, and it was donated to the Belgian Nation in 1937. But the Second World War changed everything and the villa languished until 1943, when it was requisitioned by the German army, eventually becoming an embassy for the USSR in peacetime when Empain recovered his property in the beginning of the sixties, before reselling it in 1973. For nearly ten years it was rented to the TV channel RTL then falling to semi-rack and ruin during the 1990s. It was eventually saved by a wealthy family who set up the Boghossian Foundation in 2007, transforming the building into an East West cultural centre and guaranteeing the revival of its fortunes.

Shot in 16mm this is a sensual creation that resonates with the passage of time, showcasing the the house’s former glory through its trials and tribulations to its present reincarnation. The clever editing brings an eerie and fleeting sense of human presence drifting through the empty rooms and light-filled gardens where leaves swirl and valuable materials shimmer in shafts of sunlight. This short but ravishing documentary takes us on a dreamy distant journey to the coast where the family once enjoyed beach holidays in a space reflected by evocative fantasies and haunted by the war years. A century of memories recorded in a treasured place in time. MT

COMES TO MUBI ON 15 JULY 2020 |

Spaceship Earth (2020) **** VOD release

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

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

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

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

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

ON DEMAND | 10 JULY 2020 |

 

Anthropocene: The Human Epoch (2019)

Dir: Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas de Pencier, Edward Burtynsky | Doc 87′

In her latest eco-documentary Baichwal finds a breath-taking way of showing how humans are destroying the planet. We started off with good intentions, and admirable causes: Carrara Marble gave us the Sistine Chapel and Michaelangelo’s David, but now it mostly provides bathrooms. Teak from the forests of Southern India provided us with oceangoing boats to fight off the Spanish Armada. But enough is now enough. Our burgeoning populations have created an insatiable need for raw materials. This cycle of pillage and endless destruction has overtaken production: our seas are nearly empty, our woods and forests increasingly bare, this untold environmental depletion is even taking its toll on the air we breath.

Rather like Michael Glawogger did in his time, Jennifer Baichwal (Watermark) and her team travel all over the world’s far flung corners to highlight the bizarre and the intriguing. Breathtaking images make us stare in disbelief, mesmerised by the sheer scale, beauty or  dreadfulness of it all. In Russia’s most polluted city, huge mines produce smelted metal used to construct machinery that plunders more minerals from the earth. Germany makes mammoth machines weighting thousands of tons, capable of tearing down a church steeple in seconds to provide space for more mining activity (known as Terraforming, apparently). In the arid salt flats of the Atacama Desert neon-green pools of lithium brine desiccate in the punishing glare of the sun. The batteries will power our electric cars. A doom laden narration from Alicia Vikander feels redundant, anyone can understand the implications of this sinister story without making it even more dour.

So despite some alluring photography Anthropocene offers no positive angles, and we are left feeling hopeless and helpless. Once we built a civilisation, now we are tearing it all apart. MT

ANTHROPOCENE | NOW ON VOD

 

Litigante (2019) **** Curzon | Edinborough Film Festival 2020

Dir.: Franco Lolli; Cast: Carolina Sanin, Leticia Gomez, Antonio Martinez, Vladimir Duran, Alejandra Sarria; France/Columbia 2019, 95 min.

South America is delivering some really good films at the moment and Colombian filmmaker Franco Lolli (Gente de Bien) continues the trend with LITIGANTE. Aiming successfully for psychological hyper-realism it centres on an upper-middle class family where mother and daughter, both top-lawyers, argue each other, quite literally, to death.

Middle-aged Silvia (Sanin) is having a hard time: as chief lawyer for the public works department in Columbia’s capital Bogota, her boss has implicated her in a scandal. On the local radio she holds her own against the host Abel (Duran), and then bumps into him later at a party where he apologises. The two end up in bed, but other conflicts threaten to overwhelm Silvia: her controlling mother Letitia (Gomez) is dying of lung cancer, but is still very much in fighting mood as far as her daughter is concerned, even from her deathbed. When Letitia complains about her relationship with Abel: “he took you down in front of the entire population of Bogota in that interview”, exasperated Silvia exclaims: “You never want me to have a life that’s independent from yours”.

Then Silvia’s pre-school son Antonio (Martinez) has a tantrum, destroying toys and endangering other children. Apparently the other kids are bullying him about not having a father. And this is all because his mother refused to admit that his biological father, a high-ranking judge, actually sired her son. Silvia doesn’t even get on with the family’s housekeeper  ‘Majo’ and so her budding relationship with Able collapses even before getting off the ground.

Lolli manages the turmoil with great aplomb, creating a scenario where high octane emotional output is the norm. We watch Silvia and Letitia competing for the role of victim, trying to make each feel guilty in a classic family dynamic. Their sparring is the raison d’être of their lives – in a perverse way, they enjoy it. 

Litigante is not only much more honest than Cuaron’s Roma, it also has a stronger dramatic impact and a more convincing cast, led by the indomitable Carolina Sanin, who seemingly conquers all. DoP Pablo Romero Garcia uses handheld close-ups of the warring factions and his panoramic shots of Bogota evoke the chaos of a family in crisis.

LITIGANTE IN NOW STREAMING ON CURZON WORLD | 10 JULY 2020

Au Bout des Doigts | In Her Hands (2019) *** Curzon Home Cinema

Dir: Ludovic Bernard | Cast Karidja Touré, Lambert Wilson | Kristin Scott Thomas | Jules Benchetrit | Drama French, 106 minutes
Music is the redeeming force in this Parisian prodigy drama from Luc Besson’s former assistant director Ludovic Bernard (Lucy).
Social realism clashes with the soigné world of the National Music Conservatory in an elliptical story that sees a disadvantaged young man develop his hidden talent thanks to a well-meaning protegé inspired by a tragedy of his own. Lambert Wilson is Pierre Geithner the director of the music college where Kristin Scott Thomas is draconian piano teacher, La Comtesse. Both will help Mathieu Malinski (Benchetrit) to become a concert pianist in this French riff on ‘My Fair Lady’.
As French dramas go this is solid rather than inspiring. Both Geitner and Malinski have the most scope as characters with their troubled backstories which are well-sketched out – although Benchetrit doesn’t always make the most of his complex role. The reverse is true for Scott Thomas, who tries hard to add nuance to her rather one dimensional Countess. Fortunately she has enough experience and talent to flesh out this severe woman, not so Malinski’s mother, a rather weak performance from Else Lepoivre. Karidja Toure is a breath of fresh air as Mathieu’s girlfriend Anna, a talented musician who possesses enough carefree elan to give Mathieu the confidence to believe in himself, in this casebook study of young male empowerment.
Jean Nouvel’s slick contemporary culture complex provides a slick counterpoint to the scenes in the down-at-heel banlieu where Malinski hangs out with his gang. In flashback we see him being inspired by a kindly old relative before the chic Countess swings in with her no nonsense approach, that often clashes with Malinski’s laid back style. And although she almost gives up in the end, Geitner’s continued passion for his discovery offers the most surprising reveal. MT
UK Release Date | 10th July 2020 | On Curzon Home Cinema

Family Romance LLC (2019) *** Streaming

Dir.: Werner Herzog; Cast: Yuchi Ishii, Mahiro Tamimoto, Miki Fujimaki; USA 2019, 89 min.

Werner Herzog is experimenting again and this latest feature gamely blends drama with a hybridised fiction and documentary. Based on Japanese company that hires out its founder to act as a stand-in to suit client circumstances is not particularly original, although a tongue in cheek humour shines through in some of the cameos. Yorgos Lanthimos did this much better in Alps (2011). Here Herzog somehow falls victim to his narrative’s ambiguity: We’re never sure whether this is social critique, or a hidden camera gag.

Yuchi Ishii is boss and main employee of his Family Romance LLF (Limited Liability Company). His first assignment is at Cherry Blossom time in Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park where he is meeting twelve-year old Mahiro Tamimoto: hired by the girl’s mother, his remit is to impersonate her father. The Dad in question pushed off when Mahiro was very young, and her mother Miki Fujimaki needs Yuchi to replace him, on important occasions. But this is just one of Yuchi many gigs: a young celebrity-hungry actor then hires him with a posse of fake photographers to get her face into the newspapers; an elderly woman, who has won 180 000 Yen in the lottery, has wants him to create that same feeling of elation when she found out about her win. Yuchi is also hired by a railway employee to take a bollocking from his boss over the late running of a train – the humour here lies in the perceived loss of face for the worker. But when Mahiro arrives one day with an Afro-American toddler “who no one wants to hang out with” because of her “fire-burned face”, things becomes distinctly weird. And when Mahiro falls for ‘father’ Yuchi, her mother tries to have the him move in.

Herzog tries to be philosophical throughout this often awkward, often amusing oddity, but the episodes are simply too thin to invite deep reflection. When Yuchi visits a hotel run by AI service personnel (robots), we are reminded of Philip K. Dick, but the director immediately jumps to another of his numerous exploits. Herzog’s basic camerawork contributes to making this feel like a very minor work, along with Ernst Reijseger’s saccharine score. AS

VOD RELEASE FROM FRIDAY 3 JULY 2020

   

  

Let it Burn | Dis a era due me via Chorar (2019) *** Mubi

Dir.: Maira Bühler; Documentary; Brazil 2019, 81 min.

In her remarkable documentary Brazilian filmmaker Maira Bühler follows the residents of a hotel turned hostel for crack addicts trying to put their lives together again.

The original title Tell Her That She Saw Me Cry is actually much more suitable. What we are really dealing with here is a domestic drama about lost souls whose emotions are so raw that they can only be released in forceful, often self harming, ways often counterproductive to their recovery. In 28 rooms on 7 floors, 107 residents live out their grim existence in the centre of Sao Paulo. Not that we see very much of Brazil’s capital – only the noise of passing trains reminds us of the vast metropolis outside and the brutal streets where hope was decimated long ago for these hapless inhabitants in their lost ark of social abandonment. But at least a den of iniquity is preferable to the jungle outside.

A trade mark of today’s Brazilian documentary style is the obsession with detail combined with an objectivity that captures an out-pouring of emotions often frightening to witness. A man shouts into his phone, desperately declaring his love for a woman who might not even be listening – but his cri de coeur is at the same time proof of him being alive. A lonely woman in a deserted dormitory waits for a lover who might never return. The longing for company is what keeps the majority of the tenants alive. The camera searches out the human links and reveals little groups clinging on to each other for survival. An aching love song reminds us what this is all about: love, however fleeting, is vital for survival.

The social gulf between film crew and their subjects is enormous. But when the crew has installed a tripod in the lift and starts filming, one woman reveals to the director that she is completed uneducated. But even though there is an uncomfortable feeling of voyeurism, the woman never prevents the camera from intruding into her misery. The strength of the film is that it allows ambiguity to develop without letting fragility and vulnerability mask the gradual humanisation. Sadly, this last chance saloon of salvation has now been shut down as part of the cutbacks in psychiatric support instigated by President Bolsonaro’s far right government. AS

SCREENING DURING SHEFFIELD DOC FESTIVAL 2019

 

The Girl with the Bracelet (2019) **** Curzon World

Dir/Wri:Cast: Stéphane Demoustier | Cast: Melissa Guers, Roschdy Zem, Anaïs Demoustier, Chiara Mastroianni, Annie Mercier, Pascal-Pierre Garbarini

Wilful nonchalance comes across as evil in this sophisticated social thriller from Stephane Demoustier based on the script of Acusada by G. Tobal and U. Porra Guardiola and set in the Britanny town of Nantes. 

Thee chilling story of modern teenagehood plays out in the stylish family home of Lise Bataille (Guers) – accused of murdering her best friend Flora Dufour – and in courtroom scenes where an intense battle plays out during the murder trial. This is probing stuff and you really have to concentrate hard on the subtitles if you don’t speak fluent French.

16 year old Lisa lives with her parents (Chiara Mastroianni and Roschdy Zem) and has been forced to wear an electronic ankle monitor after the fateful night she spent at Flora’s house. Flora was found savagely stabbed to death around midday the following morning. Lise is the main suspect and the only genetic print on Flora’s body has been traced back her. It also emerges through Lise’s frank confession, that the two purportedly slept together naked in Flora’s single bed, Lise giving her friend oral sex before they fell asleep intoxicated from an evening of drinking during which Lisa had also sucked off a boy called Nathan, an incident filmed on a mobile ‘phone, and produced in court.

This is a psychological thriller that focuses on how the witness comes across, rather than the forensic evidence of the murder. The reaction of Lise’s family, friends and those in the courtroom comes under the spotlight but her parent’s seemingly fraught relationship fails to be fleshed out, leaving us in doubt about their exact feelings for one another, or indeed if they are still together and there is no backstory to inform the aftermath of these crucial details. Meanwhile, Lise appears poker-faced and indifferent throughout, sometimes even given a unsettling stare. It’s a mesmerising performance from newcomer Guers. Both her parents express their surprise at the change in her behaviour, both stating that prior to the tragedy she was an open, pleasant and easygoing daughter. Now they start to questions her motives, as well as her innocence.

The Girl With a Bracelet puts the audience in the role of judge and jury as the rest of the courtroom tends to fade into the background. Anais Demoustier (the director’s sister) is powerful as the prosecuting barrister, and Annie Mercier is also convincing as the experienced defence counsel. But Lise’s supreme confidence and aplomb generates considerable tension for all concerned as we start to question if she’s playing us all along as a killer with no remorse, or really is a complete innocent. When this whodunnit from the court room drama genre, the crucial difference here is attitude rather than evidence. And here we are left pondering how we would anticipate a close family member to react when accused of murder, and whether we’d judge them for their behaviour in court, or give them the justice they deserved. The final scenes reveals all. MT

NOW ON CURZON WORLD | LOCARNO FILM FESTIVAL 2020

 

 

Last and First Men (2020) *** Bfi On Demand

Dir: Johann Johannsson | Wri: Olaf Stapledon | Sci-fi Iceland, 70′
Narrated by Tilda Swinton and shot in stunning 16mm black and white by Sturla Brandth Grøvlen (Silver Bear winner for Rams),  Last and First Men is the cinematic sole feature directed by the late Johann Johannsson who composed striking soundscapes for films such as Sicario, Mandy, Arrival and The Theory of Everything. The film transports us into a surreal world of phantasmagorical monuments where a future race of humans finds themselves on the verge of extinction. Overlaid by the dulcet tones of Tilda Swinton telling a tale of crumbling future civilisations based on the classic 1930 sci-fi work by British writer Olaf Stapledon, the spectral presence of an entity attempting to communicate with us slowly emerges.
Icelandic composer/director/writer Johan Johannsson (1969-2018) had been working on this eerie, apocalyptic and at times enigmatic passion project for almost a decade. The brilliant  16 mm black-and-white visuals were shot in former Yugoslavia and feature old bunkers and war-glorifying monuments. They are as impressive as Johannsson’s score, which was added separately at The Barbican in 2018.

In Stapledon’s cult novel, the First Men are humans. In the twenty-first century, a war breaks out in Europe, leaving the USA and China as super-powers. In the 24th century, the USA and China go to war, culminating in the First World State. Four millenniae later, humans have depleted the planet of fossil fuel, and civilisation as we know it collapses. Later, a riot occurs at a mine resulting in a subterranean explosion, making earth uninhabitable for millions of years. Thirty-five humans at the North-Pole survive, they later split with another species, the sub-humans. The Last Men are the 18th Men, the most advanced model of humankind, mainly consisting of philosophers and artists with very liberal sexual morals. “Superficially we seem to be not one species but many”. Sub-genders exist, variants of the basic male and female patterns. The units, the equivalent of families, have the ability to act as a group mind. They do not die naturally anymore, only by accident, suicide or being killed. In spite of this all, they practice ritual cannibalism. After a supernova infects the Sun, making it expand and consume the entire solar system, Mankind cannot find a way to escape. This last species of men create a virus to spread life to other planets and cause the evolution of a new species in the galaxy. The first and last Men communicate, the latter trying to warn their predecessors and teach them survival tactics.

Johannsson was a prolific composer and clearly a decent filmmaker. Producer Thor Sigurdjonson has completed the work Johansson left behind, and the result is in many ways, a unique and passionate eulogy. AS

On demand on BFI Player on 30 July 2020 | BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL | 2020

Carmine Street Guitars (2018) ****

With Rich Kelly, Cindy Hulej, Dorothy Kelly2018 | CANADA | Doc | 80′

This genial music biopic explores the laid-back vibe of Carmine Street Guitars, a little shop in the heart of New York’s Greenwich Village that remains resilient to encroaching gentrification.
Custom guitar maker Rick Kelly and his young apprentice Cindy Hulej build handcrafted instruments out of reclaimed wood from old hotels, bars, churches and other local buildings. Nothing looks or sounds like the classic instruments they have created with loving dedication. The film shoots the breeze with Rick and his starry visitors who treat us to impromptu riffs from their extensive repertoires and talk about how much they treasure this village institution and its reassuring presence as a little oasis of calm in the ever-changing, fast-paced world of the music business.
Rick’s pleasant banter with these lowkey luminaries is what makes this enjoyable musical therapy for fans and those who have never heard of the guitars, their craftsman or those who have commissioned and cherished the hand-made instruments since the 1960s: Bob Dylan, Lou Reed and Jim Jarmusch, to name but a few. A small gem but a sparkling one. MT
STREAMING ON DIGITAL PLATFORMS FROM 26 JUNE 2020

Anne at 13,000ft (2019) MUBI

Dir/scr: Kazik Radwanski. USA/Canada | 75 mins

Deragh Campbell is terrific as a troubled nursery school teacher at the centre of this often raw and intimate look at mental illness. Kazik Radwanski’s fractured narrative and dizzy handheld camerawork gives a close up and personal feel to this evocative third study of people in challenging situations. This time the focus is Anne whose work in a children’s daycare centre comes under scrutiny from her colleagues who start to object to her random behaviour. Her best friend and colleague Sarah (Dorothea Paas) is supportive but busy with preparations for her wedding.

One of the key issues is Anne’s tendency to trivialise matters to mask her inner turmoil and she often plays around when she should be taking her work around special needs kids more seriously. Life in the school interweaves with Anne’s first experience of skydiving which presents an opportunity to disengage from the sober world and set herself free. Sarah’s wedding is another difficult occasion for Anne who makes a heartfelt speech before drinking too much and ending up in the arms of Matt, a lovely, light-hearted guy (Matt Johnson) who looks after her when she gets post party food-poisoning. Radwanski keeps the lid on Anne’s mental status but it’s clear she is on the verge, or has recently emerged from some kind of crisis.

Matt is particularly good in the way he gradually becomes part of Anne’s day to day life and the scenes when they visit her family fizz and feel good in contrast to the fraught and buttoned-up interactions with her colleagues. But when she later meets her mother things spin out of control as Anne becomes increasingly neurotic over a trivial issue. This is clever filmmaking and Radwanski shows considerable aplomb in the way he shows Anne being ultra-patient with kids but is reduced to tears after relating her pet cat story to them later completing losing her cool in the car despite Sarah’s kindness and support. But the natural chemistry between Anne and Matt are what makes this so lovely as a snapshot of a woman coping with the past and the man who is loves her, against the odds. MT

NOW ON MUBI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

WITH DIRECTOR JUSTIN KURZEL

AND ACTORS GEORGE MACKAY, ESSIE DAVIS, AND EARL CAVE

 

Shepherd: The Hero Dog (2019) *** Digital

Dir.: Lynn Roth; Cast: August Maturo, Ken Duken, Ayelet Zurer, Victoria Stefanovsky, Victor Denes; USA 2019,93 min.

Filtering the darkest, most dramatic period of modern Jewish history through the instinctive gaze of a dog was an ambitious idea for the best selling Israeli author Asher Kravitz. So Lynn Roth’s efforts to accommodate a young audience in her screen version are laudable but the upshot often cringeworthy.

In 1930s Berlin the Schoenmann family are excited by the arrival of a litter of German shepherd puppies. The kids Joshua (Maturo) and Rachel (Stefanovszky) want to keep the dogs but their mother Shoshona (Zurer) has her hands full, and the recent Nuremberg Laws mean the Schoenmanns must say goodbye to even Joshua’s favourite Caleb, who is collected by his new owner. Kaleb will later abscond and find his way to the family flat of but by now even they have been evicted.

But Caleb is the lucky one and finds a home with SS officer Ralph (Duken), who becomes really attached to the dog, training him to attack Jews. Joshua and Kaleb meet again in a concentration camp where Kaleb recognises his former owner, and helps him and other prisoners to escape. After some adventures, dog and boy are send by partisans on their way to the British protectorate Palestine.

DoP Gabor Szabo uses Budapest as a stunning background to this canine wartime drama, but some concentration scenes are naturally grim, Joshua the only child among male adults. Caleb’s dreaming sequence involving the Schoenmanns and then Ralph, is another questionable device. And the filmmakers should have known that SS uniforms were black, not green or grey. Overall, perhaps romanticising and simplifying would have helped the course, whatever the target audience. Maturo is convincing as a plucky survivor, and Stefanovsky, makes a wonderful mother; the only member of the family who sees the Shoah coming. Over fifty thousands dogs served during the Second World War, and for them it is a worthwhile tribute. AS

ON DIGITAL HD FROM JUNE 29 2020

   

  

A White, White Day | Hvítur, Hvítur Dagur 2019 ****

Dir: Hlynur Palmason | Iceland, Drama 90′

Hlynur Palmason follows his debut feature Winter Brothers with this stark portrait of rugged masculinity in the face of bereavement. Grimly buttoned up against the wild landscapes of his remote Icelandic homeland, Ingimundur (Sigurdsson) resolutely refuses to give in mentally and physically to the grinding grief that engulfs him after the death of his beloved wife.

The seasons pass in a series of long takes picturing the house Ingimundur is rebuilding with support of his young granddaughter Salka (Ida Mekkin Hlynsdottir in her stunning debut). His wife, a local teacher, has lost her life in a car accident and the vehicle swerves over the foggy mountainside road in the opening scene.

Ex-policeman Ingimundur is used to dealing with similar incidents and their effect on broken families but when it involves his own he carries on in disbelief as gradually the enigmatic scenario surrounding her death falls into place; whether a crime has been committed or her whether her death was accidental remains in the air as this dour and gruelling feature plays out. Sigurdsson gives a gritty performance tempered by the tenderness he feels for his granddaughter: it’s almost as if he’s channelling all the love he had for his wife into the little girl, and she soaks it up with wide-eyed innocence and an insight beyond her years.

Palmason suffuses his story with allusions to Icelandic culture and mythology and these are shared through storytelling: the craggy-faced grandfather passing on cherished folklore through bedtime stories complete with all the actions. And meanwhile the house takes shape around them, satisfyingly providing a new beginning with stunning views over the scenic countryside and sea where Ingimundur fishes for wild salmon. He also plays football and this is where he catches sight of a man he doesn’t recognise but who has appeared in a cache of his wife’s photos. Ingimundur shares his fears about a possible affair with one of his drinking pals. And the subject of female infidelity is broached with a shrugging nonchalance on the part of his friend. But Ingimundur’s fears take shape in an irrationally violent chain of events, sparked by jealousy, revenge and desperation in a tense and surprising finale which once again showcases Palmason’s inventive imagination for telling a yarn. MT

ON DIGITAL PLATFORMS from June 26, 2020

Summertime | La Belle Saison (2015) *** MUBI

Dir: Catherine Corsini | Cast: Cecile de France, Izia Higelin, Noemie Lvovsky, Benjamin Bellecour | 104min  | Drama | France

Catherine Corsini brings a sizzling energy to her lesbian love story set in Paris and the glorious landscapes of Le Limousin. Summertime will appeal to arthouse lovers and the LGBT crowd alike with its fresh and feisty turns from Cécile de France and Izia Higelin as unlikely bedfellows who come together during the French feminist uprisings in 1971.

Izia Higelin plays Delphine, a simple country girl arriving in Paris from her parents’ farm to seek her fortune in the capital. Feeling gauche and naive she soon gets caught up in the vortex of female political activism attracted by the strong and earthy women who appeal to her nascent lesbian leanings. Working at that well known grocery store Félix Potin, she falls in love with 35-year-old Carole (Cécile de France) who is dating the dishy writer Manuel (Benjamin Bellecour). After an awkward first act focusing on the feminist fervour of the time – which sadly feels embarrassing and rather contrived – the two begin a torrid affair that takes them back to the countryside where Delphine’s father becomes seriously ill and her mother Monique (Noemie Lvovsky) is left to run the business. They all get on like a house on fire in this sunny second act that serves as a genuinely delightful introduction to  daily life on a small working farm. Here we meet Antoine, a family friend and Delphine’s intended – according to her mother – and he immediately takes on the role of a sexual voyeur, tuning into couple’s romantic vibes, while giving Carole a wide berth. Delphine’s heart is in the ‘terroir’ but her love for Carole grows. Cécile de France gives a gutsy go at being Carole, torn between her life in Paris with Manuel and her budding feelings for Delphine.

Corsini conveys the strong physical urges of her lovers with scenes of earthy nudity and splashy sex. And although the two are a potent match, it’s clear Carole is experimenting while Delphine is  committed. Higelin brings a natural vulnerability to her part, not dissimilar from that of Adèle Exarchopoulos in Blue is the Warmest Colour. The younger of the two, she exudes a natural affection for Carole as well as a healthy lust, but Carole is a more complex girl whose ego demands to be worshipped.

Corsini is no stranger to big-screen lesbian love affairs, best known in this context for her 2001 Cannes competition hopeful Replay, featuring a gutsy yet tragic relationship between Emmanuelle Beart, a successful actress, and her less accomplished partner. Here the focus is more on innocence versus experience.  In a welcome twist, Delphine pursues Carole initially in a cat and mouse chase that spices up the storyline. But tradition starts to take over as the family responsibilities take over, throwing her back into Antoine’s orbit.

Although the film struggles for a feminist political agenda this often feels forced and less convincing than the scenes in the traditional farmstead. Lvovsky is a natural as Delphine’s mother whose straightforwardness and feral protection of her daughter and farm provides lush contrast to the more liberated Parisian style of Carole. Azais’ character masks an emotionally buttoned-up man, hesitant to pursue his personal agenda, a quality her shares with his object of affection Delphine.

Jeanne Lapoirie’s widescreen cinematography is resplendent but doesn’t idolise the Rubenesque voluptuousness of the naked women making love in the meadows, and Gregoire Hetzel’s occasional score adds a zeitgeisty ’70s twang to the soundtrack. MT

On MUBI THIS WEEKEND | 19 JUNE 2020

Radioactive (2020) ***

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

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

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

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

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

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

ON RELEASE FROM June 19 2020

 

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

Dir: Bruno Dumont | Drama, France 137′

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

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

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

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

 

 

The Bigamist (1953) *** MUBI

Director: Ida Lupino. Screenplay: Collier Young. Cast: Edmond O’Brien, Joan Fontaine, Ida Lupino, Edmund Gwenn, Kenneth Tobey, Jane Darwell. Drama / United States / 80′.

Ida Lupino directs and stars in  this final feature for her production company The Filmakers before moving into television.

The blunt title serves as a massive spoiler from the word Go. There’s no doubt as to where the plot is going, but strange as it may seem today, bigamy was surprisingly common at the time, as this film is at pains to point out.

A British film called The Bigamist had been made as early as 1916; but during the 195os the subject was usually treated light-heartedly as a subject of comedy (as in the same year’s The Captain’s Paradise, with Alec Guinness, Celia Johnson and Yvonne de Carlo). But when children are involved – as is the case here – it really becomes significant; and bigamy is just one of a whole raft of issues – including unplanned pregnancy and adoption (where do most adopted children come from in the first place?) – the film explores in just eighty minutes.

With so many people raising kids these days without bothering to get married, the mores of this era seem rather quaint and as remote as the silent era. The earnest tone of the film rather recalls the silent ‘social problem’ films of pioneer women directors Lois Weber and Mrs Wallace Reid in whose footsteps Lupino was following.

The Bigamist is rather like a silent film in the way Lupino’s pregnancy is implied to be the result of the sole occasion she had slept with her lover (O’Brien) as a “birthday treat” for him. And she becomes pregnant the very first time she had slept with a man since she got a ‘Dear Phyllis’ letter from a previous boyfriend several years earlier. O’Brien never squares with her that he’s married; but the thought must have crossed her mind.

It was brave of Edmond O’Brien to take on such an unheroic role, and interesting that Lupino chose to cast herself as the Other Woman rather than the wife. Under any other circumstances it would have been refreshing to see Joan Fontaine as the wife so confidently holding forth on technical matters at the dinner table were she not shown immediately afterwards to be neglecting O’Brien’s need for physical intimacy by immediately turning her back on him in bed (they sleep in separate beds and have been unable to have children).

Could there have been some way of engineering a happy resolution by having O’Brien present Lupino’s child to Fontaine to raise as their own? Perhaps. But Lupino probably wasn’t seeking a tidy resolution, and instead it all ends messily in court with O’Brien getting his knuckles sternly but regretfully rapped by a judge. Richard Chatten.

THE BIGAMIST IS now SCREENING ON MUBI

Resistance (2020) *** Streaming

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

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

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

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

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

ON MAJOR STREAMING PLATFORMS | 19 JUNE 2020

https://youtu.be/hkE7daIvkeM

Fanny Lye Deliver’d (2019) ***

Dir: Thomas Clay | Cast: Maxine Peake, Charles Dance, Freddie Fox | UK Drama 112′

British indie filmmaker Thomas Clay is a fresh and inventive talent who returns after more than a decade with this sinister 17th century home invasion drama cum feminist awakening saga set in a remote Shropshire homestead in 1657, during the final year of Oliver Cromwell’s time as protector.

The morality tale revolves around Fanny (Peake) and her domineering ex-solider husband John (Dance) strict Puritans who live in a remotely situated wattle and daub house with their infant son Arthur. In the opening titles Clay establishes the lawlessness of the English Revolution showing how the countryside was a dangerous place to be, the Cavaliers and Roundheads were still engaged in open warfare using any weapons they could lay their hands on – at one point the local sheriff is seen dangling – his eyes gouged out – in an iron cage at a crossroads. But Clay also imbues his drama with a contemporary urban feel using expressions such as: “I’d lose that attitude if I were you” when a couple of mouthy wayfarers take refuge in their barn while the family are attending church.

The two are Thomas Ashbury (Fox) and his companion Rebecca Henshaw (Reynolds) who claim to have been the victims brigands in a nearby hostelry. Clay telegraphs doom from the opening scene, narrated by Fanny: “I never thought this would be the last time we attended church as a family”. So from then on we are just waiting for something awful to happen.

Against their better judgement, Fanny and John agree to let the couple stay, but soon regret their decision when news comes of a warrant for the arrest of a couple wanted for holding orgies and preaching on the equality of women, or what was termed “leveller” preaching. At this point you have to cast your mind back to the 17th century, a time when ordinary women were owned by their husbands, and actually believed they were second-class citizens. And Fanny is so modest she even looks up to Thomas, even though he is considerably younger.

All this has a a similar feel to Ben Wheatley’s English Revolution piece A Field in England (2013). But Clay plays it more down the line, drifting into salacious territory as Thomas and Rebecca play a subtle game of subversion, gradually asserting their authority through teasing Fanny, as John gradually loses his power, and dignity. Fanny appears to fall for Thomas’s sexual goading, up to a point – and this is a particularly uncomfortable scene to watch. But when Arthur gets involved, Fanny comes to her senses.

The Puritan era was a time of spiritual authoritarianism – but the contrasting rakish lifestyle is clearly what Clay is alluding to in Thomas and Rebecca. Only three years later Charles II would be on the throne again and the theatre, science and sexual promiscuity would flourish again, embodied by John Wilmot, the famous Earl of Rochester, aka The Libertine.

Fanny Lye is a fascinating if rather predictable film with a gripping start and ending, although it loses momentum in the second act. Peake keeps it all together with her intelligent performance as a morally unambiguous woman prepared to fight her corner. The impressive 17th century sets look convincing and Clay’s needling original score keeps us in suspense until the grim finale. MT

DIGITAL STREAMING | DVD FROM 24 AUGUST 2020

On the Record (2020) **** Streaming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

On a Magical Night, Room 212 (2019) ** Curzon World

Dir Christophe Honoré  | France, Drama 93′

What happens when a marriage goes plutonic? Christophe Honoré covers familiar ground in this Parisian drama that turns an old chestnut into a half-baked potboiler despite its arthouse pretensions and an award-winning turn from his regular muse Chiara Mastroianni as the leading star.

She is self-possessed and feisty as Maria married to Richard (her one-time partner Benjamin Biolay). Their relationship is as stale as an old baguette and nothing can warm things up between the sheets on frigid nights in their apartment in Montparnasse. Refreshingly, it is Maria who has strayed from the marital bed rather than Richard. And not just once: Maria has played the field with half a dozen handsome young studs during the course of her 25 year relationship with uber faithful Richard. After he discovers incriminating texts on her ‘phone, they have a low-key bust up that sees him crying into his cups, while she moves into the hotel opposite (hence the titular Room 212) to text pouty paramours who are then paraded before our eyes in an upbeat playful way as Maria revisits the past in this rather twee chamber piece.

On a Magical Night is Honoré’s follow-up to his sombre Sorry Angel, a gay melodrama that screened at Cannes 2018 in the competition section. Although Magical Night attempts to explore the theme of marital stagnation it doesn’t do so in a meaningful or entertaining way, actually looking more like a cheeky drama from the late 1970s. Mastroianni tries to liven things up but Briolay is rather tepid as her husband – this no melodrama – he simply mopes about tearfully as she secretly watches him from the 2 star hotel opposite.

Vincent Lacoste plays a younger puppyish version of Briolay, and his piano teacher ex, Irene, is Camille Cottin, who also breaks into charmless impromptu song. Decent at first this soon becomes tedious, leaving us checking our watches after an hour of frivolous nonsense, Mastroianni parading in various states of undress and in different positions as she attempts to straddle Lacoste in faux love-making. An interesting idea, but forgettably frothy in execution. MT

CURZON WORLD | CANNES UN CERTAIN REGARD WINNER – BEST ACTRESS

 

 

The Ornithologist (2016) **** BFiplayer

Dir: Joao Pedro Rodrigues Cast: Paul Hamy, Xelo Cagiao, Joao Pedro Rodrigues, Han Wen, Chan Suan, Juliane Elting | Fantasy Drama | Portugal | 118min |

Portuguese auteur Joao Pedro Rodrigues won the main prize at Locarno for his avantgarde fifth feature. Good and evil collide during a Hearts of Darkness style odyssey through the verdant landscapes and lush forests of Northern Portugal.

The journeyman is gay birdwatcher Fernando (Paul Hamy) who is undertaking research, although his attitude to wildlife appears somewhat ambivalent. Paddling his kayak through the limpid waters of the River Douro, he is surprised by sudden rapids and disappears under water until he is later found and rescued by two Chinese girls (Han Wen, Chan Suan) purporting to be devout Christians on a pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago (in Spain). But there is a price to pay for  saving his life. Clearly they pari have lost their way literally and metaphorically. But they are not the only untrustworthy people Fernando is to come across during his trip. A deaf mute shepherd called Jesus; a group of exuberant Careto revellers and a trio of Latin-speaking Amazonian girls on horseback, all appear to be have dubious intentions. Although Rodrigues’ film is a modern gay-themed version of the parable of Saint Anthony of Lisbon (and of Padua) patron saint of lost things and devotion to the poor and sick, this stylish arthouse offering could also serve as a metaphor for our journey through the 21st century’s pitfalls.

A visionary freethinker and consummate storyteller, Rodrigues brings a resonant stillness and contemplativeness to his film along with bursts of joie de vivre – as in the scene where Jesus drinks milk straight from a goat’s teet. Animals play a significant part here from exotic birds to dogs and local fauna. Cinematographer, Rui Pocas, cleverly evokes the interaction between man and beast. Fernando becomes irritated when a white dove he has tried to cure – possibly representing the Holy Spirit – then seems to be following him. Rodrigues leads us into all sorts of blind alleys with an immersive narrative full of textural richness that also echoes the journey seen in the recent Embrace of the Serpent. Those flumuxed by Miguel Gomes Arabian Nights will be encouraged to hear that The Ornithologist is also a great deal more accessible than the Inebriated Chorus of Chaffinches segment in the trilogy.

There does seem to be some poetic licence over geography in the piece: the Chinese girls are heading for Santiago de Compostela but somehow have wandered into Portugal and the film ends up in Padua, Italy presumably in reference to St Anthony dying there, although this is initially bewildering unless you know the religious background. The gay elements of the film feel entirely in the natural in the milieu and Fernando’s transformation into Saint Anthony dovetailing elegantly into the final scenes show we are never far from salvation. MT

FREE ON BFiPLAYER |

https://player.bfi.org.uk/rentals/film/watch-the-ornithologist-2016-online

 

Prince Avalanche (2012) **** MUBI

Dir/Wri:: David Gordon Green | Original: Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson | Cast: Paul Rudd, Emile Hirsch, Lance Le Gault, Joyce Payne | 94min  Comedy  US

David Gordon Green plunders the Icelandic comedy original Either Way (2011) for this deliciously quirky re-make of male bonding and reflective melancholy. It all kicks off when an unlikely couple of friends spend the summer of 1988 Texas repainting traffic lines on a Texan country highway ravaged by wildfire.

Prince_Avalanche_1_PUBS copy

Ostensibly a recipe for disaster: Lance (Hirsch) is an insecure extrovert looking for casual weekend hook-ups and conversation, Alvin (Rudd) is shy and self-contained but, crucially, dating Lance’s elder sister and is corresponding with her by letter, it being the eighties. A rich vein of comedy lies in their gradual falling out and re-grouping as they discover weird and wonderful things about themselves and about each other that creates a strange and appealing chemistry. Occasionally wandering into whimsey with the arrival of a local elderly woman who lost her home in the fire, and an old man who offers them a slug of the local hooch, the film maintains an offbeat feel true to Gordon Green’s indie roots.

Tim Orr’s cinematography focuses on the stunning natural environment picking out the local wildlife to stunning effect. An evocative original score from David Wingo and Explosion in the Sky (The Kite Runner) really captures the hazy, mood. MT

ON MUBI FROM 13 JUNE 2020 | Best Director Silver Bear Berlinale 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ON GENERAL RELEASE FROM 23 JUNE 2017 | CURZON CINEMAS

My Mother | Mia Madre **** | Mubi

Director: Nanni Moretti | Cast: Margherita Buy, John Turturro, Giulia Lazzarini, Nanni Moretti, Beatrice Mancini, Stefano Abbati, Enrico Ianniello | 106min  Italian/US  Drama

Nanni Moretti returns to his autobiographical style of The Son’s Room, for this family drama Mia Madre. This is not just a bittersweet tale of an old woman gradually slipping off her mortal coil surrounded by her son (Moretti) and daughter (Buy) in a Rome hospital. Wry humour and confrontation are injected into a story which explores the relationship between a director who is making a film while her mother is dying in hospital. Margherita Buy plays the director and John Turturro, her leading man.

Although Mia Madre lacks the gut-wrenching emotion of his Palme D’Or winner, The Son’s Room, this is another beautifully-evoked family story that brings subtly-nuanced intimacy, maturity and humour to the everlasting theme of grief and loss.  Nanni draws from his own life story and the piece is very close to home: Moretti lost his own mother while filming Habemus Papam. Essentially a four-hander, Buy is brilliantly cast here as an anxious, highly sensitive and driven professional who finds herself dealing with a teenage daughter while also moving out of her boyfriend’s flat. But the more she tries to be objective the more her filmmaking and her personal life collide. Moretti is understated as her brother Giovanni, in a laid back role that sees him languishing in the quiet resignation of his mother’s final hours. Margherita Buy is gentle yet gloriously neurotic as she describes her film about industrial conditions as “full of energy and hope” to her sceptical mother Ada (the veteran stage actress Giulia Lazzarini) who, despite the physical fragility of age, has clearly still retained her marbles and incisiveness of days as a teacher, in a full and well-rounded life that’s drawing to a satisfactory close. By contrast Margherita’s life is full of uncertainty, doubt, trauma that feels very real today.

John Turturro plays her lead actor in her film – an American ‘star’ Barry Huggins, who lightens the constant hospital visits and high octane emotion with his scatty take as a factory owner tasked with mass redundancies, while also struggling with his own demons as an actor. Full of insight and restraint, Mia Madre provides surprisingly enjoyable, grown-up entertainment. MT

NOW ON MUBI

Echo in the Canyon (2019) **** VOD release

Dir: Andrew Slater | US Doc, 82′ | With: Lou Adler, Eric Clapton, The Beach Boys, Ringo Star, Michelle Philips, Tom Petty, Beck, Graham Nash, Jackson Browne, Jakob Dylan, David Crosby

The Californian neighbourhood of Laurel Canyon takes centre stage for this richly crafted rockstar-studded retrospective about the mid 1960s music scene, from debut filmmaker Andrew Slater. Practically every living musician who formed part of the folk scene of the era shares nostalgic anecdotes and musical performances from the era with artist Jakob Dylan who occasionally makes his own contributions interweaved with archive footage.

Brian Wilson, Ringo Star, Eric Clapton, Michelle Philips, David Crosby, the Mamas and the Papas, and Tom Petty in one of his final interviews before his death in 2017, all feature amongst the glitterati of rock legend. And those who remember and treasure the era will be richly rewarded with archive footage showcasing the Byrds’ Turn! Turn! Turn!, the melodious musings of the Beach Boys and other L.A.-based breakout of an era that would go on to influence and capture the imagination of song writers and performers all over the world.

This is a documentary first for Slater who cut his teeth in journalism and went on to collaborate with Dylan on a Los Angeles tribute concert in 2015. And a coterie of more contemporary singers Norah Jones, Cat Power and Fiona Apple amongst them join in to perform tunes from the original artists back in the day. Obviously seen from a US point of view, film focuses on the brief period between 1965 when the Byrds were number one of the charts with their interpretation of Bob Dylan’s Mr. Tambourine Man (Don’t Look Back), and 1967, when folk music started to “go electric” and folk and rock came together, the Beatles and Cream providing a British answer to the music of the Beach Boys and the Byrds, Brian Wilson recalls how his 1966 album Pet Sounds was influenced by the Beatles’ breakout 1965 album Rubber Soul. And Michelle Philips richly recalls her romantic beginnings with fellow band member John Philips in this entertaining and illuminating trip down a musical memory lane. MT

VOD DIGITAL RELEASE FROM 8 JUNE 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOW ON CURZON ONLINE AS PART OF THE COHEN VINTAGE COLLECTION

Vampir Cuadecuc (1971) **** BfiPlayer

Dir: Pere Portabella | Christopher Lee, Herbert Lom, Soledad Miranda | Sound Design: Carles Santos, Jordi Sangenis | Horror | Spain 67′

Made in 1970 by the Catalan avant-garde filmmaker Pere Portabella (1929-), Vampir Cuadecuc is a weirdly effective experimental slice of ‘Hammer’ horror that rides on the back of the filming of Jesus Franco’s Count Dracula (El Conde Dracula) that styles Christopher Lee as a grey-haired blood-sucker who is seen rocking sunglasses like some 1970s version of Karl Lagerfeld.

Almost entirely dialogue-free and driven forward by a sinister and occasionally seductively languorous soundscape, the film is curiously watchable, its silent moments as beguiling as the discordant outbursts that threaten to dominate proceedings, even more than Count Dracula himself, who remains and elusive but mesmerising presence throughout. Filmed in lush black and white on a 16 millimetre camera, it almost feels as if Portabella and his crew where lurking in the bushes like a posse of predatory voyeurs. .

Impressionistic and highly suggestive the film swings between deranged docudrama and heightened melodrama, Bram Stoker’s storyline running along the same lines as F W Murnau’s silent classic Nosferatu (1922), but lacking the lyrical romanticism of Werner Herzog’s 1979 Nosferatu the Vampire (1979). The narrative here is fractured by the scenes being played in different sequences and often repeated, but Cuadecuc (which apparently means ‘worm’s tail in Catalan) still retains an hypnotic fascination because we all know the storyline and the vicariousness actually adds allure to the original, Portabella creating a piece of cinema verite. The final scene featuring Christopher Lee is the icing on the cake of this highly original curio. MT

NOW ON BFiPLAYER 

 

The Case For Daniel Birt and Dylan Thomas

In his series on underrated British directors, Alan Price looks at two films from English filmmaker Daniel Birt (1907-55) who started his career in the cutting room with Channel Crossing (1933) and went on to make thrillers and TV fare before his early death at 47.

On consulting Brian McFarlane’s “The Encyclopedia of British Film” (2003) I found this entry for Daniel Birt: “It seems unlikely that anyone will try to elevate Oxford-educated Daniel Birt to auteur status but one of his films is striking enough to deserve attention.” 

That film is The Three Weird Sisters (1948), a fascinating semi-Gothic melodrama and quasi critique of capitalism, set in rural Wales. But there’s another Birt film worthy of attention: his remarkable drama No Room at the Inn (also 1948) about child evacuees of the Second World War in Northern England. 

Like McFarlane I would hesitate to call Daniel Birt an auteur, but who knows for sure? Many of his films are hard to see (From 1935 to 1956 he directed just under ten films.) The invaluable TV channel Talking Pictures has recently screened Inn. Perhaps other Birt films will materialise so we can judge him better? He’s certainly a subject for further research.

What’s also distinctive about these two films is that they were co-written by Dylan Thomas. The Welsh poet was employed to re-write dialogue and change scenes; though maybe not paid to criticise, even scorn Welsh identity, local bureaucracy and insert a fairy-tale element into one of the stories. A case for complete authorship on these collaborations begins to throw up an interesting debate between writer and director.

The Three Weird Sisters (A deliberate nod here to the three witches in Macbeth) depicts three old fashioned and elderly women (played by Nancy Price, Mary Clare and Mary Merrall) living in a decrepit mansion near a disused mining village in Wales. The former mine collapses and destroys some property. The concerned sisters wish to rebuild the houses but have no money to do so. They call on Owen (Raymond Lovell) their local businessman brother to help them. On arriving at his sisters’ place Owen refuses financial aid. The sisters then devise a plot to kill him through poisoning his drink. It fails, so they continue on him whilst also attempting to murder Owen’s secretary Claire (Nova Pilbeam) the heir to his fortune.

The plot indicates some obvious shaky melodramatics yet The Three Weird Sisters keeps shifting tone: from a socialist condemnation of the wealthy, a horror comedy, a thriller and a romance between the secretary and the local doctor. On top of this are the machinations of the sisters, controlled by the blind Gertrude, needing to preserve their family name and traditions whatever the cost. Birt and Thomas’s switching from the creepy, the romantic and the political meshes quite well, giving the film an odd originality, while Birt’s visual style often reveals a deft eye for detail and imagery – numerous shots of the sisters on a rickety staircase, as unpredictable as themselves, hold your attention. 

The film’s political rant is a denunciation of the Welsh nation and an attack on the inequality of a political system that exploited the village for coal, and then deserted it. One strange but memorable scene is worth describing; Nova Pilbeam flees the house to inform the local police of the sisters’ intentions. On receiving short shrift from the local constabulary she leaves to find Mabli Hughes (Hugh Griffiths) an out-of-work miner. He’s seated on a little hill near the neglected mine, addressing a group of four dogs, as if to rouse the workers against the system. “Here in Cumblast all social evils are condensed and crystallised. This one village may be regarded as the hub, the nucleus of a microcosm, of all Pluto-democratic, inevitable inequality.” That’s quite a hyperbolic mouthful and not the kind of dialogue you’d normally expect to find in a British film of the late 1940s. Understandably the secretary considers the miner’s speech to be sincere (if half-crazy) and quickly realises he’s reluctant to help her.

Although Dylan Thomas’s script is frequently perversely opinionated, it becomes the glue that holds the film together: best realised in the determined character of the secretary and Nova Pilbeam brings great conviction to her role. It’s the best written and least stereotyped part in The Three Weird Sisters. She’s feisty in her attempt to bring some common sense and order amidst the gothic strains of the film’s plot. Like her performance, when a young girl, in Hitchcock’s first version of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1932) Pilbeam may appear on the surface to be ‘over-sweet’ and too posh but underneath the surface charm she’s a no-nonsense woman, confident and focused. Nova isn’t going to be put down by incompetent men and dangerous women (nearly all the female characters in The Three Weird Sisters and No Room at the Inn are more strongly realised than the men.)

A sense of the Gothic also infiltrates No Room at the Inn set in the early months of 1940. We witness atmospheric blitzed streets by the railway bridge next to a rundown house that’s definitely on the wrong side of the tracks: all lorded over by Mrs Agatha Voray (Freda Jackson) doing her damn best not to properly look after three young girl evacuees. The children live in squalor and suffer mental and physical abuse under the care of this coarse woman who invites men (local councillors and shopkeepers) for casual sex and bit of cash to bolster her shopping allowance of ration coupons. 

No Room at the Inn was adapted from a play that opened in 1945 at the Embassy Theatre in Swiss Cottage, London. Like the film it was very successful, causing The Daily Express in 1946 to devote considerable space to the plight of orphaned children in unchecked private homes. You could argue that by the time the film version appeared in 1948 public attention was drawn to a social problem in the manner that television did much later with Ken Loach’s Cathy Come Home (1966), exposing a nationwide housing crisis. 

The character of the schoolteacher Judith Drave (Joy Shelton) is remarkable, for we have – like the secretary of The Three Weird Sisters – a force for truth-seeking that refuses to be silenced. A powerfully written and acted moment occurs when Miss Drave, who has complained about Mrs Vrang’s behaviour, is asked to give evidence at a town councillors’ meeting. They dislike Ms Drave’s assertive manner. When Mrs.Voray has her right to reply she adopts the manner of a humble woman struggling to do her best during wartime restrictions. The schoolteacher sees right through her performance. But the council members (half of whom have flirted with Voray) believe her account of things over the teacher’s. I love Dylan Thomas’s writing here. His social concern is angrily targeted at bureaucratic corruption and ineptitude. And it’s much better integrated into the plot than the politics of The Three Weird Sisters.

Like The Three Weird Sisters there are fascinating if disconcerting alterations of tone – such as the beautifully written bedtime story scene in the room of the young girl evacuees. Norma Bates (yes, not Norman, though the film has its moments of Hitchcockian darkness) who is played by Joan Dowling, re-interprets the Cinderella story in a ripe, savagely Cockney manner. She comforts the children who are desperate to escape the mean house and its mean housekeeper. It’s a spellbinding moment of Dylan Thomas poetics: a joyful spin on Cinderella, beautifully shot and executed. And its lyricism is made more poignant by intercutting with Mrs Voray in the pub getting drunk with the sailor father of one of the evacuees. 

No Room at the Inn often seems prescient of much later British films about master and slave relationships between adults and children. It recalls Jack Clayton’s woefully neglected Our Mother’s House (1967) and Andrew Birkin’s adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel The Cement Garden (1993). They all contain seedy and claustrophobic forces about to explode into violent revenge. Without divulging the ending of No room at the Inn I can reveal that – for the film version – Dylan Thomas was supposed to have radically changed the circumstances surrounding Mrs.Voray’s demise. And the film’s final 15 minutes turn remarkably dark and intense, avoiding histrionics, as the story inevitably descends into pathos, suspense and horror. There’s a scary What Ever Happened to Baby Jane moment when Mrs Voray, cheated by a would-be lover, returns home drunk and furious; ascends the stairs to attack the children, looking a for a moment like a demented Bette Davis.

Neither of these two films is without flaws. The ending of No Room at the Inn is too abrupt – though the story is told in one extended flashback, I felt it should have returned to its opening scenes where a now adult Norma is caught shoplifting: while Hermoine Baddeley, playing Voray’s accomplice, Mrs Waters, gives a truly terrible and grating performance. As for The Three Weird Sisters I found some of the humour, centring on grumpy brother Owen’s health, to be overplayed and though the film admirably attempts to wriggle out of its obvious ‘old dark house territory’ it doesn’t quite succeed.

Yet putting these reservations to one side what still impressed me, on a second viewing, were many of the performances. Freda Jackson brings a full-blooded intensity to the role of the selfish and uncaring Aggie Voray. She was a sensation in the play and that’s why they made a film version which launched her considerable career on stage and in the cinema. Jackson probably became a role model for actors portraying more authentic working class women. I wonder if Pat Phoenix (Elsie Tanner) of Coronation Street was influenced by her? As for all of the child actors in No Room at the Inn well they’re brilliant – especially Joan Dowling who’s street-wise confidence cannot hide her emotional damage. She deserved a prize but unfortunately the BAFTAs didn’t begin until 1954.

This is notable British Cinema of 1948. And these two strange and atypical productions struck me as remarkably individual for their time. Whether it was Daniel Birt or Dylan Thomas who was most responsible for their power I’ll leave you to decide. Neither film is on DVD. You can see No Room at the Inn on ‘Talking Pictures’ (should be up for another screening soon.) As for The Three Weird Sisters, that can only be found as a rough, but still watchable copy, on YouTube. Alan Price.

NOW ON TALKING PICTURES | JUNE 2020

 

   

Echo in the Canyon (2019) **** VOD release

Dir: Andrew Slater | US Doc, 82′ | With: Lou Adler, Eric Clapton, The Beach Boys, Ringo Star, Michelle Philips, Tom Petty, Beck, Graham Nash, Jackson Browne, Jakob Dylan, David Crosby

The Californian neighbourhood of Laurel Canyon takes centre stage for this richly crafted rockstar-studded retrospective about the mid 1960s music scene, from debut filmmaker Andrew Slater. Practically every living musician who formed part of the folk scene of the era shares nostalgic anecdotes and musical performances from the era with artist Jakob Dylan who occasionally makes his own contributions interweaved with archive footage.

Brian Wilson, Ringo Star, Eric Clapton, Michelle Philips, David Crosby, the Mamas and the Papas, and Tom Petty in one of his final interviews before his death in 2017, all feature amongst the glitterati of rock legend. And those who remember and treasure the era will be richly rewarded with archive footage showcasing the Byrds’ Turn! Turn! Turn!, the melodious musings of the Beach Boys and other L.A.-based breakout of an era that would go on to influence and capture the imagination of song writers and performers all over the world.

This is a documentary first for Slater who cut his teeth in journalism and went on to collaborate with Dylan on a Los Angeles tribute concert in 2015. And a coterie of more contemporary singers Norah Jones, Cat Power and Fiona Apple amongst them join in to perform tunes from the original artists back in the day. Obviously seen from a US point of view, film focuses on the brief period between 1965 when the Byrds were number one of the charts with their interpretation of Bob Dylan’s Mr. Tambourine Man (Don’t Look Back), and 1967, when folk music started to “go electric” and folk and rock came together, the Beatles and Cream providing a British answer to the music of the Beach Boys and the Byrds, Brian Wilson recalls how his 1966 album Pet Sounds was influenced by the Beatles’ breakout 1965 album Rubber Soul. And Michelle Philips richly recalls her romantic beginnings with fellow band member John Philips in this entertaining and illuminating trip down a musical memory lane. MT

VOD DIGITAL RELEASE FROM 8 JUNE 2020

Mary is Happy, Mary is Happy (2013) | We Are One Festival

Dir/Wri: Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit | Cast: Chonnikan Netjui, Patcha Poonpiriya | 127’ Thailand   Drama

The second film from Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit, Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy follows in the footsteps of the Thai director’s debut, 36, by continuing his examination into life in the digital age. Much like 36, Mary… concerns itself with our relationship to technology, this time looking specifically at the effect social media has upon narrative forms – not only conventional storytelling, but also the way that we as individuals attempt to construct narratives out of our lives.

Adapted from 410 consecutive Tweets from a real life Twitter user, @marylony, Mary… is by nature a bitty, picaresque affair (the source Tweets are presented as on screen text, the noise of typing ringing beneath them on the soundtrack). Ostensibly, the Tweets have been worked into a narrative concerning Mary’s attempts to finish her school yearbook in time for her graduation, but by following the free-flowing stream of @marylony’s twitter feed, Thamrongrattanarit’s film has no choice but to adapt to a similarly free-form approach, both in style (handheld and jump-cut) and narrative.

Mary Is Happy

Indeed, in just one of many reflexive moments within the film, even Mary says that she seems to do things randomly and for no reason. Thamrongrattanarit has said that, in part, the film is meant as a play on the scriptwriter’s control over narrative, but when Mary asks if there is ‘some force controlling my life’ the question can be understood just as easily as a theological concern as it can a reflexive statement. However, by posing questions about narrative authorship within film, Mary… also examines the way people author their own lives on social media. Like conventional storytellers, users of social media sites open windows through which their audiences can come to engage with their created protagonists, be they real or imagined (or a mixture of the two). Whether they realise it or not, Twitter users are unfolding a narrative and revealing something of themselves with every single Tweet they publish. In a world crammed with information, there may never have been a bigger need to turn our lives into stories, and Mary… raises important questions concerning randomness and predestination.

So it’s a shame, then, that the film never quite comes to life. It’s filled with humour and captivating moments, but at 127 minutes its looseness begins to feel baggy and tedious. But if Mary… fails to recreate the magic of Thamrongrattanarit’s pitch-perfect debut, it is nevertheless an interesting experiment, and certainly marks him out as a director to watch.  Alex Barrett

MARY IS HAPPY, MARY IS HAPPY | WE ARE ONE FESTIVAL 2020 4 June 2020

 

 

A Rainy Day in New York (2019) **** Streaming

Dir: Woody Allen | Timothee Chalamet, Elle Fanning, Liev Schreiber | Comedy 92’

Woody Allen films are like proverbial buses: if you miss one another is sure to come along soon after, but here’s one you won’t want to miss with its bittersweet riff on the mystery of love and attraction.

A Rainy Day In New York is a typical Woody Allen comedy that follows two young lovers on the verge of graduation. Elle Fanning (Ashleigh) and Timothee Chalamet (Gatsby) provide fabulous entertainment as a couple of loved up Ivy Leaguers whose weekend trip to Manhattan goes pear-shaped. If you’re a Woody Allen you won’t be disappointed – this is a reliable, but not outstanding, largely to casting flaws.  But there’s so much energy, and Chalamet and Fanning exude charm in spades: she the excitable ingenue, he the subversive and surprisingly deep-thinking rich boy. The film has proved a global success on the  since its digital release.

Situational comedy wise the storyline keeps on rolling as it gathers momentum, at times feeling rather like Max Ophuls’ La Ronde, and the farce element is strong in satirising American privilege and celebrity culture along with the nouveau riche. Veteran DoP Vittorio Storaro (Wonder Wheel) assures another good-looking watch, whether it’s sunny or raining.

The plot is simple: budding journo’ Ashleigh has been granted a celebrity interview with world weary film director Rolland Pollard (Liev Schreiber). In her excitement to secure an unexpected scoop with the troubled auteur she misses a romantic lunch planned by Gatsby, and then finds herself entrancing both the film’s writer (Law) and the main star Francesco Vega (Diego Luna). Leaving a swanky nightclub on Vega’s arm, she is captured by the celebrity news channels who announce her as his new lover, as Gatsby watches on horrified, and annoyed. This clever indictment of fake news also gives Woody a chance to hit back at unfounded rumours surrounding his own love life, in the light of the #metoo narrative. Meanwhile lovelorn Gatsby runs into the hard-edged sister of a girl he once dated (Selena Gomez as Shannon) who invites him to be her love interest in a short film shoot involving a kiss. But the course to true love never runs smoothly and Gatsby has his overbearing mother (Cherry Jones) to contend with, and mothers are often the most difficult women to satisfy in a man’s life.

Chalamet and Fanning’s star turns aside, there are vignettes from an unrecognisable Jude Law as a screenwriter Ted, and Rebecca Hall as his ex. Cherry Jones is captivating as Gatsby’s mother who sheds a light on his character’s subversiveness. Woody subverts expectations in a romcom where the morally questionable characters are the women rather than the men. There is a cheating wife, the morally questionable young woman, and the savvy adventuress – the only sleazy ball  is Vega’s Latin lover, the other males are rather tortured souls such as Gatsby friend Alvin played by an insignificant Ben Warheit. Selena Gomez is one-dimensional as the ‘New York bitch’, her onscreen chemistry with Gatsby so unconvincing it actually ruins the film’s denouement.

Woody Allen’s is master storyteller who enjoys spinning a romantic yarn and sticking to his own tried and trusted formula. He’ll be remembered for his endearing comedies and for being one of the few New Yorker directors who actually moved from Brooklyn to Manhattan – rather than the other way round. MT

A RAINY DAY IN NEW YORK is on release on 5 JUNE 2020


 

The Uncertain Kingdom (2019) ****

Ernie, directed by Ray Panthaki; Camelot, directed by Allison Hargreaves; Left Coast, directed by Carol Salter; The Life Tree, directed by Paul Frankl; Stronger is Better than Angry, directed by Hope Dickson Leach; Verisimilitude, directed by David Proud; Swan, directed by Sophie King; Motherland, directed by Ellen Evans; The Converstion, directed by Lanre Malaolu

Uncertainty is the watchword of our troubled times here in the United Kingdom. Covid 19 has wreaked havoc on every aspect of life, changing the future forever. And Brexit still casts a long shadow, nobody knows what will happen – or when. Shot on a shoestring budget, and none the worse for it, this string of short films reflect an era of ecological meltdown and social unrest, and division underpinned by the breakdown of family values.  Jobs for life are a distant memory, and the new gig economy culture produces more losers than winners. Apart from the long on-going geographical North-South split, a new chasm has opened up between the great urban metropolises and the rest of the country. There are no apparent solutions in a modern society fraught with doubt, disbelief and discouragement.

Bringing together artists working across film, TV, theatre, animation, dance and radio, The Uncertain Kingdom directors include IWC Schaffhausen Award winner Hope Dickson Leach (The Levelling), BIFA winner Carol Salter (Almost Heaven), BAFTA and International Emmy winner Guy Jenkin (Drop the Dead Donkey, Outnumbered) Iggy LDN (Black Boys Don’t Cry). Actors David Proud (Marcella), BAFTA Breakthrough Brit Ray Panthaki (Official Secrets, Collette) and Antonia Campbell-Hughes (Bright Star, Cordelia) have also directed films for the project.

ERNIE by Ray Panthaki is symptomatic of the current political climate. A meek caretaker falls under the spell of his right-wing father, leading to tragedy. Carol Salter’s LEFT COAST is a Blackpool-set documentary, the Big Dipper still the only symbol for much better times. Travelling further afield, Paul Frankl’s magic realist drama THE LIFE TREE sees a mother discovering a tree whose magic supernatural powers could cure her son’s illness. Equally unexpected is Sophie King’s SWAN, channelling the spirit of Monty Python, in a curious tale about a man’s transformation into a swan. If one had to select one of these, it wold be VERISIMILITUDE by David Proud. It is the story of wheel-chair user Bella (Ruth Madeley), an actress with motor skill issues who lands a job teaching young actor Josh (Laurie Davidson) how to act with her afflictions for his latest role, only to find her owns hopes and dreams realised. AS

VOD release 1 June 2020

 

The Epic of Everest (1924)

Wri/Dir/Prod: Captain John Noel | UK Doc, 87min

George Mallory and Andrew Irvine’s failed attempt to climb Everest in 1924

There’s a moment during The Epic of Everest that really reflects the powerless of human endeavour when faced with the magnitude of nature: As three tiny insect-like creatures totter over a snow-caked precipice of solid ice and gradually disappear from view, the total insignificance of man versus the mountain finally dawns. What sheer folly to think that these men could conquer a force of nature dressed flimsily in tweed jackets and plus fours almost 100 years ago but, of course, North Face puffas didn’t exist then.

1924_Everest_expedition_group_photo copy

Captain John Noel accompanied Mallory and Irvine on this third attempt to conquer the magnificent Himalayan peak using the most powerful lenses of the day to produce jaw-dropping photos and ethereal time-lapse sequences that are testament not only to the dangers of the snowscape but also the spiritual splendour of this deeply spiritual part of the world. To add context, Noel captures footage of the megalith of Rongbuk monastery (where they are told that the expedition is fated not to succeed) and the local people of the world’s highest town: Phari-Dzong, who never wash from birth to the day they die, when they are ‘hacked to pieces’ on a slab of stone. They seem cheerful enough.

Despite restoration by the BFI National Archive, the photography naturally feels dated in comparison with recent mountaineering films such as Chasing Ice and The Summit but what Captain John Noel has captured here is the extreme sense of loneliness and isolation of the vast expanses. Filming the lead party up to two miles away, thanks to the clarity of visibility, they look like tiny dots on a hostile landscape often shrouded in swirling mists and eerie legends of local Tibetan folklore.

Heights mean nothing to those of us who stay happily at sea level, but when we hear that sherpas carved up to 2,000 steps in the ice on some of the ascents, the extreme arduous nature of the expedition finally hits home. On the day of his birth, a tiny donkey was forced to walk 22 miles and collapsed in sheer, sleepy exhaustion after his first day of life. These bare facts really put this extraordinary venture into human context that can be appreciated.

The Epic of Everest is accompanied by Simon Fisher Turner’s atmospheric ambient soundtrack featuring cowbells, Tibetan music and vocals gradually turning more sinister and haunting as the expedition unfolds. A moving and peaceful tribute to our courageous men. MT

THE EPIC OF EVEREST IS NOW free ON BFI PLAYER marking TO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH: EXPLORATION AND ENDURANCE ON FILM. 

Journey across the planet’s most challenging terrain in this ode to exploration and endurance on film, accompanying TO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH: EXPLORATION AND ENDURANCE ON FILM, season at BFI Southbank continuing throughout January.

On 5 January 1922 the ‘heroic age’ of Antarctic exploration drew to a symbolic close with the death of Anglo-Irish explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton. Marking this centenary and that of Britain’s first attempt to summit Mount Everest, this collection tells a connected story about human endurance, our relationship with and impact on the natural world. The birth of film collided with exploration’s heyday as a competitive sport, source of national pride and beacon of scientific discovery. This free curated archive collection includes early film records of expeditions to Everest and the Arctic and beyond to remote regions of South America and South Asia. Many of the films are part of the extraordinary Royal Geographical Society collection, preserved by the BFI National Archive.

https://player.bfi.org.uk/free/collection/to-the-ends-of-the-earth

 

I Walk Alone (1947) *** Talking Pictures

Prod: Hal Wallis. Dir: Byron Haskin. Scr: Charles Schnee. Cast: Burt Lancaster, Lizabeth Scott, Kirk Douglas, Wendell Corey, Kristine Miller. Crime Melodrama. 98 mins.

Yet another choice rarity unearthed by Talking Pictures. Burt and Kirk’s first movie together belongs to the very brief period when Lancaster (who is for once permitted to tower over Douglas) played bullet-headed, blue-chinned tough guys (here carrying a huge chip on his shoulder having finally emerged from fourteen years in the slammer), and Douglas slick but shifty desk villains.

I Walk Alone is also historically significant as Byron Haskin’s return to the director’s chair after twenty years as a cameraman and special effects photographer at Warner Brothers; but being a Paramount production Edith Head was on hand to slinkily attire Lizabeth Scott. Richard Chatten.

On Talking Pictures at 10.05 p.m. on Wednesday 3 June.

MS Slavic 7 (2019) ***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) **** BfiPlayer

Dir: Val Guest | Wri: Wolf Mankowitz | Cast: Edward Judd, Janet Munro, Leo McKern, Michael Goodliffe, Bernard Braden | Fantasy Sci-Fi | US 96′

Valmond Maurice Guest (1911-2006) was an English film director and screenwriter who started his career on the British stage and in early sound films. He wrote over 70 scripts many of which he also directed, developing a versatile talent for making quality genre fare on a limited budget (Hell is a City, Casino Royale, The Boys in Blue). But Guest was best known for his Hammer horror pictures The Quatermass Xperiment and Quatermass II, and Sci-Fis The Day the Earth Caught Fire and 80,000 Suspects which nowadays provide a fascinating snapshot of London and Bath in the early Sixties. Shot luminously in black and white CinemaScope the film incorporates archive footage that feels surprisingly effective with views of Battersea Power Station and London Bridge. A brief radio clip from a soundalike PM Harold MacMillan adds to the fun.

The central theme of this energetic and optimistic fantasy thriller is nuclear paranoia that plays out in flashback in the Fleet Street offices of the Daily Express newspaper reporting on a crisis involving H-bombs tests in Russia and the US, causing the titling of the Earth and leading to cyclones, dangerously rising temperatures, and a lack of water with fears of a typhus epidemic : “and what about all this extra Polar ice that’s melting”  (a prescient reference to global warming).

The opening scenes rapidly sketch out the febrile tension in the air and introduce us to the voluable characters involved through some extremely zippy dialogue between science editor Leo McKern, Bernard Braden, and bibulous reporter Peter Stenning (Edward Judd), who then falls for savvy telephonist Jeannie Craig (Janet Munro) who gives him the firm brush off. The real-life Express editor is played rather woodenly by Arthur Christiansen. There’s even an uncredited vignette featuring Michael Caine as a traffic officer – his voice is unmistakable.

NOW ON Bfi Player

Mike Wallace is Here (2020) ****

Dir.: Alvi Bekin; Documentary with Mike Wallace; USA 2019, 90 min.

Director Alvi Belin (Winding) has avoided hagiography in his biographical documentary of  CBS-TV journalist Mike Wallace (1918-2012). Equally a political history lesson as well as a course about changing Television habits in the USA, Alvi Bekin throws light on the professional and personal career of Wallace, who was only overshadowed by Walter Conkrite and Edward Murrow in his metier.

 Wallace began his career in 1939 at CBS Radio with game shows like Curtain Time, which featured heavy advertisement by the show’s sponsors. After his return from war duty, he switched to the new medium of TV, where he made a name for himself in Night Beat (1955-57). It was followed by the Mike Wallace Interviews, which lasted the following two years. In 1959 he had his first great scoop, interviewing Malcom X of Nation of Islam – the latter being very much aware how much his life was in danger. In the early 1960ies, Wallace made a living mainly from advertising – ironically some ads featured Parliament Cigarettes. After the death of his eldest son Peter in Greece, Wallace decided to stay clear of ads, and become a serious journalist. After a stint on the CBS Morning News (1963-66), he created and stared in 60 Minutes, the show that made him a household name in the USA; which he only left after 37 years, aged eighty-four in 2006.

This new documentary opens fittingly with Wallace engaging with (the then) Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, and haranguing him over his interview style. O’Reilly claims it’s like the pot calling the kettle black. “If you don’t like me, you’re responsible”.

The truth is somewhere in the middle: Wallace was keen to point out Larry King’s failure as a husband (seven divorces), but was very defensive when interviewed about his own marital woes.

The line-up for Wallace interview partners is long and features such heavyweights as Eleanor Roosevelt, Salvatore Dali, Vladimir Putin, Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy, Rod Serling, The Great Wizard of the KKK movement and a soldier named Paul Meadlo, who was a participant in the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War. The Ayatollah Khomeini is caught in an interview asking for the removal of President Sadat of Egypt: “He has betrayed Islam. Sadat is a traitor to Islam and I want the people of Egypt to overthrow the traitor, because that is what you do with a traitor”. Some month later Sadat was assassinated by his own soldiers, marching at a parade in front of him. Then there is a young (and handsome) Donald Trump, telling Wallace “if nobody fixes the USA, there will be nothing of the USA left, or the world”. But he strongly denied any interest in entering politics.

In 1995, a 60 Minutes episode was cancelled, after the producers clashed with Dr. Wigand, when he defended the tobacco industry over claims about smoking causing cancer – with Wallace perhaps in denial about his earlier ads for smoking. And then there is Vladimir Putin, wishing “Americans all the best”, after having denied that journalists in Russia are under threat. He also stated, that “the opposition to his government is a force”. It ends in a very poetic way, with Wallace and Arthur Miller walking in nature, the playwright answering Wallace’s question about posterity: “How will people remember me? As a decent guy, that would be fine. Work is natural like breathing. Work for that little moment of truth”.

The whole documentary is based on TV and newsreel clips, with Wallace being the central focus, but not in an overwhelming way. Bekin shows respect, but does not overdo it. It is worth mentioning though that Wallace admitted in a Rolling Stone interview in 1991 that for several decades he was part of a sexual harassment campaign which included snapping open the bras of female staff members. AS      

 RELEASED ON VOD ON 29 MAY 2020    

Ran (1985) ***** BfiPlayer | Japan 2020

Dir.: Akira Kurosawa; Cast: Tatsuya Nakadai, Akira Terao, Jinpachi Nezu, Daisuke Ryu, Mieko Miyazaki, Mansei Nomura, HisashiI Igawa, Peter, Masayuki Yui; France/Japan 1984/85, 162min.

Director/co-writer Akira Kurosawa was seventy-five when he finished his final epic action drama Ran (Chaos), loosely based on Shakespeare’s King Lear, using elements of Japanese theatre it features epic scenes of battle and a rousing score by Toru Takemitsu. The script had been ten years in the writing and he still needed a Japanese producer for the twelve million dollar project. Finally, Frenchman Serge Silberman took the risk, and shooting started in June 1984 involving 1,400 extras (all with complete body armour) and 200 horses. Filming was dominated by the loss of sound designer Fumio Yamoguchi, and Kurosawa’s wife Yoko Yaguchi at the age of sixty-three. But the movie premiered at the first Tokyo Film Festival in May 1985, in the absence of the director.

In medieval Japan Hidetora (Nakadai) is an ageing warlord keen to retire from public life and leave his empire to his three sons Taro, (Terao), Jiro (Nezu) and Saburo (Ryu), the youngest and his father’s favourite. Saburo warns father that the brothers intend to start a war for total domination over him, but Hidetora fails to recognise the elder brothers’ resentments, and Saburo is banished for refusing the pledge of allegiance. As Saburo predicted, his older siblings soon take control leaving the old warlord basically homeless. Jiro and Taro’s wives Kaede (Harada) and Lady Sue (Miyazaki) have not forgotten Hidetora’s abusive reign of power that led to the genocide of Kaede’s family, and the blinding of Lady Sue’s brother, and Kaede is still keen on revenge. After a battle between Saburo and Jiro’s forces, the youngest prince is killed by a sniper. Hidetora dies from grief. Kaede then forces Jiro to kill Lady Sue and marry her instead. But after Lady Sue is killed by one of Jiro’s assassins, Kurogane (Igawa), Jiro’s loyal chief counsel and military chief decapitates Kaede. We are left with Kyomani the Fool (Peter) contemplating the scene of death and destruction. 

Kurosawa combined King Lear with a Japanese medieval epic. The feature, shot by Takao Saito and Asakazu Nakai, is an absolute knockout in visual terms. Kurosawa capitalises on his aesthetic brilliance with Kagemusha, to create something quite magnificent with the use of static cameras that leave the audience in almost in command of the battle scenes, are the warriors fight on. Production designer Emi Wada, who won an Oscar (1986) for his mastery  – Kurosawa lost out to Sidney Pollack’s Out of Africa in an exceptional year the saw Hector Babenco, John Huston, and Peter Weir in the competition line-up.

It is easy to envisage Kurosawa at this point in his career very much identifying with the King Lear figure – he was shunted around in his own country, where his features were seen as old-fashioned – suffering the same fate as Ozu decades earlier. Kurosawa had just shot four films in the last twenty years in 1985 – he was a marginal figure in Japan. Consequently, Ran only just broke even in Japan, but was much more successful in Europe and the USA – today’s total box-office is 337 Million $ and rising. Kurosawa’s influence on Western cinema is enormous: Hidden Fortress would inspire Star Wars, The Seven Samurai were re-made as the The Magnificent Seven and Sanjuro was transformed by Eastwood into the Italo-Western A Fistful of Dollar and For a few Dollar More. But the same goes for Kurosawa’s ‘borrowings’: Apart from Ran there is Throne of Blood (Macbeth), Lower Depth (from Gorki). The Idiot (from Dostoyevsky) and Ed McBains police thriller adapted by Kurosawa as High and Low.  Unlike Lear, Kurosawa leaves behind a treasure trove of achievements: world cinema would not be the same without him. AS

NOW ON BFiPlayer in celebration of JAPAN 2020 

I Walked With a Zombie (1943) **** BBCiPlayer

Cast: James Ellison, Frances Dee, Tom Conway, Edith Barrett, James Bell, Christine Gordon, Teresa Harris, Sir Lancelot | USA Fantasy Drama 70′

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jacques Tourneur was another master of shadow-play. It lends a chiaroscuro delicacy to this sultry Caribbean take on Jane Eyre that sees a tormented soul suffer in an atmospheric zombie outing made in the same year as The Leopard Man in the RKO studios in Hollywood .

Well aware of the high-grossing heft of the horror genre, RKO has already coined the movie’s title but producer Van Lewton, who had been hired by the studio to pioneer a line of horror outings, had something much more intriguing in mind than a schlocky shocker. Ironically the producer was a dreamer, whereas the director was very much the pragmatist, and his second collaboration the Jacques Tourneur, and DoP J Roy Hunt, is a lushly surreal and nuanced arthouse treasure that is so much more beguiling than its name initially suggests.

While war was raging in Europe the characters in the tropical plantation of St Sebastian are experiencing unease of a different kind, that that affects the mind as well as the body. Naive Canadian nurse Betsy Connell (Frances Dee) arrives on the island to take up a position with the Holland family, and is immediately drawn to the masterful charms of Paul Holland (Tom Conway), her Mr Rochester-like employer. At nightfall Tourneur’s shadowplay casts an alluring spell over the island, and Betsy’s catatonic charge (Jessica Holland) floats by in a flowing white gown. She makes for a particularly sinister anti-heroine with her extreme height and sublime expression (Christine Gordon never says a word but is sublime all the same).

Betsy also has to contend with Holland’s alcoholic half-brother Wesley Rand (James Ellison), and his missionary-style mother Mrs. Rand (Edith Barrett). This is clearly another dysfunctional family, and it soon transpires that Wesley and Jessica have had an affair, and the moralistic Betsy sees it as her divine duty to bring Holland and Jessica back together, as an act of higher love on her part. But it’s not a straightforward as it all seems: This no Canadian backwater, but the exotic West Indies where witch doctors and voodoo priests hold sway. And Jessica is under their powerful influence, reduced to a Zombie and lured away from the confines of the Holland estate and into the savage jungles beyond. Betsy’s St Sebastian maid, Alma (Teresa Harris), suggests taking Jessica to the local voodoo priest, but this only leads to tragedy ironically releasing Paul from his marital torment. The characterisations are surprisingly complex given the era, Tom Conway’s Paul demonstrating tremendous insight into his male condition avoiding racism or toxic masculinity, and the islanders are seen as more than just colonial cyphers, Teresa Harris makes an appealing Alma and Darby Jones projects a really affecting malevolence as Carrefour.

Ultimately though Tourneur’s direction is the star turn here: he creates exquisite visual magic in the windswept and eerie locations, so much so that Curt Siodmak’s enigmatic outcome feels almost irrelevant. And the pounding score of drums adds just the right touch of exotic danger to make this one of the most poetic and ravishing zombie films ever made. MT

NOW ON BBCiPLAYER

 

 

The Last Full Measure (2018) *** Digital

Dir: Tod Robinson | Action Drama, US 116′

As hero melodramas go The Last Full Measure slips down easily and looks slick and professional with a quality cast of William Hurt, Linus Roche, Samuel L Jackson and Diane Ladd, fitting the bill for midweek evening entertainment. Christopher Plummer also adds touch of class but can’t lift this out of the also ran section despite the movie’s scenic locations in the lush forests of Costa Rica and electrifying combat scenes.

The hero in question is paratrooper William H. Pitsenbarger who in April 1966 flew a helicopter into a fire in order to treat the wounded soldiers, and stay with them throughout their ordeal even during a sustained attack from the Viet Cong when he took a fatal bullet from a sniper, after saving at least 60 men. He was posthumously awarded the Air Force Cross, and much later also garnered Medal of Honour and promoted to Staff Sergeant.

Over thirty years later in 1999, puppy-faced Defence Department executive Scott Huffman (Stan) is tasked with finding out why Pitsenbarger did not get the upgrade in the immediate aftermath, and this mission obviously involves talking to other veterans who served at the time and who share Pitsenbarger’s story – Samuel L. Jackson; Ed Harris; Jon Savage and even Peter Fonda (in his Swanson at 79).

But this is underwhelming and cliched ridden stuff given the importance of the subject matter. And even the scenes involved with his parents (Plummer and Ladd) fail to be moving, and are full of well worn chestnuts (“you can’t teach your children values) and generic tributes which just feel banal, (and weird phrases like “he tapped his cleats for luck, before he went up to bed”). These scenes are naturally accompanied by cheesy music. All this combines with flashbacks to the battlefield which show random Vietnamese women soldiers shooting on US troops.

Todd Robinson is best known for White Squall. But sadly this film has nothing really exciting to bring to a party that is already full of ambitious and affecting stories, many of them from Vietnam. Although naturally the fact that the soldier’s action was impressive now, and in retrospect, there’s a remoteness to the treatment that makes it feel bland, despite its starry cast of veterans. MT

RELEASED DIGITALLY FROM on all major platforms | 1st June 2020

 

 

 

Curse of the Cat People (1944) **** BBC iPlayer

Dir.: Robert Wise, Gunther von Fritsch; Cast: Ann Carter, Kent Smith, Jane Randolph, Simone Simon, Julia Dean, Elizabeth Russell, Eve March); USA 1944, 68 min.

The Curse of the Cat People launched Robert Wise and Austro-Hungarian Gunter von Fritsch as directors. Wise would make a further 38 features in a career which went on until 1989, winning two Oscars for Sound of Music and West Side Story. Von Fritsch, would be less prolific: he managed to complete half the film in the allotted 18 days of the schedule, but would only occupy the director’s chair on three more occasions before a TV career beckoned, and retirement in 1970.

Most people agree that not calling the feature The Curse of the Cat People and selling it as a sequel to the classic Cat People (1942), would have enhanced the fantasy thriller’s reputation. But it was an opportunity for Val Lewton to re-unite writer de Witt Bodeen, cameraman Nicolas Musuraca, as well the actors Simone Simon, Kent Smith, Jane Randolph and Elizabeth Russell from Cat People so the outcome was a done deal:  Hollywood’s way of selling sequels was already long established. The Curse references events from Cat People, but is anything but a horror movie, even though it drifts that way in the end. Overall Curse is much nearer to Lewton’s production of Ghost Ship, and ironically was set in a place called Sleepy Hollow.

Curse begins seven years after the tragic events of Cat People: Oliver Reed (Smith) and his workmate Alice Reed (Randolph) have a six-year old daughter Amy (Carter). The family lives in rural New England, where Amy is at prep school. She has the tendency to daydream, rather like his first wife Irena whose traumatic death still haunts him.  And Irena becomes Amy’s imaginary friend, after Oliver burns her photos to obliterate his past. Amy wanders into the gloomy mansion of ageing actor Julia Farren (Dean) and her daughter Barbara (Russell), and befriends them after being rejected by her school chums. But Julia had trouble in excepting that Barbara is her daughter, showing more empathy with Amy, and causing Barbara to mutter “I will kill the brat, if she appears again”. After the Amy gets her first (off-screen) ‘spanking’ from her father over her fantasy of Irena (Simon) appearing to her in the garden, the little girl runs away into woods and meets Barbara who is only too willing to make her promise come true.

DoP Nicholas Musuraca creates a parallel universe to that of Cat People. Although the panther scenes there intrude into a world of hyper-realism shared by Oliver and Alice share, that leaves Irena as the outsider. Curse shows a family which looks perfectly normal to the outside, but is crippled by Oliver’s inability to come to terms with the past. Then, there is the voice of reason that comes courtesy of Amy’s teacher Mrs. Callaghan (March), Oliver rejecting her rather modern approach. Irena is much more benign fantasy than Cat People‘s Panther. In analytical terms, Irena is a much better mother than the rational Alice, who, like her husband, has not worked through the events leading to her marriage with Oliver: she is deeply suspicious that Oliver is still under Irena’s spell, and therefore punishes Amy, just to show just the opposite. Furthermore, the Irena sequences in Curse are the total inversion of its predecessor: Irena here is about peace and harmony, while her Panther ego was just the opposite. Curse also demonstrates that Oliver has not learned very much from his experience with Irena: he still  not able to show empathy for those who do not share his “pragmatic” approach to life. His inability to realise that emotions are the most important qualities human’s possess, costs Irena her, and now threatens that of his daughter.

When all is said and done, Curse of the Cat People is anything but a sequel to Cat People: it’s a story about loneliness, repression and denial – both the Farrens and the Reeds have much more I common than at first glance. AS

NOW ON BBC iPlayer

 

    

Woman at War (2018) **** Mubi

Dir.: Benedict Erlingsson; Cast: Haldora Geirhardsdottir, Johann Sigurdason, Juan Camillo Roman Estrada; France/Iceland/Ukraine 101 min.

Benedict Erlingsson’s follow-up to Of Horses and Men is an energetic eco-warrior drama that sees a feisty woman taking on the state of Iceland with surprising results. Lead actress Haldora Geirhardsdottir has an athletic schedule, running all over the rugged  countryside, with helicopters and drones circling overhead.

Halla Haldora (Geirhardsdottir) lives a double life: one minute she is a mild-mannered physical therapist and choir leader, the next she’s roaming the countryside, bringing down electricity pylons with a bow and arrow and wire cutters. The only person aware of her war against the multi-nationals’ new technology is Sweinbjorn (Sigurdason), who works for the government and sings in her choir. She gets support from a local farmer, who could be a distant relative, and has a sheep dog called ‘woman’.

But her adventures have more severe repercussions for Juan Camillo (Estrada), who is under suspicion himself for bringing down the pylons. Another running gag in this amusing drama involves three women wearing the Icelandic national costume, who stand at the wayside during Halla’s adventures; a trio of musicians playing drums, the tuba and accordion. Halla’s twin sister Asa, also played by Geirhardsdottir, is a yoga teacher and is about to set off for an ashram in south-east Asia, when Halla gets the news that her adoption application has been granted. As a result four-year old Nika, whose whole family has been wiped out in the Ukraine conflict, is now waiting for Halla to pick her up. But misfortune intervenes.

With a magnificent twist at the end, Woman at War is a stormy but often amusing affair. There are echoes of Aki Kaurismaki, with the dead pan humour taking away some of the tension of the countryside hunt for Halla. And Erlingsson makes a refreshing break from tradition in the super hero genre, by casting a super-fit middle-aged woman in the central role.

Making good use of the stunning country side, DoP Bergsteinn Björgulfsson’s widescreen images and towering panorama shots are truly magnificent, along with the road movie sequences that showcase Iceland’s wild scenery. Perhaps a little too generous on the running time, this feature combines hilarious scenes with a well-structured narrative and a convincing female heroine. AS

FROM FRIDAY, 3 MAY 2019 | CANNES FILM FESTIVAL SACD WINNER 2018

The Velvet Touch (1948) **** BBC iplayer

Dir.: Jack Gage; Cast: Rosalind Russell, Leo Glenn, Sydney Greenstreet, Claire Trevor, Leon Ames; USA 1948, 100 min.

This is certainly a collector’s item: The Velvet Touch was a one hit wonder from Jack Gage (1912-1989). He spent the rest of his career in TV (Jane Eyre 1952), having started as a dialogue coach in Hollywood where he met Rosalind Russell, during the shooting of Mourning becomes Electra, persuading her to star in The Velvet Touch, based on script by Leo Rosten and Walter Reilly.

Valerie Stanton (Russell) is a comedy actress Broadway where her lover the impresario Gordon Danning (Ames) made her a star. But when she falls for British architect Michael Morrell (Genn), who encourages her to play the title role in Hedda Gabler, fostering her dreams of succeeding on the stage. But Danning won’t let Valerie go, and during an angry scene in her changing room, she accidentally kills him with one of her award trophies. Earlier in the day Danning had had a tiff with his ex Marian Webster (Trevor), who is now the number one suspect – or is the police detective Captain Danbury just playing a clever game to flush out the real killer?. Valerie is taken to hospital in shock while Captain Danbury (Greenstreet) interrogates everyone who had been there the night before in theatre. After visiting Valerie, Marian takes her own life. But on the night of the premiere of Hedda Gabler, the story takes an unexpected turn and one that reveals Valerie’s true colours.

Sidney Greenstreet steals the show: his presence alone is enough for him to dominate the proceedings. We are never quite sure if he knows the truth from the beginning, toying with Valerie like a cat with a mouse. DoP Joseph Walker (His Girl Friday, Only Angels have Wings) uses the theatre as a brilliant background for intricate black-and-white images, and  Russell manages some emotional depths, Gage directing with great flair. The Velvet Touch is a sparkling gem, and certainly one of the more memorable noir-films of the genre’s hayday. AS

NOW ON BBCiPlayer       

Angel Face (1952) **** BBC iPlayer

Dir.: Otto Preminger; Cast: Robert Mitchum, Jean Simmons, Mona Freeman, Herbert Marshall, Barbara O’Neill, Kenneth Toby, Raymond Greenleaf; USA 1953, 91 min.

Angel Face was director Otto Preminger’s third foray into Noir territory that had started with The 13th Letter and Laura. The temperamental Austro Hungarian director takes us by surprise with a subtle narrative that explores the Electra complex of its central character Diana Tremayne, whose Electra complex threatening to unhinge her family. This melodramatic cat-and-mouse game film is distinctly European in flavour scripted by Frank Nugent and Oscar Millard and based on a story by Hollywood producer Chester Erskine.

Pictured languidly by Oscar winning Harry Stradling Sr. this lustrous black and white feature is bookended by two car scenes featuring the grandiose family home of the Tremayne family. It all starts when a blaring ambulance arrives at night, with paramedic Frank Jessup (Mitchum) jumping out and running into the villa. The end is rather low-key in comparison: a taxi driver in front of house honking non-stop to no avail in the sunshine.

But to return to the beginning, Jesse sprints to the bedroom of Mrs. Catherine Tremayne (O’Neill), the second wife of author Charles (Marshall). Mrs. Tremayne is claiming to be the victim of gas poisoning, but we somehow do not believe her. Anyhow, Frank repacks the emergency gear, and on his way out stumbles over Diana Tremayne (Simmons), the twenty-year old daughter of Charles, who is sobbing hysterically. Frank slaps her, but she slaps him back forcefully, which somehow impresses him. Anyhow, Mitchum’s Frank is quite the womaniser, and with his girlfriend Mary Wilton (Freeman) keen on another ambulance driver Bill (Tobey), he is intrigued by Diana who very much seeks the protection of older men, and Frank fits the bill as her new love interest, soon moving into an outhouse of the Tremayne residence to take over chauffeuring duties. He’s certainly very assured behind the wheel, having been a racing driver before the War and hopes that Catherine will support his business plans with a loan, while teaching Diana how to handle his gears, although an unfortunate incident results in the demise of her hated stepmother. This tragedy calls for the services of the family’s lawyer Arthur Vance (Greenleaf) and Diana gets her moment in court.

There are elements of The Postman always rings Twice, as well as Out of the Past – with Simmons taking over Jane Greer’s role as Kathie, and Mitchum reprising his sinister turn perfected in the Tourneur outing – he will dust it down again for Charles Laughton in The Night of the Hunter (1955). But unlike the scheming Kathie, Diana is more victim than perp: she feels rightly cheated that her father married immediately after the death of her biological mother in the London Blitz. And his punishment – never to write a single word after his second marriage – is appropriate. Diana wants to get rid of Catherine so her father write again. Frank serves the narrative not as her sexual partner but, to assist her in ‘unlocking’ her father’s creativity, so she can be his exclusive muse.

Ironic then that Simmons and Mitchum have a palpable onscreen chemistry, both of them underplaying their characters, and Mitchum hardly moving a facial muscle, even when they kiss. Marshall is his true dependable self, spoiling his daughter (naively?) with the money of his wealthy wife. DoP Harry Stradling, who won two Oscars for The Picture of Dorian Gray and My Fair Lady uses the camera for long tracking shots, in cloudy images that echo Ophuls’ regular DoP Christian Matras.

Laura will always be Preminger’s most famous Noir but Angel Face is inmany ways more delicate and unhurried. AS

NOW ON BBC iPLAYER

 

 

 

                          

       

 

 

Woman of the Dunes | Soona no Onna (1964) **** Bfi Player

Dir: Hiroshi Teshigahara | Wri: Kobo Abe | Cast: Eiji Okada, Kyoko Ashida | Japan, Drama 143′
 A macabre, beguiling, bleak tale that echoes our worst nightmares – being trapped forever in an endless life of hopelessness where self-determinism is taken away. Vaguely erotic but ultimately nauseously claustrophobic this Japanese classic is an Oriental filmic answer to existential philosophers such as Sartre, Camus and Kierkegaard.A school teacher combing the dunes for unusual insects is so involved in his task he misses the last bus home and is offered a bed for the night by a local woman. The billet is at the bottom of a sandy bank reached by a rope ladder but he wakes up the next morning to discover the ladder has disappeared and he is forced to shovel sand out from underneath the house in order to safeguard his resting place. By the end of each day he much start the process again and soon realises he is trapped with the woman and – ultimately by the villagers who appear to be selling the sand to building contractors. It’s the ultimate catch 22 and won the Jury Prize at Cannes in the year of its filming.

We’ve all heard of a dripping tap. Woman of the Dunes is about shifting sands. The sensual beauty of the black and white visuals contrasts with the sheer dreadfulness of the situation as the teacher is slowly driven out of his mind, forced between communing with the woman and his unbearable sense of helplessness in this Kafkaesque hell. MT

NOW ON BFI IPLAYER 

 

 

 

 

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

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

The County (2019) ***

Dir: Grímur Hákonarson | Iceland Drama 95′

Grímur Hákonarson’s Cannes UCR award-winning debut Rams (2015) was a dour and delightful tale on sibling rivalry set in the Icelandic farming community. The director returns to this sombre milieu for his second more serious drama that sees a farmer take on the corrupt and outdated co-op in her local community.

The co-op system in Iceland arose in the early 20th century as a response to Denmark’s centuries-old monopoly on trade; however, sometimes they are as exploitative as the system that preceded them.  in many instances, these supposed mutual-aid societies grew to be as exploitative as the system that preceded them.

Inga (Arndís Hrönn Egilsdóttir) is a single-minded independent farmer who works tirelessly with her devoted husband Reynir (Hinrik Ólafsson) to make ends meet in the harsh but spectacular landscape of Iceland. Although the couple are wedded to their local co-op system, it is becoming increasingly difficult for them to remain competitive with their rivals. After an unforeseen tragedy Inga is forced to reassess her life and bravely decides to take the co-op on by using the help of social media rather than her less than supportive neighbours who are an unadventurous and conservative lot, even when life is stacked up against them.

Icelandic women are well known for their business acumen and Egilsdóttir supports this with a remarkable performance as the indomitable farmer in an engrossing drama that reunites the director with Sigurður Sigurjónsson who plays the co-op’s cunningly cocky director. Although this is a less entertaining film than Rams, Hákonarson once again emerges as an assured and confident voice and one of the country’s finest filmmakers. MT

NOW ON CURZON WORLD from Friday 22 May 2020

Only the Animals (2019) Netflix

Dir.: Dominik Moll; Cast: Damien Bonnard, Bastien Boillon, Laura Calamy, Denis Menochet, Nadia Tereszkiewicz, Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi, Roger ‘Bibesse’ N’drin, France/Germany 2019, 116′.

German born director Dominik Moll has been sadly neglected of late. Best known for his psychological thrillers Harry He’s Here to Help and Lemming and the hilarious News from Planet Mars (which never got a UK release) he came to Venice last year with one of the best features in the Venice Days line-up . Adapted from Colin Niel’s 2014 novel of the same name, this is an intense non-linear study of human behaviour, showing greed and possessiveness as the motivator that drives us all forward in the belief we are in love.

Most of the action takes part in a remote snowbound part of the French Massif Central, but the drama opens in the port city of Abidjan in Ivory Coast. There Armand (N’drin) sets in motion a sort of Ariadne trail, with one woman paying with her life for the sins of others. Armand is a small time grafter who finds photos of Marion (Tereszkiewicz) on the net, setting her up as bait for the French farmer Denis (Menochet), who is married to insurance saleswoman Alice (Calamy).

She has fallen for one of her clients, Joseph, an unstable farmhand in Denis’ employer who has been disturbed by hallucinations since the death of his mother: “I only talk to the animals”, he tells Alice. Meanwhile back in Abidjan, Armand has succeeded in making Denis fall for Marion, extracting the first tranche of the money transfers from the farmer. Armand, who nicknames Marion ‘Armandine’ – even though he has never met her – then invents a precarious story making Denis fall into the trap of wanting to rescue Armandine – whatever the cost. But the real Marion in in a relationship with Evelyne (Tedeschi), who shares a holiday home with her husband Guillaume just down the road from Alice and Denis.

This is a complex plot, intricately put together by Moll and his co-writer Gilles Marchand (who worked with him on Harry). Suffice to say it keeps up absolutely glued to the screen, enthralled by a seductively simmering plot line, Patrick Ghiringhell’s camerawork providing plenty of visual thrills including panoramic images of the magnificent mountain region and the lively African port city. A spine-tingling score of strings primps the moments of tension.

The saying “money makes the world go round”  has never been so true, and in this particular drama it is spot on: internet and money transfers connect every part of the globe. And every character wants a part of the action. Apart from Joseph, who leaves no clues to his disappearance from the scene in this enigmatic mystery thriller. AS

NOW ON NETFLIX
https://youtu.be/5HYJ6CjOzi8

Take Me Somewhere Nice (2019) *** MUBI

Dir: Ewa Sendijarevic | Drama | 91′

In her impressive debut feature, Ewa Sendijarevic takes a fresh and playfully cinematic approach to this semi-autobiographical expression of ‘positive experience of loneliness’ for the average multi-cultural person. To put it more simply, her central character Alma has grown up in Holland from Bosnian parentage and returns there to visit her father for the first time, with the gaze of an alien. Although this theme has been done before, most recently in a radical way by Jonathan Glazer in his mystery thriller Under The Skin, Take Me Somewhere Nice is a much more down to earth affair, enriched by its stunning visual approach and minimal dialogue. Alma is an Alice in Wonderland like character who goes on a Kafkaesque journey to visit her origins. She is accompanied by her cousin and his best friend, both from Bosnia, both unemployed and just as “care free” as Alma herself.

This triangle of characters represents a West-East European power balance between the privileged, and those left behind; the bitter and the opportunistic, the ones who would like to join the West and the ones who actively turn their back to it. This tension between the three bright young things occasionally becomes recklessly sexual, at other times gently attempts to forge a meaningful connection. Each frame completes the brightly coloured jigsaw of Alma’s eventful story, and even when it ventures into darker themes – a road kill incident and beach attack – still feels hopeful and energetic, in contrast to the clichéd portrayals of migrant misery and put-upon womanhood in the beleaguered Balkans.

Sometimes Sendijarevic inverts expectations, making us uncomfortable in a Brechtian way, and more acutely aware of traditional approaches the buzzy subject matter. TAKE ME SOMEWHERE NICE is also a film about using our contact with nature and the animal kingdom to celebrate being alive and being present in our world, wherever we lay our hats. Spirited performances and a lively colour palette make this journey fun and highly watchable. Sendijarevic believes in the Romantic – and laudable – idea that in “the moments we spend alone, preferably in nature, we can connect to our true selves in a spectacular way”. a sentiment that holds true now more that ever. A delightedly inventive and lively first feature. MT

NOW ON MUBI from 21 MAY 2020 | THE SPECIAL JURY AWARD WINNER | ROTTERDAM FILM FESTIVAL 2019 |

 

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

Dir: Barbara Paz | Doc, Brazilian 75′

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SCREENED DURING VISIONS DU REEL 2020 | NYON SWITZERLAND

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

https://youtu.be/bVbqlvVy-90

To the Stars (2019) **** Streaming

Dir: Martha Stephens | Cast: Kara Hayward, Jordana Spiro, Tina Parker, Shea Whigham | US Drama 101′

Oklahoma is the setting for this retro rites of passage drama that transports us back to Bible Belt country of the 1960s where segregation was still in force, and poverty from the Dust Bowl years not such a distant memory.

In her fourth feature, Stephens soon establishes the film’s East of Eden vibe that blends  with the saccharine cattiness of this female-focused story: Kara Hayward is Iris a repressed and be-spectacled late developer who is taken under the wing of the spunky Liana Liberato (Maggie). The girls’ hopes and dreams are the same, but Liana is more able to express her feelings in God-fearing Wakita where narrow-mindedness contrasts with the wide open spaces, and men and women are at still at odds with each other, unable or unwilling to meet on common ground.

But this flourishing female friendship is the driving force of a drama that soon becomes compelling with its familiar terrain of bitchy schoolgirl hierarchy well sketched out in Shannon Bradley-Colleary’s slightly uneven script that oscillates between poetic and pulpy, Andrew Reed’s faded aesthetic giving the piece a soft-edged nostalgic wholesomeness boosted by Heather McIntosh’s perky score of popular hits.

The 1960s was a time when women where proud to be housewives – as most of the them were – looking after their families, covertly competing for male attention, while pretending to support one another. And this is very much the case for Iris whose mother Francie (Spiro)) is desperate to keep her daughter down, even flirting with her boyfriends. The film opens as the bibulous Francie is finishing off a frothy ballroom dress for Iris, who looks on disdainfully; clearly the two don’t see eye to eye, and we feel for Iris – although her father Hank is much more understanding of his daughter’s timid disposition and urinary incontinence that has made her somewhat of a social pariah.

Iris develops a crush on a local boy Jeff (Lucas Jade Zumann) – a solid choice, as it turns out. Most of the boys jeer at her, but Maggie comes to her defence during another early scene that will see them warm to each other in their teenage trauma. And gradually we discover that Maggie’s shiny family is not all it’s cracked up to be either – the two share secrets and lies that will deepen their friendship as much as challenge it.

Meanwhile, Maggie’s father (Tony Hale) is not the soigné character she’s cracked him up to be, and her mother has a haunted look (Malin Akerman) that suggests the move to Wakita came as a result of skeletons in a previous cupboard. Maggie is an urbane, intelligent girl who rapidly outgrows the strictures of her new surroundings. And this brings out the nascent rebel in Iris as the two are forced to accept this petty female environment that cramps their style. Gradually  inspire each other to survive and thrive against the odds in a hopeful human journey where despair is often just below the surface in small town Oklahoma. MT

ON DIGITAL DOWNLOAD FROM 1 JUNE 2020 ON iTUNES, AMAZON, GOOGLE PLAY, SKY, VIRGIN, CHILI

Quartet (1981) **** Curzon World

Dir.: James Ivory; Cast: Isabelle Adjani, Alan Bates, Maggie Smith, Anthony Higgins; UK/France 1981, 101 min.

Perched between Jane Austen in Manhattan and Heat & Dust; Quartet, based on the novel  by Jean Rhys 1890-1979) and adapted director by Ivory and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, is a promise of what this talented duo would achieve later with the EM Forster trilogy of Room with a View, Maurice and Howard’s End. The autobiographically novel by Rhys, re-telling her affair with Ford Maddox Ford, was ripe for the big screen, and, once again, the lush look of it all compensates for some weakness in the script.

Set in depression era Paris in the mid 1920s, where everywhere pretended to be an artist, even though few actually created real art, we are introduced to Polish born art dealer Stephen Zelli (Higgins) and his wife Marya (Adjani), who was born – like Rhys – in the West Indies. Stephen is soon written out of the storyline – at least for a while –  imprisoned for selling stolen paintings. Marya, penniless and lonely, is taken under the wing of wealthy British couple HJ Heidler (Bates) an art promoter and his wife Lois (Smith), a painter. But the hospitality soon wears thin: Mr Heidler makes unwelcome visits to Marya, sleeping in the guest room, and Lois turns a blind eye. She is well that his actions caused the death of another hapless guest who committed suicide once he withdrew his favours. And when Stephen finally comes back into the picture, and has the chance to save his wife from the clutches of these ‘vampires’, he choses not to. Drama ensues – though without death and destruction. 

We see the world through Marya’s eyes: she is the epicentre, even though a rather phlegmatic Pernod-driven one, her senses blunted as she drifts into passive acquiescence. The novel was told in the third person, but the screen version never really gets into Marya’s mind, leaving her overly enigmatic, her motives explored. This state of limbo facilitates the Heider’s domination, as they feast on an innocent. So we are left in a moral quandary with these contemptuous characters: Heidler a cruel manipulator, his wife desperate to hold on to him and keep up the facade, even if it means hurting another.

Isabelle Adjani took home the awards for Best Actress at Cannes 1982 for Quartet, although she is slightly miscast in her of role of placid waif, and much more at home in Zulawski’s Possession (1981) which also won her the Cannes acting prize. Alan Bates and Maggie Smith on the other hand, are ideal as the evil ‘parents’, always ‘playing the game’ but never accepting the reality of their exploitations. Higgins is rather weak in a underwritten role. DoP Pierre Lhomme creates a visual paradise worthy of a real artist, letting light and watercolours play over designs and faces, creating a dreamlike atmosphere in contrast to the brutal psychological war of HJ Heider. Two years later, Lhomme would photograph Adjani in a similar role in Claude Miller’s Mortelle Randonne. One of the co-producers Humbert Balsam, would later commit suicide and become the tragic anti-hero in Mia Hansen-Løve’s Le Père de mes Enfants. AS

NOW ON CURZON WORLD AS PART OF THE MERCHANT IVORY SERIES.

https://youtu.be/M9louoYq9c8

Love and Death on Long Island (1997) **** Bfi Player

Dir: Richard Kwietniowski | Cast: John Hurt, Jason Priestley, Sheila Hancock |  drama, Canada, UK 93′

John Hurt is the reason to watch this inventive social satire set in Nova Scotia, Canada. Age almost always trumps beauty if the older party has style and charisma – and Hurt has this in spades when he plays a raddled English writer who falls under the spell of an American teen-movie star in the shape of Jason Priestly in Richard Kwietniowski’s award-wining sophomore drama, which he adapts with wit and verve from the novel by Gilbert Adair.

Crumpled but confident widower Giles De’Ath (Hurt) is long in the tooth, but totally naive to the newfound gadgets of modern life such as the latest TV and video scene. He discovers the good-looking young actor Ronnie Bostock (Priestley) who is setting the night of fire for teenage viewers (a kind of poor man’s version of Timothée Chalamet), and who opens his eyes to all kinds of wonderful possibilities when Giles accidentally buys a cinema ticket to the wrong screening: “This isn’t E.M Forster!” he exclaims, but he is transfixed to his seat by the appearance on screen of Ronnie Bostock in a film called . “Hotpants College 2,”.

Giles is smitten and gradually works his way through the Bostok ‘ouevre’ in his local video stores, including such outing as “TexMex”, emerging as a rather scuzzy upperclass roué. Eventually he sets off across the pond in search of his unlikely crush whom he tracks down near the Hamptons.

Ronnie awakens Giles’ own desires and broadens his horizons as a muse who also stands to benefit from the connection. Like most great relationships – it offers a win win opportunity that beats as it sweeps – Ronnie benefitting from Giles’ superior knowledge with a chance to brush up his own credentials; his girlfriend Audrey (Lowei) completing the trio.

The film widens into a social commentary on America with its modern day gods: trainers and takeaway pizzas; and the detail is so accurate it actually adds to the dramatic heft. But when Ronnie eventually appears in the flesh, he pales in comparison to Giles’ suave elan –  and it’s here that Hurt’s superior acting skills also gain the upper hand – exposing their different worlds with startling clarity, but providing much mirth into the bargain. MT

NOW AVAILABLE ON Bfi Player 

 

1917 (2019) ***** Mubi

Dir: Sam Mendes | George Schofield, Dean-Charles Chapman, Andrew Scott, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch | UK War epic, 118′

This exhilarating epic allows us to experience the terrors and triumphs of the First World War at first hand as we follow two young soldiers tasked with taking vital dispatch across enemy lines in France in April, 1917.

The green pastures of spring scattered with snowy cherry blossoms never looked so welcoming as they did during those final months of conflict. Scenes of hellish devastation are in brutal contrast to this rural idyll and make 1917 an exquisitely poignant memoir to the pity of war. Sam Mendes’ single-shot action thriller is audacious and deeply affecting adding another poignant chapter to the combat cannon. Working with young screenwriter Kyrsty Wilson-Cairns, the film’s structural flaws are eventually overcome by the sheer magnificence of this worthwhile tribute to the many who lost their lives defending liberty.

Dedicated to Mendes’ great-grandfather, 1917 also serves as a emotional touchstone for those of us who lost family in the conflict. Boyish young men who blithely volunteered to serve their country, but who never returned from the carnage, losing their lives, their innocence and hope in the hostilities. 1917 also gives the crew a chance to show off some technical brilliance – Roger Deakins’ agile camerawork is one of the most gratifying aspects of this saga, ambitious in scale but intimate in its simple premise: a race against time and in hostile terrain to deliver a life-saving letter.

In a glittering cast, the two leads in question, George Mackay plays lance corporal Schofield and Chapman a lance corporal Blake, don’t initially inspire our confidence. But as the narrative gets underway, Schofield triumphs as a naive and rather aimless soldier whose courageous qualities eventually come to the surface when the going gets tough. The two are given an almost fatal mission by Colin Firth’s heavyweight General Erinore. To cross the trenches via No Man’s Land into purportedly vacated enemy territory, and personally serve a hand-written letter that will stop 1600 soldiers charging to their untimely deaths. The kicker is that Blake’s brother is in the regiment concerned, and so he has a vested interest in his perilous mission.

George MacKay really looks the part: he could be your own great grandfather or uncle. It’s a demanding role: mentally and physically, but he rises to the occasion that tests his acting skills to the limit. And by the end we’re behind him and invested in his journey and the extraordinary and unexpected challenges that are thrown his way. The pacing is breathless, occasionally relieved by more upbeat scenes: at one point Schofield meets an almost happy go lucky regiment who play a vital part in the grand finale. This gives Mendes a chance to enrich his drama with textural and cultural references and convincing characters, even adding flinty humour.

Expertly edited by Lee Smith, this surreal reverie glides along seamlessly the occasional bout of brutal violence tempered by tender moments that introduce a civilian dimension of the conflict – we see Schofield comforting a young French woman and her tiny baby giving them milk from recently slaughtered cows. And although the war is full of horror and hostility, 1917 highlights the intensity of the feel good factor: the kindness of strangers and the goodness of mankind. MT

ON MUBI

 

 

Eve (Eva) (1962) **** Prime

Dir.: Joseph Losey; Cast: Jeanne Moreau, Stanley Baker, Virna Lisi, Giorgio Albertazzi; France/Italy 1962, 116′.

Jean-Luc Godard was originally slated to film this classic paperback hit from James Hadley Chase, whose novels provided rich dramatic pickings for the big screen (around 50 were filmed). The Franco-Swiss director wanted Richard Burton as his leading man, but it was another Welsh actor, Stanley Baker, who finally stepped up to the plate and his choice of helmer was Joseph Losey. And it was a memorable one.

Stanley Baker had already triumphed as a saturnine but alluring tough guy in Losey’s Blind Date (1959) and The Criminal (1960) the two developing a well-oiled working relationship, so Baker had no problem selling him to the producers, Raymond and Robert Hakim. Jeanne Moreau manages to tease out Baker’s raw romantic credentials in the stylish thriller, but Chase’s pulp fiction style sat uneasily with Losey and his two scriptwriters Hugo Butler and Evan Jones – Losey eventually falling out with his long term friend Jones, who had also been a victim of the HUAC witch hunt. The result was a critical and financial disaster – but has stood the test of time, Eva now being one of the cornerstones of Losey’s oeuvre – and also his personal favourite.

Eva begins with a prologue: Jeanne Moreau sailing by on a water taxi in a wintry Venice. A mournful trumpet prepares us for the gloomy outcome. The credits roll and we see Eva approaching Harry’s bar, where Tyvian Jones (Baker) holds court, telling the story of his brother, a Welsh miner (like himself). He is accosted by Branco (Albertazzi), the producer of the film adaptation of Tyvian’s novel: it is the second anniversary of the suicide of Tyvian’s Italian wife Francesca (Lisi), whom Branco loved.

Cut to Venice Film Festival two years previously, when Tyvian is seen water-skiing, as Eva looks on. Francesca is madly in love with her Welshman fiance, who is too busy to celebrate the success of the film version of his novel. A rainstorm brings Eva into Tyvian’s life: she and her client force entry into into the writer’s rented hideaway on the island of Torcello. Eva makes herself at home in the bedroom – to Billy Hollidays’ Willow, Weep for Me – and later takes a bath. When Tyvian enters she shrugs her shoulders nonchalantly, ignoring him. The writer throws out the client, thus entering a relationship which will destroy him – even though Eva tells him she is only in it for the money. But after Tyvian remarks: “let’s see, what you can do”, she knocks him out with a huge glass ashtray.

Tyvian is already engaged to the charming Francesca (a delicate Virna Lisi) but he becomes mesmerised by Moreau’s Eva who slowly ensnares him – it’s a magical performance from Moreau but Baker is equally enthralling. The Hakim Brothers cut the 155-minute version, and withdrew the feature from Venice Film Festival. A later cut shredded even more of the storyline, leaving just a 100-minute feature at the premiere in 1963.

How much Losey himself was involved is still a question. But there is much to admire: Michel Legrand’s jazzy score, andparticularly DoP Gianni Di Vinanzo’s sparkling black-and-white images of Venice and Rome. There are also intricate interior shots, using the mirrors in Eva’s apartment to show the compelling interplay between the lovers. In The Servant, Losey’s next feature, it was James Fox’s turn to be caught in the mirrors of his supercilious superiority. The only difference between the two films is that Robin Maugham’s book and Harold Pinter’s script for The Servant were far superior to the Chase/Butler-Jones version of Eve. When all is said and done, Losey’s original film far outstrips Benoit Jacquot’s 2018 remake, and not even Isabelle Huppert can save that pale rider. MT

ON PRIME VIDEO

 

 

 

 

 

Testimony (1987) ***** Streaming

Dir.: Tony Palmer; Cast: Ben Kingsley, Sherry Baines, Magdalen Asquith, Mark Asquith, Terence Rigby, Ronald Pickup, John Shrapnel, Robert Stephens; UK 1987/8, 151′.

British director Tony Palmer (Bird on a Wire) has an impressive track record, mostly connected to music, and particularly composers. His portrait of Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) is easily his masterpiece. Although Palmer is criticised for basing his biopic on the controversial Solomon Volkov, the aesthetic brilliance of the feature, and an imaginative script by David Rudkin produce a feast for ears and eyes. This tour de force is crowned with Ben Kingsley as a brilliant Shostakovich, DoP Nic Knowland (The Duke of Burgundy) producing grainy black and white images, which are often not discernible from the archive footage of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, or the quotes from early Eisenstein films.

Palmer presents his film as a metaphorical duel between Shostakovich and Stalin (Rigby). Even though, in reality the two never met, and only spoke once to each other on the ‘phone, Stalin is a constant presence in the composer’s life. Married to the independent Nina (Baines), with two children, Gala and Maxim (Magdalen and Mark Asquith), Shostakovich had a rather turbulent family life. But the ordinary quarrels were forgotten at night, when the pair cuddled up in bed, listening to noises on the staircase, generally signalling some confrontation between neighbours and the Secreti Police.

The composer slept with a packed suitcase (warm clothing and toothbrush) under his bed for decades. Shostakovich’s name was on Stalin’s ever growing growing list of enemies (as was Rachmaninoff), the dictator had noted the composer’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District in 1936. Stalin and his entourage had left the theatre in anger, and Shostakovich had to withdraw his Forth Symphony, simply to stay alive. He took to composing music for the cinema, and we watch him in the cutting room, discussing the score with the director. It should be said, that both Stalin and Shostakovich have much more of a physical presence than a verbal one. The composer seems often resigned, biting his tongue, whilst Stalin is never happier that when he is going though the list of artists who he can eliminate with a stroke of his pen. Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, actually called an apology of a Soviet composer for earlier mistakes, brought him back into favour. His greatest triumph was the war time composition of the 7. Symphony, the Leningrad, which got him on the cover of Time. But all this was forgotten when he (and other composers such as Prokofiev and Kachaturian) were accused by Polit-Bureau member Zhadanov (Shrapnel) at the Congress of Soviet Composers in 1948, to have written music that indulged in Formalism, avoiding any positive messages for the proletariat. But a year later, Stalin telephoned Shostakovich asking him to attend the International Peace Conference in New York. There the question of Formalism was raised again, and Shostakovich accused himself and other composers – Stravinsky was one – of the error of making music for the sake of the form. Stalin died in 1953, and Palmer added a dream sequence in which the dead Stalin visits the dying composer, who tells him: “Looking back, I see nothing but ruins, but mountains of corpses.”

There are unforgettable images: Stalin’s huge stone head rolling toward the composer, threatening to crush him. And then there is the scene with the composer on a raft, playing the piano, sinking deeper and deeper into the water, with Lenin’s sculpted head on fire. Most of the music is played by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Rudolf Barshai – with all the music pieces shot in colour.

Testimony was not really a critical success at its opening but has matured into a classic, Palmer triumphing, but never again reaching the heady heights of perfection with this idiosyncratic, extravagant, essayist reflection on art and politics. AS

NOW STREAMING ONLINE    

  

The Calm after the Storm **** | Visions du Reel 2020

Dir.: Mercedes Gaviria Jaramillo; Documentary with Victor Gaviria, Marcela Jaramillo; Columbia 2020, 72min.

Colombian filmmaker Mercedes Gaviria Jaramillo confronts her childhood and her famous filmmaker father, Victor, in her documentary debut which she scripted, filmed and co-edited.

Mercedes worked as her father’s assistance during the shooting of his final film La Mujer del Animal (The wife of the Animal). Gaviria senior is the only Columbian director whose films have been shown at Cannes Film Festival.

Mercedes Gaviria Jaramillo always wanted to get out of the shadow of her famous father: in spite the pleas of her mother, she studied film at Buenos Aires, and worked there after graduation as sound designer. But the pull of the family proved too strong, when she agreed to assist her father in his latest feature La mujer de Animal (2016). On her return to her home, she finds that her mother Marcela, an anthropologist, has left her room untouched, which comforts Mercedes. The Calm is actually two films in one: there are the sequences of shooting La mujer, and the home videos her father shot of her, her brother Matias and mother Marcela. And then there is the diary of her mother, for her yet unborn daughter. “It sounds, like I was her only confidant”. Victor is known for his realism, and using non-professional actors. The story of La mujer is of Marguerita, who lives in the neighbourhood, but does not want to give an interview to Mercedes: Marguerita, who had been kidnapped and raped by “the animal’ at eightenn, is fearful, that the actor, who portraits her tormentor, might bring back the bad spirit of him, even though he died long ago. Marguerita’s role is taken by Natalia Polo, a nursing assistant, who gives up her job, to concentrate on filming. Tito, a bus driver will feature as the villain. It is obvious, that Mercedes is horrified of the rape scene between the main protagonists, whilst her father is directing with calm, taking about the size of the lenses he will use in the next shot. Natalia is often found crying, and Victor sends her away from the set. Mercedes: “Marguerita’s suffering rekindles in every woman’s body”. It rains during the first six days of shooting, and cast and crew get ill – apart from Victor. Next is another violent scene, a sex orgy, where sex workers are brutally raped and beaten. Victor uses real sex workers from Berrio Park, and the lads are from the tough neighbourhood. Mercedes has to close her eyes, but keeps listening. When Mercedes is alone with her mother, she wants to ask her about the diary. “I want her to take my fear away, talking to her. But she only asks, if the catering at the set is ok. I just answer it – to calm her”. In an old home video, we watch Mercedes, called Mechi, being bullied by her father into writing a story for school. Mechi refused, telling him, that a scorpion has bitten her. From her mother’s diary: “Only twenty days left until your birth. You are going to have a very special dad. Even if we have our problems, as you will find out soon. He is very sensitive, always meeting lots of people when he is not with us, because other people need him too. I hope you are optimistic, I was not. You give me strength  to keep on fighting for our love. I loved your father too much, I am always afraid of losing him, you can’t live like this”.  The principal photography for La mujer is over, and Victor discusses with his daughter, that he was well aware of the fact, that the cast used Clonazepam with alcohol, to get over the trauma of acting. “The mixture is so strong, you don’t remember the next day what you have done at all”. From the home videos we learn, that the Tooth Fairy is called ‘Perez the Mouse’ in Columbia – but young Mercedes is not fooled: “Its not true, its Mom and Dad who give me the presents.”. Merceds tries in vain to talk with her mother about the diary. “What would she say to me? That living with a man is not easy. But life must go on”. Thinking back to the shoot and her father: “He finds it easier to direct violent scenes, than to direct Natalia.” Her brother Matias, Mercedes films an ugly spat between macho father and son, is generally not fond of being filmed: “Life has to be lived, before its being filmed”. And a last thoughts about the rape scene:” The contradiction of filming a rape scene being the privileged gender. And a film set full of men. Yes, talk about gender violence in a country suffering from a war.”

Never didactic, the director tries always to keep distance, but it is not easy to keep the distance with your family. A calm, but moving reflexion on gender and filmmaking. AS

VISIONS DU REEL ONLINE 25 APRIL           

Camino Skies (2020) *** Digital release

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                       

                                       

Davos (2020) **** Visions du Reel 2020

Dir.: Daniel Hoesl, Julia Niemann; Doc; Austria 2020, 100 min.

Austrian director Daniel Hoesl and co-director/writer Julia Niemann have visited Davos – but not only for the World Economic Forum (WEC), which is staged every year in the Swiss town, but mainly to understand what makes it the Swiss resort tick, outside the circus-like meeting.

First we learn something about Davos and culture: a museum’s guide shows a painting of the Swiss town by the artist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, talking about the modernity of the place with its flat roofs, we also hear in a voice-over about another artist with Davos connections: the German writer Thomas Mann, who published in 1925 his novel Der Zauberberg, the same year Kirchner painted his picture. And the townsfolk of Davos were unhappy about the novel, on the ground of it depicting Davos as a world wide as a retreat for the sick.

Next we witness the still birth of a calf in a cow shed – we will meet the cattle farmer, Bettina more often later. We than witness a meeting of councillors, who deal with asylum seekers; one of them, Ali, is in danger of being deported and has been arrested by the police. Afterwards, first contact with the WEC is made in a meeting of the organisers, who listen to questions from the locals. The organisers are proud to announce that the WEC meeting will bring 60million Swiss Francs into the town’s coffers and 94 M SF into the Swiss economy. One participant points out that hardly any social progress has been made in the last thirty years, whilst their security budget has risen astronomically. But the speaker for the WEC is polite, and hopes “that you will discuss and pass the budget for the next six years.”

We meet Bettina and her husband again at the Davos Cattle Show, where the referee explains to the knowledgeable audience, why the winner has been chosen. Meanwhile, in the Davis tourist office, the editorial board discusses the next magazine: only two pages have not been filled, and one member makes a bad joke about “what if nobody dies?”

Outside in the snow, British and Swiss parliamentarians enjoy slalom races, the Swiss, not surprisingly, being the clear winners. In the kitchen of a major hotel, the waiters complain, that they have to drink with guests all night to keep them happy, whilst sitting on the floor, eating their meal. Bettina complains at a meeting with other cattle farmers, that the price they get for the milk is hardly worth the work involved.

Then the big day comes, and the guests arrive in the congress hall where a seminar, “A day in the life of a refugee” is one of many attractions. Outside, protesters take a dim view of the meeting’s slogan: “Davos is a place for dialogue”, and President Trump bears the brunt of their disgruntlement. They hold up placards with slogans such as: “Dictators get free aperitifs, while their people starve at home.”

In the hall, the organisers are being asked some serious questions: Why has the number of women participating in world economics dropped in the last year? The shops of the Arcade have been transformed into showcases for countries: Poland claims to be the “Can-do Nation”, there is a Ukrainian Fashion Show and a Thailand Night. When the WEC is over, these nation showcases go back to normal shops, food halls and fashion houses. Nothing has changed in the wake of the Summit, and we return to Bettina, who has to sell all her animals, and leaves in tears. She visits another public meeting, where the history of the town is celebrated, with music and a special sort of wrestling, which was depicted on another Kirchner painting in the Davos museum.

Davos is a film that grows more and more intriguing as it plays out: the small details make you curious, and Bettina’s fate adds dramatic tension, the visiting dignitaries paling into insignificance. DoP Andy Witmer is a successful fly on the wall, taking in the significant with the banal. Davos reveals the reality behind the facade, giving  voice to the people who live there every day. AS

VISIONS DU REEL | NYON, SWITZERLAND 2020

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) **** Streaming

Dir: Michael Powell. Wri: Emeric Pressburger | Cast: Roger Livesey, Anton Walbrook, Deborah Kerr, Roland Culver, Harry Welchman, Arthur Wontner, Albert Lieven, John Laurie, Ursula Jeans, James McKechnie, Reginald Tate, David Hutcheson, A.E.Matthews | Drama. 163 mins.

Those editing the meticulously kept diaries of Dr Goebbels, now housed in Moscow, usually omit his observations on the cinema (which will hopefully one day make a fascinating book in it’s own right); but he would doubtless have been aware of the determined efforts of Winston Churchill to prevent this film from being made, and recorded his thoughts on the matter.

Films don’t always end up the way their makers originally envisaged at their outset, and the maiden production of Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger’s Archers Films would have turned out completely differently had Laurence Olivier been freed from the Fleet Air Arm to make it; since it is now impossible to imagine without third-billed Roger Livesey and his distinctive voice in the title role (in which at the age of 36 he convincingly ages forty years). The makers’ relative inexperience shows in the fact that they ended up with a initial cut over two and a half hours long; but fortunately J.Arthur Rank liked the film so much he let it hit cinemas as it was. Indeed, it was Pressburger’s favourite of the Rank outings, and would go on to influence the work of future filmmakers such as Scorsese in his The Age of Innocence and Tarantino who copied the device of beginning and ending a film be rerunning the same scene from the point of view of different characters.

Irony was obviously lost on Winnie, and basing the central character upon a cartoon caricature that personified all that was most stupid and reactionary about the British establishment in wartime doubtless seemed to the Prime Minister (and others) tantamount to treason. Blimp’s left-wing creator David Low authorised the production on the one condition that Blimp be revealed as the fool he was (and professed himself thoroughly satisfied with the result). But the very title stresses that Colonel Blimp’s day is hopefully now past (just as the present coronavirus crisis hopefully means the death of ‘austerity Britain’, although I’m not holding my breath).

The British can take enormous pride in having been on the side that made this film written by a Hungarian Jew, with an Austrian leading man, a French cameraman, music by a Polish composer and sets by a German production designer, rather than the side that made ‘Die Ewige Jude’; and one can only marvel at the magnanimity that made it possible to produce a film when this country was engaged in a fight for its very survival, as pro-German as it is anti-Nazi. Richard Chatten.

AVAILABLE ON BBC2 | 26 APRIL 2020 | BBC & BFI PLAYER 

Wolves at the Borders (2020) *** Visions du Reel 2020

Dir: Martin Pav | Doc, Czech Republic 78′

Wolves are back in the Czech Republic. And their return is causing ructions in the rural population. In his no holds barred look at the social history of man’s relationship with beast, filmmaker Martin Pav examines whether wolves still have a place in a world where drought and climate change is already wreaking havoc on the farmers particularly the vast forested areas of the Czech Republic. Wolves are, at least, a threat that can be controlled.

From an ecological point of view wolves have as much right to exist as humans, but as a voracious predator of livestock, and humans too – if given a chance, they are posing a serious threat now that their numbers are once again growing.

Not everyone is in agreement over how to tackle the wolf issue. Jan Sefc, a livestock farmer, shows how his flock of sheep is being depleted by wolves, as he throws a armful of maimed dead lambs into a rubbish bin. The wolves don’t eat the new borns, they just maul them to death, adding insult to the injuries inflicted. The problem is how to protect them. How do you build a shelter for 3000 sheep? And they don’t only kill lambs and sheep, deer are being heavily predated. “Tt’s like having a pedophile in a kindergarten” he says. For now he manages to keep the wolves at bay by monitoring the area in his truck, but he can’t be there all the time. Mayor Tomas Havrlant supports his view and is determined to gain the support of the government in this growing concern.

But conservationist Jiri Malik takes a different view, and is more concerned with water conservation in the region, seeing drought as the main enemy of farming and food production. He argues water is key to the survival of crops and the next generation. He is working on ways to improve irrigation.

Wolves have been predators in the Czech Republic since the Benedictines first arrived in the 13th century with the motto: “Pray and Work” (Ora et Labora). Records tell of attacks on humans, and the Monks civilising effects allowed the local population to protect themselves with barriers at a time when folklore was dominated by tales of wolves, synonymous with the Devil. The only punishment back then was to be cast out into the wilderness. Gradually wolves were almost entirely exterminated by the mid-18th century.

But they soon found their way back. In Czechia and neighbouring Poland and Slovakia wolves were still being culled up until the 1970s, when they were shot during the hunting season, and still harboured a fear of humans. These legendary beasts can grow to six feet tall, and now, like the foxes in the Britain, they have started to challenge man. Their population is growing again and the farmers are angry. So the Mayor has decided to file a suit against the State to gain protection for the farmers and the local economy, and encourage young people to stay in the region.

Jiri Malik feels that anything that encourages beauty, diversity, stability of an ecosystem: such as wolves, is good. Anything that goes the other way, is bad. Why don’t the farmers guard their sheep, like shepherds did in ancient times?. And this is very much the view of small-holder Lenka Stihlova who takes the wolves side of the dilemma arguing for a modus Vivendi with the animals.

With its sinister occasional score of strings and measuring detached approach, Wolves at the Borders presents a convincing case for each side in this age-old endeavour: how to live in harmony with the animal kingdom. MT

VISIONS du REEL 2020 | STREAMING

 

 

 

Deux Fois (1969) *** Centre Pompidou Streaming

Dir: Jackie Raynal | Doc, France 64’

A member of the Zanzibar group, formed in 1968 around Sylvina Boissonas, Olivier Mosset, Philippe Garrel, and Serge Bard, Jackie Raynal (1940-) made her first film Deux Fois Twice during a nine-day trip to Barcelona in 1968. Having worked with Éric Rohmer and Jean-Daniel Pollet), this sophomore experimental documentary expresses an inescapable disenchantment in the aftermath to the cataclysmic events of May 68.

The film would go on to garner the Grand Prize of the Young Cinema Festival of Hyères (that focused on independent cinema founded in 1965), Twice was shot in a few days in velvetyblack and white by DoP Andre Weinfeld.  Sylvina Boissonnas financed the project, along with many of the the Zanzibar group’s activities.

In Deux Fois actressJackie Raynal takes on her new role as filmmaker to produce a “film almanac”, or a “notebook of wanted or organized haikus”, in the words of the historian of experimental cinema Dominique Noguez.

Essentially its lack of dialogue speaks volumes, although Raynal narrates the first sequence, focusing our gaze on the atmosphere and intensity of the protagonists’ feelings conveyed by body language. “Spectators are offered a series of actions reduced to their registration in the space of the shot and the duration of the projection, a set of time blocks, juxtaposed in a deceptive simplicity”.

Film critic Louis Skorecki called it “one of the strongest and most enigmatic films” ever made. It is while trying to interpret this enigma that we can also find, in the film, “a feminist manifesto and the unfinished diary of a love story”, to use Jackie Raynal’s words.

 

https://youtu.be/yxid5anKOOg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

ONLINE AT DOGWOOF
                               

Viaggio in Italia (1954) | Journey to Italy | Bfi Player

Dir: Robert Rossellini | Wri: Roberto Rossellini, Vitaliano Brancati | Cast: Ingrid Bergman, George Sanders, Maria Mauban | Drama, Italy/France, 86

In this groundbreaking film it is almost impossible to take your eyes off Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders as they enact the fading love story of a well-healed fifties middle class couple both undergoing painful heartache of their own, behind the scenes. Roberto Rossellini’s drama is the culminating masterpiece of Italian neo-realism and arguably one of the greatest neo-realist love stories of the era.

Inspiring and ushering in the New Wave, Viaggio channels the ideals of the neo-realist movement in the use of non-professional actors and rural everyday life, in the this case in Naples and Pompeii and although it performed badly at the Box Office, it went down very well with French critics, based loosely, as it was, on Colette’s novel Duo and Francois Truffaut, called it the first ‘modern film’.

The film’s plot is simple: an unhappily married couple drive down to Italy to organise the sale of an inherited villa in one of the most scenic locations in the South, the bay of Naples. They bicker and neither is at peace. Katherine is young and vivacious but disappointed with her hostile husband, Alex, who – she claims – cares only for money and work and dislikes the area: “I’ve never seen noise and boredom go so well together.” As the trip grows more complex with delays in the property sale so Alex takes it out on his wife, who harks back to a previous lover and starts to sense that divorce is inevitable. The two flirt openly with outsiders on every social occasion and spend increasing time away from each other during in activities and venues that seem to enhance their feelings of desperation and sadness. Katherine visits a morbid catacomb, Alex becomes close to a girl he meets through friends. The final moments are unforgettable, unexpected and transcendent in the history of Italian cinema and mark Viaggio in Italia out as a significant film that has stays in the memory long after the titles fade.

The production was not without it difficulties. Ingrid Bergman’s marriage to Rosellini was under severe pressure. George Sanders was at the end of his union with Zsa Zsa Gabor and was fraught from his attempts to contact her long-distance.  He was not only annoyed that he was expected to improvise, but also that the director himself appeared to be making it up as he went along.

According to Tag Gallagher (The Adventures of Robert Rossellini, New York Da Capo Press, 1998) Sanders was waiting in his hotel reception as instructed at 2pm: “I was led like a man in Sing Sing’s Death House to the waiting car which whisked me away to some Neapolitan back street where Rossellini had set up the camera to shoot the momentous scene for which we had all been waiting so patiently.  He had his scarlet racing Ferrari with him (a new one!) and he kept eyeing it and stroking it while the cameraman was fiddling with the lights, getting the scene ready. Finally when all was ready, Rossellini changed his mind about shooting the scene and dismissed the thunderstruck company. While we watched him in stupefied silence, he put on his crash helmet, climbed into the Ferrari, gunned his motor and disappeared with a rorar and screeching tyres round the bend of the street and out of our lives for two whole days…). Meanwhile Ingrid Bergman was equally distraught. She couldn’t improvise, she hated to improvise, which Roberto well knew.  Yet whenever she’d ask what she was supposed to say, he’d snap: “Say what’s on your mind”.

After a long and tortuous process, the film was finally released in July 1954. Despite all the set-backs and unpleasantness and Rossellini’s wasteful and unorthodox methods the film emerged as one of the most enduring examples of ingenious innovation and timeless inspiration.  Rossellini managed finally to get convincing performances from two people authentically portraying the end of love. MT

Recently restored l’Imagine Ritrovata VIAGGIO IN ITALIA | BFI Player 

I Am Love (2009) **** BFi Player

Dir: Luca Guadagnino | Italian, Drama, 120′

Tilda Swinton is the graceful and luminous presence who lights up this sexually ambitious  drama about a woman whose sterile existence comes to life when she falls in love.

She plays an ice cool aristocratic-looking Russian who assumes a dignified role as the doyenne in the wealthy moneyed household of her Italian husband Tancredi Recchi. Their austere 1930s mansion is surrounded by formal gardens and staffed by a legion of white-aproned maids and black-coated butlers. But she is about as satisfied as Silvana Magnani in Pasolini’s Theorem, or Lucia Bose in Antonioni’s Cronaca di Un Amore, although a good deal more wealthy.

The rich and powerful Recchi dynasty is well-established, like a tight-lipped Northern Italian version of the Corleone’s without the Mafia connection – or at least there is no allusion to that here. And Emma is tasked with organising a birthday dinner for her father in law (Gabriele Ferzetti) who informs them all during the afternoon that follows the expansive banquet that he has decided to hand over the reigns of the family business to Emma’s husband and her younger son Edo (Flavio Parenti).

There is plenty to enjoy here even if the ensuing love story or business wranglings fail to ignite your imagination. And fortunately Emma’s lover (Antonio Biscaglia) is a more sensible choice than Mangani’s dalliance with The Visitor in the shape of Terence Stamp in Theorem. There have been many Spring/Autumn affairs in the history of film and this one is delicately handled by Swinton who appears to share her sentimental feelings with her son Edo, although the Lesbian liaison of her art student daughter (a perfectly cast Alba Rohrwacher) seems a bit contrived and less convincing. When love blossoms for Emma the dour Milanese winter scenes are abandoned for a sun-filled sojourn on Liguria’s coastline, at least for a while and everything glows in Yorick La Saux’s sumptuous visuals which won him awards for Best Cinematography two years later. Antonella Cannorozzi does her stuff exquisitely in the costume department, although the Oscar went to Colleen Atwood for Alice in Wonderland (2010). The only bum note is the inappropriate score.

But dark clouds gather on this brief-lived idll and ugliness is soon exposed behind the facade of elegance and respectability. Just goes to show what glisters isn’t always gold. MT

White God (2014) | Bfi Player

Dir/Wri: Kornél Mundruczó | Cast: Zsofia Psotta, Sandor Zsoter, Lili Horvath, Szabolcs Thuroczy, Lili Momori, Gergely Banki, Karoly Ascher | 119min  Drama/Thriller  Hungary

Hungarian director, Kornél Mundruczó’s art house thriller is also a revenge flick with a touch of the “Pied Piper of Hamlin’ about it. Serving as an elusive parable on human supremacy, it scratches the edges of fantasy with some bizarre and brutal elements.

Dogs, or more correctly, mutts are the stars of the story which opens with a little girl cycling through the mysteriously empty streets of Budapest, followed by a pack of barking beasts. With is canine cast of Alsations to Labradors, Rottweilers and even little terriers, WHITE GOD also brings to mind The Incredible Journey with a darkly sinister twist. Is she escaping a virus, or a human enemy?

These dogs are clearly well-trained and credit goes to the Mundruczo for his ambitious undertaking, but then Magyars have a reputation for their horsemanship and this clearly extends to the canine species. It transpires that Lilli (Zsofia Psotta) the girl on the bike, has adopted a large street dog called Hagen. Lilli’s mum is off on a business trip with her new boyfriend, leaving her in the care of her emotionally distant but rather sensitive father who ironically works as an abattoir inspector.

Their relationship is not a close one and Lilli becomes even more distant from him when he insists on her getting rid of her loveable pet. Budapest is a city full of street dogs and the Hungarians appear to be a great deal less keen on animal welfare than most European countries. Hagen is soon picked up by a new owner, an unscrupulous dog fighter, who sets about turning him into a savage warrior-dog, before he escapes and ends up in the Police dog pound, where he stages a mass canine uprising. The transformation is both sad and frightening but there are also poignant moments as Hagen as his ‘mate,’ a sweet Jack Russell, desperately try to evade re-capture by their enemies – human beings. And it is this balance of power that underpins Mundruczó’s unique drama transforming it from an animal adventure to a satire with universal appeal. WHITE DOG is quite literally, a tale of the ‘underdog’ rising up and claiming his rightful place in society: on a more sinister level it could represent the masses over-taking society. A captivating and provocative piece of filmmaking. MT

NOW ON BFI PLAYER | Dedicated to the late Miklós Jancsó, WHITE GOD won PRIX UN CERTAIN REGARD in Cannes 2014.

The Corporal and the Others | A Tizedes meg a Tobbiek (1965) ****

Dir: Marton Keleti | Wri: Imre Dobozi | Cast: Tamas Major, Imre Sinkovits, Laszlo Kozak, Ivan Darvas | Drama, Hungarian 108′

The Corporal and the Others is an anti-communist comedy and a satirical take on outside forces occupying Hungary during the Second World War. It was of course made during Soviet occupation so uses metaphor to escape the censors.

Although Hungary was technically on the same side at Germany, having relied on on the nation to pull it out of the Great Depression, The Corporal portrays the relationship as deeply farcical despite the soberness of its subject matter. And this deadpan humour is what makes it all so amusing, emphasised by the film’s upbeat score.

Imre Dobozi’s script was obviously going to make the film a crowd pleaser for Hungarian audiences, but Keleti’s direction is also laudable with some extraordinary set pieces featuring snow-swept battle scenes, and a sneering central performance from Imre Sinkovits ( Ferenc Smolnar) as the corporal himself. At the Hungarian Film Week, the most important film festival in its homeland, the film bagged him best actor and garnered critical acclaim sweeping the board in 1966. A great comedy then, but not a masterpiece. A metaphor for Hungary always being under occupation, each of the characters represents a cliche of sorts: Major is the distinguished Englishman, Sinkovits, the upstart an so on.

Marton Keleti is not well known outside his homeland unlike Bela Tarr; Istvan Szabo; Sandor Kovacs; Zoltan Fabri or Milos Jancso. On account of being Jewish, Keleti was actually banned from making films during the war years but he certainly addressed the balance with a decent output of fifty films, starting in 1937 with Viki, and taking up in the immediate aftermath to the war with A Tanitono (1945). Possibly his most notable achievement outside Hungary was his Palme d’Or hopeful Ket Vallomas (Two Wishes, 1957) which came home empty handed despite a wonderful central performance from Hungarian star of the time Mari Torocsik.

The Corporal and the Others sees the German Fascists plan their exit from Hungary at the end of the war (1944-45) only to be replaced by the Russians Soviet troops. In the ensuing mayhem, deserting Hungarian soldiers and are just trying to avoid being killed, including those from the special Fascist wing under Ferenc Szalasi.

Molnar is stuck in a deserted country house (which is still being run by the butler Albert (Tamas Major/Colonel Redl) having stolen the money to pay his fellow comrades in arms. But unbeknown to Molnar, other deserters are also in residence: Imre Gaspar (Laszlo Kozak) and Gyorgy Fekete (Gyula Szabo) to name but a few.

There is nothing heroic about any of these characters, in fact most are actually cowards, making things all the more hilarious, as heroism is the last thing on their minds, and they duck and dive like chameleons in company of their enemies, constantly changing uniforms to mask their real identity. And this was the crux of the comedy: Hungarians often joking about having to change uniforms to reflect its history of being occupied, first by the Turks, then by the Austrians, Germans and finally the Russian Communists who radar Keleti was keen to escape. MT

NOW ONLINE FREE BY KIND PERMISSION OF THE HUNGARIAN CULTURAL CENTRE, LONDON UK

Colonel Redl | Oberst Redl (1985) **** Streaming

Dir.: Istvan Szabo; Cast: Karl-Maria Brandauer, Hans-Christian Blech, Armin Müller-Stahl, Gudrun Landgrebe, Jan Niklas, Dorottya Udvaros, Laszlo Galffy; Hungary/West Germany/Yugoslavia/ Austria 1985, 144 min.

Colonel Redl is the second part of a trilogy of true life fables dealing with the political and psychological milieu in Hungary in the early half of the 20th Century. Flanked by Mephisto (1981) and Hanussen (1988) which unfurl in Germany, Colonel Redl is set in the final years before the outbreak of the First World War in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Adapted from A Patriot For Me by John Osborne, it centres on the rise and fall of an opportunistic real life character, a bisexual Austrian officer who trades in his integrity for personal gain, betraying Austro-Hungarian secrets to the Russians on the cusp of war.

Karl-Maria Brandauer is the driving force of these three films with his sheer physicality and the mesmerising power of his performance impersonating three well known Europeans who find themselves dicing with intricate moral dilemmas. Although Mephisto is by far the most dazzling here Colonel Redl certainly has its moments under masterly direction of Istvan Szabo who cinematographer Lajos Koltai also photographed the other two features.

Alfred Redl (Brandauer) grew up in modest circumstances, but was educated at a prestigious military school. There he met fellow student Krystof Kubinyi (Niklas), who invited him to holiday on the estate of his aristocratic family. There Redl meets his sister Katalin (Landgrebe), who has a crush on him. But Alfred is drawn to Krystof, even though he would go on to enjoys the sexual favours of Katalin. Redl is a social climber and over-ambitious at work, where he rules his men with a draconian command. General Von Roden (Blech) is impressed with him, and promotes him to chief of Military Intelligence. Even though Redl is aware of his sexual ambivalence, he marries a Viennese wife from the upper classes (Udvaros), still lusting over Krystof, even though they have a falling out. Introduced to Archduke Franz-Ferdinand (Müller-Stahl), he tries to find a scapegoat, preferably from the Ukraine, whose trial would go on to send shock-waves through the officer corps. Redl is unaware of being the chosen sacrificial lamb, and after passing on secrets to his lover Velocchio (Galffy), he commits suicide on 19th March 1913 saving himself and the army a trial for treason.

Szabo plays fast and loose with historical facts, and the focus is very much Redl’s dual personality, which manifests itself in his sexual orientation and spying activities. Like many in his position, he feels alienated and pays a heavy price for professional and social success. Brandauer also brings out the sadist in him, taking pleasure in degrading others in public. His love for Krystof is equal to his envy for his position in life, and he would do anything to swop places with him. Redl excels professionally but is always aware of his lowly upbringing, he get rid of his sister by palming her off with money, but forbidding her to visit him again. 

If there is one criticism here it is the over-bloated narrative. There was no need for an epic, the scenes of Redl’s youth at home add unnecessary detail. Brandauer is brillaint most of the time, but sometimes overdoes the ‘tortured soul ‘moments. The rest of the ensemble is excellent, with Landgrebe’s Katalin moving as the woman who tries desperately to change the sexual orientation of a gay man. DoP Laszlo Koltai (Malena) succeeds in re-creating the glamour and decadence of the Vienna court, everything glitters and glows, and the imperial architecture is playing a major part. Colonel Redl might not be Szabo’s most outstanding work, but it is still a stunning story and and won a BAFTA in 1986 and the Jury Prize at Cannes 1985. AS

NOW FREE ONLINE BY KIND PERMISSION OF THE HUNGARIAN CULTURE CENTRE LONDON UK   

 

The Church (2020) *** Streaming

Dir: Anat Tel | Anat Tel, Naom Amit | Israel, Doc 52′

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is more than a place a worship for many Christians, it is also a spiritual and physical home according to this wry new documentary from Israeli provocateur Anat Tel (Mom, Dad, I’m Muslim).

Concise and pithy, this colourful film is narrated on camera by Samuel Aghoyan, the Superior of the Armenian Church, who takes us through a potted history of his own arrival as a child in the Holy City, and gives a sardonic take on the internecine tiffs that add spice to the daily life of this legendary ecclesiastical HQ sitting proudly in the Christian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem.

Today the Church also serves as the main office of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, while control of the place itself is shared among various Christian denominations and secular entities in complicated arrangements essentially unchanged for over 160 years, and some for much longer. The main denominations partaking in the property are the Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodoxy and Armenian Apostolics, and to a lesser degree the Coptic Orthodoxy, Syriac Orthodoxy and Ethiopian Orthodoxy, who have actually been given the bum’s rush, and are now relegating to the roof.

According to traditions, dating back to at least the fourth century, the building houses the two holiest sites in Christianity: the site where Jesus was crucified, at a place known as Calvary or Golgotha, and Jesus’s empty tomb, where he was buried and resurrected. The tomb is enclosed by a 19th-century shrine called the Aedicula. According to the history books, Jerusalem has had a chequered and controversial religious past. But eventually 260 years ago, the English were back in town and set up ‘The Status Quo’, an understanding between religious communities that must be respected across the board.

The upshot of this agreement is that each of the six denominations has a two-hour slot in which to conduct their services, leaving the poor Ethiopians to do their stuff on the roof. The iron key to the site is held by two Muslim families, who argue the toss about who is the real custodian: each day a smiling, besuited Muslim makes it his duty to open the doors, and as soon as he does, the onslaught begins, as worshippers are seen fighting their way towards the entrance. Meanwhile, Jonny, an Arab Christian policeman, is responsible for making sure things go according to plan. Enriched by vibrant camerawork, this is a lively and lyrical look at the latest modus Vivendi in this ancient monument to Christianity. MT

Now streaming on Go2Films

 

 

 

Spellbound (1941) **** Talking Pictures TV

Dir: John Harlow. Wri: Miles Malleson | Cast: Derek Farr, Vera Lindsay, Hay Petrie, Felix Aylmer |  UK Fantasy drama. 82 mins.

Another extraordinary find lurking in the early morning schedules of ‘Talking Pictures’ is this fanciful drama reflecting the anxious mood prevailing in Britain during the early years of the war when the ability to communicate with the dead again became a live issue as it had done after the Great War.  Initially banned by the censor, it was eventually cleared for exhibition with the addition of a prologue by the pro-spiritualist journalist Hannen Swaffer. (Missing from the print shown on Talking Pictures).

Based on a 1909 novel by the Anglican priest Robert Hugh Benson called The Necromancers’, it takes a remarkably even-handed view of both the spiritualists led by Frederick Leister in a wing collar and the rationalists led by Felix Aylmer in tweeds (who enlists the assistance of a very eccentric Hay Petrie). The elegant costumes came courtesy of British design house Worth, considered by many to be the pioneer of haute couture.

The change in a young Derek Farr (in his first film lead) strongly anticipates that that takes over Ralph Michael in the Haunted Mirror episode of Dead of Night (1945), and like Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961) it remains ambiguous as to whether the malign spirit summoned up is of supernatural or psychological origin. Richard Chatten

NOW SCREENING ON TALKING PICTURES |UK TV

Woman in Chains (1968) | Classic Clouzot on Mubi

French director Henri-Georges Clouzot (1907-1977) is best remembered for his dark thrillers and some of the greatest films of the 1950s.  The Wages of Fear won him the Palme d’Or at Cannes and the Berlinale Golden Bear in 1953, and rounded off the hat trick with a BAFTA two years later.

Even Alfred Hitchcock docked his hat to his French contemporary whose documentary Mystere de Picasso records the legendary artist painting various canvasses for the camera, allowing us to understand his creative purpose at work.  Le Corbeau is now available to watch at home, together with Elizabeth Wiener’s distinctive performance in Woman in Chains  (aka La Prisonniere, Clouzot’s last film and his only one in colour). Quai des Orfevres, completes the trio, of stylish films from the French Master of Suspense now emerging from the shadows to watch online at MUBI. With striking visuals and an unforgettably tense style, Clouzot’s films make classic noir viewing.

Le Corbeau (1942)

A stylish masterpiece of French cinema, Le Corbeau is a dark and subversive study of human nature starring Pierre Fresnay and Ginette Leclerc. In a nod to the Vichy regime of the era (not to mention Nazism), a wave of hysteria sweeps the small provincial town of St. Robin when a series of poison-pen letters signed ‘Le Corbeau’ (The Raven) begin to appear, denouncing several prominent members of society. The slow trickle of unsettling letters soon becomes a flood, and no one is safe from their mysterious accusations. Upon its release in 1943, Le Corbeau was condemned by the political left and right and the church, and Clouzot was banned from filmmaking for two years.

Woman in Chains (1968)

Josée (Elizabeth Wiener) is the wife of an artist whose work is exhibited in Stan Hassler’s modern art gallery. Stan (Laurent Terzieff), impotent and depraved, satisfies himself by photographing women in humiliating poses. Josée is fascinated by the man and soon falls completely in love with him.

Quai des Orfèvres (1947)

A marriage that has fallen on hard times is further tested by the couple’s implication in a murder. Jenny Lamour (Suzy Delair) is a music hall chanteuse married to her pianist husband Maurice (Bernard Blier). Keen to get ahead, Jenny leaps at the chance when an ageing wealthy businessman (Charles Dullin) offers her the chance of some gigs. However, when she agrees to a meeting at his home and he is found dead later in the evening – Maurice’s untamed jealousy is in the frame. A Maigret-esque detective, Antoine, played by Louis Jouvet, leaves no stone unturned in his exceedingly private investigations of the down-at-heel showbiz couple’s sad, tempestuous life.

Henri-Georges Clouzot Focus now on MUBI.com

 

 

 

 

Marta Meszaros | Retro | Bergamo Film Meeting 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  

   

 

Sweet Emma, Dear Böbe | Draga Emma, Edes Böbe, vázlatok, aktok

Dir: István Szabó | Drama, Hungarian 90′

The lives of two woman are laid bare in this gentle exploration of the final days of Communism from Hungarian director István Szabó. Having made their way to the capital to teach Russian a few years previously, the struggle to maintain their social position in the new regime is the focus of the narrative.

Johanna ter Steege gives a smouldering performance as Emma, and her recurring dream of rolling naked down a grassy bank opens this affecting film that glows with a limpid freshness in Lajos Koltai’s black and white camerawork. Enikö Börcsök plays her bubbly and flirtatious friend Böbe. The two sleep in tiny beds in their shared room at the teachers hostel near the airport in Budapest.

Sex is uppermost in Emma’s mind, and we see her subtly trying to capture the headmaster’s attention, across the playground where he chats nonchalantly to another girl, casually throwing her a smile that speaks volumes about their lowkey affair, that carries on despite his wife. Meanwhile her pupils burn their Russian literature books with glee on an open bonfire, and she quietly frets about losing her livelihood now her skills are out of favour – Russian no longer being any use with the fall of Communism. Language is a currency that has been devalued overnight. And Communist party members are no longer revered across the board, and this also applies to the classroom.

While the girls’ lives play out in this new regime, Szabó’s film – co-written with Andrea Vészits – examines a whole world changing suddenly, as ordinary citizens catch their breath and open their minds to the new possibilities and obvious changes that are inevitable. Böbe is convinced she can save herself by marrying a foreign guy. Clearly inequality between the sexes continues to rear its head: one scene shows naked women flashing themselves infront of a camera in the hope of securing preferential treatment for the latest jobs on offer.

There is a raw emotional truth to this engaging drama that calls to mind Kieslowski’s plain-speaking realism, and relates tragic events without ever drifting into sentimentality. MT

NOW AVAILABLE ONLINE BY KIND PERMISSION OF THE HUNGARIAN CULTURAL CENTRE | APRIL 2020

Ten Thousand Suns | Tizezer nap (1965)

Dir.: Ferenc Kosa; Cast: Andras Kozar, Tibor Molnar, Janos Görbe, Bürös Gyöngi, Janos Kottai, Laszlo Nyers, Janos Rajz; Hungary 1967, 103 min.

Notable for its arthouse depiction of the fate of Hungarian peasantry in the last century, the central character Istvan Szeles comes to life in a portrait of vulnerability, humiliation, and social deprivation during Stalin’s collectivisation.

Five years in the making director/co-writer Ferenc Kosa started the project while still at film school and the finished result was his graduation film in 1965. It stayed on the back burner for two years while the authorities asked for changes  to be made – and were not keen about it being in the line-up at Cannes Film Festival in 1967, where it won Best Director. Needless to say, a ‘sanitised’ version later found its way onto cinema screens in Hungary.

The fractured narrative flips backwards and forwards, opening during collectivisation when a huge hydroglobus arrives in the village were Istvan (Molnar) lives with his family, just as his son (Kozar) is leaving to join the Navy. Istvan admits to having attempted suicide. He is a lonely man, an idealist at heart, caring more for his family than himself.

The action then returns to the titular ten thousand suns during the 1930s, when Istvan met his wife Juli (Gyöngi) while the two were working for the wealthy landowner Bakogh (Rajz). His close friend Fülöp (Kottai) follows him through the story, often getting them both into trouble, such as the time when they steal hay from the landowner so they can heat their meagre living conditions. Work is gruelling but they decide not to join a strike at the factory, preferring to put food on the table for their families. Their refusal to put down tools with the rest of the workers, along with their colleague Mihaly (Nyers), provokes an angry reaction and they are called ‘scabs’.

We jump forward to the period after the Second World War, after the first wave of collectivisation. Istvan and and Mihaly are angry about the authorities confiscating their grain. Fülöp becomes an ardent supporter of the Communist Party and its policies, Mihaly is then killed by a police officer and Istvan is accused of not having stopped the fight, and for the ‘theft’ of the grain. He is imprisoned in Recski, a copper mine used as a work camp. After his release, he returns to his village where Fülöp is now enjoying the privileges of a leading communist activist.

We then move to the time of the uprising in 1956 – which is called a ‘revolution’, something the censorship would not allow. Fülöp and three of his comrades find themselves in front of a firing squad and Istvan becomes a victim of clinical depression, and tries to hang himself. The censors would have preferred a much happier ending, but this one somehow gets through.

In its stark monochrome aesthetic, Ten Thousand Suns is strikingly beautiful, shot by Sandor Sara, with whom Kosa would go on to develop a long collaboration, as he did with his  writer Sandor Csoori. Despite the harsh subject matter, Kosa and Sara find a symbolic way of developing a poetic realist style which goes much farther than a pure critique of the Stalinist state.

Ten Thousand Suns, Tízezer nap, director: Ferenc Kósa, 1965 – with English subtitles | WITH KIND PERMISSION OF THE HUNGARIAN CULTURAL CENTRE LONDON | ALL RIGHTS RESERVED 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

https://vimeo.com/288005139

Violent Playground (1958) **** free online

Dir.: Basil Dearden; Cast: Stanley Baker, Anne Heywood, David McCallum, Peter Cushing, Brona Boland, Fergal Booland; UK 1958, 108 min.

In the 1950s British director Basil Dearden (Victim, 1961) made a string of solidly-crafted features that explored racism, homophobia and other social issues that once again came into focus once the War was over. Although not as gritty and powerful as Rossellini’s Rome Open City the crowd scenes in post war Liverpool express the same frothing social unease in this slice of British Neo realist pic that make great use of the war-scarred locations of a city, enlivened by its immigrant influx from China and Ireland, yet down on its knees in the aftermath of the Blitz. Some critics have accused Dearden of being maudlin and preachy but there’s nothing remotely sentimental about Violent Playground , written by James Kennaway, with brilliant exterior photography by Reg Johnson, set mostly in the Gerard Garden estate of the Northern port.

It stars a hard-nosed Stanley Baker as Detective Sergeant Jack Truman leading an investigation into an arson attack perpetrated by the so-called “firefly” when he rubs his superiors up the wrong way and is transferred to Juvenile Liaison, a remit that sits badly with his tough guy image, but soon brings out his ‘caring’ side. His first ‘case’ concerns two under-fives, Mary and Patrick Murphy who are engaged in a pilfering racket in the High Street. Returning the kids to their home on the Estate, he comes up against the leader of the rebellious youth group and older brother of the pint-sized delinquents, Johnny Murphy, and McCullum makes for an impressive criminal in the role.  Johnnie and his gang have been terrorising the local Chinese laundry workers Alexander and Primrose. But when Johnnie sees Truman, whom he immediately identifies as a cop, even though dressed in civvies, he tamps down his activities. Later Truman will fall for the forth member of the Murphy family, the responsible Katherine (Heywood).

Meanwhile Johnnie goes about his business, burning down properties, Truman not cottoning on to his identity, and only making the connection when Johnnie accidentally kills Alexander  while making a getaway from a crime scene.  Armed with a machine gun, Johnnie then holds siege to the Scotland Road school building full of kiddies. A local Catholic priest played by Peter Cushing is also injured when he tries to gain access to the building via a ladder.

The hostage scene is the triumph of the feature, and brilliantly directed. Baker makes for a stern but compassionate hero, playing against type here on the right side of the law. McCallum rocks as the psychotic rock’n’roll antihero, a far cry from his suave Man from UNCLE image that was to follow. The music sets him (and his gang) in a sort of trance, where he even considers taking Truman on, before he finally comes to his senses. Heywood’s Kathy is a too goody-two-shoes to be believable. But Brona and Fergal Boland as Mary and Patrick, often steal the show in naturalistic performances as the two precociously criminal kids, often taking the wind out of Baker’s wings.  Despite his spiritual credentials Peter Cushing feels strangely underwhelming, his Father Laidlaw is ineffective and under-cooked. Dearden directs the mass scenes of the parents in front of the school, clamouring for their children, with great sensibility – a good rehearsal for Khartoum (1966). This gritty story with its important social implications certainly suited Dearden’s style, if only he’d taken on more of the same, l instead of opting for soppy relationship conflicts.

NOW AVAILABLE Free on Youtube

 

Moffie (2019) Digital release

Wri/Dir. Oliver Hermanus. South Africa/UK. 2019. 103 mins.

The last time South African director Oliver Hermanus was in Venice was for his Golden Lion hopeful Endless River. He returned last summer with MOFFIE, a magnetically intense drama that explores the sexual awakening of a young white male soldier conscripted into the army during early 1980s apartheid.

Based on the fictionalised memoir by André-Carl van der Merwe, this sumptuously cinematic film stands in contrast to the depiction of brutal army training in a ruthlessly homophobic Afrikaner platoon tasked with keeping the borders safe from neighbouring Angola, and the moffies – or gay cadets – at bay, homosexuality is considered a crime again God and the Christian nation.

Kai Luke Brummer is the driving force of the drama, convincingly showing how Nick develops from a shy ingenue to a confident and fully- fledged soldier. It traces his emotional arc making use of flashback to explore his incipient leanings towards gayness as a young boy in the local ‘whites only’ swimming club. Hermanus makes use of an evocative classical score lending a poignant undertone to this drama of stark contrasts. The film opens as 18-year-old Nicholas van der Swart is saying goodbye to his family before reporting his journey over inhospitable terrain to the army boot camp. His divorced father hands him a girlie magazine, as a private joke while his mother gives him a last cuddle in the chintzy home she shares with her new Afrikaner husband.

He soon makes a friend of the sympathetic recruit Sachs (Matthew Vey) who shares his views about the draconian training methods – bearing a glancing resemble to those in Full Metal Jacket – intended to prepare the men for a Communist enemy across he border but Nick is also drawn to a dark adonis in the shape of Stassen (Ryan de Villiers), who nuzzles up to him one stormy night during a training exercise when the two recruits are forced to share a sleeping bag. Nick is also forced to contend with the vicious and sweary Sergeant Brand (Hilton Pelser) who makes no bones about disciplining using violence on every occasion.

Hermanus leaves Nick’s sexuality fluid throughout although it is clear he has homosexual feelings for Stassen but needs to keep these under wraps for his own survival. Apartheid is illustrated on several scenes where the recruits verbally abuse a lone black man on a station platform but their own humanity is keenly brought to the surface demonstrating the ambivalent climate of their own masculinity and vulnerability. Music from Detroit artist Sugar Man provides a touchstone to the times – the USmusician was ‘discovered’ in Johannesburg and became the emblem of the young white South African music scene.

Dominated by a cast of talented non-pros obviously recruited for their striking physicality, Moffie makes for absorbing viewing. Jamie D. Ramsey’s lush camerawork captures the spectacular beauty of the Cape where Nick’s final encounter with Stassen in the ice cold waters of the Atlantic reminding us of the ambiguous nature of life and attraction. MT

SCREENING ON CURZON HOME CINEMA

The Elephant Man (1980) ***** Home Ent release

Dir.: David Lynch; Cast: John Hurt, Anthony Hopkins, Anne Bancroft, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Freddie Jones; USA 1980, 124 min.

David Lynch based his feature about Joseph “John” Merrick (1862-1890) on case studies by Dr. Frederick Trevers and Ashley Montague. Merrick was grossly deformed but highly intelligent. Much credit must go to Make-Up artist Christopher Tucker, who inspired the Academy of Motion Pictures to create an Oscar for Best make-up artist, after Elephant Man was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor (John Hurt), but did not win anything.

Surgeon Frederick Trevers (Hopkins) finds John Merrick at a Victorian Freak-Show in London’s East End where he is exploited by the alcoholic and sadistic Mr. Bytes (Jones). In order to gain access to this sadly deformed human being Trevers pays Bates and examines Merrick at his London Hospital. Mr. Carr-Gumm (Gielgud), the hospital’s Governor, cannot see any possible benefit in taking on such a difficult case, not least because of the aftercare involved – most of the nurses are appalled by his condition. But Mrs. Mothershead (Hiller) agrees to look after him and Merrick soon strikes up a genial relationship with Trevers and his wife, and is introduced to the actress Madge Kendal (Bancroft). Unfortunately Merrick’s condition still leaves him open to ridicule. Jim, a night porter, sells tickets to the locals, so they can gawk. Then Merrick is kidnapped by Bytes and taking to Belgium, where is he suffers the same indignity, and almost dies. Lynch comes up with a happy ending, which is deeply moving due to John Hurt’s’ extraordinary talents as one of our most complex screen actors who brings out the humanity of this pitiful yet deeply intelligent man.

Lynch positions Merrick between Yobs and Nobs: he is tormented in different ways by both classes. Trevers slowly realises that Merrick is defined by his deformity, no-one can see beyond this to his abilities as a creative talent. His most famous line “I am not an elephant! I am not an animal! I am a human being. I..am…a..man!” is a sorrowful critical de cœur. Lynch reflects on the isolation and loneliness of the artist, showing Merrick as a transcendent personality. DoP Freddie Francis, best known for his Hammer Horror features, shows the Victorian era in all its morose and cruel sordidness. It was a time when death and suffering loomed large. Haunting and passionate, The Elephant Man might still be Lynch’s most impressive feature. His later work would the artistic ambition and inventiveness but this has the heart and soul. AS

Back in cinemas on April 6 On Digital, DVD, BD & 4K UHD Collector’s Edition 
https://youtu.be/kxb_1457gGs

  

Storm Boy (2019) ***

Dir: Shawn Seet |Cast: Geoffrey Rush, Trevor Jamieson, David Galpilil, Finn Little, Jai Courtney, Eric Thomson | Drama Aus 95′

Geoffrey Rush and Trevor Jamieson are the stars of this tender-hearted tale of animal magic between a boy and his pet pelican. Trevor Jamieson plays kindly beachcomber Fingerbone Bill who joins forces with a kindred nature boy Mike (Finn Little) who lives with his reclusive widower father (Jai Courtney), known locally as “Hideaway Tom.”

Based on Colin Thiele’s popular children’s novel that originally found its way on to the screen in 1976 courtesy of Henri Safran’s able direction, this less vaunted version turns into a damp squib rather than an uplifting message of hope, due to Seet’s messy direction.

The wild and windswept beaches of Australia’s Coorong National Park lend luminosity to the bittersweet boyhood saga that sees retired property developer Michael Kingley (Rush) as the grown-up version of the book’s child character, recounting his version of events to his schoolgirl granddaughter Maddy (Morgan Davies) who lives in a modernist beach villa, adding property porn allure and making it all the more easy on the eye.

But storm clouds loom over this seaside idyll in the shape of a proposal from Kingley’s old property firm to lease land on the untrammelled eco-lagoon to a mining company. Kingley is against the deal, his son-in-law Malcolm (Eric Thomson) all for it, as the new MD. But that’s not all. Nasty poachers are threatening to shoot down Mr Percival the Pelican, adding to the family’s saucerful of sorrows.

Little Mike has formed a close bond with Mr Percival having raised the sea bird and its fellow chicks when its mother was killed by the very same poachers. Gradually they have become inseparable, as is the case with many lonely or isolated kids, Mike describing Mr P as “the best friend I ever had” the bird nestling affectionately into his arms. But as you can imagine, it doesn’t end well, although the ecological upshot takes the sting out of this crowd-pleaser which also welcomes back the original Fingerbone Bill in a great cameo from David Gulpilil. MT

ON DIGITAL RELEASE FROM 6 APRIL 2020

 

 

Battle of the Sexes (1960) *** Home Ent release

Dir: Charles Crichton | Cast: Peter Sellers with Robert Morley, Constance Cummings and Donald Pleasence | UK Comedy 84′

Comedy genius Peter Sellers gives one of his best performances in this famously sharp-edged satire on sexual politics in the 1950s workplace.

The sleepy staff of Macpherson’s traditional Scottish tweed firm get a rude awakening when young Macpherson (Robert Morley, Theatre of Blood) hires a feisty American efficiency expert Angela Barrows (Constance Cummings, Blithe Spirit). She advocates new-fangled horrors like automation and – ghastliest of all – ‘synthetic fibre’.  Can nothing stop her? Nothing, perhaps, but meek accountant Mr Martin (Peter Sellers). Beneath that placid surface, still waters run deep; to balance the books, he decides, he must erase the ‘error’.

Made just after I’m All Right, Jack, this misleadingly titled version of James Thurber’s The Catbird Seat transposed to fifties Scotland was both Peter Sellers’ final character part (recalling his elderly projectionist Percy Quill in The Smallest Show on Earth) and his first starring role as a shuffling old accountant driven to thoughts of murder by American efficiency expert Constance Cummings.

It’s more a battle of cultures or of generations in the vein of an Ealing comedy than of the sexes; as befits Michael Balcon’s maiden production for his newly formed company Bryanston. Directed by Ealing veteran Charles Crichton, it is also considerably enhanced by the glacial black & white photography of the rabbit warren in which Sellers works and on the streets of Edinburgh by Oscar-winning cameraman Freddie Francis fresh from Room at the Top. R Chatten

Blu-ray/DVD release on 20 April 2020 with simultaneous release on BFI Player, iTunes and Amazon

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The Two Sights (2020) An Da Shealladh **** Cinema du Reel 2020

Dir: Joshua Bonnetta | Canada, Doc | 90′

Canadian filmmaker Joshua Bonnetta follows his 2017 documentary El Mar la Mar with this equally beguiling film about the phenomenon of clairvoyance, or second sight, in the Western Isles. The film also explores clairaudience, the supposed faculty of perceiving, as if by hearing, what is inaudible.

In the Outer Hebrides locals feel there is little distinction between Heaven and Earth. This untrammelled part of the British Isles is locked away from the buzz of the 21st century, its gentle emptiness, wide open seascapes and luminous cloud formations coalesce to create the ideal setting for all things surreal and inspired by unstructured consciousness, allowing the present to be sustained by the past and offering the locals a portal to their folkloric and linguistic heritage.

The Two Sights opens with the distant figure of Bonnetta silently positioning his microphone on a grassy coastline, subtly introducing the film’s main theme. Bonnetta’s delicately glowing 16mm images then provide the bewitching backcloth to a series of mysterious and ghostly tales voiced by local islanders (in Scottish Gaelic and English) recounting inexplicable sounds and enigmatic sightings that presage the passing away or continuing presence of their friends, animals and loved ones. Some claim the gift of second sight is passed down through families and generations, and now mourn its slow disappearance.

There are stories of dog skeletons, drowned villages, and family members passing away; although songs, silence and the shipping forecast are just as at home here. But like any great collection, the elements are less important than the underlying theme: the closer we are to nature, the closer we are to understanding the universe and how the past and present form a continuous loop uniting our souls forever as we pass visibly, and then invisibly through time.

The Two Sights is both captivating and compelling with its eerie beauty: a lulling ambient soundscape and breathtaking landscapes draw us into a story so ephemeral it could easily drift away in the foggy dusk of these atavistic islands. Bonnetta’s restrained approach avoids sensationalism in conveying the palpable otherworldly plane that exists beyond the six senses transporting us into a dimension that is mysterious and meaningful but not necessarily tragic or malign.

The only diegetic sound is provided by a group of local Scottish gospel singers led by a man with a smooth baritone who later manages to mingle his voice with nearby birdsong, lending a vaguely humorous twist. Wandering round this remote corner, Bonnetta adds further ethnographical texture with random sequences: a lonesome bagpipe player lends a tune and some peat cutters gossip as they unearth the island’s ancient form of fuel. “Sight by eye, sight by ear, two sights that ripple and flow together.”Bonnetta adds another muted but unforgettable film to his repertoire. MT

CINEMA DU REEL | 42nd DOCUMENTARY FILM FESTIVAL | 13-22 MARCH 2020

Oldboy (2004) **** Now on Mubi

Dir: Park Chan-Wook | South Korea, Thriller 120′

Park Chan-Wook’s dazzlingly stylish revenge thriller was almost as successful as Bong Joon-Ho’s Oscar-winning Parasite on the festival circuit, winning multiple awards back in the year of its making but being pipped to the post by Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 11 at Cannes 2004. And although the original raised the profile of Korean film, Spike Lee’s US remake ten years later has melted into obscurity despite having a brilliant Josh Brolin in the main role.

Based on the graphic novel by the Japanese Manga writer Garon Tsuchiya (illustrated by Nobuaki Minegishi), Choi Min-sik plays Oh Dae-su, a middle-aged man who finds himself under lock and key for no apparent reason. After fifteen years he is mysteriously released from his confinement fuelled with a fearsome lust for revenge that catapults him down a narrow corridor, in one take, to get even with whoever imprisoned him. But there’s worse to come including a meal of live octopus in this ludicrously violent feature. MT

NOW ON MUBI

Wake in Fright (1971) ****

image004 copyDir: Ted Kotcheff | Writer: Evan Jones, based on the novel by Kenneth Cook

Cast: Donald Pleasence, Gary Bond, Chips Rafferty, Sylvia Kay, Jack Thompson | DoP: Brian West | 108min   Drama

The maverick and multi-talented filmmaker Ted Kotcheff grew up in a Macedonian community in Toronto, eventually becoming the youngest drama director in the country at only 24. Working extensively for theatre and TV, his well-known series ‘Play for Today’ and ‘Afternoon Theatre’ became household names.  His features have become cult classics from Life at the Top with Jean Simmons and Honour Blackman; Golden Bear winner: The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974) that launched the career of Richard Dreyfus to Uncommon Valor, considered one of the greatest dramas about the Vietnam war. First Blood defined the Rambo series and his North Dallas Forty is considered to be one of the best sports films ever made. Turning his hand to successful comedies: Fun With Dick and Jane and Weekend at Bernie’s, Kotcheff has also been behind the popular ‘Law & Order: Special Victims Unit’ for the past 12 years.

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His second feature, Wake In Fright, screened to massive critical acclaim at Cannes in 1971, whereafter it did very poor box office internationally: a not unusual occurrence – Rome, Open City (also re-launching this week), was also unsuccessful on its first release. But Wake In Fright is considered by many to be one of the best Australian films ever made, revitalising the flagging film scene and ushering in the Australian New Wave movement and Ozploitation movies (low budget horror, comedy or action), along with others that wandered into the same cinematic territory: the Barrie McKenzie series, Mad Max 1 & 2, and Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout.

Based on a book by Kenneth Cook, Kotcheff opens with a 360-degree pan of the isolated sun-baked wilderness of the outback establishing the de-humanising environment into which our protagonist John Grant wanders when he fetches up in the Australian mining town of Yabba on his way to Sydney for the Christmas holidays.  Played by the impossibly good-looking Gary Bond, he’s a dapper and fresh-faced young intellectual. But when he comes across the local bobby Jock Crawford (Chips Rafferty) in a bar, he ends up on a drunker bender, gambling away his earnings in the hope of winning enough to leave the job he hates in a dead-end location.  Up on the money, he retires to bed, then making the classic mistake of returning to the gambling game. And so begins his descent into a nightmarish hell, isolated from civilisation, in the back of beyond with a collection of raucous locals.

Grant emerges a malleable, weak-willed man who dislikes the people he comes across but is unable to extricate himself from their company or show any restraint in dealing with them. Serving as a parable for the Innocent’s descent into Hell, Wake in Fright perpetuates the theory that men will turn into monsters given sufficient alcohol, testosterone and bad company. And the Yabba is a place where you can murder, rape and kill but it’s a criminal offence not to hang with the boys; and once you spend time here the law of the jungle prevails.

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Forcing themselves onto Grant’s urbane gentility, the locals ply him with drink and inane banter which he parries with good grace and without restraint until he becomes a lightweight creature of scorn. These are men who slaughter animals for fun and undermine women. After his skinful on the first night, Grant then encounters Tim Hynes, a local ‘businessman’ who invites him to stay in his ranch.  His daughter Janette (Sylvia Kay in a gracefully alluring turn), has also been forced to her knees emotionally after years of disdain from the local menfolk. Donald Pleasence plays a flippant, roguish doctor, struck-off in Sydney and now in the Yabba to ply his trade to the initiated and uncaring.  Of all the characters, Dr Tydon and Janette are probably the most well-matched, occasionally ‘friends with benefits’; Dr Tydon is a sexually ambiguous character. He’s also the most psychopathic and least red-necked local, but there’s a hard-edged sinister quality hiding behind his glib charm and well-manicured hands. Kotcheff remains completely neutral to his characters, observing their antics dispassionately and giving us space to be disgusted or pitiful at Grant’s fate and introducing an element of realism into the drama. But it’s difficult not to be sickened by the unrelenting depravity which peaks during an horrific night-time foray where they indulge in kangaroos shoot-out from their jeep, in a set piece which remains seared into the memory.

Although Wake in Fright is not classified as a horror film as such, the narrative contains elements of horror in its sinister build-up. There are no moments of explicit terror; just an unrelenting stream of offence that gradually has a corrosive effect on the psyche and soon the long-cherished idea of Aussie manhood and camaraderie is shot down and exposed for what is ultimately is: a  lame excuse for wanton brutality and mayhem. By the end of the film, nobody emerges unscathed by the events or worthy of our sympathy and so this becomes a drama entirely fraught with antagonists, leaving us desperate to find some kind of redemption where none exists, putting this on a par with John Boorman’s Deliverance or Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch: quite an achievement given its low budget, lack of stylistic effects or any real bankable stars apart from Donald Pleasance, who shines out with his richly-crafted portrait of Dr Tydon.  Wake in Fright is a chilling but universal portrait of a civilised man who falls victim to a community he holds in contempt. MT

NOW AVAILABLE ON BFI PLAYER

KOTCHEFF ON THE KANGEROO FOOTAGE: “I loved the kangaroos. I spent a lot of time with them, intimately close: they would lie around my director’s chair, waiting, like extras to be asked to do something. They are the most anthropomorphic creatures I have ever encountered. Nothing on earth would persuade me to hurt them or any other animal for any reason whatsoever.”

Beat the Devil (1953) *** Bluray release

Dir.: John Huston; Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Jennifer Jones, Gina Lollobrigida, Edward Underdown, Peter Lorre, Robert Morley, Ivor Bernhard, Marco Tully; USA 1953, 95 min.

Beat the Devil is based on a novel by James Helwick, written by Claud Cockburn and a 28 year-old Truman Capote.  What would become the first Camp movie, started out as an earnest endeavour about the evils of colonialism. But when the location was switched from France to Italy, with Capote writing the script in daily instalments, putting in a call to his pet raven in Rome, the narrative became secondary. Bogart had put his own money into the project but thought ‘only phoneys’ would like the box-office flop. Meanwhile, Huston told Jennifer Jones she would be remembered much longer for Devil than for her previous role in Song of Bernadette.

Billy and Maria Dannreuther (Bogart/Lollobrigida) and Harry and Gwendolyn Chelm (Jones/Underdown) play two couples down on their luck but pretending otherwise. They team up with four villains, O’Hara (Lorre) Peterson (Morley), Major Ross (Bernhard) and Ravello (Tully) to exploit uranium resources in British East Africa, biding their time in an Italian resort while their decrepit ship is made seaworthy. Then on the voyage to Africa, Major Ross tries to kill Harry, but Billy thwarts him. Once in Africa they are arrested by Arabian soldiers; Billy convincing the troops to send them back to Italian shores, where they are interrogated by Scotland Yard. The crooks are charged – Peterson for the murder of a British Colonial officer, who had discovered his scheme – Harry buys the land containing the uranium and sends a telegram to Gwendolyn, forgiving her for her affair with Billy.

There are some corny jokes, like the Major exclaiming “Mussolini, Hitler – and now Peterson” after the latter appeared to have been killed in a car accident. Overall the chaos of the shooting has a liberating effect in the finale, nobody grasping what was going on. Things are made murkier by the Hays’ Office insistence that no extra-marital sex should be shown on set. The grainy black-and-white images of British DoP Oswald Morris are very evocative, and the self-written dialogues by Morley and Lorre often hilarious. Ironically Beat the Devil looks more modern today than it did at the premiere when neither the public nor the critics saw the funny side of things. AS

BLURAY/DVD RELEASE | 16 MARCH 2020 WITH SIMULTANEOUS RELEASE ON BFI PLAYER, iTUNES and AMAZON

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amazon: https://amzn.to/2ltnpih 

Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken! (2019) ***

Dir: Morgan Spurlock | US Doc 93′

Fifteen years after his ground-breaking expose on the fast food industry Spurlock is back with Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken! that sees him on the other side of the debate – as a fast food restaurateur.

This fast flowing and informative film explores an US industry dominated by franchises, and glibly-named eateries – mostly based in industrial parks rather than on the high street. Here Spurlock sets out to make a crispy chicken sandwich with healthy credentials.

Spurlock is seen talking to marketing experts and involved in preparations to open his own restaurant, choosing a chicken sandwich made from his farm’s birds to appeal to changing tastes. Fast Food has gone through a vast transformation since Spurlock sat down to a table at the Golden Arches for his 2004 breakout. Nowadays consumers demand better-for-you cuisine, but there’s also a great deal of spin going on – and legal experts spill the beans on what we think we’re being offered, and what producers actually get away with in the name of decency. “Free range” just means that chickens get an option to step into an outdoor pen in the fresh air, but most stay inside, particularly in the sweltering heat of Alabama where Morgan sets up his Morganite chicken shed whence his chicks will eventually end up in his crispy (fried is a negative word) Southern Chicken sandwiches.

But some scenes are hard to swallow particularly those that show the appalling cruelty of the food industry. We see baby chickens from the time they break out of their shells to their deaths, six weeks later, from overweight, heart attacks and the sheer exhaustion of supporting their over-sized bodies on legs that have not had time to develop any strength. A troubled farmer from Alabama also talks about the unfair system in the US which leaves the smaller concerns under pressure to produce often sub standard fare.

But for the most part Super Size 2 is slick and entertaining with the chipper filmmaker flippantly joking around as he travels up and down the US taking on the advice of advertising gurus, lawyers and spin-doctors in the name of his cheerlessly ‘foul’ venture. MT.

SUPER SIZE ME 2: HOLY CHICKEN! is released On Demand from 9th December 2019

https://vimeo.com/goldwynfilms/ssm2-trailer

The Prey (2018) **

Dir.: Jimmy. Henderson; Cast: Gu Shangwei, Vithaya Pansringarm, Dy Sonita, Nophand Boonyai, Byron Bishop, Sahajak Boonthanakit; Cambodia 2018, 93 min.

Italian born director, co-writer and producer Jimmy Henderson (Jailbreak) may well lay claim to have delivered the first Cambodian action movie, but The Prey is a second rate blend of Irving Pichel’s The Most Dangerous Game, Predator and Hard Target. Henderson never avoids a cliché, if he can help it – making this debut at times rather tedious.

Chinese undercover cop Xin (Shangwei), is investigating a ‘phone scam involving Mainland Chinese customers in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh. Captured by local police in a raid he is sent to a faraway prison with the Warden (Pansringarm) is less interested in rehabilitation, and more in hiring out his prisoners to be hunted down and killed Hunger Games style.

Released into the jungle Xin and the other victims are hunted down by Payak (Boonthanakit), Mat (Bishop) and Ti (Boonyai). Fortunately, and to keep the plot rolling, Xin is able to send off a signal to his superiors, who send in a rescue team which includes Li (Chinese supermodel Dy Sonata). There is a sub-plot with a rebel village controlled by the The Warden, but this narrative strain is quickly forgotten. Instead, booby traps; gruesome injuries; snapping twigs as well as unbelievable braveness and sadistic brutality takes over, to deliver a predictable outcome. 

The production values, including DoP Lucas Gath’s lively images and original angles, make this old-style slaughter feature slightly more bearable than the more recent, CGI controlled models. But that’s not saying not too much. AS

AVAILABLE ON DIGITAL DOWNLOAD FROM 7 OCTOBER 2019  

 

For the Birds (2018) ****

Dir.: Richard Miron; Documentary with Kathy Murphy, Gary Murphy, Sheila Hyslop; USA 2019, 92 min.

Over five years in the making, Richard Miron’s debut documentary is an astonishing portrait of a very special kind of hoarder: Kathy Murphy’s love for her feathered friends started with a helping hand to a baby duckling ten years ago –  now over 200 ducks, chicken, geese and turkeys invade the family’s mobile home in Warwasing, up-state New York.

No wonder husband Gary feels upstaged by the animals: “With her, you don’t seem to get anywhere”, he confesses to the filmmaker. And while Kathy feels a unique closeness to the feathered members of her family, it soon becomes clear that she uses them as a barricade between herself and Gary: “He knows I’m attached to them, but not just how much I’m really attached to them. I would die for them”.

Things boil over when her case is referred to the Woodstock Farm Animal Society, where manager Sheila Hyslop shares Kathy’s love for animals and tries to keep an amicable relationship going. That is not always easy, since Kathy’s “feathered children” are not only destroying the couple’s home, but also their marriage. Gary plays Bob Dylan blaring through the night, to get to sleep, before the start of an early shift. 

To save the animals, Nicole and Ted, two volunteers of the Bird Sanctuary, have to trick Kathy into letting some of her “children” go. But success is limited, and finally we get a court trial. Gary is caught in the middle: he teams up with the Sanctuary’s team, which makes him a traitor in Kathy’s eyes. Her lawyer, William Brenner, a tax attorney, fits in well: he has an office, which resembles Kathy’s home – minus the animals.

Eventually tragedy will reconcile Kathy with her daughter and grandchild – and some money to make a new start. The more we learn about her, the more we realise how Kathy uses the birds to block off the rest of her life, affecting her mental health. Her ability to connect with the animals is part of a deep-seated emotional fear of humans – and it takes a long time to save Kathy and the birds.

Miron tries to avoid a deeper context, and stays focused on Kathy. His intimate portrait illustrates how the animals are just vehicles for her to postpone a mental breakdown. 

Miron’s cinema vérité style is enlivened by old photos and Super Eight family films, which show Kathy emotionally well-connected with her family. And even at the end, the audience has no idea what drove her to isolate herself from humankind. A very sensitive and emphatic case study AS

ON DEMAND WORLDWIDE FROM JULY 30 2019 | Amazon Prime Video; Apple TV; Google Play; iTunes, Chili TV; Microsoft; Sky Store

     

Cemetery (2019) **** MUBI

Dir: Carlos Casas | France, United-Kingdom, Poland, Uzbekistan / 2019 / Colour and B&W / 85′

After Hunters Since The Beginning of Time (FID 2008), a film about the primitive whale hunters of the Bering Sea, Carlos Casas finds himself drawn to wide open spaces of the world where he has filmed his contemplative second documentary. This time the setting is the rainforests of Sri Lanka and the focus is another large mammal: the Indian elephant. Casas’ gaze is drawn to the peace and intimacy of this tranquil and remote location where his cameraman Benjamin Echazarreta closes in on the eye of an elephant, and its roughly textured hide that camouflages the massive beast from potential prey. 

After a devastating earthquake the mighty beast Nga (who is getting on in life and is possibly the last of its species), is about to embark on a journey to find the mythical elephant’s graveyard with his mahout Sanra. The group of poachers following them will die one after the other under mysterious circumstances and spells.

The two explore the intensely remote location where only the ambient sound of exotic birds and insects disturbs the peace. The voyeuristic camerawork takes on the languorous pace of the elephant itself in order to explore the depths of lush rain-soaked verdancy in a green glade where a monkey listens to a broadcast about an earthquake laying waste to Asia, killing millions of people. The radio belongs to a local who is gently washing an elephant as he bathes waste deep in the muddy lagoon. There is tremendous affection in the way he carefully prepares and finishes his task, clearly a ritual he has performed many time before. But tragedy will follow as poachers are hot in pursuit. This meditative paean to massive beasts of the forest carries with it a sense of tragic foreboding as the tranquility of their clandestine hideout in mercilessly plundered.

Developing his film in the FIDLab 2013, Casas tries to shed a positive light on all this ecological tragedy. But is there a spiritual lesson to be learnt from the death of these highly intelligent creatures and the potential extinction of species. The elephant cemetery presents hope and possible rebirth, their souls immortal, just like humans. MT

Filmography : Cemetery, 2019. Avalanche, 2009-19 (on going project). End Trilogy, 2002-2009. Hunters since the Beginning of Time, 2008. Aral. Fishing in an Invisible Sea, 2004. Solitude at the End of the World, 2002-05. Rocinha, 2003. Afterwords, 2000

COMING SOON TO MUBI 

The Cold Blue (2018) ***

Dir: Erik Nelson | US Doc, 72′

Erik Nelson has unearthed a treasure trove of recently discovered colour footage shot in 1943 by Hollywood director William Wyler for his WWII classic The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress (1944). The result is a quietly moving audio memoir of those surviving members of the Eighth Air Force who calmly talk us through their unique experiences transporting us back to the final years of the war. Set to Richard Thompson’s tuneful musical score the 16mm footage has the added advantage of being in colour, making it all the more extraordinary in its immediacy. Wyler risked life and limb to make his documentary, flying on more than 25 B-17 bombing missions during 1943, and one of the cameramen, Harold J. Tannenbaum, was actually shot down and killed over France. Surviving veterans take us back to the trauma with a calm dignity and pride. Clearly this was a daunting experience but they share their sense of excitement, even 75 years later. Many of them died serving their country, and in the Eighth Air Force the fatalities were particularly heavy, one man is driven to tears as he remembers losing a friend. Another recalls the mixed blessing of real eggs for breakfast -rather than the powdered variety. This usually meant they were in for a particularly perilous mission. But they never regretted killing the enemy, as one remembers “Never gave it a thought, they were just Germans….They’re gonna do it to us, we’re better off doing it to them first”. Fascinating stuff!. MT

ON RELEASE AT SELECTED ARTHOUSE CINEMAS on 4 July 2019

 

 

The Kid (2019) *** Home Ent release

Dir: Vincent D’Onofrio | Wri: Andrew Lanham | Cast: Ethan Hawke, Leila George, Dane DeHaan, Jake Shur | Western US 100′

Vincent D’Onofrio’s first foray behind the camera is a good-looking Western that keeps the camp fires burning with some top tier performances and a contemporary look. The Western genre is still popular, the classics packing some punches with their tales of macho males and simmering molls created by the heavyweights John Ford, Sam Peckinpah and Walter Hill. Some of themes seem outdated and politically incorrect in today’s modern world, but perhaps that’s why they still strike a cord with some nostalgic audiences. The only modern ones that shake a stick at the cult classics are Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992), Kristian Levring’s The Salvation (2014) and John Mclean’s Slow West (2015).

The Kid reworks the story of a young boy called Rio (newcomer Jake Schur) who witnesses Billy the Kid’s encounter with Sheriff Pat Garrett – Dane DeHaan and Ethan Hawke playing the respective roles with skilful aplomb. After an unnecessary voiceover introduction we see Rio (Jake Schur) killing his father to prevent him doing for his mother, then scarpering in the direction of Santa Fe with his older sister Sara (Leila George) to avoid reprisals. The pair get holed up on the way in an abandoned house with the charismatic Billy, in a terrific turn by DeHaan, Hawke allowing him all the glory and holding back with a rather stylish performance. Andrew Lanham plays fast and loose with the Garrett/Bonney story and the whole thing looks rather fresh with a cinema vérité twist to proceedings, while still maintaining its traditional tropes. It’s decent but not memorable, if Westerns are your thing. MT

NOW ON RELEASE | DVD, BLURAY AND DIGITAL DOWNLOAD

https://youtu.be/LNUlXRp0Ax0

King of Thieves (2018) *** Home Ent release

Dir: James Marsh | Cast: Michael Caine, Jim Broadbent, Tom Courtenay, Paul Whitehouse, Michael Gambon, Ray Winstone, Charlie Cox | UK Thriller |

James Marsh casts the diamond geezers of British acting as perps who bring their woes and their wiles to the table in planning their final felony – that actually took place over the Easter weekend in 2017. Joe Penhall’s script pieces together newspaper footage to provide a convincing account of a caper that’s more plodding than racy, often over-emphasising its veteran credentials in a narrative that focuses on settling scores rather than offering thrills. Michaels Caine and Gambon are certainly entertaining to watch, with Paul Whitehouse pulling off a comedy performance to remember. But Jim Broadbent is the real revelation as a sardonic softy whose sheep’s clothing disguises him as the real wolf of the pack. MT

OUT ON DIGITAL DOWNLOAD ON 14 January 2019 | BLURAY/DVD 21 January 2019

 

 

 

Bird Box (2018) **

Dir: Susanne Bier | Sandra Bullock, John Malkovich, Sarak Paulson, Travante Rhodes, Jacki Weaver | Sci-fi thriller | 124′

Susanne Bier is a well known as one of Denmark’s most distinguished auteurs. Her themes are universal in nature but their focus is intimate and often family-based, both on her TV and in big screen outings. As one of the original Danish Dogme pack, her drama Open Hearts brought her into the international spotlight in 2002. Bier was also the first female director to win a Golden Globe, an Academy Award, an Emmy Award and a European Film Award.

This time, to her credit, she has decided to experiment with a dystopian sci-fi drama . Structurally flawed and not particularly enjoyable, despite its starry cast, BIRDBOX is a laudable effort but not one of her best. Sandra Bullock plays Malorie, a run of the mill artist who has converted her small flat into a studio and is expecting the imminent arrival of a baby. But her ordinary life is catapulted into bizarre and tragic circumstances when a wave of unexplained mass suicides in Romania and Siberia turns the world upside down. Everywhere people display what newscasters term “psychotic behaviour” in the post-apocalyptic meltdown. Cars crash for no reason, and pedestrians wander willy nilly onto main roads, or shoot themselves in the head. To add to the weirdness of it all, Bier’s narrative jerks backwards and forwards showing Malorie’s reaction in the present to the madness that has gone before. Clearly this all resonates with a contemporary scenario where people have lost sight of their goals. This translates into a storyline where humans must protect their eyesight at all costs when outdoors, and are forced to be blindfold for fear of facing their worst nightmares.

Bullock is superbly cast exuding all the pragmatism and resilience she’s well known for (in Gravity and Speed) but for some reason she’s also looking after two children who are clearly not hers. And why the pregnancy into the bargain? The film opens well with the cataclysm but then descends into torpor in the claustrophobically awkward second act which takes place in a house where Malorie is hiding with arch misery-guts John Malkovich’s Douglas and a retired soldier (Rhodes). Later joining them is a sinister but chipper Tom Hollander. This interior strife clearly echoes what’s happening outside, and is only briefly leavened by Douglas’ discovery of a cache of booze. But even when the action moves into the forest the whole scenario is unconvincing. BIRDBOX brings nothing new to the dystopian apocalypse party, apart from the blindfolds – which are a distraction. Clearly the dark forces causing all the mayhem are inspired by Medusa’s Gorgon, but this all seems too far-fetched and strung out. Full marks for trying but let’s hope Bier returns to form in 2019. MT

STREAMING ON NETFLIX FROM 21 DECEMBER 2018

Life Itself (2018) *** Amazon Studios

Dir.: Dan Fogelman; Cast: Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde, Antonio Banderas, Laila Costa, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Annette Benning, Samuel L. Jackson, Olivia Cooke, Alex Monner, Mandy Patinkin; USA 2018, 118 min.

Universally panned after its TIFF premiere in September, director/writer Dan Fogelman’s Life Itself is a study in loss, told in five chapters under the headline “Unreliable Narrator”. Often grandstanding and a little too verbose, Fogelman has nevertheless tried something different – and does not deserve the contempt from the newspapers that reward every Super-Hero feature with five stars.

Samuel L. Jackson is the unreliable narrator number one. He tells us that Will (Isaac) is seeing his shrink (Bening) due to his wife Abby (Wilde) leaving him. After Bening is killed off by a bus, Jackson bids us good-bye leaving us in the hands of a more reliable, female narrator whose identity will be disclosed in chapter five. We now learn the truth. It was really pregnant Abby who was run over by that bus, but not before giving birth to daughter Dylan. Anyhow, Instead of looking after his daughter Will commits suicide, leaving Dylan in the care of her grandfather (Patimkin) – grandmother and pet dog making an equally swift exit. No wonder why Abby behaves rather aggressively in Chapter 2. For the next instalment we switch to Spain where farmhand Javier (Peris-Mencheta) marries the beautiful Isabella (Costa). The couple have a son, Rodrigo, whom the family takes to New York for a holiday which ends in tragedy. Trauma follows, and Javier’s boss Saccione (Banderas), who has always lusted after Isabella, pays for Rodrigo’s psychiatric treatment and Javier leaves. We should mention that fatal illness rears its head in this ch apter, whilst Rodrigo goes to study in New York and meets – you’ve  guessed it. The final instalment reveals the identity of the narrator, putting all lose ends together.

The whole idea is far better than the execution, and the literary comparisons don’t always work. Still, there are moments of emotional bravado, and the ensemble acting is brilliant. DoP Brett Pawlak tries to undercut the rollercoaster of sentiments with muted colours, few close ups and panning panorama shots. All in all, Fogelman has bitten off more than he can chew, his skills are obviously too limited to do his concept justice, but the overall effect makes it – just – a better than average proposition. AS

Life Itself is released in cinemas and Sky Cinema on 4 January 2019

Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle (2018) **

Dir.: Andy Serkis; Cast: Rohan Chand, Matthew Rice, Freida Pinto and the voices of Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Benedict Cumberbatch, Andy Serkis; USA/UK 2018, 104 min.

Do we really need a new version of Rudyard Kipling’s story collection The Jungle Book (1894) so soon after the success of John Favreau’s 2016 version? The answer is no, and not this sinister one by Andy Serkis and written by Callie Kloves which takes the much loved children’s classic to a darker more violent place where there’s no singing or dancing  – and no appeal for its fanbase or anybody under the age of twelve, for that matter. A hybrid in every way, the five-year labour of love is an uneasy mix of super-hero yarn and identity conflicts.

After the hungry tiger Shere Khan (Cumberbatch) has devoured Mowgli’s parents, the young boy (Chand) is nurtured by wolves. Bagheera (Bale), the panther and Baloo (Serkis), a not particularly cuddly bear, keeping him safe from Shere Khan, along with python Ka (Blanchett). But Mowgli will never become a proper pack wolf after he is abducted by apes, and reared in a village where hunter Lockwood (Rice) and his gentle wife (Pinto) try to ‘humanise’ the wild child. But after seeing Lockwood’s trophy cabinet, Mowgli has second thoughts.

This latest MOWGLI lacks the humanity of Kipling’s vision: it’s more a Flight-Club in the jungle than anything else. Yes, the effects are stunning, DoP Michael Seresin pulls out all the stops, and other production values are equally convincing – but it always feels like a hijack, not an adaption. Perhaps Serkis wanted to distance himself completely from anything Disney-like – but by doing so, he has thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Mowgli sits uneasily  between semi-horror and a stale lecture about identity politics. At the same time it’s downright conventional picturing the partnership between Lockwood and his wife in the redundant cliché of hunter and carer. Most of all though, it lacks emotion: a muddled concept of true solidarity (the opposite of Kipling), this Mowgli is reduced to a soulless race for the line. See what you think. AS

ON RELEASE FROM 7 DECEMBER 2018 | NETFLIX

Mug – Twarz (2018) Bfi player

Dir: Malgorzata Szumovska | Michal Englert | Cast: Mateuz Kosciukiewiczz, Agnieszka Podsiadlik | Drama | Poland

In this salacious social critique of her homeland, filmmaker Malgorzata Szumovska captures the zeitgeist of rural Poland with a strangely moving story involving a scruffy metalhead builder who is forced to reevaluate his life after a tragic accident at work.

Twarz means mug/face in Polish. It refers to the central character Jacek (Mateusz Kosciukiewicz), who still lives in the lakeside town of Western Polish town of Świebodzin with his petty, provincial family. Despite best intentions to move to London with his floozy fiancée Dagmara (Gorol), Jacek is put off by his brother in law’s zenophobic stance on things and Brexit doubts. Only his sister seems to be on his side.

Jacek is building something he believes in – a statue of Christ the King, and the tallest representation of the saviour so far. But a dreadful fall derails his future and his face is so badly injured that he needs life-changing surgery: the local priest (Roman Gancarczyk), his fiancée Dagmara, and the rest of the family will have to chip in to the expensive medical bills. And the result may be quite different from the Jacek they knew and loved. And the after effects are quite different, although by no means as bad as the family feared. That said, even his mother (Anna Tomaszewska) refuses to accept his new look (cleverly photographed by Michal Englert who also co-wrote the script). But when Dagmara shuns him, her rejection strikes to core of his being as a lover and man. Only his sister (a superb Agnieszka Podsiadlik) is there to help with his rehabilitation.

Szumovska cleverly navigates tonal nuances from realism to comic fantasy in a film that is competently performed, utterly compelling and thematically rich with its reflection on consumerism, identity and prejudice. The film also tackles religious belief and the nature of human suffering symbolised by Jacek’s dignified forbearance under the gaze of an all-seeing Jesus Christ. MT

NOW ON BFI PLAYER from 15 OCTOBER 2021 | SILVER BEAR GRAND JURY PRIZE BERLINALE 2018
PRESS CONFERENCE 

Radiator (2014) | Home Ent Release

Writer/Director: Tom Browne | Cast: Daniel Cerquiera, Gemma Jones, Richard Johnson Leonard | 80mins  UK   Drama

Many of us will be familiar with the story at the heart of Tom Browne’s astonishing debut RADIATOR. A three-hander, it takes place in a ramshackle house in the Cumbrian countryside where middle-aged Daniel’s parents are coping with life in their 80s. Leonard, his father (Richard Johnson, sadly no longer with us), is unable to get upstairs anymore and has taken up residence on the sofa, issuing orders, and frustrated at not being in control anymore. Mariah, (a touching turn from Gemma Jones), potters endlessly around the domestic muddle, her confusion possibly down to senile dementia – she is a kindly but a desperate figure. Daniel’s personal life is far from satisfactory (he is played convincingly by Daniel Cerqueira who co-wrote the screenplay), yet he feels permanently at odds with the situation, powerless as he probably did as a child, and guilty now as an adult, taking time off work to support them, whilst being the permanent whipping boy of his curmudgeonly dad. Venturing into the village, he bumps into a neighbour who chides him further for his lack of parental support.

Tom Browne’s story resonates deeply with us all, or will eventually, as our parents become our own badly-behaved children. Just like Daniel, we grapple with our own lives and our own, often troubled, offspring. Middle-age turns into a three-pronged assault course, unless we have been bereaved already.

In Browne’s case the film is based on his own reality, with the actors playing his own parents. The narrative mirrors our own experience, and offers up empathy and strangely, a feeling of relief: a gut-wrenching feeling of pity, an overwhelming desire to help, an occasional feeling of anger at our parents’ self-centredness, a niggling feeling that this will be us one day: a desperate need to be with them as much as possible – in case they die any minute – yet a powerful reluctance not to lose the threads of our own difficult, lives. Old age is the coalface where we really get to know our parents; in the frustrations of dressing and handling their oblutions, and we argue over domestic detritus as they subtly or overtly undermine us, due to their own feelings of helplessness or even disappointment – as Leonard does here with Daniel. What he makes clear in this often poignant drama, is that parents are not going to change or even listen to our efforts or suggestions – the die is cast and we are still, in their minds, incapable children – their children, although we are now affectively their parents. No amount of shouting or arguing will change the way they have always behaved, we just have to accept and understand.

Affectingly, Browne has set the film in his parents’ house, still almost untouched since their recent deaths. It provides interesting food for thought, unless you’ve already choked on its unpalatable reality. MT

NOW ON ITUNES AND AMAZON FROM 2 APRIL 2018 | RADIATOR WON THE AUDIENCE AWARD AT GLASGOW FILM FESTIVAL 2014 

 

 

There’s Always Tomorrow (1956) | April on MUBI

Dir.: Douglas Sirk; Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Fred McMurray, Joan Bennett, Gigi Perreau, Judy Nugent, William Reynolds); USA 1955, 94′.

Douglas Sirk’s reputation soared after the end of his Hollywood career in 1959 –the German born émigré’s melodramas of the 1950s German became the blue print for many filmmakers in the 1970s, one of them being Rainer Werner Fassbinder. There’s Always Tomorrow had already been made in 1934 by Edward Sloman, Sirk’s version is based on the novel by Ursula Parrot, who had ten of her books adapted for the Hollywood screen. Whilst Sirk is mostly remembered for Imitations of Life, this feature, as subversive as anything shot in the 1950s in the dream factory, is sadly neglected.

Metty’s grainy black-and-white photography, his expressionistic use of angles, are one highlight of this feature, but let’s not forget Ursula Parrot, the novelist. Apart from being extremely successful, she was also quite a tearaway. In 1943, at the age of 43, she went off with a soldier who was about to be locked up for narcotic offences, right under the nose of the Military Police. Later released on bail, when cross-examined, she said that she  “acted on impulse, and anyhow, the soldier in question was a damn good guitar player”. Somehow, it makes sense that Sirk, another outsider in Hollywood, should be the one to bring her work onto the screen.

Clifford Groves (McMurray) runs a toy factory and is married to Marion (Bennett); their three children Vinny (Reynolds), Ellen (Perrault) and Frankie (Nugent) complete the happy middle-class family. Vinny, their oldest, is a mixture Playboy version of James Dean; Ellen is a fashion-obsessed teenager and Frankie, the youngest, a precocious wannabe ballet dancer. But whilst Clifford is in control of his work life, his emotions are all over the place – and not always with his family. Sirk often depicted his child characters as selfish, materialistic and obnoxious: shades of Veda in Curtiz’ Mildred Pierce. Whilst a voice-over recounts  the narrative, DoP Russell Metty’s camera pans in on opulent middle-class suburbia where shadows gradually loom, with a distinct whiff of noir. The weather is lousy – California, no less – and Clifford sets out for Palm Beach to secure a lucrative contract. Enter Norma Vale (Stanwyck), an ex-flame of Clifford, who is now a successful fashion designer – and a divorcee. At this point, Double Indemnity comes to mind, and Sirk makes this very clear: the feeling is very much like The Clock (1945), another noir feature. Norma is everything that Marion is not: lively, vivacious and more importantly, full of praise for Clifford and his achievements. Whilst they are sipping their cocktails poolside, Norma has become the dream girl for Clifford. But the audience knows that dreams rarely come true. And soon Vinnie appears with his girl friend Ann, and another couple. The foursome soon leave, but it is too late. Back home, Clifford feels the boredom even more, but worse, Vinnie wants to know the details of his father’s relationship with Norma, seeking the help of his sister Ellen. His insolence nearly costs him his girl friend Ann, who warns him to lay off. Like his father, Vinnie is clearly inferior to the woman in his life. At one point, Clifford looks at his children through the bannister of the staircase: we do not know if they are in prison, or the other way round. Tears signal the end: in this case Norma’s, in a plane flying over the Groves house. AS

IN THE REALM OF MELODRAMA: MUBI IS HOSTING A RETROSPECTIVE of DOUGLAS SIRK’s FILMS IN APRIL

Lift to The Scaffold (1959) l’Ascenseur a l’Echafaud | Jeanne Moreau Tribute

Dir.: Louis Malle | Writers: Louis Malle/Roger Nimier | Novel: Noel Calef | Score: Miles Davis | DoP: Henri Decae | Cast: Jeanne Moreau, Maurice Ronet, Lino Ventura, Georges Poujourly, Yori Bertin | France, 92 min     Drama

Unlike the rest of the Nouvelle Vague directors, Louis Malle was a seasoned documentarian (The Silent World), before he made his first feature Lift to the Scaffold based on a book he just happened to pick up in a station in Paris. In the same way, the film’s narrative relies very much on chance.

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The historical connections are pivotal: In 1957 the French Indochina war had ended three years previously, and the Algerian War of Independence was entering its third year. There was, as usual, a great amount of money to be made from wars, and arms-dealing was a major factor in the French economy. Both the perpetrator Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet/Plein Soleil) and his victim and boss Simon Carala knew each other from their time in the army. Both men have a shady past and an unscrupulous present. Meanwhile Carala runs an outfit that is not altogether straightforward, underlined in a conversation between the men before tragedy strikes.

But the is Jeanne Moreau’s film.  As Florence Carala, and Tavernier’s mistress she really believes in the passion behind the crime passionelle, whispering into her lover’s ear: “We will be free, it has to be” before Julien enters the company premises, giving himself a perfect alibi, before committing his crime. Passing it all off as a suicide, Tavernier forgets a vital element. He goes back into the building but is caught in the lift on his way down.

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Florence spends the whole night wandering through the streets of Paris, intoxicated by despair before her arrest as a prostitute; a second, much younger couple enters the scene: Veronique (Bertin) works in flower shop, and her immature boyfriend Louis (Poujourly) who epitomises the Nouvelle Vague antihero: young, feckless, aimlessly sliding into criminality with his poor choices. While Tavernier is stuck in the lift, he steals his car and sets out with Veronique to a motel in nearby Normandy, where they meet a middle-aged German couple.

After a champagne-fuelled evening, Louis shoots the husband dead, stealing his Mercedes to return to Paris where the two “commit” suicide with sleeping pills. But the romantic gesture leads only to a few hours sleep before Florence turns up, having tracked them down in an attempt to clear Tavernier’s name.

Henry Decae’s grainy black and white photography is understated and hauntingly impressionistic evoking the forthcoming doom.

Merc

When Florence drifts aimlessly through the Paris night, he puts the camera into a pram and follows her from the ground upwards. His ‘Paris’ must have been the Godard’s inspiration for Alphaville. Tavernier’s ‘prison’ in the lift is rendered with shades of Bresson. And in the way Decae pictures the stylish cars he makes it obvious why they are the phallic extensions for men: cleaning capsules of desire, ready to transport away from reality. Miles Davis music score is the most resonant part of this melancholic film – it underscores the loneliness of the two women, and the macho materialism of the males. And to top it all, there is Lino Ventura’s detective, calculating, heartless – an extreme misogynist, who loves trapping people, using modern technology with sadistic glee.

What sets out as a love story with a murder, ends in a bloodbath and a trible murder, shattering illusions, and leaving us with regret. The portrait of a lonely place, where immature men hold sway, and women follow simperingly in their wake, with no place to go in this cruel and hapless Brave, New World.

NOW ON BFIPLAYER

 

 

We are the Flesh | Tenemos la Carne (2016)

Dir.: Emiliano Rocha Minter | Cast: Noe Hernandez, Maria Evoli, Diego Gamaliel, Gabino Rodriguez; Mexico/France 2016, 79min.

Director/writer Emiliano Rocha Minter has certainly learnt a great deal from producer Carlos Reygadas (Silent Light): his debut feature is a darkly subversive and enigmatic sexual tour-de-force with shades of Guy Maddin’s The Forbidden Room and even fellow Mexican Amat Escalante’s The Untamed. Teenage siblings Fauna (Evoli) and Lucio (Gamaliel) looking for a place to stay in post-apocalyptic Mexico City find refuge with the rather demonic Mariano (Hernandez), who lives in a derelict and dark cellar apartment. He offers them drinks laced with mind-enhances, and encourages them to build a womb-structure from wood and masking tape. Then, out of the blue, Mariano makes the siblings sleep which each other, much against Lucio’s. Watching and masturbating, Mariano suddenly dies. The intercourse awakens Fauna’s sexuality, but her brother wants nothing to do with it. Turned on by it all, Fauna has sex with Mariano’s body. Somehow, a Mexican soldier finds his way into the place and is killed by the siblings, to the tune of the National anthem of Mexico. But the main theme of the film is illicit sex and, Fauna soon finds a willing female  partner, passing her over to her brother and writhing in ecstasy whilst watching the two. As a grand finale, Minter serves up a phenomenal sex orgy, leaving us in no doubt that he is the Wilhelm Reich of filmmaking.

Shame then that this short version of the narrative fails to give Minter’s films the credit deserves, it is an illuminating exploration of sexuality serving as a coda to the nuclear family, which is finally destroyed by the chaos brought from the outside. There are echo’s of Bataille; and certainly Gaspar Noé, but Minter also captures a certain opaque quality which is very much his own style: the roving camera of DoP Yollitl Gomez Alvarado roams around 360 degrees finding new angles to explore the escalating sexual frenzy. Switching from almost colourless black and white to luminous primary colours, Minter develops a permanently changing environment where Fauna staggers wildly like a huntress in search of pray. Bach’s harpsichord concerto has never been heard in a less peaceful place; and exclamations like “Neither the Sun, nor Death can be looked at steadily” suddenly make sense in this context. Minter somehow pulls it off: WE ARE THE FLESH is certainly one of the most innovative and original debuts of recent years. AS

COMES TO SHUDDER ON 20 APRIL 2017  | THE FILM HAS BEEN BANNED BY OTHER STREAMING PLATFORMS IN THE UK

 

Il Divo (2008) Bfi player

Dir: Paolo Sorrentino | Cast: Toni Servillo, Anna Bonaiuto, Giulio Bosetti, Flavio Bucci | 110min   Italian with subtitles   Drama

After successes with the small but perfectly formed Consequences of Love and The Family Friend, Il Divo bursts on to the screen in a baptism of fire that marks Paolo Sorrentino as a filmmaker of considerable talent in winning collaboration with much loved actor Toni Servillo. He plays Giulio Andreotti, the enigmatic leader of the Italian Christian Democrats who haunted the face of Italian politics like an enigmatic smile for nearly forty years and was seven times prime minister.

Mesmerising filmmaking takes over the first twenty minutes as the camera cuts and thrusts from every angle and Sorrentino’s signature soundtracks punctuate the action often to comical and contradictory effect. The story focuses on Andreotti’s last term in office and manages in nearly two hours to fast forward through complex political intrigue interweaving the mafia, corruption and the Catholic Church in a vast tapestry of Italian affairs at the end of the last century while creating an intimate portrait of a rather inaccessible and self-contained man.

Understanding such an ambitious and complex subject is quite a challenge for any audience and there’s a danger of being submerged by the complexity, and bowled over by the visual treatment of this fascinating story and, to some extent, this is where the film falls down. That said, Sorrentino’s  lively and accomplished film reflects the tenaciousness of a significant statesman and Toni Servillo is magnificent as Andreotti in one of the best performances of his career so far.  A masterful tribute to one of Italy’s most signicant historical moments. MT

NOW ON BFI PLAYER

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