Posts Tagged ‘Arthouse’

Berlinale 2021 | Jury Announced

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summer Special

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

BERLINALE 2021 | MARCH & JUNE 2021

The Capote Tapes (2020) VoD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Cold Blood (1967) DVD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ON DVD | REMASTERED COURTESY OF PARK CIRCUS FILMS.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Ishiro Honda in Outer Space

Alan Price remembers the days of X-rated Sci-fi with these three Japanese classics from ISHIRO HONDA, The H-Man (1958), Mothra (1961) and Battle in Outer Space (1959)

Aged thirteen I sneaked, under age, into a Liverpool flea-pit cinema for a double bill of X certificate films. A horror / SF programme kicked off with The H-Man followed by House of Wax starring the charismatic Vincent Price a rising star in the horror film firmament. H-Man was my first viewing of a Japanese film and badly dubbed into English. House of Wax featured effigies melting in a fiery climax. The only thing I remember about The H-Man was an intense screaming followed by a gooey substance running into drains as the rain poured down; this radioactive liquid was being transformed into a glowing green man.

In the cold war years of the 1960s “radiation” was a word constantly on everyones’ lips. To witness a drugs trafficker, exposed to nuclear radiation, and transformed into a poisonous creature, appeared, to my young mind, as dangerously plausible.

Many years later in 2020 I again encountered the 1958 H-Man restored, with all its gooeyness digitised, on Blu Ray. It felt like a re-union of my young fears with an older understanding of things. A force called H-Man never existed but I was still gripped and entertained by a remarkably effective film managing to fuse the crime detective film with an Sci-fi monster movie.

1958 was also the year of The Blob (with the young Steve McQueen). I love the Google description of The Blob – “A misunderstood teen fights to save his town from a gelatinous monster from outer space.” If I had to sum up The H-Man it would be something like ‘an maligned professor tries to convince the Tokyo police force that a criminal has been turned into a radioactive liquid organism.’

Eventually Dr.Masada (Kenji Sahara) manages to convince the police in an apocalyptic climax that takes place in the sewerage system, and the ‘H monster’ is finally destroyed by gasoline poured on water and set on fire. The H-Man gets a hot ending whereas  The Blob’s fate was rather more frigid: it is deposited, by aircraft, in the Arctic wastes. The H-Man actually has more in common with another liquefying monster, that of Val Guest’s 1955 outing The Quatermass Xperiment which sees a former human reduced to an undoubtedly earthbound being rather than a menacing alien from outer space.

The original Japanese title of Honda’s 1958 classic is Bijo to Ekitai Ningen that translates as “Beautiful Woman and Liquid Man.” This gives the film an apt ‘beauty and the beast’ slant as the plot forefronts a beguiling cabaret singer Chikako (Yumi Shirakawa) who was once the girlfriend of the trafficker. She is pursued by her ex-boyfriend (now a slithering organism) along the burning sewers to be rescued by the professor, smitten by her good looks, as he saves her and the rest of mankind from their destiny as an ‘H man’ or ‘H woman’.

There is a great deal to enjoy here: the stunningly shot sewer climax is possibly the most outstanding moment in The H-Man, set on a deserted ship where the crew of a neighbouring ship stumble on the creature. It’s a creepy and potently-lit sequence providing both an incredible/believable back story explores the origins of the green substance: all done with a strong feel for the old ghost-ship tale.

There are no liquid men in Honda’s 1961 Mothra. Yet there is beauty in the form of two petite women discovered on an irradiated island (named Infant Island) in the Pacific. The Beast is Mothra, a giant female moth. Mothra is not out to destroy the whole world but only those who get in her away as she attempts to rescue the kidnapped twins (played by a singing duo called “The Peanuts” whose Mothra song “The Girls of Infant Island” was a pop chart hit).

Radiation sickness also surfaces in this story. Yet instead of a traditional monster movie we have more of an enchanting fairy story. The young women are dispatched to Tokyo to appear on stage in a show called “Secret Fairies Show.” Their exploitation reminded me of the chained Kong gorilla appearing on Broadway in the film Mighty Joe Young. But these girls are too good-natured and innocent to really mind performing, though they yearn to go back home.

One of my favourite aspects of Mothra is the editing between the girls singing and the dancing natives beseeching their god Mothra to break out of its giant egg and help. The caterpillar swims the Pacific Ocean towards Japan: becomes an adult moth (with a most genial face) and flies over Tokyo on its rescue mission.

Beneath its fantasy surface Honda is aware of the script’s political satire which he handles with a lovely light touch. Overall this is an irresistibly charming film. Its special effects still stand up and the mythic and adventure element of its storyline draws upon King Kong, Godzilla (Honda directed many of the Godzilla films) and probably went on to influence Bong Joon-Ho’s 2006 The Host.

Battle in Outer Space is the slightest of these re-issued Honda films. Aliens have based themselves on the Moon. They plan to attack and invade Earth. The UN launches two rocket ships on a reconnaissance mission. The battle commences. Finally the alien’s mothership is destroyed and Earth is saved.

The two most remarkable aspects of Battle in Outer Space are its comic book model work, no strings and all smoothly executed, plus a very early sixties optimistic belief in international co-operation: nationalism recedes in the face of universal goodwill to save the planet. How far away are we now from benign diplomacy and world peace in our strongly divided Earth of 2020!

If you search on YouTube I think you will find these Honda films. But they will be the cut, un-restored American versions. Forget them and go for the complete Japanese language originals on Eureka. They look and sound great. Light and dark fantasies from another differently inventive age of popular Japanese culture. ALAN PRICE.

Beanpole (2019) **** MUBI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adoration (2019) Locarno 2019

Dir: Fabrice du Welz | Wri: Roman Protat, Vincent Tavier |

Begian auteur Fabrice du Welz delivers a painterly if predictable paean to first love in his latest psychological thriller that thrilled audiences at Locarno’s 72nd lakeside festival, and is now on Bfiplayer.

Adoration completes his Ardennes trio that started with The Ordeal and followed on with Alleluia. Once again the director uses a ‘folie à deux’ as the premise for a filmic fantasy that rapidly departs from reality. Based on a delusional notion of love, this warped obsession takes over the life of an innocent pubescent boy living with his therapist mother in a remote residential psychiatric hospital. Played by French actor Thomas Gioria (the award-winning star of Xavier Legrand’s Custody (2017), who at still only 14 is proving to be somewhat of a prodigy), Paul is a gentle but rather suggestible boy who relies on the local wildlife for company until he sets eyes on a pre-teen patient in the shape of Fantine Harduin’s delicately-featured but damaged Gloria.

Swept up by her feisty vulnerability, Paul is entranced and determined to get to know her. And despite warnings from the medical staff at his mother’s workplace, he sees Gloria’s desperate bid to escape from the confines of the institution as an exciting game. Once on the run with his new mate, he becomes intoxicated by her manipulative personality and feral beauty, and is determined to serve her needs and wishes even when Gloria leads him into increasingly perilous territory, both emotionally and physically.

Filming in intimate close-up, Manuel Dacosse draws us into this dizzying, dreamlike midsummer fantasy set in the bucolic backdrop of the Ardennes countryside. Our senses are aroused by sounds of bees and the heady scent of lime trees as Paul is bewitched by Gloria’s disingenuous charm and ruthlessness. Confused by his adolescent feelings, he is more than eager to follow these misguided instincts. Meanwhile, we desperately know that this amour fou will damage him forever when it all ends in tears, as it surely will.

Adoration is a fantasy. And a fantasy that slowly morphs into a convincing nightmare skimming over its many plot-holes, as the pair continue their journey into darkness, helped by a series of concerned and well-meaning adults, the authorities seemingly evading them at every turn. In her delusional madness, Gloria sees everybody as a threat, even when they offer food and shelter: the kindly widow played poignantly by Benoit Poelvoorde, and the loved-up couple on a boat (Peter Van den Begin, Charlotte Vandermeersch) whose sexual chemistry helps to ignite Paul’s burgeoning feelings of pubescent lust. And although Paul is able to appreciate their kindness, he is blinded by the power of his overwhelming feelings for Gloria who merely uses him to serve her needs –  and it’s an remarkable performance from Harduin who manages to conjure up facial expressions of pure evil for one so young. Gioria’s Paul is a fresh canvas, a pure vessel that holds only kindness and goodwill as it hurtles towards a wild, uncertain fate. MT

NOW ON BFI PLAYER | LOCARNO FILM FESTIVAL | 2019

 

Dick Johnson is Dead (2020) **

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Muranow (2020) **** Jerusalem Film Festival 2020

Dir.: Chen Shelach; Documentary; Israel 2020, 70 min.

This haunting documentary debut from Isreal’s Chen Shelach, explores the traumatic past and present of Warsaw’s Muranow, once home to 200,000 Polish Jews before their lives were destroyed in the ghetto, the largest in the nation state that was ‘Greater Germany’. The vast majority were deported to Treblinka death camp where they were murdered in broad daylight.

But Muranow also tells another tale: of the Jewish uprising that took the ghetto by storm – and of those who live there today, still  traumatised by the ghosts and demons of their past – but who still deny their fellow citizens collaboration with the Germans.

And the ghosts and demons are still very much alive, according to one flat dweller whose refurbished property adjoins the Muranow cemetery. She claims no one will drink her tap water because the ground below the pipes still contains traces of Jews who lost their lives in the tragic years between 1938-1945.

Only two of buildings have survived the war and Muranow’s subsequent urban regeneration: One houses the Warsaw University’s Psychology department which once was the SS HQ. The other is St. Anne’s Church, where the SS hid paintings and other valuables looted from Jewish homes. Researcher Mattan Steffi contrasts old archive films and photos with today’s modern version of Muranow. The current Polish inhabitants of the quarter are well aware of this gruesome and guilt-ridden past. When interviewed they hide behind lame excuses – even though one of them moved out to Gdansk for two years on account of the ‘ghost’ in his flat – whom he Christened Rachella. Another woman bought a Menora, to fight off the ghosts “from a lost civilisation”. The existence of the ghetto is a taboo subject in schools.

The modern worlds collides too: A Lebanese baker tells about his family’s flight from the Middle-East war zone to Warsaw – and is shocked to learn that he’s actually living on the Nazi genocide victims’ bones.

Then there are the young Zionists from Israel, who visit the bunker where the Jewish Uprising’s victims committed suicide. They are proud of their slaughtered ancestors “you died with pride, so we can fight with pride for Israel”. A commentator is rather forgiving of this failed analogy: “Young people always need a story with a Happy-End.” The Polish authorities work hard to create an image, picturing Jews and Poles as victims of the Nazis alongside each other.

There are demonstrations in Muranow, but these only show how the Holocaust has been hijacked for a new Polish Nationalism: “Poland for Poles only” sing these neo-fascist on Muranow’s highway and byways. Meanwhile bookshops stock titles such as “Zombie Jews Living in the Underground”. Muranow’s new residents are often “sad about what happened to the Jews, but not so sad as to move away” – many still benefit from this Jewish legacy, and live in fear of the Jewish returning to reclaim their land and property.

One collective tries to recreate the Muranow old town with the help of 3D films, creating parallel versions of the old and the new. One writer is making a film about this Ghetto between 1940 and 1945 using a German 16 mm camera dating back to 1935. Mattan Steffi ‘feels’ the bodies under the pavement. The director and writer claim the guy ” is crazy in the head” – but are proud of his obsession with the past nonetheless.

With DoP and producer Micha Livne delivering stunning images of the old and the new, this is a perfect passion project. The saddest point is perhaps the Poles collective denial of what happened. It seems they’ve learnt nothing from history. People never learn. The ghosts and demons are possibly their own projections of a guilty conscience. No one can escape their history – no matter how hard they try.  AS

JERUSALEM FILM FESTIVAL 2020

 

Il Mio Corpo (2020) ****

Dir.: Michele Pennetta; Documentary with Oscar, Roberto and Marco Prestifilippo, Stanley Abhulimen, Blessed Idahosa; Switzerland/Italy 2020, 81 min.

In 2012 Italy had the highest child poverty in Europe and the struggle for these kids to survive and seek a better life is the focus of Italian filmmaker Michele Pennetta. Following in the footsteps of his award-winning compatriot Gianfranco Rosi (Fire at Sea), this thoughtful approach examines lives shattered by conflict, for very difference reasons.

After Pescatori di Corpi, which looked at illegal Syrian fisherman in Italy, Pennetta’s full length documentary hybrid chronicles two parallel lives: teenagers Oscar and Stanley. Stanley hails from Nigeria and is living on a limited visa. Oscar’s mother left his overbearing father Roberto with four children, who are looked after by her sister. Oscar takes the brunt of his father’s anger while his younger brother Marco is the favourite, the family making a meagre living from collecting scrap metal from illegal dumping sites.

The poetic opening scenes see Marco unearthing a miraculously unscathed Madonna in a dump site. They heave her up onto the road, a close-up looking very much like the Jesus statute transported by the helicopter in Fellini’s Otto e Mezzo. Labels are everything in Italy and Oscar hopes to gain social traction with a t-shirt emblazoned “Member of the Club Prive”. But the magic doesn’t rub off. He remains subdued by his father’s animosity and threat to “exchange him for a black man”. An insult as mean as it is racist.

We soon learn the secret of the Prestifilippo family: Roberto accused Oscar of siding with their mother when she snitched on him to the court. The two older brothers (a boy and a girl toddler are always in the background) defend themselves: “Mother beat me, there were no toys promised, no Super Mario, she said ‘I kill you if you don’t obey'”. Roberto relents in the end: “My fault was always caring too much for you guys, your mother’s mistake was leaving for this bastard. If she loved you, she would come back.” But the family dynamics are set in stone, and Oscar will not forgive either of his parents. Later, Roberto tells his oldest son: “The truck is our breadwinner, not you!”

On the other side of the island, life is on hold for Stanley and his Nigerian compatriot Blessed. Both are affected by their visa status and Blessed’s case in still pending. Blessed is critical of Stanley: “If I had a visa, I would leave Sicily immediately”. Stanley’s response is adamant: “You are a parasite, you will be a beggar for the rest of your life.” Stanley has a point: he is eking out an existence doing jobs for the local priest, Blessed just waits for a decision to be made. Eventually the two fetch up at the local tribunal which doesn’t end well for Blessed, Stanley reluctant to translate the  the verdict. Blessed is never seen again in a poignant final sequence.

We end on a scripted passage that finally brings Oscar and Stanley together in a dilapidated farmhouse. DoP Paolo Ferrari takes major credit for the success of this melancholic story: his softly lensed images of the rugged countryside where the sun shines mercilessly, will stay in the memory for a long time afterwards. The strength of the feature lies in the contrast between the magic of this island paradise and the tragedy of its broken inhabitants, locked in a cycle of enforced indolence and resignation. Marginalised, for very different reasons, characters like Oscar and Stanley are wasting their lives away, unable to find a meaningful existence beyond hope and brief interludes of joy garnered from youthful bravado. In this craggy mountain idyl their future will be an uphill struggle. AS

IN CINEMAS AND EXCLUSIVELY ON CURZO HOME CINEMA | 11 DECEMBER 2020

The White Reindeer | Valkoinen Peura (1952) *****

Almost entirely dialogue-free and relying on a spellbinding score from Swedish composer Einar England to drive the narrative forward, it sees a beautiful young bride Pirita – the director’s own wife Mirjami Kuosmanen, who also co-wrote the script – fall prey to a tragic curse when she seeks advice on her love-life from a macabre Norse shamen.

Capturing the ethereal beauty of Finnish Lapland’s panoramic snowscapes, and picturing real herdsman at work in the icebound countryside, The White Reindeer is a magnificent example of low budget effectiveness and magic neo-realism in a simple but thematically rich storyline. Starting out in an upbeat mood Pirita is seen in full Nordic costume riding a sleigh alongside her lover and soon to be husband. But after their wedding night he is frequently absent.

Longing to capture his affection, she takes the shamen’s love potion and is transformed into an elegant white reindeer by night, drinking the blood of local hunters. This lyrical parable is both intriguing and mesmerising melding documentary footage with exquisite lighting techniques and elegant framing to produce a film that echoes Polanski’s Fearless Vampire Killers and Dreyer’s Vampyr with potent references to Norse mythology and themes of longing, loneliness and fear of abandonment. MT

THE WHITE REINDEER (Masters of Cinema) https://youtu.be/ECyp3fJBI20

Amazon https://amzn.to/2RUdXON

 

Personal Shopper (2016) **** Bfi player

Director: Olivier Assayas

Cast: Kristen Stewart, Nora vonWaltstätten, Anders Danielsen Lie | 101mins | Fantasy drama | France

Paris has always had a sinister side inspiring Poe’s Murders in The Rue Morgue and Balzac’s Pere Goriot, a story of social realism set near the Pierre Lachaise Cemetery: French literature is redolent with macabre stories conjured up by the dark side of the capital. So it seems somehow feels fitting that Olivier Assayas should add other chilling chapter to this spectrally charged city with his ghost-themed story PERSONAL SHOPPER.

The film is creepy, charismatic and as quirkily inventive as the director’s typical fare but his first ever ghost story. And Kristen Stewart is the star shimmering in a sombrely subtle turn that is as dark as its subject matter. She plays the unlikely named Maureen Cartwright, a 27 year old American girl who is bored with life and living out a meaningingless few months as a personal shopper to bitchy German media figure Kyra (Nora vonWaltstätten), while mourning the death of her twin brother Lewis.

Paris is the capital of the fashion world and Assayas works this elegantly into the plot as Maureen glides through a series of glitzy ateliers garnering hand-styled garments for her boss along with jewelled accoutrements from Chanel and Cartier. This is a job that fills Maureen with ennui as she considers herself worthy of better things and idly sketches the days away researching a yen for the supernatural and the psychic experiments of Victor Hugo and the avant garde Swedish artist Hilma af Klint.

On the sly, she guiltily slips into Kyra’s couturier gowns and fetishistic footwear before pleasuring herself on Kyra’s bed during her trips abroad. Kristen Stewart brings a gamine insouciant sensuality to her role that feels both menacing and intriguing in its sexual ambivalence.

Maureen is also developing her psychic skills in trying to contact her brother Lewis who died of a congenital heart condition in a dreary nearby fin de siecle mansion where they both grew up. Spending several spooky nights there a ghostly presence is felt as Maureen whispers inaudibly in scenes that are genuinely scary and entirely plausible given the undercurrent of glowering spitefulness that vibes through the increasingly dark narrative. This leads us to believe that Maureen is herself conjuring up the devil’s work. Olivier Assayas’s wickedly inventive vision is one of his most exciting this far. But there’s always 2021 to look forward to. MT

ON Bfi Player | Best Director for Olivier Assayas Cannes 2016

Murder me, Monster (2018) ***

Dir Alejandro Fadel. Argentina. 2018. 106′

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Evolution (2015) **** MUBI

Dir.: Lucile Hadzihalilovic | Cast: Max Brebant, Roxanne Duran, Julie-Marie Parmentier France/Belgium 2015, 81 min.

Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s memorable debut feature Innocence dealt with a teenage girl in a boarding school. EVOLUTION centres this time on a group of boys on the crest of adolescence. Living a frigid existence by an eerie seashore with their mothers, there are no adult males to be seen. Hadzihalilovic presents a joyless antiseptic world where even the meals of strained seaweed broth appear medicinal rather than satisfying. Cinematographer Manuel Dacosses’s spare and pristine interior visuals give the impression of a wide-scale marine laboratory where a sci-fi experiment is underway and the boys are the victims.

Young Nicolas (Brebant) and his mother (Parmentier) live in this dreary community: their spartan lifestyle is marked by robotic rituals: dinner is always followed by the intake of an inky medicine, which appears to be therapeutic. Somehow Nicolas suspects that something is going on beyond the surface of enforced rigour: he follows his mother to the beach at night, where he observes her writhe in ecstacy with other women. Before he can unravel the mysterious plan, he is sent to a dilapidated early 20th century hospital where some of his friends are also patients. Weird experiments are carried out and one boy disappears completely. Nicolas is befriended by one of the nurses, Stella (Duran), who supplies him with material for his drawings. When the dreadful secret emerges, Stella tries to help Nicolas to escape.

The boys in EVOLUTION have no rights over their bodies, but what emerges is that they are the unwitting victims of some kind of freaky, gender-reversal surgery. The dreamlike atmosphere evokes a past we can not see, but the boys’ dreams  suggest they have been taken away from their real families to take part in a medical experiment destined to help mankind’s survival. But dreams and reality are indistinguishable, the underwater scenes suggest more sinister plans are underway: perhaps mankind has to become amphibious to survive. The ghastly hospitals are horror institutions located underground and under the control of the sullen – all female – doctors and nurses. Syringes and scalpels take on a sadistic undertone creating a frightening parallel with medical experiments in Nazi concentration camps.

EVOLUTION haunts and beguiles for just over an hour. Hadzihalilovic and her co-scripter Alante Kavaite (Summer of Sangaile) cleverly keep the tension taught requiring the audience to invest a great deal in the narrative before any salient clues emerge – but even then much remains unexplained and enigmatic; not that EVOLUTION wants to be understood. Part of its allure is this inaccessibility, unsettlingly evoking a world far beyond any genre, it is esoteric and anguished in its unique otherworldliness. Too many films feature repetitive images and schematic self-indulgent narratives: how refreshing to find a true original revealing a totally new world in just 81 minutes. MT

NOW ON MUBI

It Came From Outer Space (1953) **** Blu-ray

Dir.: Jack Arnold; Cast: Richard Carlson, Barbara Rush, Charles Drake, Joe Sawyer, Russell Johnson; USA 1953, 81 min.

Director John Arnold (1916-1992) was the mastermind behind seven Sci-Fi classics between 1953 and 1958. It came from outer Space was the first, shot in 3-D and based on the short story ‘The Meteor’ by Rad Bradbury and written for the screen by Harry Essex.

Seen as an anti-McCarthy feature at a time when Aliens and ‘Reds’ were both out to destroy the idyll of small town America, Arnold uses small Californian towns like Victorville and the Mojave desert as background to create an exotically eerie backdrop .

Astronomer and author John Putnam (Carlson) has moved to the desert, finding his intellectual viewpoint at odds with the small-time folks back home. He is in love with school teacher Ellen Fields (Rush) who plays truant when the two discover a meteor hitting Earth. It later transpires that an alien spaceship has made some sort of an emergency landing but Sheriff Matt Warren (Drake) is the first to denounce John’s theories after visiting the crash site, he also has the hots for Ellen.

Strange things happen all over town, as citizens are cloned by the Aliens. Among them are Frank Dayton (Sawyer) and George (Johnson) two electricians whose spouses are telling Warren their men folk changed personality before simply disappearing, taking their clothes with them. John, helped by Ellen, finds out that the Aliens are repairing their spaceship, using the tools and equipment of the local engineers and electricians. Then Ellen gets taken over by the strangers, she appears to John in an evening gown and leads him to a mine, where she is taken hostage.

John comes to an arrangement with the leader of the spaceship who appears as a glittering droopy-eyed monster. John pretends to blow up the mine, whilst Warren and his posse (or lynch mob), are closing in on the entrance. The Aliens repair their spacecraft and leave Earth.

DoP Clifford Stine creates some startling black-and-white images, often veiled by an ethereal mist. It Came from Outer Space shows Arnold (who was assistant to Robert J. Flaherty) as a chronicler of the The Eisenhower era, where anti-intellectualism and the McCarthy Witch Hunt was the dominating factor. Arnold’s other classics sided with outsiders, among them Creature from the Black Lagoon (famously restyled by Guillermo del Toro in 2017), Tarantula and The Space Children. He was also known for his Westerns, and one of his last cinema features, The Mouse that Roared (1959) which made Peter Sellers an international star.

A true creative, Jack Arnold later switched to directing TV fare, his seminal ideas providing the basis for some of today’s most popular big and small screen outings. There is hardly a series he did not have a hand from Wonder Woman to Dr. Kildare; The Brady Bunch, Ellery Queen and Perry Mason amongst the very best. AS

BLURAY/DVD AVAILABLE 14 DECEMBER 2020 | FABULOUS FILMS

Far From the Madding Crowd (2015) *** BBCiplayer

Dir: Thomas Vinterberg  Wri: David Nicholls | Cast: Matthias Schoenaerts, Carey Mulligan, Michael Sheen, Tom Sturridge, | 119min   GB/US  Drama

John Schlesinger’s 1967 film of Hardy’s novel, Far from the Madding Crowd, was always going to be a hard act to follow. Nearly 50 years later Thomas Vinterberg’s version of the tale of Bathsheba Everdene a “headstrong country girl” and her three suitors, has a distinctly European flavour. A Danish director and DoP; an English screenwriter (David Nicholls); a Belgian Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts) and the occasional Welsh twang of Michael Sheen’s Mr Boldwood make up this neatly potted version, running at 40 minutes shorter than the original 1960s version.

Vinterberg’s focus here is on the intimacy between the central characters: particularly for Carey Mulligan who exudes a serene dignity as Bathsheba. Her relationship with Gabriel – that starts as a proposal in the middle of a field – simmers away in the background as the two play a subtle and convincing game of interdependency that adds a sexual frisson to their working friendship  – Oak is the only man who makes Bethesda smile broadly, and shed a tear.

After the reversal of fortune brought about by the loss of his sheep, Oak may have less to offer financially when she inherits her Uncle’s farm, but throughout he is his own man, and a good man at that, and not afraid to walk away – and that is Hardy’s clincher at the end of the day. Schoenaerts evokes a powerful masculinity that is both physical and emotional, but he also a brings reliability, for as long as Bathsheba needs him, making it clear that he will one day walk away. Oaks not only becomes a confidante to Bathsheba but also to Boldwood, a middle-aged landowner whose senses are inflamed on receiving her casual Valentine with its throw-away message. But what Michael Sheen lacks the regal detachment of Peter Finch’s Boldwood, he makes up for in with the desperate, gnawing vulnerability he brings to the role; the only one of the trio who has as much to lose as to gain, as the eldest, if he fails to win Bathsheba’s hand. Sheen’s poignantly-tortured agony as he questions his chances, is one of the triumphs of the film.

But Vinterberg’s version has much less of the duplicitous chancer, Sergeant Troy (Tom Sturridge). In an underwritten role, that fails to conjure up his importance as the most manipulative and controlling of Bathsheba’s consorts, Sturridge is no match for the dashing blue-eyed charm or erotism of Terence Stamp –  for one, he looks positively wet behind the ears (despite being exactly the same age as Stamp in the role – 29); for another, he emerges as even more the cad and less as the skilful seducer than Stamp did back in the sixties.

At the heart of Winterberg’s film is the subtle, slow-burn relationship between Mulligan’s Bathsheba and Schoenaerts’ Oak and one which develops through the ups and downs of their farming challenges. The smouldering Schoenaerts has a difficult role as he is forced into underplaying his character, relying on a potent chemistry to attract Bathsheba. Carey Mulligan is elegantly attractive, her ladylike daintiness tempered by a shrewd sense-of-self and a maturity beyond her years; as against Julie Christie’s more ethereal light-hearted girliness.

What Vinterberg’s film lacks is Hardy’s (and Schlesinger’s) potent essence of 19th Dorset life – the vagaries of farming and animal husbandry, and the way they drive the narrative forward shaping the lives of this ‘madding crowd’ of rural countryfolk. It’s a brave attempt though, and an enjoyable re-make. MT

NOW ON BBCiplayer

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

Peeping Tom (1960) ****

Dir: Michael Powell | Leo Marks | Cast: Anna Massey, Karlheinz Bohm, Moira Shearer, Maxine Audley | Brenda Bruce, Miles Malleson | UK Horror, 101′

Raymond Durgnat later observed that this glossy colour thriller made Free Cinema’s brand of realism look like “expurgated Enid Blyton”. It’s casual acceptance of prostitution and pornography as parts of everyday life (not to mention that we hear someone else’s bath running in the background in one sequence) must have made it an uncomfortable experience for the few people in 1960 who saw it; as it remains today. Hopefully it didn’t reach Manchester, where it would have given Ian Brady ideas.

Based on a story by London-born writer and actor Leo Marks, Peeping Tom centres on a filmmaker and serial killer (Karlheinz Bohm) who records his victims’ dying expressions of terror on a movie camera. Unaware of their content, his neighbour Helen (Massey) becomes fascinated by these documentaries and secretly decides to watch them.

The stunning opening sequence with Brenda Bruce is described by David Pirie in ‘A Heritage of Horror’ as “one of the few genuinely Brechtian moments in the history of the cinema. Every component – the reduced frame, the clicking of the camera motor, the whirr of the tape recorder (sic) and the clumsiness of the camera technique – is designed to enforce our awareness that we are watching a film.” But am I the only person in sixty years to have noticed that we also see the shadow pass over Ms Bruce of what is obviously TWO people, one with the camera mounted on their shoulder (not hidden under their duffle coat as per the plot)? This moment is seen twice since it’s repeated when we then see the film projected. Every time I see the film I hope this goof won’t still be there; but it always is. Richard Chatten.

NOW ON PRIME VIDEO

The Salt of the Earth (2014) **** Mubi

wimDir: Juliano Ribeiro Salgado |Writer: Wim Wenders/Juliano Ribeiro Salgado | Doc Biography, 110′

This biopic of famous Brazilian photographer and philanthropist, Sabastiao Salgado, manages to be both illuminating and moving. Directed (and narrated) by Wim Wenders (pictured left at the Cannes premiere) and Salgado’s son Juliano, what starts as an harrowing and dramatic set of photographs from Africa and beyond, soon becomes a narrative with a truly inspiring and heart-warming conclusion, adding real weight to the story of this fascinating and creatively-driven man, now in his seventies.

From war zones in Ruanda and Bosnia to the deepest Amazon, the often shocking images show tremendous compassion, and a desire to connect with his subject-matter. As is often the case for the creatively committed, Salgado’s son Juliano received little attention as a child as the photographer  travelled the World, while his wife Leilia, archived and published his works, setting up exhibitions from home and organising financing and funding. There are shades of the late Michael Glawogger to his searingly shocking images and a touch of the David Attenborough to his work with his animals. A peerless tribute to humanity and the animal kingdom. MT.

CÉSAR 2015 WINNER – BEST DOCUMENTARY | NOW ON MUBI 

Ivana the Terrible (2019) Locarno

Dir.: Ivana Mladenovic; Cast: Ivanka Mladenovic, Gordana Mladenovic, Modrae Mladenovic, Kosta Mladenovic, Luca Gramic, Anca Pop, Andrei Dinescu; Serbia/Romania 2019, 86 min.

Director/co-writer Ivana Mkadenovic (Soldiers: Story from Ferentari) describes her latest, a fictional autobiography, or docu-fiction hybrid is very much in the vein of this year’s IDFA winner Radiograph of a Family although far more satirical in nature. The past and the present collide in Kladovo, Serbia, near the border to Romania, where Ivana also ‘stars’ as a histrionic millennial jilted by her Romanian lover and suffering the after-affects of PTSD. Her family, friends and former lovers play the other roles.

We first meet Ivana on a train going back home to Serbia for the summer, where we get to experience just how terrible she really is. Freed from her work commitments, she accepts the mayor’s invitation to become the face of a local music festival, and finds herself the latest citizen to be honoured with an award acknowledging the bond of friendship between Serbia and Romania. It just so happens that the Trajan (Friendship) Bridge over the Danube connecting Serbia and Romania, and where Tito and Ceausescu once famously met, is also in Kladovo, on the Serbian side, adding all sorts of bilateral connotations to the narrative, along with the generational conflicts.

Far from triumphant, Ivana’s return puts the cat amongst the pigeons on all front , escalated by her fragile state of mind. To make matters even worse (or somehow better, as it turns out), Ivana’s relationship with a much younger guy is soon the talk of the town (the general consensus being that she should settle down and start a family), but this gossip soon confers a kind of celebrity status on the petulant woman, her erratic behaviour becoming par for the course. Her behaviour certainly challenges social stereotypes in the traditional community. And the arrival of Ivana’s friend (portrayed by Romanian-Canadian singer-songwriter Anca Pop – to whose memory the film is dedicated) is a another game-changer, further enhancing her bad-girl status in the village, and there is much consternation among the old-fashioned local womenfolk when an offer to have their private parts form the basis of a local sculpture is not well-received, to say the least.

Eventually Ivana gets a lift with Anca and Andrei back to Bucharest, stopping on the way to listen to some poets reading on the Friendship bridge. Another dimension to this (un)happy merry-go-round comes in the shape of a story from the Second World War when over a thousand Jews came to Kladovo where they were to be escorted by boat to the safety of Palestine. But the ship never came, and the Jews lost their lives during the ensuing Nazi occupation of the town. MT

ARTEKINO | PREMIERED AT LOCARNO FILM FESTIVAL

Mayor (2020)

Dir.: David Osit; Documentary with Musa Hadid; USA/UK 2020, 89 min.

Mayor is clearly a passion project for David Osit. So much so he co-produced, directed, co-edited and even filmed this engaging documentary that  follows the real-life political saga of Musa Hadid, the Christian mayor of Ramallah, during his second term in office.

Ramallah is about ten miles from Jerusalem and surrounded on all sides by Israeli settlements and soldiers. Most of the people who live there will never have the chance to travel more than a few miles outside their home, which is why Mayor Hadid is determined to make the city a beautiful and dignified place to live in. By Western standards these people are impoverished, most – included the Mayor – do not even have a TV in their homes. So Hadid’s immediate goals are to repave the sidewalks, attract more tourism, and plan the city’s Christmas celebrations. His ultimate mission: to end the occupation of Palestine. Rich with detailed observation and a surprising amount of humour, Mayor offers a portrait of dignity amidst the madness and absurdity of endless occupation while posing a question: how do you run a city when you don’t have a country? 

Hadid comes across as an affable middle-aged man, married with two children, he is particularly proud of his moustache. He is also a mischievous diplomat who enjoys football. During a local match he is asked by some kids if he is “for Fatah or Hamas”, he answers that Al Fatah does not exist any more, and “so we have nobody to liberate us”.

Like most of his supporters he is hoping for an independent Palestinian State, but until that is achieved Hadid is more interested in giving his city a good image around the world. And this needs planning and careful consideration. How should they style the city? Discussions begin with local councillors and a logo is created: “WeRamallah”, featuring in huge letters round the city, where the mayor particularly enjoys hanging out at the “Cafe de la Paix”, opposite his office in the modern Town Hall.

When President Trump declared Jerusalem the capital of Israel, back in December 2017, also promising to move the American embassy there, rioting broke out in the West Bank. Clearly there was opposition to any US presence, let alone intervention. Today nothing has much changed. The filmmakers accompany Hadid to the edge of the town where the fighting between emboldened Israeli soldiers and Palestinian youth still rages. Sometimes the clashes become a little bit too close for comfort. Despite the animosity there will still be a Christmas tree in the city centre – some people campaign for a slogan that lights up with “Jerusalem is our Capital”. Once again, Hadid will have to compromise between municipal services and political messages.

Hadid’s work is never done, and involves ongoing compromise between the townspeople and the Israeli forces. Meanwhile mixed messages come from abroad: Hadid reads a statement from US Vice-president Pence who wants to protect Christians in Palestine. Hadid wishes he could just bring about continued peace, and end occupation. Meanwhile, Prince William visits Ramallah and makes a conciliatory speech, asking for the normalisation of the situation. But back in Whitehall, celebrations for a Hundred Years of the “Balfour Declaration” are underway, as if there is anything to celebrate in the former British Mandate. And there are more contradictions: while Hadid can visit Washington DC, Oxford and Bonn (Germany) to talk about the situation at home, he cannot visit Jerusalem or the nearby coast.

In the midst of the mayhem some younger members of his staff are having another celebration of sorts: “They can put us in a slum, but we still can have a party”. Finally, there is a major confrontation with Israeli troops, who use teargas outside City Hall and make arrests in the Cafe de la Paix”, before everything peters out. The following morning, the debris is cleared away, and in the evening fountains play light games with the music rousing a celebration of hope in a land where conflict has always been the watchword.

Mayor is a humane feature that tells a human story, trying to see the conflict from a purely humanitarian angle. Hadid is a great advertisement for compromise and hope: he is a steady lighthouse in a turbulent sea. AS

IN CINEMAS FROM 1 JANUARY 2021 |

Spiral (2020) Bergamo Film Meeting 2021

Dir.: Cecília Felméri | Cast: Bogdan Dumitrache, Diana Magdolena Kiss, Alexandra Borbely, Theodora Uhrik; Hungary/Romania 2020, 93 min.

This first feature film by Romanian born writer/director Cecília Felméri is a moody character study about a lake somehow taking on the humans living nearby. Part poetic realism, part nightmare thriller, Spiral is enigmatic and beguiling, haunted by a macabre curse. It echoes the theme in Romanian folklore and literature of purification by fire.

Bence (Dumitrache) is an introverted character whose emotions run as deep as his lakeside dwelling in Szödliget where he lives in a comfortable wooden house with girlfriend Janka (Kiss), trying to make a living as a fish farmer. Lost in his solitary world the lake tethers him like an eerie umbilical cord his father having disappeared nearby long ago without a trace. Nourishing and caring for his prize fish provides him with a strange solace – they voraciously gobble up dead rabbits to birds. But his relationship with teacher Janka is fraught: there is a sexual connection but somehow Bence remains unreachable, lost in a perpetual reverie. Budapest beckons for Janka but Bence is keen to put down roots in their bucolic countryside dwelling, where the only internet connection lies deep in the heart of the lake.

Winter approaches and with it comes tragedy in the icebound lake with its chilly secrets. Bence finds himself alone again with only his ‘piranha-like catfish’ for company and random visits from his aunt (Uhrik) who is told that Janka “simply left” – but we know otherwise. Then government inspector Nora (Borbely) arrives to help him with an application for a grant. The two fall for each other and once again the physical is satisfying Bence then busing her away, convinced that the death of his cat is due to the lake casting a hex on everything he cares about. In a spooky twist Nora develops a penchant for his catfish finding them particularly tasty, possibly due to their rich diet. When his aunt finds with a buyer for the farm, Bence will have to make a decision: does he let the lake win?

Silence and subtle musical choices add to the eerie serenity of the piece which plays out appropriately to Mozart’s Miserere mei Deus. DoP Reder György constructs a magical twilight atmosphere where the lake plays a passive-aggressive entity. What starts as a romantic idyll, soon becomes nightmarish for Bence, haunted by the ghosts of the past. Bogdan plays him captivatingly, his morose enigmatic suggestiveness constantly open to interpretation. In her sophomore feature Felméri directs with confidence, never crossing the line to anything overstated – her subtle approach is rare in a beginner and leaves us guessing and ruminating throughout the film and for a long time afterwards. AS

NOW AT BERGAMO FILM MEETING | Awards at WARSAW FILM FESTIVAL 2020 | THESSALONIKI 2020

Harmonium (2016) | Fuchi Ni Tatsu **** Mubi

Dir.: Koji Fukada | Cast: Mariko Tsutsui, Kanji Furutacki, Momone Shinokawa, Taiga, Tadnubo Asano | Japan | 120 min.

The habitual genteel family set-up is turned upside down in Koji Fukada’s noir thriller Harmonium where a Japanese home becomes an unsettling place fraught with underlying guilt from  which resurfaces when a strange figure from the past disrupts the domestic harmony of one small family.

The Japanese title Fuchi Ni Tatsu alludes to the edgy atmosphere that envelopes the lives of Toshio (Furutacki) a regular church-goer who runs a small engineering workshop from home where he lives with his wife Akie (Tsutsui) and young daughter Hotaru (Shinokawa).

Life is fairly uneventful, Hotaru is learning to play the harmonium, her musical talent eclipsed by her pretentious and argumentative nature. But when Toshio takes pity on a old friend Yasaka (Asano) who has just been released from jail for committing murder, not only employing him, but also giving him a room in his house, the story takes a sinister turn for the worst.

The reason for Toshio’s generosity appears to stem from their collaboration in the murder, but Yasaka initially seems to have turned over a new leaf, making himself an affable guest, even offering to help Hotaru with her music studies. Can a leopard ever change his spots? This is the premise on which the narrative unfolds. And without giving too much away, it seems –  as ever – that this is unlikely.

What makes Harmonium so remarkable is that all the adult protagonists are terrible ordinary, banal even: there is no whiff of any sculduggery, just smalltime folk going through the daily grind – we see Toshio toiling in his workshop and Akie sewing – they only speak to each other at mealtimes; Toshio seems totally detached from the other members of his family, and has more in common with Yasaka, his guilt for having avoided prison appears to be his only emotion.

DoP Ken’ichi Negishi’s camera closes in on the characters, underlining their isolation from each other. This is a tense and cleverly misleading thriller with some impressive performances, particularly from Tsutsui who feels betrayed by the men, and yet helpless in her attempts at making her daughter’s life meaningful. A clinical study of the banality of evil. AS

NOW ON MUBI

Persian Lessons (2020) ****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On DIGITAL 22 JANUARY and DVD on 8 FEBRUARY

 

 

:

The Exception (2020) ****

Dir.: Jesper W. Nielsen; Cast: Danica Curcic, Amanda Collin, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Lene Maria Christensen, Olaf Johannsen, Magnus Krepper, Borut Veselko, Simon Sears; Denmark/Norway/Sweden 2019, 116 min.

Best known for his thrillers Through a Glass, Darkly and The Day Will Come Jesper W. Nielsen is becoming a master of Nordic Noir. His latest thriller is based on Christian Jungersen’s 2004 novel, and adapted by Christian Torpe into a gripping hybrid of crime, horror and a discourse on violence. And although genre purists may disagree, Nielsen directs with skill and confidence. Reality and nightmare twist and turn in a relentless maelstrom of aesthetic brilliance.

The story centres on four women in a Copenhagen NGO (though the film was actually shot in Budapest). Their lives are far from easy: Iben (Curcic) has escaped kidnapping by clever negotiation with one of her Kenyan captors, Malene (Collin) suffers from debilitating rheumatoid arthritis and is struggling with a marriage breakdown. Both vy for Gunnar’s attention, and he “is certainly not the marrying kind”. Lene-Maria (Christensen) seems the most sorted of the four, but her affair with Serbian solder Mirko Zigic (Veselko), was probably a mistake – accused of genocide he’s soon the target of Iben and Malene’s latest research project. Librarian Anne-Lise (Knudsen) is the odd one out. Paul (Johannsen) heads up the team, a bit of a cold fish. Meanwhile, Malene and Iben are on the receiving end of suspicious emails and just when their computer specialist is on the case he suffers a fatal fall, and they go missing.

Seen through the eyes of four unreliable narrators the shifts in perspective are simply staggering, forcing us to re-examine the facts as reality spins out of control. And why are these charitable women fighting for a better world, when they are so immersed in guilt, real or imagined?. The Exception avoids easy answers, the perpetrators going back to their everyday lives – without any repercussions.

DoP Erik Zappon’s noirish aesthetic is all cold steel and white: Sidse Babett Knudsen is phenomenal as the haunted outsider, keen to do everything to be a part of the collective. Nielsen never sticks to a formula confronting us with our own self-doubts. The Exception is challenging, often seeming contradictory, but that is exactly what makes it so unique. AS

The Exception will released across all major UK Digital Platforms on 22nd January including iTunesAppleTV, Sky Store, Google Play, Amazon, Virgin, Curzon Home Cinema & Chili (& BT on rental only from 1st Feb)

Toni Erdmann (2016) **** Mubi

Director: Maren Ade| Cast: Peter Simonischek, Sandra Huller, Michael Wittenborn, Thomas Loibl, Trystan Putter | 142min | Comedy | Germany

This quirky and hilarious satire from German  filmmaker Maren Ade is a European arthouse  classic that celebrates the intergenerational gap with humour rather than strife.

Maren Ade explores whether comedy is the right way to fix family issues – or whether we should just try to be more sympathetic and understanding. In a film that runs just short of three hours, she achieves a blend of situational comedy, embarrassing incidents, pervy sex scenes and even a good old German nudist party in the style of Ulrich Seidl or even Aki Kaurismaki .

TONI ERDMANN‘s hero is Austrian: Peter Simonichek plays Winifried, a divorced music teacher who loves playing inappropriate practical jokes on his friends but his latest pranks involve his adult daughter Ines  (Sandra Hüller). We first meet Winifried in the throes of arranging a surprise musical tribute to an old colleague’s retirement. But not everyone likes surprises or to be part of this harmless fun, least of all his serious-minded daughter who has to be at the top of her game as management consultant in the competitive macho world of Romania. When she realises her father has been up to his tricks in a bid to poke fun at her childless state and perceived loneliness, it’s already too late to block his impromptu visit in Bucharest, after the death of his dog Willi leaves him footloose and a bit down in the dumps.

As a little girl she loved his tomfoolery, but his casual arrival at her offices in fancy dress, makes her extremely irritated. Rejecting his bid to offer fatherly appreciation, Winifried then starts to behave like a stalker, popping up at Ines’ dinner dates pretending to be his alter ego ‘Toni Erdmann’ complete with wig and grotesque false teeth which he claims are from cosmetic dentistry “I wanted something different – fiercer”.

Only a woman can appreciate the intricacies of life in the competitive corporate world where women are supposed to “go on shopping trips” when they travel with their CEO husbands. Rather than hanging with the guys after work, poor Ines is forced to show the women round the shops while the men ‘kick back’ over drinks. Extremely galling. At one point she tells her boss “if I was a feminist, I wouldn’t tolerate guys like you”. Ade’s script is really spot on, brilliantly manipulating this father daughter relationship and drawing some subtle and intricately-played performances from Simonischek and Huller, who start as polar opposites in their frosty stand-off but gradually grow more sympathetic and human during the course of the film. Beneath Winifried’s silliness lies a heart of gold, he appreciates the real world but has withdrawn from it to reflect  and his daughter emerges to be far more caring and worldly than he gives her credit for.

Winifried’s old dog Willi sets the furry leitmotive for rest of the film, and he pops up in various shaggy wigs and even a full blown Bulgarian scarecrow outfit. The irony comes from the way Ines intuitively manages her difficult colleagues and local friends; her secretary Anca is the only sympathetic female character and there are some really poignant scenes at the end where Ines and her father finally let their guards down to acknowledge that blood really is thicker than water. MT

NOW ON MUBI  | WINNER OF THE FIPRESCI AWARD CANNES 2016

The Overlanders (1946) **** Talking Pictures

The reason for the docudrama approach stems from the original idea of making a propaganda film for the Australian government who knocked on Watts’ door looking for a well known director and a reputable studios – Ealing naturally fitted the bill, although the film was released after the war was over.

Under the Tree | Undir Trenu (2018) **** Mubi

Dir.: Hafstein Gunnar Sigurdsson; Cast.: Steinthor Steinporsson, Edda Bjorgvinsdottir, Sigurdur Sigurjonsson, Lara Johanna Jonsdottir, Pornsteinn Bachmann, Selma Bjornsdottir; Iceland//Denmark/Poland/Germany 2017, 89 min.

In this urban satire, Hafstein Gunnar Sigurdsson (Rams) pulls off a comedy feat, making us laugh at our own small mindedness. A great ensemble showcases this tour-de-force of middle-class nimby-ism with much the same dark humour as Rams.

It all starts with male embarrassment: husband Atli (Steinporsson) is surprised by his wife Agnes (Jonsdottir) in the early morning, masturbating to pornographic images of himself on his laptop  – or so he claims. Agnes throws him out, not realising that his next place of residence back home with his parents – will soon be a war zone. Meanwhile Atli’s brother is heading for suicide, and his mother Inga (Bjorgvinsdottir) – suffering from depression – has chosen the next-door neighbours Konrad (Bachman) and Eybjorg (Bjornsdottir) as the butt of her deflected self-hatred. Konrad and Eyborg, not unreasonably, want the huge tree on his parents’ property trimmed, at it blocks the sun from their front porch. While Inga’s husband Baldvin (Sigurjonsson) is ready to compromise, Inga herself does not want to sacrifice a leaf – she goes on the warpath blowing a gasket of pent up emotion. So Atli moves into a tent in the garden, his parent’s Persian cat disappears without a trace and Inga is convinced the neighbours have abducted the puss.

Since said neighbours own a proud German shepherd, Inga takes matters in her own hands: impersonating Eybjorg opts for extreme measures with the animal. And when husband Baldvin criticises her for being over the top, she tells him “at least they know where he is, unlike me” – referring to the missing body of her son. Then Konrad, in the middle of the night, takes his saw to the tree in question, setting in motion a bloody Shakespearean tragedy.

Violence simmers under the suface: Atli cannot stand the thought of Agnes getting custody of their four-year old daughter Asa: who he abducts from Kindergarten. later smashing his wife’s mobile and threatening violence. Unlike his mother, Atli is too phlegmatic to escalate the conflict, listening to his father’s solution for compromise  – the apple never falls far from this tree either.

The film never takes itself too seriously: at a tenants’ meeting in Agnes’ flat, she complains about him being there, blurting out at the meeting “Atli masturbates to his girlfriend’s pictures. That’s not right, is it?”, to which the male half of a couple, whose nightly lovemaking keeps the neighbourhood awake, responds with a curt “why not, it’s okay”.

Under the Tree is chock-full of witty one-liners as hilarious as they are absurd: but underneath there lurks a nimbyism and an intolerance of anyone not sharing their own values (while also claiming to be ‘liberal’). By the end, Sigurdsson, fed up with  humans, leaves the last word to the cat. AS

NOW ON MUBI

Let the Sunshine In (2020) **** Mubi

French Filmmaker Claire Denis is one of the most innovative pioneers of independent cinema and fiercely committed to her singular vision. Growing up the daughter of a civil servant in various African countries, she eventually went home to France and fell in love with cinema in the Cinematheque, Paris. Making films seemed inevitable and after studying at the Institute for Advanced Cinematographic Studies (IDHEC) she embarked on a career that would see her working with Jacques Rivette (who became the subject of her 1990 documentary Jacques Rivette, Le Veilleur), Dušan Makavejev, Roberto Enrico and Costa-Gavras and Wim Wenders on Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire. Through the musician John Lurie she met Jim Jarmusch and worked with him  on Down by Law. But it was with her debut feature Chocolat that she made it to the international stage in 1988. The film was selected for Cannes and the César awards, it also got her together with Agnès Godard who became her regular director of photography for all her films.

So far Claire Denis has made six documentaries and no fewer than 17 feature films, such as Nénette et Boni for which she is awarded the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1996. Beau Travail, is one of the most stark and contemplative French films about war, standing alongside Bruno Dumont’s L’Humanite. It was chosen for Venice line-up in 1999. Set amid racial conflict in a Francophone African state, Isabelle Huppert plays a coffee plantation owner desperately trying to save her crop, her family and her life in Denis’ 2009 outing White Material.

Clearly race and post-colonial themes feature heavily in her work, but Denis has also dabbled in genres – Bastards was a thriller, 35 Shots of Rum a fantasy drama about a father and daughter in Paris. Trouble Every Day reflects the emotional anguish of a loved up but warring married coup, starring Béatrice Dalle and Vincent Gallo it screened at Cannes Film Festival in 2001. Denis has also worked several times with Juliette Binoche, most recently in her critically acclaimed sci-fi outing High Life (2018) and previously in her insightfully playful comedy Let the Sunshine In. where she plays a spirited and intelligent woman trying to find love with a series of unedifyingly pompous losers. Robert Pattinson will join Denis for the The Stars at Noon (2021) which follows American traveller (Margaret Qualley) through Nicaragua during the 1980s revolution, based on the novel by American writer Denis Johnson. Her next project Stars at Noon in set in 1980s Nicaragua during the Sandinista Revolution when a mysterious English businessman and a headstrong American journalist strike up a romance as they find themselves involved in a dangerous labyrinth of deceit. MT

CURZON release NOW ON MUBI 

Filmography

High Life, 2018 Un beau soleil intérieur, 2017 Le Camp de Breidjing, 2015 Contact, 2014 Voilà l’enchaînement, 2014 Les Salauds, 2013 Venezia 70: Future Reloaded, 2013 Aller au diable, 2011 White Material, 2010 35 rhums, 2008 Vers Mathilde, 2005 L’Intrus, 2004 Vendredi soir, 2002 Vers Nancy (Segment du film Ten Minutes Older: The Cello), 2002 Trouble Every Day, 2001 Beau travail, 1999 Nénette et Boni, 1996 Nice, very Nice (segment from A propos de Nice, la suite), 1994 J’ai pas sommeil (I Can’t Sleep), 1994 U.S. Go Home (Collection : Tous les garçons et les filles de leur âge), 1994 La Robe à cerceau (from Monologues, with Chantal Akerman), 1993 Keep It for Yourself  + Figaro Story, 1991 Jacques Rivette, le veilleur. Part 1 : la nuit (Cinéaste de notre temps), 1990 S’en fout la mort (No Fear, No Die) 1990 Man No Run, 1989 Chocolat, 1988 Le 15 Mai, 1969

Away (2019) ****

Dir: Gints Zilbalodis | Animation, Latvia, 74′

‘Staying Alive’ is how best to describe this symbolic and gorgeously fluid ‘boys own’ adventure from Latvian animation wizard Gints Zilbalodis.

Away is the culmination of a decade spent honing his craft in a series of  delightful short animations such as Aqua, Priorities and Oasis whose focus is the main character’s lone struggle to overcome a powerful force. In this case a King Kong-like shape shifter that pursues him through a preternatural jungle with the aim of swallowing him alive.

Throughout this dreamlike often hazardous odyssey the boy’s only companion is a small yellow bird who he cares for with the utmost tenderness. The film seems to connect with our own everyday battle to keep going in these uncertain times, and above all, to make the right choices.  In other words, Away is a metaphor for life that echo Miyazaki’s delicately rendered animes which can work on a simplistic or subliminal level offering appeal for kids and adults alike.

More minimalist than Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo or even The Red Turtle but just as beautiful and and driven forward by an evocative soundscape the film shirks narrative conventions to tell a story that is firmly tethered to the natural while also teetering towards the surreal. Zilbalodis controls his entire project from 3D animation and script through to editing, soundscape and production.

The tousled-haired, wide-eyed teenager lands by parachute on a lush and mysterious island and has to find his way across often perilous landscape to reach sanctuary using an old-fashioned motorbike. Amongst the creatures he encounters on his odyssey are a flock of white birds, a large tortoise and his family, and a pack of black cats who guard a powerful geyser that shoots out of a deep circular crevice, a grassy metaphor for Dante’s Inferno.

Although Away lulls us into a hypnotic sense of tranquility there is always the unsettling presence of the shape-shifter to keep us alert to danger as we start connecting with the angst of the struggling boy hero and his little bird, and indeed the tortoise, who at one point slivers down a snowy slope and on to its back, our hero coming to its rescue in one of many random acts of thoughtfulness. A beguiling and magical first feature with echoes of the best of Studio Ghibli. MT
Gints Zilbalodis (b. 1994) is a Latvian filmmaker and animator. He has made seven short films in various mediums including hand-drawn animation, 3D animation and live-action, often mixing their characteristic aesthetics.
https://youtu.be/B-2xxKAPssk
ON DIGITAL DOWNLOAD PLATFORMS 18 January 2021

 

 

Mother (2019) Locarno

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unidentified (2020) ****

Dir.: Bogdan George Apetri; Cast: Bogdan Farcas, Dragos Domitru, Vasile Muraru, Ana Popescu, Kira Hagi, Andrei Aradits; Romania/Latvia/Czech Republic 2020, 123 min.

Very much in the style of the classic French crime thrillers of the 1970s, Unidentified is a modern version of Yves Boisset’s Un Condé, tackling  racism and misogyny in one fell swoop in a tightly plotted murder story. Unidentified is the sophomore feature of Romanian director Bogdan George Apetri who also wrote and edited and co-produced drawing from his experiences of working in New York.

It sees scuzzy minor Detective Florin (Farcas) down on his luck, and in need of a scape goat to his appease his boss, Commissar Sef (Muraru). The sacrificial lamb soon fetches up in the shape of Roma security guard Banel (Domitru) whose been unlucky enough to have two major disasters occur during his checkered career, both seemingly connected to insurance fraud with Banel aiding and abetting the perpetrator, the owner of hotel where he was working.

Not that Florin is is squeaky clean from the personal probity angle either. Behind with his car repayments and mortgage, and he badgers his friend Mircea (Aradits) to give him more time to pay off his debts. But money worries are not the only thing getting the obsessed detective down. In Oleg Mutu’s fluid widescreen camerawork, we watch him on a hillside, overlooking a hotel and parking lot, spying on his fiancée Stela (Popescu) who is cheating on him with a married man. It’s hardly surprising given the way Florin neglects her and always seems to be in a bad mood. But what the hell? He hatches an ingenious plan to get rid of both of them in a double murder – the perfect crime. It will involve getting to know Banel and organising for him to work in the hotel where Stela hangs out. It’s got to be meticulously planned, so it looks like an accident: He invites Banel to his home, and makes him touch a beer bottle, which he will later use as a Molotov cocktail to kill Stela. So off he goes to meet Banel in the parking lot of the hotel at nine pm. But in that classic but always effective dramatic device – things don’t go according to plan for Florin. Not during the crime but afterwards, when his boss Sef picks holes in his story.

Apetri is certainly a master storyteller, overlaying his story of detective obsession with the serene score of none other than Chopin’s delicate piano music. Helicopter shots show Florin driving around manically, chasing his prey on a murderous mission. Even at two hours plus, Unidentified keeps us in its grip in exploring a psychotic law enforcement officer, crumbling before our eyes. And apparently there’s more to look forward too, Apetri’s  feature is the first of a trilogy set in small town Romania. AS

Special Jury Award, International Competition | Warsaw Film Festival 2020 | Rendezvous with French Cinema 2021

 

 

Crash (1996)

Dir.: David Cronenberg; Cast: James Spader, Holly Hunter, Deborah Kara Unger, Elias Koteas, Rosanna Arquette; Canada 1996, 100 min.

Crash certainly broke ground on its release in 1996. Cronenberg adapted the screen hit from the 1973 novel by JG Ballard’s 1973 who was declared “beyond any psychiatric help” by a publishing house critic back in the day.

The thriller won the Special Jury Prize “for Audacity” at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival, where it was talk of the town, Crash feels rather trite in the age of the Pandemic, twenty five years later.

James Spader plays Ballard, a TV producer ‘enjoying’ an open relationship with his wife Catherine (Unger). The two entertain each other with salacious titbits from their extra-marital affairs. But even this kinky variation does not satisfy them – there is still something missing.

The ‘something’ is rather shockingly (at least at the start) a love for car crash related sex. After one such incident Ballard just pulls through although the other driver is killed. He gets together with the female accident survivor Dr. Helen Remington (Hunter) and she introduces him to fellow crash fanatic Vaughan (Koteas), a veteran of staged accidents, and James is entranced by their post crash sex.

Poor Catherine has to wait for her own crash before she can join the elite circle of sex-crash survivors. Vaughan meanwhile re-stages the 1955 deadly crash which killed James Dean, complete with Dean’s ‘Porsche Spyder’. Not satisfied with his endeavour, Vaughan plans for the re-construction of the Jane Mansfield decapitation. After Catherine finally had her own collision – not a particularly impressive one – she can join her husband again. But this time Rosanna Arquette joins the party in a chrome body suit and leg braces, and the re-united couple and Helen can have a three-some of sorts. 

DoP Peter Suschitzky shows a barren, snowbound Toronto in keeping with Cronenberg’s habitual bleak dystopian world inhabited by these  hybrid characters. For once the director shares a different view: “Even though people think the movie is cold, I don’t think it’s cold. It begins cold, but gradually fills with emotions. It is subtle and not delivered the normal way it’s delivered in movies.” Viewers might find it difficult to come to terms with this new subculture where the addicts seek “to re-experience the mortality they so narrowly escaped by purposefully getting into more accidents where the only goal is to have sex with fellow survivors”. Cronenberg paints the small elite “of people who understand the crash epiphany, which allows them to relate each other”. By definition, there is a whole outside world, where everyone is irrelevant to the self-styled elite of death-seekers – Freud would have had his fun with analysing them. But Cronenberg seems unaware of his closeness to Nietzsche’s postulate of “Mensch and Übermensch: “The subject of the film is there is no moral stance that you can take. And if impose my own art artificial standards, then I am completely spoiling my experiment, which is to let these creatures have their head and try to re-invent all these things they are trying to re-invent”.

Some films are made to be just for a particular moment, that’s were Crash belongs, a piece of utter decadence, great to look at, but ultimately driving on empty. AS

CRASH IS NOW A DIGITAL RELEASE ON 30 NOVEMBER 2020

The Father | Bashtata (2019) Oscars 2021 | Glasgow Film Festival 2021

Dir: Kristina Grozeva, Petar Vlachanov | Bulgaria Drama 87′

The Father is the third collaboration for Bulgarian auteurs Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov. This superbly scripted psychological drama follows in the wake of The Lesson (2014) and Glory (2016/7) and explores a son’s attempts to rescue his father from the hands of an unscrupulous psychic healer.

Fraught with darkly piquant humour this comedy will resonate with anyone experiencing similar issues with their own ageing parents, the judicious mixture of farce and satire intertwining to deliver an enjoyable watch while skewering the situation down to a tee.

The Father in question is a dreadful dominating demon. Vasil (Ivan Savov) has no respect for his respectable married middle-aged son Pavel (an appealing Ivan Barnev) who is almost diminished to a blithering idiot in his presence, despite being a successful businessman.

During his wife Valentina’s funeral, Vasil behaves in a disgraceful manner by asking Pavel to take some final photographs of his mother’s corpse in its coffin. When Pavel refuses, Vassil berates him in front of the assembled mourners and insists on doing it himself, belittling Pavel in the process, who later deletes the macabre snaps.

But it doesn’t end there. Vasil becomes obsessed with the idea that his wife is trying to contact him from beyond the grave (by mobile) and decides to consult with a local medium, Dr Ruvi, involving Pavel in the process. Pavel feels responsible for his father, while not liking him terribly much: thoughts of getting back to his wife and business are subsumed by those of guilt; somehow he feels drawn into Vasil’s web of madness, unable to extricate himself from the parental ties that bind. Very much in the same vein as Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, Vasil exerts the same vulnerable power as Bruce Dern’s paternal figure. Clearly Vasil needs protecting from the strange requests made by Ruvi, but in helping him, Pavel takes on an irritating and undignified mission.

Pavel is also consumed by latent anger and constantly back-footed by his father’s unreasonable demands. Meanwhile Vasil become more and more absurd and desperate – the interplay between the two men providing a rich vein of humour. This entertaining two-hander (we never actually meet Ruvi or Pavel’s wife) cleverly sees Pavel emerging as the ultimate hero of the piece, Grozeva and Valchanov adding plenty of textural grist to the duo’s convincingly volatile relationship. MT

NOW SCREENING AT GLASGOW FILM FESTIVAL ONLINE | THE FATHER IS BULGARIA’S OFFICIAL ENTRY TO THE OSCARS 2021

CRYSTAL GLOBE WINNER | KARLOVY VARY FILM FESTIVAL 2019

Overseas (2019) Locarno 2019

Dir: Yoon Sung-a | Doc, 90′

It you are bored with the daily grind of working from home in these tedious Covid times then spare a thought for Filipino domestic workers in the Far and Middle East. In this startling expose of modern slavery that brings us up to speed on the acceptable ways of serving lunch to a Singaporean lady, or cleaning a lavatory in a Dubai household, there are some shocking revelations, tears and sadness for these young women who are often 0ver-worked and badly treated by their employers. But their training instructors urge them: “Never cry in front of your boss, it’s a sign of weakness and Filipinos are not weak”.

Overseas is the sophomore documentary of South Korea’s Yoon Sung-a, and makes for compelling viewing although it often lingers too long on each repetitive scene. There has been a long tradition of employing Filipino workers and these women are often treated as members of the family throughout Europe. But Yoon concentrates on those destined for the Middle and Far East where the working conditions are considerably more harsh, and employment laws less kind. Clearly the financial incentives to work abroad are worthwhile and makes sense, despite the hardships. Working mothers in the Far East are fully accustomed to leaving their kids with members of their own family while they pursue the financial incentives available overseas in order to provide a home of their own when they finally return retire.

Some of the workers are lucky, but many are made to work long hours in poor conditions: one girl talks of sleeping on the kitchen floor and being woken at 5am to start her day; another was constantly given orders even while eating her meals. There is also talk of sexual abuse in a household in the Middle East.

Overseas resonates with Davide Maldi’s recent feature The Apprentice that examines the service industry in Italy and the ongoing attitudes of those employed in the sector, while Lila Aviles has explored the life of a hotel worker in Mexico City in her darkly amusing, award-winning film The Chambermaid (2018). Throughout the Europe domestic workers are more in demand than ever with middle class families paying to having help at home – both parents are often out working and their adult (working) offspring are still in residence. In the Far and Middle East the class system is more rigidly in place but times are changing and these domestic workers are justifiably become more dissatisfied with their lot. These girls are caught in the crosswinds of change.

Yoon adopts a quietly observational approach to demonstrate how the collective experience of these women is broadly negative – yet is at pains to show that they are individuals rather than just a collective mass known for their placid and obedient nature. MT

NOW ON VOD PLATFORMS

LOCARNO FILM FESTIVAL | COMPETITION | 7-17 AUGUST 2019

Billie (2020)

Dir: James Erskine | US Biopic, 97′

James Erskine’s documentary about one of the greatest jazz legends of all time pays exuberant tribute to its focus: Billie Holiday. Born Eleanor Fagan in Philadelphia, 1915, she would go on to enjoy a career spanning 47 years. Perhaps ‘enjoy’ is not the best way to describe Billie’s Holiday’s often troubled existence echoed through her plangent vocal style and sensual ability to manipulate phrasing and tempo. What lives on is her extraordinary talent in singing the blues through these unique recordings.

Erkine bases his impressionistic film on a stash of recording interviews by the late Washington based writer Linda Lipnack Kuehl, who dedicated eight years during the ’60s and ’70s to her informative book about Billie Holiday. And these interviews and recordings breathe new life into our knowledge of a talented jazz singer who rose to fame in the Harlem of the 30s and 40s and lost her life at just 44 after several decades of heartache.

Heartache is a soulful motif that floods Billie’s repertoire with 30′ tunes ‘If You Were Mine’ and “You Let Me Down” with band accompaniment from Count Basie, Teddy Wilson or Artie Shaw. But there were also more upbeat tunes about love such as “I’m Painting The Town Red to hide a Heart that’s Blue”. And the lively ballads “Twenty Four Hours a Day”; ‘Yanky Doodle Never Went to Town’. and the chirpy “Miss Brown to You” with Teddy Wilson’s wonderful orchestra (from the album ‘Lady Day’).

Through Linda’s recordings Erskine shines a light on a time fraught with poverty, misogyny and racism where women certainly got the rough end of the deal particularly in the music business. Billie inhabited these times with gusto and courage, lamenting them in her songs that reflect back on her deep need to be loved by men – and women, using drugs and alcohol to numb her emotional pain. Living in the fast lane also took its toll: “We try to live one hundred days in one day”. Her story was a sad one, recorded here for the first time from the other side of the microphone – through the memories of those who knew and loved her.

Harsher memories contrast with the warmth of these tribute echoing the exuberance of those early days of jazz, and the darker times – we hear from a vicious pimp who remembers beating the women under his power in an era where such events were commonplace in the backstreets of New York. But the police were often as venal in their approach to Billie, pursuing her day and night throughout her life because of her success as a black woman. “Wasn’t she entitled to have a Cadillac?” says drummer Jo Jones. But often Billie couldn’t even get service when dining in a restaurant. After leaving the Count, she was a black singer in a white band. Eventually she served time for drug abuse but on her release still filled Carnegie Hall with queues round the block.

Erskine doesn’t hero worship or quail away from controversy surrounding  the ‘false memory’ of many talking heads, reflecting how time can alter the perspective. Linda Lipnack Kuehl doesn’t let her interviewees off the hook, demanding they justify their recollections. A case in point is Jo Jones’s strident claim that producer John Hammond sacked Billie from Count Basie’s band for not sticking to the blues. Hammond vehemently claims the sacking was for financial reasons.

What emerges is the soulful emotion of a talented artist who by definition was subject to highs and lows in giving of herself to her art and this comes across in visceral archive footage – particularly of ‘Strange Fruit’ – and live recordings that celebrate this timeless singer whose talent will never diminish.

It eventually becomes clear that one of her biggest fans was Linda Lipnack Keuhl who was there throughout her career, feeling a close affinity with Billie and her struggle to succeed, despite their different backgrounds at a time of racial segregation and strife. As Linda points out – the musicians were black but the critics, agents and managers were white. Thanks to Linda’s inquisitive style of journalism this tribute to Billie comes alive. MT

BILLIE is available, on demand, from 13th November on BFI, IFI, Curzon Home Cinema, Barbican. There is a live Q&A with James Erskine on 15 November as part of EFG London Jazz festival and it will be available to buy on Amazon and iTunes on 16 November.

THE QUINTESSENTIAL BILLIE HOLIDAY | Volumes 1,2,3 accompanied by Teddy Wilson and his Orchestra. 

Camouflage (1976) Barwy Ochronne | Kinoteka 2020

Dir/wri: Krzysztof Zanusssi | Cast: Piotr Garlicki, Zbigniew Zapasiewicz, Christine Paul-Podlasky, Mariusz Dmochowski, Wojciech Alaborski | 106min  Comedy Drama  Polish with subtitles

Krzysztof Zanusssi’s Camouflage is a satire worthy of Lubitsch, set in a summer camp in the mid Seventies, where progressive professor Jaroslaw Kruszynaki (Garlicki) is battling it out with old hand and party faithful, Jacub Szelestowski (Zapasiewicz).

The pawn between the two kings is student Jarek, whose paper in the linguistic completion is original but does not tow the party line. When the deputy dean arrives for the prize-giving ceremony, all hell breaks loose: the Dean is bitten, chaos reigns and the police are called in.

Zanussi’s attack on the meritocracy based on party affiliation and nothing else, plays like out like an absurdist comedy, revealing corruption, disillusionment and confusion. Reality is always close by: Poland’s filmmakers of that era were competing with each other for major prizes at home and abroad: and while the more diffident amongst them gained support from political bureaucrats, the more adventurous found adulation and prizes in Venice and Cannes – doubt where Zanussi belonged. Since the censors could hardly fault his clever narrative construction – open to interpretation – they accused him of “mocking the system” in quoting Lenin, when Jacub argues “most important is the selection of staff”. Zanussi eventually gave in, changing ‘staff’ to ‘people’.

As a director whose style was more humorously subversive than Wajda with his dramatic frontal attacks; he employs down-to-earth characters who are very much aware of being totally compromised by the socio-political situation they find themselves in. They do not revolt openly but try just to survive with as much self-respect as possible. Zanussi never denounces his characters, but shows their reaction to the intellectual oppression of the state in relation to what they have to lose: in this way he is a humanist who accepts that the older one gets, the more there is to lose. Above all, Camouflage is witty and extremely subtle and a highlight of this canon. A great choice for a weird year! AS

KINOTEKA FILM FESTIVAL 2020 

The Iron Bridge | Zelazny Most (2019) Kinoteka Film Festival 2020

Dir.: Monica Jordan-Mlodzianowska; Cast: Julia Kijowska, Barthlomiej Tapa, Lukasz Simlat, Andrzej Konopka; Poland 2019, 85 min.

The coal mines of Silesia form the gritty backdrop to this fraught menage a trois drama that sees two men caught up by a scheming femme fatale.

The Iron Bridge is a first film for Poland’s Monica Joran-Mlodzianowska and certainly makes a strong moral and ethical statement as the opener of this year’s Kinoteka Polish Film Festival  –  now celebrating its 18th edition, online.

Julia (Kijowska) is desperate for a child with her partner Oskar (Lukasz Simlat from Never Gonna Snow Again). But Oskar is suffering fertility problems so an affair with his boss and close friend Kacper (Bartlomiej Topa – star of Three Colours White) seems the natural solution. In order to keep Oskar busy while the two have fun, Kacper sends his friend to the deepest and most distant coal seems, where inevitably disaster strikes during a tremor. A nail-biting rescue operation is launched with Kacper’s friend and collegue Mikolaj (Konopka) coming up with an ingenious plan to save Kacper’s face and Oskar life.

There is plenty of dramatic potential here and Joran-Mlodzianowska mines it to great effect along the lines of Poland’s cinema of Moral Anxiety from the ’70 and ’80, clearly she had Kieslowski’s Dekalog in mind. The flaws are those of inexperience: a fractured narrative that breaks the tension along with lengthy flashbacks and clunky dialogue. DoP Piotr Kukla saves the day giving the film some flair and formal elegance with his subtle camerawork. AS

KINOTEKA POLISH FILM FESTIVAL 2020
  

Marek Edelman…And There Was Love in the Ghetto (2020) Kinoteka 2020

Dir: Jolanta Dylewska, Andrzej Wajda | Cast: Aleksandra Popławska, Adriana Kalska, Maria Dejmek, Maria Semotiok, Kamilla Baar Kochonska; Katarzyna  Wajda, Mateusz Wajda, Patricya Rojecka, Julia Sierakwoska; Poland/Germany 2019, 79 min.

Jolanta Dylewska and veteran director Andrzej Wajda worked together on this wistful ‘behind the scenes’ story of cardiologist Marek Edelman, the last surviving leader of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943. Edelman talks to the camera about his recollections of love in the ghetto, the romantic vignettes re-imagined by actors and intercut with archive films from the 1940s and contemporary shots from the inside of the Ghetto.

Marek Edelman (1909-2009) was also a political activist in the Polish Solidarity movement, a founder member the Jewish Labour Youth organisation before the Second World War, and later in the Ghetto. He became a cardiologist after 1945, and continued to oppose Zionism after the war, writing a letter of Solidarity to the Palestinians.

His first affair involved Dola (Poplanska) who was a nurse at the Bersohn and Bauman hospital in Warsaw, where Edelman worked. One evening, she invited young Marek into a room, telling him she could inject both of them with morphine so that they could make love. Shy Marek, who was immune to morphine, excused himself, and ran away. Later, Dola met a “Volksdeutscher” (sort of second class German) called Jozefow, who worked for Germans in the Ghetto, and the two fell in love. Dola’s husband, the couple had been divorced for a long time, was suffering from Tuberculosis and Jozefow arranged for him to live in countryside, where he brought food, which Dola fed to the invalid, before making love to Jozefow.

Mrs. Tennenbaum was a doctor at the hospital, and was lucky to get “a white card” which meant, that she was safe (at least for the time being) from deportations to the death camps. But her seventeen-year-old daughter Deda had not such luck, and her mother committed suicide, instructing her colleges in writing not to resuscitate her, but give the White Card to her daughter. Her friends honoured her wish, but Deda fell in love with a young man, and whilst they were living outside the Ghetto, with an American nurse, their lovemaking was so boisterous, that informers betrayed them to the Germans. Edelman does not know, when they were deported.

Tosia was a young woman of very middle-class background. She fell in love with a health inspector, and got pregnant. They got caught up in a round-up, when she was in her sixth month. They were dragged to the “Collection Point” near the hospital, where the Jews were forced into the wagons before deportation to the death camps. An Estonian guard wanted to shot her, but her boyfriend put her hand on her belly. The guard shot through his hand, and he was later executed, but Edelman does not know where Tosia was killed.

Hindusia Himmelfarb (Sierakowska) looked like a model Aryan: she had long blond hair and blue eyes – but she went with the children in her charge to the gas chambers. Others gave her the chance to escape the Ghetto, but she could not leave the children. Edelman comments, that her sacrifice was greater than Dr. Korzak’s – because he was an old man and she a young woman.

Pola Lifszyc was a life puppeteer, who entertained 300 children twice a week, making them happy, transporting them into another world. But Pola was worried about her very sick mother. Her boyfriend Janek, who had a rickshaw, was with her, when she learned, that her mother had been taken to the “Collection Point”. She asked Janek to take her there, and he watched helplessly, as she jumped from the rickshaw and joined her mother entering the wagon.

Edelman was not just a bystander: he watched the deportations, and tried to save friends, which he dragged out of lines into the back windows of the hospital. One day, he was looking for his friend Zoria, whom had saved already three times. But on this particular day, a woman with diamonds, asked him, to save her daughter. “I was tempted, because the diamonds meant, that I could save more people”. But Edelman decided against it, and waited for Zoria – but he failed to save her his time.

There was love in the Ghetto is heart breaking, because there are no happy endings. And we can imagine Edelman staying at the gate of the “Collection Point” to wait for friends he would try to save. The three levels work very well together: particularly the re-enactments in the contemporary Ghetto hit very much home: it could happen today. AS

Screening at  KINOTEKA | The Polish Film Festival in London, Kinoteka.org.uk

King of New York (1990) Arrow Player

Dir: Abel Ferrara | Cast: Christopher Walken, Laurence Fishburne, David Caruso, Wesley Snipes, Steve Buscemi, Joey Chin  | Crime Drama, 103′

Abel Ferrara gives this US crime thriller a lyrical almost existential makeover spiked with some  vicious violence and an incendiary car chase on a storm-lashed bridge. Haunted by the otherworldly elegance of Christopher Walken as mercurial world-weary crime lord Frank White, a strangely likeable felon determined to do good, having done bad in gangland New York.

Walken carries his villain head and shoulders – quite literally – above the usual hard-nosed mobsters. Not that he doesn’t mince words, and there are some punchy lines thanks to Ferrara’s regular writer Nicholas St John: “are you gonna arrest me, because if so do it because I’ve got people waiting for me”.

Laurence Fishburne and David Caruso also add zest to the mix, Caruso as a frustrated cop: “every time Frank kills somebody out there, it’s our fault, and I can’t live with that”. But this is a film made of memorable moments rather than a true epic feature. Ferrara makes gangland look real but stylish, rather than gritty or dangerous – he a 5 million dollar budget to play with. Bojan Bozelli’s lighting in the high class brothel and neon nights scenes is particularly lush.

Back on the streets Frank White’s game-plan is to rebuild the community hospital out of his ill-gotten gains but his recidivist credentials cannot help getting in the way, especially when the Chinese gangster Larry Wong gets involved. Ferrara portrays a time when New York gangsters made millions and sunk it into real estate, adding to the city’s reputation for iniquity, finally addressed – and rectified – by Mayor Giuliani. Sadly, women only get to play molls and prostitutes (although one pretty boy serves as a nifty receptacle for cocaine). The soundtrack is terrific and Walken does his funky dances and makes some serious social comment about the drug trade. MT

NOW AVAILABLE ON ARROW PLAYER & 4k RESTORATION BLU-RAY/DVD

 

Luxor (2020) ****

Dir/Wri: Zeina Durra | Cast: Andrea Riseborough, Janie Aziz, Michael Landers | Drama, 85′

A war zone doctor’s inner turmoil gradually surfaces in this serene second feature from British director Zeina Durra (The Imperialists are Still Alive!).

Never before has heartache appeared so muted and contemplative than in Andrea Riseborough’s portrait of post-traumatic stress disorder. She plays Hanna, a thirty-something aid worker who has just completed a stressful tour of duty in a wartorn corner of the Middle East. In Luxor, she finds herself physically and emotionally depleted, quietly contemplating her next move in the gentle faded splendour of the legendary Winter Palace Hotel on the banks of the Nile.

The genteel location is the stuff of dreams providing solace and a sanctuary for exhausted minds, damaged souls or simply those seeking a seasonal break in Eygpt’s pleasant climate. Luxor also lends a luminous spiritual dimension of this portrait of midlife crisis. A professional woman who has seen things “no human should have to witness” finds herself slipping down a path of increasing melancholy bordering on misery with the gradual realisation that normality and nurturing is now the order of the day, rather than more frontline trauma. Recuperating on quiet days of solitude amongst the ancient sites, she comes across a lover from a more light-hearted era. The passage of time – some twenty years it soon emerges –  has not dimmed the candle she once held for Sultan (Karim Saleh), an archaeologist from America. Quite to the contrary, it now burns even brighter leaving the void inside her soul crying out to be healed rather than temporarily satisfied.

Surrounded by the pharaonic tombs and towering temples, Luxor is very much the star turn. The peaceful city exudes a majestic energy empowering the film with an ethereal feeling of calm beneficence. Hana’s hotel companions, predominantly female, are genial and considerate, the only awkwardness comes after a one night stand she meets in the bar (played gamely Michael Landes) and provides a twist of humour rather than annoyance. Durra keeps dialogue to a minimum focusing on mood and feeling to sublime effect. Days spent reconnecting with her ex-lover soon expose a desperate longing that sees Hana quietly dissolving into tears, a raw nerve he unwittingly triggers in moments that are palpable in their intensity. 

Riseborough is gloriously lowkey at first, her perfect manners and placidity belying the simmering turmoil that gradually makes her more inhibited. She gives an understated physical performance, all blue-eyes, loose limbs and creamy complexion. Luxor has echoes of Columbus its scenic settings and philosophical discussions providing the peaceful backdrop for Hana’s story to unravel. And although the final scenes feel trite in contrast to the film’s thematic concerns the redemptive journey has been a beautiful and illuminating one. MT

NOW AVAILABLE online from next week | LUXOR PREMIERED AT SUNDANCE and KVIFF 2020 | KVIFF Competition returns in 2021

Martin Eden (2019)

Dir Pietro Marcello | Italy, Drama 129′

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

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

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

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

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

 

Looted (2019) ****

Dir: Rene van Pannevis | Charley Palmer Rothwell, Morgane Polanski, Tom Fisher, Tom Turgoose | UK Drama 90′

Looted is a refreshing departure from those run-of-the-mill British  indies made under the UK Tax haven purely to serve a purpose. Based on the director’s own experience as a troubled teen growing up in Hartlepool on the North East coast, it feels real and is often genuinely amusing despite the sombre storyline.

Set against a background of industrial decline – Hartlepool was a major centre for fishing – there’s a poetic poignance to the troubled wasteland where young sensibilities are beautifully brought to life in Aadel Nodeh-Farahani’s limpid camerawork.

Teenager Rob (Charley Palmer Rothwell) lives with his father Oswald, a retired sailer dying of asbestos poisoning. During the day Rob cares for Oswald (a gently humorous Tom Fisher) or hangs out on the docks with his mouthy friend Leo (Thomas Turgoose). Morgane Polanski is terrific as Rob’s knowing Polish girlfriend Kasha, adding cachet and integrity to the piece despite her limited role. When night falls Rob and Leo hit the streets of the seaside town for a spot of car-jacking, until their luck turns sour. With a solid script and convincing performances Looted takes a thoughtful look at the complexity behind criminal life without condoning it or seeking to pass judgement. MT

FIPRESCI PRIZE WINNER | TALLINN BLACK NIGHTS 2019 | NOW on all major VOD platforms including Curzon Home Cinema. 

 

 

.

 

Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project ****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOW ON RELEASE.

    

 

Havel (2019) *** Czech Film Week

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Apostasy (2017) ***

Dir.: Dan Kokotajlo; Cast: Siobhan Finneran, Sacha Parkinson, Molly Wright, Robert Emms; UK 2017, 96 min

Dan Kokotajlo’s debut feature is an intelligent  study in emotional fascism based on his own experiences. It tells the heart-breaking story of a family in Oldham where three women fall victim to the dogmatic pressures of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, an evangelic organisation with no empathy for its members, and certainly not if they are female.

Ivanna (Finneran) is a middle-aged woman living with her two daughters, college student Luisa (Parkinson) and Alex (Wright) who is still at school. The father is never mentioned, and Ivanna has made sure that both of her daughters are committed to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose ‘Elders’ are, unsurprisingly, all male.

Ivanna embraces every word preached down to her from the institution’s dogmatic Elders and belittles the Catholic Church – hardly a liberal institution – as “airy-fairy, they believe in something like the soul”. Whereas the Jehovah’s Witnesses credo is that the blood of its members is the pure manifestation of the Master God – and should not be messed with, particularly not by medical staff trying to save life.

Apostasy (meaning abandonment of belief) begins in a hospital where a nurse is secretly offering the anaemic Alex a much-needed blood transfusion knowing very well that she has already been stigmatised for having a blood transfusion as a new born. Alex is shy and full of self-doubt largely because she too believes her blood is not “pure” anymore. 

Meanwhile, Luisa not only falls in love with an “unbeliever”, but also gets pregnant by him. This causes a great deal of friction between between the sisters and provides most of the film’s dramatic tension. Luisa’s mother’s darkest fears have come true and Ivanna is only too ready to have her oldest daughter thrown out of the church: in an act euphemistically called a “disfellowship”.  In reality this means that her family is forbidden to communicate with Luisa.

Ivanna is only to ready to follow these orders, and making sure that the same ‘misfortune’ does not befall Alex, finds immediately a suitable husband for her in Stephen (Emms) a shy, insecure young man with hardly any social manners. He, like Ivanna, repeats the church’s dogmas in everyday life, and seems the perfect partner for Alex, who tries hard to be the perfect little soldier for Jehovah. All members wait for the Armageddon to happen soon (even though there was false alarm in 1975), the new system will replace everything known today, and, needless to say, only true disciples of the church will survive to live in this new paradise.

A shocking event then intervenes to slightly destabilise and dilute this rich character study between the women, as the narrative then focuses largely on the church and its influences, which are nonetheless intriguing, but somehow manage to carry the film through.

This is true horror (Kokotajlo grew up in a household of Jehovah’s Witnesses), and impressively acted, particularly by Finneran. It seems unbelievable that the earnest members of the church, who we all encounter at tube stations or at the front door, are capable of such emotional warfare against anybody who disobeys their commands.  Adam Scarth’s images are sparse and lean like the whole production, proving again, that one can create a small masterpiece on a minibudget. AS

NOW ON BBC IPLAYER

Being a Human Person (2020) ****

Dir: Fred Scott | Doc with Roy Andersson and his team, 90′

The Swedish auteur Roy Andersson (1943-) looks back on his life and his filmmaking style in this enjoyable first feature from TV/commercials director Fred Scott.

Made during the run-up to About Endlessness that won Best Director at Venice in 2019 Being a Human Person is Roy Andersson in a nutshell and perfectly describes a filmmaker whose deadpan tragic-comedies give dignity to people who have not been that successful in life: boring husbands, bland businessmen, the socially challenged or deeply unattractive. In other words, these people could be any of us or just those who have lost their way or become bored of their humdrum existence: the dentist tired of his squeamish patients, the clergyman who has lost their faith in God ( the priest in About Endlessness). Andersson sees himself in everyone of his characters – by his own admission – vulnerability and insecurity are the themes of his films, and constantly spill over into his creative process as he as he feels his way intuitively through what is possibly his last project with long-standing collaborators who have grown accustomed to absorbing the daily stresses and strains of the project. His is not an intellectual style but resolutely intuitive, and that means changes are inevitable. A scene that feels fresh and punchy on shooting may lose its clout in the rushes later that day. 

Looking like an affable twinkly-eyed Steve McQueen in archive footage shot after his breakout first feature A Swedish Love Story won awards at Berlinale 1970, he claims to have been “disgusted” by the film’s success. Now 76, Andersson has lost none of his gently genial charisma as he moves gingerly round the spacious central Stockholm townhouse acquired in 1981. “Studio 24” remains the headquarters of his daily filmmaking activities. Watching the world go by is a favourite pastime, as is eating in the Italian pizza restaurant opposite which is now home to his proudly-won Venice Silver Lion. 

But who is the man behind the enigmatic smile? Something tells us all is not well in Andersson’s world. His staff are not the only ones who have noticed a lack of energy and his increasing reliance on alcohol (“to avoid boredom” opines the director). Andersson freely admits to his penchant for a few drinks. It makes him more calm and docile to work with according to his staff. But do we detect a twinge of existential angst? A dose of rehab is on Andersson’s mind, but he gives up shortly after treatment has started, coming back energised with the realisation that About Endlessness will be probably be his final feature – and he wants it to his best. 

Making films is emotionally and physically exhausting. But he fears losing his daily raison d’être. His daughter Sandra appears to give a much-needed nutritious lunch (it’s worked already! laughs Anderson as he knocks back a bright green smoothie). She describes a love-filled childhood in a rented flat seaside flat in Gothenburg, while friends lived nearby in grand houses: “He found it stimulating to be the underdog”. She reflects. Meanwhile, family photos show an extremely affectionate father doting on his kids, and although it emerges his own father suffered longterm depression, no mention is made of Andersson’s own romantic life. “There’s enough material there for another film” says director Fred Scott. 

Being a Human Person is a masterclass in the Andersson way of filmmaking. Every feature consists of a string of tableaux, each one taking around a month to build, painstakingly by hand. The actors then perform a series of scenes shot by a static camera. Andersson describes them as short ‘film poems’ about life for ordinary people in scenarios that often give rise to iconic deadpan humour. The ‘greige’ aesthetics in immaculately rendered claustrophobic, airless settings feature ashen-faced characters glum, resigned or on the verge of tears. 

As an artist he continues to be appalled and dismayed by his fellow humans’ wrongdoing to humanity itself. This preoccupation is the focus of his “Living Trilogy” with its universal themes of compassion and connection, composed of Songs from the Second Floor (2000); You, The Living (2007) and A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014) . His short film World of Glory (1991) speaks of the unmitigated misery of ordinary life, but his most controversial work Something Happened (1993) was later withdrawn. 

Fred Scott offers up an affectionate and illuminating tribute to Roy Andersson that will hopefully encourage those bemused by his films to revisit them with greater insight. His collaborators are clearly fond of him despite his clever way of maintaining artistic control. And although Andersson emerges a man who feels deeply for humanity, Scott never really gets under his skin, his subject is clearly keen to keep his secrets intact:“You are a prisoner of your own mentality and that can be very hard sometimes” is all Roy Andersson will reveal. MT

IN CURZON | CINEMAS FROM 16 OCTOBER 2020

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 Painter and The Thief (2020) ****

Dir: Benjamin Ree; Documentary with Barbora Kysilkova, Karl Bertil Nordland, Øystein Stene; Norway 2020, 102 min.

Norwegian filmmaker Benjamin Ree follows his Sundance award-winning portrait of chess World Champion Magnus Carlsen with a documentary of a very different kind showing how bitter conflict can be resolved through art.

It all starts in 2015, when small time criminal Karl-Bertil Nordland and an unnamed accomplice stole two large paintings by Czech artist Barbora Kysilkova from an Oslo gallery. They were caught on CCTV, escaping with the rolled up canvases. Nordland was arrested and charged for the theft of ‘Swansong’ and ‘Chloe & Emma’, worth about 20,000 Euro. Particularly striking was the way the thieves took their time – removing a hundred or so nails to liberate the artworks – a task which would take over an hour. In court, Kysilkova asked Nordland why he stole her paintings, to which he answered simply “because they are beautiful”. He claimed diminished responsibility on the grounds of a four-day heroin trance. Kysilkova, a striking woman in her mid-thirties, asked to paint Nordland in ‘retribution’ for his crime.

This was the beginning of a close relationship of ‘Seelenverwandschaft’, a form of congenial understanding of two seemingly very different people. We learn about Nordland’s fight against drug dependency as a result of his mother leaving with his two siblings, leaving him to contend with an emotionally cold father. Becoming a respected carpenter he then feel prey to drugs abuse and prison. His upper body is heavily tattooed, with an inscription reading “Snitchers are a dying Breed”. When Nordland saw his portrait he cried like a baby, so overwhelmed that somebody saw him worthy of a portrait. “I do not deserve to be happy”. Barbora also painted him with his girlfriend, who left him after he bought heroin on the way to Rehab.

Nordland and Barbora are polar opposites yet their relationship develops against the odds, clearly brought to each other by some sort of soul connection through which they also learn a great deal about themselves – including their respective inherent attraction to dangerous habits. They are like Hansel and Gretel, abandoned by the adult world to fight for themselves in a threatening environment. The dark wood is a good symbol for a world both don’t fully understand.

Sentenced to one year in Halden prison, Nordland distance from Barbora’s feels somehow therapeutic for them both. But the re-discovery of one of her paintings ‘Swansong’, (hidden by Nordland’s partner in crime in an underground labyrinth) fills her with ecstatic happiness.

Rees and fellow DoP Kristoffer Kumar produces images of ethereal beauty, particularly in the shots showing Barbora painting in a trance-like state. What started as a ten-minute short film develops into a profound exploration of two survivors, who accidentally find a way to each other. AS

In cinemas 30 October 2020 | Winner – Sundance 2020 – Special Jury Prize for Creative Storytelling

 

Summer of 85 (2020) ****

Dir|Wri: Francois Ozon. France, Romcom, 100′

This upbeat breezy retro teenage love story is set in seaside Normandy over six weeks in the summer of Summer Of 85. As usual Ozon doesn’t take things too seriously but the romance feels real and the lively score of ’80s hits and memories of holidays in Normandy make this a sunny treat for everyone.

Aiden Chamber’s paperback original ‘Dance on My Grave’ took place in Southend-on-Sea but Ozon choses the Normandy coastal town of Le Tréport for his version of the tale with its strong emotional undercurrent stemming for the elation and them pain of first love showing how the central character discovers writing as a therapy for his broken heart.

Summer of 85 is more tragic than comic but Francois Ozon has a clever way spicing his dramas with subtle and subversive humour always leaving it open to individual interpretation. And there are random moments that may raise a smile, or may not. The balance is always delicately poised.

Alexis (Félix Lefebvre) is a cherubic blond 16 year-old, who hints in the opening scenes that see him in police custody, that the film will end in tears but we are not told why. And this is the enigma that hooks us into the plot driven forward by his literature teacher Mr Lefèvre (a moustachioed Melvil Poupaud)  disguise) who tries to persuade Alexis to write about his experience even if he can’t talk about it.

Gradually the story spills out in flashback narrated by Alexis who takes us back to the start of summer when he decided to take his friend’s boat for an afternoon’s sailing. Storm clouds soon gather and he is thrown into the water only to be rescued by another sailer in the shape of David Gorman,  (Benjamin Voisin) a dark-haired 18-year-old adonis who certainly knows the ropes.

Soon the two are back at David’s where a voluptuous Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi plays a welcoming Jewish mum Mrs Gorman who also runs a business specialising in sailing tackle. Admiring Alex’s own tackle she runs him a hot bath. Realising her son needs a close friend, but does realising yet just how close, the boy’s budding relationship blossoms, and he is offered a role in the business. But there’s good fun to be had — riding David’s  motorbike and sailing – not to mention between the sheets in this hedonistic affair that positively froths with youthful exuberance especially when a Kate (Philippine Velge) a frisky young au pair from England joins the party. Meanwhile Alex’s mother (Isabelle Nanty) and father are a more down to earth couple anchoring him in the reality of their working class set-up.

Summer in Normandy in always going to be a winner visually, whether down on the beach or in the verdant hinterland the setting is strikingly beautiful and DoP Hichame Alaouie conveys a retro feel with his Super-16 camerawork. And one of the best things about Summer of 85 is its rousing soundtrack of ’80s hits from The Cure’s ’In Between Days’ to Rod Stewart’s ’Sailing’. As David, Benjamin Voisin’s striking charisma carries the film: his confident intensity and effervescent charm set him out to be a star in the making. MT.

IN CINEMAS | CURZON HOME CINEMA from 23 OCTOBER

 

Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful (2020) ****

Dir/Wri: Gero von Boehm | DoP: Sven Jakob-Engelmann | 89′

Gero von Boehm dives deep into the life and work of maverick German fashion photographer Helmut Newton (1920-2004) for a second look.

Back in the 1980s I was a great admirer of Newton’s cutting edge gaze at the female – and male – form. After a photographer boyfriend told me “you look like a Helmut Newton model” I was determined to track down this controversial man and learn more about him. Then I remember standing on the Kurfurstendamm in Berlin and watching glamorous leather-clad ladies of the night pass by all stern and supercilious with their whips and red lips. Clearly these proud professional were Newton’s disciples. And this warm tribute celebrates the subversive side of the genial provocateur who was born into a comfortable Jewish family in Berlin during the edgy Weimarer years.

Enlivened by fascinating insights from Newton himself along with his Australian wife June and numerous collaborators Gero von Boehm’s Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful discovers a man who loved women and gave them the confidence to show their bodies off in a way that was empowering, seductive and even darkly humorous – even dangerous. By the end you may have a different view of his innovative approach, considered by some to be exploitative. Look again.

Once of Newton’s challengers was feminist writer Susan Sontag, who is seen sparring with him on a French chat show calling him out on his penchant for shooting naked women (mostly in high heels) in objectified scenarios, but the disdainful expressions or steely glint in these women’s eyes tells a different story, and despite their nakedness they are proud potent Amazonians who glare out at the viewer,  and this is his talent to amuse. It was also one that earned him a great deal of money enabling him to winter in California’s luxury Chateau Marmont for over 40 years until his tragic death in January 2004.

Ironically his famous models heap him with praise. Isabella Rossellini – who considers herself a feminist – waxes lyrical about her friend recalling a famous portrait he made of her with her then-partner David Lynch. his approach seems to expose latent truths in the female (and male) psyche, after all we are all animals who love to dominate or occasionally be overpowered in the right circumstances.  And this is the essence of the sizzling sexual chemistry behind his photos. Another glowing account comes from Charlotte Rampling, who has more than a twinkle in her eye looking back on the smouldering naked portrait that helped launch her career around the time of The Night Porter.

Von Boehm then delves into Newton’s past: he was 13 when Hitler came to power, a time when Leni Riefenstahl’s athletic images of women in rigorous exercise formations were everywhere to be seen. In Australia he met his wife to be and major collaborator, June, who went on to be his art director, while honing her own craft behind the camera. It was a successful love and business partnership akin to that of Charles and Ray Eames.

Coming across as affable and also vulnerable, Newton plays up his ‘naughty boy’ image in front of the camera and seems like the sort of guy who would be charming and easygoing company. But Boehm keeps a distance from his subject in an enjoyable foray that never attempts to eulogise or condemn. Clearly Newton had a well-developed erotic imagination but his love and devotion to his wife is a clear indication that, at heart, he was a decent if decadent man. MT

ON CURZON HOME CINEMA | DIGITAL DOWNLOAD 23 OCTOBER

 

 

Ronnie’s (2020)

Dir: Oliver Murray | Doc with:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ON QUALITY PLATFORMS

 

 

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

 

 

Frida Kahlo (2021) DVD and Digital



Dir.: Ali Ray; Documentary narrated by Anna Chancellor; UK 2020, 90 min. 

Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) had more than her fair share of set-backs in a short life marked by tragedy: after suffering from polio as a child, her heart was set on becoming a doctor. Eventually a life-changing accident in Mexico City proved the making of her as Mexico’s most well-known figurative artist.

Helmed by Ali Ray, Frida Kahlo takes a deep dive into the cultural history of Mexico in an engaging and informative study that starts in turn of the 20th Century Mexico City where Kahlo was born into a professional family of Germany heritage. Inspired by Renaissance art and European Avant-garde Kahlo channelled her pain (caused by a road accident) into portraits of family and friends, painted from her bed, with a special easel suspended from above.

The straightforward narrative chronicles a life marked by Kahlo’s dedication to finding an artistic outlet to her feelings as a semi-invalid in need of constant surgical intervention to manage her afflictions. Her paintings explore post-colonial gender, class and culture at a time where her country was experiencing seismic shifts in its transformation away from Hispanic influences and back to Mexico’s native roots in magic realism and folklore. She was the first painter to depict a miscarriage (her own), and, as a devout Catholic, she even painted herself as the baby Jesus cradled in the arms of Mary.

Kahlo’s relationship with wealthy, political activist and painter Diego Rivera marked a significant turning point in her life in1928. Both were members of the Communist party and they married a year later – Rivera was 20 years older – to form a union that would be influential but turbulent for the rest of her life. Crucially it also meant that Kahlo was able to afford the hospital treatment that would keep her going. Despite his obesity Rivera was a flagrant womaniser – even sleeping with Frida’s younger sister and close confident. “I had two accidents in my life, the tram and Diego. He was by far the worst”. She reflected later in life.

Kahlo may have been avant-garde in her outlook, but styled herself as a traditional Tijuana woman and painted in the naif style of the ‘Mexicanidad’, a romantic nationalism which adopted motifs from the pre-colonial era. In the early 1930s the couple moved to San Francisco where Rivera – as part of the Muralista movement – took on an assignment to paint the walls of an industrial plant with historical murals, a mammoth undertaking that would later see the couple move to Detroit and New York. But while Rivera worked, Frida tried to have a family. Her 1932 work “Henry Ford Hospital” was considered the first painting to feature a miscarriage, an attempt by the 25 year-old Frida to process the shock. She continued to paint expressing her inner trauma using symbolism and iconography which bordered on the surreal. Andre Breton being entranced by her style, even though Kahlo herself never used any categorisation for her work.

Frida yearned for Mexico and their eventual return saw the couple housed in separate dwellings, connected by a bridge where they could visit each other at will. It was at this time that Rivera took up with Kahlo’s younger sister, and the disappointed Frida turned to expressing herself through religious tableaux painted on copper and zinc – but not in the traditional form of an icon: one painting: “My Nurse and I” (1937) depicts her as the baby Jesus, and Maria as a Mexican woman. “The Two Fridas” (1939) is a split-personality portrait, whilst “Self-portrait with cropped Hair” (1940) is about her androgynous self, not surprisingly since she had affairs with women as well as men during her chequered sexual career. Her increasing alcohol intake, and Diego’s affairs with high profile lovers, led to a divorce in 1939, but they would remarry a year later.

Kahlo only had two solo exhibitions in her lifetime (the last one in 1953, just before her death). In 1938 her paintings were part of “Magic Realism”, an exhibition in Paris, where Picasso gave her critical acclaim. In Kahlo’s final years her paintings became more and more graphic in their depiction of trauma. “A Few Nips” shows a prostitute being murdered by her pimp, and “The broken Column” (1944) is a self-portrait, her body in a corset, her spine held together by bandages. “Self-Portrait with Thorn Neck Lace and Hummingbird” (1940) shows her with a monkey and a black cat – a semi-religious portrait which again is a role reversal of gender roles. Perhaps her most complete painting is “The Love embrace of the Universe, the Earth (Mexico), Myself, Diego and and Senor Xolotl “(1949), a quasi-religious panorama in which Frida holds the adult Diego like a baby in her arms.

Ray’s filming technique show the paintings at their most vivid and clear, but the academic Talking Heads become too intrusive: Anna Chancellor’s concise narration offering adequate insight, the paintings speaking for themselves. Kahlo’s work and personality elude any academic approach – her life and work defied categorisation as a unique expression of life experience couched in the enigma of an extraordinary woman who succeeded against the odds. AS      

FRIDA KAHLO: RELEASED ON DVD, DOWNLOAD & STREAM ON 22 FEBRUARY

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.

Carmilla (2019) **

Dir/scr. Emily Harris. UK. 2019. 95 mins.

This exquisite-looking atmospheric drama based on Sheridan Le Fanu’s female vampire tale is a blood-drained version of the original spine chiller.

‘Carmilla’ pre-dates Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ by nearly three decades yet remains a more obscure affair lurking behind the more famous ‘Uncle Silas’. And this film version is a pale rider compared to the 1871 novel that chronicles the dwindling life of teenage Lara (Hannah Rae) whose impromptu house guest (an exotic Devrim Lingnau) arrives in a mysterious carriage. Carmilla eventually outstays her welcome – not not by drinking Lara’s cellar dry – but draining her hostess’s blood and reducing her to a bedridden cypher.

Women of that era were destined to be seen and not heard, and this is the fate of Lara whose increasingly demure behaviour fails to alarm her family. In her first film, Emily Harris stays faithful to the supernatural powers of the book but fails to convey the sinuous terror instilled by Sheridan Le Fanu’s novel. Carmilla is a fable fraught with sullen and brooding characters, but most of the support cast here just seem lacklustre. Never mind a splash of blood, Harris could have added a jolt of life by reanimating the novel’s spectacular opening carriage scene, adding some vital backstory and dramatic heft as a counterpoint to the languorous aftermath in the claustrophobic interiors of the remote country pile where the Gothic tale unfolds.  

DoP Michael Wood conjures up summery English scenery and lowkey candlelit interiors that set the perfect scene for a sapphic ‘love story’ to be delicately evoked by the bewitched duo. Shame then that Harris fails to breathe life into this rather wan thriller that feels as lethargic as the lovers themselves . MT

NOW IN CINEMAS | 16 OCTOBER 2020

 

Saint Maud (2019) **** Bfi player

Dir/Wri: Rose Glass | Cast: Morfydd Clark, Jennifer Ehle, Lily Frazer, Lily Knight, Marcus Hutton, Turlough Convery, Rosie Sansom, Carl Prekopp, Jonathan Milshaw, Noa Bodner, Rosie Sansom | UK, Fantasy Drama 84′

Rose Glass has been making films since she was 13. Her accomplished first feature is a restrained brew of horror and psychological thriller built round intoxicating performances from Morfydd Clark and Jennifer Ehle as nurse and patient.

The real St Maud lived in 10th century Germany, the daughter of a Saxon nobleman known for her healing hands, but this Maud has a distinctly Welsh sensibilities. Clark is clearly cast for her angelic face, although we see her with fresh blood on her hands in the opening scene which suggests that she is not as pious as she would have us believe when she arrives at the Arts&Crafts villa of a surprisingly vivacious diva who is dying of cancer.

Amanda (Ehle) is clearly not going to “go gentle into that good night” in the words of Dylan Thomas. Fond of Art Deco prints, mid-Sixties furniture and the music of Al Bowlly, Ehle dusts down her purring North Carolina accent and often dons a wig and false eyelashes to create a ravishing portrait of faded glamour which echoes Dorothy Parker or even Cyd Charisse. Bored rigid by her own mortality, and relying on her lover Carol (Frazer) to entertain her, Maud responds by stroking her ego, as a tender nurse whose new found religious fervour reaches orgasmic levels, inspiring both patient and carer to hope for better things in the next life – saved by the power of God. But Maud is jealous of Carol, and her tenure ends in tears. This elegantly crafted first act is bewitched by the squally winter skies of Scarborough, Adam Janota Bzowski’s booming sensaround soundscape and lush lensing from Ben Fordesman.

Once Ehle has left the stage (she does return for a brief blast) the film turns into a rather more disturbing study of untreated mental illness, Glass directing with inventive  flourishes clearly influenced by The Devils and Repulsion. Maud is a disturbed and delusional character suffering from loneliness and a desperate need to control, and clinging to her Christian faith and its emblems for succour. And we really feel for her in this astonishing turn from Clark.

It soon emerges from a chance encounter in the street that she was previously known as Kate, and worked in a hospital where something bad happened. Now offering palliative care through a private agency, Maud has poetically re-styled herself as a contemporary version of Florence Nightingale, and Glass has given clever thought to this imaginative re-branding: Maud is also dogged by dangerous moods and these sequences are accompanied by magic realism and glowing special effects – in one Maud sprouts luminous wings, another sees her incandesce in a really shocking finale.

Maud’s delusional episodes grow increasingly florid as she finds herself alone and unemployable in a dingy basement flat. By the end the reality and fantasy become indistinguishable although this ambiguity never entirely satisfies. But Glass clearly enjoys honing her beast and adding further layers of texture to a characterisation that has haunting implications. Ehle is sadly underused but makes the best of her tortured diva in this really frightening first foray for the British director. MT

IN CINEMAS 9 OCTOBER 2020

About Endlessness (2019) ****

Dir: Roy Andersson | Drama, Sweden 78′

A man and a woman are carried aloft in floating clouds like some Swedish version of Marc Chagall’s couple. This is the opening image in About Endlessness the putative final drama from Swedish auteur Roy Andersson.

The next sequence shows an older couple surveying the painterly panorama of modern Stockholm for a quiet hillside bench above the city. Meditative and calming, like a warm afternoon in Autumn, the scene is also strangely comforting: “it’s September already” the woman says laconically.

Essentially a series of short visual poems – in Andersson’s own words – his idiosyncratic films view the lives of ordinary people through a deadpan lens in these delicately sober vignettes. All constructed as painted tableaux in his Studio 24 in Stockholm they form a painted backcloth for the characters to enact their mournful roles to camera. The locations are sometimes identifiable: a Stockholm street (as in the opening scene); a dental surgery, or even the vestry as the vicar prepares for a service of communion. Later we will see a couple drifting above a ruined townscape: it could be Dresden – the devastation is so widespread –  but nothing is clear.

Andersson is possibly best known for his ‘Living Trilogy’ – Songs from the Second Floor (2000), You, the Living (2007) and A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Contemplating Existence (2014). His films are auto-biographical, shaped by his own character traits of vulnerability, insecurity and a general sympathy for the underdog. These characters are bland and pasty-faced, often overweight or gaunt, verging on hysteria or in abject misery but sometimes just inquiring. The immaculate backdrops are claustrophobic and ‘griege’ in colour and design, although some are delicately rendered to recreate cityscapes or empty streets. Swedish history also intervenes as soldiers populate the frame, echoing its military power during the 17th century.

This time Andersson is more sorrowful, more meaningful, his tragi-comedy more poignant, raising only a knowing smile before fading to black. The poems mostly start with a woman’s voiceover saying: “I saw a man having trouble with his car” or “I saw a woman who loved champagne, so much”. Then there is the priest literally driven to tears by his loss of faith. He haunts his church congregation, then he appears at the doctor’s surgery – not once, but twice – before he is asked to leave. It seems even the medical profession has lost its compassion according to Andersson’s sorrowful gaze (clearly this was before Covid19).

Some of these episodes are deeply moving, but most of all they leave us with ample time for quiet reflection on our own lives. Have we lost compassion for our fellow man? Have we lost our way? Andersson’s films are as prescient now as ever they were, even more so as we contemplate life through the pain of man in the dentist chair, or the desperation of the tearful vicar – and we yearn to be those lovers in their romantic heaven. MT

IN CINEMAS AND EXCLUSIVELY ON CURZON HOME CINEMA – 7 NOVEMBER 2020 | BEST DIRECTOR VENICE 2020

 

 

Beyond the Visible: Hilma af Klint (2020) ****

Dir.: Halina Dyrschka, Documentary with Iris Müller-Westermann, Julia Voss, Josiah McElheny, Johan af Klint, Ulla af Klint; Germany 2019, 93 min. 

The life of abstract artist and mystic Hilma af Klint (1862-1944) – who purportedly created the first abstract work in 1906 – is the subject of this impressive first feature from German director Halina Dyrschka.

Painted out of art history by male supremacists, it shows how the pioneering Swede was creating colourful visionary works – inspired by her interest in Theosophy – five years before Kandinsky, who is supposed the first in this field – the dubious circumstances of which add a controversial twist to this informative arthouse documentary.

They tens mainstay IV (1907)

When Hilma af Klint died at the age of nearly eighty-two, she left 1200 paintings and 26 000 pages of diary to her nephew Erik, with the clear proviso that nothing should be sold from a body of work that would only be exhibited twenty years after death, because she felt the world was not ready for her groundbreaking ideas. She was dead right – the first major exhibition had to wait until 2013, the Moderna Museet in Stockholm having refused to take her paintings as a gift from the Hilma af Klint Foundation during the 1970s. 

In 1882, at the age of twenty af Klint was admitted to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm, where she set about successfully creating traditional portraits and landscapes earning substantial sums. At the Academy she met Anna Cassel, the first of four women who would join her in the collective The Five (De Fem), the others being Cornelia Cederberg, Sigrid Hedman and Matilda Nilsson. But there was another more spiritual side to her life and she was actively involved in Theosophy, participating in séances, a normal pastime for middle class Avantgarde intellectuals at the turn of the century.

Theosophy was the only spiritual movement which allowed women to be ordained as priests, teaching the oneness of all human beings. Af Klint’s interest in the theories of fellow Theosophist Madame Blavatsky led her to geometrical paintings where: “the pictures were painted directly through me, without any preliminary drawings and with great force. I had no idea what the the paintings were supposed to depict; nevertheless, I worked swiftly and surely, without changing a single brush stroke.”  

In 1908 Af Klint met up with her longterm friend Rudolf Steiner, but her abstract work made little impact on the Swiss anthropologist. He would later show her paintings to a fellow Theosophist Kandinsky who claimed his 1910 “Untitled” to be the first ever abstract work ever produced. Nobody will ever know if af Klint’s paintings had influenced  Kandinsky.

The Ten Largest: Adulthood No 7 (1907)

Steiner’s rejection of her work led to a four-year-long creative block for af Klint, lasting until 1912. Her confidence had been battered, but her work on the Temple series carried on and was prodigious, counting 193 paintings divided into sub-series. One theme gave rise to massive canvasses in a series entitled, ‘The Ten Largest” (1907) describing the various stages of life (childhood, youth, adulthood, old age etc).

Clearly af Klint’s work is still an influential creative force over a hundred years after her first foray into the art world. Looking at Warhol’s quartet of Monroe paintings, we find an exact duplicate in af Klints’s oeuvre, showing four identical portraits of an elderly woman. The experts and the film’s Talking Heads agree: Art History has to be re-written to find a place for Hilma af Klint, a courageous woman who only unveiled her abstract talent once during her lifetime: at ‘Friends House’ in London, 1928. AS

IN CINEMAS from 9 OCTOBER 2020

 

 

Capital in the 21st Century (2020) ****

Dir.: Justin Pemberton; Co-Dir.: Thomas Piketty; Doc with Rana Foroohar, Professor Joseph Stiglitz, Thomas Piketty, Ian Bremmer, Francis Fukuyama; France/New Zealand 2019, 102′ 

Justin Pemberton makes economics anything but dry in his thrilling – and frightening – screen adjunct to Thomas Piketty’s ground-breaking book. Brisk and entertaining like a filmic history lesson, some 400 years are condensed into a palatable mouthful that lacks somehow the depth of the page.

The New-Zealander has raided the archives enlivening Capital in the 21st Century with TV clips as well as graphics and archive footage of newsreels, financial ‘experts’ adding their pennyworth in a bid to clarify the mess we are in. According to Piketty – who also appears as a talking head – nothing has changed since the 17th century when feudalism ruled and the medium life expectancy was seventeen. So what does that tell you?

Feudalism saw one per cent of the population own seventy percent of land. Back then the only way of earning a living (apart from servitude) was itinerant farm work. In films terms, the world was like just like Elysium (2013), where a charmed few lived in splendour and the rest in grinding poverty. The French  Revolution tried to break the mould but the real change came with the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century when machines took over the manual work but the power structure was the same: workers being in hock to their employers (who took all the risks), strikers ending up in jail.

Many Europeans emigrating to North America for a new start soon discovered that hard land-based work was still the order of the day, the small family unit unable to compete with land-owners, who bought in slaves and exploited them on the cotton fields of the Deep South. Meanwhile Europeans were out colonising and exploiting the natural resources of the newfound territories, finding unchallenged markets for their products and building fortunes and empires into the bargain.    ,

European workers’ resentment  increased between 1870 and 1914, while an emerging Middle Class got used to a new term: fashion. In the US meanwhile, the class struggle was much more vicious, employers hiring their own militia, backed by a Federal Army who quelled many strikes. The outbreak of World War I channelled class envy into a national identity, the aftermath saw the suffragettes making inroads into male dominance with their fight for the right to vote.

Pemberton then leads us through the more erratic midsection of the documentary which deals with the 20th domination by banking power, nationalism, Depression, war, the welfare system and workers rights. Working class lives improved immeasurably during the late 1950s when prime minister Harold Macmillan proclaimed: “You’ve never had it so good”. He was probably right. The establishment of a Welfare State led to a vigorous middle class which would become the backbone of society, but that backbone has since been severely tested by an erosion of values that has polarised society, particularly now as the gulf widens again between rich and poor. Since the 1970s Oil Crisis, middle class income has sharply declined in the US, where ‘stagflation’ soon became the order of the day.

In the 1980s, President Reagan dismantled the welfare state, and Wall Street and Main Street diverged: what was good for the City and the big corporations (with Joseph Stiglitz’s ideas of trickle down economics) was not seen as a benefit to Main Street with its mainly family-owned small businesses. The US was suffering from competition from Japan and Europe, and Reagan’s battle cry “to make America great again” created a war against trade unions, and native workers disgruntled by a growing number of immigrant labourers. With the slogans like “Greed is good” dominating, more deregulation was supposed to facilitate a “trickle down” of wealth, which never happened. The result is that the bottom 90% of the population has suffered a loss in family income, and the real wages (purchasing power) are on a level last experienced in 1960.

The credit boom, another contributing factor of the 2008 crash, camouflaged a dire situation: since 1970 wages have increased for 90% of the population by 800%, but for the top ten percent the increase in capital was 2000%. This has led to the Super Rich not re-investing their capital in production, but in keeping their wealth in an endless loop, where the same people buy and sell capital commodities, bringing a 4.5% average return. This compared with 1.6% return on investments in industry or other productive enterprises.

When all is said and done, the super rich will always be able to employ the best legal advice to fight their way out of taxation. In 2015, Google Alphabet had made a profit of 15.5. billion USD – offshore in Bermuda. shell companies and numbered accounts for the Elite keep them free from punitive taxes.

Meanwhile, new technologies create new jobs. More than ever ,individuals are setting up companies and gaining financial freedom and clout. But when robots replace humans, humans will slide down the pecking order. Vehicle drivers now make up the second largest group of people in employment. With the advent of the driverless car, what will eventually happen to them?

So the outlook is grim. But it always was. The rich will always be rich, and the poor will always be poor, but the disadvantaged have more opportunities that ever before. Pemberton includes a psychology experiment that exposes a sinister side to human nature suggestive of a positive mind set that also comes into play.

The consequences can only be controlled politically. But who will be controlling capitalism? Certainly not the middle classes, if their erosion continues. The film tries to end on a positive note: “Creating a more equal society is possible from a technical standpoint”. But in reality we all know this is unlikely to happen due to the inherent flaws of human nature. AS

NOW ON RELEASE IN CINEMAS | 25 SEPTEMBER 2020

                                               

A Good Man (2020) *** Toronto Film Festival

Dir.: Marie-Castielle Mention-Schaar; Cast: Noémie Merlant, Soko, Vincent Dedienne, Anne Loiret; France 2020, 108 min.

This trans fertility threesome is not as good as it could have been despite an impressive second performance from Portrait of a Lady on Fire’s Noémie Merlant who here plays a cis woman in the throes of becoming a trans man .  

Marie-Castielle Mention-Schaar produces, writes and directs her follow up to Le ciel attendra (Heaven Will Wait) reuniting her with Merlant who as  Benjamin agrees to interrupt his sex reassignment surgery in order to carry and birth the child his partner Aude wants so badly but cannot carry to full term.

Aude (Soko) lives with the community nurse in the village of Groix on an island off the Brittany coast. They have moved here from Aix-en-Provence, where Aude was a successful ballet dancer. One of the many flashback scenes pictures the couple on their first date when Benjamin was still Sarah. They have now been together for six years and want to cement their relationship with a child. In other flashbacks, Benjamin’s mother Eve (Loiret) complains about not having a real daughter “I could not even talk to her”. His brother Antoine (Dedienne) is married with a child and also has a poor relationship with Benjamin.

Ben is not secure in his changing physical status, and does not allow Aude to see him in the bath. He claims his old self, Sarah, could never had a child due to body dysmorphia. And while Benjamin gradually adjusts to his status as a pregnant mother, Aude feels, rightfully, left out: she has given up a great career, and now the mother role she craved so much is also taken away from her – albeit by a caring Benjamin.

This creates a double-bind, but instead of evaluating her misery the director simply writes her out of the script only to bring her back at the very end of the feature as an afterthought. She is not the only under-explored character: many of Benjamin’s patients find his pregnancy rather odd, but in the end they all come around to it – as if by magic. Benjamin himself always occupies the centre stage but is only fragmentarily explored: we see more reaction from the outside than from his own point of view; apart from one outburst against Aude when he gets his revised birth certificate. This makes A Good Man difficult to engage with – surprising for a feature stuffed with such explosive emotions.

DoP Myriam Vinocour’s claustrophobic camerawork fails to reflect the wild beauty of the island setting that added so much allure to Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Life for the couple seems so restrictive, even though Benjamin gets around a lot visiting his patients. But the main downside to this complex drama is its fractured narrative: few features succeed in integrating so many flashbacks – and A Good Man is no exception. This is still a worthwhile experience that makes a brave effort to explore complex gender roles in today’s every-changing world.  AS

TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL 2020                                                  

 

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

 

 

 

Max Richter’s Sleep (2020) ****

Dir.: Natalie Johns; Cast: Max Richter, Yulia Mahr; The American Contemporary Music Ensemble: Grace Davidson (Soprano), Emily  Brausa (Cello), Clarence Jensen (Cello), Isabel Hagen (Viola), Ben Russell (Violin), Andrew Tholl (Violin), Max Richter (Piano, Keyboards Electronics);  UK 2019, 99 min.

Director/writer Natalie Johns offers up a unique experience with the filming of the first outdoor performance of composer Max Richter’s eight hour long grand scale epos SLEEP in LA’s Grand Park in July 2018.

The composition was published by Deutsche Gramophone in 2015, and since performed at in-door arenas including The Amsterdam Concertgebouw, the Sidney Opera House and London’s Barbican; and was also produced by BBC R3. 215 pages of sheet music are testament of the first open night performance in front of 560 listeners/sleepers in their numbered cots.

German-born British composer Max Richter (*1966) and his partner in love and art Yulia Mahr comment on the history of the piece and this particular performance. Richter, who came up against the Classical Music establishment, finances his albums, heavy on synthesisers, like ‘Memoryhouse’ and ‘Songs from Before’ with over fifty film scores, the later being Ad Astra by director James Gray.

Richter calls SLEEP a work in the Lullaby tradition, and points to Indian music for over-night settings and the 1960ies Flux experiments. For the first seven hours, the music is mostly southing and very structural, but with the sunrise, the last hour is more vigorous, high-frequency, rather like a not so gentle alarm clock. Purple-ambient light dominates at this phase. Richter explains that SLEEP “should be seen as a piece which could work as a holiday reality from our data-saturated world”. Thus “the people sleeping are the story”. He emphasises that SLEEP “should not be listened too, but experienced, like a landscape one is in”. Which makes sort of sense, since Mahler seems to be one of the influences on Richter’s music.

Soothing and ethereal, the music brings out the best in the audience: there are back-massages and help with yoga exercises. One male member of the audience even writes a note to his partner: “Alice, I love you, and I am sorry that I am so often a shitty partner”. A French woman is rather more morbid: “Very strong, we almost felt death coming”. Overall, one has to admire the musicians, being on stage such a long time, only interrupted by a few breaks for drinks and sustenance.

DoP Elisha Christian takes much credit for her “light games”: always finding new angles to put the music into images, flitting from the sleeping audience to the panorama shots of LA. Particularly impressive are the slow transitions from night to day. Overall SLEEP is very much an elitist experience, a sort of quiet protest. Neuroscientists, who feature briefly appear, support the composer, who wants his music “to re-connect people, who have been lost in modernism”. Having said all that, with the average attention span being three minutes these days, an eight-hour experience might not be such a bad thing after all – elitist or not. AS

IN UK CINEMAS ON 11 SEPTEMBER 2020

 

   

  

Apples (2020) Curzon online

Dir: Christos Nikou | Drama Greece, 90

When it comes to films about pandemics nothing could be more serene than this lucid and gently crafted weird wave debut drama from Greek director Christos Nikou.

Not to say that Apples isn’s subversive in a charming way.  The idea came to Nikou long before the coronavirus crisis and yet it perfectly captures the disarming effects of its character’s quiet meltdown. Aris (Aris Servetalis) becomes a victim of amnesia that slowly spreads through his local community and beyond.

There’s nothing of the mass hysteria experienced through the globe just recently. Here the treatment is not a vaccine but involves a series of exercises to re-build his memory. And at first Aris submits willingly the tasks under the care of his amiable medical consultant. Every single event must be dutifully recorded on a camera  – visits to the cinema or shops, even amorous encounters. Everyone submits to the same regime but Aris slowly starts to object to this authoritarian situation.

There are subtle echoes of Yorgos Lanthimos here: Nikou actually trained under the director so it comes as no surprise. But the wry and slightly soporific tone makes this pleasurable to watch allowing languid time out for our own thoughts and feelings. MT

Exclusively on Curzon Home Cinema from Friday 7 May | Apples will also be available to cinemas nationwide as they reopen from lockdown closures | VENICE FILM FESTIVAL | HORIZONS 2020 review

She Dies Tomorrow (2019) ***

Dir/Scr: Amy Seimetz. US. 2019. 84mins | Main cast: Kate Lyn Sheil, Jane Adams, Kentucker Audley, Katie Aselton, Chris Messina, Tunde Adebimpe, Jennifer Kim, Josh Lucas, Adam Wingard, Michelle Rodriguez, Olivia Taylor Dudley

A wisely written drama perfectly echoing the corrosive coronavirus paranoia de nos jours through a study of  a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. In her second feature Amy Seimetz continues to intrigue us with an unsettling piece of cinema that is prescient yet refreshing in its portrayal of ground down depression and disillusionment. So inured is the central character (Amy/Sheil) to her impending demise that she surfs the internet looking at human ash caskets for her own demise before switching to leather jackets in a sudden spurt of hope.

She Dies Tomorrow could be accused of humouring its heroine: have we reached such a state of self-pitying and narcissism that we are unable to front up to the current, admittedly mortifying state of affairs, that is no worse than our forebears suffered on a far more serious level with famine, plague and war?

But the malingering mood is fractured by the arrival of Amy’s friend Jane who encourages her to ‘buck up” her ideas: “Come on – I’m going to call you tomorrow” – Amy replies with the melodramatic “there is no tomorrow for me” to the tones of Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor ‘Lacrimosa’.

She Dies Tomorrow morphs into a much more upbeat and often frivolous mode the following day at Jane’s birthday celebration, but the central premise of mortality still remains, and provides an ongoing rumination for the rest of the piece: we are all going to die eventually, it’s just a question of when.

This often dreamlike absurdist drama works an an amusing meditation on death, dressed up with an eclectic soundscape and plenty of visual fireworks Seimetz managing the tonal shifts with surprising grace and confidence. Jane sashays through the film in a pair of flowery pyjamas, her thoughts in perpetual ‘worried well” mode, consulting (and then seducing) her bemused doctor (Josh Lucas – who quickly returns home to roost while she imagines the sword of Damocles coming down on her at any given moment. Kate Lyn Sheil is a more tentative soul who soon joins her boyfriend in the desert for a becalmed romantic break that never gets off the ground after a bizarre pizza delivery. And yes, the audience is left as baffled – as it was during Upstream Color where Seimetz made her ground-breaking debut as Kris. Other characters are played by Katie Aselton and Chris Messina, who play Jane’s brother, and his wife who find themselves forced to entertain her in a vignette that will feel uncomfortably familiar.

This is very much a mood piece where traditional narrative pretensions fall by the way to reveal something altogether more experimental enlivened by Jay Keitel’s dazzling images. But like abstract art, the strong craft has to be there in the outset for the abstract to develop and Seimetz doesn’t convince us that it is, despite committed  performances and visual creativity. There are Lynchian moment – the scene where a weird tanner describes the method for making a jacket from a recently killed animal hide. But for the most part, She Dies is more a collection of episodes that explore modern angst through addiction, loneliness and depression than a cohesive drama offering a satisfying allover experience. She Dies Tomorrow’ is enjoyable while it lasts, but like Sushi – is soon forgotten.  Hopefully coronovirus will be the same, although it has clearly destabilised our current sense of wellbeing. MT

BLUE FINCH FILM RELEASING presents SHE DIES TOMORROW on CURZON HOME CINEMA and DIGITAL DOWNLOAD from 28 AUGUST 2020

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

Away (2019) ****

Dir: Gints Zilbalodis | Animation, Latvia, 74′

‘Staying Alive’ is how best to describe this symbolic and gorgeously fluid ‘boys own’ adventure from Latvian animation wizard Gints Zilbalodis.

Away is the culmination of a decade spent honing his craft in a series of  delightful short animations such as Aqua, Priorities and Oasis whose focus is the main character’s lone struggle to overcome a powerful force. In this case a King Kong-like shape shifter that pursues him through a preternatural jungle with the aim of swallowing him alive.

Throughout this dreamlike often hazardous odyssey the boy’s only companion is a small yellow bird who he cares for with the utmost tenderness. The film seems to connect with our own everyday battle to keep going in these uncertain times, and above all, to make the right choices.  In other words, Away is a metaphor for life that echo Miyazaki’s delicately rendered animes which can work on a simplistic or subliminal level offering appeal for kids and adults alike.

More minimalist than Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo or even The Red Turtle but just as beautiful and and driven forward by an evocative soundscape the film shirks narrative conventions to tell a story that is firmly tethered to the natural while also teetering towards the surreal. Zilbalodis controls his entire project from 3D animation and script through to editing, soundscape and production.

The tousled-haired, wide-eyed teenager lands by parachute on a lush and mysterious island and has to find his way across often perilous landscape to reach sanctuary using an old-fashioned motorbike. Amongst the creatures he encounters are a flock of white birds, a large tortoise and his family and a pack of black cats who guard a powerful geyser that shoots out of a deep circular crevice, a grassy metaphor for Dante’s Inferno.

Although Away lulls us into a hypnotic sense of tranquility there is always the unsettling presence of the shape-shifter to keep us alert to danger and we start to feel for this unknown boy and his little bird, and indeed the tortoise, who at one point slivers down a snowy slope and on to its back, our hero coming to its rescue in one of many random acts of thoughtfulness. A beguiling and magical first feature. MT
https://youtu.be/B-2xxKAPssk
AWAY OPENS IN UK AND IRISH CINEMAS from 28 AUGUST 2020

 

 

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   

 

Babyteeth (2019) *** 2019

Dir,: Shannon Murphy, Cast: Eliza Scanien, Ben Mendelsohn, Essie Davis, Toby Wallace, Emily Barklay, Australia 2019, 120 min. 

Australian filmmaker Shannon Murphy directs her debut with sentiment and a sort of obnoxious humour, the clash of styles is something only Australian filmmakers can muster.

Adapted for the screen by Rita Kainejais, based on her own play, it sees sixteen year old Milla (Scanien) dying of cancer. Her psychiatrist father Henry (Ben Mendelsohn) and psychotherapist mother Anna (Davis) are finding it hard to cope despite their professional training but they also have their own demons to deal with. Henry neglects his clients, seeking  diversion by helping pregnant neighbour Toby (Emily Barklay) with the household tasks. Enter Moses, a small-time crook in his mid-twenties, who nearly pushes Milla under a train. She falls for him all the same, and her bewildered parents put up with the relationship to make her final months bearable. Moses finally moves in and Henry supplies morphine to his daughter and her boyfriend. Anna is the most interesting character and Davis plays her with subtlety: a talented middle-aged musician whose sexual urges are not always satisfied by her husband, despite their fondness for one another and the impending crisis.  

Babyteeth is a beautifully performed four-hander – but Murphy never really finds the right blend of calmness and flippancy to make the drama work as a convincing piece of cinema. But these faults are the faults of inexperience and Andrew Commis’ images are a striking firework of colours, underlining the chaotic storyline. Scanien is a tour de force, bringing both vulnerability and power to her role. Comparisons with Jane Champion’s early films are wide of the mark – but there is always hope for this promising new filmmaker. AS

IN CINEMAS from 21 August 2020 | premiered at VENICE FILM FESTIVAL 2019

Horse Money (2014) |Best Director | Locarno 2014 | Bluray Release

Dir/Wri: Pedro Costa | Cast: Ventura, Vitalina Varela, Tito Furtado
Portugal Drama 104mins

Drenched in profoundly mannered grief, Pedro Costa’s tortuously paced HORSE MONEY (CAVALO DINHEIRO) is a magnificent monument and/or an egregious folly, demonstrating the Portuguese director’s expertise in arresting compositions as well as the decidedly acquired taste of his opaque minimalism. Starring Costa’s regular protagonist Ventura, a charismatically stalwart, mononymic Cape Verdian, the film won Best Director at LOCARNO FILM FESTIVAL’s 67th edition and is now playing in the Journey Through History strand at this year’s celebration (viewable online via MUBI).

Though German Expressionism might be an unlikely source of inspiration for Costa, there’s more than a touch of Robert Weine’s THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1919) about his latest feature, which before anything else seems to entrap its listless characters in harsh quadrants of chiaroscuro lighting, with ominously shadowy depths encroaching from the extreme edges of frame. Cinematographer Leonardo Simões employs wide-angled lenses and canting horizons to distort the film’s claustrophobic interiors into a nightmarish grid of dilapidating geometry. It’s as if the very axes of the earth shifted a long time ago—and people are only now adjusting.

Also like CALIGARI, HORSE MONEY is set for large portions of its narrative in a medical centre, unfolding as a succession of dreamily purgatorial fragments that suggest a kind of hallucinatory hotchpotch of somnambulant trauma. Ventura is one of only a few patients left at this half-abandoned outpost, being treated for a nervous disease after being badly beaten by soldiers sent in to displace him and others from the Cape Verde settlement of Fontainhas decades previously (forgoing traditional drama, Costa presumably assumes his audience is familiar with the real-life history so obliquely referenced here). Claiming he’s 19 years and 3 months old, Ventura may or may not be a reliable narrator: one consequence of state violence is, apparently, the aggressive onset of senility—which of course benefits a state eager to bury its colonial guilt.

Our visibly shaken hero is visited by ghosts from rosier pasts. This circle of displaced pals posthumously places its trust in Ventura to unshackle memories and preserve the truth. Chief among such friends is Vitalina, a benumbed widow who speaks only in a monotonously stately whisper—as if wary of disturbing sleeping dogs from their slumber. In a concluding sequence, Ventura is confronted by long-suppressed horrors in an elevator—a space he shares with a street performer-like ‘human statue’ dressed as a soldier from the Revolutionary Army. Large parts of this scene arrive intact from ‘Sweet Exorcism’, Costa’s largely insufferable contribution to the typically uneven portmanteau project CENTRO HISTORICO (2012). At least on this occasion we’re given a little more context.

Like the elevator itself, the film as a whole seems reluctant to move forward: though Ventura is eventually discharged from the facility, his mental wounds don’t appear to be healed. In fact, stasis is one of the film’s visual strengths: it opens stunningly, with a series of Jacob Riis photographs. Hereafter, Costa repeatedly shows himself as a potential master of still photography, having his performers pose motionless within absorbingly framed scenarios. Moments such as that in which Ventura walks along a road in his red underpants only to be stopped at a crossroads by armed soldiers and a tank, for example, have such a potency and urgency about them that one can’t help but wonder if the director’s thematic aims would be better served by a stills exhibition.

Until then, we’ll endure these glacial temporalities the Lisboan dares to impose upon us. In passing, we’ll merely note that challenging, politicised cinema doesn’t need to be a challenge to sit through. But at least this pertains to somebody’s idea of a worthwhile artistic experience—which, for any artist wanting to do things her or his own way, is sometimes enough. MICHAEL PATTISON

LOCARNO FILM FESTIVAL 2020 | A JOURNEY Reviewed at LOCARNO

 

 

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

The Man Who Laughs (1928) **** Bluray release

Dir Paul Leni | Silent Drama, 100′

This visually remarkable late silent film is an adaptation of a French novel (by Victor Hugo) within an English setting, directed by a German filmmaker (Paul Leni) in an American studio. By the end of the 1980s critics were complaining that cultural identity in Trans-euro pudding films was neither one thing nor the other. Yet in 1928 the ingredients were well-baked: The Man who Laughs is no flat hybrid, but a splendidly risen cake. And the icing on top is the charismatic actor Conrad Veidt.

England in the 1680s and King James II has had his political enemy Lord Clancharlie killed. His son Gwynplaine is disfigured by Dr. Hardquannone who works as a comprachico (a dealer in mutilated children intended to play fools or dwarfs at Court.) The grown-up Gwynplaine (Conrad Veidt) now has a permanent fixed grin, due to his disfigurement, and is reduced to working as a clown in a freak show carnival. He falls in love with a blind actress named Dea (Mary Philbin.) Meanwhile, a jester at the Court of Queen Anne, ‘discovers’ Gwynplaine and reveals his royal lineage and inheritance. Yet the estate is now owned by a seductive vamp, the despised Duchess Josiana (Olga V. Baklanova.). And when Gwynplaine is bought to Court, emotional and political turmoil ensues.

First, let’s get one thing out of the way. The Man Who Laughs is today seen as an influence on the Joker character in the Batman comics and movies. However, the only resemblance between Conrad Veidt and all the actors who’ve played The Joker, is the fixity of that grotesque grin. Unlike Batman’s adversary Veidt’s Gwynplaine is not malicious and wears no  pronounced makeup: in other words the two characters have nothing in common with each other. 

Conrad Veidt uses his hypnotic eyes to convey a complex personality that both attracts and repels women. Veidt was a highly intelligent and subtle actor: throughout The Man Who Laughs he evokes the anguish and joy of Gwynplane’s thoughts – his performance is an master class in how the eyes can be used to express deep emotion. Writer Daniella Sannwald cleverly puts this into words in an extract from The Oxford History of World Cinema:

‘Veidt’s face reveals much of the inner life of his characters. The play of muscles beneath the taut skin, the lips pressed together, a vein on his temple visibly protruding, nostrils flaring in concentration and self discipline. These physical aspects characterise the artists, sovereigns and strangers of the German silent film…’


Of course, no film is solely the landscape of a great actor’s face. The design and spatial excitement of Paul Leni’s film, a German silent tradition enriching American silent cinema (often as lyrical as Murnau’s Sunrise), is considerably enhanced by his spry and stylish direction. The Southwark fair scenes; the chase at the London harbour and the episodes at Court are full of exciting mobile camerawork and editing.

The Man Who Laughs is more of a tender love story than a horror film. Veidt’s scenes with Mary Philbin (the heroine of the silent The Phantom of the Opera) are genuinely touching and steer well clear of sentimentality. Their romance is unconsummated yet charged with erotic tension– how far does Gwynplaine want to go in the relationship? He is terrified that Dea might just possibly regain her sight and then see how strange he looks. 

Gwynplaine’s frustration is put to the test in a deliciously sexy scene where Duchess Josiana (perversely attracted to Gwynplaine’s grin) attempts to seduce him. Here Conrad Veidt’s placing of a face cloth over his lips is in order to resist temptation. Whereas when with Dea, he does it to hide his shame. Olga V.Baklanova really lets rip, giving a glowingly photographed scene much sexual animalism. There are even some earlier nude-back scenes of her emerging from a bath, risqué for 1928, or maybe not given what Eric Von Stroheim was up to in his 1928/29 Queen Kelly.) 

Of course the film changes Victor Hugo’s ending. Best not to divulge, and it really doesn’t matter, for it perfectly suits the fate of the two romantic leads (who we really care for.) My one complaint about The Man who Laughs is the over-use of a faithful dog with the obvious name of Homo the Wolf,  played by a dog called Zimbo: it’s a case of a canine melodramatic over-drive.

But the case for Paul Leni’s film (for me his greatest) doesn’t need to be argued, just experienced. And in this beautiful restoration from a 4k source I was enthralled by the passion of The Man Who Laughs. ALAN PRICE©2020   

OUT ON BLU-RAY COURTESY OF MASTERS OF CINEMA ON 17 AUGUST 2020

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

My Rembrandt (2020) *****

Dir: Oeke Hoogendijk | Doc, 97′

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Woman in Black (1989) **** Blu-ray

Dir: Herbert Wise | Cast: Adrian Rawlins, Bernard Hepton, Pauline Moran, David Ryall, Clare Holman | UK Horror Thriller, 100′

Originally made for TV and screening on Christmas Eve 1989, Herbert Wise directed this well made and effective thriller that takes us back to the Gothic tradition of storytelling in a Victorian ghost fantasy based on Susan Hill’s original 1983 novel. The Woman in Black follows the same formula as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, minus the blood-sucking Count who is replaced by an equally menacing woman in black, and the boxes of earth by a trunk full of evil trappings.

On the request of his crusty old boss young lawyer Arthur Kipps (Adrian Rawlins) travels from London to the North Eastern coastal town of Crythin Gifford, and out across the eerie salt marshes to attend the funeral of a friendless old widow, Alice Drablow. During the church service a be-hatted, black-robed woman appears to be watching Arthur Kidd from a distance and reappears on the marshes later that day, her face set in a ghastly grimace.

Wise’s film is chockfull of ghastly horror tropes. The wind moans and gulls screech as Kipps makes his way in the swirling mists to Eel Marsh House, only to discover a mournful legacy of untimely death and ghostly appearances in this miserable corner of Victorian England. A talented British cast includes Bernhard Hepton who plays a kindly professional Sam Toovey a sort of Devil’s advocate in explaining away the terrifying sounds and occurrences. The other locals are a sceptical bunch. And no one can explain how a ball comes to be bouncing and a little boy’s voice greets Kipps laughingly in a room that has apparently been locked since Alice’s death. Not to mention a recurring sound of a carriage crashing amid blood-curdling screams outside the house. All this has been recorded on a phonograph by Mrs Drablow herself. Meanwhile, Kipps seems to be losing his mind – not surprisingly. And things don’t improve when he returns to London, freaked out by the whole affair which continues to haunt him in the film’s shocking finale. Made in the late 1980s this reliable horror story  still has an undeniable kick thanks to Wise’s able direction. MT

https://youtu.be/wYfKkf_0Pnc
The worldwide Blu-ray debut of The Woman in Black is available exclusively from the Network website on 10 August 

Giornate degli Autori | Venice Days 2020

Venice Days is back from 2 – 12 September this year. Live on the Lido at the famous Villa Degli Autori 
DAYS OF COURAGE is the sentiment expressing this year’s celebration. Ten new films from all over the world will compete for the main prize of the 17th edition running from 2 -12 until September. The closing film will be Saint-Narcisse presented by Canadian maverick Bruce LaBruce. The focus of this year’s Cinema of Inclusivity is Italy’s own Liliana Cavani who was nominated for the Golden Lion back in 1968 with her film Galileo. Here is a selection of this year’s competing films.
MAMA – set in rural China during the final decade of 20th century this first feature from Li Dongmei is a mature and sober drama.
200 METRES – the wall between Palestine and Israel is the focus of Ameen Nayfeh’s drama that stars leading Arab star. Ali Suliman.
 
KITOBOY – So many remarkable stories are coming out of Ukraine and this debut from Philipp Yuryev is the latest, set in a whaling community.
SPACCAPIETRE – in the Southern Italian region of Puglia a family tragedy with human repercussions gradually plays out in the De Serio brothers’ drama.
 
HONEY CIGAR  Algeria is the setting for this sensuous debut drama from Kamir Aïnouz, the sister of the well-known Brazilian filmmaker Karim Aïnouz).
RESIDUE Merawi Geriman’s moving first film echoes the recent racial tensions Stateside.
 
MY TENDER MATADOR – following his extraordinary performance in Theo Court’s White on White (Venice 2019) Alfredo Castro lends his talents to Rodrigo Sepúlveda’s queer love story set during the time of Pinochet in Santiago de Chile.
VENICE DAYS | GIORNATE DEGLI AUTORI 2-12 SEPTEMBER 2020

Homeland (Domovine) (2020) **** FID Marseille

Dir.: Jelena Maksimovic; Cast: Jelena Angelovski, Trifonas Siapalinis; Serbia 2020, 63 min.

Jelena Maksimovic is inspired by her own life experience in this feature debut, a lament about loss but above all, a feminist reckoning dedicated to the filmmaker’s grandmother Elina Gacu (1928-2017), evacuated from civil wartorn Greece to what was then Yugoslavia, now North Macedonia.

The stark winter setting makes this all the more foreboding: A car approaching a wild mountainside, a young woman behind the wheel, a banal, romantic song on the car stereo. Not the best of welcomes for the ‘homecoming’ of someone who has never set foot in her country before.

The changing seasons mark a year’s stay in this village, and her growing unfulfilled longing to find a place which connects to her grandmother who has lived here since being exiled from her homeland during the Civil War (1946-1949), the first proxy war of the global Cold War.

This young woman is a visitor but not a tourist, wanting to claim something of the place for herself. Fragments of war of are everywhere: in fortifications, ruined houses and the reminiscences of old men who recall partisans coming from the mountains to fight government troops before vanishing back into their hideouts.

The woman befriends a restaurant owner, they cook together, he and his friends perform an old folk dance. But for the most part she tries to connect with the inhospitable terrain where animals are her only friends.  Hidden traces of the combat are everywhere. Finally, after so much silence she breaks into a final poetic outburst, accusing the men of bringing warfare to the place and repressing women. She claims the trees in the woods are the only true communists, and mourns the fate of her grandmother.

DoP Dusan Grubin makes an unobtrusive foray into this melancholy setting  – his harrowing panorama shots are just a foretaste of what is to come in a paean to lost identity. The main unnamed character is a victim of fragmentation and alienation: her trial to find anything like home is hampered by the silence around her. The past is the past – whatever the partisans stood for – or whatever the war was about. Her grandmother is a bridge to this past and will lead her back to herself. Homeland is for every soul searching for a place to call their own, moored somewhere in their dreams. AS

FID Marseille | 2020 | INTERNATIONAL COMPETITION 

Shady River | Rio Turbio (2020) *** FID Marseille

Dir.: Tatiana Mazu Gonzalez; Documentary Argentine 2020, 81 min.

Amongst the wealth of stories coming out of South America at the moment is this unique and visually arresting first feature unearthing an alarming history of exploitation and repression in a Patagonian mining town.

Argentina’s Tatiana Mazu sets a combative tone to her documentary essay which takes the form of seven books, and shows a woman with rifle (the director herself?), ready to push back against old stories of witchcraft. Clearly these are a feisty bunch who don’t take kindly to a macho culture where women were forbidden to enter the underground labyrinth, which is ironically ‘female’ and talks in a women’s voice

The mine was run until 2002 by Sergio Taseli, a local asset stripper, who embarked on several high cost local projects such as the Roca-Belgrano Sur Railway, which were never completed, Taseli collecting his share of the profits beforehand.

But accidents do happen, and we see the photos of the victims. In 2004 fourteen miners died underground after a collapse. Children play amongst the wreckage in old 8mm family films, and Mazu makes use of plans, etchings, drawings, and blueprints to add grist to the grim story. It also emerges she once built a bomb with her chemistry set, intending to create havoc with the establishment.

Then there is the story of Clara who had a sex change operation, and went on to study electro mechanics. After graduating she could only find work as a secretary in the mining company offices. Nowadays, she is one of the few women working underground. But the exploitation continues: after a strike, the leaders were dismissed, and the rest of the workers had to take on their work load.

The oppressive nature of the mine is reflected in deadly silence and stark images, both In colour and black-and-white: Nature Was raped and it’s jewels torn away, crevices appearing everywhere, dark lakes and endless rows of pre-fabricated huts. There are shades of Tarkovsky in the water and the dour surroundings where industrial waste proliferates. Editor Sebastian Zanzotera takes credit for the montage of striking images that lead us into a maze of death and patriarchy.

Mazu takes us to a hidden world, far away from everything, where the newsreel images of Buenos Aires or a Miss Argentine competition seem to be from another universe all together.

FID Marseille 2020 | INTERNATIONAL COMPETITION 

Make-Up (2019) *** VOD

Dir.: Claire Oakley, Cast: Molly Windsor, Joseph Quinn, Stephanie Martin, Lisa Palfrey, Theo Barklem-Briggs; UK 2019, 86 min.

This shady seaside story of sexual discovery is the feature debut of British director Claire Oakley. Slathered in atmosphere it often feels like an extended short. In Cornwall the Autumn mists slowly descend on a run down caravan park, where eighteen-year old Ruth (Windsor) arrives to lighten things up for her boyfriend Tom (Quinn). But her growing doubts about their relationship are echoed in the September dankness setting the tone for a simmering switch in Ruth’s sexuality as she slowly develops feelings for her much older co-worker Jade (Martini), a wigmaker fond of the titular crimson red make-up.

In this visually inventive exploration of drifting sexuality, Oakley dabbles in a heady hotchpotch of genres hovering between horror and poetic realism, DoP Nick Cooke dressing it all up to look like something by Nicolas Roeg. But the underworked script relies on enigma and atmosphere to confer a deeper meaning in banal scenes where Oakley has little to express, apart from the usual coming-of-age conflict, mixed with a heavy-handed gender role reversal.

Newcomer Molly Windsor tries hard to add meaning to the cringe-worthy dialogue, but biting her nails like a little girl in distress seems to defeat  the purportedly empowering theme of Make Up. Without giving away too many spoilers, we soon get where the plot is heading: via a ‘Wicker Man’ like beach scene, with Tom and best friend Kai (Barklem-Briggs) proudly flexing their masculinity and mastery of the Cornish language. A blatantly sentimental first ending which is then trumped by a second one, is a steal from Truffaut’s debut Les Quatre Cents Coups, with Ruth taking the Antoine Doinel part. Make Up is rather a hit-and-miss affair as far as drama goes, but its efforts to engage in the ongoing LGBTQ+ narrative are laudable and worthwhile, and the film’s poster designed by Andrew Bannister is brilliant. AS

IN CINEMAS AND EXCLUSIVELY ON CURZON HOME CINEMA | 31 JULY 2020

The Rifleman | Dveselu Putensis (2019) *** Digital and DVD

Dir.: Dzintars Dreibergs; Cast: Otto Brantevics, Taimonds Celms, Martin Vilsons, Greta Trusina; Latvia 2019, 104 min.

The Rifleman pays stark witness to the horrors and brutality of the First World War, as seen through the eyes of an innocent 17-year-old farm-boy turned soldier and the tragic fate of his family.

Written by Boris Frumin and based on the 1933/34 novel by Aleksanders Grins, which was forbidden in the USSR, its author shot down in 1941. This lushly mounted historical drama was, not surprisingly, a huge success at the box-office in Latvia, and an impressive first feature for Latvia’s Dzintars Dreibergs, who made his name as sports documentarian.

The Rifleman is an unashamedly male and patriotic affair, filmed as an eyewitness report from the POV of 17-tear-old Arthurs Vanags (Brantevics), it opens in 1914 giving full emotional throttle to the murder of the young man’s mother by German soldiers, who, for good measure also kill the family’s dog. Arthur’s father (Vilsons) has served in the Russian Imperial Army, and burns down the farmhouse and shoots the cattle, before enlisting with Arthurs and his brother Edgars (Celms) in Latvia’s first National Battalion, part of the Russian forces overrun by the Germans.

Wounded in a skirmish, Arthurs soon falls for Marta (Trusina), a nurse in the field hospital. But more tragedy follows when Arthurs is asked by Red Army commanders to shoot Latvian soldiers who have disobeyed their Russian officers. Returning home, Arthurs catches up with Marta who is now working as a farmhand in Latvia, before setting out to liberate his homeland from “Tsars, Red Army and the Germans who all want to repress Latvian independence.”

DoP Valdis Celmins does a great job with his grizzly images of foggy snowbound battles, the frozen bodies reduced to ghostly spectres. Lolita Ritmanis’ evocative score is in line with this heroic approach to war, providing the emotional underpinnings to this rousing feature (1917 it is not) depicting a grim episode in Latvian history. AS

In the Showcase Cinema circuit nationwide | Sunday 26th July  
On Digital from 10th August | On DVD from 24th August 
 

The Good Die Young (1954) *** Blu-ray

Dir: Lewis Gilbert | Cast: Stanley Baker, Gloria Grahame, Joan Collins, Laurence Harvey, John Ireland, Richard Basehart | UK Drama

This watchable if rather moralistic British thriller sees three law-abiding men brought together Producer Clayton and director Gilbert (the most hard-working of all British post-war film-makers) assembled a top Anglo-American cast for this rather moralisitic and decent thriller, based on a book by Richard Macauley).

Boasting a stellar cast that also includes Gloria Grahame (The Bad and the Beautiful), Joan Collins (Cosh Boy) and Robert Morley (The Battle of the Sexes), this compelling crime picture is presented in both its original theatrical version and in an extended export cut (Blu-ray only), originally intended for international audiences.

Psychotic playboy Harvey finds himself short of the readies so he persuades ex-GI Basehart, AWOL Air Force sergeant Ireland and no-hope boxer Baker to join him in holding up a mail van. This being a British picture from the ’50s, you don’t expect them to get away with it – but neither do you quite anticipate Joan Collins and Gloria Grahamepopping up in such low-key supporting roles as they do here.

Amoral aristocrat Miles Ravenscourt (Laurence Harvey, Room at the Top) plots a daring robbery to settle his gambling debts in this taut, tough thriller played out on the shadowy streets of post-war London. Enlisting the aid of washed-up former boxer Mike (Stanley Baker, Zulu), ex-GI Joe (Richard Basehart, Moby Dick) and US airman Eddie (John Ireland, Red River), Ravenscourt sets out to plan the perfect heist. But is there any such thing as a sure thing?

Blu-ray/DVD release on 20 July 2020, and on iTunes and Amazon Prime on 3 August 2020

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Locarno Film Festival 2020 | 5-15 August 2020

Locarno Film Festival is still going ahead in its discreet lakeside setting but will be a more streamlined initiative, devised by Artistic Director Lili Hinstin, largely for the locals, as was this year’s Karlovy Vary, with a section entitled FILMS AFTER TOMORROW: twenty feature-length projects that were delayed in their completion, due to the pandemic. It’s unclear whether these films will be presented half-finished or whether they are a potted version of the blueprint for the full feature.

All this remains to be seen. That said, there’s twenty of them, in a suspended state, competing for the 2020 Pardo. These are the feature length projects that the selection committee, headed by Artistic Director Lili Hinstin, has chosen for The Films After Tomorrow, the strand of Locarno 2020 – For the Future of Films that has been conceived to offer proper support to filmmakers who had to put production on hold because of the lockdown.

The International selection
The following are the 10 international projects selected:

These the 10 projects from Switzerland:

Meanwhile Locarno Film Festival’s OPEN DOORS section (10 full-length and 10 short films) will be available for viewing worldwide, exclusively online, during the Festival from 5 through 15 Augustwebsite of the Locarno Film Festival The complete list of full-length films selected is as follows:

Apparition (Aparisyon), by Isabel Sandoval – Philippines/USA– 2012

Atambua 39° Celsius, by Riri Riza – Indonesia – 2012

Clash (Engkwentro), by Pepe Diokno – Philippines – 2009

Memories of My Body (Kucumbu Tubuh Indahku), by Garin

Nugroho – Indonesia – 2018

Sell Out!, by Yeo Joon Han – Malaysia – 2008

Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay, by Antoinette

Jadaone – Philippines – 2011

Songlap, by Effendee Mazlan and Fariza Azlina Isahak – Malaysia – 2011

Tender Are the Feet, by Maung Wunna – Myanmar – 1973

The Masseur (Masahista), by Brillante Mendoza – Philippines – 2005

What They Don’t Talk About When They Talk About Love, by

Mouly Surya – Indonesia – 2013

LOCARNO FILM FESTIVAL 2020 5 -15 AUGUST 2020 

Cronaca di un Amore | Story of a Love Affair (1950) ****

Dir: Michelangelo Antonioni | Cast: Lucia Bose, Massimo Girotti, Ferdinando Sarmi, Gino Rossi | Italy, Drama 98′

Antonioni’s impeccably stylish social critique unfolds crisply in black and white, in and around his hometown of Ferrara known for its beauty and cultural importance. Set amongst the wealthy industrialists of Italy’s Po Valley powerhouse whose main concern other than business and their elegant cars and fashions is, of course, love. And for the women especially. But  Cronaca di Amore gradually emerges not just as a sombre story of marital infidelity and discontent but also a tightly-plotted noirish expose of the life and times of a seemingly innocent young bride.

Cronaca di Un Amore was Antonioni’s first feature but his graceful sense of framing and mise en scene were already evident – in one of the early scenes is an aerial view of four gleaming sports cars sets the tone for this menage a trois amongst the upper classes and the star lead was his then girlfriend 19 year old Miss Italy Lucia Bose.

She plays Paola the self-focused and voraciously acquisitive new wife of a rich but workaholic Milanese fabric manufacturer. Her truculent attitude to his amorous overtures along with photos of her past cause him to hire a private investigator to track her movements in an around Ferrara and Milan. As always in Italy the”Bella Figura” is of the utmost importance to both sexes and Antonioni reflects this in his choice of costume designer in the shape of cutting edge couturier Ferdinando Sarmi who headlines the titles not only for his costumes but also as Paola’s cheated husband, Enrico.

But Paola wants the only thing money can’t buy, namely love. And although the two never really look happy together, she soon confesses her undying love for the good-looking but impoverished ex Guido (Girotti) who she wheels in to fill the emotional void in her life, although Guido is already spoken for. Tortured by their feelings for one another, and plotting Enrico’s demise, the two embark on a doomed but very well-turned out love affair, primped by Giovanni Fusco’s plangent score, and chiaroscuro camerawork by Enzo Serafin. MT

Story of a Love Affair is on Blu-ray for the first time ever and digital on demand 27 July from CultFilms

 

 

 

Las Ninas Bien | The Good Girls (2018) Mubi

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

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

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

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

NOW ON MUBI

They Came to a City **** (1944) | Dual format release

Dir.: Basil Dearden; Cast: Googie Withers, John Clements, Raymond Huntley, Renee Gadd, Mabe; Terry-Lewis, Fanny Rowe, A.E. Matthews; UK 1944, 77 min.


Basil Dearden (1911-1971) was one of the most undervalued of British directors. His films featured the persecution of homosexuals (Victim, 1961) and the not so latent racism in Sapphire (1959). No surprise therefore that J B Priestley’s little known but worthwhile play They Came to a City (premiered 1943) should capture his imagination in the final days of the Second World War. Taking its title from the Walt Whitman poem ‘The City’, it is a Sartre-like scenario set in a transient underworld, ever more relevant in the current climate.

Nine characters, picked from every stratum of British society, are stranded at the entrance to a city; the huge door is locked, and the protagonists feel unsure of the way ahead. But after the door opens and they are (unlike the audience) allowed into the ‘magic’ city, and soon recover their mindsets, very much the product of their individual places in society. It emerges that this city offers the option of social equality, but  only two will stay. The rest, for whatever reasons, will return to the life they had. 

Of the minor characters, Sir George Gedney (Matthews), is every inch the upper-class gentleman, kept away from his game of golf, and only too ready to forget all the arguments arising from their encounter. Lady Loxfield (Terry-Lewis) is his equal, but her daughter Philippa (Rowe) finds enough strength to cut loose from her over-bearing mother, who is too stunned by her daughter’s sudden resistance, to react. Malcolm Stratton (Huntley) is a bank manager, who looks through the charade of the hierarchy he is working for, calling the chairman of the bank a pompous idiot. But his wife Dorothy (Gadd), totally dependent on him, is fearful of any change, and even promises to be more outgoing if Malcolm returns with her to their middle-class existence. The main couple, barmaid/shop girl Alice (a sparkling Googie Withers) and the explosive seaman Joe (Clements), might be falling in love with each other but nevertheless argue non-stop. She reacts against his aggressive masculinity, and talks of the sexual harassment she encounters at work. He raves on about this new opportunity but has no idea how to make it happen. These two soon become aware that neither they, nor society as a whole, is ready for change.  

Using most of the original stage cast, Dearden directs thoughtfully, letting all the characters explore themselves as much as their hopes for a future. Whilst this often feels stuck in its stagey setting, and would have possibly worked better as a radio play, DoP Stanley Pavey (Home is the Hero) brings a certain poetic realism to the proceedings. In many ways, the doomed affairs of French films such as Quai de Brumes, are re-enacted through a British gaze. Needless to say, They came to a City was a disaster at he box-office, and it is to the credit of Ealing supremo Michael Bacon, that the brave feature came to be be produced at all. MT

ON RELEASE ON A NEW 2K FORMAT FOR THE BEST SURVIVING 35 mm ELEMENT  COMPLETE WITH AUDIO NFT LECTURE BY MICHAEL BALCON IN 1969 | BFI

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

       

Maborosi (1995) **** Blu-ray release

Dir.: Hirokazu Kore-eda; Cast: Makiko Esumi, Takashi Naito, Gohki Kashima, Tadanobo Asanao; Japan 1995, 110 min.

Born in 1962, Hirokazu Kore-eda studied literature at university with plans to become a novelist, later establishing himself as a documentarian in the late 1980s, working in television, were he directed several prize-winning programmes. Maborosi brought him and his DoP Masao Nakabori international acclaim, winning awards at Venice film festival. He would later win the Palme d’Or at Cannes with Shoplifters (2018).

Maborosi is a mature, poetic discourse on the meaning of loss and longing. Scripted by Yoshihisa Ogita and based on a novel by Teru Miyanoto. Maborosi takes its title from the Japanese word for mirage, and resonates with Feu Follet, Louis Malle’s feature about a suicide. Kore-eda was 34 when he shot Maborosi; contrasting modern and traditional life, rather like Japanese master Ozu.

In Osaka, Yumiko (Esumi) is content with her easy-going husband Ikuo (Asano) and their baby-boy Yuichi. One morning she finds the police on her doorstep: Ikuo has been killed on the nearby railroad tracks. Yumiko is shattered, the tragedy bringing back memories of the disappearance and death of her grandmother Kyo, when Yumiko was twelve years old. For a long time Yumiko lives in limbo, not able to accept the death of her husband. An arranged marriage brings her to the remote windswept coast of Uniumachi on the Noto peninsula. Her new husband Tamio (Naito) and his daughter live with an extended family and Yuichi (Kashima) bonds easily with the two. But Yumiko takes time to adjust to her new life, unable to forget her the deep affectionate love she shared with Ikuo. And when she returns to Osaka for a visit, all the old wounds open – particularly when she re-connects with Ikuo’s friends about the circumstances of his death. She goes back to Uniumachi but the past stays with her.

The hustle and bustle of city life in Osako contrast with the tranquil setting of the fishing village. Although in both places Kore-eda shows the warmth and humanity of close neighbours and the daily routine. Yumiko’s anxiousness and the barriers she puts between herself and a new life are palpable: for most of the film we see her as an observer, looking in from outside. The languid tempo also brings to mind Ozu, as do the frequent near static shots, featuring the rough landscape around the village. The feeling that fate could once again We observe this grieving process with a shared feeling of ambivalence: Yumiko has lost confidence in happiness, doom is constantly waiting round the corner. She is not yet ready to say goodbye to her former life and the limbo between the past and an unknown future, where “she brings death to the ones she is close to” – like her first husband and her grandmother.

Moborosi is a story that also paints an emotional portrait; music, light and weather express the heroine’s sate of mind while her serene persona is also deeply troubled. The spoken word is often replaced often by an inner monologue. In the end she has to make up her mind whether she, like Ikuo, wants to ‘listen’ to the siren songs in the light of death, or whether she is ready to progress with her life and new family. Like his compatriot Hsiao Hsien Ho, Kore-eda takes care of every frame: nothing is superfluous, everything is stripped down to the minimum. Kore-eda’s whole oeuvre is about using the screen to paint poetry, his protagonists seek to overcome their banal reality with something more meaningful which, as in this case, can also be destructive. AS

NOW ON BLU-RAY

 

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. 

Parasite (2019) **** In Black and White

Dir: Bong Joon Ho | Cast: Song Kang-ho, Choi Woo-shik, Chang Hyae-jin, Park So-dam, Lee Sun-kyun, Cho Yeo-jeong, Jung Ziso, Lee Jung-em, Jung Hyeon-jun | Drama | Korea 131′

The black and white cut of this wickedly thrilling upstairs downstairs social satire Korean-style seems even more resonant, relevant and appealing in its monochrome format.

This scabrous story is the latest in a line of hits from the South Korean master along with The Host, Snowpiercer and Okja. But this time the gloves are off as Boon Joon offers up shameless social reality and makes no bones it, dishing the dirt on the rigid class system in his homeland.

Thematically rather too similar to last year’s Plane d’Or winner Shopkeepers to offer any big surprises about South Korean life, this is nonetheless startling in its candour. The characters are ordinary people making their way as best they can. But this is a flashier film that wears its satire on its slick sleeve for all to access, and there’s nothing subtle about its social message. The ‘parasites’ are sharp individuals who cunningly see their way to the main chance. Bong Joon calls the film “a comedy without clowns, a tragedy without villains.” Yet in the natural world, parasites live off their hosts, depending on them for survival, but often causing disease or harm. This certainly was the case in The Servant, but does it happen here?

Head of the family Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) lives with his wife Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin), son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) and daughter Ki-jung (Park So-dam) in a squalid slum, grafting a living by preparing cardboard pizza boxes. Through his backstreet contacts, young Ki-woo inveigles himself into a wealthy household of a captain of industry Mr. Park (Lee Sun-kyun) where he is tasked with tutoring his teenage daughter Da-hye (Jung Ziso). Her mother Yeon-kyo (Cho Yeo-jeong) is a typically vacuous trophy wife who prances around their pristine modernist mansion all day, doing a spot of shopping when she occasionally ventures out with . Without giving any clues away, the Ki-woo’s entire family are drafted into the vast mansion, taking various guises, and booting out the old guard. As the narrative spools out with a series of plot twists, the tension gradually mounts and the gulf between rich and poor is ramped up to the maximum. No one comes out a winner after a lavish garden party where they all take part in some form or another, as blood mingles with the champagne.

Winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2019 and four Academy Awards in 2020, including the Oscar for Best International Feature, this is a confident and entertaining drama that beats as it sweeps, its production values as smooth as silk and laced with a dread-laden score. The kids give as good as the adults performance-wise and leave us pondering which is best: North Korea with its oppressively restrictive communist regime or the South with its dog eat dog capitalism based on the law of the jungle? MT

PARASITE WON THE PALME D’OR 2019 | ACADEMY AWARDS FOR BEST DIRECTOR, BEST MOTION PICTURE, BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY, BEST INTERNATIONAL FEATURE.

NOW in Black and White COURTESY OF CURZON ARTIFICIAL EYE | IN CINEMAS from 24 July 2020

 

 

 

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 |

Good Manners (2017) **** MUBI

Dir: Juliana Rojas/Marco Dutra | Brazil, France | Fantasy Drama | 135′

Good Manners is a lyrical werewolf fantasy fable that explores class, sexuality and unconditional love in contemporary São Paulo.

Handling its tonal shifts with a deftness as light-hearted as its female-centric cast Good Manners is another example of the fresh and inventive filmmaking coming out of South America at the moment. It follows a young Black woman (Clara/Isabél Zuaa) who takes a job as a home help for an expectant single mother (Ana/Majorie Estiano) who is a member of Brazil’s privileged ‘nouveau riche’.

Ana spends her time shopping and exercising in her high rise luxury condo that soon becomes Clara’s home. After a sensuous pregnancy massage, Ana starts to trust Clara implicitly giving the woman all her bank details even though Clara fails to produce satisfactory references from her landlady Dona Amélia (an amusing Cida Moreira). Alarm bells ring, but it soon emerges that Clara is not the one to be wary of. Ana has some pretty strange secrets and bizarre habits which are gradually revealed in this rather slow-burning drama enriched by clever use of hand-painted scenery for the backdrop of Sao Paulo, and pleasant musical interludes to tell its beguiling story.

Clara and Ana soon enjoy a tender relationship that is refreshingly free from jealousy or resentment. One night they kiss so passionately that Clara’s lips bleed. This signals a growing intimacy between the two that is not so much a  a lesbian awakening, as a growing closeness and dependency due to Ana’s vulnerability that feels entirely natural in her current state. This is another clever way of signalling sexual fluidity, but something more unsettling then starts to take place when Ana scratches her companion’s shoulder, again drawing blood.

Ana’s backstory is clearly a troubled one and she is saddened by the recent break with her family who continue to finance her life, despite “a mistake” on her part which remains a mystery but appears – in delicately rendered pastel drawings – to involve a one-night-stand with a rather hirsute cowboy lover. Clara is enchanted by a musical box containing a tiny dancing horse that plays a tune that will haunt the rest of the film. Then Clara discovers large hunks of meat in the ‘fridge and, during the Full Moon, Ana sleep-walks into the street, her eyes turning a ghastly yellow. When Clara follows her one night she is terrorised to find Ana killing a cat and drinking the blood.

All this seems to unfold without sensationalism, the directors handle the blend of genres with graceful aplomb making this feel more like a fairy story rather than full on horror fare. Ana’s horrific gory birth scene takes on Alien proportions but the alien here is a rather sorrowful baby werewolf – and we feel for him, rather than fear him. With Ana’s death, Clara moves back to the poverty of her favela – cue musical interlude – again, more like a scene from Les Miserables than true Brazilian favela squalor. The little boy Joel is adorable, even when he transforms to a tot werewolf during the full moon when he is taken to ‘the little bedroom’, a secure place with chains and fluffy toys.

All in all, GOOD MANNERS is graceful, softly crafted horror movie that has more in common with ‘Jackanory’, with its brightly coloured ‘beanstalk’ garden, than the terror inspired by Lon Chaney’s werewolf outings, but it nonetheless exerts a thrilling tension. Rui Pocas’ cinematography evokes vibrant images in the interiors and the CGI used for the transformations is just about convincing. Ultimately a story about the power of a mother’s transformative and unconditional love rather than a tale of destruction and woe. If there’s one criticism, GOOD MANNERS rather outstays its welcome at 135 minutes, but certainly hooks us into its spell until the grand finale. MT

ON RELEASE FROM 10 JULY 2020 | LOCARNO 2017 REVIEW

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

Dir/Jack Bond | 86′ Biopic Drama

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

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

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

NOW ON BFI BLURAY | 15 JUNE 2020

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

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

 

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

Phantom Thread (2017) **** Blu-ray release

Dir: Paul Anderson | Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville, 130′ | US | Drama

The latest film from Paul Thomas Anderson is quite unlike anything he has done before. PHANTOM THREAD is a deliciously thrilling love story with a slow-burning tight-lipped tension bred partly out of the discrete haute couture world of its gracefully dapper central character Reynolds Woodcock. Played peerlessly by Daniel Day-Lewis in his ‘swan song’, Reynolds is a Hardy Amies-style fashion designer who lives and works in London’s Fitzroy Square where he presides over a celebrated 1950s fashion house specialising in dressing high society and the Royals.

This stylishly buttoned-up affair is all about control, power and prestige in maintaining a veneer of respectability through discipline, dedication and duty that drives Reynolds forward, preventing him from acknowledging the hole in his soul, left by the death of his dear mother, and the absence of true love in his life.  Anderson constructs a world of superlative elegance where the daily round involves the pristine almost priestly preparation of his dress, coiffure, floral arrangements and particularly his breakfast: “I can’t begin my day with a confrontation.” Says Reynolds primly as he goes through the motions of his morning tea ceremony (lapsong, please) and silently buttered toast. “Nothing stodgy”. And no “loud sounds”. His sister Cyril (Lesley Manville at the top of her game), trundles in all red-puckered lips and seamed stockings. She rules the roost with utmost decorum, helping Reynolds as his business advisor and mentor. Reynolds is a disillusioned romantic, a bachelor in his fifties secretly yearning for love, but unable to let it into his tightly-corseted schedule. So his lust for carnal pleasure is channelled into luscious food – runny egg yolks and jugs of cream – until the real thing comes along to unleash his passion in the shape of a scrubbed up waitress named Alma (Luxumbourgeoise actor Vicky Krieps).

In his weekend retreat, he delicately delivers a breakfast order to her: poached eggs, butter, bacon, and jam – but not strawberry, raspberry…and some sausages –  is the verbal equivalent of an orgasm. And beneath Reynolds’ fussy exterior there really does lie a highly sensual man capable – we feel – of giving sexual pleasure to a woman, as well as tailored perfection, and this is the fine line that prevents Day-Lewis’ performance from being too prissy, although it sometimes veers in the direction. Alma is slightly gauche but also sensuous – like a ripe peach that won’t yet yield its stone. And so love gently blossoms in the autumn of Reynolds’ life while storm clouds linger on the horizon.

PHANTOM THREAD feels like a perfect metaphor for the well-known adage: AISLE ALTER HYMN (I’ll alter him, for the uninitiated) and this is just what the innocent-looking Alma has in mind when the two start working together in the West End atelier. This is a drama that sums up the utter dread many men feel about losing control of themselves to a woman. Reynolds will not cede to Alma’s charms and refuses to sacrifice his precious craft by allowing her control of his inner sanctum – the House of Woodcock – which represents his heart and life blood. She remains tough but loving – the perfect replica of his beloved mother, tempting him yet repulsing him by equal measure. Day-Lewis is adamant as the tortured artist, every subtle nuance flickers across his face in a display of mesmerising petulance. It’s impossible not to admire his gentle delivery and his chiselled, tousled allure. As an actor his economy of movement is unparalleled; he possesses the feline grace of Roger Federer and the innate style of breeding of George Sanders. During a delirious night of Alma-induced food-poisoning, Reynolds reveals his deep love attachment to his mother (whose ghost appears to him in her wedding dress)  and somehow her power is magically transferred to Alma, who from then on gets to wear the tailored trousers.

PHANTOM THREAD is Anderson’s eighth feature, and refreshingly is not based on anything but his own inventiveness. It perfectly suits its 1950s setting, an era where England was still on its knees after the war and rationing, and duty and pride in one’s work was paramount – people were so glad to have a job – and this is conveyed by a team of first rate unflappable seamstresses (with names like Biddy and Nana) who understand implicitly when a deadline looms, and a wedding dress must be tweaked or repaired for the following morning at 9am.

There is an erotic charge to PHANTOM that cannot be underestimated despite its immaculate and primped aesthetic. And the acerbically brittle Reynolds is no high-performing borderline psycho. He can transform at the doff of a cap into an amorous and extremely tender lover.  As in “The Master (2012) this is a film about the power and control dynamic between man and woman, and who eventually wins. It moves like the well-oiled engine of Reynolds’ blood red Bristol he drives down country lanes to his retreat. “I think you’re only acting strong,” says Alma, to which he replies, “I am strong.” And the two continue their power play in a way that never resorts to extreme physical or extreme verbal displays, although there is an extremely sinister side to Alma’s methods that make her the perfect antiheroine of the piece, Reynolds, like some overtly powerful  men, emerging the weaker of the two.

Jonny Greenwood’s music is the crowning glory, setting a tuneful rhythm of piano and strings for the soigné scenario that often feels quite claustrophobic, particularly in the final scenes, where we find ourselves shouting: “Don’t!” (you’ll soon see what I mean). At one point Reynolds says: Are you sent here to ruin my evening? And possibly my entire life?” These are the long-held suspicions of the committed bachelor who desperately longs for love, but constantly suspects the worst from his loving mate. Regretfully PHANTOM THREAD is our last chance to see Day-Lewis on the screen. He will be much missed from the films that he has graced. And this is possibly his best. MT

PHANTOM THREAD IS ON Blu-ray

Emma (2020) *** DVD/Blu-ray release

Dir.: Autumn de Wilde; Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Mia Goth, Johnny Flynn, Callum Turner, Gemma Whelan, Bill Nighy, Amanda Hart, Amber Anderson, Josh O’Connor, Rupert Graves, Tanya Reynolds; UK/US 2020, 124 min.

Emma has enjoyed several screen and TV versions but this visually ravishing addition to the party refreshes Austen’s novel with a delightful contemporary cast, adding to its allure. American photographer Autumn de Wilde films Eleanor Catton’s script casting Anya Taylor-Joy as Austen’s titular heroine. Far better than previous big screen outings, it trumps the limp 1996 version by Douglas McGrath, starring a self-congratulatory Gwyneth Paltrow.

We first meet twenty-one year-old Emma (Taylor-Joy) picking flowers for her ex-governess Miss Taylor (Whelan) on her wedding day to Mr. Weston(Graves). Emma and her hypochondriac father (Nighy) are sad to lose her. Emma – intelligent, beautiful, rich and wilful – turns her attentions to new best friend Harriet Smith (Goth) who is in awe of our accomplished heroine. Emma tells her to reject a proposal from Robert Martin, a prosperous farmer, implying Harriet can do much better. But close confidante George Knightley (Flynn) is not always taken in by Emma’s scheming, despite being in thrall to her charms. Vicar Elton (O’Connor) asks for her hand in marriage and gets a swift kick in the teeth, metaphorically speaking. Frank Churchill (Turner) is a bit of a mystery but comes good in the end, marrying the timid Jane Fairfax (Anderson) who piano and singing skills far outweigh Emma’s.

Cannon’s narrative thrusts the spotlight on Emma, keeping the running time manageable, but rather undercooking the other characters; a device that won’t flummox Austen habitués but may leave newcomers with too many questions unanswered. Anya Taylor-Joy inhabits Miss Woodhouse better than the filmmakers give her credit for, making her far too saccharine: Austen’s acerbic anti-heroine describes her as “only likeable for myself”.

DoP Christopher Blauvelt (Certain Women) conjures up England’s green pleasant land where nature and the characters melt into languid dances of love-sickness, bolstered by a never ending supply of servants. Taylor-Joy sparkles with mischievousness as if the world is her own private kingdom – and male acolytes react accordingly. Flynn’s George is in every way a match for her, but Callum Turner’s Frank pales into insignificance like most of the support cast. Miranda Hart is a perfect Miss Bates in a performance that will linger for a long time. Overall this Emma is good but not great compared to the BBC version. Still a worthwhile celebration of one of our best loved English novels. AS

DVD/BLU-RAY release 22 June 2020

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

 

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

Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence (1983)**** Blu-ray

Dir.: Nagisa Ôshima; Cast: David Bowie, Tom Conti, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Takeshi Kitano, Jack Thompson, Johnny Okura; Japan/UK/New Zealand 1983, 123 min.

David Bowie is the star of this emotional rollercoaster from Japanese New Wave director  Nagisa Ôshima (1932-2013) Empire of Passion).

Mr. Lawrence has aged very well and has lost nothing of its impact as an analysis of male short-comings. Adapted from Laurens van Der Post’s The Seed and the  Sower, the film takes place in a Japanese POW camp during the Second World War and is centred on four men: British POWs Major Jack ‘Strafer’ Celliers (Bowie) and Lt. Col. John Lawrence (Conti), and two Japanese soldiers, camp commander Capt. Yonoi (Sakamoto, who also composed the score) and sergeant Gengo Hara, a brute with a softer side.

Group Captain Hicksley (Thompson), the camp’s highest ranking officer and the spokesmen for the prisoners plays a minor, but catalysing role. Celliers’ stubbornness sees him locked in a battle of wills with the camp’s new commandant, a man obsessed with discipline and the glory of Imperial Japan. Lieutenant Colonel Lawrence (Tom Conti) is the only inmate with a degree of sympathy for Japanese culture and an understanding of the language, and attempts to bridge the divide through his friendship with Yonoi’s second-in-command, Sergeant Hara (Takeshi Kitano), a man possessing a surprising degree of compassion beneath his cruel façade. Celliers is also living with a guilty secret: he has betrayed his younger brother at boarding school. Captain Yonoi is also secretly ashamed of himself for being part of a military uprising in 1936, but unlike his comrades-in-arms, he escaped execution. Yonei develops a homo-erotic crush on Celliers, provoking him into a duel with the salve: “if you kill me, you will be free”. Celliers declines.

When a secret radio is discovered at the base , Yonoi makes Celliers and Lawrence take responsibility, sentencing them to death. But on Christmas Day, Hara frees the two prisoners, wishing Lawrence a titular “Merry Christmas”. Hara gets a light ticking off for showing mercy. But when Group Captain Hicksley learns about Yonoi’s plan to replace him, a fracas develops, with the Japanese camp commander ordering Hicksley to have all men stand up on the parade ground, including the sick. When Hicksley refuses, Yonoi wants to kill him, but Celliers kisses him on the cheek. With his honour in tatters, Yonoi retreats and is replaced as camp commandant who doesn’t give Celliers such a wide birth, “unlike my predecessor, I am not a romantic” and buries Celliers up to his neck in sand as a punishment. At an epilogue set in 1946, Lawrence makes a trip to visit Hara, who has been sentenced to death. Yonoi has already been executed, and Hara tells Lawrence that Yonoi gave him the lock from Celliers hair to place in a shrine in Yonoi’s home village.

David Bowie commented later that during the shooting he had been surprised Ôshima only showed the perimeters of the prison camp – yet when he saw the film afterwards he was able to appreciate how much more terrifying the threat of the compound was in contrast to the detail of the camp itself. DoP Toichiro Naushima (Double Suicide) shows how the mens’ emotions reflect the harshness of their surroundings (filming took place on the Polynesian island of Rarotonga) by continuously changing the angles of close-ups and the long tracking shots. Merry Christmas avoids the moral judgements made by David Lean on Bridge on the River Kwai.  In his valedictory chat to Hara, Lawrence makes a shrewd observation: “there are times when victory is very hard to take“. Ôshima always keeps the balance, avoiding sentimentality, without shrinking from this very emotional conflict. AS  

ON RELEASE 15 JUNE | ARROW BLU-RAY 

                                        

   

 

 

Throw Down (2004) *** Blu-ray release

Dir.: Johnnie To; Cast: Louis Koo, Aaron Kwok, Cherrie Ying, Hoi Pang Lo, Tony Leung, Calvin Choi, Eddie Cheung; China/Hong Kong 2004, 95 min.

Throw Down has a very special place in Johnnie To’s body of work. It stands apart from narrative driven films like Election or Office: Throw Down is Kurosawa on speed, the plot being more or less accidental. The son of Judo Master Cheng introduces himself to his opponents in the violent arcade games “I will be Sanshiro Sugate, you will be Higaki”, referring to Sanshiro Sugate I and II, Kurosawa’s first and third features featuring judo fighters.

Sze-to Bo (Koo) is a bar owner who steals big time from gangster boss Savage (Cheung), only to lose the money on the gambling table. Bo had been a judo champion a long time ago, but has retired for unknown reasons. Lee Ah-kong, the current champion, has a grudge against Bo because the he failed to turn up for a fight Lee was sure he would won. Master Cheng (Pang Lo) is Bo’s former teacher; his son Ching stricken by dementia, prone to introducing himself as Sugagte. Into this murky milieu comes Tony (Kwook), a keen judo fighter, and Mona (Ying), a would-be singer, who is running away from her pimping manager. Bo joins this desperate, spunky trio, with To staging some bizarre sequences. At one point, Bo steals money from Savage and his men, only to lose it on their flight, with Mona returning to pick up some bank notes, Savage’s henchman doing the same at the other end of the street. Mona then runs to Bo, who has lost a shoe – Mona running back to pick it up front of the gangsters, still collecting the bank notes, which have flown everywhere like confetti. When Bo gives up fighting because of threatened blindness due to his detached retina, a frantic finale starts to unfurl, Bo trying to wipe out his adversaries before losing his sight. But the atmosphere remains the dominant factor right to the end.

DoP Sie-Keung Cheng’s stylish images of noirish sleaziness overlay this angst ridden riot. Artificial light dominates in the studio and the eerie empty streets of Hong Kong. Yeun Bun, in charge of the fight scenes, choreographs like a ballet master. Ying is by far the liveliest protagonist, running riot over the fighting males. Overall, Throw Down is an idiosyncratic mixture of fight movie and melodrama, with large dollop of surrealism thrown in. AS

NOW ON BLU-RAY COURTESY OF EUREKA MASTERS OF CINEMA   

The Vanishing | Spoorloos (1988) **** Blu-ray release

Dir: George Sluizer | Gene Bervoets, Johanna Ter Steege, Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu | Thriller | 107′

A simple plot grows into a suffocatingly desolate psychodrama exploring the depraved wickedness of the human mind. Although Stanley Kubrick claimed it was the most terrifying film he’d ever seen, George Sluizer was unable to find distribution for his film that screened at the Sydney film festival to critical acclaim. And it’s not difficult to see why. A group of singularly unappealing characters fill a narrative so bleak and uncharitable it leaves you utterly dejected by the time the credits roll. What starts as a tender love story in the sun-drenched South of France ends in an autumnal Amsterdam as leaves fall on human tragedy.

A young Dutch couple, Rex and Saskia  (Bervoets and Ter Steege) are on their way to her French holiday home, in a battered old Peugeot. After stopping for drinks and petrol at a service station near Nimes, Saskia vanishes into thin air. A protracted and febrile search by Rex draws a blank. Scripted by Tim Krabbe from his own novel The Golden Egg, a parallel narrative introduces Raymond Lemorne, a devious and conceited father of two who starts to contact Rex claiming to know the whereabouts of Saskia, via taunting postcards that reveal a disturbed mind.

In this portrait of obsession and frustrated desire, Sluizer focuses on Rex’s desperation but also on Donnadieu’s conniving Raymond who makes for a cynically asexual psychopath with his immaculately trimmed goatee beard. He lives a banal quotidian existence with his two daughters and pleasant wife, who starts to question his protracted lone visits to the family’s country house.

Rex, by contrast, cannot move on emotionally after losing Saskia and is tortured into an angry mess of a man by his troubled dreams, despite a supportive new girlfriend. Eaten up by his desire for closure, Rex confronts his nemesis and ends up in a Faustian pact, submitting himself to Raymond’s unfeasible requests just to satisfy his inner demons. Clinically plotted and devoid of any humanity after the upbeat opening sequences Sluizer’s thriller makes for a critically watertight but thoroughly unpleasant watch.MT.

ON VOD, EST and Blu-ray from 8 JUNE 2020

 

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 

 

This is Not a Movie (2019) **** Canada Now | Curzon Home Cinema

Dir.: Yung Chang; Documentary with Robert Fisk, Amira Hass; Canada/Germany 2019, 106 min.

Canadian director/co-writer Yung Chang (Up the Yangtze) creates an energetic portrait of British war journalist Robert Fisk (*1946), who has chronicled conflict zones from Northern Ireland to the Syrian atrocities. After more than five decades in the field, and now living in Beirut since 1976, Frisk is seven times winner of the British Press Award’s International journalist of the year.

Alfred Hitchcock’s highly romantic drama Foreign Correspondent, was the kicker that started Fisk’s fascination with journalism. Growing up in Maidstone, Kent, he is fluent in Arabic after working in the devasted cities of Syria and the occupied West Bank. His father was a soldier in the Great War and refused to execute an enemy soldier “the only action my father undertook, with which I could identify”.

After starting with the Sunday Express he later changed to The Times, which he left after the Rupert Murdoch takeover, and has now found a home at the Independent, covering wars for the digital edition. Fisk interviewed Osama Bin Laden three times between 1993 and 1997. In the first article, he called Bin Laden an Anti-Soviet mountain warrior on the road to peace. The “mountain warrior” must have been impressed by the journalist, because he tried to convert him to his cause. Fisk also covered the Sabra and Shatila massacres in 1982, when the Israeli Army turned a blind eye to the Falange soldiers who massacred Palestinians in refuge camps. On the ‘phone to his current editor, Fisk has to explain why he made the reference in his report. Losing his patience, Fisk tells the man he should look it up on Google and try to make the connection.

Director Chang is as much a purist as is Fisk. When asked in an interview about his position in the question of film versus digital, he admits:”there is a grain, a quality and a depth to the image that is unmatched in digital video.” Some images were shot in 16mm by DoP Duraid Munajim, but did not make it into the final cut. But the still photos shot during the production are in 35 mm.

Fisk has always challenge the objectivity of “balanced” journalism, his viewpoint is visible throughout his work when he tries to interrogate all sides of the conflict. Whether in Homs, Aleppo, Douma or Palestine, he “is neutral and unbiased on the side of those who suffer”. In contrast to the mainstream media, he gives voice to the unrepresented. Both Chang and Fisk share a passion for travelling, and being taken out of their comfort zone. The dirctor is full of admiration for his older counterpart: “We started when Fisk was around seventy-two. But he is still active, still thinking and still writing incendiary articles and cracking forward-thinking stories. This had to be an active story.” AS

HEADLINING CANADA NOW | CURZON HOME CINEMA | 12 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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tribute to Christo who died in May 2020

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


 

Shiraz (1928) ***** We Are One Festival

Dir: Franz Osten | Writer: W Burton based on a play by Niranjan Pal | Cast: Himansu Rai, Enakshi Rama Rau, Charu Roy, Seeta Devi | 97′ | Silent | Drama

SHIRAZ: A ROMANCE OF INDIA is a rare marvel of silent film. This dazzling pre-talkies spectacle was directed by Franz Osten and stars Bengali actor Himansu Rai who also produced the film from an original play by Niranjan Pal. Shot entirely in India with a cast of 50,000 and in natural light, the parable imagines the events leading to the creation of one of India’s most iconic buildings The Taj Mahal, a monument to a Moghul Empire to honour a dead queen.

Shiraz is a fictitious character, the son of a local potter who rescues a baby girl from the wreckage of a caravan laden with treasures, ambushed while transporting her mother, a princess. Shiraz is unaware of Selima’s royal blood and he falls madly in love with her as the two grow up in their simple surroundings, until she is kidnapped and sold to Prince Khurram of Agra (a sultry Charu Roy). Shiraz then risks his life to be near her in Agra as the Prince also falls for her charms.

SHIRAZ forms part of a trilogy of surviving films all made on location in India by Rai and his director Osten. Light of Asia (Prem Sanyas, 1926) and A Throw of Dice (Prapancha Pash, 1929) complete the trio intended to launch an east/west partnership bringing quality films to India, all based on Indian classical legend or history, and featuring an all-Indian cast in magnificent locations. Apart from the gripping storyline, there is the rarity value of a sophisticated silent feature made outside the major producing nations in an era where Indian cinema was not yet the powerhouse it would become. Rai makes for a convincing central character as the modest Shiraz, with a gently shimmering Enakshi Rama Rau as Selima. Seeta Devi stars in all three films, and here plays the beguiling but scheming courtesan Dalia, determined to get her revenge on Selima’s charms.

Apart from being gorgeously sensual (there is a highly avantgarde kissing scene ) and gripping throughout, SHIRAZ is also an important film in that it united the expertise of three countries: Rai’s Great Eastern Indian Corporation; UK’s British Instructional Films (who also produced Anthony Asquith’s Shooting Stars and Underground in 1928) and the German Emelka Film company. Contemporary sources tell of “a serious attempt to bring India to the screen”. Attention to detail was paramount with an historical expert overseeing the sumptuous costumes, furnishings and priceless jewels that sparkle within the Fort of Agra and its palatial surroundings. Glowing in silky black and white SHIRAZ is one of the truly magical films in recent memory. MT

SHIRAZ IS PART OF WE ARE ONE A FESTIVAL CELEBRATING SOLIDARITY FROM THE FILM COMMUNITY | 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    

Eeb Allay Ooo (2020) **** We Are One Fest

Dir.: Prateek Vats; Cast: Mahinder Nath, Shardul Bhardwaj, Nutana Sinha, Sahsi Bhusan, Nitin Goel, Naina Sarffin; India 2019, 98 min.

That well worn phrase “I don’t know whether to laugh or cry” best describes Indian filmmaker Prateek Vats’ feelings about the current state of his homeland. Monkeys have holy status in Delhi, just like the cows, and the local authorities certainly know how to handle their growing  population with kid gloves, as we find out in this impressive and whimsical comedy.

Eeb Allay Ooo follows Vats’ 2017 documentary A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings (about a hundred-year old bodybuilder), which won him a Special National Film award. And he uses his documentary background to great effect in this story about a young migrant in Delhi.

Anjani (Bhardwaj) has recently arrived in the capital and is living with his pregnant sister Didi (Sinha) and her policeman husband Shasti (Bhusan) in a ramshackle flat on the outskirts. Anjani is one of the many unskilled workers looking for a job. But soon Shasti finds him work keeping the herds of monkeys away from government buildings. All this requires training, and this comes from expert monkey handler Mahinder (Nath) who teaches Anjani how impersonate the monkeys’ arch enemy the langur, by shouting “eeb-allay-ooo” which scares them away. But Anjani is actually quite scared of the monkeys, and on the quiet, he uses a sling shot to chase them away. He also dresses up as a langur, but this doesn’t go down well with his boss and he nearly loses his job as a result. Tragically, locals don’t respect Mahinder’s methods either, despite her gentleness, and she is killed by a mob defending the monkeys..

Meanwhile things are not going well for the family. Shasti has been given a rifle in a promotion at work, but is afraid to use it, hiding it under his clothes when he cycles around on patrol. It comes in handy during a major row with one of Didi’s contractors Narayan, and he chases the guy away. Depressed about his work situation Anjani sinks into a clinical depression, and gives Shasti’s gun away. The last sequence sums up everything that has taken place before: there is something fundamentally wrong in a society where monkeys roam free and are protected due to their holy status, while humans are trapped by economic circumstances.    

DoP Saumyanda Sahi’s impressive camerawork creates a fabulous sense of place, particularly his long shots showing Anjani’s arduous journey home. The majestic elegance of the government palaces, contrasts starkly with the poverty in the outer suburbs. The social realism here is poetic rather than didactic, always keeping a fine balance between comedy and social commentary, making Eeb Allay Ooo an enjoyable but bittersweet satire. AS

WE ARE ONE FESTIVAL | BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL 2020 | 20 FEBRUARY – 1 MARCH 2020

 

 

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

Docudrama | 114’ | Brazil/Portugal

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

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

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

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

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       

Take Me Somewhere Nice (2019) *** MUBI

Dir: Ewa Sendijarevic | Drama | 91′

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

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

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

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

 

Heat & Dust (1983) **** Curzon World

Dir.: James Ivory; Cast: Julie Christie, Greta Scacchi, Shashi Kapoor, Christopher Cazenove, Zakir Hussain, Charles McCaughan, Patrick Geoffrey; UK 1983, 132 min. 

Heat and Dust was the twelfth (of twenty-seven) collaborations between director James Ivory, producer Ismail Merchant and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Based on the Booker Prize winning novel, the screen adaptation is a break with the social realism of the trio’s earlier features such as Shakespeare Wallah (1965). Its visual opulence made it by far their most successful feature at the box office to date.

Heat and Dust is a lush evocation of the sensuous beauty of India, sashaying between the 1920s and the 1980s in an epic of self-discovery, starring Julie Christie, Shashi Kapoor, and Greta Scacchi in her breakthrough role, with a strong supporting cast

When BBC researcher Anne (Christie) inherits the writings of her great aunt Olivia in 1982, she travels to India to find out more about the ‘scandal’ Olivia caused in 1923. The narrative tells the parallel story of both women. Olivia was married to the naïve and conventional Colonial Civil Servant Douglas Rivers (Cazenove), who had no clue about Olivia’s emotions. Bored by the stifling narrow-mindedness of the ex-patriate community, Olivia soon meets the sophisticated maverick Nawab (Kapoor) who, in his role as Viceroy, runs his private army, often indulging in violence on a grand scale. Olivia falls in love with him, but when she gets pregnant, decides on an abortion for fear of the obvious repercussions. Running away from the British hospital and the reactionary Chief Medical officer (Geoffrey) after the botched surgery, she flees to Kapoor, spending the last years of her life in a villa in the mountains where Kapoor, now deposed by the British, rarely visits her.

Anne traces Olivia’s steps, meeting on her way a young boisterous American would-be-monk (McCaughan), who is only interested in sleeping with her. But his body cannot cope with the foreign lifestyle and diet: Anne puts him into a train back to the USA. In her rooming house, she falls in love with Indor Lai (Hussain), her landlord. She too becomes pregnant, wanting to abort the baby at first, but changing her mind and planning to give birth in a hospital, near the villa, where Olivia lives out her lonely days.

Very much influenced by the writing of E.M. Forster – whose novels would be filmed later by Merchant/Ivory/Jhabvala – Heat and Dust is a not so nostalgic look back to the days of the Raj, carried by the spirited Scacchi, who injects a feeling of joie de vivre to the role, growing increasingly melancholy. The 1980s segments are comparably less remarkable. But the feature belongs to DoP Walter Lassally, who not only shot the New English Cinema (A Taste of Honey, Tom Jones) but also won an Oscar for Zorba the Greek. The languid but vivid images of British rule in India would go on to inspire a generation of cinematographers, taking their cue from Walter Lassally. Heat and Dust, whilst not as stunning as the more mature Howards End, is nevertheless a trend setter: The legendary David Lean finished his career with the Forster adaption Passage to India in 1984. AS

NOW ON CURZON WORLD AS PART OF THE James Ivory series. 

      

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

The Importance of Being Oscar (2018) ** DVD release

Dir.: Richard Curson-Smith; Commentated excerpts from Oscar Wilde plays with Anna Chancellor, Anna Devlin, James Fleet, Freddie Fox, Ben Lloyd-Hughes, Freddie Fox, Alice Orr-Erwing, Nicholas Rowe, Claire Skinner, Ed Stoppard; UK 2020, 84 min.

If you are expecting another amusing arthouse drama from one of Ireland’s greatest writers, you will be disappointed by this pot pourri of Wilde’s work. Director/producer Richard Curson-Smith, whose TV portraits of Nureyev, Ted Hughes and Francis Bacon are highlights of the BBC programming, fails in his attempt to have Wilde scholars connect his work with his stormy life story. The Importance just makes you yearn for a whole play, especially with this fine assembled cast of Freddie Fox, Anna Chancellor and Ed Stoppard. And although the dramatised excerpts are enjoyable in themselves, there are too many talking heads, the only engaging commentators on Wilde being Giles Brandreth and Stephen Fry who share early tit-bit such as his appearance in ‘Punch’ magazine.

They discuss Gilbert & Sullivan’s Patience (1988), a parody of the genius-in-the-making. We learn, that Wilde went to the USA in 1882, and was greatly impressed by the circus impresario Phineas Taylor Barnum. On his return he became, among other occupations, a contributor and editor to London outlet ‘The Strand Magazine’. From this era there are  excerpts from The Canterville Ghost (1887), a short story. There is an interesting (part) dramatisation of his essay The decay of Lying (1882). Equally captivating is De Profundis (1897), which got the same treatment as the above mentioned essay, quoting from Wilde’s letters from prison, published posthumously in 1905.

But his famous society plays, as well as a part adaption of The Portrait of Dorian Gray make up most of the running time, and commentary concentrates on the well known trial of Wilde for homosexuality, instigated by the Marquise of Queensbury, whose son, Alfred Lord Douglas, was Wilde’s long term lover. What the film does establish is that Wilde was imprisoned not so much for his homosexuality but because, as a wealthy man of society and standing, he took advantage of less fortunate members of the community in the shape of rent boys desperate for money. As such Wilde’s story connects to the narrative of the #metoo movement.

Wilde’s grandson features but adds nothing sparkling to the party and DoP Graham Smith’ images are perfunctionary. And this is one example where an attempt to cram the life and work of a major literary figure into just 84 minutes should be questioned. Surely, the subject deserves much more – and this goes not only for the length of this rather flimsy affair. AS

ON DVD FROM 11 MA Y 2020

 

A Paris Education | Mes Provinciales (2018) **** DVD

Dir.: Jean-Paul Civeyrac; Cast: Andranic Manet, Diane Rouxel, Jenna Thiam, Gonzague van Bervesseles, Corentin Fila, Valentine Catzeflis, Sophie Verbeck, Christine Brucher, Gregori Manoukov; France 2018, 137 min.

Jean-Paul Civeyrac’s passionate cocktail of Sex, cinema and politics is a seductive distillation of what it means to be French. Based on the novel Lettres Provinciales by Blaise Pascal, it follows the adventures of Etienne who arrived from Lyons to study filmmaking in Paris, Saint-Denis, leaving his family and friend Lucie (Rouxel) behind. Shot in ravishing black-and-white by Pierre-Hubert Martin, A Paris Education feels very much like La Maman et la Putain by Eustache, transported into contemporary times.

Etienne (Manet) is a shy, immature young man – and extremely naïve – he’s looking for a mother/father figure. Shacking up with a new flat mate Valentina (Thiam), he soon falls under the spell of the enigmatic Mathias (Fila), a fellow student and troubled provocateur who would rather criticise than actually put himself out there and make a film. Then there is Jean-Noel (Bervesseles), who is just the opposite: caring and balanced – Etienne’s two new friends could not be more different. Yet he seems to be more passionate about Mathias than anybody else – even though he hardly knows him. Meanwhile Valentina moves to Berlin and is replaced by fierce eco-warrior Annabelle (Verbeck). Etienne tries to get close to this vulnerable woman but she falls for Mathias, until his violent outbursts jeopardise their love, Mathias turning his aggression on himself; Etienne has lost both his friends – and he is literally picked up by Barbara (Catzeflis), who was only briefly introduced to him by Annabelle in the flat.

Etienne appears vulnerable but he is primarily a non-committal, both in love and work. He sails through the film like a ship without a flag: his only constant concern is to make films, people come second in every way – with the exception of Mathias. Even his relationship with his parents (Brucher/Manoukov) is far from straightforward. When they visit him in Paris he seems embarrassed and aloof. The endless discussions with his friends and co-students seem to be a way to avoid growing up, and also full-time work. In a sad epilogue, we see him gradually withdraw from Barbara: how can he commit when he only loves himself.

Music plays a central part in this affecting drama; editor Louise Narboni has worked in opera, and Bach and Mahler dominate (particularly his 5th symphony that scored Death in Venice), and underline how marginalised Etienne has become since leaving provincial life made him a big fish in small bowl.  In Paris his lack of real identity and commitment turn him into Musil’s titular hero in A Man without Attributes. A Paris Education is a tour-de-force of art and psychology, and for once, the running time of over two hours is appropriate. AS

NOW ON DVD FROM 11 MAY 2020  

The Overlanders (1946) **** Blu-ray release

The reason for the docudrama approach stems from the original idea of making a propaganda film for the Australian government who knocked on Watts’ door looking for a well known director and a reputable studios – Ealing naturally fitted the bill, although the film was released after the war was over.

Magic Medicine (2018)

Dir/Writer: Monty Wates | UK Doc | 79′

In 2012 a team of medical researchers explored what would happen if psilocybin was given to long term depressives.

Four years in the making, Monty Wates’ intriguing documentary chronicles the progress of the first ever medical trial offering the psychoactive ingredient of magic mushrooms to three volunteers suffering from clinical depression. We also meet the pioneering staff running the trial.

The hope is that this controversial substance will have the power to transform millions of lives, by scrambling and re-setting the brain’s function and enabling patients to identify what happened, to process it and, crucially, to move on. As David Lynch put in the recent biopic The Art Life (2016) “there has to be a big mess, before something can change”. The main setback has been government controls that strictly limit human testing.

Monty’s ground-breaking film reveals what happens when each of the candidates undergoes a supervised “trip” in a darkened room. During the short procedure, each is taken back into the deep recesses of their childhood to unlock trauma that has affected their lives and caused them to suffer deep sadness, impinging their ability to function at an optimum level. One of the trail volunteers had felt rejected and unwanted by his father, another was lost in a state of insecurity waiting for others to tell him what to do. The third feels generally worthless in his life.

Wates adopts an observational approach and a linear narrative, always maintaining a humanistic approach to the subject matter. With deeply moving footage of the “trips” the patients experience, this intimate film is an absorbing portrait of the human cost of depression, and the inspirational people contributing to this unique psychedelic research. The results are remarkable, varied and often lasting, suggesting the treatment is positive. So far. And certainly more effective than with conventional drugs. But whether the substance will be licensed for general use remains to be seen. MAGIC MEDICINE is an instructive, absorbing and fascinating piece of filmmaking. MT

A 2021 study led by the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN), found that the drug can be safely administered in up to six patients using doses of either 10mg or 25mg.

 

Mr Klein (1976) Blu-ray

Dir: Joseph Losey | Cast: Alain Delon, Jeanne Moreau, Francine Berge, Juliet Berto, Michael Lonsdale | Thriller, 123′


What a fabulous and resonant contribution American director Joseph Losey made to the world of European cinema: each film a work of art that seems to live on. reinventing itself with each new generation. Mr Klein is a case in point and seems more relevant now that it did on its original release in 1976 in telling a story from Nazi-occupied Paris of the early 1940s.

Elegant, unsettling and strangely brooding this noirish thriller reflects another world of caution and insecurity reflecting the current state of crisis. Opulently set in and around the quartier of a Parisian apartment belonging to an art dealer – a superb Alain Delon who plays the central role with a suave and amiable dignity alongside his pouting heroines Jeanne Moreau and Juliet Berto exquisitely attired by French costume designers Collette Baudot and Annalisa Nasalli-Rocca. Gerry Fisher’s subtle camerawork and chiaroscuro lighting enhances Alexandre Trauner’s magnificent production designs creating an atmospheric sense of place in the beautiful bourgeois Parisians settings. So much so that you almost forgot the storyline that is stealthily working its way to a compelling conclusion, in the background. Not to mention the salient subject of Jewish persecution and anti-semitism which is at the film’s core. And crucially, it is the police that are carrying out the rounding up of Jews (some 13,000), not the German soldiers.

Elliptical in nature, in the same way as The Servant and Accident, Franco Solinas (Battle of Algiers) wrote the script along with Fernando Morandi and Costa-Gavras, but Losey drew on his experience with Hollywood Blacklisting to create the atmosphere of creeping uncertainty and mistrust that steals through the feature.

Delon’s Robert Klein is running a tight business buying up art works from Jewish Parisians desperate to leave the country. But gradually his facade drops when a Jewish newspaper bearing his name is delivered to his private address, forcing him to check the provenance of the paper, and prove his identity and his raison d’être. And as he digs deeper, the more the mud seems to stick to his hand-tailored tweed suits, eventually landing him in deep shit when things spin out of control, as they eventually do, in the best possible taste. A fascinating film about suspicion, illusion, collective recrimination and the strange way people behave when the ground starts to shift. MT

Joseph Losey’s MR. KLEIN | Fully restored on Blu-Ray, DVD & Digital on September 13

 

 

 

 

 

The Carer (2016) *** Vimeo on demand

Dir.: Janos Edelenyi; Cast: Brian Cox, Anna Chancellor, Emilia Fox, Coco König | UK 2016, 88 min.

Veteran Hungarian director/co-writer Janos Edelenyi (Prima Primavera), who has mainly worked for Hungarian Television, misses the beat in this rather simplistic comedy – despite Brian Cox as the main character.

He is Sir Michael, a Shakespearian actor in the final stages of Parkinsons, living on his opulent estate in Kent where he rails against “the dying of the light”. His daughter Sophia (Fox) and ex-flame Milly (Chancellor) try to be kind and sympathetic, but he has no time for either of them, or any of his carers, who have left after falling out this him.

Then a young Hungarian women called Dorottya arrives (König). She is trying to make it on the British stage, but eventually wins Sir Michael over, even discussing his incontinence openly. His rather scheming daughter Sophia feels threatened by the newcomer and dismisses her. Declaiming King Lear in anger, Sir Michael suffers a heart attack, but that brings Dorottya back on the scene: taking him to an award ceremony in his honour, and thwarting Sophia’s plans for a million pound donation.

The end credits contain photos and extensive information about happy-endings for all concerned. What could have been an enjoyable romp is, at best, a show-case for Cox and at worse a cliché-ridden, rather soulless and confused primitive farce. DoP Tibor Mathe’s visuals aim to convey an emotional story: but that would require a texture he doesn’t bring to the aesthetic. Using digital cameras to convey emotion has been successfully tried with the use of vintage lenses or post-productions means. Neither were applied in this case, and the result is a smooth, undefined and damp image. The overall result brings nothing to the care-giving merry go round, a theme that has endless potential yet to be mined. AS

OUT ON VIMEO ON DEMAND

Ema (2019) ** Curzon World

Cast: Mariana Di Girolamo, Gael Garcia Bernal, Paola Giannini, Santiago Cabrera, Cristian Suarez, Catalina Saavedra

Director: Pablo Larrain | Drama Chile 102’

Music is the only star of Pablo Larrain’s story of parental irresponsibility that unfolds amidst the cool vibes of seaside Valparaiso. This South American idyll is also home to the pumping sounds of the reggaetón dance world that is only authentic element of this glib story. 

Back in the present after his lush 1960s drama Jackie, Larrain casts newcomer Mariana Di Girolamo and a reliable Gael Garcia Bernal as a couple who clash due to their immaturity and lack of life experience when juggling their artistic collaboration with a desire to have a child.

Taking on such an emotive theme exposes Larrain’s ineptitude in handling the delicate subject matter, and questions whether he has personally been affected by the issues involved – clearly not, otherwise he would have have given it more thoughtful treatment.  And although he brings his edgy cinematic talents to the party, the experiment fails. Ema is a drama that is neither engaging nor convincingly performed, even Gael Garcia Bernal cannot inject any depth to his character, apart from his incendiary outburst at Ema and her dancing troupe.

After a dynamic opening sequence featuring a massive fire at a traffic lights junctions, the film scatterguns into a series of stilted episodes as Larrain attempts to establish the storyline using the rhythm of his pulsating score as the driving factor. It’s a clever idea that fails in a drama that never gains a satisfying momentum.

Ema (Di Girolamo) is a bleached blond dancer in her early twenties who has recently adopted a 7 year old orphan from Columbia, named Polo (Cristian Suarez), because her choreographer husband Gaston (Bernal) has been declared infertile. Coming from a troubled start in life Polo soon becomes too much of a handful for his naive parents and sets their home on fire, leaving Ema’s sister with facial injuries.

So back Polo goes into the system, Ema and Gaston bemoaning their loss as if the boy was a psychopathic pet rabbit, with Ema blithely declaring she’ll ‘pick another one’, laying the blame squarely at Gaston’s feet. Gaston is the less irritating of the two but even his star-power fails to makes this rewarding or meaningful, remaining cold and distant throughout. And the visually arresting dance sequences and pumping vibes just feel incongruous, somehow reducing this to a trivial soap opera, rather than offering tonal relief from the couple’s fraught situation. A simpering social worker (Catalina Saavedra) who had pulled strings to get the couple a child, just adds to the woeful mistreatment. Is this an inditement on Chilean youth, a lowkey expose on the perils of adoption, or a novel way of raising awareness of reggaeton, either way, it does feel mildly offensive. Larrain’s co-writer Guillermo Calderon did some brilliant work on The Club and Neruda so hopefully this is just a bum note for this duo. MT

NOW ON DIGITAL RELEASE | VENICE FILM FESTIVAL Review 2019 

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

Dir: Tony Palmer | UK Doc, 102′

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

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

Scandinavian Silence (2019) ****

Dir: Martti Helde | Cast: Rea Lest, Reimo Sagor

The life of three siblings is told by each of them in this stylish Scandinavian thriller from Estonian director Martti Helde 

Martti Helde was feted for In the Crosswind his experimental wartime feature debut back in 2014. This stylishly frosty foray into family territory is more intimate in focus despite its striking widescreen visuals and tells the story of siblings struck dumb by violent circumstances.

Essentially a two-hander that plays out in three parts, Scandinavian Silence muses over themes of false memory and subjective interpretation in an enigmatic film that is ultimately more visually arresting than entirely satisfying in its storytelling, leaving us with more questions than answers. But it certainly captivates and conjures up a Tarkovskian sense of resonance through expert camerawork from Sten-Johan Lill and Erik Pllumaa creating an arresting sense of place.

In a freezing forest landscape Tom (Reimo Sagor) joins his sister Jenna (Rea Lest) in a drive that is a one-sided monologue, Tom expressing his feelings of regret, confusion and self-doubt about a troubling family set-to that left him in prison and his sister Jenna exposed to their father’s abuse. Then back at the same starting point, Jenna gives her sides of the story while Tom keeps his powder dry at a table in a roadside cafe. And what emerges is a different take on the situation, Jenna partially exonerating Tom for his acute feelings of guilt. This diatribe is punctuated by a strange encounter with an older couple adding an unsettling vibe to the proceedings that resonates with their dysfunctional homelife.

The third section of the trilogy is like a silent film of what has gone before, neither Tom nor Jenna speaking, it relies entirely on body language, suggestive expressions and eye contact culminating in a surprising finale that somehow leaves us wanting given the weight of expectancy with what has gone before.

Style over substance this may be but Helde certainly creates an arresting piece of cinema that offers much food for thought in the frozen wastelands of the mind, where less can often mean more. MT

https://vimeo.com/314322683

Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse (2016) **** Streaming

Director | Cinematographer: David Bickerstaff | Producer: Phil Grabsky | 93min | Documentary | UK

IMG_4205 copy

The Royal Academy’s ‘Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse’ was the first of its kind to display paintings by artists inspired by gardens. Using Claude Monet as a starting point, the exhibition explored the major role of gardens in the development of art and painting from the 1860s through to the threshold of modernism in the 1920s. This colourful documentary brings the pivotal study to life visiting many of the gardens featured and also offers further insight and context from leading lights of the world of art and garden history.

Director David Bickerstaff and Phil Grabsky are known for their art documentaries on Goya, Van Gogh and Renoir that add a another dimension to the artists and their paintings, bringing their vibrant creations to the screen and allowing their works to travel and gain context through the valuable insight of art curators, experts, even members of the artists’ families.

Painting the Modern Garden shows how Monet was not only a talented painter but also a horticulturalist who took inspiration from nature describing his garden as his “most beautiful masterpiece”. He owed “having become a painter to flowers”, using colour, form and latterly stripping things back to just light and reflection to give an impression of what he really saw and experienced.

FullSizeRender-2 copyBickerstaff’s agile camerawork flits from sumptuous groupings of vivid, herbaceous perennials to gloriously discordant drifts of annuals and their painted representations in the works of Pierre Bonnard, Paul Klee, Gustave Caillebotte, Wassily Kandinsky, Gustav Klimt, John Singer Sargent, Camille Pisarro, Emil Nolde, Joaquin Sorolla, Berthe Morisot, Jacques Tissot, Paul Cézanne and Henri Matisse (to name but a few but only one Englishman!). He finally alights on the talking heads: the Royal Academy co-curator Ann Dumas explains how during the 1860s private gardens became a visual pleasure and a sanctuary for the family, rather than just a source of food; celebrity garden designer Dan Pearson explores how Singer Sargent (left) and Monet conveyed their understanding and love of raising the plants to their artistic impressions of them, particularly seen in Monet’s zinging portrayal of flame rust day lilies, and Singer Sargent white asian lilies. An Art Historian and Professor shows how many different species were being discovered in the Orient, bringing a new dynamic vitality to classic plant pairings in garden designs. The cheeky head gardener at Giverney tells how Monet favoured clashing colours (planting purple with orange accentuates the vibrancy) in contrast to England’s ‘old-fashioned’, classic harmonious schemes – he obviously hasn’t visited many English gardens and in particular those at Great Dixter by the pioneering writer and designer Christopher Lloyd (1921-2006) who with his head gardener Fergus Garrett, whose stock in trade was strident yellow with fluorescent carmine, and other striking contrasts. is at pains to point out that gardening and horticulture is often denigrated as an applied craft along with knitting or basket weaving, whereas, infact, it is a living and changing interactive art – as much as we plant and plan, nature offers a constant source of surprise, each year and season bringing up unexpected variations and results, in many ways similar to painting and filmmaking even architecture: we design but the infinite alchemy of the elements often throws up a result which is both pleasing and rewarding.

Key 108 copy copyThe second act of Painting the Modern Garden gets out and about in the gardens themselves, visiting Monet’s garden at Le Pressoir, Giverny; German Impressionist painter Max Liebemann’s lakeside garden on the banks of the Wannsee in Berlin; Emil Nolde’s garden in Seebüll (Northern Germany) – there are cutaways to Nolde’s intense impressionist works showing how he literally daubed the paint on the canvas to illustrate the boldness of his poppies and dahlias; Joaquín Sorolla’s garden in Madrid which influenced his ethereal work with light and shadow; Henri le Sidaner’s garden in Gerberoy, Picardy – we also meet his relative who explains how le Sindaner’s ‘intimist’ painting was based on the atmospheric light in his garden which echoed reflection and informed his work. This gorgeous travelogue showcases the gardens at their most resplendent.

FullSizeRender-1

The final section of the documentary hones in on Monet’s later years to illustrates how he designed and planted his borders specifically as a source of inspiration for his impressionism. Rather than portraying the garden and individual studies of it, he focused obsessively on light and reflection (left). He sourced newly discovered exotic cultivars of nympheas (bright pink and yellow) that he acquired (‘all my money goes into my garden’) and grew in his excavated lake from the mid 1890s until his death in 1926. The film offers a panoramic view of the remarkable 42ft Agapanthus triptych; a vision of light, suggestive colour and reflection and the most evocative of all his works (seen together for the first time and borrowed  from three different museums) that perfectly evokes the ‘oceanic’ state – a feeling of limitlessness where we are at one with nature. This is the perfect climax to a study that progresses from Renoir’s figurative portrait of Monet in his garden at Argenteuil in 1873 to the broad brush impressionism that occupied the final decade of his Monet’s life. Painting the Modern Garden initially feels like a glossy an advert for the exhibition, but in analysis it offers far more: a worthwhile and engaging filmic tribute to the world of 19th garden art and the fascinating history and people that informed and shaped it. MT

PAINTING THE MODERN GARDEN: MONET TO MATISSE is at RA.ORG.UK

Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse

 

 

 

A Machine to Live In (2020) **** Visions du Reel

Dirs: Yoni Goldstein, Meredith Zielke | Doc, United States, 87′

It was the French architect Le Corbusier who coined the phrase ‘A Machine to Live In’ to describe his own designs. Now a new film about Brasilia explores the human angle of living in a city: this vast, manmade capital of Brazil, its capital city since 1960, built in a thousand days. They describe their work as a “sci-fi providing a complex portrait of life, poetry, and myth set against the backdrop of the space-age city of Brasília and a flourishing landscape of UFO cults and transcendental spaces.

Chiefly designed by Oscar Niemayer, and laid out in the shape of an airplane, its wings the wide avenues flanking a massive park, the cockpit is Praca dos Tres Poderes, named for the three branches of government surrounding it. Brasilia is a city that offers extraordinary cinematic potential, not only in its utopian architecture but also its functionality. But there are downsides to the modern buildings.

Chicago-based filmmakers Yoni Goldstein and Meredith Zielke (Jettisoned, Natural Life) have created a mystical portrait this modern metropolis, carved out from the jungle, its architecture full of glimmering white, featureless obloids that invite the most adventurous theories. Looking like a set made for SF adventure, the filmmakers do capture its surreal splendour by being shooting in widescreen 4K RED RAW.

Re-inactions and quotes from Niemeyer; the Jewish writer Clarice Lispector – who interviewed the architect – Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin; and Cult founder Tia Neiva are woven into a hallucinatory landscape that could have spun off from an asteroid between Jupiter and Mars. The footage mixes old fashioned technologies and state of the art aesthetics such as gimbals, drones, helicopters, 3D LIDAR scanning and geospatial mapping. “The camera perspective will mechanically rotate, spin and float among the architecture as if it were itself an alien craft – or, perhaps, the mind’s eye of an architect”.

Clarice Lispector (1920-1977) writes: “Brasilia is an altered state of consciousness; a pseudo hallucinatory perception; a complex, vivid dream like images – sometimes with halos around light, leading to a loss of vision. And: “Brasilia is artificial: it is the image of my insomnia, it is haunted; it is an abstract city.” Part of this read to students in Esperanto. When Gagarin visited Brasilia he said: “I feel as if I stepped on the surface of another planet, not earth.” No wonder the followers of Tia Neiva (1926-1985), ride their Hell’s Angels bikes around, since Neiva’s cult Vale do Amanhecer (Dawn Valley) is very much alive, as are the memories of Neiva herself, who came to fame as the first female truck driver in Brazil. 

Zielke speaks of “building a cosmology of signs, fragments of literary and historical texts work their way into interviews, fictive tableaux, featuring temporal architectural sculptures situate themselves in ‘real scenes’ and historical encounters are enacted by participants in the film. voice-overs are doubled to reveal multiple identities and captions are manipulated to reveal multiple perspectives.” 

Then there are moments of pure surrealism: A white horse wanders into a parking lot. The face of current Brazilian president Bolsonaro appears on the body of Niemeyer. The crew has visited Brasilia every summer for eight years to gather footage, establishing connections with local groups. This makes the hybrid feature very personal. During an interview, Zielke said, that they collected enough material for three films. Even though, the information presented is overwhelming to say the least. 

DoP Andrew Benz’ images are unique: Looking like a Martian outpost, Brasilia is defined by massive concrete domes, swooping aluminium spires, pyramids and super-blocks, which seem to repeat themselves ad absurdum. A dazzling as a trip on LSD, A Machine to live in is a mixture of nightmares, making Science Fiction look rather banal in comparison ordinary.AS

Yoni Goldstein and Meredith Zielke are award-winning international filmmakers, cinematographers, and editors. Goldstein and Zielke work collaboratively on social documentary projects: from examining hybridized healing practices in the Northern Andes (La Curación), to children in American prisons (Natural Life), to critical explorations of history and somatic memory (The Jettisoned). Their films have been presented internationally across several major festivals, conferences, and classrooms. Goldstein and Zielke’s work as directors and cinematographers has been selected and awarded at the Cannes Film Festival, the Festival Black Movie de Genève, the Ann Arbor Film Festival, the Hot Springs Documentary Festival, the Festival International du Film Ethnographique du Québec, the Festival International du Documentaire et Rencontres sur la Biodiversité et les Peuples, Hot Docs Digital Doc Shop, Globians Doc Fest Berlin, and many others. AS

STREAMING DURING VISIONS DU REEL | April – May 2020

Trailer | A Machine to Live In | Yoni Goldstein, Meredith Zielke

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           

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

Dir: Ken Russell | UK, Doc 55′

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

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

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

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

NOW ON BLURAY | STREAMING ONLINE

 

The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse | Die tausend Augen des Dr. Mabuse (1960) ***

Dir.: Fritz Lang; Cast: Peter van Eyck, Dawn Addams, Gert Fröbe, Werner Peters, Wolfgang Preiss, Lupo Prezzo, Reinhard Kolldehoff; Germany/Italy/France 1960, 103 min.

Fritz Lang (1890-1976) goes back to the beginning with his final output: The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse: there is the re-emigrant Lang, making his last of three films in West Germany, finishing his career with completing the Mabuse trilogy that started with Mabuse the Gambler (1922) and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1932). Joining fellow Hollywood re-emigrant Peter Van Eyck, Lang concentrated on the Nazi spirit of evil, still virulent in West Germany, and his favourite topic: machines versus humans. Based on the novel by Polish author Jan Fethke and using the Mabuse character created by Norbert Jacques, The Thousand Eyes is a melancholic good-bye from one of 20th century’s greatest directors, who had forged his career in the early days of silent film.

Having promised his radio station an impressive scoop, a reporter is murdered in his car. Meanwhile in the Hotel Luxor, where the Nazis used spy on the clientele with hidden microphones, wealthy American Henry Travers (Van Eyck) saves the live of fellow guest Marion Menil (Addams) not once but twice: he saves her from committing suicide, then kills her club-footed husband Roberto (Kolldehoff) with a single shot. A voyeur is in control of the hotel, watching every room via TV: the new Mabuse is after Travers’ nuclear plans to dominate the world. But detective Kras (Fröbe) is puzzled by the identity of the evil genius: is it the ubiquitous salesman Hironymos B. Mistelzweig (Peters); the blind clairvoyant Cornelius (Prezzo), or the enigmatic Professor Jordan (Preiss)?

The Thousand Eyes is a feature of double mirrors: every scene is connected to the previous one. Each take is followed by something “directed” by the evil genius. As in Metropolis, the story is one of triumph and destruction of a machine come alive. This Mabuse is the very much in the spirit of the 1932 feature: Hitler using technology first to conquer Germany, then the world. But this Mabuse is more creative than ever: he makes friends, divulging his secrets to them, only to destroy them when they are no longer of use. He is subversive, hoping to change the power structure from within.

Sadly DoP Karl Löb’s black-and-white images lack elegance and fluidity, short-changing the feature along with the German cast who are anything but enigmatic or unfathomable: they were the same actors who played clichéd characters in the UFA re-makes of the era – at a time when the Nouvelle Vague in neighbouring France was re-inventing cinema. So we often get second-hand emotions, and bemusement instead of real angst. That Lang’s last feature is still by far the most interesting of the era in West Germany’s post WWII film history speaks for itself – the era was  dominated by caricature thrillers based on the work of British author Edgar Wallace, who met deadlines by dictated his books from London phone boxes. No fewer than six Mabuse ‘thrillers’ were produced in the next decade in Germany, Lang was eventually forced to retire after his eye-sight worsened. AS    

ON BLU-RAY FOR THE FIRST TIME IN THE UK ON 11 MAY 2020

               

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

                       

                                       

Kombinat (2020) *** Visions du Reel (2020)

Dir: Gabriel Tejedor | Doc, 2020, Switzerland, 75′

A remarkable wide screen opening sequence shows the mighty industrial heart of Russia, the main town of Magnitogorsk in the South Urals and home to the Kombinat, one of the largest iron and steel works in the country. 

But Gabriel Tejedor then narrows his gaze onto the human story behind the billowing pipes and red hot furnesses. That of the locals who live here, and the wider social implications, asking the question: What makes us stay in a place that is potentially detrimental to our health and livelihood?.  The focus here is a family who live in the shadow of the vast industrial complex whose rhythm has dictated their lives from generation to generation, socially, economically and politically. Work in the factory is gruelling and dangerous, requiring heavy protection from frequent electric shocks. 

But the toxic nature of the surrounding environment also has a negative impact on the health and wellbeing of this family and their relatives. And it seems this plant also dominates their leisure time. Lena and Sacha live with their little daughter Dasha. Lena teaches the salsa lessons suggested by the factory. And this helps Sacha to dance away his problems and forget the pressure of work. Meanwhile his brother and his wife are hoping to move to Novosibirsk in Siberia, to escape the heavy pollution that is causing their daughter neurological problems. 

Over the seasons, Gabriel Tejedor (Rue Mayskaya, VdR 2017) paints a portrait of this new generation of workers and young parents whose living conditions seem to be inevitably determined by the Kombinat and State capitalism which feels much the same as Communism in its extreme control of citizens. Not as insightful or darkly amusing as Vitaliy Manskiy’s documentaries about modern Russia such a Pipeline, or Motherland, Kombinat is nevertheless a thoughtful and upbeat snapshot of today’s Russian working class and what it means to belong to a place.MT

VISIONS DU REEL | International Feature Film Competition 2020

https://youtu.be/KL6EhLpjgKY

Lisztomania (1975) ** Russell and the Music Makers

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

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

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

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

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

AVAILABLE ON BLURAY and PRIME VIDEO and BFIPLAYER

      

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

Dir: Sascha Schöberl | Germany, Doc 84′ 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Tchaikovsky and the Music Lovers (1970) **** Blu-ray

Dir.: Ken Russell; Cast: Richard Chamberlain, Glenda Jackson, Max Adrian, Christopher Gable, Kenneth Colley, Izabella Telezynska, Sabina Maydelle; UK 1970, 122 min.

Blending the crass with the ethereal as was his wont Ken Russell billed his portrait of Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) as “a romance about a homosexual married to a nymphomaniac”. Riding high on his success with Women in Love, United Artists allowed a lavish budget for The Music Lovers, and it was completed in the same year as Russell’s Richard Strauss biopic Dance of the seven Veils for the BBC.

As a director of sober BBC biopics and large screen escapism, Russell was having a field day. Dance of the Seven Veils was only aired once until recently, after the Strauss family forbade any music by Richard Strauss to be played in the feature because they misinterpreted the composer being shown as a staunch Nazi, which the archive material shows quite clearly. The Music Lovers, on the other hand, is aesthetically much closer Russell’s Mahler portrait of 1974. Based on the letters between Tchaikovsky (Chamberlain) and his benefactor Madame Nadezhda von Meck (Telezynska), edited by Catherine Drinker Bowen and Barbara von Meck, Melvyn Bragg’s script has operatic proportions but uses dialogue very sparsely, leaving the music to stand for itself.

In a romantic setting, we meet the composer first with his lover Count Chiluvsky (Gable). But homosexuality was illegal in Czarist Russia, and at the conservatoire, fellow composers including Rubinstein (Adrian) had started gossiping. Tchaikovsky takes an aggressive, and as it turned out, not too wise approach to the dilemma: he marries the over-sexed and rather fragile Antonina Miliukova (Jackson). The marriage ends in disaster with Antonina becoming more and more unhinged, finally ending up in a psychiatric ward. Tchaikovsky dearly loves his family, brother Modest (Colley) and favourite sister Sasha (Maydelle), he also has a horrible memory of his beloved mother’s death, which will, in the end, mirror his own. He transfers all his attentions to Madame von Meck, who lives in Switzerland. On her estate, the composer rests for long periods of time, whilst von Meck travels in Europe. In reality the two never met, but in the feature von Meck watches the sleeping composer. The episodic character of the narrative, combining Tchaikovsky’s music and psychological estate, as it does in the 1812 Overture, is less jarring than in later features such as Lisztomania.

With much help from the great Douglas Slocombe (Rollerball, Hedda) and his sweepingly romantic images, The Music Lovers just stays on the right side of the line between opulent drama and over-the-top showmanship. Chamberlain and Jackson are outstanding in their turbulent train crash of a the newly married couple paired with Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, and this is the highlight of Russell’s stylistic achievement. AS

NOW ON BLU-RAY

 

Blind Chance (1987) | Now on Blu-ray

PRZYPADEK (BLIND CHANCE) 1987 | was Krzysztof Kieslowski’s most direct attack on the authorities, produced in 1981, it was shown only “underground” for six years. A sort of Sliding Doors narrative, it is one of the few films that manages to be deeply affecting right from its opening sequence. It tells the story of Witek Dlugosz (Boguslaw Linda), born in 1956 in Posen. His father had participated in the uprising and moved to Lodz, where Witek went to school and started to study medicine. After his father died with the words “you don’t have to do what you don’t want to”, Witek decides to take a gap year, and takes the train to Warsaw. The three endings hinge on whether or not he catches his train. Version one sees him leaving the station, and arriving in Warsaw, where he starts a career as a party functionary. In the second variation, he misses the train, than fights with a railway policeman, and becomes a fervent opponent of the system. In the last version, he again misses the train, but meets a friend from university. The couple get married, and Witek lives a life faraway from strife and politics.

When, at the end, Witek has to fly to Libya for work reasons, he changes his mind at the last minute in a decision that has disastrous consequences. Kieslowski said in an interview that the last scene was proof “that the plane is waiting for all three ‘Witold’s’. All their lives end in the plane. The plane is waiting for him all the time. But, really, the plane is waiting for all of us”. Ironically, when BLIND CHANCE was invited to the Cannes Film Festival in 1987, to be shown “out of competition”, Kieslowski enquired, why the film was not to be shown ‘in competition’. Gilles Jacob, artistic director of the festival, answered in a letter that he feared the film would not be understood by the audience. So Kieslowski cut some political scenes from the film and sent the new copy back with the label “For the French censors” – which failed to change Jacob’s mind. Last year the digitally remastered BLIND CHANCE was shown in the Classics Strand at Salle Debussy during the 67th Cannes Film Festival, proudly introduced by Kieslowski’s daughter.

NOW ON BLURAY VIA ARROW FILMS | EARLY WORKS BY KIESLOWSKI

 

Elena (2012) **** Visions du Reel 2020

Dir.: Petra Costa; Doc with Li An, Elena Andrade, Petra Costa; Brazil/USA 2012, 80 min.

Brazilian director/co-writer Petra Costa’s debut documentary is a melancholic portrait of bereavement for her much younger depressive sister Elena who became a successful actor in New York in the late 1980s.

Mental illness is often a taboo subject for film makers – Kathy Leichter’s Here one Day being one of the exceptions. Petra Costa’s multi-layered study is as painful for the audience as the director. When Elena left her native Sao Paulo, then New York, at the age of seventeen, she left behind a younger sister who was fascinated by Elena, who filmed her with a cam-recorder. The sisters’ parents were revolutionaries, fighting the military dictatorship – but avoiding taking up arms, due to Li An’s pregnancy with her soon to be born daughter Elena. But divorce was to follow, and Li An took Petra to New York where she tried in vain to fight Elena’s depression: “If I’d had a car in New York, I would have put Elena’s body in the boot, put Petra on the seat next to me and driven into the river.” Somehow, this image has found its way into the documentary, with girls floating Ophelia-like in the water weeds.

Super 8 mm portraits of the city and audio tapes of Elena transmit these feelings of homesickness back home to her mother, creating an atmosphere of doom. No wonder Li An told her youngest daughter “never live in New York or become an actor”. Needless to say, Petra studied Drama at Columbia, asking friends of her late sister about details of her demise. It turns out Elena was not alone – but she felt that way. 

We watch her audition tape for a part in Godfather III, listen to the sober voice of the pathologist, enumerating the substances found and the weight of Elena’s organs. Petra talks to her dead sister, they are very much look-alikes: “You are being re-born a bit for me.” And at the beginning of the feature: “I perform your death, I find air to be able to live”. Watery images fill the frame in a dreamlike, poetic narrative suffused with mournfulness: “Little by little, the pain becomes water and then memory, and gradually fades away. But some find solace in the small openings of poetry. You are my inconsolable memory, made of shadow and stone”.

DoPs Janice D’Avila, Will Etchebehere and Miguel Vassy create ethereal images of floating flowers and leaves, the director distilling the essence of her sister into dreamy evocations of feminine beauty and gentleness. There are shades of Agnes Varda, and Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour. But mainly a deep sisterly longing for her lost, and very much missed, sibling. AS

VISIONS DU REEL | NOW ONLINE | APRIL – MAY 2020     

 

                

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

Claire Denis Tribute (2020) Visions du Reel 2020

French Filmmaker Claire Denis is one of the most innovative pioneers of independent cinema and fiercely committed to her singular vision. Growing up the daughter of a civil servant in various African countries, she eventually went home to France and fell in love with cinema in the Cinematheque, Paris. Making films seemed inevitable and after studying at the Institute for Advanced Cinematographic Studies (IDHEC) she embarked on a career that would see her working with Jacques Rivette (who became the subject of her 1990 documentary Jacques Rivette, Le Veilleur), Dušan Makavejev, Roberto Enrico and Costa-Gavras and Wim Wenders on Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire. Through the musician John Lurie she met Jim Jarmusch and worked with him  on Down by Law. But it was with her debut feature Chocolat that she made it to the international stage in 1988. The film was selected for Cannes and the César awards, it also got her together with Agnès Godard who became her regular director of photography for all her films.

So far Claire Denis has made six documentaries and no fewer than 17 feature films, such as Nénette et Boni for which she is awarded the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1996. Beau Travail, is one of the most stark and contemplative French films about war, standing alongside Bruno Dumont’s L’Humanite. It was chosen for Venice line-up in 1999. Set amid racial conflict in a Francophone African state, Isabelle Huppert plays a coffee plantation owner desperately trying to save her crop, her family and her life in Denis’ 2009 outing White Material.

Clearly race and post-colonial themes feature heavily in her work, but Denis has also dabbled in genres – Bastards was a thriller, 35 Shots of Rum a fantasy drama about a father and daughter in Paris. Trouble Every Day reflects the emotional anguish of a loved up but warring married coup, starring Béatrice Dalle and Vincent Gallo it screened at Cannes Film Festival in 2001. Denis has also worked several times with Juliette Binoche, most recently in her critically acclaimed sci-fi outing High Life (2018) and previously in her insightfully playful comedy Let the Sunshine In. where she plays a spirited and intelligent woman trying to find love with a series of unedifyingly pompous losers. Robert Pattinson will join Denis for the The Stars at Noon (2021) which follows American traveller (Margaret Qualley) through Nicaragua during the 1980s revolution, based on the novel by American writer Denis Johnson. MT

VISION DU REEL | 17 APRIL – 2 MAY | AVAILABLE ON FESTIVALSCOPE.COM

Filmography

High Life, 2018 Un beau soleil intérieur, 2017 Le Camp de Breidjing, 2015 Contact, 2014 Voilà l’enchaînement, 2014 Les Salauds, 2013 Venezia 70: Future Reloaded, 2013 Aller au diable, 2011 White Material, 2010 35 rhums, 2008 Vers Mathilde, 2005 L’Intrus, 2004 Vendredi soir, 2002 Vers Nancy (Segment du film Ten Minutes Older: The Cello), 2002 Trouble Every Day, 2001 Beau travail, 1999 Nénette et Boni, 1996 Nice, very Nice (segment from A propos de Nice, la suite), 1994 J’ai pas sommeil (I Can’t Sleep), 1994 U.S. Go Home (Collection : Tous les garçons et les filles de leur âge), 1994 La Robe à cerceau (from Monologues, with Chantal Akerman), 1993 Keep It for Yourself  + Figaro Story, 1991 Jacques Rivette, le veilleur. Part 1 : la nuit (Cinéaste de notre temps), 1990 S’en fout la mort (No Fear, No Die) 1990 Man No Run, 1989 Chocolat, 1988 Le 15 Mai, 1969

Picture of Light (1994) *** Visions du Reel 2020

Dir: Peter Mettler | Doc, Canada, 87′

Narrated in his smooth Canadian drawl Peter Mettler’s meditative melancholic essay film often serves as a maudlin stream of consciousness reflecting on and questioning the relationship between art, nature and technology. “So many of us nowadays experience life only through the experience of others: At the beginning of life there was only the real thing. Now there is media that records, regurgitates, dictates and expresses. We know what is, by what is represented”. And although this seems like a truism, it is an apposite and sad reflection on the human condition.

Floating over surreal images as he sets out on a dreamlike odyssey to film the Northern Lights in the extreme outer regions of Canada’s magnetic North. “Photography is a surrogate for real experience”, he opines. So what we are about to see will never be as good as the experience itself, obviously, but we get a good feel for Northern Canada and its astonishing silent remoteness as the snowbound vastness melts into the mauve horizon. But the following morning after he arrives at his destination in Churchill (Manitoba) the Canadian boreal forest dark pine tree outlines give way to whiteness and a freezing 120 kilometre per hour wind.

Canada is a vast open country that allows humans to be themselves in its wild and spectacular landscapes, and its space that respects the individual. The Inuit have 170 words for snow and ice. Their language has adapted to reflect the unique textural diversity of their frosty environment.

The only protagonists are individuals trying to convey into words their experiences of seeing the Northern lights– describing the phenomenon variously as mysterious, ghostly, mystical even. This is an impressionistic study that relies on an eerie soundscape of echoes and whistles as it records, often though superimposition and reflection the slowing nature of time in the region. One Inuit tells how he travelled over 200 kilometres barely realising the distance until he returned without his toes, having forgotten his snow knife when his skidoo broke down.

Peter Mettler offers a rare and palpable glimpse into the magnetic North. “In a whiteout the last person will always walk in circles to right, often less that a thousand metres from home”. Facts and images are strung together with impressions and feelings to offer a valuable but largely inconclusive arctic travelogue. Mettler leaves plenty of silence for us to gawp at his awesome images. A luminous if disquieting documentary. MT

VISIONS DU REEL | APRIL – MAY 2020

Bartok (1964) ***** Russell and the Music Makers

Dir.: Ken Russell; Cast: Boris Ranevsky, Pauline Boty, Sandor Eles, Peter Brett, Rosalind Watkins, Huw Wheldon (narrator); UK  1964, 50 min. (For BBC ‘Monitor’)

Ken Russell’s first feature film French Dressing (a re-make of a Roger Vadim And God Created Woman) in 1964 was a critical and financial disaster. So back he went to the BBC’s Monitor/Omnibus, a long-running Arts magazine series, that would spawn a host of black and white musical biopics including a triumphant study of Elgar (1962) and an innovative look at the Hungarian composer. Bela Bartok (1881-1945). When Russell returned to feature films in 1967 with the Len Deighton adaption of A Billion Dollar Brain, the result was, sadly, similar to his 1964 outing. But you could never accuse him of being banal.

There are many parallels between Bartok and Elgar, mainly their love of the countryside, which is reflected in their music. But Bartok (like his music) was a much less straightforward character than the rather robust Victorian Elgar: he was downbeat, full of angst and loss, suffering an eventual exile, which robbed him of his beloved Hungarian countryside.

We start with a reflexion on The Miraculous Mandarin, influenced by Stravinsky and Schoenberg. But there are also undertones of Debussy, who was one of his great admirers. Russell’s narrative is darkly erotic – the ballet features a girl who is led by men to seduce clients making love to them until death. Then there is a young sex worker (Boty) whose engagement with a client (Eles), is interrupted by her pimps. They rob him, let him escape, but again catch up with him, beating him up again. The rather violent sex (and misogyny) united Bartok and the Russell of his later films. The same goes for the one act Opera Bluebird’s Castle, where we follow Bluebird (Brett) and his latest wife Judith (Watkins). She does not want any secrets between them and pays with her life, when the last chamber is opened she gets a good glimpse of the bodies of his previous wives.

Huw Wheldon was much more than just the narrator of Bartok – he had been made Controller of BBC One. As such he wielded enormous power, and (again) refused any re-construction (docu-drama) of real events. Bartok begins with the composer (Ranevsky) as an old man, according to Wheldon’s commentary, in poor health and fighting his demons. But overall “Bartok struggled all his life to maintain his privacy, he was an alien in an alien world”. This condition found its way into his music, a theme Russell graphically conveys into images: Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta is underlined by Bartok’s near paranoid loneliness. Showing his isolation, claustrophobia, later repeated on a crowded escalator: a permanent descent into the nadir.

Bartok’s fragility is understandable, given the state of Hungary: after growing nationalism the First World War brought Hungary independence from the hated House of Habsburg; but what followed was the chaos of the Räte Republic and immediately afterwards the semi-fascist rule by Admiral Horthy. The latter lasted until the end of WWII, and Bartok forbade his work to be performed in Germany and Italy, even though he needed the royalties. He did well to escape to the USA with his second wife in 1940. Wheldon describes his music for Divertimento for String Orchestra from 1939 as a “statement of grief.” Later Bartok wrote in one his letters: “What an elemental disease home sickness is, how overwhelming. What a strict law lies here, not likely to be disturbed. Hungary had never meant more to anybody.”

Bartok had always fought the Germanic influence in Hungary’s cultural life. He, like Elgar, fled the big city and ventured out into the countryside. “Whenever possible, he got away into the plains and villages of Hungary, living with the peasants and sharing their life. He conducted a systematic investigation of the whole peasant music tradition of Hungary.”                              

Another emigrant, Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov put it like this: “I discovered in nature the non-egalitarian delights that I thought in art. Both were forms of magic, both were a game of intricate enchantment and deception.” But there was a lot of darkness in Bartok and his music, and this nocturnal quality is reflected in the vivid images. Quoting Wheldon again we learn “that nocturnal themes, famous now as Bartok’s Night Music, turn up quite explicitly, again and again, over the the whole of his output.” This goes particularly for Bartok’s final composition Concerto for Orchestra. A mourning song text, that he had collected in 1913 seems perfectly related to the music: “Oh you black and woeful earth!/Who ever gets inside you/Nevermore comes back gain/Many people have you swallowed/Yet you haven’t had your fill.” Written by a man, who found life in New York (in spite of a teaching post at Columbia) a brutal experience.

Russell and DoP Charles Parnall navigate their way though loss, grief and anguish, bringing out the fate of Bartok in poetic sequences, using his music to underline the complexity of his compositions. The overall tone is always reflects the thematic darkness: the destruction of total war. Like the last words in Bluebird’s Castle: “Henceforth, there shall be darkness, darkness, darkness.”  AS

BARTOK ON THE BBC MONITOR SERIES 1964 | MONITOR

   

 

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011) **** BFI player

Dir: Nuri Bilge Ceylan, DoP: Gokhan Tiryaki | Cast: Muhammet Uzuner, Yilmaz Erdogan, Taner Birsel, Ahmet Mumtaz Taylan | 180mins Cert15

Climates, Distance, Three Monkeys. Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s films cast a knowing glance over Turkish life with slow-burning plots and a hypnotic style that resonates with the characters and the landscape they inhabit.  Here in Anatolia he feels his way intuitively through a murder mystery road story with no regard for time or stricture, on a long hot night that hangs in the air and in the memory.

There’s a saturnine-looking murderer (Ercan Kesal) but no body, and a series of random events that make this a meandering but enjoyable journey through stunning set pieces and widescreen photography, meeting the locals, with no hurry to solve a crime. The interplay between the main characters; a Columbo-style chief prosecutor (Taner Birsel); a humane police chief (Yilmaz Erdogan) and a slightly seedy doctor (Mohammet Uzuner) is skilful and amusing but the real star is the social commentary that at first seems trivial but grows more relevant and revealing as the night wears on. By dawn things start to fall into place. Keep with it, this is a tale that takes its time but never outstays its welcome. MT ©

NOW ON BFI PLAYER

 

Becky Sharp (1935) Blu-ray release

Dir Rouben Mamoulian | Cast: Miriam Hopkins, Frances Dee, Cedric Hardwicke, Billie Burke | US Drama 84’

The first feature film shot entirely in the newly perfected Technicolor process, Becky Sharp – which had cost an estimated $950,000 – was dismissed at the time by Otis Ferguson as “As pleasing to the eye as a fresh fruit sundae, but not much more”. Unlike The Jazz Singer – which had blazed an equivalent technological trail eight years earlier – Becky Sharp was not a box office hit, and colour was to take another thirty years to become the cinema’s default setting the way sound did; more associated with historical rather than contemporary subjects.

Becky Sharp was in fact the third film version to be made of Thackeray’s sprawling 1847-48 novel (which had originally appeared in serial form) set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic wars. This version was based upon the hit 1899 Broadway dramatisation by Langdon Mitchell, and as meticulously designed by acclaimed theatre designer Robert Edmond Jones. The rigours of early Technicolor filmmaking resulted in an extremely stagy and studio-bound experience which whizzes in just 84 minutes through an originally very long and convoluted narrative under the punishingly hot lights that made early Technicolor films such a trial to act in. (Mira Nair’s 2004 remake with Reece Witherspoon, by comparison, clocks in at 141 minutes!)

The men at whom Miss Sharp sets her cap are all inclined to be pompous middle-aged caricatures (with the honourable exception of Alan Mowbray as Rawdon Crawley), since she is after financial security rather than romance. Opinion continues to remain divided over Miriam Hopkins in the title role, whose stature as an actress has dimmed considerably since she received an Oscar nomination for this film; but she does bring sparkling blue eyes to the part, seldom apparent in her other movies. Although the most eye-catching moments involve red British army uniforms, much of the rest of the film actually employs blue (a hue hitherto absent from the Technicolor palette) to attractive effect. The credits, for example, are in blue, and the first shot of the film itself is of a blue stage curtain being pushed aside.

For over forty years the film languished in the public domain in a cheap 67 minute 16mm Cinecolor travesty until finally restored in 1984. It subsequently received only one British TV screening ten years later; but now be enjoyed on BluRay as the “triumph for colour” Graham Greene declared it on its first appearance. Richard Chatten

BECKY SHARP (1935) NOW AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ON PRIME VIDEO

 

Transit (2018) **** Curzon Home Cinema

Dir/Writer: Christian Petzold | Franz Rogowski, Paula Beer, Godehard Giese | Drama | Ger |

Christian Petzold’s tale of love during wartime captivates with a romantic allure that feels timeless yet very much rooted in the 1940s. Unlike his 2014 drama Phoenix, this is a more ephemeral film – a noirish mystery thriller with modern credentials that imagines a believable yet imaginary scenario: there are no guns or soldiers on parade and the costumes are ‘classic’: don’t expect a clear cut finale because TRANSIT captures the essence of transience: we’re never quite sure of what will happen next.

Franz Rogowski – Europe’s answer to Joaquin Phoenix – gives a charistmatic tour de force as German refugee Georg who is escaping the Nazis in Marseille with another escapee, a writer called Weidel who dies on route. Taking his papers, which include a manuscript and a letter from an Embassy assuring him a visa, Georg has secured an identity and an escape route – but his plans are soon to change when a mysterious woman crosses his path and the two become linked by a extraordinary twist of fate.

Petzold fleshes out his sinuous storyline with some convincing characters: there’s a conductor on his way to Caracas, a Jewish woman who is stuck with her employers’ two dogs and the enigmatic Marie (Petzold’s latest Paula Beer), who is searching for her husband. Georg becomes obsessed by Marie but cannot reveal the truth of is own identity which must remain a mystery to her. This intoxicating love affair thrives on this sense of enigma and shadowplay.

The starving wartime Europeans escaping their homelands for a new beginning feel very much like today’s refugees, looking for a stable existence in this saraband for lost souls, who may even just be fleeing from themselves in a time of uncertainty. Franz Rogowski (the interloper in Happy End) shares a potent onscreen chemistry with Paula Beer’s beguiling Marie. This is a moving, memorable and thematically rich addition to Christian Petzold’s war-themes tales: Phoenix; Barbara and Jerichow  . MT

NOW ON CURZON HOME CINEMA | BERLINALE 2018

The Sense of an Ending (2017) ****

Dir.: Ritesh Batra | Script: Nick Payne | Cast: Jim Broadbent, Charlotte Rampling, Harriet Walker, Michelle Dockery, Freya Mavor, Billy Howle, Emily Mortimer, Joe Alvyn, Matthew Goode UK | Drama | 108 min.

The past is how we choose to remember it. Sometimes significant events are forgotten or edited out. This is the premise of Julian Barnes’ 2011 Booker Prize winning novella that explores the psyche of a quintessential Englishman and his selective memories of youth.

Thoughtfully adapted for the screen by Nick Payne, THE SENSE OF AN ENDING is a dispassionate film in many ways, not least because the characters are so repellent, thornily portrayed by the subtle support trio of Rampling, Walter and Dockery with a nuanced Jim Broadbent as Tony Webster, the main focus in this amusing drama from Indian director Ritesh Batra who is so clever at making this feel so classically and insightfully British. The story is certainly gripping and keeps us invested in Barnes’ intricate storytelling but the flashbacks, so vital to informing the plot, are actually key to understanding the main character’s motivations and there is a strand of sardonic humour that makes this another brilliant observation of emotional suppression that often follows a false start in youth. The 1960s scenes are teasingly repressive and so representative of how damaging an unsatisfactory first relationship can be, particularly for sensitive souls such as young Tony.

The story revolves around Tony Webster, divorced and busily keeping life at bay as the proprietor of a small speciality camera shop in leafy North London. This unfruitful foray into passionate love during his college years has sent him scurrying for cover, and after coasting through his marriage to QC Margaret (a brilliant Walter), which produced a (now pregnant) lesbian daughter Susie (Dockery), he has managed to avoid emotional entanglements of any kind. And although he enjoys Margaret’s caustic company over dinner he still doesn’t get why their marriage is over.

But the past returns to bite Tony when he is left a strange bequest in a will, encouraging him to track down his enigmatic first love Veronica Ford who is still as evasive as ever in responding to his requests. Their eventual meeting drudges up an unfortunate episode that Tony had chosen to forget and reveals how the Young Tony (Howle) fell for the ambivalent Veronica (Mavor) during an awkward weekend at her family home in rural England, where he is entranced by Veronica’s mother Sarah (played by a winsomely suggestive Emily Mortimer).

Tony discovers subsequently that Veronica has taken up with his maverick friend Adrian (Alvyn), who fancies himself as a cool Camus-quoiting intellectual (later committing suicide). Disillusioned by love and bewildered by his feelings for Veronica, Tony is forced to confront a past that offers the key to his future.

According to Margaret and Susie, Tony has become an emotional avoidant dinosaur, a ‘curmudgeon’ who regards the modern world with disappointment and disdain. Having successfully cleansed his memory of any wrongdoing regarding Veronica – and subsequently Margaret – his self-glorification shows him up to be exactly the same person he was as a young man: an arrogant but misunderstood bystander, proud to have chosen a life in his shell.

Suicide, sexual repression and unrequited love are themes of incendiary dramatic potential, and this film, with its thoughtful musical choices, trades passion for emotional restraint and typical English poignance. Clearly, Tony has lost contact with his feelings and shut the door on romance without even realising the effect this has had on his wife and family. But his emotional day of reckoning will strangely be the making of him. MT

ON BBC IPLAYER

 

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

Dir: Sara Driver | Doc | US | 78′

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

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

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

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

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

NOW ON AMAZON PRIME

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

Hockney: A Life in Pictures (2014)

hockDirector: Randall Wright | 113min   UK Biopic

“We grow small trying to be great”.

Born in a tightly-terraced house in Bradford, the fourth of five children, David Hockney’s early memories were of darkness and claustrophobia. It was a happy and aspirational childhood with his strong mother and a father who encouraged him not to care about what the neighbours thought, and fired his imagination and enthusiasm for the world outside with regular visits to ‘the pictures’.

Randall Wright’s portrait of the artist is as ambitious and upbeat as Hockney himself, enlightened by archival material and enriched by cine footage from Hockney’s family collection. Spanning a career that started in local art school and the RCA as a popular and gently opinionated maverick, it shows how he was associated with the Pop Art movement of the 60s, abstract expressionism and figurative work, and is now considered one of the most influential artists of the 20th Century, and the most expensive living artist when his Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures (1972) was sold at Christie’s for 80 million dollars under the hammer in November 2018.

Kicking off with the usual talking heads who share their fondness for the artist contemporaries and American pals (Ed Ruscha who fleshes out a picture of a philosophical thinker, capable of amiable friendship, lively wit and occasional bouts of introspective loneliness: “I think the absence of Love is Fear”). After a sexually and artistically explorative spell in 1960s New York (his blond hairstyle was the result of a Clairol advert on TV), Hockney gravitated to California spending many years developing his technique with acrylics in bright colours, a fascination with the spacial qualities of water and swimming pools led to his most famous work: A Bigger Splash (1967) – the splash took seven days to paint.

Friendships with Christopher Isherwood and his partner Don Bachandry feature heavily during these years along with a love affair for Peter Schlesinger, an art student who also posed for him and followed him back to London where Tchaik Chassey designed a lateral apartment for the couple in Kensington. Embarking on a series of portraits for friends and relatives, we also meet Celia Birtwell who appeared with Ossie Clark in his other well-known figurative painting, Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy (1970/71).

Continually broadening his artistic horizons, Hockney also stresses the intellectual side of art as opposed to photography: “the longer it takes to put (an image) together, the more representative it becomes of time and space”. Hockney also developed an interest in Opera due to his gift of synesthesia, an ability to see bright colours when listening to music. His iPad paintings are possibly his most innovative work with landscape, developing and exploring a spacial awareness unique to painting and allowing us to chart the development of his paintings from the first marks  “the way we depict space and the way we behave in it are different – wider perspectives are needed now”.

Filled with serenity, insight and gentle humour, Randall Wright’s biopic overflows with information, facts and fascinating footage, packing in every subtle nuance of this remarkable creative force in just over two hours.  We are left with a feeling of pride and admiration for our national figure who is as charmingly appealing and strangely naive and this colourful legacy. MT

HIS LATEST EXHIBITION entitled THE ARRIVAL OF SPRING 2020 IS NOW SHOWING AT THE ROYAL ACADEMY IN LONDON

HOCKNEY: A LIFE IN PICTURES IS ON DVD

 

 

Fire Will Come | O Que Arde (2019) Mubi

Dir: Oliver Laxe | Wri: Oliver Laxe, Santiago Fillol, Oliver Laxe | DoP Mauro Herce | 90′

One of the strongest films in the Un Certain Regard at Cannes 2019 was this stunning docudrama from Mimosas director Oliver Laxe.

Set in the remote Ancares region in the heart of the Galician mountains Oliver Laxe’s stirring third feature transports us back to a rural way of life where the occupants live in gentle and humble acceptance of nature, eeking out their existence from the land and the animals who live amongst them.

This wild and savagely beautiful part of North East Spain is covered in rain-drenched forests and rolling mountains where the gusty winds can kindle even a small fire and send it raging incandescently through the region decimating flora and fauna. Laxe’s gaze is detached but brooding with sensitivity, inviting us into to this strangely unsettling world.

Amador grew up here with his parents and his respect for the local way of life is palpable. His regular cinematographer Mauro Herce (Dead Slow Ahead) shooting on Super 16, films a row of fir trees cascading to the ground and eventually revealing a massive bulldozer causing widespread mayhem as it moves ominously through the wooded hillside like a behemoth .

Amador (Amador Arias) comes home after serving time for causing a fire that almost wiped out the villagers, not to mention the vegetation and livestock. Set to the sonorous tones of a Vivaldi psalm we can sense this is a bitter homecoming for a middle-aged man with no one but his 83 year old mother Benedicta (Sanchez) to welcome him. She does this with a simple acknowledgement. “Are you hungry?” Both characters are played by non-pros who inhabit their roles with the naturalism professionals

Mother and son continue their day to day life as they left off. Amador is rather harsh on his sweet and obliging mother who runs their smallholding single-handedly, tending their three cows and trudging backwards and forwards with their ageing Alsatian. The other locals in this mournful corner include Inazio (Inazio Abra), who is working on a large-scale refurbishment of his parents’ stone farmhouse. Amador is emotionally buttoned down and taciturn, refusing to rise to the bait when one of the villagers shouts, “Hey Amador, have you got a light?”

There is a solace to this spartan existence drawn by Laxe with moving simplicity. The animals complete their household. Elena (Fernandez) the vet is the only intruder and she arrives to help pull one of their cows out of a ditch. The journey back to her practice is one of poignant beauty and wry humour as Amador once again remains tacitly unfriendly while the cow’s gentle eyes look on trustingly.

This is a minimalist film of rare eloquence. Nothing is forced or spare, the unsettling narrative gradually unfolding with a growing sense of doom as, predictably, the fires come back to the mountains forcing the animals to flee amid devastation, firefighters struggling with the raw power of the mammoth flames. One image that remains seared to the memory is of a horse stumbling bewildered from the wreckage, having been singed by thefla,es. The tiny figure of Benedicta is seen wandering disconsolately across the charred landscape. And we are once again left to ponder Amador’s involvement. Fire Will Come is pure cinema. Set to the atmospheric ambient sounds of nature and full of naturalistic detail and subtle undercurrents, it is joy to behold. MT

NOW ON MUBI

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   

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

The Wind (1986) ** Blu-ray release

Dir: Nico Mastorakis | Cast: Robert Morley, Meg Foster, Wings Hauser, David McCallum | Horror, 92′

The Wind (aka Edge of Terror) is an odd film that begins as a promising Greek giallo thriller but loses its way half way through despite a brilliant cast, lush locations and Hans Zimmer’s spanking score – his first of many.

Robert Morley (Alias Appleby) and David McCullum (John) add ballast to the tenuous plot constructed by Mastorakis and his Blind Date writer Fred Perry in the second of their colourful collaborations that sees John’s successful novelist wife Sian (Meg Foster) leave their luxury LA home to finish a book on the Greek coastal town of Monemvasia. Shame then that the film’s best two male actors only get slim cameos.

Why anyone would travel to Greece from LA to find a remote retreat is a first mystery, especially when Meg has to tolerate Alias Appleby’s condescending banter on her arrival. At least Morley adds swagger to the opening scenes, offering her a stylish hideaway that comes with a caveat about the tunnels running under the property, and the ferocious nocturnal wind. Sadly the film makes scant use of its magnificent setting, confining most of the action to claustrophobic interiors and cramped alleyways.

Monemvasia is far from the sanctuary Meg had in mind; more a hub of frenzied activity of the worse kind involving the unwanted attentions of a psychotic handyman in the shape of Phil (Wings Hauser) whose opening gambit is the comforting: “Death is a whole lot different than on paper”. From the get-go we get the impression this guy is going to be a major pain in the neck, and Mastorakis never fails to disappoint in his irritating characterisation of Phil, which is neither terrifying not compelling, just plain irritating. And that’s the only psychic part of this story. Inspired by Phil’s skulduggery Meg’s writing then bizarrely pushes the plotline forward, predicting events as they gradually come true – and leaving us in doubt as to the murderer at large.

For some reason, Mastrovakis squanders all his trump cards by half-baking the script: there so much that really doesn’t follow through, lending a hollow feel to proceedings: What is Phil so angry about? What happened in his past to inform the present? What are the reasons for the demonic wind? None of this is properly explored, and there’s a latent misogyny that has us believe that Sian is a numpty who is game for verbal and physical abuse from two men, and believed to be over-doing it when she contacts the local police, when clearly she is a sane and accomplished intellectual who is being traumatised? Mavrokakis would go on to make another slasher the same year, in the shape of Zero Boys. How much more low can you go.? MT

NOW ON BLU-RAY from 13 April 2020

 

Somewhere in Europe (1947) Valahol Europaban

Wri|Dir: Radvanyi Geza | Hungarian, Drama 101′

At the end of the Second World War Eastern Europe was in a terrible state with orphaned, homeless children roving aimlessly around the countryside and on the banks of the Danube. These starving and abandoned kids get together and form a gang as they gradually lose their humanity and sense of decency in this remarkable black and white drama from Hungarian director Radvanyi.

Set on the widescreen and in intimate close-up, this visually thrilling Agitprop was financed by the Hungarian Communist Party and released in 1948 when the country was already fully committed to the new regime. With its crisp framing crisp framing and chiaroscuro lighting the film conjures up the pervasive desperation bordering on mania of these deprived kids,

Somewhere in Europe was considered the first triumph of Hungarian cinema in the aftermath to the War, it certainly trumps Ken Loach’s sloppily put together propaganda outing I, Daniel Blake and avoids sarcasm in favour of a message of solidarity – though quite why the French National anthem features here is a mystery. The early scenes are largely silent and set to Szabolc Fenyes’ rousing orchestral score which highlights moments of tension throughout, although the melodrama remarkably restrained, even when tragedy strikes. The cast of child non-pros give naturalistic performances that are convincing and really moving. And there is a subtle love story that plays out between Hosszu and Eva (Szusza Bánki), a young woman who reveals her tragic past in flashback.

Led by their gang leader Hosszu (Miklós Gábor), the kids discover an abandoned castle where a middle-aged conductor Simon Peter (Artur Somlay) is hiding in solitude waiting for peace . After trying to hang Peter – the kids are like something out of Animal Farm such is their starvation – they gradually befriend him while he serenades them with piano classics, persuading them to mend the leaking roof. He also teaches them the lessons of life.

United in a common cause, and reminding us that Europe is still in flux migration wise, they eventually join forces in defending the castle against a group of villagers who call Peter the ‘mad musician’ and plot to storm the castle with disastrous consequences for the kids and their new leader. Despite its sinister overtones, the film carries a message of hope that proves that a community spirit and small acts of kindness are the always the way forward, and can actually lead to redemption, even during Communism!. MT

AVAILABLE ONLINE BY KIND PERMISSION OF THE HUNGARIAN CULTURAL CENTRE LONDON | Somewhere in Europe, Valahol Európában, 1947, director: Géza Radványi – with English subtitles

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

The Spanish Gardener (1957) **** Free online

Dir: Philip Leacock | Wri: Lesley Storm, John Bryan | Cast: Dirk Bogarde, Jon Whiteley, Michael Hordern, Cyril Cusack, Maureen Swanson, Bernard Lee, Rosalie Crutchley, Geoffrey Keen | UK Drama 97′

By the mid 1950s Dirk Bogarde was already Britain’s most popular star and a heartthrob in his successful role as Dr Simon Sparrow in smash hit Doctor in the House (1954). He cuts another confident dash as the sultry Spanish gardener who forms a close bond with a boy in need of a sympathetic father figure, in this rather good early drama from English director Philip Leacock.

This subtle study of male personalities sees three men caught in a toxic triangle: The boy’s father is a minor English diplomat who has been passed up for promotion and abandoned by his wife, and Michael Hordern expresses his failure poignantly in s buttoned up masculine turn, seething with suppressed hurt and jealously as Harrington Brande, who continually takes his resentment out out on his son Nicholas (Whiteley), who is ironically his main emotional support, pushing him away in the process. The boy gradually becomes obsessed with the free-spirited gardener Jose hired to tend the grounds of their lavish diplomatic villa in Catalunya.  

Set in the lush countryside near Barcelona, John Veale’s lively score adds an upbeat vibe to the troubled dynamic between the men; Bogarde’s sympathetic gardener offering comfort to the young Nicholas when the male housekeeper (a sly and rather sinister Cyril Cusack) gets drunk and threatens him after a fishing trip. Cusack’s Garcia is pivotal to the plot line that gives the film its gripping finale. 

Based on AJ Cronin’s novel, this is the kind of low-key character study that Leacock excelled at, and it showcases Bogarde’s good looks and charismatic talents to striking affect. Geoffrey Keen offers solid advice as Dr Harvey, convincing Brande of the error of his ways in disciplining the boy rather than reining back his own feelings of jealousy and hatred for another man. Was there another fear at play here, one wonders? Jon Whitely is impressive in his debut role which he turns in with maturity and insight surprising for such a young actor, and Maureen Swanson sizzles gracefully in an underwritten role as Jose’s love interest. But this is Hordern’s film, and he is quietly impressive as the English diplomat whose ego had been bruised by disappointment and rejection in a finely-tuned portrait of desperation. MT

NOW FREE ONLINE at Youtube

 

 

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

 

Accident (1967) **** Digital/DVD release

Dir: Joseph Losey | Wri: Harold Pinter | Cast: Dirk Bogarde, Michael York, Stanley Baker, Jacqueline Sassard, Annie Firbank, Alexander Knox, Freddie Jones | UK Drama 105′

Another Losey/Pinter/Priggen/Bogarde collaboration and Losey’s last film with Bogarde. Constructed in flashback after a car crash in the opening sequence, this was another book adaptation by Pinter, who jumped at a fourth chance of working with Joseph Losey.

Although finally shot in colour, black and white was considered long and hard; indeed, the chosen palette is decidedly muted, the colours really taken out by debut DoP Gerry Fisher, under instruction from Losey.

This classic dissection of British life focuses on power-play among the upper classes; as with almost all Pinter, the menace seethes just beneath the sheen in a world of sunny picnics, tennis and punting down the river. In this case the brutality of deception, lies and envy is given vent through games and even the making of an omelette, in a claustrophobic academic world where everybody knows everybody else’s business.

Exploring this underbelly: the true cost to those halcyon, timeless days at Oxbridge, Bogarde and Baker play Dons to the students of Michael York and a feline Jacqueline Sassard (as Anna), who stirs the loins of middle-aged Bogarde, even though he is married with two kids.

Michael York will always have his detractors but here he is at his best as the dashing young blade, vying for the aloof Austrian Anna’s affections. Stanley Baker cuts a dash as the man living life on his sleeve, much to the irritation his long-suffering, buttoned-down colleague, Bogarde.

Harold Pinter and Annie Firbank make fleeting but impactful appearances, as do Terrence Rigby, Freddie Jones and Alexander Knox as the Provost, who has seen it all and misses nothing.

The original DVD from StudioCanal has a bundle of extras: Talking About Accident, Losey and Pinter Discuss Accident, John Coldstream on Bogarde and Harry Burton on Pinter.

Another very classy outing then from the Losey/Pinter union and a very profitable one at that; Losey was again pushing the envelope in how he shot scenes and Pinter proved a willing sparring partner, himself experimenting with the methodology of how one can tell a story. MT

ALSO AVAILABLE ON MUBI from 13 April 2020

 

Henri-Georges Cluzot | Mubi

LA PRISONNIЀRE (1968)

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

LE CORBEAU (1942)

A veritable masterpiece of French cinema, LE CORBEAU is a dark and subversive study of human nature starring Pierre Fresnay and Ginette Leclerc. A wave of hysteria sweeps the small provincial town of St. Robin when a series of poison-pen letters signed ‘Le Corbeau’ (The Raven) begin to appear, denouncing several prominent members of society. The slow trickle of sinister letters soon becomes a flood and no one is safe from their mysterious accusations. Upon its release in 1943, Le Corbeau was condemned by the political left and right and the church, and Clouzot was banned from filmmaking for two years.

QUAI DES ORFEVRES (1947)

A marriage that has fallen on hard times is further tested by the couple’s implication in a murder. Jenny Lamour (Suzy Delair) is a music hall chanteuse married to her pianist husband Maurice (Bernard Blier). Keen to get ahead, Jenny leaps at the chance when an ageing wealthy businessman (Charles Dullin) offers her the chance of some gigs.

However, when she agrees to a meeting at his home and he is found dead later in the evening – Maurice’s untamed jealousy is in the frame. A Maigret-esque detective, Antoine, played by Louis Jouvet, leaves no stone unturned in his exceedingly private investigations of the down-at-heel showbiz couple’s sad, tempestuous life.

MUBI | 14 April 2020 |  BLURAY, DVD AND DIGITAL | STUDIOCANAL

Knives Out (2019) *** On Demand

Dir|Wri: Rian Johnson |Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Toni Collette, Michael Shannon, Ana de Armas LaKeith Stanfield | Comedy Drama 130′

Rian Johnson excels in this crass but entertaining old-school whodunnit inspired by crime mistress Agatha Christie and dusted down in a sleek new format for the present day. It sees Daniel Craig’s dapper Deep South detective Benoit Blanc investigating the murder of powerful patriarch and best-selling author Harlan Thrombey (Plummer) who heads up a combative family in a Gothic Mansion, somewhere in wooded Massachussetts.

Never mind the head-spinning plot twists, the cast will keep you on your toes with their stinging repartee and back-biting banter: Toni Collette is particularly good as the hard-edged daughter Joni, and the stellar cast includes a frightening Jamie Leigh Curtis, a twinkly eyed Don Johnson and a pucker Christopher Plummer who gradually expose their hypocrisies over cocktails, very much shaken not stirred while Mr Bond puts his received pronunciation on the back burner for a Southern twang. Suave and sophisticated it may not be, but entertaining it certainly is. MT

NOW AVIALABLE FROM CURZON ON DEMAND |

 

 

 

La Soledad (2016) **** Free online

UnknownDir: Jorge Thielen Armand | Writer: Rodrigo Michelangeli | Docu-Drama | 89′ | Venezuela | Canada

A crumbling old villa in contemporary Caracas is haunted by seething resentment from occupying former retainers providing a fitting metaphor for Venezuela’s current economic crisis. Jorge Thielen Armand’s poetic paean to his grandparents home is a mournful one full of exotic birdsong, plants peeping through cracks in the walls and old photo albums covered in the dust. Cine footage shows the filmmaker playing in the gardens of La Soledad back in the 1960s, now only memories remain as ghosts of the past. A plan to restore the villa has been abandoned leaving handyman Jose and his 72-year-old mother Rosina (a former housekeeper), wife and daughter homeless as the economic situation worsens each day. Jose combs the streets for his mother’s medication and even food is hard to come as the empty shop shelves testify.

Amand avoids bombastic statements about his country’s woes preferring this softly softly approach. The cinema verite drama remains tethered to the local neighbourhood making no attempt to broaden its view of Venezuela’s political woes beyond the concerns of the poorest people here in Caracas. And although Amand is respectful and sympathetic towards the current occupants, it soon emerges that only Rosina has a right to live in the property. Her family – as she points out herself- should really only be there on a temporary basis. But Jose’s only hope of work is re-building the villa whose history dates back to a time when valuable coins were purportedly buried in parts of the building. He taps the peeling walls and hires a metal detector in the hope of making a quick buck. Some of his friends are considering kidnapping as a way to raise funds; others are leaving to look for work in Colombia and Ecuador, including his wife. But like a Venezuelan Mr Micawber, Jose has no desire to move on preferring to stay put in the hope that his boss and co-worker Jorge will offer him a future. But even bosses have to move on when crisis is the order of the day. MT

FREE ONLINE | THIS WEEKEND ONLY

 

 

The Whalebone Box (2019) **** Home Ent release

Dir/Wri: Andrew Kötting | UK, Doc with Anonymous Bosch, Andrew Kötting, Nick Gordon Smith. Philippe Ciompi, Eden Kötting, Iain Sinclair, Philip Hoare, Macgillivray, Kyunwai So, Ceylan Ünal, Helen Paris, Steve Dilworth.

Artist, writer and director Andrew Kötting has built up a string of quintessentially British films. The Whalebone Box is another of his experimental jaunts made with his regular collaborator Iain Sinclair, and the photographer Anonymous Bosch.

Discovered in LondonM the box in question is bound in fishing nets and reputed to convey healing properties in the Scottish town of its origin, which is desperately down on its luck. So the two men start their eventful journey north to return it to the Scottish home of the sculptor Steve Dilworth, a Hull native who has settled on the island of Harris, in the Outer Hebrides.

What is the secret behind this enigmatic container? Is it a relic, a survivor from a mysterious shipwreck, or a magical totem?. The mystery gives rise to an expedition suffused with evocative reveries, drenched in strange fairytales, folklore, dark humour and sonic interludes. The travellers are gradually mesmerised by the power of this enchanted object which gradually becomes “heavier and heavier, turning into a different substance”,

A parallel strand intertwines with the 800 mile pilgrimage, this features Andrew Kötting’s daughter Eden, who has already appeared in several of his earlier films. Eden suffers from Joubert’s disease and her presence lends an eerie vulnerability adding texture to the fascinating narrative. From the depths of her sleep, or adorned with a magnificent crown of flowers and binoculars, she is the film’s muse and guide, attempting to interpret the strange and mystical goings on. But so is a whale with its mournful atavistic cries – embodying nature’s suffering at the hands of humanity.

As usual there are cul-de-sacs and detours, and these feature the dead poets Basil Bunting and Sorley MacLean and the sculptor Steve Dilworth – the film also borrows from Pandora and Moby Dick and takes its 10 chapter headings from Philip Hoare’s novel Leviathan, or the Whale. One thing is sure – the box must never be opened, and therein lies a sense of anticipation and wonder – little did the men know the delirium they would unleash. Eventually they reach the white sands of Harris where they intend to return the box to its original resting place. Shot in Super 8, 16mm this is a strange, haunting and magical film. Just watch out for the post credit sting. MT

NOW ON DIGITAL DOWNLOAD |

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ON DEMAND COURTESY OF DOGWOOF

 

 

Bitter Love (2020) *** CPH:DOX 2020

Dir. Jerzy Sladkowski. Poland/Finland/Sweden. 2020. 86 mins.

Russian couples pack their emotional baggage for a romantic voyage on the Volga in this entertaining but tonally offbeat curio from Polish filmmaker Jerzy Slodkowski (Don Juan).

Essentially a series of disparate encounters between its often disillusioned characters, Bitter Love tests the temperature of love in contemporary Russia and finds it either troubled or rather buttoned down, particularly where the men are concerned. The women are full of disillusionment but remain chipper and ever-hopeful of redressing the emotional balance or finding love again, even though the past has often given them a kick in the teeth, on the feelings front.

Sailing down the languorous waters of Russia’s most famous river aboard the appropriately named ‘Maxim Gorky’ riverboat, this upbeat documentary is as realist as it can be in scoping out romantic possibilities for a shipload of modern Russians, from all ages and walks of life, who we first meet setting off a cloud of coloured balloons each containing an ardent wish.

In the singletons corner there is Oksana (or Xenia) a middle-aged disillusioned romantic who shares her woes with Yura a bulked-up bodyguard type who actually turns out to be a bit of a softie, strumming his guitar and crooning like a troubadour. There is also petite Yulya who makes a bid for taller, older mate but soon has second thoughts.

Not all are footloose and fancy-free: it falls to an earnest young singer and her pianist playmate to set the tone musically with their classical accompaniment. Meanwhile, another older couple in a longterm relationship, Sacha and Lyuba, are clearly entering troubled waters – and even the odd set-too – threatening to rock the boat, both literally and metaphorically, but also adding a spark of humour to this river-bound odyssey of lost souls.

Apart from an interlude on dry land, or sand – as it turns out to be – this is a mostly close-up affair that pictures its protagonists in restaurant tete-a-tetes or in the intimacy of their cabins, but there’s a stagey artifice to these encounters that somehow doesn’t make them ring true, despite their earnestness. Compelling stuff nevertheless. MT

CPH:DOX 2020 | ONLINE IN CERTAIN TERRITORIES

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

5qMhRR8I

 

 

 

 

The Ponds (2018) Netflix

Dirs: Patrick McLennan, Samuel Smith | UK Doc | 76′

“If you can face the water at 5 degrees, you can face anything”  

Hampstead is still reeling from the unauthentic romcom that took its name in 2017. So hurrah for this  documentary that reflects the real Hampstead, London’s hilly heartland and home to 320 hectares of woods and pastures. Hampstead Heath also has several fresh water ponds where all year round visitors can wallow and frolic or simply just swim.

The Ponds is Patrick McLennan’s debut as co-director/producer along with Samuel Smith, and he also wrote the script. Drone footage captures the changing seasons chronologically, beginning with early Spring. We meet regulars Dan, David and Jim who extol the virtues – and rigours – of this open air communal bathing experience. There are even some local swimmers in their 80s who consider it a must for their health and social life – even though at times the water is a spine-tingling 2 or 3 degrees. But the endorphin rush is addictive and life-affirming.

From the 1880s these ponds were regulated for the local community. Tom is part of a hard core of 60 or so bathers who take a dip at least once or twice a week in the chilly brackish waters. He considers it his place of ‘religious’ worship. From the 1920s local women got their own segregated pond which is regarded by the female regulars as a spiritual place to reunite against life’s hardships, and maintain confidence in their bodies – even though they may not even know each other names. And although the men’s ponds see more nude swimmers, some female interviewees gives us a flash of their assets, just to be going on with.

Tom forms the connective tissue of the film with his eventful life story. He sees his swim as a chance to disassociate from the “silliness of life”. This was particularly important when he was nearly killed in a road accident in Oxford Circus. Another regular Carrie, has battled cancer and found the Ponds invaluable for keeping her hope alive. And she doesn’t get so many colds!

Oliver completely fell in love with the Heath and its ponds and when his romance finished. He felt bereft moving back to Camberwell. He now returns to the Heath every day. Another keen bather suffers from degenerative blindness and describes how his daily fresh water exercise is a life-saver.

Whilst the older swimmers talk of the spirituality, social and health benefits of pond swimming, the young express their joy of escaping the city to enjoy the open air with their friends in the heat of the summer. It’s a melting pot for rich and poor, old and young, gay and bisexual, families and singles. David now prefers the open-air freshness to his local gym experience and he’s incorporated his workout into his swimming time. In his youth he even used to wear a weighted vest to improve his strength and endurance.

Made on a shoestring budget, and none the worse for it, The Ponds is a graceful and cinematic documentary that shows how the trend for fresh water swimming can provide a bonding experience, enriching and supporting the local community. The film ends on a high note at the end of the season – with a competitive swim for Christmas. Keeping up with the zeitgeist, some locals air mixed feelings about trans-gender bathing, but a more burning issues is why the women’s pond has no diving board. “We want to bounce ourself in”, said one feisty female. I’ll second that. MT

NOW ON NETFLIX

A Dog Barking at the Moon (2019) **** BFI Flare 2020

Wri/Dir.: Lisa Zi Xiang; Cast: Goowa Siqin, Renhua Na, Huang Xiaoya, Thomas Fiquet, Wu Renyuan; China/Spain 2019, 107 min.

A Dog Barking at the Moon traces a family’s life over a period of over thirty years centred around Huang Xuioyou, a writer who is emotionally abused, albeit in very different ways, by her sexually ambivalent parents. Partly based on the director’s own life experience, this is a stylish debut for Lisa Zi Xiang, and takes place in a magical setting, shot by her husband DoP Jose Val Bal. Taking its title from a Joan Miro painting, and chronicling the different stages of Xiaoyou’s (Siqin) up-bringing, its non-linear narrative often leaves us bewildered but this also makes for some welcome surprises and twists.

Xiaoyou was a model student at secondary school, she also excelled as a violinist, but was suddenly removed from her class for purportedly having written love letters to her teacher Zhen, who had allowed her to read western literature in class, unlike the other students who were banned from exploring this avenue of pleasure.

Xiaoyou’s mother Jiumei (Na) is not a likeable character – often angry with her daughter she  accuses her of being ‘oversexed’ like her father. The parents decide to divorce when it emerges that her lecturer father is homosexual, and has been indulging in affairs with his students. In an embarrassing scene Xiaoyou  is forced to witness his sexual shenanigans, although plans for the divorce are later shelved. In another cringeworthy moment Jiumei invites one of her husband’s lovers and his wife and daughter for dinner.

Xiaoyou later marries an American, Benjamin (Fiquet), but cannot escape the emotional lure of her parent’s abusive treatment, and soon returns to China to give birth to her first baby-girl. The relationship with her mother deteriorates even further when the second child arrives, Juimei telling her daughter “if I had known everything, I would have strangled you at birth”. It seems, like many abused characters, Xiaoyou is unable to break free and scenes illustrating the casual humiliation at the hands of her parents are littered throughout the feature: Xiaoyou endures more embarrassment when she sits at a restaurant table with one of her father’s young lovers who tells her he is happy to share her father with her mother, asking her to accept her father loves her – which Xiaoyu simply refuses to condone. Finally, her mother becomes a member of a Buddhist cult.

What emerges here is a stultifying society where stiff upper lips are the order of the day and any attempt at emotional honesty is punished. Siqin is superb as the “orphaned child”, while Na’s Jiumei is very much the product of sexual repression. Zi Xiang delivers a small masterpiece, boding well for her future in filmmaking AS

Flare at Home, the BFI’s digital version of Europe’s largest LGBTIQ+ film festival, will be hosting YouTube Live events with filmmakers from across the BFI Flare festival programme:

Enjoy highlights from BFI Flare: London LGBTIQ+ Film Festival 2020 on BFI Player 20-29 March.

Vivarium (2019) **** Digital release

Dir: Lorcan Finnegan | Wri: Garret Shanley  | Cast: Imogen Poots, Jesse Eisenberg, Senan Jennings, Eanna Harwicke, Jonathan Aris | Drama 

Ever wondered what it’s like to live in a bland new-build housing estate? Well Lorcan Finnegan’s weirdly dystopian domestic sci-fi thriller gives you an idea. Vivarium feels like a cross between Black Mirror, Funny Games and The Truman Show with the hyper-realist look of Jessica Hausner’s Little Joe.
Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg are the best thing about this strange drama. They play an ordinary down to earth couple looking to buy a house. But what starts as cheerful and upbeat soon descends into claustrophobic fog-bound horror when the creepy estate agen (Jonathan Aris),abandons them during a viewing and they get lost and then isolated in a maze of similar streets and are somehow lured into moving into one of the pristine show-houses, where everything is provided (although gemutlichkeit is not the operative word), and raise its existing inhabitant, a cuckoo-like android from Hell or even Omen II (Irish actor Senan Jennings), that bears a striking resemblance to the estate agent who disappeared, and also speaks with an adult voice.

This classic genre piece clearly nods at authors like John Wyndam and H P Lovecraft and although Eisenberg’s character soon becomes affected by the spookiness of it all, digging a hole in the synthetic soil as a displacement activitiy, Poots, a junior school teacher, gets the bit between her teeth and refuses be brought down by this malign and impossible alien child. Occasional aerial shots show the uncanny village with its identical houses that go on apparently for miles. The couple’s sane and well-adjusted relationship starts to implode when the child becomes an adult and a war of attrition plays out as he questions them inanely in barbed and sarcastic way.

Vivarium is certainly compelling and intelligent, although Eisenberg’s sensitive talents are slightly out of kilter with his rugged, outdoorsy character. Poots has a more complex character arc and she provides the much needed integrity and ballast to counter the weirdness that is going on all around her. The film looks startlingly good, but the Garret Stanley’s script doesn’t quite max out the potential of the film’s universal themes: what’s it like to cope with the financial and emotional pressures of child raising and house buying. At its core though is the closeness of this couple in love and once that starts to implode then all hell breaks loose. In a quiet but terrifying way. MT

VIVARIUM will be released digitally on March 27th 2020 courtesy of  Vertigo Releasing | iTunes/Apple TV, Amazon, Sky Store, Virgin, Google Play, Rakuten, BT, Playstation, Microsoft, Curzon Home Cinema, BFI Player

 

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

Rescue the Fire | Rettet Das Feuer (2020) ***

Dir.: Jasco Viefhues; Cast: Jürgen Baldiga, Aron Neubert, Ulf Reimer, Meitta Poppe, Paula Sau, Michael Brynntrup, Mignon, Renate; Germany 2019, 83 min.

Berlin’s Gay Scene at the end of the 20th Century provides the backdrop to this revealing biopic about painter, photographer and gay activist Jürgen Baldiga (1959-1993). Rescue the Fire is a thoughtful first film from writer director Jasco Vifhues. It recalls the time when the Aids/HIV epidemic was taking a grim toll, German government cuts making things worse. .

Visiting the ‘Schwules Museum Berlin’, Baldiga’s surviving friends present archive material of his work. These also link up with the directors and festival organisers of the Berlinale of that era. Baldiga was working as a photographer at that time and took photos of Derek Jarman, Wim Wenders and Dolveig Dommartin among others. He was also a friend of the first Panorama director Manfred Salzgeber, and his Wieland Speck who took over when her died of AIDS.

Growing up in the Westphalian town of Essen, Baldiga arrived in Berlin in 1987. He developed from a mere ‘snap-shot’ amateur to become a professional photographer. During the ‘Tunten’ scene in Berlin, he apposed Government cuts which were having a punitive affect on the gay community at a time when Aids/HIV was rife. A laudable exception to the negative face of authority was Anne Momper, wife of the West Berlin mayor, who joined the HIV infected in the public bath in Krumme Strasse, racing them in a competition.

Baldiga celebrated his 31st birthday at a demonstration to abolish the infamous law number 175, which criminalised all homosexuals. But by then he was already infected; his answer was “to live faster, more intensively”. The filmmaker Michael Brynntrup remembers his collaboration with Baldiga, who not only took stills but shot some scenes on 35mm. The rest of the short film was in 16mm. In Pioneer Seriös two men wrestle in the bath, one covered in yellow paint, the other in blue. Brynntrup remembers he had difficulties asking the actors to proceed, but Baldiga had no such problems: “The camera was his proverbial rabbit – just the opposite of me”. Baldiga focused on his bodily changes. Being ‘positive’ meant much time was spent finding the right doctors, avoiding getting colds and other infections. And: “Educate, don’t hide”.

For many years, he also wrote a diary, which he bequeathed to his friend Aron Neubert: “I know, your hands will keep them well. Take the photos and put some of commentaries from the diaries next to them.” In 1991 Baldiga was hospitalised with pneumonia. But he still posed in drag as Louise Brooks. His wig went up in smoke, after he leaned too close to the spotlight. He also went to extremes, showing the horror of the Karposi Sarcomas on his legs. He had his first Sarkoma cut out and put in a box with ornaments like a relic. The more his body disintegrated the more he yearned for something physical. From the attractive poster boy of the gay scene, “I have deteriorated to something decrepit, ugly, a shrivelling and dying person”. 

But he was not alone, his good friend Melitta went to the hospital and died inside thirty minutes. That was Baldiga’s dream death, he took all the medicine and morphine (his friends had in vain tried to hide the from him) and fell into a coma, from which he never recovered. He instructed one of them to take a last photo of him “ICH BIN TOT (I am dead), Jürgen Baldiga 4.12.1993. I loved 4000 men, in the end the fabulous Ulf.” Then there is one of his last photos, where he eats ice cream with a morphine drip in his arm, subtitled “Isn’t life great?” But for most of his last year, he ‘was often lonely in his thoughts’.

Rescue the Fire is a not an easy documentary because Baldiga’s friends followed his advice, and told all. In the end this a long ‘Trauerarbeit’, with evocative images by DoP Hendrik Reichel. Those who who witnessed the era will never be the same again. Too much was lost well before time. AS

SCREENING DIGITALLY DURING BFI Flare 2020

Portrait of a Lady on fire (2019) **** Curzon Home Cinema

Dir: Céline Sciamma | Adèle Haenel, Noemie Merlant | Drama, France 120′
Sciamma is back with a enigmatic and delicate drama that glows like a jewel box in its pristine settings yet feels pure and confident at the same time. Turning her camera from the contemporary (Girlhood and Tomboy) she also shows a talent for classical fare in this latest drama set in a chateau in 18th-century Brittany. Here a member of the Italian upper classes (Valeria Golino) has commissioned a portrait of her daughter Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) so she can marry her off to a wealthy suitor abroad.
Rather than risk a male painter becoming too close to her convent-educated offspring, the mother invites artist Marianne (Noémie Merlant) to be her companion, and she arrives at the seaside location in a boat rowing, almost losing her prepared canvasses during the journey. What develops is a tentative friendship between the women that slowly grows into something more ardent. Intimate glances and long walks lead to candlelit evenings where passion burns over their needlework and literary discussions. Or is Héloïse imagining things?
Isolation is to important as it distances their story from the rest of the world. Sciamma relies on the hush of the sea and some subtle sound design, instead of a formal score. Soon the portrait painting becomes secondary to the girls’ relationship. All this is handled with a lightness of touch and the utmost decorum. And the painting sessions turn from taciturn encounters to warmer and more meaningful tetes a tetes. There are shades of Choderlos de Laclos here and the sensuality is undeniable. A faint eeriness comes into play when Marianne has repeated visions of Héloïse in her white wedding dress – luminous for a while, she then disappears. We’re used to seeing lesbian love affairs in the present day so this hark back to the 18th century is refreshing and entrancing. And their mesmerising on screen chemistry gives the film a life of its own. MT
NOW ON RELEASE | CANNES FILM FESTIVAL | 14-25 MAY 2019 | Winner: Best Screenplay

The Green Fog (2018) **** Now on Vimeo

Dir.: Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson, Galen Johnson; USA 2017,63 min.

Guy Maddin’s’ love letter to San Francisco and Hitchcock’s Vertigo is a montage of clips from features shot in around the Californian coastal city: around one hundred or so – no new material was filmed. Aesthetically, Green Fog settles somewhere in between Christian Marclay’s The Clock (2010) and another Maddin/Johnson collaboration, Forbidden Room from 2015. There’s no real narrative to speak of, but Green Fog will appeal to those who like their film history served with a dizzy twist of the insane.

Oblique and opaque, Green Fog shows an overbearing obsession with Hitchcock: morbid and melancholy, we follow Scottie and Judy on a drive through the city, morphing into a hell-raising ride, where love turns to disillusionment. Novak and Stewart are played by various actors: Faye Dunaway, Susan Saint James, Gina Lolabrigida; Anthony Franciosa and Dean Martin. As one actor melds into another, one forgets that they look different in this headlong rush, on foot and in automobiles, as they’re drawn to the Golden Gate Bridge and oblivion.The film’s quotes range from the thrilling (The Lady from Shanghai, 1947) to the downright bizarre (Confessions of an Opium Eater of 1962 and So I married an Axe Murderer of 1993), via obscure gems such as Obayashi’s Take Me Away! 1978, and Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983). The common thread is their Vertigo locations; if not directly then metaphorically. The titular fog, which saturates Judy from the neon street sign, re-appears throughout: under water, most menacingly in a hospital corridor. And there are even in the clips from The Great Fire, – which was started by a film fan no less.

Hitchcock’s obsession with voyeurism is celebrated in many scenes, from surveillance rooms, to men gazing at the screens, unsure of their targets – rather like Rock Hudson, on being quizzed “what are we looking for, Sir?” by a tape operator, to which Rock retorted: “I don’t know, but at this point I’ll take anything”. Karl Malden and Michael Douglas from The Streets of San Francisco are frequently found in their search for more contemporary perpetrators. Green Fog is a ghost story, a collage of landscapes and rooms (echoing Un Chien Andalou) which are haunted by loss and death, their doom underpinned by a Hermannesque score from Jacob Gavchik. Despite of the gravity of it all, Maddin still manages to be playful and impish throughout. AS

NOW AVAILABLE ON VIMEO

 

Bacurau (2019) **** Mubi online

Dir: Kleber Mendonca Filho, Juliano Dornelles | Cast: Sonia Braga, Udo Kier, Barbara Colen, Thomas Aquino, Silvero Pereira, Thardelly Lima, Buda Lira, Clebia Sousa, Danny Barbosa, Jonny Mars, Alli Willow | Brazil, 134′

The latest from Neighbouring Sounds and Aquarius director Kleber Mendonca Filho is a dazzlingly inventive Neo-Western that works on three levels: an ethnographical docudrama set in a remote Brazilian village gradually drifts into bandit thriller territory and blows out as a blood-soaked psychodrama showing a caring community capable of standing up for itself.

The action goes on for over two hours involving voodoo, magic realism, flying saucer drones, machetes and plenty of vicious-looking plants bristling in the simmering landscapes of Brazil’s tropical north east. The only thing missing is snakes – but the venom antidote arrives in the village courtesy of recent exile Teresa (Barbara Colen) who has come home to for her late grandmother’s funeral, joined by her soon to be lover Pacote (Thomas Aquino) who turns up trumps in the finale.

Mendonca Filho’s third feature manages its tonal shifts with remarkable ease and conviction and these actually work to the film’s advantage establishing the long-standing personal ties that will make the final act so convincing. And although Bacurau errs on the over languorous side half way through it soon tightens its gun-belt for a coruscating denouement.

Joining Mendonca Filho on the director credit is Juliano Dornelles whose magical production design is set in the lush badlands where this darkly comic Western plays out, throbbing with sexual tension and an eclectic electronic soundscape.

Screen diva Sonia Braga is back from Aquarius this time playing a fearsome a maven and village doctor. Udo Keir also fetches up as Michael leading a group of American gringos out here to massacre local Latinos, in a modern metaphor for Brazil’s colonial past. Surrounded by prickly cacti and sun-baked hills, Bacurau is an enigmatic backwater with no wifi: it isn’t even on the map (the word appropriately means Nightjar). The much-mocked mayoral candidate Tony Jr. (Thardelly Lima) arrives in town attempting to garner support with a truck full of out of date food and medical supplies. But it emerges he is secretly in cahoots with Michael and his henchman and women who have come to the area with nefarious intentions, seriously misjudging the mood of the locals who by this time have had enough.  MT

MUBI – In Cinemas March 13 2020 and exclusively on MUBI 27 March 2020

 

Cunningham (2019) *****

Dir: Alla Kovgan | US Doc, 93′

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am (2020) ***

Dir: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders | Doc, US 120′

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders is an award-winning TV and feature documentarian known for raising the profile of the BAM and LGBTQ+ community, most notable through The Black List: Volumes 1-3.  Here he turns his camera on this fiercely proud black American writer (her own words) who won the Pulitzer Prize for her 1987 best seller Beloved which inspired Jonathan Demme’s 1998 film of the same name. Morrison bagged the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993.

More an atmospheric distillation of Morrison’s warm and wise spirit than a straightforward fact-filled biopic, we meet the Ohio-born Morrison (who died last year at 88) talking straight into the camera about her slow-burn struggle for recognition as a writer inspired by her God-fearing father, who paved the way with his own writings. This illuminating film is enlivened by adoring talking heads, Graham Willoughby’s lush visuals of sunsets and archive footage notably of the Nobel Prize Ceremony in Sweden. MT

UK and Ireland release 6 March 2020

Sea Without Shore (2015) ****

Dir.: André Semenza, Fernanda Lippi | Cast: Livia Rangel, Fernanda Lippi | Sweden/UK/Brazil 2015, 89 min.

Set in the 19th century on a remote rural island in Sweden, Sea Without A Shore is a choreographed love poem featuring two nameless women whose intense relationship is abruptly terminated.

First premiered at Glasgow Film Festival five years ago the film finally finds its way onto general release. Directors André Semenza and Fernanda Lippi (who worked together on Ashes of God (2003), the latter setting up the Anglo/Brazilian ballet company ‘Zikzira Physical Theatre’, have brought to life this unique combination of ballet, images and words. Defying categorisation, it is absolutely stunning in its gloomy intensity.

The two women, one in a lace dress (Rangel), the other one with long, black hair (Lippi) move gracefully through a spooky fin-de-siècle setting, until forced apart by mythical forces. We see them in a house, resting on a sofa, then writhing around on the floor. They cycle in the woods, float in the water, holding hands – their bodies are on the back of two horses who carry them through the fields and woods, led by the women of the forest. Their dialogue, voiced by Marcela Rosas and Fernanda Lippi quoting from works by Charles Algernon Swinburne, Renée Vivien, and 17th century Lesbian poet Katherine Philips, is a stream-of-consciousness about love and loss. With the narrative slidin backwards and forwards in time, the couple seems caught in a vicious circle from which there is no escape. Their approach to love is all-or-nothing, oscillating between ecstasy and abject loneliness; haunted by their future, even when they are ‘in love’. The landscape, brilliantly photographed in cinema-scope by Marcus Waterloo, is the third character in this two-hander: the two women seem to be always in contact with the ground or the water, echoing their emotional bond. Carrying the weights of the women solemnly, the horses seem integrated in this procession of doomed love. The sound is supervised by multi-award-winning Glenn Freemantle (Gravity).

This is a unique piece yet there are echoes of Gabor Body’s NÁRCISZ ÉS PSYCHÉ. Sea Without A Shore stands alone as a commingle of poetry and ballet, painted with images to create desire and loss in a most absolute form. AS

NOW ON RELEASE AT SELECTED ARTHOUSE CINEMAS

 

Last Holiday (1950) **** Bluray release

Last Holiday is based on a simple premise: a man believing himself to be terminally ill splurges his life savings on a luxury stay in an exclusive seaside hotel. Alec Guinness plays the man in question, JB Priestley produced the film and wrote the script which was directed by a young Hampstead filmmaker Henry Cass who was known for The Glass Mountain (1949) and would go on to make The Reluctant Bride (1955) and comedy, Castle in the Air (1952).
Aware of his impending fate, Alec Guinness’s George actually has a new lease of life and loses his inhibitions to indulge in some traditional English pastimes such as croquet and horse-racing, all kitted out in some seriously elegant outfits. Priestley makes some witty and ironic observations on the nature of life, love and loss this is a poignant and enjoyable B movie which ends happily – but you’ll have to watch it to find out why. MT
LAST HOLIAY | DVD, Blu-Ray and Digital | 9 MARCH 2020  COURTESY OF STUDIOCANAL VINTAGE CLASSICS
https://youtu.be/m2dO-ufQpvo

Color out of Space (2019) ****

Dir: Richard Stanley |Wri: Scarlette Amaris, Stanley | Cast: Nicolas Cage, Joely Richardson, Madeleine Arthur, Brendan Meyer | Sci-Fi Thriller |

Richard Stanley adapts H P Lovecraft’s sci-fi classic with flair, bringing modern sensibilities and a stunning visual aesthetic to his latest horror outing that is faithful to the 1927 short story considered one his most popular works and his personal favourite.

The film has been adapted several times, as Die, Monster Die (1965) with Boris Karloff, The Curse (1987), Colour from the Dark (2008) and The Colour out of Space (Die Farbe) that went on to win awards at several genre festivals for its Vietnamese German director Human Vu.

After the fiasco that was The Island of Dr Moreau, it comes as a relief that Stanley’s Color Out of Space made to the big screen, the script co-written with Scarlett Amaris. It sees a family threatened by an evil alien force after a meteorite lands on their farm in steamy secluded woodland in Arkham, Massachusetts (actually Sintra, Portugal). The whole area is poisoned, crops fail and animals dying in alarming ways. Stanley’s film conveys the main thematic concerns of the novel that will resonate with adventurous audiences today: The idea of an outside force contaminating the native population, a possible metaphor for xenophobia and today’s concerns surrounding nationalism.

As the head of the family Nathan Gardner (a game Nicolas Cage) rampages through the mayhem, his usual cartoonish demeanour adding grist and dark comedy to the human terror. He is married to Joely Richardson’s Theresa who shares the same offbeat, slightly unhinged persona. We feel they could easily go off at a tangent, and we are soon proved right. Renovating an old farm house, growing vegetables and rearing alpacas is their main occupation but not their forte. Country life feels as alien to them as the meteorite that landed in their garden – but the hope its that the new environment might help Theresa’s recovery from breast cancer.

The Gardner’s youngest is Jack (Hilliard) who is also the first to be touched by ‘the color’. The elder Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur) is a bit of a one off and is also a practising Wiccan, and she is in the middle of healing Theresa when a surveyor named Ward (Elliot Knight) arrives to test the local water table. He also narrates the unfolding realisation that the meteorite is actually far more horrific than a mere ecological malfunction. Meanwhile an old hermit Ezra (Tommy Chong) think it’s all to do with Global Warming – or along those lines – looping in another contemporary theme to update the piece for modern audiences.

Color out of Space is actually quite frightening. It all looks spectacular, a psychedelic acid-trip of fizzing pastel pink, violet and putrid green that is both scary and sensational. In one scene Nathan’s arm turns scaly, in another the family dog morphs into a mutant monster. But judiciously Stanley captures our imagination by keeping some of his ideas off screen. Until the final blowout where D0P Steve Annis goes into overdrive, our senses scandalised, and not in a good way. You have been warned. MT

ON RELEASE NATIONWIDE FROM 28 FEBRUARY 2020

 

The Metamorphosis of Birds (2020) **** Berlinale 2020

Dir: Catarina Vasconcelos | Doc, Portugal 97′

The first feature of Portuguese filmmaker Catarina Vasconcelos is a stylish and fadoesque meditation on memory, home and longing. We all have a family, however distant or dysfunctional, and this nostalgic memoire is an intensely feminine one flooded with fondness for her forebears. The film also serves as a history of Portugal itself seen from a female point of view, marking pivotal events in the nation’s history such as the death of Portuguese dictator Salazar, seen splashed on the front cover a women’s magazine.

The Metamorphosis of Birds opens in reverie mode transporting us back to the pre-war world of the filmmaker’s grandparents Beatriz and Henrique, who was a naval officer.  Back on dry land, the plant-loving Beatriz is grounded by pictures, photographs and objets that furnish the comfortable home she shares with their six children while her husband is away at sea.

The voiceover is provided by a series of female and male voices as the camera luxuriates over the lavish surrounding where we also meet the children. The oldest son Jacinto (her father Hyacinth) is seen climbing out of a cupboard at the start of the film. Meanwhile, couped up in his naval quarters on board ship, Henrique looks at the sea from his porthole window and communicates with Beatriz via romantic billets doux: “I miss putting my face through the curls in your hair”. But this romantic idyll ends abruptly when Beatriz suddenly dies. In common with her father, the filmmaker lost her own mother when she was only seventeen. So early maternal death is something she has in common with her father: “When my mother died, my father and I found each other in the absence of the word “mother”.

As the film moves on the images become less personal, nostalgic and lyrical, and more existential in the style of Dali or even Magritte. This reflects Vasconcelos’ own personal crisis that collides with Portugal’s economic slowdown sending her to find a new start in London. Soon afterwards she finds out her grandfather wanted to burn those love letters he shared with her grandmother Beatriz. And this film is a tribute to them both, and a reflection on changing times for women

Conversations with her family members attract more and more textural references to the narrative as it develops into a vibrant tapestry of Portugal itself and the people she grew up with: “about my father’s mother (Beatriz). My mother. Mothers’ mothers. Mothers’ mothers’ mothers”. This memoir also explores a moment in history she had not experienced: an era where women struggled to have a voice:. “This was a time we have a duty not to forget. It is a great privilege to be able to live in Freedom”.

The Metamorphosis of Birds distils the essence of Portugal through word associations, evocative locations and flora and fauna. A judiciously lowkey classical score heightens moments of emotion making this a vivacious and surprisingly moving memento of her family and homeland.  “The dead don’t know that they are dead. Death is a question for the living”. This sumptuous film is a home for  ghosts and their memories, but also the present that lives on and on. MT

BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL | 20 FEBRUARY – 1 MARCH 2020

FIPRESCI Prize Winner Encounters 2020

A metamorfose dos pássaros (The Metamorphosis of Birds) by Catarina Vasconcelos

 

 

Shine Your Eyes | Cidade Passaro (2020) **** Berlinale 2020

Dir.: Matias Mariani; Cast: Oc Ukeje, Indira Nascimento, Paulo Andre, Ike Barry, Chukwadi Iwuji; Brazil/France 2020, 115 min.

Brazilian director and co-writer Matias Mariani has had a distinguished career as a documentary maker and this feature very much reflects the form: particularly in the long panning shots of his hometown of Sao Paolo that give us a strong sense of what is it like to live there. There are echoes of Joao Pedro Rodrigues’ memorable The Last Time I Saw Macao and both features have a magistrate’s realist qualities. DoP Leo Bittencourt had to convince Mariani to chose an old-fashioned 4:3 ration, but is has certainly paid off: The towering buildings dwarf the protagonists, and the subjectivity of Amadi’s ambivalent feelings are well-served by this format.

Musician Amadi (Oc Ukeje) has arrived in Sao Paolo from the Nigerian capital Lagos in search of  his older brother Ikenna (Iwuji), who has got “lost in transition”. Amadi’s motives are purely self-serving: if he doesn’t find Ikenna the mantle of the eldest son and the responsibility for the entire family will fall on his shoulders; and his own freewheeling lifestyle will be over. His uncle Andre is also keen to track down the “lost son”. But it soon emerges that Ikenna is not the famous mathematician he claims to be – and the institute where he was supposedly working doesn’t even exist. Amadi follows the steps of his brother, seemingly always arriving too late on the scene. It also comes to light that Ikenna was working on a way to transform Brazil over-night into a wealthy country, ending poverty for good, but losing him a great deal of money in the process. . He eventually meets up with his brother’s ex-lover Emilia (Nascimento), and she eventually provides the key to tracking down his enigmatic sibling.

Working of several levels, Shine Your Eyes is about settling family scores but also wider ranging themes of displacement and cultural identity. Amadi feels a need to turn the tables on his favoured old brother but he also lacks the confidence to struggle on alone in this endeavour. There are long, languid sequences that see Amadi walking the streets, his inner dialogue audible. Mariani has succeeded in showing how much the lure of the “other” is equally strong in both siblings. But the focus is always Amadi and his journey of self discovery amid a disconcerting landscape that echoes his own inner turmoil. AS

BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL | 20 FEBRUARY – 1 MARCH 2020   

     

Orlando (1992) **** re-release

Orlando - Tilda SwintonDirector/Writer: Sally Potter | Cast: Tilda Swinton, Bill Zane, Quentin Crisp, Jimmy Somerville, Toby Jones, Simon Russell Beale | 94min   Fantasy Drama  UK

Sally Potter’s inventive, vibrant and visually sumptuous adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel is the ideal vehicle for Tilda Swinton’s versatility as the metrosexual maverick poet and nobleman Orlando, who is commanded by Elizabeth I to stay eternally young. If you could only have one auteu film in your timecapsule or desert island retreat, make it this one.

The story is endlessly fascinating and enduring, engaging modern audiences with its androgynous allure and sexual enigma. The characters are exotic and compelling. The costumes and set pieces are magnificent.  In short it is a love-letter to England’s rich language and literature. MT

NOW ON RERELEASE at THE BFI WITH AN INTRO BY POTTER AND SWINTON ON 8 MARCH 2020 and BFI PLAYER

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Charlatan (2020) Digital release

Dir Agnieszka Holland | Wri: Mark Epstein | Cast: Ivan Trojan, Juraj Loj, Josef Trojan | Drama Czech, Irish, 118′

A talented self-taught Czech herbal physician fights discrimination during the totalitarian 1950s in this lushly inspired drama that also tells a convincing gay awakening story.

Agnieszka Holland really finds her groove in this fascinating film about Jan Mikolasek (1889-1973) a mercurial master of alternative medicine who treated a wide range of illustrious patients including Nazi Martin Bormann and leader Antonin Zapotocky, but eventually fell from grace when homosexuality was still a crime. The film opens during the political turmoil of 1957 that sees the 70-year-old Mikolasek suffering under the draconian cosh of the post-Stalinist era when the death of his ally Zapotocky ushers in president Antonin Novotny.

Czech actor Ivan Trojan gives a mesmerising performance as the maverick medic in this elegantly realised period piece that makes appealing use of its picturesque settings in the verdant Czech countryside. Award-winning scripter Mark Epstein admits to playing fast and loose with the sketchy historical facts in giving life to this slightly mysterious man who railed against the febrile Eastern European political system despite his outwardly pucker credentials and dapper demeanour.

Mikolasek grew up with an interest in plants and their medicinal properties, and we meet him as a young man (played by the main actor’s feisty 18-year old son Josef Trojan) who learns to read bottled urine samples by holding them up against the light. The young Mikolasek is prone to violent outbursts at one point threatening his father with an axe and then bashing a bag of newborn kittens against a tree instead of drowning them. In flashback we see him as a young soldier traumatised by his orders to execute a comrade. All this serves the main story well and is seamlessly interwoven into the narrative.

The doctor’s arcane abilities to cure the sick were endorsed by a long line of locals who queued for hours to received a diagnosis of their ills. And soon his successful practice allows him to move into more luxurious surroundings in a countryside manor which also serves as his clinic. He hires an assistant in the shape of Frantisek Palko (Juraj Loj) who lacks training and experience but desperately needs a job to support his growing family and is prepared to offer his undivided time and loyalty.

The men develop a bond that extends beyond the professional and these scenes feel convincingly natural, their sexual tension ramped up by the illicit nature of an affair that culminates in a heart-stopping finale.

Scored by Dvorak and other Czech composers, Holland’s accomplished filmmaking is showcased in this illuminating work that sheds light on a little known episode of the nation’s history. The past and present comes together gracefully, delineated by the entrancing camerawork of DoP Martin Strba that contrasts sun-filled outdoor scenes with stylishly subdued interiors and black-and-white archive footage of the Communist era offering a really enjoyable experience. MT

NOW ON PREMIER DIGITAL PLATFORM AX1 from 7 MAY 2021. Berlinale FILM FESTIVAL premiere 2020

 

The Trouble with Being Born (2020) Mubi

Dir: Sandra Wollner | Fantasy Drama, Austria 2020

Women filmmakers are intrigued by Sci-fi and futuristic films at the moment. Claire Denis and Alice Winocour explore Space travel in their films High Life and Proxima. Carol Morley looks into black holes in Out of the Blue and Lucile Hadzihalilovic and Jessica Hausner have scoped out marine regeneration (Evolution) and plant development (Little Joe).

Meanwhile, Austrian filmmaker Sandra Woollner explores the future through our preoccupations with loneliness, guilt and loss. Her sinister second feature imagines a future with robot companions in the suburbs of Vienna where the main character, ten-year-old Elli, lives with a man she calls “Daddy”. But the two seem rather too close for comfort and there is also something strangely sexual about their relationship.

In balmy evenings by the swimming pool Elli plays with her so-called father (Warta). He has programmed her to say all the right things, in a parody of romantic love (there  is nothing smutty here). He also takes her to bed. And although the words mean nothing to the android, she says them with glazed conviction. It’s an unsettling performance from the under-age newcomer Lena Watson (accompanied during the shoot by her parents who were on board with the process). And we soon realise Elli is not real, she is simply her owner’s answer to the perfect partner.

Things have really moved on since blow-up dolls, but the few nude scenes here were all created via VFX with the young actress wearing a special suit suit and a silicone mask and wig which help conceal her real identity and her likeness to another character who will appear later in the film. One evening man and ‘daughter’ become separated while rambling around in the nearby woods and Elli stumbles onto the highway where she is picked up by strangers.

Ensconced in slightly less glamorous surroundings, Elli assumes a new identity, a new ghostly existence linked this time to a child who disappeared and was never seen again. Once again the humans project their longings for their dead loved ones, and the lost paradise of their childhood. But this time the narrative is more unsettling, melding reality with fantasy in a way that discombobulates the survivors as they try to piece together memories and unresolved trauma that is possibly best left buried in the past.

Sandra Wollner’s stylishly provocative film feels visually and tonally similar to Veronica Franzen’s (Good Night Mommie, but thematically she has struck out in a daring new direction mining the rich potential of groundbreaking science in a feature that explores memory, loss and loneliness in both past and contempo states of mind. And she discovers that sometimes the past is best left well alone.

Her first feature The Impossible Picture examined memory and its unreliability in a narrative set in the past but projecting into the future. With this second feature she develops the storyline from a complex base (not the other way around) and reconstructs families that never existed. And so the robot becomes a mirror of human emotion, and the film an intriguing pathway into virtual and psychological realities.

The final twist leads us forward even further to the future – although some scientists say it already exists – to a time where robots get the upper hand. Time Kroger’s pristine visuals and Pia Jatos’ set design create this world in a way that feels both contemporary and strangely retrospective, but always surreal and alienating. The contrast between robots and real characters is eerie but seamlessly realised, creating an extraordinary fantasy feature that scratches at the edges of sci-fi and horror but is firmly underpinned by reality. MT

Running on Empty | Jetzt Oder Morgen (2020) **** Berlinale

Dir.: Lisa Weber; Documentary with Claudia, Daniel Gabi Gerhard, Marvin; Austria 2020, 89 min.

Video games and mobiles have had a corrosive effect on one Austrian family. Lisa Weber follows them as they struggle to make ends meet drowning in debt and an addiction to TV and computer devices which dictate the daily lives of this dysfunctional bunch.

Four years in the making the film centres around twenty-year old Claudia and her son Daniel (five), who live with Claudia’s mother Gabi and her brother Gerhard in a cramped Vienna apartment. Running on Empty is all about  over-whelming interdependence, the four characters have simply lost the plot and any kind of initiative, mentally or physically. Gerhard and Gabi are obese sofa-loungers who are either stuffing their faces with junk food, or burying them in their devices. Even the cat lolls around comotose.

Claudia has split with Marvin, Daniel’s father, who is looking for a flat for the family. Claudia has no secondary school certificate, having left school when pregnant with her son. They all live off welfare, fighting about the distribution of their spoils. Claudia is slim, and her brain is more lightweight, as she sinks in debt. When the siblings discuss emigration, Claudia questions why Muslims get a Christmas bonus when they don’t believe in God. Gerhard is a little more politic, not wanting a re-run of fascism. Hoping to celebrate his birthday in a posh restaurant, he is disgruntled about his mother and sister showing no inclination to finance it. The only car he will ever drive is the racing version on his console. Daniel’s fifth birthday ends with his parents having an row.

This is a torturous watch largely due to the family’s near catatonic way of life. Weber and DoP Carolina Steinbrecher are literally in the faces of their protagonists, who do not seem to mind: they are oblivious of anything and seem to spend their days sleeping or ‘chilling out’, a rolling camera doesn’t make any impact of their lack of decorum. Running on Empty is a decadent study of total stasis: A group of people who have given up on life, just vegetating along, letting the world go by, and they survive on state handouts. AS

BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL | 20 FEBRUARY – 1 MARCH 2020   

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

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

Hong Sang-soo comes to Berlinale for the third time with another disposable drama concealing sharp observations about the nature of love and attraction. Once again his muse Kim Min-hee is the focus of this female centric story. She plays Gam-hee who meets up with three friends and runs into an old acquaintance, while her husband is abroad. Nothing really happens but the tentative conversations have a quirky humour unique to this veteran South Korean filmmaker, as gradually the layers of Gam-hee’s quiet neuroticism are peeled away.

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

Each new meeting involves Gam-hee divulging her thoughts about her marriage. How her husband thinks they should spend every day together, although this is the first time in their five year marriage they have been apart: “He says that people in love should always stick together,” Eventually we get the impression she is hinting at some hidden concerns about her love life although nothing is divulged along those lines.

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

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

BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL | 2- FEBRUARY – 1 MARCH 2020

Servants | Sluzobnici (2020)

Dir.: Ivan Ostrochovsky; Cast: Samuel Skyva, Samuel Olakovic, Vladimir Miculcik, Vladimir Obsil, Vlad Ivanov, Martin Sulik, Vladimir Strnisco; Slovakia/Romania/Czech Republic/Ireland 2020, 78 min.

Slovakian director/co-writer Ivan Ostrochovsky creates a Bresson-like study of resistance set in a religious seminary in 1980 Bratislava (which back then was the capital of the Slovak Socialist Republic in  Czechoslovakia).

Shot in luminous black-and-white by DoP Juraj Chipikin in the old-fashioned 4:3 ratio, The Servants is a tightly-scripted Noirish portrait of temptation and belief.

The 1980s was a tough time for the Catholic Church whose religious freedom came under threat from the draconian cosh of the continuing communist regime. The clergy was divided into the regime-critical “catacomb church” which maintains contact with the Vatican and Western media, and the “ecclesiastical hierarchy” which cooperated with those in power and was represented by the state-sponsored priests’ association Pacem in Terris. (1971-1989).

Two young seminarians, Juraj (Skyva) and Michal (Polakovic) enter the Catholic institution in Bratislava to take the priesthood. Each must decide whether to collaborate with the regime or whether to remain faithful to their idealist views, and submitting to the surveillance of the secret police.

Most of the priests in the seminary are members of the Pacem in Terris group. Unfortunately for the two newcomers, their confessor is even worse: not only has he killed a man in a hit-and-ran accident, he is also an informer for the local Secret Service, led by Frantisek (Sulik), a medic who is in league with the Dean, Tibor (Strnisco).

Coufar (Obsil) meanwhile has been disciplined by the authorities but still organises secret meetings with scholars in his house and reports incidents to Radio Free Europe. Frantisek kills him, making it look like a road accident. But nobody is fooled and Michal joins the resistance group. Juraj is then threatened with being drafted into the army by Frantisek, but withstands the temptation. Michal, who does not know that Juraj has been interrogated, posts a leaflet on the noticeboard asking the seminarians to join a hunger strike in support of Coufar’s murder.

Ostrochovsky and his co-writers are particularly scathing about the collaborators in Pacem in Terris. The Dean and Frantsisek have a relationship founded on mutual collaboration – as Frantisek puts it: “if we fail to find the ringleader of the revolt in the seminary, both our heads will roll”. Coufar is the more cynical of the two: he produces Michal’s Secret Police File and tells him “You need to understand that we are not here to be happy”.

This is an austere but laudable drama enhanced by its stunning visual allure: there are astonishing shots of the inner courtyard of the seminary, showcasing an arena which serves both as a football pitch and a place for collective punishment. The Noirish atmosphere prevails, underlined by the protagonists’ long shadows, the night scenes artfully shot with one single light source. Servants is true to the spirit of Bresson whose hero Francois Leterrier from Un Condamne a Mort s’est Echappe is recreated in the resisters. AS

On Curzon Home Cinema on May 14th. As a virtual cinema screenings at HOME Manchester and ArtHouse, Crouch End as well as IFI@Home in Ireland | BERLINALE premiere in 2020

                                    

       

My Little Sister (2020)

Persian Lessons (2020) **** Berlinale Special

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 on the pretence of 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 Nazism. And Persian Lessons is another astonishing angle on the war, and another tribute to our collective memory of the Holocaust. The gruelling tension of the folly-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 man 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

BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL 2020 | 20 February 2020 – 1 MARCH 2020

 

 

:

First Cow (2020)

Dir: Kelly Reichardt | Writers Jon Raymond, Kelly Reichardt | Cast: John Magaro, Orion Lee, Toby Jones, Ewen Bremner, Scott Shepherd, Gary Farmer, Lily Gladstone, Alia Shawkat, Rene Auberjonois, Jared Kasowski | Drama US 121′

“The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.” William Blake

Kelly Reichardt’s eighth film takes us back to the old West in a timeless and fabulously crafted story of two men finding friendship as they wander the sylvan landscapes of the 19th century Oregon Trail trying to survive off the land.

This lyrical and richly textured film lulls us with a hypnotic narrative that slowly catches fire in the final stretch. The mutually compatible souls come together from different corners of the earth. Bonded by their hopes and dreams they develop a miniaturist cottage industry: the Chinamen King Lu (Orion Lee) has the business acumen, the diffident American is Boston baker “Cookie” (aka Otis Figowitz, a sensitive John Magaro) and what emerges is a painterly rendering of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: first there is hunger but gradually sophistication and greed come into play, as the smouldering story unfolds.

It all starts with the arrival of the first cow in the region, an amiable dairy heifer seen drifting gracefully along the river in a boat from San Luis Obispo. Once firmly on dry land she is encouraged by Cookie to provide the vital ingredient for his buttermilk buns. And these provide for the men’s needs in the short term. Lu suggests they sell them at the nearby market, and soon they have regular customers for their fare. Lu points out their “window” will not last for long. But before competitors catch on to their bakery bandwagon, something tragic happens.

And this comes with the arrival of the cow’s owner, Toby Jones’ Chief Factor, a wealthy English sea merchant who lives in a supposedly grand clapperboard house, with his Native American wife (Lily Gladstone). His observations on how to incentivise workers, and his sophisticated social commentary on London fashions spike this gentle story with a vein of subversive humour. We learn the buns have a subtle taste of “South Kensington” and that the ‘Empire Line’ is no longer in vogue, but canary yellow is the now the colour ‘du jour’ for ladies couture. Also that his humble cow is actually descended from the highly prized ‘Froment de Leon’ breed, crossed with Isigny in Brittany, ensuring exceptionally rich grass for grazing, hence the quality of its milk and cream. So when Factor visits the market to sample the famous buttermilk buns and orders a ‘blueberry clafoutis’, the penny starts to drop, but not into the baker’s hands.

Reichardt’s regular cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt creates painterly images that glow like Rembrandt Old Masters, enhanced by the use of the silent era’s 4:3 aspect ratio. The animal connection here is tender rather than sentimental, once again showcasing Reichardt’s relationship with animals: her well known dog Lucy has been cast in her films – notably Wendy and Lucy (2008), and Old Joy (2006) which share Reichardt’s regular writing partner, who also wrote the book on which this arthouse treasure is based: The Half Life. MT

ON RELEASE IN THE UK & IRELAND and on MUBI | 28 MAY 2021 | BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL 2020 PREMIERE

 

 

 

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

Malmkrog (2020) Mubi

Wri/Dir: Christi Puiu | Cast: Agathe Bosch, Edith Alibec, Ugo Broussot, Marina Palli, Istvan Teglas, Diana Sakalauskaite, Vitaly Bichir, Judith State, Frederic Schulze-Richard | Romania, Serbia, Switzerland, Sweden, Bosnia, Macedonia 2020, Drama, 200 min.

This latest drama from Romanian director and writer Christi Puiu (The Death of Mr Lazarescu) is based on works by the Russian philosopher and poet  Vladimir Solovyov (1853-1900), a close friend of Dostoyevsky whose Brothers Karamazov were inspired by his compatriot. Solovyov’s main focus was to overturn the schism between the Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodoxy, later he worried about Russia losing its spiritual identity.

The Christimas setting for this austere discursive drama is an old Translyvanian manor house belonging to Nikolai (Teglas). Snow is falling and the atmosphere inside is no less chilly as the assembled guests – a politician, a young countess, a Russian General and his wife are involved in an often vituperative and tight-lipped exchange about death and the Antichrist, progress and morality. Each lays out a vision of the world, history, and religion.

The film unfolds in six chapters: Ingrida (Sakalauskaite), the wife of the general expresses her opinion about the true meaning of Christianity, positing that all wars are the work of men who deem conflict a “necessary evil”. She hopes that war will eventually be abolished “by becoming obsolete” – but only Olga (Palii), by far the youngest of the guests, opposes Ingrida, and reads out a letter written by her husband, who has just returned from the war in Turkey, where “Russia is trying to tame a less civilised country”. Her husband reports on massacres committed by the Turks against the Armenians, and the swift revenge taken by his troops. Again, all present agree that such revenge is a true sign of Christianity, but Olga then reminds everyone that the Cossacks, part of the general’s army, are known for their brutality. She believes every human being is intrinsically good, and that this benevolence should be allowed to grow. They all rubbish her views, calling her naive.

Meanwhile, an army of servants slip silently between their masters and are hardly given the time of day. Jansci (Geambasu), the head honcho, directs his underlings like a theatre troupe: they follow his orders with precision, more afraid of him than of their masters. And with good reason: when Jansci finds that one of the waiters has made a mistake, he slaps him, reminding him that any further errors “would make him very angry indeed”. Nikolai’s ailing father is carried from the bath to his room with a Dr. Blumenfeld in attendance, even though it is Christmas Eve.

Olga continues her protests against the mostly male rationale: she accuses Edouard (Broussot), a politician, that he is a materialist. His planned trip to Nice, she says, will only end up in the casino in Monte Carlo. Edouard, a total cynic, agrees smiling. The discussion about pacifism versus self defence sees Olga defending the former, whilst Edouard claims ‘highly civilised’ nations including Russia, have the right to go to war against the more barbaric countries. “Sin, but do not repent” is the motto voiced by the mostly male majority.

The discussion moves on, the focus on Russia’s identity: Is it a Greco/Slavian country, or part of European culture? The uprising in Transvaal against the British is called “Zulu savagery” and Edouard bemoans the lack of involvement by the Dutch in this conflict. Edouard again is in the centre of an attack on Olga, who insists that man has been put on earth for a purpose by God. She also is critical of their hedonistic lifestyle. Edouard is vicious in his reply claiming the real purpose in life is to have a mission: “I had an audience with Czar Alexander II, got a yearly salary of 30 000 Gold Roubles and a diplomatic mission”. He then returns to his argument claiming that the masses submit to evil, and want to kill everybody who are against them. Eduoard also ponders whether God really resurrects us, and if his kingdom is real, is it not just a Kingdom of Death. Finally, falling into the snare of their own discourse and believing that history never repeats itself, none of them is able to realise the extent of the event in which they have unwittingly become ensnared.

Puiu is able to reflect on the three main topics of Solovyov’s philosophy – economic materialism, abstract Tolstoyan moralism and the hubris of Nietzsche’s nihilism – in all these debates. The only humane soul is Olga, who is attacked from all sides. DoP Tudor Panduru shows the splendour of the sumptuous interiors and the meticulous servants who keep their masters fed and watered, without a by your leave. The guests hardly touch their elaborate food, because they are consumed by showing off their verbal eloquence. In spite of its lengthy running time, Malmkrog is always engaging: this is radical entertainment, combining philosophy within the gorgeous surroundings of a dying breed. AS

NOW ON MUBI  

 

My New York Year (2020)

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

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

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

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

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

IN CINEMAS 20 May 2021 | BERLINALE FILM premiere 2020.

 

 

 

 

 

The Twentieth Century (2019) MUBI

Dir.: Matthew Rankin; Cast: Dan Beirne, Sarianne Cormier, Catherine St. Laurent, Mikhail Ahooja, Louis Vegin; Canada 2019, 87 min.

This first feature by Canadian writer/director Matthew Rankin tries to follow in the footsteps of his compatriot Guy Maddin – without his flair and quirky idiosyncratic style. Rankin’s ‘autobiography’ of Mackenzie King, who was Canada’s Prime Minister for 22 years between 1921 and 1948, is a mad-cap race with animation showing the politician as an arrant dilettante, in love with his mother and Doc Marten boots.

King (Beirne) is one of the candidates for the position as Prime Minister. Acid tests are conducted, among them butter churning, endurance tickling and baby seal clubbing. King ends up joint second, but his nemesis, the good-looking sunny-boy Bert Harper (Ahooja), will win outright. After talking to a TB-suffering girl and her rather masculine mother (Vegin) at an orphanage, King falls for the beautiful Ruby Elliot (St. Laurent), neglecting his own mother’s nurse Lapoint (Cormier), who he is the real love of his life.

An exploding cactus and many pairs of Doc Martens later Harper wins Ruby’s heart and the trio fights a battle to the death with some whales in the frozen waters of Canada, King surviving alone. Meanwhile, Ruby and Bert scarify their lives for Canada, ending up like pieces of meat on a skewer tied to a whale.

Shot completely within the confines of a studio, this absurdist drama is full of innovative ideas but lacks the glue to hold them all together. DoP Vincent Biron and the actors enjoy themselves, but the free rein given to them by Rankin makes the outcome look more like a shambolic school play. AS

NOW on MUBI

The Old Dark House (1932)

Dir: James Whale | Wri: Benn Levy/J B Priestley | Cast: Boris Karloff| Charles Laughton | Eva Moore | Gloria Stuart | Melvyn Douglas| Raymond Massey | Horror / Comedy |US  75′

James Whale’s greatest film was arguably The Bride of Frankenstein but The Old Dark House comes a near second with its spine-tingling blend of thrilling suspense piqued with deliciously dark humour, cleverly sending up the horror genre in a subtle and brilliant way, thanks to Benn W. Levy’s script based on J B Priestley novel, Benighted. The storyline is secondary to spirited performances from a superb cast led by Raymond Massey, Mervyn Douglas and Gloria Stuart as a trio forced to take refuge in a macabre household presided over by sinister siblings (Ernest Thesiger and Elspeth Dudgeon). Things go bump in the night and Boris Karloff plays the monstrous hirsute butler off his rocker – hinting at an early version of Frankenstein himself. But it’s the quirky characterisations that make this supremely entertaining, along with an eerily evoked Gothic atmosphere. Another threesome soon emerges – a ménage à trois between Charles Laughton’s bumptious  Yorkshire mill-owner and his gal (Lilian Bond) who is chivalrously courted by Douglas whispering sweet nothings in the gloaming. Good fun all round. MT

New 4K restoration of THE CHILLING LOST CLASSIC from the director of FRANKENSTEIN, THE INVISIBLE MAN & THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN | and on dual format from 21 May 2018 COURTESY OF EUREKA MASTERS of CINEMA | ALSO SHOWING AT THE CINEMA MUSEUM, LONDON on FEBRUARY 23  

 

 

Little Joe (2019) ****

Dir. Jessica Hausner | Sci-fi Drama | Austria, UK, Germany | 105′

Austrian auteuse Jessica Hausner creates films that are intelligent and refreshing. And none more so than her recent Cannes competition entry Little Joe. A challenging, coldly humorous hyper-realist Sci-fi that explores the unique human condition known as happiness.

Sometime in the future Emily Beecham plays Alice, an emotionally buttoned up ‘plant designer’ who develops a scarlet thistle-like flower whose scent makes people happy, and is sure to catch on  commercially. But there’s a snag: the plant also makes subtle changes in the personalities of those who inhale its pollen. It also causes seems to destroy neighbouring plants in the laboratory.

Little Joe is a mesmerising film to look at: its brightly synthetic colour schemes, geometric framing and slightly off-kilter performances are undeniably eye-catching and entirely appropriate given the subject matter: genetic modification. This is not a film to love but a film to admire, the strange storyline keeping us agog in fascination until the surprising finale.

Once her pioneering plant is in full flower Alice names it Little Joe, and brings a sample home for her teenage son Joe (Kit Connor) to tend – she’s a rotten workaholic mother hooked on Deliveroo dinners, but hopes the plant will bring out her son’s nurturing side.

Meanwhile, in their slick laboratories and mint green uniforms, Alice and her colleague Chris (Ben Whishaw) are certainly more commercial scientists than traditional plants people, but Chris is the more appealing and emotionally intelligent of the two. Their chief designer Bella is an earth mother and soon notices that her beloved shaggy dog Bello has undergone a complete change of personality since sniffing pollen from the odd-looking thistles. The staff put this down to Bella’s mental health issues and move swiftly back to their microscopes. But these weird changes cannot be ignored for long.

Sound plays an important role throughout this unsettling story and Japanese composer Teiji has devised a spooky electronic soundscape for each phase of plant development. Hausner has seemingly gone out of her way to assemble an eclectic multi-racial cast and this certainly adds flavour to this exotic con concoction but Beecham, Wishaw, Kit Connor and his dad (Goran Costic) are particularly affective in striking the right mood. And if you think Little Joe bears a strange visual resemblance to another recent Austrian chiller you’d be right: DoP Martin Gschlacht also filmed Goodnight Mommie (2014). MT

ON RELEASE FROM 21 FEBRUARY 2020

CANNES FILM FESTIVAL 2019 | Best Actress Emily Beecham
https://youtu.be/eKy7Iaco_rU

When Lambs become Lions (2018) | ****

Dir: Jon Kasbe | Doc | US

When you fight to survive in the vast arid plains of East Africa life is tough. In his deeply affecting feature debut, award-winning filmmaker Jon Kasbe (Heartbeats Of Fiji) explores whether human life in Northern Kenya is more valuable than that of endangered species. The subject of poaching is certainly an emotive issue that strongly divides the nation’s inhabitants, many of whom are deeply opposed to the illegal practice on moral grounds. But the lucrative trade goes on.

This is the latest in a series of conservation-themed features that started with Blackfish, The Cove and last year’s Trophy. Stunningly captured on the widescreen and in intimate close-up the film contrasts Kenya’s natural beauty with the less palatable aspects of animal slaughter, that takes place not for food but for trophy hunting. And the animals do not die a quick death but a long, drawn out and painful one due to being inexpertly shot or poisoned with venomous arrows. The film’s atmospheric score adds gravitas to the melancholic episodes where Asan silently contemplates his doubtful future. And these sequences contrast with the high-octane nighttime forays into the bush to locate victims and escape the rangers’ onslaught.

Kasbe’s non-judgemental thriller unspools with a growing dramatic tension as it moves stealthily between the lives of two men: an unlikeable ivory trader (X), and his ranger nemesis Asan, who is also his cousin. The glassy-eyed macho X boasts of making a successful black market business selling ivory. As he swaggers around chain-smoking defiantly and invoking ‘Allah’, he claims not to do the killing himself. Hot on his tracks is Asan and his fellow government employed rangers who are heavily armed with rifles and threaten the poachers with their zero tolerance approach. But rangers have little to gain financially from their work, although many feel sadness for the elephants’ plight. Heavily armed with automatic rifles they also have an axe to grind against the government claiming they have not been paid two months’ wages due to an administrative error. Meanwhile, the poachers make a lucrative living. X’s sidekick Lukas posits the powerful adage “if we do not hunt we will be hunted”. The pressure to earn a pittance is also putting a strain on Asan’s marriage and growing family, and he fears he may have to go back to the petty crime of his youth. 

Although poaching is a blot on the landscape, so is the plight of the people who inhabit this impoverished region. President Uhuru Kenyatta confiscates and burns all illegal ivory stashes claiming – on a television programme – that “ivory is worthless unless it is on our elephants”. Meanwhile X and Lukas watch silently desperately wishing they could lay their hands on the truckloads of bounty destined to be destroyed by the government’s crackdown. MT

NOW ON GENERAL RELEASE

Possession (1981) ****

Dir: Andrzej Zulawski  | Cast: Sam Neill, Isabelle Adjani, Margit Castensen, Heinz Bennent, Johanna Hofer | 124min  | Horror Drama  | Poland France West Germany

possession_2116In the opening scene of Andrzej Zulawski’s POSSESSION, Isabelle Adjani (Anna) meets Sam Neill (Mark) outside their Berlin apartment block, on his return from a business trip – she appears to be dressed in mourning. It then emerges she wants a divorce, and the two of them descend rapidly into a frazzled state of anxiety – Mark rocking to and fro in a cold sweat and Anna sobbing down the telephone from her new lover’s place. Mark (a self-confessed misogynist) seems less concerned about the divorce, but is eaten up with jealousy that Anna is having sex with another man – and enjoying it. Confronting her lover Heinrich (Heinz Bennent) in his spacious book-filled apartment, Mark is understandably indignant. Heinrich is dressed like a flamenco dancer; black shirt slashed to his ageing midriff. Embracing Mark, he appeals to his sense of fair-play in understanding their mutual state of flux.

Initially banned in the UK; this is the Russian-born Polish film director’s most controversial film. Many claim to be shocked and traumatised by it; others to find it a total enigma, even a laughable mess. Certainly it gives full throttle to the full-blooded emotional fall-out when a relationship goes wrong – but this is not social realism; it is mannered horror. Isabelle Adjani won Best Actress at Cannes for her histrionic, ‘obsessive compulsive’ performance – which involves an electric carving knife – and Neill is also at his most viscerally raw, switching from demonic anger to childlike vulnerability (his eyes are especially weird – an effect achieved by coloured contact lenses), as he pleads with Anna to share her feelings so he can work to make it right. Meanwhile he is also trying to negotiate a deal with his employers and look after his infant son Bob.

Filmed by ace DoP Bruno Nuytten (Jean de Florette) in the frigid blue light of a rained-soaked Berlin winter in Kreuzberg and Mitte’s empty streets, there are unsettling vignettes where Anna is at one point pursued by a government official who asks to check the windows of the apartment where she is now living (having left Mark). In this apartment, she has produced – or apparently given birth to – a strange octopus-like blob of gore, that masquerades as a gigantic living foetus. When the inspector discovers it, she glasses him in the neck with a broken bottle of red wine, having previously offered him a drink. In another she plays Helen, a teacher from Bob’s school, and turns up unannounced to read to Bob and do the washing up for Mark: the two end up in bed. The dialogue is often dead pan and banal compared with the heightened melodrama that accompanies it – after trashing Mark’s living room in a blind rage Anna announces blandly: “I have to give Bob his yogourt”.

Admittedly, the film is a carnival of sensationalism, yet we feel nothing for the characters nor their trauma as their feelings are completely unconvincing – they are merely the psychotic and narcissistic projections of sociopathic cyphers, totally lacking in authenticity or a scintilla of humanity. Although Zulawski attempts to generate horror, as an audience we feel entirely alienated and detached from the narrative, however gory, blood-soaked or deranged it becomes. A fantastic curio and the perfect antidote to romantic Valentine’s Day. MT

LEXI CINEMA | KENSAL RISE OVERGROUND | FRIDAY 14 FEBRUARY 2020

 

Ghost (1990) ***

Dir: Jerry Zucker | Cast: Demi Moore, Patrick Swayze, Whoopi Goldberg | US Fantasy Drama 127′

Jerry Zucker made a clutch of light-hearted films in the 1980s and 90s. This mystical romantic thriller was his most heartfelt with its theme of enduring love, and popular stars of the day Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze. After a brief but passionate affair, death divides the young lovers on their way home from the theatre in Manhattan. But it doesn’t end in tears. A purple coiffed Whoopi Goldberg brings a touch of wacky weirdness to the story as a psychic who reunites them in the ether, thanks to her hammy supernatural powers.

Bruce Joel Rubin’s writing skills make this plausible and enjoyable, although it’s a tad long at over two hours. Still, it went on to be a massive box office success and the highest grossing film of 1990. The other interesting takeaway is Sam Raimi’s roving camerawork which elevates the film from an ordinary drama to the realms of fantasy with stylish dissolves between scenes where Patrick Swayze’s character morphs into a ghostly presence with the ability to walk between walls. And Maurice Jarre’s score reworks the 1955 song Unchained Melody originally composed by Alex North. It went for the Academy Award that year but lost out to John Barrie’s for Dances with Wolves. MT

RE-RELEASED by PARK CIRCUS | 30th ANNIVERSARY | Nationwide for Valentine’s Day 2020

Only You Alone (2020) **** Rotterdam Film Festival 2020 | FIPRESCI award

Dir: Zhou Zhou | Cast: Yun Chi | Drama, China 89’

Chinese director Zhou Zhou follows Meili (2018) with another thoughtful female-centric story of alienation this time exploring the isolation of a young epileptic woman in North Eastern China. Zhou Zhou co-scripts this delicately drawn arthouse gem with Yun Chi who also plays the central character with subtle fleeting gestures and charming vulnerability. Chi Li has a job in a cinema and a roof over her head in her aunt’s house who is away in Australia when Chi Li meets a boy who seems keen to get to know her. Although initially things go well this romantic attachment seems to unlock and intensify her confidence as well as her defensive feelings while bringing out the protective side of her new friend.

Li Chun-yu’s muted visuals convey this tentative prelude to love on the widescreen and in intimate close-up as the couple explore the surrounding countryside and neon-tinged urban settings together, Chi Li growing more relaxed and confident as her life story is teased out during the couple’s gentle interactions that also introduce moments of humour. However, a night out to a dance performance painfully reminds Chi Li of her past as a dancer and when she finally meets the boy’s mother it becomes clear that the relationship is not going to be as unproblematic as it started out. Traumatic scenes follow as Chi Li deals with her demons alone in sequences complimented by Fabio Anastasi’s sensitve score that echoes the changing rhythms of Chi Li’s emotional landscape.

When her aunt returns and decides to sell her house inviting Chi Li to join her in Australia, she is forced to make some radical decisions, but already feels more prepared for the challenge. Only You Alone is a graceful and life-affirming drama that ultimately reminds those suffering in silence that the key to emotional security always lies within ourselves. MT

ROTTERDAM INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2020 | FIPRESCI AWARD

Yalda (2019) **** Sundance 2020

Dir/scr: Massoud Bakhshi. Iran, France, Germany, Switzerland, Luxembourg. 2019. 89 mins

Women are much maligned in Iran’s sternly patriarchal society. Writer and director Massoud Bakhshi uses one woman’s story to shed light on this deeply misogynist culture that has taken the nation further and further back in time from the more enlightened days of the Shah back in the 1970s.  Cutting his teeth in 2014 with A Respectable Family, this second feature is a tensely slick affair that uses melodrama to heighten the film’s stark thematic concerns of life and death.

In Tehran festivities for the winter celebration of Yalda are in full swing lighting up a capital that looks, to all intents and purposes, like any other modern metropolis. The focus narrows into the confined space of a TV studio where Maryam (Sadaf Asgari) arrives in handcuffs to appear in a popular reality show called ’Joy Of Forgiveness’ that also includes literary readings and music.

Maryam has been sentenced to death for the murder of her much older husband Nasser. But the good news is that the family have it in their power to forgive her and make way for a reprieve. Nasser’s daughter Mona (Behnaz Jafari) used to be her best friend. But tonight Mona will decide Maryam’s fate on live television. The film plays out almost like a TV trial, Maryam pleading her case and hoping to persuade Mona to let her go free. Bakhshi mines the rich dramatic potential of the subject to great affect, leaving us shaken and stirred as the story moves towards its febrile finale.

Performances are strong from a really impressive female cast. Asgari makes for a convincingly uneasy Maryam contrasting with the steely calm of Behnaz Jafari’s Mona. We are reminded that men clearly have the upper hand in Iran, but that women can also be each other’s enemies all over the world. MT

Sundance Film Festival 2020 | 23 JANUARY – 1 FEBRUARY 2020

 

The Lighthouse (2019) *****

Dir: Robert Eggers | Thriller, US 109′

Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe are hard-nosed sea salts caught in a battle of wills in this terrifying two-hander set in 1890s Maine.

The Lighthouse is Robert Eggers much anticipated follow-up to The Witch and it certainly doesn’t disappoint. Fuelled by a pent up rage that seethes right through to the biting end of this often claustrophobic thriller, the lauded American auteur adds another cult classic to the New England Gothic genre.

Arriving from Canada Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson) joins the craggy and flatulent old retainer Thomas Wake (Dafoe) to offer support as the winter sets in and the weather worsens. The stormy dynamic of their emotional voyage is fraught with hallucinatory twists and turns in a gripping yet enigmatic chiller that relies on atmosphere and a mounting dread to tell a stir-crazy tale infused with mystery, myth and legend. The haunting atmospheric soundscape is particularly redolent of solitude and isolation setting a plangent tone for what is to come.

Echoes of Moby Dick are clearly felt but this artful drama is more akin to Robert O’Flaherty’s 1934 document Man of Aran with its dense grainy black and white images and rugged sense of place. The Movie-tone aspect ratio focuses the attention on the keepers’ constantly fleeting expressions, like storm clouds scudding by. Louise Ford’s editing borrows from Soviet Montage outings such as The Diplomatic Pouch (1927) and Old and New (1929). Eggers scripts with his brother Max, and his regular cinematographer Jarin Blaschke captures the mournful misery of it all in chiaroscuro brilliance.

Dafoe is brilliantly cast as Wake, William Blake his literary touchstone, a grizzled beard and rugged features bearing witness to an eternity of storms and baking sun. Hobbling about on a gammy leg, his countenance is that of stiff-necked superiority and he pulls rank at every opportunity over his junior Winslow, who bitterly resents every command, turning his gaze on the slowly revolving beam, mesmerised by its chiaroscuro shadow play. Wake insists on being “the keeper of the light,” but we are soon made aware of a curious sexual vide that also inhabits these close quarters. Both have a troubled past and a need for solitude so their enforced nearness is a constant thorn in the side of the other.

Seabirds are very much a motif here along with a recurring sequence where Winslow is sexually tormented by a mermaid. A contretemps with an angry seagull marks a change in the weather, bringing a freezing storm from the North East and ruining their food stocks, sending them straight to the bottle for sustenance, with alarming and ambiguous consequences. Clearly it will all end in tears, albeit very salty ones laced with rum. MT

NOW ON RELEASE NATIONWIDE

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOW OUT ON RELEASE FROM 31 JANUARY 2020

 

Piedra Sola | Lonely Rock (2020) **** Rotterdam Film Festival 2020

Dir: Alejandro Telemaco Tarraf | Writers: Lucas Distefano, Telemaco Tarraf | Drama | Argentina, 82′ | Spanish/Quechua

High up in the Andes mountains a herder sees his lamas threatened by a puma in this impressive feature debut that melds fiction, documentary and ethnographical elements to tell a mystical story full of breathtaking landscapes. Co-writing with Distefano, Tarraf makes minimal use of dialogue, which is mainly in the native Quechua. A unsettling soundscape accompanies this haunting piece of filmmaking.

Set on the widescreen and in intimate close-up the film follows herder Ricardo and his family. And although they seem cut off from humanity in this remote part of the world the hypnotic human interest story very much connects to a global narrative of survival for small communities everywhere. Pitting his wits against animals and the elements rather than sales figures and corporate competitors, Ricardo is constantly aware that self-sufficiency is paramount: one of his lama pelts barely fetches £5, and no one seems very interested in the animal’s meat when he eventually makes it to the nearest market, a long trip away on foot and bus.

So tracking down the puma is vital. According to local custom, he must also make an offering to the beast. At one point an anonymous funeral cortege passes by serving as a token of awareness of the fragility of man’s existence here, rather than marking an actual death. The herder joins in chanting: “do not forget you are mortal”. The burning byre is an eerie counterpoint to the darkness enveloping the ‘mourners’ as they commune in silence.

Ricardo’s quest for the puma is gradually transformed into an exploration of something deeper and more spiritual. The Andes are a mysterious range of mountains that seem to possess a transformative power. The white horse in the opening scene becomes the wooden statue representing death. Meanwhile the titular lone monolith metamorphoses into an Andean version of Ayres Rock with its strange potency that suggests an otherworldly force is at play beyond the humans and their animals. MT

ROTTERDAM INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2020

The End Will Be Spectacular (2020) **** Rotterdam Film Festival

Dir.: Ersin Celik; Cast: Arjin Baysal, Delil Piran, Cîan Seve, Sevda Kina, Sahire Ozhari; Syria 2019, 135 min.

Ersin Celek’s feature debut celebrates the Kurdish fight for independence. Shot in the autonomous region of Northern Syria, The End Will be Spectacular tells the story of the siege of Diyarbakir and the ancient city of Sur, attacked by the Turkish army for over hundred days, from December 2nd 2015, after the declaration of independence by the Sur’s Kurdish assembly.

Zilan (Baysal) enters Diyarbakir to meet up with friends of her brother Andok, killed here fighting for the Kurdish PKK. She encounters a number of women fighters amongst them the commander Nucan (Ozhan), and Dilan (Kina) who also wants to avenge her brother. The overall leader is Ciyzger (Seve), whose titular speech ends with “When hope and resistance come together, no matter what happens: the end will be spectacular”. The slow and bespectacled Zilan is not the model of a resistance fighter. But she soon speeds, and gets quite nifty with her semi-automatic gun. Dilan (Kina) decides to burn her diaries, she feels personal memories are no longer relevant in times of hardship. Then Zilan and Nucan watch in horror as Dilan gives herself up to the Turkish forces. But to their surpise, the diary she is gives the Turkish commander is not a plan of the defence lines but an explosive device, killing a load of Turks, Zilan and Nucan saving her in  the aftermath. The Turkish army with their tanks makes progress, and there is an impressive burial scene amidst the first snows. Later, a traitor is caught having sold the location of the anti-tank mines to the Turks. He meets a sticky end. The siege grinds to a conclusion, Ciyager sending out a small group, including Zilan, who will tell the Kurdish villages and towns in the area about the heroic fight in the hope of garnering support and swelling their ranks.

Shot imaginatively by DoP Cemil Kizildag, The End resonates with Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers narrative-wise, but aesthetically it is closer to Malle’s Viva Maria!. Celik is very much an idealist at heart, and his portraits of women fighters is the highlight of his feature. A little overindulgence by Celek manifests itself in the running time of 135 minutes, but the emotional suspense created by the brilliant ensemble (including seven, who act out their roles in the real uprising) makes up for it. AS

ROTTERDAM INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2020

 

Filles de Joie | Working Girls (2020) Rotterdam International Film Festival 2020

Dir: Frédéric Fonteyne | Wri: Anne Paulicevich | Cast: Noemie Lvovsky, Jonas Bloquet, Sara Forestier | Drama Belgium 91′

Belgian filmmaker Frédéric Fonteyne (1968) studied film at Institut des arts de diffusion in Louvain-la-Neuve. He realised several successful short films before his two acclaimed features, Max & Bobo (1998) and Une liaison pornografique (1999), which were both screened at IFFR. This drama about sex workers starts on a light note but soon develops into a more dejected tale of life and death. An excellent cast cannot always overcome Paulicevich’s uneven script.

Sarah Forestier’s thirty-something sex worker Axelle (aka Athena) lives with her three unruly children and a cantankerous mother in a council flat. Every morning she joins neighbour Conso (Legronne) and Dominique (Lvovsky) in a battered car to drive over the border to Belgium, where they ply their trade. Conso, a long legged black women has to run a scary racist gauntlet from the youth of the estate. Axelle is separated from her husband Yann, who still has his fingers in the pie. Their their youngest son is caught in a violent incident at Kindergarten, shouting ‘Allah Akbar’ before his attack – even though he is not a Muslim. Conso meanwhile has a boyfriend, Jean-Philippe, who gives her an expensive pendant for her birthday, raising her hopes for a way out of her depressing life.

But the women’s light hearted banter soon gives way to darker developments. Axelle’s husband Yann trails her, and confronts her as a ‘customer’, threatening to take the children away from her. Then Conso is invited to a special party by Jean-Philippe. It turns out that he is celebrating the very recent birth of his first child. The devastated Conso nearly overdoses, and Dominique and Axelle decide to teach J-P a lesson. Meanwhile, the former is appalled to find her daughter Zoe (Dewaels) “earning some pocket money”, but the real drama starts when Yann attacks Axelle in a domestic set-to defused with the help of a hammer.

Suddenly this bitter-sweet comedy gets serious morphing to a real life and death scenario in a sobering and awkward tonal shift. But these feisty women have learnt to deal with their work related ups and downs – quite literally – so anything else is all in a day’s work.

DoP Juliette Van Dormael’s nimble camera-work captures the raucous near heart-breaking hysteria. Lvovsky is the leader of the pack, looking after ‘her’ girls like a lioness with her cubs  – but failing to keep her own domestic life on track. Forestier is the most ambivalent, often attacking Conso for not being ‘serious’ enough. Working Girls doesn’t always succeed in conveying the complexities of life for sex-working parents. But Fonteyne has a good certainly crack of the whip at it nonetheless . AS

ROTTERDAM INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2020

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ON RELEASE NATIONWIDE FROM 31 JANUARY 2020  | FESTIVAL DE CANNES

 

#AnneFrank: Parallel Stories (2019) **** Holocaust Memorial Day

Wri/Dir: Sabina Fedeli/Anna Migotto | Italy, Doc 95′

Italian filmmakers Sabina Fedeli and Anna Migotto (Father Lenin e i suoi fratelli) commemorate the life of Anne Frank with a parallel portrait of the young diarist. Helen Mirren reads excerpts from her diary. Meanwhile five female Shoah survivors, about the same age as Anne, talk about their experiences and the fight to keep memories alive.

Mirren is filmed in the claustrophobia of a re-constructed room where Anne Frank lived in hiding for over two years, before her arrest and consequent deportation on 4th of August 1944 to Westerbrook transit camp. To break away from the cramped domestic setting, these readings play out to a background of filmed sequences of a woman (Martina Gatti) travelling around Europe to create a sort of video diary of Frank’s life with some rather corny observations. By far the most important part are the interviews with three Croatian Holocaust survivors including Arianna Spörenyi; the sisters Andra and Tatiana Bucci; as well as fellow survivors Helga Weiss from the Czech Republic and Sarah Lichtsztein-Montard, who escaped from the Parisian Velodrome round-up, were she was incarcerated on 16th July 1942.

Weiss kept her own pictorial diary in Terezin (Theresienstadt) concentration camp – her father encouraging her to draw only what she could see. Terezin was a special camp in many ways: The Nazis used the old fortress to gather Jewish artists and scientists together – even asking the well-known Jewish film director Kurt Gerron (ex-UFA) to make a propaganda film (The Führer gifts the Jew a City), showing the Jews living a live of cultural relaxation, while the poor German citizens were suffering from Allied bombing raids. When the fake documentary was eventually aired worldwide, Gerron and his family were already dead, murdered in Auschwitz. Worse, the Germans convinced a Red Cross delegation on site, that Terezin was a sanatorium after all. Anne Frank and her older sister Margot were deported from Westerbrook to Auschwitz and thence to Bergen Belsen, where both died of Typhus in February 1945. They are buried in a mass grave.

Fedeli and Migotto are rightfully critical of contemporary Italian politics: “refugees are drowning on our coasts”, but they fail to mention the Nazi collaborators in the Holland where more than 100, 000 men joined the Waffen-SS and became active soldiers for the Third Reich. 

DoP Alessio Viola’s images convey the incredible loss and the struggle of these survivors who have difficulty sharing the trauma with their own children about life in the camps. Padded out with some redundant detail, #AnneFrank is nonetheless a moving portrait of a young women who was robbed of a creative life by a unique and monstrous death machine – feeding off the ongoing Anti-Semitism which continues to spread through Europe and elsewhere. AS

IN CINEMAS FROM 27 JANUARY 2020 | HOLOCAUST REMEMBRANCE DAY 2020 

 

 

The Grudge (2020) ***

Dir: Nicolas Pesce, US. 2020. 94mins.

Nicholas Pesce had finally sold his soul to the Devil – the Hollywood franchise brigade – along with the cursed characters in his third feature – another inferior take on the popular 2002 Japanese film Ju-On (which has already spawned two American remakes). Gone is the edgy arthouse styling, the thoughful writing and the intriguing characterisation. The only thing that remains of his impressive sophomore outings are the widescreen panoramas and overhead shots that hover menacingly over cars and other vehicles unsuspectingly making their way to doom in the foggy dankness of their North American landscapes.

The atmosphere of unsettling dread is also still there, giving this bloodless horror outing an unmistakable shot in the arm along with an impressive cast that includes John Cho and Andrea Riseborough who looks wan and forlorn in her role of a recently widowed police detective investigating a weird haunted house that puts a curse on anyone crossing its threshold.

Slithering backwards and forwards in time yet mostly set in 2006, the film pictures Muldoon (Riseborough) newly arrived in town and putting her best foot forward with her self-contained little son (who would have made a much better Danny in the recent Shining-reboot). Work leads her to a forbidding mansion in a leafy boulevard where, in flashbacks to 2004 and 2005, it emerges that an estate agent (Cho) has been trying to sell the house for some mysteriously nebulous inhabitants who have also employed the services of an end of life counsellor (Jacki Weaver) to give compassionate support in an assisted suicide. Muldoon’s colleague (Bichir) has already reached a dead end with the case, but she is soon on the receiving end of macabre visions that haunt her day and night.

Pesce rose to fame with a bewitching black and white fable The Eyes Of My Mother that showcased his talent for creating stylish thrillers dripping with atmosphere and gripping storylines. Piercing followed two years later, a psychodrama with cinematic credentials and clever writing that captivated the arthouse crowd and critics alike, marking him out to be a distinctive auteur in the making. Pesce still writes and directs The Grudge with its morose and sorrowful undercurrent of profound loss – but brings nothing new to the gruesome party and few narrative surprises. The film actually feels cliched and tedious despite a modest running time, and the fractured narrative detracts from the suspense leaving us bewildered and bored when new characters suddenly appear in the shape of the odd couple in their seventies (Lin Shaye and Frankie Fasion) whose suitability as marriage partners fails to convince despite their best efforts .

Andrea Riseborough is delicate and believable as a mournful single mother dedicated to her profession, but the other characters are cyphers going through the motions in trying to add resonance to a series of bland provincial Pennsylvanians who don’t make us care if they live or die or escape their dreadful curse. Mr Pesce, please go back to your roots. MT 

https://youtu.be/Yq5igwyrX9E

Cosh Boy (1953) ***

Dir: Lewis Gilbert | Cast: James Kenney; Joan Collins; Betty Ann Davies; Hermione Baddeley, Bob Stevens Robert Ayres | UK Crime Drama

Lewis Gilbert’s searing slice of British neo realism sees a juvenile delinquent commit a swathe of brutal robberies on innocent victims, aided and abetted by his rather puny sidekicks. Cosh Boy was a tamer, noirish version of what was to follow teenage crime-wise with Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Alan Clarke’s Scum (1979). And although it all seems fairly quaint nowadays, the film scandalised audiences back in post war days when kids mostly respected their parents and were glad of a return to normality after the war, despite the simmering social tensions provoked by the years of privation.

Roy (Kenney) is a brash, chain-smoking thug who bullies his friends into subservience (including Rene, played by a luminous young Joan Collins). He and his gang are not died in the wool criminals but possess a certain hard-nosed opportunism, and things get increasingly dangerous when their behaviour escalates, with tragic consequences.

Best known for his more upbeat fare: Alfie and The Spy Who Loved Me, Gilbert’s punchy direction certainly gives the crime drama some gritty wellie, providing an acerbic and sinister portrait of the backstreets of South London, although the film was actually shot at Riverside Studios, Hammersmith W6.

On 20 January 2020, Cosh Boy will become the 40threlease in the BFI Flipside series, released in a Dual Format Edition with extras including short films by Lewis Gilbert and more. It will be launched with a special screening event and discussion with Flipside founders at BFI Southbank – details below.

Dual Format Edition (Blu-ray/DVD), release on 20 January 2020, with simultaneous BFI Player, iTunes and Amazon Prime release

Flipside at 40 – Special event & discussion, Wednesday 15 January, 18:30, NFT1 at BFI Southbank – special guest actor Caroline Munro

 

Fellini’s Casanova (1976) | Fellini Centenary 2020

Dir.: Federico Fellini  | Wri: Bernardino Zapponi | Cast: Donald Sutherland, Tina Aumont, Cicely Browne, Carmen Scapitta, Diane Kourys | Italy/USA 1976, 155 min.

The last years of Casanova’s life are a permanent odyssey through Europe indulging in a variety of amorous but mostly tired adventures. Fellini’s production echoes this emotional ennui. But the film was also an exercise in misery that started with a long search for the leading man: Alberto Sordi, Michael Caine, Jack Nicholson and Gian Maria Volonté were all in line to play the raddled seducer before Donald Sutherland finally got the part. More than one producer gave up and had be replaced. The shoot was suspended between December 1975 and March 1976; on top of everything, some of the  reels were stolen and the scenes had to re-shot.

Sutherland’s Casanova is an old man, a shadow of himself. His role as the Count Von Waldstein’s librarian occupies his days but at night he is hellbent on enforcing his virility at the Venice carnival before he is imprisoned by the inquisition and accused of ‘black magic’. After his flight from the infamous ‘Piombi’ (lead chambers) he travels to Paris, but his stay is short-lived: he finds out that the hostess Marchesa d’Urfe (Browne) is only interested in gaining the secret of eternal life from him. An affair with the young Henrietta (Tina Aumont) causes him to fall into a deep, suicidal depression when the young woman suddenly leaves. After many more affairs, Casanova feels his existence become an ordeal, and ends up dancing with an automated puppet as he is reduced to an object of ridicule by the  servants.

In an interview Fellini is quoted of saying:  “I wanted to realise the total film. I wanted to change the celluloid of film into a painting. If you look at a painting, the effect is total, there are no interruptions. But if you watch a film, the effect is different. In a painting, everything is included, you only have to discover it. But film is just not as complete: The audience does not look at the film, the film allows the audience to look at it, and so the audience becomes the slave to the rhythm of the film, it dictates the tempo. It would be ideal to create a film which has only one sequence. A film in one, great, permanent and varied movement. With Casanova, I would have liked to get closer to this ideal, with Satyricon I nearly reached my goal.” AS

SCREENING AS PART OF THE FELLINI CENTENARY | BFI LONDON 2020

Waves (2019) ***

Dir.: Trey Edward Shults; Cast: Taylor Russell, Kevin Harrison jr., Sterling K.  Brown, Renee Elise Goldsberry, Alexa Demie, Lucas Hedges; USA 2019, 135 min.

Trey Edward Shults shot to fame with his debut It comes at Night. His third feature is an overblown melodrama. Aiming for East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause it is a film that rests on a  maximalist aesthetic to cover up for its emptiness, relying on the well worn love/forgiveness thematic. In other words, it is vacuous and dishonest, and the director’s self-importance is evident in the running time of over two hours.

Waves opens with High School teenager Tyler (Harrison jr.) being dealt a double blow: he is diagnosed with a muscle tear in his shoulder, ending his promising future in wrestling, and casting doubts on his university career. Then lover Alexis (Demie) decides not to terminate her pregnancy. Father Ronald (Brown), a sergeant major type, who tells his son ‘black people cannot afford to be average’ might be well-meaning but drives Tyler away. The South Florida mansion, once a status symbol for the family, becomes meaningless after Tyler kills Alexis during a school dance and is sentenced to life in prison. Stepmother Catherine (Goldsberry) blames her husband and gives his the cold shoulder. Timid daughter Emily (Russell) is ostracised at school, then falls for equally awkward Luke, a friend of Tyler’s from the wrestling team. Emily confesses her hatred for Tyler, and makes Luke visit his dying father in Missouri, despite his admission that his father deserves to die for abusing Luke and his mother. Via this second-hand act of forgiveness, Emily frees herself, making father and stepmother follow her into the newly found guilt-free paradise of love.

It looks like that Shults watched Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers over and over again in preparation for making Waves. The teen diving scenes are filmed with 360 degree rotating cameras, somehow implying direct danger. At High School, the camera pans constantly in a bid to convey the fraught nature of the setting. Moonlight and Terence Malick’s later films are also reference points for Shults. The diminishing aspect ratio has in mind Tyler’s isolation – slowly widening after Emily’s ‘rebirth’. Alexis’s killing is a particularly gruesome scene, Shults bathing her in fluorescent red. All this, with the words of the preacher telling his Sunday congregation: “We need love to bring us back”, makes for a conceptual second-hand feature. Sadly this is just retail therapy – Shults wants us to label his film as ‘ambitious’, hoping the critics will excuse his failure as a noble attempt. The director courts importance, but hasn’t yet earned it. In using Thom Yorke’s poetry at the end, he lays himself open to the emptiness of his own approach. And all this without the underlying question, who should make what type of films?. It would have made not one iota of difference if the family of colour had been replaced by Caucasians like Trey Edward Shults. If Meghan Markle made a film, this would be it. AS

NOW ON GENERAL RELEASE

Mrs Lowry & Son (2019) ****

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

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

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

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

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

ON RELEASE FROM 20 JANUARY 2020 |     

The Distinguished Citizen (2016) ****

Dirs: Gaston Duprat and Mariano Cohn | 118min | Comedy Drama | Argentina

When an Argentinian Nobel prize winner returns to the village of his birth he discovers a lawless Wild West, or has he just become “over-civilised”.

This pithy premise underpins the latest from Argentinian directors Gaston Duprat and Mariano Cohn. It stars Oscar Martinez (of Paulina and Wild Tales fame) as the world-weary and emotionally avoidant author Daniel Mantovani, who returns to a remote village about six hours drive from Buenos Aires, to accept a medal. Having left there many years ago, he never felt the impetus to go back having made a successful writing career in Europe where he lives in palatial splendour in the lush hills of Barcelona’s Tibidabo.

Written by Gaston’s brother Andres Duprat, THE DISTINGUISHED CITIZEN is a tightly-scripted, insightful and often hilarious satire with echoes of Juan Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stoll’s 2004 comedy Whisky with similar themes of parochial pettiness and cultural awareness. The tone is always light but touches upon some dark home truths. The elegant framing and architectural sensibilities makes this a visual pleasure, Maria Eugenia Sueiro’s interiors reflecting a faded seventies aesthetic.

The film opens as Daniel is delivering a trenchant rebuke at the acceptance ceremony mocking the Nobel Prize for Literature in Stockholm. Fast forward five years and he is on the plane to BA where a taste of his future tribulations arrives when his airport taxi driver breaks down in a field, hours from Salas, forcing him to spend the night in the middle of nowhere round a campfire lit with one of the pages from his recent novel. The following morning that same book comes in handy as lavatory paper – and we all realise where things are going.

The narrative unspools in five parts – for no specific reason – as Daniel goes back in time to a homespun and unsophisticated community stuck in the past. This motley crew respond entirely inappropriately treating him like a local soap star rather than an intellectual introvert. He bumps into his old girlfriend Irene (Andrea Frigerio) who is now married to his butch friend Antonio (Dady Brieva), a mean dancer and an even meaner game hunter – a talent that plays out in Daniel’s hasty departure in the final scenes. The film centres on the small-town mentality that really rears its ugly head as the story develops, the inhabitants gradually turning the writer from hailed hero to vilified outsider in their collective mean-spiritedness.

This is an enjoyable and intelligent piece of cinema, dark and deadpan situational comedy arises out of bizarre encounters and bitter ironies (much in the same vein as those of the recent Toni Erdmann). The film leaves us with some memorable maxims to reflect on. “making things simple is an artistic kindness” is a choice takeaway from the role and often poignant indie gem . MT

Argentinian Film Season: El ciudadano ilustre (The Distinguished Citizen) (2016)

WINNER COPA VOLPE | VENICE FILM FESTIVAL 2016 | BEST ACTOR | OSCAR MARTINEZ

 

Midnight Traveler (2019) ***

Present. Perfect (2019) ***

Dir: Zhu Shengze. USA/Hong Kong. 2019. 124mins

Live-streaming in China is big business. The severely disabled, wheelchair-ridden and low-paid have finally found a nifty way of making an extra yuan. Sharing their everyday lives on the internet brings them an income as well as garnering support and emotional inter-dependence. It works both ways as the streams establish a mutually beneficial connection.

Present.Perfect makes for compelling viewing – up to a point. It’s a strong premise but the execution is flawed.  What initially seems intriguing to watch eventually becomes tedious. And by the end the doc does its worthy subject matter a disservice, playing out as a laborious and repetitive slog, without any kind of narrative or real explanation. Zhu Shengze made the film from more than 800 hours of filmed footage taken from an output of 12 ‘anchors’ (sharers of their footage) over a period of 10 months. Tighter editing would have made the film more pithy and enjoyable. What we do learn is that 2016 was apparently “Year Zero” for live streaming – and now the industry has expanded exponentially. In 2017, over 422 million Chinese shared streamed films on the internet. But it’s not all doom and gloom, content-wise.

The segments from each showroom are often overlong, and the content can be extremely dull, made more so by the black and white camerawork. Do we really want to watch a woman’s gruelling trip down the road – wheel-chair bound, while she stares pitifully into the camera? Or a physically challenged guy do his washing? And then there’s a man showing his wounds bleeding, clearly he’s into self-harm. But clearly these Chinese audiences do, and they’re prepared to pay for it, finding comfort in these banal everyday lives fraught with trauma (Eastenders, anyone?). Besides the obvious need for recognition, fostered by all types of social media, there is the loneliness and alienation out there, and the streamers have tapped into this rich vein of income, benefiting in more ways than one from the comfort-seeking connection with others. Our hearts go out to the ‘anchors’ but most of us don’t need to experience their pain to understand their suffering. despite their cheerful perseverance. But that’s not the point. For those who become invested in their daily struggle to survive, the film tells a valuable story. One of mutual support, and even entertainment. Distances in China are vast and many peoplelive alone in remote locations miles away from any form of social contact. These ‘anchors’ are actually their keeping them on the straight and narrow, emotionally at least.  

Other anchors have used the streaming device as a way to drum up business. A case in point is a farmer keen on branding his particular form of labour as ‘agritainment’. There is a bored crane driver, who invites us to visit him way up in his cab that towers above a vast building site. Another, a woman, is tooling away at making men’s underpants. She shares the trials and tribulations of her love life with all her followers, as she peddles away at her gruelling work. The more you watch the stories the more you understand how compulsive the experience becomes in providing a vital support system for those reaching out from the desperation of their own lives. In the end, the banal almost becomes beautiful; providing comfort and consistency: we need never be alone. MT

ON RELEASE AT ARTHOUSE CINEMAS | ICA CINEMA from 24 January.

ROTTERDAM INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL | TIGER AWARD WINNER  2019

The Winslow Boy (1948) *****

Dir: Anthony Asquith | Cast: Cedric Hardwicke, Robert Donat, Margaret Leighton

Anthony Asquith and playwright Terence Rattigan worked together on three literary adaptations, but this legal-themed drama about defending justice is possibly the best. It was also a great stage success for Rattigan, reflecting the traditional values of middle-class society in a glorious portrait of Edwardian England. David Mamet’s 1999 version isn’t a patch on this black and white masterpiece with its drole comedy undertones. Based on the true-life Archer-Shee case of 1910, it sees a strong-willed father (Cedric Hardwicke) determined to risk his reputation and fortune in defending his son’s honour when the young navy cadet (an earnest Neil North) is accused by the establishment of stealing a £5 postal order (a bill of payment, rather like a cheque). Meanwhile the Winslow family relationships come under strain as the legal case plods on endlessly – nothing has changed there.

Cedric Hardwicke and Robert Donat are superb as Ronnie Winslow’s father Arthur Winslow and his defending barrister Sir Robert Morton respectively (Morton is based on a renowned Irish lawyer Sir Edward Carson). Margaret Leighton is also superb as Winslow’s suffragette sister, Catherine, looking graceful in William Chapell’s elegant designs (she was a willowy, 5.10’). Mona Washburne plays against type as an amusingly plucky female journalist who comes to cover the case for the Evening News (Morton later has a dig at the press: “What you say, will have little bearing on what they write”). There are rousing musical interludes capturing the zeitgeist of the era, and one echoes the public’s support, courtesy of Herbert Clifford’s musical compositions. Mother Grace (Marie Lohr) berates her husband for devoting his life to his son’s innocence at the expense of the rest of the family: Catherine’s upcoming nuptials are put in jeopardy by her future father in law. This is all captured in Freddie Young’s lustrous monochrome camerawork. The Winslow Boy competed for the Grand International Award at Venice Film Festival that year but came home empty-handed. The winner was Lawrence Olivier’s Hamlet, with Jean Simmons winning Best Actress, so at least the British didn’t lose out that year. MT

FULLY RESTORED AND RELEASED FOR THE FIRST TIME ON BLURAY | DVD | DIGITAL | 3 FEBRUARY 2020

Lullaby (Chanson Douce) ****

Lucie Borleteau; Cast: Karin Viard, Leïla Bekhti, Antoine Reinartz, Assya Da Silva, Rehad Mehal; France 2019, 120 min.

Lucie Borleteau follows her accomplished 2014 drama Fidelio:Alice’s Odyssey with another journey into troubled waters, this time adapting Leïla Slimani’s Goncourt winning novel Chanson Douce in an arthouse style nanny thriller.

Borleteau sets herself a tall order. Chanson Douce was one of the best novels of the last decade – but her film certainly passes muster, staying faithful to the page and keeping the keys ideas intact. Slimani uses Brecht’s trick of revealing the story’s tragic outcome in a few lines at the beginning of her novel allowing us to reflect on the detail leading up to tragic ending. Borleteau opts for a more conventional linear structure but there no is chance of this having a happy ending as doubt soon begins to cloud over the upbeat sunny beginning.

In Paris lawyer Myriam (Bekhti) and her husband Paul are delighted when they find the perfect nanny for their two kids. Much older Louise (Viard) has an old-fashioned, subservient attitude to her employers. She is more than happy to play the role of cleaner and cook, as well as taking care of the children: five-year old Mila (Da Silva) and toddler Adam. But it never dawns on Myriam and Paul why Louise is so dedicated, working all hours so the couple can re-kindle their social and even sex life – even taking the kids out in the evenings. The reason for the inter-dependency is perfectly clear as far as Louise is concerned: she is a lonely widow living in social housing, and has a troubled history of drug abuse. She sees this as a job for life. But things start to fall apart after a holiday on Formentera, where Paul and Myriam are forced to look after their kids on the beach because Louise is unable to swim. Back in Paris, Paul and Myriam get a letter from the authorities about the nanny’s delayed tax payments, and it soon becomes clear that Louise’s life fell apart after the death of her husband. Paul then returns home one day to find his daughter covered in make-up and threatens to dismiss the nanny, who is also wearing face paint

The resonance with previous nanny-themed psychodramas such as The Hand that Rocks the Cradle and Saawan Kumar’s Khal-Naaikaa are clear. A woman invests emotionally in a family, hoping to reap the rewards of becoming part of the fold. And Louise cannot imagine a life without them – at least not without the children. There is something deeply strange about her behaviour (and there are some awkward scenes here). Her borderline personality disorder sees her stepping into Myriam’s life and even her bed at one point. Suddenly her life becomes unconscionable without Mila and Adam.

DoP Alexis Kavyrchine’s muted images are suggestive of the psychological meltdown that slowly unfolds, night merging into day. Karin Viard’s Louise is convincing as the quirky but homely nanny, her casting was Slimani’s idea. Lullaby is a nightmarish journey through a labyrinth of emotions – weird and worrying and without an Ariadne thread. AS
NOW ON RELEASE AT ARTHOUSE CINEMAS NATIONWIDE 

 

A Hidden Life (2019) ***

Dir|Wri: Terrence Malick | Cast: August Diehl, Valerie Pachner, Michael Nyqvist, Matthias Schoenaerts, Bruno Ganz, Karl Markovics, Franz Rogowski | US Drama 173′

Terrence Malick brings his tenth feature to Cannes with a reputation in the balance. Although appreciated by a small cadre of Malickians, his post-Tree of Life output even his defenders seem to agree needs defending.

So is A Hidden Life a return to form, or is it another stage in a sad decline. Well, the truth is: a bit of both. It tells the true story of conscientious objector Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl) and his wife Fani, played by Valerie Pachner, who lived in St. Radegund, an Austrian farming community. Beautiful mountains form a backdrop, an idyll just as the tropical islands did prior to the hostilities of The Thin Red Line. But war is approaching fast with Hitler, a native of the same region, glowering from newsreel footage and ripping through first France and then into Austria. At this point, Franz decides that he cannot swear an oath of allegiance to a man he views as the antiChrist. How he comes to this conclusion is unclear as Malick’s typically syllopsistic style means we never see him read a newspaper or watch any of the newsreels we see.

Everyone in the village tries to persuade Franz against his decision from the ultra-nationalistic mayor to the well-meaning priest. Again the gaps in the narrative made by the relentless moving fluttering from one beautiful image to another means that we weirdly never hear Jews mentioned, despite the fact that anti-Semitism was rife.  Hitler wasn’t some exceptional monster. His hatred and xenophobia and anti-Semitism were a product of his Austrian upbringing. This was by no means exclusive to Austria or Germany, but there was a particular virulence which made the message of National Socialism resonate. But according to Malick everyone just wanted to cut grass and drink beer.

Franz’s rebellion is religious and almost anti-political. And again Malick’s style favours this approach. There are no dialogues in Terrence Malick’s cinema and it is almost impossible to talk about politics without allowing people to actually talk. We have a series of monologues directed at characters which typically take place in the context of some photogenic meandering. The letters which form the bulk of the voiceover (yes, there’s voiceover) simply reiterate much of what we’re seeing on screen. But again I never felt that above a lot of PDAs there isn’t much of a relationship between Franz and Fani. They say they love each other a lot, but again they don’t argue and frankly I don’t trust a couple that doesn’t argue from time to time. They also have three extremely pretty daughters, Franz’s mother, who frequently looks pitiable against a white washed wall and Fani’s spinster sister living with them.

A film with no scenes is way too long at three hours. Joerg Widmer’s camera peers into faces with a distracting lack of respect for personal space before zooming off to look for something else to be interested in. Again, the absence of the conventional blocking of scenes means that often actors are left to wander like non-player characters in a mid-90s video game. And the decision to make the film bilingual with the Nazis speaking German and the protagonists English is a ludicrous one. How can you aim to be daring as filmmaker on one hand and then submit to such a lazy Hollywood convention? And one with such damaging effect on your political position.

But again, what political position? I respect the true story behind this but Malick seems to want the whole of the second world war and the moral universe to hang in the balance here. Franz is held up as an exemplar – something like Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Joan of Arc – but I couldn’t help but think of him as something of a von Trapp. His refusal to say the oath – he is offered the chance to work in a non-combat capacity – feels petty in the face of the unnamed Holocaust which is going on at exactly the same time.

Ultimately, Malick has made another technically beautiful film, with a gorgeous soundtrack and wonderful photography, that is at the same time unable or unwilling to engage with its subject. In always trying to go for the glory, he seems to miss what it is that makes us essentially human. We talk to each other. John Bleasdale

ON RELEASE FROM 17 JANUARY 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Long Day’s Journey into Night (2018) ****

Dir/scr: Bi Gan | Cast: Huang Jue, Tang Wei, Sylvia Chang, Lee Hong-Chi, Chen Yongzhong, Luo Feiyang | Music: Lim Giong, Point Hsu | China/France. 2018. 130 mins.

A lush and painterly visual poem that loses much of its allure to enigma. Chinese director Bi Gan’s Noirish second feature is nonetheless a captivating fantasy reverie in the style of Wong Ka Wai.

It concerns a man’s spiritual and physical odyssey to recapture his lost love. It all takes place in Gan’s rain-soaked sub-tropical hometown of Kaili in Southern China. The resonance with his 2o15 debut Kaili Blues is clear, but this is an even more languorous drama that sizzles with regret and longing scored by a dulcet electronic soundscape and crowned by a final 3D sequence, shot in one take by DoP David Chizallet (Mustang).

Long Day’s Journey into Night shares the same title as Eugene O’Neill’s  play but there the similarities end. This drama explores the soul-searching of the main character (Huang Jue) who yearns for his former lover Wan Qiwen (Tang Wei). We first meet him in a restaurant where his father was purportedly murdered a decade previously. Luo is guided to a women’s prison where he learns that Wan stole a green book of fairy tales that somehow provides further clues to the mystery through a series of charms and spells.

Gan spins his story into a shadowy cyclical affair full of smoke and mirrors, infused with memories, incantations and seductive sequences in a surreal backwater that was again referred to in Kaili Blues – Dangmai. Here the natives speak Kaili rather than Mandarin.

In this dizzy and dazzling dance through time, water and clocks also feature heavily as Luo’s obsession eventually leads him through a post-apocalyptic industrial setting in search of his dream. This is not a film to understand but an experience to wallow in. MT

NOW ON RELEASE AT SELECTED ARTHOUSE CINEMAS

Un Certain Regard section of the 2018 Cannes festival

 

 

Top Films of the Decade | 2010 – 2020

The past decade has seen independent film grow from strength to strength: Arthouse theatres are now more sophisticated than ever, offering lush surroundings and state of the art facilities. Streaming services Netflix and Amazon have also broadened the reach of mid-budget films to a wider audience who are now able to access films without paying expensive ticket prices: Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story and Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman in the comfort and your own home.

Here is another selection of art house gems from across the decade from 2010 to the end of 2019.
AMOUR (2012)  Michael Haneke, Austria
Surviving well into old age – or not dying – has become a timely topic in the past decade as our parents’ and grandparents’ generation live well into their nineties and beyond thanks to medical science and a lean wartime diet. Michael Haneke conveys all this with grace and subtlety in his Cannes Palme d’Or Winner which saw Jean-Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva united once again (since their 1959 Last Year in Marienbab) in this spare and understated portrait of enduring love, commitment and companionship.
PARADISE TRILOGY (2012-13) Ulrich Seidl, Austria 
Ulrich Seidl’s lays bare the human race and all its foibles in this darkly amusing and often tragic trilogy of studies, Paradise: Love (2012); Paradise: Faith (2012); Paradise: Hope (2013). With wicked humour and a sinister twist, Seidl and his long-time collaborator, Veronika Franz, have tapped into a raw nerve of the female psyche with three interlocking stories based on Odon von Horvath’s 1932 play ‘Faith, Hope and Charity’. The “Paradise” trilogy eloquently and provocatively probes the trans-generational experiences and differing concerns of a contemporary Austrian family of three women: a young girl, Melanie; her mother, Teresa and aunt Anna Maria. These focus on teenage issues, sex and religion. The first in the trilogy, Paradise: Love, follows Teresa (Margarethe Tiesel), a voluptuous but matronly blonde in her forties who has disappeared below the search radar of most men on the local dating scene. When she heads off to Kenya for a much needed blast of sun, her prospects seem to improve.

20 FEET FROM STARDOM | Morgan Neville, US (2013)

Winning an Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2015, it’s clear to see why Morgan Neville’s 20 Feet From Stardom (2014) was triumphant as a compelling, heartwarming and unaffected exploration into the fascinating world of backing singers. From the contentiously salacious vocals on Ray Charles ‘What’d I Say’, to the graceful arrangement of ‘Lean on Me’ by Bill Withers, backing vocals are integral to our enjoyment of music across the decades. Having spent years in the shadows of some of the finest, most prominent recording artists of all time, now the likes of Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer and Darlene Love are given the platform to shine, and showcase their unique, and somewhat breathtaking abilities.

THE GREAT BEAUTY |  Paolo Sorrentino, Italy (2013)  

The heart and soul of Italy leaps off the screen in all its beauty and decadence in this cornucopia of delights. Paolo Sorrentino’s sensual Italian overload transports us to Rome for a paean to pleasure and pain, gaiety and melancholy seen through the eyes of writer and roué, Jep Gambardella, played exultantly by Sorrentino regular, Toni Servillo (The Consequences of Love). This is possibly Sorrentino’s best film, a satire capturing the essence of his homeland’s beauty and culture with an appealing and bittersweet languor that was first experienced in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita,  and now in the context of the 21st century.

WINTER SLEEP (2014) Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey

Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Palme D’Or Winner is, in spite of its considerable length, a densely discursive and often confrontational portrait of human fallibility. Even though it takes place inside a claustrophobic hotel, the outdoor scenes are riveting, set against the background of the majestic mountains. Men are usually out of touch in all of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s films, and in WINTER SLEEP, his new anti-hero Aydin (Bilginer) is no exception. An ex-actor, Aydin sees himself as an enlightened feudal lord; spending his days in the hotel where he writes a daily column for the local newspaper. Ceylan pays homage to Bergman and Bresson in the long, vicious arguments between Aydin and his wife and sister, the camera catches the protagonists in shot/contra-shot movement, the close-ups showing the hurt on the faces of the women, who are treated with contempt and often impudence.

UNDER THE SKIN (2014) |  Jonathan Glazer, UK

Glazer developed Under the Skin for over a decade; he and co-screenwriter Walter Campbell pared it back from an elaborate, special effects-heavy concept to a sparse story focusing on an alien perspective of the human world. Most characters were played by non-actors, and many scenes were filmed with hidden cameras. With a total worldwide gross of £5.2 million, Under the Skin was failed at the box office. With its timely themes of migration, sexual politics and safety, it received critical acclaim, particularly for Johansson’s performance, Glazer’s direction, and Mica Levi‘s score. It garnered multiple awards for its groundbreaking visual allure and was named one of 2014’s best films by several publications. It ranks 61st on the BBC’s 100 Greatest Films of the 21st century.

Indiewire ranked it the 2nd best film of the 2010s.

POSTMAN’S WHITE NIGHTS (2014) | Andrey Konchalovsky, USSR

The best work happens in the quieter, contemplative moments of this reflective fable from  Russian master Andrey Konchalovsky. A moving scene captures a village elder’s funeral, where the community talk of the “socialistic romanticism” of her era, a time unlike, apparently, a present Russia in which their humble roles in society seem almost obsolete. Why should Russians pay humble fishermen in rural villages for their fish, rather than modern, faceless dragnet fishing, as one sequence depicts? And as the young Timur is wont to say to Aleksey, “do we need postmen when we can email?” Konchalovksy’s art reveals a beauty to a rustic life that is being lost – as if this is the last chance to witness this kind of small-town life. If it is, Konchalovsky has crafted a beautiful record of this world.

THE ASSASSIN (2015) | Hsiao-hsien Hou, Taiwan

Taiwanese director Hsiao-hsien Hou’s spectacular drama is a graceful and sumptuously composed masterpiece – in the true sense of the word. Hou brings a sense of uncompromising formal brilliance to the wuxia material. THE ASSASSIN is a work of spiritual resonance and historical importance, but it is also exquisite. Set during the Tang dynasty, the story opens as a young girl (played by Shu Qi) undergoes training to be an assassin. But her female sympathies stand in the way of her killing instinct, and after failing an important mission she is sent back to her hometown. Some time later, she is again tasked with killing an important governor (played by Chang Chen) who questions the Emperor’s authority. The task involves a moral twist: not only is the governor her cousin, but also her first love.

EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT (2015) | Ciro Guerra, Colombia

Colombian writer|director Ciro Guerra’s third feature is a visually stunning exploration to a heart of darkness that brings to mind Miguel Gomes’ Tabu or Werner Herzog’s Cobra Verde or even Nicolas Roeg’s Belize-set drama Heart of Darkness (1993).

Serving as a backlash on organised Religion and Colonialism, the film’s slow-burn intensity has a morose and unsettling undercurrent that threatens to submerge you in the sweaty waters of the Amazon River whence its token German explorer, Theodor Koch-Grunberg (Jan Bijvoet) meanders fitfully in search of a rare and exotic flower with restorative powers.

FIRE AT SEA (2016) Gianfranco Rosi, Italy 

Gianfranco Rosi’s spare yet absorbing documentary offers an important and non-judgemental portrait of the immigration crisis facing Southern Italy, where both immigrants and islanders are given ample weight in story of their struggle to survive. Pictures can tell a thousand words and that’s the way Rosi leaves it: we must draw our own impressions and conclusions from this poignant human story.

PHANTOM THREAD (2017) Paul Thomas Anderson, US

This is arthouse drama at its best. Exploring the negative impulses of love, it is a delicately drawn tale about man’s fear of  losing control to a woman. The man in question, a fashion designer played by Daniel Day-Lewis, is captivated by a young woman’s grace and charm but refuses to let her into his business life, which is really his heart and soul. She remains tough but loving – the perfect replica of his beloved mother, tempting him but paradoxically also repulsing him. Day-Lewis remains adamant as the tortured artist, every subtle nuance of his adamance flickers across his face in a subtle display of petulance. Day-Lewis gives another remarkable performance this time as the classic gentleman artist delivered with finesse and his idiosyncratic  allure. His economy of movement is admirable capturing the feline grace of Federer and the innate style and sardonic humour of Cary Grant. When his resistance is lowered by a bout of illness, Reynolds’ reveals a deep weakness for his mother (whose ghost appears to him in her wedding dress) and her power is magically transferred to his assistant Alma, who then gets to wear the trousers – immaculately tailored – of course. MT

BEST INDIE FILMS of the Decade | 2010 – 2020

Jo Jo Rabbit (2019) ***

Dir: Taika Waititi | Cast: Roman Griffin Davis, Thomas McKenzie, Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell | Comedy Drama 108′

Wes Anderson could easily have made this smug and painterly winsome drama that challenges hate and dogma through a re-imagining of the Hitler story. In JoJo Rabbit the arch fiend is reinvented as the cartoonish friend of an earnest German boy during the last knockings of the Second World War.

Taika Waititi got the idea from Christine Leunens’s bestseller that tells how Johannes aka Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) invents an alternative and jollier version of the Führer, who is gamely played by Waititi himself.

Meanwhile his charming mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) in the attic, forcing Jojo into a private war of his own: keeping shtum while wrestling with his own conscience that teeters between his growing feelings for the girl and the dogma surrounding her religion. Gradually the strength of his belief system starts to go AWOL, and his hero turns into one of the greatest antiheroes of history.

Waititi’s tricksy and light-hearted wartime drama brings nothing new to the table – the filmmaker raises a few laughs with his outlandish character’s high jinx, but the story gradually becomes more and more repetitive. Johansson gets the best role with a genuinely complex juggling act that sees her vivaciously paying lip service to the Nazis, while also tussling with her son’s misguided take on proceedings behind closed doors at their gemütlich apartment in Berlin (filming actually took place in Czechia).

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amazon: https://amzn.to/2ltnpih 

Anna Karina (1940-2019) Obituary

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

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

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

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

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

Sundance Film Festival 2020

In Park City Utah, ROBERT REDFORD and his programmer John Cooper have set the indie film agenda for 2020 with an array of provocative new titles in a festival that runs from 23 January until 2 February. This year’s selection includes the latest US drama from Josephine Decker (Thou Wast Mild and Lovely); and new documentaries about Chechnya, Bruce Lee and Woodstock competing in the US Dramatic section. Branden Cronenberg will be showing his latest film, Possessor starring Andrea Riseborough; who also appears in the Egyptian drama Luxor. Noemie Merlant is fresh from Portrait of a Woman on Fire, in Zoe Wittock’s Jumbo. 

UK director Oscar Raby brings A Machine for Viewing​, a unique three-episode hybrid of real-time VR experience, live performance and video essay in which three moving-image makers explore how we now watch films by putting various ‘machines for viewing,’ including cinema and virtual reality, face to face.

EXHIBITIONS

All Kinds of Limbo​ / United Kingdom (Lead Artists: Toby Coffey, Raffy Bushman, Nubiya Brandon) — The National Theatre of Great Britain’s communal musical journey reflecting the influence of West Indian culture on the UK’s music scene across the genres of reggae, grime, classical, and calypso. Immersive technologies, the ceremony of live performance and the craft of theatrical staging bring audiences into a VR performance space. Cast: Nubiya Brandon.

U.S. DRAMATIC COMPETITION

47% of the directors in this year’s U.S. Dramatic Competition are women; 52% are people of color; 5% are LGBTQ+.

The 40-Year-Old Version / U.S.A. Director and screenwriter: Radha Blank

A down-on-her-luck New York playwright decides to reinvent herself and salvage her artistic voice the only way she knows how: by becoming a rapper at age 40. Cast: Radha Blank, Peter Kim, Oswin Benjamin, Reed Birney, World Premiere

BLAST BEAT / U.S.A. Director: Esteban Arango

After their family emigrates from Colombia during the summer of ‘99, a metalhead science prodigy and his deviant younger brother do their best to adapt to new lives in America. Cast: Moises Arias, Mateo Arias, Daniel Dae Kim, Kali Uchis, Diane Guerrero, Wilmer Valderrama. World Premiere

Charm City Kings / U.S.A. (Director: Angel Manuel Soto

Mouse desperately wants to join The Midnight Clique, the infamous Baltimore dirt bike riders who rule the summertime streets. When Midnight’s leader, Blax, takes 14-year-old Mouse under his wing, Mouse soon finds himself torn between the straight-and-narrow and a road filled with fast money and violence.

Cast: Jahi Di’Allo Winston, Meek Mill, Will Catlett, Teyonah Parris, Donielle Tremaine World Premiere

Dinner in America / U.S.A. (Dir/writer: Adam Rehmeier

An on-the-lam punk rocker and a young woman obsessed with his band go on an unexpected and epic journey together through the decaying suburbs of the American Midwest.. Cast: Kyle Gallner, Emily Skeggs, Pat Healy, Griffin Gluck, Lea Thompson, Mary Lynn Rajskub. World Premiere

The Evening Hour / U.S.A. Dir: Braden King

Cole Freeman maintains an uneasy equilibrium in his rural Appalachian town, looking after the old and infirm while selling their excess painkillers to local addicts. But when an old friend returns with plans that upend the fragile balance and identity he’s so painstakingly crafted, Cole is forced to take action. Cast: Philip Ettinger, Stacy Martin, Cosmo Jarvis, Michael Trotter, Kerry Bishé, Lili Taylor. World Premiere

Farewell Amor / U.S.A. (Dir/writer: Ekwa Msangi

Reunited after a 17 year separation, Walter, an Angolan immigrant, is joined in the U.S. by his wife and teenage daughter. Now absolute strangers sharing a one-bedroom apartment, they discover a shared love of dance that may help overcome the emotional distance between them. Cast: Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, Zainab Jah, Jayme Lawson, Joie Lee, Marcus Scribner, Nana Mensah. World Premiere

Minari / U.S.A. (Dir/writer: Lee Isaac Chung

David, a 7-year-old Korean-American boy, gets his life turned upside down when his father decides to move their family to rural Arkansas and start a farm in the mid-1980s, in this charming and unexpected take on the American Dream. Cast: Steven Yeun, Han Yeri, Youn Yuh Jung, Will Patton, Alan Kim, Noel Kate Cho. World Premiere

Miss Juneteenth / U.S.A. (Dir/Writer: Channing Godfrey Peoples

Turquoise, a former beauty queen turned hardworking single mother, prepares her rebellious teenage daughter for the “Miss Juneteenth” pageant, hoping to keep her from repeating the same mistakes in life that she did. Cast: Nicole Beharie, Kendrick Sampson, Alexis Chikaeze, Lori Hayes, Marcus Maudlin. World Premiere

Never Rarely Sometimes Always / U.S.A. (Dir/Wri: Eliza Hittman

An intimate portrayal of two teenage girls in rural Pennsylvania. Faced with an unintended pregnancy and a lack of local support, Autumn and her cousin Skylar embark on a brave, fraught journey across state lines to New York City. Cast: Sidney Flanigan, Talia Ryder, Théodore Pellerin, Ryan Eggold, Sharon Van Etten. World Premiere