Posts Tagged ‘biopic’

Eric Ravilious: Drawn to War (2022)

Dir: Margy Kinmonth | UK Doc, 87′

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

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

 

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

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

HMS Glorious in the Arctic @copyright Foxtrot Films

 

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

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

Submarine Dream @copyright Foxtrot Films

 

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

HMS Arc Royal in action @copyright Foxtrot Films

 

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

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

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

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

England, My England (1995)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AVAILABLE ON DVD

King Richard (2021)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOW IN CINEMAS NATIONWIDE FROM 19 NOVEMBER 2021

Lost in La Mancha (2020)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now on release

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Dir: Spike Lee | US Doc, 105′

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

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

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

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

IN CINEMAS FROM MONDAY 14 DECEMBER 2020

Oliver Sacks: His Own Life (2020)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOW ON release in Cinemas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SEVILLE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2020 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

WITH DIRECTOR JUSTIN KURZEL

AND ACTORS GEORGE MACKAY, ESSIE DAVIS, AND EARL CAVE

 

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

Testimony (1987) ***** Streaming

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOW STREAMING ONLINE    

  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Speer Goes to Hollywood (2020)

Dir/Wri: Vanessa Lapa | Doc 97′

Vanessa Lapa follows her expose on the life of Heinrich Himmler The Decent One with another illuminating Nazi portrait, this time of ‘Hitler’s architect’, ally and facilitator Albert Speer.

The Israeli filmmaker’s project came into existence via a chance meeting in a hotel which, on further examination, uncovered an eye-watering treasure trove of archive news footage, audio sources and photographs most of which have never seen the light of day until the present day.

In Lapa’s film Albert Speer (1905-1981) comes across as a cultured but rather narcissistic character who enjoyed a glamorous and comfortable existence as the Third Reich’s Minister of Armaments and War Production in the final years of the Second World War (1942-45). Hitler had wanted to be an architect himself but hadn’t the talents that Speer clearly possessed, so he used the charming and debonair designer as a conduit for his own ideas in constructing the built environment of his Nazi regime. Speer’s subtle charisma saw him through the Nuremberg Trials, convicted but bizarrely escaping the death sentence, this high-ranking official is pictured on the steps of the prison, after serving a two decade sentence, without a shred of remorse but with the victorious words: “See, I’m still good-looking after 20 years”.

During his confinement Speer re-imagined his life and re-wrote his own story claiming not to have been responsible for the overseeing of the gas chambers that led to Third Reich’s worst horrors. He also penned his 1970 best-selling memoir ‘Inside The Third Reich’ which captured the imagination of Hollywood. But on later scrutiny his self-whitewashed story emerged as ‘fake news’, according to the indomitable Lapa who sets out to debunk his version of events in this sleek, compelling and utterly fascinating film.

And not before time. Speer’s specious story is clearly ripe for re-examination. This suave and sinister man still remains unchallenged nearly forty years after his death. Lapa choses a buzzy and effective narrative device to showcase her study: Speer’s 1971 meetings with Jane Birkin’s brother, the scriptwriter Andrew Birkin (apparently a protégé of Stanley Kubrick) who was selected by Paramount to scope out the narrative for a putative film which was later abandoned, largely due to British director Carol Reed’s dubiety. Their informal discussions add subtle but sensational context to the photos and archives, as do the ‘fireside chats’ with Reed who offers his own critique on Speer’s version of the events as the two British film pros plough through 40 hours of Birkin’s recordings with the Nazi, in preparation for his script.

Reed is clearly sceptical, pouring scorn on Speer’s glib technique of painting himself as another ‘decent one’ despite his nefarious Nazi activities that led to the deaths of millions, not to mention the slave labour of the concentration camp victims who were used and abused in Hitler’s efforts to rebuild Berlin. On an equally sinister note, it also emerges that many of these high-ranking officials slipped off the radar and were re-deployed in other parts of the world where their specialist knowledge gleaned in the field of forced euthanasia (Aktion T4) became invaluable.

The film flips between the mind-boggling discussions between Birkin, Speer and Reed; the extraordinary recordings inside the courtrooms of the Nuremberg Trials; the archive footage on parade with the Nazis featuring Hitler and his henchmen, not to mention Albert Speer at leisure with his wife Margarete Weber in their soigné country villa. MT

PREMIERED AT BERLINALE 2020

 

 

 

#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 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Golda (2019) ****

Dir.: Sagi Borenstein, Udi Nir, Shani Rozanes; Documentary with Golda Meir, Uri Avneri, Zivi Zamir; Israel, Germany 2019, 85 min.

This new biopic on Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir is based on a recently discovered interview from 1978, done just before her death. It tells the important story of her time in office – from her surprising rise to power to her lonely demise. And although the Israeli State TV channel  and the interviewee maintain this meeting was “off-record”, both parties must have been aware that the recording equipment was working.

The trio of directors – Borenstein, Nir and Rozanes (Uploading_Holocaust) – have decided to play it fair and let Zivi Zamir, ex-boss of the Mossad, do a hagiography of Meir. But the former MP and peace activist Uri Avneri can barely hide his contempt for the ex-premier.

Born in 1898 in Kiev (then the Russian Empire) Golda Mabovitch emigrated with her family to Milwaukee in the USA at the age of 8, before settling with her husband in Palestine, a British Protectorate, in 1921. She joined the Hisdadrut, a union movement, before making a quick career in Mpai (later the Labour Party), serving as a Minister for Labour (1949-1956) and Foreign Secretary (1956-1966), before becoming Prime Minister in 1969, beating rivals generals Moshe Dayan and Yitzhak Rabin. Her premiership coincides with the mass immigration of Jews from North Africa and the Middle East. Meir, an Ashkenazi Jew, could not relate to the culture of these new citizens, the latter founding the “Black Panthers”, that rose up against the lack of opportunities in Israel and were unable to establish any common ground during their meeting with the premier. Avneri complains about Meir’s lack of understanding of anything Arab, he nearly goes so far as calling her a racist. On the other hand, Zamir is full of praise for Meir, particularly for letting him and his Mossad organisation off the leash, in hunting down the “Black September” cell responsible for the murder of Jewish athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972. The Yom Kippur War of 1973 signalled the end of Meir’s political career. She had been seen as “The Mother of the Nation” but 3000 dead soldiers were too much for a public who could only contemplate glorious victory on the battle field. Although Dayan and the other generals had played down any threat of an attack, Meir was more tuned in to an impending disaster. And she turned out to be the main culprit. With her health deteriorating – one photo shows her having chemotherapy whilst still smoking – she eventually threw in the towel in 1974.

Golda Meir is somehow symbolic of the trouble Israel finds itself in today. With Avneri rightfully criticising her policy of opening up the building of new Jewish settlements in the West Bank, Meir was one of many politicians who made it now near-impossible for a two state solution to be found. And when president Anwar Sadat of Egypt offered her peace talks in 1971, she refused. Worse, when Premier Menachem Begin invited Sadat to Israel in 1977, which amounted to a de-facto recognition of Israel by an Arab state, Meir was cynical: she told journalists that Begin and Sadat deserved the Oscar – not the Nobel Peace Price for their Camp David accord. Golda Meir was a strong woman in a man’s world – no doubt about it – but she shared a long-time strategy which relied only on continuous war with most of her male competitors.

Borenstein completes his engaging portrait of one of the first woman PMs ever with archive footage and photos. Eitan Hatuka’s pertinent images reveal the truth behind Avneri and Zamir’s body language,  Thankfully, the directors leave the audience to make their own judgement. AS

GOLDA 

 

                 

  

Meeting Gorbachev (2018) ***

Dir: Werner Herzog, Andre Singer | Wri/Narr: Werner Herzog | 96′

The thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall also marks the UK release of a new film that gets close up and personal with the former Russian leader who helped end the Cold War.

Award-winning Russian filmmaker Vitaly Manskiy’s made for TV doc Gorbachev. After Empire (2001) put the spotlight Gorbachev during a year in Russian politics but this a more intensive, face to face affair.

Werner Herzog is a seasoned documentarian, with nearly 50 year’s experience in the form. But for some reason here he comes over all smily and deferential, unable to maintain a distance from the admittedly affable former head of the Soviet Union. The two clearly hit it off and even share the odd joke.

Meeting Gorbachev consists of a series of interviews with Gorbachev, now 88, who considers his career with considerable regret despite his numerous achievements. Born in 1931 into poverty in Privolnoye, a remote village in the ‘middle of nowhere’ according to Herzog’s narration, he was brought up largely by his grandparents, his father being away at the War. Later Gorbachev remembers his  father saying: “Fight til the fight goes out of you, that’s the way to live”. And it’s certainly a maxim that has served the leader well as he reflects over the past and his legacy as the last Communist head.

Herzog opens up the archives with a brief history of earlier Russian leaders – and the footage here is quite gruesome – featuring the state funerals of Leonid Brezhnev and Yuri Andropov who peek out from their red-dressed caskets as Chopin’s sombre classic march plays on. Eventually Gorbachev became General Secretary in 1985, one of the youngest leaders, and brought about a remarkable feat considering our own Brexit intransigence: the Cold War ended as a direct results of his reforms. This victory set the stage for a slew of Eastern Bloc countries finally to gain independence, with Germany coming together in 1990. Gorbachev also worked closely with Ronald Reagan to reduce nuclear armaments that had caused the parlous environmental disaster of Chernobyl.

Gorbachev also shares with Herzog the continuing pain of his personal life: a happy marriage to his college sweetheart Raisa that ended in her death at only 45 from leukaemia. By the same turn, colleagues talk almost fondly of the contribution Gorbachev has made during his career. George Shultz, Reagan’s secretary of state, remarks on his negotiating skills and his strength of purpose. Margaret Thatcher discusses their respect for one another, despite their polarised political positions. Horst Teltschik, national security advisor to German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, also comments on Gorbachev’s many achievements.

But a great deal of Gorbachev’s democratic measures have now been swept under the carpet by a more authoritarian leader in the shape of Vladimir Putin, who is seen briefly giving his condolences at Raisa’s funeral. It is not discussed whether the two leaders see eye to eye, and clearly Putin has a major task on his hands in trying to restore Russia’s ‘Soviet glory’.

Although the documentary is mildly hagiographic in flavour, by the end we start to feel a certain sympathy for this warm-hearted and hard-working man who clearly did his best to improve the lives of ordinary Russians with his well-thought-out reforms, which now appear to have gone by the wayside. It seems the modern world is gradually moving back to the past in many countries. Sadly progress can often be derailed. MT

ON RELEASE FROM 8 NOVEMBER 2019

 

Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy (2018) ***

Dir/Wri: Justin Kelly | Cast: Kristen Stewart, Laura Dern, Diane Kruger, Jim Sturgess | US Biopic Dram | 108′

The story behind the literary persona JT LeRoy, created by American author Laura Albert, has certainly had some cinematic mileage. Albert took part in the documentary Author: The JT Leroy Story (2016) that screened a few years ago at the BFI Flare’s Film Festival, Here she is played by Laura Dern in Justin Kelly’s slick and lively re-imagining of one of the most brazen literary hoaxes known to mankind. Albert published three books in the early years of the 21st century, under her nom de plume JT LeRoy. They explored the life of a sexually confused teenage boy, abused in childhood. A gamine Kristen Stewart plays her sister-in-law, Savannah Knoop, who comes to stay and ends up being persuaded by Albert to pose as JT for a promotional photo session. And it doesn’t end there. Dern and Stewart give luminous performances in this seamlessly pleasurable and darkly amusing drama that explores themes of gender fluidity, moral ambiguity and fraud. MT
NOW ON GENERAL RELEASE | premiered at BFI FLARE FILM FESTIVAL | 21 -31 MARCH 2019

Varda by Agnès (2019) ****

Dir: Agnes Varda |Writers: Agnes Varda, Didiet Rouget | Doc France

Agnès Varda’s final film plays out as a masterclass, the maverick 90-year old filmmaker talking us through her life and legacy, in no particular order, giving fresh insight into her the methods behind her genius as the pioneer of the French New Wave movement, in a meaty two hour documentary. Composed of reels of archive footage, clips from her films and newly shot material – we also get to meet the star of her Venice awarded Vagabond, Sandrine Bonnaire, the two sit in a field sheltered by plastic umbrellas, a sign of her determination to take the rough with the smooth. You could call it providence.

Born in Brussels as ‘Arlette’ Varda in 1928, she would go on to make 55 films in her fruitful career. Sitting comfortably in a classic director’s chair on a stage before her audience, Varda comes across as modest and approachable and despite her ardent feminism and trenchant intellect, amiable and quietly self-assured. Her canvas was always the familiar or domestic, filming subjects she knew about or felt deserving of attention. On her documentary style she muses: “The idea was to film people, whether they realised it or not, Nothing is trite if you film people with empathy and love”.

There are plenty of quintessentially Varda moments in this final adieu. At one point she is seen sitting on a beach surrounded by cardboard seagulls: “we love to talk to birds, but of course they don’t understand”. And her fear of playing to an empty cinema, or not engaging with the audience have enforced her belief that cinema is very much a two-way process. And Varda By Agnès is a film that is both introspective and expansively outward-looking at the same time. And with her previous outing Faces, Places having had an Oscar nomination last year Varda is pretty guaranteed to reach wider audiences beyond Europe.

Varda started life as a photographer and her pictures are testament to her frank and witty approach to life. The film takes us through the last century and into the present day starting with The Gleaners and I that showcases the freedom of digital. Her personal life is very much integrated into her work as an artist and there is much candid and unsentimental mention both vocal and visual of her partner Jacques Demy, making it all the more appealing particularly during his failing health.

Music features heavily in all her films: “Early on, I realised that contemporary composers were my allies.” And Varda certainly made plenty of allies in her work in the cinema and outside it. Her career as a visual artist has given rise to impressive installations and performance art, most noticeably in Faces Places –  and she often turned up to events dressed as a potato – her voluptuously rotund figure ideally suited for the long-running joke.

It seems both apposite and poignant that this informative career retrospective should be her last hurrah. Perfectly timed and with a sense of completion and hope Varda By Agnès is a memorable auto-biopic from the grand dame of cinema herself. MT

NOW ON RELEASE FROM 19 JULY 2019

https://youtu.be/IcpnEMCx-7g

 

Halston (2019) London Fashion Week

Dir/Wri: Frederic Tcheng | With: Tavi Gevinson, Liza Minnelli, Marisa Berenson, Joel Schumacher, Pat Cleveland, Bob Calacello, Carl Epstein, Lesley Frowick, Sassy Johnson, Naeem Khan, John David Ridge | US Doc, 120′

Well known for his insightful portraits of the fashion world: Dior and I (2014); Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel (2011), which he co-directed; and for Valentino: The Last Emperor, (2008), which he co-produced, Tcheng gets top marks for this exposé on Roy Halston Frowick the all American boy from De Moines, Iowa who put America in the frame with his flare for flattering the female form.

After the boxy styles and artificial fabrics of the Sixties, Halston’s voluptuous dresses enveloped and caressed curves and cleavages as they “danced around you” according to Liza Minelli, one of his biggest advocates and a firm friend. All this was in part thanks to his master tailor Gino Balsamo whose clever crafting created single-seam clothes that ‘freed the female body” and swirled and seduced due to the unique simplicity of their genius bias-cut.

Apart from its length the only slight criticism of this biopic is the gimmicky structure that sees actor Tavi Gevinson as an innocent bystander, sleuthing through the Halston company archives and VHS tapes to needlessly sex up the sinister nature of Halston’s final fall from grace. It’s a device that feels tacky and counterintuitive to the sophisticated slimline slinkiness of the designer’s raison d’être.

Born during the Depression in 1932, Halston was an ordinary gay man who instinctively knew how to re-invent himself as a suave mover and shaker. Starting out in the 60s as a milliner to Bergdorf Goodman famous clients (Jackie Onassis wore his pillbox hat), he rapidly moved on to create his own brand through celebrity endorsement in New York’s 70s and 80s. Sashaying onto the dance floor of Studio 54 with his beautiful entourage, known as the Halsonettes, he moved on with movie stars, and invented “hot pants”. Andy Warhol and Elizabeth Taylor were amongst his friends and clients. He also dressed the American athletes at the ’76 Olympics, the girl scout leaders, the NYPD and Avis car rental staff, as well as the Martha Graham dance troupe.

His all American freeform fashion parade at Paris’ Palace of Versailles in 1973 featured black American models and set the night alight with a fizzing floor show, despite French domination of the event. China was the next step and we sample previously unseen footage from NBC visiting a silk factory where workers got a chance to try on creations made from their own fabrics.

But Halston was to grow too big for his own boots. Soon he moved offices to the glamorous mirrored interiors of New York’s Olympic Tower. His keenness to develop the brand saw high signing a multi-million dollar deal with conglomerate Norton Simon. This took away his rights to his designs and name, while offering him continued creative control, allowing him to jump into bed with the likes of Max Factor, facilitating the launch of his first fragrance, Halston, with a bottle designed by longterm collaborator Elsa Peretti. The brand was soon on sheets, towels, even leather goods. But gradually new bosses with scant appreciation of fashion or design would take over, and one by the name of Jacob Epstein would be his nemesis.

Halston launched a worthy endeavour to dress mainstream America through a deal with JCPenney (a sort of US Marks & Spencer). Termed “From class to mass” the venture focused on volume rather than artistry, and did not go down with well with Bergdorf Goodman, or his high-net-worth clientele, many of whom cancelled orders.

By this time Halston’s lavish lifestyle was also becoming financially exhausting, along with his on-off Venezuelan lover Victor Hugo, who had arrived on the scene purely for his looks (“One night Halston dialed a dick”) and then became involved in the business, upsetting several members of his team. The final segment sees Halston re-connecting with his family and employing his niece, Lesley Frowick, who emotes on his HIV/AIDS demise rather too copiously.

Halston works best as a chronicle of his fashion design artistry with its eye-catching footage and fascinating characters of the era. The business side of things often feels over-laboured and detailed. But it’s still an entertaining biopic to watch. Clearly Halston was a force to be reckoned with, totally redefining the fashion world, and bringing America to the forefront with his fabulous legacy. MT

ON RELEASE On various platforms including Dogwoof.com

 

 

 

 

Van Gogh & Japan (2019) ***

Dir: David Bickerstaff | Doc, 90′

Van Gogh was one of the most influential and prolific artists of the 19th Century so it seems reasonable that another biopic should be dedicated to him, this time looking at his influence in Japan.

David Bickerstaff once again directs with a similar format to Van Gogh, A New Way of Seeing using the artist’s personal letters from close friends and his brother Theo to reveal Van Gogh’s deep connection to Japanese visual culture, and its importance in understanding his most iconic works. 

Although the Dutch artist never infact visited to Japan, his work had a profound impact on his contemporaries there including calligrapher Tomoko Kawao and performance artist Tatsumi Orimoto, and film provides a modern perspective on the rich, symbiotic relationship between Van Gogh and Japan.

Dramas such as At Eternity’s Gate and Loving Vincent have helped to flesh out what the Dutch artist was like as a man. Van Gogh & Japan shows how the European avant-garde went hand in hand with Japan art in the 19th century, and how artists such as Hokusai, Utagawa Kinuyoshi and Hiroshige captured the imagination of those painters who laid the foundations of modernism in Europe, on the other side of the world: Manet’s American friend Whistler was influenced by Japanese artwork in his painting Nocture: Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge.

Bickerstaff films in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam where there is perhaps the most direct example of how Van Gogh was influenced by Hiroshige’s prints, The Residence with Plum Trees at Kameido, 1857; and he went on to paint his own version in 1887, Flowering Plum Orchard (after Hiroshige).

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As the Edo period came to an end in 1860s and Japan opened up to the West, Paris became awash with all things Japanese in the form of decorative objects and colourful woodcut prints called ‘ukiyo-e’. This was known as ‘Japonisme’. And whilst Van Gogh was not tempted to visit, he became fascinated with elements of Japanese visual culture and studied Japanese works carefully, learning from their compositional fluidity of line. He also acquired a large quantity of Japanese prints which he tried to sell without success, although they did provide a great source of inspiration. Van Gogh always brought his own unique style to his paintings even when directly copying and duplicating the imagery of the Japanese originals. There’s a full-bloodied richness, a vibrancy that is often oppressive, violent even.
In 1888, Paris became too much for Vincent and he left for the South of France, in the pursuit of new subject matter and a healthier life. In Provence, he discovered a beautiful landscape, powerful light and exotic people which spoke to his idealised vision of Japan – his Japanese dream. The productive yet fraught years that followed produced some of the most unique works in Van Gogh’s oeuvre such as ​The Sunflowers​ and his series of iconic portraits.

Other later self-portraits further underline his own unsettled state of mind. Infact, the exhibition only goes to accentuate Van Gogh’s own alienation. The Buddhist calm is in contrast to his own desperation as he flails around unreconciled with his own life. He clearly sought emotional refuge in this Zen influence.

One of the final paintings, Rain at Auvers (from the Museum of Wales), completed just before he killed himself in 1890, is the saddest comparison between East and West, and was possibly inspired by Hiroshige’s Night Rain at Karasaki. But it feels more like an interpretation of Munch’s The Scream in its depiction of the dark desperation of man who has finally lost his way.

Although these influences fascinated him for a while, his own style was always prominent in his work, the sheer force of his personality producing a passion not only in his bold strokes but also in his striking colour palette with marks that made his work significant and highly personal. They vibrate with allure and transmit the strength of his charisma, whilst the Japanese works often feel tepid in comparison. Van Gogh pours his heart and soul into his work. And that is why it resonates with his admirers. MT

Van Gogh & JAPAN 

John McEnroe: In the realm of Perfection (2018) ***

Dir: Julien Faraut | US Doc 95′

In the Realm of Perfection showcases tennis star John McEnroe at his very best – or worst – as some may say. Arguably, the enfant terrible of the tennis circuit was also one of the world’s finest and most charismatic players, his coiled force and balletic movements captured in fluid slow motion by specialist DoP Gil de Kermadec in Julien Faraut’s entertaining documentary.

John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection, was shot on 16mm during the French Open at Roland-Garros in the early 1980s when de Kermadec had determined that champions played in a different way when under pressure (in competitions) than when simply knocking a ball about during practice sessions. Using early 1980s computer animation he explores the intricacies of McEnroe’s techniques and particularly his unpredictable serve and killer backhand. The film considers the power and intensity of McEnroe’s physical prowess and dexterity combined with his highly-tuned reflexes and skilful strategies for outwitting his opponent. All this is scored to the music of Sonic Youth’s “The Sprawl” and narrated by Mathieu Amalric.

For those who were positively invigorated by the American athlete’s feisty temperament his puerile petulance and childish outbursts, this film is a must. Clearly from early childhood, McEnroe’s personality was founded on an egocentricity so keen that he was unable to see anything from any perspective other than his own. This coupled with a sheer disdain for the professional opinion of the linesman, umpire and other employees makes for hilarious often incredulous viewing. “You must be kidding” was one of his stock expressions.

Cleverly, Faraut gives us only once chance to watch the footage, leaving the ball firmly in McEnroe’s court and leaving the jury out, creating an onscreen tension which builds gradually in the film’s mesmerising final sequences when we watch McEnroe pitting his wits against Ivan Lendl in the 1984 men’s final at the French Open.  Force of nature and force to be reckoned with, McEnroe was certainly one of the powerhouses of international tennis. MT

ON RELEASE FROM 24 MAY 2019 NATIONWIDE

 

 

The White Crow (2018) ***

Dir: Ralph Fiennes | Writer: David Hare | Cast: Oleg Ivenko, Adele Exarchopoulos, Ralph Fiennes, Raphael Peronnaz, Chulpan Khamatova, Sergei Polunin, Calypso Valois, Louis Hoffman, Olivier Rabourdin | UK | Biopic Drama | 122′

Ralph Fiennes’ third feature – in which he also stars – is an ambitious and classically-styled biopic of the Russian ballet legend Rudolf Nureyev’s defection to the West in 1961.

Quite why David Hare decided on a fractured narrative to tell the maverick Russian dancer’s life is not clear. And it certainly doesn’t intensify the storyline. The dancer’s life had so much dramatic heft that a straightforward chronicle would have seen it steaming ahead rather than shunting occasionally into the sidings. Drama is also provided by the sheer verve of Nureyev himself as played by professional dancer Oleg Ivenko in an extraordinary screen debut as one of the 20th century’s most celebrated dancers whose rise to fame was justified by his remarkable talent and legendary status. At the helm, Ralph Fiennes captures the zeitgeist and stultifying atmosphere of a Soviet Russia still languishing behind the Iron Curtain. He also conveys the elegantly sleek conservatism of France during the 1960s. France may have invented ballet but the East provides the energy and gusto and this comes through in Ivenko’s ballet sequences that echo the spirit of Nureyev and enliven this graceful but sober drama. Fiennes’s performance as ballet master Alexander Pushkin is immaculate and exudes a calm dignity that is delightful to watch, he also appears to be proficient in Russian. This together with a strong support cast and mise en scène more than compensate for the flawed narrative structure. Adèle Exarchopoulos brings allure and intensity to her rather buttoned down role as Chilean heiress Clara Saint, who announced herself as a friend of André Malraux, and  who comes to Nureyev rescue in the final scenes. And Olivier Rabourdin (Taken) makes for a mesmerising chief of Police during the heart-pounding denouement at Le Bourget Airport in Paris when Nureyev dramatically claims political asylum.

Those from incredibly harsh beginnings with nothing to lose often rise to fame and fortune. And Nureyev was no exception. We are appraised of his background in the film’s early scenes where his mother gives birth to him on a train in Siberia in 1938. But despite his remarkable talent as a dancer it was unlikely that he would ever have made it to the international stage without his ego, utter determination and bloodymindedness, showcased to ample and often darkly humorous effect in The White Crow, along with his cultural voraciousness: once in Paris he devours every bit of local culture he can lay his hands on from the Louvre to the Follies Bergères. Wilful in the extreme, he ignores his superiors, rails against everyone in authority and no Westerner seems to bat an eyelid in letting him have his way, with the exception of Clara who stares him down in icy disdain after a restaurant debacle. But his communist ‘handlers’ still shadow him everywhere (and this still happens today in communist China) and his wilfulness leads to him not being allowed to dance on opening night in the Champs Elysees theatre.

On a tour stop in Moscow with a local ballet company, Nureyev auditions for the Bolshoi and gets in but then picks holes in their classical techniques, decided to try instead for the Mariinsky Ballet school in St Petersburg where he becomes a protegé of Alexander Pushkin, the eminence grise of the Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet. Pushkin invites him to stay in the apartment he shares with his wife, who discovers the only way to disarm the young man’s insolence. All in all this is an accomplished and entertaining arthouse drama and hopefully lead to Fiennes handing the script of his next film as well as the direction. MT

SCREENING NATIONWIDE 7 April 2019

 

 

 

Last Breath (2018) ****

Dir: Richard da Costa, Alex Parkinson  | UK Doc, 90′

Playing out like a thriller Last Breath, examines the dramatic true story in a way that cleverly keeps us guessing right through to the final credits. Told through first-hand accounts of the people affected it combines archive and black box footage together with underwater reconstructions of the fatal events.

For Chris Lemons it was just ‘another day at the office’. As a commercial diver in the petrochemical industry he was going through his customary procedure of descending 262ft underwater for a routine inspection of a drilling structure at the Huntington oil field, 115 miles east of Peterhead, Aberdeenshire. At the same time Parkinson and da Costa add dramatic poignancy to the party by featuring emotional input from his colleagues and his wife-to-be, busily making preparations back home for their wedding celebrations in Scotland.  

But the tone is doom-laden while we wait for inevitable in a day where nothing went according to plan. Lemons’ vessel started to drift due to a systems failure causing his “umbilical” line, supplying both air and heat, to twist and then sever, leaving him with only his emergency air tank –and about 5 minutes of breathing gas to keep going, the rescue team was half an hour away. Parkinson records extraordinary underwater footage of the events, keeping our nerves on fire in this moving and informative documentary that explores one man’s fateful fight for survival in the cruel sea. MT

ON RELEASE FROM 5 APRIL 2019.

 

At Eternity’s Gate (2018) Netflix

Dir: Julian Schnabel | Cast: Willem Defoe, Oscar Isaac | US Drama | 111’

Julian Schnabel’s training as an artist informs another of his portraits of creativity like Basquiat, Reinaldo Arenas and Jean Dominique Bauby. With At Eternity’s Gate he turns his camera on the tragedy of Vincent van Gogh with this luminous vision of the artist’s final days in Provence.

There have been many broad brush insights into the painter’s troubled life recorders on the big screen; the most recent, Loving Vincent (2017) attempted a living painted drama of the Dutchman, while Van Gogh: A New Way of Seeing (2015) explored the prodigious correspondence with his brother Theo. The reason to see this one is Willem Dafoe’s fabulous fleshing out of the artist in his febrile, sun-drenched final days after the breakdown of his fraught friendship with Gauguin (an unremarkable Oscar Isaac).

Schnabel captures the glowering intensity of Van Gogh’s desperate descent in paranoia but also portrays the artist as a gentle introvert who was as much misunderstood as maligned by the petit parochialism of his Provençal neighbours.

Benoit Delhomme’s hand-held camera hovers around feverishly and vivid yellow predominates. Intense and intimate close-ups pan out into flaming widescreen vistas vibrating in the summer heat. The worst element is Tatiana Lisovskaya’s screeching score that will make you run for the exit. It over-eggs the already over-baked picture of dismay and despair..

Jean Claude Carriere writes with Schnabel and Louise Kugelberg (the latter also his co-editor) to sketch out the broad strokes of the narrative which opens in Paris in the late 1880s where van Gogh is an already an outsider amongst the Artistes Independents du jour. His financier and brother Theo (a well-cast Rupert Friend) cannot sell his avant-garde works, Vincent opining: “God made me a painter for people who are not born yet”. Only Gauguin appreciates his talent but the two are incompatible as housemates. 

“Go south, Vincent,” Gauguin tells him when van Gogh complains of rainy skies and fog, whereupon he moves to Arles where he discovers his yen for landscapes which glow and shimmer in the heat as Delhomme’s visuals capture the textures of roots, earth, leaves as well as the soft windswept pastures. We feel for Vincent when a schoolteacher (Anne Consigny) openly mocks his work in front of her kids, and after a violent outburst he is sent away from the town, admitting his fear of going mad – but it could be that he just hates people and prefers solitude, which is understandable amongst these cackling idiots.

With Gauguin he enjoys a companionable time until success takes him to Paris whereupon van Gogh starts to unravel emotionally with the famous ear incident. A doctor (Vladimir Consigny) suggests some therapy, that merely confines the artist to a straitjacket. Ironically this comes at the same time as an influential Paris art critic praises his work as uniquely sensual. Meanwhile a priest (Mads Mikkelsen in thoughtful mode) damns his vision and calls his work ugly. 

This sensuous re-imagining of the artist’s final days belongs to Dafoe whose craggy features and piercing blue eyes convey a lost and melancholy soul whose  sensitivity and artistic genius have now made him a household name . MT

NOW ON NETFLIX. TRAILER courtesy of Curzon Cinemas | VENICE FILM FESTIVAL 2018 Winner Best Actor: Willem Dafoe

Minding the Gap (2018) ****

Dir: Bing Liu | Doc US, 83′

Skateboarding is the lifeblood and unifying element for a group of young guys in Bing Liu’s terrific Oscar nominated debut.

They all grew up together in Rockford, near Chicago, where Liu began filming their adventures as the boys moved into early adulthood. It seems they all had difficult backgrounds, in one way or another. But Minding the Gap skates over these in its joyful kinetic playfulness.

Bing Liu’s fluid camera keep pace with the sporty action as the boarders refuse to be diminished by their setbacks, each scene froths with energy and alacrity. And even though the stories of family dysfunction and continuing anxiety are shared there is always at positive feel to the encounters. Clearly boarding is a hobby that makes their adrenaline flow with its mix of risk, dexterity and joy de vivre. In the meantime what emerges is a rich social tapestry of contemporary working class youth in all its pain and glory.

Each story slowly emerges through the wizardry of the skateboarding sequences as Zack Mulligan and his girlfriend Nina, Keire Johnson and the Liu himself share a common experience of camaraderie and togetherness that gets them through the days and offers focus on their lives and futures.

Keire had a controlling father who is now dead. Liu’s life was dominated by a coercive bullying father who manhandled his mother and took away his confidence. Zack has just become a father with his girlfriend Nina, but they are too young and marked by their own difficult childhoods to fall into parenthood easily, and there are trust and vulnerability issues at play, which gradually become resolved in the final segment.

There is a freshness and an appealing innocence to all these encounters. And  combined with the upbeat tone of the documentary Minding the Gap makes for a satisfying and enjoyable experience. MT

ON RELEASE NATIONWIDE FROM FRIDAY 22 MARCH 2019

Eastern Memories (2018) *** Bergamo Film Meeting 2019

Dir: Martti Kaartinen, Niklas Kullstrom | Doc, 86′

Finnish linguist, explorer and diplomat G. J. Ramstedt (1873-1950) first published his memoirs as a radio series. And it’s easy to see how engaging his story would be without visuals. But narrated by Michael O’Flaherty (Vikings) and Frank Skog over the backdrop of visually arresting but often subversive contemporary footage it is a much more muscular experience and one that requires your constant attention and engagement. And there’s also a score to contend with. So it’s not a meditative or contemplative as you initially imagine.

Ramstedt first fetched up in Mongolia at the turn of the 20th century with the aim of mastering various Asian languages including Mongolian, Japanese, and Korean. He also wrote about Mongolian epic poetry and become the first Finnish chargé d’affaires in Japan where he also translated Japanese poetry.

Niklas Kullström and Martti Kaartinen have worked long and hard on this documentary and the structural solution they have arrived at to avoid historical visuals makes for demanding viewing. The film is full of stimulating wisdom and insight of the kind we’ve grown used to expecting from the ancient Chinese and Mongolians who saw the world from a completely different point of view than the one we are currently used to in the West. And that’s very refreshing, as it projects the past into the future. A language is not just a set of equivalent words but comes into being to serve a completely different experience in all kinds of ways and Ramstedt conveys this wisdom cleaned from his studies of poetry, religion and local folklore. Mongolian is a fricative language and has adapted itself to being heard over distances, where people communicated on horseback rather than in close or intimate indoor settings. So the language needs to be rely on loud and abrasive sounds in order to be heard.

Niklas Kullström and Martti Kaartinen’s film works best in reflecting the contemplative mores of the East, and illustrates this in a scene in a remote panoramic landscape of Mongolia where two strangers meet: “If you see a stranger on the steppe it is customary to step down from the horse and wait. For a half an hour you exchange courtesies. Then you may get to the point”. MT

 

BERGAMO FILM MEETING | 9-17 MARCH 2019

Young Picasso (2019) ****

Dir: Phil Grabsky | Doc | 90′

 

In the autumn of 1907 a young Spanish artist showed his Parisian friends a new painting. So horrified were they that he rolled it up and didn’t show it again until 1937. The artist was Pablo Picasso.

 

Picasso’s formative years are the focus of Phil Grabsky’s latest artist profile for Exhibition on Screen. Enlived by paintings and interviews with museum curators and experts, The Young Picasso has the benefit of the painter’s grandson Olivier Widmaier Picasso as a talking head, giving his impressions of the legend. The straightforward linear approach chronicles Picasso’s formative years from childhood to adulthood in a well-paced, absorbing and informative biopic that shows how the painter’s focus was the future, and his raison d’être was to be highly original.

 

Pablo Ruiz Picasso was born into a close family in the Andalucian city of Malaga in 1881, but he would live in Barcelona, La Coruna and Paris during his lifetime, and those places very much informed his work. Somehow he never forgot the intense light of Southern Spain. In the final part of the 19th century Malaga was a city divided between the upper bourgeoisie and the working classes, a place where industry was falling behind its counterparts in the rest of Spain. But it was also an intensely artistic place and Picasso absorbed all those local influences along with the city’s rich and unique combination of Christian, Arabic and Jewish culture. His father Don Jose taught painting and was his son’s guiding light.  Picasso sketched from an early age and produced his first work ‘Twilight in the Port of Malaga”, aged 7.  Just before his tenth birthday, the family moved to La Coruna on the Atlantic Coast and this is where he began painting with oils. Although the family were to live in the Northern city for only 3 years, the stay was a major influence on his career, and here he would give up his main studies to focus on art, and particularly portraiture. His father soon abandoned his own interest in painting and gave Pablo all his brushes, and the boy began to sell his work from a small shop in the city centre, Calle Mayor.

 

But the heart of the art scene was really Barcelona. And so in his teenage years Picasso gravitated towards the Catalan capital where his talents broadened with contemplative works like “An Evening At Home” and a self portrait created in 1896. Although his canvasses “Science and Charity” (1897) and ‘The First Communion’ (1896) showed Picasso’s ability to paint in a formal traditional style, he soon started to develop a more eclectic and inventive bias once in Barcelona. This was a reflection not only of his own nature but also of the more exotic and even seamy side of life that the Catalan capital represented. He continued to perfect his technique for painting limbs and physical characteristics, and despite his small stature he was able to paint some quite large canvasses. Soon his family sent him to San Fernando Academy of Fine Arts in Madrid where he discovered the Prado with classic artists such as Valasquez and Goya. But he soon found his way back to Barcelona. There politics soon entered the arena as he mixed with a lively community of young artists, and in February 1900 he made a breakthrough sharing an exhibition with the painters Ramon Casas and Rusinol. And it was his association with these artists that took him to Paris. His essentially realist style was in flux with works such as “Lola, the artist’s Sister” in the studio in 1900 when he was only 18. In the Autumn of that year one of his paintings was accepted for a Paris exhibition and he fetched up there at an artistically transformative time, with Montmartre already a Spanish artist colony in the capital. This was the first time Picasso really struggled in life, but he was ready to show his metal and finally to give his creativity and curiosity full rein. He dropped his father’s name Ruiz, and took his mother’s. Yo Picasso was born. A natty dresser he always wore matching underwear and socks and often a top hat. This was an exciting time to be in the city and the local galleries were full of Toulouse Lautrec and other new artists, and local society was richly dressed and passionate. “La Moulin de la Galette” (1900) and “The Dwarf”  (1901) both echoed the dream-like works of Klimt and Lautrec with dazzling tones of turquoise, red and green. Work became less focused on Spanish subjects and more on the local bourgeoisie at play. Impressionism entered the fray in the Vollard Gallery where many of his works were painted on cardboard. Money was tight as a 19 year old, and he lived an intense experience to make his way forward, sharing a small studio with his colleague Carles Casagemas (Germaine, at Night c1901). But they fell out over a woman called Germaine. Casagemas tried to shoot her dead in a bar but he ended up just killing himself, a tragedy which fuelled Picasso’s blue period hghlighted by works such as “Two Women in a Bar” (1902) and “Mother and Child” (1902), The symbolic work “The Tragedy/La Vie” serves as an allegory for both life and love. It was painted in Barcelona but very much looks back to his time in Paris with Casagemas . This was one of his first artistic periods that saw him search for an identity, symbolically dealing with themes such as death and poverty. He re-interprets his sources in a very personal way. During the blue period, Picasso dealt with serious themes but also small works that contained erotic subjects in local bars.

 

Picasso was an arch misogynist and has his first serious relationship was with Fernande Olivier when he moved in Spring 1904 to his new studio in Bateau Lavoir. He was – according to her – sweet, intelligent but also extremely jealous. He also had an ambivalence that made him charismatic. He would work late into the evening and night but resented his reliance on other people for money. His pink period (not much ‘pink’ but more referencing his love of the Circus) lasted roughly from 1904-06 and was epitomised in “Acrobat and the Harlequin” (1905) but he soon started to feel more positive about making money with works such as “Boy Leading a Horse”. He portrayed himself as the Harlequin and began a friendship with the French poet Apollinaire. In Spring 1906 he went to Spain to the remote Catalan village of Gosol with Fernande where he painted “The Harem” in 1906. This kicked off his geometric style and “Nude with a Pitcher” followed . At this point his work moves away from a representational approach and focuses on the subject itself. It was also during this time that he started work on the “Demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907). Picasso claims “painting is not an aesthetic process, it’s a form of magic that interposes itself between us and the universe”. His present was a result of the past. This period he called called Primitivism. He wanted to create a new type of art. Fernande Olivier comments:”Picasso presented us with a way of the world which did not conform to what we had grown to expect of it” His faces became masks – aggressively stylised and ambitious – like nothing ever seen before. His next painting was a brothel scene involving 5 women and 2 men. The spectator becomes the voyeur but also involved in the scene. The figures are actually starring back and engaging with the viewer in an alarming and unprecedented way. Paradoxically, they are neither Misses but nor in Avignon. The title refers to a street in Barcelona where Picasso visited a brothel. The name is likely to have been given by a dealer later on in a bid to put a positive spin on the picture. “Les Demoiselles” was revolutionary, incorporating primitive non-Western elements in a traditional form of classic Venus. It represents a turning point in modern art and ushers in Cubism. But his friends hated it. In 1916 – a decade later – the painting was considered a success. Picasso had finally arrived at his objective. He was 35. MT

 

THE YOUNG PICASSO IS RELEASED through EXHIBITION ON SCREEN ON 5 FEBRUARY 2019

 

 

 

 

 

 

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018) ***

Dir.: Marielle Heller; Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Dolly Wells, Jane Curtis, Anna Deavere Smith; USA 2018, 109 min. 

Celebrity biographer Lee Carol Israel (1939-2014) made a decent living writing biographies of the likes of Estée Lauder and Katherine Hepburn. But when her books no longer sold she turned her hand to a deceptive means to make money in this darkly caustic literary ‘thriller’ adapted from her memoirs by Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl).

Scripted by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty it follows Israel’s descent into forgery after her literary career comes to a grinding halt. Mellissa McCarthy atones for some mediocre support performances with her powerhouse portrayal of a misanthrope who cannot accept that her work has gone out of fashion. Meanwhile, her bills pile up and Lee sinks deeper and deeper into alcoholism and unreasonable behaviour. Agent Marjorie (Curtis), tries to help Lee, but only gets disdain and anger for her trouble.

Then quite by chance, Lee comes across a note written in a library book and accidentally left there by a well-known writer, and it gives her an idea: she starts forging notes purportedly written by Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker, spurred on by her jailbird friend and accomplice Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant). Israel cashes in with booksellers, who re-sell with a profit at a time where this kind of activity was alarmingly unregulated. Among them is Anna (Wells), who is blinded by Lee’s past glory, and fancies a romantic engagement. But this is furthest from Lee’s mind: she is afraid of any sort of intimacy; a meeting with her ex-lover Elaine (Smith) confirms this. But the easy money  soon slips away: Lee is blacklisted when her forgeries come to light, so she has to go one step further in this dark biopic of descent into shameless deception.

There is hardly anything positive to say about Lee Israel: she is unattractive physically and personally and also extremely arrogant, claiming “I am a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker”. Unable to feel any empathy, Lee goes through life with a tunnel vision of arrested development. It is to McCarthy’s credit that she wrings some withering humour and a chink of humanity laced with sardony from this egomaniac. 

DoP Brandon Trost lovingly re-creates a New York before the internet, and there are some glowing skylines, welcoming bars and cosy bookshops where people had the leisure of reading and discussing. Marielle Heller directs with great panache, and McCarthy carries the feature with gusto for the socially inept and deluded Lee Israel, whom she humanises with a performance of nuances. AS

ON RELEASE FROM 1 FEBRUARY 2019

   

Colette (2018) **

Dir.: Wash Westmoreland; Cast: Keira Knightley, Dominic West, Denise Gough, Eleanor Tomlinson; USA/UK 2018, 111 min.

This early years of French novelist Colette are adapted here for the screen by director Wash Westmoreland, Richard Glatzer and Rebecca Lenkiewicz; yet all three somehow fail to evoke the essential French story: and while everything said rings true, there is a total lack of emotional resonance: the script fails to get the nuances right: this adaptation is neutered, particularly when it comes to sex. Poor Keira Knightley’s Colette is a one-dimensional character with no inner life,  just a series of phrases.

Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Knightley) was born in small village in Burgundy in 1873. In the film we meet her, twenty years later, in her parent’s house with her intended, the Parisian publisher Willy (Dominic West). Willy (real name Henry Gautier-Villars) agrees to marry her despite her lack of dowry and after an illicit roll in the hay, literally – and sweeps her off to the capital. Colette soon finds out that her literary figure of a husband does not even write his books and articles: this is done by his friends, with his name is on the cover and soon Colette joins the “writing factory”, and because of Willy’s life style (lover, car, lavish bon-viveur) money is always in short supply. Colette’s first literary effort is “Claudine at School” based on her own experiences in a girl’s school with – by today’s standards – modest sexual undertones. Nevertheless, it was a success, and three more Claudine novels followed. Willy, fourteen years older than his wife, encouraged her to have lesbian relationships, among them with the wealthy, married American Georgie Raoul-Duval (Tomlinson), and the aristocratic Marquise de Belbeuf (Gough), called Missy. The latter, “a person like none other” joined Colette on the stage where their kissing was seen as scandalous, ending their collaboration. By then, Colette had grown tired of Willy, who had sold the rights to the ‘Claudine’ novels and tried (in vain) to have her authorship erased. So she left him to toured with the theatre, before publishing La Vagabonde in 1910, the start of her own successful literally career (culminating in ‘Gigi’ (1944).

Colette is verbose and predictable, all the characters, especially the pompous Willy, say what is expected of them. In a narrative that spans some 17 years, no-one seems to change– there is definite lack of character development. The feminism is degraded to a few cliches; Westmoreland cannot make up his mind if wants to direct a historical sex-rom-com or a LGTB feature. DoP Giles Nuttgens (What Maisie Knew) gives us bland images showing an idealised Paris, which never even existed. Overall Colette is just the opposite of its heroine: slow-burning, conformist, spiked with voyeuristic sex. AS

NOW ON GENERAL RELEASE

 

     

Outlaw King (2018)

Dir.: David Mackenzie; Cast: Chris Pine. Florence Pugh, Billy Howle, Stephan Dillane, Aaron Taylor-Jones; US/UK, 132 min. 

Director David Mackenzie (Hell or High Water) and his four scriptwriters have made this history book of medieval wars between Scots and English into a legend of machismo – but in the end the rivals all emerge as anti-heros, and all is drowned in blood and mud.

In 1304, after the end of William Wallace Revolution,. Robert the Bruce (Pine) attempts to unify the Scotts  tribes to fight Edward I (Dillane), who has seized the Scottish throne for himself – instead of appointing a promised Scottish successor. As a sign of the new alliance, Edward I allowed Robert the Bruce to marry Elizabeth de Burgh (Pugh), daughter of the powerful Earl of Ulster. But after the death of Edward I, his son, the Prince of Wales (later Edward II of England), captured and imprisoned Elizabeth, who was not willing to divorce Robert.

Robert’s fury is fed by the treachery of a Prince of Wales, who was once his close friend. After many years of imprisonment, Elizabeth was re-united with Robert, and they had three children. The many ambushes culminate in the Battle of Loudoun Hill (1307), the show-piece of the feature, and turning point of the campaign for an independent Scotland – even though the war would last another twenty years.

Together with his second in command, James Douglas (Taylor-Jones), Robert is shown as ruthless and risk-loving. The action scenes are repetitive and cruel: at one point during the Battle of Loudoun, spikes are used by the Scots to pierce the bodies of the English horses.

Outlaw King is redeemed by a handful of scenes that are worth watching – between Elizabeth and Robert (who is rather gentle with his young wife) – and these provide a counterpoint to the endless monotone warring, although Mackenzie ruins it with an embarrassing sex sequence. At least Elizabeth is shown as being as stubborn and bloody-minded as her husband, and Pugh excels in another strong female role.  

Cut down from the 146 minutes of the version shown at TIFF, Outlaw King is still far too long. DoP Barry Aykroyd captures the fighting scenes with great power, but in the end, the over-kill is tiring. AS

ON Netflix


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A Star is Born (2018) Netflix

Dir.: Bradley Cooper; Cast: Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper, Sam Elliot, Rafi Gavron; USA 2018, 135 min.

In his debut as a director and co-writer, Bradley Cooper offers a soppy Hollywood melodrama just the right side of tasteful – but only just. The forth remake of the narrative, based on a 1932 story by William A. Wellman and Robert Carson, is slightly superior to the Streisand/Kristofferson version of 1976, but very much in the shadow of Cukor’s 1954 outing starring Judy Garland and James Mason.

As expected with such a high profile cast, everything has to be much larger than life – or to put it simply, American. Clichés cannot be big enough, Ally’s rise can’t be too meteoritic, or the fall of Jack(son) Maine more utterly self-destructive. These are the rules of the game in Hollywood, and even for a mere 36 Million Dollars (not that much by today’s standard), you have to show where the money went.

As a director, Cooper has the decency to put Lady Gaga first, and apart from Jack’s last scene (rather ham-fisted), and some truly awful bathroom scenes which are cringeworthy in the extreme, he allows himself rather a moderate redneck performance, leaving Diva Gaga much space to go over the top. Yes, Jack beat up the man whose wife he seduced even when nearly totally blotto. But we’ve seen Cooper in much worse performances, like American Sniper. He tries to keep the tempo up, and some of the chases really create mayhem.

The support cast is actually, not surprisingly, more realistic than the lead pair: Sam Elliot as Jack’s brother Bobby, his long suffering manager, and Ally’s minder and executive Rez (Gavron) feel very contemporary. Bobby is resigned, his Honest-to-God, I’ve-seen-it-all attitude helps Ally to overcome the sadness of her loss, and Rez is very much his efficient younger counterpart: the ice-cold CEO who saves the day with algorithms and applied psychology.

The main criticism is the running time: 135 minutes is simply too generous in re-telling the not so particularly original story of a B-Picture with the budget of something much, much more. In the end, these production values make A Star is Born just above average. AS

NOW ON NETFLIX

    

The Gospel According to André (2017) Mubi

Dir: Kate Novacek | US Biopic | 95′

Kate Novacek cuts André Leon Talley rather too much slack in this glowing portrait of the first black fashion editor of Vogue who rose from a modest upbringing in North Carolina to become the driving force of changing the face of fashion in Paris and New York, during the Jim Crowe era. The Gospel According André is very much that, with Talley projecting his own self image and Novacek rarely getting behind it.

Born in 1948, Talley’s grandmother was the abiding influence in his upbringing. Early interest in fashion came during Sunday’s church meetings, “the only time when Afro-American identity was re-affirmed. It was like a fashion show”, says Talley, who was particularly impressed by the hats worn by the female congregation members. An MA at Brown on a scholarship, led Talley to New York in 1974, where he was taken under the wing of Diana Vreeland, then editor of Vogue. He became a regular at Andy Warhol’s Studio 54 “the only person not interested in sex or drugs”. But Talley’s love life is a blank: he is quoted “the work left him little time for a partner”, and he chuckles when recalling how Vreeland was suspicious “that he’d slept with a white woman”. “If only she’d known”. This comment regarding his sexual orientation is a leading one. 

Nearly two metres tall, Talley stands out in any crowd, and his love of capes and kaftans gives him an air of an African prince. His was a meteoric rise through the ranks from Women’s Wear Daily and W between 1975 and 1980, he then became Fashion’s News director at ‘Vogue’ between 1983 and 1987 and its creative Director until 1995 when he moved to Paris for Vogue and W meeting Carl Lagerfeld and Yves St. Laurent. In 1998 he became Vogue’s Editor-at-large until 2013.

‘Operatic best’ describes his taste. He loved Visconti and one of his film-subjects, Sissi but also experimented with Gone With the Wind creating the first black Scarlet O’Hara. He wrote at length about Sandy Crawford’s appearance in a black veil, reminiscent of Jackie Kennedy. We hear a lot from other celebrities like Woopi Goldberg, Diane von Furstenberg and Anna Wintour, but somehow Talley is absent from this portrait – apart from what he wants to give away. Only once does Novack find an emotional moment, when Talley talks about being called “Queen Kong” in Paris; that seems to imply he could only make so many connections in the fashion world by sleeping around. Somehow a true trail-blazer like him deserves a more demanding approach, even if it means re-questioning him. And that would be another film. AS

Now on MUBI

 

The King (2018) **** DVD release

Dir: Eugene Jarecki | US | Musical Biopic with Alex Baldwin, Ethan Hawke, Ashton Kutcher, Lana Del Rey, Emmylou Harris | 109′

Using Elvis Presley’s life as a metaphor to explore America’s modern malaise from so-called dream to disaster, Eugene Jarecki’s Sundance Grand Jury Winner heads across the States for a musical mystery tour in the legendary star’s vintage Rolls Royce, four decades after his life as one of the most significant cultural icons of the 20th century ended in a heart attack, aged 42.

Although Jarecki adopts a novel approach to the life of the legendary singer and entertainer, the results are sprawling, spirited and great fun in a biopic that gazes deep into the soul of a nation in flux and features an eclectic cast of stars and well known places from Presley’s birthplace in Tupelo, Mississippi, to Graceland, Memphis, Las Vegas and New York.

Enlivened by archive footage, musical interludes and enlightening observations from Ethan Hawke and Alec Baldwin, ex-band members and those associated with Presley’s life, Jarecki cleverly draws a comparison between the star and President Trump  showing how these two  transformative figures made a terrific impact on the US culture. In Presley’s case his musical style created a bridge to ease racial tension which sadly ended in disappointment, particularly in the southern states, due to the pursuit of financial above humanitarian goals (Presley always chased the money in his career choices, and when once purportedly asked by President Reagan whether he would choose a new swimming pool or to help kids with AIDS, he went for the swimming pool). On the face of Jarecki’s seems like an inspired and persuasive viewpoint: whether it stands up beyond this cursory glance, remains to be seen and sometimes his approach feels as it Elvis has been slotted in to meet the needs of his argument. 

Needless to say, the musical soundtrack is astonishing (shame the excerpts are so short) and Jarecki’s wide angle images of the glittering skylines and sweeping landscapes of Route 66 make this an enjoyable romp as well as an informative biopic of the “King of Rock and Roll” MT

ON DVD FROM 1 October 2018

ARTISTS FEATURED IN THE KING

EmiSunshine and The Rain; Leo “Bud” Welch; STAX Music Academy All-Stars John Hiatt; Loveful Heights; Immortal Technique; The Handsome Family; Nicki Bluhm and The Gramblers; M. Ward ; Justin Merrick and the STAX Academy All-Stars; Lindy Vision; Robert Bradley

FILMS FEATURED IN THE KING

LOVING YOU (1957); SPEEDWAY (1968); JAILHOUSE ROCK (1957); KID GALAHAD (1962); GI BLUES (1960); FOLLOW THAT DREAM (1962); GIRL HAPPY (1965); CLAMBAKE (1967); IT HAPPENED AT THE WORLDS FAIR (1963); TICKLE ME (1965); EASY COME EASY GO (1967); FUN IN ACAPULCO (1963); BLUE HAWAII (1961); LIVE A LITTLE LOVE A LITTLE (1968); HARUM SCARUM (1965); PARADISE HAWAIIAN STYLE (1966); FRANKIE AND JOHNNY (1966); VIVA LAS VEGAS (1964)

Escobar (2017) ***

Dir/Writer: Fernando Leon de Aranoa | Cast: Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, Peter Sarsgaard | Spanish | Drama | 123′

Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem step into the limelight as the convincing kickass couple at the heart of this florid foray into the life of Colombian cocaine king Pablo Escobar, from Madridleno director Fernando Leon de Aranoa (Mondays in the Sun).

Playing out like a clunky crime caper from the 1980s Escobar is true to its era in depicting the career of the rags to mega riches drug baron who eventually burnt himself out on a hot tin roof – or so we’re led to believe in the final melodramatic moments.

Bardem’s Colombian accent is spot on and he rocks another mat-like wig (from his already extensive repertoire) and a prosthetic pot-belly that takes on a life of its own. Cruz is all glamorous in YSL couture, almost drowning under the weight of her glossy mop and gurgling on a fruity English accent. The film opens in 1993 as she’s evading Colombia on a plane: “I’ve had to leave a house to escape a man, but never a country” – or words to that effect.

As journalist Judith Restrepo, she is the voiceover filling us in on the Escobar investigations handled by American DEA agent Shepherd (a laconic Peter Sarsgaard): subsequent events show that for years she’s been playing a somewhat flirty cat-and-mouse game with Shepherd, who’s been probing her for information on her louche lover. The story then tracks back to 1981 where she meets the seedily illustrious married Escobar on his tropical estate and headquarters of the notorious Medellin Cartel. Desperate to be taken seriously as a politician -but gradually failing miserably in the endeavour – he is now lying low. Initially confident in her career, she enjoys a whirlwind courtship, but rapidly sees her reputation failing as her lover loses interest and becomes increasingly menacing: his gifts turn from diamonds to a diamante revolver – for her own protection – against him and his rivals.

Bardem creates another scary psychopath: loving to his family but threatening to his enemies, and his richly-roasted accent is brilliant in contrast to Cruz’s screechy meltdowns. Chainsaws abound and there is abundant animal cruelty in what is ultimately a mildly entertaining and well-paced chronicle of the cocaine king’s career. MT

ON RELEASE NATIONWIDE FROM 16 SEPTEMBER 2018

Nice Girls Don’t Stay for Breakfast (2018) **** Venice Film Festival 2018

Dir: Bruce Weber | US Doc | 91′

Suave screen idol Robert Mitchum comes across as a crooning hearth-throb in Bruce Weber’s starry cinematic sashay that contains previously unseen interview footage shot during the 1990s.

Bruce Weber is best known for his black-and-white fashion shots (for Abercrombie & Fitch) but here turns his camera on the prolific career of a Hollywood antihero who made over 133 screen appearances during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s – most notably in Cape Fear, Night of the Hunter and Out of the Past. 

Nice Girls Don’t Stay for Breakfast follows the usual format of archive footage (taken in 1997) and interviews with people connected to Mitchum, particularly in his later years when his nonchalant presence could change the atmosphere in a room. Shot in Weber’s stylish monochrome camera the film opens with  Johnny Depp recalling how Mitchum would always reply “Worse” when asked how he was – on the telephone. This was a response he’d picked up from Groucho Marx. Liam Neeson and Benicio Del Toro also share their memories of a much-celebrated but quietly complicated man who embodied American masculinity.

Named after the song by Mitchum’s The Wonderful Country co-star Julie London, the film explores how the macho star could also be tender and gentle despite his tough guy image, and reveals his musical talent with footage from the recording of a jazz album (that has never been released) that sees him enjoying an amusing time with Marianne Faithful as the duo record together at Capitol Records.

Mitchum certainly knew how to flirt, using some well-rehearsed one-liners and jokes. But Weber shows how he mellowed significantly in later years without losing any of his sardonic undercurrent of complexity. In a darker moment, his daughter recalls his talk of suicide, but this is an avenue that Weber never explores, along with his time behind bars for possession of marijuana. On the relationship front, we hear how he was devoted to his wife Dorothy – the two met in their teens and stayed together – despite dalliances, amongst them with Shirley MacLaine who never appears to give her side of the story.

Nice Girls is largely freewheeling and episodic rather than chronologically biographical in format: hardly anything is mentioned about Mitchum’s upbringing or the early years of his career in Hollywood. His late co-star Polly Bergen talks about her feelings during the unsettling brutal rape scene in Cape Fear when he smoothed raw egg on her décolleté, culminating in her falling in love with him. Afterwards she claimed he was the epitome of tenderness, apologising profusely after the manhandling episode where he appeared to be ‘in a trance’. Perhaps this is even a latent bid on the director’s part to explain the bad behaviour that led to the #metoo backlash, given that Weber was also fingered during the affair.

Clearly Robert Mitchum’s choice of roles makes him one of the more edgy and interesting stars in the Hollywood firmament but he clearly had many strings to his bow, and one was undoubtedly a talent for carrying a tune, evidenced in his renditions of Ned Washington’s ‘Wild is the Wind’ and Mitchell Parish’s ‘Stars Fell on Alabama’ which enrich this pleasurable film along with its woozy jazz score. Irving Berlin’s ‘Dancing Cheek to Cheek’ and Gershwin’s ‘Isn’t it a Pity’ complete the audio picture of this intriguing talent to amuse. MT

VENICE FILM FESTIVAL CLASSICS 2018

 

Friedkin Uncut (2018) **** Venice Film Festival 2018 | Venice Classics

Dir: Francesco Zippel | US-ITALY | 107 MINS | DOCUMENTARY | with William Friedkin, Francis Ford Coppola, Quentin Tarantino, Willem Dafoe, Wes Anderson, Matthew McConaughey, Ellen Burstyn, Michael Shannon, Juno Temple

Wlliam Friedkin swaggers into the room and grabs a mug of dark coffee: “What interests me is how Hitler took a load of intelligent people down, whereas Jesus lifted them up”: He concludes “it’s a struggle for every human being to overcome their dark side”. 

William Friedkin must be one of the most quotable living directors. Perfectly formed truisms just flood out of him. Looking like an amiable astute tortoise with his smooth features and perfectly coiffed hair, he can be vociferous. When filming The French Connection he apparently shouted at his cinematographer: “What you’ve shown me so far sucks”. The two went on to make an all time classic that flopped at the box office. As Michael Shannon puts it: “Billy forces you to the dark place- he’s aware when something is phoney – he wants 200% because he’s giving 200%. Unlike Kubrick, he’s not looking for perfection, he’s looking for spontaneity.

Born in 1935 of Ukrainian Jewish parents who immigrated to the US, Friedkin did not realise the family was poor because everyone around them in their Chicago tenement was in the same boat. His father was a semi-professional soft ball player, his mother a warm and giving woman who he adored Young Friedkin started in the mail room of a TV station and worked his way up – in common with many other directors of the 1960s, but seeing Citizen Kane was the turning point that inspired him with the power of film and then he went on to Hollywood and was completely devolved of that notion. The rest is history.

Built around Friedkin’s pragmatic and pithy commentary Francesco Zippel’s doc well-structured documentary focuses on each of his films, intercut with commentary from the relevant talking heads and collaborators who discuss the way they worked with him. Friedkin is articulately frank and open about his motivations, which are interesting in themselves. A tinkly occasional score accompanies some extraordinary revelations: his film The people vs Paul Crump actually saved the man’s life. On the whole his films have a cinema vérité quality to them that is rooted in his documentary style, especially The French Connection that transports you ‘there in that era’ but the film still feels incredibly fresh and – in the view of Edgar Wright – more so than thrillers that are being made today. Infact FC is almost 95% based on truth, along with Bug and Killer Joe.  Friedkin likes facts and percentages rather than ephemera. 

Yet while he’s filming he gets lost in the moment: Gina Gershon calls him a method director as he literally becomes part of the atmosphere during a shoot, making a suggestion and seeing what the actor does with it.

Wes Anderson likes his horror fare because the narrative pulls you in keeping you close to the characters are engaging because in Friedkin movies they’re built in reality. Casting his films to perfection avoids too many takes. Infact he’s very much a one take guy, a cording to Juno Temple who applauds the complexity of his female characters, who are sometimes even more complicated that his male characters. And he casts his films to perfection Max von Sydow was perfect in the Exorcist Ellen Burstyn  knew the territory as a lapsed Catholic herself. “He taught me how to be real in the fiction” she says.

We are treated to archive footage of an interview with Fritz Lang where the German emigre complains that his films made in Germany are worthless but al least he got to meet Goebels. Lang only appreciated the films he made in Hollywood. As a director you need ambition, luck and the Grace of God, and particularly the latter. But in the end “success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan”

In his lavishly hilltop home we are shown his drawings by Sergei Eisenstein before he discusses his film Cruising which was made inside the gay bars of New York but wasn’t a hit with the gay community on account of exposing their haunts in their raw reality. “I loved it as an exotic background for a murder mystery. But i don’t approach cinema from a political standpoint. Infact I don’t trust politics or politicians”.

He wanted to cast unknown actors in To Live and Die in LA (1985) and so low key stage actor Willem Defoe became electric casting opposite with William Petersen. In accordance with his documentary research credentials the film also involved some real counterfeiters, whom Friedkin got to know.

Friedkin never attended film school and doesn’t consider himself an artist but admires Antonioni and a Fellini and claims Kathryn Bigelow to be the best woman filmmaker working today. 

“Acting and filmmaking are professions. Its a job. Out of this work there can come art – but its rare. when you start to believe in yourself as a artist – instead of telling a story with the utmost professionalism – that’s the end of a career. Antonioni and Fellini’s films are full of mood and texture”. Friedkin’s only regret is not having been able to transcend reality in his films. Who knows if he will one day. Time is still on his side. MT

VENICE FILM FESTIVAL | CLASSICS | 31 SEPTEMBER 2018

 

 

The Eyes of Orson Welles (2018)

Dir: Mark Cousins | Doc | UK |

Devotees of the great Orson Welles will be delighted by another in-depth look into the world of the charismatic legend Orson Welles by British director Mark Cousins who shares photos, drawings and paintings that add another dimension to our existing knowledge of the Hollywood maverick’s talents to amuse. 

THE EYES OF ORSON WELLES plays out like a person to person love letter to narrated by its director director Mark Cousins, in his lilting Belfast burr, bringing him up to date on how the world has changed since his departure on 10 October 1985 at the age of only 70.

Orson Welles was not just an actor, director and writer known for his wide-ranging films, plays and creative endeavours, but a pioneering maverick who wasn’t afraid to stand apart from the crowd and champion his  ideals. He was a towering figure both physically and intellectually, so much so that  J Edgar Hoover added him to the US security list.

This is not the first time Cousins has adopted this style for his documentaries: What Is This Film Called Love? and I Am Belfast are similarly crafted and mark him out to be an engaging writer who 2017 book The Story Of Looking, The Eyes Of Orson Welles is a also epistolary in style. Initially commanding there are times when his didactic, stentorian tone feels a little too heavy-going and you long for a lighter touch to the way he engages enthusiastically with his subject.

But this must undoubtedly be one of the most encyclopaedic films – possibly the defiinitive biopic of the master as Cousins embarks with the blessing of Beatrice (Welles third daughter by Dolores del Rio) on a peripatetic odyssey enriched with photos, paintings – even Christmas cards – and archival footage charting Welles’ birthplace in Wisconsin in 1915 and on to Ireland, Paris, Morocco and Spain to mention a few countries visited in his lifetime

Orson may have been outspoken but he was also generous and public-spirited and took great interest in charity work and espoused old-fashioned ideas of chivalry – in common with the  character of Don Quixote (his unfinished film commenced shooting in 1957 but never came to fruition); he was a natural in his performances as Winston Churchill, Louis XVII, Michelangelo, Benjamin Franklin, Emperor Justinian and other great minds and leaders .

This is a mammoth undertaking which Cousins pulls off with his customary aplomb as he delves deeper and deeper into the life, loves and singular visual style of this intriguing genius. But in a sense there is a feeling that he only scratches the surface in just short of two hours.

Daughter Beatrice Welles makes her presence known but never outstays her welcome which seems to add a dimension that could have been more thoroughly explored. MT

NOW SCREENING AT DOCHOUSE COURTESY OF DOGWOOF AND OTHER VENUES NATIONWIDE FROM 17 AUGUST 2018

Elvis ‘68 Comeback Special (2018) ***

Dir.: Steve Binder; Documentary with Elvis Presley; USA 1968/2018, 105 min.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of this legendary Elvis Presley Comeback Show, originally filmed in the NBC studios in June 1968, director Steve Binder and Priscilla Presley shed light on the details of the recordings; followed bya 90-minute special cut of the original 440- minute DVD. The Special Edition will be shown in cinemas on August the 16th, the 41th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death.

Presley’s manager Colonel Tom Parker, who had pushed the singer into a mediocre Hollywood career after his return from Military Service, originally wanted the first public appearance of Presley for seven years as a Christmas Special, but when ‘Hullabaloo’ producer/director Steve Binder came on board everything changed, though Parker church a hope that at least the final song would be a festive one for the screening in December of that year. But Binder sent Presley away to slim down, and for the start of the recordings on June 17th in the NBC studios, he re-united Presley with his original musicians Fontana and Scotty Moore, later adding Mike Deasey and Hal Blaine to support the star. Presley was a little shy at first, but soon started goofing around on and off the little stage, which looked “like an open boxing ring”. And he certainly looks terrific in a swanky black leather outfit and his signature slicked back hairdo. More sexually alluring but with the same dry sense of humour as The Beatles, who had made their own tour of the US two years earlier.

For the planned Gospel medley recordings on June 27th, Parker had given out tickets mainly to NBC security guards, and Binder personally went to ‘Bob’s Big Boy’ to get a much different age group to attend. Whilst classics like “Guitar Man”, “That’s alright” and “Heartbreak Hotel” make us remember how great Presley was creatively and physically (only nine years before his death), Binder cut the infamous ‘Bordello’ sequence. A week after shooting ended, Presley started the Western Charro. As Blaine said “Everybody was on Cloud Nine” – but Presley would never be the same, even in his third, ‘Las Vegas’ re-incarnation. This release is bound to be a hit with fans of the star and may even garner some new interest from the current millennial generation. AS

AVAILABLE IN UK CINEMAS FOR ONE NIGHT ONLY ON 16 AUGUST 2018 ACROSS 250 CINEMAS NATIONWIDE 

Tribute to Claude Lanzmann (1925-2018)

Claude Lanzmann, who was born in Paris in 1925, died today in the city of his birth, aged 92. He will always be remembered for the ground-breaking undertaking of Shoah, which took twelve years (1974-1985) to finish; the reconstruction of the genocide, lasting 560 minutes, a unique, monumental achievement.

Born as the grandson of Russian Jews who fled the pogroms, his upbringing was marred by the unhappy marriage of his parents: when Claude was nine, his mother Paulette left the family, which, ironically, came as a relief to her son: “I feared the marriage of my parents would end in suicide, or even murder”. His father, politically aware, taught his children survival techniques, which came in handy during the Nazi occupation of France. In 1943 Claude was sent to boarding school in Clermont-Ferrand, where he joined the Jeunesses Communistes and the resistance. In his autobiography Le Lievre de Patagonie (2009), he is quiet critical about himself, not having stood up enough for persecuted fellow students.

After the war he went to Tubingen in Germany where he met Nazi officers for the first time at the estate of the Von Neurath family, where he discovered a mini-concentration camp on the grounds. He went afterwards to teach in Berlin at the newly founded Free University. Lanzmann was unhappy about the lame De-Nazification process and he asked for Jean-Paul Sartre’s Reflexions sur la Question Juive to be read by his students. This led to him joining Sartre and De Beauvoir at the Paris offices of Les Temps Modernes later – whose editor he was since 2016. Between 1952 and 1957 he lived with Simone de Beauvoir “I am the only man with whom Simone lived a quasi-marital existence.”  Claude’s younger sister Evelyne, an actress, had a passionate relationship with Sartre, Lanzmann and de Beauvoir trying to keep matters secret. But after Evelyne’s suicide at the age of forty in 1967, the papers were full of accusations of Lanzmann, “having pimped out his sister to Sartre”. Whilst this might be a little harsh, the fact remains that Sartre was 22 years older than Evelyne, who took being left by him very hard – no wonder after the trauma of her childhood. In 1952 Lanzmann went for the first time to Israel, where he would start his career as a filmmaker in 1973 with Pourquoi Israel? Whilst taking a progressive stand on the Algerian question, signing the Manifesto of the 121 to end the war, Lanzmann always legitimised Israel’s right to keep the occupied territories. His documentary Tshal (1994) is full of praise for the Israeli Defence Forces, even though he admitted that the Palestinians should have their own country – later.

But the Holocaust dominated his output: of his nine features, five dealt with the subject: most interesting Sobibor October 1943, 4 pm, about the successful uprising in the death camp of the title. Then there is A Visitor from the Living (1999), in which Lanzmann interviews the Swiss Red Cross attache Maurice Rossell, who, after visiting the death camp of Theresienstadt late in the war, wrote a favourable report, praising the Nazis for their ‘generosity’. Lanzmann’s last feature, Four Sisters, dealing again with Holocaust survivors, was premiered the day before his death. He was adamant, that Shoah was not a documentary: “The word makes me want to take a pistol and shoot”.AS

 

Fred (2018)*** | DVD release

Dir: Paul Van Carter | Doc | UK |

Paul Van Carter (The Guv’nor) spills the beans in this solemn non-judgemental exposé of Kray Twins associate Freddie Foreman – or Brown Bread Fred, as he’s known in the trade. As biopics go this is a stealthy but straightforward affair heavily controlled by Foreman’s brooding and rather swarthy presence as he sits facing Carter, only sharing what he wants to – and that’s not a great deal, in the scheme of things. Most of the detail surrounding this ruthless villain’s bloody past is in the pubic domain, including his part in the grizzly demise of Jack the Hat McVitie – for which he served ten years behind bars, and Freddie openly admits to this. But by the same token, he describes himself as a family man who never really wanted to harm anyone unless they got out of hand. Foreman has been accused of over forty murders, yet he’s not troubled by his gangland past: heartache comes only in the shape of memories of the Blitz and his Wartime childhood. And he certainly has a way with words, and a calm economy of movement when alluding to his misdemeanours, in phrasing that could be described as euphemistic. As a figure he very much calls to mind Bob Hoskins’ character in The Long Good Friday but Foreman has a brutal hard-edged quality that not even Bob could muster in his superlative performance. Foreman blames his criminal past on his impoverished upbringing as one of five boys in London’s Battersea, long before it became posh. And despite his shrewd entrepreneurialism – he went straight for two years in the US and Spain – he still reverted to his recidivist ways: clearly crime runs in his blood, even when the money flowed too. In his 80s and with strained family relations, Foreman now lives in a care home, where no doubt he is getting a taste of his own medicine. MT

NOW AVAILABLE ON DIGITAL DOWNLOAD 28 MAY AND ON 4 JUNE DVD

Crowhurst (2017) ****

Dir: Simon Rumley | Cast: Justin Salinger, Amy Loughton, Haydn May, Marcus May, Austin May, Agatha Cameron Kettle | UK | Drama | 104′

Following on from Colin Firth’s portrayal of Donald Crowhurst in The Mercy, comes Simon Rumley’s biopic drama casting Justin Salinger in the role of the lone British yachtsman who disappeared while sailing round the world in 1968.

This is the strange but true story of a wannabe hero who bottled out without leaving a message when his attempt to circumnavigate the globe hit troubled waters. His poorly prepared vessel and delayed late autumn start didn’t help matters. Marooned in the middle of nowhere he threw in the towel when the elements conspired against him. James Marsh’s The Mercy was a decent stab at the story and enjoyable enough largely due to Colin Firth and Rachel Weisz in the lead roles. But Rumley’s low budget psychological drama is by far a better film. Leaner, meaner and infinitely more moving, it cuts straight to the chase with some salient, snappily edited opening scenes that see the entire endeavour from Crowhurst’s unique point of view. Spare on dialogue, it’s a plucky prequel to the descent into doom. Salinger’s Crowhurst is a pullover-ed Walter Mitty character whose ambition far outreaches his talent. With an ailing business on his hands, his first concern is winning the money, and his ego explodes buoyed up by the prospect of being a hero – from the safety of his chintzy armchair in Teignmouth. While Firth’s Crowhurst was more internalised about the drawbacks, trying to contain his anxiety and hide it from his family; Salinger bluffs things over with a misplaced bravado that often gets the better of him in the wee small hours when he sobs into his wife’s comforting bosom.

After the stress of the preparation, the bleached out sailing sequences are the dreamlike impressionistic focus of this trip to the nightmarish depths of claustrophobic despair. Told through the intricate details of his domestic hell inside the boat: sleepless nights, tinned food, broken equipment and flooding – all this is set to a minimal ambient score of electronic beeps and echoes as the haunting loneliness of his dread and anxiety eventually leads to the epiphany moment where he morphs into maniacal Mitty mode before madness and misadventure eventually blow his mind and puncture his spirit after a solitary slap up lunch on Christmas Day. While, on dry land, his bloated agent, wife and back-up team give rousing renditions of “Jerusalem”, ” Silent Night” and “I Vow to the My Country”, Mr Mitty is having a ghostly last tango in Argentina. MT

NOW ON RELEASE AT SELECTED ARTHOUSE CINEMAS FROM 23 MARCH 2018

 

 

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot (2018) ** Berlinale 2018

Dir: Gus Van Sant | Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Jonah Hill, Rooney Mara, Jack Black, Udo Kier | Biopic | US 113′

Joaquin Phoenix plays a recovering alcoholic artist in Gus Van Sant’s latest drama. And it’s a gruelling journey padded with scenes of fuzzy humour, based on the autobiography of prolific cartoonist John Callahan whose drawings lighten the load. Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot chronicles the aftermath of an accident which leaves him quadriplegic, his doodles providing a creative outlet for his bitter frustration and struggle to come off the wagon, in a reduced physical state.

On and off screen lover-cum-nurse Annu (Rooney Mara) gives him affectionate support along with John (Joaquin Phoenix) his patron, gay philanthropist Donnie (Jonah Hill). Feelgood but toothless, Don’t Worry is also quite tedious to watch as the frequent flashbacks shows the before and after, Phoenix often wallowing in self-pity and milking his melancholy for all he can get. But there are amusing scenes where he rides his wheelchair in traffic and up skateboard ramps. When it comes to paraplegic comedy dramas, Kills on Wheels (2016) did it better, along with the memorable Untouchable (2011).

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot tries to be touching and soulful in its portrait of redemption. And despite its strong cast, it just adds insult to injury. MT

NOW ON GENERAL RELEASE | BERLINALE REVIEW 2018

Birth of the Dragon (2017)

Dir.: George Nolfi; Cast: Yu Xia, Philip Ng, Billy Magnussen, Jingjing Qu, Jiu Xing; China/Canada/USA 2016, 95′.

A disappointing outing for director George Nolfi (The Adjustment Bureau), featuring a young Bruce Lee and his legendary fight with Shaolin master Wong Jack Man in San Francisco in 1964. Writers Christopher Wilkinson and Stephen J. Rivele are certainly no Philip K. Dick, the novelist of The Adjustment Bureau, and Nolfi seemingly appears only as good as the material he is presented with.

Recut from the version which ran at TIFF 2016, Birth features Steve (Magnussen), a young student of Bruce Lee (Ng)who soon leaves his training with Lee to join Master Wong Jack Man (Yu), who has fetched up in San Francisco after injuring a fellow competitor by delivering a forbidden kick. Wong wants to ‘cleanse his soul’ and become pure again, but is not particularly humble, and soon attacks Lee for his fighting style. The two thrash it out, with Wong sparing Lee’s life. Meanwhile, Steve has fallen for the waitress Xiulan (Jingjing), who is in thrall to a female crime boss (Jiu) who is threatening to put her into prostitution, if she doesn’t cut her ties with the young trainee. Lee and Wong cooperate, to set her free. And whilst the future Kung Fu King changes his fighting style to something less spectacular, Wong returns to his monastery. BIRTH has the feeling of an old-fashioned Hollywood gangster movie, underpinned by the backdrop of an idealised 1970s San Francisco. The “narrative” is as slight as the snake-hipped fighters, and everything is held together by the fighting numbers. For committed Lee/Kung Fu fans only. AS

ON RELEASE AT ARTHOUSE CINEMAS FROM FEBRUARY 23, 2018

Bingo: King of the Mornings (2017)

Dir.: Daniel Rezende; Cast: Vladimir Brichta, Leandra Leal, Tania Muller, Caua Martins, Ana Lucia Torres; Brazil 2017, 113′.

First time director Daniel Rezende, well known for his editing on features like City of God, offers up a vivid, almost lurid, but essentially empty biopic of actor turned children’s entertainer Arlindo Barreto, known here as Augusto Mendes. Very much in the style of a Tele novela, BINGO (aka Bozo) is larger than life, almost a caricature of his own caricature. In early 1980s Buenos Aires, we first Augusto Mendes (Brichta) getting by as an actor in soft-porn movies and bit-player in Tele novelas. But he craves fame, in order to impress his mother Marta (Torres) and much neglected son Gabriel (Martins). Somehow he lands the role of the clown Bingo in a morning-show for children’s television. Against the will of director Lucia (Leal), a born again evangelical Christian, he spices up his part and becomes an over-night sensation. But drugs and alcohol take their toll, and he gets the sack after nearly losing his life in a drunken debacle . But every cloud has a silver lining, particularly where Bingo is concerned. This Brazilian crowd-pleasing Oscar hopeful (it didn’t make the final list) uses every cliché in the book to put its message across. Certainly BINGO has its merits as a pure spectacle – Lula Carvalho’s eye-catching visuals are ferociously lively and colourful, but Rezende’s simplistic approach to the narrative makes Mendes’ conversion to religious zealot rather unconvincing: underlining the trusted caveat: Beware of features claiming to be “based on a true story”. AS

NOW ON RELEASE NATIONWIDE FROM 15 DECEMBER

 

 

 

 

Desert Dancer (2015)

Dir.: Richard Raymond | Cast: Reece Ritchie, Frieda Pinto, Makram Khoury, Bamshad Abedi-Amin | UK/UAE/Romania/Morocco | 98 min |BIOPIC  

Iranian dancer Afshin Ghaffarian fled to Paris in 2009 and his biopic from first time writer\director Richard Raymond’s is straight from the heart. Some may find the film’s directness reductive, but the narrative deals with young, rebellious students and detachment and reasoning are not their strength.

Since the Iranian ‘Revolution’ of 1979, dancing is forbidden under Islamic law, even though it was allowed up til then. As recently as 2014, six Iranian teenagers were punished with 91 lashes for dancing to Pharrell Williams’ ‘Happy’ on a YouTube video. The young Afshin (Gabriel Senior) grows up in this repressive climate, just copying some moves from a bootleg DVD of Dirty Dancing. Afshin is by a supportive teacher Mehdi (Khoury), who runs an independent school in their hometown of Mashhad, and allows him to express himself in front of an audience. Mehdi also exposes his young audience to western theatre, literature and music – even though the co-ed classes might not be particularly realistic.

When Afshin (now played by Ritchie) is a first year student at Tehran University, he meets fellow students in an illegal techno dance club (situated far underground to make the point) and they start a dance group, rehearsing in an abandoned print press. Afshin falls in love with Elaheh (Pinto), the daughter of a dancer with the Iranian National Ballet, who had to stop dancing after 1979, putting all her energy into teaching her daughter, before overdosing on heroin. Elaheh is far better trained than Afshin and she becomes his teacher. Unfortunately, she is also drug dependent; Afshin helping her to break the dependency. One member of the underground group is the polite engineer student Mehran (Abedi-Amin), whose brother is part of a gang of clerical thugs who terrorise the students with batons and knives.

Mehran’s brother finds out about the dance troupe’s plan to put on a performance for a selected audience in the desert – but and he sends him to a place far away from the actual performance. Forced to leave university, he tells Afshin “it was worth it, for one afternoon of freedom”. After Afshin is arrested at a pro Mousavi demonstration, Mehran’s brother makes an attempt to murder him and it becomes clear that he must find a way out of country.

Raymond is very successful in portraying the conspiratorial underground scene of the students: whilst the fear is palpable, there is also a good deal of daring. To criticise this as simplistic is missing the point: young people in any dictatorship – particularly this cultural oppression in Iran – do react simply with gut feeling and this is not a well thought out strategy. To provoke the authorities, kids go for maximum effect, choosing the most apparent examples of the forbidden culture; even if Dirty Dancing and other example of mainstream western culture are objectively not as daring as the would-revolutionaries in Iran think. The dance scenes in the desert are the highpoint of this drama: not just because of  Afshin and Elaheh’s passionate dancing, but also the rapt attention of the audience, who, like the dancers, were very much aware of the dangers. DOP Carlos Catalan vibrant visuals help to recreate an atmosphere of unbridled rebellion in a climate of open brutality created by the clerical wing of fundamentalism. The shots in the underground venues and the close-ups with the main couple are particularly impressive making DESERT DANCER entertaining as well as valuable from the insight it offers. AS

DESERT DANCER OPENS ON 22 APRIL 2016

The Honourable Rebel (2015)

Dir.: Mike Fraser

Cast: Dorothea Myer-Bennett, Montserrat Roig de Puig, Martin Wimbush, Christopher Rozycki

UK 2015, 97 min.

TV director/producer Mike Fraser makes his feature debut with a biopic drama of the aristocrat and socialite Elizabeth Montagu (1909-2002) that has the style of a 1950s Miss Marple movie, or Foyle’s War without the talents of Michael Kitchen.

Born on the estate of Beaulieu in Hampshire, she would have succeeded her father, the Third Baron Montagu to the title, if he would not have fathered her half-brother with his second wife, after the death of Elizabeth’s mother. Called “little fellow” by her father who clearly wanted a boy, Elizabeth (Myer-Bennett) rebelled early on and became an able car mechanic, replacing the broken fan belt in her father’s car successfully with one of her stockings. Later she went to RADA and played in Reps in Newcastle, before having a stage career in London’s Westend. She joined the Army in WWII as an ambulance driver in France, cleverly evading the Nazis to Switzerland, where she worked for Alan Dulles’ OSS. As a cover, she worked in the music and theatre scene, writing the libretto for Liebermann’s opera “School for Wives”. After her return to England, she worked for Alexander Korda (Christopher Rozycki), met Graham Greene and Carol Reed participating in the production of THE THIRD MAN’. After marrying Colonel Arthur Varley (Martin Wimbush), she returned to Beaulieu.Montagu was clearly was a talented woman who turned her hand to a variety of endeavours and excelled in them due to her confidence and considerable enterprise. An accomplished pianist, she enjoyed a long affair with the professional pianist and teacher Renata Borgatti (Roig de Puig).

Dorothea Myer-Bennett in only her third film appearance, lacks (like Fraser) the experience to portray Montagu; she also lacks her elegance, judging from photos and plays the “rebel” as a middle-aged, rather stuffy woman – uninspiring to say the least. The dialogue is excruciating, lines like “the symphony goes on, but the movement has ended”, when Elizabeth meets an ex-lover after being separated during the war years, are only too typical. Diana Rigg’s voice-over of lines from Montagu’s autobiography are read in the manner of a schoolgirl reciting the catechism. There is also another talking head in the shape of a Montague family member. All these narrative imputs make the production feel fussy and unprofessional. Montague’s is story that has everything going for it: wartime intrigue, romance, espionage and aristocratic cache – with a decent script and great performances Farr could have made this a knockout wartime drama.

Filmed entirely in the UK, scenes set in France and Switzerland lack any authenticity and the action scenes are clumsily executed. DOP Pete Edwards’ visuals flesh out the second-hand nature of this amateur production. THE HONOURABLE REBEL is a missed opportunity: Elizabeth Montagu might not have been as successful as she hoped, but unlike most of the cast and crew of this film, she at least had some guts and style. AS/MT

ON RELEASE FROM 4 DECEMBER 2015

Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films (2014)

Dir.: Mark Hartley

Documentary; Australia/USA/Israel/UK 2014, 107 min.

Mark Hartley (Machete Maidens unleashed) is no stranger to the weirder aspects of film history at the lower end of the spectrum, and ELECTRIC BOOGALOO certainly dives deep into the underbelly of the film industry – but coming up with a few contradictory facts regarding our perception of exploitation film making.

Cannon Films was founded in 1967, and, until the arrival of Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus in 1979, had produced mainly horror shockers like The Blood on Satan’s Claw. The cousins Golan and Globus would not change the contents of Cannon’s film slate very much (apart from a few exceptions mentioned later), but production values would compete, at certain times, with the ones of the major studios; whilst the duo’s production by numbers rose to eighteen in 1987, compared with the usual yearly output of the majors of six to eight.

Golan, who would direct some the films himself, was the artistic half, whilst Globus juggled the finances. Both had great success in Israel with Lemon Popsicle in 1978: produced for 10m Shekel, 1.3 million citizens (more than a third of the total population) watched the film, so did 2.7 million Germans. The teenage sex comedy was remade as a Cannon Film in 1982 with the title The Last American Virgin. The cousins were obviously led by the maxim that every film could only get better if naked women appeared frequently. With a few exceptions, these scenes were not offensively pornographic; more often than not, the nakedness was involuntarily funny. Lucinda Dickey and Bo Derek, commenting on their former selves in this documentary, can see the funny side of the embarrassing clips. Much more obscene were Michael Winner’s Death Wish sequels, which, so one observer, “simply served the purpose for Winner to be obnoxious”.

On the whole, Globus/Golan found work for stars whose career was on the downward trajectory: actors like Elliot Gould or Franco Nero, the latter having the honour to be first Ninja in Enter the Ninja (1980). Directors, who had seen better days included Justin Jacklin of ‘Emmanuelle’ fame, Barbet Schroeder (Barfly, 1987), John Frankenheimer (52 Pick Up, 1986) and Tobe Hooper, whose Lifeforce (1985) was the ultimate ‘zombie-vampire-end of the world-nude movie – starring a very young Mathilda May, a B-picture produced at the staggering cost of 25m $, easily 40 m in todays money. But it should be said, that some exceptions made these excesses easier to bear: Jean-Luc Godard’s King Lear (1987), John Cassavates Love Streams (1984), Neil Jordan’s Company of Wolves (1985) and Andrei Konchalovski’s Runaway Train from the same year show a different side of Cannon. The same goes for Franco Zeffirelli’s Verdi opera Otello (1986), the director, not the easiest to work with, stating rather surprisingly, “that Golan and Globus were the best producers he ever worked for”.

What brought the end for the Golan/Globus reign at Cannon was the fact, that they grew too quickly. At one time, Golan/Globus had over 50% of the UK cinema market with their “Classic” and “ABC” chains; on top they had acquired EMI, with their library of over 2000 films, and the studios in Elstree. This was all sold, to make even bigger films, like Superman IV (1987), a disaster with the worst special effects possible. Cannon than paid Sylvester Stalone the unheard sum of 12 m in the same year, to appear in Over the Top, an arm wrestling (sic!) ‘action’ film, which bombed at the box office. At the same time, Cannon had a five year option with “marvel’ for Spiderman, the rights reverted after five years back to Marvel, later to be picked up by Columbia, But after his ‘divorce’ from Cannon and Globus in 1989, Menachem Golan produced Captain America for Marvel and his new company ’21 Century’ – alas, the ten million $ project went more or less straight to video.

The parting of Golan (who died in 2014 at the age of eighty five) and Globus was bitter; on March 16th, two Lambada films had their premiere in Hollywood, one produced by Globus for Cannon, the rival one by Golan for 21. Century. As somebody commented “this was even surreal for Hollywood standards”. And surreal is an apt description for the whole Cannon adventure, documented here informative, full of witty/bitchy remarks and clips which make you laugh in Hartley’s ELECTRIC BOOGALOO, the title of a1985 Cannon film, the sequel to another, rather successful, Cannon classic Breakin. AS

OUT ON GENERAL RELEASE FROM 5 JUNE 2015

 

 

A Fuller Life (2013)

Dir.: Samantha Fuller

Documentary with Jennifer Beals, Wim Wenders, Monte Hellman, Constance Towers

USA 2013 , 80 min.

Samuel Fuller (1912-1997) was a true maverick, which is not only reflected in the 24 feature he shot, but also in his personal life that was at least as adventurous as the narratives of his films. His daughter Samantha uses excerpts from Fuller’s autobiography ‘A Third Face’, read by twelve directors and actors, as well as clips from his films, and recently discovered 16 mm films shot by her father, showing him at War, with his family and working on sets.

Growing up in the Upper West Side of New York, young Sam had to sell newspapers from an early age to support his family. A this is how journalism entered his life and became his first love – he literally bullied his way into becoming a crime reporter. His mentor, Gene Fowler, moved to Hollywood before him, where the two met up again; Fuller becoming a script writer, but soon finding out that directors did not stick to his scripts. Just before the USA entered WWII, Fuller’s novel ‘The Dark Page’ was published to great critical acclaim. Upon joining the army, he was offered a cushy desk job, but decided to join the infantry. He saw action in Africa, Sicily, Normandy on D-Day and finally during the liberation of Germany. In Aachen he met Marlene Dietrich, and persuaded her to give a message to his agent back in Hollywood (who happened to be also Dietrich’ agent), to send Fuller some cigars. Fuller was at the scene of the liberation of concentration camp in Falkenau, his 16mm films, showing the unimaginable horror. As a result, he experienced recurring nightmares when he returned to Hollywood, where he started his career as a director in 1949 with I Shot Jesse James, followed by Park Row (1952), about the newspaper business in New York. Whilst his unruly nature made him a committed anti-communist, he was equally critical of the McCarthy ‘witch hunts’ in Hollywood. When FBI director Hoover met Fuller after having seen the latter’s Pick Up on South Street, to complain about a scene in which a pick-pocket (played by Richard Widmark), makes fun of the hunt for the ‘Reds’, Fuller told Hoover to back off, telling him that “his characters say what they have to say”. Later, when the truth about Hoover’s private and professional life was uncovered, Fuller was proved right: “There was this guy, who wanted to shut me up, but used his office to cover up what he did”.But Fuller’s lack of obedience to authority made him an outsider in Hollywood. He was pushed into ‘poverty row’, directing B-pictures like Shock Corridor (1963) and Naked Kiss (1964), which were ground breaking, but marginalised the director at the time. After White Dog (1982), unjustly categorised as ‘racist’, his last two films, the David Goodis adaption Street of no Return (1989) and La Madonne et Le Dragon (1990), about the civil war in the Philippines, where produced in France.

A FULLER LIFE is a biography read in twelve segments by artists who either worked with Samuel Fuller like Jennifer Beals, Kelly Ward, Wim Wenders, Constance Towers (the latter starred in Shock Corridor and Naked Kiss), and admirers like directors Monte Hellmann and William Friedkin. The clips, showing Fuller at work on the set or at War, show a fearless person, who, while a committed American, was also a critic of his country, uncovering the activities of the ‘Ku Klux Klan’ in the press and on the screen, and being one of the first directors employing Afro-American actors in meaningful roles in his films. Whilst the readings sometimes ‘drown out’ the accompanying images, the pure wealth of the socio-political information make A FULLER LIFE a treasure trove not only for film buffs. AS

ON GENERAL RELEASE FROM 15 MAY 2014

 

Dior and I (2014) | London Fashion Week

Director: Frédéric Tcheng | France, Biopic 99′

In early black and white news footage of Christian Dior and his creations, shown in the opening sequence of Frédéric Tcheng’s documentary the designer comes across as a timid, elegant, family-loving man who “hated noise”. But this is all we really discover about a legendary icon who founded the House of Dior in 1946, only to work there for 10 years. Tcheng then shows how the brand still lives on with its clear and powerful mission to create ultra feminine designs.

In the contemporary Paris atélier we meet Raf Simons (ex Gil Sander) the new creative director and a minimalist who started life as an industrial designer, and who is now set to take over the house, attempting to modernise the haute couture side while also staying faithful to the Christian Dior ethos. He has just 8 weeks to prepare for the premiere launch.

As Raf steps up to the grand stage, it is hoped he will embrace this feminine image with all its embellishments while taking it into the 21st century. Tcheng intercuts his documentary with frequent news footage of the Dior’s early years, showing how he created the “New Look” celebrating the end of rationing to create a full-skirted female silhouette as couture took on a more womanly and floaty profile in the post war fifties’ return to voluptuousness after the austere, masculine, structured look of the forties.

We see how Raf Simons works quickly and formally to create his vision for a new dynamic woman, producing 12 looks that are then taken up by each of the seamstresses, who each chose their favourite design and then get to work on the launch. This is a stressful, pressurised time, running to deadlines and balancing creativity with practicality: but the house has ample finances to draw on thanks to its ownership by Bernard Arnault (billionaire Chairman of LVMH).

Raf Simons feels an increasing empathy with the late designer: reading his memoirs and even visiting his childhood home for inspiration. Dior and I works best when focusing on this theme of creativity and the essence of fashion genius, giving valuable insight. Sadly this fascination fades as Tcheng draws his focus towards the hurly burly of the premiere and to pleasing Dior’s illustrious clientale and members of the Press. This is a process we’ve seems many times before in his recent Diana Vreeland and Valentino outings, and the Carine Roitfeld documentary Mademoiselle C in 2014. Although Simons appears confident and in control during the design process, he quails away from Press interviews and claims he ‘would faint’ if required to walk down the catwalk.

While starting promisingly Dior and I descends into a clichéd affair of air-kissing celebrity. Insight into the conflicts, personal dynamics and professional relationships are buried under a deluge of tears, Champagne and roses once the premiere is underway and Tcheng draws the focus away from the more engaging topic of Simons’ creative strategy and the real Mr Christian Dior, who sadly remains an enigmatic character. That said, this is an upbeat, well-paced and compelling introduction to the elegant and sophisticated House of Dior.  John Galliano is nowhere to be seen. MT

| DIOR AND I on DVD courtesy of Dogwoof Films | Reviewed at Tribeca Film Festival 2014

 

 

Vanessa Lapa | Interview | The Decent one

Andre Simonoveisz spoke to Vanessa Lapa about her documentary on Heinrich Himmler.

F: How did the Heinrich Himmler project first come about?

V.L.: Before the film project, I knew no more than the basics about Heinrich Himmler, nothing about his private life. Neither as a filmmaker or a journalist had I had any dealing in any subject specific of Himmler. In 2006 I was informed by Professor Laor, a psychiatrist at Tel Aviv and Yale University, that the private diaries of Heinrich Himmler had been found. We undertook authentication, to make sure the letters and photos were genuine. Letters and photos had been discovered under the bed of a collector, who might have acquired them either on the Brussels flea market, in LA or from a Mexican couple in the early or mid nineteen sixties.

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F: For many years, historians thought, Reinhardt Heydrich was the “brains” behind Himmler, there is even a very interesting book with the title “Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich” (Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich). But later, it became clear that Himmler was the real organiser of the Holocaust and other atrocities, and was only answerable to Hitler. Do you agree with that?

V.L.: Yes. Himmler was much more than a “yes-man” he was a thinker. Unlike others, like Eichmann, who “just followed orders”. Himmler gave these orders, well thought them out, and others in the SS were the “processors”.

F.: Do you think, his strict Catholic upbringing had something to do with the political views which he developed very early in his adult life.

V.L.: He was like everybody else, influenced by his upbringing; but he, like everybody else, had choices. But I believe that the cultural influence in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century played they part too. He was a nationalist, dreamer, be believed in myths, not reality. But nothing excuses the choices he made later.

 

F.: Do you believe that he came to his position as the all powerful Reichsführer SS, only by accident, because he was at the right in the right place. After all, when he joined the SS, there were only 290 SS men, but the SA was a much more powerful organisation, with over 2 million members.

V.L.: A good question. I believe, one goes with the other. With the socio-political situation in Germany at that time, it was possible for a man like Hitler to lead the Nazi movement, but Himmler would have had not the abilities to do so. So, yes, Himmler was in the right position at the time – but Hitler did not have to influence him at all, Himmler found Hitler, but equally, Hitler found Himmler. Himmler did not have to be convinced of anything by Hitler, but, without the rise of the Nazi party to power, Himmler would have never become such a powerful man. Himmler hated everything and everybody who was different from him – from an early age onwards. Even as a child, in his diary, we can find the “older” Himmler. He wrote constantly about Germany’s progress in the war. Most boys of fourteen might write about politics a little in their diaries, but mainly about football and girls. But Himmler did not. It did not took much to make Heinrich Himmler feel at home in nationalist politics in the early thirties in Germany.

The Decent One

F.: Do you think that his ability to compartmentalise, which is really a denial, was greater with Himmler than other Nazi leaders?

V.L.: This is a difficult question to ask. I have worked on this film with historians but also psychiatrist; and looking at his writings, there is something in Heinrich Himmler which is evil beyond comprehension. To believe there are decent ways to kill and that there a good reasons to murder people, this I cannot understand. But he is not the only one, neither past nor present. There are a lot of Himmlers around today and under the right circumstances, it could well turn out like in the 1930s and 1940s in Germany. I don’t think that in 1933 or 1935, Hitler or Himmler had any plans for the holocaust, it was a process.

F.: Do you believe that his agricultural studies at university, where they taught him about selection (“Auslese”) of plants and animals, had something to do with his later obsession of “cleansing”?

V.L.: I cannot visualise that his studies had anything to do with the evil he did later. Likewise, to think that so many leading Nazis were vegetarians – even after discussing this with psychiatrists – I am not able to understand this either. How can one mass murder humans, but do not eat meat because not cannot kill an animal? This is a perversion, like Himmler made a perversion of his whole life, being it love, friendship or family. He managed to pervert everything – but I do not think he was Jekyll/Hyde character. Writing to his wife, just before his wedding: “I love you, but there are other things I love more”, and without saying it exactly, he meant killing other humans. This way he deprived his wife and child of love.

F.: But how do you explain that his daughter Gudrun followed her father politically, she was known at the “Nazi Princess” in post war West Germany.

V.L.: I believe, that Gudrun was blinded, and in love with her father, which is normal for a 12 year old, but her decisions as an adult were only her responsibility. Between the ages of 20 and 30, you can form a real picture of your father, still loving him as a father – but, she would have been able, with the help of therapy, perhaps, to see what her father really was and not follow his beliefs as an adult. The problem with Gudrun is that she made choices as an adult. The children of other high-ranking Nazis were also traumatised, but made different choices. Radical choices too, like one of them, who became a Rabbi. This is extreme too, but the children of these parents were psychologically very much damaged.

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F: But this “Nazi” mindset in not exclusively a German phenomenon.

V.L. Not, it has happened in other countries, like Russia, Ukraine; Italy too, they were no angels. But the way of execution was a specific German way. I have to grant that. I don’t know if this is a mind set which was there at the time, or is still existent. But overall, this is for me are more global, human problem.

F.: Do you think that HH’s continuous poor health: migraine and violent stomach cramps, were a sign of his body, telling him that he was doing something wrong? We know, his masseur, Kersten, saved many Jews, by only massaging Himmler, when he promised to release Jews.

V.L.: Heinrich Himmler did not believe for a moment, that what he was doing could be wrong, he was absolutely sure that he was right. But I do believe that he was a coward, because in the end he committed suicide, he did not stand up for his deeds. And before that, he was ready to save Jews, but only to save his own life. In trying to negotiate with the Allies for peace, he was not even loyal to Hitler any more in the end. There are many crazy, vicious men, who go through with their conviction to the end, but Heinrich Himmler did not. He betrayed everything he stood for and expected others to do the same.

F.: So, as a last question, would you agree that he was really a very weak person, who got his strength from his position only, but projected his own inferiority complex on others, Jews and homosexuals.

V.L.: Heinrich Himmler was a weak person, he was just above average intelligence. Mainly, he was a small grey, weak bureaucrat, and that is most frightening.

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F.: So you would agree with Hannah Arendt and her description of the Nazi leadership as “banality of evil”.

V.L.: No, I don’t agree with that. I very much question now Arendt’s thesis. Firstly, there is a great difference between Eichmann and Himmler. For the latter and many others one can say, that there is no banality in the evil they chose. I see only evil in Himmler; and the danger is, that this evil is accepted by society, when the evil ideology becomes common. But to repeat, this does not make Himmler’s evil banal, in no way.

THE DECENT ONE IS OUT ON GENERAL RELEASE FROM 3 April 2014 on Curzon Film World

Mr Turner (2014) | DVD blu release

MR_TURNER_still_2 copyMr Turner | Best Actor – Timothy Spall | Cannes 2014 | Biopic |149mins

Director: Mike Leigh

Cast: Timothy Spall, Lesley Manville, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey, Joshua Maguire

Mike Leigh’s ambitious biopic of J M W Turner’s last twenty years serves as a worthy and painterly tribute to a national treasure. In a performance of some complexity, Timothy Spall portrays the ‘painter of light’ as a romantic gruffalo with a heart of gold but a curious style of love-making. The film opens in 1826 in a magnificent Dutch landscape where Turner is visiting to develop the impressionist style of his later years. A solid British cast works to the ‘Leigh family method’ fleshing out contempo social history: At the Royal Academy we meet arch rivals John Constable (a haughty James Fleet) and other Leigh ‘staples’ (Lesley Manville, Ruth Sheen). At home in his studio, Dorothy Atkinson plays his obliging house-keeper, a willing recipient of his sexual abuse. All are carefully worked into the narrative along with a humorous vignette from Joshua Maguire as a geeky live-wire John Ruskin. In Margate, Turner finds peace amd contentment with a local landlady (a luminous Marion Bailey). Victorian England is very much a character, proudly flying the flag of the Empire at its peak but Leigh, in a apposite twist, is keen to underline that Turner left his works to the Nation and not the homes of the rich Victorian industrialists who had funded him. Although this is a departure from his usual subject matter; in casting his usual collaborators it all feels very ‘Mike Leigh’. MT

REVIEWED AT CANNES 2014

MR TURNER IS now on DVD blu

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