Posts Tagged ‘Drama’

The Souvenir: Part II

Dir/Wri: Joanna Hogg | Cast; Honor Swinton Byrne, Tilda Swinton, James Spencer Ashworth, Richard Ayoade | UK Drama

Joanna Hogg continues the impressionistic reflection on her twenties in The Souvenir Part II that sees her coming to terms with the abusive relationship that ended in tragedy for her boyfriend, Anthony (an archly sardonic Tom Burke) the first part.

There’s a strong feeling that Julie (Swinton Byrne) invested far more in the relationship than did Anthony. Somehow his caddish manner, pinstriped suit and ‘foreign office’ job made her believe he was worthy of consideration, love even; yet behind it all he was a fantasist and a drug addict who undermined her (“you’re lost and you’ll always be lost”) and stole from her to fund his habit. Hogg brilliantly epitomises this kind of fucked up weirdness of the 1980s that many repressed middle class girls still tolerated in the name of love, and the decent straightforwardness of her comforting parents (Tilda Swinton and James Spencer Ashworth) who provide a welcome sense of equilibrium that kept her going off the rails. But Julie resolves to go back to her London flat where the ‘love story’ forms the more authentic ‘autobiographical’ narrative for her graduation film, after the bogus script about poverty stricken Sunderland is vehemently rejected by her tutors.

Anthony remains the glowering elephant in the room, her colleagues, friends and family tiptoeing around the issue, not wanting to offend Julie who continues to elevate his memory with a solemn respect when secretly he was despised by everyone else accept his long-suffering parents, who gradually fade into the background. At one point Julie tentatively asks her flighty filmmaker friend Patrick (a standout Ayoade): “do you think Anthony worked for the Foreign Office?” He firmly bursts her bubble with: “he was a junkie – move forward”.

Still processing her feelings of grief Julie understandably lacks the conviction to take charge and direct her cast and crew with the confidence they desperately need, and Hogg deftly handles the ‘film in a film’ structure with its scenes of naturalistic on-set mayhem between all of them. Ably supported by her real life mother (Swinton), Honor Swinton Byrne glides through her performance with decorum avoiding histrionics yet imbuing Julie with all the pent up anxiety and hurt her upbringing has forced her to internalise. MT




After Love (2021) BAFTAs 2022

Dir/scr: Aleem Khan | Joanna Scanlan, Natalie Richard, Talid Arris | UK, Drama 89 mins

A spare but transcendent feature debut that takes place between Calais and Dover in the aftermath of a cross-channel menage-a-trois. Happily married Muslim convert Mary/Fatima (Scanlan) discovers her husband’s secret on his mobile ‘phone, shortly after his sudden death. Curiosity sees her travelling to France where she tracks down Genevieve the middle-aged mother of his love child Solomon, now an unruly teenager much loved by both his parents. Through a understandable mix-up the women’s lives come together, but only Mary is aware of Genevieve’s identity. Both women are forced to deal with loss and longing in different ways.

Writer director Aleem Khan delivers an accomplished and insightful drama that speaks volumes about race, identity and the nature of love and faithfulness through a storyline that goes to unexpected places. Joanna Scanlan is quietly tremendous as a woman exploring grief and bereavement in a graceful and philosophical way that never descends into melodrama or histrionics, so commonplace in this kind of story. And it’s also down to Khan’s economic style of writing that follows the saying: ‘speech is silver, but silence is golden’.

Instead the two women discretely and gradually explore the past and the present in a way that is both surprising and satisfying. Khan leaves a great deal to the imagination – we are left to make up our own minds about Mary and Genevieve’s life, the focus here is the dynamic between them as they feel their way forward, largely in the dark, as the truth gradually emerges questioning their core beliefs and feelings.

One scene in particularly mirrors the women’s crushing loss of faith seen through a section of Dover’s white cliffs literally crumbling into the sea. It’s a stunning metaphor for this graceful two-hander that portrays women at their best, coping calmly with disappointment and bewilderment, reflecting on their lot with dignity and philosophy. A stunning and mature drama in the classic tradition of storytelling. MT

BAFTA AWARD FOR LEADING ACTRESS Joanna Scanlan | Released on Blu-ray and digitally as a BFI Player Subscription Exclusive on 23 August 202




Wilderness (2021)

Dir.: Justin John Doherty; Cast: Katharine Davenport, James Barnes, Sebastian Badarau, Bean Downes; UK 2017, 84 min.

The first feature for Justin John Doherty, scripted by Neil Fox, is a melancholic tract on the impossibility of true love. Set during the 1960s Wilderness is two films in one: a passionate and playful love affair influenced by Godard’s wordy confrontation of the genders in Contempt all coupled with a brilliant jazz score reminiscent of Louis Malle’s Ascenseur pour l’echefaud .

John (Barnes), a black jazz musician, who shuttles between Europe and the US, meets Alice (Davenport), the two of them stealing moments between concerts and travel. Their relationship is fired by a palpable physical attraction that powers their idealistic affair. This loved-up dynamic changes when they spend a long weekend beachside in Cornwall meeting strangers and friends only to discover (like the audience) they hardly know each other beyond a sexual bond.

At a drunken party with John’s friend Charlie (Baderau) and his partner Francis (Downes), the tenuous nature of their relationship becomes obvious. Alice starts dancing rather too intimately with Charlie, and then joins Francis in criticising ‘men’ for keeping old affairs to themselves.

While Alice is interested in finding out about John – particularly his past – John is often unable to voice his feelings. Alice is shown as a rather moody character, her randomness often leaving John bewildered. “Are we over?” he asks at one point. But that would be too easy for Alice who involves John, not for the first time, in a game of strip poker. Side by side on the floor, they mourn the loss of their idealised passion. Gender and race politics raise their heads but are integrated into the narrative.

Shot with four professional actors and the same number of filmmakers, Wilderness feels very much a work in progress, and this has pro and cons: the poetic, non-linear element of the first part confidently reflects the more daring student element, but the rather wobbly second part, particularly the clunky dialogue and the lack of visual strength, might have been avoided by a more self-critical crew. Overall, Wilderness feels like a promising feature in its draft process, the completed version still waiting to be unveiled. AS


In Cold Blood (1967) DVD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Woman Who Ran is out Friday CURZON


Adoration (2019) Locarno 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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



The Man Without a Past (2002) Now on Prime Video


Dir\Writer: Aki Kaurismaki: Cast: Markku Peltola, Kati Outinen, Sakar Kuosmanen; Finland/France/Germany 2002; 97 min.

Like many auteurs of his generation, Aki Kaurismaki is entirely self-taught. After a working life spent as a postman and film critic amongst other things, he turned his hand to film-making in the eighties and has been incredibly successful in his endeavour, producing his own films and distributing them through his own company Alphaville, and even showing them at his own arthouse cinemas in Finland. Often working with his elder brother Mika, they have shaped the face of Finnish cinema, crafting one-fifth of the Finnish film industry’s total output since 1981.

In love with the past and Finland’s lugubrious hard-drinking working classes, often down on their luck – anything post 1980 does not interest Kaurismaki visually and he made this retro look his trademark. The Man Without a Past sees him create another antihero, this time the director doesn’t even give him a name, in the credits he is just ‘M’.

M (his beloved Markku Peltola) arrives one Spring evening in Helsinki, with a small suitcase. Resting on a park bench he nods off and is attacked by three young men, who leave him for dead. Coming round in a rain-soaked stupor, he makes his way to A&E where retrograde amnesia is diagnosed. Discharged from hospital and homeless, he makes his way to a container site where he rents a place to rest his head from a conman called Antilla (Kuosmanen). The geezer exploits those down on their luck. His ‘fierce’ dog Hannibal turns out to be submissive, snuggling up with M on his bed. All this plays out with Kaurismaki’s classic blend of eccentric situational humour which is light on dialogue and heavy on innuendo.

M can’t remember a thing about his life but when he catches sight of a couple of metal workers down near the port he feels a strange affinity to their daily grind, leading him to believe he was a welder in a former life. Turning to the Samaritans for help, he falls in love with Irma (Outinen) and a new lease of life. Soon he’ part of a swing band with the local Samaritans, and manages to secure some welding work. But his luck turns sour when he gets caught up in a bank robbery and this brush with the police leads to his identification. It soon emerges he was married, but his wife divorced him on account of his gambling. When M travels back to his home town by train he finds her living in their former marital dwelling with a boyfriend. M is only too relieved he doesn’t have to fight it out with his rival, returning back to Irma in Helsinki and eventual revenge.

Kaurismaki’s classic absurdist humour is an acquired taste and The Man Without a Past is one of the best examples. When M cooks dinner for Irma in his container, she asks politely “Are you sure, I can’t help”. His deadpan response is: “I think it’s ruined already”. Later when an electrician has helped him connect his container to a power source, M asks how he could return the favour. The man answers matter of factly: “If you see me lying in the gutter face down, turn me on my back”.

Kaurismaki is best compared with Preston Sturges and his comedies of the 30s; his heroes are like the actors Buster Keaton used to preferred, “they can’t raise their voice, their only reaction are furrowed brows”. DOP Timo Salminen, who shot nearly all of Kaurismaki’s films, shows Finland as a morose country where suicide, poverty, hunger and alcoholism is rife. All this is borne, (according to the director) “out of the change in society from a mainly agricultural country, to an industrialised one – many feel rootless and alienated from the country, in a place where high rise blocks and unemployment kill the soul. ” This, and his beloved band music, are the touchstones of his film career that started in 1991.

The Man Without a Past won the Grand Prix at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival, Kati Outinen best actress. AS


The White Reindeer | Valkoinen Peura (1952)

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

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

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

THE WHITE REINDEER (Masters of Cinema)



Personal Shopper (2016) MUBI

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

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

Similar in tone to Joanna Hogg’s recent outing The Lost Daughter, this surreal outing is creepy, charismatic and quirky. Assayas’ films are always diverse and this is his first ever ghost story. Kristen Stewart shimmers in a sombre turn bringing a gamine insouciant sensuality to her role that feels both menacing and intriguing in its sexual ambivalence. She is Maureen Cartwright, a 27 year old American girl working as a stylist to a bitchy German media figure Kyra (Nora vonWaltstätten) while mourning the death of her twin brother Lewis.

Paris is the centre of the fashion world and Assayas works this elegantly into the plot as Maureen glides through a series of glitzy ateliers selecting hand-made garments and jewelled accoutrements from Chanel and Cartier to meet the needs of her demanding boss. This is a job that fills Maureen with ennui as she considers herself worthy of better things. So she spends her free time sketching and researching her yen for the supernatural, exploring the Victor Hugo’s psychic experiments and the avant garde Swedish artist Hilma af Klint. On the sly, she guiltily slips into Kyra’s couturier gowns and fetishistic footwear.

Maureen is also developing her psychic skills in trying to contact her brother Lewis who died of a congenital heart condition in a dreary nearby fin de siecle mansion where they both grew up. Spending several spooky nights there Maureen is aware of a ghostly presence who whispers inaudibly in scenes that are genuinely scary and plausible given the undercurrent of glowering spitefulness that sets the tone for this  increasingly dark narrative. Maureen believes she may be instrumental in conjuring up the devil’s work or there is there something more sinister at play. Olivier Assayas’s wickedly inventive vision is one of his most exciting so far. MT

PERSONAL SHOPPER IS NOW ON MUBI | Best Director for Olivier Assayas Cannes 2016

Evolution (2015) **** MUBI

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

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

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

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

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


Le Havre (2011) **** MUBI


Dir: Aki Kaurismäki | Cast: Andre Wilmes, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Kati Outinen, Blondin Miguel, Evelyne Didi | French with English subtitles.  Cert12

Finnish director, Aki Kaurismäki has invented his own genre of ‘contemporary retro’ with an improbable and deadpan drama set in 1950s Le Havre.  It’s a drôle French version of The Archers that doesn’t take itself too seriously. You know the kind of thing:  an everyday story of gentlefolk in a close-knit community where a kindly lawyer-shoe-shiner (Wilmes) is harbouring a nicely-behaved child deportee, who also happens to be black, from the clutches of absurdly buttoned-up and ineffectual Inspector Monet. Jean-Paul Darroussian gives a tongue-in-cheek turn in the style of Inspector Clouseau.

The man in question is Marcel Marx. At first he strikes an odd figure as this desiccated do-gooder, with his dog-eared existence and wife Arletty who’s also seen better days. But these two are likeable and happy in their threadbare existence, making ends meet with the support of local traders who expect nothing in return for their daily supplies.  The  grocer (Francois Monnie), the baker (Evelyne Didi) and the brassy barmaid, with her endless aperitifs ‘on the house’ are all well-cast and amusing.  There’s a comforting rhythm to this bizarre harbourside drama. Authentic yet highly unlikely, you wish – in some ways – that life was as simple as this.  Billed as a comedy there are dark moments too, when Arletty gets cancer and Darroussin goes on the prowl with a pineapple, but this is downtown utopia not Les Miserables.

Kaurismäki originally had the idea to do the uplifting French tale along the lines of  “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, but opted only for the latter: “The other two were always too optimistic. But fraternité you can find anywhere, even in France!” Though life is sometimes gloomy in cloudy Le Havre, Aki makes sure the clouds have a silver lining. MT ©


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOW ON BBCiplayer

The Last Ones (2020) Tallinn Black Nights 2020

Dir. Veiko Ounpuu. Estonia, Finland. 2020. 117 mins

The vast wastelands of Lapland are the setting for this tortured tale of limited opportunities for those fighting to survive an uncertain future. Traditionally, mining and reindeer herding offered a reasonable living for men like Rupi (Paaru Oja) and his reindeer-herder father, who occupy their own land. But with resources dwindling mining-wise, the county has issued a contract for forced possession and Rupi’s father is resisting the change at all costs. Rupi is also trapped by his love for the vivacious Riita (Laura Birn) who is married to his Goth friend Lievonen (Back), and has also caught the eye of the mine’s ruthless boss Kari (Tomi Korpela) whose only interest is shoring up his faltering business – which requires him to dig deeper and deeper, quite literally – and keep his staff on the job offering hard drugs as a pacifying incentive to keep on keeping on.

Although the drama loses some of its captivating power by the final stages The Last One succeeds in conjuring up the bleakness and strange beauty of this Northern European country and its pioneering hard-bitten people. Veiko Ounpuu’s ‘Eastern Western’ is Estonia’s Oscar hopeful for Best International feature in the 93rd Academy Awards.

Rupi (Paaru Oja) also deals drugs on the quiet, and Kari is his biggest customer. After a gruelling day the workers kick back in booze-soaked evenings of dancing and carousing where the bibulous chain-smoking Riita is the toast of the town sharing her good humour with all the men on the dancefloor, including Kari, who is intoxicated by her blonde looks, and able to provide the luxuries she only dreams of, stuck with her trailer trash partner LIevonen. But as tensions come to a head between the men, so the narrative spins out of control.

Despite its tonal unevenness The Last Ones works well as an exploration of a community in crisis, the fraught human interactions interweaving with serene sequences of barren tundra landscapes captured in Sten-Johan Lill’s widescreen visuals. Music plays a vital part too, with a 1970s retro feel echoing the lost horizons of these desperate grifters whose lives revolve around survival as they cling to the past. Eventually tragedy is the only outcome for some and this plays out appropriately to the sounds of the Byrd’s Lay Lady Lay, adding further grist to the Nashvillian feel of the piece as these last swingers in town fight to make sense of a future that surely must beckon somewhere in the wilderness, if they can only move on. MT


Spiral (2020) Bergamo Film Meeting 2021

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

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

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

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

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


Blue Sky (1994) **** Blu-ray BFI

Dir: Tony Richardson | Wri: Rama Laurie Stagner | Cast: Jessice Lange, Tommy Lee Jones, Powers Boothe, Carrie Snodgress, May Locane, Anna Klemp | US Drama 101′

A few years before he died in 1991 Tony Richardson created a powerful portrait of obsession between a diva and the man who loves her. A more mainstream hit than his arthouse affair, thirty years earlier, but with the same mesmerising punch as Mademoiselle (1966).

Jessica Lange and Tommy Lee Jones score high on the sparky chemistry front as Carly and Hank whose dynamite devotion dominates everything else in their lives, including their children and an army career that suffer as a consequence. And so did  Richardson’s swan song, hitting the buffers when Orion went bust, its release was put back until three years later. Blue Sky is still a memorable tribute to his career.

If histrionic performances appeal – and Jessica Lange scooped Best Actress for this one – then Blue Sky is right up your street. The Oscars are littered with plate-throwing turns from Bette Davis in Jezebel to Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf?, yet emotional nuance is a more difficult skill to master, and therefore possibly more laudable. Food for thought. Lange is particularly fiery here and oozes chutzpah and charm, and her dance sequences are really spectacular. 

Hank is besotted with his wife, despite her manic moods, largely attributable to her unsuitability as an army wife confined to prefab housing in military backwaters, as here in Selma, Alabama. Carly is a deeply narcissistic fantasist who sees herself as a Southern Belle of the ball, lauding it over everyone in her sphere: in short, not one of the army girls, or a team-player. Her marriage with Hank is a miracle but it works (to the detriment of everyone else), such is the mystery of love and sexual attraction, and the script – a three-handed effort by Stagner with Arlene Sarner and Jerry Leichtling – conveys this with considerable skill and insight, leaving the strand about army radiation tests in the ‘atomic’ 1960s firmly in the background.

Talking of which, Hank is an army scientist engaged in nuclear testing in the Alabama desert and tasked with investigating a dangerous leak. But Carly proves to be far more dangerous: a ‘stay at home’ housewife is, in her case, a misnomer if ever there was one: she spends her time cavorting topless on the beach and dancing suggestively with Hank’s boss, a smouldering Powers Boothe, and neglecting her daughters who are gleefully left to their own romantic devices.

Highly entertaining and occasionally funny, this is a complex, fraught and often embarrassing inter-dependent relationship, Lange and Lee Jones shimmer at the top of their game in Richardson’s last hurrah. MT


Toni Erdmann (2016) Tribute to Peter Simonischek 1946-2023

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

This quirky and hilarious satire from German filmmaker Maren Ade is a European arthouse  classic that celebrates the intergenerational gap with humour rather than strife. The film is led by a fine comic performance from Peter Simonischek who would go on to star in The Interpreter.

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

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

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

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

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


The Overlanders (1946) **** Talking Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Camouflage (1976) Barwy Ochronne | Kinoteka 2020

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


Luxor (2020) ****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Martin Eden (2019)

Dir Pietro Marcello | Italy, Drama 129′

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

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

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

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

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


Looted (2019) ****

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

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

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

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

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





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

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

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

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

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

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



The Burnt Orange Heresy (2019) ****

Dir: Giuseppe Capotondi | Cast: Claes Bang, Elizabeth Debicki, Donald Sutherland, Mick Jagger, Rosalind Halstead, Alessandro Fabrizi

Claes Bang and Elizabeth Debicki and Donald Sutherland are the stars of this slick English-language debut from Italian director Giuseppe Capotondi (Suburra). It revolves around an art theft that starts well but ends rather badly. Despite this rather unwhelming finale, The Burnt Orange Heresy is saved by its lush locations, dignified piano score and enjoyable performances – even Mick Jaggar is fascinating to watch.

Bang is glib chain-smoking art critic James Figueras who has found a way of boosting his dwindling income by giving talks to rich American punters – and he’s doing a great job of impressing his “art authenticity” audience in the opening scenes by pretending the picture hanging before them is a rare masterpiece, later revealing he actually painted it himself (‘beware the power of the critic’). He  ends up in bed with one called Berenice Hollis (Debicki), and after some text-book love-making and tricksy pillow talk whisks her off to Lake Como to do bit of business. This is where Mick Jagger enters the fray, in cameo – as craggy art collector Cassidy letting himself down by mispronouncing “Modigliani”- not once but twice. Bang doesn’t correct him because he is desperate for the money and the reptilian Jagger character is paying well to undertake a thorny mission: to steal a painting of an enigmatic artist and a crafty old devil: Jerome Debney (Donald Sutherland), who lives on his estate. Debney has a habit of setting fire to his work making anything he produces in his final years very much in demand, and therefore valuable. Figueras must gain access to Debney’s locked atelier in order the secure his prize.

Based on a 1971 novel from American writer Charles Willeford, Scott B Smith draws the narrative deftly with some unexpected twists although the tonal shift from jaunty romantic drama to darker sweatier territory reveals the sinister state of affairs for Bang’s desperate character – beware the self-seeking showman with the imploding career.

Meanwhile Debicki is a shrewd cookie and starts to question the motives behind her lover’s charismatic allure, a move that sees Bang morphing into his Dracula persona with disastrous consequences, as an unscrupulous opportunist who will stop at nothing to achieve his goal, in the easiest way possible until it all spirals out of control. MT




Apostasy (2017) ***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Summer of 85 (2020) Mubi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



About Endlessness (2019) ****

Dir: Roy Andersson | Drama, Sweden 78′

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

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

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

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

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

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




The Ground Beneath my Feet (2019) Pride Month

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

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

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

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

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

The Ground Beneath My Feet | Now on BFI Player to celebrate PRIDE Month 2023

Waiting for the Barbarians (2019) ***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





She Dies Tomorrow (2019) Bfi Player

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

An insightful drama perfectly echoing the corrosive coronavirus paranoia through a study of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. In her second feature Amy Seimetz continues to intrigue us with an unsettling piece of cinema that is prescient yet refreshingly novel in exploring depression and disillusionment.

So inured is the central character (Amy/Sheil) to her impending demise she surfs the internet looking at human caskets, before switching to leather jackets in a sudden spurt of hope.

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

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

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

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

This is very much a mood piece where traditional narrative pretensions fall by the way to reveal something altogether more experimental enlivened by Jay Keitel’s dazzling images. But like abstract art, the strong craft has to be there in the outset for the abstract to develop and Seimetz doesn’t convince us that it is, despite committed performances and visual creativity.

There are Lynchian moment – the scene where a weird tanner describes the method for making a jacket from a recently killed animal hide. But for the most part, She Dies is more a collection of episodes – that explore modern angst through addiction, loneliness and depression –  than a cohesive drama offering a satisfying allover experience. She Dies Tomorrow’ is enjoyable while it lasts, but like Sushi – is soon forgotten. Let’s hope the collective trauma of Covid eventually suffers the same fate. MT


Tenet (2020) ****

Dir/Wri: Christopher Nolan | John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Kenneth Branagh | Action Adventure Sci-fi | 150′

Missing a dose of international travel this Summer? Bold, bewildering and brilliantly spectacular, Tenet takes you to the most glamorous corners of Europe and beyond in an action-packed peripatetic two and a half hours that will make a dash for the nearest airport tempting, quarantine or not.

Attention spans may flag in the final hour where the complex narrative trips itself over, ambitiously conflating an over-demanding Sci-fi idea with a slick action-packed espionage thriller: The former detracts from the latter, enjoyment-wise. But overall Tenet is up there with the best of the Bond films, and this time ‘James Bond’ is played by John David Washington.

Nolan has always loved the notion of time: Memento, Interstellar and Dunkirk have played about with the concept. Tenet does the same. This is not a film about time-travel, but a complicated idea about replaying the past that is actually the film’s Achilles heel. And although this is constantly explained from one character to another, by the end nobody really gets the bullets that go backwards – back in time that is – and the “technology that can reverse an object’s entropy” – according to Clemence Poesie’s tight-lipped scientist in the films opening scenes. Car chases and combat scenes are played backwards in discombobulating ferociousness. So best to sit back and enjoy the astonishing scenery and set pieces and the charisma of Pattinson, Debicki and Branagh, who is so vicious as her husband – a misogynist Russian gangster – he almost makes you want to laugh out loud at the absurdity of it all.

There a some astonishing sequences thanks to DoP Hoyte Van Hoytema (who was Oscar nominated for Dunkirk): after an astonishing siege at the Kiev Opera House, Pattinson and Washington (‘The Protagonist’) scale the front of a vertiginous apartment building in Mumbai; he then joins Debicki and Branagh for an electrifying chase in a high speed catamaran, all driven along by Göransson’s pounding sound design. There are brutal fight sequences  involving meat tenderisers and cheese graters, and an amusing finale where Debicki wreaks revenge on her control freak husband on the deck of his luxury yacht moored off the coast of Vietnam. It’s all very bold but believable.

The cast is superlative: you can’t take your eyes off Robert Pattinson’s tousled-haired, linen-suited Neil who has an edgy glamour suggestive of a foxy foreign correspondent in some Mediterranean backwater. He also does action man well, having honed his body since the Twilight years. Washington is all muscled, melodious-voiced and masterful, never hinting at anything but well-intentioned professionalism. Kenneth Branagh comes late to the party, but is well worth waiting for as the hard-nosed arms trader Andrei. “How would you like to die”: he snarls at Washington “of old age” — comes the casual reply.

Clearly Nolan has spent a great deal of time thinking through his premise, it’s a shame then that nobody seems to understand how it all fits together, least of all the audience (ideas – on a postcard, are welcome). But the espionage element is thoroughly enjoyable, along with the serrated-edge love hate romance that sees Debicki as a vodka slurping virago one minute, and an Hermes-clad mummy the next.

In this first big cinema blockbuster post lockdown, Tenet once again shows Christopher Nolan at the top of his game when it comes to high octane thrills and magnificent mise en scene. Sorry Netflix, you’ve had your moment – the big screen is where cinema is and always will be. MT


Ava (2019) ****

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

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

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

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

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

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


Babyteeth (2019) *** 2019

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

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

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

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

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

Perfumes (2019) ***

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

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

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

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

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

A Matter of Life and Death (1946) | New 4k Restoration | Poetry

Dir: Michael Powell | Writer: Emeric Pressburger | Cast: David Niven, Roger Livesey, Raymond Massey, Kim Hunter, Marius Goring, Abraham Sofaer, Robert Coote, Joan Maude, Kathleen Byron, Bonar Colleano, Richard Attenborough | UK / Fantasy / 104min

Although by general consensus it is now accorded the status of a classic, it actually took quite a while for this beautiful and unique film to be considered as such. Lindsay Anderson at the time actually used it as his yardstick for mediocrity when he despaired in ‘Sequence’ of audiences that “allow themselves to be diverted by A Matter of Life and Death, but confess themselves too lazy for Ivan the Terrible“, while as recently as 1973 it had been dismissed by Angela & Elkan Allan in ‘The Sunday Times Guide to Movies on Television’ as “[e]xtravagantly awful… told not as a comedy, but as a serious, ludicrous drama”.

Matter-870When it first appeared plenty of critics grumbled at its lack of realism, although director Michael Powell himself took great satisfaction in the fact that everything in the film was psychologically explicable as a hallucination on the part of the hero, Peter Carter (engaging played by a young David Niven). The light-hearted backdrop of fantasy, however, made palatable the graphic depiction of the violent death of two of the film’s characters (we first see Bob Trubshawe [Robert Coote] looking very realistically dead with his eyes open), since within the context of the film’s narrative they are both soon depicted jauntily bounding back to life, when in reality at the film’s conclusion they would both have been very much dead, and remained so for all eternity.

 Under the baton of maestro Michael Powell, A Matter of Life and Death is an enormously satisfying exercise in organisation, with the many components that make up  a feature film – Emeric Pressburger’s literate script, the enthusiastic performances by a uniformly fine cast, Jack Cardiff’s Technicolor photography, Allan Gray’s music, Alfred Junge’s production design, Reginald Mills’ editing and so on – smoothly coalescing into a sublime whole, which Powell himself prided himself on making it all look so easy, when it had been anything but.  It was typically audacious that the film chose at so early to reverse the convention already emerging in cinematic fantasy by depicting real life in Technicolor and Heaven in black & white. The transitions are smoothly organised, although some took exception at Marius Goring’s line – breaching the fourth wall – that “One is starved for Technicolor up zere…!”  Depicting Heaven in black & white was perceived by Raymond Durgnat as satirising the welfare state, and in an odd little book published in 1947 called ‘The World is My Cinema’ E.W. & M.M. Robson heaped page upon page of abuse on the heads of Powell & Pressburger accusing them of being unpatriotic fascist sympathisers (although it’s worth noting that nobody from the Axis Powers is anywhere to be seen, the Chief Recorder is a woman (Joan Maude) and The Judge is played by an Asian actor [Abraham Sofaer]).

matter-4A remarkable amount of Britain’s imperial dirty linen indeed receives a very public airing during the heavenly tribunal (including a laugh-out-loud moment depicting the introduction of an Irish juror in standard IRA uniform of trilby and trenchcoat) led Richard Winnington of the News Chronicle to suppose it was there just for “American box-office purposes”, which ironically attests to the artfulness with which Powell & Pressburger’s company The Archers had camouflaged their propaganda, since the whole reason for the film’s existence had been a request from the Ministry of Information to make a film stressing Anglo-American friendship (relations between the Allies were becoming strained even before Germany surrendered). Anyone else would have simply obliged with a conventional romance between a Brit and a Yank, but The Archers didn’t do conventional, and only they would erect such a formidable edifice to get their message across.

It’s hard to imagine any other national cinema or filmmakers combining such technical and philosophical ambition with such boundless exuberance in its telling. The whole film looks so extraordinary, it’s easy not to notice the skilful use of sound throughout – from the hollow, echoing acoustics of the opening scene narrated by John Longden taking us on a tour of outer space, through the ominously ticking clock in the control room at the air base, to Allan Gray’s exquisite and atmospheric score, his last for an Archers production.

A Matter of Life and Death represents both the culmination and conclusion of The Archers’ first phase, since as their later productions became more ornate they in the process lost much of the gusto and graceful good humour which had characterised their earlier productions. ©RChatten

The film also inspired Alan Price to compose this poem:


No one has ever dramatised a brain seizure like you guys. 

An airman hallucinating on earth and its WW2 ‘heaven.’ 

Pilot Peter Carter, so English a fighting poet. One moment 

in a three-strip Technicolor village, the next on a staircase 

to a monochrome beyond. Blaze of aircraft crashing down. 

A beach. Her cycling. You meet; grab the falling handlebars, 

embrace and kiss. Not some visionary sight of a nether world. 

Nor a surgeon spying the street with his camera obscura. 

Nor the French messenger who lost his head. Nor the smell 

of fried onions can change my mind: the idea of a sacrifice

for love. June got her man. Peter got his woman. Emeric and 

you Michael got the film you wanted. AMOLAD determined 

my fantasy after-life. I was born premature three years later: 

taken out of my pram; nurtured in a cinema, entranced by 

black & white pearls with the option for wide screen rainbows. 

Hovering betwixt and between, knowing I’d never starve.


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

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

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

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

Wise’s film is chockfull of ghastly horror tropes. The wind moans and gulls screech as Kipps makes his way in the swirling mists to Eel Marsh House, only to discover a mournful legacy of untimely death and ghostly appearances in this miserable corner of Victorian England. A talented British cast includes Bernhard Hepton who plays a kindly professional Sam Toovey a sort of Devil’s advocate in explaining away the terrifying sounds and occurrences. The other locals are a sceptical bunch. And no one can explain how a ball comes to be bouncing and a little boy’s voice greets Kipps laughingly in a room that has apparently been locked since Alice’s death. Not to mention a recurring sound of a carriage crashing amid blood-curdling screams outside the house. All this has been recorded on a phonograph by Mrs Drablow herself. Meanwhile, Kipps seems to be losing his mind – not surprisingly. And things don’t improve when he returns to London, freaked out by the whole affair which continues to haunt him in the film’s shocking finale. Made in the late 1980s this reliable horror story  still has an undeniable kick thanks to Wise’s able direction. MT
The worldwide Blu-ray debut of The Woman in Black is available exclusively from the Network website on 10 August 

Unhinged (2020) *

Dir: Derrick Borte | Cast: Russell Crowe, Rachel Pretorius, Jimmi Simpson, Gabriel Bateman | Thriller, 90′

In the shocking opening scenes of Unhinged a man is seen axing down  his wife and her lover in the privacy of their home. Essentially a road movie driven by anger, the focus then broadens to shards of news footage featuring road rage incidents on America’s highways. The intention is clear – to establish the climate of downright fury endemic in society today. But you can’t base an entire feature on road rage without a plausible, gut-punching storyline, and this is where Derrick Borte and his writer Carl Ellsworth run out of fuel.

‘The man’ in question is Russell Crowe in psychopath mode and his tantrum feeds into a generalised fury demonstrating how simmering resentment spills into everyday life, especially on our roads. There is no real reason for the man’s vendetta against random motorist Rachel (Pistorius) and her young son Kyle (Bateman), who merely serve as the butt of his rage for the entire duration of the thriller.

After a torpid breakfast scene in the family kitchen, Rachel sets off  in heavy traffic to meet her friend and divorce lawyer Andy (Simpson) – but they never get there. At the traffic lights they become the inadvertent victims of Crowe’s psychopathic cuckhold who pursues Kyle and Rachel  whose only mistake was to hoot him when the traffic lights turned green.

Making mincemeat of the rest of the cast – particularly Simpson who gets it in the neck, quite literally –  Crowe walks his way robotically through this psychological thriller full of plot-holes but lacking in dramatic mileage. The car chases are spectacular but that’s not enough to fuel an entire feature even given the modest running time. MT




Giornate degli Autori | Venice Days 2020

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

Make-Up (2019) *** VOD

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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








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

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

Antonioni’s impeccably stylish social critique unfolds crisply in black and white, in and around his hometown of Ferrara known for its beauty and cultural importance.

Set amongst the wealthy industrialists of Italy’s Po Valley powerhouse whose main concern other than business and their elegant cars and fashions is, of course, love. And especially for the women. But  Cronaca di Amore gradually emerges not just as a sombre story of marital infidelity and discontent but also a tightly-plotted noirish expose of the life and times of a seemingly innocent young bride.

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

She plays Paola the self-focused and voraciously acquisitive new wife of a rich but workaholic Milanese fabric manufacturer. Her truculent attitude to his amorous overtures along with photos of her past cause him to hire a private investigator to track her movements in an around Ferrara and Milan.

As always in Italy the”Bella Figura” is of the utmost importance to both sexes, and Antonioni reflects this in his choice of costume designer in the shape of cutting edge couturier Ferdinando Sarmi who headlines the titles not only for his costumes but also as Paola’s cheated husband, Enrico.

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

Story of a Love Affair is on BFI player and Blu-ray 





Las Ninas Bien | The Good Girls (2018) Mubi

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Alice (2019) *** Digital release

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

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

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

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

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

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

BUÑUEL in the Labyrinth of the Turtles (2020)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PREMIERING ON BFI PLAYER ON 9 JULY 2020                       

Family Romance LLC (2019) *** Streaming

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

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

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

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




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

Dir/Jack Bond | 86′ Biopic Drama

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

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

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


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






A White, White Day | Hvítur (2019)

Dir: Hlynur Palmason | Iceland, Drama 90′

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

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

Ex-policeman Ingimundur is used to dealing with similar incidents and their effect on broken families, but when it involves his own he carries on in disbelief as gradually the enigmatic scenario surrounding her death falls into place; whether a crime has been committed or her whether her death was accidental remains in the air as this dour and gruelling feature plays out.

Sigurdsson gives a gritty performance tempered by the tenderness he feels for his granddaughter: it’s almost as if he’s channelling all the love he had for his wife into the little girl, and she soaks it up with wide-eyed innocence and an insight beyond her years.

Palmason suffuses his story with allusions to Icelandic culture and mythology and these are shared through storytelling: the craggy-faced grandfather passing on cherished folklore through bedtime stories complete with all the actions. And meanwhile the house takes shape around them, satisfyingly providing a new beginning with stunning views over the scenic countryside and sea where Ingimundur fishes for wild salmon. The grieving man also plays football, and this is where he catches sight of a man he doesn’t recognise but who has appeared in a cache of his wife’s photos.

Ingimundir shares his fears about a possible affair with one of his drinking pals. And the subject of female infidelity is broached with a shrugging nonchalance on the part of his friend. But Ingimundur’s fears take shape in an irrationally violent chain of events, sparked by jealousy, revenge and desperation in a tense and surprising finale which once again showcases Palmason’s inventive imagination for telling a yarn. MT


The Bigamist (1953) *** MUBI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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. 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

DVD/BLU-RAY release 22 June 2020

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

Dir Christophe Honoré  | France, Drama 93′

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

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

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

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




The Ornithologist (2016) **** BFiplayer

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

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

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

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

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



Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence (1983) Mubi

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

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

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

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

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

At an epilogue set in 1946, Lawrence makes a trip to visit Hara who has been sentenced to death. Yonoi has already been executed, and Hara tells Lawrence that Yonoi gave him the lock from Celliers hair to place in a shrine in Yonoi’s home village.

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






My Mother | Mia Madre **** | Mubi

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


A Scandal in Paris (1946)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Robert Siodmak | Master of Shadows | Blu-ray release

Dresden 1918, Robert Siodmak left his upper-middle class, orthodox Jewish home in this epicentre of European modern art, to join a theatre touring company. He was 18, and this was the first of many radical changes that would see him becoming a pioneer of film noir, and directing 56 feature films fraught with (anti)heroes who are morose, malevolent, violent and generally downbeat (spoilers).

Robert Siodmak began his film career in 1925, translating inter-titles. Later he learnt the editing business with Harry Piel. In 1927/28 he worked under Kurt (Curtis) Bernhardt (Das letzte Fort) and Alfred Lind. But MENSCHEN AM SONNTAG (1929/30) (left) would transform his professional life forever. Together with Edgar G. Ulmer, he would direct a semi-documentary, social realist portrait that pictured ordinary Berliners, far away from the expensive “Illusionsfilme” (escapist films) of the UFA. The idea was the brainchild of Robert’s younger brother Curt (born in Kracow), who would become a screen-writer and director of Horror/SF films, and follow his brother and Ulmer to Hollywood – along with the rest of the team: Billy Wilder, Eugen Schüfftan, Fred Zinnemann and Rochus Gliese (later art director for Murnau’s Sunrise). Robert Siodmak, Ulmer and Giese would also be part of the “Remigrants”, film makers, who would return to Germany after 1945.

People_on_Sunday_2 copyMENSCHEN AM SONNTAG was filmed on a succession of Sundays in 1929. Subtitled “a film without actors” – which is misleading, since the actors – non-professionals – co-wrote and co-produced the film, had already returned to their day jobs when the film was premiered in 1930. The five main protagonists spend a weekend near a lake in a Berlin suburb: Wolfgang (a wine seller) and Christl (a mannequin) meet for the first time at the Bahnhof Zoo by accident on Saturday morning, Christl had been stood up. On the same evening, Erwin (a taxi driver) and his girl friend Annie have a violent quarrel, tearing up each other’s photos. As a result, Erwin and his friend Wolfgang travel with Christl on the following Sunday to the Nicolas Lake. And here on the ‘beach’ Wolfgang meets Brigitte (a vinyl record sales assistant), the four spend the day together; intercut with images of the forlorn “stay-at-home” Annie. The final scene returns the quartet to the heart of the metropolis: four million waiting for another Sunday. MENSCHEN AM SONNTAG is a chronicle; a document shot against the narrative UFA style of the day. There is no story, just interaction. Even in the complex narratives of his films Noir, Siodmak would always be the bystander, the person who observes much more than directs.

Inquest_2 copyINQUEST (VORUNTERSUCHUNG), Robert Siodmak’s third feature film as a director, produced in 1931, is his first ‘Kriminalfilm” (thriller). The student Fritz Bernt (Gustaf Fröhlich), has a three year-long affair with the prostitute Erna – he also receives money from her. After falling in love with his friend Walter’s sister, Fritz wants to leave Erna. Out of cowardice, he sends Walter to her flat to break the news. But Walter sleeps with Erna’s flatmate and goes for a drink afterwards. When Erna’s body is found the next morning, Fritz is the main suspect. In charge of the inquest is Dr. Bienert (Albert Bassermann), who happens to be Walter’s father. The denouement is a surprise. In many ways, INQUEST is a “Strassenfilm”, Kracauer’s definition of films where the middle-class protagonist is in love with a sexy prostitute, but goes home to roost, marrying a bourgeois girl of his own class. Some of the main scenes of the film are shot in the staircase of the house where Erna lives, the shadowy lighting clearly foreshadowing Siodmak’s Noir period. Sexuality is the enemy of bourgeois society here, and Bassermann’s Dr. Bienert is a blustering patriarch, who would sacrifice anyone to save his son.









THE BURNING SECRET (BRENNENDES GEHEIMNIS) is based on a novel by Stefan Zweig. Shot in 1932, it was to be Siodmak’s last German film for 23 years. In a Swiss Sanatorium, the twelve-year old Edgar (H.J. Schaufuss) is bored, and pleased to befriend Baron Von Haller (Willi Forst), a racing driver. But he does not know that Von Haller is using him to get close to his mother (Hilde Wagner). Soon Edgar gets suspicious, the two adults always want to be alone. He surprises them in flagrante and runs home to his father, although he does not give his secret away. When his mother arrives, he looks at her knowingly, but stays ‘mum’. Siodmak has sharpened the edges of this coming-of-age story, the novel concentrating more on romantic and psychological aspects. There is real violence between Edgar and Von Haller, and the lovemaking of the adulterous couple, which Edgar interrupts, is more vicious than affectionate. When the film was premiered in March 1933, Siodmak was already living in Paris, and Goebbels denounced the film as un-German, not surprisingly, since both the author of the novel and the director of the film were Jews living abroad in exile.

Hatred_1 copyWhen Siodmak shot MOLLENARD (1937) in France, it would be the penultimate of his French-set features. (In 1938, he would finish “Ultimatum” for the fatally ill Robert Wiene; and in the same year he is credited with “artistic supervision” for Vendetta, directed by Georges Kelber). MOLLENARD (HATRED) is the nearest to a film Noir so far: it is a fight to the death between Captain Mollenard (Harry Baur) and his wife Mathide (Gabrielle Dorziat). Captain Mollenard is a gun runner in Shanghai, he is shown as a hero, a good friend to his crew. When he returns to Dunkirk and his wife and two children, illness renders him powerless to his vitriolic wife, who tries to turn the children against him. Mollenard attempts to use his strength to re-conquer his wife, but fails, unlike during his days in Shanghai. The son takes the side of his mother, the daughter tries to drown herself, but Mollenard saves her. In the end, his crew carries the dying man out of the house, he would end his life where he was most happy – at sea. MOLLENARD is a contrast between utopia and dystopia for the main protagonist: the sea, where he is free (to commit crimes), and the bourgeois home, where he is a prisoner of conventions. He is unable to survive in this which cold, emotionless prison. MOLLENARD is seen as his greatest film in France, a dramatic version of Noir.

Snares copyPIÈGES (1939) was Siodmak’s last French film before emigrating to the USA – and his greatest box-office success of this period. Whilst most of Siodmak’s French films featured fellow emigrés in front and behind the camera, PIÈGES only has the co-author, Ernst Neubach, as a fellow emigré– the DOP, Ted Pahle, was American, and the star, Maurice Chevalier, already an legend was very much a Frenchman: Siodmak had established himself. (A fact, which would count for nothing at the start of his US career.)  PIÈGES is the story of a serial killer who murders eleven women in the music-hall world of Paris. The police, whose main suspect is the night-club-owner and womaniser Fleury (Chevalier), chooses Arienne (the debutant Marie Dea), to lure the murderer into the open. But Arienne falls in love with Fleury’s associate Brémontière, only to find out that he is the murderer. In the end the gutsy Arienne (Dea is a subtle antithesis to the French heroines of this period) has to risk her lift to save her husband Fleury’s. There are more than a few clues to the later “Phantom Lady” in PIÈGES.  Eric von Stroheim is brilliant as a mad fashion czar who has lost his fortune and adoring women.










SON OF DRACULA (1943) was already Robert Siodmak’s seventh film in Hollywood, his first for Universal. Scripted by his brother Curt, SON OF DRACULA was a great risk for Robert, it was his first outing in the classical Horror genre, not to mention the great ‘Dracula tradition’ started by Ted Browning in 1931. The film is set in the bayous of Louisianna, where Katherine Caldwell has inherited the plantation “Dark Oaks” from her father, who died suddenly under mysterious circumstances. She gives a party, and entertains Count Alucard (Lon Chaney jr.) an acquaintance  from her travels in central Europe. She discards her fiancée Frank and marries Alucard. Frank shoots the count, but the bullet passes through him, killing Katherine. In prison, Katherine visits him as a bat, turning into her human form (a first in film history), and asking Frank to kill Alucard, so they can live together forever as vampires. Frank grants her wish, but also burns her in her coffin. SON OF DRACULA is pure gothic horror, but suffered from Lon Chaney jr. being miscast in a role created by Bela Lugosi as his Alter Ego. Strongest are the scenes in the bayous, where the evil still lurks after the death of Katherine and Alucard: everything seems toxic, the spell of the vampire lives on.

Cobra_Woman_1.jpg_rgb copyCOBRA WOMAN (1943) was Robert Siodmak’s first film in colour, shot in widescreen Technicolor. Its star, Maria Montez, an aristocrat from the Dominican Republic, whose real name was Maria Africa Garcia Vidal de Santo Silas, would later gain cult status after her early death at the age of 39 from a heart attack in her bathtub in Paris. Maria plays Tollea, who is whisked away just before her wedding to Ramu, to her birth island where her evil twin sister Naja (also played by Montez) holds sway. Ramu and his helper Kado follow her, but Tollea has decided to sacrifice her love for Ramu to become the new ruler of the island, so as to prevent an eruption of the volcano provoked by Naja’s sins. COBRA WOMAN is pure camp, Siodmak said “it was nonsense, but fun”.

Phantom_Lady_1 copyIn 1943 Siodmak was on a roll: he would make four film that year, and PHANTOM LADY (1943) was also the most important of his American period to date: the first of a quartet, which would form with The Spiral Staircase, The Killers and Criss Cross, the classic Noir films of their creator.

PHANTOM LADY is based on a novel by Cornell Woolrich (William Irish), a prolific writer, whose novels and short stories were the basis for twenty films Noir of the classic period. They also provided the basis for Nouvelle Vague fare. Pivotal in Woolrich’s novels is the race against time. Scott Henderson, an engineer, is accused of murdering his wife. He proclaims his innocence, but is sentenced to death. His secretary Carol “Kansas” Richman (Ella Raines) is convinced he is not a murderer, and together with inspector Burges, she sets out to find the real culprit. Henderson’s alibi is a woman with a flamboyant hat, he meets in a bar, and spends the evening with, while  his wife was murdered – but they promised not to reveal their identities. The mystery woman  is illusive and when Carol tries to unravel her identity, the barman, who to denies having seen her at all, is run over by a car shortly after interviewed by Richman. Another witness, a drummer (Elisha Cook. Jr.), is also murdered, before Richman corners Franchot Tone, an artist, and Richman’s best friend as the murderer: he had an affair with Richman’s wife. German expressionism and Siodmak’s customary near documentary style dominate: New York is a bed of intrigue, where shadows lurk and footsteps signal danger. The majority of scenes could be watched without dialogue, particularly Cook’s drummer solo, which fits in well with the impressionist décor. With PHANTOM LADY, Robert Siodmak had found his (sub)genre.

Christmas_Holiday_10CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY (1944), based on a novel by Somerset Maugham, has a most misleading title and is perhaps Siodmak’s most exotic film Noir. Lt. Mason, on Christmas leave, is delayed in New Orleans, where he meets the singer Jackie Lamont (Deanna Durham) who tells him her real name is Abigail Manette, and that her husband Robert (Gene Kelly) is in jail for murdering his bookie. In a long flashback, we see Robert’s mother trying to cover up her son’s crime. After Jackie leaves Mason, she is confronted in a roadhouse by Robert who has escaped from jail. Before he can shoot her, a policeman’s bullet kills him. Like “Phantom Lady”, CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY is photographed again by Woody Bredell, New Orleans is a tropical, outlandish setting and the film has much more the feel of a French film-noir than an American. Siodmak uses Wagner’s “Liebestod” to frame the love story of the doomed couple.

THE SUSPECT (1944) is one of Siodmak’s less convincing Noirs. Philip Marshall (Charles Laughton), a sedentary middle-aged man, is driven out by his heartless wife Cora, and falls in love with the much younger Mary (Ella Raines). Philip becomes a different person, and thrives with his new love. But Cora finds out about the couple and threatens Philip with disclosure, which would have ruined him professionally. He kills first Cora, then his neighbour Gilbert Simmons, who blackmails him. Inspector Huxley has no proof against him, and Philip could start a new life with his young wife in Canada, but he decides to stay and give himself up, just as Huxley had predicted. Shot entirely in a studio, THE SUSPECT lacks suspense, and is only remarkable for Laughton’s brilliant performance.

The_Strange_Affair_of_Uncle_Harry_3 copyTHE STRANGE AFFAIR OF UNCLE HARRY (1945) features a semi-incestuous relationship between brother and sister: John “Harry” Quincy (George Sanders) lives a quiet life in New Hampshire with his sisters Lettie (Geraldine Fitzgerald) and Hester. When he meets the fashion designer Deborah Brown (Ella Raines), he falls in love with her. Lettie is jeaulous, and feigns a heart attack. Harry wants to murder her, but Hester drinks the poison intended for Lettie, who is convicted for Hester’s murder, but does not give away the real culprit, since she knows that her death will prevent Harry from marrying Deborah. To mollify The “MPAA code agency”, Siodmak found a new ending: Harry wakes up at, having only dreamt the events; producer Joan Harrison resigned from the project in protest. Lettie is a psychopath in the vein of the murderer in Phantom Lady and Olivia de Havilland’s murderous twin in The Dark Mirror. But there is more ambiguity to the narrative than is obvious at first sight: there is a vey clear resemblance between Lettie and Deborah – they might have been exchangeable for Harry. THE STRANGE AFFAIR OF UNCLE HARRY is one of the darkest Noirs, because all is played out on the background of a very respectable family, in small town America.

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THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE (1945) is Siodmak’s most famous Noir, a classic because of its old-dark-house setting and the woman-in-peril theme. In a small town in New England, handicapped women are being murdered. Helen (Dorothy McGuire) is watching a silent movie in town, where a lame woman is strangled. Helen then hurries home, to look after the family matriarch Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore), who is bedridden. Since Helen is mute, she is in mortal danger: the killer lives in the house. When Helen finds the body of Blanche, who was engaged to Albert Warren (George Brent), after having left his half-brother Steve, Helen suspects Stephen and locks him in the cellar; then she tries to phone Dr. Parry, but she cannot communicate. Too late she finds out that Albert is the killer, who chases her up the spiral staircase, but his mother gets up and shoots him, causing Helen, who lost her voice after witnessing the traumatic death of her parents, to cry out loud. Very little of the background to the narrative has been mentioned: the theme being eugenics, a concept the late President Theodore Roosevelt was very keen on. Albert Warren has taken this concept a step further; he kills “weak and imperfect” humans because he believes his father would be proud of him. Like T. Roosevelt, Albert’s father was a big-game hunter. In his mother’s bedroom is a poster with a Teddy Roosevelt lookalike and the initials “TR” above an elephant’s tusk. Considering the Nazi Euthanasia programmes, this aspect of THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE has often been neglected by critics.

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THE DARK MIRROR (1946) reflects Hollywood’s interest in Freud. Two identical sisters, Terry and Ruth Collins, both played by Olivia de Havilland, are suspected of murder, when one of the women’s suitors is found dead. Inspector Stevenson is fascinated by the two woman, but would not have solved the crime without the help of Dr. Elliot, a psychoanalyst. He finds out that whilst Ruth is a very adjusted and loving person, Terry is just her opposite: a ruthless psychopath, who fabricates clues, to make Ruth look like the murderess, whilst at the same time is planning to kill her sister, before Dr. Elliot is able to expose her. Siodmak deals with the “Doppelgänger” theme, which was explored as early as in the silent film era of expressionism, by using Freudian theory to explain the perversity of the “evil” sister: rejection, confusion and lastly alienation let her spin out of control, allowing only “herself” to survive. Unlike in The Spiral Staircase, the interior is totally unthreatening, which makes Terry’s murderous lust even more terrifying.

TIme_Out_of_Mind_2 copyTIME OUT OF MIND (1946/7) is more melodrama than Noir. Chris Fortune (Robert Hutton), the son of a heartless and ambitious shipping tycoon, falls in love with the servant girl Kate (Phyllis Calvert). But in 19th century New England, this was not the social norm. Kate encourages Chris to marry a lady of his class, who turns out to be a beast and drives Chris more into alcohol dependency. Chris fancies himself as a composer, but only Kate believes in his talent. The Noir aspect is the family constellation: Chris is obviously weak, and his overbearing father (Leo G. Carroll) rules over his life. More to the point, Chris’s sister Rissa (Ella Raines) seemingly protects her younger brother, but is in reality totally obsessed by him. She represents the semi-incestuous theme running, not only through Siodmak’s, noir films.










CRISS CROSS (1949) is perhaps Siodmak’s most personal Noir. Reworking elements of The Killers – and casting Burt Lancaster again in the role of the obsessed lover -, CRISS CROSS is the story of an “amour fou”, its emotional intensity on par with Tourneur’s classic Out of the Past. Steve Thompson (Lancaster) is still in love with his ex wife Anna (Yvonne De Carlo), who now lives with the gangster Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea). But when the two of them meet in a bar, the whole things starts up again. Dundee surprises them, Thompson comes up with an excuse: he needs Dundee’s help for an armed car robbery. But Dundee is suspicious: he and his gang kill Thompson’s partner and wound him after the robbery. When Anna goes missing with the money, Dundee suspects the couple have double-crossed him. Dundee has Thompson abducted, but Thompson bribes his captors and finds Anna. She is terrified by the thought that Dundee will find them and wants to abandon the wounded Steve, but Dundee arrives and shoots them both, before running towards the police. The final scene, when Anna’s and Steve’s bodies fall literally into each other, bullets flying as the police siren’s grow louder, is the apotheosis of everything that’s gone on since the scene in the bar. From then on, in true Noir fashion, all is told in flashbacks and voice-over narration. Anna is the quintessential Noir heroine, telling Steve: “All those things which have happened we’ll forget it. You see, I make you forget it. After it’s done, after it’s all over and we are safe, it will be just you and me. The way it should’ve been all along from the start”. CRISS CROSS is my personal favourite: dark, expressionistic, melancholic and wonderfully doomed.










THE GREAT SINNER (1948/9) is an awkward mixture of high literature and low-brow melodrama. Based partly on Dostoyevsky’s novel “The Gambler” and some autobiographical details of this author, Siodmak struggles to bring this expensive “A-picture” to life. The stars Gregory Peck (Fedya) and Ava Gardener (Pauline Ostrovsky) – in the first of three collaborations – do their best, but Christopher Isherwood’s script is a hotchpotch of the sensational and sentimental, tragic events unfold fast and furiously, logic and characterisation falling by the wayside. Told in a long flash-back, Pauline receives a manuscript from the dying writer Fedya, in which he tells the story of their first meeting in 1860 in Wiesbaden. Then, Fedya met Pauline on a train journey from Paris to Moscow, but follows her to the casino in Wiesbaden, to study the effects of gambling on the whole Ostrovsky clan. When Pitard, a gambler and friend of Pauline, steals Fedya’s money, the latter tries to save Pitard from his fate, and gives him the money so he can leave the city. But Pitard loses in the casino and shoots himself. Strangely enough, Fedya, who has fallen in love with Pauline, also becomes addicted to gambling – but telling himself, that he wants to win the money, so that Pauline’s father can pay back his debts to the casino owner Armand, and thus free Pauline from the engagement to the ruthless tycoon. But after some early success, Fedya looses heavily, tries to in vain to pawn a religious medal, which belongs to Pauline; finally, he wants to commit suicide, before he looses consciousness. Recovered, he finishes his novel and Pauline forgives him. In spite of a strong supporting cast including Ethel Barrymore, Melvin Douglas, Agnes Moorehead and Walter Huston, THE GREAT SINNER flopped at the box-office, having cost 20 m Dollar in today’s money, it lost 8 m Dollar. Siodmak, according to Gregory Peck, did not enjoy the responsibility of the big budget production, “he looked like a nervous wreck”.

The_File_on_Thelma_2 copyWith THE FILE ON THELMA JORDON (1949) Siodmak returned to the safe ground of Noir films. Thelma (Barbara Stanwyck) is unhappily married to Tony Laredo (Richard Rober), but is attracted to his animalistic sex-appeal. When she discusses burglaries at her wealthy aunt’s house, where she also lives, with assistant district attorney Cleve Marshall (Wendell Correy), the two fall in love. When the aunt is killed, and a necklace stolen, Thelma is the main suspect, because Tony has been away to Chicago. Thelma is put on trial, and Cleve pays her lawyer and plans the trial strategy with him, even though he has learned about Thelma’s past, and is convinced that she is the murderer. The aunt’s butler has seen a stranger at the crime scene, but did not recognise him. Thelma, who knows that the person is Cleve, does not give his name away. She is aquitted and wants to leave town with Tony, when Cleve confronts them. Tony beats Cleve up and the couple flee, but Thelma causes an accident on purpose, in which both are killed – but not before she has confessed to the murder. In spite of this, Cleve’s career and marriage is ruined. THE FILE ON THELMA JORDON is a neat reversal on Double Indemnity, which also starred Stanwyck as the Queen of all femme fatales. But here, Thelma and Cleve really love each other, and Thelma pays for her crime with her life, and Cleve will be ostracised by society for a long time. Whilst Wilder’s couple was evil from the beginning, Siodmak gives his lovers a much more human touch. THE FILE ON THELMA JORDON was Robert Siodmak’s last American Film Noir. He would later direct two more films, which are in certain ways close to the subgenre; but he would never again achieve the greatness of his American Film Noir cycle, even his directing output would run to another 18 films.

The_Crimson_Pirate_3In the THE CRIMSON PIRATE (1951/2) Siodmak was reunited with Burt Lancaster, who also produced the film. Set in the late 18th century in the Caribbean, Captain Vallo (Lancaster), is a pirate, who tries to make money from selling weapons to the rebels on the island of Cobra, lead by El Libre (Frederick Leicester). On the island, Vallo falls in love with El Libre’s daughter Conseuela (Eva Bartok). Later he has to rescue her father, and support the revolution – even against the wishes of his fellow pirates, who do not see the reason for such a good deed – since it is totally unprofitable! In a stormy finale with tanks, TNT, machine guns and an outstanding colourful airship, our hero, now in drag, wins the revolution and Consulea’s heart. What is most surprising is the humour and lightheartedness of the production. Everything is told tongue-in-cheek, the action scenes are overwhelming and Lancaster (the ex-circus acrobat) dominates the film with his stunts. It seems hardly credible Robert Siodmak, creator of gloom and doom, dark shadows and even darker hearts, would be responsible for such an uplifting and hilarious spectacle, 15 years before Louis Malle’s equally enchanting “Viva Maria!”. Ken Adam, the future “Bond” production designer, earned one of his first credits for this film.

It will never be absolutely clear why Robert Siodmak decided to leave Hollywood after he finished THE CRIMSON PIRATE, to work again in Germany (with a one-film stop in France, so as to repeat his journey of the thirties backwards). In the USA, he was offered a lucrative six-film deal and had shown with his last film, that he could now also handle big productions successfully. There are rumours of pending HUAC hearings, because of his friendship with Charles Spencer Chaplin, but Siodmak himself never mentioned these as a reason for the return to his homeland. Rather like Fritz Lang and Edgar Ulmer, it can only be assumed that “Heimweh” was the reason for Siodmak’s return. True, he lived in Ascona, Switzerland, but he worked nearly exclusively in Germany. What he, and other “Remigrants” did not reckon with, was the political and cultural climate in the Federal Republic of Germany. When these directors had left Germany, the Nazis had just started the transformation of the country. But in the early fifties, the democracy of the country was not chosen, but forced on the population by the Allies. Old Nazis were still in many powerful positions, and the majority of the population still grieved, full of self-pity, about their defeat. The Third Reich, and particularly the Holocaust, were more or less Taboo, both in daily life and in all cultural referenced. The film industry also suffered from the lack of a new beginning; even Veit Harlan, director of Jud Süss, was allowed to restart his career. It is no co-incidence that neither Lang or Ulmer produced anything notable after their return.

The_Devil_Strikes_at_Night_4 copyThe same can be said for Robert Siodmak, with one exception: THE DEVIL STRIKES AT NIGHT (NACHTS WENN DER TEUFEL KAM), which he directed in 1957 was, deservedly, nominated for the “Oscar” as “Best foreign film”. Set during WWII in Hamburg, the film tells the story of the serial killer Bruno Lüdke (Mario Adorf). When caught by inspector Kersten (Claus Holm), the latter’s superior, the Gestapo Officer Rossdorf (Hannes Messmer) points out that another man had already been ‘convicted’: Willi Keun (Wolfgang Peters), a small-time party member, had “been shot whilst escaping” – without informing the population about the murders, since just a monstrous criminal did not fit in with ruling ideology of the Aryan supremacy. Both, police man and Gestapo officer, now have the difficult task to start to convince the authorities that a German serial killer was on the loose for over a decade. Both will be sent to the Eastern front, to cover up the case. The film is based on real events, Bruno Lüdke (1908-1944) was mentally retarded, but may have confessed to more murders than he actually committed – to clear up unsolved murder cases. Siodmak re-creates the atmosphere of his best Noir films: the city is darkened, the image dissolves from an omniscient perspective to a particular one – particularly in the scene where Lüdke is caught in the headlights of a car. Fear and excitement permeate like a black stain throughout. Kesten’s obsession with the case create a fragmented world, where the images seem to splinter. Chaos rules, and nobody seems to be safe: the hunt for Lüdke, which frames the film, is shown like a haunting parable on the destructive nature of the 3rd Reich. Unfortunately, Siodmak fell short of this standard in the other 12 films directed in West Germany between 1955 and 1969.

The_Rough_and_the_Smooth_1In 1959 Siodmak worked in the Elstree-Borehamwood studios, to direct THE ROUGH AND THE SMOOTH, based on the novel by Robin Maugham. Robert Cecil Romer, 2nd Viscount Maugham, nephew of Somerset Maugham, was the enfant terrible of his family. Socialist and self-confessed homosexual, he was a very underrated novelist: The Servant, filmed in 1963 by Joseph Loosey, with Dirk Bogarde in the title role, is one of the classics of British post-WWII cinema. THE ROUGH AND THE SMOOTH shows similarities: Mike Thompson (Tony Britton), an archeologist, is engaged to Margaret (Natasha Parry), the daughter of his boss, who finances his work. Mike feels trapped in a loveless relationship, and falls for Ila Hansen (Nadja Tiller), a young and attractive woman. But she has a secret: not only is she in cahoots with the tough gangster Reg Barker (William Bendix), but there is a third man in her life, who has a hold over her. After Barker commits suicide, driven by Hansen’s demands, the latter tries also to blackmail Mike and Margaret. The ending is quiet original. There are very dark undertones, particularly for the late 50s, when Ila comments: “I don’t cry much, I have been hurt a lot”. THE ROUGH AND THE SMOOTH is a subversive film considering the context of its period. The camera pans over stultified Britain of the last 50s, where there seems to be no middle-ground between boring respectability and outright perversion. When the two worlds collide, the conflict is fought on both sides with grim, violent determination. With THE ROUGH AND THE SMOOTH, Siodmak, would, for the last time, come close to his American Noir films, for which he was called “Prince of the Shadows”: referring not only to the quality of the images, but also to a society, where, to quote Brecht, “we are only aware of the ones in the light, the ones in the shadows, we don’t see”. Robert Siodmak made sure that the ones in the shadows played the major roles in his Films Noir career. Andre Simonoviescz ©


Masters of Cinema home video release of CRISS CROSS; Robert Siodmak’s influential film noir masterpiece; to be released on 22 June 2020.




Woman at War (2018) **** Mubi

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

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

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

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

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

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


Suddenly, Last Summer (1960) Blu-ray

Director: Joseph Mankiewicz | Script: Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal | Cast: Elizabeth Taylor, Katherine Hepburn, Montgomery Clift, Albert Dekker, Mercedes McCambridge, Gary Raymond, Mavis Villiers | US | 110′

Sam Spiegel was already firing on all cylinders by the time he backed an adaptation of the standout stage play by the great Tennessee Williams, having already made The African Queen, On The Waterfront and Bridge On The River Kwai. It’s therefore no surprise that he was able to command a headliner cast anyone else might give their right arm for, Taylor, Hepburn and Clift.

All was not quite as it seemed though. In 1957, Clift had been involved in a near fatal car crash and had only been saved by Elizabeth Taylor pulling two teeth out of his mouth, preventing him from choking to death. He required extensive facial reconstruction and was also a serious addict to pain killers by the time filming started, however Taylor would only accept the role if her great friend Clift was cast opposite her.

Spiegel understood the draw of Taylor; there was nobody hotter, she having recently completed Giant opposite James Dean, her Oscar nominated Raintree County and Cat On A Hot Tin Roof with Paul Newman, so he passed over his more favoured choice of Brando to keep her onboard.

Liz first met Monty when the studio asked her to accompany him to the 1949 premier of The Heiress in an attempt to assuage growing rumours of his homosexuality, prior to their working together in A Place In The Sun. They hit it off immediately and remained close friends until his untimely death in 1966.

The subject matter for Suddenly, Last Summer was a delicate one and perhaps a difficult sell, if it wasn’t for the star wattage involved in the cast. Mental health might not be the first choice topic for a blockbuster, but the film was a huge success and Taylor was again Oscar nominated alongside Katherine Hepburn. They both lost out to Simone Signoret (for Room At The Top), but Taylor did win a Golden Globe for her performance as a traumatised young woman who cannot remember something truly horrific that she witnessed.

Hepburn plays Violet Venable, her rich, powerful but deeply manipulative aunt, threatening to have her lobotomised to keep her silent about what she witnessed the day Violet’s ‘canonised’ son died. Under extreme duress, it’s down to Monty’s Surgical Doctor Cukrowicz to cure her.

Obviously, Tennessee Williams is no slouch and the story is a good one, tension coming from the personal politics and financial need and greed as much as Catherine’s desperate illness, all topped off with sexual desire. It’s a heady mix and one we are quickly drawn into; Hepburn is sublime as the all-powerful grieving multi-millionaire.

Clift is good too but the role demands less of him and having seen several movies in the Monty canon in short order recently, the transformation to his visage is marked and appears even to have left him partially frozen. Upsetting to see his star power here prematurely on the wane.

But it’s Liz Taylor who tears up the screen. If you haven’t seen a Liz Taylor film for a while, then this is an example of why she was regarded as one of the last true screen legends, nominated for Oscars for four consecutive movie performances. There’s a vulnerability, a truth to her performance and a luminescence to her beauty that comes across in spades, even here in black and white.

Structurally, this is a storyline that may feel overfamiliar to many; even hackneyed, but it is also worth considering that this film was made in 1959 and has had many imitators in the intervening years. At the time, it was busy blazing a trail for what was permissible for the big screen as much as for a new way of performing. One to see perhaps for Kate and Liz then, rather than Monty, but one to see nevertheless. MT



Only the Animals (2019) Netflix

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

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

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

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

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

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


Take Me Somewhere Nice (2019) *** MUBI

Dir: Ewa Sendijarevic | Drama | 91′

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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



To the Stars (2019) **** Streaming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


1917 (2019) ***** Mubi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

A Russian Youth (2019) *** on Mubi

Wri/Dir: Alexander Zolotukhin, Russian, 72 min | with: Vladimir Korolev, Mikhail Buturlov, Artem Leshik, Danil Tyabin, Sergey Goncharenko, Filipp Dyachkov

A poetic and lyrical First World War trench memoir set to a live orchestra playing Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 Op. 30 (1909) and Symphonic Dances Op. 45 (1940).

A Russian Youth sees its freckled hero blithely setting out for the ‘Great War’. But the pastural romance of the early scenes soon gives way to the terrors of trench warfare. Our vulnerable hero loses his accordion, and then his sight. But his keenness to continue the battle keeps him at the front and deployed to listen out for enemy planes at the giant metal pipes that form a kind of early-warning system. Talk about using the difficulty!

Capturing the evocative poignance of Wilfrid Owen’s poetry, especially his keen ear for sound and his instinct for the modulating of rhythm, this small gem certainly conveys the “pity of war”. Its faded images transport us back to the greatest tragedy of the early 20th century: life would never be the same again. But there’s also a stylised, abstract quality to the grainy sepia-tinted footage. The camera follows the febrile action with an atmospheric, jerky quality, so reminiscent of the age. Cutting away frequently from the action slightly spoils the narrative flow of this delicate fragment of yesteryear, re-ignited by contemporary relevance. MT


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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



Blind Chance (1987) | Now on Blu-ray

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

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



Bartok (1964) ***** Russell and the Music Makers

Dir.: Ken Russell; Cast: Boris Ranevsky, Pauline Boty, Sandor Eles, Peter Brett, Rosalind Watkins, Huw Wheldon (narrator); UK  1964, 50 min. (For BBC ‘Monitor’)

Ken Russell’s first feature film French Dressing (a re-make of a Roger Vadim And God Created Woman) in 1964 was a critical and financial disaster. So back he went to the BBC’s Monitor/Omnibus, a long-running Arts magazine series, that would spawn a host of black and white musical biopics including a triumphant study of Elgar (1962) and an innovative look at the Hungarian composer. Bela Bartok (1881-1945). When Russell returned to feature films in 1967 with the Len Deighton adaption of A Billion Dollar Brain, the result was, sadly, similar to his 1964 outing. But you could never accuse him of being banal.

There are many parallels between Bartok and Elgar, mainly their love of the countryside, which is reflected in their music. But Bartok (like his music) was a much less straightforward character than the rather robust Victorian Elgar: he was downbeat, full of angst and loss, suffering an eventual exile, which robbed him of his beloved Hungarian countryside.

We start with a reflexion on The Miraculous Mandarin, influenced by Stravinsky and Schoenberg. But there are also undertones of Debussy, who was one of his great admirers. Russell’s narrative is darkly erotic – the ballet features a girl who is led by men to seduce clients making love to them until death. Then there is a young sex worker (Boty) whose engagement with a client (Eles), is interrupted by her pimps. They rob him, let him escape, but again catch up with him, beating him up again. The rather violent sex (and misogyny) united Bartok and the Russell of his later films. The same goes for the one act Opera Bluebird’s Castle, where we follow Bluebird (Brett) and his latest wife Judith (Watkins). She does not want any secrets between them and pays with her life, when the last chamber is opened she gets a good glimpse of the bodies of his previous wives.

Huw Wheldon was much more than just the narrator of Bartok – he had been made Controller of BBC One. As such he wielded enormous power, and (again) refused any re-construction (docu-drama) of real events. Bartok begins with the composer (Ranevsky) as an old man, according to Wheldon’s commentary, in poor health and fighting his demons. But overall “Bartok struggled all his life to maintain his privacy, he was an alien in an alien world”. This condition found its way into his music, a theme Russell graphically conveys into images: Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta is underlined by Bartok’s near paranoid loneliness. Showing his isolation, claustrophobia, later repeated on a crowded escalator: a permanent descent into the nadir.

Bartok’s fragility is understandable, given the state of Hungary: after growing nationalism the First World War brought Hungary independence from the hated House of Habsburg; but what followed was the chaos of the Räte Republic and immediately afterwards the semi-fascist rule by Admiral Horthy. The latter lasted until the end of WWII, and Bartok forbade his work to be performed in Germany and Italy, even though he needed the royalties. He did well to escape to the USA with his second wife in 1940. Wheldon describes his music for Divertimento for String Orchestra from 1939 as a “statement of grief.” Later Bartok wrote in one his letters: “What an elemental disease home sickness is, how overwhelming. What a strict law lies here, not likely to be disturbed. Hungary had never meant more to anybody.”

Bartok had always fought the Germanic influence in Hungary’s cultural life. He, like Elgar, fled the big city and ventured out into the countryside. “Whenever possible, he got away into the plains and villages of Hungary, living with the peasants and sharing their life. He conducted a systematic investigation of the whole peasant music tradition of Hungary.”                              

Another emigrant, Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov put it like this: “I discovered in nature the non-egalitarian delights that I thought in art. Both were forms of magic, both were a game of intricate enchantment and deception.” But there was a lot of darkness in Bartok and his music, and this nocturnal quality is reflected in the vivid images. Quoting Wheldon again we learn “that nocturnal themes, famous now as Bartok’s Night Music, turn up quite explicitly, again and again, over the the whole of his output.” This goes particularly for Bartok’s final composition Concerto for Orchestra. A mourning song text, that he had collected in 1913 seems perfectly related to the music: “Oh you black and woeful earth!/Who ever gets inside you/Nevermore comes back gain/Many people have you swallowed/Yet you haven’t had your fill.” Written by a man, who found life in New York (in spite of a teaching post at Columbia) a brutal experience.

Russell and DoP Charles Parnall navigate their way though loss, grief and anguish, bringing out the fate of Bartok in poetic sequences, using his music to underline the complexity of his compositions. The overall tone is always reflects the thematic darkness: the destruction of total war. Like the last words in Bluebird’s Castle: “Henceforth, there shall be darkness, darkness, darkness.”  AS




Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011) **** BFI player

Dir: Nuri Bilge Ceylan, DoP: Gokhan Tiryaki | Cast: Muhammet Uzuner, Yilmaz Erdogan, Taner Birsel, Ahmet Mumtaz Taylan | 180mins Cert15

Climates, Distance, Three Monkeys. Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s films cast a knowing glance over Turkish life with slow-burning plots and a hypnotic style that resonates with the characters and the landscape they inhabit.  Here in Anatolia he feels his way intuitively through a murder mystery road story with no regard for time or stricture, on a long hot night that hangs in the air and in the memory.

There’s a saturnine-looking murderer (Ercan Kesal) but no body, and a series of random events that make this a meandering but enjoyable journey through stunning set pieces and widescreen photography, meeting the locals, with no hurry to solve a crime. The interplay between the main characters; a Columbo-style chief prosecutor (Taner Birsel); a humane police chief (Yilmaz Erdogan) and a slightly seedy doctor (Mohammet Uzuner) is skilful and amusing but the real star is the social commentary that at first seems trivial but grows more relevant and revealing as the night wears on. By dawn things start to fall into place. Keep with it, this is a tale that takes its time but never outstays its welcome. MT ©



The Sense of an Ending (2017) ****

Dir.: Ritesh Batra | Script: Nick Payne | Cast: Jim Broadbent, Charlotte Rampling, Harriet Walker, Michelle Dockery, Freya Mavor, Billy Howle, Emily Mortimer, Joe Alvyn, Matthew Goode UK | Drama | 108 min.

The past is how we choose to remember it. Sometimes significant events are forgotten or edited out. This is the premise of Julian Barnes’ 2011 Booker Prize winning novella that explores the psyche of a quintessential Englishman and his selective memories of youth.

Thoughtfully adapted for the screen by Nick Payne, THE SENSE OF AN ENDING is a dispassionate film in many ways, not least because the characters are so repellent, thornily portrayed by the subtle support trio of Rampling, Walter and Dockery with a nuanced Jim Broadbent as Tony Webster, the main focus in this amusing drama from Indian director Ritesh Batra who is so clever at making this feel so classically and insightfully British. The story is certainly gripping and keeps us invested in Barnes’ intricate storytelling but the flashbacks, so vital to informing the plot, are actually key to understanding the main character’s motivations and there is a strand of sardonic humour that makes this another brilliant observation of emotional suppression that often follows a false start in youth. The 1960s scenes are teasingly repressive and so representative of how damaging an unsatisfactory first relationship can be, particularly for sensitive souls such as young Tony.

The story revolves around Tony Webster, divorced and busily keeping life at bay as the proprietor of a small speciality camera shop in leafy North London. This unfruitful foray into passionate love during his college years has sent him scurrying for cover, and after coasting through his marriage to QC Margaret (a brilliant Walter), which produced a (now pregnant) lesbian daughter Susie (Dockery), he has managed to avoid emotional entanglements of any kind. And although he enjoys Margaret’s caustic company over dinner he still doesn’t get why their marriage is over.

But the past returns to bite Tony when he is left a strange bequest in a will, encouraging him to track down his enigmatic first love Veronica Ford who is still as evasive as ever in responding to his requests. Their eventual meeting drudges up an unfortunate episode that Tony had chosen to forget and reveals how the Young Tony (Howle) fell for the ambivalent Veronica (Mavor) during an awkward weekend at her family home in rural England, where he is entranced by Veronica’s mother Sarah (played by a winsomely suggestive Emily Mortimer).

Tony discovers subsequently that Veronica has taken up with his maverick friend Adrian (Alvyn), who fancies himself as a cool Camus-quoiting intellectual (later committing suicide). Disillusioned by love and bewildered by his feelings for Veronica, Tony is forced to confront a past that offers the key to his future.

According to Margaret and Susie, Tony has become an emotional avoidant dinosaur, a ‘curmudgeon’ who regards the modern world with disappointment and disdain. Having successfully cleansed his memory of any wrongdoing regarding Veronica – and subsequently Margaret – his self-glorification shows him up to be exactly the same person he was as a young man: an arrogant but misunderstood bystander, proud to have chosen a life in his shell.

Suicide, sexual repression and unrequited love are themes of incendiary dramatic potential, and this film, with its thoughtful musical choices, trades passion for emotional restraint and typical English poignance. Clearly, Tony has lost contact with his feelings and shut the door on romance without even realising the effect this has had on his wife and family. But his emotional day of reckoning will strangely be the making of him. MT



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

Dir: Luca Guadagnino | Italian, Drama, 120′

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

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

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

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

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

Somewhere in Europe (1947) Valahol Europaban

Wri|Dir: Radvanyi Geza | Hungarian, Drama 101′

At the end of the Second World War Eastern Europe was in a terrible state with orphaned, homeless children roving aimlessly around the countryside and on the banks of the Danube. These starving and abandoned kids get together and form a gang as they gradually lose their humanity and sense of decency in this remarkable black and white drama from Hungarian director Radvanyi.

Set on the widescreen and in intimate close-up, this visually thrilling Agitprop was financed by the Hungarian Communist Party and released in 1948 when the country was already fully committed to the new regime. With its crisp framing crisp framing and chiaroscuro lighting the film conjures up the pervasive desperation bordering on mania of these deprived kids,

Somewhere in Europe was considered the first triumph of Hungarian cinema in the aftermath to the War, it certainly trumps Ken Loach’s sloppily put together propaganda outing I, Daniel Blake and avoids sarcasm in favour of a message of solidarity – though quite why the French National anthem features here is a mystery. The early scenes are largely silent and set to Szabolc Fenyes’ rousing orchestral score which highlights moments of tension throughout, although the melodrama remarkably restrained, even when tragedy strikes. The cast of child non-pros give naturalistic performances that are convincing and really moving. And there is a subtle love story that plays out between Hosszu and Eva (Szusza Bánki), a young woman who reveals her tragic past in flashback.

Led by their gang leader Hosszu (Miklós Gábor), the kids discover an abandoned castle where a middle-aged conductor Simon Peter (Artur Somlay) is hiding in solitude waiting for peace . After trying to hang Peter – the kids are like something out of Animal Farm such is their starvation – they gradually befriend him while he serenades them with piano classics, persuading them to mend the leaking roof. He also teaches them the lessons of life.

United in a common cause, and reminding us that Europe is still in flux migration wise, they eventually join forces in defending the castle against a group of villagers who call Peter the ‘mad musician’ and plot to storm the castle with disastrous consequences for the kids and their new leader. Despite its sinister overtones, the film carries a message of hope that proves that a community spirit and small acts of kindness are the always the way forward, and can actually lead to redemption, even during Communism!. MT

AVAILABLE ONLINE BY KIND PERMISSION OF THE HUNGARIAN CULTURAL CENTRE LONDON | Somewhere in Europe, Valahol Európában, 1947, director: Géza Radványi – with English subtitles

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

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

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

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

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

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


Henri-Georges Cluzot | Mubi


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


A veritable masterpiece of French cinema, LE CORBEAU is a dark and subversive study of human nature starring Pierre Fresnay and Ginette Leclerc. A wave of hysteria sweeps the small provincial town of St. Robin when a series of poison-pen letters signed ‘Le Corbeau’ (The Raven) begin to appear, denouncing several prominent members of society. The slow trickle of sinister letters soon becomes a flood and no one is safe from their mysterious accusations. Upon its release in 1943, Le Corbeau was condemned by the political left and right and the church, and Clouzot was banned from filmmaking for two years.


A marriage that has fallen on hard times is further tested by the couple’s implication in a murder. Jenny Lamour (Suzy Delair) is a music hall chanteuse married to her pianist husband Maurice (Bernard Blier). Keen to get ahead, Jenny leaps at the chance when an ageing wealthy businessman (Charles Dullin) offers her the chance of some gigs.

However, when she agrees to a meeting at his home and he is found dead later in the evening – Maurice’s untamed jealousy is in the frame. A Maigret-esque detective, Antoine, played by Louis Jouvet, leaves no stone unturned in his exceedingly private investigations of the down-at-heel showbiz couple’s sad, tempestuous life.


Knives Out (2019) *** On Demand

Dir|Wri: Rian Johnson |Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Toni Collette, Michael Shannon, Ana de Armas LaKeith Stanfield | Comedy Drama 130′

Rian Johnson excels in this crass but entertaining old-school whodunnit inspired by crime mistress Agatha Christie and dusted down in a sleek new format for the present day. It sees Daniel Craig’s dapper Deep South detective Benoit Blanc investigating the murder of powerful patriarch and best-selling author Harlan Thrombey (Plummer) who heads up a combative family in a Gothic Mansion, somewhere in wooded Massachussetts.

Never mind the head-spinning plot twists, the cast will keep you on your toes with their stinging repartee and back-biting banter: Toni Collette is particularly good as the hard-edged daughter Joni, and the stellar cast includes a frightening Jamie Leigh Curtis, a twinkly eyed Don Johnson and a pucker Christopher Plummer who gradually expose their hypocrisies over cocktails, very much shaken not stirred while Mr Bond puts his received pronunciation on the back burner for a Southern twang. Suave and sophisticated it may not be, but entertaining it certainly is. MT





La Soledad (2016) **** Free online

UnknownDir: Jorge Thielen Armand | Writer: Rodrigo Michelangeli | Docu-Drama | 89′ | Venezuela | Canada

A crumbling old villa in contemporary Caracas is haunted by seething resentment from occupying former retainers providing a fitting metaphor for Venezuela’s current economic crisis. Jorge Thielen Armand’s poetic paean to his grandparents home is a mournful one full of exotic birdsong, plants peeping through cracks in the walls and old photo albums covered in the dust. Cine footage shows the filmmaker playing in the gardens of La Soledad back in the 1960s, now only memories remain as ghosts of the past. A plan to restore the villa has been abandoned leaving handyman Jose and his 72-year-old mother Rosina (a former housekeeper), wife and daughter homeless as the economic situation worsens each day. Jose combs the streets for his mother’s medication and even food is hard to come as the empty shop shelves testify.

Amand avoids bombastic statements about his country’s woes preferring this softly softly approach. The cinema verite drama remains tethered to the local neighbourhood making no attempt to broaden its view of Venezuela’s political woes beyond the concerns of the poorest people here in Caracas. And although Amand is respectful and sympathetic towards the current occupants, it soon emerges that only Rosina has a right to live in the property. Her family – as she points out herself- should really only be there on a temporary basis. But Jose’s only hope of work is re-building the villa whose history dates back to a time when valuable coins were purportedly buried in parts of the building. He taps the peeling walls and hires a metal detector in the hope of making a quick buck. Some of his friends are considering kidnapping as a way to raise funds; others are leaving to look for work in Colombia and Ecuador, including his wife. But like a Venezuelan Mr Micawber, Jose has no desire to move on preferring to stay put in the hope that his boss and co-worker Jorge will offer him a future. But even bosses have to move on when crisis is the order of the day. MT




Who You Think I Am (2019) Curzon

Dir: Safy Nebbou Writer: Safy Nebbou, Julie Peyr | Cast: Juliette Binoche, François Civil, Nicole Garcia, Marie-Ange Casta, Guillaume Gouix, Jules Houplain, Jules Gauzelin, Charles Berling, Claude Perron | French, 101′

A little bit late to the party comes another film about female sexuality after fifty. Bright Days Ahead started the trend, and then Claire Denis and Juliette Binoche did a great job with Let the Sun Shine In (2017). Now Binoche lends her talents as a similar woman in Who You Think I Am, a much darker and more introspective look at the loss of sexual power and identity that can afflict the female of the species, often affecting her wellbeing and confidence.

As Byron once wrote: “Man’s love is of man’s life a part; it is a woman’s whole existence”. And this is very much the case for Claire (Binoche) not satisfied with just being a mother or a literature professor in Paris, she also misses being desired, touched and lusted after. Abandoned by her husband, and keen to understand why her younger lover has also left, she idly delves into Facebook for a solution. A fat chance there, you may be thinking. But soon she’s inventing a fake profile and befriending her Alex, 29, masquerading as 24-year-old Clara, and Alex predictably takes the bait. Conversations with her shrink intensify and the two women become enthralled in the story that Claire is creating, Nicole Garcia is masterful as D Boormans finding it hard to remain a professional on the sidelines.

Meanwhile, as their flirty chat intensifies on social media and phone calls, Alex is soon in thrall to the woman of his dreams, Claire in disquise. But when she does the maths, reality bites. Lacking the confidence to meet Alex in person, she has nevertheless grown accustomed to his online attention, feeding her feelings of lust and longing, day by day. An experienced woman of the world, she knows just how to keep him onboard online. But not for ever, as Alex is gagging to meet her. And her elusiveness is driving him mad, and making him keener. But she deludes Alex, she is also deludes herself and this feeling sends her spiralling back into desperation. If only she looked young again, she could be having real sex with this guy, but isn’t that thought process also self-defeating. If she was confident, maybe he wouldn’t mind her ageing body, as he already loved her mind. And his feelings were real.

Based on the eponymous novel by Camille Laurens, Safy Nebbou convincingly probes Claire’s drift into virtual reality exploring it from different perspectives and exploring her psyche. There are so many angles here to contemplate, and Nebbou does a great job of understanding the female point of view. And as 89 year old Bernie Ecclestone announces the arrival of his latest kid, the subject of sexuality once again rears its ugly head in the gender politics debate. Juliette Binoche delivers an incredible portrait of a woman struggling to cope with the wounds inflicted by loneliness and growing older, from a female perspective. MT




Storm Boy (2019) ***

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

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

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

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

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

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




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


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

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

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

The sleepy staff of Macpherson’s traditional Scottish tweed firm get a rude awakening when young Macpherson (Robert Morley, Theatre of Blood) hires a feisty American efficiency expert Angela Barrows (Constance Cummings, Blithe Spirit). She advocates new-fangled horrors like automation and – ghastliest of all – ‘synthetic fibre’.  Can nothing stop her? Nothing, perhaps, but meek accountant Mr Martin (Peter Sellers). Beneath that placid surface, still waters run deep; to balance the books, he decides, he must erase the ‘error’.

Made just after I’m All Right, Jack, this misleadingly titled version of James Thurber’s The Catbird Seat transposed to fifties Scotland was both Peter Sellers’ final character part (recalling his elderly projectionist Percy Quill in The Smallest Show on Earth) and his first starring role as a shuffling old accountant driven to thoughts of murder by American efficiency expert Constance Cummings.

It’s more a battle of cultures or of generations in the vein of an Ealing comedy than of the sexes; as befits Michael Balcon’s maiden production for his newly formed company Bryanston. Directed by Ealing veteran Charles Crichton, it is also considerably enhanced by the glacial black & white photography of the rabbit warren in which Sellers works and on the streets of Edinburgh by Oscar-winning cameraman Freddie Francis fresh from Room at the Top. R Chatten

Blu-ray/DVD release on 20 April 2020 with simultaneous release on BFI Player, iTunes and Amazon






A Dog Barking at the Moon (2019) **** BFI Flare 2020

Wri/Dir.: Lisa Zi Xiang; Cast: Goowa Siqin, Renhua Na, Huang Xiaoya, Thomas Fiquet, Wu Renyuan; China/Spain 2019, 107 min.

A Dog Barking at the Moon traces a family’s life over a period of over thirty years centred around Huang Xuioyou, a writer who is emotionally abused, albeit in very different ways, by her sexually ambivalent parents. Partly based on the director’s own life experience, this is a stylish debut for Lisa Zi Xiang, and takes place in a magical setting, shot by her husband DoP Jose Val Bal. Taking its title from a Joan Miro painting, and chronicling the different stages of Xiaoyou’s (Siqin) up-bringing, its non-linear narrative often leaves us bewildered but this also makes for some welcome surprises and twists.

Xiaoyou was a model student at secondary school, she also excelled as a violinist, but was suddenly removed from her class for purportedly having written love letters to her teacher Zhen, who had allowed her to read western literature in class, unlike the other students who were banned from exploring this avenue of pleasure.

Xiaoyou’s mother Jiumei (Na) is not a likeable character – often angry with her daughter she  accuses her of being ‘oversexed’ like her father. The parents decide to divorce when it emerges that her lecturer father is homosexual, and has been indulging in affairs with his students. In an embarrassing scene Xiaoyou  is forced to witness his sexual shenanigans, although plans for the divorce are later shelved. In another cringeworthy moment Jiumei invites one of her husband’s lovers and his wife and daughter for dinner.

Xiaoyou later marries an American, Benjamin (Fiquet), but cannot escape the emotional lure of her parent’s abusive treatment, and soon returns to China to give birth to her first baby-girl. The relationship with her mother deteriorates even further when the second child arrives, Juimei telling her daughter “if I had known everything, I would have strangled you at birth”. It seems, like many abused characters, Xiaoyou is unable to break free and scenes illustrating the casual humiliation at the hands of her parents are littered throughout the feature: Xiaoyou endures more embarrassment when she sits at a restaurant table with one of her father’s young lovers who tells her he is happy to share her father with her mother, asking her to accept her father loves her – which Xiaoyu simply refuses to condone. Finally, her mother becomes a member of a Buddhist cult.

What emerges here is a stultifying society where stiff upper lips are the order of the day and any attempt at emotional honesty is punished. Siqin is superb as the “orphaned child”, while Na’s Jiumei is very much the product of sexual repression. Zi Xiang delivers a small masterpiece, boding well for her future in filmmaking AS

Flare at Home, the BFI’s digital version of Europe’s largest LGBTIQ+ film festival, will be hosting YouTube Live events with filmmakers from across the BFI Flare festival programme:

Enjoy highlights from BFI Flare: London LGBTIQ+ Film Festival 2020 on BFI Player 20-29 March.

Vivarium (2019) **** Digital release

Dir: Lorcan Finnegan | Wri: Garret Shanley  | Cast: Imogen Poots, Jesse Eisenberg, Senan Jennings, Eanna Harwicke, Jonathan Aris | Drama 

Ever wondered what it’s like to live in a bland new-build housing estate? Well Lorcan Finnegan’s weirdly dystopian domestic sci-fi thriller gives you an idea. Vivarium feels like a cross between Black Mirror, Funny Games and The Truman Show with the hyper-realist look of Jessica Hausner’s Little Joe.
Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg are the best thing about this strange drama. They play an ordinary down to earth couple looking to buy a house. But what starts as cheerful and upbeat soon descends into claustrophobic fog-bound horror when the creepy estate agen (Jonathan Aris),abandons them during a viewing and they get lost and then isolated in a maze of similar streets and are somehow lured into moving into one of the pristine show-houses, where everything is provided (although gemutlichkeit is not the operative word), and raise its existing inhabitant, a cuckoo-like android from Hell or even Omen II (Irish actor Senan Jennings), that bears a striking resemblance to the estate agent who disappeared, and also speaks with an adult voice.

This classic genre piece clearly nods at authors like John Wyndam and H P Lovecraft and although Eisenberg’s character soon becomes affected by the spookiness of it all, digging a hole in the synthetic soil as a displacement activitiy, Poots, a junior school teacher, gets the bit between her teeth and refuses be brought down by this malign and impossible alien child. Occasional aerial shots show the uncanny village with its identical houses that go on apparently for miles. The couple’s sane and well-adjusted relationship starts to implode when the child becomes an adult and a war of attrition plays out as he questions them inanely in barbed and sarcastic way.

Vivarium is certainly compelling and intelligent, although Eisenberg’s sensitive talents are slightly out of kilter with his rugged, outdoorsy character. Poots has a more complex character arc and she provides the much needed integrity and ballast to counter the weirdness that is going on all around her. The film looks startlingly good, but the Garret Stanley’s script doesn’t quite max out the potential of the film’s universal themes: what’s it like to cope with the financial and emotional pressures of child raising and house buying. At its core though is the closeness of this couple in love and once that starts to implode then all hell breaks loose. In a quiet but terrifying way. MT

VIVARIUM will be released digitally on March 27th 2020 courtesy of  Vertigo Releasing | iTunes/Apple TV, Amazon, Sky Store, Virgin, Google Play, Rakuten, BT, Playstation, Microsoft, Curzon Home Cinema, BFI Player


Portrait of a Lady on fire (2019) **** Curzon Home Cinema

Dir: Céline Sciamma | Adèle Haenel, Noemie Merlant | Drama, France 120′
Sciamma is back with a enigmatic and delicate drama that glows like a jewel box in its pristine settings yet feels pure and confident at the same time. Turning her camera from the contemporary (Girlhood and Tomboy) she also shows a talent for classical fare in this latest drama set in a chateau in 18th-century Brittany. Here a member of the Italian upper classes (Valeria Golino) has commissioned a portrait of her daughter Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) so she can marry her off to a wealthy suitor abroad.
Rather than risk a male painter becoming too close to her convent-educated offspring, the mother invites artist Marianne (Noémie Merlant) to be her companion, and she arrives at the seaside location in a boat rowing, almost losing her prepared canvasses during the journey. What develops is a tentative friendship between the women that slowly grows into something more ardent. Intimate glances and long walks lead to candlelit evenings where passion burns over their needlework and literary discussions. Or is Héloïse imagining things?
Isolation is to important as it distances their story from the rest of the world. Sciamma relies on the hush of the sea and some subtle sound design, instead of a formal score. Soon the portrait painting becomes secondary to the girls’ relationship. All this is handled with a lightness of touch and the utmost decorum. And the painting sessions turn from taciturn encounters to warmer and more meaningful tetes a tetes. There are shades of Choderlos de Laclos here and the sensuality is undeniable. A faint eeriness comes into play when Marianne has repeated visions of Héloïse in her white wedding dress – luminous for a while, she then disappears. We’re used to seeing lesbian love affairs in the present day so this hark back to the 18th century is refreshing and entrancing. And their mesmerising on screen chemistry gives the film a life of its own. MT
NOW ON RELEASE | CANNES FILM FESTIVAL | 14-25 MAY 2019 | Winner: Best Screenplay

Sea Without Shore (2015) ****

Dir.: André Semenza, Fernanda Lippi | Cast: Livia Rangel, Fernanda Lippi | Sweden/UK/Brazil 2015, 89 min.

Set in the 19th century on a remote rural island in Sweden, Sea Without A Shore is a choreographed love poem featuring two nameless women whose intense relationship is abruptly terminated.

First premiered at Glasgow Film Festival five years ago the film finally finds its way onto general release. Directors André Semenza and Fernanda Lippi (who worked together on Ashes of God (2003), the latter setting up the Anglo/Brazilian ballet company ‘Zikzira Physical Theatre’, have brought to life this unique combination of ballet, images and words. Defying categorisation, it is absolutely stunning in its gloomy intensity.

The two women, one in a lace dress (Rangel), the other one with long, black hair (Lippi) move gracefully through a spooky fin-de-siècle setting, until forced apart by mythical forces. We see them in a house, resting on a sofa, then writhing around on the floor. They cycle in the woods, float in the water, holding hands – their bodies are on the back of two horses who carry them through the fields and woods, led by the women of the forest. Their dialogue, voiced by Marcela Rosas and Fernanda Lippi quoting from works by Charles Algernon Swinburne, Renée Vivien, and 17th century Lesbian poet Katherine Philips, is a stream-of-consciousness about love and loss. With the narrative slidin backwards and forwards in time, the couple seems caught in a vicious circle from which there is no escape. Their approach to love is all-or-nothing, oscillating between ecstasy and abject loneliness; haunted by their future, even when they are ‘in love’. The landscape, brilliantly photographed in cinema-scope by Marcus Waterloo, is the third character in this two-hander: the two women seem to be always in contact with the ground or the water, echoing their emotional bond. Carrying the weights of the women solemnly, the horses seem integrated in this procession of doomed love. The sound is supervised by multi-award-winning Glenn Freemantle (Gravity).

This is a unique piece yet there are echoes of Gabor Body’s NÁRCISZ ÉS PSYCHÉ. Sea Without A Shore stands alone as a commingle of poetry and ballet, painted with images to create desire and loss in a most absolute form. AS



Last Holiday (1950) **** Bluray release

Last Holiday is based on a simple premise: a man believing himself to be terminally ill splurges his life savings on a luxury stay in an exclusive seaside hotel. Alec Guinness plays the man in question, JB Priestley produced the film and wrote the script which was directed by a young Hampstead filmmaker Henry Cass who was known for The Glass Mountain (1949) and would go on to make The Reluctant Bride (1955) and comedy, Castle in the Air (1952).
Aware of his impending fate, Alec Guinness’s George actually has a new lease of life and loses his inhibitions to indulge in some traditional English pastimes such as croquet and horse-racing, all kitted out in some seriously elegant outfits. Priestley makes some witty and ironic observations on the nature of life, love and loss this is a poignant and enjoyable B movie which ends happily – but you’ll have to watch it to find out why. MT

The Invisible Man (2019) ***

Dir: Leigh Whannell; Cast: Elizabeth Moss, Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid, Harriet Dyer, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Michael Dorman; Australia/USA 2020, 129 min.

Australian director Leigh Wannell adapts H.G. Wells novel for the screen using a contemporary setting and a random take on the original. The result is mixed but would have been decidedly worse without the grandstanding performance from Elizabeth Moss as Cecilia Klass who is trolled by her possessive ex-husband even after his suicide. The outcome is just what we’ve come to expect from a classic Blumhouse Production, the masters of the schlock-horror TV series.

We first meet Cecilia making a midnight escape from her abusive husband Adrian (Jackson-Cohen) and their north Californian beach fortress that looks more like a tech headquarters than a family home – Zeus the dog being the only sentient inhabitant apart from Cecilia. Her sister Alice (Dyer) scoops her up just in time on a dark road, before Adrian can pounce. Alice drives her to the home of her childhood friend James (Hodge), a cop, and his teenage daughter Sydney (Reid). Cecilia is unable to venture more than a few yards away from the house – even when she finds out Adrian has committed suicide. Things get even more muddled when Adrian’s twin-brother Tom, a lawyer, announces Cecilia will inherit 5 million US dollars from her ex-husband, providing that she is not mentally insane or commits a crime. This is the cue for (now invisible) Adrian to prove she is both. He gets to work with some terrifying stunts making it look like Cecilia had delivered the vicious onslaught. Alice is left rooting for Cecilia, but Adrian somehow resurges in a sequence that is a complete steal from Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. The not so-far fetched twist at the end is as unconvincing as everything else in this overwrought saga. There is not much of H G Wells left in this melding of horror and thriller, luckily Moss steals the show along with DoP Stefan Duscio’s astounding images. By the end the bloodshed takes over in an overwrought B-Picture that pushes its luck for over two hours. Overkill is the name of the game. AS





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

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

Hong Sang-soo comes to Berlinale for the third time with another disposable drama concealing sharp observations about the nature of love and attraction. Once again his muse Kim Min-hee is the focus of this female centric story. She plays Gam-hee who meets up with three friends and runs into an old acquaintance, while her husband is abroad. Nothing really happens but the tentative conversations have a quirky humour unique to this veteran South Korean filmmaker, as gradually the layers of Gam-hee’s quiet neuroticism are peeled away.

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

Each new meeting involves Gam-hee divulging her thoughts about her marriage. How her husband thinks they should spend every day together, although this is the first time in their five year marriage they have been apart: “He says that people in love should always stick together,” Eventually we get the impression she is hinting at some hidden concerns about her love life although nothing is divulged along those lines.

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

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


Amazon Mirror | O Reflexo do Lago (2020) **** Berlinale 2020 Panorama

Wri/Dir: Fernando Segtowick | DoP Thiago Pelaes | Doc Brazil 80′

As nations expand and populations grow governments have to make provision: England’s HS2 railway is a case in point. This serenely contemplative arthouse film explores the human side of expansion: a necessary fact of life in paving the way for change. But the ongoing destructive exploitation of Amazonia, caused by the construction of the Tucuruí reservoir, leads Brazilian filmmaker Fernando Segtowick to go back into the past and examination his homeland’s history of environmental devastation.

In this hypnotic feature debut Segtowick relies on a rich ambient soundscape, illuminating archive footage and the informative input of those affected by the project to provide calm, non-judgemental insight in the aftermath to the installation of his country’s mammoth hydroelectric power plant that was built in the vast exotic landscapes of Amazonia by the 1980s military government  to create the new reservoir in Tucuruí. The electricity generated by the behemoth supplies the energy-hungry aluminium industry, but nearby inhabitants are still waiting for their needs to be met by solar panels to provide them with electricity. This is parlous on a human level. Just like HS2, this large-scale project was beset by time pressure and excessive demands; the rainforest was not cleared before the flooding, and neither animals nor people were properly resettled. The dead trunks of gigantic primeval trees protrude from the water as a memorial. Inspired by Paula Sampaio’s book of photographs “O Lago do Esquecimento” (“The Lake of Oblivion”) and shot in high-contrast black and white, the film brings us closer to the ordinary modest lives of those who live here. Segtowick also uses this an opportunity to examine his own work as a documentary filmmaker and analyses moments of failure. MT


Malmkrog (2020) Mubi

Wri/Dir: Christi Puiu | Cast: Agathe Bosch, Edith Alibec, Ugo Broussot, Marina Palli, Istvan Teglas, Diana Sakalauskaite, Vitaly Bichir, Judith State, Frederic Schulze-Richard | Romania, Serbia, Switzerland, Sweden, Bosnia, Macedonia 2020, Drama, 200 min.

This latest drama from Romanian director and writer Christi Puiu (The Death of Mr Lazarescu) is based on works by the Russian philosopher and poet  Vladimir Solovyov (1853-1900), a close friend of Dostoyevsky whose Brothers Karamazov were inspired by his compatriot. Solovyov’s main focus was to overturn the schism between the Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodoxy, later he worried about Russia losing its spiritual identity.

The Christimas setting for this austere discursive drama is an old Translyvanian manor house belonging to Nikolai (Teglas). Snow is falling and the atmosphere inside is no less chilly as the assembled guests – a politician, a young countess, a Russian General and his wife are involved in an often vituperative and tight-lipped exchange about death and the Antichrist, progress and morality. Each lays out a vision of the world, history, and religion.

The film unfolds in six chapters: Ingrida (Sakalauskaite), the wife of the general expresses her opinion about the true meaning of Christianity, positing that all wars are the work of men who deem conflict a “necessary evil”. She hopes that war will eventually be abolished “by becoming obsolete” – but only Olga (Palii), by far the youngest of the guests, opposes Ingrida, and reads out a letter written by her husband, who has just returned from the war in Turkey, where “Russia is trying to tame a less civilised country”. Her husband reports on massacres committed by the Turks against the Armenians, and the swift revenge taken by his troops. Again, all present agree that such revenge is a true sign of Christianity, but Olga then reminds everyone that the Cossacks, part of the general’s army, are known for their brutality. She believes every human being is intrinsically good, and that this benevolence should be allowed to grow. They all rubbish her views, calling her naive.

Meanwhile, an army of servants slip silently between their masters and are hardly given the time of day. Jansci (Geambasu), the head honcho, directs his underlings like a theatre troupe: they follow his orders with precision, more afraid of him than of their masters. And with good reason: when Jansci finds that one of the waiters has made a mistake, he slaps him, reminding him that any further errors “would make him very angry indeed”. Nikolai’s ailing father is carried from the bath to his room with a Dr. Blumenfeld in attendance, even though it is Christmas Eve.

Olga continues her protests against the mostly male rationale: she accuses Edouard (Broussot), a politician, that he is a materialist. His planned trip to Nice, she says, will only end up in the casino in Monte Carlo. Edouard, a total cynic, agrees smiling. The discussion about pacifism versus self defence sees Olga defending the former, whilst Edouard claims ‘highly civilised’ nations including Russia, have the right to go to war against the more barbaric countries. “Sin, but do not repent” is the motto voiced by the mostly male majority.

The discussion moves on, the focus on Russia’s identity: Is it a Greco/Slavian country, or part of European culture? The uprising in Transvaal against the British is called “Zulu savagery” and Edouard bemoans the lack of involvement by the Dutch in this conflict. Edouard again is in the centre of an attack on Olga, who insists that man has been put on earth for a purpose by God. She also is critical of their hedonistic lifestyle. Edouard is vicious in his reply claiming the real purpose in life is to have a mission: “I had an audience with Czar Alexander II, got a yearly salary of 30 000 Gold Roubles and a diplomatic mission”. He then returns to his argument claiming that the masses submit to evil, and want to kill everybody who are against them. Eduoard also ponders whether God really resurrects us, and if his kingdom is real, is it not just a Kingdom of Death. Finally, falling into the snare of their own discourse and believing that history never repeats itself, none of them is able to realise the extent of the event in which they have unwittingly become ensnared.

Puiu is able to reflect on the three main topics of Solovyov’s philosophy – economic materialism, abstract Tolstoyan moralism and the hubris of Nietzsche’s nihilism – in all these debates. The only humane soul is Olga, who is attacked from all sides. DoP Tudor Panduru shows the splendour of the sumptuous interiors and the meticulous servants who keep their masters fed and watered, without a by your leave. The guests hardly touch their elaborate food, because they are consumed by showing off their verbal eloquence. In spite of its lengthy running time, Malmkrog is always engaging: this is radical entertainment, combining philosophy within the gorgeous surroundings of a dying breed. AS



The Old Dark House (1932)

Dir: James Whale | Wri: Benn Levy/J B Priestley | Cast: Boris Karloff| Charles Laughton | Eva Moore | Gloria Stuart | Melvyn Douglas| Raymond Massey | Horror / Comedy |US  75′

James Whale’s greatest film was arguably The Bride of Frankenstein but The Old Dark House comes a near second with its spine-tingling blend of thrilling suspense piqued with deliciously dark humour, cleverly sending up the horror genre in a subtle and brilliant way, thanks to Benn W. Levy’s script based on J B Priestley novel, Benighted. The storyline is secondary to spirited performances from a superb cast led by Raymond Massey, Mervyn Douglas and Gloria Stuart as a trio forced to take refuge in a macabre household presided over by sinister siblings (Ernest Thesiger and Elspeth Dudgeon). Things go bump in the night and Boris Karloff plays the monstrous hirsute butler off his rocker – hinting at an early version of Frankenstein himself. But it’s the quirky characterisations that make this supremely entertaining, along with an eerily evoked Gothic atmosphere. Another threesome soon emerges – a ménage à trois between Charles Laughton’s bumptious  Yorkshire mill-owner and his gal (Lilian Bond) who is chivalrously courted by Douglas whispering sweet nothings in the gloaming. Good fun all round. MT




The Public (2020 **

DIR: Emilio Estevez | Cast: Alex Baldwin, Taylor Schilling, Jena Malone, Christian Slater, Emilio Estevez | UK, 110′ Drama

A film about the plight of the homeless should be taken seriously. With its starry cast, this one aims to be a crowdpleaser but is just a cliched formula strung together by slick production values and a bumptious score. 

The Public starts decently enough with archive footage of a public information broadcast vaunting the merits of a career in librarianship for those who enjoy reading and conveying that to the general public. But in freezing Cincinnati libraries have become a refuge for the homeless who emerge as the highly intelligent protagonists of this overlong and preachy film. . 

“Books saved my life” says Emilio Estevez who directs, writes and stars as Stuart Goodson the chief of the city’s large modern public library. Once homeless, this modest role model has now turned his life around and even started a sparky new relationship with Taylor Schilling’s former alcoholic Angela. Another cliche. But when a motley crew of homeless folks take over the library and occupy it on a freezing cold night the authorities are called it. How do you square the role of a public library in lending books to the reading public with providing shelter to the homeless. What starts as a human interest story soon becomes a lowkey hostage drama where the shelter-less pit their wits against a snide Christian Slater and his lawyer enforcers. 

With a backbone of quality stars including Martin Sheen, Gena Malone and Alec Baldwin and a cast of newcomers The Public plays out like a Hollywood musical, its protagonists too smily and squeaky clean for us to really care about their shelterless state. There are even echoes of a large scale, less arty version of Kagonada’s recent Columbus as Juan Miguel Azpiroz’ camera reaches up to the skyline of Cincinnati trying to bring some artful contemplation to the show.

The Public is at heart a hostage drama but there’s no drama or even tension to speak of. And the vapid characters are underwritten and for the most part unconvincing. Although Estevez himself feels authentic and likeable at Goodson, his film is far too glib for its worthwhile subject matter who deserve at least our sympathy for their plight. MT


Ghost (1990) ***

Dir: Jerry Zucker | Cast: Demi Moore, Patrick Swayze, Whoopi Goldberg | US Fantasy Drama 127′

Jerry Zucker made a clutch of light-hearted films in the 1980s and 90s. This mystical romantic thriller was his most heartfelt with its theme of enduring love, and popular stars of the day Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze. After a brief but passionate affair, death divides the young lovers on their way home from the theatre in Manhattan. But it doesn’t end in tears. A purple coiffed Whoopi Goldberg brings a touch of wacky weirdness to the story as a psychic who reunites them in the ether, thanks to her hammy supernatural powers.

Bruce Joel Rubin’s writing skills make this plausible and enjoyable, although it’s a tad long at over two hours. Still, it went on to be a massive box office success and the highest grossing film of 1990. The other interesting takeaway is Sam Raimi’s roving camerawork which elevates the film from an ordinary drama to the realms of fantasy with stylish dissolves between scenes where Patrick Swayze’s character morphs into a ghostly presence with the ability to walk between walls. And Maurice Jarre’s score reworks the 1955 song Unchained Melody originally composed by Alex North. It went for the Academy Award that year but lost out to John Barrie’s for Dances with Wolves. MT

RE-RELEASED by PARK CIRCUS | 30th ANNIVERSARY | Nationwide for Valentine’s Day 2020

Only You Alone (2020) **** Rotterdam Film Festival 2020 | FIPRESCI award

Dir: Zhou Zhou | Cast: Yun Chi | Drama, China 89’

Chinese director Zhou Zhou follows Meili (2018) with another thoughtful female-centric story of alienation this time exploring the isolation of a young epileptic woman in North Eastern China. Zhou Zhou co-scripts this delicately drawn arthouse gem with Yun Chi who also plays the central character with subtle fleeting gestures and charming vulnerability. Chi Li has a job in a cinema and a roof over her head in her aunt’s house who is away in Australia when Chi Li meets a boy who seems keen to get to know her. Although initially things go well this romantic attachment seems to unlock and intensify her confidence as well as her defensive feelings while bringing out the protective side of her new friend.

Li Chun-yu’s muted visuals convey this tentative prelude to love on the widescreen and in intimate close-up as the couple explore the surrounding countryside and neon-tinged urban settings together, Chi Li growing more relaxed and confident as her life story is teased out during the couple’s gentle interactions that also introduce moments of humour. However, a night out to a dance performance painfully reminds Chi Li of her past as a dancer and when she finally meets the boy’s mother it becomes clear that the relationship is not going to be as unproblematic as it started out. Traumatic scenes follow as Chi Li deals with her demons alone in sequences complimented by Fabio Anastasi’s sensitve score that echoes the changing rhythms of Chi Li’s emotional landscape.

When her aunt returns and decides to sell her house inviting Chi Li to join her in Australia, she is forced to make some radical decisions, but already feels more prepared for the challenge. Only You Alone is a graceful and life-affirming drama that ultimately reminds those suffering in silence that the key to emotional security always lies within ourselves. MT


The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019) ****

Dir: Armando Iannucci | Cast: Dev Patel, Hugh Laurie, Ben Wishaw, Peter Capaldi | UK. 2019. 116mins

Armando Iannucci brings a wonderful exuberance to this nimble adaptation of the novel Dickens considered his favourite. The autobiographical account of an author’s formative years unfolds in a dazzling swirl of engaging vignettes and enduring characters. Often riotously funny, the drama never lose sight of the novel’s underlying central themes of poverty, class, and importance of friends. It also conveys Dickens’ sense of humour, whether dark or upbeat, that permeates nearly all his novels. Personal History Of David Copperfield should also appeal to new and younger audiences put off by the weighty and worthy tomes lining their parents books shelves. Dev Patel is wonderful in the central role, his dark looks and vivaciousness lighting up every scene.

Many directors have mined the rich dramatic potential that David Copperfield offers to the big screen and TV. Most notable is the 1935 version that perfectly showcased W.C.Fields talents and portliness in the role of Mr. Micawber. Iannucci brings an effervescent energy to his film, which feels thoroughly modern while retaining its old worldy aesthetic. New is the idea of sentences literally written across the screen, and it works due to the manic pacing and visual busyness, colours and characters vibrate with enthusiasm.

David Copperfield relied on the kindness of strangers after a childhood of abuse at the hands of his wicked stepfather. And he runs the gamut of gruelling jobs and uncomfortable dwellings remaining chipper and optimistic throughout. He is a role model for children nowadays channelling that well known phrase: through hard work, to the stars. His philanthropic nature is also to be applauded. Copperfield grows up clever, self-aware and a skilled judge of character; traits that will go on to serve him well in this great writings.

Sumptuously mounted the film looks like a jewel box and is equally uplifting with its elegant costumes and beautiful frocks. An all star cast includes Tilda Swinton as a febrile Betsey Trotwood and Ben Whishaw’s ‘everso humble’ hand-wringing Uriah Heep. Hugh Laurie’s is also back from the US with a droll and debonair Mr. Dick. A delightful  film and the perfect tonic for January. MT



The Distinguished Citizen (2016) ****

Dirs: Gaston Duprat and Mariano Cohn | 118min | Comedy Drama | Argentina

When an Argentinian Nobel prize winner returns to the village of his birth he discovers a lawless Wild West, or has he just become “over-civilised”.

This pithy premise underpins the latest from Argentinian directors Gaston Duprat and Mariano Cohn. It stars Oscar Martinez (of Paulina and Wild Tales fame) as the world-weary and emotionally avoidant author Daniel Mantovani, who returns to a remote village about six hours drive from Buenos Aires, to accept a medal. Having left there many years ago, he never felt the impetus to go back having made a successful writing career in Europe where he lives in palatial splendour in the lush hills of Barcelona’s Tibidabo.

Written by Gaston’s brother Andres Duprat, THE DISTINGUISHED CITIZEN is a tightly-scripted, insightful and often hilarious satire with echoes of Juan Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stoll’s 2004 comedy Whisky with similar themes of parochial pettiness and cultural awareness. The tone is always light but touches upon some dark home truths. The elegant framing and architectural sensibilities makes this a visual pleasure, Maria Eugenia Sueiro’s interiors reflecting a faded seventies aesthetic.

The film opens as Daniel is delivering a trenchant rebuke at the acceptance ceremony mocking the Nobel Prize for Literature in Stockholm. Fast forward five years and he is on the plane to BA where a taste of his future tribulations arrives when his airport taxi driver breaks down in a field, hours from Salas, forcing him to spend the night in the middle of nowhere round a campfire lit with one of the pages from his recent novel. The following morning that same book comes in handy as lavatory paper – and we all realise where things are going.

The narrative unspools in five parts – for no specific reason – as Daniel goes back in time to a homespun and unsophisticated community stuck in the past. This motley crew respond entirely inappropriately treating him like a local soap star rather than an intellectual introvert. He bumps into his old girlfriend Irene (Andrea Frigerio) who is now married to his butch friend Antonio (Dady Brieva), a mean dancer and an even meaner game hunter – a talent that plays out in Daniel’s hasty departure in the final scenes. The film centres on the small-town mentality that really rears its ugly head as the story develops, the inhabitants gradually turning the writer from hailed hero to vilified outsider in their collective mean-spiritedness.

This is an enjoyable and intelligent piece of cinema, dark and deadpan situational comedy arises out of bizarre encounters and bitter ironies (much in the same vein as those of the recent Toni Erdmann). The film leaves us with some memorable maxims to reflect on. “making things simple is an artistic kindness” is a choice takeaway from the role and often poignant indie gem . MT

Argentinian Film Season: El ciudadano ilustre (The Distinguished Citizen) (2016)



A Hidden Life (2019) ***

Dir|Wri: Terrence Malick | Cast: August Diehl, Valerie Pachner, Michael Nyqvist, Matthias Schoenaerts, Bruno Ganz, Karl Markovics, Franz Rogowski | US Drama 173′

Terrence Malick brings his tenth feature to Cannes with a reputation in the balance. Although appreciated by a small cadre of Malickians, his post-Tree of Life output even his defenders seem to agree needs defending.

So is A Hidden Life a return to form, or is it another stage in a sad decline. Well, the truth is: a bit of both. It tells the true story of conscientious objector Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl) and his wife Fani, played by Valerie Pachner, who lived in St. Radegund, an Austrian farming community. Beautiful mountains form a backdrop, an idyll just as the tropical islands did prior to the hostilities of The Thin Red Line. But war is approaching fast with Hitler, a native of the same region, glowering from newsreel footage and ripping through first France and then into Austria. At this point, Franz decides that he cannot swear an oath of allegiance to a man he views as the antiChrist. How he comes to this conclusion is unclear as Malick’s typically syllopsistic style means we never see him read a newspaper or watch any of the newsreels we see.

Everyone in the village tries to persuade Franz against his decision from the ultra-nationalistic mayor to the well-meaning priest. Again the gaps in the narrative made by the relentless moving fluttering from one beautiful image to another means that we weirdly never hear Jews mentioned, despite the fact that anti-Semitism was rife.  Hitler wasn’t some exceptional monster. His hatred and xenophobia and anti-Semitism were a product of his Austrian upbringing. This was by no means exclusive to Austria or Germany, but there was a particular virulence which made the message of National Socialism resonate. But according to Malick everyone just wanted to cut grass and drink beer.

Franz’s rebellion is religious and almost anti-political. And again Malick’s style favours this approach. There are no dialogues in Terrence Malick’s cinema and it is almost impossible to talk about politics without allowing people to actually talk. We have a series of monologues directed at characters which typically take place in the context of some photogenic meandering. The letters which form the bulk of the voiceover (yes, there’s voiceover) simply reiterate much of what we’re seeing on screen. But again I never felt that above a lot of PDAs there isn’t much of a relationship between Franz and Fani. They say they love each other a lot, but again they don’t argue and frankly I don’t trust a couple that doesn’t argue from time to time. They also have three extremely pretty daughters, Franz’s mother, who frequently looks pitiable against a white washed wall and Fani’s spinster sister living with them.

A film with no scenes is way too long at three hours. Joerg Widmer’s camera peers into faces with a distracting lack of respect for personal space before zooming off to look for something else to be interested in. Again, the absence of the conventional blocking of scenes means that often actors are left to wander like non-player characters in a mid-90s video game. And the decision to make the film bilingual with the Nazis speaking German and the protagonists English is a ludicrous one. How can you aim to be daring as filmmaker on one hand and then submit to such a lazy Hollywood convention? And one with such damaging effect on your political position.

But again, what political position? I respect the true story behind this but Malick seems to want the whole of the second world war and the moral universe to hang in the balance here. Franz is held up as an exemplar – something like Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Joan of Arc – but I couldn’t help but think of him as something of a von Trapp. His refusal to say the oath – he is offered the chance to work in a non-combat capacity – feels petty in the face of the unnamed Holocaust which is going on at exactly the same time.

Ultimately, Malick has made another technically beautiful film, with a gorgeous soundtrack and wonderful photography, that is at the same time unable or unwilling to engage with its subject. In always trying to go for the glory, he seems to miss what it is that makes us essentially human. We talk to each other. John Bleasdale


La Dolce Vita (1960) *****

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Dir.: Federico Fellini; Cast: Marcello Mastroianni, Anita Ekberg, Anouk Aimée, Yvonne Furneaux, Walter Santesso, Alain Cuny, Annibale Ninchi, Laura Betti, Lex Barker; Italy 1960, 174 min.

Fellini’s early films were largely autobiographical, and this is particularly true of – I Vitelloni and Il Bidone  But in the 1960s his focus took a radical shift: La Dolce Vita is a sumptuous story about the pampered aristocracy and their superficial followers, seen from the perspective of  Fellini’s alter-ego, the journalist Marcelo Rubini. Fellini would stick with this lavish aesthetic for rest of his career. 

The opening sequence is symbolic: Rubini (Mastroianni) sits in a helicopter with his photographer sidekick (Santesso) next to him. A helicopter is transporting a vast statue of Christ over Rome, but the men are only interested in getting the phone numbers of some young women sunbathing on a roof terrace. Rubini is not really a journalist, he writes gossip columns about celebrities and their orgies; well-healed Romans and religious maniacs. Children run along the streets, trying to catch hold of the statue – in vain, it is just another mirage. Rubini is running too: away from his suicidal fiancé Emma (Furneaux). First he takes a joyride with the love-crazed heiress Maddalena (Aimée). The couple pick up a sex worker and drive the woman to her flooded basement flat. Then while she’s busy making coffee, they indulge in a lust-fuelled quickie, perversely turned-on by the decadent surroundings. Paying her generously only demonstrates their utter contempt of her sordid lifestyle. Next on Rubini’s agenda is Sylvia (Ekberg), a Swedish starlet whose arrival at the airport we have already witnessed. Again, Rubini invites the woman into his car – this time for a tour of Rome – ending at the famous scene of Fountain of Neptune. But there is no happy-ending here either: Sylvia’s husband (Barker) first slaps his wife, then gives Marcello a good going over. Meanwhile Marcello has had to fetch Emma from the hospital, where she has been treated for an overdose; now clinging to him even more. 

They fetch up in a circus-like site near Rome, where two children have witnessed the appearance of The Madonna – but Rubini is not the only one doubting this miracle. Via a sexually charged jamboree with the aristocracy (where we meet Maddalena again) Marcello ends up at yet another celebration, this time near the sea where a fantasy creature with one eye is the main attraction.

Marcello’s moral bankruptcy is portrayed by two crucial encounters: the first sees his lonely father (Ninchi) literally running away from him, appalled by his glib emptiness. The second involves the writer Steiner (Cuny), who undertakes to find Marcello a serious writing job “so you can stop working for semi-fascist papers”. But Steiner’s own life ends in tragedy in a devastating scene, his wife and Marcello looking on in utter horror.

The wide-screen images of Fellini’s regular collaborator Otello Martelli (La Strada, Il Vitelloni) underline the filmmaker’s raison d’être was to portray “expressive and often ridiculous visions of life” – “where nobody gets out alive”.  Nowhere is this better illustrated than during a dazzling sequence where a woman is standing on a table above a horse.  The photographer asks Rubini for advice on the next shot. He answers caustically: “Reverse their position”. AS

Opening at BFI Southbank, HOME Manchester, Watershed Bristol, Broadway Nottingham, Edinburgh Filmhouse, Glasgow Film Theatre, Eye Galway, Triskel Arts Centre and cinemas UK-wide on 3 January 2020 in celebration of its 60th anniversary and Federico Fellini’s centenary


Jo Jo Rabbit (2019) ***

Dir: Taika Waititi | Cast: Roman Griffin Davis, Thomas McKenzie, Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell | Comedy Drama 108′

Wes Anderson could easily have made this smug and painterly winsome drama that challenges hate and dogma through a re-imagining of the Hitler story. In JoJo Rabbit the arch fiend is reinvented as the cartoonish friend of an earnest German boy during the last knockings of the Second World War.

Taika Waititi got the idea from Christine Leunens’s bestseller that tells how Johannes aka Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) invents an alternative and jollier version of the Führer, who is gamely played by Waititi himself.

Meanwhile his charming mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) in the attic, forcing Jojo into a private war of his own: keeping shtum while wrestling with his own conscience that teeters between his growing feelings for the girl and the dogma surrounding her religion. Gradually the strength of his belief system starts to go AWOL, and his hero turns into one of the greatest antiheroes of history.

Waititi’s tricksy and light-hearted wartime drama brings nothing new to the table – the filmmaker raises a few laughs with his outlandish character’s high jinx, but the story gradually becomes more and more repetitive. Johansson gets the best role with a genuinely complex juggling act that sees her vivaciously paying lip service to the Nazis, while also tussling with her son’s misguided take on proceedings behind closed doors at their gemütlich apartment in Berlin (filming actually took place in Czechia).

Catherine the Great (2019) **** Home Ent

Catherine the Great is a sweeping, romantic epic masterpiece series following the power, politics, and passions of the legendary monarch. In the sumptuous bonkbuster Helen Mirren is magnificent and still seriously sexy at 74, with Jason Clarke as a raunchy Grigory Potemkin riding roughshod over Nigel Williams’ frigid script. In reality, Catherine was decades younger when she came to the throne, yet Mirren carries it all off with graceful allure as the monarch in her final years. She became  Empress in 1762 after her husband Peter III was murdered by her lover, Count Orlov (Richard Roxburgh) – who she refuses to marry – and his brother, Alexei (Kevin McNally).

Surrounded by untrustworthy men: her son, Paul (Joseph Quinn), a weak and conniving dipstick; her adviser, Minister Panin (Rory Kinnear) and even Count Orlov, Catherine feels vulnerable yet she is also wise and steely. Then along comes Potemkin whose role was pivotal in the coup that brought her to the throne. She has possibly one ally in the shape of Countess Bruce (Gina McKee). But McKee cleverly paints herself into the background as an amusing and helpful ally. 

The tete a tetes with Potemkin sound louche rather than witty and urbane in the awkward script:. Mirren is a Russian version of le Roi de Soleil surrounded by disappointing acolytes, although Clarke and McKee do their best to add piquancy to the lacklustre dialogue, along with Rory Kinnear.

The small screen doesn’t do justice to the sumptuous recreation of the era and the grandiosity of it all. But Catherine the Great still manages to be an amusing snapshot of Russian history thanks to its performances rather than its mise en scene

Catherine the Great out now on Blu-ray, DVD & Digital


Sundance Film Festival 2020

In Park City Utah, ROBERT REDFORD and his programmer John Cooper have set the indie film agenda for 2020 with an array of provocative new titles in a festival that runs from 23 January until 2 February. This year’s selection includes the latest US drama from Josephine Decker (Thou Wast Mild and Lovely); and new documentaries about Chechnya, Bruce Lee and Woodstock competing in the US Dramatic section. Branden Cronenberg will be showing his latest film, Possessor starring Andrea Riseborough; who also appears in the Egyptian drama Luxor. Noemie Merlant is fresh from Portrait of a Woman on Fire, in Zoe Wittock’s Jumbo. 

UK director Oscar Raby brings A Machine for Viewing​, a unique three-episode hybrid of real-time VR experience, live performance and video essay in which three moving-image makers explore how we now watch films by putting various ‘machines for viewing,’ including cinema and virtual reality, face to face.


All Kinds of Limbo​ / United Kingdom (Lead Artists: Toby Coffey, Raffy Bushman, Nubiya Brandon) — The National Theatre of Great Britain’s communal musical journey reflecting the influence of West Indian culture on the UK’s music scene across the genres of reggae, grime, classical, and calypso. Immersive technologies, the ceremony of live performance and the craft of theatrical staging bring audiences into a VR performance space. Cast: Nubiya Brandon.


47% of the directors in this year’s U.S. Dramatic Competition are women; 52% are people of color; 5% are LGBTQ+.

The 40-Year-Old Version / U.S.A. Director and screenwriter: Radha Blank

A down-on-her-luck New York playwright decides to reinvent herself and salvage her artistic voice the only way she knows how: by becoming a rapper at age 40. Cast: Radha Blank, Peter Kim, Oswin Benjamin, Reed Birney, World Premiere

BLAST BEAT / U.S.A. Director: Esteban Arango

After their family emigrates from Colombia during the summer of ‘99, a metalhead science prodigy and his deviant younger brother do their best to adapt to new lives in America. Cast: Moises Arias, Mateo Arias, Daniel Dae Kim, Kali Uchis, Diane Guerrero, Wilmer Valderrama. World Premiere

Charm City Kings / U.S.A. (Director: Angel Manuel Soto

Mouse desperately wants to join The Midnight Clique, the infamous Baltimore dirt bike riders who rule the summertime streets. When Midnight’s leader, Blax, takes 14-year-old Mouse under his wing, Mouse soon finds himself torn between the straight-and-narrow and a road filled with fast money and violence.

Cast: Jahi Di’Allo Winston, Meek Mill, Will Catlett, Teyonah Parris, Donielle Tremaine World Premiere

Dinner in America / U.S.A. (Dir/writer: Adam Rehmeier

An on-the-lam punk rocker and a young woman obsessed with his band go on an unexpected and epic journey together through the decaying suburbs of the American Midwest.. Cast: Kyle Gallner, Emily Skeggs, Pat Healy, Griffin Gluck, Lea Thompson, Mary Lynn Rajskub. World Premiere

The Evening Hour / U.S.A. Dir: Braden King

Cole Freeman maintains an uneasy equilibrium in his rural Appalachian town, looking after the old and infirm while selling their excess painkillers to local addicts. But when an old friend returns with plans that upend the fragile balance and identity he’s so painstakingly crafted, Cole is forced to take action. Cast: Philip Ettinger, Stacy Martin, Cosmo Jarvis, Michael Trotter, Kerry Bishé, Lili Taylor. World Premiere

Farewell Amor / U.S.A. (Dir/writer: Ekwa Msangi

Reunited after a 17 year separation, Walter, an Angolan immigrant, is joined in the U.S. by his wife and teenage daughter. Now absolute strangers sharing a one-bedroom apartment, they discover a shared love of dance that may help overcome the emotional distance between them. Cast: Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, Zainab Jah, Jayme Lawson, Joie Lee, Marcus Scribner, Nana Mensah. World Premiere

Minari / U.S.A. (Dir/writer: Lee Isaac Chung

David, a 7-year-old Korean-American boy, gets his life turned upside down when his father decides to move their family to rural Arkansas and start a farm in the mid-1980s, in this charming and unexpected take on the American Dream. Cast: Steven Yeun, Han Yeri, Youn Yuh Jung, Will Patton, Alan Kim, Noel Kate Cho. World Premiere

Miss Juneteenth / U.S.A. (Dir/Writer: Channing Godfrey Peoples

Turquoise, a former beauty queen turned hardworking single mother, prepares her rebellious teenage daughter for the “Miss Juneteenth” pageant, hoping to keep her from repeating the same mistakes in life that she did. Cast: Nicole Beharie, Kendrick Sampson, Alexis Chikaeze, Lori Hayes, Marcus Maudlin. World Premiere

Never Rarely Sometimes Always / U.S.A. (Dir/Wri: Eliza Hittman

An intimate portrayal of two teenage girls in rural Pennsylvania. Faced with an unintended pregnancy and a lack of local support, Autumn and her cousin Skylar embark on a brave, fraught journey across state lines to New York City. Cast: Sidney Flanigan, Talia Ryder, Théodore Pellerin, Ryan Eggold, Sharon Van Etten. World Premiere


Nine Days / U.S.A. (Dir/Writer: Edson Oda,

In a house distant from the reality we know, a reclusive man interviews prospective candidates—personifications of human souls—for the privilege that he once had: to be born. Cast: Winston Duke, Zazie Beetz, Benedict Wong, Bill Skarsgård, Tony Hale, David Rysdahl. World Premiere.

Palm Springs / U.S.A. Dir: Max Barbakow

When carefree Nyles and reluctant maid of honor Sarah have a chance encounter at a Palm Springs wedding, things get complicated the next morning when they find themselves unable to escape the venue, themselves, or each other. Cast: Andy Samberg, Cristin Milioti, J.K. Simmons, Meredith Hagner, Camila Mendes, Peter Gallagher. World Premiere

Save Yourselves! / U.S.A. Dir/Wri: Alex Huston Fischer, Eleanor Wilson

A young Brooklyn couple head upstate to disconnect from their phones and reconnect with themselves. Cut off from their devices, they miss the news that the planet is under attack. Cast: Sunita Mani, John Reynolds, Ben Sinclair, Johanna Day, John Early, Gary Richardson. World Premiere

Shirley / U.S.A. Dir: Josephine Decker

A young couple moves in with the famed author, Shirley Jackson, and her Bennington College professor husband, Stanley Hyman, in the hope of starting a new life but instead find themselves fodder for a psycho-drama that inspires Shirley’s next novel. Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Michael Stuhlbarg, Odessa Young, Logan Lerman. World Premiere

Sylvie’s Love / U.S.A. (Dir/Wri: Eugene Ashe

Years after their summer romance comes to an end, an aspiring television producer and a talented musician cross paths, only to find their feelings for each other never changed. With their careers taking them in different directions, they must choose what matters most. Cast: Tessa Thompson, Nnamdi Asomugha, Eva Longoria, Aja Naomi King, Wendi Mclendon-Covey, Jemima Kirke. World Premiere

Wander Darkly / U.S.A. (Dir/Wri: Tara Miele

New parents Adrienne and Matteo are forced to reckon with trauma amidst their troubled relationship. They must revisit the memories of their past and unravel haunting truths in order to face their uncertain future. Cast: Sienna Miller, Diego Luna, Beth Grant, Aimee Carrero, Tory Kittles, Vanessa Bayer. World Premiere

Zola / U.S.A. (Dir/Wri: Janicza Bravo, Jeremy O. Harris

@zolarmoon tweets “wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out???????? It’s kind of long but full of suspense.” Two girls bond over their “hoeism” and become fast friends. What’s supposed to be a trip from Detroit to Florida turns into a weekend from hell. Cast: Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, Nicholas Braun, Colman Domingo. World Premiere


Sixteen world-premiere American documentaries that illuminate the ideas, people and events that shape the present day. Films that have premiered in this category in recent years include APOLLO 11, Knock Down The House, One Child Nation, American Factory, Three Identical Strangers and On Her Shoulders. 45% of the directors in this year’s U.S. Documentary Competition are women; 23% are people of color; 23% are LGBTQ+.

A Thousand Cuts / U.S.A., Philippines Dir/Wri:Ramona S Diaz

Nowhere is the worldwide erosion of democracy, fueled by social media disinformation campaigns, more starkly evident than in the authoritarian regime of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Journalist Maria Ressa places the tools of the free press—and her freedom—on the line in defense of truth and democracy. World Premiere

Be Water / U.S.A., UK  Director: Bao Nguyen

In 1971, after being rejected by Hollywood, Bruce Lee returned to his parents’ homeland of Hong Kong to complete four iconic films. Charting his struggles between two worlds, this portrait explores questions of identity and representation through the use of rare archival, interviews with loved ones and Bruce’s own writings. World Premiere

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets / U.S.A. Dir: Bill Ross, Turner Ross

In the shadows of the bright lights of Las Vegas, it’s last call for a beloved dive bar known as the Roaring 20s. A document of real people, in an unreal situation, facing an uncertain future: America at the end of 2016. World Premiere

Boys State / U.S.A. Dirs Jesse Moss, Amanda McBaine,

In an unusual experiment, a thousand 17-year-old boys from Texas join together to build a representative government from the ground up. World Premiere

Code for Bias / US/UK/China Dir/Wri Shalini Kantayya

Exploring the fallout of MIT Media Lab researcher Joy Buolamwini’s startling discovery that facial recognition does not see dark-skinned faces accurately, and her journey to push for the first-ever legislation in the U.S. to govern against bias in the algorithms that impact us all. World Premiere

The Cost of Silence / US  Dir: Mark Manning

An industry insider exposes the devastating consequences of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and uncovers systemic corruption between government and industry to silence the victims of a growing public health disaster. Stakes could not be higher as the Trump administration races to open the entire U.S. coastline to offshore drilling. World Premiere


Crip Camp / U.S.A. (Dir: Nicole Newnham, Jim LeBrecht,

Down the road from Woodstock in the early 1970s, a revolution blossomed in a ramshackle summer camp for disabled teenagers, transforming their young lives and igniting a landmark movement. World Premiere. DAY ONE

Dick Johnson Is Dead / US. Dir: Kirsten Johnson

With this inventive portrait, a cameraperson seeks a way to keep her 86-year-old father alive forever. Utilizing moviemaking magic and her family’s dark humor, she celebrates Dr. Dick Johnson’s last years by staging fantasies of death and beyond. Together, dad and daughter confront the great inevitability awaiting us all. World Premiere

Feels Good Man / US. Dir: Arthur Jones

When indie comic character Pepe the Frog becomes an unwitting icon of hate, his creator, artist Matt Furie, fights to bring Pepe back from the darkness and navigate America’s cultural divide. World Premiere

The Fight / US. | Dirs: Elyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegman, Eli Despres

Inside the ACLU, a team of scrappy lawyers battle Trump’s historic assault on civil liberties. World Premiere

Mucho Mucho Amor / US. Dirs: Cristina Costantini, Kareem Tabsch

Once the world’s most famous astrologer, Walter Mercado seeks to resurrect a forgotten legacy. Raised in the sugar cane fields of Puerto Rico, Walter grew up to become a gender non-conforming, cape-wearing psychic whose televised horoscopes reached 120 million viewers a day for decades before he mysteriously disappeared. World Premiere

Spaceship Earth / U.S.A. Director: Matt Wolf

In 1991 a group of countercultural visionaries built an enormous replica of earth’s ecosystem called Biosphere 2. When eight “biospherians” lived sealed inside, they faced ecological calamities and cult accusations. Their epic adventure is a cautionary tale but also a testament to the power of small groups reimagining the world. World Premiere

Time / U.S.A. (Director: Garrett Bradley

Fox Rich, indomitable matriarch and modern-day abolitionist, strives to keep her family together while fighting for the release of her incarcerated husband. An intimate, epic, and unconventional love story, filmed over two decades. World Premiere

Us Kids / U.S.A. (Dir: Kim A. Snyder

Determined to turn unfathomable tragedy into action, the teenage survivors of Parkland, Florida catalyze a powerful, unprecedented youth movement that spreads with lightning speed across the country, as a generation of mobilized youth take back democracy in this powerful coming-of-age story. World Premiere

Welcome to Chechnya / U.S.A. (Dir: David France

This searing investigative work shadows a group of activists risking unimaginable peril to confront the ongoing anti-LGBTQ pogrom raging in the repressive and closed Russian republic. Unfettered access and a remarkable approach to protecting anonymity exposes this under-reported atrocity–and an extraordinary group of people confronting evil. World Premiere

Whirlybird / U.S.A. Dir: Matt Yoka

Soaring above the chaotic spectacle of ‘80s and ‘90s Los Angeles, a young couple revolutionized breaking news with their brazen helicopter reporting. Culled from this news duo’s sprawling video archive is a poignant L.A. story of a family in turbulence hovering over a city unhinged. World Premiere


Twelve films from emerging filmmaking talents around the world offer fresh perspectives and inventive styles. Films that have premiered in this category in recent years include The Souvenir, The Guilty, Monos, Yardie, The Nile Hilton Incident and Second Mother.

Charter / Sweden (Dir/Wri: Amanda Kernell |

After a recent and difficult divorce, Alice hasn’t seen her children in two months as she awaits a custody verdict. When her son calls her in the middle of the night, Alice takes action, abducting the children on an illicit charter trip to the Canary Islands. Cast: Ane Dahl Torp, Troy Lundkvist, Tintin Poggats Sarri, Sverrir Gudnason, Eva Melander, Siw Erixon. World Premiere


Cuties / France (Dir/Wri: Maïmouna Doucouré, Producer: Zangro)

Amy, 11 years old, meets a group of dancers called “Cuties.” Fascinated, she initiates herself to a sensual dance, hoping to join their band and escape family dysfunction… Cast: Fathia Youssouf, Médina El Aidi-Azouni, Esther Gohourou, Ilanah Cami-Goursolas, Myriam Hamma, Maïmouna Gueye. World Premiere. DAY ONE

Exil / Germany, Belgium, Kosovo (Dir/Wri: Visar Morina

A chemical engineer feeling discriminated against and bullied at work plunges into an identity crisis. Cast: Mišel Matičević, Sandra Hüller. World Premiere

High Tide / Argentina (Dir/Wri: Verónica Chen,

Laura is spending a few days at her beach house to supervise the construction of a barbecue shed. One afternoon, she seduces the chief builder, who never returns. Over the following days, the builders continually invade her home – until Laura grows ferocious. Cast: Gloria Carrá, Jorge Sesán, Cristian Salguero, Mariana Chaud, Camila Fabbri, Héctor Bordoni. World Premiere

Jumbo / France, Luxembourg, Belgium (Dir/Wri: Zoé Wittock,

Jeanne, a shy young woman, works in an amusement park. Fascinated with carousels, she still lives at home with her mother. That’s when Jeanne meets Jumbo, the park’s new flagship attraction… Cast: Noémie Merlant, Emmanuelle Bercot, Sam Louwyck. World Premiere

Luxor / Egypt, United Kingdom Dir/Wri Zeina Durra,

When British aid worker Hana returns to the ancient city of Luxor, she comes across Sultan, a talented archeologist and former lover. As she wanders, haunted by the familiar place, she struggles to reconcile the choices of the past with the uncertainty of the present. Cast: Andrea Riseborough, Karim Saleh, Michael Landes, Sherine Reda, Salima Ikram, Shahira Fahmy. World Premiere

Possessor / Canada, United Kingdom Dir/Wri: Brandon Cronenberg,

Vos is a corporate agent who uses brain-implant technology to inhabit other people’s bodies, driving them to commit assassinations for the benefit of the company. When something goes wrong on a routine job, she finds herself trapped inside a man whose identity threatens to obliterate her own. Cast: Andrea Riseborough, Christopher Abbott, Rossif Sutherland, Tuppence Middleton, Sean Bean, Jennifer Jason Leigh. World Premiere

Identifying Features (Sin Señas Particulares) / Mexico, Spain (Director: Fernanda Valadez,

Magdalena makes a journey to find her son, gone missing on his way to the Mexican border with the US. Her odyssey takes her to meet Miguel, a man recently deported from the U.S. They travel together, Magdalena looking for her son, and Miguel hoping to see his mother again. Cast: Mercedes Hernández, David Illescas, Juan Jesús Varela, Ana Laura Rodríguez, Laura Elena Ibarra, Xicoténcatl Ulloa. World Premiere

Summer White (Blanco de Verano) / Mexico (Dir/Wri: Rodrigo Ruiz Patterson,

Rodrigo is a solitary teenager, a king in the private world he shares with his mother. Things change when she takes her new boyfriend home to live. He must decide if he fights for his throne and crushes the happiness of the person he loves the most. Cast: Adrián Rossi, Sophie Alexander-Katz, Fabián Corres. World Premiere

Surge / United Kingdom (Director: Aneil Karia

A man goes on a bold and reckless journey of self-liberation through London. After he robs a bank he releases a wilder version of himself, ultimately experiencing what it feels like to be alive. Cast: Ben Whishaw, Ellie Haddington, Ian Gelder, Jasmine Jobson. World Premiere

This Is Not A Burial, It’s A Resurrection / Lesotho, South Africa, Italy (Dir/Wri Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese

When her village is threatened with forced resettlement due to reservoir construction, an 80-year-old widow finds a new will to live and ignites the spirit of resilience within her community. In the final dramatic moments of her life, Mantoa’s legend is forged and made eternal. Cast: Mary Twala Mhlongo, Jerry Mofokeng Wa Makheta, Makhoala Ndebele, Tseko Monaheng, Siphiwe Nzima. International Premiere

Yalda, a Night for Forgiveness / Iran, France, Germany, Switzerland, Luxembourg (Dir/Wri: Massoud Bakhshi,

Maryam accidentally killed her husband Nasser and is sentenced to death. The only person who can save her is Mona, Nasser’s daughter. All Mona has to do is appear on a TV show and forgive Maryam. But forgiveness proves difficult when they are forced to relive the past. Cast: Sadaf Asgari, Behnaz Jafari, Babak Karimi, Fereshteh Sadr Orafaee, Forough Ghajebeglou, Fereshteh Hosseini. International Premiere


Twelve documentaries by some of the most courageous and extraordinary international filmmakers working today. Films that have premiered in this category in recent years include Honeyland, Sea of Shadows, Shirkers, This is Home, Last Men in Aleppo and Hooligan Sparrow.

Acasa, My Home / Romania, Germany, Finland (Director: Radu Ciorniciuc, Screenwriters: Lina Vdovii, Radu Ciorniciuc, Producer: Monica Lazurean-Gorgan

In the wilderness of the Bucharest Delta, nine children and their parents lived in perfect harmony with nature for 20 years–until they are chased out and forced to adapt to life in the big city. World Premiere

The Earth Is Blue as an Orange / Ukraine, Lithuania (Director: Iryna Tsilyk,

To cope with the daily trauma of living in a war zone, Anna and her children make a film together about their life among surreal surroundings. World Premiere

Epicentro / Austria, France, U.S.A. (Dir/writer: Hubert Sauper,

Cuba is well known as a so-called time capsule. The place where the New World was discovered has become both a romantic vision and a warning. With ongoing global cultural and financial upheavals, large parts of the world could face a similar kind of existence. World Premiere

Influence / South Africa, Canada (Directors and Screenwriters: Diana Neille, Richard Poplak,

Charting the recent advancements in weaponized communication by investigating the rise and fall of the world’s most notorious public relations and reputation management firm: the British multinational Bell Pottinger. World Premiere

Into the Deep / Denmark (Dir: Emma Sullivan

In 2016, a young Australian filmmaker began documenting amateur inventor Peter Madsen. One year in, Madsen brutally murdered Kim Wall aboard his homemade submarine. An unprecedented revelation of a killer and the journey his young helpers take as they reckon with their own complicity and prepare to testify. World Premiere

The Mole Agent / Chile, U.S.A., Germany, The Netherlands, Spain (Dir and screenwriter: Maite Alberdi

When a family becomes concerned about their mother’s well-being in a retirement home, private investigator Romulo hires Sergio, an 83 year-old man who becomes a new resident–and a mole inside the home, who struggles to balance his assignment with becoming increasingly involved in the lives of several residents. World Premiere

Once Upon A Time in Venezuela / Venezuela, United Kingdom, Brazil, Austria (DirWri: Anabel Rodríguez Ríos,

Once upon a time, the Venezuelan village of Congo Mirador was prosperous, alive with fisherman and poets. Now it is decaying and disintegrating–a small but prophetic reflection of Venezuela itself. World Premiere