Posts Tagged ‘London Film Festival’

The History of Ha | Historya Ni Ha (2021) Bfi London Film Festival

Dir.: Lav Diaz; Cast: John Lloyd Cruz, Mae Paner, Dolly De Leon, Jonathan Francisco, Teroy Guzman, Hazel Orencio, Earl Ignacio, Ceian Hazel Gabuco; Philippines 2020, 450 min.

Philippine director Lav Diaz once again returns to the world of his homeland politics with an allegorical fable that takes place in the post-war period, which saw the socialist HUK movement crushed by the CIA and the army, and General Ramon Magsaysay, who later died in a plane crash in 1957, ascend to the Presidency. Diaz uses a mostly linear structure, his protagonists often verbally referring to the past in a fable that is in length compared to his previous films, the longest of which is 660 minutes

We meet the central protagonist, ‘bodapil’ (vaudeville) performer Hernando Alamada (Cruz) and his puppet Ha, on board the luxury cruiser ‘Mayflower’, just as Magsaysay’s death is being announced over the radio. Alamada has had a successful run, but is looking forward to joining his family in the village of his birth where he wants to marry his sweetheart Rosetta. He has brought many books for his sister and her two children, making it clear how important reading is. Alas, the gift for Rosetta will never reach her since she has been placed under house arrest destined to marry a local bigwig who will pay off her family’s debts which too numerous even for Hernando to finance. There is no chance even for the two lovers to meet so tight is the security patrol where she lives. Heartbroken, Alamada leaves family and village for good setting off on an eventful journey where his path will cross with several travellers whose stories will inform the historical contact of the narrative.

On the road to Diwata he first meets Joselito (Francisco) who is heading for the mythical island lured by the famous gold rush, even though he cannot even afford a ticket for the boat. Then there’s a sex worker called Dahlia (De Leon), and Sister Lorenza (Paner), a Catholic who are also heading for Diwata, the latter to build a mission to save the souls of the gold diggers.  And the travellers arrive at the harbour only to discover Kuyang (Guzman) and his psychotic sister Matilde (Orenico) are now in control of the boats to Diwata, with the help of a vicious militia, and the fares have gone up astronomically, Hernando is now the only one who can afford to cross.

Joselito then falls in love with blind flower seller Ina (Gabuco) – a nod to Chaplin – Kuyang, who has seen Hernando perform on the Mayflower, arranges a ‘bodapil’ evening for Hernando and his puppet, which is violently interrupted by guerrillas, who kill Joselito and Ina – the two most innocent characters. Hernando decides that only Ha should speak from now on, setting in motion a long, poetic journey of redemption.

Aesthetically as well as contents wise, History of Ha is closest to Melancholia (2008), in which Diaz reflected on the guerrilla movement of the 1960s when the middle class Philippines took up arms against the tyrannical Marcos regime. The tropical rain forest features extensively in both features, even though the outcome could not be more different. Again, Diaz entranced his audience with his languorous  characterisations, the camera often not leaving the field of vision until well after the protagonists have left the frame.

Life in the rainforest is never romanticised, violence is kept to a minimum, even though the threat of it hangs over nearly every scene. Even though dialogue does play an important role, particularly in the discussions between Hernando and his three companions, whom he tries to dissuade from their journey to Diwata, long sections of the feature do without words – again creating a particular intimacy with the audience. The History of Ha is set in an around the village of Once again Dias casts professionals actors alongside indigenous non-pros creating an authenticity which few other filmmakers achieve. Shot mainly in the village of Sibaltan (Plawan), Diaz, as often in his features, uses the indigenous population, integrating them with professional actors and creating an authenticity few film makers achieve. It is an enigma, how Diaz again is able to commit his audience to be part of his characters’ struggle. This is not a question of ideology, but the result of projection and transference, where the feature’s images bind the audience emotionally to the characters.

The History of Ha was scheduled to premiere at the 2020 Locarno Festival, which was postponed. Diaz, known for his prolific work ethos, is now in post-production for two more features: Servando Magdamag and Henrico’s Farm, the latter with Charo Santos Concio, the titular heroine of Diaz’ Venice winner The Woman Who Left (2016). AS

PREMIERING AT BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2021

White Building (2021) Bfi London Film Festival

Dir.: Kavich Neang; Cast: Piseth Chhun, Sithan Hout, Uk Sokha, Chinnaro Soem, Sovann Tho, Jany Min; Cambodia/France/China/Qatar 2021,

Cambodian filmmaker Kavich Neang once again returns to the timely topic of gentrification in his second film – this time a drama – following his 2019 documentary Last Night I Saw You Smiling.

Housing has become big business in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh. The titular White Building, built in 1963, was once a haunt for artists, but now the developers have arrived, investors from Japan and China. Boyhood friendships and family ties are going to be tested.

The story follows three men in their early twenties Samnang (Chhun), Ahco (Soem) and Tol (Tho) who spend their time chasing women – unsuccessfully – and trying to make it with a dancing routine. Their performances in restaurants and pubs are not a big hit, and they go on dreaming. But soon Tol leaves for the ‘bright lights’ of France where you can buy all sorts of cool trainers. This leaves Samnang living with his mother (Soha) and father (Hout), a former sculptor in the white building, his home since birth.

Stories about people moving from the rural areas to the newly built but morally corrupt cities have been a popular theme for Far Eastern filmmakers with some award-winner features: Stray Dogs (2013) being the most memorable. White Building sees the other side of the story. Samnang’s father is chasing the dollar on home ground, heading up the white building’s tenants’ association, and hoping to strike a good deal with the developers. But even the best outcome, based on a deal in square meters, would only secure the families with the largest flats a decent place in central Phnom Penh, with more chance of a job. Most residents would have to leave for the countryside, where employment is thin on the ground.

Samnang’s sister Kanha (Min) has already left the family, and her parents are afraid her brother will also fly the nest, conditions in the estate are rapidly going downhill and the landlord has cut off the water supply to the block. As as result of these upheavals Samnang’s father is not only relieved from his duties as chief negotiator, but also has to have part of his leg amputated as a result of untreated diabetes, In their new country home, Samnang must make a decision.

DoP Douglas Seok has an eccentric way of shooting: cameras are on drones, the angels of the buildings taking on an German expressionist look as the tenants flee the building in droves. Phnom Penh’s three-seater scooters loom large in Seok’s rowing camerawork. Everything seems out of kilter in this ‘end of days’. At the centre of the tornado, Piseth Chhun deserved to win Best Actor in Venice Horizons sidebar at the 78th Mostra last month. AS

SCREENING AT BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL | WHITE BUILDING HAS BEEN SELECTED AS CAMBODIA’S OSCAR HOPEFUL IN NEXT YEAR’S ACADEMY AWARDS 2022

 

Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon (2021)

Dir.: Ana Lily Amirpour; Cast: Jeon Jong-seo, Kate Hudson, Evan Whitten, Ed Skrein, Craig Robinson; USA 2021, 106 min.

A Korean teenager’s hypnotic powers create havoc in a suburb of New Orleans in this second feature from from Ana Lily Amirpour whose stylish debut A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) felt radical and edgy back in the comparatively tame world of 2014.

One again wrapping her story round a lone woman, Jeon Jong-seo makes for a feisty Mona Lisa, the teenager in question. A diet of junk food and soft drinks has nudged her into the autistic spectrum, but her kinetic powers soon come in handy in the confines of her high security psychiatric ward, enabling her to overpower the abusive warden and she escapes into the night. Embarking on a frenzied foray powered forward by a seething soundscape, and aided and abetted by friends Fuzz (Skrein), stripper drug dealer cum DJ Bonnie (Hudson) and son Charlie (Whitten), she is hotly pursued on her odyssey of destruction, by a police officer undeterred by his plaster cast.

Very much a bedtime story for adults this is a less appealing rif on Jonathan’s Glazer’s Under The Skin: underdog Mona Lisa morphing into the exotic heroine from far away, mastering, while not comprehending, the rules of the planet she has landed on. Mona Lisa just stays her spontaneous self, surrounded by machiavellian schemers (apart from Charlie). Her motivation is not power or money, but freedom – the desire to avoid capture and imprisonment becomes paramount in her dystopian crusade.

This is an unashamed B-picture where rules are suspended, and emotion became the primary focus: reality is submerged by the heroine’s sheer willpower and self-determination. DoP Pawel Pogorzelski’s neon-drenched aesthetic underlines the narrative’s artificial world, that hangs somewhere between Twilight Zone and a non-realised David Lynch project. Mona Lisa is just pure excitement, the supporting half of a double feature which turns out to be much stronger stuff than the main attraction. AS

NOW AT LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2021 | VENICE PREMIERE

Money Has Four Legs (2021) Bfi London Film Festivali

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

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

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

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

SCREENING DURING BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 6-17 OCTOBER 2021

 

The Outlaws (2021) Bfi London Film Festival

Dir.; Henrik Martin Dahlsbakken; Cast: Asmund Hoeg, Filip Berg, Benjamin Helstood; Norway 2021, 79 min.

This Norwegian take on Bonnie and Clyde, also based on real life, is remarkable for its visual allure and picturesque beauty in startling contrast the carnage that erupts when a young drifter loses his way in a ‘follie a deux’ set in 1920s Sweden.

Johannes (Hoeg) really needs a role model in life, and he finds it in fellow lumberjack Peder (Helstod), an older man who offers some sort of security. But when Peder is killed in a tree-felling accident, Johannes takes up with another, older man, in the shape of Mikhael (Berg), who impresses the young labourer with his stories of America but soon turns out to be a dangerous psychotic, who has stolen the car he is driving.

The two men derail a train. But Johannes is shocked to discover that Mikhael is also a murderer, killing two policemen who give chase, and quite obviously enjoying the experience. And it doesn’t stop there. The two of them hide out in a house belonging to a man and his daughter and then take off in another stolen car in a finale that is quite remarkable for the stark contrast in the two men’s reactions.

Dahlsbakken does not enlarge on the sexual angle of the relationship, but it is clear that Johannes, who has slept with women before, is really just looking for love and protection, which Mikhael, who is certainly gay, takes advantage of. Johannes is prepared to go along with Mikhael’s psychotic outbursts just to avoid being alone. Outwardly masquerading as a softly spoken educated man, Mikhael, emerges a psychotic monster, with no feelings for Johannes or anybody else, for that matter.

Berg is impressive as ‘Lucifer’, Hoeg playing the perfect ‘lap dog’ who just wants to be loved. The Swedish countryside is a wonderful background for the exploding mayhem, the director continuously probing the dissonance between the two elements highlighted in DoP Oskar Dahlsbakken’s stunning camerawork. AS

SCREENING DURING BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2021

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

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

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

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

ITALIAN FILMS | BFI FILM FESTIVAL 2021 

Boiling Point (2021)

Dir.: Philip Barantini; Cast: Stephen Graham, Vinette Robinson, Alice Feetham, Ray Panthaki, Jason Flemyng, Lourdes Faberes; UK 2021, 92 min.

Stephen Graham is a budding star chef in this adrenaline fuelled single-take drama that powers non-stop through the hectic kitchens of a top restaurant where staff and owner could lose their livelihoods at any minute.

Graham’s Andy is a committed workaholic, a ‘business before family’ kind of guy. But his dedication to the job is clearly not paying off. Boiling Point gets off to a simmering start with a visit from the food hygiene inspector who downgrades his restaurant’s kitchen from a five to a three, point-wise. Andy takes it all out on the staff, particularly his sous-chef Carly (Robinson) and commis chef Freeman (Panthaki). To be fair, Andy is not the only person responsible for restaurant’s shaky reputation: front-of-house maître Beth (Feetham) overplays the role of social media, particularly Instagram, and this has a detrimental affect on proceedings.

Everyone has a story to tell about Andy’s classy eaterie; there are reports of self-harm and drug misuse. And that bottle Andy carries with him seems to contain more than just water.  The fractious evening comes to a climax when TV chef Alastair Skye (Flemying) arrives with capricious food critic Sara Southworth (Faberes): A female guest is apparently feeling the affects of her nut allergy, even though the staff had been informed of her condition at the start of the evening. The ambulance arrives, and Skye puts the blame unjustly on Beth for the incident. But Andy refuses to “throw” Beth “under the bus”, leaving Skye in deep water over his £200K investment. But that’s not the end of it, new developments will test Andy to breaking point, again.

Everyone plays their part in keeping the tension going, and credit to DoP Matthew Lewis for making the best in a limited environment with his use of crane shots to break up the intensity of person-to-person conflicts. Often in these kind of films staff are either demonised for being jealous, or pushed into the eternal victim role by well meaning middle-class script writers. But in Boiling Point the focus is on competent professionals doing their jobs while falling victims to a boss on the downward spiral. AS

IN UK CINEMAS from 7 JANUARY 2022

 

Five Films for London Film Festival 2021

 

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

HINTERLAND (2021)

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

BROTHER’S KEEPER (2021)

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

LAMB (2021)

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

NITRAM (2021)

Justin Kurzel blows us away with this scorching arthouse psychodrama commemorating the Port Arthur tragedy, exploring the milieu that created a murderer (Martin Bryant) who would kill 35 people on that fateful day in 1996. Not since Snowtown has a film engendered such utter terror through its central character – the titular Nitram – played by a coruscating Caleb Landry Jones – a fully formed enfant terrible who lives with his long-suffering parents (Judy Davis and Anthony LaPaglia) in the sleepy seaside town. Snowtown writer Shaun Grant again shows how long-term parental abuse and a casually toxic environment turns Nitram ((Martin backwards his hated school nickname) into a vulnerable, isolated loner who wreaks havoc wherever he goes. A display of his anti-social behaviour kicks off a story driven forward by his unpredictable behaviour, even more frightening than his brutal strength: like a firecracker he goes off without warning, but is also capable of loving affection for his mother who diminishes him with constant putdowns, unleashing a monster which roars through this splintering psychodrama. CANNES 2021 – Winner Best Actor Caleb Landry-Jones.

 

EUROPA (1931) Photo credit: Themerson Estate 

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

BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL | 6 – 17 OCTOBER 2021

 

 

IL Buco (2021)

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

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

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

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

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

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

AT SELECTED ARTHOUSE CINEMAS FROM FRIDAY | SPECIAL JURY PRIZE VENICE 2021

A River Runs, Turns, Erases, Replaces (2021) Berlinale

Dir: Shengze Zhu | China, Doc

“it is not the voice that commands the story: it is the ear.” Italo Calvino

Chicago based Chinese filmmaker Shengze Zhu follows her Tiger award-winning documentary Present. Perfect (2019) with this acutely personal almost Proustian love letter to the past. Serving as a paean to pre-pandemic times but also a poignant reflection on how the world continues to change, not always for the better. It also serves as a humble apology for a town she never particularly liked anyway. The town is Wuhan.

Several years ago no-one had ever heard of the infamous city that sprawls along the Yangtze River in Northern China, and whose wet markets would soon breed a global health crisis that would help to decimate our lives. Many of us now feel a complete dislocation from our pre-Covid past. The life we knew, before the pandemic took hold of ‘normality’, is changed forever. The innocence of spontaneity is also gone, another nail in the coffin of freedom – rather like that of post 9/11.

Back in 2010 when she left for America, Shengze remembers the burgeoning industrial metropolis of Wuhan as ‘a stage on which people perform in various ways’ a landscape formed by nature and then dramatically assaulted by roaring machines and rapidly rising infrastructure. A place where ‘memories are buried. The lost place’. But it’s the little things that count here, rather than Wuhan itself. The shop that sold her favourite spicy beef noodles, has shut down, the friendly owner moved away.

In her restrained and strangely alluring treatment Wuhan is very much a character who she remembers – but not always with pleasure. Casting her mind back to the past Shengze avoids nostalgia, instead reflecting on consequences in this contemplation of the past and the lost in a bid to revaluate what happened, and what could still happen.

Five years in the making the film starts in the very recent past, recorded on surveillance footage that pictures empty streets gradually filling again after April 2020 with figures standing in tacit obedience. The images of ‘before’ in the empty streets play out in a series of vignettes held for several minutes in a static camera, a ‘symphony without music’ is how Shengze describes them. Her decision to use the distant ambient soundscape is a wise one, making this so much more transcendent in its eerie beauty, picturing the bustling metropolis with surprising grandeur. There are also scenes of meditative calm – the neon lights of the suspension bridge are strikingly beautiful as they shimmer in the darkness.

A River is imbued with a vague feeling of wistful regret, the whirring neon-lit industrial present slowly pans out into the purple past in the fields beyond where buffalo still graze in contented torpor. And the Yangtze River is the endless glowing connective tissue that keeps on flowing, renewing, cleansing. No one can imagine just how vast Chinese cities are until they visit. But Shengze conveys some of this enormity in a way that never feels frightening or aggressive. Her memories are now locked in the past but the future keeps on coming. A reflective, positive, graceful film that brings hope from so much tragedy. MT

BERLINALE FORUM 2021.

Limbo (2020)

Dir/Wri: Ben Sharrock | Cast: Amir El-Masry, Sidse Babett-Knudsen, Vikash Bhai, Ola Orebiyi, Kwabena Ansah, Kenneth Collard | UK Drama, 103′

A group of refugees fetch up on a remote Scottish island in this artful and darkly amusing comedy drama lampooning the migrant crisis.

The common denominator is their single, masculine status. If they were married with kids they would be placed in a stylish new-build in the centre of Edinburgh, or even London. But it’s a grim lot for the single male of the species who arrives in these rain soaked islands looking for a home. And the Scotts director shows the same sober look and lugubrious humour as Pablo Stoll’s cult classic Whisky (2004) or Aki Kaurismaki’s Berlinale winner The Other Side of Hope (2017). However, his visually imaginative style and symmetrical framing also make this a sumptuous treat.

The migrant crisis is certainly no joke. In fact it has become somewhat of a political hot potato as the lost and disenfranchised arrive here hoping for the legendary streets of gold and find instead cold tarmac, wind-lashed landscapes and little to comfort them in their time of need. Sticking out like proverbial pork pies at a Jewish wedding these likeable and nice-looking men are jeered at and taunted as they make their way through chilly seascapes in search of something to keep their minds occupied in the inclement weather.

The painterly piece unfolds in the sparsely populated Western Isles of the Outer Hebrides (North and South Uist) under smoky grey clouds and gentle hilltops stroked by softly wavering grasses and purple skies. “If you’re lucky enough to be here in Winter you may experience the Northern Lights” says their English teacher as he instructs them on the past imperfect, asking for an example of its use in a sentence: one bright spark suggests: “I USED to have a home until it was destroyed by allied forces”.

Essentially a series of carefully crafted episodes – each playing out like an individual comedy vignette – the story follows Syrian Oud musician and war victim Omar (Amir El-Masry) who left his older brother still fighting; Afghani Farhad (Vikash Bhai) and two West African brothers suffering from sibling rivalry. Wasef (Ola Orebiyi) and Abedi (Kwabena Ansah) bicker the hell out of the squalid damp-ridden cottage the men share, warmed only by a two-bar electric fire. They all have convincing backstories and are ridden with guilt and worry about the families they have left behind. Poor internet coverage makes matters worst.

Writing and directing this second feature, Sharrock calls on his own life experience working in a refugee camp in the Middle East where he was inspired by the sorrowful characters he met, all hoping against hope for a positive outcome. Here at least they get “cultural awareness” lessons hosted by a well-meaning couple, Helga (a strangely underused Sidse Babett-Knudsen (The Duke of Burgundy) and Boris (Kenneth Collard). But the even-handed narrative eventually gives way to a grudging mutual respect with their pale-skinned hosts who recognise they are well-educated and versed in the ways of the world. And the tone darkens when a crisis arrives for the sheep farmers during a snowstorm, and Omar is required to pitch in.

The sheep incident unleashes a disturbing magic realist reverie for Omar, transporting him back to his roots in scenes that hint at a gravitas the film does not possess compared with the levity that has gone before. But despite the slight tonal flaw Limbo is a highly accomplished and thoughtful film that cements Sharrock’s place as a promising British talent on the international scene. MT

In Cinemas from 30 July | The International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI) Award: CAIRO FILM FESTIVAL 

 

 

 

Shirley (2019) ****

Dir.: Josephine Decker; Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Odessa Young, Michael Stuhlbarg, Logan Lerman; USA 2020, 107 min.

Making a name for herself with a stylish array of imagined dramas US auteur Josephine Decker moves into the arena of real life with this febrile portrait of horror writer Shirley Jackson (1916-1965) whose most popular novel ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ has been filmed on numerous occasions, the last being as a ten-episode long production on Netflix. 

Based on ‘Shirley: A Novel’ by Susan Scarf the film takes place in 1964 in North Bennington, Vermont – which seems a strange a strange choice, since Scarf actually wrote her novel ‘Hangasman’, whose writing process is the central part of the feature, in 1951. The narrative centres on two couples, the middle-aged Shirley (Moss) and her English professor husband Stanley (Stuhlbarg), and their much younger house guests Rose (Young) who is pregnant with her first child, and her academic husband Fred (Lerman), who tries to get a tenure at Bennington College, as Stanley’s assistant. There are shades of Albee’s Who is Afraid of Virginia Woolf, but, more importantly, Rose and Fred are actually invented characters. But in staying away from a strictly biographical narrative, Decker and her writer Sarah Gubbin enhance the richness of the storytelling – even though the ‘deletion’ of the couple’s four kids, who would have been around in 1951, is another puzzling decision. Shirley is portrayed as a erratic and waspish intellectual who takes no prisoners especially of the female kind.

We meet Rose and Fred on the train on their way to Bennington, where they have rampant sex in the train’s bathroom after Rose has finished Jackson’s Kafkaesque novella ‘The Lottery” from 1949. Bennington also turns out to be a hotbed of sex, eager female students hoping to boost their grades by obliging the academic staff. What was planned as a short stay with Shirley and Stanley, turns into a much longer tenancy, when Fred literally pimps out his wife to look after the bibulous agoraphobic writer who is struggling to focus on her new novel. Meanwhile Rose is in awe of the professor barely fending off his  unwelcome advances. Soon Fred follows in Stanley’s footsteps, and sleeps with an undergraduate student leaving the women to look for intimacy among themselves.

A major topic is Jackson’s obsession with death, not uncommon for a writer of her genre. ‘Hangsaman’ is the story of a young student called Natalie, who becomes mentally unbalanced and takes her own life. She is renamed Paula in the feature and played by Young in a part-staging of the novel. But death is never far away – in one scene Shirley spooks Rose by pretending to eat a poisonous mushroom in the woods. And near the end there is a brilliant dream-sequence with Rose standing at the edge of a precipitous cliff with her baby.

Norwegian-born DoP Sturla Brandth Groven underlines the horror-film atmosphere with a subtle array of light movements: even though the feature is told more from Rose’s perspective, awkward handheld camera angles and woozy focusing turn the domestic backdrop into a decadent often delirious chamber of horrors for Rose as she gradually unravels increasingly unsettling by Shirley’s quixotic stabs at familiarity. Shirley’s outings into the campus are also fraught with disaster: at a academic gathering she enjoys vindictively spoiling a new sofa with red wine because she suspects the hostess of philandering with her husband. Shirley and Stanley enjoy a prickly relationship of mutual admiration spiced up by intellectual sparring and power play, this is largely what makes the feature so enjoyable as a piece of entertainment. Somehow, Shirley’s protests against the mediocre, male-dominated society rub off on Rose: when Fred tells her his affair is over, and “soon everything will be back to normal”, she lets him know that this is not the case. 

Shirley is a very ambitious feature, even though a great deal takes place away from the camera, Moss and Young are mesmerising enough to keep the audience occupied but Elisabeth Moss and the (once again) much underrated Michael Stuhlbarg steal the show. Shirley Gubbins and Decker have created a valuable contribution to the feminist horror genre, Decker sealing her reputation in a her fourth drama as a director. AS

SUNDANCE 2020 GRAND JURY PRIZE WINNER | LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2020 | In competition NEON AWARDS

                                

Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project ****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOW ON RELEASE.

    

 

Corn Island (2014) Simindis kundzuli | Georgian Retro | DocLisboa 2020

Director: George Ovashvili   Writers: Roelof Jan Minneboo, Nugzar Shataidze, George Ovashvili

Cast: Ilyas Salman, Tamer Levent, Mariam Buturishvili, Ylias Salman |  Drama, Georgia 100′

Corn Island could take place anywhere. The brooding fable is set in remote islands that surface annually from the bed of the river Enguri in Eastern Georgia, enriching them with nutrients and making them ideal farmland for seasonal crop-rearing by nomads. In the silence of a serene summer an old man and a young girl  settle in this mist-clothed island paradise where they fish and cultivate the earth as isolated gunfire mingles with birdsong in the distance. Few words are exchanged but a sinister undertone persists and a watchful vigilance that seems to presage doom.

Georgian auteur Ovashvili’s multi-award winning second feature was nominated for an Oscar in the Academy Award Foreign Language section the following year, echoes the recent conflicts that have taken place in the Caucasian States. His debut drama, Gagma napiri (2009), was also inspired by these events. Corn Island is a quiet, sensory affair that succeeds in building a considerable dramatic punch through subtle performances, clever camerawork that makes good use of the changing natural light and rich tones of yellow, blue and gold and well-paced storytelling with an atmospheric occasional score. This simple but profound tale is elevated by the events taking place at its margins and yet never does its narrative succumb to the outside world making the human story all the more powerful and profound.

This season Georgian farmer (Ylias Salman) and his granddaughter (Mariam Buturishvili), are here to spend the summer, the age-old topic of school work their only desultory conversation. Army officers pass by on the distant riverbank. The girl swims in the crystalline water in a dreamlike midnight sequence auguring her sexual awakening and, as if by chance, the next day a wounded soldier is washed ashore sparking friction between the threesome and a passing boat of Russian guards patrolling the river for signs of trouble. In these heavenly surroundings a palpable tension gently smoulders between the girl, the farmer and the soldiers sparked by fear, sexual frisson and danger. When the girl flirtatiously throws water on the soldier the pair chase into the fully grown corn. This small kingdom and wains when finally tragedy strikes from an unexpected source leaving us with to ponder our existence and our insignificance in the grand scheme of things. MT

CORN ISLAND | DOCLISBOA 2020 | GEORGIAN RETROSPECTIVE

Striding into the Wind (2020) *** Cannes Selection 2020

Dir.: Wei Shujun; Cast: Zheng Yingchen, Zhou You, Lin Kai, Wang Xiaomu; China 2020, 134 min.

Wei Shujun won a Special Award for his short film On the Border at Cannes 2018 and was back in the competition selection again this year with this eye-catching but flawed drama which overstays its welcome at over two hours.

Based on Wei Shujun’s own experiences, Striding Into the Wind is a footloose road movie that offers a snapshot of modern China through the life of two film school layabouts. Essentially a series of episodes that take place in and around  Beijing where restless sound technician Zuo Kun (Zhou) is taking time out from his final year studies behind the wheel of a beaten-up Jeep. Kun can’t seem to commit to anything – let alone a driving test – and we see him flouncing off in a fit of rage when things go wrong. The Jeep eventually becomes a liability: he is stopped for driving under the influence and ends up in prison, where his warden Dad is able to get him an early release.

Kun’s portly comrade in arms, Tong (Kai) is a junk food addict who rolls out of bed just in time for the college start at noon. The women is Kun’s life are more practical: his long suffering girl A Zhi (Yingchen) lends him cash, and his mother, a university lecturer, supplies exam papers which sell for good money on campus. A film shoot provides the opportunity for the pair to break loose and  decamp to Inner Mongolia where they attempt to lock down their film project and Kun makes a play for the Mongolian star actress.

What saves this from being an empty rant in celebration of juvenile delinquency is the imaginative visuals bringing to mind early 1980s features by Hsiao-Hsien Hou. Shujun’s sycophantic treatment of his two main characters adds to the overindulgent feel of a film where so much talent has been wasted on immature postering. AS

CANNES FILM FESTIVAL 2020 | COMPETITION LINEUP | BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2020

    

New Order (2020)

Dir/scr. Michel Franco | Mexico/France | 86 mins.

Michel Franco delivers a blistering arthouse thriller that pictures a potential cataclysmic recompense for Mexico’s class divide.

After Lucia, Chronic and April’s Daughters were all astringent social dramas this short sharp shock of a feature is an extreme expression to his country’s corrupt social and political divide and delivers an uncompromising gut punch that has a distinct shades of Costa Gavras’ 1972 outing State of Siege.  

The aesthetic is brash and the pace fast-moving – bewildering almost – as payback delivers payback, all done in less than 90 minutes. Three factions are involved: the wealthy, the Military and the working classes and no one emerges a hero, or even particularly likeable or distinguishable, they are all just ciphers for the sectors they represent.

The action takes place in Mexico City but the anger is universal reflecting a world increasingly polarised between the have and the have-nots’. And the have-nots are certainly not having it anymore here in Mexico City which is seized by a violent uprising that boils over in the opening scenes. Patients are ousted from their beds and in a local hospital, and doused in green paint. Nearby a wedding is taking place behind the security-guarded walls of an upmarket compound: Marianne (Naián González Norvind) is getting married, but some of the guests arrive splattered in green paint.

The feverish pace quickens in the dizzying hand-held camerawork. A feeling of doom pervades. At the wedding the talk is of drugs and property deals, while the indigenous Mexican staff whirl around with champagne and canapés. Marianne is given envelopes rather than packaged gifts – money talks louder than toasters and crystal here in Mexico.  But when a former member of staff turns up asking his ex employer to finance urgent hospital treatment, Marianne is the only one to oblige, with a hug and a helping hand.

A scuffle breaks out and we are catapulted into a muddled, military-style coup. The staff grab jewellery and watches, while guests are bundled into black vans and dragged away screaming, under the cosh. Anyone travelling there will know that  guerrilla kidnappings are very much par for the course in modern day Latin America – but this is a big time operation, and it’s vicious, and well-orchestrated with no happy ending.

The Mexican flag flies high over the final scene that carries the chilling words ‘Only The Dead Have Seen The End Of War’ (purportedly a quote from the Spanish philosopher Jorge Ruiz de Santayana 1963-1952 not Plato – although this is debatable). Franco’s film takes no prisoners – quite literally – and there are no memorable performances, the characters are only there to serve the narrative. The takeaway is the powerful message New Order delivers. An unflinching and prescient work. MT

IN CINEMAS FROM 10 SEPTEMBER 2021

 

Limbo (2020) **** Bfi London Film Festival 2020

Dir/Wri: Ben Sharrock | Cast: Amir El-Masry, Sidse Babett-Knudsen, Vikash Bhai, Ola Orebiyi, Kwabena Ansah, Kenneth Collard | UK Drama, 103′

A group of refugees fetch up on a remote Scottish island in this artful and darkly amusing comedy drama lampooning the migrant crisis.

The common denominator is their single, masculine status. If they were married with kids they would be placed in a stylish new-build in the centre of Edinburgh, or even London. But it’s a grim lot for the male of the species who arrives in these rain soaked islands looking for a home. And the Scotts director shows the same sober look and lugubrious humour as Pablo Stoll’s cult classic Whisky (2004) or Aki Kaurismaki’s Berlinale winner The Other Side of Hope (2017). However, his visually imaginative style and symmetrical framing also make this a sumptuous treat.

The migrant crisis is certainly no joke. In fact it has become somewhat of a political hot potato as the lost and disenfranchised arrive here hoping for the legendary streets of gold and find instead cold tarmac, wind-lashed landscapes and little to comfort them in their time of need. Sticking out like proverbial pork pies at a Jewish wedding these likeable and nice-looking men are jeered at and taunted as they make their way through chilly seascapes in search of something to keep their minds occupied in the inclement weather.

The painterly piece unfolds in the sparsely populated Western Isles of the Outer Hebrides (North and South Uist) under smoky grey clouds and gentle hilltops stroked by softly wavering grasses and purple skies. “If you’re lucky enough to be here in Winter you may experience the Northern Lights” says their English teacher as he instructs them on the past imperfect, asking for an example of its use in a sentence: one bright spark suggests: “I USED to have a home until it was destroyed by allied forces”.

Essentially a series of carefully crafted episodes – each playing out like an individual comedy vignette – the story follows Syrian Oud musician and war victim Omar (Amir El-Masry) who left his older brother still fighting; Afghani Farhad (Vikash Bhai) and two West African brothers suffering from sibling rivalry. Wasef (Ola Orebiyi) and Abedi (Kwabena Ansah) bicker the hell out of the squalid damp-ridden cottage the men share, warmed only by a two-bar electric fire. They all have convincing backstories and are ridden with guilt and worry about the families they have left behind. Poor internet coverage makes matters worst.

Writing and directing this second feature, Sharrock calls on his own life experience working in a refugee camp in the Middle East where he was inspired by the sorrowful characters he met, all hoping against hope for a positive outcome. Here at least they get “cultural awareness” lessons hosted by a well-meaning couple, Helga (a strangely underused Sidse Babett-Knudsen (The Duke of Burgundy) and Boris (Kenneth Collard). But the even-handed narrative eventually gives way to a grudging mutual respect with their pale-skinned hosts who recognise they are well-educated and versed in the ways of the world. And the tone darkens when a crisis arrives for the sheep farmers during a snowstorm, and Omar is required to pitch in.

The sheep incident unleashes a disturbing magic realist reverie for Omar, transporting him back to his roots in scenes that hint at a gravitas the film does not possess compared with the levity that has gone before. But despite the slight tonal flaw Limbo is a highly accomplished and thoughtful film that cements Sharrock’s place as a promising British talent on the international scene. MT

BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2020

 

 

 

African Apocalypse (2020) ***

Dir.: Rob Lemkin; Documentary with Femi Nylander, Amina Weira; UK 2020, 88 min.

This new documentary sees Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novel ‘Heart of Darkness’ from the natives’ perspective. Oxford University student Femi Nylander goes on a real voyage of discovery to illuminate the bloody massacres in Niger at the end of the 19th century when the French government to unite the French colonies in West Africa backfired with tragic consequences and costing over 15,000 African lives.

Following in the footsteps of French officers Captain Voulet and his adjutant Lt. Julian Chanoines were tasked with unifying the colonies of what is now Chad, Niger and Burkina Faso, to fend off British colonial forces. After Voulet’s worst massacres in Birnin Konni, word of Voulet’s depravity and violence reached Paris, and Army Command sent Lt. Colonel Jean Francois Klobb to relieve Voulet. On Bastille Day in July 1899 Klobb confronted Voulet and was later killed.

Lemkin accompanies Nylander and his co-researcher and translator Amina Weira on their journey through West Africa, where they discover written material relating to Voulet’s massacres and his descent into madness, declaring: “I have become an African, and would be the King of Paris”. They also dredge up a tape recording from the 1970s narrated by an old women retelling the gory details, which was tantamount to genocide, and would land Voulet in front of the Den Hague Court.

Nylander feels like in outsider in the old Etonian world of Oxford, and he is also to made to feel a stranger once in Africa: his interviewees challenge him on his lack of empathy with the victims’ grand children. DoPs Claude Garnier and Shaun Harley Lee sustain a fly-on-the-wall presence, keeping a welcome intimacy; whilst their panoramic impressions of he river landscapes are of exceptional beauty. Lemkin’s attempt to integrate Nylander with his current BLM activities is not always successful, since the ‘retelling’ of the Conrad narrative can very much stand on its own. But the African images are much stronger than contemporary, middle-class dominated UK protest meetings, which feel anaemic in comparison. AS

SCREENED DURING BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2020

 

 

 

    

A Common Crime (2020)

Dir.: Francisco Màrquez; Cast: Elisa Carricajo, Mecha Martinez, Eliot Otazo, CeciliaRainero, Ciro Coien Pardo, Lantaro Murna; Argentine 2020, 96 min.

This slow-burning psychological thriller is a seething study in guilt wrapped around a mesmerising central performance from Elisa Carricajo as a lecturer whose life slowly unravels in the wake of tragedy. A Common Crime is the second feature from the Argentine director whose subtle approach calls to mind Lucrecia Martell’s The Headless Woman and Juan Antonio Bardem’s Muerte de un ciclista. 

The drama is bookended by two scenes in a fair ground that capture the cataclysmic events Cecilia (Carricajo) has witnessed in a suburb of Buenos Aires where she lives with her son Juan (Pardo). We watch her enjoying a fairground attraction with friend Claudia (Rainero) and their boys. Later she has lunch at home with the housekeeper Nebe (Martinez), who turns a blind eye to her employer’s absent mindlessness with a motherly smile. Nebe also has son, Kevin, who is the focus of the tragedy. Meanwhile Cecilia is emerging a typical bluestocking who berates her pupils over their shoddy presentations, but relies heavily on those around her for practical help.

One rainy night Cecilia is woken by banging at her front door. She can make out the figure of Kevin in the darkness but for some reason decides not to let him in. Next morning brings tragic news from Nebe and Cecilia offers her a month off to gets her thoughts together. Cecilia clearly feels guilty, although she didn’t commit a crime as such. But the tragedy haunts and disorients her and she wanders around in a daze, unable to concentrate, even phoning her ex-husband by accident.

Juan picks up on her anxiety which strangely tunes up her compassion towards her students, who are all baffled by the change. Eventually she confesses her feelings of guilt to Nebe, but is unable to assuage the negative emotions. DoP Federico Lastra captures this claustrophobia in intimate close-ups of an imploding world where Cecilia slowly loses her mind and sense of self.  AS

ON BFI PLAYER

      

  

Another Round (2020)

Dir. Thomas Vinterberg | Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Marie Bonnevie, Thomas Bo Larsen | Denmark. 2020. 115′

Vinterberg’s latest is a freewheeling comedy that relies on false bonhomie to reveal the hollow desperation at its core. Set in semi-rural Denmark, Another Round is a wise and trenchant look at a community sleep-walking into mediocrity, in a haze of alcohol.

Like Festen and The Hunt before it, there is a deeper message to the gently imploding farce that took the Best International Feature award in the 2021 Oscars. The focus is a close-knit circle of friends who have known each other for quite some time. United by their common ground as teachers in the local school gives them time on their hands to discuss the meaning of life and the film encourages us to do so too with its elegant pacing and intelligent script. Punctuated by the gentle rigour of patriotic anthems that lend a rousing gravitas to this boozy study of social mores, the musical interludes hark back to the country’s heroic past that paved the way for the peace and security they now enjoy in this outwardly affluent locale with its glorious scenery and stylish design.

Martin (Mads Mikkelsen) teaches history and drinks too much. In fact they all do. Relying on alcohol to get them through their banal everyday existence. He is joined by Bo Larsen’s sports teacher, wealthy psychology prof Nikolaj (Magnus Millang), and the music-master Peter (Lars Ranthe), the only one without kids.

Married to Marie Bonnevie’s Trine, Martin has lost his mojo and so drinking provides a comfort blanket to get him through the day. It also exposes some serious issues with Trine. Wondering aloud whether he’s has become boring, her reply: “compared to what?” indicates the level of generalised ennui that inhabits their marriage. Clearly Vinterberg and his writer Lindholm are having a dig at Denmark’s drinking culture, but there’s more at play in this universal story that hints at a society that has never had to strive hard to enjoy a leisurely companionable lifestyle and comparable material success.

The story revolves around an experiment with alcohol. And filming must have been entertaining, with cut glasses tumblers never half full: the finest vodka, wine and champagne known to humanity is very much the order of the day. And seen with sober eyes the antics occasionally seem decadent. But that’s very much the intention. Rather than savouring the taste or delicacy, the alcoholic kick is the watchword here. Apparently there is a theory that we are all born with a deficit of alcohol in our bodies, and a steady stream helps us operate on a more positive, relaxed level. Comparisons are drawn with great leaders such as Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt and the men enjoy imbibing as the tone gradually darkens.

Martin relies on a steady stream of alcohol to give him confidence and expansive energy for his rowdy and questioning teenagers who have noticed lapses in his concentration, and are now more engaged in the learning process. But gradually the drunken episodes become more frequent for all them – and their manic booze-fuelled binges in the summery countryside gradually take the film on a more sombre journey that ends in a sobering wake-up call all round. MT

OSCAR – BEST INTERNATIONAL FEATURE 2021

 

 

 

Chess of the Wind (1979) **** Bfi Film Festival 2020

Dir.: Mohammad Reza Aslani; Cast: Fakhri Korvash, Shoren Aghdashloo, Mohamad Reshavarz; Iran 1976, 100 min.

The Iranian filmmaker Reza Aslani, now seventy-six years old, never thought he would see his first feature again. But like the filmmaker himself it has aged extremely well, and become a cult classic ripe for revisiting.

Aslani was only thirty-three when Chess premiered in Tehran in the presence of Shah Pahlavi.  A second showing played to an empty auditorium, proof that the negative reviews had sone their job. And Chess did not appeal to the religious fanatics who took over the country in 1979 – they objected to strong female leads and a sexual relationship between two women. Aslani, whose third feature The Green Fire was completed in 2008, had given up on ever finding his lost masterpiece again. 

Aslani’s daughter Gita Aslani Sharestani had not given up. Working as a film historian in Paris with a PhD focusing on Iranian auteurs, and began a search for the lost reels with her brother Amin. In 1973 a couple of cans of film turned up in a junk  shop. Inside was the precious film which he smuggled to Paris, so father and daughter could begin the painstaking work of restoration.

Chess of the Wind takes us back to the final years of the Qajar dynasty (1789-1925) a time where the Socialist Soviet Republic of Iran had come to power for a brief reign. The death of a wealthy matriarch leads to a power struggle between her young paraplegic heiress (Korvash, chained to a wheelchair) and her stepfather, nephews and the local commissar. The only support she has is from her handmaid (Aghdashloo), and the two women become very close. Long candlelit dinners bring to mind Barry Lyndon, but the overall mood is strictly Visconti’s La Caduta Degli Dei, with act three akin to Knives Out, as an”Upstairs Downstairs” tussle emerges. The finale is abject horror, Aslani’s prophecy echoing in our ears: “competition in increasingly worldly gains diverts you. Until you visit the graveyards”.

This lushly mounted decadent period piece is lensed to smouldering perfection by Houshang Baharlou: The painterly frames more vivid than the moribund characters who hover around like exhausted ghosts recalling the Salina Clan in Visconti’s Il Gattopardo, after their arrival in Donnafugata. Sheyda Gharachedhaghi’s haunting score blends classical Iranian music and a-tonal jazz. A chorus of washerwomen completes the spectacular but doom laden ensemble.

Meanwhile Aslani is delighted to be “re-united with his baby”, and has not given up the hope for a forth feature: he has been writing the script for the past ten years. Bring in on. AS

BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL | CLASSICS 2020 

 

 

  

 

   

Cheaters (1930) **** Bfi London Film Festival 2020

Dir.: Paulette McDonagh; Cast: Marie Lorraine (Isabel NcDonagh), Arthur Greenaway, John Faulkner, Joseph Bambach; Australia 1930, 94 min. 

Australia’s Paulette McDonagh (1901-1978) was a pioneer of the silent film era. Working with her sisters Phyllis (art direction) and Isabel, who stars here as Marie Lorraine, Paulette was a victim of the emerging sound film. The Cheaters was shot as a silent movie, McDonagh writing and editing. Later it was partly re-shot with sound-on-disc and the result was disappointing. Paulette would only direct one more feature film, Two minute silence in 1933.

After embezzling a small sum to help his sick wife, clerk Michael Marsh (Greenaway) begs his superior John Travers (Faulkner) not to involve the police. But his pleas fall on deaf ears. Travers is a self-righteous cold fish and Travers ends up in jail, with his wife dying.

Travers goes on to forge a criminal empire. Paula Marsh (Lorraine), supposedly his daughter, heads up many of the heists, her alluring beauty coming in useful for duping the victims. But somehow her heart is not in it, and we soon discover she is not even Marsh’s real daughter. After falling in love with Lee Travers, son of Michael, she is on the verge of leaving her ‘father’, before he tells her the truth. Nothing stands in the way of a happy-end for the lovers, and Marsh, hunted down by the police in his castle, commits suicide by taking poison.

Surprisingly, there are many parallels here with Fritz Lang’s Mabuse series. although the setting is far less sinister setting.  Marsh’ castle and his army of helpers are very comparable with  Lang’s silent feature, revenge being a strong motive in both cases. Marsh is just as deranged as his German counterpart Mabuse, only his  love for Paula brings out the humanity in him.

McDonagh’s art direction is marvellous, the castle rooms are particularly full of brooding horror, DoP Jack Fletcher makes the most of this with his fine camerawork. Paulette McDonagh was a very talented director, but soon the Australian market fell victim to the Hollywood talkies. This restauration gives us a taste of what could have been a stellar career for Paulette McDonagh. AS

BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2020 

Supernova (2020)

Dir/Wri: Harry Macqueen | Cast: Colin Firth, Stanley Tucci, Lori Campbell, James Dreyfus, Ian Drysdale, Pippa Haywood

Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci play long-term lovers on holiday in the Lake District in Harry Macqueen’s gently poignant follow-up to his first film Hinterland.

Colin Firth (Sam) and Stanley Tucci (Tusker) have an easy chemistry that makes this two-hander all the more enjoyable even though tragedy is the order of the day. On a romantic break in scenic Cumbria it soon emerges that the quietly amusing Tusker is suffering from early-onset dementia overshadowing their future together as a successful professional couple who are still in love.

Many actors have gone from Britain to the US but Stanley Tucci has done the reverse and already made several features together with Colin Firth: Conspiracy (2001) and Gambit (2012). Meanwhile Mcqueen cements his career as a writer and director joining fellow creative talents from Leicester including: Stephen Frears, Michael Kitchen, Una Stubs, and the Attenborough brothers. Firth and Tucci perfectly compliment one another’s star power with Sam being the more thoughtfully anxious of the two and a perfect foil for Tusker’s sardonic charm.

Whether or not Firth entirely suits a beard as a renown semi-retired concert pianist Sam, is up for question, but he is deeply enamoured of novelist Tusker and their warmth and genuine feeling for another is what really powers the film forward – along with Tucci’s caustic sense of comic timing.

The brooding hills and dales of the Lake District give this soberly-toned piece an added chill of encroaching winter – not only thematically but visually – in Dick Pope’s painterly camerawork. Old age, lasting love and mental decline are issues of universal concern, even more so in these pandemic days that have rocked our emotional wellbeing to the core.

After the jokey, love-affirming scenes of the camper van journey and the bonhomie of a shared evening with friends and family, the tone becomes more downbeat as the two plummet the depths of despair in their tortured soul-searching. But Mcqueen does not labour the point, taking a less is more approach and focussing on the wit and repartee that makes these two so close as a couple. All we need to know is conveyed by the emotional weight of the performances, and Tusker’s comment : “I want to be remembered for what I was, and not for who I’m about to become”, putting the focus on the positive side of their relationship. It is a dreaded phrase that speaks volumes for those affected by illness and has a uniquely 21st century ring in these days of dread disease. Sam retorts: “You’re not supposed to mourn somebody when they are still alive” But sometimes this is the best way.

Mcqueen also addresses a less obvious aspect of mental illness showing how an unexpected change in dynamic can derail the most stable of relationships and put the status quo into question. And this is the dark stain that slowly spreads across the film as the pair consider the future. Mcqueen’s deft scripting handles these dark night of the soul moments with a lightness of touch that hints at the trauma while avoiding a full blown meltdown. And this is where Firth and Tucci really come into their own, giving the film a textural richness and humour that is vital to make it all watchable and enjoyable, rather than mentally exhausting. Firth has the emotional range to explore the issues and Tucci the dexterity to deliver tenderness with just the right gravitas.

After the spectacular countryside of the expansive early scenes the film becomes more of an introspective chamber-piece as it gradually closes in on an intimate finale. Supernova brilliantly exudes a sense of Englishness: decent, noble, restrained and strangely satisfying. MT

NOW IN CINEMAS 2021

 

Shirley (2019) **** Bfi London Film Festival 2020

Dir.: Josephine Decker; Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Odessa Young, Michael Stuhlbarg, Logan Lerman; USA 2020, 107 min.

Making a name for herself with a stylish array of imagined dramas Josephine Decker moves into the arena of real life with this febrile portrait of horror writer Shirley Jackson (1916-1965) whose most popular novel ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ has been filmed on numerous occasions, the last being as a ten-episode long production on Netflix. 

Based on ‘Shirley: A Novel’ by Susan Scarf  the film takes place in 1964 in North Bennington, Vermont – which seems a strange a strange choice, since Scarf actually wrote her novel ‘Hangasman’, whose writing process is the central part of the feature, in 1951. The narrative centres on two couples, the middle-aged Shirley (Moss) and her English professor husband Stanley (Stuhlbarg), and their much younger house guests Rose (Young) who is pregnant with their first child, and her academic husband Fred (Lerman), who tries to get a tenure at Bennington College, being Stanley’s assistant. There are shades of Albee’s Who is Afraid of Virginia Woolf, but, more importantly, Rose and Fred are invented characters. But in staying away from a strictly biographical narrative, Decker and her writer Sarah Gubbin enhance the richness of the storytelling – even though the ‘deletion’ of four kids, who would have been around in 1951, is another puzzling decision.

We meet Rose and Fred on the train on their way to Bennington, where they have rampant sex in the train’s bathroo after Rose has finished Jackson’s Kafkaesque novella ‘The Lottery” from 1949. What was planned as a short stay, turns into a much longer tenancy, when Fred literally pimps out his wife to look after the alcoholic and and agro phobic writer, with the philandering husband making unwanted advances. Soon Fred follows in Stanley’s footsteps, and sleeps with an undergraduate student leaving the women to look for intimacy among them selves.

A major topic is Jackson’s obsession with death, not uncommon for a writer of her genre. ‘Hangsaman’ is the story of a young student called Natalie, who becomes mentally unbalanced and takes her own life. She is renamed Paula in the feature and played by Young in a part-staging of the novel. But death is never far away – in one scene Shirley frightens Rose by pretending to eat a poisonous mushroom in the woods. And near the end there is a brilliant dream-sequence with Rose standing at the edge of the cliff with her baby.

Norwegian-born DoP Sturla Brandth Groven underlines the horror-film atmosphere with a great array of light movements: even though the feature is told more from Rose’s per perspective, the flurry, wandering light seems to make the house into a prison for Jackson. Her outings into the world are also fraught with disaster: she enjoys vindictively spoiling a new sofa with red wine because she dislikes the hostess of the academic gathering. Somehow, Shirley’s protests against the mediocre, male-dominated society rubs off on Rose: when Fred tells her his affair is over, and “soon everything will be back to normal”, she lets him know that this is not the case. 

Shirley is a very ambitious feature, even though a great deal takes place away from the camera, Moss and Young are mesmerising enough to keep the audience occupied. With Shirley Gubbins and Decker have created a valuable contribution to the feminist horror genre. AS

LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2020

                                

The 180 Degree Rule (2020) **** Bfi London Film Festival 2020

Dir.: Farnoosh Samadi; Cast: Sahar Dolatshaki, Pejman Jamshidi, Azita Hajian, Hassan Pourshirazi; Iran 2020, 83 min.

Best known for her award-winning screenplays, Iran’s Farnoosh Samadi gets behind the camera single-handedly for this tightly-wound domestic drama set in Tehran. Told in a detached, brisk style, it shows how a repressive, dogmatic society leads to the breakdown of a family and the wider implications that ensue.  

Teacher Sara (Dolatshaki) lives with her aloof and controlling husband Hamed (Jamshidi) and their five-year-old daughter Raha. He is a work-obsessed bureaucrat whose obsequious telephone calls to his superiors, contrast sharply with his dismissive attitude to his wife. For weeks, she has asked him to take a few days off for her younger sister’s wedding in the north of the country – but Hamed’s priority is always work, and he’s relieved to be let off the hook when his boss needs him to go on a business trip. Having refused to support Sara, he also forbids her Sara to travel to the wedding with Raha, even though the little girl is looking forward to it, having been chosen as bridesmaid and rehearsed her song to perfection.

But the two will go and the trip will end in tragedy with Sara relying on her family to get her through the aftermath. Samadi packs her storyline with the knock-on affects of the trip showing how difficult it is to conceal things, not only from her difficult husband but also his family – without revealing the entire plot line, suffice to say that Sara eventually ends up involved with the Police.

School life is no easier with Sara having to deal with a pupil’s overdose due to an unwanted pregnancy. Samadi shows how women live in daily fear of their perceived authority figures in a society that is determined to control and undermine them, and even reduces them to pawns in the hands of their husbands. But what makes 180 Degree Rule so impressive is the casual emotional aggression Hamed uses to punish his wife: treating her like a child, but without the love he has for his daughter.

The feature is complimented by its dour interiors – in contrast, the tonal relief of the wedding scene is a little master-piece of imagination, a fairy-world much removed from the dreary reality of everyday life. Avoiding melodrama at all times, Samadi gives this restrained and quietly assured debut a hopeful conclusion with the news that Sara’s sister has married a more progressive husband who at last holds Hamed in contempt. AS

BFI FILM FESTIVAL | 2020

       

I Am Samuel (2020) ** Bfi London Film Festival 2020

Dir: Pete Murimi | Kenya/USA/Canada, 70′

Being gay is not easy in Kenya as we discover in this matter of fact feature debut from TV filmmaker Pete Murimi that looks at gaydom in a male-dominated homophobic society, but fails to address the deep misogyny still at its core.

Paradoxically, it is not illegal in to be gay in Africa but homosexual acts are nevertheless classed as criminal offences, and violence is often meted out to those who cross the line. Samuel introduces us to “the love of his life” Alex in opening sequence where they frolic in a Nairobi waterfall having met the previous year. There are lively discussions amongst his gay friends who share their experiences of life in modern Kenya. In common with many people in the UK, Samuel runs two jobs to keep afloat in Nairobi where he works on a building site and as a netball coach. The two are now enjoying an easygoing relationship together but keeping a low profile is hard.

The film then moves to Western Kenya and the close-knit rural community where Samuel grew up. Samuel describes how it was impossible to have any kind of private life away from the gaze of his family and the close traditional Christian setup where we witness a ceremony of baptism in the local river. He was always being ‘nagged’ to find a girlfriend but describes feeling ‘different’ from the age of 14.

It then emerges that Samuel did give into his family, and fathered a child ‘to help with the farm’ before leaving for Nairobi and meeting Alex. Tellingly we never meet his wife or hear what she has to say on the matter, but his young daughter appears on camera and Samuel assures us their relationship is a good one, but worries about her finding out the truth. Samuel’s ageing farmer parents Redon and Rebecca seem a calm and genuine couple who agree to allow the cameras in their private lives.

Back again in Nairobi Samuel has discovered that his parents know the truth about his life with Alex. He shares a fear that his father may take action “to teach him a lesson” although his mother has been more accommodating. He looks forward to gathering with friends for his 26th birthday even undergoing a ‘marriage ceremony’ with Alex.

Meanwhile his father is painstakingly building Samuel a home of his own. To an upbeat soundtrack, Samuel describes the quiet shock of his father as ‘a silence’ between them grows. In Nairobi Samuel admits that his father wanted to disown him. Clearly the old man is dismayed but his views are never shared, neither are those of his mother or wife who are kept in the background, presumably forced to accept Alex as a fait accompli.

This is particularly alarming when the breezy narrative urges us to be non-judgemental, only introducing us to Samuel’s daughter halfway through the film, and ignoring his wife. Not only does this reveal the continuing misogyny of Kenyan society in order to maintain the status quo, it also sees the filmmaker acquiescing with this point of view. The focus is always on Samuel’s POV in a fractured narrative that is structured to blur the lines creating a one-sided perspective.

Always lively and colourful in its cinema verité style I Am Samuel shows how gay men get on with their lives in modern Kenya, despite the dangers, while women continue to be duped and take the line of least resistance just to ensure their men are satisfied. And although we are sympathetic to the male cause, Murimi never really addresses this issue of Samuel’s wife and the remainder of his close family. The film plays out with cheery music and a message addressed to ‘queer Africans’ “May you all live in truth”. MT

BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2020

 

 

Shadow Country | Made in Prague Czech Film Festival 2021

Dir.: Bohdan Slama; Cast: Magdalena Borova, Stanislav Majer, Csongor Kassai, Denisa Bresova, Robert Miklus, Petra Spalkova, Marie Ludvikova, Jiri Cerny; Czech Republic 2020, 135′.

In this stark but illuminating drama Bohdan Slama chronicles the longterm social consequences of “ethnic cleansing” in a Czechoslovakian village near the Austrian border from the 1930s until the late 1950s.

German”Sudetenland’, as it was known at the time, consisted of about three million people who lived under German occupation during 1938/9. German became the official language – although Czech remained the lingua franca. Seventy five percent of the Jewish population (around 590,000) was exterminated by the occupying forces and their Czech collaborators, property was confiscated, along with that of the Czech inhabitants. As one villager puts it, in his lifetime, he lived in 3 different countries without moving house

In 1943, the Allies made plans for several million Germans to leave the country, a process that took nearly three years. But as the War came to an end in 1945, over 60,000 were Germans were forcibly evicted by Czechs, some even killed with the silent consent of the government and political parties across the board. .

The famous Singer Sewing machine becomes the symbol for these tortured events from the late 1930s onwards. Given to a couple at the christening of their new-born child, it will change hands often before being discarded the the rubbish in the end. Ivan Arsenyev’s script follows a married couple: Marie Veberova (Borova) is Czech and her German husband, Veber, is a trader. In order not to attract attention to themselves many Czech citizens ‘forget’ their language. Jews are required to leave, their property is ‘shared’  with the remaining, often well-off, Czechs. Resistance is sparse, only Joseph Pachl (Kassai) and a few others try to arm themselves against their enemies. Pachl is soon arrested and sent to a concentration camp. Life in the village changes completely: an previously innocuous woman discovers her love of Fascism, forcing her school kids to sing the Nazi youth hymn “Unsere Fahne flattert uns voran”. Veber and others look after Joseph’s daughter, Zdena Pachlova, but take her property in payment.

Essentially an account of how ordinary people respond to these changing circumstances with all the contingent ideological and racial implications involved this is a deeply affecting film that avoids melodrama or a sentimental approach, drawing comparisons with recent outings on a similar themes such as The Painted Bird and Charlatan.

Several years in the making, the Slama works with a cast of actors and non-pros drawing on real incidents without creating a drama documentary; the film focuses on a collection of characters showing how divisions are rife. Petty thieving becomes the order of the day, everyone stealing from their neighbours. Symbolically, one old woman steals three cups from her recently departed neighbours. When they return after the end of the war, she shamelessly returns them with the comment “I wanted to have something to remember you by”.

The end of the Nazi occupation has dire consequences for those who have collaborated. The woman who led the singing is raped, and Pachl, who has returned more dead than alive from the camps, is put in charge of the community. Later, soldiers make him responsible for a ‘show trial’ against a group of collaborators, amongst them is Veber. The victims are forced to dig their own graves. Pachl is later appalled by what he has done, and is accused of making the trial into a shambolic farce by the authorities.

With his use of 35 mm real film stock, DoP Divis Marek ensures  unmitigated bleakness throughout. Early scenes are shot on the widescreen in a bid to create a collective feeling of community – capturing thirty or so people in one panoramic take. But this sense of unity soon breaks down into violence and greed. Needless to say, there are no heroes, just victims of various kinds. The male-centric narrative has no room for sympathy, although a few women rise about the parapet in their attempts to shine light on the darkness and depravity of this devastating episode in history.

Slama’s outlook for humankind is as depressing as his film. History tends to repeat itself, and the Czech director shares his thoughts in a recent interview where he talks about the burgeoning sense of Nationalism sweeping through Europe as populations feel increasingly swamped by the social pressures of mass migration. AS

MADE IN PRAGUE FILM FESTIVAL 2021 | 17 NOVEMBER 2021

 

     

Stray (2020) Bfi player

Dir/DoP/Editor: Elizabeth Lo, Doc 78′

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOW ON BFI player

 

 

7 Films to look forward to this Autumn | LFF 2020

This Autumn’s scaled down Covid special has some treasures to look forward in a real/online melange that plays out across the UK from October 7-18.

Undine, Ammonite and Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland, starring Frances McDormand, are films to look out for in this slimmed down version which opens with Steve McQueen’s latest Mangrove.

In this strange and subdued year for the cinema world, the virtual premieres will play at a set time and have the bonus of an introduction or Q&A with the talent or programmers. But it won’t be quite the same as the usual jamboree which fills the streets of Soho with a jubilant crowd of cineastes.

UNDINE (2020) Berlinale premiere

Christian Petzold’s fantasy love story reworks the myth of Undine, the water nymph, wrapped up in a contemporary story that reflects on the history of Berlin. Petzold’s latest muse Paula Beer is united with her star-crossed beau from Transit Frank Rogowski in this tone-shifting tale interlacing romance with suspense.

GENUS PAN (Lahi, Hayop) 2020 Venice premiere

Philippine filmmaker Lav Diaz is know for his valuable contribution to the slow cinema movement and this latest drama (a mere 150 minutes) is another colourful human story involving murder and mayhem – set on the island of Hugaw during the Japanese occupation.

THE DISCIPLE (2020) Venice premiere

Arguably the definitive film about Indian Hindustani classical music The Disciple explores creative endeavour and perseverance in our climate of quick fix celebrity and overnight success, through the life of an earnest  young musician in modern Mumbai. Chiatanya Tamhane imbues his story with the same intensity and sense of detail as his 2014 debut Court, but ironically the film works best in the freewheeling scenes picturing ordinary life.

NOMADLAND (2020) Venice premiere

Chloe Zhao’s indie breakout hit The Rider (2017) followed a modern day cowboy in his search for a new identity in America’s midwest. Nomadland does this again from a female perspective and the phenomenal, flinty performance of Frances McDormand as the sixty-something Fern who embarks on a cinematically reflective journey this time in a white camper van.

NEVER GONNA SNOW AGAIN (2020) Venice premiere

Malgozarta Szumowska’s latest is a flawed but fabulously entertaining Polish-set social satire with a score that makes it all worthwhile. Alec Utgoff is hypnotic and quietly muscular in the leading role as an enigmatic guru-like dark horse drawing us in to a story that is both intriguing and unsatisfying.

NOTTURNO (2020) Venice premiere

Award-winning documentarian Gianfranco Rosi (Fire at Sea) turns his compassionate camera on ordinary lives in the wartorn Middle East. Banal and tragic, the film’s intensity lies in the raw intimacy of these everyday moments. Luminous camerawork gives the piece a poetic quality.

AMMONITE  (2020) Toronto premiere

Francis Lee set gay hearts a flutter with his earthy tale of Yorkshire farming folk, God’s Own Country. Cut from the same cloth, this sumptuous-looking 1840s costume drama soon gets down and dirty in telling the lesbian story of paleontologist Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) and her close companion Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan).

And one to avoid…

SIBERIA (2020) Berlinale premiere

A raddled old swinger looks back on his life and concludes nothing from his self-indulgent navel gazing in this turkey from veteran talent Abel Ferrara. Not so much a feature, more a series of random widescreen sequences, Siberia is a drama without any meaningful dramatic arc, let alone any heft in addressing a cliched and well-worn theme.

BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2020 | 7 – 18 OCTOBER 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nocturnal (2019) ***

Dir.: Nathalie Biancheri; Cast: Laura Coe, Cosmo Jarvis, Sadie Frost, Amber Jean Rowan; UK 2019, 86 min.

Nathalie Biancheri gets off to a great start as a filmmaker with this appealing indie drama that really benefits from Michal Dymek’s imaginative visuals, but the narrative’s ambitious underlying conflict is let down by an underworked script.

At the titles suggests the film plays out mostly at night in a small English coastal town where sixteen-year old Laurie (Coe) has recently arrived. Her emotional is far more difficult to handle than would have us know. An experienced athlete she is now running middle-distance at club level, but even professional life sees her as an outsider. Her mother Jean (Frost) seems uncomfortable too. Meanwhile she crosses paths with Pete (Cosmo) a 33-year old decorator in an unsatisfactory relationship with Jade (Rowan). Pete is a drifter who avoids any commitment, but falls into a laid back friendship with Laurie. But Laurie wants more, and when Pete re-coils – the long telegraphed -secret is out. When Pete moves to Rotterdam, Laurie is left to pick up the pieces, and her mother is unable to make her realise what has actually happened.

Biancheri and her co-writers rely on atmosphere and enigma to make up for their undeveloped script: skimming over characterisations to pack it all into into 86 minutes. We only get to know the bare essentials about the main trio, most is left unsaid. There is no real introduction to the characters, and whilst we very soon cotton on to the secret, there is no dramatic arc, because the building blocks are missing. Jean is particularly under-sketched, and there’s no explanation as to why she is so cold to her daughter. We are left with a great atmosphere, the nights are full of shimmering lights and the desolate amusement pier is captured with enticing allure. But this cannot make up for a script needing much more work. AS

IN CINEMAS AND CURZON WORLD FROM 18 SEPTEMBER 2020

      

 

Hope Gap (2019) **

Dir/Wri: William Nicholson | Cast: Annette Bening, Bill Nighy, Josh O’Connor | UK Drama 100′

William Nicholson’S second feature sees a hopelessly miscast Annette Bening struggle as a literary-minded English wife whose marriage is on the rocks. Bill Nighy plays her reserved husband, in his usual diffident style, more concerned for his work than his crumbling relationship.

Clearly Bening is there to sell the film to the US, but she never feels real in this maudlinly stagey affair with its flawed structure and awkward characters. Nicholson is such a brilliant writer, Oscar-nominated for Shadowlands and Gladiator but he needed a more complex and punchy counterpart to play against Nighy, who can suck the air out of any situation, and one who could have breathed life into some deft dialogue, rather than simply just reciting the lines. Nicholson reduced us to tears in Shadowlands but here we don’t care about any of his characters. Hope Bay mostly feels trite and generic, lacking in emotional depth.

Set in East Sussex, it sees Nighy’s Edward leaving his wife (Grace) of nearly thirty years. Their grown-up son Jamie (Josh O’Connor) is caught in the crossfire. Predictably, Edward is leaving because he can’t be the husband he thinks Grace wants – lame excuse – and is tired of trying, and of her complaining. All Grace wants is a little more reassurance that they’re “on a path together”. But clearly they’re not. Edward has been invited to walk away with someone else, someone more pliant and undemanding. Somehow Nicholson fails to mine the rich dramatic potential here in a drama that entirely lacks any dramatic sparkle. The only dynamism is in the widescreen wonder of soaring cliffs and magnificent views across the Seaford bay.

Edward announces he’s leaving Grace before we’ve even invested in their lives together, or got to know and feel for them as a couple divided by their respective points of view. Most of the film sees Grace moping about on the cliffs, or nagging Jamie about his own love life – or lack of it – and joining some bogus telephone helpline. No self-respecting counselling service would take on a person going through emotional trauma so the storyline isn’t even authentic. And rather than empathising with Grace’s perspective on her marriage failure, and appreciating Edward’s cowardice and his own viewpoint, we are simply left with a nagging woman, and a man who has been tempted by a new love. “It’s all contactless nowadays, Dad” says Jamie when Edward tries to buy him an ice cream. “You got it there” Edward retorts – and that telling phrase sums the film up. MT

NOW ON RELEASE FROM 28 AUGUST 2020

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOW ON DIGITAL RELEASE | LONDON FILM FESTIVAL review 2019

Clemency (2019) Prime Video

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Family Romance LLC (2019) *** Streaming

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

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

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

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

VOD RELEASE FROM FRIDAY 3 JULY 2020

   

  

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

Dir: Hlynur Palmason | Iceland, Drama 90′

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

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

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

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

ON DIGITAL PLATFORMS from June 26, 2020

Fanny Lye Deliver’d (2019) ***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DIGITAL STREAMING | DVD FROM 24 AUGUST 2020

The Ornithologist (2016) **** BFiplayer

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

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

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

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

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

FREE ON BFiPLAYER |

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

 

Calm with Horses (2019) ****

Dir: Nick Rowland | Wri: Joe Murtagh | Cast: Cosmo Jarvis, Barry Keoghan, Niamh Algar, Ned Dennehy, David Wilmot, Kiljan Moroney 

This ultra violent Irish crime thriller is a tale of love lost and vehement revenge that starts well but shoots itself in the foot slightly with a smaltzy ending. The wafer thin plot is a lowkey version of Mean Streets bulked out by shed-loads of atmosphere and a seething central performance by Cosmo Jarvis as an addled ex-boxer stuck between raising his son and serving as a mob enforcer for the dreaded Devers family. The drug-dealing Devers are a fearful bunch of thugs and interpersonal skills are parlous.

Calm with Horses is Nick Rowland’s feature debut adapted by Joe Murtagh from a selection of stories by Irish author Colin Barrett. The terrific Irish cast are what makes this so compelling: all seasoned pros you wouldn’t want to meet on a dark night, or even a sunny day, for that matter. Douglas Armstrong (Jarvis) is a dim-witted explosive henchman for drug-runner Dymphna (a nose-picking Keoghan) and his family, headed by the monstrous Paudi (veteran Ned Dennehy), for whom loyalty is the watchword. ‘Arm’ also has an autistic son from his ex Ursula (Niamh Algar) who wants him to help finance the boy’s education. They’re a heavy-drinking, snooker-playing mob who speed around this remote rural backwater of Ireland. It’s the sort of  downtrodden place where an abandoned settee is left rotting in the High Street.

The title refers to a nearby horse-training farm where Ursula’s boyfriend Rob (Welsh) is teaching the boy to ride, but Calm With Horses works best in the scenes involving the Devers family and their sculduggery. Efforts to make this into a love story revolving around Arm and Ursula fall flat, that’s for another film, and thus the final misjudged scene takes the sting out the thriller’s tail. Rowland sets up a superb showcase showdown in a country house deep in the wilds, but then spoils it all by turning it into a sob story. But for those who like a happy ending of sorts this is an impressive start to a promising career. MT

UK & Irish Digital release available on a broad range of VOD platforms including iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, Sky Store, Virgin Movies, Talk Talk, BT TV, Curzon Home Cinema, BFI Player, Rakuten TV and Volta  from 27th April 2020.

2020

 

The Lighthouse (2019) *****

Dir: Robert Eggers | Thriller, US 109′

Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe are hard-nosed sea salts caught in a battle of wills in this terrifying two-hander set in 1890s Maine.

The Lighthouse is Robert Eggers much anticipated follow-up to The Witch and it certainly doesn’t disappoint. Fuelled by a pent up rage that seethes right through to the biting end of this often claustrophobic thriller, the lauded American auteur adds another cult classic to the New England Gothic genre.

Arriving from Canada Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson) joins the craggy and flatulent old retainer Thomas Wake (Dafoe) to offer support as the winter sets in and the weather worsens. The stormy dynamic of their emotional voyage is fraught with hallucinatory twists and turns in a gripping yet enigmatic chiller that relies on atmosphere and a mounting dread to tell a stir-crazy tale infused with mystery, myth and legend. The haunting atmospheric soundscape is particularly redolent of solitude and isolation setting a plangent tone for what is to come.

Echoes of Moby Dick are clearly felt but this artful drama is more akin to Robert O’Flaherty’s 1934 document Man of Aran with its dense grainy black and white images and rugged sense of place. The Movie-tone aspect ratio focuses the attention on the keepers’ constantly fleeting expressions, like storm clouds scudding by. Louise Ford’s editing borrows from Soviet Montage outings such as The Diplomatic Pouch (1927) and Old and New (1929). Eggers scripts with his brother Max, and his regular cinematographer Jarin Blaschke captures the mournful misery of it all in chiaroscuro brilliance.

Dafoe is brilliantly cast as Wake, William Blake his literary touchstone, a grizzled beard and rugged features bearing witness to an eternity of storms and baking sun. Hobbling about on a gammy leg, his countenance is that of stiff-necked superiority and he pulls rank at every opportunity over his junior Winslow, who bitterly resents every command, turning his gaze on the slowly revolving beam, mesmerised by its chiaroscuro shadow play. Wake insists on being “the keeper of the light,” but we are soon made aware of a curious sexual vide that also inhabits these close quarters. Both have a troubled past and a need for solitude so their enforced nearness is a constant thorn in the side of the other.

Seabirds are very much a motif here along with a recurring sequence where Winslow is sexually tormented by a mermaid. A contretemps with an angry seagull marks a change in the weather, bringing a freezing storm from the North East and ruining their food stocks, sending them straight to the bottle for sustenance, with alarming and ambiguous consequences. Clearly it will all end in tears, albeit very salty ones laced with rum. MT

NOW ON RELEASE NATIONWIDE

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOW OUT ON RELEASE FROM 31 JANUARY 2020

 

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).

The Two Popes (2019) *****

Dir: Fernando Meirelles | Wri: Anthony McCarten | Cast: Jonathan Pryce, Anthony Hopkins | Drama, Brazil 125′

Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins add weight and sophistication to this soigné and sumptuously mounted tale of Papal spirituality and responsibility. As the two great minds on the opposite ends of the spiritual debate they chew over and elegantly digest Anthony McCarten’s witty and thoughtful script that imagines the conservative Pope Benedict (Hopkins) paving the way for the liberal Pope Francis (Pryce) to forge a new future for the Catholic Church.

Pope Benedict XVI quotes from Plato when he makes his unprecedented decision to abdicate into order to guide Pope Francis into his vacant chair: “Those who don’t want to lead are the best leaders”. Yet the pontiffs couldn’t be more different, Francis is a warm, generous and garrulous soul who enjoys football and travelling to visit his vast congregations. Benedict is a detached and fastidious intellectual who dines alone and plays classical music on the papal piano.

The two are first seen meeting for a private tete a tete in the peaceful gardens of the Castel Gandolpho – and we are transported there by Cesar Charlone’s impressive widescreen camerawork that also captures the intimate spaces and vast crowd scenes in this thoughtful and and surprisingly moving drama.

They discuss world poverty, the migrant crisis and climate change and these are skilfully woven into black and white flashbacks picturing Pope Francis as a young Argentinian Jorge Mario Bergoglio (played convincingly by Juan Minujin), who found himself receiving the calling just before his intention to marry.

Hopkins is steely and often vituperative as Benedict. He stresses their crucial conflicts and is dour in his discussions – although he occasionally lightens up with acerbic one liners: “It’s a German joke. It doesn’t have to be funny.” Pryce adopts an gentle, over-awed expression and sometimes appears back-footed as Francis, and we genuinely warm to him – this is Oscar level stuff.

And we see him journeying to the backstreets of Lima and Lampedusa, cooking in soup kitchens and visiting the needy and poverty-stricken. At this point Meirelles delves into striking archive footage of mid 1970s Chile showing the desperation on the streets when people where disappearing during the Coup d’Etat.

Eventually the two reach a common agreement cleverly conceived in the spry and intelligent script. And Benedict gradually shows the silver lining to his heart of stone as a really warm friendship develops. Hopkins gives luminous and considered performance full of quiet integrity in fitting with the Pontiff’s perceived wisdom. After all, these are two players at the zenith of their game – and it shows – in this highly enjoyable and inspirational piece of filmmaking. Let’s hope God approves. MT

COMING TO NETFLIX

 

 

 

La Belle Epoque (2019) ****

Dir.: Nicolas Bedos; Cast: Daniel Auteuil, Guillaume Canet, Doria Tillier, Fanny Ardant, Pierre Arditi; France 2019, 115 min.

Nicolas Bedos has set his stall out writing light-hearted and clever dramas. He follows his popular debut Mr. & Mrs. Adelman with this well-crafted and rather old-fashioned screwball comedy that sees a disgruntled 60-something man revisit his past to discover why he fell in love with his wife in the first place.

Parisians Victor (Auteuil) and Marianne (Ardant) have been married for forty years. But their marriage has hit the skids due to Victor’s disillusionment with life after losing his job as a newspaper cartoonist. Psychologist Marianne has also lost her mojo. She treats her patients like objects on a conveyer belt, and only looks forward to riding in her self-driving Tesla car. Their two sons are very much in step with their millennial generation. But even they are shocked when Marianne tells them that she has a new lover (who predictably is only interested in a place live). Victor gets the bums rush.

As this point Bedos adopts a similar premise to Herzog in his Family Romance, LLC. Victor calls on family friend Antoine (Canet), who runs a stage company organising time travel for a range of wealthy clients. You can explore the era of Marie Antoinette or even reinvent yourself as Hitler. So Victor opts to be beamed back to the Lyon of 1974, when he first fell for his wife, played by young Margot (Tillier), who is also in an on-off relationship with the unfaithful Antoine. While ‘directing’ behind the scenes, Antoine is well aware that Victor is falling for his own lover. The script dictates they go to bed on day four, but Antoine makes sure this date is never reached.

Always inventive, DoP Nicolas Bedos creates delightful scenes in front and behind the camera, very much in the style of Michael Frayn’s Noises Off. The prompting alone is hair-raising, and Antoine gets into such a bad mood that he immediately replaces actors who fall foul of his directions. And since it is France, the actors performing the orgy scene, are only too happy to do some unpaid overtime. It is a chaos of situations and emotions, and although Bedos brings nothing new to the party Belle Epoche is a lively and enjoyable comedy. AS

NOW ON RELEASE FROM 22 NOVEMBER 2019

    

Judy & Punch (2019) *** LFF 2019

Dir.: Mirrah Foulkes; Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Damon Herriman, Benedict Hardie, Tom Budge, Brenda Palmer, Terry Norris; Australia 2019, 105 min.

Australian actor turned filmmaker Mirrah Foulkes creates a full-on fairytale with a feminist twist that doesn’t pull its punches. A brilliant cast is led by Mia Wasikowska in this tonally off kilter comedy-drama that champions the resilience of women in a man’s world.

For a first feature this is wacky but wonderful stuff that makes use of magic tricks and  slapstick in a 16th-century village called Seaside – the joke is on the not very bright denizens, as the place totally landlocked. Said locals are not only slightly retarded, they are downright vicious, particularly when it comes to their treatment of women. There is a regular ‘Stoning Day’, and if anyone is unlucky enough to have her chickens die on that day, stare at the Moon too long or develop a rash – they are stoned to death.

Puppeteers Punch (Herriman) and Judy (Wasikowska) run a regular show that recently suffered from Punch’s boozing and violent temper. Judy is the most gifted of two and she soon emerges as the stronger. While preparing for the latest show Punch’s cruel nature once again rears its ugly head undermining her efforts to win back the audience. A tragic incident does not lead to  contrition on his part, and he makes matters worse by nearly beating his wife to death, before dumping her in the forest. He then blames their endearing servants Maud (Palmer) and her dementia-ridden husband Scaramouche (Norris), the mild protestations of police officer Derrick (Hardie) brushed aside. Meanwhile, Judy has been found in the woods and recovers to reek her brilliant revenge.

Foulkes certainly has a penchant for camp in the hotchpotch of just about everything. Herriman’s Punch channels Captain Sparrow, his charm masking a violent personality. Joined by a motley crew of villagers who dance around in Renaissance rig-outs rehearsing their tai chi moves in the ancient forest. Whether to laugh or cry or even recoil in horror, is entirely up to you. That said, DoP Stefan Duscio’s wide-screen images are impressive, his imagination running riot. Wasikowska rises to the occasion as an enterprising young woman, taking on her husband and the entire in the feisty finale. But the contradictions somehow spoil the enjoyment: swinging between utter farce and black comedy the audience loses its bearings too often. And in spite of some strong ideas and a wonderful  Wasikowska, Judy & Punch never really catches fire. AS

ON RELEASE FROM 27 NOVEMBER 2019     

The Irishman (2019) *****

Dir: Martin Scorsese | Wri: Steven Zaillian | Cast: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel, Anna Paquin, Stephen Graham, Bobby Cannavale, Jesse Plemons | US Crime Drama, 2019, 208mins

Much of the hype surrounding The Irishman has focused on the fact that it reunites Martin Scorsese with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci for the first time since 1995’s Casino. It also throws Al Pacino into the mix, and marks a return to the mob-infused crime dramas with which Scorsese made his name. The excitement is understandable – Scorsese made a string of iconic hits while working with De Niro, and it was through these that he established himself as one of the great American filmmakers. 

And yet… Scorsese’s body of work has a depth and breadth to it which is often obscured by a focus on certain titles (notably GoodFellas, 1990), and there was, perhaps, a fear that Scorsese’s return to this world might present if not a step backwards, at least a retread of ground already covered. 

Fortunately, such worries prove to be unfounded: the world of The Irishman may be familiar – it even touches on the mob’s involvement in Las Vegas, which formed the backbone of Casino – but the tone is something new: though not without Scorsese’s trademark humour, the film trades the baroque exuberance of his earlier work for a more reflective pace, closer to the ruminations of Silence (2016) than the crashing excess of Casino. 

Spanning multiple timelines set over several decades, The Irishman spends as much time examining the wiles of old age as the wilds of youth. In parts, the film almost plays like a eulogy: throughout, Scorsese uses titles to tell us how characters will die, and the film’s focus on death and aging seems like a lament for the end of an era – of a certain type of lifestyle, and a certain type of cinema. In the past, Scorsese has faced accusations that he glamorises mobsters, but here everyone seems to end up worn out, tired or dead, as if those are the only possible outcomes. The religious angst which has fuelled Scorsese’s work since Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1967) has here transmuted into a nihilistic acceptance of life as it is.

The story itself is drawn from the nonfiction book I Heard You Paint Houses, by former investigator Charles Brandt, and follows Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran’s career as a hitman for the mob, painting houses with other people’s blood. After being introduced by head mobster Russell Bufalino (Pesci), Sheeran becomes right-hand man to Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino), President of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and a loan-shark to the mob, supplying them with funds from the Union’s pension fund. As the decades pass, the mob’s machinations extend from the union to the White House, installing and removing presidents to suit their needs – an offhand remark about one of the Teamsters’ love of golf makes for some interesting contemporary commentary. 

Throughout the years, Sheeran’s conscience is troubled by disapproving glances from his daughter (for Sheeran has a personal family as well as his mobster family), but it is Sheeran’s friendships with Bufalino and Hoffa that really form the heart of the epic narrative, and which drive it towards its tragically moving conclusion. Given that the film serves, in so many ways, as a family reunion, it’s a fitting thematic thread and one which, thankfully, weaves a powerful tribute to the legacy of what’s come before it. Alex Barrett

NOW ON NETFLIX

 

Earthquake Bird (2019) ****

Dir.: Wash Westmoreland; Cast: Alicia Vikander, Riley Keough, Naoki Kobayashi, Jack Huston; USA 2019, 107 min.

Wash Westmoreland (Colette) turns Susanna Jones’ 2001 debut novel into a traumatic nightmare, set in 1989 Tokyo. The ménage-à-trois between two ex-pats from the UK and a Japanese photographer ends in murder – or does it?

In Tokyo, Lucy Fly (a brilliant Alicia Vikander) works as a translator and is haunted by the accidental death of her brother, for which she blames herself. She is emotional fragile and hates showing her feelings, very much in keeping with Japanese whosemotions are equally repressed. She plays the cello in a quintet of women musicians, and tries hard to fit in. All that changes, when she meets Teiji (Kobayashi), who works during the day in a noodle restaurant, but is obsessed by taking photographs. He lives in a sort of container, high up in the sky. Lucy falls for him, and for the first time forgets all her inhibitions. Enter Lily Bridge (Keough), a nurse who has just arrived in Tokyo and is equally taken by the mysterious Teiji. During an outing, Lucy falls ill and is left behind by Teiji and Lily. But then, in a bizarre twist, the police arrest Lucy at work for the murder of Lily. Lucy confesses, but the Japanese inspector is not convinced about her guilt, and the results of the DNA tests are inconclusive.                       

This is not so much a who-done-it but a study in guilt and betrayal. It is unfortunate that the first man Lucy trusts could well be a murderer. Vikander plays her like a cornered animal, plagued by psycho-somatic illnesses, due to her on-going low-level depression. She is often unable to find find a way through life, because nightmares are intruding more and more in her perception of reality. DoP Chung-hoon Chung shows Tokyo at night like a horror-movie, and during the day a cold landscape lingers gloomily. Vikander’s Lucy is caught in a flight from her past, only to be delivered to a haunting existence, in which she questions everything and everybody. For once, an atmospheric thriller with a gripping narrative. AS

ON NETFLIX FROM 1 November 2019

 

                      

Monos (2019) ***

Dir: Alejandro Landes | Thriller, Colombia 102′

This mesmerisingly mad thriller from Colombian film-maker Alejandro Landes sees a dysfunctional Lord of the Flies style family of teenage guerrillas roaming the unnamed mud-soaked South American landscape armed and dressed to kill, and death comes easily. In their crazed state of mind anything can happen – and it does. The tense survivalist narrative is driven forward by a clashing metallic soundscape making it all the more unsettling. Fending for themselves in the middle of nowhere, the kids are controlled by the “organisation” a faceless control centre that has lent them a cow to provide nourishment. As you can imagine, the cow dies very soon afterwards, shot by a stray bullet.

Critics have compared Monos to Apocalypse Now but that is a far better film with some gravitas and resonant characters, unlike this rowdy, rather faceless mob. Cinematically though this is a fantastic undertaking, and Landes’ imagination runs riot, both on the widescreen and in intimate close-up making Monos is one of the most visually striking films of the year, despite its rather one note narrative. The Monos themselves (it means monkeys in Spanish) are apparently named after the Mono Grande, South America’s answer to the Loch Ness Monster – a giant monkey rumoured to roam around somewhere on the continent. These kids don’t have a mission as such, although they have been entrusted with a hostage, an American engineer called Doctora (Nicholson) and her child. Their days are spent in military style manoeuvres, their nights hedonist orgies.

What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire (2018)

Writer/Dir: Roberto Minervini | US Doc | 92′

Black lives matter. And the point is brought home again in Roberto Minervini’s new film that has raw urgency to its desperate title and glows under Diego Romero’s stunning black and white photography. For years, Minervini has made it his business to portrait the poor and disenfranchised in searingly honest documentaries such as Low Tide, The Other Side and now this meditation of the state of race in the Southern US during 2017.

What You Gonna Do When the World’s On Fire?, explores the poverty-stricken black communities of New Orleans through three groups of people preparing for the annual Mardi Gras. Their songs and dances serve as the film’s only soundtrack sending out a proud message to the outside world that they will overcome racism in a nation that doesn’t care.

We first meet brothers, Ronaldo (14) and Titus (9) wandering along the empty road, at a loose end. Titus has clearly been spooked by a haunted house street attraction that echos the real and ever present danger of shotgun crime, a daily occurrence in the neighbourhood. Ronaldo likes to pull rank on his kid brother by teaching him to box. He also tells him that soon he’ll be shooting ‘just like his older brother’. Ronaldo is keen to see his father who is in prison, but due for release. The two may not have long together before his father returns once again. Meanwhile, their mother oversees their school homework and warns them to be back home before nightfall. The kids are still too young to have violence in their lives, but it won’t be long before it happens.

Judy is a philanthropic member of the community, a proud bar-owner in her early fifties who seems to have her act together, despite her difficult childhood. But making ends meet is another daily chore and her elderly mother Dorothy faces eviction due to the gentrification of the area, making housing much in demand. Judy is close to her cousin Michael and tries to help him as much as she can, she even tries to help some local crack addicts to kick their habit, but after talking to them she starts to empathise with their stories of abuse.

Meanwhile, Krystal Muhammad, who chairs the New Black Panther Party for Self Defence, is trying to make an active difference with her food parcels delivered to the local homeless. Along with her colleagues she demonstrates in support of police shootings of black men in the area that culminated in one of them being beheaded and burnt. Softly but surely they march in the street chanting: “Black Power” – and although this seems slightly cliched, their conviction is quietly affecting. Minervini presents a resonant and contextualised picture of a black community in turmoil – bloodied but unbowed, bound by their music, strong beliefs and traditions to fight another day. MT.

From 10 May, streaming portal DAFilms will present a curated selection of Roberto Minervini’s films: Gonna Dig a Hole to Put the Devil in. The tribute features Low Tide, Stop the Pounding Heart, and The Other Side. In all three titles, Minervini captured the stories of often overlooked people living on the fringes of society. Serving as supplementary material to this special film programme will be an exclusive DAFilms live stream discussion between the director himself and Artistic Director of the renowned Locarno Film Festival, Giona Nazzaro.

The discussion can be watched on DAFilms Live or on Facebook from Wednesday, 19 May from 7pm CET.

The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019) ****

Dirs: Tyler Nilson, Michael Schwartz | Dakota Johnson, Bruce Dern, Shia LaBeouf, Zak Gottsagen | US Comedy 93′

A buddy movie with some good laughs and a really warm heart that doesn’t seek the easy way out in depicting its Down’s Syndrome hero who makes a break for freedom confounding the odds.

Zack Gottsagen plays Zak, a young Down’s syndrome man with no family confined to living in a care home and sharing a bedroom with an old timer – a game Bruce Dern – in North Carolina. Zak may have his limits but he wants to live those to the full. A local wrestling school has captured his imagination although it appalls his carer Eleanor (Johnson), so with the help of his roommate he makes a bid for freedom, wearing only a pair of Y-fronts, hooking up with LaBeouf’s struggling fisherman Tyler – after spending the night under canvas on his boat.

Even hard-to-please cynics will enjoy this charming comedy. All the characters are convincing and appealingly fleshed out. Zak and his new friend Tyler make an oddly endearing couple – Zak is surprisingly tough under his vulnerable facade and so is the macho Tyler who is still mourning his brother – flashback scenes shows the two of them  in affectionate mellow-tinted musings.

The adventure they embark on is a picaresque-styled sortie with shades of Mark Twain. They eventually catch up with Zak’s wrestling heros (cameos from real-life fighter Mick Foley and Jake Roberts, in mufti.). And although Zak often comes a cropper in his white wellies, y-fronts and combat trousers he is a character who we laugh with, and never a figure of fun: A perfect role model for those with life-limiting conditions.

The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao (2019)

Dir: Karim Ainouz | Writers: Murilo Hauser, Ines Bortagaray | Cast: Carol Duarte, Julia Stockler, Gregorio Duvivier, Fernanda Montenegro, Barbara Santos, Flavia Gusmao, Maria Manoella, Antonio Fonseca, Cristina Pereira, Gillray Coutinho | Brazil, 139′

Two sisters are forced into separate lives in this striking melodrama set in male-dominated Rio de Janeiro of the 1950s.

The Brazilian director’s two previous films have been enjoyable but lightweight compared to this ambitious but highly intimate drama, based on a novel by Martha Batalha, The Invisible Life soaks up the vibrant sensuality of tropical Brazil and distills into an intense and passionate portrait of feminine desire and longing in a country where a woman’s only domaine was the home. But their self-determination burns brightly throughout this moving story of female emancipation. There’s nothing coy or dainty about Ainouz’s complex and fully fleshed out characters played spiritedly by newcomers Carol Duarte (Euridice) and Julia Stockler (Guida) who make this often languorous film an extremely moving experience that follows the women’s lives from early adulthood to old age, the reveal comes in the form of an ingenious coda.

It’s 1941 and Guida and her younger sister Euridice are discussing sex – or the febrile expectancy of it – as they wander through the verdant coastline surrounding their cramped family home in Rio. Daughters of a draconian father and his meek wife – described as a shadow by Euridice later on in the film – the girls are bound together by an unusual closeness forcing them to share all their hopes and dreams which will be stifled by a patriarchal set-up as the film plays out. The story is framed by a plot device that causes the girls to be separated and so their only way of communicating is through stifled correspondence and unanswered questions. What emerges is a fascinating social history of Brazil during the 1940s and ’50s seen from a female perspective, but one which is gutsy and deeply affecting.

While Guida is conducting a secret affair with darkly handsome Greek sailor Yorgos (Nikolas Antunes), Euridice is developing her keyboard skills on the family’s piano, with a view to studying at the conservatory in Vienna. We then find out – through a letter to their father – that Guida has eloped with her man on a ship bound for Athens, whence she returns alone and pregnant. Clearly Yorgos had a girl in every port, but worse, her father throws her out callously disinheriting her, and telling her that Euridice is studying in Austria. In actual fact Euridice has married Antenor (Duvivier) a crude bore who spends most of his time in his underwear, and given birth to a daughter he didn’t really want. Meanwhile, Guida finds solace in the home of a prostitute Filomena (Barbara Santos) where she brings up her son.

Ainouz has an extraordinary eye for detail and the film’s well-paced dramatic arc unfolds through tone and atmosphere closely following the literary structure, drawing us into the women’s world where we share in their intimate feelings, joys, heartache and sadness. It’s a emotional rollercoaster but one told with such intense warmth and beauty that by the end we feel a deep connection to these characters and their experiences. Something that is rare nowadays, with so many atmospheric yet empty films.

Spectacular vibrant camerawork is provided by French DoP Helene Louvart (Happy as Lazzaro) both on the widescreen and in really intimate close-up – and although some of the images are quite graphic, adding considerable gravity and truth to the alarming scenes of birth and love-making. The male characters invariably have feet of clay but in subtle ways that show them as convincing people not just hastily drawn cyphers. Each frame is exquisitely captured adding texture to an immersive family saga that bears testament to the enormous forbearance and indomitable resilience of its female characters. It seems appropriate that piano studies from Liszt, Grieg and Chopin should be the accompanying score. MT

ON RELEASE FROM 15 OCTOVER  2021 | WINNER UN CERTAIN REGARD | Cannes Film Festival 2019

 

The Warden (2019) **** LFF 2019

Dir: Nima Javidi | Cast: Cast: Navid Mohammadzadeh, Parinaz Izadyar, Setareh Pessyani, Habib Rezai, Atila Pessvani, Mani Haghighi, Ismaeel Pourreza, Amir Keyvan Masoumi, Ali Mardaneh | Drama, Iran 100′

Nima Javidi follows his award-winning first film Melbourne with this rather surreal drama that explores the fallout when an inmate goes missing during a prison re-location.

Navid Mohammadzadeh is the laconically draconian prison governor in this bleak but rather poetic 1960s set slow-burner that keeps you wondering if it there’s a mystical message to be gleaned from the strange goings on in this decidedly sinister story made rather enjoyable by Javidi’s dark sense of humour and quirky characterisations not to mention Mohommadzadeh’s charismatic lead performance.

As the chief warden he has been feverishly preening himself for promotion and reacts with a Victor Meldrum-like sigh of resignation when he sees his career progression thwarted by the unfortunate escape of an important prisoner on death row, all under his careful watch during the critical move to another facility, to allow for airport expansion. He orders his guards to keep searching in vain. And while they do so he is visited by a motley crew of characters. The most significant is a stylish social worker, Miss Karimi (Parinaz Izadyar.) who has come to share her belief that the escapee is a framed man. While she delivers her story, the warden is actually sizing her sexually, admiring her feminine attributes – it’s enjoyable to behold this liberal stuff in a contemporary Iranian drama. He follows her visit by wistfully playing seductive music over the tannoy. But there’s a conflict of interests: she is working on the prisoner’s possible release while he’s hellbent on re-capturing him.

While Melbourne(2014), was set with the claustrophobic confines of a cramped appartment where a young married couple about to leave find themselves in charge of a dead baby. In The Warden, is no less tense and enervating despite its vast wide screen images of this remote and decidedly bleak-looking corner of Iran. As the minutes go ticking by a palpable tension arises from the futile search (all ramped up by Ramin Kousha’s saturnine score) and the sinuous plot line presents us with various red herrings that grow weirder by the minute: a message attached to a toad is found by the guard dog in a tumble dryer; a histrionic local woman begs them not to move to another location; and a soothsayer type rants and raves. But none provides a clue as gradually the warden loses his grip and his authority in the rather poignant final scene.

The Shah Pahlavi was still in power at the time that makes the whole endeavour feel decidedly more modern that today’s regime would allow, but The Warden also feels distinctly elegaic as the guards march across the desolate landscape in Hooman Behmanesh’s shimmering widescreen images. MT

LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2019 | 2 -13 OCTOBER 2019

 

 

Celebration (2019) MUBI

Dir: Olivier Meyrou | Doc, France

Olivier Meyrou’s long-shelved biopic on Yves Saint Laurent‘s final collection (aka Yves Saint Laurent: the last collections) has come to light again after screening at Berlinale 2007. The reason for its disappearance from the circuit was due to the legendary couturier’s partner and former lover Pierre Bergé, who ordered the film to be taken out of circulation after its world premiere. His subsequent death has now freed up the rights.

Don’t expect a glamorous film full of stars, celebrities and glossy locations. Meyrou takes a serious, anti-glamour approach showing just how serious the French are about the business of haute couture in a film that showcases ‘the devil in the detail’ and the often gruelling, hand-sewn meticulousness of it all. Meyrou also reveals tensions in the distance in the relationship between Yves Saint Laurent and Bergé who are seen from a warts and all perspective.

Seven years before the tall, rangy designer’s death, he cuts a dedicated but troubled  figure in his elegant tailoring and soigné accoutrements. Looking frail and wan, he gives tentative answers during a press interview where he tries to be positive about the future, while appearing decidedly diffident: “I’m the last couture house with a living couturier.” The others in the triumvirate: Balenciaga and Chanel have long lost their eminences grises.

YSL was founded in 1961 by Saint Laurent and Bergé, and later purchased by Gucci in 1999. The films opens in the former offices in rue Georges V where two women employees are effervescing about the past. This film is very much about the “backroom boys”- the people who made it all happen: the seamstresses, designers and assistants and the members of the press so vital in disseminating news during the final collections – renowned fashion journalist Suzy Menkes (now editor of Vogue International) is seen eagerly greeting Pierre Bergé, pen and paper at hand. The models too played a vital part – and each one is remembered for the outfit she wore, and for the particular strengths she bought to the catwalk. A case in point is the elegant model Katoucha Niane whose appearance is a poignant reminder of her accidental death in the Seine in 2008.

As the title suggests Meyrou’s documentary revolves around the preparations for what would turn out to be his final solo collection. He appears taciturn and introspective, the gurning movements of his jaw bear witness to the punctiliousness with which he treats his craft. And although Yves says very little, Bergé makes up for it with imperious obnoxiousness. At one point snatching a tribute from his partner after the show: “Probably, I have a part of that”.  As we all know from extensive film cannon on the designer: Bergé was the brains behind the business while Saint Laurent the heart, soul and talent. His obsession and eagle eye for getting it all absolutely right was well known and respected by all those who worked with him. Yet Bergé seems to has the upper hand and treats him with a boorishness bordering on contempt: “”Don’t lean over like a doddering old man!” he says to his partner at one point.

In immaculate monochrome Meyrou captures and contemplates the fraught energy of these behind the scenes encounters: the twittering tête à têtes of the seamstresses, the endless deliberations between Saint Laurent and his acolytes, and those responsible for the ‘tapie rouge’ and catwalk protocol.

Colour finally splashes into the film heralding the triumphant catwalk defilés: a spectacular tribute to French culture. Celebration quietly captures the era in a film that is memorable for its cool approach that feels impressionistic rather than hyped and over-talky. But those with a keen appreciation of the subject matter will find it thoroughly enjoyable and applaud Meyrou’s restrained approach. MT

NOW ON MUBI

 

Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool (2019) Netflix

Dir: Stanley Nelson | 115 mins | Music Biopic 

Stanley Nelson’s expansive documentary takes an entertaining breeze through the musical career of Miles Davis eclipsing Don Cheadle’s movie 2015 drama Miles Ahead 

“All I ever wanted to do was communicate through music”. The iconic jazz trumpeter and composer developed smooth romantic vibes and invented a cool, sophisticated masculinity that came to be known as the ‘Miles Davis Mystique’. For over five decades Miles developed various jazz styles from bebop, cool jazz and jazz fusion working with Prestige, Columbia, and Warner Brothers despite a rocky personal life that was full of love but fraught by ill health and emotional instability.

The film delves into the archives opening with seductive slew of stills that capture Miles’ style through the ages. This all plays out in velvet black and white to the iconic melody Kind of Blue while Davis’ deep husky voice making sporadic contributions to the drive the story forward. 

Miles Davis (1926-1991) grew up in a well to do family in Illinois where his father was a dentist. His mother was keen for him to get a classical music education and so in 1944 he started at the New York’s Juilliard School during the day and headed to the famous 52nd Street in the evenings where the music scene hung out in its many with Jazz clubs. And it was here that he discovered B-Bop and gradually taught himself to develop his own iconic style. It was not an easy time personally because his girlfriend Irene soon turned up with their child so his spare time was spoken for with the domestic demands. But music was his first love and the end of the 1940s saw him working with one of his major collaborators Gil Evans.

Drifting over tp Paris in 1949 he met and fell in love with Juliette Greco. Suddenly the world was opening up and he found himself treated as an equal by some of the intellectual giants of the day: “I was living in an illusion of possibility”. Amongst these luminaries was was Jean Paul Sartre who saw asked him why he wasn’t already married to Greco. Davis simply answered: “Because I love her.” The love lasted nearly all his life but it couldn’t work in the confines of the US where racism was still rife.

Returning to New York he was”back to the bullshit white people put a black person through in this country”. He describes how he hit rock bottom again and lost his sense of discipline, turning eventually to heroine and losing direction in his career. Eventually his father took him back to his own birth place of East St Louis hoping to bring him back to normal in the family farm. And according to childhood friend, Lee Annie Bonner, he eventually got himself clean. 

By the mid 1955s, age 29, his career was looking positive again and he found himself playing in the Newport Jazz Festival where Columbia Records selected its artists – and he would become one of them. Suddenly Bebop found a mainstream appeal for white people – Miles Davis made his name during the festival playing vulnerable ballads and hit a romantic vibe that resonated with audiences everywhere. He developed a unique voice: one with a sense of romance that avoided sentimentality born out of richly sophisticated vibes that touched on waves of emotion as they built their pure and elegant melodies. 

But tragedy struck again when he discovered a growth on his larynx and had to stay silence for several months. Bizarrely this is how he developed the gravelly voice that still defines him today. He met and fell for dancer Frances Taylor who was much sought as an artist and pursued by all the stars of the day for her beauty and particularly he long legs. Miles saw her appearing in Sammy Davis Junior’s Mr Wonderful on Broadway and the two found stability and love during a time when he was producing some of his most ground-breaking work: “Now I’ve found you I’ll never let you go” was according to Frances his opening gambit. 

One of his most incandescent musical journeys is the one that tracks Jean Moreau through the streets of Paris in Louis Malle’s 1958 French New Wave drama Ascenceur pour l’échafaud (Lift to the Scaffold). The pianist René Urtreger – who played piano for the piece talks at length about one of the film’s best known jazz scores.

Nelson highlights how Davis’ music gained popularity not just with jazz lovers but the mainstream crowd. His 1959 album Kind of Blue appealed to just about anyone interested in music. The album also introduced saxophonist John Coltrane. His style developed in his next album Bitches Brew which he describes as “cosmic jungle music.”

But when Frances was signed for Westside Story, Davis was back on the cocaine trail and deeply jealous of her admirers in the musical’s cast. He told Frances to quit the show and the two of them set up home with his own kids. But Frances sparked a jealousy in Davis he could not overcome and she realised the marriage was doomed. He deeply regretted her leaving and later commented: “Whoever gets her is a lucky son of a bitch”. 

Dark years passed but once again Miles re-invented himself during the late 1970s experiencing funk and a more loose way of playing. This segment covers his meeting with actress Cicely Tyson, a bond which continued to enrich his inventiveness until the early 1990s when once again, his career hits the buffers.

Nelson tells it all in the usual talking heads style – Frances Taylor, Greg Tate, Carlos Santana, Herbie Hancock and his final manager Mark Rothbaum all appear and a straightforward narrative structure enlivened by many photos and clips from the archives. The film luxuriates in its musical interludes which are enjoyable and plentiful making this possibly the definitive biopic of one of the most inventive jazz musicians of the 20th century. MT

NOW ON NETFLIX

 

La Llorona (2019) Best Picture Golden Globes Nomination

Dir: Jayro Bustamente | Cast: Gustavo Matheu, Georges Renand, Marina Peralta, Sor Jayro Bustamente, Lisandro Sanchez

This atmospheric award-winning drama blends elements of fantasy, thriller and horror to explore the final months of a retired general with a shady past.

Jayro Bustamente’s second film in this year’s London Film Festival in another tribute to Guatemala’s Mayan culture and certainly packs a powerful punch sharing the same moody vehemence as Tremors but this is a more slick and cinematic affair that makes use of DoP Nicolas Wong’s stunning visual language to portray Guatemala’s shocking regime of terror.

Elderly general Enrique Monteverde – possibly modelled on Guatemala’s dictator Jose Elfrain Rios Montt (1926-2018) – is being tried for the genocide he unleashed on the country three decades earlier. Armed and alert, he scares his domestic staff by prowling around at night in the family’s secluded villa, convinced that a mythical howling woman aka La Llorona – the spirit of a woman who has returned to avenge the dead – is somewhere in the property. It seems that his housekeeper could be reeking revenge on him for the killings of her ancestors. His wife puts the mysterious wailings down to his mental frailty believing he is suffering from stress-induced dementia,

Rios Montt took part in Guatemala’s infamous coup d’etat on March 23, 1982 but was overthrown by his defence minister Oscar Mejia Victories, and was eventually indicted for crimes against humanity and the indigenous population that included the killings of 1771 Maya Ixil Indians.

Once again Bustamente highlights Guatemala’s colonial past and a society that is still very much based on a rigid class structure in thrall to the Catholic Church. Meanwhile the indigenous Mayan population relies on its Gods, Animal Spirits and rituals making this a fascinating and haunting drama. MT

NOMINATED FOR BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE PICTURE | Golden Globes 2021|  JAYRO BUSTAMENTE WON THE FEODORA AWARD AT VENICE FOR BEST FILM and the GIORNATE DEGLI AUTORI Best Film AWARD 2019

 

Gösta (2019) **** LFF 2019

Dir.: Lucas Moodysson; Cast: Vilhelm Blomgren, Mattias Silvell, Clara Christiansson Drake, Amy Deassismont, Nidhal Fares, Elisabet Carlsson; Sweden 2019, 120′.

This cinema version of four episodes of twelve-parter for Nordic HBO is a satirical look at modern life and its ups and downs. Written and directed by Swedish cult star Lucas Moodysson who describes it as “a mix of comedy and Dostoevsky” it explores the existential angst of Gösta, a rather insecure 28 year old child psychologist, who is always trying to prove to himself that he’s a better person than anybody else. His ideas collide with real life and real people, and the outcome is usually chaotic.

Gösta (Blomgren) has moved from Stockholm to rural Smaland (where Moodysson grew up), and lives in a rather dilapidated hut with an outdoor shower. He is sheltering Hussein (Fares) who is seeking asylum. But their modest abode soon becomes rather crowded: Gösta’s father (Silvell), a loafer, whose hippy days are long over, has been thrown out by his current girlfriend, and then there is Saga (Christiansson Drake), Gösta’s former patient, who at 18, is not eligible for his support any more. Gösta is always in competition with himself to be a goody-two-shoes, has invited her to live with him. Later a talentless but enthusiastic young composer, along with Gösta’s artist mother, will crowd the place even more. Hussein moves into the attic, unable to bear the noisy arguments any more.

Gösta’a main problem is his love life: girlfriend Melissa Deasismont) is so overwhelmed by his understanding nature (he is foremost a psychologist and not a human being), she keeps called off the relationship. Needless to say Gösta makes an  understanding bedfellow, and when Melissa asks him to be harsher, he puts on two old socks. Then there is Lotta (Carlsson), his co-worker, who is so distraught Gösta ends up in bed with her to keep the peace – although he desperately wants to be faithful to Melissa. But when ‘Papa’ gets a huge German shepherd dog, even the patient Gösta protests.

For Gösta life is psychological journey undertaken with a series of apposite random quotes. But he is unable to help anybody – let alone himself, because he approaches every problem with a textbook. When asks one of his patients to spray can an offensive order on a wall, he reveals his own emotionally immaturity – his adjustment to life is regulated by what he has read and memorised. But he has no feeling for real love, people are just objects he wants to make happy – often make others miserable in the meantime.   

DoP Ellinor Hallin has caught the world of this regressive crew in wonderful images, which show a deep nostalgia for the Sixties; and her close-ups are heart-breaking. With Gösta, Moodysson has created a human fossil, which feels uncomfortable in the contemporary, and whose pseudo-altruism is just a cover for indecision and cowardice, camouflaged as learned suffering. But he is only in love with the idea of love – not a real person. Entertaining and provocative. AS

LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2019 | 2-13 OCTOBER 2019 | NORDIC HBO        

  

The Deathless Woman (2019)

Dir/Wri: Roz Mortimer | With Iveta Kokyva, Loren O’Dair, Oliver Malik | UK Doc 89′

British filmmaker Roz Mortimer has poured her heart and soul into an important new documentary that uncovers another grim episode of persecution, this time of the Roma people in Poland and Hungary. Crucially, it highlights the continuing hatred of the Roma, who are still being victimised in scandalous acts of violence across the region.  

Mortimer’s documentary explores the myth behind the story of The Deathless Woman, a Roma matriarch who was buried alive in the forest by German soldiers in 1942. This leads to the discovery of widespread genocide in other sites of Roma persecution such as Birkenau and Várpalota in Lake Grábler.

Here just before the end of the Second World War on 4th April 1945, 118 women and children were massacred by Nazi occupying forces, deep in the forest. Back then there was no lake, just a clearing where the dead were thrown into unmarked graves. Some time later the area was flooded and became Lake Garbler.

Mortimer clearly feels so strongly about her efforts to uncover the truth behind the genocide that she has decided to take part in her own documentary, talking us through the process of her findings, and occasionally presenting her case to a voiceless interrogator, as she tries to make sense of the lack of evidence despite sensing a strong ‘residue of emotion’ left by these unfortunate victims. “What do you do when there is nothing visible left?” she asks.

Eventually her archive research leads her to the scene of the crime in Lake Grabler where things start to come together. She meets a number of locals – amongst them is Josef, who describes how he was forced to dig a mass grave on that dreadful Spring day 75 years ago – a tough undertaking due to masses of tree roots clogging the ground.

She talks to locals Christina and Anna who in 1943 lost most of their family there. Mortimer stresses the aura inhabiting the windswept, rural area and describes being filled with a haunting sense of dread. Later, a woman called Zofia takes her to the scene of the atrocities, and shows her the indentation in the soil where there lies the skeleton a tiny bird. This serves as a tangible reminder and comes to  symbolise the souls of the ‘gypsy’ women and children who perished there.

One of these was the mythical “Deathless Woman”. Zophia describes how the Germans killed the gypsies because they had apparently stolen a pig from the village, so desperate was their hunger. According to a Roma woman who describes herself as a second generation Holocaust survivor, the mythical ‘Deathless Woman’ refused to die with the rest despite being shot at several times, until eventually she gave in only to leave a curse on the village. The Deathless Woman apparently scrambled out from under the other bodies and lived to tell her tale. As a tribute, the locals hung the clothes of the dead on the surrounding trees. 

But the hatred continues today. In Tatárszentgyörgy, Hungary, it emerges that neo-Nazis murdered a Roma family in 2009. Mortimer’s internet research uncovers hate speech and video games where players are invited to gun down unarmed Roma as they run through the streets.

Enriched by archive footage, macabre dramatised re-inactions and gruesome reconstructions of the bodies in the lake – that actually look rather ghastly and only serves to cheapen the experience – the filmmaker also suffuses this grim and slightly overworked ethnographic tribute with a ghostly atmospheric soundscape that suggests The Deathless Woman woman is going to be haunting the village for some time to come. MT

The Deathless Woman – the first film about the Roma holocaust in the Romani language – on UK tour 21 May-3 July

 

Cold Case Hammerskjold (2019) **** LFF 2019

Dir.: Mads Brügger, Documentary; Denmark/Norway/Sweden/Belgium 2019, 128 min.

Director/writer Mads Brügger (The Red Chapel) took six years to research the events leading up to the death of UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld on 18th of September 1961, near Zambia’s Ndala airport, hen part of Rhodesia. Brügger and his co-researcher Göran Björndahl literally dug into the cover-up, because even at the time of the ‘accident’ many voices, who talked about ‘murder’ not ‘accident’, were repressed. They claimed that Hammarskjöld’s aircraft was shot down by a fighter jet.

The Secretary General was on his way to a meeting with Moïse Tshombe, the rebel leader of the Katanga province, which had split from the newly formed Republic of Congo. Hammarskjöld wanted to broker a peace deal in the civil war, but Tshombe was just a puppet in the hands of the Belgium Union Minière du Haut Katanga, which was unwilling to give up the profits from the gold, diamond and uranium-rich country they had ruled for many decades. The Secretary General of the UN had made many enemies, not only in Belgium, but also in the UK and the USA, claiming “that Africa was a happy hunting ground for national interests”. During the research, the director came across the name of Jan van Risseghem, a Belgium mercenary who led the assassination mission code named “Celeste”. He planned to put a bomb in the plane, but when the explosion failed to materialised, a fighter jet shot Hammarskjöld’s plane down. A few survivors who witnessed the crash, all agree about the existence of a second plane.

Most of the material unearthed was connected with the South African spy agency South African Institute for Maritime Research (SAIMR), led by the white supremacist Keith Maxwell, who always dressed in white, with a tricorne hat and sword. SAIMR had up to 5000 employees, and was connected to the CIA, which explains the Ace of Spades playing card found on the body of Secretary General (the calling card of the CIA, but also a well known sign of danger). Maxwell was also responsible for “research” into Aids, his black victims injected with a serum intended to cure Aids. The details of the 1990 murder of Dagmar Feil, a marine biologist who worked for SAIMIR, but wanted to go public, is also part of the ‘confession’ of former SAIMR agent Alexander Jones, who seemed happy to go into details. “People are greedy. They want what other’s have. But they don’t want to pay for it”. His testimony also gives credence to the “second plane” theory, since he knew all the conspirators. Since his interview with Brügger, Jones is living at an undisclosed address.

The filmmaker has employed two black, female secretaries, Clarinah Mfengo and Saphir Wenzi Mabanza, who not only type furiously, but give Brügger ideas how to progress, and voice the interest of black people in this plot, where white men were victim and perpetrators.

The crashed airplane is still buried some four meters underground, and Brügger and his team had to stop digging it out after a few day’s work, the absolute proof of the assassination is still to be discovered, but few of those who have seen this documentary will question the theory. And even long after Tshombe’s removal, the Democratic Republic of Congo and other states of the region still suffer today, having endured civil wars for decades. AS

LONDON FILM FESTIVAL |2019

 

 

Matthias and Maxime (2019) ***

Dir: Xavier Dolan |

French-Canadian director Xavier Dolan directed his first film in 2009 at the age of just 20. He was back at Cannes this year with a coming of drama, set again in Montreal where a young man at the cusp of his working life is stuck at home looking after his abusive addict of a mother. He also has a facial blemish that saps his confidence. At a friend’s garrulous get-together Matthew finds himself play-acting a gay role with a young lawyer Matthias (Gabriel D’Almeida Freitas), who is in a committed relationship and a settled career, albeit a boring one. Sparks fly. Although the two have met before in their childhood, clearly things have moved on and the chemistry between them is now palpable. But the path to love never runs smoothly.

The camerawork is all close up and personal. And in common with Dolan’s dialogue-heavy previous films (It’s only the End of the World) there is that shouty, rowdy restless vibe that some might find objectionable while to others  this tender playfulness will be intoxicating. The performances are strong and convincing across the board and genuinely heartfelt, and once again Dolan is in the thick of it all – as Maxime. MT

LONDON FILM FESTIVAL |  2-13 OCTOBER 2019

 

 

Tremors | Temblores (2019)

Dir: Jayro Bustamente | Cast: Juan Pablo Olyslager, Diane Bathen, Mauricio Armas Zebadua, María Telon, Sabrina de La Hoz | Drama, Guatemala. 102′

The wrath of God comes down on a Guatemalan financier who tries to leave his wife in Jayro Bustamente’s gloweringly oppressive sophomore feature. There is a definite touch of Garcia Lorca to this fraught affair that sees Juan Pablo Olyslager as the good-looking husband to Isa (Diane Bathen) and father of two in a prominent Evangelical family where the matriarch still rules the roost with fire and brimstone. Not quite as enjoyable at the Guatemalan director’s first feature Ixcanul (2015) this will certainly be popular with the LGBT+ crowd and arthouse audiences who have tuned in to the creative wealth coming out of South and Latin America at the moment.

Guatemala City looks strange and exotic in the brooding widescreen images of cinematographer Luis Armando Arteaga, who also lensed Ixcanul. And to complete the atmosphere Julien Cloquet has devised a haunting soundscape that compliments the tremors of the film’s title. It appears to be the rainy season adding to the gloom of this sombre story with its emphasis on machismo and the importance of holding onto your man – if you’re a woman, that is. But also if you’re a gay man. The LGBT+ community are really having a tough time of it in the bars and spas where Pablo (Olyslager) runs into tousled haired loose-limbed Francisco (Mauricio Armas Zebadua), who inhabits these haunts with an air of world-weary nonchalance knowing full well the competitiveness of his game.

Meanwhile behind the tight security of Pablo’s upmarket family citadel a battle rages to get him to see sense and realise the shame he is bringing on the family, particularly his parents, with a scandalous revelation that comes to light in the opening scenes. So serious is the situation that Pablo is also forced to resign his post amid accusations of paedophilia, leaving him a rather sorry figure as he hangs around the spa where Francisco offers neck massage.

His wife is being supported by the family housekeeper (Maria Telon) as she goes about her day trying to gain comfort from her girlfriends who urge her to focus on getting Pablo back, at any cost. This is further emphasised by the overt community prayers at the family’s Evangelical Christian church where the pastor (Rui Frati) and his brisk sidekick  (Sabrina de la Hoz) exhort the congregation into loud praying. There are some flaws in a script that focuses on the atmosphere of dread and wrong-doing rather than the exact nature of Pablo’s wrongdoing and why he agrees to submit to the church’s “conversion therapy programme” – a highly contemporary sounding measure in the traditional and devoutly Catholic country. As a result it all becomes rather telenovela-ish and histrionic. What does emerge from this striking feature though is the vehemence of the community against sexual deviation of any kind. MT

NOW ON MUBI

The Lodge (2019) *** LFF 2019

Dir: Veronika Franz, Severin Fiala | Cast: Riley Keough, Jaeden Martell, Lia McHugh, Richard Armitage, Alicia Silverstone, Danny Keough | Horror 100′

After their maternal-themed horror story Goodnight Mummy, Austrian auteurs Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala spread their wings for pastures new, namely Colorado, where mothers are once again the theme in this English-language debut. The Lodge, sees another pair of siblings ensconced in a remote cabin in the mountains after the tragic death of their mother. This time there is a Daddy, a rather insensitive one who forces them to get to know their new stepmother at close quarters in the run up to the Christmas holidays in this unsettling but ultimately rather repetitive repentance thriller.

Riley Keough and Alicia Silverstone are convincing as the mothers in question, and the kids, particularly young Jaeden Martell is outstanding as the traumatised adolescent son. The Lodge gets off to a chilling start in its pristine post-modernist setting but the directors then drift into difficulties in the final segment of this stunning-looking genre thriller when they simply don’t know how to bring the saga to a close.

It all starts with the camera panning through the sleek timber-lined interiors of a chalet which turns out to be the kids’ dolls house in their chic clinical family home in DC, We saw this forbidding ploy recently in Hereditary, but it still works a treat. Alicia Silverstone plays a very smilier role to that of Susanne Wuest in Goodnight Mommy – a fastidious woman scorned by her husband and left to contemplate the future with dread. While Wuest takes control of the situation with some cosmetic surgery, Silverstone here takes more drastic measures.

The shocking scene that follows is pivotal to the plot. Teenage Aiden (Martell) and his younger sister Mia (Lia McHugh) then refuse to cooperate with their father’s (Armitage) attempts to play happy families by taking them off to the mountains with his new girlfriend Grace (Keough) who was once one of his patients. As Aiden puts it simply “Dad, you left Mum for a psychopath”. The die is cast. It soon emerges he met Grace while writing a book about evangelical religious cults and she was very much a victim. But in the end they all set off to their showy holiday home, Richard then retuning to work, leaving them to get to know each other in the days up to Christmas, but not before a dreadful accident sets our nerves jangling for what is to follow.

The family holiday home is particularly dark and uninviting with grim interiors, creaking doors and chilly views over the frozen lake. But the temperature inside is even frostier than the snowbound wilderness that surrounds the miserable threesome. Grace attempts to thaw relations with some positive suggestions but the kids are not convinced and gradually the mood deteriorates both inside and out as winter closes in on this hostile holiday where predictably the dog becomes the first victim.

The directors have finessed their finely-tuned horror tropes to perfection. Beautifully crafted religious icons, chiselled artefacts and handmade toys make this an elegantly haunting horror outing. Co-written with Sergio Casci the script leaves plenty to the imagination and keeps us guessing with a suggestive, uncertain plot line that gradually loses the plot and becomes more and more aimless. Despite this The Lodge is enjoyable and full of interesting ideas. MT

THE LODGE | LFF 2 – 13 OCTOBER 2019

 

 

 

London Film Festival 2019

The 63rd edition of the London Film Festival takes place in various venues across the city. The celebration opens on the 3rd of October with THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD and closes on the 13th with Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited drama THE IRISHMAN which will go to Netflix after a brief run on the big screen.

In a year where 60 percent of the films are directed or co-directed by women, the Official Competition line-up includes the following titles

THE LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 3-13 OCTOBER 2019

Holiday (2018) ****

Dir/Writer: Isabella Eklöf, Wri: Johanne Algren| Cast: Thijs Romer, Victoria Carmen Sonne, Lai Yde | Thriller | Danish | 112′

If you’re worried about the current state of male empowerment this film from Denmark will adjust the skewered perception, in this year’s BFI London Film Festival showing, that women are somehow pulling rank in the pecking order and getting too big for their boots.

HOLIDAY certainly makes for uncomfortable viewing and there are some shockingly sadistic pornorgraphic scenes that are by no means gratuitous, and are actually pivotal to the plot. It’s the debut feature of writer and director Isabella Eklöf who co-wrote Cannes winner Border and also worked on Tomas Alfredson’s lugubrious vampire standout, Let the Right One In. Her third outing at the LFF is a stunning looking but savage satire that explores sexual abuse and domination.

Some may say HOLIDAY overplays its hand in its overlong preamble, making us wait nearly a hour before the feisty finale kicks in. But this torpid first hour allows Eklof and her co-writer Johanne Algren to set the scene for a devastating denouement by slathering her thriller with rich layers of texture, establishing the lowlife criminal ethos of the humans to just how boring and beastly they have become. The venal antihero Michael (Lai Yde) plays a Danish drug baron who has taken call-girl Sascha (a well-cast ectomorph Victoria Carmen Sonne) for a break in a Villa in Bodrum. While he does ‘a bit of business’, she suns herself by the pool with a motley crew of family members and hoodlums. Crude is very much the watchword in HOLIDAY. These mindless meatheads are be-decked in timepieces the size of telephones, garish trainers and vulgar designer labels such as Philip Pleinn.

In the opening scenes Sascha rocks up at the Turkish airport wearing a platinum hairpiece showing more black roots than Kunta Kinte. Her personality could be best described as vacant, she is an symbol of female submission, and for most of the film she is as naive as Bambi. But something is clearly ticking away in her reptilian brain that makes her strike out like a cobra when we’re least expecting it. Once ensconsed in the villa, Sascha has her work cut out dealing with the macho Michael who flexes his muscles with regular psychotic outbursts that end in abusive sex. This is the school of hard-knocks and not even Michael’s henchman escape a bloody good hiding when they overstep the mark. The only sights Sascha sees in the ancient Turkish port are expensive jewellery shops and lap-dancing clubs. She is there as an extension of Michael’s ego: when he’s feeling good she gets a hug or some emerald earrings (“they’re more expensive than diamonds”); when he’s feeling bad she gets a punch in the nose or even worse. But never is there meaningful sex.

On the contrary, the two have no emotional bond, but control freak that he is, Michael soon asserts his authority when Sascha strikes out on her own, and is drawn to an attractive Dutchman, Thomas (Thijs Romer), whose yacht is moored in the marina. At first it feels like she’s looking for a life raft, and escape route from Michael – but not a bit of it. Sasha flirts with Thomas, but her goal is to garner the emotional strokes she craves, feeding her latent narcissism.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Michael takes another bad mood out on Sascha, roughing her up and then abusing her sexually on the cold marble floor. The violent release gives Michael a psychopathic high and he falls asleep feeling totally fulfilled in her annihilation. Sascha soaks up the intended rejection that enforces her own lack of self esteem: the two are one. Victorious, Michael now has to lift his leg, metaphorically speaking, on Thomas. Arranging a quiet tête à trois, with the subtext of discussing yachts, Michael invites the unsuspecting Dutchman to join him and Sascha for dinner. In an act of vicois bravado, he then flagrantly humiliates both of them, and Thomas rapidly gets his coat.

The material in this uncomfortable but brilliant film could to be developed into others of the genre, if Eklöf so desires, and let’s hope she does. As female writers go, she is certainly on a par with Patricia Highsmith in her ability to create psychological complexity and conjure up tightly-plotted thrillers in glamorous surroundings, as demonstrated in this dynamite debut. MT

ON RELEASE from FRIDAY 2 August 2019

 

 

 

The Candidate | El Reino (2018) **

Dir.: Rodrigo Sorogoyen; Cast: Antonio de la Torre, Barbara Lennie; Spain/France 2018, 121 min.

Even Antonio de la Torre can’t save this far-fetched, fast-talking made for TV crime thriller that eventually runs out of steam due to its outlandish lack of credibility. As the reprobate politician Manuel Lopez-Vidal, he tries to cover up for the embezzlement of a party college, but the fraud soon turns out to be just the tip of the iceberg – Lopez-Vidal himself has siphoned off much more public funding than anyone else in the party, and he’s soon unceremoniously dropped by his cronies. Sending his wife and daughter off to Canada, he invests their money to pay for information which will incriminate his party’s upper echelons. With his family out of the way, he then takes up with  an old flame, TV reporter Monica Lopez (Lennie), and takes it upon himself to do the dirty work, including murder. When he finally has all the proof of his party’s criminal involvement, he is interviewed by Lopez live on television, still trying to come across as the gentleman he never was. Sadly, The Realm is a story which has been told many times before and better, and the resonance with Scorsese’s Goodfellas is clear from the start. De La Torre is at his reptilian best as the arch villain, but we can’t quite see his fat-cat politician suddenly turning into an action man, and all the other characters are one-dimensional. Overall, The Realm is nothing more than an unremarkable B-picture, dressed up with slick production values.  AS

In cinemas and on HD from 2 August 2019

The Chambermaid (2018) ****

Dir: Lila Alviles | Cartol | Drama | Mexico | 90′

The Chambermaid plays the same thematic tune as two other festival winners this Summer: Golden Lion winner Roma and In A Distant Land which won the Golden Leopard at Locarno. They highlight the isolated and lonely lives of ordinary working people, often migrants – in this case, a Mexican national whose job in the capital detaches her from her loved ones. There is a distinct chilly humour to this acutely observed feature debut from Mexican actress, filmmaker and opera director Lila Alviles. It follows the daily grind of a hotel worker in one of the Mexico City’s 5 star hotels. Cartol (La Tirisia) plays Eve with infinite grace and good humour – in one astonishing scene she stands for seemingly ages outside a lift during one of those awkward silences – catching a hotel guest’s eye several times with an expression that speaks volumes.

Pristinely executed in the zen-like interiors of this palace of interior design, the film pictures an upmarket public as they often are behind the closed door of their luxury suites: ill-mannered, demanding and crude. Bereft of their clothes they also take leave of their humanity – never mind their courtesy. This is social politics laid bare. The Chambermaid also examines the crafty interactions between the low-level workers themselves: the cunning soft sales techniques of her colleague in the laundry who is trying to supplement her low-paid job by selling hand cream and Tupperware. Or just trying to con her into sharing the latest fad – in this case, a gadget that delivers a shock to stimulate a feel-good rush of endorphin. Like a some ghastly face to face equivalent of FarmVille.

The Chambermaid is set in Mexico City’s Presidente Intercontinental. Eve is hard-working and diligent, but if she tries harder she’ll be allocated the stratospheric, newly refurbished 42nd floor with views to die for and even infinity pools. Pinning her hopes on the promotion, she improves her efficiency but to no avail. The only bonus here is in the lost property cupboard. In one of her rooms Eve has found a red dress and hopes to take it home, if the owner doesn’t claim it. But her gruelling schedule leaves no time to be with her child, let alone meet a partner. Outwardly timid, Eve shows her true colours in one scene involving a window cleaner who has taken a shine to her – along with his windows. Eve acknowledges him at a distance. Her reaction is plausible – a little light relief in a sea of sameness. But Alviles restrains herself and keeps this convincing.

Stunningly captured by Carlos Rossini’s creative camerawork, this sealed and sanitised world has a strange beauty. Loosely based on the book Hotel, by Sophie Calle, The Chambermaid is a contemplative but well-paced cinema verité piece that resonates with a powerful message from both sides of the equation. Eve’s humdrum existence is piqued by moments of insight that show her in a different light as she endure the indignities of her role with calm forbearance and subdued silence. The magnificent skyscapes are hers to see but never to enjoy in her closeted existence, locked in an eternal bubble with no respite, until the final scene where the ambient sounds of exotic birdsong replace the refrigerated buzz of musak and air-conditioning.  MT

NOW ON GENERAL RELEASE

Summer 1993 (2017) Bfi player

Dir/Writer: Carla Simón | Drama | Spain, 2017 | 96′

Tears will well up within the first few minutes of this tender tale about a little orphaned Catalan girl coping with grief and uncertainty after her parents’ death. Cast your mind back to the panic and fear of losing sight of your own mother in the supermarket when you were six. And that coupled with the realisation that she’s never coming back is the feeling Simón inspires in debut that won Best First Feature award at Berlinale 2017.

Shooting at waist level the director manages to convey life from Frida’s perspective, and Laia Artigas gives a determined performance, mature for one so young. She views her new family set-up with a certain feral mistrust tempered with the anger of abandonment brought on by insecurity and steely pragmatism. Frida is not sure how to respond to her changed circumstances as she goes about her daily routine in the limpid naturalistic light of the family’s home in rural Girona. It’s only in quiet moments that she allows herself to dissolve in tears.

Life couldn’t be better with her uncle Esteve (David Verdaguer, 10,000km), aunt Marga (Bruna Cusi), and toddler cousin Anna (Paula Robles), and Simón’s quietly observant treatment takes a ‘less is more’ approach as she tells her story, for the most part without dialogue, allowing us to contemplate and revisit our own childhood through Frida’s innocent eyes.

Marga is clearly on her best behaviour, often chiding Anna as she strains to protect Frida with kid gloves. Clearly, Frida’s bereavement is not going to be as simple as we thought. Simón brings her own experiences to bear in a story that has an certain unsettling feel throughout its well-paced running time making SUMMER 1993 – although not entirely surprising – engaging and quietly memorable. MT

NOW ON BFI PLAYER SCREENING AS PART OF THE FOCUS ON SPAIN STRAND | EIFF 19-29 JUNE 2109

 

Sometimes Always Never (2018) ****

Dir: Carl Hunter | Writer: Frank Cottrell Boyce | Cast: Bill Nighy, Jenny Agutter, Sam Riley, Tim McInnerny, Alice Lowe | UK Comedy Drama | 97′

Bill Nighy, Sam Riley and Jenny Agutter star in this stylishly amusing comedy-drama that explores love, loss and communication – or the lack of it – for one English family. The title refers to the tailors’ code to buttoning a suit jacket.

Nighy is terrific as Alan, a retired but sharply suited Merseyside tailor who still enjoys a game of scrabble and his nighttime strolls, always hoping to bump into his son who disappeared years ago. Grief has seen Alan retreat into the comfort of lexicography, and this obsession for scrabble enables him to showcase his broad knowledge of words in a killer ability to play a world-class game. Yet beneath Alan’s dapper exterior and  nonchalance lies a deep sadness and disillusionment, and a longing for the son he will never forget, and who left in a huff after a scrabble contretemps erupted over the word “Zo”.

A gentle rain falls as we first meet Alan on the beach in Crosby where he joins his other son Peter (Sam Riley) for one of their regular visits to identify an unclaimed body. Deciding to make a night of it, they head to a nearby hotel where they come across another scrabble-loving couple in the shape of Agutter and McInnerny in a scene that’s a real pleasure to watch, performed with consummate ease, and yet riven with subtle psychological insight and deadpan humour.

Sam Riley gives a stunning turn as the dejected ‘also ran’ Peter, who lives contentedly with his pleasant wife Sue (a superb Alice Lowe) and their secretive son Jack (Louis Healy). But it’s Alan’s dedication to scrabble that forms the nub of the narrative and the dramatic touchstone that drives the plot forward. Staying at Peter’s house after the morgue visit Alan gets the chance to share some local family history: “your aunt was a part-time, freelance coal miner”, he also comes across an online Scrabble opponent who appears to fit the profile of his missing son, sending Alan into a fierce all-nighter trying to track down the mystery internet player.

Scrabble is the cement that holds this family together in this poignant but enjoyably petillant paean to communication. Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s intelligent script is fraught with witty and wise dialogue and is stylishly directed by cinematographer Carl Hunter who brings artistic flair to the idiosyncratic domestic interiors and the widescreen images that reflect the loveliness of the luminous Lancashire landscapes. MT

NOW ON RELEASE NATIONWIDE.

Thunder Road (2018) ****

Dir.: Jim Cummings; Cast: Jim Cummings, Jocelyn De Boer, Kendal Farr, Nican Robinson, Chelsea Edmundson | Comedy Drama | USA 2018 | 92′.

Director/writer/star Jim Cumming’s debut feature is a symbolic portrait of the white American middle-aged, middle-class male about to lose it all. Its anti-hero, Officer Jim Arnaud, is coming apart in every sense – and he doesn’t even know it.

The first take – unbroken, ten minutes long – sets the tone: police officer Jim Arnaud (Cummings) gives a eulogy to his newly-deceased mother at the funeral. Well, it is supposed to be a eulogy, but Arnaud loses his thread pretty rapidly: the speech is more and more about himself, his failures, his fears – of which there are many. He becomes a parody of himself when he tries in vain to play his mother’s favourite song, Bruce Springsteen’s Thunder Road on the pink toy-boom box of his daughter Crystal, making things worse by dancing to the non-existent music. Finally, he grabs Crystal (Farr) from her mother Rosalind (De Boer), and cuddles her helplessly crying in a back row.

Jim is in trouble: his wife is suing him for a divorce, he is partly suspended from work – all because he finds communicate difficult. He tries out phrases from a self-help book, such as “this means a lot to me” – but he gets in the way of his best intentions, always ranting on about his bad luck, great plans and guilt, loosing who ever he is talking to – with the exception of fellow officer Nate Lewis (Robinson) who has the patience of a saint. But it is not just only the dyslexia and dyspraxia which undermines Jim: his anger about his diminishing status turns into violence, and finally he throws a tantrum at work, drawing his gun on his fellow officers, and is lucky to escape with a dismissal. There is not much family life either: his sister Morgan (Edmundson) is also deeply depressed, and daughter Crystal is showing signs of male-adjustment disorder at school where Jim, talking to her teacher, is again unable to relate to the topic, reacting with another violent scene. The final tragedy will leave him with too much responsibility to carry and the audience rightly fears for his future.

Jim Arnaud is unaware of himself and his destructive narcissism, which might even be in the lower range of the Autism spectrum. But he shares his anxieties with too many around him: this is just not Jim coming apart, but a whole spectrum of white America, fearful of losing their middle-class status, getting poorer, suspecting (rightfully) that their children will have a worse life than themselves. It’s the end of a dream: the American Dream. His ranting is like that of a wounded animal, who does not understand what is happening to him.

Cummings is brilliant in all his triple roles, and the ensembles acting is very convincing. Lovell A. Meyer’s camera moves around furiously: his images portray the emotional roller-caster Jim finds himself on. Carefully avoiding a sentimental approach, but always with poignant humour, Cummings’ excels himself. AS.

NOW ON RELEASE AT SELECTED ARTHOUSE CINEMAS

The White Crow (2018) ***

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

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

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

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

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

SCREENING NATIONWIDE 7 April 2019

 

 

 

Lizzie (2018) **** | Bfi Flare 2019

“Lizzie Borden took an ax and gave her mother 40 whacks. When she saw what she had done, she gave her father 41.”

Dir: Craig William Mcneill | Bryce Kass | Cast: Chloë Sevigny, Kristen Stewart | Drama | US

The story of Lizzie Borden has always fascinated with its macabre murder story that over time has spawned numerous TV series the best starred Elizabeth Montgomery as the New England axe murderer who was tried and acquitted in 1893 of slaughtering her father and stepmother. This claustrophobic domestic drama directed by Craig William Macneill from a script by Bryce Kass, persuades us that it was actually due to her gender that she was let off: the jury couldn’t believe a well-heeled gentlewoman could do such a thing. But there are many downsides to being Ms Borden in the late 19th century. LIZZIE not only imagines an intriguing and plausible lesbian twist to proceedings, it also reveals how her draconian and misogynist  father was partly responsible for his own demise by dominating her, serially raping her housekeeper (Kristen Stewart is mesmerisingly glum) and then leaving her repugnantly obnoxious uncle (Denis O’Hare) in charge of her inheritance. No wonder Mr Borden got wacked.

Kass adopts a fractured narrative that opens in the aftermath to the twin murder, then traces back to reveal a story that informs the final scenes. And although this is a traditionally-crafted and rather bland-looking affair, its slowly draws you in to its compelling storyline mainly due to the brilliance of its international cast. We have Chloë Sevigny in the leading role: an unmarried, wilful but sympathetic pigeon-fancier. She gives a commandingly confident performance and we really feel for her because of the calm and intelligent way she handles herself, never giving in to histrionics or melodrama, despite suffering from epilepsy – quite the opposite – in the final denouement she appears unaffected by what she has done. She warms immediately to Kristen Stewart’s Irish housemaid Bridget who is respectful and diffident, tolerating Mr Borden’s nighttime visits with sombre forbearance. Their lesbian chemistry is convincing but quite why the filmmakers contrived it is questionable. There’s scant evidence that the real Lizzie was a lesbian, but due to being closeted away it’s quite possible that it was the only sexual outlet available, and the two are clearly very protective of one another. Ruth Shaw has a small role as Lizzie’s dour stepmother, but she makes a decent go of it.

There’s a dark wittiness to Sevigny’s brushes with the menacingly pompous Mr Borden (Jamie Sheridan), and their intellectual sparring makes us root for her, as he emerges a brutish coward rather than a family man of integrity with one of the “biggest fortunes in New England”. And although Stewart seethes with a quiet rage, Sevigny excels in a more difficult role, exerting a calm allure as the troubled Lizzie.

Although the ending is hardly a mystery, the film maintains an powerful air of suspense as it moves to the inescapable finale, adding another dimension to this true crime story, by attempting to examine the whys and wherefores. LIZZIE is certainly harrowing to watch, and although we don’t see the murders, we hear them as the violence provides a much-needed cathartic release after all the injustice that’s been witnessed. A sad and rather mournful drama that certainly bring greater understanding to this almost mythical episode of American social history. MT

ON RELEASE FROM 14 DECEMBER 2018

An Impossible Love (2018) ****

Dir.: Catherine Corsini; Cast: Virginie Efira, Niels Schneider, Jehnny Beth, Estelle Lescure; Belgium/France 2018, 135 min.

Best known for her Lesbian drama La Belle Saison director/writer Catherine Corsini’s screen adaptation of Christine Angot’s novel plays out like an historical thesis on feminism. Starting in the late 1950s in the small French town of Chateauroux, Corsini tells the story of a brief but passionate love affair that turns into a long-term war between Rachel and Niels. Their daughter Chantal will suffer tragically from her father’s contempt for her mother.

When Rachel (Efira), a clerk, meets the upper-middle class Niels (Schneider) they are attracted to each other. But it soon becomes clear he’s just interested in sex, while Rachel is an incurable romantic and falls for the “man of the world”. Niels leaves her, making it clear he’s not interested in marriage. But when Rachel gives birth to a daughter, Chantal (who is played by four actors during the film), Niels refuses paternity, so Rachel has to settle for “father unknown”, which hurts her much more than being left behind with Chantal. The two adults barely talk, but Niels tells Rachel en-passant, that he has married a wealthy German woman “who will look after him”. By the time Chantal (Lescure) reaches adolescence, the picture has changed with alarming consequences for all concerned.

An Impossible Love is sometimes heartbreaking. Rachel has such low self-esteem from the beginning, she does not ask anything for herself: she does not expect Niels to ever recognise her as an equal. But she hopes that her daughter will have a better life, if she can persuade Niels to give her his name. She is well aware how disturbed Chantal is after her frequent visits to her father a teenager, but she is adamant not to rock the boat.  

DoP Jeanne Lapoirie, who worked with Corsini on La Belle Saison, has gracefully recreated the atmosphere of the 1950s and early 1960s, when women were (the supposed) passive victims of men. The images show Rachel seemingly living in a “pink world with fluffy clouds”, in which she surrenders he whole identity to Niels. The latter is cold and manipulative, always yearning for his ‘freedom’, committed only to his own progress. If one compares Rachel with the adult Chantal, one sees the difference. Progress, so Corsini, has been made, but at what cost:  since Chantal had to carry the burden of her mother’s lack of self-esteem. Even though sometimes over-didactic, Corsini achieves her goal of showing the long, ongoing struggle for emancipation.  AS 

NOW SHOWING at http://Curzoncinemas.com and selected arthouse venues | Previewed at BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2018

https://youtu.be/B-2QL8tjP2I

   

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ON RELEASE FROM 1 FEBRUARY 2019

   

Destroyer (2018 **

Dir: Karyn Kusama | US Thriller | 121’

You will gawp at Nicole Kidman’s transformation in this rather bleak and messy crime thriller cum character study of a lovelorn woman whose desperate past derails her future. It comes as a shock from an actor who is used to playing vulnerable and smart but always beautiful women.

Karyn Kusama has finally given Kidman the chance to play a broken, badass bitch in Destroyer. And it’s a dynamite performance that may look unappealing but certainly strikes home. As Erin Bell, her baleful, sinister stare haunts nearly every frame and coiled anger springs out unexpectedly – this antiheroine is not out to please anyone. After a messy opening act where Kusama establishes the storyline, a fractured narrative seesaws backwards and forwards from the late 1980/90s to present day LA, Destroyer pictures Kidman as hapless antiheroine Detective Erin Bell, whose youth was spent going undercover with her partner/lover Chris (Sebastian Stan) to infiltrate a band of robbers, headed up by glib psycho Silas (Toby Kebbell). But when Silas reappears on the scene, she’s determined to put an end to his antics, which have been carrying on since back in the day. But something else happened – Erin fell in love, madly. And that love, or loss of it on a fateful day that unspools in the satisfying final act, has made her into the woman she is in the current day.

And while her character is utterly believable in both the past and the present, it’s in the unravelling of the story – particularly in fin de siècle LA, that things sometimes feel unconvincing and rather anodyne, given the nature of crime-ridden LA. But Kidman’s detective is hard-hitting, intelligent and unafraid to be unpopular – easier when you’ve got nothing to lose, or live for. And that’s the essence of her character. And although occasionally she overstates her violent vehemence in the context of what’s going on around her, teetering on the edge of caricature, it’s a corruscating performance and one to be proud of.

Sadly this is a step back for Kusama whose brilliant thriller The Invitation (2015), was a shocker with a humane face. Here the band of brigands are almost laughably louche and lightweight, in complete contrast to Kidman’s detective character. And although they try to inject menace into proceedings, all we feel from them is disdain. The only refreshing contrast is a vignette from arch villain who sparks out interest, but not for long.

Kidman is so hard-bitten and bitter you start to feel uncomfortable watching her. Especially in scenes with her daughter’s nasty boyfriend, or jerking off a terminally ill low-life when she’s desperate for a lead. At the end of the day, Destroyer is an unpleasant, empty kind of film. It goes through the motions, but leaves you cold – and glad it’s all over.  MT

ON RELEASE FROM FRIDAY 25 JANUARY 2019

The Raft (2018) ***

Dir/scr. Marcus Lindeen. Sweden/Denmark/US/Germany. 2018. 97 mins.

THE RAFT is Marcus Lindeen’s follow up to The Regretters. As another studio-based experimental film it won the top prize at this year’s CPH: DOX festival, one of Europe’s most important documentary festivals. A fascinating study in sociology and psychology, it unites a group of 7 survivors from an 11-man (and woman) raft (the Alcali), who discuss the sea-bound project they took part in during the 1970s – and their experiences then provide remarkable contrast to the people they have now become – although the archive footage is more interesting than the contemporary chats, their maturity now enables them to gain insight into their younger selves.

Marcus Lindeen was essentially playing a game with these people. They had all been selected along strict guidelines (good-looking, sexually attractive parents who may miss their children and look for support from each other) and confirm (or deny) long-standing theories on violence, provocation, sexual desire and group dynamics etc. The raft in question set sail in the Atlantic in 1973 and was put together by the radical Mexican social anthropologist Santiago Genovés, who had been involved in a plane hi-jacking. It was initially Genovés who came up with the idea to put the group in a isolating situation  and thence to study the violence and conflict that potentially ensued. Very much along the same lines as the various Uk TV realit programmes – only more dangerous – there were clearly perils involved in the seaborne voyage of the Acali from the Canary Islands to Mexico, that took over three months and was crewed by volunteers of different nationalities, race, religion and social backgrounds with the sole aim of  “creating tension”. Crucially the only person who felt conflicted was Genoves himself, and he confesses to breaking down in tears one night on deck.

Strangely enough, the only one concerned about the voyage was Maria, the Swedish captain, who stayed calm throughout a near hit from a massive tanker, and everyone grew to respect her. But soon they lose faith in Genoves who withdraws, feigning illness, and later has some sort of minor breakdown. As they set sail, Lindeen had likened this to experiments with rats, but one of the women confirms that the group eventually became inseparable regardless of their radical differences.

Distilled from over eight hours of 16mm footage, this is an extraordinary endeavour. But it could never be done today with the Health and Safety limitations, let alone the lack of Suntan cream! Far from violence and conflict, what actually comes out of this fantastic voyage is the comment “we started out ‘them and us’ and we became ‘us’”. A positive conclusion to a potentially lethal experiment. MT

NOW ON GENERAL RELEASE

Colette (2018) **

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

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

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

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

NOW ON GENERAL RELEASE

 

     

Stan & Ollie (2018) ****

Dir: Jon S. Baird | Cast: Steve Coogan, John C. Reilly | Comedy Drama

When Stan & Ollie begins, the eponymous duo – that is, Laurel and Hardy themselves – are flying high. It’s 1937, and they are major Hollywood stars – but they are also under contract to producer Hal Roach and, as a result, are being underpaid. Ollie is broke, suffering from an expensive divorce and a gambling addiction, while Stan feels hard done by. He wants to own their films, like Chaplin owns his, and suggests they ask Roach for a better deal. Ollie, however, is content to carry on, not wishing to rock the boat – he has debts to pay, and can’t risk alienating Roach. So, instead, he splits acrimoniously from his long-term partner, and makes a film for Roach without Stan beside him.

16 years later, now ageing and ailing, the duo reunite for a stage tour of the UK, hoping the trip will help them launch production on a film about Robin Hood. As the tour gets underway, they perform in small venues to even smaller audiences. In an attempt to turn things around, they hit the publicity trail and, in doing so, remind the public of their appeal. Audiences soon grow, but old resentments and failing health threaten to undermine the stability of their newly revived success.

As Stan and Ollie, Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly are superb, perfectly capturing the infectious energy that made Laurel and Hardy so likeable, while simultaneously conveying the gamut of emotions that occur as their fortunes rise and fall. Though their loving wives (brilliantly portrayed by Nina Arianda and Shirley Henderson) do their best to care for the men, and get many of the film’s funniest lines while doing so, it’s the bromance between Stan and Ollie that forms the heart of the film, turning their bittersweet story into a touching meditation on friendship, show business and the art of getting old. The pair are driven by a compulsion to create, even as circumstances – and their own health – conspire against them. As Ollie himself puts it, what else are they going to do?

Throughout the film, the ageing comedians are confronted time and again with comments about how wonderful it is that they’re still going after all these years, and still doing the same material over and over. Such backhanded compliments perfectly encapsulate the poignant tone of the film, but the words also ring true – as Stan & Ollie proves, even after all these years, the material still works. Alex Barrett

NOW ON GENERAL RELEASE

Roma (2018) ***

Dir.: Alfonso Cuaron; Cast: YalitzaAparacio, Marinade Tavira, Nancy Garcia, Fernando Grediaga, Veronica Garcia, Jorge Antonio Guerrero; USA/Mexico 2018, 135 min

Alfonso Cuaron’s sumptuous semi-autobiographical love letter to the woman who influenced his early life unfurls during a year in Mexico City. It’s 1970 and middle-class medics Sofia and Antonio have four children, three spirited boys and a girl. Meanwhile Cleo and Sofia live high up in the attic, trying to keep the emotionally unstable household together.

Cuaron cleverly establishes the key credentials of the bourgeois set up where people drive enormous cars they can’t even park, and Sofia (de Tavira) is no different. Stressed from Antonio’s frequent absences for work – today he’s off to Montevideo – she earns a decent salary as a biochemist, but has no passion for it.  As it turns out, Antonio (Grediaga) will only be gone for a week, but has secretly returned with his mistress. Meanwhile the rest of the family – along with caring grandmother Teresa (V. Garcia) – are off to spend Christmas on a nearby country estate, where Cleo (Aparacio) and Adela (N. Garcia) will celebrate in the staff quarters. Sofia makes the children write letters to their father, begging him to return, Cleo discovers she’s pregnant by boyfriend Fermin (Guerrero) who is part of a right-wing militia. In a terrifying scene during the Corpus Christmas massacre meeting, Fermin appears briefly in a nearby department store where the women are buying a cradle. He denies fathering Cleo’s child, and is dragged away by his friends to beat up students in the street. Everyday life goes on in this leisurely story of middle-class Latin America – it’s an evergreen saga that plays out like a tele-novela but with a transcendence that somehow lifts out of the ordinary. Cuaron pulls out all the stops, and the glorious 65mm black-and-white images reflect tension on all levels. Sofia and her mother Teresa are the caring matriarchs. Husband Antonio is seen as cruel, petty and vindictive. Cleo and Adela are the willing victims of class and conditioning, the outside world is shown is a hostile backdrop. Cuaron never breaks with any clichés, but he is unable to be understated and analytical due to his personal links to the narrative. In contrast, Mexican director Lila Aviles’, The Chambermaid is a moving yet detached portrait of a hotel worker, echoing similar themes. Roma is graced with some scintillating performances, particularly from newcomers Yalitza Aparacio as Cleo, and Nancy Garcia as Teresa. Overall the bottom line here is that Cuaron’s a brilliant DoP, a good director but a lousy script-writer. AS

NOW ON GENERAL RELEASE | MARRAKECH FILM FESTIVAL 2018 | GOLDEN LION WINNER VENICE 2018

https://youtu.be/vhWut6jTA8o

Assassination Nation (2018) **

Dir.: Sam Levinson; Cast: Odessa Young, Suki Waterhouse, Hari Nef, Abra, Bill Skarsgaard, Joel McHale, Cullen Moss, Colman Domingo; USA 2018, 110 min.

Director/writer Sam Levinson (Another Happy Day) pictures small town America at its most obnoxious; sex, violence and social media run riot – his heady mixture of Heathers, The Purge and Twin Peaks suffers first and foremost from dishonesty, swerving wildly from his critique of  Trump-led anti-feminism.

Set in modern Salem, Massachusetts, the witches in question are actually four 18 year-old High School girls: Lily (Young), a cheap Lolita caricature (her socks are imprinted with Fatal Attraction), and her best friends Sarah (Waterhouse),Bex (Nef) and Em (Abra). We meet Lily first in the office of principal Turrell (Domingo), defending her nude drawing of a young woman, hailed as ”pornographic” by the principal. Lily defends herself well, arguing that pure nudity can never be pornographic. So far so good. Lily and her three friends participate in the usual social media frenzy, enjoying it like everyone does. Her boyfriend (Sarsgaard) is a bullying jackass – then suddenly the narrative veers off into Lynchian territory with the introduction of Nick (McHale), a father whose daughter Lily babysits. The two exchange lurid messages, with ‘Daddy’ proposing all sorts of nasty implications. Then the conservative town mayor Bartlett (Moss) is outed as being in love with men, while wearing female stockings. Next on the list is principal Turrell, who is accused of being a paedophile because he posts photos of his little daughter on the net. The whole atmosphere suddenly morphs into wild violence, Lily and her friends being accused of being responsible for the revelations. Meanwhile, the townsmen don masks featuring the American flag, and hunt down the four girls who look just like Little Riding Hoods masquerading as a feminist death squad.

Having leered voyeuristically at the teenage girls for half the feature, Levinson then suddenly suddenly criticises the male gaze as anti-feminist. But it now seems that the female teenagers love violence as much as their male counterparts. The worst aspect of this thrill-seeker is that Levinson answers the Trumpian message of resurrected male superiority with even more violence, this time perpetrated by females. His cheap blood bath (literally) is merely an excuse to direct mayhem – and he’s brilliant at it. But it degrades any serious confrontation with anti-feminism in a male free-for-all revenge bonanza. AS

NOW ON RELEASE NATIONWIDE from 23 NOVEMBER 2018

   

Wildlife (2018) ****

Writer|Dir: Paul Dano | Cast: Carey Mulligan, Jake Gyllenhaal, Ed Oxenbould | Drama | US | 105’

A teenage boy experiences the breakdown of his parents’ marriage in  Paul Dano’s crisp coming of age family drama, set in 1960s Montana, and based on Richard Ford’s novel.

Although once or twice veering into melodrama, actor Dano maintains impressive control over his sleek and very lucid first film which is anchored by three masterful performances, and sees a young family disintegrate after the husband loses his job.

WILDLIFE has a great deal in common with Retribution Road (2008), its similar theme of aspirational hope for a couple starting out on their life in a new town, in this case Great Falls, Montana. But here the perspective is very different – in Wildlife, the entire experience is seen from the unique perspective of a pubescent boy, Joe, played thoughtfully by young Australian actor Ed Oxenbould (The Visit).

There’s an old-fashioned quality to the film that very much works to its advantage. The date is 1960 and in the mountains behind the family house a forest fire is raging, with warnings that it could well spread to the town centre if not controlled by rangers, who Jerry Brinson (Gyllenhaal) decides to join at a wage of only a dollar an hour, after much moping around the house when he loses his job on the local golf course. This comes as a big surprise to his wife Jeannette (Mulligan), an earnest homemaker who believes in her husband’s desire to make more of himself, and she sees this as a step backwards, career-wise. Meanwhile, Joe signs on as an apprentice to a local portrait photographer, a part-time job he takes to while doing very well in his school work.

Dano and his co-writer Zoe Kazan, stick to a clean, straighforward narrative but there’s a subtle brooding tension at play, and while Joe seems emotionally grounded and resilient (a tribute to his parents), Jerry and Jeannette are less so: although Jerry’s character is the most underwritten of the three, there’s a haunted quality to him as a straightforwaed dad who suddenly implodes after the shock of his firing. Jeannette also starts to lose her own sense of equilibrium:. “What kind of man leaves his wife and child in such a lonely place?,” Jeanette casts around for emotional ballast in an much older wealthy man, Warren Miller (Bill Camp), who she meets while giving swimming classes.

In some ways this fragmented behaviour is character-forming for Joe, his parents have clearly given him a rock solid babyhood, and so he can weather the shocking fliration scenes that take place between Millar and his mother, and his loss at his father’s temporary abandonment, although he finds it all difficult to fathom. This is not a film about adult infidelity and abandonment, but about how a teenage perceives and deals with it, and as such it is beautifully restrained and supremely elegant – the audience is required to suspend disbelief and take a trip back to teenagehood and the bewildering experience it offers. Dano makes the denouement an enigmatic affair, leaving the door open to hope, while acknowledging the inevitable. MT

NATIONWIDE FROM 9 NOVEMBER 2018

Outlaw King (2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ON Netflix


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The Hate You Give (2018) ****

Dir.: George Tillman jr.; Cast: Amanda Steinberg, Lisa Carter, Russell Hornsby, Algen Smith, KJ Apa, Sabrina Carpenter, Common, Anthony Mackie; USA 2018, 133 min.

Director George Tillman jr. (Faster) and his screen writer Audrey Wells have made a brulliant job of adapting the novel The Hate U Give, avoiding clichés and easy answers in this case of another shooting of a black youngster by a white police officer. Instead of solutions, Tillman explores the issues through a teenager representing both communities: she – and other young people – are the victim of a fight they did not chose.

Starr Carter (a brilliant Amanda Steinberg) lives with her family in the black neighbourhood of Garden Heights. Every morning she puts on the uniform of her prestigious prep school and becomes somebody else. Her boyfriend Chris (Apa) and ‘bestie’ Kayleigh (Carpenter) are both white, as are the majority of the students. Starr’s mother Lisa (Hall) has insisted on her choice of school. She wants security for her daughter. Her father Maverick‘Mave’ (Hornsby) is deeply politicised, Black Panther leaflets are all over the house. Starr’s half brother is also very much into his black identity. As a small child, Starr has been the key witness of her classmate’s shooting by the black drug lord (Mackie), who rules Garden Heights with an iron fist. History will soon repeat itself, when Starr is in the car with childhood friend Khalil (Smith) who is shot dead by a white police officer, who mistook a hairbrush for a piece. But, as black officer Carlos (Common) explains to Starr and her father, this is not a simple case because the officer suspected that Khalil was a drug dealer (which he actually was), and reacted in self defence.

When Mave asks Carlos if he would have shot Khalil, the officer nods. “But, if the person in question would have been a white man in a Mercedes, would you have shot too?”, asks Mave. Carlos replies that he would have asked the white man to raise his hands. This double standard is not a question of race, but of tribal law: police officers of all colours are used to dealing with drug lords like the one running the black neighbourhood. It does not matter to them, in the moment of confrontation, that the huge majority of the black population is equally afraid of the drug dealers. Nevertheless, a heated street battle is being fought, and Mave is not only fighting the police, but the black drug dealers, who suspect him of collaborating with the police. In the final analysis, Amanda surmises that hate and violence is not only a question of race.

Stylishly shot on the widescreen and revealing personal close-ups, Steinberg carries the feature with extreme maturity: she is a girl of divided loyalties. And must find a world where she can live in peace with both sides.

Without lecturing, Tillman tries to ask questions. And the audience has to to answer. And there’s no easy answer here, only an acknowledgement that the fault lines run much deeper than the agitators on both sides want to admit. At the same time, The Hate U give is a full-blooded thriller, and in spite of the length, it sustains its suspense. And the real triumph is the marriage of genre aesthetics and articulate political content. AS

NATIONWIDE FROM 22 OCTOBER 2018 | SCREENING DURING BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2018

Dogman (2018) ****

Dir: Matteo Garrone | Ugo Chiti | Adamo Dionisi, Francesco Acquaroli, Edoardo Pesce, Laura Pizzirani | Drama | 120′ | Italy

The second Italian hero of Cannes Film Festival appears in Matteo Garrone’s terrific revenge thriller that returns to the filmmaker’s own stamping ground of Caserta with a richly thematic and compulsive exploration of male rivalry and belonging in a downtrodden criminal-infested football-playing community scratching a living.

Life has always been tough in this neck of the woods, infested by gangland influences: it is a terrain that Garrone knows and describes well in his 2008 feature Gomorrah. A brutal brotherhood controls this bleak beachside wilderness where everyone relies on each other to survive.

At the heart of DOGMAN is a tour de force turn from actor turned director Marcello Fonte who plays an endearing and diminutive dog grooming supremo who although popular and kind, has formed a toxic twosome with local hoodlum and sociopath Simone, a thorn in his side who is dragging him constantly into trouble. Marcello’s wife has cleared off and he has a young daughter Sofia (Alida Baldari Calabria) to look after –  and dog-grooming hardly makes ends meet, so to keep Simone sweet he supplies him with cocaine and courtesies, though secretly he wishes him dead.

Marcello possesses the same innate goodness as Lazzaro in Rohrwacher’s drama that played earlier in the competition line -up. And he’s gifted and patient with the dogs brought into his shop, and in one scene he actually goes out of his way to rescue a chihuahua who has been nearly frozen to death in a botched robbery. In short, Garrone uses similar ‘good and evil’ theme as Scorsese in his New York street thrillers where one good person is perpetually trying to redeem the others, against the odds and often at his own expense. Marcello is keen on his friends and is popular and wants to keep it that way, but Simone is a liability and one day will lead him to tragedy.

This is a gritty and violent film and often unbearably so, but there are moments of heart-rending tenderness – between his Marcello and his dependants – where tears will certainly well up. Fonte won Best Award at Cannes for his skilful portrayal that switches subtly from sad loner to desperado.

Garrone sets the desolate scene resonantly with his brilliant lighting and inventive camerawork, this time working with DoP Nicolai Bruel, who paints this part of Italy with an almost gothic desperation highlighted by Michele Braga’s mournful musical score. MT

NOW ON RELEASE NATIONWIDE | BEST ACTOR AWARD MARCELLO FONTE | CANNES 2018

https://youtu.be/LI2JE_xjAaY

The Little Drummer Girl (2018) Episodes One & Two ****

Dir: Chan-wook Park | Writer: Michael Lesslie | Michael Shannon, Florence Pugh, Alexander Skarsgard | Episode 1&2 | Thriller | UK

There’s a distinct whiff of James Bond to Park Chan-wook’s glamorous globetrotting spy thriller series coming to the BBC. THE LITTLE DRUMMER GIRL follows the pursuits of Michael Shannon’s Israeli spymaster Kurtz whose quarry is a cell of Palestinian terrorists targeting the Jewish European diaspora and blowing up a diplomat and his family in the opening scenes. Based on the John Le Carré novel of the title, the first two episodes flip between Munich, London and Greece where gutsy young actor Charlie (a charismatic Florence Pugh) is whisked off her feet by Michel (Alexander Skarsgard) a dangerous stranger she meets on a beach, and who will lead her into Kurtz’ clutches as she learns the arcane art of espionage. Park’s signature style and wicked humour meets John Le Carré’s sophistication and intrigue in this alluringly swish 1970s thriller where each frame is a visual delight. MT

EPISODES ONE & TWO SCREENING DURING BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL | 10-21 OCTOBER 2018

The Plan that came from the Bottom Up (2018) **** LFF 2018

Dir.: Steve Sprung; Documentary with shop stewards of Lucas Aerospace; Portugal/UK 2018, 212 min.

This film essay, the feature documentary debut of director/writer Steve Sprung, is a British history lesson about about politics, the working class and ecology. Five shop stewards of Lucas Aerospace, who helped to draw up the Lucas Aerospace (L.A.) Shop Steward Committee’s Alternative Corporate Plan in 1976, discuss their motivation, struggle and eventual defeat. The Alternative Corporate Plan was written up after a meeting of 34 Shop Stewards with the then Industry Minister Tony Benn in November 1974, and was called by the Financial Times “the most radical alternative plans ever been drawn up by workers for their company” and nominated for the 1979 Nobel Peace Price.

Lucas Aerospace was a company relaying very much on their armament production, even though it accounted only for just over 50% of the general turnover. In 1974 the company decided to make redundancies, “due to increased international competition”. The Alternative Corporate Plan was an answer, “because it irked the workers that while they could produce Concorde, they were unable to build affordable paraffin heaters for many suffering from the cold in winter”. Staff and manual workers came up with a list of our 150 products, which could replace the military hardware – over 180 organisations had put their proposals forward to the Combine. The argument was that the production of socially more useful goods would also mean that the state would not to have to pay unemployment benefit. The L.A. management rejected the proposals immediately, even though they had admitted that the market for armament products was shrinking. The list of alternative goods was long: it included medical equipment, transport vehicles, improved braking systems, energy conservation, oceanic equipment, and telechiric machines. A cry specific proposal included an expansion of 40% in the production of kidney dialysis machines, which were being manufactured on one of the L.A. sites. The Combine was successful in attracting funding from charitable bodies, which enabled them to set up the Centre for Alternative Industrial Systems (CAITS) at North East London Polytechnic and the Unit for the Development of Alternative Products (UDAP) at Coventry Polytechnic. But after Prime Minister Wilson replaced Benn, and took charge himself of the industry portfolio, he sided with the management of of L.A., and the Combine plan was not even discussed.

Newsreels and documentaries play a big part in recreating the 1970s in the UK which seems a very long time ago. But A Plan is visually dominated by the repeated documentation of the bloody wars L.A. products played such a major part in. The ethical dilemma is so clear that one wonders how successive governments tolerated and even supported a company like L.A.: Between 1971 and 1976, L.A. made a profit of 25 Million £, at the same time, it received grants from Labour/Tory governments worth 10.6. Million £, effectively paying real tax of 470 000 £. But then, today the government supports fossil fuels four times as much as sustainable energy.

The Plan is a reminder that although the black-and-white images seem outdated to us now, the underlying moral bankruptcy of successive government decisions has not changed. Lucas Aerospace doesn’t exist any more, parts of the company were sold off, others went bankrupt. AS

SCREENING DURING LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2018 | 10-21 OCTOBER 2018   

Namdev Bhau in Search of Silence (2018) **** LFF 2018

Dir/Writer: Dar Gai | Cast: Namdev Gurav, Aarya Dave, Zoya Hussain | India | Drama | 84min | Subtitles

Filmed on the widescreen and in intimate close-up by Aditya Varma (Manto), this visually stunning arthouse drama is a simple tale but a transcendent one that will chime with audiences sick and tired of the endless noise and commotion of the modern world. Elderly chauffeur Namdev is at the end of his career and his tether as he slowly goes mental forced to endure the cacophony of Mumbai, one of the noisiest cities in the world. In this stylishly framed low-budget indie Ukrainian-born Dai Gai quickly establishes the cacophony of the city as ambient sounds drift through the house Namdev shares with his extended family. Exhausted by his wife’s endless banter and his brother’s religious chanting, he escapes from the kitchen to the privacy of his taxi, but his regular customers are soon fighting over a fare.

Desperate for calm Namdev packs his wheelie and heads north to the fabled mountain retreat of Silent Valley, where he hopes to find peace at last. However, on arriving in the Himalayas, Namdev discovers ‘silent’ has nothing to do with this busy religious centre where the locals and pilgrims are just as rowdy as back home in Mumbai. The film then takes an intriguing turn into buddy movie territory when Namdev meets a young boy called Aaliq (Dave) who is on the run from his parents. Darkly comic and contemplative, Dar Gai’s well-paced and compelling second outing seems to find gentle humour in every frame as Namdev travels through spectacular landscapes in search of that most prized treasure: Peace. With Andrea Guerra’s beguiling occasional score giving proceedings a Mediterranean twist and sensitive performances from Namdev Gurav and Aarya Dave, the irritating boy who hides a tragic secret, this is a refreshingly beautiful portrait of a man who’s tired of the city but not yet of life. Watching it, you can actually feel the wind blowing through your hair. MT

SCREENING DURING LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 10-21 OCTOBER 2018

The Nightshifter (2018) **** LFF 2018

Writer/Dir: Dennison Ramalho | Cast: Daniel de Oliveira, Claudia Jouvin, Fabiula Nascimento, Bianca Comparato | Horror | Brazil | 110′

Communing with the dead its nothing new. For thousands of years people have been contacting their loved ones in the afterlife for guidance and reassurance, but in this evocative and darkly inventive Brazilian chiller a morgue worker takes a step too far.

Stênio (Daniel de Oliveira) works on the night shift in the central morgue of Brazil’s violent southern capital, Porto Alegre. Street brawls, venal crime and knifings provide him with a blood-soaked work load. And once the Stryker saw has done its postmortem job, Stênio makes small talk with the cadavers, relaying  their final thoughts or family messages before they go six feet under. But one dead body shares an idle rumour that Stênio’s wife is cheating on him. Riddled with suspicion, he take matters into his own hands, so breaking the strict code of the dead and bringing a tragic curse on his entire family.

Stênio, a generous-hearted father of two, works hard to make ends meet so why has his wife, feistily played by Fabiula Nascimento, turned against him? Odete seemed happy enough making cakes for her friend’s business but now she claims his whiff of ‘eau de corpse’ has put her off his advances. But she showers her affections on her lover who rewards her with new clothes. Perhaps poor Stênio needs to spend less time talking to bodies and more time pleasing his family.

Andre Faccioli’s garish visuals establish the neon-lit gang-ridden streets of Porto Alegre where sirens screech and brutal death is a nightly occurrence. Stênio is driven mad as the corpses pile up in this tricksy narrative that twists and turns like a murderer’s dagger. Macabre overhead shots see him sweeping up the bloody waste, as the gurneys overflow with gore and slaughtered bodies. Meanwhile, his homelife is just as messy; son Edson is going off the rails and daughter Ciça is frightened. The claustrophobic morgue closes in him; mangled corpses burst out of their ‘fridges. At night his cramped flat feels like a coffin, and the tension is palpable in this sordid metaphor for Brazil’s modern malaise.

In his directing debut Dennison Ramalho doesn’t rein back from the grimness of it all: Quite the reverse, there’s a subversive humour to The Nightshifter – be it ever so dark. This noirish fantasy horror lingers perpetually in the penumbral hours, relishing and regaling in the seemier side of an existence where life and death become one big twilight zone where the dead seem to hold sway over the living. MT

SCREENING DURING THE BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2018 | 10-21 October 2018

https://youtu.be/ogiPV2hafbo

22 July (2018) ***

Dir.: Paul Greengrass ; Cast: Anders Danielsen Lie, Jonas Strand Gravli, Jon Oigarden, Hilde Olausson; Norway/Iceland/USA 133 min.

British director/co-writer Paul Greengrass (United 93) imagines what actually happened during the Norwegian tragedy of 22. July 2011, when right-wing nationalist Anders Behring Breivik killed 69 children on the island of Utoya. Earlier in the day, he had already killed eight passers-by with a bomb in the diplomatic quarter of Oslo. The main focus here is aftermath on the island, and Greengrass ends with a moving court scene.

Anders Breivik (Lie) is a narcissistic killer who prepares for his atrocities meticulously – as if the world were already watching him. After the bombs go off near government offices, he sets out for the island of Utoya, where the Youth Section of the Norwegian Labour Party is meeting. After the killing spree Breivik is contained, treating the policemen who arrest him, with cold distain, as if to say “you should be helping me, not putting me in jail”. In prison, Breivik asks for a well-known liberal lawyer, Geir Lippesad (Oigarden), who takes on his defence, even though he is emotionally repelled by his new client. Lippesad was forced to move his children out of their local schools, as fellow parents could not understand him defending a monster like Breivik. The latter had never actually met a single member of the local Norwegian fascist scene. One of its leaders, who had communicated with Breivik via the internet whilst playing video-games (!) describes him in court as a loner, not worthy of being one of the movement’s leaders – whilst also condoning his actions. Breivik’s mother (Olausson) tries to apologise for what has happened, but blames it all on uncontrolled immigration.

After the attack, Greengrass then switches his focus to Viljar (Gravli), who has been close to death after being shot by Breivik, on the island. Learning to walk again, and living in fear of the shrapnel pieces near his spine moving and killing him, he confronts his attacker in a cathartic court scene. Breivik’s isolation and loneliness contrasts sharply with the solidarity of his family and fellow-survivors.

Apart from an over-schematic script, 22. July is laudable largely because Greengrass avoids sensationalism, and concentrates on the personalities of those involved. Lie gives a brilliant performance of the isolated, arrogant and self-controlled killer, who is unable to feel empathy for anybody – apart from himself. DoP Pal Ulrik Rokseth’s images treat the events like a documentary, keeping the audience involved without becoming over-emotional. This portrait of a self-obsessed, human killing machine traces all the ambiguity of his complex personality, without reaching a conclusion. AS

NOW ON RELEASE NATIONWIDE

Austrian Films at the BFI London Film Festival 2018

 

 

AUSTRIAN FILMS BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL

Austrian cinema is always a worthwhile presence at the BFI London Film Festival, and this year is no exception with Sudabeh Mortezai’s streetwise drama JOY featuring in the main competition.

JOY (2018) Tuesday 16 & Wednesday 17 October

Sudabeh Mortezai (Macondo, LFF 2014) presents a vital and hugely affecting drama that tackles the vicious cycle of sex trafficking in modern Europe.

ANGELO (2018) Wednesday 17 & Thursday 18 October

The powerful story of Angelo Soliman, a forced Europeanised African who makes his way through Viennese society in the early 18th century without ever belonging.

STYX (2018) Thursday 11 & Saturday 13 October

A professional woman’s solo sailing journey turns into a deadly serious ethical dilemma in this unusual and taut political allegory. (*Germany-Austria co-production)

TWENTY-TWO HOURS  (2018) Tuesday 16 October

Bouchra Khalili’s meditation on revolutionary histories considers the poet Jean Genet’s secret 1970 visit to the United States at the invitation of the Black Panther Party. *Germany-USA-Norway-Austria co-production Screened in conjunction with PROMISED LANDS, directed by Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa. Austria-Germany-Uganda 2018. 19min

YOMEDDINE (2018) Thursday 18, Saturday 20 & Sunday 21 October

Egyptian filmmaker A.B. Shawky makes his feature debut with this utterly unique road movie which charts the friendship between a leper and a young orphan. *Egypt-Austria co-production

BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2018 | 10-21 OCTOBER 2018 

Bisbee 17 (2018) **** LFF 2018

Dir: Robert Greene | Doc | US | 122′

Robert Greene’s documentary sees him working alongside the residents of the former copper-mining town of Bisbee, just 7 miles north of Mexico, as they prepare to put on the “largest group therapy session” in response to an infamous local event that changed this town forever, a hundred years ago. Since then the “town that refused to die” makes a tourist attraction of its disused mines. Bisbee is now home to an assortment of creatives and left-leaning non-conformists, a far cry from its origins during the copper boom.

Accompanied from the opening scene by an ominous score of strings, the film recalls the major event in question which took place on July 12, 1917 when miners on strike against their bosses, the copper companies, were aroused from their beds and taken to the central post office, thence expelled in cattle cars via the desert to New Mexico. Those responsible were fellow citizens who had taken it upon themselves to end the menace they felt the striking workers had become to the town. Bisbee 17 commemorates this tragic historical event now known as the ‘Bisbee Deportation’.

Greene’s outing clearly has a contemporary resonance, although it actually raises more questions than it answers. And while not attempting to provide a definitive history of the episode in question, it never really examines what then happened to the deportees, or how their plight was dealt with by the county’s legal framework. It is more concerned with  personal recollections of how the conflict divided families, friends – the entire local community – as Bisbeans take it in turns to reminisce over who was a loyalist/capitalist and who a protester or socialist.

Interestingly enough, the majority of those striking for higher pay and improved conditions were originally from Mexico and Eastern Europe (all but one of the loyalists was Anglo-Saxon) so it turns out – surprisingly – that there was a quasi-ethnic cleansing element to the conflict. And whether this was a latent cause for the uprising is never examined in depth, as this is by no means an ethnographical study. Fernando Serrano, a young Mexican-American man who had never heard of the deportation before Greene rocked up with his crew, suddenly becomes a central protagonist in the proceedings, playing a Mexican miner. Comparisons soon emerge between his family’s past and the 1917 events, and this gives the documentary emotional texture and offers much food for thought. As the professional film crew collaborates with the locals the endeavour starts to take on a life of its own. The results are both haunting and moving. MT

SCREENING DURING BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2018 | 10-21 OCTOBER

 

 

Mandy (2018) **

Dir.: Panos Cosmatos; Cast: Nicolas Cage, Andrea Riseborough, Linus Roache; USA/Belgium 2017, 121 min.

MANDY is a corruscating cosmic ‘boy’s own’ blow-out fuelled by Nicolas Cage’s well-known powers as the hell-raiser in the cultish extravaganza. But that’s about all. Panos Cosmatos dresses up a mundane script with some alarming visual effects driven forward by two dynamite performances. Cage is Red, a lumberjack who shares his woodland cabin with his shop-assistant girlfriend, the etherial Mandy (Riseborough). At night they watch cheesy TV-fiction. On her way back from work one night, Mandy is spotted by Satanic cult leader Jeremiah Sands (Roche), who immediately decides “he has to have her”. Living nearby with his mother and disciples in a ramshackle hut, Jeremiah then abducts Mandy, but when she laughs at his advances (in spite of being drugged), he has her burnt alive, forcing chained-up Red to look on, livid. Whilst Jeremiah can actually summon demons, there’s no matching righteous Red’s fury, who not only turns his skill to making lethal weapons, but is also handy with the chainsaw.

Using coloured filters, DoP Benjamin Loeb tries to pretend that this time-honoured story of a woman being abducted, drugged, tortured and killed has something to do with Art. Cage does his best to give an impersonation of an unleashed male, helping to make this reactionary charade a colossal success at the box-office. Watch it for the thundering score from the late, great Jóhann Jóhannsson. AS

SCREENING DURING BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL | 10-21 OCTOBER 2018  

Two Plains and a Fancy (2018) LFF 2018

Writers/Dirs: Lev Kalman, Whitney Horn | Cast: Benjamin Crotty, Laetitia Dosch, Marianna McClellan, Maria Cid Avila, Alex Decarli, André Frechette III, Libby Gery, Michael Murphy, Travis Nutting, Kim-Anh Schreiber, Logan Boyles | US Drama | 88′

Lev Kalman and Whitney Horn’s “spa western” is a certainly a whimsical curio. A mannered yet inspired period piece it’s set in the Colorado desert in the late 1890s but has characters that are straight out of modern day Brooklyn and smoke dope and utter lines such as “Do you take American Express?”. Along with Laetitia Dosch, it also has the latest buzzworthy star of the indie circuit Benjamin Crotty – whose short film The Glorious Acceptance of Nicolas Chauvin won the Mantarraya prize at this year’s Locarno.

Lev Kalman and Whitney Horn rose to the public gaze with their debut title L for Leisure which is set 100 years later than Two Plains but seems to feature similar fey characters to this quirky drama which takes place over three days in September 1893, after the start of the so-called ‘Denver Depression’. The film also has the same look as Blazing Saddles, without the laughs or the raciness.

To it’s credit, Two Plains doesn’t take itself seriously. There are some rather odd production inconsistencies which are clearly intentional: the signage along the desert route is all freshly painted and the cast are squeaky clean from their rough ride in the dusty landscape and occasionally speak French, eat saucisson and brie for their lunch and have ridiculous names such as Ozanne Le Perrier (Laetitia Dosch with broad French accent), Alta Maria Sophronia (Marianna McClellan) and Milton Tingling (Benjamin Crotty). After a dip in the first spa waters they encounter, their lunchtime conversation focuses on the supernatural and John Atkinson and Talya Cooper’s Sci-Fi style score suggests an ominous, surreal presence in the locale.

But this never develops into a tangible strand in the oddball narrative and the group carry on in a their dilatory fashion in search of the next spa retreat, their bizarre prandial conversations starting to become more and more irritating: amongst other banal subjects they discuss first world concerns such as back-pain, and whether to conduct a séance – which they eventually do – clearly the writers are taking the Micky out of contemporary creative types. Sophronia leads the candlelit seance with a script that sounds more like a post-yoga meditation exercise than the real McCoy. But that’s all part of the ‘humour’. Two Plains & a Fancy is a jokey experiment of a comedy that will either have you dashing for the exit early or rolling in the aisles. MT

SCREENING DURING BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2018 | 10-21 OCTOBER 2018

 

The Cannibal Club (2018)

Dir/Writer: Guto Parente |Ana Luiza Rios, Tavinho Teixeira | Thriller | Brazil | 75′

Satire is a dish best served with a slice of human flesh in this brilliantly dark, baroquely stylish Brazilian thriller from award-winning filmmaker Guto Parente, who co-directed My Own Private Hell. 

Ana Luiza Rios and Tavinho Teixeira play a wealthy couple in Forteleza who get more than they bargained for due to their carnivorous conniving. In this poor and crime-ridden corner of Brazil, the idle rich live a glorious lifestyle: the sun shines, their private villas are post-modernist and beach-fronted, and there’s more than enough obliging staff to cater to their fantasies, which invariably involve a ménage à trois with a good-looking servant who is then served up for dinner with a glass – or two – of Brazilian Syrah.

Gilda and Otavio are still desirable, along with their coterie of moneyed friends who include bisexual captain of industry Borges (Pedro Domingues). Octavio runs a successful company and belongs to a male only club who regularly meet over dinner to pontificate about the ills of modern life, followed by post prandial porn of the live and sensually Grand Guignol type.

Teixeira’s Octavio is particularly unappealing, an arrogant creep who finally gets his just deserts in the florid finale. Parente’s confidently vulgar narrative is so shamelessly bold it verges on the ridiculous. But The Cannibal Club makes for compulsive viewing punctuated by Fernando Catatau’s tango-style score and the lush backdrop of Fortaleza  Social connections are paramount, desires of the flesh are an hourly preoccupation. Orifices and appetites are voracious and must be filled and satisfied in an elegantly brutal way. And the razor sharp editing of some scenes is particularly masterful thanks to Luiz and Ricardo Pretti who contribute to this success of this slick, succinct and satisfying psychodrama. MT

NOW on BFI PLAYER  | LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2018 PREMIERE

 

Fragment of an Empire (1929) Oblomok Imperii ***** LFF 2018

Writer/Dir: Fridrikh Ermler (1898-1976) | Writer: Ekaterina Vinogradskiya | Drama | Russia | 96′

A young man who lost his memory during WWI seems to regains it many years later in Friedrich Ermler’s intriguingly cinematic silent drama. Elegantly rendered in glowing black and white Fragment of an Empire is often referred to as the most important film in Soviet Cinema. It certainly makes compelling viewing as a socio-political satire and outstanding critique of the soviet regime, all showcased in an inventively avant-garde arthouse drama that explores the process of remembrance through the medium of film.

The central character Filimonov (Feodor Nikitin) experiences the brash new postwar Soviet world of 1928, through his pre-war Tsarist-era eyes, a decade after WWI began. St Petersburg has now become Soviet Leningrad. The film opens in a stable where a dog who has just given birth to a large litter of puppies. This heart-rending sequence ends with the dog being shot as she looks up with a pleading vulnerability at a group of men who have discovered a soldier’s hiding place.

Made in the same year as Dziga Vertov’s energetic documentary Man with a Movie Camera, this is thematically a more ambitious and daring film that sets out to contemplate the social implications of the postwar period in Russia and to examine memory, through an entirely fresh perspective. Changing attitudes in the aftermath to hostilities have given rise to a new social and political landscape.

The hero (Fyodor Nikitin) gradually remembers he was married and sets out in his Cossack hat and overcoat across a landscape dominated by farming to find his wife (Lyudmila Semyonova) in his hometown of St Petersburg. In ten years the changes have been seismic. Large building soar up into the skyline, where once where small houses. He is completely dismayed by massive statues of Lenin and mesmerised by women wearing short skirts in the tram. The passing traffic bewilders him as he spins round trying to gain his bearings. Eventually he discovers his workplace has been taken over and his wife has re-married. His inquiries are regarded with derision by people he once new and trusted. The frenetic final act recalls Vertov’s film of the same year with its frenetic rhythms but the symbolism here is a sinister parody of Sovietism. MT

Fridrikh Ermler’s Fragment of an Empire has been described by Bryony Dixon as “a powerful personal story and the critique it allows of the revolution as seen by a soldier stuck in a Tsarist past. The film opens in the chaos of a bloody battle in 1914 and follows with an extraordinary evocation of the main protagonist’s returning memory. As played by regular Ermler lead Fiodor Nikitin, his response to the social changes he sees is both moving and politically astute”.

SCREENING ON 19 OCTOBER | BFI SOUTHBANK | Live musical accompaniment by Stephen Horne and Frank Bokius | Restoration by San Francisco Silent Film Festival and EYE Filmmuseum in partnership with Gosfilmofond of Russia

 

Crystal Swan | Khrustal (2018) ****

Dir.: Darya Zhuk; Cast: Alina Nasibullina, Yuriy Borisov, Swetlana Anikey, Ivan Mulin, Ilya Kapanets; Belarus/USA/Germany/Russia 2018, 93 min.

Darya Zhuk 1996-set feature debut shows how little Belarus has changed in the intervening years. Alina Nasibullina is the star turn as a disc jockey in Minsk who dreams of emigrating to Chicago, birth place of House Music. Although her performance takes on a farcical form, the comedy here is really gallows humour – vitriolic and bitter.

Velya lives with her museum curator mother (Swetlana Anikey) who like many in the older generation, yearns for the “good old” days on the Soviet block. The freedom they fought for has brought only insecurity. When Law graduate Velya gets sick and tired of the system and her childish and attention seeking boyfriend Alik (Borisov) she forges Visa documents from the US-Embassy in Minsk, somehow managing mess up her (non existent) employment details. The telephone number actually belongs to a family in a traditional factory town in the countryside, so she sets off to put things right. There she comes up against matriarch Alya who is deaf from blowing crystal in the local factory. Her oldest son Stepan (Mulin) takes a shine to Velya who plays along; having paid the phone bill, she is eagerly awaiting a call from the embassy with a glowing character reference. After Stepan rapes her, Velya goes back to Minsk with another lost soul, his younger brother Kostya.(Kapanets). Alik has moved in with her mother. But all is not lost.

Zhuk directs with great verve and energy, mastering the quickly changing narrative with considerable aplomb. Nasibullina is very much a central European version of Cindy Looper, a misfit in a country with a nostalgia for a brutal past. Velya is by no means a heroine, but a vulnerable victim of her rash spontaneity. DoP Carolina Costa avoids dour realism, crafting this flight for freedom with vibrant colours and inventive angles. 

The only black mark is the LFF’s decision to place Crystal Swan in the festival’s “Laugh” strand: a woman’s rape is anything but funny. Perhaps the selection committee, led by a woman, should take note of IMdb, where the film is rightly classified as “Drama”. AS

LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2018 | 10 -21 OCTOBER 2018 | Karlovy Vary 2018

 

 

Anchor and Hope (2017) *** London Spanish Film Festival 2018

Dir.: Carlos-Marques Marcet; Cast: Oona Chaplin, Natalia Tena, David Verdaguer, Geraldine Chaplin; UK/Spain 2017, 111 min.

Re-uniting his leads Natalia Tena and David Verdaguer from 10000 KM, director/co-writer Carlos-Marques Marcet offers a modern love story with a twist, set around a houseboat in North London’s canals. Screening during this year’s London Spanish Film Festival this far from  soppy romcom is a barbed tale that proves all is fair in love, for its Eva (O. Chaplin), a 38 year old Salsa teacher who lives with Kat (Tena) on the cramped houseboat, and Roger (Verdaguer), Kat’s boisterous friend and dreadful womaniser, who soon joins the party. Eva uses the death of their cat to fulfil her longing for a child, and with the help of artificial insemination with Roger’s sperm her dream soon comes true. Then Eva’s mum Germaine (G. Chaplin) comes on board and lectures them about the responsibilities of parenthood, since neither of them has a permanent job. But the main problem is that Kat, and to a lesser degree David, want to stay free and unfettered teenagers for life. When Eva loses her baby, she accuses Kat of never wanting to be mother and leaves to stay with Germaine in Barcelona. But her  mother is not very welcoming, and soon we see Eva circling Kat and David on the houseboat like a hungry tiger in this intricate psychology drama. Eva and Kat are the sexual partners; but Kat and David are the spiritual couple, wanting to freewheel forever. While Kat is even more determined to keep the status quo, David, a much softer character behind his macho mask, comes to terms with some aspects of fatherhood. And it is exactly this realisation which drives Eva to despair: sexual orientation is secondary, when it comes to personal commitment and parenthood. Some cuts could benefit this overlong saga but overall Anchor and Hope is a well balanced story that questions how many, often colliding, relationships needs can be fulfilled. The three leads are brilliant, and DoP Dagmar Weaver-Madsen, another team member from 10000 KM, makes great use of the London settings. AS

SCREENING DURING THE LONDON SPANISH FILM WEEKEND 26 – 30 SEPTEMBER 2018

11 Films to See at the BFI London Film Festival 2018

 

The lineup for the 2018 BFI London Film Festival has been announced, and the public box office is open. The 12-day festival will show over 225 feature-length films from all over the globe – so here are some of the best we’ve seen from this year’s international festival circuit.

WILD LIFE (2018)

A teenage boy experiences the breakdown of his parents’ marriage in Paul Dano’s crisp coming of age family drama, set in 1960s Montana, and based on Richard Ford’s novel. Although once or twice veering into melodrama, actor turned filmmaker Dano maintains impressive control over his sleek and very lucid first film which is anchored by three masterful performances, and sees a young family disintegrate after the husband loses his job. WILDLIFE has a great deal in common with Retribution Road (2008), with its similar counterpoint of aspirational hope for a couple starting out on their life in a new town – in this case Great Falls, Montana. But here the perspective is very different – in Wildlife, the entire experience is seen from the unique perspective of a pubescent boy, Joe, played thoughtfully by young Australian actor Ed Oxenbould (The Visit).

WOMAN AT WAR (2018) – SACD Winner, Cannes Film Festival 2018

Benedict Erlingsson’s follow-up to Of Horses and Men is a lively, often funny eco-warrior drama that follows a single woman taking on the state of Iceland with surprising results. Lead actress Haldora Geirhardsdottir has an athletic schedule, running and hiding in the countryside, with helicopters and drones circling overhead. With a magnificent twist at the end, Woman at War doesn’t pull its punches: There are shades of Aki Kaurismaki, 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 middle-aged woman, who is also super-fit, in the central role.

THE FAVOURITE (2018) Best Actress, Olivia Colman, Venice 2018.

The Favourite is going to be a firm favourite with mainstream audiences and cineastes alike. This latest arthouse drama is his first to be written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara who bring their English sensibilities to this quixotic Baroque satire that distills the essence of Kubrick, Greenaway and Molière in an irreverent and ravishingly witty metaphor for women’s treachery. Set around 1710 during the final moments of Queen Annes’s reign it presents an artful female centric view of courtly life seen from the unique perspective of three remarkable women while on the battlefields England is at war with the French. Despite its period setting The Favourite coins a world with exactly the same credentials as that of Brexit and Trump.

SUNSET – FIPRESCI Prize Venice 2018 

Laszlo Nemes follows his Oscar-winning triumph Son Of Saul with another fraught and achingly romantic fragment of the past again captured through his voyeuristic camera that traces the febrile events leading up to the shooting of Emperor Franz Ferdinand that changed the world forever Set in Budapest between 1913 and the outbreak of the First World War, Sunset reveals a labyrinth of enigma, intrigue, hostility, greed and lust as the central character played by Juli Jakab (Son of Saul) guides us through scenes of ravishing elegance and cataclysmic violence. What seems utter chaos gradually becomes more clear as the spiderweb is infiltrated. Nemes pays homage to the late Gabor Body whose Narcissus and Psyche, are the obvious touchstones to Sunset. On an historical level, Mathias Erdely’s images conjure up the fin-de-siècle fragility in the same way as Gabor’s masterpieces. 

BORDER – Winner, Un Certain Regard, Cannes 2018 

BORDER is one of those bracingly original films. Melding fantasy and folklore while teetering on the edge of Gothic horror, it manages to be cleverly convincing and unbelievably weird at the same time. Fraught with undercurrents of sexual identity and self-realisation this gruesome rites of passage fable is another fabulous story with enduring appeal for the arthouse crowd and diehard fans of low key horror. Based on a short story by Let the Right One In creator John Ajvide Lindqvist it is Ali Abbasi’s follow up to Shelley and his first film with writing partner Isabella Ekloff. Abbasi masterfully manages the subtle strands of his storyline while keeping the tension taut and a mischievous humour bubbling under the surface.

DOGMAN Best Actor, Marcello Forte, Cannes 2018 | Palm Dog Winner 2018 

Matteo Garrone’s terrific revenge thriller returns to the filmmaker’s own stamping ground of Caserta with a richly thematic and compulsive exploration of male rivalry and belonging in a downtrodden, criminal-infested, football-playing community scratching a living in a seaside backwater. Life has always been tough in this neck of the woods, infested by gangland influences: it is a terrain that Garrone knows and describes well in his 2008 feature Gomorrah. A brutal brotherhood controls this bleak coastal wilderness where everyone relies on each other to survive. Dogman a gritty and violent film and often unbearably so, but there are moments of heart-rending tenderness – between his Marcello and his doggy dependants – where tears will certainly well up. Fonte won Best Award at Cannes for his skilful portrayal that switches subtly from sad loner to daring desperado.

MADELINE’S MADELINE  

Josephine Decker’s inventive, impressionistic dramas – Butter on the Latch (2013) /Though Wast Mild and Lovely (2014) are an acquired taste but one that marks her out as a distinctive female voice on the American indie circuit. And here she is at Sundance again with a multi-layered mother and daughter tale that is probably her best feature so far. With a stunning central performance from newcomer Helena Howard and a dash of cinematic chutzpah that sends this soaring, Madeline’s Madeline is a thing of beauty – intoxicating to watch, compellingly chaotic with a potently emotional storyline.

MUSEUM – Best Script Berlinale 2018

Alonso Ruizpalacios’ follow-up to his punchy debut Guëros, sees two wayward young Mexicans from Satellite City robbing the local archeological museum of its Mayan  treasures – simply out of boredom. MUSEUM is an offbeat but strangely captivating drama that gradually gets more entertaining, although it never quite feels completely satisfying, despite some stunningly inventive sequences and three convincing performances from Gael Garcia Bernal, Simon Russell Beale and Alfredo Castro (The Club). It’s largely down to local Mexican incompetence that these two amateurish dudes (Bernal/Ortizgris) get away with their heist in the first place. But what starts as a so-so domestic drama with the same aesthetic as No!, slowly starts to sizzle with suspense as the director deftly manages the film’s tonal shifts to surprise and even delight us – this is a film that deserves a watch for its sheer wakiness and inventive chutzpah. 

IN FABRIC 

Impeccable red talons slide a flick knife across a box to reveal its contours, a beautiful silky dress that can kill. Peter Strickland’s latest, highly-anticipated oddball feature again stars Sidse Babett Knudsen (The Duke of Burgundy) in a haunting ghost story that follows the fate of this bedevilled garment as it passes from owner to owner, with tragic consequences against the backdrop of the winter sales in a busy department store. This is a gem of a giallo with Strickland’s signature soundscape dominating, just as it did in Berberian Sound Studio. 

THE WILD PEAR TREE – Palme d’Or, Cannes 2018 

Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s long-awaited follow-up to Winter Sleep melds his classic themes of family, fate and self-realisation into a leisurely and immersive 3-hour narrative that won him the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes. This is a sumptuous, visual treat to savour but you’ll never actually see a pear tree. 

THEY’LL LOVE ME WHEN I’M DEAD (2018)

There should be a sub-genre dedicated to films about the multi-talented force that was Orson Welles. Here Morgan Neville (Best of Enemies) has his turn with a focus on the final fifteen years of the director Welles as he pins his Hollywood comeback on a film called The Other Side of the Wind, a film within a film sees an ageing director trying to complete his final oeuvre. Welles’ film starring John Huston and Peter Bogdanovich was a hotchpotch of brilliance and tedium, in equal parts. Neville’s doc offers new insight into the creative legend with clarity and charismatic flourishes that would make Welles turn in his grave…with approval. MT

SPECIAL PRESENTATIONS

AQUARELA: Victor Kossakovsky, Eicca Toppinen; BEEN SO LONG: Tinge Krishnan, Michaela Coel, George Mackay, Nadine Marsh-Edwards, Amanda Jenks; FAHRENHEIT 11/9: Michael Moore; THE HATE U GIVE: George Tillman Jr, Amandla Stenberg, Angie Thomas; MAKE ME UP: Rachel Maclean; OUT OF BLUE: Carol Morley, Patricia Clarkson; PETERLOO: Mike Leigh; RAFIKI: Wanuri Kahiu; THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD: Peter Jackson 

OFFICIAL COMPETITION

BIRDS OF PASSAGE: Ciro Guerra, David Gallego; DESTROYER: Karyn Kusama; HAPPY AS LAZZARO: Alice Rohrwacher; HAPPY NEW YEAR, COLIN BURSTEAD.: Ben Wheatley; IN FABRIC: Peter Strickland; JOY: Sudabeh Mortezai; THE OLD MAN AND THE GUN: David Lowery; SHADOW: Zhao Xiaoding; SUNSET: László Nemes; TOO LATE TO DIE YOUNG: Dominga Sotomayor

FIRST FEATURE COMPETITION

THE CHAMBERMAID: Lila Avilés; THE DAY I LOST MY SHADOW: Soudade Kaadan; HOLIDAY: Isabella Eklöf; JOURNEY TO A MOTHER’S ROOM: Celia Rico Clavellino; ONLY YOU: Harry Wootliff; RAY & LIZ: Richard Billingham; SONI: Ivan Ayr; WILDLIFE: Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Carey Mulligan

DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION

DREAM AWAY: Marouan Omara, Johanna Domke; EVELYN: Orlando von Einsiedel; JOHN MCENROE – IN THE REALM OF PERFECTION: Julien Faraut; THE PLAN THAT CAME FROM THE BOTTOM UP: Steve Sprung; PUTIN’S WITNESSES: Vitaly Mansky; THE RAFT: Marcus Lindeen; THEATRE OF WAR: Lola Arias, David Jackson, Sukrim Rai; WHAT YOU GONNA DO WHEN THE WORLD’S ON FIRE?: Roberto Minervini; YOUNG AND ALIVE: Matthieu Bareyre.

THE BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL | 10-21 October 2018

 

 

 

 

The Guardians (2017) ****

Dir.: Xavier Beauvois |  Cast: Nathalie Baye, Iris Bry, Laura Smet, Cyril Descours, Gilbert Bonneau, Olivier Rabourdin, Nicolas Girand, Mathilde Viseux; France 2017 | 134′

Xavier Beauvois imagines the heroic sacrifices made by the women left at home during the Great War (1914-18) and shows shows that he has come a long way since his kitchen-sink debut feature Nord (1991). Based on the 1924 novel by Gouncourt winning author Ernest Perochon, and stunningly shot by Caroline Champetier, THE GUARDIANS is a celebration of female emancipation, played by a brilliant ensemble cast led by Nathalie Baye as a compelling matriarch.

Widow Hortense (Baye) is left in charge of the Paridier farm after her sons Constant (Girond) and Georges (Descours) are sent to the Front; they are soon joined by her daughter Solange’s (Smet) husband Clovis (Rabourdin). Helped by her father Henri (Bonneau), Hortense not only manages the farm-hands, but works the land herself in a bid to ensure that their livelihood continues while the men make occasional visits from the Front. In spite of her best efforts, she has to hire a newcomer, the orphan Francine (the outstanding debutant Bry) who is not only a good worker, but initiates the acquisition of a tractor and a harvesting machine. When Georges comes back from the front for a week, he falls in love with Francine to the chagrin of local girl Marguerite (Viseux) who was favoured by Hortense to marry her son.

Without making an idyll of nature, Champetier frames every shot with great care making fabulous use of the transcendent light, so that the soft hues of the terroir form a glowing backdrop to the toiling humans  The predominantly female workers are gracefully framed as they toil away in the fields and even though their work is gruelling, there is always a certain rhythmic elegance at play. This is a complete contrast to Riefenstahl’s Olympia films where female athletes were shown in short, hectic clips, focusing on an immediate target, like robots robbed of their human qualities. Beauvois lets the camera linger, allowing the scenes to play out naturally. Admittedly, there is some self-indulgence, which manifests itself in the running time, but like Thomas Hardy, some novels need to be transferred to the big screen in their full length – and this is one. Lusciously photographed, but poignant in its dramatic conflicts, THE GUARDIANS is almost a masterpiece. AS

Now SCREENING nationwide in arthouse cinemas courtesy of Curzon

The Glorious Acceptance of Nicolas Chauvin (2018) **** Locarno Film Festival 2018

Dir.: Benjamin Crotty; Cast: Alexis Manetti, Antoine Cholet, Pauline Jacquard, Caroline Deruas; France 2018, 26 min.

Winner of the Mantarraya award at this year’s Locarno Film festival, Benjamin Crotty’s quirky exploration of everything French is cleverly conceived and inventive, both aesthetically and in its execution. THE GLORIOUS ACCEPTANCE is a social and political satire – somewhere between stand-up and Black Adder – biting and highly entertaining. It makes fun of said Chauvinism, but it also pampers to it. A true original.

Nicolas Chauvin (Manenti), legendary one-eyed farmer-soldier of the Napoleonic Wars, comes back to receive an imaginary award while regaling us with a potted history of his grim and glorious career during an outlandish stage appearance that could have been drawn from the tradition of Roman theatre, or even the alazon of Ancient Greek comedy. We’re then transported back to the place of his purported birth in 1820, the navel port of Rochefort. Derring-do was clearly the done thing for this original chauvinist who displays his excessive and unreasonable patriotism, emerging as quite the hero by bravely jumping off battlements and diving into moats without a by your leave to escape the clutches of a glass-eyed chain-mailed enemy, who later kills Nic’s charming female companion (Caroline Deruas). The two men then fiercely debate Chauvin’s psychological identity – did he repress his Oedipus complex and project his mother’s faults onto others, so creating so his paranoia? Another scene change sees him in a bar where he dallies with his next conquest (Pauline Jacquard): all this after a hymn, however barbed, to everything French, Messi plays football on the big screen. Finally, we are back on the stage where Chauvin thanks everybody from Eurosport to François Holland, bearing in mind the president sold weapons worth 8.3 billion in 2016. The elitist classes know no shame. MT

LOCARNO FILM FESTIVAL 2018 | 1-10 AUGUST 2018

Beast (2017) ***

Dir: Michael Pearce | Cast: Jessie Buckley, Johnny Flynn, Trystan Gravelle | UK | 107′ | Thriller

Two troubled souls are drawn together in this twisted and intriguingly intelligent psychological thriller debut from British TV director Michael Pearce.

On a Jersey beach during her birthday celebrations, Moll (Jessie Buckley) breaks away from the fraught family gathering drawn to a tousled-haired wayfarer Pascal ((Flynn) who is implicated in a series of murders rocking the island. Tour guide Moll is far from squeaky clean but her vulnerable, wide-eyed appeal provides a suspenseful counterpoint to Pascal’s sensitive knowingness; such a breath of fresh air compared to her boring police officer boyfriend Cliff (Trystan Gravelle). Moll still lives at home with her dementia-ridden father and dominating martyr of a mother Hilary, a feisty Geraldine James, who is holding everything together – including the church choir – while clearly favouriting supercilious brother Harrison (Oliver Maltman). To add insult to injury, sister Polly (Shannon Tarbet) has just announced her twin pregnancy on Moll’s special day. Clearly there is more to Moll than meets the eye, but Pearce keeps us guessing about her dark secret which is cleverly reflected through her family’s harsh and controlling attitude towards her. There is also something gently sinister about the prickly Pascal who prowls around with a hunting rifle while the two grow closer complicit in their shared orbit of shadowy darkness; Moll’s unhappiness piqued by the sense of danger and romantic thrill that gradually comes to a head in the final beachside denouement. BEAST is a subtle thriller that skates around the edges of melodrama and horror primped by Benjamin Kracun’s luminous images and superbly nuanced performances from Geraldine James, Jessie Buckley and Johnny Flynn as the tense lead trio. MT

NOW ON RELEASE FROM 27 April 2018

 

 

 

The Ballad of Shirley Collins (2017) | Home Ent


Dir: Rob Curry | Tim Plester | Musical biopic Doc | UK | 94′

Rob Curry and Tm Plester (Way of the Morris) retain a 1970s aesthetic for this lyrical paean to Shirley Elizabeth Collins MBE (born Sussex 5 July 1935) the English folk singer who, along with her sister Dolly, is widely regarded as the mainstay of the English Folk Revival of the 1960s and 1970s. After leaving school at 17, she often performed on the banjo and recorded with her sister Dolly, whose piano accompaniment created unique settings for Shirley’s plain and often plangeant singing style. She first met Communist activist and eminent ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax at a party Ewan MacColl held in the early 1954, fell in love and followed him back to Kentucky in 1959 where he had been under surveillance during the McCarthy witch-hunt. The two made recordings under Atlantic Records under the title Sounds of the South (some were re-enacted in the Coen Brothers’ Oh Brother Where Art Thou). But the focus here is largely on Shirley and her life experiences up to the present day, and there’s a distinct feeling of loss and redemption that runs through it.

Shirley Collins comes across as vulnerable but warmly down to earth telling how she briefly lost her singing voice after a relationship ebded, but she has certainly recovered it now – she looks and sounds stunning at 82 – as she performs informally. Shirley is also a lively raconteur adding a touch of wry humour when recalling letters to her family back home, written from her time in Mississippi with Alan, which she describes as ‘quite domestic’: “I must finish now as I have to go and syringe Alan’s ears”.

Narrated by Hannah Arterton (The Five) and enlivened by original black & white footage, audio archives, and colourful filmed excerpts from Arundel and the countryside around East Sussex where she grew up, this enjoyable and informative biopic raises the profile of this little known era of English folk singing with a distinct pagan feel to it. THE BALLAD OF SHIRLEY COLLINS is fascinating and gorgeously framed and captured in Richard Mitchell’s limpid visuals. MT

DVD ON RELEASE FROM AMAZON.CO.UK

My Golden Days | Trois Souvenirs de ma Jeunesse *** (2015)

Dir.: Arnaud Desplechin | Cast: Mathieu Almaric, Lou Roy-Lecollinet, Quentin Dolmaire, Pierre Andrau | France 2015 | 123’| Drama

Arnaud Desplechin is certainly one of the most maddening European directors: His idiosyncratic style, extreme detachment and hyper-ambivalent narratives always miss perfection by a small fracture – but it is a decisive one. And that is probably why this has simmered on the back burner for three years before its current release. Desplechin never seems to mature: his newest film MY GOLDEN DAYS, a sort of prequel to Ma Vie Sexuelle (1996), is once more an example of unfulfilled promise.

In chapters and an epilogue, we learn everything about Paul (Quentin Dolmaire): his unstable mother, who committed suicide when he was eleven, his father, who never got over the tragedy, young Paul’s adventure in the USSR, when he helped a Jew to emigrate, donating his passport. Set in Roubaix, were the director grew up, the main chapter is about the relationship between the teenager Paul (Almaric) and Esther (Roy-Lecollinet in a stunning debut). Paul falls in love with Esther, who has many suitors, but is still very insecure. Paul fights off rivals like Kovalki (Andrau), but when he goes to Paris to study, Esther, becoming more and more fragile without Paul, goes to bed with Kovalki – not so much for passion, but reassurance. In the epilogue, Paul accuses Kovalki of being traitorous, never seeing the point that he left Esther alone. Paul too is unfaithful (seven lovers), but this hardly counts – Desplechin’s misogyny is unruffled after all these years.

Mathieu Almaric is again Paul Dedalus, but Emannuelle Devos’ part of Esther is taken up by the young Lou Roy-Lecollinet. It says much for the film, the director and the male star that Roy-Lecollinet, born in the year Ma Vie Sexuelle was made, comes over hardly any more immature than Almaric, who is thirty years her senior. Whilst Almaric should get all the praise, Desplechin falls into the same trap once again: his witty and perfect dialogues only carry the film so far and the make-believe, that the protagonists resemble human beings, wears thin after an hour.

The leads display fantastic insights into each other lives, but their letters are incredible immature context wise – written by the urbane 54 year old director, and not starry-eyed lovers from the provinces. Further more, Desplechin mentions topics like the cold war, anthropology and the problems of the developing world with encyclopedic knowledge, displaying a wisdom which has no place in the world of his teenage lovers. As in most of Desplechin’s films, the characters are treated like rats in a laboratory, the all-knowing voice-over representing the director’s point of view.

It is sad that these great actors and the wonderful images of Irina Lubtchansky are in the hands of a man who believes in his own perfection, but lacks basic empathy with anyone else: Arnaud Desplachin’s aesthetic brilliance will never be enough, his near-autistic inter-activity with real humanity stands between him and real greatness. AS

ON RELEASE FROM 16 MARCH 2018

Dark River (2017) * * *

Dir: Clio Barnard | Cast: Ruth Wilson, Sean Bean, Mark Stanley | Drama | UK | 104′

Ruth Wilson and the magnificent Yorkshire Dales are the stars of this resonating realist drama that revisits Barnard’s regular territory of childhood abuse and resilience within a male-dominated Yorkshire farming family. These are explored from the point of view of Wilson’s Alice, a feisty and enterprising young woman who is cowed by memories of her turbulent childhood once she returns home after 15 years as a sheep-sheerer abroad. In flashback it emerges that her father (Bean) regularly raped Alice as a young girl (played by young actress Esme Creed-Miles), but has since died after a long illness. Her brother Joe (Stanley) has let their tenant farm run to rack and ruin with his hard-drinking ways and psychotic outbursts symptomatic of his emotional and business inadequacies. Joe blames his shortcoming on Alice’s decision to seek a life away from her tragic past, but when Alice reveals her intention to apply for the sole tenancy of the farm and return the place to commercial viability, Joe is incensed and the place becomes a battleground.

This is a haunting portrait of female disempowerment showing how a strong and vivacious woman can be reduced to a fearful child through her memories of the past. The pain and sorrow is reflected on Wilson’s face and echoed in the stormy shifting skies and moody landscapes of North Yorkshire. Over this unhappy family set-up, commercial vultures circle in the shape of the agent seeking to repossess the farm, and a developer with an offer to buy that Jo finds difficult to refuse. Barnard’s fluid visual style reflects this ever-changing landscape of turmoil that signals doom with every passing cloud. Barnard creates a fabulous sense of place in the rolling countryside of North Yorkshire where the English flora and fauna, such as a pair of nesting barn owls, play their part, without sentimentalising their significance in the daily life of this farming commuity. MT

DARK RIVER | FROM 23 FEBRUARY 2018

 

 

Last Flag Flying (2017) **

Dir.: Richard Linklater; Cast: Steve Carell, Laurence Fishburne, Bryan Cranston, J. Quinton Johnson, Yul Vazquez; USA | 124′

It’s difficult to believe that LAST FLAG FLYING was directed and co-written by the filmmaker of Boyhood, Richard Linklater. Based on the 2004 novel by Darryl Ponicsan, who also wrote Last Detail (1970), later filmed by Hal Ashby, This is a tired road movie which vehemently contradicts its opening message in the sentimental closing stages. ‘Doc’ Shephard (Carell) is looking for his Vietnam buddies Richard Mueller (Fishburne), now a Reverend, and Sal Neaton (Cranston), an alcohol dependent bar owner. Shephard wants their support in burying his own son, who has been killed in Iraq, where he was on a tour with the Marines. Doc, who was a paramedic, actually tried to talk his son out of his decision. So the trio set out to bury Doc’s son in Arlington, bickering among themselves and the government, old and new, who send the soldiers into one mess after another. Meeting Washington (Johnson), a fellow soldier of Shephard junior, it then transpires that the young man was killed whilst buying Coca Cola for his buddies (it was actually Washington’s turn) – not the heroic death the army suggested. But slowly, despite being put off by a robotic Colonel (Vazquez), the Vietnam veterans get into the swing of things, and in the end come to an agreement that the young soldier’s death was heroic after all, ”because we are an okay country, even if the government sends young people out to die in foreign countries”. Very much inferior to Ashby’s Last Detail, of which it is supposed to be a sequel, LAST FLAG FLYING is much too wordy, the characters are one-dimensional, and the trip with the coffin across the country feels somehow awkward. A very unfunny road movie, with a dubious final message. AS

SCREENING AT ARTHOUSES NATIONWIDE | 17 JANUARY 2018

Faithfull (2017)

Dir.: Sandrine Bonnaire | Documentary with Marianne Faithful | France 2017 | 62′.

With 63 films under her belt, Sandrine Bonnaire is a talented actress but needs to hone her documentary making skills. This portrait of British singer/songwriter/actor/performance artist Marianne Faithful, who celebrates forty years on the stage, is slim not only in running time, but also in technique. She fails to bring out the essence of the English singer, songwriter and actress in a strangely invasive film, reducing Marianne Faithfull nearly to tears on one occasion during filming.

FAITHFULL relies heavily on early Sixties footage and TV clips for its watchability. We learn that Faithfull first met Jagger at a party in early on in her career when she was attacked by the main-stream media for not committing herself to being the motherly female “when there are so many ways for her to spend her days; cleaning the home for hours or rearranging the flowers”. On the London stage, she was Ophelia, confessing unashamedly that she could sometimes not perform, because of drugs. Then there are wonderful clips from “The Girl on the Motorcycle, in which she starred as Rebecca.

But it was a miscarriage at 19, at the end of her five year long relationship with Jagger which really damaged her. “Mick wanted children” – and yes he did indeed, having now fathered eight. What followed was a descent into drugs, influenced by her reading William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. But Faithfull always got up and persevered, as her more recent concerts show, getting even better.

Bonnaire will be remembered for a rather embarrassing scene in the car when Faithfull asked her more than once, to turn off the camera and leave her be. But Bonnaire, instead of listening, put the camera even closer to her wounded face. Subconsciously, the director repeats exactly the treatment the teenage singer got from the establishment press. The only way to enjoy this documentary, is to concentrate on Marianne Faithfull’s music, and there is luckily a great deal to enjoy here. AS

REVIEWED  DURING BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2017

Filmstars Don’t Die in Liverpool (2017)

Dir.: Paul McGuigan; Cast: Annette Benning, Jamie Bell, Juliet Walters, Kenneth Cranham, Vanessa Redgrave; UK 2017, 105 min.

Redeemed by the brilliance of leads Annette Bening and Jamie Bell, this rather sentimental psycho-drama recalls Peter Turner’s memoirs about his relationship with Hollywood star Gloria Grahame (1923-1981). Opting for a tricky flashback narrative, director Paul McGuigan introduces the doomed lovers in late 1970s London where Grahame (Bening) is trying to re-establish her career on the London stage; while Turner (Bell) is ‘resting’ in Primrose Hill. Returning to the US, Grahame discovers that her low-level cancer has come back with a vengeance but she is very much in denial, and rejects chemotherapy for fear of losing her hair, and her acting career. She comes back to live with Turner in the home her shares with his parents  (Julie Walters and Kenneth Graham), Ironically, he is playing the part of an doctor while Grahame is dying, but still hopes to play ‘Juliet’.

Gloria Grahame emerges as a complex character, obsessed with cosmetic surgery in a bid to achieve absolute beauty. Her relationships ended mostly tragically: the marriage to director Nicholas Ray (1948-1952) ended in divorce on account of her infidelity with his 13 year son Anthony, whom Grahame later married later in 1960 causing widespread scandal. But Turner was anything but straight: in the film he mentions his bi-sexuality en-passant, but script-writer Matt Greenhaigh decides not to follow this up. There is a telling scene in California, when Gloria’s mother Jeanne McDougall (Redgrave) reminds her daughter poignantly about her predilection for younger men. And there is no mention of how Grahame got to know the Turner family, in the first place.

Polish born DoP Urszula Pontikos uses soft colours, avoiding the usual kitchen sink grime in Liverpool. There are not many laughs, but when the couple pay 90 pennies for two pints, laughter erupted in the cinema. Overall, Bening and Bell play their hearts out, and really convince us of their amour-fou. Like a late Bruckner symphony, they carry their filmstars beyond the realm of everlasting torture and loss. AS

SCREENING DURING BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 4-15 OCTOBER 2017

https://youtu.be/uoRaUCeDLQ4AS

A Mother Brings Her Son to be Shot (2017) | BFI London Film Festival 2017

Dir: Dir-Scr Sinéad O’Shea | Doc | Ireland | 2017 | 86′

When longterm religious conflict infects a population it almost becomes genetic inbred between one faction and the other. This seems to be the case in the Middle East and also in Northern Island where the Troubles first started in the early 1970s and are still going on according to this courageous documentary, five year’s in the making, that exposes modern day paramilitary activity committed by groups opposed to the peace process that hoped to put an end to hostilities with the Good Friday Peace Agreement in 2008.

The film’s title is no joke. Derry mother Majella O’Donnell actually took her drug-addicted teenager Philly to be punished by dissident Republican paramilitaries, who refused to come to her home for fear of ambush, making her  visit their hideout for his anti-social behaviour. In this non-judgemental even-handed film, award-winning journalist Sinéad O’Shea strikes up a friendly relationship with a former IRA member-turned-community mediator, now suffering from lung cancer, and also manages to home-interview Majella, her husband Philly Senior (who was later knee-capped) Philly junior (18 when filming began) and Kevin Barry, a mere stripling, who shows us his arsenal of weapons including an axe; bolt-cutters; a saw and a mallet – in the open scenes of this hair-raising documentary.

MOTHER_BRINGS_HER_SON_TO_BE_SHOT_A_laneO’Shea’s investigations are unsettling and compelling. It emerges that the locals would rather be killed than give information to the Police, so they continue to tolerate the insurgencies which have become a dyed in the wool symptom of this toxic rift between the two sides. One man claims the intolerance is as entrenched in the locals “as asking a Black man to accept the KluKluxKlan”. O’Shea discovers that far from happy with ‘peace’, young Kevin Barry even wish the Troubles were still raging,  None of the O’Donnell family are in employment as each day they feel they are living out the nightmarish scenario of drug-addiction and aggression from the outside, although in the final scenes before her husband’s shooting, Majella claims to be having ‘a good year’ with Philly junior expecting his first child and Kevin Barry on a more even keel emotionally at 15. Driving around the grim and rain-soaked streets, it is shocking to witness so much anti-British sentiment with menacing slogans painted on the walls of buildings. We are even privy to a twilight raid by masked gunmen that brings back those horrific TV images for those who remember the era. The final scene feels almost as if the Dark Ages have returned to modern day Britain.MT

SCREENING DURING THE BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2017 | 13 October 2017

 

Araby (2017) | BFI London Film Festival 2017

Dirs: Joao Dumans, Affonso Uchoa | Cast: Aristides de Sousa, Murilo Caliari, Renata Cabral, Glaucia Vandeveld | Brazil | Drama | 96′

An ordinary life takes on evergreen themes and universal implications in writer-directors Affonso Uchoa and Joao Dumans’ delicate rendering of turmoil in the industrial town in Brazil, when thoughtful teenager, Andre (Murilo Caliari) discovers a notebook that chronicles the eventful life journey of his injured neighbour Cristiano (Aristides de Sousa), a factory worker in the aluminium mines.

Tempered with an atmospheric folkloric soundtrack, this is a cold-eyed but fitting tale for our turbulent times, and an endlessly fascinating politically-infused road movie that gradually broadens out and shifts in tone from the narrow social realist focus of an ordinary young boy, into the multi-faceted decade-long peripatetic experiences of a working man who has travelled from shore to shore, and recorded his fascinating lifestory.

Forty-something Cristiano’s hand-written wanderings come to light when Andre (Murilo Caliari) discovers and becomes engrossed in his notebook, after the factory-worker is injured in an accident at work. And once Andre starts reading the film sets off on its wondrous and finely detailed chronicle of Cristiano’s remarkable wanderings, footloose and fancy-free, through all life’s eventualities, from petty crime and retribution, to love and rigorous labour in order to earn his living, while experiencing the massive country that is his native Brazil.

This is a gently magnificent and free-spirited film exploring an ordinary life  that slowly opens up to extraordinary proportions. MT

SCREENING DURING LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2017 | 4 – 15 OCTOBER 2017

Chez Nous | This is Our Land (2017) | Bfi London Film Festival 2017

Dir.: Lucas Belvaux; Cast: Emilie Dequenne, Andre Dussollier, Gillaume Gouix, Patrick Descamps, Catherine Jacob; France/Belgium 2017, 117 min

Belgium director/co-writer Lucas Belvaux has chronicled a local election campaign in the north of France, with similarities to the real world very much intended. Set in a unnamed town close to Henin-Beaumont in the Pas-de Calais region, where Marine Le Pen was elected as MP in June, after having been thoroughly defeated in the preceding presidential elections, Chez Nous is centred around a a-political community nurse, who is exploited by a far right Party called RNP.

Pauline Duhez (Dequenne) an over-worked community nurse, divorced with two little children, who has to watch, how her patients and most of the townsfolk are suffering from a permanent reduction of their living standard. Whilst her father Jacques (Descamps), is a fierce trade unionist, Pauline is susceptible towards populist right wingers, like Dr. Berthier (Dussollier), the local doctor, who looked after Pauline’s mother, who died of cancer. Berthier is a gentlemanlike neo-fascist, in the mould of Tixier-Vignancour, who was Minister in the Vichy regime, and collaborated with right-wing militias after the war. Berthier has now left military resistance behind, and helps the RNP (Renewed National Party) to gain power in a democratic way. This cannot be said for his erstwhile friend Stephane ‘Stanko’ (Gouix), who is still working for the military wing of the RNP. He was the first love of Pauline at college, and when he re-appears in her life, old feelings resurface. After Pauline agrees to be the RBN candidate for mayor of the town, Berthier warns ‘Stanko’ to leave Pauline alone: the party cannot afford a scandal, if it becomes public that Pauline has relationship with a para-military soldier. Whilst old friends warn Pauline off he engagement and candidature, ‘Stanko’ is ready to sacrifice his relationship with Pauline for the good of the party. But Pauline, who has doubts, confronts Berthier and stands down. She chooses a life with Stanko, who lies to her, that he is a changed man, who has left the armed struggle behind.

CHEZ NOUS is full of ironies: the daughter chooses the opposite end of politics from her father, her lover is really more dangerous than the Doctor, whom she rejects in the end, and the RNP has difficulties in getting rid of old fighters, who still use force. Pauline, politically naïve, is lost among the scheming politicians, particularly Agnes Dorelle (Jacob), the Party leader, who appeals to Pauline’s feminism. A late twist also helps to bring some loose ends together.
Most of the characters are based on figures of the crime novel Le Bloc (2011) written by co-author Jerome Leroy. This helps to keep the protagonists very earthy: in spite of the topic, politics are secondary; Belvaux concentrates on the motives and personalities of the participants. Some dry humour also helps, and Dequenne is particularly convincing. DoP Pierric Gantelmi d’Ille, who worked with Belvaux on Pas son Genre, captures the provincial atmosphere brilliantly, creating a feeling not unlike a Simenon novel. AS

SCREENING DURING BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 4-15 OCTOBER 2017

Funny Cow (2017) | BFI London Film Festival 2017

Dir: Adrian Shergold |  Cast: Maxine Peake, Paddy Considine, Tony Pitts, Kevin Eldon, Christine Bottomley | UK | 103′

After his evocative biopic Pierrepoint: The last Hangman, Adrian Shergold turned his talents to TV work but returns to the big screen with another English story. Maxine Peake stars in the central role of FUNNY COW, a Northern stand-up comedian fighting men and audiences during the 70s and 80s. There is a great deal of talk about Yorkshire, but Shergold’s film explores the negative and exploitative side of Bradford and Leeds, where women were traditionally seen but told to put a sock in it. The poignantly tragic-comic ‘Funny Cow’ attempts to see the humorous  side of this  world where men ruled violently and women were forced to be back-seat drivers, but the cliché-ridden realism leaves little to the imagination. Our heroine grows up on the backstreets and marries chauvinist Bob (Pitts), who neglects and beats her, like her mother (Bottomley), who has become an alcoholic. Finally, the stand-up has enough and leaves her husband, moving in with shy bookseller Angus (Considine), who introduces her to highbrow “culture”, which she rejects; at the same time finding Angus a bit too detached – love and attention are forever connected with the violence she and generations of working class women have suffered. But Funny Cow reconnects with another stand-up performer Danny (Eldon), who is alcohol-dependent and clinically depressed. When he can’t perform one day, the promoter grudgingly accepts Funny Cow as his replacement, warning her that the sexist audience, not used to female comedians, will “murder” her as she fights for career. Maxine Peake gives an engaging performance, gamely carrying the film through long, rather dreary passages, her drive and commitment making Funny Cow convincing, whilst she copes with Shergold’s  TV-film-like structure. They say the old jokes, are the best ones. Here the jokes also bear witness to an unamusing era in female history. AS

SCREENING DURING BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2017

The Summit | La Cordillera (2017)

Dir.: Santiago Mitre; Cast: Ricardo Darin, Paulina Garcia, Elena Anaya, Christian Slater, Dolores Fonzi; Agentina/France/Spain 017, 114.

Another corruscating critique of politics comes from Director/co-writer Santiago Mitre (Paulina) whose cynical eye captures the way politicians deal with each other and their citizens. In spite of structural fault lines, Mitre captures an uneasiness which also affects the personal sphere of the participants.

Argentine president Hernan (Darin) travels to Chile where the presidents of eleven South American States meet to form an Oil producing conglomerate on the same lines as OPEC. But Hernan has trouble at home: his estranged daughter Marina is mentally unstable, and her ex-husband threatens to unmask the president with a corruption scandal which happened when Hernan was a mayor. Hernan is welcomed by the Chilean president (Garcia), who has chosen a mountain retreat in the Andes, reminiscent of the Swiss Alps, for the titular summit. Behind the scenes meetings are obviously more important than public, plenary sessions, as it becomes soon clear that Hernan’s vote will be decisive. The Brazilian president is totally opposed to any participation of the USA, whilst Hernan plays a waiting game. Suddenly, all hell breaks lose with his daughter and son in law making his official duties fraught with difficulty, and the American envoi (Slater), makes him an offer that’s almost impossible to refuse. The only honourable person seems to be a journalist (Anaya), who grills the presidents mercilessly. But Hernan is not the only one well-schooled in avoiding concrete answers. The mountain resort is not only geographically removed from the population, it is a symbol of the political structure of the sub-continent. Hernan is sleeping with a mistress, and the luxury of the surroundings lacks for nothing: it might as well be Washington DC. The score by Alberto Iglesias reflects the uneasiness of the setting, and Javier Julia’s (Wild Tales) images, particularly the panoramic shots from high above, show the splendid isolation of the rulers. AS

BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL | 4-15 OCTOBER 2017

Pop Aye (2017) | BFI London Film Festival 2017

Dir: Kirsten Tan | Drama | Singapore/Thailand | Thaneth Warakulnukroh, Penpak Sirikul, Bong | 104′

Kirsten Tan’s enchanting film debut follows a disillusioned romantic and his elephant across Thailand on a mission to connect with the past. This deceptively simple tale has so much to say, most of it non-verbally, about the ennui of urban life and nostalgia for love, and does so with an understated gracefulness of touch, a distinct visual style and an astringent humour that shows considerable maturity and insight. Clearly she has thought a great deal about her script and subtle characterisations, and it shows.

World-weary Thana (Warakulnukroh) lives a banal existence in plastic Bangkok. Once a well-known architect, his marriage to a shopaholic (Sirikul) is soul-destroying, and his clients now prefer technology to his personal approach. One day he leaves home and just keeps on going, reuniting on the way with his childhood pet Popeye (Bong), a fairground elephant destined for the scrapheap. The two become soulmates in their eventful journey back to Thana’s hometown of Loei, where faded flashbacks reveal how Popeye joined their village life after his mother was shot dead.

Thana opens his diatribe on the perils of city living, in the first of several encounters with helpful strangers the unlikely couple meet along the way. Another more spiritual interlude involves a Buddhist pauper Dee (Khumdee) who senses his end is nigh and whose final wish is to see his estranged girlfriend, who redeems herself in the final scenes, along with Thana’s long-lost uncle (Pongpab) who has a few surprises up his sleeve. Meanwhile, the police take constant potshots at Popeye: roving elephants are regarded as a ‘threat to the public tidiness’, as they continue their illuminating journey. Chananun Chotrungroj’s clever camerawork draws similarities between the misty landscape and Popeye’s vast hindquarters, uniting beast and countryside in a metaphor for Thailand’s lost rural traditions, in poignant contrast to the brash and alienating march of progress unfurling in Bangkok’s glitzy skyline.

Tan’s characters are as subtle and complex as every one of us, and each brings out a new dimension in her story, revealing bittersweet ironies and universal truths, but always with spry humour. And all the while, Popeye is the sad reminder of the country’s past, seen through his knowing gaze and gentle demeanour. MT

NOW SCREENING AT THE BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 4 0CT0BER – 15 OCTOBER 2017

Filmworker (2017) | BFI London Film Festival 2017

Dir.: Tony Zierra | Documentary with Leon Vitali; USA | 94′.

Stanley Kubrick is without doubt one of the greats of 20th Century cinema. His perfectionism and dedication is also legendary as Tony Zierra (My big Break) illustrates in his haunting documentary of how an actor fell under Kubrick’s spell, becoming his right-hand man in an act of near-religious submission. Even now, 18 years after his master’s death, he works tirelessly transposing the film archive onto 4K material.

In 1975, actor Leon Vitali was a young man with a great film and stage future ahead of him and offers from the National Theatre. Securing one of the main parts as Lord Bullingdon in Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. Vitali went on to admire Kubrick so much, that he soon gave up his acting career to learn the craft, finally talking Kubrick into getting him a job on the The Shining (1980). Once Kubrick had gained his trust, Vitali was tasked with casting the child roles for the Cult horror feature. In Full Metal Jacket (1987), Vitali’s main contribution was helping the actors live up to the exacting demands of the director. Whilst returning to his acting career in Kubrick’s final feature Eyes wide Shut (1999), Vitali also helped with various technical tasks.

Being around Kubrick meant often working a 16 hour day and Vitali became a trusted adjutant of the control freak, even worked around the clock during large projects. His three children, who are interviewed, leave no doubt that they came second in the pecking order for Dad’s attention. Other interviewees, like Ryan O’Neal and Matthew Modine, talk about Vitali’s obsessive relationship with the often cantankerous Kubrick. If Vitali detected others’ shortcomings, he brought them to Kubrick’s attention. The obsessive job has taken its toll on Vitali. Physically as well as psychologically, he has aged beyond his years. Now haggard, he’s still driven by fulfilling a self-imposed workload as Kubrick’s personal assistant beyond the grave. FILMMAKER is an absorbing and haunting portrait of obsession. AS

SCREENING DURING BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 4-15 OCTOBER 2017

Cargo (2017) | BFI London Film Festival 2017

Dir: Gilles Coullier | Sam Louwyck, Wim Willlaert, Sebastian Dewaele | 91′ | Drama | France/Bel/Ned

There have been a number of really good marine-themed films of late including Mario Herce’s Dead Slow Ahead (2015); Delphine Coulin’s Stopover/Voir du Pays; Axel Koenzen’s Deadweight; and Felix Dufour-Laperriere’s Transatlantique.  Sadly this is not one of them, but is worth a watch.

What starts as an intriguing ‘man overboard’ thriller rapidly plunges into the maudlin territory of people trafficking in the grim Dutch debut that tries to be all things to all people with a male-centric narrative exploring the aftermath of tragedy for a struggling North Sea fishing company after the patriarch suffers a life-changing fall. Written, directed and produced by Gilles Coullier, the ace up CARGO’s sleeve is a brooding turn from Flemish actor Sam Louwyck as Jean, the eldest son responsible for the ailing fleet. Battling to bring up his 8 year old son, the single father is also tasked with managing his youngest brother Francis, who is a loser hiding his homosexuality, and the black sheep of the family William, who truculently wants to carrying on the family business, against all odds. Three signatures are required to put the business to bed. The other good thing about CARGO is David Williamson’s widescreen camerawork that makes the dismal North Sea coastline sing powerfully with muted blues and forboding greys, echoing the sentiments of this turbulent family saga with its universal themes of migration, financial crisis and the ties that bind. MT

SCREENING DURING THE BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2017 | 13,14,15 OCTOBER 2017

So Help Me God (2017) Netflix

Dirs: Jean Libon, Yves Hinant | Doc | Belgium/France | 100′

This shocking trawl through the daily casebooks of a plucky Belgian judge reveals a catalogue of sexual depravity, murder and domestic violence on the part of her male – mostly Muslim – suspects, proves compelling viewing. But what makes it so entertaining, apart from the usual stories of men disciplining their wives; dominatrixes pleasuring their clients and murderers pleading to be let off so they don’t lose their council properties – is Judge Gruwez’ laconic and no-nonsense approach, taking everything in her stride, but not always taking prisoners, from her bureau in the heart of Brussels.

There is humour here too in a film that is often downright ludicrous. Many of the characters freely admit to their crimes but angrily accuse the judge herself of ‘ruining their lives’ with her legal sentencing enforced to keep them from reoffending. There are macabre moments too: Attending a DNA exhumation in the blazing heat under a pink umbrella, she claims: “it smelt bad, but there was a nice little breeze!” We also witness a woman’s account of how she killed her son, whom she suspected him of being possessed by The Devil.

Driving around in her 2CV, Maitresse Gruwez listens to opera, keeps a snow white pet rat and types her owns correspondence, despite her reduced manual dexterity.  The directors maintain a strictly detached observational approach to the bizarre subject matter, often filming at close quarters. This remarkable and uncensored film certainly lives up to its name, and proves that truth is invariably stranger than fiction. MT

NOW ON NETFLIX

Zoology (2016) Zoologiya

Dir.: Ivan I. Tverdovsky; Cast: Natalia Pavlenkova, Dimitri Groshev, Irina Chipizhenko; Russia/France/Germany 2016, 87 min.

After his stunning debut Correction Class, Russian auteur Ivan Tverdovsky’s second feature is a metaphor for modern life imagined through a wonderful mix of social realism and absurdist parody set in a provincial coast town in the Crimea, where middle-aged Natasha (Pavlenkova) works at a procurement manager at the Zoo. Life is miserable at home with her religious maniac mother (Chipizhernko) who spends the day watching television. At work, she prefers the animals to her conniving co-workers who are always playing tricks so she has more or less resigned herself to the fact that nothing will happen in her life, suffering silently but with dignity until, out of the blue, she grows a tail. This event seems even more sensational when her mother tells her stories of other women in the neighbourhood having grown tails after being possessed by the Devil. Natasha consults her doctor  but tests are inconclusive. The hospital radiologist Petya (Groshev) is supportive and the two get to know each, falling in love against all odds. Even after she is fired at work (as a sacrifice for her incompetent boss), she sees life with Petya as a huge advancement on her past – until  she discovers the magical properties of her new appendage.

DoP Alexander Mikeladze can claim much of the credit for the film’s success. The images are dispondently grim, as in Natasha’s home, her work place or the hospital. The only colour, a radiant blue, emerges when the lovers walk by the sea.  ZOOLOGY conveys the angst of a society in limbo: the older citizens have returned to the blind faith of religion – but they use their belief mainly to ostracize others. The younger generation resorts to self-help in self-healing evenings, modelled on US television. But the main theme is isolation and a failing infrastructure: 26 years after the fall of Stalinism, most parts of the nation still look for a new identity, turning against each other, or living in total indifference. Pavlenkova’s performance in this fairy tale is stunning, Tverdovsky just keeps the narrative anchored in a desolate society, where a huge vacuum of soullessness and misanthropy makes everything seem possible. AS

ON RELEASE FROM 28 SEPTEMBER 2017

Person to Person (2017) | London Film Festival 2017

Dir: Dustin Guy Defa | Cast: Michael Cera | 89′ | US Comedy
Dustin Guy Defa’s slim dramady has that underwritten feel, starting off amusingly with diminishing returns and feeling very much like an expanded series of shorts, despite a perky cast and punchy soundtrack to boost it along. Exploring the trials and tribulations of its New York characters, we meet experienced journo Phil (Michael Cera) and his nervous sidekick Claire  investigating a suspected murder while running into Philip Baker Hall’s dodgy watchmaker. Meanwhile, shy teen Wendy is heading for a double date and music-loving Bene (Bene Coppersmith) tracks across town for a much-wanted purchase. His friend Ray (George Sample III) is in deep water over a video he posted of his girlfriend on the internet. Watchable but forgettable. MT
LONDON FILM FESTIVAL | 4 -15 OCTOBER 2017 | SUNDANCE REVIEW

The Ghoul (2016)

Dir: Gareth Tunley, Tom Meeten, Geoff McGiven, Alice Lowe | Crime Drama | UK | 81min

Actor turned director Gareth Tunley’s stylish low budget indie sees a depressed Northern homicide detective (Tom Meeten) arrive in London to investigate a supernatural kind of crime – one where the victims were fatally shot but went on ‘living’. Clearly, he’s not well, but decides to go undercover as a ‘patient’ to investigate a suspect’s psychotherapist Dr Fisher (Niamh Cusack), who chats him through his inner life and probes his dreams.

Chris spends a great deal of his time bumbling around the streets of London to some atmospheric visuals and a suitably doom-laden score, clearly he’s not in a good place. “Is there anyone in your life you have feelings for” asks the lovely and sympathetic Cusack. As a typical middle-aged British male Chris admits to having a tentative thing going with an ex Manchester University friend called Kathleen: she’s actually with his mate, so this is just a smokescreen. But Dr Fisher probes further and Chris feels uncomfortable as the crime investigation fades into the background and he himself becomes the focus of the enigmatic narrative.

As fantasy and reality gradually become one, Chris strikes up an relationship with the suspect that leads to drinks. It turns out that Dr Fisher is transferring both of them to her boss Dr Morland, a rather voluble therapist  who adopts a jovial and imventive approach to his treatment with the opening gambit: “Normal tea or some sort of gay tea” but Chris goes along with it despite his misgivings and the suspect’s warnings that Dr Morland is dangerous. THE GHOUL grows increasingly mysterious as Tunley’s clever narrative has us searching for clues in a mind-boggling psycho thriller with more tricks up its sleeve than we first imagine. MT

ON RELEASE FROM 4 AUGUST 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

David Lynch The Art Life (2016) Mubi

Dir/Writers: Jon Nguyen, Olivia Neergaard-Holm, Rick Barnes | 90min | Doc

“Sometimes you have to make a big mess to get to where you want to be”

David Lynch tells the strange story of his unorthodox and fascinating life in this intimate documentary. Memories of an idyllic childhood in Montana and Idaho lead to a dark episode in Philadelphia and finally through to the present day where his time is spent painting and enjoying contentment of creative expression- ‘the art life’ – in his studio in the Hollywood hills. It’s an existence that contrasts with the unsettling quality of his films.

It emerges that Lynch drew compulsively as a child, and this film is all about his development as an artist that led to his successful career in filmmaking. Even if you don’t know his films, Lynch is a witty and engaging racconteur, recalling with often minute detail, the feelings and sensations that inform and shape his creative impulses.

Working again with the team behind his 2007 documentary Lynch, which was filmed during the making of Inland Empire, THE ART LIFE offers compelling insight into his past, fleshed out with photographs and personal footage which is cleverly edited by Olivia Neergaard-Holm.

Early life seemed quite ordinary for David, growing up in a sheltered rural bliss of Missoula, Montana and then Boise, Idaho with his ‘perfect’ parents. The eldest of three children, he enjoyed a close friendship with best friend Dickie Smith and his mother encouraged his pencil drawing talents by not providing a colouring book. Unsettling incidents involving Dickie’s father (which he can’t bring himself to recount) and a naked woman wandering around in the street, crying and bleeding from the mouth, were pivotal moments in Lynch’s adolescence which seem to spark a dark introspective quality that later found its way into his films, Eraserhead, Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive. 

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Moves to Spokane, Virginia and DC followed due to his father’s job as a research scientist. He described him as “his own man” who would “always meet him halfway”. But in his late teens David got in with the wrong crowd and fell short of his mother’s expectations. It was as if she had hoped for something special from David that he had not delivered. And from then on she was “disappointed” in him.

David clearly loved his parents but it was his friendship with Toby Keeler that led to his obsession with ‘the art life”. Toby’s father Bushnell was a professional painter and offered to let part of his studio to David for a small fee. From then on, David painted until well into the evening, and fell out with his father who wanted him home by 11pm. But when Keeler Snr telephoned his father to tell him that his son was actually working seriously on his painting, Lynch Snr acquiesced. From then on David’s free spirit soared.

Boston Museum school got the thumbs down because he refused to comply with the restrictive teaching methods there. David craved the freedom to express his creativity often if that meant sitting and listening to his radio until the battery ran flat. The film brings out a solitary stillness to him that indicates a deep inner life, yet he is by no means a loner. His first marriage to fellow art student Peggy Reavey led to Jennifer, the first of his four children. His toddler daughter from his fourth wife joins him in his California studio.

Like many people, David compartmentalised his life to reflect his varying interests and the friends who share these different parts of his existence and are never introduced to each other. But when he got a place at Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, his creative talents flourished despite the grimness of the broken down part of Philadelphia that became his home. It was here that he made his first “paintings that moved, with sound”. often featuring Peggy his girlfriend and mother of daughter Jennifer. In 1972 during the making of Eraserhead, David describes receiving a grant to study filmmaking at AFI Conservatory as one of the happiest moments of his life. It gave him creative and financial freedom to explore his craft, and he continues to this day, working intensively at home. Long periods of contemplative silence are punctuated by Philip Nicolai Flindt’s dense percussive sound design and an atmospheric score by Jonatan Bengta. MT

NOW ON MUBI

 

 

The Secret Scripture (2016)

Dir.: Jim Sheridan | Cast: Rooney Mara, Vanessa Redgrave, Theo James, Aidan Turner, Eric Bana, Susan Lynch | ROI 2016, 108 min | Drama

After some Hollywood mediocrities such as Brothers, director|co-writer Jim Sheridan has tried to recapture his breakout success with My Left Foot by adapting Sebastian Barry’s artful novel The Secret Scriptures. The result is an uneven and often bewildering melodrama, but a moving one that is certainly worth seeing.

Set in the early 1940s and at the end of the 1990s, the drama tells the story of Roseanne McNulty who spent nearly all her adult life in a prisonlike psychiatric ward in Ireland where the film opens showing Vanessa Redgrave as an emotionally distraught elderly Roseanne whose future in the home is threatened due to plans for an upmarket Spa. In flashback the story retraces her young days in Sligo where Rooney Mara is captivating as the young Roseanne who clearly “has power over men”, as the town’s priest Father Gaunt (James), puts it. The Second World War has just started, with Southern Ireland staying neutral but actually supporting Nazi Germany in a clandestine way. Roseanne is marked by the priest as a ‘dangerous’ influence, and soon moved to a dilapidated cottage by her aunt, having worked in her shop and turned too many heads. After rescuing RAF pilot Jack McNulty (Reynor) on the beach one day, she hides him from the paramilitary forces acting on behalf of the Government. The two have a whirlwind affair and marry in haste, but McNulty is captured by his pursuers and executed. Roseanne, pregnant, is send to a horrific church institution for “fallen Women” and gives birth to a son. Learning that the nuns will take her child away and sell it to rich US-citizens, she flees with her baby into the sea.

The narrative is interlaced with Roseanne (Redgrave) telling her story to psychiatrist Dr. Grene (a thoughtfully appealing Eric Bana) and a sympathetic nurse (Lynch). Veering wildly between flash backs and Roseanne’s more contemporary narrative (including her diary, written into a bible), does not help the creation of a dramatic arc: it creates an episodic structure, which not only reduces the emotional impact but also skips over vital clues that muddle and fail to serve what could have been a spectacular denouement.

Whilst Mara, Redgrave and Bana are brilliantly believable, overcoming the shortcoming of Sheridan (both as director and co-writer), the rest of the ensemble is reduced to clichéd cardboard figures despite best efforts from Aidan Turner, Jack Reynor and a mesmerising Theo James as Father Gaunt. But ultimately it is the clumsily-handled finale that robs the film of the glory of its early scenes. Leviathan DoP Mikhail Krichman’s sumptuous camerawork and set pieces of the Irish countryside and interiors are really stunning in conjuring up the romantic past, and the miserably grim atmosphere in the hospital. But Jim Sheridan wastes all this for a sentimental TV melodrama retelling a story which has been told in a much better ways since the original true events. MT

ON RELEASE FROM 19 MAY 2017 NATIONWIDE

The Levelling (2016)

Dir: Hope Dixon Leach | Ellie Kendrick, David Troughton, Jack Holden, Joe Blakemore | 83min | UK | Drama

English filmmaker Hope Dixon Leach explores some thorny contemporary themes in her assured directorial debut that deals with intergenerational conflicts, suicide and the plight of UK dairy farming in a moving family drama where a girl is forced to return home from college to face her troubled past and the unexpected death of her younger brother

Creating just the right mood of sadness and brooding tension, Dixon Leach casts Ellie Kendrick in the central role of Clover who has left home under a cloud to study to become a vet, leaving in her wake family bereavement and unresolved tension due to the death of her mother. Her father Aubrey (David Troughton) is an old school army type who believes in duty though somehow resents his daughter, not least because of her leaving the family farm at a difficult time during the devastating floods of 2014. As is often the case, father and daughter are driven apart by a tragedy which should have brought them together in their grief.

The narrative is fraught with enigma and unanswered questions as to why Clover (Ellie Kendrick) was not invited to her mother’s funeral; why she calls her father by his Christian name, and whether her brother Charlie committed suicide or died in an accident. None of this is revealed adding to a sense of mounting mournful introspection that embodies this often gruelling story. But life must go on where the farm is concerned, and when a male calf is born Clover is forced to kill it, adding to her own sense of woe.

Somerset offers a sorry sight as a backdrop: waterlogged fields awash with mud; her father has been forced to leave the flooded farmhouse and retreat to a sordid caravan. The motif of a hare swimming along the riverbed is redolent of the gloomy state of affairs where even animals seem dejected as they fight for survival in the uncertain climate. Clover bickers with her father as they wallow in sadness, her dog Milo offering the only affection and respite from the unleavened sense of doom. Kendrick carries the film with a sensitive turn and able support from Charlie’s friend James, played by Jack Holden. A friendly neighbour offers much needed practical help as the funeral looms. David Troughton feels awkward with the emotional despair as Aubrey, a man brought to his knees and not used to sharing his feelings. THE LEVELLLING makes for a grim but resonant viewing in this promising debut from a fresh English talent in the making. MT

RELEASES AT ARTHOUSE CINEMAS NATIONWIDE | 12 MAY 2017 

Certain Women (2016) | Best Film | LFF 2016

Director: Kelly Riechardt

Cast: Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart, Jared Harris, James Le Gros

107mins | Drama | US

Auteur Kelly Reichardt’s latest film is a humane and poignant story capturing the isolation and quiet devastation of loneliness. Following her noirish eco-thriller Night Moves, CERTAIN WOMEN feels even more prescient, yet low key and leisurely as it reveals with startling vulnerability the lives of three women in contemporary America.

Adapted from short stories by Maile Meloy and set around the trendy mountain outpost of Livingston, Montana (Michael Keaton, Dennis Quaid and David Lettleman have places nearby), this female-themed drama initially feels understated but eventually resonates as its gently calibrated rhythm echoes through the wide open landscapes of the northwest Pacific and the close reliance between people, animals and nature.

Casting stars alongside newcomers, regular collaborator Michelle Williams (Meek’s Cutoff) joins Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart and a welcome discovery in the shape of Lily Gladstone. These women play characters who could be you or me. And their daily lives strike a knowing chord as they trip lightly through our own experiences, in the capable hands of Reichardt and Meloy.

The opening scene is one that springs to mind as local lawyer Laura Wells (Dern) lies pensively in bed after a brief encounter with her lover Ryan (James Le Gros), who we later discover is married to another member of the trio. Pulling on his thermal underwear he goes back to his roost with wife Gina, Michelle Williams’ spiky mother of sulky teenager Guthrie (Sara Rodier). Turns out he also shares a close bond with Guthrie as the family camps on a piece of land where they plan to build themselves a house. Gina and Ryan hope to get elderly Albert (Rene Auberjonois) to sell them some local sandstone so that their house will have a touch of the vernacular. This is the only scene where Gina cracks a disingenuous smile as her assertive qualities comes across as machiavellian manipulativeness.

Laura Wells, meanwhile, is tasked with defending local chippie Fuller (Jared Harris), who is proving to be an irritating client fighting an un-winnable compensation claim over an accident at work. Taking liberties and turning up in unexpected places, Fuller seems to think he has the upper hand because Laura is a woman, and a sympathetic one at that.

The third strand is an enigmatic encounter with a twinge of l’esprit d’escalier where Kristen Stewart’s legal graduate Elizabeth travels thousands of miles each day to teach teachers education law. Attending the classes is Jamie (Lily Gladstone) a groom from a nearby ranch who seems drawn to Elizabeth, but whether this is a schoolgirl crush or nascent lesbian longing is wisely never examined, giving the story delicious depth and mystery. Jamie’s days are spent in the company of horses and her trusty mutt (Reichardt’s own corgi cross), but she seems ready to spread her wings although her direction never quite unravels. The two grow strangely close – emotionally and physically – as they share evenings together in the diner and a horseback ride back to Elizabeth’s car.

CERTAIN WOMEN is both pleasurable to watch and enjoyable to contemplate, It probes the lives of intelligent women whose longings never quite materialise, remaining inchoate and undefined but instilled with the growing melancholy of possibilities untrammelled and romantic disillusionment. DoP Christopher Blauvelt adds a grainy, indie feel to his glistening 16mm camerawork, and the tone that is subdued and introspective, enhanced by Jeff Grace’s atmospheric score. These are women who seem to know themselves but are somehow back-footed by their circumstances, being too empathetic with their fellow humans to boldly make a stand in raw emotional scenes that communicate more in visuals than they ever could in words. MT

NOW ON GENERAL RELEASE FROM 3 MARCH 2017 | BEST FILM BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2016 

Christine (2016)

Dir.: Antonio Campos; Cast: Rebecca Hall, Michael C. Hall, J. Smith Cameron; Tracy Letts; USA 2016, 119 min.

After his superb thriller, Simon Killer, Director Antonio Campos goes on to murder his biopic on newscaster Christine Chubbock, who killed herself on air in July 1974, aged just 29. This is an uneven production that doesn’t do justice to Craig Shilowich’s decent script and, despite a resonant turn from Rebecca Hall in the lead, the film is often shot like a parody of a 70s horror outing.

Christine Chubbuck (R. Hall) worked for the ABC affiliated WXLT-TV channel in Sarasota, Florida and suffered a depressive personality disorder brought on by illness and an unsuccessful love life. Living with her mother Peg (Smith Cameron), she developed strong feelings for co-worker George Peter Ryan (M.C. Hall), an Anchor at the TV station and was given the plumb job in Baltimore that Christine had yearned for. When Ryan told Christine that he was leaving Sarasota, taking with him her close friend and sports reporter of WXLT, this was the final straw for the unhappy journalist. On July 15th 1974, she read the news (even though she was employed to present her own show ‘Suncoast Digest’), and when the item about a local restaurant shooting jammed, she calmly announced “we are bringing you the latest in blood and guts and in living colour –you are going to see another first – attempted suicide”. Taking a handgun out of her bag, she calmly shot herself behind the ear. On her desk, police later found a manuscript of her last TV appearance, including a third-person account of her suicide.

Christine Chubbuck died 14 hours later in hospital. Shilowich’s narrative includes many highlights of her career, such as Chubbuck’s constant run-ins with new-director Mike Simmons (Letts), who accused her of “being a feminist, always being too loud, to drown out others”. But the way women in the workplace are treated makes Chubbuck’s point crystal clear: far from being too loud, the female employees were always at pains to soft-pedal the males, who went on to get the promotions, with Ryan a good example of macho posturing with deals were concluded over a glass of beer at the bar.

The scenes between Christine and her mother are very emotive: whilst daughter criticises mother for her flings with younger men, she still dreams of being taken out. Whilst Christine Chubbock was intellectually and professionally ahead of her times, her lack of emotional satisfaction made her fight even harder for recognition at work. So the problems at WXLT snowballed, and when she feared that she would lose even her professional identity, she gave up.

Why director Antonio Campos and DoP Joe Anderson decided on a near gothic treatment, with shadows dominating even the sober atmosphere of the TV studio, is inexplicable – surely the story of Christine Chubbuck has enough dramatic impact on its own. PD Scott Kuzio recreates the 70s communication world to a tee – with manual typewriters and huge, handheld cameras. He and lead actress, a superbly convincing  Rebecca Hall, have to overcome the director’s penchant for stylistic indulgence, which takes so much away from an otherwise perfect basic concept. AS

ON RELEASE FROM 27 JANUARY 2017

Close Relations (Rodnye) (2016)

Dir: Vitaly Mansky | 112min | Documentary | Ukraine | Russia

Chatting to his mother in the opening scenes of RODNYE, Ukrainian director Vitaly Mansky (Pipeline) discovers for the first time that his background is mainly Russian and that one of his grandmothers was Polish Lithuanian (Babushka Sonya), indicating that Ukraine was at one point, part of Poland. Pictured sitting in the modest flat where he grew up, and where his mother still lives in Lvov, Mansky’s relishes his humble beginnings. After leaving to study filmmaking in Moscow, he is back again due to the recent upheavals in the eegion. RODNYE explores the current climate through a series of informal vists to his close family members in Lvov, Odessa and Sevastopol (Crimea). What unfolds from their differing perspectives is a fascinating potted political history of this part of the world during the period May 2014 to October 2015. Mansky brings his usual brand of black humour to the film, and some poignant family moments into the bargain.

Juxtaposing often feisty debate with low-key domestic scenes (a stray dog adopted by his sister wanders into the picture at one point and listens intently) and personal reflections (that echo Jem Cohen’s style), Mansky offers up something much more illucidating and profound than could ever be gleaned from newspapers or TV. This multi-faceted and nuanced analysis of national identity comes with some impressive footage of everyday life along with family photos from the album.

In Sevastopol New Year’s Eve is being celebrated in Russian and Ukrainian styles. In common with most of Eastern Europe, borders have been a moveable feast since time immemorial and Mansky’s birthplace Lvov used to be Polish and before that, Lemberg, part of the Hapsburg Empire. An irrestible documentary for those interested in poltical history RODNYE offers arresting scenes of the Black Sea port of Odessa; a bride and groom floating down the famous steps that featured in Battleship Potemkin; a funeral cortege complete with Ukrainian millitary in official regalia; Spring in Kiev and Donbas in Eastern Ukraine (“Ukraine has chosen the European path at last” sighs one of his sisters); and finally – a trip to the ballet. Describing the film as his “personal tragedy” Mansky offers a moving but often conflicted portrait of contemporary life amid crisis. MT

SCREENING AT BERTHA DOCHOUSE from 20 JANUARY | LFF REVIEW

A United Kingdom (2016)

Dir.: Amma Asante; Cast: Rosamund Pike, David Oyelowo, Laura Carmichael, Tom Felton, Jessica Oyelowo, Jack Davenport, Terry Pheto, Vusi Kunene; UK/US/Czech Republic 2016, 105 min.

Director Amma Asante’s moving portrait of the love story between English secretary Ruth Williams and Seretse Khama, Prince of Bechuanaland, offers political clichés instead of analysis but stays just the right side of a good melodrama held up by its convincing lead performances. With her scripter Guy Hibbert, Asante dusts down with a certain aplomb this fascinating episode from England’s post war history and Pike and Oyelowo share a natural onscreen chemistry that feels both genuine and appealing.

Clearly, it was love at first sight when Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) met Prince Seretse Khama (D. Oyelowo) at a London dance in 1947 organised by the Missionary Society – of which her sister Muriel (Carmichael) was an avid member. Prince Seretse had come here to study Law and one year after their ‘coup de foudre’ the couple married at Kensington Registry Office, since the Bishop of London, William Wand, would only allow a church wedding if the government gave its consent. Needless to say, this did not happen and the couple are treated rather shabbily by the powers that be. And also by their own families: Ruth’s father George disowns her and things don’t get better for the couple in Bechuanaland (Botsawana) – at the time a British Protectorate: Seretse’s uncle Tshekedi (Kunene), who wants his nephew to succeed him as a ruler, but only on condition of Seretse marrying a black woman. The Prince’s sister Naledi (Pheto) offers the couple her reluctant support.

Back in London, Prime Minister Attlee is in league with the South African government, who has just introduced Apartheid. Since South Africa cannot stomach a multi-racial couple governing in a neighbouring country, Attlee agrees that the prince should be exiled from his own country for five years. After Ruth gives birth to their first child, she and her husband put all hope in Winston Churchill, who had promised Khama’s return to his homeland. But once in power, Churchill just expands the exile for the whole lifespan of Khama (“being in opposition is one thing, the reality of governing is another one”}. Meanwhile, in the future state of Botswana, Alistair Canning (a sneering Davenport), and his wife (Jessica Oyelowo), try their best to persuade Ruth to give up her marriage, and Alistair even puts on the garish uniform of a Viceroy, to impress the locals. But with the help of Tony Benn (the grateful couple would name one of their sons after him) and petitions by the population of his native country, Ruth and Seretse are allowed back to Bechuanaland in 1956, after living five years in Croydon. Seretse Khama would later modernise the country as the first President of an independent Botswana.

The scenes in London are realistic but the Bechuanalanders are shown as being rather naive and very romanticised, the newly independent Botswana was, at the time, the third-poorest country in the world, despite fantastic mineral reserves. Pike and David Oyelowo really hold it all together and one can really believe their boundless love, which started with their common passion for Jazz. The political machinations are the weakest part of A UNITED KINGDOM: the characters involved in these scenes are not only shown as manipulative, but also downright unappealing: merely satirical cardboard cuttings. DoP Sam McCurdy succeeds in great panoramic images in Africa, and a foggy, subdued post-war London, still staggering on its knees from the war. Whilst this is certainly a story which needs to be told, Asante and writer Guy Hibbert, often simplify the political aspects, using the protagonists as ‘talking heads’.  When all said and done, A UNITED KINGDOM has great universal appeal as being a real and enduring romance between Ruth Williams and Seretse Khama, lasting until his death in 1980. AS

SCREENING from 25 NOVEMBER AT THE TRICYCLE CINEMA, ODEON, PICTUREHOUSES AND VUE

The Wailing (Goksung) 2016

Dir.: Na Hong-jin; Cast: Kwak Do-won, Hwang Jung-min, Jun Kunimura,
Chun Woo-hee, Kim Hwan-hee, Moo Myeong); South Korea 2016, 150 min.

Director/writer Na Hong-jin (The Yellow Sea) imagines a monstrous journey into the occult – gigantic not only in length, but also in narrative and aesthetic over-kill. What makes THE WAILING bearable in spite all of the hocus-pocus, is the performance of lead actor Kwak, whose police officer Jong-Goo is more of a loafer than an enforcer, bringing some comic relief to the often gruesome proceedings.

Set in the same rural environment as many of the famous South Korean detective mysteries like Memories of Murder, Jong is introduced at the breakfast table with his wife and daughter, eating leisurely before setting out to investigate a multiple murder – as if this would be a routine case in his tranquil village. As it turns out, Jong doesn’t need to worry, because the culprit, the father of the slain family has been already caught. Soon more gruesome killings occur, and Jong sets out into the woods, to look for the chief suspect, a Japanese stranger (Kunimura), who has been spotted eating animals. But in spite of employing a shaman (Il Gwang), Jong does not get any nearer to the solution of this mysterious murder spree, which starts to dominate his dreams, But worse is to come when his daughter (Hyo-jin Kim), is affected by the illness. Then a strange woman (Moo) starts throwing stones at the detective, before warning him that the Japanese is not the culprit. In the end, THE WAILING ends as it began: as a riddle about religious obsession: which is really the devil behind the mass slaughter – and poor Jong has to come up with the right guess, to save his daughter.

THE WAILING is not a traditional horror movie, it does not rely on jump-scares (only once) or use sound as a harbinger of approaching evil – it more or less sucks the audience in, just like the virus spreading in the village. This is a story about desperation, the helpless Jong (and the audience) trying to find a rational solution for the crimes. There is contamination, affected victims vomit constantly: bodily and psychologically possession is the name of the game. But in the end, this endless cycle of new victims and new suspects is tiring: the self-indulgence of the director takes it toll – not only in running time, but in the narrative structure of film. DoP Kyung-pye is able to create to create two separate worlds: the mundane village life, to which Jong clings too long for his own good, and the jungle of the woods, from where evil spreads. It is ironic, that after such an exhaustive tour-de-force the main emotional impact should be deflation. AS

ON GENERAL RELEASE FROM 25 NOVEMBER 2016

The Innocents | Agnus Dei (2016) | LFF 2016

Dir.: Anne Fontaine; Cast: Lou de Laage, Agata Kulesza, Agata Buzek, Vincent Macaigne; France/Poland 2016, 115 min.

Director and co-writer Anne Fontaine (Emma Bovary) creates an emotionally intense, aesthetically outstanding and politically brave film. Set in rural Poland in December 1945, THE INNOCENTS draws on material by the French doctor and resistance fighter Madeleine Pauliac (1912-1946) who was a Medical Lieutenant in the French Army and a member of the ‘Blue Squadron’, an all female unit involved in repatriating displaced citizens after the WWII.

Mathilde Beaulieu (de Laage) works in a field hospital in the Polish countryside. The war wounded are still dying, but the psychological impact on the even more serious, as Mathilde will soon find out when she meets Maria (Agata Buzek) a nun from the nearby cloister, who approaches her in a desperate state of mind, asking for help. Smuggled into the cloister by Maria, Mathilda finds out that more than a dozen of the nuns are pregnant, having been raped by Russian soldiers. Mother Superior (Kulesza) is against any outside help, she wants to sweep everything under the carpet: the esteem of the cloisters in the eyes of the outside world is more important to her than the physical and mental wellbeing of her nuns. With the help of her lover, the Jewish doctor Samuel (Macaigne), Mathilde intervenes to help the women but the Mother Superior remains deeply troubled and devises a scheme of her own.

Agata Kulesza – brilliant here as the Mother Superior – was cast as the die-hard Stalinist in Pawlikowski’s Ida. Both Catholicism (together with some other religions) and Stalinism (in common with other authoritarian ideologies) represent a deeply inhuman ideology (camouflaged by a canon of salvation for the worthy), with often deeply misogynist tendencies. The Mother Superior is hell bent on being the executor of a dogma, punishing “her” women again, after their traumatic experience with the Russian soldiers. And, like the Stalinist gospel, it is all about blind, intransigent submission: “We cannot doubt her, we can only obey her” says Maria to Mathilde at first – but her later defiance will save lives. Samuel, whose parents were murdered in Bergen-Belsen, and Mathilde, from a working-class background, are the sceptics: they have seen enough horrors not to rely on any religious or political faith to cloud their judgement. Focusing on their humanitarian convictions, they don’t select victims, but help them all. Needless to say, both of them are ‘suspects from the sinful world’ for the Mother superior. Their own low-key romance helps to leaven the austerity of the Convent theme, with Macaigne injecting some caustic moments of humour to an otherwise severe scenario.

DoP Caroline Champetier again works wonders with natural light. She frames landscapes, cloisters and the hospital with a limpid and painterly lens that seems illuminated by candllelight to show the darkness of the era. The delicately rendered interior scenes glow with a gentle purity and those in the snow evoke a white shroud placed over all the mass-graves of those that have fallen. THE INNOCENTS is never melodramatic with Fontaine keeping a detached eye in spite of the emotional turmoil, but this makes for an even even more harrowing drama. Whilst getting the balance between form and context right, the real success Is her ability is to create an overwhelming emotional impact, which remains for a long time.

ON GENERAL RELEASE AT PICTUREHOUSE CINEMAS FROM 11 NOVEMBER 2016|

Kate plays Christine (2016) | DVD release with Actress

Dir.: Robert Greene; Cast: Kate Lyn Sheil; USA 2016, 112 min.

Director/writer/editor Robert Greene (Actress) tries to answer more than one question with his documentary style psycho thriller KATE PLAYS CHRISTINE: he uses the 1974 on-air suicide of US TV newscaster Christine Chubbuck not as an isolated tragedy, but to highlight and explore questions of gender, gun control, news media and the reality of acting.

The documentary part of KATE consists of Sheil trying to retrace the steps of Chubbuck, whilst the re-enacted scenes are purposefully tacky and unsettling, stylistically close to the 70s aesthetics. Central to the film is lead actress Kate Lyn Sheil (You’re Next) who becomes obsessed with the life and death of the tragic newscaster, who seems to have faded from the public memory, dying just short of her 30th birthday. Reading up on the sparse literature which exists on Chubbuck, Kate travels to Florida where Chubbuck lived and worked. Sheil buys a spooky brunette wig, brown contact lenses and uses spray tan to get into character. In Sarasota, always a town of transients and tourists, hardly anyone remembers the dead woman. In an interesting contrast, we see Sheil buying a gun from the same dealer as Chubbuck in the re-enactment. The shop owner admits freely to Kate that everyone answering a few simple questions can acquire a gun “even if he is mad – after all, I am no psychologist”. Sheil also buys fluffy animals, it emerges that Chubbuck’s bedroom resembled more that of a nine year-old girl than a woman of 29.

Greene wants to avoid explaining Chubbuck’s suicide, depression is far too complex an illness to be explained in two hours. Instead he concentrates “on showing the gap between the ‘real’ self and the ‘staged’ one”, a gap, which Chubbuck savagely obliterated. The irony is that her on-screen suicide was a protest against the sensational packaging of news, which is run by men, and Chubbuck’s depression and loneliness was used as an excuse for her objective criticism of the male dominated TV news. The recent events at Fox TV, where millions of dollars were paid to female newscasters for sexual harassment by their male bosses, are proof that the tradition has survived. Chubbuck put all of her energies into her work and to be passed over for promotion by a boss who favoured her male colleague, who then landed the prize job taking with him her best friend at work, was just the last straw.

As for Kate Lyn Sheil, who is as much a collaborator as an actor, the experience of playing Christine Chubbuck has left her convinced that acting is much more than re-creating a person: “What I care about most is trying to give a voice to the lonely and unusual. Empathy is what matters to me. I hope that people watching the movie will feel as bewildered, infuriated and ultimately heartbroken as I did”.

When approaching the re-staging of the suicide, both director and actor came to a solution which does justice to Chubbuck. DoP Sean Price Williams excels with his colour schemes: the cool, cold Sarasota of today is shot in arctic blue, the TV studio is a mass of colours, fighting which each other, the close-ups reveal masks, not real people.
Greene struggles sometimes to keep a unity of the different styles, but Sheil always keeps everything together: unlike Network or the most recent Christine, Kate plays Christine asks question, and lets the audience answer them. An unique undertaking, worth watching as an example for its critical approach of the medium it represents. AS

KATE PLAYS CHRISTINE comes to DVD 14 November to buy. The DVD release will feature a bonus DVD of Greene’s 2014 cult film ACTRESS as well as incredible extras including: alternative opening, nine deleted scenes and the theatrical trailer. 

Porto (2016) | LFF 2016

Dir.: Gabe Klinger; Cast: Anton Yelchin, Lucie Lucas, Francoise Lebrun, Paulo Calatre; Portugal/France/USA 2016, 75 min.

In his feature debut, director/co-writer Brazilian filmmaker Gabe Klinger relies almost totally on atmosphere and some beautiful, dreamy images – but leaves his two main characters largely underwritten so the audience is left guessing.

American traveller Jake (Yelchin, in his final role) meets French archaeologist Mati (Lucas) in Porto, where the two have a passionate one-night stand. Jake wants a relationship, but Mati returns next day to her professor and lover Monteiro Oliveira – in spite of her misgivings about the relationship. In the end we see her regreting her decision to her mother (Leburn) in Paris.

The narrative is split in three sections: Part I, “Jake” tells the story of how the two lovers met at a restaurant. Part II, “Mati” features the archaeologist being disappointed by her marriage, which leads to a split which seriosuly affects her daughter, before setting out to Paris to meet her mother. Part III “Mati and Jake” is a very detailed observation of their sexual relationship.

Trying hard to emulate the Nouvelle Vague, Klinger relays on the wonderful camerawork of DoP Wyatt Garfield (Mediterranea), whose Porto is a city of wonders. So are the interior shots, creating magic out of the simplest rooms; whilst the images in the restaurant, where the couple meets, are full of enigmatic longing. This makes for an enjoyable watch. Unfortunately, we learn next to nothing about the protagonists who are purely intuitive, acting on impulse. PORTO is at its best in the scene where Mati returns with Oliveira to her flat, only to find Jake still in bed. The much older professor is very restrained, making small talk, as if nothing has happened. But Klinger never explains any motivations, the trio remains a total mystery, making it impossible for anyone to care for any of them. What remains are images, unsettling in their mysterious otherworldliness. An enigmatic tribute to Anton Yelchin. AS

SCREENING DURING BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL UNTIL 16 OCTOBER 2016

The Last Laugh (2016) | LFF 2016

Dir: Ferne Pearlstein | Doc | US | 88min

With the help of Mel Brooks, Larry David and Holocaust survivor Renee Firestone, documentarian Ferne Pearlstein explores how humour can come out of taboo topics such as the Holocaust.

THE LAST LAUGH discovers that it’s all down to who is telling the jokes and how much time has elapsed since the tragedies occurred. Comedian Gilbert Gottfried comes up with a neat solution:”tragedy plus time equals comedy”.  So it’s ok to joke about ‘The Spanish Inquisition’ but ‘9/11′ is still understandably out of bounds. Brooks’ 1968 film The Producers was considered an outrage back in the day, but his later 2005 version (directed by Susan Stroman) was given the thumbs up. And jokes can often be cathartic in times of great stress. Concentration camp survivor Firestone claims that humour was the only weapon they all had against the Nazis. Brooks terms this “Revenge by ridicule”.

But despite satirising Hitler even Mel Brooks finds it difficult to joke about the Holocaust. Something that Joan Rivers managed to pull off on The Tonight Show. Apart from The Producers, making fun of the Nazis is almost a sub-genre in Hollywood from Mel Brooks’ The History of the World (1981) to Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940) and Holocaust survivor and comedian Robert Clary talks about appearing in the TV series Hogan’s Heroes with reference to his young days entertaining in the camps.

Yet Brooks decries Life Is Beautiful, as being the ‘worst film every made” so humour doesn’t always work Holocaust wise. The rule of thumb when lampooning any tragedy seems to be ‘stick with the turf”. Roughly translated this means : Jews can joke about Jewish tragedies such as the Holocaust, and Black people can send up slavery; but neither should cross either other’s boundaries, which somehow makes sense.

THE LAST LAUGH slightly loses its way in the last half hour when it broadens the debate and but it’s watchable and entertaining for the most part. MT

SCREENING DURING BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2016

 

The Bait (Tope) | LFF 2016

Dir: Buddhadeb Dasgupta

Cast: Sudipto Chatterjee, Kajal Kumari, Ananya Chatterjee, Chandan Roy Sanyal, Paoli Dam

88min | Fantasy Drama | India | Bengal

Putting the art into arthouse, Bengali director Buddhadeb Dasgupta takes Bandyopadhyay’s short story and creates a gorgeously vivid and surreal melodrama shot through with touches of magic realism and whimsy and set in the lush and languid landscapes of rural Bengal. This often poetic literary adaptation is evocatively steeped in sensuous imagery and cultural references, conjuring up its ancient folklore with dreamlike sultriness and gentle comedy.

Lost in the past, Sudipto Chaterjee plays a fierce and arrogant Raja living in faded splendour in a palace deep in the jungle, whilst his plumb lover Rekha (Ananya Chatterjee) feasts on bananas and dreams of escaping; clearly a dissillusioned romantic. Meanwhile the Raja has pretensions to greatness and spends his days dancing fiestily around the exotic palace and its extensive grounds, chanting and generally trying to impress anyone with his wild ambition to kill the local tiger. His nose is rather put out of joint when a Kolkata film crew arrives to make a documentary about the tiger. This seems to upset his feudal sensibilities and he reacts with pompous hostility to the well-intentioned filmmakers. Meanwhile there are two other strands to the storyline: a colourfully clad low caste girl dances on a tightrope through the fish-filled river beds, and a mad former postman Goja (Chandan Roy Sanyal) chants jibberish from the branches of a tree, strewn with his postbags full of mail.

The denouement is sudden, startling, and open to interpretation as the narrative plotlines come elegantly together. THE BAIT is a beguiling and bewitching film full of rich colours, seductive warmth and exotic mysticism. MT

SCREENING DURING BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 5-16 OCTOBER 2016

 

Planetarium (2016) | LFF 2016

Dir|Writer: Rebecca Zlotowski | Cast: Nathalie Portman, Lily Rose Depp, Emmanuel Sallinger, Alexandre Zloto | Drama | 105min | Franco Belgian

Rebecca Zlotowski follows her nuclear-power-based love story Grand Central with a drama that is more about psychics than physics. PLANETARIUM is of the ether and floats sumptuously and delicately through a pre-war story of supernatural powers possessed by two gorgeous sisters who arrive in Paris from New York to perform seances, connecting the living with the dead. Zlotowski has written the script herself in an meandering and impressionist style-narrative that gracefully conjures up the febrile state of Europe in the late 1930s, capturing a magical moment in time that is both starstruck and doomed. The girls’ whimsical story is firmly anchored by a powerful racist subplot involving its lead male character André Korben, a wealthy Polish Jew.

Natalie Portman is the brightest star of PLANETARIUM as Laura Barlow, but she is surrounded by a galaxy of sparkling performances from Lily Rose Depp, who comes into her own as the younger and more ethereal sister Kate;  Emmanuel Salinger as Korben, a film producer who part-finances and accommodates the girls in his elegant Art Deco home; and Alexandre Zloto who plays a silver-tongued René-Lucien Chomette (aka René Clair best known for his work with silent film in the 1930s and titles such as A Nous la Liberté and Le Million). Seeing that times are hard seance-wise in the run up to the war, Korben seizes on the potential of a supernatural-themed film harnessing the skills of The Barlow Sisters, as a potential career in acting beckons for Laura. Sadly despite a fascinating detour into cinematic methods of the era, this film within a film burns a financial hole into Korben’s production company and the story ends as a tragedy after his Jewish roots are exposed and he is sent ‘East’ (to the gas chambers). But not before the champagne flows and a seriously soigné time is had by all. So even if Zlotowski’s storyline often blinds you with its science and the odd plothole, it does so in such a fabulously enjoyable and inventive way with stunning costumes, glamorous locations and starry encounters, by the end it’s all been a blast. MT

SCREENING DURING BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL UNTIL 16 OCTOBER 2016 | VENICE REVIEW

 

Private Property (1960) | LFF 2016

DIR/Writer: Leslie Stevens | Cast: Kate Manx, Corey Allen, Warren Oates, Robert Ward, Jerome Cowan | Drama | 79min

PRIVATE PROPERTY was an independent production marking the directorial debut for his own company Daystar of the Broadway playwright and screenwriter Leslie Stevens (1924-1998). Immediately condemned by the Legion of Decency when it opened in New York in April 1960, the Production Code Administration denied the film a code seal; making Private Property the first U.S. feature film to be released without code approval since Otto Preminger’s The Man with the Golden Arm five years earlier.

Seen today – without giving away too much of the plot – it’s pretty clear that what appalled the censors about Private Property at the time was less the looming threat of violence throughout than the raw sweaty concupiscence driving the three main characters – two unkempt young drifters played by Corey Allen and Warren Oates (in his first major screen role) who first spy upon, then invade the plush home of a frustrated housewife played by Stevens’s then-wife Kate Manx; later described by Andrew Sarris after her suicide in 1964 as of “hauntingly stupid blonde beauty”. (The title Private Property plainly refers to both Ms Manx and her Beverly Hills home). Filmed in just ten days in the summer of 1959 for under $60,000 in Stevens & Manx’s own Hollywood Hills home; Stevens had the great good fortune to be able to call upon the skills of the veteran Hollywood cameraman Ted McCord – known in equal measure for his extreme cantankerousness mitigated by his great resourcefulness on location while filming classics like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and East of Eden – whose long tenure at Warner Brothers had recently come to an end and was available for a fraction of his usual fee. Under McCord’s seasoned tutelage the newly restored film looks sensational.

Although it’s lack of MPAA approval had discouraged any major distributors from picking up Private Property for a commercial release, its scandalous reputation brought it a successful run in art cinemas across Europe, and it eventually grossed over $2 million before quietly dropping off the radar for nearly fifty years (it has never been included in any of Leonard Maltin’s film guides, for example), and it would have left an even worse taste in the mouth if it had still been in circulation at the time of the Tate-LaBianca murders of August 1969. It left a lasting impression on those who saw it, however. The late Dave Godin wrote in 1999 that “Very few people seem to have heard of, let alone seen, this bizarre and strange film, but it is ripe for re-discovery as a precursor of the harsher realism that American movies were able to explore once censorship restrictions were lifted.” Finally a print was discovered at UCLA, who screened their restoration of it last year as part of its 2015 Festival of Preservation.

Sarris dismissed Stevens’s next feature, Hero’s Island (1962) – an 18th Century historical adventure in Technicolor again featuring Manx and Oates and starring James Mason – as “best left to the more esoteric film historians”; while Stevens surpassed himself with the even more esoteric Incubus (1966), a horror film starring William Shatner with dialogue entirely in Esperanto. His company Daystar had in the meantime moved into TV production, where Stevens created his biggest splash as the creator of the evergreen cult series The Outer Limits; and went on to enjoy a long and busy career in television while also pursuing an enthusiasm for New Age philosophy. Richard Chatten

SCREENING DURING BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2016 until 16 OCTOBER

My Scientology Movie (2015) |

Director: John Dower,  Prod: Simon Chinn Writer: Louis Theroux

99min  Doc   UK | US

Scientology is a body of beliefs and related practices created by American science fiction author L Ron Hubbard, who lived from 1911 – 1986.

Well-known BBC documentarian Louis Theroux blows the roof of the Church of Scientology in this often hilarious exposé of the enigmatic organisation, made with the help of senior ex-members whom have subsequently ‘blown-out’ (been ejected or forced to leave). This is Theroux’s first big screen outing and together with a running time of 99 minutes, the piece  successfully employs the elements that elevate it to feature status: a significant theme of worldwide appeal; a serious Hollywood-style orchestral score, a three-act structure where the third act offers a significant turning point or dramatic nugget. And Louis has certainly achieved this transition to feature doc – ‘cum laude’, as they say in the US.

Louis Theroux is at the top of his game: he is accustomed to dealing with unusual, unpalatable or unexpected themes and all manner of human behaviour which he invariably handles with supreme skill, without offending or seemingly being offended. Non-judgemental in his approach, he elicits remarkable responses from his subjects, often coaxing or beguiling with such self-effacing charm the individuals remain unaware that they are being gently manipulated into revelations or admissions. He uses the same techniques here with often remarkable results.

For MY SCIENTOLOGY MOVIE, Louis politely requested ‘The Church’s collaboration, but apparently they have flatly turned him down. But he won’t take ‘no’ for an answer, even when he’s simply trying to deliver a letter to the Church’s headquarters in Los Angeles, California. Accused of trespassing on a public road, he eventually turns the tables on his accuser, a senior member of the Church, ‘allowing’ her to stay, rather than drive away in her car with the words: “it’s ok, you’re not trespassing”. When she asks: ‘why are you filming us?’. Louis responds with superlative politeness: “Why are you filming me?” In short these guys are not going to ‘shut his butt down’ on the fascinating subject-matter that he has come to explore.

In order to offer enlightenment and understanding as to the Church’s methods, Louis and helmer John Dower, use actors to role-play the characters and experiences of the ex-members – including one who “finds it easy to tap into a well of anger” to play the part of the current Head David Miscavige. In this way, Louis sheds light on an organisation which exerts control over its members, non unlike those of the Mormon religion, often keeping them from leaving using similar techniques. John Dower uses inter-titles to put the salient facts forward and there is recent archive footage from the Hollywood-style films that L Ron Hubbard created to promote the Church’s activities. What emerges is intriguing and alarming but Louis always keeps the tone light even when he is openly vilified by his collaborator Matt, an ex-senior official, who emerges as somewhat of a narcissistic individual, a personality type the Church seems to attract amongst its followers. Tom Cruise is a close friend of David Malsavige and another senior member who, we learn, has spent around 1 million dollars on courses to rise to the senior echelons of the Church. What transpires in Louis’ documentary will certainly give audiences food for thought and a better understanding of this arcane organisation. Who knows: You may even consider joining. MT

NOW ON GENERAL RELEASE AT SELECTED CINEMAS | REVIEWED AT BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2015

 

All of a Sudden | Auf Einmal (2016) | LFF 2016

Dir.: Azli Özge; Cast: Sebastian Hülk, Julia Jentsch, Hanns Zischler, Sascha A. Gersak, Luise Heyer; Germany/Netherlands 2016, 112 min.

German/Turkish filmmaker Asli Özge (Lifelong) has developed a well-constructed narrative about young bourgeois Germans, who seem on the outside to be unlike their infamous Nazi grandparents, but, as it turns out, have more in common than first appears.

Karsten (Hülk), in his mid-twenties, works in a bank and has steady relationship with Laura (Jentsch). When she is away on a business Karsten decides to give a party, and soon finds himself alone with Anna, celebrating her birthday with some flirtatious fun. One thing leads to another and suddenly we see Karsten running to a nearby hospital, which is closed. He returns, and eventually phones an ambulance – but it’s too late, Anna is dead. It transpires the young woman was German, but lived in Russia for a while where she was married with a daughter. Questioned by police, Karsten has no answer as to why he he didn’t phone for an ambulance immediately. And to make matters worse, he has hidden Anna’s underclothing, which Laura finds on her return. The autopsy result shows that Anna took medication for asthma; the alcohol she consumed was contraindicative, and led to a cardiac arrhythmia. She more or less suffocated. At home with his parents, Karsten compares himself to his racist father Klaus (Zischler), who has offered the Russian family a financial settlement, which they have refused. “I am like you”, Karsten exclaims, “ I just want to look superior”. Nevertheless, he soon changes his mind, and visits Andrej (Gersark), Anna’s husband, but manages to upset him too with some high-handed behaviour. Later he is cleared in court, and starts to take revenge on his superiors at the bank (who had demoted him during the case) and on his former girlfriend Judith (Heyer), whom he now blames for his relationship breakdown with Laura.

Unfortunately, All of a Sudden runs into difficulties early on: Özge aims for enigma but her direction is often clumsy and overlaboured: images and words overlapping, stretching the threadbare chronicle to the maximum. Despite a competent performance, Hülk is never able to show the slightest menace, leaving us in doubt about his involvement with Anna and what emerges at the end is rhetorical rather than meaningful. Emre Erkmen’s superb camerawork supports the rather limp realism,  but makes evocative use the small Rhineland town of Altena with memorable results. AS.

SCREENING DURING BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 5-16 OCTOBER 2016

 

Private Property (1960) | LFF 2016

Dir.: Leslie Stevens; Cast: Kate Manx, Corey Allen, Warren Oats, Robert Ward; USA 1960, 79 min.

Leslie Stevens (1924-1998) is hardly a household name – but the director/writer of PRIVATE PROPERTY – a film wrongly panned by Andrew Sarris – has contributed significantly to film history: he not only adapted the play The Left Handed Gun by Gore Vidal for Arthur Penn’s screen version of 1958; but, as executive producer of Daystar Productions, he was responsible as writer and director for the cult series The Outer Limits (1963-65).

PRIVATE PROPERTY starts with a long tracking shot, two men seemingly crawl out of the ocean and walk along the beach. They soon steal from a petrol station attendant, and force the guy, who gave them a lift to LA, to follow a posh Corvette car, driven by an attractive blond woman. Then Duke (Allen) and Boots (Oats) settle into an empty house in Beverly Hills, overlooking the property of Ann (Manx) and Roger Carlyle (Ward). Whilst watching Ann sunbathing, Duke promises Boots, who has never slept with a woman, and is obviously gay, that he will make Ann sleep with him. Duke, a psychopath who can mirror the wishes of people he wants to seduce, gets to work, and introduces himself to Ann as a gardener. The bored housewife is only too glad of company, her husband spends all day in the office and travels often, and she and Duke get very close. But when Duke is about to make his move, he introduces Boots and Ann runs away from him. What follows is a surprising orgy of violence.

Shot in five days for $60 000 at the home of the director, who was married to Manx at the time – she would commit suicide at the age of 34 after they split up in 1964. PRIVATE PROPERTY was condemned by The League of Decency and did not get a PCA certification. It nevertheless grossed over two million US dollars, even though it could only be seen outside the big cinema chains. Stevens, who had worked with Orson Welles at the Mercury Theatre, shared his former boss’s taste for unsettling subjects, and innovative camera angles. DoP Ted McCord (East of Eden, The Sound of Music) moves the camera often from the POV of Duke and Boots, catching Ann like an animal in the zoo: she is their object; but, in spite of Freudian innuendos, like opening a bottle of perfume with a stopper resembling a dildo – not a sexual one. Duke is only interested in his power games, and for Boots, she represents just a fairy-tale figure, who he wants to admire but only from a safe distance. The black and white images, sometimes grainy, sometimes dreamy, capture a creepy atmosphere, a sort of harbinger of the future when the Manson gang would commit their murders ten years later. AS

SCREENING DURING BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 5-16 OCTOBER 2016

King Cobra (2016) | LFF 2016

Dir: Justin Kelly | Cast| James Franco, Christian Slater, Garrett Clayton | 87min | Drama

The ubiquitous James Franco was once a name to be conjured with: Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, 127 Hours and even Pineapple Express showed initial promise for his sterling efforts and energetic talents as an actor, director and writer. But Interior Leather Bar set him off down another track and Every Thing Will Be Fine followed. In KING COBRA he is back on form, once here again teaming up with Justin Kelly (I Am Michael) and lending a certain charisma to his supporting role in this rather seedy gay porn outing, based on the true story of the early career of the soi-disant ‘Brent Corrigan’ (aka Sean Paul Lockhart) played by Garrett Clayton, who we first meet, aged 17, auditioning for Cobra Video, an amateur gay porn company set up by King Cobra himself, Stephen (Christian Slater).

From the get go, audiences will smell a rat when they see Stephen salivating at the discovery of his nascent porn starlet while still purporting to be straight: when his sister offers to set him up on a blind date, he protests:  “I can manage my own love life”. You bet he can, and it all originates from the privacy of his own home.

At first Stephen appears to be a relatively low key nonce. He is sadly aware that his ageing looks are a hindrance in bedding desirable under-age men. Although Sean claims to be 18. But delusion is his only bedfellow, and while he  kids himself that Lockhart and he are lovers,  the blond boy-star has other plans. Far too cute to fall in with Stephen,  he swiftly leverages his burgeoning potential by demanding more money from the slippery entrepreneur. And soon enough, perky porn producer Joe (Franco) comes sniffing along and smartly involves Lockhart his boss a ‘ménage à quatre’ with his easygoing partner Harlow ( Keegan Allen) and thus the ‘Viper Boys’ are born, servicing their physical and financial lives. But Joe is clearly also a profligate narcissist with a penchant for fiery temper tantrums when he is thwarted.

KING COBRA’s narrative plays out as a fascinating character study between the four men and their sexual interplay with some decent performances in scenes of an often graphic nature that will go down well if gay sex or gay porn is your schtick. MT

SCREENING DURING THE BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 5 -16 OCTOBER 2016

Rara (2016) | LFF 2016

Dir.: Pepa San Martin; Cast: Julia Lübbert, Emilia Ossandon, Mariana Loyola, Augustina Munoz, Daniel Munoz, Micela Christi; Chile/Argentina 2016, 92 min.

Filmmaker Pepa San Martin delivers a stingingly truthful portrait of family disintegration in her promising debut RARA, where a father uses the sexual orientation of his ex- wife to gain custody of their two daughters. Based on a true case in Chile, RARA is a sad account of judicial prejudice, told often in an ironic tone when describing situations bordering on the absurd.

In the Argentine city of Mar de Plata, Paula (Loyola) has left her husband Victor (D. Munoz) and taken their kids Sara (Lübbert) a maudlin teenager, and her much younger sister Catalina (Ossandon) to form a new family with. Lia (A Munoz). Things come unstuck when Sara tells her father about harassment at school because she lives with “two Mommies”, and Victor, a one time supporter of Pinochet in Chile, starts a court case to get custody of his two daughters, ably supported by a “tame” psychologist and his influential mother.

The catalyst of the narrative is Sara, whose teenage angst is driving her into the arms of her father, sometimes against her own will. Homelife for Paula and Lia is often problematic with the two arguing and causing friction between Catalina and her sister. At school, Sara’s best friend, Pancha (Christi), is everything Sara wants to be: slim, articulate, and indulged by her rich parents. Victor, manipulative by nature, uses Sara’s birthday party to alienate her from his ex-wife – after all, his house is much bigger than Paula’s. When Sara stays out late – just another attempt to copy Pancha – the situation boils over.

RARA, means strange in Spanish, and is certainly the situation finds herself in caused by adults who say something, but mean exactly the opposite. Sara flirts with co-student Julian, her sister is obsessed by a little kitten – their worlds do not meet. On top of it, Victor is a true macho man: when his new partner Nicole tells him to wash his hands before lunch, he immediately hits back, shouting at Sara to take her feet off the sofa.

RARA’s strongest moments are these small observations. The true victim is Sara, who is not only used by her biological parents as a pawn, but also is left to mother Catalina, since her father is hopeless at communicating with his girls and Paula is too engaged in her emotional struggle with Lia to notice, let alone care. Carried by Lübbert and Ossandon, RARE is always lively and tenderly humane as evoked in DoP Enrique Stindt visuals that contrast the two very different family homes, but also create lyrical scenes of the city, where Sara will find her freedom away from the interfering and selfish adults. AS

SCREENING DURING BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 5-16 OCTOBER 2016 | BERLINALE 2016 REVIEW

L’Hermine (2015) | Courted

Director: Christian Vincent

Cast: Sidse Babett Knudsen, Fabrice Luchini, Marie Riviere, Miss Ming

98 min | Drama | France

United with Fabrice Luchini, the star of his 1990 film La Discrète, director Christian Vincent’s drama COURTED observes the goings on in a courthouse in Saint-Omer, north-west France, where the trial of a presumed child murderer is taking place.

Judge Racine (Luchini) is presiding over the trial, he is not very much liked, his frigid manner and punitive nature earned him the nickname “Double-Figures” because of his severe sentences. The defendant, a young man is not very helpful, he simply repeats that he did not kick the four-year-old Mélanie to death. Racine, who is in the process of divorcing and lives in a hotel, comes down with a heavy flu at the beginning of the trial, which does not improve his mood. But soon enough, Racine mellows, when he finds out that one of the jurors, Ditte Lorensen-Coteret (Knudsen), is the anaesthetist he fell in love with in the hospital where she treated him after an accident. Suddenly, Racine becomes human and allows the defendant to go free, since it is clear, that he covered up for his girl friend, who was expecting another child at the time of the crime.

The meetings in a restaurant with Ditte show another side of Racine: he is a lonely man, only too willing to impress Ditte, even trying not to show his annoyance at her internet-obsessed daughter, who hijacks the rendeszvous of her mother. The visuals cleverly convey the two levels of this film: medium and wide shots dominate the court scenes, close-ups the restaurant scenes. Vibrant colours suffuse the romantic meetings, whilst in the court the light is harsh with all protagonists being more or less colourless ciphers. Vincent does not try to tell a story: L’Hermine is episodical and fragmented, only held together by Luchini’s personality, and it carries it well and very competently. There is a masterful dramatic tension here that leaves the audience always wanting to know more. AS

ON RELEASE FROM 30 SEPTEMBER | VENICE 2015 FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW | WINNER BEST SCRIPT AND BEST ACTOR

Chevalier (2015) | Best Film Award | London Film Festival 2015

Director: Athina Rachel Tsangari

99min | Comedy Drama  | Greek with subtitles

If you didn’t get the humour in Athina Rachel Tsangari’s first Weird Wave outing Attenberg, you’re unlikely to appreciate the subtlety of her indie follow-up, CHEVALIER, voted Best Film at the London Film Festival this year, by a jury whose president, Pawel Pawlikowski, took the trophy last year for IDA, and won the foreign language Oscar.

A tribute to male competitiveness, CHEVALIER is a sparky and sophisticated affair that takes place on a wintry out-of-season yacht trip where six well-off men attempt to get ‘one up’ on each other over a pivotal few days on the Aegean. The one-upmanship revolves around a game. And the game is called ‘Chevalier’, named after the signet ring worn by French noblemen. By the end of the voyage, the winner of the game will get to wear the so-called Chevalier ring on his little finger, although the narrative gradually sails into more eclectic waters.

Tsangari’s usual collaborator Yorgos Lanthimos was away making The Lobster,  but she works again with their co-writer Efthimis Filippou in a narrative that concentrates on male dominance rather than female submission, as was the case in Attenberg. The men on board all vary in age, attractiveness and kudos. ‘The Doctor” (Yorgos Kentros) is clearly the most distinguished and urbane of the motley crew, he is also the owner of the critical ring. The youngest and least bankable is the pudgy Dimitris (Makis Papdimitriou) who has been brought along by his older brother, Yannis (Yorgos Pirpassopoulos) who threatens to reveal his fear of sleeping alone if he misbehaves. Yannis also happens to be the Doctor’s son-in-law, so is on his best behaviour; the suave Christos (Sakis Rouvas) is the best looking. Josef Nikolaou (Vangelis Mourikis) and Yorgos (Panos Koronis, from Before Midnight) are long-term colleagues.

Once holed-up ‘at leisure’ in the yacht with diving trips and boozy lunches to enjoy, certain patterns of behaviour start to emerge in the name of the game. The men spar and vy for superiority indulging in playful and, at times, more more ribald banter that occasionally verges on the hilarious, particularly when Dimitris does an on-deck rendition of Minnie Ripperton’s “Lovin You`’ complete with girlie high-pitched voice. The ultimate aim here is to establish who is the best at everything rather than in one thing in particular – ‘primus inter pares’ style. Challenges also include who is the ‘most loved’ on the home front – requiring the men to engage in hands-free phone calls in front of the others. There is even an ‘erection contest’ in this  male-bonding (aka  competitiveness) routine. The winner is thankfully never revealed.

For a film that takes place by the sea, the colour palette is refreshingly devoid of azure blues and dazzling turquoise: instead Tsangari has chosen a chic taupe, teal and gunmetal aesthetic which compliments this recherché masculine set-to. D.oP Thimios Bakatatakis does his best to frame and photograph within the claustrophobic confines of tight spaces to great effect, given the equally tight budget. And in the end, the individual tasks are not taken that seriously; they are simply representative of the male ego and what it is prepared to undergo and tolerate within the parameters of the game, however outlandish or absurd. At times, there are echoes here of Eddie Waring’s “It’s a Knockout”. Spot Greece’s answer to Keith Chegwin and you’ll enter the spirit of this clever satire. MT

CHEVALIER WON A SPECIAL MENTION BY THE JURY AT SARAJEVO FILM FESTIVAL 2015

 

The Wait (2015) | L’Attesa

Director: Piero Messina

Cast: Juliette Binoche, Razor Rizzotti, Lou de Laâge, Domenico Diele

100min  Drama   France | Italy

In an villa in Sicily a woman is waiting in the dark. Something terrible has happened and this mystery feels as ancient and as dark at the one between mothers and their sons. THE WAIT is Piero Messina’s directorial debut and it feels a very Italian film with is echoes of Christ’s death underpinning the narrative and linking it to the deep sense of loss and pain that one mother feels in the aftermath to a tragedy that unravels during Eastertide in her family home.

Clearly taking cues from his mentor Paolo Sorrentino, Messina has made a highly stylised and haunting drama with another tour de force performance from Juliette Binoche in the role of Anna. A French woman who married a Sicilian several decades previously, she is now divorced but still lives in the age-old villa at the foothills of Mount Etna.

This is a slow-burning drama that has divided audiences here at Venice Film Festival, where it has its premiere. Lou de Laâe plays a madonna-like young woman who has been invited to the villa to share the Easter holidays with her boyfriend Giuseppe, Anna’s son. But Anna, devastated by the death of her brother, is caught of guard by this arrival and simply cannot communicate, what appears to be another absence, that of her son Giuseppe.

This very simple storyline allows Messina to craft a seductively atmospheric two-hander in which two woman dance a tentative tango while each attempts to scope out the other. As Anna, Binoche is captivating. While being drawn to Jeanne – who is also French and a welcome guest from the ‘outside’ world – she craves her company but also keeps her at arms’ length from the awful circumstances of her sudden loss. This is a clever ploy but also a deeply selfish act, for which she is chided by the old retainer, Pietro (Giorgio Colangeli). Claiming she is waiting for the ‘right time’ to tell Jeanne, she continues to luxuriate in the girl’s bewilderment and she quizzes her on the relationship with her son; playing a power- game while she teases out information from the younger woman.

Clearly, something is not right. Jeanne has not heard from Giuseppe for several days and cannot raise him on his mobile phone. Deeply in love with him, she waits patiently while politely playing houseguest to Anna. At the same time, Giuseppe’s whereabouts remain a mystery: is he injured, dead or simply gone away without letting anyone know? Messina builds up such a magical ambiance, luxuriating in the glorious heat of this Sicilian springtime, that somehow we are content to let the enigma play out, clutching at straws and letting our own imaginations wander as we wonder where he is.

Deeply ambiguous, yet imbued with ancient symbolism, the film ends without even revealing the truth behind this everlasting mystery: that of the relationship between a mother and her precious son. For Catholics, this is especially resonant: the Virgin woman conceiving and giving birth to a boy single-handedly, she continues through life to exert a special and enigmatic control over him until the end.  And to re-enforce the sacred mystery: we never meet Giuseppe in THE WAIT. And for many mothers, this is the only power they have over their sons when the boys grow into men.  Jealously guarded them and keeping other women away for as long as they possibly can. When their sons do fall in love,  the women will always regarded with suspicion and occasionally atavistic hatred and mistrust, by their mothers.

Essentially a two-hander, inspired by the Pirandello’s play: “The Life I Gave You” from Luigi Pirandello’s “Six Characters in Search of an Author”), THE WAIT may be prove too long a wait for many. But savour its atmosphere while you can. Messina is a new voice and a stylish one. And Italian cinema is desperately in need of one. MT

NOW ON GENERAL RELEASE

REVIEWED AT VENICE FILM FESTIVAL 12 SEPTEMBER 2015

 

From Afar (2015) | Desde Alla | Golden Lion Winner | Venice Film Festival 2016

Director: Lorenzo Vigas

Cast: Alfredo Castro, Luis Silva, Jerico Montilla, Catherina Cardozo

93min  Drama  Venezuela | Mexico | Spanish with subtitles

The feature film debut of director Lorenzo Vigas, who has created a body of documentaries, is a small but well- observed drama set in the violent environment of Caracas and is based on a story by Guillermo Arriaga.

Armando (Castro) is a well-to-do but lonely man in his fifties resigned to his lucrative work a dental laboratory. At an encounter with his middle-aged sister, who is planning to adopt a child with her husband, we meet Armando for the first time agitated at his father’s return from abroad; his sister attempting to keep the peace. It never emerges what Armando’s issue is with his father (who we see a few times in the distance), but these negative feelings seep into his life. Sometimes he pays for a young male prostitute, but the sexual experience is more voyeuristic than anything else – until he meets the young Elder (Silva), who beats him up. Strangely, Armando seems to return for more punishment, until we begin to understand that the older man is trying to use Elder to revenge his father. Eventually passionate sex occurs but Armando warns Elder “not to get too close”, a warning Elder, who is looking for a father figure, after his mother had rejected him as a ‘faggot’, does not take seriously. The clever twist in the tale lies in the ambiguity between the two men: what appears as a tale of sexual awakening turns out to be something quite different and intriguing.

Castro is well cast as the loner who is single-mindedly focused on his own revenge: his Armando is a distracted avoidant, wrapped in his own world, alone at work and in his flat, a subdued retreat full of books and records. Elder, on the other hand, is full of contradictions: his violence is a defensive mechanism, ashamed of his tender feelings for Armando, he compensates with a macho role when he is with his friends. Vigas evokes a threatening sense of place in the Venezuelan capital where violence and alienation of the young and poor, dominate. Somehow, Armando’s psychopathic tendencies gradually emerge and it is clear that his relationships have all being tainted by his hatred for his father but his reaction to Elder comes as a complete surprise. Cinematographer Sergio Armstrong (NO) creates a sense of alienation and detachment with his washed out and torpid palette of sombre olive green and teal. A subtle and expertly-performed character study from veteran Alfredo Castro (The Club, Tony Manero) and newcomer Luis Silva. AS

REVIEWED AT VENICE FILM FESTIVAL 2 -12 SEPTEMBER 2015 | NOW ON GENERAL RELEASE FROM 1 JULY 2016

Rester Vertical (2016) | Cannes 2016 Competition

Director|Writer: Alain Guiraudie

Cast: Damien Bonnard, Christian Bouillette, Laure Calamy, India Hair, Raphael Thierry

100min | Drama | France

After winning Best Director in Cannes Festival’s Un Certain Regard sidebar in 2013, for his intriguing thriller Stranger By the Lake, Alain Guiraudie is back in the main competition line-up with another eventful drama entitled STAYING VERTICAL which is set in the wild and wolf-inhabited plateaux of the Southern Massif Central and shares the same dark and absurdist humour as his 2009 outing The King of Escape.

STAYING VERTICAL is also similarly charming and queer oddity, in bost senses of the word that follows its dorkish but likeable hero Leo (Damien Bonnard) an itinerant screenwriter who chances upon a single-mother and shepherd Marie (India Hair), while researching his writing. What starts as a bucolic love story in the farm she shares with her father, the rough-handed ogre-like Jean-Louis (Raphael Thiry), leads to the two fathering a child but Marie soon leaves for pastures new when she realises Leo has no future, leaving her with the baby.

Leo feels fulfilled with this outcome but Guiraudie has more quirky surprises in store for us in the shape of a strange local couple, Yoan (Basile Meilleurat) who he tries to invite for an audition on account of his wolfish looks – and a crabby old man, Marcel (Christian Bouillette), who seems obsessed with talking about anal sex. There’s a feeling that Leo is bisexual but this seems an option he’s prepared to explore rather than a serious predilection. However, he does draw the line when approached by Marie’s father more from the associative perspective rather than the sexual one. And this power of suggestion seeps through Guiraudie’s narrative for most of the film’s modest running time providing both a rich and seductive vein of dark humour and a ruminative meditation for the audience. As in The King of Hearts, all the male characters here share an amorphous sexuality which is both appealing and freaky due to their associative and binding ties, as they are all fathers or father figures.

As the title STAYING VERTICAL suggests, this is a film about coping with what life throws in your direction and particularly in this remote part of France, it explores a poor community who is forced to get along and make the best of things in often challenging circumstances. Once again it also flags up the narrative of sexuality being a fluid and moveable feast where comfort and support is often more imperative than erotic desire and the often graffic sex that takes place is functional rather than glamorised.

Despite its tonal uneveness, Guiraudie’s film contains some powerful political and societal themes. There are moments of wild beauty in the winding roads and bleak hillsides of this unexplored part of France and to reflect this remoteness, Guiraudie occasionally wanders into poetic scenes where Leo visits an alternative healer (Laure Calamy) and shocking ones where he is robbed by the same homeless people who he has helped during his visit to a nearby port. The theme of wolves recurs again and again throughout the film.  At first, they ravage the sheep including Marie’s treasured sheepdog and they appear again at the end of the film bringing a satisfying feeling of closure and a chance for redemption for Leo, who up to now emerges as somewhat of a loser, albeit a kind-hearted one, representing a feeling that men are the lost lambs of contempo society: in their quest to be connected with their emotions, they have ceased to fulfill their expectations as the strong protectors of the fold. MT

CANNES FILM FESTIVAL 11-22 MAY 2016

 

 

Hitchcock|Truffaut (2015) | Home Ent release

Director: Kent Jones

80min | Documentary | US

Hitchcock |Truffaut is a treat for cineastes and mainstream audiences who will appreciate a well-made documentary that gets behind the screen with two of cinema’s legends: Alfred Hitchcock and François Truffaut. In 1962, after an exchange of letters declaring their mutual admiration for one another, François invited ‘the master of suspense to take part in a filmed interview, via an interpreter, that resulted in the eponymous book that became a film bible for critics, filmmakers and cineastes alike.

Kent Jones has really excelled himself with this epicurean delight for film-buffs everywhere. Not only do we get to meet ‘Hitch’ and Truffaut but also David Fincher, Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, Wes Anderson and other top-drawer directors opining on the subject of how Hitchcock influenced and formed them, cinematically-speaking. Hitchcock /Truffaut plays out like a masterclass in filmmaking – all in 80 glorious minutes – making you want to rush home and watch Hitch’s entire oeuvre in a darkened room.

To be fair, Truffaut, the young ‘Cahiers’ film critic turned New Wave director, doesn’t really get much of a look-in here. And fate would sadly cut short his career when he died, aged 52, in his directing prime. We see him brimming with enthusiasm as the legendary 63 year old pro holds court with his wry and witty repartee.

Kent Jones honed his craft working in television and later went on to programme the New York Film Festival before winning the prestigious Peabody Award for A Letter to Elia in 2010 and Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows. With Hitchcock|Truffaut, he makes the valid point that the book established the theory that Hollywood fare stands up to the same kind of artistic scrutiny and attention as arthouse films that were being made in Europe at the time. Kent also shows how Truffaut wanted to release Hitchcock from his reputation as a light entertainer when actually he was very much a visually-orientated auteur who ‘wrote with his camera’ and established how filmmaking is very much about controlling and extending time while maintaining the purity of silent cinema and of the image; about creating reality from the manipulation of light and image.

The talking head interviews are informative and to the point; never outstaying their welcome: Olivier Assayas, Kiyoshi Kurasawa, Arnaud Desplechin, Paul Schrader, James Gray, David Fincher and Wes Anderson, all giving succinct pearls of wisdom on how Hitchcock and Truffaut inspired them on the subject of filmmaking and directing. Fascinating footage and clips from both Truffaut and Hitchcock’s films will further add to the cinematic allure and have you trying to guess the identity of each film.

Jones then proceeds to analyse, at some length, Vertigo and Psycho, while offering insight into Hitchcock’s own psyche, and showing how Psycho was a game-changer in the history of modern filmmaking, ushering an era of uncertainty and marking a paradigm shift in perceptions during the early 60s a time of public insecurity as a result of the Vietnam War. Kent shows how the interview left Hitchcock re-considering his controlling methods of working with actors (“Actors are the cattle”) such as when he ordered Monty Clift to look up to the Hotel (in I Confess) when Monty considered it vital to look at the crowd. Hitchcock’s will prevailed but this leads us into another interesting debate.

There is a voiceover narration from Bob Balaban (Close Encounters) which accompanies the documentary, making this an invaluable and complex piece of filmmaking useful both as an academic tool and an absorbing and fact-filled addition to the documentary archive on Hitchcock. MT

OUT ON GENERAL RELEASE FROM 4 MARCH 2016

The Club | SILVER BEAR winner Berlinale

Director: Pablo Larraín

Cast: Alfredo Castro, Antonia Zeggers, Marcelo Alonso, Roberto Farias

98mins  Thriller  Chile

Chilean director Pablo Larraín is well-known for exploring the dark corners of his homeland to ferret out a few skeleton’s from the nation’s history. THE CLUB is such a story. There is always a place for his regular collaborator Alfredo Castro in these dark and often gloomy dramas. In this one, Castro (From Afar) gets a leading role hiding out in a windswept coastal backwater as a crusty old paedophile priest, Padre Vidal. And he’s not alone, sharing his grim beachhouse are four other priests, serving time for a variety of sexual misdemeanours in the name of God. Victoria Zeggers is Sister Monica, the young woman who keeps house for these miserable old men whose only pleasure in life is their obsession with a jointly- owned greyhound they race at competitive meets.

Sergio Armstrong’s cinematography captures the wide open emptiness of gloomy seascapes beaten by winds and endlessly suffused by a dank and dreary fog. The old buggers (quite literally) are on their last legs, rationed in their movements and deprived of any kind of physical enjoyment with limited contact with the outside world. It’s a sobering regime but a bearable one, until one night a troubled fisherman Sandokan (Roberto Farías) fetches up in the front garden hurling an unsavoury humiliating accusations at the one of the priests. His gripe, it appears, results from being repeatedly sexual abused in childhood by one of the priests. This toe-curling outpouring is unspeakably filthy and the men of God are mortified by this public take-down that is met the follow day by the arrival of Father García (Marcelo Alonso) with a mission to close down this cosy little seaside set-up. Father García is rather sultry and inappropriately attractive for the job in hand, leaving us wondering about his own motives in the scandalous affair.

THE CLUB is a sinister and suspenseful piece of filmmaking. A palpable tension hovers over proceedings like heavy fog drifting in from the sea; continually threatening but always managing to contain is subversive undercurrents. Guillermo Calderón and Daniel Villalobos contribute to a screenplay that villifies the characters but never completely demonises them, leaving much wit and wisdom for all to enjoy in the devilish den of iniquity. “I am the king of the repressed,” says Father Vidal (Castro). Darrain’s El Club is not an edifying story but an fascinating one. Meredith J Taylor.

ON RELEASE FROM 25 MARCH 2016 | REVIEWED AT BERLINALE 2015

 

Sworn Virgin (2015) | BFI Flare 2016

Director: Laura Bispuri   Writer: Elviria Dones

Cast: Alba Ruhrwacher, Flonja Kodheli, Lars Eidinger, Emily Ferratello, Luan Jaha

90mins  Italy/Albania  Drama

‘Swearing Virginity’ is an ancient practice that still exists today in remote areas of Albania. Young women sacrifice their physical and emotional freedom in order to enjoy the privileges and rights only accorded to men, who enjoy complete independence and command the respect of the womenfolk in their community .

In Laura Bispuri’s sensitive feature debut, the sworn virgin in question is Hana Doda, played convincingly here by well-known Italian actress Alba Rohrwacher (Best Actress at Venice last year for HUNGRY HEARTS). As ‘Mark’ Doda, she eventually decides to leave her mountain home and seek refuge and a new life with her sister Lila (Flonja Kodheli) in Italy, after spending a decade of deprivation in a mountain village.

In Milan life feels very different for ‘Mark’, as she gradually adjusts to the modern world and a future of freedom, while constantly revisiting her painful past, seen in flashback. Feeling awkward and alienated by these new surroundings, it is never full explained why she continues to use her male name and dress as a man after arrival in their home. Teenage niece (Emily Ferratello) realises that things are not normal, despite her mother’s protestations to the contrary, and appears understandably hostile and questioning. Lila’s husband also seems to treat ‘Mark’ with a certain degree of frostiness, particularly when he sees the sisters experimenting with a new bra. It is only when she meets a life guard (Lars Eidinger) at the local swimming pool that Hana’s female longings start to awaken and her femininity blossoms.

Laura Bispuri adopts a less is more approach to her slow-burning narrative: dialogue is minimal, both in Italian and Albanian, and a stark steely blue aesthetic lends an aura of sombre frigidity to the narrative, keeping the tension simmering while details slowly emerge as the film unspools. SWORN VIRGIN is Based on a novel by Albanian writer Elvira Dones, the medieval practice stills survives today in backward mountain areas where brides are taken fully veiled by their husbands so they are unable to find their way back home. A bullet is included in their dowry by the bride’s father, just in case they fail to please their intended spouses. MT

Now SCREENING DURING BFI FLARE FESTIVAL until 27 MARCH 2016

ERLINALE 5-15 FEBRUARY 2015 – ALL OUR COVERAGE IN UNDER BERLINALE 2015

 

The Witch (2015) | LFF 2015 | Best First Feature

Writer|Director: Robert Eggers

Cast: Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Anya Taylor-Joy, Harvey Scrimshaw

90mins | Horror  | US Canada

THE WITCH is a genuine horror story set in the Puritan heartlands of New England in the early part of the 17th century. Sumptuously-mounted with meticulous attention to detail and atmosphere, Robert Eggers’ rigorously-scripted indie debut successfully tells a tale of witchcraft suggested by the prevailing climate of religious hysteria and folkloric belief, that touches a family of devout Christian settlers.

In this indie curio, which scratches at the edges of mainstream horror, writer-director Eggers orchestrates the atmospheric setting, unnerving score, morose tone and fervent performances to create a film that is more laudable and impressive than particularly errifying or surprising. Precision framing and gorgeous period costumes also go to give THE WITCH serious arthouse appeal although it is unlikely to shock the usual horror crowd.

The story is set about fifty years before the Salem Witch Trails. It concerns a family who have been exiled from the mainstream Puritan church and close community over some religious difference of opinion. Vowing to make a go of things with a small farm deep in the forest, the father (Ralph Ineson) nevertheless seems ill-prepared for the task ahead with the birth of their latest child keeping the slightly histrionic mother (Kate Dickie) preoccupied with her small twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson). Meanwhile young son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) is capable of looking after the livestock with the help of his teenage sister, the open-faced and pleasant  Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy). But the baby suddenly disappears during a full moon, seemingly carried off by a red-cloaked stooping figure who is later seen anointing her decrepit naked body in blood and gore.

To put these events in context, the 17th century was still a dangerous time to live outside established community settlements. Native Indians roamed New England and folklore created a climate of suspicion and fear. Infant mortality was extremely high, but the mother is unable to overcome her grief as it spills over affecting the wellbeing of the family. Their situation deteriorates as household items go missing, the goat sickens and the weather turns inclement and food supplies dwindle. To help the disconsolate father, Caleb and Kate venture into the forest to look for food with the rifle. All they find is a strange rabbit who evades their bullets. The pair become separated and Caleb finds himself outside a cottage where a tousled hair siren beckons him in. At this point the narrative swerves away from the witches and focuses on the family as it starts to implode. Threats of violence are bandied about and the mother starts to point the finger of blame at Thomasin, accusing her of witchcraft.

Eggers’ script has plenty of old English personal pronouns flying around and the religious fervour steadily ignites with some remarkable outbursts from a superb cast who embrace the tragic events with escalating hysteria in scenes of mounting melodrama. To to his credit, Eggers keep things plausible :THE WITCH could serve as a timely metaphor for the state of the family in the 21st century. MT

SCREENING DURING LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 7 -18 OCTOBER 2015

 

Trumbo (2015) | LFF 2015

Dir.: Jay Roach

Cast: Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren, Louis C.K., Elle Fanning, John Goodman, David James Elliot

USA 2015, 124 min.

Jay Roach (Game Change) has filmed the battle of Hollywood script writer legend Dalton Trumbo (1905-1976) against the fanatical witch hunt of the ‘House of Un-American Activities Committee’ (HUAC), which cost him and other members of the filmmaking fraternity their jobs, and, together with other victims in the teaching professions, civil service and the military, in many cases their lives.

Roach tries not to portray Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) as a martyr – which seems about right, after all, he got his career (and his two Oscars) back; his family, thanks to his wife Cleo Beth Fincher, stayed together – but many victims of Senator McCarthy’s anti-communist crusade were not so lucky.

We meet Trumbo in the mid forties at his ranch house north of LA, ostentatiously living the good life with his wife and three children – he was after all one of the best scriptwriters in Hollywood, earning close to a million dollars a year. This lifestyle did not collide with his political beliefs, he was a member of the Communist Party of the USA between 1943 and 1949; like many of his fellow intellectuals he was drawn to communism, since the pre-war USA government supported the fascist regimes in Hungary and Spain, whilst turning a blind eye to the “German American Bund”, a Nazi organisation in the USA, supported among others by Walt Disney. Trumbo became one of the “Hollywood Ten”, who did not reveal names in front of the ‘HUAC’ hearings in 1947, and served eleven months in prison in 1950 for “contempt of Congress”. (In the correctional facility in Ashland, Kentucky, he met Parnell Thomas, one of the members of the HUAC committee, who served time for fraud embezzlement).

After his release, Trumbo had to sell his house, since he was blacklisted with countless others. He moved with his family to Mexico; on his return to LA in 1954 his neighbours made him feel very unwelcome, throwing garbage into his pool. By then Trumbo had not only re-started his scriptwriting career, using the names of others as front, but had also helped fellow victims to do the same. Sure, their salaries were meagre, but they still did good work: Trumbo was responsible for the cult classic Gun Crazy (1950) produced by Frank King (John Goodman), who swings his baseball at an agent, who wants him to stop Trumbo and others writing for him. Trumbo himself worked like possessed, and his family life suffered enormously – he would not even attend the birthday celebrations for his daughter Nikola (Fanning). His wife Cleo (Lane) had to put up with a rather dictatorial husband, who took to alcohol and Benzedrine.

Trumbo, whose scripts for Roman Holiday (1953) and The Brave One (1956) had won Oscars (which were collected by front writers), tried to fight the blacklist with others but one of his main foes was the gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Mirren), a vicious anti-Semitic campaigner, who blackmailed the, mainly-Jewish, bosses into keeping the blacklist alive. Only in 1960, Otto Preminger (Exodus) and Kirk Douglas (the co-producer of Spartacus) finally killed the blacklist, supported among others by the powerful “American Legion”: Trumbo’s name was on the credits for both films; a year later President Kennedy walked through the picket lines of “American Legion” supporters, to watch Spartacus. In 1993, Dalton Trumbo received the Oscar for The Brave One in person, his wife Cleo collected the one her late husband won for Roman Holiday in 2011.

Roach’s TRUMBO is often funny, particularly in the middle part when he is writing with other blacklisted writers in a factory style process, to make ends meet. Mirren is fantastic as a vicious Hopper, her over the top performance, again, draws some laughs so does David James Elliot’s John Wayne who, attacking Trumbo, is reminded by him that he spent the war on beaches filming, shooting just blanks. But the fate of Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.), who suffered many years whilst fighting lung cancer through the 50s, is portrayed with great sensibility. Overall, a populist approach (which still is informative) to Trumbo and the ‘Blacklist’, is an clever option, because it will attract a new and younger audiences who might not be drawn primarily by the story, but the stars of the film. This way, they will learn about a very important chapter in film history. And that is worth a few slapstick moments – purists will anyhow have seen the 2007 documentary TRUMBO. AS

NOW ON GENERAL RELEASE | REVIEWED DURING LONDON FILM FESTIVAL UNTIL 18 OCTOBER 2015

 

SILVERED WATER, SYRIA SELF-PORTRAIT (MA’A AL-FIDDA) | DVD release

BEST DOCUMENTARY | BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL

Dir.: Ossama Mohammed, Wiam Simav Bedirxan; Documentary; Syria/France 2014, 92 min.

Imagine you were a filmmaker talking to a friend on a street about opening a film club in the neighbourhood – minutes later your friend is shot dead. Or you, the filmmaker, lend your camera to another friend to film a demonstration and he is shot dead moments later. Unimaginable? Not so for the Syrian filmmaker Ossama Mohammed who was driven into exile before he could finish his documentary about the cruel slaughter in his homeland. He arrived in Cannes in May 2011, without a film, but to bear witness. He now lives in Paris, looking at the images from his homeland on YouTube.

One day, a young Kurdish filmmaker, Simav Bedirxan, asks him for advice on what to shoot. (Simav means “Silvered Water”, from the Kurdish). The dialogue about the images Mohammed receives in Paris forms the centre of this “documentary” – not quite the right word here for these images of torture and death. The tales of “1001 Nights” are mentioned, but the nightmare we witness has nothing in common with bedtime stories. Protesters are stripped and sodomised with sadistic precision by soldiers of the Assad regime. We see casket after casket full of dead babies; cats are limping (burnt but just alive) around war-torn streets, so heavily bombarded that few outlines are visible. Bedirxan films herself after she has been shot, luckily it is only a flesh wound. She concentrates on the children in the playground are inured to the snipers targeting them from rooftops. She even locates a school in Homs and teaches in a cellar, before Muslim fundamentalists forbid her activity, due to her inadequate head-covering. The filmmaker flees trough a long tunnel out of Homs, a traumatic journey, every shot could be her last.

These raw images; the sound so often distorted that we seem to hear the shots as a permanent echo. The film is catalogued in chapters: burning cities, bloody snow and the photos of Bashar al-Assad dominating, interrupted aby the cutting of the umbilical cords of babies, who we see next in their caskets. SILVERED WATER is a testament of shame, a review of raw violence; the vision of a manmade hell  becoming reality, replayed day after day. Nobody who has seen this documentary knows how and when it will end. And it’s still happening right now. AS

NOW AVAILABLE ON DVD

Babai | Father (2015)| Foreign Language Oscars 2016

Director|Wrtier: Visar Morina

Cast: Val Maloku, Astrit Kabashi, Adriana Matoshi, Enver Petrovci, Xhevdet Jashari

104min  Drama   Albania

Visar Morina’s debut feature BABAI has had a successful summer winning him Best Director at Karlovy Vary and three awards at Munich Film Festival. The rites of passage road movie, set in 1990s Kosovo and seen through the eyes of a young boy, is also Albania’s hopeful for the Foreign Language Oscars 2016. 10-year-old Nori (Val Maloku) is a likeable and strong-willed kid, who sets out to join his father in Germany, with high hopes of a better life.

Naive in the extreme and sombre in tone, BABAI is nevertheless an absorbing coming of age tale that feels fresh in capturing the zeitgeist of its 21st century migration theme, despite a rather lacklustre cast who sadly fail to engage our sympathy but sometimes provide zesty, local humour – as seen during a Kosovar wedding.

It’s clear from the opening scene that Nori is determined to go to Germany. Hiding inside the boot of a car that’s taking his father Gesim (Astrit Kabashi), to the Serbian border, it establishes early on the desperation of the immigrant trail and also the love of this boy for his kind father, who clearly finds it difficult to be harsh on his wife or his little son, but needs to give them a better life. Throwing himself in the path of a bus, Nori ends up in hospital but his father is undeterred, leaving him with close family.

The war in Kosovo has not yet happened but the journey across Europe is still illegal and dangerous. Young Nori shows some guts, stealing money from his uncle and then setting out alone, once he’s better, cadging a lift from Valentina (Adriana Matoshi), a woman also planning to join her husband in Germany. Despite best intentions, it soon emerges that they both have their eye to the main chance, as is often the case, rather than working as a team.

Morino’s only fault in BABAI is a tendency for repetition and didacticism in his narrative that does his protagonists no favours. Everyone has witnessed the difficulties for poor European countries, but empathy needs to be engaged not with a wagging finger but by building rich characterisation and evoking strong performances from the leads. Val Maloku gives a feisty turn as Nori doing his best with a rather underwritten part in a drama that offers little room for reflection; everything focusing on the anger and determination of the journey.

Matteo Cocco’s stark, handheld camera echos the bleakness, sometimes featuring documentary-style shots that aims to add  authenticity to the endeavour. But the ending comes a surprise that somehow feels unplanned and out of place, despite the considerable journey in getting there. MT

BABAI is ALBANIA’S FOREIGN LANGUAGE OSCAR ENTRY 2016 | REVIEWED AT THE LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2015

Partisan (2015)

Director: Ariel Kleiman   Writers: Sarah Cyngler | Kleiman

Cast: Vincent Cassel, Jeremy Chabriel, Florence Mezzara, Katalin Hegedus

94min  Thriller

Preening with narcissistic self-righteousness is how Vincent Cassel plays Gregori, the cultish pater familias of a child orphanage somewhere in a hillside town. 30 year-old Ariel Kleiman’s debut feature is an enigmatic thriller inspired by a article on child assassins in Colombia. For a director who has made his name from a string of award-winning shorts, this is a feature film with gravitas and aesthetic style – a kind of stylised realism.

The story unravels from the point of view of young Alexander (Jeremy Chabriel)  who lives with his single mother Susanna (Florence Mezzara) in a subdued compound with eight or so other nubile women and their offspring who appear to be the protegées of the mesmerising Gregori. Cassel makes for a chilling and masterful leader – and although outwardly casting a concerned and kindly eye over his underlings, he is not a character to be crossed or challenged – and this is keenly felt when one of the kids stands up to him, and Gregori reacts with brutal authority. Sending them out on daily errands from their closed community in the rocky hillside, he appears to be fostering a den of iniquity of which he is the supreme leader, servicing his women folk – or so it’s implied.

The children are the focus of this strange story that feels alienating but somehow familiar. Cassel commands absolute authority in a narrative where he himself is morally questionable – a coiled spring waiting to pounce from a position of restrained yet magnetic menace – he gradually exudes antipathy and mistrust. You grow to hate him. It’s a superb portrayal of slow-burning and carefully concealed evil, cleverly directed and tightly scripted by Kleiman and his collaborator Sarah Cyngler. MT

PARTISAN is a metaphor for a kind of smalltime fascist dictatorship with Cassel carrying the film as its repugnant overlord. It’s a shame therefore that the pace is narcoleptic and – in the end – the piece too ambiguous to sustain or satisfy its narrative pretensions. That said, PARTISAN meticulously paints a picture of how easily children can be detrimentally influenced by their carers and the heavy burden of responsibility adults have for the young people in their charge.  MT

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OUT ON GENERAL RELEASE FROM 8TH JANUARY 2016 AND THEREAFTER ON DVD VOD

 

Sherpa (2015) Netflix

Dir: Jennifer Peedom | 99min  Documentary Thriller | Australian

April 18th, 2014 will go down as the worst day in the history of Everest when the Sherpas finally called time on their uphill struggle with mountaineering visitors.

The fascination with climbing Everest is a passion that seemingly knows no bounds for wealthy foreigners whose life ambition is to scale the World’s highest mountain. Summit, Touching the Void, Everest and Beyond the Edge have told of the dangers and elation of reaching the summit. SHERPA explores the conquest from the perspective of its much-maligned native Himalayans – the Sherpas. An ethnic group from Nepal’s mountain region, they are, for the most part, Tibetan Buddhists. Nomadic settlers they are physically and genetically adapted to life at high altitudes due to their blood’s unique haemoglobin-binding capacity and doubled nitric oxide production. From childhood they develop an intimate knowledge of the region and their compact, muscle-bound physiques enable them to carry large loads in this oxygen-poor environment.

Award-winning Australian documentarian Jennifer Peedom is no stranger to perilous outdoor themes with her previous films: Solo and Miracle on Everest, both riveting accounts of challenging endeavours. SHERPA takes a humanist angle, documenting the plight of Everest’s unsung heroes and valiant enablers of every mountaineering endeavour by those that visit their native region.  With little left of their traditional farming subsistence, most Sherpas now make their living from ‘guiding’, which although lucrative for the Nepalese, is actually quite meagre in Westerners’ eyes.

For the Sherpa, Mount Everest is known as Chomolungma and is a spiritual place. The Government forbids the use of helicopters to ferry supplies to the summit so this has to be done by Sherpas and donkeys. Today’s ‘clients” expect a high standard of comfort with flat-screen TVs and morning tea served by the Sherpas at their various stations on the way up, and down. There is literally a ‘swarm’ of climbers making the ascent in a queuing system with log-jams and bottlenecks not dissimilar to the morning rush hour.

The best way to ascend the peak is via the Southern face whose most dangerous section is the Khumbu IceFall. Sherpas work during the night offering prayers to the mountain spirits before they cross this hazardous stretch of terrain, and they to have cross it frequently in order to ferry supplies from Base Camp to camps higher up, strategically placed to allow clients time to acclimatise to the altitude. Early on the morning of April 18, 2014, 16 Sherpas died on this Icefall – more in one day than had ever been killed in an entire year. Peedom’s film captures the chaos from Base Camp on fateful  occasion.

The visuals are simply stunning recorded by two high-altitude specialist cinematographers Renan Ozturk and Ken Sauls, and some aerial helicopters. The narrative then flashes back several weeks as Phurba Tashi, the Sherpa in charge, reluctantly says goodbye to his family: he may never come back alive suffering the same fate as his sister-in-law, but the family needs the money to survive.

Commentary from various experts offers context: mountaineering writer Ed Douglas and Tenzing Norgay’s sons are the most informative. Being Buddhists the Sherpas are intuitive and non-confrontational but in extremis they will protest, and a scuffle that broke out in 2013 between a group of clients and Sherpa guides where we see an American climber swearing at a group of Sherpas.

Russell Brice, who runs a large travel firm organising mountain tours (costing around 50,000 US dollars), is eager to stand by his clients, many whom are making second and third attempts, but also respects his Sherpa guides and ultimately has to make a choice between the two after the disaster takes place at the start of a busy season. Phurba Tashi choses a path of enlightenment. Jennifer Peedom’s account of what happened is simply astonishing. If ever there was a documentary thriller, this is it. MT

NOW ON NETFLIX | SHERPA WON THE GRIERSON AWARD FOR BEST DOCUMENTARY | LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2015

 

Sunset Song (2015) | Viennale 2021

Wri/Director: Terence Davies  Novel: Lewis Grassic Gibbon (novel)Cast: Peter Mullan, Agyness Deyn, Kevin Guthrie, Ian Pirie, Jack Greenlees, Douglas Rankine, Neil Greign Fulton | 135min  | Drama  | UK

Terence Davies follows The Deep Blue Sea with another English literary adaptation, SUNSET SONG, Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s classc tale of womanhood in transition at the turn of the 20th century. Emotionally prurient and brimful with Scottish traditions from the North East, it stars Agyness Deyn in a full-bodied turn that embraces stoicism and tenderness, as the main character Chris Guthrie.

Michael McDonough’s lushly burnished visuals set the scene: a remote Aberdeenshire coastal community on the cusp of the first World War, where blue-stocking Chris is the only girl in a farming family of three boys, her trampled mother Jean and disciplinarian father (Peter Mullan in fine form) doing their best in fraught circumstances, made worse when Jean falls pregnant with twins.

There is a strict religious undertone of vehement Calvinism for this Patriarchal family: in the dour and spartan home the women’s work is never done and they are but slaves to the father’s requirements with regular beatings for elder son Will, and intercourse on demand for poor Jean, whether she likes it or not. Eventually after a bloody, difficult birth, she takes her own life, with the twins and it falls to Chris to look after the family.

Slow-burning, and often ponderous, Terence Davies balances movement with stillness to achieve graceful dramatic tension as the narrative unfolds with unexpected, even positive, twists and turns. Although occasionally SONG strikes a questionable note with his tone and scripting. There are bright moments, echoed through the glorious sun rising through lace curtains, or on the endless billowing cornfields, blue sky overhead. The post War episode feels slightly and underwritten, with no real explanation for the rapid decline into mental illness of Chris’s young husband. Musical choices veer towards the folksy and hymnal; some may argue this misjudges narrative and tone. Davies evokes happiness without being sentimental and his mastery of staging and visual compositions are superb. Bitterness, rancour and bliss, all embodied in one pivotal decade in the magnificent Scottish landscape where Chris discovers life and love as it really is. MT

SCREENING DURING THE TERENCE DAVIES RETROSPECTIVE | VIENNALE 2021

 

 

Eden (2014) | DVD release

Dir.: Mia Hansen-Løve; Cast: Felix de Givry, Arsinee Khanjian, Greta Gerwig; France 2014, 131 min.

At only 33 years old, Mia Hansen-Løve has already directed four features, a considerable achievement for a woman director in France. EDEN shares with her last two outings, a central character who does not know when to give up. In Father of my Children (2009), the producer Gregoire Canvel (based on the real life figure of the independent producer Humbert Balsan) can’t stop producing, even though his debts are astronomical – desperate, he commits suicide in the streets of Paris. Camille, the heroine in Goodbye first Love (2011) can’t get over her first love, and spends years in the doldrums, before accepting the loss. Both films could do with some shorter running time, but they are aesthetically so mature, whilst genre- wise so different, that one has to marvels at this filmmaker’s skill.

EDEN, true to its name, is set in the world of French Garage music, chronicling the years from the late eighties to the present. Its anti-hero, the DJ Paul (de Givry), inhales mountains of coke and goes through many broken relationships whilst living in the “fast lane”: a superficial and consumerist existence. Having given up his literature studies, his debts accumulate and his mother (Khanjian) has to continually bail him out. His girlfriends usually don’t stay around long; empathy is not his strength. On his travels to New York, he meets up with Julia (Gerwig), who had left him in Paris. Having been dumped again, he rekindles the relationship, even though Julia has two little girls. When Paul’s best friend, the cartoonist Cyril, commits suicide, throwing himself under a metro train, Paul, now in his mid thirties, says goodbye to his former life style, and returns to his first love, literature. When a young woman on his course, asks him about his past, he lets on about his involvement in Garage music – to his utter astonishment, she has never heard of this music genre…..

Paul, like many men in his circle, is semi-autistic. Narcissistic, egocentric and spoilt by his mother, he accumulates debts from a coke habit that ruins his bank balance and his health. Self-pity is just another character trait he wears on his sleeve. His love for Julia only functions in retrospective yearning. When he meets her again, she has to abort their child, because Paul is totally broke.  Hansen-Løve’s style is remarkable: even those who know next to nothing about this particular music scene in France will find this edifying and informative, not only from a musical angle, but also from the  atmosphere engendered, and the admirable characterisations. Hansen-Løve astonishes with her maturity and sheer brilliance, worthy of any veteran., Her talent and spontaneity oozes out of every frame. The ensemble acting is brilliant, the camera catches every moment in time, working in elliptic movements, showing the musicians in intimate close-ups and illuminating the Paris skyline in glorious panoramic shots, that never degenerate into picture-postcard blandness. A spellbinding tour-de-force of music and emotion. AS

NOW ON DVD RELEASE from 14 December 2015

Black Mass (2015) Netflix

Dir: Scott Cooper | Cast: Johnny Depp, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson, Joel Edgerton, Corey Stoll, Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott | 122min  Crime Thriller  US

In Scott Cooper’s Boston gangland thriller Johnny Depp plays vicious psychopath Whitey Bulger who, like his English counterparts the Kray Brothers, was also very fond of his mother.

This is Scott Cooper’s first foray into the big time and he handles it competently – if not a little derivatively – largely due to a strong cast of talent in which Depp is the star turn. This is a saga of multiple murder, revenge and betrayal underpinned by a long-standing relationship between gangland boss Bulger and his childhood mate John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), who for many years leads the unsuccessful police investigation into the capture of the arch felon.

With scrappy nicotine-tinged hair, brownish teeth and an icy stare that embodies evil, Depp provides compelling viewing as the terrifying James “Whitey” Bulger, a criminal who menaced everyone who knew him around South Boston from the 1970s until 1994, when he went into hiding for nearly 16 years before finally being run to ground in California. In his weak defence, he claimed to be ‘in league’ with the Feds to rid Boston on the Italian mafia.

The action sequences are intercut with interview testimonials given by members of Bulger’s mob to provide a tightly-scripted and absorbing account of events and add superb structure to the storyline. It emerges that Bulger was a long-term criminal in ‘Southie’ (South Boston) and also served time in Alcatraz. His enemies, the Angiulo family of North Boston, are the reason the FBI, under the auspices of John Morris (David Harbour) and Connolly, eventually persuade Bulger to secretly team up against their mutual enemy and this provides Bulger with an opportunity to flex his muscles largely without interuption until Corey Stoll (a masterful Fred Wyshak) takes over as a federal prosecutor determined to nail Bulger, once and for all.

The ubiquitous but stalwart Benedict Cumberbatch finds his way into the storyline as Whitey’s brother Billy who happens to be Massachusetts’ most powerful state senator. There is also a brief cameo role for Dakota Johnson as his steely wife and mother to Whitey’s only child, a six-year-old boy who dies from an allergic reaction to an injection.

Cooper’s production looks slick and authentic with some excellent interior sequences as well as plenty of shootouts in the rainy streets of a seventies Boston provided by Masanobu Takayanagi’s well-crafted cinematography. In support roles, Adam Scott and Kevin Bacon are stern and long-suffering as federal agents in this war against an enemy which seems to come from all directions. But this is ultimately Depp’s film and he gives a commanding performance that is one of the most convincing of his career. A charismatic seventies score from Jerry Goldsmith or Bernard Hermann would have put some icing on this rather bland cake, but that is sadly too much to expect here. MT

| BLACK MASS IS NOW ON NETFLIX

The Lady in the Van (2015) | LFF 2015

Dir.: Nicholas Hytner

Cast: Maggie Smith, Alex Jennings, Frances de La Tour, Jim Broadbent; UK 2015, 104 min.

Nicholas Hytner (The Madness of King George) directs the film version of Alan Bennett’s play, which he staged at the National Theatre. Maggie reprises her title role of the bag lady who lived in her battered van in Bennett’s drive way in Gloucester Crescent, Camden for fifteen years.

Miss Shepherd moved with her van into Bennett’s driveway in NW1 during 1974 and stayed there until her death in 1989. Only then did Bennett find out that M.T. Shepherd was once a concert pianist, having been taught by Alfred Cortot, whose extreme right-wing political leanings she shared. Her relationship with Bennett (Jennings) – played by two Alan’s, the writer and his alter Ego the man, who discuss and argue permanently – is one of strife and confrontations, mainly about her hygiene. On occasions she used Bennett’s toilet, and we see the writer cleaning endlessly after her. The neighbours “liberals, slightly guilty intellectuals”, among them Frances de La Tour’s Ursula Vaughn Williams, are glad that Shepherd has landed on Bennett’s property: the main reason being that she did not like the music of the children in the house she had used as parking space before. Shepherd once killed a young man on a motorcycle, whilst driving her car, and even though the accident was caused by the victim, it traumatised the woman , whose mental frailness had been increased during a stay in a nunnery.

The second “woman” in Bennett’s life is his mother, who drifts into Alzheimer’s, ironically after telling his son that Ms Shepherd will need to go to a home. Bennett’s relationship with his mother is, like with nearly everyone (including his alter Ego): full of guilt and regret. Whilst Maggie Smith is only too happy to have confrontations with everyone crossing her path, Bennett muses and reflects about his place in life, all his relationships troubled by inertia. There could not have been a more different ‘couple’ sharing a property: the shy, left wing writer and the load mouthed right-winger, who once wrote “to someone in charge of Argentina” that she was the real “Iron Lady”, and not Margaret Thatcher.

Even though the film travels outside London, when Bennett visits his mother in a care home in Weston-Super-Mere, or talks to Ms Shepherd’s brother, most of it feels like a play, the scenes shot at the original places. This makes THE LADY IN THE VAN into a reflection about art and life: how easy it is to slip once too often and loose the balance needed to cope with everyday life.

Maggie Smith is brilliant, always able to liven proceedings up, and showing a spirit – in spite of her mental illness – that is much stronger than Bennett’s careful life hidden behind words. Jennings ‘two Bennetts’ do need each other, to make a whole, which can survive. Hytner has re-created a London, which has long gone, its weird gentleness replaced by crass materialism and property speculation. LADY IN THE VAN is a sad goodbye to an era which allowed opposing personalities, how ever damaged, to live together. AS

NOW ON GENERAL RELEASE FROM 13 NOVEMBER 2015

 

Sunrise (2014)

Director: Partho Sen-Gupta

Cast: Adil Hussain, Tannishtha Chatterjee, Gulpaz Ansari, Komal Gupta

85min  Fantasy Thriller  India

Exploring the evergreen theme of child abduction and violence towards women, Partho Sen-Gupta’s  third feature SUNRISE is a noirish psychological thriller with a tour de force from Adil Hussain as a social services inspector wracked with guilt over his own daughter’s disappearance, as 60,000 children go missing in India every year.

This richly sepia-tinted arthouse mood piece relies on sound as much as lighting and atmosphere to evoke the feelings of anguish, longing and menace Adil feels as he trawls the rain-soaked streets of Mumbai. During his tireless investigation that visits a lap-dancing club and underage brothels in his search for little Aruna, he shifts between reality and fantasy, although the line between the two is as mysterious and muddled as the labyrinthine streets he searches in the course of his duty.

As Lakshman Joshi he is preoccupied with researching the case of a battered 16-year-old boy, Babu (Chinmay Kambli) and a little girl who has gone missing. Meanwhile his wife, Leela (Tannishtha Chatterjee), appears to be expecting another child and is deeply traumatised by their missing daughter. He soon comes across, 12-year-old Naina (Esha Amlani) and her protector Komal (Gulnaaz Ansari), who is confined to the club’s living quarters with other underage girlss. at one point he appears to be in the exotic dancing venue, having found his daughter, but this is clearly a dream sequence and he nervously awakes.

Spare on dialogue but long of soulful sighs and wailing, SUNRISE is embued with a vibrant palpable dramatic tension. It is a strangely magnetic, dreamlike drama deeply evoking India’s social problems with sumptuous cinematography and a standout turn from Hussain who holds it all together as a perplexed and bewildered man on the edge of desperation.  A delight for cineastes and the arthouse crowd.

REVIEWED DURING LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2015

Sherlock Holmes (1916) | LFF 2015

Director: Arthur Berthelet

Cast: William Gillette, Ernest Maupin, Marjorie Kay, Edward Fielding

108mins | Drama  | UK

Sherlock Holmes’ first film appearance was in Sherlock Holmes Baffled in 1900 and he has been a regular fixture on cinema screens ever since. In 1899 the American matinee idol William Gillette (1853-1937) had starred in a stage version of the great detective’s exploits written by himself with Conan Doyle’s approval with phenomenal success (he appeared worldwide in the role about 1,300 times) and virtually made a career of the role – as celebrated in his day as Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett would later be – which he was still performing on stage as late as 1932. The play was very loosely reworked for Rathbone in 1939 as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and Gillette himself made a film version for Charlie Chaplin’s company, Essanay, in 1916. Long tantalisingly thought lost, this precious record of Gillette’s performance was recently rediscovered at the Cinémathèque Française and nearly a hundred years after its original appearance lived again at this year’s London Film Festival.

Apparently a faithful adaptation of the original play, the film version negotiates the problem of making a silent version of a stage production by using the titles to describe the action and the motivations of the characters (often before you actually see them for yourself) rather than simply transcribing the dialogue; much of which is left to lipreaders to decipher. The film itself is watchable, but the story itself – concerning incriminating letters with a scowling Moriarty (Ernest Maupin) later brought in to liven up the proceedings – is uninvolving, and Gillette’s Holmes is given little opportunity to display the quick-wittedness and deductive genius that makes the literary Holmes so fascinating to this day. The conventions of the screen Holmes had not yet been firmly established by 1916, so to modern audiences anomalies include the marginal nature of Dr Watson’s role in the proceedings – as played by a genial Edward Fielding, (who resembles the late Guy Middleton), he disappears for most of the first two-thirds of the film after being introduced early on and seems less in awe of Holmes that is customary – and the suburban street with grass verges and trees purporting to be Holmes’ address (Watson lives elsewhere).

The feature film was still relatively new in 1916, but a hundred years on SHERLOCK HOLMES holds up satisfactorily. The action mostly takes place indoors, the camera very occasionally pans and tracks laterally to follow the action, but closeups are rare and the occasional use of interesting camera angles serves to remind one that most of the action is staged in medium shot as seen from a proscenium.The editing is pretty basic, and although a silent film there are no irises in or out. The most unusual stylistic ‘tic’ shown by director Arthur Berthelet is the use of swift dissolves to give us a closer look at moments of particular drama rather than straight cuts. The acting is pretty natural, and Gillette if anything underplays the part of Holmes. He was in his sixties by the time he made the film version and despite being deprived of his speaking voice certainly looks the part, strongly resembling a somewhat elderly Clive Brook (who himself took on the role on screen in 1932).

The version found in the Cinémathèque Française had been expanded in 1920 for release as a serial, so the running time above is unfortunately longer than it would have been in 1916. RICHARD CHATTEN

THE LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 7-18 OCTOBER 2015

Listen to Me Marlon (2015) | LFF 2015

Director: Steven Riley

95min | Documentary | US

A shady enigmatic figure with a gruff exterior is how most of us remember Marlon Brando in his later years (1924-2004). But Steven Riley redresses the balance with this intoxicating documentary compiled from reams of Brando’s own audio tapes recording his innermost thoughts and streams of consciousness that expose the icon’s soul for all to appreciate. It’s unlikely that Marlon would approve of this exposé, commissioned by his own estate. That said, it serves as a remarkable tribute to the screen legend and, for the most part, manages to enhance his his profile rather than diminish it; a decade after his death.

The film opens with a spooky digitised 3D image of Marlon’s head that the actor created for posterity – rather like some people commission a bronze bust or painting. It sets the tone for the woozy narrative that seems to capture the essence of the Marlon, often drifting dreamlike through filmed footage, clips and photographs of this stunningly handsome screen idol with his velvety voice, ‘come to bed’ eyes and macho persona.

It tells how from an early age Marlon was close to his creatively driven mother but wary of his father; a travelling salesman who drank and beat his family. Marlon’s early influences came from acting superstar Stella Adler at New York’s, ‘New Schoo’l, a theatre and film training establishment run by talented, intellectual Jewish immigrés. Marlon drifted into acting because he had a talent for ‘lying’: he was the youngest actor to win an Oscar for On the Waterfront, which he felt was undeserved. He later boycotted his Oscar for The Godfather, sending an American Indian to receive it in protest for the portrayal of the US Native race in Hollywood. His looks and allure made him popular with women although he was a poor father figure to the children whose birth he acknowledged: his daughter Cheyenne Brando later committed suicide; his son Christopher killed her boyfriend. There were many others.

But this did not tarnish his earning ability and he was much sought after often commanding vast figures for his acting performances which later left him free to pursue his human rights patronage of Black and Native American causes. A deep thinker and an introvert who isolated himself in the Hollywood Hills and in his beloved Tahiti, LISTEN TO ME MARLON brings out his philosophical edge and his spiritual leanings. He also took his craft seriously, realising his gift was the making of him: “I arrived in New York with holes in my socks, and holes in my mind”. During his lifetime he formed close friendships with other realist actors such as Monty Clift, but on set he was never easy to direct and had contretemps with Trevor Howard during Mutiny on the Bounty and Francis Ford Coppola in Apocalypse Now.

Shot through with insights and musings about life and his acting, it emerges that Marlon never took his fame for granted but also yearned for a simpler existence in Tahiti: “A sanity and sense of reality is taken away from you by Success”. MT

SCREENING DURING THE LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2015 | UNTIL 18 OCTOBER 2015 | ON GENERAL RELEASE FROM 23 OCTOBER 2015

 

Right Now Wrong Then (2015) | Locarno

Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo’s makes slow-burning, sensitively-observed films about the intricacies of relationships between men and women, often meeting for the first time. There is plemty of dialogue embued with Korean humour, which is often similar to that of the English: situational, offbeat, dryly comic as with  In Another Country.

His latest – which won the   stars Jung Jae-young and Kim Minhee as a film director and budding artist  who meet up and spend a day together, on two simlar occasions. With In Another Country, Isabelle Huppert played three different versions of a French woman called Anne, engaging with one man, Here the two central characters play the same people and the narrative unfolds in two parts, roughly an hour each for the same meeting that varies subtly each time. As a piece of cinema, this is both unique and  fascinating as we experience the inner workings of each with their different nuances in the subconscious attitudes of the pair.

The film’s first half is called Right Then, Wrong Now and we meet the indie director Ham Chunsu (Jung Jae-young) who has arrived in a town near Seoul to take part in a Q&A disccusion after a screening of his film.  Due to scheduling issues, he gets there early and meets Yoon Heejung (Kim Minhee) who describes herself as “someone who paints” – in one of the town’s landmarks. After coffee and media-style banter, the pair become more intimate emotionally and Heejung admits she’s actually not a big film-goer and has never actually seen his work but knows his face and but has heard good things about hiim.  At this point he expresses a desire to get to know her better. They drift into meeting some of her friends in a bar and after a great deal of drinking, she disappears for a nap and he joins her, only to be told by her to leave. She heads home and her mother berates her for srinking too much. This section ends hilariously as he turns up hungover for the Q&A and ends up going over the top, taking offence at a remark from the moderator who he later calls a “prick” when he meets her again in Part Two (actually called Right Now, Wrong Then, like the actual film).

The day starts again but with some differences – rather lke a replay of In Another Country (except with the same charactes ) or Our Sunhi, where perceptions of the characters are skewed. In the second half, we see that subtle differences can alter the dynamic between the couple and how their reactions differ as a result. In part two, it emerges. that she has given up smoking and feels stressed as a result. His amorous advances also come for a different reason this time around and demonstrates how subtle nuances can make big changes in our perceptions in meeting people.

Cinematophgraphy here is bland and unremarkable and a very simple score occasionally punctures the scenes which are framed often with the two sitting together and then the camera focusing on each one individually before zooming out again.

Whether the pair will go on to be together all depends, as in real life, on their ego concerns and what they are looking for in a prospective partner.  Hangsang Soo shows how chemistry and attraction is only just a part of the relationship and how it proceeds and developes. MT

SCREENING DURING LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 7-18 OCTOBER 2015

 

 

21 Nights With Pattie (2015) | LFF 2015

Director: Arnaud and Jean-Marie Larrieu

Cast: Isabelle Carre, Andre Dussollier, Denis Lavant, Sergi Lopez, Mathilde Monnier, Karin Viard

110min  Fantasy Drama   France

21 NIGHTS WITH PATTIE is an intriguing title for a film that blends black comedy with fantasy and magic realism. Arnaud and Jean-Marie Larrieu’s provocatively entitled Vingt et Une Nuits Avec Pattie certainly rolls off the tongue better in French, but this is a tricky tale to digest in any language, and after two longs hours and a final act that lets it all hang out, you may well come away wishing the brothers had left it at that: a boozy French drama with a touch of ‘Midsomer Murders’ and a dash of discretion.

Plunging into the bosky hillsides of Languedoc Rousillion, Caroline (Isabelle Carré) arrives at her mother’s bohemian retreat on a blazing hot August day. The two were not close in real life and her mother is now lying ‘in wake’ in the cool stone cottage, and Caroline must arrange her funeral. Despite this morbid event, the tone is light-hearted; almost jubilant and even more so when she meets Pattie (Karin Viard) the caretaker and best described as ‘une femme mûre’, who regales her with explicit tales of her recent sexual conquests with various local lads. Later on the corpse of her mother disappears, leading to a police investigation that drifts into a Savannah-style ghost story and an erotic awakening for the bewildered Parisienne.

Gastronomy is a rich theme that weaves through this distinctly Gallic tale. When Pattie is not getting down and dirty with the likely lads – including Denis Lavant as a lecherous Denis Lavant –  she’s cooking up a delicious rustic supper of cassoulet or venison stew washed down with plenty of Corbières al fresco with the locals, dissolving into nights of dancing in the nearby village. A jazzy soundtrack adds to the initial allure of this party-like piece but the arrival of another outside takes the story into more enigmatic territory when André Dussollier turns up as Mamma’s ex lover and, putatively, a famous writer. And while Caroline skypes her husband Manuel (Sergi Lopez) who is keeping the home fires burning back in Paris, the main vibe here is the female chemistry between Pattie and Caroline, her Parisian protegée for the summer, while she is being groomed for some sexual scenarios by various males (including Pattie’s 18-year-old son Kamil – Jules Ritmanic) in the sylvan seclusion of this picturesque corner of France.

Isabelle Carré is delightful to watch as the prim and proper Parisienne who gradually warms to her raunchy surroundings, despite concerns for her mother’s disappearance and pre-morbid state of mind. It emerges that her mother was somewhat of a foxy femme fatale known as “Zaza” locally, and this adds intrigue to her already conflicted mourning process. And the Police investigation takes on an almost folkloric feel as the local gendarme suspects a necrophage at work.

In these sun-soaked surroundings, Caroline is slowly emboldened and yet addled by wine as nothing seems to matter anymore least of all her mother’s funeral, which gently slips to the back burner of this Midsummer Night’s Dream ,where she imagines herself in the sensual arms of all and sundry. And this is one clever feature of the Larrieu’s script; lulling us into one storyline, before revealing the significance of another, whether wittingly or not. 21 NIGHTS is about Caroline’s spiritual development as a woman rather than conflict resolution between mother and daughter. A shame therefore that it gradually sinks into an unnecessarily explicit dénouement when the story runs out of control. Despite their delicious entrée, the Larrieus may hopefully discover that less is always more, even in France, you should never over-egg the omelette. MT

SCREENING DURING THE LONDON FILM FESTIVAL | 7 -18 OCTOBER 2015

Office (2015) | HUA LI SHANG BAN ZU | LFF 2015

OFFICE (HUA LI SHANG BAN ZU)

Director: Johnnie To;

Cast: Wang Ziyi, Lang Yueting, Sylvia Chang, Chow Yun-Fat, Eason Chan, Tang Wei

Hong Kong/China 2015, 117 min.

Johnnie To’s stock in trade has been violent gangster movies and recently those gangsters have been capitalists in suits as in: Life Without Principle (2011), Don’t Go Breaking My Heart (2011) and its sequel (2014), deal with life at the upper end of the corporate world.

Set in the premises of the Chinese company Jones & Sunn before and after the world wide financial crisis, started by the collapse of Lehman Brothers, OFFICE is a musical – but very much nearer to Brecht than any Hollywood musical. Shot in cinemascope and 3D with rather eclectic lyrics, production designer William Chang has created a corporate structure of black, white and grey, with a central clock (shades of John Farrow’s Big Clock from 1948) reminding all protagonists that their time is running out. Jones & Sunn are going public on the stock market and are preparing their IPO’s. One of the leading men is Lee Xiang (Ziyi), who sems to be omnipotent to a degree that we sometimes believe that he is pure satire.

Lee works in tandem with a female employee, in this case the somehow overqualified Kat (Yueting), who appears to be a plant. At the top, the leading couple of CEO Winnie Chang (Sylvia Chang, who adapted her own play ‘Design for Living’ for the screen), is a real low-life, well suited to having an affair with chairman Ho Chung-Ping (Yun-fat), who creeps in and out of the hospital room where his comatose wife is fighting for her life. But the most reckless character is the chief executive David Wang (Chan), who cooks the books mercilessly, or tries to seduce another major player like Sophie (Wei). When Lee and Kat perform a love duet, the “fake it till you succeed” mood of the film is highlighted.

Overall though, the musical numbers are not particularly impressive, certainly no catchy rhythms to sing along to; perhaps the high-pitched chorus playing over the opening and final credits could qualify for a signature tune. OFFICE is always ready to parody: when the highly-charged employers stream to the elevators, all eyes glued to their smartphones, their lockstep recalls Chinese films of the past, when crowds walked the same way in Odes to chairman Mao. The parallels go further: just as Mao did destroy his erstwhile followers in the Cultural Revolution, so does the capitalist system does away with the men and women, who created it.

In spite of all the achievements of all departments and the actors, notably DOP Siu-Keung Cheng, who created a look of constrained chaos, OFFICE is much less than its particular parts. All elements in themselves are near brilliant, but there is no cohesion. To’s detached style doe not help: it is like watching a procession of single units, but somehow the unity is missing. Which is a shame, because Office cannot be faulted in any way – it is just like an elaborate,wonderful charade without any emotive power holding it together. AS

OFFICE | LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2015

3000 Nights (2015) | LFF 2015

Director.: Mai Masri

Cast: Maisa Abd Elhadi, Abeer Haddad, Laura Hawa, Radia Adon;

103min. | drama | Palestine/France/Jordan/Lebanon/UAE/Qatar

Mai Masri’s debut feature is an imagined drama based on “one story of many” to come out of Neblus. It is a rather polemic prison saga that concerns a Palestinian teacher who is incarcerated in Neblus for 3000 nights, accused of helping a terrorist.

Layla (Elhadi) is arrested in the occupied West Bank by Israeli military police for giving a lift to a young man, who may – or not – have helped a terrorist attempt. Not taking the easy way out, she refuses to say that the young man forced his way with a knife into the car. In the segregated prison, Layla, is thrown at first into a cell with Israeli prisoners, who are load mouthed, aggressive and virulently anti-Islamic. Later, she is transferred to a cell with Palestinian women, who are the total opposite of their Israeli counterparts: pure heroines in the struggle for liberation. Layla, looking extremely composed and well-kempt throughout the whole film, soon finds out that she is pregnant. Later she gives birth to Nour, a baby-boy – shackled to the bed by arms and feet. Her son is taken away from her as a reprisal for helping a prison strike. The prison authorities, lead by the vile head warden (Abeer Haddad), try to bribe Layla (and others) to gain favours for spying on their fellow prisoners, but apart from one case the women remain stand fast. But events take a turn for the worse when a woman prisoner is shot dead by a guard.

Whilst nobody can deny the existence of political prisoners in Israel, 3000 Nights is extremely unhelpful in the ongoing conflict today, because it idealises all Palestinians and vilifies all Jews – apart from Layla’s lawyer. The film is set between 1980 and 1988, a time when Palestinian suicide bombers, often children, targeted bus stations and other public places in Israel. The head warden is an evil caricature, and the cry “they are gassing us” is just inflammatory, since tear gas is used. If one would argue on the lines of the filmmakers, one would ask them why they suddenly deviate from their usual holocaust-denials.

The covered and open war between Israel and Palestine is soon entering its seventh decade, and one would hope, that films like 3000 Nights, though well-crafted and performed,  would refrain from the simplistic hero/villain line – also used in Israeli cinema, when blond, blue-eyed Jews are attacked by dark skinned Islamic villains – but this does not give any side the right, to go on with the vilification of the “enemy”. AS

THE LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 7 -18 OCTOBER 2015

 

Fifty (2015) l LFF 2015

Director: Biyi Bandele

Cast: Nse Ikpe-Etim, Omoni Oboli, Ireti Doyle, Dakore Akande

With music from Femi Kuti, King Sunny Ade, Nneka and Waje

101min | Drama | Nigeria

FIFTY is Biyi Bandele’s follow-up to his screen adaptation of Half a Yellow Sun. Kicking off docu-drama style to create a fabulous sense of place on the widescreen, the camera sweeps in over Lagos’ boat-strewn harbour and the interior of a building where a religious gathering is taking place. Bandele uses this technique several times to and elevate what is essentially a rather soapy, intimate drama that revolves around a few critical days in the lives of four professional Nigerian women at the top of their careers; and there are no glass ceilings here for the super elite. Immaculately coiffed and couture clad, these female power-houses have a tight-knit support system of liveried domestic staff, work juniors and family. And although clearly well-educated, they are by no means soigné in their behaviour; kicking arse and barking orders in a way that would have staff in the UK scuttling off to industrial tribunals.

In short, this is the same upper class, glamorous society that Bandele elegantly portrayed in Half a Yellow Sun. Tola, Elizabeth, Maria and Kate are late fortysomething friends who are now taking stock of their lives in the upmarket areas of Ikoyi and Victoria Island in Lagos. Tola (Dakore Akande) is a reality TV star whose marriage to lawyer Kunle is under pressure. Elizabeth (Ireti Doyle) is a well-known fertility specialist whose penchant for younger men has estranged her from her grown-up up daughter. Forty-nine year-old Maria (Omoni Oboli) is newly pregnant from an affair with a married man and Nse Ikpe-Etim plays Kate who is battling a life-limiting illness that has turned her into a religious nutter.

What doesn’t work here is Bandele’s rather clunky dialogue: Do women really speak like this in Lagos, may be they do and we’re short-changing the Nigerian director. At one point Elizabeth says:”I’m going to give these little babies some tlc” referring to her breasts which are due for surgery. Her daughter tells her, radically “don’t ring again or I’ll block your number” yet days later the pair are civil again, albeit frostily until Elizabeth shouts: “You will respect me young lady, I am your mother” – the daughter looks at least 40. All very confrontational stuff but certainly not authentic-feeling or particularly sophisticated and this, combined with the rather trite incidental music, gives FIFTY a dated air of Desperate Housewives Lagos-style.

That said, this may attract audiences who follow the soaps and there are some entertaining moments despite the rather formulaic plotlines. Highlights include the dynamic aerial shots of the capital and original live music from Nigerian icons Femi Kuti, King Sunny Ade, Nneka and Waje. MT

SCREENING DURING LONDON FILM FESTIVAL | 7-18 OCTOBER 2015

Suffragette (2015) | LFF 2015

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Director: Sarah Gavron

Cast: Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham-Carter, Anne-Marie Duff, Natalie Press, Brendan Gleeson, Ben Whitshaw, Geoff Bell, Meryl Streep

UK/USA/ France 2015, 118 min.

All worthy themes deserve great treatment. So, whilst SUFFRAGETTE is very important in its subject matter, that doesn’t axiomatically make it the success it deserves to be.

Sarah Gavron has made a valiant attempt to convey the gruesome conditions of working women in the early 20th century. Maud Watts (Mulligan) is a laundry worker in Bethnal Green in the 1920s. She has worked part time since the age of seven, full time since she was twelve. In her early twenties, she has made it to the top of her career, as far as women are concerned in this workplace, which is closer to a workhouse than anything we know today. At home, her husband (Whitshaw) hides his weakness behind an authoritarian manner – their son has to bow to a picture of the ruling monarch Gorge V. before he goes to bed. Encouraged by her co-worker Violet (Duff), Maud joins the suffragette movement. Soon she is on police photos, which are brought to the attention of Inspector Steed (Gleeson), who tries – in vain – to make an informer of Maud. Whilst in the factory, the brutal manager Taylor (Geoff Bell), who sexually abuses women on a regular basis, threatens Maud, her husband throws her out of the house and then gives their son up for adoption – in a heart-breaking scene. Literally driven underground, Maud interacts with historical figures of the women’s movement like Edith Bessie New (Bonham-Carter), a pharmacist and bomb maker, as well as Emily Wilding Davison, who was famously fatally injured,when she threw herself in front of one of the King’s horses at the Derby in 1913. Emily’s sacrifice, witnessed by Maud, cements her will to fight.

Sarah Gavron’s aesthetic approach falls somewhere between a Hollywood blockbuster and a British kitchen-sink drama. Whilst the pace is always furious, the camera shows either panorama shots (with a few unnecessary crane-shots thrown in) or close ups, never coming to rest with medium shots, which should establish the characters. The relentless use of one-to-one images (in the name of realism) leave nothing for audiences to imagine. The characters are often too one-dimensional, because there is no time to explore their motives and history. And it is not asking for much to grant some of the protagonists some ambivalence. In the case of Taylor there is no need for this. But with Steed, a man driven by his profession rather than his knowledge about the eventual outcome of the struggle, the character deserves a more sublime approach. And Meryl Streep’s vignette as Emmeline Pankhurst, with her speech from a balcony, is surely too close to a caricature of a leader.

As far as the acting goes, a sterling British support cast generally does well. Mulligan gives a subtle performance, but not a brilliant one: the action plays out in her eyes but her screen presence is over-shadowed here by Helena Bonham-Carter and Nathalie Press, whilst Bell gets his brutal macho image absolutely right.

SUFFRAGETTE is an important film, not least for the fact that the social conditions of working women were gruelling in those days: they not only had to work from early childhood, they were sexual prey for all men: Taylor’s attitude shows that he has the right to get his way with any woman on the shop floor. And even the upper and middle class women were financially dependent on their husbands: when one of the women asks her husband to pay bail not only for her, but also for the working class women (to save them from prison), the gentlemen refuses, even though his wife reminds him that it is her money he is reliant on. SUFFRAGETTE is a timely reminder how much women were at the mercy of men: they were objects to be used, mistreated and punished like children: they were forced to turn to violence, (as women often still are today): the only language men understand, to free themselves.

SCREENING DURING THE LONDON FILM FESTIVAL | 7-18 OCTOBER 2015 AND NATIONWIDE

11 Minuty | 11 Minutes | Competition Venice 2015 | LFF 2015

Writer|Director: Jerzy Skolimowski

Cast: Richard Dormer, Agata Buzek, Dawid Orgodnik, Andrzej Chyra, Piotr Glowacki, Jan Nowicki

During the sixties, writer and director Jerzy Skolimowski focused on films that explored the ironic aspects and moral dilemmas affecting ordinary individuals in post-Stalinist Poland. His films were the ‘Impressionists’ of an era dominated by the sweeping epics of the Polish Film School. After collaborating in Polanski’s Knife in the Water, his directorial debut, Rysopsis (Identification Marks: None) 1965 was closely followed by Walkower. Since then, the 77-year-old Polish auteur has written, directed and acted in works ranging from the surreal to the dramatic, as here in his first film for five years: Venice Competition entry 11 MINUTES.

Best described as a suspense thriller, 11 MINUTES explores themes of fate and paranoia. Set in the sweeping urban spaces of contemporary Warsaw, it could also be entitled Crossover, dealing, as it does, with eleven minutes in the lives of a random bunch of characters whose lives collide in the centre of the capital. Wildly frenetic and octane-fuelled, the action unfurls chaotically with moments of surreal beauty and hard-edged passion. Invasion of privacy insinuates the narrative in the shape of security cameras, webcams and mobile phones which track the protagonists during this frenzied few minutes of precision filmmaking.

Tracking the various strands of the story, it’s easy to miss out on the pyrotechnics and wizardry of the expert camerawork and cutting-edge visual effects involving a crew of eight specialists lead by cinematographer Mikolaj Lebowski. There is a tacky film director (Richard Dormer) putting a newly married actress (Paulina Chapko) through her auditioning paces in a sleek hotel penthouse, her jealous husband (Wojciech Mecwaldowski) heads towards the building in hot pursuit, sporting a black eye (they argued earlier). Nearby, an ex-con hot dog vendor (Andrzej Chyra | In the Name Of) makes a point of remembering his customers’ orders to the letter and takes pride in serving a group of nuns and a young girl (Ifi Ude) with a dog. A window cleaner slips in from the high-rise block for a spot of home movie watching with his girlfriend, who joins him in one of the luxury bedrooms. A student thief (Lukasz Sikora) makes a abortive attempt at a robbery; and perhaps the most exciting – a motorcycle courier (Dawid Ogrodnik) visits his lover and almost gets caught ‘in flagrante’ by her high-powered husband on his return home to their villa in leafy luxury nearby. A group of ambulance paramedics try to take a heavily pregnant woman (Grazyna Blecka-Kolska) and a dying man (Janusz Chabior) to hospital from the highest floor of a mansion block. And last, but not least, veteran actor Jan Nowicki makes an appearance as a water-colourist painting quietly by the banks of the Vistula river.

Thrilling, bewildering and at times quite exhausting to take in, Skolimowski’s dramatic storyline is not the most involving or satisfying of experiences. Like a vintage wine, this is a multi-layered tour de force whose infinite subtleties will emerge with each viewing.  The mesmerising set-pieces are brilliantly crafted and certainly amongst the most extraordinary action sequences ever committed to film.  The final moments are simply breath-taking and mark out Jerzy Skolimowski as a director who, after 50 years, is still quite clearly at the top of his game. MT

VENICE FILM FESTIVAL 2 -12 SEPTEMBER 2015 | LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 7 -18 OCTOBER 2015

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Very Big Shot (2015) | LFF 2015

Writer-Director : Mir-Jean Bou Chaaya

Cast: Alain Saadeh, Fouad Yammie, Marcel Ghanem.

107min  Lebanon Qatar  Crime Satire

Beirut-born director Mir-Jean Bou Chaaya’s first feature is a hard-hitting and original crime drama that embodies the grit and explosive feistiness of the Middle Eastern Arabs it portrays, and their situational sense of humour.

Satirical in its social commentary Very Big Shot has echoes of the Hollywood outing Argo and even Woody Allen’s classic Small Time Crooks. Here, two small time drug-dealing brothers, Ziad (Alain Saadeh) and Joe (Tarek Yaacoub), decide to extend their illegal activities from a small family bakery into a more ambitious concern. They discover that they can disguise international exports in film canisters, which can bypass x-ray scanners in airports – but first they have to make a convincing film.

The brothers hire a film director named Charbel (Fouad Yammine) who enters into the spirit of the enterprise with great gusto, although he is unaware that the movie is a hoax. The storyline is a forbidden romance akin to Shakespeare’s tale of forbidden love ‘Romeo and Juliet’ transported to the streets of Beirut: a Christian girl meets a Muslim boy and they fall in love. But the film within the film starts to take on a life of its own as events spiral out of control and fiction and reality begin to coalesce in ways they never imagined, with hilarious results.

Despite some obvious flaws in tone and pacing, the clever camerawork and an amusing script shows how the film develops, gradually involving the wider community in the ongoing narrative. Bou Chaaya  cleverly blend his genres in this solid, well-crafted and inventive debut. MT

SCREENING IN COMPETITION AT THE LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2015

Take Me To the River (2015) | LFF 2015

Writer|Director: Matt Sobel

Cast: Logan Miller, Robin Weigert, Josh Hamilton

84min | Drama | USA

There is something tenderly piquant about Matt Sobel’s indie debut that makes spectacular use of its woozy bucolic landscapes and riverbeds of a summery Nebraska.

Suspicion sizzles in the ripening cornfields and there’s more than a whiff off tension is this teasingly told Mid-Western Gothic saga that holds its secret close to its chest as a brooding sense of panic sears through this Red-Neck heartland. The homespun tale opens as a family trio of Cindy Robin Weigert), her husband (Richard Schiff) and laidback teenage son Ryder (Logan Miller) are driving from California to ‘Grammas farm’ to spend afew pivotal days with her brother Keith and the Nebraskan side of the family. Her brother’s family is a conservative one, with guns in their pockets rather than mobile phones, and an unfortunate incident that occurs shortly after their arrival sets a tone of mistrust and animosity in the days that follow.

When Ryder meets his young cousin Molly, it’s clear that she is a handful used to getting her way with men, clearly honed by being the eldest daughter of four girls. Ryder, gamely rocking red minishorts and a deeply sccoped neckline, is hoping to announce his coming-out but mother Cindy advises him to keep things low-key with her rather more conservative Nebraska family. But Molly pushes the boundaries out until an accident in the haybarn causes the menfolk, and particularly Keith,  to come down heavily on Ryder, blaming him what has happened. Although Ryder is scandalised, he retreats into the safety of a ramshakle outhouse, rejecting his mother’s efforts to pour balm on troubles waters all round.

Josh Hamilton gives a button-up yet mesmerising turn as Keith: masterful and masculine but totally eschewing the macho swagger normally associated with the mid West. As Ryder, Logan Miller is subtly sophisticated and superbly sullen but newcomer Ursula Parker, as nine-year-old Molly, achieves an portrait of cocquettish charm and knowing seductiveness that is remarkable for one so young. Robin Weigert’s Cindy is the only one poorly-written: instead of being the confident, educated woman who left the county to study in UCLA, she appears ingratiating and no stronger than Keith’s submissive wife Ruth (Azura Skye), particularly when all her issues from the past with Keith, threaten to re-surface.

Sobel’s storytelling deftly embraces burgeoning teenage sexuality to remarkable effect, from the permissiveness of the West Coast to the entrenched and traditional values of the South West. But despite Thomas Scott Stanton’s sumptuous visual evocation, the story never quite serves or satisfies its suberb setting; teetering forever on the edge of enigma with too many implausibilities, leaving us high and dry like a floundering fish on the bank of the North Platte River. MT

SCREENING DURING LONDON FILM FESTIVAL UNTIL 18 OCTOBER 2015

 

Retribution (2015)|El Nascondido | LFF 2015

Dir.: Dani de La Torre; Cast: Luis Tosar, Paula Del Rio, Marco Sanz, Elvira Minguez; Spain 2015, 100 min.

First time director Dani de La Torre has achieved a remarkable feat with this small, compact thriller: his main protagonists are all equally unlikeable, but far from losing interest, the audience grasps the underlying philosophical concept, which underpins an endless car chase directed by a voice on a mobile.

Set in contemporary La Coruna (Galicia), invest banker Carlos (Luis Tosar) sets off in his car to drive to work, accompanied by his two children Sara (Del Rio) and Marcos (Sanz) who he is dropping off at their school. But a voice on his mobile informs him that his car is carrying a bomb which will explode if he or his children leave the car. The caller wants ransom money from Carlos and the bank, in the region of half a million Euros. Carlos does not believe the caller, but is immediately convinced by the threat when the car of his two co-workers, parked next to him, who have been also been blackmailed, explodes – the shrapnel injuring Marcos, who is injured and needs to go to hospital. Trying to get in touch with his wife, Carlos learns, in an unexpected twist, that she is with the father of a friend “whom she met during the PTA meetings you never go to”.

RETRIBUTION has strong parallels with Locke, athough the action element is lacking in the British film. Carlos is a typical one-dimensional Spanish corporate character. At the start, he is totally univolved with his children, his mind totally occupied by work. Only the actions of the blackmailer remind Carlos of the existence of the two on the backseat. But the extortionist is equally guilty: he is not only ready to sacrifice two innocent children for his vendetta: he and his wife wanted to participate in making “easy” money. But the end, de la Torre shows that nothing much has changed: Carlos is replaced, but the bank is only too ready for a new strategy.

Tosar, in spite of his detached emotional attitude, gains our respect, if not our forgiveness for his lack of soul. The action scenes are impeccable, and it is refreshing to have a woman policeman in charge. Josu Inchaustegni’s images are crisp, but his main work is done inside the car where the changing fortunes of the chase can be read in the faces of the trio inside the vehicle. RETRIBUTION is a small gem, with de La Torre achieving something smart,sassy and well beyond the genre. AS

SCREENING DURING LONDON FILM FESTIVAL UNTIL 18 OCTOBER 2015

A Monster With a Thousand Heads (2015) | Venice Film Festival | LFF 2015

Director: Rodrigo Pla

Cast: Jana Raluy, Sebastian Aguirre Boeda and Hugo Albores.

75min   Thriller   Uruguay

Political revenge thriller: A MONSTER WITH A THOUSAND HEADS is adapted from the novel by Laura Santullo,. Uruguayan writer-director Rodrigo Plá delivers a South American take on Joel Schumacher’s 1993 thriller Falling Down, but this time revenge is served up piping hot by a ‘femme fatale’, quite literally.

Payback time comes to a private medical care company when they fail to deliver the care paid for by Sonia, a middle class woman with a family in upmarket Montevideo. Clearly things have got out of hand in a country where men still hold sway despite advances in a highly evolved economy and infrastructure.  With the public services in disarray, those who can afford it have resorted to private medical cover, and Sonia is no different, but when the chips are down she discovers that the insurance company is unwilling to help. As in most South American countries, gun crime is prevalent and when she fails to get attention one morning for her sick husband, Sonia takes matters into her own hands.

Sober in tone, this is a fast-paced and tightly-scripted thriller whose slick camerawork and inventive framing make it a throughly enjoyable watch if not an occasionally bizarre one that nevertheless ensures laugh out loud moments – whether intentional or not – amidst those of shocking violence.

Jana Raluy gives a performance of low-level hysteria as a woman driven to extremes in a society that most of us will now identify with: mindless call centres; cheeky staff; functionaries who hide behind their screens and jobsworth merchants – not to mention high levels of corruption further up the system. If at first you don’t believe Sonia’s sheer nerve, by the end of this absorbing drama her frustration starts to feel plausible and even possible from you own perspective. MT

VENICE FILM FESTIVAL RUNS FROM 2 -12 SEPTEMBER 2015

 

Schneider vs Bax (2015) | LFF 2015

Director|Writer: Alex van Warmerdam

Cast: Tom Dewispelaere, Maria Kraakman, Alex van Warmerdam, Annet Malherbe, Gene Bervoets

96min | Comedy Thriller | Holland

Alex van Warmerdam is a multi-talented Dutch filmmaker: he stars, directs and writes the music here in his follow-up to Borgman, another darkly comic piece, that despite its solid credentials is destined to be niche fare, rather like its predecessor.

Here a hunky contract killer Schneider (Dewispelaere) and perfect husband in his spare time, is hired to kill a raddled writer (van Warmerdam) and ‘child murderer’ (or that’s what he is told) who lives in a white-washed wetlands cabin with a view to die for. This is Holland where life is much more loosely buttoned up than in the rest of Europe. But even here things don’t go according to plan, as they rarely do where van Warmerdam is concerned. .

Schneider’s boss, Mertens (Gene Bervoets) has another sleek residence and issues orders that the murder has to happen that morning at the latest. Meanwhile, Bax has to get rid of his (much younger) babe to accommodate a visit from his depressed daughter Francisca (Maria Kraakman), so his agenda is rather tricky that morning. He’s also an addict: “I have my coke and weed, you have your muesli!” he tells Francisca, when she arrives like a doom bird. And it doesn’t get easier. One way or another, wires get crossed and gradually the body count starts to mount.

With its black sense of humour and loaded social comment (a la Borgman) this is a thickly-plotted and tightly wound farce that unfolds in the ‘Fens’ of Holland. Apart from the tricky plotlines, too many characters spoil what is essentially a visual delight with its darkly-brewed humour, and milky-cream interior sets. It doesn’t feel as prickly or as pertinent as Borgman, but there is plenty to sit back and enjoy, not least the perfect choreography and Schneider’s perfect shots – from his gun that is. The real cinematographer is Tom Erisman who creates a stylish aesthetic with his perfectly framed shots amongst the reeds and the pared-down architecture. An enjoyable, if bewildering watch. MT

SCREENING DURING LONDON FILM FESTIVAL UNTIL 18 OCTOBER 2015

Lamb (2015) | LFF 2015

Writer|Director: Yared Zeleke

Cast: Rediat Amare, Kidist Siyum, Welela Assefa

94min  Drama   Ethiopia

In the verdant farmland of Bala region of Ethiopia, a lamb becomes the source of comfort for a small boy mourning the death of his mother and struggling to fit in with his new family, once his father leaves to work in Addis Ababa. Ephraim (Rediat Amare) clearly loves the animal but he realises that his family will slaughter ‘Chuni’ for the upcoming Feast of the Holy Cross and this adds a touch of melancholy to this exquisitely filmed, multilayered debut from Yared Zeleke.

Growing up himself in the urban slums of drought-ridden Ethiopia, Zeleke went on to study film in New York where he honed his craft before making this classically written ethnological film which will appeal to the arthouse crowd with its winning turn from endearing newcomer Amare and its fascinating insight into the tribal culture of Ethiopia.

The new family is not keen to take on another mouth to feed. Severe drought, like the one that took Ephraim’s mother, often blights the region and his aunt already has a poorly baby to look after. With a cousin Tsion (Kidist Siyum) who would rather read newspapers than find a husband, and his disciplinarian uncle Solomon (Surafel Teka) to contend with, Ephraim’s daily life is often miserable particularly when his cooking skills, passed on from his mother, are much stronger than his herding tactics, making him the butt of family jibes. His kindly grandmother holds sway in the household using a whip to exert her authority, so Ephraim looks for ways to join his father in Addis Ababa.

Jewish through his mother’s side of the family, Ephraim has a strong commercial sense and soon starts earning money making samosas to sell in the market, hoping to raise enough to afford the coach trip to the city, to save his pet and see his dad. Zeleke’s script cleverly balances dramatic tension that simmers below the surface as Chuni’s days are numbered forcing Ephraim to find ways to finance his escape. Tsion is an intelligent and feisty girl and Ephraim bonds with her when the pair find ways of keeping Chuni away from harm, securing him with a local Muslim shepherd girl for a few Burrs (the local currency). Thus Zeleke quietly paints a picture of religious harmony with Christians, Muslims and Jews living tolerantly together. The only strife for the Ethiopians comes from poverty and drought. Zeleke’s script mentions the lack of help from senior leaders, but this political strand is very much played down and is not central to the narrative. What makes the film especially enjoyable are Josée Deshaies’ (Saint Laurent) glorious visuals that tenderly and vibrantly depict the local customs and magnificent scenery.

Lamb could be part of the curriculum in junior schools, showing how kids in other countries manage with loneliness, isolation and trauma, even in the poorest communities. Lamb has echoes of Satyajit Ray’s classic: Pather Panchali (Pather’s Way), also about a boy who left his (Bengali) village to seek a better life in the city.

SCREENING DURING LONDON FILM FESTIVAL UNTIL 18 OCTOBER 2015

 

 

 

 

 

The Endless River (2015) | Competition | Venice Film Festival | LFF 2015

Writer | Director: Oliver Hermanus

Cast: Crystal-Donna Roberts, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Denise Newman

108min  Drama  South Africa

Oliver Hermanus is a white South African director whose debut Shirley Adams was an outstanding portrait of a mother in crisis. Denis Newman played that mother and she stars here again in his third feature and Venice 2015 hopeful THE ENDLESS RIVER.

The film could be described as “Cape Noir” with its shady characters underpinning a realist romantic drama that burns as slowly as a South African Braai. Creating a powerful sense of place with the wild and craggy Cape scenery, Hermanus delivers a seethingly suspenseful story, ignited by moments of fiery melodrama and injected with a crafty mix of racial and class tension and mistrust.

A hefty title sequence suggests 40s Hollywood in golden hued graphics where the characters are billed with dots leading to their names. This is accompanied by a bold opening ‘overture’ from Braam du Toit, whose unusual and atmospheric original score often sets the mood for each scene’s ambiance. In a sleepy community in Riviersonderend near Cape Town, we meet Mona (Denise Newman) at the home she shares with her daughter Tiny (Crystal-Donna Roberts) and son-in-law Percy was has been released from prison, in a classic opening sequence. Clearly Mona has reservations about Percy’s future and so does Tiny, although she is desperately in love.

In a farmstead nearby, Frenchman Gilles (Nicolas Duvauchelle|Polisse), is eating dinner with his wife and two young sons. Their meal takes place in silence suggesting an undercurrent of unease but Hermanus never elaborates on this and shortly after the wife and boys are savagely murdered in their home by three Black interlopers, possibly exercising a gangland initiation with their innocent victims being the French family. The attack sequence takes place in silence scored only by Braam de Toit’s ambient soundtrack screeching terror into the proceedings. The initiation theory is suggested to Gilles, when he meets the local police chief Groenewald (a brooding Darren Kelfkens) who is leading the  hapless murder inquiry. As happenstance would have it, Gilles has already come into contact with Tiny through her waitressing job in an diner he frequents and after the attack, and he drives past her in a dusty country road when she is coming home alone from a difficult evening quarrelling with Percy.

Hermanus builds a menacing sense of tension as the story becomes more complex and misunderstandings and recrimations follow in the wake of more violence. Structuring his narrative into three chapters feels slightly redundant and adds nothing to our understanding of the tightly-plotted affair that gradually centres on Gilles and Tiny as they are drawn closer together, their racial differences fading into the background as a more crucial strand develops.

Nicolas Duvauchelle generates considerable emotional depth as the strung-out and desperate family man but the standout performance comes from Crystal-Donna Roberts who is able to convey her thoughts through minute gestures and even the twitch of an eye-brow, bringing potent dramatic tension and authenticity to a film whose plot occasionally feels outlandish. With her considerable skill and Gilles’ head of emotion as a man who is clearly brought to his knees with grief, THE ENDLESS RIVER remains commandingly gripping from its early scenes to its powerfully enigmatic denouement. MT

VENICE FILM FESTIVAL RUNS UNTIL 12 SEPTEMBER 2015

 

Jia Zhangke, A Guy from Fenyang (2014) | LFF 2015

Dir.: Walter Salles | Documentary | France/Brazil 2014, 98 min.

This is not a buddy movie: director Walter Salles follows his fellow filmmaker Jia Zhangke on a journey through a China in transition, revisiting many of Zhangke’s film locations, but always keeping a certain distance, however friendly. This is only logical: their respective filmmaking styles are to different for it to be any other way – Salles’ lyricism, his traditional approach, contrasts heavily with Jia’s abrasive humanitarian agitation, often filmed in short-hand.

When the couple starts their journey in Fenyang, the tone of the film is set. Jia bemoans the loss of the many karaoke bars which played such a central role in his debut feature Pickpocket (1997). But the bars have not been replaced, there are just a long line of boarded up shop windows. Before Jia visits his family in their new accommodation, he searches out his old quarters, and the many places where he grew up, which are now awaiting demolition. We learn from his mother that young Jia was fed “by hundred families”, the boy often left his home and ate at the dinner in his neighbours’ houses. His mother’s new flat has certainly many mod-coms – but the solidarity of the families, sharing their dark yards, is gone forever. Many of the locations from his films are also gone, or totally reduced like a wonderful old-fashioned theatre, from which only the stage remains – which Jia used in Platform (2000), a film about the fortunes of an amateur theatre group. It was here, that he first met his wife and muse, the actress Zhao Tao, who started her career as a ballet dancer. The newly built dam, which featured in Still Life (2006), which won the Golden Lion in Venice, is re-visited with all the villages and towns condemned to a life under-water.

Jia’s dissatisfaction with the “new’ China is obvious, particularly since his second-to-last film A Touch of Sin, has never been shown in China, even though the authorities claim that it has not been banned. Certainly, his new film Mountains May Depart (our Cannes Review for LFF), will not endear Jia more to the censors, since it neatly fits in with this documentary: a country in economic recession, and a puritanical government, always ready use the law. DOP Inti Brione looks at Fenyang with long, doleful takes, resting on the decay and finding alienation all over the place. Jia Zhangke, A Guy from Fenyang, is a sad journey through a country which has lost its identity and any form of cohesion. Brutal neo-capitalism meets abhorrent poverty and the government pretends that all this not happening, hiding behind a Stalinist past and its cult of personality – not that anybody should have any pity for Mao, now reduced and used: a puppet on a string who was only taken out when the government needed to celebrate an anniversary of some kind. There is not much to celebrate in the present. AS

SCREENING DURING LFF 7 -18 OCTOBER 2015 |

 

The Romantic Exiles (2015) | LFF 2015

Writer|Director: Jonas Trueba

Cast: Renata Antonante, Francesco Carril, Vahina Giocante, Luis E Pares, Vito Sanz, Sigfrid Monleon, Isabelle Stoffel

70min  Spain  Drama

Three Spanish guys embark on a trip to Paris in a camper van, just for the hell of it in this sunny arthouse gem. THE ROMANTIC EXILES is Jonas Trueba’s follow-up to his stylish The Wishful Thinkers that garnered awards in Malaga and the US.

Luis, Francesco and Vito are romantic dreamers who like nothing better than a good philosophical chin-wag about love and the meaning of life, over a few bottles of wine, in a Parisian courtyard somewhere off the Boulevard St Germain.

Loose and laid back, this is low-budget filmaking at its best. Trueba throws in Tulsa’s music to liven things up and the dialogue and acting is fresh and genuinely amusing as the trio amble through this leisurely journey, often meeting up with others to add flavour and spice to their witty, wise and often whimsical wine-fuelled dinners – like the one where one friend annouces her impending motherhood without a baby or father in sight. Sixties theatre founder, Jim Haynes, puts in an appearance, just for good measure.

Vito (Vito Sanz) is the driver and the most low-key of the trio, Vahina (Vahina Giocante) is his spirited girlfriend. Francesco (Francesco Carril) speaks fluent Italian most of the time with his friend Renata (Renata Antonante); Luis (Luis E. Pares), a film buff, would like to get back with his (girl) friend Isabelle (Isabelle Stoffel, who also appears in The Wishful Thinkers).

Pointless but often poignant: the tone here is light-hearted but the themes serious: work, friendship, the end of youth, adult responsibilities, and women having the upper hand. Colours are acid bright: rich coral, turquoise and emerald fizzles with vibrant April freshness. Several romance languages are spoken making it all feel very Mediterranean  – French, Italian, Spanish. References to 21st century art and literature make up a bohemian brew with a distinct feel of Eric Rohmer to it: you almost expect Louis Garrel to saunter onto the set complete with beret, and baguette under his arm. And at 70 minutes Trueba can get away with a lack of real narrative, as the discussions carry a certain charismatic enjoyment punctuated by trips in the van and the tuneful  score that is always major in key. MT

SCREENING DURING THE LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 7 -18 OCTOBER 2015

Paula (2015) |LFF 2015

Director: Eugenio Canevari

Cast: Denise Labbate, Estefania Blaiotta, Bernardo Calabia

64min   Drama   Argentina

Eugenio Canevari creates an atmospheric mood piece that transcends the well-worn indie film theme of domestic service in South America’s contemporary affluent homes. In her screen debut, Denise Labatte plays the young maid of the title who is forced into an abortion by her callous ex-boyfriend Berna (Bernardo Calabia). As ever, in this Catholic household, the matriarch holds sway and Estefi (Estefania Blaiotta) focuses on herself than her three children and cleaner, refusing to offer any help.

Lounging poolside in a lush suburb of Buenos Aires, enjoying al fresco meals and managing their extensive estancias, Estefi is emblematic of today’s well-healed South American housewife whether in Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay or Chile. Canevari allows his audience to engage and be present in his drama that relies on an impressionist style of exchanged glances, palpable atmosphere and pregnant pauses to convey and carry the narrative, rather than extensive dialogue, making this an enjoyable and easy-going film for cineastes and the arthouse crowd to enjoy, whatever language they speak. Canivari’s film epitomises the over-used but effective phrase: ‘less is more’ and Matias Castillo’s glorious visuals make great use of the sunny and verdant setting both around the house in Buenos Aires and further afield in the Pampas. Canevari disregards running time – just 64 minutes: He tells his story and doesn’t try to add unnecessary embellishment, showing a masterful confidence in both material and execution and making him a talent worth watching in the future.  Recommended.

SCREENING DURING LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2015

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Beasts of No Nation (2015)| Venice Film Festival |LFF 2015

Director: Cary Fukunaga

Cast: Idris Elba, Ama K Abebrese, Abraham Attah

133min  War drama  US

Dir.: Cary Fukunaga;Cast: Idris Elba, Abraham Attah, Grace Nortey; USA 2015, 136 min.

Based on the experiences of Agu, a child soldier fighting in the civil war of an unnamed African country.

Cary Fukunaga who has directed such diverse productions as Jane Eyre (2011) and True Detective (2014) turns his hand here to another literary work with this screen version of Uzodimna Iweala’s novel of the same name.

Set in a unspecified country in East Africa, it tells the harrowing story of young Agu (Attah) who is caught up in the harrowing civil war which ravages his country that not only destroys his childhood but traumatises him for life. We meet him first as a fun-loving boy who plays pranks on everybody particularly his older brother. Once a teacher, Agu’s father, now helps the Nigerian peacekeeping force acting as a buffer between the two warring fractions. Agu’s life seems complete, but one day, government forces overrun the village, killing Agu’s whole family apart from his mother who manages to escape to the capital. When soldiers kill his best friend, he wanders into the woods before being picked up by an army of rebels commanded by an pompous and violent warlord (Elba). In love with violence, the sadistic killler soon teaches Agu to kill and sexually abuses him whilst pretending to protect him as a surrogate father.

Shooting mostly outside in Ghana, Fukunaga paints an unredeeming picture of the inhumanity in this compelling and convincingly dramatised war movie that witnesses the corrupting of a young boy. This is not a war between ideological forces, but simply a fight between two gangster armies, fought without rules and killing the neutral population of the country in far greater number than the enemies. But after the victory of the rebel army, the same leaders become statesmen over night, doing away with their brutal elements like the colonel. Meanwhile, Agu phantasises about his mother again in the capital, before becoming violent on his ow accord. His voice-over tells us that he has lost faith in God, and that he will never play kids games again. Questioned by a young woman working for the UN, he feels like an old man, talking to a young girl.

Idris Elba gives a dynamite performance full of layered subtlety and charisma and Abraham Attah is simply astonishing as the boy. Fukunaga spares no gruesome details and Agu’s journey through hell is told without sentimentality from an observer’s point of view.The images of war and destruction are so realistic that occasionally one has to look away. Running at over two hours the length and a forced happy-end are the only elements that detract from this otherwise harrowing tour-de-force. AS

REVIEWED AT VENICE FILM FESTIVAL | LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 7 -18 OCTOBER 2015

Ixcanul Volcano (2015)| Alfred Bauer Prize Winner Berlin | LFF 2015

Director/Writer: Jayro Bustamante
Cast: María Mercedes Coroy, María Telon, Manuel Antun, Justo Lorenzo

Guatemala/France Drama 91min

Writer-director Jayro Bustamante makes an assured feature debut with IXCANUL VOLCANO, a film as disciplined as it is downbeat in its study of the working routines and local superstitions that make up life at a coffee plantation below a dormant volcano in the midwestern highlands of Guatemala. The film world-premieres in-competition at the 65th Berlin International Film Festival this week, and is not unlike another South American predecessor, THE MILK OF SORROW, which may provide two good omens: that film’s director, Peruvian Claudia Llosa, is on this year’s jury, while the film itself won the top prize upon bowing here in 2009.

17-year-old María (María Mercedes Coroy) is to be married off to Ignacio (Justo Lorenzo), the farm’s significantly older, city-dwelling foreman. Ignacio arrives with a smile that disarms any would-be suspicions on the part of María’s family – all of whom are unilingual, Kaqchikel-speaking indigenous Mayans, whose general lack of education leaves them open to misinformation and exploitation: though not especially zealous in his abuse of power, Ignacio nevertheless demonstrates hesitance in allowing María’s family to speak for themselves when communicating on their behalf to Spanish-speaking authorities – firstly to a health inspector and secondly, much later, to the police.

María and her parents, Juana (María Telón) and Manuel (Manuel Antún), are without electricity and running water, while a snake infestation is a permanent source of danger to the cattle they keep. By way of a central narrative tension, the film comes into its own when María is – inconveniently for her, though a little too conveniently for the purposes of plot – impregnated by local lad Pepe (Marvin Coroy), who is much closer to her own age. Dependent upon spiritual healing rather than actual medicine, an abortion is out of the question, and the film begins to unravel as tensions build around María’s fate.

Bustamante’s film is a largely straightforward affair that benefits from more suggestive currents. Opening with a scene in which María and her mother feed rum to their pigs in order to enable mating, they soon after kill one of the animals to eat. Priming the drink-fuelled sex by which María herself is later impregnated, the pig’s fortune doesn’t bode well for our protagonist (who, alluringly played by non-professional Mercedes Coroy, is on the more sensibly talky and less irritating side of ambiguous arthouse heroine).

Not least among IXCANUL VOLCANO’s symbolic threads is the volcano itself, whose peak is never shown and whose ashen slopes are caught only fleetingly in the background of Luis Armando Arteagas’ deep-focus cinematography – which is rich in jungle greens and earthen hues. Suggesting a kind of latent pit of doom that threatens, like an unwanted baby, to come forth at any moment, the volcano smoulders and grumbles from deep within – as if asking for an outlet by which to air its stress, which the filmmakers fittingly never allow. MICHAEL PATTISON

SILVER BEAR AWARD AT BERLINALE 5-15 FEBRUARY 2015 | NOW SCREENING DURING LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2015 

Gold Coast (2015) | London Film Festival 2015

A budding entrepreneur arrives by boat in 1830s Danish Guinea (Ghana) in this locally shot and impressively mounted debut arthouse drama from Swedish director, Daniel Dencik.

With his tousled pre-Raphaelite locks and suave accoutrements, Wulff (Jakob Oftebro | Kon Tiki) is the decent but ‘wet behind the ears’ botanist who, having been granted a slice of the plantation action by his Danish King, swashbuckles into a moral morass when he discovers that the faceless natives are not only unfriendly but also recalcitrance at being beaten, oppressed and even raped by their colonial masters on the plantation.

In flashback we see him enjoying the carnal delights of his fiancee with whom he hopes to be reunited back in the fatherland after a year or so of sewing his seeds and building his empire in this brooding heart of darkness: where it emerges that things are far from as idyllic as gorgeously lush visuals would have us believe. And despite Angelo Badalamenti’s funkily romantic score, the script leaves a great deal to be desired as Wulff is prone to filmic episodes of plant-inspired navel-gazing and day-dreaming, frequently departing from the Colonial storyline of running a business, making this period drama feel rather lightweight albeit pleasurable from a visual point of view.

There is plenty of interaction between Wullf and his young slave boy, Lumpa (John Aggrey), but the story drifts through hallucigenic scenes involving local flora but it doesn’t seem to take us anywhere meaningful until it emerges that a tribe called the Ashantis have gradually desimated his growth potential plantation-wise. Being a plantsman and pacific, Wullf embarks on a conciliatry route to solve his problems emloying the aid of a local merchant to seek a humanistic solution. Dencik has made an ambitious debut with this absorbing and unusual approach to Danish Colonial history. MT

SCREENING DURING LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 7-18 OCTOBER 2015

Blood of My Blood (2015) | FIPRESCI Award | Venice Film Festival 2015 | LFF 2015

Director: Marco Bellocchio

Cast: Roberto Herlitzka, Pier Giorgio Bellocchio, Abla Rohrwacher, Lidiya Lubermann

106min | Historical | Drama Italy

Marco Bellocchio fuses the past and present in this inventive horror story that explores a 17th century witch trial and its relevance to a more lightweight contemporary story.

The medieval town of Bobbio, Emilia Romagna, has inspired story-telling for hundreds of years. It was the setting for Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose and Bellocchio’s debut Fists in the Pocket. With Blood of My Blood he returns to the abandoned Bobbio convent; a slightly humorous arthouse outing that will appeal to cineastes prepared to let their imaginations wander.

The first half of the narrative is a classic tale of Catholic crime and punishment. A young nun, Sister Benedetta (Lidiya Lieberman), has slept with a fellow priest who has taken his own life in remorse. With her hair cut severely short, she hangs upside down in a cloister room awaiting punishment. Meanwhile, his twin brother Federico Mai (Pier Giorgio Bellocchio) has arrived to extract the truth and a confession from the defiant Benedetta, so that his brother can have a decent burial in holy ground. Federico pretends to be his brother while Benedetta undergoes a series of tests to determine whether she is Satan’s daughter and, surviving the trials, she is walled up in the convent. In an entertaining vignette, Alba Rohrwacher and Federica Fracassi meanwhile play a delicate duo of virgin sisters who accommodate Federico in their home and later their bed.

Embued with a rich palette of vibrant hues by expert cinematographer Daniele Cipri (Vincere|It Was the Son) the first half of the film is the most enjoyable. In its more fluid second half, the narrative broadens out into a more satirical style that feels at bewildering, and quite frankly disappointing, such is the intrigue of the opening section. Still in Bobbio, we land with an unwelcome bump into the world of social media and the upwardly mobile where a Russian billionaire (Ivan Franek) turns up at the convent doors (in his red Ferrari, naturally) demanding to buy the place. Federico Mai is now the estate agent. It emerges that the convent is haunted by Count Basta (a masterful Roberto Hertlitzka), vampire with a penchant for cultural pursuits. Implications and infringements on Italy’s strict bylaws and pension systems are also involved in this prospective purchase. But the Count has connections with the powers that be and an amusing final segment sees him swing into action in this playful if not tonally strange story. Carlo Crivelli’s score and Scala & Kolacny’s choir music feel out of place in this piece that feels happier in the past that it does in the present. A sentiment that many Italians will be in agreement with. MT

VENICE FILM FESTIVAL 2 -12 SEPTEMBER 2015

A Girl At My Door (2014)

Dir: July Jung

Cast: Doona Bae, Sae-rom Kim Sae-byak Song

119min   Korean Drama   Subtitles

Set in a remote corner of countryside Korea, July Jung’s simple narrative centres on Young-nam (Doona Bae), a young Police Chief, seconded to the small community after misdemeanours in the capital Seoul. There she takes charge of the rowdy locals and drunks.  One family is particularly troublesome: the father brutalises his young daughter Dohee, encouraged by his batty mother who rides around on a truck. But when Young-nam takes Dohee under her wing, the problems start for the dysfunctional teenager. Caught between her own dodgy reputation with the Force and the mental instability of her protegee, Young-nam fights for her own professional survival in an environment that on the surface appears calm but is full of quirky surprises and unexpected pitfalls. July Jung’s subtle drama is embued with its own brand of gently subversive humour and affecting performances from Doona Bae and Sea-rom Kim in the central roles. MT

REVIEWED AT CANNES FILM FESTIVAL 2014 | ON GENERAL RELEASE FROM 18 SEPTEMBER 2015

Hard to Be a God (Trudno Byt Bogom) 2014 |

Dir.: Aleksei German

Cast: Leonid Yarmolnik, Aleksandr Chutko, Yuriy Tsurilo

Russia 2013, 177 min.

Just before his death in February 2013, Russian director Aleksei German (*1938), finished his last film and legacy HARD TO BE A GOD. Final touches were added by his wife and co-writer Svetlana Karmalita and his son Aleksei German jr. Shooting took place between 2000 and 2006. The film is based on the novel of the same name by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky. They also wrote novel and script to Tarkovsky’s Stalker and Sukorow’s Days of the Eclipse. In 1989, the German director Peter Fleischmann directed a version of the novel “Hard to be God”, under the title Es ist nicht leicht ein Gott zu sein (“It’s not easy to be a God”). The brothers Strugatsky could be called SciFi-writers, placing their novels in the past, but actually writing in coded form about life in the Soviet Union.

Whilst Fleischmann took a philosophical approach to the novel, with long monologues by the central character Don Rumata, German overwhelms his audience with stunning, often absurd monochrome images. Rumata is a scientist sent from earth, to find out why the planet Arkanar is so backwards, the population still living in the middle-ages. In German’s version, Rumata is much less communicative than in Fleischmann’s because in the Russian outing, Rumata is not allowed to help the population on its way forward, so he just comments on the permanent warfare taking place around him in the mud, pretending to be a God, but nobody really believing it. It is not quiet clear what the two rival groups, “Blacks” and “Greys”, are fighting for, but the battle scenes are vicious, the violence shown in gruesome detail making it extremely unpleasant viewing. Drowning in the muddy autumnal weather as winter gradually brings its dank, filthy, rainstorms that gust over the fields and the ramshackle houses that offer scant shelter from the elements. By the end of the film a frozen winter has set in, snow covering the battlefields and frigid corpses strewn all over the place.

Arkanar is a hellish place: the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch and Brueghel spring to mind. There is no relief from the endless slaughter, drinking, shouting and torturing. The absence of anything or anybody even mildly encouraging is terrible. Quite evidently this film is a portrait of the old Soviet Union, and it comes as little surprise that German only finished five films in the USSR between 1968 and 1998; Soviet censorship taking not too kindly to his frontal attacks on the system, in comparison with the more subtle works of Tarkovsky and Sukorow. Aleksei German was the USSR’s harshest critic. In some ways there is a certain nostalgia about HARD TO BE A GOD; the inhuman world of Stalinism has gone, making the drama now feel like a time capsule; a witness report sent too late.

The DOPs Vladimir Ilyin and Yuri Klimenko have really created a world of hyenas and vultures, a slum of souls played out in a battlefield of elementary degradation. HARD TO BE A GOD is an epic vision of hell, told in the most minute of details. It is indeed a sight for sore eyes; the human condition is a rotten one. Those who stick with it will be greatly rewarded. AS

REVIEWED AT THE LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2014 | NOW ON DVD RELEASE COURTESY OF ARROW FILMS

Pasolini (2014) |

Dir.: Abel Ferrara

Cast: Willem Dafoe, Ninetto Davoli, Maria de Medeiros, Adriana Asti, Riccardo Scamarcio

USA 2014, 85 mim.

November 2nd 1975: the final day in the life of Pier Paolo Pasolini, Italian poet, novelist and filmmaker. After returning from Stockholm, were he met Ingmar Bergman amongst others, Pasolini’s day starts with a letter to his friend and fellow writer Alberto Moravia, asking him for advice on his nearly finished novel “Petrolio”. Later he is interviewed by a journalist and then dines with friends in a restaurant for supper, before setting off on his last journey to Ostia, having picked up the 17 year-old male prostitute Pelosi. In Ostia, on an abandoned football pitch, he is attacked by a gang, beaten to death. His Alfa Romeo driven over his prostrate body.

Abel Ferrara’s enigmatic portrait reigns back on any sensationalism to cover Pier Paolo Pasolini’s last day with dignity and sobriety. We see a refined man in love with writing and films; planning future projects on both fronts. We also see a man fearful of the future. “We are all in danger” – he tells a journalist. This is hardly surprising since the seventies in Italy was a decade fraught with politically motivated violence, kidnappings of industrialists and attacks by the “Brigate Rosse” (Red Brigades). Pasolini, a fervent Marxist, had many enemies.

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Unlike Giordana in his 1995 film Pasolini, an Italian Crime, Ferrara does not dwell on the conspiracy theories, he simply shows a man who thrived on the streets of the Roman underworld. Cruising in his sports car, behind dark glasses, he diced with danger, enjoying casual sex with young adonises, often from the wrong side of the tracks. The film includes a part realisation of Pasolini’s film project “Porno-Teo-Kolossal“, where on one day of the year, the gay and lesbian denizens of the city have intercourse together, in order to procreate.

In a dynamite performance, Willem Dafoe not only looks like Pasolini, but brings him to life with integrity, sparse gestures; an economy of movement. Overall, PASOLINI is a film worthy of its subject, showing the two sides of the man: a sometimes aloof intellectual who loses his cool (and finally his head) in dangerous liaisons. In the end, Pasolini became a victim of the society he portrayed. AS/MT

REVIEWED AT VENICE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL RUNS UNTIL 2014. ON GENERAL RELEASE FROM SEPTEMBER 2015

Closed Curtain | Parde (2013) | Silver Bear Best Script | Berlinale 2013

Director: Jafar Panahi
Cast Kambozia Partovi, Maryam Moghadam, Jafar Panahi, Hadi Saeedi

106min Drama

Both the dog and his master are being tracked by the authorities in Closed Curtain, Jafar Panahi’s oblique existential piece of meta filmmaking from contemporary Iran which follows on from his documentary This Is Not A Film.

Opening with an extended static shot of a seaside window barred by security gates, it’s a sober and bewildering set-up brought to life only by ‘the man’, played sensitively here by Panahi himself, and his lovely little dog who he is at pains to hide in this modern villa on the shores of the Caspian Sea.  When a strange couple appear from nowhere pleading to be given shelter a reign of attrition sets in with each character eyeing the other suspiciously and the dog aware that something isn’t right.

With its ambient feel of menace, Closed Curtain is a disorientating film that alienates its audience and generates a strong feeling of claustrophobia as, understandably, it never moves outside the villa but is nevertheless atmospherically shot in a palette of soft seaside hues and terracotta: you could almost be on the Mediterranean were it not for the echoes of ambient hostility from local Police and some intruders who ransack the property. Our sympathies lie with the gentle man and his clever dog rather than the passive aggressive provocative who has purportedly attended a party and is seeking refuge from rebuke.

What develops is exactly what you imagine would happen if you asked a group of students to produce a film about creative expression in a repressed society: heavy-handed and amateurish in style. Not one of Panahi’s stronger outings then but considering he was purportedly under house arrest for “committing propaganda crimes against the Iranian Government” not a bad effort and certainly worth watching for devotees of this inventive and resourceful director’s work. MT

REVIEWED DURING BERLINALE 2013 | NOW ON GENERAL RELEASE

War Book (2014)

Director: Tom Harper      Writer: Jack Thorne

Cast: Sophie Okonedo, Ben Chaplin, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Shaun Evans, Kerry Fox, Adeel Akhtar, Phoebe Fox, Antony Sher, Nicholas Burns

UK Drama

Wide in scope and intellect, Tom Harper’s WAR BOOK  is a chilling chamber piece based on a ‘game’ that took place regularly during the sixties and seventies in the political backrooms of Whitehall and is set here in contempo London. Key political staff assemble each day and are given a ‘scenario’  such as the aftermath of an international nuclear attack.  As ministers, they are then tasked with reporting their individual strategies to cope with the ensuing meltdown, in a roundtable discussion.

Sharply performed by a glittering ensemble cast of British acting talent including: Sophie Okonedo, Ben Chaplin, Antony Sher and Kerry Fox, WAR BOOK bristles with political intrigue and in-fighting from the arcane to the trivial: a coruscating ‘corridors of power’ drama, it ducks and dives through the personal feelings, sexual predilections, and intellectual standpoints of some of ‘finest minds’ in politics, who make decisions on our behalf, but who are not all elected.  Knives are drawn on the political front, and dirty washing is aired shamelessly behind an agenda of ethical and political stance-taking. Particularly good here is Ben Chaplin, an actor with ‘matinee idol’ looks who has been working away effectively for several decades in a variety of roles in both indie film (Dorian Gray) and TV (Game On). Here he shines as a suave and narcissistic sexual predator, Gary, to Phoebe Fox’s dilligent and seductive secretary who is tasked with taking the minutes. Antony Sher is integrity personified, in a ‘less is more’ role of senior advisor, elderly statesmen and contemplative intellect. Kerry Fox plays the soignée and experienced Maria – ‘you can’t put an old head on young shoulders’ type who fashions herself as a more glamorous and more sensual version of ‘the Widdy’ (Ann Widdecombe), and is in recovery from breast cancer. Token ‘Ethnic minorities’ are repped by a brilliantly measured Adheel Akhtar at Mohinder (Mo) and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as the fresh-faced but highly capable Austin. Shaun Evans is the subversive and strung-out Tom, who goes against the grain and has to be cautioned by Philippa for his strident views and outbursts. And last, but not least, is Sophie Okonedo as Philippa, the dispassionate and masterful ‘Chair’, who turns in a performance that is both subtly nuanced and striking.

Anyone with a keen interest in the workings of politics and ‘the powers that be’ will find this quietly gripping and restrained drama an immersive and entertaining experience. MT

PREMIERED AT THE LONDON FILM FESTIVAL | NOW ON RELEASE AT SELECTED CINEMAS

Thou Wast Mild and Lovely (2014) | BFI

Dir.: Josephine Decker

Cast: Sophie Traub, Joe Swanberg, Robert Longstreet, Kristin Slaysman

USA 2014, 79 min.

Hired farmhand Akin is lusting after Sarah, the daughter of his employer Jeremiah. But she soon finds out that he is married and has a daughter. Still, she drives him crazy and watches him masturbate in the barn. Finally, he succumbs to her on a field, after she eats a frog alive. This is not the only strange aspect of Sarah, we often hear her voice-over, talking about a lover who is always close –but it is not Akin. We begin to suspect that there is more to the father-daughter relationship between Sarah and Jeremiah, and when Akin’s wife Drew comes to rescue her husband, all is revealed in a bloody showdown.

In Butter on the Latch Decker creates an unsettling atmosphere, again opposing poetic shots of nature with characters moving around suspiciously, seemingly having to hide a lot. But unlike her debut feature film, THOU WAST MILD AND LOVELY has a much more structured narrative (even though the title is again enigmatic). And again Decker is not afraid to be rather daring (or silly, depending on the viewpoint): apart from the frog episode, Sarah’s alluring traps she sets out to catch Akin, sometimes border on the hilarious, and Jeremiah’s dark glowing eyes remind one of biblical characters in a religious history film. Still, Decker has enough talent to get away with it, creating a moody little B-Picture, which is (again) under 80 minutes, the length of the classic B-Movies of the forties and fifties. She also recreates an atmosphere of mild terror, leaving the audience always guessing.

Decker’s critics from the mainstream press accuse her of an amateur approach, but they forget that she has to deal with a budget, which does not cover even the catering costs of an ordinary Hollywood production. She has to make due with imagination and improvisation, and does this in rather an entertaining way. She holds the middle ground between the soulless formula products of Hollywood, and the often too worthy indie films, which can be sometimes a little tedious. Decker is certainly a one-off, only she could pull off a scenario like this one, keeping a unity of aesthetics and creating a dark universe, which has echoes of the best of Tourneur or Joseph H. Lewis, who used to feature women like Sarah: fragile, slightly deranged and with a brooding sexuality.  AS

THOU WAST MILD AND LOVELY | REVIEWED AT THE LONDON FILM FESTIVAL RUNS FROM 9-19 OCTOBER 2014 | screening on 1 August 2015

 

 

Germany Pale Mother (Deutschland, Bleiche Mutter) 1980| DVD review

Dir.: Helma Sanders-Brahms; Cast: Eva Matthes, Ernst Jacobi, Elisabeth Stephanek; Germany 1980, 151 min.

Hema Sanders-Brahms, who died aged 73 in May of this year, was not a favourite of film reviewers in Germany. Her often very personal films were attacked for their subjectivity and her aesthetic achievements were often overlooked. But she was much higher regarded abroad, and GERMANY PALE MOTHER was seen as a definitive work on the role of German women during the 40s and 5os.

The film begins in summer 1939, when Lene (Matthes) and Hans (Jacobi) meet near a lake: a German Shephard dog, encouraged by four Nazis, is attacking Lene. Hans, in a boat with his friend, comments: “She didn’t cry, a real German woman.” They marry after a whirlwind romance just before war breaks out. Whilst Lene is the victim of bombings and homelessness, Hans becomes a killer: twice, in Poland and France, he executes partisan look-alikes of his wife (in both cases played by Matthes). Murdering them, he also murders his wife twice over. Their child Anna is born during a bombing raid, but the harshness of the war is less debilitating for Lene (and other German women) than peacetime: the men return home, women have to obey like in pre-war times, old Nazis soon gain prominent positions in society, and Hans becomes a tyrant at home. Lene tries to commit suicide, but her daughter literally calls her back into life.

Sanders-Brahms comments herself in voice-overs, making the film as personal as possible with her statement: “I live exactly like my parents, just in another era”. Brecht’s poem, which he wrote in 1932, just before emigration, is the banner of the film: “They may talk about the guilt of others, I talk about my own”. A truly epic film, with memorable performances and impressive images – a testament to the career of an underrated filmmaker. AS

REVIEWED AT THE LONDON FILM FESTIVAL RUNS FROM 9-19 OCTOBER 2014 | NOW ON DVD

Carol (2015) | Best Actress | Cannes 2015 | LFF 2015

Director: Todd Haynes

Cast: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Kyle Chandler

Patricia Highsmith’s novels make striking thrillers: Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr Ripley and The Two Faces of January have become screen classics. The eagerly-awaited CAROL, which premieres at Cannes, is a perfect screen adaptation of one of her more romantic stories. Two remarkable performances, by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, who picked up the Best Actress award, make CAROL particularly enjoyable. They play elegant fifties women caught in the seductive embrace of a lesbian relationship. Todd Haynes’ lush and leisurely adaptation of The Price of Salt, which was seen as rather daring at the time, now seems rather coy and kittenish, although Blanchett certainly wears the trousers in both her heterosexual marriage and an outré lesbian flutter. This is a luxuriously affair that unfolds rather tentatively during Christmas 1952 in a snowy New York heralding the Eisenhower era.

Phyllis Nagy’s clever screenplay clings close to the page while conjuring up the younger woman’s profession as photography rather than theatre set direction. It also retains the open, rather positive ending of Highsmith’s novel. The story opens in a New York department store (akin to Bloomingdales). Mara plays the young Therese Belivet who is meets Carol Aird –  a creamy, mink-wrapped Blanchett – buying Christmas presents for her little girl, Rindy. A perfect excuse for further contact is provided when Carol leaves her gloves on the counter, and later invites the gamine-like Therese to her turreted New Jersey home. But the two finally meet in town over eggs and martinis. A chemistry of sorts develops through the velvety visuals of Ed Lachman’s camerawork (he shot in 16ml and blew the images up to look like 35ml) and Haynes’ competent direction – they worked together on Mildred Pierce and Far From Heaven – so you get the picture.

Carol’s successful businessman husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler), is seeking a divorce due to her previous affair with her childhood friend Abby (Sarah Paulson) but he still loves his wife and threatens to get custody of Rindy. But Carol’s mind is made up and she pursues Therese with masculine determination in a highly seductive role made all the more teasing in the rather languid pacing that takes in a multitude of changes in her gorgeous couture wardrobe (Sandy Powell excels in her designs). The two finally end up in a tastefully soft-focused, semi-nude embrace in Waterloo, Iowa, and Carol acknowledges the bathos of this location.

But their crime (and it was a crime in 1952) is captured on camera by a travelling ‘notions’ salesman and Carol swiftly extricates herself from the relationship. Blanchett plays her Carol as a woman of infinite breeding and stylish charm, occasionally looking down her nose but always with a witty grace. Mara is more cutely foxy with those exotic, piercing eyes. The delux experience is gift-wrapped in soigné sets and and an atmospheric period score from Carter Burwell. MT

Rooney Mara won Best Actress for her role at Cannes 2015 | The Golden Frog apAward for Best Cinematography (Ed Lachman) at the prestigious Camerimage Awards 2015

CANNES FILM FESTIVAL 13 -24 MAY 2015 | CAROL | IN COMPETITION | CANNES 2015

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Difret (2014)

Dir.: Zeresenay Mehari

Cast: Meron Getnet, Tizita Hagere, Rahel Tehome

Ethiopia/USA 2014, 99 min.

In an Ethiopian village, six men on horse back hunt down, capture and imprison a fourteen-year-old schoolgirl Hirut, capture and imprison her. Her would-be husband then rapes her, claiming that the abduction of a bride is his traditional right. But Hirut escapes, taking the gun of the man who raped her with and shooting him with it, when the men catch up with her. By traditional law she has to be executed, and the local DA does his best to get this sentence passed. But the village elder, to the protest of the majority of the men attending the meeting, rules that Hirut was too young to be married so, in mitigation he orders the girl’s family to pay reparations to the father of the killed man. Whilst the DA is still trying to go for the death sentence, Meaza Asheafi, Co-director of the Ethiopian Women Lawyers’ Association, takes on Hirut’s defence, finally challenging the Justice minister for upholding a law that basically allows men to abduct women and use and abuse them.

Based on facts, DIFRET (meaning ‘courage’ as well as ‘rape’ in Amharic, the official language of Ethopia)  shows the struggle for basic womens’ rights;  Asheafi’s organisation helped more than 30 000 women between 1995 and 2002. But Mehari not only shows the violence of men, but also what the prejudices of so-called traditional values have done to the victims. When Hirut meets the unmarried Asheafi for the first time, she inquires whether she is “a bad woman”. This refers to women who are not virgins at the time of marriage having to live alone, a custom prevalent in many rural areas of Ethopia. Hirut, does not only feel guilty, like many rape victims, but is not convinced that she has really “won” after her trial. She complains, justifiably, that the men in the village will take it out on her little sister, who she can’t protect, since she can’t return to the village. Luckily, the real Hirut is today working to help women victims like herself in Ethopia.

Since the number of 35mm films produced in Ethiopia is still in single figures – DIFRET was a co-production with the USA, Angelina Jolie being one of the executive producers – it would be churlish to be too critical about small details. But the lively camera work is excellent, showing the chasm between life in the countryside and Addis Ababa, the capital. Whilst Tizita Hagere’s Hirut gives a performance full of restraint, Meron Getnet as Asheafi is very convincing in her always-ready-to-fight-anybody attitude. DIFRET is testimony to a struggle so raw that few of us in Europe can really appreciate the terrible plight of its women protagonists. AS

BERLINALE REVIEW – NOW ON GENERAL RELEASE FROM 6 MARCH 2015

 

 

 

Serena (2013) | DVD release

Director: Susanne Bier   Writer: Susanne Bier, Christopher Kyle

Cast: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Rhys Ifans, Toby Jones, Sean Harris, Ana Ularu

109min  Pyschological drama

After a long wait, Susanne Bier’s elegantly-crafted, depression-set retro noir makes for an enjoyable watch: there is sparkling chemistry from leads Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence who flesh out their roles with aplomb, yet feel way too starry for their characters; a glorious setting in the smoky mountains of North Carolina (actually, its the picturesque Czech Republic); darkly humorous turns from the Brits, Rhys Ifans and Toby Jones, hamming up their Southern drawls, and a thoughtful storyline that will appeal to art house audiences but has got caught up in Hollywood spin: as in A SECOND CHANCE Susanne Bier explores the corrosive force of childlessness on a power couple, but wraps it in a rather unconvincing storyline about bribery and corruption, penned by Christopher Kyle from the novel by Ron Rash.

This old-fashioned melodrama has the sinister vibes of Cold Mountain and even The Dark Valley. Bradley Cooper is screen dynamite as a debt-ridden timber pioneer, George Pemberton, who marries for money and falls in love. What he lacks in financial probity he makes up for in style and verve. Kitted out in his well-tailored hunting attire (designed by Signe Sejlund), he glows with vitality, bringing a suave masculine presence to the harsh mountainside community where everyone is down on their luck, until he fetches up with his stylish bride and heiress Serena (a luminous Jennifer Lawrence). Serena is not just a pretty face either: with her business acumen, gleaned from her father’s timber dynasty, she quickly gains respect amongst the locals and also has a winning way with birds; taming an eagle to control the snake population. But her glamour is too much for some: Pemberton’s partner Buchanan (David Dencik) feels threatened, for reasons other than business. Buchanan has a soft spot for George Pemberton, and it’s one that could go hard, given the chance. And a strange dark woman (Ana Ularu) with a baby, keep giving her menacing looks. Rhys Ivans (Galloway) is deliciously sinister as a wayfarer who comes to Serena’s aid when she saves his life in an accident, Toby Jones plays Toby Jones the Sheriff who has an implausible plan to turn the timber yard into a local amenity, but you keep wishing he’s just go away.

Ostensibly the Pemberton’s is a marriage made in heaven: until, that is, she tries her hand a child-bearing. Woody Allen was right when he said: “a relationship is like shark – if it doesn’t go forward, it dies”. And the Pemberton’s inability to create a family is ultimately their downfall. A power couple, figureheads of the community, their fragility and potent egos bound up in success and, in the Twenties, that still meant procreation. George Pemberton is similar to Andreas in A SECOND CHANCE (Bier’s film that releases here in January): they are both masculine men but there is also a vulnerability to them, and that vulnerability is their overriding need to be fathers: Their love for their offspring eclipses that of their wives. But due to his mysterious past, George Pemberton here holds the key to his wife’s undoing: and it’s alive and kicking in the same row of huts, right under their noses.

What fascinates Susanne Bier in this story; how a seemingly perfect love can not only be threatened but also de-stabilised when a woman feels let down by her biology and falls prey to mistrust and nagging self-doubt. And that is really what is crucial to understanding Serena, both the film and woman. The back-story concerning financial fraud is really just window-dressing. With Morten Soborg’s sumptuous camerawork and some great performances from the assembled cast, this is not a weak film but it is film that fails to concentrate and its crucial premise: that the pain and desperation of childlessness can cause mental instability. A that is the stuff of melodrama. MT

SERENA IS ON DVD FROM FRIDAY, 23 FEBRUARY 2015

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Adieu au Langage 3D | DVD/blu

Dir.: Jean-Luc Godard; Cast: Heloise Godet, Kamel Abdeli; France 2014, 70 min.

The old provocateur is back: JLG is 83, but still out to re-invent cinema as we know it. This time, his main challenge is to subvert 3D into his universe of chaos, quotes and role-plays. And a dog, no less than the master’s very own Roxy Mieville, is the co-star. Before we get too carried away by the master’s latest innovations, let us not forget that some of the great ‘revolutionary’ ideas came about by chance: his famous editing style, which made his debut Breathless so wonderfully new and vibrant, was the result of his producer wanting the original two hour version cut. JLG, instead of taking whole scenes out, as it was the norm in those days, simply cut his scenes, leaving a more open ending to many of them. And how much did we admire actors reading ‘political’ news from the newspapers of the day – like in Bande à Part. Only to be told by DOP Raoul Coutard, that JLG did not have enough script material to shoot the daily quota asked for by the producer – and simply improvised by said readings. Just to remind us all that what we might admire today as just another sign of greatness, may well have had a much more down to earth origin.

Having said his ADIEU TO LANGUAGE is full of verve, and not so overloaded with quotes and allusions as Film Socialism; it is in a way a return to the “old’ Godard of the 60s. To start with, a couple (and a dog) are the centrepiece, we even get a sort of a narrative: they are discussing, fighting, mostly naked and trying their best to look like the couple in Une Femme Mariée, not only because she is married and he is single, but even their playfulness camouflages deep unrest. Their dog Roxy steals the show often, and Godard, not overly fond of humans, pays the mutt the compliment “the dog is the only creature, who loves others more than himself”.

We get the usual quotes, Aragon, Faulkner and Sartre among them, and see old movie clips (Peck and Gardner in Kilemandjaro and Miriam Hopkins in Jekyll & Hyde); JLG’s own costume drama – Mary Shelly is writing “Frankenstein” at Lake Geneva and lots of music by Schoenberg. There are witty (but ultimately empty) remarks like “Solzenitsyn did not need Google’ or “Those lacking imagination take refuge in reality”. And when we deconstruct the title, we end up with “Ah God” and “Oh Language” – very clever indeed!

But he main assault is saved for the visuals. Apart from the usual multiple video formats, colour saturated HD and grainy video shots; JLG ‘invents’ his own 3D version, where we get different images for each eye, the third dimension making the 2D version look like old fashioned theatre backdrops, the superimpositions such creating another dimension. These images of the background create another film all together, Godard showing the chaos we live out in our visual double world, where the pictures, words and feelings don’t go together any more. The many fragmentations of modern life have rarely been shown so impressively on image, sound and context level.

GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE proves that JLG still wants to do things his own way – he’d rather show a dog’s view of the world: barking mad he might be, but there is nobody else left who dares. AS

DVD/Blu released December 2014

Mr Kaplan (2014) | UK Jewish Film Festival 2014

Dir.: Alvaro Brechner; Cast: Hector Noguera, Nestor Guzzini, Rolf Becker

Uruguay/Spain/Spain 2014, 98 min.

Uruguayan filmmaker, Alvaro Brechner is perhaps best known for his multi-award winning comedy: Bad Day to Go Fishing. His second feature Mr Kaplan is Uruguay’s official submission to next year’s Academy Awards. It centres on an emigrant Jew from Europe. At 76, he’s living out his late-life crisis in a small seaside town in Uruguay, very similar to the one in Pablo Stoll’s Whisky (2004). Jacob (Noguera) has lost interest in his family, particularly his two sons who bore him with their quarrels (one a total conformist, the other an equally convinced outsider) and he often fights with his wife Rebecca (Nidia Telles), who tries to keep his diet under control. Then, one day he discovers the beach-bar owner is German, old enough to have been a Nazi, and overnight Jacob enlists the help of portly ex-cop Contreras (Guzzini), to mount a ‘war-crime’ case against him. Jacob, seeing himself in the news as a self-styled heir to the Eichmann hunters, succeeds against all odds with his companion playing Sancho Pansa to his Don Quixote.

But after having captured their prey, they find out why “the German” is running away: he is a Jew, having served in a concentration camp as a “Kapo”, meaning he was selected by the Nazis to do some of their dirty work for them. To refuse this appointment, would have meant immediate death for any inmate. The ex-Kapo, tired of running away from hunters and himself, decides to take his own life and in an extraordinary twist of fate finds salvation.

A small film with its heart in the right place where all the characters (apart from Rebecca) appear to be more or less lost; struggling for an identity, running from the past, and ultimately themselves. Jacob, bored with his bourgeois life-style, suddenly decides to become a hero at the wrong time of his life. Whilst the consequences of his actions could have been much harsher, when he finally finds himself back in the midst of his family, he looks grumpier than before, not at all relieved to be alive.

MR KAPLAN has a some fine performances, a bone-dry take on life, a vibrant camera capturing the action from interesting angles and a stringent script, which makes the audience root for Jacob because he is such a lovable anti-hero. AS

THE UK JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL RUNS FROM 6-23 2014 NOVEMBER NATIONWIDE

Fury (2014)

Dir.: David Ayer; Cast: Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Alicia von Rittberg; USA 2014, 120 min.

War films tend to lack subtlety – understandable when considering the topic, but writer/director David Ayer (Sabotage) can claim to have reduced the genre to Neanderthal levels with this latest outing FURY. His motley US tank crew, fighting in April 1945 on German soil, consist among others of Brad Pitt’s Don Collier as the leader of the pack, a very oily and rather unconvincing Shia LeBeouf as Boyd Swan and a baby-faced Logan Lerman as the newcomer Ellison (as gunner), who claims “only to have trained as a typist, to achieve 80 words a minute”. Yeah…

It is impossible to catalogue all atrocities committed by cast and crew, but here are two of the worst: when Ellison arrives, after introducing himself with his CV mentioned above, he has to clean the inside of the tank including the remains of his predecessor whose face is literally plastered all over the floor. Later on, our ‘heroes’ conquer a German town and Collier and Ellison enter a flat where a middle-aged woman is hiding a frightened teenage girl, Emma (von Rittberg), under the bed. Collier finds her immediately and before sitting down for a meal, Lerman plays a few notes on the piano. Collier whispers in his ear “if you don’t take her to the bedroom. I will.” Lerman obeys his commander’s order, and has sex with Emma. One would expect the girl to be traumatised by this semi-rape, but Emma declares her love for Lerman, promising to “write to him” (sic). Soon afterwards she is killed, when bombs hit her house.

Collier’s tank is strangely shown more or less in single action, the budget obviously did not stretch to the employment of the usual divisions of armoured vehicles we are used to. This way, war is reduced to a purely individual combat, where ideology or even strategy is left out. Camera work is reduced to showing the obvious (in mostly garish colours), and the acting is as stereotyped as possible. FURY lacks intensity as well as drama, it is an empty vessel for stars ‘showing off’ – unworthy of the real allied soldiers, who fought the last war one could call justifiable. AS

FURY WAS THE CLOSING GALA AT THE RECENT LONDON FILM FESTIVAL

 

The Immortalists (2014) | BFI London Film Festival

Dir.: Jason Sassberg, David Alvarado; Documentary; USA 2014, 80 min.

Finding a cure for dying; making humankind immortal: these medical solutions may be not around the corner, one reckons on about 25 years. Jason Sassberg meets the scientists struggling with the issues of getting us there: it really makes you wonder how people can talk seriously about “living forever” or “measuring our lifespan in thousands of years”. There are psychological problems, apart from our already over-crowded planet and questions of ethics: if there ever was a pill for eternal life it would most certainly not be sold over the counter, as predicted by one researcher, it would just be found in the medicine cabinets of the super-rich.

Scientists face many unresolved problems, among them clearing humans cells from garbage – like housecleaning; or the telomeres, long living cells, which are found in above average numbers in cancer tumours and have therefore to be isolated, otherwise they would kill instead of giving longevity.
But the real revelations of this documentary are the proponents of the usefulness of this research. One, Dr. Aubrey de Grey, a theoretical biologist from Cambridge, looking like Rasputin, very fond of beer and women, discusses at the Oxford Union the pro- and cons of research funding. His opponent, a rather subdued Dr. Colin Blakemore, talks ethics, and de Grey is scathing in his reply. He is a good salesman, but somehow his glibness falls on deaf ears: the mainly young student audience rejects his motion, seemingly happy with our usual lifespan. Later, we learn that de Grey has found new funding and a working place in California, where he will live with his two girlfriends, leaving his wife, also a scientist, behind. Somehow one has the feeling with de Grey that he is much more a guru than a scientist.

Bill Andrews, an American proponent of the search for immortality, is a sober and earnest man, but something of a health freak: together with his wife (very much livelier and fitter than the good Doctor) he participates in a sort of treble marathon in the Himalayan mountains. Having nearly killed himself during an abandoned try in 2011, he repeats the trial again two years later, and has to withdraw with chest pains. With the encouragement of his wife, he finally finishes the course walking. Andrews, whilst being much more sober than de Grey, still lacks any imagination of the social implications of any breakthrough.

There is no mention of spiritualism or re-incarnation here and these scientists seem every bit as whacky and weird and many of those who peddle the constant stream of new-age beliefs. Even though the topic is very serious indeed, THE IMMORTALISTS is rather fun to watch. The proponents of eternal life are somehow proof themselves that humankind does not need or deserve an even longer stay on this planet than our ‘three score years and ten’, that was the ideal in biblical times. We create already enough sadness and destruction in our present life-spans – for ourselves and the environment – any concept of even more longevity for our species is frightening, but, alas, it may still happen. AS

LFF 18.10. 15.30 RITZY

The Furthest End Awaits (2014) | BFI London Film Festival

Dir.: Chinag Hsiu Chiung; Cast: Hiromi Nagasaku, Nozomi Sasaki; Japan/ Taiwan2014,118 min.

This simple (but never simplistic) film is a story of solidarity between three very different women.

An impressive cast and lively, innovative camerawork make for a moving but never sentimental experience in this contempo Chinese drama, reflecting human nature in all its glorious imperfection. Yoshida Misaki (Nagasaku) finds out that her father has disappeared, feared drowned, leaving her nothing but debts – apart from a boathouse on the Nodo Peninsula (think Lands End). Yoshida’s father has been missing for six years and she has not seen him since her parents divorced thirty years ago. Deciding to await his possible return, she converts the boathouse into a modern coffee shop. Nearby lives the young Eriko (Sasaki), mother of two small children, who is much in need of parenting skills herself, since she neglects her own children. When Eriko’s daughter is (wrongfully) suspected of stealing money at school, we meet her class teacher Megumi, who, like Eriko, is immature and has no idea how install discipline at school. After a terrible incident, Yoshido offers support to Eriko and her children, giving them paid jobs in her shop, and helps to straighten out the young teacher. But when she learns that the missing boat and the corpses of its crew have been found, she leaves in desperation. Left alone, Eriko burns a light in the boathouse each night, looking sadly over the waives. AS

LFF 15.10. 20.15 ICA, 18.10. 15.15 NFT2

Dearest (Qin Ai De) (2014) | BFI London Film Festival

Dir.: Peter Ho-Sun Chan; Cast: Huang Bo, Zhao Wei, Hao Dei; China/Hong Kong 2014, 130 min.

China’s social woes have been evoked by many films of late. This years Berlinale winner Black Coal, Thin Ice was a recent example of how the hurried introduction of capitalism is costing lives, loosening family ties and setting ordinary citizens against each other in the ruthless pursuit of material gain. Peter Ho Sun’s DEAREST deals with a particular macabre excess of Chinas’ neo-capitalism: organised child abduction.

Ho-Sun (Comrades, Almost a Love Story) takes his time introducing the main protagonists in this subtle and delicately told story of three harrowing abduction experiences: Tian (Bo) runs a small shop cum internet-café in Shenzen, he is looking after his little son Pengpeng, having gained custody, since his divorced wife Lu (Dei) was deemed an unsuitable mother by the courts. But it is Tian who is responsible for his son running away, chasing after his mother’s car after she dropped him off after her visiting day. Tian and Lu reunite, trying to find the boy. They discover that the kidnapping of children is a lucrative business in China, run by many organised groups. A huge number of bereft parents have founded support groups where they meet to console each other and travel all over the country when an abduction group is caught by the police, showing the criminals pictures of their children, asking (mostly in vain) if they have seen them. The leader of the support group, Tian and Lu join is helpful but his wife is near breaking point, looking for their son for over six years. Finally the couple ask for a death certificate for their son (under China’s “One Child per Family”  they need this to have another child). Eventually they track down their son Pengpen 13 hours by train away from Shenzen. His “mother” Li ((Wei), literally fights them as they scramble away with the child. It turns out, that Li’s husband has not only abducted Pengpeng, but also a little girl, brought up as Pengpeng’s sister but their struggle is far from over.

The most interesting part of DEAREST is the second of the well-crafted narratives with an unexpected twist in the tale. Shot on the widescreen, bleached-out visuals show squalor everywhere with an atmosphere of pervading desperation as civilisation breaks down into an amoral dystopia: Tian looses his shop whilst still looking for his son because the owner of the building has increased the rent. Li has to sleep with a stranger and work for a lawyer, trying to get her ‘daughter’ back. Lu’s new husband leaves her after she has found her son again, because he does not want to support Pengpeng. The organised child abducting groups are only the tip of the iceberg: this is a society self-destructing in the greedy pursuit of even the smallest profit. Zhao Wei’s Li is particularly impressive in this human, passionate but never sentimental portrait of an emotional wilderness, ruled by inhuman greed and soulless bureaucracy. AS

LFF Mon 13, 14.45. VUE5, TUE 14.10. 18.15 CINE LUMIERE

THE LONDON FILM FESTIVAL RUNS UNTIL 19 OCTOBER 2014

Björk: Biophilia Live (2014) | BFI London Film Festival

Dir: Nick Fenton, Peter Strickland.  With Björk, Manu Delgado, Graduale Nobili, UK Filmed concert, 97min

Like most artists, Björk is uncompromising – you have to be, really, to preserve your creative control and vision in a highly competitive market where not only talent, innovation and self-belief are required, but also perseverance and downright doggedness. Björk is a singer who possesses all of these attributes and manages to be exotic and mysterious into the bargain. If her tonally tuneless droning appeals, then you will be there for this biopic in which her unique style is showcased during a concert at Alexandra Palace in 2013, featuring 10 new compositions. Made all the more ethereal and ‘out there’ by her judicious collaboration with Peter Strickland and Nick Fenton whose highly stylised and striking visuals compliment her performance to perfection, this is a vibrant and mesmerising experience: images from nature form the basis of a ‘multidimensional, multimedia’ project: opening with David Attenborough’s mellow voiceover, Björk and her largely girl band is accompanied by a psychedelic array of swirling images from starfish and jellyfish dancing over the sea bed, to lightning, lunar cycles and tectonic shifts. If Björk’s your bag, you’ll love it. MT

SCREENING ON 9/10 OCTOBER IN OWE2 AND SOHO and ON GENERAL RELEASE FROM 17 OCTOBER

THE LFF RUNS UNTIL 19 OCTOBER 2014

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The Imitation Game (2014) | BFI London Film Festival

Dir.: Morten Tyldum; Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Charles Dance; UK/USA 2014, 114 min.

Tyldum’s moving biographical feature tells the story of the most unsung hero of British wartime and scientific history. Alan Turing (1912-1954), not only (nearly) single-handedly cracked the code of the German Enigma machine during WWII in Bletchley, shortening the war and saving millions of lives, but his Turing machine was also the first digital computer. THE IMITATION GAME explains why he didn’t become the household name he deserved to be: a sad tale then of a genius betrayed by an ungrateful country and a bigoted establishment.

For once, the use of dramatic liberty used in the narrative of this drama is legitimised by the fact that only such an artistic approach will ensure that Turing’s legacy is made known to a wider public. The events of Turing’s life are played out on three levels: the largest part is obviously reserved for his work on Enigma; his boyhood experience, the bullying and first crush on a boy called Christopher at Public School, and finally, his rather sordid end in Manchester, were he was convicted of indecency and chose a hormonal treatment, otherwise known as chemical castration, as an alternative to a two-year stretch in jail. After a year of treatment, Turing committed suicide, in love with his ‘Machine’, which he named – like the Enigma code breaker – ‘Christopher’.

Cumberbatch plays Turing as an eccentric often arrogant but usually reserved man, who is socially awkward, dissociating himself more or less from emotional life and his fellow humans; finding solace only in numbers and their application. He loved his own company and we frequently see him running long distance – the real Turing was a gifted marathon runner, nearly qualifying for the London Olympics in 1948. His time at Bletchley is memorable for his relationship with the cryptographer, Joan Clarke (Knightley), who wants to marry him, being unfazed by Turing’s self-confessed homosexuality. The two outsiders (Clarke was the only women in the team of ‘Hut 8’ were the code breakers worked), found solace in each other’s company, but Turing was unable to have a close relationship with anybody, regardless of their gender, and he broke off their engagement. The film overplays the rivalry between Turing and Hugh Alexander (Goode), who was the team leader of ‘Hut 8’, but Turing was hardly interested in the administrative duties this post brought with it. After Turing’s death Hugh Alexander was adamant that “there should be no question in anyone’s mind that Turing’s work was the biggest factor in ‘Hut 8’ ‘s success”.

After Bletchley, Turing worked on the Turing machine, based on his seminal paper of 1936, which was a modern computer but for its name: “Except for the limitations imposed by their limited memory stores, modern computers have algorithm execution capability equivalent to an universal Turing machine”. In 1948 Turing devised a chess programme, which beat a human player.

Tyldum’s approach is deeply humanistic because he avoids the ‘tortured soul’ treatment, Cumberbatch’s Turing is shown as just marginally off and very capable of psychological insight: “From contradictions you can deduce everything”. Whilst everybody around him could decipher the social niceties of white lies, he was so detached by choice, that he just listened to WHAT was said, making social engagement between him and the rest of society difficult. Knightley plays Clarke with the same understatement, her isolation caused by gender, Turing being the first man, who took her seriously as a scientist. The wartime atmosphere is lovingly recreated with great attention to detail. The camera encircles Turing and Clarke from above, as if finding specimens of particular interest in an experiment. In spite of some (perhaps unavoidable) clichés, THE IMITATION GAME is the rare exception of a mainstream movie not selling out. AS

LFF 9.10. 15.15 OWE2, 10.10. 20.45 HACKNEY

THE LONDON FILM FESTIVAL RUNS UNTIL 19 OCTOBER 2014

 

Nagima (2013) | BFI London Film Festival

NAGIMA_4Director/Writer: Zhanna ISSABAYEVA

Cast: Dina Tukubayeva, Galina Pyanova, Aidar Mukhametzhanov

80min KAZAKH, RUSSIAN – Drama – KAZAKHSTAN 80 min Russian with subtitles

Belonging, being wanted and loved are universal themes that Kazakh director, Zhanna Issabayeva, explores in this stark but affecting piece of social realism. Echoing Danis Tanovic’s Golden Bear winner An Incident in the Life of an Iron Picker, its heroine is ugly, passive and insecure but there is a stark beauty and nihilism about her wretched scenario that makes for compelling viewing right through to the shocking finale

In a devastated industrial wasteland somewhere in Kazakhstan, Nagima, (Dina Yukubayeva) a young migrant worker is abused daily in the kitchens of a local restaurant, by a Kasakh equivalent of Gordon Ramsey. At night, she is greeted by social alienation in an iron shack, the TV her only companion apart from neighbours, Ninka (Galina Pyanova) a pragmatic Kazakh prostitute, and pregnant Anya (Mariya Nezhentseva), another immigrant.

When Anya goes into early labour, the girls rush her to the local hospital where they receive short-shrift from the portly ‘jobsworth’ matron who demands documentation. But a doctor takes pity on Anya, who dies delivering a baby girl. This tragedy sparks Nagima to seek out her own biological mother; another unsympathetic female who offers no comfort or shoulder to cry. Inured to the pain of rejection, the worn-down Nagima then turns to her on/off boyfriend, Abai, whose tentative message of love, prompts her to return to the orphanage in a bid to adopt Anya’s baby. Here again, she meets rejection from the ‘powers that be’ but leaves with baby Mila, with the putative idea of finally creating a family for the three of them.  The unremitting pessimism is relieved by Sayat Zhangazinov’s able cinematography and a pared-down minimalist aesthetic which at one point sets Nagima on the summit of a vast grey concrete hillside, emphasising her fragility and insignificance in the scheme of things. In this vast and hostile terrain, the cast perform with a purity of expression completely devoid of histrionics, allowing space and serenity to contemplate the desperate struggle of these hapless individuals in this humanist portrait. MT

THE LONDON FILM FESTIVAL RUNS FROM 9-19 OCTOBER 2014

 

 

Casa Grande (2014) | BFI London Film Festival

Dir.: Fellipe Barbosa

Cast: Thales Cavalcanti, Marcello Noaves, Suzanne Pires, Clarissa Pinheiro, Bruna Amaya, Alice Melo

Brazil 2014, 114 min.

Fellipe Barbosa’s feature film debut is somewhere between late Buñuel and a Brazilian “Telenovela”. Family and servants living in the great villa the title refers to, will undergo a fundamental change during the detail-obsessed narrative, painting rich psychological portraits of downfalls and awakenings.

In Rio, we first see Hugo (Noaves), the patriarch, climbing out of the pool, surveying the mansion with a certain angst. His wife Sonia, a catholic from France, is the bearer of standards – mostly from the beginning of the last century. Their teenage children Jean (Cavalcanti) and Nathalie (Melo), try to hide their transgressions from the parents, particularly the randy Jean, who cosies up to the attractive maid Rita (Pinheiro) at night.

Gradually we learn the reason for Hugo’s anxiety: the family is bankrupt, and soon the driver Severino – a replacement father figure for Jean – has to go. When Sonia discovers pornographic photos of Rita in her son’s bedroom, she finds a good excuse to sack her too. And after the cook follows the exodus, Sonia has to start selling cosmetics to make ends meet. But these sacrifices are not enough: we see Hugo showing the villa to a potential buyer. Jean, left to his own devices, drops out of his high school exams at private school and starts looking for the servants in ‘favelas’: his real family.

The camera shows meticulously the objects in the family home, and the relationship the adults have with them. The same goes for the parents’ relationship with the servants: racial and class barriers are huge, even though Sonia pretends otherwise. The parents’ power lies in their status symbols (house and servants) and when Jean understands that both are gone, he is free from parental power, since love was never part of the bargain. Whilst the family interactions are convincing, Jean’s short relationship with Luiza, another student, who argues in favour of the new law for “University Quotas for students from public schools”,  is just a pandering to political correctness. Jean is only interested in members of a lower social class if there’s something in it for him.

Newcomer, Cavalcanti is brilliant in his raw performance of a permanently lustful teenager, he could easily be from a Truffaut film. Noaves’ Hugo is a fine portrait of a materialist, unable to function without house and servants, but too cowardly to accept his limitations, whilst Melo’s Sonia really belongs to the world of Buñuel/Visconti: unable to hide her transparent emotions when her husband puts his arm around her in bed, she viciously rubbishes his advances, hissing “can’t you see, I’m praying”. CASA GRANDE is a lively portrait of a society torn apart by race and class, a sort of South American “Götterdämmerung”. AS

LFF 10.10. 12.00 VUE5, 12.10. 15.30 MAYFAIR, 14.10. 18.15 Ritzy

THE LONDON FILM FESTIVAL RUNS FROM 9-19 OCTOBER 2014

’71 (2014) Netflix

Dirr: Yann Demange | Writer: Gregory Burke | Cast: Jack O’Connell, Sam Reid, Sean Harris, Paul Popplewell, Charlie Murphy, Sam Hazeldine | 99min  Action Drama   UK

TV director Yann Demange (Top Boy) focuses on the bitter conflict in Northern Ireland in his feature debut ’71, in a tightly-plotted narrative seen through the eyes of a young British soldier (Jack O’Connell) left behind by his unit following a street riot. For anyone alive during the early Seventies, Northern Ireland was like another ‘Brexit’ only far more deadly – constantly filling the airwaves, TV and radio, with horrors like ‘tarring and feathering’ and daily reports of deaths and bomb blasts ‘in the Bogside area’. The Troubles’ and the terrible internecine warring in Northern Ireland is brought back with visceral clarity, and ‘71 contains some of the best street combat scenes ever committed to film. Demange has a masterful control of his subject-matter and delivers an utterly convincing and gripping thriller with a strong central performance from a young Jack Connell and a superb all-British cast including stalwarts of the genre Sean Harris, Sam Hazeldine and Paul Anderson. Gritty and unmissable. MT

NOW ON NETFLIX

Macondo (2014) Berlinale 2014

Director: Sudabeh Mortezai

Ramasan Minkailov, Aslan Elbiev, Kheda Gazieva, Rosa Minailova

93min   German and Chechen   Drama

Berlinale 2014 was awash with really good films about children, particularly boys. MACONDO was one of the best.  The feature debut of Iranian doc-director Sudabeh Mortezai, it’s a quietly observed cinema verité piece that looks at the life of a young Chechen boy, Ramasan Minkailov, growing up in Vienna with his mother Aminat (Kheda Gazieva)and siblings. Already the head of the household in his nuclear family (his father was killed by in Chechnya) to the Austrian authorities he’s still very much a child.

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The weight of responsibility lies heavily on his shoulders and is reflected in the stern seriousness of his boyish face, etched with the trauma of memories of the past: it’s a subtle yet moving performance from such a young actor.  Already his peers are resorting to petty thieving but Ramasan takes his responsibilities seriously and his cue from the elders of the community and, in particular, his neighbour. When Isa (Aslan Elbiev), an old friend of his father turns up, he’s on his guard; slow to trust and sceptical of the interloper.  As the slow-burning narrative moves forward, Ramasan’s vulnerable childhood morphs into hard-edged, impulse young adulthood with a suspenseful intensity that allows plenty of space for reflection; uncertain of how matters will unfold. Sudabeh Mortezai’s drama is cleverly-scripted, skilfully-crafted and sensitively-performed MT

MACONDO SCREENING IN COMPETITION AT BERLINALE 2014 and at the LONDON FILM FESTIVAL until 19 October 2014

GÜEROS (2014) | BFI London Film Festival

Dir.: Alonso Ruizpalacios; Cast: Sebastian Aguirre, Tenoch Huerta, IIlse Salas, Leonardo Ortizgris

Mexico 2014, 106 min.

When Tomas (Aguirre), a rebellious teenager from Veracruz, is sent to study in Mexico city with his big brother Sombra (Huerta), his family back home could not have foreseen the chaos he would encounter. Living in a soulless high rise block, Sombra, buries himself in his ‘thesis’ with a great deal of white noise. Whilst the students in Mexico City are on strike, Sombra and his flat mate Santos (Ortizgris) have declared themselves “on strike from the strike”, they steal electricity from their neighbours and escape in an old car on a journey that leads nowhere, but is vibrant and emotionally all-consuming.

Ruizpalacios’ debut film is the closest to “Nouvelle Vague” we’ve seen for a long time. The monochrome camera is inventive, bordering on the manic, the actors don’t take themselves very seriously, neither does the director: occasionally darting into the frame, he asks the actors what they think about the script (“not very much”), and criticise contemporary Mexican cinema, “where they grab beggars from the street, film in black and white and try to impress French critics.”

GÜEROS has a loosely structured narrative. There are some interesting subplots but overall the actors get more or less lost in the big city. The men are later joined by Ana, one of the student’s leaders, adored by the very shy Sombra. Avoiding tidy solutions to anything, the director keeps the emotional level very high, always engaging the audience: the small, mostly aborted missions they embark on give the film enough drive. And there are always new surprises: when the four of them visit the Zoo, Ana shows Sombra a tiger. But Sombra suffers from panic attacks and is plagued by tigers in his nightmares – and quotes a Rilke poem about a caged panther. The reason for their Zoo visit is Epigmenio Cruz, a singer, the brothers’ father adored. But Cruz is an alcoholic, and the stories told about him – he made Bob Dylan cry – are much more interesting than the man himself.

There is a nice elliptic structure to the film: it starts with Tomas throwing a balloon filled with water from a roof terrace in Veracuz, hitting a baby in the pram; later the quartet find themselves lost in a rough neighbourhood in Mexico City, and a kid throws a brick from a bridge, shattering the windscreen of their car. DOP Damian Garcia very zooms in very close, and sometimes, like in a scene were Sombra imagines a snow storm in the car, Garcia blurs the edges of the image, as in films of the silent era. The acting is spontaneous with humour echoing the early short film collaborations of Truffaut and Godard, before they became serious. Filmaking feels like fun for Ruizpalacios and his cast. AS

LFF 9.10. 18.30 NFT3, 12.10. 18.30 Ritzy

THE LONDON FILM FESTIVAL RUNS FROM 9-19 OCTOBER 2014

Italian film | London Film Festival 2014

At this year’s LONDON FILM FESTIVAL Alice Rohrwacher presents her Cannes-award-winning drama THE WONDERS. Sister Alba Rohrwacher, joins her as star of both THE WONDERS and HUNGRY HEARTS, that won her Best Actress at Venice Film Festival. Other Venice winners, Directors Saverio Costanzo (HUNGRY HEARTS) and Ivano De Matteo (THE DINNER) will also grace the Red Carpet for the festival.

LEOPARDI (Il Giovane Favoloso) by Mario Martone Il_giovane_favoloso_4-Elio_Germano,Michele_Riondino,Anna_Mouglalis-_Mario_Spada

Mario Martone (Amore Molesto) takes on the crippled 18th Century literarary genius, Giacome Leopardi, in this ambitious but rather worthy biopic. Sumptuously set in the verdant countryside of Tuscany and The Marche it stars Elio Germano (A Magnificent Haunting) as the lonely poet and child prodigy who struggles to break into fashionable circles despite a disciplinarian father and poor health. Leopardi did not score heavily on the romantic front, unlike Lord Byron, who, despite his club foot, enjoyed a great deal of erotic attention from the opposite sex; Ippolita di Majo’s screenplay dabbles with some of his female fantasies in the shape of a young illiterate girl who dies early on and a ravishing Florentine countess, played superbly by Anna Mouglalis who lights up this otherwise rather dry biopic with her charm and elegance. Sadly she falls for his more good-looking and glamorous friend Antonio Ranieri (Michele Rondino). The only aborted action he has between the sheets is with a Naples prostitute, but this episode ends cruelly in humiliation. As the drama progresses to Rome and Naples, it opens out visually with some magnificent landscapes of southern Italy and further opportunities to discover Leopardi’s moving poetry and learn about his ideas as a philosopher. This is an ambitious and watchable film and Elio Germano gives a strong and convincing performance as a tortured artist wracked with pain and mental anguish who was wiser of the human condition than his elders gave him credit for: “People are ridiculous only when they try or seem to be that which they are not”.

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BLACK SOULS (Anime Nere) by Francesco Munzi

Dubbed as the new Gomorrah in some circles, Francesco Munzi’s mafia family drama purrs with tension, taking the brutal Mafioso world to the rustic villages of the Calabrian foothills at the southern tip of Italy. This is the heartland of the ‘ndrangheta, the biggest and furthest-reaching mafia group in Italy, far stronger than the Comorrah and the Sicilian mafia, but more secretive and rarely infiltrated by outsiders. It’s because the group is made up of family units that the ‘ndrangheta are so tight, but it also means that entrance to the group for descendants is tacitly obligatory. If you don’t want ‘in’, you’re asking for trouble. That’s the case with Luciano (Fabrizio Ferracane), a farmer whose brothers are long-standing members of the Carbone clan; he instead tends to his farmland of goats on the slopes of the Apennine Mountains. His son Leo (Giuseppe Fumo), however, is eager to join a group where he’ll gain respect, and in an age where Italian youngsters are frequently downtrodden by unemployment, this is something he is eager to commit to. His uncle Luigi (Marco Leonardi), a drug dealer who travels Europe, takes Leo under his wing, but after an altercation between Leo and a rival clan, events spiral to take the apparently peaceful town to gang war.

This is a slower, more composed film than Gomorrah, and doesn’t have that film’s electric socio-political edge. Instead, it works as a family drama that simmers with personal tragedy and works up to a powerful, gripping finale. Sumptuously filmed in the village of Africo, often said to be the home of the ‘ndrangheta, and with the peninsula’s craggy dialect, it convinces as a place where the state, the police, and perhaps conventional morality have trouble accessing. Among a cast of non-actors and professionals, Fumo, plucked from hundreds of local kids, is remarkable in his debut role as Leo, saying little but carrying a primordial terror with every retort at his disillusioned father. Munzi’s script, co-written with Fabrizio Ruggirello, starts the film in Amsterdam and Milan, and perhaps could have done with setting the film more tightly in the insular ‘ndrangheta communities. Here it feels like there’s no escape, where every aspect of life is dominated by the mafia. The organisation helps local politicians gain election, bars and shops have to obtain ‘protection’ by one of the clans, and respect to members is non-negotiable. But that blinkered view of the world is also this family’s downfall, as the cracks in the foundations make the whole house fall down.

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THE WONDERS (Le Meraviglie) by Alice Rohrwacher – GRAND PRIX, CANNES 2014

The follow up to her acclaimed debut Corpo Celeste, The Wonders, 33-year-old Alice Rohrwacher, won the Grand Prix at Cannes this year. Set in her native Italy, the film explores the impact of a stranger upon a dysfunctionally hermetic family living in the Umbrian countryside where they cultivate delicious wild honey from their native bees. As with Corpo Celeste, the film focuses on a young girl’s coming of age. This delicate and gently tragic coming of age tale is told with tenderness and respect to the traditions of a country where communities still live from the land, threatened by the ever-increasing presence of “Heath and Safety”. A magical narrative with some touching performances from Alba Rohrwacher and a star turn from Monica Bellucci.

Hungry_Hearts_6HUNGRY HEARTS by Saverio Costanzo

BEST ACTRESS AND BEST ACTOR, VENICE 2014

Severio Costanzo’s Venice ‘Best Actor and Actress” winner, Jude (Adam Driver) and Mina (Alba Rohrwacher) proved divisive amongst critics’ circles.  It’s a weird and quirky drama that’s not quite a thriller but feels it ought to be. It centres on a couple who remain cloistered in their apartment after the birth of the baby boy. Mina, who has been anorexic during the pregnancy, is also germo-phobic and does not want to leave, or take the baby outside. Well cast in the role, Rohrwacher, makes for a subtely unhinged Mina while American, Adam Driver’s, feels somewhat out of place as Jude. With the help of a social worker, he more or less kidnaps his son, who goes to live with his mother (Maxwell) in the countryside outside New York. But Mina does not give up, she tries to regain custody of her son, and after Jude hits her, she manages to regain custody. The desperate grandmother can only think of a very radical solution. Half way through the film, the fish-eye lense is introduced, turning the narrative even more into a real life horror story. Mina is a frail and emaciated creature, just skin and bones, a fanatical gleam in her eyes. Jude is geeky and ambivalent – for much of the film, he tries to mediate between Mina and reality. His mother is made of much sterner stuff, and does not fall for Mina’s passive-aggressive schemes. However harsh the denouement appears, it’s clear that somebody had to make a stand – and Jude was much too feeble to be this person. Despite a weak script with gaping potholes, the superb cast handle the action masterfully. Not a film for the faint-hearted, but a convincing story of ordinary madness

I nostri ragazzi 4 - Giovanna MezzogiornoTHE DINNER (I Nostri Ragazzi) by Ivano De Matteo,

Another Venice Film Festival Winner, THE DINNER is very much a family-focused drama. Two brothers, Massimo (Gassman), a doctor and Paolo (Cascio), a glib lawyer, meet regularly with their wives, whilst their teenage children Benedetta and Michele go to parties together. The adults actually despise each other: Massimo is self-congratulatory, looking down on his more down-to-earth brother and trying to bend the law in favour of his clients. No love is lost between the women either: Massimo’s wife Clara (Mezzogiorno), a practical hands-on woman, finds the fashion-conscious Sofia (Bobulova) rather trivial, despite her responsibility for Benedetta, whose mother died very young.

But of the blue, the parents find out that their kids have killed a homeless woman, apparently just for fun. All but Paolo, want to cover up the crime so as not to destroy their future. But when Paolo insists on handing the pair over to the police, Massimo reacts with violence. Ivano de Matteo delivers a moral, character-driven fable, with some unexpected twists. These are, by no means, the people we thought they were to begin with: Massimo starts out as the moral apostle, doing good in his profession, full of love for mankind (apart from his brother and his wife). Paolo is only interested in success, the means do not matter to him. But when it comes to the crunch, he is the only one to ask for justice – the other man wants to cover up for the children. Nowadays, over-protection of kids in the middle classes is the norm; parents buy (or cheat) to get their “mini-me’s” a good place in life (this author being no exception); trying to resolve all problems for them; making them dependent on the older generation; often forgetting to teach responsibility and self-reliance. Sure, the outcome is not often so cruel as in this fictional case, but the root of Benedetta and Michele’s coldness lies in their own upbringing. The cast is brilliant, the camera vividly tracks the protagonists in a concrete jungle, or in their work places. The adults seem always on the run; the teenagers indolent. A very gloomy but perceptive indictment on a social class who, on superficial appearances, seems to have everything.

THE LONDON FILM FESTIVAL RUNS FROM 9-19 OCTOBER 2014

 

Dukhtar (2014) | BFI London Film Festival

Dir.: Afia Nathaniel

Cast: Samiya Mumtaz, Mohib Mirza, Saleha Aref; Pakistan/ Norway/USA 2014, 93 min.

In contemporary Pakistan two warlords decide to make peace: the price of the alliance will be paid by 12-year old Zainab (Aref), who is to be married to man who could easily be her grandfather. But Zainab’s mother Allah Rakhi (Mumtaz), herself a victim of an arranged marriage to a man who isolates her and does not allow her to see even her own mother, flees with the child from the village. The warlords, disgraced by their own code of honour, both send their men out to hunt the two women. With the help of the truck driver Sohail (Mirza), they escape into the mountains, where they hide. But Rakhi wants to see her own mother who now lives in Lahore. Sohail drives them there, knowing that the warlords have not given up their chase.

The great mountain landscape of North Pakistan is the background to this moving and superbly cinematic tale. Whilst the men drive modern cars and use every electronic device available, they still rule women like cattle. And they fight viciously to keep their rights in the so-called ‘honour’ code. Zainab is clearly underage, but everyone maintains silence about the brutal consequences of her proposed marriage. Everybody – apart from Rakhi.

First time director Nathaniel focuses mainly on the relationship between the women; Sohail, even though he is putting his own life at risk, is somehow left out of the narrative: all men are an enigma to women like Rakhi, who is carrying the burden of endless generations of Muslim women in this region – victims of brutal male violence, that is not even camouflaged by religious excuses. This is an immersive drama with convincing performances from the central characters as the camera oscillates between widescreen panorama shots of the towering mountains and intimate close-ups of the women in fear for their life. Well-crafted on a tight budget, DUKHTAR is a cry for help, a cry that should be listened to. AS

THE LONDON FILM FESTIVAL RUNS FROM 9-19 OCTOBER 2014

 

Charlie’s Country (2013) | BFI London Film Festival

Dir.: Rolf de Heer; Cast: David Gulpilil, Peter Djigirr, Luke Ford; Australia 2014, 108 min

David Gulpilil won Best Actor ‘Un Certain Regard’ at Cannes this year for his portrayal of Charlie. Its his third collaboration with helmer, Rolf de Heer, after The Tracker and Ten Canoes, but this time, Gulpilil also co-wrote the script, making CHARLIE’S COUNTRY more personal, and autobiographical. Charlie, a ‘blackfella’ lives in Arnhem Land community, another name for reservation. Alcohol here is strictly forbidden, so is the possession of “deadly” weapons. Charlie and his friend Pete (Djigirr) are guilty on both counts, losing not only their weapons (spear and gun), but also the buffalo they have shot. Because Charlie can’t stomach much of the white men’s food, this incident is particularly vexing for him: he had helped the police, led by the friendly but strict Luke (Ford), to find white lawbreakers – in return for nothing. As a result, Charlie decides to leave the community for a life in the wild. Initially all goes well; he catches fish and enjoys his freedom. But torrential rainstorms affect his already damaged lungs and Pete assists in getting him to a Darwin hospital. There he meets another Aboriginal from Arnhem, who is dying. Charlie discharges himself and meets some “long grassers”, homeless Aborigines, who drink and smoke, living homeless in the parks of the city. When the police arrive to arrest them Charlie takes a shovel and smashes the windshield of their car. Sentenced to time in prison, he returns to Arnhem after his release, to teach the young Aborigine boys to dance – something Charlie did himself in front of the Queen at the opening of the Sydney Opera House.

This is a film about identity: Gulpilil, the most famous Aboriginal face on screen since he appeared as a 16year-old in Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout, is very hard on himself because the prison sequence here is autobiographical. Gulpilil does not shrink away from his own failings, he is adamant to be held responsible for his actions. His face alone, seemingly cut in stone, speaks volumes. Proud and melancholic at the same time, it tells about the long struggle for cultural identity in a country  taken away from Aborigines by White settlers, who proudly consider themselves superior to Gulpilil and his fellow men and women. But his sense of identity is unbroken, even in prison he is neither cowed or intimidated. This is not only a film about ethnographical issues, but a poem, when spoken in Gulpilil’s own language, Yolngu. CHARLIE’S COUNTRY is a testament to permanent resistance, not glorious at all, but David Gulpilil is still walking tall. AS

LFF 9.10. 21.00 NFT1 11.10. 15.00 OWE1 and then on general release

THE LONDON FILM FESTIVAL RUNS FROM 9-19 OCTOBER 2014

Walking Under Water (2014) | BFI London Film Festival

WALKING_UNDER_WATER_still_4Dir/Writer: Eliza Kubarska

76min  Doc   Poland/UK/Germany

Walking Under Water won the special jury prize at Hot Docs, Toronto this year for its remarkable portrait of the Badjao tribe in Mabul Island, Borneo. Connecting with a global narrative of survival for small communities all over the world, it explores this tiny fishing community who live above and below the clear blue waters off Borneo: and are now threatened with extinction. The striking beauty of this ocean paradise will appeal to lovers of exotic nature programmes but there is much more here than first meets the eye. This is a magical tale of wonder about a culture surviving between the sea and the land who believe in the existence of an underwater spiritual kingdom, the Sema Sallang, whom they must pay homage to each day with offerings and prayers to keep them safe when diving for the daily catch. Using a slim pipe attached to a simple compressor in the boat, they are trained to free dive and fish underwater for turtles and other marine life.

Enriched by Piotr Rosolowski’s breathtaking visuals, a narrative structure gradually emerges that shapes this observational exploration of the Badjao’s simple life through the relationship between Alexan, and his nephew, Sari. Passing his experience on to the boy, with minimal dialogue, he shares tales of sea gods, strange fish and the Sema Sallang. Kubraska sensory soundtrack evokes a delicious serenity, weaving a web of ambient sounds: native voices, exotic birds, rustling breezes waft through the local flora, gradually enveloping us in silence.

But when Alexan and Sari are forced to make a trip to the mainland for fuel, the magic is broken. Resignation, disappointment and fear for their uncertain future reflects on their faces and Sari contemplates the inevitability of work in a local casino. A sensory overload of noise, pollution and the local diving school ruptures the peace and an electrical storm breaks over the purple horizon. Alexan’s wife nags him for only catching three fish: It seems that even in Paradise women are unhappy with their husbands. MT.

THE LONDON FILM FESTIVAL RUNS FROM 9-19 OCTOBER 2014

Viktoria (2014) | London Film Festival

Dir.: Maya Vitkova; Cast: Irmena Chichikeva, Daria Vitkova, Kalina Vitkova, Dimo Dimev, Mariana Krumova, Georgi Spasov; Bulgaria/Rumania 2014, 155 min.

First time director/writer Maya Vitkova has managed to create a stunning debut film, which overwhelms the audience with its aesthetic brilliance and epic narrative, a mixture a hyperrealism and political slapstick. In Bulgaria in the late seventies and Boryana (Chichikeva), a librarian, and her husband Ivan (Dimov), a doctor, are living with Boryana’s mother (Krumova) in a tiny flat and all sharing a bedroom. Boryana feels no allegiance to her mother who she calls “a party member, not a mother” and wants desperately to escape to the West. When Boryana gets pregnant, she tries, in vain, to get rid of the child, chain-smoking to the end of term. Symbolically, little Viktoria is born without a belly-button – which is seized upon by the authorities as a proof of communist superiority: Viktoria is declared to be “Baby of the Decade” and communicates with Bulgaria’s President Zhivkov (Spasov) via a personal phone line. Her parents too are given privileges: a car and a new flat.

All if this makes Boryana even more bitter and resentful, since her emigration plans are squashed. As she grows more distant from her daughter that even her own mother; Viktoria, played at different ages by Daria and Kalina Vitkova, develops into an arrogant young girl well aware that a phone call to Zhivkov could mean punishment to everyone crossing her – including her own parents. But all this comes to an end in 1979, Viktoria cutting symbolically the phone line to Zhivkov after his last message: “It’s all over”. Her parents separate and Viktoria moves in with her maternal grandmother, who, unable to speak after a stroke, can only communicate in writing. After the old woman dies, Boryana shows great care in preparing the body for the funeral, a gesture too late, but nevertheless moving.

The narrative is intercut with newsreel sequences from the communist past: instead of being awe-inspiring they are revealed for what they really were: slapstick comedy at its best. But the grip of the Stalinist regimes on the psyche of their population was anything but laughable: the material depravation was nothing compared with the emotional repression. Vitkova shows this vicious cycle: Boryana punishing her daughter with emotional neglect, just to get even with her own mother. Husband Ivan is shown as a mild, but cowardly figure, which mainly stays on the periphery of the narrative. Viktoria is the only member of her family who tries to come to term with her loveless upbringing, trying to learn from her mother and grandmother. But Vitkova leaves no doubt that the trauma of the past needs a long time to heal – and that a greater access to material goods might be more of a hindrance than a solution. Filmed with diffuse lighting, the suberb cast, particularly Chichikeva, enact a “Trauerspiel” which is both emotionally moving and enlightening. Vitkova delivers a mature epic, original and innovative, but always concerned with delivering its humanistic message.AS

LFF 12.10. 20.20 NFT 3, 14.10. 15.15 ICA

THE LONDON FILM FESTIVAL RUNS FROM 9-19 OCTOBER 2014

Keep On Keepin’ On (2014) | BFI London Film Festival

Dir.: Alan Hicks; Cast: Clark Terry, Justin Kauflin, Quincy Jones; USA 2014, 84 min.

Hicks first full length documentary features the Jazz trumpet legend Clark Terry now in his nineties, and his latest protégé, 23 year old Justin Kauflin, a budding jazz pianist. But theirs in much more that an ordinary master/student relationship: Terry has been suffering from Diabetes for over sixty years, and his eye sight is weakening constantly, albeit slowly. Kauflin, on the other hand, has been blind since being in sixth form. The two of them meet mostly in Terry in Arkansas, Justin being ferried back and forth from  Virginia by his mother, who is a full time carer like Gwen, Clark’s wife and editor on his recent biography, which has just been published.

Alan Hicks highlights Terry’s caring, optimistic nature in this upbeat portrait with fascinating footage and interviews with Miles Davis and Bill Crosby. We discover that Clark Terry was born in Missouri, had ten siblings and grew up in utter poverty, but in contrast, his stellar career led him to play with Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Quincy Jones among others. He was the first African-African staff musician at NBC, playing ten years on the “Tonight” Show with Jimmy Carson. Terry supports Kauflin who has immense stage fright, sometimes being unable to express himself at key moments such as the “Theolonius Monk” competition, when Justin had reached the semi-final stage, but was unable to progress further. Hicks really shows the hurt, the desperation – but afterwards Terry being able to offer more than words, when the two practice again together.

In the four years covered, Hicks shows the subtle development of the relationship between the musicians without resorting to sentimentality: the gradual deepening of the friendship to mutual support and a unique closeness. Whilst there have been famous products of Terry’s “academy”,  such as Dianne Reeves and Terri Lyne, who pay homage to the master, Justin Kauflin will always be very much more than just a student for Clark Terry. KEEP ON KEEPIN’ ON is one of those rare documents of emotional strength; the pursuit of musical perfection which eventually becomes a mutual survival pact. AS

THE LONDON FILM FESTIVAL RUNS FROM 9-19 0CTOBER 2014

VIEWINGS TIMES: 8.10. 20.45 NFT 1, 9.10. 15.30 NFT 2, 10.10. 18.30 Rich Mix

10 Reasons to visit the LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2014

winter-sleep-2014-004-melisa-sozen-headshotWINTER SLEEP ***** Palme D’Or | Cannes | 2014

Sumptuously set in a mountain village in his beloved Anatolia, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s arthouse character study enters the slow-burn orbit of loquacious ‘resting’ actor and hotelier, Aydin (Haluk Bilginer). Presiding over his family and local community, he portrays a misunderstood victim, a gracious and urbane sophisticate who, destined for better things, is forced to civilise his unworthy community and minister to the needs of passing travellers. As the winter closes in on this feudal kingdom, Aydin is forced to come to terms with himself through a bitter and dysfunctional relationship with sister (Demet Akbag) and younger wife (Melisa Sozen) who both despise him. Themes of social class, moral responsibility and altruism weave slowly and sinuously through this engrossing tale that is intimate in style, yet epic in its length and ambitions (196 mins).  Stunning.

turnMr Turner ****  | Best Actor | Cannes | 2014

Mike Leigh’s ambitious biopic of J M W Turner’s middle-age serves as a worthy and painterly tribute to a national treasure. In a performance of some complexity, Timothy Spall portrays the ‘painter of light’ as a romantic gruffalo with a heart of gold but a curious style of love-making. The film opens in 1826 with a magnificent shot of a Dutch landscape where Turner is visiting for inspiration and work. A solid British cast works to the ‘Leigh family method’. At the Royal Academy we meet arch rivals John Constable (James Fleet) and his wealthy Patron and other Leigh staples (Lesley Manville, Ruth Sheen). All are carefully worked into the narrative along with a humorous vignette from Joshua Maguire as a verbose live-wire John Ruskin. In Margate, Turner finds peace amd contentment with a local landlady (a luminous Marion Bailey). Victorian England is very much a character, proudly flying the flag of the Empire at its peak but Leigh is at pains to underline that Turner left his works to the Nation and not the homes of rich Victorian industrialists, who had funded him. Although this is a departure from his usual subject matter; in casting his usual actors, it all feels very ‘Mike Leigh’.

Jauja_Lisandro_AlonsoJAUJA **** FIPRESCI winner | Cannes | 2014

JAUJA (Land of Plenty) is a philosophical, existential drama, almost as enigmatic as the mythical place it claims to represent – an Argentinian ‘El Dorado’. Lisandro Alonso has wisely chosen Viggo Mortensen to play the role of a respectable but unsettled Danish 19th army captain travelling across the rugged region with his teenage daughter (Viilbjork Mallin Agger) and a motley collection of soldiers who speak Spanish, purportedly on a mission to wipe out the Zuluagas – a lethal tribe of natives, nick-named “Coconut Heads”.  In a horseback search across hostile terrain, the captain’s brushes with the Zuluagas are eerie and lethal. A change of tone midway signals a descent into a fantasy time-warp bringing the narrative back to contempo Denmark in a surprising but enchanting denoumen. Finnish photographer, Timo Salminen, captures this magical story in long takes, sumptuously lighting each frame as a work of art as Mortensen flexes his musical talents in an original score. MT

whitegodWHITE GOD **** Un Certain Regard WINNER | Cannes | 2014

Hungarian director, Kornél Mundruczó’s art house thriller has a ‘Pied Piper of Hamlin’ feel to it. An enigmatic parable that scratches the edges of horror, there are some bizarre and brutal elements. Dogs, or more correctly, mutts are the stars of the story which opens with a little girl cycling through the streets of Budapest, followed by a pack of barking beasts (front picture). From Alsations to Labradors, Rottweilers and even little terriers, WHITE GOD also brings to mind The Incredible Journey with a more sinister twist. These dogs are clearly well-trained and credit goes to the Mundruczo for his ambitious undertaking but then Magyars have a reputation for their handling skills with horses and this clearly extends to the canine species. Lilli (Zsofia Psotta) the girl on the bike, has adopted a large street dog called Hagen in a modern parable, quite literally, a tale of the ‘underdog’ rising up and claiming his rightful place in society. WHITE GOD is a unique and really captivating piece of filmmaking.MT

salvationTHE SALVATION ****  | Denmark| US | 2014

It’s always gratifying to see a great film that hasn’t had much buzz, pre-festival. THE SALVATION is one of those outings: but with Mads Mikkelsen and Eva Green what could go wrong? Well, we’ve certainly found the next Clint Eastwood in Christian Levring’s Danish-American Western. As Jon, a former soldier who immigrated to America after the Danish-German war in 1864, Mads has just the right look and smouldering buttoned-up anger to keep the action taut and macho throughout this glowering, sun-burnished saga shot by lenser Jens Schlosser in South Africa and with echoes of High Noon. When Jon’s wife and son join him in the lawless Mid West after joining him from Denmark, they are brutally killed; the modest, law-abiding outsider Mads turns hurt into hatred, by taking the outlaw’s life in return. Eva Green seethes in a speechless part (as Princess) rendered mute by an Indian’s weapon and married to the Colonel (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) who heads up the villainous Delarue Family, and looking for retribution. With a zippy running time of 89 minutes, this is a slick and enjoyable ride through the Wild West: Danish angle works well with the xenophobic locals of the era. MT

leviathan 4LEVIATHAN  ****  | Russia | 2014

A saga set in Northern Russsia. Before anything else are the familiar strengths of Andrei Zvyagintsev’s work: Regular cinematographer Mikhail Krichman shoots with a reliance on the natural light of northwest Russia’s late summer/early autumn, giving the whole thing a pallet at once unhealthily under-lit and richly blue. Elena Lyadova, a less central performer in ELENA, is here elevated to key player: in her, Zvyagintsev has found an actress whose hardened beauty betrays all the hurt and disappointment that an ordinary life down on the lower rungs can bring. In so much as a glance here, she conveys a woman caught between the rock of an unhappy marriage and the unbearably hard place of a doomed affair. Philip Glass’s music also returns: ‘The Ruins’, from his 1983 opera Akhnaten, bookends proceedings over sequences of harsh, foreboding cliff faces and crashing, ominous waves. Does the film overreach? Though such passages as that just mentioned are vivid and gripping in themselves, they do suggest a director who’s possibly too eager to imbue his work with an air of thematic significance. All the more refreshing, then, that the film is also Zvyagintsev’s funniest by far. Never settling for any one simple tonal register, it at times reaching levels of black satire, most notably in its early depictions of Vadim the mayor, a shark in a small pond whose office boasts a framed portrait of Putin, to whose shady Machiavellianism he palpably aspires (other framed leaders, from Lenin to Gorbachev, feature in another scene). As Vadim, Madyanov steals the show, resembling a fluffy teddy bear dowsed in vodka one moment and a ruthless, no-nonsense brute the next. MP

goobTHE GOOB **** | UK | 2014

Guy Myhill’s debut evokes the open spaces of Norfolk veiled in golden summer. An unsettling coming of age story, it pits a young man’s burgeoning sexuality against that of his mother’s boorish boyfriend – an avid stock-car racing champion and local grower. Simon Tindall’s ethereal camera-work captures the rough and ready appeal of this farming landscape and its gutsy inhabitants and a soft-focus arthouse twist contrasts well with the pumping score of hits that include Donna Summer. Constantly on the move, the restless Dardennesque pace also brings to mind that motorcycle opening sequence of Lawrence of Arabia. This is a very English affair bristling with sexual tension and dreamy awakenings from childhood to young adulthood in the Fens, it teases with an enigmatic storyline that weaves into focus then departs again in a different direction, never quite revealing itself but conjuring up a family in turmoil. A really atmospheric indie Britflick. MT

Im_Keller_2-©Ulrich_SeidlIN THE BASEMENT (IM KELLER) **** | Austria | 2014

After exploring the sex lives of a three contemporary women (Love, Hope, Paradise), Austrian maverick, Ulrich Seidl, plumbs the domestic cellars of his homeland for more outrageous material in his latest documentary IM KELLER (In The Cellar). A word normally applied to horror film ‘unheimlich’ describes these underground spaces that are the total opposite of cosy: we meet group of characters who appear only too happy to share with us their unusual habits and hobbies in this subterranean world. With his regular collaborator Veronika Franz, Seidl’s preoccupation with obesity, nudity and S&M goes hand in hand with religious bigotry and undercover Nazis (Hitler was, of course, Austrian) – all are alive and kicking in the homes of the outwardly innocuous Austrians. Indie and art house audiences with a penchant for the macabre and Seidl’s dark brand of humour will certainly flock to see Im Keller even though it is, in parts, a sight for sore eyes. It certainly proves that in Austria as well as Yorkshire there’s ‘nowt so queer as folk”. Guaranteed to make you squirm in your seats.MT

Altman_1ALTMAN **** | Venice | 2014

The fascinating career of Robert Altman is the subject of Ron Mann’s biopic that kicks off with the auteur’s chance meeting that changed his life. It all seemed so simple in those days, one lucky meeting leads to a career spanning 50 years. But you do need talent, of course, and perseverance, and Altman, we discover, had this in spades along with an ability to inspire and impress, and to re-invent himself in a career that led to prodigious TV work (Bonanza) before he even started making films. The only director to win top prize at three major European film festivals (Cannes, Berlin, Venice) and the first director to have concurrent conversations in his films; he developed a way of recording, allowing audiences to listen to several conversations at once, adding a feel of reality to his dramas. He also invented the ‘portmanteau’ film (Short Cuts, The Player). The majority of his films were financed independently and box office standout Gosford Park found finance at the last minute through the UK Lottery: ironically  it was also made after he received the heart of a young woman. Packed with fascinating details, Mann’s doc is watchable and entertaining. MT

photoTHE DUKE OF BURGUNDY **** 

Peter Strickland’s focus on the exploitation genre has already alighted on the Italian ‘giallo’ (Berberian Sound Studio) and the ‘revenge thriller'(Katalin Varga). Here he turns his talents to a seventies-set story of lesbian erotica. The Duke in question is a butterfly,  delicately exploring the love between two female etymologists engaged in a dominant/submissive affair. Chiara D’Anna (Evelyn) and Sidse Babett Knudsen (Cynthia) play the lovers in this intriguing and unconventional drama which drifts into dreamlike abstract and experimental episodes (complete with unusual  sound effects) evoking the emotional ecstasy of this complex sexual adventure. MT

THE BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL RUNS FROM 8 – 19 OCTOBER 2014 ALL OVER LONDON

 

 

 

Teenage (2013) DVD

Dir: Matt Wolf, Cast: Jena Malone, Ben Whishaw, Alden Ehrenreich

USA 2013, 78 min.  DOC

What did we call teenagers before the term was invented in the years after the Second World War in the USA?  Matt Wolf’s informative history of the young and rebellious (based on Jon Savage’s book) answers this and many more questions. With exhaustive documentary material and some clever docu-drama, Wolf tells the story of teenagers in England, the USA and Germany from the beginning of the 20th century. There was the abolition of child labour, but also the culling of millions who died in the trench-slaughter of the Great War. The years between the wars was filled with rebellion against the old, who had sent the young to die. Music always played an all important role in the youth movement, flappers and swingers of the 30s being the best known examples. And there was Brenda Dean Paul in the UK, who was a first for glamour, drugs and self destruction.

TEENAGE_2 copy

Particularly interesting are the German segments of the film. Melita Maschmann is  a BDM (Association of German Girls) member in Hitler’s Germany (NOT the Hitler Jugend, the male arm of the movement, as the film claims, since the Fascists kept the genders well apart). First Melita likes the travelling and campfires, than she “has” to loose her Jewish friends to be part of her peer group. And then comes the trauma of the War, at the end of it the loss of her identity. But there were also young rebels against Hitler, like Tommy Scheel; who organised a Jazz club in the late 30s  knowing very well that this sort of “Nigger music” was forbidden by the Nazis. He could escape to the USA, but many of his friends were caught be the Gestapo and hanged.

Interweaving rare archive footage with vibrant colour images, Wolf touches also on the problem of racism in USA itself. A young black soldier says in an interview after the war, “in the war we are equals, but now were are the enemy”. And again it is the music, in this case hip-hop and jazz, which is the manifestation of youth rebellion – black and white.

TEENAGE is thorough, well-researched, witty and always as energetic as its subject-matter. Andre  Simonoviescz

TEENAGE IS NOW ON DVD

Les Coquillettes (2012) LOCO London comedy festival

Dir.: Sophie Letourneur

Cast: Camille Genaud, Sophie Letourneur, Carole Le Page, Luis Garrel, Julien Gester

France 2012, 75 min.  French with English subtitles

Filmed during the Locarno Film Festival of 2011, this is an inside job: we learn everything we want to know how the participants of a film festival (mis)behave. Letourneur cast three young women on the hunt for male company, while neglecting the cinematic feast on offer. Sophie tries to score with the actor Louis Garrel, whom she has only met once, Camille has chosen the rather enigmatic “Liberation” film critic Julien Gester, whilst Carole is rather undecided and only wants cuddles, but finds the ex-Cahiers writer Eugenio Rizzi, an Italian hunk. Girltalk about sex, often more interesting than the real thing, ensues, and twitter and Facebook activities dominate the rest of this mixed bag. It is certainly more watchable than many movies of this genre dominated by males, but the occasional laugh does not make up for a rather superficial proceeding. Shot on HD, the acting is lively, camera work is rather mediocre, and the directress tries (not always successfully) to find a style for the cinema, whilst clearly being influenced too much by TV. The film never touches on any subject for long enough to make it worthwhile, there is no real centre and it is at it best when reporting on the festival. AS

LOCO RUNS FROM 23-26 JANUARY 2014 in various London venues

 

 

Two Lives (2012) Zwei Lieben

Director: Georg Maas

Writers: Georg Maas, Christoph Toele, Stale Stein Berg and Judith Kaufmann

Cast: Liv Ullmann, Julianne Koelher, Sven Nodin, Ken Duken

Psychological Wartime thriller  97mins  Germany/Norway   subtitled

Georg Maas’s Two Lives is Germany’s foreign-language submission to the 2014 Oscars. Loosely based on the novel by Hannelore Hippe,  this well-crafted and sombre tale is set ten years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, but brings to light an important episode in German Second World War history for a Norwegian family.

Liv Ullmann and Julianne Koehler play  Norwegian mother Ase and her German national daughter Katrine, fathered by a German soldier serving in German-occupied Norway during the War.   The family’s whole identity is blown apart by revelations that emerge after the fall of the Berlin Wall directly relating to events that happened during the War and  forming of the Stasi Police in the new East Germany.   As a young girl, Katrine was transferred to Germany and raised in a children’s’ home, finally to be united with her mother in Norway after a gruelling escape as the War comes to an end.  After marrying a Norwegian Navy Captain Bjarte (Sven Nordin), she then has a daughter of her own  (Julia Bache-Wiig) and  also becomes a grandmother.

The film’s narrative structure reveals Katrine’s motivations as a decent woman with a double life, going from blond to brunette (as ‘Vera’) and travelling back and forth to Germany purportedly to see friends – although we know otherwise. And although this serves as interesting insight into her difficulties (and Koehler’s admirable acting talents), it has the effect of robbing the story of much of its dramatic punch, as we are ‘in the know’.  However, Bjarte believes she’s having an affair and is naturally aggrieved and suspicious, being ‘in the dark’.  But when a human rights lawyer working on reparations gets involved, the situation becomes painfully complex for all concerned, as the real facts start to emerge.

The final denouement redresses the balance slightly as the full shocking psychological effects ripple through the family, shown in grainy flashback footage on a handheld camera.  With its strong performances and richly stunning cinematography of the Norwegian coastline and rural locations in Westphalia, Bonn and Hamburg,  Two Lives is a classic War-related story and a sobering tribute to an important part of Norwegian/German history. Tightly-plotted and immersive throughout, it is accompanied by a suitably rousing score.  MT

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THE OSCARS CEREMONY TAKES PLACE ON 16 JANUARY 2014

Computer Chess (2013) MUBI DVD/BLU-

Dir: Andrew Bujalski, Cast: Patrick Riester, Wiley Wiggins, Myles Paige, Robin Schwartz | USA 2013, 92 min.  Comedy

Andrew Bujalski’s latest film COMPUTER CHESS defies any genre classification: sounding a death knell for human discourse as we know it, this is simply on its own. Set in a sleazy, low class hotel in Texas at the beginning of the 80s, it features two group of humans (the computer chess group of the title and a New-Age cult meeting) and an overwhelming horde of Persian cats who seem to take over the hotel; at least at night. Whilst all the humans are awkward and geeky, the cats are full of themselves marauding the place in a quest for domination.

 

The fuzzy black and white of the 4:3 format (shot with a Sony video camera from the 1960s, but not in a gimmicky way, gives the film its sci-fi element: pioneers from another world, creating a an almost surreal otherworldly atmosphere  in which all three tribes vy for supremacy is both absurd and unsettling. The unintended ludicrousness of the situation engenders an atmosphere of alienation, the participants existing in their own bubbles, where words are lost as a means of communication, and emotions have yet to be invented.

The annual chess meeting has a long tradition and the winner wears a glittering crown at the end and takes on the chess Grand Master Paul Henderson, who has met a bet that he will successfully beat all computers until 1984. The players – in their thirties – are humourless and emotionally inhibited (the only female competitor, Shelly, is no different), the term ‘nerd’ could have been invented for them. The youngest of them Peter (Riester), is oblivious of Shelly, even though she gives him tame encouragement. Peter wanders into the next emotional trap when he visits an older couple in their room: they want to seduce him into a ménage-a-trois, but he literally runs away, like the frightened boy he is.

One of the programmers, Papageorge (Paige) roams the hotel at night, trying to find a room to sleep in. He is brazen in his attempts, but everyone is too polite to point this out to him. The New Age group members are very accommodating to start with (putting their fingers in freshly baked loaves of bread and “replaying” their birth to re-engage with their inner beings), but when the chess congress overruns into Monday, they insist on sharing the meeting room with them, in spite of Henderson’s loud protests: he senses their intrusion may disrupt his concentration. A unique, enigmatic, unique and innovative masterpiece. AS

COMPUTER CHESS IS on DUAL FORMAT BLU-RAY ON 20 courtesy of www.eurekavideo.co.uk | and also on MUBI

2nd Nordic Film Festival 2013 Now in Glasgow

Fans of Nordic cinema will be excited to hear that the festival returns this winter with a vibrant array of films from Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark and Iceland.  Opening in London and taking the film highlights further afield: a music strand will also feature in this year’s celebrations in the shape of the seminal Icelandic band Sigur Ros1234655_171092483082741_1211452240_n.

The programme includes various strands: ‘New Nordic Features’, ‘Other Side of the Docs’ and ‘Arctic’ and focuses on Nicholas Winding Refn with a new film NWR by French doc helmer Laurent Duroche, which looks at the life of the director and his regular collaborators Ryan Gosling and Mads Mikkelsen with another chance to see Winding Refn’s 1999 Cult Classic BLEEDER, a love story set in Copenhagen.

The festival kicks off on 25 November with the UK premiere screening of short noir animation series ODBOY & ERORDOG SUITE (Marcus Fjellström, Sweden/Germany 2013) with live soundtrack performed by Swedish quartet, The Pearls Before Swine Experience. This 22-minute piece, screened/performed earlier this year at International Film Festival Rotterdam, presents the eerie twilight escapades of a boy and his dog: inspired by nightmares, retro computer games and a pet dog.

Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur has been prominent in the London film scene this summer with his docudrama THE DEEP and crime caper 2 GUNS.  The festival offers a chance to see his debut feature 101 REYKJAVIK, a romcom starring Spanish actress Victoria Abril.
Unknown-5Finnish films are always quirky and fascinating CONCRETE NIGHT is no different. It’s the latest outing from Finnish maverick director: Pirjo Honkasalo. Set in the backstreets of Helsinki, it  follows two brothers in the 24 hours before the eldest goes into prison.

My Stuff

In the doc strand, another Finnish director Petri Luukkainen will be in town to talk about MY STUFF, a documentary comedy that examines our attachment to possessions and asks the question: what do we really need in life?.  Also on the documentary front, Mia Engberg’s BELLEVILLE BABY, a meta-textual memoir that examines the director’s relationship with her ex through visuals, photos and feelings evoked by their past conversations heard in voice-over.

Ingen riktig finne Finnish Blood Swedish Heart - Dragon Award for Best Doc - GIFF 2013

Mika Ronkainen’s is attending to talk about his road-doc: FINNISH BLOOD, SWEDISH HEART that looks at the unresolved issues of a Finnish father and son forced to grow up in Sweden, before returning to their homeland.

From Norway, NORTH OF THE SUN and THE DEVIL’S BALLROOM  looks at the harsh beauty of life in the magnetic North.

The festival closes with the premiere of Kaspar Munk’s YOU & ME FOREVER, a drama focusing on teenage angst from a female perspective exploring sensitive issues of nascent sexuality, vulnerability and idolisation at this very formative stage in a girl’s life. MT

THE PROGRAMME IN DETAIL
London: 25 November - 4 December 2013

25 Nov

6.45pm

Opening Gala: Odboy & Erordog Suite + live soundtrack performance
+ opening gala party

Republic of Fritz HansenTM

29 Nov

6.30pm

101 Reykjavik

Riverside Studios

8.45pm

Chasing the Wind

Riverside Studios

30 Nov

6pm

NWR

Ciné Lumière

9pm

Concrete Night

ICA

1 Dec

1pm

The Hidden Child

ICA

3.30pm

Bleeder

Riverside Studios

6pm

Kidd Life

Riverside Studios

8.30pm

Finnish Blood, Swedish Heart + Q&A

Riverside Studios

2 Dec

6.45pm 8.45pm

Sigur Rós double bill: Inni Valtari Mystery Film Experiment

Riverside Studios

7pm

Directors’ Talk: Finnish Docs

Republic of Fritz HansenTM

3 Dec

6.45pm

North of the Sun + The Devil’s Ballroom

Riverside Studios

8.30pm

My Stuff + Q&A

Riverside Studios

4 Dec

8.20pm

Closing Gala: You & Me Forever + Q&A

Ciné Lumière

Edinburgh: 6 – 11 December 2013

6 Dec

6.15pm

Chasing the Wind

Edinburgh Filmhouse

7 Dec

6.15pm

My Stuff

Edinburgh Filmhouse

8 Dec

6.15pm

Kidd Life

Edinburgh Filmhouse

9 Dec

6.15pm

NWR

Edinburgh Filmhouse

10 Dec

6.15pm

Finnish Blood, Swedish Heart

Edinburgh Filmhouse

11 Dec

6.15pm

You & Me Forever

Edinburgh Filmhouse

Glasgow: 8 December 2013 – 2 January 2014

8 Dec

5.30pm

Chasing the Wind

Glasgow Film Theatre

10 Dec

6.45pm

Finnish Blood, Swedish Heart

Glasgow Film Theatre

15 Dec

6.50pm

You & Me Forever

Glasgow Film Theatre

17 Dec

9.00pm

NWR

Glasgow Film Theatre

22 Dec

6.40pm

Kidd Life

Glasgow Film Theatre

29 Dec

6.30pm

My Stuff

Glasgow Film Theatre

2 Jan

6.30pm

Belleville Baby

Glasgow Film Theatre

14

The Selfish Giant (2013) DVD/Blu

Director/Writer: Clio Barnard

Cast: Shaun Thomas, Sean Gilder, Steve Evets. Lorraine Ashbourne, Conner Chapman

93min  Drama   UK

The gently rolling countryside of Yorkshire is the setting for Clio Barnard’s contemporary coming of age fable of under-privilege seen through the eyes of two young lads, Arbor and Swifty. Played with extraordinary sensitivity by newcomers Connor Chapman and Shaun Thomas, these boys have similar family problems and difficulties at school that help them forge a close and compatible friendship. Arbor is the less likeable of the two, with a soft spot for his mum, rather like the Kray Twins. When they meet scrap metal dealer, Kitten, Arbor discovers his knack for dealing and with Swifty’s riding skills the pair start scavenging with the help of Kitten’s shire pony, Diesel.

Barnard’s linear narrative The_Selfish_Giant_(photo_agatha_a._nitecka)__002 copyechoes the social realism of many current British Films but here Barnard tempers the harshness of Hudderfield’s scrapyards with enchanting images of starry skies and nature.  Swifty has a way with animals and develops a strong attachment to Diesel, handling him with skill and compassion and gaining credibility with Kitten who favours him in contrast to the cocky Arbor. Clio Barnard handles the direction with great skill, evoking an unsettling underlying tension in these social dynamics that make it clear that this is a journey that will end in tears. MT

THE SELFISH GIANT SCREENS AT THE 57TH BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL ON 14 OCTOBER AND 16 OCTOBER AT THE OWE2 AND CURZON MAYFAIR COURTESY OF ARTIFICIAL EYE AND now OUT ON DVD/BLU-RAY from 27 JANUARY 2014

 

 

 

 

 

Starred Up (2013) 57th BFI London Film Festival

Dir: David Mackenzie, Cast: Jack O’Connell, Ben Mendelsohn, Rupert Friend

UK 2013, 100 min.  Action Drama

‘Starred Up is a term used in the British prison system, where a juvenile offender, who is particularly violent is sent to an adult prison, and not a juvenile correction institution. The ‘starred up’ young man in this film is played by Jack O’Connell (The Liability). He lands in the same prison as his father Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), who was more or less absent during his childhood and has his hands full trying to curb Eric’s tendency to violent reactions at the slightest (imagined) provocation.  In a turn of superb strength Jack O’Connell  has to prove his over-the-top aggression from the opening sequences. Oliver (Rupert Friend), an understanding voluntary therapist, whose group Eric joins, tries to curb the young man’s tendency to violent reactions at the slightest (or imagined) provocation, but looses his distance from the men he is supposed to help. After Eric attacks a sadistic prison warden, he has to leave, and father and son embark on another string of unbridled attacks.

It goes without saying that violence is part of any prison film, but Mackenzie here overdoes his share of gratuitous violence and gradually it looses its function becoming the norm in a feature that lacks texture and tension with the dire cinema-verite style accentuating the grittiness: repeating the prison procedures over and over again has a tiring and repulsive effect that distances us from the narrative with the continuously sweary verbal exchanges, become tedious and lack style in comparison with other films of this genre such as Audiard’s The Prophet. The protagonists fall into simplistic categories and are paired up for easy recognition: the sadistic chief prison warden versus the understanding therapist; young, unformed Eric, always on the outlook for violence, versus the more mature father, trying to control himself, at least sometimes. That said, O’Connell and Mendelsohn both give their emotions full throttle in performances of considerable skill.

David Mackenzie is unable (or unwilling) to reign his ideas in and goes completely over the top, losing control of the action because he fails to maintain distance to structure his narrative. There is no grey, only black and white. STARRED UP is self-indulgent; lacks artistic direction, simply stating one argument with the same images repetitively, undermining any message the director wants to convey. The actors are the only saving element of this film, whose grimy, conventional aesthetics don’t help us to connect. Andre  Simonoviescz

STARRED UP IS SCREENING AT THE 57TH BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL ON 10, 11 AND 12 OCTOBER AT THE OWE2 AND HACKNEY PICTUREHOUSES RESPECTIVELY

 

 

Adore (2013) (Two Mothers) 57th London Film Festival

Director: Anne Fontaine

Screenplay: Christopher Hampton

Cast: Robin Wright, Naomi Watts, Xavier Samuel, James Frecheville, Ben Mendelsohn

100mins  Australia/France   Drama

The oedipus complex provides the counterpoint to this complex drama about female sexuality and friendship. It follows two women who have grown up together in an idyllic oceanside location in Australia.  Their visceral bond has kept them close through marriage, children, widowhood and separation; exploring the nature of friendship, love and sexuality from a uniquely female perspective.

Adore-003

Based on a short story by Doris Lessing, The Grandmothers: subversive French auteur Anne Fontaine (Nathalie, Coco Before Chanel) has refreshed the narrative bringing it firmly up to date, casting two attractive and well-maintained fortysomething ‘cougars’ as the women: they could be you or me: Naomi Watts plays Lil and Robin Wright, Roz completely dispelling the image of ‘grannies’ being old biddies with knitting.  Healthy living has enabled these two to look good. A potent cocktail of emotional maturity and enduring sexual desire empowers them to enjoy young lovers in the same way that traditionally was the preserve of men. Enjoying a beach lifestyle, Roz and Lil are neighbours at work and home, living with their respective grown-up sons. Adore-004

Lensed by Christophe Beaucarne, ADORE is lovely to look at but initially suffers from clunky moments on the dialogue front. Gradually this resolves as a taut drama emerges. Robin Wright is magnificent, giving one of her best performances so far  as the tough but emotionally available Roz and  is by far the stronger of the two. Naomi Watts is more fluffy and unsure of herself, but convincing as the ultra feminine Lil. The boys are  powerfully handsome with an appealing vulnerability that ramps up the erotic value of what happens next.

Fabulously plotted by Doris Lessing, ADORE covers all the intellectual aspects and subtle nuances of female sexuality reflecting poignant biological truths and exultant moments of pleasure and insight.  Anne Fontaine is at pains to point out the barren male choices available to these women that has driven them towards their eventual romantic entanglements. But their behaviour never lacks decorum, steering well-clear of the pitfalls of gratuitous over-emoting. These are women who are really worthy of praise as role models despite all.  The adult male characters here are predictable: self-centred and puffed up on their own egos.  Roz’s ex-husband drifts off to prioritise his career in Sydney with unsurprising results.  Lil attracts a work colleague Saul, who pursues her endlessly failing the read the signs and then accuses her of being a lesbian when she fails to reciprocate. So no evolvement on the adult male characterisation there. ADORE begs to be seen by any intelligent audience, male or female.  Long after the sheltering palms and sugar-white sandy beaches have faded from view, the complexity of this absorbing film will stay in your memory. MT

ADORE IS SCREENING AT THE 57TH BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL ON THURSDAY 10TH  (VUE7), FRIDAY, 11TH AND SUNDAY, 13TH OCTOBER (CINE LUMIERE).

 

 

The Hunt (2012) Jagten

Dir:Thomas Vinterberg | Cast Mads Mikkelsen. Susse Wold, Thomas Bo Larsen, Lars Ranthe, Anne Louise Ranthe | Drama, Denmark.  111mins. 

Thomas Vinterburg’s study of abuse strikes at the core of his beloved Danish roots and follows in the footsteps of Festen without the Dogme. Jagten‘s gripping screenplay by Tobias Lindholm sails right up to the wind and never lets go in this mischievous psychodrama set in a close knit community in the heart of the Danish countryside.

Mads Mikkelsen is Lucas, an appealing metrosexual man who has returned to his childhood roots after a difficult divorce and a custody battle for his son. The performance won him best actor in Cannes in a bumper year where Michael Heneke’s Amour won the Palme D’Or.

Working as a teacher in the local mixed infants, Lucas soon strikes up a relationship with pushy colleague Nadja (Alexandra Rapaport) and gets back in touch with old friends and family. His laid back nature makes him popular with the kids and particularly with little Klara (Annika Wedderkopp) who is the little daughter of his best friend Marcus (Thomas Bo Larsen).

the-hunt_021-e1356991383433The popular idea that kids are innocent is proved wrong here when Klara’s infant imagination gets out of control. It’s easy to dislike her, although this was never Vinterberg’s intention at the start, and the little girl turns in a convincing performance as a nonpro. The theme of viral networking is twisted into the plot at this point when Klara casually blurbs her mixed  message which rapidly becomes fact, spreading like wildfire through the village and leading to a catastrophic fallout, revealing what happens would spoil the tightly wound plot. But the repercussions of what happens next provide much food for thought and are still relevant, even though the film was made nearly a decade ago.

Vinterberg has won over 60 international awards for his films in a career that have been in the spotlight for nearly three decades. Yet he still considers his 1993 graduation film Last Round, to be his best. Ironically, this echoes his latest feature Another Round (2020), and now Denmark’s hopeful in this year’s Academy Awards, so for Vinterberg – the spotlight’s back. MT©

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