Posts Tagged ‘Reviews’

Don’t Worry Darling (2022)

Dir.: Olivia Wilde; Cast: Florence Pugh, Olivia Wilde, Chris Pine, Harry Stiles, Gemma Chan, Kiki Layne, Douglas Smith; US 2022, 122 min.

Not even three three publicity stunts could elevate Olivia Wilde’s follow-up to her debut feature Booksmart at the Venice Festival this year where the film written by Katie Silberman, Shane and Carey Van Dyke was screened Out of Competition.

Was Shia LaBeouf really fired and replaced by Harry Stiles? And did Styles really spit at Chris Pine? And what about Florence Pugh. Did she cut down on press work because she was miffed by Wilde?

Don’t Worry Darling turns out to be a pale imitation of Stepford Wives, The Truman Show and Pleasantville rolled into one. In the southern Californian desert a model community called ‘Victory’ has been set up very much along the lines of Pleasant Living, with the wives cleaning and cooking while their menfolk put their minds to the top secret ‘Victory’ project, all kitted out in dapper 1950s suits and driving souped-up retro cars.

In this empty-headed utopian Eldorado Alice (Pugh) are Jack (Styles) are always hard at it – even on the kitchen table – cutlery and plates flying all over the place. Frank (Pine) and his wife Shelley (Chan) are meanwhile the leaders of the clean living brigade. Frank is not only the boss at work, he is the spiritual guru who keeps everything together like a scout master. Bunny (Wilde) and Bill (Smith) are trying hard to fit in with the set-up; the only one having doubts is Margaret (Layne).

One day a toy airplane lands in her lap and soon afterwards Alice sees a full size version falling from the sky and detonating in the desert. After Margaret commits suicide on the roof of her house, Alice takes matters into her own hands. But instead of offering insight into why these female characters are being gas-lit, Wilde opts for a car chase.

PD Katie Byron and Aronofsky’s regular DoP Matthew Libatique keep the production values up, mustard and pistachio dominating in the desert sand and the cloudless sky. Vacuous and totally humourless, Don’t Worry Darling is a void, held together by Pugh who struggles desperately to bring something fresh to the production. A first class actor in a lousy imitation game, she has all the right to be angry at Wilde – never mind the rumour mill. AS

VENICE REVIEW | ON RELEASE IN THE UK FROM 23 SEPTEMBER

Juniper (2022)

Dir/Wri: Matthew Saville | Cast: Charlotte Rampling, George Ferrier, Marton Csokas, Edith Poor | Drama, 95′

Charlotte Rampling steals every scene in this poignant if predictable drama from debut director Matthew Savile. Light-hearted and upbeat Juniper also showcases the verdant landscapes of Auckland captured on the widescreen by Marty Williams.

Ruth (Rampling) is a prickly English wartime correspondent convalescing in her son Robert’s (Csokas) country house in New Zealand where she has wised up to his ulterior motives – a need for financial support and to act as a rudder for his unruly teenage son Sam (Ferrier). Sam has no wish to look after a cantankerous old woman and is furious about her sleeping in his late mother’s bedroom.

A keen battle of wits develops as Ruth and Sam find common ground as intergenerational tearaways with the same rebellious take on life, although Ruth has the edge in this amusing character drama that shares certain similarities with Justin Kurzel’s recent hit Nitram, without the incendiary power and implications of that thriller.

Rampling brings out the humanity in Ruth whose eloquent resolve is unaffected by her regularly hitting the gin bottle and calling a spade a spade without ever losing her cool determination not to be outwitted by a petulant grandson who has recently lost his mother and been expelled from school, and eventually uses him to achieve her own benevolent ends.

Avoiding sentimentality and astute in his observation that age and infirmity have no bearing on a person’s innate character drives, Juniper is a witty and well-written debut taking its clever title from the Juniper berry that goes into making gin. Ruth is a courageous woman whose desires are undimmed by her increasing years bringing to mind Dylan Thomas well worn poem: “Do not go gentle into that good night…Rage, rage against the dying of the light”. MT

ON RELEASE FROM 23 SEPTEMBER 2022

 

All that Breathes (2022)

Dir: Shaunak Sen | India, Doc, 91′

In New Delhi nature is adapting far more intuitively to pollution than humans according to this visionary documentary that embodies the stealth of the animal kingdom.

All That Breathes works on three levels: as a melancholic, dreamlike meditation on the vital synergy that exists between all living creatures; as an eco-doc exploring the worsening effects of pollution and climate change in India; or simply, as a human story about two brothers working together to make the world kinder and more humane.

Living in an increasingly violent and overpopulated capital city, Mohammed, Nadeem and their friend/co-worker Salik dedicate their spare time to a home-based mostly self-funded organisation called Wildlife Rescue. For the past two decades they have rehabilitated kites and other birds of prey in the cramped conditions of a makeshift clinic. Key to the relevance of kites is that Muslims believe feeding them will bring some kind of religious reward or sawab.  Since the brothers started the clinic in 2003 the situation has got worse and their patient list is constantly growing, consuming more of the brothers’ time and impacting on their own family wellbeing.

Director Sen creates an evocative portrait from the opening scenes that see ants, mice and rats scurrying around under the neon-lit night skies of Delhi oblivious to the looming violence and public unrest that rages, on a daily level, in the background. Meanwhile, landfill sites are invading the landscape, rivers are drying up and monsoons are worsening causing flooding that brings sewerage out into the open. “Delhi is an open wound, and we are tiny a band-aid” says Nadeem.

The air is becoming so heavy with chemical pollution and smog that birds are tumbling from the skies and often literally crash into one another as they hover over landfill sites, scavenging for food. Crucially, many chemicals are not fully tested for their environmental impact and these birds act as a monitor for toxicity – rather like the famous ‘canary in the coal mine’ back in the Industrial Age. But the brothers have no time for chemical testing and analysis as they face a growing list of avian patients. Cinematographer Ben Bernhard creates a woozy poetic bird’s eye view of a city intoxicated by its own chemical brew. His camera also allows us intimate close-ups of the kites, vulnerable but beady-eyed on the operating table.

Swooping between the real and the surreal Shaunak Sen invites us to gaze at the beauty of the animal kingdom and the ugliness caused by humans, in this decadent apocalyptic world, and draw our own conclusions. MT

Everybody Loves Jeanne (2022)

Dir/Wri: Celine Devaux | Cast: Blanche Gardin, Laurent Lafitte, Maxence Tual, Nuno Lopez, Marthe Keller | France, Drama 95′

Jeanne founded an ecological startup to save the world from plastic. Now on the verge of bankruptcy she has some tough decisions to make about her future in this cross between a screwball comedy and a reflective romantic drama.

First time director and illustrator Celine Devaux opts for a jokey narrative device featuring animated inserts of a female version of ‘Mr Blobby’ voicing Jeanne’s worst fears, hopes and melancholy musings. These illustrations actually interrupt the narrative flow making you wish the director would just get on with a story powerful enough to carry a drama that gets more and more enjoyable as it finds its groove, although the message it finally delivers is a bit of a cop out feminist-wise. Not sure whether this was what Devaux originally intended. 

Fortunately Jeanne happens to have inherited her mother’s place in Lisbon where she grew up with her brother Simon (Tual). So off she heads to the sun to clear her debts with the sale.  On the way she meets old school friend Jean (Lafitte on top form as a pain in the arse) and spends the flight wondering whether she fancies, or finds him deeply irritating. This dilemma is soon resolved when Jean is met by his wife and little daughter, and also turns out to be loaded – in a withering twist on Jeanne’s own financial failure. She, by contrast, is met by her ex Victor (Lopez) who is also now a father, and married into the bargain, although she re-kindles secret desires to bed him. And it’s these amusing insights that make the film entertaining and Jeanne so appealing as a character who everyone can relate to: a woman who is not afraid to be disliked but also wants to be perceived as doing something worthwhile, while suffering the secret need to be loved – a tough call but one that Blanche Gardin pulls off successfully in this impressive feature debut.

In Lisbon she sees her mother everywhere in the flat – a hoarder who nagged about her never calling. So clearing out the flat is the last thing on her mind. Gradually slumping into a low level depression she escapes into the sandy beaches and mellow sunsets of the Portuguese capital until the unexpected arrives in a soft-pedalling finale. MT

NOW ON RELEASE IN FRANCE | CANNES FILM FESTIVAL | CAMERA D’OR 2022

 

The Tiger and the President (2022)

Dir: Jean-Marc Peyrefitte | Cast: Andre Dusollier, Jacques Gamblin, Anna Mouglalis, Astrid Whettnall, Laura Benson | France, Drama 108′

Jacques Gamblin is the star of this jaunty political drama inspired by on real events surrounding an almost forgotten French president Paul Deschanel (1855-1922).

Paris in the roaring 1920s and a transformational time for French politics in the wake of the Third Republic. President Georges Clemenceau (Dussollier) aka ‘The Tiger’ for his contribution to the Allied Victory, has just been ousted from office by a forward-thinking and sharp-witted successor Paul Deschanel (Gamblin) a radical reformer and inspired orator. Deschanel realises his task is to transform the post world war lives of the French people whose battle cry is: “you won the war, now let us win the peace”. Meanwhile the Treaty of Versailles is being signed, with Germany the last to put ink to paper. On his victory the new president launches into a raft of sweeping reforms including the vote for women – poopoo-ed by Clemenceau – ridding France of the nightshift in factories, along with the death penalty – were amongst his most positive social changes.

In his first feature French director and writer Jean-Marc Peyrefitte freely admits to embellishing the storyline co-written by Marc Syrigas, ramping up the sparring between Clemenceau and Deschanel to give the film its comedy elements and adding a picaresque even whimsical quality to an often poignant drama about a man whose fervent desire was to better his country recovering from the First World War. But this humanist side of his character also gave rise to deep anxiety, and to remedy this his doctor prescribed a controversial barbiturate called Veronal – later withdrawn from use – that led to a famous episode of him sleepwalking off the back of train, during a presidential visit which culminates in a painterly stay in the French countryside with a family of yokels. Anna Mouglalis offers a shoulder to cry on and much valued pillow talk to both men who apparently shared the same ‘Salon’.

Peyreftte cleverly dovetails both presidents into news highlights from the 1920s archives. And these along with stylish Art Deco settings and a score of appropriate musical hits from the era add to the allure of this intelligent and jaunty interwar drama about a man slowly losing his mind. MT

NOW ON RELEASE IN FRANCE

 

 

 

 

Kompromat (2022)

Dir: Jerome Salle | Cast: Gilles Lellouche, Joanna Kulig, Louis-Do de Lenquesaing, Michael Gor | France, Action thriller 122′

Gilles Lellouche brings some much needed Gallic charm to this chilly political espionage outing co-written and directed by Jerome Salle and based on real events.  

Kompromat is a story that couldn’t get much grimmer if it tried in shadowing the current state of affairs in Russia. Lellouche plays affable French diplomat Mathieu Roussel who is thrown into jail in subzero Siberia on a flimsy charge of child pornography. In reality he is being framed by the FSB in a ‘no-win’ situation known as a ‘Kompromat’. But Matthieu is mystified as to why, in a plot that only goes to underline just how impossible his situation is when up against the Ruskies.

You can’t help feeling sorry for Mathieu when it later emerges his marriage to French wife Alice (Lasowski) is is also doomed. They are briefly seen in a lukewarm exchange before the authorities arrive to arrest him in a violent incursion. Later Alice returns to France with Rose, but not before filing a complaint about him to the authorities.

So begins a Kafkaesque nightmare of epic proportions as Mathieu takes on the authorities from a weakened position. Friendless and down on his luck, he turns to a mirthless Russian lawyer called Borodin (Godunov) who manages to get him released on an electronic tag. Then there is Louis-Do de Lenquesaing’s sharp-suited French ambassador, who briefly swings into action but to no avail. A Russian woman called Svetlana (Kulig) – whose marriage is also in trouble – supplies a frost-bitten romantic frisson. The two had briefly danced together at a work do, and she enables his bid to escape by supplying a mobile phone. But can he really trust her as he makes his way across the frozen wastelands in this dour but watchable thriller. MT

NOW ON RELEASE IN FRENCH CINEMAS | 12 SEPTEMBER 2022 

It Is In Us All (2022)

Dir/Wri: Antonia Campbell-Hughes | Cast: Cosmo Jarvis, Rhys Mannion, Claes Bang | Drama

This enigmatically titled thriller is the confident feature debut of seasoned actor Antonia Campbell Hughes who certainly knows how to create atmosphere even if her writing needs some fine-tuning.

Cosmo Jarvis leads in a pent-up performance as Hamish Considine a nihilistic young man whose past comes back to bite him with tragic consequences after a motorway accident unleashes a lifetime of suppressed emotional baggage.

Campbell Hughes creates a terrific sense of place in the rain-lashed countryside of Ireland, And it’s here where Hamish returns to visit the grave of his Irish-born aunt and deal her estate – a desolate house – on behalf of his pragmatic father, an expat businessman (a bearded Claes Bang who we only see on zoom). Outwardly blasé and self-assured Hamish soon turns out to be anything but after his car collides with another vehicle setting in course a cataclysmic chain of events as he pieces together his childhood to makes sense of the present.

The crash has destabilised Hamish physically and mentally but he shrugs it off stoically discharging himself from hospital too early with a severe concussion. When the only survivor of the other vehicle – a 17 year old livewire called Evan (a brilliant Mannion) – drops round to the house the two develop an almost surreal bond as Hamish is sucked into his mother’s homeland, feeling a palpable connection with the locals who share their own experiences of growing up with her and her sister.

A humble cow in Evan’s family farm becomes the symbol of this cherished motherhood and the fear of her being slaughtered in the abattoir nearby has Hamish reliving the devastation of losing his own mother when he was only a boy. Evan’s volatile personality comes to represent a seething life-force for Hamish drawing him inexorably to the past until he realises there is no going back and no way forward. It Is In Us All is not much of a thriller, in the traditional sense, but certainly a spellbinding look at how places create emotional memories that bind us eternally to the past. MT

UK AND IRISH CINEMA AND DIGITAL RELEASE DATE 23 SEPTEMBER 2022

 

 

Blackbird (2022)

Dir/Wri: Michael Flatley | Drama, 97′

Michael Flatley’s self-financed spy thriller has a checkered history, premiering briefly four years ago, and now back in cinemas in the UK and Ireland.

The Riverdance supremo directs and also stars as a James Bond style spy turned luxury hotel owner, retired to Barbados for some peace and quiet after his fiancée is killed in a mission. But the past comes back to haunt him when another old flame (Nicole Evans) reappears on the arm of an arch villain (Eric Roberts) whose game plan is not unlike Hitler’s idea of exterminating the Jews. 

Flatley has certainly splashed out budget-wise in a story that flips between lush Irish countryside, rainy London and beachside Barbados, but although his moves may be slick on the dance floor Flatley’s directing skills are less so. Blackbird is certainly a watchable if rather predictable little thriller with its heart in the right place. MT

IN CINEMAS FROM FRIDAY 2 SEPTEMBER

Queen of Glory (2021)

Dir.: Nana Mensah; Cast: Nana Mensah, Meeko Gattuso, Oberon K.A. Adjepong, Adam Leon, Christie Mensah, Madeleine Weinstein; USA 2021, 78 min

A first time feature for American Ghanian filmmaker Nana Mensah who directs and stars in this lively female empowerment drama, short-changed by her rather uneven script.

In “Little Ghana”, New York’s Bronx, we meet Mensah’s Sarah Obeng studying for a PhD on Molecular Neuro-Oncology at Columbia University. She has a married boyfriend, Lyle (Leon), who works in the same department, and has promised Sarah he will leave his family and move with her to Ohio. We know how this will turn out.

But then tragedy suddenly enters the picture: Sarah’s mother Grace dies of an aneurism, leaving her with a house in Accra, and a shop selling kitsch Christian merchandise run by Pitt (Gattuso), an ex-convict, whose whole body is covered in tattoos. Sarah’s estranger father Godwin (Adjepong) soon fetches up from Accra, angling for a part of the inheritance. Thwarted, he slaps Sarah and treats her like a servant, asking her to follow him to Ghana, but Sarah hits back.

Life in Ghana is very much a family affair. Sarah is sucked into back into domestic scene and has to dress accordingly, her aunts hoping she will soon produce a child. Faced with the appalling misogyny amongst the menfolk, Sarah ends up running the Cult shop with Pitt.

In an interview with ‘Vogue’, the director made it clear she had intended Sarah to be a cis-woman. But this doesn’t quite work with the acceptance of her marginal existence for Sarah – working in the shop, instead of pursuing her scientific career. Going to Ohio State, just to be with her lover was bad enough – exchanging the prestigious Columbia University for an academic backwater – but giving up her profession altogether is a bridge too far.

DoP Cybel Martin underlines the realism of the script, her images brilliantly evoke the choice facing Sarah with the “Tracey Towers” block in Pelham Parkway, Bronx, and the university atmosphere of an environment dominated by academia.

Mensah’s protagonists are cyphers rather than fully-fleshed out personalities: Lyle remains sullen and tight-lipped, and even Gattuso’s Pitt is just a caricature of a semi-reformed convict. Mensah is a committed director and a convincing actor, but even with a running time of 78 minutes and a few laughs, the reductive characters lack authenticity. AS

RELEASED IN THE UK ON 26 AUGUST 2022

Fall (2022)

Dir: Scott Mann | UK Action Thriller, 107′

British director Scott Mann Takes a shoe string budget and turns it into one of the best action thrillers of the summer with ‘a feel the fear and do it anyway’ premise.

Totally far-fetched and ludicrous it may be but certainly effectlve (and aimed at the GenZ generation) it all starts with accident when experienced climber Dan (Mason Gooding) falls to his death from a vertiginous mountain face leaving his wife Becky (Grace Fulton) and her and best friend Hunter (Virginia Gardner) stranded thousands of feet above ground level, and then left to cope with his tragic loss.

Becky is still drowning her sorrows a year later when Hunter, now a unfeasibly fearless extreme sports fanatic with a massive online following, suggests they scatter Dan’s ashes in style, rather than moping around mourning his death. But what Hunter actually has in mind actually beggars belief: the two will climb 2,000 feet to the top of a rusty old pylon support – the same height as the Eiffel Tower – for the ceremony, it’s the stuff of nightmares.

Mann and his DoP MacGregor and team make terrific use of cutting edge visual effects to make us believe the girls are really up there in the skies where its searingly hot and scorching) but what’s beyond belief and most impressive is their clear-eyed vision and steely resolve to survive once things start to go wrong. Admittedly Becky is hard-nosed and cruel as we’ve already discovered in an earlier scene where she leaves a coyote to be eaten alive by vultures, relaying the spectacle to her followers, she also admits to feeling hungry when the smell of a BBQ drifts up to the skimpy metal platform they are standing on (surely the last thing on your mind on the brink of death). With its simple but effective plot-line Fall is a buddy survival movie that never outstays its welcome in delivering watchable, stylishly artful thrills – in contrast to the summer’s overblown blockbusters such as Nope and Bullet Train.

Fall is out in the UK on 2 September

 

Black Mail (2022)

Dir.: Obi Emelonye; Cast: O.C Ukeje, Allesssandro Babalola, Julia Holden. Nikolay Shulik, Natalia N, Tony Richardson, Emma Fletcher, Mladen Petrov, Jelena Borovskaya; UK 202, 98 min.

UK writer/director/producer Obi Emelonye (Badamasi) puts lots of punch into this London based crime drama, centred around a Russian blackmail ring trying to destroy – among others – the life of film star Ray Chinda (O.C Ukeje).

Emelonye handles the insecurities of his hero with great sensitivity although Ray Chinda is not best suited for a role that somehow diminishes his physical presence. His wife Nikki (Holden), a well known immigration lawyer, is dragging him to “Relate”, and the two real live children of the director, Kosi (Luchy E.) and Zorba (Richy E.) are playing up, because they are not getting enough attention from their workaholic parents.

Things get much worse when Ray gets an email from a Russian blackmail ring informing him they have salacious footage of him reacting to porn on the net. The first amount they are asking for is reasonable, but, as Ray’s friend Ruben (Rabalola) tells the actor, the next figure will be higher. We soon encounter the Russian Mafia at work: Igor (Shulik) works for bar owner Alexei (Petrov), but is also in charge of the blackmailing scheme. He treats Ivana (Natalia N) with contempt and forces her to have sex with him. But he also has a softer side: caring for his sick daughter Jelena and wife Kathryn.

Unfortunately, Alexei finds out that Igor has embezzled 200 000 sterling from the night club business, and is about to be sent back to St. Petersburg to face the music of the senior Mafiosi. Igor is keen to finish the ‘business’ with Ray, but Ivana’s attacks him viciously before committing suicide. Petra, another member of the night club’s women, who have been forced into prostitution, spills the beans to the police, while Ray is on his way to a final show down with Igor, who is ready to die. Will the force arrive in time to prevent a bloodbath?

Ukeje is convincing as the guilt-driven antihero: his glamorous status for the outside world is nowhere near the reality he experiences in his private life. The black mail episode is the final straw that brings on a TIA (Mini-Stroke). He seems unable to get his two identities together, coming closer and closer to a total breakdown. DoP Robert Ford captures contemporary London – will all its glitter and dirt – even though some multi frames are superfluous. Overall, Black Mail is high octane drama that spills over into sentimentality. A genre feature with some noir elements and a very broken hero. AS

IN CINEMAS FROM 26 AUGUST 2022

Nope (2022)

Dir.: Jordan Peele; Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, Keith David, Brandon Perea, Michael Wincott, Steven Yeun; USA 2022, 131 min.

Best known for his much acclaimed feature debut Get Out, the mantle of ‘cult director’ is now sitting comfortably on Jordan Peele’s shoulders with this latest, rather confused epic, an accomplished B-movie that runs at over two hours. His backers, who budgeted a quarter of a billion dollars on his first two flics, are waiting with baited breath to see if Peele can score a hatrick with Nope – (yes, seems the answer could be there).

OJ (Kaluuya) and his sister Emerald (Palmer) live on a ranch in the Californian desert where they train horses for Hollywood productions, after their father Otis Sr (David) was killed in a freak accident when metallic UFOs rained down from the sky.

Divided into chapters named after the ranch’s horses, OJ and Em are alarmed by ‘phone and electricity black-outs, and spot some saucer-like apparitions in the night sky. Emerging from a cloud, the creatures resemble birds caught in the mist, but soon morph into a manta ray or a peculiar form of octopus. OJ treats them like animals and avoids starring at them, hoping to keep them at bay.

Meanwhile the siblings see a chance of making it big in Hollywood, and team up with a salesman (Perea) and cameraman Antlers Holst (Wincott) in the hope of capturing images of the entities with his advanced equipment.

In an unrelated plot-line, OJ sells some of the horses to Ricky ‘Jupe’ Park (Yeung), who runs a tacky Western show in the valley. Jupe has a weird backstory: he has been traumatised for life after playing a boy called Jupiter in the 1990 sitcom Gordy. In one of the episodes, a chimpanzee suddenly runs riot, killing all human cast members apart from Park.

At this point it’s worth mentioning that the Gordy massacre was telegraphed by a bible quote from ‘Nahum’ Chapter three, in which the citizens of Nineveh are threatened with punishment: “I will cast abominable filth upon you, make you vile and make you a spectacle”. Peele somehow connects the quote with the massacre, having the chimp pull off his garish birthday hat off and throws it to the ground. He certainly had enough.

This is certainly a Hollywood spectacle, but too far-fetched to give it much credit – it’s not even on par with the overrated Once upon a Time in Hollywood – without the historical underpinnings. There are gaps in the narrative, and some sort of structure would have helped. What makes it really worthwhile are DoP Hoyte van Hoytema’s brilliant 65 mm images (Ratio 1:2.39), unfortunately only available in Imax theatres.

Overall, NOPE is certainly a bit of fun, but the lack of depth – despite some allusions to history and politics – reduces its impact to just another fairground attraction. AS

ON RELEASE IN CINEMAS FROM FRIDAY 12 AUGUST 2022

Official Competition (2021)

Dir.: Mariano Cohn, Gaston Duprat; Cast: Penelope Cruz, Antonio Banderas, Oscar Martinez, Jose Luiz Gomez, Irene Escolar; Spain 2021, 115 min.

Argentine directors/co-writers Mariano Cohen and Gaston Duprat made an uproarious comedy satire The Distinguished Citizen which never got a decent showing in Britain. So it’s a shame that their ludicrous latest outing is now on general release, and not even Oscar Martinez, the star of the 2016 film, can save it. Films about movie making schemes are notoriously prone to disappoint – and this is no exception. Even the premise feels phoney.

Super-rich entrepreneur Humberto Suarez (Gomez) wants to be remembered as an art lover. So to celebrate his 80th birthday he gets eccentric director Lola Cuevas (Cruz) to adapt a best seller for the big screen with his daughter Diane (Escolar) bagging a role in a drama starring Hollywood duo Felix Rivero (Banderas) and theatre-loving pseudo intellectual Ivan Torres (Martinez) as feuding brothers, who hate each other on and off set.

Cuevas has all her hands full from the get go. The gags are not particularly promising: a rock made of cardboard dangling over the actors’ heads is mistaken for a real boulder. Rivero pretends at one point to have pancreatic cancer, and Torres, testing his rival, tries to make Rivero believe he is a serious actor. Meanwhile lesbian Cuevas sets up a kissing contest between the two men, and ends up doing the most convincing job and leaving Diane gasping for more, the two of them rolling around on the floor to the horror of Suarez senior. Finally, Rivero goads Torres into attacking him, but ends up falling down several floors with tragic consequences.

Official Competition is all glitter and glam with its loud and confrontational characters and a predicable plot-lines. Sometimes the self-parody actually succeeds in spite of itself. DoP Arnau Valis Colomer does his best to conjure up a chaotic ambiance which would make Cecil B. DeMille proud – but this is a tawdry Tinseltown project, not Ben Hur. AS

ON GENERAL RELEASE IN CINEMAS AND EXCLUSIVELY ON CURZON HOME CINEMA FROM FRIDAY, 26 AUGUST 2022

 

Flux Gourmet (2022)

Dir/Wri: Peter Strickland | Cast: Asa Butterfield, Gwendoline Christie, Ariane Labed, Fatma Mohamed, Makis Papadimitriou | UK Comedy Horror, 110′

Blending elements from his previous offerings Peter Strickland concocts a mind-boggling soup of style over content. You will either relish Flux Gourmet – or retch into your popcorn.

The soundtrack has echoes of Berberian Sound Studio, but the look is distinctly In Fabric in style with its garishly macabre 19th mitteleuropaïschen overtones. There is the same teasing quality of The Duke of Burgundy but the narrative is precarious and difficult to pin down. The humour – if you can call it that – is deadpan and lavatorial rather than witty or amusing. The performances are generally engaging, Strickland working with his core team of Gwendoline Christie and Fatma Mohamed Asa Butterrfield, Ariane Labed and Makis Papadimitriou boosting an eclectic cast. 

This is Strickland’s most self-indulgent and unrelatable film to date. Some may find it laborious – I certainly did. There is a feeling the auteurish filmmaker just wants to mock his audience with a piss-taking pot-pourri of outlandish ideas that somehow fail to make sense, let alone entertain.  

In an old English country house, Christie’s Jan Stevens runs residential courses in “sonic cooking” that boil down to a series of creative experimental events taking place with a live audience egging the team on. Participants are selected for their inspired ideas in preparing food, and invited to present their efforts during a series of workshops that culminate in a showcase showdown on the final evening. The sound element is provided by microphones placed strategically into the food that sometimes consists of whipped up terapins or pigs’ ears, and ultimately of those taking part, with ghastly results.

To add to the film’s bizarre nature, there is part-narration in Greek by flatulent commentator Stones (Makis Papadimitriou) who has the job of interviewing the attendees for an in-house journal. Stones is forced to share a dormitory with the rest of the team: tousle-haired Billy (Butterfield), the chain-smoking Lamina (Labed) and Elle (Mohamed). During the small hours, Stones makes frequent trips to the ensuite bathroom to fart ferociously and empty his bowels, and this malaise forces him to seek medical advice from Dr Glock (Bremmer) who takes delight in prolonging his agony with a battery of invasive tests, some of them staged for the live audience.

Meanwhile Billy has a fetish for eggs that somehow leads him into an erotic clinch with the voluptuous Jan Stevens (sporting a ‘Jester’ style nightcap). There are feint connotations to Marco Ferreri’s 1973 curio La Grande Bouffe but that was a film with heart and emotion. Flux Gourmet will no doubt go down in history as a “cult classic”, a label it does not really deserve. There is a visceral emptiness here that leaves you with a feeling of gut-churning disgust. But there again it may be ‘bread and meat’ to some. MT

ON RELEASE from 30 SEPTEMBER 2022  | BERLINALE 2022 PREMIERE.

 

The Harder they Come (1972)

Dir.: Perry Hanzell; Cast: Jimmy Cliff, Janet Bartley, Carl Bradshaw, Ras Daniel Hartman Bobby Charlton, Basil Keene, Winston Stona; Jamaica 1972, 104 min.

When Jamaican director/co-writer Perry Hanzell (1946-2006) came to Venice Film Festival fifty years ago, not many people watched his debut, the first Jamaican feature The Harder they Come. Only select screenings, away from the Lido, led press to the discovery of a US distributor in shape of Roger Corman’s New World Film. And while time has not always best served this singular movie, it is still a monumental achievement. There is a raw quality which can only be appreciated by Jamaica’s post-colonial status, just ten years after Independence.

Ivan (Cliff) arrives in Kingston from the countryside hoping to make a career as a singer and songwriter. Taking a job with the local preacher (Keene), he soon falls out with him after talking his ward Elsa (Bartley) into letting him use the church for a recording session. When Ivan tries to claim a bicycle from his successor, as the preacher’s handyman, the man denies his claim, and the two end up in a brall. Instead of prison, Ivan is sentenced to eight lashes – a public humiliation he will never forget. Ivan is finally manages to record a single, but his promoter only pays him twenty dollars. Desperate for cash, Ivan calls on his friend Jose (Bradshaw) who lntroduces him to a police protected drug ring involved in moving hash from the countryside to the city.

Although the law usually gives Ivan a wide berth on his drug-running tours, one day he panics and kills a police officer who flags him down on his motor cycle. Ivan is now a wanted man, and what’s worse, he shoots three more policemen. Pedro (Hartman) helps Ivan to hide, but detective Jones (Stona), the ringleader, shuts the operation down, until such time as Ivan is killed or handed over to him. In a wild last reel, Ivan tries to escape to Cuba but is too weak to swim to the rescue vessel. On the beach, imagining he is the hero of an Italo-Western he watched soon after arriving in Kingston, Ivan is attacked by the whole police force, But his record is great hit, making a fortune for the record producer.

The second line of the title reads “They harder they fall” and this is very much true for Ivan. His one-man assault of everyone in power has to end badly. But he takes it like a man: mixing cinema and life, and is only to grateful to get some  when applause, even at the end. Ivan is the archetypal loner, a ‘Django’ without the skills to survive. Furious and uncontrolled in the style of this iconic feature, Ivan loves his life on the fast lane – whatever the cost. The Harder they Come is a sledgehammer, its blows still rain down today. AS

BACK IN CINEMAS ON 5 AUGUST 2022

Paris, Texas (1984)

Dir.: Wim Wenders; Cast: Harry Dean Stanton, Nasstassja Kinski, Dean Stockwell, Aurore Clement, Hunter Carson, Bernhard Wicki; West Germany/France 1984, 147 min.

German director Wim Wenders follows his earlier road movies with a real cult classic. Paris, Texas is perhaps most memorable for Harry Dean Stanton, Ry Cooder’s moody score and the burning images of the Wenders regular, Austrian DoP Robby Müller. Written by the Sam Shephard, and adapted for the screen by L.M. Kit Carson, this enigmatic character drama won the “Palme d’Or” in Cannes 1984.

Wim Wenders in Cannes | Debussy Cinema @Meredith Taylor copyright

 

Stanton is Travis Henderson, an aimless drifter who stumbles into a bar in the Texan desert, and promptly passes out. A German doctor (Wicki) revives him and finds a piece of paper with a phone number, in the man’s pocket. It belongs to Travis’ brother Walt (the charismatic Dean Stockwell), who collect him and endures his brother’s stony silence on the long drive back to LA where Walt lives with his gentle wife Anne (Clement) and Travis’ 7 year old son Hunter (H Carson, son of Karen Black and Kit Carson) who they have raised for the past four years.

Hunter and Travis hit it off – against all odds – and Anne tells Travis that Hunter’s birth mother is paying a monthly deposit money into an account for her son. Travis and Hunter track Jane (Kinski) down to San Antonio, Texas where it transpires she is working as a sex worker in a Peep-Show. Pretending to be a client, Travis, who can not be seen by Jane because of one-way glass window, talks to her via an intercom, sharing their love story until she cottons on. Confused by his emotions but wanting the best for Hunter, Travis finally hatches a very unlikely plan.

Guilt is the watchword in Wenders’ movies. Overtaken by the emotion from an early age, he considered taking the priesthood to fulfil his strong feelings about Catholicism. Nearly all his anti-heroes live their lives in the past, and fear the future. Travis’ unfounded jealousy and alcoholism led to the break-up of the torrid relationship with the much younger Jane (a luminous Kinski). He had even bought a plot of land to prepare for their future together. Only a crumpled photo of a ramshackle hut in the desert remains. But Travis clings to it like a totem. Along with the titular hero in The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty (1972), who kills out of boredom, Travis is always running away, not to find anything, just to lose himself.

The German photographer in Alice in the Cities (1974) escapes to another continent to ‘forget’ a relationship, only to be trumped by a mother who leaves her daughter in his care, expecting him to trace the girl’s relatives in Germany. Kings of the Road (1976) sees two lorry drivers dreaming of a future which will never be realised because they can only talk about women, and how much they miss them. Finally, in The American Friend (1977) Zimmermann, a painter and frame-maker, is unable to communicate his physical and emotional turmoil to his wife; instead he goes on murdering spree, for money.

Paris, Texas raises the timely theme of belonging: As nurturing fill-in parents to Hunter for most of his life, Walt and Anne are the losers of the piece. But Wenders hardly touches on their emotional arc – or their pain – in the aftermath to Hunter’s departure. His focus is the birth mother and son who must be united at all costs. And their final scene together brings to mind the emblematic coupling of Christ with the Virgin Mary.

Leading men are generally loners in Wenders’ features, their isolating fear of women gradually diminishes their persona as the narrative unfolds. Violence is never far away, and Travis suppresses his anger into a brooding silence. Harry Dean Stanton channels a palpable intensity of feelings into a performance that is subtle and exquisitely felt, but barely shown. His brother Walt is likeable and articulate along with his delicate wife Anne, a touching turn from Aurore Clement. There’s an almost whimsical quality to the early domestic scenes with the four of them together. Where there could have been emotional trauma and harsh words, Wenders instead brings a tender, almost comedic lightness of touch.

Wenders’ love for America and its culture is explainable: violence is simmering under the surface, ready to explode at any time. Paris, Texas is never violent, but the emotional pain is only too visible. A cult classic that needs to be explored again and again.

ON RE-RELEASE AT Picturehouses | Curzon Cinemas | from 29th July 2022

Fire – Both Sides of the Blade (2022)

Dir: Claire Denis | Cast: Juliette Binoche, Vincent Lindon, Grégoire Colin, Issa Perica, Bulle Ogier, Mati Diop | France Drama 116′

Claire Denis explores the intense dynamics of a love triangle in this coruscating character drama that reunites her regular cast of Juliette Binoche, Vincent Lindon, Gregoire Colin and Bruno Podalydes.

Sara (Binoche) and Jean (Lindon) have been in love for nearly a decade living together in a stylish penthouse in Paris where she runs a radio station while Jean, a former professional rugby player, is getting back to normal after serving time. Despite his impulsiveness and potent physicality, Jean offers warmth and stability to Sara who can be controlling and neurotic, rather like his demanding mother Nelly (Ogier) now confined to the family home in the suburb Vitry where she barely manages his troubled teenage son Marcus (Perica) who is slowly going off the rails.

The opening sets the tone for this torridly sensual romantic drama with its elegantly ecstatic sex scenes: Jean and Sara are pictured cavorting in the sea on a winter break. Back in Paris grey skies call time on their idyllic romance when Sara’s saturnine former lover Francois comes back on the scene, offering Jean a new start as a talent coach in his rugby start-up. Sara has certainly found contentment with Jean but catching sight of Francois for the first time in ages leaves her breathless and ready for another dose of the intoxicating chemistry they once shared. Caught in the emotional crossfire between the two men in her life, she probes Jean obsessively for details about Francois and the new venture. But Jean keeps her in the dark while he processes his own feelings, fully aware of the dangers that lie ahead.

Cleverly adapting Christine Angot’s novel, Un tournant de la Vie, for the screen, Denis keeps the camera close and intimate but retains her distance, avoiding sentimentality in charting the emotional volatility and shifting moods with laser sharp intensity as a baleful score hints at turmoil and heartache for the star-crossed lovers. At this point ad libbing takes over between Lindon and Binoche as their onscreen relationship starts to falter and fall apart amid scenes of barely controlled hysteria as powerful emotions surface. Sara, in denial, tries to contain her turbulent thoughts and real motives, becoming defensive: Jean gives her tenderness and security but it is Francois who really sends her wild with his mercurial charm. Jean knows this love is out of control and he prepares to leave only just suppressing the hurt and fury he really feels inside.

The final scenes of enduring love imploding on the rocky shores of passion are revealing and compulsive to watch. Denis keeps us guessing right up to the devastating denouement which is left open to interpretation, satisfying in its ambiguity. MT

ON RELEASE FROM FRIDAY 9 SEPTEMBER | SILVER BEAR | BEST DIRECTOR | BERLINALE 2022

The Shuroo Process aka The Shuroo Retreat (2021)

Dir.: Emrhys Cooper; Cast: Fiona Dourif, Donal Brophy, Emrhys Cooper; USA 2021, 95 min.

This first feature film by British director/co-writer Emrhys Cooper is an unstructured, freewheeling comedy bent on creating dramatic confrontations – seemingly just for the sake of it.

NYC based Journalist Parker Schafer (F. Dourif) is at a crossroads – emotionally and career wise – having just lost her lover and a job at “Rogue” Magazine after a shambolic TV award appearance. In desperation she turns to Guru Shuroo (Brophy), also known as Declan, hoping that a weekend at his summer retreat in the Catskill mountains will turn things around.  Ironically, this turns out to be the case, but not the way the guru had in mind. There are some embarrassingly clumsy “solutions” for all concerned: a gay coming-out and childhood sex abuse among them, Schafer admitting to guilt surrounding her brother’s death after introducing him to cocaine. The guru adopts a ‘one size fits all’ approach to healing his patients, and clearly the cast enjoyed themselves judging by those attending the press screening. Cooper and his co-writer Donal Brophy go all out for laughs in a film that has nothing really to say, leaving the audience scratching their heads in amazement. AS

THE SHUROO RETREAT out on demand from 25 July 2022

 

 

Only in Theatres (2022)

Dir.: Raphael Sbarge; Documentary with Greg Laemmle, Tish Laemmle, Robert Laemmle, James Ivory, Roberta Grossman, Cameron Crowe; USA 2021, 95 min.

Arthouse cinemas are facing tough competition from the likes of streaming platforms Netflix and Amazon Prime. But one Los Angeles chain is still thriving after thanks to the pioneering spirit of its owners, the Laemmle family.

US director Raphael Sbarge chronicles its fight for survival against the odds for the new  generation of Laemmles, who (still) own the much-loved 84-year-old chain in Los Angeles. Founded by German-Jewish emigrants Max and Kurt Laemmle in 1938 – they were nephews of Hollywood tycoon Carl Laemmle – the cinema chain fought off the threat of closure from dwindling audiences during the Covid-19 epidemic.

Founders Max and Kurt followed their uncle Carl from New Jersey to California after Thomas Edison insisted on all film production companies using his patent. Any producers who refused had cameras and other film-making equipment smashed to pieces; the police were unable to intervene. Capitalism was tough, it was the survival of the fittest.

Today’s Laemmles: CEO Greg, his father Robert (the president), Greg’s wife Tish and their triplet sons Gabriel, Nadav and Ezra, are fighting a different battle of survival. Since the early 1950s the various outlets, headed up by their marquee theatre “Royal”, has specialised in European Arthouse fare from Bergman, Resnais and Godard. The Laemmles enjoyed a certain monopoly on the foreign market as Hollywood productions dominated the LA cinema scene.

Streaming started to take great chunks out of audiences, and the profits; rather like the advent of TV seventy years ago. Laptops and iPads threatened the very existence of the Arthouse scene. Director James Ivory, one of many filmmakers, critics and film historians – among them Roberta Grossman and Cameron Crowe – is adamant in not wanting his films to be streamed: “If anyone told me they’d seen my films online, I would say ‘Oh no!'”

For months during the second half of 2019, CEO Greg Laemmle mulled over the possibility of selling the family business. His father Robert and wife Tish watched him getting more and more depressed. But finally, on Christmas Day, Greg told a delighted audience he had decided against selling. A few months later Covid-10 led to the closure of all cinemas in the state of California. The doors would not open again until March 2021. Greg and Tish had to sell their LA house and move to Seattle, Washington. They were also forced to put two cinemas up for sale to finance the remainder of their outlets, This ‘victory’ has certainly taken its toll on Greg – the responsibility to carry on the family tradition is a tall order for anybody who values quality above the profit margin, particularly in the materialistic world of the United States.

Only in Theatres is passionate but never sentimental. The battle of art versus commerce is fought out in the open with DoP Matt Kubas’ handheld camera being a witness to this war for the ‘soul of cinema’. A informative piece of living film history. AS

ONLY IN THEATRES PREMIERED AT THE GALWAY FILM FESTIVAL 2022

Rifkin’s Festival (2020)

Dir/Wri: Woody Allen | Cast: Wallace Shawn, Gina Gershon, Christoph Waltz, Louis Garrel, Elena Anaya, Sergi López | US comedy 92′

Woody Allen’s latest addition to the archive needed more oomph. The weary reverie tinged with wistful melancholy reflecting on the golden age of arthouse cinema and the nature of longterm love is let down by dreary characters.

The annual San Sebastián Film Festival is in full swing and jaded novelist, the shrew-like Mort Rifkin (Shawn), is there with his hard-faced publicist wife Sue (Gershon). But their marriage is in trouble. Super busy Sue is handling press for a breakout hit directed by popular French filmmaker Philippe (Garrel) who who will inadvertently seduce her with his signature brand of self-obsessed seriousness while hot-footing it from interview to press conference.

The Basque capital positively glows in the gilded tints of Autumn (captured by Woody’s regular cinematographer Vittorio Storaro) but this drama feels dour and decidedly lacklustre, largely due to a charmless set of one-dimensional characters. Mort and Sue seem a mismatched couple from the start – hard to imagine they ever had much in common. Her lack of empathy sends his hypochondria into overdrive, and heart palpitations soon see him in the arms of local cardiologist Jo Rojas (Anaya) whose marriage to the cartoonish creative Paco (Lopez) is also on the rocks. Dreams of a putative future together and a trip round the scenic coastline provide us with cinematic relief, but all Mort needs is another neurotic – and Jo is certainly no picnic in the park – falling asleep through sheer emotional exhaustion after finding Paco in bed with another woman.

Rifkin’s Festival is certainly a highly intelligent film full of insight and spirited humour largely lost . Woody takes scenes from his own film favourites: Citizen Kane to Jules et Jim and The Seventh Seal (Christophe Waltz the standout as the grim reaper) re-staging and re-shooting them as black & white parodies representing Mort’s own experiences. The trouble is, we feel nothing for any of these people and their turgid marriages and lifeless new love affairs despite the very real and relatable nature of their problems. MT

NOW ON RELEASE IN FRANCE

 

 

 

 

The Quiet Woman (1951) TPTVEncore

Dir/Wri: John Gilling | Cast: Derek Bond, Jane Hylton, Dora Bryan, Michael Balfour | UK Drama 71′

Older viewers probably remember Jane Hylton (who died aged just 51) as Frank Spencer’s highly strung mother-in-law in ‘Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em’ rather than for her films; but here she plays the title role and models a variety of eye-catching outfits ranging from a swimsuit to a man’s suit (watch the film if you want to find out how that came about) in this breezy piece of escapism enhanced by excellent photography by co-producer Monty Berman including attractive location work shot on Romney Marshes in the summer of 1950.

As Britain continued to suffer rationing and austerity, smuggling rapidly came to seem rather romantic and featured in quite a few films at that time; now so long ago that Derek Bond, John Horsely, Harry Towb and even Michael Balfour all then looked relatively young and dashing. @RichardChatten

NOW ON TPTVENCORE.CO.UK

The Good Boss (2021)

Dir.: Fernando Leon Aranoa; Cast: Javier Bardem, Oscar de la Fuente, Manob Solo, Almadena Amor, Tarik Rmili, Sonia Atmarcha, Fernando Albiza, Celso Bugallo; Spain 2021, 119 min.

Javier Bardem plays another arch villain in this darkly satirical Spanish arthouse flic which is entertaining up to a point, but doesn’t quite do justice to the serious nature of the material with bland jokes and one-dimensional characters often reducing the narrative to a farce, the many plots and subplots are still left dangling despite the generous running time.

Blanco (Bardem) has inherited a factory from his father, and somehow thinks he owns his employees into the bargain, lording it over them and interfering in their lives at will. The regional council is giving out a prize for the most progressive company and Blanco is keen on the prestige the award confers, and the prize money. His first target is José (de la Fuente), who takes his revenge on being sacked by building a minicamp outside the main gates of the factory where he is joined by his children in chaotic protests. Next in line is production manager Miralles (Solo). The two grew up together and Blanco believes he can sort out Miralles’ marriage rift when his wife decides to play the field. But all he gets for his troubles is a slap in face from the wife, in public. When new intern Liliana (Amor) joins the company Blanco’s luck seems to change. But after a night of passion with Liliana he find out from his long suffering wife Adela (Almarcha) that he looked after Liliana as the baby daughter of some close friends. Blanco ends the relationship unceremoniously, but Liliana teams up with Khaled (Rmli), who has taken over from Miralles’ role as productions manager, leveraging a pay rise and a job as marketing boss in return for not spilling the beans to her parents. So Blanco’s dream of winning the coveted award seems a long way off at this point in the game.

Best known for his breakout hit Loving Pablo, one can see what Spanish director Fernando Leon Aranoa had in mind: a modern version of a Frank Capra movie. But he lacks the finesse of the legendary American director, and even though Bardem makes for a charismatic lead there is no Jimmy Stewart to counter him. DoP Paul Esteve Birba and his handheld camera keep up the tempo in the production scenes, but the domestic stuff with Blanco in different bedrooms is rather old hat. Overall Boss falls between two stools, lacking the ballast to be a populist satire or enough humour and nuance for a modern screwball comedy – but it’s certainly worth a watch. AS

OUT ON 15 JULY at CURZON CINEMAS and CURZON HOME VIDEO 2022

Operation Amsterdam (1959) TPTV

Dir/Wri: Michael McCarthy | Cast: Peter Finch, Eva Bartok, Tony Britton, John Le Mesurier, Alexander Knox | UK Thriller 104′

A harsh wartime drama with plenty of action and gunplay about infiltrating occupied Holland to obtain industrial diamonds. Vigorously directed by the late Michael McCarthy, augmented by Reg Wyer’s usual vivid photography and second unit work by Stanley Hayers; and lent class by the presence of Peter Finch and Alexander Knox in lead roles, with the usual entertaining supporting cast of familiar British faces such as John Le Mesurier.

The film’s biggest liability is Philip Green’s eccentric score, sometimes noisily percussive and full of drumrolls and sometimes attempting to convince us that this is all taking place in Amsterdam (perhaps to take our minds off the frequent process work both indoors and outdoors which show that much of it was actually shot at Pinewood! @RichardChatten

NOW ON TPTVENCORE.com 

Robust (2022)

Dir.: Constance Meyer; Cast: Gerard Depardieu, Deborah Lukumuena, Lucas Mortier, Megan Northam, Florence Janas, Steve Tientchen; Belgium/France 2021, 95 min.

A short synopsis of Swiss director/co-writer Constance Meyer’s first feature film Robust might read like a second version of Untouchables, but luckily it is far superior. Starring Gerard Depardieu, also the leading man in Meyer’s two award-winning short films, this is a subtle comedy of growing-up pains – particularly where adults are concerned.

Pampered and terribly overweight, actor Georges (Depardieu) is playing the spoilt child who craves attention at all costs. Enter Aissa (Lukumuena), security guard – but also a talented wrestler. Aissa is charged by her boss Lalou (Tientchen) to look after Georges, who is on the verge of starring in a new film, a feudal drama set in 1847. Fond of his motorcycle, but crashing it during his nighttime forays, he lives in a posh Paris district where his home is dominated by a huge aquarium, the tropical fish gliding around in total darkness, and somehow assuring the hypochondriac George’s peace of mind.

Aissa not only has to deal with Georges, but also his family and friends: and his four-year old son Gabriel plus a new dog becomes also becomes his responsibility. Sofia, George’s ex-wife and Gabriel’s wants constants updates on the ‘phone, constantly wanting to know if all is well, not that she really cares either way.

One day Georges goes astray in the middle of the night and is set upon by eco-freaks who are easy meat for the well-trained Aissa, who may be the same weight as Georges, but also packs a mean punch. Her on/off boyfriend Eddie (Mortier) is a work college; but Aissa’s real roots are in a high rise block in the 20th arrondissment, where she lives with her little sister and mother. There is just one really ugly scene when Georges pesters Eddie and Aissa enjoying a Chinese meal: the actor makes his (imagined) superiority count: pulling rank on Aissa, and forgetting that she had comforted him hours before, when he had one of his panic attacks.

The running gags are the dialogues from the forthcoming feature film which Georges rehearses with Aissa. “Look at me now, deflated, timid and enslaved like a child”. Kids they may be, but Aissa is relaxed and in charge: soon becoming a team leader and taking on the protection of an important politician. Georges begs Aissa to stay – but Lalou will provide him with a new child minder.

DoP Simon Beaufils make use of an expressive colour palette, giving the narrative a distinct visual appeal. Depardieu and Lukumuena are both subtle and understated in their roles, even though the French star sometimes struggles to stay within “a mere human range”. Robust makes a welcome addition to the sub-genre of “odd couple” features in a humanistic and entertaining observation of human frailties. AS

ON RELEASE DIGITALLY FROM 22 JULY 2022

Ithaka (2021)

Dir.: Ben Lawrence; Documentary with John Shipton, Stella Moris, Ai Weiwei, Vivienne Westwood, John Pilger, Nils Melzer; Australia/UK 2021, 104 min.

The contraversial WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange (*1971) is the subject of this new documentary that takes the first lines of the titular 1911 poem by Greek writer Constantine Cavafy as its motto: As you set out for Ithaca /hope that your journey is a long one/full of adventure, full of discovery”.

Assange could not have asked for more: his discoveries are the stuff of nightmares, and the revenge of the governments he exposed has landed him in Britain’s High Security prison Belmarsh where he has languished for the last three years, actually managing to marry while in captivity: quite a feat for most people, particularly those accused of rape. Anyone who saw Laura Poitras’ hagiographic biopic Risk (2016/7) will have made up their minds about Assange’s persuasive powers where women are concerned, but Lawrence casts no judgement here, keeping his distance. An extradition order from the USA is pending, with British home secretary Priti Patel only too willing to oblige.

We meet Assange’s wife, the lawyer Stella Moris, at the unveiling of a statue of her husband in Geneva in November 2021. “I am here to remind you that Julian isn’t a name, he isn’t a symbol, he is a man and he is suffering”.

The couple have two young children, both conceived at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where Assange stayed between 2012 and 2019. There is CCTV footage from the embassy, showing Assange and Moris, the former skate-boarding in his room. A guard warned Moris that the footage was to be sent to the US secret service every fortnight – Moris stopped visiting Assange. She also learned there were plans to poison her husband. The UN Special Rapporteur for Torture, Nils Melzer said “Torture is a tool used as a warning to others. It’s most effective when inflicted in public. In Julian’s case it’s about intimidating everyone else”. In this particular case it was Chelsea Manning, ex-US officer, who blew the whistle on Afghan war crimes by the US Army, and went to prison, to avoid talking about Assange’s part in the operation after she found out that Assange was depressed, and suffered a ‘mini’ stroke in Belmarsh Prison.

The time at the embassy coincides more or less with the Swedish Justice system accusing Assange of sexual assault, a charge bought forward by two Swedish women in 2010. In 2019 the case was dismissed, due to the long intervening period since the original accusation.

Besides Moris, Assange’s main defender is his father John Shipton (76), who travels the world in search of a positive solution to the case, neglecting his own five-year old daughter in Australia. John stepped out of Julian’s live when he letter was three, but re-entered when John was in his early twenties. John is tired, so much time is lost for him and his daughter Severine. He likens Lawrence to “Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor”. “He keeps burrowing away”.

On January 10th 2022, the UK High Court ruled Assange could be extradited to the USA, overturning a Lower Court ruling from 2021. On March 3rd of this year, the High Court refused Assange permission to appeal. On June 17th 2022 Priti Patel, UK Home Secretary, approved the extradition order. Two weeks later Assange and his team appealed against the extradition order. The war in the Ukraine has led to strong statements in the western media. It is perhaps helpful to remember that one of the WikiLeaks posted on 12.7.2007 concerned the killing of journalist Namir Noor-Eidsen and Saeed Chmagh, who were shot dead from the air by a US helicopter.

A strong score by Brian Eno helps to round off this passionate plea for a man who, according to Melzer, “never wanted to be in the spotlight”. AS

ON GENERAL RELEASE FROM 8 July 2022

Death of a Ladies Man (2020)

Dir/Wri: Matt Bissonnette | Cast: Gabriel Byrne, Jessica Pare, Brian Gleeson, Suzanne Clement, Antoine Olivier Pilor, Karelle Tremblay | US Drama, 100′

To the dulcet tones of Leonard Cohen this familiar but feisty love story sizzles with mischievous humour courtesy of veteran Irish star Gabriel Byrne. 

Poetry professor Samuel O’Shea (Byrne) is one of those men who feels the need to chat up every woman he meets – in a well-intentioned way that inevitably leads to love and romance. Now past his prime and feeling dejected due to his wife’s infidelity and a recent cancer diagnosis he takes refuge in the bottle and decides to devote more of his time to his two adult children Layton (Pilor) and Josee (Tremblay) who are both facing difficult choices. But despite all this Samuel will soon embark on yet another flirtation, with another much young woman (Jessica Pare). Once again, falling in love – rather than facing his demons – is his default position.

Writer-director Matthew Bissonnette sets a melancholic tone with a score of memorable hits by Leonard Cohen that works well with the film’s Montreal and Dublin settings. The script is insightful and full of witty one-liners with its reflections on modern life and the generational divide but there are some rather odd interludes where Bissonnette attempts to liven things up with impromptu dance sequences involving the entire cast. Byrne is a charismatic class act perfectly capable of carrying a film without the additional dramatic device of casting a much younger actor as his old dad back from the grave to provide advice and insight from the past, although Brian Gleeson offers sanguine support as the father in question. MT

OUT ON THE 22 JULY 2022

The Wizard of Mars (1965)

Dir: David L Hewitt | Cast: John Carradine, Roger Gentry, Vic McGee, Jerry Rannow, Eve Bernhardt  | US SciFi, 78’

Without its absurd title this strange little film might have been taken more seriously. As it was, knowing that it was supposedly based on The Wizard of Oz, instead of placidly accepting this film as a sort of ‘Z’ budget precursor of The Martian, I instead sat through fully two thirds of its running time wondering when John Carradine was going to show up in order to justify its catchpenny title. It actually seems to owe at least as much to C.S.Lewis, and the ruined city at the end reminded me more of Charn in The Magician’s Nephew than the Emerald City.

Considering that David Hewitt was just 25 when he made this on a tiny budget estimated at just $33,000, it’s certainly nowhere near the embarrassment that John Boorman’s pretentious bore ‘Zardoz’ (which also derived its title from The Wizard of Oz) was ten years later. Handsomely photographed in Deluxe Color by Austin McKinney, it also has an interesting electronic score by Frank A. Coe; but any director who employs Tom Graeff (who directed Teenagers from Outer Space) as his editor and Forrest J.Ackerman his Technical Adviser is asking for trouble! For much of its running time it feels like a foreign film dubbed into English which has had its plot amended in the process; and according to her daughter, Eve Bernhardt as ‘Dorothy’ was indeed redubbed after a spat between her and Roger Gentry after he made a pass at her while they were on location, which might account for her being billed fourth in much smaller letters than her male co-stars. Bernhardt is an extremely beautiful woman, and refreshingly she’s portrayed as just one of the crew rather than made part of a romantic subplot (not that that would have been easy since she spends much of the film inside a spacesuit), but she’s saddled with a whiny little voice that obviously isn’t hers; and with an irritating personality to boot. Apparently, she has also suffered from shoulder and back pain ever since, as a result of spending a month staggering about in an authentic spacesuit and helmet that “weighed a ton”.

As the protagonists escape from the collapsing city at the film’s conclusion, they pass out by the half-buried remains of a red brick road that recalls the gold brick road that had previously led them there. So now I finally know where the Red Brick Road led…! @RichardChatten

NOW ON PRIME VIDEO

McEnroe (2022)

Dir.: Barney Douglas; Documentary with John McEnroe, Björn Borg, Billie Jean King, Patty Smyth; US/UK 2022, 104 min.

This new documentary about sporting (anti)hero John McEnroe overcomes the limitations of the genre in the same way as breakout hits Senna and Amy. US Writer/director Barney Douglas certainly mines the incendiary potential of his subject matter tennis icon John McEnroe (*1959) who never needs an excuse for his tirades and tantrums on and off court. Old age eventually mellows the star of Centre Court, after 37 psychiatrists, cocaine and countless affairs failed to do so.

John McEnroe won his first Grand Slam at the US Open in New York in 1979, age twenty, by defeating fellow New Yorker and best friend Vitus Gerulaitis; only five years later he would win his last and seventh Grand Slam title on the same ground, beating Ivan Lendl. He retired in 1992 from playing singles, but the question is: what happened in the intervening eight years.

The answer is not an easy one, even though McEnroe confesses: “I may be slightly on the spectrum”. Yes, he was one of the many high-functioning autism cases, always looking for perfection – for himself and others. And when both fell short, he exploded. But there is more to it: namely his relationship with his father John Patrick senior, who was for a long time his manager. When McEnroe junior wanted (needed) a father more than a manager, however successful, he sacked him, creating a lifelong rift. John senior was one of many fathers of his generation who proclaimed truthfully to love their offspring – but were totally unable to show it. Towards the end this father vs son struggle became bitter, with John junior blaming his father for the early death of his mother Katherine (of cancer in 2017); death also claiming her husband in the same year.

John’s marriage with Tatum O’Neal (1986-1994) did not help either – John was not prepared to take second place when it came to their media attention. Gaining custody of the three children from the marriage, his daughter sided with her mother. His 1997 marriage to vocalist Patty Smyth is more peaceful and produced two daughters, Ann and Ava, who also contribute their version of their father’s troubled existence. Björn Borg, who became a close friend after both men retired, and Billie Jean King, tell the story from a sporting point of view. After his retirement in 1992, John pursued the career of a musician, something he had planned with Gerulaitis, who died of carbon-monoxide poising at the age of forty, leaving a big hole in John’s life.

At the end of the day, there are many reasons why John McEnroe did not achieve the long lasting success of Federer, Nadal or Djokovic, who all are still winning at the wrong end of thirty: so far 20+ single titles. Even Pete Sampras has doubled John McEnroe’s record with fourteen grand slams titles; McEnroe not even ranking among the first fifteen of the all time Winners’ List.

DoP Lucas Tucknott really excels in the nighttime visuals in Queens where McEnroe stalks his old stamping grounds, asking and answering some of the questions that still haunt him. Rather like the ‘Flying Dutchman’  he will never really find a peaceful harbour from life’s emotional trials. McENROE, very much an American tragedy: gruelling competition, failed parenthood and the loneliness of a life so long without any real emotional awareness. “My greatest failing – my lack of empathy”, he confesses in the dark shadows of Queens.AS

OUT ON 15 JULY 2022

The Black Phone (2022)

Dir: Scott Derrickson | Cast: Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw, Ethan Hawke, Jeremy Davies | US Horror, 104′

The Black Phone is set in the early 1970s around the time of Tobe Hooper’s cult classic Texas Chainsaw Massacre and with that same grungy aesthetic – there the similarities end. Derrickson has made some decent movies but this isn’t one of them; a despicable horror outing that follows two kids and their abusive father during the sinister goings in a down-at-heel rural backwater somewhere near Denver.

Bullied at school and beaten by their dad, their mother having committed suicide, Vinny (Thames) and Gwen (McGraw) do their best to survive by giving each other emotional support until Vinny is bundled into a van by a masked weirdo (Hawke) who goes by the name of “The Grabber”. 

Well that’s the first half hour, the remainder of the film descends into a well of psychological torture (for the audience as well as the kids) as spunky Gwen tries to track down her brother, and tough teenager Vinny is forced to endure the nefarious ministerings of Hawke’s uninspiring psycho and a series of silly anonymous calls from the so-called ‘Black Phone’ on the wall of his subterranean padded prison.

The only mystery here is why producers keep funding this kind of drivel. It’s sad, depressing and, worst of all, not even scary and has been done so many times before, and far better. If you don’t nod off early as the narrative torpor drones on, your attention will soon be drifting off to what’s in the fridge for dinner. And the gratuitous physical violence afflicted on Gwen by her deranged father (Davies) is simply inexcusable in a new feature film, given the current climate of hatred women are enduring all over the world. MT

NOW ON RELEASE IN NATIONWIDE

Girls About Town (1931)

Dir: George Cukor | US Comedy

More glamorous escapism from the lowest point of the depression, in which the wavishing Kay Fwancis and the amazonian Lilyan Tashman sashay about pursued by Ernest Haller’s sinuous camera-work in nightclubs and on yachts dressed (and undressed) to the nines, or in the palatial bachelor girl pad where they apparently have a foolproof way of denying the sugar daddies they bring back their sugar.

Gifted silent comic Raymond Griffith shares the screenplay credit, and his hand can be discerned in funny business like the hilarious scene on the yacht with the golf balls and the ‘auction’ of Francis’s glad rags at the end (in which a slinkily attired Adrienne Ames and a blonde Claire Dodd are particularly eye-catching among the bidders).

Beneath this hard-boiled coating director George Cukor naturally whips up a soft centre in which Kay falls for handsome hunk Joel McCrea, and Tashman shows herself a tart with a heart by putting her expertise as a gold digger at the disposal of Michigan Copper King Eugene Palette’s neglected wife Lucille Gleason (“He’d never even gave me an engagement ring. I don’t believe he’d have given me a wedding ring, only his mother left him hers when she passed on.”) A touching little gesture probably engineered on the set is that the baby girl introduced to the plot near the end continues holding on to Kay’s pearls after she’s put her down. @Richard Chatten

ON AMAZON DVD

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

Dir: Martin Scorsese | US Drama

A stylish, exhilarating film to experience (although hardly – despite the incredible ‘quaaludes’ sequence – three hours worth). Nor is it the first to be called ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’. That distinction belongs to a long-lost early talkie starring George Bancroft that opened a few months before the original Wall Street crash of 1929. And the new ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ amply demonstrates that the United States of America has learned absolutely nothing in the intervening ninety years.

DiCaprio acknowledges at one point that the life that he and his cronies lead is unsustainable in the Real World, “but who wants to live there?” This is of course an option denied the colossal army of poor working stiffs (many of them women) with their feet planted firmly on the ground working long hours for peanuts serving as waiters, domestic staff and nurses; as well as manufacturing the sharp suits and industrial-strength quantities of drugs consumed by the leads “sailing a boat fit for a Bond villain”.

This army remains as invisible throughout most of this film as the consumption by the masters they spend their lives servicing and cleaning up after is conspicuous; which graphically demonstrates the harmfulness of giving the predominantly white male parasites who populate this movie “more money than you know what to do with”.

Billionaire conservatives meanwhile continue to lobby tirelessly for tax cuts and sanctimoniously and disingenuously to demand where the money to create adequate universal health cover in the richest nation on Earth would come from. @Richard Chatten

NOW OUT ON QUALITY DIGITAL PLATFORMS

 

Incredible But True (2022)

Dir/Wri: Quentin Dupieux | 
Cast: Alain Chabat, Léa Drucker, Benoît Magimel, Anaïs Demoustier, Stéphane Pezerat
i | France, Comedy 74′

The age of electronic penises has finally arrived according french filmmaker Quentin Dupieux whose latest high-concept absurdist comedy sees two suburban couples trying to turn back the clock and pursue the dream of eternal youth with hilarious and disastrous consequences.

Middle-aged house-hunters Alain (Alain Chabat) and Marie (Léa Drucker) are captivated by a modernist villas in a leafy location near Paris and immediately move in. The house has a life-changing feature in the shape of a trapdoor to the basement: enter and you take three days off your life, while moving 12 hours forward. Marie is sceptical but soon becomes obsessed with going through the trapdoor and gradually the rejuvenating effects are noticeable. Alain struggles on with a difficult client, hoping not to lose his wife to a younger man. Meanwhile his boss and close friend Gérard (a paunchy Benoît Magimel) has an intriguing new toy to play with of his own. Invited chez Alain and Marie with his much younger girlfriend Jeanne (Anaïs Demoustier in bleach blonde mode), the two are desperate to share their cheeky secret about his new Japanese “electronic penis”, remotely operated by an iPhone.

Dupieux – also known as his DJ alter ego Mr Oiseau – certainly has a vivid imagination and his films get weirder and wackier with each passing year, Deerskin and Mandibles being recent examples. But although his ideas are plausible this blend of surreal and lowkey sci-fi feels out of place with the second-rate suburban settings and pedestrian characters, and the punchy plot lines are never full realised as they are for example in comedy sci fi outings such as Jack Arnold’s The Incredible Shrinking Man or the Korean comedy Miss Granny. Incredible But True is light-hearted fun that never takes itself seriously with a few laughs along the way thanks to some strong comedy performances before resorting to ludicrous back-to-back montage sequences in a rushed final showdown. MT

NOW ON RELEASE IN FRANCE | BERLINALE SPECIALS 2022

 

 

 

My Old School (2021)

Dir.: Jono McLeod; Cast: Alan Cumming, Clare Grogan, Lulu; UK 2022, 104 min.

Alan Cumming stars in this unconventional documentary about identity and belonging and a man who pretended to be someone else, named the martial arts legend Brandon Lee. Structured in to phases by first time Scottish filmmaker Jono McLeod who revisits his schooldays in an interview with his former classmates and teachers from Bearsden Academy in Glasgow, the 5Cof 1993. The centre of attention is a certain student: Brandon Lee, whose celebrity namesake met his death on set in Hollywood.

This Brandon joined the class late: his mother, an opera singer, had just been killed in Canada in a car accident and Brandon was under the care of his grandmother in Glasgow. Bearsden Academy was as close to a fee paying school as you can get. Little proof of Brandon’s identity was asked required to join the school: just the testaments of private Canadian tutors. But a birth certificate was missing. Headmaster Norman McCloud and his deputy Mrs. Holmes were obviously satisfied. And Brandon’s academic progress gave everyone reason to be happy. He would end up with five straight As, his knowledge of anatomy was so astonishing his biology teacher exclaimed “Brandon teaches me”. Brandon also helped to integrate other students and kept bullies at bay. Even more sensational was his acting, singing – and yes kissing – in the school’s production of “South Pacific”. He was admitted to read Medicine at Dundee University. A fight on a holiday trip with his fellow undergraduated brought the charade to an end: the police found an additional passport on Brandon Lee in the name of Brian MacKinnan. The latter had left Bearsden Academy for Glasgow University to study medicine in 1975.

It turned out Brian, to give him his proper name, had never been to Canada. His mother, posing as his grandmother, had been the motivation for his quest to become a doctor at all costs. After the death of his father – Brian used the family bereavement to skip a tricky physics test – Brian and his mother had plotted even harder to make his second chance a success: In Glasgow, he had been released for lack of progress in his first year.

After all this came to light Dundee expelled him, and he knew no university would take him on as by now he was over thirty, the cut off point for medical students in the UK. Now 58, Brian is not so keen on publicity; he requested that the actor Alan Cumming should lip read his answers to McLeod’s questions.

The most interesting aspect of MyOld School are the interviews with the anti-hero’s former class mates, the range of opinions differing very strongly. His co-lead in “South Pacific” finds it rather “icky” to learn that as a sixteen-year old she had been kissed by a man of thirty-two in public.

DoP George Geddes combines interviews, TV archive material and animation (Rory Lowe, Scott Morris) into a very lively watch. McLeod has skilfully assembled a study about time, memory and the way we are all unreliable narrators when our past is concerned. AS

IN CINEMAS NATIONWIDE FROM 19 August 2022

Wayfinder (2021)

Dir: Larry Achiampong; Cast: Perside Rodgrigues; UK 2022, 83 min.

Wayfinder is British-Ghanaian artist Larry Achiampong’s first feature, a more poetic and languid version of an unfinished project, based on series of apocalyptic cartoons where isolated figures walked through a torrid landscape, breathing filtered air.

In Wayfinder the wanderer is called Perside (Rodrigues) and she crosses England from Hadrian’s Wall to Margate, the freewheeling narrative touching on cultural heritage, exclusion and displacement, with regional aspects replacing a nationwide view of conflicts, current and historical. On her journey Perside visits a housing estate in Wolverhampton, a cafe in Bethnal Green, the National Gallery at night, and a fun fair in Margate. In Bethnal Green pays her last respects to a friend, and discovers that the longest surviving building is a funeral parlour, dating back some 200 years. Letting agencies and health food shops have replaced the old-fashioned outlets of her youth. Back then the Blair mirage of “Education, Education” was paramount and when she finished university with her siblings the three of them went straight to the local job Centre after the graduation ceremony. Their mother had bought a flat, hoping that her children would be able to pay off the mortgage. In reality it was bought by a wealthy man for his daughter who was studying from abroad. And while home pays and important element in all the segments, ambiguity overlays any identification. This is a Britain which is not only punished by the epidemic. Achiampong’s visionary outlook catches all the small details without losing the overview. AS

IN UK CINEMAS FROM 1 JULY 2022

Elvis (2022)

Dir.: Baz Luhrmann; Cast: Tom Hanks, Austin Butler, Olivia DeJonge, Helen Thomson, Kodi Smit McPhee, Richard Roxburgh; US/Australia 2022, 159 min.

Elvis Aaron Presley (1935-1977) was – and still is – the most successful recording artist on this planet, so hiring Baz Luhrmann, well known for his baroque output, to make a film of the entertainer’s life, and turn in a handsome profit seemed like a brilliant idea.

But casting Tom Hanks as the singer’s gambling, cheating and lying manager Colonel Tom Parker put Austin Butler’s Presley at a glaring disadvantage. Parker, who voices the linear narrative, is also a rather unreliable witness to the story; Butler is certainly entertaining and charismatic as the titular hero, but does he do a convincing job as the hip-swivelling legend? Let’s just say few performers would have fared better opposite a behemoth like Hanks. Olivia DeJonge, as Elvis’ wife Priscilla, is even more short-changed: she brings up their daughter and suffers in silence, while her husband shags and devours pills like candies. And no mention is made of her being a teen bride; Priscilla was fourteen when she met the twenty-four-year-old Elvis for the first time in 1959.

The writers offer no real explanation as to why Elvis left for the army as a rebel in 1958, only to return two years later his bad boy instincts buttoned down. Amateur psychology is used to lay the blame on the shady Parker and his greed – we are led to believe the scrupulous manager of dubious Dutch origins had a hold over Elvis using the star as a cash cow to payoff his own mounting debts. Presley’s father Vernon (Roxburgh) was a weak role model and ended up in jail. Elvis’ actress mother Gladys (Thomson) is also just an underwritten sketch.

Luhrmann dishes up the legend’s mammoth musical history in all its glittering details weaving in a strand about his formative musical associations with the  segregated black artists Little Richard and Mahalia Jackson who lend vibrance to the story. DoP Mandy Walker, who worked with Luhrmann on Australia, pulls out all the stops in a biopic that runs for nearly three hours. Rather than zero-in on a pivotal era of the star’s career, Luhrmann merely touches on his entire life, and any depth or resonance is lost in the cacophony of flashing lights and noise.

Behind the cinematic showcase lies a hollow heart. Luhrmann, an obsessive showman himself, again goes overboard with his obsession for split screens in another sparkling montage that will satisfy the lowest common denominator. But having spent all his budget on appearances there’s nothing left for the script. The story is a classic but the straightforward chronicle approach takes away the element of surprise leaving us with an ‘all singing all dancing’ cabaret showpiece that ends in tears; a burnished biopic to please the investors rather than arthouse enthusiasts with discerning minds. AS

IN CINEMAS FROM JUNE 24TH 2022

It Snows in Benidorm (2021)

Dir/Wri: Isabelle Coixet | Cast: Timothy Spall, Sarita Choudhury, Carmen Machi, Pedro Casablanc | Spain Drama, 117′

Lost souls are marooned in an artificial ‘paradise’ in this meandering drama from Catalan writer director Isabelle Coixet.

The best thing about It Snows in Benidorm is Timothy Spall who carries the film with a permanently perplexed and world weary expression as Peter Riordan, a kindly but disillusioned bank clerk given early retirement when his ethics fall out of favour with the bank’s modern approach to lending.

Peter, also a keen meteorologist, heads off to Spain to visit his brother Daniel who he hasn’t seen for years, and who never appears either, providing the first in a long list of unanswered questions in this overlong and often farcical feature with its stagey internal scenes set against the towering skyscrapers of its panoramic backdrop of the Costa Blanca. Benidorm emerges a touristy retirement backwater for garishly dressed hysterical pensioners on their second lease of life; a sunny place for shady Spaniards, as Somerset Maugham who say, where people regularly disappear into its criminal underworld.

The dispeptic Peter does find love of sorts in burlesque dancer Sarita Choudhury who fails to bring out the humanity in the lonely ‘Pearl’ resigned to a life of displacement after a questionable past. Peter discovers his brother was embroiled in dodgy dealings in the property market, and ends up in a phoney kidnap attempt courtesy of Daniel’s business partner Esteban Campos (Casablanc) a longtime lamb butcher hellbent on making a killing of a different kind. There’s also a part for Almodovar regular Carmen Machi as the spunky seaside police chief: an awkward scene involving a tryst with her muscled young lover feels ridiculous.

Coixet has had some successes in her long career but with Snows it looks like she made a list of socially relevant themes to be incorporated into her storyline, and they crop up in offbeat scenes that sit incoherently alongside the main thrust of the narrative – the search for Daniel – robbing the piece of a much needed dramatic tension, rather like the adverts on TV. Whether It Snows in Benidorm is meant to be a dark comedy, or a comedy of manners, is unclear but it doesn’t succeed as either. And as the story draws to its cryptic conclusion we are left as uninspired and perplexed as Peter himself. MT

ON RELEASE FROM 23 `June 2022.

 

 

 

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Men (2021)

Dir: Alex Garland | Cast: Jessie Buckley, Rory Kinear, Paapa Essiedu | US Fantasy horror

English director Alex Garland (Annihilation) dices with horror and comedy in his weird and wonderful hybrid set in a picturesque village in the depths of the English countryside where the male of the species appears in various guises – none of them favourable.

A secluded English country house with manicured gardens should be the perfect place to recuperate for a woman whose ex husband (Essiedu) has just committed suicide. But the Herefordshire hideaway where Harper (Buckley) seeks solace is more akin to the sinister Cornish village of The Wicker Man , and the owner, Geoffrey (Kinnear), an uppercrust oddball, is a dead ringer for TVs Harry Enfield complete with buck teeth and dandruff and a penchant for cavorting stark naked in the grounds. Other incarnations in his repertoire include the famous ‘loadsa money’ lookalike; a leery, misogynist vicar; and a schoolboy who looks like Anthony’s Hopkins’ puppet Corky from Magic.

Clearly Garland had a big budget to throw at this production that takes a tokenistic swipe at toxic masculinity, and gives lip service to domestic violence. But it does no favours for Jessie Buckley who is left incredulously hung out to dry with her character, a ballsy career woman who feels completely out of place in this meaningless ‘Midsomer Murders’ style charade, she seems to be in a different film.

For a time Buckley lends credibility to the film’s initial shock value but then our patience wears thin as Kinnear gets the more gratifying job of pulling different disguises out of his pantomime box of tricks. The overriding comedy element soon punches a hole in any vestigial tension the film has tried to instil, leaving Harper’s tragic backstory somehow diminished by the garish absurdity of the rest of the antics, and leaving us not sure whether to laugh or scream. A bizarre but watchable film. MT

ON RELEASE NATIONWIDE FROM FRIDAY 3 JUNE 2022 

 

Casablanca Beats (2021)

Dir/Wri.: Nabil Ayouch, Cast: Anas Basbousi, Ismail Adouab, Amina Kannan, Meriem Nekkach, Nouhaila Arif, Zineb Boujemaa, Samah Barigou, Abdelilah Basbousi, Maha Menan, Mehdi Razzouk, Marwa Kniniche, Soufiane Belali, Zineb Boujemaa; Morocco/France 2021, 101 min.

French-Moroccan director Nabil Ayouch is no stranger to controversy: His feature Much Loved about prostitution in his home country was banned, and Horses of God is a sober fictionalisation of the the suicide bombing that killed 33 people in Sidi Moumen, a deprived neighbourhood in Casablanca.

Ayoch has returned to Sidi Moumen with CASABLANCA BEATS, the first Moroccan feature in competition at Cannes since 1962. An uplifting story of local teenagers, uses rap and hip hop to hit back at the male-dominated set-up, and the religious bigotry that condones it. All actors are playing out their own lives with Anas Basbousi being the central character. Basbousi is a rapper, who founded the ‘Positive School’ in a cultural centre in Sidi Moumen where he clashes with the leader who feels his progressive style of music will alienate the centre from the rest of the community. In real life, Ayouch was instrumental in setting up the cultural Centre ‘Les Etoiles’ in Sidi Moumen back in 2014, together with author Mahi Binebine, on whose novel ‘Les Etoiles de Sidi Moumen’ Horses of God was based.

“Hip hop is an art form”, exclaims Anas, but not everyone shares his enthusiasm. It certainly proves to be a divisive art form, particularly for the parents of teenager Maha Menan who protest “Not for us”, as they drag their daughter out of the centre. Meriem Nekkach’s brother even tries to prevent her visits. But her counter attack makes things clear: “For you, women are slaves/It makes me sick/For you, being a man, means dominating us/look at our mother in chains/never had a voice, and never complained. While all this is happening the male religious enforcers (known at The “Beards”) patrol the streets extolling the teachings of the Quran: “Everything that lures us from God’s path is a sin”.

But the dance craze is refusing to back down. More centres along the lines of the Sidi Moumen “Positive School”, have now been stablished in Morocco, and Casablanca Beats’ main dancers, Ismail and Mehdi have now turned semi-professional. The film comes to a head with the long anticipated ‘big concert’, which should have won over hearts and minds – but ends in a violent confrontation with the “Beards” and their supporters, leaving Anas’ future in the balance.

This effervescent feature fizzes with fun thanks to the lively camerawork of Amine Messadi and Virginie Surdej. Casablanca Beats is not simply a North African version of the Bronx or Paris sub-culture, but an indigenous approach to rap/hip hop artists, defined by the fighting spirit of a youth rising up against a repressive and often violent parental and authoritarian regime. In true Middle Eastern style Casablanca Beats is a feisty but fervent hymn to music, life and love. AS

IN CINEMAS AND ON CURZON HOME  FROM FRIDAY 29 APRIL 2022

Atabai (2021)

Dir.: Niki Karimi; Cast: Hadi Hejazifar, Sahar Dolatshahi, Javaad Ezzati, Danial Noorvash, Yousefali Daryadel, Mahlagha Meynoosh, Masoumeh Robaninia; Iran 2020, 106 min.

The Iranian countryside is the setting for this visually vibrantly but brooding feature that sees modern and traditional values colliding for Kazem (co-writer Had Hejazifar) a middle-aged man who left university without completing his architecture studies, and is now designing holidays villas for the rich and powerful who he desperately resents.

Kazem often resorts to physical violence, his secretive past seems more meaningful to than the present and he has not moved emotionally after an unhappy relationship during his student years, although he has changed his name from Atabai. He has never forgotten Sima, the most attractive woman on campus, and has not been able to have another relationship since their break-up.

Kazem’s emotional centre is his nephew Aydin (Noorvash), but he is unaware of  repressing the teenager, who has internalised his uncle as a Super Ego. Aydin has grown fond of Jeyran (Robaninia), but  is much more interested in the much older Kazem: “Marry me and get me out of this village” she implores Kazem,  Kazem’s relationship with his own father (Daryadel) is fraught to say the least. It will get even worse, when Kazem learns, that his father has sold an orchard to the realtor Parviz, whom Kazem blames for the death of his sister Farokhlagha, who set fire to herself at the age of fifteen. Kazem explodes, blaming his father for “selling” his daughter to a man of his own age, to pay for his opium habit. Parviz has two daughters, Sima (Dolatshahi) and the much younger Simin (Meynoosh), who are on a visit to the orchard. Aydin falls for Sima, but ends up at the wrong end of Kazem’s violent tantrums: “You have disgraced the family, this man murdered my sister”. But then, the wife of Yahya (Ezzati) dies, and Kazem and the bereaved husband, best friends for a long time, have the first serious talk for years. We learn, that Yahya had a relationship with Farokhlagha, with Kazem making sure, that the two could meet in secret. When Yahya told Farokhlagha, that he would marry his cousin, she told him, that she would commit suicide by setting fire to herself; with everybody believing, that she killed herself it to escape Parviz. Both men have much soul searching to do, particularly Kazem, who is falling in love with Sima, who by coincidence, shares the first name with Kazem’s great love. But will he be able to care more for the present than the past?

DoP Saman Lotfian has created a wide-ranging palette of colours for the outside action, whilst his close-ups of the the heavy emotional battles are set against the background of a landscape, which is never idealised. Somehow, the two go together, and Kazem finds no solace in being home – still hankering for Tehran. Karimi is very self assured regarding the aesthetically choices, but she is overloading the feature with too man conflicts; ATABAI does not always flow easily, and one has the feeling of an overly constructed structure. Still, it is a well worth a watch. AS

IN CINEMAS FROM 6 MAY 2022

The Northman (2022)

Dir.: Robert Eggers; Cast: Alexander Skarsgard, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Ethan Hawks, Anya Taylor-Joy, Willem Dafoe, Björk, Oscar Novak; USA 2022, 136 min.

After his breakout success with The Witch and impressive follow-up The Lighthouse, the main problem with Robert Eggers’ latest – a violent Viking drama set in AD895 – is that it’s not weird enough. Yes, blood and gore will satisfy the aficionados of the sub-genre; and a dash of magic and some warmed-up Shakespeare, with the anti-hero Amleth (Skarsgard) impersonating the Bard’s Danish prince, although less reflective and more prone to spontaneous combustion. The cast is certainly up to it and Jarin Blaschkeof of Lighthouse fame does a brilliant job with the images but The Northman suffers the fate of most auteur-driven vehicles. Once the auteur is no longer in the driving seat the vision is lost in a big studio blowout that careens all over the place at two hours plus.

After returning home from a war to his Queen Gudrun (Kidman), King Aurvandil (Hawk) joins his son Amleth (Norvak) to celebrate victory with ferocious farting match as they impersonate wild dogs (a recurring motif). But the jubilation is short-lived when the King’s brother Fjölnir (Bang), murders Aurvandil in full sight of the boy who escapes and flees the country only to return as a fully-fledged fighter (Skarsgard). Having been sold into slavery by his uncle and mother – now an item – he falls for love interest Olga of the birch forest (Taylor-Joy), and soon turns the tables on Fjölnir spilling family secrets in a revenge-fuelled furore that culminates in a lava-spitting volcano at the Gates of Hell.

A cast of big names appear in cameos: Willem Dafoe has fun as court jester Heimir the Fool, and Björk warns of things to comes as eerie eye-less witch. There is a Valkyrie riding across the sky on a horse – again counterpointing the terrifying violence of spilled guts, death by fire and multiple mutilations. Perhaps the key to Eggers’ approach lies in an early scene when Aurvandil has returned and Queen Gudrun invites him to bed. But the King is too proud to admit he is wounded, and instead of conjugal sex teams up with his son for a bloody bonding session where Amleth watches his father’s intestines morph into a magical tree crawling up into the sky. Later we will see Amleth repeating his father’s penchant for toxic male activities in place of female company. Eggers struggles to close the gap between supernatural magic and an expensive conventional Viking noir adventure. One big question hangs over this overstuffed mainstream production: what would the beast look like had Eggers’ had full control of its reins?. AS

NOW ON RELEASE NATIONWIDE FROM 16 APRIL 2022

The World of Yesterday | Le Monde d’Hier (2022)

Wri/Dir: Diasteme | Lea Drucker, Denis Podalydes, Benjamin Biolay, Alban Lenoir, Thierry Godard | France, Drama 90′

Elisabeth de Raincy, the French President, has decided to withdraw from political life. Three days before the first round of the presidential election, she learns from her Secretary-General, Franck L’Herbier, that a scandal on a Russian news site will splash her designated successor and propel the right-wing candidate into the Elysée. They have three days to change the course of History.

Inspired by Stefan Zweig’s 1934 novel depicting the stability of the Austro Hungarian empire before the catastrophe of the First World War, this tense political character drama co-written by niche French director Diasteme (French Blood) is a timely reminder of how history repeats itself particularly with the French general elections coming to a head with the threat of major change.

Essentially a three hander this plush and persuasive political thriller unfolds in the elegant surround of the Elysee Palace where de Raincy – an impressive Lea Drucker – is concerned with her political past and her teenage daughter’s need for attention too as she faces difficult choices in a world that is clearly dying out. MT

ON RELEASE IN FRANCE

Notre Dame on Fire | Notre Dame Brule (2022)

Dir: Jean Jacques Annaud | France, Docudrama 120′

Veteran filmmaker Jean-Jacques Annaud pulls out all the stops for this incendiary  docudrama that offers a blow-by-blow reenactment of the thrilling events leading up to the tragic fire that partially destroyed Paris Notre Dame Cathedral during 24 hours in the spring of 2019.

Tracing back to the human error that set the blaze in motion, the film also shows how La Brigade Des Sapeurs-Pompiers de Paris (also known as the fire brigade) eventually quelled the flames and saved the iconic Christian monument – that took 182 years to build – from total destruction.

Notre Dame on Fire is a lavishly mounted epic that plays out like a thriller in revealing the perfect storm that leads to the climax. What’s crucial is the way Annaud and his writer Thomas Bidegain (A Prophet) – whose script rather overdoes the melodrama – show just how close Paris came to having its majestic Gothic centrepiece reduced to rubble in a fire that could have obliterated the cultural and religious touchstone of many a film and novel, Victor Hugo’s hunchback the most memorable.

Occasionally veering into dialogue as clunky as the blocks of limestone that bolster the cathedral’s foundations Notre Dame certainly makes for compulsive viewing with its blend of genuine footage – made up of government drones, TV clips, and mobile phones – and the imagined drama that follows the race to save not only the edifice but the priceless religious relics: a crown of thorns believed to be the original from the Crucifixion and a nail from the True Cross. They are locked away in a hidden safe, but the mystery that drives the action forward is – who has the key?

The dramatic scenes of the roaring inferno are brilliantly handled by DoP Jean-Marie Dreujou and production designer Jean Rabasse who has incorporated replica sets, which were subjected to fierce but controlled flames, and these impart an authenticity that is really impressive. The cast and crew had to wear real fire-fighting gear capable of withstanding temperatures of 1300° F. The fiercest parts of the blaze are the choreographed highlights in the belfry and the transept, and catastrophic collapse of the spire as it comes crashing down into the nave. A fascinating true story which makes for a visually exciting spectacle.

IN CINEMAS FROM 22 JULY 2022

Midnight (2021)

Wri/Dir: Kwon Oh-Seung | South Korea, Thriller 103′

An impressive first film for South Korea’s Kwon Oh-Seung highlighting his country’s negative attitudes towards women and the less able in a really tense cat and mouse thriller.

Kyung Mi (Jin Ki-joo), a deaf woman, is attacked in a crowded street when she goes to the assistance of another young woman, onlookers siding with the assailant (serial killer) Do Shik (Wi Ha-Joon) and viewing her cries for help as female histrionics – or even a tantrum.

The implication here is that these two women really shouldn’t really be out and about after dark. But putting misogyny aside for the moment, the film inadvertently sheds a grim light on the male characters: a control freak brother and an outright killer.

Kyung Mi and her mother may be aurally challenged but they certainly make up for it with their courage and resourcefulness refusing to be put down despite their impairments, without coming over as self-pitying. The director makes clever uses of a soundscape that imagines the world from the POV of the hard of hearing and that is its selling point, despite the rather trite finale. MT

Midnight is released on 14 March on digital platforms courtesy of EUREKA

The Audition | Das Vorspiel (2021)

Dir.: Ina Weisse; Cast: Nina Hoss, Simon Abkarian, Jens Albinus, Ilja Monti, Serafin Mishiev, Sophie Rois, Thomas Thieme; France/Germany 2019, 99 min.

Nina Hoss brings her signature style to this muted portrait of middle age crisis from German director Ina Weisse (The Architect).

Suffering from a debilitating illness Anna (Hoss) has been forced to give up her career as a concert violinist and relegated to teaching at Berlin’s famous Conservatoire. A star pupil  Alexander (Monti) becomes the focus of emotional energy as her private life spins out of control. In the throes of an affair with colleague Christian (Albinus) she desperately tests her marriage to bewildered husband Philippe (Abkarian), a craftsman, and over-pressurises her son Jonas (Mishiev) into learning to play the violin.

Borrowing heavily from Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher and Denis Dercourt’s La Tourneuse de Pages, Weisse fails to put her personal stamp on the feature but Hoss gives a resonating performance channelling her angst into all the other characters without resorting to the histrionics Anna clearly feels inside. There are some really taut scenes particularly one where she plays in Christian’s string quartet with disastrous results.

Anna has clearly been affected by her over-achieving parents and she reprimands her draconian father during a terse set-to at a family get together when he tries to discipline Jonas. A dramatic finale follows Alexander’s titular audition, but somehow we feel shortchanged by the outcome. AS

ON RELEASE COURTESY OF NEW WAVE FILMS ON 1st APRIL 2022.

 

The Loneliest Whale (2021)

Dir: Joshua Zeman | US Doc 96′

A stunningly photographed eco documentary that sets out to track the largest and most lonesome sea mammal, accidentally discovered through naval sonar during Cold War reconnaissance in 1989.

The whale – known as 52 for its unique-to-whale frequency of 52 hertz – has never actually been seen by a human being but marine mammal bioacoustics specialist William Watkins determined to put ‘a face to a name’. He searched for the creature for over a decade after its calls went unanswered suggesting it could be the only one of its kind.

The New York Times picked up the story in 2004 and it captured the public imagination with its relatable tale of loneliness and romantic disillusionment for a loveless creature travelling the vast oceans desperate to find a mate. Documentarian Joshua Zeman was also intrigued and got together with the team of marine specialists determined to find answers in a voyage of discovery that would be a drop in the ocean towards uncovering another of nature’s mysteries. MT

ON RELEASE from 4 April 2022

 

 

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Vanity Fair (1932)

Dir: Chester M Franklin | Cast: Myrna Loy, Walter Byron, Barbara Kent, Conway Tearle | US Drama 78’

When she played Becky Sharp, Myrna Loy was still a couple of years away from her breakthrough role as Nora Charles in The Thin Man, which overnight established her as Hollywood’s most charismatic female star of the thirties. Her elevation to the ‘A’ list in 1934 almost exactly coincided with the introduction of the dreaded new Hays Code, which had profound consequences, as the Charles’s were never again to be such heavy drinkers, and the newly elevated Myrna the Perfect Wife was to be an entirely different entity from the gold digging tramps as which the pre-Code Myrna had until now tended to be typecast. The latter was far closer to the woman she actually was, but the former are not surprisingly much more fun to watch when the opportunity now arises – which is far too seldom. And is what makes Vanity Fair so tantalising.

Even in her star vehicles Myrna was rarely the focus of things; and had she played one of literature’s most celebrated vixens in this modernised Vanity Fair in a production properly mounted by MGM (in the sort of slinky backless gowns currently being designed by Adrian for Norma Shearer) it could have been a powerhouse showcase for Loy in her nubile young prime. The screenplay by F.Hugh Herbert does a creditable job of compressing the bare bones of the novel into just 73 minutes; and Loy is surrounded by a pretty good supporting cast (turning her mercenary charms on a trio of randy old goats played by Billy Bevan, Lionel Belmore and Montague Love). But unfortunately for Myrna, what could have been her big break was made on loan-out in just ten days for a poverty row outfit called Allied Pictures and creaks badly.

Miriam Hopkins made a far less appealing Becky three years later, but was backed by an opulent Technicolor production with all the trimmings; which although post-Code also permitted her a more upbeat fate than that suffered here by poor Myrna. @RichardChatten

The Third Man (1949)

Dir: Carol Reed | Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton, Alida Valli, Trevor Howard, Ernst Deutsch | UK Thriller

It’s a sign of what happened to the cinema between 1950 and 1980 that if a film had come out thirty years after The Third Man with Joseph Cotton, Trevor Howard and Orson Welles in the cast you’d have known it would be garbage; but in the forties the result was pure gold.

Harry Lime’s speech about the cuckoo clock always seemed to me just sophistry and his remark about people being just dots to him reveals that he’s a sociopath for all of his charm; which necessitated him (SPOILER COMING:) killing the film’s most likeable character to justify his comeuppance (a moment that always comes as a shock to me no matter how many times I see it).

Although it seems starkly realistic, The Third Man is a triumph of artifice, since Welles is only in the film for about ten minutes (he wasn’t actually in Vienna for much longer, which is why you so seldom see his breath in closeups). The sewers in Vienna don’t actually provide the unbroken passage throughout the city the film so vividly suggests and the famous final shot in the cemetery wasn’t shot by Oscar-winning cameraman Robert Krasker, but an uncredited Hans Schneeburger (who did get a credit a few years later for his second unit work on Carol Reed’s The Man Between).

The opening narration by the way (only heard in the British version) is by director Reed himself (who’s fingers are seen coming through the grill at the climax). And two of my favourite moments belong to Bernard Lee: his admiration for the craftsmanship that went into Valli’s forged documents and his reassurance when reading through her love letters, “That’s all right miss, we’re used to it. Like doctors”. @RichardChatten

NOW ON BBC IPLAYER

Psycho (1960)

Dir: Alfred Hitchcock | Cast: Janet Leigh, Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles | Thriller 109′

Herschel Gordon Lewis used to boast that his films where the first in which people died with their eyes open; but that’s precisely how the first victim ends up here.

One of only two films Hitchcock made in black & white after 1953 (which probably accounts for it’s relative eclipse by Vertigo in recent years), it demonstrates that a cheap horror movie can reach the heights if made by people with talent; witness Bernard Herrmann’s pulsating all-string score and a script that includes lines like “a son is a poor substitute for a lover” and “if it doesn’t gell, it isn’t aspic”.

Copyright Universal Pictures

 

It was Hitchcock who had the bright idea of changing Norman Bates from a middle-aged recluse to a personable young man (who in retrospect resembles Lee Harvey Oswald). Flashes of The Master’s wit can be discerned in Marion’s smirk as she imagines her client’s outrage, the moment when we’re rooting for Norman when her car briefly stops sinking, Sheriff Chamber’s wife lowering her voice when she says Norman found his mother and her lover’s bodies together “in bed”, and realising a long-held ambition by showing a toilet flushing in close-up; while Hitchcock’s famous fear of policemen finds full flower in the scene with the patrolman.

Copyright Universal Pictures

 

People tend to not to notice that the film takes place at Christmas and forget that the close-up of Norman (lifted from that of Michael Redgrave at the end of his episode in ‘Dead of Night’) is not the final shot in the film, since it actually ends with the car being winched out of the swamp (thus providing one final shudder since you know what they’ll find when they open the boot). @RichardChatten

Hitchcock’s PSYCHO (1960) Original Theatrical Cut 4k restored and in UK/Eire cinemas from 27 May as well as selected international territories, including: France, Austria, Spain, Denmark and Switzerland | Park Circus is representing PSYCHO on behalf of Universal Pictures.

The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021)

Wri/Dir: Joel Coen | Cast: Frances McDormand, Denzel Washington, Alex Hassell, Bertie Carvel, Brendan Gleeson, Moses Ingram, Kathryn Hunter | US drama, 107’

This elegantly crisp version of Shakespeare’s Scottish play already looks like a modern classic, a cross between Dreyer’s Ordet and Ken Russel’s The Devils thanks to Oscar hopefuls Bruno Delbonnel, Stefan Dechant, and Nancy Haigh who have created a magnificent yet pared-down spectacle that manages to retain the intimacy of the stage.

Joel Cohen’s first solo outing behind the camera stars his wife Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth and Denzel Washington in the main role. Both bring a heady contemplative quality to the murderous machiavellian couple, but the standout is Kathryn Hunter who trebles up as The Witches in a particularly haunting performance that feels otherworldly but jester-like. A conspiracy of ravens give an inspired and deeply terrifying touch. MT

NOW ON RELEASE NATIONWIDE and on APPLE TV

 

The Souvenir: Part II

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

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

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

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

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

THE SOUVENIR II IS IN CINEMAS NATIONWIDE FROM 4 FEBRUARY 2022

 

 

Onoda (2021)

Dir.: Arthur Harari; Cast: Yuya Endo, Kanji Tsuda, Yuya Matsuura, Testsuya Chiba, Issei Taniguchi, Taiga Nakano, Shinsuke Kato | Action drama, 2021, 165 min.

French director/co-writer Arthur Harari collaborates with Vincent Poymiro and Bernhard Cendron in chronicling 29 years in the life of the titular Japanese soldier Hiroo Onoda (1922-2014), who for nearly thirty years hid in the jungle of the Philippine island of Lubang, fighting a war which ended in September 1945.

Towards the end of WWII, young Hiroo Onoda (Endo) is chosen to be a Kamikaze pilot. But Hiroo – in contrast to many of his peer group – does not want to die, and he refuses to fly, citing vertigo for his decision. This brings him to the attention of Major Taniguchi (Ogata), who runs a school for secret war activities: Hiroo is told never to commit suicide, or surrender to the fast advancing American troops.

On the Philippine island of Lubang, Onoda is witness to the overwhelming power of the American army. But true to the promise he has given to Taniguchi, he refuses to concede defeat, and gathers a motley crew of three other soldiers embarking on a guerrilla war against the island’s population: “The four of us can kill hundreds”. One of the resisters, Akatsu, deserts in 1949 but Onoda battles on in his own private war still believing the islanders are in alliance with the Americans.

History this may be, but Onoda would be very much at home today: refusing to believe that the war has ended, despite all signs to the contrary. Everything signalling the truth is hailed as ‘Fake News’; even Hiroo’s father speaking with a loudhailer to make his son accept reality. For Hiroo, it is not the voice of his father, but an actor paid by the Americans. And on New Year’s Day in 1950, Onoda and Kozuka await a rescue party after they have “decoded” leaflets and other written material left for them by the population.

Harari tells the story from the POV of Hiroo: we live in his head, hear his inner dialogue, and apart from the overwhelming running time of nearly three hours, there is much to appreciate: Kanji Tsuda as the older Onoda is outstanding amidst an impressive cast. And there is always humour and irony: when Hiroo and Kozuka make a map of the island, they use names from their pre-war life experiences. And, strangely, there is sometimes a sort of beauty in the wild phantasies of a man who cannot give up his dream of becoming a hero, the guilt of his refusal to sacrifice himself as a pilot driving himself on. AS

ON RELEASE AT SELECTED ARTHOUSE CINEMAS

 

Waiting for Bojangles (2021)

Dir: Regis Roinsard | Cast: Romain Duris, Virginie Efira, Gregory Gadebois, Solan Machado Graner | France, Comedy, 124′

Regis Roinsard brings none of the joie de vivre or steamy sensuality of the page to his lavish big screen version of En Attendant Bojangles co-scripted by Olivier Bourdeaut from his own bestseller. Instead we see two selfish, rather silly people pretending to love each other while intoxicated by their own narcissistic dreams.  

What starts as a frothy Côte d’Azur set ‘coup de foudre’ for Georges (Duris whose talents are once again wasted) and his self-seeking bride Camille (Efira) soon deteriorates into an over the top battle of wits while they tirelessly paint the town red, pooh-poohing reality to the astonishment of everyone in their wake, including their good friend Charles (Gadebois).

Meanwhile their spirited little love child Gary (Machado Graner) is left bewildered on the sidelines, his mother even taking an angry pot-shot at his much-loved pet peahen. Wo betide anyone attempting to burst this couple’s bubble of endless fun; reality is simply brushed under the carpet until they eventually run out of steam: Virginie Efira swinging between vicious virago and tedious drama queen in an un-involving ‘folie a deux’ which swerves into tragedy after over two hours. 

Top marks to Guillaume Schiffman and Sylvie Olive for making it all look so nice, but don’t expect any laughs in this depressing start to 2022. 

NOW ON RELEASE IN FRENCH CINEMAS

The 355 (2021)

Dir.: Simon Kinberg; Cast: Jessica Chastain, Lupita Nyong’o, Diane Krüger, Penelope Cruz, Bingbing Fan, Sebastian Stan, Edgar Ramirez; USA/China 2019/21; 124 min.

British-born director Simon Kinberg, producer of the X-Men series, teams up with Jessica Chastain to co-produce this female super-spy caper, co-written by Theresa Rebeck and Bek Smith. Chastain asked Kinberg for a female super-hero feature, having been part of the star studded cast of X-Men: Dark Phoenix, a loss making 200M+ dollar project which he also directed, wrote and produced.

It all starts with a stock slaughter sequence in South America, where drug lords are fighting for an electronic device that gives its owner control over all electronic traffic worldwide. Next, said device turns up on Paris, with major intelligence agencies chasing the hardware destined to be sold in a mass auction on the Dark Net.

Mason ‘Mace’ Browne (Chastain) and Nick Fowler (Stan) represent the CIA as a couple with ‘special benefits’. Marie Schmidt (Krüger) of The Bundes Nachrichten Dienst (BND), (the German State Security organisation) is still reeling from the shock of her father’s role in the KGB. But Graciela (Cruz), a Columbian DNI agent and psychologist, is the odd-one out: roped in by her fellow countryman Rojas (Ramirez)mwho is dying after the unsuccessful attack on the drug dealer.

Rojas has just enough time to put Graciela’s fingerprints on the desired object’s tracking device. Thus the psychologist becomes the stereo-typical odd-woman-out, just wanting to go home to her family. An African-British computer expert Khadijah (Nyong’o) will later ‘direct’ the quartet, later a quintet, when Chinese MSS operative Lin Mi Sheng (Bingbing Fan) joins the party in Shanghai for the last act.

Rojas is not the only casualty: Fowler also comes a cropper, driving Browne even harder to get her paws on the device. Alas, her ex-partner is very much alive – and on the wrong side, making Mace’s retrieving action into a revenge story.

Structured along the lines of a Bourne feature, The 355 (named after the first US female spy operating under George Washington’s command), not only suffers from a convoluted script, but also outstays its dubious welcome, bloodied by needless fighting scenes: all decisions are actually taken by Khadijah, based on her superior technological knowledge. The agents on the ground are reduced to mere ‘action-women’ figures – not exactly “The Female Rainbow coalition” Chastain had in mind.

DoP Tim Maurice-Jones really does a great job on the look of The 355, but the vaunted female heroines are merely inferior James Bond replacements and we don’t care what happens to them, or indeed the upcoming Chastain/Kinberg collaboration entitled  Wayland, another high-budget production destined for a loss. AS

NOW ON GENERAL RELEASE NATIONWIDE

The King’s Man (2021)

Wri/Dir: Matthew Vaughn | UK, Action Comedy, 130’

Ralph Fiennes and Rhys Ifans lead a magnificent cast in this entertaining if occasionally ridiculous romp, a historical re-write riffing on an eponymous secret spy organisation active in preventing global conflict during the First World War .

Don’t worry if you haven’t followed the other episodes this stand alone comedy sees Fiennes’s back again as the dapper aristo Orlando Oxford, a patriotic pacifist war veteran who rapidly converts to killer mode when his family is slowly decimated by the war effort.

After his wife is killed by a stray bullet in the opening scenes Oxford actively discourages his only son Conrad (Harris Dickinson) from enlisting in the army – but boys will be boys. Aided and abetted by his game comrades Djimon Hounsou (who plays the token black guy) and Gemma Arterton (the token female with an unfeasible Yorkshire accent), Fiennes plays a chivalrous James Bond-style gentleman hero, impeccably suave in Savile Row suiting, and dashingly daring til the end.

Tonally off-kilter for most of its running time – patriotically reverent melodrama making an awkward bedfellow to ‘boys own’ rambunctiousness and silly humour, there are some rip-roaring set pieces, notably the hair-raising hike up a stratospheric mountain-side to find the home of a storied cashmere-bearing goat.

Rhys Ifans is terrific as the anti-hero Rasputin – although the accent is definitely more Gary Oldman’s 1992 Dracula than the sinister Russian mystic. There are various subplots that feel totally redundant to the main thrust of the narrative – a resentful Scotsman whose identity is only revealed at the end (who even cares?). A bit of a mess then, but a really enjoyable one. MT

ON RELEASE NATIONWIDE

The Matrix Resurrections (2021)

Wri/Dir: Lana Wachowski | Cast: Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Jessica Henwick, Neil Patrick Harris | US action Thriller 138’

At two and a half hours all the hushed talk, bone-crushing violence and showy special effects gets very tiring. But there are occasional flashes of wit and grace; and Jessica Henwick and Neil Patrick Harris are welcome additions to the franchise. Richard Chatten

IN CINEMAS NATIONWIDE

I Passed for White (1960)

Dir: Fred M Wilcox | Cast: Sonya Wilde, James Franciscus, Patricia Mahon, Elizabeth Council | Drama 63’

Far from being the trashy exploitation movie signalled by the title, the rather bland groupings by veteran director Fred Wilcox actually heighten the drama that grows and grows and grows, with the final resolution only coming right at the very end.

Based on Mary Hastings Bradley’s novel, James Franciscus’ aryan good looks are perfect for the leading man who you never know which way he’ll jump. But but as usual it’s the women who are the most interesting characters: Sonya Wilde in her screen debut after making her mark on Broadway taking over the role of Maria in ‘West Side Story. Pat Michan as the friend who’s the only one in on the heroine’s (literally) dark secret, Elizabeth Council as the menacing mother-in-law who you are never sure how much and what exactly she suspects; and especially Isabelle Cooley as the ever-present but quiet and inscrutable maid who is yet another element in the film that keeps you guessing. @RichardChatten

NOWN ON YOUTUBE

Cicada (2021)

Dir.: Matt Fifer, Kieran Mulcare; Cast: Matt Fifer, Sheldon D. Brown, Sandra Bauleo, Michael Potts, Jazmin Grimaldi, Scott Adsit, Cobie Smulders; USA 2020, 96 min.

Auto-fiction can be very satisfying in feature films as well as novels, but the logo “based on a true Story” does not always guarantee the promising results anticipated. First time directors Kieran Mulcare and Matt Fifer – also the co-star, co-writer, producer and editor – have scripted reality into something which is often to pat, and looks more constructed than the authors might have wished.

New York drifter and sex addict Ben (Fifer) meets data-tech expert Sam (Brown, who also has a writing credit), gay and the only black employee in his company. Whilst Ben is only too happy to let everyone know how much in love he is, Sam is understandably more reserved about showing his emotions in public.

We are introduced to Ben’s family: his mother (Bauleo), sister Grimaldi) and church-going father (Potts) and also meet Sam’s father. These short encounters are mainly used to explain the past of the couple: Ben has been sexually assaulted as a child, and Sam nearly died, when he was shot in broad daylight. Misfiring cars bring his PTDS to the surface, whilst Ben has developed a catalogue of psycho-somatic illnesses, for which the stern doctor (Adsit) has no diagnosis. A visit to an off-beat psychiatrist (Smulders), whose dog shares the sessions, does not help Ben either. We are witness to the couple’s self-help, which is also limited, in spite of their best and long drawn-out discussions. The outside world, in from of a news commentary about the Jerry Sandusky trail (2012) does not often enough intrude into this often clumsy and over-wrought ‘Kammerspiel’.

The NY images of DoP Erich Schlicher save the feature from being a verbal slug feast: the scenes set in Washington Park Square are a poetic master-stroke. But even with a running time of only just over 90 minutes CICADA overstays its welcome: repetitions and a near pathological need to show the main protagonists in the best light, leave the audience for great parts unengaged – there are simply no barbs in this rather simplistic tale of love and coming to terms with the past. AS

ON RELEASE FROM 21 JANUARY 2022 theatrical and digital in UK and EIRE

 

The Story of Film: A New Generation (2021)

Dir/Wri: Mark Cousins | Doc, UK 160′

A decade after The Story of Film: An Odyssey, comes Mark Cousins’ latest deep dive inquiry into the state of filmmaking in the 21st century. The Story of Film: A New Generation, sees Cousins focus on the past decade in a fascinating reflection on world cinema from 2010 to 2021. The film opens with Joker and Frozen showing the transformative power of the medium and its ability to bring stories from the desperate and disenfranchised on the world stage. Cemetery of Splendour (2015) features heavily in this exploration of recurring themes and emerging motifs, from the evolution of film language, to technology’s role in moviemaking today, to shifting identities in 21st-century world cinema.

Cousins’ research is encyclopaedic as he confidently talks us through a staggering array of films – not just from the last ten years but reconnecting to examples that demonstrate connections with the past that have influenced filmmakers of the present and future. Rather like fashion and architecture, cinema is an eternal reimagining of what has gone before marking out trends and themes only to reinvent them to appeal to a new generation, weaving in historical touchstones such as Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter as the world responds to its environment.

Plundering the archives for those iconic features there is everything from Jonathan Glazer’s visually and thematically groundbreaking Under the Skin to reworked upstairs/downstairs satires such as Parasite and Us which explores the dark and light sides of the human psyche through the an invasion thriller. In With films like Lover’s Rock and Moonlight Cousins identifies films, filmmakers and communities under-represented in traditional film histories, with a particular emphasis on Asian and Middle Eastern works, as well as boundary-pushing documentaries and films that see gender in new ways.

The streaming age has taken us from ‘cinema on show’ to ‘cinema on demand’. Cousins tracks the latest trends of the digital age with viewers calling the shots, a trend accelerated in the light of the recent pandemic. He looks forward to the future but what remains is a recurring motif that drives cinema forward: our profound desire to escape and travel beyond the ordinary, or see ourselves reflected through the medium of the silver screen as we are transported to a place of wonder and euphoria. MT

ON RELEASE FROM 17 DECEMBER NATIONWIDE

 

Ailey (2021)

Dir.: Jamila Wignot; Documentary with Alvin Ailey, Judith Jameson, Carmen de Lavallade , Robert Battle; USA 2021, 90 min.

Alvin Ailey (1931-1989), founder of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre (AAADT), remains pretty much a mystery in this lyrical portrait of the dancer and choreographer – a black, closeted gay man. Cicely Tyson called him the “Pied Piper of modern dance”, and when Ailey received his award during the Kennedy Honours ceremony in 1988, ironically presented by Ronald whose policies had punished the gay community.

In her first outing as solo writer/director, Jamila Wignot works with Ailey archive interviews often as a commentator, escaping the ‘talking heads’ malaise which blights many documentaries. Alvin Ailey was born in 1931 in rural Texas, he never met his father, but his mother worked on the cotton fields and as a cleaning lady for white homeowners. In 1941 they moved to Los Angeles where their relationship became the corner stone of Alvin’s psychological world for the rest of his life. Later, when he suffered from Bi-Polar disorder and was institutionalised in a psychiatric ward, it was his mother who took him home and looked after him. Alvin was very protective of his mother, right to the end, when he made his doctor sign the cause of his death as a result of a blood disorder, so that she would not be stigmatised by him being a victim of AIDS.

Ballet was for Ailey a form of escape, he was captivated by the Ballets Russes Monte Carlo and Catherine Dunham even though his football coach at High school tried in vain to interest him in the sport. Alvin was taught by Martha Graham, among others, and founded the AAADT in 1958 at the age of only twenty-seven, after having moved to NYC, where he replaced Lester Horton as choreographer at his last engagement.

Perhaps Ailey’s most famous ballet, “Revelations” (1960) was called a “re-enactment’ of life, a mixture of passion and sorrows” by members of the ensemble. In 1970, AAADT was nearly bankrupt, and the Foreign Office sent the ensemble on a tour of Asia and Europe. They were extremely popular, particularly in Stuttgart (Germany) “where the sell-out crowd hollered and stomped, like they had an orgasm”. The audience called the troupe for 80 curtain raisers. But Alvin remained an enigma even for his closest collaborators, he was just another person when he left the building after performing. His work was sometimes criticised for not being political enough in the wake of the rising Civil Rights movement, but he answered “that his protest was on the stage, not the streets”.

Further successes were “The River” (1970) and a year later, “Cry”, a birthday present for his mother, and a solo performance for Judith Jameson. There is interesting footage from an interview of Alvin with Harry Belafonte, where they discuss race integration, which for Alvin did progress too slowly. After the death of close collaborator Joyce Trisher, he was shocked and honoured her with “Memoria” (1979). But the experience in Texas stayed with him forever: after successful performances in Paris, he claimed that he could not adjust to such different experiences, and left. He soon returned with “Fever Swamp” (1983). Alvin Ailey spent the last days of his life on a sofa, watching his troupe rehearse.

Apart from archive footage and Newsreel snippets, Wignot uses rehearsals by the new artistic director, Robert Battle, of “Lazarus” by Rennie Harris, to celebrate 60 years of the AAADT, with Masazumi Chaya, another co-director of the company, also commenting on the continuation of Alvin Ailey’s work.

AILEY flows like a dream, languid and indulgent. Perhaps Alvin Ailey was too much of a contradictory personality to have everything revealed in one feature. But Wignot has achieved enough, to make us curious to get to know him better. AS

IN CINEMAS AND ON DEMAND from 7 JANUARY 2022

Rebel Dykes (2021)

Dir.: Harri Shanahan, Siân A. Williams; Documentary with DEBBIE, ROZ, FISCH, SIOBHAN, SEIJA, BAYA, DEL, LULU; UK 2021, 82 min.

The collective of Harri Shanahan, Siân A. Williams and producer Siobhan Fahey serve up a slice of subversiveness from the 1980s centred round a group of women activists who got together at Greenham Common, then decided to spice up the not-so-exciting London scene, taking over Women’s Centres and Gay Bars. In Brixton where squatting was not entirely legal, the DYKES started a vibrant underground culture with an SM club.

It was a time of revolt against Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s administration: to create a Lesbian Fetish Club was in itself an open protest against the government’s ‘mishandling’ of the Aids Crisis and the introduction of Section 28, which basically forbade any mention in school curriculums about the existence of non hetero-sexual activities. The animated title sequence leads the audience into wild discussions and graphic descriptions of sexual scenes. The group was constantly under homophobic attack in the streets, so they just lived by night. But the danger came also from another front: mainstream feminists picketed the club and forced entrance with crowbars and axes. They accused the Rebel Dykes of anti-feminism and violence. The Rebel Dykes counter with action: invading the BBC News and chaining themselves to the furniture; they also founded sex-toy businesses and erotic Magazines – often having to fight the incriminating laws.

1981-1991 was a pivotal time in the history of alternative culture: kink, fetish, hedonism, music, drugs and political activism developed, leading to the formulation of trans rights and black queer life. It should be mentioned, that The Rebel Dykes were an international set-up: Seija came from Finland, Baya fled repressive East Germany, and Lulu was a San Francisco based photographer. Music plays a central role in the feature: Britpop artist guitarist Debbie Smith, the “most celebrated Black female guitarist”, is the film’s leading narrator. The archive music used is of precious cultural importance since women musicians rarely signed contracts in a male dominated business. The film’s composer, Ellyott, who works with ‘Sister George’ and ‘Night Nurse’, is the founder of Rebel Dyke and Queercore. The archive, consisting of mini-discs, digitised cassettes and VHS tapes, will be house permanently in the Bishopsgate Archive, London. Overall, the story-telling has multiple viewpoints, not a singular perspective.

Co-director/co-editor/animator Harri Shanahan, who studied filmmaking at university and produced post punk/experimental music videos, wanted “to tell the story of the Rebel Dykes because they “felt a kinship with their punk rebelliousness and their DIY approach to art and culture. It has been an amazing experience to meet these trailblazing, kickass people and to have the opportunity to be part of telling their story”.

The Rebel Dykes’s have virtually been written out of the history of the Queer movement, but it is a true revolutionary movement of female, non-binary and trans voices, celebrating direct action. So far unseen archive footage shows the Lesbian Strength March (1988) and the “Lesbian Avengers” who ab-sailed into the House of Lords, the night when ‘Section 28’ was passed into law, not to be revoked until 2003. AS

In cinemas and on BFI Player and Bohemia Euphoria from 26 November

Eiffel (2021)

Dir: Martin Bourboulon | Cast: Romain Duris, Emma Mackey, Pierre Deladonchamps | France, Drama 108′

Martin Bourboulon’s elegant and ravishingly realised historical drama also goes by the amusing title of Eiffel in Love and sees the pioneering engineer who designed the iconic symbol of the city of Paris as a disillusioned romantic and national hero played dashingly here by Romain Duris.

In March 1889 Gustave Eiffel is sketching away at his drawing board way in the rooftops of Paris proud in the knowledge that his completed edifice, built for the ‘Exhibition Universelle’, had impressed everyone with its stature and daring design representing France’s return to power and industry after an era of ‘blood and tears’. A cutaway shows him receiving an American award for his framework design for the Statue of Liberty, three years previously, in 1886.

Now a household name, Eiffel feels a sense of professional achievement; the brief was to build a democratic monument that everyone could see: worker, child and aristocrat. It had been an ambitious and controversial undertaking based on Eiffel’s ingenious sand-based system, but dogged by setbacks, worker disputes and anger from local residents due to the disruption and enormity of the perilous building process, pictured in Matias Boucard’s majestic widescreen images.

The sumptuous social settings of his upper bourgeois circle of friends are overshadowed by a tumultuous and bittersweet private life revealing the engineer as a deeply sensual man, a proud father and widower – but destined to be unhappy in love. An early coup de foudre with the young seductrice and socialite Adrienne Bourges (the darkly attractive Emma Mackey) who he calls “spoilt” but soon impregnates, comes to an end when her father declares Eiffel ‘socially unsuitable’. So she goes on to marry his friend, the wealthy and influential Antoine de Restac (Deladonchamps) who supports Eiffel’s controversial tower scheme. His torrid love affair with Adrienne is then rekindled and runs throughout the film as a bittersweet motif in the rather choppy five-handed screenplay.  

Some may see this slickly realised social drama as a unique tribute to France’s 19th century industrial power, trivialised by the doomed love story at its heart. Others may find the romantic interludes flesh out the maverick engineer’s backstory and add emotional freight and tension to the awe-inspiring construction procedural that gradually gains momentum through the sheer human endeavour that built a ‘staircase to infinity’ soaring 300 metres high over the rooftops of Paris, the tallest man-made edifice at the time. Despite its structural flaws – and whichever way you see it –  Eiffel is an enjoyable and fitting homage to a man who was creative, romantic and cerebral. Certainly a hero to be celebrated.  MT

ON RELEASE IN UK and IRISH CINEMAS from 12 August 2022

 

Eugenie Grandet (2021)

 

Dir: Marc Dugain | Cast: Josephine Japy, Olivier Gourmet, Valerie Bonneton, Cesar Domboy | Drama, France/Belgium 103′

Another Balzac novel hits the big screen: this time his early 19th tale about the evils of capitalism and family inheritance, sombrely adapted by Senegal born director Marc Dugain.

Eugenie Grandet is a dour and joyless story and Dugain does little to lift it above the confines of the page despite thoughtful performances from Josephine Japy in the lead role, and Olivier Gourmet as her vehement property-dealer father Felix whose stinginess and greed makes her life a misery at a time when self-realisation was impossible for ordinary women.

Saumur 1819 during the Bourbon Restoration is the setting, and endless views of dripping rain and dank mornings establish the grim milieu where Eugenie Grandet and her mother (Bonneton) endure a monotonous bourgeois existence, her father poncing around the countryside doing deals and pretending to be down on his luck. Although the reality is quite different.

Felix Grandet is not a good father. Frugal, possessive and emotionally remote, he keeps his wife and daughter on a tight budget, making a big deal out of giving Eugenie a single gold coin for her dowry. Eugénie spends her days sewing and dreaming of love and when her cousin Charles (Domboy) arrives to stay she is completely taken with his dashing good looks and suave Parisian manners. So much so she falls in love with him – rather too quickly – offering her only worldly possession when it emerges that his father has killed himself due to mounting debts. And when the mean-spirited Felix finds out what has happened he further castigates Eugenie, imprisoning her in her bedroom.

Gilles Porte creates a morose atmosphere in the darkened interiors of the Grandet household, often softly highlighting the characters’ faces in the style of Caravaggio, and in Eugenie’s case this accentuates  her qualities of gentleness and devotion. And although Dugrain’s script successfully condenses the novel into a reasonable running time, it doesn’t quite give enough weight to Charles and Eugenie’s love affair which after all carries the novel’s uplifting emotional freight, much needed to counterbalance all the endless misery. Joséphine Japy is brilliant as the innocent, long-suffering heroine in a world where women’s happiness and wellbeing depended entirely on the integrity of their menfolk. MT

 

Le Frisson des Vampires (1971)

Dir: Jean Rollin | French, Horror

Disinterred from it’s crypt in the small hours by London Live, not a lot really happens in this fanciful little trifle by Jean Rollin – who David Pirie wrote “it is tempting to see as the Claude Lelouch of the vampire cinema” – but it contains some beautiful colour effects, and an attractively lit chateau housing a coven of female vampires who glide about in big hair and little else.

Vampiress-in-chief, Isolde, is given to making dramatic entrances from hiding places as varied as a grandfather clock (whose door swings open in an image worthy of Nosferatu, from behind a curtain and up a chimney; while her handmaidens dance off into the night together before the film’s conclusion on the director’s favourite location, the beach at Normandy. Richard Chatten

NOW ON LONDON LIVE TV

Pleasure (2021)

Dir.: Ninja There; Cast: Sofia Kappel, Revika Anne Reustle, Evelyn Claire, Chris Cock, Eva Melander; Sweden/Netherlands/France 2021, 109 min.

Girls in the world of porn is the subversive subject of this first feature from Swedish director Ninja There. Expanding her 2013 Cannes award-winning short offers a timely opportunity to explore the lucrative male-dominated sector of the economy where women are literally asked to betray their own gender. Whilst the cool, analytical form may not be everyone’s taste, Pleasure is a stunning portrait of an industry just invented to titillate men.

A young Swedish woman lands in LAX and is asked a common question: Business or Pleasure? She opts for the latter, but it turns out to be an illusion. With a new name, Bella Cherry (Kappel) she will join the many hopefuls who try to make a name and fortune in the porn industry. Apart from Kappel, all protagonists are in the business – so to speak – including top talent agent Mark Spiegler. Set in the grim industrial San Fernando valley and the interiors of some garish mansions, Bella joins collegues in a house where she makes friends with Joy (Reustle) who teaches the uninitiated the tricks of the trade.

When Bear (Cock), a senior crew member, asks her about her life story, Bella claims she has been raped by her father, laughing it off in the same breath and Bear warns her about the competition. Bella’s first shoot is fairly lowkey – one of the crew members is a woman. But then she enters the harsh end of the profession: rough sex, or, as it turns out, rape. Three men coerce her into hours of submission, threatening not to pay her all if she refuses to comply to their wishes.

Bella is a bit of a loner back in Sweden, as we learn this from a phone conversation with her Mum (Melander), but is determined to do her best She wants to succeed, at all costs. But friendships soon fall by the wayside. Joy, nicknamed “trailer trash” by one of the so-called stars, pushes him into the pool. Shortly afterwards Bella sides with the producers, when Joy is clearly hurt by a male actor – but Bella keeps schtum. She is in awe of the glittering Ava (Claire), the latest ‘Spiegler Girl’ who acts in girl-on-girl features. Their love/hate relationship is the pivotal point of the feature and its abrupt ending.

There are some parallels here with a recent Swedish feature, Holiday (2018) by Isabella Eklöf. But Thyberg goes into detail, including full erections. DoP Sophie Winquist keeps a firm grasp on her film with a woman’s gaze, always subverting expectations – in total contrast to a straight-up porn film. But the key element is Thyberg’s unflinching attack on the patriarchal power at play. Bold and with a brilliant eye for detail, Pleasure never lets the audience forget who is in charge and why. AS

https://youtu.be/1hl4D0sE5TA

IN CINEMAS & MUBI 17 JUNE 2022 | ZURICH FILM FESTIVAL 2021

 

Next Door | Nebenan (2021)

Dir.: Daniel Brühl; Cast: Daniel Brühl, Vicki Krieps, Peter Kurth, Rike Eckermann, Aenne Schwarz, Gode Bendix; Germany 2021, 92 min.

Spanish-German actor Daniel Brühl, who shot to fame in 2003 with Wolfgang Becker’s GDR satire Goodbye Lenin, also stars in his autobiographical themed feature debut, a political satire that riffs on Berlin’s modern day gentrification.

Essentially a two-hander It all takes place in a bar in Berlin’s now upmarket Mitte district where Brühl is self-important film and TV thespian Daniel preparing for a screen test in London. After the obligatory early morning work-out he swings by his favourite cafe (where owner Hilde jokes about the ‘new’ craze for espresso), and shoots the breeze with his East Berliner night-worker neighbour Bruno (Kurth), who regrets voting for re-unification ultimately handing over the power to the capitalist West.

Daniel has a private lift to his lush penthouse but relationships wise the two are on the same page:. Bruno listens to Daniel’s marital up and downs with Clara (Schwarz), who is now having him followed, Bruno knows the territory having had to put up with his wife’s unfaithfulness. But the men also share a chequered past with each other: Daniel’s father also cheated Bruno’s over the ownership of the flat Daniel now lives in. And the security agent has also found out that Clara herself has been playing the field and that Daniel himself is hardly pure as the driven snow as we will discover in the film’s end titles.

Daniel Kehlmann’s script is laced with satirical subtexts but these are only relayed verbally making the whole things feel rather claustrophobic: Next Door could have worked better on the stage or even as a radio play. We only see Clara for a few minutes groaning at being woken up early, and Hilde holds court as a sort of a verbal umpire who eventually falls out with Daniel.

DoP Jens Harant does his best to liven things up with overhead shots of the bar, the few street scenes make a welcome change from the interior bound verbal duel between Daniel and Bruno. The dialogue is sharp, and Bruno’s grievances are certainly plausible. but there are too many characters serving as bland window-dressing: Daniel’s two children and a particularly aggressive drunkard, and Vicki Krieps is under-used in the support.  Next Door makes a good point regarding gentrification and social inequality in Germany today, but cinematographically it misses the mark. AS

AT CURZON CINEMAS AND HOME FROM 1 OCTOBER 2021

 

 

 

Wild Indian (2021)

Dir: Lyle Mirchell Corbine Jr. | Cast: Michael Greyeyes, Chaske Spencer, Jesse Eisenberg, Kate Bosworth | US Drama 90’

Native Americans justifiably have an axe to grind in these post colonial retribution times. Coming from this background himself, Lyle Mitchell Corbine certainly knows the territory. His feature debut, “Wild Indian,” captures the zeitgeist in a sober debut that opens with scenes of past glory where a proud warrior is seen brandishing a bow and arrow, but is sadly unable to deal with his traumatic past and male prowess in modern day America.

But let’s forget all the stuff about tomahawk spirit guides and dusky squaws bedecked in chamois leather. This is actually a classic female abuse drama couched in a Native American heritage drama. It sees a disenfranchised man called Michael taking his traumatic past out on women, then asking Jesus for mercy in a phoney act of confession .

We first meet Michael as Ojibwe teenager Makwa (Phoenix Wilson) with his best friend and cousin, Ted-O (Julian Gopal), living on a Midwest reservation. Makwa is clearly a troubled individual whether as a result of his upbringing or his heritage is never really explored in-depth. Messing about in the woods one day with Ted-O, Makwa comes across a former classmate who he shoots and kills, unable to reconcile a long held grievance from the past.. Ted-O is so shocked he actually helps his friend bury the body – something he will live to regret as the crime comes back to haunt him in later years.

Fast forward to 2019 and the pigtailed Mawka, now Michael (Greyeyes), is living in another part of the US and married to an ex dancer Greta (Kate Bosworth) with whom he has a son. Enjoying the uplift his heritage proffers him in the context of workplace diversity Michael enjoys all the perks of his job in a successful marketing company alongside colleague Jesse Eisenberg (who is also the film’s producer). Ted-do (Gopal), on the other hand, has just served time for a drugs-related offence and looks the epitome of a hard bitten criminal covered in tattoos. Despite attempts to ingratiate himself with his sister Cammy (Lisa Cromarty) and her five-year-old boy, he bizarrely decides to sleep outside in a tent, rather than in her house. His manual job in a restaurant is not something he is not proud of, but he clearly feels remorse for the woods incident and tries to make it up to the family of the boy Makwa killed, an episode that ends in tears.

Greyeyes gives a convincing performance as the hard-eyed Michael emerging a vicious bully where women are concerned, and they are forced to deal with the full brunt of his particularly toxic brand of machismo throughout this feature, Michael continuing to cause havoc, many years after killing his school friend in cold blood.

Corbine manages the two-stranded narrative well enough although there is not enough about Michael’s American heritage – details of which could have been fleshed out in flashbacks rather than a ‘before and after scenario’ that leaves us wondering whether his abusive childhood was not the only factor contributing towards his becoming a psychopath.

Instead, the thrust of this fraught psychological drama focuses on his everyday casual violence in the present day as he struggles with the perceived injustices of his background while outwardly presenting as a high-performing almost seductive   psychopath prone to visiting lap dancing venues where he asks one ‘hostess’ to indulge him in his predilection for choking.

Well performed by the ensemble cast – Greyeyes is really chilling in the central role – Wild Indian is a brave attempt to highlight the issues facing Native Americans in the present day, but sadly rather a lost opportunity because of its confusing narrative. MT

On digital platforms (iTunes/ Apple TV, Amazon, Sky, Virgin, Google/ YouTube, Rakuten, Microsoft) this Friday 29th Oc

Vengeance is Mine (1949)

Dir: Alan Cullimore | Cast : Valentine Dyall, Anne Firth, Sam Kydd | ,UK Drama 59’

The unmistakable voice of Valentine Dyall as the Man in Black sent shivers down the spines of radio listeners in postwar Britain and led to a few leading roles in horror thrillers during the late forties, of which this comes nearest to a ‘straight’ lead.

Packing a remarkable number of twists and turns into less than an hour’s running time, the central premise of this film has seen service several times, usually played for laughs, and dates back at least as far as Robert Siodmak’s ‘Der Mann, der seinen Mörder sucht’ in 1931. Unusually it here serves as the basic for a luridly enjoyable thriller that as photographed by the reliable Jimmy Wilson vividly evokes a sleazy postwar London of spivs and a still-flourishing black market; suitably embellished by a noisy jazz score by Ken Thorne that sounds more 50’s than 40’s.

Veteran character actor Richard Goolden makes a rare but memorable film appearance in the pivotal role of Sammy Parsons, Anne Firth provides Dyall with a handsome Girl Friday and Sam Kydd has a much more substantial role than we’re used to seeing him in. The atmosphere is further enhanced by the casting of the smaller parts, such as Russell Westwood as an oily-haired henchman in a zoot suit and Betty Taylor as the silent but unnervingly watchful “The Little Girl”. Great fun. @Richard Chatten

The Alpinist (2021)

Dirs: Peter Mortimer, Nick Rosen | US Doc 93’

Almost everyone is entranced by the thrill of mountains. And so another documentary about man pitting his wits and physical stamina against the elements is always welcome.

Just the sheer elation of being overwhelmed by stratospheric heights and snowcapped peaks only adds to the nail-biting suspense of the ascent: will the mountaineer make it to the top, or will nature hold sway. And then there’s the descent – the most critical part of any top-tier climber’s mission. More people die going back to base camp then scaling the summit in this perilous pastime

Mortimer and Rosen’s taut documentary offers much of the intensity Mountain and Free Solo and is probably more realistic about the pitfalls and realities of mountaineering. Not for the vertigo prone, the directors occasionally going off piste themselves in their storytelling, occasionally there’s a sense that the film teeters on the brink of a mockumentary in style.

The Alpinist does not refer to its namesake, the European Alps, but to the practice of tackling complex and perilous peaks, and here the focus is a complex climb in Patagonia where Canadian climber Marc-André Leclerc challenges perilous conditions. Best known for his derring-do in tackling mountain paths less travelled with the added challenge of racing against time to compete with established records, Leclerc is a courageous climber who pits himself against the elements. No mean feat considering he suffered ADHD as a child. A case in point is an ascent in Canada where he beat the record-holding alpinist Honnold in a complex endeavour given the challenging circumstances: like every sport nowadays enhanced gadgetry and equipment is increasingly de rigueur. Solo climbs are a speciality for Leclerc who gets his buzz from the spiritual experience that alpinism offers. Although he is occasionally accompanied by his girlfriend Brette Harrington, who is an accomplished climber herself.

Mortimer is not over-awed by Leclerc’s courage or the stratospheric scenery conjured up in The Alpinist’s dizzying visuals, keeping his distance – literally and metaphorically, although he doesn’t quite get under the Canadian’s skin. Leclerc is an unintentionally evasive character, and the shoot was not without its own ups and downs given the peripatetic and often haphazard nature of his life, when the spirit moves him he’s up and at it like a true pro. Talking heads help to break up the tonal intensity of Leclerc’s experience as fellow alpinists share their stories — some amusing, some intriguing in this heady foray into this extreme sport. MT

IN CINEMAS FROM 24 SEPTEMBER 2021

Copilot (2021)

Dir.: Anna Zohar Berrached; Cast: Canan Kir, Roger Azar, Ozay Fecht, Julia Roth, Ceci Chuh; Germany/France 2021, 118 min.

German director Anna Zohra Berrached is the daughter of an Algerian immigrant who grew up in the GDR. Her sophomore feature, a complex character study, follows a Muslim couple in late 1999s Germany before the world was changed forever by the turbulent events of 9/11. Based loosely on one of the pilots (Ziad Jarrah) who actually took part in the atrocity (Ziad Jarrah), the film asks the question: how much do we really know about people close to us?

Asli (Kir) is a brilliant medical student, shy and insecure. She falls for a Lebanese student Saeed (Azar), whose dream is to be a pilot, but his wealthy traditional family refuse to support him, Asli’s Turkish just wanting her to marry the ‘right’ husband. Saeed is certainly not on this list partly because of his Arabic background. so the lovers will later marry in secret, but not before Saeed becomes more radical in his views, giving up alcohol and avoiding sex with Asli, telling her: “I don’t want to be like the Germans, who sleep around”.

But there are warning signs from the beginning. Saaed’s anti-Israel remarks soon make the two of them social outcasts amongst their group of friends as Saaed starts proselytising Islam to them and eventually Saeed disappears off to Yemen for a while. And when he comes back his behaviour has changed radically. Suddenly, he decides to take up his pilot licence in Florida, the cheapest and quickest way possible. Asli joins him and they fly together as she gradually becoming his titular co-pilot. Returning to Germany for an operation, Asli comes round from the anaesthetic to see breaking news about the 9/11 disaster on her beside TV. But Saeed’s mobile is switched off.

With its multi-lingual cast and differing cultural touchstones Copilot had quite a laborious scripting and filming process, and as the story unfolds hope gradually fades as Asil loses her focus on reality, preoccupied with work. As for Saeed, he lived in a dream world, sustained by a nightmare: his final letter to his wife is proof of his ghastly fantasy: “The world will be a different one, and happier for all”.

RELEASED IN UK & IRELAND IN CINEMAS 10 SEPTEMBER 2021

Marceline. A Woman. A Century. (2021)

Dir.: Cordelia Dvoràk; Documentary with Marceline Loridan-Ivens, Simone Veil, Judith Perignin, Jean-Pierre Sergent; France/Netherlands 2018, 76 min.

Cordelia Dvoràk’s biopic about the life of filmmaker and author Marceline Loridan-Ivens (1928- 2018) is an example of the triumph of opposition: Fourteen year-old Marceline Rozenberg was imprisoned in Bollène (Vaucluse) then deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau on 13.4,1944, having worked with her father Szlama for the resistance. She did not only survive Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and Terezin (Theresienstadt), but became a filmmaker, working with her husband Joris Ivens (1898-1989) in Vietnam and China.

Loridan-Ivens was one of only 2500 French Jews who survived deportation, just under three percent of the total of 76 000 victims. After watching Loridan-Ivens signing copies of her auto-biography ‘Et tu n’es pas Revenu’, she meets co-author Judith Perignon in her Parisian flat, a cheerful place with flowers everywhere. This sets the tone of an upbeat documentary: the old Marceline talking to her young self. “Hunger, beatings, thirst. People die, and you instantly forget them. No soul is left. I can see her clearly, that little girl that is still inside me to this day. She is fairly shy”. Marceline met Simone Veil in Block 9, and the once Minister of Culture makes a (too) short visit.

After her liberation by the Red Army in May 1945, she returned to Paris where her mother “wanted her daughter to marry into Jewish families, have children and erase the past”. But “sexuality was a form of disobedience”, and Marceline, who never wanted children on her own, preferred to visit the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris and sit in bistros to discuss the past and present. This is how she met documentary filmmakers Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin, whose star she became in Cronique d’un Ete (Chronicle of a Summer) in 1961. It also led to a liaison with 18 year-old journalist Jean-Pierre Sergent, who was supposed to teach Marceline all about Philosophy so that she could prepare to study at the university. But the two became lovers and later filmmakers in their own right, having discovered that filmmaking was not that difficult. The duo was very much a supporter of the FNL, Marceline even carrying suitcases for the FNL. The result was the documentary Algeria Année Zero. Today, Loridan-Ivens is very critical of herself: “We thought the FLN was led by progressive militants, little did we know the majority had their roots in Islamic fundamentalism.”

She met Joris Ivens whilst watching his feature A Valparaiso. He was impressed by Marceline, sending her flowers, but then disappearing for months. When they met again, they stayed together until Ivens’ death. The couple lived like vagabonds, Ivens being “very macho” at the beginning, but Marceline “imposed her will on him.” The past suddenly becomes the present, when Mrs. Phuong arrives from Vietnam to invite Marceline for the 50th Anniversary screening of The 17. Parallel, the couple’s iconic Vietnam documentary, with Mrs. Phuong not only doing the translating, but was also offering technical support. Next for the filmmakers was China, then ostracised by the whole world, after their split with the Soviet-Union.

Joris and Marceline documented the last two years of the cultural Revolution in the 763-minute epic How Yu Kong moved the Mountains (1976), which was to be shown in twelve parts. With “The Band of Four” making a power-grab, Premier Zhou Enlai told the filmmakers to leave the country immediately. Jean Bigiaoui, who worked with the crew, gives a lively commentary on the (film)adventure. We watch clips from Franck Leplat’s 2015 documentary Marceline Loridan-Ivens racontant sou passage a la prison de Sainte-Anneavant (2015). Loridan-Ivens is, for once, very bitter on the commentary. She remembers singing for her father, whose cell was near to her own. But this sets her off into an angry monologue about “never forgiving” the perpetrators.

Marceline is the only Auschwitz-Birkenau survivor who returned to the camp and made her own feature film about her incarceration there: La Petite Prairie aux Bouleaux (The Birch Tree Meadow) 2003. Anouk Aimée plays Marceline’s Alter Ego, who meets a German photographer and questions him about his motives for taking photos in the ruins of the camp. Marceline was not quiet satisfied with her effort: “The concept of a documentary was not enough, because I wanted a representation. I should have played myself.”

Marceline Loridan-Ivens died on 18.9.2018, six weeks after this documentary was finished. She wanted to be buried, even though it frightened her. “But everything is better than being burned”. AS

NOW ON TRUE STORY at all leading platforms | From September 17

Calling All Stars (1937)

Dir: Herbert Smith | With: Larry Adler, Arthur Askey, Bert Ambrose, Caroll Gibbons, Evelyn Dall | UK Musical 75′

Shown in the small hours by Talking Pictures, this tinny Joe Rock potboiler is of archival interest for the visual record it provides of the likes of The Mills Brothers, Mantovani and Nat Gonella, loosely held together by a farcical plot involving Clapham & Dwyer in the doghouse for saying a naughty word on the air and getting involved with Claude Dampier as a gormless rat poison salesman rejoicing in the name of Pomphrey Featherstone-Chew.

Purportedly the film debut of Arthur Askey, a sassy young Evelyn Dall supplies the glamour; and the finale is broadcast using television technology far in advance of that actually then available. @Richard Chatten.

TALKING PICTURES TV

Silent Land (2021)

Dir: Aga Woszczyńska | Poland, Drama 112′

In Aga Woszczyńska’s impressive first feature, a Polish couple’s relationship exposes serious fault-lines during a stressful Italian vacation where everything goes wrong.

Polish filmmakers certainly know how to be provocative and push the boundaries where love and sex are concerned and Silent Land excels in ramping up the tension in this subversive and acutely piquant two hander.

A cleverly written script and choice visuals keep us engaged with an all too familiar holiday scenario primped with surprising twists and turns enough to derail the most loved-up up romantic break. And what initially feels like an ideal marriage soon shows cracks that run deeper than those in the dirty and disused swimming pool that awaits this couple in their dream villa.

Confronted by builders who can’t speak English – or Polish for that matter – Adam and Anna head for the idyllic beach for some rest and relaxation. On their return the pool has been repainted but still lacks the requisite water, and a serious accident poolside involving the immigrant builder then deep-sixes any chance of a late afternoon swim. Soon the owner and the paramedics arrive and as the two holidaymakers give evidence in the ensuing police investigation, a dark vein of humour creeps into the narrative ‘lost in translation style’ when the carabinieri also turn up, and clearly don’t speak much English either. But why should they?.

The compliant Poles are only too delighted to accompany the police to the station to help with inquiries, their holiday clearly heading into a disaster zone for no fault of their own. A Kafkaesque scenario develops when the detective leading the inquiry picks apart their statement and asks them to return for further questioning. The tables are gradually turned as the justifiably disgruntled clients soon become unwitting suspects in an accidental death inquiry.

There are certainly touches of Michael Haneke’s observational storytelling in the precise framing as the voyeuristic camerawork tracks the couple in silent contemplation or sharing a private joke. The Colombo style police procedural has a understandably unsettling and de-stabilising affect on the couples’ sense of integrity and tranquility as they start to question their own response to the tragedy as foreigners in a unfamiliar environment increasingly coming under the xenophobic spotlight of a tightly knit community far away from home. Tense and highly intelligent filmmaking. MT

ON RELEASE NATIONWIDE FROM 23 SEPTEMBER 2022 | TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL

 

 

Annette (2021)

Dir/Wri: Leos Carax | Marion Cotillard, Adam Driver, Simon Helberg | Drama France, 139′

French auteur Leos Carax last graced the Croisette with Holy Motors a weird and mysterious odyssey into the mind of one man. Annette his latest creation sees him back in Cannes nine years later with another cinematic sensation: another journey into the complexities of male psyche that explores the nature of fame and the fragility of love through his first English language film.

Adam Driver haunts this moody modern opera with a muscular expressiveness that lurches from rage to almost religious fervour as offbeat comedian Henry, although his comedy act sequences are overlong and not particularly amusing and detract from the central narrative which already has more than enough references to his anger issues. Marion Cotillard shimmers exquisitely as the diva he falls for but the baby they make together is simply out of the world.

Visually stunning in the style of Holy Motors, is Caroline Champetier once again beguiles with her luscious cinematography in a highly original film that blends its bizarre ideas and tonal switches with elegance, always surprising the audience: particularly with erotic sex scenes laced with obsidian black humour: this is a richly thematic modern classic with a focus firmly in the future.

The cult rock band Sparks performs and composes a score that is daringly racy and poignant in the style of a Greek tragedy (complete with a black female chorus) where its central character Henry (Driver) is a meglamaniac narcissist whose lust for new experiences and extreme carnal compulsion will be his devastating downfall, destroying everything challenging his dominance.

Opera singer Ann (Marion Cotillard) melts his heart with her dulcet tones – for a while at least – and the two wander deliriously in a verdant garden of Eden crooning the film’s catchy musical leit-motif “We Love Each Other So Much”. and soon their baby Annette is born and their joy now complete.

But storm clouds soon gather over on the loved-up paradise in a melodramatic tone shift. Carax goes into overdrive in a full-blown expose of macho toxicity where passions are given full throttle during Henry’s hysterical nighttime motorbike rides home to his tropical hideaway, the dizzying camerawork  recalling Holy Motors’ nocturnal taxi forays. There is a third narrative strand in shape of Simon Helberg’s compelling turn as Ann’s spurned lover now reduced to her accompanying pianist at her elegantly-staged opera gigs. Once again Cotillard get the chance to play Lady Macbeth and this will be teased out suggestively in the film’s third act.

Baby Annette is like a benign female version of ‘Chucky’, her blue eyes and auburn locks adding an endearing appeal and vulnerability to the subtle scariness she engenders but also hinting at A.I. She will grow up to be a thoughtful and intuitive little girl, whose presence pivotal to the storyline. At this point Carax uses the female chorus to clever effect as a #MeToo theme kicks in and this feeds into Henry’s violent anger management issues which are now the central focus of the story and pivotal to the final reveal.

Annette is a compelling visual masterpiece that utterly captivates and confuses for nearly two and half hours. An atmospheric soundscape, dreamlike images and extraordinary performances coalesce in a contemporary rock melodrama the like of which has never been seen before, and it world premieres here at Cannes. MT

NOW ON RELEASE AT CURZON

Gaia (2021)

Dir: Jaco Bouwer | Cast: Monique Rockman, Carel Nel, Alex van Dyk, Anthony Oseyemi | US Eco-thriller, 97′

South African director Jaco Bouwer delivers a stunning eco thriller that’s less impressive on the narrative front despite a beguiling premise that unfolds in the mysterious depths of the country’s atavistic Tsitsikamma rain forest, home to some terrifying species.

South Africa’s rangers are well known for their intricate knowledge of the animals that inhabit the wild untamed landscapes of the Cape and beyond. But during a routine mission with her colleague Winston (Oseyemi), nothing prepares Bouwer’s heroine Gabi (Rockman) for the terrifying alien predators that lurk in the undergrowth. And when she is injured by a poisoned spear, help arrives in the shape of two mysterious human beings who initially save her life. These ‘post-apocalyptic survivalists’, father and son Barend and Stefan, are clearly versed in all sorts of natural medicine, but lying in a state of semi-sedation, Gabi starts to wonder whether they are as benign as they appear, while trying to contact Winston who has disappeared into the forest. Communicating exclusively in Africaans with the surreal cavemen-like couple Gabi is nevertheless none the wiser as to their motives. Things take a sinister turn when Winston is invaded by flesh-eating lichen like funghi and Gabi’s hopes of escape start to diminish. Bouwer comes up with some stunningly imaginative special effects captured by Jorrie van Der Walt’s immaculate lensing. But Tertius Kapp’s storyline is just too slow-burning and enigmatic to keep us engaged despite the film’s modest running time. Although highly entertaining for body horror fans, Gaia is perhaps best described as style over substance. MT

IN CINEMAS FROM 27 SEPTEMBER 2021

 

The Last Bus (2020)

Dir.: Gillies MacKinnon; Cast: Timothy Spall, Phyllis Logan, Natalie Mitson, Ben Ewing; UK 2021, 86 min.

The Last Bus is something between a feel-good-movie and an elegy on death in modern Britain seen through rose-tinted specs. Carried by the great Timothy Spall, it somehow lacks enough information on the character he plays, eighty-something Tom Harper, who is taking his wife Mary’s ashes all the way from John O’Groats to Lands End, making the 838-mile journey on public transport thanks to his bus pass.

After Mary’s death Tom’s reverse journey is a nod to the past, with flashbacks of their married life together as a young couple (Natalie Mitson/Ben Ewing) when they first made the trip, through to the present day. Undeterred by terminal cancer, Tom still firing on most of his cylinders: helping when the bus breaks down and rooting for a racially abused fellow passenger. As the bus travels southwards we’ll get to know more about Tom’s trails and tribulations finishing on a high note on his arrival in Lands End

The contrast between the early 1950s and today Britain seems more positive than realistic: the good old days reflect the happiness of Tom’s married bliss with Mary, nothing seemingly dimming their nirvana, even 70 years later. The goodwill shown by nearly everyone towards the pensioner seems idealist given what most older people have to put up with. Nostalgia rules visual and tonally, the characters reflecting this bland idealism in their conventional rather make-believe lives. A touch of irony would have been welcome to take the edge off the sweetness, Spall breathing life into a chocolate box existence. AS

ON RELEASE FROM 20 August 2021

Mandragore (1952)

Dir: Arthur Maria Rabenalt | Cast: Hildegard Knef, Erich von Stroheim, Trude Hesterberg, Denise Vernac, Harry Holm | Fantasy Drama 92′

The fifth and – to date – last film version of Hanns Heinz Ewers’ 1911 bestseller is handsomely mounted, interestingly cast but far too talky. It worked far better as a silent film, with Brigitte Helm much more convincing than dear Hildegard Knef as the soulless product of artificial insemination.

By bestowing such inauspicious parenthood upon his creation Professor Jacob ten Brinken (Erich von Stroheim!) explicitly states that his desire is to inject a bit of depravity in the female genes in order to create a more  exotic bloom by unnatural means than two upstanding citizens could ever hope to produce; although real life is constantly demonstrating that Mother Nature can always be depended on to bring into the world plenty of young women with more conventional antecedents that would be capable of wreaking just as much havoc among the male sex.

Although Ewers was initially an enthusiastic supporter of the New Order and joined the NSDAP in 1931 – and Alraune clearly reflected the eugenics debate that Hitler brought into disrepute – it wasn’t filmed during the Nazi era. The director of this postwar version, Arthur Maria Rabenalt, had been an enthusiastic propagandist for the Nazi regime, which makes him an ironic choice for such potentially touchy subject matter. @Richard Chatten

Escher: Journey Into Infinity (2020)

Dir.: Robin Lutz; Documentary with George and Jan Eschen, Liesbeth Escher-Hogenhout; Netherlands 2018, 80 min.

Like many before him Dutch graphic artist M(aurits) C(ornells) Eschen (1898-1972) came late to fame. But his influence, particularly in pop-culture, is still growing. This might seem to be a contradiction, since Escher was a modest creative who told his admirers he was not clever enough to be an academic and had to wait until 1970 for his first exhibition. But he doubted his artistic talents because he believed a ‘real’ artist should not enjoy his work but be tortured in creating it

Escher met his wife, 24-year old Russian émigré Yetta Umica, in Ravello in 1923. The couple married in Viareggio a year later and settled in Italy where Escher marvelled at the blue skies “colour was needed, but I did not want colour”. He often sketched at nigh-time although he maintained: “the reality of the day is like a dream”.

Escher and his wife travelled on a cargo ship to Valencia, paying their way with ten drawings, which the company used for advertising. They then travelled through southern Spain to Granada where he worked every day in the Alhambra. Escher was particularly struck by the geometric figures used by the Moors. Back home in the Netherlands he worked from dawn to dusk “so that the inner images came out”. One of his most famous drawings was of people living in the ‘second and third dimension’ but never meeting on imaged of stairs, one person going up as the other went down. Mathematics became increasingly important to his work leading him to pose the question: “Is it still art?”. But as son Jan comments, “work was opium for him.”

By now, the Germans had occupied the country, and Jewish artists could not exhibit any more. Escher cancelled his membership of the Artists’ Society and the Graphic Association. He rescued over two hundred drawings from his art teacher, one of the many deported to the death camps. When the wartime food supply dwindled Yetta sacrificed her own well-being, saving what little was available for the three sons.

After the end of WWII, she became more and more fragile and her mental health deteriorated. She would later travel to Switzerland and live with her son and his wife Liesbeth, but they eventually had to put her into a nursing home. She survived her husband who died after numerous operations for cancer.

MC Escher had been supported by his wealthy parents for most of his life, but an interview with ‘Time-Life’ in the 1960s raised the profile of his work and he became famous virtually overnight. One of his most famous concepts pictured people as wheels, rolling forward. When he listened to Bach’s St. Matthew oratorio, he imaged the cathedral floating over the ocean to New York and San Francisco. And this drawing with its psychedelic beauty found many admirers in the growing counter-culture, even though Escher had little in common with the flower-power generation.

Stephen Fry reads Escher’s letters as a v.o. Music by Bach dominates the feature, hardly a co-incidence since the composer himself admired mathematics. Escher was a certainly a person of substance and wild imagination, and deserves all the plaudits he gets after a life of self-doubt. AS

NOW ON RELEASE

Human Factors (2021)

Dir.: Ronny Trocker; Cast: Max Waschke, Sabine Timoteo, Jude Hermann, Wanja Valentin Kube, Daniel Séjourné; Italy/Germany/Denmark 2021, 102 min.

Italian-born Ronny Trocker’s intelligent but underpowered invasion thriller has the same fault line that runs through many German features of the past few decades: a premise that looks promising on paper but fails to come alive cinematically because everything has to serve the central construct. This may work for Michael Haneke but Trocker’s film lacks the narrative heft that makes Haneke’s features so absorbing. DoP Klemens Hufnagl tries for a ‘Huis clos’ atmosphere but he’s further hemmed in by the narrative confines, and the actors can’t inject much verve either with their underwritten characters.

Human Factors centres on a repressed and deeply conflicted upper-middle class family. For some light relief they take a break in a holiday home in Belgium near the German border but this is a sticking plaster rather than a solution to their woes. Husband Jan (Waschke) and wife Nina (Timoteo) run a PR agency in Germany, but politically they are poles apart and this tension bleeds into their ongoing campaign in the run up the country’s elections. Their kids are suffering too: Teenage daughter Emma (Hermann) is having problems at school and hanging out with the wrong crowd, her young brother Max (Kube) has lost the plot completely and is only interested in his pet rat Zorrow.

The holiday gets off to a bad start with a bungled burglary, the repercussions having a knock on affect for all concerned in this Rashomon like set-up. Nina’s gay brother Flo (Séjourné) and his partner then fetch up on the scene, and this doesn’t go down well with the rather homophobic Jan, opening up further avenues of discontent. Back in Germany on the Monday, things just go from bad to worse. AS

IN SELECTED CINEMAS FROM 15 February 2022 | SUNDANCE LONDON premiere |

 

Misha and the Wolves (2021)

Dir.: Sam Hobkinson; Documentary with Misha Defonseca, Jane Daniel, Evelyn Haendel, Sharon Seargant; Belgium/UK 2021, 89 min.

Sam Hobkinson (Fear City) tells one of the most bizarre stories of modern times. Misha and the Wolves could be a fairy tale, but it turns into a nightmare – and then into something completely beyond the wildest imagination.

In the remote town of Millis, Massachusetts. Belgian immigrant Misha Defonseca regaled friends and neighbours with her experiences during the Holocaust. She told the members of Temple Bel Torah how, as a little girl in during wartime 1941, she left her loveless foster home and began to search for her biological  parents who had been deported to a death camp. Taking up with a pack of wolves she walked on foot from Belgium to Germany, it what would be an eventful and violent journey.

One of her neighbours of Defonseca Jane Daniel, ran a small publishing company, the Mt. Ivy Press and offered to publish the memoir as ‘Misha: A memoire of the Holocaust Years’. It came out in 1997 and was a great success, as was the French version. In 2007, the French filmmaker Vera Belmont shot the story as Survivre avec les Loups. But the cracks started to show: Defonseca took Daniel to court, over her refusal to be interviewed by Oprah Winfrey. Next came a major discovery: Defonseca had used two different versions of her birth name: one for the America edition, one for the French one. Than everything unravelled quickly, thanks to forensic genealogist Sharon Sergeant, and Evelyne Haendel, a Belgian researcher and Holocaust survivor. What emerged was a completely different version of events.  Misha was born in 1937 as Monique de Wael to catholic parents in Etterbeek, Belgium. She never left home as a child.

Hobkinson then uses the Errol Morris technique, turning the narrative into a Patricia Highsmith style story where the focus is no longer Defonseca – but a gullible public on both sides of the Atlantic intrigued to have discered just another plucky Jewish survivor. The guilt surrounding lack of social responsibility during the Shoah still haunts communities who react with denial (as in Poland) or half-truths as they do in France. Misha’s real story is also chained to this process of uncovering the kindness of strangers who courageously risked their own safety to help Jews. Opportunism is still rife in the publishing world, Jane Daniel being only one example. DoP Will Pugh documents this torrid tale of a deception that provides a welcome version of the truth, an antidote to bestseller spin. Misha Forenseca still lives in Millis. AS

NOW ON RELEASE

Sabaya (2021)

Dir.: Hogir Hirori; Documentary with Mahmud, Siham, Shadi, Sheik Zyad; Sweden 2021, 91 min.

Kurdish director/writer/DoP/editor Hogir Hirori (The Deminer) has certainly ventured where few other filmmakers dare to go: he follows Kurdish resistance fighters, both men and women, in their efforts to liberate young Kurdish women who have been abducted, raped and sold by members of Daesh, during their reign of terror which lasted from 2014 to 2019. The Yazidi, a Kurdish minority religion, was one of their fiercest opponents, and Daesh took it out on them: By 2016 over two thousand six hundred women and girls – some still babies – were abducted, 3793 remain as sex slaves until now, given the titular name of Sabaya by their captors.

Mahmud, a Syrian, seems to live where he works, the ‘Yazidi Home Centre’ in north-east Syria. Mahmud and Sheik Zyad, the director of the Centre, lead a group sending female “infiltrators” into the nearby ‘Al-Hol’ refuge camp to locate Yazidi women. Daesh is trying to reconstitute itself by selling Yazidi women to sex trafficking groups. Bereft of any political aim, they are simply a Mafia organisation. Some of the Yazidi women are sold up to 15 times to different sex-slave operators. The fighter’s most important allies are older Arabic women who “look after” the captured Kurdish women evading Mahmud and his female spies by changing tents when the liberators arrive. The search is hampered by their inability to identify the women, post capture, and this is their main setback. Even when a positive identification is made, the real trouble begins: the liberators – including Hirori – are shot at in their cars, and near the end there is an armed attack on the Centre itself. Eylol, the commander of the female troops, also has to use rifles. The number of nationalities in the Camp makes is even more difficult and dangerous to spring the Yazidi women: 58 nationalities are involved, among them citizens of Morocco, Tunisia, Russia, Chechnya, France and Somalia.

Mahmund, whose wife Siham and young son Shadi suffer from his regular absence; but when he visits the nearby Hassaker Prison, where Daesh prisoners are kept, he can confirm the identity of Leila and Dilsoz, who were abducted from the city of Sinjar. Leila has a baby from her Daesh rapist/husband, but when even if her family are alive it’s doubtful they will welcome her with open arms. Finally, young Mitra, who is unable to speak or understand anything but Arabic, will be re-united with her parents – if they can be found. To date, 206 Yazidi women and girls have been rescued, 52 had children born after a rape. When Mahmud takes five of the liberated women to Sinjar, he brings back the same number of female infiltrators.

Like his ‘hosts’, Hirori certainly put his life at stake during the nightly raids. Sabaya is a chronicle of courage, it is filmed like a diary, avoiding dramatic arcs – the continuous action speaks for itself. It could be considered a thriller – but that would sensationalise its sad subject matter. The reality can be found in the faces of the ‘liberated’ women – to call hem the lucky ones would be a sad euphemism. Brutal and unforgiving, Sabaya is a unique tale, told under the most hazardous circumstances. AS

IN CINEMAS FROM 20 AUGUST 2021

 

Nitram (2021)

Dir: Justin Kurzel | Cast: Caleb Landry Jones, Judy Davis, Essie Davis, Anthony LaPaglia, Sean Keenan, Conrad Brandt | Australia: Drama 118′

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 – as 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 opens a story driven forward by an 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.

But his unpredictability is nerve-shredder here. And the film open with a typical episode of antisocial behaviour when Nitram sets off firecrackers  from the rooftop of his parent’s house in a bid to dispel his sense of ennui and hopelessness – there’s nothing else to do here but surf, and we watch him floundering in the waves, driven to tears by another failed attempt to stay onboard.

Port Arthur feels more like an English seaside town in the 1960s, charmingly down-at-heel and raffling. Redolent of its faded but questionable glory as a colonial outpost, basking in the lush green landscapes leading down to the sea. But when Nitram meets ditzy local heiress and Gilbert & Sullivan fan Helen (Essie Davis) things are set to change. An offer to mow the extensive lawns of her rambling mansion with its menagerie of dogs leads to a touching friendship, Nitram finding acceptance and a contentment of sorts as the misunderstood misfits rub along together in a ‘folie a deux’ before thunder clouds once again gather and his fate is finally sealed.

Kurzel and Grant show how Nitram is unable to empathise as a result of his dysfunctional family dynamic. Davis and LaPaglia are charismatic as his callous mother and depressive father, Nitram’s flawed emotional touchstones as the story seethes towards a devastating finale. All this contrasts with the serene shambolic beauty of the painterly settings – particularly of Helen’s home. This is a mesmerising look at mental illness made all the more pitiful by the tragedy that could have been avoided. As a master of quirky psychological dramas Kurzel is back at the top of his game. MT

IN CINEMAS FROM 1 JULY 2022

Shorta (2020)

Dir.: Frederik Louis Hviid, Anders Olholm; Cast: Jacob Lohmann. Simon Sears, Tarek Zayat, Al Jabouri, Issa Khattab; Denmark 2020, 108 min.

Shorta is an intelligent a police thriller tucking a range of weighty social issues firmly under its belt for an adrenaline-powered ride.

Danish first time directors/writers Frederik Hviid and Anders Olholm unpack the role of the today’s police in a crime caper that never lets up in dealing with racism, immigration and misogyny. The violence is hard-hitting but never gratuitous.

We start with the familiar good cop/bad cop routine: a day after a teenage immigrant is gravely injured by police, the squad boss asks officer Jens Hoyer (Sears) to keep an eye on fellow officer Jacob Lohmann (Andersen) who has a track records of open racism and misogyny, and enjoys provoking immigrants – something to be avoided on a day of high tension, even so when their patrol covers the infamous Svalegarden estate where the young victim lived.

At first the cops’ behaviour is true to form: Hoyer the voice of reason, Lohmann a brutal bully. Their relationship is made even more fraught by Jens having been a witness when the teenager was put in an arm lock by the police. Lohmann more or less threatens Hoyer to lie to the internal investigators maintaining that no excess force was used during the incident – appealing to his esprit de corps. Enter Amos (Zayat), a teenager from the same estate, deliberately throwing a milkshake at the two officers in the squad car. Amos is arrested and it soon emerges that  the victim of police brutality has died in hospital and more violence follows for all concerned.

Although the director keeps his distance, his message is clear as day: the police cannot be expected to deal with issues caused by politics and parents who are no longer responsible or even interested in their kids. There are two scenes which really are heart-breaking: Lohmann fighting a German Shepherd in a lift: no prizes for guessing who survives. When are filmmakers going to stop kill off their dog characters? Still, Shorta makes its point and is entertaining – if you disconnect from reality. AS

ON RELEASE IN CINEMAS FROM 30 AUGUST 2021

Anaïs in Love (2021)

Dir: Charlene Bourgeois-Tacquet | Cast: Valerie Bruni-Tedeschi, Anais Demoustier, Denis Podalydes, Jean-Charles Clichet,

Anaïs in Love is light, fluffy but real in its depiction of a young girl enjoying her Parisian life, flirting and indulging in a varied sex life while trying to pay the rent – and who better to play her than a gorgeously flip and froufrou Anais Demoustier who strikes just the right chord between frivolousness and concern for her mother, recently diagnosed with cancer, as the titular Anaïs, who can shed a tear although a smile is never far from her pouting red lips.

This is French filmmaker Charline Bourgeois-Tacquet’s feature debut and she writes and directs with confidence and a lightness of touch in a freewheeling narrative that sashays gaily around Paris in the summer. Of course, it always helps to have Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi in this sort of upbeat sweet-hearted drama, and she adds a touch of class in her usual slightly ‘distraite’ style as Emilie, a vaguely blue-stocking woman who lectures on creative writing at a summer school that piques Anais’ attention. The two bond immediately, drawn together  by the stylish allure they both exude, and a strong sexual attraction.

Of course, Anaïs is short of cash and has to blag herself onto the class where upfront payment is de rigueur. Here she meets Yoann whose father has just died of cancer, reminding Anaïs to write to her mother (cue John Ireland’s mournful score of “When I am dead”). But it’s Emilie who holds the strongest interest for the young Anaïs, until it turns out that they also share the same man, in the shape of much older Daniel (Denis Podalydes) who turns up unexpectedly to join the fun in this enjoyable literary-themed romantic drama with its scarlet aesthetic and vibrant lesbian twist. MT

COMING TO CINEMAS ON 19 August 2022

Where is Anne Frank? (2021)

Dir: Ari Folman | With voices of Emily Carey, Ruby Stokes, Neil Barlow, Skye Bennett, Sebastian Croft, Stewart Scudamore | US Animation 109′

On a dark stormy night in Amsterdam a red-haired beauty breaks into the city’s Holocaust Museum and steals a diary from a crystal showcase. The woman is Kitty and the daybook belonged to the famous woman who created it, Annelies Marie Frank (1929-45).

Ari Folman’s latest animation is a playfully evocative take on the tragedy of Anne Frank (Emily Carey) whose final months are reflected through the eyes of her gadabout muse and confidante Kitty, vividly brought to life here by Ruby Stokes. Bristling with ideas that buzz around like fireflies in the vibrantly rendered animations, this clever imagined drama offers a slice of European social and political history pulsing to an upbeat syncopated score, but doom is never far away.

Ink spots on the diary implode to expose episodes of Anne’s daily life before and after her Jewish family’s confinement in the Amsterdam attic, Folman reveals a tense and introspective young daddy’s girl (her father Otto was the sole survivor) escaping into her imagination, pushed away by an unloving mother, an envious elder sister (Margot) and a collection of unsuitable boyfriends in the shape of Herman Kupman and Rob Cohen, growing up in wartime Amsterdam. Finally she settles for the gentle unassuming hypochondriac Peter van Daan, thoughtfully voiced by Sebastian Croft.

In the present day, Kitty comes alive as an inquiring young ‘girl about town’ desperate to find out what happened to her creator, who disappeared nearly eighty years ago. Gradually the past and present collide through a kaleidoscope of comic and tragic touchstones: flashbacks to Anne’s final birthday with a cake and bottle of ‘4711’ cologne; Nazi troops marching into the city as supersized Darth Vader monsters shrouded in black; the ‘Occupy Europe’ era. The current immigration crisis shoehorned in as a pivotal plot twist is inspired, but somehow a step too far.

More convincing is the film’s ‘cancel culture’ theme that sees the wan and prickly teenage Anne confessing to missing the cinema as she huddles with her family in their attic hideout while the Nazis set fire to the city, banning Jews from everywhere in the ensuing mayhem. Her dream that Clark Gable will scoop her up on a white charger and save her from the macabre encroaching enemy feels real and poignant with its nod to the pandemic.

In their hideout the Frank family are joined by the genteel Van Daans. This allows Folman to make some amusing observations about living in close quarters with strangers: how do you cope with flatulence when your diet consists largely of cabbage? Then there’s the well-worn  hypochondria theme seen through Peter’s penchant for staying in bed all day feigning illness.

After Anne’s ‘disappearance’ Kitty files a ‘missing person’s report’ and meets little Ava who has managed to enter Europe by boat courtesy of her sailor father. The police are ever vigilant, one officer has an Israeli accent, but the shadow of the death camps darkens the film’s final segment in haunting widescreen animations picturing trains travelling East to Westerbork transit camp where Anne and her mother are briefly united before she goes with Margot to Bergen Belsen and beyond.

There is a romantic scene towards the end that captures Anne and Peter kissing under a frosty star-strewn sky, set to Chopin’s Piano Etude #3 In E. this is the loveliest memory of a film that occasionally dazzles with its trove of thoughts and memories of a terrible time in history when Europe was divided as it is, once again, today. MT

IN CINEMAS FROM 12 AUGUST 2022

Freaky (2020)

Dir: Christopher Landon | US Comedy Horror 98′

A fun and freaky body-swap film that sees a bullied beauty become the target of a serial killer on the run whose mystical dagger sets in motion an unlikely switcheroo. Worse still the young schoolgirl has only twenty four hours to return to her original form before she is stuck as the hideous “Blissfield butcher” forever.

Vince Vaughn is astonishingly complex in his teenage girl guise carrying this film through a largely predictable storyline with some inspired gore-filled set pieces echoing Freaky Friday in a comedy slasher that’s more weird than scary, but certainly entertaining and confidently put together by Landon who is best known for his 2017 outing Happy Death Day.

Meanwhile Millie (Kathryn Newton) recruits her friends (Misha Osherovich and Celeste O’Connor) to help her get back to normal and garners considerable emotional and physical power as a 6.5 foot man – offering some food for thought with the boot on the other foot. There’s also a flirty frisson going on in the background between Vaughn’s teen transformation and Millie’s high school crush (Uriah Shelton). And you don’t often see that kind of subplot is this kind of movie. MT

OUT IN CINEMAS FROM 1 July 2021

Eternal Love (1929) Prime Video

Dir: Ernst Lubitsch | Cast: John Barrymore, Camilla Horn | German, 61′

Eternal Love was the final silent film made by Ernst Lubitsch and John Barrymore. Based on a 1900 novel by J.C.Heer called ‘Der Koenig der Bernina’, the feature is fairly typical of the cross-pollination then common between Europe and Hollywood, with a German director and scriptwriter and female leading actress, sets and costumes by Caligari veteran Walter Reimann and Banff National Park in Canada standing in for the Swiss Alps in 1806.

Despite the high-powered talent brought to bear on it, Eternal Love for the most part lacks Lubitsch’s customary saucy wit promised in the earlier scenes featuring the saucy Mona Rico, and seems rather perfunctory compared to G.W.Pabst’s similar but far superior Weiße Hölle vom Piz Palü released later the same year. Oliver Marsh’s photography would plainly be far more impressive in its pristine nitrate form than the rather blurry version available today, while the drab Vitaphone score by Hugo Riesenfeld also rather holds it back.

The luminescent final shot of the moon emerging as the clouds part strikingly anticipates Crack in the World (1965), directed 35 years later by Eternal Love’s editor Andrew Marton, which ends with a shot almost identical to that of Eternal Love, except that at the end of Marton’s later film there are two moons…@Richard Chatten

NOW ON PRIME VIDEO

Lifeboat (1944) TPTV

Dir: Alfred Hitchcock | Cast: Tallulah Bankhead, John Hodiak, Walter Slezak, William Bendix, Mary Anderson, Henry Hull | US Drama  97′

That the celebrity of Hitchcock’s films bears no relation to their actual achievement is attested to by the obscurity in which this little beauty continues to languish.

Having already set The Lady Vanishes largely on a train, although Hitchcock never got to make a film entirely set in a phone booth (as he once longingly speculated), he comes close with this bold and stylish exercise that anticipates his own Rope and 12 Angry Men by making a film consisting entirely of people talking within a confined space. (And also contains a ferocious murder unaccompanied by music like that in Torn Curtain.)

Although obviously shot entirely in the studio tank, it’s still a thoroughly cinematic experience thanks to a script as raw as the strictures of the Hays Office would then permit, gothic photography by Glenn MacWilliams capable of virtuoso effects like sweat breaking on a man’s brow and consistently superb performances (one of them from Hume Cronyn, who latter collaborated on the screenplay of Rope), including a typically ambivalent Hitchcock ambivalent villain, as ruthless and resourceful as Eric Portman had been in 49th Parallel.

(Also as in Rope, Hitchcock himself got round the problem of making his appearance by featuring in an advertisement for Reduco – the “Obesity Slayer”. @Richard Chatten

NOW ON TALKING PICTURES TV | PRIME VIDEO

The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) Prime Video

Dir: Anthony Mann | Cast: Christopher Plummer, Sophia Loren, James Mason, Alex Guinness | US Action drama

Samuel Bronston’s answer to Heaven’s Gate is usually dismissed as inferior to El Cid, but The Fall of the Roman Empire still has recent Desert Island Disks castaway Sophia Loren in it (according to George MacDonald Fraser the historical Livia was “a murderous adultress who tried to assassinate her brother”, so maybe Lollobrigida should have played her after all); plus the inevitable Finlay Currie clinching this film’s credentials as a bona fide vintage historical epic. There is also the bonus of Alec Guinness and James Mason.

The late Christopher Plummer meanwhile hit his stride as a screen actor as the seriously mad Emperor Commodus. (He and director Anthony Mann had a such a blast working together they were keen to do another picture together; but Mann sadly died only four years and one and a half films later before that could happen.)

The fact that it was a colossal financial (and critical) flop simply enhances its grandeur and the money is certainly all there up on the screen, with impressively wintry location work shot outside Madrid; while the recreation of the Forum in Rome made it into the ‘Guinness Book of Records’ as the largest set ever built for a movie. (There is none of that fake-looking CGI or wobbly steadicam that ruins 21st Century epics. And what colours!)

Robert Krasker and composer Dimitri Tiomkin both surpassed their work on the previous film, and although like most epics it’s at least an hour too long, Plummer comes into his own in that final lap; his emergence from a giant hand worth of Brigitte Helm flaunting herself in Metropolis and Dietrich shedding a gorilla skin in Blonde Venus. @Richard Chatten

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Black Oxen (1923)

Dir: Frank Lloyd | Cast: Corinne Griffith, Conway Tearle, Tom Ricketts, Clara Bow, Tom Guise | US Drama 81′

This film version of 65 year-old feminist writer Gertrude Atherton’s controversial 1923 novel, based upon her own treatment with an early form of hormone therapy, was on cinema screens by the end of the year and generated a lot of discussion at the height of the flapper era; and it remains increasingly topical today.

Aged 45 (but like many matinée idols of the era looking much older), Conway Tearle as eligible bachelor Lee Clavering has the dilemma that dizzy flappers like Janet Ogelthorpe (played by Clara Bow) bore him, yet has “a vague idea that Autumnal love is – is rather indecent”. He indeed looks pretty long in the tooth for 28 year-old Corinne Griffith as the mysterious Mary Ogden, referred to in the opening credits simply as “The Woman”; about whom an awful lot of footage is squandered upon speculation as to her true identity until she finally fesses up and confirms that she is really sixty year-old Madame Zatianny. In a flashback in which she is supposed to be in her late fifties, but is made up and shuffles about like an infirm eighty year-old, she is rejuvenated in Austria by a medical procedure that is alluded to only very vaguely.

At this point it gets interesting, as her old friends digest the implications of this revelation; notably Claire McDowell as Agnes Trevor, who bitterly regrets her own lost opportunities to find love when young and thus sorely envies Madame Zatianny the second chance her treatment has gifted her. (McDowell was actually less than six months older than Tearle and would probably have benefited enormously just from a more contemporary makeup and wardrobe like Griffith’s.) Unfortunately, with twenty minutes still to go this is the point at which the only currently available version of Black Oxen abruptly ends. Or maybe it’s not so unfortunate. We know from original reviews that her old Austrian beau Prince Rohenhauer (played by Alan Hale) shows up, persuades her to act her age and return with him to Austria, leaving Lee to find true happiness with the flapper who had so bored him earlier, provoking ‘Variety’s original reviewer to ironically state that the film’s “only fault seems to be the disappointing ending”.

An epilogue to Black Oxen that proves yet again how much stranger real life can be even than a silent movie came in 1966 (the year that Claire McDowell died at the age of 88) when 72 year-old Griffith divorced her 45 year-old fourth husband of a few days and testified in court (contradicting testimony from Betty Blythe and Claire Windsor, who had both known her during the 1920s) that she was not Corinne Griffith, but her younger sister who had taken her place upon her elder sibling’s death. @Richard Chatten

 

Peril for the Guy (1956)

Dir: James Hill | Cast: Frazer Hines, Mandy Harper, Christopher Warbey, Ali Allen | UK Drama, 55′

A delightful CFF lark that starts well with a jaunty title sequence, after which it’s elegantly directed by James Hill against the atmospheric backdrop of a freezing fifties London fog.

Blandishments that would satisfy the most politically correct modern audience include a little black kid called ‘Ali’, with an oil company the guys in black hats rather than the usual gormless spivs (although Ian Whittaker is gormless enough for an entire gang), Paul Daneman suitably dashing as the young inventor whose invention they’re after, Katherine Kath a glacial, buttoned-down dragon lady and today’s cameo appearance provided by an unbilled Arthur Mullard.

The makers actually managed to commandeer a helicopter for the finale, while as befits a film set around Guy Fawkes night the climax involves fireworks rather than water. Without being too preachy about it the audience is discretely reminded to be careful around fireworks and the final display is conducted under the stewardship of (reasonably) responsible adults. ©Richard Chatten

NOW ON BFI PLAYER

Karloff at Columbia 1935-42

 

Boris Karloff was born in London as William Henry Pratt on 23 November 1887. His parents shared Indian ancestry and his mother’s maternal aunt was Anna Leonowens whose writings inspired The King and I musical. Pratt was tall and well built but suffered from a lisp which adds a rasp to his deep, melodious voice. The youngest of nine children, he was privately educated at Uppingham and went up to King’s College, London with a view to joining the Foreign Office, but eventually ended up travelling to Canada where he fell into acting adopting his stage name of Boris Karloff. He would marry six times, clearly his big break in Frankenstein in 1931 at the age of 45 didn’t put women off.

As one of the legends horror cinema he made six horror films during his time at Columbia, three with Nick Grinde, one with Robert Dymtryk and a final comedy spoof, joining forces with Peter Lorre: The Boogie Man Will Get You directed by Lew Landers.

The Black Room (1935)

Writing for The Spectator in 1935, Graham Greene described Roy William Neil’s thriller as “absurd and exciting”, and “wildly artificial.” praising both the acting of Karloff and the direction of Neill, and noting that Karloff had been given a long speaking part and “allowed to act at last”, and that Neill had “caught the genuine Gothic note” in a manner that displayed more historical sense than any of Alexander Korda’s films.

In the early 19th century twins are born to the DeBerghman family who rule a Czech province from their majestic medieval castle, bizarrely located in the Tyrol and designed by Stephen Goosson (Columbia art director who won an Oscar for Lost Horizon). A curse on the family states that the birth of twin boys will destroy the dynasty forever, the younger will murder the elder one in the infamous Black Room, betrayed by the family dog.

Made for Columbia Pictures at the height of his career, an eloquent Karloff has  fun here fleshing out the characters of the gallantly endearing gentleman Anton and his arrantly fiendish older brother Baron Gregor (who women both fear and detest). Magically captured in Allen G Siegler’s luminous black and white camerawork, it’s fascinating to see Karloff getting his teeth into a fully formed, non horror role. The pet mastiff Tor is terrific in support.

The Man They Could Not Hang (1939)

Columbia’s prescient sci-fi themed riff on the Old Dark House theme sees Karloff directed by Nick Grinde in the first (and arguably most intelligent) of his ‘mad scientist’ roles as Dr. Henryk Savaard a kindly and convincing psychopath bringing the dead back to life through the use of an artificial heart, twenty five years before reality. But when his healthy patient dies in a ‘failsafe’ experiment Savaard is tried in a pithy courtroom procedural (“I offered you Life, but you gave me Death”) and condemned to swing. Using the doc’s same methods his assistant, Lang (Byron Foulger), revives him, but Savaard is bitter for revenge.

The Devil Commands (1941)

Karloff really brings out the humanity of a bereaved husband mourning his beloved wife in Edward Dmytryk’s Gothic horror outing based on William Sloane’s novel The Edge of Running Water. It’s a convincing beast from the ‘mad doctor’ stable that explores the afterlife where science meets the surreal in a sorrowful romantic love story stylishly captured by Allen G Siegler’s spooky shadowplay making Karloff look raffishly sexy.

Nick Grinde collaborated with Karloff in two other ‘mad scientist’ films: The Man with Nine Lives (1940) and Before I Hang (1940). MT

NOW ON BLU-RAY EUREKA CLASSICS | 3 May 2021

The Last Shelter (2021) IDFA

 

Dir.: Ousmane Samassekou; Documentary; Mali/France/ Germany, 2021, 85 min.

Malian director Ousmane Samassekou has filmed random travellers from all over North Africa in a transit home in Gao, near the Sahara Desert. Most have come a long way, the nearest from the Malian capital of Bamako which is 496 km away – and some as far away as Burkina Faso. Their common goal is Algeria, a stepping stepping stone away from France and Italy where there are magic money trees and streets of gold. The reality is migrant camps and years of misery.

The Caritas –  House of Migrants caters for mostly young people whose aim is to cross the desert, however reluctantly, to their families in Bamako or more far-flung destinations. Many of the girls and women have spent time in captivity and have been raped. Yet they travel on regardless, risking it all. One 16-year old girl talks about the usual teenage pipe dreams of becoming a celebrity, an actress or a boxing champion. Far from this reverie is the reality of road blocks, where they often robbed on the money to pay the people smugglers taking them over the border. They’d have been much safer staying at home with their families.

Esther doesn’t want to share details of her relative, ashamed that she has not made it to France, even though her family has given her money to support them from Europe. So her dreams are largely built on wild ideas from unrealistic parents who are simply living in the cloud cuckoo land of social media, and she is caught in an invidious trap. Another young woman had ended up in captivity, and only thanks to a benevolent older woman, has been released – but she still wants to try again to get to Europe from this Sahara’s hostile terrain and treacherous sandstorms.

Mariko, an older man, begs staff not to send him to Bamako where they will give him injections which make him sleep all the time. Another young woman was sold by the man who was supposed to be looking after her. Endless stories from Sahara crossings are told: “You die without warning. No matter why, they shoot us like chickens.” The staff warns them over and over again: “Your dreams and illusions make you feel clever, but you will not reach your destinations, it is better to have a job at home, than to dream of abroad.”

Made on a shoestring budget, The Last Shelter could do with a re-edit. But the rawness of the material lends itself to some structural inadequacies, a more polished version would only mask the terror these migrants have been through – and, worse, want to risk all over again. Their lives are so far removed from the dream of the places they want to reach – they think that wearing the logo teeshirt of a millionaire footballer from Barcelona and Arsenal – will transport them on a magic carpet to that lifestyle. They as well might try and reach Mars. AS

|CPH:DOX | DOX:AWARD Winner – Main Competition
|DOK.fest Munich (5-13 May) | NOW SCREENING DURING IDFA 2021 | 17 – 28 November 2021

Studio One in Hollywood: 1984

Dir: Paul Nickell | Creator/Wri: Fletcher Markle | US Drama

As a huge admirer of Orwell’s original novel I was pleasantly surprised that although inevitably not in the same league as Nigel Kneale’s BBC adaptation broadcast the following year, how much of the basic storyline – and more importantly the mood – adaptor William Templeton’s distillation managed to get into just 50 minutes (minus commercials) broadcast live on a TV budget.

A modern viewer will approach this version with scepticism, knowing that it was made at the height of anti-Red hysteria in the United States and of the blacklist. An opening narration underlined by Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony has been added to Orwell’s story to convey Soviet-style totalitarianism and stresses that “What happens to the people in this story might happen to us. Might happen to you. If we should ever relax in our fight for freedom, if we should allow any individuals or any group of individuals to reduce our freedom of thought, our freedom of speech, our freedom of religion, then what happens to the people in this story will happen to us.” However, the irony implicit in this exhortation forcefully delivered by CBS newscaster Don Hollenbeck in the context of the McCarthyite America of 1953 is probably deliberate; and Hollenbeck himself was hounded into committing suicide by gassing himself the following year by a relentless campaign of press harassment headed by a Hearst columnist named – I kid you not! – O’Brian. (Hollenbeck is played by Ray Wise in the 2005 film ‘Good Night, and Good Luck’).

The production looks suitably expressionistic (the bizarre, vaguely abstract portrait of Big Brother somewhat resembling Dr. Mabuse), and although big, strapping Eddie Albert is as miscast as the undernourished, downtrodden Winston Smith as Edmond O’Brien was in the film version three years later, like O’Brien he gives his usual excellent performance. Fans of ‘Bonzana’ will be surprised to see Lorne Greene as an incisive O’Brien. Norma Crane (little known to film viewers, but memorable as Ellie Martin in ‘Tea and Sympathy’ and Golde in ‘Fiddler on the Roof’) is a sassy Julia who I personally found far sexier in her regulation-issue dungarees & blouse and leather greatcoat than the fifties party frock she changes into during her trysts with Winston (in this version of the future it’s mainly the women rather than the men who wear ties), and the moment when she undoes and discards her Anti-Sex League sash carries quite an erotic charge. @Richard Chatten

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Stella Dallas (1925) Venice Film Festival

Dir: Henry King | Wri: Frances Marion | Cast: Ronald Colman, Belle Bennett, Alice Joyce, Jean Hersholt | US Drama

Anybody even vaguely familiar with the subject of Olive Higgins Prouty’s 1923 novel should know about the famous ending; so I won’t bother spoiling it by discussing it here. More people will be familiar with the 1937 remake made by a better director and with a greater actress in the lead. But moving as she is to watch at the remake’s conclusion, Barbara Stanwyck comes across as naturally more capable and resilient than the rather simple and child-like loser portrayed by Belle Bennett, which is what makes Bennett so heart-breaking to watch.

Although top-billed, Ronald Colman gets only a fraction of the screen time of Bennett and never gets the opportunity to project himself as much more than a bit of a prig as Stella’s husband; and one never really appreciates what drew them to each other in the first place other than on the rebound from other disappointments in love. One can certainly warm, however, to the almost unbearably beautiful Lois Moran as their daughter Laurel, who ages very convincingly from a child to a young woman and whose scenes with Bennett powerfully convey the bond between them. One would have thought that Laurel could have had a quiet word with her mother offering her advice on fitting in with her new up-market circle of friends with a few hints on dress and make-up, and keeping her voice down in polite company (as well as spending a lot less time carousing with the egregious Ed Munn, played by Jean Hersholt, who would cramp anyone’s style; but who she later rather cruelly uses). But it’s in the nature of heart-rending tales of mother-love like this that her sacrifice for her daughter has to go far far beyond the necessary call of duty. @Richard Chatten

 

VENICE FILM FESTIVAL 2022 | CLASSICS STRAND 2022

 

White Heat (1949) Prime Video

Dir: Raoul Walsh | Cast: James Cagney, Virginia Mayo, Edmond O’Brian, Margaret Wycherly | US Crime Drama 116′

Jimmy Cagney was in his fiftieth year when he made this return to the gangster genre, and looks it. But age has neither mellowed him nor slowed him down in this consummate star vehicle with all the trimmings (including a haunting score by Max Steiner – who gets a separate title card all to himself).

White Heat is inconceivable without Cagney, but he’s surrounded by a top supporting cast, most of whom aren’t even named in the credits (I particularly liked G.Pat Collins as the old lag with the hearing aid), with Margaret Wycherley unforgettable as the meanest mama since Ma Barker.

White Heat begins by showing it means business with an incredibly violent train hold-up; after which Cagney continues to display a wanton lack of respect for human life right up to the end. But being Cagney you can’t help rooting for him, and he and Edmond O’Brien (usually unfairly overlooked in discussions of this movie) are both such charismatic presences that it’s almost heartbreaking to see them bond while knowing all along that O’Brien is simply a police plant. Although we’re told well before the end that Cagney is by now hopelessly insane with only brief periods of lucidity, he still seems perfectly functional until the very, very end. (His retelling of the story of the Trojan Horse is particularly cherishable.)

For a late 1940s thriller much of the film actually takes place in the Southern California sun; and the use of locations throughout is exemplary, culminating in the oil refinery on 198th Street and Figueroa, near Torrance, which provides Cagney with a suitably imposing backdrop for his big scene at the end. @Richard Chatten.

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Rascal (2020) Vilnius Film Festival (2021)

Dir/scr: Peter Dourountzis | Cast: Pierre Deladonchamps, Ophelie Bau, Sebastien Houbani | France, Thriller. 96′

Rascal is a an everyday story of a psychopath played with hard-eyed nonchalance by Pierre Delardonchamps.

There’s nothing sensationalist about the story of Dje. The title might suggest a cheeky playfulness but this couldn’t be far from the truth. Not without charm when he wants something, Dje he can also being quietly menacing as he goes with the flow living by his wits, casually violent if he needs to be. In fact, ‘casual’ sums up a man who never gets worked up about anything. This homeless opportunist is none too shabby in his stylish anorak. A recidivist bottom-feeder who gets by on the streets of Limoges, where we first meet him on a train, rudely intruding on the privacy of his neighbour in a train carriage. But that’s the most harmless trait in his repertoire of antisocial behaviour.

Peter Dourountzis’ first feature takes a detached view of his psychopathic protagonist seen through the steely lens of DoP Jean-Marc Fabre. Limoges is seen as a joyless urban centre where danger lurks at every turn as Dje slips unnoticed in the crowd until he spots an unsuspecting female glance and returns it with a smirking stare. What follows could be a seduction or something more deadly but it mostly occurs off camera, and some women can be extraordinarily accommodating to this enigmatic stranger who is never there when the going gets tough. Of no fixed abode he has no identity papers. Meanwhile, street signs in bus shelters warn women to be vigilant. There’s a killer on the loose. But why would anyone suspect Dje with his boyish looks and clean complexion?.

Rascal was originally made as a short film, Dourountzis cutting himself plenty of slack with the textured script that plays to our fertile imagination and works in a subplot about Dje connecting with an underground network of homeless misfits who offer him room in their squat. Here he meets Maya (Ophelie Bau Mektoub, My Love) and the two have a thing for a while until Dje loses control and needs to move out of the spotlight and back into the shadows. MT

EUROPEAN DEBUT COMPETITION  | Best Actor: Pierre Deladonchamps | AT VILNIUS FILM FESTIVAL | 18 MARCH – 6 APRIL 2021 |

 

 

 

 

The Snorkel (1958) Blu-ray

Dir: Guy Green | Cast: Peter van Eyck, Betta St John, Mandy Miller, Gregoire Aslan | UK Psycho Drama, 90′

In 1968, when I was nine years old, I was about 10 minutes from the end of this gripping Hammer psycho-thriller on Anglia Television when my father amused himself by suddenly packing me off to bed. It’s taken me forty-nine years, but I finally got to see the ending of this film.

Hammer’s psychological thrillers of the early sixties are usually deemed sub-Hitchcock copies of Psycho; but since The Snorkel was released a full two years before Psycho their inspiration is more obviously Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques (1955), from the mystery novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narjejac, who also wrote the book on which Vertigo was based. (Peter van Eyck, the evil stepfather in The Snorkel, actually starred in Clouzot’s previous film, Le Salaire de la Peur.)

The Snorkel was the last film lead played by the unique Mandy Miller, then 13, whose dramatically arched eyebrows and full lips render her still recognisable as the pretty little deaf & dumb girl from Ealing Studio’s classic Mandy (1952). Already convinced that her mother is simply the second of her two parents to be murdered by Van Eyck, a poster of Cousteau’s ‘Le Monde du Silence’ provides her with the clue she needs as to how he did it, and she enters with gusto into a game of cat and mouse with her wicked stepfather. Thus provoked, van Eyck puts on his striped jersey and rubber gloves again, slips her a Mickey Finn, seals off all the windows and doors and turns on the gas, and then…

It’s taken me nearly fifty years to find out what happened next, but it’s a beaut! ©Richard Chatten

NOW ON BLURAY AT AMAZON 

Zee and Co. (1972)

Dir: Brian G Hutton | Wri: Edna O’Brian | Cast: Elizabeth Taylor, Michael Caine, Susannah York, Margaret Leighton | US Drama 110′

For anyone who ever hankered to see what a collaboration between the novelist Edna O’Brien and the director of Where Eagles Dare would have looked like, look no further! After two war movies in a row, Brian G. Hutton obviously felt the need to try his hand at something a bit more dangerous; and Elizabeth Taylor in all her big-haired, loud-mouthed and even more loudly dressed glory dominates this delirious spectacle in a way rarely seen since the heyday of Bette Davis.

Taylor and Caine give their all as a self-absorbed pair who make George & Martha from ‘Virginia Woolf’ look like The Brady Bunch. In reality Caine would probably have abandoned or murdered Taylor long ago; but she’s entertaining to watch and listen to – at least for the duration of the movie – and shows a delightful flair for mimicry mocking some of her co-stars. (spoiler coming up: I thought she jumped the shark, however, with her suicide attempt.)

Susannah York understandably seems more than a little overwhelmed by the madhouse she’s wandered into. A few spoilsports have already revealed the twist at the end of this tale. As a bloke I was as surprised and delighted as I was relieved that a woman wrote it; so it absolved me of feeling guilty at being served up with one of my favourite male fantasies about two women.

Whatever happened to these three after the closing credits is anybody’s guess; but the audience I watched it with at the Barbican tonight laughed appreciatively all the way through and gave it an enthusiastic round of applause as the lights went up. @Richard Chatten.

AVAILABLE ON AMAZON

Bad Roads (2021) Vilnius Film Festival 2021

Dir.: Natalya Vorozhbit; Cast: Igor Koltovskyy, Andrey Lelyukh, Vladimir Gurin, Ekaterina Zhurakovskaya, Ekaterina Zahdanovich, Anastasia Parshina, Yulia Matrosova, Marina Klimova, Yuri Kulinich, Zoya Baranovskaya, Oksana Voronina, Sergej Solovyov; Ukraine 2020, 105 min.

Ukraine’s Natalya Vorozhbit shows how women are exploited sexually and emotionally during wartime in this award-winning feature debut adapted from her play of the same name that staged at the Royal Court Theatre in London.

In 2014 Ukraine’s Donbass region was the setting for ongoing hostilities with neighbouring Russia. Women bore the brunt of both sides of the conflict, humanitarian rules were abandoned in the survival of the fittest. Bad Roads explores four episodes in very different settings detailing man’s barbaric treatment of the opposite sex during wartime.

At a casual road stop in the war zone, a headmaster (Koltovskyy) of a nearby school is trapped in a Kafkaesque showdown with two soldiers. The teacher clearly came out with the wrong passport, that morning, and the Kalashnikov rifle in his boot doesn’t help matters. He claims it is a toy model for teaching the students, but the militia men are suspicious. Then it becomes clear why the teacher is driving around: he is looking for a female student; after spotting her, he asks the soldiers to let her go: “You are saying that you defend us, but you are fucking our children. Please leave this one alone, she is an orphan”. The headmaster retrieves his passport and the Captain (Lelyukh), gives the him “the word of honour of an officer that there is no girl in the compound of the militia”. These assurances fall on deaf ears: Both know that he is lying.

Three school girls wait at a bus stop for their soldier friends who bring them cigarettes and cosmetics in return for sex. There’s nothing new in this transactional relationship, but it has a brutal edge as the girls know full well they may be lynched when the soldiers retreat. A grandmother (Matrosova) recounts the past when she and her friends sat on the same bench waiting for their boyfriends to come home from work.

In the most inhumane scenario a human rights journalist (Klimova) has suffers an attempted rape after being detained by soldiers one of whom (Kulinich) shares his childhood memory of a pet hamster who bit him so hard he made the animal drown in his own blood. War makes monsters of these men, death becomes meaningless “at first, you were glad that you were alive, but now there are no feelings left”. The episode ends shockingly.

A young woman (Baranovskaya) driving in the countryside accidentally runs over a chicken. She tries to compensate the old couple (Voronina/Solovyov), who think she has stopped for another reason. “Have you been raped? We can call the police”. They ask candidly. Later on the couple try to bargain with the woman, putting a priceless value on their hen. Bitterness and desperation turn ordinary people to irrational acts of mental cruelty. And there are no happy endings in Bad Roads: Later on the old people hear on their radio that a young local woman was severely injured when her car ran over a landmine.

DoP Voladymir Ivanov oscillates between hyper-realism in the Spa episode, poetic realism in the episode with the three girls and a bit of horror-treatment in the last section. The ensemble cast is brilliant, particularly the three girls, who are non-professionals. But the narratives are grim and unforgiving. Bad Roads is a Hieronymus Bosch painting come to life: utter depravity of mind and body.

VILNIUS FILM FESTIVAL ONLINE | 18 MARCH – 5 APRIL 2021

The Naked Kiss (1964)

Dir/Wri: Sam Fuller | Cast: Constance Thomas, Anthony Eisley, Michael Dante, Virginia Grey | US Drama 90′

It was always hard to tell if Sam Fuller was pulling your leg or in earnest in his 1964 follow up to Shock Corridor another potent psychodrama. Female lead Constance Towers (who had recently featured in two productions for John Ford) is yet another otherwise little-known actress only fleetingly given the opportunity to show on screen just what she was capable of. As late as 1994 she still brought a glacial elegance to the role of a sophisticated older woman in an episode of ‘Frazier’, and as photographed by Stanley Cortez in Fuller’s last film in black & white, thirty years years earlier, she is amazing; entirely worthy of Cortez’s previous collaborations with Orson Welles & Charles Laughton. The Naked Kiss resembles a silent film, and parts of it an underground film of the 1970s; (and like them the supporting cast includes a former silent star, in this case in the form of Betty Bronson, who forty years earlier had played Peter Pan).

The Naked Kiss continues to divide the relatively small number of those who have actually seen it. Some consider it a masterpiece, others an utter bore. That said, it remains ahead of its time while exuding retro glamour (especially when Virginia Grey turns up in a beehive and business suit playing a madam). Rejected by the British Board of Film Censors in 1964 it would probably continue to encounter censorship problems today. @RichardChatten

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Pariah Dog (2020)

Dir.: Jesse Alk; Documentary with Kajal, Milly, Subrata, Pinku; Canada/US/India 2019, 77min.

This homage to the stray dogs of Kolkata is the first feature documentary from US Canadian director Jesse Alk. The decaying glory of the former capital of the Raj provides an evocative setting for his labour of love, and  possibly the saddest film of the year. Alk (whose father Howard, directed The Murder of Fred Hampton 1971) influenced by Charles Baudelaire’s ‘Paris Spleen’ a hymn to the street dogs of Paris, who inspired his poetry.

The Indian Pariah dog, aka South Asian Pye dog, has been forced out of its native habitat leaving nowhere left to go in the squalid backwaters of grandiose post-colonial decay: shoeless children play on a riverbank, a man urinates against a wall while a little girl disco dances, oblivious. Shot on the hazy waterways of the coastal delta or at night under velvety street lights where goats are herded through waterfronts and slums, Uber-Drivers dart like ghosts from another cosmos.

But Pariah Dog is more about the four souls who help strays survive. It’s a symbiotic relationship, the dogs are their raison d’etre and their extended family. Artist Pinku tools wooden sculptures by day and drives a taxi at night to pay the bills. A gentle, philosophical man he lives for his menagerie of dogs, a parrot, a rabbit and a monkey, all sharing a decrepit hovel not big enough to swing a cat. Meanwhile Subrata is possibly the first yodelling rickshaw driver. His efforts to raise money with his dog-themed songs are laudable and touching, but his pleas for animal welfare donations fall on deaf ears, so he resorts to street leftovers to feed his grateful pack of hounds. In 2013 he took part in a Bengali TV show, fading posters the proud testament to his moment of glory. Later in the film he transforms into a canine troubadour encouraging others to care for “humans, animals and plants”.

Two women make up the foursome: Milly and her helper Kajal come from different castes of Hindu society, often falling out over their rules of engagement. Millly is a highly educated disillusioned romantic whose husband left her in her decrepit family pile. Of Japanese-Russian descent, she pleads poverty: her land has been taken over by squatters but the authorities couldn’t care less. Kajal lives nearby in a hut the size of a kennel. Devoted to her strays, maimed by passing cars or unkind people, she cares for them until they die, burying them with a yellow garland, a sign of Hindu respect. A supreme love for life and the vulnerable has struck a chord with their feelings of dispossession, carrying these desperate women through ructions and reconciliations, their dignified street marches to raise awareness of animal welfare are to be admired.

For dog lovers, some of the footage is too difficult to watch. Alk conjures up enough poetry in his images without resorting to sentimentality, maintaining a dispassionate eye in this cruel metropolis of 15 million where only the fittest survive. In this ‘Black Hole of Calcutta’ the spirit of Mother Theresa still survives.

AVAILABLE TO VIEW ON TRUESTORY

No Ordinary Man (2020)

Dir: Aisling Chin-Yee, Chase Joynt | US Doc

The story of jazz musician Billy Tipton (1914-89) is seen from the perspective of his sexuality rather than his musical talent in this new, experimental documentary from Canadian filmmakers Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt (who is trans). They see Tipton as a trans trailblazer, a jazzy gender bender. But his common-law wife Kitty Kelly claims never to have realised he was a woman. And it didn’t end there. Another three ‘wives’ under his belt and three adopted kids later, this trans legend still had everyone fooled almost everyone.  And who really cared when he played the piano so divinely and was always ready to improvise when another musician dropped out.

By way of background, Billy was born Dorothy Lucille Tipton in Oklahoma City on December 29, 1914 and was raised by an aunt in Alabama, but later adopted Spokane, Washington as his home. Tipton had shown a keen interest in jazz but was barred from joining the all-male school band at Southwest High School. But perseverance paid off and he eventually developed a serious musical career as a ‘male musician’ by concealing his female form and calling himself Billy Lee Tipton in the early 1930s. By 1940, Tipton was living as a man in private life as well in public.

But rather than sensationalising the reveal of his being transexual, the filmmakers’ focus here is laudably Tipton’s legacy as a ‘transmasculine’ icon, inspiring the lives of many. During his lifetime he was successfully all things to all people: Kelly claiming. “Billy Tipton was a man in every sense of the word,” – “he was the best husband anyone could have dreamed of” adding “He will always be a man. He will be nothing more than a man” to a stunned audience in one of Oprah Winfrey’s chat shows.

Enriched by archive material, newspaper clips and excerpts from Stanford professor Diane Middlebrook’s 1998 biog ‘Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton’, this is an intellectually bracing film informed by a welter of authoritative talking heads, most poignantly Tipton Jr.  Amongst them is also author and gender theorist Kate Bornstein who asserts “there was no such thing as a trans man back in the 1980s. But one can hardly blame Billy for embracing the idea that being a ‘man’, rather than a woman, would path the way to success in the music business (or any business) back then. Had he stayed cisgender we may never have enjoyed his brilliant contribution to the world of jazz. Tunes like “Please Don’t Be that Way”.

Susan Stryker, a filmmaker, author and professor of Gender and Woman’s Studies comments on the rampant transphobia of the 1980s, hardly surprising when even nowadays the whole idea of trans sexuality still has some people run, screaming for the hills. But no-one has any proof that Tipton, who began presenting as a man from the ago of 19, made any fuss about his conception of gender identity, one must assume he just got on and did it, joining the party with so many other artists of the era who freely indulged their queer sexuality while being married to ‘women or men’.

What makes this film so innovative is the filmmakers’ framing device that sees a group of talented trans-masculine actors auditioning for the main role in a putative Tipton documentary, taking their cues from the (offscreen) directors in order to perform Billy at pivotal moments during his career – such as his first meeting with Duke Ellington, and so on. This offers them a collaborative springboard to then voice their own experiences and impressions of trans-masculinity with reference to Tipton – a very popular device nowadays – but not if you’re just yearning for a straight up biopic of the legendary musician himself, which hasn’t been done before.

No Ordinary Man does fall into the trap of allowing judgement of the past to be made by today’s standards, with a double time line – twenty years after the Middlebrook biog, and another nearly ninety, since Billy first put on masculine garb. We are living in a hyper-sensitive age where there are so many differing viewpoints and so many platforms available to give these varying stances voice, it’s almost impossible not to offend. But in this instance the film provides pithy insight into the trans experience, widening the debate for those affected by the issues, and offering worthwhile insight into how trans stories are often framed from the cisgender viewpoint – all in a meaty 83 minutes. Poignant also to that Tipton junior is able to hear more about his famous forebear. Well made, engaging and powerful. MT

SCREENING DURING BFI FLARE 2021

 

 

 

Call Northside 777 (1948)

Dir: Henry Hathaway Wri: Jerome Cady | | Cast: James Stewart, Richard Conte, Lee J Cobb, Helen Walker, Betty Garde | US, Noir thriller 112′

The postwar Jimmy Stewart demonstrates his new, hard-won gravitas in this engrossing drama in which background music and narration are largely absent as he investigates a conviction he becomes increasingly convinced is unsafe; while Richard Conte plays a downtrodden Pole rather than a downtrodden Italian as the innocent man sentenced to 99 years.

Most viewers already know (even before Truman Bradley informs us in the opening narration) that Conte is released, so it’s HOW rather than WHETHER he’s cleared that holds the attention; and it all gets rather involved. That those in authority found it convenient to leave Conte in jail is touched upon, while high-tech gadgets like polygraphs and microfilm cameras further the narrative, and such a gadget makes for satisfyingly cinematic climax that anticipates ‘Blowup’ by twenty years. But (MASSIVE SPOILERS COMING:) was it really possible in 1944 to blow up the date on a newspaper as sharply as is done here, and (as my predecessor observed) why did they ignore the pictures on the front page, which we never see sharpened up and would in themselves have confirmed which edition the newsboy was holding?

Real life as usual inevitably denies us such a tidy conclusion as ends the film; since the real Joseph Majcek, actually led a troubled life following his eventual release from prison in 1945 and ultimately ended his days in a mental institution in 1983. ©Richard Chatten

NOW ON TALKING PICTURES TV | AMAZON

Truman and Tennessee: An Intimate Conversation (2020)

Dir: Lisa Immordino Vreeland | Cast: David Frost, Dick Cavett, Voices of Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto; USA 2021, 96 min.

Apart from in chat shows few people have actually heard the real voices of Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams but Zachary Quinto and Jim Parsons sound realistic in this enjoyable documentary about the friendship between two of the most charismatic personalities in American 20th century culture.

Lisa Immordino Vreeland is a dab hand at as a documentary filmmaker having already showcased the lives of Peggy Guggenheim, Cecil Beaton and Diana Vreeland (her grandmother-in-law). And here she brings the forty-year long relationship between Capote (1924-1984) and Williams (1911-1983) into focus – whilst private secrets are spilled, Vreeland never falls into the trap of sensationalism, the overall structure is enlivened by TV interviews of both men by David Frost and Dick Cavett.

courtesy of Getty Images

Capote and Williams both grew up in the South and had troublesome and relationships with their overbearing fathers, turned to books early on as a way to escape, and had a life-long struggle with drugs and alcohol. They met when Capote was sixteen, and spent most of the years between 1940 and and 1960 enjoying Spain, Italy, France and Morocco with their respective partners: Williams with the actor Frank Merlo (1921-1963) and Capote with the author Jack Dunphy (1914-1992). Truman says, that their relationship was purely “an intellectual friendship”, which did not hinder either of them from making bitchy remarks about the opposite’s spouses.

Courtesy of the Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Capote’s first success came with ‘Other Voices, other Rooms’ in 1948, three years after Williams’ ‘The Glass Menagerie’, which was followed by ‘A Street named Desire’. It may come as a surprise that Williams, who confessed to being “just terribly, terribly over-sexed”, did not have his first (heterosexual) affair before 27, having taken up masturbation only a year earlier, before consummating his first gay affair aged 28 with Frank Merlo.

Truman was blunt about his sexuality stating that it would have been easier to have been a girl, but “I was homosexual and I had never any guilt about it what so ever. I was the only character who was beyond the pale. I didn’t care”.

Williams, assuming rightly, that he would be judged by the many feature films based on his plays, regretted that censorship ruined many endings, even to the point of negating what had gone on before. Capote felt let down by the producers of Breakfast at Tiffany’s claiming he had been promised Marilyn Monroe, his first choice, as Holly Golightly. But they “cheated”, and “cast Audrey Hepburn, who was not right for the part, because Holly was based on a real person, and she was very tough, unlike anything Hepburn was”.

The docu-feature film of Capote’s non-fiction novel In Cold Blood, about two drifters who murdered a Kansas family, “scraped me right down, to the marrow of my bones. It nearly killed me. I think, in a way, it did kill me. I had been a stable person. Afterwards, something happened to me”.

The 1970s and 80s saw both men in decline, Williams complaining he never had a positive review after 1961. “Everything went wrong, private and professional, and ultimately my mind broke”. They died within 18 months of each other. Getting together for the last time at a party a few weeks before William’s death, the latter asked Capote “Where will we meet again?”. To which Truman answered “in paradise”.

Overall Truman & Tennessee does feel like a very private affair, dominated by the revealing ‘conversations’ of these literally giants who lived and breathed through for their writing. DoP Shane Sigler integrates the still photos, feature film clips and the TV interviews into an aesthetically convincing form, with Vreeland showing enough empathy with her subjects, bringing their Icarus-like careers into perspective in this cinematic catnip for literary lovers. AS

Truman & Tennessee: An Intimate Conversation is available on Dogwoof on Demandand other platforms from 30 April.

Main image credit: At Sotheby’s 1978 Globe Photos/Media Punch/Shutterstock & Tennessee Williams courtesy of the Cecil Beaton Studio. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Catch Us if You Can (1965)

Dir: John Boorman | Wri: Peter Nichols | Cast: Dave Clark, Barbara Ferris, David Lodge, Robin Bailey, Clive Swift, Marianne Stone, Ronald Lacey, Yootha Joyce, David de Keyser,

John Boorman’s calling card for Point Blank wasn’t a straight-up musical biopic of the famous early 1960s band (whose 1964 hit ‘Glad All Over’ knocked the Beatles off the top of the UK Singles Chart) but something altogether more interesting, the DC5s music providing the score for a ‘Youth Culture’ escapade. Taking its title from another band hit Catch Us if You Can starts in London then broadens out into an eventful auteurish travelogue of the West Country in an E-type Jag, captured by Manny Wynn’s evocative black and white camerawork. There are some memorable turns – particularly from Barbara Ferris as a model running away with a stuntman (played by Clark) while filming a promo for an ad agency – who then capitalise on the caper. The Five boys don’t have the chops, but they certainly held the tunes – and add a certain cocky verve as ‘Beatle competitors’, and Ferris is amusingly perky as Dinah. Watch out for Yootha Joyce, Clive Swift, Michael Gwynn, Peter Nichols (who wrote the script) and a mellow David de Keyser (who is still with us) as the quintessential Sixties adman adding a touch of edgy class. MT

NOW OUT ON BLURAY, DVD, DIGITAL PLATFORMS – 5th April 2021

Wilderness (2021)

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

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

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

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

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

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

WILDERNESS IS ON 5 APRIL 2021 ON SKY STORE, iTUNES, AMAZON, GOOGLE, and BT

An Impossible Project (2021)

Dir.: Jens Meurer; Documentary with Dr. Florian Kaps, Oskar Smolokowski, Slava Smolokowski; Austria/Germany/UK 2020, 99 min.

The Digital age may be upon us but humans are still analogue. Austrian documentarian Jens Meurer (Public Enemy) has chosen sides and this bid to champion and hold on to everything analogue is quietly amusing and informative.

Paradoxically Meurer was responsible for the very first digital entry at the Cannes Film Festival back in 2002. His 99 minute uninterrupted digital shot for Alexander Sukuorow’s Russian Ark (2002) was filmed on Sony Cine Alta HDW-F90.

Science and politics dominate and in keeping with his sentiment everything is shot on 35mm film (Arricamera), even the score by Haley Reinhart was recorded direct onto vinyl. In 2008, whilst techno-freaks were celebrating the first i-Phone, Dr Florian Kaps, a former biologist, known as Doc, was invited to Enschede (Netherlands) to the closure of the last Polaroid factory.

Instead of last rites, the Doc proscribed a resurrection somehow managing to scrape together 180 000 Euro to keep the factory going. And while he persuaded the workforce to co-operate, the first products were rather disappointing. Even if their artistic value was cool – the forty minute development time was certainly not. The machines did work again, but the chemicals and formulas for the development of the famous instant photos had been lost. Doc was unperturbed, and the worldwide community of Analogue fanatics helped as much as possible.

Kaps was not allowed to use the name Polaroid for a long time, and called the enterprise ‘Impossible’, with its HQ in Berlin. Meeting the New York based photographer Oscar Smolokowski and his investor father Slava, turned out to be a poison chalice for the Doc: the duo helped to launch a fully functioning Polaroid revival (in 2018 over one million films were sold), but the Doc had the same fate as Steve Jobs: he had to leave the company, the reasons not really explained.

Undeterred, Kaps soon found a new project, the Viennese Grand Hotel Moleskine, build in 1900. At the end, Haley Reinhart and the Sascha Peres Orchestra perform in the presence of the Doc in the restored hotel ‘Ball Saal’ – directly recorded for Europe’s largest Vinyl company, contributing to a yearly sale of 300 million vinyl records in 2019.

Even though Meurer introduces some polemic: “Digital is not real, it’s just a simulation of reality”. There is something to be said for regaining the use of our senses, all five of them – not just the two that are digital, but also taste, smell and touch because they make us happier and healthier”. Overall there is enough humour and self-deprecation in coming to terms with the fact that humans are the most analogue beings on the planet. AS

NOW ON DIGITAL PLATFORMS

The Man Who Sold His Skin (2020)

Dir: Kaouther Ben Hania | Cast: Yahya Mahayni, Dea Liane, Koen De Bouw, Monica Bellucci, Saad Lostan, Darina Al Joundi, Jan Dahdouh, Christian Vadim | Tunisia, Drama 104′

A Syrian man turns difficulty into success in this stunning exploitation love story set in the international art world.

This Oscar-nominated follow-up to Beauty and the Dogs gives Tunisian writer director Kaouther Ben Hania another opportunity to question social injustice with her signature sensuous cinematic language.

Powered forward by an unabashedly angry performance from newcomer Yahya Mahayni as Syrian refugee Sam Ali – whose chance meeting with a famous artist sees him agreeing to be transformed into an artwork himself:. a Schengen visa is then tattooed on Ali’s back, securing him a coveted air passage to Europe, Belgium to be precise, where he reconnects with girlfriend Abeer (Dea Liane).

To say that Sam has a plucky attitude is an understatement. But his-blind-sided sense of self-belief certainly opens doors and gets him what he wants. First of all the sympathy of the controversial artist himself, Jeffrey Godefroi (De Bouw) who takes him onboard as a ‘canvas’, despite his chippiness. It also ensures the utter dedication of the artist’s assistant (a blond-haired Monica Bellucci, no less) who panders to his every whim, even after being told “F**k you”.

But what Ali really wants is the woman of his dreams who he proposes to in the deliriously romantic opening scenes, but who is now married to somebody else, and living comfortably in Belgium.

There is a dark Shakespearean downside to the story and one that gives the film a potent message: Ali must agree to give his skin back after his death, as it remains (ironically) the copyright of the artist. And there’s more, poor Ali must also acquiesce to being ‘auctioned’ which seems a gross act of human commodification, in a plotlline that makes this relevant all over the world, not just locally.

This stylish production is shot by award-winning Christopher Aoun (Capernaum). And although the rather schematic plot falls into place rather too easily, the sheer verve of the performances and the highly controversial civil liberty and refugee issues at its core makes it a soulful winner. MT

IN CINEMAS FROM 23 SEPTEMBER 2021

 

Firebird (2021) Bfi Flare 2021

Dir: Peeter Rebane | Cast: Tom Prior, Nicholas Woodeson, Diana Pozharskaya, Oleg Zagorordnii | US Drama 107′

Firebird runs along similar lines to the recent South African services drama Moffie, this version inspired by late Russian actor Sergey Fetisov’s memoir and set in the Soviet Air Force during the Cold War.

Screening as part of the Hearts strand of this year’s Bfi Flare Festival, the lavishly mounted feature debut draws on the director’s own experience of growing up in Soviet occupied Estonia, yet fails to mine the incendiary potential of a dramatic episode in European history.

Tom Prior co-wrote the script and stars as the unsettled soldier Sergey who is drafted into the services but really has dreams of being an actor. He soon gets involved in an illicit love triangle with a dashing fighter pilot Roman (Oleg Zagorodnii) who invites him to see Stravinsky’s Firebird at the opera. But Roman is also kindling a desire for his female comrade Luisa (Diana Pozharskaya) amid the high octane backdrop of a Soviet Air Force Base.

A friendship across the ranks soon sparks into an amorous escapade involving all three comrades in arms, once again highlighting the risks of love affairs in the time of war, this one spiced up by its forbidden nature, punishable by five years in a hard labour camp. The men’s interest in photography is brought to life by the vibrant aesthetic of Mait Maekivi’s colour-drenched camerawork.

Firebird certainly looks impressive with its authentic settings and lush production values but the film never quite generates enough heat to make us care for its underwritten characters who remain cartoonish and rather glib throughout, Luisa hardly getting a look in as a staid and sketchy also-ran in this so-called menage a trois.

Clearly Prior – so affective in Kingsman – has been brought in to lend star power but here joins the rest of cast of rather robotic stormtroopers bringing to mind Kraftwerk’s heroes rather than real people who we can empathise with in their tortured love lives. MT

FIREBIRD is premiering at BFi Flare

 

 

Groundswell (2020) Earth Day 2021

Dir.: Johnny Goran; Documentary with Mark Ruffalo, Nuala McNulty, Olivia Mitchell, Kate Ruddock, Joe McHugh; ROI 2021, 80 min.

Activist and filmmaker Johnny Gogan’s Groundswell explores how Ireland banned the practice of fracking (releasing oil or gas from shale rock) and how Northern Ireland still faces a prospect that has led to tremors, and poisoned water in NE Pennsylvania, where fracking is common.

Gogan guides us through his powerful film showing what is possible with direct action on the ground from his base in Fermanaugh. Political campaigner Nuala McNulty started the fight against fracking in Northern Ireland after the Irish Parliament, the Deil, had given licenses for exploratory drillings to Canadian company Tamboran Resources, whose agent Tony Bazley promised that no chemicals would be used in the process.

Jamie Murphy from ‘Love Leitrim”, remembers the police action in the Northern Irish fight against Shell, one of their slogans was “Farming, not Fracking”. Later a moratorium was reached in the Deil, pending the feasibility study into gas mining in the licensed areas near the border. The area was still suffering confrontations during the “Troubles”.

Arlene Foster, a staunch Fermanaugh activist and Northern Ireland’s First Minister, had an ambiguous relationship with fracking that drew criticism from the Irish border population. Meanwhile Gogan visited campaigners in NE Pennsylvania where diagnosis of cancer had almost doubled in the population, particularly in young people indicating a clear correlation with the fracking activities. The Good Energies Alliance Ireland (GEAI) joined the fight, as did Friends of the Earth: “Fracking is leaving more carbon footprints on the planet than coal.”

A Private Members Bill to legislate for the banning of fracking was introduced in the Deil, but was a victim of the General Election in 2016. Finally, a motion was passed in October 2016, to ban the import of gas gained from fracking, the only bill of its kind in the world. Nevertheless, not all is won: we listen to ex-president Trump announcing that the EU is planning to import fracking products, and in June 2019 Tamboran Resources was given permission to explore for Shale Gas in Northern Ireland – the decision of the restored NI executive is pending…

Gogan’s detailed chronicle is a laudable testament to the fight but instead of appealing to heart and minds, it often bogs the audience down with too much detail, names and organisations making Groundswell a valuable insider documentary rather than for mainstream entertainment. AS

Groundswell will be released on Friday 16th April, ahead of Earth Day 2021 and will be available via the Modern Films virtual cinema platform. It will screen theatrically later in the year.

 

 

 

The Quiller Memorandum (1966) TPTV

Dir: Michael Anderson | Cast: George Segal, Alex Guinness, Max Von Sydow, Sent Berger, George Sanders, Robert Flemyng, Philip Madoc | Uk Drama 106′

Adapted from Adam Hall’s novel ‘The Berlin Memorandum’, this was the only spy film written by Harold Pinter; a sad loss, since he and the genre – with their ambiguous motivations and outright deceptions, complicated here by the fact that almost everybody around him is speaking amongst themselves in a foreign language – were made for each other.

The dialogue scenes between spymasters George Sanders and Robert Flemyng in Whitehall are pure Pinter. While back in Berlin the second most Pinteresque scenes are those where our disarmingly offbeat hero is interrogated by knuckle-cracking neo-Nazi Max von Sydow. Alec Guinness puts in a sinister appearance in the mammoth Olympiastadion at Charlottenburg. Truly the stuff of nightmares.

Senta Berger is the heroine. Meester Quiller!! (She is currently shooting her latest film in Bavaria). While the final scene is a wonderfully Hitchcockian denouement, all the more shocking for taking place in glorious morning sunshine to an appropriately wistful accompaniment from John Barry’s score sung by the mellow Matt Munro. ©Richard Chatten.

NOW ON TALKING PICTURES TV | AVAILABLE ON AMAZON

Human Rights Watch Festival 2021 | Women have their say

Opening this Thursday 18 March, this year’s HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH FESTIVAL  kicks off with The 8th about Ireland’s women-led campaign to engineer the impossible – to overturn the 8th Amendment, a constitutional ban on abortion.

In Belly of the Beast two women wage a near impossible battle against the US Department of Corrections to expose modern-day eugenics and reproductive injustice in California prisons.

Mujer de Soldado reveals a deeply moving picture of female solidarity among four Peruvian women, who are bringing charges of historical rape against their abusers.

And in the Closing Night film on 26 March Unapologetic new talent Ashley O’Shay spent four years chronicling the lives of two young, black, queer women within the Black Lives movement in Chicago. In Ashley’s words: Unapologetic serves as a blueprint to that moment (last summer)…. I hope you walk away feeling inspired, and hopeful, and righteously rageful at the systems that have failed women.

HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH FILM FESTIVAL 2021 | Tickets go on sale February 18 and can be purchased via the Human Rights Watch Film Festival or Barbican Cinema On Demand.

Tove (2020)

Dir: Zaida Bergroth | Finland, Drama | 100′

This drama about Moomins creator Tove Jansson (1914-2001) is as enchanting as her hippo-like cartoon characters that are celebrated by kids and adults all over the world.

Finnish filmmaker Zaida Bergroth brings the Finnish bisexual artist to life in this delicately sensuous and affecting biopic that showcases her unconventional loves as much as her talent as an author, artist and creator, played here by a captivating Alma Pöysti and scored by evocative soundtrack of tunes from the era from jazz to swing, Benny Goodman’s Sing Sing Sing being the musical motif throughout with Stefan Grapelli and Edith Piaf enlivening the Parisian sequences of the early 1950s.

Eeva Putro’s gracefully paced script focuses on the immediate aftermath to WWII in a discretely decadent Helsinki where Soviet bomb raids fail to spoil Tove’s fun at lively cocktail parties where champagne continues to flow during illustrious soirees. Home is a stylish bohemian milieu where Swedish is spoken. Tove is often put down by her renown but competitive sculptor father (Enckel), although her graphic artist mother (Kajsa Ernst) adores and encourages her creative potential.

Later at art school Tove is nudged by her father towards the more highbrow artistic expression of painting, but prefers illustrating and doodling cartoons for a subversive magazine, and this is where she will eventually make her name and earn a meagre living. All this creativity naturally spills over into amorous encounters. Soon Tove is involved with a married politician (Shanti Roney as Artos Wirtanen) and a wealthy female client Viveca Bandler (Kosonen) in dizzying sexual encounters, both leaving her troubled and unsatisfied as she seeks solace in her art. Bergroth keeps the tempo romantically-charged and touching rather than tortured or soul-searching. Artos eventually proposes but Paris beckons promising other opportunities on the horizon as well as a reunion with the past.

This is such a wonderful film about female creative and sensory expression made more so by its gentle, often handheld, camerawork in Helsinki and Paris – DoP Linda Wassberg often uses that atmospheric technique of fading out the scenes in slow-mo to an echoing soundtrack lending emotional depth and a dreamlike quality to the narrative leaving us contemplating what has gone before and appreciating the intensity of Tove’s artistic and emotional truth. MT

On release from 9 July 2021

Johnny Cool (1963)

Dir: William Asher | Wri: Joseph Landon | Cast: Henry Silva, Elizabeth Montgomery, Richard Anderson, Jim Backus, Wanda Hendrix | US Crime Drama 103’

Before Lee Marvin in The Killers and Point Blank there was Johnny Cool. The name ‘Johnny’ in the title usually means a romantic loner; but this Johnny was such a reptilian thug that by the end I was rooting for him to get what was coming to him in a way that I never did with the likes of Jimmy Cagney.

After possibly the worst title song I’ve ever heard (sung by Sammy Davis Jr., who also contributes a cameo as a dealer in a gambling den in an eye-patch and loud check jacket named “Educated”), what follows is a real curate’s egg vividly shot on location by Sam Leavitt in deliberately ugly black & white with an astonishing cast of cameo players (I particularly liked Mort Sahl’s contribution). The bewitching Elizabeth Montgomery is wasted as a bored socialite who takes a shine to Johnny after seeing him karate someone in a restaurant, yet seems a bit slow to realise that maybe he’s not really a very nice person. (She and director William Asher married the same year and together embarked the following year on the evergreen TV hit ‘Bewitched’, and she was lost to movies forever.)

That the Production Code was by now on its last legs is attested to by macabre details such as the fact that he takes a knife rather than a gun with him to settle one particular score; while he improbably uses a big heavy suitcase with a bomb in it to blow up one victim rather than simply shooting him. And how did he make his getaway after machine-gunning someone else through the top floor window of a high rise office block from a window cleaner’s cradle? However, the film is obliged to show sufficient restraint in its denouement to leave enough to the imagination to make the conclusion far more chilling than had we seen more. (And it’s refreshing to see Elisha Cook Jr. come out on top for once). ©Richard Chatten

 

Memories of My Father | El Olvido Que Seremos (2020)

Dir.: Fernando Trueba; Cast: Javier Camara, Juan Pablo Urrego, Nikola Reyes Cano, Patricia Tamayo, Maria Teresa Barretyo, Laura Londano, Elisabeth Minotta, Kami Zea; Columbia 2020, 136 min.

Memories of My Father in a spirited family saga set against the background of Columbia’s darkest days.

Based on the (auto)biographical novel ‘El Olvido Que Seremos’ by Hector Abad Faciolince, Spanish director Fernando Trueba and his brother David set their story in the city of Medellin, where fiery militias took the law into their own hands. Both novel and film are a tribute to the Columbian human rights advocate and doctor Hector Abad Gomez, by his son Hector ‘Quiquin’ Abad Faciolince.

The story opens in a monochrome Turin in the early 1980s where student Hector Abdad (Urrego) is watching a South American gangster movie with a girl friend. We hear him later on the phone to his mother Cecilia Faciolence de Abad (Tamayo) discussing his father’s rebellious nature. Glorious colours then flood the screen as we revisit Hector’s ‘Quiquin’ (Cano) childhood world, dominated by his compassionate father (Camara) and his four sisters: teenage Mariluz(Barreto), Clara (Londano), Marta (Zea) and Vicky (Minotta.)

Medellin was a turbulent place to grow up: bombs went off regularly, right-wing militia terrorised the population, drug cartels fought it out, and at university fascist professors made life difficult for Abad Gomez. At home, matriarch Cecilia keeps the family finances in order, whilst Clara changes boyfriends regularly and Marta sings melancholic songs, playing the guitar.

Quiquin and his school friend are up to no good – throwing stones at the window of a Jewish family living next door. The school boys are victims of a reactionary aunt, a nun, who tells Quiquin that the Jews killed Jesus Christ and should be punished. Father Hector takes his son to the neighbours and makes him apologize. The same school friend asks Quiquin “if his father was gay” – since Hector senior likes to cuddle his only boy. The youngster is soon fed up with religion and God, and is ordered by his father to attend church to please his mother. The grandmother is sent to a care home, and Cecilia’s brother, a bishop, warns Hector to be more careful with his critique of the government and militia.

But the lack of sanitation in the poor quarters is appalling, and the doctor is the only one, who cares to get prosthesis’ for the victims of bomb attacks.  On the radio, the family listens to accusations against the patriarch, he is branded a Marxist, soon having to leave the country to teach abroad. Then tragedy strikes at the heart of the family and life is never the same.

The feature then circles back to 1983 and black-and-white footage seeing Hector returning to Medellin, where father and son are more and more estranged, since the young man does not understand his father’s social engagement. The first grandchild in the family is born, and Doctor Gomez announces that he is going to run for mayor of the city in 1987. After family tragedy, the scene is now set for confrontation.

DoP Sergi Ivan Castano can take much credit for this engrossing family saga, sometimes told in the style of a tele-novella. The black-and-white images are wonderfully lit, and the colour scenes at the heart of the feature are so vibrant in their crystalline intensity you almost have to squint. The directors avoids a political treaty, focus on the emotional conflicts. Memories is a testament to a man of passion and compassion. ©AS

CURZON HOME CINEMA exclusively from 26th March 2021

 

The October Man (1947) Talking Pictures TPTV

Dir: Roy Ward Baker | Wri: Eric Ambler | Cast: John Mills, Joan Greenwood, Edward Chapman, Kay Walsh, Joyce Carey | UK Drama 85′

John Mills has the good fortune to attract the interest of throaty-voiced enchantress Joan Greenwood (like Alec Guinness in ‘The Man in the White Suit’, also playing an industrial chemist, but one far less assailed by doubts and far less appreciative of her) in this atmospheric psycho-drama vividly designed by Alex Vetchinsky, gothically lit by Erwin Hillier, personally produced by Eric Ambler from his novel and marking an auspicious directorial debut for Roy Baker. ©Richard Chatten

ON TALKING PICTURES TV

Strange Journey | El Extrano Viaje (1964)

Dir: Fernando Fernan Gomez | Cast: Carlos Larranaga, Tota Alba, Lina Canalejas, Rafaela Aparicio | Spain, Drama 92’

It’s a wonder this very black comedy got past Franco’s censors in the first place. After the premiere it received only a very limited release, but has since enjoyed considerable acclaim. Based on the notorious unsolved death of two brothers found dead on a beach in Mazarrón in 1956, in the film they have become brother and sister; a pair of moon-faced simpletons completely under the thumb of their terrifying big sister Ignacia. The setting is a small coastal town in which old women in black shawls cluck with disapproval at swinging young sixties chicks in leopardskin slacks; while Ignacia presides over a Gothic old house deliberately reminiscent of the Bates mansion in Psycho.

Described by Pedro Almodóvar as an “accursed masterpiece”, the film’s director Fernando Fernán Gómez (1921-2007) was best known in Spain as an actor, and fleetingly appeared as Penelope Cruz’s senile father in Almodóvar’s All About My Mother (1999).

After Tota Alba’s Ignacia discovers passion she undergoes a startling visual transformation from the housekeeper in The Cat and the Canary into a dead ringer for one of Almodóvar’s short-skirted, big-haired cougars of the eighties and nineties. And as if the film wasn’t already weird enough, her downtrodden brother Venancio is played by international sleazemeister Jesús Franco, who although he often played small parts in his own films, here makes an extremely rare appearance in a substantial acting role in a ‘respectable’ film. ©Richard Chatten

 

Night World (1932)

Dir: Hobart Henley | Cast: Lew Ayres, Mae Clarke, Boris Karloff, Dorothy Revier | US Drama 58′

The opening montage of this delirious slice of pre-Code life amounts virtually to a declaration of intent, as various New Yorkers hit the town in pursuit of sex, booze and violence. You can practically hear the scratch of pencils from the bluestockings in the audience whose increasingly persistent calls to put a stop to the depiction of just this sort of depravity would soon, alas, be calling the shots in Hollywood.

In just 58 minutes, Night World depicts illegal booze (“they can make it faster than you can drink it”), homosexuality (in the flouncing form of “MISTER Baby”, played by a very young Byron Foulger before he grew his moustache) and adultery as facts of life; and comes dangerously close to condoning the latter in the scene in which Hedda Hopper appears as Lew Ayres’ ghastly mother who shot his father for an improbably innocent dalliance with another woman. (It also takes a rather callously casual view of violent death when the bullets start seriously flying in the film’s finale).

A couple of previous reviewers have compared Night World to a low rent Grand Hotel; with Merritt Gerstad’s extraordinarily mobile camera weaving it’s way throughout the joint picking up one set of characters and then another rather as Robert Altman would later do. Presiding over ‘Happy’s Place’ is a tall, lisping, English-accented proprietor called “Happy” MacDonald, played by – of all people – a third-billed and fascinatingly miscast Boris Karloff. The women all look magnificent – all that bobbed hair and bare shoulders! – and a sweet blonde Mae Clarke is permitted a sunnier characterisation than we are accustomed to seeing her get a chance to play. It’s a blast to see her actually dancing in the lineup on the floor show (with appropriately lascivious choreography courtesy of Busby Berkeley himself)!

The name of the prolific Hobart Henley often crops up in filmographies from the early thirties, but after Night World he only directed one more film. On the strength of this I’d sure like to see some of his others. ©Richard Chatten

 

Night Games (1966)

Dir: Mai Zetterling | Cast: Ingrid Thulin, Keve Hjelm, Lena Brundin, Jorgen Lindstrom | Sweden, Drama 105′

Even in her days working in the Hollywood mainstream as Danny Kaye’s leading lady Mai Zetterling always had an air of menace about her; which she more than amply confirmed when she finally got behind the camera herself. Night Games was in its day considered the last word in shocking, but is today largely forgotten; and it’s hard to figure out just how seriously we’re supposed to be taking it all until the Hal Roach-style slapstick and music behind the end credits finally clinches it: we’re not.

Zetterling’s second feature film as a director evokes Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957) both through its elegant shifts back and forth between the hero’s childhood and adulthood; and by the presence of Ingrid Thulin as the hero’s long-dead mother whose hedonistic lifestyle has left him marked for life, and of Naima Wifstrand (who had played Isak Borg’s terrifying mother in Wild Strawberries) as Jan’s dotty old aunt (while Jörgen Lindström, who plays the young Jan, had been Thulin’s nephew in Bergman’s The Silence).

Most of the mother’s entourage disport themselves more like characters out of TV commercials than recognisable human beings; recalling the orgiasts of late Fellini and the decadent weirdos who invade Tony’s home at the conclusion of Joseph Losey’s The Servant. For good measure, the final sordid scramble for expensive goodies resembles the conclusion of The Magic Christian; before Jan finally purges himself once and for all of a lifetime of Oedipal baggage by dynamiting the palatial family home to kingdom come. ©Richard Chatten

 

Lost in La Mancha (2020)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now on release

Zana (2019) digital release

Dir: Antoneta Kastrati | Cast: Adriana Matoshi, Astrit Kabashi, Fatmire Sahiti, Mensur Safqui | Serbia Drama 93′

The legacy of a war on a Kosovar woman’s life are insightfully portrayed in this hauntingly lyrical debut feature from Kosovo-born, LA-based writer/director Antoneta Kastrati.

Lume (Matoshi) lives with her loving husband Ilir (Kabashi) in a farming village of Kosovar Muslims, dominated by rituals and superstitions and caught between the past and the present in the lush Albanian countryside. Psychological scars run deep years after the war is over and Lume is suffering the double blow of losing a child and being unable to conceive another. Her bereavement is made all the more insufferable as she is defined by her childlessness in a community where family is the entire focus of a woman’s life.

Lume experiences the emotional fallout in all kinds of ways: nightmares and hallucinations – involving dead or wounded animals and a mysterious bloody corpse – and these are cleverly woven into the narrative providing a constant reminder of the atrocities of the 1990s – while daily village life sees grotesque interference from her mother in law, Lume emerging a detached and morose figure lost in a world of hopeless misery and indignity.

So backward is the set-up here that the family believe Lume to be possessed by an evil spirit rather than needing medical advice. But she soon resorts to village healers in the hope of a much desired pregnancy, and these intimate scenes are evocatively captured and contrast with the bucolic images of farming in the Balkan countryside that could be set in the 18th century.

Ilir is the most likeable character supporting his wife with genuine love and concern even when Lume’s father threatens to burn the couple’s house down when his daughter asks to come home after a visiting her mother. And this is where Kastrati makes us aware of the superstitious attitudes that are still very much alive, with constant talk of spells, curses and Black Magic freely banded around by a community still locked in the past, mobile phones their only acknowledgement of contemporary life.

Lume keeps her calm distance throughout until Ilir takes her to a witch doctor to rid her of ‘inner demons’. And she objects to his violent methods. But life improves dramatically when Lume finally conceives and once again we experience the full force of traditional rituals, her mother in law dominating family life and undermining her in every way. And gradually as winter sets in, the trauma of the past catches up with the present in a grim reveal which finally clarifies Lume’s rich dream life in a deeply felt tribute to Kastrati’s own family. MT

ON CURZON HOME CINEMA, BFI PLAYER AND BARBICAN CINEMA ON DEMAND from 2nd APRIL 2021

 

 

Senso (1954) DVD/blu-ray

Dir: Luchino Visconti | Cast: Farley Grainger, Marcella Mariani, Alida Valli, Massimo Girotti, Heinz Moog, Rina Morelli | Italy, Drama 123′

Visconti’s first film in colour and his first with a patrician 19th Century backdrop, Senso is a squalid tale of base animal passion with an epic grandeur that raises it to the pantheon of Great Screen Romances by courtesy of Visconti having robed his sixth feature in the trappings of the momentous historical backdrop of the Risorgimento of 1866, Venetian locations, plush interiors, immaculate costumes and Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony (which wasn’t actually composed until fifteen years later).

The plot actually has marked similarities to Joseph Losey’s The Sleeping Tiger, made concurrently in drab monochrome in postwar austerity Britain; in which refined Alexis Smith (married to decent but dull Alexander Knox) completely loses her head over delinquent Dirk Bogarde. Ten years earlier, Visconti himself made a much more unadorned treatment of greed and destructive passion with Ossessione (1942) an adaptation of James M. Cain’s sweaty tale of blue-collar adultery and murder, The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Maria Callas had been Visconti’s first choice for the part of Countess Livia Serpieri – a society wife who becomes infatuated with good-looking creep Lieutenant Franz Mahler (played in a gleaming white uniform by an obviously dubbed Farley Granger), but she had too many theatre commitments to take time out for the shoot which eventually took nine months to complete, and Ingrid Bergman was too wrapped up working with her husband Roberto Rossellini, so the role eventually went to Alida Valli. Still stunning, but already perceptibly older than during her late forties Hollywood sojourn, in the arms of Lt. Mahler Valli discovers an erotic fulfilment entirely new to her; but to Franz she’s just another notch on his bedpost, and someone to sponge off.

Marcella Mariani (who died in a plane crash aged 19, just six weeks after Senso‘s premiere) is rather sweet and vulnerable as the young prostitute Clara who is spitefully exploited by Franz to further rub Livia’s nose in his rejection of her. Rina Morelli has an eye-catching cameo flitting about Livia’s villa in Aldeno as her maid, who seems to be actively enjoying the thrill of her mistress’s affair. But the most blackly comic element in the film is the way that as momentous historical events escalate around them, she and her idealistic cousin Roberto Ussoni (played by Massimo Girotti) are shown to be completely oblivious to what is making the other tick.

Under the impression that Franz is waiting for her at an address to which she has been followed by her stuffy husband (Heinz Moog) she melodramatically declares, with her back to the door, that YES SHE HAS A LOVER!!!, only to discover the place occupied by Roberto and his revolutionaries eagerly making plans; as oblivious of the turmoil raging inside Livia as she is by now indifferent to their cause. She commits treason by sheltering Franz from the Italians, and then gets even deeper into corruption by helping him to avoid combat by giving money meant for The Cause to him. One of a number of loose ends in the plot is that we never find out what happens when it’s discovered that 200,000 florins have gone missing from the fund intended to finance The Revolution, has been filched by yours truly.

As her grip on sanity loosens, Livia’s wardrobe (the work of Marcel Escoffier & Piero Tosi) becomes more and more buttoned down and severe, the black dress she wears in her final scenes making her resemble some ferocious bird of prey. The distinguished Italian cameraman G.R. Aldo was killed in a car crash during filming (this was also his first colour production); and the opening scene in Venice’s Fenice Theatre is the work of his successor Robert Krasker, who himself walked out on the production after falling out with Visconti, leaving the film to be completed by Giuseppe Rotunno. Whoever shot the amazing close-ups of Valli – her eyes wildly darting from side to side as she becomes more and more unhinged – merits particular kudos. During the final confrontation in the hotel you’re expecting her to produce a gun and shoot Franz; but she achieves the same end by more deliciously vindictive means, and he ends up in front of a firing squad assembled at remarkably short notice while she careens into the night to a very uncertain fate.

Having ended with a bang, the final credits still have one more surprise to serve up when the first two names we see after Visconti’s turn out to be those of the future directors (on this occasion humble assistants), Francesco Rosi and Franco Zeffirelli.

Senso was shot in English, and there are a couple of excerpts on YouTube from the truncated 94 minute English-language version, ‘The Wanton Countess’ which enable you to hear Granger in his own voice speaking dialogue written by no less than Tennessee Williams and Paul Bowles (thus confirming suspicions that we are witnessing a Venetian variation on A Streetcar Named Desire).

By the 1970s Visconti could finally make a film truer to his own inclinations in Death in Venice (1971), with Dirk Bogarde – once the object of infatuation himself in The Sleeping Tiger, but now the one smitten – in a production again dressed up to the nines, handsomely set in period, again using beautiful Venetian locations and this time almost entirely dispensing with dialogue in favour of Mahler, his favourite composer; whose name he had co-opted for the young officer in Senso (who had been called Remigio Ruz in Camillo Boito’s original novella). Richard Chatten.

NOW AVAILABLE ON DVD on AMAZON + CRITERION COLLECTION

The Frightened Man (1952)

Dir: John Gilling | Cast: Dermot Walsh, Barbara Murray, Charles Victor, John Blythe | UK Drama 69′

An ultra-noirish cautionary tale (like most Tempean productions superlatively lit by Monty Berman) sternly warning audiences in postwar austerity Britain against the lure of apparently easy money; such as that stands to be acquired from frequent target Hatton Garden in a diamond heist.

Making the most of a meagre budget, John Gilling writes and directs a tighly-plotted and rather unpredicable little heist thriller that sees the profligate Julius Rosselli (Walsh) paying a visit to his adoring, antique shop-owner father (Charles Victor) after being sent down from Oxford University in disgrace. Julius plunders his father’s savings, flirts with the lodger (Murray) and soon falls in with a criminal element in a bid to make money without working for it, in a heist that runs into complications.

The first of two films by Tempean in which Charles Victor played the lead (the second being the title role in The Embezzler) flanked by the usual choice cast many of whom later featured in TV comedy series (Peter Bayliss in ‘The Fenn Street Gang’, Ballard Berkeley in ‘Fawlty Towers’, John Horsley in ‘The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin’, Martin Benson in ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ and Thora Hird and Michael Ward in just about everything else). Richard Chatten.

NOW ON PRIME VIDEO | TALKING PICTURES TV

Five Films for Freedom | BFI Flare 2021

During the FLARE LGBTIQ+ BFI’s annual celebration of all things gay five festival films have been selected to screen free internationally from 17-28 March

Five Films For Freedom 2021 sees filmmakers exploring emerging sexuality, trans-activism, homophobia and genderless love at a time when people may have been adversely impacted by the pandemic.

In a new twist for 2021, audiences will be invited to nominate their Five Films Favourite via a British Council web poll, the winners will be announced via British Council social media channels prior to 28 March. Voting opens 17 March via the #Five FilmsForFreedom homepage.

The FIVE FILMS FOR FREEDOM campaign has been going since 2015 and over 15 million people from more than 200 countries have engaged with it particularly in places where homosexuality can be prosecuted and, in some cases, punishable by death.

Five Film For Freedom programme 2021:

 

Bodies of Desire (India/Dir. Varsha Panikar & Saad Nawab/3 mins), directed by Varsha Panikar and multi-award-winner Saad Nawab, uses Indian poet Panikar’s work as the basis for a visual, poetic film capturing four sets of lovers in a sensual celebration of genderless love and desire.

Land of the Free (Sweden/Dir. Dawid Ullgren/10 mins) – Ullgren’s tense Swedish drama follows the fictional David and friends as they celebrate his birthday with a nightly swim at the beach. The good mood swiftly changes after two straight couples walk by and laugh – was the laughter directed at them, or something else? Who owns the truth of exactly what happened?

 

Pure (USA/Dir. Natalie Jasmine Harris/12 mins) is the fictional debut from 2020 Directors Guild of America Student Film Award winner Natalie Jasmine Harris, centring on a young Black girl grappling with her queer identity and ideas of ‘purity’. The film is written, produced and directed by Harris – a filmmaker passionate about the intersection between filmmaking and social justice.

Trans Happiness is Real (UK/Dir. Quinton Baker/8 mins) – a moving documentary from first-time filmmaker Quinton Baker – sees transgender activists take to the streets of Oxford, England to fight anti-trans sentiments using the power of graffiti and street art.

Victoria (Spain/Dir. Daniel Toledo/7 mins) follows a bittersweet reunion between a trans woman and her ex, sparking tension and long buried resentment. Directed by award-winning filmmaker, Daniel Toledo, Victoria also features acclaimed trans actress, writer and director Abril Zamora (The Life Ahead, The Mess You Leave Behind).

All films will be available to view from 17 – 28 March 2021 via the British Council Arts YouTube channel as well as being part of the BFI Flare digital programme on BFI Player and associated platforms.

My Father and Me (2021)

Dir.: Nick Broomfield; Documentary with Maurice Bloomfield, Nick Broomfield, Joan Churchill, Barney Bloomfield; UK 2019, 97 min.

British documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield (Marianne & Leonard – Words of Love) has created a loving portrait of his father, Britain’s pre-eminent industrial photographer Maurice (1916-2010), Despite their ups and downs what shines through here is a genuine warmth and filial respect My Father also serving as a social history of the British working class since the end of WWII.

Maurice’s photos and Nick’s creative output makes this an especially enjoyable father and son portrait: Maurice Broomfield (1916-2010) started his working life on the floor of the factories in Derby where he was born. Taking a degree in photography at night school, he became the chronicler of the excellence of British production, be it Phillips Nuclear Power or Rolls Royce – his brilliantly-crafted photos showed a glamorous, even romanticised image of the workplace, with the craftsman in midst of his products.

Maurice was a contentious objector in WWII and remained a pacifist all  his life, but he was still able to see the positive factors in life and work. In 1947, he married Sonja Lagusova, a Jewish emigrant from Czechoslovakia, who had lost half her family in the Nazi concentration camps. She hardly ever talked about her Jewish identity and Nick, born in 1948, only learnt the stark facts that had traumatised his mother for life, in his twenties. In Derby, Maurice’s parents had already picked a local girl for him to marry and were nonplussed at his choice of Sonja,  relations between them never recovering. Nick, like his father, was not a good student at all, he was expelled and later went to boarding school. Afterwards, he joined his father on his photographic tours around Britain’s factories, and had his first crush on Maurice’ assistant Barbara. Nick’s grandfather Gogo worked on the film about the liberation of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and he and his daughter were somewhat critical of Maurice’s rather optimistic attitude towards society and life in general.

Nick’s work, on the other hand, shared the more critical attitude of his mother’s side of the family. “My Dad and me were competing for Sonja’s approval”. Meanwhile, Maurice tried hard to “unlearn’ his working class accent, his first studio was located in the grounds of the  Lady Crossfield’s estate; he even met the Queen. The gulf between father and son widened after Nick married fellow documentarian Joan Churchill (now divorced), the couple have a son, Barney. Their documentary Juvenile Liaison (1976), about an eight-year old boy who stole a toy pistol, and is then shown the inside of a jail by a policeman who frightens the child with dark stories, was banned for thirty years, and could even then only be shown to criminologists.

Maurice did not accept that his son had a different outlook on society, after the private showing of Tattooed Tears (1982), he simply left the screening room without saying a word. After Sonja died at the age of 59 of skin cancer, Maurice fell into a long depression. Father and son reconciled in the wake of Maurice finding a new life with Suzy, who re-kindled his lust for life, taking on painting, and losing his inhibitions. The family saga ends with Maurice, Nick and Barney (who is one of the DoPs of Father) sitting happily together on a bench “talking about nothing in particular”.

The writer/director combines the generational conflict with a short history of how Britain changed from the hopeful new beginnings of 1945 to the social divisions that now face the country. Unfortunately, we are still far away from the reconciliation and mutual acceptance of the three generations of Broomfields. AS

The V&A museum will host a Q&A screening on 4 November of Nick Broomfield’s MY FATHER AND ME exploring his relationship with his father, photographer Maurice Broomfield, to tie in with a display of photographs and book Maurice Broomfield: Industrial Sublime opening at the V&A on 6 November.  BBC Four will also air the film in November and stream on BBC iPlayer. More info below and V&A info here – Link

 

     

Berlinale Award Winners 2021

Berlinale 2021: The Award Winners of the 71st Competition

The first part of this year’s BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL has drawn to a close and the following winners announced.

Golden Bear for Best Film:

Babardeală cu bucluc sau porno balamuc (Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn) by Radu Jude

Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize: Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy by Ryusuke Hamaguchi

Silver Bear Jury Prize: Herr Bachmann and His Class by Maria Speth

Silver Bear for Best Director: Dénes Nagy for Természetes fény (Natural Light

Silver Bear for Best Leading Performance: Maren Eggert in Ich bin dein Mensch (I’m Your Man) by Maria Schrader

Silver Bear for Best Supporting Performance: Lilla Kizlinger in Rengeteg – mindenhol látlak (Forest – I See You Everywhere) by Bence Fliegauf

Silver Bear for Best Screenplay: Hong Sangsoo for Inteurodeoksyeon (Introduction) by Hong Sangsoo

Silver Bear for Outstanding Artistic Contribution: Yibrán Asuad for the editing of Una película de policías (A Cop Movie) by Alonso Ruizpalacios

Berlinale 2021: Awards of the Encounters Section

Best Film: Nous (We) by Alice Diop
Special Jury Award: Vị (Taste) by Lê Bảo
Best Director (ex-aequo): Das Mädchen und die Spinne (The Girl and the Spider) by Ramon Zürcher, Silvan Zürcher
Best Director (ex-aequo): Hygiène sociale (Social Hygiene) by Denis Côté
Special Mention: Rock Bottom Riser by Fern Silva

BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL PART II | JUNE 2021

The Last Forest | A Ultima Foresta (2021) Berlinale Panorama 2021

Dir.: Luiz Bolognesi; Documentary with Davi Kopenawa Yanorami and members of his indigenous community; Brazil 2021, 75 min.

The Yanomami tribe have lived in the Brazilian Rain Forest for over a 1000 years. Survival is the focus of this indigenous tribe, who are extremely smart, despite their primitive way of life. In his ravishing docudrama Luiz Bolognesi dives deep into the jungle on the borders of Venezuela and Brazil to uncover their story.

Bolognesi has already filmed the Yanomami back in 2018 gaining the trust of a group with the help of their Shaman and elder Davi Kopeneva Yanomami, who reveals the history of a tribe whose existence predates Brazil as a nation, by 500 years. But there is a new strand to their struggle. Since taking power in 2019, right-winger Jair Bolsonaro has sanctioned continuing deforestation of the Amazon encouraging gold prospectors who dig up the land occupied by the Yanomami, polluting the waters with Mercury and bringing disease, including Covid-19, into the community.

Above all this is a film to watch and marvel at, its enchanting images show an atavistic tribe unalloyed by the march of time, both men and women contributing to their daily subsistence by hunting with bows and arrow and poisoned darts. But there is an important message in Bolognesi’s narrative, and that’s the real thrust of his film.

Legend has it that there were two brothers, Omama and Yoasi who purportedly dug up the forest ground creating rivers and lakes. But the bothers were lonely and longed for women. Then Omama met the water goddess Thuëyoma, who came out of the river to join him, later admitting she had also slept with Yoasi who had treated her badly. Omama found his brother, rubbing his miss-shaped penis against a rock and banned him from the land to the other side of the ocean. “You are not my brother any more”. And Yoasi went away for good, and created death. Yoasi became the spirit of evil, whilst Omama buried the gold deep into the earth, so that Yoasi’s spirit could not be awoken to bring back the smoke of disease, which made us mortal.

Davi has lived with the ‘white men’, but he was lonely, and their ‘products’ put a spell on him. Making use of modern technology, he looks out of place making a phone-call, but this is all for the good of the tribe to organise resistance against the gold prospectors who have already made their negative presence known: In 1986 over 45000 gold prospectors forced the Yanomami deeper into the rain forest, killing between 1500-1800 natives. Six years later, despite of a change in the law granting this territory to the Yanorami. During the infamous Haxima massacre sixteen people lost their lives at the hands of the ‘white people’.Meanwhile back in the village, one woman mourns the loss of her husband: she believes the water goddess has taken him into the river with her, and begs the Shaman to help retrieve her husband.

Despite their primitive credentials the women here are very enterprising and have formed a co-operative to improve production of baskets which they can barter for food from the men, making them less reliant. Davi too is highly intelligent, demonstrating nous and a grasp of capitalism: “Gold prospectors dream a lot, but only about money. But it is the business men who keep the money, the ones who come here, the workers stay poor. It is all about greed”. He also remembers the plight of his relatives’ further north, whose water was poisoned with mercury.

The Yanomami are savvy and sociable people. DoP Pedro Márquez, who also photographed Ex-Shaman (2018), talks of their willingness to facilitate the making of the film, but ensuring they never looked into the  camera, believing it would steal their souls. The filmmakers’ hope is that they can persuade investors who work with the Bolsanaro administration, upholding the 1986 law so that the Yanomami can return to their way of life. AS

BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL 

 

Introduction (2021) Best Screenplay Berlinale 2021

Dir: Hong Sang-soo | South Korea, Drama 66′

Hong Sang-soo serves up his first slice of suggestible social drama for the year, at Berlinale’s 71st edition. Along with his muse (Kim Min-he) the usual sympathetic suspects join the party, the title has us hoping there may be a sudden dramatic epiphany but we’re not surprised when no such breakthrough occurs as the narrative soft-peddles enjoyably through to the end.

This is another short and sweet story, running at just 66 minutes, but make no mistake, the script is rich enough to stretch along for much longer, although the welcome brevity will always keep us coming back for more. No film festival would be complete without the South Korean master’s lightness of touch and teasing humour, and Introduction is no different.

Korean society is so coy and polite reflected once again in this delicate intergenerational piece, that will see the lowkey conflict play out between mother and son, and son and father. In one early scene a young couple meet again ever so formally after spending the previous one together. Maybe they are playing some sort of seductive game by adding an air of detachment to the rendezvous, a ploy that is always guaranteed to add a frisson of sexual tension to each new meeting. They are obviously in love. We have become accustomed to these winsome moments which are part of the director’s idiosyncratic cinema language but why this is called Introduction remains an enigma, and it could just be for no reason at all.

The film drifts peripatetically from South Korea to Germany. But one of the most interesting interludes involves the likeable Young-ho (Shin Seok-ho) who we first meet visiting his father (Kim Young-ho) at his acupuncture clinic in Seoul. The two clearly don’t see eye to eye and his father is under great emotional stress as he desperately tries to take a moment to relax in his private office, before placing strategic needles in one of his patients, famous actor (Ki Joo-bong), who, it soon emerges. dated Young-ho’s mother (Cho Yun-hee), and could be the reason for their marriage breakdown.

Meanwhile Young-ho’s timid girlfriend Ju-won (Park Mi-so) is off to study fashion in Berlin where she stays in a flat owned by a leading artist, and a friend of Ju-won’s mother (Seo Young-hwa), another rather fraught character who wants the best for her daughter in the rather controlling way mothers often do. Young-ho is also at odds with his own mother over his choice of acting as a career. Clearly she disapproves.

The film is full of these moments of tension that are so delicately appealing in their self-containment and so deftly handled with the director’s usual lightness of touch. MT

BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL | Best SCREENPLAY

Petite Maman (2021) Berlinale Competition 2021

Dir: Celine Sciamma | Cast: Nina Meurisse, Margot Abascal, Josephine Sanz, Gabrielle Sanz, Stephane Varupenne | Drama France, 72′

Petite Maman shows France’s Celine Sciamma at the height of her powers with an enchanting ghost story contemplating loss and longing through young eyes.

In competition at this year’s Berlinale, the French auteuse once again evokes the subtle sensibilities of human dynamics through her cast of child performers capturing naiveté but also resilience in the wake of a family bereavement.

The director showed a keen appreciation of childhood dynamics in her 2011 film Tomboy. Here the focus is little Nelly and how she copes in the aftermath of her grandma’s death as the family clears out the home so familiar and comforting in the first years of her life.

Avoiding sentimentality Sciamma maintains a pensive ambiguity for most of this almost spellbound drama that sees solemn 8-year-old Nelly (Josephine Sanz) wondering into the nearby woods where she meets  Marion (played by identical twin sister Gabrielle), the two striking up a tentative friendship as they build a tree house. These two are so po-faced they almost resemble the couple in Kubrick’s The Shining with their chilly demeanour, but we are far removed from any horror story here in a style that is best described at fantastical realism.

Mature beyond her years Nelly views her bereft mother with detatchment although she cares for her in the days after her own mother’s death, doing chores around the house with her father (Varupenne) who she regards with scepticism chiding him over his chain-smoking smoking. Sciamma gradually abandons enigma in the second half but also keeps us guessing as the story gradually unfolds in an eerie and suspended moment in time.

Building a gentle but detached camaraderie throughout the Sanz sisters give captivating debut performances that evoke confidence but also vulnerability. Meurisse is full of sensitivity as Nelly’s mother carrying her grief with a doleful dignity. MT

BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL 2021 |

 

 

Tina (2021) Berlinale Film Festival | Specials 2021

Dir: Daniel Lindsay, T J Martin | With Tina Turner, Oprah Winfrey, Angela Bassett, Kurt Loder | US Doc 118′

The most surprising quality about Tina Turner, according to Dan Lindsay and T J Martin’s revealing biopic about the superstar, is her sheer determination, given her crushing start in life. This new new film chronicles Turner’s early rise to fame, her personal and professional struggles and her musical renaissance in the early 1980s. There are snatches of her iconic stage moments, with the American singer’s performance of her dynamite R&B hit:- River Deep…Mountain High being the most notable. The hit marked a move away from her controlling partner Ike, thanks to producer Phil Spector.

And there are snatches of Rolling Down the River, Heartbreak Tonight and Simple the Best – but mostly the focus is on the singer herself, revisited via the original interview audio tapes as well as commentary from the famous celebrity journalist Carl Arrington, in conversation in her Swiss lakeside chateau. Kurt Loder (the Rolling Stone editor), Angela Bassett (who played her in What’s Love Got to Do With It ), Oprah Winfrey and playwright Katori Hall, who wrote the book for the musical, are the most informative talking heads in a film whose first half is, appropriately, still haunted by the shadow of Ike.

She was born in 1939 in Nutbush, Tennessee, the child of cotton farmers. Her parents fought endlessly and her mother hit back – a defiance that clearly gave Tina her get up go after the two eventually disappeared leaving her and her siblings with a cousin. They never came back.

And she speaks out about her turbulent life and marriage to Ike who beat her with coat hangers, even when she was pregnant, during those Motown years. She admits to being “insanely afraid of him” so much so she attempted suicide two or three times due to his womanising and cruelty, and she finally left him-  ironically on the 4th July – finding salvation in Buddhism which changed her life and set her free to be resilient and self-determining – not a victim  – during her fifty year career in music. She left her marriage to Ike with nothing but her ‘name’ which is now a brand. So she had to go back on the road to make some money.

The turning point came in the 1980s when she came into contact with the engaging Australian manager Roger Davies who asked her how she saw a new solo career. She told him she wanted to be “the first female roll’n’roll singer to fill a stadium”.

And so he sent her to Britain for a new chapter in her life, setting off with a song she at first detested ‘What’s Love Got to Do with It’, written by Manchester born Terry Britten (and originally recorded for Bucks Fizz) that became the breakout number in an album ‘Private Dancer’, that sold out in two weeks and went on to spawn 50 concerts. Tina was 50. At this point manager Kurt Loder suggested she author a book to ward off the tacky stories that still dogged her time before and after Ike. And they didn’t go away – although the book ‘I, Tina Turner’ became a bestseller.

Restyled and booted, Tina’s terrific body and gyrating hips – not to mention her dynamite vocal delivery – made her a stunning stage presence and the film captures this jubilant wave of female emancipation that lit up London’s Wembley Arena and everywhere else she played.

The final scenes are gilded with a blissful aura as Tina reveals the love in her life in the shape of German music pro Erwin Bach, whom she met in 1986 and married 27 years later. And it’s these golden moments that really shine in a biopic that quietly reflects on the past and joyfully celebrates the tremendous feminine force of nature that is Tina Turner. MT

BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL | SPECIALS

Ted K (2021) Berlinale Panorama 2021

Dir: Tony Stone | Cast: Sharlto Copley, Drew Powell, Amber Rose Mason, Travis Bruyer, Megan Folsom, Andrew Senn | USA 2021 121′

We’ve all felt stressed out by noise and leaf blowers or that Tesco doesn’t stock our favourite break anymore but terrorist Ted Kaczynski took things a stage further killing three people and injuring 23 in his attempt to bring about “a revolution against the industrial system”.

“Yesterday was quite good, the only disruptive sounds were nine evil jets.” wrote Ted, a Harvard Maths professor, in his diary of 25,000 pages penned in the seclusion of a wood cabin in deepest Montana and his sanctuary after dropping out of a society he had grown to hate with a vengeance, Ted is the infamous Unabomber.

Tony Stone’s study of mental disintegration is a slick and engaging procedural drama that moves tensely through its paces to show how a brilliant albeit emotionally disconnected son and brother become a domestic terrorist, prompting the largest manhunt in FBI history. The film focuses on the final seven years from the late 1980s to his capture in 1996 and is screening in Berlin’s Panorama section at this year’s festival.

But Ted K never uncovers what drove Kaczynski  into isolation in the first place although we certainly get a glimpse of his family background, through fraught conversations, particularly with his mother who had possibly played her part in his complex personality disorder, and he rails at her in one phone booth conversation, blaming her for his dysfunctional relationship with the opposite sex, claiming to have never touched a woman despite being, by now, well into his forties.

Sharlto Copley makes a formidable lead as the geekishly sinister ‘Basil Fawly’ type character. An unknowable action man who vehemently competes against the elements in the stunningly photographed landscapes of the Big Sky Country on the borders of Canada. There’s a distinct retro feel to the small-town locations where Ted arrives on his easy rider bike to research his victims in computer shops, where one assistant shows him how to correct a sentence on a new-fangled word processor. You can feel the anger coiled like spring beneath his well-formed physique – Christian Bale could have been another contender for the part – although Copley has a meaner look to his craggy features and although irritated by noise and machinery, we see him carefully blow-drying his hair in the mirror after hitting himself on the nose with a brick. And there’s a fascination to watching him go about his daily tasks, often swearing under his breath in terse exchanges, especially when confronted by women.

Stone clearly speculates about Ted – clearly he’s no charmer in the style of Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dharmer who were more intimately concerned with killing their victims. Ted K is all about reclusiveness but he still talks of the tremendous relief at ‘getting his own back’ after after sending mail bombs to his imagined adversaries. Ted’s concern is a more ‘noble’ one aimed at those he blames for destroying nature and allowing technology to take over society’s wellbeing. Rather than intellectually engaging with those causing the damage, he strikes back like a wounded animal, killing them.

Stone makes atmospheric use of an electronic score by Blanck Mass that alternates with soothing classical vibes from Schubert’s No 2, Op 100 (that Kubrick memorably used in Barry Lyndon) But Copley makes no attempt to embroider or dress up the banal evil of his character playing him as a straightforward Mr Angry from Montana whose dour prickly introspection does lighten up a touch when a pleasant woman smiles at him in a shop. Stone’s portrait is more fascinating than thrilling but he doesn’t attempt to fashion it into an arthouse extravaganza – in the style of The True History of the Kelly Gang, and in some ways this is to film’s credit in portraying Kaczynski’s ordinariness and social dislocation. He is a deeply wounded man crying out for attention and rehabilitation. Or at least that’s what comes across in this watchable study of loneliness and desperation. MT

BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL 2021

 

I’m Your Man | Ich Bin Dein Mensch (2021) Best Leading Performance Berlinale 2021

Dir: Maria Schrader, Wri: Maria Schrader, Jan Schomburg, Emma Braslavsky | Cast: Dan Stevens, Maren Eggert, Sandra Hüller, Hans Löw, Wolfgang Hübsch, Annika Meier, Falilou Seck, Jürgen Tarrach, Henriette Richter-Röhl, Monika Oschek | Sci-fi Drama Germany 105’

Dan Stevens plays a sycophantic male escort in Maria Schrader’s darkly comic Sci-fi drama screening in competition at Berlinale 2021.

Slick, sophisticated and satisfying this dating movie with a difference sees things from a distinctly female perspective exploring love and desire in a scenario may remind you of another recent German comedy Toni Erdmann which also starred Sandra Huller as a put-upon professional. Here Maren Eggert plays a similar character, a hard-working scientist at the famous Pergamon Museum in Berlin, struggling to care for her dementia-ridden dad (Hubsch). She accepts an invitation to participate in an extraordinary experiment that will fund her research. For three weeks, she is to live with a humanoid robot. And this is where Dan Stevens comes in as ‘Tom’ a dating machine in human form, with the intention of fulfilling her dreams. But although Tom’s artificial intelligence has been designed to allow it to morph into the man of Alma’s dreams, sadly it is on the spectrum feelings-wise, unable to appreciate human emotion, forcing the couple to seek professional help, from a relationship counsellor in the shape of Sandra Huller.

Maria Schrader, who won a Silver Bear for acting and is the director behind breakout TV mini series Unorthodox and award-winning biopic drama about Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig, directs with supreme confidence adapting her script from a book by Emma Braslavsky, and adding a suggestive cinematic spin to her intuitive grasp of the subtle dynamics of love and dating, and the chemistry behind acting, in a film that reflects the reality that love relies just as much on the lows as the as the highs to be emotionally fulfilling for the human psyche. Maren Eggert is superb as the thinking woman’s love interest in a performance that is fraught with emotion as well as thoughtful dignity, never resorting to histrionics or melodrama. Benedict Neuenfels makes this a pleasure to look at with his lush summery landscapes of Germany and Denmark.

But the film belongs to Dan Stevens who gives a nuanced performance in a difficult role as a robot that teeters between the ideal emotionally intelligent man and a geeky robotic guy you may even and have dated yourself and eventually grown to love – and even fancy – for his truly masculine take on life. I’m Your Man shows a bright future, where women (and men!) can get what they really want. But do they really know what it is? MT

IN CINEMAS FROM 13 AUGUST 2021 | BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL 2021

Blast of Silence (1961) DVD

Dir: Allen Baron | Cast: Allen Baron, Molly McCarthy, Larry Tucker, Peter Clune | US Noir Thriller 77′

The most valuable asset to an ambitious young filmmaker of the 21st Century would probably be a time machine capable of returning you to the year 1960. Clocking in at just 77 minutes but seeming much longer, Blast of Silence is further evidence that in those days it would have taken genius for an independent filmmaker NOT to create a classic city ‘noir’. Just make sure there’s film in your camera and take your pick from all the breathtaking compositions – complete with vintage cars and sharply dressed passers-by – constantly forming around you; even Michael Winner couldn’t fail to turn in a black & white urban gem three years later with West 11 (1963).

It certainly anticipates Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai (1967) – but then so do Kubrick’s Killer’s Kiss (1955) and Robert Wise’s Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) – and plenty have been seduced by Blast of Silence’s aura of monochrome period cool into extravagantly overpraising it. Allen Baron’s inexpressive performance as hit-man Frankie Bono (he resembles a young George C. Scott) certainly provides a perfect blank slate on which to inscribe any profundities or angst that grab you. In his capacity as writer-director Baron at some point late in production evidently felt the need to do just that, calling upon two eminent blacklistees whose services at the time would have been available at an affordable price.

The insistent narration reminiscent of Mark Hellinger’s in The Naked City was written under the pseudonym Mel Davenport by Waldo Salt (who later won Academy Awards for Midnight Cowboy and Coming Home), while the rasping voice of Lionel Stander is uncredited but unmistakable on the soundtrack, providing the glue which with Merrill Brody’s photography holds the film together. Unfortunately much of what Stander keeps telling us on the soundtrack doesn’t really need to be spelled out so relentlessly; while Meyer Kupferman’s jazz score is extremely effective in moderation, but gets very noisy in places.

Despite supposedly being such a pro, Frankie Bono’s murder of Big Ralph (played by Larry Tucker, who I recognised from Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor) is remarkably amateurishly executed, his long-anticipated hit of Troiano no big deal, and he proves remarkably easy to ambush at the film’s conclusion. Richard Chatten

NOW ON AMAZON

The Taking of Pelham 123 (1974) Bluray

Dir: Joseph Sargent | Cast: Walter Matthau, Robert Shaw, Martin Balsam, Hector Elizondo, James Broderick, Dick O’Neill, Lee Wallace | US Thriller 104′

A depressing sign of the times is that Ridley Scott’s underpowered 2009 remake of this classic thriller has far more posts on IMDb, after ten years, than the original after twenty. Mind you, even older viewers would be hard-pushed to recall the name of the actual director. But Joseph Sargent (whose long career in TV included James Cagney’s final role in Terrible Joe Moran) put his long career directing actors to good use in his one major cinema release, filmed in New York with a cast recruited largely from Broadway (including Rudy Bond – who played the judge in the opening scene of 12 Angry Men – as the police commissioner).

A slow-burner with a terrific score by David Shire (whose other films include The Conversation and Zodiac). During filming everyone knew they were making a winner, but at the box office back in the day failed to come up trumps, and the thriller rarely showed up on tv during the eighties. It was eventually resurrected twenty years later as a cult movie after inspiring Reservoir Dogs, which turned the film inside out by not actually showing the caper itself, dealing instead which its planning and aftermath.

In Reservoir Dogs we instead see the squabbling among grown men over who gets what colour, while the black suits worn in Tarantino’s film reflect the simple but effective disguises employed by the original desperadoes (it comes as quite a shock when Mr Grey turns out to be bald underneath his hat).

Frederick Raphael cited the use of the word ‘Gesundheit’ and its implications in the final scene as exemplary of the high standard of the writing; evident throughout the film as when one of the security men observes that “You’d think a million dollars would look like more” or when Garber is surprised to discover that Inspector Daniels is black. The one major flaw is when Blue behaves wholly out of character by going back into the tunnel to kill the plainclothes man solely so that he can get caught (Matthau’s line that they don’t “at the moment” have the death penalty in New York State shows just how long ago this film was made). The scene where Blue kills the guard is genuinely shocking since we have come to care about him, but demonstrates just how ruthless Blue is and justifies his own sticky ending. Richard Chatten

NOW ON AMAZON

The Mauritanian (2021) Amazon Prime 2021

Dir: Kevin Macdonald | Cast: Jodie Foster, Tahar Rahim, Shailene Woodley, Benedict Cumberbatch, Zachary Levi, Saamer Usmani, Baya Belal | US Thriller 129′

Tahar Rahim plays a longtime Guantánamo Bay detainee accused of masterminding 9/11, in Kevin Mcdonald’s worthy biopic, based on the memoirs of one Mohamedou Ould Slahi – aka The Mauritanian.

The film’s opening scenes unfold in an exotic North African desert location where a tented wedding ceremony is reaching its climax. But not for the white-robed Slahi (Rahim) who is whisked away and later brutally tortured in scenes of extreme violence, after his incarceration. Next we meet ‘no nonsense’ lawyer Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) tasked with batting for Slahi in his habeas corpus case, after he fails to be charged or given a trial. Her opponent in the ensuing courtroom potboiler is prosecutor Stuart Couch (Cumberbatch rocking a Louisiana accent is the highpoint of the film) and they make a formidable pair investigating what really happened to Slahi in the infamous prison. Denis Menochet, Shailene Woodley and Zachery Levi offer strong support but feel sadly underused in the scheme of things.

There’s incendiary dramatic potential here, and considerable humanitarian clout – not to mention a fabulous cast – and some swanky locations: New York, Cape Town and Mauritania itself – but somehow Macdonald delivers and underwhelming thriller whose finger-wagging script is so focused on the parlous state of US Democracy it starts to feel preachy rather than powerful in convincing us to care about those affected, particularly Slahi himself. And he comes across – mostly in flashback – as rather a glib character which is disappointing considering his stunning track record in a variety of roles. MT

PREMIERS ON PRIME VIDEO 1 APRIL 2021 IN THE UK | Premiered at Berlin Film Festival 2021

BERLINALE SPECIALS 

 

 

 

Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (2021)

Dir: Radu Jude | Drama, Romania, Luxembourg, Czech Republic, Croatia 2021 | 106 min| Romanian | Cast: Katia Pescaru, Claudia Ieremia, Olimpia Malai, Nicoldim Ungureanu

The moral of Radu Jude’s latest film is simple: don’t put anything incriminating on film. But Bad Luck Banging addresses far wider concerns that its title suggests: hypocrisy, misogyny, tyranny, racism and of course sex are the elements of this intoxicating, indigestible cocktail – you may even feel sick by the end. If not, you’ll be left with a real mouthful to chew over. This thematically thorny Golden Bear winner is not for the timid, and unfolds in three distinct parts.

Known for his unbridled dramas, snide social satires and several sombre documentaries, the Romanian provocateur delivers a mordant social satire laced with his usual brand of dark and irreverent humour and set in a crumbling Bucharest. Jude describes his treatise as a sketchbook, a work in progress, an unedited collage of ideas. It’s demanding, aggressive and visually stimulating – and opens, appropriately, with a bout of raunchy sex, between school teacher Emi and her partner Eugen.

Emi, (Katia Pescariu, who ironically last played a nun in Beyond the Hills), finds her career at stake when a video of her carnal encounter, shared on an adult only porn site, ends up on the general Internet. Discovering her flirty faux-pas Emi flees through the streets of Bucharest. And this febrile odyssey fuels the film’s extensive second part which starts as an enlightening architectural tour of the centre, its crumbling facades and landmarks such as the Roman Orthodox cathedral and Nicolae Ceausescu’s Palace, but soon widens into an opportunity for the director to air his outspoken views on the state of the nation in a piquant pot-pourri of archive footage that reeks of subversion with its salacious snapshots and facts from the capital’s colourful past. These include Jewish and Roma atrocities, Orthodox Christian ceremonies, folklore and fables. As images flash before us – a row of pigs heads and a woman performing fellatio contrast with icons and ancient texts – and more or less anything the director could lay his hands on to back up his view that society as a whole is hypocritical, pornographic and deeply misanthropic.

The third act takes us back to Emi who must now face the music in a socially distanced kangaroo court of teachers, religious officials, random citizens, and a man in an unfeasibly large teacosy, who all watch the tape – some quite attentively (especially the males) before holding forth with their vehement views in raucous and melodramatic debate on the rights and wrongs of Emi’s behaviour, working up to the film’s over-excited finale. This is an exhausting film to watch, but one that presents Romanian society as intelligent, fervent in its beliefs and proud to stand by them. And although we never really get to know – or even like – Emi as a woman, she serves the narrative as a fearless self-determining female of the future who refuses to take things lying down. MT

NOW ON RELEASE | WINNER GOLDEN BEAR 2021

 

 

Eye of the Storm (2020) Glasgow Film Festival 2021

Dir: Anthony Baxter | UK Doc 78 mins

“In the kingdom of the blind the one-eyed man is king” Desiderius Erasmus

James Morrison (1932-2020) was one of Britain’s finest Scottish landscape painters and a founder member of the Glasgow Group of artists. A new documentary set to premiere at this year’s Glasgow Film Festival paints a lively and amusing portrait of the painter himself and his vision of climate change that became his focus in the final years of his life when failing eyesight putting an impressionistic spin on what many regard as his finest work. Apart from offering insight into the painter’s substantial body of work and methods, this is the fascinating story of his greatest challenge. With his eyesight failing, one of Britain’s greatest landscape painters attempts one final masterpiece.

Hooking us in with its climate change credentials Eye of the Storm offers much much more. Entertaining and enjoyable, this artist’s impression of our changing world, also works as a mini Scottish travelogue, brought to the screen by Anthony Baxter (You’ve Been Trumped) who shows how the laid back and likeable character was inspired to paint Glasgow’s shipyards, and the countryside of Scotland, France and South Africa, and a series of works reflecting the impact of climate change after travelling to the Arctic. The artist had long be fascinated by the changing face of his native Scotland and the countryside in general was an issue close to his heart.

In his bright and airy studio the tousled haired Morrison shares his horror of not being able to paint – his eyesight dwindling – in the build up to a retrospective of his work in The Scottish Gallery in Edinburgh. His watercolour Green Valley (1972) will feature, amongst other works, in an exhibition dedicated to Angus landscapes. He began to paint the Angus outdoors in the 1970s ‘The Rolling Landscapes of Angus (1973). The following decade would see him moving to the north-west Highlands where he befriended a number of local artists, including the renowned figurative painter Joan Eardley. Yet even his famous landscapes avoid human presence:”I don’t want people, they seem an irrelevance to what the landscape is about”.

After studying art in Glasgow under David Donaldson, who taught him a technique of using a spent match (struck on his shoe heel) to get a head start on his life drawing classes, quite literally starting from a top down approach. Then after consciously moving away from the leftwing vibe of his early fellow painters in Glasgow. Morrison describes how he became increasingly drawn to painting the city’s built environment – some areas which no longer exist – and these sequences are enlivened by archive footage of tenement demolition, along with animated drawings and inter-titles featuring quotes from Cezanne, and pictures of Matisse.

In 1960 a move to the ancient East Coast town of Catterline (Scotland’s answer to St Ives with its artist community led by Joan Eardley) saw Morrison being drawn to seascapes with the fishing boats a frequent subject, a painting from the era ‘East Coast Fishing Boat’ (1962) describes in monochrome detail the magnificent fishing vessels which had already done decades of service in the unforgiving North Sea.

In 1971 Morrison found himself moving down the coast to teach at Dundee’s wellknown Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art where he made the next twenty years of his life about opening the horizons for those learning to paint, rather than setting a curriculum. During these exciting years, Morrison gave his students as much scope as possible. And it was in Dundee that he started painting ‘en plein air’ like the original impressionists, with their famous technique of getting the paint straight onto the canvas, after painting out the white, and without preparatory sketching. His hands on approach included mixing his own paints and stretching his own canvases, and it’s here that we get an impromptu visit to the famous French paintbrush shop Sénnélier in Paris.

His first visit to the Arctic came about after he met a biologist, Dr Jean Balfour (who suggested he should paint there), and these sequences are beautifully brought to life by Catriona Black’s animations and archive footage of Morrison at work. The documentary reaches its finale with a sense of anticipation as the artist goes ‘into the eye of the storm’ with his much anticipated, triumphant final work.

Talking heads include Catriona Black who animated key moments of Morrison’s life for the film, his art historian son Professor John Morrison, and the Montrose writer Dennis Rice. MT

EYE OF THE STORM is released in virtual cinemas from 5th March 2021 

McManus Gallery, Dundee

The Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jesus Egon Christus (2021) Berlinale Perspektive Deutsches Kino 2021

Dir.: David and Sasa Vajda; Cast: Paul Arámbula, Sascha Alexander Gersak, Roxanna Stewens, Angelo Martone, Benjamin Stein, Zora Schemm; BR Deutschland 2021, 51 min.

David and Sasa Vajda’s debut feature is an uneasy docu-fiction hybrid that follows a motley crew of drug addicts who have found refuge in an evangelical psychosocial support group at the outskirts of Berlin. Rumour has it that one former member Angelo (Martone) was a Mafia boss. Run by a self-proclaimed priest, a self-confessed junkie himself, who often insults and humiliates his ‘flock’, there is no structure in their day-to-day life, just an endless flow of psychotic people, left more or less to themselves.

Egon (Arámbula) is the main focus. Recently new to the group he does his best to fit in having to repeat even short utterances at least twice as he is sinks further and further in his psychosis during the filming. When Ben (Stein), beats the priest at chess, Egon compares him to Michael Jordan: “Ben is a Pro”. It soon emerges that Ben nearly overdosed, and that Egon avoids having a shower, apparently sharing his reluctance with Jesus to clean himself (clearly this is the key to the film’s title).

Egon is full of the usual gestures common to his particular mental illness. Out on the street he waves at the cars flying by, “allowing” them to pass. When a dumpster lorry stops to collect rubbish, Egon gracefully permits the men to get on with their work. Pinky (Schlemm) sings badly into a microphone, before declaring that Jesus is dead. Egon grabs the micro from her, sharing his ‘encounter’ with Jesus the previous night. “He said, he loved me, and does not like to shower. And he smoked cigars. And I said to Jesus, ‘laugh, at least once’.” As the film plays out Egon refers to himself increasingly in the third person singular – a sure sign of an impending split in his personality. He asks the priest if he will go to Heaven. “I want to know now”. At one point during dinner, the priest asks Egon to hoot like an owl, and the latter acquiesces.

We suddenly cut to a Super 8 home movie with the young Jenny (Stewans), who had been sexually abused by her father since the age of ten. Her torment went on for years. The voice-over also confesses Jenny and the family watched TV, a broadcast featuring child prodigies, one of them could remember all street names in Oslo.

DoP Antonia Lange contributes with her very realistic images to this perturbing and very unsettling narrative. Clearly all participants are suffering from major psychosis, and should be looked after in a proper psychiatric unit. The filmmakers’ neutrality is somehow infuriating – even though they stay true to their fly-on-the-wall cinema-verite approach. Benjamin Stein died and the feature is dedicated to him. AS

BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL

Day of the Triffids (1963)

Dir: Steve Sekely, Freddie Francis | Cast: Howard Keel, Nicole Maurey, Janette Scott, Kieron Moore, Mervyn Johns | Sci-fi 93′

Nobody ever points out that John Wyndham’s classic 1951 novel actually contains two apocalyptic catastrophes for the price of one; either of which would have provided ample material for an entire book in its own right. The whole population suddenly going blind would have been hard enough to deal with even without the survivors also having to fend off giant carnivorous plants going on the rampage! (As the night watchman at Kew Gardens devoured by one of the exhibits, Ian Wilson without his usual glasses ironically has one of his largest roles ever, with plenty of close-ups, but no dialogue).

Described by Raymond Durgnat as “hideously botched, but interesting”, this, the sole big-screen version yet attempted of Wyndham’s book, had a troubled production, plainly lacked the budget for adequate special effects and has a very abrupt tacked-on resolution. (The original itself lacks any sort of tidy conclusion.) Inevitably it pales by comparison with either of the two films derived from The Midwich Cuckoos (1957) or the TV versions since made. But it treats the original with respect and generally captures it’s mood. Were it’s source not so renowned, it would probably be considered more sympathetically on it’s own terms.

The film suffers from the same problem as the original novel that once the wonderful central situation has been set up it bogs down somewhat and runs out of plot: hence the addition of the scenes in the lighthouse. And it has the affliction of most modern creature features that the triffids themselves are deprived of their original elegance by making them just too slaveringly revolting compared to those in the book; although the noise they make is cool.

But the scene where the word ‘blind’ causes sheer feral panic to sweep like wildfire through a plane in flight is alone powerful enough to justify the film’s existence. Richard Chatten

NOW ON PRIME VIDEO |

Minari (2021)

Dir/Wri: Lee Isaac Chung | Cast: Steven Yeun, Yeri Han, Yuh-Jung Youn, Alan S. Kim, Will Patton, Noel Kate Cho | Drama

Lee Isaac Chung’s endearing portrait of a Korean-American family, Minari won the hearts and minds at this year’s Sundance, taking home both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award, and Yuh-Jung Youn went on to win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

The pace is gentle and upbeat as Chung unspools his autobiographical immigrant story – mostly in English- that feels real in its depiction of rural American in the 1980s (filmed in Oklahoma) then quite a difference place than the albeit modern Korea of his birth. Brimming with warmth and a touch of nostalgia, this is a universal experience of adjustment but the details are personal, imbued with the Korean sense of humour, and always delivered with a lightness of touch.

Originally starting off in California, farming-minded father Jacob (Steven Yeun) decides that the wide open spaces of Arkansas may be a better option for his family of four — mother Monica (Yeri Han), daughter Soonj (Noel Kate Cho) and son David (Alan S. Kim) — and they soon settle into a prefab with fifty acres in the hope of building up  a small-holding. With this idea in mind, Jacob and Monica take a job in the agricultural sector separating male and female baby chicks (or “chicken sexing”).

Monica is the only one who finds this new life a strain, the kids are only too happy to amuse themselves with plenty of land to play on. Grandma’s arrival helps to lighten things up providing a welcome buffer zone between Monica and Jacob – who are now barely talking – and helping with the kids who are the focus with their cheeky antics and naturalistic performances.

Jacob teams up for company with the local Bible-fearing eccentric (Will Patton) who spends a great deal of his time channeling Jesus, dragging a full-sized wooden cross along the main road. Feeling back-footed in his attempts thus far in providing for the family, Jacob’s business hunch finally shows signs of potentially coming good. But dramatic heft and gentle tension is provided when little David is in need of emergency medical treatment. No NHS to help here in the wilds of rural America. And although Minari doesn’t come through with a satisfactory conclusion to all the issues it raises, charisma and a real feelgood factor carries it through, along with winning performances from an impressive cast. MT

Now on release nationwide from 17th May | Oscar Winning for Best Supporting Actress: Yuh-Jung Youn |  Glasgow Film Festival 2021

 

 

 

 

Apache Drums (1951)

Dir: Hugo Fregonese | Wri: David Chandler | Cast: Stephen McNally, Coleen Grey, Willard Parker, Arthur Shields, James Griffith, Armando Silvestre | US Western 76′

Growing older makes you release just how shockingly young some of cinema’s luminaries were when they passed on (I have now outlived Max Ophuls by seven years, for example) and that Val Lewton was practically a boy when he exited film history aged a mere 46.

Lewton’s next move would have been to join Stanley Kramer at Columbia, but (having just tread water with two duff programmers for Metro) he went out on a high note with this, his only western, for Universal, that strikingly anticipates Zulu (right down to those under siege bursting lustily into ‘Men of Harlech’) and Assault on Precinct 13.

It was also his only Technicolor production and the potential for colour to heighten thrills is adroitly exploited in judiciously applied splashes of colour, like the green dress heroine Coleen Gray wears and the war paint the attackers come covered in when dramatically hurling themselves through the windows. Those almost expressionistically stylised windows (often visible in the background preparing us for attacks that don’t necessarily come) gradually change colour as the sky goes orange from Spanish Boot ablaze, and night becomes dawn (like the Manhattan skyline in Hitchcock’s Rope) until the door itself is finally devoured by flames when the final onslaught eventually arrives. Richard Chatten

NOW ON PARAMOUNT

Iorram | Boat Song (2021) Glasgow Film Festival 2021

Dir: Alistair Cole | UK Doc 96′

The first ever film in Scots Gaelic and none the worse for it, the native tongue – which has possibly only a year to live in its native setting – adding considerable atmosphere and poignancy to this impressionistic and informative portrait about fishing past and present before globalisation, climate change and Brexit decimated the stock. This film will certainly be meat ‘n bread (and possibly fish?) for dear old Nicola Sturgeon who is very much the poster girl for her country’s fishing industry. Livelihoods are at risk, not to mention the Scottish cultural heritage.

Back in the good old days fishing was the main industry up in the Western Isles around Barra, Vatersay and Cape Wrath, over a hundred miles North of Glasgow where the film screens at this year’s festival. The inhabitants of the islands today are observed on land and on water going about the business of fishing, while the ghostly voices of their ancestors tell stories and sing songs about life at the mercy of the sea.

In the mid-20th century, with the advent of portable sound recording, researchers started visiting the Outer Hebrides to preserve the voices of the islands for future generations. These were the first recordings to capture the oral history of Scottish Gaelic culture which stretches back thousands of years, and once covered the whole of Scotland, but now survives mainly in the island communities off the west coast.

Iorram is a second feature documentary for Alistair Cole whose work explores the link between language and the environment, as here where the evocative seascapes of the Outer Hebrides light up every frame. Music and fishing go very much hand in hand with being a sailor, songs and shanties keeping up the spirits and camaraderie during long or arduous forays into the blue yonder, and award-winning folk musician Aidan O’Rourke provides the film’s entrancing soundscape. Interestingly the word for rabbit sounds similar to the Spanish ‘conijo’.

Gaelic was once spoken across most of Scotland, but sadly Scottish Gaelic has now only around 11,000 habitual speakers, mainly in the Outer Hebrides, according to a recent study by the University of Highlands & Islands. Ironically, interest in Scots Gaelic is booming, with Gaelic schools flourishing in Glasgow and Edinburgh, and world interest in learning the the language has come via the internet and a ‘phone app (Duolingo has more than 560,000 registered learners worldwide signed up to Scots Gaelic).

Alistair Cole works as his own DoP to create stunning 4k observational footage of island life today. While the sailers prepare their creels to set out for the lobster and langoustine catch, and these action sequences are combined with imaginative land and seascapes captured on the widescreen. Meanwhile the film’s narration is composed of archive sound recordings of Gaelic speakers in the Outer Hebrides from the 1940s to 1970s reminiscing about the past when fish were so plentiful that the boats were often out all summer, and the locals time on land was spent busy with the harvest and looking after livestock. Holidays were never even considered, let alone taken. Other filmed footage shows local woman going about the meticulous preparation of the prized catch destined for restaurants all over Europe and these contrast with the lilting voices of the past sharing magical tales of fairies, mermaids and patron saints of the islands keeping the folklore alive.

Over the past decade, the School of Scottish Studies Archives has digitised and restored these recordings. Cole has selected the most emotional and lyrical voices in exploring the often fraught relationship between the fishing community and the stormy Atlantic Ocean.

World Premiere at the Glasgow Film Festival on February 28th 2021, followed by a virtual UK theatrical release from March 5th 2021 via the Modern Films ( in collaboration with key independent cinemas across the UK, and other partner organisations.

 

 

 

The Girl and the Spider (2021) Best Director Ex-aequo | Berlinale Encounters 20201

Dir: Ramon Zürcher, Silvan Zürcher | Cast: Henriette Confurius, Liliane Amuat, Ursina Lardi, Flurin Giger, André M. Hennicke, Ivan Georgiev, Dagna Litzenberger Vinet, Lea Draeger, Sabine Timoteo, Birte Schnöink | Switzerland 2021German 98’

The Girl and the Spider is an ambiguous puzzle of a film exploring the anatomy of a messy break-up. Dreams and anecdotes keep us entertained, while pets – a cat and a dog – steal the limelight.

This second feature from Swiss twins Ramon and Silvain Züricher (Das merkwürdige Kätzchen) sees Lisa (Amuat) leaving Mara (Confurius) to stay in their polyamorous flatshare. Chaos reigns throughout, Lisa’s mum (Ladri) flirts with removal man Jurek  (Hennicke) while overseeing the move. Mara swears “Fuck you!”, with Lisa answering “Later, first I move out”. suggesting that all may not be lost.

Clearly though the relationship has hit rock-bottom when Lisa insists on taking the dishwasher, telling Mara “you will never leave this dump, you’ll kick the bucket here”. To complicate matters Jan (Geiger) and Kerstin (Litzenberger-Vinet) also share this female centric ‘love-in’. Jan seems to be keen on Mara. Then there is Nora (Draeger), who spends a great deal of her time in bed asleep.

A young boy and a girl, possibly neighbours, add to the mayhem. And  Mrs. Arnold (Schoch), who stole the neighbour’s cat (who is now biting through cables), but has since returned it. The piano will stay in the flat as it belongs to the chambermaid (Schnöink), who once owned the place and is now working as a cleaning supervisor on a cruise ship – not that her short story makes anything clearer.

DoP Alexander Haßkerl conveys the general claustrophobia of this polyamorous set-up that takes place entirely within the confines of the cramped scenario, an obvious nod to the pandemic age, its residents and relationships in continual flux. The titular Spider story creates a constant formal tension in an aesthetically convincing, jumbled mayhem, but the lack of a satisfying narrative arc leaves us wanting more. AS

BERLINALE | SILVER BEAR | Best Director Ex aequo | ENCOUNTERS

 

 

Brother’s Keeper (2021) Berlinale Panorama 2021

Dir: Ferit Karahan | Cast: Samet Yıldız, Ekin Koç, Mahir İpek, Melih Selçuk, Cansu Fırıncı, Nurullah Alaca | Turkey / Romania 2021 | Turkish, Kurdish | 85’

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’s condition – so desperate are they to keep up the macho facade – until the boy becomes unresponsive, along with the mobile connection to the emergency services.

The tension is spiked by moments of hilarious situational humour – one involving a repetitive slipping sequence, another sees a puppy repeatedly trying to suckle its recalcitrant mother – Karahan – himself a Kurd – uses his largely non-pro cast to impressive effect. Elegantly framed and bitingly relevant this tightly packed drama unfolds in 85 enjoyable minutes. My Brother’s Keeper is an intelligent piece of film-making that makes impressive use of a low budget to create a memorable gem. At the heart of the story is Samet Yildiz’s haunting performance as Memo’s friend Yusuf, a boy whose knowing expression and sad eyes seem to speak volumes for the continuing plight of the Kurdish people. MT

BROTHER’S KEEPER won the FIPRESCI prize at Berlinale 2021 |

BEST SCRIPT, BEST FILM, ANTALYA FILM FESTIVAL 2021

 

Herr Bachmann and his Class (2021) Jury Prize Berlinale 2021

Dir: Maria Speth | with Dieter Bachmann, Aynur Bal, Önder Cavdar, Schüler*innen der Klasse 6 b, Schüler*innen der Klasse 6f | Germany, Doc 217’

A teacher nearing retirement decides to do his bit for international entente cordiale in Maria Speth’s immersive look at contemporary schoolroom dynamics. In Stadtallendorf, a German city with a complex history of both excluding and integrating foreigners, genial teacher Dieter Bachmann believes that social integration starts at grass roots level, offfering his ethnically diverse pupils a welcome entree into modern Germany

Aged between twelve and fourteen, these pupils come from twelve different nations; some have not quite mastered the German language, so Bachmann adopts a kindly approach to confidence-building, eager to inspire them with a sense of curiosity for a wide range of crafts, subjects, cultures and opinions.

Teaching is not just about loving your subject – it’s about being able to convey information clearly and engagingly. And Dieter Bachmann certainly has the emotional intelligence and patience to inspire his kids helping them to understand that discussion and dialogue is the way forward when dealing with others. His vision of utopia sensitively conveyed here in by Maria Speth and her cinematographer Reinhold Vorschneider, is a testament to something quite ordinary and yet so vital for children everywhere. MT

BERLINALE | COMPETITON 2021

Tag der Freiheit – Unsere Wehrmacht | Day of Freedom (1935)

Dir: Leni Riefenstahl | With Adolf Hitler, Hermann Goring, Rudolf Hess, Heinrich Himmler | Germany, Doc, 28′

As we approach the much awaited days of freedom the renowned German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl was focusing on a Day of Freedom of another kind. Tag der Freiheit marked Riefenstahl’s third and final visit to Nuremberg for the rally of September 1935. Although she would doubtless have preferred for it to have  remained missing; the film resurfaced in the 1970s to further challenge her claims of being present at the rallies merely as an impartial observer.

The early 1930s saw her limbering up to film the 1936 Olympics, and both the photography and editing of Tag der Freiheit mark considerable advances on its ponderous predecessor Triumph of the Will; and watching this bellicose display of military machismo it’s again extraordinary to reflect that a woman was directing it.

Subtitled ‘Unsere Wehrmacht’ (‘Our Wehrmacht’), the emphasis is this time squarely on the armed forces rather than the NSDAP, and the film was shrewdly sneaked into cinemas as part of the supporting program for the popular costume drama Der höhere Befehl – thus ensuring plenty of people saw it – as well as screened it in schools until 1938.

The ‘freedom’ to which the title refers to here is from the constraints of the Treaty of Versailles, the disarmament clauses of which had been denounced by Hitler the previous March and which are here shown being brazenly flouted by an aggressive display of military might with cutaways to the Führer looking on in approval. (The fellow with the monocle on Hitler’s left is the newly appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Army, General Werner von Fritsch, later forced to resign on 4 February 1938 following trumped-up accusations of homosexuality by Himmler and Goering.) Exactly where all the bullets and shells supposedly being fired are ending up within the confines of the zeppelin field on which it was staged is alarmingly unclear. For the sake of the spectators and the aircraft shown being fired at, hopefully they’re all firing blanks.

Triumph of the Will had begun with the arrival on the tarmac at Nuremberg of a lone private plane carrying Germany’s new saviour. Tag der Freiheit by contrast ends with the sky filled with military aircraft flying in formation (including a swastika), soon to be deployed in the Rhineland, which showed the direction in which the new Germany was now decisively and irrevocably moving. Richard Chatten.

AVAILABLE ON AMAZON AS A BOX SET

Gatecrash (2021) Digital release

Dir: Lawrence Gough Cast: Olivia Bonamy, Ben Cura, Anton Lesser and

Adapted from a play by Terry Hughes, Gatecrash is a slick home invasion thriller that retains its stagey claustrophobic credentials by keeping things mostly indoors, thus keeping the budget down. As usual with these contempo British indie films, the female character is the victim.

Samuel West has been persuaded to join the decent cast of what is a slim but effective four-hander that ultimately leaves too many questions unanswered. It sees a French woman Nicole (Olivia Bonamy) trapped in an abusive relationship with her hard-edged and controlling husband Steve (Ben Cura). After a night out in their flashy car the couple return to the confines of a plush garage where a vicious row breaks out. Clearly something has gone wrong and they both blame each other, although Steve is clearly the culprit and coerces Nicole to keep schtum.

But it gets worse. Two other characters know what’s happened and they’re not going to let Steve get away with it. As the innocent party, Olivia’s feelings of isolation and fear intensify grow as the pair are increasingly pressurised to fess up – at any cost. MT

Gatecrash will be available for rent or Digital Download from 22nd February in the UK and Ireland.

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.

The Good Fairy (1935)

Dir: William Wyler | Wri: Preston Sturges | Cast: Margaret Sullavan, Herbert Marshall, Frank Morgan, Cesar Romero, June Clayworth | US Drama 98′

In her short life, the ethereally radiant Margaret Sullavan (1909-1960) did not last the night, but the lovely light she briefly gave is preserved for posterity in charming mementoes such as this. Deeply touching in drama, Sullavan’s best remembered comedy role was in Ernst Lubitsch’s evergreen The Shop Around the Corner (1940), which was the second romantic comedy she made set in Budapest. ‘The Good Fairy’ was the first.

Scripted by Preston Sturges from a play by Ferenc Molnár produced on Broadway in 1931, The Good Fairy would have been a very different film indeed but for the introduction of the strict new Production Code of June 1934 just three months before shooting commenced. Sturges had to keep one step ahead of the film throughout production as he extensively rewrote the script, which has the Hays Office’s fingerprints all over it; as well as a generally disjointed feeling – such as the early disappearance of Alan Hale from the narrative, never to return; and the late appearance of Herbert Marshall, never to leave – and a LOT of talk. The droll film-within-the-film which reduces Ms Sullavan to tears which was added to the script by Sturges is among a number of hints earlier on in the film that we were going to something sharper and more sophisticated than the bowdlerised romcom that we actually get. (The same plot played as drama might have made better use of Ms Sullavan’s talents and made a more interesting film).

Sullavan plays Luisa Ginglebusher, a charming, accident-prone orphan who is vastly more innocent and unworldly than the sweetly manipulative little vixen played on Broadway by Helen Hayes. Rather bizarrely plucked from the orphanage to become a cinema usherette – for which Luisa is kitted out in a magnificent uniform that looks more like one of Marlene Dietrich’s cast-offs from ‘The Scarlet Empress’ – as Miss Ginglebusher ventures out into the big wicked city, one initially fears for the safety of this seeming cross between Prince Myshkin and a more garrulous version of Chauncey Gardner.

But salvation is at hand in the form of Detlaff, a brusquely kind-hearted waiter played by Reginald Owen; who looks younger than I’m used to seeing him and gives the most engaging performance I’ve ever seen him give (he befriends her while cautiously removing her knife when she reveals to him during dinner that she was released from an asylum that morning, but quietly returns it when it turns out that the asylum was for orphans); and takes it upon himself to protect her from the wolves that prowl the city (an extremely wolfish-looking Cesar Romero puts in a brief appearance as one such).

The film, unfortunately, soon tires of giving us a heroine who’s just a simple working girl (we never actually see where she lives, for example), and is irrevocably derailed by the introduction of Frank Morgan as Konrad – one of those vague, benevolent millionaires encountered so often in Hollywood movies – who agrees to become Sullavan’s sugar daddy without ever suggesting he might eventually be expecting some sugar in return. Ironically, considering he is today principally remembered for later playing the title role in The Wizard of Oz, Morgan actually describes himself at one point as “a wizard” and offers to demonstrate his magic powers to Luisa by pulling out his cheque book to enhance the life of the non-existent husband she has just made up to ward of his advances.

I agree with ‘kyrat’, who said in an earlier IMDb review nearly fifteen years ago that it would have been more fitting to have bestowed Konrad’s windfall upon her own good fairy Detlaff rather than just randomly take a name from the ‘phone book; and the romance that develops between Luisa and the thus gifted Dr. Sporum (Herbert Marshall in a goatee and wing collar) – whose greatest excitement at his sudden good fortune is that he can now afford a proper office pencil-sharpener – seems dictated by Hollywood convention rather than any actual chemistry between them. (Surprise! Surprise! the film ends in a wedding; and I would have liked to have had a better look at the very striking wet-look art deco bridal gown we fleetingly see Ms Sullavan walk down the aisle in just before the end credits.)

As the film progresses Luisa frankly comes across as a bit of a simpleton rather than just a pure simple soul; and the 25 year-old Sullavan is playing a girl nearly ten years younger than her real age surrounded by middle-aged men whose motives all remain impeccably but rather improbably chaste (there’s some supposedly innocent but I found decidedly creepy horseplay in Konrad’s hotel room with him pretending that he’s a mountain lion and Luisa’s a lamb).

But this is all A-grade Hollywood hokum done to a turn by rising young director William Wyler (who ran off with Sullavan to get married in the middle of production), and all very pleasant if you don’t take it too seriously; which I’m sure nobody involved in the production did. Richard Chatten

NOW ON AMAZON

The Ace of Hearts (1921)

Dir: Wallace Worsley | Wri: Gouverneur Morris, Ruth Wightman | Cast: Lon Chaney, Leatrice Joy, John Bowers, Raymond Hatton, Hardee Kirkland | US Silent, Drama 65′

At noon on 16 September 1920 the United States suffered the most destructive act of terrorism yet committed on American soil when a bomb believed to have been planted by Italian anarchists exploded on Wall Street, killing 30 people outright and injuring hundreds of others.

Already in cinemas, Wallace Worsley’s The Penalty (1920), had recently starred Lon Chaney as the head of a gang of anarchists plotting a spectacular robbery; and a year later the director and star released a similarly themed follow-up based upon another novel by Gouverneur Morris.

Obviously a pot-boiler compared to The Penalty (but like its predecessor handsomely shot by Donovan Short), Chaney has top billing but a very secondary role as a member of a secret society who resemble the anarchists in Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907), the conspirators in Thorold Dickinson’s Secret People (1952) and the vigilante judges in Peter Hyams’ The Star Chamber (1983). They decide to rid society of a vile plutocrat (Raymond Hatton, called “The Menace” in the cast list but referred to throughout the film as “The Man Who Has Lived Too Long”) by cutting cards to choose the assassin. This scheme is complicated by an extremely uninteresting love triangle comprising Farallone (Chaney), Forrest (John Bowers) and the intriguingly named Lilith (Leatrice Joy); the last being the brotherhood’s only sister, a prig whose infatuation with “the Cause” means she has zero interest in romantic matters.

Although selected on the basis of cutting cards (an obvious nod to Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘The Suicide Club’), Forrest should have been the obvious candidate to carry out the assassination in the first place; since for the past three months he’s been working as a waiter in the restaurant where The Menace has breakfast every morning at 9.00, and thus perfectly placed to shoot him in the head at point blank range.

Instead their chosen method of execution takes the form of an entirely indiscriminate act of terror employing a bomb capable of destroying an entire building; which it should already have been obvious to Forrest and his associates would mean that The Menace would not be the only casualty (like the little Kenyan girl in Eye in the Sky). Sure enough, when it finally dawns upon Forrest that there will be collateral damage the entire operation is compromised.

The bomb itself looks like a cigarette case and neatly fits into a jacket pocket: yet another example of movie technology far in advance of anything available in real life. The Wall Street bomb itself had had to be brought to the site where it exploded on a horse-drawn wagon.Richard Chatten

NOW ON YOUTUBE

 

Film Memories from Korea: Five of the Best

Sweet Dream (Lullaby of Death) (1936) Yang Ju-Nam

One of the few lost films from the Japanese colonial era (1910-45) that has been rediscovered in recent years tells the story of Ae-sun, the vain wife of a middle-class man who has no interest in looking after her family and is chased out by her husband, only to find out her lover is not the prosperous entrepreneur she thought he was but a poor student and criminal.

Madame Freedom (1956) Han Hyeong-Mo

Films of the 1950s confronted some of the key issues facing Korean society as it rebuilt itself again. Madame Freedom, an adaptation of the decade’s most scandalous serial novel, centred on a woman whose troubled marriage symbolises the tension between collapsing traditional values and the influence of Western capitalism, as she goes from one torrid encounter to the next. The box-office success of this film encouraged a renewed flow of investment into a film industry hit hard by the war.

Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter…and Spring (2003) Kim Ki-duk

A sublime, poetic, transcendental trip that explores the essence of the human condition with wit and poignancy. Sadly Kim Ki-duk died in December 2020 but his often provocative award-winning work defined Korean arthouse cinema at the turn of the 21st century, with often striking visual allure.

Thirst (2009) Park Chan-Wook

An intelligent take on Zola’s Therese Raquin this opulent and topical vampire melodrama seethes with irony in its Grand Guignol lyricism. A priest offers himself up to be infected with a virus that eventually takes over forcing him to abandon his ascetic existance. 

In Another Country (2012) Sang-soo Hong

This low budget comedy drama starring Isabelle is one of funniest Korean films I’ve ever seen and competed for the Palme d’Or in 2012. Huppert plays three different versions of a French woman who visits a small fishing village, the humour lying in the ‘lost in translation’ situational comedy in her interactions with various locals.

NOW ON YOUTUBE | ON DEMAND | DVD/BLU

The Wheel of Fantasy and Fortune | Guzen to Sozo

Dir.: Ryusuke Hamaguchi: Cast: Kotone Furukowa, Katsuki Mori, Kyohiko Shibukawa, Ayumu Nakajima, Hyunri, Shouma Kei, Katsuke Mori, Aoba Kawai, Fusoko Urabe; Japan 2021, 121′.

Director/writer Ryusuke Hamaguchi (Happy Hour) weaves three short stories into an emotionally powerful and visually alluring film with narrative that could easily spin out into three more full length dramas, if desired.

In chapter One, ‘Magic – Or Something Less Assuring’, two actresses, Meiko (Furukawa) and Tsugumi (Mori) drive home in a taxi after a shoot. Tsugumi tells Meiko all about a guy called Kazu (Nakajiima). She’s has clearly fallen in love. She also tells Meiko about his emotional trauma with an ex who cheated on him. Little does Tsugumi know that her friend Meiko is the woman in question. And once Tsugumi has got out of the taxi, Meiko goes straight round to Kazu’s office. Clearly things are not over for the couple. When Tsugumi and Kazu meet up in a cafe Meiko casually walks by the window. She is invited in, and the audience are invited to choose one of two alternative endings.

Episode Two – Door Wide Open – follows a humiliated college student, Sasaki (Kei) take revenge on his professor, Segawa (Shibukawa) with the help of his lover Nao (Hyunri) also a ex-student of the professor, and  now married with a daughter. Together they hatch a plan that sees Nao walking into Segawe’s office at the university with the aim of securing incriminating evidence of the professor’s unseemly behaviour. She reads him a pornographic excerpt from his prizewinning novel, but despite his reluctance to be drawn into the trap the poor man ends up becoming involved in a salacious encounter, Nao taping the incident and sending the evidence to Segawe’s university mail address, losing hum his job. Nao and Sasaki meet by accident five years later, and all has changed.

The third – Once Again – is by far the most intriguing segment that sees three characters involved in a lose love triangle originally meeting in college and going on to live their lives before becoming involved again in a drama of mixed identities and role play. Natsuko Higuchi (Kawei) meets up with her class of 1998. She is obviously an outsider, hardly bothering to socialise. Next day in Tokyo she meets Aya Kobayashi (Urabe). Natsuko is convinced Aya is really her ex- Mika Yulli, a girl she wanted to spend her life with, but who decided to marry a man. It takes Aya ages to convince Natsuko she is not Yulli. Aya is married with two children before the virus Xeron ruined electronic communications, and sent the world back to mailed post and telegrams. Aya is helpless, before she decides to participate in a role play in which she plays Yulli. Natsuko tells ‘Yulli’ how much she was hurt by her decision to leave her. Now Natsuko regrets the past, she has never fallen in love again. After the women re-bond Aya agrees to play the role of a girl in her class, Nozumi, a boyish girl, on whom Aya had a crush. Aya and Natsuko part as friends, having created a romantic past.

The is an elegantly crafted romantic drama full of twists and turns, a mature masterpiece, with Hamaguchi effortlessly playing all emotional nuances in a satisfying trilogy of different passionate styles. Apart from being a master class in narrative structuring, Wheel is also full of ambiguity and ambivalence: human emotions being shown as destructive as well as healing. Outstanding. AS

IN CINEMAS NATIONWIDE from  7 FEBRUARY 2022 | BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL | GRAND JURY PRIZE  2021

Fabian: Going to the Dogs (2021) Berlinale Competition 2021

Dir: Dominik Graf | Cast: Tom Schilling, Saskia Rosendahl, Albrecht Schuch, Petra Kalkutschke, Elmar Gutmann, Aljoscha Stadelmann, Meret Becker, Michael Hanemann; Germany/Austria 2021, 176 min.

Fabian: Going to the Dogs is the second big screen adaptation of Erich Kästner’s 1931 novel Fabian: Die Geschichte eines Moralisten, and much more successful than Wolf Gremm’s rather facile 1980 attempt.

Directed and co-written by German veteran director Domink Graf (The Invincibles) it does justice to the novel and its author. Erich Kästner (1899-1974) best known for his children books, which often found their way into screen versions, like Das Doppelte Lottchen, filmed as The Parent Trap in 1961. Fabian was his only mature adult novel. His poems and lyrical texts are rather whimsical in their romanticism echoing the of his contemporary Kurt Tucholsky, who emigrated to Sweden where he committed suicide in 1935

But Kästner stayed in Nazi Germany, even though he was present when his books (with many others) were burned as ‘Entartete Kunst’ by the Nazis. The author visited exiled colleagues, but “wanted to remain in Germany as a chronicler”. Unable to write anything but children books, he was not even allowed to join the ‘Reichsschriftstumkammer’, the global Nazi organisation for writers, but nevertheless managed to write (uncredited) the scripts for Munchhausen (1943) and the adaption of his own novel ‘Der kleine Grenzverkehr’ as Salzburg Comedy, also in 1943, under the pseudonym of Berthold Burger.

Kästner was an individualist not given to joining groups in the post-war Federal Republic, he nevertheless remained true to his pacifism demonstrating on the ‘Easter Marches’ against re-militarisation and nuclear weapons, and later against the Vietnam War. Fabian‘s two leading male characters correspond quite closely to the author’s personality .

Fabian is set in and around Berlin in the final years of the Weimar Republic, where Dr. Jacob Fabian (Schilling), in his twenties, works in an advertising agency, enjoying a nightlife of sexual escapades. He meets Irene Moll (Becker) whose husband pays other men to sleep with his wife – if he approves of them beforehand. Fabian will meet Irene on two more occasions: on the first, she gives him work as her assistant in a brothel offering female sex workers for heterosexual men. Later on in a train to Dresden, she offers to take him to Budapest for another sexually charged enterprise. Fabian’s close coterie of male friends includes Dr. Stephan Labude (Schuch) an emotionally unstable intellectual champagne socialist who is writing his post-doctoral thesis on Lessing. Fabian, on the other hand, avoids politics, devoting his time to his lyrical writings. All this changes when he meets meets the young Cornelia Battenberg (Rosendahl), an aspiring actress.

The two fall in love, and their magical nighttime foray in Berlin is one of the film’s highlights, before the two return to the cheap pension where they both live. But money will be their downfall, and after visiting Labude at his posh family estate, Fabian finds himself dismissed from the agency on the grounds of his lack of focus. Enter Cornelia’s more illustrious suitor, the film producer Markart (Stadelmann). At a lunch with Fabian’s mother, Cornelia leaves her lover and sits at Markart’s table. This is the beginning of the end for their relationship, and both struggle to maintain contact.

But worse is to come for the romantically inclined pals who are both subsumed by their political and amorous ideals. Labude falls foul of a prank at the university where the Nazi Germany had considerable support: far from being the party of the underdog the Nazis were a major contingent of the intellectual establishment.

Meanwhile Fabian returns to his parents in Dresden where he continues his life supported by regular phone calls with Cornelia, who visits their favourite cafe every afternoon to wait for him. Having ignored countless public posters of “Learn to Swim”, Fabian ignores them, and goes to the rescue of a boy who jumped from a railway bridge into a river. The boy survives and uncovers Fabian’s bag, full of writings and personal memorabilia.

The is a visually alluring drama despite some tricksy multi-screen images which feel out of place in the period setting. DoP Hanno Lentz and PD Klaus-Jürgen Pfeiffer recreate the era with avantgarde flair. Schilling and Rosendahl have chemistry and make for a believable couple caught in the midst of a ‘coup de foudre’.

But it’s Graf’s direction that really wins the day, creating a German epos full of contradictions, but with universal appeal. Yes, the running length is questionable, the overbearing sex scenes are filmed with the male gaze, women are either total victims or scheming traitors (like Cornelia), – but overall Graf comes close to Bernhard Wicki’s 1989 masterpiece of  Spider’s Web, set in the same period in Germany, and based on the novel by Joseph Roth who, like Kästner, was an immigrant with addiction issues. Graf pulls off the “double-suicide” of two romantic idealists unable to face a world that did not reflect their longings. AS

IN COMPETITION BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL 2021

 

The High Bright Sun (1965)

Dir: Ralph Thomas | Wri: Ian Stuart Black, Brian Forbes | Cast: Dirk Bogarde, Susan Strasberg, George Chakiris, Denholm Elliot, Colin Campbell | UK, 96′

Dirk Bogarde’s ninth and final film for Betty Box and Ralph Thomas. Although King & Country (from which Bogarde went straight into this slick, good-looking guilty pleasure) had been set during the Great War, and this as recently as 1957, this seems more of a throwback than Losey’s film.

The whole thing takes place during Cyprus’ war of independence from Britain in 1957/ Strasberg is Juno Kozani an American archeology student who gets caught up in conflict not only with war but also between a local guerrilla fighter (George Chakiris) and Bogarde’s British Army Intelligence officer who tries to protect her.

Despite the glossy sixties veneer, James Bond-style bouzouki & trumpet score by Angelo Lavagnino (and bona fide Cypriots George Pastell & Paul Stassino in supporting roles who both appeared in Bond films) this is more like one of Bogarde’s fifties war films. One of them, They Who Dare (ironically made by the director of All Quiet on the Western Front), also co-starring Denholm Elliot, had actually been made in Cyprus. Obviously Cyprus was out this time round so the picturesque backdrop is provided by Italy.

In the final scene on the flight to Athens I had long assumed the blonde BOAC stewardess was in league with the bad guy, and it was quite a while before I realised the significant looks she kept throwing his way during the flight were those of a concerned innocent bystander rather than a confederate.) Richard Chatten.

DVD AVAILABLE

 

Jack’s Ride | No Táxi do Jack (2021) Berlinale Forum 2021

Dir: Susana Nobre | Cast: Joaquim Calcada | Portugal, 87′

Portuguese director Susana Nobre won the prestigious La Femis Scholars’ Award with her short film Provas, Exorcismos. She comes to Berlin with her unusual first feature No Táxi do Jack which is part road movie part ethnological portrait of small-town rural Portugal but there’s a sting in the tale to the concentric narrative.

Jack’s Ride seems quite straightforward at first as we follow the main character Joaquim Calçada, 63, now semi-retired and back home in his village after spending his working life as a taxi driver New York. Joaquim’s day is full of the usual chores, organising his pension arrangements and shopping for food. Nobre establishes the milieu of this rural backwater with its industrial outcrop and traditional neighbourly values, more 1970s in feel than the present day, and this is reflected in the film’s rather florid visual aesthetic, Joaquim is locked in a time warp looking like a character from Scorsese’s Taxi Driver with his dyed black hair, leather jacket and lifts. That said he is a decent, respectful man who cares for his wife, his long-dead parents, and his blind friend, a wheelchair user with diabetes. Nobre paints a portrait of a contented but rather backward place where traditional values still matter.

The rather mundane daily drama plays out against the more intriguing narration by Joaquim – and here there is a dramatic trip over New York’s skyline, provided by archive footage, as he reminisces about his old emigrant days in New York’s mean streets where life was tough as he struggled to make it in the urban jungle, particularly when the law of the jungle saw him challenging someone he thought was his friend. MT

BERLINALE | FORUM 2021

 

District Terminal (2021) Berlinale Encounters 2021

Dirs: Bardia Yadegari/ Ehsan Mirhosseini | Drama, Iran/Germ 117′

In the near Tehran future will be reduced to a broken down backwater. At least that’s the view envisaged in District Terminal a rather stylish but overlong social and political drama from first time Iranian filmmakers Yadegari and Mirhosseini, screening in the Encounters strand in this year’s 71st edition of Berlinale.

This vision of dystopia and existential angst is seen from the perspective of a mother and her junkie son Peyman (played by Yadegari) who are struggling to make sense of their daily lives as they face a grim and uncertain future in a pokey flat near Tehran’s eponymous transport hub. A lethal virus, possibly the result of environmental pollution, has brought the city to its knees and their local neighbourhood has been placed under round-the-clock surveillance by quarantine officers.

The film’s premise is universal, especially in these Covid times, but District Terminal feels distinctly Iranian in flavour, making use of use of his exotic poems written (and he often chants them in hushed tones in Farsi) on the peeling walls of his bedroom. The junkie moments are given an artful spin by the cinematographer.

There’s nothing unusual about this doom-laden scenario. While his long-suffering mother gets on with the business of running the domestic side of his life, the self-obsessed loser Peyman spends his time shooting up and listening to jazz; over-thinking the status quo (and these moments are envigorated by menacing archive footage of ecological disasters); attending his alcoholics support group; and Skyping a skanky-looking woman in the USA who he has married to get a visa, and who is hoping for great things from this ‘marriage’. Meanwhile Peyman is desperately learning English, while his teeth are falling out one by one.

Sometimes his daughter swings round to see him, chanting Amy Winehouse songs and rocking a beanie – rather than a headscarf – she confesses to her father that she loves dating “assholes” and promptly leaves in a white Mercedes.

His two closest friends Ramin and Mozhgan seem the most edifying companions but Peyman is also in hopelessly involved in an illicit love affair. There’s absolutely nothing appealing about these any of these characters who are locked, almost contentedly so, in their aimlessly existence. After a while living in lockdown does induce people to settle for the lowest common denominator, but there’s also something deeply irritating about the way these characters refuse to aspire to anything more than their days of emptiness, drug-taking and navel gazing. MT

BERLINALE | ENCOUNTERS 2021

 

Bloodsuckers – A Marxist Vampire Comedy (2021) Berlinale

Dir.: Julian Radlmaier; Cast: Aleksandre Koberidze, Lilith Stangenberg, Alexander Herbst, Corinna Harfouch, Andreas Döhler, Anton Gonopolski, Daniel Hoesl, Mareike Beykirch; Ger/France/Switz 2021, Drama,125 min.

A tour de force of German cinema of the 1960s and 70s slips through the cracks in this riotous summer seaside sortie that sees a penniless Soviet refugee in thrall to an exotic vampire and her love-sick manservant a decade after the First World War.

Gloriously set on the verdant Baltic coast in 1928, Bloodsuckers channels the wacky humour of Woody Allen’s Love & Death with a touch of Bruno Dumont’s Slack Bay thrown in. Just falling short of self-parody in a bizarre two hours, this is high-octane stuff intellectually-speaking; a nuts and bolts grasp of Marxism or the ins-and-outs of Soviet film history will partly explain Radlmaier’s arcane comedy caper and third feature. That said, you’ll either love it, or hate it – to death.

The film unfolds in three chapters with incomprehensible titles but the settings are sumptuously photographed, although not always in keeping with the era costume-wise – occasionally striking a bum note that gives the film the amateurish look of a high school production. Another scene featuring modern Mercedes cars also sticks out like a sore thumb.

Breaking away from an earnest beachside chat between members of a Marxist study group we witness a more intriguing rendezvous taking place between rich heiress Octavia (Stangenberg) and the ‘soi-disant’ Count Ljowushka (Koberidze), who shares his sob story of starting life as a poor factory worker before being discovered by filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein (Gonopolski), who cast him as Trotsky. (Unfortunately, the real Trotsky fell out with Stalin and Ljowushka’s part ended up on the cutting room floor, along with his budding romance).

The Countess invites the young man to stay in her lushly appointed villa where Jakob (Herbst) serves a supper of snails, before they repair to bed. In the dead of night the impoverished Count attempts to crack open the safe but is nipped in the bud by Jakob, and the Countess graciously excuses him – in the spirit of true Marxist values – before the two hatch plans to make a film together in the villa’s ample grounds. Unknown to the Count, Octavia is a vampire (not the only one) and Jakob does the honours with daily supplies of his blood.

Various characters join in the fun including a Chinaman whose stock in trade is a healing ointment for vampire bites, that naturally none of the workforce can afford. The exploitative factory owner turns out to be one Dr. Humburg (Döhler), whose own father is rather tight-fisted with the family purse strings, and is being egged on by his aunt Erkentrud (Harfouch) to marry Octavia and get his hands on her money. Meanwhile Rosa falls for Jakob who isn’t the slightest bit interested and is too taken up with Octavia, desperately trying to impress her by reading Proust, (quite apart from offering her his own fresh blood).

A certain Bonin (Hoesl) then fetches up at the villa, Ocatvia and Auntie had met him on a skiing holiday in St. Moritz. Filming gets under way with Jakob behind the camera and Octavia and the (false) Count cast as the lovers, where the jealous Jakob eats a poisonous mushroom and dies.

Chapter Three  (A Wrong Life cannot be Lived Rightfully) brings the feature to a close with Döhler, who is also a vampire, attempting to tap the Russian ‘Count’. Döhler invites Octavia to come on a capitalist-themed jaunt to Budapest, to invest in a sort of early television. A costume ball provides a showcase showdown, with Jacob coming back to life, remembering that famous day in 1917 when the revolution set him free from his serfdom. The Study Group makes a re-appearance, but their leader is shot dead by some fascists, after everyone has watched the Vampire film.

There are some interesting ideas to be had in this ambitious third feature for Julian Radlmaier, who doesn’t quite pull off the comedy element in a film that’s more weird than funny. Performances are game and high-spirited throughout, DoP Markus Koob successfully conveying the painterly feel of the Baltic seaside in summer. AS

BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL 2021

 

The Kentuckian (1955)

Dir: Burt Lancaster | A B Guthrie Jr | Cast: Burt Lancaster, Diana Lynn, Dianne Foster, Walter Matthau | US Action Drama 104′

An attractive slice of Americana shot in rich autumnal colours and in widescreen to accommodate all Burt Lancaster’s teeth. Making this adaptation of Felix Holt’s 1951 novel ‘The Gabriel Horn’ (“with his own face in front of the camera most of of the time”, as the Allans disrespectfully put it) thereafter largely cured Lancaster of his yen to direct.

Set in the 1820s the film follows Lancaster’s Texas-bound Kentucky frontiersman gamely trying to raise his young son while desperately fighting off the evils of liquor and the charms of women, not to mention Walter Matthau’s whip-cracking local businessman.

With an appropriately recherché score by Bernard Hermann, the supporting cast includes John McIntyre as Lancaster’s brother (only their mother could tell them apart) and two blue-eyed elfin charmers in the form of Una Merkel and Diana Lynn. Villainy was supplied by Walter Matthau – looking older and heavier here in his film debut than he did ten years later; while Douglas Spencer & Paul Wexler as the cold-eyed Fromes brothers are a pair of ghouls that look like models for Grant Wood executed by Charles Addams.

The scene depicting the time it actually took to reload a shotgun in those days should be seen by all modern advocates of the Second Amendment. Richard Chatten.

NOW ON PRIME VIDEO

Against the Tides (2019) VOD

Dir: Stefan Stuckert | UK Doc 87′

Let go of what’s stopping you. Let go of the doubt. 

Extreme swimming fans and psychologists, this is for you. Professionals go one step further and call long-distance sport ‘challenge’ swimming, and Beth French is a pro. Some may call her a fanatic. She is certainly courageous and comes across as extremely plucky and high-active in this Stefan Stuckert’s griping documentary that follows the self-employed, self-funding single mother of one as she takes on the Oceans Seven – a mammoth swimming challenge that could cost her life. It takes in seven terrifying open sea channels across the world, from New Zealand and Hawaii to Japan and Northern Ireland. And Beth will tackle them all in one year.

The sea between Northern Island and Scotland (for one) is certainly no walk in the park. One of the coldest stretches of water in Europe, it is fraught with marine craft not to mention marine life: if the tankers don’t get you the jelly might. And then there’s the inclement weather, tides and currents. During the endurance course she will be followed by a small boat and a canoe.

But there’s more to Beth than just swimming. And soon we begin to understand what motivates to seek out extreme and often dangerous challenges in the water. And it seems that a childhood illness that left her in a wheelchair is the key to her – some may say, fanatical – obsession with endurance swimming.

But that’s not all. Beth believes her young son could also be on the autistic spectrum, but it can’t be easy for a little child to live in constant fear of its only parent dying tragically albeit doing what she loves best. Beth obviously reassures her boy that everything will go according to plan, but she is so driven and single-minded her son takes a back seat, much to the concern of her mother at home in Somerset. Her support buddy Martin eventually parts company with Beth and leaves during the trip.

Beth lavishly shares her thoughts and feelings throughout the feature yet always remains a detached and unreachable character who clearly needs to prove herself, push herself ever harder, an enigmatic soul who seems haunted by a need to keep running, and Stuckert never really gets under her skin. There is clearly a family back story here but are left in the dark experiencing only the emotional fallout rather than the root of the trauma. It’s a shame that Beth never opens up fully about the past. This is a striking and intriguing film but one that leaves so many questions still open.

AGAINST THE TIDES IS ON DEMAND IN THE US/UK from 1st March 2021

UK iTunes link:

https://itunes.apple.com/gb/movie/against-the-tides/id1552700437

US iTunes links

Against the Tides – iTunes pre-order

Against the Tides – AppleTV pre-order

 

 

Breeder (2021) Digital/Bluray

Dir: Jens Dahl | Cast: Signe Egholm Olsen, Sara Hjort Ditlevsen | Thriller, Denmark

This brutal survival horror outing from Denmark’s Jens Dahl’s – who actually wrote Nic Winding Refn’s drug thriller Pusher – is set in rather sophisticated surroundings in a smart part of Copenhagen.

‘Women beware women’ is very much the order of the day here as female themselves are the victims of a curious bio-hacking experiment, run by a ruthless businesswoman (Signe Egholm Olsen) who is using her health supplement company as a front for selecting and abducting them as part of an experiment to reverse the ageing process, which most of the female population could end up benefiting from if only they could survive.

The central character Mia (Sara Hjort Ditlevsen, Borgman) tries to get to the bottom of it all and ends up trapped, branded and tortured in a grim underground facility. Familiar faces start to appear, and Mia realises she is not alone in all this. But does she have the will to survive and escape from the nightmare? Or do we really care?

Dahl has some interesting ideas but lacks the directing experience to pull it all off successfully, and despite his considerable talents as a writer he relies on a  script by Sissel Dalsgaard Thomsen. Slack pacing and an unremarkable cast are supported by Nikolai Lok’s camerawork that certainly looks impressive, but you can’t rely on images alone to make a gripping horror film.

Clearly Dahl is harking back to the New French Extreme films at the turn of this century from filmmakers such as Gaspar Noé’s, Catherine Breillat and Leo Carax but Breeder is rather a pale rider in comparison to Polar X, Baise Moi or even Trouble Every Day. MT

NOW ON BLURAY & DIGITAL from MONTAGE PICTURES

From the Wild Sea (2021) | Berlinale Generation 2021

Dir: Robin Petré | Doc, 77′

Weather conditions are becoming much more extreme. Marine animals are needing emergency care due to injuries caused by the effects of climate change on tides and changing oceanography.

The caring efforts of marine conservationists are at the heart of this cinematic nature doc From the Wild Sea from Danish documentarian Robin Petré known for her unconventional short nature films (Pulse, Stream and Distant Water) that push the borders beyond the norm. Along similar lines to Leviathan and Bird Island (2019) this deeply sensory film shows how vets in coastal regions are building up a strong support system of rescue centres to rehabilitate mammals and sea birds.

The sheer power of an image is all that’s needed to convey the tragedy of our changing climate which has given rise to powerful storms raging into Europe from the Atlantic, bringing with them injured and confused animals such as seals, dolphins, whales and seabirds. The film is swift to point out that untrained human interference in nature – however well-intentioned – is not helpful. Moving injured animals that have been washed up on the shore should be avoided at all costs. The changing tides have had a deleterious effect on seal mammals who rely on echolocation to get their bearings and forage of food: One such seal recently lost its its sense of direction and headed to Morocco, wildly off course. After rehabilitation in Cornwall it made its way back north, then took a wrong turn at the Continental Shelf and headed South again only to be re-homed in the Cornish sanctuary. The release of these healthy seals into back into the wild is the film’s highpoint.

copyright Tanya Haurylchyk

Although the work being done in animal rehabilitation is an admirable labour of love, this is a really upsetting film to watch: we see seals in great distress – some of them uttering almost human cries as they struggle to breathe – their airways caught up with plastic or infection – as the trained staff work to help them recover. We watch another seal gradually losing its fight for life, flippers twitching as it cries out in pain, it’s mottled fur coat is a thing of exquisite beauty, its soulful eyes speak volumes of the tragic marine odyssey that has led to its death.

Many animals are suffering the effects of starvation. One seal enjoys a basinful of fish, while another waits patiently for attention by the side of a ceramic bath. It’s extraordinary to imagine that an animal that spends most of its time under the sea can demonstrate so much awareness of a human setting on dry earth. But it’s also worth bearing in mind that thousands of years ago we too came from out of the sea. Whales fare particularly badly: we watch as 19-metre-long whale lies beached like a massive, punctured tyre, off the coast of Cornwall. The team rushes to help but it’s already too late. The animal will not just die from its bleeding injuries but because its sheer weight will crush its organs, unless the tide favours its transport back into the sea. Many whales die due to head-butting from a boat, or multiple injuries from propellers. An autopsy takes place on the beach itself, it must be one of the few times the pathologist actually gets inside a body to do his work. We also witness a fascinating autopsy of a small 4-5 year-old dolphin who has been terribly badly scarred by marine craft and survived and healed, before finally dying of other injuries.

Birds are particularly difficult to handle, and a white swan hisses savagely when it is given a bubble bath to wash off black marine diesel in the clinic, and here the camera offers intense close-ups of the meticulous cleaning process, including a blow-dry to return the bird to its snow white beauty before release. Frequently the camera pulls out to pan the coast in widescreen images of waves crashing down on the raging ocean. Nicholas (de) Montsarrat was not wrong when he called his 1951 war novel: “The Cruel Sea”.

Robin Petre maintains a respectful distance from her subject matter avoiding anthropomorphism at all times while filming with a deeply humane perspective.  A really immersive film for those interested in animal welfare and suitable for all the family (except for the very young). MT

FROM THE WILD SEA | BERLINALE GENERATION

The Lesson | Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2021 | 18-26 March 2021

Dir: Elena Horn | Germany, Doc 60′

It is often said that those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. At the age of 14 every school child in Germany is taught about the atrocities that occurred under Nazi rule. Filmmaker Elena Horn returns to her hometown in rural Germany to follow four of these children as they first learn about the Holocaust.

Five years in the making (2014-19), the film touches upon important social and political issues including the resurgence of the far-right, xenophobia, the fractured, disparate collective memory of National Socialism, and the surprising lack of intimate knowledge of the younger generations on the subject.

Screening at this year’s HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH FILM FESTIVAL the documentary opens as the camera pans over the summer countryside where a girl from a village in West Germany (where not much has changed since 1932) recalls talking to a tall, dark athletic American after an evening out with college friends. He turns to her and says: “your grandparents killed my grandparents” this was her first meeting with a Jewish guy and she was 21.

Screening during this year’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival, the documentary goes on to explore with archive footage and clips from the contemporary German classroom how despite the perceived exemplary educational system, new generations are growing indifferent to their nation’s dark past and unwilling to apply the lessons learned to the realities of today. Filmed against the backdrop of changing political scenery during five years of production, in Germany and across the world, the film subtly suggests the urgency and importance in tackling the uncomfortable modern reality of truths therein. MT

Elena Horn is a young German filmmaker who started her career as a media psychologist researching the framing effects in the news coverage of the Iraq War in the US, Britain, and Sweden. Today she is working as a story producer for ZDF, WDR, SKY and SPIEGEL TV Wissen. Elena’s films focus on questions around education, migration, working culture, love, and ethnic conflict, employing visual inspirations from the world of music and dance. As a director, Elena is a fellow of the Logan Non-Fiction Program in New York. Her short documentary Pizza, Democracy and the Little Prince, co-directed with Alessandro Leonardi, earned the “Best Short Documentary Award 2019” at the Sedona Film Festival. Currently Elena is working as a director for ARTE, a French-German culture channel.

SCREENING DURING HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH FILM FESTIVAL 2021

ALL FILMS AVAILABLE TO SCREEN 

 

All Eyes Off Me | Misheshu Yoav Mishehu | Berlinale Panorama 2021

Dir.: Hadas Ben Aroya; Cast: Elisjeva Weil, Hadar Katz, YoavHait, Leib Lev Levia; Israel 2021, 89 min.

The sophomore feature of Israeli writer/director Hadas Ben Aroya is as enigmatic as the title suggests but after a while you may recognise an ultra modern low-powered version of Schnitzler’s La Ronde.

 

Ben Aroya explores personal freedom, commitment and generational dynamics but also questions a society permanently in conflict with itself. The story centres on a group of glib polyamorous characters who seem caught up in their trivial lives but emotionally disengaged from the world at large, and each other.

First up is the appropriately named Avishag who enjoys sexual encounters of the brutal kind, as we later discover. Then there’s Danny (Katz) who becomes fascinated by a dying butterfly on the way to a party in Tel Aviv, and contemplates taking it to the vet. She’s off to join her boyfriend Max (Levia) with a surprise announcement, but is greeted with an earful about the after-effects of another girl’s self-induced abortion when Danny reveals her own pregnancy .

Max, meanwhile, seems unfazed by Danny’s wonderful news. His focus is now on Avishag (Weil) and has surprising news of his own. He and Avi are planning a holiday to the Sinai peninsula. And while Danny tries to appear cool, telling Max not to do anything rash, she is clearly upset. But the next scene sees him in bed with Avishag. Post coitus, she confesses her love of rough sex, and this seems to make Max even more keen to satisfy her needs, bruises and all.

Later Avishag meets up with her neighbour Dror, an overweight man in his forties, and his out of control dog Bianca. Dror talks about growing up in a kibbutz and later attending a religious school where he found himself actually losing faith, to the chagrin of his ultra-religious parents who were furious when he left without finishing his studies. Suddenly, Avishag pounces on him, smothering him with kisses, clearly she has an ulterior motive but poor Dror falls for her advances, he’s so insecure about his body.

Meanwhile Danny is back at the party, still pondering the medical care of  butterflies. We know all this talk is meant to hide the film’s real motives. Danny’s encounter with Max proves the point. When Max tells Avishag he really prefers young boys, she remains unfazed, trumping this with by asking for more rough sex, just to keep him keen. But Avishag is content to submerge her sexual desires for the security Dror could provide in his Art Deco villa with its swimming pool and lush gardens. Avishag is only too ready to flee from responsibility, and into the welcoming arms of this pot-bellied father figure, who seems overjoyed that a young woman might want to bed him. These unreachable and unappealing characters remain casual bystanders throughout, seemingly part of a society which “plays” at being at peace, but has turned the conflict in on itself.

DoP Meidan Arama showcases the intimate close-up of the social merry go round, contrasting the casual party atmosphere of the opening scenes with the interiors where the narrative unfolds. Dror’s upmarket home is a world away from the chaotic student flat where Max and Avishag hang out. Everything is flip, lightweight and interchangeable in this pastel-coloured world where integrity has been air-brushed out of sight. AS

BERLINALE | Berlin Film Festival | Panorama 2021

Any Day Now | Ensilumi (2021) Berlinale Generation 2021

Dir: Hamy Ramezan | Cast: Lumi Barrois, Laura Birn, Shabnam Ghorbani, Muhammed Cangore, Pezlman Escandari | Drama 82;

Iranian first time director Hamy Ramezan recalls his own start in a new country with this touching drama that sees an Iranian family waiting to make their new home in Finland.

Ramezan has persuaded Asghar Farhadi regular Shahab Hosseini (The Salesman) to add firepower to this upbeat project but the star turn is his onscreen son Ramin (Aran-sina Keshvari in debut) the only Finnish speaking member of his family who must be responsible to the authorities while also enjoying his first Finnish fling on the school dancefloor.

Any Day Now feels very much a passion project for Ramezan and a way of thanking the Finns for their kindness and hospitality, the family befriending an elderly couple played by veterans Kristina Halkola and Eero Melasniemi who act as mentors when they first arrive.

What stands out here is the way the locals readily accept the new family into their midst (providing stylish accommodation in the detention centre where Alvar Aalto’s legendary cane chairs grace the family dining table). The family adapt well to their new environment and make great efforts to socialise with the rest of the detainees, although it’s not all plain sailing and Ramezan and his co-writer Antti Rautava shows their anxiety and disappointment in a scene where their bid for asylum is rejected. But drama wise there little tension here Any Day Now playing out as more of a cinema verite piece than a real drama,  Arsen Sarkisiants creates a lush sense of place both in the rural summer setting and approaching winter when the family experience their first snowfall. This is a lovely positive first feature suitable for all the family. MT

BERLINALE | GENERATION 2021

I Live in Fear | Ikimono no kiroku (1955) Bfi player

Dir: Akira Kurosawa | Wri: Shinobu Hashimoto, Akira Kurosawa | Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Minoru Chiaki, Eiko Miyoshi | Japan, Drama, 103′

Akira Kurosawa’s reputation both at home and abroad continues to rest mainly upon his samurai films rather than his modern dramas; and this very contemporary family saga addressing the traumas of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ten years earlier – and a critical success – was one of the biggest financial flops he ever made and remains one of his least known films. (It didn’t open in America until 1967.)

although one of his films in which Kurosawa personally took most pride

For me, its timely message acquired additional resonance years later when George W. Bush became president of the United States, and continued to reverberate with the publication of the Chilcot Report into the conduct of the invasion of Iraq. Originally proposed to Kurosawa by his distinguished collaborator, the composer Fumio Hayasaka (who died during production), as a satire akin to Dr Strangelove; the film retains a grimly comic quality that was ahead of its time and anticipates much that has followed since – including Losey’s The Damned, Peter Weir’s The Mosquito Coast and even the seventies sit-com The Good Life – and still has much to say to us today.

Appropriately shot while Tokyo was experiencing a heatwave, 35 year-old Toshiro Mifune gives a towering performance as usual (unusually cast even for him in heavy makeup, greyed hair and spectacles) as Kiichi Nakajima, a 75 year-old iron foundry owner who stuns his entire family by announcing that he is going to sell his business and relocate to Brazil taking them all with him in order to be safe from nuclear war. Their dilemma in many ways resembles the quandary in which Tony Blair fairly rapidly found himself when Bush Jr. became president.

Jean Renoir famously declared that “Everyone has their reasons”; and one can empathise with both sides of these two dilemmas. Nakajima’s family understandably don’t want to give up the comforts of life in modern Japan for an uncertain future in Brazil. But is Nakajima’s obsessive fear of nuclear weapons (or that of nuclear terrorist Professor Willingdon in Seven Days to Noon) really any crazier than the suppression of that fear by ‘normal’ people, one that enables them daily just to get on with their lives? (The central paradox of the Atomic Age is that people today enjoy the highest standard of living that homo sapiens has ever known; while being saddled with the constant anxiety that it could all evaporate in an instant at the push of a button.)

Just as Nakajima’s family desperately want to keep the old man happy for the sake of a quiet life – but the only thing that will shut him up is the one thing that they have absolutely no intention of doing – so when George W. emerged triumphant from the shambles of the 2000 presidential election, it was Tony Blair’s ardent wish to be the new president’s new best friend. (If a freak result had somehow put Charles Manson in the White House, Blair would doubtless have been just as eager to extend HIM the hand of friendship.)

But when Boy George swaggered on to the White House lawn the whole world knew he had unfinished business with pappy’s old nemesis Saddam Hussein to attend to; and that any attempt to remain friends with him would sooner or later mean receiving extremely awkward requests concerning Iraq.

As in many awkward situations the short-term desire to avoid unpleasantness simply by saying ‘Yes’ can have very unpleasant long-term consequences. I saw this film over thirty years ago but remember it as if it were yesterday. Richard Chatten

 

Azor (2021) Berlinale | Encounters Berlinale 2021

Dir: Andreas Fontana | Cast: Fabrizio Rongione, Stephanie Cleau, Gilles Privat, Elli Medeiros, Carmen Iriondo, Pablo Torre Nilson, Ignazio Vila, Juan Trench, Juan Pablo Geretto| Argentina, Switzerland, 99′

Another sophisticated Argentine thriller along the lines of Rojo set during the ‘Dirty Wars’ and this time seen through the eyes of a Swiss banker who arrives in Buenos Aires to investigate the mysterious disappearance of his partner only to discovers intrigue and subterfuge amongst the elite.

In 1976 a military junta seized power from Eva Peron’s government resulting in the deaths of over 30,000 people. Swiss born filmmaker Andreas Fontana transports us back to these uncertain times with high society characters who feel real in their glamorous settings, manicured poolsides, lush estancias, exclusive polo parties where Fabrizio Rongione strikes just the right tone of cool circumspection and biddability in his role as the trustworthy banker with a listening ear (a million miles away from the shoddy service we’ve come to expect from our own banks).

Cleau adds allure as Ines, his chain-smoking wife and confidente, oiling the wheels of their social encounters – where smoking is ‘de rigueur’ -with her unthreatening, savvy charm. Other characters who stand out here are Carmen Iriondo, a society hostess, and the Monsignor, who strikes fear into the proceedings with his chilly glare. These are people you may not trust to post a letter but as the gatekeepers of Argentina’s shady upper echelons of power, they must be respected.

In their car from the airport Yvan and Ines witness two men being held up at gunpoint, Yvan suavely fails to bat an eyelid, and once in their comfort of their exclusive hotel, Buenos Aires stretches before them just like any other international capital city, although the tinkling harpsichord score warns of trouble ahead, in the style of those Claude Chabrol thrillers. The couple get a rude awakening from the rather glib thickly-accented lawyer Dekerman (Geretto), who welcomes them to BA on behalf of ‘the client’, before rudely ordering his own whiskey before offering Ines a drink (and failing to light her cigarette), preparing her for the macho set up that will follow.

Business here is not just about talent but also moving in the right circles and keeping quiet at the right time (the code word ‘Azor’ means to ‘keep shtum’, rather like the Sicilian ‘omertà’). As a private banker from a monied background Yvan De Wiel settles graciously into the hushed scenes of high society in this enjoyably taught first feature from Swiss director Fontana who writes and directs with considerable flair, capturing the zeitgeist of these dangerous times with a florid eye for local detail.

A De Wiel sashays discretely and suavely in soigné villas, lush lounges and amongst the polo ponies, he swiftly gains the trust of the movers and shakers repositioning his bank’s interests with the junta when it dawns on him that his partner Rene Keys had possibly pulled the wool over his eyes bringing his firm into question. But he has another string to his bow, that of deal-making (aka laundering blood money) using his utmost caution. it’s a restrained performance and one of subtlety.

From the outset Fontana creates a real sense of danger here, a feeling that anything could go wrong as De Wiel’s investigation leads him deeper and deeper into the exotic hinterland of Argentina’s pampas where the Junta’s sinister types hang out in the film’s seething finale.

There is more that a whiff of colonialism here. Silence and an evocative ambient soundscape prove to be Fontana’s best weapon in ramping up tension in the final stages of his restrained thriller, a slick seventies score of musak playing out during discrete cocktail parties where these smooth operators mingle under swaying palms, waiters plying them with drinks as they plot and plan how to deal with the trappings of colonialism. MT

BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL | Encounters 2021

 

Dr Crippen (1962) DVD | Talking Pictures

Dir: Robert Lynn | Wri: Leigh Vance | Cast: Donald Pleasence, Samantha Eggar, Coral Browne, Donald Wolfit, James Robertson Justice | UK Drama 98′

Along with Himmler in The Eagle Has Landed this is the role Donald Pleasence was born to play; although ironically Coral Browne, who stars as his abrasive wife, later married Vincent Price who landed the part originally written with Pleasence in mind, of Matthew Hopkins in Witchfinder General (1968).

Nic Roeg is behind the camera here and the focus is Crippen’s love life in a storyline that opens at the start of the doctor’s trial in the Old Bailey, flashbacks fleshing out the gruelling desperation of his marriage to failed performer Belle (Browne), whom he later leaves to elope with his young secretary and mistress Ethel Le Neve (Eggar) only to be arrested on boarding the vessel bound for freedom – and death in 1910.

George Orwell once observed that it shows what society really thinks of the institute of marriage that whenever a woman gets murdered the first person police suspect is always the husband. Making a welcome change from the usual theme of petty crime and bank robberies that British cinema at that time became known for, Robert Lynn’ macabre ‘true crime’ drama followed swiftly on the heals of the Lady Chatterley’s trial that showcased the subject of sexual incompatibility within marriage. Dr Crippen carried an ‘X’ certificate due to its raw depiction of unfulfilled married life, rather than its murderous subject; and in order to potray a very contemporary problem on screen it was necessary to do so in the guise of a famous criminal case over a half a century earlier. Richard Chatten.

ON DVD and TCM | TALKING PICTURES TV

 

Verdict (2020)

Dir: Raymond Ribay Gutierrez | Drama, 126′

 

 

18th and Grand: The Story of the Olympic Auditorium (2020) Slamdance 2021

Dir.: Stephen DeBro; Documentary with Aileen Eaton, Gene Le Bell, Mike Le Bell, James Ellroy; USA 2020, 83 min.

A new film pays homage to Los Angeles’ well known sports arena and the promoter Aileen Eaton (1909-1987) who ran one of the most famed boxing bowls between 1942 and 1980.

Aileen is the focus of Stephen DeBro’s first feature about the only female (so far) inducted into Boxing’s Hall of Fame, an extraordinary achievement and all the more admirable in an era when women, let alone single mothers, were the target of abject discrimination: widowed early on in her marriage Aileen was brought up two sons who would follow her into the family business.

The Olympic Auditorium was built in 1924 and opened a year later in August. It was a great social event in the presence of – among other luminaries – Rudolph Valentino and Jack Dempsey. During the 1932 Olympic Games the venue was used for wrestling, boxing and weightlifting competitions. Los Angeles was a centre of strained race relationships and some of the fights between Latinos and the LAPD turned into riots, and this atmosphere of prevailing violence would shape the history of the stadium.

Aileen had never even seen a fight when she took over the boxing business in 1932, and the sport was in decline. Gangland LA controlled the territory and many bouts had been rigged. Aileen’s sports and entertainment empire extended all the way to the border with Mexico – how she held sway when  Mickey Cohen fancied the same turf, is a miracle – her nickname “The Dragon Lady” was well earned.

But boxing was not the only sport staged at the Olympic: Roller Derbies with the LA Thunderbirds were very popular. These encounters were anything but peaceful, serious injuries were common. Director Norman Jewison based much of the action for his 1975 feature Rollerball on these LA skating fights. Staying with the movies, countless films were shot partly in the Olympic: The Manchurian Candidate (1962), the Rocky Trilogy, Raging Bull, Ready to Rumble and Sting II.

Aileen’s son Gene Le Bell was a wrestling champion and stuntman, his brother Mike, rather more sedate, took care of the wrestling empire from a desk – like his mother. On the scene were also Dr. Bernhard Schwartz, ring doctor and bass player, as well Dick Lane, B-movie actor turned wrestling announcer. Mexican fighters dominated the early bills of the boxing events, with Manelo Ramos, Carlos Palomino and Manuel Ortiz three of the World Champions looked after by Aileen. And then there was the legendary fight between Mohammed Ali and Archie Moore in November 1962.

Blues Concerts were regularly staged. The punk movement was headlined by raves when Mountain Jack and Ten Years After performed in the Grand Olympic. GBH, The Exploited, Dead Kennedys, Suicidal Tendencies and New Regime brought in crowds that saw the place fit to bust and overflowing into the surrounding parking lot of the building. The Survivors’ promo video  ‘Burning Heart’ was shot in the building in 1985, Bon Jovi was the guest for ‘You Give Love a Bad Name’ a year later, and in 1987 Kiss filmed the music video of the namesake track of their album ‘Crazy Nights’. Later in the mid-1980s, the venue was closed for eight years, before reopening in 1993.

But by 1980 Aileen had already gone. And while commercial considerations clearly played a part, the main reason for her leaving was the death of Welsh boxer Johnny Owen. Owen (‘The Match-Stick Man’) had fought the Mexican Lupe Pintor for the Bantam Weight Championship of the World on 19.9.1990. Owen lost and died in November, a few weeks later. For Aileen, this was a bridge too far: In the 50s and 60s fight pairings were billed with massive posters on the outside of the arena with the feisty warning: “Loser will leave town”. But the brutal reality of Owen’s death forced her wisely into retirement.

Strewn with archive footage and photos to satisfy fan’s nostalgic longing this is an informative piece of filmmaking enlivened by a flood of “Talking Heads” who provide social and psychological context, crime writer James Ellroy’s insight is particularly worthwhile. DoP Tony Peck concentrates on the faces of the survivors, many of whom died during filming. Since 2005 the former arena has been recommissioned as “The Glory Church of Jesus Christ in LA”, a Korean evangelical congregation. Rather like our own Golders Green Hippodrome in London – a 3000 seat music hall that once billed Marlene Dietrich – now serves as an ‘Islamic Centre’ in another religion-based switchover. It seems the world has turned into a much more serious place.  AS

SCREENING AS THE FESTIVAL CLOSING FILM | SLAMDANCE 2021

 

Jungle Street (1960) Talking Pictures

Dir: Charles Saunders | Wri: Alexander Dore | Cast: Jill Ireland, David McCallum, Kenneth Cope, Brian Weske, Vanda Hudson, Edna Dore | UK Thriller 89′

A short-haired Jill Ireland already caught the eye as a dancer in ‘Powell & Pressburger’s Oh…Rosalinda!! in 1955. A few years later we discover her as a glacial hussy flaunting herself in tights in a strip club called the Adam & Eve (along with several other girls, one of them Black) in this vividly sleazy record of a Britain sixty years ago between the end of the Chatterley ban and The Beatles’ first L.P.

Her leading men were later TV stars David McCallum (then looking very lean ‘n hungry and married to Ireland, who later dumped him for Charles Bronson), and Kenneth Cope, introduced in what was then the traditional manner of leaving Wormwood Scrubs.

Noirishly photographed by Walter J. Harvey from a story by exploitation producer Guido Coen, and with an appropriately trashy jazz score by someone called Harold Geller, it vividly evokes a world sixty years ago when £50 was worth committing robbery with violence for, despite it then being a hanging offence. Richard Chatten.

(P.S. Ignore the date given by the IMDb, according to Gifford’s ‘British Film Catalogue’ it was released in October 1961, and 1961 is the date in the credits.)

DOING THE ROUNDS ON TALKING PICTURES TV

 

The Great Adventure | Det stora äventyret (1953) Netflix

Dir: Arne Sucksdorff | Cast: Arne Sucksdorff, Anders Nohrborg, Kjell Sucksdorff, Gunnar Sjoberg | Sweden, 93′

The Great Adventure is a lyrical Swedish cinema verite drama that pictures a year on a farm in remote Sweden seen through the eyes of the family who live in the heart of the forest, the director doubling up as the pipe-smoking father.

 

Arne Sucksdorff’s film won prizes at Cannes (1954) and Berlin, appropriately taking a Silver Bear for the poetic way he combined truly magical wildlife photography with a gripping storyline and evocative score to create a nature tale that plays out like a thriller with touches of humour and sadness  – the feel is a cross between Tarka the Otter, My Life as a Dog and Mikhail Kalatozov’s Letter Never Sent. And all the time Arne is offering us a fascinating nature study with the most beautifully observed shots of owls, otters, pine martins, rabbits, squirrels and lynx, in their natural habitat, ever committed to celluloid film in the depths of 1950s Sweden.

Working with his composer Lars-Erik Larsson, and it took Arne two years to film and edit the material for his Berlin winner. Mysterious yet majestic the sly vixen is pivotal to the narrative, somehow emerging the tragic heroine with her family of cubs. Arne’s agile contre-jour camerawork following her antics from Midsummer’s white nights through to the snowbound winter, stealthily slinking through moonshine or broad daylight – one scene shows her toying with silk stockings on a washing line. Always fleeing at the last minute with a plump chicken she darts across swaying curtains of corn or flowery meadows, to feed the cubs.

Man is the villain in this rural adventure, determined to kill the beast, his shotgun poised at the ready. One scene sees the old fisherman springing a vicious iron trap, then opportunistically tracking an otter with an axe. As the otter bobs away across the twinkling snow drifts, the chase gains momentum, a fox cub joining in the chase. Eventually the kids come to the rescue (Kjell is Arne’s son) saving the otter from a burrow and keeping it as their secret pet. Sometimes the mood is upbeat, others more sinister, the animals unwitting players in this often nightmarish murder story, that often ends in tragedy, but there are surprises in store in this incredible journey. MT

THE GREAT ADVENTURE IS ON NETFLIX

To Olivia (2021) Sky

Dir: John Hay | Cast: Hugh Bonneville, Keeley Hawes, Conleth Hill, Sam Heughan | UK Biopic drama, 99′

Roald Dahl (1916-90) was a celebrated English writer known for his children’s books and short stories with a deliciously subversive twist. But his life was also fraught with sadness as we discover in this lush Hollywood-style biopic – based on Stephen Michael Shearer’s biography, Patricia Neal: An Unquiet Life.

Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville and Keeley Hawes star as the slightly wacky Dahl and his famous American actress wife Patricia Neal (Hawes is a dead ringer in the role which she pulls off with aplomb).

Unfolding in the glorious Buckinghamshire countryside where the Dahls raise their large family during the 1960s and 70s, the focus is the tragic death of their eldest daughter Olivia in 1962, although director John Hay and his co-writer David Logan also flesh out the author’s life and marriage to Patricia, a formidable talent in her own right, who had previously dated Ronald Reagan and Gary Cooper before meeting Dahl, the couple eventually divorcing in 1983. Neal (1926-2010) would go on to win an Oscar, for Hud, the year after her daughter’s death, and Sam Heughan makes for a pale rider as Paul Newman (who also stars alongside her in Hud), not holding a candle to the legend but there again who could?). The late Geoffrey Palmer also puts in an appearance (his swansong) as the reverend who tries to console the couple in their grief. It’s also got Conieth Hall (from Game of Thrones) as Hud’s director Marty Ritt.

Most kids sailed through measles (I remember lying in bed with the curtains drawn in broad daylight, and a painful rash) and Patricia was advised: “let the girls get measles, it will be good for them”, but Olivia was unlucky and died from the effects of encephalitis, due to complications. Dahl would become a pro-vax advocate after the tragedy.

Hay and Logan show how Olivia Twenty Dahl’s death at only 7 had a profound affect on the couple’s turbulent marriage, plunging them into grief but also resilience in their respective careers, they had to be strong for the rest of their young family. Finally recovering they went on to have two more children, Ophelia and Lucy, sisters for Theo and Tessa (mother of Sophie Dahl). MT

TO OLIVIA, a Sky Original Film, available on Sky Cinema and Now TV from 19 February 2021.

 

Calculated Risk (1963)

Dir: Norman Harrison | Cast: William Lucas, John Rutland, Dily Watling, Shay, Warren Mitchell, Harry Landis | UK Drama 72′

Since negotiating today’s icy pavements itself constitutes a calculated risk at the moment, this constitutes a timely revival for a bleak little caper film scripted by the actor Edwin Richfield set against the atmospheric backdrop of the great winter of 1963 (and a notable omission from Chibnall & McFarlane’s 2009 book ‘The British ‘B’ Film’).

Calculated Risk was made on a measly budget of £19,685, and none the worse for it. One critic said of it: ‘The script is tight, the vivid black-and-white photography perfect for the tale that’s told, and even though one of the actors are known in this country – and maybe not even in England – they all fit their characters well, and what more could you want?”. What more indeed.

Atmospherically set in a London still strewn with bombsites and unexploded wartime bombs, our old friend Wormwood Scrubs appears in the opening scene shrouded in snow. Beatles producer George Martin provided the snazzy soundtrack at the same time as he was working on the band’s Love Me Do, and they travelled down during the Big Freeze.

I won’t give away what happens other than mentioning that crime wasn’t allowed to pay in those days. Maybe they should have waited until the weather got a bit warmer, like the pros who carried out The Great Train Robbery that summer. Richard Chatten.

NOW ON TALKING PICTURES TV

Citizen Lane (2018)

Dir.: Thadddeus O’Sullivan; Cast: Tom Vaughan-Taylor, Michael Gambon, Derbhie Crotty, Marty Rea, Boso Hagan, Peter Campion; ROI 2018, 80 min.

This post-modern docudrama raises the profile of controversial Irish art dealer Hugh Lane (1875-1915) and his valiant attempts to set up a modern art gallery in Dublin during the early 1900’s to house his important collection now in the London’s National Gallery. The film succeeds with a lively cast and vibrant images, but there’s simple too much going on, and many viewers may find themselves bogged down by Mark O’Halloran’s dialogue-heavy narrative of staged dramatic interludes and an overdose of verbosity from the many talking heads.

Hugh Lane was born in a suburb of Cork, the only one of many siblings fathered by the Reverend James Lane (Hagan) born in Ireland, where Hugh would perish on the Lusitania in 1915, torpedoed by German U-boots off the coast of Cork.

Educated in England and Europe where Irish culture and identity was experiencing a rebirth, Lane became fascinated by the old Masters, and then of Impressionist paintings which he felt where undervalued at the same time that French dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel was also of that opinion, and considered an important dealer, particularly of Monet, Pisarro and Renoir work, and establishing galleries in New York, Berlin and London and other centres.

Lane’s coterie admired his taste – so much so that when ne looked long and hard at paintings in exhibitions, he would drive up the prices for these so far ‘worthless’ pieces. His travels took him to Paris, and soon his Impressionist collection would make him a fortune back in Ireland, and he fought long and hard for a National Gallery in Ireland’s capital. Sadly he was defeated during his life time, only establishing the Municipal Gallery of Modern Art in 1908.

Today, ‘The Dublin City Gallery, The Hugh Lane’ houses one of the finest collections in Europe, but more than 40 of his Impressionist works now hang in the National Gallery, because Lane failed to ‘witness’ the codicil in his Will, that bequeathed the paintings – among them a Monet and a Renoir – to Ireland. Until this day the ownership fight is still ongoing: in 2008 a daring heist saw to men steal one of paintings from the National Gallery in London. The works were returned, but the perpetrators got away Scott free.

Lane enjoyed a wide circle of illustrious friends, amongst them his aunt Lady Augusta Gregory (Crotty), WB Yeats (Campion), Lord Ardlaun (Gambon), and William Orpen (Marty Rea), and staged, fictional conversations with them show him to be snobbish and egalitarian, but at the same time, convinced of his own superiority often clashing violently with the authorities. When we see him walking through the Dublin City Hall Gallery which bears his name – though he never saw it, he looks like a ghost.

O’Sullivan sometimes lets the characters speak directly to the camera, explaining their points of view, an effect which some viewers may find disconcerting. Overall, Citizen Lane is a slow burner, hampered by a torrent of interjecting experts: historians and art historians, amongst them Roy Foster, Paul Rose, Morna O’Neill and Barbara Foster, whose worthwhile and wide-ranging opinions nevertheless overload the 80 minutes running time. AS

ON iTUNES, AMAZON AND GOOGLE on 12 April 2021

Berlinale Specials 2021

Best Sellers – Canada / United Kingdom
by Lina Roessler
with Michael Caine, Aubrey Plaza
*World premiere / Debut film

Courage – Germany
by Aliaksei Paluyan
with Maryna Yakubovich, Pavel Haradnizky, Denis Tarasenka
*World premiere / Documentary form / Debut film

French Exit – Canada / Ireland
by Azazel Jacobs
with Michelle Pfeiffer, Lucas Hedges, Valerie Mahaffey, Imogen Poots

Je suis Karl – Germany / Czech Republic
by Christian Schwochow
with Luna Wedler, Jannis Niewöhner, Milan Peschel *World premiere

Language Lessons – USA
by Natalie Morales
with Natalie Morales, Mark Duplass, Desean Terry
*World premiere / Debut film

Limbo – Hong Kong, China / People’s Republic of China
by Cheang Soi
with Lam Ka Tung, Liu Cya, Lee Mason, Hiroyuki Ikeuchi
*World premiere

The Mauritanian – United Kingdom
by Kevin Macdonald
with Jodie Foster, Tahar Rahim, Shailene Woodley, Benedict Cumberbatch

Per Lucio (For Lucio) – Italy
by Pietro Marcello
*World premiere / Documentary form

Tides – Germany / Switzerland
by Tim Fehlbaum
with Nora Arnezedar, Iain Glen, Sarah-Sofie Boussnina
*World premiere

Tina – USA
by Dan Lindsay, T. J. Martin
with Tina Turner, Angela Bassett, Oprah Winfrey, Katori Hall
*World premiere / Documentary form

Wer wir waren (Who We Were) – Germany
by Marc Bauder
with Alexander Gerst, Sylvia Erle, Dennis Snower, Matthieu Ricard
*World premiere / Documentary form

WORLD PREMIERES

 

Berlinale Competition – Golden Bear contenders 2021

The Berlin International Film Festival announced a line-up with a distinctly European arthouse flavour for its 71st online edition, taking place during an industry market event from 1-5 March 2021, later that its usual February slot.

Festival regulars Dominik Graf, Hong Sangsoo and Radu Jude will bring their films to Berlin this Spring, and they are joined by French director Celine Sciamma’s latest feature Petite Maman, and newcomers from Georgia, Hungary, Iran and Mexico – as well as homegrown talent from Germany.

From June 9 to 20, 2021 the Berlinale will launch a “Summer Special” for the public with indoor and outdoor cinema screenings all over the German capital whose much awaited new airport will welcome guests flying in.

The competition also features the usual sidebar sections such as Berlinale Special and Berlinale Series, Encounters, Berlinale Shorts, Panorama, Forum & Forum Expanded, Generation, Perspektive Deutsches Kino. The Retrospective showcasing films of Mae West will screen during the summer edition.

GOLDEN BEAR COMPETITION 2021

 

Albatros (Drift Away)
France
by Xavier Beauvois, with Jeremie Renier (pictured)

 

Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (Babardeală cu buclucsau porno balamuc) 
Romania/Luxemburg/Croatia/Czech Republic
by Radu Jude

 

Fabian – Going to the Dogs (Fabian oder Der Gang vor die Hunde)
Germany
by Dominik Graf

 

Ballad of a White Cow (Ghasideyeh gave sefid)
Iran/France
by Behtash Sanaeeha, Maryam Moghaddam

 

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (Guzen to sozo)
Japan
by Ryusuke Hamaguchi

 

Mr Bachmann and His Class (Herr Bachmann und seine Klasse)
Germany
by Maria Speth

 

I’m Your Man (Ich bin dein Mensch)
Germany
by Maria Schrader

 

Introduction 
Republic of Korea
by Hong Sangsoo

 

Memory Box
France/Lebanon/Canada/Qatar
by Joana Hadjithomas, Khalil Joreige

 

Next Door (Nebenan) 
Germany
by Daniel Brühl

 

Petite Maman
France
by Céline Sciamma

 

What Do We See When We Look at the Sky (Ras vkhedavt, rodesac cas vukurebt?)
Germany/Georgia
by Alexandre Koberidze

 

Forest – I See you Everywhere  (Rengeteg – mindenhol látla)
Hungary
by Bence Fliegauf

 

Natural Light (Természetes fény)
Hungary/Latvia/France/Germany
by Dénes Nagy

 

A Cop Movie (Una Película de Policías)
Mexico
by Alonso Ruizpalacios

BERLINALE | PART ONE 1-5 MARCH 2021

Oscars – International Features – the race is on

The Oscar race has started. Fifteen films will go forward to the next round of voting in the International Feature Film category for the 93rd Academy Awards, from the 93 countries eligible.

The films, with their reviews and trailers are here to remind you:

Bosnia and Herzegovina, QUO VADIS, AIDA?

Chile, THE MOLE AGENT

Czech Republic, CHARLATAN

Denmark, ANOTHER ROUND

France, TWO OF US

Guatemala, LA LLORONA

Hong Kong, BETTER DAYS

Iran, SUN CHILDREN

Ivory Coast, NIGHT OF THE KINGS

Mexico, I’M NO LONGER HERE

Norway, HOPE

Romania, COLLECTIVE

Russia, DEAR COMRADES!

Taiwan, A SUN

Tunisia, THE MAN WHO SOLD HIS SKIN

 

THE ACADEMY AWARDS WILL BE ANNOUNCED ON 25 APRIL 202

MLK/FBI (2020)

Dir.: Sam Pollard; Documentary with Clarence Jones, Charles Know, James Comey, Donna March , Beverly Gage, Andrew Young; USA 2020, 104 min.

Seasoned documentarian Sam Pollard takes a deep dive into the FBI’s surveillance on Dr Martin Luther King (1929-68) in this searing study  proving that systemic racism is still alive and kicking in the USA today.

Enriched by newly released material, Pollard’s findings are inspired by David Garrow’s book ‘The FBI and Martin Luther King’ and cleverly put together by editor Laura Tomaselli and Benjamin Hedin.

There’s still more to this story because the actual wire tapes of the FBI surveillance of MLK won’t be be released until 2027 – but what emerges is a fervent obsession with the subject on the part of the FBI’s director Edgar J. Hoover (who headed the agency from 1924 until his death in 1972). It tells how the cross-dressing Hoover invested at least as much energy in the Civil Rights leader’s political activities as in his sexual conquests.

Hoover directed William Sullivan (for ten years the chief of the FBI’s Domestic Intelligence Operations) to wire tap King, not only at home, but during his hotel stays on the campaign trail throughout America. Hoover wanted to probe MLK’s extra-marital affairs to discredit his leadership and his campaign. He and his G-men used the white man’s prejudice with Black male sexuality, to denigrate ‘Black Men’ as animalistic beasts, endangering the sexual purity of white women and the racial integrity of the white race as a whole. This racist pathology, as shown in Griffith’ Birth of a Nation, is still alive today, with White Supremacists storming the Capitol on 6th of January. Back in the 1960s, all polls showed the popularity of Hoover’s agenda: the majority of the nation wanted him to defeat King and his movement.

Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, made him a household name, Hoover and MLK met only once, in November 1964, but sides reported the meeting as amicable, although many supporters on both sides, had a different opinion. Even though MLK was instrumental in the 1956 Montgomery (Alabama) Bus Strike, the FBI did not pay special attention to him back then. MLK only emerged as a one to watch, at least for the FBI, in 1963, when he led the March to Washington and the events of that same year in Birmingham (Alabama)  when Governor Wallace, a supporter of KKK, provoked an uproar.

It was unfortunate that one of MLK’s closest advisers, the NY lawyer Stanley Levison, who had faced HUAC trials and was supposed to help communist front organisations, gave Hoover the excuse to build King up into a “Black Messiah” figure, who wanted to destroy the USA with the help of the Communists. Footage of McCarthy-era Hollywood films Walk a Crooked Mile (1948) and I Was a Communist for the FBI (1951) show a real paranoia since the CPUS hardly played any real role in the political arena.

But Hoover and the FBI declared, that Black men and women were particularly suggestible to Communist propaganda. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert, the Attorney General, authorised the FBI wiretapping King and his inner circle. This led to the discovery of King’s extra-marital affairs.

In 1964, President LB Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, and MLK was awarded the Nobel Price for Peace, meanwhile Hoover sent ‘salacious’ material to King’s wife Coretta Scott King suggesting her husband consider suicide before Hoover made the material public – including a sort of ‘hit list’ of his sexual conquests.

The FBI’s actions did not stop with wire-tapping: they had two very influential sources in the MLK campaign who reported back daily on his moves. One was Ernest C. Withers, the “un-official” photographer of the Civil Rights movement, who worked for the FBI for 18 years. Then there was James D. Harrison, who gave the FBI all details of MLK’s personal and political assignations.

In 1965 protests against the Vietnam War become more numerous in the US and President Johnson is quoted as saying “we can’t be defenceless”, while accelerating the USA involvement in the war. King meanwhile was engaged in Southern Christian Leadership Conference ( SCLC), which led to the “Poor People’s Campaign” and the March to Washington in March 1968.

King was very much against the Vietnam War, but he was also aware of a need to support President Johnson. He broke his silence after 18 months of deliberations, stating “silence is traitorous”. At the same time, in March 1968, Sullivan began preparations for “Rape Allegations”, which were supposed to be made public.

On 4th of April 1968 MLK was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis. The perpetrator James Earl Ray was convicted of his murder, even though many questioned how Ray could have acted alone, with the area swarming with FBI agents.

MLK/FBI leaves a bitter taste particularly in the light of the current political situation in the US after the storming of the Capitol. White Supremacis violence threatens the existence of a democratic USA. With the Republican Party hell-bent on destroying the very Constitution, their former President Trump was supposed to be guarding just please supremacist supporters happy, the nation has clearly reached a point when, 43 years after Martin Luther King’s murder, racism is threatening the country in an even more existential way. AS

DOGWOOF RELEASES THIS BAFTA-LONGLISTED DOC TO DVD and BLURAY on 22 FEBRUARY 2021

Letter to Jane: An Investigation About a Still (1972)

Dir: Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Gorin | With Marlon Brando, Moshe Dayan, James Dean, Maria Falconetti | Doc, 52′

Letter to Jane is a 1972 French postscript film to Tout Va Bien directed by the same duo (under the auspices of the Dziga Vertov Group). It came as quite a surprise to me to realise that I had until recently never actually seen this much-discussed polemic from Godard’s radical phase. The fact that the commentary was delivered by Godard himself and Jean-Pierre Gorin in English was another surprise, as I had no idea that Godard spoke English.

As the film progressed I became angrier and angrier at the fact that Godard & Gorin never drew back to let us see the whole photograph for ourselves. Early on in the film (before we’ve had time to get our bearings), a slightly fuller version of the picture appears as part of the original ‘L’Express’ article in which it appeared; so we know that the picture extends further than Godard & Gorin subsequently permit us to see – but we never see the picture in anything approaching its entirety ever again.

Instead Godard & Gorin show us only what they want us to see, while on the soundtrack they didactically ramble on and on; mercilessly bludgeoning the audience with egregious digressions, non sequiturs and name-dropping. It’s as if some officious bore were sitting opposite you holding an 8 by 10 copy of the original picture which they insist on describing to you in great but selective detail; but every time you try to get it off them so you can have a look at it for yourself pulls away and never lets you have it.

This sort of stunt might have worked during the seventies when you were seated in a cinema and couldn’t replay any of the film on DVD or YouTube. But thanks to the internet, as soon as I got home after the screening I was able to immediately look up the full uncropped picture on Google Images; and the enormity of Godard & Gorin’s offense was revealed. Godard & Gorin go on and on AND ON in a wildly speculative fashion (confident assertions beginning “In fact” or “We couldn’t help observing” or “We have proved” rubbing shoulders with frequent caveats like “We think” and “In our opinion”) about the man in the white shirt in the background with his face grainily blown up to show only him; and yet almost completely ignore the man in the pith helmet in the foreground that Fonda is actually concentrating upon. Furthermore, nobody watching Letter to Jane ever sees that on the right of the original photograph there is in fact another woman listening; and only at the beginning of the film can we see that Fonda is holding a camera.

So it’s a bit rich of Godard & Gorin to sanctimoniously accuse ‘L’Express’ of deliberate lying and manipulation while they themselves are throughout wilfully withholding information from the viewer. Richard Chatten

LETTER TO JANE is available in US/CANADA on The Criterion Channel 

Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)

Dir: Shaka King | Scri: Will Berson | Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemmons, Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders, Martin Sheen | US, historical drama, 126′

“You can kill a revolutionary but you can’t kill the revolution”

Fresh from its Sundance 2021 premiere comes this dynamite political drama that stars Daniel Kaluuya as Black Panther chief Fred Hampton and LaKeith Stanfield as the FBI informant William O’Neal who betrayed the Illinois Black Panther Party.

Shaka King certainly knows how to stage a film and this is a splashy widescreen thriller that sums up the mean streets of late Sixties Chicago with its rangy limousines, dudes with flick-knives and a moochy Motown score. Partly narrated, and powered forward by an charismatic performance from Kaluuya the story cuts between the undercover activities of O’Neal after he has been suckered in to being a police informant to avoid serving time for a felony that plays out in the propulsive opening sequences (and again the elaborate postscript), and Hampton’s rise to recognition as his galvanises the civil rights movement.

Martin Sheen gets to play a balding puffy-cheeked FBI boss J Edgar Hoover who gives agent Roy Mitchell (Plemmons) a talking to, suggesting he uses O’Neal rather more creatively to stem the tide of ‘Black empowerment’ as the urgent demands of the FBI start to bite, the incendiary threat of the Black Panthers growing every day more credible.

It’s a shame that the relationship between Hampton and O’Neal remains rather underplayed, along with his frisson between the potent Black Panther supporter Deborah Johnson (a thoughtful turn from Project Power‘s Dominique Fishback), as this could have added further nuance to the tale.

Sean Bobbitt is possibly the undercover star of the show with his masterful camerawork both on the widescreen and in close-up giving this a distinctly retro feeling that captures the volatile atmosphere of Chicago’s counterculture in a year that also experienced the Weathermens’ “Days of Rage”, and other revolutionary groups who were not only opposing the status quo, but also each other, in a time of worldwide unrest.

The film culminates in a bloody showcase showdown and while the Will Berson’s narrative does not always hang together perfectly Judas certainly provides convincing entertainment and worthwhile insight capturing the zeitgeist of another restless time for American. MT

Judas and the Black Messiah premiered at Sundance Film Festival 2021 and won an Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Daniel Kaluuya

Berlinale Forum 2021

Work, love, friendship, cinema: today, all these things have to be managed very differently than a year ago. The certainties we were still able to rely on in autumn 2019 have become porous. In other parts of the world where such uncertainties are part of everyday life, people may well be more practised in dealing with them. In a Western Europe geared to planning and feasibility, we still need to get used to a situation reminiscent of an agility workshop on a permanent loop. Whoever manages to shoot and finish a film under these conditions deserves great respect.

The 17-film selection that makes up the 51st Berlinale Forum focuses on works that deal with uncertainties in the world outside by embracing unpredictability in their plots and structures. It gives preference to the fragile over the proven, with more space dedicated to filmmakers at the start of their careers than their more established colleagues. Many films take narrative detours, slaloming between fiction and documentary like Manque La Banca’s debut Esquí (Ski) and dipping into archives to link findings from the past with the present. Jean-Luc Godard’s La chinoise is, for example, subjected to two separate revisions in Ephraim Asili’s The Inheritance and Vincent Meessen’s Juste un movement (Just A Movement) respectively. In her feature-length debut Sichuan hao nuren (The Good Woman of Sichuan), Sabrina Zhao transforms one of Brecht’s learning-plays into an opaque cinematic space. Uldus Bakhtiozina’s debut Doch rybaka (Tzarevna Scaling) tells a straightforward fairy tale on the one hand, while filling her fiction with dizzying culture historical pirouettes on the other. Her characters even have the shiniest diamond-encrusted teeth.

It goes without saying that more established filmmakers also form a part of the selection. With The First 54 Years – An Abbreviated Manual for Military Occupation, Israeli documentarian Avi Mograbi adds to his rich oeuvre with a bitter breakdown of the meaning of occupation. Berlin directors Chris Wright and Stefan Kolbe sound out the possibilities of documentary filmmaking in their usual unflinching manner in Anmaßung (Anamnesis). And Thai director Anocha Suwichakornpong’s Jai jumlong (Come Here) is a confident continuation of what has already marked her previous work (including 2009’s Mundane History): a blend of narrative subtlety with a view of history that cuts deep.

At a time when withdrawing into one’s own country, city, neighbourhood, flat or family is what’s being suggested, there’s a considerable risk that our realms of perception will shrink accordingly. The films of the 51st Berlinale Forum thus act as a significant help in allowing our thoughts and imaginations to stay open to the outside world.

Films of the 51st Berlinale Forum
*World premiere is used to indicate that these films have not been shown to an audience yet. Since they will be available in online screenings to a professional audience (industry and press) only, they will keep their status World premiere until they will be presented publicly in cinemas or at festivals.

*International premiere is used to indicate that these films have not been shown outside their country of origin yet. Since they will be available in online screenings to a professional audience (industry and press) only, they will keep their status International premiere until they will be presented publicly in cinemas or at festivals.

À pas aveugles (From Where They Stood)
France / Germany
by Christophe Cognet
with Christophe Cognet
*World premiere

Anmaßung (Anamnesis)
Germany
by Chris Wright, Stefan Kolbe
with Nadia Ihjelj, Josephine Hock
*World premiere

Doch rybaka (Tzarevna Scaling)
Russian Federation
by Uldus Bakhtiozina
with Alina Korol, Viktoria Lisovskaya, Valentina Yasen
*International premiere / Debut film

Esquí (Ski)
Argentina / Brazil
by Manque La Banca
with José Alejandro Colin, Segundo Botti, Shaman Herrera
*World premiere / Debut film

The First 54 Years – An Abbreviated Manual for Military Occupation
France / Finland / Israel / Germany
by Avi Mograbi
with Avi Mograbi
*World premiere

Garderie nocturne (Night Nursery)
Burkina Faso / France / Germany
by Moumouni Sanou
*World premiere / Debut film

The Inheritance
USA
by Ephraim Asili
with Eric Lockley, Nozipho McClean, Chris Jarrell
Debut film

Jai jumlong (Come Here)
Thailand
by Anocha Suwichakornpong
with Apinya Sakuljaroensuk, Waywiree Ittianunkul, Sirat Intarachote
*World premiere

Juste un mouvement (Just A Movement)
Belgium / France
by Vincent Meessen
with Dialo Blondin Diop, Ousman Blondin Diop, Marie-Thérèse Diedhiou
*World premiere

Mbah Jhiwo (Mbah Jhiwo / Ancient Soul)
Spain
by Alvaro Gurrea
with Yono Aris Munandar, Sayu Kholif, Musaena’h
*World premiere / Debut film

No táxi do Jack (Jack’s Ride)
Portugal
by Susana Nobre
with Amindo Martins Rato, Maria Carvalho, Joaquim Verissimo
*World premiere

Qué será del verano (What Will Summer Bring)
Argentina
by Ignacio Ceroi
with Ignacio Ceroi, Mariana Martinelli, Charles Louvet
*World premiere

A River Runs, Turns, Erases, Replaces
USA
by Shengze Zhu
*World premiere

Sichuan hao nuren (The Good Woman of Sichuan)
Canada
by Sabrina Zhao
with Weihang He, Ruobing Zhao
*World premiere / Debut film

Ste. Anne
Canada
by Rhayne Vermette
with Isabelle d’Eschambault, Jack Theis, Valerie Marion
*World premiere / Debut film

Taming the Garden
Switzerland / Germany / Georgia
by Salomé Jashi

La veduta luminosa (The Luminous View)
Italy / Spain
by Fabrizio Ferraro
with Alessandro Carlini, Catarina Wallenstein, Freddy Paul Grunert
*World premiere

THE 51st BERLINALE FORUM | MARCH 2021

Love and the Art of Seduction series | Bfi Player

LOVE and THE ART OF SEDUCTION 

This well-chosen selection explores love in all its forms and offers tempting alternative viewing this lockdown Valentine Weekend.

Love and the Art of Seduction highlights the range of cinematic romance from sweeping love affairs to quirky rom-coms and tales of obsessive desire. It offers classic love stories from arthouse archives all over the world.

THE LUNCHBOX (2014) directed by Ritesh Batra

https://player.bfi.org.uk/subscription/film/watch-the-lunchbox-2013-online

An exquisite comedy-drama featuring from the director of Photograph features some of the most mouth-watering scenes of cooking and eating ever committed to film. It stars the late Irrfan Khan), an ill-tempered Mumbai office worker nearing retirement who who lunchbox mix-up leads to love.

LOVE & FRIENDSHIP (2016) directed by Whit Stillman

https://player.bfi.org.uk/rentals/film/watch-love-friendship-2016-online

An adaptation of Jane Austen’s early novella ‘Lady Susan’, this exquisite comedy of matchmaking and heart-breaking concerns the machiavellian Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) and her artful attempts at finding a husband for herself and for her eligible but reluctant school-girl daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark). Cast members include Xavier Samuel, Tom Bennett, Chloe Sevigny and Stephen Fry.

THEORUM (1968)

Terence Stamp plays a mysterious young man who seduces each member of the family of rich Italian industrialist, with a particular focus on Silvana Magnani’s soignée lady of the household in the well-appointed villa in Milan. Set against the background of economic unrest Pasolini’s social satire won the Coppa Volpi at Venice in 1968

IMMORAL TALES (1974)

Much less salacious than you may have hoped for, this anthology of erotic short films are of value due to their eclectic settings in an exploration of the psychological side of human desire. The segments depicting the 16th century Hungarian ‘vampire’ countess Erzsebet Bathory, and the incestuous 15th century family of Lucrezia Borgia and her father, the pope, are particularly intriguing.

UNRELATED (2007)

Fans of English director Joanna Hogg will welcome the chance to revisit this pithy social drama that sees middle Londoners at play and at odds in a fraught villa party in sun-drenched Tuscany during the summer hols.

THE ART OF SEDUCTION collection | ON BFI player 

BFI PLAYER 

My Favourite War (2020)

Dir.: Ilze Burkowska-Jacobsen; Documentary; Animation by Svein Nyhus; Latvia/Norway 2020, 80 min.

Latvian director/writer Ilze Burkowska-Jacobsen tells the story of her childhood growing up under Soviet occupation. What shines through is her romantic yearning for the countryside in a self-censored biopic enlivened by delicately drawn animations, interviews and documentary footage.

Young Ilza tells her story of dislocation and dual alliances (voiced by Mare Eihe): growing up in the ancient town of Saldus in Courland where her father was an active propagandist of Soviet values – dying in a car accident when Ilze was seven. Her mother was much more critical of the State, but toed the party line – even joining – to help her daughter advance to university and study Journalism, as her father had done before her.

Meanwhile Ilze’s grandfather, deported to Siberia for opposing the collectivisation in 1930s, was fearful of his granddaughter turning to communism, sending her to play outside while he was listening to a banned Western Radio Station. Ilze was unaware of what was going on still fervently believing in the founder of the Soviet State, Lenin: who hands her an ice cream while she is out for a drive with her parents. Later on she returns home empty-handed after waiting to buy butter, because a veteran of WWII has snaffled the last pack, not needing to queue.

At a meeting of the Soviet Youth organisation “Young Pioneers”, Ilze meets her life-long best friend Ilga who tells her to pull up her socks so as not to spoil the picture of uniformity. There is WWII footage about the Cauldron of Courland, and Ilze and her schoolfriends are literally forced to worship a certain Jacobs Kunders, who scarified himself in battle to save his comrades.

Ilze does everything to get a place at university; and thanks to her efforts she is invited to the most prestigious “Pioneer” camp on the Crimea. Towards the end of the Soviet Union it emerges that Ilze and others were forced to take up shooting lessons in honour of the war heroes adorning the school walls. The class acted in solidarity, unanimously asking to be relieved from the gun exercise. Instead they are assigned to a First Aid course, and this successful class action make a great impact on Ilze.

There are some odd sequences: a Nazi soldier, buried in a mass grave, is seen on the wall of a block of flats under construction, the neighbours taking it as a sign from God and a bad omen that construction is doomed. Another animation shows a WWII Nazi plane flying from Latvia to Berlin with its cargo of cows falling out in mid-air.

And although Ilze stays true to the Soviet cause in secondary school, Ilga becomes increasingly sceptical and this questioning attitude shows up in her final essay which is rejected due to its questioning Soviet norms. Ilga, who is seen often with Ilze in the few life interviews, felt so suicidal after her rejection she nearly killed herself. But Ilze’s mother leaves for the countryside to run her own farm, opting out of a system she does not believe in and could endanger her daughter’s future (My Mother’s Farm).

Somehow, My favourite War is two films in one: the most interesting being Ilze’s stance in acquiescing to the Status Quo, and here the animation sequences are often hilarious. Then there is Ilze second-guessing herself, and drifting off into a very uncritical Latvian history lesson. These two halves don’t make for successful whole, the adult Ilze is much less interesting than her contradictory young self. AS

MY FAVOURITE WAR IS AVAILABLE ONLINE 

 

 

The Stylist (2020)

Dir: Jill Gevargizian | US Horror, 104′

This slick little slice of horror is stylishly dressed up and not too heavy to be an enjoyable light night watch with its hypnotic soundscape and sophisticated visuals.

The Stylist started life as a short film but funding enabled a feature makeover and filmmaker Jill Gevargizian added grist to the original with a few more peripheral, rather underwritten characters including the film’s original lead Najarra Townsend – who has now honed Claire down to a tee – in narrative that centres on a lonely disturbed stylist with a sideline in serial killing.

We all know how a visit to a hair salon plays out: you say what you want and then desperately dive back into your phone or a newspaper, hoping to avoid the usual generic chitchat. But the salon can also provide a space to offload and talk freely in a detached environment and the film explores these subtle female dynamics.

In a recent poll hairdressers emerged as the most content of professionals. Outwardly pleasant and personable Claire is certainly a dark horse on this account, and Townsend plays her very close to her chest in a performance that is subtle and quite intriguing. At first she appears a stable and self-assured individual but as the story unfolds stills water run deeper, and Claire’s incessant probing questions and private moments of angst (even meltdowns) reveal a tormented, dysfunctional individual, desperately fighting dark urges, with macabre results.

Living alone with only her dog for company, Claire is a woman who fantasises about her clients’ private lives, particularly when she meets longterm client Olivia (Brea Grant) who engages her service on a regular basis in the build up to her upcoming nuptials. But Claire is clearly unsure about the growing intimacy that develops when Olivia pushes the friendship envelope, Claire having to retreat to the dark zone of her personality in order to process feelings of jealousy and latent anger that surface and threaten to engulf the high-performing side of her split personality.

With echoes of Peter Strickland’s In Fabric, The Stylist is a tightly wound chick-flick psychodrama that avoids bleeding into full blown melodrama or even descending into gore-fest territory as it compellingly unpacks the complexities of its sociopathic central character. MT

AVAILABLE ON ARROWplayer 1 MARCH 2021

 

 

 

Operation Finale (2018) Netflix

Dir.: Chris Weitz; Cast: Oscar Isaac, Ben Kingsley, Melanie Laurent, Haley Lu Richardson, Joe Alwin, Greta Scacci; USA 2018, 122 min.

Another wartime foray this one cleverly adapted by US helmer Chris Weitz (A Better Life) from Matthew Orton’s script about the capture of Adolf Eichmann, the “Architect of the Holocaust”, in Argentina, and his subsequent trial in Jerusalem. Operation Finale plays out as a seething action thriller with some (a-historical) romance thrown into the pot. Ben Kingsley as Eichmann saves the project from banal superficiality, Oscar Isaacs making for a saturnine Malkin.

On the evening of 11th May 1960, a group of Mossad agents captured Eichmann near his house in the Buenos Aires suburb of San Fernando, where the former SS Obersturmbannführer lived with his wife Vera (a graceful Greta Scacci) and two children. His son Klaus (Alwin) actually led Mossad on the trail of his father who worked as a clerk for the Mercedes Benz factory in Buenos Aired: Klaus had a romantic relationship with Sylvia Herrmann (Richardson), her father growing suspicious of Klaus’s story about his family. Hermann senior informed a high-ranking West German prosecutor, Dr. Bauer, of his misgivings, and Bauer tipping off Mossad.

The capture itself is played out Ocean’s Eleven style – with Hanna Elian (Laurent), the anaesthetist of the group, getting over a bad relationship with Malkin after both of them botched their final assignments. Malkin is not trusted by his superiors, demanding why he never got the more glorious operations from the bosses, he answers caustically: ‘Perhaps they are anti-Semites’. Food for thought.

Some scenes lack finesse, particularly one where Malkin tries to convince Eichmann to sign a document declaring his voluntarily arrival in Israel. But there are subtler touches: Klaus and Sylvia enjoy Douglas Sirk’s aptly titled Imitation of Life, in a Buenos Aires cinema. And there are real thrills when Eichmann’s on board a plane with the agents ready to depart for Israel, a horde of Nazis desperately pressuring the authorities to ground the flight, having failed to track him down. The tone darkens as we witness a 1962 trial in Jerusalem – Malkin losing out on Hanna, who plumps for a less testosterone driven partner.

Operation Finale is a mixed bag: DoP Javier Aguirresarobe’s rather conventional images collide with Malkin’s personal memories of the Holocaust, and the Malkin/Elian affair is superfluous – in reality the Mossad doctor was male. The last chapter gets us back on track despite the long-drawn out kidnapping only being a secondary element in the plot. Ben Kingsley makes for suitably sinister Eichmann, deftly dicing between the two ‘Selfs’ of his incarnation of the ‘Banality of Evil’ (Hannah Arendt), lording it over his victims life a Nazi rigout, and his life as a dowdy, downtrodden clerk from an urban backwater. AS

NOW ON NETFLIX

Winners | 50th Rotterdam Film Festival 2021

The 50th Celebration of Rotterdam Festival wrapped after a successful week of films, interviews and Big Talks under the fresh new leadership of festival director Vanya Kaludjercic who took over the reigns from Bero Beyer for this exciting anniversary year.


Tiger Competition 2021 winners Pebbles, I Comete – A Corsican Summer and Looking for Venera will be made available to watch on IFFR.com for an extended period: from Sunday 6 February 18:00 (CET) to Tuesday 9 February 21:00 (CET), with streaming exclusively accessible in the Netherlands. The festival will be back in June for a summer celebration

ROTTERDAM FILM FESTIVAL 1-7 FEBRUARY 2021

Night of the Kings (2020) BFI player

Dir: Philippe Lacote | Cast: Bakary Kone, Steve Tientcheu, Jean Cyrille Digbeu, Rasmene Quedrango, Denis Lavant | Drama, 93′

The Cote Ivorian contender for this year’s Academy Awards is an vibrant and atmospheric modern day riff on the legend of Sherherazade set within the confines of an Abidjan prison.

A second feature for Philippe Lacote who gained International acclaim for his Cannes competition film Run, it sees a young man struggle to survive in the hostile hellhole of La Maca prison (now home to 5,000 prisoners) by keeping the inmates entertain – risking certain death if he doesn’t, by sunrise.

Lacote blends elements of folklore and local history with exotic lighting techniques (casting ghoulish shadows on the felons’ faces) and a rhythmic soundscape that reaches fever pitch by the hyperrealist closing scenes, in this story within a story.

The inmates themselves have taken over this mammoth concrete  ‘asylum’ surrounded by the lush tropical scenery of the Ivory Coast, in West Africa (Senegal was used in locations). The chief henchman, Blackbeard (Tientcheu), is head of the prisoners, and will remain in power until he cedes to a more powerful rival, forcing him calmly to take his own life. His successor or ‘Roman’ (literally storyteller) has only just arrived on the prison scene, and seems rather lightweight by comparison but soon rises to the occasion.

On the night of a ‘red’ moon this Roman must mesmerise his fellow prisoners through until dawn with original stories of epic proportions. Luckily he only has to cast his mind back to his own family: his aunt was a noted West African storyteller, who grew up with an infamous rascal called Zama King. At this point the film takes on a fantastical dimension transporting us back in time to the reign of a Cleopatra-like queen (Laetitia Kay) with an outlandish wig.

At this point Denis Lavant arrives on the scene (as Silence) inspiring the young Roman (Bakary Kone) to wax lyrical as he gets into his stride with a tale of increasingly outlandish proportions. Roman reaches fever pitch with the constant threat of death creating palpable dramatic tension, and he diverges again and again spinning another string to his yarn, like some voluable over-excited salesman desperate to keep the patter going. The fellow inmates warm to the story adding their own embellishments with strident body movements, singing and dancing. This is a magical film that lives and breathes its unique sense of place deep in the heart of the mysterious African jungle. MT

BFI ONLINE | The Ivory Coast’s submission to the 93rd Academy Awards won awards in 2020 at Toronto, Thessaloniki, and the Youth Jury Award IFFR 2021.

Cup Fever (1965) Talking Pictures

Dir: David Bracknell | Cast: Bernard Cribbins, Sonia Graham, David Lodge, Dermot Kelly, Bobby Charlton | UK Drama 61’

Five years before Sam Peckinpah brought ultra-violence to Cornwall in ‘Straw Dogs’, cameraman John Coquillon and female lead Susan George had already taken to the mean streets of a wintry-looking Manchester to make this historically fascinating time capsule in which Matt Busby is charmingly stiff playing himself and one catches fleeting glimpses of the young and fresh-faced likes of Bobby Charlton, George Best, Denis Law and Nobby Stiles practising on the turf at Old Trafford.

1965 was far too early for the girls to be playing football themselves (their contribution being confined to making the strips and cheering the boys on), but the fact that they’re bothered about football in the first place was at that time in itself unusual. (Ironically the kids in this film initially pursue their passion for football in the face of constant hostility and obstruction from grown-ups whereas I grew up in a house were football took precedence over old movies and I subsequently spent decades catching up with cinema classics I missed in the seventies because they were scheduled opposite ‘Match of the Day’). Richard Chatten

TALKING PICTURES TV | 17 & 20 February 2021

 

Identifying Features (2020)

Dir.: Fernanda Valadez; Cast: Mercedes Hernandez, David Illescas, Jesus Varela; Spain/Mexico 2020, 97 min.

Identifying Features is an emotional fireball of a film showing a hell on Earth at the Mexican border with Arizona.

Poor Mexican farmers are caught in a trap between the cartel henchmen and the people traffickers promising financial security to these mostly young and naive locals on the Mexican side of the fortified border: the price is high: and it could cost them their lives.

Childhood friends Rigo and Jesus (Varela) have had enough of their restricted existence and set off from their little village in a perilous journey to the border wall. But the teenagers soon disappear for months without any sign of life, their families starting to imagine the worse.

For Rigo’s mother, the search for her son will be short and painful: photos of young men found dead near the border are shown to her – Rigo, easily identified by a white birthmark on his face, is one of them. The procedure is done in the most bureaucratic and soul destroying way. Magdalena (Hernandez) can go on hoping, and travels on to the border where Miguel (Illescas), a deportee, has just arrived after many years as an illegal in the USA.

The two will meet later. Magdalena does not learn anything about her son from the bus drivers she asks for help – just that buses are often kidnapped by cartel militia. Rigo was one of the victims on that fateful October the 15th, the day the teenagers boarded their bus. But Magdalena is told – in the lady’s restroom of all places – that an old man, who also survived the assault, is living in La Fragua near a canal.

So Magdalena sets out on her journey, meeting Miguel on the way on to see her mother. When the two arrive, it becomes clear that militia has raided her place and most probably killed the woman. But Magdalena presses on with her search for the old man, finally finding him in hiding from the militia. He confirm Rigo had been killed, mentioning his white birthmark, but does not know anything about Jesus’ fate. Trying to get back, Magdalena and Miguel are caught at night by the militia men, who are camping near a fire. In spite of their quick retreat into the woods nearby, Miguel is caught and shot. Magdalena, sure of her own fate, starts praying.

Whilst Hernandez is truly brilliant, the real star is DoP Claudia Becerri Bulos whose images of the countryside show utter desolation. The final part at the feature at the camp fire, where the devil dances, is simply extraordinary, with Magdalena’s face drenched in red.

The camera travels along inconsolable, melancholic and languid, panning Miguel from behind, his fate is somehow foretold, Magdalena remarking on his similarity to Jesus. She offers him a home, somehow fearing that her odyssey in search of her son will be in vain. This artful multi-award winning perspective on the Mexican migrant crisis is the the work of a remarkably mature newcomer, who has a bright future ahead of her film wise. AS

NOW ON DIGITAL RELEASE

 

 

 

 

A Glitch in the Matrix (2021) Dogwoof

Dir.: Rodney Asher; Documentary with Nick Bostrom, Erik Davies, Emily Pothast, Chris ware, Jeremy Felts, Philip K. Dick; narrated by Baffy Visick; USA 2021, 108 min.

After analysing sleep paralysis in his Shining spin-off Room 237, director Rodney Ascher has taken on a much grander project: convincing us that everything on this planet is the work of super-advanced computers who have built this super Matrix, perhaps for the enjoyment of equally advanced creatures to watch us earthlings toil on in his never-ending soap opera – a little bit like The Truman Show on an universal level.

To this avail he has summoned four eye-witnesses who have come to believe that humankind is at the mercy of programmers, and who write the narratives we call ‘life’. These ‘believers’ of a world in the permanent process of simulation are suitably dressed, face and torso transformed into video-game avatars, in front of a webcam. A fifth witness, Joshua Cooke could not be present since he is serving a prison sentence until at least 2043 for killing his parents – a result of his obsessions with the Matrix series. But at least he can warn others with this bizarre life story.

The simulation theory is not that new: Plato and Descartes are among many other creative souls who believed in the theory of sleeping humans whose whole lives are just computer-assisted dreams. Here a vast network of AI forms the background of all our life stories, including the vast army of non-player characters. It all feels like a secret message from some liberated creatures – Jehovah’s witnesses or other religious cults who have studied the vast conspiracy so you can eventually join them. But like all religions it’s a question of belief. Nick Bostrum, a Swedish academic, sounds most anchored in some form of reality: “We are not in, what ‘believers’ call, a ‘base reality’ but “in one of countless simulations, its inhabitants have been programmed”.

Much time is given to SciFi writer Philip K. Dick (1928-1982), author of Blade Runner fame , who had written 44 novels (the majority being adapted for feature films) and 17 short story collections. He visited his disciples in Metz, France in 1977 and gave a talk about the counterfeit worlds in his novels.

This how he describes his obsession with these worlds: “My fictional work is actually true, particularly the novels The Man in the High Castle, and Flow my Tears, The Policeman said. Both novels are based on fragmentary, residual memories of such a horrid slave state world.”

Dick also claims to have remembered past lives, and a very different present life; confessing these mystical experiences occurred after dental surgery in 1974. He goes on: “We are living in a computer-programmed reality, and we only realise this when some variable is changed, and some alteration in our reality occurs. Those alterations are felling like a deja vue. An alternative world branched off”.

All complex stuff, but fascinating if it appeals to you. There is much more: Elon Musk and the Mandela theory among others, but we will have to wait until we find out who is in charge of this giant conspiracy. Until then we’ll have to make do with our status “ALIVE BUT NOT LIVING”. AS 

NOW ON WATCH DOGWOOF.COM

Fade-In (1973) Talking Pictures

Dir:  Jud Taylor (as Alan Smithee) Wri: Jerrold L Ludwig | Cast: Burt Reynolds, Barbara Loden, Noam Pitlik, Patricia Casey, George Savalas| US Western 93′

In 1967, Silvio Narizzano was in Moab Utah making a western called Blue with Terence Stamp, Joanna Pettet and Ricardo Montalban

However, the stars also found themselves appearing in Fade-In, with Silvio Narizzano getting a producer credit and Barbara Loden playing a sophisticated movie editor who heads for Mexico to work on a film shoot.

It might be an in-joke that Terence Stamp (starring in the parent production) doesn’t speak for the first forty minutes, yet is the first to say something in this film. Barbara Loden’s eyes, first seen staring intently into a car mirror, are unmistakable, despite this being her only conventional film lead, romanced by local ranch hand Burt Reynolds who has been hired to work as a driver.

The presence over the brow of the hill of the bigger production enabled first time director Alan Smithee to avail himself of the Monument Valley locations and a helicopter suggesting a bigger budget than was actually at his disposal.

The film looks like an imitation of Un Homme et Une Femme and the unique teaming of the star of Deliverance and Smokey and the Bandit with the director and star of Wanda suggest a more estimable achievement than the stubbornly conventional production it insists on being. Richard Chatten

ON TALKING PICTURES 6 FEBRUARY 2021

Girl on Approval (1962)

 

Dir: Charles Frend, Wri: Kathleen White | Rachel Roberts, James Maxwell, Annette Whiteley, Ellen McIntosh | John Dare | UK Drama 75′

Sandwiched between Rachel Roberts’ roles in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and This Sporting Life. This sensitive little drama in a minor key reminiscent of Ealing Studios’ Mandy would make the first half of an interesting double bill of films with Annette Whiteley; the second being The Yellow Teddybears (1963) marking her graduation from problem 14 year-old foster child who can’t be left alone with sharp objects, to fully fledged sex delinquent.

Backed by a melancholy score by veteran composer Clifton Parker and atmospheric location photography by up-and-coming cameraman John Coquillon, director Charles Frend’s own plight reflected that of most of Ealing’s other talents released like his young heroine into the harshness of the big wide world to fend for himself. Richard Chatten.

NOW ON TALKING PICTURES | PRIME VIDEO 

Berlinale 2021 | Jury Announced

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summer Special

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

BERLINALE 2021 | MARCH & JUNE 2021

The Dig (2021) Netflix

Dir.: Simon Stone; Cast: Carey Mulligan, Ralph Fiennes, Archie Barnes, Monica Dolan, Johnny Flynn, Ken Stott, Lily James, Peggy Piggott; UK 2021, 112 min.

This tender and touching tale about loss and the fragility of life takes place in the soft landscape of Suffolk just as England is entering another World War in 1938.

The Dig is ostensibly about the discovery of an ancient burial site at  Sutton Hoo but its historical significance pales into insignificance and the human story is what we remember, sensitively brought to life by Moira Buffini’s skilful adaptation of John Preston’s novel, and Carey Mulligan’s deeply affecting performance as young world-weary widow Edith Pretty who lives at the Hoo with her young son Robert (Barnes).

The repercussions of the Great War are still being felt even in rural Suffolk where Edith maintains a noblesse oblige approach despite her life-limiting heart condition brought on by rheumatic fever. Robert is gently traumatised by the thought of losing another parent, in a household where everyone is crying silently but putting a brave face on things. Ralph Fiennes gradually becomes an unlikely saviour as the stern, pipe-smoking amateur archeologist Basil Brown who Edith hires to investigate mounds of soil on her land. Robert takes very well to the individualist Brown, but it gradually emerges he is married to local lass Mary Brown (Dolan) and that’s another sad story.

Naturally being England, emotions are well buttoned-up despite the balmy summer setting; director Simon Stone possibly had LP Hartley’s The Go-Between in mind with his imagining of events, Buffini making Mrs Pretty decades younger than the book, thus adding a frisson between her and Basil.

But that’s not the only touch of romance going on. There’s a low key flutter between Edith’s cousin Rory (Johnny Flynn) and Lily James -who is curiously underpowered as Peggy, the sexually starved wife of a (gay) RAF officer (Ben Chaplin, looking worried) – although it certainly provides light relief from the rather underwhelming burial discovery which brings with it a motley crew of ‘official’ specialists from London headed by British Museum expert Ken Stott. Pulling rank he places the site under Government control, although Edith is adamant that Brown should finish what he started, especially as he is nearly killed in a landslide.

Drama also comes from the looming shadow of war. A plane crashes in a nearby lake, Rory trying in vain to rescue the pilot. And although Edith is fading away slowly she still lights up every scene with her understated class and decorum, keeping up “a good show”, and trouncing Peggy’s discrete ecstasy with Rory – yes, they do get a coy minute of passion just before he leaves to join the RAF. MT

NOW ON NETFLIX

 

 

The Investigation (2021) BBCiPlayer | DVD

 

Dir: Tobias Linholm | Cast: Soren Malling, Pilou Asbaek, Pernilla August, Rolf Lassgard, Laura Christensen, Dulfi Al-Jabouri, Hans Henrik Clemensen | Denmark, True crime drama, 2021

True crime doesn’t get any more gruesome than the murder of journalist Kim Wall. So the Danes have thrown their best talent behind this HBO miniseries (now also on BBC 2) written and directed by Tobias Lindholm (whose Another Round is Denmark’s Oscar hopeful) and starring Pernilla August, Borgen‘s Soren Malling, Pilou Asbaek (A Hijacking) and Rolf Lassgard.

This was a murder that shocked the world: a Danish inventor Peter Madsen invited Wall to visit his homemade submarine somewhere off the coast of Denmark. She then disappeared without trace and Madsen was rescued after his vessel sunk near to Copenhagen’s Koge bay. Interviewed by police Madsen later claimed Wall had slipped and hit her head, drowning in a watery grave. But then it gets weird. As Wall’s body parts were gradually washed up, the head some time later delaying identification, Madsen was arrested and charged with her murder, changing his story several times in the aftermath.

Sombre and sumptuously photographed by Magnus Nordenhof Jonck this plays out as a slow burning and evocative thriller that manages to be utterly compelling while respecting the delicate subject matter and Wall’s loved ones, as it carefully chronicles the unfolding investigation – day by day – under the guidance of Malling’s thoughtful Jens Moller. The detective really took it upon himself to ensure that no stone was left unturned in exploring the unpalatable facts, consulting oceanographers and tide experts to fathom out what happened during that fateful night of August 10th 2017.

Wall was an accomplished professional investigative journalist with everything to live for, yet her career was cut short by Madsen who not only ended her life, but in such a macabre way – presumably he hoped the evidence would be destroyed by marine life.

Moller works painstakingly in the suitably grim conditions of a rainy Danish autumn – the whole process took four months – to try and piece together enough evidence to nail Madsen. Dogs detectives join specialist divers and pathologists, and the scenes involving Walls’ parents are particularly moving. The six part structure enables Lindholm to fully flesh out the characters’ backstories in this deeply affecting criminal procedural that widens out into a slice of social history.

Although one tries to avoid the expression ‘Nordic Noir’ in this particular case, it’s just what it is. No disrespect to Wall, she just happened to be the victim. All things considered I think she would consider this a fitting tribute to her life. MT

ON BBC2 from 29 January 2021 | DVD on 1March 2021

 

 

My French Film Festival | Online festival 2021

 

Now in its 11th year, MyFrenchFilmFestival shines a spotlight on new generation French-language filmmakers and gives audiences around the world the chance to share their love of French cinema. The 2021 Festival runs from 15 January – 15 February with screenings online and in cinemas around the world. Audiences in the UK can watch these 11 features from this year’s Festival on BFI Player on Prime Video Channels, free to subscribers:

ADOLESCENTES (Sébastien Lifshitz, 2019)
CAMILLE (Boris Lojkine, 2019)
ÉNORME (Sophie Letourneur, 2019)
FELICITÀ (Bruno Merle, 2020)
FILLES DE JOIE (Frédéric Fonteyne, Anne Paulicevich, 2020)
JOSEP (Aurel, 2020)
JUST KIDS (Christophe Blanc, 2019)
KUESSIPAN (Myriam Verreault, 2019)
LES HÉROS NE MEURENT JAMAIS (Aude Léa Rapin, 2019)
MADAME (Stéphane Riethauser, 2019)
TU MÉRITES UN AMOUR (Hafsia Herzi, 2019)

MY FRENCH FILM FESTIVAL 15 JANUARY – 15 FEBRUARY 2021

Bloomfield (1970)

Dir: Richard Harris, Uri Zohar | Cast: Richard Harris, Romy Schneider, Kim Burfield, Maurice Kaufmann | UK Drama 97′

Richard Harris made one foray into directing with this  sports drama that drew boos at the Berlin Festival and came home empty-handed at the Golden Globes.

Harris stars alongside Romy Schneider in Bloomfield, also known as The Hero (and the less promising Fallen Idol in Spain) filmed during a drink and drug induced long weekend that lasted over thirty years before he became beloved of a whole generation of youngsters as the original Dumbledore. Suffice to say, his co-director Uri Zohar left the entertainment world shortly afterwards to become a rabbi.

If the words ‘A Richard Harris Film’ didn’t already instil a sense of dread, the credits then declare that it contains ‘Additional Material by Richard Harris’, since the stoned actor took the film over just a few days into production.

It’s not actually too bad, but it’s not very good either, with Romy Schneider completely wasted as Harris’s whiny high-maintenance wife. On paper an Israeli remake of This Sporting Life, it’s actually more like The Champ, with Harris furiously bonding with cute little tyke Kim Burfield, who’d rather be in Brazil since Israel is “a lousy country for football!!” The film, however, is smothered in local colour, along with all the temptations that befall a first-time director: zooms, slow motion, freeze-frames, shots of sunsets and so on. It even has songs; but mercifully not sung by Harris himself but the wonderful Maurice Gibb ! Richard Chatten.

 

 

 

 

The White Tiger (2020) Netflix

Dir: Ramin Bahrani | Wri: Aravind Adiga, Ramin Bahrani | Cast: Priyanka Chopra, Rajkummar Rao, Adarsh Gourav | Drama 125′

This stylish snapshot of modern india glints with cynism and snarky humour its sharp social contrasts bared like the titular tiger’s teeth.

Netflix has the pleasure of hosting this little brute from 99 Homes’ Ramin Bahrani, adapting Aravind Adiga’s 2008 Booker Prize-winning novel that sees a poor guy from rural India rise from servitude to success as a global entrepreneur in Bangalore. The wider world opens up through his experiences along the way as a driver for the spoilt and privileged son of a corrupt local industrialist.

The first person voiceover brings to mind Slumdog Millionnaire but that’s where the similarities end – this is a much edgier beast powered forward by the appealing character of young Delhi tea-maker Balram (Adarsh Gourav), who one day lands a job far beyond village life, ferrying round US educated Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) and his liberated wife Pinky (Chopra). This lowly gig leads Balram to a rocky but glittering future by keeping his nose to the grindstone and his eyes to the stars.

Bahrani’s focus is very much on bumpy road ahead as his hero Balram navigates potholes in this journey of self-awareness and nouse-gathering. And this angel-faced servant soon has to toughen up if he’s to survive and thrive. Rather like Balzac’s rags to riches hero Eugene de Rastignac, Balram is a socially challenged but highly intelligent young ingenue equipped with guile, charisma and a low cunning as he wades through a morass of corruption, deceit and betrayal of India’s myriad social divide. Adarsh Gourav is entertaining to watch as he masters Balham’s dextrous human complexities, ducking and diving and wising up through the exotic ever-challenging landscape that lies before him.

Bahrani shows a real understanding of the delicate social structures at play, conjuring up the dark continent convincingly with its intoxicating chemistry of sights, sounds and contemporary social scenery which is magically conveyed by Paolo Carnera’s dazzling camerawork and set to an original soundscape from Oscar-tipped Danny Bensi and Saunder Juriaans. MT

Available on Netflix worldwide Jan 22.

 

Slalom (2020) Curzon VOD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ON CURZON VOD from 12 February 2021

 

 

 

 

The Dissident (2020) Bfi player

Dir: Bryan Fogel | Wri: Mark Monroe, Bryan Fogel | US Doc, 119′

Academy Award winner Bryan Fogel’s latest doc dives into the ghastly murder of Washington Post journalist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi.

It offers a comprehensive and sobering an account of the execution as one could possibly imagine. Fogel won an Oscar for Icarus (2017), a look into the Russian sports doping scandal, and has now assembled this immersive investigation in an impressively short amount of time; Khashoggi was killed at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018, but one feels no stone was left unturned in researching and conveying the story in grim horror. As the crime famously implicates the Saudi ruling family at the highest levels, there will be a keen interest in this riveting work across the globe.

Anyone who follows world events knows that Khashoggi, a member of the Saudi royal family who had moved to the United States and wrote for The Washington Post, went into the consulate early in the afternoon on the date in question to obtain a marriage licence. But he never came out. The Saudis denied, delayed and dissembled as long as they possibly could, but finally had to admit that Khashoggi had died on the premises. This resulted in great embarrassment for the royal family and diplomatic distancing by many countries, at least for a while. Eventually 11 men were tried in Saudi Arabia, with three acquitted, three others sentenced to prison terms and five given the death penalty.

Fogel’s investigation is vigorous, thorough  and comprehensive. It centres first on one of Khashoggi’s closest friends, fellow dissident Omar Abdulaziz, who lives in Montreal in a state of near paralysing fear of being tracked down by Saudi agents. We then meet Khashoggi’s fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, who waited outside the consulate all afternoon for him to come out. Both of these intimates stand as living testament to their friend’s resolve, the wages of exile and the high anxiety all too plausibly connected with any opposition to the all-powerful ruling authorities.

The Dissident is cut and scored like a dramatic Hollywood thriller, making impressive use of suspense-engendering editing techniques, mystery-building music and other devices to tease out all aspects of the drama, with the entirely reasonable objective of drawing in viewers who might otherwise not readily watch a political documentary. There is absolutely nothing lost with this technique, especially as the film tends to its essential business of revealing the nature of the Saudi regime and its refusal to countenance any dissent.

In a shrewd and discreet way, the film casts a bigger and stronger net as it progresses. References to other comparable events in the Arab world, such as those in Egypt some years before, are useful, as are comments about liberation movements in other countries. It charts the sacrifices made in becoming an outsider in middle life after having so long been an insider in an insular country. And there are extraordinary random sights, such as the crown prince’s commercial-sized private plane being accompanied by six fighter jets flying alongside when he travels.

Building his case as shrewdly as a skilled lawyer, Fogel finally, and shockingly, offers conclusive evidence that Khashoggi was treated like “a sacrificed animal,” cut up with a bone saw after apparently having been suffocated. The deep penetration of the Saudis’ surveillance and, especially, their hacking of private phones and computers, is brought to startling light; it even compromised Jeff Bezos. Especially impressive are the statements by United Nations special rapporteur Agnes Callamard in which she accused the Saudi government of “premeditated extrajudicial killing by high-level authorized agents.”

This is a documentary both tragic and poignant, not to mention maddening – in that only a few acolytes, rather than the perpetrators themselves – will pay for the crime committed in Istanbul. The evidence is all here for the world to see. AS

NOW ON BFI PLAYER | AMAZON PRIME | premiered at Glasow Film Festival 

 

The Capote Tapes (2020) VoD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Assassins (2020) VOD

Dir: Ryan White | US Doc 104’

In an extraordinary story of deceit and subterfuge Assassins travels from Pyongyang to Indonesia, Vietnam and Kuala Lumpur to investigate what really happened to Kim Jong-nam, the older half brother of the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un who lost his life nearly fours years ago.

This story of a public murder, filmed in the grainy footage of CCTV at Kuala Lumpur International airport on 13.2.2017 is as bizarre as it is mysterious. American director/writer Ryan White (Ask Dr Ruth) has chronicled the murder case and the ensuing trial, the upshot is no   cause celebre but a very human story, involved a calculating dictator and two ordinary women.

Photos show a middle-aged man in the airport hall, suddenly being attacked by two young women seemingly rubbing some substance into his eyes before running off, openly looking at the CCTV monitors. The man stumbles on and is taken away by airport security, the two women taking separate taxis back to the city. The victim was Kim Jong-nam. He would die twenty minutes after having been smeared with the deadly nerve gas agent VX. The two women are identified as Vietnamese Doan Thi Huong (28) and Indonesian Siti Aisyah (25), who would soon be arrested for the murder, facing a trial and a certain death sentence by hanging, if found guilty.

Kim Jong-nam (*1971), the oldest son of former North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il, was seen as his eventual successor. But after a scandal regarding his visit to Disneyland Tokyo in 2001, his brother Jong-un took over the regime after the death of his father. Kim Jong-nam, who had renounced any participation in the government of his country, had survived at least two assassination attempts, one at Ferihegy airport in Budapest in 2009, another one in 2012.

Both women “assassins” came from a rural background, where the director visited their distraught parents. Doan had moved to the capital Hanoi, went to college and moved in search of fame to Kuala Lumpur, wanting to become an actress. Siti’s CV is much more dramatic: she had worked in a clothing factory in Jakarta, married the boss and had a daughter at age seventeen, which she lost to her husband after a divorce custody battle. She became a sex worker, still dreaming of fame. Both met a chauffeur called John who promised the women easy work: Video pranks, reminiscent of the “Jackass” trilogy. The payment of nearly 100 US Dollar was good, and preferable to sex work. What happened next is recounted by journalists Hadi Azmir (Bloomberg), and Anna Fifeld, chief of the ‘Washington Post’ in their Bejing office. The operation was masterminded by Mr Y, also known as Hanamori, and a chemist Ri Jong Chol, as well as the Godfather OJong-Gil, all members of the North Koran Secret Service. An airport employee Kim Uk Il was also part of the deadly plot, all operatives got away to North Korea, leaving the two women to fight for themselves.

Their mobiles did not contain any links to North Korea, just rather sad accounts of video pranks which were anything but professional. But the Malaysian government was only too happy to have found two scapegoats who fitted the bill. The trail began on 2.10.2017. The court judge was clearly biased, and Siti and Doan feared for their lives, but what happens next is hardly outlandish but certainly emotionally overwhelming.

DoP John Benam’s camera adds to the tension fly-on-wall camerawork, the ‘Talking-Heads’ often reduced by voice-overs. Although the outcome is positive it could have been quite the opposite. What is shocking is the audacity of the North Korean agents who blithely set people up for the death penalty, with scant regard for their human rights. “They treated us as if we were nothing” comments Siti, in a fitting last word. AS

VOD NOW AT WATCH.DOGWOOF.COM

 

Promising Young Woman (2020) Oscar for Best Script 2021

Dir/Wri: Emerald Fennell | Cast: Main cast: Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Alison Brie, Jennifer Coolidge, Laverne Cox, Connie Britton, Clancy Brown | US. Psychological Comedy Drama 113min

Killing Eve’s Emerald Fennell is behind this sardonic female revenge flic but the firepower comes courtesy of Carey Mulligan. Obviously the writing is spot on in its feminine guile and intelligence but Mulligan takes it a notch even further adding gutsy gravitas to her outwardly ditzy blond lead.

She plays 30 year old part time coffee barista Cassandra who seems to have her sh*t together despite being half-cut most of the time. Very much like the sparky heroine of Fleabag she loves to give the appearance of being dumb but is actually highly shrewd and very much the mistress of the putdown, if ever the was one, toying with her male suitors while actually being bored rigid by their facile advances.

The self-determining Cassie is very much her own person, with a cast iron sense of self and considerable aplomb. She is also extremely good-looking in a wholesome self-assured way, playing her parents off against one another when they try to infantilised their ‘baby’ only daughter.

So what starts as a putative female revenge story soon develops into something much more interesting and amusing, a whip-smart psycho comedy that never takes itself too seriously, and never gets overly kooky in the US mumblecore style. The tonal shifts are brilliantly managed. The first sees the film darken in a worrying way about half and hour into the action when we learn Cassie once held a promising career as a doctor before a mysterious event derailed her future, and involving a girl called Nina. When she meets up with an old schoolfriend who regales her with news of their former classmates.

Fennell accompanies this switch in gear with a sinister soundscape that sees Cassie trawling tight-lipped through her social media to track down one Madison (Brie). The following day the two ‘do lunch’ and the supercilious back-biting flows: “Do you have kids?…you’ll get there…” simpers Madison. “Guys say they want a feminist in College ‘cos they’ve heard that they do the best anal. But at the end of the day they all want a ‘good girl’.” This is the American equivalent of BBC’s Fleabag but there’s an unsettling underbelly to the scenario, and an ongoing narrative with a sinister undertow. We know all along that Cassie’s no ‘nice girl’ but she soon shapes up to be seriously vindictive as the storyline develops, and Mulligan is absolutely phenomenal, bringing considerable weight to the part, which shows her in an entirely new light. We also become emotionally invested in her character.

And Cassie exacts revenge – not for herself, but on behalf of her schoolfriend  Nina who was violently gang-raped, one guy going on to a career as a US Supreme Court Justice, Brett Kavanaugh. And the way she does it is chilling and highly amusing, bringing the woman who facilitated his passage into the law to her senses. An incident with a pick-up track is scored by Wagner’s darkly epic piece “Liebestod” from Tristan and Isolde. Next up is Alfred Molina who gives a convincing cameo plays as another legal miscreant, and gets off by being appealing sincere. Meanwhile an incipient romance bubbles along with Bo Burnham’s medical doc Ryan. This has its tender and meaningful moments in a stop, as they two try to work out how to get it on. And once again the tone successfully morphs, this time into a winning candy-coloured romcom sequence illustrating the transformative power of love and understanding.

But at this stage we are only just warming up to the story, as Ryan gets his knees under the family table chez Stanley (Brown) and Susan (Coolidge), Cassie’s parents. The Nina story develops into a serious case of sexual misconduct of the #MeToo kind, and Ryan is deeply implicated. And Cassie is not going to let him get away with it, unable to move on with her own life and caught in a cycle of retribution. Once again Fennell accompanies her change of tone with another screeching soundscape.

But then the mood makes a terrifying volte-face, as Cassie’s plans to revenge Nina come off the rails, and she finds herself fighting for her life in a shocking finale, as Fennell pulls more tricks out of the bag in her twisted tale that sees Cassie getting the last laugh in this impressive tonal hotchpotch that is tragic for everyone concerned. MT

OSCAR winner for Best Script | BAFTA WINNER | Most Promising British Film 2021 | 

 

Curfew (2020)

Dir.: Amir Ramses; Cast: Elham Shahin, Amina Khalil, Ahmed Magdy, Kamel El Basha; Egypt 2020, 96 min.

In this impressive domestic drama that won the main prize at this year’s Cairo Film Festival, Egyptian writer/director Amir Ramses takes on one of the biggest taboos in the Arab world: paedophilia. Flashbacks relating to the crime are coy but nevertheless disturbing considering the perpetrator is a senior member of his family, Ramses finding just the right balance to get his message across without upsetting the censors. s great to see veteran actor Elham Shahin back on the screen again, after so long,

Set in the autumn of 2013, the story revolves around an extended family in Cairo. Faten (Shahin) leaves prison after twenty years, having served time for the murder of her husband. Rumours say it was a ‘crime passionnel’ over her love affair with Yahia (El Basha), who – still lives – in the same apartment block – but the real motive has never surfaced.

Meanwhile, her embittered daughter Layla (Khalil) in waiting for her at the prison entrance with her husband Hassan (Magdy), a doctor in the local hospital. Layla has only visited her mother once in prison and is deeply resentful about her taking her father away from her. A local curfew makes it impossible for the former teacher to escape to her home in the country but she has her granddaughter Donia for company, and she also reconnects with Selma, Hassan’s niece. But Donia and Faten cross the line and reveal an unpalatable secret with tragic repercussions for all concerned.

Hassan is shown as an example of a progressive Arab man, Ramses  criticising working conditions for women: the nurses have only one way of promotion: a recommendation of a doctor – for which they have to pay with sex. His decision to stage most of the drama in domestic environments gives the feature an Ozuesque quality in its unity of space and time. The Curfew avoids sentimentality and dramatic overkill, finding a way to raise the profile of a society repressed by a cult of poisoned masculinity, camouflaging itself as religion. AS

THE CURFEW WON THE CAIRO FILM FESTIVAL‘s Golden Pyramid Award, along with BEST ACTRESS for Ilham Shaheen 2020

Nulle Trace (No Trace) Slam Dance Festival 2021

Dir.: Simon Lavoie; Cast: Nathalie Doummar, Monique Gosselin; Canada 2020, 103 min.

Canadian writer/director Simon Lavoie borrows heavily from Bergman and Tarkovsky for this sketchy story about civil war in an unknown country. Using odd formats, like a 11:8 ratio, Lavoie’s feature relies on the stunning black-and-white photography of his DoP Simran Dewan – but you cannot rely on images alone to carry a film, however enigmatic.

Filmed in Quebec, Canada No Trace opens with a four-minute close-up of rails, filmed from the moving handcar, which is owned by ‘N’ (Gosselin), who looks like a trapper from a Western. She later emerges a hardened people smuggler who is guiding Awa (Doummar) and her baby daughter. N is afraid the child’s crying might alarm the guards at the border. But all goes well, and Awa will eventually meet up with her husband. But N loses her vehicle – and soon – her way in the forest where she later meets Awa, who has ben raped. N also finds the body of Awa’s husband, and her daughter who has been burned on the sticks.

The two survivors are hostile, with Awa, a Muslim, constantly praying. Lavoie wisely leads leaves the final stretch of his feature open-ended  fitting for a film with such a flimsy narrative.

A heavy, menacing score underlines the tone of gloom and doom and the threatening atmosphere, the screen goes blank for a time without any explanation and sometimes garbled language replaces proper dialogue. Nulle Trace is dressed up as arthouse fare, the title ironically symbolic of the lack of artistic coherence. AS

NULLE TRACE OPENS SLAMDANCE FESTIVAL 2021 FEBRUARY 12-25 PARK CITY UTAH.

In Cold Blood (1967) DVD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ON DVD | REMASTERED COURTESY OF PARK CIRCUS FILMS.

 

Six films to look out for in 2021

2021 promises a bright new slate of films – here are six of this year’s most anticipated releases to get us through the next few months until the jabs bring freedom again. 

DEAR COMRADES | releases 15 January 2021 nationwide

Veteran Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky uncovers a little known episode of the Nikita Krushchev era – the Novocherkassk Massacre of June 1962 – in this elegant and restrained black and white feature filmed on academy ratio and starring his muse (and wife) Yuliya Vysotskaya. A follow-up to his last Venice offering – Sin – an imagined drama about Michelangelo – this is a more down to earth film but its refined gracefulness captures the gravitas of the incident with a lightness of touch and even a dash of sardonic humour. MT

TRUFFLE HUNTERS | releases 5 February 2021 nationwide

When it comes to the ancient art of truffle hunting dogs are worth their weight in gold, according to a new documentary that shows how man’s best friend is also a canny breadwinner. Truffles are prized delicacies in gastronomy. These ugly-looking tubers are part of the mushroom family but actually grow underground, and only dogs have the delicate skills to root them out. A single truffle can sell for thousands of euros. The sumptuously crafted doc plays out as a devotional tribute to these knobbly delicacies, elevating the earthy foodstuff into a food for the Gods in an appreciation for those who painstakingly dedicate their lives to tracking down the truffle and cherishing its storied gastronomic potential. MT

THE CAPOTE TAPES | releases 5 February nationwide

More from Truman Capote, this time in documentary form. A deep dive into the archives and fresh interviews, especially one with Kate Harrington who is introduced as Capote’s adopted daughter, (born to Capote’s “manager”) and who became his protege, living with him in Manhattan and learning the ways of New York society. The film explores the legendary writer’s fascination with this beau monde and then visits the many haunts where the good and the great hung out. An informative  companion piece to both Truman dramas: Capote (2005, with Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Infamous (2006, with Toby Jones). MT


ANOTHER ROUND | releases on 5 February 2021 nationwide

Vinterberg’s latest is a freewheeling comedy that trades on false bonhomie to reveal the hollow desperation at its core. Set in affluent semi-rural Denmark, the Mads Mikkelsen starrer has a wise and worthwhile 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. The focus is a close-knit circle of friends united by their common ground as teachers in the local school. The drama ponders a reliance on alcohol and drugs in a bid to find meaning in comfortable but aimless lives. MT

PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN | 12 February 2021

Killing Eve’s Emerald Fennell is behind this sardonic female revenge flic but the firepower comes courtesy of Carey Mulligan. The writing is spot on in its feminine guile and intelligence but Mulligan takes it a notch even further adding gutsy gravitas to her outwardly ditzy blond lead. She plays 30 year old part time coffee barista Cassandra who seems to have her sh*t together despite being half-cut most of the time: what is her secret?. Much like the sparky heroine of Fleabag, Cassie is a mistress of the putdown, toying with her male suitors while being bored rigid by their facile advances. But there’s vulnerability too behind her sassy facade – and we soon find out why in the film’s tragic volte face. MT

APPLES |  releases 19 March 2021 nationwide

When it comes to films about pandemics nothing could be more appropriate than this lucid and gently-crafted Weird Wave debut drama from Greek director Christos Nikou, not to say that Apples isn’s subversive in a charming way.  The idea came to Nikou long before the coronavirus crisis outbreak and yet it perfectly captures the disarming effects of its character’s gradual meltdown. Aris (Aris Servetalis) becomes a victim of amnesia that slowly spreads through his local community and beyond. An interesting reflection on the creeping hysteria that has forced us into ‘limited personality syndrome’ over the past 6 months, all set to Alexander Voulgaris’ magical soundscape. MT

Konchalovsky and Vysotskaya | copyright BSS/AFP, Venice

SIX FILMS TO LOOK OUT FOR | January – March 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Christmas Tale (2008) Un Conte De Noel ***

Director: Arnaud Desplechin | Cast: Catherine Denueve, Mathieu Amalric, Anne Consigny, Melvil Poupard, Chiara Mastroianni Cert | 150 mins

Don’t’ expect cosy carols round the tree and a starry-eyed Christmas get-together. But if you’re up for a warts-an-all story of family dysfunction then this one’s for you. Catherine Deneuve is the cool matriarch Junon, inviting the family back for the holidays. But it’s not because she wants them all home. The reason is far more sinister and more selfish.

Smoking her way elegantly through this lengthy family saga Deneuve is a perfect picture of emotional detachment – and possibly the key to why her children are all so screwed up. The fun and games lie in guessing who is the most devoted of her breed, and she plays them all off against each other in ways that will be painfully obvious. Family members gradually bring their lives, loves and secrets to the party in rain-soaked Roubaix. Eldest son Henri (Matthiew Almaric) is a bankrupt alcoholic who has fallen out with his playwrite sister, Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), a depressive with a troubled son and an unreliable husband. Their younger brother Ivan and his seductive wife Sylvie (Chiara Mastroianni) have two challenging boys but seems content until we discover her crush on cousin Simon who secretly lusts after her too and is wasting his life as a painter.

Quite a normal family get together then. Jean-Paul Roussillon is the wise old pater familias Abel, who dotes on them all and offers plenty of advice, lashings of red wine and the odd ‘coup de champagne’ in this well-observed and enjoyable drama that possibly echoes most people’s family Christmas at the end of the day. MT

NOW ON PRIME VIDEO

City Hall (2020) ****

Dir.: Fred Wiseman; Documentary; USA 2020, 272 min.

Fred Wiseman, who turned ninety this year, proves he is still a force to be reckoned with directing, writing and editing his latest – 45th – feature documentary that sees him back in his birthplace of Boston, where he started his career with Titicut Follies in 1967, a Mental Hospital for the Criminal Insane, just outside the city limits.

City Hall explores another Boston institution whose mayor Marty Walsh is the first major protagonist in any Wiseman feature. Walsh is very much an antipodean of the current 45th president of the USA, whose supporters Wiseman had portrayed recently in Monrovia, Indiana. City Hall is in the same vein as Ex Libris: The New York Public Library, another functioning body of civic administration. City Hall is not as dramatic as Near Death (about Boston’s Beth Israel Hospital), it is optimistic in tone, unlike many  Law and Order (1969) or Welfare (1975) which were openly derisive: Wiseman clearly believes in the power of these institutions (unlike the current president), but he is unclear as to how this power is wielded and who benefits in the end.

In City Hall, he shows both sides of the coin in micocosm: there is the story of two Bostonians arriving at the Town Hall to complain about their parking tickets, expecting to be sent packing – but pleasantly surprised when their complaints are upheld. But there’s also the other side of the coin: at a forum where local government members discuss racial bias relating to the allocation of contracts among Boston businesses, a minority business man is appalled at the decision, and a study is needed to confirm this.

There is humour and passion – much more so than in Wiseman recent outings: a joyful registry office wedding ceremony between two women is really moving, Wiseman overcoming his cynicism of his early fare, and demonstrating that ordinary people can make a difference. On a funny note, when Walsh gives a speech at the Greater Boston Food Bank about general levels of insecurity, the Boston ‘Red Sox’ mascot Wally (the team had just won the Baseball World Series of 2018) sneaks up behind the mayor, presenting his green Monster identity, a rather overfed Wally.

Not that this newfound optimism is universal: In a long, nearly twenty-minute sequence, the proprietors of a planned Marijuana Dispensary in Dorchester, one of the poorest parts of the city, are confronted by residents who show open mistrust at the developers’ promises. Obviously, this business would attract unsavoury elements of society, and since one of the main shopping centres is nearby, the elderly and vulnerable are deeply concerned and unconvinced by the Dispensary representatives’ promises of new jobs – marijuana growing is one opening.

There is one wonderful shot of a trash compactor crushing everything from matrasses to a gas barbecue installation. One can imagine Wiseman looking at this scene with the wonderment of a little boy. On the other hand, a building inspector takes a tour of a condominium under construction in a neighbourhood on its way to gentrification. Looking out of the window, and admiring the panorama of the impressive waterfront, he admits that the wonderful view will soon be obscured by the construction of other condos.

As always, Wiseman excels in the editing room, so John Davey’s images are in just the right places to tell his story. When not being entertained by the city hall goings on, we can contemplate the magnificent panoramas of a city which blends the traditional brown-stone with glass and steel, cutting edge design with poverty row, in the vast melting pot that is Boston. City Hall symbolises all the the social contradictions in Maryland’s capital which are slowly healed by the mayor and his team. AS

IN CONSIDERATION | BEST DOCUMENTARY at the GOTHAM AWARDS January 2021 | Venice Film Festival 2020

 

Dick Johnson is Dead (2020) **

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Il Mio Corpo (2020) ****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dir: Spike Lee | US Doc, 105′

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

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

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

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

IN CINEMAS FROM MONDAY 14 DECEMBER 2020

Personal Shopper (2016) **** Bfi player

Director: Olivier Assayas

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

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

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

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

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

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

ON Bfi Player | Best Director for Olivier Assayas Cannes 2016

The Mole Agent (2020)

Dir|Wri: Maite Alberdi | Chile, 89′

An 83 year old widower goes undercover in a Chilean nursing home in Maite Alberdi’s topical documentary that looks into neglect in the care system. But what he discovers is something quite different.

Rather like Distant Constellation  another recent doc set in a nursing home, the tone here is upbeat and tongue is cheek, primped by a rather suggestive score, but the message is real and very familiar. Alberdi’s quietly observed study gradually develops into a cumulatively moving and important statement about the infantilisation, abuse and loss of dignity suffered by the elderly in nursing homes.

Reports of care home abuse are well-documented all over Europe. But in Chile, the daughter of one resident decides to takes suspicions of her mother’s maltreatment and theft into her own hands hiring a private detective agency to look into the matter. Recently widowed Sergio, 83, gets the job to spend three months in the home as an undercover mole reporting back to the client, via his employer, the suavely dapper Romulo. Apart from mastering the new technology involved: using FaceTime and recording videos – the poor man is still grieving the recent loss of his own wife, and finds the romantic onslaught – even an offer of marriage – from several lonely widows quite difficult to deal with. Meanwhile he struggles with an investigation into ‘suspicious’ residents who are suffering memory loss, loneliness and abandonment by their own families. To make matters worse, his ‘target’ – the resident he has to monitor – is an unsociable woman who has no interest in talking to him at all.

Alberdi also has a difficult task on her hands and one that she manages with great sensitively, skill and imagination in a film that widens its concerns from the outset turning from an enquiry into an illuminating expose that asks more questions than originally intended. Clearly the question uppermost in our minds is the one Sergio has come to investigate. But it’s unlikely that anything untoward would happen in the presence of a film crew. Instead the film turns into a thoughtful observation of institutional life inside a close knit community. The majority of the residents are women who cling to their Christian faith and mourn the loss of their homes, their independence and their families, who rarely visit. Surrounded by people they don’t necessarily want to be with, all they have left are photos and memories.

Sergio is under pressure to report back to Romulo on the results of his snooping which is more or less inconclusive, and don’t reflect back well on Romulo’s client. What Sergio eventually tells him iwon’t come as a big surprise to anyone. MT

WINNER – BEST EUROPEAN FILM – SAN SEBASTIAN FILM FESTIVAL 2020 | THE MOLE AGENT is Chile’s submission in the International Oscars category.

NOW ON BBC 2 | ON DEMAND

 

A Christmas Carol (2020) ***

Dir: Jacqui and David Morris | With: Carey Mulligan, Martin Freeman, Simon Russell Beale, Daniel Kaluuya, Leslie Caron, Sian Philips, Andy Serkis | Fantasy Drama | UK

Carey Mulligan, Leslie Caron and Simon Russell Beale are the stars of this radical new retelling of the Christmas mystery that blends animation, dance, theatre and film into a dazzling fantasy reimagining that touches on the social realist aspects of deprivation and depravity along with the magical power of redemption that brings light to Charles Dickens’ Victorian classic A Christmas Carol with its best known characters Scrooge and Tiny Tim.

This satire on capitalism play within a film begins in the dark days leading up to an 1860s Christmas when a large Victorian family is preparing for their annual home performance with a selection of toys and a cardboard stage. As Grandma (Sian Phillips) begins to read the show takes off, each character performed by an actor who also dances. Russell Beale is Mr Scrooge has a young and old embodiment, Daniel Kaluuya is the voice of Mikey Boateng’s all dancing Ghost of Christmas. Despite the dour social commentary it couldn’t be more glitzy and that’s why it feels like the perfect cheer to bring this dreadful year to a close. MT

NOW IN CINEMAS NATIONWIDE

A Christmas Carol FILM 

 

Falling (2020) ***

Dir/Wri: Viggo Mortensen | Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Lance Henriksen, Laura Linney, Sverrir Gudnason, | US Drama, 112′

In his first foray into filmmaking Viggo Mortensen writes and also stars in this insightful, semi-autobiographical story of family dysfunction. It sees an irascible old farmer (a feisty Lance Henrikson) gradually losing his grip to dementia as his bewildered gay son grapples for largely unwanted control of the family.

The subject of dementia is so increasingly widespread nowadays it almost needs a genre of its own. And as such this could have been more humorous in the style of Bruce Dern’s Nebraska, or even poetic and whimsical like Miroslav Mandic’s recent arthouse gem Sanremo, but that’s not the point. Falling is a well-made if sombre family drama exploring the fallout of this dread disease, and a decent debut for this seasoned actor. MT

NOW ON RELEASE NATIONWIDE

Evolution (2015) **** MUBI

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

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

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

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

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

NOW ON MUBI

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

                                

A Christmas Carol (2020) ***

Dir: Jacqui and David Morris | With: Carey Mulligan, Martin Freeman, Simon Russell Beale, Daniel Kaluuya, Leslie Caron, Sian Philips, Andy Serkis | Fantasy Drama | UK

Carey Mulligan, Leslie Caron and Simon Russell Beale are the stars of this radical new retelling of the Christmas mystery that blends animation, dance, theatre and film into a dazzling fantasy reimagining that touches on the social realist aspects of deprivation and depravity along with the magical power of redemption that brings light to Charles Dickens’ Victorian classic A Christmas Carol with its best known characters Scrooge and Tiny Tim.

This satire on capitalism play within a film begins in the dark days leading up to an 1860s Christmas when a large Victorian family is preparing for their annual home performance with a selection of toys and a cardboard stage. As Grandma (Sian Phillips) begins to read the show takes off, each character performed by an actor who also dances. Russell Beale is Mr Scrooge has a young and old embodiment, Daniel Kaluuya is the voice of Mikey Boateng’s all dancing Ghost of Christmas. Despite the dour social commentary it couldn’t be more glitzy and that’s why it feels like the perfect cheer to bring this dreadful year to a close. MT

NOW IN CINEMAS NATIONWIDE

A Christmas Carol FILM 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOW ON BBCiplayer

Le Trou (1960) **** Prime video

Dir: Jacques Becker | Michel Constantin, Jean Keraudy, Philippe Leroy, Raymond Meunier, Marc Michel | French Thriller 131′

It was bold indeed of Jacques Becker to make another prison escape film so soon after Robert Bresson had created the genre’s masterpiece, Un condamné à mort s’est échappé (1956); but the gamble paid off handsomely.

Based on a book by Jose Giovanni and adapted by the writer, along with Becker and Romanian-born Jean Aurel, the plot is simple: four long-serving inmates planning an elaborate escape cautiously induct fresh blood into their scheme in the shape of a short-term detainee from another cell-block. Will he have the same commitment in his desire to escape?.

Like Robert Rossen’s Lilith (1964), La Trou seen in isolation looks more like the debut of an exciting new talent than the valediction of a veteran in his fifties about to be taken before his time. Released shortly after Becker had died of a heart attack aged just 53, when confronted with such a fresh and modern-looking piece of filmmaking one is vexed by the question of where Becker would have gone next, which we shall never know.

The film remains unusual for its lack of a music score (composer Philippe Arthuys, significantly, is actually credited at the end with ‘Illustration sonore’), and I can even forgive this film for setting a deplorable precedent by being possibly the first to have no credits at the start; they all come at the end, to the accompaniment of a simple piano arrangement of Rubinstein’s ‘Melody in F’ which may have been intended as discrete mockery on Becker’s part of the grandiose use of Mozart’s ‘Mass in C Minor’ at the conclusion of Bresson’s film. DoP Ghislain Cloquet (who was married to Becker’s script-editor daughter, Sophie) achieves tremendous rhythm with his kinetic black and white camerawork despite the claustrophobic and squalid prison confines. Jean Keraudy, a veteran of the original escape, segues smoothly into the uniformly excellent cast; while among the staff, Jean-Paul Coquelin has a beguiling air of dry good humour in his scenes as the cell block lieutenant. Richard Chatten

NOW ON PRIME VIDEO

 

 

Rain (2020) Tallinn Black Nights Festival

Dir/Wri: Janno Jurgens | Cast: Aleksi Beijajev, Marcus Borkmann, Meelo Eliisabet Kriisa, Laine Magi, Indrek Ojari, Magdalena Poplawska | Estonia, Drama

Hanging on in quiet desperation is the Estonian Way…. 

In his astonishing first film that premiered at Tallinn Black Nights, Janno Jurgens opts for a quirky dark comedy approach to exploring complex male dynamics in the wide open lushness of a rainswept Estonian backwater in summer and through to an icebound wintertime. This is essentially a love/hate buddy movie that derives tremendous energy from its widescreen settings, and DoP Erik Pollumaa creates a great sense of place, breathing life into the intense domestic scenes which are imaginative, limpid and gracefully framed despite the quiet hopelessness they often portray.

Taking a freewheeling approach to the storyline Jurgens observes his – largely monosyllabic – family members as they gradually develop, getting to know one another again in a film that relies on its potent atmosphere, wide-screen spaces and breezy occasional score – rather than dialogue-  to lead us into an engaging study of masculinity seen from the perspective of a thoughtful pre-teen boy who seems the most mature and grounded of his male family members, possessing a gentle serenity and self-possession despite his tender years. 12 year old Ats (an impressive debut for Borkmann) lives with his morose and conservative ageing father and willowy blond mother Merlin (Kriisa is a dead ringer for Kati Outinnen). His much older brother Rain (Ojari) has finally come home, as a last resort, after wandering around and presumably failing to find a workable life of his own. Although he’s clearly a bog-standard loser, he seems to exert a strange fascination for Ats, although his days are spent mooning aimlessly around until the arrival of Aleksandra (Poplawska) gives him a sense of gravitas. Meanwhile Merlin also has a secret up her sleeve. Jurgens clearly sees his  female characters as liberated, stabilising influences over their rather brutish male counterparts. And Ats is clearly learning fast while remaining bemused at some of the bizarre adult behaviour he has to countenance: a violent tiff between his father and brother, and overt sexual signals from his friend’s older sister.

In this quiet corner of Estonia society is clearly changing and there is a clear sense of woe and a confusion for these men who are making an uneasy transition from the gilded past, where they were more cognisant and comfortable with their roles, and an uncertain future. But there are often moments of sublime happiness t00, such as Rain’s drive along the beach promenade with Aleksandra, and Merlin’s dance in the factory.

Rain continues to be at odds with his father, but Ats finds his elder brother an inspiring role model as he ponders the mysteries of becoming a man himself, experiencing that love can be transformative for the male psyche. This is a quirky and memorable drama that gets an emotional kick from its silent sequences and introspective characters given considerable depth by a strong and sensitive cast showing how men often struggle with complex emotions they can’t always express. MT

RAIN | TALLINN BLACK NIGHTS 2020

Dead of Night (1945)

Dir: Alberto Cavalcanti, Basil Dearden, Robert Hamer, Charles Crichton | Cast: Mervyn Johns, Michael Redgrave, Roland Culver, Google Withers, Mary Merrall, Frederick Valk | UK Horror 113′

The biggest mystery connected with Dead of Night is why the studio never made another film like it (Basil Dearden had recently made the literally haunting wartime fantasy The Halfway House; but apart from the multi-story film Train of Events and the spooky anecdote The Night My Number Came Up that was it).

Made by Ealing Studios with individual segments directed by Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden and Robert Hamer, the drama centres on architect Walter Craig (Johns) who has arrived at a country house party in Kent to offer the owner, Elliot Foley (Culver), renovation advice. Craig soon realises he has seen the guests in a recurring dream despite never having met any of them, and senses impending doom as his half-remembered recurring nightmare turns to reality. The guests encourage him to stay as they take turns telling their own supernatural tales.

My personal favourite episode is Robert Hamer’s The Haunted Mirror (I found myself avoiding mirrors for a while after my mother died in case I saw her in them); while Hitchcock plainly lifted the final close-up of Michael Redgrave that concludes the ventriloquist’s dummy episode for the end of Psycho.

Unlike most commentators I rather like the episode about the golfers; especially as it’s always a pleasure to see Basil Radford and Naughton Wayne whatever they’re in. I agree however with Carlos Clarens, who dismissed the ‘official’ ending as “a final farandole which mixed all the stories together”; but consider the repetition of the opening sequence under the closing credits inspired. Since Walter Craig states earlier on that he’s never told anybody else about his dream, the seldom remarked upon comment by his wife that closes the film (underscored by Craig’s disconcertingly slowed-down reaction shot as he draws on a cigarette) gives the lie to that claim, and more than forty years after I first saw it I still haven’t figured out what it’s implications are…©Richard Chatten

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

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

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

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

CÉSAR 2015 WINNER – BEST DOCUMENTARY | NOW ON MUBI 

News of the World (2020) ***

Dir: Paul Greengrass| Cast: Tom Hanks, Elizabeth Marvel, Ray McKinnon, Helena Zengel | US Drama 114′

The American Civil War has come to a close and in Texas a virulent epidemic is sweeping through the panhandle. Tom Hanks and German newcomer Helena Zengel star as two lost souls drawn together in the aftermath of the tragedy, this once happened 150 years ago but Greengrass gives a contemporary feel with its migrant central characters.

Set on the wide open panoramas of the Southern desert yet intimate in its personal story of survival, the theme of storytelling is at the heart of this ambitious Western adventure, both for Greengrass and his lead, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd. The soldier has seen active service during the war but several years later has turned to ‘newscasting’ – making a crust out of telling spirited, often didactic stories that connect his audiences with the wider world. As he makes his way across the vast desert landscape, Hanks is believable and appealing as the strong and benign warrior.

Piqued with lively action sequences, News of the World is contemplative rather than swashbuckling but impressive nevertheless, wearing its burnished period detail on a war-torn sleeve, this is a well-mounted and poetic frontier adventure, and a departure from the director’s usual slick modern thrillers such as The Bourne Ultimatum and United 93. 

Greengrass quickly establishes his statesman-like hero’s credentials in the opening scenes, a respectable horseman now down on his luck but making the best in his reduced circumstances, he still cuts dash spinning his newsy yarns with languorous dignity during long evenings in candlelit hostelries. One topical item relates to the opening of a new railway line from the Kansas border all the way to Galveston, that was the Pacific Railway’s first foray across Indian reservations.

Essentially a two-hander though with the occasional side-lining vignette, the slow-burning storyline carries a distinct whiff of cultural diversity, the Captain journeying through this lawless territory with a blond 10 year-old he meets while hitching up his waggon in the frontier town of Wichita Falls. And this relationship sets the reflective tone of their odyssey; he is mentor, protector and father-figure, a role Hanks pulls off with a respectable swagger, though the two lack a noticeable chemistry: Johanna is sullen, unreachable, but turns out to be a German orphan raised by a Native American tribe. Hanks finds himself tasked with relaying her to blood relatives in another part of Texas, against her will.

Writing with Bafta-award winner Luke Davies, Greengrass bases his script on Paulette Jiles’ 2016 bestseller that centres on two unlikely companions who gradually develop a mutual bond. Shooting took place in the magnificent scenery of New Mexico by Dariusz Wolski, his jerky intense handheld ‘urban’ scenes contrasting with the feral beauty of big desert countryside where the two encounter all kinds of surprises during their eventful escapade.

It soon emerges that Johanna is subject to some kind of kidnapping and is bound for San Antonio, so Kidd’s wings are clipped by the presence of the minor, who becomes his responsibility in the hostile terrain. The child has been let down by so many adults she proves unruly although vulnerable and lost in this turbulent country where settlers are at war with Native Indians and vice versa. And this milieu of conflict and danger provides a heady atmosphere to the couple’s journey. One episode sees their carriage involved in a terrible accident when the horse loses control over a mountainside. Another involves an ugly skirmish with some Confederate former soldiers (Covino, James and Lilley) who try to ‘buy’ the little girl, and have to be fended off. Johanna’s upbringing in Indian culture brings a spiritual and folkloric element to the Western adventure showing Hanks at his best in a gritty role of guardian for this tough but also thoughtful kid in a surprisingly lyrical piece of Americana. MT

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Wonder Woman 1984 (2020) ***

Dir: Patty Jenkins | Gal Gadot, Kirsten Wiig, Pedro Pascal, Chris Pine | US Action Drama, 151′

Women are the superheroes of this Amazonian flight of fantasy that soon crashes down to earth in an over-bloated final hour. As blockbusters go Wonder Woman 84 is tremendous fun, swinging us back to the Eighties in a blousy, big haired way, and with a heroine who is clever, kind, gorgeous, and vulnerable – but not a fool for love, as we soon discover.

That’s Gal Gadot in the title role of Diana Prince. Since her last appearance in the 2017 original there are new tricks up her sleeve: the ability to make mincemeat out of cheesy dialogue, and add emotional ballast to the splashy set pieces that see her young self defying gravity as the pint size heroine (Lilly Aspell) in the film’s opening sequence. Learning life’s lessons early, she cheats and gets a ticking off from her mother Hippolyta (Nielsen) “No hero is born from lies”. All well and good, so far.

This sequel to brilliant original epic is set in greedy mid-1980s America. This time around, there’s a plot device involving a mysterious crystal that will grant a single wish to its possessor, but that works both ways too – life’s never easy, even for wonder women.

Diana now finds herself gainly employed at the Washington’s Smithsonian where her most cherished wish is the return of the – now dead – love of her life  – Steve (Pine), although the chemistry has certainly fizzled out of that affair. She also meets the geeky be-spectacled Barbara (a fab Kirsten Wiig), who is a dashing blond beneath her bookish exterior. And must contend with a power-crazy profligate Maxwell (Pascal) an overblown twat looking to dominate the world wearing a wig and false teeth (not to mention ‘too much info’ trousers). Naturally good triumphs over evil in a happy ending, but one which ends up confused, strung out, and far too excited to keep us entertained for two and a half hours. . MT

Wonder Woman 1984 is now on release

Ivana the Terrible (2019) Locarno

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

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

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

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

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

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The Glass Cage (1964) ***

Dir: Antonio Santean | Wri: John Hoyt | Cast: Arlene Martel, John Hoyt, Elisha Cook Jr, Bob Kelljan, King Moody | Henry Darrow | US Thriller

Off-beat to put it mildly, this location-shot murder mystery and psycho-drama was co-written and co-produced by veteran actor John Hoyt, who saw to it that the tiny budget was well employed while enjoying himself as a seasoned cop working the mean streets of early Sixties L.A. It sees two detectives investigating the murder of a local businessman by a mysterious woman.

If you were working on a budget as low as this bizarre cross of William Castle and early Kubrick you could probably do pretty much what you wanted as long as you didn’t go over schedule, made sure there was film in the camera and didn’t upset the censor. Although not exactly good it’s certainly strange enough to linger in the memory and gives a juicy role to TV actress Arlene Martel (billed as ‘Arlene Sax’), best remembered for the very different role of Spock’s Vulcan bride T’Pring in the classic Star Trek episode ‘Amok Time’. The film’s biggest liability is actually a noisy music score.

Slight spoil alert: It also has the bonus of Elisha Cook as the heroine’s father; although despite being billed fourth he appears so fleetingly it feels as it he was just visiting the set while they were filming and offered a walk on (or – since he walks with a stick – a hobble on). We’re told he’s an evangelist but sadly don’t see him in the pulpit. Richard Chatten.

 

 

 

The Girl on a Motorcycle (1968) ****

Dir: Jack Cardiff | Wri: Ronald Duncan, Andre Pieyre de Mandiargues (Novel), Gillian Freeman| Cast: Marianne Faithfull, Alan Delon, Marius Goring, Catherine Jourdan, Jean Leduc, Jacques Marin, Andre Maranne | Drama, 91′

“Take Me to Him, My Black Pimp!”

A public safety film about the correct way to ride pillion masquerading as groovy sixties psychedelia. Based on Andre Pieyre De Mandiargues’ 1963 novel; at least the film version of Fifty Shades of Gray spared us the heroine’s inane interior monologues. The premise was simple: a married woman leaves her husband and zooms off on her motorcycle to see her lover.

It has been said that bad directors become mere photographers, and even Britain’s pre-eminent Technicolor cameraman Jack Cardiff never remotely approached, as a director, the heights he regularly achieved with his lighting. And you’d have thought he’d have have known better than all those pans and zooms (not to mention that lousy process work).

Anyone who liked the title probably wasn’t disappointed with the film; although, like Vertigo, the film that ultimately emerged was very different from that originally envisaged, because the intended female lead was rendered incapable of starring by the time the project eventually went into production. Susan Denberg, the actress originally cast (after an impressive but dubbed performance in Frankenstein Created Woman), succumbed to drug addiction. Her replacement, Marianne Faithfull, was of course chosen for her beauty as well as her celebrity rather than her ability to act (or to ride a motorbike; wearing a silly helmet that never looked as if it offered much protection), with sadly predictable results. Richard Chatten.

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Son of Sofia (2019) **** Artekino Festival

Dir: Elina Psikou | Victor Khomut, Valery Tcheplanowa, Thanasis Papageorgiou | Greece, Drama 113′

A Russian boy escapes into a world of fantasy when forced to relocate thousands of miles away from his familiar culture and homeland.

Writer-Director Elina Psikou’s sophomore feature Son of Sofia brings to mind another film about childhood trauma Valley of Shadows (2017). Both explore the coming-of-age of two young boys who have lost their father figures and are going through the trauma of early adolescence in unfamiliar territory. In this case Misha arrives in Greece after several years away from his mother. He is barely 11. The Olympic Games are in full swing but another, much more momentous event clouds his sense of gleeful anticipation – a strange man on the scene, and suddenly the threat of rejection once again beckons, along with the scorching heat of Summer, as the odd trio try make the best of their new lives together in this doleful menage a trois.

In his debut role, Khomout perfectly captures the vulnerability of a young boy’s bitter disappointment, and it never seems to leave his tear-stained face. For her part, Sofia (Valery Tcheplanowais) is keen to make a fresh start with her ‘new’ family, greeting her son with one of the cuddly toys she makes for a living.  But however much she cares for her new partner, she cannot force Misha to feel the same way. Misha (Viktor Khomut) feels his initial relief at finding his mother again melt away as he retreats into a fantasy world in a powerfully atmospheric environment where the winds of change leave him out on a limb. Desperately clinging to his mother he is unable to move forward with any certainty and feels trapped in his own private hell in coming to terms with this new life, and potentially more heartache. The elderly man, purportedly his mother’s boss, Mr. Nikos (Thanasis Papageorgiou), soon turns out to be a rival for her affections, and a violent one into the bargain. An unusual but thoughtfully crafted story that generates a powerful sense of place and reconnects to the frightened child in all of us. MT

WINNER AT SARAJEVO CICAE | JURY AWARD TRIBECA 2017 | also now available free to watch at ARTE

 

 

 

The Sadist (1963) *** Prime Video

Dir/Wri: James Landis | Cast: Arch Hall Jr, Richard Alden, Marilyn Manning, Don Russell, Helen Horvey | US Horror 92′

The ingenuity applied by Samuel Colt to developing his first revolver in 1835 is once again abused when one of its descendants finds a way into the clammy little mitts of grimacing psychotic Arch Hall Jr.; automatically transforming him into the person who gives orders instead of taking them. (Unlike dashing young Martin Sheen in Terrence Malick’s Badlands ten years later, sneering, monobrowed Hall actually resembles the original spree killer Carl Starkweather upon whom both films are loosely based).

An innocent trip to Los Angeles for a Dodgers Game ends in a terrifying nightmare for three naive teachers who encountering car trouble, pull into an old wrecking yard where they are held at bay by a bloodthirsty psycho and his girl friend. The lunatic is none other than Hall’s Charlie Tibbs, (loosely based on serial killer Charles Starkweather), and his girlfriend Judy (Manning). Accompanied by a seething score the ensuing ordeal is a slow-burn trip to Hell that is slim on plot but fraught with atmosphere and nuanced performances – particularly from Hall – his goofy appearance adding a twist of dissonance to the unfolding terror.

Following in a long tradition that dates back at least as far as the hostage-taking drama The Petrified Forest, this nihilistic little exploitation film made in black & white for just $33,000 in two weeks, was ironically the first American feature film shot by Hungarian-born cameraman Vilmos Zsigmond (billed as ‘William’) who was later behind the camera in Deliverance, with which it has more in common than Malick’s dream-like fantasy. Richard Chatten. 

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A Shot in the Dark (1964)

Dir: Blake Edwards | Wri: Blake Edwards, Harry Kurnitz, Marcel Achard | Cast: Peter Sellers, Britt Ekland, George Sanders, Herbert Lom, Tracey Reed | US Comedy, 102′

At work most of my colleagues only vaguely knew who Peter Sellers was; usually responding with the faintest glimmer of recognition when I said he played Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther films. That A Shot in the Dark – filmed before The Pink Panther had even been released – was the only one starring Sellers not to have ‘Pink Panther’ in the title – it’s actually based on a 1960 farce by Marcel Achard called ‘L’Idiote’ which was a big hit on Broadway the following year with a young William Shatner in the role that became Inspector Clouseau – gives a clue as to why it’s so much funnier than the series that came much later.

The film’s long and tortuous production – the plug had already been pulled on an initial film version directed in 1962 by Anatole Litvak; while pre-release tinkering is evident from two editors being named in the credits and the brevity of the roles of well-known actors like Ann Lynn and Moira Redmond in the film itself – and the fact that Edwards swore (after it wrapped) that he would never work with Sellers again, would evidently make a fascinating book in it’s own right; and the two only reluctantly worked together again after both were starved into burying the hatchet after a long run of flops during the intervening ten years.

As for the film itself, the virtuoso pre-credits sequence outside the Ballon house demonstrates what a class act Edwards was in those days; while it has a script literate enough for George Sanders to invoke ‘Macbeth’. (The dancer, shown in close-up commenting in Spanish on her partner’s dancing in the flamenco club, is informing him that he is unique). And the scene in the car stuck in Parisian rush-hour traffic is more literally like a nightmare than anything even Hitchcock ever devised. Andrew Sarris approvingly observed that it “lurches from improbability to improbability without losing its comic balance”.

Both George Sanders and Herbert Lom (of course) are hilarious, the latter later becoming the real star of the series; and all the way down the cast list Sellers is surrounded by first-rate talent, all like Sellers himself (and later series regulars like Andre Maranne and Burt Kwouk) looking shockingly youthful. It’s also good to see Graham Stark playing straight man to Sellers for once.

Had Sellers died from the heart attack he suffered the following spring this would have made a wonderful swansong; instead his last completed film was The Fiendish Plot of Dr Fu Manchu. ©Richard Chatten

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The Letter (1940) **** Prime Video

Dir: William Wyler | Wri: Howard Koch | Cast: Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, James Stephenson, Frieda Inescor, Gale Sondergaard, Bruce Lester | US Drama, 95’

Geoffrey Hammond learns the hard way in this mesmerising classic Hollywood melodrama that you end a relationship with Bette Davis at your peril. Although Bette Davis and Herbert Marshall get top billing, the film is really held together by the late James Stephenson in an Oscar-nominated performance, while Gale Sondergaard is unforgettable as the vengeful “Mrs.Hammond” (who with her arched eyebrows and in her skin-tight qipao bears an eerie resemblance to the Martian Girl in Mars Attacks!).

Davis is the wife of a rubber plantation administrator who shoots a man to death claiming it was self-defence. But a letter in her own hand may prove her undoing.

William Wyler not surprisingly had wanted Gregg Toland, but veteran cameraman Tony Gaudio provides a more gothic look (aided by the immaculate production design of Jules Carl Weyl), and creates some vivid moonlit scenes, while Wyler occasionally achieves an interesting effect, akin to Toland’s depth of field, emphasising the intensity of the images by occasionally putting Stephensen in some of his scenes with Davis exaggeratedly out of focus either in the foreground or background.

It all goes a bit over the top towards the end in order to appease the Hays Office, and Max Steiner’s score is a bit – well – Steinerish at times, but his eerie main theme is yet another aspect of the film that will stay with you long afterwards. Richard Chatten

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Cat in the Wall (2019) Locarno

Dir: Mina Mileva and Vesela Kazakova | Drama | 

Award-winning Bulgarian duo Mina Mileva and Vesela Kazakova are no strangers to controversy. Their popular award-winning documentary Uncle Tony, Three Fools and the Secret Service was widely condemned by the authorities for exposing the corrupt totalitarian regime in their homeland.

Undeterred, they have pushed on with another potential firecracker in the shape of Cat in the Wall, this time based on real events in a Peckham council estate as experienced by a professional Bulgarian single mother trying to make it in London. This English-language sink-estate drama playfully deals with inflammatory themes such a Brexit, gentrification and the pitfalls of home-owning through the endearing tale of a wayward cat who also reserves his right to roam into pastures new.

Atanasova plays the main character Irina, an architect who has bought and renovated a council flat in a Peckham Estate where she lives with her young son Jojo (Orlin Asenov) and her brother Vlado (Angel Genov), a well-qualified historian who has turned his hand to installing Satellite dishes. Hoping to leave the corrupt post-communist set-up in Bulgaria to start a new life in Britain she soon discovers the grim reality of ‘playing the game’ in Britain.

Naturalistic performances from a cast of non-pros and experienced thesps and a refreshing script are the strengths of this light-hearted bit of social realism, piqued by dark humour. Utterly refusing to cow-tow to the usual Loachian style of Tory-bashing, this film still exposes some uncomfortable truths in a storyline that builds quite a head of steam and some set-tos that make it tense but also thoroughly grounded in reality. Unsurprisingly it never got a release in Britain.

Irina, Vlado and Jojo inject a much-needed breath of fresh air into a hackneyed scenario, where they uncover the usual set-backs to living in social housing – the urine-drenched lift is a classic example. But soon they find themselves face to face with a ginger tabby cat, and after adopting it for Jojo they are soon accused of animal theft by a neighbouring family.

As an educated immigrant who is well-placed to comment on Bulgaria and Brexit-Britain, Irina comes across as sympathetic and thoroughly likeable, eking out an existence that sees her pitching for architectural schemes while supplementing her meagre salary with bar work. Meanwhile she notices how most of her neighbours are living on generous state benefits that make finding paid work nonsensical.

“I didn’t come here to be a leech,” says the politically-savvy Irina who may well prove unpopular with diehard socialists in the audience. The recent words of Trump also echo: ‘if she doesn’t like it she can go back home”. And then there is her little son Jojo who is trying to make the best of his rather isolated existence as an immigrant child with no local friends, but who thinks he has found one in Goldie.

The directors maintain their distance, serving up all this ‘near the bone controversy’ with such a lightness of touch that it is difficult to take offence in a social satire that mostly feels even-handed. The character of Irina’s neighbour Camilla is a case in point. Played by veteran actress Camilla Godard she brings a gentleness to her part as a drug-smoking depressive who, it later emerges, bought the cat as a present for her special needs granddaughter, another example of the more hapless denizens of the estate. And while we feel for Camilla she also conveys an ambivalence that somehow cuts both ways. We can sympathise but also condemn her. Cat in the Wall is a clever and highly enjoyable drama that really shines a light on some shadowy issues in the home we now call post-Brexit ‘broken Britain’. At least we have our ‘Sovereignty’ despite losing our freedom of movement. Full marks to Irina and those pioneers like her, she will be sorely missed. MT

NOW FREE TO WATCH ON ARTEKINO | LOCARNO FILM FESTIVAL premiere

Mayor (2020)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IN CINEMAS FROM 1 JANUARY 2021 |

Glumov’s Diary | Dnevik Glumova (1923) ****

Dir: Sergei Eisenstein | Cast: Grigoriy Aleksandrov, Aleksandr Antonov, Mikail Gomorov | USSR 1923, 5’

Conceived like Orson Welles’ Too Much Johnson fifteen years later as augmenting a stage production. Before The Battleship Potemkin there was Glumov’s Diary; and before the Odessa Steps was a small flight of steps outside the Morozov mansion in Moscow in which the Proletkult theatre was currently housed and in front of which Eisenstein’s enthusiastic young cast cavorted nearly a hundred years ago (including a pipe-smoking bride arm-in-arm with a very camp-looking groom).

Representing the tiny acorn which grew into the mighty, if blighted, oak of the cinematic legacy of Sergei Eisenstein, his illustrious filmography starts with this strange-sounding title in which the young director himself puts in a brief appearance introducing himself to the camera sporting a scruffy beard and an enormous shock of hair.

By the the time he’d been harassed into an early grave a quarter of a century later he’d probably long forgotten this little squib which shows the influence of Melies rather than Kino-Pravda, since it probably contains more special effects than the rest of Eisenstein’s oeuvre put together; including the bizarre transformation of a cavorting clown into a swastika. Richard Chatten.

NOW ON YOUTUBE

Quo Vadis Aida? **** Curzon

Dir.: Jasmila Zbanic; Cast: Jasna Buricic, Izudin Bajrovic, Boris Leer, Dino Bajrovic, Johann Heidenbergh, Raymond Thiry, Boris Isakovic | Drama, 2020, 101 min.

Jasmila Zbanic follows her 2006 Berlinale Golden Bear winner (Grbavica: Land of my Dreams) with another intense look at the  civil war in Srebrenica when over eight thousand people were butchered by Serbian General Ratko Mladic on the 11th of July 1995.

The action follows Aida Selmanagic (a fierce Jasna Buricic) an interpreter for the UN in the small town of Srebrenica. When the Bosnian Serb army moves in, her family is one of the thousands desperate for sanctuary in the vast UN camp.

The UN commander Colonel Franken (Heidenbergh) has been promised by his superiors that the UN air force will bomb Mladic’s troops, if they have a go at the city. But the planes never appear, and Franken tries in vain to reach somebody at UN HQ. In vain. The UN Secretary General is on holiday. Meanwhile, Aida manages to get her husband Nihad (I. Bajrovic) and two sons Hamidija (Leer) and Sejo (D. Bajrovic) into the safe UN compound (women are the bosses in this part of the world). But when the bombardment does not materialise, ‘saviour’ General Ratko Mladic (Isakovic) his soldiers start “evacuating” the compound to a nearby place of safety. Everybody is aware of Mladic’s real intentions, and Aida fights a hapless battle to get her family on the UN list for safe conduct. The three men are herded with others into a make-shift cinema nearby, before being gunned down from the projection room. In a maudlin epilogue, Aida visits their old flat years later, which is now occupied by strangers: she has to decide if she will take up the offer of returning to her former teaching job.

All very melodramatic in spirit, and carried by the irrepressible  Jasna Buricic, Zbanic keeping everything understated, the focus is the personal conflicts at the heart of this human tragedy. Aida has a certain amount of protection due to her UN status, but gradually loses control when Mladic’s troops appear at the UN compound gates. her family reduces to pawns in the fight between Mladic and the UN forces.

Everything is going in her favour at first but as the nerve-racking plot plays out it is touch and go whether their names will appear on the final list, and some of the final scenes are emotionally charged. Major Franken (Thiry) is only technically in charge and when his superiors fail to back him up with the bombardment, he is in the hands of Mladic – having no real power to put a stop to the eventual slaughter. DoP Christine A. Maier uses close-ups to chart the emotional dynamics of Aida and her family. The images of Mladic and his thugs loading women and men into separate buses, brings to mind history’s genocides. Zbanic directs with great sensibility, never letting any of the male protagonists off the hook in this coruscating chronicle of modern war. AS

OUT ON CURZON WORLD | 22 JANUARY 2021 |

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOW ON MUBI

Persian Lessons (2020) ****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On DIGITAL 22 JANUARY and DVD on 8 FEBRUARY

 

 

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OUT ON BLURAY 25 JANUARY 2021 | BFI

The Exception (2020) ****

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

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

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

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

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

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

Toni Erdmann (2016) **** Mubi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOW ON MUBI  | WINNER OF THE FIPRESCI AWARD CANNES 2016

Rag Doll (1961) ***

Dir: Lance Comfort | Cast: Jess Conrad, Christina Gregg, Hermione Baddeley, Kenneth Griffith, Patrick Magee | UK Drama 67′
If you peruse a copy of ‘Women’s Own’ from the 1960s or 1970s you’ll almost certainly come across the smiling face of Christina Gregg in the fashion adds after she returned to modelling following a brief film career as a juvenile leading lady during the Swinging Sixties.

In the title role of this cautionary tale from Mancunian Films, directed with his usual flair by Lance Comfort (with a infectious skiffle score by Martin Slavin), she learns the hard way what perils lay in wait behind the bright lights of the capital city sixty years ago (vividly shot in winter by veteran cameraman Basil Emmott); starting like Gun Crazy with the innocent young hero (a girl) and ending like The Asphalt Jungle. The feature had a US release under the title of Young Willing and Eager. 

Most of the men are trouble, including Gregg’s abusive stepfather Patrick Magee; predatory night-club owner Kenneth Griffith and bad lad Jess Conrad (who was signed for Decca Records), first seen propping up a bar in a leather jacket; while Hermione Baddeley resembles the Joan Blondell character from Nightmare Alley as a fortune teller predicting that Miss Gregg is “going on a journey”. Richard Chatten

The Overlanders (1946) **** Talking Pictures

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

76 Days (2020) **** VOD

Dirs: Hao Wu, Weixi Chen, Anonymous | Wri: Hao Wu | Doc, 2020 China, 91′

Not as hard-hitting as you would imagine, and in some ways faintly amusing given the repercussions that would follow, this cinema vérité snapshot of the first COVID outbreak takes us back to Wuhan, China where it all began, the rest of the world still blissfully unaware and innocently going about its business.

In a Wuhan hospital a woman cries out in anguish as the body of her father is hurriedly sealed in orange plastic by a group of hazmat-suited medics who then hurtle back through the corridors to deliver the toxic bundle into a waiting black van.

Towering skyscrapers dwarf a twinkling ambulance racing over the massive bridge that straddles the vast Yangtze river (think Golden Gate without the glamour), as the city is plunged into a hush-hush yet draconian lockdown, marshalled citizens falling into rank as they meekly obey the eerie tanoyed announcements to ‘stay in their homes’.

Wuhan is a major industrial city in Hubei province, Eastern China, but the scale of the crisis in the four hospitals where the doc was filmed, by director Hao Wu (People’s Republic of Desire) and reporter Weixi Chen, takes on an intimate yet respectfully buttoned-down detached community atmosphere. You never see a medic’s face, such is level of PPE, yet the (mostly old) patients stay wrapped in their own colourful padded jackets as they are tucked up in bed and told to sleep – almost like kids – and referred to as ‘grandma, and grandpa; the middle-aged sufferers; aunty and uncle.

Although the grief and panic is feverishly palpable there is a ordered and kindly feel to proceedings as patients’ personal possessions – in China that means mobile phones – are wiped down with alcohol and placed in plastic bags. There is no triage system here: this is a close up and personal system where the medics themselves deal face to face with the oncoming stream of stricken public who rattle the door handles of hospital’s modest entrance, demanding to be seen first: “Any vomiting or diarrhoea?, Okay – let him go first, he’s limping” says the matron.

The documentary began shortly after the January 23rd lockdown in Wuhan, the filmmakers maintaining a strictly observational eye on the unfolding crisis. There are moments of dark humour surrounding an old fisherman – the doc’s main protagonist – who has found his way into the system and can’t seem to find his way out, although he appears to be suffering from dementia rather than Covid, judging from his candid take on events. The doctors keep forcing him back into his room, telling him to wear his mask ‘properly’: “What a way to treat a person” he laments fractiously. Later he has decided to stay: “Not bad – free food and medicine here, where I come from is so backward”.

Apparently the shoot inside public hospital facilities wasn’t government-sanctioned. Hao was researching a project for an American network, who then abandoned the story when Covid went global, but he continued his own filming using  reporter Chen (and his colleague chose to remain anonymous). They have created this raw and immediate take on an outbreak that purportedly originated in Wuhan’s wet markets in the vicinity of the hospitals, and would result in the death of millions worldwide – not to mention the economic, social and political repercussions.

No doubt there will soon be a ‘Covid’ genre – we have already seen a Belgian outing: I Am Not a Hero and Alex Gibney’s Totally Under Control, and there are more to come. The filmmakers formally requested that none of the hospital staff be mentioned or identified “to avoid any potential government interference with the film”. The only possible clues to their identity are available in the delightful drawings that were sketched in marker pen on the medics’ PPE gowns, and they possibly included their names (if you can read Mandarin).

In early April 2020, 76 days after the crisis erupted the Wuhan lockdown is lifted, and air raid sirens mark a gloomy tribute to the dead, masked citizens stopping to pay their respects in the streets, where some are visibly moved to tears. Their government clearly didn’t have the same respect for the World’s wider community in their bid to play down the crisis. But amongst these locals a strong sense of civil cooperation and commitment to a common cause is admirable and poignant. MT

ON RELEASE in the UK | VOD 22 January 2021

 

 

 

Tales of Hoffmann (1951) **** Mubi

Dir. Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

Cast: Moira Shearer, Ludmilla Tcherina, Ann Ayars, Robert Rounseville, Leonide Massine

UK 1951, 138 min.

Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann was his final, unfinished work, his only serious opera. After the success of THE RED SHOES, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger looked for another ballet related project; in particular Pressburger, whose first love was music, wanted to realise the idea of “a composed film”. Although Moira Shearer, the star of The Red Shoes. had made clear she was never going to act in another film, Pressburger eventually talked her into appearing in The Tales, which was introduced as an ‘Archers’ production in October 1949; Alexander Korda’s ‘British Lion Film’ would distribute.

The poet Hoffmann (Rounseville) falls in love with Stella (Shearer), a ballerina. Watching her on stage, his leaves and wanders into a tavern where a group of students ask him to tell them stories. His three stories are all connected by disappointed love: Olympia (Shearer) turns out to be a mechanical doll, Giuletta (Tcherina) wants to steal Hoffmann’s soul, and finally, Antonia (Ayars), a consumptive opera singer, dies while singing an aria. Hoffmann himself collapses at the end of his last story, just when Stella enters the tavern. She is lead away by Hoffmann’s eternal rival. But the muse of Poetry appears, and beckons Hoffmann to chose a life in the service of literature.

The film’s music is conducted by Sir Thomas Beeacham; of the cast, only Ayars and Rounseville sang. This was not a problem, since the film was shot entirely as a silent film (later to be dubbed in a studio), on the old silent stage at Shepperton studios, the largest in Europe, which had been constructed for Things to Come in 1936. Shooting took place from July to the end of September 1950. When Korda was first approached by Powell and Pressburger about the project, he asked (innocently) if any of the film makers had actually seen a stage version. Powell admitted he hadn’t, while Pressburger could claim to have played the second violin in the orchestra during performances in Prague, but “from where I sat, I could not see much”(!). Korda duly bought them tickets for a performance of the opera in Vienna, but their plane was delayed, they landed in the Russian zone, and had to wait for visas into the British side, where the performance was being held – they entered the theatre finally as Antonia was giving up her ghost.

The film was premiered on 1st April 1951 in New York, and seventeen days later in London, Queen Mary, Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart being in the audience. Critical acclaim was great, but the film just recouped its production costs, being only shown in selected cinemas. On April 20th, it graced the Cannes Film Festival line-up where it won two awards.

According to Powell, he had a fight with Korda and Pressburger, who both wanted to cut the third act to enhance its chances of winning the Palme d’Or. Since there were only two days between the London and Cannes performance, there wa hardly time for a recut – and Kevin Macdonald, who wrote Pressburger’s biography, claims “Powell wanted to see things as he saw them, not as they happened”. But The Tales of Hoffmann was the beginning of the end for the working relationship of the Powell/Pressburger duo, they seemed to have been a lack of trust, and they went their own separate their professional ways. AS

NOW ON MUBI

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOW ON MUBI

Dishonored Lady (1947) ****

Dir: Robert Stevenson | Cast: Hedy Lamarr, Dennis O’Keefe, John Loder, William Lundigan, Morris Carnovsky | US Noir thriller, 85′

The second of two independent productions made by Hedy Lamarr’s own company continuing Hollywood’s forties fascination with psychiatry; with Morris Carnovsky’s benign, pipe-smoking psychiatrist following in the footsteps of Now Voyager’s Dr.Jaquith in curing fur-coated glamour puss Lamarr (“as pretty as a picture and as stubborn as a mule”) of a malaise languidly expressed in chain-smoking and dependence on sleeping pills.

Directed by Robert Stevenson, who later made Mary Poppins, this too concerns the exploits of a career woman in a suit without a woman’s usual fear of mice. She’s not short of suitors (plainly cast with actors intended not to outshine the star; one of them Lamarr’s then-husband John Loder, who courts her to ‘Tristan and Isolde’).

About two-thirds of the way through the plot abruptly changes from Lady in the Dark to Mildred Pierce, with Lamarr a glamorous defendant in the dock in the final third after one of the suitors gets murdered. But I won’t spoil the ending for you..Richard Chatten.

NOW ON YOUTUBE | Prime Video

Mother (2019) Locarno

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pieces of a Woman (2020) VOD

Dir: Kornel Mundruczo | Drama, 127’

Nothing prepares us for sudden death. But the most confusing part of bereavement is how is it affects those around us, and particularly those nearest to us. And this unexpected behaviour is the crux of Kornel Mundruczo’s latest film. It looks at how the loss of a child affects a professional Bostonian woman called Martha (Vanessa Kirby/The Crown) and her stevedore partner, a recovering alcoholic who hails from Seattle (Shia Leboeuf).

The Hungarian director’s first outing in English is as deeply flawed as the title suggests, a tonal mishmash: moving in parts but totally incoherent in others. The euphoric early arthouse scenes – impressively shot in one 24 minute take – show the couple during the birth, and these intensely personal moments are graphic in detail. Almost too much so. But the baby dies shortly after she is born leaving the couple in disarray and arguments and recriminations follow. And as Boston descends into a freezing winter, amid wide panoramic shots of the Charles River, so Martha retreats into herself cutting Sean adrift in an icy silence.

Based on his own personal experiences this is clearly a cathartic film for the director writing with his real life partner Kata Weber. But the film soon drifts into a more glossy family drama where the grief-stricken Martha is persuaded by her controlling mother (Ellen Burstyn in formidable form) to seek compensation from the midwife. As Martha’s relationships deteriorate all round her so the storyline unravels with no real sense of direction. There is a fraught mother-daughter strand; an imploding relationship breakdown where class and racial conflicts enter the fray – Martha is a tough Jewish uptown girl, Sean is soft-hearted but given to brutal outbursts. Their attractions are also part of their downfall when things don’t go according to plan.

Sarah Snook, Martha’s distant cousin, is hired to fight their case as the lawyer taken on to prosecute midwife Eva. And Martha’s mother, a steely Holocaust survivor, offers invaluable advice to daughters everwhere: “you have to take a stand and tell your truth, otherwise you can never move on”. You might not like her but you’d certainly want her on your side: “and when you do move on, burn your bridges”, is another chestnut.

The actors all do their best to carry the film forward and Ellen Burstyn is the most impressive, Leboeuf stymied by an underwritten role. But the script is so focussed on Martha’s simmering resentment that the final reveal – in a coruscating court scene – bears no relation to what has gone before, leaving us unprepared and perplexed.

The unsuccessful shift from arthouse to Hollywood melodrama could be due to various big names jumping on board the project with their money and therefore demanding a schmaltzy Hollywood happy ending, Martin Scorsese has put his money behind the project as exec producer but Mundruczo’s departure from his arthouse style is a bewildering film, certainly watchable but vaguely unsatisfying. MT

NOW ON VOD RELEASE | VENICE FILM FESTIVAL  2020

Archive (2020)

Dir/Wri: Gavin Rothery | Cast: Theo James, Stacy Martin, Rhona Mitra, Toby Jones, Peter Ferdinando, Richard Glover, Lia Williams

Just before my father died I thought about how brilliant it would be if I could download his personality along with all the vast knowledge and experience gathered during his eventful life, and save it for posterity. Gavin Rothery has taken that idea and made it into an impressive AI Sci-fi drama, and it’s the human element that makes Archive so appealing.

It persuades us that sex and romance still exist in 2038, and so does humour. It’s also got Toby Jones which is always a good thing. And the robots are surprisingly intuitive, with acute sensibilities, and also enjoy listening to rock music.

Theo James plays George Elmore, an American computer working on a  human-equivalent AI. Holed up in a remote Japanese facility deep in a snowbound forest he has been tasked by his draconian boss Simone (Mitra) with finessing the model of a rudimentary female robot, who has also cleverly sussed Simone out (“I don’t like her, she’s a bitch”).

But he’s actually more focused on another state of the art humanoid prototype which is at a critical stage, and this personal and highly secretive project will reunite him with his late wife Jules (Stacy Martin) who he speaks to through a system called ‘archive’ that allows the living to communicate with the dead for a brief space of time. Her personality and memories have been downloaded into the robot’s shell. It’s a brilliant idea and the ideal solution for preserving the essence, vast experiences and knowledge of the people we’ve loved. But woman are complex, especially robot ones, and so Elmore really has his work cut out. Then Toby Jones arrives to inspect the archive and George realises his days are numbered.

Archive is the feature debut of Gavin Rothery who also wrote the script. Rather like the recent Sci-fi outing Ex Machina it looks stylish and wizzy largely because Rothery is also a graphic designer and special effects guru but it’s his plotting and a strong cast that makes this enjoyable, although Elmore doesn’t get the happy ending he’s hoping for. MT

ON DIGITAL DOWNLOAD FROM 18 JANUARY 2021

 

 

 

 

 

The Seventh Veil (1945) ****

Dir:  Compton Bennett | Wri: Muriel and Sydney Box | Cast: James Mason, Ann Todd, Herbert Los, Hugh McDermott | UK Drama, 91;

Compton Bennett started life as a bandleader and then a commercial artist before he started making his own films catching the eye of producer Alexander Korda who hired him as an editor in 1932.

Later he directed this amusing drama which was Gainsborough Studios’ Oscar-winning contribution to the ‘Lady on the Couch’ genre of the forties, described by the late David Shipman as “a dotty mixture of psychiatry, Greig, Tchaikovsky and so on”.

Also worth mentioning is the script by Britain’s most prolific female director Muriel Box who collaborated with her husband Sydney and went on to win the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. It begins like Letter from an Unknown Woman with it’s button-eyed female lead in pigtails as an extremely mature-looking schoolgirl, here getting caned. Soon her wardrobe is far more glamorous, but she’s still being bullied; this time even more expertly by James Mason at his most saturnine with the result that she ends up being treated by psychiatrist Herbert Lom (in the role that made him a star and which he effectively reprised on TV nearly twenty years later in The Human Jungle).

That by now she’s also being forced to chose between three handsome suitors is a problem only too many of the women in the audience wished they had, and it was a huge box office hit. Richard Chatten.

NOW ON YOUTUBE

Cocoon (2020) *** VOD, Bluray

Dir.: Leonie Krippendorff; Cast: Lena Urzendowsky, Lena Klenke, Jella Haase, Elina Vildanova, Anja Schneider, Bill Becker; Germany 2020, 99 min.

Over a decade ago Celine Sciamma burst onto the scene with her refreshing look at lesbian romance in Water Lilies. Native Berliner Leonie Krippendorff’s seductive spin on teenage love is a contempo coming-of-age story that just manages to avoid symbolic overdrive and sentimentality.

Set in the sweltering summer heat of Kreuzberg, the capital’s answer to Hackney, the story revolves around Nora (played by an impressive Lena Urzendowsky, with already has over twenty screen credits to her name). Hanging out with her older sister  Jule (Klenke) and friend Aylin (Vildanova) and her boozy mother Vivienne (Schneider) who appears to be somewhat of an intellectual who come to life when she gets a birthday present of Judith Butler’s novel ‘Bodies that matter’, dedicated to her by a certain Twiggy, a friend from a happier chapter in her life.

Nora’s curiosity is woken when she meets the older Romy (Haase), who comes to her aid during an embarrassing poolside incident, and the girls become instant best friends bonding over boyfriends, but Romy’s not just interested in boys, or so it seems. A good deal of hazy camerawork seems appropriate for the lust-fuelled summer reverie, not unlike Pawel Pawlikovski created in My Summer of Love.

Cocoon is not that revealing, or particularly noteworthy in its love story, what stand out is the social background, showing how the girls prefer Muslim boyfriends because of their apparent faithfulness, nearly all of them repeating “I swear on the Koran”!. Perhaps this successful integration is overdone, but nevertheless, some progress has been made.

DoP Martin Neumeyer is clearly influenced by Spring Breakers, although sadly Berlin’s public swimming pools are a far cry from Florida’s beaches. Still, he captures the uniqueness of the borough of Kreuzberg which retains a certain bohemian charm in an otherwise gentrified capital city. AS

DVD, BLURAY and VOD release from 25 JANUARY 2021

County Lines (2019)

Dir: Henry Blake | Cast: Conrad Khan, Ashley Madekwe,

First time filmmaker Henry Blake directs this unflinching slice of social realism about a teenage boy who finds himself drawn into a ring of drug traffickers known as County Lines.

County Lines is a modern tragedy born out of the breakdown of the family unit and the educational crisis that sees many white working class boys left on the sidelines with poor skillsets and little hope of a decent career. They start as victims of bullying and soon fall prey to lethal traffickers who lure them into becoming mules with the promise of lucrative but ultimately punitive gains. The teen in question here is Tyler – an impressive Conrad Khan – who finds himself inveigled into working for the ruthless and opportunistic dealer Simon (Harris Dickinson) after his mother Toni (Madekwe) loses her cleaning job after a one-night stand.

All sorts of contemporary issues are deftly interwoven in this well-padded drama with its harrowing violence and affecting performances: family dysfunction and male identity are the most resonant but Blake also touches on the importance of strong role models particularly at school, but also at home. Blake has previously worked on short films, and this big screen debut is extended from a short, but there’s plenty of material to flesh it out and keep us engaged with Tyler and his transformation from naive older brother to full-fledged felon after a chance meeting in a chip shop leads to his descent into criminality. The innocuous stranger  turns out to be Simon a crook in disguise who quickly grooms him into the venal and lucrative drug trade, Tyler’s self-focused mother turning a blind eye to the influx of ready cash.

County Lines is a difficult and depressing to watch but Blake’s cinematic eye and intelligent script along and superb performances especially from Khan make it worthwhile and memorable. Thousands of British children are currently working as drug mules. This is their story. MT

COUNTY LINES | RELEASED IN UK & IRISH CINEMAS AND DIGITAL PLATFORMS ON 4TH DECEMBER

INCLUDING BFI PLAYER, CURZON HOME CINEMA & IFI @ HOME

 

 

Crash (1996)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CRASH IS NOW A DIGITAL RELEASE ON 30 NOVEMBER 2020

La Haine (1995) re-release

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Billie (2020)

Dir: James Erskine | US Biopic, 97′

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nova Lituania (2019) MUBI

Dir.: Karolis Kaupinis; Cast: Aleksas Kozanavicius, Vaidotas Martinaitis, Valentinas Masalskis, Roberta Samuolytie, Roberta Sirgedaite, Egle Gabrenaite; Lithuania 2019, 97 min.

In this striking arthouse debut from Karolis Kaupinis, a Lithuanian geologist comes up with a brilliant idea to save his nation at the outbreak of the Second World War,

Nova Lituania is a complete one-off and a challenge, but stick with it and you will be rewarded. Kaupinis dabbles in some obscure alternative history. He also intercuts his drama with disturbing family scenes of the anti-hero. And Nova makes up for an enigmatic finale with its pristine black and white camerawork filmed on an old-fashioned boxy 4:3 format by DoP Simonas Glinskis.

Lithuania in the late 1930s, and middle-aged Feliksas Gruodis (Kozanavicius) is a geology lecturer at the university in Kaunas. With his small country threatened by invasion from Germany, Poland and the USSR, he dreams up a wacky scheme: a mass exodus to Africa, along the lines proposed in 1938 for the resettlement of Jewish refugees to Alaska.

Presenting this ambitious proposal to government takes some nerve on the humble scientist’s part, but he accidentally bumps into prime minister Jonas Servus who is not unreceptive to the idea. His chief concern is logistics: moving 2.8 Million citizens would take some doing, and several years. But Gruodis is adamant, the arrival of 500 experts would create a good base for further emigration.

The two men put their heads together at a seaside rendezvous where they are embroiled in taking part in a military coup against the president. And homelife for Gruodis is also going through turmoil: his dominant mother-in-law (Gabrenaite) is at odds with his wife Veronika (Samuolytie). Luckily his neice Julyte (Sirgedaite) offers tea and sympathy.

Nova Lituania is very much a retro undertaking. The uncertainty of the mass exodus plan is reflected in the confused narrative structure, Kaupinis often losing sight of the storyline while indulging himself in the aesthetics and some impressive historical re-creations. Ideas are explored but remain unresolved, the overall feeling is one of discombobulation, as if the director has popped several intriguing plot devices into the mix, coming up with a riveting, but not always convincing potpourri. That said, this is a visually alluring and valiant re-imagining of history and as such should be applauded. AS

ON MUBI WITH PRIME VIDEO CHANNELS | GOLDEN ATHENA WINNER AT ATHENS FILM FESTIVAL 2019

 

 

Downstream to Kinshasa (2020)

Dir.: Dieudo Hamadi; Documentary; Democratic Republic of Congo Belgium France, 90 min.

Twenty years ago a violent civil war raged in the Congo and was fought out between Rwandan and Ugandan forces, who supported the two Democratic Republic’s factions. Over four thousand Congolese lost their lives in Kisangani alone in a war that ignited in June 2000 and became to be known as the Six-Day war.

Acting as his own DoP, experienced documentarian Hamadi zeros in on the domestic detail and the wider issues arising from class structure which leaves a particularly brutal legacy in this post-colonial world. This is a place where life-changing injuries still haunt the victims: double amputees like Mama Kawale and Mama Bahingi, and quadriplegic Mama Kashinde have managed to make their days bearable by playing wheelchair basketball. The atmosphere is intense, and every shot at the basket counts: this is no feeling of competition except with themselves, and their individual scores bolster self-confidence.

Hamadi is familiar with the territory having grown up during the massacre. The victims of Kisangani’s war were thrown naked into mass graves, as one of the survivors recalls: “we are walking on corpses”. The survivors have clamoured for nearly twenty years for compensation from the Central government – in vain. Their plight and pain is never diminished, in fact it gets worse, and club together to select a delegation to travel downstream on the Congo river to the capital Kinsasha, where they will demand justice from government officials and their MP.

Intercut with the documentary are scenes from the Agit-Prop theatre of the survivors, which uses music and short scenes to bring home their message. Two simple boats are hitched together, and the delegation team buys food for the journey from vendors on little boats. Arriving in Kinshasa, the positive carnival atmosphere of the journey changes into disappointment when delegation is banned from accessing the government building. Their local MP is not there to engage with their concerns because of the approaching election. So they are put their time to good use raising awareness of their plight with brightly coloured banners – spelling mistakes corrected – before installing themselves in peaceful protest only to be drenched by torrential rain. It’s a pitiful sight, and we feel for them. Eventually they will have something to cheer about when the unsupportive president of the Republic, Joseph Kabila, is replaced by Felix Tshisekedi in the 2018 December elections. But Kabila leaves a legacy, allowing him to select the incumbent Prime Minster. In an elliptical ending, we return to the lively streets of Kisangani, with the delegation walking proudly with their heads high.

Downstream could be called a Road-Movie but that seems too trite a description for this pilgrimage of humanitarian relief and Hamadi reflects this in his poetic and lyrical visual treatment. Eschewing a sentimental approach as all times, Hamadi never victimises the survivors, but triumphs in their fighting spirit kept alive by their exuberant theatre work and their courageous journey to the capital. AS

DOWNSTREAM TO KINSHASA (EN ROUTE POUR LE MILLIARD) won the Golden Dove at the 63rd edition of the International Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Film DOK Leipzig, as well as the Prize of the Interreligious Jury | 
ON RELEASE ON MAJOR PLATFORMS

King of New York (1990) Arrow Player

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Looted (2019) ****

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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The Interrupted Journey (1949) ***

Dir: Daniel Birt | UK Thriller, 80′

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Havel (2019) *** Czech Film Week

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leap of Faith (2019) ****

Dir: Alexandre O Philippe | Doc, 105

Leap of Faith, a lyrical and spiritual cinematic essay on The Exorcist, explores the uncharted depths of William Friedkin’s mind’s eye, the nuances of his filmmaking process, and the mysteries of faith and fate that have shaped his life and filmography. The film unpacks Friedkin’s filmmaking process focusing here exclusively on The Exorcist, a mystery of faith inspired – according to Friedkin – by Dreyer’s 1955 drama Ordet

Already well known for his documentaries 78/52 and Memory: The Origins of Alien, Philippe jumped at this opportunity of a cosy fireside chat with the iconic director who describes himself of instinctive “one-take kind of guy” who has always relied on his gut reaction and spontaneity to make a film. Spontaneity interests him more than perfection. And this was particularly the case when it came to creating The Exorcist which he calls a ‘chamber piece’ rather than a horror movie.

Friedkin grew up with his parents in a one room apartment in Chicago where he was taken by his mother to see Clifford Odet’s None But the Lonely Heart (1944). A lowly postboy, he wanted to discover more about cinema. But the film that propelled him into a career in film was Welles’ Citizen Kane.

By the early 1970s he had already become a successful director when he happened to  read William Peter Blatty’s paperback The Exorcist. Friedkin describes wanting to make the book into a movie against all odds – it seems the whole film popped into his mind fully formed from the novel but Blatty’s script was a fractured narrative with flashbacks. The singleminded Friedkin describes how he had what Fritz Lang once called “sleepwalkers security” about the script. He knew he wanted to tell a straight ahead realist story, just like the book.

The introduction is the underpinning to the whole piece and takes place in ancient Niniver, Iraq. At some point in the town’s early history the citizens had all been beheaded along with the statues and this tragic event sets the tone for the story, the director following his instincts throughout the shoot. Another crucial factor in deciding Regan’s behaviour was an incident during his Chicago, childhood when a local girl was decapitated, her body cut up and thrown into the garden. An ancient medal found in the sands becomes the McGuffin, a significant device providing the motivation for what happens next.

Music had an overriding influence for Friedkin in the The Exorcist. But he wanted to avoid a score that drove the plot forward, and chose instead to soundscape that slowly builds into a powerful force. An overriding sense of dread that stays throughout, starting with a the lowkey opening in Iraq and ending in a quiet crescendo. Father Merrin’s premonition had to be an instinctual moment that the audience has to sense. The supernatural in our midst. An ordinary girl slowly becomes a demon. This “Expectancy set” describes how the audience comes to the cinema wanting to be scared from the outset.  Bernard Herrmann was top of the list score-wise but was quite rude about the film. “If you know St Giles Cripplegate’s organ that would be a great inspiration” said Herrmann, who by now was living in London. But what the film needed was music that “felt like a cold hand on the back of your neck” – he found it with a score made up by composer Lalo Schiffer. But that didn’t work either and drowned the subtleness of the early scenes. The score was left untouched, and they haven’t spoken since. Friedkin wanted more of a Brahms lullaby. Then Mike Oldfield then came along.

Friedkin’s use of subliminal cuts and sounds makes the movie into an experimental sound museum. Old colleague Ken Nordine was called on to create Regan’s demon voice – it needed to be a male/female voice of the kind that Mercedes McCambridge had used in the Western (Johnny Guitar/1954). She used a concoction of heavily booze, eggs and cigarettes to produce an un-God-like sound which brought about the required timbre.

Casting was another complex matter that took some time to get right. Max Von Sidow had a problem getting the intensity to play Father Merrin because he didn’t believe in God, although he had played a convincing Jesus in George Steven’s The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965).  In the end he played Merrin as an ordinary man because his acting skill came from understatement rather than histrionic emotion. Blatty, who has studied for the priesthood and then dropped out, was desperate to play Father Karras but then Jason Miller stepped forward and he just embodied the priest, although he was a non-pro. Stacey Keach had been signed to the role but was immediately dropped, his contract settled in full. The Reverend William O’Malley was another non-pro perfect for the role as Father Dyer because he understood the territory. Friedkin often shot a gun in the air to achieve the right facial expression from his actors – John Ford and George Stevens also regularly used these techniques. Although he claims this kind of ploy was never needed with a great actor. Lee J Cobb, who played Lt Kinderman, was one.

Friedkin talks a great about ‘rosebud moments’ and ‘grace-notes’ during this engaging documentary which draws on his wide taste in culture and art. Regan’s makeup was inspired by the Belgian surrealist Ensor’s paintings of masks. Magritte is also an influence, the artist’s Empire of Light giving the film its iconic image.Moments of truth such as in Cartier Bressons’ photos and Caravaggio’s tortured figures were also an inspiration. Friedkin’s way of lighting the sides of his character’s faces was taken from Vermeer and Rembrandt. Particularly Vermeer’s View of Delft in 17th century. He describes the scene with the white-robed nuns walking by as one the grace notes in this otherwise grim film. Grace notes are the lovely things you remember forever, and are more significent than the larger events.

Just like Kubrick’s Obelisk in 2001 A Space Odyssey, so the silver medal appears to various characters in the film including Father Karras and Father Merrin, along with a constant subliminal theme of ascension throughout the film. Karras is a figure with an inner torment of his own: taunted by guilt about his mother and his fears for the loss of his own faith, he is the tragic hero of the piece. The Father gives up his life for the life of the young girl. He jumps out of the window taking the demon with him, having invited it into his own body, even though suicide is against the Catholic Church (an idea that departs from the book), and remains an ambiguity in the film. Blatty insists that the devil comes out of his body again before Karras leaps out of the window. He then confesses to Father Dyer at the end but Friedkin is still unhappy about this dilemma, considering it the only flaw in the film.

It seems neither Blatty not the director are convinced about the ending. “Life is so ambiguous and that’s why my films are” he claims. This informative documentary ends with Friedkin reminiscing on life and his visit to the Zen garden in Kyoto where he found peace and a series of rocks surrounded by raked gravel. “The rocks represent continents that will never come together. We are in this World alone, completely separate from each other. Driven to tears he sites this as one his grace notes. MT

VENICE FILM FESTIVAL | 29 August – 7 September 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Burnt Orange Heresy (2019) ****

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

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

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

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

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

IN CINEMAS FROM FRIDAY 30 OCTOBER 2020.

 

 

Mr Grandmother | Chemi bebia (1929) **** Georgian Retrospective | DOCLISBOA 2020

Dir: Kote Mikaberidze | Silent, Georgia, 80′

This triumph of early Georgian silent cinema mines its absurdist humour from petty bureaucracy when the country was still part of the USSR. The Georgians are a striking bunch whose regular features and dark good looks are particularly suited to silent film – this along with bold Soviet-style editing, expressionist set designs and avant-garde camera angles make My Grandmother an imaginative and amusing insight into a country that was under the Iron cosh but thriving with ideas and rich culture.

Behind the mad hysteria of the frantic satire important truths gradually emerge about the nonsense office workers have to put up with and there is a clear resonance with life today. The film was banned in the Society Union for almost fifty years – not surprisingly – because the overriding message here is “death to red tape” and that is born out, quite literally, in the bizarre finale that certainly mocks the State and does nothing to hide its light under a bushel in doing so.

Director Kote Mikaberidze (1896-1973) would go on to helm several other features in a career that also included acting and script-writing, but was best known for My Grandmother that made use of its special effects, imaginative set design, animation and twisted dark sense of humour that sees its main character, a “bureaucrat” (Aleksandre Takaishvili) fired for his incompetence and lazy attitude.

Narrative wise, the first act minutes is dedicated to satirising the Soviet system – where office life involves doing precisely nothing. Papers are pushed, documents stamped – it’s all about creating work and then not doing it, and the pen-pushers manage to avoid any responsibility for their shoddiness into the bargain.

When “the bureaucrat” goes home jobless to his wife (Bella Chernova) her  expressions of disdain are simply priceless. The only way he can avoid a complete loss of face is by finding himself a ‘benefactor’ (0r grandmother) who will write him a letter of recommendation. So off he goes to curry favour with a higher-ranking official who will reinstate him in a job – doing precisely nothing, again.

Although this sounds pretty tedious plot-wise the feature is far from boring. Quite the opposite. Visually it’s one of the most exciting silent films of the era with its clever concoction of fantasy meets reality. At one point, ‘the bureaucrat’ is pinioned to his desk by a giant flying pen which is meant to represent the local newspaper’s lampooning him. Meanwhile, in the background stop-motion animations feature a group of tiny toys and dolls who form a sort of ridiculous audience witnesses his fall from grace. While the support characters are performing their antics with extraordinary energy the office workers are mostly comatose, but objects around them also come to life.

Chernova is particularly brilliant as “the bureaucrat’s” wife, her expressive eyebrows are a legend in their own lunchtime. Imploring with him one moment and ignoring him the next, she is a bundle of belligerent histrionics from start to finish, while he practises trying to hang himself from the light fittings, in shame.

My Grandmother shows the Georgians to be wonderfully eccentric, and completely irreverent as far as politics is concerned, certainly in their early cinema, later political and social satire was more cleverly hidden in subtext. The film was eventually re-released in the 1970s but is rarely seen nowadays and would make an interesting companion piece to the ubiquitous Battleship Potemkin.  MT

My Grandmother

SCREENING DURING DOCLISBOA | 22 OCTOBER – 1 NOVEMBER

 

 

 

 

Aalto (2020)

Dir: Virpi Suutari | Finland, Doc 103min

This comprehensive biopic about one of the greatest designers of the 20th century is both an affectionate tribute to the work of Finnish architect Alvar Aalto and a touching love story. Hugo Alvar Henrik Aalto (1898-1976) and his architect wife Aino Aalto shaped the modern world of design through their cutting edge buildings, furniture, textiles and glassware in much the same way as America’s Charles and Ray Eames and even Britain’s Terence Conran.

Virpi Suutari digs deeps into the archives with her writer and award-winning editor Jussi Rautaniemi (The Happiest Day in The Life of Olli Maki) to take us on a cinematic journey into life of a man whose designs were boosted by rapid economic growth in Finland and encompassed the lofty Finlandia Hall in Helsinki and the practical Paimio Sanatorium. For over five decades, from 1925-1978, the Aalto modernist aesthetic gave rise to iconic creations such as the Beehive light-fitting (1959), and the 406 armchair (1939) which remain essential style markers for the conoscenti. And even if you couldn’t afford a house designed by the Finnish luminary you could at least have one of his curvy Savoy vases (inspired by a Sami woman’s dress). These timeless modern creations could be made on an industrial scale but still retained a sense of simple luxury rooted in Finnish heritage from sustainable local materials such as birch wood, and glass blown in the littala factory.

Finnish documentarian Virpi Suutari shows how Alvar and Aino were not only talented architects but also a popular and cosmopolitan couple whose designs would become classics, defined by their practicality and precision. The Savoy vase won the Karhula-littala design competition in 1936 and would go on to be an iconic and elegant everyday item.

The film then travels further afield to show how Aalto’s civic and private buildings have stood the test of time and still associate well with their natural environment, from the private Villa Mairea in the late 1930s, to a university in Massachusetts, a pavilion at Venice Biennale and an art collector’s house near Paris, these were not ‘starchitect’ projects sticking out of the places surrounding them, but elegant and practical “machines for living” that provided for every eventuality. Aino and Alvar co-founded their furniture design company Artek in 1935, Aino becoming its first design director with a creative output that included textiles, lamps and interior design with clear and simply style, and this made way for complete design package, from lighting to door handles.

Opting for a straightforward chronicle approach Suutari shows how Aalto first set up a practice in his home town of Jyväsikylä in 1921 working on schemes that followed the predominant Nordic classism of the time. Meeting and marrying Aino Marsio in 1925 was the turning point, personally and stylistically, and after the birth Johanna later in 1925 (son Hamilkar would arrive three years later) the couple set off for Europe to discover the Modernist International style. But the groundwork for the practice was founded in Functionalism, and the Paimio tuberculosis sanatorium (1929-1933) was precisely that – providing a user-friendly and practical solution to healthcare (Aalto also designed most of the furniture with the famous Paimio chair devised to assist patients’ breathing).

From then on designs became more fluid with the increased use of natural materials and spatial awareness. The concept once again went from the outside inwards, with interiors and even small details such as fixtures and fittings all forming part of a cohesive aesthetic. One of Aalto’s main achievements was the invention of the L-leg system that enabled legs to be attached directly to the table, he also pioneered the practice of bending and splicing wood, leading to the curved look of the tables and stools. This also meant that furniture could be created on an industrial scale, through defined product lines that were also patented.


Aino and Alvar enjoyed a close partnership in work and in love, with Aino’s travels to source ideas for Artek often taking her away from home until her early death from cancer in 1949. During these times apart the couple kept in touch by a constant of letters, and these epistolary exchanges are woven into the narrative expressing a certain freedom that hints at an open marriage but also a healthy flexibility that helped to keep their relationship alive, according to Suutari’s take on events. This is a love story that brims with positive vibes, and clearly the couple drew contentment and creative energy from their secure family life and love for their children.

After Aino’s death, Alvar was not to be alone for long, he soon married young architect Elissa Makiniemi and the couple would go on to design a villa just outside Paris on their return from Venice. La Maison Louise Carre (main pic) was completed in 1959, for art collectors Olga and Louis who had rejected Le Corbusier deeming his concrete style too austere. Aalto again created a complete package for the couple, with garden design, garage and interiors (now open to the public since since 2007).

Enlivened by family photographs and plentiful archive footage, diagrams and painstaking research, Aalto is a pithy yet concise undertaking that will satisfy professional as well as dilettante appetites. We are left with an impression of the artists as warm, creative and compassionate individuals who would change the face of Finland not just for the few but for the many who continue to celebrate his design legacy all over the world. MT

www.alvaraalto.fi | PREMIERED AT CPH:DOX 2021

Two of Us – Nous Deux (2020)

Dir.: Filippo Meneghetti; Cast: Martine Chevallier, Barbara Sukowa, Lea Drucker, Jerome Varanfrain, Muriel Bemazaref, Augustine Reyes; France/Lux/Belgium 2019, 95 min.

Filippo Meneghetti’s first film tells an unusual love story, somewhere between realism and fairy tale. Nina and Madeleine are neighbours in a small town in the Moselle region of France. But the ladies have been lovers for decades although coming out will be problem, particularly for Madeleine (Mado), whose children Anne (Drucker) and Frederique (Varanfrain) are self-righteous conformists.                                  

German émigré Nina (Sukowa) is the driving force in the relationship: she is keen for Mado to sell her flat and move to Rome. But Mado is only too aware of divorced hairdresser Anne’s feelings, and her son is a misogynist at the best of times, and takes her property off the market angering Nina.  But things deteriorate even further when Mado suffers a stroke and is rendered speechless and immobile needing a full time carer in the shape of Muriel (Benazaref), who is quietly possessive of her new charge. Although Anne tries to take over but love eventually finds a way – via Bingo of all things.

Beautifully crafted and sensitively performed Two of Us is a worthwhile and unique lesbian love story that joins films such as in in showing that Love and emotional intimacy is so important at any age and this mature love affair feels fresh and authentic despite its bourgeois provincial setting that gives the drama its glorious settings.

Although the script suffers inexperience plot development wise, veering between fairy-tale comedy and a dramatic critique of Mado’s blinkered children who stay in the way of the elderly couples’ happiness, this is an intelligent film pointing out how small town values are not necessarily ageist ones. That an un-offensive couple like Nina and Mado should live in fear of being ostracised for being lesbians is very dernier siecle – particularly since it would stay in the family, a family Mado would love to leave despite her visceral connection to her children. There is much to enjoy and admire here, but a much clearer approach on genre identification would have been welcome. AS

ON BFI | JW3 NW3 |SELECTED FOR THE 2021 ACADEMY AWARDS.

     

Mogul Mowgli (2020) ***

Dir: Bassam Tariq | UK Drama, 90 min

Riz Ahmed is screen dynamite as a British Pakistani rapper afflicted by a wasting disease in this dazzling and deeply personal portrait of racial identity and the ties that bind.

Bassam Tariq takes a thematically rich subtext based on Ahmed’s background and sideline in the music world, and winds it into a trippy visual experience with a throbbing soundscape but less punchy script fuelled by the inner turmoil of its main character.

Ahmed plays New-York based rapper Zed on a visit to his parent’s modest London home in the wake of a European-wide concert tour. The homecoming drudges up disorientating memories of racial and religious tension and a longing for the warmth of home life in the light of his imploding romantic relationship with girlfriend Bina. Suddenly he is a brother and son again (to his devout and hard-working father Bashir (Alyy Khan) rather than just a music star with a growing fanbase.

Worryingly Zed also experiences signs of physical weakness and is admitted into hospital for tests which reveal an autoimmune condition, possibly a metaphor for his suffocating family. Despite his family’s religious concerns Zed decides to take up the offer of a promising clinical trial which may however threaten his fertility.

His time in hospital is fraught with anxiety and tension and Tariq channels this into febrile hallucinatory sequences that tap into the social and cultural heritage that Zed left behind him in his struggle for musical and material success. Although this all looks exciting the script fails to mine the dramatic potential to any affect, leaving us constantly on the outside looking in. The constant repetition of ‘Toba Tek Singh’ – a phrase Zed chants obsessively with his father in the final scene – will leave most viewers baffled, given the film’s Muslim sensibilities.

Ahmed is extraordinary to watch lighting up every frame with his febrile intensity, particularly in the scene where he tries to persuade Bina to help him with a ‘sample’. Clearly heartfelt and well-intentioned this portrait of a sensitive artist also occasionally feels self-indulgent and contextually bewildering due to the complexity of the issues involved, but that is clearly the nature of the world we now live in, and the root of society’s modern malaise. MT

OUT ON 30 OCTOBER 2020

 

 

 

 

 

Being a Human Person (2020) ****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IN CURZON | CINEMAS FROM 16 OCTOBER 2020

Totally Under Control (2020) ****

Dir.: Alex Gibney, Ophelia Harutyunyan, Suzanne Hillinger; Documentary with Rick Bright, Robert R. Redfield, Eva Lee, Alex Azar, Nancy Messonier; USA 2020, 124 min.

Prolific documentarian Alex Gibney and his co-directors Ophelia Harutyunyan and Suzanne Hillinger got together with a bunch of scientists and US government politicians to try to work out how the Covid19 pandemic wreaked so much havoc in the US, with over 8 million infections, at the time of writing.

Back in January before the world was engulfed by the virus US President Trump was heard to say “Its just one person coming in from China”. By the end of that month Alex Azar, Secretary of State for Health and Human services claimed: “the national testing programme is up and running”. But it was not.

Trump refused to believe the scientists and called the CDC (Centres for Disease and Prevention) a “Deep State” site attempt to undermine his re-election chances. Its director, Robert Redfield had a history during the Aids crisis, calling for abstention and a strictly religious approach to the pandemic. Eva Lee director of the Centre for Operations Research in Medicine and Health Care at the Georgia Institute of Technology, developed a programme called Real-Opt using algorithms to predict the course of the pandemic. Meanwhile in South Korea testing was already well under way resulting in only 300 casualties from the pandemic. Asian countries were accustomed to using masks, and non compliance meant heavy fines. The American approach saw the refusal to wear a mask as a patriotic duty. The death rate soared, the USA representing 20% of global victims on this planet, in a total citizenship of just 4.23 %. 

The Trump administration had meanwhile got rid of the Pandemic Crisis Group set up by Obama. Returning from India at the end of February, Trump insisted the US was in a prime position. At  Stadium packed with 100 000 he wooed the crowd with open arms, and went on calling the pandemic a hoax:”only fourteen cases were known”. Nevertheless, a special Covid unit under the leadership of Vice-President Pence (who had encouraged cruises and visits to Disneyland) was formed. It consisted of Dr. Deborah Birx, a scientist and diplomat. She has stayed the course within the Trump circle, making compromises all the time, whilst Dr. Fauci, Director of the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases, has clashed with Trump on more than one occasion. 

Trump insisted that tests would provided for all US citizens but the reality was very different: it was not just the Test Programme, which was handicapped by the lack of available testing material, PPE equipment and respirators were also short in supply, with fierce competition between the various states to secure specialised equipment after the government had sold millions of masks to China at the beginning of the pandemic. Countless health workers and first responders paid with their lives.

Trump fought hard to avoid a lockdown, but pressed too early for a re-opening: “We are not a country which was built for a lockdown, we do not let the cure be worse than the problem”. Trump replaced civil servants with business men, and fired no fewer than five Inspector-Generals. The president also indulged in “miracle cures” like hydroxychloroquine, an unproven medicine which was promoted by the Rasputin-like figure of Dr. Vladimir Zelenko. After Trump had taken the drug (“A gift from God”), Dr. Birx was asked by reporters to verify this – her answer was “its frustrating, it will rain for three days”. Whistle-blowers like Dr. Nancy Messonier of the CDC, and Max Kennedy (grandson of Robert) helped uncover government secrets such as the too early release of a vaccine in time for the election on November 3rd.  

Shot by DoP Ben Bloodwell (and many others) with protective covering between Talking Heads and camera, Totally under Control has nothing particularly new to bring to the party, but chronicles a disaster that cost many their lives. The end is poignant and full of poetic justice: a day after the feature was finished, President Trump caught the virus, but lived to tell the tale. AS

IN CINEMAS FROM FRIDAY 23 OCTOBER 2020 

   

  

        

 

 

A Call to Spy (2019) Netflix

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Painter and The Thief (2020) ****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Summer of 85 (2020) Mubi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOW ON MUBI

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ON CURZON HOME CINEMA | DIGITAL DOWNLOAD 23 OCTOBER

 

 

Ronnie’s (2020)

Dir: Oliver Murray | Doc with:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ON QUALITY PLATFORMS

 

 

The Other Lamb (2019) **** MUBI

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

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

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

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

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

THE OTHER LAMB is available on MUBI from 16 October 2020

 

 

Frida Kahlo (2021) DVD and Digital



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

      

  

Herself (2020)

Dir: Phyllida Loyd | UK Drama, 97′

It certainly helps to have friends in high places according to this utopian crowdpleaser that sees an abused wife and mother making a new start with her two girls in Dublin.

Playing out like an uplifting female-centric companion-piece to I, Daniel Blake this is a film along similar lines and is certainly better crafted than Ken Loach’s flung together social realist agitprop, that bizarrely went on to win a Palme d’Or.

Herself is the latest from English director Phyllida Lloyd who is best known for her blockbusters Mamma Mia and Iron Lady. Newcomer Clare Dunne co-wrote the script based on her own life experience, she is also impressive as an idealistic but enterprising home-help called Sandra who finally comes to end of her tether marriage-wise after a violent set-to with her troubled husband (Ian Lloyd Anderson). From the safety of an upmarket hotel room (courtesy of social services) she decides to make a new home for herself and her daughters after seeing a self-build model on the internet.

One good idea leads to another and the project gains momentum when her wealthy boss Dr O]Toole (Harriet Walker) offers to lend her the £35k – the good doctor became close to Sandra’s mother, her longterm domestic and support. Soon a motley crew of friends and tradesmen band together to help Sandra realise her dream, enjoying the camaraderie of this self-help exercise and the buzz it generates all round. Naturally the project doesn’t run smoothly and febrile flashbacks to the grimness of Sandra’s former life with her nasty husband counterbalance the saccharine scenario of the present.

Predictable in its cheesy outcome and off-the-peg characterisation this is a cheerful life-affirming film that also manages to combine a feisty courtroom segment with the false bonhomie of the home-building effort just for good measure. MT

NOW ON GENERAL RELEASE

Saint Maud (2019) **** Bfi player

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IN CINEMAS 9 OCTOBER 2020

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

 

 

About Endlessness (2019) ****

Dir: Roy Andersson | Drama, Sweden 78′

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

A Perfectly Normal Family (2020) ****

Dir.: Malou Reymann; Cast: Kaya Toft Loholt, Mikkel Boe Folsgaard, Rigmor Ranthe, Neel Ronlolt | Denmark 2020, 93 min.

Dutch filmmaker Malou Reymann directs and co-writes this thoughtful family drama about a sex change: the football mad father decides to live in a woman’s body, having fought his owns demons to reach a decision. His wife and two young daughters are left to cope with the shock of their new reality in small-town middle-class Denmark.

It all starts with the birth of the youngest daughter Emma who has hardly left the womb before she is watching a rowdy football match sitting on her father’s lap. Fast forward to her preteen years (played by Loholt) as a striker for the local girl’s team, father Thomas (Folsgaard) in rapt attendance. The whole family is flabbergasted when he admits to being on hormone replacement therapy in preparation for the sex-change operation in Thailand. Although his wife Helle (Ronlolt) feels alienated; teenage daughter Caro (Ranthe) takes it all in her stride, criticising Emma for not accepting Thomas as ‘Agnete’. A therapist doesn’t help matters, and Emma finds it difficult when Agnete refers to ‘her femininity’, insisting the family use her new name in public.

Caro’s big family confirmation celebration passes without incident, Helle even dancing with Agnete. But Emma is awkward around her ‘new mother’, who wants to be referred to as such in front of Dutch strangers on a family holiday on Mallorca. Emma hits the bottle after hearing her friends slagging Agnete off (“he had his dick cut off”). This is all too much for Thomas/Agnete who makes some radical changes.

Reymann interweaves the beautifully crafted narrative with home videos of the daughters at a young age, showing how things change. Loholt is undoubtedly the star of the show in a performance that perfectly conveys feelings of bewilderment when her football-loving dad suddenly pretends to “know nothing about football”, in a bid to cosy up to women in his new gender status.

If Reymann is critical at all it is when Thomas overdoes the female angle, showing a distinct lack of sensitivity towards Emma and her efforts to take it all onboard. Occasionally erring on the didactic, A Perfectly Normal Family packs in the small details in a texturally rich drama, seen from Emma’s perspective, adjusting to the new status quo without the emotional filters of adulthood. Never melodramatic or sentimental, Reymann’s debut is a mature and measured experience of modern sexuality. AS

NOW IN CINEMAS | ROTTERDAM FILM FESTIVAL | Big Screen Competition (Voices) WINNER 2020

 

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

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

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

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

They tens mainstay IV (1907)

When Hilma af Klint died at the age of nearly eighty-two, she left 1200 paintings and 26 000 pages of diary to her nephew Erik, with the clear proviso that nothing should be sold from a body of work that would only be exhibi