Posts Tagged ‘STREAMING’

The Vigil (2019) ****

Dir: Keith Thomas | Cast: Dave Davis, Lynn Cohen, Menashe Lustig, Malky Goldman, Fred Melamed | US Horror, 89′

A malevolent spirit is the suggestible unseen character in this Keith Thomas’s unique horror debut set amidst Brooklyn’s Hasidic community.

A religious practice known as ‘sitting shiva’ is the premise of the claustrophobic funereal spine-chiller. Jewish family members are required to provide comfort and protection to the deceased by sitting with the body and saying prayers for a seven days and nights. Sometimes a ‘shomer’ is paid to do the honours, as is the case here with Yakov (a convincing Dave Davis) a young Jewish guy who is ingratiating himself back into the tightly-knit community and finds this a respectable and fairly easy way of making money. But clearly a deeply unsettling if redemptive one, as we soon find out.

Thomas creates a palpable sense of terror with his seriously spooky soundscape and nauseous colour palette soaked in ghastly dried bloods and neon greens all shrouded in deathly shadows. Much of the dialogue is in Yiddish adding an exotic twist to proceedings delivering a unique cultural experience. It soon turns out that the deceased, Ruben Litvak, a Holocaust survivor, was himself haunted by a dybbuk (or evil spirit) who followed him back from wartime Buchenwald. Meanwhile his ageing wife Mrs Litvak (Lynn Cohen) is a menacing character who has also suffered in concentration camps and is now scratching around on the foothills of Alzheimers. All this feeds on Yakov’s own mental instability over a tragic event in his past forcing him to make a midnight call to his psychotherapist for some emotional support. Or at least he thinks he’s talking to Dr Kohlberg.

DoP Zach Kuperstein must get some of the credit with his spooky camerawork and lighting techniques during this night of terror and spiritual retribution. This is an intelligent piece of filmmaking that shows how trauma can feed on itself and actually perpetuate mental anguish and paranoia until eventually this scenario becoming hard-wired into the brains of those affected and their descendants. MT

THE VIGIL WILL BE RELEASED ON DIGITAL PLATFORMS ON 30TH NOVEMBER AND ON DVD ON 4TH JANUARY IN THE UK AND IRELAND

 

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

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 Ground Beneath my Feet (2019) **** Mubi

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

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

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

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

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

The Ground Beneath My Feet | stream or download on MUBI

Waiting for the Barbarians (2019) ***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOW AVAILABLE TO WATCH ONLINE

 

 

 

The Ninth Gate (1999) Prime video

Dir: Roman Polanski | Cast: Johnny Depp, Frank Langella, Lena Olin, Emmanuelle Seigner, Barbara Jefford | DoP: Darius Khondji | Wri: Roman Polanski, John Brownjohn, Enrique Urbizu | 133mins   Horror Thriller

A book collector pops his clogs – quite literally – during the title sequence of this amusingly sardonic thriller starring Johnny Depp as Dean Corso, a shady book dealer hired to locate the last remaining copies of a demonic manuscript purportedly written to raise the Devil.

Perfectly indulging Polanski’s penchant for the macabre, the idea was taken from ‘El Club Dumas’ a novel by Spanish writer Arturo Perez-Reverte, and is one of five horror films the maverick filmmaker has made so far in his eclectic career.

Wojciech Kilar (The Pianist) conjures up an atmosphere of sinuous evil with pristine camerawork from Darius Khondji (Funny Games), Polanski once again surrounding himself with the crème de la crème to create an enjoyably unsettling foray into a world of conspiracy, murder and satanic ritual.

The Ninth Gate (which gets its title from a fictional work ‘The Nine Gates Of the Kingdom of The Shadows’ (1666)  by Aristide Torcia) was not well received critically, despite a well-judged turn from Depp as a tough and noirishly scuzzy lead who is soon joined by a foxy and sinister sidekick in the shape of Emmanuelle Seigner, who follows him around in an anorak in similar mode to her Mimi from Bitter Moon (1992). But the film did pave the way for The Pianist (2002) which was greeted as a much-awaited return to ‘form’ and won his an Oscar for Best Director.

Judge for yourself. Ninth Gate is a good-looking, globe-trotting tale of intrigue with Hitchcockian overtones that unspools in a shadowy New York and travels to the more edgy corners of fading 20th century Europe (Sintra, Toledo and Cathar France) involving a range of seedy characters – and it’s the performances that really make this worthwhile. It then wanders down a rather absurdist plotline until a denouement which strangely echoes Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999).  In The Ninth Gate Polanski blends style and technical finesse with the playful nonchalance of a director who has already done it all and can afford to have some fun with this outlandish but engaging tale. MT

THE NINTH GATE IS ON PRIME VIDEO

Perfumes (2019) ***

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

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

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

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

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

The Hater | Sala Samobojcow Nejter (2020) **** Netflix

Dir.: Jan Komasa; Cast: Maciej Musialowski, Gabi Krasucka, Danuta Stenka, Jacek Koman, Agata Kulesza, Adam Grandowski, Maciej Stuhr, Piotr Biedrom; Poland 2020, 135 min.

Polish director Jan Komasa (here teaming up with again with his script writer Mateusz Pacewicz from Corpus Christi fame), goes from strength to strength, his latest outing Hater, a blend of sexual and party politics, went on to win this year’s Best International Narrative Feature Award at Tribeca.

It follows Tomasz (a strong Maciej Musialowski) who has just been sent down from his Law studies for plagiarism, and is licking his wounds in the company of God parents Robert (Koman) and Zofia (Stenka) and their daughter Gabi (Aleksander) in their plush Warsaw flat. Leaving his mobile behind on purpose so he can eavesdrop on their negative comments about him, he is left deflated. Their relationship goes back a long way, the Krasuckas and Tomasz’ family often holidayed together, and the young man has always carried a candle for Gabi, who is already involved, and has dropped out of university due to drug problems.

Tomasz is hungry for affection from the Krasuckas, but also hell bent on revenge. He joins the social media agency run by the devious Beata Santorska (Kulesza), and soon he is on the staff of liberal politician Pawel Rudnicki (Stuhr), who is running for mayor, Krasucka family are among his main followers. Tomasz wins Rudnicki’s trust, the young man ‘thanking’ him by luring the seemingly bi-sexual candidate into an LGTB club. But the scandal doesn’t impact negatively on Rudnicki. Then Tomasz goes for broke, arranging a march by Rudnicki’s supporters next to a “White Power” demonstration. Failing again, he uses his last ace, Stephan ‘Guzek’ (Grandowski), a mentally impaired right-wing weapons addict. The ensuing bloodbath is nothing compared with the brilliant twist at the end.

Tomasz is a baby-faced psychopath who does everything to undermine the Krasuckas, but still is desperate for Gabi’s love. There is a world of difference between Tomasz’ behaviour at work (where he cruelly dismisses his former boss Kamil, having overtaken him in usefulness for Beata), and his miserable home life. Tomasz is almost reduced to tears when Gabi leaves with her new boyfriend for New York. Komasa shows how social media can become the last resort for the frustrated, masochistic loser, desperate for revenge and needy of love. DoP Radek Ladczuk’s hard-edged images leave nothing to the imagination: Kieslowski would have been proud of his soulless city where superficial consumerism and racist hatred has replaced the drabness of Stalinism. AS

NOW ON NETFLIX.
    

         

Casting (2017) *** Digital release

Dir.: Nicolas Wackerbarth; Cast: Judith Engel, Gerwin Haas, Corinna Kirchhoff, Ursina Lardi, Stephen Grossmann, Milena Dreissig; Germany 2017, 91 min.

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant was a study in female sado-masochism and one of the best films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s short-lived but sparkling career. Casting is a pale rider in comparison. The play within a film sees Nicolas Wackerbarth attempting to update the original. It requires the audience’s familiarity with the 1972 feature, and the fate of the Fassbinder crew and cast, who were a close-knit family. Here Petra becomes a man – in line with the assumption that Fassbinder himself was the model for Petra (Margit Carstensen) – who sexually objectifies  younger lover Karin Thimm (Hanna Schygulla).

Newbie director Vera (Engel) is five days away from the first day of filming, but she still hasn’t found her lead. Well – she thought she had, in the shape of Almut (Lardi), but rumour has it that Vera and producer Manfred (Grossmann) are now looking for a younger actress, possibly Mila Ury-Teche (Sellem). The action gradually closes in on Karl (Haas), who is just a ‘prop’ reading the parts of the actors who can’t be on set. But he somehow fits the part of Petra, and hassled by the commissioning TV editor and the producer, Vera gets more and more keen on the idea of the part being male, and gradually Karl seems to fit the bill in resembling the original Petra. But will it all work?

Casting settles down to an odd mixture of comedy and drama: the majority of films in Germany are TV co-productions and rely on the goodwill of commissioning TV editors. Although the lampooning works successfully here, the narrative is too episodic to keep us interested and the haphazard handheld camerawork makes this worse, the protagonists dodging in and out of the frame in a  ‘running gag’ that becomes irritating, undermining its original intention. 

Wackerbarth’s description of his female characters stays true to that of Fassbinder who once commented “women use their repression as terror weapons. I am not a misogynist, I am just honest”. The message here is the same. Michael Ballhaus’s images are light years away from Jurgen Carle’s would-be-avant-garde approach. On the whole, progress still seems an uphill struggle for German Cinema. AS

CASTING IS SET FOR A DIGITAL RELEASE ON 31 JULY 2020

 

The Plot Against America (2019) HBO Series 1-6

Dir.: Minkie Spiro, Thomas Schlamme; Winona Ryder, Morgan Spector, Zoe Kazan, John Turturro, Caleb Malis, Azhy Robertson, Anthony Boyle, Jacob Laval, Kristen Sieh, Eleanor Reissa, Michael Kostroff, Caroline Kaplan, Ben Cole, Graydon Josowitz); USA 2020, 360 min.

This ground breaking six-part HBO TV series is outstanding. Written by David Simon and Ed Burns (The Wire) and based on Philip Roth’s 2004 alternative history novel of the same name, it shows how Fascism came to America in 1940. A brilliant cast, imposing re-creation by PDs Dina Goldman and Richard Hoover, who, like the directors Minkie Spiro (Jessica Jones) and Thomas Schlamme (Westwing) share the six episodes of this staggering production of alternative US history: “It Could Happen Here”.

Many will remember the theme tune “The Road is open Again”, an old Warner Brother’s short film score promoting Roosevelt’s New Deal episodes. This ushers in the Levin family in their home in Weequahic, Newark/New Jersey in the summer of 1940, a few months before the Presidential Election in the autumn of the year. ‘Its a done thing’, that Franklin Delano Roosevelt will be elected, at least for his staunch supports Hermann Levin (Spector), selling life insurance for a living, and his wife Bess (Kazan), who keeps the family tightly organised. Their oldest son, teenager Sandy (Malis) has a talent for drawing but disagrees with his father’s outlook on life, that only Jewish affairs matter. The youngest, Philip (born like the author in 1933), is much more interested in his friends than in politics. Hermann has just given up the idea of a promotion which would enable the family to move into a bigger house, having seen beer-slurping members of the Fascist “German-American Bund” in what would have been his new neighbourhood.

Opposing Roosevelt in the election is the pilot-hero “Lindy” Lindbergh (Ben Cole) of ‘Spirit of St. Louis’ fame, who is a believer in eugenics, a supporter of ‘America First’ and a vicious Anti-Semite. The real Lindbergh, who shared the political outlook of his fictional double, was not selected as candidate of the Republican Party. Lindbergh put a simple phrase forward and repeated it at nauseam: “This is between Lindbergh and War”, implying that President Roosevelt would ‘drag’ the USA into the European War. Lindbergh won in a landslide.

Meanwhile Bess’s sister Evelyn (Winona Ryder back and better than ever) is looking after their mother (Reissa), and has fallen for conservative Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf (Turturro), an avid supporter of Lindbergh. A grateful president gives Bengelsdorf the leadership of the “Office of American Absorption”, a scheme designed to evict Jewish families from their homes on the East Coast, to the American “Heartland” of the South, where the KKK and other racist organisations hold sway supported by the authorities. This brings about another conflict between Sandy and his father, the teenager claiming to not having seen KKK members when he spent six weeks in Kentucky with a farmer. Cousin Alvin (Krumholtz) is a small-time gangster and clashes with Hermann, but gets the thumbs up from Sandy. Alvin finally flees to Canada, where he joins the Army, losing a part of his leg. In a bid to bury their differences Hermann invites Alvin (“family is family”) to live with them again.  Alvin is able to gain the attention of his boss’s daughter, helping her father to fight off a gang robbing his arcade machines, and setting up a lucrative future and marriage, thanks to his skills as radar operator acquired in the in the war. 

But Lindbergh has changed the political climate: with slogans such as “the USA will not be part of the war in Europe, because it was caused by Jews”, the Jewish minority is victimised, Anti-Semitic attacks having become common. Hermann is hassled by FBI agents for offering a home to a ‘criminal’ like Alvin: the young man has contravened the American Neutrality Act which forbids any involvement in the War.

Philip is ‘introduced’ by his wealthy friend Earl Axman (Yosowitz) to the world of female underwear. Meanwhile the father of his friend Seldon (Laval), the Levin’s next door neighbour suddenly dies. Jews start to emigrate to Canada, including Hermann’s best friend Shepsie (Kostroff), the projectionist of the newsreel cinema in Weequahic, where the two watched Hitler’s rise in Europe. The Levins are now put on a list for a new “home”, Hermann has been “transferred” to Kentucky by his company. He resigns and works for a greengrocer. Bess insists on emigrating to Canada, after begging her sister Evelyn in vain to be taken off the list for the ‘exile’ in Kentucky. Seldon and his mother Selma (Sieh) are not so lucky, they have been put on the list for Kentucky, because Philip told his aunt Evelyn that he would miss Seldon, if only the Levins would have to move. One day, the troubles rising, Bess gets a phone call from Seldon: his mother is missing. Hermann and his two sons drive to Kentucky, only to learn that Selma has been burned alive in her car by the KKK. Even though the roads in the South are full of patrolling KKK members, Hermann brings Seldon ‘home’. Then, in the midst of a looming civil war in the country, President Lindbergh, flying his own plane, is reported missing.

There is so much to enjoy and admire in this series: Turturro’s operatic appeaser; Evelyn’s social climbing – she even dances with Nazi Foreign Secretary Joachim von Rippentrop at the White House during his visit; history unfolding as Hermann and Shepsie watch from the projection room at the cinema; the entire social dynamic of the Levin family.

Put at its simplest, The Plot Against America is an eye opener: the ‘America First’ and White Supremacist movement has always been virulent – but it takes a populist president to give them credence and light the fire. Never has history been so cleverly and affectively foretold. AS

ON SKY ATLANTIC | NOW TV

 

     

 

Clemency (2019) Prime Video

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Krabi 2562 (2019) *** Bfi Player

Dir: Ben Rivers, Anocha Suwichakornpong | Experimental, Drama | UK 97 minutes

Krabi is not just an exotic beach location in Thailand where you can ‘get a massage”, as a one banal Western couple found out. In this offbeat cinema vérité experiment Ben Rivers joins fellow director Anocha Suwichakornpong to explore the landscape and stories within the wider community of this well-known beauty spot rich in Mangrove forests, limestone cliffs and offshore islands. 

The meditative often mysterious drama works chronologically, ethnologically and socially, the atmospheric use of sound – whether ambient or man-made – captures and distils the often eerie enigmatic essence of the place in a specific moment in time where the pre-historic, the recent past and the contemporary world collide. Tonally, Rivers conjures up that same resonant serenity and offbeat humour often associated with the Far East in a story that feels very much like that of Hong Sang-soo’s humorous In Another Country (2012). 

A Thai filmmaker arrives in the area to research locations. She is escorted by a guide offering insight into local folklore and a chance to discover the area’s more undiscovered corners: remote caves where they come across a wild-haired shaman in a loin-cloth, stoking his glowing campfire. Bizarrely, a film shoot is also taking place nearby jolting us back into reality as the scantily clad actor clocks the shaman, Rivers contrasts this with her trip to the highly commercialised shopping area where every type of cuisine is on offer. Deep in the lush rainforest we meet an octogenarian who has lived his entire life in a wooden house. The farmstead is also home to a humpback pig and cockerels. The news that Krabi has a Biennale of its own plays out against the background of gently flowing water as a group of rowers glides by gigantic cliffs. Another black and white scene features enormous shells and skeletons in a depths of a coastal cave giving the piece at atavistic twist.

It soon turns out that the location scouting filmmaker is researching the town’s cinema that has been shut since 1981; a banner announcing the latest releases “Comming soon!” – is a dusty testament to a cinematic past where screenings ran for 24 hours a day, and were packed full. But her presence seems to be a concern only to the local police, as bats and flocks of birds flit past the ghostlike temples of spiritualism and commerce, and dusk falls in this dreamy backwater. Langourously the strands come together to exert an unsettling pull over us as we muse over this fascinating but rather enigmatic trail of events. Intriguing nonetheless. MT

BFI PLAYER from 20 JULY 2020 | LOCARNO FILM FESTIVAL 2019 |  7 -17 AUGUST 2019

BUÑUEL in the Labyrinth of the Turtles (2020)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PREMIERING ON BFI PLAYER ON 9 JULY 2020                       

The Disappearance at Clifton Hill (2019) ****

Dir: Albert Shin | Cast: Tuppence Middleton, David Cronenberg | Fantasy Drama, Canada 100′

Tuppence Middleton is the intriguing focus of this Canadian-set mystery drama that sees her investigating a haunting childhood event in the Clifton Hill area of Niagara Falls. David Cronenberg plays a mesmerising podcaster who joins in to unlock the past in a thriller that is interesting to watch rather than gripping as a psychological whodunnit.

In his third feature Canadian filmmaker Albert Shin has developed a distinctive cinematic style with lurid echoes of David Lynch, Hitchcock and even Cronenberg himself. There’s a chilling vibe to the richly textured, atmospheric drama with its characters who feel like real people you might even know, and you certainly feel for Middleton’s Abby who still keeps her edgy allure. The story develops in an offbeat but often contrived way and what slowly comes to light is predictable until the riveting reveal.

Shin knows the territory well. He grew up in Niagara Falls where we first meet Abby working as a hotel receptionist in this seedy off season tourist centre. Nothing is what it seems, and Abby gradually becomes an enigmatic woman dogged by a history of mental illness clouding the truth behind that  lakeside outing with her parents when she saw a boy with a patch over his eye, being kidnapped.

Back in the present and Abby and her sister (Laure/Gross) have recently lost their mother and are back in town with the family lawyer (Dan Lett). The girls now own a motel and a sale needs to be concluded on the rather distressed property. The sibling rivalry feels genuine here and naturally they fall out over their legacy. Initially we are on board with Abby, rather taking her side of events, until she starts to give off unreliable vibes after a chance meeting in a bar with a guy (McQueen) who turns out to be a detective. A one night stand goes pear-shaped but he takes up the case of the missing boy and further investigations soon reveal sleazy secrets from the past, and some characters who you wouldn’t trust to post a letter. These include the infamous Magnificent Moulins (Marie-Josée Croze and Paulino Nunes) who turn out to be the parents of the missing one-eyed boy whose disappearance underpins the narrative. Also key are a couple of raddled old-timers (Elizabeth Saunders and Maxwell McCabe-Lokos) who seems to play a part in the boy’s murky fate.

An evocative jazzy soundtrack gives the film part of its unsettling allure, Catherine Luke creating neon-tinged visuals that reflect a tackier side of the lakeside resort, this is a captivating film that casts a certain spell. MT

ON DIGITAL DOWNLOAD 20 JULY | DVD 3 AUGUST 2020

Spaceship Earth (2020) **** VOD release

Dir.: Matt Wolf; Documentary with John Allen; USA 2019, 113 min.

Larger and much stranger than life, director/producer Matt Wolf (The Marion Stokes Project) has followed the eight ecologists, who, in 1991, were locked into Biosphere 1, a glass dome in Arizona, to live under conditions aping those on Mars. Animals and plants thrived, but it was not so much the conditions inside, but the human disconnections outside that clouded the experiment in controversy. Still, for a documentary that takes its time – exactly one hour – to get to the main event, Spaceship manages brilliantly to keep us enthralled.

In all starts in San Francisco in 1966: young Kathelin Gray meets a much older John Allen, whilst reading René Daumal’s ‘Mount Analogue’, Allen promises her much more than books, and together with other enthusiasts, they found the travelling theatre group Theatre of All Possibilities. Deciding that Frisco has become too commercialised, they take roots (literally) in New Mexico, living on the land, guided by the Synergy principle, naming the ranch after their motto. Later they built a ship, called the ‘Hereclitus’, naming it after the man who left his privileged life to live in harmony with everyone on earth. They met Burroughs, and adored Buckminster Fuller. Unlike most commune dwellers, they worked very hard, for little profit. But Allen, who had a sense of capitalist reality and soon found a helping hand in form of Ed Bass, a billionaire, who bought a hotel in Kathmandu for the collective, before bankrolling the Biosphere 2 dome.

The eight people, looking rather strange in their red astronaut suits were Roy Walford, Jane Poynter. Taber MacCallum, Mark Nelson, Sally Silverstone from Essex, Abigail Alling, Mark van Thillo and Linda Leigh. The hermetically sealed three-acre paradise of plants and animals suffered an overdose of CO2 (and  therefore a lack of oxygen), which led Dr. Walford come to the conclusion he would have to eat even less thanks to the low levels of oxygen , and could live for another 120 years. Soon oxygen was pumped in, but it degraded the scientific data. Jane Poynter got her finger stuck in the hay cutting machine, and had to leave for the hospital – coming back with an extra bag – another no-no according to the rules set up before. Media and scientists called the ecologists a ‘cult’, the grass grew limp and tempers frayed. Afterwards, Bass invited a young Steve Bannon (yes, that Bannon!), straight from Goldman Sachs, and this meant the end of the Bass/Allen relationship.  

Spaceship Earth reaches a melancholic conclusion: the founder members, John Allen and Marie Harding, – who have since married – among them, sit around a table amid an air of nostalgia. All of them have kept to the good life of the synergy days, and have stayed out of the commercial rat race, which now includes bio products and anything ‘alternative’. Watching them, we get keen sense of how far away from their heydays we have moved. DoP Sam Wootton underlines feeling of loss with his camerawork which mirrors the archive footage of the original group. To think that something as repulsive as the rip-off Bio-dome made millions at the box office, breaks your heart. AS

ON DEMAND | 10 JULY 2020 |

 

Anthropocene: The Human Epoch (2019)

Dir: Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas de Pencier, Edward Burtynsky | Doc 87′

In her latest eco-documentary Baichwal finds a breath-taking way of showing how humans are destroying the planet. We started off with good intentions, and admirable causes: Carrara Marble gave us the Sistine Chapel and Michaelangelo’s David, but now it mostly provides bathrooms. Teak from the forests of Southern India provided us with oceangoing boats to fight off the Spanish Armada. But enough is now enough. Our burgeoning populations have created an insatiable need for raw materials. This cycle of pillage and endless destruction has overtaken production: our seas are nearly empty, our woods and forests increasingly bare, this untold environmental depletion is even taking its toll on the air we breath.

Rather like Michael Glawogger did in his time, Jennifer Baichwal (Watermark) and her team travel all over the world’s far flung corners to highlight the bizarre and the intriguing. Breathtaking images make us stare in disbelief, mesmerised by the sheer scale, beauty or  dreadfulness of it all. In Russia’s most polluted city, huge mines produce smelted metal used to construct machinery that plunders more minerals from the earth. Germany makes mammoth machines weighting thousands of tons, capable of tearing down a church steeple in seconds to provide space for more mining activity (known as Terraforming, apparently). In the arid salt flats of the Atacama Desert neon-green pools of lithium brine desiccate in the punishing glare of the sun. The batteries will power our electric cars. A doom laden narration from Alicia Vikander feels redundant, anyone can understand the implications of this sinister story without making it even more dour.

So despite some alluring photography Anthropocene offers no positive angles, and we are left feeling hopeless and helpless. Once we built a civilisation, now we are tearing it all apart. MT

ANTHROPOCENE | NOW ON VOD

 

Au Bout des Doigts | In Her Hands (2019) *** Curzon Home Cinema

Dir: Ludovic Bernard | Cast Karidja Touré, Lambert Wilson | Kristin Scott Thomas | Jules Benchetrit | Drama French, 106 minutes
Music is the redeeming force in this Parisian prodigy drama from Luc Besson’s former assistant director Ludovic Bernard (Lucy).
Social realism clashes with the soigné world of the National Music Conservatory in an elliptical story that sees a disadvantaged young man develop his hidden talent thanks to a well-meaning protegé inspired by a tragedy of his own. Lambert Wilson is Pierre Geithner the director of the music college where Kristin Scott Thomas is draconian piano teacher, La Comtesse. Both will help Mathieu Malinski (Benchetrit) to become a concert pianist in this French riff on ‘My Fair Lady’.
As French dramas go this is solid rather than inspiring. Both Geitner and Malinski have the most scope as characters with their troubled backstories which are well-sketched out – although Benchetrit doesn’t always make the most of his complex role. The reverse is true for Scott Thomas, who tries hard to add nuance to her rather one dimensional Countess. Fortunately she has enough experience and talent to flesh out this severe woman, not so Malinski’s mother, a rather weak performance from Else Lepoivre. Karidja Toure is a breath of fresh air as Mathieu’s girlfriend Anna, a talented musician who possesses enough carefree elan to give Mathieu the confidence to believe in himself, in this casebook study of young male empowerment.
Jean Nouvel’s slick contemporary culture complex provides a slick counterpoint to the scenes in the down-at-heel banlieu where Malinski hangs out with his gang. In flashback we see him being inspired by a kindly old relative before the chic Countess swings in with her no nonsense approach, that often clashes with Malinski’s laid back style. And although she almost gives up in the end, Geitner’s continued passion for his discovery offers the most surprising reveal. MT
UK Release Date | 10th July 2020 | On Curzon Home Cinema

Let it Burn | Dis a era due me via Chorar (2019) *** Mubi

Dir.: Maira Bühler; Documentary; Brazil 2019, 81 min.

In her remarkable documentary Brazilian filmmaker Maira Bühler follows the residents of a hotel turned hostel for crack addicts trying to put their lives together again.

The original title Tell Her That She Saw Me Cry is actually much more suitable. What we are really dealing with here is a domestic drama about lost souls whose emotions are so raw that they can only be released in forceful, often self harming, ways often counterproductive to their recovery. In 28 rooms on 7 floors, 107 residents live out their grim existence in the centre of Sao Paulo. Not that we see very much of Brazil’s capital – only the noise of passing trains reminds us of the vast metropolis outside and the brutal streets where hope was decimated long ago for these hapless inhabitants in their lost ark of social abandonment. But at least a den of iniquity is preferable to the jungle outside.

A trade mark of today’s Brazilian documentary style is the obsession with detail combined with an objectivity that captures an out-pouring of emotions often frightening to witness. A man shouts into his phone, desperately declaring his love for a woman who might not even be listening – but his cri de coeur is at the same time proof of him being alive. A lonely woman in a deserted dormitory waits for a lover who might never return. The longing for company is what keeps the majority of the tenants alive. The camera searches out the human links and reveals little groups clinging on to each other for survival. An aching love song reminds us what this is all about: love, however fleeting, is vital for survival.

The social gulf between film crew and their subjects is enormous. But when the crew has installed a tripod in the lift and starts filming, one woman reveals to the director that she is completed uneducated. But even though there is an uncomfortable feeling of voyeurism, the woman never prevents the camera from intruding into her misery. The strength of the film is that it allows ambiguity to develop without letting fragility and vulnerability mask the gradual humanisation. Sadly, this last chance saloon of salvation has now been shut down as part of the cutbacks in psychiatric support instigated by President Bolsonaro’s far right government. AS

SCREENING DURING SHEFFIELD DOC FESTIVAL 2019

 

The Girl with the Bracelet (2019) **** Curzon World

Dir/Wri:Cast: Stéphane Demoustier | Cast: Melissa Guers, Roschdy Zem, Anaïs Demoustier, Chiara Mastroianni, Annie Mercier, Pascal-Pierre Garbarini

Wilful nonchalance comes across as evil in this sophisticated social thriller from Stephane Demoustier based on the script of Acusada by G. Tobal and U. Porra Guardiola and set in the Britanny town of Nantes. 

Thee chilling story of modern teenagehood plays out in the stylish family home of Lise Bataille (Guers) – accused of murdering her best friend Flora Dufour – and in courtroom scenes where an intense battle plays out during the murder trial. This is probing stuff and you really have to concentrate hard on the subtitles if you don’t speak fluent French.

16 year old Lisa lives with her parents (Chiara Mastroianni and Roschdy Zem) and has been forced to wear an electronic ankle monitor after the fateful night she spent at Flora’s house. Flora was found savagely stabbed to death around midday the following morning. Lise is the main suspect and the only genetic print on Flora’s body has been traced back her. It also emerges through Lise’s frank confession, that the two purportedly slept together naked in Flora’s single bed, Lise giving her friend oral sex before they fell asleep intoxicated from an evening of drinking during which Lisa had also sucked off a boy called Nathan, an incident filmed on a mobile ‘phone, and produced in court.

This is a psychological thriller that focuses on how the witness comes across, rather than the forensic evidence of the murder. The reaction of Lise’s family, friends and those in the courtroom comes under the spotlight but her parent’s seemingly fraught relationship fails to be fleshed out, leaving us in doubt about their exact feelings for one another, or indeed if they are still together and there is no backstory to inform the aftermath of these crucial details. Meanwhile, Lise appears poker-faced and indifferent throughout, sometimes even given a unsettling stare. It’s a mesmerising performance from newcomer Guers. Both her parents express their surprise at the change in her behaviour, both stating that prior to the tragedy she was an open, pleasant and easygoing daughter. Now they start to questions her motives, as well as her innocence.

The Girl With a Bracelet puts the audience in the role of judge and jury as the rest of the courtroom tends to fade into the background. Anais Demoustier (the director’s sister) is powerful as the prosecuting barrister, and Annie Mercier is also convincing as the experienced defence counsel. But Lise’s supreme confidence and aplomb generates considerable tension for all concerned as we start to question if she’s playing us all along as a killer with no remorse, or really is a complete innocent. When this whodunnit from the court room drama genre, the crucial difference here is attitude rather than evidence. And here we are left pondering how we would anticipate a close family member to react when accused of murder, and whether we’d judge them for their behaviour in court, or give them the justice they deserved. The final scenes reveals all. MT

NOW ON CURZON WORLD | LOCARNO FILM FESTIVAL 2020

 

 

Last and First Men (2020) *** Bfi On Demand

Dir: Johann Johannsson | Wri: Olaf Stapledon | Sci-fi Iceland, 70′
Narrated by Tilda Swinton and shot in stunning 16mm black and white by Sturla Brandth Grøvlen (Silver Bear winner for Rams),  Last and First Men is the cinematic sole feature directed by the late Johann Johannsson who composed striking soundscapes for films such as Sicario, Mandy, Arrival and The Theory of Everything. The film transports us into a surreal world of phantasmagorical monuments where a future race of humans finds themselves on the verge of extinction. Overlaid by the dulcet tones of Tilda Swinton telling a tale of crumbling future civilisations based on the classic 1930 sci-fi work by British writer Olaf Stapledon, the spectral presence of an entity attempting to communicate with us slowly emerges.
Icelandic composer/director/writer Johan Johannsson (1969-2018) had been working on this eerie, apocalyptic and at times enigmatic passion project for almost a decade. The brilliant  16 mm black-and-white visuals were shot in former Yugoslavia and feature old bunkers and war-glorifying monuments. They are as impressive as Johannsson’s score, which was added separately at The Barbican in 2018.

In Stapledon’s cult novel, the First Men are humans. In the twenty-first century, a war breaks out in Europe, leaving the USA and China as super-powers. In the 24th century, the USA and China go to war, culminating in the First World State. Four millenniae later, humans have depleted the planet of fossil fuel, and civilisation as we know it collapses. Later, a riot occurs at a mine resulting in a subterranean explosion, making earth uninhabitable for millions of years. Thirty-five humans at the North-Pole survive, they later split with another species, the sub-humans. The Last Men are the 18th Men, the most advanced model of humankind, mainly consisting of philosophers and artists with very liberal sexual morals. “Superficially we seem to be not one species but many”. Sub-genders exist, variants of the basic male and female patterns. The units, the equivalent of families, have the ability to act as a group mind. They do not die naturally anymore, only by accident, suicide or being killed. In spite of this all, they practice ritual cannibalism. After a supernova infects the Sun, making it expand and consume the entire solar system, Mankind cannot find a way to escape. This last species of men create a virus to spread life to other planets and cause the evolution of a new species in the galaxy. The first and last Men communicate, the latter trying to warn their predecessors and teach them survival tactics.

Johannsson was a prolific composer and clearly a decent filmmaker. Producer Thor Sigurdjonson has completed the work Johansson left behind, and the result is in many ways, a unique and passionate eulogy. AS

On demand on BFI Player on 30 July 2020 | BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL | 2020

Carmine Street Guitars (2018) ****

With Rich Kelly, Cindy Hulej, Dorothy Kelly2018 | CANADA | Doc | 80′

This genial music biopic explores the laid-back vibe of Carmine Street Guitars, a little shop in the heart of New York’s Greenwich Village that remains resilient to encroaching gentrification.
Custom guitar maker Rick Kelly and his young apprentice Cindy Hulej build handcrafted instruments out of reclaimed wood from old hotels, bars, churches and other local buildings. Nothing looks or sounds like the classic instruments they have created with loving dedication. The film shoots the breeze with Rick and his starry visitors who treat us to impromptu riffs from their extensive repertoires and talk about how much they treasure this village institution and its reassuring presence as a little oasis of calm in the ever-changing, fast-paced world of the music business.
Rick’s pleasant banter with these lowkey luminaries is what makes this enjoyable musical therapy for fans and those who have never heard of the guitars, their craftsman or those who have commissioned and cherished the hand-made instruments since the 1960s: Bob Dylan, Lou Reed and Jim Jarmusch, to name but a few. A small gem but a sparkling one. MT
STREAMING ON DIGITAL PLATFORMS FROM 26 JUNE 2020

Anne at 13,000ft (2019) MUBI

Dir/scr: Kazik Radwanski. USA/Canada | 75 mins

Deragh Campbell is terrific as a troubled nursery school teacher at the centre of this often raw and intimate look at mental illness. Kazik Radwanski’s fractured narrative and dizzy handheld camerawork gives a close up and personal feel to this evocative third study of people in challenging situations. This time the focus is Anne whose work in a children’s daycare centre comes under scrutiny from her colleagues who start to object to her random behaviour. Her best friend and colleague Sarah (Dorothea Paas) is supportive but busy with preparations for her wedding.

One of the key issues is Anne’s tendency to trivialise matters to mask her inner turmoil and she often plays around when she should be taking her work around special needs kids more seriously. Life in the school interweaves with Anne’s first experience of skydiving which presents an opportunity to disengage from the sober world and set herself free. Sarah’s wedding is another difficult occasion for Anne who makes a heartfelt speech before drinking too much and ending up in the arms of Matt, a lovely, light-hearted guy (Matt Johnson) who looks after her when she gets post party food-poisoning. Radwanski keeps the lid on Anne’s mental status but it’s clear she is on the verge, or has recently emerged from some kind of crisis.

Matt is particularly good in the way he gradually becomes part of Anne’s day to day life and the scenes when they visit her family fizz and feel good in contrast to the fraught and buttoned-up interactions with her colleagues. But when she later meets her mother things spin out of control as Anne becomes increasingly neurotic over a trivial issue. This is clever filmmaking and Radwanski shows considerable aplomb in the way he shows Anne being ultra-patient with kids but is reduced to tears after relating her pet cat story to them later completing losing her cool in the car despite Sarah’s kindness and support. But the natural chemistry between Anne and Matt are what makes this so lovely as a snapshot of a woman coping with the past and the man who is loves her, against the odds. MT

NOW ON MUBI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

WITH DIRECTOR JUSTIN KURZEL

AND ACTORS GEORGE MACKAY, ESSIE DAVIS, AND EARL CAVE

 

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

Dir: Hlynur Palmason | Iceland, Drama 90′

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

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

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

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

ON DIGITAL PLATFORMS from June 26, 2020

Summertime | La Belle Saison (2015) *** MUBI

Dir: Catherine Corsini | Cast: Cecile de France, Izia Higelin, Noemie Lvovsky, Benjamin Bellecour | 104min  | Drama | France

Catherine Corsini brings a sizzling energy to her lesbian love story set in Paris and the glorious landscapes of Le Limousin. Summertime will appeal to arthouse lovers and the LGBT crowd alike with its fresh and feisty turns from Cécile de France and Izia Higelin as unlikely bedfellows who come together during the French feminist uprisings in 1971.

Izia Higelin plays Delphine, a simple country girl arriving in Paris from her parents’ farm to seek her fortune in the capital. Feeling gauche and naive she soon gets caught up in the vortex of female political activism attracted by the strong and earthy women who appeal to her nascent lesbian leanings. Working at that well known grocery store Félix Potin, she falls in love with 35-year-old Carole (Cécile de France) who is dating the dishy writer Manuel (Benjamin Bellecour). After an awkward first act focusing on the feminist fervour of the time – which sadly feels embarrassing and rather contrived – the two begin a torrid affair that takes them back to the countryside where Delphine’s father becomes seriously ill and her mother Monique (Noemie Lvovsky) is left to run the business. They all get on like a house on fire in this sunny second act that serves as a genuinely delightful introduction to  daily life on a small working farm. Here we meet Antoine, a family friend and Delphine’s intended – according to her mother – and he immediately takes on the role of a sexual voyeur, tuning into couple’s romantic vibes, while giving Carole a wide berth. Delphine’s heart is in the ‘terroir’ but her love for Carole grows. Cécile de France gives a gutsy go at being Carole, torn between her life in Paris with Manuel and her budding feelings for Delphine.

Corsini conveys the strong physical urges of her lovers with scenes of earthy nudity and splashy sex. And although the two are a potent match, it’s clear Carole is experimenting while Delphine is  committed. Higelin brings a natural vulnerability to her part, not dissimilar from that of Adèle Exarchopoulos in Blue is the Warmest Colour. The younger of the two, she exudes a natural affection for Carole as well as a healthy lust, but Carole is a more complex girl whose ego demands to be worshipped.

Corsini is no stranger to big-screen lesbian love affairs, best known in this context for her 2001 Cannes competition hopeful Replay, featuring a gutsy yet tragic relationship between Emmanuelle Beart, a successful actress, and her less accomplished partner. Here the focus is more on innocence versus experience.  In a welcome twist, Delphine pursues Carole initially in a cat and mouse chase that spices up the storyline. But tradition starts to take over as the family responsibilities take over, throwing her back into Antoine’s orbit.

Although the film struggles for a feminist political agenda this often feels forced and less convincing than the scenes in the traditional farmstead. Lvovsky is a natural as Delphine’s mother whose straightforwardness and feral protection of her daughter and farm provides lush contrast to the more liberated Parisian style of Carole. Azais’ character masks an emotionally buttoned-up man, hesitant to pursue his personal agenda, a quality her shares with his object of affection Delphine.

Jeanne Lapoirie’s widescreen cinematography is resplendent but doesn’t idolise the Rubenesque voluptuousness of the naked women making love in the meadows, and Gregoire Hetzel’s occasional score adds a zeitgeisty ’70s twang to the soundtrack. MT

On MUBI THIS WEEKEND | 19 JUNE 2020

Joan of Arc | Jeanne (2019) **** Digital release

Dir: Bruno Dumont | Drama, France 137′

Bruno Dumont follows his musical biopic on the childhood of France’s martyred heroine, Jeannette, with this chronological drama exploring the final years of the Maid of Orléans (1412-31, who became a Roman Catholic saint for her part in reinstating Charles VII to the throne contested by England during the Hundred Years War.

Basing his narrative on the writings of Charles Péguy, his dignified and painterly portrait is suffused with an air of fantasy and opens in 1429 with the same actor Lise Leplat Prudhomme – who was ten at the time – in the title role of Joan. In Jeannette (2017) she was about eight but now now she is has developed into a confident, aspirational teenager with that same air of vulnerability and spiritual purity, not unlike that of Jesus. And Prudhomme is extraordinarily  convincing in the role, exuding a rare maturity. Dumont is clearly both in awe and in love with Joan and determined to clear her name and debunk the myths that led to her burning at the stake as a heretic. The story may be medieval but it still resonates today.

The wildness and clarity of light recalls that of Dumont’s Hors Satan (2012) which was also filmed in the dunes around Pas de Calais near where Joan underwent her trial for heresy. The internal scene takes place in the staggeringly majestic Amiens Cathedral. Dumont eschews the fussiness often connected with historical drama, instead opting for this fresh Neo-realistic approach that allows the focus to rest on the starkly sober message and dialogues between Prudhomme and the cast of non-pros made up of local academics and historians. MT

JOAN OF ARC on digital platforms from 19th June | CANNES 2019 | UN CERTAIN REGARD – SPECIAL MENTION

 

 

The Bigamist (1953) *** MUBI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE BIGAMIST IS now SCREENING ON MUBI

Resistance (2020) *** Streaming

Dir.: Jonathan Jacubowicz; Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Clemence Poesy, Matthias Schweighöfer, Felix Moati, Karl Markovics, Geza Röhrig, Vica Kerekes, Bella Ramsey, Ed Harris; USA 2020, 121 min.

Hollywood and Holocaust are often poor bedfellows: One hugging the duvet the other suffering in silence, as in this biopic on Jewish hero and mime legend Marcel Marceau, that gives centre stage to the infamous Klaus Barbie who already hogged the limelight in Max Ophuls’ definitive documentary Hotel Terminus. Barbie may provide the stuff of melodramas but here the focus should have been Marceau.

Venezuelan born filmmaker Jonathan Jacubowicz (Hands of Stone) bills this son of a Jewish butcher, who started life in Strasbourg as Marcel Mangel, as a ‘Piped Piper of Hamlyn’ figure who played a significant role in smuggling Jewish kids to safety. The director has clearly done his homework in a script informed by Marceau’s cousin Georges Loinger (Geza Röhrig). The result is Life is Beautiful meets Inglorious Basterds: once again the Hollywood playbook wins the day.

The film joins young Mangel just before War breaks out, he’s running the shop with his father (Markovics) and keen to marry French resistance worker Emma (Poesy) impressed by her knowledge of Freud and attempts to smuggle Jewish orphans into Switzerland. Joined by his  brother Alain (Moati), cousin Georges and his girl-friend Mila (Kerekes) Mangel soon discovers his gift for mime, communicating silently with the children, one is Elsbeth (Ramsey) traumatised by the brutal murder of her parents in the “Kristall Nacht” pogrom of November 1938, pictured in the opening sequence. Once the Germans occupy France, the group moves on to Limoges, then Lyon where Mangel takes up forgery changing his ID documents to Marceau, and comes up against the Gestapo, led by the infamous Klaus Barbie, the “butcher of Lyon” who soon imprisons Emma and Mila in the city’s Hotel Terminus that has become his private torture chamber After Marcel’s father is deported Auschwitz, the film culminates in a “great escape” of sorts.

DoP Miguel I. Littin-Menz sets this on a grandiose scale with breathtaking panorama shots and intimate close-ups of Klaus Barbie and his young family, upstaging Marcel and his troupe who feel like pale riders in comparison. A terrible quote from Anna Karenina forms the backdrop to one eerie scene round the hotel’s empty swimming pool. Despite his idiosyncratic talent for facial subtlety, mime is clearly not Eisenberg’s metier but he makes for a compelling He relies on his spoken language, but makes for a thoughtful Marceau. With a running time not warranted by the narrative, Resistance is certainly revealing, but fails on the finer points: the Shoah was not a colourful spectacle – we shouldn’t honour the dead by giving so much time and attention to the murderers. 

ON MAJOR STREAMING PLATFORMS | 19 JUNE 2020

https://youtu.be/hkE7daIvkeM

Fanny Lye Deliver’d (2019) ***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DIGITAL STREAMING | DVD FROM 24 AUGUST 2020

On the Record (2020) **** Streaming

Directors: Kirby Dick, Amy Ziering | Cast: Drew Dixon, Si Lai Abrams, Jenny Lumet, Tarana Burke, Kierna Mayo, Joan Morgan, Kimberle Williams Crenshaw | USA, 96′

More #MeToo stories, this time from Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering whose controversial new documentary puts the spotlight on women who have come out to denounce hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons. The focus here is Drew Dixon.

This is the filmmakers’ third foray into #MeToo territory and Drew Dixon takes centre along with  two other victims – out of twenty – who have filed sexual assault and rape charges against record producer and hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons. The incident became a news story before the film premiered at this year’s Sundance Festival. Oprah Winfrey, one of the executive producers, withdrew from the project she had fostered for a long time, thus destroying any chances of it being acquired by Apple+. The reasons are very opaque: there were threats from Russell, film critic and Ava DuVernay allegedly told Winfrey, that the documentary did not accurately flesh out the hip-hop world of the setting. Finally, Winfrey decided “there were inconsistencies in Dixon’s story that gave me pause” and the feature had been rushed to appear at Sundance. What ever the true reasons for Winfrey’s jumping ship, HBOmax won the screening rights for what turns out to be a worthy companion to Leaving Neverland, Surviving R. Kelly and Untouchable.

Drew Dixon (*1971) is the daughter of former Washington DC mayor Sharon Pratt and went to Stanford University. Becoming a record producer for Def Jam, a label led by mogul Russell Simmons, was her dream job. She overlooked the fact that Simmons would often come into her office, showing his member. In a milieu where the culture of celebrity “bad-ass” men was celebrated, Simmons’ behaviour did not seem to be totally out of place. Dixon became an A&R executive, responsible for the soundtrack of the 1995 documentary “The Show”, helping to build the careers of Method Man among others, whom she later paired with Mary J. Bilge. It all came crashing down for Dixon, when Simmons invited her to his apartment after a party. He appeared naked with a condom and asked her in a very harsh voice “to stop fighting”. Later, the writer Sil Lai Abrams would report a similar incidence with Simmons. After leaving Def Jam, Dixon worked for Clive Davis at Arista, but CEO L.A. Reid started to harass her. Out of spite, to destroy her career, he passed on signing a new talent, a certain Kanye West. Dixon left the industry all together, and it took her until 2017 to pen an article in the New York Times, to make the public listen to her story.

There are two issues which make the case of the three black women appearing on the documentary (Dixon, Abrams and Jenny Lumet) complex: until now, any public critique of the black community, by fellow blacks, is seen by the majority as treachery – helping the enemy, ie. the white majority. Secondly, black women still feel excluded from the #MeToo movement. Dixon claims she felt enormous pressure to denounce somebody of the standing of Russell Simmons. It took her twenty years – being alone with her trauma – to overcome the barriers.

As for Simmons, he decided not to appear in the documentary but send a written statement, issuing countless denials of he false accusations: “I have lived an honourable life as an open book for decades, devoid of any kind of violence against anybody”. In 2018 he nevertheless emigrated to Bali, Indonesia, a country which has no extradition arrangement with the USA. Reid too repudiated all allegations. He left his position as CEO of Sony Epic, and raised 75 $ Million to form a new company. Drew Dixon has recently gone back to the drawing board with a new career in the music business, working from her flat. AS

ON STREAMING PLATFORMS FROM 18 JUNE 2020 | Available on iTunes, Apple TV, Amazon Video, BFI Player, Curzon Home Cinema, Dogwoof, Google Play, Rakuten TV, Sky Store, Virgin Media, YouTube

 

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

Dir Christophe Honoré  | France, Drama 93′

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

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

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

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

CURZON WORLD | CANNES UN CERTAIN REGARD WINNER – BEST ACTRESS

 

 

The Ornithologist (2016) **** BFiplayer

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

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

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

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

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

FREE ON BFiPLAYER |

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

 

Prince Avalanche (2012) **** MUBI

Dir/Wri:: David Gordon Green | Original: Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson | Cast: Paul Rudd, Emile Hirsch, Lance Le Gault, Joyce Payne | 94min  Comedy  US

David Gordon Green plunders the Icelandic comedy original Either Way (2011) for this deliciously quirky re-make of male bonding and reflective melancholy. It all kicks off when an unlikely couple of friends spend the summer of 1988 Texas repainting traffic lines on a Texan country highway ravaged by wildfire.

Prince_Avalanche_1_PUBS copy

Ostensibly a recipe for disaster: Lance (Hirsch) is an insecure extrovert looking for casual weekend hook-ups and conversation, Alvin (Rudd) is shy and self-contained but, crucially, dating Lance’s elder sister and is corresponding with her by letter, it being the eighties. A rich vein of comedy lies in their gradual falling out and re-grouping as they discover weird and wonderful things about themselves and about each other that creates a strange and appealing chemistry. Occasionally wandering into whimsey with the arrival of a local elderly woman who lost her home in the fire, and an old man who offers them a slug of the local hooch, the film maintains an offbeat feel true to Gordon Green’s indie roots.

Tim Orr’s cinematography focuses on the stunning natural environment picking out the local wildlife to stunning effect. An evocative original score from David Wingo and Explosion in the Sky (The Kite Runner) really captures the hazy, mood. MT

ON MUBI FROM 13 JUNE 2020 | Best Director Silver Bear Berlinale 2013

Seasons in Quincy: The Four Portraits of John Berger (2016) *** MUBI

Dir.: Colin McCabe, Christopher Roth, Bartek Dziadosz, Tilda Swinton; Documentary/Essay with John Berger, Tilda Swinton; UK 2016, 90 min.

To call the novelist, art historian, painter and poet John Berger a Renaissance man is for once no hyperbole. In 1972 he won the Booker Prize for G, and in the same year was the main contributor to the influential BBC series “Ways of Seeing” – at a time when television tried to edify audiences rather than anaesthetising them.

Berger, who died in January 2017, aged 90, also wrote film scripts during the mid 1970s, notably for the Swiss auteur Alain Tanner (La Salamandre, Le milieu du Monde, Jonah who will be 25 in 2000). He left London for good in 1973 to spend the rest of his life in the French mountain village of Quincy in Haute-Savoie. Seasons is an omnibus edition of four short films that illuminates his way of thinking.

The first sequel, “Ways of Listening”, directed by McCabe, was shot in 2010 when Tilda Swinton (who wrote the script) visited Berger in Quincy just before Christmas. It is a discourse about friendship and art. Berger and Swinton not only share a birthday (34 years apart) and place of birth (London), but also fathers who had been active soldiers, fighting in WWI and WWII respectively – and would never talk about their experiences, in spite of being severely wounded. While Swinton peels apples for a crumble, Berger sketches her. They also talk about his “Bento’s Sketchbook” to explain the workings of his mind – a deeper diver into this would have been welcome!.

Christopher Roth’s second part “Spring” is mainly a discourse about humans and animals – no surprise, since Berger’s work is often centred around the relationship between the two. Some of Berger’s texts on the subject are read out, and we see samples of his TV work. But the episode is very much coloured by grief: Berger had recently lost his wife of nearly forty years, Beverly, to cancer and Roth’s mother had also died. Feeling like a collage, “Spring” is the most emotional chapter of the quartet.

“A Song for Politics”, directed by McCabe and Bartek Dziadosz (also editor and cinematographer of the other parts and director of the Derek Jarman Lab, which co-produced Seasons), consists mainy of a black-and-white TV style discussion between Berger, McCabe, and the writers Akshi Sing and Ben Lerner, about the plight of today’s Europe. Berger bemoans the fact that a society which only exists “to do the next deal” lacks historical input. They agree that old-fashioned capitalism is dead, But a discussion is needed about what has replaced it. There are rousing songs from the early years of the 20th century when ‘Solidarity’ was the slogan. Ironically, Berger states, “solidarity is only needed in Hell, not in Heaven”. Paradoxes and contradictions are flying around, and it’s no surprise the come to no conclusions.

“Harvest”, directed by Tilda Swinton, is filmed in Quincy and Paris – Berger had to move for health reasons to the French capital where he would later die. Swinton takes her teenage twins, Xavier and Honor to Quincy, to meet Ives, Berger’s son of his marriage with Beverly. There is a resonance from “Ways of Listening”, as far as father/son relationships are concerned, Ives being an artist. But it is also a tribute to Beverly who planted a huge raspberry garden, the children enjoy the fruit “giving Beverly pleasure”. In Paris, Berger, in spite of his frailty, is keen on teaching Honor how to ride a motorbike, whilst her mother looks on in horror. But “Harvest” feels like a long goodbye between Berger and Swinton: not sentimental, but deeply felt.

Seasons is proof that you only need some existential ‘old-fashioned’ ideas, and a mini-budget to produce something worthwhile. In spite of its small faults, this essay/documentary makes the audience curious – and if it ‘only’ encourages us to find out more about the work of John Berger, it has fulfilled its purpose. AS

ON GENERAL RELEASE FROM 23 JUNE 2017 | CURZON CINEMAS

A Foreign Affair (1948) **** Blu-ray release

Dir.: Billy Wilder; Cast: Marlene Dietrich, Jean Arthur, John Lund, Peter von Zerneck, Millard Mitchell; USA 1948, USA 1948, Comedy 116 min.

Shot in post war Berlin, the ruins of the divided capital a startling sign of the times, A Foreign Affair reunited Billy Wilder (1906-2002) with his star Marlene Dietrich. Both had met in Berlin in 1929, when Wilder interviewed Dietrich, who had a part in George Kaiser’s musical revue ‘Two Ties’ – the same year Wilder collaborated with Robert Siodmak and Fred Zinnemann (among others) for Menschen am Sonntag. 

US captain John Pringle (Lund), has an affair with German ‘Lorelei’ nightclub singer Erika von Schlütow (Dietrich), well aware fraternisation between US soldiers and German civilians is strictly forbidden – but disregarding this anyway. But prim congress woman Phoebe Frost (Arthur) arrives in Berlin to enforce these strict ground rules. Meanwhile, Pringle’s commanding officer, Colonel Plummer, turns a blind eye to his involvement with the German femme fatale, hoping she leads the army to Hans-Otto Birgel (von Zerneck), a Nazi war criminal.

Phoebe and Pringle meet and realise they are both from Republican-dominated Iowa and this flirty encounter adds grist to the mix. Later, Phoebe and Erika are arrested in the ‘Lorelei’ unable to produce their identification papers. Down at the police station, Erika claims Phoebe is her cousin, and they both get off Scott free. But back at the apartment, when Erika reveals Pringle is her lover, Phoebe storms out humiliated, just before Pringle emerges arrives. But eventually love finds a way.

The shoot was no less fraught with emotional up and downs. Jean Arthur was jealous of Marlene Dietrich, claiming, claiming Wilder favoured her because of their history of working together. Once, in the middle of the night, Wilder, Jean Arthur and her producer husband Frank Ross turned up and caused a furore over some close up shots. Later, to try and smooth things over, Wilder offered Arthur the chance to be doubled in a rough scene where GI soldiers were required to toss her into the air. After rejecting the offer of the double, Arthur then complained Wilder had humiliated her.

The feature was very much a re-union party for the rest of the crew: composer Friedrich Hollaender had written the score, returning with Wilder from Hollywood having emigrated after composing the score to The Blaue Engel. And Erich Pommer, former boss of the UFA, was part of the production team trying to rebuild the West German film industry. DoP Charles Lang was nominated for an Oscar for his documentary style grainy black-and-white images. He would later collaborate with Wilder for Sabrina, while the director would go on to make One, Two Three with James Cagney in Berlin in 1961 – just when the Wall went up. AS

ON BLU-RAY | 22 JUNE 2020

My Mother | Mia Madre **** | Mubi

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

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

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

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

NOW ON MUBI

Echo in the Canyon (2019) **** VOD release

Dir: Andrew Slater | US Doc, 82′ | With: Lou Adler, Eric Clapton, The Beach Boys, Ringo Star, Michelle Philips, Tom Petty, Beck, Graham Nash, Jackson Browne, Jakob Dylan, David Crosby

The Californian neighbourhood of Laurel Canyon takes centre stage for this richly crafted rockstar-studded retrospective about the mid 1960s music scene, from debut filmmaker Andrew Slater. Practically every living musician who formed part of the folk scene of the era shares nostalgic anecdotes and musical performances from the era with artist Jakob Dylan who occasionally makes his own contributions interweaved with archive footage.

Brian Wilson, Ringo Star, Eric Clapton, Michelle Philips, David Crosby, the Mamas and the Papas, and Tom Petty in one of his final interviews before his death in 2017, all feature amongst the glitterati of rock legend. And those who remember and treasure the era will be richly rewarded with archive footage showcasing the Byrds’ Turn! Turn! Turn!, the melodious musings of the Beach Boys and other L.A.-based breakout of an era that would go on to influence and capture the imagination of song writers and performers all over the world.

This is a documentary first for Slater who cut his teeth in journalism and went on to collaborate with Dylan on a Los Angeles tribute concert in 2015. And a coterie of more contemporary singers Norah Jones, Cat Power and Fiona Apple amongst them join in to perform tunes from the original artists back in the day. Obviously seen from a US point of view, film focuses on the brief period between 1965 when the Byrds were number one of the charts with their interpretation of Bob Dylan’s Mr. Tambourine Man (Don’t Look Back), and 1967, when folk music started to “go electric” and folk and rock came together, the Beatles and Cream providing a British answer to the music of the Beach Boys and the Byrds, Brian Wilson recalls how his 1966 album Pet Sounds was influenced by the Beatles’ breakout 1965 album Rubber Soul. And Michelle Philips richly recalls her romantic beginnings with fellow band member John Philips in this entertaining and illuminating trip down a musical memory lane. MT

VOD DIGITAL RELEASE FROM 8 JUNE 2020

Vampir Cuadecuc (1971) **** BfiPlayer

Dir: Pere Portabella | Christopher Lee, Herbert Lom, Soledad Miranda | Sound Design: Carles Santos, Jordi Sangenis | Horror | Spain 67′

Made in 1970 by the Catalan avant-garde filmmaker Pere Portabella (1929-), Vampir Cuadecuc is a weirdly effective experimental slice of ‘Hammer’ horror that rides on the back of the filming of Jesus Franco’s Count Dracula (El Conde Dracula) that styles Christopher Lee as a grey-haired blood-sucker who is seen rocking sunglasses like some 1970s version of Karl Lagerfeld.

Almost entirely dialogue-free and driven forward by a sinister and occasionally seductively languorous soundscape, the film is curiously watchable, its silent moments as beguiling as the discordant outbursts that threaten to dominate proceedings, even more than Count Dracula himself, who remains and elusive but mesmerising presence throughout. Filmed in lush black and white on a 16 millimetre camera, it almost feels as if Portabella and his crew where lurking in the bushes like a posse of predatory voyeurs. .

Impressionistic and highly suggestive the film swings between deranged docudrama and heightened melodrama, Bram Stoker’s storyline running along the same lines as F W Murnau’s silent classic Nosferatu (1922), but lacking the lyrical romanticism of Werner Herzog’s 1979 Nosferatu the Vampire (1979). The narrative here is fractured by the scenes being played in different sequences and often repeated, but Cuadecuc (which apparently means ‘worm’s tail in Catalan) still retains an hypnotic fascination because we all know the storyline and the vicariousness actually adds allure to the original, Portabella creating a piece of cinema verite. The final scene featuring Christopher Lee is the icing on the cake of this highly original curio. MT

NOW ON BFiPLAYER 

 

The Case For Daniel Birt and Dylan Thomas

In his series on underrated British directors, Alan Price looks at two films from English filmmaker Daniel Birt (1907-55) who started his career in the cutting room with Channel Crossing (1933) and went on to make thrillers and TV fare before his early death at 47.

On consulting Brian McFarlane’s “The Encyclopedia of British Film” (2003) I found this entry for Daniel Birt: “It seems unlikely that anyone will try to elevate Oxford-educated Daniel Birt to auteur status but one of his films is striking enough to deserve attention.” 

That film is The Three Weird Sisters (1948), a fascinating semi-Gothic melodrama and quasi critique of capitalism, set in rural Wales. But there’s another Birt film worthy of attention: his remarkable drama No Room at the Inn (also 1948) about child evacuees of the Second World War in Northern England. 

Like McFarlane I would hesitate to call Daniel Birt an auteur, but who knows for sure? Many of his films are hard to see (From 1935 to 1956 he directed just under ten films.) The invaluable TV channel Talking Pictures has recently screened Inn. Perhaps other Birt films will materialise so we can judge him better? He’s certainly a subject for further research.

What’s also distinctive about these two films is that they were co-written by Dylan Thomas. The Welsh poet was employed to re-write dialogue and change scenes; though maybe not paid to criticise, even scorn Welsh identity, local bureaucracy and insert a fairy-tale element into one of the stories. A case for complete authorship on these collaborations begins to throw up an interesting debate between writer and director.

The Three Weird Sisters (A deliberate nod here to the three witches in Macbeth) depicts three old fashioned and elderly women (played by Nancy Price, Mary Clare and Mary Merrall) living in a decrepit mansion near a disused mining village in Wales. The former mine collapses and destroys some property. The concerned sisters wish to rebuild the houses but have no money to do so. They call on Owen (Raymond Lovell) their local businessman brother to help them. On arriving at his sisters’ place Owen refuses financial aid. The sisters then devise a plot to kill him through poisoning his drink. It fails, so they continue on him whilst also attempting to murder Owen’s secretary Claire (Nova Pilbeam) the heir to his fortune.

The plot indicates some obvious shaky melodramatics yet The Three Weird Sisters keeps shifting tone: from a socialist condemnation of the wealthy, a horror comedy, a thriller and a romance between the secretary and the local doctor. On top of this are the machinations of the sisters, controlled by the blind Gertrude, needing to preserve their family name and traditions whatever the cost. Birt and Thomas’s switching from the creepy, the romantic and the political meshes quite well, giving the film an odd originality, while Birt’s visual style often reveals a deft eye for detail and imagery – numerous shots of the sisters on a rickety staircase, as unpredictable as themselves, hold your attention. 

The film’s political rant is a denunciation of the Welsh nation and an attack on the inequality of a political system that exploited the village for coal, and then deserted it. One strange but memorable scene is worth describing; Nova Pilbeam flees the house to inform the local police of the sisters’ intentions. On receiving short shrift from the local constabulary she leaves to find Mabli Hughes (Hugh Griffiths) an out-of-work miner. He’s seated on a little hill near the neglected mine, addressing a group of four dogs, as if to rouse the workers against the system. “Here in Cumblast all social evils are condensed and crystallised. This one village may be regarded as the hub, the nucleus of a microcosm, of all Pluto-democratic, inevitable inequality.” That’s quite a hyperbolic mouthful and not the kind of dialogue you’d normally expect to find in a British film of the late 1940s. Understandably the secretary considers the miner’s speech to be sincere (if half-crazy) and quickly realises he’s reluctant to help her.

Although Dylan Thomas’s script is frequently perversely opinionated, it becomes the glue that holds the film together: best realised in the determined character of the secretary and Nova Pilbeam brings great conviction to her role. It’s the best written and least stereotyped part in The Three Weird Sisters. She’s feisty in her attempt to bring some common sense and order amidst the gothic strains of the film’s plot. Like her performance, when a young girl, in Hitchcock’s first version of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1932) Pilbeam may appear on the surface to be ‘over-sweet’ and too posh but underneath the surface charm she’s a no-nonsense woman, confident and focused. Nova isn’t going to be put down by incompetent men and dangerous women (nearly all the female characters in The Three Weird Sisters and No Room at the Inn are more strongly realised than the men.)

A sense of the Gothic also infiltrates No Room at the Inn set in the early months of 1940. We witness atmospheric blitzed streets by the railway bridge next to a rundown house that’s definitely on the wrong side of the tracks: all lorded over by Mrs Agatha Voray (Freda Jackson) doing her damn best not to properly look after three young girl evacuees. The children live in squalor and suffer mental and physical abuse under the care of this coarse woman who invites men (local councillors and shopkeepers) for casual sex and bit of cash to bolster her shopping allowance of ration coupons. 

No Room at the Inn was adapted from a play that opened in 1945 at the Embassy Theatre in Swiss Cottage, London. Like the film it was very successful, causing The Daily Express in 1946 to devote considerable space to the plight of orphaned children in unchecked private homes. You could argue that by the time the film version appeared in 1948 public attention was drawn to a social problem in the manner that television did much later with Ken Loach’s Cathy Come Home (1966), exposing a nationwide housing crisis. 

The character of the schoolteacher Judith Drave (Joy Shelton) is remarkable, for we have – like the secretary of The Three Weird Sisters – a force for truth-seeking that refuses to be silenced. A powerfully written and acted moment occurs when Miss Drave, who has complained about Mrs Vrang’s behaviour, is asked to give evidence at a town councillors’ meeting. They dislike Ms Drave’s assertive manner. When Mrs.Voray has her right to reply she adopts the manner of a humble woman struggling to do her best during wartime restrictions. The schoolteacher sees right through her performance. But the council members (half of whom have flirted with Voray) believe her account of things over the teacher’s. I love Dylan Thomas’s writing here. His social concern is angrily targeted at bureaucratic corruption and ineptitude. And it’s much better integrated into the plot than the politics of The Three Weird Sisters.

Like The Three Weird Sisters there are fascinating if disconcerting alterations of tone – such as the beautifully written bedtime story scene in the room of the young girl evacuees. Norma Bates (yes, not Norman, though the film has its moments of Hitchcockian darkness) who is played by Joan Dowling, re-interprets the Cinderella story in a ripe, savagely Cockney manner. She comforts the children who are desperate to escape the mean house and its mean housekeeper. It’s a spellbinding moment of Dylan Thomas poetics: a joyful spin on Cinderella, beautifully shot and executed. And its lyricism is made more poignant by intercutting with Mrs Voray in the pub getting drunk with the sailor father of one of the evacuees. 

No Room at the Inn often seems prescient of much later British films about master and slave relationships between adults and children. It recalls Jack Clayton’s woefully neglected Our Mother’s House (1967) and Andrew Birkin’s adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel The Cement Garden (1993). They all contain seedy and claustrophobic forces about to explode into violent revenge. Without divulging the ending of No room at the Inn I can reveal that – for the film version – Dylan Thomas was supposed to have radically changed the circumstances surrounding Mrs.Voray’s demise. And the film’s final 15 minutes turn remarkably dark and intense, avoiding histrionics, as the story inevitably descends into pathos, suspense and horror. There’s a scary What Ever Happened to Baby Jane moment when Mrs Voray, cheated by a would-be lover, returns home drunk and furious; ascends the stairs to attack the children, looking a for a moment like a demented Bette Davis.

Neither of these two films is without flaws. The ending of No Room at the Inn is too abrupt – though the story is told in one extended flashback, I felt it should have returned to its opening scenes where a now adult Norma is caught shoplifting: while Hermoine Baddeley, playing Voray’s accomplice, Mrs Waters, gives a truly terrible and grating performance. As for The Three Weird Sisters I found some of the humour, centring on grumpy brother Owen’s health, to be overplayed and though the film admirably attempts to wriggle out of its obvious ‘old dark house territory’ it doesn’t quite succeed.

Yet putting these reservations to one side what still impressed me, on a second viewing, were many of the performances. Freda Jackson brings a full-blooded intensity to the role of the selfish and uncaring Aggie Voray. She was a sensation in the play and that’s why they made a film version which launched her considerable career on stage and in the cinema. Jackson probably became a role model for actors portraying more authentic working class women. I wonder if Pat Phoenix (Elsie Tanner) of Coronation Street was influenced by her? As for all of the child actors in No Room at the Inn well they’re brilliant – especially Joan Dowling who’s street-wise confidence cannot hide her emotional damage. She deserved a prize but unfortunately the BAFTAs didn’t begin until 1954.

This is notable British Cinema of 1948. And these two strange and atypical productions struck me as remarkably individual for their time. Whether it was Daniel Birt or Dylan Thomas who was most responsible for their power I’ll leave you to decide. Neither film is on DVD. You can see No Room at the Inn on ‘Talking Pictures’ (should be up for another screening soon.) As for The Three Weird Sisters, that can only be found as a rough, but still watchable copy, on YouTube. Alan Price.

NOW ON TALKING PICTURES | JUNE 2020

 

   

Echo in the Canyon (2019) **** VOD release

Dir: Andrew Slater | US Doc, 82′ | With: Lou Adler, Eric Clapton, The Beach Boys, Ringo Star, Michelle Philips, Tom Petty, Beck, Graham Nash, Jackson Browne, Jakob Dylan, David Crosby

The Californian neighbourhood of Laurel Canyon takes centre stage for this richly crafted rockstar-studded retrospective about the mid 1960s music scene, from debut filmmaker Andrew Slater. Practically every living musician who formed part of the folk scene of the era shares nostalgic anecdotes and musical performances from the era with artist Jakob Dylan who occasionally makes his own contributions interweaved with archive footage.

Brian Wilson, Ringo Star, Eric Clapton, Michelle Philips, David Crosby, the Mamas and the Papas, and Tom Petty in one of his final interviews before his death in 2017, all feature amongst the glitterati of rock legend. And those who remember and treasure the era will be richly rewarded with archive footage showcasing the Byrds’ Turn! Turn! Turn!, the melodious musings of the Beach Boys and other L.A.-based breakout of an era that would go on to influence and capture the imagination of song writers and performers all over the world.

This is a documentary first for Slater who cut his teeth in journalism and went on to collaborate with Dylan on a Los Angeles tribute concert in 2015. And a coterie of more contemporary singers Norah Jones, Cat Power and Fiona Apple amongst them join in to perform tunes from the original artists back in the day. Obviously seen from a US point of view, film focuses on the brief period between 1965 when the Byrds were number one of the charts with their interpretation of Bob Dylan’s Mr. Tambourine Man (Don’t Look Back), and 1967, when folk music started to “go electric” and folk and rock came together, the Beatles and Cream providing a British answer to the music of the Beach Boys and the Byrds, Brian Wilson recalls how his 1966 album Pet Sounds was influenced by the Beatles’ breakout 1965 album Rubber Soul. And Michelle Philips richly recalls her romantic beginnings with fellow band member John Philips in this entertaining and illuminating trip down a musical memory lane. MT

VOD DIGITAL RELEASE FROM 8 JUNE 2020

Mary is Happy, Mary is Happy (2013) | We Are One Festival

Dir/Wri: Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit | Cast: Chonnikan Netjui, Patcha Poonpiriya | 127’ Thailand   Drama

The second film from Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit, Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy follows in the footsteps of the Thai director’s debut, 36, by continuing his examination into life in the digital age. Much like 36, Mary… concerns itself with our relationship to technology, this time looking specifically at the effect social media has upon narrative forms – not only conventional storytelling, but also the way that we as individuals attempt to construct narratives out of our lives.

Adapted from 410 consecutive Tweets from a real life Twitter user, @marylony, Mary… is by nature a bitty, picaresque affair (the source Tweets are presented as on screen text, the noise of typing ringing beneath them on the soundtrack). Ostensibly, the Tweets have been worked into a narrative concerning Mary’s attempts to finish her school yearbook in time for her graduation, but by following the free-flowing stream of @marylony’s twitter feed, Thamrongrattanarit’s film has no choice but to adapt to a similarly free-form approach, both in style (handheld and jump-cut) and narrative.

Mary Is Happy

Indeed, in just one of many reflexive moments within the film, even Mary says that she seems to do things randomly and for no reason. Thamrongrattanarit has said that, in part, the film is meant as a play on the scriptwriter’s control over narrative, but when Mary asks if there is ‘some force controlling my life’ the question can be understood just as easily as a theological concern as it can a reflexive statement. However, by posing questions about narrative authorship within film, Mary… also examines the way people author their own lives on social media. Like conventional storytellers, users of social media sites open windows through which their audiences can come to engage with their created protagonists, be they real or imagined (or a mixture of the two). Whether they realise it or not, Twitter users are unfolding a narrative and revealing something of themselves with every single Tweet they publish. In a world crammed with information, there may never have been a bigger need to turn our lives into stories, and Mary… raises important questions concerning randomness and predestination.

So it’s a shame, then, that the film never quite comes to life. It’s filled with humour and captivating moments, but at 127 minutes its looseness begins to feel baggy and tedious. But if Mary… fails to recreate the magic of Thamrongrattanarit’s pitch-perfect debut, it is nevertheless an interesting experiment, and certainly marks him out as a director to watch.  Alex Barrett

MARY IS HAPPY, MARY IS HAPPY | WE ARE ONE FESTIVAL 2020 4 June 2020

 

 

The Uncertain Kingdom (2019) ****

Ernie, directed by Ray Panthaki; Camelot, directed by Allison Hargreaves; Left Coast, directed by Carol Salter; The Life Tree, directed by Paul Frankl; Stronger is Better than Angry, directed by Hope Dickson Leach; Verisimilitude, directed by David Proud; Swan, directed by Sophie King; Motherland, directed by Ellen Evans; The Converstion, directed by Lanre Malaolu

Uncertainty is the watchword of our troubled times here in the United Kingdom. Covid 19 has wreaked havoc on every aspect of life, changing the future forever. And Brexit still casts a long shadow, nobody knows what will happen – or when. Shot on a shoestring budget, and none the worse for it, this string of short films reflect an era of ecological meltdown and social unrest, and division underpinned by the breakdown of family values.  Jobs for life are a distant memory, and the new gig economy culture produces more losers than winners. Apart from the long on-going geographical North-South split, a new chasm has opened up between the great urban metropolises and the rest of the country. There are no apparent solutions in a modern society fraught with doubt, disbelief and discouragement.

Bringing together artists working across film, TV, theatre, animation, dance and radio, The Uncertain Kingdom directors include IWC Schaffhausen Award winner Hope Dickson Leach (The Levelling), BIFA winner Carol Salter (Almost Heaven), BAFTA and International Emmy winner Guy Jenkin (Drop the Dead Donkey, Outnumbered) Iggy LDN (Black Boys Don’t Cry). Actors David Proud (Marcella), BAFTA Breakthrough Brit Ray Panthaki (Official Secrets, Collette) and Antonia Campbell-Hughes (Bright Star, Cordelia) have also directed films for the project.

ERNIE by Ray Panthaki is symptomatic of the current political climate. A meek caretaker falls under the spell of his right-wing father, leading to tragedy. Carol Salter’s LEFT COAST is a Blackpool-set documentary, the Big Dipper still the only symbol for much better times. Travelling further afield, Paul Frankl’s magic realist drama THE LIFE TREE sees a mother discovering a tree whose magic supernatural powers could cure her son’s illness. Equally unexpected is Sophie King’s SWAN, channelling the spirit of Monty Python, in a curious tale about a man’s transformation into a swan. If one had to select one of these, it wold be VERISIMILITUDE by David Proud. It is the story of wheel-chair user Bella (Ruth Madeley), an actress with motor skill issues who lands a job teaching young actor Josh (Laurie Davidson) how to act with her afflictions for his latest role, only to find her owns hopes and dreams realised. AS

VOD release 1 June 2020

 

I Walk Alone (1947) *** Talking Pictures

Prod: Hal Wallis. Dir: Byron Haskin. Scr: Charles Schnee. Cast: Burt Lancaster, Lizabeth Scott, Kirk Douglas, Wendell Corey, Kristine Miller. Crime Melodrama. 98 mins.

Yet another choice rarity unearthed by Talking Pictures. Burt and Kirk’s first movie together belongs to the very brief period when Lancaster (who is for once permitted to tower over Douglas) played bullet-headed, blue-chinned tough guys (here carrying a huge chip on his shoulder having finally emerged from fourteen years in the slammer), and Douglas slick but shifty desk villains.

I Walk Alone is also historically significant as Byron Haskin’s return to the director’s chair after twenty years as a cameraman and special effects photographer at Warner Brothers; but being a Paramount production Edith Head was on hand to slinkily attire Lizabeth Scott. Richard Chatten.

On Talking Pictures at 10.05 p.m. on Wednesday 3 June.

Ticket of No Return | Bildnis Einer Trinkerin (1979) *** We Are One Fest

Dir.: Ulrike Ottinger; Cast: Tabea Blumenschein, Lutze, Magdalena Montezuma, Orpha Termin, Monika von Cube, Nina Hagen; W. Germany 1979,108 min.

Filmmaker, painter and photographer Ulrike Ottinger (1942-) was one of the most important German filmmakers of the 1970s and awarded the Berlinale Camera at this year’s 70th festival which also premiered her latest autobiographical feature Paris Caligrammes.

She is probably best known for her drama Freak Orlando (1981) a potted history of the world in five episodes with a focus on man’s incompetence, cruelty and thirst of power. Ticket of No Return chronicles the West Berlin punk scene, a decade before the wall came down. It would be the first part of her Berlin trilogy. Actor, producer and costume designer Tabea Blumenschein, who died in Berlin this March at the age of 67 influenced the film.  She works as a designer (for Andy Warhol) and chanteuse in many of the capital’s nightclubs.

The drama follows She (Blumenschein), an elegant woman from the posh 16th Paris arrondissement of Auteuil, who flies Berlin/Tegel on a single ticket where her only aim is to drink herself to death in style. Designed during the 1960s Tegel Airport was a highly efficient modern hob of transport and shopping in contrast to Tempelhof, with its traditional implications of the Third Reich. She lands there as if from another universe, and will cause mayhem wherever she goes. At the Zoo station She comes across the local Zoo alcoholic (Lutze), and the drinking competition kicks off, to minimal dialogue, voiced by Montezuma Meanwhile ‘the down-to-earth-earth approach’ is handed to von Cube. Nina Hagen features as a chanteuse in a pub frequented by taxi drivers.

A woman’s voice from the informs us that She represents every woman: Medea, Madonna or Beatrice. Not that it matters: these two suicidal lushes are really just terribly loneliness, their drinking bringing thetogether in an act of vacuous solidarity. There are some hair-raising incidents: the two of them are tied to the front of a car that speeds through burning walls, and their stiletto heels destroy the illusion of anything that could be termed voyeuristic. Ottinger is not interested in reality, or even rational – drinking is a serious occupation, to be treated with respect. What takes centre stage here is not West Berlin’s new Economic miracle,  but a shadowy world lowlifes, drinking themselves to oblivious as they singing away the troubles of the past.

A startling score competes with the visual overload of this extraordinary collage that echoes Fellini and Schroeter. That said, the symbolism of glass, mirrors and lights sometimes overreaches itself. Clearly Ottinger is still feeling her way forward in this sophomore drama at a time when the mood in the Federal was rather pleased with itself and its economic miracle, Ticket was a radical rejection of everything that could be construed as a success. AS

SCREENING AS PART OF WE ARE ONE FESTIVAL | 1 JUNE 2020

MS Slavic 7 (2019) ***

Dir.: Sofia Bohdanowiez; Cast: Deragh Campbell/co-dir, Aaron Danby, Elizabeth Rucker; Canada 2019, 64 min.

MS Slavic 7 is an intriguing title for a film. It refers to the catalogue number of a collection of 25 letters archived in Harvard University’s Houghton Library, and written by the director’s great-grandmother, the Polish poet Zofia Bohdanowieczowa, to her fellow poet Jozef Wittlin during their exile after the Second World War.

This melancholic essay film is a paean to poetry and displacement, and the filmmaker Sofia Bohdanowiez and co-director/lead actor Deragh Campbell do their best to bring the correspondence  to life. Wittlin (who lived in NY City) wrote between 1957 and 1964, first from Penrhos in Wales, then later from Toronto, Canada. Sofia is the literary executor of her great-grandmother’s output, and in this function she visits Houghton Library, meets a Polish scholar (Danby) and has a few contretemps with a Polish lady (Rucker), whom she has meets at a get-together of elderly Polish exiles. 

The trauma of permanent exile is documented in Zofia’s letter to Wittlin after she arrives in Toronto: “I still don’t write, I am still exhausted by the change, and feel like a fish out of water. I have always been terribly provincial and sedentary. Even in Poland, each trip to Warsaw terrified me, and only when coming back to Grodno where the crew changed and a train inspector had asked me melodiously: ‘tickets, please’, it felt like home”. In another letter she thanks him for sending her a photo comparing his gesture “with Polish bees”. Late she sends him “a hastily and confused letter” after the sudden death of her husband; with hopes that Wittlin “would be spared from parting and loneliness”. Later, she still complains about alienation in Toronto: “I sense a hostility in the grey city. The movement of the people and the traffic feels at once absent and menacing. Still, I hope that my stupid and sterile period is going to end soon”. When they meet for the first time “it is like an apocalypse”. 

Sofia is rather less expressive when it comes dealing with her great-great grandmother’s letters, her discussions with the scholar (who ends up in her bed – both of them reading the letters) show her difficulty in grasping the poet’s personality – Sofia can only imagine what exile meant for ‘Zofia’.

One of Zofia’s last letters to Wittlin is very much like a testament: “Still, you are right indeed. There was a veil of sadness over our meeting. That might have been because Toronto (in my opinion) is a sad city. Or even because everyone has sadness in themselves – how could it be otherwise for people without their homeland nor families?. And then came this meeting along with the uncertainty if we would ever see each other again”.  

Although the director’s own input is somehow hit-and-miss, Zofia’s letters provide compulsive reading with their thoughts from one permanently displaced person to another, piecing together their musings on a new place that is alien to both of them. Their homeland becomes a distant and poignant fading memory as they waste away slowly in the cold climate of exile. A valuable and worthwhile film that will offer comfort and context to all those living forced to live away from their families or in exile.AS

NOW ON MUBI 4 JUNE 2020 | BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL 2019 | FORUM 7 -17 FEBRUARY 2019

 

 

The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) **** BfiPlayer

Dir: Val Guest | Wri: Wolf Mankowitz | Cast: Edward Judd, Janet Munro, Leo McKern, Michael Goodliffe, Bernard Braden | Fantasy Sci-Fi | US 96′

Valmond Maurice Guest (1911-2006) was an English film director and screenwriter who started his career on the British stage and in early sound films. He wrote over 70 scripts many of which he also directed, developing a versatile talent for making quality genre fare on a limited budget (Hell is a City, Casino Royale, The Boys in Blue). But Guest was best known for his Hammer horror pictures The Quatermass Xperiment and Quatermass II, and Sci-Fis The Day the Earth Caught Fire and 80,000 Suspects which nowadays provide a fascinating snapshot of London and Bath in the early Sixties. Shot luminously in black and white CinemaScope the film incorporates archive footage that feels surprisingly effective with views of Battersea Power Station and London Bridge. A brief radio clip from a soundalike PM Harold MacMillan adds to the fun.

The central theme of this energetic and optimistic fantasy thriller is nuclear paranoia that plays out in flashback in the Fleet Street offices of the Daily Express newspaper reporting on a crisis involving H-bombs tests in Russia and the US, causing the titling of the Earth and leading to cyclones, dangerously rising temperatures, and a lack of water with fears of a typhus epidemic : “and what about all this extra Polar ice that’s melting”  (a prescient reference to global warming).

The opening scenes rapidly sketch out the febrile tension in the air and introduce us to the voluable characters involved through some extremely zippy dialogue between science editor Leo McKern, Bernard Braden, and bibulous reporter Peter Stenning (Edward Judd), who then falls for savvy telephonist Jeannie Craig (Janet Munro) who gives him the firm brush off. The real-life Express editor is played rather woodenly by Arthur Christiansen. There’s even an uncredited vignette featuring Michael Caine as a traffic officer – his voice is unmistakable.

NOW ON Bfi Player

Mike Wallace is Here (2020) ****

Dir.: Alvi Bekin; Documentary with Mike Wallace; USA 2019, 90 min.

Director Alvi Belin (Winding) has avoided hagiography in his biographical documentary of  CBS-TV journalist Mike Wallace (1918-2012). Equally a political history lesson as well as a course about changing Television habits in the USA, Alvi Bekin throws light on the professional and personal career of Wallace, who was only overshadowed by Walter Conkrite and Edward Murrow in his metier.

 Wallace began his career in 1939 at CBS Radio with game shows like Curtain Time, which featured heavy advertisement by the show’s sponsors. After his return from war duty, he switched to the new medium of TV, where he made a name for himself in Night Beat (1955-57). It was followed by the Mike Wallace Interviews, which lasted the following two years. In 1959 he had his first great scoop, interviewing Malcom X of Nation of Islam – the latter being very much aware how much his life was in danger. In the early 1960ies, Wallace made a living mainly from advertising – ironically some ads featured Parliament Cigarettes. After the death of his eldest son Peter in Greece, Wallace decided to stay clear of ads, and become a serious journalist. After a stint on the CBS Morning News (1963-66), he created and stared in 60 Minutes, the show that made him a household name in the USA; which he only left after 37 years, aged eighty-four in 2006.

This new documentary opens fittingly with Wallace engaging with (the then) Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, and haranguing him over his interview style. O’Reilly claims it’s like the pot calling the kettle black. “If you don’t like me, you’re responsible”.

The truth is somewhere in the middle: Wallace was keen to point out Larry King’s failure as a husband (seven divorces), but was very defensive when interviewed about his own marital woes.

The line-up for Wallace interview partners is long and features such heavyweights as Eleanor Roosevelt, Salvatore Dali, Vladimir Putin, Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy, Rod Serling, The Great Wizard of the KKK movement and a soldier named Paul Meadlo, who was a participant in the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War. The Ayatollah Khomeini is caught in an interview asking for the removal of President Sadat of Egypt: “He has betrayed Islam. Sadat is a traitor to Islam and I want the people of Egypt to overthrow the traitor, because that is what you do with a traitor”. Some month later Sadat was assassinated by his own soldiers, marching at a parade in front of him. Then there is a young (and handsome) Donald Trump, telling Wallace “if nobody fixes the USA, there will be nothing of the USA left, or the world”. But he strongly denied any interest in entering politics.

In 1995, a 60 Minutes episode was cancelled, after the producers clashed with Dr. Wigand, when he defended the tobacco industry over claims about smoking causing cancer – with Wallace perhaps in denial about his earlier ads for smoking. And then there is Vladimir Putin, wishing “Americans all the best”, after having denied that journalists in Russia are under threat. He also stated, that “the opposition to his government is a force”. It ends in a very poetic way, with Wallace and Arthur Miller walking in nature, the playwright answering Wallace’s question about posterity: “How will people remember me? As a decent guy, that would be fine. Work is natural like breathing. Work for that little moment of truth”.

The whole documentary is based on TV and newsreel clips, with Wallace being the central focus, but not in an overwhelming way. Bekin shows respect, but does not overdo it. It is worth mentioning though that Wallace admitted in a Rolling Stone interview in 1991 that for several decades he was part of a sexual harassment campaign which included snapping open the bras of female staff members. AS      

 RELEASED ON VOD ON 29 MAY 2020    

Ran (1985) ***** BfiPlayer | Japan 2020

Dir.: Akira Kurosawa; Cast: Tatsuya Nakadai, Akira Terao, Jinpachi Nezu, Daisuke Ryu, Mieko Miyazaki, Mansei Nomura, HisashiI Igawa, Peter, Masayuki Yui; France/Japan 1984/85, 162min.

Director/co-writer Akira Kurosawa was seventy-five when he finished his final epic action drama Ran (Chaos), loosely based on Shakespeare’s King Lear, using elements of Japanese theatre it features epic scenes of battle and a rousing score by Toru Takemitsu. The script had been ten years in the writing and he still needed a Japanese producer for the twelve million dollar project. Finally, Frenchman Serge Silberman took the risk, and shooting started in June 1984 involving 1,400 extras (all with complete body armour) and 200 horses. Filming was dominated by the loss of sound designer Fumio Yamoguchi, and Kurosawa’s wife Yoko Yaguchi at the age of sixty-three. But the movie premiered at the first Tokyo Film Festival in May 1985, in the absence of the director.

In medieval Japan Hidetora (Nakadai) is an ageing warlord keen to retire from public life and leave his empire to his three sons Taro, (Terao), Jiro (Nezu) and Saburo (Ryu), the youngest and his father’s favourite. Saburo warns father that the brothers intend to start a war for total domination over him, but Hidetora fails to recognise the elder brothers’ resentments, and Saburo is banished for refusing the pledge of allegiance. As Saburo predicted, his older siblings soon take control leaving the old warlord basically homeless. Jiro and Taro’s wives Kaede (Harada) and Lady Sue (Miyazaki) have not forgotten Hidetora’s abusive reign of power that led to the genocide of Kaede’s family, and the blinding of Lady Sue’s brother, and Kaede is still keen on revenge. After a battle between Saburo and Jiro’s forces, the youngest prince is killed by a sniper. Hidetora dies from grief. Kaede then forces Jiro to kill Lady Sue and marry her instead. But after Lady Sue is killed by one of Jiro’s assassins, Kurogane (Igawa), Jiro’s loyal chief counsel and military chief decapitates Kaede. We are left with Kyomani the Fool (Peter) contemplating the scene of death and destruction. 

Kurosawa combined King Lear with a Japanese medieval epic. The feature, shot by Takao Saito and Asakazu Nakai, is an absolute knockout in visual terms. Kurosawa capitalises on his aesthetic brilliance with Kagemusha, to create something quite magnificent with the use of static cameras that leave the audience in almost in command of the battle scenes, are the warriors fight on. Production designer Emi Wada, who won an Oscar (1986) for his mastery  – Kurosawa lost out to Sidney Pollack’s Out of Africa in an exceptional year the saw Hector Babenco, John Huston, and Peter Weir in the competition line-up.

It is easy to envisage Kurosawa at this point in his career very much identifying with the King Lear figure – he was shunted around in his own country, where his features were seen as old-fashioned – suffering the same fate as Ozu decades earlier. Kurosawa had just shot four films in the last twenty years in 1985 – he was a marginal figure in Japan. Consequently, Ran only just broke even in Japan, but was much more successful in Europe and the USA – today’s total box-office is 337 Million $ and rising. Kurosawa’s influence on Western cinema is enormous: Hidden Fortress would inspire Star Wars, The Seven Samurai were re-made as the The Magnificent Seven and Sanjuro was transformed by Eastwood into the Italo-Western A Fistful of Dollar and For a few Dollar More. But the same goes for Kurosawa’s ‘borrowings’: Apart from Ran there is Throne of Blood (Macbeth), Lower Depth (from Gorki). The Idiot (from Dostoyevsky) and Ed McBains police thriller adapted by Kurosawa as High and Low.  Unlike Lear, Kurosawa leaves behind a treasure trove of achievements: world cinema would not be the same without him. AS

NOW ON BFiPlayer in celebration of JAPAN 2020 

I Walked With a Zombie (1943) **** BBCiPlayer

Cast: James Ellison, Frances Dee, Tom Conway, Edith Barrett, James Bell, Christine Gordon, Teresa Harris, Sir Lancelot | USA Fantasy Drama 70′

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jacques Tourneur was another master of shadow-play. It lends a chiaroscuro delicacy to this sultry Caribbean take on Jane Eyre that sees a tormented soul suffer in an atmospheric zombie outing made in the same year as The Leopard Man in the RKO studios in Hollywood .

Well aware of the high-grossing heft of the horror genre, RKO has already coined the movie’s title but producer Van Lewton, who had been hired by the studio to pioneer a line of horror outings, had something much more intriguing in mind than a schlocky shocker. Ironically the producer was a dreamer, whereas the director was very much the pragmatist, and his second collaboration the Jacques Tourneur, and DoP J Roy Hunt, is a lushly surreal and nuanced arthouse treasure that is so much more beguiling than its name initially suggests.

While war was raging in Europe the characters in the tropical plantation of St Sebastian are experiencing unease of a different kind, that that affects the mind as well as the body. Naive Canadian nurse Betsy Connell (Frances Dee) arrives on the island to take up a position with the Holland family, and is immediately drawn to the masterful charms of Paul Holland (Tom Conway), her Mr Rochester-like employer. At nightfall Tourneur’s shadowplay casts an alluring spell over the island, and Betsy’s catatonic charge (Jessica Holland) floats by in a flowing white gown. She makes for a particularly sinister anti-heroine with her extreme height and sublime expression (Christine Gordon never says a word but is sublime all the same).

Betsy also has to contend with Holland’s alcoholic half-brother Wesley Rand (James Ellison), and his missionary-style mother Mrs. Rand (Edith Barrett). This is clearly another dysfunctional family, and it soon transpires that Wesley and Jessica have had an affair, and the moralistic Betsy sees it as her divine duty to bring Holland and Jessica back together, as an act of higher love on her part. But it’s not a straightforward as it all seems: This no Canadian backwater, but the exotic West Indies where witch doctors and voodoo priests hold sway. And Jessica is under their powerful influence, reduced to a Zombie and lured away from the confines of the Holland estate and into the savage jungles beyond. Betsy’s St Sebastian maid, Alma (Teresa Harris), suggests taking Jessica to the local voodoo priest, but this only leads to tragedy ironically releasing Paul from his marital torment. The characterisations are surprisingly complex given the era, Tom Conway’s Paul demonstrating tremendous insight into his male condition avoiding racism or toxic masculinity, and the islanders are seen as more than just colonial cyphers, Teresa Harris makes an appealing Alma and Darby Jones projects a really affecting malevolence as Carrefour.

Ultimately though Tourneur’s direction is the star turn here: he creates exquisite visual magic in the windswept and eerie locations, so much so that Curt Siodmak’s enigmatic outcome feels almost irrelevant. And the pounding score of drums adds just the right touch of exotic danger to make this one of the most poetic and ravishing zombie films ever made. MT

NOW ON BBCiPLAYER

 

 

Suspicion (1941) *** BBCiplayer

Dir.: Alfred Hitchcock; Cast: Cary Grant, Joan Fontaine; USA 1941, 100 min

Suspicion rarely emerges as a Hitchcock favourite. Critics don’t like writing about his 1941 feature, everyone opting for: Psycho, North by North West and Vertigo. Yet there’s Cary Grant, Hitchcock’s hero for all seasons, and the timidly appealing Joan Fontaine, who had starred in Hitch’ first American feature Rebecca (1939). ‘Brain trust’ writers Samson Raphaelson, Joan Harrison and Alma Reville (Mrs. Hitchcock) adapted the script from Before the Fact by Francis Iles aka Anthony Berkeley Cox. And Harry Stradling (A Streetcar named Desire, Angel Face) served up memorable black-and-white images. So what could go wrong?

Well, the Hitchcock thriller is really about the destructive power of love, rather than its redemptive qualities.  Suspicion showcases how women are often drawn to charismatic cads rather than more sincere, stable types. And Lina McLaidlaw (Joan Fontaine) is certainly one of them. A quietly bookish be-spectacled heiress she first sets eyes on Johnny (Grant) during a train journey where he cockily sits in First Class with a cheaper ticket, launching a charm offensive on the guard in a bid to stay there. She is smitten, and marries him fully aware that he doesn’t really love her in the slightest, and is a liar, and a profligate. Doubt and desperation gnaw away at her self-esteem as she suspects him of wanting to murder her. She wants to believe he’s a hero, and this powerful urge becomes a destructive force that feeds her toxic addiction. The studio atmosphere is not a great setting for this emotive tale, heavy back-projections spoiling the atmosphere. We are left with a few memorable vignettes where Hitchcock returns to his silent roots, with no need for dialogue.

Lina’s short-sightedness is a metaphor for her emotional blindness, although intellectually she is sharp cookie. And as her suspicion festers, the more the spiderwebs trap her, a prisoner of her own fear. Hitch makes us well aware from the get go that Johnny is fickle and emotionally shallow: first we see Lina enjoying few flowers in a vase on the table, these are replaced by a bouquet of roses, but then the flowers are gone, and Lina is fretting over the ‘phone. The coup of coups, and the only reason Suspicion is mentioned in the Hitchcock canon at all, is the famous light bulb, hidden in the glass of milk that Johnny carries upstairs to his wife – the spider webs in the background showing his evil intent. Fontaine is simply brilliant as the decent, love-sick woman who wants to believe her husband and live happily ever after – and we feel for her. But Grant’s bad-boy allure if more irritating than appealing – we just want to knock his block off!

But, alas the ending, Hitchcock returning to the botched plot in a very polite English way when talking to Francois Truffaut: “Well I am not too pleased with the way Suspicion ends. I had something else in mind. The scene I wanted – but it was never shot – was for Cary Grant to bring her a glass of milk that’s been poisoned, Joan Fontaine having just finished a letter to her mother. ‘Dear mother, I am desperately in love with him, but I don’t want to live because he is a killer. Though I’d rather die, I think society should be protected from him”. Then Grant comes in with the fatal glass, and she says ‘Will you mail this letter to my mother, dear?’ She drinks the milk and dies. Fade out, and fade in on one short shot: Cary Grant, whistling cheerfully, walks over to the mail box and pops the letter in”. If this sounds a little like Shadow of a Doubt (1943), you’re right. That wasn’t too difficult, was it?  

https://youtu.be/1j_pqa74WbU

Curse of the Cat People (1944) **** BBC iPlayer

Dir.: Robert Wise, Gunther von Fritsch; Cast: Ann Carter, Kent Smith, Jane Randolph, Simone Simon, Julia Dean, Elizabeth Russell, Eve March); USA 1944, 68 min.

The Curse of the Cat People launched Robert Wise and Austro-Hungarian Gunter von Fritsch as directors. Wise would make a further 38 features in a career which went on until 1989, winning two Oscars for Sound of Music and West Side Story. Von Fritsch, would be less prolific: he managed to complete half the film in the allotted 18 days of the schedule, but would only occupy the director’s chair on three more occasions before a TV career beckoned, and retirement in 1970.

Most people agree that not calling the feature The Curse of the Cat People and selling it as a sequel to the classic Cat People (1942), would have enhanced the fantasy thriller’s reputation. But it was an opportunity for Val Lewton to re-unite writer de Witt Bodeen, cameraman Nicolas Musuraca, as well the actors Simone Simon, Kent Smith, Jane Randolph and Elizabeth Russell from Cat People so the outcome was a done deal:  Hollywood’s way of selling sequels was already long established. The Curse references events from Cat People, but is anything but a horror movie, even though it drifts that way in the end. Overall Curse is much nearer to Lewton’s production of Ghost Ship, and ironically was set in a place called Sleepy Hollow.

Curse begins seven years after the tragic events of Cat People: Oliver Reed (Smith) and his workmate Alice Reed (Randolph) have a six-year old daughter Amy (Carter). The family lives in rural New England, where Amy is at prep school. She has the tendency to daydream, rather like his first wife Irena whose traumatic death still haunts him.  And Irena becomes Amy’s imaginary friend, after Oliver burns her photos to obliterate his past. Amy wanders into the gloomy mansion of ageing actor Julia Farren (Dean) and her daughter Barbara (Russell), and befriends them after being rejected by her school chums. But Julia had trouble in excepting that Barbara is her daughter, showing more empathy with Amy, and causing Barbara to mutter “I will kill the brat, if she appears again”. After the Amy gets her first (off-screen) ‘spanking’ from her father over her fantasy of Irena (Simon) appearing to her in the garden, the little girl runs away into woods and meets Barbara who is only too willing to make her promise come true.

DoP Nicholas Musuraca creates a parallel universe to that of Cat People. Although the panther scenes there intrude into a world of hyper-realism shared by Oliver and Alice share, that leaves Irena as the outsider. Curse shows a family which looks perfectly normal to the outside, but is crippled by Oliver’s inability to come to terms with the past. Then, there is the voice of reason that comes courtesy of Amy’s teacher Mrs. Callaghan (March), Oliver rejecting her rather modern approach. Irena is much more benign fantasy than Cat People‘s Panther. In analytical terms, Irena is a much better mother than the rational Alice, who, like her husband, has not worked through the events leading to her marriage with Oliver: she is deeply suspicious that Oliver is still under Irena’s spell, and therefore punishes Amy, just to show just the opposite. Furthermore, the Irena sequences in Curse are the total inversion of its predecessor: Irena here is about peace and harmony, while her Panther ego was just the opposite. Curse also demonstrates that Oliver has not learned very much from his experience with Irena: he still  not able to show empathy for those who do not share his “pragmatic” approach to life. His inability to realise that emotions are the most important qualities human’s possess, costs Irena her, and now threatens that of his daughter.

When all is said and done, Curse of the Cat People is anything but a sequel to Cat People: it’s a story about loneliness, repression and denial – both the Farrens and the Reeds have much more I common than at first glance. AS

NOW ON BBC iPlayer

 

    

Climbing Blind (2019) *** BBC iPlayer

Wri/Dir: Alistair Lee | Doc UK 70′

Climbing Blind is essentially a film about scaling impossible heights, physically and metaphorically. It follows the awesome bid by blind Englishman Jesse Dufton to climb the stratospheric Old Man of Foy, one of Britain’s tallest and most awkward sea stacks, a tower of rocky sandstone that soars 137 metres above the Orkney Archipelago in Scotland. Although Jesse is blind, he was ably assisted in this endeavour by his life partner and human ‘guide dog’ Molly.

Climbing Blind is the second feature length documentary from Alastair Lee who won the Grand Prize at the 2019 Kendal Mountain Festival for this impressive exploration of human courage. Lee has made something of a career out of his climbing documentaries both for TV and on the big screen. Working as his own DoP and producer, he is adamant to point out that as the filmmaker his input is merely observational –  he does not get involved in the ascent itself. Lee’s first two film projects focused on mountaineer Leo Houlding and his climbing adventures: The Asgard Project (2009) sees him attempting to scale Mt Asgard, deep in the Arctic, and Lee’s 2014 mid length doc The Last Great Climb follows the Houlding’s adventures scaling Ulvetanna Peak in Antartica.

Here for the first time, Lee works with a visually challenged climber. Jesse states that his main drawback in scaling The Old Man, is not being able to plan, ironically, rather than not being able to see. Detailing the ascent of this vertical sandstone rock pillar, the film reveals how the impressively sanguine and down to earth Jesse leads the climb, assisted by his sight-partner Molly, who follows with verbal encouragement, a rope length below.

But what starts as a film about climbing slowly develops into something much more meaningful to n0n-climbers: the challenge of simply living life as a blind person. “Crossing the road is far more dangerous than climbing” claims Jesse, whose daily hurdles include buttering his own toast and getting the honey in the right place, something that most of us wouldn’t even think about. “Climbing is where I’m in control” he states. His parents also make an appearance describing the early years of Jesse’s life, after discovering their son was suffering from a rare eye disorder that would only deteriorate.

Climbing Blind shows the indomitable power of human mind to defeat seemingly impossible impediments, against all odds. Lee’s impressive camerawork pictures the stunning seascapes of the Scottish Coast and its rugged and inhospitable terrain. Jesse Dufton states categorically: “I’m not disabled; I’m blind and able”. MT

ON BBC iPlayer

Human Rights Watch Festival 2020 | Now Online


The Human Rights Watch Film Festival is about documentaries and dramas that celebrate courageous people and those affected by Human Rights issues in their countries – which this year include: Armenia, Australia, Bangladesh, Bolivia, China, Guatemala, Germany, Iran, Macedonia, Mexico, Peru, Romania, the United States, and Vietnam. Ten of the 14 films selected for this 24th edition are directed by women.

In this latest online London Edition nine (out of 14) films will be streamed to UK audiences from 22 May until 5 June and each film has a live Q&A webinar discussion scheduled. For anyone wanting to get that festival feeling of watching a film followed immediately by a discussion, the festival has recommended timings to start streaming each film title, details here:

https://ff.hrw.org/london-digital-edition. Otherwise there is also a handy list of the free live Q&A’s here:

https://ff.hrw.org/venueinfo/london-digital-edition

Here are some of this year’s highlights:

Shot entirely on three mobile phones, MIDNIGHT TRAVELER follows the traumatic journey of Afghan filmmaker Hassan Fazili as he and his family escape across Europe from their homeland. It is not their choice to flee, and they are not doing so on economic grounds. Hassan’s life is in danger from the Taliban due to a fatwah.
Indigenous rights come under the spotlight in Claudia Sparrow’s doc MAXIMA which has been a favourite for audiences all over the festival circuit. It tells the story of Máxima Acuña (winner of the 2016 environmental Goldman Prize) a free-spirited and courageous woman who owns a small, remote plot in the Peruvian Highlands near another owned by one the world’s largest gold-mining corporations. The charismatic and indomitable Maxima is determined to preserve the rights of the locals in this stunning natural environment. (not in online selection)
China’s now-defunct ‘one only’ child policy has left millions of single women under immense social pressures to marry quickly, or be rejected by society. This crisis is explored in depth through the lives of three women in Hilla Medalia and Shosh Shlam’s LEFTOVER WOMEN (2019) that won the Best Director and Editing prizes at the Tel Aviv documentary festival DocAviv last year.

When she was 12 years old, the actress and filmmaker Maryam Zaree found out that she was one of many babies born inside Evin, Iran’s notorious political prison; Maryam’s parents were imprisoned shortly after Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in 1979. BORN IN EVIN cuts to the chase with an appealing and lyrical approach that sees Zaree confronting decades of silence in her family to understand the impact of trauma on the bodies and souls of survivors and their children.

As witnesses of the genocide of over 200,000 indigenous people, the Mayan women of Guatemala act as a bridge between the past and present in César Diaz’ Caméra d’Or-winning debut drama, OUR MOTHERS which follows Ernesto, a young forensic anthropologist who is tasked with identifying missing victims of Guatemala’s 36-year civil war. While documenting the account of an elder Mayan woman searching for the remains of her husband, Ernesto believes he might have found a lead that will guide him to his own father, a guerrillero who disappeared during the war. (Not in selection)

Rubaiyat Hossain’s impressive debut drama, MADE IN BANGLADESH, is the final film on Friday, 20 March. Best known for her 2011 film Meherjaan (2011) the director draws on her own life experience as a women’s rights activist, shining a light on the oppressive conditions in the clothing industry through the story of Shimu and her efforts to create a trade union against all odds. The screening will be followed by an in-depth discussion with Rubaiyat Hossain and special guests.

The films are streaming through CURZON HOME CINEMA and the cost is £7.99 for the majority. The Q&As are free.

 

The Velvet Touch (1948) **** BBC iplayer

Dir.: Jack Gage; Cast: Rosalind Russell, Leo Glenn, Sydney Greenstreet, Claire Trevor, Leon Ames; USA 1948, 100 min.

This is certainly a collector’s item: The Velvet Touch was a one hit wonder from Jack Gage (1912-1989). He spent the rest of his career in TV (Jane Eyre 1952), having started as a dialogue coach in Hollywood where he met Rosalind Russell, during the shooting of Mourning becomes Electra, persuading her to star in The Velvet Touch, based on script by Leo Rosten and Walter Reilly.

Valerie Stanton (Russell) is a comedy actress Broadway where her lover the impresario Gordon Danning (Ames) made her a star. But when she falls for British architect Michael Morrell (Genn), who encourages her to play the title role in Hedda Gabler, fostering her dreams of succeeding on the stage. But Danning won’t let Valerie go, and during an angry scene in her changing room, she accidentally kills him with one of her award trophies. Earlier in the day Danning had had a tiff with his ex Marian Webster (Trevor), who is now the number one suspect – or is the police detective Captain Danbury just playing a clever game to flush out the real killer?. Valerie is taken to hospital in shock while Captain Danbury (Greenstreet) interrogates everyone who had been there the night before in theatre. After visiting Valerie, Marian takes her own life. But on the night of the premiere of Hedda Gabler, the story takes an unexpected turn and one that reveals Valerie’s true colours.

Sidney Greenstreet steals the show: his presence alone is enough for him to dominate the proceedings. We are never quite sure if he knows the truth from the beginning, toying with Valerie like a cat with a mouse. DoP Joseph Walker (His Girl Friday, Only Angels have Wings) uses the theatre as a brilliant background for intricate black-and-white images, and  Russell manages some emotional depths, Gage directing with great flair. The Velvet Touch is a sparkling gem, and certainly one of the more memorable noir-films of the genre’s hayday. AS

NOW ON BBCiPlayer       

Woman of the Dunes | Soona no Onna (1964) **** Bfi Player

Dir: Hiroshi Teshigahara | Wri: Kobo Abe | Cast: Eiji Okada, Kyoko Ashida | Japan, Drama 143′
 A macabre, beguiling, bleak tale that echoes our worst nightmares – being trapped forever in an endless life of hopelessness where self-determinism is taken away. Vaguely erotic but ultimately nauseously claustrophobic this Japanese classic is an Oriental filmic answer to existential philosophers such as Sartre, Camus and Kierkegaard.A school teacher combing the dunes for unusual insects is so involved in his task he misses the last bus home and is offered a bed for the night by a local woman. The billet is at the bottom of a sandy bank reached by a rope ladder but he wakes up the next morning to discover the ladder has disappeared and he is forced to shovel sand out from underneath the house in order to safeguard his resting place. By the end of each day he much start the process again and soon realises he is trapped with the woman and – ultimately by the villagers who appear to be selling the sand to building contractors. It’s the ultimate catch 22 and won the Jury Prize at Cannes in the year of its filming.

We’ve all heard of a dripping tap. Woman of the Dunes is about shifting sands. The sensual beauty of the black and white visuals contrasts with the sheer dreadfulness of the situation as the teacher is slowly driven out of his mind, forced between communing with the woman and his unbearable sense of helplessness in this Kafkaesque hell. MT

NOW ON BFI IPLAYER 

 

 

 

 

Stop Making Sense (1984) **** Bfi Player

Dir: Jonathan Demme | With David Byrne and Talking Heads |Biopic, 84′
A musical biopic in the best sense of the word. In Hollywood December 1983, Jonathan Demme films three concerts from Scottish maverick music maker David Byrne, rolling them out without explanation or talking heads – although Talking Heads are very much part of the scene. The bands speaks for itself and we get the best seats – on stage, up close and personal and from the back of the auditorium, even loitering in the wings.
Demme’s film is an energising experience made at the climax of what would be the band’s final major tour. The show starts with the beat-driven Pyscho Killer and works its way through a classic repertoire with hits such as, Take Me to the Water tThis Must be the Place that scored Paolo Sorrentino’s film of the same name in 2011 and of course, Once in a Lifetime. Byrne gradually relaxes from taut jutting-faced uncertainty to a more smiling and febrile intensity, a style icon in white plimsolls and oversized concrete-coloured suits. Hypnotic to look at, his moves are as funky, smooth and syncopated as Bing Crosby or even Elvis without the sexual magnetism: Byrne is a performer more artfully ambivalent in his erotic appeal, but none the less legendary. And he feels very much at home on his own or surrounded by his family of Talking Heads. A nostalgic, diverting, happy film. MT
NOW ON BFI PLAYER
https://youtu.be/yCXT5Fs-V10

The County (2019) ***

Dir: Grímur Hákonarson | Iceland Drama 95′

Grímur Hákonarson’s Cannes UCR award-winning debut Rams (2015) was a dour and delightful tale on sibling rivalry set in the Icelandic farming community. The director returns to this sombre milieu for his second more serious drama that sees a farmer take on the corrupt and outdated co-op in her local community.

The co-op system in Iceland arose in the early 20th century as a response to Denmark’s centuries-old monopoly on trade; however, sometimes they are as exploitative as the system that preceded them.  in many instances, these supposed mutual-aid societies grew to be as exploitative as the system that preceded them.

Inga (Arndís Hrönn Egilsdóttir) is a single-minded independent farmer who works tirelessly with her devoted husband Reynir (Hinrik Ólafsson) to make ends meet in the harsh but spectacular landscape of Iceland. Although the couple are wedded to their local co-op system, it is becoming increasingly difficult for them to remain competitive with their rivals. After an unforeseen tragedy Inga is forced to reassess her life and bravely decides to take the co-op on by using the help of social media rather than her less than supportive neighbours who are an unadventurous and conservative lot, even when life is stacked up against them.

Icelandic women are well known for their business acumen and Egilsdóttir supports this with a remarkable performance as the indomitable farmer in an engrossing drama that reunites the director with Sigurður Sigurjónsson who plays the co-op’s cunningly cocky director. Although this is a less entertaining film than Rams, Hákonarson once again emerges as an assured and confident voice and one of the country’s finest filmmakers. MT

NOW ON CURZON WORLD from Friday 22 May 2020

Only the Animals (2019) Netflix

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOW ON NETFLIX
https://youtu.be/5HYJ6CjOzi8

Hector Babenco: Tell Me When I Die (2019) ****

Dir: Barbara Paz | Doc, Brazilian 75′

“What do you have to do to become a movie director? You have to know how to tell a story. And for that, you have to live”.

Brazilian actor and director Barbara Paz honours her husband Hector Babenco (1946-2016) with this cinematic love letter to his final days in Brazil.

Taking as its appropriate opening score Radiohead’s ‘Exit Music (for a film)’ this is a lush and woozy widescreen affair that solemnly luxuriates in the couple’s tenderness for each other through excerpts of home videos and private photographs, but also explores their close collaboration work-wise, Paz a keen disciple in learning the tricks of the craft that have served her so well, Babenco a patient and softly spoken instructor teaching his wife about camera lenses and depth of field, and lacing his knowledge with amusing anecdotes.

A hagiographic approach is always going to be the danger when making a film about someone you admire, and when love is also involved there is a clear need for perspective. But Paz pulls it off in this charismatically poignant piece that won Best Documentary on Cinema at Venice Classics in 2019. At the same time her admiration shines through in testament to his unique talents and varied output, together with his dreams of being the next Luchino Visconti: well he will certainly go down in film history, but for different reasons.

Although Babenco avoids facts and chronology, by way of background Hector Eduardo Babenco was born into a Jewish family in Buenos Aires, his parents were of Polish/Ukrainian origin. Best known for his Oscar-nominated Kiss of the Spider Woman (Out of Africa (1985) took the award); Babenco’s work raised awareness of the human plight in Brazil with the Sao Paulo set Golden Globe winner Pixote (1981), that sees a young boy abandoned in the streets, and Carandiru (2003) an impassioned drama about AIDS in the renowned prison in the Brazilian capital, which spawned a TV series. An accomplished documentarian he also made films about the racing driver Emerson Fittipaldi and the Brazilian bandit Lucio Flavio whose crimes in Rio de Janeiro captured the public’s imagination in the early 1970s.

Paz enlivens her film with footage of Babenco going about the set of his autobiographical last film My Hindu Friend (2015) where Willem Dafoe plays a dying director during his final hospital days, and she also pictures him there during treatment for cancer, expressing his determination to eat well – avoiding hospital food – and preferably with some friends sharing Capirinhas, roast beef and salad.

Thematically rich the film also dives into universal experiences: the intimacy of loving moments captured on camera; the comfort and joy of friendship; and death, which Babenco had already come to terms with by the time his life was over, due to a previous brush with cancer at 37:  these thoughts are interweaved with dialogue from his films to produce a seamless and intensely personal biopic that shows a man not only at the height of his talent, but also at one with himself. MT

SCREENED DURING VISIONS DU REEL 2020 | NYON SWITZERLAND

Tell Me When I Die is heading to DOK.fest München (6-24 May) | Jeonju International Film Festival (28 May – 6 June 2020)

https://youtu.be/bVbqlvVy-90

To the Stars (2019) **** Streaming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ON DIGITAL DOWNLOAD FROM 1 JUNE 2020 ON iTUNES, AMAZON, GOOGLE PLAY, SKY, VIRGIN, CHILI

Convoy (1940) *** Blu-ray release

Dir: Pen Tennyson | Cast: Clive Brook, John Clements, Edward Chapman, July Campbell, Penelope Dudley-Ward, Edward Rigby | Wartime Drama, UK 90′

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Penrose Tennyson  (1912-1941) was one of the Golden hopes of British social realism in the 1930s. The great grandson of the poet, he was taken under the wing of family friend and Gaumont-British supremo Michael Balcon, and cut his teeth on The Good Companions and The 39 Steps before following Balcon to MGM and Ealing Studios where he finally took over the helm finding a voice in social realism with There Ain’t No Justice (1939) that follows the trials and tribulations of a young boxer (Jimmy Hanley) at the hands of his crooked promoter. The Proud Valley (1940) was a more ambitious project that mined the dramatic potential of disaster and unemployment in a Welsh pit village based on Herbert Marshall’s script of his wife Alfredda Brilliant’s ground-breaking novel. Paul Robeson’s wartime wanderer finds acceptance in the tight knit community through his powerful bass-baritone voice, when he joins the local choir.

With the Second World War on the way Tennyson, signed up to the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve to make training films and got the idea for his final film while serving on HMS Valourous. A patriotic ambitious adventure, Convoy was one of the first British war films and features remarkable shots of various fictitious destroyer vessels engaged in protecting the vital supply cargoes between the US and Britain during hostilities. According to one amusing source, Noel Coward saw the film on its release, and joked these were possibly filmed using miniature models from nearby Gamages department store – although they certainly look believable in Roy Kellino’s camerawork.

Clive Brook heads the cast that sees stars in the making Stewart Granger and Michael Wilding in minor roles. Brook is Captain Armitage in charge of a tiny English vessel targeted by a German battleship that threatens to blow everyone out of the water, until a battle squadron comes to the rescue. But that’s not the only battle on his hands. Amidst the scenes of derring-do there lies an intricate love story: crew member Lieutenant Cranford (Clements) has had an affair with Armitage’s ex-wife Lucy (Judy Campbell) whose life hangs on a thread as she sails in another missing boat carrying Jewish refugees, and this ‘menage a trois’ provides a frisson of drama in counterpoint to the combat scenes.

Tennyson married English actress Nova Pilbeam, whom he met on the set on The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), but while she went on to a successful career in film and stage, he would lose his life on active service a year after completing Convoy.. MT.

CONVOY IS ON BLU-RAY FROM 18 MAY 2020 | Convoy is presented here as a High Definition remaster from original film elements in its as-exhibited theatrical aspect ratio.

 

Quartet (1981) **** Curzon World

Dir.: James Ivory; Cast: Isabelle Adjani, Alan Bates, Maggie Smith, Anthony Higgins; UK/France 1981, 101 min.

Perched between Jane Austen in Manhattan and Heat & Dust; Quartet, based on the novel  by Jean Rhys 1890-1979) and adapted director by Ivory and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, is a promise of what this talented duo would achieve later with the EM Forster trilogy of Room with a View, Maurice and Howard’s End. The autobiographically novel by Rhys, re-telling her affair with Ford Maddox Ford, was ripe for the big screen, and, once again, the lush look of it all compensates for some weakness in the script.

Set in depression era Paris in the mid 1920s, where everywhere pretended to be an artist, even though few actually created real art, we are introduced to Polish born art dealer Stephen Zelli (Higgins) and his wife Marya (Adjani), who was born – like Rhys – in the West Indies. Stephen is soon written out of the storyline – at least for a while –  imprisoned for selling stolen paintings. Marya, penniless and lonely, is taken under the wing of wealthy British couple HJ Heidler (Bates) an art promoter and his wife Lois (Smith), a painter. But the hospitality soon wears thin: Mr Heidler makes unwelcome visits to Marya, sleeping in the guest room, and Lois turns a blind eye. She is well that his actions caused the death of another hapless guest who committed suicide once he withdrew his favours. And when Stephen finally comes back into the picture, and has the chance to save his wife from the clutches of these ‘vampires’, he choses not to. Drama ensues – though without death and destruction. 

We see the world through Marya’s eyes: she is the epicentre, even though a rather phlegmatic Pernod-driven one, her senses blunted as she drifts into passive acquiescence. The novel was told in the third person, but the screen version never really gets into Marya’s mind, leaving her overly enigmatic, her motives explored. This state of limbo facilitates the Heider’s domination, as they feast on an innocent. So we are left in a moral quandary with these contemptuous characters: Heidler a cruel manipulator, his wife desperate to hold on to him and keep up the facade, even if it means hurting another.

Isabelle Adjani took home the awards for Best Actress at Cannes 1982 for Quartet, although she is slightly miscast in her of role of placid waif, and much more at home in Zulawski’s Possession (1981) which also won her the Cannes acting prize. Alan Bates and Maggie Smith on the other hand, are ideal as the evil ‘parents’, always ‘playing the game’ but never accepting the reality of their exploitations. Higgins is rather weak in a underwritten role. DoP Pierre Lhomme creates a visual paradise worthy of a real artist, letting light and watercolours play over designs and faces, creating a dreamlike atmosphere in contrast to the brutal psychological war of HJ Heider. Two years later, Lhomme would photograph Adjani in a similar role in Claude Miller’s Mortelle Randonne. One of the co-producers Humbert Balsam, would later commit suicide and become the tragic anti-hero in Mia Hansen-Løve’s Le Père de mes Enfants. AS

NOW ON CURZON WORLD AS PART OF THE MERCHANT IVORY SERIES.

https://youtu.be/M9louoYq9c8

The Bostonians (1984) **** Curzon World

Dir.: James Ivory; Cast: Vanessa Redgrave, Christopher Reeve, Madeleine Potter, Jessica Tandy, Nancy Marchand, Wesley Addy; UK 1984, 122′.

The Bostonians was James Ivory’s second Henry James adaptation, produced by Ismail Merchant with Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s agile script. Five years after The Europeans – the drama shares some of the fault lines, but is content-wise more convincing, largely down to the quality of the novel: James had matured considerably in the seven years separating these two painterly features.

Post-Civil War Boston 1875: cousins Olive Chancellor (Redgrave) and Basil Ransome (Reeve) are in a duel for love and much more: the soul of young Verena Tarrant (Potter). Olive is wealthy and a staunch suffragette, penniless Basil Ransome hails from Mississippi (practising in New York) but likes his women “the way, that they should not think too much, not to feel any responsibility for the government of the world.” In short he is an out and out misogynist.

Both Olive and Basil track their prey on stage, where Verena gives a rousing speech about women’s rights. Ransome would love nothing more that to make her fall in love with him. Olive sees Verena as her student, coaching to be even more efficient on the soapbox. To this end, she sends a fat check to Verena’s father, the charlatan Dr. Tarrant (Addy), and sweeps her away. In the course of their relationship, Verena prospers even more than Olive could have anticipated. She also makes the young woman take an oath, promising never to marry. This is too much for Ransome to bear, he plays the romantic seducer (but is clearly on the spectrum), and the crying Verena succumbs to his proposal. “It is to be feared, that with this union, so far from brilliant, into which she was about to enter, these were not the last she was destined to shed.”

This is Vanessa Redgrave’s film, perfectly cast, she not only looks the part but exudes charm and perseverance: “her eyes had the glitter of green ice”. (Well, we all know they’re blue). Reeves, oscillating between lover and social climber, is much better than expected. Unfortunately, debutant Madeleine Potter’s Verena is disappointing, to say the least. The subtle complexity between Verena and Olive’s dynamic comes across as more obvious than in the novel. But they shrink from enlarging the subtext to a point where it would become manifest. The script tries to flesh out the supporting characters but they remain cyphers: Jessica Tandy’s libertarian Miss Birdseye, and Nancy Marchand’s wise and pragmatic Mrs. Burrage. And The Europeans once again lacks fluidity in its stately scene progression, Ivory following confrontation with more confrontation – the audience is kept on its toes – but so much so that the overkill leads to a certain apathy. Walter Lassally’s images, he had just finished Heat & Dust for Ivory, are subtle, and do not drown the narrative in beauty, in this build up to their masterly EM Forster trilogy A Room with A View, Maurice and Howard’s End. AS 

NOW ON CURZON WORLD AS PART OF THE MERCHANT IVORY SEASON

Curtiz (2019) *** NETFLIX

Dir.: Tamas Yvan Topolanzky; Cast: Ferenc Lengyel, Evelin Dobos, Andrew Hefler, Scott Alexander Young, Declan Hannigan, Nicolett Barabas, Caroline Boulton, Christopher Krieg; Hungary 2018, 98 min.

The shooting of Casablanca, one of the most iconic Hollywood features, is the centrepiece of this ambitious debut drama from Swiss-Hungarian writer/director Tamas Yvan Topolanzky. The result is not a disaster, but underwhelming: Curtiz will be best remembered for making us want to see the 1942 classic again, and with new eyes. The film also explores the troubled relationship between Curtiz and his daughter, which was never resolved (according to the final credits).

Born in Budapest in 1886 as Mano Kaminer, Michael Curtiz arrived in Hollywood in 1926 and would direct a string of masterpieces: The Adventures of Robin Hood and Mildred Pierce being the most outstanding in a career that would showcase his talents across the genres, with 177 feature films. Casablanca, for which he won his only Oscar, was bedevilled from the very beginning. Studio boss Jack L. Warner (Hefler) and producer Hal B. Wallis (Young) had a fight on their hands to keep Curtiz and Johnson (Hannigan), the censorship head, from tearing each other’s heads off. Curtiz was a mixture of fellow Austro-Hungarian directors Erich von Stroheim and Otto Preminger. But Warner was a bottom line man (“I don’t want it great. I want it Tuesday”), and the spiralling production budget made him concerned that Bogart and Bergman would walk away – they were critical of the  script. Curtiz (“Don’t talk to me when I am interrupting) was a well known womaniser and but his grasp of English led to some hilarious misunderstandings during the making of Casablanca: there is an amusing interlude when the prop master misinterprets Curtiz’ request for ‘puddles’ during the rainy scene at the Gare de Lyon, bringing five poodles on the set, amid much consternation. But the joke was on Curtiz who also had a long running argument with actor Conrad Veidt (Krieg), a German emigrant who often cast as a Nazi; but vehemently insisting that not all Germans were Nazis, a fair point.

The director flagrantly cheated on his third wife Bess Meredyth (Barabas), an accomplished actor and writer, seducing young women, by using his director star power. The arrival of his daughter Kitty (Dobos), from an earlier marriage in Hungary, made things even more complicated. In a very ugly scene, we see see Wallis trying to rape Kitty, unaware she is Curtiz’ daughter. The director (“Magic happens on the casting couch”) was also disinclined to help his sister leave a Hungarian ghetto. She and her family were eventually deported to Auschwitz, she was the only survivor. Finally, we come to the end of shooting, when the small cardboard plane, which will carry Elsa and Laszlo to the USA, is half hidden in fog and surrounded by Lilliputian soldiers, to make it look bigger.

Curtiz is stylishly shot by DoP Zoltan Devenyi, his roving camera often mimicking the style of Christian Matras in La Ronde: the re-imagining of the original black-and-white photography is stunning, although the crane and circular rotation shots are overdone. This is a film where the aesthetics beat out a script clinging to the sensational, and parlously uncritical of any sexism. AS

NOW ON NETFLIX

 

   

Love and Death on Long Island (1997) **** Bfi Player

Dir: Richard Kwietniowski | Cast: John Hurt, Jason Priestley, Sheila Hancock |  drama, Canada, UK 93′

John Hurt is the reason to watch this inventive social satire set in Nova Scotia, Canada. Age almost always trumps beauty if the older party has style and charisma – and Hurt has this in spades when he plays a raddled English writer who falls under the spell of an American teen-movie star in the shape of Jason Priestly in Richard Kwietniowski’s award-wining sophomore drama, which he adapts with wit and verve from the novel by Gilbert Adair.

Crumpled but confident widower Giles De’Ath (Hurt) is long in the tooth, but totally naive to the newfound gadgets of modern life such as the latest TV and video scene. He discovers the good-looking young actor Ronnie Bostock (Priestley) who is setting the night of fire for teenage viewers (a kind of poor man’s version of Timothée Chalamet), and who opens his eyes to all kinds of wonderful possibilities when Giles accidentally buys a cinema ticket to the wrong screening: “This isn’t E.M Forster!” he exclaims, but he is transfixed to his seat by the appearance on screen of Ronnie Bostock in a film called . “Hotpants College 2,”.

Giles is smitten and gradually works his way through the Bostok ‘ouevre’ in his local video stores, including such outing as “TexMex”, emerging as a rather scuzzy upperclass roué. Eventually he sets off across the pond in search of his unlikely crush whom he tracks down near the Hamptons.

Ronnie awakens Giles’ own desires and broadens his horizons as a muse who also stands to benefit from the connection. Like most great relationships – it offers a win win opportunity that beats as it sweeps – Ronnie benefitting from Giles’ superior knowledge with a chance to brush up his own credentials; his girlfriend Audrey (Lowei) completing the trio.

The film widens into a social commentary on America with its modern day gods: trainers and takeaway pizzas; and the detail is so accurate it actually adds to the dramatic heft. But when Ronnie eventually appears in the flesh, he pales in comparison to Giles’ suave elan –  and it’s here that Hurt’s superior acting skills also gain the upper hand – exposing their different worlds with startling clarity, but providing much mirth into the bargain. MT

NOW AVAILABLE ON Bfi Player 

 

1917 (2019) ***** Mubi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ON MUBI

 

 

The Assistant (2019) ** Bfi Player

Dir: Kitty Green | Drama, 87′

The Assistant follows the day to day life of an office worker during her trial period in a new company. The film captured the imagination of critics in Berlin this year when a rumour went round it was based on the empire of one Harvey Weinstein, the disgraced film producer, and so plausibly chimed with the #MeToo movement. Although the setting here is New York.

Jane is a rather glum and introverted character who never smiles or shows a spark of enthusiasm or enterprise when she lands her dream job, beating hundreds of others to the post as a production company assistant. We first see her outside her Queens apartment, where a cab is waiting to drive her to the office in the early morning. Shot in a subdued colour palette, this is a tonally subdued affair that sees the film’s executives deeply involved in their workload; not a sparky creative atmosphere – so clearly the action takes place in the ‘backroom’ ie the legal or administrative side of the business – although this is never made clear.

Jane is a diligent and dedicated worker who maintains a sombre presence, rarely smiling and rocking a drab teeshirt, and dowdy trousers as her work outfit, her pop-socks drifting down to show her bare ankles as she goes about the daily routine of checking travel itineraries, photocopying, and making refreshments in the large office she shares with two other more senior assistants who are mostly absorbed in their own work. Her own poker-face certainly doesn’t invite a positive dynamic between them, and none of these characters has any chance to inject a sardonic twist to their performances given the dumbed down almost monosyllabic dialogue.

Although clearly a film with a serious and worthwhile message to offer, as a piece of entertainment  The Assistant is light years away from its obvious companion drama The Devil Wears Prada, a more sparky affair with some fireworks and fun and games up its sleeve, although roughly the same agenda.

Jane’s boss, Tony Torn, never appears but we certainly get a jist of his iron fist on his staff through various ‘phoncalls. But this could be any office, in any town, in any country with a strong hierarchy and a bottom line driven by profit and a need to deliver. And besides, Jane has no backlife, as far as we’re led to believe, apart from the final scene where she receives a loving phone call from her father, just as warm and convincing as the rest is cold and alienating. This brief scenes is the only tonal shift in the narrative. Other moments like this, amid the buttoned down drabness, could have added dramatic tension – and a more enjoyable outcome.

The fact that Jane is chauffeur-driven to work is a perk that many office workers would welcome, as they tool in from the suburbs to put in the hours in another gruelling day. This is what work is like for most people. It is not a party, but a hard graft to the top – and the only thing that can make it enjoyable is the positive attitude and determination that you bring with you to work. And Jane seems an isolated character whose simmering discontent comes to a head when a new assistant Sienna (Kristine Froseth) appears on the scene and appears to receive a more favourable reception. Sienna is just as pretty, but perkier, and brings a breath of fresh air to proceedings. Although Jane assumes that – wrongly or rightly – through a few randoms clues, that the young girl from Boise, Idaho, is a product of the casting couch. But because Jane has no confidents – in or out of the office – this strand cannot proffer any grist to her character’s mill to empower her. And this is the big flaw in Green’s script. Although our sympathies should be with her, she emerges an irritating morose, moaner by the end of the story: is that really what Green intended? Certainly a film to set tongues wagging. MT

NOW SHOWING ON BFI PLAYER

Eve (Eva) (1962) **** Prime

Dir.: Joseph Losey; Cast: Jeanne Moreau, Stanley Baker, Virna Lisi, Giorgio Albertazzi; France/Italy 1962, 116′.

Jean-Luc Godard was originally slated to film this classic paperback hit from James Hadley Chase, whose novels provided rich dramatic pickings for the big screen (around 50 were filmed). The Franco-Swiss director wanted Richard Burton as his leading man, but it was another Welsh actor, Stanley Baker, who finally stepped up to the plate and his choice of helmer was Joseph Losey. And it was a memorable one.

Stanley Baker had already triumphed as a saturnine but alluring tough guy in Losey’s Blind Date (1959) and The Criminal (1960) the two developing a well-oiled working relationship, so Baker had no problem selling him to the producers, Raymond and Robert Hakim. Jeanne Moreau manages to tease out Baker’s raw romantic credentials in the stylish thriller, but Chase’s pulp fiction style sat uneasily with Losey and his two scriptwriters Hugo Butler and Evan Jones – Losey eventually falling out with his long term friend Jones, who had also been a victim of the HUAC witch hunt. The result was a critical and financial disaster – but has stood the test of time, Eva now being one of the cornerstones of Losey’s oeuvre – and also his personal favourite.

Eva begins with a prologue: Jeanne Moreau sailing by on a water taxi in a wintry Venice. A mournful trumpet prepares us for the gloomy outcome. The credits roll and we see Eva approaching Harry’s bar, where Tyvian Jones (Baker) holds court, telling the story of his brother, a Welsh miner (like himself). He is accosted by Branco (Albertazzi), the producer of the film adaptation of Tyvian’s novel: it is the second anniversary of the suicide of Tyvian’s Italian wife Francesca (Lisi), whom Branco loved.

Cut to Venice Film Festival two years previously, when Tyvian is seen water-skiing, as Eva looks on. Francesca is madly in love with her Welshman fiance, who is too busy to celebrate the success of the film version of his novel. A rainstorm brings Eva into Tyvian’s life: she and her client force entry into into the writer’s rented hideaway on the island of Torcello. Eva makes herself at home in the bedroom – to Billy Hollidays’ Willow, Weep for Me – and later takes a bath. When Tyvian enters she shrugs her shoulders nonchalantly, ignoring him. The writer throws out the client, thus entering a relationship which will destroy him – even though Eva tells him she is only in it for the money. But after Tyvian remarks: “let’s see, what you can do”, she knocks him out with a huge glass ashtray.

Tyvian is already engaged to the charming Francesca (a delicate Virna Lisi) but he becomes mesmerised by Moreau’s Eva who slowly ensnares him – it’s a magical performance from Moreau but Baker is equally enthralling. The Hakim Brothers cut the 155-minute version, and withdrew the feature from Venice Film Festival. A later cut shredded even more of the storyline, leaving just a 100-minute feature at the premiere in 1963.

How much Losey himself was involved is still a question. But there is much to admire: Michel Legrand’s jazzy score, andparticularly DoP Gianni Di Vinanzo’s sparkling black-and-white images of Venice and Rome. There are also intricate interior shots, using the mirrors in Eva’s apartment to show the compelling interplay between the lovers. In The Servant, Losey’s next feature, it was James Fox’s turn to be caught in the mirrors of his supercilious superiority. The only difference between the two films is that Robin Maugham’s book and Harold Pinter’s script for The Servant were far superior to the Chase/Butler-Jones version of Eve. When all is said and done, Losey’s original film far outstrips Benoit Jacquot’s 2018 remake, and not even Isabelle Huppert can save that pale rider. MT

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White God (2014) | Bfi Player

Dir/Wri: Kornél Mundruczó | Cast: Zsofia Psotta, Sandor Zsoter, Lili Horvath, Szabolcs Thuroczy, Lili Momori, Gergely Banki, Karoly Ascher | 119min  Drama/Thriller  Hungary

Hungarian director, Kornél Mundruczó’s art house thriller is also a revenge flick with a touch of the “Pied Piper of Hamlin’ about it. Serving as an elusive parable on human supremacy, it scratches the edges of fantasy with some bizarre and brutal elements.

Dogs, or more correctly, mutts are the stars of the story which opens with a little girl cycling through the mysteriously empty streets of Budapest, followed by a pack of barking beasts. With is canine cast of Alsations to Labradors, Rottweilers and even little terriers, WHITE GOD also brings to mind The Incredible Journey with a darkly sinister twist. Is she escaping a virus, or a human enemy?

These dogs are clearly well-trained and credit goes to the Mundruczo for his ambitious undertaking, but then Magyars have a reputation for their horsemanship and this clearly extends to the canine species. It transpires that Lilli (Zsofia Psotta) the girl on the bike, has adopted a large street dog called Hagen. Lilli’s mum is off on a business trip with her new boyfriend, leaving her in the care of her emotionally distant but rather sensitive father who ironically works as an abattoir inspector.

Their relationship is not a close one and Lilli becomes even more distant from him when he insists on her getting rid of her loveable pet. Budapest is a city full of street dogs and the Hungarians appear to be a great deal less keen on animal welfare than most European countries. Hagen is soon picked up by a new owner, an unscrupulous dog fighter, who sets about turning him into a savage warrior-dog, before he escapes and ends up in the Police dog pound, where he stages a mass canine uprising. The transformation is both sad and frightening but there are also poignant moments as Hagen as his ‘mate,’ a sweet Jack Russell, desperately try to evade re-capture by their enemies – human beings. And it is this balance of power that underpins Mundruczó’s unique drama transforming it from an animal adventure to a satire with universal appeal. WHITE DOG is quite literally, a tale of the ‘underdog’ rising up and claiming his rightful place in society: on a more sinister level it could represent the masses over-taking society. A captivating and provocative piece of filmmaking. MT

NOW ON BFI PLAYER | Dedicated to the late Miklós Jancsó, WHITE GOD won PRIX UN CERTAIN REGARD in Cannes 2014.

Marta Meszaros | Retro | Bergamo Film Meeting 2021

Márta Mészáros occupies a unique position in Hungarian and world film history. The director, Kossuth and Prima Prize laureate, winner of awards at the Berlinale, Chicago, Cannes and many other international film festivals, is in herself a historical legend. Together with her contemporaries Agnès Varda, Larisa Shepitko e Věra Chytilová, she ranks as one of the most significant female authors in the world.

She is the first Hungarian woman to be awarded a diploma in film directing, she has dedicated her movies to depicting the lives of women (their identity, deviance, female rebelliousness, erotic intimacy and Hungarian history of Stalinism), and her directorial debut attracted global attention.

Even as a young child she had struggled with being orphaned, with hunger and the vicissitudes of history. She was born in Budapest in 1931. Her father, the avant-garde sculptor László Mészáros, in fleeing fascism moved the family to Kirgizia, where on the outbreak of World War II he fell victim to Stalin’s purges. Her mother also died. She was placed in a Soviet orphanage and only returned to Hungary after the war.

Between 1954-56 she studied at the film academy in Moscow and until 1968 she made Romanian and Hungarian documentaries. These autobiographical motifs inspired the Diary series that garnered considerable international acclaim.

Diary for my Children (Naplo Gyermekeimnek) Hungary 1983, 106 min.

Hungarian writer/director Marta Meszaros (*1931) chronicles a decade of Hungarian social history (1947-1958) in this autobiographical trilogy of just under six hours, where she is represented by the teenage character Juli. Meszaros actually made a fourth feature, Little Vilma (Kisvilma – az utolso naplo) in 2000, which runs along similar lines but its realisation differs from the original format. Of the three Diary for my Children is by far the most impressive, winning the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes in the year of its making. The colour versions of Diary for my Lovers and Diary for my Mother and Father, descends into simplicity, with Meszaros losing her objective documentarian’s viewpoint. All three parts were shot by DoP Nyika Jansco, her husband Miklos Jansco’s son from a previous relationship before their marriage which lasted from 1960 to 1973.    

In 1947, teenage Juli (Czinkoczi) arrives in Budapest from exile in Moscow to stay with her foster mother Magda (Polony), and her grandparents (Pal Zolnay/Mari Szemes). Magda is a member of the Communist Party, courageously opposing Nazism and Stalin, but recently her opinions of the Communist set-up have softened. Most of her friends have mixed views about her political affiliations. Old friend Janos (Nowicki) disagrees with her stance, her flatmate Judith Kardos (Margitai) more or less supports her. Juli’s mother died during the war, and her sculptor father had been imprisoned during one of the purges in the late 1930s. So she takes a dim view of Stalin, suspecting he may have had a hand in her father’s ‘disappearance’. The dynamic of these relationships forms the rich backcloth to this intimate character study.

Juli idolises Janos as a father figure. In her dream sequences, Janos actually becomes her father, working in a huge quarry. Much later, when Janos is married to Ildi (Bansagi), she also is the same person as her mother in Juli’s dreams. Not one for school, Juli does steals Magda’s cinema pass and discovers the classics: She identifies with Greta Garbo in ‘Mata Hari’, and make a fancy dress of her idol. But Juli has a harsh side, treating her boyfriend meanly by refusing to sleep with him. Janos gets arrested for “sabotage” in the factory he is working in, but he buys his freedom, denouncing a co-worker – and also relying on Magda’s help “for the sake of the old days”. Finally, Juli is thrown out of the school and has to work in a factory before she moves out of Magda’s flat, to live with Janos and his son (Toth), who has to spend his days in a wheelchair.

Diary for my Lovers (Napok Szerelmeinnek) Hungary 1987, 141 min.

Diary for my Lovers starts in 1953 and explores her sexual forays in Moscow. Juli has gone back to school and is chosen (with some help by Magda) to study economics but then has a change of heart, talking the Russians into letting her swop places with a young Hungarian whose dream to be an economist gives her the opportunity realise her own wish to become a filmmaker. At film school she meets the glamorous actress Anna Pavlova (Kouberskaya), who has a relationship with an older and senior party functionary. She also discovers how her father met his fate and angered by the revelations she decides to go home when the  1956 revolution breaks out in Hungary, despite becoming emotionally close to Janos and his son. Back in Budapest Magda has joined the security forces is nearly lynched during public unrest.  by the revolting citizens. Ildi asks Juli to flee to Vienna with Janos “and keep him there.” But they end up in Budapest.

Part three, A Diary for my Mother and Father (Naplo Apamnak, Anyamnak) Hungary 1990, 119 min.

This begins with a New Year’s Eve party in Magda’s flat, celebrating the end of a traumatic 1956. Magda and the Party have regained power after the Russian invasion, and Juli, who is working for the newsreel section of he Party, comes to blows with her mother. Janos is now part of an independent worker’s union in the factory, and convinces his co-workers not to give in to the regime, and continue their strike. But this all ends in a gruelling drawn-out tragedy

Meszaros combines the opposing forms of documentary and fiction, the film’s aesthetic and narrative becomes a notion of film as art, entertainment and record. The quasi documentary style and the inclusion of archive footage is a clear reflection of earlier Meszaros films. And this is all conveyed in the subtle acting performances, which remind us of Rossellini’s work in Italian Neo-Realism. We become attached observers, looking in from the outside as flies on the wall catching snippets of conversation at the dinner table, when working conditions in the factories are discussed, before Juli escapes into her dream world. There is a quietly devastating sequence with Juli sitting alone in the room after her grandfather has scolded her for bring up the story of her father’s tragic disappearance. A recurring dream imagine her father in the quarry; and we even get a glimpse of her as a child – her voice echoing as she calls for her father. Lacking a family in the traditional sense, she invents her own: as one where only Janos will discuss the past. Juli’s real world is the cinema.

Zsuzsa Czinkoczi gives an astounding performance considering she was only fifteen-years old when the film was shot. She dream-walks through the six hours, never putting a foot wrong. Subtly evoking tone and pace, and her life and circumstances change. Anna Polony’s Magda is a study in ambivalence. Both she and Juli somehow need each for a time: Juli to get to film school, Magda to repress her guilt regarding the death of Juli’s father. But they start out more or less on an even footing: life choices see them move farther apart. The truth here is that any totalitarian regime – rather like a religion- is extremely demanding of its believers, Magda becoming someone she didn’t set out to be. The only way out is total emotional rejection of the status quo, which Juli achieves in the end – but not before she entertained the idea of a silent truce with the system.

Whilst Meszaros always refused to be called a feminist, she was one of the first women directors who won major awards, and she was the first ever female filmmaker to win the Golden Bear in Berlin 1975, for Adoption. AS

MARTA MESZAROS RETROSPECTIVE | BERGAMO FILM MEETING 2021 | AVAILABLE FREE ONLINE WITH KIND PERMISSION OF THE HUNGARIAN CULTURAL CENTRE LONDON UK |

  

   

 

A Perfect Candidate (2019) ***

Dir.: Haifaa Al-Mansour; Cast: Mila al Zahrani, Nora al Awadh-Sara, Dae Al Hilali, Khalid Abdulraheem; Germany/SaudiArabia 2019, 101 min.

Haifaa Al-Mansour’s latest drama returns to small town Saudi Arabia where a stong-willed woman fights for political power. With its strong elements of a fable, and full of  ironic humour A Perfect Candidate feels very much like a grown up version of the Saudi director’s stunning debut Wadjda.

Maryam is played by a brilliant Mila Al Zahrani in her debut. A leading hospital doctor in a Saudi town, we see her driving through mud and dust to reach the clinic. There she is challenged almost immediately by an old man, who has suffered injuries in a car crash. He is adamant not to be treated by her and Maryam leaves him to the male nurses – who diagnose his spine injury incorrectly – the result being that Maryam has to perform surgery on the still unwilling patient. At home, Maryam lives with her two sisters Selma (Hilali) and Sara (Awad). Their mother, a famous singer, has recently died, and father Abdulaziz (Abdulraheem), an oud player, is on tour with his band. Maryam had planned to fly to Dubai to attend a conference and further her career, but at the airport she is banned from boarding as her father’s travel permit has run out – no Saudi woman can travel without male consent.

Abdelaziz and his fellow musicians come under attack from fundamentalists against music being performed publicly, Maryam tries in vain to reach him, but finds herself presented with the opportunity to be a candidate for the local council where she deals with a condescending, ignorant clerk. With the help of sister Selma, a photographer, Maryam starts her campaign with the onerous but vital task of  rebuilding the mud road leading to the hospital, which has caused massive disruption. Miraculously, the sitting councillor starts the road work immediately.

It is the little details that makes this a winner – the scene where Maryam manages to connect a cable during an otherwise rather disastrous video shoot for her campaign; she puts the men to shame as a woman being able to solve a technical problem that eluded the male professionals. Sure, the outcome may not have added votes, but the message hits home. By the end, Maryam gains a staunch supporter in the old man whose life she saved with her surgery.

Let down by its rather second-rate visuals – DoP Patrick Orth’s images are rather basic, but Volker Bertelmann’s score makes up for it. The ensemble acting and Al-Mansour’s sensitive direction makes this another success for the Saudi filmmaker  AS

AVAILABLE ON CURZON HOME CINEMA
  

The Two Sights (2020) An Da Shealladh **** Cinema du Reel 2020

Dir: Joshua Bonnetta | Canada, Doc | 90′

Canadian filmmaker Joshua Bonnetta follows his 2017 documentary El Mar la Mar with this equally beguiling film about the phenomenon of clairvoyance, or second sight, in the Western Isles. The film also explores clairaudience, the supposed faculty of perceiving, as if by hearing, what is inaudible.

In the Outer Hebrides locals feel there is little distinction between Heaven and Earth. This untrammelled part of the British Isles is locked away from the buzz of the 21st century, its gentle emptiness, wide open seascapes and luminous cloud formations coalesce to create the ideal setting for all things surreal and inspired by unstructured consciousness, allowing the present to be sustained by the past and offering the locals a portal to their folkloric and linguistic heritage.

The Two Sights opens with the distant figure of Bonnetta silently positioning his microphone on a grassy coastline, subtly introducing the film’s main theme. Bonnetta’s delicately glowing 16mm images then provide the bewitching backcloth to a series of mysterious and ghostly tales voiced by local islanders (in Scottish Gaelic and English) recounting inexplicable sounds and enigmatic sightings that presage the passing away or continuing presence of their friends, animals and loved ones. Some claim the gift of second sight is passed down through families and generations, and now mourn its slow disappearance.

There are stories of dog skeletons, drowned villages, and family members passing away; although songs, silence and the shipping forecast are just as at home here. But like any great collection, the elements are less important than the underlying theme: the closer we are to nature, the closer we are to understanding the universe and how the past and present form a continuous loop uniting our souls forever as we pass visibly, and then invisibly through time.

The Two Sights is both captivating and compelling with its eerie beauty: a lulling ambient soundscape and breathtaking landscapes draw us into a story so ephemeral it could easily drift away in the foggy dusk of these atavistic islands. Bonnetta’s restrained approach avoids sensationalism in conveying the palpable otherworldly plane that exists beyond the six senses transporting us into a dimension that is mysterious and meaningful but not necessarily tragic or malign.

The only diegetic sound is provided by a group of local Scottish gospel singers led by a man with a smooth baritone who later manages to mingle his voice with nearby birdsong, lending a vaguely humorous twist. Wandering round this remote corner, Bonnetta adds further ethnographical texture with random sequences: a lonesome bagpipe player lends a tune and some peat cutters gossip as they unearth the island’s ancient form of fuel. “Sight by eye, sight by ear, two sights that ripple and flow together.”Bonnetta adds another muted but unforgettable film to his repertoire. MT

CINEMA DU REEL | 42nd DOCUMENTARY FILM FESTIVAL | 13-22 MARCH 2020

Bird Box (2018) **

Dir: Susanne Bier | Sandra Bullock, John Malkovich, Sarak Paulson, Travante Rhodes, Jacki Weaver | Sci-fi thriller | 124′

Susanne Bier is a well known as one of Denmark’s most distinguished auteurs. Her themes are universal in nature but their focus is intimate and often family-based, both on her TV and in big screen outings. As one of the original Danish Dogme pack, her drama Open Hearts brought her into the international spotlight in 2002. Bier was also the first female director to win a Golden Globe, an Academy Award, an Emmy Award and a European Film Award.

This time, to her credit, she has decided to experiment with a dystopian sci-fi drama . Structurally flawed and not particularly enjoyable, despite its starry cast, BIRDBOX is a laudable effort but not one of her best. Sandra Bullock plays Malorie, a run of the mill artist who has converted her small flat into a studio and is expecting the imminent arrival of a baby. But her ordinary life is catapulted into bizarre and tragic circumstances when a wave of unexplained mass suicides in Romania and Siberia turns the world upside down. Everywhere people display what newscasters term “psychotic behaviour” in the post-apocalyptic meltdown. Cars crash for no reason, and pedestrians wander willy nilly onto main roads, or shoot themselves in the head. To add to the weirdness of it all, Bier’s narrative jerks backwards and forwards showing Malorie’s reaction in the present to the madness that has gone before. Clearly this all resonates with a contemporary scenario where people have lost sight of their goals. This translates into a storyline where humans must protect their eyesight at all costs when outdoors, and are forced to be blindfold for fear of facing their worst nightmares.

Bullock is superbly cast exuding all the pragmatism and resilience she’s well known for (in Gravity and Speed) but for some reason she’s also looking after two children who are clearly not hers. And why the pregnancy into the bargain? The film opens well with the cataclysm but then descends into torpor in the claustrophobically awkward second act which takes place in a house where Malorie is hiding with arch misery-guts John Malkovich’s Douglas and a retired soldier (Rhodes). Later joining them is a sinister but chipper Tom Hollander. This interior strife clearly echoes what’s happening outside, and is only briefly leavened by Douglas’ discovery of a cache of booze. But even when the action moves into the forest the whole scenario is unconvincing. BIRDBOX brings nothing new to the dystopian apocalypse party, apart from the blindfolds – which are a distraction. Clearly the dark forces causing all the mayhem are inspired by Medusa’s Gorgon, but this all seems too far-fetched and strung out. Full marks for trying but let’s hope Bier returns to form in 2019. MT

STREAMING ON NETFLIX FROM 21 DECEMBER 2018

Brute Force (1947) | Bluray | Arrow player

Dir| Jules Dassin | Crime drama | US  | 97’

There are prison dramas and there are prison dramas. Jules Dassin’s 1947 crime thriller falls into that strange arena of social hell where its prison bars also exist outside of a real prison. BRUTE FORCE is an allegorical movie, but not quite in the existential manner as viewed by some film commentators. They cite Sartre’s No Exit as a reference point. Yet rather than hell being the never-ending company of other people, it’s more that hell is the forced accommodation of prison codes that inhibit freedom. When the drunkard Dr. Walters (Art Smith) says, at the tragic climax of Brute Force, that “Nobody’s really free.” thereby denouncing a crushing, unjust and regulated system that pervades society as a whole.

“The point hammered home is that the prison system reflects the values of a society, Dassin castigates society for creating and then turning a blind eye towards the brutality and insensitivity of a prison system that offers no chance for rehabilitation.”

Dennis Schwartz Ozus ‘ World Movie Reviews’ 2004

Things “hammered home” with “no chance for re-habiliation” is also the outcome of Audiard’s 2009 film A Prophet. Gradually it dawns that only death, in the form of the gangster driven car that follows Tahar Rahim, outside the prison gate, will release him from his stress. Or maybe just before that you decide to risk everything, ram the gate with a truck (Brute Force) to create an apocalyptic inferno (Fire, explosions and machine-gunning of inmates) sharing a kinship with James Cagney’s ecstatic ‘madness’ at the end of White Heat. Here are some plot details to keep such fatalism percolating.

Brute Force sees Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster) returning from solitary confinement in Westgate Prison. He is firmly decided to escape. Westgate’s tired and ineffectual Warden Barnes (Roman Bohnen) is being pressured to improve discipline. Jailor Captain Muney (a name you want to pronounce as Monster), played by Hume Cronyn, is a Nazi thug who listens to Wagner’s Tanhauser overture as he beats prisoners with his rubber truncheon. Prisoner violence inflicted on prisoner informers means that horrible restrictions are imposed. Dr.Walters warns of the explosion that will happen. He demands a radical overhaul of prison treatment and secretly confides with Collins. Yet reforms will be a long time coming. “Nothing is OK. No way. Till we’re OUT!” snarls, the often half-naked Burt Lancaster at his most primal.

Brute Force belongs to a group of film noirs directed by Dassin. That is Thieves Highway, Night and the City and The Naked City. The cinematographer of Brute Force and The Naked City is the veteran William Daniels. The first film has a poetic realism whilst the second is justly famous for its location shooting. The look of Brute Force is one of unremitting despair and confinement. Its fatalistic tone is made immediately apparent in the opening sequence shot in the rain; an intense black and white rain that looks as if it will chill the bones of everyone. Difficult to make rain look both frightening and ominous yet Daniels brilliantly creates such atmosphere (The only rain I can recall as bleak as this is the downpour during the freaks revenge in Tod Browning’s Freaks). William Daniels is most celebrated for helping to create the screen image of Greta Garbo. But he was also responsible for the harrowing Death Valley desert scenes of Stroheim’s Greed. He was a remarkable artist capable of producing tortuous extremes of weather and painting human suffering for the camera, whilst making Garbo luminous.

Brute Force’s script is tough and anti-establishment. Two months after the film’s release, the HUAC (House of Un-American Activities) was formed. Brute Force was suspiciously viewed as the work of communist infiltrators. There are vivid performances from Burt Lancaster and Hume Cronyn. Some cracking direction by Dassin – especially in Brute Force’s final electrifying 15mins. I love the way fire curls round the base of the prison-gate clock, seemingly ticking on as if to say “I’ll survive this, whilst you will burn doing time here.” If Brute Force has a niggardly fault then it’s to be found in the casting of the Trinidadian actor Sir Lancelot as Calypso. He is a perfectly good actor but unfortunately his part was written up as a chorus for the film in the form of calypso-style ballads. They sound far too pat and badly underline the despair of the film. Thankfully after half an hour, the songs are dropped and only very briefly re-appear at the end.

Apart from A Prophet, the greatest foreign prison break films are still Bresson’s A Man Escaped and Becker’s Le Trou. The best British prison-life film is Joseph Losey’s The Criminal. And whilst acknowledging the power of Siegel’s Escape from Alcatraz, trying hard to forget The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption, then Brute Force maybe my favourite Hollywood prison drama. It’s all about incarceration and the rules of the game will never be lightened. ALAN PRICE©2018 ****

TALES FROM THE URBAN JUNGLE: BRUTE FORCE and THE NAKED CITY now available on Arrow Academy Blu-Ray | ARROW PLAYER

We are the Flesh | Tenemos la Carne (2016)

Dir.: Emiliano Rocha Minter | Cast: Noe Hernandez, Maria Evoli, Diego Gamaliel, Gabino Rodriguez; Mexico/France 2016, 79min.

Director/writer Emiliano Rocha Minter has certainly learnt a great deal from producer Carlos Reygadas (Silent Light): his debut feature is a darkly subversive and enigmatic sexual tour-de-force with shades of Guy Maddin’s The Forbidden Room and even fellow Mexican Amat Escalante’s The Untamed. Teenage siblings Fauna (Evoli) and Lucio (Gamaliel) looking for a place to stay in post-apocalyptic Mexico City find refuge with the rather demonic Mariano (Hernandez), who lives in a derelict and dark cellar apartment. He offers them drinks laced with mind-enhances, and encourages them to build a womb-structure from wood and masking tape. Then, out of the blue, Mariano makes the siblings sleep which each other, much against Lucio’s. Watching and masturbating, Mariano suddenly dies. The intercourse awakens Fauna’s sexuality, but her brother wants nothing to do with it. Turned on by it all, Fauna has sex with Mariano’s body. Somehow, a Mexican soldier finds his way into the place and is killed by the siblings, to the tune of the National anthem of Mexico. But the main theme of the film is illicit sex and, Fauna soon finds a willing female  partner, passing her over to her brother and writhing in ecstasy whilst watching the two. As a grand finale, Minter serves up a phenomenal sex orgy, leaving us in no doubt that he is the Wilhelm Reich of filmmaking.

Shame then that this short version of the narrative fails to give Minter’s films the credit deserves, it is an illuminating exploration of sexuality serving as a coda to the nuclear family, which is finally destroyed by the chaos brought from the outside. There are echo’s of Bataille; and certainly Gaspar Noé, but Minter also captures a certain opaque quality which is very much his own style: the roving camera of DoP Yollitl Gomez Alvarado roams around 360 degrees finding new angles to explore the escalating sexual frenzy. Switching from almost colourless black and white to luminous primary colours, Minter develops a permanently changing environment where Fauna staggers wildly like a huntress in search of pray. Bach’s harpsichord concerto has never been heard in a less peaceful place; and exclamations like “Neither the Sun, nor Death can be looked at steadily” suddenly make sense in this context. Minter somehow pulls it off: WE ARE THE FLESH is certainly one of the most innovative and original debuts of recent years. AS

COMES TO SHUDDER ON 20 APRIL 2017  | THE FILM HAS BEEN BANNED BY OTHER STREAMING PLATFORMS IN THE UK

 

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