Grey Gardens and a film school education at the Lexi Cinema

The Smoke Screen is often out and about soaking up film knowledge through Q&As and pre-film lectures, so the Lexi's Cinema's 'Film School' series of screenings preceded by prominent film speakers is right up the proverbial alley. Last week The Lexi's LSF screening was a milestone in the documentary genre: Grey Gardens. Directed by the quartet of Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer and the Maysles brothers (AKA Albert and David), the 1975 doc explores the unbelievable but true story of Mrs. Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edie, the aunt and first cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and what years of retreating into a life of secluded eccentricity behind the walls of their decaying 28-room east Hampton's mansion has done to them.  Mother and daughter live in a world of their own behind towering privets that have basically isolated "Grey Garden," from the world; a place so far gone that the local authorities once threatened to evict them for violating building and sanitation codes. 

The incident made national headlines given Beales were from the American upper crust. Mrs. Beale, a.k.a. "Big Edie," was a born aristocrat, sister of "Black Jack" Bouvier, Jackie O's father. "Little Edie" was an aspiring actress who put her New York life on hold to care for her mother - and seems to have never left her side again.  The filmmakers took their camera into the Grey Gardens mansion, and as unobtrusively as possible, sat and watched this strange, co-dependent relationship veer all over the place, from little Edie dropping bags of bread into the attic to feed the masses of racoons that had settled in, the Big Edie and Little Edie having endlessly shrill and circular rows about who ruined who's life. The film has gone on to be a touchstone for discussing what documentary is, the ethics of filmmaking, and the extent to which the director, editor, and even the subjects are the "filmmakers".

Those were just some of the issues speaker Sophie Brown (critic and programmer and producer of DocTooth) was interested in raising before the screening. #LexiFilmSchool takes place on Monday evenings.  Tickets are £8 (£6 to Lexi members), with a reduced price of £20 when all 4 titles are booked at the same time. It is worth pointing out that, in addition to the speaker and the film, ticket buyers get additional information emailed to them before the evening: short film notes, links to further reading, and a few suggested 'if you like this, then...' titles. 

See the Lexi Website for more information. It really will be worth your time. Sophie Brown tweets as @SBrown400.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Celebrating the 25th anniversary of Jane Campion's Oscar-winning The Piano at the BFI's Woman With a Movie Camera summit

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The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have sparked an industry wide conversation and actions in response to widespread harassment and abuse of power. Not a bad time for the BFI to be hosting a summit titled “Woman with a Movie Camera” then. The Smoke Screen dipped into one of the panel discussions - “Before and After Time’s Up” - running at BFI Southbank throughout the day, which saw panel members Holly Tarquini (Film Bath CEO), Kate Muir (former critic and now screenwriter), Mia Bays (film producer), and Ellen Jones (campaigner and content creator) discuss the questions “why now?”, and ‘what’s next?”.

In terms of the current landscape, the panel were worried that what has been widely seen as a social media-driven campaign remained limited just to that. Change is messy, and until the big film studios fully got on board, all doubted enough progress would be made. There was more confidence in public sector bodies like unions embracing the message, however. As for the question as to why it has been 2017-8 that has seen the perception of a tipping point being reached in terms of representation awareness, all agreed social media played a key role, as well as a global swell of desire to fight against what President Trump represented. Modern media allowed more rapid and widespread communication and mobilisation today, and being heard galvanised others to speak out. Men like Harvey Weinstein were also more vulnerable in this decade, as their power had waned in recent years even as the had created long lists people waiting for their chance to speak out against them - who were now taking it. Powerful men no longer had the means to control the message, they could be bypassed. “To be heard is so galvanising,” and “to know you are not alone” were comments that had all heads nodding.

What happens next will depend on continuing collaboration, agitating in the large studio spaces, education, and mentoring. Mentoring by older and more experienced women is something in particular that Ellen Jones, the youngest of the panel, wanted to see become the norm, given how opaque and hostile the media industry can seem. Change really needs to occur in the stories on screen for the fullest effect. As Holly Tarquini put it: “truths are what we see on screen,” and she “grew up a misogynist” due to seeing only negative stereotypes of women on film.

The centrepiece screening of the day was a 25th anniversary reissue of writer-director Jame Campion’s drama The Piano, the 1993 film that scooped the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and won three Academy Awards out of eight total nominations in March 1994: Best Actress for Holly Hunter, Best Supporting Actress for Anna Paquin, and Best Original Screenplay for Campion. The Smoke Screen had never seen the film before, but found it a beguiling, sensuous and mysterious experience, with Holly Hunter an intense and luminous presence as the mourning-clad, voiceless Scottish widowed pianist Ada, sold by her father into marriage to a New Zealand frontiersman named Alisdair Stewart (Sam Neill, as good as ever as a man toxically unable to fulfil his patriarchal fantasies), bringing her young daughter Flora (a great turn from Paquin, who was just 11-year old) with her.

Ada's twisted sexual relationship with the illiterate New Zealand sailor Baines (a suitably brusque and hulking Harvey Keitel) and her coldness and lack of availability towards the baffled and emasculated Stewart contrasts with her passionate piano playing and her tender, sign language-based relationship with her daughter. Ada is a complex, difficult to pin down figure, who is surprisingly brusque and even violent in her communications, her mute status regardless. Some spectacular cinematography and framing - Ada playing her abandoned piano on a windswept New Zealand beach as the tide roils in the background - give us a sense of this lush, yet faraway and lonely land Ada has ended up in. The titular piano itself becomes an object intriguingly open to interpretation, beyond the obvious that it serves as Ada’s ‘voice’. It is it a fetish object? A representation of some suppressed passion that might stir in her thanks to Baines? By the end Ada worries it has become something darker, like a black hole pulling her in.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Poles apart: an advance review of Pawel Pawlikowski's Cannes winner COLD WAR

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Courtesy of a preview screening at Curzon Mayfair, attended by the Ida and My Summer of Love director himself, the Smoke Screen can bring you an advance look at Pawel Pawlikowski's new drama Cold War, hot from a Best Director prize win at Cannes. The film hits UK cinemas and digital VOD 31 August.


Director: Pawel Pawlikowski

1h 24min | Drama, Romance | 31 August 2018 (UK)

RATING: ★★★★☆

The picture looks perfect but the love is strained, in Paweł Pawlikowski’s exquisitely shot, carefully paced, and exceedingly wistful Cold War-set drama. It is the follow-up to his Oscar-winning film Ida, and like that movie, it is set in an oppressed and oppressive Poland (though in later acts, we move to various other European countries either in or free from the Soviet Union) during the height of the iron curtain divide across Europe, and is shot in gorgeous monochrome, with a slow pace and lengthy shots that encourage contemplation. Personally, I fell for Cold War’s visual approach right away, appreciated the fine cast, whilst still wishing there was a little more fire in the love affair that the entire thing hinges on. Bleak and occasionally violent though this film is (even as it is beautiful to look at), one thing that should stay with you though, is the power of the music.

The main duo who’s love affair we are to trace through its up and downs across the Iron Curtain, an undeniably sexy and charismatic pair. Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is a darkly handsome pianist and composer with intense eyes and a rakish, tall build. He gives off an urbane vibe. Scrappy blonde  singer teenager Zula (Joanna Kulig) claims in contrast to be from the country and acts proud of it, whilst looking a bit like a younger Lea Seydoux. Their intense but elliptical affair begins in a wintry and ruined Soviet Poland in the late 1940s, an atmosphere conveyed with immense effectiveness by that aforementioned irresistible monochrome palette. We first meet Wiktor and a fellow broadcaster are they are deep into touring various remote villages with beat-up looking recording equipment, gathering recordings of folk songs whilst hoping to recruit a troupe of young people for a show of authentic traditional Polish song and dance. These youngsters will be billeted in a country house for a month, drilled to within an inch of their lives for various starring roles, and then sent off on tour. 

As glorious as this sounds in practice, and as thrilling as it is to see all the a cappella performances by the roster of very talented vocalists the pair pluck from the countryside, the political shadow cast by the rulers of the Polish state is never absent. We learn that the performing amateurs that make the grade will not be allowed the freedom to display their musical talents uninhabited; they are fated to be shown off at theatrical evenings to party officials and politically congenial foreigners. Wiktor is clearly disillusioned by this co-opting of art, which manifests in its most chillingly absurd way when the glass-eyed finalists have to sing an ode to Stalin in a concert hall while an insanely gigantic banner of the dictator unfurls behind them. What keeps him pleasantly distracted is the fact that Zula was one of his chosen finalists, and their affair began almost immediately, despite her total understanding that she was probably chosen for her looks, not her talent. She’s not even from the country and thus suitably ‘rustic’; as their racist and suitably oleaginous political commissar,  Kaczmarek (Borys Szyquickly) spots. Zula has a reputation for wildness, which attracts Wiktor (at first). She once attacked her own father with a knife (to stop him mistaking her for his wife, she explains).

As performing musicians forced to play along the Soviet propaganda machine’s lines, Wiktor and Zula daydream about escaping to the creative freedom of the West. A chance comes to make a break for it when the music troupe are sent Paris to show off the superiority and cultural sensitivity of the USSR. But both make a split decision that puts them on opposite sides of the fence: Zula being unwilling to trust that simply flinging it all away for a man she has only known for months is going to be emotionally and physically sustainable. This is where some viewers may choose to depart from Cold War, as, instead of spinning us an affirming tale about love conquering the divide, Pawlikowksi’s film is more keen to quietly emphasise the continuing divide, as these two damaged people never quite find their time and space to blossom, even as the years march on and various stages of political detente and tension change the environments around them (the progression of musical styles and ease of travel helps chart this). Years separate each meeting in various locales spanning Europe, from France to Germany and on to Yugoslavia and elsewhere, Wiktor travelling on a new French passport whilst Zula progresses from travelling under Soviet observation to marrying her way into an Italian passport. Both chance and planned meetings between them don’t begin with tears and melodramatic embraces ; these are two people who have experienced years of separation and have grown used to being apart from each other, even if they still find each other immensely attractive. And as much as they clearly would love to be together, something just seems broken between them.

Cold War can frustrate by not allowing the kind of emotional accessibility that other film’s might as this arc slowly progresses, but you can parse out some sense of the sources of friction during of their global travels: Zula for one thing doesn’t care for the bourgeoisie lifestyle, and is less comfortable being away from Poland than her lover.  Wiktor, for one thing, can’t return to Poland to see Zula unless he is prepared to either face years item gulag or betray other emigres. It is as if being wrenched from their home, no matter how oppressive it was, has made the ground too unstable for them to just love and live. At least the film doesn’t shove a load of self-pity in your face, and dark humour is never absent.

But even if Cold War might frustrate some with its emotional distance, darkness, and seeming disinterest in going deep into the motivations of its lovers or anyone else, it sure as hell works as a bleakly beautiful tone poem to this era of divide and exile. Even if Wikto and Zula can’t get into the same rhythm, one thing that does stitch their journey together for us as viewers is the film’s sensational soundtrack and striking locations, most of which we experience via some superbly-choreographed live performances ranging from the rustic folk songs of rural Poland performed in concert halls to sultry jazz bands belting out the greats in smoky Paris basement bars. And all of it shot in the ‘slow’ style that has lovers of transcendental filmmaking such as Paul Schrader so enamoured of Pawlikowksi. Thus, although it is not a perfect film, Cold War’s brisk 82 minutes offers more than enough for your eyes and ears.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Rediscover one of the greatest silent films this June with the re-release of Pandora’s Box

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Director: G.W.Pabst

Germany 1929| 129m| U

RATING: ★★★★★

Find out more about the reissue at the BFI website.

Here we have a sumptuously shot and deliriously melodramatic Weimar-era silent film from G.W. Pabst, that is a superb showcase for the luminous 22-year old star Louise Brooks, who plays a call girl and chanteuse called Lulu in late 19th century Berlin who maintains a unashamed taste for champagne, parties and sex. This film, now regarded as one of the greatest silents, can be seen in a restored edition across the UK now via the British Film Institute. It plays as part of Big Screen Classics: It Girls which runs throughout June.

The film is surprisingly frank about Lulu's predilections; she seems to be carrying on at least two affairs at the start of the film with men of very different ages and social status, and seems adept at keeping a court of admirers hanging on her every whim. But the fear of a scandal causes the famous newspaper owner she eventually marries to dementedly try to force Lulu to kill herself (didn't I tell you this film was melodramatic?), and his accidental death in the struggle leads her to flee with the magnate's son across the world using, intriguingly, the passport of a German countess who also seems infatuated with her (one of the first onscreen appearances of a lesbian character). A somewhat bizarre riches-to-rags tale develops in the later acts, taking in the unlikely figure of Jack the Ripper at one point, but Louise Brooks' incredible on screen magnetism and style and some striking cinematography (check those moody, fog-shrouded London streets) make for a irresistible watch...even if the final moral of the screenplay seems to be a warning that this kind of free-spirited behaviour gets you punished in the end.

There is no original negative or print of Pandora’s Box in existence. In the years since its release, prints were often cut or edited for censorship reasons. Three different duplicate prints were the basis for this digital restoration, which was sponsored by the late Hugh Hefner. Previously only shown on the big screen in the UK on 35mm, with cinemas having to hire a pianist or musicians to perform a live score, this new digital version features an orchestral score by the German composer Peer Raben, known for his work with Rainer Werner Fassbinder. 

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

All the reviews from Sundance London Film Festival 2018

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Exhibition Review: Tacita Dean: Portrait; Still Life review (National Portrait Gallery; National Gallery, London to 28 May)

 Prisoner Pair Tacita Dean 2008Courtesy the artist, Frith Street Gallery, London and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York/Paris

Prisoner Pair
Tacita Dean
2008Courtesy the artist, Frith Street Gallery, London and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York/Paris

National Portait Gallery and National Gallery to 28 May.

National Portrait Gallery details

National Gallery details

RATING:  ★★★★★

Thanks to a collaboration between the National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery and the Royal Academy, each of these esteem institutions over the next few months will host exhibitions from renowned British European artist Tacita Dean, with the National and NPG first up with STILL LIFE and PORTRAIT respectively. This weekend of 25-27 May is therefore really your last chance to catch the first two of the three planned linked exhibitions (the RA's started 19 May and runs to 12 August). Film lovers should make a beeline for this, as 16mm projections lie at the core of the National and NPG's exhibitions, with Dean having long been interested in exploring genres like still life and portraiture but through the medium of film instead of paint. The whirr of 16mm dominates both exhibitions, with Dean seemingly having designed many of the film installation rooms with the intention of making contact with the beam of light unavoidable, a reminder of film's mechanics and physical presence. Some of the film's are projected onto screens that hang from wires so tiny that in the darkened rooms they seem to be floating portals that you might reach through back into the time and place of the on-screen action.

In the quiet of the National Gallery and the NPGs exhibition halls, and in particular when sitting in the rooms devoted to Dean's film still life and portraits (though each exhibition compares and contrasts the film works with photographs and paintings curated by Dean from her own collections or various other galleries and sources), a ruminative and elegiac atmosphere prevails. Aside from being challenged to parse a personality from the various tics and mannerisms of Dean's chosen subjects for the portraits (which includes actors David Warner, Ben Whishaw and Stephen Dillane, and artists David Hockney and Cy Twombley) and having the chance fall under the hypnotic spell of watching a largely still figure hold the screen as a projector whirrs rhymtically behind you, what Dean's portraits encourage is a contemplation of time. Not just the amount of time each film runs for, but also 'film time' (how much time is passing in each portrait, some seem to cover seasons, others a day in the life of an artist with activities both mundane and creative) and the fact that film as as medium relies on the passing of time, or the passing of frames through light at a set speed, to work. You can even get up and look at the 16mm film running through the projectors in many of the rooms. And, finally, the subjects of the films themselves often suggest the inevitability of degradation or give off a distinct autumnal vibe; with Twombly and Hockey both slowing figures in their 80s, and one film in the Still Life series covering the slow alteration of two apples in a schnapps bottle. 

Watching the films and reading the supporting text might also trigger you into contemplating how manipulating the physical nature of celluloid can allow for new realities  and effects to be created on screen: Dean's "His Picture in Little" (a tiny, intense projection of the sittings of three former Hamlet actors Dillane, Warner and Whishaw which emerges onto one of the NPGs wall spaces) splices together three different shoots from three different time periods, all done via masking of the film and not digital manipulation. "His Picture in Little" is one of the new works on display and perhaps the highlight, being an homage to the tradition of tiny portraiture painting that harks back to the Shakespearean period and with examples of original art pieces from the time mounted alongside the film. Typical of Dean, this is a lost art form reclaimed for her show; she seems eternally curious about things that are about to vanish.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

FILMBOX Community Cinema presents the gripping Humphrey Bogart murder mystery In a Lonely Place

FILMBOX Community Cinema: Langley Park Centre for the Performing Arts (LPCPA) created for Langley Park School for Boys, in Beckenham, Kent, BR3 3BP (UK).

Tickets and details here.

In a Lonely Place

Director: Nicholas Ray

PG | 1h 34min | Drama, Film-Noir, Mystery | 19 June 1950 (UK)

Rating: ★★★★★


The Smoke Screen is always on the lookout for a chance to catch a classic from the Hollywood golden era, and this month FILMBOX Community Cinema kindly obliged with a screening of Nicholas Ray's (well-known for helming Rebel Without a Cause) gripping and unsettling murder mystery, starring a never-better Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame. Bogart is well-known for his sparky pairings with Lauren Bacall, but putting him up against a co-star of the calibre of Grahame is hardly a second-tier move. Check out FILMBOX at their site here; they have two screenings a night now, with one of their auditoriums being a huge purpose built performance hall room which can seat well over 400. Prices are very affordable and their are detailed introductions before each film, and a bar on site. It is volunteer-run and the programming is diverse, tending towards classics and indie films that have had some box office success or critical acclaim (i.e you tend not to get Marvel superhero movies.) You can join up as a member, but non-members are welcome, tickets from £5-£8 depending on status.

Widely regarded as a classic thriller from director Nicholas Ray, In a Lonely Place stars screen icons Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame at their absolute best, in roles that require pushing at the edges of expectations of the kinds of roles worthy of a golden era star. Bogart is really working against his tough-but-good-hearted image here as a cynical, booze -addled Hollywood screenwriter called Dixon Steele, who seems to have left his talent and sobriety (as well as the ability to control his violent asshole temperament) back in the just-finished overseas global conflict. When Steele, after a day boozing and complaining with a bunch of other Hollywood leftovers in a local bar (one of the many ways this film is dripping with cynicism about the flicks; Ray has his own reasons for feeling this way), decides to invite a young admiring female fan back to his apartment on the dubious claim that she can help explain the plot of this novel he is struggling with, he sets himself up as the prime murder suspect when the girl winds up dead in a ditch the next morning.

We don't see her safely leave his apartment and make it to the nearby taxi stand as she said she would do, but Grahame's character's testimony -she is Steele's alluring and mysterious neighbour Laurel who lives in the opposite apartment- gets Steele clear of the cops for the time being. But the compelling questions remain: did Steele do it, and is Laurel safe once she starts becoming romantically entangled with Steele? And it is, of course, way more of a compelling question when it is an icon like Bogey who is the suspect. Bogart only gets more and more darkly fascinating as this film goes on, seemingly unable to stop flaunting the idea that he might have done it in to cops and friends, as if he has finally cottoned on to a plot worth milking after years of pissing his talent away. The key scene where, with a twisted glare on his face, he orders his close friend and his wife to re-enact the murder the way he visualises it took place, is worth the price of admission alone. Grahame has great chemistry with Bogart too, though I preferred her in the film's first act; where her in teasing flirtation with Steele - whilst she knows he is a suspect- raises all kinds of questions about whether she is a moth-to-flame danger seeker.

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Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

As 2001: A Space Odyssey warps back into cinemas, the Smoke Screen recalls speaking to the original Discovery astronauts

 GARY LOCKWOOD AND KEIR DULLEA IN  2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.

GARY LOCKWOOD AND KEIR DULLEA IN 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.

With 2001: A Space Odyssey, director Stanley Kubrick redefined the science-fiction film genre,  the limits of filmmaking itself, and cemented his legacy as one of the most revolutionary and influential film directors of all time. Originally released in 70mm Cinerama roadshow format on April 3 1968, the film's 50th anniversary is being marked by a new roadshow aiming to recreate the visual and audio experience audiences would have had in 1968. No digital tricks, no extra scenes. This is not a 'director's cut'. You can read more about the cutting of this new print here courtesy of Cannes (where it premiered recently) and Warner Bros. technical staff.

For the first time since the original release, this 70mm print was struck from new printing elements made from the original camera negative. Supported by celluloid lover and acclaimed director Christopher Nolan, this is a true photochemical film recreation from an age-old process which will go on tour worldwide. This screening will have a 15 minute interval also, as per the good old days. Picturehouse cinemas in London currently have tickets for a May period.

To mark the occasion, the Smoke Screen went back into the archives to dig up an interview roundtable with the cast members who play as the two beleaguered astronauts who come up against both the devious computer HAL, and the mysterious alien Stargate that ultimately opens the path to the film's mindbending conclusion. This was conducted around time of the Autumn 2014 BFI Sci-Fi "Days of Fear and Wonder" season, which saw 2001 play in a headline slot in a new restored digital print. A very different print will play this time, of course, but the interview remains  a real trove of insights into the mercurial Kubrick's making of a true classic. The entire feature is printed below, and also can be viewed in full here.


You can't get away from Stanley Kubrick’s grandiose, mysterious and undeniably trippy 1968 space epic 2001: A Space OdysseyLike the imposing, sleek monoliths from the film, 2001 looms over all cinema genres, not just science fictionEven director Christopher Nolan’s new sci-fi film Interstellar, released in the same month that the BFI and Warner Bros studio have released a new digital transfer of Kubrick’s movie, openly pays homage to its predecessor.

Eventually becoming a huge box office and critical hit following its release  2001 is now a permanent fixture in all the major “best of” charts. It remains still in the top ten of the Sight and Sound Magazine Greatest Films poll, and was recently voted No. 1 in a Time Out London poll for the best 100 Sci-Fi films. It is fair to say that 2001, with it’s largely dialogue-free narrative, avante- garde music and benchmark-setting special effects, has gone beyond being just a film that is widely regarded as a masterpiece; it is spoken of and written about as if it is a piece of art.

Though the most famous character in 2001 is undoubtedly supercomputer HAL 9000, the human presence in the film's second half is made up of astronauts David Bowman and Frank Poole, two men on what must be the loneliest mission in history aboard the spaceship Discovery. The pair are bound for Jupiter, following the path of a mysterious alien transmission from the alien monolith found on the moon. Actors Keir Dullea (Bowman) and Gary Lockwood (Poole) were reunited this month in London to celebrate the 2K digital reissue of 2001 playing as part of the BFI’s Sci-Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder season, and kindly shared their memories with me of going on “The Ultimate Trip” (as studio MGM sneakily billed the film when they realised how certain 60s youthful audiences were enjoying the film).

The two are an interesting double act; Dullea’s precise, carefully-considered answers contrast with the curmudgeonly Lockwood’s more roundabout ways of telling stories. Both are sharp as a knife when it comes to recalling various behind-the-scenes memories, thought that did not prevent the pair putting our interview on hold on occasion to get stuck into a friendly row or two as to the order of certain scenes in the film. Both remain fierce in their praise of the director who gave them the job.

You can read fuller version of my interview over at Grolsch FIlm Works who originally commissioned the piece, but here are some highlights below:

 

LOCKWOOD AND DULLEA THEN AND NOW

On getting hired by Stanley Kubrick for 2001:

Both Dullea and Lockwood were already Kubrick fans when they got the call to join 2001, so for both it was no brainer to sign up for the space mission. Keir Dullea was actually in England at the time, shooting an Otto Premigner film. Wandering in to a Battersea Park funfair one day, he encountered a palm reader who warned him: ‘I see a rocket ship in your future.’ ” A week after that, Kubrick called. 

Lockwood already had secured a place in sci-fi history, having starred in the pilot of a little show called Star Trek (where he plays Gary Mitchell, ultimately the villain of the story, in a one-off role).  He'd already worked with Kubrick on Spartacus.  At the time he remembers he was: “getting a lot of jobs, doing rather well, enjoying it, chasing beautiful girls and driving Porsches: the routine.” Then his agent called with Kubrick’s offer. Lockwood jumped at the chance: “I was a giant fan of Kubrick, even though I was a cowboy. I knew his stuff. I thought he was a genius.” 

On working with the legendary director.

Neither Dullea or Lockwood will have any truck with the myths that Kubrick was a strange, obsessive loner who enjoyed pushing his actors. Instead they found him professional, courteous, and amazingly curious, seemingly about everything. Says Dullea: "I’d just finished working with Preminger, so let me tell you, it was like going from hell to heaven! [Kubrick] was so easygoing with us, he never raised his voice, ever. He put us at ease quickly and was never demanding in the way you might imagine he would be. He was so prepared, the most prepared director I had ever worked with, so I guess he could relax about everything else.”

Lockwood liked Kubrick’s directing style, the way he let professional actors get on with the job on set and when the cameras rolled: “I asked him once why I got the part, and he told me that he thought I could ‘do a lot without doing anything.’ Stanley never said anything, that’s what I liked about him."

For Lockwood: There is only one Stanley Kubrick. People who are really good at something have to have an IQ! They have to be intelligent! I meet students out of film school and they say things like: ‘I wanna make films like Stanley Kubrick’. You can’t tell after just five minutes with them; there’s just not the grey matter there! Kubrick was curious, and so very, very intelligent.”

Dullea remembers Kubrick as: “the most curious man I ever met. I remember the Pentax camera had just come out that year: he stopped shooting and took hours to find out all about it!”

On their characters:

There is little dialogue in 2001, even when the film moves out of the prehistoric era. Dullea noticed that Kubrick cut more and more dialogue away the more takes they did. To help the cast, Kubrick prepped them via fictional biographies: “Our characters had double doctorates in sciences; the concept was that by year 2001 NASA wouldn't be taking astronauts from the military necessarily: they'd be looking early on at young men from high school and college, narrowing it down in terms of choosing based on their psychological profile.  

Both actors have little stories about they shaped the direction of 2001 with their own input. Lockwood laughs as he recalls how Stanley Kubrick challenged him to come up with a better idea of how the astronauts would confront HAL once he started malfunctioning. After a trip to a deli on Golders Green courtesy of Kubrick's driver, Lockwood scribbled out a scenario where the astronauts would plot in the pod, where they felt HAL couldnt hear them. Only a few hours previously, Lockwood had feared Kubrick was going to fire him for complaining about how he felt the narrative had been constructed. For his part, Dullea suggested to Kubrick that he break a wine glass during the sequence where Bowman ages in huge jumps in the strange artificial hotel room, after his voyage through the star portal. 

 

 On finally seeing 2001 in the cinema in 1968:

Both were blown away by seeing the film on the big screen, Lockwood in particular as he was extremely stoned at the time. Corralled by a film journalist for an interview after the screening, Lockwood remembers the man commenting: “ Well Mr Lockwood, you still look like you’re out there in space!” Dullea was struck by the Dawn of Man sequence (with its famous jump cut from the bone in mid air to a satellite orbiting Earth); as it was a section of the film that neither of the actors had worked on and thus were seeing it for the first time. 

On talking to younger audiences about 2001:

Though Lockwood deplores modern audiences “with their lack of attention thanks to MTV-style fast cutting”, Dullea is upbeat about 2001 finding new audiences now. He recalls that on the autograph circuit he started noticing that: “more than 50% of fans now were not born when 2001 came out. That speaks to the trans-generational aspect of this film. The genius of this film, of Kubrick, has appealed to generations up to this moment.”

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Event Review: Science Fiction Theatre presents: 1973s Westworld

With HBOs highly-acclaimed new scifi show Westworld currently enjoying lashings of critical praise, whilst also consuming the tireless brains of hardcore fans determined to unearth the show's underlying mythology, the gurus behind the film club Science Fiction Theatre felt the time was right to revisit the original 1973 film that HBO mined for its new series. One of the most committed and welcoming film clubs the Smoke Screen has had the honour of patronising, Science Fiction Theatre is a monthly science fiction film club run by The Space Merchants, an online bookshop specialising in vintage science fiction. Their film events explore and celebrate classic science fiction film and television, and screenings are enhanced by custom-designed posters (which can be bought online and at events) as well as takeaway items like stylised tickets (such as the Westworld-themed ticket the Smoke Screen picked up at their Westworld screening last Monday), programme notes, and there is the odd raffle too.

In the movie version of Westworld, which was written and directed by none other than Jurassic Park's author Michael Crichton (note the "theme park gone bad" motif) businessman Blane (James Brolin) and lawyer Martin (Richard Benjamin) take a dream holiday to the newly opened technological paradise Westworld, a futuristic theme park offering its visitors all the thrills, but none of the dangers, of the old Wild West, which is recreated by supposedly harmless robots. However, when one of the computerized gunslingers (Yul Brynner) malfunctions, the two city slickers find themselves in a battle for their lives.

Fans keen to compare the movie to the television series will of course be unable to avoid the difference a few extra million dollars and an advanced CGI toolkit can make. HBO's series simply has more technical oomph, and a multi-season order with HBO's traditional hour-long episodes give the show's creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy far more scope than Crichton's film ever had to create a richly-detailed world of hosts and robots in a huge recreation of the old American west, whilst exploring the related themes and concerns more deeply. Yet, interestingly, HBO's first season has so far limited itself to exploring only one park - the titular Westworld - whereas Crichton's film features not only an old West setting, but the sybarite Roman World and Medieval Worlds too. Future HBO seasons might address this. And 1973s Westworld wasn't exactly primitive when it was released, it does in fact feature some of the earliest use of computer-aided visual effects to create several pixellated robot POV shots.

Whilst Crichton's film is a good deal of pulpy fun, ending in a quite memorable last act chase scene and squeezing in some commentary on the effect of unlimited power/ zero responsibility on humans on the side, HBO's series took a leaf out of the Battlestar Galactica remake's playbook and introduced the conceit of the robots having been designed to such an advanced level that they are developing their own self-awareness. Blade Runner levels of paranoia about who is human and 'replicant' are also in play, as HBO's robots are all but indistinguishable from humans, and some have been programmed to think they are human. With this twist, HBO's Westworld opens up whole new avenues to explore the moral/ethical minefield that the park has created. That being said, HBO's show, for all its fine dressings, lacks a character with the poise and edge of the movie's Yul Brynner, whose performance as the malfunctioning gunslinger allows just enough man into the machine to make you think this might be personal. In many ways he is the "first Terminator."

The poster for the Westworld event was designed by Daniel Huntley, and you can see it on facebook and twitter humans 

Check the Science Fiction Theatre website for more information on upcoming screenings, to buy prints, or to find out about their podcast and recommendations.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Irish Film Festival London 2016 review: I Am Not a Serial Killer

Director: Billy O'Brien

15 | 1h 44min | Thriller | 9 December 2016 (UK)

Playing Irish Film Festival 2016 on November 25.

RATING: ★★★★☆

With the Irish Film Festival in London now underway, the Smoke Screen is keen to recommend from the programme this left-field serial killer drama, directed by Irish director Billy O’Brien and adapted from Dan Wells’ cult novel. It is one of those films that slides around intriguingly (as opposed to awkwardly) between genres, whilst feeling distinct enough in its vision, coming apart slightly only at the end when it commits to a revelation that feels both a little superfluous and unearned. If you had to compare it to anything, shows like Six Feet Under and Dexter spring to mind.

Set in a wintry midwestern small town (given plenty of character thanks to the 16mm work of DP Robbie Ryan), the film follows the exploits, and takes the POV of, one 16-year-old John Cleaver, a kid who has some pretty serious issues. John is different from the other kids at school, and not just because he is introspective and awkward. John has actually been diagnosed as having the same psychological makeup as a psychopathic serial killer something that haunts his nervy mother (Laura Fraser, from Breaking Bad) who keeps him distracted by employing him in the funeral home’s mortuary, where his uncontainable fascination with death and corpses can be focused where it cant hurt the living. There are plenty of thriller films out there based around unstable protagonists, and many others that play upon society's fears of teen delinquents going to the dark side. But making the main character here a young man who actually knows he is basically a fit for the template of a killer - and is struggling to deal with it - gives the film an immediate, compelling edge. It also raises the question as to whether or not John himself is responsible for the string of brutal and unusual murders that start to rock the neighbourhood. 

John becomes obsessed with hunting for the killer, but is he doing this because he wants to embrace a kindred spirit, and to find a teacher? Is this hunt part of some extreme psychological defence mechanism his mind is resorting to, all to avoid the truth that he is actually the murderer?

Either way, the solution seems to involve his odd, elderly neighbour Crowley (Back to the Future’s Christopher Lloyd) who seems to always be there when the killings take place. As John, Max Records (the young kid from Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are) is really convincing at portraying a kid who has spent years practicing wearing a mask of normality and pretending to make emotional connections, and the screenplay requires him to veer between being goofy and genuinely menacing, which he pulls off just fine. John’s abnormal perceptions of the world and his struggle to stay contained help justify the tonal variations of the movie itself: which at times can seem like a Wes Anderson film with its almost cheery depictions of mundane Midwestern life in this sleepy town, which are then interrupted by some genuinely unsettling scenes - with the eerie and intense score really helping here - when the killer strikes.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

1000 Londoners' NECROPOLIS shorts show how the capital gets its All Hallows on

As a born Londoner and film buff, the Smoke Screen makes it a priority to catch the short programmes produced by 1000 Londoners: a project produced by Chocolate Films and directors Rachael Wang and Mark Currie, which aims to create a collage portrait of the city via 1000 short films with each one following a different Londoner. 1000 different points of view, from all over the city and from various times of the year. It is an ambitious target to be sure, with the project still not complete yet.

Each week a new Londoner's story is broadcast on http://www.1000londoners.com , but 1000 Londoners also run movie nights around the capital, collecting together several shorts under one overall theme and often intercutting them with quirky archive footage gleaned from the London Screen Archives. This month's programme is titled (appropriately, given the dark nights are setting in) "Necropolis", and it collects a variety of Londoner's stories together which were all recorded on Halloween night. The programmers set themselves a challenge of spontaneity with this one, with a team of twelve filmmakers venturing out into the streets after dark to see how many stories they could gather.

The eleven films that are the result of that one night's work feel very true to the ethos of 1000 Londoners: in that you truly feel that before you on screen is a cross-section of the melting pot of people, feelings, dreams and conflicts that modern London is made of. There are immigrants, harmless eccentrics, the devout, the elderly, and the carefree young, all rubbing shoulders. One subject - "transformational intuitive coach" Sri - is one of the those true originals you hope the 1000 Londoner's team will dig up every time they head out; Sri being a spell caster who we see running a training session to a rapt crowd on Halloween in full zombie costume (it seems Halloween costumes and fake blood are no impediment to casting a spell). Paul, diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia five times but now discovering the joys of roller skating in Halloween regalia with crowds of likeminded types, provides an inspirational tale of self-help and redemtpion. But more poignant is our introduction to Peter, an elderly Highgate resident who has lived in the area for nearly 40 years, and likes to visit the Highgate wood in his retirement, whilst wistfully recalling the days he was more active. Halloween doesn't mean as much to Peter as it used to; he is painfully aware that more years are behind him now than ahead. In a city that seems so fast moving, with masses of people always coming and going, Peter is also a reminder to us that some Londoners like to stick to their patch. You can only imagine the changes he has seen.

You can see more of 1000 Londoner's work on their website, and they will return after the New Year with more film nights.

1000 Londoners: Necropolis was held at the Lexi Cinema in North London.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Review: 2016's Korean Film Festival foregrounds women in Korean cinema with strong gala opener The Truth Beneath

2015, Directed by Lee Kyoung-mi , starring Son Ye-jin, Kim Joo-hyuk . 
103 mins

RATING: ★★★★

The Korean Film Festival runs 3-17 November in London and also continues around the UK beyond that. See the KFF website for more details.

This year's 2016 Korean Film Festival in London promised a special focus on the lives of women through the eyes of Korean female directors. Appropriately then, the festival proper opened with this political drama directed by a woman, in this case Lee Kyoung-mi - who made a strong impression with her acclaimed feature debut Crush and Blush - which was produced by Park Chan-wook of Oldboy fame. Eight years later, and she has returned with The Truth Beneath, which was co-written by Park, and this new work will almost certainly please fans of his expressionistic (some would say slightly mad) approach to filmmaking. Notably, the film also has a female protagonist who drives the story.

This moody, stylistically left-field and unpredictably plotted drama savages modern local Korean politics right from the get go, as aspiring politician Jong-chan (Kim Joo-hyuk) and his weary-of-politics wife Yeon-hong (Son Ye-jin) see their tightly-run election campaign stumble when their freewheeling but secretive daughter Min-jin (Ji-Hoon Shin) vanishes overnight. Jong-chan is a former news anchor who is now looking to become a politician, and has secured the nomination for the Korea Party in the area of Daeson whilst going up against the lawmaker Noh Jae-soon (Kim Eui-song). Right away, the disappearance exposes fractures in the family and the political scene, as Jong-chan decides to press on campaigning, deeply disappointing his wife and putting his poll lead in jeopardy. Yeon-hong's suspicions only grow when her probing into Min-Jin's absence unearths disturbing revelations.

For one thing, her daughter lied about where she was going and who she was meeting that night. Jong-chan's rival, Yeon-hong fears, would not be beneath destroying their campaign by abducting or harming their daughter. Min-Jin's closest friend at school, from a notably lower social class, seems to have been the last person to see her alive, but is vague about why she has her friend's blood on her plimsoles from that night. Then Yeon-hong breaks into her daughter's email account, only to find that her daughter was being emailed leaked exams by her teacher, giving her an edge that helped her boost her grades. But how does any of this add up?

The more Yeon-hong digs, the more she begins to fear a political motive was involved, but it might have had less to do with disrupting Jong-chan's campaign than protecting it instead. Intriguing though the final revelation is (in that it is a plausible scenario, but involves just enough circumstance to baffle and surprise you), it would be a stretch to say the clues to unlocking this mystery are scattered throughout the narrative in such a way that the final answer will provoke viewers to rethink everything they have seen. Instead, this is one of those films where the last ten minutes really explain everything in a blood-soaked, anguished howl; and this may be unsatisfying to some. It is tempting to see some echoes of the plot of Park's Oldboy here, in that both films feature labyrynthine plots that conceal the real mastermind behind more than a few red herrings or through simple denial of facts to the audience. Still, the film offers a fast pace and tells its story with some stylistic flair and eye-catching mise-en-scene: from the use of variable slo-mo in flashback sequences, a vivid colour pallette, and some gritty and well-executed moments of violence. In fact, there is something nicely erratic about the film; a slightly elevated melodramatic and surreal tone that doesn't stray too far from keeping the film realistic, but isn't exactly 'normal' either.  The soundtrack is appealingly eclectic too, in part informed by Min-Jin's musical tastes and her (hidden from her parents) sideline as an amateur vocalist and guitarist. Son Ye-jin's performance anchors it all, as the increasingly determined- maybe even deranged- mother on a mission.

 

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

UK Jewish Film Festival 2016 review: The Small World of Sammy Lee

Director: Ken Hughes

X | 1h 47min | Drama | April 1963 (UK)

Playing during the UK Jewish Film Festival 2016  at JW3 on 15 NOV 6.30pm.

See here for bluray details - out from 14 November.

RATING: ★★★★☆

Playing as part of the UK Jewish FIlm Festival 2016, and now remastered for a new bluray release courtesy of StudioCanal and their Vintage Classics Line, Ken Hughes’s (Alfie) The Small World of Sammy Lee is a dark, funny and stylish romp through a seedy Soho from decades past; a side of London that has long since been smothered by gentrification and tourism. In this 1963 British-Jewish crime thriller, Anthony Newley is pitch-perfect as strip-club compere Sammy, the kind of guy who keeps his shady dealings small-time, but has nevertheless used up almost all of his nine lives by the time the film’s main plot kicks off. Having screwed up one card game too many, Sammy has to go on the run from the heavies, managing to convince the surprisingly affable enforcer who is sicked onto him (this is one of those films packed full of gentlemen thieves) that he can muster up £300 by the end of the day.

The narrative is built around the remaining half a day Sammy has to scare up the dough; racing against the clock to chase up every debt he is owed, lining up several black market deals that pay cash up front but only require a (inevitably late) check from him, whilst rifling through the piles of ‘back of the lorry’ merch he has stashed in his flat to see what he can offload. There’s plenty of appeal in watching this cheeky chancer scrabble from cafes to pool halls, trying to see if his gift of the gab can get him out of one last scrape, and the film works well as a time capsule of a period when Soho really did have edge. Lensed in brooding black and white by cinematographer Wolfgang Suschitzky, the film also boasts an exceptional supporting cast that packs in Miriam Karlin, Wilfrid Brambell, Roy Kinnear and Warren Mitchell. Plus, the jazz score will nestle in your ear for hours after.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

UK Jewish Film Festival 2016 review: Weiner

As  'make up your mind' time arrives in the US, at the close of another seemingly unending and bitterly fought general election campaign, it seems appropriate that the UK's Jewish Film Festival chose today to screen Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg's acclaimed political doc, Weiner. It also feels timely to repost the Smoke Screen's review of the film, from earlier in the year. Enjoy at your leisure, and (try to) shake off those election nerves.

The UK Jewish Film Festival  funs 5-20 November across London and the UK, see here for the full calendar.

Directors: Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg

15 | 1h 36min | Documentary | 8 July 2016 (UK release date)

RATING: ★★★★☆

Seven-term congressman and New York City failed mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner is probably not a household name to British audiences. But if you had been watching The Daily Show a few years back you would almost certainly would have come across several sketches showcasing the epic double downfall of this politician, a downfall which, given the unfortunate surname of the figure involved and the sexual nature of the transgressions, seemed to confirm his status as a walking punchline and political pariah. 

Filmmakers Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s new documentary tracks the period where Weiner, some time after his humiliating resignation as a congressman for using Twitter to send pictures of his crotch to a female follower, mounts his New York City mayoral campaign in summer of 2013. He actually started ahead in the polls, and drew large crowds. New York, it seems, is a city where you can get a second chance. But Kriegman and Sternberg suddenly saw the trajectory of their film turn 180 degrees when Weiner was forced to admit that new “sexting” allegations had a basis in fact. The media descended and ripped apart his every move, with Weiner trying desperately to forge ahead and turn the conversation back to policy, to no avail. What a story these two filmmakers found themselves caught in the middle of! Contextualising Weiner’s rise and fall with a mixture of footage from his mayoral run and his former career, while intercutting this with examples of the absurd tone and level of media coverage Weiner was subjected to, the filmmakers do a pretty good job of transmitting the sheer nuttiness of that season in New York.

Weiner is undeniably gripping in that awful “car-crash TV” kind of way, as we are shown the increasing pressure and crippling 24-hour news coverage crushing Weiner in a vice, a situation not helped by his combative, swaggering nature. One "story arc" that emerges from all the footage the filmmakers present to us is that the same qualities that made Weiner such a star congressman - his bullishness and willingness to play to the camera - became crippling flaws when he had to fight on the defensive, and project humility instead of arrogance. In one wince-inducing scene we see Weiner, flailing as his poll ratings sink, getting right up in a bystander’s face inside a downtown bakery after he overhears a snide comment. You can imagine the horrified faces of his PR team as, in full view of a dozen network TV cameras, he rails against the man’s judgement. Footage of this rant was irresistible ammo for news review and comedy shows. Youtube helped make Weiner a star, and we are shown footage of him imperiously holding court in Congress, giving barnstorming soapbox performances which enamoured him to a generation of New Yorkers. But the same digital tools he used to fuel his rise made his fall just as rapid.

Despite all the political farce, there is a story of dark, personal tragedy here. Despite his many flaws, there is still something depressing about watching Weiner’s attempt to discuss policy be utterly ground down by the refusal of the media and audiences at hustings to talk about anything else other than the scandals. Further collateral damage in all this was Weiner’s wife, Huma Abedin, a skilled political staffer who had worked side by side with Hillary Clinton as an aide. Despite having earned a career which had made her well-known and respected across Washington DC, Huma does not come off in the documentary as comfortable being the centre of attention herself. Her reward for agreeing to be part of her husband’s mayoral run, a big step for her given she had previously not been front and centre in his career, is further humiliation as a hungry media descend to “analyse” what makes a woman like Abedin “stand by her man”.

As Weiner’s mayoral race is crushed on voting day, Abedin is told that the woman who was on the receiving end of her husband’s salacious texts is hanging around outside his office with a camera crew in tow, looking for an opportunity to create “a scene”. In the face of such a shameless fame-grab, Abedin and Weiner are forced into a tragicomic plan worthy of the show Veep, as they try to dive into a next-door McDonald’s in order to use the side door into the office. As you can imagine, this is not a documentary to watch if you are looking to re-affirm your faith in the American media and political scene.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Review: Abel Gance's epic Napoleon re-conquers screens this November

Director: Abel Gance

PG | 4h | Biography, Drama, History | 7 April 1927 (France)

Napoleon is at the BFI, select cinemas and VOD platforms (including BFIplayer) from 11 November. The film will be later released on BFI DVD/Bluray. See here for more details.

RATING: ★★★★★

Abel Gance’s depiction of the rise of French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte is the kind of undisputed cinema landmark that true film buffs really need to tick off on their checklists in order to maintain such aficionado status. This does require some serious commitment; originally released in 1927, Napoleon, in its fullest version available to the public today, requires a 330 minute-long time investment. It is worth every minute of that, however, being a true epic in every sense of the word; with the film's form and content tipping the scales well towards the grandiose from the first scene.

Gance’s film is in many ways an early example of what we today would call a blockbuster, or, to be more precise; a blockbuster biopic. Many of the familiar characteristics are on display here. Already blessed with a real-life figure whose was larger than life, Gance shamelessly frames Napoleon according to the ‘great man theory’ of history, placing him at the centre of various key events dotted throughout the tumultuous history of France; from the Revolution to the conquests of the European continent, with production values equal to these occasions. His Napoleon is a preternatural figure whose destiny as a superb military commander and inspirational leader of men is constantly foreshadowed in bold strokes. As a youth (played with unnerving intensity by Vladimir Roudenko) Napoleon is shown taking charge of his snowball fight team at his puritanical academy school, storming his foes defences in an early sign of his natural tactical and strategic prowess. Despite being bullied and mocked by his peers, the boy maintains a serious, solemn demeanour and is clearly a top student, softening only when in the presence of his pet eagle, a bird which he would take as his symbol when he turned conqueror. At one point, Gance shows us young Napoleon sitting on top of a cannon as his bird flies to his shoulder - subtle foreshadowing this isn’t, but this kind of grand, operatic mise en scene is of a piece with the entire movie.

As Gance’s epic progresses from Napoelon’s childhood (the older figure is played with moody intensity by the statuesque Albert Dieudonné) to show how he traversed many of the formative experiences that shaped his rapid advancement; including being inspired by the early rumblings of the Revolution to build a united Europe, overcoming various rivals, surviving the deadly Terror and political machinations, and wedding Josephine, you have to marvel at how Gance’s technical accomplishments allow the film to rise to the monumental subject matter, to literally get bigger and more dynamic as its subject grows in stature. The production values are lavish: huge sets and vast crowds come in a never ending parade, whilst the story ranges all over France and beyond. But Gance uses more complex techniques to give a sense of the wheels of history turning too. For example, he exploits exposure techniques to creature a surreal sequence where Napoleon imagines the delegates of the National Assembly that have driven the Revolution appearing out of thin air in the empty rows of benches around him, as he stands in the empty hall. Through this vision, Napoleon feels their calls on behalf of France to seek glory in conquest. At one point, to emphasise the chaos in the Assembly at another time, Gance literally swings the camera from a rope attached to the ceiling, letting it lurch back and forth over the crowds. 

Even more strikingly, Gance used multiple cameras shooting simultaneously to create a triptych effect for parts of the film: with the intention being that the three frames when projected side by side would allow an enhanced widescreen image. Essentially a form of ‘Cinemascope’ long before anyone in Hollywood had thought of it, this makes for highly impactful shots of armies manaoevering, or standing at ease whilst being addressed from above by Napoleon. Gance even at times mixes the frames up so each focuses on something different to its neighbouring frame, creating an in-film triptych montage. The visual approach also crams in extensive close-ups, POV shots, handheld sequences, tinting, fast cutting, and much more, as if Gance wanted to try everything.

The journey of Napoleon from its 1927 production and release to its re-issue this November is also an interesting story in its own right. Screened only a few times to the public since its original release (not hard to understand when you consider a live orchestra and triple projector setup are needed for the full experience) and the early victim of drastic cuts in length from its first edit, the film has been painstakingly restored after decades of work by silent film historian Kevin Brownlow and the BFI National Archive. Brownlow, who first saw and was captivated by the film in 9.5mm format as a schoolboy, has added to and re-edited it several times as more footage has been found, with this digital restoration being the final fruit of that toil. This new digital upgrade of Napoleon will allow audiences to see the film’s original tinting and toning, including colour combinations which could not be achieved in the existing 35mm print. Integration of sections sourced from a wide range of elements have also been improved by detailed digital image repair and alignment. The film has been entirely re-graded and received extensive digital clean-up; you are seeing it at its very best.

Viewers who see this Brownlow version will not only be due a visual treat, as described above, but can savour the equally mammoth score composed and conducted by Carl Davis for Brownlow’s first Napoleon restoration in the 80s (newly recorded here in 7.1) - all five hours plus of it. And those who book to see the film’s special screening at the Royal Festival Hall on 6 November, will experience that same score - still the longest ever composed for a film - performed live by Davis himself conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra.

Napoleon is at the BFI, select cinemas and VOD platforms (including BFIplayer) from 11 November. The film will be later released on BFI DVD/Bluray. See here for more details.

Napoleon plays at the Royal festival Hall on 6 November with a live score from Carl Davis and the Philharmonia Orchestra.

 

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

BFI Black Star Season review: John Singleton's Boyz n the Hood feels as relevant as ever

Director: John Singleton

USA 1991, 112mins

The BFI and Park Circus will release Boyz n the Hood in selected cinemas UK-wide on 28 October.

Black Star runs 17 October - 23 December 206, see BFI site for details.

RATING: ★★★★☆

Usually, when a film reaches its 25th anniversary, reviews will note how the film has achieved 'time capsule' status, providing a nice dose of nostalgia for days gone by. It doesn't feel appropriate to say that about director John Singleton's Boyz n the Hood, given its anniversary and re-release into cinemas as a key part of the BFI's Black Star season comes at a time when tensions between the police and America's black community seem to be at an all-time high, and when black filmmakers like Ava DuVernay are releasing hard-hitting films like 13th (read the review here); which questions how far race relations have really come in the US since abolition.

Beyond its immediate visceral impact as a film frankly depicting the challenges faced by a troubled black teen in a tough South Central LA neighbourhood, Boyz n the Hood is notable for many other reasons, certainly when you consider the context in which it was made and released. Strikingly, John Singleton - a black director  - was just 23 when he wrote and directed what is now recognised as a seminal film; the success of Boyz n the Hood and the impact it had on popular culture in the US and abroad (it played at Cannes, for one thing) are now seen as a key part of the new phase of black filmmaking that emerged in the US. The cast reads like a who's who of major black talent looking back at it now - Laurence Fishburne, Cuba Gooding Jnr, and Angela Bassett amongst others - and the presence of rapper Ice Cube in his acting debut is a sign of the growing power of rap and hip-hop as a cross-media cultural phenomenon. The film's soundtrack packs in - apart from Ice Cube, of course -  "Jam on It" by Newcleus, "Sunshower" by Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band, "More Bounce to the Ounce" by Zapp, "Sucker M.C.'s" by Run-D.M.C., "Let's Go" by Kool Moe Dee, and "Ooh Child" by The Five Stairsteps. With all these elements in play, Singleton's film helped popularise the 'hood' genre of films.

The story takes place against the backdrop of early eighties South Central LA, as black teen Tre Styles (Gooding Jr), tries to navigate life in a community ravaged by drug addiction, poverty, gangs and police harassment. He's not been living in this part of South Central full time though, having instead been housed with his mother Reva (Angela Bassett) for much of his pre-teens, and his Mother's looming university Master's studies seem set to pay off with new job opportunities for her. But following increasing tension at school, with Tre prone to losing his cool, Reva sends him back to live with his father for the duration, convinced that (the brilliantly-named) Furious Styles (Laurence Fishburne) can 'teach him how to be a man'.

The two parents are an interesting pair of poles to see the boy pivot between. Separated but still in touch, Reva and Furious are both intelligent and committed parents, but emphasise different things. Reva is focused and ambitious, Furious given to the kind of firebrand preaching and code of living that the likes of Malcolm X favoured. Interestingly, both are middle class, meaning Tre doesn't exactly fit with all his old friends - including the street hustling Doughboy (Cube) - in what is shown to be a diverse, but still troubled, neighbourhood. Furious and Reva have had their own share of racial discrimination to face though, with Reva being bluntly asked by Tre's teacher on the phone if she is 'educated'.

It is the sense of authenticity and vibrancy in the depiction of this LA neighbourhood that is one of the great strengths of Singleton's film. Shot largely on location, the film takes its time to show the rhythms of the streets, and it isn't just all a showcase of guns and drugs either. Tre and his group of friends spend a good deal of time just hanging out, drinking and smoking and talking about girls; a universal experience of youth made believable by the naturalistic performances and raw dialogue peppered with profanity and tangental stories. But this is a vision of peace that rarely lasts when the sun goes down, and sirens and helicopter rotor blade beats start to dominate the night air. At certain points Singleton dials up the volume of this background cacophony to literally drown Tre out, driving him to despairingly claw at his ears. When violence bursts into Tre's life, it isn't glorified and is shown to carry lasting psychological scars, and solves nothing,

As Tre, Cuba Gooding Jnr is fine when it comes to portraying a callow youth, torn between the diktats of his parents, and  the urge to back up his friends when they get mixed up in gang hostilities. Ice Cube is a little shaky at times as Doughboy, but his final, poignant scene - as a man aware of his own ticking clock - carries real weight. But it is hard to deny that Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett add that essential gravitas, and their combatative-come-flirtatious scenes together are some of the film's bests. Fishburne, it is fair to say, gets more screen time, and his depiction of Furious is fascinating. In many ways a 'man's man' with an old-fashioned view of a male child needing input from a parent of the same sex and gender (this film has been accused of pushing a male-centric view of parenting), Furious nevertheless complicates this by both urging Tre to stay away from the darker side of the streets, whilst delivering epic sermons on how the system is rigged against the black community. One of his key speeches is delivered under a real estate banner, where he explains how white flight and gentrification are a linked system of exploitation, with blacks left with plentiful gun and liquor stores on every corner, as "they want us to keep killing each other." Furious's speeches manage to be both overblown but also contain nuggets of larger, abstract truths at the same time, and it is easy to see how all these competing missives - to fight the system, to be a man, but to also stay out of trouble - are confusing Tre as well as educating him.

Though it does betray the rawness of a first feature at times (there is the odd tip into melodrama, for example), Boyz n the Hood remains an urgent, exciting, saddening, and still-relevant piece of work that holds the attention on its own terms regardless of the place it has been assigned in history. But speaking of that history; for this hard-hitting drama, Singleton was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay and Director, making him the youngest ever nominee for the latter and the first African-American to be nominated for it also.

 

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

BFI Black Star Season Review: Pool of London - the film that launched Earl Cameron's career

Director: Basil Deardon

A | 1h 25min | Crime, Drama | 13 August 1951 (Sweden)

On DVD/Bluray from StudioCanal from 25 October

RATING: ★★★★☆

Screening as part of the BFI’s Black Star season, and now released on bluray for the first time as part of Studiocanal’s Vintage Classics Collection, Pool of London is an enjoyable, compact Ealing Studios crime caper directed by Basil Deardon (The Blue Lamp, Dead of Night) that became notable for featuring veteran actor Earl Cameron CBE, known as one of the first black screen actors to break the colour bar in the UK. He has acted in 91 films and TV series, has over 70 years in the business, and is still working. His role in Ealing Studios’ classic thriller was a breakout opportunity for him.

In Pool of London, Cameron plays Johnny, a young and upbeat Jamaican ship worker earning his way on board the Durham; a British Empire merchant marine vessel with a mixed nationality crew. Johnny idolises Dan MacDonald (Bonar Colleano), a roguish American of Italian heritage who looks out for Johnny and has clearly enjoyed playing the older brother role. Arriving in the Docklands for shore leave and to offload the Dunbar’s cargo during the summer of 1951, the two men find themselves getting into troubled waters when ashore. Dan falls in with a gang of smugglers looking to use his boat to smuggle a diamond stash out of the country, whilst Johnny finds himself falling for Pat, a white girl (Susan Shaw) who’s race and nationality means it is impossible for him to really consider being with her. Dan ends up using Johnny to further the heist scheme, assuming he won’t get his pal into trouble so long as things go smoothly, but when the heist goes wrong and the police get onto his tail, he risks getting Johnny stitched up in it all. Dan has to face a choice: let Johnny fall under police suspicion which, given his race, will surely be fatal, or stick up for his friend.

Apart from offering the great Cameron a breakout role, Pool of London also was the first British-made post-Windrush film to feature an interracial relationship, and although the lack of seeing it consummated on screen might have been due to the conservative sensibilities of the time, this enforced distance between Johnny and Pat does serve the film’s wider purpose of commenting on race relations and gives the story quite a poignant tone. Restrained though the film might seem compared to today’s standards - there is no blood or harsh language to be seen or heard - the screenplay does not shy away from putting Johnny in situations where he is subjected to discrimination due to his colour. Though the “N” word is never used, the phrases “you people” and “your kind” are all too frequently thrown at the young Jamaican, usually following some kind of exclusionary act, whether it is a security guard moving him on when he is simply waiting near a door, or bouncers throwing him out of a gin joint.

And speaking of gin joints, the film pleasingly drinks in the rarefied air of such night life haunts, as well as underground dance halls, vaudeville theatres, and even those quaint places known as “milk bars”. The plot ranges across a London still visibly recovering from the Second World War and dotted with piles of rubble and half-repaired buildings, a place all the more striking for being without the hyper-gentrification of today. Trams still trundle through central (though Pat notes they are due to be closed down - the irony!), and the Thames bustles with commercial shipping. Thus, even though the crime at the centre of Pool of London’s central story arc could hardly be called epic (though the band of criminals have a nice touch of eccentricity to them, one being a circus performer who uses his jumping skills to get into the bank) the film functions as a compelling time capsule of a London long gone.

DVD/BR Special Features:

  • New interview with Earl Cameron.
  • New locations featurette with film historian Richard Dacre.
  • Production stills gallery.
Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

London Film Festival 2016 review: Creepy

Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa

2h 10min | Thriller | 25 November 2016 (UK)

Playing London Film Festival 2016

RATING: ★★★☆☆

Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa, who directed the hit film Pulse, eschews the supernatural thriller genre for something more grounded but which still hints at mysterious, dark forces at work. The danger in his new film, Creepy, very much comes from humans though, not ghosts or goblins. It is a pretty effective chiller that follows the adventures of world-weary former detective inspector Takakura (Hidetoshi Nishijima), who quit the force and moved to the Tokyo suburbs to teach criminal psychology at the local university after a case went bad. But when Takakura’s former colleague asks for help in an unsolved missing person’s case that has baffled all other cops, the ex-cop is inevitably drawn into trying to solve the mystery, only to find himself believing that his strange new neighbour, Mr Nishino, could in fact be the one responsible: a killer who has the uncanny ability to insinuate himself into families and destroy them from the inside. To his horror, Takakura not only finds he can’t marshal any evidence against Nishino, but his own wife Yasuo (Yûko Takeuchi) starts to act strangely. But is Nishino really the killer, or just another misanthrope of a neighbour? 

As Nishino, actor Teruyuki Kagawa is a suitably unsettling antagonist: smarmy one minute, obsequious the next, yet mostly walking on nail-biting line of behaviour where polite characters around him feel they can’t rise to the bait. The slow-burn atmosphere benefits from the lensing of the Japanese surroundings, which emphasise the dull, lifeless and run-down neighbourhood Takakura has moved to: a place where seemingly no one gives a damn if their neighbours are even alive. The dismal responses the Takakura’s get trying to integrate themselves in with their neighbours only rams this home more. There is a particularly macabre body disposal method revealed later on in the film as the killer’s modus operandi finally becomes clear, which involves bodies being packed into vacuum-sealed plastic bags, with sound effects viewers are not likely to forget any time soon. But the film feels overlong, and there are more than a few holes in the plot when it comes to certain character motivations, particularly the behaviour of Takakura’s wife. Her vulnerability to such a disturbing figure lacks credibility even if it raises the stakes, though maybe Kurosawa wanted to give his killer an almost supernatural ability to manipulate families into carving themselves up without lifting a finger, so making him an allegorical figure for 21st century alienation.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

London Film Festival 2016 review: Nocturnal Animals

Director: Tom Ford

15 | 1h 57min | Drama, Thriller | 4 November 2016 (UK)

Playing London Film Festival2016

RATING: ★★★★☆

This revenge thriller hails from the director of A Single Man: fashion mogul and filmmaker Tom Ford. As you’d expect from an artist famed for his tasteful visual style, Nocturnal Animals - his adaptation of Austin Wright’s novel Tony and Susan - looks gorgeous, with a colour palette full of velvety reds, inky blacks, and crisp golds thanks to costume designer Arianne Phillips and maestro cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, amongst others. It stars Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal, who look even more beautiful when captured by Ford’s camera, and do sterling work in their roels. The film around pulses with a more lurid, nasty vibe though; viewers should not go in expecting the quiet, sombre elegance of A Single Man. This is a study of bitter, sorry people hurting each other using ancient memories, propelled like bullets via the power of fiction.

Adams and Gyllenhaal play Susan and Edward, Susan being a glamorous and seemingly successful Los Angeles gallery director in the present day, who divorced struggling novelist Edward - who was her college sweetheart and to whom she got briefly married during their time studying - some years ago. Susan is presented to us very quickly as a (somewhat cliched) figure of sophistication that nevertheless is concealing a deep unhappiness. It is clear from the stiff poise she takes with her distracted businessman husband Walker (Armie Hammer) in their kitchen during breakfast that their current marriage is unravelling, and indeed, he is soon announcing a sudden business excursion to New York that will ruin their weekend plans. The glossy, high-design trappings of wealth and success that infuse Susan’s postmodern bungalow only serve to emphasise the coldness of her emotional life. There is plenty to enjoy in terms of the intensity of the visuals - the ostentatious wealth, the glamorous costumes - but Ford strangely over-eggs the tone in the scenes where we see Susan’s daily existence in the art world. Her gallery and colleagues are cardboard cutouts of the most pretentious ‘dahling’ types and the work on the walls unbelievably inane. Susan’s husband’s philandering - and her semi-comedic and accidental stumbling across it - gives off the whiff of pulpy melodrama. Ford seems to want you to gag with laughter at this unreal depiction of LA’s high-culture set (just gawp at Andrea Riseborough’s chunky jewelry with Liz Taylor hairstyle and caftan). It feels like a strange approach when you consider the stately aura given off by A Single Man.

Then again, maybe this infusion of a trashy-novel tone makes more sense when you consider the way Edward brutally re-inserts himself into his former wife’s life. Unannounced, he sends her an unpublished manuscript of his latest novel one morning, and an insomnia-addled Susan (Edward used to call her a nocturnal animal when they were together) finds herself engrossed in it against her expectations. It’s a thriller about a very average man called Tony whose planned road trip with his wife and daughter goes tragically wrong when a gang of savage redneck thugs drive them off the road, mocking Tony’s refusal to stand up to them, and they ultimately kidnap his family as he lies helpless. Paralysed by fear, Tony hesitates in a moment where he might intervene. Susan’s visualisations of this revenge tale - which ends in a clumsily executed moment of vengeance after much emotional turmoil - essentially becomes a second narrative that Ford interweaves very well with the main story, capturing well via editing and sound the way a novel can grip you and blur into your real life. Michael Shannon is also captivating (as only he can be) as a character in the novel: a salty, fuck-the-rules Lieutenant with a loose cannon modus operandi that gives this strand real bite and some welcome moments of dark comedy. The West Texas setting, and the grim repercussions of Tony’s decision to seek revenge, give the impression this is something of a second-rate Cormac McCarthy novel. We never see the actual text enough to judge though.

Significantly, Susan visualises Tony as looking and sounding like Edward (Gylenhaal plays both roles), and this presumably was the intention of her ex-husband, who seems to have written the tale as a barbed, vicious comment on what he sees as her previous lack of support for his writing career and questioning of his masculinity. We see snippets of these conflicts between Susan and Edward in flashback, but only from Susan’s perspective. This raises all sorts of questions, which are complicated by the fact that Susan is fascinated by the novel, committing to it no matter how disturbing it gets. But is she supposed to identify with the victim or the perpetrator? The fact that Susan is introduced as such an unpleasant and shallow character - combined with later revelations about a particular action she took without Edward’s knowledge and the parallels drawn between her and her absurdly Nancy Reagan-esque conservative mother - raises the uncomfortable possibility that Ford wants you to sympathise with Edward, who never appears on screen in the present day to contextualise the sending of the manuscript. But Edward’s action is nasty in the extreme, the equivalent of lobbing manure through an ex-wife’s letterbox. It is a bomb thrown into Susan’s life, provoking her to ask herself if she leaches the agency of others. Maybe Ford’s intention was in fact to provoke audiences in exactly this cruel way, to swing between the poles, distracted by the trashy glory of it all. If so, this was an exercise in manipulation done with style and sensuality, though many might well find this cruel tale unsettling.

 

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

London Film Festival 2016 review: Eyes of My Mother

Director: Nicolas Pesce

R | 1h 16min | Drama, Horror | 2 December 2016 (USA)

Playing London Film Festival 2016

RATING: ★★★☆☆

You can't deny director Nicolas Pesce’s monochrome debut showcases a singular vision. Shot in gorgeous monochrome, the film is set in a timeless-looking part of rural America, yet stars a cast speaking partly Portugese, all shot with a camera choreography that creates a certain lyrical effect. Tonally, the film slides around from mostly melancholic to sometimes near-camp (squelching sound effects), which does leave you wondering what the director was aiming for: an elegiac brutal horror tone poem or something a bit more grand guignol and Grimm fairytale-ish? Texas Chainsaw Massacre as if directed by Tim Burton feels about right.

The story focuses on young Francisca, who we see growing up on a secluded -probably too secluded, as it turns out - cattle farm in an undisclosed village, with her mother and father. Francisca’s loving mother is a former Portuguese surgeon who teaches her daughter about religion and anatomy-including a graphic, stomach churning demonstration of how to remove cow eyes. Francisca seems to take these lessons too much to heart though, and when a violent drifter forces his way into their house and brutally kills her mother, she conspires with her near-silent elderly father to keep the killer prisoner in their barn...for over a decade, making him part pet, part friend, and part surgery experiment. Then things escalate years later, when Francisca sets out to replace the family she has lost; through any means necessary. There are some striking, death-suffused monochrome images here (Francisca bathing her father in milky-toned water, shot from above) that provocatively suggest a near romantic aura can surround acts of death and murder, but for all the gothic atmosphere and appealing unpredictability, the film still betrays the roughness of a first feature.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.