London Korean Film Fest 2018 programme launch film: A Tiger in Winter

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Director: Lee Kwang-kuk 

Cert 15, 111mins, 2018 Korea

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Playing London Korean Film Festival 2018

The London Korean Film Festival has reached its teens, and its 2018 festival programme, announced in full at the elegant Regent Street Cinema on September 17th, promised a maturity to match this advanced age. Though Korean staples (staples to Western eyes, at least) like intense crime thrillers and crazy comedies remain an essential part of the festival lineup, pride of place this year will be given to those filmmakers who explore the intimate, the grounded, and the surface-level ordinary. This year’s message is that there are so many more layers to Korean culture than the two highly visible poles of the (admittedly great) extreme sensory highs of the films of Park Chan-wook, and the high-wire tension around the Korean peninsula as it acts as a sort of wrestling ring for President Trump and Kim Jong-il to work out their issues.

And so, this year’s festival moves from this global outlook and the highs of genre fare to an intimate view of the day-to-day lives and struggles of the people of the country on the ground. This ethos was well-represented in the teaser film screened to support the programme launch night; Lee Kwang-kuk’s third title A Tiger in Winter, which is a thoughtful, witty and ultimately affecting look at the perils and frustrations of creative inertia and the indignations of falling into the Swiss-cheese holes of the gig economy, as two writers (a chemistry-rich duo of Lee Jin-uk and Ko Hyun-jung) seek to plough through their creative blocks, neither being helped by the weight of regrets, hangovers and missed deadlines hanging over them. Fans of the down-to-earth prism taken by the films of Mike Leigh or,  for a properly Korean comparison, Hong Sang-soo, should apply.

On the same day a tiger escapes from the local zoo, Gyeong-yu, a good-looking but aimless writer (Lee Jin-uk, Miss Granny), announces with surprising casualness at breakfast with his girlfriend that he got fired from his job, or lost his job through cutbacks, he doesn’t care to be clear about it. Seemingly resigned to what comes next and not wanting a fight, the withdrawn Gyeong-yu simply packs up his things into a tiny suitcase five minutes later, and shuffles out into the cold Korean autumn to try to find a friend to shack up with. As played by Lee Jin-uk, Gyeong-yu remains this kind of curiously restrained and soft-spoken fellow for most of his screentime, but he is not an entirely un-relatable character. Ennui in the face of an adult life spent not doing what you think you should to do - in his case write with the vigour we hear that he once had as a student - is hardly uncommon. Gyeong-yu isn’t angry at life, he isn’t raging at the sky, he’s just sort of quietly stunned into a holding pattern, like a chicken hit around the head and left to wander the paddock. It actually makes him seem more vulnerable; the guy is so wire-thin and given to recoil from challenge you’d think the wind would blow him away. His first stop to get a job is a burger joint, and his CV is threadbare. No confidence, and no marketable skills, do not an easy path promise.

Gyeong-yu’s stasis leads to a series of often darkly funny - and more often pathetic - humiliations that are all the more affecting because they never stretch believability. He revisits his old apartment some weeks later and chats amicably to the presumed mother of his girlfriend outside on the steps, only to realise after about five minutes of conversation that, in fact, this woman is the new tenant who has just moved in, and his girlfriend is long gone with no forwarding address. Gyeong-yu ends up having to take work as a driver for hire picking up a mixture of surly characters, except his job isn’t exactly the same as working for Uber. Instead, he turns up to drive various drunk types home in their OWN cars, which makes you wonder how he himself then gets home. Drunk clients are not the most reliable payers either, often more than willing to write off his bill by claiming he scratched their car on the journey home. Shit-faced salarymen sometimes just greet him with harassment and a punch. His only escape are mealtimes with his old buddy who takes him in for a while, and there is a lot of eating and drinking in this film (mostly in cramped living rooms); rare moments of respite and regrouping.

There is enough alternately funny and melancholic incident in this first-act exploration of the pitfalls of the Korean gig economy to keep the interest going (as well as make you scared if your skillset is in the arts), but Lee Jin-uk’s very inward performance is given a much-welcome contrast by the arrival into the narrative of the delightfully peculiar Ko Hyun-jung (Woman on the Beach) as Gyeong-yu’s ex-girlfriend and now-successful novelist, Yoo-jung. Yoo-jung has earned the fame that Geong-yu always strived for, but, interestingly, she is revealed to be arguably even more messed up than he is, writers-blocked to hell but with a 10-bottle a day habit on top of it. She’s also refreshingly frank about her desires to get it on with her ex whilst trying to shake him out of his stupor. The two make for an endearingly clumsy and cute duo, even as the screenplay avoids letting them settle into the expected groove of sudden inspiration. The tiger motif drifts in and out, but the film would be fine just with scenes of Gyeong-yu and  Yoo-jung trying to put pen to paper.

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.

FrightFest 2018 review roundup

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Frightfest, the UK's premier horror film festival, is done for another year, and the Smoke Screen has stumbled out of the auditorium, wiped off the blood and brain matter, and got down to work writing up some of this year's highlights

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Film Review -  FrightFest 2018: Rock Steady Row

Director: Trevor Stevens

USA 2018. 77 mins.

RATING: ★★★★☆

I am always likely to respond well to the promise of a genre mashup that manages to somehow gel A Fistful of Dollars, Mad Max, West Side Story, and the aesthetic of comic books into one commentary on Trumpian times. That is what Rock Steady Row, from debut director Trevor Stevens, delivers over 70 highly-stylised, synth-inflected minutes. This cheeky dystopian delight is set in a future world where America has collapsed in all sorts of ways, one of those ways being that tuition has now become so unaffordable that student communities now resemble a wild frontier town in a post apocalyptic nightmare land, where lack of resources means that cruel fraternities have formed to control what little is left. The action takes place in one such hellhole - the war zone-like campus of Rock Steady Row - where two warring fraternities have taken over the ruined campus dorm house row, and bicycles dominate the campus economy. No one can afford a car, and public transport is a long-forgotten dream, hence freshmen and the generally unlucky will grovel to get their Schwinn out of protective custody. The established order gets upset when one newcomer, a man-of-few-words freshman called Leroy, decides to play both rival fraternities against each other, Man With No Name style, when his BMX gets stolen. Leroy handily has a sweet line of martial arts superpowers, which get enhanced when he has 80’s power chords and synth beats blazing from his walkman. Lead Heston Horwin makes for an appealing main man, managing to pull off the requisite balance of emitting wiry toughness whilst winking at the audience, and has buzzy chemistry with co-star Diamond White (playing student journalist Piper, doing her best Lois Lane in the face of the world’s end). Logan Huffman as fraternity godfather and main villain Palmer channels Heath Ledger’s Joker (Palmer uses pencils as weapons for one thing, pencils being another item in short supply) like his life depended on it. Some wacky fights and appealingly bizarre visions of how a post apocalyptic student community would function keep Rock Steady Row a short, sweet treat.


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Film Review -  FrightFest 2018: The Dark

Director: Justin P. Lange

Austria 2018. 94 mins

RATING: ★★★☆☆

Dying as a result of a sexual assault and murder by her mother’s abusive boyfriend turns out not to be the end of for lonely American teen Mina (Nadia Alexander), as she is reborn mysteriously as an undead flesh-eating ghoul, cursed to haunt her childhood woodland home out in the rural midwest. After crawling out of her grave to wreck vengeance on her family, her hunting territory develops a local legend over the years after as ‘The Devil’s Den’, and her old house falls into a state of eerie disrepair. After presumably a decade of hunting human prey with her mother’s old axe and her ghoulish nails, Nina comes across Alex, an abused blind boy left in the car trunk of the very abuser who we witness ending up as Mina’s recent meal in the film’s opening ten minutes. After killing his obnoxious companion, Mina for some reason lets Alex live, an action that eventually allows her human side to re-emerge as he two bond, though not without the film eventually settling into a path already well-trodden by the likes of Let the Right One In. Exactly how the mythology behind Mina’s supernatural transformation isn’t made entirely clear, and the narrative drags out revealing Alex’s background without offering up a payoff that satisfied me. Still, young star Nadia Alexander leaves a lasting impression under all that putrefying makeup, as does the lensing of atmospheric rural locations.


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Film Review -  FrightFest 2018: Climax

Director: Gaspar Noé.

France 2018. 95 mins.

RATING: ★★★☆☆

A case of spiked sangria makes things get very, very crazy for a Paris-based dance troupe locked away in their studio, in wild child director Gaspar Noé’s throbbing, hypnotic, but sometimes frustrating style exercise.  Set in just one location, a young dance troupe led by Sofia Boutella’s lithe Selva are seen rehearsing for an upcoming American tour in a dingy school assembly hall before being allowed to ease into the snack trolley and punch bowl off to one side, but even before the wacky wine starts causing things to go VERY off kilter, Noé is giving us quite the technical showpiece; with extended takes allowing the agile cast to bust out some mesmerising choreographed dance routines. A pulsating, near-deafening score of the finest EDM beats combined with gliding steadicam shots that seem to ignore no possible angle of view creates quite the bewitching effect on the viewer, although I found most of the dialogue sequences in between the moments of dance sublimity kind of interminable: consisting mostly of men talking shit about women and women complaining about said shit talk. Perhaps the inanity is the point: maybe people should just shut up and dance if they’ve got nothing to say.


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Film Review -  FrightFest 2018: Anna and the Apocalypse

Director: John McPhail

UK 2017 107 Mins

RATING: ★★★★☆

It was only just a matter of time before someone mashed up Glee with a zombie movie. In fact, given my limited knowledge of horror movies, it is entirely possible I’ve been unaware of this having already been done, so I won’t say that the sassy, loopy zombie musical Anna and the Apocalypse, from director John McPhail, is the first of its kind. But it certainly gets the essentials right: actually have characters who are charming, funny, and whose journey you can invest in, and have the songs be both foot-tappingly decent whilst serving the plot. Star Ella Hunt is a smart, sympathetic and relatable lead as high-schooler Anna, looking forward to the end of high school so she can start jet-setting around the world to experience life before settling down. Problem: a zombie apocalypse has just engulfed her sleepy Scottish town, forcing Anna and her amusingly mismatched group of friends (plus the school jock who teams up with them) to baseball bat their way to freedom. In between the song and dance numbers set in the mundanity of a ‘bog-standard comprehensive’, the screenplay and performances muster up some surprisingly poignant moments, and I was kept on my tones by the cheesier beats always being counterbalanced with some genuinely funny scenes (many involving today’s teens being super nonchalant about a zombie apocalypse; they’ve all seen the movies and its somewhere in the middle of their priority list) followed up by some pretty merciless outcomes for the teenybopper lineup.


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Film Review -  FrightFest 2018: Crystal Eyes

Director: Ezequiel Endelman, Leandro Montejano

Argentina 2017 83mins

RATING: ★★★☆☆

This neo-Giallo may not be particularly surprising in how it plays out, but it sure looks and sounds the part (think lots of stained glass windows in chintzy corridors with shafts of purple light shining through, and ketchup blood oozing everywhere). The setting is the world of high-class modelling in Buenos Aires, 1985, and it is the first anniversary of the death of Alexis Carpenter, the unstable supermodel who died tragically in a horrendous catwalk fire. Fashion editor Lucia L'uccello wants to honour Alexis in a commemorative issue of her magazine. But the night before the cover photo shoot, Alexis' original dresses are stolen and staff members begin to disappear at the hands of a sinister silhouette in a long black leather raincoat. Is someone seeking revenge? Well...obviously!

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: 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.

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.

London Film Festival 2016 review: Certain Women

Director: Kelly Reichardt

R | 1h 47min | Drama | 14 October 2016 (USA)

Playing London Film Festival 2016

RATING: ★★★★☆

Kelly Reichardt films don't come around too often, but when they do, the Smoke Screen regards them like precious stones, to be treasured. Her new three-part drama, Certain Women, adapted from Montana-native Maile Meloy’s short stories, is another quietly intelligent study of women struggling with their own crises and self-doubts. It reunites Reichardt with Michelle Williams (her collaborator on Wendy & Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff), but also sees sterling work come from Laura Dern, and another in a growing catalogue of interesting turns from Twilight star (and how far away Twilight now seems) Kristen Stewart. And if that wasn’t enough, newcomer Lily Gladstone, cast opposite Stewart in the last of the three stories, also impresses. Reichardt knows how to create a sense of mood and place too, using the Montana landscapes to craft a backdrop for her characters of flinty, wintry isolation where people seem very alone.

The film is split across three sections, each exploring the lives of three very different women in Livingstone, Montana, a town of only 7,000 residents. Their residency (permanent or otherwise) in the same town is pretty much the only thing that connects them physically, but there is a spiritual connection too; each of these women are dealing with their own internal struggles, each is not quite living the life they expected they would, and are unsure how to get from here to there. Laura Dern’s lawyer is conducting a surreptitious lunchtime affair with a married man while defending disgruntled construction worker Fuller (Jared Harris) in his workplace accident suit. She seems dutiful and committed, but when Fuller snaps and takes hostages in order to highlight his exploited situation, she finds her self caught up in a pleasingly Coen-esque farce of a negotiation (complete with an overly-nice, totally unflappable Sheriff cheerily suiting her up with body armour), and has to face the possibility she didn’t believe in her client as fully as she could have. It is great to see Dern at work again, and this story maintains a nice shift between black comedy and tension.

In the second story, Michelle Williams plays Gina, a hippy type with a penchant for living out in highly-advanced bespoke tents with her husband Ryan (the man we saw Dern sleeping with), but our sympathies for this ‘perfect’ family start to shift when it starts to look like they are exploiting the fragile mind of elderly resident Albert, who’s large supply of junk sandstone in his back yard they want to get; for nothing. Probably the most opaque of the three tales, there is a kind of “passing of the torch” subtext here, as Albert surrenders his stone to a new generation who’s ideas about ‘authenticity’ don’t necessarily extend to involve a real emotional connection to this land around them. It is tempting to read into the tensions between Gina and Ryan some subconscious knowledge of his philandering too.

The last story is perhaps the most impactful, and will inevitably be compared to Brokeback Mountain given the isolated, rural setting and subject matter dealing with hidden, frustrated desires. Native American actor Lily Gladstone gives a heart-wrenching performance as lonely ranch hand Jamie, who enrols in a night school course on a whim, only to develop confusing desires for the new, from-out-of-town supply teacher Beth (Kristen Stewart). Jamie works on a horse ranch on the plains, a hauntingly beautiful place to be in the winter, but her physical skills are no guide to this new emotional fireball inside her. This leaves her looking both frightened and over-eager in Beth’s presence, as she takes more and more opportunities to spend boundary-blurring time with her teacher, offering her horse rides to her car and spending brief snatches with her in the only diner on the route home. For her part Stewart makes Beth a mix of intelligence, quiet self-doubt and world-weariness, with her character revealing to us a mercilessly insecure work routine that seems to sum up the physical cost this tough part of America demands: four-hour commutes, two jobs and a night course commitment that requires she actually teach herself school law the evening before, as she doesn’t know the subject at all. This leaves her about five minutes for personal time, and it is that five minutes that Jamie hopes she can be part of. It already feels like a doomed quest.

This won’t be a film for those who want regular emotional fireworks, or to have onscreen characters introduced with a surrounding blanket of complete context. This really is a slow-burning, melancholic work where gestures, glances and snippets of dialogue are all we have to go on when judging who these women are, and where they are likely to end up after the credits roll.  If you come ready for that then Reichardt’s nuanced, well-acted film will satisfy immensely.

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: 13th

Director: Ava DuVernay

1h 40min | Documentary | 7 October 2016 (UK)

Playing London Film Festival 2016

RATING: ★★★★☆

Ava DuVernay’s (Selma) new documentary takes its title from the United States’s 13th Amendment, introduced to abolish slavery, and it states: ‘Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.’ In a brisk 90 minutes, drawing on a variety of academics, activist and cultural commentators, including esteemed figures like Angela Davis, DuVernay’s film steamrollers over the notion that the passing of this act closed the book on the appalling inequalities faced by America’s black community. In fact, several interviewees note the inherent flaw in the act itself: the wording “except as a punishment for crime” seemed designed to foreshadow how, in the absence of an explicit federal mandate to continue the industry of slavery after the Confederacy lost the Civil War, the means of generating wealth from black bodies and simultaneously denying them agency shifted, like a chameleon, into other channels. And one of those key channels was federal and state law enforcement tools, or what Davis calls ‘the prison-industrial complex’.

DuVernay’s film isn’t particularly stylistically memorable or novel in its construction (there is a politically-charged hip-hop score, and the word ‘Criminal’ is flashed on screen in bold text whenever the word is mentioned by the interviewees, emphasising the way the black figure has been negatively contextualised in cultural dialogue) but what it does do is effectively assemble footage and facts in a relentless barrage that just overwhelms you, while confidently establishing connecting threads that have terrifying implications. We are given plenty of disturbing facts that sketch out the dismal national picture today: the film opens with an address from Barack Obama, where he notes that America has almost 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s prisoners. The lifetime likelihood of imprisonment of an American white male is 1 in 17, for blacks it is a shocking 1 in 3. Black men are 6.5% of the US population today, yet make up 40% of the prison population. One commentator notes that more blacks now are under criminal supervision than were actually slaves back in the 1850s.

DuVernay’s film highlights the striking - and disgusting -  speed at which the wheels of the state and various cultural institutions and voices moved after the end of slavery to establish this new form of dominion. Right after the Civil War blacks were incarcerated en masse and put to work in industrial schemes, their labour still being extracted despite their new ‘freedom’. Then there was roughly 100 years of Jim Crow legislation across the southern states, which helped drive what one commentator refers to as a “mass exodus from terror” as blacks fled to the northern and western cities. Despite the gains made during the Lyndon Johnson presidency thanks in large part to the Civil Rights movement and figures like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, the Nixon, Reagan and Bush administrations ran on explicit, dog-whistle “law and order" platforms that not only secured their southern base against Democrats, but massively expanded the war on drugs, militarised the police, and reduced judge’s decision making powers. 

Blatant discrimination was baked into the system: thus possession of the fashionable white-favoured cocaine powder would earn a defendant a far lighter sentence than being caught with crack cocaine. The defeat of the Democrat Dukakis by George Bush senior in the 1988 election campaign involved the shameful exploitation of the image of a black criminal who it was claimed had struck while on a release programme from jail mandated by the Democrat challenger. Part of a long history of the association of the black body with crime (and rape and murder in particular) this racist election tactic helped burn into the Democrat Party the still-present fear of being seen as soft on crime, hence the Clinton administration’s refusal to change the general course of US policing and sentencing (for example, Clinton backed sentencing policies like California’s harsh “three strikes and you’re out”) and acceptance of the ‘super predator’ rhetoric.

The sections of the film where we are shown how hard it is going to be to undo this mass incarceration system are particularly chilling, as there seems to be simply so much money and infrastructure now invested in the ‘prison industrial complex’, which has now blurred into part of the regular economy. Private companies now run prisons on behalf the US government, and secure influence in Congress and the Senate by combining their influence into lobbying groups (the ALEC foundation comes in for particular scrutiny, its pre-written bills securing corporate interests have appeared almost word-for-word on the House floor at times). Prisoners are a source of low cost labour, their toil flowing into any number of major brands. Various interviewees worry that the new nationwide dialogue on addressing sentencing imbalances and overpopulation of prisons masks a subtle corporate agenda to move on to privatising probation and monitoring, adapting to the new unacceptability of using prisons as a blunt instrument.

It can’t be denied DuVernay’s film has been released at a propitious time, as relations between the black community and the institutions of the state reach a particularly charged level, against the backdrop of many high profile killings of black individuals by police. The director doesn’t hesitate either to connect the ugly language of Trump, the ‘law and order’ candidate in the current, fractious Presidential election campaign, to the irrational rage and fear which fuelled lynchings and beatings in the Jim Crow era (there is footage of Trump’s truly appalling incitement of violence towards protesters at his rallies, with the dismally inevitable and frightening results). With the film feeling worryingly up to date, one of the few rays of light in this urgent indictment of the state of race relations in the US is a final reminder that Black Lives Matter and the new enabling power of the internet allow conversations about these issues to start - and spread - much faster now.

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.

Interview: Murder, motherhood and moviemaking - Sightseers co-writer and star Alice Lowe discusses her directorial debut PREVENGE

 Alice Lowe in Prevenge, which she wrote, directed and acted in while pregnant

Alice Lowe in Prevenge, which she wrote, directed and acted in while pregnant

In her debut film Prevenge, writer-director Alice Lowe takes a blowtorch to the picture postcard image of pregnancy. In this deliciously twisted serial killer black comedy, she plays the 30-something, very pregnant, Ruth. If things weren't hard enough for Ruth, trying to deal with her grief at the recent death of her husband in a climbing accident, she also has to battle the strange voices emanating from…her womb. Yup, Ruth’s baby seems to be talking to her, and the squeaky, bitter voice is impelling her on to murder everyone involved in her husband’s death. Equipped with a clunky kitchen knife and a dour sense of humour, Ruth waddles off to carry out the bloody deeds, though as the bodies pile up, she starts to fear she is being consumed by this being inside her. In a neat coincidence, Lowe was pregnant herself when she starred in her own debut, a directing challenge she was well-prepared for after years starring in and writing dark comedy material, ranging from Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place to Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers.

Smoke Screen had the pleasure of sitting down with Lowe at London Film Festival - where the film played in the Dare strand - to talk about murder, motherhood and moviemaking.

You can read the review of Prevenge here.

It’s rare to see a debut director write, direct and star in their own movie, and when pregnant!

AL: Yes, it certainly was greedy of me, wasn’t it! I wanted to direct, but I really didn’t think I’d direct while pregnant. That wasn’t really the plan. I came up with the idea for a director called Jamie Adams, who directed a film called Black Mountain Poets. When I gave him the pitch, he said: “its brilliant, but I can’t direct it as I do rom-coms. This is dark, and I think you should direct this instead.” I knew already that I wanted to direct, but I was wondering if I could star, write and direct while pregnant. And I had had these frustrations over a long period of time of wanting to direct but thinking people wouldn’t trust me: the catch-22 of “you can’t make a first film until you’ve made a first film.”

So I just felt that if I could pull this off it would be such a good thing. You fight battles to protect your creative voice, especially in film with budgets and lots of people scared to give you money only to see you screw it up. But this film would be low budget. I felt now was the time to take that risk. And if I got it right people would respond: “ah, I see what you can do now.” I was whinging about it for so many years, but you’ve got to get out there and do it! Still, it wasn’t an easy decision. It was terrifying! So it ended up being a kamikaze approach, do or die. But I’d made a lot of short films, and in my view you never regret making something. You regret NOT making something. I put all of that into the film.

There seems to be this gleeful aspect to the film, where all the joyful tropes of pregnancy are slashed and burned…

AL: Definitely. When it came to doing research for the film, I was technically right in the middle of the research! It was strange; like being a freelancer, joining this odd club that is pregnancy, which I have seen as being an industrialised, fetishised thing. I felt very outsider-ish about it. That was already going through my head. So when I was making the film I was pooling all of this stuff that I had experienced. I hope people do see it as cathartic! Some people have suggested pregnant women might be disturbed watching the film, to me they are about to give birth, I don’t think we should patronise them. They’re about to go through something very painful and life changing, I think they are stronger than we think they are. 

But at the same time, just because I’m pregnant doesn’t mean I’m going to stop watching horror or be a different person. It’s only society that would change me. All those issues were running into the film, and I do hope people watch it and feel that it’s a film talking about all the things they aren't allowed to do. There is a relief and release in that. Just because you are pregnant doesn’t mean you have to pack all that stuff away; I think that would be really unhealthy. So there’s a lot of taboo stuff I put in the film, stuff which I felt was current and people don’t talk about. Like those trendy new parenting things like prenatal yoga - those kind of things just stressed me out. I just wanted to put a pin in all that.

Your character murders a whole lot of people, did you think about how that could alienate the audience?

AL: I definitely wanted it to be quite alienating. What I was trying to do was do a kind inverse character arc, where the viewer almost starts off hating the character, only to come to empathise with them later after you come to understand them. A risky enterprise according to the screenwriting handbooks! I wanted to test the audience, see how far they could go. This woman you see on screen is pregnant, as a society we are used to such figures being seen as “nice and lovely”. The first two men Ruth kills I wanted to present as if they might be victims of some kind of feminist vengeance, but then flip it on its head by suggesting its society that she hates, and the hypocrisies she is experiencing.

It is an interesting word: “alienating”, as I did think of this as a secret sci-fi film. It doesn’t have to be out there for everyone to see, but Ruth is a sort of alien character. She’s an anti-superheroine! Her special powers are her pregnancy! She feels that what is happening to her is very strange and new. Hence the score and everything had to be futuristic in a retro kind of way. I deliberately didn’t want the audience to feel comfortable at any stage: hence all the footage of spiders and lizards early on! The scene with Mike Wozniak (whop plays the affable flatmate of one of Ruth’s male victims, whom she considers killing too) was a moment where I wanted Ruth’s worldview to be challenged too.

This feels like it would be a perfect companion piece to Sightseers; what did you bring from that and all the other films and TV shows you’ve worked on?

AL: I co-wrote Sightseers, and I think they are genetically related for sure, like siblings. A lot of this just comes down to my sense of humour, and I do have a dark one. I like improvisation, mixing up realism with surrealism. The main thing I developed on from Sightseers was having a real sense of drama, which I put into Prevenge. Some of the themes are more serious. Pregnancy is serious. I’ve seen enough comedies about it. I wanted a dark crises to be going on in Ruth’s world, death is mixed up with birth and life for her. So I was dabbling more with drama here, making it more of a thriller than Sightseers.

I didn’t go to film school, so everything is a learning curve and building on what you’ve done. Pushing it a little bit further. I do want to branch out and tackle different genres. I see myself more of a fantasy writer. I get accused of being a horror writer, but, for example, I do a lot of surrealism. I’d love to do sci-fi and period dramas. My next film is going to be very concept driven, but it not ready to be talked about yet! I would like to make films were people can sense it has its own personality, with its own traits.

Did you draw on any other filmmakers for inspiration? There seemed to be a few homages to other movies in Prevenge:

AL: Possession and Halloween certainly, I also wanted to have lots of colour in it, so I was thinking a lot about Brian De Palma. We were so lucky with locations too: like, the reptile shop was the biggest coup ever! This could have cost us a fortune. I wanted the film to look like it was a travel through the circles of hell, with each scene having its own feeling. And we actually got those things! For example, we filmed at Saatch and Saatchi, and they had huge blue ice-like table! Just what I had in my head! 

 

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: Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World

Director: Werner Herzog

12 | 1h 38min | Documentary | 28 October 2016 (UK)

Playing London Film Festival 2016

RATING: ★★★★☆

It felt inevitable that the mercurial Teuton, legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog, would tackle the internet at some point, given his fascination with vanishing cultures, lost prophets, and scientific endeavours promising either great advancement for humanity or eventual destruction. In his latest documentary with the parable-esque title “Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World”, Herzog explores the ramifications of our internet-enabled world across 10 sprawling chapters. The director has spoken grumpily about how he eschews connected living, barely maintaining an email account and despising Twitter. Yet those expecting a doom-laden warning about brain-rot will be pleasantly surprised as, although there are more than a few troubling developments explored via interviews and archive material, from vengeful emails to the asymmetric warfare opportunities of hacking, Herzog also gives time to contemplate some of the more inspiring uses the world wide web and rapid data connections have been put to in the fields of science and medicine. An important note: the film - which is a bit spotty in its focus, and certainly isn't comprehensive - isn't so much interested in the “world wide web” as it is about the development of super-speed data flows, and their pivotal role in society today.

The film opens in what can only be called irresistible “Herzogian" territory, as we are taken to what is described as a “holy place” in the history of the internet’s creation. With Herzog’s unmistakeable Bavarian-accented voice providing the narration, we are taken along a corridor in UCLA’s Boelter Hall, turning into room 3420, which has been preserved as it was from the 60s. There, the excitable computer science professor Leonard Kleinrock shows us the refrigerator-sized hunk of metal and electronics that was effectively the world’s first internet server - the Internet Message Processor, or IMP. So ugly it is almost beautiful, it was built to military-grade hardiness specs. Of course, it performed a function that is now handled by tiny devices inside laptops, cellphones and smartwatches. But the IMP was key to the launch of the internet, which took place in Kleinrock’s lab in October 1969 with the first word being transmitted across the primitive net: “Lo”. An appropriate first word that was actually the result of a server crash - the intention was to type “Login”.

From UCLA, Herzog takes us onwards on his idiosyncratic 10-chapter examination of the Internet. There are plenty of metaphor-based factoids thrown at us to give us a sense of how fast the web developed from the early UCLA days: apparently if you burned CDs of a day’s worth of data that is sent globally, the pile would reach Mars. Not all of the material presented is revelatory and some sections feel like they get shorter shrift. It feels like stretching to suggest that robot cars trading data with each other to develop better driving patterns could be a kind of dreaming (Herzog is also interested in the notion that the internet might dream of itself, presumably once it reaches a point where it develops some kind of consciousness, a difficult to conceive of notion frankly given how the web operates today). But an interview with a medical scientist who used game-type cloud sourcing to help map the structure of the AIDS virus is a truly inspiring example of productive human connectivity. The film strikes a compellingly poignant too when it explores those left behind in the rush to get every device and person connected and online, or those who saw their visions of the internet’s design and purpose pushed aside.

The new ager Ted Nelson is a classic Herzogian figure unearthed for this documentary, a sad and cheated dreamer who imagined the internet operating in a very different way and wants more “interconnections”. He shows us an example of this on his home computer, and to be honest the concept doesn’t look very promising, but his intense commitment to this alternate online world and mode of behaviour clearly impresses Herzog. Another lost prophet for the director’s bulging files. At one point, Herzog take us to an American “offline” commune set up in an isolated part of Washington State where those who believe they are suffering from sensitivity to electrical currents and airborne data transmissions can hide away. One resident tearfully describes the unbearable physical and psychological pain she felt until she found this retreat and how sad she feels that she can’t go home, and despite the fact that medical science remains skeptical of this the phenomenon, Herzog treats her with quiet respect and acknowledges that - to her - the pain is real.  It personalises the idea that there will always be those who can’t - or wont’ - connect.

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: David Lynch: The Art Life

Director: John Nguyen

1h 30min | Documentary | March 2017 (USA)

Playing London Film Festival 2016

RATING: ★★★★☆

Lynch fans are being well-served at this year’s London Film Festival, with director John Nguyen’s David Lynch: The Art Life being one of two documentaries about the mercurial director playing here. This will be catnip for the faithful, but viewers be warned; Nguyen’s film does what it says on the tin. This is not a study of Lynch’s film career or an academic dive into the deeper meanings of his screen work. Instead, Nguyen focuses on the period of Lynch’s life before “Lynchian” became a hot word in the wider culture: his long-standing interest in painting and sculpture which predates the making of breakthrough film Eraserhead (the production of which is basically where this film ends). It’s an absorbing, pleasantly-paced piece of work that benefits from Lynch having granted a great deal of access to his archive of paintings, photographs and home movies, and from the fact that it is narrated by the man himself, speaking into a lovely vintage microphone (naturally, it would be a vintage microphone) from his adorable painting studio in the hills above Hollywood. Interspersed with his narration are images of his paintings, most of which are, frankly, highly disturbing.

Lynch makes for an affable narrator, his voice still sporting that unmistakable Jimmy Stewart-esque twang and his speech speckled with “gee whizz” exclamations. He takes us on an intimate journey through his youth, talking about his childhood growing up in a variety of small-towns across America, his mostly warm relations with his family, through to more anxious years when he moved to a rough part of Philadelphia with a wife and child whilst still in his 20s, where he had to resort at times to painting for print to get cash for the rent. For those who know little about the man, it will be a neat primer into what he was up to before his breakout into the industry, which, as he admits, was hugely helped by his award of an American Film Institute grant. Lynch still has that characteristic of being prosaic and frank (if he likes a colour or an object, he will simply state he likes it with rarely any more detail given) and yet utterly non-explanatory. Viewers wanting him to reveal how his experiences struggling in Philadelphia with the deep fears of the run-down neighbourhood, his narrow range of experiences growing up in a world where he rarely noticed anything more than two blocks away, or his relationship with his parents affected his work: you’ll go home disappointed. Instead, it is up to viewers to grasp at the breadcrumbs of possible revelations that might be there in Lynch’s artwork and the odd comment he makes.

Thus, when he narrates a story of how he saw a naked, bloody-mouthed woman emerge from the darkness in front of him as a child, it is tempting to flash forward to the last act of his cult hit Blue Velvet. When Lynch comments about his edgy existence in Philadelphia, it is tempting to see in his analysis an appreciation of the duality of existence - the dark and light co-existing - that is essentially to his film worlds; “even though I lived in fear, it was thrilling to live the art life [there].” His love of old industrial buildings, smokestacks and leaky pipes, is discussed and illustrated by his own moody photo collection, all of which clearly fed into the striking aesthetic of Erasershead. Though hardcore Lynch fans might not learn too many new things here, this is a fine companion piece to the LYNCH ONE series of documentaries, which the director himself worked on and considers the third in that series.

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: Prevenge

Director: Alice Lowe

1h 28min | Comedy, Drama, Fantasy | 13 October 2016 (UK)

Playing London Film Festival 2016

RATING: ★★★★☆

In her debut film Prevenge, writer-director Alice Lowe takes a blowtorch to the picture postcard image of pregnancy. In this deliciously twisted serial killer black comedy, she plays the 30-something and very pregnant, Ruth, who, if things weren't hard enough with trying to deal with her grief at the recent death of her husband in a climbing accident, has to battle the strange voices emanating from…her womb. Yup, Ruth’s baby seems to be talking to her, and the squeaky, bitter voice is impelling her on to murder everyone involved in her husband’s death. Equipped with a clunky kitchen knife and a dour sense of humour, Ruth waddles off to carry out the bloody deeds, though as the bodies pile up, she starts to fear she is being consumed by this being inside her. In a neat coincidence, Lowe was pregnant herself when she starred in this.

Lowe has been well-prepared for crafting this kind of tonally-ambiguous and surreal dark comedy, having starred in and co-written Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers, amongst many other projects. She is clearly enjoying shredding a few pregnancy taboos here, as well as having fun playing on the physical comedy potential of having a weighed-down woman try to murder her way through her hit list of villains (hint, don’t try to escape out of cat flap when pregnant). The film balances juicy murders and laugh-out loud comedy beats very well. As cathartic and deliriously fun as you can feel it must have been to use serial killer/slasher genre tropes to poke at society’s views of pregnancy and womanhood, there are poignant and pertinent undertones here too. Ruth’s increasing submission to the voice touches on fears that a child can become all-encompassing, even taking over your biology. At one point Ruth takes revenge on a prospective employer who clearly saw her pregnancy as a reason to exclude her CV from the pile. Some of her victims are piggish men, who see her pregnancy and increased body size as a sleazy turn-on. Yet Lowe never lets you get too comfortable with Ruth either, flipping the record every so often so you never know how far she will go and whether she should be seen as a victim, as insane, or both.

Yes, the film betrays its low budget at times, but Lowe and DP Ryan Eddleston get a great deal of mileage out of some surreal Cardiff locations (including a wacky, ice cream sundae-coloured indoor climbing club) and some of the murders are shot with real flair. An edgy electronic score from(Pablo Clements, James Griffith and Toydrum completes the mood. Genre fans will also have fun spotting the tributes to classics of yesteryear, including Possession, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Halloween.

 

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: Don't Think Twice

Director: Mike Birbiglia

R | 1h 32min | Comedy, Drama | 22 July 2016 (USA)

Playing London Film Festival 2016

RATING: ★★★★☆

This delightfully warm, yet also poignant comedy hails from the mind of writer/director and comedian Mike Birbiglia, who impressed the Smoke Screen with his debut film Sleepwalk with Me. Drawing on elements from his own life on the comedy circuit when he performed as a member of the Georgetown Players comedy set during college, this film tracks a month in the life of the five-member New York improv troupe The Commune (Birbiglia himself playing Miles, the oldest of the group and a comedy coach). Going in with no script and relying on the audience’s cues in order to construct an on-stage sketch (the group’s opening gambit is “So, did anyone have a really tough day?”), The Commune clearly are able to operate on the comedy knife-edge, but this is a scrappy, hand-to-mouth existence. All of the members - Mike, Jack, Samantha, Bill, Lindsay, and Allison - have second jobs or draw on family trust funds, which are essential as they are basically paying the run-down theatre to host them instead of making any dollars off of this.

The improv lifestyle is endearingly recreated, right down to the tiny details that evoke a real sense of authenticity. Whether it’s the strange warmup rituals (high-fives, chants and patting the weird bear totem outside the stage door) that the group carry out before going on stage, or the crappy apartments they struggle to pay the rent on, or the vain hope they all keep inside that their writing submissions to Saturday Night Live will be accepted, there is a real sense of the cast having inhabited real life versions of these onscreen lives at some point. But although the behind the scenes goings on of the improv scene will probably not be familiar to most viewers, the well-drawn conflicts that erupt between the group members are totally relatable, as anyone who has seen (or been in) a group of close friends rupturing due to thwarted ambitious, jealousies of success, or realisations of long-standing differences, will realise. Thus, when the oft-grandstanding Jack (the well-known comedian Keegan-Michael Key from the Key and Peele collaborations), lands his big break on a hit TV sketch show (which is full of former improvs), pleasure at his success soon gives way to questions about what this means for the collective. Interestingly, Jack’s success is not treated ironically, he is genuinely a very good improv performer, with a great knack for impersonations. His elevation to the show is moment of celebration and inspiration for everyone, but there is a cruelty to it. He can’t bring the group with him, and promises of talking up their talent to his bosses come to little. His position is a sharp reminder of the commercial realities of their line of work. But should this kind of mass-market show be their end goal?

Jack’s partner Samantha (Community's Gillian Jacobs), who in many ways is the most talented and keen member of the group, has to ask herself if she really has Jack’s ambitions to “take it to the next level” or whether improv should be an end in itself, as a rarified form of comedy requiring a unique finely honed skill set. Miles on the other hand has to face the fact that he has maybe groomed a group of comrades who have ended up being better at improv performance and comedy writing than he is, leaving him to drown his sorrows in booze and dating students that keep getting younger than him. As the group split apart and come back together there is plenty of the freewheeling flow and fizz of the best improvised comedy to savour (even the funeral of Bill’s father provides some material for the Commune!), and a couple of star cameos provide the icing on the cake.

 

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: Manchester by the Sea

Director: Kenneth Lonergan

R | 2h 15min | Drama | 13 January 2017 (UK)

Playing London Film Festival 2016

RATING: ★★★★☆

Though its plot - about a haunted man’s painful hometown return to take on the task of becoming his nephew’s guardian - might sound on paper a one-way ticket to either redemptive melodrama or self-indulgent mopery, Kenneth Lonergan’s (Margaret; You Can Count on Me) third feature as director handily avoids those blind alleys. Like the hugely impressive Margaret, Manchester by the Sea is a eloquent, well-acted and atmospheric study of grief and mourning that is smart and patient enough to never demand your tears. This went down as one of the best movies at the Sundance Film Festival, with an acquisition by Amazon with a firm commitment to an awards season campaign.

The Manchester of title is a small, windy Massachusetts town on the shores of the sea, and it is the ultimate destination of one Lee Chandler, played by Casey Affleck, here giving another strong performance that confirms all the promise he has shown over the last decade (see 2007s The Assassination of Jesse James if you need convincing). When we first see Lee, things don’t look good at all. A janitor for a series of run-down brownstone apartment blocks a few hours drive from his old home town of Manchester, where he hasn’t returned to in years, Lee trudges from room to room fixing busted plumbing and tiling walls, rarely raising his eyes or his voice. His home is a shabby studio which looks like it hasn’t got any light in years. His nights are spent drinking alone in bars, occasionally fighting with someone if he thinks they are casting glances the wrong way. We don’t know why Lee is this withdrawn, but Affleck gives his character enough of a menacing, “not there” edge that we aren’t sure sympathy is the right response…yet. Answers start to come when the primary tragedy behind Lee’s calcified state starts to be revealed through a series of flashbacks that are interspersed with the main narrative, catching us up eventually to the present day. Arresting tension and a sense of foreboding come from this narrative construction.

The main spine of the story emerges when Lee’s spare existence in the present day is suddenly ruptured by the death of his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler, seen only in the flashbacks), which forces him to return to the hometown he abandoned years before. Awaiting him is the unwanted revelation that Joe has made him guardian of his teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges), with a set of financial arrangements designed to allow Lee to continue to live in Manchester, taking over the house and the responsibility of raising Patrick until the kid can inherit. Patrick, for his part, seems more concerned about making sure the family boat, - the place where he and his father and uncle seemed most at peace - is kept running despite its exorbitant cost, and staying put in the town where his friends, hockey team and (two) girlfriends are. He seems as balked at the idea of being Lee’s ward as Lee is at being handed this job. 

Thankfully, Lonergan avoids feeding us an overly familiar bonding/redemption narrative, and injects a good deal of welcome black comedy into the proceedings, as Lee and Patrick take fumbling steps to re-acquaint themselves with one another. The two have conflicts, certainly, but these don’t become repetitive and reach irritatingly hysterical levels, and there is interest in seeing how similar they really are. Both men, for example, have exactly the same dry sense of humour, and are naturally drawn to the ocean. Patrick can be a pain in the ass, insensitive to Lee’s situation and ignorantly expectant that he will take over the mundane duties his father did, be it driving him around or giving him money at the drop of a hat. But he’s basically a good kid. Some of the film’s funniest moments come when Lee just sits dumfounded at times as Patrick, without declaration, starts acting like Lee now is the figure who has to approve decisions around the house, whether its friends staying over or what to do about dinner. At one point, Lee blurts out if Patrick is hanging around his bedroom door because he want’s “the speech about condoms”, given one of his many girlfriends is due to come over. Funny though this is, a shade of poignancy hangs over this relationship, based on what we learn Lee was involved in all those years ago, and what he lost.

Lonergan also deserves props for the way he uses all the cinematic power of this Massachusetts location. Manchester is a pretty place to be sure, all neat detached clapboard houses, wood-floored diners and treelined hills in the background. But this is a kind of haunting prettiness in a hard winter, with constant grey skies and streets seemingly empty of people. Characters are constantly exclaiming about the cold, and it looks cold indeed. If the job was to use this singular location to magnify the unfathomable inner turmoil of a man shattered by the consequences of one single mistake, job done. This is a town cold to Lee in more ways than one.

When the emotional hammer does hit, the moment feels earned, thanks to the fine performances and intelligent but uncomplicated writing that works to build up the picture of this man’s place in this town, and how he lost it. When Lee finally encounters his former wife Randi (played by the ever-reliable Michelle Williams), we get one devastating scene of confession and desperate reaching, a development that Lonergan’s screenplay still refuses to allow to be the gateway to a tidy conclusion. It is a shame more dramas don’t have the courage to end in such a fashion.

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: The Pass

Director: Ben A Williams

15 | 1h 28min | Drama | 16 March 2016 (UK)

RATING: ★★★★☆

Playing London Film Festival 2016

The Pass, from director Ben A Williams and adapting John Donnelly’s 2014 Royal Court play, bears more than a little similarity to Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, which coincidentally is also playing at the same film festival where Smoke Screen just saw this. Like Jenkins’ acclaimed film, The Pass explores the high emotional toll of years spent in denial and in hiding, as well as probing the complex interplay between masculinity, sexuality and socio-economic pressures when fame or notoriety is an issue. It largely does a good job of it too, though it is small in scale and frequently betrays its stage origins. It is very well acted, with an explosively complex lead performance from Russell Tovey and an equally expressive supporting turn from Arinze Kene.

Tovey plays Jason, a young soccer player amped up and unable to sleep, wandering - in his briefs - the carpet of his plush Bulgarian hotel room on the night before an important match. He’s not alone in the room though; the club have put him up with Ade (Kene), another aspiring and very ripped Premier League footballer who, it is revealed, has been close friends with Jason since childhood. The banter between them is fast-paced and boisterous, with a hint of an edge to it; clearly they are anxious about the coming 90 minutes - it literally could define their future careers given there is only one spot freeing up in the front rank team.

Despite all the playful insults and chat about girls, fame and the beautiful game, it becomes possible to sense a simmering tension in the air. Maybe it’s the looks Jason gives Ade, or the way he seems to over-egg his laddish behaviour as if deflecting or compensating. Maybe it’s the frequent, lingering physical contact. Eventually, things reach breaking point and one of the men leans in to kiss the other, a move that throws up all sorts of interesting and provocative questions based on what we know so far: not just about what is going to happen to these two men currently striving in a sport that prizes heteronormativity and extreme masculinity (which the film teases is a front for a lot of hypocrisy and denial under the image of those rippling torsos), but also about the nature of their relationship. When did the line between friend and lover get truly crossed for these two? Is this really the first time a move has been made? But above all, we are left wondering, what now? And what of the fact that competition is a factor in their relationship, as well as desire?

As with Moonlight, we then are jumped forward to two distinct future time periods, without initially seeing the immediate fallout from that kiss in the hotel room. Still, five years later, there has been clearly devastating emotional consequences for Jason, though it is unlikely that kiss alone is the sole trigger. A frustrated attempt to hire club dancer Lyndsey to film having sex with him - the intention being to deliberately leak it to the press to quash rumours of his sexuality - reveals the depths of despair and denial he has sunk to five years later. Lyndsey figures out what is going on pretty quickly, to which Jason offers only seething certainty that he isn’t gay, because he cannot afford to be. Football contracts, hordes of young fans, merchandise arrangements: Jason has created an algorithm in his head - not without justification - that all this falls if his sexuality is so much as acknowledged, even to himself. But it isn’t just cold-hearted economic considerations at play here, Jason is, given his own mindset, a prisoner of a terrible dilemma. Football is his dream, the only thing he has ever wanted to do or been good at, yet his own desires betray him in this regard, putting that all at risk. 

Jason is at war with his own body and mind, and Tovey, both in this section and the next five year jump, effectively transmits a kind of brutal emotional weathering and pent up whirlwind of feelings, which he keeps hidden under a shield of bluster and macho banter. By the time Ade reunites with Jason, in another hotel room in another country, Jason is a pinball of conflicting emotions muddled by drugs and alcohol (the film refreshingly avoids distracting age makeup, letting the performances bring the shades of time). One minute he is pleading for his old friend to stay, the next he is mocking Ade that his kiss was all a ploy to throw him off his game so he could steal his space on the team and secure the later years glory, success that we learn was ultimately denied to his former friend. Ade himself has reached an interesting accommodation with his sexuality that Jason has not, and may never, and the line between Jason being genuinely manipulative or finally genuine is unclear. Though this last section perhaps becomes a tad too melodramatic, with the introduction of a third character into what has been until then a two-person chamber piece feeling a bit unnecessary, the two leads bring things to a heartbreaking, mercilessly ambiguous conclusion.

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: Paterson

Director: Jim Jarmusch

R | 1h 53min | Comedy, Drama | 25 November 2016 (UK)

Playing London Film Festival 2016

RATING: ★★★★★

Adam Driver swaps the robes and lightsabre of the Star Wars universe for a more low-key, ruminative role in Jim Jarmusch’s endearing, richly textured new drama, Paterson. Dialled-back even by Jarmusch’s usual, laconic standards, this restrained but warmhearted film, about an amateur poet getting by in a blue-collar job while drawing inspiration from the world around him, not only is a showcase for another great performance from the increasingly intriguing Driver, but also evokes a very tangible and frankly irresistible sense of place. And yes, it is very, very “cool” overall, though in a less in-your-face way than some of Jarmusch’s brassier works.

Paterson, for those who don’t know, is actually both the main character’s first name, but also, in what seems to be a quirk of fate that probably isn’t at all, the name of the compact post-industrial city that he lives and works in: Paterson, New Jersey. This strange twinning occurrence pops up again and again throughout the film, one of the little semi-magical touches Jarmusch sprinkles throughout what is otherwise a story very much about the very everyday goings on - over the space of seven days - of the titular character. Driver’s character is a bus driver dutifully handling one of the central-to-suburb routes in Paterson. The film largely follows the rhythms of his life: and he rarely deviates from his routine. He gets up at 6.15 every morning, walks the same route to the quaint little bus garage which seems to be based in an old brick factory (one of the many former, reclaimed industrial locations the camera lovingly dotes on), and drives the same route every day. Nights are for walking the drooling mutt Marvin, and stopping off at for a brew at a twee local bar called Shades, which, of course, is run by the garrulous barkeep Doc (the great Barry Shabaka Henley) who knows Paterson and just about everybody else inside and out. It doesn’t seem like a particularly exciting life, but it sure is being lived in a pleasant place, with the city giving off that seductive feel of being quieter and spacier than a major metropolis like New York. A city where people probably know their neighbours, and everyone on their block too.

But in between the spaces of all this activity - days taken up crisscrossing the city, overhearing snippets of passengers’ conversations - Paterson is slowly but steadily filling up his ‘secret notebook’ with short, down-to-earth (and thankfully un-corny) poetry. Throughout the day, Paterson mulls over the words flowing through his mind, observing fragments of life and constructing verses out of lived experience. As played by Driver, Paterson is neither a raging romantic not an introvert when it comes to how he handles this clearly powerful artistic drive. He’s quiet, observant, obviously intelligent (his bookcase at home is testament to his curiosity), and his distinctly non-artistic job makes him something of a totem for the refusal of creativity to be limited by salary, class or projections about what kinds of paid roles are “suitable” for an artist.

Driver doesn’t have a lot of dialogue on screen, Paterson being the ruminative type, but thankfully that gap in the film is filled nicely by the character of Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), a freelance artist, baker and homemaker who is Paterson’s long-term partner. They live together in a small but impossibly quirky house with the bulldog Marvin, and one of the film’s most enjoyable recurring gags is watching Laura’s artistic impulses run away with her whenever Paterson is out at work. She is driven to make everything monochrome and groovy, including curtains, cupcake toppings, and the house seems to have been further repainted in this colour scheme every time Paterson returns home. There is something so charming about watching Driver’s face take on a look of affectionate resignation in the face of his girlfriend’s enthusiasms. It is easy to think that Laura, being almost comically hipsterish, is Jarmusch’s way of quietly poking fun at his own well-known predilections for the Beat life.

Though not a lot seems to happen across the seven days shown in the film (probably the most dramatic is Paterson’s bus breaking down, and one of his friends scares everyone in the bar by waving a toy gun around) the film is rich in the incident detail of everyday life in this everyday city, and Driver effectively communicates to us how constantly attuned his character is to the extraordinary and poetic in the seemingly ordinary and un-poetic. The screenplay really captures the way things nestle in our minds. Thus, the first poem we see Paterson hammering into shape is about, of all things, the blue box of matches with the retro logo that he and Laura find really cute. He and Laura have, independently of each other, so fallen in love with these matches that they have collected a ridiculous number of them, and Paterson sees allegorical material here for a love poem.

Not everything that he experiences seems to make its way into his notebook during the film, but you can imagine some of it will surely make its way into his work by osmosis at some point: be it the weird number of twins and identically-dressed people he keeps seeing get on and off his bus, the collection of endearingly mundane Paterson-oriented news cuttings Doc is pinning to his the wall behind his bar, or his friend Everett’s extremely unsuccessful, desperate attempt to shock his girlfriend into acknowledging his undying love. Paterson even meets a young teen girl outside his bus station one morning, she too brandishing a notebook that he seems to instantly know as a marker of her status as a fellow traveller . His curiosity encourages her to offer him a reading from one of her poems, which sports a pair of opening lines that resonate with the older poet all day long.

In its own quiet, unhurried way, Jarmusch’s film gradually invites you to ease into it, to flow with its gentle rhythms, with moments of sweet comedy scattered throughout to prevent things getting too ponderous. There are also plenty of appealing retro stylings applied to the setting and characters that Jarmusch fans will recognise as his signature: Paterson naturally eschews smartphones and laptops, and though we don’t really see him talk about music, you can bet he has a vinyl collection down in that basement somewhere.  Irony is absent, and there is no mocking of Paterson’s poetry or the quiet civic pride he seems to have in the city he is named for. There isn't even any real conflict in the film beyond Paterson counting down the days before he takes up Laura’s challenge and finally makes some copies of his notebook - and it never feels like there should be. Instead we have a heartfelt, subtle but confidently-drawn depiction of how lovers can co-exist and support each other’s creativity, and a joyous and unpatronising celebration of small town life.

 

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: Blue Velvet Revisited

Director: Peter Braatz

1h 26min | Documentary, Music | 7 October 2016 (UK)

Playing London Film Festival 2016

RATING: ★★★★☆

This year’s London Film Festival is certainly catnip for David Lynch fans, with Peter Braatz’s Blue Velvet Revisited being just one of several documentaries focusing on the mercurial director’s career. This film isn't a forensic analysis of Lynch’s provocative and idiosyncratic 1986 thriller however, but there are plenty of books and films out there for that purpose anyway. Instead, we have a pleasing, nostalgia-tinged trawl through the photography and film archives of German filmmaker Peter Braatz, who Lynch brought onto the set of his Blue Velvet to document the production.

Over the course of several months, Braatz recorded hours of footage, shot thousands of photographs and conducted numerous interviews with the cast and crew, though it seems much of the material never came to light over the last 30 years. There is no narration and no discernible narrative arc to the assembled images and footage (a very Lynchian approach), but there is some tantalising footage of Isabella Rossellini rehearsing Blue Velvet, shots of the charming and homespun town that served as the Lumberton setting, polaroids of Kyle Machlaclan and Laura Dern messing about on set, some grotesque head wound models being crafted, and even audio clips from outtakes where Lynch can be heard feeding the cast lines. With Lynch about to bestow a new season of his cult hit TV series Twin Peaks upon us, it certainly is fine timing to release this material now, putting the spotlight back onto the film that really gave birth to the word ‘Lynchian’. There’s a killer soundtrack too.

1 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: Toni Erdmann

Director: Maren Ade

R | 2h 42min | Comedy, Drama | 3 February 2017 (UK)

RATING: ★★★★☆

laying London Film Festival 2016

Browbeaten children often complain that our parents are put on this earth to torment us, but with Toni Erdmann, the new, off-kilter black comedy from German film-maker Maren Ade, the generational torment is of a very special nature indeed. With its story about a possibly-deranged father who keeps assuming bizarre and comedic alternate identities in order to provoke his estranged younger daughter, Toni Erdmann will probably appeal to fans of the comedies of Sacha Baron Cohen and the like, where laughter and queasiness are bedfellows, as well as the uber deadpan comedies of the Nordic variety. There are plenty of genuinely funny moments here, but half the time audiences might well wonder if they should be laughing, especially when the narrative takes a curveball turn halfway through and makes you re-asses the relationship between the two characters. Tonally, the film slides around in a fascinating way.

Toni Erdmann actually doesn’t exist, or, at least, he doesn’t until willed into existence as one of the joke aliases of divorced schoolteacher Winfried Conradi, who is aimlessly whiling away his semi-retirement in suburban Germany. A lumbering bear of a man with a blood pressure problem, nothing seems too off about Winfried, even when we see him attending a goodbye drinks reception for his soon-to-emigrate, business-minded daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller), who is taking up a post as a consultant to an oil firm in Bucharest, in skull makeup. He has an excuse: the school he teaches at was having a retirement party for the headmaster, requiring fancy dress costume (although..skulls?). But the longer we observe Winfried, the more we realise there is something else going on.

For one thing, Winfried seems to have no intention of taking the makeup off. Then, at certain times, we see him reach into his pocket for a set of fake protruding teeth, shove them into his mouth, and adopt a set of bizarre mannerisms, sometimes in mid conversation. When a delivery man approaches his door later, Winfried tries on several different personas with him, throwing both the teeth and crazy sunglasses into the mix, confusing the hapless guy. It seems we are looking at a habitual master of prankish disguise. Annoying for sure, but presumably harmless. Gradually though, the unease builds. When his beloved mutt passes away, something seems to be triggered inside the lonely Winfried, and he spontaneously decides to reconnect with Ines, paying her a flying visit in Bucharest. With Ines obviously consumed by work, constantly taking phone calls and fretting over a difficult outsourcing deal her firm is tangled up in, her father seems to take it on himself in response that that his daughter’s life should have a proverbial fire lit under it. Before long, his bewigged, snaggle-toothed alter ego ‘Toni Erdmann’ has made an appearance.

For the next 45 minutes, Ade’s film plays out a bit like the film Borat, with Toni turning up at the worst moments from Ines’s POV, ambushing her at work and at functions, spinning ridiculous tales of his love of cheese graters and the expense of hiring “substitute daughters". He is not beneath resorting to fart cushion gags and hiding in wardrobes to get a few jump scares. At one point, a coke snorting session that he barges in on during one of Ines’s night’s out ends with him covering his head in grated cheese, an utterly random gesture that leaves everyone speechless. Ade keeps the takes long, sparing us nothing. Many of these antics are side-splittingly funny, but there is undeniably a dark, tantalising undercurrent to this. Even though they are related, Winfried is essentially stalking his daughter. And the psychology behind this madcap scheme is murky. Is Winfried suffering some kind of breakdown?  Is this an extreme overreaction to what he sees as his daughter’s sacrifice of her dreams to the chilling world of hard-edged business? The last cry for affection from an old man not in the best of health? What makes actor Peter Simonischek’s performance so fascinating (beyond the physical commitment to looking like a freak) is how, as Toni takes over more and more screen time, we find it harder to judge if any reaction that we see on his face genuinely belongs to Winifred any more. Is that Winifred betraying hurt at his daughter’s coldness to him, or just another twitch to make Toni look more grotesque?

At three hours long, it would be a stretch to have this wince-inducing dynamic make up the entire film. But Ade flips things intriguingly in the final act by having Ines (giving as superbly complex a performance as Simonischek) start to play Toni at his own game, as if doubling down on her father’s dares. It starts with her acknowledging her father as Toni when in company. Then she takes him on a fact-finding mission to an oil pump station, introducing him as a German associate of hers (in one of the film’s many comments on gender in the workplace, Ines gets taken more seriously in business when a man is with her). In one scene, which manages to fuse utterly hilarious and outrageous comedy with genuinely felt, rising pathos, a moment of complex and indefinable emotional release between the two seems to occur when they duet Whitney Houston’s The Greatest Love of All at a diplomat’s dinner gathering, Toni on keyboard, Ines warbling away with surprising commitment. The fact that Ines is prepared to engage with Toni on his level raises all sorts of new questions about the nature of their relationship, leaving you wondering if this isn't some long running pattern of behaviour that has become mutually reinforcing. Is this Ines’s way of fighting her father, or admitting that he is right, and that she is risking her emotional health staying in a job where she faces sexism and morally dubious decisions every day? Are we seeing a unique manifestation of a shared depression? Maybe this is the only way this father and daughter couple can talk to each other at all; a complex dance of dare and pretend that is their way of showing their emotional truths. What ever it is, it helps make Toni Erdmann a truly singular piece of work.

 

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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: La La Land

Director:  Damian Chazelle

PG-13 | 2h 6min | Comedy, Drama, Musical | 13 January 2017 (UK)

RATING; ★★★★★

Remember those bright and breezy Gap ads from last decade, when a gaggle of impossibly attractive twenty-something SoCal types, decked out in ice cream sundae coloured clothes, danced around a brightly-lit set? If you imagine the Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire romantic musicals from Hollywood’s golden age had a baby with those Gap ads, you’d arrive at something close to Whiplash director Damien Chazelle’s Los Angeles-set homage to the song-and-dance screen gems that they just don’t make any more, or at least, make well. Yes, it is easy to be cynical about a film that seems so perfectly constructed to play on our collective love of nostalgia, and both festival and Oscar committees clear favouritism for films that celebrate the old studio era of filmmaking (see Hail Caesar! and Cafe Society, only recently). But Chazelle, teaming with composer Justin Hurwitz, editor Tom Cross, DP Linus Sandgren and, of course, the effortless charm machines known as Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, is not phoning it in here. This film might wear its heart on its sleeve, but it is technically slick, well-acted, and laced with ear-friendly tunes. It is, in short, a proper musical.

Chazelle doesn’t waste any time showing you what he has in store. After a teasing black-and-white opening caption in an art deco-ish font (not that La La Land is set in the 1940s or ‘50s, though it clearly is aiming for a certain romantic timelessness) we are switched suddenly to colour, and dropped right into the middle of a traffic jam on a typical Los Angeles freeway during a sun-drenched afternoon. Hot and bothered, various drivers are shown sitting and fuming in their cars, until…things miraculously change. First one driver leaves her car and starts singing, then another and another, until, in one virtuoso unbroken take, we are taken down the traffic line as a crowd of dancing, smiling people collate in the road and strut their stuff on top of car roofs and bonnets. Even at the press screening the Smoke Screen attended, this opening ensemble dance sequence had the audience roaring approval. This kicks the film into high gear immediately and shows us what kind of film to expect: a brightly-lit and vividly coloured musical that is set in the present day, but, as with its genre predecessors, this is a reality where people can break into song spontaneously, the world around them stopping for a few precious minutes to let them pour their hearts out in rhyme and dance.

We expect Gosling and Stone to be part of this medley, but they actually don’t join in this particular dance number (an irresistible tune called “Another Day of Sun”, which is so good it feels like it is deployed too soon), as if Chazelle wants to let the rest of the cast have their moment of glory. Gosling and Stone’s characters, Mia and Sebastian, actually stay in their cars during the traffic jam, before encountering each other in a meet-cute that is actually more like a meet-crap. Mia, an aspiring actress stuck waitressing in a Warner Bros. cafe on the studio lot, is so lost in her reading for an audition that she doesn’t notice Seb trying to pull past her in his car, which results in mutual bird flipping. He’s in a foul mood due to his irritation at a flaw in a section of his latest jazz recording (he’s a jazz pianist with penchant for keeping it old school), which we see him obsessively playing and rewinding in his car stereo. Chazelle, in just a few beats, efficiently tells us all we need to know about these characters. Both are dreamers, both are perfectionists, both are kind of stuck in a rut in a city that is supposed to reward those chasing fantasies. A few other brief touches - Mia’s cracked cellphone screen, Seb’s ratty shirts - round the picture of these two out nice and quickly, so we can get to the good stuff. 

And that good stuff consists of a series of well-handled musical set pieces that show the evolving relationship between the two, over the course of four seasons in LA. It really kicks off after a chance second encounter between the pair, at an evening party in the hilly Mulholland Drive area overlooking the city. A walk back to their cars leads to a swoony, gently funny and disarmingly amateurish song and dance act (Stone and Gosling can’t really sing, but what they can do is move well and look like they are in big-time love) which takes place under the spotlight of a single iron lamp as the bright lights of LA below provide the backdrop. L.A. is often depicted in movies as a smoggy dump, but Chazelle treats it like the most gorgeous city on the planet, with this and other scenes frequently framed against the most idyllic, evocative-of-a-bygone-era locations. Outside of the charisma of Stone and Gosling, the fine tunes and lush locales, the cinematography also deserves praise: with the camera moving like a lively participant in all the fun.

Yes, this is a film dealing in big, heartfelt emotions, with subtlety thrown to the four winds. But, in case you are worried that it all might be a bit too insufferable, Chazelle does weave a disconsolate undercurrent into the film’s emotional core, in such a way that the screenplay feels like it is in fact commenting on the currency it is trading in: nostalgia. Mia wants to be a great actress, the fact she sleeps under a mural of famous Hollywood starlets says it all really, but she is barely holding down a day job on a studio lot while juggling auditions for second-rate parts, and the lack of a fast route to success is starting to eat away at her. Seb is having trouble compromising too: he is obsessed with the “greats” of jazz so much that he can’t even keep his job at a family restaurant, as he insists on playing freewheeling jazz instead of the stale, cheesy favourites the hardass manager demands (played, in a fun cameo, by Whiplash’s J.K. Simmons). When his old music partner Keith offers him a place on his nu-jazz group’s tour, Seb refuses because they are experimenting with mixing jazz with hop-hop and other genres. But the money he could make on the tour could be the key to finally affording to buy that jazz club he keeps ranting about. The inability of both these lovers to align their current states with the achievements of the dreamers of yesteryear that they grew up hearing about is one of the fault lines in their romance. A full-hearted, brassy final musical sequence makes it clear that, old fashioned and fantastical this film's world maybe, but it is still real enough that achieving your dreams requires a sacrifice here.

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.