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 Seemingly resigned to what comes next and not wanting a fight, the withdrawn Gyeong-yu simply packs up his things into a tiny suitcase five minutes later, and shuffles out into the cold Korean autumn to try to find a friend to shack up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.

Joan Crawford has her claws out in THE WOMEN, a highlight of the BFI's Joan Crawford season

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The BFI's Joan Crawford season, celebrating the legendary star, is running at BFI Southbank this September.

As a fully paid-up member of the Joan Crawford fan club (Jonny Guitar remains a favourite western of mine, in large part due to her performance) it was my pleasure to see the George Cukor-directed 1938 satirical comedy THE WOMEN tonight. Stuffed to bursting with a football pitch-worth of female hollywood stars - Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russel and Joan Fontaine are just a few, in a film with top names seemingly happy to turn up in minor roles - Crawford purrs her way to the top even in a supporting turn, and it feels appropriate therefore that the BFI showcase this film as the highlight of their season celebrating the legendary actress. Crawford, as a shamelessly man-pilfering social climber called Crystal, gets some of the sharpest, slinkiest lines in the film, most of them shot full-force towards her rival in love: the more straight-arrow middle-class housewife, Mary (Shearer). Crystal is soon the talk of the town for going after Mary's husband, and she doesn't care who knows it. She seems, for most of the film, to be winning the fight too.

Anita Loos’ and Jane Murfin’s screenplay frames the Crystal-Mary feud against a rich backdrop of gossip, sisterly solidarity, money worries and much ranting about the caddishness of men that fills up the diaries of the disparate group of Manhattan women that circle around Mary's life. Intriguingly, not a single man appears on screen during the entire running time, making this film seem like a revolutionary act even if men, and marriage, makes up a good chunk of the female conversation. The more obvious satirical jabs at high society's peccadilloes and penchants, such as the opening sequence featuring a bravura tracking shot through the gossip-drenched rooms of a salon where only a good scandal tip-off is allowed to interrupt a good facial, makes it hard to judge how seriously the film wants us to take certain main characters when they express what we might call a more 'conservative' approach to sexual politics. Should we be laughing, or taking this as the film's 'message'? Treating your husband's infidelity as something partly your fault, for not kicking his lover's ass hard enough to impress him, is not a sentiment likely to impress modern audiences. But the huge number of women in the cast, and even the maids and cooks get a few minutes on screen to shoot the shit, mean we get a wide range of alternative views expressed on the intersection of marriage and masculinity and how women should deal with men's bullshit, with lashings of whip-crack smart humour in the mix to balance out the heaviness. Crackingly good stuff.

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.

A VERY happy birthday to Heathers, back in cinemas for the 30th anniversary

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Director: Michael Lehmann

18 | 1h 43min | Comedy | 17 November 1989 (UK) (1988 US)

RATING: ★★★★☆

Playing various cinemas across London including The Prince Charles Cinema and Picturehouses

The darkly funny and subversive 1988 high-school comedy Heathers, now 30 years old and due a re-release, seems like one of the outliers in the high school movie genre given just how dark and provocative it gets, even by what feels like "today's standards". It feels like a full-throttle "fuck you" to all the John Hughes movies that arguably set the parameters of this kind of film just a few years earlier. Maybe a Heathers was kind of inevitable in that way, its common to see certain films kick against a trend a few years after said trend has bedded in. And so in Heathers, a story about a series of high school murders carried out in the name of rebellion against the school's suffocating clique-conformist culture, neither of the main leads here stay on the side of the angels. Despite a last-act turn against the descent into nihilistic mass-murder, Winona Ryder's jaded, upper-crust ex-clique rebel Veronica is still a co-conspirator to the deaths, acting in cahoots with he lover, the school's dark horse nihilist JD. The cast of supporting players who pivot around the main duo all at some point seem to the target of the film's mockery too. Whether it is new age proponents of touchy-feely teaching, bullying jocks, or leering anti-social geeks; the entire bland Ohio high school which serves as the film's setting is seemingly empty of anyone that we the viewers can latch on to, though this gives us plenty to chuckle and roll our eyes at. Director Michael Lehmann's and writer Daniel Waters' approach feels more John Waters than John Hughes in this regard. I can't deny I like films that go after everyone, without punching down.

One the film's most deliciously funny conceits is the fact that killing various members of the despicably privileged and brainless ruling cliques - which Veronica and JD proceed to set about doing in a variety of crude DIY methods ranging from poison to pistols- is ironically the only way these kids end up attaining a bizarre kind of grace by the time they are laid in the coffin; not exactly what their murderers intended. This school is so fucked up, even murder can't be done right: instead of waking people up in the way rich kid revolutionary JD raves about, each brutal death simply sends everyone in the school further into a spiral of schmaltzy memorialisation of the ruling clique pupils who everyone either secretly hated or feared when they were alive. JD draws his own nihilistic conclusions from this: might as well just blow everyone up in one go and create a "Woodstock for the 80s" via a few bricks of TNT.

If there is anyone worth rooting for, anyone the script seems to have a sliver of sympathy for, it seems to be only those at the very bottom of the pile, such as the socially isolated and overweight high-schooler "Martha Dumptruck" who is everyone's punching bag. As acidic as the film's screenplay is, and as flippant as it comes off about issues like teen suicide, rape and murder (with high school shootings now seemingly the norm in the US, elements of this film's plot does induce some queasiness), the presence of characters like Martha seems like the clearest evidence that the film isn't really on the side of Slater's "kill em all and let God sort 'em out" faux-rebel theatrics; which are made even more hypocritical by the fact he himself is the scion of huge wealth which he doesn't seem very interested in rejecting. It is instead more a satire-laced cry for a return to basic empathy; something which Reagan's 80s relegated to the bottom of the priority list. Still, I find myself wondering how much flak this film has taken in the post-Columbine shooting era, with JD's trench coat getup, 44 Magnum, and arsenal of cynical one-liners something of a high-school killer lookbook.

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.

Maurice, from the director of Call Me By Your Name, returns in a sumptuous 4K reissue

Director: James Ivory

15 | 2h 20min | Drama, Romance | 18 September 1987 (USA)

RATING: ★★★★☆

Merchant Ivory’s award-winning adaptation of E.M. Forster’s autobiographical novel, will open at BFI Southbank and selected cinemas UK-wide from 27 July 2018.

This handsome-looking Merchant Ivory British drama is getting a 4K digital re-release this August courtesy of the BFI, and its a timely reissue given the recent success of the James Ivory-scripted gay drama Call Me By Your Name. Maurice, also a gay-cented movie, bears many similarities to last year's indie hit, but whereas Call Me was about the sweet pain of letting it all out, Maurice is about the pain of keeping it tightly wound in.

Adapted from the E.M Forster novel by Kit Hesketh-Harvey and James Ivory himself, Maurice is set in an early 20th century Edwardian Britain still reeling from the Oscar Wilde trial. We start off in the refined atmosphere of Cambridge University, populated exclusively by upper crust males, where the repressed, unworldly bourgeois Maurice Hall (James Wilby, in a performance that opens out superbly over time), ends up surprised by his own passions for the sophisticated but cautious fellow student Clive Clive Durham (Hugh Grant: clipped and dashing, but always suggesting the pain of fighting a losing battle against conformity). Both men end up caught up in the push and pull between their own desires, fears, and each other's different judgements of the two, a battle which can never really be either resolved or fought out in the open, this being an era not only when homosexuality was illegal but when social expectations of the upper class were as suffocating as any law. The tension of discovery is never far away, especially when one of their less cautious and effete classmates is exposed by a cruel police sting and given much the same treatment Wilde was. The scene where Grant's character essentially jettisons their friendship over the telephone to keep his freedom (and privilege) is a painful reminder of what fear did to gay men. Still, wealth and status give Maurice and Clive a layer of protection (there are clues Maurice's sarcastic butler knows the score) not afforded to the poorer class, which just showcases the hypocrisy of English homophobia even more.

Yet Ivory's lavishly decorated film is interesting too in how it explores the tragic irony of this situation: Maurice and Clive, and all their fellow students, are literally drowning in privilege. They are also being educated in what you might call an almost ludicrously male environment; where ceremonies, language and lessons all reinforce the superiority of the English male. They even are schooled in very saucy Greek homosexual literature in their philosophy and literature seminars; explicit texts which, hilariously, cause one lecturer to blushingly keep requesting that they 'skip over the vice of the Greeks' at key points in recitals. Yet for all this privilege, all this maleness, these two men can't express their love; they are suffocating. Ultimately though, thanks to Maurice's growing resentment at what the strictures of society mean for his future (which puts him on an interesting reverse path to Clive), and an encounter with a gay groundkeeper in his later years, a positive and enriching portrait of a loving relationship does eventually emerge. Worth seeing, especially if you enjoyed Call Me By Your Name.

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.

A rarely-seen but super-chilling war film returns: It Happened Here

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Director: Kevin Brownlow

PG | 1h 33min | Drama, Fantasy, War | 12 May 1966 (UK)

Screening at the BFI 23 July and out now on remastered bluray

This week the Smoke Screen caught a special BFI re-release of the chilling and provocative counterfactual WWII Brit thriller It Happened Here, the work of director Kevin Brownlow (Brownlow was only 18 when he and Andrew Mollo – just 16 - embarked on this ambitious drama, which took eight years to complete). This dark 'what if' movie is a B&W social realist-esque look at what might have taken place if the Nazis had successfully invaded Britain in 1940. July 2018 marks the famous programmer, historian and writer Brownlow’s 80th birthday, and the BFI has remastered the film to mark the date. Following the screening at the BFI on Southbank (where Brownlow opined on the crazy shoot, which involved awkward encounters with real fascists, and last-minute help getting film stock from a certain Stanley Kubrick), it will be in stores in a new remastered BFI bluray format.

It Happened Here subverts expectations from the off by nothing down the route of a triumphant story of resistance, but instead drops us into the perspective of a 'collaborator'; a former nurse, who justifies joining the British Nazi nursing corps (called inoffensively the IAO "International Action Organisation) by arguing that saving lives during the partisan vs Nazi conflict is the best use of her time. But Nazism is like a disease; it leaks into everything. A nurse might wear a surgical mask and deliver penicillin, but you can't keep fascism out that way. Every where she turns, the regime consumes everything: locking up her friends (who themselves look on her Nazi nurse uniform in terror), forcing her to administer poison to TB patients, and refusing her desire to be a 'non political' nurse who can just tend to patients without being force fed the ideology.

It was struck by how the film's low budget helped create an eerie atmosphere. The Nazi occupation, following their successful invasion of 1940 (presumably after winning the Battle of Britain, though in reality a naval invasion would have to face the vastly superiorRoyal Navy) subsists sort of below surface of picturesque olde England. There simply wasnt the budget to design huge prison camps or giant Nazi monuments that overshadow contemporary London, but its arguably more disconcerting to see London look so...normal, with Brits still in high positions in the dull everyday bureaucracy. The indignity of occupation is you are made to police it yourself and pretend normality. Where the film gets really provocative is the open suggestion that occupation would turn the oppressed into oppressors: partisan groups fighting the Nazis for years are shown to have no hesitation killing surrendering SS troops- who are British volunteers themselves.

 

Comment

Owen Van Spall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comment

Owen Van Spall

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

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

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


Director: Pawel Pawlikowski

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

RATING: ★★★★☆

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comment

Owen Van Spall

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

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

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Director: G.W.Pabst

Germany 1929| 129m| U

RATING: ★★★★★

Find out more about the reissue at the BFI website.

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

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

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

Comment

Owen Van Spall

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

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

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

RATING: ★★★★

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

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

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

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

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

 

Comment

Owen Van Spall

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

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

Director: Ken Hughes

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

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

See here for bluray details - out from 14 November.

RATING: ★★★★☆

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

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

Comment

Owen Van Spall

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

UK Jewish Film Festival 2016 review: Weiner

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

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

Directors: Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg

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

RATING: ★★★★☆

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

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

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

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

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

Comment

Owen Van Spall

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

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

Director: Abel Gance

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

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

RATING: ★★★★★

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Comment

Owen Van Spall

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

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

Director: John Singleton

USA 1991, 112mins

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

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

RATING: ★★★★☆

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Comment

Owen Van Spall

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

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

Director: Basil Deardon

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

On DVD/Bluray from StudioCanal from 25 October

RATING: ★★★★☆

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

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

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

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

DVD/BR Special Features:

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

Owen Van Spall

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

London Film Festival 2016 review: Creepy

Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa

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

Playing London Film Festival 2016

RATING: ★★★☆☆

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

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

Comment

Owen Van Spall

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

London Film Festival 2016 review: Nocturnal Animals

Director: Tom Ford

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

Playing London Film Festival2016

RATING: ★★★★☆

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

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

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

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

 

Comment

Owen Van Spall

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

London Film Festival 2016 review: Eyes of My Mother

Director: Nicolas Pesce

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

Playing London Film Festival 2016

RATING: ★★★☆☆

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

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

Comment

Owen Van Spall

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

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.