Wednesday, November 14, 2018

OUTLAW KING


David Mackenzie (HELL OR HIGH WATER) shifts gears to medieval Scotland for his Netflix film, OUTLAW KING. It stars Chris Pine with a dubious Scottish accent as Scottish clan leader and aspirant king, Robert Bruce.  As the movie opens his dad is bending the knee to evil imperialist King Edward I of England (Stephen Dillane, the first of many GoT alum) - this is not a film that traffics in nuance. We are asked to believe that a newly head of the family Robert can  anachronistically resist schtupping his new bride (feisty Florence Pugh) while also letting him get away with murdering his rival for the crown. This film REALLY wants us to like its protagonist! So Robert raises a rebel army and takes on the English, helped mightily by the fact that the legendary king dies leaving his moron son in charge.  The film therefore culminates in a very cool battle scene that more than compensates for its dodgy accents, two-dimensional characterisations, and stilted opening twenty minutes. In fact, it's so well done, and so similar in concept to a key moment at Waterloo, that I basically now want Mackenzie to direct a film about that. Rare praise indeed from the woman who runs the @relivewaterloo twitter account and pretty much worships the Sergei Bondarchuk version!

OUTLAW KING is rated R and has a running time of 121 minutes.  The film played both Toronto and London 2018 and was released on Netflix last week. 

BACK TO BERLIN - Preview


BACK TO BERLIN is a moving and beautifully constructed documentary by investigative journalist Catherine Lurie-Alt. It uses the framing device of a group of motorcyclists retracing the route of their ancestors who participated in the Maccabian games 80 years ago, to re-examine their shared history of the Holocaust and to comment on contemporary anti-semitism. The results are deeply personal, raw and affecting but also insightful.  

The games were started as a kind of PR slash morale-boosting stunt for Jewish athletes in the 1930s - a decade that would see the infamous Berlin Olympics where German Jews were explicitly banned and even more horrifying - many countries put pressure or finagled it so Jewish athletes weren't selected so as to appease the Nazi regime.  Accordingly, it is particularly poignant to see contemporary riders cross Europe to Berlin where the 2015 Maccabian games was held in the stadium so closely associated with the most horrific period in Jewish history.  

The really affecting this is seeing descendants of holocaust victims and survivors retell their stories, intercut with footage from the 1930s and 1940s of persecution and violence. The frustrating and deeply awful thing is seeing how racial and religious prejudice still manifests itself along the journey through Eastern then Central Europe and up to Germany. Very early on, we see a Greek man explain how it's still controversial to fly an Israeli flag - alone among national flags - in Greece.  Later we see a grand-daughter here a son recount the story of his mother's escape from persecution in Hungary in the very spot where it took place. And yet in this very decade, those riders have to have a police escort because Jews continue to be persecuted. The most poignant part of the documentary sees the riders take a detour to Auschwitz - a horror their ancestors couldn't have imagined. It's genuinely shocking to realise that this seemingly lost distant nightmare is still a waking horror for a survivor who recounts how he was on a train to Auschwitz and survived because of the quick-thinking of his mother.  It's this personal testimony that makes this film so vital and urgent today - especially, at a time of resurgent racial violence.

BACK TO BERLIN has a running time of 79 minutes and is rated 12A. The film will be released in the UK on November 23rd 2018. 

BLACKKKLANSMAN


BLACKKKLANSMAN is a superb, searing, angry film from a very angry film-maker. The astonishing thing is that the film-maker - Spike Lee - manages to command such self-discipline despite his anger, and manages to fashion a film that is both brutal and funny. How many film-makers could straddle that line so expertly? How many could command such a knowledge of film history as to weave classic depictions of racism in a film that feels so authentically of the 1970s, and yet so seamlessly builds to Charlottesville and contemporary racial violence?   To say BLACKKKLANSMAN is a tour de force is an under-statement.  It is provocative, goofy, feel-good, feel-distraught, bloodied but unbowed.  This is cinema at its most heightened, powerful and disturbing.  

The movie opens with a provocation that may have passed some viewers by. Spike Lee spends much of this film both indicting and redeeming mainstream Hollywood films from their role in normalising racism. He opens with GONE WITH THE WIND - a film that depicts subservient slaves oh-so-happy to be taken care off by their paternalistic owners, and actually has a couple of them saye a white girl from rape.  He then has one of Hollywood's most famous black activists - the magnificent Harry Belafonte - indict THE BIRTH OF A NATION for resuscitating the popularity of the KKK. Belafonte shows how the film inspired a lynching, and was praised by then President Woodrow Wilson as "history written in lightning".  Belafonte/Lee show us explicit photographs of what happened to the victim.  Lee  then intercuts this with footage of the KKK recruits being inducted, complete with white hoods, in the 1970s of the main action of the film.  Finally, Lee takes his fictional film and directly connects its subject matter to contemporary America, showing footage of the racial violence in Charlottesville and Trump's mealy-mouthed false equivalence between the white supremacists and those opposing them. It's as if he's saying to us - remember that one president who said how the KKK looked amazing in that super popular film. Well, now I'm taking back your cinema screens and showing you another president, a hundred years later, being similarly racist, and you WILL watch and be shocked and provoked. And boy was it shocking.  Even when you see this footage on twitter videos, or on the news on TV, it's just different - visceral - seeing it on the big screen, especially after the two hours of build up that Spike gives it.

So back to the plot. The film is based on the almost absurd true story of a black cop who infiltrated the Klan back in the 1970s. He did this by ringing them up and asking for info and pretending to want to join.  He even got so far as to speak to David Duke! Of course, when he needed to actually attend those meetings and get enough evidence to arrest people he had to send in someone who was actually white - in this case an actually Jewish cop. So the Klan was doubly fooled.  John David Washington (son of Denzel) gives a quietly powerful portrait of the black cop - Ron Stallworth - and it's actually worth noting his defense of being a cop in the first place to his radical girlfriend. It's a message many in contemporary America need to hear.  There's something noble in being a cop - not all cops have to be racists. Adam Driver is similarly impressive as the Jewish cop who has never particularly felt the power of his race or religion and is forced to address his "passing" when he hears explicit anti-semitism of the first time. 

As the film progresses we see the imposter inducting into the Klan - a Klan that is planning bomb attacks against its enemies. The superficial tension comes from whether our cops will be exposed, and whether the attack will go ahead. And it works. But the real tension comes from Lee taking us right up against the most horrid racism, and keeping us there for 2 hours, and seeing if we will flinch from seeing it play out to its contemporary climax. When it comes it feels earned, brave and bold.  

BLACKKKLANSMAN played Cannes 2018 where it won the Grand Prix. It was released in cinemas this summer and is now available to rent and own. The film is rated R and has a running time of 135 minutes. 

THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST


THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST is a beautifully directed, occasionally sinister but ultimately uplifting coming of age drama about a teenage girl sent to gay conversion therapy in 1990s America.  Given the current repressive climate in the USA, and the UK government's plans to outlaw such therapy, the movie has never been more timely, and for people like me who might have vaguely known such a thing existed, it's profoundly insightful.  

Cameron Post is a no-nonsense, smart, witty young girl played with real nuance by Chloe Grace Moretz. She has been raised by a Christian fundamentalist aunt, and when found having sex with another girl at the high school prom, she's summarily dispatched to a religious camp in the middle of nowhere. What I love about Desiree Akhavan's depiction of Cameron's relationship is that it does not - as so many mainstream films do - shy away from depicting actual female sexual pleasure.  But it also never feels prurient or exploitative.  You get the strong sense that Cameron is really in love with Coley, and that it has broken her heart to be sent away from her. Her desperate loneliness is what makes this a really tragic film.

The school slash prison camp is bland, quietly sinister, and that disturbing mix of apparently earnest but basically evil. This is embodied in the character played by Jennifer Ehle - a psychotherapist who has "cured" her clearly deeply disturbed brother of his "same sex attraction".  Is there anything more frightening than an apparently well-meaning ideologue who knows better than you what you really think and feel?  Pure nastiness. She may be beyond redemption, but seeing her brother struggle with his own guilt of what the therapy is doing to the young kids subject to it is harrowing. Perhaps even worse is seeing our strong, smart heroine start to doubt her resolve - wondering if maybe she is resisting help and should just go with the programme.

The amazing this is that despite this truly heavy material, and one truly brutal scene, there are flashes of wonderful humour and camaraderie in this film, and Akhavan has a beautiful way of capturing the intimacy of teens sharing their frustrations and dreams.  To that end, I was really impressed by Forrest Goodluck, playing Cameron's friend Adam. But ultimately this is Chloe Grace Moretz' film and it was wonderful to see her display real range here - from sadness to anger to benumbed pain to joyous raucousness. I hope she continues to seek out challenging material like this. 

THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST has a running time of 91 minutes. The movie played Sundance 2018 where it won the Grand Jury Prize - Dramatic, and was released in the UK in September.  It is now available to rent and own in the USA and will be available in the UK in January 2019. 

PATH OF BLOOD


PATH OF BLOOD is a truly fascinating and disturbing documentary that takes us inside the Al Qaeda campaign of terror inside Saudi Arabia between 2003 and 2009.  The documentary has been expertly curated by director Jonathan Hacker and editor Peter Haddon from 500 hours of footage provided by Saudi security services of their own raids on Al Qaeda facilities, and of Al Qaeda's own home videos of their training camps, actions, funerals and recording sessions.  The result is a deeply insightful and uncomfortably personal glimpse at how a terror cell behaves.  At times, these are goofy kids, preening for the cameras, or playing school sports day games in the desert. And then in a flash they pose with rocket launchers and don suicide vests to deliver final statements to camera before a suicide mission.  We see them rehearse manoeuvres to kill, and we see them dead.  In the particularly disturbing scene shown above, we see a young dead man being kissed by his colleagues before his funeral. We also see the devastation he has wrought - blasted buildings, blood-stained blankets covering bodies, shattered window panes and bloodied car-seats, offices, homes. This is not a documentary for the faint-hearted.

The discipline of the documentary is not to use talking heads to comment on the action. Although this is, at times, frustrating, because it allows the hypocrisy of the Saudi ruling family in simultaneously sponsoring Wahhabi fundamentalism, it is - on the whole - the right decision, because it keeps the focus firmly, claustrophobically, on the terrorists.  Through their own words, deeds, reactions,  and propaganda, voiced by Tom Hollander, we have a sickening view of their mindset.  Their actions are sometimes very hard to watch indeed.  We see an American expat blindfolded and tortured.  The video cuts to black but we continue to hear the audio as he is threatened with a beheading that we know will occur. This is brutal viewing:  92 minutes has never felt so long but for the right reasons.  

If PATH OF BLOOD is rightly disturbing it's also compulsory viewing for all of us who live in a world that is still subject to terror, whether from Al Qaeda or its even more vicious stepchildren, ISIS and Boko Haram. On a more meta level it's also fascinating to just see Saudi Arabia - a country that is so closed off to us and yet seems to dominate so much political discourse. Just seeing ordinary streets, houses, offices is of itself fascinating. And of course the fact that the footage was released is of interest in trying to pick through the runes of what Saudi leadership's actual position is on fundamentalism. 

PATH OF BLOOD has a running time of 92 minutes and is rated R. The movie will be released on DVD in the UK on November 26th.

Monday, October 22, 2018

BFI LFF 2018 - Closing Night Gala - STAN & OLLIE


STAN & OLLIE is a rather limp attempt to depict the declining years of what was once the most famous comedy double-act in the world - Laurel and Hardy.  

The movie opens with them at the height of their fame, but notoriously in a contract dispute with studio boss Hal Roach.  Laurel - the more financially astute of the pair - wants to leave Roach and take the risk of producing their own movies, and so make the phat cash that Chaplin is amassing.  But Hardy - a gambling addict who needs the steady income - is nervous. We then skip forward 15-odd years and the fashion for Vaudevillian slapstick has waned, and while Chaplin sits in tax exile in Switzerland, Laurel and Hardy are back in England, scratching out a tour in humiliating circumstances, trying to finance their final film. A slew of PR stunts has them reverse their commercial failure only to see old resentments and health concerns threaten to derail them again.  

Writer Jeff Pope (PHILOMENA) very much wants to depict this emotional conflict as that of a marriage brought down by betrayal - the duo love each other but Hardy working with another comic was like an act of adultery and betrayal than broke Laurel's heart.  This theme is hammered on again and again in this film and is ultimately asked to carry too much weight. It's also not born out by the historical record.  When Laurel was ill he suggested Hardy work with others!