Tuesday, June 28, 2016


NOTES ON BLINDNESS is a truly extraordinary film that sits some way between documentary and fiction. At surface level this is a film that tells you about a man losing his sight and how it affects his relationships, sense of self and sense of purpose.  On another level, it's the story of a loving and supportive marriage.  When we meet John Hull he's looks like the caricature of the bearded woolly professor, and so it's not surprising to see him meticulously document his loss of sight - first blurriness at the edges, then just shapes, and finally nothing at all. At first he clings on to wearing his glasses despite the fact that they serve no purpose other than being reassuringly familiar.   And he continues to dream lucid vivid visual dreams.  He and his wife has children. There are moments of despair and helplessness but also wonderful normal family life.  Ultimately, when we see him shed his glasses it's a moment of graduation and acceptance.  


Stefano Sollima's neo-noir Italian political thriller is obvious in its condemnation of corruption, over-stylised, and sometimes worryingly objectifying of its lead female actress. Set in near-contemporary Rome, the plot sees a coke-snorting whore-mongering politician (Pierfrancesco Favino) cover up the murder of a prostitute with the aid of her colleague Sabrina (Giulia Gorietti). Doing so entangles him in a debt to rival gangsters trying to muscle on a real estate deal that relies on the politician rezoning some land for gambling, to be funded by the Vatican Bank.  The plot is opaque, the women objectified, the use of a sideplot reminiscent of the abdication of Pope Benedict, under-explored. Worst of all some of the highly stylised tableaux set to pop hits felt like a rip off of the kind of thing Paolo Sorrentino does so well. Overall, I feel that Sollima is better suited to the long-form TV serial format he is known for with Gomorrah, and indeed the forthcoming Netflix series based on this film.  I felt as though I'd seen those issues explored before and better in IL DIVO

SUBURRA has a running time of 130 minutes and is rated 18 for strong sex, violence and drug misuse. The movie was released last year in Italy, Switzerland and France and opened earlier this year in Finland and Portugal. It's currently on release in cinemas and on demand in the UK and Ireland. It opens in Sweden on September 9th. 

Sunday, June 19, 2016


Matteo Garrone hangs a sharp right from quasi-docu-realist Mafia dramas into seventeenth century Italian fantasy horror with his new portmanteau film TALE OF TALES.  The movie is based on three tales collected by Giambattista Basile - tales that went on to inspire the Grimms and Hans Christian Anderson two centuries later.  But rather than give us the familiar precursors to Cinderella or Puss In Boots we get three tales of weird unfamiliarity and satisfyingly gruesome meaning.

In the first, Salma Hayek plays a queen desperate to bear a child no matter what the cost of trusting a malevolent wizard.  The poster art of this film shows one of its most memorable visuals - Hayek eating a giant bloody sea-monster's heart in a stunningly ornate white room.  But this story is full of arresting visuals - from John C Reilly's king in a diving suit battling the monster, to two albino twins escaping under that same sea.  For the Queen never truly realises what the wizard tells her - that every life and every action is bought at a price, and that the closer one tries to force love, the further it slips away.

Sunday, June 05, 2016


I got quite depressed when Ken Loach's latest and perhaps final feature, I, DANIEL BLAKE, won the Palme D'Or a few weeks ago.  Not because it's a bad film - I haven't seen it yet and it sounds amazing - but because it felt like he was the only film director daring to tackle the big social issues of our time.  I've been thinking about this a lot lately. Ever since the Global Financial Crisis, and more specifically the Tory response to it, the UK has been living through a period of deep fiscal austerity. But the artistic response seems to have been rather meagre. I contrast that to the angry, loud and multifarious response to the social upheavals wrought by Thatcher in the early 80s. Where's the protest music?  Where are the angry plays like GBH and Boys From The Blackstuff?  Where are the new Ken Loaches, Alexei Sayles, Billy Braggs, Communards?  Don't get me wrong. I'm happy that Loach is still working and able to tackle the issue of people struggling to survive in poverty and Britain - the sheer human tragedy and inexcusable horror of men and women in a developed nation going to food banks.  But shouldn't there be young angry film-makers tackling this stuff too?  The other thing that depresses me about this sort of film-making (or the lack thereof) is its efficacy.  I'd almost class some Ken Loach films in that category of agitprop documentary that preaches to the converted.  In other words, the majority of political film-making attracts an audience that already thinks the issues are important.  How many right-wing Fox-news watching people actually pay to watch a film like AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH, for instance.

All of which preamble brings us to Louise Osmond's new documentary about Loach's work (ignore the title - the life's only in there insofar as it sets up the work).  It's a nicely constructed retrospective with interviews from key collaborators.  We get the social context of Loach's iconic works, such as KES, CATHY COME HOME and LADYBIRD,  and something of the public conversation they caused.  I think CATHY COME HOME may the one of the few examples of a feature that does what I claimed most agit-prop doesn't - it broke out of the arthouse and into national conversation, changing attitudes.  One certainly hopes the same will be true of I, DANIEL BLAKE.  But what could have easily turned into a piece of hagiography dares to make some bold statements.  Several people refer to Loach's ruthlessness in getting the shot or telling the story he wants to.  (The famous scene where little boys are caned in KES is case in point). Another interview refers to his child-like narcissism which is certainly enabled by being a director. However, I feel the doc. could have explored key controversial incidents more.  In particular, Loach was involved in a production of a play that was pulled because it was deemed anti-semitic.  The way it's told here (and I'm not unsympathetic with that view) is that this was a mistake and that Loach was righteously angry.  But given his record of boycotting festivals and films with Israeli funding one might have wanted to interrogate those highly controversial and potentially offensive views further.

VERSUS: THE LIFE AND WORK OF KEN LOACH has a running time of 94 minutes and is rated 12A.  It is currently on limited release (schedule here) and is available on several streaming services.

Wednesday, June 01, 2016


Jane Austen's novel Lady Susan is an odd fowl - full of the same sparkling wit as her more well-known novels, but with none of their moral conservatism. After all, Austen's best-loved heroines are those that go on journeys of self-awareness and humbling. Emma, Lizzie and Marianne misjudge their love interests, and though, clever, must be humbled before ending up married under the benevolent guidance of their rich older husbands.  In her later novels, it is the men who must do the learning, but nonetheless the novels are conservative in their final choices.  Both Fanny Price and Anne Elliot are ultimately rewarded for their quiet virtue when flashier rivals have been undone.  

By contrast, Austen's Lady Susan is a quite radical novel, and one utterly in contrast with the novels published either in or shortly after her lifetime.  The eponymous heroine has all the sparkling brilliance and beauty of a Lizzie or Emma, but also something of the hard-hearted cynicism and slippery morality of a Becky Sharp.  As a result, the novel and indeed this wonderful new film adaptation, feel rather more like Oscar Wilde than a more staid costume drama.  And this feeling of brilliance mischief is only enhanced by Whit Stillman's superb feeling for comic timing and framing.

Lady Susan is a beautiful, clever but impoverished widow in the late eighteenth century. She's conducting an affair with the divine but married Lord Manwaring, but must simultaneously find both herself and her daughter good husbands. She begins by flirting with her brother-in-law, Reginald de Courcy who is closer in age to her meek daughter Frederica, while trying to foist Frederica on the dull-witted Sir James Martin.  Meanwhile the de Courcy family would of course far prefer the virtuous Frederica for a daughter-in-law, and Lady Susan would rather like to have her cake and eat it.

In Whit Stillman's retelling of this story we move through the various flirtations and marriage plots at a brisk pace and with crackling wit. In a sense, we are in familiar territory to Stillman's DAMSELS IN DISTRESS. For Kate Beckinsale's Lady Susan is very much like Greta Gerwig's Violet - tremendously self-assured and clever and yet brutally bossy and unaware of how absurd half of her pronouncements are.   The best thing you can say about the casting is that you're simultaneously enchanted by Susan and horrified by her.  Indeed, I left the film with a profound regret that Beckinsale has been shoe-horned into schlock B-roles in Hollywood when she could've become a fine dramatic or comedic actress, and certainly someone I would've loved to see play Becky Sharp.

The supporting cast is brilliant although it's the unknown names that shine. Indeed, Chloe Sevigny and Stephen Fry are rather wasted in the smaller roles of Mr and Mrs Johnson - a sly joke being that she will be punished by being taken back to Connecticut ("My dear, you might be scalped!")  There's far more fun to be had watching Tom Bennett as Sir James - in fact, I'd go so far as to say that he almost steals the movie.  And Justin Edwards is superbly funny in a smaller role as Charles Vernon.

The resulting film is laugh out loud funny and satisfyingly cocks-a-snoop at all the predictable morality of classic costume drama.  All the women are clever, even the ones who initially look meek, and all the men are puppets whose emotions and fortunes are directed by them.  To that end, I suspect this might tempt fans of writers such as Thackery and Trollope as well as the Austen fans out there. The only slightly bizarre thing is why Whit Stillman decided to rename Lady Susan as LOVE & FRIENDSHIP unless poking fun at a movie that might have easily been called SEX & MONEY?

LOVE & FRIENDSHIP has a running time of 92 minutes and is rated U.  The movie played Sundance 2016 and is currently on release in the UK, Ireland, the USA, Kuwait and Canada. It opens in Norway on June 17th, in France on June 22nd, in Poland on June 24th, in Portugal on June 30th, in Australia on July 31st, in Denmark on August 11th, in Taiwan on September 2nd, in Sweden on September 23rd and in Brazil on October 27th.