Monday, December 31, 2018

THE LITTLE STRANGER - Crimbo Binge-watch #7


Lenny Abrahamson (ROOM) returns to our screens with another film based on a prize winning book - this time the slow-burn period haunted house story THE LITTLE STRANGER by Sarah Waters. The adaptation is faithful and so shares the books strengths and weaknesses.  Its strength is its evocation of post-war England in which the great estates are being bankrupted and social change is afoot. Our protagonist is a doctor (Domnhall Gleeson - Star Wars' Hux), soon to become part of the NHS. He still resents the fact that his mother worked herself to the bone in a grand country house, and while he ingratiates himself with the family carries a working class chip on his shoulder.  The grand family hard on its luck are made up of a still grand mother (Charlotte Rampling), a brutally war-injured son (Will Poulter - superb in a "posh" character role), and Ruth Wilson who as ever seems to be operating on a far higher emotional level than the other actors she's working with.  She's really the focus of our attention - a woman who is clever and capable but is stuck trying to keep the family together against financial ruin and now - apparently - spooky goings on.  I also love the theme that Sarah Waters often explores of how women, no matter how smart, are often under-estimated, unheard, or worse wilfully disbelieved simply because of their gender. 

What I like about the film is its patient slow build, but I can see why this might frustrate fans of more pacy and punchy horror. After all, I am a notorious coward when it comes to watching horror so if I can get through the film you know it's not really that scary - more of an emotional exploration of the history that is haunting the family.

THE LITTLE STRANGER is rated R and has a running time of 111 minutes. It was released earlier this year. 

78/52 - Crimbo Binge-watch #6


78 setups - 52 cuts - 2 minutes - those are the metrics behind the infamous shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock's brutal masterpiece - PSYCHO.  In this meticulous and beautifully curated documentary we get an in-depth look at how that scene was storyboarded, edited and scored - why it works so well - and what meanings Hitchcock was trying to convey.   Director Alexandre O Philippe - of the superb THE PEOPLE VS GEORGE LUCAS - does an amazing job in assembling a wonderful cast of commentators and letting them speak.  He gets everyone from Janet Leigh's original body double, to her daughter Jamie Lee Curtis, to horror directors Eli Roth and Guillermo del Toro, to author Brett Easton Ellis.  He gets Danny Elfman who scored the remake, and countless expert cinematographers and editors who takes unto the technical detail of how PSYCHO's impact was achieved. The result is a doc that isn't for dilettantes but a film that will reward the Hitchcock fans looking for further insight. It was an absolute delight to watch.

78/52 has a running time of 91 minutes and is rated 15 for images of sexual violence. It was released in 2017.

ASSASSINATION NATION - Crimbo Binge-watch #5


Sam "Son of Barry" Levinson returns to our screens with the stylish but morally bankrupt political satire slash horror film, ASSASSINATION NATION. It's a film written and directed by a guy who believes he is being truly progressive in calling out slut-shaming and female sexual exploitation but who tragically and apparently without self-awareness is similarly exploitative in how he depicts teenage girls.

The film posits a contemporary American town riddled with social media and MAGA sentiment.  An anonymous hacker starts released people's private emails, photos and texts.  Predictably, the townsfolk respond by becoming a feral mob, and with law enforcement too busy to deal with it, violence ensues. Our heroine, Lily (Odessa Young) is a truly dumb girl who sends explicit pictures of herself to an older man (Joel McHale).  This could've actually been an interesting story if the writer had explored the grooming aspect of this but no, it's just passed over quickly.  She gets exposed and is painted as a whore, and targeted by the mob when they think she's also doing the doxing. I mean, how dumb do you have to be - why would you dox yourself? Anyway, this leads to her and her three best friends being hunted, before they in turn become revenge killers. 

There are occasional moments of brilliance in this film.  Hari Nef is truly amazing playing Bex - a teenage girl who hooks up with the guy she really likes at a party only to have him reject her after sex.  The sheer depth and nuance of emotion on her face after he pulls away is so moving - and what I love is the ambiguity of whether he's just being a classic teenage boy douchebag or whether there's also a layer of him freaking out because she's trans.  Nef is an actress to look out for.

But other than a handful of very truthful moments, what I mostly got from this film is that Levinson wants to tell us the movies he likes - from THE SHINING to KILL BILL - and would probably be better off directing commercials than features. He has an eye for an arresting visual, but doesn't have the balls to sustain his narrative. After all, in the world he posits, the logical outcome is that the two girls pulled out of the house would be gang-raped and left for dead - the trans girl would be strung up - and the protagonist would be shot.  But what's most offensive is that the director seemingly wants to criticise society for sexually objectifying girls while simultaneously really enjoy showing his heroine scantily clad covered in blood. Grow up. 

ASSASSINATION NATION is rated R and has a running time of 108 minutes.  It played the BFI London Film Festival 2018. It also played Sundance and Toronto and was released in the USA and UK earlier this year. 

SPLIT - Crimbo Binge-watch #4


With the release of GLASS on January 18th 2019 I thought it was about time I got my arse in gear and watched M Night Shyamalan's super villain origins story, SPLIT - the successor to UNBREAKABLE and THE SIXTH SENSE and prequel to GLASS.  That GLASS is happening at all is thanks to the remarkable box office success of SPLIT - making just under $290m off a budget of only $9m - making it the most profitable film of the year. 

I can happily report that SPLIT is a truly remarkable film beyond its financials - perhaps Shyamalan's best since UNBREAKABLE - and certainly featuring a career best performance from its lead actor James McAvoy. He plays a man suffering from the real-world-controversial psychological disease of Dissociative Identity Disorder.  He contains 23 personalities of which we see McAvoy portray a five or six, sometimes moving between them in the same scene. It's a truly bravura performance - encompassing not just different accents, but different ages, sexes, sexual orientations and personalities.  Shyamalan goes further than modern psychiatry - positing through his avatar of the psychologist (Betty Buckley - also superb) - that each different identity can manifest itself physically differently. And while McAvoy *is* physically transformed for one of his identities for the rest he merely relies on posture, confidence, presence to make himself appear larger, smaller, or more or less meaning.  For the life of me I cannot think why his performance was not nominated for awards other than the industry's prejudice against genre films in general, or Shyamalan in particular. 

McAvoy apart this is just a very well acted film across the board from a cast of largely unknown actors.  It's also a film that is tightly plotted and does more with less. I was shocked at how low its rating was, but then again, it suggests rather than shows violence. It also has a commendably light touch with make-up and CGI.  Even in his final identity, McAvoy is still a visible, tangible person, rather than some Marvel-esque super-villian. I also loved how it takes the typical trope of teenage hot girls trapped by a killer but gives them agency and smarts, and does't ever show them gratuitously running around naked covered in blood. (ASSASSINATION NATION, I'm looking at you.)

TL-DR - this is one of the best films I've seen his year - admittedly belatedly - and now I cannot wait for GLASS.

SPLIT has a running time of 117 minutes and is rated PG-13. The film was released in 2016.

THE PEANUTS MOVIE - Crimbo Binge-watch #3


Director Steve Martino (ICE AGE: CONTINENTAL DRIFT) has done an absolutely superb job of translating the joyous Peanuts cartoon strip to the big screen in a new CGI-animated feature. Written by Charles M Shulz' son and grandson, the script really captures everything we loved about the original comic strips, satisfying us with all the trademark themes and gags. 

In the main plot Charlie Brown falls instantly in love with the infamous Little Red-Haired Girl but can't pluck up the courage to speak to her. So he sets about trying to impress her by entering the school talent contest, then writing a book report on War and Peace, then learning to dance - only to be foiled at every turn. In the sub-plot, his faithful side-kick Snoopy also indulges in a romantic fantasy as the World War One Flying Ace, trying to rescue his love Fifi from the Red Baron.

In the midst of all this we get all the classics - Snoopy tackling Linus from his security blanket; Lucy dispensing advice from her booth; the kite-eating tree; "a dark and stormy night"; the classic music from Vince Guaraldi. Most importantly, the writers weave in the fantasy elements to reality - so the Red Baron's plane can rip up a real world book report. Added to this we have really beautiful animation - I loved the feeling of fuzzy fur on snoopy, for example. My only criticism is the choice of modern pop songs for the sound-track. The felt out of step with the nostalgic design of the movie - after all, kids don't talk on landlines anymore.  And I suspect that the music will make this film age far worse than the other Peanuts films. 

THE PEANUTS MOVIE is rated G and has a running time of 94 minutes. It was released in 2015. 

HAPPY NEW YEAR, COLIN BURSTEAD - Crimbo Binge-watch #2


HAPPY NEW YEAR, COLIN BURSTEAD is a darkly funny, very well observed  low budget British comedy from writer-director Ben Wheatley (FREE FIRE).  The conceit is that Colin Burstead (Neil Maskell) as has invited his extended family to a stately home for a New Year's Eve party. As with any good family drama, this exposes us to resentment, anger, jealousy, but also love and the hope of redemption.  Sam Riley (BRIGHTON ROCK) is particularly good as the black sheep of the family and Charles Dance is unusually avuncular as the paterfamilias. The feeling is Dogme with a sense of humour - raw, gonzo, truthful, sometimes brutal, but occasionally laugh out loud funny.  Well worth watching. 

HAPPY NEW YEAR, COLIN BURSTEAD has a running time of 95 minutes and was broadcast on British television this weekend.

THE LADY IN THE VAN - Crimbo Binge-watch #1


THE LADY IN THE VAN is the very funny, rather moving true story of an old homeless lady - Mrs Fletcher - who was taken in by the famous writer Alan Bennett.  Maybe "taken in" is too strong.  She lived in a ramshackle van, had no bathing facilities, and sold small items for money.  She parked up her van outside various houses in a street in Camden until Bennett took pity on her and let her live in his driveway and use his lavatory.   What begins as a kind of bizarre fascination turns into an odd sort of friendship, sustained over decades, culminating in an understanding of what drove her to madness, and a play, then film, for the author. 

The result is a film that is - typically Bennett!  Wry in its observations of English class niceties - the tolerance of a homeless woman by middle-class pretentious people who think they are somehow being charitable in their condescension - and yet that odd way into which English people will transform something unpleasant into a national treasure. And let's be clear about how unpleasant Mrs Fletcher's hygiene and habits could be!  

In front of the lens, Alex Jennings is superb as not just one Bennett, but two - as the author turns into his own interlocutor - a fantastic conceit that avoids the dreaded voiceover. Maggie Smith gives Fletcher more than just the Dowager Duchess' acerbic wit but also real pathos. And occasionally there's some provocative stuff about the demands that religion makes of us.  This film is both intelligent and moving - a real delight. 

THE LADY IN THE VAN is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 104 minutes. It was released in 2015.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

THE ACCOUNTANT OF AUSCHWITZ - UK Jewish Film Festival


THE ACCOUNTANT OF AUSCHWITZ is an urgent and tightly drawn documentary from Matthew Shoychet about the recent trial of Oskar Groening, a nonagenarian ex-SS officer living an ostensibly nondescript life in Germany until prosecuted for accessory to mass murder.  Featuring commentary from luminaries such as Alan Dershowitz - a most fascinating interview with the grandson of Rudolf Hoess, the man who ran Auschwitz -  as well as interviews with the holocaust survivors who became co-plaintiffs, the doc takes us efficiently through the process of the trial, while also facing head on the difficult philosophical issues it raised. First and foremost is the question of whether there is a statute of limitations on criminal guilt. The second is whether someone who did not literally put the gas into the chamber can be accused of murder.  The third is whether, in terms of moral guilt, it is possible or desirable to forgive. 

On the first question, the documentary takes us through the shameful way in which much of Europe tried to conveniently forget the Holocaust in the decades after the way, and reintegrated former Nazis into civilian life. In that sense, THE ACCOUNTANT OF AUSCHWITZ is the logical sequel to THE WALDHEIM WALTZ, also playing at the UK Jewish Film Festival.  As one of the plaintiffs says, he is all we have - if we have to establish legal guilt through Groening, then we'll take that.  On the second question, the historical attitude has again been quite slippery, but the doc makes the convincing argument that although only a cog in the machine, that killing machine could not have operated without its cogs. Not everyone can claim to just have been doing their job, or involved with the slave labour part of the camp, or too scared to say no. On the third question, the doc shows both sides of the argument. We have the compelling argument from a survivor and plaintiff that the only true way to triumph over an enemy is to forgive.  But you have the evident disgust of others.  These are not simple or easy questions to deal with.

Perhaps the most powerful message of the doc is just how relevant how we treat the perpetrators of the Holocaust is today.  This is not simply a matter of writing historic injustices - although that is also of paramount importance. How we treat murderers also sends a signal to those who would perpetrate genocide today. And perhaps the fact that justice will seek you out, no matter how long it takes, will do something to prevent the ongoing mass murders of people based on race or religion.  It's also important to get the facts on the record to defang deniers and to remind the younger generations of what happened so that they can be alert when they see anti-Semitism rise again. To that end, this documentary is utterly timely, and does not shy away from showing the anti-Semitic chants of the neo-nazis in Charlottesville.    

THE ACCOUNTANT OF AUSCHWITZ has a running time of 78 minutes.  It does not yet have a commercial release date in the UK but is playing the UK Jewish Film Festival.

The 22nd UK International Jewish Film Festival takes place between 8th-22nd November 2018 at cinemas across London, Manchester, Leeds and Glasgow http://ukjewishfilm.org/

THE WALDHEIM WALTZ - UK Jewish Film Festival


THE WALDHEIM WALTZ is a quietly powerful and beautifully curated documentary by journalist Ruth Beckermann about the election campaign of the late 80s Austrian President Kurt Waldheim.  It opens and closes with Beckermann's own black and white footage of the diplomat turned politician and later the public reactions to revelations that he had - at best - falsified his war record and - at worst - been implicated in war crimes against partisans, and of being part of the Nazi apparatus that facilitated the deportation of Jews from Salonika. Beckermann rightly shows how the war record of Waldheim is, in a sense, not the most important point.  The real crime is his seeming inability to tell the truth - his continual plea that the Austrians should also be seen as victims - and how this reflects the wider weirdness that Austrians have around their record during World War Two.  A commentator at the time rightly points out that the Allies let Austria off the hook with the concept that they were the "first victim" of Hitler. And indeed this may be right when we consider the Austrian State. Nonetheless, once the anschluss was completed, Austrian individuals were, just as Germans, members of the Nazi armed forces, intelligence services, the SS, and were of course implicated in war crimes. Not least Waldheim's one time boss, Alexander Loehr.  

Perhaps the most haunting this in this film is not Waldheim's slippery smugness, but the continued anti-semitism in 1980s Austria.  The coded language when Waldheim or other commentators speak of a small minority of influential people in the media attacking Waldheim is dog-whistle speech. Even worse, the blatant anti-semitism in the streets of Vienna. When man asks an anti-semite what makes him feel so complacent that he can shout anti-semitic abuse in St Stephen's Square. The unspoken response is that he feels sanctioned by the election of a man he thinks shares his views. 

Beckermann chooses to only use footage up to the and shortly after the election of Waldheim and barring a few comments about her own footage she does not editorialise about what this shameful episode might say about contemporary Austria or politics more widely.  Certainly, there are lessons one might draw about Trump sanctioning a renewed confidence among American white supremacists.  But far more disturbingly, I would want to know whether this kind of base-line historical equivocation and knee-jerk racism still exists in Austria. Is there still an older generation that thinks the Jews had it coming? If the attitudes hadn't changed between 1946 and 1986 have they really changed now?  Is the way the Holocaust and Austria's role in it is taught in schools there different?  Or is the convenient denial still present?  

THE WALDHEIM WALTZ has a running time of 93 minutes. It played Berlin 2018 where it won the Original Documentary Award. It played Sheffield DocFest earlier this year, and is currently playing at the UK Jewish Film Festival.  It is the official submission of Austria for the Oscars 2019. 

The 22nd UK International Jewish Film Festival takes place between 8th-22nd November 2018 at cinemas across London, Manchester, Leeds and Glasgow http://ukjewishfilm.org/

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! 

Sunday, October 21, 2018

THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ANDRE


THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ANDRE is Kate Novack's beautifully curated documentary about fashion icon Andre Leon Talley.  For those fans of THE SEPTEMBER ISSUE, or THE FIRST MONDAY IN MAY, this doc adds to our insight into one of the literally towering figures of style.  Talley.  This doc may be a stretch for those without an interest in fashion, but there's a lot here about surviving the Jim Crow south and continuing racism in New York and Paris that may prove of interest.

The story moves chronologically through Talley's life, beginning in North Carolina of the segregation  era.  Talley speaks eloquently about being inspired by the style of the men and women in their Sunday best, but also of the Jim Crow racism that made coloured women wear veils to try on hats in a department store lest they dirty the wares.  He speaks briefly about the prejudice against his outre personality at home, but is saved by the unconditional love of his grandmother. The first of such relationships.  Talley then escapes through a scholarship to Brown to study French, but it seems like it was his artistic friends and RISD that opened up his horizons to fashion and perhaps gave him his first safe space to be gay.  He then scores a letter of introduction to assist Diana Vreeland on a Met exhibition, and she becomes the second source of unconditional love, opening doors to a career in fashion journalism - first at Interview magazine with Andy Warhol in Studio 54 New York - then as the Paris editor of Woman's Wear Daily - and finally at Vogue with Anna Wintour.

IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK - BFI London Film Festival - Day Eleven



IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK is a film that is over-long, and compounds the faults of the source novel with many of its own. I simply cannot understand the critical acclaim for a film in which the central characters are ciphers, and do not grow, and the tough questions around the plot are stubbornly left unaddressed. 

The film is based on the novel by James Baldwin, and is set in a racially divided New York of the 1960s and early 1970s.  It's told as a single flow of narrative with many flashbacks by Tish - a 19 year old girl of almost supernatural innocence and goodness.  Her beloved Fonny has been arrested on a trumped up rape charge, leaving a pregnant Tish in the care of her far feistier and more interesting family.  Her father and putative father in law commit theft to fund Fonny's defense.  Her mother at one point goes to Puerto Rico to harass the rape victim into dropping the charge. But as the book ends the outcome of all this is dark and ambiguous although Baldwin seems to want to leave us with an impression of hope in Tish's continued optimism. I always found this wilfully obtuse - read why for spoilers underneath the release information below.

LIZZIE - BFI London Film Festival 2018 - Day Eleven


LIZZIE is the latest retelling of the Lizzie Borden story, from a feminist queer perspective.  Although Craig William Macneill's direction is pretty workmanlike, a  tightly written script from Bryce Kass and a very strong central performance from ChloĆ« Sevigny make this film memorable, sensitive and provocative.

As all of us know from our playground nursery rhymes, Lizzie Borden hacked her her father and stepmother to death. But the reality is far more interesting.  She was put on trial but acquitted, although she was later estranged from her sister and died a spinster. This film assumes Lizzie's guilt, as most people do, but seeks to tell us why and how she committed the murders.

As the film opens in 1892 New England we learn that Lizzie's father is wealthy but is channelling the family's wealth to her hated stepmother's family.  This was true, and indeed a motive for murder.  The rest is assertion. The film asserts that the father was serially raping the family's maids - and that the latest maid, Bridget (Kristen Stewart) was having an affair with Lizzie (further motive).  The film further asserts that Lizzie was subject to seizures and lived under the threat that her father would have her institutionalised (yet further motive).  But beyond all of this, surely as an intelligent curious woman there would be great appeal in simply living free from the constraints of society.  On this point, Bridget seems more realistic than Lizzie about how far they can escape.

Friday, October 19, 2018

IN FABRIC - BFI London Film Festival 2018 - Day Ten - Official Competition


Karl Marx famously wrote that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.  Much the same could be said of Peter Strickland's IN FABRIC.

As with his marvellous slippery, sensory, sinister, sexy BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO and THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY, IN FABRIC creates a world that feels a little like a pastiche of 70s schlock, and straddles a tightrope between drama, horror and comedy.  In all of these films Strickland shows us that he has a unique and particular style of cinema that is unmistakably his, although at the end of this film, I was wondering if it was becoming rather samey.

In this film, Strickland creates a 1970s world dominated by a sinister department store complete with macabre owner - weirdly Victorian gothic sales assistants - its own florid, bizarre language - and apparently - a killer dress. That's right! The protagonist of this film is a malevolent red dress - colour: Arsenic red.  In the first hour of the film it's sold to a bank teller (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) who has started dating again after a divorce. She struggles at home to deal with her feckless son's pretentious girlfriend (Gwendolyn Christie) and at work to deal with her intrusive bosses (Steve Oram and Julian Barratt).  The story we see is one of moments of extreme comedy, but also genuine concern for our sympathetic heroine, and real fear for her safety. It's a triumph.

THE FAVOURITE - BFI London Film Festival 2018 - Day Ten


It's the early 1700s and Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) sits on the throne of England, but THE FAVOURITE, Sarah, Lady Malborough (Rachel Weisz) rules the country.  She does by being alternately kind but strict with the Queen, projecting herself as her protectress, appearing almost bullying. And she wields this power to keep England at war with France, her husband at the head of that army, and the Whigs in power.  But when Sarah takes pity on her young impoverished cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) she invites a viper into her nest. This apparently naive young girl is in fact an accomplished actress and manipulator and is soon working to usurp her cousin, gain her titles back, marry, and make an alliance with the opposition Tories. What's most astonishing about this story of rivals is that it's basically true. The only thing that has been added is exactly what should be in high quality historical fiction - an emotional imagination that shows us the conflicting motives and feelings of the three protagonists and what might have happened in bed.

The resulting film is by far the most mainstream that Yorgos Lanthimos (THE LOBSTER, THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER) has directed. It's a sumptuously shot, designed, framed and acted film that's highly accessible, and - with the exception of some superb swearing - is actually pretty inoffensive.  Rather than creating a sinister and claustrophobic near-horror feeling, Lanthimos has actually created a very sympathetic portrait of three women trapped in a strictly controlled courtly world, and while his trademark dark humour is still there in spades, this is his first film where I really cared about all his characters - where they were more than satirical cyphers or quasi-myths.

PETERLOO - BFI London Film Festival 2018 - Day Ten


In the early decades of the nineteenth century, the European establishment lived in justified fear of revolution. The French had assassinated their monarchs, leading to a tyrannical Terror, and unleashing 20 years of Napoleonic wars that finally culminated in the bloodshed of Waterloo in 1815.  And the British government was highly sensitised from both the American revolutionary wars and the more recent Irish Rebellion of 1798. It was not impossible to imagine that Britain was in pre-revolutionary times - a mere 25 years later Marx and Engels would come to the same conclusion.  In doing so they were drawing on their experience of the major industrial towns of the North - Manchester chief among them - areas of rapid urbanisation, appalling social conditions, little labour protection, and no political representation.  This led many to agitate for reform - notably extension of the franchise and reform of the rotten boroughs. But some of the more famous orators of the reform movement were more radical - agitating for an abolition of the monarchy, for example, which was by definition treasonous.  

This combination of a government actively looking for sedition, and a  reform movement easily charged with treason, created the ideal conditions for a disaster, and that disaster was Peterloo.  Four years after Waterloo, sixty to eighty thousand northern workers gathered in St Peter's Field, Manchester to hear the famous, but peaceful, orator Henry Hunt. They were almost entirely unarmed.  But the local magistrates didn't wait for provocation - their prejudice made them believe that the very gathering was seditious.  They sent in the local yeomanry.  One has to understand that this was an age before we had an actual civilian police force.  And that while the yeomanry was expensively kitted out, these were just a bunch of untrained and untested local militia who unsurprisingly lost control and ran people down.  This caused chaos, so the magistrates sent in the actual armed forces to disperse the crowd. Unfortunately, the cavalry was poorly commanded (the Waterloo hero who should've been there was at the races watching his horse compete) and added further to the carnage. Around 15 people died and many hundreds were injured, entirely unnecessarily.  

The tragedy of the needless death of innocent men, women and children was confounded by the fact that Peterloo didn't really achieve anything. Indeed, by prompting the passing of the regressive Six Acts, if anything, it probably set back the cause of reform. Nonetheless, it remains an important event in British history because it's an appalling example of what happens when a government turns its army on its own people. And this lesson remains vital.  The Poll Tax riots in my own lifetime - with the government turning horses on its own people - is a case in point.  

Accordingly, I was very excited to hear that Mike Leigh was making a film about PETERLOO - and the failure of that film is a tragic waste of an opportunity to create a vital and urgent piece of media that could potentially speak to people who haven't heard of the event. I can't imagine else will be rushing to cover this topic soon and that's really sad.  Where did Mike Leigh go wrong?  After all, I loved his previous BFI London Film Festival entry, MR TURNER, and this film reunites Leigh with the composer and cinematographer - Gary Yershon and Dick Pope - from that film.

The first problem with PETERLOO is that pretty much the first ninety minutes of the film consists of different people reciting speeches or reading letters aloud, in static tableaux. The language is not updated and sounds anachronistic and over-precious to modern ears. The resulting footage is boring and visually unexciting. I would much rather have just read a history book.

The second problem is that when do we break away from the orators to some representative ordinary working class people, they are drawn so broadly as to be caricatures with all their "sithee"s.  There's even a Simple Jack character who survived a very thinly sketched Waterloo who's clearly set up to be sabre'd at Peterloo. The whole thing is rather condescending and also shows that maybe Mike Leigh was being too careful with this historical material and didn't feel he could properly fictionalise it. The problem is that when you don't draw us in on an emotional narrative level you may as well make a documentary rather than this plodding history. 

The third problem is that Mike Leigh condescends to us - the audience. There's so much Basil Exposition stuff in this film it's infuriating. The worst example is when the newspapermen are sitting in the office of the Manchester Observer saying things like "I don't think our READERS will understand what Habeas Corpus is".  "Well, it's the cornerstone of our constitution!" You can tell that the entire scene has been put in to explain habeas corpus to modern audiences. 

Finally, for all its earnest attempt at fidelity, PETERLOO fails to give us context when it really needs to. I wonder how many viewers will understand the difference between the yeomanry and the army, for example. I also missed visual context. This film was all tell and no show.  I needed Leigh to lift his crane up and show us the dynamic, bustling urban sprawl of Manchester, and to let us feel the insatiable growth of this city and the injustice of its not having an MP. Similarly, if you are going to show Waterloo and its traumatising impact on a young boy, lift up your crane and show us that battle! Don't just have a single cart and a single explosion. And if your budget doesn't allow for more or better, than work your script. 

PETERLOO has a running time of 154 minutes and rated PG-13. The film played Venice, Toronto and London and will open in the UK on November 2nd and in the USA on November 9th. 

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

THE FIGHT - BFI London Film Festival 2018 - Day Eight


THE FIGHT is the directorial debut from actress and comedian Jessica Hynes.  She has crafted a nuanced, quietly thoughtful script and created a drama that surprises and moves.  What's even more impressive is that she shows a real flair for framing her shots and capturing wildlife and landscape in a suburban setting.  The result is a film that is so much more than a standard boxing film. In fact, the title is best seen as allegorical - yes, the protagonist does turn to amateur boxing to regain some control and pride in herself - but this isn't a film that focuses on training montages or fight scenes. Rather THE FIGHT is about the struggle just to survive life - the emotional pressures of extended family, the remembered and reinforced cycle of abuse, the struggle to connect. 

As the film opens we meet Tina (Hynes), a mother of three in a seemingly happy marriage, struggling to find time between her home life and working a full time job. Her parents' marriage is falling apart. Her daughter Emma is being bullied at school, apparently by the daughter of Tina's old school nemesis.  And in between all this Tina finds an escape by entering an amateur boxing competition, mentored by a character played by Cathy Tyson (great to see her back on our screens.)

What I love about this film is that it overturns our expectations.  For a start, the men are basically good guys - and the emotional and physical violence is perpetrated and survived by women.  This is story of multi-generational hurt and anger that creates yet more hurt and anger - but no character is a simple villain.  Instead, this is a film filled with patience, compassion and understanding. And this is portrayed by four strong female actors - Hynes, Rhona Mitra as her old schoolfriend, Anita Dobson as her mother, and the actress who plays Mitra's daughter.  The focus on the female experience of bullying, addiction, acceptance is rare and welcome.


I also love Hynes feel for pacing and framing.  There's a wonderful shot where Tina's mother catches her father living at Tina's house and it's framed as a split screen with Tina inside, the father outside, both caught in the act.  And another where Tina is jogging through a street of row-houses and we pan up to see a majestic aqueduct. Or another where Tina is apparently in a beautiful field of lavender but it's really just her tiny front garden.  And then there's Hynes ability to just let the actors do their thing without over scripting a scene. I'm thinking of one in particular in a river between two women that's just so delicately balanced and moving...

I don't want to say more for fear of spoiling the plot. Suffice to say that THE FIGHT is a truly impressive debut and that I can't wait to see what Hynes does next. 

THE FIGHT has a running time of 91 minutes. The film does not yet have a commercial release date.

THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE - BFI London Film Festival 2018 - Day Eight



That Terry Gilliam finally managed to make his accursed Don Quixote film is a thing of joy - and how wonderful to watch it and realise that it is truly joyful of itself! I came out of the film beaming - having seen some wonderful verbal humour, some insane slapstick, some superb LOST IN LA MANCHA in-jokes, Adam Driver doing a zany Eddie Cantor song-and-dance routine, and a truly moving story about romantic delusion!

The film works as a film within a film.  As we open, Adam Driver's cynical, selfish ad director Toby is on a shoot in Spain featuring the picaresque medieval character Don Quixote - the old dusty man convinced that he is knight, who travels aimlessly with his sidekick Sancho Panza, tilting at windmills that he thinks are giants, and risking all to win the love of his beloved Dulcinea. Within the "real world" framing device, Toby is tupping the wife of his boss, who's simultaneously cosying up to a Russian oligarch who's just bought a castle. In scenes that satirise spoiled wannabe Hollywood directors we see a frustrated man reminisce about a student film he made about Don Quixote and venture back to that village to relive his youth.

What I love about the film is that it works on many levels. On one hand, it's a warning about how Hollywood can corrupt and distort. The man who played Toby's Don Quixote (Jonathan Pryce) has now gone mad and believes he IS Don Quixote and that Toby is his Sancho. And the girl that Toby fell for and told she could become a star ended up chasing that dream, failing and becoming a prostitute in Marseilles. So within this madcap comedy, Gilliam feels comfortable showing us some dark material, referencing Brexit, Syrian refugees, prejudice against gypsies, Russian corruption. And of course, we can draw our parallels to the prejudices of Quixote's time.

If the first act of the film is all about Toby's current world, the second act sees him on the road with Quixote, getting into scrapes. This is the section of the film I most enjoyed pretty much entirely because Adam Driver - freed from the shackles of a multi-billion dollar franchise - is clearly having the time of his life. The third act sees the medieval delusion rub back up against the real world in a kind of nightmarish frenzy that actually reminded me a bit of the end of THE PRINCESS BRIDE - people chasing round castles after damsels in distress on horseback...

Overall, THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE is the most joyous, and certainly the most coherent of Gilliam's recent films.  I had predicted before watching it that a 2hr 15 min running time meant it was bound to be a bit shambolic and have about 25 mins too much content. But I was wrong - this is actually a pretty tightly written film, and despite its many layers, it holds itself together well.  

THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE has a running time of 132 minutes. The film played Cannes 2018 and has opened in many European countries since. It has yet to be released in the USA or UK.

FIRST MAN


Damien Chazelle's FIRST MAN is a superb return to form after the mis-step that was LA LA LAND.  He tells the story of Neil Armstrong's moon-walk with a series of strong directorial choices that create a very intimate, almost melancholy picture that nonetheless manages to be literally awesome as we step onto the lunar surface. It's a film that's assured, mature, and emotionally resonant while never being mawkish. One can just imagine what this project might have been like in someone like Spielberg's hands.

As the film opens, Neil and Janet Armstrong (Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy) are coming to terms with the imminent death of their little girl Karen from cancer.  Neil - a talented engineer and test pilot - applies for NASA's Gemini space programme almost as a distraction.  The couple and their 5 year old son will have to move town, and it will be, in Janet's words "a new adventure". As the years and test flights progress, we come to know and feel a camaraderie with Neil and his colleagues.  They all seem to live close by to each other, and when fatalities occur, they share that pain.  This film invites us to share not only Neil's journey but also that of his wife - apparently she really did drive to Mission Control to demand their turn her squawk box back on during a particularly perilous flight!  The impression we get is that Neil was always a pretty buttoned up guy - that he channelled his grief into his work - and found talking to his kids about the chances of him not coming back pretty hard. 

The beautiful thing is that these home-life scenes of quiet melancholy lay the foundations of the emotional payoff on the moon.  Those scenes are absolutely breathtaking - and even though we know the outcome - they still manage to be tense.  The first moment when we switch from the Super-16 grainy footage from Earth to the IMAX footage on the moon is a truly WOW! spectacle. But even then, there's something deeply personal and even introspective about it. The camera is on Neil's helmet - and so his reflected shadow on the moon - and we see him just take a moment to take it all in.  There's then a beautiful personal moment (apparently fictionalised but at this point who cares) that perfectly caps all that has come before.  And then we're home.

The result is a very moving film that pays tribute to the men who sacrificed their lives and didn't make it - and a film that does what I LOVE - which is to briefly but effectively open up its focus to events outside the bubble - to show the controversy of spending so much money on the space programme during a contentious war. It's also a film that uses music beautiful - whether weaving in the Armstrong's beloved but whacky theramin-heavy space track - or subtly referencing Kubrick with a waltz as a space-ship docks. 

FIRST MAN is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 141 minutes. It is on release in the USA and UK.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

SUNSET - BFI London Film Festival 2018 - Day Seven - Official Competition


Like Laszlo Nemes' stunning debut feature, SAUL FIA, his latest film, SUNSET, is a movie so claustrophobic and intense - so beautiful and traumatic - that it winds you. It's hands down by favourite film of the festival so far.  Many directors are called or claim to be Kubrickian, but for my money it's Nemes who comes closest, with his precise and audacious lensing and framing, his languorous pacing, and his willingness to be obscure, mysterious, even nightmarish.  For all those reasons I can understand why many reviewers have struggled with SUNSET.  But I loved it.

The movie is set on the eve of World War One, in Budapest.  The Austro-Hungarian imperial power is shown through a ruling archduke and his wife, who patronise a high-end milliners.  It's to this store that our heroine and protagonist, Irisz Leiter arrives at the start of the film.  She seems naive, fragile, lost, and is applying for a job at the store despite the fact that her parents once owned it before being killed in a mysterious fire when she was a young girl.  The current owner, Oskar Brill, is immediately nervous of Irisz as is his assistant Zelma.  Irisz is surrounded by ominous snatched pieces of information delivered by threatening sources.  She has a brother she didn't know about.  He's a radical nationalist - accused of committing murder.  Then there's a mysterious Countess being abused, and girls being sold to the archduke....  I won't say more for fear or ruining the mystery.

What I loved about this film was its meticulous production design, lighting and shooting style. We move from luxurious palaces to ornate department stores to threatening underground political clubs, sometimes by street light or candlelight.  We feel the sense of threat and eeriness. The camera is always trained on Irisz - a technique carried over from SAUL FIA -but here Nemes loses the fish-eye lens that saved us from seeing the worst of the Holocaust.  Nonetheless he maintains the extreme shallow-focus that means the entire film is mediated through Irisz, with her face or the back of her neck filling much of the screen.  The result is the feeling of being trapped in a kind of nightmare.  And then, when we build to a pitch of intensity - when this frail girl shows a persistence and daring that is shocking - we move to an epilogue that hints at Kubrick and provokes as much as it resolves. Bravo!

SUNSET has a running time of 142 minutes. The film played Venice, Toronto and London 2018.  It does not yet have a commercial release date. 

THE SPY GONE NORTH - BFI London Film Festival 2018 - Day Seven


THE SPY GONE NORTH is a straightforwardly directed, but nonetheless gripping spy thriller set in mid-1990s South and North Korea that both educated me about political corruption on both sides of the border AND actually had me in tears by the end!  Directed by Yoon Jong-bin using a script by Kwon Sung-hui, the film is a fictionalised retelling of the Black Venus saga - wherein a South Korean spy posed as a businessman and ended up fencing North Korean antiques to fund the regime and even got to meet Kim Jong-Il! The aim was to win the trust of the North Koreans so that he could scout out their alleged nuclear facilities to see if they were really active.  So far so John le Carre. The weirder part of the story - or perhaps the more resonant in this age of Russian election interference - is how Black Venus uncovered his boss' plot to fix the SOUTH Korean elections in favour of the 50-year long ruling party. Apparently, every time the left-wing opposition looked likely to take power, the South would pay the North to launch a military incursion to scare Southern voters into voting for a right-wing strong man!

There's nothing not to like in this film. I was utterly invested in the mission of Park Suk-young and his unlikely friendship with the North Korean trade emissary, Director Ri. I loved the director's audaciousness in depicting the Supreme Leader. And I also loved his courage in showing us the cost of the Kim regime - famine, children picking over corpses.  These scenes are rightly disturbing, and while the South also has its corruption, they prevent the viewer from drawing any false equivalences.

THE SPY GONE NORTH has a running time of 137 minutes. The film played Cannes 2018 and was released in the USA in August. It does not yet have a UK release date. 

THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD 3D - BFI London Film Festival 2018 - Day Seven


As we approach the centenary of the end of World War One, Peter Jackson has created a technically superb film and audio collage of mostly English troops serving in the trenches of France and Belgium. He was commissioned to do so by 14-18 NOW and used archive visuals from the Imperial War Museum and audio interviews with serving soldiers from the BBC.  One is impressed by his facility to simply edit down this wealth of material to create a coherent narrative that elegantly pairs visuals and audio - from declaration of war, to the rush to enlist, to basic training, arriving at the front, trench warfare, the big battle, recovering from injury, taking prisoners, and then the ceasefire. It ends with the melancholy of demobilisation, the lack of jobs and even interest in the war experience.  Added to this editing work, Jackson then brings his technical expertise to clean up the media, run it at modern video speed, and colourise it.  He introduces colour as the troops reach the front line and takes it away as they leave, giving us the impression that it's the front line that really matters and is unique to their experience. The effect of all this - but particularly the subtle animation and sound effects -are to take what can be dusty old photos and bring them to life - to make them more vivid and urgent.  I'll be honest and say that this was NOT however the deeply emotional experience that some had predicted for me. Maybe that's because I love history and have no problem being interested in old media.  But I was moved and rightly shocked by the coloured photos of men with gangrene/trench foot, or just a deceptively simple picture of yellow mustard gas rolling across a field. 

Perhaps one of the reasons that I felt distanced from the film is that the faces and voices of the men fighting the way were so consistently English and white.  We sometimes here the Canadians or the Germans refer to but we never hear from them. There's one photo early on showing West Indian and Indian troops arriving in France but no contribution from them either.  Maybe this is just a result of using a set of archives that are not diverse - if so I am dismayed that 14-18 NOW - or Jackson himself, didn't feel it was worth collaborating with other countries' archives to supplement them.  It's ironic that Jackson dedicates the film to his own grandfather and yet there are precious few colonial voices here.

Some might say I am being precious - but I am truly sick and tired of seeing World War One films that have such a narrow focus of concern and are so unrepresentative - and basically historically misleading. Britain at that time was a global empire and imperial troops showed up all over the place.  It's deeply disrespectful not to give them their voice too.

THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD had its world premiere at London 2018. It has a running time of 99 minutes and is rated 15.