Saturday, September 21, 2019

SID & JUDY - BFI London Film Festival 2019

SID & JUDY is a masterfully edited and constructed documentary about the latter half of Judy Garland's career, as seen through the autobiography of her third husband Sid Luft.  He meets and marries her shortly after her ignominious sacking from MGM, addicted to pills, with a reputation of being unreliable.  So young to be seemingly on the scrapheap, Luft masterminds her return to the big screen in the Warner Brothers funded remake of A STAR IS BORN (reviewed here).  It's so iconic now that it's easy to forget that it was a financial failure, and Garland famously didn't win the Oscar for it.  The wonder of this film is to show us how talented Judy was, despite the fact that Luft continued to enable her with drugs.  The director, Stephen Kijak, contrasts the various versions of its most famous number - recorded multiple times over many months because Warners switched to Cinemascope mid-way through the shoot. You see Judy's stamina - her ability to hit her mark - but also her subtle versatility in performance. You also get to know and admire Sid's honesty and sardonic wit. He's scathing about his own willingness to enable her drug use to get the film done, and it's so sad to realise how much he really did love her, and try to get her off drugs. At his wits end, he pretends to leave her - she calls the press, and the lawyers tell him to take the way out - but he tells us they don't realise he's in love with her.

After the STAR flop, Luft reinvents Judy as a touring extravaganza, with sell-out shows in Carnegie Hall and the London Palladium and every great venue in between, and finally gets her the CBS TV show. But by this time, she's being manipulated and defrauded by her new agents, and Sid is cut out of her life.  The story continues through the highs and lows of her TV show to her death. Even then you feel Sid still loved her. You also feel the tragedy of her life - her scathing self-mockery, her anger, her desperation to be more than just Dorothy, or the Man That Got Away, or The Trolley Song, for people. I was truly chilled by the denouement.

That I should feel so completely invested in this documentary is down to the skill of the director in recreating her story in a way that felt so vivid and immersive. He cleverly intercuts TV and film footage from the time, so we hear a lot of Judy herself in interviews. But we also get a really superb set of  voice performances from Jon Hamm and Jennifer Jason Leigh as Sid and Judy respectively. Indeed, it's ironic that as Renee Zellweger is doing lots of PR for her new take on Judy, it's probably Jason Leigh who gets the closest to this brilliant, fragile, angry, funny, complicated woman.

SID & JUDY has a running time of 95 minutes. It will be shown on US TV on October 18th. It will play the BFI London Film Festival, but it does not yet have a commercial release date for the UK.

REWIND - BFI London Film Festival 2019

REWIND is a rightly disturbing watch - a deeply personal and heroic story of child sexual abuse spanning generations.  The director, Sasha Joseph Neulinger, is the admirable young man at the centre of the film. As a young kid and his sister were sexually abused by several family members.  The abuse of his sister prompts him to speak up to his mother, and what then follows is a long drawn-out search for legal justice.  We then get the all-too-familiar story of position and religion protecting a predator - the outcome is far from equitable.  The most heinous abuser never sees the inside of a jail cell.

What Neulinger does in this film is use hours of home footage taken by his father  to explore what happened in his childhood. The result is utterly sinister, as we see various family members in positions of absolute trust in the childhood home. The worst scene of all is the final one, with an uncle nuzzling the cheek of baby Sasha. We also get to know Sasha's father, a fascinating but enigmatic character who also suffered abuse. One wonders at his obsessive use of the camcorder - something that his wife says "put a wall up" between him and his family.  Maybe he found this psychologically necessary?

Despite the really tough scenes, this is ultimately a hopeful film, and for that Neulinger has to take the credit. Whether it's the fact that he managed to find a truly loving family and take their name, in one of the most touching scenes. Or the fact that Sasha is now an advocate for abused children and works with charities that makes their experience in the criminal justice system more protected and effective.  It's also a film that argues for greater understanding - with the startling statistics on child sex abuse shown at the very end. It's an unnerving watch - but an important one.

REWIND has a running time of 86 minutes. The film played Tribeca and will play the BFI London Film Festival 2019. It does not yet have a commercial release date. 

COLD CASE HAMMARSKJÖLD - BFI London Film Festival 2019

Mads Brugger wants to have his cake and eat it.  He wants to put forth a seriously argued documentary thriller in which he uncovers a sinister white supremacist plot to assassinate the second UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold, because he was aiding African independence and thus a threat to white mining interests.  More than that, Brugger claims that the same shady, maybe CIA-funded, militia was behind an even more horrific plot to deliberately infect black South Africans with HIV, all in the guise of vaccinations. To make his case, Brugger uncovers black witnesses of the original plane crash who claim they saw a mid-air explosion - witnesses who claim a Belgian-British mercenary took credit for the assassination - and documents released during South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission that apparently show the self-same plot to kill Dag Hammarskjold, and to infect black South Africans.  

Some of this is persuasive. We know enough about the American and British intelligence agencies, not to mention white African militia, to believe they might pull something like an assassination off.  But following this film's premiere at Sundance, the claims of an infection plot have been thoroughly debunked. Apparently it's incredibly hard to isolate and weaponise the HIV virus with the kind of facilities they would've had at the time. 

Even worse, the director destroys his credibility by making himself the subject of the doc - very much in the style of Nick Broomfield or Michael Moore - but even more goofy.  Maybe he's trying to make some deep meta point about colonialism by wearing a white pith helmet while digging up the crash site.  Maybe he's making a deep meta point by using inadequate tools and transparently staging the whole thing.  Indeed, the entire doc has a framing device of a white man (him) dictating to seemingly interchangeable African secretaries. If the point is to make a darkly funny joke about exploitative colonialism, then fine.

But you can't do that and simultaneously want to be taken seriously with your claims of plots.  And if you don't want to be taken seriously - but are just doing this all for laughs, then aren't you exploiting the death of Dag Hammarksjold for entertainment purposes?  I have to say that since watching this film I've done some research on this incredibly impressive man, and I can't help but thinking that his death was shady, and that he deserved a far better, and more serious, investigative documentary than this. 

COLD CASE HAMMARSKJOLD has a running time of 128 minutes.  The film played Sundance 2019 and was released in the USA in August.  It is screening at the BFI London Film Festival 2019 in the documentary competition but both screenings are sold out. 

Friday, September 20, 2019

OVERSEAS - BFI London Film Festival 2019

Korean-French documentarian Sung-a Hoon (FULL OF MISSING LINKS) turns her attention to the phenomenon of the Filipino maids who are trained to work overseas - principally in Asia and the Middle East. The resulting film is a quiet but powerful documentary that sheds light on a deeply disturbing export industry of essentially human labour. The vast majority of the running time is spent in what becomes an increasingly claustrophobic residential college where aspiring or returning maids are taught their craft. You might think this would just be how to best clean a house, but it's so much more than that. It's how to survive verbal, physical and even sexual abuse in countries where foreign labour is treated as second-class and these women are simply property. What's heartbreaking is seeing the deadpan straightforward expectation and experience these women have around abuse.  There's something really painful about seeing the instructors (all former maids) playing the role of mean female bosses and lecherous male bosses, and of the maids themselves describing their experiences to each other. The worst scene is when they discuss how to fend off a sexual attack, and the instructor tells them never to call the policy (because they wouldn't do anything?) but to tell the agency. And the over-riding lesson is to endure everything and just do the two-year contract because of all the dollars you can earn.  That even if you are abused, and can't see your kid, who won't recognised you when you come home, you are doing this for your family.

What I missed from this documentary was a look at the context in which these women make the choice to go overseas as maids.  How bad is it at home - how poor are they - that this seems like a good choice?  We get a hint of that when a couple of the women discuss the pressure at home from the in-laws to get a job, and the verbal abuse they get from them.  But I was hungry for more.  And I guess that's what makes this an amazing documentary, because it taught me so much but also made me curious for more. 

OVERSEAS has a running time of 90 times. It is playing in this year's BFI London Film Festival but both screenings are already sold out. It does not yet have a commercial release date. 

WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS - Venice Film Festival 2019

Ciro Guerra (EMBRACE THE SERPENT) returns to our screens with his first English-language film, based on the famous fable by JM Coetzee, and adapted by him for the screen. When Coetzee wrote Waiting for the Barbarians, it was in the context of Apartheid era South Africa, and it was fascinating to see how this provocative, political author would adapt his fable for an era, forty years later, where apartheid is over, but fear of the Other is once again dangerously real.  What he does is take his fantasy world and create something that is outside of place and time but feels more global in its reach.  The film is set in a dusty colonial outpost that feels from its costumes and customs as though it might be in the early 1900s - maybe at the time of the Boer War. From the location and food and dress, it feels like this outpost might be in North Africa rather than South Africa.  But the Others are not Africans but rather Central Asian nomads. In that sense, this nowhere place is a microcosm of the world, with small-minded white people divided between those superficially at peace with immigration and cultural diversity - and those that are violently opposed to it.

The former position is embodied in the calm, gentle, laconic figure of the Magistrate, played by Mark Rylance.  He seems to drip with compassions and decency and gently holds the balance between the colonists and the natives, highly self-aware that he is trespassing on their land.  The latter position is embodied by Johnny Depp's Colonel Joll - and later by his sidekick Mandel (Robert Pattinson).  Both men play their characters as brittle, humourless sadists, relishing their roles in fabricating a border threat, and then ruthlessly torturing the nomads who wander into town.

Of course, the point of Coetzee's book, and this faithful, visually stunning, beautifully acted, slow-burning adaptation - is to ask just who the barbarians are.  The magistrate hints that for the nomads, it's the colonists who are the barbarians, coming into their land, raping and pillaging.  He also shows how under the pressure of an aggressive policy toward the nomads, it's the colonists who become the barbarians - eventually looting and desecrating their OWN town.  Which isn't to say that the nomads don't commit their own act of atrocity, but only when highly provoked.

The most fascinating part of both film and novel is, however, the character of the Magistrate, and how far his liberal earnestness is also both delusional, and masks complex and troubling attitudes toward the nomads.  He takes pity on a nomad woman (Gana Bayarsaikhan) who has been tortured.  It becomes evident to us and to his maid (Greta Scacchi) that the Magistrate has a really weird and borderline sinister attitude to the woman.  He seems to objectify and fetishise her, and wants her to love him, even though his attentions clearly creep her out. How absurd, and thoughtless, and insulting, that he would even consider she might stay with him in the very place where she was viciously abused?

And so, the most fascinating part of this film is the question it poses to those of us who think we're on the liberal progressive side of the debate - what are the unconscious ways in which we are no better than the more obviously prejudiced people around us? 

This makes for a gripping and thought-provoking film, but it's worth pointing out that it's also visually stunning. From Chris Menges' cinematography in the North African desert, to the scenes of an almost Western nature, when the Magistrate goes to return to the girl to the nomads - to the wonderful costumes that hint at different periods. The score - from composer Giampiero Ambrosi - is also superb, and helps subtlety painfully ratchet up the tension as we enter the second hour of this contemplative piece. 

WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS has a running time of 112 minutes. The film played Venice and will play London 2019.  It does not yet have a commercial release date in the USA or UK.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

MY FRIEND FELA - BFI London Film Festival 2019 - Create Strand

MY FRIEND FELA is another documentary about the iconic African musician and political activist - Fela Kuti.  It's much more insightful and even-handed than Alex Gibney's treatment a few years ago.  Cuban director Joel Zito Araujo's first feat is just to get into Nigeria, despite the continued political nervousness at Fela's criticism of politicians.  His second feat is to get access to musicians and lovers, and also to one of Fela's sons - although not Femi who seems to be the one who has most clearly continued his music and political legacy. The resulting documentary is concise, well-constructed and surprisingly even-handed account of the man.  He explores his childhood with a feminist political mother and the evident talent that got him into a classical music education in London.    At one point a musician explains Fela's technical mastery of the pentatonic scale and tries to explain why his music is so powerful.  The documentary then explores Fela's political education with the Black Panthers, and the resulting change in his look and music and message to weave his authentic Africa heritage into the jazz funk and classical music he was familiar with.  We see Fela become a harsh critic of the corrupt ruling Nigerian government and the horrific violent reprisals that brought him - resulting in the vicious rape of his wives and death of his beloved mother.

This is where it gets tricky of course - Fela's wives. How do we reconcile the activist who was so eloquent on the cause of pan-africanism and anti-corruption and proclaims himself the product of a feminist upbringing with the man who also claims polygamy is part of his heritage and seems to treat women as so many interchangeable harem members?  I love how balanced the film is. It doesn't trash Fela's reputation but it carefully shows us testimony from women who felt exploited and even footage of his dominance of the dance floor seemingly dragging a woman to dance by her head.  It's rightly provocative and makes you question how far we're able to overlook everyday sexism when someone is also being heroic in another manner.  

The other thing I would say is even if you're not a massive fan of Fela's music - and if not why not?! - this film makes for a really interesting exploration of the black power struggle - and puts the American story of radicalisation in its wider global context. It makes for insightful social history. 

MY FRIEND FELA has a running time of 94 minutes. It played Rotterdam 2019 and also one the Paul Robeson Award for Best Film at FESPACO. There are still tickets available for two of the three screenings at this year's BFI London Film Festival here

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

BFI London Film Festival Short Film Reviews - Create Strand

Here are some quick takes on short films showing in the Create strand of this year's BFI London Film Festival.

#21XOXO is a wonderfully imaginative and scarily spot on satire on dating in the digital age. The animated short by Sine and Imge Ozbilge is really visually inventive, melding social media logos onto its protagonist, and showing in a last act twist how even when she flips to "real" video footage her self-image is mediated by this online distortion. Great 80s-style synth pop soundtrack too. Running time 9 minutes.

ALGO-RHYTHM is a 14 minute Senagalese hip-hop musical that bizarrely, wittily and completely speaks to life in Brexit Britain and Trump's America! It embodies social media in a slick hip-hop artist who boasts how he knows everything about us and can harvest our votes with the most subtle of methods. Like #21XOXO and SWATTED the director cleverly intersperses live action with graphically distorted cyber-visuals that suggest a disturbing mix between the real and the online.  The resulting film is like the funky imaginative PSA we all needed in 2015.

SWATTED is a really disturbing but brilliantly imagined 21 minute short about cyber-harassment in the online gaming world by Ismael Joffroy Chandoutis.  I had no idea what swatting was, but apparently it's when cyber bullies call the real world police with a fake threat in order to have a SWAT team break into and generally scare the shit out of their victims.  This strikes me as horrifically juvenile and such a waste of police time, as well as clearly traumatic to the victims. Chadoutis shows this phenomenon by inter-cutting chatroom dialogue as swat attacks are actually happening, with video game footage that seemingly depicts the attacks. However, rather than taking the footage as is from Grand Theft Auto, he kind of hollows it out into a creepy surreal wire-frame world. We also get voiceover from swatter victims.  The results are really beautifully imagined and surreal, and still so human and disturbing.  It's truly a profound and provocative piece showing real technical skill but also crucially the ability to balance that with deep emotion.

THE SASHA is a 20 minute film about the astronaut Charles Duke, who landed on the Moon with Apollo XVI and photographed its surface. Seeing all the old black and white photographs and colour video footage of the mission was an absolute treat. It makes the point that Duke failed to take a picture of the entire earth from space - an iconic photo taken during the next mission - however he WAS remembered for the family photo he left on the moon.  We also get some interesting stuff about the evolution of lunar photography.  But I could have really done without the pontificating narrator Tania Theodoru, especially about half way through the doc when it goes off into some kind of disquisition on the nature of the space. There's just a little too much indulgence in the final five minutes altogether, and I'm always nervous when directors (in this case Maria Molina Peiro) try to ascribe motive and reactions to people when they can't possibly know if that were the case.

Friday, September 06, 2019

GLORIA MUNDI - Venice Film Festival

GLORIA MUNDI is another in a long line of French social realist director Robert Guediguian's Marseille-set Marxist dramas. In this one, he's trying to tell us how modern life crushes the honest worker's hopes and dreams, leading them to crime out of desperation.  This is illustrated through the life of the family pictured. Mum is a cleaner, locked out of earning a wage because of a strike.  Dad is a bus driver, on suspended leave because he was caught using his mobile phone while driving. The elder daughter is a feckless millenial who can't hold down a job as a sales assistant.  The son-in-law is an Uber driver beaten up by conventional taxi drivers scared of the competition.  Ranged against these unfortunates is the younger half-sister and her husband - clearly depicted as front men of evil nasty capitalism. They run a pawn shop, and view their family as losers.  And entering the picture as a kind of catalyst to the story, are the elder sister's baby Gloria, and her ex-con grandad newly out of prison: a silent solemn presence.

The film is well-acted and despite its heavy-handed politics and an obvious plot worthy of a cheap British soap opera, it did hold my attention. There are a couple of set pieces that are truly affecting. One is a scene where the nasty capitalist daughter forces an obviously distressed Muslim woman to remove her veil in order to sell her toaster for five euros. That's nasty and powerful. I also really liked the depiction of the parents marriage - loving and secure, so secure that the dad and the ex-con can form a kind of friendship, jointly caring for their gran-daughter. 

The problem I had - apart from the obvious plotting and pretentious opening and closing scenes - was that the anti-capitalist message was badly executed.  These people are in trouble because they do stupid, sometimes illegal, stuff, and are rightly punished. Don't use your phone while driving - don't chat to your mum when you're meant to be working - don't start a fight.  And seeing the parents try and bail out their narcissistic irresponsible daughter again and again suggested to me that the message of the film was really to admonish Boomer parents from over-indulging their kids. 

GLORIA MUNDI has a running time of 106 minutes and had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival.