Sunday, October 31, 2021

49th PARALLEL***** - Pantheon Film Of The Month

is a fascinating piece of British propaganda from 1941, with a deeply nuanced view of World War Two, but ultimately arguing for the US to enter the war. It was created by the iconic pairing of Michael Powell (director) and Emeric Pressburger (writer) who went on to create masterpieces like THE RED SHOES.  Behind the lens, we have a young David Lean as editor and DP Freddie Young, both of whom would go on to collaborate on LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. And on screen, we have Laurence Olivier with a laughable Quebecois accent, as well as Leslie Howard (GONE WITH THE WIND) and the legendary Anton Walbrook.

The plot is radical insofar as it centres the narrative on a handful of Nazi submariners who come ashore in Canada and have to journey incognito to the US which is still neutral. On the way, they meet Olivier's Quebecois trapper who doesn't even know the war has started, and posits the radical idea that all men must have some goodness inside of them, for he wouldn't shoot Polish women and children. That said, as propaganda, the film is careful to show him as saying his loyalty is to Canada and thus Britain, not to France, as an ally of Germany. 

As the film goes on, the Nazis take shelter with a kind of German emigre mormon community, and one of them starts to question what they are doing, which again feels radical for a propaganda film and reflects all the nuance and humanity that Pressburger (an "enemy alien" - ludicrous - in Britain at the time). But as these things go, naturally the Nazis must come to a bad end, and show the valiance of the Canadians along the way. This is most eloquently and powerfully displayed in Anton Walbrook's monologue roughly half-way through the film, where he explains why immigrants left famine and persecution in Europe and came to Canada for peace, security, tolerance and freedom. It remains incredibly stirring stuff.  

It's equally impressive to consider how this film was made - partly funded by the UK taxpayer - filmed on location in Canada when travel was both restricted and dangerous - with an international cast of major talent, often working at half scale or donating their fees to charity. Freddy Young's black and white photography is superb and most of all, we have a score by Ralph Vaughan Williams. It is no surprise that this film was a huge commercial success, and apparently remains once of the highest grossing British film in the US of all time.

49th PARALLEL was released in 1941 and won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. 


is an absolutely hilarious, heartwarming, fast-paced, action-adventure film that perfectly entertains the family. If I've docked it a point, it's only because the plot and concept are highly derivative of films like THE MATRIX and THE TRUMAN SHOW, albeit repackaged in a fun zany mix all of its own.

Ryan Reynolds is typically superb as a guy named Guy who lives a mediocre banal life in Free City. Except what's pretty obvious to us, but not to him, is that he's a Non Playable Character in a computer game, whose only job is to be in the background as real life kids rob banks and smoke strangers in a Grand Theft Auto style shoot-em-up game. The twist is that his AI character comes to consciousness when he meets Jodie Comer's player, because some old code had pre-programmed him to search for love. Somehow, Guy manages to steal a real player's powers and realises that a) he's in a game and b) he has agency! But unlike fucked up real world people, he decides to play as the good guy, rather than as a criminal, levelling up with breakneck speed and attracting a real world following of fans who just can't get enough of "blue shirt guy".

Meanwhile back in the real world, the true baddie turns about to be Taika Waititi's pretentious egotistical video game developer Antwon, who I read as based on the decades old British satirical show NATHAN BARLEY.  Turns out Antwon bilked Jodie Comer's character out of some of her original code, as well as her best friend Keys (Joe Keery) and now they have to team up with Guy to stop him.

The resulting film is full of fun and imagination and I loved how it not to subtly criticised the way in which real world people play video games to indulge their worst imagined vices. What does it say about us that the nicest and kindest character in the film is an AI?! I also loved the way the ending respected the bounds of the concept that had been set up and gave all the main characters an ending that actually seemed fulfilling. So kudos to all involved, not least director Shawn Levy (STANGER THINGS) and writers Matt Lieberman (SCOOB!) and Zak Penn (READY PLAYER ONE).

FREE GUY is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 115 minutes. The film played Locarno 2021 and was released on Netflix earlier this year.


Documentarian Morgan Neville excels at producing well-researched, precisely constructed documentaries about the major pop cultural figures of our times - not least Orson Welles, Mr Rogers and Keith Richards.  In his latest film, he focuses his attention on celebrity chef and travel journalist Anthony Bourdain.  What emerges is a picture of a deeply troubled man - a junkie who beat the habit but turned that compulsive energy into relentless travel and finally an obsessive love affair. At the end, when he had achieved fame and commercial success and travelled the world many times over, he still seemed deeply lonely and depressed, maybe bipolar, and he chose to commit suicide. 

I may be in the unusual position of not having read any of Bourdain's books and not having watched a single episode of his TV shows. I just knew his face as someone on TV and read the stories when he died. This was not a barrier to finding the film fascinating. Because I got to know Anthony threw his friends, fellow recovering addicts, superlative chefs, his ex-wife, his crew. He seemed to be a deeply funny, a wonderful raconteur, and a deeply erudite man who cared deeply about using his platform to show what was happening in the world that usually escapes mainstream attention.  What he doesn't appear to be is a particularly amazing chef! And I suspect, and the movie suggests, that we should truly see him as is a gonzo journalist. 

As a cinephile, I found the final half hour of the movie most interesting, with Bourdain dating Asia Argento in the period where she denounces Harvey Weinstein as a rapist at Cannes, and the industry that sheltered him. Bourdain seems to throw himself into the MeToo movement with a reckless boundary-less energy that suffocates his partner and drives her away.  

Overall, I found this an insightful, sensitive and honest portrait of an addict struggling with mental health issues and entirely relatable for any of us dealing with the same. I felt it could've had maybe 20-30 minutes taken out of the running time, but that perhaps reflects that I am not watching this as a pre-made Bourdain fan.

ROADRUNNER: A FILM ABOUT ANTHONY BOURDAIN is rated R and has a running time of 119 minutes.  The film played Tribeca 2021 and was released in the USA earlier this year. 

Monday, October 18, 2021

THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH***** - BFI London Film Festival 2021 - Closing Night Gala

Joel Coen's first non-Coen Brothers directorial film is a triumphantly bold, searing, fast-paced production of Shakespeare's brutal, nihilistic tragedy, MacBeth. 

This incredibly cine-literate production features stunning, atmospheric, chiaroscuro black and white photography from Bruno Delbonnel, that gives us hints of Bergman, Welles, Hitchcock and the German expressionists. We are at once in a particular place - medieval Scotland - but also in a slippery dreamworld of stripped back interiors, dream-like landscapes, and sinister shadows. Every scene is deliberately framed, composed, lit and blocked. Silhouette is important. Emergence from shadow is character. Costumes are pared down, graphic shapes and deep textures. 

Denzel Washington's MacBeth and Frances McDormand's Lady MacBeth are older than some stage and screen incarnations and this may add to their urgency to bring the three witches' prophesy into fruition. It also makes hollow King Duncan's promise to plant MacBeth and watch him grow as he already looks on the verge of retirement. Washington's hero is a straightforward military man who descends into arrogance and then fatalism in a worthy performance that didn't quite catch alight in the most memorable soliloquy "tomorrow, tomorrow...".  McDormand was far more powerful and memorable as his wife, more nakedly ambitious at first and then unravelled by her guilt. Her final anguished howls will not soon be forgotten. But for me it's Kathryn Hunter's three witches, AND, masterfully, the Old Man, who steal this film with a powerful physical and vocal performance that contorts and transforms.  She is everywhere and everything - man, woman, spirit, crow. In the smaller parts, I thought the RSC's Alex Hassell was superb as Ross, slippery in his loyalties, pivotal in hiding Fleance, and with a particularly excellent costume design. 

THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH is rated R and has a running time of 105 minutes. It opened the New York Film festival and closed the London film festival. It will have a limited cinematic release in the US on 25th December and will be released on the internet on January 14th.

KING RICHARD***** - BFI London Film Festival 2021 - Day 10

Director Reinaldo Marcus Green's KING RICHARD is an uproarious, crowd-pleasing, but not completely hagiographical biopic of Richard Williams: coach and father of Venus and Serena. The film succeeds because of a tightly structured and powerful script from first-time screenwriter Zach Baylin. It also benefits from powerhouse performances from Will Smith in the title role (taken as read) and scene-stealing Aunjanue Ellis as Richard's wife Brandi. What emerges is a complicated picture of a complicated and imperfect family that somehow, against all odds, raised a Wimbledon winner AND a GOAT. 

As the film opens, Richard is trying to persuade various rich tennis coaches to invest in his daughters, who he has been raising according to his programme to create prodigies. He works them hard, both in tennis and school, because he wants them to avoid being mired in poverty and drugs like the rest of Compton. The threat of violence is ever-present.  Richard tells us how he was beaten up by white men as a kid. His eldest daughter is threatened by local gangs (foreshadowing her real life tragic murder).  We see Rodney King being beaten up on TV. So Richard's desire to create champions is commercial and callous. He clearly states it could've been any sport and that he literally bred the girls for greatness. But at a very basic level, it's not about money but sheer survival. 

Which is not to say that Richard is perfect. He's clearly egotistical, stubborn, a self-publicist and a tyrant. He drives not one but two coaches mad. He drives his wife Brandi mad. And in one of the most powerful moments of the film's second half, she absolutely lets him have it with details of his life that made the audience both gasp and applaud her.  But at the end of the day, whatever he did worked.

That said, it wasn't actually just what HE did. And this film cleverly both sets up the self-made myth of King Richard before deconstructing it. Brandi powerfully argues that SHE was AS influential in raising and indeed coaching the girls as HE was, and provides a powerful role model of a hard-working black woman. As a result, this film partly cuts off one of the criticisms that was brewing in my mind as I watched it: that for a film about two female tennis stars, their three sisters, and their mum, it was kinda weird to centre the only man in the story.  The entire point is that this is what Richard does, and what the women have to fight against. 

I can't say enough about how joyous this film was to watch in a packed auditorium.  Every argument, every tennis success, every tense game had us all on the edge of our seats. The film left me with an even deeper understanding of, and admiration for, these iconic sportswomen and everything that they have achieved.

KING RICHARD has a running time of 138 minutes and is rated PG-13. The film played Telluride and the BFI London Film Festival. It will be released on Netflix on November 19th. 

PARIS 13TH DISTRICT***** - BFI London Film Festival 2021 - Day 10

Jacques Audiard (UN PROPHET) returns to our screens with a beautifully rendered examination of modern relationships, based on Adrian Tomine's graphic novel.  The film focuses on three friends and how their love lives intersect and lead them to greater emotional understanding. The first is the Emilie, played by the charismatic breakout star, Lucie Zhang. As the film opens, Lucie is living in her grandma's apartment and leading a sex positive life. She seems carefree, strong and great fun. But as the film develops we realise that she is struggling with familial pressure to live up to her great academic career and is working a series of dead-end jobs. We also discover that despite her predilection for online hook-ups, what she really wants is a committed loving relationship with her former room-mate, Camille (Makita Samba).  Camille is also a bit mixed up, a wannabe PHD student who ends up running his friend's failing estate agent. At first he rejects the idea of dating Lucie and runs the gamut of various colleagues before discovering where he truly wants to be in life. These colleagues include Nora (Noemie Merlant - PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE). It's this final story that I found the most fascinating and daring. Nora starts off as a naive provincial mature student who ends up in Paris to restart her education. But one night she goes to a student party in a blonde wig and is mistaken for a sexcam worker called Amber Sweet (Jehnny Beth). The students bully her, she drops out, and ends up working with Camille. But as she struggles to deal with what happened to her, she makes contact with Amber and begins a friendship that is both deeply touching and surprising in its outcome. 

PARIS 13th DISTRICT shows us how to portray relationships that are complicated and honest and evolve. I loved how Audiard - in contrast to Eva Husson in MOTHERING SUNDAY - used nudity and explicit sex scenes to propel character and evolve story.  Nothing here is gratuitous. Everything is honest. I felt as though I really knew all three lead characters - their flaws and their charms - and was utterly involved in how their stories would turn out. Meaningful revelations are dropped in with a very light touch - a half-heard phone-call or a camera glancing at pictures on a wall. I also absolutely loved Paul Guilhaume's stunning black and white photography that renders modernist and brutalist architecture as a stunningly vital and beautiful backdrop that made me hanker for city-life again after my Pandemic-driven suburban isolation. And Rone's electronic, award-winning sound-track is spectacular. 

Overall, this is a film that pulses with vibrant real life. It makes you hanker for cities and people and serendipitous meetings that can be life changing. This is film-making at its most glorious and vital.

PARIS 13TH DISTRICT aka LES OLYMPIADES  has a running time of 105 minutes. It played Cannes where it won Best Soundtrack. It will be released in France on November 3rd but does not yet have a commercial release date for the USA or UK.

Friday, October 15, 2021

THE REAL CHARLIE CHAPLIN**** - BFI London Film Festival 2021 - Day 8

Peter Middleton and James Spinney (NOTES ON BLINDNESS) return to our screens with a superb documentary on the life and work of Charlie Chaplin. Narrated by Pearl Mackie, the film brilliantly combines archive footage, interviews and recreations to explore this most complicated genius.  Most importantly, the doc contains extracts of an audio interview Chaplin gave to Life magazine in 1966, which gives texture and insight to cinephiles who feel they already know everything about Chaplin.

The picture that emerges is one of a highly driven, hard-working perfectionist who had a real love of working class people, born of his own experience of poverty in South London. Even when he became the most famous and richest entertainer in the world, he refused to give up his socialist beliefs in moving beyond nationalism to build a better world of equality and justice.  Of course, this went down like a shit sandwich in an America hysterical about communism, and despite Chaplin taking a stand to condemn fascism in THE GREAT DICTATOR, rather than seeing him as an asset, Hoover's FBI and his lackey Hedda Hopper hounded Chaplin out of the country and into exile in Switzerland. It was a brutal end to a brilliant career.

Of course, in doing so, Hoover was helped by Chaplin's shady personal life, and this film covers that with great delicacy and an absence of labels. The teenage lovers, apparent coercion to abortions, the slandering of a wife who sued for divorce, if not by Chaplin then by his admirers. And yet, and yet, I always wonder at the apparently happy and enduring final marriage to Oona Chaplin, also with a large age gap. Although as their daughter Geraldine points out, she wrote and documented so much, but not a single interview survives. The women in Chaplin's life are therefore largely silent or traduced.

THE REAL CHARLIE CHAPLIN has a running time of 112 minutes. The film played Telluride and the BFI London Film Festival and does not yet have a commercial release date. 

THE PHANTOM OF THE OPEN**** - BFI London Film Festival 2021 - Day 8

THE PHANTOM OF THE OPEN is the latest in a long line of heart-warming but slightly cheesy British comedies set in the post industrial decline of Britain in the 1970s and 1980s - think BRASSED OFF and THE FULL MONTY. In each one, a factory or a mine or a shipbuilding yard is undergoing mass redundancies or full on closures leaving its working class men out of jobs and searching for something to rebuild their self-esteem.

This film features Mark Rylance as the real life Maurice Flitcroft, who decides to take up golf when redundancy looms.  He can't afford the clothes or clubs so his best mate nicks them for him. And he can't afford the membership fees for the golf course so sons raise money by, I kid you not, disco-dancing. And when the snobs at the local club still won't let him in, he practises in local parks, local beaches, and even on the golf course, breaking in at night. Finally, he enters the British Open. Of course, he isn't good enough, so his supportive wife just ticks the box that says "professional".  When Flitcroft predictably fails, he gets a lot of media attention which embarrasses the tournament's officials, but is absolutely undeterred. And that's what makes this film so funny and so cheering. As Flitcroft explains to Seve Ballesteros - failure is just something to learn from! And "practice is the road to perfection".

There's something contagious and irresistible about Mark Rylance's cheerfulness and Sally Hawkins loving support.  Everyone loves an underdog, and seeing Flitcroft's sons pop into dance moves on the 18th hole is just joyous. And yes, there might be moments of doubt and embarrassment, but in the end this is simply a story of good decent people having a but of fun and poking the eye of the snobs. I laughed out loud throughout the film, and even shed at a tear at a well-earned emotional payoff. There's nothing not to love about it. 

THE PHANTOM OF THE OPEN has a running time of 102 minutes. It does not yet have a commercial release date.

THE LOST DAUGHTER**** - BFI London Film Festival 2021 - Day 8

Maggie Gyllenhaal's directorial debut is a taut, superbly rendered, character-led drama featuring a bravura performance from Olivia Colman. It is faithfully based on the brutal novella of the same name by Elena Ferrante - a book that dared to ask what happens to a smart woman who dares to throw off the shackles of motherhood.

The protagonist is Leda - a middle aged literary professor who treats herself to an extended seaside holiday. She enjoys her routine of calm reflection and seems self-assured. But this calm is disrupted when her seaside idyll is disrupted by a rowdy working class family with an imperious attitude to their surroundings. 

Motherhood looms large over the film. Leda becomes fascinated with a young pretty mother, Nina (Dakota Johnson), and her wilful child.  Nina seems to be stuck in a domineering marriage to her small time criminal husband. She is also steamrollered by his family, not least his sister Callie (Dagmara Domincyk) who resents Nina for getting pregnant so easily when she is only now pregnant in her early 40s. Even Nina's daughter is a mother to her cheap plastic doll. And when both child and doll go missing, Leda rescues both but somehow cannot seem to give the doll back, despite the child's ongoing distress at its lost.

It becomes clear that the doll triggers a painful and undigested memory for Leda, of abandoning her own two small daughters when they were the same age as Nina's daughter. Though happy in marriage and motherhood in theory, her inability to continue her academic work and the fact that her husband (Jack Farthing) puts his career first, becomes suffocating. A chance encounter with two travellers who have thrown off the shackles of bourgeois expectations inspires Leda. And more significantly, one of them (Alba Rorhwacher) takes a sample of Leda's writing and gives it to an influential academic, effectively launching Leda's career. It's joyous to see the young Leda (Jessie Buckley) simply enjoy the act of ordering room service and eat it in peace and quiet. 

What the novel and film ask is what this means for Leda as a mother. Yes she is oppressed by motherhood, but she also does love her daughters. What sacrifices is she willing to make for career versus family? And what is the emotional cost of freedom?  In seeing Nina she sees another life lived, and Nina sees that in Leda too. Both are flirting with each other as an alternative path.  At one point Leda describes herself as an "unnatural mother" but I suspect most mothers feel that same frustration and oppression at various points of their life. It seems to be that these feelings are natural but largely unspoken.

Maggie Gyllenhaal gets so much right in this adaptation, starting with casting. Olivia Colman manages to convey so much without a word being spoken. Childlike joy at a happy moment on the beach. Anger and frustration at loud intruders. And Jessie Buckley matches her in quality to a tee. I also love how Gyllenhaal interrogates what it means to be a single middle-aged woman, where everyone feels it's their right to ask your age, and to intrude into your life - to walk into your flat and start cooking for you - to make you move from your seat to accommodate a family (because families trump single women).... And then the endless indignity of being a strong woman forced to face your fragility in a misogynistic society, from Nina's brooding husband menacing Leda as she tries to drive away, to noisy kids in a cinema who only shut up when a man tells them to.

This is a film full of emotional and physical menace and shows clearly the costs and challenges of living a full independent life as a woman where you fulfil all your potential. I guess my  only criticism of the film is that is shows an ending which is somewhat cleaner than the ambivalent version in the novel. Maybe Gyllenhaal is asking if we believe it? I felt it was just a little too tidy relative to the Ferrante. 

THE LOST DAUGHTER is rated R and has a running time of 121 minutes. It won Best Screenplay at Venice, and also played Telluride and the BFI London Film Festival. It will open in cinemas on December 17th and on Netflix on December 31st. 

MOTHERING SUNDAY* - BFI London Film Festival 2021 - Day 9

Eva Husson's MOTHERING SUNDAY is, I am sad to report, a total failure of a film. It has nothing in it to capture the interest of the viewer, and may even verge on the exploitative. This is all the more frustrating because it's an adaptation of Graham Swift's critically acclaimed novel of the same name, which told the story of a famous author and how an affair she had when working in service in the 1920s set her on the path to greatness. The problem is that this film shows us nothing of that greatness - we see no literary merit or acute perception by means of voiceover or later extracts of novels. Rather, the film merely declares the woman a success.  As a result, we are unconvinced, and don't understand why we should be interested in this author's origin story.

As the film opens we are in the last days of World War One.  The tone is one of suppressed grief and rage.  Three upper class families meet over a weekend in Henley. It becomes clear that one of them has lost both of their children in the war: the father (Colin Firth) represses this knowledge with banal cheeriness while the mother (Olivia Colman) looks sullen and detached but occasionally flares up into tears and deeply selfish condescension. Another family has lost two sons already, and the third, played by Josh O'Connor has inherited all their hopes and burdens. He must now study law and marry his deceased brother's fiancee.  He rebels by shagging the neighbour's maid (Odessa Young) and vast amounts of the film consist of them lying naked on a bed, or - once he departs for an engagement lunch - her wandering aimlessly naked around his house. This is basically 70% of the film. Will anything happen? No. Not even when a major event happens. There's no confrontation. No exposure. No dramatic tension. Nothing but boredom.

We then flash forward at intervals to the maid's second love - a black philosopher. Oh, we think, this could be really fascinating. How does a black man navigate Oxford in the 1920s? What prejudice do they face as a mixed-race couple? But no. Zero drama or character exploration here. Pretty girl gets typewriter and supportive boyfriend. Writes novel we don't see. Is apparently brilliant. We don't see it. Grows up to be Glenda Jackson. Is insufferably arrogant. Who gives a shit?

The film was so dull I started wondering what the point of the nudity was. Is it that it's meant to be sex positive? If so, cool. Apparently this is what writer Alice Birch does, or did, in her adaptation of Sally Rooney's Normal People. But I couldn't help wondering what people would say if a male director made a film that basically just followed a pretty young naked girl around with no apparent dramatic purpose.

MOTHERING SUNDAY is rated R and has a running time of 111 minutes. It played Cannes, Toronto and the BFI London Film Festival 2021.  It will be released in the USA and UK on November 19th.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

NITRAM***** - BFI London Film Festival 2021 - Day 7

NITRAM is a stunning and disturbing film from Aussie writer-director Justin Kurzel that covers a deeply traumatic and controversial mass shooting in mid-1990s Tasmania. The perpetrator was a man called Martin, who was teased with the nickname Nitram because he was mentally "backward".  Indeed, it's a open question what's wrong with Martin. He seems childlike - his mother describes behaviour that seems psychopathic - he's being prescribed drugs for depression - he has an unhealthy obsession with fireworks and guns. What's clear is that his parents love him but also enable him - particularly his dad - and at various points of the film I became angry that he wasn't in a residential care facility rather than out and about in the general community. 

The truth is stranger than fiction.  This misfit somehow meets an incredibly wealthy eccentric older woman (Essie Davis) and she essentially bankrolls him and takes him in, even though even she draws the line at buying him a gun.  As the film develops we see that this newfound freedom and money does not satisfy Martin. He remains severely lonely, unhappy and disturbed. And so we move to the inevitable final act, which is handled delicately and largely off-screen. We are left with harsh questions.  Could his parents have prevented this? His doctors?  The people he freaked out but who didn't report anything? And would anything have happened if he hadn't had the (mis)fortune of access to wealth, and thanks to Australia's then lax gun laws, a cache of arms?

Caleb Landry Jones won the acting award at Cannes for his performance in NITRAM and it's well deserved. It's incredibly moving and nuanced - at once terrifying and heart-breaking. I was physically wincing in fear, but also believed Martin genuinely loved his mum and particularly his dad. Judy Davis is typically brilliant as Martin's mum and Anthony LaPaglia is heartbreaking as his dad. 

I also loved the choice to use a limited claustrophobic aspect ratio that makes us feel trapped by Martin in the hazy summer heat of dusty abandoned rooms. This is arguably Kurzel's most assured and impressive film to date. Kudos to all involved. 

NITRAM played Cannes 2021 where Caleb Landry Jones won Best Actor. It was released earlier this year in Australia. The film has a running time of 112 minutes.

HINTERLAND*** - BFI London Film Festival 2021 - Day 7

HINTERLAND is a breathtakingly fast paced murder mystery set in a nightmarish almost graphic novel/Caligari-esque post WW1 Vienna.  Actors move in front of painted backgrounds where familiar Vienna landmarks lean at queasy angles and buildings seem to fall into each other like drunken lechers. This is less contemporary Disney Habspurg Vienna than the Third Man meets Alan Moore.

As the film opens our Austrian soldiers are returning to a Vienna they don't recognise from a Russian prison camp.  Someone even has to explain what this random red white and red flag is - they are unaware that they have a new flag and indeed a new Republic. The atmosphere is febrile and antagonistic. The soldiers resent the men who didn't fight. Those who stayed at home resent the soldiers for not recognising that they too have suffered deprivations.  Food is scarce. Rats run rampant.  And a scared populace is drifting toward extremes - whether communism or fascism.

Stuck in the middle is our traumatised hero Peter Perg (Murathan Muslu). He resumes his work as a detective - thank goodness because otherwise he'd be in a poorhouse full of demobbed unemployed soldiers. Perg and his sidekicks Severin and Dr Koerner (Liv Lisa Fries - BABYLON BERLIN) are on the trace of a viciously brutal serial killer who is going after former prisoners of war.  The investigation produces utterly vicious tableaux and also explores just how brutal the war really was, especially in the Russian camps (although Perg is careful to say every side was as bad as the other).

The film is, then, nasty and eye-opening.  Growing up in Britain we learned a lot about the British war experience and even the German experience but this is probably the first time I've really sat with what happened to Austria after the war. It feels like a Nietschean world where, with the Empire dead, everything is permitted. There is no decency and few correct choices. And even in the film's mordant humour, our hero keeps being arrested by the police when he himself is the victim of a crime. 

Is the film a success? I'm not sure. The design is great and the insights powerful. But the serial killer mystery seems to resolve rather easily and quickly and I felt that the inability of actors to interact with the surroundings gave the film an artifice that was ultimately distracting and undermining.

HINTERLAND has a running time of 112 minutes. It is currently playing the BFI London Film Festival and was released in Germany last week. It does not yet have a commercial release date in the USA or UK.

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

MASS**** - BFI London Film Festival 2021 - Day 6

Actor Fran Kranz' directorial debut MASS feels like a dramatised play - an intense four-hander where two couples meet in a church to explain why one couple's child committed a mass shooting that killed the other couples' child.  The former, Richard and Linda, are played  by Reed Birney and Ann Dowd (THE HANDMAID'S TALE) - the latter, Jay and Gail, by Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton.

The shooter's parents explain how their child was lonely and bullied in a new school and retreated into an online world.  He became depressed and the parents struggled to ensure the right medical treatment. He was interested in bombs and tried to make a bomb.  But they didn't tell the school because his grades were good and they didn't want to jeopardise his schooling. With the benefit of hindsight they realise their son was lying.

At the other end of the table, Jay is quiet. He stresses they didn't and don't want to sue.  He has been active in campaigning for gun control but doesn't see that as political.  It's the most quiet and moving performance I have ever seen from Jason Isaacs, who is often cast as a blustering super-confident charismatic alpha male. I hope it earns his award nominations.  Meanwhile, his wife Gail starts off as merely enquiring but becomes more and more frustrated, clearly seeking an answer and a reason for her child's death, and almost forcing the other parents to admit - what - guilt? Culpability? Incompetence as parents?

The resulting film is a rightly tough watch as we are trapped at the table with four people in grief and anger and hear of a fifth who was clearly also deeply disturbed.  There are no easy answers or resolutions.  And I chose to take the closing choral music as ironic. I do not feel any of these parents feels safe or at peace. 

MASS has a running time of 111 minutes and is rated PG-13. The film played Sundance and the BFI London Film Festival 2021. 

ALL IS VANITY**** - BFI London Film Festival 2021 - Day 6

Marcos Mereles' debut feature is a really impressive, twisty, sardonic almost uncategorisable film. It launches him as a genuine new talent and someone I'll keep an eye out for in future.

The film opens in an austere warehouse location and plays like a satire on the superficial nasty world of fashion shoots. The cast is small - a photographer, his unpaid intern, a model and a make-up artist - bitching and blaming each other for the shoot's failure.  And then, around half way through, one of the characters disappears and the film takes a turn into genre-bending meta-narrative that is super-smart, very confident and utterly brilliant. This is low-budget film-making at its finest, where the limitations of cast, location and budget are turned into virtues with intelligence plugging all the gaps. 

ALL IS VANITY has a running time of 72 minutes. It debuted at the BFI London Film Festival and does not yet have a commercial release date. 

BOILING POINT* - BFI London Film Festival 2021 - Day 6

Writer-director Philip Barantini (VILLAIN) debuts at the Festival with his single-take drama BOILING POINT. The film stars Stephen Graham as a shouty angry chef who is also an alcoholic and cocaine addict. We follow him and his team over the course of a fateful night as his restaurant comes under criticism from inspectors; comes under financial pressure from Jason Flemyng's Alex; has to deal with obnoxious diners; and where his sous-chef basically has to carry the strain of dealing with his drug-driven incompetence. The result is a claustrophobic but ultimately quite obvious film where Chekhov's peanut allergy comes into play, and the end-point is also highly predictable. The shouty angry druggy chef is sadly now a trope in real life and on screen and we never get beyond that to discover why we should sympathise or empathise with him. The film is marketed as a character study but I just never felt it delivered on that score. I had no clear idea of the chef's motivations or what was driving him. And that is fatal in a move like this.

BOILING POINT is rated R and has a running time of 92 minutes.

THE POWER OF THE DOG***** - BFI London Film Festival - Day 6

Jane Campion returns to the Festival with her breathtaking and slippery adaptation of Thomas Savage's novel.  The film is set in Montana in the 1920s and cinematographer  Ari Wegner (TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG) creates landscapes so stunning that I really hope she wins awards for this work. I also implore you to try and see this film on the largest screen you can find when Netflix puts it out on limited release rather than waiting to watch it at home.

The movie stars Benedict Cumberbatch as a cattle rancher called Phil Burbank.  When we meet him he's a nasty homophobic misogynistic bully who strides around unwashed and intimidating all and sundry. But as the movie enters its second hour we learn that Phil has many layers and our understanding of him deepens and softens. 

The target of Phil's bullying behaviour are his soft-hearted and plain-talking brother George's new wife Rose (played by real life couple Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst). When we meet Rose she is a timid lonely widow, running a small rooming house alongside her teenage son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Both Rose and Peter are mocked by Phil, but his brother George genuinely falls for her and takes her to live in a dark brooding grand house.  Rose is intimidated by Phil most of all, but also by George's fancy friends and parents. Dunst breaks our heart with her portrait of a woman brought to ruin by intimidation.

It's absolutely key that we believe in her ruin because that becomes the motivating point of the plot - both her reactions to and the motives of Phil and her son Peter and the relationship they form when he come home from school. What I love about the film is that even as we reach the final fifteen minutes it could go one of many ways depending on our interpretation of each character's feelings and character. I can honestly say that I was genuinely surprised by the outcome, but that when I saw it, I felt it was authentic and had been properly established in prior scenes. In other words, Jane Campion is playing fair with us.

Overall, THE POWER OF THE DOG is just a stunning film - beautifully written, scored, acted, filmed - the pacing perfection and the unfolding mystery gripping. 

THE POWER OF THE DOG is rated R and has a running time of 125 minutes. The film played Venice, Toronto and London 2021. It will be released on Netflix on December 1st.

Monday, October 11, 2021

THE FRENCH DISPATCH** - BFI London Film Festival 2021 - Day 5

Wes Anderson's THE FRENCH DISPATCH is all whimsy and stunning design but completely lacking in meaning or profundity for all bar about 3 minutes of its running time. This gives me no pleasure to say as a great fan of his work. But the genius of GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL was marrying his unique eye with a story that both made us life but also made us cry, and tackled the most profound and moving of subjects.  By contrast, Anderson's homage to literary magazines seems deeply unambitious and frivolous and thus uninvolving and dull. This is no doubt exacerbated by a portmanteau structure that prevents or plot character development. Indeed, this may be his worst film since THE DARJEELING LIMITED.  I wonder if he is too spoiled by being able to get every actor he wants for cameos that pile up into shagpile carpet of zanily dressed but pointless characters. He badly needs an editor and some focus.

So, the film is about a literary review editor played by Bill Murray and the magazine he created as demonstrated by three stories from the magazine brought to life. The first is a prison love story about an homicidal maniac artist (Benicio del Toro), his muse / guard (Lea Seydoux), his agent (Adrien Brody) and an art critic (Tilda Swinton).   The second is about a 1968 student demo led by Timothee Chalamet and reported on by Frances McDormand.  The third has a food critic (Jeffrey Wright) recall the kidnapping of the son of a police chief.  

There are some, but not enough, laughs in the film.  Anderson flicks from colour to black and white for no real reason.  The only scene of any power is where Jeffrey Wright's critic, clearly influenced by James Baldwin, recalls how he was once arrested for being gay and the editor saved him.  

Every mirror needs a dark backing so that we can see our reflection in it.  Anderson needs to bear that in mind.

THE FRENCH DISPATCH is rated R and has a running time of 108 minutes. It played Cannes, San Sebastian and the BFI London Film Festival 2021. It opens in the USA and UK on October 22nd.

SUNDOWN***** - BFI London Film Festival 2021 - Day 5

Michel Franco's SUNDOWN is a stunning taut character study that takes you from extreme discomfort to a kind of blissful understanding in its short 85 minute running time. It features a typically memorable and nuanced performance from Tim Roth as an extremely wealthy man called Neil who seemingly on a whim decides to turn his back on his family.  As the film opens, we see the family luxuriating in a Mexican resort that could come straight out of HBO's White Lotus. As Neil wryly says to Colin, "why do have to be such an arsehole?"  Their existence is lubricated by endless drinks and low-level bickering. We are unclear as to Neil's relationship with Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg) but he seems distant.  

The key plot point happens half an hour in when the family is called home to deal with the death of Alice's mother, and Neil pretends he's left his passport at the hotel and doesn't board the flight. He checks into a random downtown hotel and rather sleepily falls into a rhythm of drinking at the beach by day and sleeping with a local girl by night. He seems happy in this relationship and I rather admired his ability to slip into the local scene. But the audience's frustration mounts with each lie to Alice and our discomfort rises with the momentary flashes of violence.

As the film moves into its final act, Franco and Roth masterfully manipulate our feelings. It's testament to Roth's easy-going charm that even at his most inexplicable, we still hang in there with Neil, hoping to understand. Credit to to Henry Goodman (TAKING WOODSTOCK) as Richard, because his faith in Neil keeps us engaged. The resulting film is slippery and strange and unforgettable.

SUNDOWN has a running time of 83 minutes. It played Venice, Toronto and London 2021. 

Sunday, October 10, 2021

REHANA***** - BFI London Film Festival 2021 - Day 5

Bangladeshi writer-director Abdullah Mihammad Saad (LIVE FROM DHAKA) returns to our screens with a brutal drama about a woman attempting to bring a sexual predator to justice.  That woman is Rehana, a Medical professor in contemporary Dhaka. In the opening scenes we learn that she is a deeply stressed out single mother who does not suffer fools gladly. Rather than let cheating students slide, she hauls them out of class, living her life by an austere set of personal rules. These rules are challenged when Rehana witnesses student Annie leaving the office of Professor Arefin in some distress. It becomes clear that Annie has been assaulted, but despite Rehana's pleas, she won't report him to the authorities. After all, in a misogynistic society, won't the authorities blame Annie for going to Arefin's office alone? And what about her father who sacrificed everything to get her into medical school?  This leads us to the provocative second half of the film where Rehana decides to take matters into her own hands and report the rape with herself as the victim and to take the consequences of that - including a brutal campaign to get her sacked and alienating her family.  It's a plot point that some might find controversial given the danger of making false rape allegations appear normal, when they are in fact very rare indeed, but I feel the film fully explores those consequences. 

REHANA is, then, a powerful and rightly tough watch.  The lead actress, Azeri Haque Badhon is absolutely stunning in her portrait of a good woman driven to extremes by a corrupt system. She makes questionable choices but it's to Badhon's credit that we feel empathy for them. I also absolutely loved the girl playing Rehana's daughter Emu, and the symmetry in their behaviour is chilling, even down to Rehana calling her Mummy and Emu calling Rehana Mamma. In a brutal final scene, Emu is protesting against her mother's actions and we see Rehana become as violent as the protestors who earlier blocked her exit.  We see the full emotional price of Rehana's earnest ideals.

REHANA has a running time of 107 minutes. The film is the first from Bangladesh to be selected for the official competition at Cannes 2021 and it also played Busan and the BFI London Film Festival.

Saturday, October 09, 2021

THE HAND OF GOD**** - BFI London Film Festival 2021 - Day 4


Paolo Sorrentino’s THE HAND OF GOD begins as a kind of group portrait of working class Neapolitans in the 1980s.  It has the feel of a menagerie of grotesques, and Sorrentino feels no politically correct restriction on mocking the fat, the disabled, the absurdly made-up or the mentally ill. This might sound distasteful and yet, and yet, over that hour we come to feel a kind of familial familiarity with these everyday oddballs, delighting in their joy when Maradona signs for Napoli and enjoying their practical jokes. We even come to admire and love the genuinely loving mother and father of the family, delighting in the depiction of an ordinary happy marriage. 

Observing all of this loveable craziness is the younger son of the family, Fabie, whose quiet gaze is pre-directorial. For this is the third film in two days that I've watched where a director tells a fictionalised version of their childhood.  And to be sure, Sorrentino is not going to spend the second hour of this film in rather trivial but engrossing depictions of life in 1980s Napoli. Instead, major life events occur that force Fabie into being the protagonist rather than voyeur of his own life, and of this film.

I absolutely adored this movie. It is by turns hilarious and tragic and strange and whimsical. I merely dock it a star for having had an obvious ending point (for me) in a cathartic playground scene, but lingers for thirty minutes longer. 

THE HAND OF GOD has a running time of 130 minutes and played Venice 2021. It wil be released on Netflix on December 15th.

LAST NIGHT IN SOHO**** - BFI London Film Festival 2021 - Day 4

Edgar Wright (BABY DRIVER) returns to our screens with a brilliant thriller that's more murder mystery than horror film.  It stars Thomasin McKenzie (JOJO RABBIT) as a young fashion student called Eloise who is obsessed with all things 1960s thanks to her awesome grandma (the iconic Rita Tushingham). The key plot device is that Eloise can, M Night Shyamalan style, see dead people, and soon becomes obsessed with the glamorous Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy - EMMA) who rented Eloise's bedsit decades earlier.  As Eloise lives through Sandie she experiences the exhilaration of dancing in the Cafe de Paris and being seduced by Matt Smith's charming music manager, Jack. But soon the night-time dreams become nightmares as we learn that Jack is pimping Sandie out, and watch Sandie transform from free-spirited confident young woman to a weary, angry woman who doesn't believe she's worth saving. This allows for one of the most powerfully emotional scenes in the film, set-up by many previous mirror shots where Eloise and Sandie can almost interact with each other: Eloise tries to punch through a mirror to get Sandie to look at herself/Eloise and confirm her worth.

To say more would be to spoil the plot twists carefully laid down by screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns (PENNY DREADFUL) and the marketing department. What I will say is that Wilson-Cairns script is delightfully authentic in its depiction of mean girl verbal violence and more profoundly of sexual exploitation. And as with all Edgar Wright films, the use of music is exceptional. I also loved the design team's recreation of a seedy Soho that has all but disappeared now, filtered through DP Chung-Hoon Chung (THE HANDMAIDEN)'s neon lights and rain splashed streets. But most of all, this was just a really enjoyable film that genuinely surprised me - both with its satisfying plot twist AND with its thought-provoking depiction of a bright young girl's slide into prostitution.

I'm only docking it a star because of Thomasin McKenzie's inconsistent and distracting West Country accent.

LAST NIGHT IN SOHO is rated R and has a running time of 114 minutes. The movie played Venice, Toronto and the BFI London Film Festival and will be released in the UK and the USA on October 29th. 

SPOILERS BELOW: This film has a REALLY clever marketing and misdirection plan. The trailer and media coverage lead us to believe it's a horror film rather than a murder mystery because Matt Smith's Jack is depicted as the bad guy. We go into the film thinking that the real mystery is whether Eloise will go mad and whether anyone will believe her when she tells them Jack killed Sandie.  My first inkling that this was not the game was when Sam Claflin turned up as a vice squad officer. Why hadn't he been in any of the media coverage or on the red carpet. Why hadn't I spotted him in the IMDB credits? Well obviously because we need to believe that Terence Stamp is the older version of Jack for the misdirect to work. And I checked. Even on the film's end credits, Sam is just listed as playing Punter number 5. Random side-note - I've long thought Claflin would make a great Bond and in his suit and slightly sixties fuller hair I was confirmed in this belief.

Friday, October 08, 2021

THE WOLF SUIT*** - BFI London Film Festival 2021 - Day 3

Debut documentary feature director Sam Firth has made a deceptively simply but emotional fraught documentary about her own parents' marital breakdown and the impact that had on her own ability to be in a successful relationship. She begins by exploring archival material from her childhood and then by interrogating her own memories and that of her parents. They are game enough, even attempting a studio where Firth recreates scenes from her childhood, including painful memories of verbal and physical abuse. What's fascinating but unsurprising is how the three participants have very different perspectives on what happens. In particular it's fascinating seeing the dad parse hitting the mum as a slap or not a punch or as an act of aggression versus slapping a hysterical woman. It's also really hard to watch the daughter take in new information that contradicts long-held "memories" and reconcile the parents she loves now with the people they were then. This is really superb documentary film-making, even if at times I felt deeply voyeuristic watching what is in effect somebody else's therapy.

THE WOLF SUIT has a running time of 74 minutes. It is playing at the BFI London Film Festival 2021 and does not yet have a commercial release date. 

THE SOUVENIR II***** - BFI London Film Festival Day 3

Julie is grieving the death of her charismatic, controlling, deceitful boyfriend Anthony. She doesn't know if she misses who he was or just the companionship and intimacy of love. She expresses her grief in her student film, a memorial, or Souvenir, if you will.  And in making the film, she rediscovers her sense of fun and takes joy in her friendships. We leave her still aware that she is inchoate and waiting to find her voice, but optimistic. And we leave the film, conscious that writer-director Joanna Hogg, who has created this fictionalised version of her life in this film, has indeed voice her voice with this deeply felt, technically audacious, often hilarious, film.

Viewers who have not seen Hogg's previous film, THE SOUVENIR, may struggle to understand why Julie is so driven to capture her relationship with Anthony. Without Tom Burke's dominant presence, I feared that this sequel might lose its purpose, much as Julie feels unmoored at the start of the sequel. But as the film progresses we see Julie find her way, thanks partly to her unstintingly supportive if somewhat anachronistic parents (Tilda Swinton and a drily hilarious James Spencer Ashworth). She also progresses with her student film despite her supercilious film professors, but with the support of her best friend Marland (Jaygann Ayeh). Along the way there are moments of desperation - and searching for connection - and the lightest of touches with the tragedies of the 1980s when a gay editor reveals his boyfriend has been sick for a while.  Richard Ayoade also returns with a scene-stealing turn as an arrogant film student with dip-dyed hair. The problem is that he's not wrong in what he says! Julie should move on.

But what raises this film to a level beyond that achieved in the first part of THE SOUVENIR is Joanna Hogg's greater confidence in exploring the meta-textual nature of making a film about her own student film-making. I LOVE that the student film we finally see bears no resemblance to the verite-footage we have seen so far, but leaps into Fellini or Red Shoes ballet -esque surrealism. Bravo!

I also hope that Honor Swinton Byrne continues to act. She has a natural charisma and empathy that shines through the screen. I'd love to see what kind of range she has.

THE SOUVENIR II has a running time of 106 minutes and is rated R. The film played Cannes and the BFI London Film Festival 2021. It will be released in the USA on October 29th 2021 and in the UK on January 21st 2022.


15 MINUTES OF SHAME is a tightly edited, well-organised new documentary from Exec Producer Monica Lewinsky and Catfish TV show co-host/director Max Joseph.  The documentary has two strands. The first tells us the history of public shaming, from the ancient Greeks via tarring and feathering, to present day cancel culture. It does so with a curated collection of talking heads from eminent academic and activist backgrounds.  The other strand features people who have had their lives ruined by public shaming, and crucially, not for having done anything wrong.  People who correctly called out racism or Trump's lunacy or just happened to make a hand gesture that got misinterpreted as racist. And there are real consequences for their mental health and livelihood. All of this stuff is punching down, just as it was for Monica Lewinsky. Far easier to call a young woman a slut than an old powerful man a predatory sexual abuser.  I learned a lot from this doc - especially about social media companies lack of legal liability under Federal law, and also about the evolution of troll farms. The personal testimonies were also deeply moving. This really is required viewing.

15 MINUTES OF SHAME has a running time of 85 minutes and is available to stream on HBO Max.

SPENCER*** - BFI London Film Festival 2021 - Day 2

No film by Pablo Larrain can be a complete disaster. He's just too bloody talented. And his tale of Princess Diana's final Christmas inside the Royal Family is beautifully shot by DP Claire Mathon (PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE) in a manner reminiscent of Barry Lyndon - ethereal misty cool landscapes and warmly luscious interiors hiding a gothic horror. The framing is deliberate and intense - close-ups of Diana's quivering face - tracking shots that move with her in and out of rooms in which she is alienated and trapped -  tableaux held for longer than is comfortable.  Moreover, Larrain's film is scored by Jonny Greenwood (THERE WILL BE BLOOD) in glorious eclectic discordant cool jazz, classical piano and 80s pop kitsch, contributi
ng to one of the most impressively intricate sound designs I've heard in years. 

In front of the lens, the supporting cast is strong throughout. I particularly loved Timothy Spall as a kind of austere Danvers-ish equerry who allows Larrain to show the full froideur of the institution, without actually having a go at Her Maj or Pricne Charles (Stella Gonet and Jack Farthing - used very sparingly indeed). And in the title role, this film hosts a career-best performance from Kristen Stewart, whose fragility and vulnerability is used to devastating effect. As a portrait of a woman suffering from a nervous breakdown, bulimia, suicidal ideation and paranoid delusion, it's a heartbreaking and powerful film.

But for me, as a film about Diana Spencer, this film is a failure.  And that is predominantly because of choices made by Larrain and screenwriter Steven Knight (the pisspoor SERENITY).  I found their screenplay heavy-handed to the point of absurdity.  In an opening sequence, Diana is lost. Lost! "Where am I?" she asks bewildered peasants. Where is she indeed. "Do you think they will kill me?"  Whatever can you mean?! Throughout the film she has visions of Anne Boleyn. A cheap trick made even cheaper by a sequence where we see Diana in full tudor kit running through the house. And curiously miscast since Anne Boleyn was most famously the "other woman" rather than the "wronged woman" - in other words, more Camilla than Diana. And then the mawkish near final scene, where Diana's beloved dresser (Sally Hawkins - so talented she almost sells it) leaves her a note saying "it's not just me that loves you".  This film hangs heavy with portents of Diana's death and the mass hysteria that followed.

It's also odd to have Diana hanker after her childhood home as a safe place full of memories of dancing and laughter and sun-dappled gardens.  Diana had a notoriously miserable childhood, with a mother who abandoned her and a father who then remarried someone Diana painted as a wicked stepmother.  And far from being a boarded up gothic manor, the house was very much alive, being renovated by her stepmother in the bourgeois comfort that Diana claims to crave in this film, but decried in real life.

Finally, when contemplating this film compared to Larrain's magisterial JACKIE I wondered if the problem was simply that Diana isn't as interesting as Jackie Kennedy. She was basically a fragile, pretty, but rather thick woman who was almost perfectly incompatible with the institution she married into. It's a sad bad marriage but nothing more. By contrast, in JACKIE we have REAL narrative tension and REAL history being made. Jackie is a smart manipulative woman who wants to create the first draft of history as the myth of Camelot in opposition to the new LBJ White House and then Billy Crudup's journalist. There is no real narrative tension in DIANA.  Just a woman trapped for a 2 hour running time, looking beautiful and skewered. 

SPENCER is rated R and has a running time of 111 minutes. SPENCER played Venice, Telluride, Toronto and the BFI London Film Festival. It will be released in the USA and UK on November 5th.

COP SECRET***** - BFI London Film Festival 2021 - Day 2

Hannes Þór Halldórsson is the Iceland national football team's goalkeeper who once saved a penalty by the greatest footballer who has ever played, Lionel Messi.  That's reason enough to be famous.  But Hannes has obviously also spent A LOT of time watching cheesy American buddy cop action movies like BAD BOYS as well as, I suspect, ZOOLANDER and has created an absolutely hilarious low-budget buddy cop spoof called COP SECRET.

The movie stars Auðunn Blöndal as Bussi, a cliched drunken loner cop who drives around Reykavik in a suped-up shitty car at great speed with no respect for the rules. As we would expect, Bussi comes into conflict with his hard-as-nails boss Þorgerður (Steinunn Ólína Þorsteinsdóttir),  His rival is super-buff ex-model suburban cop Hörður, played by Egill Einarsson.  One of the most brilliant decisions in this film is to make explicit the implicit homosocial tones of many of these movies, and have beer swilling, fast-food eating hyper-macho Bussi admit that he's totally into his rival and vice versa.  The two cops are united when a dastardly criminal gang led by disfigured ex-cop Rikki (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson), starts robbing banks but apparently taking nothing.  What are they really up to?  And how is this going to impact the upcoming England-Iceland football match?!
The resulting film is fast-paced, genuinely funny and a great time, but only if you're familiar with the tropes its spoofing. Highly recommended!

COP SECRET has a running time of 98 minutes and has played Locarno and the BFI London Film Festival 2021. It will be released in Iceland on October 20th.

THE HARDER THEY FALL*** - BFI London Film Festival 2021 - Opening Night Gala

Jeymes Samuel's assured debut feature is a pastiche of Tarantino pastiching Leone, except with a largely black cast centring real black outlaws.  There's a joyous energy from seeing that kind of representation, and I respect Samuel for using his big stars - Idris Elba and Regina King - sparingly, so that we can see that next generation of talent shining through.  Special praise has to go to Danielle Deadwyler's queer outlaw Cuffee, who I would argue is the true hero of the piece, and RJ Cyler who steals every scene he's in as the arrogant, quick-draw outlaw Jim Beckworth.  Samuel also has an absolutely masterly touch when it comes to pairing action set pieces with iconic black music from around the world.  It comes as no surprise to learn that he's a multi-hyphenate talent aka The Bullits, who as well as recording under his own name, acts as a music advisor on others' films.

So what's it all about? In a prologue we see our antagonist, Idris Elba's Rufus Buck, brutally murder young Nat Love's mother and father. And so for the body of the film we are basically deep in Inigo Montoya territory ("you killed my father, prepare to die!") with Love's gang facing down Buck's gang in a series of Mexican standoffs and shootouts. There's a loosely alluded-to sub-plot whereby Buck has actually stolen all the money to finance a black-owned town called Redwood City as a safe space for black people, but he needs more money because white people are about to incorporate the state and will not honour their claims.  But this isn't really prosecuted as a plot. Rather, Samuel is more interested in cheap visual gags whereby a town full of whites is literally painted white and there's a subtitle that says "it's a really white town".

So that's the level we're on here - knowing, well-informed site gags and verbal humour.  As a result, because the film isn't trying to do something more profound, and one shoot out follows another, I did get a bit bored in between the flashes of humour. The set pieces are great - particularly one that happens on a train - but so many.  Are we gonna listen to yet another character ponderously explain their backstory before torturing another? And this brings me to a more profound question. I find it fascinating that Samuel wants to refocus our attention on real black outlaws but then doesn't really want to respect their actual stories and historical truths.  He just bunches them altogether rather arbitrarily into rival gangs and gives them a paper thin motive for their black-on-black violence. I get that it must be a liberating choice not to have to define the characters by their attitudes to mainstream white society, but it did make me uncomfortable to see a film where black people shoot other black people and leave the oppressive whites largely unmenaced.

THE HARDER THEY FALL has a running time of 130 minutes and is rated R.  The film had its world premiere at the BFI London Film Festival and will be released on Netflix on November 3rd.

DUNE (2021) ****

Frank Herbert's iconic ecological sci-fi/fantasy series, Dune, begins its first book with our hero, a young aristocrat called Paul Atreides, being yanked off his luscious home planet to travel with his family to an arid desert planet called Arrakis. The evil Emperor has lured them there with the promise of Arrakis' riches - the ability to mine "spice" - a drug that makes interplanetary travel possible. Really, the Emperor is jealous of Paul's father's charismatic power and is backing House Atreides rivals, the Harkonnens.  But Paul's father feels he can mount a challenge if he can form an alliance with Arrakis' indigenous population of Fremen....

Dune is notoriously unfilmable and yet it feels like every film-maker who read it as a teenager or somehow got their hands on Jodo's epic designs (see Frank Pavich's superb documentary JODOROWSKY'S DUNE) has somehow filmed it without acknowledging it openly.  To read Dune is to realise how much everything from Star Wars to Game of Thrones has borrowed heavily from its tale of political infighting, inter-galactic warfare, and mystic religiosity. This means that anyone who ACTUALLY films Dune risks looking like they're ripping off later works who themselves ripped off Dune.  (Tatooine, Saarlaks and the Force anyone?!)  And then there's the terrifying experience of David Lynch in the mid-80s, creating a Dune that was a commercial failure, where he didn't have final edit, and where despite flashes of design brilliance the whole thing feels like a pantomime ghoulish mess. (See my DVD commentary here). 

So it takes a real fanboy to have the balls to actually film Dune, and that fanboy is Denis Villeneuve, most famous for his superb sci-fi film ARRIVAL and the recent  moody but unnecessary BLADE RUNNER sequel. It tells you a lot that despite his commercial track record, the studio was not willing to finance both films that would've covered book one of the series, wanting to wait and see if part one actually found an audience.  Hollywood scars run long and deep.

Villeneuve's DUNE is, I am relieved and happy to say, a visual and aural triumph.  From his creation of Caladan in the Norwegian fjords, to his stunning depiction of shifting sands in Arrakis, this is a film-maker with a keen sensibility who leaves us with instantly iconic scenes.  I also really loved his design aesthetic - with beautifully rendered space-ships and palace interiors and ornithopters that actually look like flying insects.  Where Lynch leaned into the grotesquery of Baron Harkonnen, Villeneuve realises that what lives in our minds when we read a book can look absurd when visualised on screen, and so he uses that character sparingly and in a very pared down design. Indeed, all the costumes and make-up feel sleek and and as modern as possible. Finally, behind the lens, Hans Zimmer's score is another triumph, and I am unsurprised to learn that he's another fanboy. 

The acting is by and large fine - with Charlotte Rampling's Bene Genesserit Reverend Mother the standout cameo. Timothee Chalamet - well he looks young enough as Paul - almost pre-pubescent - but it's just another Chalamet role where he plays a brooding kid.  He has zero range - or at least no range that I've seen. Let's see if he can actually look like a leader as and when the next film is made.  Javier Bardem is fun as Stilgar, but we see very little of him.  Where I started to have problems was the use of humour in the film. Herbert's book is really dour and unfunny and the insertion of a couple of deliberately funny scenes around Josh Brolin's Gurney Halleck sat awkwardly with the film's overall tone. And then there was the problem of the audience i watched this with laughing at Zendaya's Chani as she mocked Paul.  And again, given that she needs to take a much larger role in any sequel, that may prove a big problem.

Overall, my feeling is that I enjoyed being in Villeneuve's world and fanboys will be happy that setpieces such as the fight with Jamis make the cut. BUT - BUT - I did find myself looking at my watch a lot.  It's a really weird decision not to film the whole book and because of that not much actually happens, there's no real narrative drive, and it's all just set-up. That's fine for me - I'll happily wait for another film, but is a mainstream audience going to wait? And if not, is this film going to make enough money to warrant a sequel?

DUNE is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 155 minutes.  DUNE played Venice and Toronto 2021 and opens in the UK on October 21st and in the USA on October 22nd.