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.