Monday, October 22, 2018

BFI LFF 2018 - Closing Night Gala - STAN & OLLIE


STAN & OLLIE is a rather limp attempt to depict the declining years of what was once the most famous comedy double-act in the world - Laurel and Hardy.  

The movie opens with them at the height of their fame, but notoriously in a contract dispute with studio boss Hal Roach.  Laurel - the more financially astute of the pair - wants to leave Roach and take the risk of producing their own movies, and so make the phat cash that Chaplin is amassing.  But Hardy - a gambling addict who needs the steady income - is nervous. We then skip forward 15-odd years and the fashion for Vaudevillian slapstick has waned, and while Chaplin sits in tax exile in Switzerland, Laurel and Hardy are back in England, scratching out a tour in humiliating circumstances, trying to finance their final film. A slew of PR stunts has them reverse their commercial failure only to see old resentments and health concerns threaten to derail them again.  

Writer Jeff Pope (PHILOMENA) very much wants to depict this emotional conflict as that of a marriage brought down by betrayal - the duo love each other but Hardy working with another comic was like an act of adultery and betrayal than broke Laurel's heart.  This theme is hammered on again and again in this film and is ultimately asked to carry too much weight. It's also not born out by the historical record.  When Laurel was ill he suggested Hardy work with others! 

Sunday, October 21, 2018

THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ANDRE


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

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

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



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

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

LIZZIE - BFI London Film Festival 2018 - Day Eleven


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

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

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

Friday, October 19, 2018

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


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

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

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

THE FAVOURITE - BFI London Film Festival 2018 - Day Ten


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

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

PETERLOO - BFI London Film Festival 2018 - Day Ten


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

THE FIGHT - BFI London Film Festival 2018 - Day Eight


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

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

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


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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

FIRST MAN


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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Monday, October 15, 2018

WHAT YOU GONNA DO WHEN THE WORLD'S ON FIRE - BFI London Film Festival 2018 - Day Six - Offical documentary competition


Roberto Minervini's new documentary about reactions to racism in the American South is deeply problematic. Shot in black and white for no obvious reason, the documentary seems incredibly staged.  Individual conversations might feel authentic in their content, but the framing of them, the lighting, the camera placement, all seem very contrived.  The problem with that is that once you start to question how much has been restaged for your viewing pleasure, you are brought out of the picture.

Nonetheless, even with the pretentiousness of the black and white film, and the stageyness, some of the storylines remain engaging.  The most touching of the reactions to this highly sensitised #blacklivesmatter moment is that of a mother raising two sons.  With shootings in the neighbourhood she drills into them the importance of being home before dark and staying in school. The scenes between the two brothers are touching and it's genuinely sad to see the elder start to become a delinquent by the end of the film.  

The second strand of the film is also engaging but feels even more staged. A fifty-something woman called Judy is trying to make her bar work but failing.  It becomes a kind of community centre or safe space where black men and women can talk about their daily struggles with racism. This is also the strand where we get some quite shocking and painful revelations of abuse.

To have this truly personal material butt up against the utterly awful third strand is then something of an insult.  The director has shown us two positive reactions to racism - protecting your kids, and taking comfort in community. But in this third strand he gives a platform to the new Black Panthers.  I'm all for freedom of speech and it's of course more than valid to show extreme racism begetting the same - nonetheless there was something utterly hollow and almost propaganda-ish about seeing these self-appointed saviours of the black community spouting horrible racist epithets at white people, walking around with guns and scaring the shit out of the people they're meant to be protecting, and in a staged scene worthy of Michael Moore - provoking a police assault. 

The final strand is just a cap and collar to the film - scenes of preparation for Mardi Gras with no context, meaning, point. What a waste of time.

WHAT YOU GONNA DO WHEN THE WORLD'S ON FIRE has a running time of 123 minutes. It played Venice and London 2018 and does not yet have a commercial release date.

BEING FRANK: THE CHRIS SIEVEY STORY - BFI London Film Festival 2018 - Day Six


BEING FRANK: THE CHRIS SIEVEY is a beautifully assembled and edited documentary giving us something genuinely new and insightful - a look behind the papier-mache head of the late 80s and early 90s cult pop-culture icon Frank Sidebottom. For those of you who didn't grow up in Britain you may not have heard of Frank, heard any of his self-consciously bad music, or seen any of his exhileratingly anarchic TV appearances. But for a certain generation - mine! - they defined a kind of devil-may-care brilliantly inventive comedy.  Part of the joke was never knowing who was behind the mask.  But in this documentary we learn that that man - Chris Sievey - was so much more creative, inventive and tragic than we could have possibly imagined.

Sievey grew up obsessed by The Beatles and so set all his store on becoming a pop star. He wrote lots of songs - and one of them might've been a break out hit had the appearance on prime TV show Top of the Pops not been cancelled due to a strike. But he carried on plugging away to little avail. And then, one of Sievey's comic creations - Frank Sidebottom - ended up getting the fame Sievey so wanted - but as a spoof! It's hard to imagine how this must have eaten away at Sievey, but also how far after all those years trying he was like a kid in a sweet shop.  

This documentary makes clear that the tragedy of Sievey is that while he was an ok musician he was an amazing visual and performance artist - from stunningly detailed casette covers and fanzines to stopmotion animation to the creation of Frank.  He deserves to be seen as truly one of the best, and one can only imagine what might have happened had his talent been channelled in the same way that Tim Burton's was.  I think Sievey could have been an amazing director.  But instead, we got a man who lost himself in the distinction between himself and Frank, became an alcoholic and a cocaine abuser, an adulterer, and remained impoverished throughout his life.  There's also a theme that's uninvestigated in this film but reads through to the viewer about mental illness -how far was Seivey perhaps bipolar and self-medicating his depression?

Despite the dark backing to the comic madness, this is fundamentally a hopeful and joyous film.  I came out of the screening with a massive smile on my face - reminded of moments of Frank I'd seen as a kid, and dazzled by the sheer talent on show. In Mr Phil's words - this is the perfect documentary - exactly what a Frank fan wants to see - the man behind the mask in context.  Moreover, it should work with people who are completely unaware of Frank - the humour simply still works, and the human interest story is very relatable. 

BEING FRANK: THE CHRIS SIEVEY STORY has a running time of 100 minutes. The film played SXSW and London 2018 and does not yet have a commercial release date. 

THE FRONT RUNNER - BFI London Film Festival 2018 - Day Six


In 1988 Gary Hart was the charming, popular Democratic candidate running against George HW Bush for the president. The Oval Office was his to lose, and that he did, when he was exposed as having an affair with a young woman called Donna Rice. More than is typical, it wasn't the crime but the cover-up - his stubborn refusal to admit that he was morally culpable - his privileged outrage that the press even had the temerity to ask him about adultery. This film does a great job of showing that complete tone-deafness to the reality of then-modern politics.  That you can't hide your poor judgment and immorality behind a facade of gentlemen's silence anymore. That the press aren't your friends (as he was in fact a friend of Bob Woodward) but sceptics who should expose your malfeasance.  

THE FRONT RUNNER is a new film by director Jason Reitman (THANK YOU FOR SMOKING) and a script by Reitman, Jay Carson and Matt Bai.  The movie is whip smart and technically superb. It's opening hour has a kinetic feel that perfectly sums up the shabbiness and chaos of the campaign trail and makes you feel like you're living on those campaign buses and inside the WashPost editorial room.  It feels like Reitman was going for a Robert Altman vibe - lots of layered voices -a lens that shifts curiously from conversation to conversation. The effect is a collage of impressions and moments that build to a nuanced understanding of the issues and events.

What I really liked was the very light way in which the deeper issues of gender politics and power imbalances were handled in this film - typically through the female characters who act as its conscience.  In the WashPost newsroom the one female editor tells the naive young trail reporter that Hart's lapse of judgement matters - and wonders if anyone has heard from Rice.  In the Hart campaign, it's the young woman who's left to shepherd Rice back to Miami - and actually tries to protect her thereafter, and gives an honest answer to Hart's belated inquiry after her. Most of all, it's Vera Farmiga as Hart's wife Lee who embodies the moral highground with a quiet but rage-filled performance. And while I've been reading a lot about Hugh Jackman potentially being nominated for this performance (he's fine but nothing special), for me it's Farmiga who deserves the plaudits. 

My only real criticism of this film is that it really lost pace in Week Three of the campaign when the scandal comes out. Maybe it was just hard to sustain the very fast-pace of the opening hour, but I strongly feel that it could lose at least ten minutes of its final, say, 45 minutes. This seems to be a repeat offence for Reitman - his films often start strong and then sort of fizzle out. 

THE FRONT RUNNER has a running time of 105 minutes and is rated R.  It played Toronto and London 2018. It will be released in the USA on November 7th and in the UK on January 25th 2019. 

Sunday, October 14, 2018

DESTROYER - BFI London Film Festival 2018 - Day Five - Official Competition


DESTROYER is a movie so tightly written, so well directed, so brilliantly tense, that by the end of the screening it was hands down the best film I had seen to date in the festival - and all that despite the fact that the make-up work is so over-done it kept bringing me out of the film for its entire running time. 

The film takes place over three time periods.  The earliest is when Nicole Kidman's young local cop, Erin Bell, is teamed up with Sebastian Stan's Fed, to go undercover with a gang of bank robbers led by Toby Kebbell's Silas. In this era, everyone in the gang is playing their age, but Kidman is playing 25 years younger with some very well done subtle make-up and hair.  The next period is maybe a few months or a year later. The young couple are ensconced in the gang, and living rough has made Erin - well - rougher:  her hair is messier, her eyes start to get dark circles.  Still very credible.  And then we move forward 16 years to the current day. A now older Erin still works for the police, and is investigating a murder that signals to her that her old adversary, Silas, is back and settling old scores.  Erin is maybe in her early 40s, so actually younger than Kidman.  But she looks at least mid 50s and incredible worn by what we have to assume is heavy drinking.  The circles under the eyes, the red bloodshot look, the extreme weathering of the skin, the sunspots on the hands.  To me, this all felt just way too much. And it's not helped by the fact that director Karyn Kusama (JENNIFER'S BODY, AEON FLUX) decides to focus on Bell's aged face at both the start and the end of the film. The guy who designed the make-up - Bill Corso - has done a fair bit of horror work before, and even DEADPOOL more recently. I just feel that a more naturalistic look may have worked better here. And I'm very curious to see whether other viewers found the make-up as distracting as I did. 

Anyway, the good news is that this film more than survives the bad make-up.  That it does is down to a genuinely tricksy, beautifully constructed script by long-time writing partners Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi; a sound-track that is alternately pulsating and violent or sweet and melancholy from Theodore Shapiro, and a landscape that is bleached out, harsh and lonely, created by DP Julie Kirkwood and the director. This bleak landscape beautifully frames our complicated, dark, angry protagonist - a woman trying to deal with the damage her past decisions have caused.  Some of this is done with smarts, but there's a fair amount of brutal violence, and what I love about the direction is that every punch, every kick, seems to really hurt.  This is no typical Hollywood violence. This has consequences. And the broken battered face and body of Erin Bell - just as of Jake in CHINATOWN - symbolise corruption - except this time it isn't the city, but the person. In other words, where DESTROYER creates that same tense thriller style of the great LA Noirs, the real subject isn't the system, but the personal struggle of a woman to protect those she loves, and ultimately to be at peace with herself. That this protection can only come with violent vengeance is fascinating - because it creates a female character as tough as any we've seen on screen, but one that is also hurt, fragile and trying to love. And that complexity is what makes this film so gripping. 

A final comment from Mr Phil:  The score was very reminiscent of 1970s David Shire scores from films like THE CONVERSATION and this is a good thing.

DESTROYER has a running time of 123 minutes. The film played Toronto 2018. It opens in the USA on December 25th and in the UK on January 25th.

SORRY TO BOTHER YOU - BFI London Film Festival 2018 - Day Five


Cash Green (Lakeith Stanfield - GET OUT) is your typical millenial struggling to make rent in Oakland.  He gets a job as a salesman at Regalview but can't connect with customers until Danny Glover's older wiser colleague advises him to use his "white voice".  Once Cash does that, he starts making bank, and while his friends and girlfriend (Tessa Thompson - Westworld) are trying to unionise, Cash gets promoted. Problem is, what he's actually doing in his new job is selling labour - and not just any kind of labour - voluntary slave labour!  Cash does so well suppressing his conscience for money that Armie Hammer's rival megalomaniac tries to poach him to sell an even more bizarre form of labour, wherein he'll both control the labour and its malcontents.

The result of all this is a film that doesn't have the attention span to mine any of its ideas properly - but just keeps throwing more and more outlandish scenarios at the wall.  When it works it's great, but by the final half hour I had utterly lost interest in its absurdist premise.  The tragedy is that writer-director Boots Riley goes so far beyond his original concern about code-switching that we kind of forget what point he was making. (As a side note, I thought it would have been FAR more effective to show actual code switching rather than the allegedly funny ruse of dubbing the black actors with actual white voices). I feel that Boots Riley has a lot that is vital and urgent to say, but that he needs a strong producer to really edit down his thoughts so that each film is powerful and memorable for a single strong idea. There's just waaaay to much happening here for it to be coherent. 

SORRY TO BOTHER YOU has a running time of 111 minutes and is rated R. The movie played Sundance and SXSW 2018 and opened this summer in the USA. It is currently playing the BFI London Film Festival and will open in the UK on December 7th.

THE KINDERGARTEN TEACHER - BFI London Film Festival 2018 - Preview


Sara Colangelo's faithful remake of the Israeli drama THE KINDERGARTEN TEACHER is a beautifully acted, tense, slippery little film that has the confidence to leave some of its motivations mysterious. It stars an ever-superb, ever-brave Maggie Gyllenhaal as a teacher in Staten Island called Lisa Spinelli.  She lives a life where she has failed to inspire her own teenage kids to do anything meaningful. And while she attends a poetry class in Manhattan, taught by Gael Garcia Bernal's Simon, it's clear that while she may be artistically sensitive, she has no talent of her own.  One day, a little kid in her class called Jimmy (Parker Sevak) starts reciting poetry that is so precocious, and perfect, that Miss Spinelli is taken aback.  All of a sudden she has a mission in her life that makes HER unique and special by proxy - to be the guardian and nurterer of this little boy's talent.  

What I love about this film is that it continually throws us off balance. At first, when we see Lisa recite Jimmy's poetry in her Manhattan class, we wonder if this is going to be a film about plagiarism and theft. But no, her motives appear pure - at least in her own mind, everything she does is in the service of Jimmy's talent. She keeps telling herself this as her actions become more and more extreme, and the question Colangelo poses to us as the audience is how far we are willing to go along with her, and at what point we start questioning what is really going on here. How far is Lisa just trying to relive her own lost opportunity to shape her kids lives - how far has she become unmoored?

What I admire about Maggie Gyllenhaal is her willingness to play slippery ambiguous characters and take us into sympathising with her even as she does morally questionable things. Without spoiling anything, there's something so heartbreaking about Lisa's conversation with Jimmy through a door at the end of this film - at once the capable caring teacher, at once the emotionally trampled upon woman - that catapults this film to another level. I also love that this film simply allows the child to be a prodigy - and in its appallingly sad final lines, for Lisa to be right...

THE KINDERGARTEN TEACHER has a running time of 96 minutes. It played Sundance 2018 where Sara Colangelo won the directing prize. It also played Toronto and London. It opened in the USA last weekend and will open in the UK on February 8th 2019. 

WHITNEY & WHITNEY: CAN I BE ME


To be a kid in the 1980s was to live in an aural world created by Whitney Houston. Seven consecutive number ones, stunning good looks, she embodied all the optimism of the go-go decade.  And yet, as the introduction to Kevin MacDonald's authorised biographical documentary shows, one could as easily intercut this with much darker footage of a racially and economically divided time.  These two documentaries - one authorised and the other not - give a complementary portrait of a woman who embodied all those divisions and was ultimately undone by them. Of the two, Broomfield's documentary seems the most coherent in its diagnosis, and the darker, even if it's MacDonald's that gives us the shock revelation that Houston was sexually abused by her cousin, Dee Dee Warwick.  Put together, they give a remarkably complete view of Whitney Houston, and for my money they should be watched in the order in which they were released.  Broomfield gives the story, MacDonald supplements it with his better access to family interviews.  

The picture we get is of a girl with a horrid childhood, no matter what family friend Aunt Bae says.  Sexually abused when her performer mother left her with others to tour - bullied at school for not being black enough - growing up in a ghetto ripped apart by the Newark riots - in love with a corrupt and philandering father-politician who divorced her mother who cheated with the minister of the church that provided Whitney with a second home.  So Whitney may have seemed privileged - being placed in a private school by aspiring middle class parents. But she had a lot of stuff to deal with that struck at the very core of her identity, and all this financial privilege was after all an investment in a future star - one who would have more talent, yes, but also poise and sophistication than her rivals.

We then move to the Whitney we all knew in the 80s - super successful but as a pop star with an image carefully crafted to be unthreatening to white America -, booed by her own community at the Soul Train awards.  Broomfield does a really great job of showing how this echoed childhood bullying was deeply hurtful to Whitney and may have propelled her toward dating and then marrying the most black of all hip hop stars - Bobbi Brown.  At the same time we have a woman whose best friend and protector is a lesbian, with whom she may have been sexually intimate.  Both docs make the cause that Robyn Crawford really loved Whitney and may well have been the only person who put her needs first. One can only imagine - with the benefit of watching MacDonald's doc - how if Whitney had been abused by a woman, this could've complicated her feelings of attraction toward Robyn, exacerbating issues already there from the homophobia within the black church teaching she was raised within. 

The complications magnify with the amazing success of THE BODYGUARD - the inter-racial love story that magnified the black community's feeling that Whitney wasn't one of them - the huge inequality between Whitney and Bobby's success - his jealousy toward Robyn - and perhaps a need to bring her down to his level.  Both docs make clear that Whitney's brothers were already doing drugs around her and with her - and they are admirably clear and honest about that - but there's something about the toxic co-dependency of her relationship with Bobby that led to the years-long drug binge that all but killed her touring career and almost killed her recording career.  Perhaps the most tragic part of the whole thing is that it also engulfed their neglected and corrupted daughter, who soon followed Whitney to the grave.

Could it have been different? Maybe if she had married someone more stable, or not a music rival?  But would this really have resolved the sexual and racial identity crisis at the heart of Houston's life, or got rid of the exploitative hangers-on that are the through-line of all these stories of wasted talent? My major takeaway from both docs is just how cruel racial identity politics is - whether in the classroom or the awards ceremony - and perhaps re-watching the various versions of A STAR IS BORN so recently - the impossibility of a wholesome marriage between stars of unequal success. 

WHITNEY has a running time of 120 minutes and is rated R. It played Cannes 2018, was released earlier this year, and is now available to rent and own. WHITNEY: CAN I BE ME has a running time of 105 minutes and was released in 2017. It is also available to rent and own.

UNITED SKATES - BFI London Film Festival - Preview


UNITED SKATES is a wonderfully uplifting but socially aware documentary about african-american roller-rink dance culture by debut filmmakers Winkler and Brown. They explain how back in the days of covert segregation different roller rinks labelled certain nights as "adult nights" - a signal that this was when african americans could skate.  It was a safe space for creative expression and just plain letting loose - and at a time of few black dance clubs - a place where musical talent could be fostered. For instance, I was shocked to find out that a lot of major rap artists - from Dr Dre to Queen Latifah to Busta Rhymes - got their first breaks performing in roller rinks! And this doc features interviews with some of them - including members of Naughty by Nature and Salt'n'Pepa. Move forward to the modern day, and roller rinks are being threatened by rezoning for higher use value - developers want to knock them down and build condos or offices.  This doc shows powerfully how far that risks undermining community culture and the protests against the inevitable. But far from ending on a depressing note, this fantastically engaging and insightful film shows us that roller culture survives and in its most fascinating sequence - how different cities and states have their own dance styles.  I honestly could have watched double the footage of different states showing their moves at a national skate-fest -the sheer talent, exuberance and skill on show was mesmerising. And that's what great docs do -right? They take a subject you have no previous interest in - I've never put on a pair of skates - show you why it's vital and urgent, and pique your interest. 

UNITED SKATES has a running time of 87 minutes. The film played Tribeca and Melbourne 2018. There are still tickets available for both screenings at the BFI London Film Festival. 

Saturday, October 13, 2018

ROMA - BFI London Film Festival 2018 - Day Four


Alfonso Cuaron (GRAVITY) returns to the Londo Film Festival with another technically superb film - ROMA - a loving recreation of his childhood in 1970s Mexico with a loving but chaotic extended family and his beloved maid, Cleo. The film is full of meticulously staged set design and long fluid takes that move through the luxurious family house.  We see beautiful landscape photography and dazzling light over the ocean. Although I'm still not entirely sure why this needed to be in black and white. It's also worth noting the intensely constructed sound design that shows the street noises of Mexico and the dramatically crashing waves of the sea.  There are some fantastic set pieces here. One is the recreation of a student riot turned shoot-out seen from the vantage point of a furniture store. Another is a tense fluid run through A&E as a pregnant woman is rushed into surgery. I also loved the thread of water imagery running through the film - from - the water mopping tiles in the opening credits - to the dripping tap and blocked sink in the kitchen - to the pooled water in the unpaved road as Chloe goes back to the slum where her boyfriend lives - to the cataclysmic waves at the end.

But for all its technical mastery ROMA actually bored me for much of its first hour. I was struck by the notion that just because childhood memories are precious to you, does not mean that they will be fascinating for everyone else, even if you ARE a master cinematographer. And this feeling of disengagement is exacerbated by the fact that Cuaron takes a long time to truly signal to us that Cleo is going to be the focus of our attention. Otherwise it's just a leisurely created family portrait.  And then the second half of the film just launched us from crisis to crisis, all of which bordered on the unbearable and ended on a pretty hamfisted political point that no matter how much Cleo is "loved" by the family - and Cuaron who makes a film for her - she still gets consigned to the attic-roof.  She's always just be an employee. I do rather wonder how complicated Cuaron's feelings are about this point, and would have loved to see that explored further.  The only time I really felt it was addressed was when the grandmother of the family had to admit that while she loved Cleo she didn't really know anything concrete about her. I also felt that a final act declaration by Cleo at the beach - the only real glimpse we get of her emotional life - was utterly unearned. 

ROMA has a running time of 135 minutes. The film played Venice, Toronto and London 2018. It will be released by Netflix.

THE OLD MAN & THE GUN - BFI London Film Festival 2018 - Day Four - Official Competition


In the words of Mr Phil, THE OLD MAN & THE GUN is "Wes Anderson directs Ocean's 80". What he means by that is that this is a wonderfully stylish, witty, smart caper film with a wry sense of humour and way too much charisma for its own good.  

The movie stars Robert Redford as the real life bank robber Forrest Tucker - a man so addicted to and made happy by robbing banks that he did it pretty much his whole life! Of course, he was also periodically caught by the cops, and so periodically busted out - not least in an audacious self-made small boat from San Quentin!  If the character sounds larger than life, Robert Redford looks like he's having an absolute ball in the role, and takes us along with him for the ride.  One of the funniest moments is when Tucker meets the cop who's trying to catch him - a wonderful Casey Affleck - and you can't tell if Affleck is laughing at the insanity of the encounter in character, or just at how much fun Redford is having for real. Add to this a super performance from Sissy Spacek as Redford's love interest and some truly authentic naturalistic performances from Affleck's character's kids, and you have a movie with a lot of heart.

Behind the lens, I loved David Lowery's sense of style and fun - his DP Joe Anderson's fluid, elegant camera-work, and a truly beautiful jazz-infused score from Daniel Hart. But to be honest, I can't single out everything I love because there's literally nothing I don't like about this film. In fact, it's one of my films of the year.

THE OLD MAN & THE GUN is rated PG-13. The film played Toronto and London 2018. It was released in the USA on September 28th 2018. It comes out in the UK on December 7th. 

Friday, October 12, 2018

RUDEBOY: THE TROJAN RECORDS STORY - BFI London Film Festival 2018 - Day Three


This wonderfully nostalgic doc charts the story of the first and most influential British black independent music label - the iconic Trojan Records. These are the folks who brought the latest ska and then reggae records over from Jamaica to the West Indian community living in England in the 1960s. And then that music started to cross-over to white working class kids and for a couple of years in the early 1970s dominated the charts.  We're talking about iconic classics from Desmond Dekker to The Specials to The Maytals - everything from Everything I Own to Longshot Kick The Bucket to The Liquidator.  And thanks to interviews with the labels founders, some of the key musicians and producers, not least the insanely brilliant Lee Scratch Perry and Bunny Lee, we get to see how the musical trends built on what came before.

Thanks to my wonderful parents, this was the sound-track of my youth, on vinyl - but it was also the soundtrack of my youth because a new generation of Two Tone artists were also listening to these tracks and being inspired by them.  So while Trojan Records may have gone into liquidation in 1975, they were still resonating through The Clash and onto The Specials, Selector, Bad Manners and yes - even Madness. All I can say is that the 1980s was a great time to be a kid because of all of these great artists. And the lyrics just never got old.  A Message To You Rudy was just as urgent in the 80s as 60s. And to hear Young, Gifted and Black as a young girl of colour in the 80s was just as powerful and inspirational as it must have been a decade earlier.  So let's just say that I was pre-programmed to love this documentary and finally get the context and insight around the tracks I loved.

That said, there were two things that didn't mesh with me. The first was the use of recreations of historic events. It just felt like it was a bit corny and slowing the action down. Especially as we never understand why the original Trojan - a sound system guy from Jamaica was running around shooting wurlitzers and never smiling. I felt I'd rather just have more talking heads of musicians over great music.  And the second was the fact that the director - Nicolas Jack Davies - skates over the financial shenanigans and demise of Trojan. I wanted to know what happened to the money!

RUDEBOY: THE TROJAN RECORDS STORY has a running time of 86 minutes. This film does not yet have a commercial release date. 

MANTO - BFI London Film Festival 2018 - Day Three


Manto was a superb short story writer who lived in India, and then Pakistan, in the middle years of the last century.  Like COLETTE, his best works were in the short story format, and they shocked and scandalised with their honest depiction of sexuality, corruption and plain real life.  But where Colette's Claudine novels sold like hotcakes and made her and her husband the talk of Paris, Manto was sued for obscenity.  Moreover, his life was marred by the times in which he lived.  As a Muslim he found himself a persecuted minority in Bombay as racial tensions rise during partition. As a true Mumbaikar, he doesn't one to join his co-religionists and flee to the new nation of Pakistan. But when even his best friend - a Hindu film star called Shyam - in a moment of anger, swears he might even kill Manto in a mob, Manto finally decides to join his family in Lahore. At first he seems to fit right into the literary life around the Pak Tea House, but in this new impoverished country his earnings are slashed, he's once again tried for obscenity, and he sinks into alcoholism. It's a devastating portrait of a man ripped from the life he knew and loved, never truly at home after that, and maybe just as psychologically desperate as the hero of arguably his most famous story, Toba Tek Singh.

Nandita Das' new film of the MANTO story has much to recommend it. Most importantly, it stars Nawazuddin Siddiqui - the break-out star of Netflix's superb SACRED GAMES.  He shows both Manto's charisma and buoyancy in the literary debates of Bombay, but also his stubborn and unapologetic commitment to depict reality and his unravelling in Lahore. There's a particularly moving scene near the end of the film where he realises that his friend has not forsaken him, but is so far gone he cannot reverse his life. And so Manto's tragedy becomes yet another story of the blight of Partition. But so much more relevant because India still faces censorship today.  Just watch the Youtube interviews with the makers of SACRED GAMES, talking about how much swearing they could have because they were airing on a US streaming service! I feel Manto would've approved. The other thing struck me - and saddened me - was how Siddiqui plays characters in both SACRED GAMES and MANTO who are driven by, exploited by, their lives blighted by, religious violence between Hindus and Muslims.  Is progress even possible on these issues?

My criticism of this film is that it might be opaque for viewers unfamiliar with the history of Partition - or even with a sense of the coolness of seeing Rishi Kapoor in a cameo - or a passing reference to someone making Mughal-e-Azam.  More seriously, the film seriously loses pace when it reaches Pakistan - maybe a metaphor for Manto's career - but a fatal flaw nonetheless.
MANTO has a running time of 112 minutes. The film played Cannes, Toronto and London 2018.  It does not yet have a commercial release date. 

COLETTE - BFI London Film Festival 2018 - Day Two


Wash Westmoreland switches gears from his wonderful STILL ALICE to a period drama about the French Belle Epoque novelist Colette, and her marriage to the literary impresario "Willy".  As the movie opens we see the charming, avuncular Willy come to rural Burgundy to woo the girl over a decade younger than him, but our expectations over-turned as this apparent innocent meets him later in a hay barn for a quickie.  They then move to Paris and begin their married life. She is frustrated by his affairs and flirtations - he says it's just what men do.  But the real conflict will come when Willy enlists Colette to be on his "factory" of writers. They provide the words - he the brand name and marketing.  Colette pours her childhood memories into books that effectively create a new genre - coming of age stories with a hint of subversive sexuality for young women.  Combined with Willy's carefully orchestrated PR machine, the books are a success. But all under Willy's name....

What's wonderful about this film is its recreation of a fascinating period of history - one of bold ideas, beautiful art, freedom and flirtation.  The costumes and sets are beautifully done, and even Thomas Ades' score introduces what would then have been cutting edge compositions. After all, it's this artsy salon crowd that would first have embraced Satie's Gymonpedes. I also love the completely unflamboyant way in which the film embraces colour-blind casting, and its straightforward depiction of gay relationships and gender fluid living.

As for the main strokes of the story, the script (Wash Westmoreland, the late Richard Glatzer, Rebecca Lenkiewicz) commits sins of omission rather than commission.  It is very true to the life of Colette and Willy, and especially to their facility with words. What might have been quite a dirge-like film about a woman exploited by a man is thus transformed into something very smart and witty, and often laugh out loud funny. To that end, Dominic West - who has been getting away with rogueish behaviour since THE WIRE - is perfectly cast as the "fat arsehole".  Indeed, after a rather triumphant speech by a career-best Keira Knightley, one feels rather uplifted and hopeful at the end of the film - something confirmed by end title cards that tell us how happy and successful Colette was, and of her position as the premiere women of French letters.  

My only slight complaint is that the film wants to subtly shoe-horn the Colette story into having an ending that's more streamlined and progressive than the reality would prove.  If you knew nothing else about her than what you saw in the film, you might suppose that she fought for and won all the rights to be seen as the sole author of her work and that she had a long and happy relationship with Missy.  By contrast, the relationship with Missy ended (Missy ended up committing suicide after the war) and Colette married a man and had a child.  And while she did win the rights to be sole author after Willy's death, after HER death, Willy's son contested the authorship again. 

COLETTE has a running time of 110 minutes and is rated R.  The film played Sundance, Toronto and London 2018. It went on limited release in the USA on September 21st and will be released in the UK on January 25th 2019.