Criterion Sunday 202: Stazione termini (Terminal Station aka Indiscretion of an American Wife, 1953)

As a Criterion release, I’m somewhat underwhelmed by this film, even watching De Sica’s longer, original cut (as Terminal Station rather than the shorter version Indiscretion of an American Wife, recut by producer David O. Selznick). It takes the romantic setting of a train station as the locus for its story of two lovers pulled apart then together then apart, a little dance of passion that should be more… well, more like Brief Encounter I suppose. There’s a strange inertness to both Montgomery Clift’s Italian/American Giovanni and Jennifer Jones as the adulterous wife Mary, despite the passionate bond they seem to share. Still, there are some lovely shots and it does create an atmosphere for this forbidding, steamy, loud Italian location.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Vittorio De Sica | Writers Luigi Chiarini, Giorgio Prosperi and Cesare Zavattini | Cinematographer Aldo Graziati | Starring Montgomery Clift, Jennifer Jones, Richard Beymer | Length 89 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 11 March 2018

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Criterion Sunday 184: “By Brakhage: An Anthology, Volume One” (1954-2001)

This compendium of short films by the American experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage spans the range of his life, from his earliest works to after his diagnosis with the cancer which would claim his life in 2003. It was joined by a second volume some years later (as spine numbers 517 and 518), meaning this early instalment was retrospectively retitled as “Volume One” at that time. I present thoughts on some of the films below.

Desistfilm (1954) is my introduction to Brakhage’s work, like some kind of hepped-up beatnik film about a house party set to a hard-edged droning soundtrack, as people’s relationships break down. Wedlock House: An Intercourse (1959) takes glimpses of early married life, but edits them together with fades to black in flickering light and comes across as nothing so much as a Lynchian dystopia of nightmares, with negative-image graphic sex interpolated. It doesn’t exactly paint a pleasant portrait of marriage.

Brakhage’s most famous work, though, probably remains Dog Star Man, made in four parts with a prelude (so: five separate short films). As a whole it’s a fevered rush of images, or at least that’s the sense that Part IV conjures, though the Prelude sets up the basic imagery of the title, where the “man” is both Brakhage himself, and also his newborn baby, and the “star” seems more like a solar plexus of body imagery and film manipulation effects. It’s all quite affecting in its way, but perplexing too. Part I has the most sustained sense of narrative, as Brakhage journeys futilely up (or along, depending on the camera angle) a snowy slope like a deranged Sisyphean hunter figure with his dog. Part II introduces the baby imagery more fully, with this and the remaining parts being relatively shorter.

Possibly the most distinctive film, both integrated into his oeuvre but also standing apart by virtue of its extreme subject matter, is The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (1971). I don’t really know how to ‘rate’ this, but for all that the subject matter may be gruesome (footage taken during actual autopsies), I found it difficult to take my eyes off the screen, because to do so would seem somehow disrespectful to what Brakhage is filming here: the very substance of physical being itself. I suppose at a metaphorical level this could be construed as another film about the technical aspects of filmmaking — editing and deconstructing — but yet it’s really, really not: it’s the literalisation of some kind of metaphysical consciousness that doesn’t simply reduce once-living beings to cadavers, but finds some kind of transcendent purity in our essential form. This is supported by the formal means Brakhage uses, the occasionally occluded camera angles, the complete lack of sound, the structure moving us gently from coroners measuring things into the more macabre material. I wouldn’t call it disturbing exactly, though not everyone would wish to sit through it, but it certainly makes all other filmed images seem a little unnecessary.

At the other end of the spectrum of life, Window Water Baby Moving (1959) films Brakhage’s wife giving birth to their baby daughter (or is that a spoiler?). It has a lyrical quality to it, to the colours and textures, that carries it through the bloody and painful aspects of what’s taking place, seeming to communicate at least something of what’s special to it. From the same year, Cat’s Cradle is riven with blood red textures, of sensuality perhaps or something more eerie… and a cat. Family figures in a later film, Kindering (1987), in which odd contorted images of children playing in their backyard create a strange, slightly creepy effect. With I… Dreaming (1988), he again hints at a dark loneliness, something that seems to have been taken up by Lynch when I think about the spaces of void (or I believe that’s the word he writes most often over his film here), but it doesn’t entirely work for me.

There are a few films which continue to explore the textures of filmed matter. In Mothlight (1963), the light of the camera passes directly through the biological material of a moth and its world, creating patterns and textures directly on the film. Returning to similar ideas, The Garden of Earthly Delights uses plant ephemera, and sort of achieves something of the same effect.

Sometimes the experimentalism of Brakhage’s films comes from the sense of the editing, but in The Wold Shadow (1972), it feels more like he’s experimenting with effects in the camera, or using a static image of trees in a forest as a base for improvisation on the theme of colour and light. It’s fascinating. More perplexing is The Stars Are Beautiful (1981), in which Brakhage recounts various creation myths relating to the stars, while his children (I am guessing) clip a chicken’s wings. I guess those birds won’t be getting anywhere near the stars.

There are also a large number of colour films, painted and collaged, but the first on the set (1987’s The Dante Quartet) isn’t my favourite. However, it has (unsurprisingly, Dante-esque) headings to its sections. Somewhat a precursor to that is Night Music (1986), thirty seconds of colour, big and bold. Meanwhile, the colours just seem a little more dissipated in Glaze of Cathexis (1990), though it’s the film of his which sounds most like the name of a black metal band (yes, it turns out someone has taken it for such), while Delicacies of Molten Horror Synapse (1990) sounds like the title of that band’s first album. Once again, it does some lovely things with colour and light, as you’d expect. A few years later, Study in Color and Black and White (1993) is more dark than colour, more black than white.

Having watched a series of Brakhage’s short experiments with light and colour hand-painted directly onto film, the 10+ minute running length of Untitled (For Marilyn) (1992) suggests it might somehow be wearyingly epic by comparison, and yet this ended up being the one I most loved (alongside Lovesong). It has the textures, the colours, the feeling. It’s the whole package, and is dedicated to his wife. Black Ice (1994) is another of his films which, when watched alongside some sludgy doomy metal (as I was doing, given most of these films are silent), starts to feel like a crack in the cosmos, through which snippets of light and colour seem to make their way. Cosmic shapes appear in Stellar (1993) as well, extensions of Brakhage’s work with painting on film, and perhaps these are just suggested by the title, but there is a sort of harmony of the spheres to it all.

In Crack Glass Eulogy (1991), after a long run of his colour and light films, seeing filmed images seems rather a novelty. It has a spare, haunting, elegiac quality, like night vision, like surveillance. By the end of the decade, though, in The Dark Tower (1999), the darkness threatens to overwhelm everything else, perhaps suggestive of his failing vision. Likewise Comingled Containers (1996, which Criterion’s sleeve notes correct to “commingled”) feels like a blend of photography (water imagery) and the filmmaker’s manipulations of light and colour in a way that is rather more productive than some of Brakhage’s other works, but with a similar undertow of darkness.

The final film on the set is the most recent one, Lovesong (2001), made only a couple of years before Brakhage’s death from cancer. What I like most about this film is that it feels like a pure expression of paint on film. It seems so fresh, wet and glistening on the surface of the celluloid. It’s a film that has hundreds if not thousands of individual artworks, any one of which could be framed, but together seem beautiful and mysterious, like so much of Brakhage’s work.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection || Director/Cinematography Stan Brakhage || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, over Sunday 25 February, 4 March and 11 March 2018

Desistfilm (1954) | Length 7 minutes
Wedlock House: An Intercourse (1959) | Length 11 minutes
Dog Star Man (1961-64) | Length 75 minutes [1001 Films]

The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (1971) | Length 32 minutes [Rosenbaum 1000]

Cat’s Cradle (1959) | Length 7 minutes
Window Water Baby Moving (1959) | Length 13 minutes
Mothlight (1963) | Length 4 minutes
Eye Myth (1967) | Length 1 minute
The Wold Shadow (1972) | Length 3 minutes
The Garden of Earthly Delights (1981) | Length 2 minutes

The Stars Are Beautiful (1974) | Length 19 minutes

Kindering (1987) | Length 3 minutes
I… Dreaming (1988) | Length 7 minutes
The Dante Quartet (1989) | Length 7 minutes
Night Music (1986) | Length 1 minute
Rage Net (1988) | Length 1 minute

Glaze of Cathexis (1990) | Length 3 minutes

Delicacies of Molten Horror Synapse (1990) | Length 9 minutes

Untitled (For Marilyn) (1992) | Length 11 minutes

Black Ice (1994) | Length 2 minutes
Study in Color and Black and White (1993) | Length 2 minutes
Stellar (1993) | Length 3 minutes
Crack Glass Eulogy (1991) | Length 7 minutes
The Dark Tower (1999) | Length 3 minutes
Comingled Containers (1996) | Length 3 minutes

Lovesong (2001) | Length 11 minutes

Criterion Sunday 182: Straw Dogs (1971)

Sam Peckinpah undoubtedly has an ability to put together a film, maintain tension, choreograph an action sequence, and find exactly the right moment for a blast of strident bagpipe music. But modern cinema’s endlessly repeated theme — stuck in a groove like a particularly obnoxious record (let’s say, bagpipe music) — rears its evergreen head, namely ‘the toxic perils of masculinity’. It’s not something that doesn’t bear repeating, of course, it’s just the particular way that Peckinpah approaches it is to sacrifice everyone to it (and the title does, I believe, reference a ritual object). In this way, Straw Dogs ends up reminding me of the films of Michael Haneke, one of my least favourite auteurs (but if you love him, maybe you’ll get a kick out of this).

Dustin Hoffman plays a weedy American academic mathematician, in his young wife’s home town in Cornwall (England), where they are both swiftly targeted by the ruffian-like men who dwell there: him for having the temerity to not be from around there and thinking himself better, she for not wearing a bra (or so it seems). Anyway, she is certainly brought down a peg, the film’s editing repeatedly emphasising that he does not have sufficiently ‘manly’ attributes to protect his property (his cat, his wife, eventually his home). When he does eventually gain something of this presumably-failed masculinity, it’s one of those ‘ah ha DO YOU SEE, oh audience, how you are complicit in the violence inherent in our society’ kinds of ways so beloved of Haneke, and which you can either take as a masterstroke of authorial self-reflexivity, or, I don’t know, obnoxious and mean-spirited.

From my review, you can probably see the way I am critically leaning with Straw Dogs, and of course you may disagree. Yes, it’s a well-made film, but the way I feel about it is not so far from the way I feel about Dustin Hoffman these days.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Sam Peckinpah | Writers David Zelag Goodman and Sam Peckinpah (based on the novel The Siege of Trencher’s Farm by Gordon M. Williams) | Cinematographer John Coquillon | Starring Dustin Hoffman, Susan George | Length 117 minutes || Seen at friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 26 November 2017

Criterion Sunday 120: How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1989)

There’s a gleeful absurdism at work here that’s hard to deny has some pleasure, though I found it overwrought, almost stretching too hard to be considered “cult” (familiar territory for director Bruce Robinson, this being his follow-up to Withnail and I). It’s a High Thatcher British culture media satire and Richard E. Grant is its high priest, an ad exec pushed over the edge by zit cream, forced to account for his work to a boil that grows from his neck and threatens to take over his identity and his life. There’s a do-you-see #SATIRE quality that I find strained, but maybe it’s the very soul of anarchic comedy genius. It certainly has its admirers, and Grant certainly isn’t sparing any actorly extreme in his dual-role performance.

Criterion Extras: Aside from the transfer and the liner notes, there are no extras here.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Bruce Robinson | Cinematographer Peter Hannan | Starring Richard E. Grant, Rachel Ward | Length 94 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 18 September 2016

Criterion Sunday 108: The Rock (1996)

The Criterion Collection hit an early nadir with Michael Bay’s bombastic world-destroying Armageddon (1998) — I imagine some people even consider this the worst film in the whole collection (though for me, so far, it’s Chasing Amy, sorry Kev). So it’s fair to say my expectations weren’t high for the film Bay made just before it, The Rock. That said, there are no more of Michael Bay’s auteurist Gesamtkunstwerken in the collection, so I need never watch another of his films again, and perhaps this buoyed me into actually — a little bit — enjoying this festival of silliness. That said it might just as easily be the presence of Nic Cage, an admittedly unreliable but off-the-wall star (still holding it in a little, as he was wont to do at his awards-feted mid-90s height), or the steadying effect of Ed Harris and Sean Connery, two fine screen actors. I didn’t believe for a moment any of the plot contortions that see Ed Harris’s rogue military man take over Alcatraz and threaten destruction on the people of San Francisco — events that lead to Cage and Connery’s involvement. Indeed, I feel little interest in recounting these here. Twenty years on from its release, you’ll have seen the film already, or you’ll have decided not to bother with it, and who am I to criticise your decisions, borne of a cultural awareness hard-won for all of us labouring through those squalid trenches of mainstream blockbuster moviemaking. Still, if you were forced to see it — let’s say, if you were watching the whole of the Criterion Collection from earliest to most recent — then you could do worse. And, after all, how can you ever appreciate the austere rigours of arthouse at its most steely if you don’t also watch the popcorn-munching chemical-warfaring action nonsense too.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Michael Bay | Writers David Weisberg, Douglas S. Cook and Mark Rosner | Cinematographer John Schwartzman | Starring Nicolas Cage, Sean Connery, Ed Harris, John Spencer, David Morse | Length 136 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 7 July 2016

LFF 2016 Day Eleven

Saturday 15 October, the penultimate day of the London Film Festival, and another heavy one for me, with four films. Two of them were archival restorations, so a bit of guaranteed classic status in amongst the new works.


Daughters of the Dust (1991)Daughters of the Dust (1991, USA, dir./wr. Julie Dash, DOP Arthur Jafa)
It’s quite an achievement this film, but it’s not one that goes in for a straightforward narrative or overt central character. It’s about a whole family, if not an extended community, who are — at length — preparing to leave their home on an island in South Carolina in 1902. And it’s about their stories, and memories, and inherited customs. But none of this is presented in a particularly linear way; instead there’s a flow of characters and images (strikingly beautiful at times), and an accretion of scenes illustrating their lives. It’s not perfect either — the score sadly hasn’t dated very well at all, a wash of post-80s synths that doesn’t always add to the drama — but for the most part it’s excellent and singular. [****]


Park (2016)

Park (2016, Greece/Poland, dir./wr. Sofia Exarchou, DOP Monika Lenczewska)
I can already see the reviews of a few people calling this film “boring” and “overlong” and… well, it would be disingenuous to claim I don’t know what they’re talking about, but as far as I’m concerned films that get those labels — or at least films which aren’t superhero movies — tend to be just my kind of thing (see also: “self-indulgent”). It’s a film about a bunch of disaffected young people congregating amidst the detritus of Athens’ Olympic Park; their lives are going nowhere, so yeah, it’s fair to say there’s plenty of boredom and entropy. The two characters who come to be central, Dimitri and Anna, just mooch around, fight, fuck, dance, nothing special. But I thought it was compelling in its atmosphere of dereliction and dead-ends, a clarion call from a certain precarious position in a decaying society. [***½]


Born in Flames (1983)

Born in Flames (1983, USA, dir./wr. Lizzie Borden)
This is a film that comes from a specific time and place (New York in the early-80s) and perhaps some choices might not have been made today — bombing the WTC seems most obvious — but there’s still an enormous amount that retains both relevance and power 35 years on. Most notably this is an expression of intersectionality in practice avant la lettre, giving strong central roles to women of colour and criticising some of the viewpoints and privilege expressed by white feminists. That’s just one aspect; I liked also the way that its imagined socialist revolution (shades of Bernie brocialism?) hasn’t materially altered the patriarchal power structure, leading to calls for continued feminist insurrection. It’s all made in a sort of pseudo-documentary collagist agitprop style that is perhaps born of its extended genesis (filmed over five years) but works admirably. A lo-fi no-wave independent feminist masterpiece of sorts. [****]


Moderation (2016)

Moderation (2016, UK/Greece, dir. Anja Kirschner, wr. Kirschner/Maya Lubinsky/Anna De Filippi, DOP Mostafa El Kashef/Dimitris Kasimatis)
There’s a certain category of experimental filmmaking whose films seem more tailored to an academic appreciation, by which I mean that they are clearly carefully thought out in terms of thematics and ideas, but express themselves visually in ways that don’t always hold the casual viewer’s attention. Or maybe I was just coming down off three other films, because there was plenty in it to like, intellectually speaking. It’s a disquisition of sorts into horror cinema, without ever quite being a horror film — though it certainly flirts with generic elements both in its film-within-a-film story of strange sand-spewing pods, as well as in some of the apartment-bound scenes with actors encountering creepy poltergeist-like activity. The film is structured around a woman director and her screenwriter (Maya Lubinsky and Anna De Filippi), who are in a relationship, talking to prospective actors for their mooted horror film, and these extended scenes form a key part of the film. Indeed, storytelling, whether in dialogue by the actors or as an exercise of artistic creation dramatised between the two women, is very much the film’s most sustained theme, with horror just a heightened form of that basic need to tell stories. Also, there’s one scene where the Egyptian actor Aida’s pink hair and turquoise eye shadow perfectly matches her floral print dress, and it’s gorgeous to behold. [**½]

LFF 2016 Day Six

I missed days four and five of the London Film Festival what with being away for the weekend for my birthday (I was in Manchester at a beer festival). Anyway, I returned on Monday 10 October and resumed watching films…


LoveTrue (2016)

LoveTrue (2016, USA, dir./DOP Alma Har’el)
Psychodrama is a new one on me, but it fits into a burgeoning interest in examining the intersection between the stories we have in us and the ways they can be presented: the focus seems very much to be on documentary-as-performance (with, notably, some acted recreations of events, though the actors are clearly identified and the nature of this collaboration becomes part of the film at several points). Here, there are three central protagonists (in Hawaii, Alaska and NYC) but the ways they deal with the other players in their lives, specifically at the level of love, are quite different. I think the achievement of Alma Har’el’s film is getting under the skin of characters who can be quite unlikeable (here I’m speaking chiefly of the men), and making them empathetic at some level. Romantic love almost seems like an illusory idea by the end, but there are definitely other forms of love that haven’t been abandoned in all three, and in the telling it goes in some surprising emotional directions. [****]


Interchange (2016)

Interchange (2016, Malaysia/Indonesia, dir. Dain Iskandar Said, wr. Said/June Tan/Nandita Solomon/Redza Minhat, DOP Jordan Chiam)
There’s an interesting film in here about the appropriative gaze of white colonialists, whose early-20th century photography was thought to steal the soul of tribal peoples. This idea is parlayed into a vampiric metaphor (people literally sucked of life and turned inside out) within a detective thriller genre framework, which would be fine if it didn’t rest its characters and narrative on so many other referential crutches (Se7en, Hitchcock films like Rear Window and Vertigo, not to mention a whole strand of Hong Kong police thrillers and that kind of thing). Ultimately I just couldn’t care about photographer Adam, or the police detectives — or anyone really — and too much of the characters’ dialogue was filled with portentous platitudes. Still, it never fails to look stylish, and there are some beautiful images. [**½]


Nong Hak (Dearest Sister, 2016)Nong Hak (Dearest Sister) (2016, Laos/Estonia/France, dir. Mattie Do, wr. Christopher Larsen, DOP Mart Ratassepp)
This is something unusual — a Lao-Estonian-French co-production — though as the director mentioned in a post-film Q&A, there’s no real Lao cinema to speak of (all her local actors are non-professional, even if they all do a great job). The film is ostensibly a ghost story, looping in supernatural lottery prediction, but the heart of the drama is of class and social mobility dividing the rich city woman Ana (who is losing her sight, her sense of perspective — do you see) from her poor country cousin Nok, whom Ana barely knows but who has been moved in to help her around the home by the rich woman’s white (Estonian) husband Jakob. The film is also canny about calling out the presence of western NGOs and their workers’ assumptions about Lao women. But this is not a film which fits into South-East Asian horror stereotypes, nor does it quite match up to the kind of slow-burn Thai weirdness of, say, Apichatpong Weerasethakul (though I’d put it closer to that). It has its own rhythms, and uses a tightly-focused handheld aesthetic to help put across some of the terror and uncertainty felt by its blind central character. [***½]

Criterion Sunday 92: Fiend Without a Face (1958)

After the previous week’s The Blob comes another film from the same year, but from the other side of the Atlantic — not that you’d necessarily guess, given its Canadian setting and imported actors (okay, Surrey stretches credulity even as Manitoba, and some of the accents are ropey to say the least). It’s a deeply silly sci-fi story of mind control gone awry, and the audience is kept waiting for the big reveal of the slithery brain monsters by the narrative contortions whereby these creatures remain invisible while they are drawing on… NUCLEAR POWER. It’s no less badly acted than any other similar film of the era, and there’s a hammy turn from English veteran Kynaston Reeves as a demented professor, while the leads are clean-cut Major Jeff (Marshall Thompson) and the professor’s stalwart student Barbara (Kim Parker, who has a stronger role than the poster’s depiction of her in a bath towel might suggest).


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Arthur Crabtree | Writer Herbert J. Leder (based on the short story “The Thought Monster” by Amelia Reynolds Long) | Cinematographer Lionel Banes | Starring Marshall Thompson, Kynaston Reeves, Kim Parker | Length 77 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 10 April 2016

Jason Bourne (2016)

Paul Greengrass is a good filmmaker and has a stylish command of the visual vocabulary of film — he’s done great work on the two previous instalments of this spy series, not least. It’s just that other pesky vocabulary — which is to say, the words the characters speak, their motivations, that sort of thing — which seems to elude him here somewhat. Coming after a previous non-Damon outing with Jeremy Renner, I never found this latest instalment of the Bourne series boring, but it’s very silly, and the very quality that is supposed to differentiate Bourne, of being recognisably grounded in our world, seems to slip away. Granted we get a few mentions of Edward Snowden, but otherwise characters do the same stupid things they do in countless other spy thrillers, like hacking into networks where covert operations are held in a file folder on the CIA mainframe called “BLACK OPS”, calling out to “ENHANCE!” grainy photos, saying “Let’s use SQL to hack into their system!” Computers do all kinds of whizzy things that just don’t ring true at any level, and character motivations seem flimsy at best, though at least some of the other details of setting have a certain feeling of authenticity, not least the opening sequence at an Athens anti-austerity protest. Moving from this, we get the usual Bourne stuff of whizzing about from location to world location, making deals, stabbing and backstabbing, running and shooting, and all that stuff. It’s all done fine on screen — as I said initially, with plenty of visual flair — it’s just a pity it had to be so stupid.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Paul Greengrass | Writers Paul Greengrass and Christopher Rouse | Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd | Starring Matt Damon, Alicia Vikander, Tommy Lee Jones, Vincent Cassel, Julia Stiles | Length 123 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Wednesday 27 July 2016

The Violators (2015)

There’s been a lot of talk amongst my friends recently of hating other people in this country — for the way they vote, and for the opinions they seem to trumpet (or latch on to) — but desperate people have very little power and the more they’re ignored, left out in the cold with no options and no jobs, the more society will split apart. Now this isn’t immediately relevant to this film, first screened at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in 2015, but the film does give a vivid sense of life lived on the margins, and I think that’s always good to think about. If looked at as a story about the emotional toll of various forms of abuse (whether the societal burden placed on those without means, or, more immediately germane to the plot here, sexual), this is a persuasive film about one young woman (Lauren McQueen) living in a poor Northern town. It’s just that the film takes a swerve towards something more contrivedly ‘gangster’ towards the end, not to mention featuring a supporting character, a rich young woman called Rachel (Brogan Ellis), whose relationship to the lead is pretty confusing and the plot contortions that bring them together aren’t particularly persuasive. But even if it lost me a bit, it does set up a strong sense of a specific environment, and that’s worth something.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Helen Walsh | Cinematographer Tobin Jones | Starring Lauren McQueen, Stephen Lord, Brogan Ellis | Length 101 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Wednesday 22 June 2016