The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (2015)

The historical antecedents to the current turbulent relationship between Black people and entrenched white power in the contemporary United States stretch back a long way, obviously starting with slavery, but developing through the Civil War, Jim Crow policies in the South, the Great Northward Migration of the early-20th century (on which topic The Warmth of Other Sons by Isabel Wilkerson is excellent), and then the Civil Rights era. It is during this latter period that the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (they subsequently shortened their name) were a key player. Agnès Varda filmed a short documentary about them in 1968, but a more thorough retrospective work is this one by Stanley Nelson. Incidentally, you can see a bit of their current work in Roberto Minervini’s documentary What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? (2019). The Black Panthers continue to be committed to supporting their own communities in straitened times. The hope for revolution may have receded, but systemic change is very clearly still very much required, and ever more urgently so.


A solid, involving and engrossing story that is rooted in the displacement and fallout from the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s which leads to the formation of the Black Panther Party, which took a rather more militant stance towards (white) aggression but also underpinned it with radical transformative community-based care. It’s in some sense a story of resistance to power, an almost utopian viewpoint albeit one grounded in bitter reality, undone by the forces of the state — and this is where the film’s real bad guys, the FBI (supported by the police), come in. Of course, the story is never really straightforward, and there’s some infighting and fall-outs along the way from within, but on the whole this film is clear about what the Black Panthers were offering, and how tantalisingly close they came to true revolution before being targeted and all-but-destroyed by J. Edgar Hoover’s Feds.

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution film posterCREDITS
Director Stanley Nelson Jr.; Cinematographers Rick Butler and Antonio Rossi; Length 115 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 24 October 2019.

Criterion Sunday 301: An Angel at My Table (1990)

Janet Frame is one of those iconic New Zealanders (not least because of her bright corona of red hair) who probably isn’t much known outside the country — or wasn’t until this biopic by Jane Campion. It’s a remarkable work that tracks her life via a tripartite structure (taken from the three memoirs Frame wrote): we see her as a young schoolgirl, then as a teenager, and finally played by Kerry Fox as an uncertain adult venturing out into the world after a period of difficulty. By which I mean that she was sectioned into a mental hospital for eight years of her life, for absolutely no medically-sound reason as it later turned out (just that everyone thought she was a bit odd). Campion does her best to find a balance between the darker elements and a sense of poetic license and even joy, and ultimately the film is about Frame finding her place in the world and her poetic voice. It’s all gorgeously shot and mounted, set in rural Otago before Frame later moves to London and Spain. Fox does well to convey Frame’s withdrawn character in an engaging way, and this is one of Campion’s best films.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The main extra is the 10 minute The Making of An Angel at My Table (2002) documentary by one of the producers of the feature which gives some behind the scenes context for the making of the film, mostly told by Campion herself, as well as Campion on her festival and press tour, promoting the finished film.
  • There are six short deleted scenes which add a few more little details to the characterisations.
  • There’s a fine stills gallery with some production photos, including the actual Janet Frame with her three actors.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jane Campion; Writer Laura Jones (based on the autobiographies To the Is-Land, An Angel at My Table and The Envoy from Mirror City by Janet Frame); Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh; Starring Kerry Fox, Alexia Keogh, Karen Fergusson, Kevin J. Wilson; Length 158 minutes.

Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Sunday 12 December 1999 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Tuesday 17 March 2020).

Jasper Jones (2017)

For the next two weeks I’m in Australia, and even though I’ve already done one Australia theme week, here’s another. I probably don’t have enough films left to manage even one more week, to be honest, so I’m not sure what the theme will be next week, but here goes a few more Oz flicks.


Small town Australia in 1969 has the kind of vibe we’ve become accustomed to in American films about the 1950s, of communities made up of like-minded individuals with pent-up issues around women and racism that resolve themselves in violent, self-lacerating ways — the same director has already handled this very time period (albeit in a comedic musical format) with Bran Nue Dae (2009), while Celia (1989) deals with a similar small town vibe (albeit set in the 1950s). Jasper Jones is named after the part-Aborigine boy (played by Aaron L. McGrath) who is distrusted and blamed by most of this small community, but it’s really mostly about a kid called Charlie (Levi Miller) who gets involved with the (possible) suicide of a girl in the town, which he spends much of the movie trying to uncover the truth about. It’s a stylish evocation of a period, and is mostly very successful, with some fine filmmaking and acting (not least from the ever-reliable Toni Collette). After the initial shock of them finding the girl’s dead body, glimpsed only briefly (thankfully), the tone evens out into being a slow-burning drama about the secrets being hidden within this community. It may not perhaps be surprising, but it’s all done very well.

Jasper Jones film posterCREDITS
Director Rachel Perkins; Writers Shaun Grant and Craig Silvey (based on Silvey’s novel); Cinematographer Mark Wareham; Starring Levi Miller, Aaron L. McGrath, Angourie Rice, Toni Collette, Hugo Weaving; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Sunday 22 December 2019.

Rocketman (2019)

This is perhaps an outlier in my themed week of British costume dramas, but it’s a period piece and you couldn’t possibly say it doesn’t have costumes, so I’m including it. Obviously it’s a biopic of the life of Elton John, and it’s mounted with impressive brio (even if maybe it’s not entirely for me, I’m willing to believe it is better than the similar production the previous year about Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody, which director Fletcher took over late in proceedings).


I don’t think I’ve ever specifically chosen to listen to an Elton John album or song, but of course they’ve often been on in the background or on soundtracks and such, so a lot of them remain familiar to me. That said, the point I’m making is I’m not really in the demographic for whom this film strikes any particular chord, as I’ve never been a big fan, but I concede that Dexter Fletcher has a solid touch with a musical and this one is good fun to watch. The performances are all good, and it has some nice set-pieces, such as the one where Elton goes from almost dying to being pushed on stage, seemingly in a single sequence. The framing device — him unraveling at an addicts’ group therapy session — is rather too convenient as a way to pull the narrative through his whole life, and he does a lot of confronting his earlier self and family/friends in feverish flashbacks, but it’s a musical, so it rather trades in elevating the quotidian to a magical and surreal level, and at that it succeeds nicely.

Rocketman film posterCREDITS
Director Dexter Fletcher; Writer Lee Hall; Cinematographer George Richmond; Starring Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard, Stephen Graham; Length 121 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Aldgate, London, Friday 7 June 2019.

Zimna wojna (Cold War, 2018)

If we’re covering recent Polish cinema, it’s impossible to avoid the filmmaker Paweł Pawlikowski, who came to prominence with British films like Last Resort (2000) and My Summer of Love (2004), but returned to his native language for Ida (2013). His most recent film goes back into a period setting for another lush, tortured romantic drama.


Somehow buried deep in its genetic code, this film is a musical. Structurally it feels as if it’s inspired by jazz (in a way that La La Land or Whiplash only wish they could be), with a loose, almost improvisational texture, and solos for each of the players. At the very least, one can say it is suffused with music. It deals with a love affair between a pianist and a singer, but in some ways the two characters getting together didn’t grab me: their love felt like more of a pretext for a key change, as we move through time from late-40s rural Poland — where prospective singers (including our heroine Zula, played by Joanna Kulig) are auditioned for a folk ensemble, while our male protagonist Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) does field recordings of popular peasant songs — to Warsaw in the 50s, then tangents to various major European cities throughout the 50s, and ending sometime in the mid-60s. The cinematography is gorgeous, while for the story, extraneous explanatory bits are elided in favour of the feeling that the actors convey to one another, little phrases of a love ballad reworked into something with political and even religious meaning — the carapace of Catholicism and Communism figure throughout — but hidden deep within. (Plus bonus marks for wrapping up such an epic narrative within 90 minutes.)

Cold War film posterCREDITS
Director Paweł Pawlikowski; Writers Pawlikowski, Janusz Głowacki and Piotr Borkowski; Cinematographer Łukasz Żal; Starring Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot, Borys Szyc; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Sunday 29 July 2018.

The Irishman (2019)

Today sees the UK release of Harriet, but only two weeks ago we got a brand new biopic from Martin Scorsese. For that I did a themed week around very long films, but this week’s theme means I can revisit that film and post a review. I liked it. I gather some didn’t or felt it somehow less consequential in Scorsese’s oeuvre, but a lot of people have been gunning for him for some throwaway but no less deeply felt comments about superhero movies. Still, there’s a place for everything in modern cinema, and even if three-and-a-half hour gangster epics are mostly being made for streaming services now, it was still a solid box office draw given the very large packed cinema I saw this one in on a Saturday afternoon.


Look, I mean yes Scorsese has some good films (even some great ones) in all genres, but the stuff he’s always been best at capturing is the world of gangsters — a shady world of men closed away behind dark glasses in subterranean lairs — but those worlds have changed as he’s got older. Now the gangsters are old too, they’re old men who have lost things in life, maybe lost everything, lost their friends, alienated their families and are just these old men, dying off and being forgotten. No matter how powerful you were, how much influence you had, eventually people forget your name, your legacy and everything that made you important when you were in your prime, and that’s eventually what it feels like he’s getting at by the end of this film. The de-aging technology has been much discussed, but even when these men are presumably playing 20 or 30-year-olds, back in the 1950s, they still look like old men, move in a hulking slow way — I don’t think that’s wrong for the characters, but in practice they always seem old no matter what the time period is. The timelines are all mixed up, though, as events from one era rush into those from another, because this is a story being told from the perspective of that old, forgotten gangster, as snippets of events seem to hit him and pull him along, and for all of its length, the film is never slow or boring, provided you like this slow-burning vibe that Scorsese is going for. Pacino does his usual big thing, though increasingly looking like Steve Van Zandt as he gets older in the film (and Little Steven is in the film too, in a small part, playing some old school crooner on stage I believe), but the rest of the cast are all about intensity, not least Joe Pesci, who feels like the real standout in this ensemble. It’s a good film, is what I’m saying.

The Irishman film posterCREDITS
Director Martin Scorsese; Writer Steven Zaillian (based on the non-fiction book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt); Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto; Starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Ray Romano, Anna Paquin, Stephen Graham; Length 209 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Saturday 9 November 2019.

Hidden Figures (2016)

One of the more successful biopics in recent years has also been one that has dealt rather more frankly with issues of racism and sexism in the workplace, hardly avoidable given that in Hidden Figures the workplace is NASA in the 1960s. Some have criticised it for its blandly mainstream qualities and some of the liberties it takes with the truth, but the acting is more than equal to the subject, and it’s a rousing film which presents a different view of a cinematically familiar era.


I thought that I might have a problem with clunky movie clichés about smart people, or period films dealing with racism, or against-the-odds stories, or big Hollywood dramas — you know the ones, like standing in front of a blackboard filled with mathematic equations, or racist white cops and loaded glances from rooms filled with white guys in suits, or that bit where our protagonist proves their essential worth to aforesaid rooms, or music cues that guide how you’re supposed to react — but it turns out I don’t, if those protagonists are played by Janelle, Taraji and Octavia. I would happily watch more of any of them running intellectual (not to mention sartorial) circles around hissable baddies like Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons, who in this movie are the very embodiment of white privilege. We need more heroes like these three, and if anything Hidden Figures makes me retroactively disappointed for all those other space race movies about the 1960s, which only had the rooms filled with suited buzzcut white men.

Hidden Figures film posterCREDITS
Director Theodore Melfi; Writers Allison Schroeder and Melfi (based on the non-fiction book by Margot Lee Shetterly); Cinematographer Mandy Walker; Starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons; Length 127 minutes.
Seen at Peckhamplex, London, Friday 17 February 2017.

Filmfarsi (2019)

This week sees the release to UK cinema’s of Tehran: City of Love, a recent film set in Iran’s capital. As such, I’ve got a themed week of Iranian cinema, representing one of the richest cinematic traditions in the region. The first film I’m covering is another recent film, but one which looks back towards the past, before the Revolution that saw out the Shah.


I’m sure many of us have seen plenty of (serious, engaged) Iranian film made since their 1979 revolution, but what this documentary does is chart the popular cinema that held the country’s attention before then, linking it not just to wider cultural currents coming from Hollywood and the geographically closer regional cinemas of Egypt and India, but to the tensions within Iranian society too, as people turned against the decadence of the middle-class Pahlavi regime. It covers the character types which would have been familiar to viewers in the country, the strongly macho filmic terrain and it even makes the case for some more interesting talents among the evident dross (I am particular intrigued by Samuel Khachikian’s work). Narrated by the director Ehsan Khoshbakht (himself a programmer at Il Cinema Ritrovato), it exudes authority as much as it provides a fascinating insight to a largely lost filmic history.

CREDITS
Director/Writer Ehsan Khoshbakht احسان خوشبخت; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at Watershed, Bristol, Friday 26 July 2019.

Bran Nue Dae (2009)

A friend suggested my recent Australian cinema week was lacking in bright and cheerful musicals, and short of re-watching something by Baz Luhrmann, this musical from ten years ago fits the bill rather nicely, and also focuses on Aboriginal communities.


This isn’t a perfect film: it has an underlying cheesiness to it, a sort of sentimental cheerfulness that sometimes seems at odds with its story, and yet it’s at heart delightful and criticising it would feel wilfully cynical. The film is based on a stage musical, though it certainly doesn’t hide that — and the way characters will break into song and choreographed dance is one of the pleasures of the form, after all. It presents Aboriginal Australian lives in the late-60s in what feels like an ahistorical way, but it also doesn’t hide some of the unfairness of the way they’re treated as a group: it just couches this in a gaudily-coloured musical ensemble treatment. This is a film about characters who have all the same generic desires as American teenagers in films made 10 years or more before this one is set (the concession to the late-60s moment is a VW van driven by two hippies, although the young man’s German accent is surely one of the worst in recent memory), but set in the Australian outback. There are times when the forced cheerfulness feels so positively sugary that I felt a bit queasy, but I can’t fault its heart and the colourful staging by director Rachel Perkins and DoP Andrew Lesnie.

Bran Nue Dae film posterCREDITS
Director Rachel Perkins; Writers Reg Cribb and Perkins (based on the musical by Jimmy Chi); Cinematographer Andrew Lesnie; Starring Rocky McKenzie, Ernie Dingo, Jessica Mauboy, Geoffrey Rush; Length 85 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 23 September 2019.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)

Look, everyone else has registered their opinion on this film by now, and the discourse is frankly probably pretty boring to you all. But I wrote this when I saw it a few weeks ago, and I might as well put it on my blog, because I have mixed feelings.


I don’t think the world needs another review of this film, and those I’ve seen (at least amongst the people I follow on here, and in the press) have run the gamut, to say the least, and among them have been some very solid critiques and responses. My own feelings are fairly mixed, and the experience reminds me somewhat of Blue Is the Warmest Colour in the sense that it mixes technical prowess I really love to watch with some amazing performances, but has other stuff I feel is deeply questionable (and also is almost three hours long).

So let me focus on the positives. Some of the earliest criticism I’d seen focused on Margot Robbie’s character, Sharon Tate — and sure, she doesn’t say much — but in the end she had the scenes I enjoyed the most, and was the heart of the film. Those scenes of her in the cinema (with, yes, her feet up in the foreground), totally digging the film she’s watching, the film she herself stars in, and getting a kick out of the audience reactions around her: that was pure cinema. I loved that. (What Tarantino is to Godard, so Robbie here is to Anna Karina in Vivre sa vie.) I also loved the scenes of her next door neighbour Rick, the washed-up TV star, when he’s making a pilot for a new Western show — it’s where DiCaprio does his best acting (and it’s lovely to see a bit of Luke Perry, too). Usually I hate when filmmakers depict their own craft, because they rarely show how films are actually made and instead make them into these continuous scenes with barely any intervention. Well, I went with it here partly because the framework of this whole film is fantasy, and so when Tarantino shows the filming of a show, he completely omits all the cameras except the one we’re watching through (and the off-screen voice of the director, in this case “Sam Wanamaker”).

But then there’s the more troubling stuff, and I suppose it comes down to how you’re responding to this, and what you think Tarantino’s position is. He’s doing a lot of pastiche work here, and I imagine that recreating 1969 Hollywood, the films and TV shows themselves, the look and feel, the road signs and the fonts and the adverts and the packaging and all that, was probably a really big part of the appeal. When Tarantino talks about films he loves (as he does on podcasts and interviews with film publications), I am convinced by his all-out nerdery, and I think he’s extremely knowledgeable about that stuff. But pastiching a nasty exploitation film within the film (such as when Rick plays a character with a flamethrower burning up some Nazis in an on-screen role for some kind of Corman B-movie quickie) and making that part of your own filmed fantasy world (such as the next time we see that flamethrower) feel like qualitatively different things, and I’m pretty sure he’s getting off on the fun of staging it all rather than considering its moral implications.

Then again, for me, part of it is also just hearing people react with pleasure and enjoyment around me in the cinema when this kind of nastiness is happening, so maybe it’s not all on QT, but it’s also not unrelated to his strategies in the film and as part of his involvement in wider film discourse. I think he takes great pains to problematise this stuff in, for example, Cliff’s character — almost a leaf from the Haneke playbook (and, to be clear, I dislike most of Haneke’s films). Pitt’s laidback golden boy likeability as Cliff is clearly intentionally offset by his use of weird little off-hand racialised slurs and, more to the point, the insistent hints about his character’s dark past. This comes to a head in the scene with Bruce Lee via the forthright and unironic response of Janet (who plays the wife of Kurt Russell’s stunt coordinator character Rudy, but is also OUATIH‘s actual stunt coordinator, and given that Brad Pitt is playing a stuntman himself, is I think a pointed intervention). It’s an intervention from 2019, and it’s hardly the only one, but there’s plenty enough that doesn’t feel particularly informed by present circumstances, and so when I dislike this film, it feels particularly egregious because there’s so much stuff he’s doing — technically and visually, but also with some of the characters — that I love and could have made for a more rewarding film.

But I don’t want to be that person critiquing a film for not being the film I wanted it to be. And so I shall continue to think about Margot Robbie looking up at the movie screen with such sheer unalloyed pleasure in the moving image, and wish that I could be her.

CREDITS
Director/Writer Quentin Tarantino; Cinematographer Robert Richardson; Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Al Pacino, Dakota Fanning, Margaret Qualley; Length 161 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho [35mm], London, Tuesday 20 August 2019.