The Hard Stop (2015)

At a time when the US-focused Black Lives Matter movement is getting a lot of attention, it’s useful to remember that countries like the UK are no less problematic in the ways the authorities routinely target poorer, generally non-white, citizens. This documentary about Tottenham, a less affluent area of North London (representative of similar urban areas around the country), doesn’t have much that’s good to reveal about the police as it tracks the aftermath of the killing of Mark Duggan, via the prism of two of his friends, Marcus and Kurtis. Although Duggan’s killing kicked off a series of riots in 2011, the causes of those clearly are a lot wider and go a lot deeper than just police brutality. By closely tracking its protagonists and their lives in Tottenham — on the Broadwater Farm housing estate where they grew up (the site of the murder of a police offer at an earlier riot in the 1980s), their difficulties in finding housing and work (in one case requiring relocation to another county entirely), and above all their struggle to stay away from criminality — the documentary gives a sense of the background to those riots, even as its articulate subjects dissociate themselves from some of the ways that the 2011 rioting expressed itself. Clearly a lot of work still needs to be done — and there’s no real sense that similar riots aren’t still bubbling just under the surface of society — but it’s good to see two young men reflecting intelligently on their lives and the way they’ve been shaped by their surroundings, and looking for a way forward, both for themselves and for their community.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director George Amponsah | Cinematographers Colin Elves and Matthias Pilz | Length 85 minutes || Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Tuesday 19 July 2016

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Adult Life Skills (2016)

There are, sadly, too many new films where I have to really struggle to say nice things when the film ultimately underwhelms me by overreaching with bad dialogue, over-elaborated symbolism or clunky metaphors. Indeed, all of the above, quite often. This has frequently been the case with new British films (and I can only imagine the situation getting worse in our post-“Brexit” world as European film financing dries up). Thankfully, then, this recent debut is on the whole rather delightful, even if it does have a certain twee and precious quality: its protagonist Anna (played by Jodie Whittaker) makes lo-fi films using her thumbs as characters; there’s a child portentously dressed as a cowboy (Ozzy Myers); and a love interest for Anna with a Jemaine Clement level of deadpan delivery (Brett Goldstein’s part-time estate agent Brendan). It’s certainly better than the director’s short film of a couple of years ago, for in expanding the premise of a 30-year-old woman living in her mum’s shed, it also adds to the pathos of her situation without overlabouring some of its plot parallels (the child whose situation mirrors her own could have been done so much more clunkily). Perhaps it’s just that Whittaker’s s gentle Yorkshire accent makes everything sound more agreeable, but I think this is on the whole a solid debut film and I look forward to more from director/writer Rachel Tunnard.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Rachel Tunnard | Cinematographer Bet Rourich | Starring Jodie Whittaker, Ozzy Myers, Brett Goldstein | Length 96 minutes || Seen at Stratford East Picturehouse, London, Tuesday 28 June 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

Criterion Sunday 76: Brief Encounter (1945)

As a classic story of doomed love and repressed emotions, Brief Encounter leads in a direct line to an entire strand of English heritage filmmaking (not least plenty of Merchant-Ivory productions), but that’s no reason to dismiss it. Its structure — which loops back from the lovers’ final meeting to recounting their relationship in full — is also recalled by my recent favourite Carol, for example, both films very much grounded in a sense of the period and the way social structures control the expression of desire. In Brief Encounter‘s case, it’s the tail end of World War II (though that conflict is never mentioned, so we can assume it’s an imagined post-war world), and the repression comes from the intersection of social class and the institution of marriage. Celia Johnson’s Laura is a bored, solidly middle-class, housewife who comes into Milford every Thursday to do the shopping and catch a film, while Alec (Trevor Howard) is a married doctor who’s been posted to Milford one day a week, and by chance they meet in the railway station’s refreshment room as they wait for their respective trains home. They strike up a friendship, go to lunch and the movies together, and within only a few weeks are parting again rather painfully, by now clear about their love for one another. There’s a parallel storyline in the refreshment room involving its manager Myrtle (Joyce Carey) and station attendant Albert (Stanley Holloway), who being working-class are far less circumspect in expressing their feelings, though the film avoids too much heavy-handedness in the comparison. Indeed, it largely remains very controlled and understated, with the possible exception of Laura’s yearning voiceover, which seems a bit overdetermined to modern sensibilities. David Lean keeps expressive control over the camera, with a few little flourishes, such as the opening shot introducing the lovers over the shoulders of Myrtle and Albert, as well as a canted camera angle as Laura is swept into a moment of suicidal panic. It all seems dreadfully English, really, but I suppose it captures something within the spirit of the middle-classes, a certain resignation to the unexceptional.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director David Lean | Writers Anthony Havelock-Allen, David Lean and Ronald Neame (based on the play Still Life by Noël Coward) [uncredited] | Cinematographer Robert Krasker | Starring Celia Johnson, Trevor Howard, Stanley Holloway, Joyce Carey | Length 86 minutes || Seen at Rich Mix, London, Tuesday 7 August 2007 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 24 January 2016)

Bringing Greenham Home: Two Films about Greenham Common

It’s been over 35 years since the start of the peace camp at Greenham Common, which suggests that memories of the event in popular culture have faded somewhat, but at the time it was a pretty big deal. At its height around 1982-83, there were up to 50-70,000 women at the site protesting the presence of nuclear cruise missile weaponry in the UK, and the camp itself was maintained for well over a decade. Feminist activism arguably hasn’t really had quite the same reach since, but it’s worthwhile to reconsider the legacy of the protest and the ways it can inform current activities, hence this event organised by London-based collective Club des Femmes, which included an afternoon the next day involving practical discussion and zine-making (I didn’t attend the latter). Current protest activity may focus more on social justice issues and anti-capitalist struggle, but even now nuclear armament is still widely discussed (most notably the Trident programme), so there’s plenty still relevant in the documentaries presented, quite aside from the interest generated by contemporary documentation of important historical events.

The key work screened was the 1983 documentary Carry Greenham Home, the first film by director Beeban Kidron, who went on to make a Bridget Jones film, no less, and is now a Baroness, though still involved with activist causes. Rather than focusing on the big media-grabbing events, it documents day-to-day reality at the camp — discussions amongst organisers about strategy and finances, frequent breaks through the chain-link fence surrounding the military base, the appearances of heavy-handed law enforcement and the scenes outside courtroom hearings for the protestors. The film is also, surprisingly, almost a musical, given the frequency with which the participants break into song, whether a snatched chorus from a contemporary protest song like Leon Rosselson’s “The World Turned Upside Down” (written about the 17th century Diggers, forerunners of every anarchist socialist anti-capitalist dissenter since), to chants like “Which side are you on?” which take on musical quality when thrown into the faces of the police. Indeed the film’s title is taken from a song by Peggy Seeger written upon her visit to the site. Another quality that comes through well is the humour with which many confronted the inevitable political and bureaucratic obstacles, including staging protests like a ‘teddy bears’ picnic’ inside the fence. The film turns bleakly amusing, too, in scenes of the police (their faces uncovered, unlike their counterparts at modern protests), who are seen squirming awkwardly when confronted with the women’s protest or incompetently trying to break a bike lock placed on the base’s gates.

Accompanying this was a screening of a medium-length documentary about Nell Logan, the most elderly of 36 protesters arrested in 1982 for climbing the fence of the military base and dancing on top of the nuclear silos, and who was jailed for a time as a result. The director focuses on Nell for her long history of dissent, which stretches back to a visit to the Soviet Union in the 1920s, and shows her daily life in the small English town where she lived. It’s a gentle introduction to a turbulent period of protest, focusing on a single participant in a way that I suppose you could call heart-warming and certainly would have made for canny TV counter-programming at the time.

The screening ended with a discussion chaired by Sophie Mayer, a Club des Femmes member and published author (whose Political Animals I can recommend). Her guest was academic Anna Reading, who led the audience in a singalong, though there were plenty of other testimonies from the audience as to their experiences of the camp and of modern protest actions.


Club des Femmes logo

Carry Greenham Home (1983)
Directors Beeban Kidron and Amanda Richardson | Cinematographer Amanda Richardson | Length 69 minutes

Greenham Granny (1986)
Director Caroline Goldie | Length 46 minutes


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: Club des Femmes
Seen at Rio, London, Saturday 23 January 2016

Criterion Sunday 58: Peeping Tom (1960)

Peeping Tom is famous for ruining Michael Powell’s career due to the venomous rage with which it was received on its release, yet there’s a lot now to say about it. Certainly you can see elements within it that might not have endeared it to a filmgoing public (or critics) brought up in an era before this film and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho of a few months later had such a profound effect on what it meant to do film horror. It’s a tortured allegory about the role of the filmmaker, as Michael Powell’s stand-in Mark Lewis (played by German actor Carl Boehm, later to star in a number of Fassbinder movies) is obsessed with filming women while he kills them, one of his victims being The Red Shoes star Moira Shearer. Powell himself shows up in cameos as Lewis’s sadistic father, an academic whose specialism was the concept of fear, so clearly this story of filmmaker-as-torturer was one that appealed to him personally (whether or not Powell himself was a particularly tyrannical director, though surely he was no Hitchcock in that regard). In any case, the result is a beautifully-crafted film, filled with rich saturated colours, and largely taking place in the London rooming house that Mark owns and partially lets out to a family, whose daughter (Anna Massey) strikes up a friendship with Mark. (For connoisseurs of London, there are also some fetching street corner scenes in Soho and Fitzrovia.) It may have inspired no end of graduate essays for its deconstruction of the wall between filmmaker, actors and audience, it’s also a fascinating film to watch and one which exerts a real psychological hold.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Michael Powell | Writer Leo Marks | Cinematographer Otto Heller | Starring Karlheinz Böhm [as “Carl Boehm”], Anna Massey, Moira Shearer | Length 101 minutes || Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Thursday 28 June 2001 (and more recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 18 October 2015)

Criterion Sunday 56: The 39 Steps (1935)

It may not be the equal of some of director Alfred Hitchcock’s later works, but this early espionage thriller has plenty to recommend it in terms of propulsively silly plot dynamics, as Robert Donat’s fairly ordinary (albeit refined and elegant) bloke Richard is drawn into shenanigans at a music hall by bumping into a glamorous spy, who is soon murdered, but not before revealing a plot that he can help in exposing. This leads him into what is essentially an extended chase scene that takes up the rest of the movie as he heads north to Scotland, along the way encountering the even more elegant (and blonde, of course) Pamela, played by Madeleine Carroll, who believes him about as much as everyone else he meets — which is to say not at all. It’s all good fun, with plenty of hints towards comedy and some surprise plot twists. Good for a rainy afternoon, I suspect, and it may well be more unaffectedly enjoyable than much of Hitchcock’s more revered later output.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Alfred Hitchcock | Writers Charles Bennett and Ian Hay (based on the novel The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan) | Cinematographer Bernard Knowles | Starring Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll | Length 86 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 10 December 2015

Brand: A Second Coming (2015)

There’s not a great deal to say about this new film from Ondi Timoner, the director of the enjoyable bitter-rivalry music documentary Dig! (2004). It premiered at the London Film Festival, was in cinemas a week or two later, and now already is on Amazon Instant Video, which may suggest it’s not that good, but actually just means that its real audience is largely online. Most people in the UK, after all, are likely to have an opinion about Russell Brand, because he’s certainly not been shy in broadcasting his own personality and views far and wide. He’s already been the subject of one documentary this year (somewhat more hagiographic one presumes), but this one purports to dig a little deeper beneath the surface. Whatever my own opinion about the man, it’s certainly clear that many of his views have been misrepresented by the media, or — perhaps more accurately — not addressed at all, through gales of mocking laughter, a lot of which has the nasty tinge of classism (Brand comes from an impoverished Essex background). A few of those media figures (like news anchor Jeremy Paxman) are interviewed here about Brand’s political statements, while Timoner is able to convey a sense of Brand’s life, his comedy, and his very public struggles with his family, with his relationships, and with drug addiction. It’s never particularly boring, but it certainly may suffer in your opinion if you’ve already got a strong dislike for Brand’s antics. I can’t say it gave me a new-found insight into Russell Brand, but I do believe it at least gives his views a fair hearing.


FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Ondi Timoner | Cinematographer Svetlana Cvetko | Starring Russell Brand | Length 104 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Saturday 14 November 2015

Burnt (2015)

A friend enjoys food-related films, so what can I say, I went along to see Burnt despite its almost uniformly terrible reviews. Therefore my first observation is that the end product is nowhere near as bad as those suggest. Of course it’s still essentially that — Hollywood product, albeit set in London and ticking off a lot of the tourist views of that city — but it coasts by on the charisma of its lead actors, all of whose work I enjoyed even if they’re hardly stretching themselves. If it’s a “comedy”-drama, then the comedy is in the broad strokes; I wouldn’t call it laugh-out-loud funny or anything. It’s more of a character study of one borderline-unstable man trying to find himself by learning to work with and trust other people. The film’s greatest weakness then is undoubtedly in the screenplay. The characters are stock and overly familiar (Gordon Ramsay is an executive producer, and Bradley Cooper’s Adam Jones isn’t far from his own carefully-constructed and endlessly-repeated media stereotype of the highly-strung rebellious bad-boy chef). The exposition, too, is wretchedly clunky, with characters like Omar Sy’s sous-chef Michel expected to recount their past dealings with Adam when meeting him, so as to catch us all up (oh sure, Adam’s drink/drug-fuelled youth is called on as a reason why this is necessary, but it’s a thin veneer). There’s lots of tedious to-do about Michelin stars, which as someone who used to care about such things when eating out is boring enough (I’m so done with tasting menus by the by), but will surely be of less than no interest to the rest of us (Jon Favreau’s Chef dealt with street food last year, which may not have been any less predictable a script, but it was at least a more likeable milieu). Worst of all is Adam’s hackneyed character arc, plotted out with plodding predictability, as he learns to work with others, repair his relationships, learn to temper his controlling behaviour, blah blah blah. But it all looks very nice, the actors have an easy charm, and I quite like workplace dramas even if every plot point here is punctuated by food p0rn.


© The Weinstein Company

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director John Wells | Writer Steven Knight (based on a story by Michael Kalesniko) | Cinematographer Adriano Goldman | Starring Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Daniel Brühl, Omar Sy | Length 101 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Saturday 7 November 2015

Crimson Peak (2015)

Having this year been watching almost solely the output of female directors, I’ve become used to seeing on screen a certain level of budget (something nearer to the $0 end of the spectrum, let’s be fair). And then you watch something like this, just a grand, gorgeous staging with the sets! and the costumes! and the art design so elaborate and intricate you worry it’s all going to get in the way of, oh, the acting, the characterisation, that kind of thing. (I gather some critics feel that it has.) Now, I don’t deny any of Guillermo del Toro’s talent; he’s clearly done a lot of legwork to get to the stage where he can make something like this, and I think his great films like Cronos and El laberinto del fauno have given him a peerless sense of what works filmically. Because that stuff comes effortlessly here, especially when he’s marshalling all the tropes of the horror genre — the depth of field in staging shots, the creepy sound design, flashes of spectral presences, and then the full-on gory costumework. Because yes, there’s a lot of gore here, whether explicit or suggested: much of the latter part of the film is set in a house whose walls and foundations seem to literally ooze blood. Within this, it seems like a canny choice to go for actors like Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain and Tom Hiddleston, all of whom have previous in this kind of enterprise — portraying doomed lovers in a period setting — so all of them look quite at home in what is a Victorian-era gothic romance hat-tipping visually to Hammer horror as mcuh as to Italian giallo, not to mention a bit of Kubrick’s The Shining too. It does in the end all feel a bit oppressive, and it should of course, but it’s a bravura piece of filmmaking and it hits all the right notes, honouring its sources without condescending to them.


© Universal Pictures

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Guillermo del Toro | Writers Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robbins | Cinematographer Dan Laustsen | Starring Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain | Length 119 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Saturday 31 October 2015