Criterion Sunday 119: Withnail and I (1987)

I have, as it happens, already written a review of this on this blog so here it is. There’s little I’d want to add to it, aside from reaffirming that it does stand up under the weight of its cult status, not that it’s a film I myself am necessarily drawn back to, unlike…

Criterion Extras: … the fans depicted in the short piece Withnail and Us (1999), who show a fanatical fondness for the film that sometimes seems too much (obsessive quoting of movie lines has never been something I’ve been good at, nor had any inclination to do) but also reminds me of what’s genuinely appealing about the film’s bleak dark vision of England. Alongside the fans, the documentary also corrals a number of the actors to talk about the experience of making the film, and is an enjoyable half-hour for what it is.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Bruce Robinson | Cinematographer Peter Hannan | Starring Paul McGann, Richard E. Grant, Richard Griffiths | Length 107 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 26 January 2014

Criterion Sunday 107: Mona Lisa (1986)

Bob Hoskins once again plays a Cockney gangster, and though my initial instinct is to assume his character (who begins the film recently released from prison) was locked up just after the events of The Long Good Friday (1980), given he seems surprised his street now has a large number of black residents, maybe he’s been locked up since the 1940s. Perhaps the filmmakers just took ‘film noir’ a bit literally, but underlying it is a well-meaning attempt to grapple with societal changes that must have seemed like a chasm following a series of race-based riots in the early-1980s. I’m not convinced all the racial politics really hold up (and how many films do after a few decades?) but at least there’s representation, even in the form of that filmmakers’ favourite stereotype: a high-class prostitute and her pimp (who incidentally is played by a much younger Clarke Peters from The Wire, albeit with no dialogue that I noticed). It’s strictly geezers and seedy London locales, and it’s by no means a badly made or acted film. Hoskins, along with Cathy Tyson as the titular character — and even Michael Caine as a gang boss — do good work. Let’s just say it’s of its High Thatcherite era.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Neil Jordan | Writers Neil Jordan and David Leland | Cinematographer Roger Pratt | Starring Bob Hoskins, Cathy Tyson, Michael Caine, Robbie Coltrane | Length 104 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Monday 18 July 2016

Shoot the Messenger (2006)

A film made for TV in 2006 and rarely screened since, I saw this at a 10th anniversary show at the BFI (to tie in with their Black Star season focusing on black film talent), followed by a fascinating panel discussion afterwards which I think helped me appreciate it more by presenting a diverse range of responses and perspectives. It’s a film which sets up its unusual and challenging tone from the very opening shot of David Oyelowo’s character Joe stating direct to camera that all the problems he’s had in life are due to black people. It’s a deliberate provocation from a production with black writer, director and cast, and is said within a context of a drama which is hardly naturalistic — the film’s tone is much more black comedy or satire, even as it trades in some very harsh statements about systemic and ingrained racism within British society. Thus it’s made clear that Joe — a man who initially feels called upon to help improve the lives of minority ethnicities by becoming a teacher — is just the lightning rod for discussing these issues. From a stylistic perspective, the film also makes frequent use of direct-to-camera address from this unreliable protagonist — amplifying his voice and making it even more challenging — as he traverses a series of personal setbacks, all of which he pins to other black people. But the ostensible comedy in fact helps draw out all kinds of aspects of lived black experience — experiences within systems dedicated to education, mental health and employment, experiences with religion and the media, and within a society with deeply-ingrained messages around body shaming (specifically to do with hair, in this context). None of it feels like it should work — in some senses it comes across as quite a theatrical piece — but it’s in a great tradition of British television drama (I think back to the 1960s for the nearest comparisons, polemical films by directors like Alan Clarke). It’s rich in ideas, and Oyelowo is great in the lead.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW
Director Ngozi Onwurah | Writer Sharon Foster | Cinematographer David Katznelson | Starring David Oyelowo, Charles Mnene, Nikki Amuka-Bird | Length 89 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Tuesday 15 November 2016

Generation Revolution (2016)

Seeing this kind of politically-committed documentary — about youthful revolutionary protestors (specifically people of colour in London) fighting against multiple intersections of oppression, whether racist, capitalist, sexist, imperialist — in a plush central London cinema feels strange. Indeed, this probably isn’t the kind of venue where it will get most traction; it’s surely more a means towards getting the message into at least the film columns of broadsheet newspapers. That said, although it’s about activists and conveys the potency of a very real and urgent struggle (ever more so since it was made, since events of even just the past week), it’s not simply a work of activist agitprop.

The film’s participants are careful and reflective about their voices and the ways they are trying to engage and confront a system of interrelated oppressions. They don’t always agree about either methods or ideology, but all of them are doing so much more than most of us, in our complacency (certainly those of us watching in posh central London cinemas, let’s be fair), and that’s important to see, just as it’s important to know and acknowledge this work is happening. My favourite participant is Tej, a sweet guy taking part in feminist consciousness raising, not to mention idealistically helping out homeless people and worrying over the details (whether his care packages are missing roll-on deodorant for example). There’s also the woman who calls out her fellow revolutionaries for being insufficiently inclusive, and the young woman near the end who bashfully admits she doesn’t know how to talk to people even as she strikes up an easy friendship with one unfortunate homeless woman outside Euston station.

Generation Revolution is filled with such portraits. It shows a side not just of political activism, but specifically of activism and community engagement amongst black and minority ethnicities in this country, that is rarely represented in the media, and gives me at least a strength of hope in future generations against what feels like a relentlessly cynical and ironic tone to much of the mainstream coverage of politics. It’s worth seeking out, as finding more ways to engage with political change is sadly becoming increasingly urgent in many parts of the western world.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Directors Cassie Quarless and Usayd Younis | Length 74 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Saturday 12 November 2016

LFF 2016 Day Nine

Two films after work on Thursday 13 October, both of them very solid outings, and seen in the same cinema, but with quite a different vibe. The first was a rammed, sold out house who responded with glee to the film, whereas the second was very much a half-empty auditorium with a sense of detached weariness (maybe that’s me just projecting onto French arthouse lovers, or maybe I was just grumpy because of the smell of someone’s kebab behind me).


Prevenge (2016)

Prevenge (2016, UK, dir./wr. Alice Lowe, DOP Ryan Eddleston)
At this point in my life there are plenty of films which only remind me of other films, and that’s fine, but it’s nice to see something that feels a bit unexpected. Prevenge is a film made by a pregnant woman about a pregnant woman who is systematically taking her murderous revenge on her perceived enemies (to say more would probably constitute spoilers), and it somehow feels a bit new. Both those pregnant roles are taken by Alice Lowe as director/lead actor, who threw the project together very quickly for biologically obvious reasons. In its blend of black comedy and jagged emotional turmoil, it is never unwatchable and sometimes both affecting and very funny, and Lowe is particularly good at turning suddenly from chattiness to a deathly unsettling stare. It seems to be allegorising aspects of motherhood, but it’s also good fun if you can stand a little bit of gore — a staple of both horror cinema and maternity. [***½]


Voir du pays (The Stopover, 2016)Voir du pays (The Stopover) (2016, France/Greece, dir./wr. Delphine Coulin/Muriel Coulin, DOP Jean-Louis Vialard)
This is a film about French soldiers on the way home from a tour of duty in Afghanistan, who go on a three-day retreat in Cyprus on what their army bosses call “decompression”, though I can’t think of a word further away from what happens in this film. Instead it’s very much a pressure cooker environment, as the soldiers go through group therapy reliving key incidents in their recent tour in which it quickly becomes clear that lives were lost and bad decisions were taken that various members of the group feel either responsible for or powerless in the face of. It’s also a film about women in the military and the specific pressures on them, not just in their job but especially from their male colleagues. Throughout there’s a tense atmosphere, as if hostilities are about to kick off at any moment, emphasised by the tight shot framing and the glass prison mise en scène of the luxury hotel, whose vistas promise such illusory freedom. In truth there are a lot of ideas kicking around here that never quite (for me) come together fully, but the actors are all excellent, not least Ariane Labed as Aurore — the reason I booked a ticket to the see the film in the first place, for she is among the finest currently working — and her tightly-wound friend Marine (played by a singer known as Soko). [***]

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

Criterion Sunday 58: Peeping Tom (1960)

© The Criterion Collection

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