Event Review: Science Fiction Theatre presents: 1973s Westworld

With HBOs highly-acclaimed new scifi show Westworld currently enjoying lashings of critical praise, whilst also consuming the tireless brains of hardcore fans determined to unearth the show's underlying mythology, the gurus behind the film club Science Fiction Theatre felt the time was right to revisit the original 1973 film that HBO mined for its new series. One of the most committed and welcoming film clubs the Smoke Screen has had the honour of patronising, Science Fiction Theatre is a monthly science fiction film club run by The Space Merchants, an online bookshop specialising in vintage science fiction. Their film events explore and celebrate classic science fiction film and television, and screenings are enhanced by custom-designed posters (which can be bought online and at events) as well as takeaway items like stylised tickets (such as the Westworld-themed ticket the Smoke Screen picked up at their Westworld screening last Monday), programme notes, and there is the odd raffle too.

In the movie version of Westworld, which was written and directed by none other than Jurassic Park's author Michael Crichton (note the "theme park gone bad" motif) businessman Blane (James Brolin) and lawyer Martin (Richard Benjamin) take a dream holiday to the newly opened technological paradise Westworld, a futuristic theme park offering its visitors all the thrills, but none of the dangers, of the old Wild West, which is recreated by supposedly harmless robots. However, when one of the computerized gunslingers (Yul Brynner) malfunctions, the two city slickers find themselves in a battle for their lives.

Fans keen to compare the movie to the television series will of course be unable to avoid the difference a few extra million dollars and an advanced CGI toolkit can make. HBO's series simply has more technical oomph, and a multi-season order with HBO's traditional hour-long episodes give the show's creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy far more scope than Crichton's film ever had to create a richly-detailed world of hosts and robots in a huge recreation of the old American west, whilst exploring the related themes and concerns more deeply. Yet, interestingly, HBO's first season has so far limited itself to exploring only one park - the titular Westworld - whereas Crichton's film features not only an old West setting, but the sybarite Roman World and Medieval Worlds too. Future HBO seasons might address this. And 1973s Westworld wasn't exactly primitive when it was released, it does in fact feature some of the earliest use of computer-aided visual effects to create several pixellated robot POV shots.

Whilst Crichton's film is a good deal of pulpy fun, ending in a quite memorable last act chase scene and squeezing in some commentary on the effect of unlimited power/ zero responsibility on humans on the side, HBO's series took a leaf out of the Battlestar Galactica remake's playbook and introduced the conceit of the robots having been designed to such an advanced level that they are developing their own self-awareness. Blade Runner levels of paranoia about who is human and 'replicant' are also in play, as HBO's robots are all but indistinguishable from humans, and some have been programmed to think they are human. With this twist, HBO's Westworld opens up whole new avenues to explore the moral/ethical minefield that the park has created. That being said, HBO's show, for all its fine dressings, lacks a character with the poise and edge of the movie's Yul Brynner, whose performance as the malfunctioning gunslinger allows just enough man into the machine to make you think this might be personal. In many ways he is the "first Terminator."

The poster for the Westworld event was designed by Daniel Huntley, and you can see it on facebook and twitter humans 

Check the Science Fiction Theatre website for more information on upcoming screenings, to buy prints, or to find out about their podcast and recommendations.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Irish Film Festival London 2016 review: I Am Not a Serial Killer

Director: Billy O'Brien

15 | 1h 44min | Thriller | 9 December 2016 (UK)

Playing Irish Film Festival 2016 on November 25.

RATING: ★★★★☆

With the Irish Film Festival in London now underway, the Smoke Screen is keen to recommend from the programme this left-field serial killer drama, directed by Irish director Billy O’Brien and adapted from Dan Wells’ cult novel. It is one of those films that slides around intriguingly (as opposed to awkwardly) between genres, whilst feeling distinct enough in its vision, coming apart slightly only at the end when it commits to a revelation that feels both a little superfluous and unearned. If you had to compare it to anything, shows like Six Feet Under and Dexter spring to mind.

Set in a wintry midwestern small town (given plenty of character thanks to the 16mm work of DP Robbie Ryan), the film follows the exploits, and takes the POV of, one 16-year-old John Cleaver, a kid who has some pretty serious issues. John is different from the other kids at school, and not just because he is introspective and awkward. John has actually been diagnosed as having the same psychological makeup as a psychopathic serial killer something that haunts his nervy mother (Laura Fraser, from Breaking Bad) who keeps him distracted by employing him in the funeral home’s mortuary, where his uncontainable fascination with death and corpses can be focused where it cant hurt the living. There are plenty of thriller films out there based around unstable protagonists, and many others that play upon society's fears of teen delinquents going to the dark side. But making the main character here a young man who actually knows he is basically a fit for the template of a killer - and is struggling to deal with it - gives the film an immediate, compelling edge. It also raises the question as to whether or not John himself is responsible for the string of brutal and unusual murders that start to rock the neighbourhood. 

John becomes obsessed with hunting for the killer, but is he doing this because he wants to embrace a kindred spirit, and to find a teacher? Is this hunt part of some extreme psychological defence mechanism his mind is resorting to, all to avoid the truth that he is actually the murderer?

Either way, the solution seems to involve his odd, elderly neighbour Crowley (Back to the Future’s Christopher Lloyd) who seems to always be there when the killings take place. As John, Max Records (the young kid from Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are) is really convincing at portraying a kid who has spent years practicing wearing a mask of normality and pretending to make emotional connections, and the screenplay requires him to veer between being goofy and genuinely menacing, which he pulls off just fine. John’s abnormal perceptions of the world and his struggle to stay contained help justify the tonal variations of the movie itself: which at times can seem like a Wes Anderson film with its almost cheery depictions of mundane Midwestern life in this sleepy town, which are then interrupted by some genuinely unsettling scenes - with the eerie and intense score really helping here - when the killer strikes.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

1000 Londoners' NECROPOLIS shorts show how the capital gets its All Hallows on

As a born Londoner and film buff, the Smoke Screen makes it a priority to catch the short programmes produced by 1000 Londoners: a project produced by Chocolate Films and directors Rachael Wang and Mark Currie, which aims to create a collage portrait of the city via 1000 short films with each one following a different Londoner. 1000 different points of view, from all over the city and from various times of the year. It is an ambitious target to be sure, with the project still not complete yet.

Each week a new Londoner's story is broadcast on http://www.1000londoners.com , but 1000 Londoners also run movie nights around the capital, collecting together several shorts under one overall theme and often intercutting them with quirky archive footage gleaned from the London Screen Archives. This month's programme is titled (appropriately, given the dark nights are setting in) "Necropolis", and it collects a variety of Londoner's stories together which were all recorded on Halloween night. The programmers set themselves a challenge of spontaneity with this one, with a team of twelve filmmakers venturing out into the streets after dark to see how many stories they could gather.

The eleven films that are the result of that one night's work feel very true to the ethos of 1000 Londoners: in that you truly feel that before you on screen is a cross-section of the melting pot of people, feelings, dreams and conflicts that modern London is made of. There are immigrants, harmless eccentrics, the devout, the elderly, and the carefree young, all rubbing shoulders. One subject - "transformational intuitive coach" Sri - is one of the those true originals you hope the 1000 Londoner's team will dig up every time they head out; Sri being a spell caster who we see running a training session to a rapt crowd on Halloween in full zombie costume (it seems Halloween costumes and fake blood are no impediment to casting a spell). Paul, diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia five times but now discovering the joys of roller skating in Halloween regalia with crowds of likeminded types, provides an inspirational tale of self-help and redemtpion. But more poignant is our introduction to Peter, an elderly Highgate resident who has lived in the area for nearly 40 years, and likes to visit the Highgate wood in his retirement, whilst wistfully recalling the days he was more active. Halloween doesn't mean as much to Peter as it used to; he is painfully aware that more years are behind him now than ahead. In a city that seems so fast moving, with masses of people always coming and going, Peter is also a reminder to us that some Londoners like to stick to their patch. You can only imagine the changes he has seen.

You can see more of 1000 Londoner's work on their website, and they will return after the New Year with more film nights.

1000 Londoners: Necropolis was held at the Lexi Cinema in North London.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Review: 2016's Korean Film Festival foregrounds women in Korean cinema with strong gala opener The Truth Beneath

2015, Directed by Lee Kyoung-mi , starring Son Ye-jin, Kim Joo-hyuk . 
103 mins

RATING: ★★★★

The Korean Film Festival runs 3-17 November in London and also continues around the UK beyond that. See the KFF website for more details.

This year's 2016 Korean Film Festival in London promised a special focus on the lives of women through the eyes of Korean female directors. Appropriately then, the festival proper opened with this political drama directed by a woman, in this case Lee Kyoung-mi - who made a strong impression with her acclaimed feature debut Crush and Blush - which was produced by Park Chan-wook of Oldboy fame. Eight years later, and she has returned with The Truth Beneath, which was co-written by Park, and this new work will almost certainly please fans of his expressionistic (some would say slightly mad) approach to filmmaking. Notably, the film also has a female protagonist who drives the story.

This moody, stylistically left-field and unpredictably plotted drama savages modern local Korean politics right from the get go, as aspiring politician Jong-chan (Kim Joo-hyuk) and his weary-of-politics wife Yeon-hong (Son Ye-jin) see their tightly-run election campaign stumble when their freewheeling but secretive daughter Min-jin (Ji-Hoon Shin) vanishes overnight. Jong-chan is a former news anchor who is now looking to become a politician, and has secured the nomination for the Korea Party in the area of Daeson whilst going up against the lawmaker Noh Jae-soon (Kim Eui-song). Right away, the disappearance exposes fractures in the family and the political scene, as Jong-chan decides to press on campaigning, deeply disappointing his wife and putting his poll lead in jeopardy. Yeon-hong's suspicions only grow when her probing into Min-Jin's absence unearths disturbing revelations.

For one thing, her daughter lied about where she was going and who she was meeting that night. Jong-chan's rival, Yeon-hong fears, would not be beneath destroying their campaign by abducting or harming their daughter. Min-Jin's closest friend at school, from a notably lower social class, seems to have been the last person to see her alive, but is vague about why she has her friend's blood on her plimsoles from that night. Then Yeon-hong breaks into her daughter's email account, only to find that her daughter was being emailed leaked exams by her teacher, giving her an edge that helped her boost her grades. But how does any of this add up?

The more Yeon-hong digs, the more she begins to fear a political motive was involved, but it might have had less to do with disrupting Jong-chan's campaign than protecting it instead. Intriguing though the final revelation is (in that it is a plausible scenario, but involves just enough circumstance to baffle and surprise you), it would be a stretch to say the clues to unlocking this mystery are scattered throughout the narrative in such a way that the final answer will provoke viewers to rethink everything they have seen. Instead, this is one of those films where the last ten minutes really explain everything in a blood-soaked, anguished howl; and this may be unsatisfying to some. It is tempting to see some echoes of the plot of Park's Oldboy here, in that both films feature labyrynthine plots that conceal the real mastermind behind more than a few red herrings or through simple denial of facts to the audience. Still, the film offers a fast pace and tells its story with some stylistic flair and eye-catching mise-en-scene: from the use of variable slo-mo in flashback sequences, a vivid colour pallette, and some gritty and well-executed moments of violence. In fact, there is something nicely erratic about the film; a slightly elevated melodramatic and surreal tone that doesn't stray too far from keeping the film realistic, but isn't exactly 'normal' either.  The soundtrack is appealingly eclectic too, in part informed by Min-Jin's musical tastes and her (hidden from her parents) sideline as an amateur vocalist and guitarist. Son Ye-jin's performance anchors it all, as the increasingly determined- maybe even deranged- mother on a mission.

 

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

UK Jewish Film Festival 2016 review: The Small World of Sammy Lee

Director: Ken Hughes

X | 1h 47min | Drama | April 1963 (UK)

Playing during the UK Jewish Film Festival 2016  at JW3 on 15 NOV 6.30pm.

See here for bluray details - out from 14 November.

RATING: ★★★★☆

Playing as part of the UK Jewish FIlm Festival 2016, and now remastered for a new bluray release courtesy of StudioCanal and their Vintage Classics Line, Ken Hughes’s (Alfie) The Small World of Sammy Lee is a dark, funny and stylish romp through a seedy Soho from decades past; a side of London that has long since been smothered by gentrification and tourism. In this 1963 British-Jewish crime thriller, Anthony Newley is pitch-perfect as strip-club compere Sammy, the kind of guy who keeps his shady dealings small-time, but has nevertheless used up almost all of his nine lives by the time the film’s main plot kicks off. Having screwed up one card game too many, Sammy has to go on the run from the heavies, managing to convince the surprisingly affable enforcer who is sicked onto him (this is one of those films packed full of gentlemen thieves) that he can muster up £300 by the end of the day.

The narrative is built around the remaining half a day Sammy has to scare up the dough; racing against the clock to chase up every debt he is owed, lining up several black market deals that pay cash up front but only require a (inevitably late) check from him, whilst rifling through the piles of ‘back of the lorry’ merch he has stashed in his flat to see what he can offload. There’s plenty of appeal in watching this cheeky chancer scrabble from cafes to pool halls, trying to see if his gift of the gab can get him out of one last scrape, and the film works well as a time capsule of a period when Soho really did have edge. Lensed in brooding black and white by cinematographer Wolfgang Suschitzky, the film also boasts an exceptional supporting cast that packs in Miriam Karlin, Wilfrid Brambell, Roy Kinnear and Warren Mitchell. Plus, the jazz score will nestle in your ear for hours after.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

UK Jewish Film Festival 2016 review: Weiner

As  'make up your mind' time arrives in the US, at the close of another seemingly unending and bitterly fought general election campaign, it seems appropriate that the UK's Jewish Film Festival chose today to screen Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg's acclaimed political doc, Weiner. It also feels timely to repost the Smoke Screen's review of the film, from earlier in the year. Enjoy at your leisure, and (try to) shake off those election nerves.

The UK Jewish Film Festival  funs 5-20 November across London and the UK, see here for the full calendar.

Directors: Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg

15 | 1h 36min | Documentary | 8 July 2016 (UK release date)

RATING: ★★★★☆

Seven-term congressman and New York City failed mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner is probably not a household name to British audiences. But if you had been watching The Daily Show a few years back you would almost certainly would have come across several sketches showcasing the epic double downfall of this politician, a downfall which, given the unfortunate surname of the figure involved and the sexual nature of the transgressions, seemed to confirm his status as a walking punchline and political pariah. 

Filmmakers Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s new documentary tracks the period where Weiner, some time after his humiliating resignation as a congressman for using Twitter to send pictures of his crotch to a female follower, mounts his New York City mayoral campaign in summer of 2013. He actually started ahead in the polls, and drew large crowds. New York, it seems, is a city where you can get a second chance. But Kriegman and Sternberg suddenly saw the trajectory of their film turn 180 degrees when Weiner was forced to admit that new “sexting” allegations had a basis in fact. The media descended and ripped apart his every move, with Weiner trying desperately to forge ahead and turn the conversation back to policy, to no avail. What a story these two filmmakers found themselves caught in the middle of! Contextualising Weiner’s rise and fall with a mixture of footage from his mayoral run and his former career, while intercutting this with examples of the absurd tone and level of media coverage Weiner was subjected to, the filmmakers do a pretty good job of transmitting the sheer nuttiness of that season in New York.

Weiner is undeniably gripping in that awful “car-crash TV” kind of way, as we are shown the increasing pressure and crippling 24-hour news coverage crushing Weiner in a vice, a situation not helped by his combative, swaggering nature. One "story arc" that emerges from all the footage the filmmakers present to us is that the same qualities that made Weiner such a star congressman - his bullishness and willingness to play to the camera - became crippling flaws when he had to fight on the defensive, and project humility instead of arrogance. In one wince-inducing scene we see Weiner, flailing as his poll ratings sink, getting right up in a bystander’s face inside a downtown bakery after he overhears a snide comment. You can imagine the horrified faces of his PR team as, in full view of a dozen network TV cameras, he rails against the man’s judgement. Footage of this rant was irresistible ammo for news review and comedy shows. Youtube helped make Weiner a star, and we are shown footage of him imperiously holding court in Congress, giving barnstorming soapbox performances which enamoured him to a generation of New Yorkers. But the same digital tools he used to fuel his rise made his fall just as rapid.

Despite all the political farce, there is a story of dark, personal tragedy here. Despite his many flaws, there is still something depressing about watching Weiner’s attempt to discuss policy be utterly ground down by the refusal of the media and audiences at hustings to talk about anything else other than the scandals. Further collateral damage in all this was Weiner’s wife, Huma Abedin, a skilled political staffer who had worked side by side with Hillary Clinton as an aide. Despite having earned a career which had made her well-known and respected across Washington DC, Huma does not come off in the documentary as comfortable being the centre of attention herself. Her reward for agreeing to be part of her husband’s mayoral run, a big step for her given she had previously not been front and centre in his career, is further humiliation as a hungry media descend to “analyse” what makes a woman like Abedin “stand by her man”.

As Weiner’s mayoral race is crushed on voting day, Abedin is told that the woman who was on the receiving end of her husband’s salacious texts is hanging around outside his office with a camera crew in tow, looking for an opportunity to create “a scene”. In the face of such a shameless fame-grab, Abedin and Weiner are forced into a tragicomic plan worthy of the show Veep, as they try to dive into a next-door McDonald’s in order to use the side door into the office. As you can imagine, this is not a documentary to watch if you are looking to re-affirm your faith in the American media and political scene.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Review: Abel Gance's epic Napoleon re-conquers screens this November

Director: Abel Gance

PG | 4h | Biography, Drama, History | 7 April 1927 (France)

Napoleon is at the BFI, select cinemas and VOD platforms (including BFIplayer) from 11 November. The film will be later released on BFI DVD/Bluray. See here for more details.

RATING: ★★★★★

Abel Gance’s depiction of the rise of French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte is the kind of undisputed cinema landmark that true film buffs really need to tick off on their checklists in order to maintain such aficionado status. This does require some serious commitment; originally released in 1927, Napoleon, in its fullest version available to the public today, requires a 330 minute-long time investment. It is worth every minute of that, however, being a true epic in every sense of the word; with the film's form and content tipping the scales well towards the grandiose from the first scene.

Gance’s film is in many ways an early example of what we today would call a blockbuster, or, to be more precise; a blockbuster biopic. Many of the familiar characteristics are on display here. Already blessed with a real-life figure whose was larger than life, Gance shamelessly frames Napoleon according to the ‘great man theory’ of history, placing him at the centre of various key events dotted throughout the tumultuous history of France; from the Revolution to the conquests of the European continent, with production values equal to these occasions. His Napoleon is a preternatural figure whose destiny as a superb military commander and inspirational leader of men is constantly foreshadowed in bold strokes. As a youth (played with unnerving intensity by Vladimir Roudenko) Napoleon is shown taking charge of his snowball fight team at his puritanical academy school, storming his foes defences in an early sign of his natural tactical and strategic prowess. Despite being bullied and mocked by his peers, the boy maintains a serious, solemn demeanour and is clearly a top student, softening only when in the presence of his pet eagle, a bird which he would take as his symbol when he turned conqueror. At one point, Gance shows us young Napoleon sitting on top of a cannon as his bird flies to his shoulder - subtle foreshadowing this isn’t, but this kind of grand, operatic mise en scene is of a piece with the entire movie.

As Gance’s epic progresses from Napoelon’s childhood (the older figure is played with moody intensity by the statuesque Albert Dieudonné) to show how he traversed many of the formative experiences that shaped his rapid advancement; including being inspired by the early rumblings of the Revolution to build a united Europe, overcoming various rivals, surviving the deadly Terror and political machinations, and wedding Josephine, you have to marvel at how Gance’s technical accomplishments allow the film to rise to the monumental subject matter, to literally get bigger and more dynamic as its subject grows in stature. The production values are lavish: huge sets and vast crowds come in a never ending parade, whilst the story ranges all over France and beyond. But Gance uses more complex techniques to give a sense of the wheels of history turning too. For example, he exploits exposure techniques to creature a surreal sequence where Napoleon imagines the delegates of the National Assembly that have driven the Revolution appearing out of thin air in the empty rows of benches around him, as he stands in the empty hall. Through this vision, Napoleon feels their calls on behalf of France to seek glory in conquest. At one point, to emphasise the chaos in the Assembly at another time, Gance literally swings the camera from a rope attached to the ceiling, letting it lurch back and forth over the crowds. 

Even more strikingly, Gance used multiple cameras shooting simultaneously to create a triptych effect for parts of the film: with the intention being that the three frames when projected side by side would allow an enhanced widescreen image. Essentially a form of ‘Cinemascope’ long before anyone in Hollywood had thought of it, this makes for highly impactful shots of armies manaoevering, or standing at ease whilst being addressed from above by Napoleon. Gance even at times mixes the frames up so each focuses on something different to its neighbouring frame, creating an in-film triptych montage. The visual approach also crams in extensive close-ups, POV shots, handheld sequences, tinting, fast cutting, and much more, as if Gance wanted to try everything.

The journey of Napoleon from its 1927 production and release to its re-issue this November is also an interesting story in its own right. Screened only a few times to the public since its original release (not hard to understand when you consider a live orchestra and triple projector setup are needed for the full experience) and the early victim of drastic cuts in length from its first edit, the film has been painstakingly restored after decades of work by silent film historian Kevin Brownlow and the BFI National Archive. Brownlow, who first saw and was captivated by the film in 9.5mm format as a schoolboy, has added to and re-edited it several times as more footage has been found, with this digital restoration being the final fruit of that toil. This new digital upgrade of Napoleon will allow audiences to see the film’s original tinting and toning, including colour combinations which could not be achieved in the existing 35mm print. Integration of sections sourced from a wide range of elements have also been improved by detailed digital image repair and alignment. The film has been entirely re-graded and received extensive digital clean-up; you are seeing it at its very best.

Viewers who see this Brownlow version will not only be due a visual treat, as described above, but can savour the equally mammoth score composed and conducted by Carl Davis for Brownlow’s first Napoleon restoration in the 80s (newly recorded here in 7.1) - all five hours plus of it. And those who book to see the film’s special screening at the Royal Festival Hall on 6 November, will experience that same score - still the longest ever composed for a film - performed live by Davis himself conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra.

Napoleon is at the BFI, select cinemas and VOD platforms (including BFIplayer) from 11 November. The film will be later released on BFI DVD/Bluray. See here for more details.

Napoleon plays at the Royal festival Hall on 6 November with a live score from Carl Davis and the Philharmonia Orchestra.

 

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

BFI Black Star Season review: John Singleton's Boyz n the Hood feels as relevant as ever

Director: John Singleton

USA 1991, 112mins

The BFI and Park Circus will release Boyz n the Hood in selected cinemas UK-wide on 28 October.

Black Star runs 17 October - 23 December 206, see BFI site for details.

RATING: ★★★★☆

Usually, when a film reaches its 25th anniversary, reviews will note how the film has achieved 'time capsule' status, providing a nice dose of nostalgia for days gone by. It doesn't feel appropriate to say that about director John Singleton's Boyz n the Hood, given its anniversary and re-release into cinemas as a key part of the BFI's Black Star season comes at a time when tensions between the police and America's black community seem to be at an all-time high, and when black filmmakers like Ava DuVernay are releasing hard-hitting films like 13th (read the review here); which questions how far race relations have really come in the US since abolition.

Beyond its immediate visceral impact as a film frankly depicting the challenges faced by a troubled black teen in a tough South Central LA neighbourhood, Boyz n the Hood is notable for many other reasons, certainly when you consider the context in which it was made and released. Strikingly, John Singleton - a black director  - was just 23 when he wrote and directed what is now recognised as a seminal film; the success of Boyz n the Hood and the impact it had on popular culture in the US and abroad (it played at Cannes, for one thing) are now seen as a key part of the new phase of black filmmaking that emerged in the US. The cast reads like a who's who of major black talent looking back at it now - Laurence Fishburne, Cuba Gooding Jnr, and Angela Bassett amongst others - and the presence of rapper Ice Cube in his acting debut is a sign of the growing power of rap and hip-hop as a cross-media cultural phenomenon. The film's soundtrack packs in - apart from Ice Cube, of course -  "Jam on It" by Newcleus, "Sunshower" by Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band, "More Bounce to the Ounce" by Zapp, "Sucker M.C.'s" by Run-D.M.C., "Let's Go" by Kool Moe Dee, and "Ooh Child" by The Five Stairsteps. With all these elements in play, Singleton's film helped popularise the 'hood' genre of films.

The story takes place against the backdrop of early eighties South Central LA, as black teen Tre Styles (Gooding Jr), tries to navigate life in a community ravaged by drug addiction, poverty, gangs and police harassment. He's not been living in this part of South Central full time though, having instead been housed with his mother Reva (Angela Bassett) for much of his pre-teens, and his Mother's looming university Master's studies seem set to pay off with new job opportunities for her. But following increasing tension at school, with Tre prone to losing his cool, Reva sends him back to live with his father for the duration, convinced that (the brilliantly-named) Furious Styles (Laurence Fishburne) can 'teach him how to be a man'.

The two parents are an interesting pair of poles to see the boy pivot between. Separated but still in touch, Reva and Furious are both intelligent and committed parents, but emphasise different things. Reva is focused and ambitious, Furious given to the kind of firebrand preaching and code of living that the likes of Malcolm X favoured. Interestingly, both are middle class, meaning Tre doesn't exactly fit with all his old friends - including the street hustling Doughboy (Cube) - in what is shown to be a diverse, but still troubled, neighbourhood. Furious and Reva have had their own share of racial discrimination to face though, with Reva being bluntly asked by Tre's teacher on the phone if she is 'educated'.

It is the sense of authenticity and vibrancy in the depiction of this LA neighbourhood that is one of the great strengths of Singleton's film. Shot largely on location, the film takes its time to show the rhythms of the streets, and it isn't just all a showcase of guns and drugs either. Tre and his group of friends spend a good deal of time just hanging out, drinking and smoking and talking about girls; a universal experience of youth made believable by the naturalistic performances and raw dialogue peppered with profanity and tangental stories. But this is a vision of peace that rarely lasts when the sun goes down, and sirens and helicopter rotor blade beats start to dominate the night air. At certain points Singleton dials up the volume of this background cacophony to literally drown Tre out, driving him to despairingly claw at his ears. When violence bursts into Tre's life, it isn't glorified and is shown to carry lasting psychological scars, and solves nothing,

As Tre, Cuba Gooding Jnr is fine when it comes to portraying a callow youth, torn between the diktats of his parents, and  the urge to back up his friends when they get mixed up in gang hostilities. Ice Cube is a little shaky at times as Doughboy, but his final, poignant scene - as a man aware of his own ticking clock - carries real weight. But it is hard to deny that Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett add that essential gravitas, and their combatative-come-flirtatious scenes together are some of the film's bests. Fishburne, it is fair to say, gets more screen time, and his depiction of Furious is fascinating. In many ways a 'man's man' with an old-fashioned view of a male child needing input from a parent of the same sex and gender (this film has been accused of pushing a male-centric view of parenting), Furious nevertheless complicates this by both urging Tre to stay away from the darker side of the streets, whilst delivering epic sermons on how the system is rigged against the black community. One of his key speeches is delivered under a real estate banner, where he explains how white flight and gentrification are a linked system of exploitation, with blacks left with plentiful gun and liquor stores on every corner, as "they want us to keep killing each other." Furious's speeches manage to be both overblown but also contain nuggets of larger, abstract truths at the same time, and it is easy to see how all these competing missives - to fight the system, to be a man, but to also stay out of trouble - are confusing Tre as well as educating him.

Though it does betray the rawness of a first feature at times (there is the odd tip into melodrama, for example), Boyz n the Hood remains an urgent, exciting, saddening, and still-relevant piece of work that holds the attention on its own terms regardless of the place it has been assigned in history. But speaking of that history; for this hard-hitting drama, Singleton was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay and Director, making him the youngest ever nominee for the latter and the first African-American to be nominated for it also.

 

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

BFI Black Star Season Review: Pool of London - the film that launched Earl Cameron's career

Director: Basil Deardon

A | 1h 25min | Crime, Drama | 13 August 1951 (Sweden)

On DVD/Bluray from StudioCanal from 25 October

RATING: ★★★★☆

Screening as part of the BFI’s Black Star season, and now released on bluray for the first time as part of Studiocanal’s Vintage Classics Collection, Pool of London is an enjoyable, compact Ealing Studios crime caper directed by Basil Deardon (The Blue Lamp, Dead of Night) that became notable for featuring veteran actor Earl Cameron CBE, known as one of the first black screen actors to break the colour bar in the UK. He has acted in 91 films and TV series, has over 70 years in the business, and is still working. His role in Ealing Studios’ classic thriller was a breakout opportunity for him.

In Pool of London, Cameron plays Johnny, a young and upbeat Jamaican ship worker earning his way on board the Durham; a British Empire merchant marine vessel with a mixed nationality crew. Johnny idolises Dan MacDonald (Bonar Colleano), a roguish American of Italian heritage who looks out for Johnny and has clearly enjoyed playing the older brother role. Arriving in the Docklands for shore leave and to offload the Dunbar’s cargo during the summer of 1951, the two men find themselves getting into troubled waters when ashore. Dan falls in with a gang of smugglers looking to use his boat to smuggle a diamond stash out of the country, whilst Johnny finds himself falling for Pat, a white girl (Susan Shaw) who’s race and nationality means it is impossible for him to really consider being with her. Dan ends up using Johnny to further the heist scheme, assuming he won’t get his pal into trouble so long as things go smoothly, but when the heist goes wrong and the police get onto his tail, he risks getting Johnny stitched up in it all. Dan has to face a choice: let Johnny fall under police suspicion which, given his race, will surely be fatal, or stick up for his friend.

Apart from offering the great Cameron a breakout role, Pool of London also was the first British-made post-Windrush film to feature an interracial relationship, and although the lack of seeing it consummated on screen might have been due to the conservative sensibilities of the time, this enforced distance between Johnny and Pat does serve the film’s wider purpose of commenting on race relations and gives the story quite a poignant tone. Restrained though the film might seem compared to today’s standards - there is no blood or harsh language to be seen or heard - the screenplay does not shy away from putting Johnny in situations where he is subjected to discrimination due to his colour. Though the “N” word is never used, the phrases “you people” and “your kind” are all too frequently thrown at the young Jamaican, usually following some kind of exclusionary act, whether it is a security guard moving him on when he is simply waiting near a door, or bouncers throwing him out of a gin joint.

And speaking of gin joints, the film pleasingly drinks in the rarefied air of such night life haunts, as well as underground dance halls, vaudeville theatres, and even those quaint places known as “milk bars”. The plot ranges across a London still visibly recovering from the Second World War and dotted with piles of rubble and half-repaired buildings, a place all the more striking for being without the hyper-gentrification of today. Trams still trundle through central (though Pat notes they are due to be closed down - the irony!), and the Thames bustles with commercial shipping. Thus, even though the crime at the centre of Pool of London’s central story arc could hardly be called epic (though the band of criminals have a nice touch of eccentricity to them, one being a circus performer who uses his jumping skills to get into the bank) the film functions as a compelling time capsule of a London long gone.

DVD/BR Special Features:

  • New interview with Earl Cameron.
  • New locations featurette with film historian Richard Dacre.
  • Production stills gallery.
Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

London Film Festival 2016 review: Creepy

Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa

2h 10min | Thriller | 25 November 2016 (UK)

Playing London Film Festival 2016

RATING: ★★★☆☆

Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa, who directed the hit film Pulse, eschews the supernatural thriller genre for something more grounded but which still hints at mysterious, dark forces at work. The danger in his new film, Creepy, very much comes from humans though, not ghosts or goblins. It is a pretty effective chiller that follows the adventures of world-weary former detective inspector Takakura (Hidetoshi Nishijima), who quit the force and moved to the Tokyo suburbs to teach criminal psychology at the local university after a case went bad. But when Takakura’s former colleague asks for help in an unsolved missing person’s case that has baffled all other cops, the ex-cop is inevitably drawn into trying to solve the mystery, only to find himself believing that his strange new neighbour, Mr Nishino, could in fact be the one responsible: a killer who has the uncanny ability to insinuate himself into families and destroy them from the inside. To his horror, Takakura not only finds he can’t marshal any evidence against Nishino, but his own wife Yasuo (Yûko Takeuchi) starts to act strangely. But is Nishino really the killer, or just another misanthrope of a neighbour? 

As Nishino, actor Teruyuki Kagawa is a suitably unsettling antagonist: smarmy one minute, obsequious the next, yet mostly walking on nail-biting line of behaviour where polite characters around him feel they can’t rise to the bait. The slow-burn atmosphere benefits from the lensing of the Japanese surroundings, which emphasise the dull, lifeless and run-down neighbourhood Takakura has moved to: a place where seemingly no one gives a damn if their neighbours are even alive. The dismal responses the Takakura’s get trying to integrate themselves in with their neighbours only rams this home more. There is a particularly macabre body disposal method revealed later on in the film as the killer’s modus operandi finally becomes clear, which involves bodies being packed into vacuum-sealed plastic bags, with sound effects viewers are not likely to forget any time soon. But the film feels overlong, and there are more than a few holes in the plot when it comes to certain character motivations, particularly the behaviour of Takakura’s wife. Her vulnerability to such a disturbing figure lacks credibility even if it raises the stakes, though maybe Kurosawa wanted to give his killer an almost supernatural ability to manipulate families into carving themselves up without lifting a finger, so making him an allegorical figure for 21st century alienation.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

London Film Festival 2016 review: Nocturnal Animals

Director: Tom Ford

15 | 1h 57min | Drama, Thriller | 4 November 2016 (UK)

Playing London Film Festival2016

RATING: ★★★★☆

This revenge thriller hails from the director of A Single Man: fashion mogul and filmmaker Tom Ford. As you’d expect from an artist famed for his tasteful visual style, Nocturnal Animals - his adaptation of Austin Wright’s novel Tony and Susan - looks gorgeous, with a colour palette full of velvety reds, inky blacks, and crisp golds thanks to costume designer Arianne Phillips and maestro cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, amongst others. It stars Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal, who look even more beautiful when captured by Ford’s camera, and do sterling work in their roels. The film around pulses with a more lurid, nasty vibe though; viewers should not go in expecting the quiet, sombre elegance of A Single Man. This is a study of bitter, sorry people hurting each other using ancient memories, propelled like bullets via the power of fiction.

Adams and Gyllenhaal play Susan and Edward, Susan being a glamorous and seemingly successful Los Angeles gallery director in the present day, who divorced struggling novelist Edward - who was her college sweetheart and to whom she got briefly married during their time studying - some years ago. Susan is presented to us very quickly as a (somewhat cliched) figure of sophistication that nevertheless is concealing a deep unhappiness. It is clear from the stiff poise she takes with her distracted businessman husband Walker (Armie Hammer) in their kitchen during breakfast that their current marriage is unravelling, and indeed, he is soon announcing a sudden business excursion to New York that will ruin their weekend plans. The glossy, high-design trappings of wealth and success that infuse Susan’s postmodern bungalow only serve to emphasise the coldness of her emotional life. There is plenty to enjoy in terms of the intensity of the visuals - the ostentatious wealth, the glamorous costumes - but Ford strangely over-eggs the tone in the scenes where we see Susan’s daily existence in the art world. Her gallery and colleagues are cardboard cutouts of the most pretentious ‘dahling’ types and the work on the walls unbelievably inane. Susan’s husband’s philandering - and her semi-comedic and accidental stumbling across it - gives off the whiff of pulpy melodrama. Ford seems to want you to gag with laughter at this unreal depiction of LA’s high-culture set (just gawp at Andrea Riseborough’s chunky jewelry with Liz Taylor hairstyle and caftan). It feels like a strange approach when you consider the stately aura given off by A Single Man.

Then again, maybe this infusion of a trashy-novel tone makes more sense when you consider the way Edward brutally re-inserts himself into his former wife’s life. Unannounced, he sends her an unpublished manuscript of his latest novel one morning, and an insomnia-addled Susan (Edward used to call her a nocturnal animal when they were together) finds herself engrossed in it against her expectations. It’s a thriller about a very average man called Tony whose planned road trip with his wife and daughter goes tragically wrong when a gang of savage redneck thugs drive them off the road, mocking Tony’s refusal to stand up to them, and they ultimately kidnap his family as he lies helpless. Paralysed by fear, Tony hesitates in a moment where he might intervene. Susan’s visualisations of this revenge tale - which ends in a clumsily executed moment of vengeance after much emotional turmoil - essentially becomes a second narrative that Ford interweaves very well with the main story, capturing well via editing and sound the way a novel can grip you and blur into your real life. Michael Shannon is also captivating (as only he can be) as a character in the novel: a salty, fuck-the-rules Lieutenant with a loose cannon modus operandi that gives this strand real bite and some welcome moments of dark comedy. The West Texas setting, and the grim repercussions of Tony’s decision to seek revenge, give the impression this is something of a second-rate Cormac McCarthy novel. We never see the actual text enough to judge though.

Significantly, Susan visualises Tony as looking and sounding like Edward (Gylenhaal plays both roles), and this presumably was the intention of her ex-husband, who seems to have written the tale as a barbed, vicious comment on what he sees as her previous lack of support for his writing career and questioning of his masculinity. We see snippets of these conflicts between Susan and Edward in flashback, but only from Susan’s perspective. This raises all sorts of questions, which are complicated by the fact that Susan is fascinated by the novel, committing to it no matter how disturbing it gets. But is she supposed to identify with the victim or the perpetrator? The fact that Susan is introduced as such an unpleasant and shallow character - combined with later revelations about a particular action she took without Edward’s knowledge and the parallels drawn between her and her absurdly Nancy Reagan-esque conservative mother - raises the uncomfortable possibility that Ford wants you to sympathise with Edward, who never appears on screen in the present day to contextualise the sending of the manuscript. But Edward’s action is nasty in the extreme, the equivalent of lobbing manure through an ex-wife’s letterbox. It is a bomb thrown into Susan’s life, provoking her to ask herself if she leaches the agency of others. Maybe Ford’s intention was in fact to provoke audiences in exactly this cruel way, to swing between the poles, distracted by the trashy glory of it all. If so, this was an exercise in manipulation done with style and sensuality, though many might well find this cruel tale unsettling.

 

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

London Film Festival 2016 review: Eyes of My Mother

Director: Nicolas Pesce

R | 1h 16min | Drama, Horror | 2 December 2016 (USA)

Playing London Film Festival 2016

RATING: ★★★☆☆

You can't deny director Nicolas Pesce’s monochrome debut showcases a singular vision. Shot in gorgeous monochrome, the film is set in a timeless-looking part of rural America, yet stars a cast speaking partly Portugese, all shot with a camera choreography that creates a certain lyrical effect. Tonally, the film slides around from mostly melancholic to sometimes near-camp (squelching sound effects), which does leave you wondering what the director was aiming for: an elegiac brutal horror tone poem or something a bit more grand guignol and Grimm fairytale-ish? Texas Chainsaw Massacre as if directed by Tim Burton feels about right.

The story focuses on young Francisca, who we see growing up on a secluded -probably too secluded, as it turns out - cattle farm in an undisclosed village, with her mother and father. Francisca’s loving mother is a former Portuguese surgeon who teaches her daughter about religion and anatomy-including a graphic, stomach churning demonstration of how to remove cow eyes. Francisca seems to take these lessons too much to heart though, and when a violent drifter forces his way into their house and brutally kills her mother, she conspires with her near-silent elderly father to keep the killer prisoner in their barn...for over a decade, making him part pet, part friend, and part surgery experiment. Then things escalate years later, when Francisca sets out to replace the family she has lost; through any means necessary. There are some striking, death-suffused monochrome images here (Francisca bathing her father in milky-toned water, shot from above) that provocatively suggest a near romantic aura can surround acts of death and murder, but for all the gothic atmosphere and appealing unpredictability, the film still betrays the roughness of a first feature.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

London Film Festival 2016 review: Certain Women

Director: Kelly Reichardt

R | 1h 47min | Drama | 14 October 2016 (USA)

Playing London Film Festival 2016

RATING: ★★★★☆

Kelly Reichardt films don't come around too often, but when they do, the Smoke Screen regards them like precious stones, to be treasured. Her new three-part drama, Certain Women, adapted from Montana-native Maile Meloy’s short stories, is another quietly intelligent study of women struggling with their own crises and self-doubts. It reunites Reichardt with Michelle Williams (her collaborator on Wendy & Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff), but also sees sterling work come from Laura Dern, and another in a growing catalogue of interesting turns from Twilight star (and how far away Twilight now seems) Kristen Stewart. And if that wasn’t enough, newcomer Lily Gladstone, cast opposite Stewart in the last of the three stories, also impresses. Reichardt knows how to create a sense of mood and place too, using the Montana landscapes to craft a backdrop for her characters of flinty, wintry isolation where people seem very alone.

The film is split across three sections, each exploring the lives of three very different women in Livingstone, Montana, a town of only 7,000 residents. Their residency (permanent or otherwise) in the same town is pretty much the only thing that connects them physically, but there is a spiritual connection too; each of these women are dealing with their own internal struggles, each is not quite living the life they expected they would, and are unsure how to get from here to there. Laura Dern’s lawyer is conducting a surreptitious lunchtime affair with a married man while defending disgruntled construction worker Fuller (Jared Harris) in his workplace accident suit. She seems dutiful and committed, but when Fuller snaps and takes hostages in order to highlight his exploited situation, she finds her self caught up in a pleasingly Coen-esque farce of a negotiation (complete with an overly-nice, totally unflappable Sheriff cheerily suiting her up with body armour), and has to face the possibility she didn’t believe in her client as fully as she could have. It is great to see Dern at work again, and this story maintains a nice shift between black comedy and tension.

In the second story, Michelle Williams plays Gina, a hippy type with a penchant for living out in highly-advanced bespoke tents with her husband Ryan (the man we saw Dern sleeping with), but our sympathies for this ‘perfect’ family start to shift when it starts to look like they are exploiting the fragile mind of elderly resident Albert, who’s large supply of junk sandstone in his back yard they want to get; for nothing. Probably the most opaque of the three tales, there is a kind of “passing of the torch” subtext here, as Albert surrenders his stone to a new generation who’s ideas about ‘authenticity’ don’t necessarily extend to involve a real emotional connection to this land around them. It is tempting to read into the tensions between Gina and Ryan some subconscious knowledge of his philandering too.

The last story is perhaps the most impactful, and will inevitably be compared to Brokeback Mountain given the isolated, rural setting and subject matter dealing with hidden, frustrated desires. Native American actor Lily Gladstone gives a heart-wrenching performance as lonely ranch hand Jamie, who enrols in a night school course on a whim, only to develop confusing desires for the new, from-out-of-town supply teacher Beth (Kristen Stewart). Jamie works on a horse ranch on the plains, a hauntingly beautiful place to be in the winter, but her physical skills are no guide to this new emotional fireball inside her. This leaves her looking both frightened and over-eager in Beth’s presence, as she takes more and more opportunities to spend boundary-blurring time with her teacher, offering her horse rides to her car and spending brief snatches with her in the only diner on the route home. For her part Stewart makes Beth a mix of intelligence, quiet self-doubt and world-weariness, with her character revealing to us a mercilessly insecure work routine that seems to sum up the physical cost this tough part of America demands: four-hour commutes, two jobs and a night course commitment that requires she actually teach herself school law the evening before, as she doesn’t know the subject at all. This leaves her about five minutes for personal time, and it is that five minutes that Jamie hopes she can be part of. It already feels like a doomed quest.

This won’t be a film for those who want regular emotional fireworks, or to have onscreen characters introduced with a surrounding blanket of complete context. This really is a slow-burning, melancholic work where gestures, glances and snippets of dialogue are all we have to go on when judging who these women are, and where they are likely to end up after the credits roll.  If you come ready for that then Reichardt’s nuanced, well-acted film will satisfy immensely.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

London Film Festival 2016 review: 13th

Director: Ava DuVernay

1h 40min | Documentary | 7 October 2016 (UK)

Playing London Film Festival 2016

RATING: ★★★★☆

Ava DuVernay’s (Selma) new documentary takes its title from the United States’s 13th Amendment, introduced to abolish slavery, and it states: ‘Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.’ In a brisk 90 minutes, drawing on a variety of academics, activist and cultural commentators, including esteemed figures like Angela Davis, DuVernay’s film steamrollers over the notion that the passing of this act closed the book on the appalling inequalities faced by America’s black community. In fact, several interviewees note the inherent flaw in the act itself: the wording “except as a punishment for crime” seemed designed to foreshadow how, in the absence of an explicit federal mandate to continue the industry of slavery after the Confederacy lost the Civil War, the means of generating wealth from black bodies and simultaneously denying them agency shifted, like a chameleon, into other channels. And one of those key channels was federal and state law enforcement tools, or what Davis calls ‘the prison-industrial complex’.

DuVernay’s film isn’t particularly stylistically memorable or novel in its construction (there is a politically-charged hip-hop score, and the word ‘Criminal’ is flashed on screen in bold text whenever the word is mentioned by the interviewees, emphasising the way the black figure has been negatively contextualised in cultural dialogue) but what it does do is effectively assemble footage and facts in a relentless barrage that just overwhelms you, while confidently establishing connecting threads that have terrifying implications. We are given plenty of disturbing facts that sketch out the dismal national picture today: the film opens with an address from Barack Obama, where he notes that America has almost 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s prisoners. The lifetime likelihood of imprisonment of an American white male is 1 in 17, for blacks it is a shocking 1 in 3. Black men are 6.5% of the US population today, yet make up 40% of the prison population. One commentator notes that more blacks now are under criminal supervision than were actually slaves back in the 1850s.

DuVernay’s film highlights the striking - and disgusting -  speed at which the wheels of the state and various cultural institutions and voices moved after the end of slavery to establish this new form of dominion. Right after the Civil War blacks were incarcerated en masse and put to work in industrial schemes, their labour still being extracted despite their new ‘freedom’. Then there was roughly 100 years of Jim Crow legislation across the southern states, which helped drive what one commentator refers to as a “mass exodus from terror” as blacks fled to the northern and western cities. Despite the gains made during the Lyndon Johnson presidency thanks in large part to the Civil Rights movement and figures like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, the Nixon, Reagan and Bush administrations ran on explicit, dog-whistle “law and order" platforms that not only secured their southern base against Democrats, but massively expanded the war on drugs, militarised the police, and reduced judge’s decision making powers. 

Blatant discrimination was baked into the system: thus possession of the fashionable white-favoured cocaine powder would earn a defendant a far lighter sentence than being caught with crack cocaine. The defeat of the Democrat Dukakis by George Bush senior in the 1988 election campaign involved the shameful exploitation of the image of a black criminal who it was claimed had struck while on a release programme from jail mandated by the Democrat challenger. Part of a long history of the association of the black body with crime (and rape and murder in particular) this racist election tactic helped burn into the Democrat Party the still-present fear of being seen as soft on crime, hence the Clinton administration’s refusal to change the general course of US policing and sentencing (for example, Clinton backed sentencing policies like California’s harsh “three strikes and you’re out”) and acceptance of the ‘super predator’ rhetoric.

The sections of the film where we are shown how hard it is going to be to undo this mass incarceration system are particularly chilling, as there seems to be simply so much money and infrastructure now invested in the ‘prison industrial complex’, which has now blurred into part of the regular economy. Private companies now run prisons on behalf the US government, and secure influence in Congress and the Senate by combining their influence into lobbying groups (the ALEC foundation comes in for particular scrutiny, its pre-written bills securing corporate interests have appeared almost word-for-word on the House floor at times). Prisoners are a source of low cost labour, their toil flowing into any number of major brands. Various interviewees worry that the new nationwide dialogue on addressing sentencing imbalances and overpopulation of prisons masks a subtle corporate agenda to move on to privatising probation and monitoring, adapting to the new unacceptability of using prisons as a blunt instrument.

It can’t be denied DuVernay’s film has been released at a propitious time, as relations between the black community and the institutions of the state reach a particularly charged level, against the backdrop of many high profile killings of black individuals by police. The director doesn’t hesitate either to connect the ugly language of Trump, the ‘law and order’ candidate in the current, fractious Presidential election campaign, to the irrational rage and fear which fuelled lynchings and beatings in the Jim Crow era (there is footage of Trump’s truly appalling incitement of violence towards protesters at his rallies, with the dismally inevitable and frightening results). With the film feeling worryingly up to date, one of the few rays of light in this urgent indictment of the state of race relations in the US is a final reminder that Black Lives Matter and the new enabling power of the internet allow conversations about these issues to start - and spread - much faster now.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Interview: Murder, motherhood and moviemaking - Sightseers co-writer and star Alice Lowe discusses her directorial debut PREVENGE

Alice Lowe in Prevenge, which she wrote, directed and acted in while pregnant

Alice Lowe in Prevenge, which she wrote, directed and acted in while pregnant

In her debut film Prevenge, writer-director Alice Lowe takes a blowtorch to the picture postcard image of pregnancy. In this deliciously twisted serial killer black comedy, she plays the 30-something, very pregnant, Ruth. If things weren't hard enough for Ruth, trying to deal with her grief at the recent death of her husband in a climbing accident, she also has to battle the strange voices emanating from…her womb. Yup, Ruth’s baby seems to be talking to her, and the squeaky, bitter voice is impelling her on to murder everyone involved in her husband’s death. Equipped with a clunky kitchen knife and a dour sense of humour, Ruth waddles off to carry out the bloody deeds, though as the bodies pile up, she starts to fear she is being consumed by this being inside her. In a neat coincidence, Lowe was pregnant herself when she starred in her own debut, a directing challenge she was well-prepared for after years starring in and writing dark comedy material, ranging from Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place to Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers.

Smoke Screen had the pleasure of sitting down with Lowe at London Film Festival - where the film played in the Dare strand - to talk about murder, motherhood and moviemaking.

You can read the review of Prevenge here.

It’s rare to see a debut director write, direct and star in their own movie, and when pregnant!

AL: Yes, it certainly was greedy of me, wasn’t it! I wanted to direct, but I really didn’t think I’d direct while pregnant. That wasn’t really the plan. I came up with the idea for a director called Jamie Adams, who directed a film called Black Mountain Poets. When I gave him the pitch, he said: “its brilliant, but I can’t direct it as I do rom-coms. This is dark, and I think you should direct this instead.” I knew already that I wanted to direct, but I was wondering if I could star, write and direct while pregnant. And I had had these frustrations over a long period of time of wanting to direct but thinking people wouldn’t trust me: the catch-22 of “you can’t make a first film until you’ve made a first film.”

So I just felt that if I could pull this off it would be such a good thing. You fight battles to protect your creative voice, especially in film with budgets and lots of people scared to give you money only to see you screw it up. But this film would be low budget. I felt now was the time to take that risk. And if I got it right people would respond: “ah, I see what you can do now.” I was whinging about it for so many years, but you’ve got to get out there and do it! Still, it wasn’t an easy decision. It was terrifying! So it ended up being a kamikaze approach, do or die. But I’d made a lot of short films, and in my view you never regret making something. You regret NOT making something. I put all of that into the film.

There seems to be this gleeful aspect to the film, where all the joyful tropes of pregnancy are slashed and burned…

AL: Definitely. When it came to doing research for the film, I was technically right in the middle of the research! It was strange; like being a freelancer, joining this odd club that is pregnancy, which I have seen as being an industrialised, fetishised thing. I felt very outsider-ish about it. That was already going through my head. So when I was making the film I was pooling all of this stuff that I had experienced. I hope people do see it as cathartic! Some people have suggested pregnant women might be disturbed watching the film, to me they are about to give birth, I don’t think we should patronise them. They’re about to go through something very painful and life changing, I think they are stronger than we think they are. 

But at the same time, just because I’m pregnant doesn’t mean I’m going to stop watching horror or be a different person. It’s only society that would change me. All those issues were running into the film, and I do hope people watch it and feel that it’s a film talking about all the things they aren't allowed to do. There is a relief and release in that. Just because you are pregnant doesn’t mean you have to pack all that stuff away; I think that would be really unhealthy. So there’s a lot of taboo stuff I put in the film, stuff which I felt was current and people don’t talk about. Like those trendy new parenting things like prenatal yoga - those kind of things just stressed me out. I just wanted to put a pin in all that.

Your character murders a whole lot of people, did you think about how that could alienate the audience?

AL: I definitely wanted it to be quite alienating. What I was trying to do was do a kind inverse character arc, where the viewer almost starts off hating the character, only to come to empathise with them later after you come to understand them. A risky enterprise according to the screenwriting handbooks! I wanted to test the audience, see how far they could go. This woman you see on screen is pregnant, as a society we are used to such figures being seen as “nice and lovely”. The first two men Ruth kills I wanted to present as if they might be victims of some kind of feminist vengeance, but then flip it on its head by suggesting its society that she hates, and the hypocrisies she is experiencing.

It is an interesting word: “alienating”, as I did think of this as a secret sci-fi film. It doesn’t have to be out there for everyone to see, but Ruth is a sort of alien character. She’s an anti-superheroine! Her special powers are her pregnancy! She feels that what is happening to her is very strange and new. Hence the score and everything had to be futuristic in a retro kind of way. I deliberately didn’t want the audience to feel comfortable at any stage: hence all the footage of spiders and lizards early on! The scene with Mike Wozniak (whop plays the affable flatmate of one of Ruth’s male victims, whom she considers killing too) was a moment where I wanted Ruth’s worldview to be challenged too.

This feels like it would be a perfect companion piece to Sightseers; what did you bring from that and all the other films and TV shows you’ve worked on?

AL: I co-wrote Sightseers, and I think they are genetically related for sure, like siblings. A lot of this just comes down to my sense of humour, and I do have a dark one. I like improvisation, mixing up realism with surrealism. The main thing I developed on from Sightseers was having a real sense of drama, which I put into Prevenge. Some of the themes are more serious. Pregnancy is serious. I’ve seen enough comedies about it. I wanted a dark crises to be going on in Ruth’s world, death is mixed up with birth and life for her. So I was dabbling more with drama here, making it more of a thriller than Sightseers.

I didn’t go to film school, so everything is a learning curve and building on what you’ve done. Pushing it a little bit further. I do want to branch out and tackle different genres. I see myself more of a fantasy writer. I get accused of being a horror writer, but, for example, I do a lot of surrealism. I’d love to do sci-fi and period dramas. My next film is going to be very concept driven, but it not ready to be talked about yet! I would like to make films were people can sense it has its own personality, with its own traits.

Did you draw on any other filmmakers for inspiration? There seemed to be a few homages to other movies in Prevenge:

AL: Possession and Halloween certainly, I also wanted to have lots of colour in it, so I was thinking a lot about Brian De Palma. We were so lucky with locations too: like, the reptile shop was the biggest coup ever! This could have cost us a fortune. I wanted the film to look like it was a travel through the circles of hell, with each scene having its own feeling. And we actually got those things! For example, we filmed at Saatch and Saatchi, and they had huge blue ice-like table! Just what I had in my head! 

 

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

London Film Festival 2016 review: Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World

Director: Werner Herzog

12 | 1h 38min | Documentary | 28 October 2016 (UK)

Playing London Film Festival 2016

RATING: ★★★★☆

It felt inevitable that the mercurial Teuton, legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog, would tackle the internet at some point, given his fascination with vanishing cultures, lost prophets, and scientific endeavours promising either great advancement for humanity or eventual destruction. In his latest documentary with the parable-esque title “Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World”, Herzog explores the ramifications of our internet-enabled world across 10 sprawling chapters. The director has spoken grumpily about how he eschews connected living, barely maintaining an email account and despising Twitter. Yet those expecting a doom-laden warning about brain-rot will be pleasantly surprised as, although there are more than a few troubling developments explored via interviews and archive material, from vengeful emails to the asymmetric warfare opportunities of hacking, Herzog also gives time to contemplate some of the more inspiring uses the world wide web and rapid data connections have been put to in the fields of science and medicine. An important note: the film - which is a bit spotty in its focus, and certainly isn't comprehensive - isn't so much interested in the “world wide web” as it is about the development of super-speed data flows, and their pivotal role in society today.

The film opens in what can only be called irresistible “Herzogian" territory, as we are taken to what is described as a “holy place” in the history of the internet’s creation. With Herzog’s unmistakeable Bavarian-accented voice providing the narration, we are taken along a corridor in UCLA’s Boelter Hall, turning into room 3420, which has been preserved as it was from the 60s. There, the excitable computer science professor Leonard Kleinrock shows us the refrigerator-sized hunk of metal and electronics that was effectively the world’s first internet server - the Internet Message Processor, or IMP. So ugly it is almost beautiful, it was built to military-grade hardiness specs. Of course, it performed a function that is now handled by tiny devices inside laptops, cellphones and smartwatches. But the IMP was key to the launch of the internet, which took place in Kleinrock’s lab in October 1969 with the first word being transmitted across the primitive net: “Lo”. An appropriate first word that was actually the result of a server crash - the intention was to type “Login”.

From UCLA, Herzog takes us onwards on his idiosyncratic 10-chapter examination of the Internet. There are plenty of metaphor-based factoids thrown at us to give us a sense of how fast the web developed from the early UCLA days: apparently if you burned CDs of a day’s worth of data that is sent globally, the pile would reach Mars. Not all of the material presented is revelatory and some sections feel like they get shorter shrift. It feels like stretching to suggest that robot cars trading data with each other to develop better driving patterns could be a kind of dreaming (Herzog is also interested in the notion that the internet might dream of itself, presumably once it reaches a point where it develops some kind of consciousness, a difficult to conceive of notion frankly given how the web operates today). But an interview with a medical scientist who used game-type cloud sourcing to help map the structure of the AIDS virus is a truly inspiring example of productive human connectivity. The film strikes a compellingly poignant too when it explores those left behind in the rush to get every device and person connected and online, or those who saw their visions of the internet’s design and purpose pushed aside.

The new ager Ted Nelson is a classic Herzogian figure unearthed for this documentary, a sad and cheated dreamer who imagined the internet operating in a very different way and wants more “interconnections”. He shows us an example of this on his home computer, and to be honest the concept doesn’t look very promising, but his intense commitment to this alternate online world and mode of behaviour clearly impresses Herzog. Another lost prophet for the director’s bulging files. At one point, Herzog take us to an American “offline” commune set up in an isolated part of Washington State where those who believe they are suffering from sensitivity to electrical currents and airborne data transmissions can hide away. One resident tearfully describes the unbearable physical and psychological pain she felt until she found this retreat and how sad she feels that she can’t go home, and despite the fact that medical science remains skeptical of this the phenomenon, Herzog treats her with quiet respect and acknowledges that - to her - the pain is real.  It personalises the idea that there will always be those who can’t - or wont’ - connect.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

London Film Festival 2016 review: David Lynch: The Art Life

Director: John Nguyen

1h 30min | Documentary | March 2017 (USA)

Playing London Film Festival 2016

RATING: ★★★★☆

Lynch fans are being well-served at this year’s London Film Festival, with director John Nguyen’s David Lynch: The Art Life being one of two documentaries about the mercurial director playing here. This will be catnip for the faithful, but viewers be warned; Nguyen’s film does what it says on the tin. This is not a study of Lynch’s film career or an academic dive into the deeper meanings of his screen work. Instead, Nguyen focuses on the period of Lynch’s life before “Lynchian” became a hot word in the wider culture: his long-standing interest in painting and sculpture which predates the making of breakthrough film Eraserhead (the production of which is basically where this film ends). It’s an absorbing, pleasantly-paced piece of work that benefits from Lynch having granted a great deal of access to his archive of paintings, photographs and home movies, and from the fact that it is narrated by the man himself, speaking into a lovely vintage microphone (naturally, it would be a vintage microphone) from his adorable painting studio in the hills above Hollywood. Interspersed with his narration are images of his paintings, most of which are, frankly, highly disturbing.

Lynch makes for an affable narrator, his voice still sporting that unmistakable Jimmy Stewart-esque twang and his speech speckled with “gee whizz” exclamations. He takes us on an intimate journey through his youth, talking about his childhood growing up in a variety of small-towns across America, his mostly warm relations with his family, through to more anxious years when he moved to a rough part of Philadelphia with a wife and child whilst still in his 20s, where he had to resort at times to painting for print to get cash for the rent. For those who know little about the man, it will be a neat primer into what he was up to before his breakout into the industry, which, as he admits, was hugely helped by his award of an American Film Institute grant. Lynch still has that characteristic of being prosaic and frank (if he likes a colour or an object, he will simply state he likes it with rarely any more detail given) and yet utterly non-explanatory. Viewers wanting him to reveal how his experiences struggling in Philadelphia with the deep fears of the run-down neighbourhood, his narrow range of experiences growing up in a world where he rarely noticed anything more than two blocks away, or his relationship with his parents affected his work: you’ll go home disappointed. Instead, it is up to viewers to grasp at the breadcrumbs of possible revelations that might be there in Lynch’s artwork and the odd comment he makes.

Thus, when he narrates a story of how he saw a naked, bloody-mouthed woman emerge from the darkness in front of him as a child, it is tempting to flash forward to the last act of his cult hit Blue Velvet. When Lynch comments about his edgy existence in Philadelphia, it is tempting to see in his analysis an appreciation of the duality of existence - the dark and light co-existing - that is essentially to his film worlds; “even though I lived in fear, it was thrilling to live the art life [there].” His love of old industrial buildings, smokestacks and leaky pipes, is discussed and illustrated by his own moody photo collection, all of which clearly fed into the striking aesthetic of Erasershead. Though hardcore Lynch fans might not learn too many new things here, this is a fine companion piece to the LYNCH ONE series of documentaries, which the director himself worked on and considers the third in that series.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

London Film Festival 2016 review: Prevenge

Director: Alice Lowe

1h 28min | Comedy, Drama, Fantasy | 13 October 2016 (UK)

Playing London Film Festival 2016

RATING: ★★★★☆

In her debut film Prevenge, writer-director Alice Lowe takes a blowtorch to the picture postcard image of pregnancy. In this deliciously twisted serial killer black comedy, she plays the 30-something and very pregnant, Ruth, who, if things weren't hard enough with trying to deal with her grief at the recent death of her husband in a climbing accident, has to battle the strange voices emanating from…her womb. Yup, Ruth’s baby seems to be talking to her, and the squeaky, bitter voice is impelling her on to murder everyone involved in her husband’s death. Equipped with a clunky kitchen knife and a dour sense of humour, Ruth waddles off to carry out the bloody deeds, though as the bodies pile up, she starts to fear she is being consumed by this being inside her. In a neat coincidence, Lowe was pregnant herself when she starred in this.

Lowe has been well-prepared for crafting this kind of tonally-ambiguous and surreal dark comedy, having starred in and co-written Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers, amongst many other projects. She is clearly enjoying shredding a few pregnancy taboos here, as well as having fun playing on the physical comedy potential of having a weighed-down woman try to murder her way through her hit list of villains (hint, don’t try to escape out of cat flap when pregnant). The film balances juicy murders and laugh-out loud comedy beats very well. As cathartic and deliriously fun as you can feel it must have been to use serial killer/slasher genre tropes to poke at society’s views of pregnancy and womanhood, there are poignant and pertinent undertones here too. Ruth’s increasing submission to the voice touches on fears that a child can become all-encompassing, even taking over your biology. At one point Ruth takes revenge on a prospective employer who clearly saw her pregnancy as a reason to exclude her CV from the pile. Some of her victims are piggish men, who see her pregnancy and increased body size as a sleazy turn-on. Yet Lowe never lets you get too comfortable with Ruth either, flipping the record every so often so you never know how far she will go and whether she should be seen as a victim, as insane, or both.

Yes, the film betrays its low budget at times, but Lowe and DP Ryan Eddleston get a great deal of mileage out of some surreal Cardiff locations (including a wacky, ice cream sundae-coloured indoor climbing club) and some of the murders are shot with real flair. An edgy electronic score from(Pablo Clements, James Griffith and Toydrum completes the mood. Genre fans will also have fun spotting the tributes to classics of yesteryear, including Possession, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Halloween.

 

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

London Film Festival 2016 review: Don't Think Twice

Director: Mike Birbiglia

R | 1h 32min | Comedy, Drama | 22 July 2016 (USA)

Playing London Film Festival 2016

RATING: ★★★★☆

This delightfully warm, yet also poignant comedy hails from the mind of writer/director and comedian Mike Birbiglia, who impressed the Smoke Screen with his debut film Sleepwalk with Me. Drawing on elements from his own life on the comedy circuit when he performed as a member of the Georgetown Players comedy set during college, this film tracks a month in the life of the five-member New York improv troupe The Commune (Birbiglia himself playing Miles, the oldest of the group and a comedy coach). Going in with no script and relying on the audience’s cues in order to construct an on-stage sketch (the group’s opening gambit is “So, did anyone have a really tough day?”), The Commune clearly are able to operate on the comedy knife-edge, but this is a scrappy, hand-to-mouth existence. All of the members - Mike, Jack, Samantha, Bill, Lindsay, and Allison - have second jobs or draw on family trust funds, which are essential as they are basically paying the run-down theatre to host them instead of making any dollars off of this.

The improv lifestyle is endearingly recreated, right down to the tiny details that evoke a real sense of authenticity. Whether it’s the strange warmup rituals (high-fives, chants and patting the weird bear totem outside the stage door) that the group carry out before going on stage, or the crappy apartments they struggle to pay the rent on, or the vain hope they all keep inside that their writing submissions to Saturday Night Live will be accepted, there is a real sense of the cast having inhabited real life versions of these onscreen lives at some point. But although the behind the scenes goings on of the improv scene will probably not be familiar to most viewers, the well-drawn conflicts that erupt between the group members are totally relatable, as anyone who has seen (or been in) a group of close friends rupturing due to thwarted ambitious, jealousies of success, or realisations of long-standing differences, will realise. Thus, when the oft-grandstanding Jack (the well-known comedian Keegan-Michael Key from the Key and Peele collaborations), lands his big break on a hit TV sketch show (which is full of former improvs), pleasure at his success soon gives way to questions about what this means for the collective. Interestingly, Jack’s success is not treated ironically, he is genuinely a very good improv performer, with a great knack for impersonations. His elevation to the show is moment of celebration and inspiration for everyone, but there is a cruelty to it. He can’t bring the group with him, and promises of talking up their talent to his bosses come to little. His position is a sharp reminder of the commercial realities of their line of work. But should this kind of mass-market show be their end goal?

Jack’s partner Samantha (Community's Gillian Jacobs), who in many ways is the most talented and keen member of the group, has to ask herself if she really has Jack’s ambitions to “take it to the next level” or whether improv should be an end in itself, as a rarified form of comedy requiring a unique finely honed skill set. Miles on the other hand has to face the fact that he has maybe groomed a group of comrades who have ended up being better at improv performance and comedy writing than he is, leaving him to drown his sorrows in booze and dating students that keep getting younger than him. As the group split apart and come back together there is plenty of the freewheeling flow and fizz of the best improvised comedy to savour (even the funeral of Bill’s father provides some material for the Commune!), and a couple of star cameos provide the icing on the cake.

 

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

London Film Festival 2016 review: Manchester by the Sea

Director: Kenneth Lonergan

R | 2h 15min | Drama | 13 January 2017 (UK)

Playing London Film Festival 2016

RATING: ★★★★☆

Though its plot - about a haunted man’s painful hometown return to take on the task of becoming his nephew’s guardian - might sound on paper a one-way ticket to either redemptive melodrama or self-indulgent mopery, Kenneth Lonergan’s (Margaret; You Can Count on Me) third feature as director handily avoids those blind alleys. Like the hugely impressive Margaret, Manchester by the Sea is a eloquent, well-acted and atmospheric study of grief and mourning that is smart and patient enough to never demand your tears. This went down as one of the best movies at the Sundance Film Festival, with an acquisition by Amazon with a firm commitment to an awards season campaign.

The Manchester of title is a small, windy Massachusetts town on the shores of the sea, and it is the ultimate destination of one Lee Chandler, played by Casey Affleck, here giving another strong performance that confirms all the promise he has shown over the last decade (see 2007s The Assassination of Jesse James if you need convincing). When we first see Lee, things don’t look good at all. A janitor for a series of run-down brownstone apartment blocks a few hours drive from his old home town of Manchester, where he hasn’t returned to in years, Lee trudges from room to room fixing busted plumbing and tiling walls, rarely raising his eyes or his voice. His home is a shabby studio which looks like it hasn’t got any light in years. His nights are spent drinking alone in bars, occasionally fighting with someone if he thinks they are casting glances the wrong way. We don’t know why Lee is this withdrawn, but Affleck gives his character enough of a menacing, “not there” edge that we aren’t sure sympathy is the right response…yet. Answers start to come when the primary tragedy behind Lee’s calcified state starts to be revealed through a series of flashbacks that are interspersed with the main narrative, catching us up eventually to the present day. Arresting tension and a sense of foreboding come from this narrative construction.

The main spine of the story emerges when Lee’s spare existence in the present day is suddenly ruptured by the death of his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler, seen only in the flashbacks), which forces him to return to the hometown he abandoned years before. Awaiting him is the unwanted revelation that Joe has made him guardian of his teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges), with a set of financial arrangements designed to allow Lee to continue to live in Manchester, taking over the house and the responsibility of raising Patrick until the kid can inherit. Patrick, for his part, seems more concerned about making sure the family boat, - the place where he and his father and uncle seemed most at peace - is kept running despite its exorbitant cost, and staying put in the town where his friends, hockey team and (two) girlfriends are. He seems as balked at the idea of being Lee’s ward as Lee is at being handed this job. 

Thankfully, Lonergan avoids feeding us an overly familiar bonding/redemption narrative, and injects a good deal of welcome black comedy into the proceedings, as Lee and Patrick take fumbling steps to re-acquaint themselves with one another. The two have conflicts, certainly, but these don’t become repetitive and reach irritatingly hysterical levels, and there is interest in seeing how similar they really are. Both men, for example, have exactly the same dry sense of humour, and are naturally drawn to the ocean. Patrick can be a pain in the ass, insensitive to Lee’s situation and ignorantly expectant that he will take over the mundane duties his father did, be it driving him around or giving him money at the drop of a hat. But he’s basically a good kid. Some of the film’s funniest moments come when Lee just sits dumfounded at times as Patrick, without declaration, starts acting like Lee now is the figure who has to approve decisions around the house, whether its friends staying over or what to do about dinner. At one point, Lee blurts out if Patrick is hanging around his bedroom door because he want’s “the speech about condoms”, given one of his many girlfriends is due to come over. Funny though this is, a shade of poignancy hangs over this relationship, based on what we learn Lee was involved in all those years ago, and what he lost.

Lonergan also deserves props for the way he uses all the cinematic power of this Massachusetts location. Manchester is a pretty place to be sure, all neat detached clapboard houses, wood-floored diners and treelined hills in the background. But this is a kind of haunting prettiness in a hard winter, with constant grey skies and streets seemingly empty of people. Characters are constantly exclaiming about the cold, and it looks cold indeed. If the job was to use this singular location to magnify the unfathomable inner turmoil of a man shattered by the consequences of one single mistake, job done. This is a town cold to Lee in more ways than one.

When the emotional hammer does hit, the moment feels earned, thanks to the fine performances and intelligent but uncomplicated writing that works to build up the picture of this man’s place in this town, and how he lost it. When Lee finally encounters his former wife Randi (played by the ever-reliable Michelle Williams), we get one devastating scene of confession and desperate reaching, a development that Lonergan’s screenplay still refuses to allow to be the gateway to a tidy conclusion. It is a shame more dramas don’t have the courage to end in such a fashion.

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Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.