Rosie, Ireland 2018

This movie was screened at the Hyde Park Picture House in 2019; now it is transmitted this coming Sunday evening at 8.40 p.m. on the new BBC Three channel [Freeview 109 – also on the BBC iPlayer) . The Picture House screening was accompanied by presentations from members of the production, including  the director;  which added a welcome dimension to the event. I was impressed and included the title in my ‘best of the year’ selection . Rotten Tomatoes had very positive reviews and commented:

“Equal parts empathy and outrage, Rosie offers a heartbreaking glimpse of economic insecurity that will hit many viewers uncomfortably close to home.”

A day in the life of a family whose lose their rented home and find that the city [Dublin] is no place to be homeless. The key character is the mother, Rosie Davis (Sarah Greene); critics generally had high praise for her performance. But the whole family cast are really good with her partner John Paul Brady (Moe Dunford) and their four children, Kayleigh (Ellie O’Halloran) and three younger children Millie (Ruby Dunne), Alfie (Darragh McKenzie) and Madison (Molly McCann) equally convincing.

The day is a bleak procession of failures and lack of provision. The parents desperately seek a shelter, even for one night, as the children suffer from their poverty and insecurity. Much of the day is spent in their car as they search the city: this offers distinctive variation on the road movie: perhaps influenced by some of the also distinctive but different variants in Iranian cinema. This is the bleak landscape for the homeless in Ireland’s capital, but this is a story that could equally be filmed in British cities and in those of North America.

The screenplay is by the noted Irish writer Roddy Doyle. And the script was developed from real-life experiences  of people caught in the trap of homelessness. Filmed on location in Dublin the cinematography by Cathal Watters  uses frequent hand-held camera and large close-ups to present the emotional problems for the family.  The director Paddy Breathnach handles the production extremely well and achieves a documentary feel to the drama.

The film was likely shot in colour on a digital format in colour, it circulated on a DCP. It should show up well on the BBC HD channel though the widescreen 2.35:1 ratio may be slightly cropped. The title runs for 86 minutes. If you missed the Hyde Park screening the title was hard to see; the fate of many independent but really worthwhile movies. So it is a definite must on Sunday; be prepared for an emotional and powerful drama.

Louis Le Prince – moving image pioneer – 1841 to 1890

I suspect that most of the Friends are familiar with this C19th inventor who, in 1888, produced what is the earliest surviving example of a strip of moving image; scenes shot on a single lens camera of people in a Roundhay garden and then of people and traffic on Leeds Bridge. The second Leeds International Film Festival was, in his centenary year, a celebration of Le Prince’s achievement. And Blue Plaques commemorate his pioneer work on Leeds Bridge and the site of his workshop on Woodhouse Lane. Now a new study has appeared, ‘The Man Who Invented Motion Pictures’ by Paul Fischer, published by Simon & Schuster this month, in 2022, [ ‘The Genius, Secrecy and Disappearance of Louis Le Prince’]. Helpfully, a condensed version of the publication was premiered by BBC’s Radio 4’s ‘Book of the Week’; five episodes of 15 minutes each and available on BBC Sounds.

The book adds to the available studies of this important pioneer of what became cinema. There is Christopher Rawlence’s ‘The Missing Reel’ [Collins 1990): there is Rawlence’s documentary dramatisation of the book, made for Channel 4 in 1990, but not apparently available: David Wilkinson’s 2015 The First Film, more an argument for Le Prince’s recognition that a documentary [available on MUBI]: a detailed Wikipedia page links and detailed references: archive material at Leeds Industrial Museum and at Bradford’s National Media Museum Insight collection: interesting discussion of Prince’s achievement on a blog devoted to William Friese-Greene: and the Louis Prince Leeds Trail. YouTube has transfers of Le Prince’s moving images and a number of short video pieces on him; some have debatable claims.

The title is slightly over the top. The 1880s was a time when a number of pioneers were experimenting with developing photographic technology into a format for moving images. The author does detail the way that Le Prince worked at developing camera and projector for moving images. His descriptions in the BBC extracts are clear and understandable. However, all that survives are examples of what Le Prince filmed and one of his model cameras. As Fischer points out these are the earliest surviving examples of projectable moving images. However, there is no clear evidence that Le Prince successfully projected these. And after his death, when his family attempted to prove his prior claim to the patents of Thomas Edison, they failed; partly because what Le Prince patented did not offer enough detail.

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Stan & Ollie (Britain, Canada, USA 2018)

This is a portrait of two icons of film comedy, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. However, most of the film deals with their later years, an eight month tour of Ireland and Britain in 1953, presenting performances on stage in music halls based on their famous routines. It was a success at the time and now offers a combination of celebration, humour and nostalgia. The film is screening this Wednesday [April 6th] at 9 p.m. on BBC 2. Since it is, in part, a BBC production it should be featured on the iPlayer for some time.

The film is well put together and has a fairly straightforward narrative. The stand out aspect are the performances as Stan / Steve Coogan and Ollie / John C. Reilly. For fans like myself it was as if watching the duo once again. The supporting cast is excellent, especially their two partners: Ida Laurel / Nina Arianda: Lucille Hardy / Shirley Henderson. In fact the actual tour, organised by impresario Bernard Delfont (Rufus Jones), is more or less played in reverse. At the opening the audiences are small and lukewarm; the reverse of actuality. The intention it would seem is to develop a rising narrative ending with a highly successful performance and a delighted audience.

It is not all humour. The tour ended when Oliver suffered a heart attack and following the tour they were unable to work again. So there is also a disconsolate note at the conclusion. The film also shows in flashback how Stan and Ollie ended their association with Hal Roach (Danny Huston). Continue reading

Oscar Micheaux: The Superhero of Black Filmmakers

This is a documentary screening on April 1st on Sky Arts at 2.40 a.m. This appears to be the only Sky channel available on Freeview, Channel 11. It offers a range of programmes on the arts including frequent studies of cinema, film and film-makers. The majority of these are rather lightweight; they tend to ‘talking heads’, which means the comments are spread across a series of interviewees and rarely have the space to develop complex comments. And the extracts from films tend to be short and not necessarily illustrative of the important points. Some, like the programmes on Buster Keaton or Josephine Baker, involve the European Media Company Arte and are more analytical. This documentary falls rather in the middle.

Oscar Micheaux was a pioneer film-maker in what was known in early C20th USA as ‘race cinema’. These were films produced specifically for black audiences and usually screened in segregated cinemas in the South and either in segregated auditorium or programming in the North. The earliest ‘race’ film dates from 1905 but the cinema took off around 1910 , mainly in Chicago. There were independent ‘race films’ production companies like The Lincoln Motion Picture Company [1916 to 1921] owned by black entrepreneurs. Most companies in this field were owned by white entrepreneurs. There were also black production crew and ‘stars’ like comedian Mantan Moreland, who actually appeared in a few mainstream Hollywood titles. The ‘race cinema’ died out at the end of the 1940s when Hollywood finally decided to attract the ‘black dollar’; and then the 1950s saw the appearance of black stars in Hollywood like Sidney Poitier.

Oscar Micheaux was possibly the most important producer and director in this field. His Micheaux Film Corporation was set up in Chicago in 1918 and he later also worked in New York. Between then and 1940 he made forty four movies; most, like much of the ‘race cinema’, are lost. But the surviving silent and sound films are key examples of that cinema and also are seminal film texts in the history of US film and black film-making. Continue reading

Knives Out, USA 2019

If you are still unable to enjoy theatrical screenings you can at least enjoy a very smart movie on terrestrial television. It offers comedy with drama; a clever pastiche [celebration rather than the spoof] of a popular genres. This highly praised title plays with the ‘murder mystery-cum-detective’ story; in particular the variant that made Agatha Christie so successful. A mysterious death occurs in a family mansion of the patriarch who made his money in writing the sort of stories presented in this movie. A famous private detective is paid anonymously to investigate the death and solve the mystery. The family members fight over the money and the mystery; one aspect of the title.

The writer and director Rian Johnson had already made a teen neo-noir: an action movie: and an episode of the Star Wars franchise. He clearly has watched innumerable examples of the genre and one can spend time spotting the influences. The plot is labyrinthine and perhaps at times too clever. There re a number of red herrings, even an occasional Hitchcock ‘macguffin’. I suspect that very few viewers will unravel the plot in advance of the conclusion; a major surprise.

The production values are good and the tempo of the film is slick. But I felt that it was the cast in particular who made the movie so effective. Christopher Plummer plays patriarch Harlan Thrombey with ease and skill that have graced so many performances. Daniel Graig as detective Benoit Blanc reveals characterisation skills that have not been much seen in his  earlier roles. And I really liked Ana de Arnas as Harlan’s nurse Maria. But all the actors are really fine in their roles. There are several canine characters; and two of them race in an important sequence.

The title was shot on a combination of 35mm and digital formats. It is screening on Channel 4 at 9 p.m. this Saturday. – 130 minutes in colour and standard wide-screen. On the HD channel it should look and sound fine. It did when screened at the Picture House.

The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017): A Friends Festive Screening

Sunday 12th December 3.30 pm at Leeds University.
Members can claim up to 2 free tickets for this special festival screening

Film poster featuring Dan Stevens, Christopher Plummer, Jonathan Pryce in The Man Who Invented Christmas. How Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol and created a tradition

The man in question is, of course, Charles Dickens; and his invention is his novella ‘A Christmas Carol’ (1843). This must be the most famous contribution to the festive season in modern times. There are likely two dozen adaptations of the book on film plus others on television, radio and in the theatre. And its influence can be seen in many other tales rolled out every year; it has always seemed to me that It’s a Wonderful Life works by inverting the earlier story. The smart variation offered in this movie is the portrait of Dickens writing his masterwork in the last weeks of 1843.

It is a dramatisation and whilst much of it is accurate it also includes invention and embroidering; check out ‘History vs Hollywood’ which examines some of these issues. The six week time period of the film is accurate; in that year Dickens was seeking an elusive popular novel and also worrying over financial problems. Meanwhile the Victorian Christmas was emerging; the 25th became a Bank Holiday in 1834; whilst Boxing Day and Bob Cratchit had to wait until 1871. The source for the movie was US writer Les Standiford who produces historical non-fiction and had the bright idea of presenting both how Dickens produced his famous work but also its influence on the increasing importance of this festival.

The film depicts Dickens drawing on his own life experiences to dramatise a tale of ‘light’ and shadow’; incorporating already existing practices such as the large fowl for dinner and the succulent pudding. He also added family get togethers and carol singing. The film tends to emphasise the sentimentality that was part of Dickens’ writing. There is less emphasis on the darker aspects of Victorian Britain; aspects written about vividly in the same period by Frederick Engels (‘The Condition of the Working Class in England’, 1845).

In the course of the film we see Dickens (Dan Stevens) tussling with the  characters he develops, including Ebenezer Scrooge (Christopher Plummer); receiving inspiration from those about him including an invented Irish maid Tara (Anna Murphy): and revisiting his past and family, including his father John (Jonathan Pryce). He also has to tussle with publishers, printers and illustrators as the novel takes shape and prepares for publication.

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Hebden Bridge Picture House Centenary

This surviving independent cinema in the Calder Valley opened its doors on July 12th 1921. A year of celebration starts this Saturday, July 10th, with an evening event this Saturday, starting at 7.30 p.m. and including a screening [digital] of Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid (1921). The Picture House has many affinities with our own Hyde Park Picture House. Both are supported by the local council: both have an active support of a society of Friends: both have histories written and published by the said Friends: both can screen 35mm and digital, even 16mm: both have traditional auditoriums with proper masking and a low level of illumination during screenings: and both have a varied programme including mainstream titles, art and foreign language titles and early films with live music accompaniment.

Hebden Bridge’s first cinema was a wooden structure which opened in 1911. In 1913 the nearby Co-op Hall also started screening the new ‘moving pictures’. Following World War 1 a purpose built cinema was proposed and approved. The rather large building for a small town had a classical exterior and the auditorium boasted a balcony. The opening ceremony included travel and topical pictures and musical quartet. The first features at the new Picture House were two British dramas of the period. Torn Sails (1920) was a tragic romance set in Wales. The Iron Stair (1920) was a crime drama. They were followed by a film directed by Cecil Hepworth, Anna, The Adventuress, a drama of changed identity set in Paris. Hepworth also directed a film using locations around Hebden Bridge, Helen of Four Gates (1920), though that film was screened at the Co-op Hall.

The Picture House flourished through the 1930s to 1950s. There was a period closure in the 1960s and again in the 1970s. But then it came under the control first of the local council, then the Metropolitan Council and finally Hebden Royd Town Council.. It continues furnishing theatrical entertainment for the area though it has suffered in local flooding, most recently in 2016. In the year of celebration there will be screenings of titles from its history, 35mm prints and ‘silents’ with live music..

There is a programme with The Adventures of Prince Achmed / Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed, a dazzling animation by Lotte Reiniger from 1926 using silhouette techniques. In December there is a screening of Pandora’s Box / Die Büchse der Pandora; G. W. Pabst’s film version of Franz Wedekind’s famous or infamous play. The film is illuminated by the luminous Louise Brooks in the main role. And the year ends with a screening of Helen of Four Gates; a print of what was though a ‘lost film’ was discovered in Canada in 207 and has now been fully restored.

The cinema is only ten minutes from Hebden Bridge railway station on the line with regular services between Leeds and Manchester. The balcony is rather cramped with wooden seats; however, the ground floor of the auditorium spacious and comfortable with a commendable low level of illumination during screenings. And the foyer offers real cups of tea with homemade cakes. So a trip to see ‘reel’ film in a real cinema should help assuage the absence until 2022 of our own Picture House.

 

Two films by Satyajit Ray

May 2nd was the centenary of this outstanding film-maker and a seminal figure in Indian cinema. The British Film Institute is planning a complete retrospective of his films later this year. Whilst we wait and wonder how many actual films will make it to Yorkshire Film 4 offers transfers of two of his fine titles in the coming week.

The family in ‘Mahanagar’

Monday / Tuesday night  at 01.15 a.m. [now available on All4].

Mahanagar (The Big City) – the film was shot in 1963 in black and white academy ratio: the language is Bengali with some English and with English sub-titles: and is set in Ray’s home city of Kolkata (Calcutta). The film follows the experiences of a family home which contains parents, two children and the grandparents on the husband’s side. The husband, Subrata Mazumdar (Anil Chatterjee), works as a senior clerk in a private bank; part of Bengali ‘bhadralok culture’ which Europeans would think of as lower middle class. The large family place a strain on his income and his wife, Arati (Madhabi Mukherjee) offers to help by taking a job. Despite the disapproval of the grandfather Arati obtains a post selling knitting machines door-to-door in middle class areas. Arati is the centre of this fascinating film; Madhabi is splendid as the young wife and the whole cast are excellent. Ray’s direction is beautifully and effectively restrained and his production team are excellent, especially the regular cinematographer Subrata Mitra.

Ray won the prestigious Silver Bear Award at the 1964 Berlin International Film Festival whilst the film won the Golden Bear.. However, the film itself failed to achieve a nomination by the Hollywood academy in the Best Foreign Language Film category; this was typical of the Academy. Mother India made a nomination in 1957; the next success was not until 1988 with Salaam Bombay. Three of Ray’s fine films failed to get nominations.

Wife and husband in ‘Charulata’

Tuesday / Wednesday night at 1255 a.m. [now available on All4].

Charulata (The Lonely Wife) – the film was shot in 1964 in black and white academy ratio: the language is Bengali with some English and with English sub-titles:it is set in Kolkata (Calcutta) in the 1880s. Thus this is a period film which is set in a Bengal and India under the rule of the Raj. This period also follows the 1857 ‘first war of independence’ [termed a mutiny by the British rulers). At one point in the film the Bengali men discuss a British general election contested by the the political parties led by Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone.

As the title suggests the film focuses on the young wife, Charu and her relationship with her husband and a visiting relative. Bhupati Dutta plays the husband whilst two actors from Mahanagar, Madhabi Mukherjee and Anil Chatterjee, play Charulata and Bhupati’s younger cousin Amal respectively. The cast are excellent. Ray’s direction provides a slowly paced portrait of the marriage interspersed with some fine lyrical moments. The opening and closing sequences are especially highly praised, [so stay awake].

The scenario was adapted by Ray from a story by Rabindranath Tagore, the leader of the Bengal Renaissance and an important influence of Ray himself. Ray is an auteur in the fullest sense of the term; in this film providing the scenario, costume design, direction and music. However, he relies on a really skilled production team. In particular this film contains some of the finest cinematography by Subrata Mitra.For the second year running Ray won the Silver Bear Award at the Berlinale. Whilst the film did not follow Mahanagar in winning the Golden Bear it is to my mind the finer film and one of Ray’s great achievements.

With adverts both titles will run over two hours. Especially with the Charulata there are few cinematic double hours which offer the same quality and pleasure. If you are new to Ray, or indeed if you are familiar with his films, then the Saudha International Satyajit Ray Congress [available on You Tube] offers a range of interesting comments on Ray’s art.

Manchester by the Sea on BBC 2

Friday May 14th at 11.20 p.m. and then the BBC iPlayer

This 2016 release won a Best Actor Oscar for Casey Affleck in the role of Lee Chandler. The whole cast are fine and Michelle Williams has a small but well crafted sequence. The film was written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan; his earlier writing includes working on Martin Scorsese’s epic Gangs of New York. This film is set on the New Hampshire coast. It starts in Boston where Lee is a handyman with an ‘anger management’ problem. It is some way into the film and in the Manchester seaside town that we learn the back story to his situation. A family tragedy haunts Lee. It is partly a relationship with a nephew and their outings together on the sea that start a healing process.

This is a film about grief; part of a cycle of films [most of which are exceptionally fine] dealing with bereavement and grief. The film is long, 137 minutes, and slowly paced. But the production is as good as the acting; I especially like the cinematography by Jody Lee Lipes. As a bonus we get a Duke Ellington number performed twice, once by Ella Fitzgerald.

The film was shown at the Picture House in 2016; I saw it twice and I am looking forward to seeing it again.

‘Happy Lazzaro’ on Film 4

Film 4 Monday-through-Tuesday at 12.55 a.m. and now available on All 4.

Happy as Lazzaro / Lazzaro felice (Italy / France / Switzerland / Germany 2018

This film was one of the outstanding releases in 2018. I enjoyed immensely both the screening at the Leeds International Film Festival and again when it returned to the Picture House in 2019. And I look forward to seeing it again on terrestrial television. It should look reasonably good as long as Film 4 stick to the 1.66.:1 aspect ratio. It runs just over two hours and has both Italian and English dialogue with sub-titles for the former.

Directed by Alice Rohrwacher, one of her earlier films was The Wonders (2014). This film has been described as magic realist. It combines naturalistic observation with a plot that includes references to myth and folk tales, social exploitation and a touch of fantasy. Lazzaro of the title is a sweet natured and apparently simple minded peasant. He is part of a village cut off from modern Italy and involved in some form of share cropping. Later in the film a migration leads members into a lumpen-proletarian existence. The film shares tone and tropes with recent migrant films. It is fascinating and at times moving. Visually Hèléne Louvart’s cinematography is both beautiful and atmospheric and the overall production is excellent. I thought this the best film I saw at the Festival. A friend commented,

“I greatly admired The Wonders … and this was even better. This tale of a holy fool in a setting which blurs the borders between realism and the fantastic is not, perhaps, for the literal-minded but should delight most of the rest of us.”

The number of foreign language titles screened on terrestrial television has severely reduced in recent years. So a film like this is a rare pleasure. It is unconventional and the narrative tends towards the picaresque; and it is also really imaginative.