Sundance Film Festival

Dr Andy Moore (@andymoore_), long-term Friend of the Picture House and Lecturer in Film, Exhibition and Curation at the University of Edinburgh, has just got back from a digital visit to Sundance Film Festival. Always one to champion the treasures which can be found when you have the opportunity to explore the festival circuit, Andy has been kind enough to write up a blog post for us on some of the films at this years’ festival which he’s most excited about.

One of the most exciting things about the film festival experience is the joy of the new discovery – that rush when you catch something really distinctive and original that feels fresh and new. For the Sundance Film Festival (which took place almost entirely online this year) this emphasis on discovery – and on distinctive, original voices – is baked into the very DNA of the festival itself.

Sundance, and its associated programs of filmmaking and talent development labs, has helped launch the careers of some of the most exciting and influential independent filmmakers of the past 30 years – from the Coen Brothers to Paul Thomas Anderson. And in championing fresh new voices, the festival has played host to the extraordinary debut features of filmmakers as varied as Marielle Heller, Kelly Reichardt, Ryan Coogler and Boots Riley (all unique voices whose work has graced the programme of the Hyde Park Picture House over the years).

Although audiences participating in this year’s fest swapped the freezing streets of Park City, Utah (and their snow boots and parkas) for slippers, dressing gowns and the comfort of their own living rooms, 2021’s virtual edition was no different on the new voices front: 39 out of the 73 features screening at this year’s festival were directorial debuts, providing plenty of opportunities to experience the joyful rush of discovery.

For me the first film to provide that dopamine hit was Summer of Soul (…Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised). The directorial debut from musician Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson is a pure unadulterated joy, and a discovery in more ways than one. The film, which picked up both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award for U.S. Documentary, unearths astonishing footage (untouched and unseen for 50 years) of a series of summer concerts that took place in Harlem in 1969. Known as the Harlem Cultural Festival, the concerts featured an array of incredible performances from legendary black musicians including Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone, Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples. Thompson’s film skilfully weaves this extraordinary concert footage together with contemporary interviews to tell a vital, generation re-defining and life-affirming story about African American history, music, culture and fashion.

Another film that shines a light on history in a way that forces you to look at the present with fresh eyes is Shaka King’s electrifying sophomore feature, Judas and the Black Messiah. Starring Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield in two of the best performances of the festival, the film tells the story of Black Panther Party chairman and revolutionary activist Fred Hampton (Kaluuya), and the FBI informant (Stanfield) who infiltrated the party and ultimately provided the information that led to Hampton’s assassination at the hands of the Chicago police.

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The Best of 2020

At the start of the year we usually look back over the previous 12 months and pick out our favourite films. Normally for this blog these would be restricted to those shown at the Picture House and I though this year it might have to be different. However the first few months of 2020 were really good for cinema and I’m not sure if this top 5 would be much different even if the doors had stayed open for longer.

So my Top 5 of 2020 is:

  1. Portrait Of A Lady On Fire
  2. Little Women
  3. Uncut Gems
  4. Parasite
  5. JoJo Rabbit

Of the films I saw on the smaller screen at home the following would make it into my Top 10: Lynn + Lucy (BFIPlayer), Wolfwalkers (Apple+), Saint Frances (Netflix), Babyteeth (Netflix) and Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Sky/NowTV).

What about you? Did you still manage to see lots of great films (on screens of any size), let us know in the comments.

Leeds Film Festival Extended

Leeds Film Player

Normally at this time of year the film festival will have come to end but as we all know this year is far from normal. Plans to show films in venues had to be cancelled as cinemas closed again at the start of November but this has made the online selection even stronger and many of the films are still available until the end of the month.

I found the Leeds Player to work very well with only a few minor niggles, it’s certainly better than offer online film festival platforms with no visible watermarks and the ability to cast to TVs.

Here’s my selection of the films I liked the most that are still available to watch until November 30th.

Poster for Anne at 13,000ft

Anne at 13,000 ft

A divisive film but one I really liked with a very strong central performance; it stuck with me for days after viewing.

Poster showing Aida in front of a warehouse of refugees.

Quo Vadis, Aida?

A really powerful film centred around a translator in Bosnia, 1995 as the Serbian army take over her town. It manages to be both intimate and cover the larger scale of what happened and always feels very relevant.

17 year old Selma eating a honey cigar

Honey Cigar

A late addition to the online programme but a great coming of age film with a really good central performance that wonderfully captures the life of French-Algerian teenager living in Paris in the early nineties.

Illustrated bear wearing a regal robe with a number of human and bear character standing behind him

The Bears’ Famous Invasion

One from the Young Film Festival selection but this charming animation is a delight for all ages (and only £3 to rent).

Poster featuring a woman in a white suit covered in blood holding a pair of shears.

The Columnist

It doesn’t always make a lot of sense and can get quite silly but this is also the most fun I had watching a film for quite some time. A black comedy about a newspaper columnist taking on social media trolls.

I didn’t have time to explore the Cinema Versa strand but hear that Andrey Tarkovsky. A Cinema Prayer and Kubrick by Kubrick are worth watching. I’m making my way through the Shorts, as always this is a varied selection but so far have been consistently good.

I was slightly worried that there may not be as many good films this year but once again it has been a really good programme. I only saw one film that was (arguably) bad and there were a few I struggled to get on board with but I’m glad I saw everything else. You can see my comments on all of the films along with star ratings on my Letterboxd list.

Sapphire (1959) for #BlackHistoryMonth

The Hyde Park Picture House’s ‘On The Road’ programme has restarted this month, with daily screenings at the City Varieties attracting film audiences back to see films on the big screen.

However, as it’s still too soon for some people to return to cinemas, this weekend the Hyde Park Picture House team selected a film that can be watched at home as a #HydeParkPick and are sharing it as a way to mark this year’s Black History Month.

Poster for Sapphire with the tagline "The sensational story of a girl who didn't belong"

Sapphire is a British drama directed by Basil Dearden in 1959, it’s a fascinating film that reveals much about levels of prejudice in multi-cultural London just as it was on the cusp of a more permissive 1960s.

We’re presenting this choice with an exclusive new essay written for us by author and film scholar Josiah Howard.

Josiah is a specialist in film and cultural studies who has written four books, including Blaxploitation Cinema: The essential reference guide in 2008. He is a senior contributor at Furious Cinema and his writing credits include articles for The American Library of Congress, The New York Times and Reader’s Digest.     


 The 1959 release in Britain of Basil Dearden’s Sapphire and the same year’s release of Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life in America, marked the cinema’s return to the controversial topic of black people passing for white—be they British or American. Subterfuge, “misrepresentation” and the fluid nature or racial identity made good copy: it reinforced the notion that you can’t trust anyone and that things were often not what they seemed.

Released in a world devoid of the internet, cell-phones, home video and digital entertainment, cinematic depictions of passing had a proven and lucrative pedigree: they were titillating, headline-grabbing attractions that appealed to the prurient; the curious visitor who wanted to know about the netherworld but also wanted to remain at a safe and respectable distance.

Elia Kazan’s Pinky and Alfred L. Werker’s Lost Boundaries (both 1949), George Sidney’s Showboat (1951; made three times over the years), and Fred M. Wilcox’s I Passed for White (1960) captivated audiences and did what film studios and distributors wanted: they made money—Pinky even garnered three Academy Award nominations.

Sapphire, under referenced and generally underseen remains a watershed: a bold, audacious, modern tale (itself occasionally insensitive and racist) that dealt with the challenges of immigration, class, culture, the youth generation, identity, and the power of costume, charade, sexual attraction and fetishism. That was a large plate for prolific director Basil Dearden, best-known for his fast-moving procedurals, but he and everyone else involved delivered the salacious goods in fine fashion.

A beautiful conservatively dressed, white girl (whose lacy undergarments are deemed incongruous and “flashy”) is found stabbed to death in a park. But is she white? And what does “white” mean? That’s the essential question that Sapphire explores and it’s a compelling one, especially as Britain’s racial discomfiture was, for the most part, generally unfamiliar outside of Europe. America was the place where there was racial strife and division that was firmly on record. The long-established history of slavery, segregation and, of course, the Civil War were part of America’s dark past: a stark truth that everyone could point to.

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A Hole in Babylon, BBC 1979

BBC Tuesday October 20th at 10 p.m. and on the I-Player

This was a drama in the BBC’s ‘Play for Today’ series. The series followed on from the pioneer ‘Wednesday Play’ series and ran from 1970 to 1984. There were some 300 hundred entries by notable dramatists, film-makers and craft people often commenting on their contemporary world. Fifty years on from the launch of the series BBC Four  is offering a celebration. ‘Drama out of a Crisis’ offered an overview of the series last week and is still available on catch-up. Now we can look forward to screening of some of the highlight dramas, though which and how many is as yet unknown.

This drama from 1979 was written by Horace Ové and Jim Hawkins and directed by Ové. It presents the events in which three Africa-Caribbean men attempted a robbery at the Spaghetti House Restaurant in Knightsbridge and held the staff and customers hostage for six days whilst the police lay siege. This was a dramatisation of actual events in 1975.

The director Horace Ové was one of the really talented and interesting film-makers in Britain over the last sixty odd years. However, he is seriously under-represented in the film canon. He was only able to produce two features in that period though these are seminal films; Pressure (1976) and Playing Away (1987). His career started with three short documentaries, including Baldwin’s Nigger (1968). He did an amount of work for television including two for ‘Play for Today’: episodes in the popular series Empire Road (1979): and a drama mini-series The Orchid House (1991). He also worked in photography and in the theatre.

His film work, including A Hole in Babylon, still speaks to the contemporary world of Britain: especially in a period when ‘Black Lives Matter’ has achieved such influence. The drama presumably will be on the I-Player well into 2021. The overview ‘Drama out of a Crisis’ is already on the iPlayer. It is a little selective in its coverage but a full listing of the ‘Play for Today’ series is on Wikipedia.

 

The Watermelon Woman (1997)

Throughout lockdown and beyond, you may have noticed the daily #HydeParkPick service that the staff of the Hyde Park Picture House have organised. Our favourite cinema screen may be dark for now, but films still go on, only for now they’re being watched and talked about online.

This activity has been greatly enriched through the partnerships the cinema has with people and organisations who, under different circumstances, would have contributed events, panels and discussions to the various programme strands at the cinema.

Between 17th and 24th August, the LGBT+ staff community at the University of Leeds, Leeds Beckett University and Leeds Arts University are promoting a ‘Digital Pride’ programme. This is a series of online events and resources that they have put together to mark Pride 2020, a celebration in the city which, which like pretty much everything else this year, has had to be redesigned for a safe and socially distanced world.

We wrote about three films that we’d have liked to have screened this month. One of them, The Watermelon Woman, is a particular favourite of another of our valued collaborators, So Mayer, who has written this excellent article about this important and groundbreaking film.

So Mayer writes about The Watermelon Woman

So Mayer: film scholar, author and researcher

In the 1996 film The Watermelon Woman, filmmaker and film buff Cheryl (played by filmmaker Cheryl Dunye) sets out to learn more about a beguiling Hollywood-era performer credited as ‘The Watermelon Woman.’

‘Is the Watermelon Woman her first name? Her last name?’ Cheryl asks her video camera. With almost nothing to go on bar reductive racist credits, Cheryl finds a way to recover Fae Richards’ story – using every means necessary. She consults the main library in Philadelphia, where she’s turned away by a snooty clerk – so she turns to a grassroots archive, CLIT (Center for Lesbian Information and Technology), where she has to deal with both chaos and an over-protective volunteer. She watches Richards’ Hollywood films that are available on VHS, and finds out her other cinematic career, in ‘race’ films, from film historians and viewers. She asks her mom and aunt, who remember Richards as a sultry singer. And finally, she meets Richards’ longterm lover, who shares stories and ephemera that challenge Cheryl’s perceptions of Richards’ career – and of film history.

Fae Richards, 1930s film actress, with director Martha Page

Unlike the Watermelon Woman, The Watermelon Woman is out there, especially since the restoration in 2017 for its 20th anniversary. It’s been written about brilliantly by scholars such as Kara Keeling, in her books The Witch’s Flight and Queer Times, Black Futures, paying respect to its visionary significance for Black queer feminist cinema. One of the reasons that the film remains so thrilling is that, like Richards’ long career across different kinds of performance, The Watermelon Woman brings together, spins off from and continues to inspire multiple modes of Black queer feminist cultural production. Whether you’re looking for your next viewing or reading after watching the film, or want new ways to approach its multi-layered excellence… inspired by Cheryl’s search, here’s a few routes to try:

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The Best Of 2020 So Far

2020 was always going to be a strange year for the Hyde Park Picture House, we were somewhat prepared for the doors to be closed whilst the renovation work got underway but none of us could have predicted how things have turned out.

As we enter the second half of the year we normally take a look back over the last 6 months and pick out our highlights of the year so far. Fortunately there were quite a few good releases before lockdown begin and there have been a number of great films released straight to streaming since. It’s also been great that online discussions, watch parties and interviews have been able to continue.

Here are my 10 highlights of films I did see (mostly on the big screen)

  • Uncut Gems (Netflix)
  • JoJo Rabbit (Rent/Buy)
  • Amanda (Rent/Buy)
  • Waves
  • A Hidden Life (Rent/Buy)
  • The Lighthouse (Rent/Buy)
  • Parasite (Rent/Buy)
  • Portrait Of A Lady On Fire (Mubi)
  • Bacurau (Mubi)
  • Never Rarely Sometimes (Rent/Buy)

I’d also like to recommend Lynn Shelton’s final film Sword Of Trust. I don’t think it got a proper release in the UK but it turned up on Sky Movies/NowTV earlier this year.  I’ve always loved Shelton’s films and this is no different, hear death was a tragic loss because it feels like she had so much more to offer. There is a celebration of her on YouTube which I haven’t had chance to watch yet and Birds Eye View interviewed her a few weeks before her death.

There are other films that I’ve heard good things about but still haven’t had chance to watch:

  • Little Joe (Rent/Buy & Bfi subs)
  • The Assistant (Rent/Buy)
  • Color Out Of Space (Rent/Buy)
  • Queen & Slim (Rent/Buy)
  • Woman Make Film (Bfi subs)
  • Da 5 Bloods (Netflix)

Don’t forget about the Hyde Park Picks on Facebook and Twitter for more recommendations of great things to watch at home.

L’eclisse, Italy 1962

The #HydeParkPick for today is L’eclisse (1962) by Michelangelo Antonioni which is available to watch on MUBI for the next 20 days.

Fresh off the end of an affair with an older man Vittoria meets the vital and exciting Piero. The two start to explore their passion for one another while wandering the deserted suburbs of Rome but their affair soon reveals itself to be doomed.

This pick was selected by Leeds Cineforum who invited Fabio Vighi, Professor of Italian and Critical Theory at Cardiff University, to write about themes in Antonioni’s work for  us.

Leeds Cineforum are also keeping active during lock down in part by compiling this rich list of sites where films can be streamed for free. We’re always looking for new contributors so if you find anything interesting on that list or elsewhere and would like to flex your writing muscles please get in touch.

L’eclisse
by  Fabio Vighi, Professor of Italian and Critical Theory at Cardiff University

The dominant theme throughout Antonioni’s filmography is what we could call, borrowing from French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s 1960s motto, “the non existence of the sexual relationship”. This theme is especially apparent in L’eclisse, where the couple’s failure works as the film’s leitmotif from start (Vittoria leaves Riccardo) to end (Vittoria and Piero break up), effectively bringing the main character back to her initial position. Particularly in his Italian films, Antonioni explores fraught relationships by focusing on middle-class alienation against the background of the country’s rapid modernization. But the originality of his cinema has less to do with sociology than with aesthetics. More specifically, it lies in the way narrative content is over-determined by precise formal choices, which result in a stylized framing of the characters’ positioning within their space. Let us consider the long, almost experimental opening sequence of L’eclisse (1962), set in Riccardo’s flat. The sequence details both Vittoria’s inability to come to terms with her state of emotional drainage and Riccardo’s morose ineptitude at responding to it. Antonioni’s minimalist long takes convey a sense of impasse and claustrophobia, while dialogue is sparse and cryptic. This is clearly a cinema that works by subtraction: while the viewer is denied assistance in retrieving narrative information, the camera slowly pans over various objects scattered around the room, as if more interested in framing them than narrating the lovers’ separation. This aspect of Antonioni’s cinema epitomises his typically modernist penchant for sabotaging narrative progression through the erosion of conventional representations of space and time. That is to say, tension is created not so much through action and reaction, as in classical cinema, but by the opposite process of abstraction, fragmentation and de-dramatization, which ultimately reveals the director’s fascination with seemingly meaningless formal patterns.  Continue reading

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Britain 1943

BBC 2 Sunday April 26th at 12 noon.

This is a film from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; arguably the most imaginative British filmmakers to work in our mainstream industry. The 1940s was the great decade for the duo with a string of master-works that were both popular and ground breaking. The pair had their own production company, ‘The Archers’, with the famous logo of an arrow striking a target.

The ‘Colonel Blimp’ of the title was well known in war-time Britain; a character in a cartoon series by David Lowe which satirized the traditionalist British military. Powell and Pressburger transformed the character though they cleverly retained aspects of the series as with the Turkish bath sequence that opens the film.

At this point the ‘Blimp’ character, Clive Candy [Roger Livesey) has come out out retirement to manage the newly organised Home Guard. He retains traditional military attitudes which come into conflict with the modern and ruthless attitudes of a young brash regular army lieutenant. The action leads into a flashback which traces Clive career and personal life from the Boer War period.

This, the main part of the film, is partly a war story, partly a romantic drama, but also a moving portrait of ageing, devotion and friendship. The friendship is with a member of the German military, Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook). The devotion involves a series of women, Edith, Barbara and Angela, all played by Deborah Kerr.

The cast are superb. Roger Livesey also played the lead in the later and equally fine I Know Where I’m Going (1945). Deborah Kerr was the lead in several films by Powell and Pressburger, notably Black Narcissus (1945). And Anton Walbrook played the far less sympathetic ‘’Svengali’ producer Boris Lemontov in The Red Shoes (1948).

Walbrook – Livesey – Kerr.

Whilst Clive Candy’s career and personal-life are full of interest there is also a strong thematic current. This is the critical examination of the mores of war when Clive commenced his career at the turn of the century and those now required by the current European war against the ruthless Nazi regime. The film manages to marry this critical perspective with an emotional interest in Candy and his friends and his loves.

The film runs 183 minutes, but I never found this a long film to watch. As is the case with really talented film-makers, Powell and Pressburger had a fine eye for skilled craft people. The Technicolor cinematography by Georges Perinal is excellent. The Production Design by Alfred Junge together with the Costumes by Joseph Bato are very fine. And there is clear crisp editing by John Seabourne with well-scored musical track Allan Gray.

The film has undergone two restorations over the years. Contemporary 35mm prints enjoy a high standard of colour and definition. This film is screening on BBC HD which should do sufficient justice to the original. And be thankful. Winston Churchill disliked the film but his efforts to stop the production were in vain. Whilst the British public liked the film which came fourth in the 1943 box office.

 

 

Cheer up with Ealing Comdedies

Three of the finest contributions to British cinema have been Powell and Pressburger, British Documentary and the output of this famous studio from 1945 until 1955. If you want an excellent overview then the book to read is Charles Barr’s study, [a Movie Book, 1980 and 1993, Leeds Central Library have a copy when they reopen]. This is of a comparable quality to many of the best titles produced at Ealing.

As Stephen pointed out BBC 2 is screening one of the comedy classics every day this week. Three of them are, to mine mind, among the great classics of our own film industry.

The Man In The White Suit

BBC2 Tuesday 3.25 p.m.

1951, black and white, 85 minutes.

This is a superb film which is effectively a science fiction drama. It was directed by one of the finest film-makers in Britain in this period, Alexander Mackendrick. The director also worked on the script with two experienced writers John Dighton and Roger Macdougal.

Alec Guinness, in a decade that saw a string and variety of fine performances, plays inventor Sydney Stratton, with a new miraculous cloth. There are a fine cast of supporting players including Joan Greenwood, she of the memorable husky voice, as the romantic interest; as a key mill owner; Cecil Parker, the embodiment of pomposity; and a delightful cameo by Ernest Thesiger, as a wily capitalist

The invention has both positive and negative aspects, and this fuels the drama. The research laboratory sequences are marvelous and this film is replete with not only visual but also aural humour. The finale, with the joining of forces of both capital and labour, is a subtle critique of the entire British establishment.

Whisky Galore!

BBC2 Thursday, 3.35 p.m.

1949, black and white, 92 minutes.

Another masterwork from Alexander Mackendrick and on this occasion working on the script with Angus Macphail and the author of the source novel, Compton Mackenzie. This film enjoys another performance by Joan Greenwood, accompanied by a fine supporting cast including Gordon Jackson, James Robertson Justice and, as the film’s fall guy, Basil Radford.

The population of the small island of Toddy relish their malt whiskey but wartime brings restrictions. Then a miracle; a transport ship, laden with export whisky, is driven ashore, The rest of the film depicts the ploys of the islanders to rescue and enjoy the precious liquid whilst the authorities, representing far away Whitehall, attempt to recover the salvage.

This is a different type of comedy from The Man in the White Suit. At times whimsical and at time almost farcical, this is delightful portrait of a small, intimate community. The film manages to combine some sort of moral with a celebration of Scottish island culture. Presumably there will be many member of the Scottish National Party enjoying this outing.

The Lavender Hill Mob

BBC2 Friday 3.30 p.m.

1951, black and white, 81 minutes.

This is a fine heist movie; written by one of the key writers in the Ealing of this period, T. E. B. Clarke. The film was directed was Charles Crichton; his later A Fish Called Wanda (1988) is on BBC 1 next Sunday evening.

Once again Alec Guinness stars, this time as the ‘mastermind’ of the robbery of a van of gold bulletin. He is supported by Stanley Holloway and as fellow criminals Sid James and Alfie Bass. John Gregson makes an early appearance as the representative of law and order.

The film is told in a flashback and the opening sequence features a cameo by Audrey Hepburn, stopping off in Britain on her way to Hollywood. The plotting is ingenious, in particular the method used to dispose of the stolen merchandise. And the final chase sequence has some inspired moments.

These three titles are all representative of a particular period and a particular interpretation of this ‘sceptred isle’. But they all subtly undermine this representation.