Manchester by the Sea on BBC 2

Friday May 14th at 11.20 p.m. and then the BBC I-Player

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.

Black Bear

Available on Leeds Film Player during May

Aubrey Plaza as Allison staring out in to the distance.

All being well it shouldn’t be too long until we can start seeing films on the big screen again. The City Varieties’ Movie Nights are set to resume on the 17th and there are plans for more On The Road screenings over the summer. Until then there are still great films available to watch online. The latest addition to Leeds Film Player is Black Bear and is presented in partnership with Hyde Park Picture House.

Black Bear stars Aubrey Plaza, perhaps best known for her role in TV’s Parks and Recreation but also in great films such as An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn (2018), Ingrid Goes West (2017) and Safety Not Guaranteed (2012). This is a more dramatic role but one that still manages to be darkly funny. I knew very little about the film and that may the best way to experience it because part of what makes the film so engaging is how it unravels and it’s never clear exactly where it is going to end up.

I’ve missed seeing films in the cinema for a number of reasons. The visual delights of Wolfwalkers (2020) would have been more mesmerising on a big screen. The wonderful sound design of Sound Of Metal (2019 apparently) could be appreciated more if heard over a good sound system. David Byrne’s American Utopia (2020) would look and sound great but would also be a much better experience watching it with an appreciative audience. Watching Black Bear I found myself missing the audience for a completely different reason. It’s a film I really liked but one that I think is likely to be divisive; it’s intense, the characters are mostly unlikeable and it often ends up in awkwardly uncomfortable places. Much like in the second part of the film I wanted to know what other people would be feeling, was it okay to be enjoying this so much? Is ‘enjoying’ the right word or emotion? Would other people be laughing at the audacity of it all like I was? Hopefully, like all interesting things, there would be a mixture of reactions but I hope everybody would be able to find something to appreciate. Or maybe the lack of human interaction over the last 14 months means I’ve just forgotten how to react appropriately.

Black Bear is available to rent for £5 on Leeds Film Player until the end of May.

‘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.

Peterloo on C4

Saturday March 13th on C4 at 10 p.m.

So if you missed this title on release or you want to enjoy it again this very fine film is screening tonight on C4 (and will be available on All4 ). Quite a few reviewers did not really appreciate the film on its release. British film critics, with some exceptions like Derek Malcom, do not really engage with actual and detailed politics in dramas. Even when they admire Ken Loach they tend to prefer his dramas built round personal lives rather than those constructed around political movements. This would seem to be one reason why British cinema has never quite equaled the output  from the continent.

This is one of the finest films to be made in Britain in this new century and it is certainly one of the most interesting. It is flawed in some ways. This seems to have been due to the project being rushed in its final stages. Originally planned for the Centenary of the Peterloo Massacre in 2019 it came out a year early. This seems to have affected in particular the final sequences of the title which seem less developed, especially after the lengthy treatment of the causes and actual violence of this historic protest in Manchester.

It has been very well filmed by a talented craft team with excellent cinematography by Dick Pope and sharp editing by Dick Gregory. It has a very intelligent script from Mike Leigh.  Care has been taken to render accurate local dialects and the setting shave been well reconstructed . But what stands out is that the politics of the emerging working class are given full expression here; something not often seen and heard in British films though it is also found in the other fine study of C19th working class radicalism Comrades (Bill Douglas, 1986). The cast of proletarian characters and their middle class allies are generally very fine. And the opposing local functionaries and the rising bourgeoisie are convincing.

The major weakness is in the representation of the aristocracy and the dominant political figures. Other Mike Leigh films have presented upper and middle class characters close to caricature and the royal and authority figures here are not convincing. Nevertheless their preening narcissism and their  ruthless and violent defence of undeserved and unearned privileges is accurate. .

This is a film that combines documentary style recreation, powerful and emotional sequences with a compelling political representation. It is amazing that it has taken over a hundred years of British cinema till we have a film of such a major historic event. It should be noted that Peterloo is a motif in the earlier Fame is the Spur (the Boulting brothers 1945 adaptation of Howard Spring’s novel) which is also well worth viewing. I cannot think of much else  this coming Sunday evening to match this presentation. And Jacqueline Riding’s ‘ Peterloo: The Story of the Manchester Massacre’ (2018) is worth reading as well.

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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