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.

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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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 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.

Cineaste treats on Freeview

BBC 4 Thursday 26th March at 10 p.m. and Saturday March 28th at 4.10 p.m.

We still miss the Hyde Park screening programme but there are at least two well made film classics on terrestrial television over the next few days. On Thursday we can watch a fine biopic of England’s greatest leader, Oliver Cromwell.

Cromwell was written and directed by Ken Hughes. This is his best outing as director though an early ‘B’ movie, Joe Macbeth (1955) was an interesting variation of Shakespeare’s character; and The Trials of Oscar Wilde (1960) was a convincing portrait with Peter Finch playing against type as Wilde. The merit of Cromwell is that this is a sympathetic treatment of a historical figure often vilified by conservation and reactionaries. Whilst he should be criticised for the suppression of the Leveller movement and the brutal invasion of Ireland, he led possibly the greatest transition in English history.

The stand-out aspect of the production is Richard Harris as the lead character. Harris almost seems born to play this powerful and committed military and political leader. From his early parliamentary opposition, through his reorganization of the People’s Army and to the setting up of a Republic, he dominates the screen and the other characters.

Alex Guinness provides a graceful performance as the ill-fated king, Charles 1st. There are some excellent battle scenes and a number of skilled British actors in supporting roles. This is definitely a better version that them later 2008 Cromwell.

Geoffrey Unsworth’s cinematography is excellent. The costume design won an Academy Award for Vittorio Nino Novarese. John Stoll’s production design is also very well done. The film was shot in 35mm Panavision and Technicolor; fortunate film buffs could also see it in 70mm.

And if you like period dramas then there is also an adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s great novel, Jane Eyre on BBC2 on Saturday. This is the 1944 version with Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine. Any day on which you can watch Welles is a good day.

The Lighthouse

Screening multiple times daily until Thursday 13th February

Willem Defoe and Robert Pattinson in The Lighthouse

Robert Eggers offers a mixture of a fantasy horror film and a turbulent sequence of potentially iconic imagery in The Lighthouse.

The narrow, nearly square framing of the film reflects the claustrophobia of Robert Pattinson’s 4 week shift as wickie, Ephrain Wilnslow, on a secluded lighthouse island, under Willem Defoes’ tyrannical lighthouse keeper, Thomas Wake. 

Given the impressive cinematography, this is recommended for big screen viewing for an immersive experience. However, after an hour of being visually delighted, the chaos sequences become, well, chaotic, and the stunning imagery fails to make up for the lack of narrative. 

Unable to understand Defoe apart from some of his more bombastic Shakespearean speeches, it isn’t possible to determine if the character is much more than a generic Jaws’ Quint “type” than a whole character to invest in.  It feels like watching a sinister, parallel Craggy Island, where Father Jack has been left alone for too long.  As Wake himself says, “Thirteen Christmases at sea. Little ones at home. She never forgave it”. Maybe it is Mrs Doyle who left.

The black and white format illuminates the Brando-esque angles Pattinson’s face, with his characters’ descent into a madman masturbating over a mermaid scrimshaw whilst obsessing over the lighthouse summit is at times, an unsettling watch and the more notable of the two lead performances.

A pessimistic view of the plot is a pair of depraved drunks, unable to cope with the isolation of lighthouse life, descending into mutual insanity. With farting, masturbating, and some disappointingly obvious metaphors, all wrapped up in a black and white format.  There is a sense that the film aims to be conspicuously arthouse, especially in the final scene.

The Lighthouse is a memorable film, that will no doubt be rated as significant by film buffs and art students. 

Jojo Rabbit

Showing daily from Friday 17th January

As kids, many of us had invisible friends drawn from our heroes or storybook characters. Jojo’s invisible friend is Hitler.

Jojo is a boy who’s been indoctrinated; he’s 10 and a member of the Hitler Youth. He likes marching, he likes uniforms and he likes the camaraderie of an extra-militaristic version of Scout camp. Taika Waititi plays Hitler as seen through Jojo’s eyes – a camp and paunchy, child friendly version of the dictator who acts as a confidant and sounding board for Jojo’s thoughts and fears.

After leaving the Hitler Youth through injury, Jojo finds other ways to get stuck in to the war effort, collecting scrap metal and sticking up posters. Away from the marching and training, without any adult supervision he’s left to his own devices, playing with Hitler and exploring the house he shares with his mysteriously busy single mother. Upstairs she’s kept a secret and Jojo’s discovery of Elsa, a Jewish girl hidden in an attic room throws his devotion to the Nazi cause into disarray.

If you’ve seen Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) or What We Do In The Shadows (2014), Waititi’s off-kilter silliness will be no surprise. In Jojo Rabbit, he handles the heavy themes delicately with on-brand bursts of humour and irreverence that bring levity without ever quite tipping into disrespect. The casting throughout is incredible; Jojo is Roman Griffin Davis’ first role, his mother is played by Scarlett Johansson and Sam Rockwell is the one-eyed Hitler Youth Co-ordinator Captain Klenzendorf. Rebel Wilson, Alfie Allen and Stephen Merchant appear as improbable supporting Nazis.

Jojo Rabbit has been nominated for Best Picture at the 2020 Academy Awards. Scarlett Johansson has been nominated for best supporting actress and four more nominations (for best adapted screenplay, film editing, costume design and production design) bring the total to 6. It’s not just the big awards; audience reception has been rapturous and in 2019 the film won the People’s Choice award at the Toronto Film Festival and the Audience Favourite at LIFF.

Jojo Rabbit will be showing at the Hyde Park from Friday the 17th of January.