Review: Little Joe

Final screening today (Mon 9th March) 6pm at Leeds University Union.

Little Joe

Jessica Hausner’s chilling psychological thriller is visually masterful however lacks a storyline worthy of it. The dizzying camera shots combined with the ominous and unnerving score creates an element of paranoia from the outset. The colours which are at points quite Wes Anderson esque can beautifully slip into the shadowy under belly of Blade Runner (1982).

The film centres on Alice who is a single mum and a dedicated breeder at a corporation which genetically engineers plants. She is working on developing a new breed that will control human emotions. Against company policy, she takes one home as a gift for her teenage son and names it after him but soon, though, she starts to fear it. Films and literature throughout history have dealt with the raw unspoilt beauty of flowers and the untold secrets they might hold. Little Joe carries on this tradition. Although the immortal words “Life will find a way” did pop into my head a few times, the film manages to offer up enough which feels different. The theme of mental health, maybe not fully realised, raises some interesting ideas on the subject and the stigma surrounding it. It is also about relationships, which feels more fleshed out but still perhaps not fully explored.Jessica Hausner’s eastern European routes and filmmaking style are at odds with the English setting, leaving the viewer with the impression of a tourist eye view of Britain.

The acting which was sometimes deliciously creepy and understated, sometimes fell into mockery and felt quite wooden. The saving grace in regards to the acting was Ben Whishaw who was the stand out performance.


Sam Judd

Review: Parasite

Screening until Thursday 5th March.

Bong Joon Ho’s chilling satirical masterpiece addresses the age old theme of social class. Much like Bong Joon Ho’s previous work, Snowpiecer (2013), the question of why some people are seen as “lower” and some people are seen as “higher” class is asked. The film also explores what we have to sacrifice to change social classes under a capitalist system.

The narrative follows the Kims, a poor family who con their way into becoming the servants of a rich family, the Parks. Their easy life gets complicated when their deception is threatened with exposure. What follows is a fascinating spectacle which is sometimes operatic in nature and a sad reflection of modern life. Although it is all set in South Korea, the story works so well because it is universal and could have been set practically anywhere. It could be argued that there are no villains in the film, just people; however, it is anything but a soap opera. It is a commentary on the human condition. Nothing is black and white, just shades of grey.

Parasite offers a way of seeing the world which feels unlike anything most Western audiences have seen before. However, there are still some films which it does bear some stylistic similarities to. Hitchcock comes to mind with films such as Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963).

There is also a twist in the tail which does feel slightly Hitchcockian. I could also see traces of films with a more biblical and spiritual quality to them such as Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (1999).

The acting was convincing throughout with stand out performances from Kang-ho Song and Sun-kyun Lee which puts the audience on edge. The spider-like way Bong Joon Ho directed his cast to move added to the sense of uneasiness.

The writing is spot on with some razor sharp wit which, combined with the direction, made for some side-splitting moments. However as a contrast to the more humorous points in the film, there are moments of real sadness and pain. The contrasts beautifully represent life, because what is life if not a series of contrasts?


Sam Judd

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. 

Review: 1917

Sam Mendes’ brilliant war epic, 1917, shows us the horrors which so many young men went through in the darkest days of the First World War. It also hints at the rare melancholic beauty of war, with scenes such as a soldier singing the American folk song (The Wayfairing Stranger) as his brothers in arms sit around him listening with intent. The way Mendes masterfully presents the contrasts of war to us signifies a director on the top of his game.

The plot is relatively simple and is loosely based on stories from Sam Mendes’ grandfather’s own experiences of the First World War.  Two soldiers, superbly played by Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay, are assigned to deliver a message behind enemy lines. It will stop 1,600 men, including one of the soldier’s brothers, from walking straight into a deadly trap. The film puts you in mind of Saving Private Ryan (1998) and the HBO mini-series Band of Brothers (2001), and even Peter Jackson’s First World War documentary They Shall Not Grow Old (2018). However none of them delivers the sense of urgency and hopelessness which 1917 exudes.

Interestingly, the film is told in real time through a sequence of long takes. Mendes isn’t new to the one shot idea, as shown in the opening sequence to 2015’s Spectre, but he has never done it for a whole feature length film before. While there are masks and cuts if you look hard enough, this does not subtract from the feeling of urgency at all, in fact it heightens it. There are other films that play with the one shot formal such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) and Victoria (2015) that arguably deal with relationships and characters more effectively. Technically, however, 1917 is something quite unique. What makes it remarkable is the work of cinematographer Roger Deakins, who creates a beautiful ballet with the camera, putting the audience into the shoes of the soldiers. This technique can get a bit distracting at points, nonetheless it generates images and emotions which you wouldn’t be able to achieve with multiple shots. For example, there is one shot where one of the characters is running through some ruins while flares go up all around him. In this sequence the lighting and camera work combine to make something truly breathtaking, and is the stuff that dreams (or nightmares) are made of. 

The film is carried throughout by its two leads. Both Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay are utterly mesmerising, and MacKay in particular gives a performance of a career, and is completely believable in the role. It is a wonder why neither of them were nominated at this year’s Oscars.  There are also numerous big name actors who appear in minor roles throughout the film, such as Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch and Mark Strong, but they just act as seasoning which punctuates the overall narrative. That is not to disregard their contribution; Andrew Scott gives a perfectly dry and callous performance as a cynical Lieutenant, while Colin Firth gives a solid matter of fact performance as General Erinmore. It is all credit to the filmmakers’ ingenuity for not making these cameos feel out of place or unduly dominate their respective scenes.

The tale of love, loyalty and friendship that Mendes presents to us is something which everyone should bear witness to. It acts as a reminder of what those brave young men sacrificed.  1917 is worthy of all the praise given to it. 

There are a few more screenings of 1917 at Hyde Park Picture House this week.


Sam Judd

Review: Transit, (Germany / France 2018)

This is the latest release by the German film-maker Christian Petzold. He has already had three of his fifteen credits released in Britain; all fine movies. The last, Phoenix  (2014), was a powerful and stylish drama set in Berlin and exploring changes of identity in a story full of noir tropes. This new title has parallels with the earlier one; the question of acquiring an identity, the displacement of war and the impact of a radical new situation for the main characters.

The title refers ‘transit zone’ where people wait for the official papers to leave; they are displaced and where

“here’s no fixed home. Home is basically homelessness.” (Christian Petzold in the Press Notes).

The story comes from a novel by Anna Seghers from 1944. The settings are Paris and then Marseilles. This adaptation treats period ambiguously so we seem neither in the past nor the  present. This can challenge the audience but emphasizes the  situation of the protagonists:

“They’re borderline phantoms, between life and death, yesterday and tomorrow.” (Petzold).

There are a number of key characters but at the centre is a man seeking transit papers  Georg  (Franz Rogowski)  and the wife of a writer Marie (Paula Beer). So there is a love story in the plot but this has to try and work itself out in a world where war has produced chaos, where police are a threat and officialdom is both remote and overwhelmed.

The idea of ‘transit’ has raised parallels with both Casablanca (1942) and Port of ShadowsLe quai des brumes (1938). And there is a reflexive narration which Petzold himself has compared to Barry Lyndon (1975). In both its plot and narration it also reminded me of The Sheltering Sky (1990) with two young US characters adrift in North Africa..

There was a single presentation at the Picture House which was well attended. However, it seems no other cinema in the area has screened the title. The production is distributed by Curzon/Artificial Eye who rely as much on online as theatrical. And the title has not been helped in Sight & Sound where it received a normal review in September 2019 whereas a title I felt was inferior achieved the two-page spread offered to only three releases  an issue. My colleague on ‘The Case for Global Film‘ rates it one of the best new movies of the year and I absolutely agree. Hopefully it may return for another screening at the Picture House; I should certainly like to enjoy it a second time.

Review: Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood

Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt are established stars of the Tarantino empire and have made another corker with his 9th film. Is it his 9th? You have to count Kill Bill volumes 1 and 2 as one long epic, and remember that even though the Hateful Eight felt like it was 19 hours long, it was still only the one film. The director has repeatedly said that he only ever planned to make 10, so the pressure’s building to go out with a bang.

It’s 1969, Charles Manson is on the loose, Roman Polanski’s still a welcome neighbour and the Hollywood bubble is thriving in Los Angeles. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Rick Dalton, an actor fading out of his 30s and his cinematic heyday, with Brad Pitt as his put-upon sidekick/stuntman/driver/dogsbody Cliff Booth.

Rick is known for a 50’s cowboy TV show and as the film starts the series has come to an end so Rick is on the hunt for his next job. His flavour of dashing leading man is no longer in vogue and increasingly typecast as the villain in one-off shows and movies, Rick looks to Europe and the booming spaghetti western scene. Cliff’s career follows Rick’s, albeit in a less fortunate way. Cliff does as he’s told, travels in economy class and patiently tags along, accompanied by his faithful hound Brandy. Cliff and Brandy live in an out-of-the-way trailer, which is a far cry from Rick’s gated community mansion in the Hollywood hills where Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate are new neighbours Rick hopes to befriend to help boost his fading stardom.

There are snippets of life on set and their past filmmaking experiences, including an on-set brawl between Cliff and Bruce Lee and Rick’s encounter with a wise-before-her-time child star. We’re given some wonderful flashbacks to films he’s auditioned for and starred in, including an alternative version of a 60’s classic and one where he tackles Nazis with a flame-thrower. Like the Machete trailer in the Grindhouse double-feature, part of me hopes that we could one day see the rest of the film, although I’m afraid Tarantino might just have shown us the ending.

Once Upon A Time… skips between the big story and the small and inconsequential in a familiar way if you’ve seen any of Tarantino’s previous 8 films. Rick and Cliff chew the fat when they’re driving in a way that has a very similar feel to the ‘royale with cheese’ conversation in Pulp Fiction and the bursts of violence at the ranch and in the climactic scenes yell Tarantino’s name. He clearly isn’t squeamish about subjecting younger, female characters to the same kind of nastiness we’ve more often seen his leading men dole out to each other. He might not be squeamish about it, but I found the dynamic of those fight scenes quite difficult to watch.

If you don’t know what happened when the Manson family met Sharon Tate, you can probably ignore the departure from reality, but I’m torn about it being an alternative history when the real things that happened were so terrible. Injecting new characters on the edges of a real-life story is one thing, but then changing how that story plays out made me uneasy. I’ve read that it could be seen as a way of paying homage to Tate, a way of wishing away the truth, but I can’t help but wonder if that’s a bit of a self-indulgent fantasy on Tarantino’s part.

Misgivings aside, I enjoyed the Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood. It’s long, but checking back I’m surprised it’s as long as 160 minutes. Hollywood glamour on the cusp of the 70s, the flash cars and constant sunshine set the backdrop for an immersive ride. If it’s really to be Tarantino’s penultimate film, it lives up to his catalogue so far and sets an exciting tone for a blow-out number 10.

Hannah Bingle

Review: Sprinter

Last Saturday Leeds Black Film Club in association with Kush Films presented a special preview screening of Sprinter.

sprinter2

Sprinter is a warmly entertaining and funny film with many laugh out moments. I love it when everyone laughs at the same time. Sometimes they were laughing when I wasn’t, which meant I’d missed something that a native Jamaican hadn’t.

The things I enjoyed most about Sprinter was the humour, the music and the use of the beautiful Jamaican landscape.

I didn’t find the film too predictable and at certain points, I wasn’t sure which way the story was going to go – which is good!  There are many layers to this story: parent-child separation, family ties, high-school-sports and others (#nospoilers). It’s a lot to weave into one film but I think it’s done well.

The only downside was thinking Bryshere Y Gray’s character was too similar to his Empire role. I would have liked to see him do something different but it doesn’t take away from the film which has some very (very) special moments.

After the film preview, there was a lively Q&A session with the Producer Rob Maylor and actress Shantol Jackson (who plays Kerry Hall) and they both shared personal stories about their own families and how they got to where they are today.  

It was heartening to hear how passionate they were about retaining the cultural authenticity in many different ways such as ensuring the accents were on point and how their hard work paid off when they saw how the locals reacted to the film. 

We all love a good sports movie and Sprinter has all the elements that make it one to add to the list – even more so for me personally  – it is great to see a strong black sports film showing young people who are driven and focussed on achieving great things.

Notorious (UK 1946)

 

Alicia Huberman’s (Ingrid Bergman) behaviour is NOTORIOUS.

Has she had enough to drink? “The important drinking hasn’t started yet.”

“You can add Sebastian’s name to my list of playmates”

And personally I wouldn’t trust her as my chauffeuse!

So what’s on the menu of this excellent melodrama? For a start it includes some dodgy fare … burnt chicken, indigestible wine and adulterated coffee. And you’ll find a heady stew of manipulation and blackmail, disappointment  and murder, all seasoned with occasional expressions of trust and openness to love.

T.R. Devlin(Cary Grant) is a government agent aiming to infiltrate a group of Nazis who fled Germany for Brazil after World War 2. The setting is Rio de Janeiro in 1946. Essentially, Notorious is a Hitchcockian romance highlighting tensions between feelings of love and duty, which rivals Michael Curtiz’s film Casablanca (1942) for style and entertainment. The script, acting, screenplay and photography all showcase director Alfred Hitchcock at his best. If you are quick you can even see Hitchcock quaffing a glass of champagne just over an hour into the film.

Alicia: This is a very strange love affair.
Devlin: Why?
Alicia: Maybe the fact that you don’t love me.
Despite this, there is an extended kiss, the longest on screen at the time. In the 1930s Hollywood had introduced the Hays Motion Picture Production Code which dictated strict rules to writers and directors about permissible limits to lovemaking, immorality and vulgarity in their films. For example, in love scenes women had to have at least one foot on the ground at all times, and kisses could only last three seconds. Hitchcock got around the last one by having the lovers kiss for three seconds, stop, say a few words, kiss again, walk for a little bit and then kiss again, for a total of two and a half minutes. See the results for yourself!

Another psychological element is Alex Sebastian’s (Claude Rains) intriguing relationship with his mother, Anna Sebastain (Leopoldine Konstantin).

Madame Sebastian to her son: “We are protected by the enormity of your stupidity … for a time”.

Maybe I should have mentioned that Alex is also in love with Alicia …

So get along to the Picture House to see this iconic film at 2pm this August Bank Holiday Monday.


Bill Walton

Never Look Away / Werk ohne Autor, Germany, Italy, USA, Czech republic 2019.

Young Kurt with Elizabeth and ‘degenerate art’

This new title had two screenings at the Picture House. I managed the second which had a small but respectable audience.  They all stayed to the end, which was 188 minutes later. In fact the film did not seem three hours to me as the characters and the stories were absorbing.

I write ‘stories’ as there are two narrative strands in the film and I thought one weakness was that they never seemed to completely mesh. The English language title refers to the personal and family drama strand. This starts in 1937 as we see the young Kurt [Cai Cohrs) with his Aunt Elizabeth (Saskia Rosendahl) as they follow a guided tour of the Nazi exhibition of ‘degenerate art’. Kurt already has ambitions to be  a painter. But the emphasis is on the personal. Elizabeth admonishes the young Kurt to

‘never look away’ because ‘everything that is true holds beauty in it’.

But she is soon lost and becomes a victim of the Nazi policies of sterilization and extermination of people deemed physically and mentally ‘unfit’.

After the war Kurt and his family find themselves in the zone liberated by the Soviet armies and then the German Democratic Republic. Kurt goes to art school where the official style is ‘Socialist realism’. He meets and falls in love with another student Elizabeth, ‘Ellie’ (Paula Beer). Her father Carl (Sebastian Koch) is a gynecologist and the audience [but not Kurt or Ellie] know that he has a suspect past from the era of the Third Reich. As this starts to catch up with him he leaves for the West. Now married Kurt and Ellie follow just before the erection of the infamous ‘Wall’.

This latter part of the film is closer to the German title, which translates as ‘Without an Author’. This refers to the film using some of the life story of an actual German artist, Gerhard Richter, whose paintings figure in the film. Kurt enrolls at the Düsseldorf Art Academy, at the time a centre of avant-garde art. Here we see another thinly veiled character from real life, the artist  Joseph Beuys. Now Kurt finds an artistic voice  and critical acclaim.

Adult Kurt with a Socialist Realist portrait and an experimental canvas

Less focused is family life, but Kurt and Ellie have children and happiness. The fate of her father Carl is not revealed but there is a hint that nemesis is closing in.

The cast work well, Tom Schilling and Paula Beer are reasonably good.  Sebastian Koch is excellent with a real sense of malevolence. The stand-out performance is Saskia Rosendahl, though she is only seen in the early part of the film.

The production is extremely well done. The design, cinematography and sound all work well to produce a convincing creation of the places and times. And there are both subtle and less subtle references in the style that draw the characters and their experiences together. The music does this at times, but other sequences have a rather obvious accompaniment, sometimes with a Wagnerian tone. I suspect the film-makers were not confident that all the key moments of development totally worked.

This contributes to the sense of a division in the film. And the personal drama, especially the romantic, is rather conventional in presentation. Whereas the artistic is less so. But I think both maintain the interest of the viewer.

The film  is written and directed  by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck who was responsible for the very fine The Lives of Others  / Das Leben der Anderen (2006). This film lacks the complexity of the earlier title. The treatment of both the German Democratic Republic and of the later Art Academy rely on rather simple motifs.   I think the director’s craft suffered from a trip to the mainstream and a completely forgettable The Tourist (2010). However, this production is vastly superior to that and, in a year where the new releases  of real quality are sparse, stands out. It is in  colour, full widescreen and has English sub-titles;  definitely a movie to be seen in a cinema.

Review: Support The Girls

Support The Girls

Support the Girls has a great cast. The standouts for me are Regina Hall, Shayna McHayle and Haley Lu Richardson. Their dynamic works really well on screen.

This film shows a day in the life of sports bar Double Whammies’ boss Lisa and the many challenges she faces trying to keep the bar and staff running throughout a busy day. The film starts with Lisa crying in her car before starting work as some girls begin to turn up to be interviewed for a job which requires the female waitresses to wear denim hotpants and crop tops. From that point onwards, Lisa’s day full of issues and confrontations.

There were a lot of interesting characters such as the bar owner Cubby and Lisa’s husband, who I would have liked to see more of and see their backstories. Either way, there were both disappointing figures in Lisa’s life.

As I watched the film unfold, I kept waiting for the main story to kick in and just when I thought it would, it skipped to another scene, which gave the film a slightly disjointed feel. I did enjoy that it was a great observation into the life of someone who just wanted to get by and help others but failed to receive the same amount of support back – apart from two loyal members of staff Maci and Danyelle. There were some distinct laugh out loud moments and it did a good job of showing how hard day-to-day life can be when you’re trying to keep your head above water. I would recommend this film for a rainy afternoon.