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.

Review: Madeline’s Madeline

Madeline's Madeline

“What you are experiencing is just a metaphor”

Madeline’s Madeline is the third feature film from experimental filmmaker Josephine Decker, which follows teen actress Madeline (Helena Howard) as she attempts to bring to life the artistic vision of immersive theatre director Evangeline (Molly Parker) and negotiate her fraught relationship with her mother Regina (Miranda July) along the way.

Lovers of Terrence Malick’s unique brand of film-philosophy are likely to find a second home in Decker’s artistic approach to themes of mental health, race and the conflation of life with art. The above quote, spoken by an unidentified nurse bathed in a halo of light, feels like an appropriate opening to a film which continually challenges its audience to decipher a complex web of perspectives, dream sequences and relationships presented in frenetic and, at times, frustrating ways.

Madeline is a biracial teenager whom we learn is recovering from a psychotic episode which prompted a stay in a psychiatric ward, perhaps the reason for the dreamlike opening to the film – a POV shot of a nurse looking down and seemingly speaking to a patient whilst bathed in a halo of light. Her interactions with people her own age are sparse, and her mother (Regina) alludes to her being bullied at school.

Regina is a nervous, seemingly introverted woman with a propensity to dissolve into emotional outbursts. She has clear difficulty in connecting with and deciphering the behaviour of her daughter, often interpreting Madeline’s exuberant behaviour through the lens of her mental illness.

As a result, Madeline is drawn to the confidence of theatre group director Evangeline, who not only praises and encourages her artistic tendencies but also wades into morally murky territory; after Madeline admits to a having a dream in which she harms her mother, Evangeline reveals she dreamt Madeline was her daughter.

As the narrative develops, Evangeline places Madeline at the centre of the theatre groups project, weaving her problematic relationship with her mother into the performance, seemingly oblivious to the insensitivity of a wealthy white woman using a biracial teenager with mental health issues as the base for her own artistic aspirations.

The above might sound like a relatively middle-of-the-road drama, but it brings its subjects to life through incredibly distinct formal treatment. Characters are captured with a roaming handheld camera, which ducks and dives around sets, tilting on its axis and occasionally getting distracted and panning up to focus on the branch of a tree or swirling clouds in the sky above.

Shots open in deep focus before shifting to shallow focus, denying the audience an omniscient viewing experience whilst also feeling deeply present in the character’s interactions. This happens in reverse too, where shots open open in an unfocused state and gradually shift back to clarity. Extreme close-ups of mouths, hands, eyes and sometimes the backs of heads break bodies up into their constituent parts.

These stylistic choices occasionally feel infuriating, but in their totality they hang together with a certain beauty. Are we experiencing the world through the mind of Madeline? The perspective is never truly clear, and Decker seems at pains to offer no judgements on the behaviours of her characters who are all, at times, manipulative, angry, loving and deeply in tune with one another. Perhaps the fractured formal quality of this film seeks to do away with the tropes of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ people in film making and to simply present life as it often is – chaotic.

Evangeline captures this notion by quoting Carl Jung:

“In all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder a secret order, that the pendulum of the mind swings between sense and nonsense, not between right and wrong.”

Zama, Argentina, Spain , France, Mexico, The Netherlands, Monaco, Portugal, USA, Lebanon, Britain, Dominican Republic, 2017

Opens today, Friday, and on Sunday and Wednesday 6 p.m.

This is the new film by Argentinian film-maker Lucrecia Martel. Her earlier films, La Ciénaga (2001), The Holy Girl  / La niña santa (2004) and The Headless Woman  / La mujer sin cabeza (2008) were fine examples of C21st Latin-American cinema. These three features were all set in a contemporary world and dramatised some of the contradictions in her home country. This new film is a literary adaptations set in the C18th and part of the Spanish colonial empire. The film was shot on digital formats and critics have rightly praised the visual style and sound design of the film.

The source of this story is a novel from 1956 of the same tiltle by Antonio Di Benedetto, [only translated into English in 2016]. Set in 1790 somehere on  a river dividing Argentina from Paraguay, the protagonist is Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho) a magistrate [‘corregidor’ government official}. We first see him in the film [as in the poster] staring out across the river, symbolising his frustrated hopes of a move: away and upward socially and economically. The book offered a subjective narrative and the film translates this into a hallucinatory telling that is full of ambiguities. The story takes in three different periods of Zama’s sojourn in this provincial city, best identified by the changing face [i.e. actor] of the governor under whom he serves. The first two periods focus on his recurring requests for a transfer and the contradictions of his work, a sort of C18th ‘Catch 22’. His social position is problematic because he is an ‘Americano’, born in this ‘new world’ where colonial characters from Europe control society and power. His ambiguous status is reflected in his attempt at sexual conquest, both amongst the European and the indigenous women.  These first two thirds of the film have a surreal quality with elliptical editing and moments of bizarre humour when, for examples, animals cross the frontier between the world of nature and that of human society.

The final third  involves Zama enrolled in an expedition to hunt down a local bandit, Vicuňa Porto / Gaspar (Matheus Nachtegaele) who could be as much myth as a criminal disruption. Now the film takes on aspects of horror: something Martell also essayed in her very fine The Headless Woman. The first two thirds of the film have some of the absurdist quality found in ‘magical realism’ There are the recurring and ineffectual social forays of the protagonist; writing by the characters that seems completely fruitless; and odd acts of sexuality and violence that seem totally arbitrary. The last part moves into the world of the exploration: a trope in Latin American fiction and film where the horrors that beset the Europeans and their helpers betoken the ultimate futility of their search.

Martell has scripted and directed the adaptation with genuine skill. Her cinematographer, Rui Poças, has produced a fine range of visual imagery, some in stark brightness, some in a pattern of lights and shadow. And the sound design by Guido Berenblum is really distinctive. using internal and non-simultaneous sound. Both have used digital formats which work well to produce a rather flat colour surface and aural depth that suits the non-realist form.

Her last film, The Headless Woman , was a terrific and successful melodrama dramatising class and corruption. So why have we had to wait nearly a decade for her latest film. Part of the answer lies in the number of territories where she has found funding. Clearly there has not been a rush of investors to support her work; the number of companies involved in the production takes up four columns in the Sight & Sound credits.. One is reminded of the comment of Osmane Sèmbene, comparing putting a film together as like making up a cigarette out of butt ends in the street.

The novel is, apparently, dense but only runs to 200 pages. if you have to wait to read a copy, which sound really worthwhile, then there is a fine review by J. M. Coetzee in ‘The New York Review of Books’ . This sets out the main features of the plot but also, importantly, give a sense of the tone and characterisations of the novel. It seems that Martell has been relatively faithful to the book but some material has been excised and some given greater emphasis.

At least the film is now here. It should be a treat, especially as there is a scarcity [at least in West Yorkshire] of films from this great cinematic continent. Sight and Sound have both a review and a specialised article on the film. There is also a transcript of an interview with Lucrecia Martell, excellent reading.

I found the film challenging at first. It took about half-an-hour before I felt clear about how the narrative worked. But from then on I followed the film fine. This included some colonial Spanish terms retained in the English sub-titles. So there is ‘corregidor’ and also ‘encomienda’ which referred to the practice of awarding control of indigenous people to colonialists.

There is one remaining screening this coming Wednesday [June 20th] and at present no sign of further screenings in the Leeds/Bradford area. Do not miss this film or, at some future date, you will be embarrassed during a discussion of the outstanding Latin-American films from the first two decades of the C21st.

The Rape of Recy Taylor, USA 2017

Wednesday afternoon, Tuesday and Thursday evenings.

 

This is an impressive and important film though at times it offers painful viewing. The film recounts the rape of a young Afro-American woman and mother in 1944 in Alabama by a gang of white men. This was before the period of activism known for ‘The Civil Rights Movement’. Rape of black women, like the lynching of black people, was common in the period dominated by the racist culture called ‘Jim Crow’. Recy’s struggle for justice was supported by National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People [NAACP] and by one of its field officers, Rosa Parks. Parks is famous for her role in the ‘Bus Boycotts’ in the 1950s. But this case was equally important in the development of black resistance to the racism endemic in the USA. The NAACP, committed to constitutional action, was for decades the lead organisation in the struggle for equality for Afro-Americans. In this case the struggle achieved only partial results but it was a seminal step in the struggle.

The film is directed by Nancy Buirski whose previous films include a documentary The Loving Story (2011) and a dramatised treatment Loving (2016) of an inter-racial couple prosecuted for breaking laws against ‘miscegenation’. This films uses a complex mixture of personal film and audio testimonies, commentary and archive material. The latter include clips from feature films.  Most of the clips are from the films of  Oscar Micheaux whose work was a central component of the ‘race cinema’, segregated film production and exhibition in the USA from the 1910s to the 1940s.

The style of the film is excellent with fine work in cinematography, editing and special effects. In particular there are a series of beautifully composed superimpositions and some meaningful montage. The beauty of parts of the film provide a dramatic counterpoint to the agonies of the story. The testimonies from the family and Recy herself both describe the incident and comment upon it. Two contemporary commentators draw out the key position these events and struggle played in the long march of Afro-American resitance. But late in the film comments by white residents demonstrate how the much remains to be achieved.

This is a powerful and stimulating documentary on issues that, as the news constantly reminds us, remains a central problematic in US culture. What would be good would be if we could have a follow-up with a screening of one of Oscar Micheaux’s powerful film dramas: Within Our Gates (1920) is a classic that addresses both the rape of black women and the lynching of black people.

They Live, also I’m out of bubblegum

Showing Saturday 26th May 10:30pm

Image result for they live!

They Live, Released in 1988 and directed by John Carpenter, is a cult classic for many reasons, not including the fact that it was directed by John Carpenter (Ghosts of Mars).

We follow the story of ‘unnamed drifter’, or in the credits, ‘John Nada’, who comes to town, who discovers some sinister goings on, and is forced to dish out some justice ( see A Fistful of Dollars to continue your unnamed hero cinema binge).

Inspired by the short story ‘Eight O’Clock in the Morning’ by Ray Nelson, John Carpenter wanted this film to be protest at the state of the United States. Specifically the values of Ronald Reagan’s conservative revolution. Carpenter wanted to “scream out in the middle of the night” , about rampant consumerism and government control overtaking the values he was brought up with. They Live! is the 80’s left wing action film we needed.

It’s awesome.

The audience can see John Nada (played by the great Roddy Piper, RIP), goes on this, Platonic journey (see Allegory of the Cave for details), as he puts on some suspicious sunglasses, he see’s the world for what it truly is. No longer does John Nada have the luxury of mistaking appearance for reality, and he is forced to act as an agent of change (via ass-kicking).

The supporting cast is equally awesome, with Keith David returning to the Carpenter fold (Carpenter liked what he saw of him in The Thing!). K.David, supporting but never in the background, is a great choice of casting, and I encourage readers to see him in other things (Pitch Black, Platoon etc). Most recently he lent his voice to the President of the United States in Rick & Morty.

Image result for they live keith david

Keith David being Keith David.

This is one of my favourite John Carpenter films (although I can’t think of one I dislike, even Ghosts of Mars).

Carpenter takes the time to explore the nature of consumerism, that everything around us, is designed to make us buy something. This important topic is pushed through the kaleidoscope of John Carpenters brain, into a wacky, over the top masterpiece.

Peeling back this thin veil (via trendy shades), we get to see this world through the eyes of working stiff Mr.Nada.

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Trendy shades

This film has everything.

Conspiracy. A WWF wrestler. Paranoia. Reality shattering sunglasses. Keith David.

They live. We sleep.

If you like They Live, you should also check out;

  • Invasion of Body Snatchers (1956 and 1978).
  • Pitch Black (for Keith David).
  • Big Trouble in Little China (1986).

The film will be shown on Saturday night followed by a discussion of its themes and their relationship to situationism and other currents active in 1968. The discussion will be led by Simon Hewitt, who teaches philosophy at the University of Leeds.

Screening as part of Radical Film Network’s 1968 Festival, a programme of screenings and discussions in collaboration with Film Fringe, which celebrate and reflect on the radical uprisings and revolutionary fervour of the events of 1968.

#RFN68


Henry Stocks-Fryer

Isle of Dogs: A Dog-friendly screening 

A dog-friendly screening? Hmm … part of the Cinema’s relentless efforts to build new audiences. What could possibly go wrong? And who could resist writing a review peppered with references to Dog Day Afternoon (1976), K-9 (1989) and Lady and the Tramp (1955)? So, here are my notes:

The Picture House: Auditorium lights on low during the film, film subtitled. Dog blankets and (shh!) treats provided.

The audience: diverse and generally well behaved. A few barks here and there but, as I remarked to Jack (Russell), at least I didn’t see any dogs checking for messages on their phones while the film was running. Certainly popular. Both dog-friendly screenings have been sold out.

The film: The Isle of Dogs was a great choice. Beautiful stop-motion animation and a simple story. Despite it being set in Japan I didn’t notice any Hokkaidos or Kai Kens in the audience.

This screening was a credit to everyone, canine and human: director Wes Anderson and the excellent voice cast; with  special mention for the staff and volunteers at the Hyde Park Picture House; and of course the support of Dogs Trust.

We are promised more dog-friendly films at the Picture House. What next? Watership Down (1978), Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), or the wonderful Kedi (2016) about the street cats of Istanbul?

Tibbs, the cat who once took up residence in the Picture House foyer, must be turning in their grave.


Bill Walton

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Showing multiple times daily from Friday 12th January

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Misouri

Let’s face it. 2017 was a crap year for most of us. So many outrages, and “the authorities” so slow to act. But wait! Three Billboards gives us a champion. Watch irrepressible Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) use her visceral rage to shame “them” into action. “Them” is the local police or anyone else who gets in her way. Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell and the rest of this superb cast had better watch out!
The issue is that Mildred’s daughter, Angela, was raped and murdered seven months ago. Have the police got any leads? Have they Hell! Maybe a few billboard messages will get them off their fat butts.
Mildred Hayes: What’s the law on what ya can and can’t say on a billboard? I assume it’s ya can’t say nothing defamatory, and ya can’t say, ‘Fuck’ ‘Piss’ or ‘Cunt’. That right?
Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones): Or… Anus.
Mildred Hayes:  Well I think I’ll be alright then.
This film deservedly won the Audience Award for new feature films at this year’s (2017) Leeds International Film Festival. It’s another triumph for In Bruges (2008) director Martin McDonagh. Ebbing, Missouri is as complex a community as any other. We get to see not only the anger but also the humour, kindness, sadness and violence of small town life. And naturally Ebbing is not exempt from Midwestern prejudices.
Mildred Hayes: So how’s it all going in the nigger-torturing business, Dixon?
Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell): It’s ‘Persons of color’-torturing business, these days, if you want to know. And I didn’t torture nobody.
And if Mildred Hayes doesn’t like this review, I’m keeping well out of her way …

Bill Walton