Manchester by the Sea USA 2016

manchester-by-the-sea1Saturday March 4th and Monday March 6th

It is good to have another opportunity to see this film, the best new release so far of 2017. That said, the first two months of the year have been fairly undistinguished: a number of good films but a lack of masterworks [Moonlight (2016) will hopefully remedy this]. This film garnered Lead Actor and Original Screenplay Awards at the recent Academy. I do still worry that a mislaid envelope may turn up and scupper either of these.

Casey Affleck as Lee Chandler is superb and fulfils the promise displayed in his earlier films. The supporting cast are uniformly excellent. I was especially struck by Michelle Williams as Randi Chandler. She has a brief but powerful scene with Casey.

The film also fulfils the promise shown by writer and director Kenneth Lonergan in his previous films. He heads a fine production team and I was particularly struck by the cinematography by  Jody Lee Lipes, with some  beautifully executed exteriors on the North Eastern Atlantic coastline. And the  Film Editing by Jennifer Lame  is very fine, handling a complex set of flashbacks that fill out the story and the drama. Note, the actual town is ‘Manchester-by-the Sea’: odd that the title is different in all release versions as it suggests something else.

This is a film that deals with memories and loss that colour and inhibit the present. The powerful drama delves into these and the accompanying relationships with care and compassion. It is a long film, 137 minutes, but the characters and settings render that timescale completely absorbing.

Fences, USA 2016

Daily, Saturday February 18th through till Thursday February 23rd.

fences-2016-david-gropman-design

The two leading players in this film, Denzel Washington and Viola Davies, have both been nominated for Academy Awards. Viola Davis has already won a Golden Globe as Best Supporting Actress. This, like the Academy Award, nomination, should really be for Best Actress as whilst her screen time is less than Washington her character and performance are equally essential to the film.

This is an actor’s films with both Washington and Davis reprising roles that they played on Broadway in 2010: Troy and Rose Maxton. And another player in this production Stephen McKinley Henderson as Jim Bono is part of a fine supporting cast.

The film is adapted from a play originally written in 1983 by August Wilson. He died in 2005 but had already written a screenplay on which this film is based. Wilson, whose early experiences of US racism informed his work, wrote a cycle of seven plays about Afro-American life and experiences. He insisted that this play, if adapted for cinema, should be directed by an African-American, and Washington both stars and directs.

The play fits into what is almost a genre of African-American life on film, harking back to A Raisin in the Sun (USA 1961), another play adapted first for television then cinema. In fact this film displays its theatrical origins both in structure and settings. It also has lengthy dialogue scenes but the delivery by the fine cast make these compelling and convincing.

The film is set in Pittsburgh in the 1950s and moves onto the early 1960s. These times are an important backdrop to what is essentially a family drama. And the title, as Rose explains to Troy in one powerful scene, is itself a metaphor for the emotions and contradictions dramatised in this absorbing film.

I, Daniel Blake UK/France/Belgium 2016

Screening daily from Friday October 21st until Thursday November 3rd               [excepting Sunday October 30th]

20160418140729-i_danielblake_01

The new film directed by Ken Loach comes garlanded with the Palme d’Or from the Cannes Film Festival. As usual it is scripted by Paul Laverty and has been part-funded by the BBC, the BFI and European companies. The film is set in Newcastle-upon-Tyne among the northern English working class. And the plot revolves round the travails of ordinary working people attempting to cope with an unsympathetic and exploitative state system. Thus it combines situations and themes that have dominated Loach’s films since the seminal Cathy Come Home (1966).

Ken Loach’s long and illustrious career makes him one of the most productive of contemporary British film-makers and the oldest recipient of the Cannes Festival’s premier award. Yet his work has a continuity and repetition that makes all his films easily recognisable. We are told that, as is his wont, the film was shot chronologically. It uses both experienced and non-professional performers. And it relies to a degree on the long shot and the long take, giving it an observational style. Note, despite the clips in the Versus… documentary this film screens in standard widescreen, 1.85:1 and is in colour. It was shot on Kodak film stock but is being distributed on a DCP.

In an interview this week Loach took the BBC and television generally to task for their failings in representing the working class of Britain in any meaningful manner. So his continuing engagement with this world and with the politics of resistance makes the film essential viewing.

Versus: The Life and Films of Ken Loach UK 2016

Screening On 11th June – 6.45 PM : On 12th June – 3.30 PM Wednesday 15th June 8.50 p.m. 

ken-loach-cannes

This new biopic comes out at a propitious time. Ken Loach has won his second Palme’ d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival for I, Daniel Blake. He joins an elect group of filmmakers, Bille August, Emir Kusterica and Shohei Imamura, who have also won this prestigious award twice since its inception in the current form in 1975. The award confirms Loach’s status as one of the most important of contemporary European filmmakers: though one who has been honoured more on the continent than in his home territory.

The documentary has been produced by Loach regular Rebecca O’Brien, scripted by his colleague Paul Laverty, and directed by Louise Osmond. It also includes many of the people who have worked with Loach, including Tony Garnett, whose output at the BBC is also seminal. My main reservation is that Osmond’s previous film, Dark Horse (2015), was made like a typical television documentary and utilised archive and found footage of rather low quality. But its focus was ordinary working people who are the recurring centre of Loach’s own films.

It was shot in 2.35:1 and that ratio does allow some striking shots by cinematographer Roger Chapman. But it also means that the extracts from Loach’s own films have been re-framed to fit this format. This does not do them any favours, in some frames heads are cut off. The footage of Loach working on I, Daniel Blake is in the same ratio. Some of this is interesting, but often it feels like a ‘making of ….’ treatment.

Where the films scores are the interviews with Ken Loach and Tony Garnett. Loach is unassuming but rigorous in his comments. And Tony Garnett is both intelligent and stimulating. We also get a brief interveiw with Nell Dunn [Up the Junction] and recordings of Jim Allen. The latter was an important collaborator and influence on Loach. And there is an excellent comment by Gabriel Byrne on the suppression of the production of Perdition. It would have been good to have more from other important collaborators like Rebecca O’Brien and Paul Laverty.

The documentary is also strong on the frequently myopic and predjudiced treatment of Loach’s film among British critics. As Derek Malcom remarks, he is much more honoured on the continent. Whilst he has won many awards at the Cannes Film Festival, The Berlin Film Festival and even a French César. None of his films has ever been awarded a BAFTA!

Certainly Loach’s film and television output has deserved this. From the pioneering work in the 1960s, notably Cathy Come Home, made for the BBC with Tony Garnett, to the recent series of annual film releases, his work has been among the best and most interesting produced in the UK. And this film does pay due attention to his early work for the BBC. Whatever its limitations this documentary is worth seeing as a deserved retrospective of his contribution.

Cathy come home

Continue reading

45 Years, UK 2015

Continuing until Thursday September 10th.

Berlin

The film garnered Best Actor Awards for both Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtney at the Berlin Film Festival – serious critical prizes. Both are deserved, but it is Rampling’s character Kate who is the centre of this film. She is a skilled actress with an ability to use extremely subtle expressions and movements. The film is a pleasure to watch as we explore the character and situation of Kate and her husband Geoff (Courtney). And they are well supported by a several fine British actors in minor roles. They are preparing for the forty-fifth wedding anniversary party: the unusual anniversary is something we learn about in the course of the film.

The film is beautifully crafted around these performances. The cinematography by Lol Crawley is especially fine. There is a precision in the use of close-ups and two-shots: and well judged use of long shots and long takes, with the occasional slow forward track. The design, sound and editing all ably support this: and visually and aurally [at a second viewing] I was struck by minor but significant detail. A good example is the opening credits with non-simultaneous sound, which acts as a plant for later in the film. Max, the German Shepherd, the settings in the Norfolk Broads, and a piece of piano music by Liszt, all bring resonances to the story.

Director and writer Andrew Haigh has adapted the film from a short story by David Constantine. Apparently he has shifted the focus of the film to Kate. It is beautifully judged. This is a character study and tale with great complexity. It also [consciously I assume] references a British film tradition of denial. There are subtle parallels with the classic Brief Encounter (1945): more recently The Deep Blue Sea (2011).

It is a film of ambiguities, as with the characters. Inattention can mean you miss an important point: and I think you need the big screen and a clear sound system to take in all its aspects. Whilst it is immensely rewarding I suspect that it will generate different responses, depending what experiences and values audiences bring to the film. After a screening I heard the tail-end comment of a discussion in the foyer:

“I’ve come to see a wonderful film with a bunch of cynics!”