Film Review: Quo Vadis, Aida?

Read Time:2 Minute, 36 Second


In July 1995, during the final months of the Bosnian War, Bosnian Serb soldiers massacred 8,000 Bosnian Muslim boys and men in what became known as the Srebrenica Genocide.

The massacre happened on the watch of the international community and the UN, who supposedly were protecting the Bosniak civilians. In Quo Vadis, Aida?’s devastating retelling of the atrocity, Sarajevo-born director Jasmila Zbanic captures the genocidal horror and the absurd international indifference that allowed it to happen.

For much of Quo Vadis, Aida? the titular protagonist (Jasna Djuricic) is stuck in one location, yet she is in constant motion: to where is she marching, indeed. Working as an interpreter for the UN in their self-declared ‘safe zone’ of the town of Srebrenica, we first meet Aida translating for UNPROFOR Colonel Karremans (Johan Heldenbergh) and the mayor of the besieged town. While the latter is beside himself with desperation, Karremans calmly reassures him that if the Serbs do not end their siege of Srebrenica, the UN will send in airstrikes.

Anyone familiar with the history of the massacre will already know that no airstrikes came. Historical context is unnecessary, however, to read the writing on the wall as Karremans blithely reassures the stricken mayor. His assurances are delivered with a naivety that is legible to everyone in the room except for him. Later, in a negotiation with Serb General Mladić, Karremans’ absurd trust that he can be safely entrusted with people who days earlier he displaced is horrifying: Karremans’ impressed little smile and creased eyes at Mladić’s honeyed promises are a tragic and infuriating summation of the UN’s ineffectiveness in the face of this humanitarian crisis.

There’s a frustrated rage at organisational indifference seething throughout the film. Aida, trapped in the UN base outside Srebrenica along with several hundred Bosniaks and thousands more outside – her family among them – spends the film fighting against a tide of bureaucratic inertia that will ultimately swallow them all. Even Karremans and his subordinate, Major Franken (Raymond Thiry) aren’t safe; it becomes obvious that their displays of apparent disinterest in the safety of their charges are coping mechanisms for a bureaucratic apathy further up the command chain that has left them with no information, no supplies and no plan.

Zbanic resists cutting away to UN higher-ups making the decisions, keeping us as powerless and in the dark as her subjects. Meanwhile, cinematographer Christine A. Maier keeps her camera close to the characters, in sync with Aida’s increasingly frantic movement around the base. The lurching motion of the camera evokes an encroaching sense of horror, creating an ironic visual momentum juxtaposed against the inevitable and immovable conclusion.

As a fictionalised account of what was once described as the worst European genocide in the post-war period, Quo Vadis, Aida? is wrenching and vital in its bitter grief. As a study of political and diplomatic inertia in the face of contemporary global human tragedies, it could not be more urgent.

Quo Vadis, Aida? is available to stream now on Curzon Home Cinema.

Christopher Machell

Film Review: Dear Comrades!

Read Time:2 Minute, 27 Second


On 2 June 1962, during a protest about rising food prices and poor working conditions, Soviet soldiers opened fire on civilians in what would become known as the ‘Novocherkassk massacre’, officially killing 26 but in reality closer to 90 people. Veteran Russian director Andrei Konchalovskiy tackles the atrocity in this tense, stark and uncompromising drama.

“We need Stalin. We’re not going to make it without him”. So says diehard apparatchik and local council leader, Lyuda (Yuliya Vysotskaya) at a moment when one might have expected her to finally let go her zealotry for the leader that embodied the evils and privations of Soviet Russia. After the horrors that she recently witnessed and the profound personal cost to her at the hands of Soviet soldiers and the KGB, still she clings to her belief that a USSR under Stalin would be better.

This is Khrushchev’s adulterated USSR, a revolution stalled by poor leadership; under Stalin “we’d already be living under Communism”. Never mind that the state bureaucracy and paranoia wrought on her were to a large extent Stalinist creations, that comparable crimes were committed under Stalin, or that the food price hikes that instigated the protest are invariably a result of agricultural and economic policies rooted in Stalinism; her refrain – under Stalin things would be better – seems unshakeable.

The massacre, coming at around halfway through the film, is unsentimental, harrowing, and darkly ironic. As the factory workers assemble outside the manager’s office, both the council and the factory bosses fall into disarray, bickering over whose fault it is that a strike is even conceivable in a socialist utopia. As the people are massacred, their leaders make their escape, like rats, through the innards of the building.

Cinematographer Andrey Naydenov’s favouring of long and wide-angle lenses distorts spaces, flattening and curving interiors that elicits a sense of panopticonic surveillance, while the 3:4 frame defies classic Soviet cinematic conventions by privileging individuals over groups. When Lyuda’s daughter goes missing after the massacre, suddenly the distant cameras become more intimate and stifling, squashing us in alongside her and her sympathetic KGB friend as they try to track Svetka (Yuliya Burova) down.

In the film’s first half, Svetka and Lyuda are at growing odds. Lyuda pines for an imagined utopia under Stalin; her daughter is free of that particular fantasy, but is instead brainwashed by the promise of a new dawn under Khrushchev. Yet neither’s faith in their systems of rule can prevent Svetka’s disappearance; their cognitive rift mestastising into a generational one. Trauma is handed down from parent to child, yet neither seems capable of acknowledging the other’s. Dear Comrades! works well as an historical drama, a political satire and even a cold-war thriller. It’s brilliance, however, lies in its study of the profound cognitive dissonance that comes of all totalitarian systems.

Dear Comrades! is available now on Curzon Home Cinema.

Christopher Machell

Film Review: Pieces of a Woman

Read Time:2 Minute, 39 Second


Cinema’s unique facility to connect image, sound and narrative gives it a special power: there is not a medium that can portray the vast spectrum of emotional experience with the immediacy that films can. Perhaps this is why cinematic trauma has such visceral capacity to shock us.

For one scene, and one scene only, Hungarian filmmaker Kornél Mundruczó’s latest effort taps that capacity profoundly. Taking that scene as a short film in its own right, it is masterful, aesthetically, intellectually and emotionally. Early in the film, cinematographer Benjamin Loeb’s camera tracks couple Martha and Sean (Shia LaBeouf and Vanessa Kirby), and midwife Eva (Molly Parker) in an excruciating single shot that takes us through Martha’s brief and tragic labour.

The sequence is uncompromising, frightening and unspeakably heartbreaking in its portrayal of something that can barely be contemplated. Its subject matter deserves a trigger warning – artistic value aside – anyone who has experienced a similar trauma should consider this before viewing. The scene’s brilliance lies in its near-wordless revealing of the nuances of Martha and Sean’s relationship, not to mention the silent panic of Eva as the birth starts to go wrong. The vulnerability of all three figures is laid bare, just as the fragility of life is in all senses of the word.

So what happened, then, for the film to transform so badly and so quickly into such tacky cynicism? The effectiveness of the labour scene is such that it takes a while to notice the dip, especially as Loeb’s cinematography remains as skilful as in the first act. Nevertheless, as recovering alcoholic Sean relapses, Martha slips into depression, and both are henpecked by Martha’s nagging mother (a criminally wasted Ellen Burstyn), sensitivity and empathy are replaced by nastiness and sensationalist cruelty.

In the midst of his despair, is it really necessary for Sean to nearly rape his wife, then two scenes later be seen to be having an affair? And for that affair to be with the lawyer prosecuting Eva for negligence, and for that lawyer to be an old family friend of Martha’s? These soap opera shenanigans are a far cry from Pieces of a Woman’s earlier humanity. It should be noted, too, that it’s hard for the recent revelations about LaBeouf not to colour our reading of his performance.

The film continues to mistake endless flat misery for emotional depth. And for something called Pieces of a Woman, it seems remarkably uninterested in any part of her interiority beyond gloomily looking into the middle distance. It’s also completely uninterested in Eva’s trial, only bringing her back at the end in service of an artificial and questionable redemption for Martha.

There are glimmers of a more complex, empathetic film here: the main cast do fine work with what they’ve got and the film’s apparent detachment from its characters mirrors the empty indifference that often characterises depression. But any potential for complexity is undone by the film’s tacky reveals, mawkish speechifying and its often spiteful approach to its own characters. Perhaps the film’s title refers to itself: pieces of a film. It’s a shame they weren’t arranged differently.

Christopher Machell

Film Review: Second Spring

Read Time:2 Minute, 35 Second


Degenerating health and the nearing horizon of mortality are handled sensitively in director Andy Kelleher’s lyrical debut fiction feature. Second Spring is a film about endurance and acceptance, tackling its subject matter with quiet poise where a lesser film might have fallen to mawkish sentiment.

Archaeologist Kathy Deane, (Cathy Naden) is passionate, intelligent and attractive, eagerly pursuing Nick (Jerry Killick), drawn to his knackered old beamer and soft confidence after she spots him on the university campus where she lectures. Her open marriage with Tim (Matthew Jure) is essentially loveless but functional. As she puts it, they were never really in love, but they “do like each other”.

There is something niggling at the back of this complex picture, however, a seed of anxiety watered by her short temper with Tim, a suddenly-awakened libido and a memory lapse in the middle of a lecture. That unease is subtly captured by Jonas Mortensen’s tactile cinematography, captured on a mixture of grainy 16 and 35mm (notable, rather sadly, for being the last ever film to be shot of Fujifilm) in a slightly boxy 1.66:1 aspect ratio.

The colour of such lovely film stock positively hums: we open on the intense primary yellow of a field of rapeseed, transitioning to the green of the campus lawn and finally to the red of the lecture theatre. Only Kathy is shot in grey, framed by the concrete of a building as if the vitality of the world is about to be kept just out of reach.

In these early scenes, Mortensen’s camera hangs back in medium shots, observing Kathy from the perspective of Nick as she gazes at him, or as a student as she falters at her lecture. Naden’s performance is restrained and contemplative; her thoughts remain her own while her sense of self is tied to her private agency. As Kathy’s behaviour becomes more unusual – rude, ignorant, impulsive – we’re left to grasp at explanations as Tim and friend Trish (Indra Ové) try to convince Kathy to see a doctor as she resists them in her denial.

Halfway through the film she finally gets her diagnosis: a rare form of dementia called frontotemporal degeneration which affects sex drive, empathy and other higher functions. Following her appointment, Kathy sits in shock in her garden while Peter Zummo’s romantic score falls into discordance. It’s a moment more akin to body horror than a grounded drama, yet that is exactly what this is: Kathy is losing control of her self, and her body – emphasised in key moments throughout the film – as horribly as any invasive alien monster.

A weekend trip to the country with Nick brings things to a head, offering tense resolutions among the bucolic poesy, with Kathy insulting Nick and becoming unduly concerned with the possible construction of an airport that will wreck the local estuary – but with a tenacity that resists passive defeat. Second Spring’s contemplative tone is perfectly suited to its humane study of illness, ignoring easy narrative resolutions to instead seek imperfect but complex emotional acceptance.

Christopher Machell

Film Review: Sing Me a Song

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Eight-year-old Peyangki lives in Bhutan, in one of the of the remotest villages in the world. As he trains diligently to become a Buddhist monk, the imminent arrival of electricity in the village and a proper road to the city promises progress and anxiety in equal measure.

Ten years later, Peyangki is now eighteen and electricity has arrived, bringing with it the connection and distraction of smartphones. Much of this documentary sequel to to Thomas Balmès’ 2013 film Happiness is beautiful and humane, but is more often simplistic and questionable in its exploration of the impact of technology on a traditional society.

There’s no question that Balmès’ film is at once gorgeous and haunting, capturing both the sublimity of the Bhutanese mountain ranges and the grimy neon of its cities with equal force. The way he connects the people to their landscape is visceral: the fabric of Peyangki’s robes is positively tactile, while the wind that whips through his villagers tells of generations of lives lived hard with the landscape. Sing Me a Song is at its best as an aesthetic experience over a straightforward factual one.

But therein lies its problem. So enamoured is Balmès’ film in the sublime purity of this village untouched by western progress that it indulges in questionable tropes that have their roots in Orientalist and noble-savage discourses. The first shot after the ten-year time jump starts on one young monk praying, slowly pulling back on a line of them, all of whom are singing while simultaneously glued to their phones. Variations on this shot are repeated throughout the film, usually accompanied with sinister music. Accordingly, Sing Me a Song’s engagement with the arrival of electronic communication in the monks’ lives rarely rises above the level of moralistic hand-wringing.

Sing Me a Song revels in the untouched beauty of Peyangki’s village and laments its corruption by western models of progress. But it misses the irony that its lamentation derives, too, from western assumptions about the mysticism of the far east. Nevertheless, its moments of emotional authenticity, though wedged in between the film’s pearl-clutching, do retrieve Sing Me a Song from exclusive stereotyping.

The main thread in the latter half of the film has Peyangki pursue a girl living in the capital of Thimphu at the expense of his studies, only to find when he gets there that all is not as promised. His quiet devastation as he sits sulkily beside her is recognisable to anyone who remembers having their adolescent heart broken, as is the brutal realisation that he really has ballsed things up quite spectacularly. In these moments, Sing Me a Song effortlessly captures the common humanity of life’s mundane experiences.

It’s such a shame, then, that it just as effortlessly undoes its own observations by not understanding Peyangki’s troubles as a complex person in a specific cultural context. Instead, Sing Me a Song transforms him into an avatar for us as westerners to transpose our anxieties about the influence of phones and violent video games on our own lives.

Christopher Machell

Film Review: Soul

Read Time:2 Minute, 44 Second


In his fourth Pixar feature, director Pete Docter grapples with matters of life and death to interrogate definitions of earthly success. Soul is certainly head and shoulders above the studio’s directionless last effort, Onward, but its lofty aspirations never reach the transcendence of top-tier Pixar.

Joe (Jamie Foxx) is an aspiring jazz musician, stuck teaching music to apathetic high schoolers. His mother, Libba (Phylicia Rashad), laments what she sees as her son’s pipe dream, but Joe knows he was born to play. On the day he finally gets his big break – an offer to play with jazz legend Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) – comic tragedy befalls Joe, meeting his end at the bottom of an open manhole. If he ever wants to get back to life, he’s going to have to rethink what he wants to get out of it.

Soul is notable for finally being the first Pixar film to feature a black lead (and majority black cast), while its jazz theme was informed by the work of Herbie Hancock and Terri Lyne Carrington. The film’s opening sequence is the most visually abstract the studio has ever dared to go, while the afterlife scenes were influenced as much by the sight of jazz as the sound. It goes without saying that the animation and production standards are as high as ever. As a purely aesthetic experience, Soul is simply gorgeous.

What lets the film down somewhat is an issue that has dogged much of the studio’s recent middling efforts, namely an inert narrative and a wishy-washy message that ultimately doesn’t have the courage of its own convictions. Death is a Pixar thematic mainstay, the studio seemingly having sharpened the art of tear-jerking to razor-sharp precision. But here, the theme feels surprisingly lightweight with few lasting consequences. The Dali-esque sea of lost souls – in which the misshapen spirits of people who have lost their passion roam an endless void – looks incredible, but has little consequence and as a result, not much emotional heft.

The ultimate lesson that Joe needs to learn – that the attainment of one single goal can’t define a ‘good’ life and is unlikely to bring fulfilment – is pretty predictable from the start. The consequence of this is we spend the film waiting for Joe to catch up rather than coming along with him on the journey. It’s also harder to connect to him because he has so few human connections himself. There’s some attempt to build a strained relationship with his mother, but as with many Pixar films, she’s relegated to the margins and doesn’t get to be part of the film’s core emotional journey. Tina Fey is great as belligerent new soul ’22’, occupying much of the film in the body of the cat, but she’s fundamentally a foil to Joe’s arc.

What this all adds up to is a gorgeous, very enjoyable and somewhat well-intentioned effort. Soul is a far cry from the insipid Onward or the diminishing returns of the Cars series, and its well worth the time of anyone looking for a bit of unchallenging cinematic pleasure. Nevertheless, though it may aspire to the likes of Inside Out or Coco, Soul never quite reaches their heights.

Christopher Machell

Film Review: Wonder Woman 1984

Read Time:3 Minute, 6 Second


It’s nearly seventy years after Diana of Themyscira aka Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) saved the world from the ravages of war. Now, among the day-glo leotards and crisp white leg warmers of the 1980s, her biggest fight is the conflict between her desires and her duty.

Remember when DC’s answer to the colour and fun of Marvel’s Avengers et al was relentless grim-darkness and an adolescent approach to ‘mature’ storytelling? When the colour palettes of Man of Steel and Batman v Superman ran the full spectrum from miserable gunmetal grey to muddy brown sludge? Praise the gods, then, for this new crop of DC pictures, fully embracing the vibrancy, the silliness, and my goodness the fun of their source material.

Returning to the director’s chair after her respectable 2017 entry, Patty Jenkins imbues the world of her WW84 with startling colour – both visual and tonal. In the first film, Jenkins paid light homage to the Richard Donner Superman films of the 1970s and 80s, but her mall sequence – in which Diana is introduced into the world of 1984 – could have been lifted straight from them.

There’s such simple delight in seeing a hero do what they used to be known for: foiling a small time robbery by swinging around with a great big grin on her face. It’s goofy, it’s fun, and it’s squarely aimed at a family audience. In short, it’s what films based on children’s comics should be at their core and it feels like something we’ve been missing for some time. Returning, too, from the first film is Chris Pine’s dreamy pilot Steve, brought into the present through a means too fun to spoil here: but oh, boy, is it neat.

The natural chemistry that the pair had in Wonder Woman 2017 is just as effervescent here, deepened by Diana’s pain at having lost him for all these years. Steve’s return also hearkens the film’s central conflict which, like the rest of the adventure, treads that fine line between clarity and complexity. The pull between what she wants and her duty to the rest of the world is an organic part of the story, weaved throughout the screenplay; the result is real emotional investment and a satisfying, even thrilling payoff.

Less successful is the subplot with Diana’s new friend, Minerva (Kristen Wiig). Wiig herself is excellent, channelling Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman as she transforms from shy geologist to prowling apex predator. Ultimately, however, Jenkins’ Geoff Johns and Dave Callaham’s screenplay falls back on the ‘nerd who got too much power and became evil’ trope that we’ve seen a dozen tiresome times before, resulting in a very unsatisfying, dramatically weightless third-act clash with Diana.

Along with Diana’s relationship with Steve, all the film needs is the conflict with Pedro Pascal’s Maxwell Lord. He’s a huckster addicted to promising the earth to his credulous followers and now in possession of a magical, wish-granting stone, actually able to do it. If it wasn’t obvious enough already, one character actually says out loud that this is a monkey’s paw situation, speaking to both the consumerism of the 1980s and the catastrophic consumption of our own age.

There are lines uttered, too, about the truth always winning over cheaters, which though clunky do result in a climax that is for once resolved in a manner other than by punching things. WW84 is far from perfect: its length and fumbling of Minerva’s arc are chief among its sins, but equally there are no denying its simple, vibrant charms. Much like Christopher Reeves as Superman, Gal Gadot simply is Wonder Woman – and this latest entry is undoubtedly her most fun, spectacular and charming yet.

Christopher Machell

The best of 2020: Our films of the year

Read Time:8 Minute, 43 Second

In last year’s top ten list, we remarked on how streaming had “truly arrived” as a contender to traditional cinema exhibition. We had known for some time that cinema was experiencing a paradigm shift, but we couldn’t possibly have known just how profoundly and rapidly it would change in the following twelve months.

And what a long twelves months it has been. As low-paid, precariously-employed cinema workers have faced even greater hardship on furlough or redundancy, cinephiles lament the end of the theatrical experience, and the rest are caught between supporting struggling cinemas and acting responsibly in the midst of a health crisis.

If there is a silver lining to be had among these dreary clouds, it’s that for once we have had a year in cinema not dominated by studio tentpoles. Christopher Nolan’s Tenet was the notable exception to a slate of blockbusters that found themselves postponed to 2021 or shifted to streaming services.

The space they have left has given distributors, filmmakers and audiences room to explore more than the annual round of sequels and reboots, even if that space has been our living rooms. In what other year would we have been treated to five (five!) Steve McQueen films – three of which made our top twenty – or a straight-to-streaming genre film that catches the zeitgeist as precisely as Rob Savage’s Host?

These examples, and the list below, are reasons to hope: filmmakers will continue to find innovative ways to make films; film-lovers will continue to find them. Perhaps this reboot of the way we engage with cinema will even herald a greater diversity of film and filmmaker in both the arthouse and the mainstream. As lovers of cinema, let’s make sure that we continue to support it.

N.B. As ever, only entries that had their world premiere this year were eligible for our FOTY list.

10. I’m Thinking of Ending Things (dir. Charlie Kaufman)

The film’s title is a pondering refrain, repeated throughout whilst she ruminates on the pros and cons, but could the ‘ending’ of which Jessie Buckley’s character speaks be something altogether more serious, and final? I’m Thinking of Ending Things is far more than a will-they, won’t-they, let’s-embarrass-the-son-in-front-of-his-parents couples dramedy, and the quirky comedic elements which litter most of Kaufman’s writings are almost entirely absent here. It is a considerably more sinister, cynical work which becomes increasingly claustrophobic as the metaphysical walls close in. Read the full review. Matthew Anderson

9. Host (dir. Rob Savage)

Online horror platform Shudder has proven something of a hit in 2020. As well as making loads of classic movies available to stream, they’ve produced one of the year’s most inventive and ultra-timely features, Host, a lockdown séance film shot almost entirely over Zoom. Taut and imaginative, this widely and justly celebrated found-footage ghost story is just under an hour of smart characterisation, formal ingenuity, and surprisingly effective scares. Perhaps its greatest asset, however, is the clever use of technology – laptop cameras, smartphone filters, background loops – which transcends gimmickry to provide several of this year’s most creepily original moments. Read the full review. Thomas Alexander

8. The Forty-Year-Old Version (dir. Radha Blank)

Who said modern comedies look boring? Radha Blank’s black and white, semi-autobiographical Forty-Year-Old Version is as luminous and vital as they come. Channelling Woody Allen’s 1970s oeuvre as well as Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It, Blank’s study of the contemporary New York theatre scene is as moving as it is brilliantly witty and self-effacing. On race and the politics of selling out, Blank is as scathing as she is pragmatic; her moral and artistic victories are triumphant. Christopher Machell

=6. Nomadland (dir. Chloé Zhao)

Nomadland’s poetic realism is heightened by Joshua James Richards’ stunning cinematography and production design providing a vitality in the desert with its temporary inhabitants: searing scenes of natural beauty contrasting with the mundanity of factory work. Never patronising and avoiding polemic, Zhao tactfully manages to explore the world of the low paid and homeless, whilst offering compassionate insight into the lives of the people who make up our service economy. Nomadland, with its beautiful simplicity and wonderful performances, manages to be an elegant, profoundly moving film which shows the real value of living, rather than just surviving. Read the full review. Zoe Margolis

=6. Shirley (dir. Josephine Decker)

Not one to play to type or genre, Decker has crafted a delirious, off-kilter, wickedly dark biopic where, perhaps, lifting the lid, or rather peering tentatively into the mind, of the subject is not the principal objective. But rather this is a much broader examination of the creative process, of obsession, jealousy, paranoia – and the toll these all take on a high-functioning, but troubled psyche. Though the slow, blurry-edged stupor of Shirley will not be to everyone’s tastes, it cannot be denied that it examines its subject with feverish, dreamlike fluidity rather than rigid biography. That, and Moss’ enthralling lead performance, are Shirley’s chief accomplishments. Read the full review. MA

5. Never Rarely Sometimes Always (dir. Eliza Hittman)

To call the film understated is itself almost an understatement. Never Rarely Sometimes Always wears its lo-fi indie credentials front and centre, finding a realism in the two taciturn teenagers that feels largely authentic. At times, it’s hard not to wonder if a little more dialogue, a little more development of Autumn’s character or her relationships wouldn’t have provided some needed depth to the overall story. Yet, since this is a film determined not to sensationalise, desperate to show the everyday quality of what its two girls have to go through, it’s also an editorial decision that gives back what it takes away. Tom Duggins

4. Da 5 Bloods (dir. Spike Lee)

In the context of the #BlackLivesMatter protests, Da 5 Bloods feels at once astonishingly prescient and nuanced, weaving together the national trauma of the war that America never got over with the contemporary rot of modern US society. The film’s broad strokes of comedy – in the first act at least – play like a dad-bod rendition of Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Yet beneath the quartet’s half-cut reminiscing lies a tremendous, dormant pain – no more so realised than in Delroy Lindo’s feverish performance as the MAGA hat-wearing Paul.

As Paul’s PTSD-induced psychosis grips him in the third act, the expansion of the frame up and out is as if the past and the present have been fused together; the apparent psychological contradiction of his support for Trump as a black veteran is at last resolved through the exhumation of long-denied trauma. Read the full review. CM

3. Mangrove (dir. Steve McQueen)

Taking a sledgehammer to institutionalised racism with the clarity of purpose and skill of a master craftsman, Steve McQueen is once again at the very top of his game, and indeed his profession, with Mangrove. Constituting just one instalment of the five-part Small Axe series, this film is a towering achievement.

From its opening frames, the film’s rich, tangible aesthetic is one that we want to reach out and touch, to immerse ourselves in. Shot on 35mm film by Shabier Kirchner – who worked on each of the Small Axe projects in various mediums – Mangrove’s granular visual texture is reinforced by Lisa Duncan’s excellent period costumes (turtlenecks and leather jackets-a-plenty) and Helen Scott’s stellar work on the production design. Read the full review. MA

2. Possessor (dir. Brandon Cronenberg)

Possessor’s premise will be familiar both to genre fans and mainstream audiences. The MatrixInception and to a lesser extent, the Blade Runner films have obvious narrative similarities, but the legendary R.W. Fassbinder’s brief dalliance with sci fi – World on a Wire – is a far closer approximation of the aesthetic and overall tone of Possessor. But it’s Brandon’s dad’s eXistenZ that is surely the most important – and potent – ingredient in Cronenberg Jr.’s cinematic broth.

It’s a heady mixture of genre and arthouse, and pays dividends. The cold-war greys and brutalist surfaces of the interior locations are at constant odds with their fleshy occupants, while Cronenberg’s near-ubiquitous use of shots in close up with long lenses flatten out cavernous space and elicit a subcutaneous sense of paranoia and surveillance. Read the full review. CM

1. Lovers Rock (dir. Steve McQueen)

Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology has been the most exciting and politically engaged piece of television since Alan Bleasdale’s Boys from the Blackstuff. Lovers Rock is the beating heart of the piece. An immersive and sexy recreation of a West London house party in the eighties, where the music genre that gives the film its title – a romantic sex-driven form of reggae – soaks through the walls and intoxicates the dancers and the night. There are shadows lurking – sexual predation, racism, disapproving parents – but when the music just takes you, don’t play silly games. Just go with it. Read the full review. John Bleasdale

Honourable mentions

11. Wolfwalkers (dir. Tomm Moore, Ross Stewart)

12. Red, White and Blue (dir. Steve McQueen)

=13. After Love (dir. Aleem Khan)

=13. Boys State (dir. Amanda McBain, Jesse Moss)

=13. Collective (dir. Alexander Nanau)

=13. His House (dir. Remi Weekes)

=13. The Invisible Man (dir. Leigh Whannell)

=18. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets (dirs. Bill Ross IV, Turner Ross)

=18. Disclosure (dir. Sam Feder)

=18. The Fight (dir. Eli B. Depres, Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg)

=18. Mank (dir. David Fincher)

=18. The Painter and the Thief (dir. Benjamin Ree)

=18. Tenet (dir. Christopher Nolan)

24. Time (dir. Garrett Bradley)

25. Dick Johnson Is Dead (dir. Kirsten Johnson)

Film Review: The Mole Agent

Read Time:2 Minute, 33 Second


The fear of old age’s erosion of our faculties, our agency and our relevance is a potent, almost paralysing one: the way we perceive and treat our elders invariably reveals something about ourselves. In her charming and off-kilter documentary The Mole Agent, Chilean director Maite Alberdi confronts that fear literally through the eyes of her subject.

The opening third of Alberdi’s film suggests a far different experience than the one it eventually becomes. Rómulo Aitken runs a private detective agency, specialising in catching care homes who are abusing their residents. His method is to plant a ‘mole’ in the home, equipped with spying gadgets and a smartphone and reporting on anything untoward that may be happening.

Aitken has been hired by a woman who suspects her elderly mother may be being abused, and so, looking for the eponymous mole agent, puts out an ad for men in their 80s. Cue plenty of funny but somewhat patronising footage of elderly applicants struggling to use smartphones. This stage of the film feels more like a Channel 4 documentary with a tacky name than a serious examination of elder abuse.

Indeed, the early scenes suggest that some very iffy ethics are at play, borne of a conceit not entirely thought through. We learn that the deception goes beyond the mole with a hidden camera: there’s also a phoney documentary set up in the home in order for Alberdi to capture footage beyond that which is shot by newly-hired mole Sergio. Invariably, there’s a question of how ‘real’ any of this scenario is – it even feels conceivable at times (though false) that the film could be an elaborate and grossly immoral stunt to ease Sergio into living in the care home himself.

Soon, however, The Mole Agent transforms into something else – a far more contemplative and altogether humane account of life in a Chilean care home. Sergio is one of very few men in the home, and he soon has a cadre of swooning women. Faultlessly charming and gentlemanly, he lets his most passionate admirer down gently, telling her that he still isn’t over the death of his beloved wife.

This scene, coming at around the halfway point, reveals what The Mole Agent is really about: a man coming to the end of his life searching for new purpose and place in the world. Though he is there under false pretences, the connections he makes are real. So to is his understanding of and empathy with the residents who have been largely abandoned by their relatives.

The premise of searching for abuse is quickly abandoned: it’s clear that Sergio’s target is being well looked after, but she needs something that no care home can provide. His final report to Aitken concludes that if the residents suffer, it is at the hands of their loved ones who have forgotten them, and a society that has no further use for them. Sergio’s outlook is hopeful, his indictment on the families who abandon their elders is less so.

Christopher Machell

Film Review: Mank

Read Time:2 Minute, 53 Second


“You cannot capture a man’s entire life in two hours. All you can hope is to leave the impression of one.” So claims screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz on the circular narrative of his magnum opus. In a little over the two-hour mark, David Fincher’s luscious, elliptical and elusive Mank – from a script by his late father – may not capture the truth of its subject’s life, but it certainly does leave the impression of it.

Mank is first and foremost a love-letter to old Hollywood, shot in luminous black-and-white digital (2.20:1) complete with digital cigarette burns. Its mono sound even seems to have been mixed to give the impression of being projected in a cavernous film theatre (one wonders how the effect would play in an actual cinema instead of the way most audiences will see it, at home). And at the heart of Mank, there is a paradox.

The film tells one of the most famous tinseltown fables – that the anti-hero of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane was based on newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst. It not only welcomes a decent knowledge of Hollywood history: it positively requires it. The paradox is that, in its largely ahistorical telling of the fable, the more you know about the real story (Mankiewicz probably didn’t write the lion’s share of Kane and he certainly wasn’t a socialist) the more cognitively dissonant the narrative becomes for that portion of the audience know their history – and to whom Mank will invariably appeal the most.

Still, Quentin Tarantino got away with rewriting another myth of the dream factory in Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood, so why shouldn’t Fincher? Mank is an embellished story about an industry whose entire raison d’etre is in telling embellished stories: there is a richly-textured irony in its knowing artifice, like an ouroboros snake, eating itself in time to a Bernard Herman-esque score. If this all sounds a little too self-indulgent even for Hollywood in the midst of awards seasons, then fear not. Mank is also and primarily a gorgeous, entertaining and occasionally even captivating motion picture.

Much has been made of Oldman’s performance and it is indeed cracking stuff. His Mank is oddly reminiscent, in his largely supine delivery, of his turn as Churchill, but more laconic, less prosthetic and far more charming. But it’s Amanda Seyfried who steals the show, leaving a lasting impression of Marion Davies despite only a handful of scenes, while Charles Dance looms as only Charles Dance can as Hearst. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score sounds as if it’s been plucked straight from a classic noir or melodrama, and along with the beautiful costuming by Trish Summerville, ring true as the most authentic elements of the film.

Mank‘s temporal shifts sometimes feel uneven and threaten to unbalance moments of tension and catharsis. And though Mank’s alcoholism, gambling and ‘silly platonic affairs’ (as his long-suffering wife, Sara – played by an underutilised Tuppence Middleton – puts it) give the texture of depth, there’s very little real dimension to the Jack and David’s Mankiewicz.

The film conjures a man who is fundamentally, simplistically decent, while his demons only intrude on his integrity in the most superficial ways. Yet, in the end, Mank is not about capturing the totality of a person, but leaving an impression of one, and in that it is certainly successful.

Christopher Machell

Film Review: Host

Read Time:2 Minute, 19 Second


Following its debut on Shudder earlier this year, Rob Savage’s sensational tech-horror hit gets a much-deserved wide release. Conceived, written, shot and released all in the early months of the Covid crisis and taking place entirely on a Zoom call, Host is about as contemporary – and chilling – as it gets.

In the midst of lockdown, five friends set up a Zoom call to host an online seance, led by medium Seylan (Seylan Baxter). But when Jemma (Jemma Moore), concocts a story about the spirit of a dead friend, she unwittingly invites in a demonic presence able to move between the homes of each participant on the call.

Host’s basic conceit is hardly original – Aneesh Chaganty’s 2018 Searching did wonders for the thriller genre with a similar idea, and as far back as 2014, Levan Gabriadze was plumbing the depths of desktop horror to comparable highs with Unfriended. What Host has over its forebears is of course its capture of the zeitgeist, right down to its use of Zoom video calling – a vertiginously uncanny replication of Zoom’s overnight transformation from obscure conferencing platform to fundamental medium of social interaction.

This is to discuss Host in the abstract – as some artefact, a cultural response to the pandemic to which future film historians can point as a key text in contemporary understandings of the social moment. It’s just as well, then, that it’s an absolute corker of a picture, too: a lean, smart and efficient animal of a horror picture. At just 56 minutes, there’s not an ounce of fat on this beast.

It’s a popular but lazy truism, easily refuted, that found-footage is the lowest form of horror. This latest desktop formulation of the subgenre is further proof of found-footage’s potential for originality. Host’s peculiar strengths lie not only in the astonishing tightness of its writing and banal believability of its performances, but also in its imaginative use of space and in the conflation between the virtual and physical realms.

It’s implied that the evil spirit can only affect the space captured within the frame of the webcam – a detail that none of the characters seem to pick up on in their terror. Meanwhile, a sequence, set up early with one character’s artificial background has a brilliant, disorienting payoff – a banal detail of contemporary video conferencing twisted into the realm of the uncanny.

Host isn’t perfect. Invariably there are times where it falls into the old trap of contriving to make its characters keep hold of their cameras in situations when no rational person would possibly do so. Still, among all Host’s invention, its masterful pacing and surprisingly empathetic characters, it’s easy to forgive a few clichés of the genre.

Christopher Machell

Film Review: County Lines

Read Time:2 Minute, 28 Second


Based on the ‘county lines’ crisis whereby gangs use children to smuggle drugs from large cities to smaller towns, writer-director Henry Blake’s feature debut is a harsh, bleak and moving slice of social realism.

Based on Blake’s short of the same name, County Lines follows the travails of 14-year-old Tyler (a phenomenal Conrad Khan), drawn in and exploited by the serpent-like Simon (Harris Dickinson) into becoming a drug mule, ferrying product from London to an unnamed seaside town on the south coast. As he is gradually seduced, the problems Tyler faces at home and at his Pupil Referral Unit are exacerbated.

Blake’s choice to open the film on PRU mentor Bex (Carlyss Peer) explaining to Tyler that he is the ‘acceptable loss’ in the gang’s business model is an interesting one, setting up a tragic inevitability to the subsequent ‘six months ago’ flashback that forms most of the film’s first half. As we look on at Tyler’s passive face, defiantly staring at his phone, we’re made to wait to find out whether or not Bex’s words are falling on deaf ears.

Cinematographer Sverre Sørdal frequently keeps his camera locked down, surveilling characters in wide shots and dividing interiors into uncomfortably severed spaces obscured in shadow and grubby, mean surfaces. Meanwhile, James Pickering’s score and the film’s sound design work to create a sparse, largely diegetic soundscape; sheets of silence shattered by eruptions of violence.

At the film’s halfway point, we replay the first scene, this time as the camera fixes on Bex, humanising the disembodied institutional voice just at the point in the narrative when the consequences of Tyler’s path are about to become extremely embodied indeed.

Aside from the obvious narrative and dramatic impact of the replayed scene, the way that Blake taking a device as routine and dull as shot-reverse-shot and transforms it into riveting reveals something crucial about his filmmaking in the that way he captures and crafts the tragic in the banal.

Indeed, part of the tragedy of County Lines is in the way the film feels like a case study of mundane poverty, that this story is being repeated across London and in every major city in the country. The pain is not in its uniqueness, but in its crushing and avoidable familiarity.

Performances across the board are top drawer. Khan finds Tyler’s delicacy and vulnerability somewhere among his downward glances, tearful scowls and frantic, shocking moments of violence. But it’s perhaps his mother, Toni (a devastating Ashley Madekwe) who is the real heart of the film – marginalised in some respects as the narrative focuses itself on Tyler – struggling to keep her family together while battling with the demons of her own past. That sense of the past, too, is understated but important, evoking both intergenerational community and the endemic social problems that define so much of the cultural fabric of urban and suburban life.

Christopher Machell

Film Review: Possessor

Read Time:2 Minute, 25 Second


His first film since his debut Antiviral back in 2012, writer and director Brandon Cronenberg brings us a delirious, disorienting psycho-science fiction. An uneasy and messy union of genre and arthouse, Possessor disturbs, thrills and eludes us in equal measure.

Opening on a brief, razor-sharp montage of needles, wounds and bodily penetration, we’re jolted into relatively stable reality, as we watch Holly (Gabrielle Graham) – the woman whom we just witnessed stabbing her own head with a needle – make her way to a swanky party. Time and space are out of joint – a flowing tap runs backwards and in staccato – are we witnessing reality or a buggy simulation?

Things certainly feel pretty real when she violently stabs to death one of the other party goers, before being gunned down by the police. The answer, evidently, is somewhere in between: Holly was real – a hapless host hijacked by Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough), manipulating her like an avatar in a virtual reality game. We learn that Tasya works for a shady assassination company, apparently specialising in corporate hits for rival companies.

The premise will be familiar both to genre fans and mainstream audiences. The Matrix, Inception and to a lesser extent, the Blade Runner films have obvious narrative similarities, but the legendary R.W. Fassbinder’s brief dalliance with sci fi – World on a Wire – is a far closer approximation of the aesthetic and overall tone of Possessor. Josef Rusnak’s largely-forgotten The Thirteenth Floor has some thematic crossover, too, but it’s Brandon’s dad’s eXistenZ that is surely the most important – and potent – ingredient in Cronenburg Jr.’s cinematic broth. There’s a touch, too, of Persona in there – this film’s title surely being a play on Ingmar Bergman’s film.

It’s a heady mixture of genre and arthouse, and pays dividends. The cold-war greys and brutalist surfaces of the interior locations are at constant odds with their fleshy occupants, while Cronenburg’s near-ubiquitous use of shots in close up with long lenses flatten out cavernous space and elicit a subcutaneous sense of paranoia and surveillance.

There is a pleasingly analogue feel to the gadgets and technology that mercifully avoids the off-the-shelf 1980s-ness of so many of Possessor’s contemporaries, aiming instead for sterile grubbiness and alienation. Underneath its sliding textures and evocative themes, this is a film about the fundamental instability of modern identity, brilliantly and often uncomfortably evoked.

It’s hardly an original concept – either in narrative or theme – a criticism borne out in the numerous, explicit sources from which Possessor derives many of its principles. Still, it’s hard to fault the execution and it is certainly easy to see future film historians reading this film through the lens of its historical moment. Indeed, if earlier this year, horror found its voice for the moment in Host, Possessor is undoubtedly its answer in science fiction.

Christopher Machell @MachellFilm

Film Review: Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula

Read Time:2 Minute, 17 Second


Train to Busan was something of a miniature miracle: a distinctly Korean zombie film at a time when audiences had been chomped-out for years. Director Yeon Sang-ho’s Peninsula is a solid follow up to his original, with just about enough shambling momentum to distract from a fairly uninspired plot.

Part of what made Train to Busan such a trip was that its premise – zombies on a train! – was not only brilliant, but that it had never really been attempted before on film. The execution of that premise was just as brilliant in its idiosyncrasy – funny, violent and in the end surprisingly moving.

Peninsula more or less hits the same marks, though without the pinpoint accuracy of its predecessor. Its premise – a team of refugee survivors return to the Korean peninsula in search of abandoned loot – is far less original but just as narratively efficient and feels sufficiently genre-y, like a chunky STV knock off of The Dirty Dozen. Credit is due, too, to making this sequel feel distinct from the first film. As the title suggests, it’s really more of a spin off set in the same world as Train to Busan, but as a result avoids aping its predecessor, instead expanding on its world and themes.

There’s something very Romero-esque, too, about a zombie franchise that reinvents itself with every new iteration; the director of Night of the Living Dead, excelled at making his Dawn, Day, Land, Diary, and Survival of the Deads all distinct from one another. Peninsula is entirely in keeping with that tradition.

Where it falls down – as Romero’s later sequels did – is in its confusion over what it’s actually trying to say. The admirable distinctness from its forbear is dampened somewhat in that that many of its new ideas are recycled from other zombie narratives – fans of The Walking Dead series, Romero’s Land of the Dead and the brilliant (and superior) Blood Quantum will recognise many of the tropes that Peninsula falls back on, especially in the privileging of human baddies over the shambling undead.

Nevertheless, there’s little denying the visceral thrills of the gladiatorial death match between hapless prisoners and captured zombies – set in an old mall, natch – that comprises the film’s best set piece. And while the core characters are fairly rote, Jung-seok’s (Gang Dong-won) redemption arc works well enough to foster empathy with the core crew of survivors.

Despite his film’s flaws, Yeon’s sense of energy, fun and peril are enough to see us through. Peninsula may be a little stale around the edges, but there’s still a great deal of bloody, bone-crunching pleasure to be had at its centre.

Christopher Machell | @MachellFilm

Film Review: Collective

Read Time:2 Minute, 38 Second


Romanian director Alexander Nanau turns his talents to the events after the fire that broke out at the Colectiv club in Bucharest in 2015. 64 people were ultimately killed in a tragedy that uncovered profound corruption throughout the Romanian state.

Collective is a brilliant documentary in its own right, but in this time of pandemic, scandal and democratic upheaval it is also the year’s most important. The fire – caused by overcrowding and inadequate fire safety measures – as an emblem of decades-long corruption inspired public rage so furious that it forced the Social Democratic Party-led government to resign soon after the fire.

It is pertinent to note here that at the time of writing, the UK has passed 50,000 known deaths from Covid-19, while accusations of Government cronyism to the tune billions of pounds are widespread. In this context and the broader horror show of 2020, it is astonishing that such a relatively small number of deaths could bring down a national government. But it speaks both to the endemic fraud that characterised Romanian public life and the unbridled public anguish that the tragedy unleashed.

The fire was in and of itself a terrible tragedy: 27 people were killed that night, while a further 180 were injured. But it was the aftermath, wherein a further 37 victims lost their lives through infections caused by inadequate care, where this tragedy became a true indictment both of government cronyism and the failure of the national media to hold it to account.

Amidst the country’s deafening media silence, investigative journalist Catalin Tolontan and his team at a sports paper singularly uncovered a hospitals scandal that began with heavily-diluted disinfectants and ended with hospital managers engaged in widespread fraud. The film’s revelations are jaw-dropping but its production is equally astonishing: Nanau picks up on the story as quickly as his subject Tolontan, charting the scandal from the start with fly-on-the-wall footage that uncovers the story with the immediacy of an event unfolding live before our eyes.

The banal office spaces and conference rooms are interspersed with the haunting images of Mariana Oprea, a survivor who modelled in a photography set commemorating the tragedy, while the continuing horrors of hospital negligence are represented by a visceral image of a worm-infested patient left to suffer untreated and uncared for.

At times of national tragedy such as the Colectiv fire, the current pandemic, the seemingly never-ending mass shootings in the US, or indeed the UK’s Grenfell Tower fire, there are always disingenuous voices calling for us not to ‘politicise’ such terrible events. Collective powerfully refutes such fatuous arguments, proving that these tragedies are rarely blameless, and that the venal greed and cowardice that cause them can only be countered with the fearless truth-telling embodied by journalists like Tolontan. As one of the few honest politicians, interim health minister Vlad Voiculescu tells us, the only way to regain trust is to stop lying.

Collective is available now on Amazon Video, Apple TV, Curzon Home Cinema and other digital platforms.

Christopher Machell @MachellFilm

Film Review: Hillbilly Elegy

Read Time:2 Minute, 36 Second


Amy Adams and Glenn Close lead the cast of this Ron Howard-directed biopic, based on J.D. Vance’s 2016 memoir of the same name. Like most of Howard’s films, Hillbilly Elegy is perfectly watchable, unchallenging and largely forgettable awards fodder.

Unfortunately, it’s not much else, with very little insight into its characters, visual flair or creative storytelling. Not that Howard – modern Hollywood’s most successful journeyman director – usually brings much more than a reliable hand and solid output, but even by those standards Hillbilly Elegy falls somewhat short.

In telling the worthy story of J.D. Vance, a former serviceman and law school hopeful troubled by a challenging family life, Vanessa Taylor’s screenplay takes few risks and eschews emotional complexity for histrionics, sentimentality and a tidy, conventional structure that flattens out the messiness of Vance’s life, offering instead one goshdarnit moment of greetings card family wisdom after another. In an age where Parasite can win a Best Picture Oscar, the script is weirdly dated, periodically offering cloying tidbits like “Something was missing: maybe hope”, or “the road from here to there was rocky. No way around but through”.

Everything just feels so off the shelf; from the opening voiceover narration, to the flashbacks of Vance’s mother Bev’s (Amy Adams, sleepwalking through a role that demands little else) early life, to the Terrence Malick-lite shots designed to invoke nostalgia for some working-class rural Americana. The latter of which invariably falls into clichés of alcoholism, volatile personalities and decades-old frustrations. The leads do their best with pretty thin material and Gabriel Basso makes for a likeable if rather blank Vance.

Most of the heavy lifting, however, is done by the makeup department, doing its best to make Amy Adams look harried and plonking old-lady wig and glasses on Glenn Close’s grandmother, Mamaw. Meanwhile, although much of the cinematography looks nice, it suffers from a hyperactivity that often utilises multiple lenses and shots in a single scene that, coupled with choppy editing, is annoyingly distracting.

The narrative, naturally, is led by the events of Vance’s memoirs, and the tribulations of the three generations of his family are by turns harrowing and moving on paper. But Howard rarely brings these moments to life, dropping character developments and reveals with little subtlety, while each character is reduced to a type: J.D. is a Good Boy; Bev is a Troubled Mother; Mamaw is a Concerned Granny. We are know exactly how we are supposed to feel about each character, making for some pretty inert drama.

It’s not so much that Hillbilly Elegy is bad, per se, just flat. There is a moving, even affirming story here about working class lives and the intense inequality baked into American life. But instead of tapping into that dramatic potential by asking difficult emotional and systemic questions, Howard habitually reaches for the comfort of sentimentality and simplicity. The result is a film that is sufficiently inoffensive so as not to raise much ire, but neither moving nor intelligent enough to hold much interest.

Christopher Machell @MachellFilm

Film Review: Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project

Read Time:2 Minute, 29 Second


Starting in the 1970s, political activist Marion Stokes embarked on the largest, most important project of her life: to record every moment of news footage possible. At the time of her death in 2012, she had amassed over 70,000 hours of unedited footage across nine TV news channels.

Hers a Baudrillardian effort to discover some kind of truth among the mediated reality that we live in. It was both a utilitarian historical project that could empower us by dispassionately recording the duplicity and lies upon which the powerful depend, and an existential one in which our sense of reality is exposed as mediated and re-mediated endlessly.

Part of that latter aspect was captured in the incidental recording of programmes that were not news: talk shows, commercial adverts and fictional programmes. It is, of course, of immense archival value, but the effect of the sheer weight of such a vast store of media, layered upon itself like an enormous cake of pure information, is far more metaphysical than mere archival utility.

In his judicious use of her footage, director Matt Wolf skilfully elicits that effect without letting it overwhelm his film, which at its core is a human-level study of Stokes. Though she remains somewhat of an enigma, the portrait it paints is of an obsessive, driven and principled to the point of narcissism. Her first husband, Melvin Metelits, describes Stokes, she was ‘indescribably loyal to her own preferences and tendencies’, which seems a magnanimous way of saying that Stokes was the most important person in her own life.

More pointedly, Stokes’ son, Michael, with whom she was estranged for many years, suggests that eventually she ‘came to value what was coming through on her screens rather than the problematic, messy stuff that was happening in her real life’. Wolf finds a tension between the unpleasantness of her narcissism and obsessive hoarding, and the fact that both were essential for motivating her remarkable project. Her former secretary describes rooms stacked full of old newspapers – of which he claims she read about eleven every day. Later, her obsession with Apple computers seems remarkably prophetic in an age of iphone queues, and archival interviews with Stokes reveal her unique understanding of the imminent revolutionary power of the internet.

The most moving aspect of Recorder, however, is in her troubled relationship with her son, the nadir of which came when they were estranged. A reconciliation near the end of her life complicates our understanding of Michael’s feelings towards her. In a way, Michael is an audience surrogate, informing our own understanding of her; his – and the film’s – refusal to pin Stokes down as either a genius or crank (as if they are binary) speaks to her own project’s attempt to capture the totality of a thing and the noble futility in such an endeavour.

Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project is available now via Dogwoof On Demand.

Christopher Machell | @MachellFilm

Film Review: Love Child

Read Time:2 Minute, 36 Second


Danish director Eva Mulvad and co-director Lea Glob turn their attention to an Iranian family caught up in international bureaucracy as they flee from persecution and the threat of execution in Love Child. Never has the banality of the plight of refugees been laid out so plainly as in this heartbreaking, Kafkaesque documentary.

In 2012, Leila, Sahand and their young son Mani arrive in Turkey, on the run from Iranian authorities. In Iran, Leila was in a loveless marriage to a man who refused to even consummate their union. For three years, she remained a “girl”, in addition to being beaten daily. Her subsequent affair with Sahand ultimately produced the eponymous love child, Mani. Somehow, despite never having slept with her own husband, she convinced him the boy was his.

To complicate things further, Sahand had also been strong-armed into reporting for the secret service after he was picked up for his political activism in his youth. After the secret police began pressuring him to bring in Leila, with whom they knew he was associated, he knew they had to flee before their affair – a crime punishable by death in Iran – was discovered.

Thus begins a maddening odyssey through the arcane and impenetrable bureaucracy of asylum-seeking. As the trio traverse this knotted terrain, every seemingly insurmountable hurdle overcome is invariably met with two more. Even though Leila and Sahand are clearly in the same predicament, the UN is treating their cases as distinct because of the political dimension to Sahand’s case. It doesn’t matter that a DNA test proves beyond doubt that Sahand is Mani’s father: he and Leila aren’t married, so as far as the paperwork is concerned, they don’t count as a family.

The human cost of this endless Mobius strip of pedantry is infuriating and heartbreaking. Soon after they arrive in Turkey, Mani – barely out of being a toddler at this point – throws an almighty tantrum accusing Sahand of uprooting them and bellowing that he is not his father. In any other context, this would be a normal, if trying, four-year old’s hissy fit. But here, watching the pain play across Sahand’s passive face, it is almost too much to bear.

The strain that it puts under Leila and Sahand’s relationship is palpable. There’s a horrible irony that as the months roll into years, Mani begins to accept Sahand as his dad while the tension between Leila and Sahand grows, made all the more intense in the knowledge that they are inextricably bound up in the same dire limbo. Yet, in striving for a semblance of normality, hope persists. Sahand’s surprising his family with a new bike; Mani’s visible growth punctuated by surprise birthday cards; spontaneous love poetry written to each other.

The ongoing plight of refugees is one of the great shames of the global community. Among the life and death situations, dramatic fleeing and family strife, Love Child is a vital document of the banal, web-like bureaucracies that catch countless people in their uncompassionate structures.

Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell