Film Review: One Night in Miami

Read Time:3 Minute, 41 Second

★★★★☆

It’s hard to imagine Cassius Clay ever taking a back seat in a discussion or standing down from a fight, but his is by no means the loudest voice in the room in One Night in Miami. Or, at least, not all the time.

For it is togetherness, solidarity and the power of a collective voice from four of the greatest talents of the Civil Rights Era that define Regina King’s remarkable feature directorial debut. Adapting his own 2013 theatre piece, playwright Kemp Powers penned the script for this who’s-who gathering of sporting, soul and political legends, and in King’s hands the material flies from stage to screen without missing a beat.

It is February 25th 1964 and the day that Cassius Clay will fight Sonny Liston in Miami. An even-handed prequel to the main bout introduces us to Clay (Eli Goree), fighting Henry Cooper a year previously in London; Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) making an ill-fated debut at the Copacabana; legendary NFL running back Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) visiting supposed family friends in Georgia; and Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) returning home to his wife, as his plans to leave the Nation of Islam come close to fruition.

It is an effective opening that demonstrates the experience and point of view of all four will contribute to One Night in Miami’s successful portrayal of a common struggle, a burden they all must bear. And though these men were friends in real life, and did meet in the Floridian city in February 1954, some suspension of belief is required here. Ready to celebrate his title fight victory against Liston, the larger than life Clay – on the verge of joining the nation and becoming Muhammad Ali, unaware that Malcolm X seeks to leave – joins his pals at a cheap motel for a party to remember. But with no women, booze or food, two tubs of vanilla ice cream are all that Malcolm has to offer. This will not be a night to forget, but not for the reasons three of them think.

“Just because I am a militant doesn’t mean I don’t know how to have good time,” says their host. Ben-Adir’s weary, browbeaten performance betrays a knowledge that he may not be long for this world, and taking his brothers-in-arms into his confidence before the inevitable – which only he seems able to see – is vital. Kings of their own sporting professions, Goree’s diction and delivery is spot-on for the exuberant, ebullient Clay and a role of the eyes as he says “I told you he’s ugly” during the Liston fight is just superb. Hodge, more of a calming safety blanket to throw over fiery tempers, is nonetheless well aware of the injustice he has a responsibility to combat as an icon of sports, and soon to be action hero.

However, it is the conflict between Sam and Malcolm, with each given their turn to consider the other’s position, that sees both actors, and the film itself, excel. Does Malcolm’s constant anger and castigation of their oppressors help or hinder him? The undue attention it attracts is alluded to as his paranoia mounts. And does Sam really sit on the fence, or not see the line in the sand between ‘us’ and ‘them’ as Malcolm says – or is he more shrewdly playing the system his own way? There’s a lot to pull apart and King does so extremely well. Naysayers will decry her adaptation of the stage play material retaining too much of its theatrical provenance and – for the majority of its runtime – one-room setting.

But to do so overlooks that this is a superbly constructed film in its own right. Look past, or even simply ignore the source material, and One Night in Miami is a fraction in time of a period that resonates today. Less than a year after this night, two of these shining lights would no longer be with us and that knowledge hangs heavy in the air of that motel room. No doubt thanks to her own wealth of acting experience, King elicits outstanding performances from her cast, proving that big boys do cry when the stakes are high enough and love, respect and hope triumph over hate.

Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63

Film Review: MLK/FBI

Read Time:3 Minute, 24 Second

★★★★☆

MLK/FBI is an insightful, adroitly constructed documentary which seeks to mine new truths from a recent, tangible past. Filmmaker Sam Pollard pits the aspirations, endeavours and character of a great, but flawed humanitarian against the racially-driven, underhand tactics of a tyrannical government organisation.

Along with its title, Pollard’s latest is a film of three-letter acronyms – RFK, LBJ, the KKK – perceived reality and blurred lines. Lines that we must read between on redacted memos; prison cell bars we look through and the invisible, yet violent barriers to progress; angular steps from which speeches of great dreams will be given. Most crucially, perhaps, are the lines over which some will go to achieve their ends. A tremendous credit sequence sets up these visual indicators of division, defiance and despicable acts. The power of harnessing information, of an establishment controlling the public narrative and pushing an agenda for its own ends are brought to the forefront.

Such methods should be keenly felt by astute viewers the world over now, but Pollard looks behind that thinly veiled, highly subjective curtain. Focusing on the decade described by former Bureau director James Comey as “the darkest period of the FBI’s history, a wealth of expertly curated library footage transports us to 1955, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spearheads what will become the Civil Rights Movement. Many of the historical events and touchpoints are familiar – the March on Washington and “I Have a Dream” speech, the ending of bus segregation in Montgomery, the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

To list more would do a disservice to the impressive research, writing and editing of MLK/FBI. It is extremely informative, featuring testimonies from academics, peers of King’s, authors. That these subjects are heard only in voiceover for the majority of the film, introduced on camera in a late coda, is an interesting choice by the director. It both limits the intrusion of talking heads, allowing newly uncovered documentation to dominate, but permits a frame of reference to their viewpoints only in retrospect. Pollard and his team never go so far as to use the word ‘propaganda’, but frequent inserts of film and television from the time suggest just how gosh darn great the FBI were, mister.

Or at least that’s what they wanted you to think. The influence and employment of American popular culture to mould public opinion was apparent then and strikes a chord today, in an age of popularity over policy. However, viewed through our modern lens of fake news, clickbait and wilful manipulation of the media, it is knowledge of the FBI’s advanced surveillance techniques, and most notably how they were employed, which gets under the skin of the subject matter. How rules were bent, broken and concealed in order for control, amid both personal and national interest, is as pertinent now as it was for J. Edgar Hoover.

Head of the organisation for an extraordinary 48 years, his justification for extensive wiretapping and progression from investigating King’s alleged Communist sympathies, to outright invasion of his private life (and now well-known extra-marital affairs) is demonstrative of the lengths he would go to bring down a man deemed “the most dangerous negro in America.” That Hoover made the FBI “in his own image” – white, conservative men – means that in all the murky, grey areas of their work, this was, for him, still very much black-and-white conflict.

When political motivation failed, personal attacks were used to undermine his marriage, to bring him to an end. And though it is just a singular oblique that divides Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. from his titular foe here, a wall between hotel rooms or key line in a speech, however history judges either man, they are and forever will be inextricably linked. MLK/FBI is an earnest, thought-provoking addition to a canon of films that shed light on a movement that continues unabated today.

Sam Pollard’s MLK/FBI is available now on Dogwoof On Demand.

Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63

Film Review: Farewell Amor

Read Time:3 Minute, 11 Second

★★★☆☆

Bookmarked by static long takes of three people, firstly in the immensity of JFK’s arrivals hall and then a cramped, one-bedroom Brooklyn apartment, there is a wonderful balance to the construction of Farewell Amor. Between these intimate moments, Ekwa Msangi takes us full circle with the story of the difficulties faced by an Angolan family reunited in New York after seventeen years. 

The US-born, Kenyan-raised director’s feature-length debut is told with honesty, determination and grace. Allowing each of its subjects an equal say, a shared point of view in how to navigate the disorienting prospect of adjusting to life in one of the world’s largest cities, they must find their own way of getting to know one another again, as well as their new surroundings, after so many years of enforced separation.   

Driven apart by the devastation of the Angolan Civil War, the family unit is thrust back together with similar abruptness, but contrary to its title, Farewell Amor begins with a welcome. Walter (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine) greets his wife, Esther (Zainab Jah), and daughter, Sylvia (Jayme Lawson), at the airport as they arrive in America after their immigration papers are finally granted. His gift of a teddy bear for his now teenage daughter is well-intentioned, but a clear sign of just how out of touch he is.

With each figure allotted roughly half an hour, the plot’s triptych begins with Walter. Having spent this long period in New York alone, he has driven a cab to make ends meet and to be able to send some money back to Esther and Sylvia in Dar es Salaam, the pair having fled the conflict to the Tanzanian city. Other than the awkward embraces of the opening moments, cinematographer Bruce Francis Cole captures the family members often in isolation as the barriers of physical closeness and intimacy prevent them from sharing the frame – at least initially.  

This discomfort and nervous glances between them beg the question of whether they will be able to rebuild, and when it soon becomes clear that Walter had engaged in a relationship during his time alone the stakes are set even higher. Conflicted by his obligation and desire to rekindle the prodigal love of his family, and residual feelings for nurse Linda (Nana Mensah), Mwine’s performance has the greatest conflict and nuance. However, learning that his daughter has inherited his love for dance gives Walter ground on which to build.

But when we circle back once more to the airport and forward – this time in Sylvia’s shoes – we see that her anxiety at this monumental change, wariness of a father she barely remembers and longing for friends at home are taking their toll. The offer of friendship and participation in a dance competition by DJ (Marcus Scribner) gives Sylvia purpose, but sets her against her mother’s strict religious beliefs. And by no means singing from the same hymn sheet as her husband and daughter, Esther must reconcile her own faith and principles with the reality of American life, whilst also coming to terms with the knowledge of Walter’s extra-marital relationship.  

Knowing that she must bend but not break, Jah’s performance as Esther is one of steadfast resolve that shows signs of fraying at the edges. And in what is first ever screen turn, Lawson is a revelation as Sylvia. Taking to her role with the same daring she exhibits in the high-pressure third act dance-off, she is most certainly one to watch for the future. The same applies to Msangi, whose tender portrayal of the immigrant experience is an impressive, heartfelt debut.

Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63

Film Review: Il Mio Corpo

Read Time:3 Minute, 17 Second

★★★★☆

“Memories fill the heart, but they shouldn’t hold back the future. You always have to stay positive.” Though this sage, admirably optimistic counsel is well-meaning, it defies the harsh reality of Sicilian life presented in Michele Pennetta’s contemplative quasi-documentary Il Mio Corpo.

That this advice is given by a priest to a young man embarking on a new life in Europe is also indicative of a film which sees faith – be it in a higher power or the political institutions in whose hands fates are held – sorely tested. The seemingly disparate tales of Stanley, a Nigerian immigrant, and Oscar, an Italian lad on the verge of adolescence, are kept – for the most part – at arm’s length from one another.

Connections are, however, made throughout as the two threads are eventually woven closer together, be it through luck or design. Both introduced half-asleep with heads lolling against the window of a bus and old truck respectively, the menial, exhausting tasks that each undertake to eke out a living are immediately apparent. Stanley, taken under the wing of the aforementioned priest, cleans the floors of the local church and will later assist with the grape harvest and herding sheep.

Any religious overtone or influence one may read into his activities are never underlined, as it is a crisis of identity and integration, as well as the practical hurdles of assisting his friend Blessed to also gain a visa to remain in Italy, that Stanley must battle from one day to the next. Oscar, trawling the rugged, rocky countryside, helps his father collect all manner of scrap metal under the blinding Sicilian sun. For locals and newcomers alike, this is by no means a land of milk and honey but one of toil and hard graft. Rugged in its beauty, the landscape is overbearing, debilitating.

And whilst comparisons will – justifiably – be made between Pennetta’s second documentary feature and Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea, the sophomore director gives equal time and attention in exploring two sides of the same coin here, comparing and contrasting the plights of each young man. With no direct questioning or interrogation, Pennetta’s voice and objectives play out through careful, patient editing. Oscar could well be a not-too-distant Mediterranean island relative of the roguish Samuele from Rosi’s much lauded film, but his existence, along with elder brother Roberto, is a far cry from the Huckleberry Finn adventures of Lampedusa rowboats and slingshots.

Even in the opening moments, a comment made by his father, “Don’t talk back or I’ll chuck a rock at your head,” is made without any suggestion of even ill-advised humour. Just one of many warning signs of past abuse, though Oscar may be surrounded by half-siblings from his father’s new relationship, he is often framed forlorn and alone, struggling to look to the future with any of the positivity with which Stanley is encouraged. Free-wheeling on their bikes, or attempting to fix up old scooters, there’s a sense here that escape is the only way out – but with their only experience being the sons of a scrap merchant, what good could possibly come from doing so?

The lack of opportunity for the brothers is amplified by an inability on Stanley’s part to effect change in his own future. Dependent on the benevolence of others, his work ethic and impressive command of Italian are overlooked. His lodgings – a temporary apartment and then a caravan – also speak to the transience of life here. Perhaps then, it is the physical, dogged determination of both mind and body that defines Il Mio Corpo. The priest’s insistence on staying positive reframed as gritting your teeth and simply putting one foot in front of the other.

Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63

Film Review: Crock of Gold

Read Time:3 Minute, 23 Second

★★★★☆

Visually striking and audibly arresting from its opening number until the curtain comes down, Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan is an affectionate paean to its irascible, impudent frontman.

Just as The Pogues’ creative force and lead singer could “hear the colours and see the sounds” of his beloved Tipperary fields, veteran music documentarian Julien Temple splashes the screen with a well composed sensory overload of all aspects of a life as far from paint by numbers as could possibly be imagined. Reluctantly interviewed – in the loosest sense of the term – sat opposite long-time friend (and producer of the film) Johnny Depp, necking a bottle of wine in a pub, it is these conversations, and reactions to dictaphone snippets of old recollections, that form Crock of Gold’s core.

Filmed in and around MacGowan’s 60th year, there remains a cheeky glint in the glassy-eyed gaze of his bruised and abused body, broken by decades of alcoholism and drug use. Told tales of other accidents – including being hit by a car and falling from a moving taxi in Tokyo – it is nothing short of a miracle that this film was not made posthumously. And yet, like some unstoppable centrifugal force, its now wheelchair-bound subject recalls his life’s rollercoaster with such fervour and conviction that he may well go on forever.

Going a few rounds here is to experience a life lived to extremes, first hand. Down the front, sweaty, covered in beer, a little more than half cut and singing your lungs out to one of The Pogues foot-stomping classics, Temple blends an extraordinary wealth of library footage and hand-drawn design to flesh out the relative stasis of today. Sepia tones turn to colour, old photographs are animated and flicker to life in front of our eyes, and though the rounds referred to in the title are no doubt of the liquid variety, delirious, acid-fuelled kaleidoscopes of neon are as dizzying and disorienting as going the distance in the ring.

But while he may be resistant to some lines of questioning, or even being questioned at all, there’s no doubt to MacGowan’s directness and honesty in the answers he does give. He’s never given a fuck what anyone thinks of him, so why start now? The unlikely duo of former Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams and Primal Scream lead singer Bobby Gillespie don’t get too far below the surface. It is testimonials from those who have known him best, most notably his sister Siobhan and father Maurice, that fill in some areas of shade, shedding light on his upbringing and formative years.

Though born in Tunbridge Wells, the reverence and love with which he recalls the influence of each of his uncles and aunts on the family farm in Ireland, his association with the Republican plight and evolving relationship with the Roman Catholic faith are all vital. Stories passed from one generation to the next, punk music, a growing awareness of the grave ills committed by the Brits over the course of a bloody history, would all be fed into his extraordinary lyrical talents. A crisis of identity, religion and personal breakdowns from an alarmingly young age, as well as his parents’ divorce, add further weight on slender shoulders.

Having battled vice and circumstance for six decades, whether you find MacGowan enigmatic or electric, repulsive or magnetic, there’s no doubting the contribution his incredible talent has made to Irish music and culture. He may, ironically, now hate Fairytale of New York and never wish to write anything like it again. But that the song that made him remains both a blessing and a curse is a tell-tale sign of the soaring highs and bitter lows that fame and fortune can bring. Whatever lies at the end of the rainbow for MacGowan, Temple’s latest film makes it clear that it will be worth far more than just its weight in gold.

Matthew Anderson@MattAndo63

Small Axe: Lovers Rock review

Read Time:3 Minute, 18 Second

★★★★☆

Lovers Rock is loud, proud and joyous. It’s an invigorating, pound-the-walls-and-floorboards ode to its titular style of reggae. At just sixty-eight minutes, the second instalment of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe five-parter may seem more episodic in length, but as the series’ name suggests, great things can come in small packages.

Moving forward in time from Mangrove, it’s the 1980s and Ladbroke Road is the place to be for the house party of the year. Martha is not going to miss this, shimmying down a drainpipe to escape her strict parents for the night. She’s played by Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn, who is a delight to watch in what is remarkably her first (terrific) acting credit. As slender as Lovers Rock may be, McQueen uses his voice as a means to champion young talent to tremendous effect once more.

Decks and speakers are moved in, the couch goes out to the garden – covered in plastic for spillages – and food prep is well underway in the kitchen. You can smell the food, almost taste it. The crockpots bubble away and the chefs burst into song – an acapella version of Janet Kay’s Silly Games – as the energy, the excitement of the celebrations to come bounce along to music already playing in the living room-turned-dancefloor.

But as the speakers were picked up out of the van blurred figures sat on an electrical box looking on with intent and will later return to harass a young woman. Lovers Rock, and its venue, is by and large a haven of unadulterated good times for one night only, but McQueen doesn’t let us forget that outside this euphoric bubble there is the menace, prejudice and hardships of daily life for West London’s black community. Samson (Kadeem Ramsay, who has a lot of fun with his role), is resident DJ for the night and seems to thumb his nose at the police by using a siren as his transition between songs later on as the party really kicks into gear.

When a patrol cruises past, the spectre of troubles elsewhere peeks in through the front door, if only for a moment. McQueen teams up with director of photography Shabier Kirchner once more here, and as night falls the amber glow of wall lights adds another dimension to the warmth of his direction. Men take women by the hand, joining them on the dancefloor and it’s here that hands may move a little further south. Whether through lack of confidence or something more sinister some look on from the periphery, but for the most part it’s all fun and games and Kung Fu Fighting.

Another rendition of Silly Games allows for one of the most jaw-dropping vocal displays in any film you’ll see this year – perhaps ever – and an ensemble moment of pure, transcendent joy that occurs as if we were in the room at that very moment. There’s always a rotten apple or two, and not everyone who comes to the party will have the time of their lives, but Martha stands up for what’s right. And so, importantly, does Franklyn (Micheal Ward) – proving his worth to a young lady who has very much caught his eye.

An old gentleman, carrying a cross over his shoulder, appears once more after we’d earlier glimpsed him from a double-decker bus. We all have crosses to bear, and we know that they’re there to stay. But isn’t it good, every once in a while, to just put them aside and get down with your mates, if only for a night. The sun comes up and that means home time. Or maybe a Sunday morning service. It’s all over in the blink of an eye, but Lovers Rock is a party you won’t ever forget.

Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63

Film Review: Patrick

Read Time:3 Minute, 9 Second

★★★★☆

There’s no rulebook or any one way for a person to react to the death of a family member. And with his first big screen endeavour, Patrick, Peaky Blinders director Tim Mielants has crafted as unusual an exploration of grief and loss as you are ever likely to see.

Set in a simple, rather shabby nudist resort in the middle of a rugged Belgian wilderness, you’d think that if you went down to the woods today, you’d be in for a big surprise. But one of the many ways  Mielants’ debut subverts our expectations is the casual insouciance with which it treats its scantily clad ensemble. It’s not like we haven’t seen it all before, right? Serenity abounds as we first meet our eponymous anti-hero (a stoical, socially awkward Kevin Janssens), bathing in a lake.

Pleasantries are exchanged as body parts of all shapes and sizes hang loose in the morning sunshine, but it’s a slight warning note on the score – not the full frontal – that creates a lurking, imperceptible uneasiness, suggesting all is not well in this unusual paradise. In his late 30s, Patrick still lives at home with his parents, helping them to run the campsite and tinkering in his workshop. While he’s happy enough to stroll around in just a loose shirt and jelly shoes for the duration, he isn’t a man comfortable in his own skin.

It’s not much of a spoiler to say that it’s the death of his father, Rudy (Josse De Pauw), that marks an irrevocable fork in the road. Will Patrick take on the mantle of managing the family business? Will he succumb to an offer to sell up by one of the site’s regular summer visitors, Herman (Pierre Bokma)? All of this is just a bit much for Patrick to deal with, especially given that one of his prized hammers has gone missing. He doesn’t need sympathy, pats on the back or even a casual shag (with Herman’s wife, Lilliane – Ariane Van Vliet), he just wants to find his hammer.

Defying any conventional euphemisms of what this tool might represent, frequent shots of the empty space it filled as part of a treasured set make it clear that Patrick’s search is to make himself whole once again – or in fact to find a new whole in the wake of his father’s death. His furrowed brow, inability to make eye contact and shuffling awkwardness mean that the real conflict of Mielants’ film is an internal, psychological one. The comical litany of clues as to who had stolen the hammer, where it has travelled and whether it can be retrieved are a side-show to – or rather a reflection of – the introspective journey Patrick takes to come to terms with the past, present and a worrying future.

For all the external ease with which the characters bare all, while Mielants has fun with the red herrings and ludicrousness of the hammer hunt, it is the hidden agendas, emotion, resentment and nastiness that cannot be seen that troubles him and his leading man. Internal vulnerability is far more profound than face value judgement. So often sexualised onscreen for little more than titillation, the nakedness of human forms here lays bare the essence of what really makes a human being tick.

Patrick is an oddball, but he is an honest, gentle soul, has integrity, and, above all, is true to himself. There is strength in not knowing, not conforming, not doing what people expect of you. And who says coming-of-age stories can’t be about a man pushing forty? It’s never too late to work out who you are.

Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63

Small Axe: Mangrove review

Read Time:3 Minute, 12 Second

★★★★★

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.

Chosen as the BFI London Film Festival’s opener, Mangrove is an historical love letter to London’s West Indian community and a clarion call for the continued contemporary struggle against prejudice and injustice. For though the events depicted in Mangrove took place between 1968 and 1972, the ripples of discussion and dissent that began in a Notting Hill restaurant over fifty years ago are still being felt, and fought, in Britain and across the world today. The film’s title, taken from the name of a cosy eatery on All Saints Road, would later be attributed to the Mangrove 9, a group wrongly arrested and tried for ‘riot and affray’ during a demonstration against police brutality and persecution.

Owned and run by Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes), the Mangrove is as warm and welcoming as the spicy Trinidadian food they dish up. “This is a respectable restaurant […] not a battleground,” says Frank, doggedly determined to create a cleaner image for his new venture after a former club is accused of illicit activity. But pre-conceptions about both man and business linger, at least in the eyes of local police constable Pulley (a sneering, slippery Sam Spruell), whose bigotry and personal vendetta against Frank lead to repeated, unjustified raids on the premises.

For locals that use it as a meeting point, the Mangrove is a haven, a vital part of a community under increasing menace and its plucky resilience and never-say-die attitude mirrors their own. McQueen’s affection for this place, this people and this milieu are immediately apparent. From its opening frames, a smoke-filled bar where men are gambling on dice, the film’s rich, tangible aesthetic, to the sounds of reggae and steel drums, 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.

Transported back to west London in the late 1960s by these elements, the racial slurs and graffiti are as poisonous to hear now as they were accurate for the time. The script, which McQueen co-wrote with Alastair Siddons, pulls no punches and lands its heaviest blows at the time of the trial. The baseless charges and trumped-up evidence against nine men and women from the community see them summoned before the Old Bailey. And it is here that McQueen, and most notably his cast, really excels.

You would be hard pressed to name many other directors currently working that garner such exceptional performances from his or her actors. Mangrove’s ensemble is uniformly impressive, but special mention must go to Letitia Wright, as leader of the British Black Panther Party Altheia Jones-LeCointe, Malachi Kirby as activist Darcus Howe, and Parkes in the lead role. Wright is a firecracker of conviction, passion and spirit whose tempered eloquence explodes on a number of occasions to devastating effect. Kirby, whose character’s outspoken criticism of the broken white establishment initially divides opinion among the group, delivers one of the finest, most stirring monologues in recent memory as the trial draws to a rousing close.

Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63

Film Review: Shirley

Read Time:3 Minute, 7 Second

★★★☆☆

From a script by Sarah Gubbin – who adapted a novel by Susan Scarf Merrell – whose story was based on the prolific horror author Shirley Jackson – Josephine Decker’s fourth feature is (to say the least) a multi-layered affair. Demanding patience and perseverance, we dig down through agoraphobia, heavy drinking and airs of intellectual superiority in search of the essence of the person behind the writer in question.

This is both the intrigue and the frustration of Shirley, a film that is simultaneously alluring and aloof. 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.

Set in late 1940s Vermont, Shirley also explores womanhood, motherhood and the significance of gender roles, upending the given thinking of the time that men wore the proverbial trousers. Earlier this year, Decker gave Criteron her ‘Top 10’ films list; were you to pour Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Harold and Maude by Hal Ashby, Godard’s Contempt, and Jules et Jim by Truffaut into a pot and stir them around for a while, you would come close to achieving the bubbling concoction she creates with her latest film.

Throw in a dash of Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and it is Shirley (another triumphant turn of blood, sweat and tears by Elisabeth Moss) and her husband Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg) who welcome young newlyweds Rose (Odessa Young) and Fred (Logan Lerman) into their North Bennington home. Fred is to take up a position at the university where Stanley teaches and – having recently eloped with her now husband – Rose prepares for the birth of their child. The pregnancy intuited by an unexplained sixth sense at one of several devilishly awkward dinner table conversations, Shirley’s psychic navel-gazing keys in to mystery surrounding the enigmatic writer.

If local hearsay and twitching curtains suggest that the reclusive writer is a witch, why not play up to this image of sorcery? Confined to the house for much of the film, the claustrophobic pressure, the weight of “what are you writing next?” weighs heavily on Shirley, and us. Not there to make house and toe the gender line by any means, something far more sinister prevents Shirley leaving these four walls. Rose, who fulfils the ‘housewife’ role by cooking and cleaning, soon tires of these shackles, and becomes the go-between for Shirley and the outside world, seeking clues to the disappearance of a young woman from campus – the seeds of Shirley’s next novel.

Though initially petrified of her curt, abrasive manner, Rose’s growing appreciation, and affection, for Shirley’s acerbic wit and middle finger to the niceties of society engender a change in the young woman as well. Concerned more by lectures and affairs than their wives, the two husbands – Stuhlbarg’s early twinkling charm proving to be little more than a smoke screen, and Lerman rather a non-character – they underestimate these women at their peril. And though the slow, blurry-edged stupor of Shirley will not be to everyone’s tastes, it cannot be denied that it examines its subject, and a rather tired genre, with feverish, dreamlike fluidity rather than rigid biography. That, and Moss’ enthralling lead performance, are Shirley’s chief accomplishments.

The BFI London Film Festival 2020 takes place from 7-18 October. bfi.org.uk/london-film-festival

Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63

Film Review: Relic

Read Time:2 Minute, 48 Second

★★★★☆

The slow rot of psychological decay is brought into the physical realm with creeping, insidious stealth by Natalia Erika James in her highly assured, thought-provoking feature debut, Relic. Re-framing more traditional genre choices for representing dementia, the Japanese-Australian filmmaker has crafted a chilling, mysterious horror to communicate the confusion and terror caused by diminishing intellectual acuity.

It is a bold, but effective strategy, and one that pays dividends by manifesting the disease’s effects on both the person suffering its debilitating symptoms, and on loved ones helpless to prevent its slow decline. Written in tandem with Christian White, James’ firm handle on the script and patient drip feed of clues is key to her film’s success. Peeling back the layers of the onion begins with an overflowing bath, Christmas lights pulsing on and off and a grey-haired woman – seen from behind – standing partially naked, shivering at the threshold of her living room. 

Questions abound, then, but it’s clear that all is not well from the outset. And under the leaden skies and incessant rain of a Victorian winter, Kay (Emily Mortimer) must make her way inland from Melbourne as her elderly mother has not been seen for several days. As distant as you can imagine from the great expanses of blue sky and sunshine of most depictions of Australia on film, the cold wind, mist and grey-green-blue colour pallet contributes to the growing air of unease. Using familiar haunted house horror staples without being drawn into clichéd jumps or bumps in the night, the sounds of creaky floorboards and clanking of old plumbing in the cavernous home heighten tension further. But it is a shadowy figure glimpsed upstairs and a hand drawing hair away from Kay’s face while she has nightmarish visions of a long-lost relative that draws us closer to the edge of our seats and hearts up towards mouths.

And when Edna (Robyn Nevin) does miraculously reappear without knowledge of where she has been, Kay and her daughter, Sam (Bella Heathcote), are divided on what should happen next. Cinematographer Charlie Sarroff captures the fracturing of opinion and Edna’s gradual disintegration by split screens, blocked off by doorways and windows, and eye contact made at odd angles in mirrors. However, Sam’s compassionate desire to move in with her grandmother to care for her and Kay’s plans for a nursing home soon fall by the wayside as black mould, first seen on the stained-glass window of the front door, spreads throughout the house – and across Edna’s chest as her behaviour becomes ever more unstable and frightening. 

All is not as it seems, but are we witnessing the supernatural or something far closer to home? As the walls begin to move in, both literally and figuratively, the realisation of what the world of the film now represents builds to a thunderous, breathtaking crescendo. Oddly tender yet deeply disconcerting final images sow further seeds of doubt and concern under this family tree, but Relic is intelligent, articulate storytelling. It gets under your skin and stays there and represents a strong start in feature filmmaking for James, who has surely announced herself as a new voice in Australian cinema.

Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63

Film Review: The Painter and the Thief

Read Time:3 Minute, 41 Second

★★★★☆

Again proving that great strength can be drawn from laying bare perceived weakness, Norwegian filmmaker Benjamin Ree’s The Painter and the Thief is an art heist film like no other and an arresting documentary of startling, often brutal, emotional honesty.

His 2016 debut, Magnus, which charted the rise to stardom of a chess prodigy in intimate, familial detail, explored the genius ‘otherness’ of its titular maestro and Ree’s follow-up, which was three years in the making, once more challenges the notion of judging a book by its cover or a person at face value. First greeted with the image of a blank canvas in the Oslo atelier of Prague-born artist Barbora Kysilkova, The Painter and the Thief develops to be far more than its initial premise would suggest, slowly but surely filling the screen with the unlikely friendship of two troubled, kindred spirits.

In the opening moments, a time lapse shows Barbora’s ‘Swan Song’ come to life before our eyes. It is displayed at the Nobel Gallery in Oslo and then stolen – along with a second painting – by two hooded, pixelated individuals. The latter action is shown in clinical, very clear CCTV footage from an adjacent underground garage and so at the trial of one of these men, there is no doubt as to his culpability. But why did they go to such lengths to steal the work of a relatively unknown, upcoming artist?

“Because they were beautiful,” says Karl-Bertil Nordland with childlike, hand-in-the-cookie jar contrition to Barbora when asked the question in the courtroom. “I am very sorry.” Unusually, rather than seek retribution, label Karl-Bertil a petty thief and drug addict, Barbora requests that she be allowed to paint his portrait. Not so much an eye for an eye as an act of intrigued compassion. The Painter and The Muse could easily have been a working title, as what ensues must have surprised even Ree. Both running from past traumas – a tough childhood, drug abuse and an abusive relationship respectively – Karl-Bertil and Barbora come to learn from and to some extent depend on one other, seeking solace, support and understanding with little to no judgement.

And without interjecting with question or comment at any stage, Ree’s firm handle of this very raw material is extraordinary.  The ease at which he evidently put his two subjects is similarly remarkable; his camera (with the collaboration of fellow cinematographer Kristoffer Kumar), sitting at close quarters and with extensive access throughout, captures incredible moments of heartbreak, hurt, joy and catharsis. Being present at a couple’s counselling session for Barbora and her partner Oystein (due to what he sees as her own self-destructive relationship with painting and insistence on helping Karl-Bertil) is a moment when we are forced to ask, should we really be here with them? But it is the deeply intimate, private moments at which we are present that really elevate The Painter and the Thief to something quite extraordinary.

With no recollection of the events, due to being on a four-day binge at the time of the theft, Karl-Bertil is unable to help Barbora with relocating her stolen paintings and this catalyst ironically becomes almost a side-note to the film as their kinship develops. That is, until a late appearance by his partner in crime. The real substance here lies in the confessional nature of each subject looking at, internalising and really seeing the other as a multi-faceted individual. Whether consciously, or willingly, both seek a means to excise current and former demons. The nifty, non-linear editing by Robert Stengård means that we circle back in time frequently to see scenes replayed from different points of view, with new clues and insights, in what is an even-handed, profound and respectful portrayal of the lasting ill-effects, physical and psychological, of drug addiction and domestic abuse.  

While experiencing more than one or two serious bumps in the road along the way, these fractured puzzle pieces, and contrasting opinions of nature versus nurture, experience and opportunity, coalesce to form an improbable harmony in what is a stellar documentary. The Painter and the Thief is not to be missed.

Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63

Film Review: Mogul Mowgli

Read Time:3 Minute, 4 Second

★★★☆☆

Riz Ahmed battles questions of cultural and religious identity, familial expectation, self and health in order to find his calling, and to find his way home, in Mogul Mowgli.

Knowing where you’re going cannot be known without knowing where you’ve come from, and director Bassam Tariq’s layered narrative feature debut shifts through time and space as Zaheer searches for his answers.

Few actors working today can claim to have the same level of electric, captivating screen presence as Ahmed, who co-wrote the script for Mogul Mowgli with Tariq. Following his gritty, physical performance in Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal as a drummer who struggles with the loss of his hearing, here he puts to use astonishing lyrical prowess as a rapper seeking to make his big break in America.

Having adopted the stage name Zed, we walk on stage under a shower of blue and orange neon, as a baying NYC crowd lap up every syllable of an angry, rhythmic diatribe whose energy and delivery lights the touch paper. And perhaps even ignites Zed’s chance for the big tour he’s so long strived for. But images and sounds that precede this performance, the whistle of a train and a musty carriage, and a motif that will recur and evolve speaks to another force that rumbles in the background.

An inexorable force perhaps, one that troubles Zed, and at the suggestion of his soon to be ex-girlfriend, Bina (a terribly underused Aiysha Hart), urges him to travel home for the first time in far too long. Welcomed back to Wembley by a mother (Sudha Bhuchar) who fusses and says he’s not eating enough, and a father (Alyy Khan) simply glad to have his boy home, Zed takes a walk down memory lane of old mix tapes, catching up with relatives and hearing their familiar tales.

Director of photography Annika Summerson’s squared aspect is not concerned with the perfect framing of faces or spaces, instead training our eye to search for meaning in the same way Zed does: What is it he is looking for? And how will he know when he’s found it? Accused by a devout cousin of having lost a part of himself, or even selling out, during his time in the States, Zed seems out of place – or at least slightly out of his comfort zone – when he attends mosque with his father. But it is an altercation, excruciating pain and an emergency trip to the hospital that changes Zed’s course entirely.

Delirious metaphysical visions of a veiled man named Toba Tek Singh (after a town that was moved into Pakistan from India after the 1947 Partition), haunt Zed’s waking dreams. “Why is this happening?” he asks a consultant as he is told that an inherited autoimmune condition is wasting away his muscles. Traditional medicine proposed by his father versus the experimental infusion he is to receive at the hospital is yet another conflictual idea that is thrown into a bubbling mix.

These are symptomatic of a film that is chock full of insight, piercing ideas and visual metaphors that unfortunately are never fully realised. Zed’s potential infertility – and inability to continue the family line – and an ill-advised call to Bina from a sperm bank is a continuation of this. There is nonetheless a lot on show in Mogul Mowgli for audiences to look forward to whatever Tariq does next, and of course to watch the unstoppable rise of Ahmed to greater and greater heights.

Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63

Film Review: African Apocalypse

Read Time:3 Minute, 25 Second

★★★★☆

“You’d never know what’s underneath, unless someone told you.” History books, lectures and internet searches cannot possibly substitute hearing first-hand the effects of Europe’s colonialist past on one of the most impoverished countries in the world. In Rob Lemkin’s African Apocalypse, Oxford University student Femi Nylander’s voyage of discovery digs into a trail of bloodthirsty destruction led by one man, echoing the brutal savagery of so many more.

Using Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as his catalyst and point of reference, Femi travels west to east along modern-day Niger’s national highway, following in the footsteps of French military officer Paul Voulet. It was in the late 1890s that from one burned-down village to the next Voulet led his men on a rampage towards Lake Chad. His instructions were that it be captured in order to maintain France’s control of lands they had conquered from falling into the hands of the British.

Undertaking “A journey through space and time for this real-life Kurtz,” Femi is accompanied by two guides, Amina and Assan, as well as soldiers armed to the teeth for their protection. Smashed-in coaches, car wrecks and lorries lying on their sides, as well as the reported threat of terrorist group Boko Haram, all indicate that the voyage could well be a dangerous one. Interjections from Conrad’s novel (read by Toby Stephens), historical documents and recitations of Voulet’s own writings accompany Femi’s progress and provide him (and us) with one part of a framework with which to contextualise this journey.

Black and white photos and library footage of men, women and children missing limbs, mutilated bodies, and decapitated heads on spikes provides another. One that sickens, but that is necessary for the truth of the horrors that occurred along this route not to be forgotten or dismissed. The material, and its assembly by Lemkin and Nylander – who co-wrote the film, is as rich and articulate as it is deeply shocking. The depth of context given is impressive, but it is with the testimony of the many people whose recollections we hear that this background comes to the fore, punching home the film’s message.

“Imagine if they burned your brother to death in front of your own eyes.” Addressed directly by many interviewees such as this man, we are left dumbfounded. The transfer of history here is passed down by stories told from generation to the next. The ‘they’ of whom he speaks are ‘the whites’ for they do not distinguish between European nations. Horrific atrocities committed by Britain, Germany and Belgium elsewhere in Africa are referenced and must be acknowledged as just as severe, if not worse, than those committed by Voulet. Born in Bolton to Nigerian parents, Femi’s dual viewpoint as a son of both Europe and Africa causes him to reflect.

Guilt at being from one nation that committed such devastation, causing problems that persist in Africa today, his ancestors would also have likely suffered at the hands of invading colonialist forces. In voiceover, these emotions are internalised as he attempts to reconcile conflicting ideas of self with what he sees and hears from those with whom he speaks. His two guides seem to turn on him somewhat, surprised at his outward stoicism. But it is understandable for Femi to need time to process – such is the litany of massacres that he hears.

Educated about what occurred in the age of their great-grandparents, the faith of a group of schoolchildren in the redemptive power of conscience demonstrates a maturity well beyond their years – and a belief that Femi considers to give too much credit to those who should take heed. But 2020 has seen a collective awakening to the ills of the past, the atonement and admission of guilt that must be forthcoming from France and other nations. Although African Apocalypse is a drop in the ocean, it is an integral part of a movement whose waves continue to grow.

Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63

Film Review: Wolfwalkers

Read Time:3 Minute, 21 Second

★★★★☆

Adding yet another jewel to their burgeoning crown, Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon’s latest film, Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart’s Wolfwalkers, is a triumphant blend of mythology and history, of soaring imagination and cruel reality.

It is the enchanting adventure story of an unlikely friendship between two girls. They are not so much from different sides of the tracks, but their conflicting starts in life, provenance and points of view are overcome by a shared belief in right and wrong, and the ability – unlike the adult world – to look past first impressions and baseless preconceptions. With the same depth, wit, sincerity and passion of the studio’s former works, Wolfwalkers takes place in their hometown of Kilkenny many years ago. It is 1650 and the people of the growing settlement live in fear of the wolves who inhabit the nearby forest.

Yet within the confines of the city walls, they are kept under the heel of the tyrannical Lord Protector. Though never addressed directly as such, it is clear that this dastardly figure is Cromwellian in all but name; his brutal mission to wipe out the woodland’s beasts a thin disguise for his desire to rid the townsfolk of their – in his view – “paganism”. Submitting the downtrodden, occupied population to his vision of religious will and authority, the colonial metaphors are there to be drawn.

But through the eyes of Robyn (Honor Kneafsey) and Mebh (Eva Whittaker) it is simply a story of good and evil, of questioning authority and following your heart. And this is where Wolfwalkers really excels. Like Cartoon Saloon’s former films – The Breadwinner, Song of the Sea, The Secret of Kells – and in the same vein as the best of Disney-Pixar, the scripting and imagery of their latest operates on a number of rounded, well-articulated levels. Parents and children who see it together (you really should) will have much to discuss during and afterwards.

With this in mind, it is clear from the off that the rebellious, but disciplined Robyn is unlikely to follow all that her father, Bill Goodfellowe (Sean Bean), tells her to do. They have just moved to Ireland from England, and he must prove his worth to the Lord Protector whilst doing what’s right by his daughter. Whip smart, cunning and curious, Robyn longs to be a renowned wolf hunter, too. However, sneaking after him (with pet hawk, Merlin) as Bill ventures into the forest to lay traps, with bow and arrow in hand, she is disarmed and saved by flame-haired force of nature, Mebh.

Pitting their wits and talents against one another, it is not long before a mutual respect and kinship blossoms. And upon learning that Mebh is part-girl, part-wolf, the mysterious adventure and shared voyage of discovery begins in earnest for the new friends. But so does the menace of the blinkered adult world. What follows is as magical and exhilarating to behold as it is profoundly moving. Achieved once again through stunning picture book animation, each and every frame of Wolfwalkers could be considered a work of art in its own right: the rich, autumnal oranges and reds feel particularly vivid at this time of year, and the vibrancy of the natural idyll – both dangerous and enchanting – is contrasted with the squared, angular grey and blue hues of the smelly, oppressive town.

Particularly impressive are the illustrators’ rendering of eyes – be they human or lupine – as this, along with the tremendous vocal work of the actors (Kneafsey and Whittaker deserve special credit), is where Wolfwalkers really finds its expression. Its themes and message are told with such honesty and fervour that it neither downplays them for its younger target audience, nor simplifies them to the point that adults watching along won’t be thoroughly engaged. Exciting, thought-provoking and visually striking, it is everything an animation can and should be for viewers young and old.

Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63

Film Review: One Man and His Shoes

Read Time:3 Minute, 11 Second

★★★★☆

“How much do you get paid, just to wear these shoes?” David Letterman’s question to Michael Jordan is met with shrieks of delight from his studio audience. The soon-to-be global superstar bashfully responds, “A lot,” grinning from ear to ear. It’s 1986, Ronald Reagan is President and capitalism is alive and well in the United States.

But in inner-city areas across the country decimated by the crack cocaine epidemic, the black community needs a figurehead to rally behind, to give them reason to hope. Will this young Chicago Bulls player be the symbol they need to believe in America? We’ve all seen The Last Dance, so we know what came next. However, there is much more to MJ’s meteoric rise, his signature footwear, Nike as a sportswear powerhouse and Yemi Bamiro’s One Man and His Shoes than initially meet the eye.

Here is a kinetic, clear-sighted documentary that – much like the power, agility and balance of its hero – makes swift and unexpected, but very well controlled, changes of direction. The first quarter is an expository flurry of jazzy, graphic design reminiscent of the late 80s and early 90s, magazine covers, MTV-style music videos, news footage and photos. Behind the kaleidoscopic visual aesthetic and dizzying editing, talking heads speak to key issues on and off the court. With black athletes competing in front of predominantly white crowds, basketball, and sport at large, is seen “as a microcosm of society.”

Both the opportunity and responsibility of this new televised era in sports advertising is paramount for changes to be felt at the grass roots level. Nike, trailing to the likes of Reebok, Converse and Adidas, need to find a niche, a way to differentiate themselves. Cue Michael Jordan. Signed by visionary exec Sonny Vacaro, who scouted players before they reached the NBA, a lucrative contract is signed, the first Air Jordans hit the market and we’re off. The NBA banning the black, red and white kicks won them instant street cred, but it was the talents of Spike Lee’s ground-breaking adverts (a total of nine commercials, spanning the 3rd, 4th and 5th iterations of the shoe) that saw Nike enter the stratosphere.

And everyone wanted a piece of the pie, just a sprinkling of that Jordan gold dust. But in a country that sees sneakers as a status symbol to strive towards, what do you do if you don’t have $180 to spend? Cost has far more than monetary value in One Man and His Shoes, and a person’s worth is measured by something other than the new basketball shoes on their feet – however they do make that person a target. In a materialistic consumer society where people view and judge others by their trappings of wealth, success, or style rather than by their actual substance as a human being, killing a young man for his Air Jordans comes all too easily. The American Dream, as one interviewee says, nothing more than a myth.

Bamiro dedicates his film to Joshua D. Woods, who is one such man. One Man and His Shoes ends on a bitter, poignant note with questions left begging for corporate giants uninterested in answering. Nike’s silence on these matters is deafening, and Bamiro’s incredulity upon hearing that Jordan sent the Woods family a pair of Air Jordans to somehow atone for the death or their brother and son is telling. It adds insult to the injury of the film’s final period, and suggests that perhaps the great ball player could, and should, have done a lot more for those who worshipped him most.

Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63

#LFF 2020: Ammonite review

Read Time:3 Minute, 18 Second

★★★☆☆

“Last year at this time we had snow, and now it’s nice.” An earth-shattering, potentially life-altering sea change occurs behind closed doors for two women living under the constraints of Victorian conservatism in Francis Lee‘s Ammonite.

Encompassing the cold, muted tone of the entire script – and indeed the era, this one line demonstrates, in just a few words, how its restrictive emotional restraint is conversely both its strongest asset and greatest limitation. There is an invisible, intangible barrier between audience and character that sets a distance between those looking and those being observed in Lee’s second feature. Much cannot be uttered out loud, must be kept secret, cannot be acted upon; and it is in this conflict between desire and convention that lies the crux of this narrative. The film tells of one fateful season in the life of pioneering palaeontologist Mary Anning, here embodied by a breathtaking Kate Winslet.

Through a literal pane of glass, the film is bookended by scenes in which we contemplate a fossil she uncovered, exhibited at the British Museum, but listed under the name of the man to whom she sold it out of a practical need for the money. Of the many ceilings that were in place in the first half of the nineteenth century that we encounter, male chauvinism – and credit taken for the skilled work of a woman – is high among them. Indeed, in the opening seconds, on her knees scrubbing the parquet floor of the exhibition, a scullery maid is literally pushed aside while undertaking her duties.

Through a modern lens, the manner in which we view the interplay of past with present perspective is one of a number of undoubted strong points to Lee’s direction. The film is handsomely made and the Dorset coastline has never been such a bleak, wild, roaring wonder to behold and to hear as it is exploring its coastline with Mary. And as in his astonishing Yorkshire-set debut, God’s Own Country, the arrival of a stranger to her provincial hometown of Lyme Regis lights a fire of sexual awakening long ignored, or purposefully suppressed, by the thick clay of the Jurassic Coast and illiberal attitudes of the time.

But how brightly will that fire be allowed to burn? Discoveries of far more than fossilised sea creatures will occur as Mary’s daily routine of trawling for buried treasure is interrupted by Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan). Come to take the sea air and convalesce after losing a child, she is no sooner introduced to Mary than her husband (James McArdle) departs on a geological survey, leaving his wife under Mary’s begrudging tutelage. From frosty beginnings, an imperceptible gravitational pull draws the two women ever closer together.

The issue of miscarriage, another that men leave women to deal with alone, with little more than a second thought, is brought out further by Gemma Jones’ nuanced performance as Mary’s mother. It is rather refreshing, in fact, to be able to say that Ammonite is a film without any strong male performances. The irony being that their influence is felt throughout as a barrier to progress. However, the film’s best moments come in the exquisite, unspoken lines of communication, nervous glances, tentative physical closeness between two actors on very top form.

And yet, in spite of two committed performances, when an unwelcome piece of correspondence causes a rupture, there is not the wave of emotion you might expect, or want to feel. Of course, the extent to which and how effectively the objective tone resonates will differ from viewer to viewer. Given its place and time, Ammonite’s coldness is perhaps apt, but its stiff upper lip may well not do enough to make yours quiver, either.

The BFI London Film Festival 2020 takes place from 7-18 October. bfi.org.uk/london-film-festival

Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63

#LFF 2020: Limbo review

Read Time:3 Minute, 15 Second

★★★★☆

Deadpan, absurdist comedy may not seem like an obvious genre choice for a story about the cruel, grinding bureaucracy of the UK’s asylum process. But five years since the playful oddness of his debut feature, Pikadero, Ben Sharrock returns in style with Limbo.

The Scottish director again demonstrates a measured human sensibility, this time with the plight of a group of refugees seeking the chance for new lives in Britain. Respectfully toying with the bounds of political correctness, whilst simultaneously laying waste to its hypocrisy with heavy doses of satirical humour, it’s a tightrope line which Sharrock walks with relish.

Knowing when to turn frowns upside down and when to keep his distance, Limbo opens with a smiley face drawn in chalk on a blackboard. The next shot frames a woman’s face, forcibly neutral. Later, the film’s two main characters, stifled musician Omar (a very strong turn from Amir El-Masry) and Freddie Mercury superfan Farhad (Vikash Bhai), will try to guess whether the other is grinning or frowning by covering their mouths, judging happiness or sadness by their eyes alone.

Why all this focus on facial expressions? Because, as is summed up by the title of a cultural awareness 101 lesson, they never tell the whole picture. “Sex: is a smile an invitation?” A sour-faced Helga (Sidse Babett Knudsen) has to rebuff the touchy-feely advances of Boris (Kenneth Collard) with an exaggerated wag of the finger. But it is the awkward, disbelieving looks from the assembled class in reverse shot that prompt the laughs. However well-intentioned this course of integration may be, its tone-deaf patronising belittles its pupils.

The film, however, neither sneers at, nor pities, nor wallows in this situation – or its subjects. Instead, from first to last, Sharrock – who also penned the script – gently tickles ribs while giving a frequent punch to the guts without ever really going for the jugular. Though out of sight, out of mind may be the go-to strategy for many when it comes to refugees, especially in light of recent political developments, each of these men has a story, a past, nuance, talent, intelligence and desires. And in his dedication to their native languages, attention to character detail and development of each, Sharrock does them and his film credit.

The respect he shows them does not match the less than warm welcome they receive from most of the locals of the sparsely populated Uist Islands, flung off the north west coast of Scotland. Stuck in shabby hostels, the wind, rain and snow outside are unrelenting. Even cinematographer Nick Cooke’s squared aspect cuts off any chance of us enjoying the brutal, beautiful landscape. But it keeps us focused. And as the boys watch repeat episodes of Friends, queue at the one phone box on the island to make calls home and eagerly eye the postman whenever letters are due, the thudding monotony, hopelessness and claustrophobia of it all begins to take its toll.

Omar, who carries his oud (an instrument a little like a lute) around with him at all times but never plays, exemplifies the film’s title more than any other. Fraught relations with a brother who stayed in Syria to fight and parents who push and pull for him to stay or return, his static purgatory is as spiritual, personal as it is literal. Although a devastating discovery and the departure of a dear friend force the floodgates to open a little, Sharrock’s resistance to easy answers or an easy way out is in-keeping with a tale in which the arbitrary flick of a pen, a stamp on a letter, can change someone’s life irrevocably – and yet may never come.

The BFI London Film Festival 2020 takes place from 7-18 October. bfi.org.uk/london-film-festival

Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63

#LFF 2020: Notturno review

Read Time:3 Minute, 26 Second

★★★★☆

All the world’s a stage for veteran documentary filmmaker Gianfranco Rosi. Notturno, his latest piece of deeply humanist cinematic theatre, concerns itself with the aftermath of the military coups, authoritarianism and foreign imperialism that have plagued the Middle East since World War One and the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

Those without a detailed knowledge of the region’s political history over the last century need not be put off by the enormity of the opening intertitles. For as in his astounding 2016 feature Fire At Sea, it is the individual stories of ordinary people that are Rosi’s focus. Filmed over three years in the borderlands of Iraq, Kurdistan, Syria and Lebanon, Notturno is a snapshot – in a patchwork of disparate vignettes – that captures the effects of trauma inflicted on and hardships lived by the civilian population.

Whilst the echoes of former conflicts and adversaries certainly still resonate, the Italian-American director presents the ongoing threat of ISIS as the latest in a very long line of regimes which must be confronted. There is no interviewing of talking heads, no direct interaction between filmmaker and subject in any way. Reportedly trimmed down from 90 hours of footage, Rosi’s wide-angle camera dispassionately captures people going about their daily lives, surviving. They are unrelated individuals who seem to have nothing to do with one another, but have a great deal in common.

We move from a former prison in ruins where a group of women sing laments to their dead sons, to the eldest boy of a family fishing by night and shooting birds by day to provide for his mother and siblings, to a couple enjoying an evening out. There are military personnel, too – they patrol desolate wastelands, clear already empty buildings and stand in silence at borders looking out to a misty horizon we cannot see. What lies beyond it? Metaphors and questions hang as heavy as the dark clouds that blanket the film, adding to its oppressive energy. Some may find the staccato jumps of place and point of view a little troublesome.

Cuts from one thread to the next and back again without pretext or explanation do not flow naturally or create a cohesive narrative. But should a documentary investigating such unimaginable savagery be an easy, convenient watch? Absolutely not. Given Notturno’s subject matter it is right that Rosi leaves some of that work up to us. The key to engaging in his vision comes at the halfway point of the film where we enter a school, or kind of rehabilitation centre, where by way of felt tip pens and pencil, displaced children draw their thoughts, their memories of the horrors they have witnessed.

“The night scares me so much,” says one young girl, struggling to sleep due to the nightmarish memories which haunt her. A boy, who must be no older than eight, stutters breathlessly as he recounts the actions of the ISIS men: beheadings, hangings, burning the soles of children’s feet, gunshot wounds. It is sickening that any child should have such images imprinted on their mind but again Rosi’s patient, objective distance is maintained. In these heartbreaking scenes lies the crux of Notturno’s purpose.

These children’s drawings allow them to explore and explain their trauma, to open up to their teacher about what they saw, how it makes them feel, what she must do to make them feel safe. Two photos of a tortured man held tenderly by his weeping mother and the images we see onscreen have the same purpose. They prompt questions, discussion. And at a psychiatric hospital we visit on several occasions, where a number of the patients are rehearsing a play on their Homeland’s past, present and destined future, word and image combine. They are part of the process of healing, of understanding and coming to terms with trauma, so as to be able to look forward.

The BFI London Film Festival 2020 takes place from 7-18 October. bfi.org.uk/london-film-festival

Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63