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. curzonhomecinema.com

Christopher Machell

Film Review: 76 Days

Read Time:3 Minute, 40 Second

★★★★☆

The coronavirus and its consequences have already become the subject of cinema. Aside from last year’s lockdown movies like Host and Songbird, Alex Gibney released his j’accuse against the Trump administration’s response in the form of Totally Under Control.

In contrast, 76 Days focuses on the beginning of the outbreak in the Chinese city of Wuhan. Filming in four hospitals, Hao Wu, Weixi Chen and a fellow filmmaker who has chosen to remain anonymous have produced a fly on the wall account of the ICUs and hospital corridors as the nurses and doctors desperately try to deal with a disease which is quickly overpowering their resources and manpower.

Right at the very beginning of the film we see a carer dressed in full PPE and completely distraught as her father dies in the other room. While his body is bagged and wheeled away, she breaks down and her colleagues attempt to console her. Even so, her boss is mindful to remind her they all have to work that afternoon. It is a heartbreaking moment and has the immediate effect of showing that the lines are blurred between the healthcare professionals and their patients. The doctors and nurses struggle to provide care, but they also just struggle to stay on their feet. Many is the moment when an exhausted member of staff can be seen slumped in the corridor, catching some much needed sleep.

As the first patients begin to arrive a scene that looks like a zombie movie plays out. The patients gather banging on the door and seeking admittance and treatment. The ward will only take fifty of them. From the chaotic and confusing scenes, stories, however, begin to emerge. And even through the PPE and the intubations, we can discern characters. There’s “granddad”, a Party member and fisherman who is querrellous and impatient to go home.

It turns out he’s also suffering from dementia, something that becomes painfully evident as he wanders the hospital looking for a way out. On the other end of the age spectrum, a COVID positive mother gives birth to a daughter that the nurses nickname “Little Penguin” and who must be treated separately. An old couple are also separated and treated in different rooms, concerned for each other even as they both fall increasingly sick.

Meanwhile, the disease takes its toll and personal items of the deceased – cell phones and identity cards – are collected in a plastic container. One nurse is charged with contacting the families and returning the items, which she does with tact and sympathy. Outside the streets are deserted and those lucky enough to be discharged are thoroughly disinfected before being sent to hotels to quarantine. The doctors and nurses are thanked by the survivors and family members. One of them declared “You are all charging forward, facing the enemy fire.”

Volunteers have also turned up, declaring it their “Hero’s dream”. It almost feels like this could be propaganda if it wasn’t for the unvarnished view we get of the health system with sellotape and plastic bags used to supplement the PPE and the fact that one of the filmmakers prefers not to put their name on the film publicly. Maybe to just not be cynical for a moment, people are capable of great heroism.

In fact, the paradox of the work is that even though these shrouded figures are almost comical, shuffling around in their plastic gowns, hoods, masks and bagged feet (Little Penguins themselves!): their humanity and heroism shines through. One of them holds an old woman’s hand and assures her that though her family cannot visit her, “We’re your family now, Auntie”.

For all our own “clapping for carers”, in the UK there has been a squeamishness about actually seeing what is going on in our hospitals: a reluctance to confront the actual physical suffering and death that goes with the pandemic. In this way, the human cost of the pandemic has been statistical, a subject of graphs and tea time press conferences, if it hasn’t touched you directly. 76 Days breaks through all of that. It shows the desperation, the pain and the suffering, but it also reveals the spirit and fortitude of those tasked with caring for the sick.

76 Days is available to stream now on Dogwoof On Demand. watch.dogwoof.com

John Bleasdale | @drjonty

Film Review: Stardust

Read Time:2 Minute, 28 Second

★★★☆☆

It’s been five years since David Bowie passed away and filmmaker Gabriel Range has acknowledged the anniversary with Stardust, an unauthorised biopic which commemorates the pop icon’s early struggles with stardom. The film stumbles between moods, caught between overt mythmaking and something closer to historical detail, which leaves an enjoyable but incomplete picture of the great musician’s life.

Stardust follows Bowie (Johnny Flynn) as he tries to drum up interest in his latest album, The Man Who Sold the World, by going on a month-long US publicity tour. He is accompanied by publicist Ron Oberman (Marc Maron) who sets up a series of lowkey gigs to compliment his radio bookings and interviews. Journalists are unsure what to make of the album’s themes of madness and paranoia, and Bowie’s own uneasiness with these topics is foreshadowed by some family troubles waiting back at home.

Without permission to use Bowie’s own songs, the film can’t move into the crowd-pleasing jukebox territory of Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody – although dialogue such as “Come on David, Marc Bolan is here” suggest a more self-conscious biographic style might once have been considered – and Stardust equally avoids the more fractured approach of Dylan biopic I’m Not There which might have suited Bowie’s protean, self-constructing approach to celebrity. Instead, the film is closest in style to the similarly unauthorised Hendrix biopic, Jimi: All Is by My Side: making a decent fist of capturing the context and formative stages behind the rock iconography, but never quite blasting off to match the music’s brilliance.

There are still plenty of things to like about the film. Jena Malone gives a memorable performance as an overbearing Angie Bowie and Marc Maron is well cast as the hangdog publicity veteran chaperoning his awkward pop star across the States. The seventies set dressing and mood lighting all contribute to an enjoyable dive bar atmosphere, and the film begins to sparkle when slipping into the conventions of an odd couple road movie. However, occasional flashes of melodrama flatten that vibrancy, leaving a sense that Flynn – whilst well cast as Bowie-the-musician – can’t quite handle the story’s darker threads.

By having Bowie perform covers of real-life musical inspirations such as Jacques Brel and The Yardbirds, the film heightens its sense of a musician in search of his voice, experimenting with styles and personas. (A necessary step, it’s suggested, in the creation of Ziggy Stardust). In that respect, Stardust works hard to make a virtue of what’s available, but it’s difficult to escape the sense that a music biopic without the music will always be unconvincing. The film should scratch an itch for the Bowie obsessive hungering for a decent take on the overall mythology, but at the same time, it may leave that very audience wondering when, if at all, the South London lad will get a more comprehensive big screen outing.

Tom Duggins | @duggins_tom

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: 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

Read Time:2 Minute, 36 Second

★★☆☆☆

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

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: 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: 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

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

Small Axe: Alex Wheatle review

Read Time:2 Minute, 34 Second

★★★★★

The latest offering from Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series, Alex Wheatle (co-written with Alastair Siddons) features an impressive debut from Sheyi Cole in the titular role. The film follows the early life of the award-winning writer from his time in care, his love of DJ-ing to a short stint in prison where he was introduced to the world of books and resolved to write his own.

Alex endured a bleak and loveless childhood, a victim of Britain’s child welfare system. His mother, a married woman, deserted him at birth, while his putative father placed him with a private foster mother. Alex is shunted between council nursery, a children’s home and foster care, where he is bullied and beaten by the very people who are supposed to look after him.

Alex’s growing love of music is a refuge from loneliness as much as anything else. As he grows older, he endures racism at school and is treated with contempt and stark violence by his teachers, strait-jacketed and thrown onto the floor of an empty hall. McQueen lingers over this moment – the stillness of Alex, his loss of trust, his dead eyes – a bitter scene that is replicated in his later, equally brutal, encounters with the police.

When Alex arrives in London, he is given a room in a hostel in Brixton and is taken under the wing of Dennis (Jonathan Jules). Alex has been institutionalised and takes time to find his feet. Dennis teaches him the street lingo, how to dress and how to be cool. Soon enough Alex is hustling with the rest of them, DJ-ing and writing lyrics about Brixton life, until he is swept up in the anger of the Brixton Uprising in 1981, which lands him a stint in prison. There he meets Simeon (Robbie Gee) a great bear of man who he initially treats with open aggression, calling him a “dirty fucking rasta” as he jumps on him. Simeon offers Alex his friendship, listens to him and lends him books, telling him: “If you don’t know your past, you won’t know your future.”

Over a whirlwind 65-minutes, we watch Alex’s rite of passage in Brixton and his unexpected ‘awakening’ in prison. Remarkably, this is Cole first time in front of the camera. He approaches Alex’s emotional journey as a teenager with a sure touch, switching effortlessly between innocence and a gradual hardening. Cole conveys a range of emotions from shyness and disbelief through hostility to joy when he discovers a passion for music and a sense of community. In prison, Alex discovers a love of reading, the curiosity to explore his past and the courage to write about his experiences. The film ends just as Alex embarks on his career path, which will include an MBE for services to literature.  

Alex Wheatle, the fourth of the Small Axe films created by Steve McQueen, airs at 9pm on Sunday 6 December, BBC One and BBC iPlayer.

Lucy Popescu | @lucyjpop