Thursday, 15 October 2020

Friendship's Death (Peter Wollen, 1987)


Film theorists Peter Wollen and Laura Mulvey were married for 25 years and made a number of films together, including Amy! and Riddles of the Sphinx.  As a filmmaker, Wollen—who died late last year—branched out on his own to make Friendship's Death, which was to be his only solo feature film.  While Wollen will always be best remembered for his seminal 1969 book Signs and Meaning in the Cinema, his 1987 rarity Friendship's Death is a film that fully deserves its new 4K remaster, which plays as part of the Treasures strand at the London Film Festival from Saturday until Tuesday.  If you happen to miss its festival screenings, a much-needed Blu-ray of this new version will be available at some point over the next year; the disc was due to be released this year, but scheduling issues have pushed it back, with the ETA now being June 2021.

Friendship's Death is effectively a two-hander between Bill Patterson's war correspondent and Tilda Swinton's alien.  Friendship, the extra-terrestrial, is on her way to Massachusetts Institute of Technology when she drifts off course and finds herself in Jordan, which happens to be in the middle of the Black September conflict of 1970.  There, she's steered away from danger by Patterson's Sullivan, and the two go on to enjoy a number of conversations that both sides appear to find equally fascinating.  Sullivan isn't sure whether to believe Friendship's story—she looks and sounds completely human, and he voices suspicions that she might be an agent—but he's certainly interested in finding out more about her.  As the Palestinians and Jordanians go at it outside, Friendship and Sullivan hole up in a PLO-controlled hotel; over a bottle or three of whisky, the pair discuss a range of topics including technology, humanity, football, and of course the conflict that rages around them.  

Although it was made 33 years ago, much of Friendship's Death's dialogue feels remarkably fresh and relevant, with both the man–machine interface and the Israeli–Palestinian conflict remaining two ongoing issues that aren't going away anytime soon.  The point, or at least one of several, appears to be that Friendship is much more sensitive than many humans, and this is something we've witnessed in many a sci-fi tale, with Steven Spielberg's A.I. Artificial Intelligence featuring an especially poignant example.  Does Friendship have as soul, or just a facsimile of one?  It doesn't really seem to matter to Sullivan, who enjoys Friendship's company regardless of what may or may not lie beneath her warm, inquisitive exterior.

Perhaps the only gripe with Friendship's Death is that is often feels a bit too much like a filmed play, with two actors and as many sets forming the bulk of the snappy running time.  But that isn't too much of a problem when you have characters and dialogue as engaging as this.  The two leads are both very good here; Swinton, currently starring in Pedro Almodóvar's The Human Voice (which also plays at this year's LFF), gives an appealing performance in a role that's very different from the sort we're now used to seeing her play, while Patterson, just a few years on from his great turn in Bill Forsyth's chronically underrated Comfort and Joy, imbues the world-weary Sullivan with a compassion that belies his cynical, battle-hardened demeanour.  Friendship's Death is something of a minor gem, and its new lease of life is extremely welcome.

Darren Arnold

Image: BFI

Tuesday, 13 October 2020

Rose: A Love Story (Jennifer Sheridan, 2020)


This terrific debut feature from director Jennifer Sheridan is one of just three films in the Cult strand at this year's London Film Festival.  The Cult section of the LFF brochure is typically where I start when I'm circling what to watch at the festival, and although I would have liked to have seen a few more titles in there this year, this paring down is in line with the festival having been streamlined in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.  On the upside, it means I should manage to see everything Cult has to offer this year, as scheduling conflicts almost always get in the way of me completing a full set when it comes to catching up with everything in this particular strand.  With only a few slots to play with, the LFF programmers had to get it exactly right this year, and Rose: A Love Story, which had its world premiere this evening, is an excellent choice to fly the flag for the Cult strand in these troubled times.  The film screens at the festival from today until Friday.

Rose, which features facemasks, surgical gloves, and a couple spending most of their time indoors, feels very appropriate for the world we're currently living in.  Rose (Sophie Rundle) and Sam (Matt Stokoe, also the film's writer) live in an isolated house in the woods, where they have minimal contact with the outside world.  Their home has no electricity, but is powered by a petrol generator; Sam has an agreement that enables fuel to be delivered to him, but a rupture in this supply forces him to venture further afield in order to keep the generator topped up.  Sam's trip to the filling station has a definite air of risk to it, much like the feelings many of us had (and may still have) when venturing out for supplies during lockdown.  While Sam succeeds in getting the fuel, there's an altercation connected to the original non-delivery of the petrol, one that seriously spooks Rose when she learns of the incident and its potential to threaten her and Sam's off-the-grid existence.

While Sam is at the garage, he collects a parcel containing leeches he has ordered, and we witness him, more than once, administering the bloodsucking creatures to his own body.  After a while a picture emerges: Rose has a taste for blood, and therefore must be kept away from it at all costs, and the jars of well-fed leeches act as a source of sustenance, should the urges become too strong; this vampiric tendency also explains why Rose doesn't really venture outside of the poorly-lit house.  While the petrol station episode is yet to have repercussions, Sam and Rose's idyll is nevertheless shattered when young runaway Amber (Olive Gray) gets caught in one of the many gin traps surrounding the well-guarded property.  Amber's leg is broken by the trap, and Sam helps her but is naturally at great pains to stop the blood making too much of a mess.  With Rose banished upstairs, Sam cauterises the wound and resets the leg, then reluctantly agrees to let the injured girl stay the night.

While vampire tales are certainly nothing new, Rose manages to come up with an interesting take on the genre in that it is, above all else, a human story, one in which Sam and Rose's relationship is most definitely at the forefront, with the horror elements used both sparingly and effectively.  At times ,the film put me in mind of Leave No Trace and Let the Right One In (and its remake Let Me In), but somehow the film never once feels derivative.  The nicely-photographed wintry locale really adds to the sense of isolation, and, as is typical for films in which characters are doing their best to stay unnoticed, we take in the sight of the protagonists going about their strict daily routine, all the while acutely aware that their peace simply can't last—which provokes mixed feelings: we're rooting for Rose and Sam, but also wish for an agent of change to come along and shake things up.  As its subtitle informs us, Rose is very much a love story, one that proves both fresh and appealing, and it is a far cry from the tired, formulaic horror that typically rears its head at this time of year..

Darren Arnold

Images: Strike Media

Sunday, 11 October 2020

The Cheaters (Paulette McDonagh, 1930)


Sydney's pioneering McDonagh sisters made several self-funded films, including Those Who Love and The Far Paradise.  Their third silent festure, The Cheaters, was filmed in 1929 and released the following year, when the McDonaghs filmed some additional scenes in an effort to convert the film into a partial talkie using an improvised sound recoding device; sadly, the makeshift system, however ingenious, didn't achieve the desired results, and the film worked better as a silent feature—although it still underperformed on its limited domestic release, with a deluge of American sound films brushing it aside.  The film has now been lovingly restored by Australia's National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA), with this new print of the film (in its original silent version) enjoying some outings at festivals including Melbourne and Sydney; it screens at the London Film Festival from today until Wednesday.

The Cheaters finds Paulette McDonagh in the role of writer-director, while Phyllis McDonagh serves as the film's art director.  Isabella McDonagh, under her stage name Marie Lorraine, stars as Paula Marsh, whose father is a career criminal bent on taking revenge on the man who once shopped him for embezzling from his employer.  Paula is part of her father's operation and is involved in scams such as the theft of an expensive necklace, which is depicted in an early, entertaining sequence.  Business is good for the Marsh family, but the situation grows more complicated when Paula falls in love with the son of the man her father's aiming to take down.  While Paula would very much like to leave her life of crime behind and marry the man of her dreams, her father wants her to take part in one last heist—and we all know how those tend to work out.  What could possibly go wrong?

Although The Cheaters starts out strongly—the aforementioned scene in which the Marsh gang swindle a jeweller out of a pricey item really is great stuff—it soon runs out of steam as Paula's love life takes precedence over her criminal activities, and what promised to be a fun caper film soon gets bogged down by an unappealing love story.  While silent movies were always at an obvious disadvantage and often had to concentrate on quickly driving the plot forward, usually at the expense of nuanced storytelling, The Cheaters finds itself in the strange position where it slows down the pace, but then proceeds to do very little with the time and space it has carved out; the result stretches the already-thin topic of Paula's romance to breaking point.  It's a pity the film judders to a halt like this, as it really does come roaring out of the traps, and the setup is extremely promising.  Given the time in which the film was made, there was only going to be one outcome for the villain of the piece (Paula's father), which makes for a conclusion that may well prove unsatisfying for present-day audiences.  On a more positive note, the production values are excellent, as is the use of locations.

To criticise The Cheaters for its long, dull stretch may be to miss the point of this release, which is to show off a sparkling new print of a film that, like Chess of the Wind, could very easily have been lost to the sands of time.  It is estimated that up to 90% of silent films are gone, so the survival of The Cheaters is something to be celebrated.  Since its inception five years ago, the NFSA's restoration program has seen more than 20 Australian classics—ranging from silent movies to films from the early 1990s—preserved and restored before being re-released in cinemas.  The Cheaters may not be the best example of silent cinema, but we should all be extremely grateful for the chance to see it. 

Darren Arnold

Image: image.net

Saturday, 10 October 2020

Chess of the Wind (Mohammad Reza Aslani, 1976)


The story behind the magnificent 4K restoration of The Chess Game of the Wind is arguably more interesting than the film itself: Mohammad Reza Aslani's debut feature endured a disastrous premiere at the 1976 edition of the Tehran International Film Festival, and the film was subsequently yanked from both the festival and public view.  To add insult to injury, the film was then banned in the wake of the Iranian Revolution of 1978—not that it needed any government assistance when it came so slipping into obscurity. For the next four decades, the film was largely considered to be lost, save for a very distressed VHS copy that changed hands between those sufficiently determined to dig out this holy grail of Iranian cinema.  The possibilliy of a "proper" version of this lost film ever turning up seemed less than remote, but in 2015 director Aslani was visiting a a flea market when he stumbled across the original negatives, which he duly purchased.  Aslani then sent the reels to France, where they were restored thanks to funds from the George Lucas Family Foundation.   


The Chess Game of the Wind, variously known as Chess of the Wind (the title it plays under at the London Film Festival, where it screens from today until Tuesday), A Game of Chess Lost to the Wind and Shatranj-e baad (Farsi), centres on a wealthy, Qajar dynasty-era family squabbling over a large inheritance, and as such plays along the lines of Rian Johnson's recent smash Knives Out, which screened at last year's LFF.  Although The Chess Game of the Wind contains far less humour than Johnson's enjoyable (if hugely overrated) film, there are some striking similarities between the two movies, including the significant role played by servants as the story twists its way to its climax, not to mention the lengths those circling the honey pot will go to in order to secure what they see as being rightfully theirs.  The Chess Game of the Wind features a dank, creepy basement littered with barrels of acid, so it's not too surprising to find that not all of these characters make it to the end—what was it Chekhov said about a gun?


One way in which The Chess Game of the Wind most definitely doesn't resemble Knives Out is in its accessibility; Aslani's film proves a difficult one to get a grip on, but it may well be that things become slightly clearer on subsequent viewings.  While obviously set many decades before the time in which it was made, the film was presumably a commentary on a particular section of 1970s Iranian society, one whose lives would be changed considerably once the Shah was overthrown.  Thus, the film serves as both a snapshot of pre-revolution Iran and a reminder of a time in which such a project could be made in that country; just a couple of years later, the film's lack of Islamic content cemented its place in the cinematic wilderness.

The Chess Game of the Wind, one of only two features directed by Aslani (the other being 2008's The Green Fire), stands one of the the best recent examples of a film being pulled back from the brink of extinction, and to go from that perilous situation to this incredible print is little short of miraculous.  Sometimes, restored versions of movies fail to produce a significant improvement, but the difference between the old and new prints of this film—and I've seen the creaky VHS copy that was once the only option—really is like night and day.  The Chess Game of the Wind film deserves to be seen simply on the basis of its remarkable, unlikely rescue, and while there is certainly a most handsome movie in there, the content will most likely remain overshadowed by the sheer improbability of its survival.

Darren Arnold

Images: image.net

Friday, 9 October 2020

Relic (Natalie Erika James, 2020)

 

This debut feature from Natalie Erika James has been hyped as one of the year's better horror films but, despite laying some excellent groundwork, it ultimately takes the audience down a well-trodden path that proves to be much less fun than its setup promised.  Despite a trio of decent performances and some fine production values, this Australian feature just doesn't have enough about it to carry it over the line.  Relic plays as one of three films in the Cult strand at this year's London Film Festival, which has been streamlined in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic; the film screens at the LFF from today until Monday. Viewers in Australia can watch the film via Stan, and it is also available on other platforms, including Prime Video and iTunes.


When the elderly Edna (Robyn Nevin) goes missing from her remote home, her daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) arrive to join the search for the vulnerable old woman.  Kay and Sam find Edna's house locked from the inside, and although they manage to find a way into the building, there are no clues as to what has happened to its owner.  The house is littered with Post-it notes containing basic reminders for Edna, and there's a strange black mould growing on the walls.  The pair settle into their temporary home, then join the hunt for the missing relative.  After a lengthy, fruitless search through the nearby woods, hope starts to fade, but Edna suddenly reappears in her house, seemingly unaware of her absence and none too appreciative of the exasperated Kay's numerous questions.   


Edna is examined by a doctor who finds no major problems, although there is a strange bruise on her chest.  Kay is still far from happy with the situation and makes an appointment to look round a Melbourne nursing home; Sam, who disagrees with this plan, tells Edna about this and offers to move in with her gran in order to avoid the need for the care home.  All is far from well in the house: Kay notices a strange, indistinct organism under Edna's bed; Sam discovers a secret passageway to another section of the building; and Edna tries to eat, then bury, a family photo album as she feels these measures are safer than leaving it inside the house.  Edna's behaviour grows yet more erratic, and she violently retrieves a ring she'd previously gifted to Sam, claiming her granddaughter had stolen it from her.  Jamie, a neighbour with Down Syndrome, refuses to enter the house when Sam invites him in, and it is later revealed that on his last visit a game of hide-and-seek went horribly wrong when Edna locked the young man in a cupboard and proceeded to forget he was in there.      


Relic does well to create an unsettling atmosphere, but unfortunately can't sustain it for anything like the duration of its running time.  The scenes in which Sam wanders through endless, looping hallways recall similar stretches in Mark Z. Danielewski's excellent novel House of Leaves, but unfortunately Relic is missing the spark that made that book so memorably chilling.  Of the three main performers, Heathcote is the most impressive, and she makes Sam a sympathetic, believable young woman, one who has her own problems long before she arrives at her grandmother's home;  Mortimer and Nevin are similarly committed, and the performances really can't be faulted.  While Relic has something interesting to say about the futility of watching elderly loved ones go into mental and physical decline, it's ultimately an understuffed, predictable and unsatisfying film, albeit one that demonstrates a certain talent on the part of James; it would be interesting to see what she might come up with if armed with a much stronger script. 

Darren Arnold

Images: image.net

Wednesday, 7 October 2020

Shirley (Josephine Decker, 2020)

 

Thou Wast Mild and Lovely was one of two films (the other being Butter on the Latch) by Josephine Decker that screened at the 2014 London Film Festival, and it proved to be an an absorbing if rather oblique effort.  Decker's Shirley, an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Susan Scarf Merrell about The Legend of Hell House author Shirley Jackson, is a much more direct work, and it screens at this year's LFF from Friday until Monday.  Shirley is not your usual biopic, but rather has more in common with the likes of The Damned United, which was also based on a novel in which the author liberally interpreted a specific period in its subject's life.  As with The Damned United, which focused on football manager Brian Clough's brief, ill-fated spell in charge of Leeds United, Shirley isn't scared to get among the demons that scratch away inside the genius it depicts.


Elisabeth Moss, one of the finest high-profile actors currently working, is predictably great as Jackson, a woman who struggled with several debilitating conditions as she strove to realise her writing projects.  Michael Stuhlbarg, that fine actor from the Coens' A Serious Man, plays Jackson's husband, the critic and academic Stanley Hyman.  Hyman is far from the ideal spouse, and this crashing bore plays a very strange game with his wife, appearing to care while constantly looking to undermine Shirley and her work  It must be said that the razor-sharp Shirley is no stranger herself to playing games, and there are many occasions when she gives back at least as good as she gets.  When a young couple enters Shirley and Stanley's home, they prove a fine diversion for the difficult author and her boorish husband, who take to toying with these rather green newlyweds. 


Rosie and Fred Nemser (Odessa Young, Logan Lerman) are the pair who temporarily move into Jackson's Vermont home; the callow Fred is hoping to secure a tenure at the college where Stanley teaches, while the pregnant Rosie soon gets railroaded into cooking, cleaning, and keeping a watchful eye on Shirley.  Rosie is very interested in Shirley and her work, and although the younger woman is initially treated with contempt by the established writer, the two gradually form a strange bond; on the evidence presented in Shirley, one might conclude that Jackson was incapable of forming a straightforward relationship with anyone.  While the dynamic between these two women is developing, Stanley is busy manipulating the earnest Fred, who is continually badgering his mentor for feedback on his dissertation; Stanley basically strings Fred along and clearly has no intention of appointing this younger, more attractive man to a position that might prove distracting for the cohort of all-female Bennington College.    


Shirley is both well acted and well made, and Moss does very well in a tricky role, one in which she remains sympathetic even when playing elaborate psychological games with the undeserving Nemsers; while Stanley certainly deserves every brickbat that's slung his way, Fred and Rosie arrive in town as an optimistic young couple who simply want to settle down and get on in life, yet both are eventually worn down by the cynical nature and casual cruelty of their hosts.  Comparisons with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? are inevitable, but the impressive Shirley, which boasts none other than Martin Scorsese as its executive producer, is very much its own movie, one that will hopefully see the talented Josephine Decker find a much wider audience.

Darren Arnold

Images: image.net

Thursday, 10 September 2020

The Painted Bird (Václav Marhoul, 2019)


Tobruk director Václav Marhoul's new film The Painted Bird enjoyed quite a run on last year's festival circuit, where it impressed and disturbed audiences in cities including London, Venice and Toronto.  Even before anyone had seen the finished film - an adaptation of the eponymous novel by Being There author Jerzy Kosiński - word had it that this was one of the most gruelling cinematic experiences of recent years.  Its festival screenings - which saw countless walkouts from queasy viewers - did much to cement the film's notoriety, but the film's general release was pushed back by nearly six months on account of the COVID-19 pandemic.  However, this Friday finally sees The Painted Bird released in cinemas (and on VOD) courtesy of Eureka Entertainment, who will be handling distribution in the UK and Ireland; the film is due open in the Netherlands next month.


As the Second World War heads towards its conclusion, a young Jewish boy (Petr Kotlár) is sent to stay with his aunt so that he might avoid the attentions of the Nazis.  Whether this plan would have worked or not, we'll never know, as the aunt suddenly dies in the film's early stages, leaving the boy to fend for himself.  And so the unnamed child's odyssey begins, as he trudges his way across the Eastern Front, a pitiless theatre of conflict that could quite easily pass for the unenlightened medieval milieu of Czech classic Marketa Lazarová.  This particular hell is mainly populated by those capable of seemingly boundless cruelty, and any brief flickers of respite stand out like a sore thumb; the few souls who look to help the child include a kindly if misguided priest (Harvey Keitel), a sympathetic German soldier (Stellan Skarsgård), and a taciturn Soviet sniper (Barry Pepper).  But if you start to believe that comfort will always come from those played by the more recognisable actors among the cast, think again: Udo Kier's miller and Julian Sands' farmer stand as two of the film's most sadistic characters, with the latter almost certainly the worst of the boy's tormentors.


With its story of a boy experiencing the full-on horrors of WW2 as he stumbles through the wreckage of eastern Europe, The Painted Bird explicitly recalls Elem Klimov's masterpiece Come and See.  Marhoul wears his key influence on his sleeve, even going as far as to cast Come and See's star Aleksei Kravchenko as a Soviet soldier who befriends our young protagonist.  While this is admittedly a neat touch - here, Kravchenko's character provides exactly the sort of ally his Flyora needed in Klimov's film - you do wonder if such a bold move could backfire on Marhoul; The Painted Bird is no Come and See - then again, what is?  Even if The Painted Bird lacks the gut-punch quality of Klimov's 1985 shocker (which was also based on a book), it is nonetheless a haunting, troubling work, one in which the atrocities depicted on screen stand at complete odds with the quite stunning monochrome cinematography.  How can such terrible things be photographed so beautifully?  It's a trait The Painted Bird shares with the notorious Singapore Sling.


While the excellent lensing does help in providing a bit of a distance - the film certainly feels very grand and cinematic, and you shudder to think what the effect might have been had vérité-style camerawork been employed - there is another welcome layer of artificiality present here: The Painted Bird is the first movie to be filmed in the constructed Interslavic language (think of it as a sort of Slavic Esperanto), with Marhoul's reasoning for this being that he didn't want the barbarity on display to be associated with one particular nation.  While the film is unrelentingly grim, its content isn't quite as difficult to stomach as the hype and walkouts might suggest; frequently, Marhoul cuts away from violent acts or opts to shoot from a merciful angle.  While you're never in any doubt as to what's happened in any given scene, there is a certain restraint at work here; it's a pity that some have looked to reduce the film to little more than a clutch of shocking moments, as it is an even, measured and controlled piece of cinema.  Given its savage nature and lengthy running time (it's a few minutes short of three hours), The Painted Bird is an endurance test, but it's also an extremely worthwhile film, one which deserves a life well beyond the sensational headlines.

Darren Arnold

Images: Eureka Video

Tuesday, 8 September 2020

London Film Festival 2020: Programme Launch


The 64th BFI London Film Festival (LFF) in partnership with American Express today announced the full programme of its reimagined and innovative new 2020 offering that will be delivered both virtually and via physical screenings. Over the twelve days from 7 – 18th October, the Festival will be its most accessible ever, presenting over 50 Virtual Premieres and a selection of highly-anticipated new feature film previews at BFI Southbank as well as in cinemas across the UK, offering audiences a unique chance to engage with the Festival in different ways. 

With work from more than 40 countries, the programme includes fiction, documentary, animation, artists’ moving image, short film, restored classics from the world’s archives as well as previews of several episodic/series-based works made for the small screen. 

Every screening will be presented with an intro or Q&A from filmmakers and programmers. The Festival also includes many ways audiences can engage with the Festival for free: LFF Opening screenings of Mangrove in cinemas across the UK; selected feature films on BFI Player; an international programme of short films featuring established and breakthrough film talents; Screen Talks with major filmmakers and actors, as well as all online salons and Q&As across the Festival which will give audiences an opportunity to delve more deeply into themes and talking points emerging from the programme. The recently announced LFF Expanded strand of XR and Immersive Art will also be free to access both virtually and at BFI Southbank for the duration of the Festival.


All films are geo-blocked to the UK while all the Festival talks and LFF Expanded are available to experience for free from anywhere in the world. 

As is befitting this audience-facing and innovative edition, this year the Festival Awards are in the hands of the audience, who will take the place of the Festival’s Official Jury. Viewers engaging with the Festival online will be invited to vote on Virtual LFF Audience Awards in four categories: Best Fiction Feature, Best Documentary Feature, Best Short Film, and Best XR. The winners will be announced in a live online ceremony on the final weekend of the Festival. We will also announce The IWC Schaffhausen Filmmaker Bursary Award in association with the BFI winner at the Awards Ceremony. The Bursary benefits an outstanding first or second time British writer, director, or writer/director. The recipient of the award will receive £50,000, which is the most significant of its kind in the UK film industry and awarded annually.

Source: BFI

Images: image.net

Monday, 24 August 2020

Wildcat! The Films of Marjoe Gortner

Marjoe Gortner in The Gun and the Pulpit (image: public domain)
On the very few occasions that a book has received coverage on this site, it has invariably been the case that I've had some sort of connection with the title in question.  So, in the spirit of full disclosure, I should mention that Wildcat! author John Harrison and I go way back to the 1990s, an era when print media was—shock, horror!—the norm.  Before I moved to Australia, I got in touch with Melbourne-based John in late 1997 with a view to writing for his publication Reel Wild Cinema!  Shortly after arriving in Queensland, I called John and discussed a few ideas for articles for upcoming issues; soon after that chat, he unselfishly furnished me with a list of names and numbers of other local publications he thought I might be able to contribute to.  From then on, John and I would speak at least a couple of times a month via 'phone, and we'd have lengthy conversations about films we'd seen and articles we might write, among various other topics.  It's always nice when you hit it off with someone you've encountered for what might be termed work reasons, and I always thoroughly enjoyed catching up with John; thankfully, we were able to meet up a couple of times before my stay in Australia came to an end, and it was great to have a few drinks with him.  In my 30 years as a writer, I've encountered many fine people (and also some utter heels), and John is definitely one of the good guys.  We kept in contact for a good while after I left Australia, but after a number of years and for no particular reason, we gradually lost touch.

Anyway, to the book: Wildcat!, which thankfully jump-started me into reestablishing contact with John, is a study of evangelist-cum-actor Marjoe Gortner.  For as long as I've known John, he's been fascinated by Marjoe, and I recall an article in Reel Wild Cinema! about Gortner, who was someone I was hitherto only vaguely aware of on the basis of (i) his brief marriage to Candy Clark and (ii) the films Earthquake, The Food of the Gods and Viva Knievel!  Yet I knew nothing of Gortner's background as a child preacher, and I was amazed to learn that he was the subject of an Oscar-winning documentary, Marjoe, which was released in 1972.  Wildcat!, as its subtitle suggests, focuses on Gortner's films, although a helpful amount of information about Marjoe's childhood is included, too; to ignore it would be to ignore the elephant in the room, and the book cleverly assesses the symbiotic relationship between Gortner's private and professional lives.  The writing is lively, entertaining and informed, and John's painstaking research on the project is obvious.  The inclusion of a number of interviews makes for a most welcome addition, and the book sees John catching up with the likes of Starcrash director Luigi Cozzi, Cedric Sundstrom (who helmed the Cannon movie American Ninja 3), and Gortner's Hellhole co-star Marneen Fields; I'm guessing the last of these interviews was the most straightforward one to arrange, given that Marneen is also John's wife!  Anyway, all the interviewees are very good value, and they add a satisfying extra dimension to what is always an engrossing read.  John's efforts to contact the book's subject are also documented, and it's pretty clear that Gortner is someone who really doesn't want to be found.

In case you're looking for a Dutch connection here, there is one in the form of the curious case of actress Jacqueline van Stratten, whose sole film credit was on 1980's Fire, Ice and Dynamite, in which Marjoe Gortner played a TV anchorman.  This movie, which starred then-current Bond Roger Moore, arrived at the tail end of a glut of Cannonball Run-style cross-country race films that had proved popular in the 1970s, although this German production provided its own spin on the formula by making skiing the main mode of transport.  Even in the context of Marjoe's filmography, Fire, Ice and Dynamite is one bizarre film, in which an incongruous selection of celebrities (Niki Lauda, Isaac Hayes, Buzz Aldrin) appear as themselves.  A limited edition Volkswagen Golf was launched on the back of the movie, which frequently seemed to be more concerned with product placement than anything else; following this oddity, Gortner would make just one more film—Walter Hill's Wild Bill, in which he played a preacher—before going into self-imposed exile.  Naturally, Fire, Ice and Dynamite, like every other film in Marjoe Gortner's career, comes under the microscope in the excellent Wildcat!, which can be bought from numerous places including Amazon.  You can also check out John's blog here.

Darren Arnold

Monday, 17 August 2020

London Film Festival 2020: New Format Announced


In the most accessible version of the festival to UK audiences yet, film lovers will be given an opportunity to connect for a unique and innovative festival experience, enjoying both live and digital screenings across the 12 days of the Festival [from 7–18/10/20]. Adapting to the extraordinary challenges of the year, the Festival will deliver up to 50 Virtual Festival Premieres in a programme that offers audiences the opportunity to see the best new cinema from around the world and with that same texture LFF’s audiences love, including fiction, documentary, animation, artists’ moving image, and restored classics from the world’s archives. Every film will be presented with an intro or Q&A, and the programme will also include a range of free-to-access additional works and events to include: an international short film programme, Screen Talks with major filmmakers and actors, salons and roundtables and a brand new Virtual Exhibition of XR [Extended Reality] and Immersive Art. In another new innovation, twelve highly anticipated new films from the programme will screen in previews across the UK, in partnership with UK-wide cinemas networks that deliver great independent and cultural films for audiences all year long, including London’s BFI Southbank.

BFI London Film Festival Director, Tricia Tuttle said: “Like many other live events around the world, we’ve had to make changes to our plans in response to a global pandemic, factoring in safety concerns and restrictions – some known, some still unclear. But as we’ve undergone this planning we’ve also witnessed historical international protests, an urgent reminder of just how much we need to do to combat racism and inequality. This year has also given us an opportunity to think creatively about how we make the Festival more accessible. It was vital to us that we get back to cinemas, and are looking forward to working with independent and cultural venues across the UK who are such an essential part of our film ecosystem. The Virtual LFF programmes and these cinema screenings take the Festival out across the UK, giving people opportunities to engage in different ways. It’s a pleasure each year to speak with audiences who share the ways filmmakers have made them laugh, think, weep, or shifted their way of seeing. Through a number of partnerships and platforms, we can’t wait to share many of this year’s extraordinary new films - from around the world, from artists of different backgrounds and with many bold distinctive filmmaking voices.”

At the heart of the 2020 edition, Virtual LFF features 50 screenings online, with each film scheduled to premiere at a particular time and include additional elements such as exclusive Q&A’s with filmmaking talent and programmers, online salons and discussions around films. Many of the films will include subtitles and Audio Description for audiences with access requirements. The feature film programme will be complemented by a wide range of digital talks and events which will be free to access, including LFF Screen Talks, which offer in-depth conversations with some of the world’s most influential filmmakers and major on-screen talent. Short films from around the world will also be free to view and the Festival’s previously announced XR and Immersive Art strand will also debut this year, with works that can be experienced in a variety of ways online, with and without headsets.

Through LFF in Cinemas, the 2020 edition of the BFI London Film Festival will also work with UK exhibitors to offer a great range of new programming as they welcome audiences safely back. Anticipating many cinemas will be open during the Festival window, the LFF will partner with exhibitors in the BFI Film Audience Network and other key cinemas and venues around the UK to offer audiences up to 12 exclusive previews from the Festival. These films will also preview at the Festival’s flagship venue BFI Southbank and select other London cinemas over the Festival period. As a one-off for this edition, we’ll ask our audiences to take the place of the Festival’s official jury. Viewers attending Virtual LFF will be invited to vote on Audience Awards in four categories: Best Fiction Feature, Best Documentary Feature, Best Short Film, and Best XR. The winners will be announced in a live online ceremony on the final weekend of the Festival. 

The full programme will be announced at an online launch on 8th September 2020.

Source: BFI

Image: image.net

Monday, 27 July 2020

Daughters of Darkness (Devil's Advocates)

Harry Kümel
Harry Kümel. Image: Hawawiki1 [CC BY-SA]
Last summer I posted a little something about the book I'd written on Ken Russell's The Devils, which was published as part of Auteur's Devil's Advocates series.  Bearing in mind that I am probably not the most impartial judge, I can honestly say I've never encountered a bad entry in this series, and each and every title I've read has left me with a newfound appreciation of the given film.  My experience of Devil's Advocates pre-dates my direct involvement with it, and I'm very pleased to have contributed to a series I've been a fan of both before and since my book formed a small part of it.  Naturally, there's an extra frisson when a DA appears on a film I'm especially fond of—Laura Mee's excellent book on The Shining and Alexandra Heller-Nicholas' fine volume on Suspiria being two such cases in point—so I was most pleased to learn that the series was going to include a book on Belgian filmmaker Harry Kümel's Daughters of Darkness (Dutch: Dorst Naar Bloed), a film I wrote about way back in 2012 for the print version of Holland Focus.  If you so wish, you can venture into the HF archives to view a washed-out scan of that short piece.

The Devil's Advocate on Daughters of Darkness is the work of Kat Ellinger, who for some time has been one of the most consistently interesting film historians out there.  As well as her numerous contributions to a variety of both print and digital publications, Kat is the editor-in-chief over at Diabolique Magazine, and she has also recorded a number of audio commentaries for DVD/Blu-ray releases; her commentary (with Samm Deighan, author of the DA on Fritz Lang's M) on Eureka Video's disc of Joe Begos' Bliss is, to my mind, the best new commentary track I've heard this year.  As an admirer of both Kat's writing and Daughters of Darkness, it seemed certain that I was always going to find this particular DA to be a great read, and I'm pleased to confirm that the book more than met my (admittedly high) expectations.  The book is split into four main chapters, and it moves along at a nice clip; chances are you, like me, will devour it in one sitting.

The book contains a huge plus in that Ellinger has sought out the views of both director Kümel and the film's co-star, the Québécoise Danielle Ouimet, which really adds a most satisfying layer onto what is always an engaging, insightful read.  As a longtime fan of the incomparable Delphine Seyrig—I'm currently neck-deep in my own project concerning another of the actress' films—I especially appreciated reading their thoughts on working with this great star.  The book is highly recommended, and it might be best to pick it up sooner rather than later, given that in exactly three months' time a limited 4K UHD disc of a new restoration of Daughters of Darkness will be released; among its many bonus features, this edition will include commentary tracks from both Kümel and Ellinger.  Needless to say, I'll be in the queue for that one, but until it appears you can put in some preparatory work thanks to yet another excellent addition to the ongoing Devil's Advocates series.  The book is available from numerous sellers, including Amazon Netherlands.

Darren Arnold

Wednesday, 15 July 2020

Allez, Eddy! (Gert Embrechts, 2012)


11-year-old cycling talent Freddy is the son of a local butcher in the back of beyond. When the village’s first supermarket opens its doors in 1975, Freddy’s isolated life is turned upside down. To celebrate its opening, the supermarket organises a bicycle race, the winner of which will get to meet Eddy Merckx. Freddy’s father, a fervent opponent of the supermarket, wants nothing to do with the race. Freddy enters secretly. Participation in the race opens up a new world, not only for Freddy, but also for all those surrounding him.


Allez, Eddy! is een hartverwarmende komedie over het elfjarig wielertalentje Freddy, zoon van een slager in een idyllisch dorpje in niemandsland.  Zijn geïsoleerde leventje wordt volledig overhoop gehaald wanneer in 1975 de eerste supermarkt in het dorp zijn deuren opent.  Ter gelegenheid van de opening organiseert de supermarkt een wielerwedstrijd waarbij de winnaar Eddy Merckx zal ontmoeten.  Freddy’s vader is fervent tegenstander van de supermarkt en wil niets van de wedstrijd weten. Freddy schrijft zich toch stiekem in.  Door deelname aan de race gaat er een nieuwe wereld open, niet alleen voor Freddy maar ook voor alle mensen om hem heen.


ABOUT THE DIRECTOR

Gert Embrechts enrolled at Sint-Lukas film school in 1987. After graduating, he worked as first assistant for directors such as Ben Sombogaart, Frank Van Passel and Peter Greenaway. Gert shot a number of award-winning short films (13, Vincent), documentaries and episodes of TV series (Kinderen van Dewindt). He also wrote the screenplay of Stricken, the box office hit based on the novel by Dutch author Kluun. Allez, Eddy! [which can be bought or rented here] is Gert’s debut as a feature film director.


ABOUT THE PRODUCER

Jacqueline de Goeij worked as an independent producer in The Netherlands for more than 10 years, producing quality drama for TV and cinema. In 2002, she produced Zus & zo which was nominated for an Oscar® for Best Foreign Language Film. In 2009 Jacqueline founded her own Belgian independent production office Ciné Cri de Cœur, focusing on feature films and documentaries. Allez, Eddy! by Gert Embrechts is the first Flemish feature film produced by Ciné Cri de Cœur.

Source/images: Flanders Image

Monday, 29 June 2020

King of the Belgians (J. Woodworth / P. Brosens, 2016)


King of the Belgians [which can be bought or rented here] is a road movie in which a dormant King gets lost in the Balkans and awakens to the real world. King Nicolas III is a lonely soul who has the distinct feeling he’s living the wrong life. He embarks on a state visit to Istanbul with a British filmmaker, Duncan Lloyd, who has been commissioned by the Palace to shoot a documentary intended to polish the monarch’s rather dull image.

The news breaks that Wallonia, Belgium’s southern half, has declared its independence. The King, bursting with purpose, must return home at once to save his kingdom. And for once, he declares, he will write his own damn speech. As they rally to depart, a solar storm strikes the earth causing communications to collapse and airspace to shut down. No phones. No planes. To make matters worse, Turkish security coldly dismisses the King’s suggestion they return home by road. But the King has no intention of waiting out this storm. Lloyd, sniffing an opportunity of historical proportions, hatches a dubious escape plan that involves flowery dresses and singing Bulgarians.

Thus begins their undercover odyssey across the Balkans, a journey that’s loaded with wrong turns, startling encounters and moments of fleeting joy.

Director's Statement:

An Icelandic volcano erupted and an idea was born: let’s drop a Belgian King in Istanbul, stir up a natural disaster, spark a political crisis and then launch him on a homeward overland journey, incognito, that features trip-ups, show-downs and moments of grace. Displacement as the essence of comedy, in other words. 

The challenge was how to actually tell this tale... The Royal Palace hires Duncan Lloyd, a Brit, to upgrade the King’s image. Nicolas III is a lonely soul who drifts through the motions of protocol and is largely kept silent. His unexpected odyssey through the Balkans causes him to question his worldview and to ponder his awkward place in the universe. He is but a man. But he is also a King. What could or should that mean in such fragile times? Lloyd’s lens is the sole prism through which we experience these six extraordinary days in the life of a King. 

And what about Belgium, a complicated little country that specializes in surrealism and compromise? The ongoing political turmoil in our peanut kingdom and Europe’s ever-deepening identity crisis were a key source of inspiration. But the political tangent of the film remains secondary to the inner transformation of the King as he savors his anonymity and begins to discover his genuine yearnings. 

To enhance authenticity and spontaneity we often invited the actors to improvise. And we filmed chronologically. The situations become increasingly outrageous but actually remain delightfully believable. The result is King of the Belgians, a road movie about a wayward monarch profoundly lost in the Balkans.

Source/image: Flanders Image

Monday, 8 June 2020

The Ape Man (Pieter Vandenabeele, 2017)


A small, plump man lives on the top floor of a skyscraper. During the day, he's a garbage man, but in the evening, he watches Tarzan movies and maintains his lush roof garden. One day, when he hears the aggressive rants of his neighbour, he looks for the Tarzan inside to rescue the Jane next door.

Centraal staat een klein, dik, eenzaam mannetje dat op de bovenste verdieping van een wolkenkrabber woont. Hij heeft een voorliefde voor Tarzanfilms en onderhoudt daarom een weelderige daktuin. Wanneer hij, over de muur heen, hoort hoe de buurman agressief tekeer gaat, zoekt hij naar de Tarzan in zichzelf om zijn buurvrouw te redden.

Pieter Vandenabeele is an illustrator and animator. In 2014, he graduated at KASK / School of Arts Gent with the animated short A Dog's Life, which was selected at several international film festivals. His newest animated short, The Ape Man [available here], is loosely based on a comic book he made a few years ago. Other work of his includes Mee-eters and De Kraai Met Vier Poten.

"The short animation film, The Ape Man, finds its origin in De Amateur, a comic book I made in 2011 as a graduation project for my training as an illustrator. With this comic, I wanted to tell the story of a lonely (little) man hopelessly in love with the woman who lives next door. It was my intention to portray the desire for an impossible love in a goofy way through this character. I originally planned to add a couple of chapters to this comic, but after my education as an animator, I decided to adapt the story to an animation film. In order to do so, I added a pinch of action and just a touch of entertaining violence" - Pieter Vandenabeele

Source/image: Flanders Image

Trailer

Tuesday, 26 May 2020

We Are One: A Global Film Festival (29/5/20–7/6/20)


Tribeca Enterprises and YouTube announced today the programming slate for We Are One: A Global Film Festival, which will feature over 100 films co-curated by 21 prolific festivals, hailing from 35 countries, in addition to talks, VR content and musical performances. The 10-day digital event will celebrate global voices, elevate films that have the power to create change and bring audiences from around the world together to create meaningful connections. Assembling some of the world’s most talented artists, storytellers and curators around a central effort to provide entertainment and offer relief in the form of supporting organizations responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, the festival will run exclusively on YouTube May 29 - June 7 at YouTube.com/WeAreOne.


We Are One: A Global Film Festival will give audiences an opportunity to experience different cultures through an artistic lens - each official selection was handpicked for inclusion to highlight the singularities of each participating festival, while also providing a voice to filmmakers on a global stage. Many of these titles will have significant debuts at the festival, with programming consisting of over 100 films, including 13 world premieres, 31 online premieres, and five international online premieres. A truly international festival, the programming will represent over 35 countries and will include 23 narrative and eight documentary features, 57 narrative and 15 documentary short films, 15 archived talks along with four festival exclusives and five VR programming pieces.


We Are One: A Global Film Festival will host a number of specially-curated talks, both archived from past festivals and brand new discussions, that will offer viewers a chance to revisit important moments in film. Talks will feature Francis Ford Coppola with Steven Soderbergh, Song Kang-ho and Bong Joon-ho, Guillermo del Toro, Jane Campion and Claire Denis. 360 VR selections will feature Emmy-nominated documentary Traveling While Black and Atlas V, a sci-fi narrative starring Bill Skarsgard, as well as additional titles with notable talent including John Legend, Oprah Winfrey and Lupita Nyong’o. There will also be special musical performances, including a 30 minute DJ set by Questlove.


The global festival will include programming curated by and unique to the identity of all participating festival partners, including: Annecy International Animation Film Festival, Berlin International Film Festival, BFI London Film Festival, Cannes Film Festival, Guadalajara International Film Festival, International Film Festival & Awards Macao (IFFAM), International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR), Jerusalem Film Festival, Mumbai Film Festival (MAMI), Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, Locarno Film Festival, Marrakech International Film Festival, New York Film Festival, San Sebastian International Film Festival, Sarajevo Film Festival, Sundance Film Festival, Sydney Film Festival, Tokyo International Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival, Tribeca Film Festival, and Venice Film Festival.


True to its mission, We Are One: A Global Film Festival will seek to bring artists, creators and curators together around an international event that celebrates the exquisite art of storytelling. In doing so, it will aim to provide not only solace and entertainment for audiences during a time when it’s needed most, but also opportunities for these individuals to give back through donations to the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF, UNHCR, Save the Children,, Doctors Without Borders, Leket Israel, GO Foundation and Give2Asia, among others. Audiences will be able to donate to COVID-19 relief efforts through a donate button or link on every film page. The full festival schedule is available at www.weareoneglobalfestival.com.

Source/images: BFI

Tuesday, 5 May 2020

The Other Lamb (Małgorzata Szumowska, 2019)


The Other Lamb marks the English-language debut of Małgorzata Szumowska, who in 2011 directed Juliette Binoche in the highly impressive EllesElles boasted a typically strong performance from the excellent Anaïs Demoustier, a performer whose career has skyrocketed over the past decade; earlier this year, she picked up the best actress award at the Césars in a ceremony which made the headlines for all the wrong reasons.  As with EllesThe Other Lamb sees Szumowska elicit a robust turn from a young female lead, this time in the form of Raffey Cassidy, who in recent years has caught the eye in films such as The Killing of a Sacred Deer and Vox Lux.  With this is mind, it's a pity that the overall quality of The Other Lamb doesn't come close to matching that of Cassidy's peformance.

Cassidy's Selah is a young woman born into a "flock" of females presided over by "shepherd" Michael (Michiel Huisman), who, as the group's sole male, rules unchallenged in the community's isolated forest settlement.  The women are divided into two categories - wives and daughters, clad respectively in red and blue - and Selah, whose mother died giving birth to her, appears to be a model member of the group.  The self-anointed Michael, whose image is prominently displayed on a large mural on the side of a caravan, frequently selects a different woman from the group to receive his "grace", and there's little doubt as to what this involves.

An intrusion from the outside world forces the cult to suddenly abandon their camp, and the group set off on a long, hard trek to find a new site.  During the journey, Michael's cruel behaviour escalates, prompting Selah to question both the community's hierarchy and its leader.  Selah grows close to Sarah (Denise Gough), a "broken" wife ostracised from the group by Michael, and it's through Sarah that Selah learns of the mother she never knew.  Trudging through the countryside in all weathers, the group happen upon a dilapidated house which looks as if it might work as a new base, but Michael dismisses the property as having belonged to "broken people".  Therefore, the gruelling hike continues, as Selah's resentment of Michael starts to come to the boil.

The Other Lamb features a fairly promising setup and, as already mentioned, a fine performance from Raffey Cassidy (furthermore, Michał Englert's cinematography is superb), so it's unfortunate that the story is both thin and poorly-paced.  The Other Lamb's case is not helped by it appearing on the tail of a couple of other recent films on a similar theme: Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood and Mary Harron's Charlie Says, while both centring on the Manson Family, covered similar ground far more successfully.  Going back a bit further, Ti West's excellent The Sacrament - which basically retold the Jim Jones/Peoples Temple story - is a good example of a strong, direct film focusing on a cult, while The Endless demonstrated how a more oblique take on the subject can work.  The Other Lamb, on the other hand, simply doesn't have enough about it to warrant a recommendation; it hovers between arthouse and horror, seemingly unsure of its own identity.

Darren Arnold

Image: TrustNordisk

Friday, 17 April 2020

Cold Blood Legacy (Frédéric Petitjean, 2019)


Jean Reno. De immer kalme acteur die meestal geassocieerd wordt met rollen als politierechercheur, gangster of huurmoordenaar. De bedaard uitziende Fransman heeft een welbepaalde uitstraling dat perfect past bij zulke rollen. Raar maar waar. Ik heb nog maar recent de film Léon: The Professional gezien. Zonder twijfel het allerbeste dat Jean Reno heeft gedemonstreerd op het witte doek. Een ervaren huurmoordenaar die als eenzaat het kleine meisje Mathilda onder zijn hoede neemt en haar de kneepjes van het vak bij te brengen. Een cult-film avant la lettre. In Cold Blood Legacy toont Jean Reno éénzelfde personage. Een professioneel en berekend iemand die op een beredeneerde wijze zijn klusjes opknapt. En daarmee is het meest positieve over deze film gezegd.


Cold Blood Legacy is een straight-to-video film, wat dan al een voorbode is van wat je kan verwachtingen. Bijster weinig goeds, vrees ik. Ja, Henry (Reno) straalt autoriteit en kalmte uit. Zijn woorden zijn zorgvuldig afgewogen. En hij verdiept zich in filosofisch boekwerken zoals The Art of War. Verder weet hij genoeg over letsels en het behandelen ervan. En tenslotte lijkt hij bedreven te zijn in survival-technieken. Technieken die noodzakelijk zijn, wil je overleven op een geïsoleerde winterse plek ver van de beschaving en omgeven door de ongenaakbare natuur. Kortom, het is weeral en genot om Jean Reno aan het werk te zien.


Spijtig genoeg is Reno’s schitterend acteerwerk niet voldoende om een film te doen slagen. De rest is op zijn zachtst gezegd abominabel slecht. Niet alleen is het verhaal op zich vreselijk saai en niet interessant te noemen. Ook sommige vertolkingen zijn om te janken. Vooral de twee politierechercheurs Kappa (Joe Anderson) en Davies (Ihor Ciszkewycz) winnen de wisselbeker “Meest belabberde personages”. Alhoewel dit eerder te wijten is aan het script dan de kwaliteiten van de acteurs zelf. Ook David Gyasi’s personage is vatbaar voor kritiek. Zijn uiteindelijke rol in deze film, bleef voor mij nog een raadsel op het uiteinde. Maar het is vooral het verhaal waar het scheef loopt. Echt duidelijk is het niet. En bovenal lijkt het alsof het een samenraapsel is van verhaallijnen en impressies die op een verwarrende manier in één verhaal zijn geperst.


Toch nog enkele positieve bemerkingen. Sarah Lind acteert overtuigend, ook al doet ze dat bijna de gehele film vanuit een horizontale positie. De interactie tussen haar en Henry maakt de film soms boeiend om naar te kijken. Een psychologisch steekspel tussen twee onbekenden met hun eigen geheim waarbij Henry aantoont dat hij een deskundige is op zowel geneeskundig gebied als op het gebied van marteltechnieken. En verder is de film doorspekt met prachtige natuurbeelden van dit winters landschap. Verwacht echter geen spanning of beklijvende actiescenes. De film is gewoonweg futloos en saai. En aan het einde van de film bleef alles nog steeds onduidelijk en wazig. Het feit dat ik de volgende dag al niet meer wist waar het over ging, is dan ook een logisch gevolg. Hopelijk schittert Jean Reno nogmaals in een oerdegelijk actiethriller komende jaren.

Peter Pluymers 

Words: copyright © movie-freak.be 2019

Images: Screen Media