Film review – Elstree 1976 (Jon Spira, 2015)

Elstree 1976, the latest documentary from Jon Spira, explores the lives of ten people who were involved in the original Star Wars films as extras, supporting characters or inside costumes and thus were unseen. Catching up with them 38 years later, the film gives an insight into their respective positions in the wider Star Wars fandom universe, their take on one of the most bizarrely dedicated communities and their memories of their time on set.

The featured cast includes a mixture of actors and actresses who range from household names to people only die-hard fans will know. The ten are as follows:

Paul Blake (Greedo)
Jeremy Bulloch (Boba Fett)
Garrick Hagon (Biggs Darklighter)
Anthony Forrest
David Prowse (Darth Vader)
Angus MacInnes (Gold Leader Rebel Pilot)
Pam Rose (Leesub Sirln)
Derek Lyons (Massassi Temple Guard)
Laurie Goode (the Stormtrooper who banged his head)
John Chapman (Red 12 Drifter Rebel Pilot)

For a film where it seems there is a huge difference in the interest in each of the stars, the narrative benefits by giving equal billing to each of them. But then that is the point of the film – it shows the human side of everyone involved and cross-examines the fact that the only reason they are anything more than actors is that they have been part of a great film and the fans have an unfaltering level of affection for everyone involved.

Justice for Greedo

They didn’t realise at the time but their involvement with the film would come to define their lives. It’s something that they have forever been associated with and can’t get away from, whether they like it or not.

The film opens with a humorous montage of each of their action figures, as they talk about how they feel about how they turned out (or didn’t!). There’s also a little controversy with what different interviewees believe is the right level of relevance to permit them to attend the conventions and be classed as an actor in Star Wars.

There are some moments of real emotion, just as there are moments of hilarity. Of course, they offer their own perspective on the film and provide some morsels of tales about the production, but Spira has instead made the decision to give the stories of their subsequent lives the space to breathe. This film gives them the chance to prove that they aren’t just the Stormtrooper who hit his head or the guy whose voice wasn’t quite right for Darth Vader. What makes this film work isn’t the immense details of how the most famous of sci-fi films was made. Instead it concentrates on the human side of each of the ten people we learn about.

It has been a long road to get here for the Kickstarter backers – almost two years in fact – and Jon Spira has been absolutely transparent in what must have lost him many nights of sleep through stress (the whole distribution farce is well documented on the Kickstarter campaign page). For everyone who is now able to watch it, it was well worth the wait.

Elstree 1976 is available now on Blu-ray and DVD, as well as on streaming services.

New La La Land trailer released – Watch below!

I was buzzing for days after seeing La La Land at the London Film Festival last month. It’s a truly spectacular film and one I can’t wait to watch again.

Whilst I’m gutted the UK release date has been pushed back to January, I’m thrilled to see a new trailer has been released.

Watch it here:

It’s going to make you very happy.

Mayhem Film Festival – Preview

I’ll be heading down to the Mayhem Film Festival in Nottingham tonight to catch the first night of action.

First up will be The Duke St. Workshop feat. Laurence R. Harvey. Presented in conjunction with Kinoclubb, the performance will feature an electronic live score accompanying Harvey (star of The Human Centipede 2) as he reads two H. P. lovecraft short stories: ‘From Beyond’ and ‘The Hound’.

Next is the film ‘Raw‘, which received its UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival last week to rave reviews.

Finally, the UK premiere of Indonesian film ‘Headshot‘ will round off the proceedings. 

Film review – Dancer (Steven Cantor, 2016)

Documentary filmmaker Steven Cantor’s latest cross-examination comes in the form of Dancer, which tells the story of Ukrainian ballet dancer Sergei Polunin, who in 2010 became the youngest man to become the British Royal Ballet’s leading principal.

Sergei Polunin dances to Hozier

The film uses talking heads interviews blended with some exclusive home video footage to creature a portrait of a fragile artist. Polunin is shown as a man who knows little outside his art and is desperate to change the future for upcoming ballet dancers who he fears will make the same mistakes as he did. These mistakes led to him quitting the British Royal Ballet Feeling at the tender age of twenty-two, shocking the ballet world and disappointing his fans.

Most insightful are the interviews with his mother and father. Clearly huge sacrifices were made throughout his life to get him to where he is now. The film leaves it open as to whether either of them regret putting him through it, and it’s not something that ever really needs an answer. He certainly has a different life to the one he would have had if he’d stayed in Khersan, Ukraine.

The focal point of the film comes in the form of the Dave LaChapelle-directed video that went viral earlier this year. I urge you to stop reading and watch the video below on the largest screen you can find.

This video has, at last count, been viewed 16.3m times in the last eight months. That is an astonishing amount, but then it is an astonishing piece of art. It was choreographed by Jade Hale-Christophi, a ballet dancer with Polunin met at the British Royal Ballet and one of his closest friends. The purpose of the film was to announce his retirement and have that as his “final dance”, but the response was so great he decided to change tact, and instead wants to do guest appearances and one-off pieces of art.

This is a crucial thing for him. The reason he has struggled throughout his career is a lack of time to step back, ask himself what he really wants, and make an informed decision about the next career choice.

He also spoke after the screening about where ballet’s David Beckham is. I suspect after that video and this film, he need only look in the mirror to find him.

A fascinating examination of a tortured artist now seemingly on the straight and narrow.

Dancer will receive a DVD release in April via Dogwoof.

Film review – Queen of Katwe (Mira Nair, 2016)

Walt Disney Studios may have a long history of releasing underdog sports films, but their latest live action is nothing like any of its predecessors. In fact, it’s a breath of fresh air, as the crowd discovered tonight at the UK premiere.

Set and filmed almost entirely in the slums of Katwe in Uganda, the film tells the story of Phiona (newcomer Madina Nalwanga), a child who learns to play chess under the mentoring of missionary Robert (David Oyelowo). Much to the initial dislike of her mother Nakku (Lupita Nyong’o), she excels at the game and quickly starts competing at international competitions, giving her the opportunity to escape from certain poverty.

David Oyelowo and newcomer Madina Nalwanga

At the heart of the creation of the film was Mira Nair, the female director who knows Uganda inside out (she met her husband whilst researching the film Mississippi Masala in 1989). She spoke prior to the screening of the importance of filming the entire film in Uganda and leaving a positive message about the country outside of the anti-colonialism that is a constant recurrence in films about Africa (though A United Kingdom is very good too!). There should be no worries that this is a risky move for Walt Disney Studios.

The triangle of central characters played by Nyong’o, Oyelowo and Nalwanga are what helps the film achieve so much. Whilst Robert acts as a much-needed father figure to Phiona, he in turn proves antagonistic to Nakku, a mother who is keen to protect her second-eldest daughter for fear of her making the same mistakes as her elder sister Night.

Indeed, it is Nyong’o’s turn in the film that, for me, makes it a true triumph. As the protective mother to a daughter she fears is getting into something too unfamiliar, the result is a strong-willed role model for black women (as she is in real life). This is sadly in short supply in the modern cinematic landscape. This is a topic that will doubtless be explored in BFI’s promising Black Star programme throughout October 2016.

Festival director Clare Stewart, director Mira Nair and stars David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong’o at the UK premiere

Nair does a great job with the telling of a captivating story throughout the chess matches. This is tricky territory for a filmmaker. If too long was spent explaining it, there’s a risk of boring your audience. Spend no time on it at all and you lose the core of the story. Get the tone wrong and you look completely foolish. Time was spent making sure that the metaphorical importance of the game was reflected in the development of Phiona as a character. It works perfectly.

It was a joy to see East Africa looking so vibrant, brought to life with some beautiful shots and an uplifting story. A total triumph.

Queen of Katwe is in UK cinemas now and can also be pre-ordered for home-viewing.

Film review – Psiconautas, Los Niños Olvidados / Psychonauts, The Forgotten Children (Alberto Vázquez & Pedro Rivero, 2016)

Somewhere deep inside me was a sworded hope that maybe, just maybe, a family was in the screening of Psiconautas at Prince Charles Theatre and had a truly miserable time watching one of the most bizarre 75 minutes of cinema I have ever seen. Harsh, I know, but variety is the spice of life and Trolls 3D sold out weeks ago despite being in every cinema across the land in about two weeks.

Sorry.. what just happened?

The plotline is a difficult one to nail down. Based on a graphic novel by Alberto Vazquez, its origins lie in a 2011 short film titled Birdboy. After a short prologue, we are introduced to our two main protagonists. The aforementioned Birdboy is a fatherless creature who can only function whilst under the influence of drugs. His former girlfriend Dinki – a mouse – is trapped in a life ruled by her religion-mad mother, her father (who isn’t a mouse but wears a mouse mask) and a half-man-half-dog brother called Jonathan who his parents adore. She longs to escape with her two friends, but doing so proves to be not so easy when they live on a distopian hell island and are being hunted down by hilarious sentient alarm clocks.

They meet other characters along the way, from a panicked rubber duck to the titular tribe of forgotten children. There is a sense that Vázquez and Rivero are bursting with ideas and this bodes well for future works.

I’m so confused.

It is a wholly confusing experience that had no intentions of letting the audience expect the expected. There were moments of real hilarity and moments of true horror – a real rollercoaster of bemusement. The climax is nothing short of terrifying.

If you like your animation to be all warm and fuzzy then clearly this isn’t for you. But if you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to get trapped inside a Stanley Donwood nightmare then there could well be something here for you.

Film review – La La Land (Damien Chazelle, 2016)

WARNING: This review is effusively positive. If you’re a misery-guts then please look away now.

Every once in a while you will go into a film knowing almost nothing about what you’re going to see and get absolutely blown away by a surprisingly perfect masterpiece. As you get further into your film-watching life, enjoying these moments becomes increasingly rare, so when a film like ‘La La Land’ comes along, you can’t help but be overcome by giddy excitement.

Damien Chazelle shot to fame in 2014 with his critically acclaimed and rather special jazz-bully drama ‘Whiplash’. ‘La La Land’ shares very few similarities with it, bar an affinity to jazz that also featured prominently in his debut feature ‘Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench’. It does expand on a topic explored in ‘Whiplash’: the ongoing internal conflict of artists pursuing their dream at the expense of every other aspect of their life.

If you enjoyed his first two feature films but thought he couldn’t “do” mainstream, then prepare to be proven absolutely wrong seconds into the start. It opens with an over-the-top musical song and dance number set amidst a traffic jam. It’s an explosive one-shot (though there may have been some clever linking between extended shots) that received a round of applause at the end from an appreciative audience. Rightly so – it was jaw-dropping.

‘La La Land’ is, at heart, a homage to traditional musicals, with a joyful soundtrack matched by a couple of mesmerising performances from the lead performers Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. Gosling stars as Sebastian, a struggling jazz pianist going from poor gig to poor gig in LA, with dreams of owning his own jazz club to fend off the death of jazz. Stone is Mia, a young actress moonlighting as a barista at the Warner Brothers Studio sets who can’t get a break she deserves in the film industry. After a number of serendipitous meets, Seb and Mia start to fall for each other and, with both a figurative and a literal song and a dance, their romance explodes.

With Seb being a jazz expert/enthusiast/nerd and them both being performers, Chazelle has given himself the platform on which to produce a naturalistic musical that will doubtless make it more acceptable to those who don’t normally class themselves as musical fans. There is also evidence of a significant amount of effort put in by Gosling to perfect the piano shots, which were impressively all performed by him.


It’s a film so visually stunning it’s hard to take your eyes away from it. There is, however, never a risk that it was simply a platform to reference more familiar films of old. In a breathtaking final segment, we take a walk through memory lane with nods to a number of classic musicals, but they are simply nods in what amounts to one of the most perfectly-balanced final sequences I’ve seen in cinema. Gasps were audible around the auditorium.

The soundtrack is destined to stick around for years to come. Gosling/Stone duets “City of Stars” and “A Lovely Night” are both standouts, but it will be “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” that will be vying for an Oscar early next year. A beautiful number written by Justin Harwitz, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, it is left to Emma Stone to deliver an emotionally raw live performance.

The only downside for me is that I have to wait for another two months to see it again. A must see.

Film review – 偽りの隣人 / Creepy (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2016)

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s latest release Creepy received its U.K. premiere tonight as part of the London Film Festival. It blends elements of police drama, suspense and mild horror to create an intriguing film that achieves much but ultimately falls down due to a lack of ruthlessness in editing that would have helped the pacing.

Set in approximately 2009, it tells the story of a retired policeman Takakura (Hidetoshi Nishijima) who has changed careers to work as a criminology professor at a local university. Having moved to a new part of town with his wife Yasuko (Yūko Takeuchi) and dog Max, they begin to become suspicious of the titular creepy neighbour Nishino (Teruyuki Kagawa) and his daughter Mio (Ryoko Fujino), whilst Takakura attempts to solve an old case that has come out of the woodwork.

Creepy Nishino

The casting of the genuinely creepy Kagawa is a solid choice. Director Kurosawa is on familiar ground, having worked with him on 2009’s Tokyo Sonata, though this role is very much a departure from the jobless family man we saw previously. When the results are this good there’s no need to change.

Kurosawa, working again with cinematographer Akiko Ashizawa, achieves a lot with natural lighting to create darkness for the lead characters as they delve into their inner-most thoughts. This was an effective technique used previously by the pair in Journey To The Shore and is mined more subtly here to arguably better effect, especially in one particular witness interrogation scene.

However, there are flaws. The ending could genuinely have happened about twenty minutes prior to when it finally occurs, and when the story is finally resolved the relief I felt wasn’t for any of the particular characters but more for the fact it signalled the end was in sight. It’s unfortunate that the ending is so shocking and powerful with some great acting that was undermined by the preceding needless plot extension.

There were a few ideas throughout the film that seemed to fizzle out. Saki (Haruna Kawaguchi) was really prominent for a good portion of the film but was clumsily written out before the resolution of her storyline; her family went missing but she doesn’t seem to care why in the end. A police chief is written into the key part of the story to get Takakura out of a dead end in the plot. There’s a mind control element to the story that isn’t ever fully explained, instead expecting the viewer to just go with it. 

After a long setup, this film is genuinely exhilarating for about an hour. With a shorter ending and a little more clarity, it could have been much better than the final result. For me, it is a missed opportunity.

BFI London Film Festival 2016 – Preview

I’ll be heading down to the BFI London Film Festival this weekend to catch a handful of films. I’ve picked a broad range, from headline galas to complete leftfield choices that may be my only chance to see a film on the big screen.

Here’s what I’ll be catching:

– La La Land (Damien Chazelle, US)
– Frantz (François Ozon, Germany)
– Dancer (Steven Cantor, UK)
– Creepy (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan)
– Paul Verhoeven in conversation
– Psychonauts, The Forgotten Children (Pedro Rivero, Alberto Vázquez, Spain)
– Queen of Katwe (Mira Nair, US)

I’m most excited about the Queen of Katwe red carpet premiere that I’ll be lucky enough to attend, and Frantz will be screening at the specially-created Embankment Garden Cinema. 

I’ll be firing out reviews of each as I get the chance over the weekend. Maybe I’ll see one or two of you down there!

Film review – A United Kingdom (Amma Asante, 2016)

Kicking off the 2016 BFI London Film Festival in style tonight was Amma Asante’s triumphant ‘A United Kingdom’. After the glitz and glamour of the red carpet, the film’s central themes proved to be an apt starting point for a programme that festival director Clare Stewart claims will focus on diversity.

The film tells the true story of Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) and Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo). Khama is the King of Bechuanaland (the country now known as Botswana) and in 1948 he marries London girl Williams amid opposition from their families and countries, sparking a political debate that led to the country’s independence movement.

Asante is the first black woman ever to direct an opening night film at the London Film Festival, and she was keen to point out the relevance of her being the person at the helm telling this important story.

“[The Botswanians] were comforted that it was going to be told through the gaze of a woman of colour… There was relief, and of course a curiosity, as to how their country, and they as a people, would be reflected on screen.”

Pike and Oyelowo

The resulting picture is a moving portrayal of a changing time in two countries with a message that is as valid today as it was then. True, there has been much progress in the world since 1948, but looking back at the changes in the past 70 years should give humanity hope that as much progress can be made again in the next 70 years. Indeed, many comments from the stars on the red carpet referenced that there is still much wrong with the world and a film like ‘A United Kingdom’ serves to highlight that we should never give up the fight. This is a fact not lost on Asante, especially given the marginal bandwidth available in the film industry to both people of colour and women – something that should be considered one of the big talking points of this year’s festival.

Oyelowo and Pike work together perfectly, each delivering powerful performances worthy of the story they are telling. The film’s genesis lies with Oyelowo, who started writing the script six years ago after reading the Susan Williams book Colour Bar, and his passion for the story seeps into his emotional delivery.

The film perhaps suffers from appearing saccharine, with the story telling us that their love was so strong it overcame political opposition and brought a continent together. The truth is that the film isn’t too far from being perfectly accurate, with only a couple of timeline changes for the benefit of pacing.

This is a story that is one piece of a much larger puzzle that can be filled in with what can be seen as companion films: Mandela – Long Walk To Freedom (2013) and Hotel Rwanda (2011) are two good recent examples. There is a rich history that is still being written in Africa, from which deeply moving stories continue to be drawn in both film and literature.

It is remarkable that the actors and actresses involved knew little of the source material before receiving the script. It is likely that the same can be said of the many viewers this film will eventually reach – I have to admit that I was also blissfully unaware of the history of Botswana before seeing this film. Khama’s story isn’t one that has been well-documented and that is something that Oyelowo and Asante will be more than happy to rectify.

A truly important story told in such a captivating manner deserves to be seen. A wonderful start to the festival.