Film review: The Big Melt (Martin Wallace, 2013)

For National Yorkshire Day, I opted to watch this documentary I impulse bought about half a decade ago in FOPP. It has been sat on my shelf since then, with a brief period inside a box, probably wondering if it would ever be unwrapped and why it was bought in the first place.

I was doubtless attracted to it due to Jarvis Cocker’s involvement, which to be honest was the rewarding side of it. I’ve been a fan of his music since my formative years – I was 11 when the seminal Different Class was released – and appreciate his intelligent take on life.

The Big Melt is essentially 70 minutes of carefully-selected archive footage of Sheffield, mainly involving the steel industry, backed by music performed live by a number of Sheffield-related musicians (and some of their friends).

It has the ability to impress but the overall impact is one you have to concentrate on and commit to if you want to get anything out of it. The music keeps on playing but there’s no narrative, so it’s easy to let your mind slip out of focus.

Often I realised I’d been watching the screen and listening to the music, but not actually absorbing what was going on. It had a meditative effect. Maybe that’s what they were going for.

There are interesting segments, including a young woman working in a bomb factory and a short animated film imagining a world without steel, but I’m struggling to deploy an alternative adjective to interesting, despite my misgivings of its use.

For a special occasion is was perfect, and it gave me the impetus to get my surround sound system fixed to enjoy the music properly.

It’s not without merit but only for people who have a genuine interest in the city.

Film review – The Cured (David Freyne, 2017)

What happens to the zombies after the disease has been contaminated and cured? This is a question many zombie-horror film fans have thought about, but that is seldom explored in cinema. There’s good reason too – an axe-wielding hero chopping off a zombie’s head is a much easier sell than someone dealing with social exclusion and depression following an almost-apocalypse.

Writer/director David Freyne’s feature debut dares to explore those themes, with considerable success.

The film is set in a ravished, desolate Dublin, in the aftermath of a zombie plague. Scientists have found a cure for the maze virus, but now the living and the former undead are finding the memories of the effects of the virus hard to handle. The cure is successful for 75% of the infected, though 25% remain immune and in secure isolation. Former zombie Senan (Sam Keeley) is released from quarantine and taken in by his American sister-in-law Abbie (Ellen Page). The film focuses on the reintegration into society of Senan and Conor (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), a friend Senan has made during the quarantine period.

The film is an excellent piece of social commentary. It deals with the manner in which modern society lives in fear. It’s something that has always been prominent in humanity, although it seems especially prescient that it debuts in the same year that Donald Trump began his presidency of the USA. The cured are humans living with the horrors of the past, but are treated as lesser beings due to the fear from those who were lucky enough to avoid being infected. Fear is driven by a swirl or rumours, mistruths and a media willing to maintain the confusion and feed the fear. At its best moments it’s a thoroughly thought-provoking piece of drama.

Freyne does his best to maintain the suspense with a smattering of jump-scares, primarily in the form of flashbacks. I felt these were unnecessary but were clearly there to serve a purpose. This is a horror film and for all its successes as a sociopolitical piece, the threat of the maze virus eventually becomes the driving force for the film. The horror credentials of the filmmakers are truly opened up at the point the film finally hits pace, leading to a frenetic and pulsating finale.

thecuredmovie

The central trio of actors all deliver great performances, but it is Ellen Page who has the most complex and thus most fruitful role. Abbie is a mother fearing for her son’s life and a woman mourning the loss of her husband. The complexities unravel as we go on the emotional journey with her and Page is a fantastic actor to take us on it. You can feel that she is giving it 100%, fully committing to a role and getting every drop of emotion out of the character. It’s the sort of performance that other actors love to feed off, and in the one-on-one scenes with Sam Keeley you can feel them both hitting their emotional peaks to devastating effect.

Tom Vaughan-Lawlor delivers an unsettling turn as Conor, a former politician attempting to be accepted by society but struggling to come to terms with his newly-assigned job as a janitor. He puts in the groundwork in the early portions of the film to allow himself to deliver a brutal final act performance.

The big risk with this film is that it feels like it’s trying to be a horror film and a drama film at the same time. Fans of horror films hoping for an out-and-out zombie carnival may be bored before the action takes flight. Those looking for a more subtle take on the genre may feel cheated by the ending. That said, those invested in the emotional journey of the characters should find a genuinely refreshing take on the theme and will be rewarded by a superb feature film debut from a very promising director.

Film review – My Life as a Courgette (Claude Barras, 2017)

My Life as a Courgette is a stop-motion animated film directed by first-time feature director Claude Barras. Short in length but big in heart, it has a way of drawing the viewer in and delivering a weighty emotional drama, despite its saccharine veneer.

It tells the story of the titular Courgette, a boy who is forced into an orphanage at the age of nine. He has come from a lonely and unhappy background but quickly learns to adapt and find his path with the six other children he lives with, notably the over-confident Simon and new girl Camille, whom he takes an immediate liking to.

This shot is one of the most memorable lingering shots of the film

The narrative is carried out from the perspective of the children, which gives rise to some elements of humour whilst giving the situation a melancholic edge. These are children all going through the same issue, as one child puts it they’ve “ran out of people to love them”.

The animation is truly beautiful and endearing, with a unique character design coupled with an a seamless stop-motion animation style. It is simply a joy to watch.

You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more emotionally-involving story in cinemas right now. This is one that needs to be seen.

My Life as a Courgette is out in cinemas now. You can watch a free ten minute preview below.

BFI London Film Festival 2016 – First weekend review

I’ve had a fantastic time over the first week of the BFI London Film Festival. I’ve laughed, cried, been angry and been confused by a rich plethora of cinematic delights.

Here is a link to all the films I’ve managed to catch so far:

A United Kingdom
La La Land
Frantz
Dancer
Creepy
Psychonauts: The Forgotten Children
Queen of Katwe

Here’s to the second week of the festival!

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 – 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.

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.

 

David Nicholas Wilkinson and the truth behind the birth of cinema

The First Film is an explorative documentary film that follows writer, producer, director and presenter David Nicholas Wilkinson in his quest to determine whether or not the first film footage ever recorded was done so in Leeds on 14th October 1888. The footage at the centre of the film is titled Roundhay Garden Scene, filmed by the Frenchman Louis Le Prince. It lasts only a few seconds but is possibly one of the most important breakthroughs in cinematic history.

Wilkinson explores the background of this footage and its claim to being either the first ever recorded film footage or simply the earliest surviving film footage. He also looks into the strange disappearance of Le Prince on 16th September 1890 on a train from Dijon to Paris, a disappearance that meant the argument of Le Prince being the inventor of the moving image cameras had lost its most important voice, paving the way for Thomas Edison to go down in the history books as the inventor of the movie camera. Things get very suspicious when the death of his son Adolphe in an unusual hunting incident in July 1901 lays his argument to rest.

A groundbreaking piece of cinematic history

When I caught up with David Nicholas Wilkinson to discuss the film, he reflected on the underwhelming appearance of the location as it stands today, a discovery that produces one of the most memorable scenes in the film.

“One of the first shots we filmed was of me finding the original location of the scene. I had to laugh. I had no idea what to expect but a cul-de-sac is about as banal a setting as I could imagine.” His presenting style is infectious even when he encounters disappointments like these, such is his passion for the subject matter. He remains upbeat despite such adversity: “I had hoped for something to be left, even if it was a tree.”

A key fact that the film explores is whether or not a photograph in a French morgue is that of Le Prince. It shows only the face of a deceased man who looks remarkably like the groundbreaking filmmaker, but David is not convinced. “I don’t really think it’s him. In 1890 the average height of a man in France was around 5ft 6in. Le Prince was actually 6ft 4in. In the accompanying notes for the photograph, anything unusual or out of the ordinary had been recorded for each person, though it was very scant in general. If it was definitely him it would have been recorded.”

Only one shot that had to be re-filmed, which meant both David and his co-writer Irfan Shan had to try their hand at acting surprised at discovering Le Prince’s grave. “He never wanted to be in it, but he knew most of the answers and stopped me making mistakes.”

The last-minute curveball

As we come to the end of the film, a late revelation throws the argument up in the air again through a discovery by Laurie Schneider. As David explains, “We had to delay. Everyone wanted me to cut it but once I knew what I’d found out about it I knew it was vital to the story.” The fact David’s discoveries are captured on camera means the audience goes on the journey with him, leaving the story open to these kinds of curveballs throughout.

Whilst the film explores the three most plausible explanations for the disappearance of Le Prince, David explains that there are many more doing the rounds. “There are around ten theories about what happened. One theory is that he was a spy for both Britain and USA during a time when there was a threat of a second French Revolution. Another is that he was filming snuff films with Jack The Ripper…” As he tails off there is something in his voice that gives the impression he doesn’t quite believe these avenues of thought.

It is clearly a labour of love and he has produced a compelling argument on what was likely a relatively small budget. One source of frustration for him came from the British Film Institution. “I went for a BFI distribution loan, which would allow me to visit colleges and universities around the UK. I had agreements with thirty out of a planned fifty and saw it as a great way to get the truth around. I was turned down because it was deemed “too educational”. I’m sure their remit is to promote the British film industry. I can’t come up with a tangible reason for it. Maybe they don’t believe me.”

David is the driving force behind the film.

David’s relentless passion for the project is infectious.

The driving force is Wilkinson himself and it becomes very easy to get wrapped up in his determined narrative. This determination comes despite concerns about the film’s viability. “It was a big worry because it had been rejected so many times. I’d been advised not to do it, but I knew people would be interested in this story.” It appears he is correct in this thought given the amount of coverage it is now getting in national newspapers. “It’s a forgotten story and an important part of our history as a film-making nation. People will now know the Le Prince name. In fact, the widespread coverage means the story is getting out even to people who haven’t seen the film.”

“The film has been thirty-three years in the making”, he states, referring to that point being the first time he pitched it to the BBC in 1982. “I’ve laid it to rest now though. Now that it’s out there I can move on. It’s often the case with filmmakers that the one project we’re really passionate about is the one that never gets made. People go decades without making a project and I often believe that they don’t really want it to get made.” It’s lucky that David’s one project was this one and we’re lucky to be able to hear the story, albeit 125 years late. The story deserved to be told and now it deserves to be seen.

The First Film is on limited release now, with the following cinemas offering screenings over the next month.

July

03.07.15 – Regent Street Cinema London
04.07.15 – Regent Street Cinema London
08.07.15 – Gate Cinema London
11.07.15 – Galway Film Fleadh – Ireland
14.07.15 – Triskel Arts Centre, Cork – Ireland
15.07.15 – IFI, Dublin – Ireland
16.07.15 – Queens Film Theatre, Belfast
20.07.15 – Greenwich Picturehouse London
23.07.15 – Ritzy, Brixton, London
26.07.15 – Cambridge Picturehouse
28.07.15 – Norden Farm, Maidenhead
30.07.15 – Kingston Arts Centre

August

01.08.15 – Bath Picturehouse
03.08.15 – Home Manchester
05.08.15 – Vue Leeds
06.08.15 – City Screen, York
07.08.15 – Sheffield Showroom
09:08:15 – Hebden Bridge Picture House
13.08.15 – Electric Palace, Hastings
18:08:15 – Picture House, Uckfield

The Fireman (Charlie Chaplin, 1916)

The second in the Mutual Comedies series (the first, The Floorwalker, I have previously reviewed), The Fireman is another great example of master craftsmanship from Chaplin. It involves an insurance fraud setup whereby a man (Lloyd Bacon) colludes with a local fire chief (Eric Campbell) to collect on the insurance money. However, things don’t quite go to plan when a real fire breaks out on the other side of town and the whole plot falls over to humorous results. Chaplin plays a fire engine driver who fails at everything he is involved with and this character is the source of most of the humour, especially in his interactions with the fire chief, played by the brilliant Campbell.

It’s not quite Chaplin at his best, nor is it really quite as effective as The Floorwalker, but it has its charm and is worth watching if only for the few big laughs dotted throughout. There are much worse ways to spend 28 minutes of your day.

I preferred the original Fotoplayer music and sound effects as performed by Robert Israel on this one, but both audio tracks compliment the original visuals perfectly well. It comes down to personal preference and I’m more of a traditionalist.

Charlie Chaplin – The Mutual Comedies is out now on BFI Blu-ray and DVD.