Firebird (Peeter Rebane, 2022)

Peter Rebane’s wartime romance Firebird courted controversy in the run up to the release, with Russian attempts to silence the film in the country. It is also being released into a market with little or no interest in a story showing any aspect of the Russian military, given the recent invasion of Ukraine. 

Watching it objectively is, therefore, an art in itself. 

It stars Tom Prior and Oleg Zagorodnii as two military men – Sergey and Roman – who develop a secret romance, in spite of its illegality in Soviet Russia at the time. It’s a beautifully written piece of romantic drama, with the two leads doing well to portray the kind of electricity only found in such forbidden passions.

I won’t be looking into how much of the film is true to life and how much has been fabricated for the film. Doing that usually makes it far less enjoyable!

I did fail to deal with my utter dislike of any English-language film that sets itself in a foreign country, but then asks the actors and actresses to speak in English but with a hint of an accent. Tom Prior sounded close enough in the more placid scenes but as soon as there was any intense emotion in his wording, you could hear his Dorchester accent much clearer. In fairness to the wider film, the cast is primarily made up of Estonian actors and actresses, with a handful of the lead roles being taken by British actors.

Russian actress Diana Pozharskaya puts in a powerhouse performance as Luisa, a friend and lover caught in the middle of the two men. She turns in a particularly impactful scene at the end, which I can’t discuss without spoilers!

This is a film worth seeking out, even if you’re put off by the Russian/Soviet setting. Romance done well is always a joy to watch and this is no exception.

Film review – Mrs Lowry & Son (Adrian Noble, 2019)

L. S. Lowry once claimed he only ever used five colours: vermilion, ivory black, Prussian blue, yellow ochre and flake white. Mrs Lowry and Son puts Timothy Spall and Vanessa Redgrave together in a film as flatly coloured as any of Lowry’s paintings, with a plot to match. This isn’t to bismirch the overall effect – a film with a different tone would feel like a mis-step.

These are astonishing performances from the two leads.

Spall plays the titular son, famed Lancashire artist Laurence Stephen Lowry. He brings Lowry to life, as he struggles against his own mother’s opinion of his work and allows that to permeate his confidence. It’s a heartbreaking thing to watch play out.

Of course, without Redgrave giving an equally wonderful performance as Elizabeth Lowry, the whole thing would fall flat. It’s well written and delivered perfectly. Redgrave has seldom felt so dislikeable. She has a dedicated son that she completely takes for granted. All she offers is a relentless undermining that only serves to stifle his genius.

The naming of the film tells you all you need to know about how important Redgrave is to the plot. It is arguably more her story than it is his, with her character as overbearing to the story as she was in real life to Lowry’s paintings.

It feels dreary, but this is a portrait of an artist living in Pendlebury in the 1930s. It was a dreary time to live, as families were built around the financial gains of working in the local coal mines.

The film soars when Adrian Noble works some of the more familiar of Lowry’s works into the visuals of the film. As a child who grew up in nearby Burnley, Lowry was revisited many times during art lessons at school. I’m not an expert, but it is a joy to see the masterpieces brought to life.

The joys of this film shouldn’t be limited to those from northern England, nor just to fans of his art. It’s very well executed and is well worth your viewing time.

Film review – Toy Story 4 (Josh Cooley, 2019)

It’s lovely to see the gang back again. After three 5* films, this is the first one that, for me, drops the standard a little.

Woody, Buzz and Jessie have never looked so good. What a difference 24 years makes. In the opening scene there’s a rescue mission that involves Woody leaving the playroom and being exposed to rain. It is nothing short of stunning. You feel every drop off water hitting him, soaking into the materials of his clothes, bouncing off his hat and face. One can only wonder what Ralph Eggleston and John Lasseter would have made of this all those years ago.

Whilst the visuals are as close to perfection as 2019 will allow, I couldn’t help but get distracted by the voice acting. Of course, each of the actors have aged with the fans of the movies, but I could definitely hear that in their acting performances. If there’s another nine years until they decide to make a 5th installment, Tom Hanks will by then be 72 years old. I honestly just don’t want to hear Woody in his eighth decade.

The storyline lacks the oomph and coherence expected of other Pixar films. Whilst it’s somewhat predictable, it also has the feeling of a team trying to add in about 25 minutes to a film they’d crafted but realised didn’t run long enough. It just went around in circles for a little too long when the end was in sight, with an antagonist in the form of Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) that was played too softly throughout to ever leave us worried that she’d be a genuine threat.

It’s not a bad film and doesn’t ruin the series, but I think they need to draw a line under it now. It’s an addendum to the perfect ending of Toy Story 3, and it only just gets away with it.

Film review – Photograph (Ritesh Batra, 2019)

Photograph is a sweet film that has the feel of being a western take on what Indian cinema is. It’s doesn’t have any large set pieces or emotional pyrotechnics, the character development is sparse and the ending is fairly predictable, but despite these the overall effect is largely positive.

Director Ritesh Batra has returned to ground familiar to anyone who saw his soaring debut The Lunchbox, which brought him to prominence in 2013. The concept of an unlikely friendship blossoming into an even unlikelier romance is revisited here, with a beautifully-shot Mumbai serving as the backdrop for both. Fans of his debut expecting another uplifting romance will feel a little shortchanged, so it’s best to appreciate with a fresh palate.

With Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Rafi and Sanya Malhotra as Miloni Shah, the film is in great hands. These are two complex characters and they’ve clearly thought through every move under the guidance of director Batra. Rafi has an underlying anger that is fully realised without he need to clumsily explore his past through flashbacks irrelevant to the main plot. He plays it perfectly – a man frustrated by the pressures of arranged marriages that are being compounded by the arrival of his meddling but well-meaning grandma (Dadi).

Equally, Sanya Malhotra negotiates her role delicately. Hers is a character who goes a long way to keep those around her happy, so starting a relationship with someone unknown to her family is a huge step. It’s a role relevant to so many global movements to ensure better rights for women, though some may question if her stance is a little too understated. Or perhaps it’s just more realistic in her situation than if she’d openly displayed anger.

The ending is effective, even though it was signposted from about ten minutes in. Yes, it’s a poor man and a rich girl falling in love, which is tried and tested ground for so many films – a fact they mention in the climactic scene – but it’s certainly not handled clumsily. Just because we’ve seen it before doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable.

It isn’t a groundbreaking film, but not every piece of cinema has to be to leave a lasting effect.

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 Great Hack (Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer, 2019)

Unless you’re 100% informed about Cambridge Analytica, you really need to watch this film. It covers a lot of what is already known to those who followed the Facebook-Cambridge-Analytica scandal at the time, as covered in The Guardian by Carole Cadwalladr in her whistle-blowing article “The Great British Brexit Robbery”.

Cadwalladr is interviewed here, along with Cambridge Analytica’s ex-director Brittany Kaiser and ex-employee of Cambridge Analytica Christopher Wylie. Kaiser does her best to paint a sympathetic picture of herself, though I struggled to forget that she was at the heart of everything that happened (thanks to the reminders in the film). As a source, Wylie’s credibility is questioned, though he features lightly. It is an example of how well the film does at keeping the viewpoint as balanced as possible.

Importantly, the film doesn’t end trying to imply that the earth-shattering revelations brought about by the Cambridge Analytica scandal have been resolved. The implications of this scandal and the continued work that seems to be going on at so many of the large technology companies feels like it’s getting worse by the day.

It’s a slightly disjointed film that, at times, doesn’t know what it wants to do with the subject matter. It may have been better-served as a four-part series, focusing on each of the subjects for an hour. The story of the New York media professor David Carroll and his hunt for his own personal information is probably the most interesting but isn’t mentioned for a long portion of the film.

I’d also like to see more prodding of current or ex-Facebook employees, who are clearly implicated in the accusations but continue to avoid the spotlight.

Regardless of its shortcomings, this is an important film to watch. It’s also one you might need to see quickly in case it unexpectedly disappears from Netflix. It might well be the most disturbing horror film of the year.

 

Why Deborah Davis’s The Favourite should give courage to all aspiring writers

The plot of The Favourite doesn’t sound like a laugh-a-minute comedy. Just look at it:

In 18th century England, the close relationship between Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) and Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) is threatened by the arrival of Sarah’s cousin, Abigail Hill (Emma Stone). The resulting bitter rivalry between the two cousins impacts their lives and their relationship to the Queen, who is manipulated by both in the midst of a turbulent time in England’s political landscape.

It may not sound promising, but it doesn’t take long to realise that this isn’t your standard period drama. It’s a sharp script and a twisting plot, delivered to perfection by the three lead women. That this is Deborah Davis’s first ever script makes it even more remarkable.

Davis gave some insight into the writing process when she spoke to Awards Daily in November 2018. “I wrote the first draft in 1998 and I had no experience in scriptwriting. I took myself to night school to learn. I was accepted into the University of East Anglia to do a scriptwriting course and I was helped and influenced by my tutor who was really interested in The Balance of Power as it was then called. [Ceci Dempsey (of Scarlett Films) has] never ever wavered in her support and passion for this project.”

The phenomenal journey should be an inspiration to all aspiring writers around the world. Sure, it’s a twenty year process in this case, but Davis believed in her own capabilities and surrounded herself with others who were equally supportive of her work.

The success of the film is unquestionable. It continues to bring in audiences across the globe, building momentum through word of mouth and positive press responses. Now a Golden Globe winner (Olivia Colman for Best Actress), it has also been nominated for Best Original Screenplay at the BAFTAs. The team will undoubtedly be hoping for yet more success at the Academy Awards when the nominations are announced next week.

Of course, it isn’t all Davis’s work. Yorgos Lanthimos is well known for quirky comedy dramas that find hard to stay away from the surreal, which certainly shines through in a bizarre dance sequence that couldn’t possibly have been scripted. Equally, Colman’s hysterics when a young doorman may or may not have looked at her is played to perfection by both actors. That it’s all set in a traditional English country house (Hatfield House in Hertfordshire) with the expected pompous outfits just adds to the unnerving effect.

But it’s all hung on this brilliant script that mixes the most bizarre of comedies with a power struggle akin to a game of chess. Indeed, the women’s costumes, created especially for the film by Sandy Powell, were designed exclusively in blacks and whites to emanate the pieces of a chess board.

One of the most effective results of the writing is the subtle way the audience is drawn in to care for Abigail (Stone). We go on an emotional journey with her, seeing her at rock bottom as she rises through the ranks within the palace. The moment she gains power by marrying Samuel Masham (Joe Alwyn), her character completely changes and we realise that she’s as horrible as we feared. It’s a tough pill to swallow for an audience who think they’ve found a character to root for, but the best film-makers know just when to pull the rug from under the feet of its viewers. Emma Stone said of the script: “It feels amazing when the script is right and the director is right and you are like, ‘Now I can go and have fun and trust the process.'” And it shows. All the actors on screen look like they’re completely at ease with what they’re doing and saying.

It’s just a great piece of cinema.

For anyone out there sat on the next homemade cinematic masterpiece script, The Favourite is the perfect catalyst for you to get it finished and get it out there.

Film review – Shirkers (Sandi Tan, 2017)

‘Shirkers’ is a quite remarkable documentary film. Written and directed by Sandi Tan, it tells the story of a potentially groundbreaking film created in 1992 by a group of three teenage girls in Singapore, the reels of which went missing shortly after filming wrapped, disappearing along with the enigmatic director.

Tan was one of the three young aspiring filmmakers behind the film. Her interviews with fellow creators Jasmine Ng and Sophie Siddique, both interviewed here and clearly heartbroken over their loss, reveal a truly enthralling mystery surrounding the film.

The director, Georges Cardona, is a name unfamiliar to most. It is unlikely that he was the man that inspired James Spader’s character in ‘Sex, Lies and Videotapes’, but Cardona wouldn’t let that get in the way of a good story. The picture painted of him here is one of a man full of lies. It’s a man desperate to succeed himself and not let anyone else around him get anywhere without him. There’s also a hint of inappropriate behaviour here – why was a married 40-something-year-old man going on a road trip across the USA with an 18-year-old girl?

As it all unfolds, it’s obvious how frustrating it is for all those involved. This was an exciting passion project that was already picking up a bit of buzz around the industry, which never saw the light of day. Had it been released, it could have had a huge impact on the Singapore film industry and the lives of those behind it.

Sadly, all we can see is the soundless footage and a remorseful memory of three young friends that lost a part of their youth, along with their friendship itself (in a recent interview with Vulture, Tan stated that the Sundance premiere was the first time her, Jasmine and Sophie were all in the same room together in over twenty years).

‘Shirkers’ is a must-see for any young aspiring filmmakers. Actually, it’s a must-see for everyone at all interested in films.

Film review – They Shall Not Grow Old (Peter Jackson, 2018)

Peter Jackson’s World War One documentary ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’ does a great job in telling the story of some of the front-line soldiers, from the outbreak, through training and joining the war effort and finally returning home. This is achieved partly through archive audio from the BBC, which is interesting in its own light, but not really what this film will be remembered for.

The really mesmerizing and memorable part of this film is the visual footage, which Jackson has sourced from the Imperial War Museum as part of their 14-18 Now initiative. The team working on this film have taken whatever was available and worked wonders. It now looks vibrant and sharp and immediate, with no signs of what was probably very grainy footage used as the source material. The claim that it would look like it was filmed last week rather than 100 years ago is perhaps a little too far-fetched, but it isn’t far off.

In most places, the footage is accompanied by audio dubbing from actors, reading lines as determined by expert lip readers and matched to the visuals. It is, literally, The Great War as you’ve never seen it before.

It only falls short near the end where it feels like they were running out of source material and needed to re-use some video footage – one shot appears four or five times in a short period. It doesn’t spoil anything; indeed it serves in part to underline how precious what little footage that remains is to the project and how lucky we are to see anything so beautifully restored. Whether that effect could have been achieved with fifteen minutes cut out of it is another question.

It’s not the best documentary I’ve seen recently, but it is technically one of the best restoration jobs I’ve ever seen. There will undoubtedly be a debate about whether he went too far – detractors will say he could have simply restored the footage rather than also enhancing it – but the detail and beauty it has revealed is more than worth the risk.

You can do much worse than allowing yourself to be absorbed into this masterpiece of restoration.