The Levelling (Hope Dickson Leach, 2017)

Ellie Kendrick may be familiar to most as Meera Reed in Game of Thrones, but she has been extremely busy outside of Westeros with a series of challenging roles on stage and off. Her latest appearance, this time as the star of drama feature The Levelling, sees her take on the complex character of Clover, a British girl who returns to her farmhouse home after the unexpected death of her brother Harry (Joe Blakemore).

The tone of the film is inevitably dark and the setting is as grim as it is claustrophobic. The whole film plays out entirely within the confines of the farm, as Clover is forced to come to terms with what has happened whilst also dealing with a tattered relationship with her father Aubrey (David Troughton), a man who is either unable or unwilling to open up emotionally and would rather just carry on as if nothing has happened.

You may be forgiven for a reluctance in diving head-first into this film. When the main star is also a bit character in one of the biggest television series of all time, there is a nagging thought that she may have been cast solely to appeal to fans of Game of Thrones. Certainly the cynic in me can’t get past the fact that the timing of the release has been chosen to cash in on it; it is a matter of weeks before it enters its seventh season.

To presume this would be wholly wrong. Reed delivers an absolutely phenomenal performance, swaying between headstong frustration to childlike confusion. It’s a great showcase of her talents and a great piece of evidence that there will be life in her career beyond the final season of Game of Thrones next year.

Writer / director Hope Dickson Leach does well with the location of the film to let the audience know that this is a place that is almost uninhabitable. There’s no respite from the damp, grimness of the untended farmhouse and its surrounding land. The fact that she has achieved so much in her debut feature should be enough for the industry to take note. There’s a lot of talent here.

The subject matter may not appeal to some and may be too challenging for others, but this is definitely an emotional journey worth going on.

Film review – Letters from Baghdad (Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum, 2017)

Synopsis (taken from the official website)

Letters from Baghdad tells the extraordinary and dramatic story of Gertrude Bell, the most powerful woman in the British Empire in her day. She shaped the modern Middle East after World War I in ways that still reverberate today. More influential than her friend and colleague Lawrence of Arabia, Bell helped draw the borders of Iraq and established the Iraq Museum. Why has she been written out of history?


Review

First-time directors Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum have chosen an interesting topic for their debut feature. Gertrude Bell may not be a household name to most, but based on the evidence here she should be. Mixing archive video footage and voice-overs from Tilda Swinton and a host of other character actors, the film brings to life her letters from an important time during Iraq’s formative years.

Bell lived from 1868 to 1926 and was a truly independent woman, defining her life with a series of firsts. She was the first woman to receive a First Class Honours degree from Oxford University in Modern History, the first woman to journey solo into the Arabian desert (1500 miles on a camel across Central Arabia), was the only female diplomat at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 and the only woman at the Cairo Conference in 1921.

This film concentrates more on her time in Baghdad, critical to the formation of what we now know as Iraq. Her involvement came in the final for years of her life, but in that time she managed to define the borders out of the then-named Mesopotamia, before helping in the formative administration of the country and the controversial installation of their first monarch ruler: King Faisal bin Hussein. She was a good choice to spearhead the tasks due to her knowledge of the area after her extensive travels and relationships and understanding of local knowledge.

To appreciate the film fully it’s probably worth knowing what to expect. It is very much a narrative in the form of a book. It may have taken a considerable amount of time to research and compile the video footage from stock libraries around the world, but the visual result is only minimally engaging. There are many photographs from Bell’s personal collection but no video footage of her directly. This is neither good nor bad, just a matter of fact.

The letters and statements from other people associated to her – relatives, friends and colleagues – aren’t simply narrated. Instead, they are delivered in a talking head style to the camera. It may sound unusual, but it does work and there’s no better way to achieve an entertaining result.

This is a great resource for anyone who wants a penetrable route into the life and achievements of one of the greatest women of her time. It may have its flaws but as a ninety minute film it should reach a wider audience than if they published her letters in book form.

A solid documentary.

Film review – Wings (William A. Wellman, 1927)

For all its technological achievements and successes as a great tale, William A. Wellman’s 1927 cinematic epic is remembered for one thing – it’s the first film to win the Best Picture Academy Award.

The ceremony was far removed from what we know today. The winners were announced three months before the ceremony and it was a much smaller affair than the modern interpretation, with the awarding of prizes taking around fifteen minutes to complete. Wings actually won a prize called “Outstanding Picture”, later renamed to Best Film, making it famous at the expense of F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise. The latter won the similarly-named “Unique and Artistic Picture” on the same night, though on the night it is unlikely this was treated as a runner-up prize.

Wings concerns two love rivals – Jack Powell (Charles “Buddy” Rogers) and David Armstrong (Richard Arlen) – who are fighting for the attention and affection of Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston). Jack’s persistence is so committed that he fails to notice his tomboyish next-door neighbour Mary Preston (Clara Bow), despite her continuous effort to get him to notice her. They enlist in the Air Service as trainee fighter pilots. It covers their time in World War I as they complete training, launch into their first battles and become close friends.

It is perhaps a simple plot by today’s standards, but it’s often not the premise that makes a film great but the delivery. This is close to perfection.

Films like this may have been wonders when they were released, but few stand the test of time and allow enjoyment and excitement for the viewers today. Indeed, we are now 90 years further on in cinematic technological advancements and there isn’t a single person involved with the film that is alive today.

The world of cinema should be eternally grateful that Paramount decided to invest £900,000 in restoring this picture. The results are worth considering so you know exactly what you’re seeing and hearing.

On the positive, the picture is absolutely crystal clear. Many segments of the film were unseen for years by the general public, and whenever Wings did surface it was in a severely compromised form. A duplicate negative was found in Paramount’s archives, though this too suffered from significant damage baked into the print. However, digitising the original negatives and painstakingly restoring the film has done wonders for the visual experience. Credit must be given to Executive Director of Restoration Tom Burton and the team at Technicolor Creative Services for such a wonderful result, utilising tinting techniques of the era for added authenticity.

This has been matched up with a new recording of J. S. Zamecnik’s original score by Dominik Häuser and Michael Aarvold. The score was for a 14 reel version of the film that was edited down to 13 reels for the theatrical and roadshow release. Therefore there was a portion of freedom given to the scoring pair, but it is clear the right decisions have been made at each step, as evidenced by the moving results contained on the restored masterpiece. 

Controversially, the sound features sound effects that match to the visual image. Will McKinley has written a fantastic article about the positives and negatives of this, arguing both sides of the toss in a far more eloquent way than I could manage. It’s well worth a read. For me, these additional sounds are 100% in the score and I can see the restoration team’s predicament. If they omitted them it would sound more “authentic”, but only in as much as it’s what a modern audience expects from a 1920s sound film. This score was steeped in innovation and, like the technological risks taken in shooting the visuals, was way ahead of its time. I’m happy the music sticks to the original score, and if you don’t like it you can try an alternative option on the disc (provided by Gaylord Carter), or even mute the whole thing!

Utilising the trainee pilot angle, director Wellman was able to draw on his experience as a First World War pilot to create some absolutely astonishing sequences. They were all filmed on brilliantly blue but cloudy days, which gives the planes some scale and improves the dynamic nature of the dogfights. 

There is also a cinematic first in the film, with the first onscreen man-to-man kiss. It comes in one of the most heartbreaking scenes I’ve ever seen in a film. David has become stranded behind enemy lines and steals a plane to return home. Jack, already believing his friend has died, is on a suicide mission to take down as many enemy pilots as possible to help the war efforts, in careless abandonment of his own safety. Miraculously he survives his plan, shooting down innumerable enemy aircrafts. On returning, he spots one last pilot heading towards the Allied base. He goes in for the kill, without knowing that it is in fact his best friend David. When he lands and seeks the enemy to seal his victory, he realises what he has done. As David dies in Jack’s arms, the complex emotions get the better of them and there on screen is the first same-sex kiss, albeit perhaps accidental. It simply couldn’t have been cut or reshot – it’s integral to the plot and seals their respective positions in their friends’ lives.

The Masters of Cinema team are the perfect choice to take control of such a historic release. There are three bonus features on the Blu-ray disc: one covering the restoration, one that puts the flight aspects of the film into context and one that covers the legacy of the film. The accompanying booklet is full of additional information and essays on the film and director. It just fits the gravitas deserved of the film.

That we can now sit in our front rooms and see a film of this importance in such high quality is a wonderful feeling. The history of cinema is too important to simply let go. It’s fantastic that an entire new generation have the opportunity to see where cinema started and Wings certainly represents a significant piece of the puzzle.

Film review – 아가씨 / The Handmaiden (Park Chan-wook, 2017)

Park Chan-wook’s latest release is a twisting psychological thriller steeped in eroticism and oozing class that works its audience brilliantly. The only drawback was that I didn’t have time to see it a second time.

Set in Japan-occupied South Korea, the film tells the story of an elaborate plot to rip-off a rich Japanese heiress named Lady Izumi Hideko (Kim Min-hee), who is living in an extravagant and luxurious mansion under the authoritarian Uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong). The plot is being masterminded by a conman calling himself Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), and involves him marrying Lady Hideko and subsequently committing her to an asylum to steal her inheritance. To do this, he brings in Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), who is a professional pick-pocket, to work as Lady Hideko’s handmaiden in order to get close to her and influence her feelings towards the Count.

This fantastic plot is based on English novel “Fingersmith” by Sarah Waters. It is brought to life with perfect execution by director Chan-wook. As is typical of his films, The Handmaiden inhabits a uniquely-realised world that features traditional elements mixed in with gothic undertones. It’s a stunning visual achievement and one that is completely absorbing. 

Central to the plot is Uncle Kouzumi’s outlandish book collection, mainly erotic in nature and all extremely rare. He is producing forgeries of the books but is involving Lady Hideko in highly-exclusive book readings of the most sought-after novels, usually for an all-male audience who each will bid on the books in auctions after the readings. Whilst the forgeries provide an additional reason to hate Kouzumi – other than his generally disgusting appearance and the contents of his mysterious basement – it is the contents of the book that also serve to further the sexual drive of the story.

The scenes where Lady Hideko reads excerpts from the books whilst the audience listens intently are some of the best moments of the film, creating suspense with nothing more than an authoritative delivery from Min-hee and some attentive camerawork.

Indeed, the sly glances and subtle reactions are what makes the acting performances so believable. This is a game of tension, both mentally and sexually. The two central female characters are falling in love with each other, but they are also engulfing their desires in a sexual lust that makes Soo-kee’s original plan increasingly difficult to carry out. It is surprising as an English viewer that this traditional period drama setting doesn’t portray this desire with mere suggestion and topped-and-tailed sexual encounters. There is literally no holding back, which I’m sure many will find crass, but I found it essential to the plot and executed with enough artistic integrity to not be considered as superfluous.

This is simply one of the best films I’ve seen all year and one I can’t wait to see again once the extended cut is released on home media later this year. I can’t recommend it enough.

Film review – Ghost in the Shell (Rupert Sanders, 2017)

When the live-action remake of Ghost in the Shell was announced, the online rhetoric centred around the fact that the remake was in itself completely unnecessary, whilst also questioning why lead Japanese character Major Kusanagi was being portrayed by Scarlett Johansson. The studios’ responses at the time were that they wanted a bankable star and that was the main reason she was cast, but that word was out there. Whitewashing. Once it’s there, it’s hard to shake.

A similar issue befell the 2011 film Under The Skin, also starring Scarlett Johansson. True, there was no need accusations of racism, but Johansson was cast for similar reasons. It later emerged in an interview with Gemma Arterton that the British actress had been first choice by the director Jonathan Glazer. However, Johansson was eventually cast in order to secure the funding to complete the film to the director’s vision.

In both cases, it is a sad reflection on the current state of cinema and its attitudes towards so-called non-bankable stars. Clearly the studios involved were nervous about a film being able to sell based on a high quality script, good direction and a solid marketing campaign. Instead they brought in Johansson, and presumably part of their reasoning was that they didn’t have faith in the audience to see past the lead character. Perhaps this is correct.

However, in neither case was the film damaged as a result of the casting. Both plots lend themselves to having an otherworldly-essence to the lead female. 

Crucially, Johansson isn’t just a bankable star. She’s a truly phenomenal actress at the top of her game.

In Under The Skin, the fact that Scarlett Johansson was driving around the streets of Glasgow and getting real reactions from the general public whilst speaking in an emotionless English accent played into her role. She was, ambiguously, an alien preying on men, so her not being British gave a mysterious element to her performance that justified her casting.

Equally in Ghost in the Shell, the fact she isn’t of Asian origin doesn’t necessarily play against the script. She is a cybernetic being, with the brain of a human inside a robotic body. This is a future where cybernetic modifications are a part of normal life. The brain inside her body is that of a Japanese girl, but her body is Scarlett Johansson. 

I don’t agree with the feeling that her casting is whitewashing of the original story. The studio saw a way to make the plot more appealing to American audiences in a way that didn’t compromise the story – the wider lead cast covers a wide variety of races, primarily either American or Asian. They would have been foolish not to go down that route.

Clearly, the Japanese market doesn’t seem overly bothered by her casting. Nor do the South Korean and Chinese markets. In China, for example, they currently have a total box office taking of $23.39m (as of 09/04/2017), approximately a quarter of the global takings. This is a total which pushed a disappointing US box office performance into a profitable outcome.

Ironically, one of the primary reasons offered by the studio for its domestic failure was that Scarlett Johansson doesn’t have an online presence. 

The humour of this entire situation shouldn’t be lost and I can’t help but feel that the backlash against this is looking for an argument where there isn’t one. At the very worst, the filmmakers can be accused of bringing in a superstar to sell the film and this deviates it from the original vision from 1996. The faithfulness to the original story is so strong though that this change shouldn’t be held against it. Certainly no complaints can be levelled at Johansson, who puts in a stellar performance in her starring role.


The environment the characters inhabit is rich and believable, with a mix of CGI and real shots used to create a new universe. It is visually stunning, a full 3D remodelling of the vision created in 2D by Mamoru Oshii and the original animation team from 1995. 

The city is modelled on Hong Kong, but it feels like it lives in the same universe as Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, with spawling cityscapes and futuristic advertisement boards threatening to submerge the life within it.

Indeed, the musical cues that Clint Mansell and Lorne Balfe provide are clearly influenced by Vangelis. This I see as an indication of how much of an influence Vangelis has had on futuristic science fiction cinema, rather than a lazy bit of theft from the musical pairing. Mansell is very much carrying the Vangelis baton as evidenced by his excellent scores for the likes of High-Rise, Black Swan and Stoker.

If the action sequences seem a little dated, it is because Sanders has been put in a near-impossible situation by the Wachowskis. There are rumours that the only reason The Matrix was made was because they wanted to make a live-action Ghost in the Shell but couldn’t get the rights. Whilst there are similar themes in both films, it is the action sequences that were so iconic that The Matrix is remembered for. These were lifted straight from Oshii’s masterpiece. So, heaping this remake with too much of them would make casual audiences feel like they were utilising a technique that debuted two decades ago and has been parodied ever since. If anything, Sanders has probably underused it, but it is nonetheless a visual spectacle.

Taking on a film that is seen as a defining point of the genre is always going to be tough. The original really wasn’t a box office success in its original release, making just $2.28m globally. It did eventually become a cult classic. This 2017 remake has already made its money back ($130m and counting), but will doubtless also be considered a box office flop by its detractors. 

This is not a masterpiece of a film, but it is extremely impressive and engrossing. Arguably, the plot is much clearer than the original too. It’s a shame that it looks unlikely to be given a chance by most a large portion of the potential market.

Note: the version watched was 3D IMAX.

Film review – Paths of Glory (Stanley Kubrick, 1957)

If you’re a casual fan of the history of cinema, you may be forgiven for thinking that Stanley Kubrick has only released eight films. 

The reason for this misunderstanding? I blame the brilliant but consistently re-released boxset of films that features every feature he directed from Lolita onwards, along with a documentary on his career titled “A Life In Pictures”. It’s so prominent and features so many classic films that his early output is often forgotten.

The biggest casualty of this is Spartacus, the 1960 epic that starred Kirk Douglas. It seems obvious, but there’s a whole generation of film fans that are well aware of the film and the director but are surprised that Kubrick was at the helm.

It’s a shame that his early output is so criminally overlooked, but it’s also a problem that Masters of Cinema and Arrow have put a lot of effort into correcting. First came 1953’s Fear and Desire, a film steeped in rumours that Kubrick himself wanted to destroy all known copies of. It is far from his best work, but has an audience. It was bundled with three Kubrick-directed short films: Day of the Fight (1951), Flying Padre (1951) and The Seafarers (1953). These aren’t essential viewing for anyone other than the most ardent Kubrickian, but plot a path to his genius-level filmmaking that was revealed shortly after.

Arrow’s release of 1956’s The Killing is similarly detailed. The Sterling Hayden-starrer was a critical success on its release but commercially didn’t really make it out of the starting blocks, serving second fiddle to a now-hard-to-find film called Bandido! and eventually losing $130,000.

So where does Paths of Glory fit into this? It was Kubrick’s final film before his epic box office smash Spartacus in 1960, which was also critically praised and thus provided him much more leeway when it came to choosing his next project, which was Lolita.

Arguably, the reason he was offered Spartacus was in part due to his success with Paths of Glory. Indeed, the original director (Anthony Mann) was sacked after just one week of filming and it was this that led to Kubrick being hired, not least for the fact that Kirk Douglas was the star of both and his production company – Bryna Productions – was behind Spartacus and vicariously the hiring of a replacement director.

The short reason for Douglas’s affinity to Kubrick is quite simple – the film is absolutely brilliant. Douglas is allowed to explore a complicated character with no compromise to the artistic integrity, despite the fact that the film was banned in several countries for content deemed controversial at the time of release. It is a really powerful display of his acting ability.

Set entirely in French army bases during World War II, the basic premise of the film is that Colonel Dax (Douglas) is ordered by his superior General Mireau (George Macreary) to attack the “Anthill”, a well-defended German stronghold. Mireau’s reasoning behind his decision is entirely selfish as he has been offered a promotion for a successful attack on the Germans. Douglas attempts the manoeuvre despite knowing it is essentially a suicide mission for his men, but they all quickly realise it is doomed to failure and they retreat. They are subsequently accused of cowardice and three men are selected for trial and face the death penalty, with only their own accounts and Dax’s legal background to save them.

The film was banned by several countries on its original release, deemed as anti-military. Subsequently, cinema-goers in France, Germany, Switzerland and Spain were unable to see it until decades after its release. It is understandable, given the portrayal of the hierarchy and corrupt decision making. The integrity of the film is also maintained with a wholly miserable ending to the film, an early sign that Kubrick wasn’t one to conform to normalities.

Watching it now, it feels way ahead of its time. There is no happy ending. The characters are fully formed and Kubrick is confident enough to let the brilliant Kirk Douglas engulf the entire frame with close-ups and lingering shots.

The action sequences as the troops push over the top into no man’s land are engrossing and brutal, giving a reality to their predicament. Without getting this right, the whole picture would have fallen flat.

This is absolutely a film that needs to be watched and shouldn’t be seen as just a point of interest for die-hard Kubrick aficionados. If you can find a copy and want to see beyond The Chosen Eight, you really need to invest.

Film review – Their Finest (Lone Scherfig, 2016)

You may look at the premise of Their Finest and, coupled with the cast, assume that the film is a lighthearted romp with its aim directly at those to whom World War II is a trip down memory lane rather than a history lesson. It’s an assessment that isn’t wildly wide of the mark, but there’s more substance here than meets the eye.

The story is about a woman rising up against industry stereotypes and an oppressive partner to become a great screenwriter for propaganda war films. That woman is Catrin Cole (Gemma Arteton) and the film-within-a-film depicts two sisters’ efforts in the miraculous evactuation of stranded Allied troops from Dunkirk beach. Central to this film is the drunken Uncle Frank, set to be portrayed by Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy), whilst the film is co-written with Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin). Other minor roles include Jeremy Irons as the Secretary of War and Richard E. Grant as a studio executive.

Claflin and Arteton

Despite a feeling that a romantic subplot was going to undo all the hard work put in by a female lead being expertly guided by a female director, it was a wise choice to make her feelings for co-writer Tom serve a purpose to inspire Catrin’s career rather than making her career integral to her romantic endeavours. In this way, her feelings towards her co-writer is simply a character-building device.

There was a brief moment where I felt they were throwing away a really interesting character in her faux-husband Ellis Cole (Jack Huston). This is a man who has been injured in a previous battle and thus cannot join the war effort, nor can he earn a consistent living to support himself and Catlin. His failings are that he cannot bring himself to accept his partner’s financial support. In 2017 this is likely to stir an element of frustration amongst the feminist cinema-goers, which is a perfectly reasonable response given this remains such a hot topic. However, if one really tries hard to imagine the emotions of a man suffering from inadequacy-related depression in the height of World War II, I can’t help but feel that his side of the story wasn’t explored enough. His eventual lack of faithfulness was the easy route out of a cul-de-sac.

Bill Nighy’s role was satisfyingly gripping. His portrayal of an older actor struggling to be taken seriously following earlier successes is something that must resonate with many in the industry. Nighy is consistently and effortlessly funny in every role he tackles and that must, in an unusual way, be quite restrictive for his role choices. Here he is very much light relief but he plays a pivotal role in the final act when it comes to reasoning with a depressed Catlin. It’s a heartbreaking scene that really stands out as a centrepiece for both character arcs.

For all the accuracies in the costumes, scenery, colour choices, music and tone, the whole film would be nothing without an excellent performance from Arteton. This is a role that is specifically targeted to resonate with women who have had to rise up against criticism from men at home and at work throughout their lives. 

From Gemma Arteton all the way back to novelist Lissa Evans, the women involved with bringing this tale to life have left their mark. Women creating high quality cinema was a surprising success in 1940 and it’s a shame that the industry still feels the same way almost eighty years later.