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January 9, 2021

Mangrove (2020)
Director: Steve McQueen
Actors: Shaun Parkes, Letitia Wright, Malachi Kirby

Small Axe: Mangrove cast: Who stars in the first film of Steve McQueen's  series, and when it's on BBC One

Synopsis: Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes) opens the Mangrove restaurant in Notting Hill in 1968 and it soon becomes the evening port-of-call for the wider West Indian community in the area. The police continually raid the Mangrove and arrest its patrons, and this culminates in protests led by Crichlow’s friends, Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright) and Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby). The police sabotage those protests, leading to a near riot, and nine of the protesters (soon to become known as the “Mangrove Nine”) end up in the Old Bailey on charges that could see some of them imprisoned for a number of years. Jones-LeCointe and Howe even represent themselves in an attempt to overturn the unfairly trumped up charges against them.

Review: Steve McQueen achieves the impressive feat of producing something that is not only of great public service value, but that’s more than a worthy addition to his own virtuoso cinematographic achievements as well. Primarily though, Mangrove is of prime educational merit in bringing to the forefront and valorising a key moment in British race relations history where a group of black defendants were, for the first time, able to win a key criminal case, and, in doing so, defy the historic institutional racism inherent in the Metropolitan Police – something that was to become ever more controversial, with the fallout of the Stephen Lawrence murder in 1993.

McQueen has always been a filmmaker trying to find the perfect synergy between the political and the aesthetic in his films, and where, for me, his 12 Years a Slave and Widows were a touch clunky in that didacticism, the balancing act is nigh on perfect in Mangrove. McQueen’s famed macroscopic feel is so permissible for sketching his main character, Mangrove bar owner Frank Crichlow, in the specific tinder box of multi-cultural Notting Hill in the late 1960s. The film begins with a bravura tracking shot, charting Crichlow’s walk to his new Mangrove bar, and taking in the sights and sounds of Notting Hill – a world away from the bourgeois paradise it is now – with various instances of graffiti reminding us of the racism at the time with references to “wogs” and “Powell for PM”. The verisimilitude is so impressive, and the CGI (assuming it was used?) is exemplary as the skyline shots of a London 50 years ago look so realistic.

The barefaced racism of the Metropolitan police, as personified in the main by Sam Spruell’s vengeful PC Pulley, is what transmits so clearly here. Equally telling is how the whole legal system seems so set against black defendants – from the unfair advantage the prosecution team is given in its attempt to champion the characters of the police force though it be extraneous to the particulars of the case, to the judge who seems initially resentful of the eccentricities of the Mangrove Nine’s defence (two of them defend themselves, the rest are defended by a young, plucky Scotsman, and they are backed by a lively and partisan collection of West Indian friends and relatives in the gallery). The speeches given to Jones-LeCointe and Howe in the docks as they deconstruct the case against them are particular highlights of the film, as are the performances of the central trio – Shaun Parkes, Letitia Wright, and Malachi Kirby – all of whom would be worthy nominees when the awards season comes around. (January 2021)

The Silence of the Lambs

January 8, 2021

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Director: Jonathan Demme
Actors: Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn

Feminist Forensics in The Silence of the Lambs | The Current | The  Criterion Collection

Synopsis: Trainee FBI Agent, Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), is commissioned to interview famed cannibal and imprisoned serial killer, Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), a man who may just know the identity of at loose serial killer, ‘Buffalo Bill’. There follows a game of ‘cat and mouse’ as Lecter toys with the authorities while giving Starling subtle clues that may enable her to catch ‘Buffalo Bill’.

Review: Approaching its 30th anniversary, Jonathan Demme’s stellar The Silence of the Lambs stands the test of time. It’s one of the finest crossovers of a genre project into a genuine prestige film, it’s one of the few Best Picture Winners at the Oscars to genuinely warrant that award, and, quite simply, it’s one of the finest American films, period.

Typically, Anthony Hopkins’ scene-stealing performance has garnered the most column inches in consideration of the film’s impact, and I’m not here to either condone or dissuade that viewpoint. But it’s the intense, concentric brilliance of the whole ensemble that centres the film’s storytelling and gives it its soul. Jodie Foster, in particular, anchors the film. The simultaneous dichotomy of vulnerability and gritty determination that she essays provides the film its necessary conduit through all its schlocky twists and turns, and the insalubrious personnel she comes across.

Equally effective is the way director Jonathan Demme realises the film. Although, in essence, it could be considered a police procedural work, Demme films it like an arty horror, always cloaking the action in an air of non-omniscience – never telegraphing where the direction of the story may be heading. Demme aestheticises the film via its central theme of dread and voyeurism, and even makes Starling’s breakthrough understanding of the concept of ‘coveting’ a literal stylistic affectation of the camera throughout the film.

All Demme’s clever doctoring of the camera and his story achieves its pay-off in the masterly structural feat in the closing moments when Scott Glenn’s FBI chief approaches what is assumed to be Buffalo Bill’s hideout in Illinois. This cross-cuts with the seemingly more mundane investigations of Starling, on a fact-finding mission in Belvedere, Ohio – the residence of Bill’s first victim – before she stumbles across a more disquieting presence at one of the houses she goes to visit. (January 2021)


December 31, 2020

Parasite (2019)
Director: Bong Joon-Ho
Actors: Choi Woo-shik, Park So-dam, Song Kang-ho

Movie Review: Oscar-Nominated South Korean Film 'Parasite' Has Universal  Appeal | KMUW

Synopsis: The Kims are a lower class Korean family and are struggling to make ends meet while living in their cramped and squalid basement apartment. The son, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), blags a job as a tutor to the daughter of an extremely affluent family, the Parks, from the posher part of town. Slowly, all the members of the Kim family inveigle their way into the confidences and payroll of the Park family, but there’s a nasty surprise awaiting them in the underground recesses of the Park family residence.

Review: Parasite’s pretensions toward something profound and topical in terms of its zeitgeisty politicking on issues of class and social status lead it into potentially fertile territory, but the controlling didacticism of Bong’s style and narrative construct neuters – at least, to me – the end result. The film feels too insincere and hypocritical to take genuinely seriously on its theme of social injustice. Even the tricks and conceits of the narrative seem to drain the film of any true socio-political import.

One area where the film’s obviousness of rhetorical intent feels particularly oppressive is in the use of spatial and positional metaphors. The Kim family are presented as quite literally in the bottom strata of society at the film’s opening, with the position of them as living in a cramped apartment that is below ground level, only affording them a partial view of, and stake in, the world around them – thus emblematic of their disentitled status. That’s all well and good, but to elevate them (literally as well as metaphorically, because the Parks’ bourgeois apartment is in the heights of the city), Bong creates cartoonish levels of confidence and duplicity in the Kim family that enables them to manipulate the rich family, but they are dehumanised in the process. Thus, Bong devalues his own politicking by making his narrative cogs too obtrusive, too insincere, and too removed from reality.

That air of didacticism leads to various clunky metaphors. One, which I’ve already alluded to, is in the way the allegorical city of haves and haves not is presented: the exalted live on top of the city, while the poor are hidden away in cramped basements. One tempestuous night, when the Kims manage to escape from their tumultuous first encounter with the true disenfranchised family of the narrative, Bong’s camera literally tracks their descent back into their lower-class dive. The flood that ensues and the conceit of the Kim family having to literally float through shit and sewage in their apartment is, to my taste at least, an inelegant metaphor – echoed again by the too-obvious motif of Mr. Park continually sniffing and taking offence at the malodorous air of Mr. Kim.

There are admittedly some strong elements to the film. The sequence of the Kim family having to extricate themselves from the sticky situation whereby the Parks have returned prematurely from their planned camping retreat is brilliantly realised and a great example of gripping situational comedy and black humour (especially when some of the Kims have to hide under a living room table while the Park couple make love centimetres away from them on the sofa.) This sequence stands as evidence that Bong’s virtuoso talents are at their best when not reduced to transparent and ever-decreasing circles of proselytising. (December 2020)


December 30, 2020

Elf (2003)
Director: Jon Favreau
Actors: Will Ferrell, James Caan, Zooey Deschanel

Elf movie facts | from who nearly played Buddy to CGI snow - Radio Times

Synopsis: A baby at an orphanage slips into Santa’s sack one Christmas Eve evening and ends up back at the North Pole. He is christened Buddy, and becomes one of Santa’s elves, although this becomes an increasingly tricky task the older and larger he gets in his conventional human form. He eventually returns to New York, to track down the father who gave him away.

Review: Elf is classic family Christmas fodder. It’s suitable for the whole range of ages in the family as it has enough in the way of wry, self-aware comedy from Will Ferrell in the role of the human elf, while also committing properly to its fantastical subject matter in the great set design and conception of Santa and the elves’ world in the North Pole. The gorgeous candyfloss colour schemes and New York in all its resplendent wintry beauty help the film pass effortlessly by too. (December 2020) 

Piecing the Story Together: The Legacy of Memento

October 27, 2020
15 Things You Didn't Know About Memento, 15 Years Later |

For my debut piece for Council of Zoom, I revisited Christopher Nolan’s Memento, on the 20th anniversary of its release in the UK.

Follow link here to read the article:

Sorry We Missed You

August 31, 2020

Sorry We Missed You (2019)
Director: Ken Loach
Actors: Kris Hitchen, Debbie Honeywood, Rhys Stone

Kris Hitchen in Sorry We Missed You.

Synopsis: Ricky (Kris Hitchen) struggles to keep his family’s financial status afloat while attempting a new career as a self-employed delivery driver. The rigours of the job combined with problems with his son make for a challenging few months for Ricky.

Review: Though poles apart in terms of milieu and subject matter, Ken Loach does actually bear some similarity with Woody Allen, especially in the trajectory of his career. Of course, Loach doesn’t have the same controversy hanging over him as Allen does, but both are incredibly distinctive and prolific filmmakers, capable of churning out their small-scale productions on an annual basis. The increasing mediocrity and dramatic flimsiness of their recent output, however, betrays that, now well into their 80s, both men’s best days are long since behind them.

As with Loach’s previous film, I, Daniel Blake – a Palme d’Or winner, no less – he attempts with this latest work, Sorry We Missed You, to shed a light on contemporary socio-economic issues where the working man’s dignity is blighted by the ruthlessness of the market economy (in this case, zero hours contracts and the perils of becoming a self-employed delivery driver). Sadly, as with I, Daniel Blake, while there’s no questioning the worth and integrity of the message, the clumsiness of the drama and its crude didacticism, obscures the potential import and power of its politics.

Loach’s commitment to verisimilitude and the casting of local, non-professional actors is one of the great successes of his style, but the weakness of the acting and writing here negates any potential upside to the practice, as – more often than not – scenes play out like poorly realised, kitchen sink pastiches by a local theatre company. It is the lack of subtlety in the film’s politicking that is its greater flaw though. By all means, the victim thesis Loach conceives for his central character, Ricky, is absolutely necessary, but the soapy and increasingly farcical trajectory of misfortune and misery he sends Ricky on does stretch believability to its breaking point. At times, Sorry We Missed You bears more similarity to the soapy machinations of an EastEnders episode than it does a nuanced portrait of a working class man’s travails and suffering.

There can be no denying the worth of Loach’s impact on British cinema and social discourse over the last 50 years. His last couple of films though have perhaps revealed that time has caught up with the maestro and his practices, and that he’d be better off moving into a well-earned retirement, and so that he can be remembered for some of the unquestionably brilliant films he made in the early and middle part of his career. (August 2020)

Anelka: Misunderstood

August 31, 2020

Anelka: Misunderstood (2020)
Director: Franck Nataf

Anelka: Misunderstood - new Netflix documentary recaps boycotts, bans and  fallouts - BBC Sport

Synopsis: Nicolas Anelka, living in Dubai with his young family, reflects back on his life and previous two decades in professional football.

Review: Nicolas Anelka doesn’t quite make the top echelon of world footballers from the last couple of decades, and, in truth, his career was somewhat of an underachievement compared to his closest contemporary, Thierry Henry. His character and the trajectory of his career do, however, make for a strangely watchable documentary, and Anelka: Misunderstood is a reminder of just how ridiculously nomadic and mired in controversy his life in football actually was.

The framing device for the documentary is a retired Anelka living in relative anonymity with his young family in a Dubai apartment. In many respects, the otherworldly, awkward and slightly contradictory landscape of Dubai is a fitting motif for Anelka: a man whose difficult and intransigent nature was more a by product of his shyness and aloofness than through the careening arrogance he was often tagged with.

The format works effectively with Anelka’s frank account of his career juxtaposed with a series of talking heads from fellow professionals, past managers and well-informed journalists. The episodic tenor of Anelka’s career transmits almost immediately, right from his early days at Paris St Germain as a teen when he engineered a move to Arsenal after PSG failed to elevate him to the first team quickly enough. An unfortunate dichotomy of sensitivity and impulsiveness was at the root of many of Anelka’s famous run-ins with the clubs he played for and the media. The most obvious example is his famous expulsion from the French squad during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa (it was merely a half-time argument with coach, Raymond Domenech, that became hugely sensationalised by the French media). But there were other moments where his loner status and sullenness caused him problems – not least of which during his tortuously difficult transition to life at Real Madrid during the one season he had there, but also when he seemingly priced himself out of a move to Liverpool in 2002 because his brothers were hawking him out to other clubs at the same time. Anelka denies this was the case, as he similarly denies all knowledge that his quenelle gesture at West Brom was actually anti-semitic, but he is also capable of brutal and refreshing honesty – most notably when he tags probably his most successful spell at a club, Chelsea from 2008-12, a “failure” based purely on missing the decisive penalty in the Champions League Final against Manchester United in 2008. (August 2020)

Alfred Hitchcock Films Ranked

August 12, 2020

Decline to Fall: Is Hitchcock's Most Celebrated Film All That It's ...I’ve barely begun to scratch the surface with Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography, but as I’ve clocked up a dozen reviews, I thought it opportune to add Hitchcock to my directorial rankings project. Here they are, in reverse order. I’ll add to this as and when I write about more of his films.

12. Dial M for Murder (1954)

Dial M for Murder

Hitchcock is neutered by the fairly stagebound and workmanlike machinations of the blackmail plot, but there are one or two distinctive flourishes (when Grace Kelly’s Margot is sentenced to the death penalty) that offer some idiosyncrasy.

Full Review:

11. Suspicion (1941)

Image result for suspicion film

Hitchcock is well and truly in minor key here, mired in a retrospectively lame and sexist plot conceit. As ever with Hitchcock though, there is some wry satire of English class mores and one or two virtuoso cinematographic touches.

Full Review:

10. To Catch a Thief (1955)

To Catch a Thief(film, 2 August 1955) starring Grace Kelly and Cary Grant -  ELEGANCEPEDIA

It has a hokum plotline, but is an example of classy, classic Hollywood cinema at its best. VistaVision and Technicolour immemorialise Grace Kelly’s sheer star quality here.

Full Review:

9. The Lady Vanishes (1938)

The Lady Vanishes (1938) | BFI

An archetypal situational comedy-thriller by Hitchcock. It is most enjoyable for its riotous piss-take of English social types.

Full Review:

8. The 39 Steps (1935)

Image result for the 39 steps

One of Hitchcock’s earliest talkies and most notable for being one of his purest action-thriller films that also features some powerful horror movie tropes too.

Full Review:

7. Notorious (1946)

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Perhaps not Hitchcock’s most powerful narrative, but it’s one of his most beautiful films, where the chiaroscuro cinematography, Edith Head’s beautiful costumes, and Ingrid Bergman’s sheer star quality, elevate the material.

Full Review:

6. Rebecca (1940)

Rebecca (1940) | BFI

Featuring one of the most famous opening voiceovers in film history, this is also one of the great gothic thrillers – a worthy entrant for Hitchcock into the Hollywood firmament.

Full Review:

5. Strangers on a Train (1951)

strangers on a train / the talented mr. ripley

A narrative that veers between the gripping and preposterous, but it features Hitchcock at his most virtuoso. Each scene has some kernel of cinematographic flair.

Full Review:

4. The Birds (1963)

Image result for the birds film

A hokum narrative told absolutely brilliantly. A thinking person’s horror and contingency film. A filmmaker in absolute command of his craft.

Full Review:

3. Rear Window (1954)

rear-window-james-stewa-008.jpg (300×180)

It took three viewings for me to fully get and fall in love with Rear Window, but it’s right up there with Hitchcock’s greatest films. One of Hitchcock’s meta-discourses on looking and narrating, and featuring one of the great cinematic entrances when Grace Kelly enters James Stewart’s apartment.

Full Review:

2. Psycho (1960)

Image result for psycho film

Perhaps the most purely perfect piece of expressionistic filmmaking I have ever seen. Has a director ever intrinsically understood the medium better than Hitchcock?

Full Review:

1.Vertigo (1958)

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Maybe not quite as perfect as Psycho, but it gains the top spot by being that touch more beguiling, mysterious and uncanny. A mesmeric parable of faustian self-deception and of dreams unravelling into nightmares.

Full Review:

Leave No Trace

August 12, 2020

Leave No Trace (2018)
Director: Debra Granik
Actors: Ben Foster, Thomasin McKenzie, Jeff Kober

Wheels reviews the new film from the writer/director of WINTER'S ...

Synopsis: PTSD-suffering army veteran, Will (Ben Foster), lives off the land in a Portland forest with his teenage daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie). They are apprehended by authorities and moved to an Oregon community where Will is put to work and Tom is sent to school, but Will’s desire to return to a life away from people – and Tom’s increasing need for more social interaction – creates a growing rift between them.

Review: Part eco-parable, part-thesis on parenting, and part-ode to the eternal bonds of love between a father and daughter, Leave No Trace is another directorial tour de force from Debra Granik – a filmmaker who instinctively knows how to counterbalance and alchemise the dramatic, cinematographic and anthropological ingredients of her fables so acutely. In fact, it wouldn’t be hyperbole to propose Leave No Trace as one of the most sincere and tonally perfect of American films in recent history.

Granik’s films are often marked out for their authenticity and sense of empathy for their marginalised protagonists, but arguably her greater skill is in her mastery of dramatic rhetoric. I would argue that this is an immensely profound and emotional film, yet Granik honours that import without resorting to the use of a melodramatic music score, without encouraging demonstrative character acting, and without ventriloquising the story’s powerful themes in her adapted screenplay.

The opening to the film is particularly impressive, as we’re thrust into Will and Tom’s routine in their Oregon wilderness. The quietude and harmony of their lifestyle and the co-dependency of their relationship is subtly imprinted, and it’s in the length of this montage or snapshot (some 20 minutes or so) that Granik communicates Will and Tom’s oneness with their surroundings – the elemental nature of their routines around starting fires, fetching wood, and preparing food, conveying their state as this transient form of perfection at odds with the realities of the outside world and Tom’s own growing maturity.

The shock and disruption to Will and Tom’s gentle routine when they necessarily walk into the metropolis of Portland to purchase provisions is as much ours as it is theirs. The city looks unnatural and otherworldly, especially when they take a cable car ride across the city skyline, and Granik is able to cast this detached, anthropological perspective over other parts of the film. Primarily, this fits into the film’s function as part eco-parable, with the concept of development and market values being anthropomorphised through machines that smash through the squatters’ park in the Portland forest, and the helicopters that come to claim the commodified and wrapped up Christmas trees at Will and Tom’s later farm residence.

It is perhaps the human drama that is most powerful in Leave No Trace though. Even in the opening, ‘edenic’ section, there are harbingers that allude to the fragility of Will and Tom’s idyll: Tom continually remarks on her hunger, and the challenge in even lighting a fire and generating heat suggests that the lure of civilisation – particularly to a curious and untainted young girl like Tom – may soon prove irresistible.

This gradual rift between father and daughter is beautifully handled by Granik. There’s no soapy conflict to inorganically draw out their eventual separation, just an acknowledgement that their generational difference and separate pathologies (Will is a PTSD-suffering veteran who wants no part in society, while Tom is an evenly-balanced, untraumatised teenager desperate for social interaction) will gradually engender a parting. That parting is the crowning glory of Granik’s dramatic craft here. In a scene of such faultless authenticity and aching emotionality, Tom makes the immeasurably moving gesture of deciding not to follow her father on his latest escape into the wilderness. It’s a triumph of quite brilliant acting from Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie, and the clever choreographic touch of Granik in making Tom walk backwards from her parting with her father (so, in a sense, she is still looking at him, braving and soaking up the profound decision she has just made) is the coup de grace of this most poignant of films. (August 2020)

Legally Blonde

August 10, 2020

Legally Blonde (2001)
Director: Robert Luketic
Actors: Reese Witherspoon, Luke Wilson, Selma Blair

The Everlasting Sunshine of 'Legally Blonde'

Synopsis: California sorority girl, Elle Wood (Reese Witherspoon), is dumped by her aspiring lawyer of a boyfriend for not matching the profile of a serious life partner for him. Chastened by the rejection and determined to win him back, Elle somehow manages to follow him to Harvard Law School and win a place on the course. Elle’s perspective and priorities however change over the course of the programme.

Review: It may be an unoriginal observation, but Legally Blonde really does intentionally or unintentionally (take your pick) take its cue from Amy Heckerling’s Clueless of six years’ previous in setting up this thesis of the seemingly dumb blonde who defies conventions to assert herself in the adult world. It’s like a Clueless of the Ivy League and law worlds in many respects, and if understood from that fairly fanciful, almost fablistic, perspective, it’s hard to begrudge the journey of feelgood fun and sly humour that the narrative takes you on. There’s also a not entirely unperceptive idea unearthed by Legally Blonde which posits that character, temperament and disposition – even more than pure educational attainment – are perhaps the greater indicators for aptitude in a profession. Elle’s assiduousness, for example, is ideally suited to practising law.

First and foremost though, Legally Blonde is a crowd-pleasing, girl’s own fantasia of self-empowerment. The cartoonish bubblegum aesthetic of the opening credits perfectly sets up this idea of Elle’s inculcation by superficiality and aesthetics, but also offers clues as to her professional potential as a woman of drive with a real details-oriented approach to life. Reese Witherspoon carries the film’s duality as both popcorn confection and crafty morality tale with her beaming presence and charisma that underlies a steely edge. The ensemble around Witherspoon also embellishes the colourful nature of the story, from Selma Blair’s excellent turn as Elle’s physical and temperamental foil, Vivian, to Oz Perkins as the socially awkward law student with some of the most expressively weird eyes I’ve seen in cinema. (August 2020)