Wednesday, 8 September 2021

BOY MEETS BOY review

In Berlin for a weekend break, junior doctor Harry (Matthew James Morrison) meets dancer Johannes (Alexandros Koutsoulis) in a club, just as his weekend of dancing and casual sexual encounters is coming to an end. With hours left before his flight home, Johannes agrees to show Harry the sights of Berlin as the two men open up to each other about their lives, loves and relationships.

Owing a huge debt to Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise, Boy Meets Boy follows the two young potential lovers as they breathe in the atmosphere of the city, debating everything from the benefits of finding sex on Grindr and Tinder to whether Eurovision is "gay revenge for the World Cup" as they bicker and build a real connection that neither are used to experiencing. Harry, an aimless doctor looking for his calling in life, has become accustomed to finding brief fulfilment via casual sex he has through dating apps, conditioning himself so far into the lifestyle that he never wants to have sex with the same person more than once, whereas Johannes believes in the power of forming a bond with another in a traditional relationship, albeit one that may come with caveats to a partner's behaviour.

I'm a sucker for a decent film set over the course of one day in a beautiful city, and this vibrant, talky, unabashedly frank romance doesn't disappoint. The topics they cover are at once insignificant and hugely important, allowing both of the lead characters to get the measure of the man opposite them whilst contemplating whether this connection could lead to more than their limited time together might allow. Directed and co-written (along with Hannah Renton) by Daniel Sanchez Lopez, the two, often opposing, viewpoints of the young men adds a real spark to their day together, with their cynicism and prejudices laid bare to reveal how they both think they should be navigating their way through this world of modern queer relationships. Both Morrison and Koutsoulis impress in their roles and have fantastic, exhilarating chemistry with each other throughout in a Berlin that positively glows, leading to some gorgeously romantic, cliche-defying scenes as they enjoy the prospect of a dance by the river and give in to their impulses.

A film that is hopeful in its outlook but that doesn't ignore the harsh realities of modern love, sex and relationships, Boy Meets Boy is a frank, often bittersweet and emotionally raw film that also bathes in the unavoidable romantic splendour of its sunny locale. The Linklater comparisons may be inevitable and justified, but equally, this is a brief encounter I'd be happy to see more of in the future.

Verdict

4/5

Boy Meets Boy is now available to buy on DVD and digital, and also at the peccapics website.

Monday, 6 September 2021

HANDSOME review

Unsure of what the future holds for them, brothers Nick and Alex, who has Down's syndrome, embark on a journey to discover if it's pre-determined that Nick will have to become Alex's full time carer, or is there a world where Alex can experience understanding and empathy from others and get support for his disability? Together with a small documentary crew they travel across the world to speak to other families affected by Down's to see how they have adapted.

Dealing with a subject matter so personal and so close to the hearts of many families, not least those featured in the documentary, Handsome needed to walk the fine line of being informative and educational whilst also not losing sight of what its aim was. Sadly, despite having some fine moments between the Bourne brothers and the families they meet on their journey, too often Handsome feels orchestrated and manipulative of Alex's presence, rather than inclusive and giving him an active role in his life. At the centre of the film is Nick, serving as our narrator and guide (and modelling himself heavily on Louis Theroux), meeting a diverse range of people who also have siblings with Down's to ask how their lives have been impacted and what they see their future being.

It's here where the film is the most successful and moving, as real people tell their own stories, delivering their visions for the future with a hopeful tone. In what becomes one of the film's most poignant moments, interviewee Molly goes as far as calling Nick back to correct her earlier statements, worried that the whole project and her input aren't reflective of her relationship with brother, Charlie. Which of course is true, as despite the best efforts of her (and the film as a whole), you can't encapsulate that bond between siblings in one 90 minute film. As for Nick and Alex who travel to New York, Mumbai and Hanoi together on this trip of a lifetime, it's clear that they are close and share a shorthand between themselves, and although the film doesn't shy away from showing some raw, confrontational moments between them, too often this feels staged and manipulative of Alex, as if Nick is pushing his buttons to get a better reaction for the camera. It's uncomfortable viewing, and despite Nick's voiceover stating that "I don't treat him any differently as a brother because of his disability", it's open for the viewer to decide if that's truly the case.

It's notable that unlike the families they meet around the world, no other member of the Bourne family features in the film, with only passing (somewhat condescending) mentions of their mother, and of a third brother with a barbed critique from Nick for his lack of involvement. Had the film included their voices serving as a counterpoint to Nick's opinion, it would offer a more balanced account of Alex's life. An obvious comparison to draw is with this year's superb The Reason I Jump, which similarly dealt with individuals with language and speech problems but that always felt it kept its primary subjects at its core. That also featured interviews with the family member of the key figures, but also gave voice to them and kept its focus on them. Here, not enough credit is given to how perceptive Alex is of the situations he's placed in.

A globe-trotting adventure that is a technically adept piece of filmmaking from brothers Luke (director) and Ed (cinematographer) White, Handsome unfortunately falters in its treatment of Alex, treating him like a prop in his brother's efforts to become a crusading investigative journalist (as can be seen by the film's ill-advised attempt in its third act to become an exposé on government ran concentration camps that ultimately leads nowhere). Where the film succeeds is in the honest, deeply personal accounts of the key contributors, each of whom have faced different obstacles in caring for their children and siblings with Down's. Not without its merits, but the presentation of Handsome and focus on Nick proves to be its downfall.

Verdict

2/5

Sunday, 29 August 2021

THE TOLL review

Following a chance encounter with one of his old adversaries, an unassuming toll booth operator (Michael Smiley) stationed in the middle of nowhere must contend with his dark past catching up with him and the price he will have to pay for it. But with the whole town committing a litany of wrongdoings, it's up to local police office Catrin (Annes Elwy) to keen everyone in check before more trouble arrives in town.

On the Pembrokeshire border where he thought no one from his previous life would ever find him, Smiley's (unnamed) toll booth operator lives a quiet existence, taking a small fee from the few people who pass down his road. However, his status quo is rocked when he's recognised by Elton (Gary Beadle), an old colleague/rival who gave up looking for him twenty years ago. Reporting his whereabouts to big boss Magnus (Julian Glover), Smiley's character has no option but to react accordingly and prepare for retribution to arrive on his doorstep. Meanwhile, local copper Catrin who spends most of her days speed checking cyclists, suddenly finds criminal activity in the town flaring up, with angry Welsh farmers, gun toting triplets, Paul Kaye's lovesick ambulance driver and Iwan Rheon's wannabe hoodlum all landing on her radar. But what, if anything, has this to do with the seemingly law-abiding local toll booth operator?

With a narrative that purposely jumps around the timeline of events, it's not too far into the runtime of The Toll that having just survived a hold up by three balaclava'd youths, Michael Smiley's character says to Elwy's befuddled bobby, "the chronology is confusing, I'll give you that". Thankfully, director Ryan Andrew Hooper's debut feature film and Matt Redd's script is aware enough of genre expectations that it knows when to subvert them and when to lean into them. Sure, for the story to make sense you've got to suspend your disbelief early on to take some of the film's more larger than life characters seriously (Evelyn Mok and Darren Evans's Elvis loving smugglers are high on that list), but the cast are a lively, sprightly bunch that bring a lot of energy to the otherwise remote and sparse countryside where most of the film is set.

In many ways an unapologetic throwback to the twisty-turny, expect the unexpected small time gangster sub-genre that sprang up in the wake of the success of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels; to its credit, The Toll is one of the better ones, offering a cast of colourful characters that make this a breezy 83 minutes to enjoy, with the ever reliable presence of Michael Smiley adding enough of an element of danger to keep us on our toes throughout. Likewise Annes Elwy in what could have been a thankless role, as Catrin, the only person in town with a clear moral compass and drive to do the right thing, brings a lot of warmth to an otherwise chilly affair.

Using its overly complicated plot to mask some of its shortcomings, The Toll is still the best British gangster film in recent memory, with a satisfyingly explosive climax and fine work from Smiley and Elwy.

Verdict

3.5/5

The Toll is in cinemas and on premium digital 27 August from Signature Entertainment 


Wednesday, 4 August 2021

THE NEST - SUNDANCE LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2021

English businessman Rory O'Hara (Jude Law) moves his American wife, Allison (Carrie Coon), and two children to the U.K. to pursue a new job opportunity working for his old mentor. Moving them into a palatial estate, the family tries to adjust to their new life whilst Rory goes after a deal that will make him rich. But, as things start to go wrong on the grounds of their new home, Allison begins to question if Rory has been telling the truth or if the venture was always destined to fail.

It's been 10 long years since director Sean Durkin's debut feature, Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene, and although he's been involved in producing a number of films in the interim, it's good to see him back behind the camera for another dose of atmospheric indie drama filled with a creeping dread. Whereas his debut showed the world what new up-and-comer Elizabeth Olsen could do, here he's teamed up with established stars Jude Law (also an exec producer on the film), and the ever reliable Carrie Coon as a husband and wife trying to have the perfect life, or at least make it look like they have.

Set in the 1980s, when Rory tells Allison that he's received a call from his old boss offering him the opportunity to lead a new venture in London, she reluctantly agrees to the upheaval of moving across the Atlantic, where she can also have space to run her equestrian business. Setting up home in a grand house (rented, with the option to buy) that's ten times too big for a family of four, Rory promises they can fill the empty space with new belongings and memories, just as soon as his big deal comes through. Enthusiastic and charming, Allison and her children have no choice but to go along with Rory's plan, although Allison sees through his bravado enough to know there's more going on than first appears.

Jude Law is fantastic in the role of the arrogant, pompous, braggart Rory, playing to his strengths and audience expectations as a man who wishes he was born into the life of his Talented Mr Ripley character, Dickie Greenleaf, and is willing to lie to everyone in order to make his friends and co-workers think that's the case. In reality Rory leads a life not as charmed as that, but is so status obsessed that you could easily imagine him enjoying a nice business lunch with American Psycho's Patrick Bateman. Both a product and victim of the 80s, as Rory tells tall tales about his achievements and property portfolio (much to Allison's amusement) he's largely unlikeable, with a stand-alone (and standout) scene where he takes a trip to a place from his past the only real glimpse into his motivations that generates some audience sympathy for him.

But by far the most interesting, and most likeable character, is Carrie Coon's Allison. Finding the move to the U.K. like going back in time, she rejects others instinct to reduce her to a trophy wife, quick to point out when her and her husband are introduced as Mr & Mrs Rory O'Hara that she does have a name of her own. There's a delightfully caustic scene where, tired of being denied her own agency, orders from the menu for her husband - "my princess", as she puts it - and chastises the waiter when he hesitates upon her order. Although the 80s might not have been that long ago really, the gender politics feel incredibly outdated and are a major theme of The Nest. Whether it's her status as an American woman, or simply a sign of the changing tide in feminism, she's unafraid to speak her mind, cut her husband's bullshit to shreds, or leave a formal meal in search of gin & tonics and a disco playing The Communards. Coon and Law are both outstanding, and with any justice will see some recognition comes awards time.

What is missing from The Nest is more investiture in the family life and the children Sam (Oona Roche) and Ben (Charlie Shotwell). Both have subplots involving teenage rebellion and their fear of the ginormous, old, imposing house they now have to live in, but it's only towards the finale that we really see how they co-exist as a four. Without wanting to step too far into cliche, the house and its grounds play a hugely important role in the film, but it's to the film's credit that when things take a turn into the surreal, it's not inconceivable that the house played an active role in whatever is challenging the harmony of this family.

Although not as triumphant a statement as Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene, The Nest is still a stylishly shot, bold, foreboding piece of storytelling from Sean Durkin with two fantastic lead performances from Law and Coon. Often acerbically funny and with a withering stance on male bravado, this view of family life will offer some uncomfortable home truths to many.

Verdict
4/5

The Nest screened as part of Sundance London and will be on general release from August 27th.

Tuesday, 3 August 2021

ZOLA - SUNDANCE LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2021

Undoubtedly the first film to ever be based on a twitter thread, A24's latest urban nightmare follows the true-is story of waitress and part time stripper Zola (Taylour Paige), who, after a chance encounter with fellow dancer Stefani (Riley Keough), agrees to go to Florida with her in order to make some quick cash. When things take a dangerous turn, Zola must do what she can to make it through the weekend.

A wild story that was the talk of Twitter in October 2015 when Aziah "Zola" King started her 143 post thread about her weekend in Florida with the words "Y'all wanna hear a story about why me and this bitch fell out?", I doubt she ever thought it would get optioned and turned into a feature film... but here we are. A cautionary tale that quickly found its way into urban legend, it arrives on the big screen pre-loaded as a stranger than fiction journey into the unknown. Sure, there's inaccuracies, embellishments and details changed (presumably for legal reasons), but Zola mostly lives up to its reputation as a story like no other.

Doing for Florida tourism what Robocop did for Detroit in the 80s, the world Zola blindly stumbles into is dark, dirty, and potentially deadly. This is a Florida built on the sexual manipulation of women, treating their bodies like a commodity to be sold at will by men who install fear as their primary weapon. In Zola's case, it's the man known as X (Colman Domingo), introduced as Stefani's "roommate" but who it quickly becomes apparent has a much more authoritative role in Stefani's life, selling her body and attempting to do the same with Zola. Carrying more street smarts than Stefani and not as willing to be manipulated, the film is largely about Zola's survival instincts and knowing when to step headfirst into danger in order to find her way out at the other end. Although not expressed narratively in the film, there's a clear subtext that she has seen dangerous situations in her past, best expressed in a fight or flight confrontation she has with Colman Domingo's X when she initially tries to leave. It's a tense and terrifying moment in a film that flips from comic to troubling on a dime.

Hugely important to the film is the racial dynamic between the four key cast members, Paige, Keough, Domingo and Succession's Nicholas Braun as Stefani's pitiful boyfriend Derrek. Stefani and Derrek both spout ebonics and often say things that make Zola visibly uncomfortable, as does X's accent which he switches at will to scare those around him. What becomes more apparent as the film leaves the strip clubs and heads to the hotel rooms, to the series of men who start to knock on the door there's a difference in worth (and price) between Zola and Stefani, but that Zola can use to aide her survival. Much has been made of the "blaccent" Riley Keogh adopts as the manipulative and manipulated Stefani (accusations of cultural appropriation not helped by her being Elvis Presley's granddaughter), but it's a superb, committed performance from an actor we're only just starting to see the best of. Likewise to Taylour Paige, who imbues Zola with a world-weary quality that makes her effortlessly likeable.

Propelled by music from Mica Levi, with the pinging sound of phone notifications creating the rhythm of the world (and informing us when the film is directly quoting from the original Twitter thread), at 86 minutes, director Janicza Bravo's film is whip fast and doesn't over stay its welcome, although for such a mythologised modern urban cautionary tale that's fraught with danger, better care should have been taken to wrap up the story more coherently. As it stands, it's a film that not only demands, but requires further reading to allow you to fully grasp how crazy a weekend Zola really had. Lead by two outstanding performances from its leads and with impressive support from Domingo and Braun, Zola is a film worth talking about.

Verdict

3.5/5

Zola screened as part of this year's Sundance London Film Festival and will be on general release from Friday 6th August.

Monday, 2 August 2021

THE SPARKS BROTHERS - SUNDANCE LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2021

Returning to its home at Picturehouse Central after the pandemic rendered last year's festival a virtual only affair, Sundance London took place last weekend with some of the highlights from January's Park City iteration. Chief among them was the opening night film, Edgar Wright's debut documentary about Ron and Russell Mael - aka musical dynamos Sparks - the aptly named The Sparks Brothers.

Around in various forms since the late '60s, The Sparks Brothers follows the career of the Maels, going from album to album and one outrageous musical statement to the next, using interviews from a seemingly never-ending parade of celebrities and musicians who tell us the impact their music had on them. Chief among the contributors are the Maels themselves, offering an introduction and commentary to their long and storied career for those audience members drawn in by the lure of Edgar Wright. Truth be told, I count myself among that crowd, as outside of This Town Ain't Big Enough For The Both Of Us, I wasn't hugely familiar with the Sparks' ouvre. But Edgar Wright is a director who's built up a loyal following who will trust in his artistic and musical taste, so The Sparks Brothers comes with a certain level of intrigue into why he chose this band to be the focus of his first non-fiction film. 

It doesn't take long to see this is the perfect fit for director and subject, with a shared sense of madcap creativity between Wright and the Maels, and Edgar's distinctive laugh often audible off screen during Ron and Russell's pieces to camera showing that there's a close bond between them. It's fair to say that the Maels have the ability to be aloof and distant in a traditional interview setting, but there's a barrier that's been broken down that gives a real peppy energy to their interviews, with Wright matching and indulging in their flights of fancy (using props, gags and short snippets of animation) to keep the interview process alive.

Wright has pulled together a huge array of talking heads, and appropriately for an American band who always felt more English in their artistic sensibilities, they come from both sides of the pond. Sure, it's great to hear the opinions of Flea and Beck, but equally fitting to see Jonathan Ross and Dr Buckles himself, Adam Buxton, gush about their love for the band. Even ex-band members from decades past pop up to gush about the artistic triumph that is Sparks, just happy to have been involved in what has become the Mael Brothers' life's work. Topics such as their personal lives are largely ignored or side-stepped (when asked their sexual preference, Ron's answer is "horny"), except for The Go-Go's Jane Wiedlin admitting to a brief fling with Russell, although she now regrets not directing her affections towards the more mysterious Ron. To this end, The Sparks Brothers manages to contain vast amounts of fanboy details whilst maintaining a lot of the mystery around the brothers' lives. It's to its credit that it doesn't feel like it's missing anything crucial.

More than anything, Ron and Russell are great company, and it's hard through the many music videos and TV performances on shows like Top of the Pops not to get a small thrill every time when the exceedingly odd but utterly brilliant Ron, complete with his infamous moustache, finds the camera pointed at him and stares directly down the lens with a strained smirk/smile on his face. A man hugely aware of how his image was perceived by their fans and the world at large (as described in the film, school kids thought Marc Bolan had joined a band with Hitler), Ron may be a musical genius, but also one of the most singularly unique pop stars to have ever existed.

Structurally, the film feels like it reaches a crescendo that it just about manages to sustain for its last ten minutes, although at 2 hours 20 it is definitely overlong with some diversions that could have been resigned to deleted scenes on what I expect will already be a jam packed home entertainment release. But, when a filmmaker is deep diving into a subject he loves and having such a great time doing it, it's easy to get swept up in the mayhem of the Maels and forgive Edgar for over-indulging. A loving tribute to a band you can easily take to your heart, if you weren't a fan of Sparks before, you will have been converted long before The Sparks Brothers reaches its end.

Verdict

5/5

The Sparks Brothers was the opening night film for this year's Sundance London, and is now also on general release.

Friday, 16 July 2021

DEERSKIN review

Starring Oscar winner Jean Dujardin and Portrait of a Lady On Fire's Adele Haenel, Quentin Dupieux's latest film sees middle-aged man in a crisis Georges (Dujardin) slowly become obsessed with his new Deerskin jacket, posing as a filmmaker in a small town and turning to crime in order to complete his new look.

Dupieux - also known as Mr Oizo to fans of 90s Levi's ads - returns to behind the camera with this pairing with The Artist's Jean Dujardin to tell the story of a man who, following his separation from his wife, becomes obsessed with his new Deerskin jacket. While staying in a small French village Georges, posing as a filmmaker, meets Denise (Haenel), a bartender and aspiring film editor who sees Georges as her ticket out of there. Unaware of Georges's precarious mental state, together they collaborate on his "avant garde" video diary as he forces strangers to give up their outerwear, with the aim that his jacket will be the only one left in existence, turning to murder to make sure the job is done.

Dujardin is fantastic as the pompous, preening Georges, forever enthusiastic about adding gloves, a hat, or another deerskin piece to his outfit and looking ever more laughable along the way. The jacket, even with all its tassels intact (a very important measure in fashion) is a horrible looking garment, but Georges's cocksure belief that he's standing out from the crowd as a new fashion icon is never undersold by Dujardin, delivering a great comic performance that's tapping into the rich vein of ridiculousness that exists in the easily mockable fashion for men of a certain age. Admittedly, dressing head to toe in deerskin isn't a fashion choice you often see, but is it really so different to mid-life crisis leather pants or wearing a James May-esque bold print shirt?

There was perhaps an expectation that Dujardin would make a leap to Hollywood films after his, some would say, surprising Best Actor Oscar win for The Artist, but as fans of his work in the OSS 117 series will attest, he's completely at home and in his element here in this smaller, bizarre film that plays up to his charming doofus-like strengths. Dujardin plays Georges with an un-earned confidence in himself, portraying such a clueless, self-important lunatic who's convinced everyone around him is jealous of his cutting edge fashion, or as Georges would put it, his "killer style". Fans of Dupieux's previous work, in particular his sentient killer tyre film Rubber, will know what sort of humour to expect from him. This is a dark, often ghoulish comedy that revels in its unpredictability and shock value, generating lots of laughs from the sheer boldness of its character choices. As Georges falls deeper and deeper under the spell of the jacket which may slowly be exerting some sort of psychic power over him (it may all be a figment of his imagination), the film delights in delivering the horror beneath, as Georges efficiently (and hilariously) crafts a disturbingly effective murder weapon out of a ceiling fan.

There's a lot in Dupieux's work that goes far beyond the surface thrills, and Deerskin is no different. Not only is the dynamic between Dujardin's deluded killer and the much younger Denise (the always excellent Haenel) mocking that stereotype of a man who has hit a certain age and then found himself a younger woman, the choice of Dupieux to have Georges wait outside a cinema to kill off its patrons as they leave is a comic assault on his audience. If you think you're going to be safe and free from his pervasive ideas when you leave the cinema, think again. A delightful new addition to the "killer clothing" sub-genre, Deerskin is In Fabric for men in the throes of a mid-life crisis. Less off the rack as it is off the wall, it's an absolute gem of a film.

Verdict
4/5

WITCHES OF THE ORIENT review

Reunited more than 50 years after they competed at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the surviving members of the Japanese Olympic volleyball team reminisce about their incredible sporting success. So impressive was their winning streak that it was looked at as almost otherworldly, leading the foreign press to dub them the "Witches of the Orient". Using new interviews, vintage anime and archive footage of their training sessions, Julian Faraut's new film charts the team's rise from humble factory floor beginnings to facing off against their biggest rivals in an Olympic final.


One of the highlights of February's Rotterdam International Film Festival, French director Julian Faraut's Witches of the Orient (Les Sorcieres de L'Orient in its original French) is a fascinating blend of archive materials and volleyball anime - a subgenre that sprang up at the height of the team's success and that is still being made today - along with new interviews with the team, now all in their seventies. Gathered around a grand roundtable - the setting for a catch up meal rather than an in depth interview - Faraut nods to the level of fame and hero-worship they once received by introducing each player with stylised on-screen graphics. More appropriate for characters from a Saturday morning cartoon that a group of septuagenarians, these intro's reveal the taunting, often cruel nicknames they played under (Blowfish, Horse, Kettle, to name just a few), bestowed upon them by their coach, Hirofumi 'The Demon' Daimatsu, based on how he judged their physical appearances. 

It's certainly jarring by modern standards to see such an un-PC approach to coaching, and alongside the footage of Daimatsu relentlessly hurling balls at his team, it stands as both a relic of a different time and a (not excused) display of how he pushed them to greatness, training them 6 days a week, 51 weeks a year. Maybe it's Stockholm syndrome or just the ability to look back on their youth with fondness, but the team all remember the barbs and nicknames in good humour, and have a lot of praise to offer for Daimatsu.

The film follows the team's humble beginnings from the Nichibo Kaizuka factory - with players graduating from the factory floor to becoming part of the sports team - all the way through their success at the World Volleyball Championships and towards the prospects of bringing home Olympic gold. As fate would have it, Tokyo was chosen as the host city for the 1964 Olympics, marking the first time television would be broadcast from Asia to the United States as well as the introduction of two new Olympic sports, judo and volleyball. With huge political and cultural ramifications as well as national pride at stake - particularly when the volleyball team were to face their biggest rivals, the USSR, in the final - the importance of winning wasn't lost on these women.

Paralleling their success with that of Japanese industry, Faraut employs a number of energetic montages to show how the team was trained to win. Cut together to create a collage of animation, old footage and a propulsive new synth soundtrack courtesy of Grandaddy's Jason Lytle, Witches of the Orient resembles something akin to a music video Spike Jonze would have made at the turn of the millennium. The volleyball anime that shows them leaping like superheroes is incredibly fun to watch and gives the film a truly unique way of telling the story of these women. Likewise the footage of them training, showing the relentless regimen they were under, has a rhythmic quality that pulls you into their world.

Where the film does hit a wall, somewhat, is in the modern day interviews with the players. We see their family lives as doting grandmothers (and in one case a still active love for volleyball), but these sequences do go on longer than necessary and stop the momentum the film builds with its archive material. Faraut's approach is about offering these clashes in speed and sources, switching gears from a Portishead scored montage to a more sedate, formal documentary 'slice-of-life' style, but an argument could be made that had he presented a documentary that was solely comprised of just the archive, all the high points would remain intact.

In the same way his 2018 tennis doc In the Realm of Perfection was less an expose of John McEnroe as a public figure of some repute, and more a dissection of the mechanics of how McEnroe was such a skilled athlete, where this film succeeds is in selling the Nichibo Kaizuka team as a force to be reckoned with. As the film sets into the final showdown against the team from the Soviet Union, the reveal of the restoration work on the original film is incredible, looking and sounding as good as new. I'm sure the original footage was passable, but the attention it's been afforded gives this film the sporting climax it deserves. Director Julian Faraut has crafted a truly fascinating documentary on the young lives of these women and the pressure they were under to succeed from the powers that be. Inventively presented and compelling, Witches of the Orient is a gripping, joyous experience. 

Verdict

4/5

Witches of the Orient is in cinemas now, and available to stream at home via ModernFilms.com.

Monday, 5 July 2021

I GET KNOCKED DOWN - SHEFFIELD DOCFEST 2021 review

Part of the 'Northern Focus' strand at this year's Sheffield DocFest, I Get Knocked Down sees retired radical and former Chumbawamba frontman Dunstan Bruce reckon with his role in taking the group - temporarily - into the mainstream by signing with major record label EMI and achieving chart success, well away from their anarcho-punk roots that had served the band for the previous 15 years.

Sheffield DocFest has a history of offering great docs on forgotten or unheralded figures from the world of music (such as an infamous early screening of Searching for Sugarman where they surprised the audience by bringing the presumed dead Rodriguez out on stage), but if you'd have told me one of my favourite docs of the festival this year would be fronted by the former lead singer of Chumbawamba, I'd certainly have been surprised. Sure, I bought their anthemic single Tubthumping back in the late 90s (and still own a copy), but would a documentary about the rise and fall of the self-proclaimed anarchist pop stars really offer that much? As it turns out, yes, as I Get Knocked Down was an energetic ride through life on the outskirts of stardom, with that brief moment before the millennium where this little band from Leeds exploded onto the world stage and could lay claim to have the biggest song in the world.

Co-directing with Sophie Robinson, Bruce serves as our guide through the history of the band, visiting his former bandmates (drummer Harry now works in a family friendly musical variety show, singer Alice Nutter - interviewed doing her ironing - is now a successful writer) and their most infamous exploits - like when guitarist Danbert Nobacon became front page news by dumping a bucket of ice over MP John Prescott's head at the 1998 Brit Awards, leading to his parents receiving the best piece of hate mail I've ever heard of, "I hope Burnley get relegated". All the while Bruce is shadowed by a mysterious baby-headed figure (taken from the cover of their breakout 8th album, Tubthumper), who stalks his every move to offer withering putdowns about the now 59 year old Bruce's ego and desire for artistic recognition. I Get Knocked Down is a documentary that isn't afraid to get a bit surreal.

Asking the question of whether the band's contribution to political causes absolves them of forever bearing the Scarlet Letter tag of 'sell outs', it's a film that will have many ageing activists asking if they've done enough, particularly after the year 2020 was when the power of protest was so evident. Bruce still clearly has activism close to his heart (he laments that "once upon a time I really thought I could change the world"), and this film is a loving tribute to all former radicals who may have had some of their rough edges sanded off over time, but are still able to stand with their principles intact. This year's hidden gem from DocFest's selection of music docs, I Get Knocked Down is madcap, witty and formally inventive - what else would you expect from the frontman of Chumbawamba?

Verdict

4/5


This review is expanded from my write-up for this year's festival, which can be found here.


Friday, 18 June 2021

SHEFFIELD DOCFEST 2021

Coming to an end last weekend after a triumphant return to Sheffield's cinemas - whilst also running a virtual version for those unable or hesitant to travel - this year's Sheffield International Documentary Festival managed to offer its usual mix of film and arts, via shorts, features, Q&A's and films that pushed the boundaries of what documentary filmmakers can achieve. With 78 features and 88 shorts in the film programme it's literally impossible to watch everything available, but here's my highlights from the line-up.

Separated into the Rebellions, Rhyme and Rhythm, Into the World & Ghosts and Apparitions strands that come together in the International & UK Competitions, DocFest re-stated its identity and unrivalled Sheffield-iness (an absolute must in the era of online festivals) by including a Northern Focus strand with new and old documentaries showing life outside of 'that there London'. Opening the festival with Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson's Summer of Soul - with satellite screenings across the country - and closing with DocFest royalty Mark Cousins' latest film, Story of Looking, there were a number of other feature length docs that caught my eye.

Top of my list of must watches was Nira Burstein's much hyped Charm Circle, by far one of the most talked about and well received at the festival, and a worthy winner of the Audience Award. Focussing on Burstein's family and their life on the quiet street in Olympia, Washington that gives the film its name, we meet her mother and father as they face their ongoing mental health issues, something that has caused their home and wellbeing to fall into disarray. In many respects a 21st century equivalent to Grey Gardens' Little & Big Edie, mother Raya and father Uri could endearingly be called eccentrics at first glance, but through Burstein's eye and the use of old home video we see the toll that Raya's illness and daughter Judy's subsequent need for care has taken on the family, most notably and vocally by the stubborn and volatile Uri, who works through his own problems by writing and performing a number of bluesy tracks that are peppered throughout the film. An old rocker who crashed out of the real estate rat race years ago, he's a man at odds with the modern world, unable to comprehend daughter Adina's decision to marry into a polyamorous relationship with two non-binary people, something he sees as going against Jewish law.

As a portrait of a family who've struggled to adapt to the many challenges they've faced, it's full of charming comedic moments (Uri enters the film complaining about the crappiness of the makeshift belt he's crudely fashioned out of a plastic bag to keep his shorts up) and heart-achingly sweet snapshots as Uri realises he's in the wrong and tries to make up for it. Burstein's camera follows the Maysles' direct cinema approach at first, but in what is obviously a raw, personal film to make, she steps from behind the camera (and in the home video footage) to interact, not just document, her siblings. It's here that the film transcends into something more special, removing that disassociation her camera gives her, and us, and pulls us into this incredibly moving, relatable picture of family life. A must see.

In No Straight Lines: The Rise of Queer Comics, we're given a guided history of gay representation in comics (both in the industry and on the page) by a group of the biggest names around. The most recognisable name for a lay person such as myself - or anyone who's dipped their toe into film Twitter in the last decade - is Alison Bechdel, accidental creator of the Bechdel Test grade for female representation in film based on a 1985 strip from her 'Dykes to Watch Out For' series. Thankfully that's not the focus of No Straight Lines (in fact, I don't think it even gets a mention), and instead we're given a funny, informative history of queer comics, from Mary Wings's "Come Out Comix" of the 1970s and Howard Cruse's Wendel series taking on the restrictive nature of the "Comics Code" (a McCarthy-ist set of regulations that forbade the depiction of homosexuality) that saw their work sold in head shops and under the counter.

If you're unfamiliar with any of the key titles or artists featured, this stands as a great introduction to their work. It's impossible to deny the skill in the artistry displayed here, not to mention the personal nature of the writing that spoke to the next generation of writers and artists, many of whom who appear in talking heads to tell of their own stories and influences. As Cruse states in the film, "people should be able to do art about their lives", and you'll leave No Straight Lines feeling enlightened and hopeful for the future of the medium of comics.

Sheffield DocFest has long been able to educate as well as entertain, one of the clearest examples being My Name is Pauli Murray, that I went into knowing nothing about the central subject but that immediately gave me that feeling of "why have I never seen a documentary about this person before?". So incredible is their story, if it wasn't for the clear, documented evidence that it happened, you'd assume it was a work of pure fiction. A black, queer, what would now most likely be thought of as non-binary person, who was a lawyer and teacher, continually at the forefront of historic social change and went on to become an episcopal priest in their final years, Pauli Murray lead an incredible life that until now hasn't been given the spotlight it warrants.

Directed by RBG filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy West (and including an interview with Ruth Bader Ginsberg herself among the many voices keen to tell of how important Murray's work was to them), My Name is Pauli Murray follows a similar biographical structure to their previous film, but with the added angle that Murray's life saw them arrive at various points in history, just before real change was about to be made. This is expressed to us via on screen text that hammers home the unjust world Murray lived in and how important the groundwork they laid was on shaping the civil rights and social justice advancements of the 20th century. With a stand-out subject that's incredibly timely and relevant to today's world, My Name is Pauli Murray is a statement of how much impact one person can have on the world, and should help see their work reach a whole new generation.

Now, if you'd have told me one of my favourite docs of the festival this year would be fronted by the former lead singer of Chumbawamba, I'd certainly have been surprised. Sure, I bought their anthemic single Tubthumping back in the late 90s (and still own a copy), but would a documentary about the rise and fall of the self-proclaimed anarchist pop stars really offer that much? As it turns out, yes, as I Get Knocked Down was a rip roaring ride through life on the outskirts of stardom, with that brief moment before the millennium where this little band from Leeds exploded onto the world stage and could lay claim to have the biggest song in the world.

More than just a bio-doc of the band, I Get Knocked Down follows frontman Dunstan Bruce (co-directing with Sophie Robinson) as he reckons with his role in taking the group - temporarily - into the mainstream by signing with major record label EMI and aiming for chart success, well away from their anarcho-punk roots that had served the band for the previous 15 years. Bruce does this by visiting his former bandmates (including Danbert Nobacon who infamously became front page news by dumping a bucket of ice over MP John Prescott's head at the 1998 Brit Awards, leading to his parents getting the amazing hate mail "I hope Burnley get relegated"), filmmaker Ken Loach and his former record exec in New York, all while being pelted by hurtful comments by his inner demon, depicted as a big toothed, bald-headed baby who stalks his every move. DocFest can always be relied upon to offer a great new music doc, and I Get Knocked Down is this year's hidden gem. Madcap, witty and formally inventive - what else would you expect from the frontman of Chumbawamba?

Elsewhere on the music doc front was Lydia Lunch - The War is Never Over, charting the career of the no wave singer and frontwoman for bands like Teenage Jesus & The Jerks, Shotgun Wedding and Retrovirus. If you're not familiar with Lunch this doc covers all the bases, from her riotous on stage performances to controversy baiting films made with Richard Kern that saw her strip nude and perform real sex acts as a backdrop to her powerful spoken word poetry. Labelled misogynistic at the time, it's hard to dispute that Lunch's self-expression wasn't informed by the hyper-sexualised persona she created. In her eyes, she was the exploiter.

Most of the film is - the still touring - Lydia showing she's not lost any of her edge, as she playfully flirts with men in her audience (and her band); but despite her impactful raspy vocals and extraordinary skill with a monologue, Beth B's film feels like it only captures a performance and never a true representation of the woman behind the act. It may be that Lunch has spent so long in character that the lines are forever blurred, but it's left her film feeling promotional rather than personal.

Top of the list of boundary pushing docs at this year's festival, Yael Bartana's Two Minutes to Midnight is a clash of performance and reality as several high ranking experts (and five actors), all women, gather in a recreation of Dr. Strangelove's War Room to debate the threat of nuclear war and the prospect of retaliation. Now dubbed the Peace Room, the female panel analyse the notion that having women in charge would lead to peace between nations, all while their President is conversing via telephone with the new Leader of the Free World - a Trump-esque lunatic called Arnold Twittler who's taken his finger of the 'send tweet' button long enough to hover it over the red button instead.

Smart and surprisingly funny, Two Minutes to Midnight is less a film than it is a documented piece of interactive performance art, complete with an audience that come into view as the low-angled camera circles around the room to show the vastness of the set. Although it's a fascinating thought experiment on the stance of superpowers, the prospect of nuclear disarmament and retaliation in the face of impending doom (and undoubtedly lacks some of the doomsday threat of when it was originally staged and filmed in 2017 and 2018), at 48 minutes long it just about reaches the limit the concept will allow, although I'd be intrigued to hear this panel debate other topics in a similar set up.

As well as music documentaries of forgotten bands ready to be re-discovered, DocFest can also offer up a stonking sports film from time to time, and this year's stand-out is unquestionably the Egyptian female weightlifters doc, Lift Like a Girl. Under the tutelage of former Olympic athlete Captain Ramadan - who trained his daughter Nahla to become a champion at the age of 15 - new teenage protege Asmaa and a group of young girls learn how to lift weights on a dirty, dusty empty yard in Alexandria, with the hustle and bustle of busy streets around them and local boys coming to taunt and throw rocks. As Ramadan turns the yard into his "Factory of Olympic Champions" with weights, gym equipment and plants in need of nurturing under the baking sun, Asmaa (affectionately nicknamed Zebiba/Raisin by Captain) is brutally chastised when she fails to make a lift, and serenaded when she succeeds. There's a real Burgess Meredith in Rocky vibe to Captain, a curmudgeonly old man who his young competitors yearn for approval from, not to mention the delightful, beaming, gummy smile he throws at them when they perform well at the various competitions.

Mayye Zayed's film has much to say about modern gender politics in sport and in Egypt (but also universally) with a traditionally masculine sport wholly occupied by these strong young women who are continually referred to by their coaches with male terms like "boy", told to "be a man" and to "grow a set of balls" when it's pretty clear that Zebiba and her friends are capable as they are. Filmed vérité style over the course of a few years and numerous championships, Zebiba's story is completely engrossing as she faces up to failure, tragedy and success. Ready to challenge your expectations, Lift Like a Girl has enough grit, determination and strength to be an inspiring - dare I say uplifting - sports movie.