Sunday, 20 September 2020

BILL AND TED FACE THE MUSIC review

In the works for the best part of two decades, Bill and Ted Face The Music sees Keanu Reeves's and Alex Winter's alter egos return to the big screen 29 years after their last big screen outing. Downtrodden by life and still trying to write prophesied song that will unite the world, the Wyld Stallyns bandmates are thrown back into a time travelling adventure in order to save their marriages to the princesses and prevent the collapse of space and time as we know it.

It's been a long time since Bill and Ted last graced our screens, and despite the idea of this mooted sequel occasionally lighting up social media whenever it was talked about by Reeves or Winter, 29 years is a long time to wait for a sequel to a pair of films that, although much beloved by their original audience, don't carry the same cultural cache as other legacy sequels that have arrived in the last few years, like 2018's Halloween, Blade Runner 2049 or the currently delayed Ghostbusters: Afterlife. But that's not to say that audiences won't be keen on lapping up a bit of late 80s, early 90s nostalgia particularly with Keanu Reeves experiencing a huge surge of interest in his output, post-John Wick success.

Face The Music dips back into ideas from the first two films, sending the pair of lovable slacker types on a journey through time in order to steal the song they're destined to write from their future selves who've already written it, with the added pressure that life as we know it will come to an end if they don't perform the song by 7:17pm that evening. Hopping back into the time travelling phone box that helped them navigate history the first time around, they meet the future Bill and Ted at various time points, only to find that the years haven't been kind to them. At the same time this is happening, their daughters Bille and Thea decide to help out their dads by also travelling through time to put together the greatest band in all of history, tracking down Jimi Hendrix, Louis Armstrong and, in what is one of the best pieces of casting for the film, Kid Cudi as himself who's also an expert on the space/time continuum. Oh, and there's also a killer robot sent from the future trying to wipe them out.

Of course, the main draw of the film is the re-uniting of Keanu Reeves with his long time friend, Alex Winter. The film couldn't be made without either of them present, but I'm sure Winter, who has spent most of the last 20 years behind the camera, will acknowledge that it's Reeves star power that has allowed this film to be made at all. Whilst Bill and Ted have retained most of the joie de vivre they previously had, the idea of losing their wives sees them in introspective mode, particularly Reeves's Ted. Frustrated that they haven't fulfilled their destiny, they are on the verge of giving up before Kristen Schaal's Kelly arrives with a stark message from the future.

Approached with some trepidation after the first trailer was a bit limp, I was still cautiously optimistic about the return of Bill and Ted, hoping that at the very least the film could offer a few laughs to raise a nostalgic smile. Thankfully it achieves that, despite the occasional stumble along the way. The time travelling plot device is a complete rehash of the original and the re-characterisation of the future Bill and Ted's may not make a lick of sense, but it moves so quickly that the less successful moments don't linger for long and we're onto the next part. Personally, I was always more of a fan of Bogus Journey than Excellent Adventure, which saw the heroes travel through the afterlife and encounter William Sadler's Death, and if you've seen the trailer it will come as no surprise that Sadler returns again to inject some life into proceedings when they're in danger of becoming stale. You could argue that the film would benefit from Sadler having more screen time, but I think it's timed perfectly to allow him to swoop in and play a key role in the finale without overstaying his welcome.

Of the new cast members, most of the screen time is given to Bill and Ted's daughters, Billie and Thea (Brigette Lundy-Paine and Samara Weaving, sneakily gender swapped from the finale of Bogus Journey), with the new generation being chips off the old blocks by following their fathers' love of music whilst also inheriting their aloof slacker mentality. Weaving is a star on the rise after her lead role in last year's Ready or Not and brings a joyful enthusiasm to her role, but it's Lundy-Paine who's the standout of the pair, perfectly capturing the mannerisms of the young Keanu from the previous films. This is by no means an attempt to set up future instalments of the franchise that focus on them, but their presence does compliment their fathers' roles and recapture some of the exuberance that's missing from the more weary Reeves and Winter. They work excellently as two pairs on their own separate journeys, but the film is at its best when the cast is allowed to band together.

Another completely bizarre addition to the cast is Barry's Anthony Carrigan as a robot assassin sent by dissenters from the future to destroy Bill and Ted in an effort to save the world. As well as looking oddly fleshy for a robot, there's character revelations about him that will leave an indelible mark on your psyche, so bafflingly strange they turn out to be. He's no competition for Sadler's Death, but he becomes a strangely compelling part of the story as he reveals more about himself. Less well served are Erinn Hayes and Jayma Mays as former princesses and current Bill and Ted spouses, Elizabeth and Joanna. They are also sent on a quest through time of their own to discover if there's happiness beyond their lives with the Wyld Stallyns, but this is C, D or even E plot stuff, only really noticed when they happen to intertwine with the action of our Bill and Ted.

Not quite excellent but by no means bogus, this latest instalment in the franchise has managed to breathe a bit of new life into the story with the clever introduction of the Wyld Stallyns offspring. It's squarely aimed at those already familiar with the previous Bill and Ted films, but could well appeal to their next generation too. Check your cynicism at the stage door, and Bill and Ted Face The Music is a sweet return for two of the most lovable doofuses cinema has ever known.

Verdict

3/5



Wednesday, 16 September 2020

WHITE RIOT review


Set against a backdrop of a rising right wing political ideology and how members of the punk, reggae and ska music scenes fought against it through the Rock Against Racism campaign, Rubika Shah's White Riot follows the creation of the Temporary Hoarding magazine by a group of artists and journalists, and the triumphant Rock Against Racism concert they organised when tensions were at their highest.

Although the Victoria Park Rock Against Racism concert is the main event, this is not in any means a concert film; in fact, the actual concert only occupies about ten minutes of the running time towards the end. Shah's documentary is more concerned with exploring the political atmosphere at the time that would necessitate the need for the concert, with the shameful views of Enoch Powell and National Front leader Martin Webster allowed on TV along with shows like It Ain't Half Hot Mum, Love Thy Neighbour and the Black and White Minstrel Show that went towards creating a nation of disenfranchised white youths, willing to blame people based on skin colour alone. 

It's got a hell of a pounding, propulsive soundtrack, including The Clash's London Calling and the eponymous White Riot (band member Topper Headon is on hand to stress that the far-right faction that chanted along to the latter obviously didn't listen too closely to the lyrics), Poly Styrene of X-Ray Specs, Sham 69, and the now unfortunately, ironically named Tom Robinson Band. It makes no bones about outing the views a number of famous musicians aired at the time, with 'the great coloniser' of Blues, Eric Clapton spouting some horrendous racist remarks, and punk icon Johnny Rotten coming out of it pleasingly well by saying he "despise(s)" the National Front at a time when punk was readily adopting nazi uniforms and iconography.

But separate from all the celebrity musician interviews and footage of riots and protests on the nation's streets, the core of the film is the grass roots efforts of a small number of people, including the co-founder of Rock Against Racism (RAR) and the politics and music magazine that documented their efforts, Temporary Hoarding, Red Saunders. Saunders, a photographer and sometime performance artist, is the chief contributor to the film and documentary gold who put himself in the heat of the action serving as the frontman for the RAR campaign. Now in his 70s and sporting a mighty beard, it's the interviews with him that drive the film, whether it be rediscovering old issues of Temporary Hoarding that helped reach out to the youth before the NF got their hands on them, old TV interviews between him and Janet Street Porter or him posting letters in the NME telling Clapton what he thinks of him ("who shot the sheriff Eric? It sure as hell wasn't you"). The importance of Temporary Hoarding and the artists and writers who contributed cannot be understated, and even the punk aesthetics of the magazine have clearly been an influence on the visual design of this film.

As the film heads towards its finale, with prominent and influential musicians willing to attend protests (although it's noted that The Clash were "too cool to hold placards") and perform at the Victoria Park concert, there's the hopeful sense that the movement was winning out against the fascists, as can be seen be the sheer number of attendees to the pre-concert march from Trafalgar Square to Victoria Park. Saunders told the local council that they expected 500 people to turn up to the gig. Actual numbers vary depending on which person you speak to, but safe to say that number was eclipsed.

What's most concerning about Shah's documentary (that I first saw when it premiered at last year's London Film Festival where it won the Grierson Award), is that 40 years after the events of the film and in the 11 months since I first saw it, the issues it raises about right-wing rhetoric and the excessive force used against peaceful protesters by a biased police force have only become more applicable to our times. It was a topical film then, it feels vital now. It's not a film that's factoid heavy but that is unapologetically political, utilising its wealth of archive footage to show how the NF were able to gain traction among the youth of the day, but also how a combination of great music, truth and the power of protest can be an unstoppable force.

Verdict

5/5

White Riot is in cinemas from Friday.

Monday, 31 August 2020

SHE DIES TOMORROW review

 

The latest film from Amy Seimetz (Sun Don’t Shine as director, the remake of Pet Sematary and Alien: Covenant as an actor), sees her behind the camera to deliver a bizarre story about a group of Los Angelinos who through mysterious reasons come to the realisation that they will die tomorrow.

Kate Lynn Sheil stars as Amy, a recovering addict who is the first know she is going to die the next day. Her friend Jane (played by indie stalwart Jane Adams) thinks Amy’s oddly calm demeanour is a sign that she’s relapsed, until she also is struck with the realisation of her own impending demise. Quite how they have landed at this idea is not due to any message they hear, or a Grim Reaper giving advanced notice, but comes in the form of a simple, rational acceptance.

This film has the potential to enlighten, confound, and maybe even annoy its audience; so obtuse it is in delivering its basic idea. It feeds into the palpable sense of anxiety many are feeling right now, and is one of a number of films being released that, although it couldn’t have predicted the Covid-19 pandemic and the ensuing introspection a lot of people have put upon themselves, it taps into many fears of our own mortality in a manner that is incredibly timely.

Faced with her own imminent death, Amy doesn’t go on a Purge style rampage or even attempt to reckon with her own existence and deal with unfinished business. Instead she’s overcome with a curious sense of acceptance, her biggest consideration towards her legacy being her hope to be turned into a leather jacket, something she chooses to spend her final hours researching. As this acceptance of death spreads to Jane and then onto others they are in contact with, there’s a calmness they’re swept up in, visualised on screen as a wave of blue and red lights that bathe the faces of the actors as they stare down the barrel of the camera lens, as if they are about to transcend from their world and into ours.

They’re not the easiest bunch of characters to bond with, the most memorable being Katie Aselton as Jane’s obnoxious sister-in-law Susan, talking about dolphin rape over after-dinner drinks with bemused friends. When Jane arrives at the party with her newfound mortality check, the pervasive nature passes onto the rest of the group and turns them into equally docile and accepting people. 

It’s a slow journey that makes the night seem to last longer, but this measured approach never seems accidental. The pace of Seimetz’s film and the visual language on screen reminds of the films of David Lynch, in particular Eraserhead (but nowhere near as bizarre as that). The concept of fatalism will intrigue, and there are clear correlations to the paranoia and anxiety of life mid-pandemic, but despite an arresting visual flair and some solid performances (including a low-key but scene-stealing turn from TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe, and brief appearances from high profile stars Josh Lucas and Michelle Rodriguez doing bit player roles), this will enrage as many viewers as it enthralls.

Verdict

3/5




Monday, 17 August 2020

YES, GOD, YES review

Set at a Catholic youth retreat in the early 2000s, Yes, God, Yes sees Stranger Things' Natalia Dyer star as Alice, a typical high school girl with an increasing number of questions about sex. When an AOL chat room encounter leads to her receiving unsolicited porn and engaging in some unexpected cyber sex, she decides that the retreat her classmates are raving about might offer her the answers she's looking for.

 

Dyer is of course best known for her role of Nancy in the immensely popular Netflix series, Stranger Things, which is beloved by a huge audience around the world. Which is why it's strange that, outside of the older cast members Winona Ryder and David Harbour, the younger faction of the cast (with the exception of Finn Wolfhard in the IT films) has been quite slow to head to feature films. But with her cast mate Joe Keery in cinemas this week with Spree and her on and off-screen boyfriend Charlie Heaton maybe, possibly, finally making his blockbuster bow with his role in the long delayed New Mutants due any day now, the time is right for Dyer to join them on the big screen. Well, that's in theory, of course, as Yes, God, Yes is making its debut straight to VOD, possibly in part due to the Covid pandemic, but also by virtue of being a smaller, indie film, but a belter nonetheless.

At Alice's Catholic high school they teach abstinence before marriage, warn of the dangers of masturbation, are pro-life and anti-hem lines more than two inches above the knee. Alice is curious to know what some of these new phrases she's hearing her classmates say actually mean, including the 'salad tossing' she's been accused of doing to one of the boys in her class. When her best friend Laura (Francesca Reale) hears about Kirkos, the new four day retreat some of the "cooler" girls have attended, they both decide to go along to the next intake, with Alice hoping she can silence some of her questions, such as why she wanted to rewind her Titanic videotape to re-watch the steamy sex scene, before she ends up burning in hell. Sadly, Alice's hopes are soon squashed as she finds herself instantly attracted to Chris (Wolfgang Novogratz), a slightly dumb, overly-enthusiastic team leader with fantastically manly, hairy forearms and a proclivity to helping damsels in distress.

It's an unashamed throwback to some similarly themed films released around the time this film was set, like Saved and But I'm a Cheerleader, but with a more refined, real world sense of humour. Although it exists on the tamer end of the scale (the closest this film comes to an American Pie moment involves Dyer and a mop handle - less vulgar than it sounds), at its core Yes, God, Yes is a sex comedy, and an often cringingly funny one at that, steering clear of the more dramatic angles taken on by The Miseducation of Cameron Post and the Church vs common decency conversion dramas of recent years. Here the spin is that this isn't a place they're forced to go to for mending their 'wicked ways' or to stem their feelings of homosexuality (in fact, it's not a subject that's covered at all here), Kirkos is an optional retreat for the students, ran by Father Murphy (Timothy Simons) from school, and is a broader stab at the overall absurdity, hypocrisy and unhealthy attitudes fostered by teaching purity instead of proper sex education.

It's a great performance from the charming Dyer, who plays the conflict between Alice's innocence and burgeoning sexual desires with great comedic effect, discovering new things about her body with the help of the classic mobile phone game, Snake. No, really. Written and directed by Obvious Child's writer Karen Maine (expanded from her short film of the same name), Yes, God, Yes is a smart, thought-provoking little gem of a film that I highly recommend seeking out.

Verdict

4/5



Sunday, 16 August 2020

SUNDANCE LONDON 2020 review

Sundance London normally takes place every year in June at its London home of Picturehouse Central, but this year, for obvious reasons, the organisers have had to pivot to an abridged online version of the festival. I've attended the London leg of the festival for the last few years now and it's always a highlight of the film festival calendar for me, so it was with some sadness that it wasn't able to go ahead in its full format, but hey, at least it was able to continue in a form that kept everyone safe. Rather than back to back screenings, this year's festival opted to focus on three of the most popular films from January's original run - the Paul Bettany starring Uncle Frank, Andrea Riseborough's Egypt set existential dilemma, Luxor, and the Grand Jury prize winning documentary, Boys State. Here's my thoughts on all three films.

Uncle Frank
Set in 1970s South Carolina, Uncle Frank follows college student Beth (Sophia Lillis) and her professor uncle Frank (Paul Bettany) as they travel from their New York lives back home to attend a funeral. Also in tow is Frank's longtime partner Wally (Peter Macdissi), who Frank would prefer to keep a secret from his family after a traumatic encounter with his father (an intimidating Stephen Root) in his youth has left him afraid of their reaction to him being a gay man.

Directed by Six Feet Under creator and American Beauty screenwriter Alan Ball, Uncle Frank is fundamentally a film of two halves, first focussing on Sophia Lillis's character as she leaves small town Creekville, and the close knit family life and expectations of her as a young woman behind to pursue her studies in New York City. There she comes to learn that the comfortable bachelor lifestyle her family think uncle Frank lives is not entirely true (he even goes so far as to have a female friend pose as his sometime girlfriend), and that he is in a long term relationship with Wally, an Arabian immigrant who is similarly secretive to his own family. When they have to return to Creekville for a family funeral, Wally sees this as the perfect opportunity to meet Frank's family, travelling behind them against Frank's wishes.

There's a period in the film where it's just Lillis and Bettany driving alone, and they're among some of the best scenes in the film. It's not much of a road movie, more concerned with the dramatic potential at the other end, but it's a shame more time wasn't given to the development of this pairing. Both are on journey's of discovery, and despite the sense of fun Wally injects into every scene, there was room for more scenes between these three before their arrival in Creekville and the sidelining of Lillis's character.

Despite the introduction of Frank's long held trauma over the end of his first relationship and his increasing alcohol consumption, the drama and jeopardy of Frank's return home is never earth-shattering, but more by-the-numbers in a pleasingly portrayed way, although the reading of a will provides a real kick in the teeth moment that shakes the course that Frank is on. The film has an often repeated idiom along the lines of "I'm going to be who I want to be, not who people say I should be" that gives an indication as to where the story might head for Frank and Beth. We the audience might see where this very sweet, sincere family drama is going too, but that doesn't detract from the charm and solid performances from a great ensemble supporting cast (I haven't even found space to mention that Steve Zahn, Judy Greer and Margot Martindale also feature in the film), and its leads, Bettany, Lillis, and a stand-out Macdissi.

Luxor
I'll be honest that of the three films on this year's slate, the premise of Luxor didn't immediately grip me from the outset, but I was pleasantly surprised with how much it drew me in to its world. The film with an emotional resonance that Eat, Pray, Love could only dream about, Luxor follows Andrea Riseborough's doctor, Hana, as she returns to Egypt after many years away, bumping into her ex-boyfriend Sultan (Karim Saleh) on a ferry and then reliving and re-evaluating some of the choices she made in the past. Directed by Zeina Durra, it's a beautiful piece of wanderlust filmmaking that'll have you booking flights to Luxor (although maybe without Hana's emotional baggage) as Riseborough visits ancient tombs that literally speak to her, and manages to spiritually free herself enough to dance in front of a room full of strangers at a hotel bar before despair grips her again.

There's a real air of the contemplative reckoning of Before Midnight to Luxor, with Hana walking through incredible scenery on an introspective journey to heal her mind from the horrors she's seen in the world, having just finished as a medic in Syria and about to head to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. This leads to long periods with little or no dialogue and no non-diagetic sounds, including when she visits archaeologist Sultan at one of his digs. The film also features real archaeologist Salima Ikram, essentially playing herself to give her opinions on the spiritual tourism of the area, with large numbers of (often older aged) visitors claiming to be reincarnations of ancient Egyptians. For Hana, the connection with the world she is looking for is much more current, and even if it's not always overtly stated in dialogue, Riseborough's performance is so strong that we are on Hana's journey with her, experiencing the magic realism of hearing voices from beyond to guide her along her path. Luxor is a journey unlike anything else I've seen on screen before, and worth experiencing for yourself.


Boy's State
The last film of the festival was the Documentary Grand Jury prize winning Boy's State, following a group of young men attending the yearly American Legion sponsored, conservative leaning political summer camp that takes place in Texas each year (there is a girl's state too, although not featured in this documentary). If you think American politics and its cast of characters has become too much of a presence in the daily news cycle, save a bit of room for this thoroughly entertaining documentary that's enlightening about the kinds of 16 & 17 year old boys that would actively choose to enter into the world of politics, performing a mock election and campaigning to decide who gets to be a number of roles, the big daddy of them all being Governor. They all arrive as equal people, or Statesmen, and are assigned as either a Federalist or Nationalist, the party platform to be decided as things go on and the camp mentalities start to resemble something not a million miles away from William Golding's Lord of the Flies.

The mixture of nerves, charisma, strategy and natural leadership talent on show is truly jaw-dropping, and a real insight into the system that breeds such a powder keg of bravado and toxic posturing. There's an element of play-acting to it, both to the camera and to their followers, but as these young men stand on a stage in front of hundreds of their peers and spout their views about guns and abortion, the approval their words gets from a braying crowd goes some way to explaining why change moves so slowly in Washington.

Of the cast of characters, there's a number of stand-outs in both the Federalist and Nationalist camps, including the Bill Clinton-a-like Robert McDougall, with his soft texan drawl and easy going manner that makes him an early hit with the camp, the workhorse Ben Fienstein who, despite making some questionable choices (there's an ever present conflict between how much this is reality and a morality free game), is a strong political presence in his camp; and Rene, who on the back of a crowd-winning speech is quickly voted as party chairman, only to see a small faction turn against him and call for his impeachment. He's also able to cut through the pomposity of his surroundings to deliver some of the film's best zingers, including saying about a competitor "I think he's a fantastic politician, but I don't think 'a fantastic politician' is a compliment either". But, the absolute star of the film is the plucky Steven Garza, who's a man with principles who actually believes in his campaign platform for Governor and who wants people to vote for him because of his policies, not his charm offensive. As his position on gun control (a major issue at this event, particularly in the wake of the Stoneman Douglas shootings earlier that year) is called into question, along with the rumours that he organised a pro-choice rally in his home town, he's ballsy enough to stand his ground and say "what I'm going to say next could cost me my chances of winning, but I'm going to say it anyway". It's his refusal to not pander to his voters that makes him a stand out figure in the film, but it's the fact that he does differ so much from his 16 and 17 year old peers that makes you wish the glimmer of hope he offers outweighed the overwhelming majority.

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So, there you have it. Luxor and Uncle Frank have release dates pencilled in for later in the year (although nothing's set in stone these days, but try to check them out when released), and Boy's State is already available to view for Apple TV+ subscribers. As for Sundance London, it's a shame the organisers had to compromise his year, but it was a quality selection, at least. Here's hoping that Sundance London 2021 gets to return to its regularly scheduled slot at Picturehouse Central next year with even more independently produced gems. I, for one, will be there.


Wednesday, 29 July 2020

DOC/FEST 2020 - KING ROCKER review

The abridged version of the 2020 Sheffield Documentary Festival came to an end a couple of weeks ago, except for some screenings the organisers are hoping to hold in cinemas later in the year, when and if there's a way to do them safely. One of the films I was able to see at the festival that I hope will be screened for an audience at some point is Michael Cumming and Stewart Lee's King Rocker, an exploration of the history of the semi-obscure Midlands-based post punk band The Nightingales and its lead singer and figurehead, Robert Lloyd.


Starting in the shadow of Birmingham's Bullring shopping centre, King Rocker first tells the tale of an 18ft tall King Kong statue that momentarily graced the lawn there in the early 70s, opening much debate among the local of why it was there and what relevance it had to them. The story of this statue, and the subsequent travels around the country it took in the decades since its removal from Birmingham, form the backbone of this doc, finding in it something of a talisman likened to Robert Lloyd and his band who, to quote the film, kept on going "in the face of commercial and critical indifference".

The Nightingales are a band with a loyal, albeit small following, having never found mainstream success, despite the best efforts of lead singer Robert Lloyd over many years. Well, if you are a fan of the band and the output of Lloyd, you'll absolutely love this, as director Michael Cumming and 'presenter'/'guide through the history of the band', Stewart Lee, have made a film that matches the irreverent tone of Lloyd's lyrics. If you've never heard of the band and have arrived at this film as a fan of Stewart Lee, you've probably just found yourself in a mostly overlapping Venn diagram you never knew existed, as there's a close friendship and a number of similarities between the two men's outlook on the world. This film is largely composed of conversations between Lloyd and Lee, who, refreshingly, allows his cool on-stage demeanour to relax a little, revealing himself to be an often giddy fan of Lloyd's, happy to wander around with one of his teenage idols and listen to his anecdotes. Even when Lee tries to provide some semblance of a traditional interview format, asking softball questions about the meaning of Lloyd's lyrics, he's happy to abandon it when Lloyd's cheeky response is "the problem with you is you over-analyse everything".

In most 'portrait of an artist' films this lack of a traditional structure would keep the central figure in the shadows, but here it works well, using the figure of the 18ft King Kong as a stand-in for Lloyd as it animates scenes from his life, and calling on the recollections of others to fill in the blanks when Lloyd's recollection of the time doesn't match up to the legend. One such example is when verifying the urban legend that comedian Frank Skinner as temporarily in Lloyd's first band, The Prefects, as Lloyd can't recall the truth, Lee gets Skinner to appear on camera for a brief moment to give his version of events, including an audition that required him to sing The Ramones' Blitzkrieg Bop on the pavement outside a Yates's Wine Lodge. This is a tactic that director Michael Cumming (Brass Eye, Toast of London) uses on a few occasions to try to establish the truth when recollections are a bit hazy (Paul Morley, Nigel Slater, Robin Askwith all appear), and it's funny every time.

On the evidence presented, Lloyd was and continues to be something of a creative dynamo, trying his hand at frontman and singer for various bands, an attempted solo career with an early 90s Hugh Grant-ish floppy curtains haircut (signed to Virgin. "Bunch of cunts", says Lloyd), a music video producer, a TV sitcom creator and a postman. Quite why these projects failed to succeed is up for debate (drummer Paul Apperley offering the suggestion that "everyone loved us apart from people who bought records"), but it's impossible not to admire Lloyd's tenacity and willingness to have a go at anything. The film does touch on his personal life, most touchingly the relationship he has with his son, who's able to offer his view of what life was like with Robert Lloyd at his lowest ebb as his father.

Like I said at the start of this review, you might not be approaching this documentary as a fan of Lloyd's work, but by the time we reach the music video finale, I would be surprised if you're not fully converted. It's a playful, verbally dextrous, often scattershot look at the unpredictable career of a musical behemoth who has been misunderstood in his own time and unappreciated by the masses, but given Lloyd's ability to bounce back in the most surprising ways, I wouldn't count him out just yet.

Verdict
4/5


Thursday, 9 July 2020

DOC/FEST 2020 - BRING DOWN THE WALLS review

 
Directed by Phil Collins (the visual artist, not the Genesis drummer/singer) the title Bring Down The Walls refers to a civic space set up in 2018 in New York City that in daylight hours brought people together to question the current state of the American prison industrial complex, before turning into a club playing house music at night times. At Bring Down The Walls, their argument was that reform is not effective enough and therefore abolition is the only answer to the problems of harsh sentencing and a rapidly expanding prison population (currently over 2 million) that is disproportionately made up of young men of colour.

There's a lot of weighty, increasingly topical statements made across the course of the film by a number of speakers talking from their own experiences. In first hand accounts from ex-prisoners guilty of petty misdemeanours, serious crimes, and in one case innocent and exonerated after spending more than half his life behind bars, they talk about the sentences handed down to them and how the system is rigged against them due to their economic or social background. Added to this, parole boards are choosing to add years to someone's sentence without the need for a judge, jury or even a lawyer present to act on their behalf. The film also covers the fact that although slavery may be illegal, by definition it isn't if you are incarcerated. Prisoners may get paid 10 cents an hour for their work (there's pushback from one speaker as he argues against this being called a job), but the fact that arrest rates for young black men are so disproportionately high, particularly in some areas of the country, makes a compelling argument that the system has managed to work against its black citizens to revert back to darker times in America's history.

The film skips between these speeches, delivered almost always to a crowd of young, socially aware people who can relate via similar experiences that have befallen members of their families, to scenes of the nightlife aspect of the space and performances from some of the previous speakers who have found a way to process their prison experiences into music. At one point in the film Collins goes as far as to include what amounts to a music video that doesn't seem to bear any relevance to any of the speakers, but one would assume does to the BDTW space and the people that frequented it. 

As an argument for the need for inclusive civic spaces, open to all to share their experiences, it's a convincing one. As a document of a club night with house music playing to a rapturous crowd and vogue balls (judged by FKA Twigs) attended by mostly black, queer youth, it sure looks like a fun place to be. But much like the dual uses the space has, the film is a bit scattershot, like stream of consciousness documentary filmmaking. Director Phil Collins was a key player in the creation of the space and this filmed document does deliver its message, with compellingly put forward arguments. A choice has been made to not include any explanatory inter-titles, and with minimal voice-over we are forced to listen to ascertain the important details, like one of the assembled audiences. Never notably at odds with the joyous frivolity of the house club scenes, this is a bold, humanistic film asking for change in one of America's most contentious institutions. There are voices that deserve to be heard, and Collins' film gives them a platform with style.

Verdict
3.5/5

Monday, 6 July 2020

DOC/FEST 2020 - FLINT review

 Filmed over the course of 5 years, Flint looks at the environmental and health issues that have befallen the residents of Flint, Michigan, after the State Governor forced them to change their water supply in a cost cutting measure. Director Anthony Baxter (You've Been Trumped) follows a number of the locals as they campaign for a solution to their ongoing concerns about the state's lack of effort to fix the problems they created.

Described as 'the Silicon Valley of its day', Flint was once a thriving industrial city thanks to the motor industry that employed most of the residents. Now that the car manufacturers have largely deserted Michigan, Flint now has one of the highest poverty levels in the country; something that incoming Governor Rick Snyder hoped to change by drastic cost cutting across the region, including the decision to have Flint source its water supply from the local Flint River instead of the Great Lakes. A catastrophic move if ever there was one, the Flint residents were forced to drink and bathe in brown water that the powers that be claimed was completely safe, even after testing revealed it to have dangerous levels of iron, and the rates of stillbirth and infant mortality skyrocketing. Baxter and his team appear to have been on the ground in Flint since early on in the scandal, as locals are forced to buy gallons upon gallons of bottled water to consume and bathe in. Mothers show evidence that their children developed skin conditions from showering in the water they were told was okay to use, and even when Governor Snyder relented and the water was reverted back to the original Great Lakes supply, the damage done to the pipework infrastructure continued to poison Flint residents for years.

There's plenty of elements to this film that show Flint to be a microcosm of many of the issues that are plaguing America at the moment. During one of many protests of government buildings, Reverend Ira Edwards couldn't put it more clearly when he states, "You see what happens when you elect a businessman to run the state? He doesn't care about the people he hurts... he doesn't care about the lives he effects. Enough is enough". Chants of "No justice. No peace" and placards of 'Flint Lives Matter' from the BAME residents offering further evidence that not all people in America are considered equal. The issues shown here are many, and are documented with an eye for detail by Baxter and his team; however this does lead to the film having a lack of consistent focus. A balanced and level-headed account of what is understood to be the facts, Governor Snyder and his decision making abilities is pushed to one side whilst we follow the genuinely inspirational grass roots campaigning of Flint residents, and the efforts of two highest profile experts from Virginia Tech and Water Defense. There to test the supplies for Flint to ensure it can be safe to drink again, it turns into a complete soap opera as defections, uncomfortable revelations and threatened lawsuits (including against the filmmakers), for lack of a better term, muddy the waters.

The film has a strange relationship with celebrity, as Mark Ruffalo and his Water Defense charity appears in Flint, in what appears to be a genuine attempt to use his star power to make sure the issue is not forgotten, albeit (unbeknownst to Ruffalo) based on questionable science and research methods. Concurrently, the film is so enamoured by the involvement of Alec Baldwin as a (underused and arguably unnecessary) narrator, that it's prepared to change the course of its finale when, after seeing a rough cut of the film, Baldwin decides to increase his involvement and actually sets foot in Flint. It's a gallant attempt on the part of both men to try and highlight what is a serious issue, and perhaps this was an attempt by Baxter to add some sort of closure to proceedings that are far from over, but from a filmmaking point of view Baldwin's involvement in the production only adds another non-sequitur to what is already an over-long and over-stuffed narrative, and doesn't help to solidify any of the points raised in the film.

Every issue raised in this film is an important one that needs attention, and the continued mistreatment of the Flint residents is clear, but by trying to cover all of the issues in the 2 hour running time, Anthony Baxter's film struggles to wade through the narrative threads to deliver a stronger, cohesive argument. The most resonant element of the film, particularly now during the Covid-19 crisis, is seeing how the community sprang into action, as volunteers deliver bottled water supplies to other locals, and educate them on the unseen dangers of things they once took for granted. Were the film to have centred itself on these campaigners and protestors and not got bogged down in the minutiae of (real and bogus) test results, this could have been a more powerful statement about the community of Flint as a whole.

Verdict
3/5