Category Archives: Sundance London

The Last Tree – Sundance Film Festival London Review

Writer-director Shola Amoo’s debut feature, A Moving Image, about the gentrification of Brixton, a neighbourhood of South West London predominantly occupied by Afro-Caribbean residents from the 1940s to the early 2010s, was a didactic and at times tedious work that straddled drama and documentary. It does not prepare you for his exceptional second feature, The Last Tree, in which Amoo redefines what we think of as a British film.

It tells the story of Femi (played as an eleven year old by Tai Golding and as a late teenager by Sam Adewunmi) who is reclaimed by his Nigerian birth mother (Gbemisola Ikumelo) and taken from rural Lincolnshire to inner city London. In his new home, where love isn’t demonstrated and his mother leaves him alone, Femi is expected to sweep the floor, keep his room tidy, feed himself and not watch television. In his new classroom, he is mocked for his name. Cut to several years later and he is sure of himself but drawn into unspecified criminal behaviour, which coincides with his disinterest with his exams. He is given a mobile phone by a criminal with the promise of an upgrade.

You might expect the story to be told in a social-realist way or else with an agenda. Not so. The stylised opening, set against golden wheat fields has Femi indulge in horseplay with white kids in an unproblematic manner. Each boy yells in sequence at the others whilst in a circle, the camera panning around them. In a second sequence, Femi breaks away from the group and yells alone. This prefigures the rupture to come.

Image result for The Last Tree film

His middle-aged foster mother (Denise Black) doesn’t want to give him up. Femi does not want to leave. He is compelled to do so. The car journey to London in which the landscape changes from rural to urban, always out of focus, takes longer than you might ordinarily expect. Amoo does not obey the conventions of economical storytelling. He wants to give sequences a weight, as well as their own momentum. It is as if he wants you to forget about expectation, to break cinema’s shorthand of cause and effect and with it our understanding of Femi’s psyche, so that there is no clear cut way he will react. His destiny isn’t written by the things that happen to him.

The adjustment in the storytelling has the effect of challenging stereotypes. There are two sequences that exemplify this superbly.

First is a scene in which Femi is beaten up in the street and he lies off the curb in the road for the longest time, getting up slowly. In another movie, this would be the catalyst for a revenge attack, but the way Femi gets to his feet is considered. It is hard; Femi’s sense of hurt is conveyed. Yet the sequence stresses his endurance; he has taken the worst someone has thrown at him.

In a later sequence, in Lagos, Femi is in a front room and waits. In front of him is an ornamental elephant tusk. Behind him is a tall, ornate staircase. A maid asks him if he wants a drink. He refuses. She asks the question several different ways, but neither receives the acknowledgement nor gratification of receiving a request, as if he had rendered her purposeless. Femi then sits alone, waiting for the longest time before his mother reappears. Then he has cause to go into another room. Amoo makes the delay the point; what happens next is an anti-climax – one he has prepared us for.

With the un-naturalistic lighting and out-of-focus backgrounds (cinematography: Stil Williams) Amoo creates an atmosphere that is slightly dreamy. We are not entirely sure when the film is set – the mobile phone suggests the last decade. Femi is at odds with both his mother and his teacher (Nicholas Pinnock) but becomes protective of a girl in class who is mocked for her blue braids and called either ‘Blix’ (slang for a gun) or ‘blick’ (slang for smoking pot) – I’m not sure of the meaning; I may need that 2008 video by Dizzee Rascal to help me. Amoo isn’t interested is establishing a relationship between them, rather to show Femi’s changing state of mind.

The film does not pit two cultures – Nigerian and British – against one another. Femi questions his foster mother’s motives and receives an explanation that he sort of accepts. He isn’t defined by ‘street music’ either. Femi finds that he likes the synthesized sound of New Order, perhaps because he is culturally synthesized himself.

The Last Tree is a vividly alive film that pulls you away from a ‘reading’. It is not a film that anchors itself to a value system. Femi is no more defined by his Nigerian heritage than by his English upbringing. The film makes a really compelling case for making us rethink identity and for appreciating people in the here and now, not as individuals severed from an authentic, defining culture but as adaptable people who can, as Amoo does in a compelling manner, create something new. It also makes The Last Tree one of the most important British films of the year.

The Last Tree screens at PictureHouse Central, Piccadilly, Central London, on 1 and 2 June and is on general release in September 2019.

An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn – Review

Jim Hosking, though only really creating two films, has one of the most unique voices in cinema. The filmmaker, who crafted the insanely brilliant movie The Greasy Strangler, has a brilliant and vivid imagination. The British director is daring to push the boundaries of dark comedy, digging under the skin in a squeamishly succulent way.

His follow up to The Greasy Strangler is the wonderfully bizarre and greatly realised An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn. 

Related image

Lulu Danger is in a rut. Her own husband, Shane, has fired her and she spends most of her time wondering what could’ve been. Home alone, Lulu finds an advert for an old flame and he is performing near her. Pushed by the hi-jinks of Shane, Lulu decides to kidnap a hapless hit-man named Colin and run off to a hotel with bundles of cash in order to see the titular Beverly Luff Linn. But will he be happy to see her? And are there other forces keeping them apart?

There’s a continuation of The Greasy Strangler humour as your enter the world of Beverly Luff Linn. A lot of this relies on the delivery on the dialogue, which is a brilliant combination of deadpan and hysterical. The stilted flow of weird phrasing, awkwardly placed pauses, and moments of pure lunacy come from passionate players. Highlights include Craig Robinson, who’s dialogue mostly consists of grunting (and, well, farting,) and Emile Hirsch overtly expression-filled Shane Danger. There is a whole collection of actors that greatly populate this film with their distinctive performances.

Jermaine Clement is well versed in this kind of humour. Similarly to his character in Eagle vs Shark, Clement’s simple yet well-meaning Colin is terrific has he tries to woo Lulu after falling in love with her. He’s great to watch alongside Aubrey Plaza and their verbal ping-pong match and chemistry (certainly carried over from their indelible pairing in Legion,) are insatiable to watch.

Which brings us to Plaza herself. As the lead Lulu, Plaza is simply superb. She is able to take you from lofty aloofness to intense emotion in seconds. There are always sparks lighting behind her eyes as the turbulent emotions rage inside Lulu. Plaza is able to bring Hoskings brand and then some, adding yet another memorable character to her impressive back catalogue.

Image result for An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn

The eighties feel of the film gives the film a lush and great aesthetic. The  hues of pink against the stodge of brown create this glorious period look that fleshes out the characters and also makes it striking to look at.

I feel remiss in saying that this film will polarise people butin many ways, that’s true. Hosking’s writing and his direction is bristling for some, enjoyable for many. And whilst I don’t think everyone will come out of An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn satisfied and hungry for more, those who click into Hosking’s eschewed and devilishly delightful darkness will have a delicious time. Unpacking his particular breed of nastiness and mirth, Jim Hosking’s work here is a fun ride.

You must see it immediately. Immediately. Immediately. Immediately. Immediately.

An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn is out in cinemas 26th October! 

Hereditary – Review

There are many different layers to horror films (after all, it is the most diverse genre out there.) There’s the gross out horrors that deal with blood and guts, there’s the supernatural jump-scare fests that test the strength of your heart, and then there’s the other beasts – the films that claw under your skin. The movies that dig deep into your flesh with nails of despair and anguish. Proper fucking nightmares that cause you to switch on all the lights of your apartment, stealing monstrous images in the dark, and making your crawl like centipede. Ones that change your life forever…

Hereditary is that film.

Image result for hereditary

Hereditary,  a truly fucked up film by debut feature director Ari Aster (like seriously, what the fuck dude?) It revolves around Annie who is dealing with the death of mother. Sadly, the stern matriarch made Annie’s life hell with her domineering secrecy and overbearing emotional abuse that dwindled with dementia and DID.  After the funeral, Annie’s daughter starts acting strangely as weird happenings occur around their home. Paranoid and terrified, when a tragic accident befalls the family, Annie soon starts to unravel as murderous entities enter the house.

I want to start this review off with a serious question: Why the hell doesn’t Toni Collette have an Academy Award yet? If not, can we give her one for Hereditary as this is a stunning tour-de-force of a performance. She can flit (untrustworthy) I might add, between sorrow and fright and anger and pain. Annie is simply an impeccable role for Collette and she grabs it by the gory, bitter husk. Noteworthy too is the young Alex Wolff as her son Peter – a translucent performer who’s wide eyes scoop up innocence and dread so effectively, you forget that he is a teen stoner.

Image result for hereditary film

Aster has crafted a film that is beyond the realms of disturbing. This is a detailed horror film not made to merely scare you but to make an indelible imprint on your psyche. Every layer of production has been designed to the last pin-prick. The cinema framing at the beginning of the film, slowly edging into a miniature replica of the household in which the action takes place. In fact, Annie’s work as a miniaturist lends itself to eerie moments where you feel as though these were merely puppets on display. The editing flits from night to day in a jarringly quick manner and is quick to  The soundtrack by Colin Stetson is pulsating, throbbing with absolute terror. The score is subtle at times, building your emotions for the proper scare. It’s a masterful way of procuring chills from your audience that you never forget the sheer awfulness on desplay

Aster’s work is a glorious display of suspense momentum. It’s a build, a slow drawling build. One simplistic sound made a whole audience holler in distress and chuckle at their silliness. It’s a movie that slowing unravels before quickly unleash madness. A movie, that I’ve heard said, that I really want to see again and yet hope I never get too.

Hereditary is out on DVD & Blu-Ray now! 

Skate Kitchen – Sundance London Review

The first feature film from Crystal Moselle, after her 2015 truth-really-is-stranger-than-fiction documentary The Wolfpack, is the kind of film that is both about everything and nothing. It’s about the big stuff – maternal, fraternal, platonic, romantic relationships along with self-image and what makes us tick – and the small stuff that occurs along the way.

Image result for skate kitchen

The film opens with newly 18 year old Camille (Rachelle Vinberg) suffering an injury during a session on her skateboard. Worried that worse injuries could occur next time, her mother (Elizabeth Rodriguez) bans her from skating. It doesn’t last long. Camille can’t stand not skating, especially not since she discovered and joined The Skate Kitchen – a group of young women who love to skate as much as she does. When her mother catches her out vicious arguments quickly form causing Camille to move from the suburbs and join her new friends in New York City. She’s soon submerged in her newly discovered subculture, making true friendships and discovering herself along the way.

The film follows some familiar coming-of-age beats – there’s the initiation period, the honeymoon period and things getting hitting the deck courtesy of a possible romantic partner – but that doesn’t stop the film being quietly revolutionary in its own way due to how raw and real at whole lot of it feels. From the larger sequences (parties and at the skate park) to the smaller hangouts and just skating around the city these sense of finding your tribe remains omnipresent. There’s a sense of self-discovery in every conversation Camille has and everything she does; each step leading her to the person she’s meant to be.

Image result for skate kitchen

That’s not to say the dialogue is heavy and loaded – far from it! Instead the performances and the accompanying dialogue seem naturalistic and raw. It frequently feels like we’re sitting in on their hangouts, listening – to them speak about parents, boys and periods to name but a few topics – in a truthful, self-deprecating and slightly world-weary way that feels real. Few films have such developed female friendships or devote this much time to looking at their dynamics. And that’s something that truly needs celebrating.

Skate Kitchen played at Sundance Film Festival 

Half the Picture – Sundance London Review

For the last three years, I have taken Women in Media’s 52 films challenge, watching (at least) fifty-two films directed or co-directed by women per year. Although not the point, I made the challenge harder for myself by focusing on new releases only, watched where possible in a screening room with other people. If I just focused on what was released in UK cinemas only, where, for example, some 821 films were released in 2016, I would not complete the challenge. Indeed, it is only possible to complete it by going to film festivals or attending one-off screenings – the quest has so far taken me to Berlin, Prague, Stockholm, Leiden, Haugesund and Toronto.

Image result for half the picture

I look forward to the year when there is gender parity behind the camera, when the challenge is no longer necessary. As Amy Adrion’s documentary, Half the Picture demonstrates, we are a long way off, as evidenced by the institutional poor support given to women directors in Hollywood. Adrion interviewed a wide range of working – in some cases non-working – directors to give a flavour of what the issues are. The results are alarming.

It is impossible not to be angered by Pixar’s treatment of Brenda Chapman, who was fired from the 2012 box-office hit, Brave only to see the story suggestions that the studio initially questioned being restored to the film. Picking up the Oscar for Best Animated Film, she was told not to leave remarks to her replacement, Mark Andrews, but paid tribute to her daughter nevertheless. As a foot note, Chapman has been announced as the director of the live action fantasy drama, Come Away, which top-lines Angelina Jolie and David Oyelowo.

Then there was the treatment by Lorne Michaels of Penelope Spheeris, who was not allowed to make films on Saturday Night Live, was eventually given the gig of helming the box-office hit, Wayne’s World but was passed over for the sequel – the latter was a flop, she rasps, unable to suppress her relish. Although Spheeris got other studio assignments – The Beverly Hillbillies, The Little Rascals and Black Sheep starring the late Chris Farley – she got fed up with the interference and the ‘bullshit’. Now, like Barbra Streisand (not interviewed here) she has given up filmmaking altogether and instead designs houses. As a second foot note, one of Spheeris’ later films, The Kid & I about a teenager with cerebral palsy (Eric Gores) who loves action films and wants to appear in one, sounds generally interesting. Tom Arnold wrote and appears in the film and Spheeris plays herself as the director of the film-within-a-film.

Adrion’s interviewees include Rosanna Arquette, Patricia Riggen, Patricia Cardoso, Catherine Hardwicke, Lena Dunham, Miranda July, Ava DuVernay, Sam Taylor-Johnson, Jill Soloway, Karyn Kusama, Gina Prince-Blythewood as well as the prolific British Oscar nominated documentarian Lucy Walker who was accused of not directing her films. (‘Would they say that to a man?’) Kimberley Peirce describes how, when she proposed the film, Stop-Loss, she was asked whether she could handle action sequences with four cameras and ‘what qualified her to make the film?’  Significantly, neither Kathryn Bigalow, the only female recipient of the Best Director Oscar (for The Hurt Locker) nor Wonder Woman’s director Patty Jenkins was interviewed.

Image result for half the picture lena dunham

The documentary builds to a lawsuit brought in 2015 by director Maria Giese (When Saturday Comes) against Hollywood through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, assisted by the American Civil Liberties Union. Giese’s – and many others – argument is that Hollywood studios use mentoring programmes as a smokescreen for not offering women the opportunity to be included in short lists for big budget projects. It took women within the industry like Ava DuVernay and Jill Soloway to change the way women were hired. While the show reels submitted by women cinematographers looked less impressive than those offered by their male counterparts, this was because they had less to work with – one light and a bounce board. It is only through positive discrimination – hiring in spite of the lack of credits – that some producers challenge prejudice.

One of the best interviewees is Miranda July, who put her own directing career on hold to look after her child while her husband Mike Mills went off to direct 20th Century Women. July describes how she set up in 1995 the ‘Big Miss Moviola’ compilation tape, inviting women filmmakers to submit one short and $5 (together with a personal statement); in return they would receive a videotape with that short and nine others; threatened with a legal suit, she changed the name of the scheme to ‘Joanie 4 Jackie’. Submissions included Dulcie Clarkson’s ‘How the Miracle of Masturbation Saved Me from Becoming a Teenage Space Alien’; most of films were from women in college or college graduates. July handed the scheme to others in 2003 as she prepared her debut feature, Me and You and Everyone We Know and saw the scheme made redundant in 2009 with the advent of YouTube. July also describes how her second feature, The Future, featured European actors in supporting roles to justify the financial support from Germany.

Adrion ends her film on an optimistic note, but the reality is that the lawsuit is making slow progress and 2018 has seen fewer studio films directed by women than ever. I counted four: A Wrinkle in Time (Disney), Blockers (Universal), The Spy Who Dumped Me (Lionsgate) and The Darkest Minds (20th Century Fox). Whilst Sony has acquired Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale, a period revenge drama starring Sam Claflin and Amma Asante’s Where Hands Touch, starring George McKay as a son of a high-ranking SS officer who has a relationship with a biracial girl, Leyna (Amandla Stenberg), neither film has a release date. Television and streaming services offer the best employment opportunities for women directors until a director like Patty Jenkins can prove once again, that women directors can deliver big box office.