Tag Archives: British Film

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.

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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.

Anna and the Apocalypse – Review

Given that the United Kingdom has produced some of the most enduring popular music of the 20th Century, it is surprising that it hasn’t produced more enduring, original musicals. On the stage, Andrew Lloyd Webber and his collaborators have crowded out the market for over 40 years, taking inspiration from pre-existing texts, some of which were not written by Brits – The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux, Cats after T.S. Eliot’s poems.

The best musicals focus on aspiration, with visionary protagonists singing their dreams, The Greatest Showman, beloved of this website, being the most recent example. In the movies, the last great British screen musicals were Tommy (1975), based on a rock opera by The Who, about a mute, visually and aurally impaired young man (Roger Daltrey) with a talent for pinball, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), directed by an Australian and featuring Americans in the leads. Although as far as musical sequences are concerned, the finale of Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) – ‘Always look on the bright side of life’ – was a suitable epitaph. I must confess that I’m not a fan of Pink Floyd: The Wall filmed by Alan Parker – it doesn’t work as a narrative. As for Absolute Beginners – don’t get me started.

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The non-zombie antagonist is Savage (Paul Kaye, whose credits include playing a zombie at the Winchester pub in Shaun of the Dead, an inspiration behind the film). He desperately can’t wait to be King – sorry, Head Master – once the current incumbent has retired, and displays questionable attitudes towards the teenagers performing in the end of term show. Antagonist number two is Anna’s ex, Nick (Ben Wiggins) who cyber-shamed Anna, but wants her to crawl back to him.

In the film, written by Alan McDonald and Ryan McHenry and directed by John McPhail (2015’s Where Do We Go From Here) zombies turn up gradually and are mostly older people. As with Shaun of the Dead, the fun comes from the kids crunching the head with bowling balls and other appropriate props, which only goes so far. Anna’s imperative is to rescue her father and, erm, catch a plane.

In many ways, Anna and the Apocalypse is an anti-musical. Zombie hordes place a real dampener on ambition and there is pathos when characters we care about are bitten. Songs like ‘No such thing as a Hollywood ending’ underline the point. Ultimately, the film turns on a clash between Anna and Savage, whose twisted ambition is aided by circumstance.

Musicals are judged by their songs – their hooks. Sadly, the tunes here don’t linger, the lyrics nonsensical. When one character sings ‘I need a human voice’, you wonder, ‘as opposed to a Google assistant?’ In a sense, the zombie musical has already been done to death in the extended pop video Michael Jackson: Thriller directed by John Landis. The image of the King of Pop dancing with a collection of grave dodgers pretty much shows the limits of the sub-genre.

Nevertheless, the cast are infectiously personable and there’s definitely a market for a film that bunches together genre tropes and takes them on the road. Ultimately, Anna and the Apocalypse is a film that wishes it was The Rocky Horror Picture Show but doesn’t enshrine the pleasures of the musical in a horror movie context. I’m still waiting for the next great British movie musical. Director Danny Boyle and writer Richard Curtis, working with Ed Sheeran, Lily James and Kate McKinnon, just might be making one, due out in September 2019.


Anna and the Apocalypse is out 30th November 

 

In general, when the British offer an aspiration, it doesn’t work out too well – partitioning India for example, and, of course, Brexit. That said I’m sure someone will propose a musical biography of Sir James Dyson entitled Vacuum.

In recent years, filmmakers have turned to the so-called jukebox musical, constructing a narrative around pre-existing songs, with the most successful example being Mamma Mia (2008), structured from songs by the, er, Swedish super group, Abba. Lower budget versions have included Sunshine on Leith (2013), featuring songs by the Scottish group the Proclaimers – Meryl Streep was not even a consideration.

This brings us finally to the Scottish original musical, Anna and the Apocalypse, about a group of young people who wake up to find their town taken over by zombies. Structurally, it has two problems: the protagonist’s aspiration – to travel to Australia – isn’t clearly linked to the zombie apocalypse plot. Secondly, at least half the cast – well, more than half – can’t sing. They’re undead and, as such, have trouble auto-tuning.

Experts on musicals will tell you that the songs are supposed to drive the plot or at least sum up an attitude. When Timon and Pumbaa sing ‘Hakuna Matata’ in The Lion King they are making a ‘problem free philosophy’ attractive to young Simba – though I have no idea whether, in the forthcoming live action remake, Seth Rogen, voicing Pumbaa, will follow it by offering young Simba a bag of weed with his trademark snigger. Probably not, it’s a Disney movie.

The songs by Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly certainly start with an objective: Anna (Ella Hunt, Ellie Marsden in TV’s Cold Feet) sings ‘I know I must break away’, which is a classic musical sentiment. Her widower dad (Mark Benton) who works at her school as a janitor wants her to go to university. Anna would rather go to Australia first, financed by her part-time job at a bowling alley. Her best friend, John (Malcolm Cumming) is an enthusiastic cheerleader, but so obviously in love with her that his heart is melting inside his Christmas jumper. Why Anna doesn’t have a girl as her best friend is a bit of a mystery. The only other sympathetic females are lesbian American Steph (Sarah Swire, the film’s choreographer) – key line, ‘Christmas is my least favourite ‘C’ word’ – who has been abandoned by her parents and Lisa (Marli Siu), who is appearing in the school’s Christmas musical and has a film geek, Chris (Christopher Leveaux) for a bestie.

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The non-zombie antagonist is Savage (Paul Kaye, whose credits include playing a zombie at the Winchester pub in Shaun of the Dead, an inspiration behind the film). He desperately can’t wait to be King – sorry, Head Master – once the current incumbent has retired, and displays questionable attitudes towards the teenagers performing in the end of term show. Antagonist number two is Anna’s ex, Nick (Ben Wiggins) who cyber-shamed Anna, but wants her to crawl back to him.

In the film, written by Alan McDonald and Ryan McHenry and directed by John McPhail (2015’s Where Do We Go From Here) zombies turn up gradually and are mostly older people. As with Shaun of the Dead, the fun comes from the kids crunching the head with bowling balls and other appropriate props, which only goes so far. Anna’s imperative is to rescue her father and, erm, catch a plane.

In many ways, Anna and the Apocalypse is an anti-musical. Zombie hordes place a real dampener on ambition and there is pathos when characters we care about are bitten. Songs like ‘No such thing as a Hollywood ending’ underline the point. Ultimately, the film turns on a clash between Anna and Savage, whose twisted ambition is aided by circumstance.

Musicals are judged by their songs – their hooks. Sadly, the tunes here don’t linger, the lyrics nonsensical. When one character sings ‘I need a human voice’, you wonder, ‘as opposed to a Google assistant?’ In a sense, the zombie musical has already been done to death in the extended pop video Michael Jackson: Thriller directed by John Landis. The image of the King of Pop dancing with a collection of grave dodgers pretty much shows the limits of the sub-genre.

Nevertheless, the cast are infectiously personable and there’s definitely a market for a film that bunches together genre tropes and takes them on the road. Ultimately, Anna and the Apocalypse is a film that wishes it was The Rocky Horror Picture Show but doesn’t enshrine the pleasures of the musical in a horror movie context. I’m still waiting for the next great British movie musical. Director Danny Boyle and writer Richard Curtis, working with Ed Sheeran, Lily James and Kate McKinnon, just might be making one, due out in September 2019.


Anna and the Apocalypse is out 30th November 

Strangeways, Here We Come – Review

Anyone waiting for the next British Shallow Grave won’t find it in the Salford-set ensemble comedy, Strangeways Here We Come, an enthusiastically performed but distasteful caper in which a group of none-too-likeable estate residents band together to rid themselves of an oppressive loan shark (Stephen Lord). It is the sort of film that mixes together Mormon bashing, postman trashing, vomiting, happy pills, community gardens and sex addiction all set to music from bands selected by Terry Christian.

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Writer-director Chris Green has corralled a group of ‘them off the telly’ including Michelle Keegan and James Foster from Coronation Street as well as Lauren Socha (Misfits), Oliver Coopersmith (Humans) and Chanel Cresswell (This is England) in a film that finds a level of irritability and raises it to eleven. It is the sort of material that might make an ITV comedy mini-series rather than something you would spend five-ninety-nine at a Vue cinema using the app.

When a postman is attacked for delivering ‘bad news’ (a bill), I shuddered. Residents mocked a pair of Mormons delivering Seven Day Adventism. A girl curses a boy who vomited on her. There is a boxer (Foster) who had a stroke, which continues to afflict him and a cab driver who has a drunken one night stand with a young student and then asks if she is pregnant. ‘Mixed race kids are always beautiful, even when the parents are ugly.’

If the jokes aren’t painful enough, there is also a boy, Aaron who has a Superhero badge on his chest with the letter ‘A’, which might just as well say ‘autism’. He wears the outfit out of a promise made to his dead mother as he reveals on the one year anniversary of her death.

There is one passable joke. A cabbie walks into Aaron’s front room, decorated with fairy lights and a cardboard cake and exclaims, ‘this is Narnia’. After that you are starving.

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The film takes half an hour to decide on a plot, ten minutes to knock off Nolan, using a mix of strangulation and kitchen utensils and the remaining forty-odd minutes to unwind. Elaine Cassidy (No Offence) makes a late appearance as a woman who wants to know where Nolan is and is more vicious than the thug she has by her side.

There is nothing wrong with a black comedy that shows wit and imagination but at a certain point the entire cast is trapped in a garden shed and the outcome is literally a cop out. This is followed by a drugged up woman having sex.

If Manchester wanted to replace London as the centre of culture in England, it will have to do a lot better than this. If you want a black comedy, go rent Alice Lowe’s Prevenge instead.


Strangeways Here We Come is out in cinemas Friday! 

The Escape – Film Review

Over the course of two decades of film and television work, writer-director Dominic Savage has perfected a form of improvised cinema. It begins with an idea in which the actors work with the director in exploring the options. Savage’s collaboration with Gemma Arterton, who has three careers in Hollywood (Clash of the Titans, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters), Britain (Quantum of Solace, Made in Dagenham, Their Finest) and France (Gemma Bovery, Orpheline, The History of Love), has yielded a three-quarter gem, The Escape. Arterton excels as a young mother, Tara, whose life at home with her breadwinner husband, Mark (Dominic Cooper) stifles her.

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Savage really makes you feel how Tara is trapped in the routine of her life: sex on demand, feeding the two children, doing the school and nursery runs and being there for her man. She is under-nourished: culturally, socially and emotionally. On a trip to London, she picks up an art book and becomes obsessed with a tapestry and yearns to take an art class. Mark can’t take it in because their life is it. He has a good job, they have a nice house – sorted. Tara’s ache drives her to the escape of the title.

The Escape feels like two movies and Arterton gives two performances. The first is utterly sympathetic, the second a bit of a cliché. During ‘the escape’, Tara becomes a different person and has a form of adventure, though I can tell you that having recently wandered the streets all night in the city where the last quarter of the film is set, you don’t get befriended by a rich person who takes you home because they see your sadness – not unless it’s transactional. You usually get asked for a cigarette.

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The final quarter of The Escape is forgivable because the rest of the film is so good. The scene at a barbecue, or getting the children to eat, or seeing toys everywhere – parents can relate. At one point Tara screams at her young child for touching her art book and although her anger is disproportionate, we see and understand its roots.

Like any good director, Savage does not try to solve the social problem that he depicts. He – and Arterton – are honest about it. Tara doesn’t have friendships that sustain her, people to whom she can turn, though Savage might have included a scene or two to explain this. Savage understands that people whose lives turn into obligations need a release valve to appreciate who they are and to find a form of fulfillment, but it should not be at a cost.


The Escape is out 3rd August! 

Double Date – Review

A confession: I’m not a great fan of horror films and I haven’t been on a first date since – (coughs to mask the year). So I’m not the ideal audience for Double Date, the antithesis of a romantic comedy. Written by lead actor Danny Morgan, it is about an awkward young man, Jim (Morgan) whose best friend, Alex (Michael Socha) tries to get him laid before his thirtieth birthday. They double date two sisters, Lulu (Georgia Groome) and Kitty (Kelly Wenham). Lulu is quite nice; you’d take her home to meet your mum – and Jim does. Kitty is, how you say, mental, a word to describe her mistress’ plan to sacrifice a virgin to bring Daddy back to life.

We are in British horror comedy territory, the land of Shaun of the Dead and, er, Lesbian Vampire Killers, except that Morgan and Socha are far funnier than Cordon and Horne, if not on a par with Pegg and Frost. Jim has been dumped by his long-term girlfriend and doesn’t want to put himself out there. Alex loves a challenge, as opposed to University Challenge, and who stays in on a Monday night? He decides to push Jim towards two girls who make eye-contact, unbeknown that they are serial killers.

The cast boasts the estimable Dexter Fletcher as Alex’s dad, whose idea of a night in involves three-ply tissue and Robert Glenister as Jim’s pa. Jim’s birthday with the family is Brit comedy at its most crispy-cringe. The main reason to see the film is the finale. Creed Jr going twelve rounds with Tony Pellew is nothing compared with Alex taking on Kitty. When a man and a woman fight it is usually unwatchable but Alex takes a proper beating and Kitty looks like she could dish it out – it is the opposite of exploitation.

Double Date is the funniest, most satisfying British horror comedy since Shaun of the Dead  – although I have to say the funniest British comedy horror ever still has to be Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce, just ahead of Norman J. Warren’s Insemnoid. Although Morgan and director Benjamin Barfoot distinguish themselves, Wenham’s manic turn elevates the film; so kick-ass, she could be the first British actress to convincingly play Lara Croft.

Churchill – Review

‘We shall bore them in the multiplexes.’ ‘Never in the field of (a) human biopic was so much time wasted for so little.’ These are some Winstonian critiques of Churchill, a drama set during the ninety-six hour build-up to D-Day – with some artistic licence – that lacks the scope suggested by the title. It is a showcase for Brian Cox in the title role of British Prime Minister and Minister for Defence Winston Churchill who served in both capacities from 1940 to 1945 – but an unflattering one. The film, written by first-time screenwriter Alex von Tunzelmann and directed by Jonathan Teplitzky, depicts Churchill as a nuisance to the military, vainglorious, a poor husband, an alcoholic and a bully. The film ends with the caption noting Churchill has been thought of as our greatest Briton. Clearly someone is having a laugh.

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The film ought to be named ‘The Prime Minister’s Speech’ for it has something in common with Tom Hooper’s acclaimed Oscar-winning film about King George VI overcoming his stutter. Here, Winston has to overcome his misgivings about Operation Overlord, which took place on the 6 June 1944, and deliver a radio broadcast praising the efforts of 250,000 allied troops engaged on an offensive over a fifty mile stretch of land, determined to strike decisively against Nazi Germany.

Although set during the war, we see no fighting. It begins with a dream sequence with Winston losing his trademark Homberg hat in a blood-filled incoming tide. He has never forgotten the tragic loss of life in the First World War, when he, as First Lord of the Admiralty, orchestrated the disastrous Dardanelles campaign as well as helping to plan the military landings at Gallipoli, both of which resulted in heavy losses of life.

But if we are told once that Winston is haunted by events of almost thirty years ago, we are told a dozen times. ‘We must learn from history’, he tells General Eisenhower (John Slattery), Field Marshal Montgomery (Julian Wadham), even King George VI (James Purefoy) himself – plus his staff, his wife Clemmie (Miranda Richardson) and his new secretary (Ella Purnell). Again and again, he expresses his misgivings, exposing his impotence as the Prime Minister, unable to change Eisenhower and Montgomery’s minds.

This is an attempt to show how, in certain situations, a Prime Minister has no power. This message might be timely – how much power does the current Prime Minister have without her party having more than 50% of the seats in the House of Commons? However, it isn’t explored in an illuminating way.

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At one point, Churchill gets King George VI to agree to sail to France on HMS Belfast ahead of the allied troops, to lead the troops from the front instead of being a general who orchestrates events from safety. It is, of course, bonkers. We don’t see the initial proposal, only the King backing out.

Mostly we see Churchill embarrass himself in front of his staff, shouting at his new secretary. It isn’t clever and it isn’t funny. Van Tunzelmann has Clemmie slap her husband, though stops short of telling him he is a boorish pig. He isn’t very authoritative in front of senior army commanders and undermines them by planning his own campaign.

105 minutes of trashing Churchill’s legacy doesn’t make for great viewing. Mostly, it is over-egged. After making a speech – I won’t say under what conditions – Churchill has a witty line about wishing his drink were Scotch, and you want the film to end there. Alas, it is followed by a superfluous epilogue.

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The most interesting aspect of the film is Winston’s friendship with General Jan Smuts (Richard Durden), who in the late 1920s advocated segregation between blacks and whites in his native South Africa. You would never guess from the film that Smuts was made a Field Marshal of the British Army, equal in rank to Montgomery. Smuts is uncritically portrayed as Winston’s closest confidante, who cajoles him to work at various points. This relationship could have been developed if Van Tunzelmann was not so obsessed with repeating her same point.

Cox relishes the title role but doesn’t transcend the limits of the script. Richardson’s measured performance as Clemmie is more impressive – she is an oasis of calm and good sense with a proportionate sense of public duty.

For a more fulfilling portrait of Churchill on screen, we look to the autumn release of director Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour, with Gary Oldman as Winston deciding whether to seek a truce with Nazi Germany or stand true to his principles. World War Two will also dominate our cinema screens in July with the release of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, about the mass evacuation of allied troops in 1940. These reminders of Britain’s war effort are supposed to pay tribute to the country’s resilience. With fault lines exposed to the Brexit Referendum, the recent General Election and, this week, the fire at Grenfell Tower in North Kensington, these movies seem off-message.


Churchill is out in cinemas now!