Tag Archives: Drama

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.

The Hate U Give – Review

In a marketing move that went awry, the American police shooting drama, The Hate U Give inspired mass walkouts at ‘Cineworld Unlimited’ Surprise Preview screenings across the UK on 8 October. The last Cineworld Unlimited screening was The Incredibles 2 so audiences were primed for a tentpole release. Fearing it might be the new Hallowe’en movie anxious parents contacted Cineworld sites to ask whether their children might be turned away. There was also some consternation that customers weren’t given complimentary candy, dished out at previous surprise screenings. What the heck, indeed!

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Adapted from Angie Thomas’ novel by the late Audrey Wells (The Truth About Cats and Dogs, Under the Tuscan Sun) and directed by George Tillman, Jr (The Longest Ride, Men of Honour), the film tells the story of African American teenager, Starr (Amandla Stenberg), who grows up in two worlds. Whilst she lives in the deprived neighbourhood of Garden Heights, where her father runs a store, she is educated at a school notable for the rarity of students of colour. Daddy (Russell Hornsby) drills his children to behave appropriately when stopped by a police officer – something they are taught to expect. However, whilst she is being driven home from a party by an old friend, Khalil (Algee Smith), Starr is unable to stop him from being shot. In the aftermath of the outrage (this is not a tragedy, rather an ongoing injustice) Starr struggles to articulate an appropriate response.

In the film’s best scene, Starr visits her police officer uncle, Carlos (Common) and they discuss why officers respond the way they do. White motorists are given the benefit of the doubt; black motorists are not. The scene works exceptionally well because it admits that this attitude is held by both black and white officers alike, but is rooted in bias about social background; whether the motorist is likely to own a vehicle, have committed infractions of some sort or carry a gun.

In many of the other scenes, this bias is presented as a white institutional problem. Yet the drama plays out against a criminal backdrop: Khalil worked for a local drug dealer, King (a nuance-free performance by Anthony Mackie) to pay for his grandmother’s medical treatment. The police officer’s suspicion therefore has some merit, though not his trigger finger.

Far from being an articulate film that decries racism, The Hate U Give is deeply confused. Starr’s parents consciously address environmental determinism rather than attempt to reform the neighbourhood from the inside. Although her father runs his own business, his ambitions are economically limited. He had turned away from a life of crime to be a good father, albeit in a drill sergeant mode, but is content for his children to live in a white world.

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The film creaks with a lack of authenticity, notably in Starr’s romance with Chris (K J Apa) a white student at her school, who is something of an embarrassment – a class clown who is singularly unfunny. Chris exists in a vacuum. We don’t meet his parents or his other friends; he is there as light relief – or should I say white relief. Starr’s relationship with two white girls in her class, one of whom takes part in a protest against police brutality to avoid a chemistry test, is somewhat more believable, but the film makes the mistake of presenting teenagers as finished articles, and not capable of change.

The lack of authenticity extends to a funeral reception that Starr attends for Khalil, where the family members aren’t so much traumatised as under-directed. The film builds to a scene of rioting that also seems under-populated.

The worst thing about The Hate U Give is that it presents Starr’s acknowledgement of outrage as triumphant when in reality nothing has changed. The way to address a culture of fear is to debunk it, which is why a number of first time African-American writer-directors, like Jordan Peele and Boots Riley have turned to black comedy rather than social realism. The Hate U Give feels like a throwback that could have been made five years ago. President Trump’s war on his predecessor’s legacy demands a more considered response.

The Hate U Give is out in cinemas now! 

The Rider – Review

So many films claim to offer an immersive experience.  The Rider achieves this without so much as a 3D gimmick. Director Chloé Zhao’s film tells the story of a Dakota based horse trainer and rodeo rider, Brady Blackburn (real life horse trainer Brady Jandreau) who is recovering from a severe head injury. He desperately wants to get on a horse again, but everyone around him says ‘no’.

We know how the Hollywood version of this story would go, but Zhao tears up the script. Her film is a true blend of documentary – real people playing versions of themselves – and drama.

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From the very first scene, in which Brady changes his head dressing, we are drawn in, not least because the stitches he is showing us are real. Brady’s use of cling film to redress the wound tells us a lot about him and his world. There isn’t a whole lot of money for medical bills; we discover Brady discharged himself against medical advice. He doesn’t have money for expensive dressings, hence the cling film.

Although no one says it, Brady experienced a lucky escape. Not so his best friend and role model, Lane Scott, who is permanently hospitalised and cannot speak; he expresses himself with a few gestures that Brady (when he visits him) has learned to read.

Zhao captures that aching need to do the thing that you love even though it isn’t in your best interest. The push-pull factor is great, not least because Brady’s father (Tim Jandreau, playing a fictionalised father figure) gambles the little money they have on slot machines – rent is way overdue – and Brady’s younger sister, Lilly (Lilly Jandreau) has autism and acts, though adult, like a little girl.

Brady takes a job in a supermarket and we see that it feels like degradation. Zhao shows him interacting with customers – including a young boy who wants a selfie – as well as sharpening knives and hosing down surfaces.

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When he gets the opportunity to break a horse, the film rears into real time tension. We have no idea of what will happen in the pen, Zhao removing the safety net of staging: Brady is doing this for real.

There are poignant scenes such as Brady taking his saddle to a pawn shop and teaching a younger man how to ride a bucking bronco. As in a sports movie, the drama points in one direction, though how it gets there is painful and unexpected.

The South Dakota setting offers a casually beautiful backdrop. This is a film that you experience from moment to moment in real time, as if it were a documentary. Being a drama, it has one clunky scene, with Brady’s friends watching videos of Lane and talking about him, but this is a minor fault. For the entire film, you are with Brady, experiencing his journey. It is one that I cannot praise highly enough.

The Rider is out 14th September 

Unpopped Kernels: Beach Rats (2017)

British actor Harris Dickinson is a star in the making. He has nabbed the lead role in director Danny Boyle’s new ten-part television series, Trust, in which he plays John Paul Getty III in the other screen version (after Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World) of the infamous 1973 kidnapping. You’ll see him in September opposite Amandla Stenberg in director Jennifer Yuh Nelson’s film version of Alexandra Bracken’s young adult novel, The Darkest Minds, about young kids with superpowers placed in internment camps – fortunately beating the similarly themed, The New Mutants, to the screen. Before then and emphatically not suitable for viewers under the age of seventeen, you can catch him in the small screen release, Beach Rats, for which the London Critics Circle named him ‘Young British/Irish Performer of the Year’. OK, I would have given the award to Josh O’Connor (God’s Own Country) but we’ll let that pass.

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The follow-up by Brooklyn-born writer-director Eliza Hittman to her 2013 feature debut, It Felt Like Love, this tells the story of a deeply troubled young man. Frankie (Dickinson) has moved down to the basement of his home to visit a gay chat room website in private. He’s attracted to men, but in his words, ‘doesn’t know what he likes’. He is addicted to his father’s medication, which he grinds into powder and snorts. His father meanwhile is in a catatonic state, dying from cancer. Frankie hangs out with three other men on Brooklyn Beach near the fairground, picking people’s pockets and sharing weed. Frankie does not discuss his sexuality with them; in fact, there is very little conversation between them, full stop. They are a criminal gang on the watch, looking for victims and talking small. Frankie catches the eye of a young woman, Simone (Madeline Weinstein in her film debut) who beelines for him at the dodgems. She provides the perfect cover in front of the guys but, of course, he’s not attracted to her. Naturally, their relationship does not go smoothly. In the mean time, he meets up with men for casual sex, knowing at some point he’ll have to be open about his sexuality, once he is confident about it himself.

The result is knife-edge viewing. You watch Frankie as if he is in a state of constant danger. Yes, he’s young and works out – we see him photograph his own torso with an i-phone, one interestingly he doesn’t sell when he needs money. But he is vulnerable, emotionally and physically, certainly capable of causing emotional harm to others – notably Simone – and physical harm to himself.

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Beach Rats is not a gay ‘coming out’ film. Rather, it is about how inward you can turn yourself when you are with others. Frankie isn’t a talker, but a doer. He lives through physical action, whether playing hand tennis, inhaling in a vape bar or having sex. The story is entirely told from his point of view. We see how his young sister reacts to their father’s illness by exploring her own sexuality, asking for a belly button ring and wearing a bikini top to the beach and how, in his unspoken way, Frankie doesn’t want her to share his own sexual turmoil. We watch his mother (Kate Hodge) trying to get through to him, to get him to share, and his stubborn resistance to reveal himself through words.

Hittman’s film has been promoted for gay audiences, with images of the four men with their shirts off on the poster. It is a film that speaks to anybody who has had an identity crisis in the face of losing a parent. Utterly gripping and poignant, it is also uncompromising. It is not the kind of film to watch on your home computer – you feel almost like Frankie browsing through men who display themselves for future gratification, but it is certainly an emotionally honest drama that captures the turmoil of late adolescence.

Beach Rats is available on Netflix! 

Loveless – Review

How can a mother stop loving her child? Let’s imagine. The child is born, a miracle: fingers, toes, senses – all. Green poop? Let’s forget about the first excretion. The babe takes milk – ouch, steady. The crying, the nappy changes, the feeding – can someone please help? The father dotes but has to go to work. The child’s grandmother is severe in disapproval. She never liked the father. Her only daughter could have married better. The mother recovers her shapeliness – still beautiful. But the crying, the potty training, feeding, walking – where has baby got to? Then the crying again – an accident. Mother searches for a towel to stem the bleeding. She takes the best one – ruined. She has been brought to this. Suddenly the father is interested. Lifting him up, carrying him on his shoulders. ‘He never shows such affection with me,’ she thinks. Adult talk: no promotion. The mother wants to live better; she’s fed up of this apartment. The father’s pained face: he’s trying. The child breaks a plate. It’s an accident. The mother counts the crockery, a wedding gift depleted by ignorance. The boy goes to school. Mother looks at herself in the mirror – still beautiful. She attracts attention, warmth. Her child is an embarrassment. She wants to be seen for herself. She takes a lover who showers her with compliments, real food and company. There is a world outside her home and she can taste it. She married too soon, she did everything too soon. The child is a reminder. The father discovers her infidelity and leaves. He seeks solace with another woman in another cramped apartment. Before long he is expecting another baby. Why can’t he take the boy? ‘A boy deserves to be with his mother.’ Impasse: the mother hates the father. She looks at the boy, the reminder of the life she doesn’t want. The boy understands everything. Away from the other boys at school, relieved of the pretence of bravado, he starts to cry.

This, with some embellishment, is the starting point of Loveless (Нелюбовь) a film co-written and directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev (The Return, Elena, Leviathan) who is Russia’s most internationally acclaimed chronicler of contemporary urban woe. The film is set before the Russian intervention in Ukraine, before the mother nation shows its scrupulous concern for the peoples of Donbas, who, owing to the inconvenience of geography, experience the neglect of care that only a military intervention can provide.

Alexey (Matvey Novikov) is a twelve year old boy who wants a home, not a room, not a mother cursing him, ordering him, full of indignation and barely suppressed regret. His mother Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) has lost of the softness of discourse with the two men who share her patronymic. But at least the apartment will be sold and her connection with the boy’s father, Boris (Aleksey Rozin) will be severed. Only one day the boy disappears and the warring couple are reunited in anxiety and recrimination, searching with as much feeling as they can muster for the missing child.

Zvyagintsev has little sympathy for Zhenya, except when we meet the aforementioned maternal grandmother in the hope that young Alexey is somehow with her. Her bitterness, accompanied by a barking dog – a metaphor for inchoate discontent – speaks volumes. Boris has to act the happily married man for the sake of getting on in his company; divorced men don’t fit in. Society in modern Russia denies the possibility of personal disappointment, emerging alienation, bad choices fuelled by flickers of desire. Every attempt to find the boy is punctuated by argument – at one point, on a quiet country road, Boris orders Zhenya out of the car. Only the volunteer services can help in the search, though there is something perfunctory about their stop-start efforts – they are not conducted out of care.

Like many women in the film, Zhenya’s eyes are locked on her mobile phone. Instead of some issues being more important than others, each post on her twitter feed somehow merits more attention than her own flesh and blood. Zvyagintsev discounts any motion that Zhenya is suffering from mental illness – bipolarity and the like. Instead, he attacks attention-sucking social media, observing that narcissism and not empathy has won.

With characters that are hard to like, it is surprising to discover that sex scenes involving Zhenya and her wealthy lover offer some erotic pleasure. It is the one time that the (male, heterosexual) viewer feels something. Then with a start it occurs to you: you experience most pleasure watching others having sex only when you don’t care about them. The film doesn’t make us experience guilt about feeling little for the characters. Rather it actually compensates for our lack of empathy by giving us another pleasure. In this sense, Loveless is not a condemnation of a world without warm or investment in others, warts and all; instead, it shows us how it is possible to live without love through other sensory gratifications.

There is a coda, a few years on, in which the military intervention in Ukraine is observed by desensitised characters. We are invited to reflect upon our own distance from the sufferings of others, to consider whether it is enough to be a consumer taking what is available to us or whether we should make choices that could affect – for the better – the world in the future. I suspect that Zvyagintsev, in his sincere appeal for compassion, is preaching to the compassionate and that if he really wants to shake the unfeeling out of their torpor, he ought to give them something to worry about.

Loveless is out on DVD & Blu-Ray now! 

East End Film Festival: Marlina The Murderer in Four Acts – Review

It is probably best not to tell you too much about Marlina The Murderer in Four Acts, the third feature from Indonesian director Mouly Surya. It tells the story of a widow farmer, Marlina (Marsha Timothy) who is visited one day by an old man on a motorcycle, Markus (Egi Fedly), who tells her that he and his six buddies are going to steal all her livestock – ten goats, ten pigs, some cows and chickens. Then his gang will take turns to rape her. ‘Oh, I’m your guest – can you cook me something?’ Marlina has already endured a double tragedy. Her son, Topan, died still born eight months into her pregnancy. Her late husband, whom she initially told Markus will be back at any moment, sits wrapped in a shawl in the corner of the room – she cannot afford to bury him. Marlina stands in the kitchen of her remote farm house, far from help – the opening establishes just how cut off she is (it was filmed in Sumba) – and ponders. She takes the only action available to her for survival, which I won’t spoil, and then attempts to do the right thing.

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The film does not have the story beats of a traditional rape revenge drama. The setting makes it extraordinary. Indonesia’s recent past is marked by repression and genocide, in particular the systematic killing of one million Communists that began in 1965. The country only took steps towards democracy after the end of the 31 year rule (from 1967 to 1998) of President Suharto. Although there was limited freedom of expression under Suharto’s presidency, Indonesian cinema persisted, notably the 1973 film, Bulan di Atas Kuburan or Moon Over The Graveyard. Most of us will only be aware of Indonesia on film from Peter Weir’s 1983 film, The Year of Living Dangerously, starring Mel Gibson and an Oscar-winning Linda Hunt, Gareth Huw Evans’ 2011 police thriller, The Raid and its sequel and Joshua Oppenheimer’s powerful 2012 documentary, The Act of Killing.

In his book, ‘Indonesian Cinema’, first published in 1991, Karl Heider pointed out the difference between Indonesian and Hollywood cinema. In Indonesian films, ‘good guys do not win, bad guys are not punished, and individuals do not reach a new self awareness’. In other words, these films reflected reality. 25 years on, we see the remnants of this sensibility in Surya’s film.

Marlina is not a conventional heroine, but she is a matter-of-fact one. There is some ambiguity as to how her husband died – Marlina keeps poisoned berries in her drawer. Violence in the movie is swift and graphic but also filmed from a distance – most of the film is in medium or long shots. It is also accompanied by a sense of melancholy, a headless corpse playing a lute that Marlina burned that only she – and the audience – see.

In many ways, Marlina has a traditional narrative structure around death and (re) birth, symbolised, very literally, by Marlina’s friend, Novi (Dea Panendra), who is ten months pregnant and in search of her negligent and superstitious husband, Umbu, who believes that his wife will have a breech birth and is therefore a woman of loose morals. Novi does explain to Marlina how she really went for her husband in her second month. However, she has never been unfaithful.

The third woman of the picture is an aunt who is on her way to her nephew’s wedding with two horses to complete a dowry – without them the marriage will be called off. She boards a truck in spite of seeing Marlina holding a sword to the driver’s neck – she has more important things to worry about.

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The fourth woman is a young girl, Topan, who was given a boy’s name so she can be as strong as one. She serves Marlina her father’s ‘famous’ Chicken Satay. She reminds Marlina of the child she lost, of the motherhood that superficially at least will never be hers.

It is unclear when the film is set but it exists between two eras. Novi has a mobile phone but the police still use typewriters. A scene in a police station in which Marlina is made to wait, watching instead three officers playing ping pong, illustrates a lackadaisical attitude to law and order – the police do not have the equipment or the officers to investigate the crime against Marlina immediately.

The ending suggests an alternative to the misogyny of Indonesian society. Yet moments of ambiguity exists. When four men waiting in Marlina’s front room for something to eat (and then to abuse her) first sees her, one of them stands up and holds her hand for the longest time. The gesture falls somewhere between the courtly and the obscene.

Surya doesn’t glamorise violence – indeed at one point she makes a deliberate continuity error to illustrate how Marlina has to avert her gaze from the action that she is forced into. It is also significant that the only crying that we hear comes from men.

In short, Marlina The Murderer in Four Acts is an extraordinary film, an example of a cinema somewhere between Indian parallel cinema and a ghost story, that has a percolating effect in the memory. See it – and give it time to sink in afterwards.

Marlina The Murder in Four Acts plays East End Film Festival 12th April!