Category: Film

Mike Leigh paints a masterful portrait of Turner

Timothy Spall stars as JMW Turner in Mr Turner.

Timothy Spall stars as JMW Turner in Mr Turner.

It can be tempting, when producing a biopic, to focus almost entirely on the positives (see Pantani: The Accidental Death of a Cyclist). But in his critically-acclaimed film Mr Turner, Mike Leigh gives us a refreshingly honest character study of his subject, the artist JMW Turner.

Starting with a perfectly-conceived shot of the watery Dutch lowlands, we are introduced to Turner – played by the brilliant Timothy Spall – who is painting lush green fields, farm girls and windmills. He seems to be in his element as he captures the iridescent light which surrounds him.

All this contrasts with Turner’s return to his somewhat chaotic life in London. Grunting and grumpy, he refuses to acknowledge his former wife and daughters and seeks sexual gratification from his housemaid, Hannah Danby (played by Dorothy Atkinson). His painting technique often looks a little ham-fisted and in one scene he spits straight onto the canvas, making it difficult to imagine how he produced such fine pieces.

But what emerges is not simply a caricature but something altogether more complex. Despite his gruffness he is also sensitive and enjoys a tender bond with his father. Later he forms a close relationship with Mrs Booth, the twice-widowed landlady who runs the boarding house in Margate where he found inspiration for his seascapes. And, in an act of philanthropy, he rejects an offer from someone who wants to buy all his work, saying that it will be left to the British public.

There are also some wonderful moments which show Turner’s development as an artist. He is enthralled when the scientist Mary Somerville showed him how a prism can create a spectrum of colours. Unlike some Romantic artists – notably William Blake – Turner did not fear industrialisation; indeed he was excited by the new railways and the construction of London’s Crystal Palace, used to house the Great Exhibition.

Poignantly, however, we see Turner discovering the newly-invented camera and while it holds a fascination for him he also senses that it will change art as he declares, ‘I’m finished’. Little does he realise that his work would go on to inspire the impressionists whose work evolved into the non-representational art that became synonymous with modernism, cubism, formalism and other major movements.

Ultimately, this is a hugely enjoyable film, which does not fawn nor judge its subject. The dialogue, with its archaic lexicon, is superb as is the period detail. But what really stood out to me was the startling cinematography, with land and seascapes bathed in the sort of light that Turner himself might have imagined.

Mr Turner is showing at Nottingham’s Broadway Cinema until 20th November.

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The rise and fall of the King of the Mountains

Lance Armstrong, left, and Marco Pantani.

Lance Armstrong, left, and Marco Pantani.

When the Tour de France swept through Yorkshire earlier this summer it seemed that professional cycling had won the heart of the nation once again. Seeing the crowds of people lining the streets, and witnessing the almighty cheers as I did on Sheffield’s Jenkin Road, it is difficult to believe that just a few years the sport had been embroiled in doping scandals.

One of those lost generation of cyclists was Marco Pantani, whose life and untimely death at the age of 34 is the subject of a new film, Pantani: The Accidental Death of a Cyclist, which screened Nottingham’s Broadway cinema on Monday. Known for his almost ability to destroy his opponents on the most gruelling mountain climbs – not to mention his capacity to clock up speeds of up to 100km per hour on the descents – he made history when he claimed victory at both the Giro D’Italia and Tour de France in 1998.

At its heart this documentary is about the purity of cycling and its solitary nature, as well as the human desire to tackle the most unforgiving terrain. It follows the a young Pantani rise through the ranks to become a professional cyclist with legions of adoring fans who referred to him affectionately as ‘The Pirate’. In the archive film footage of the great tours, the dramatic mountains provide the backdrop to Pantani’s feats of endurance. We also see him come back from a devastating cycling accident which almost left him unable to walk let alone cycle. These scenes are punctuated with poignant, funny and insightful interviews with his mother, journalists and fellow cyclists, including Sir Bradley Wiggins.

But of course the sport, and Pantani’s successes, were overshadowed by the practice of doping, the practice of boosting the number of red blood cells so that more oxygen reaches the muscles. In 1999, Pantani was disqualified from the Giro following an irregular blood test – and it was something he never truly got over. He descended into a spiral of cocaine abuse and eventually died alone in his hotel room in 2004.

Overall, this is a poetic film which offers a fascinating portrait of a super-human cyclist whose iron will was crushed by allegations of doping. The level of his involvement is left somewhat ambiguous and there is the suggestion that he was a victim of corrupt doctors, sponsors and the pressures faced by professional cyclists. Any idea of wrong-doing is glossed over by the interviewees – but ultimately, viewers are invited to make up their own minds about whether his achievements are diminished by the allegations.

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Review: Under The Skin is a superb piece of cinema

Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin

Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin

A desolate urban landscape, endless, dimly-lit roads and vast open spaces form the unnerving backdrop to Jonathan Glazer’s sci-fi thriller Under the Skin.

Based on Michael Faber’s 2000 novel, it tells the story of a beautiful young woman with a cut-glass English accent, played by Scarlett Johansson, who drives around the mean streets of Glasgow in a white van picking up young men, seemingly for sex. The men, who can’t quite believe their luck, happily go along with her only to be lured into a strange Danse Macabre before disappearing without a trace.

It is unclear what the woman’s motives are; we assume she is some kind of alien with no capacity for human warmth or empathy. She is working alone, seemingly in control, but there is also a sense in there are other darker forces behind her. Half way through the film, the tide changes and the predatory woman suddenly becomes the hunted.

Perhaps what makes this film so startling is the mix of the mundane with something more other worldly and disturbing. Those around the woman speak with thick Glaswegian accents and we see her in a number of everyday settings – a shopping centre, a nightclub, a housing estate but the voices around her blur into a distant hum which bear little relevance to her world. On the news we hear talk of the upcoming Scottish referendum but once again this seems eerily distant. All of this is underlined by a jarring and discordant score which creates a sense of tension and discomfort throughout.

This beautifully shot film leaves you with many unanswered questions but this is also its main strength because it lets your imagination fill in the gaps. Those expecting a straightforward narrative may want to avoid it but they’d be missing out – it is enough to simply immerse yourself in this atmospheric piece of cinema.

Under the Skin was on at Nottingham’s Broadway Cinema.

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Review: Inside Llewyn Davis is full of symbolism and dark humour

Oscar Isaacs as Llewyn Davis.

Oscar Isaacs as Llewyn Davis.

The story of the struggling artist, eking out an existence from his work and relying on the goodwill of friends, is one that has been told many times before and it is the subject of Joel and Ethan Coen in their latest film, Inside Lleywn Davis. But what starts as a picaresque narrative dealing with a familiar idea becomes something that is much harder to define and the result is a highly original work, full of leitmotifs and temporal shifts.

Set in New York in the early 1960s, just before the explosion of the folk scene, it tells the tale of Llewyn Davis, a down-at-heel singer who seems to be plagued by bad luck. He is someone who lives on the fringes of society, refusing to get a steady job and settle down. As the story unfolds we are drip-fed details about his life but there are always plenty of unanswered questions, for example, why is he beaten up outside the nightclub and what has happened to his partner in the folk duo of which he was once part?

In this film there is a sense in which relationships and friendships are ephemeral. Even the begrudging friendship Llewyn strikes up with a ginger cat is hollow after we discover that it is not even the same cat and in what looks like a conscious attempt to avoid sentimentality he later  abandons the animal when he has the chance to help it.

Llewyn has always led a transient life, first in the Marines and then as a folk singer, and yet the respectable lives led by his father and his sister seem no more appealing or rewarding. He undertakes a road trip to Chicago with two strangers to meet a record executive and as he travels across this vast landscape, reminiscent of No Country for Old Men, he becomes stuck in a kind of purgatory where everything is tantalisingly out of reach. His efforts to forge a successful musical career or go back to the Marines elude him in an almost Kafkaesque way and he is left feeling tired and drained.

This might seem depressing but the film is punctuated by dark humour and moments of Schadenfreude. With a raised eyebrow and a knowing glance, we are invited to laugh at the increasingly commercialised folk scene. Another great comic performance came from John Goodman who plays the heroin-addled, cane-carrying jazz musician who travels with Llewyn to Chicago.

Overall, this is a deeply insightful film, brimming with difficult questions, pathos and humanity. And while I am not a huge folk music fan, the score, created by T Bone Burnett, is beautifully melancholy.

Inside Llewyn Davis is on at Nottingham’s Broadway Cinema until 13th February.

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The Epic of Everest offers a fascinating insight into the 1924 expedition

Explorers on the 1924 attempt to climb Mount Everest.

Explorers on the 1924 attempt to climb Mount Everest.

The summit of Mount Everest, the world’s highest mountain, was something that eluded even the most determined climbers until it was finally conquered by Sir Edmund Hillary in 1953. Until then, mountaineers had come close but all were defeated by the brutal terrain and unforgiving elements.

In 1924, a group of British explorers attempted to take on the mighty Everest but their mission was doomed. Although questions have been raised about whether George Mallory and Andrew Irvine did in fact reach the summit, both disappeared on the mountain. Astonishingly, the tragic expedition was captured on film by Captain John Noel and later released as The Epic of Everest.

Now, after being restored by the BFI, it has been re-released giving modern audiences an insight into the enormity of the challenge. Making use of colour filters, the stunning landscape takes on a dream-like quality, underpinned by Simon Fisher Turner’s haunting score. But that does not detract from the harshness of the conditions and it is difficult to believe that the explorers climbed the mountain wearing blazers and breeches.

The film also sheds light on Western attitudes at that time. The British Empire was still a long way off being dismantled and there is a sort of colonialism in the quest to conquer the mountain. History does not always remember the local porters, one of whom was a woman, who heroically hauled cumbersome boxes of supplies up the mountain. Some of the language of the film may seem distasteful to us today but by the end there is a feeling of humility. Captain Noel concludes that instead of just being ‘rock and snow’ the mountain has a spiritual quality which was recognised by local communities long before Western explorers set foot on it.

The Epic of Everest is on at Nottingham’s Broadway Cinema until 2nd January.

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Not easy to watch but some genuinely touching moments in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine

Cate Blanchett stars as Jasmine in Woody Allen's latest film Blue Jasmine.

Cate Blanchett stars as Jasmine in Woody Allen’s latest film Blue Jasmine.

“It’s a bit of a mixed bag,” says Sharon, one of the minor characters in Woody Allen’s latest film Blue Jasmine as she describes the guests at a party.

While it may have appeared to be an unremarkable comment, I thought it was an apt description of the disparate people who are thrown together by circumstance. In the opening scenes we meet the beautiful, glamorous but intensely troubled Jasmine, played by Cate Blanchett who spends the entire flight from New York to San Francisco talking non-stop to a fellow passenger. Carrying her Louis Vuitton luggage, she turns up at her adopted sister’s flat after discovering her rich husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) was an adulterous crook.

Jasmine, whose real name is Jeanette, has followed a very different path from her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) who works in a grocery store, has two children and a string of rough-and-ready but generally kind-hearted boyfriends. Using a series of flashbacks, we see that Jasmine always looked down on her sister, while seemingly turning a blind eye to her husband’s dodgy deals in return for the lavish lifestyle she believes she deserves. Clutching a bottle of pills and bearing an uncanny resemblance to the protagonist in Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone, Blanchett’s depiction of Jasmine’s descent into depression and alcoholism is suitably gut-wrenching.

Like its characters, the film is not always perfect; it trundles along in places and it was difficult to muster up much sympathy for Jasmine, who continues to view Ginger with disdain despite her generosity and sweet nature. At the same time, there are some genuinely touching moments and in one scene when Jasmine is babysitting Ginger’s two boys we see a much more ‘human’ side to her as she speaks candidly for the first time about her break-down and the pills she has to take.

Blue Jasmine continues at Broadway Cinema this week.

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Explore Sons and Lovers at this year’s DH Lawrence Festival

lawrenceDH1 (1)A festival celebrating one of Nottinghamshire’s most famous literary sons is returning next month with a host of different events planned.

The DH Lawrence Festival, which takes place between 6th and 21st September, will include exhibitions, lectures, vintage fairs, afternoon tea, walks, film screenings, music and activities for families in his home town of Eastwood and the surrounding area.

It is 100 years since Lawrence published his autobiographical novel Sons and Lovers and this year’s festival, now in its 10th year, is an opportunity to explore one of his most acclaimed works. Author Stephen Bailey will be leading a walk around Nottingham on 9th September when he will point out some of the landmarks depicted in the novel including Nottingham Castle and the Theatre Royal. On 12th September there will be another Sons and Lovers walk, this time around the countryside of Haggs Farm (Willey Farm in the novel) and Felley Woods. On the same day there will be a screening of the 1960 film at Broadway cinema. The landscape which inspired Sons and Lovers is also the subject of an illustrated talk which takes place at the DH Lawrence Heritage Centre, Eastwood, on 13th September.

For those who want to venture further afield I would recommend a trip to the picturesque Teversal Village near Sutton-in-Ashfield. As part of an open weekend event, which takes place between 6th and 8th September, there will be a chance to find out about Teversal Manor, which is thought to be Wragby Hall, the manor house in Lady Chatterley’s Lover. On 6th September, Dr Andrew Harrison from Nottingham University will be giving a talk on how the landscape of this region inspired Lady Chatterley’s Lover (call Denis Hill at Ashfield District Council on 01623 457426 to book).

Perhaps the event I am looking forward to the most is a screening of Inside the Mind of Mr Lawrence at Broadway. The film, which is set in 1928, stars Paul Slack who I interviewed two years ago ahead of his one-man play Phoenix Rising at Nottingham Playhouse in which he also played Lawrence. Paul, who is originally from Sutton-in-Ashfield, has a wonderful Nottinghamshire accent (there are few performers who can pull this off accurately!) and his shows are infused with breath-taking passion and energy.

Further details, including a full programme of events, can be found here. You can also find D.H. Lawrence Heritage on Facebook, on Twitter @dhlheritage and by using the hashtags #dhlawrence and #dhlawrencefestival.

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Review: Berberian Sound Studio is one of this year’s finest films

Right from the start of Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio we are immersed in a bizarre and claustrophobic world which soon unravels into one of violence and paranoia.

Set in Italy in the early 1970s, we are introduced to a Gilderoy, a middle-aged sound engineer played by Toby Jones who has been tasked with providing the sound effects for a sinister film called the Equestrian Vortex.

The film is produced in the trashy but violent and sexually charged giallo genre and although we are given a brief glimpse of it through the opening credits – which are shot in black and blood red – it is brought to life purely by the sounds manufactured in the studio and the story board which is both clinical and horrific.

At first the sound effects raise a wry smile; there is a marrow being dropped which emulates the sound of a body crashing to the floor and stems being pulled from radishes to recreate the sound hair being pulled from the witches’ heads.

But soon the rotting vegetables start to pile up and mimic the ‘putrid corpses of witches’ which are discovered in the film. Later Gilderoy, with a murderous glint in his eye, relishes stabbing cabbages to create the sound of a body being mutilated, its veined flesh looking strangely human.

At one point, Gilderoy questions the extreme violence he is supposed to evoke through sound. But the engineer, who even sleeps in a small room in the studio, quickly becomes aware that there is no respite from this subterranean world whose corridors resemble a mortuary. The outside, referred to briefly with the mention of cocktails on the terrace, bears little resemblance to this dark, windowless place which is prone to power cuts.

The violent themes of the Equestrian Vortex are mirrored in the studio, with women bearing the brunt of this ill-treatment. Tellingly, director Santini treats his dog better than the actresses who create the blood-curdling screams for the film. By the end, even Gilderoy becomes involved in this abuse, using his technical skills to create a high frequency sound to assert his power over an actress who does not conform.

Berberian Sound Studio is beautifully shot, compelling and wonderfully sound tracked; it is without one of the finest films I have seen this year. It is on until Thursday at Nottingham’s Broadway Cinema.

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Review: Silence is golden in The Artist

It’s been tipped for both an Oscar and a Bafta so I thought I would go and see what all the fuss about silent movie The Artist was – and I’m glad to say I wasn’t disappointed.

Directed by Michel Hazanavicius, the film, which is set in 1920s and 1930s Hollywood, is steeped in the history of cinema, both in content and form. It is a celebratory homage to an era when stars were stage-managed and mysterious rather than appearing in paparazzi photographs looking hungover.

The story centres around famed, arrogant silent movie star George Valentin (played by Jean Dujardin) who finds himself surplus to requirements when the film industry embraces the new talkies. Meanwhile, Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), who is a budding actress when George is at the height of his popularity, sees her career take off after starring in countless talkies and she soon becomes the darling of Hollywood.

Far from putting me off, the lack of dialogue in this film was one of its strengths. In fact, the lack of speech was oddly comforting. In one of the most memorable scenes, George dreams about a world with sound. It’s a disconcerting moment and I found myself longing to be enveloped by silence again or at least the musical soundtrack.

Overall, this film is utterly charming and wittily self-referential with plenty of well-executed slapstick comedy. There are also some incredibly poignant moments, for example, when a disillusioned George destroys his silent film reels in a fire or when he sees the reflection of his face in the pawn shop window above his  tuxedo which now sits in there.

And last but not least, a special mention must also go to George’s loyal companion, a Jack Russell (played by Uggie). The little dog provides some of the best comic moments in the film and steals the show when his master’s flat is on fire and he raises the alarm.

You can see The Artist at Nottingham’s Broadway until 2nd February.

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An evening with Ken Loach at Derby Quad

Ken Loach’s film the Navigators may be a decade old, but the themes of redundancy and uncertainty clearly resonated with the audience at Derby Quad’s special screening this week.

Set in Sheffield in the mid-1990s, it tells the story of a group of railway workers whose industry is being privatised. Loach is known for his rich characterisation and social realism and this film is no exception: we see the banter of the railway workers, the real choices they have to make and the relationships they have with their families and with each other.

It’s also a highly political film. We are invited to laugh at the absurdity of corporate jargon creeping into the previously state-run railway industry and we are also shown the potentially devastating consequences of privatisation, particularly when safety is compromised to save money.

Watching this film in Derby, it is almost impossible not to see parallels with the ongoing problems at the city’s Bombardier plant. Earlier this year, the firm was forced to shed 1,400 jobs after losing out on the £1.4billion contract to German-based Siemens. It goes without saying that this will have a terrible effect on the workers, their families and the local economy.

The screening also included a Q&A with Ken Loach, along with a short film he made as part of a collaborative project called 11’09”01 – September 11. This project saw 12 directors create short films in response to the September 11th attacks in New York. Loach was heavily criticised for his contribution, presumably because it was seen as anti-American at a time when American patriotism was king.

Loach decided to depict the 1973 coup d’état in Chile which also happened on September 11th. The military coup led to the downfall of President Salvador Allende and a period of unrest. With help from the Americans, Pinochet took power and imposed his brutal regime on the Chilean people until 1990. This short film is told through the eyes of a Chilean musician who escaped to London and it is an incredibly powerful elegy about a period of history which is often overlooked.

Ken Loach (picture by Graham Lucas Commons)

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