Mama (Canada-Spain, 2013)

“Where’s mama?”

I’m doing some work on Guillermo del Toro so watched Mama as one of the films he executive produced and I’m pleased I did (I think). ‘I think’ because I was genuinely scared and that’s the first purpose of horror films. Of course they’re more interesting if they also have something to say, like last year’s Get OutMama is about parenthood and childhood trauma when parents fall short. I think Kim Newman gets it wrong in his Empire review where he complains that we get to see the monster too early. Because we’re not particularly concerned about what the monster is, though there is a detailed subplot explaining the why, we can focus on the children who’ve spent five years living on their own.

Guillermo del Toro was so impressed by Andrés Muschietti’s short of the same name that he facilitated the feature length version, co-written with Muschietti’s sister, Barbara who also produced. They both went on to make It, one of the big hits from 2017.

Mama owes a lot to J-horror, particularly in the contorted movements of the monster but also through the creepy mise en scene, such as stains on the wall. The CGI is not overblown and most of the shocks come from the editing. A great horror movie to make going to sleep an issue.

The performances of the children are superb, a tribute most likely to Muschietti’s direction. Children are recurring characters in Del Toro’s work, probably as a consequence of his owned traumatised childhood in a Jesuit school. I shall have to watch It.

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Dunkirk (UK, 1958)

Done before Nolan

In a Sight & Sound  interview about his Dunkirk Christopher Nolan suggested he was filling a gap in film history. Presumably, like me, he was ignorant of Ealing’s 1958 version and it is a good that the earlier film has now been unearthed. Directed by Leslie Norman, and based on Elleston Trevor’s novel The Big Pick Up and two historical books, the Ealing picture takes a more expansive view, following troops, led by John Mills’ working class corporal, making their way to the coast and Bernard Miles’ sceptical journalist who ends up joining the rescue flotilla. I expected a typical British ’50s war film, where the glories of the war are celebrated during a time when the country’s world status was in steep decline (a bit like now really), however it is an often subtle look at the nuances of the ‘phoney war’ and official incompetence.

Although it cannot match the spectacle of last year’s film it is a big budget movie and the Dunkirk beach scenes are superbly done. In addition to Mills and Miles, Richard Attenborough guilds the cast playing a slight variant on his ‘coward’ persona. I shall have to revisit ’50s British war films as they clearly are not all designed to make the likes of Simon Heffer stand to attention – in a BBC documentary he declared that the theme music of The Dambusters (I think) was enough to make him want to do so.

Wonder Woman (US, 2017)

Game changer?

The top three movies at the North American box office last year all featured female protagonists (the others were the latest Star Wars and Beauty and the Beast). Whether Hollywood, which tends to follow the money, will at last conclude that female centred films are winners remains to be seen. Director Patty Jenkins has explained (here) how she feminised the action movie and she’s produced a witty, occasionally thrilling, convincing riposte to any fanboys who think women shouldn’t have a prominent role in action cinema. Mad Max: Fury Road  was one film that drew the ire of boys who feel women don’t belong in the ‘genre’ – for example.

Chris Pratt is excellent support and plays the (slightly) punctured male ego with skill whilst Gal Gadot has old school charisma and would be interesting to see in civvies. Incidentally the scene where she has to try on women’s clothing from the early 20th century is very funny.

I’m not very interested in superhero films but was glad to enjoy this one.

Review of the Year

Top Films

  1. Blade Runner 2049
  2. Dunkirk
  3. Mudbound
  4. mother!
  5. Moonlight
  6. The Handmaiden
  7. Jackie
  8. Get Out
  9. The Olive Tree
  10. Hidden Figures

Top TV

  1. Godless
  2. The Handmaid’s Tale
  3. Alias Grace
  4. Top of the Lake: China Girl
  5. The Missing – series 2

Top films seen last year

  1. Blade Runner 2049
  2. Vertigo
  3. Dunkirk
  4. I, Daniel Blake
  5. mother!
  6. Moonlight
  7. The Handmaiden
  8. Mulholland Drive
  9. Blade Runner
  10. Interstellar

Top Albums

  1. Clare Teal, Twelve o’ Clock Tales
  2. Black String, Mask Dance
  3. Bugge Wessltoft, Somewhere in Between
  4. Jenny Hval, Blood Bitch
  5. The Rite of Spring, RLPO – Petrenko
  6. Lewis & Leigh, Ghost
  7. Nadia Reid, Preservation
  8. The National, Sleep Well Beast
  9. Arcade Fire, Everything Now
  10. The Flaming Lips, Oczy Mlody

Top Books

  1. Another Country James Baldwin
  2. Black and British: A Forgotten History, David Olusoga
  3. A Child in Time, Adrian Tchaikovsky
  4. The Game of Our Lives, David Goldblatt
  5. What Man Is, David Szalay
  6. Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Have Cornered Culture and What It Means For All Of Us, Jonathan Taplin
  7. The Filter Bubble, Eli Pariser
  8. A God in Ruins, Kate Atkinson
  9. Everybody Brave Will Be Forgiven, Clive Cleave
  10. Flowers for Algernon, Daniel Keyes

Top live

  1. Cambridge Folk Festival
  2. Koyaanisqaatsi, GoGo Penguin, Howard Assembly Room – Leeds
  3. Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Petrenko – Town Hall, Leeds
  4. Maarja Nuut, Howard Assembly Rooms – Leeds
  5. Leila Josefowicz and John Novacek, Howard Assembly Room – Leeds
  6. Skylight, David Hare – Theatr Clywd, Mold
  7. Lisa O’Neill, The Brudenell Social Club – Burley
  8. Pixels Ensemble – Clothworkers Centenary Concert Hall, Leeds
  9. Janacek and Mascagni ‘Little Greats’ – Opera North – Leeds
  10. Laura Cortese and the Dance Cards – The Live Room, Saltaire

Sapphire (UK, 1959)

Passing blonde

This social problem film is fascinating and shocking. It was scripted by Janet Green, who also wrote Victim (UK, 1960), an important film about male homosexuality which was illegal at the time. Both were directed by Basil Dearden. Sapphire’s social problem is race and was released a year after the Notting Hill ‘riots’ caused by white racists and it is framed as a detective story about who murdered the eponymous character. The film starts with a gripping shot, unusual for Dearden whose direction is prosaic, of Sapphire’s body being disposed of so we don’t get to know her other than through other characters. SPOILER ALERT: she is mixed raced but is passing for white and is pregnant by her white boyfriend.

The film is fascinating because it shows us the liberal viewpoint on race at the time; shocking because it is in many ways illiberal. Whilst the protagonist, Nigel Patrick’s investigating officer, Hazard, is shown to be non-racist, in contrast to his assistant (Michael Craig), he still is accepting of racist attitudes. For example, a landlady says she runs a ‘white house and Hazard is shown to be understanding when she explains that for economic reasons as she doesn’t want to get a reputation for housing blacks. Such discrimination was criminalised by the Race Relations Act 1965 and shows how important it is to legislate agains bigoted behaviour. I’m sure one of the reasons the racist right are emboldened is because they can enjoy the ‘echo chamber’ of their own views on social media. The old racist complaint, ‘I’m only saying what you’re all thinking’, probably seems to be true in their filter bubble.

As David Olusoga’s brilliant book Black and British: A Forgotten History shows, during the post-war period black people were increasingly demonised as responsible for economic problems which has more than a few echoes of recent years. Whilst the ruling classes view tended toward the importance of racial purity, hence the fear of miscegenation, the general public were apparently more tolerant. However, scapegoating minorities for the failure of others, fanned by a right wing media, is nothing new.

Sapphire’s problem in representing race is most apparent when Hazard interviews ‘lowlifes’. It is in this scene that the racist tropes, developed by Hollywood, are most evident. The eye-rolling villain, and giggling sidekicks, suggest degenerates and one (black) character states that even though some can pass for white “once they hear the beat of the bongos” they give themselves away.

Racist trope

On the other hand Earl Cameron (the ‘ebony saint’ of British cinema and like Sidney Poitier born in the West Indies), who plays Sapphire’s brother, is represented simply as a grieving brother. He tells Hazard that, “I’m staying at the Dorchester. They take us there.” The line is almost thrown away but is a telling slight on the times.

‘Ebony saint’

Finally a note on the detectives. Patrick’s performance is perfectly one note as he’s meant to play the patriarchal, unruffled copper; there’s one incoherent chase sequence but otherwise it’s the plod of his brain cells. The film suggests we can completely trust the Metropolitan Police to prosecute cases without fear or favour. It was barely 20 years later that the Met’s treatment of black people led to the Brixton riots and so Sapphire stands as an example of propaganda as well as liberal period piece.

Godless (US, 2017)

Rewriting rules

Two brilliant Netflix productions (the other’s Mudbound) within a month proves the worth of the subscription. If Mudbound should have been seen in the cinema, then Godless, as a series, belongs on television though it too would have looked great on the big screen. The Santa Fe locations are stunning and writer director Scott Frank produces some fantastic visuals. Frank has a long track record as a scriptwriter in Hollywood but only directed two feature films; he’s responsible for the whole eight hours (across seven episodes of varying length) of Godless.

While the Western pops up occasionally in feature films, the last I saw was the disappointing The Homesman (US-France, 2014), it remained a television staple in the latter years of the 20th century. I’m not sure how it’s fared since, though I thoroughly enjoyed HBO’s Deadwood (2004-06) – though I only saw season one. Godless, apparently, was marketed as a feminist Western, featuring a women-only town. One tweet pointed out that, despite this, women only had 38% of the dialogue in the first episode. I suspect the progressive claim was manufactured by the marketing department seeking a USP; though such Westerns aren’t unique – see The Ballad of Little Jo (1993). That’s not to say that women aren’t important, Michelle Dockery and Merritt Wever have great roles as outsiders who refused to be bowed. Their performances, indeed the cast are uniformly great, are excellent as are the protagonist, Jack O’Connell, and the antagonist, Jeff Daniels who has never been better.

In common with long form television, the narrative is fragmented with liberal flashbacks filling in the gaps. Dramatically this is valid and helps maintain the pace in a long narrative. There’s also time for diversions to puncture American myths, Mormons who massacre and blame the Indians for example; rewriting the Western, the genre that tells of the greatness of pioneers, is entirely appropriate as contemporary America implodes.

It is rare for me to be impatient for the next episode and I’ve resisted ‘binge watching’ (sounds unhealthy) but I saw Godless within 17 days and I recommend this article about the series’ greatness.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (UK, 2017)

Bitter sweetness

A few weeks after watching ‘Glorious Grahame’ in her filmic prime (Crossfire) it was pleasing to see this bittersweet biopic of her final days in the unlikely company of a much younger Liverpudlian actor, Peter Turner. The film’s based on Turner’s memoir and has taken 30 years to reach the screen; it was worth waiting for Annette Bening to get to the appropriate age as her performance is outstanding. Apart from Julie Walters’ and Stephen Graham’s wigs, all the performances are good. I particularly warmed to Walters’ mum.

McGuigan, whose direction in Gangster No. 1 (2000) was outstanding, has been working in television for the last 10 years; such as in the BBC’s Sherlock Holmes. Television no longer necessarily means routine direction, due to budgets, as first HBO, and now Netflix, have brought cinema’s aesthetics to the small screen. However, McGuigan seems to have been consigned to routine work so it’s great to see his imaginative visual style again. The flashbacks of how Grahame and Turner met are seamlessly integrated to the film’s present in dreamy transitions which emphasises the power of memory. The scenes in California use a stylised, and beautiful, back projection harking back to the classical Hollywood films of Grahame’s earlier career.

Remembering Grahame is not the only throwback in the film; Jamie Bell gets the opportunity for some great dance moves.