Film Review: Burning Cane

Writer-director Phillip Youmans’ Burning Cane is an assured debut from the young filmmaker. The haunting climate is galvanised by two strong leads.

In the sugar cane fields of rural Louisiana, Helen focuses on her faith in spite of a troubled pastor. Her son, meanwhile, struggles with his drinking problem…

Burning Cane commences with two lengthy monologues. The first, a story is particularly arresting. The two monologues go a long way in establishing the characters and the setting. Filmmaker Phillip Youmans tells his story with minimal conversation. Instead the film focuses on monologues which are mostly sermons or stories, and several scenes with minimal dialogue. Conversations become more important later in Burning Cane, as the film moves towards the final third. The narrative unfolds at a languid pace, with Youmans preferring to focus on characters over action. 

The main theme of the film is the disruptive effect of alcoholism, on both the sufferer and the ones around them. Youmans focuses on how the disease impacts within the context of the setting; the small community, rural life, the reliance on religion all play a pivotal part. As Burning Cane reaches its climax, there is a particularly striking sequence with its overlaying of the preaching with distressing scenes accentuates the contrast between the fractured family and the confidence of the church. 

The film features lots of handheld camera.  This results in a sense of intimacy with the family. There are some very naturalistic scenes in the home; our presence as viewers feels like an intrusion at times. The only drawback of the reliance on a moving camera is some uneven lighting. The film is underlit on several occasions. Performances come across as authentic throughout. Karen Kaia Livers’ delivery is a particular highlight, whilst Wendell Pierce is a commanding force as Reverend Tillman.

Phillip Youmans takes an impartial approach to his characters, choosing to depict without judgement. Burning Cane is a promising showcase for the talents of Youmans.

Burning Cane is being screened at the BFI London Film Festival in October 2019.

Film Review: Sid & Judy

On the fiftieth anniversary of Judy Garland’s death, director Stephen Kijak has created a timely and engrossing documentary with Sid & Judy.

In 1950, film producer Sid Luft met Hollywood star Judy Garland. Garland had just parted ways with MGM, the company which had made her a star, and controlled her every move…

Sid & Judy begins at a later point in Garland’s career before going back. It is a good device, welcoming the audience in at a troubled point before pulling back. The film gives viewers a history of Garland’s career up to the point she meets Sid Luft. As his memoirs continue, Luft waxes lyrical on the current as well as Garland’s past. 

The documentary combines film clips, audio recordings, interview footage, archive photographs and Luft’s memoirs to paint a picture of Garland’s life and her career in Hollywood and beyond. Director Kijak constantly mixes these elements to make Sid & Judy feel like a comprehensive portrait of the star, as well as her marriage to Luft. 

The star of Sid & Judy undoubtedly is Luft’s memoirs. These are descriptive and beautifully written, painting a evocative picture of Garland and the couple’s relationship. Narration by Jon Hamm is perfectly pitched. Jennifer Jason Leigh is also well cast voicing Garland. 

The film indicates how aspects of Garland’s childhood and family life could have influenced her later decisions and troubles. Of course, this is subjective. After all, it is Luft’s memoirs for the most part which tell the story. Nevertheless the yarn that is spun is compelling viewing. 

One of the most interesting aspects of the film is how Luft himself dealt with Garland’s addiction. The film details the struggles that Luft faced as he attempted to get her clean, and also the toll her addiction took place on their marriage. The personal insight here is most fascinating. 

Sid & Judy effectively conveys Garland’s magnetism, and does not shy away from depicting the star’s personal struggles. A very entertaining documentary. 

Sid & Judy is being screened at the BFI London Film Festival in October 2019.

Film Review: Burning Night (Breve Miragem De Sol)

Director Eryk Rocha’s second feature Burning Night (Breve Miragem De Sol) is a slow-burn drama. The film is observant, even if it is not always engaging.

Paulo is a taxi driver in Rio trying to earn enough money to support his son, who lives with his ex-wife. As he picks up fares at night, Paulo sees the chaotic nature of the city…

From the opening shot of Rocha’s film, the one thing that is immediately conveyed is a sense of artificiality. The lights flashing on the steering wheel and the synthetic tunnel suggest a sense of unnaturalness that does not dissipate. 

Burning Night returns time and again to the lack of intimacy, even in close quarters. The first voices we hear are over the radio system, and the first passengers we see talk over and around protagonist Paulo. As he throws them out, one comments that he is there to serve them. The relationship here is not one of respect, or of parity. 

Narrative reveals a little about Paulo’s personal like, following the end of his initial shift. Director and co-writer Rocha gives us exposition through snippets of radio news, it is a succinct way of giving viewers a picture of the wider context. As the narrative progresses, Paulo is party to the very private conversations of his passengers. 

It is not until amongst a third of the way in that he has his first face-to-face conversation on a personal level. It is pointed that the persona who engages him is a nurse; Rocha makes the distinction in attitude between the wealthier patrons of the city. The narrative only really makes a progression at the half-way mark. The footage of the city has a dream-like quality. Yet the lack of narrative substance means that the film is not really that engaging.

Given the nature of the space, it is unsurprising that Rocha uses plenty of close ups. Burning Night focuses not only on Paulo’s face, but his hands as he handles money, even in wider settings. Rocha wishes to create an intimacy with the character, a contrast to the lack of intimacy he has with most of the people he encounters. The viewer observes Paulo rather than seeing things from his point of view. 

Burning Night offers a picture of a city in perpetual change. It is a shame that aspects hinted at are not woven closely into the narrative.

Burning Night (Breve Miragem De Sol) is being screened at the BFI London Film Festival in October 2019.

Film Review: Le Mans ’66

James Mangold’s Le Mans ‘66 offers thrills in abundance. The bravura racing sequences are enough to overcome a flawed screenplay.

In the 1960s, Henry Ford II is looking for an idea to get the Ford company out of its slump. Ford decide to build a race car to compete in Le Mans, but need the right team to do it…

Focusing on Ford’s attempts to build a race car to win the Le Mans tournament, Le Mans ‘66 principally concentrates on a former driver turned designer and a successful but disagreeable driver.  The film focuses on these two and their motivation, with the wider history entering the fray at intervals.

The script, written by Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, and Jason Keller is rather perfunctory. Miles is given depth in his character, while most others exist to provide a sounding board, or exposition. The dialogue, save for some amusing asides, is not great.  

To begin with, it appears as if Le Mans ’66 is going to be very pro-American, and very pro the great American corporation. Mangold subverts these expectations as the narrative continues, offering something much more critical. With the US title of Ford v Ferrari, viewers would be forgiven for thinking the film would set up a rivalry which permeates throughout. However, this is very much the Ford show, with the Ferrari team only having a peripheral role.  

Where the film excels is in its execution of the racing sequences. Here James Mangold shows his flair in delivering exciting, sometimes nerve-wracking scenes. The camerawork and editing are aided a good deal by some really great sound design. The freneticism of activity is effectively captured by Mangold. Christian Bale once again delivers a very convincing performance as Ken Miles. Matt Damon is on good form, Caitriona Balfe is given little to do but play the supportive wife. 

Le Mans ‘66 is a triumph of action over script. If the screenplay had matched the action, the film would have been a tour de force.

Le Mans ’66 is being screened at the BFI London Film Festival in October 2019.

Film Review: Knives Out

Writer-director Rian Johnson’s murder mystery Knives Out is tremendous fun. The star cast are on great form in this very entertaining film.

When Harlan Thrombey, a successful author and head of the Thrombey family, is found dead, the police begin an investigation. The detectives wish to interview each family member, to see what they know about his death…

Knives Out combines the old and the new in its rendition of the murder mystery. The film has the hallmarks of classic murder mystery. After all there is the secluded period mansion, the wealthy patriarch and the squabbling family, and the detective with a stellar reputation. Johnson plays with these tropes, sometimes referring to them explicitly, in his version of a murder mystery. He also brings a contemporary edge to proceedings. The film does not feel like a parody of the genre; Knives Out rather comes across as a film from someone who has admiration of what has come before. 

Johnson offers a fresh and engaging story. To begin with, it seems as if the film will follow the formula of several suspects and a detective attempting to ascertain the murderer. Yet in the first third of Knives Out, Johnson throws a curveball. The narrative veers off in a different direction, with a particular witness the focus of much of the film. This twist works well; viewers will not know exactly how much to trust, and indeed who else may be in on it. 

One of the highlights of Knives Out is the way in combines mystery with humour. The film is frequently funny, and there are some great lines. Humour is present throughout, and this does not diminish the mystery. It is a difficult tightrope to walk, yet Johnson manages it exceptionally well.

Set design in the film is wonderful. Nathan Johnson’s score is also great. Ana de Armas delivers a solid performance as Marta. The stellar ensemble cast are well cast, with Daniel Craig appearing to have a lot of fun with his role. Don Johnson, Toni Collette and Chris Evans are also great fun.

With Knives Out, Rian Johnson plants several red herrings, offers up twists, and delivers a hugely enjoyable film. 

Knives Out is being screened at the BFI London Film Festival in October 2019.

Film Review: The Perfect Candidate

Director and co-writer Haifaa al-Mansour’s The Perfect Candidate is a socially relevant and quietly engaging drama. The film’s optimism gives it a winning edge.

After her frustration with the flooded road that leads to her clinic, young doctor Maryam decides to run in her city’s local election. The first female candidate to do so, Sara’s family get caught up in her campaign…

Focusing on a young female doctor and her family, The Perfect Candidate offers a picture of contemporary Saudi Arabia. Like al-Mansour’s debut effort Wadjda, her latest film gives an insight into life as a young woman under a socially repressive regime. 

The narrative unfolds slowly, with the central strand not emerging initially. Once this gets underway, most of the action concerns Maryam and her campaign. A secondary strand focuses on her father and his band’s tour. At first glance, al-Mansour and co-writer Brad Niemann appear to put a bit too much emphasis on this rather repetitive strand. Nevertheless, its importance emergences in the final third of the film. 

Protagonist Maryam is developed well. She seems multifaceted; Maryam is someone facing discrimination, yet she is not free from prejudice herself. Her father and sister Selma are sufficiently fleshed out. The antagonists in The Perfect Candidate are not given much screen time; with al-Mansour opting to focus on the family at the heart of the film. 

The Perfect Candidate feels very contemporary. Maryam drives herself in her brand new car, and is able to run for council. Nevertheless, al-Mansour makes very clear that the regressive attitudes and rules remain. She highlights that these exist among women as well as men. The film ends on a small positive, with al-Mansour giving a hopeful indication that attitudes are slowly changing. 

Mila Al Zahrani delivers a solid performance in the central role. She receives good support from Dae Al Hilali as sister Selma. Khaled Abdulraheem is also decent as their father. The film is stronger for not taking a potential romantic route. Instead, al-Mansour focuses on protagonist’s ambition and growing confidence in her ability to make a change. 

The Perfect Candidate is being screened at the BFI London Film Festival in October 2019.

Film Review: The El Duce Tapes

Rodney Ascher and David Lawrence’s The El Duce Tapes has much to say about art of courting controversy and the man behind a notorious personality. 

In the early 1990s, Ryan Sexton documented hours of concert footage and interviews with El Duce, lead singer of controversial rock band The Mentors. Years later filmmakers Rodney Ascher and David Lawrence piece together these VHS tapes to construct a portrait of the shock rocker…

An interesting subject choice; an early 90s shock rocker seems like it will have niche appeal. Yet the unconvinced should definitely give The El Duce Tapes a shot, as the film has a lot to say about the nature of public persona and the currency of controversy. 

The filmmakers intersperse Sexton’s footage with television and film clips, and images to help enhance the story and provide the wider context of the era. The film functions to humanise a caricature figure, and does so successfully. The El Duce Tapes does not excuse some of the very unsavoury aspects of the persona, but demystifies some of the bluster that surrounded El Duce. Particularly interesting is the insight into his family life, including the thoughts of his sister. 

During the Sexton interviews, viewers can see the mask slipping, and being readjusted. At times it is offence for controversy sakes, other times there is a latent darkness which is harder to dismiss. The narrative could have been tighter; the film loses momentum in the second half as it charts the singer’s descent. Some of the archive footage could have been trimmed without losing direction or context. 

Ascher and Lawrence make the case for the impact of El Duce on later popular culture, and the corollary is very plausible. This may be overstated at the end, nevertheless The El Duce Tapes gives viewers plenty to consider. 

The El Duce Tapes is being screened at the BFI London Film Festival in October 2019.

Film Review: Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound

Midge Costin’s documentary Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound is as immersive as its subject matter. 

Sound is an integral part of the filmmaking process. This film explores the art of sound design and editing in Hollywood, from the early days to the digital age…

Sound editor Midge Costin (The Rock, Con Air) has focused on a highly important aspect of filmmaking, in her debut documentary. It is an area that is often overlooked, as the film highlights. Making Waves functions both as an introduction to the medium, and as a comprehensive look at sound design and editing in Hollywood. 

The film tells its story in a largely chronological format. The story begins at early sound accompaniment, and works its way to the digital era.  Costin concentrates on key developments and films along the way. The documentary tells the story of the development of sound design in a way that is engaging and informative.

One of Making Waves’ highlights is that is very accessible. The film provides enriching viewing for both those well versed in filmmaking and those with the most rudimentary knowledge of the subject. 

The film concentrates on three main sound designers, each of which represents a different era of filmmaking. Costin links the development of technology and ideas with Walter Murch, Ben Burtt, and Gary Rydstrom, as well as others who came before and after. 

The frequent use of film clips is a great way to illustrate the importance and impact of their work. The explanation of technology, for example the introduction of surround sound, is similarly well conveyed. 

Costin speaks to a range of contributors, from household names to lesser known veterans. In the final third of the film, it is really interesting to hear from foley artists, ADR editors, and composers. Also integral to Making Waves is the contributions of directors and producers. Costin signposts just how important Figures such as George Lucas and Barbra Streisand were in making sure sound artists had the space and budget to explore and expand their craft. The interviews with directors also serves to emphasise just how important sound design is to their work.

Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound is vital viewing for those with a love of film, and should prove engrossing for all audiences.

Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound is being screened at the BFI London Film Festival in October 2019.

Film Review: Family Romance LLC

Werner Herzog’s documentary style drama Family Romance LLC depicts a bizarre but fascinating phenomenon. The film is both amusing and disquieting.

Yuichi Ishii runs a company offering an usual service. Ishii offers fake family members; actors who pretend to be relatives to fulfil their clients wishes…

Family Romance LLC focuses on a very interesting, and for many alien concept; hiring out pretend family members to meet the varying needs of clients. Written and directed by Werner Herzog, the film is a series of reenactments by Ishii, who plays himself. The film focuses on a series of meetings and services provided by Ishii and his colleagues.

The narrative follows Ishii as he carries out several jobs and meets with a variety of clients. Herzog keeps returning to the first client; a young girl whose mother has paid Ishii to act as her estranged father. By choosing to focus on this story, the moral quandary is placed at the very centre of film. For both protagonist, those that hire out the service, and the recipients (some would say victims) the ethical dilemma of such a service is laid bare. Herzog approaches this in a careful and measured way to begin with. As the narrative progresses, these issues grow louder. 

Family Romance LLC highlights the setting very much as providing the context for the business. Using plenty of long shots, and some aerial ones, Herzog underlines the sense of alienation in a city bursting with people. He also highlights some uniquely Japanese anachronisms, such as worker who needs to save face over a mistake to both his boss and his family. The very end of the film is great; it really emphasises the toll such an endeavour takes. Throughout, Herzog provides his great style of humour, whilst never neglecting more serious aspects of the subject.

With Family Romance LLC, Herzog once again shows his flair for capturing the various shades of humanity. An intriguing watch.

Family Romance LLC is being screened at BFI London Film Festival in October 2019.

LFF 2019 Highlights Part 1

It is about half way through this year’s BFI London Film Festival, and some wonderful films have been shown so far. Here are some LFF 2019 highlights from the first week…

LFF 2019 Highlights – Unmissable

The Last Black Man in San Francisco

Joe Talbot’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a funny, moving, thought-provoking, and outstanding debut. The film is an embarrassment of riches, boasting a wonderful script, strong direction, great performances, and thematic density.  READ MORE

Marriage Story

Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story is a top-drawer drama with outstanding performances from its leads. The film is heart-wrenching, observant, and very real. With Marriage Story, Baumbach once again proves to be a shrewd observer of the human condition.  READ MORE

LFF 2019 Highlights – Best of the Rest

The Lighthouse

With his nightmarish thriller The Lighthouse, Robert Eggers proves The Witch was no fluke. The Lighthouse is a downward spiral, with a jagged, disorientating descent. READ MORE

The Report

The Report is topical, engaging, and necessary viewing. A story about the compilation and attempted publication of a lengthy report could be considered quite a dry subject matter. Nevertheless, in writer and director Scott Z. Burns’ capable hands, The Report is always interesting, occasionally tense, and at times engrossing.  READ MORE

Saint Maud

Writer-director Rose Glass’ Saint Maud is a unnerving and intense gothic thriller. The filmmaker has delivered an atmospheric and striking debut. The backdrop provides the perfect setting for this exploration of psyche, religious fervour, and obsession. READ MORE

The Personal History of David Copperfield

Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield is a love letter to storytelling. The film is endearing and entertaining. A warm, amusing, and enjoyable adaptation. READ MORE

The Prince’s Voyage

Jean-François Laguionie and Xavier Picard’s The Prince’s Voyage (Le Voyage Du Prince) is an enchanting animated tale. With its bittersweet ending, the film doesn’t pander to its audience. READ MORE

The BFI London Film Festival runs from 2nd-13th October 2019. See the full programme here.