Being human

FireAtSeaSamuele

There’s a clear and present danger we’re becoming inured to newsreel footage and images of migrants from as far afield as Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea, Albania, Kosovo and Nigeria squashed into boats, risking death as human contraband in waterways between North Africa and Italy, and Turkey and Greece. It has felt like a weekly, sometimes daily experience for those of us watching: frightened faces, capsizing vessels, the spinning radar of a coast guard ship, life jackets, hoodies, backpacks, helicopters, children, babies, bacofoil blankets, corpses in the surf. Which is why I think the Italian documentarian Gianfranco Rosi is making such a splash with his latest film Fire At Sea (which, if you’re not fortunate enough to live near an arthouse cinema, is now available to stream on that constant lifeline for cinephiles, Curzon Home Cinema).

I’m not au fait with Rosi’s previous work, but can’t wait to seek it out, if this is how he rolls. Fire At Sea is one of those documentaries that tells its tale not through narration or captioned talking heads (although some participants are clearly being interviewed by Rosi for the camera), but fixed shots of a landscape, or neatly composed glimpses of everyday life, which cumulatively build a bigger picture – or, you might say, a smaller or more intimate picture. It ostensibly presents a free-standing slice of life on the small Sicilian island of Lampedusa, where desperate migrants from Africa and the Middle East arrive each year hoping for a new life in Europe; a rare caption tells us that, unbelievably, 400,000 have passed through in the last 20 years. This is an island with a population of around 6,000, essentially a way-station, and the Italian coast guard is shown diligently and humanely processing what seems to be a constant flow of migrants. But this is not a film about the migrant crisis.

FireAtSeaboys

Rosi is not here to provide answers. He merely presents the facts as he, or his camera, sees them. If anyone is our guide, it’s 12-year-old Samuele, something of a tyke, the son of a fisherman, an artisan of the homemade catapult (with which he and his pal fire stones at cactuses and, we suspect, local birdlife), a proficient mime when it comes to the firing of imaginary assault weapons, and a kid with an old head on young shoulders. We see him explaining his symptoms to a doctor – the doctor, in fact, as the island appears only to have one – and not only does he use his hands and arms to express himself like an Italian man, he even seems to suffer from the hypochondria of a patient six times his age. (The doctor tells him that it’s stress-related, a very grown-up diagnosis. This is the doctor who later confesses his horror at having to cut off the finger of a dead migrant for reasons of later identification.)  You might say that in Samuele, Rosi has discovered “a star”, but again, it’s not about him, or any one person. That our boy seems to lead a relatively self-contained life among the scrub and low trees of his immediate landscape – as far as this film’s viewpoint suggests, utterly untouched by the boatloads of refugees being numbered, photographed and examined by the coast guard – illustrates the potential joy of a simple life.

Although the sheer number of foreign migrants passing through the lens of this film – many are dead, or on the point of death through dehydration – means that we do not get to know them with anything like the same intimacy with which we commune with Samuele’s father, his grandmother, an unnamed diver, the doctor, and a local DJ who plays the song Fire At Sea as a request for a fisherman’s wife – but that, I guess, is the point. The local people are fully integrated into their environment. The fisherman catches a squid (we see it breathe its last on the deck of a boat); the squid is de-inked and chopped into a stew by Samuele’s grandmother; then eaten as a hearty, life-giving meal by a family of three generations. The circle of life. The grandmother, who keeps reminding Samuele he’s still young, asks only for “a little health” when she kisses the heads of her icons of the Virgin Mary and a saint in her spartan bedroom. The people who “belong” on Lampedusa – as opposed to the migrants who fundamentally don’t, but are welcomed, temporarily, with compassion and without argument – do not ask for much. Samuele is happy with a twig from a tree. His father is happy to be home from sea. His grandfather is happy to be served a mid-morning espresso at the kitchen table, gone in one sip. The migrants have little more than the t-shirt on their backs, or the scarves wrapped around their heads, but they are grateful for a sip of water when they are unloaded onto the rescue ship, some of them also potentially breathing their last, like the squid.

FireAtSeadoc

There are a number of especially profound sequences in Fire At Sea, chanced upon by Rosi in the time he spent on the island: one of Samuele literally having to acclimatise himself to life at sea by facing down his seasickness: a creature of the land attempting to adapt to the ocean, in a perhaps cruel echo of the Africans forced off terra firma onto barely seaworthy boats, not to fish to survive, but to survive. In many ways, his options are limited; following in his father’s footsteps is a prescriptive path, and he’s not a natural seafarer (he’s sick over the side of his dad’s boat and turns the colour of paste). The options on Lampedusa are few, and the modern, interconnected world far away (the modernity of the doctor’s Apple monitor jars). This 12-year-old might understandably wish to leave for the mainland one day. He would, indeed, hop on a boat to achieve that. But he will be a willing migrant, not a refugee. It’s not necessarily a revolutionary visual and thematic link to make – refugees coming in, a native heading out – but it’s typical of Rosi’s sense of visual poetry.

FireAtSeaSamueleland

Another profound image is that of Samuele’s lazy eye. Again, it’s an accident that Rosi captured this milestone in a young boy’s life. But when he is prescribed a flesh-coloured eye patch to help “correct” the eye that’s not functioning properly, it’s actually impossible not to read all sorts of subtext into it. Do we, in the comfortable West, view the migrant situation with half an eye? We see the constant news footage – footage nothing like as aesthetically beautiful and patiently composed as Rosi’s, by the way – but do we actually process it? Or does it go by in a blur? Is anyone fooled by the fleshy illlusion of the rubber patch?

Fire At Sea is a film about seeing. Samuele uses his trusty slingshot with the patch fixed to the inside of his new glasses and he misses the target. He must adapt to survive (if we take his weapon as an ancient tool of survival, rather than a toy), but his adaptation is intimate, personal. The adaptation of the North Africans fleeing their country is more profound, and more deadly. Their boy is no toy. They are fleeing the weapons of others.

FireAtSeaposter

I loved this film. Some critics have questioned the balance of its gaze. While Samuele and his family are viewed in close up, we never hear from the migrants, who are presented en masse. But that, I feel, is the point, and a fair point. We see them, exhausted, confused, thirsty and yet relieved, being photographed by the Italian coast guard (all wearing masks and gloves for fear of infection, which makes them anonymous), and each migrant is assigned a number, which is held next to their head in the photo for identification. They are a number and yet they are “free” in the sense that they have left a war zone or persecution behind. If this “dehumanises” them, then it is not Rosi who does this, it’s the world. Also, he takes care to include a frankly joyous scene in which African migrants in the concrete yard of a detention centre, awaiting the next stage of transit to what they hope is a better life, play football against a team of Syrians – with, poignantly, two empty water bottles as goalposts. They cheer and shout, united by the international detente of sport. They are free, but they are also locked up. Contradictions fall from the sky.

The image that moved me the most was towards the end, when Samuele goes out hunting by the light of the moon (hunting not for food, but for sport). He seems to lure a tiny young bird by imitating its tweets. But by torchlight, as he gently approaches the bird, he either changes his mind, or he was never hunting it in the first place, and he gently strokes the bird on the head. Humanity is on the doorstep. Just look for it.

2015: the year in film

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Once again, I’ve tried to see as many films as humanly possible, in order to be able to take a fair-minded assessment of the year. But a glance at the Sight & Sound end-of-year lists – which blatantly reflect the year’s international festival programmes, with not a care for the straitjacket of UK theatrical release (their number one film, The Assassin, is not out here until the New Year) – instantly renders mine a little more parochial. That said, if foreign-language pictures do not dominate my Top 42 (it seemed silly to stop at 40), they enhance and enrich the list. One of my jobs is to keep up with new releases so that when the films arrive on television, I can have an opinion on them in Radio Times. But I don’t have the pressure of a national newspaper critic, or blogger, who seeks to keep up with the big new films in the week of release. I saw most of the less mainstream titles on steam-powered DVD, or via Curzon Home Cinema, which continues to be a lifeline.

Here is my Top 12 (I intended this to be a Top 10, but a couple of late entries have expanded it – at the end of the day, or the year, you can’t realistically measure a Star Wars film against a Roy Andersson, but you can celebrate the appreciation of both):

1. 45 Years | Andrew Haigh | UK
2. Carol | Todd Haynes | US
3. Star Wars: The Force Awakens | JJ Abrams | US
4. A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence| Roy Andersson | Sweden/Norway/France/Germany
5. The Tribe | Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy | Ukraine/Netherlands
6. Brooklyn | John Crowley | UK/Ireland/Canada
7. The Falling | Carol Morley | UK
8. Black Souls | Francesco Munzi | Italy/France
9. The Ecstasy Of Wilko Johnson | Julien Temple | UK
10. Force Majeure | Ruben Östlund | Sweden/France/Norway
11. Amy | Asif Kapadia | UK
12. Timbuktu | Abderrahmane Sissako | France/Mauritania

I like the way that five our of the Top 12 turn out to be UK productions or co-productions. This tells us something good about our national cinema, which can just as easily be scenes from a marriage or an impressionistically elemental work of art. As for the two UK documentaries, interestingly both are about musicians, one who dies, the other who cheats death. Of the three US films, one is the biggest film of the year, and possibly of all time come the final tot-up, financially speaking, so deal with that. (It’s the same as putting an Adele album in my Top 10 LPs, which I have done again this year. I’m used to it.) Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat On A Branch and Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s The Tribe are so different from the pack, and from each other, they may as well have their own chart. I watched the former – far from ideally – in two hotel rooms, one in Liverpool, the second in Durham. It transfixed me, even so (in fact, maybe because of the circumstances). I caught up with The Tribe on Boxing Day, via Curzon, and it’s the best film I’ve seen in Ukrainian sign language ever.

Whiplash

I won’t order the remaining 30 films. It goes without saying that all did more than just divert me, or fill the time, or meet a professional quota.

Slow West | John Maclean | UK, New Zealand
Big Hero 6 | Don Hall, Chris Williams | US
A Most Violent Year | JC Chandor | US
Whiplash | Damien Chazelle | US
White God | Kornél Mundruczó | Hungary
Fidelio: Alice’s Journey | Lucie Borleteau | France
Selma | Ava DuVernay | US
Inherent Vice | Paul Thomas Anderson | US
The Lesson | Kristina Grozeva, Petar Valchanov | Bulgaria, Greece
Birdman | Alejandro G. Iñárritu | US
Foxcatcher | Bennett Miller | US
Still Alice | Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland | US
Altman | Ron Mann | Canada
Eden | Mia Hansen-Love | France
San Andreas | Brad Peyton | US
Wild Tales | Damián Szifron | Argentina/Spain
When You’re Young | Noah Baumbach | US
Love and Mercy | Bill Pohlad | US
Clouds Of Sils Maria | Olivier Assayas | France/Germany/Switzerland
The Salt Of The Earth | Wim Wenders, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado | France/Brazil
Far From The Madding Crowd | Thomas Vinterberg | UK
Everest | Baltasar Kormákur | UK/US
The Martian | Ridley Scott | US
Ex Machina | Alex Garland | UK
Trainwreck | Judd Apatow | US
Steve Jobs | Danny Boyle | UK
Red Army | Gabe Polsky | US/Russia
Mia Madre | Nanni Moretti | Italy/France
The Wolfpack | Crystal Moselle | US
Straight Outta Compton | F Gary Gray | US

Please do share your own. Nobody’s opinion counts for more than anybody else’s. (Oh, and by the way, of course I included San Andreas, which is probably only a three-star film, but this is my list, it is the list that is mine, and what it is, too.)

2014: My Top 50 Films

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I have a simple, private, binary grading system with films. Once I have logged a film as “seen”, I either give it a star or not. This is quite a relief after the minefield of having to award stars out of five for professional reviewing purposes. Either a film feels like it was worth seeing, or it wasn’t. I sometimes go back and add or remove the star, depending on how I feel at a later date about the film. This makes collating an end of year list much easier, as it sifts the wheat from the chaff before I start. (This is why a bit of airborne nonsense like the Liam Neeson thriller Non Stop gets into the Top 50; I liked it enough at the time to give it a tick.)

Of the 142 films I saw in 2014, 92 were new, in that they were released in the UK for the first time this year. (For quick but odious comparison, of the 153 films I saw in 2013, 122 were new. I don’t know why I saw less films, especially less new films, but it may have something to do with having worked harder for less money in 2014, and having to make some tough choices simply in terms of sparing the time. I regret this.) Here they are, in order – and I have been tinkering with this for about a fortnight. An important note: I did not get to see Turkish maestro Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s film Winter Sleep in December, as it is three hours long and I had no-one to go and see it with. I know in my bones it would be in the list, possibly near the top. Its absence is glaring and unbalancing. So it goes.

Boyhood

1. Boyhood | Richard Linklater | US
2. Leviathan | Andrey Zvyagintsev | Russia
3. Stranger By The Lake | Alain Guiraudie | France
4. Ida | Pawel Pawlikowski | Poland/Denmark
5. 20,000 Days On Earth | Iain Forsyth, Jane Pollard | UK/US/Canada
6. Dallas Buyers Club | Jean-Marc Vallée | US
7. The Grand Budapest Hotel | Wes Anderson | Germany/UK
8. Two Days, One Night | Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne | France/Belgium/Italy
9. Nymphomaniac Vol. 1/Vol. 2 | Lars Von Trier | Denmark/Germany/France/Belgium
10. Calvary | John Michael McDonagh | Ireland/UK

11. American Interior | Gruff Rhys, Dylan Goch | UK
12. Under The Skin | Jonathan Glazer | UK
13. Citizenfour | Laura Poitras | US
14. Lilting | Hong Khaou | UK
15. The Lego Movie | Phil Lord, Christopher Miller | US/Australia/Denmark
16. Starred Up | David Mackenzie | UK
17. Showrunners | Des Doyle | Ireland/US
18. Belle | Amma Asante | UK
19. Locke | Steven Knight | UK
20. A Story Of Children And Film | Mark Cousins | UK

21. Nightcrawler | Guy Gilroy | US
22. The Rover | David Michôd | Australia
23. 22 Jump Street | Phil Lord, Christopher Miller | US
24. Inside Llewyn Davis | Joel Coen, Ethan Coen | US
25. Noah | Darren Aronofsky | US
26. Jimmy’s Hall | Ken Loach | UK/Ireland
27. Cold In July | Jim Mickle | US/France
28. The Past | Asghar Farhadi | France/Italy
29. Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes | Matt Reeves | US
30. Chef | Jon Favreau | US

31. ’71 | Yann Demange | UK
32. X-Men: Days Of Future Past | Bryan Singer | UK/US
33. The Wolf Of Wall Street | Martin Scorsese | US
34. August: Osage County | John Wells | US
35. Only Lovers Left Alive | Jim Jarmusch | UK/Germany
36. Northern Soul | Elaine Constantine | UK
37. Her | Spike Jonze | US
38. Edge Of Tomorrow | Doug Liman | US/UK
39. Non-Stop | Jaume Collet-Serra | US/France
40. A Most Wanted Man | Anton Corbijn | UK/Germany/US

41. The Riot Club | Lone Scherfig | UK
42. Maps To The Stars | David Cronenberg | Canada/US
43. The Guest | Adam Wingard | US
44. The Armstrong Lie | Alex Gibney | US
45. The Unknown Known | Errol Morris | US
46. American Hustle | David O. Russell | US
47. The Heat | Paul Feig | US
48. The Two Faces Of January | Hossein Amini | US/UK
49. Easy Money III | Jens Jonsson | Sweden
50. Captain America: The Winter Soldier | Anthony Russo, Joe Russo | US

Leviathanwhale

Really, I don’t think there has ever really been anything like Boyhood, but its technical and logistical achievements might just have been that had it not been for Richard Linklater’s guiding hand and a cracking cast, most remarkably Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater, respectively seven and eight years old when shooting began in 2002. Rarely have 165 minutes passed in a cinema without anybody looking at their watch. This film singlehandedly made a case for the occasional preeminence of American filmmaking in the 21st century, where noise and surface are often all it’s got. (I say that, but the US dominates my list, if not the Top 10, as the bulk of the films I saw were American, or American co-productions. As ever, a bit of Danish or French often rises to the top.)

In a year without Boyhood, Leviathan would have sat comfortably at the top of a the pile. Andrey Zvyagintsev’s austere, symbolically rich tale of contemporary smalltown corruption plays out as a David and Goliath struggle between a car mechanic and a grotesque mayor on the coast of Northwestern Russia over a patch of land (the mechanic, Alexei Serebriakov, lives on it, in a house he built himself; the mayor, Roman Madyanov, wants it). A slow, downbeat, naturalistic and unshowy slice of life, Leviathan nonetheless rears up into moments of pure beauty and portent, not least when one character glimpses an actual whale breaking the surf in the bay, or when the teeth of a JCB tear into a house like a dinosaur searching for prey. It’s all about scale.

I’m pleased that a large number of UK and Irish releases made the final cut – Starred Up, Belle, Locke, Calvary, Under The Skin, American Interior, Jimmy’s Hall – as well as a clutch of documentaries, although I can think of half a dozen I’ve missed, too. I also missed Pride, which I feel might have been in there, had I seen it. Feel free to tell me yours, but don’t take it personally if a film you’ve loved this year isn’t in my Top 50; I might simply have missed it. And I really didn’t like Mr Turner.

StarredUp2

A postcript: I continue to hold a Curzon cinemas membership, and it is my lifeline. It should be noted that in 2014, the chain announced that it had finally recognised the union Bectu and agreed to pay its workers a living wage. So far, this agreement seems to have held, and no funny business has emerged. I am in touch with the previously aggrieved Curzon workers via Twitter and have heard nothing to the contrary. I sincerely hope this continues to remain true. Other cinema chains have not been as willing to compromise, and it blights the whole business of cinemagoing.

Film 2013: great beauty

Michael Smiley in Ben Wheatley's A Field in England.beyond_the_hillsSpring+Breakersthe-great-beauty2Frances-Hagravity-cuaronBlue-is-the-Warmest-Colorblackfishbig i-wish

As I write, it’s not quite yet the very end of the year, but my records indicate that I have seen 153 films in 2013 – that is, 153 films I’ve never seen before (which includes films I’ve seen but never before seen on the big screen, such as Manhattan, Aguirre Wrath Of God and Chinatown). Of those 153, 122 have been films released in 2013. If I were an actual film critic, I’d be seeing around seven a week. But I’m not one. So I’m calling 153 a decent tally. But never mind the width, feel the quality.

Here are my Top 30 in order. I’ve eschewed qualitative ordering in my entries for TV, books and albums, but I feel more confident about films as I log them as I go, and enter a star symbol next to any that stand out from the pack. This makes it easier to sift them. Frankly, the Top 10 rose effortlessly to the top, but the next 20 confirm that it was a damn good year.

1. The Great Beauty | Paolo Sorrentino | Italy
2. All Is Lost | JC Chandor | US
3. Gravity | Alfonso Cuarón | US/UK
4. Blackfish | Gabriela Cowperthwaite | US
5. Compliance | Craig Zobel | US
6. Beyond The Hills | Cristian Mungiu | Romania
7. I Wish | Hirokazu Koreeda | Japan
8. Spring Breakers | Harmony Korine | US
9. Blue Is The Warmest Colour | Abdellatif Kechiche | France
10. Frances Ha | Noah Baumbach | US

11. Mea Maxima Culpa | Alex Gibney | US
12. Silence | Pat Collins | Ireland
13. Lincoln | Steven Spielberg | US
14. Nebraska | Alexander Payne | US
15. Made Of Stone | Shane Meadows | UK
16. A Field In England | Ben Wheatley | UK
17. Mud | Jeff Nichol | US
18. The Selfish Giant | Clio Barnard | UK
19. Shell | Scott Graham | UK
20. No | Pablo Larrain | Chile
21. Zero Dark Thirty | Kathryn Bigelow | US
22. Captain Philips | Paul Greengrass | US
23. Parkland | Peter Landesman | US
24. Blue Jasmine | Woody Allen | US
25. Prisoners | Denis Villeneuve | US
26. What Richard Did | Lenny Abrahamson | Ireland
27. Stories We Tell | Sarah Polley | Canada
28. The Place Beyond The Pines | Derek Cianfrance | US
29. In The Fog | Sergei Loznitsa | Russia
30. A Hijacking | Tobias Lindholm | Denmark

Some thoughts. Four documentaries in the Top 30 (and one in the Top 10) says something powerful about the continued relevance of non-fiction. (The Act Of Killing topped many a critic’s poll in Sight & Sound; for me, it was a unique film, but not one I actually enjoyed.) And two Irish films in the Top 10, too, which has to be a first, and a welcome one. I note that only half my Top 30 are American, which feels like a significant victory for “the rest of the world” as Hollywood accountants call it – although I only did a Top 20 last year and less than half were American, so who knows? On a geographical note, Gravity is apparently “British” enough to qualify for a British Bafta nomination in 2014, as it was shot here and Alfonso Cuarón has dual UK citizenship.

For the record, the following films also received a star under my yes-or-no rating system this year, so they merit an honourable mention. More documentaries, and two more Irish films!

Beware Of Mr Baker | Jay Bulger | UK
Django Unchained | Quentin Tarantino | US
This Is 40 | Judd Apatow | US
For Ellen | So Yong Kim | US
The Spirit of ’45 | Ken Loach | UK
Arbitrage | Nicholas Garecki | US
Reality | Matteo Garrone | Italy/France
Neighbouring Sounds | Kleber Mendonça Filho | Brazil
Good Vibrations | Lisa Barros D’Sa, Glenn Leyburn | Ireland
The Gatekeepers | Dror Moreh | Israel/France/Germany/Belgium
Spike Island | Mat Whitecross | UK
The Look Of Love | Michael Winterbottom | UK
Easy Money | Daniél Espinosa | Sweden
Behind The Candelabra | Steven Soderbergh | US
The World’s End | Edgar Wright | UK
Before Midnight | Richard Linklater | US
Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa | Declan Lowney | UK
We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks | Alex Gibney | US
The Deep | Baltasar Kormákur | Iceland
Fire In The Night: The Piper Alpha Disaster | Antony Wonke | UK
Hawking | Stephen Finnigan | UK
Oblivion | Joseph Kosinski | US
What Maisie Knew | Scott McGhee, David Siegel | US
Mister John | Christine Molloy, Joe Lawlor | Ireland/Singapore
Leviathan | Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Verena Paravel | US

A final postscript: I didn’t get to see Philomena this year, which leaves an obvious gap as I suspect I will like it.

In a field of its own

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We are gathered here today to celebrate what I’m going to have to go out on a critical limb and call “the genius” of Ben Wheatley. I have never met the man – although I’d like to – but his work has given me much to chew on since making his no-budget debut in 2009 with Down Terrace. I’m man enough to admit that I didn’t see this at the time, but the sizzle it created drove me to Kill List in 2011, which sealed the deal. (And I’ve seen Down Terrace since, on the telly, which is herewith significant. This means I have discovered Wheatley in the wrong order, but I plan to atone for that sin.)

A Field In England comes only about seven months after the aggressively marketed release of Sightseers, one of my Top 10 films of 2012. (I put Kill List into my Top 10 of 2011.) How can this be? It’s a faster turnaround than Woody Allen. Well, A Field In England is a little different. It’s not as if Kill List or Sightseers were CGI-dependent blockbusters, but A Field is more like a first feature than a fourth, in that it’s been shot on a shoestring in a single location and has a principal cast of five. (It’s difficult to get hard numbers, but it looks as if this cost £300,000, compared to Kill List‘s £500,000. It doesn’t take a studio accountant’s understanding of the film business to know that this is not very much.)

What’s actually unique about the film isn’t the film, but its release. It made history on Friday when it debuted at selected arthouse cinemas, on DVD, on-demand and, most thrillingly, on free-to-air TV (namely, Film4). I say “thrilling” not just because a film this earthy should by rights be seen terrestrially, but because Freeview is surely the riskiest channel, as it were: it’s tantamount to inviting people to see it for nothing. As a film writer, I am able to see films for free, but often choose to see them at the cinema, where I pay for them, so I hope I haven’t scuppered the experiment by watching it on Film4. Having seen the trailer at the cinema a number of times, I know that Laurie Rose’s black-and-white cinematography is stunning, and merits a larger canvas. (It’s also pretty amazing on a small screen, at once making this 17th century period piece seem old and musty, yet digital-clarity new.)

Michael Smiley in Ben Wheatley's A Field in England.

Even Sightseers, Wheatley’s most accessible film, is challenging viewing. And that’s all to the good. But you’d have to say that A Field is his most “difficult” work, despite feeling more formal in certain ways. It’s not going to be for everyone, and nor, one suspects, is Wheatley (until he sells out and directs an X-Men movie!), and there are moments here that descend, or ascend, into hallucinogenic experimentalism. It’s a history play only in that it cleaves to 17th century-sounding speech patterns and makes a backdrop of the Civil War against which our four deserters embark upon a misadventure into witchcraft.

Reece Shearsmith is impeccable as the scholar on the run from his master, the “coward” who cannot handle weapons who succumbs to the orders of Michael Smiley’s Irish alchemist. If I tell you that the other four men literally drag the talismanic Smiley into the field by pulling on a thick rope, you’ll have to run with it. This field is one from which there is no escape, ringed as it is by a forcefield of magic mushrooms that cannot be crossed. Shearsmith, who at one point seems to fall under Smiley’s spell and becomes a divining rod for buried treasure, is captive of a soldier who believes he can reach a fabled alehouse, but too gets distracted by Smiley’s promise of riches. You may not recognise actors Peter Ferdinando, Ryan Pope and Richard Glover, but you’ll have glimpsed all in various character roles (Ferdinando was in The Mimic; Pope in Ideal, which Wheatley directed; Glover in Sightseers), and all immerse themelves here, looking suitably mud- and shit-stained.

There is violence. There are visions. There is cruelty. There is scatology. There is humour. But how to categorise a film whose visual and thematic reference points – so exhaustively catalogued by Kim Newman in Sound & Sound – range from Peter Watkins’ Culloden to Witchfinder General? What Wheatley and his screenwriting/editing wife Amy Jump have created here is something new. How often does that happen in a medium that sometimes – like pop music – feels exhausted of possibility? I found myself transfixed, not just by the imagery, and the down-and-dirty acting, and the vast leaps between dots that refused to join up, but by the decision to have the actors form still-life tableaux, and by the music from Martin Pavey and Jim Williams, which blended ancient folk song with rumbling unease.

Wheatley’s career does not hinge upon the success of A Field In England, as it’s Film4’s pioneering experiment (or, more specifically, that of its innovative Film4.0 arm), not his, but the collision of one couple’s oddball vision and one company’s equally groundbreaking business plan, strikes me as vital and encouraging. (You know how much the current government hates the arts, except for the bits of the arts it does like? This feels like a bit they won’t ever like, and for that reason, it matters.)

While interviewing Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Edgar Wright last week, we fell into discussion (for self-evident reasons) about films you could watch again and again. I watch a lot of films, and I have long concluded that some films are perfectly good, and not theft of two hours of your life, but at the same time you never need to see them again. Ben Wheatley’s films demand to be seen again.

It’s good to get that down in black and white.

Writer’s blog: Week 23, Thursday

Secrecy, pilots, filth, Clash songs, film maths and the Stone Roses …

BlogMay30

I spoke to my Dad on the telephone yesterday (with Mum in the background), and he said that they’d assumed I was busy as I hadn’t blogged much recently. It’s cool that they understand how this works. It’s a Thursday. I am still busy, attempting to panel-beat this latest pilot sitcom script into a recognisable shape, but I’ve just this moment sent off the latest draft of a remodelled story breakdown, from which to build the second draft of the script.

It’s weird; I read a Guardian blog yesterday by Caitlin Moran in which she talked us through the entire set-up of the pilot of her first, autobiographical sitcom, Raised By Wolves, which is being developed by Big Talk and co-written with her sister. If you follow Richard Herring’s daily Warming Up blog, you’ll be well up to speed on the content and progress of his latest pilot, Ra-Ra Rasputin, too. The British Comedy Guide publish an exhaustive, constantly updated list of all the comedy pilots currently in development with the proviso, “most pilots are never seen”. There are about 80 at present. It makes depressing reading if you’re in the business of developing comedy with a view to it ever “being seen.”

It’s possible that I am alone in never revealing the details of projects I have in development, for fear of jinxing them. Am I simply superstitious? Or realistic? I was at a social gathering on Saturday night and the question, “What are you working on?” came up. I explained in basic terms what my sitcom was about to the person who asked me, with the same proviso, “It may never get made.” This is the business I work in. (When, in 2005, I “helped” Lee Mack develop Not Going Out – his phrase – we actually shot a non-broadcast pilot at Thames, with a studio audience and a fully functioning set, with no guarantee that the show would be commissioned to series. It was, so we re-cast, re-wrote and re-shot that episode.)

Anyway, if I mentioned the title of my sitcom, or the broadcaster, or production company who are funding its development, I guess it would be in the public domain and would go onto the demoralising British Comedy Guide list. On points, I’d rather keep it to myself. Needless to say, it’s a largely solitary process, with occasional bursts of feedback with actual other human beings, and by turns enjoyable and dispiriting. But you fight on. Because I am waiting for my two immediate managers to sign off on the new story, I am reluctant to forge on with the new script. So I’m writing a blog about not writing a sitcom instead.

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So, what other stuff have I been doing that’s not shrouded in superstitious secrecy? I saw the new Irvine Welsh film, Filth, last night, although it’s not out until October, so I’m not sure reviewing it would be the done thing. I don’t mind revealing that it features perhaps James McAvoy’s best performance in front of a camera, certainly one that’s vanity-free, as his character, the depraved Edinburgh detective Bruce Robertson, descends into a private hell before our very eyes. Welsh was at the screening, and got up to introduce the film, by saying, “I hate these preambles … so why don’t we all just watch the fucking film?” (The director Jon Baird was also in attendance, and one of the stars, the mighty John Sessions.) I’m interviewing Welsh tomorrow, and looking forward to it.

While we’re on the subject of development, if you’re lucky, your pilot will move from the British Comedy Guide’s pilots list to its new comedy list, where shows “in production” are logged. (There are fewer shows in production than at pilot stage, although by their rules because the pilot of Raised By Wolves is being made, it counts as “in production”, which it sort of isn’t, strictly.) I am more cheered by this list as two shows I’ve script-edited are included: Badults, the six-ep Pappy’s sitcom which is shot and edited and ready to go on BBC3 in July, and the Greg Davies vehicle for C4, Man Down, whose pilot I script-edited and whose title I came up with – fame, autographs later etc.! (I may or may not be editing the series, we shall see, but I’d like to.) What I will say for Badults and BBC3 is that it was commissioned last August, while we were all in Edinburgh, and that’s a pretty rapid turnaround from script meeting to edit suite, so let’s all be grateful for that.

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I have become obsessed with Springwatch on BBC2 and, in particular, presenter Chris Packham’s now-traditional song titles game. In previous years he’s slipped in titles by the Smiths, the Manics and the Cure; this year, it turns out, it’s the Clash. I managed to pick up on five on Monday night, but, by contacting him via the miracle of Twitter, was able to establish with the man himself that there were nine! (That said, two of them were 48 Hours and Deny, which do not leap out of a link in the same way that Drug-Stabbing Time does.) I’m enjoying the rest of the content – birds in reedbeds, weasels raiding nests, sandhoppers under seaweed – but it’s the Clash songs that are keeping me on the edge of my seat.

I am keeping a watertight register of all the films I see this year, new and old. We are nearing the end of May and this is what the month looks like with a day to go:

The Look Of Love | Michael Winterbottom | UK
Fast & Furious 6 | Justin Lin | US
The Eye Of The Storm | Fred Schepisi | Australia
I’m So Excited | Pedro Almodóvar | Spain
Blackfish | Gabriela Cowperthwaite | US
Made Of Stone | Shane Meadows | UK
Star Trek Into Darkness | JJ Abrams | US
Rockshow | Paul McCartney | US
The Great Gatsby | Baz Luhrmann | Australia/US
Miracle | Gavin O’Connor | US
The Hangover Part III | Todd Philips | US
Beware Of Mr Baker | Jay Bulger | UK
Filth | Jon Baird | UK

That means 11 new films (some of which have yet to be released), and two old ones: coincidentally, the Wings concert film Rockshow, originally released in 1980 but shown at the Curzon; and Miracle, a 2004 Disney movie about the American ice hockey victory over Russia at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, a politically charged event I learned about on an American National Geographic documentary about the 80s. Not a storming total, 13, compared to the 23 I saw in January and the 20 I saw in March, but should you care, that means I’ve seen 78 films this year so far. But never mind the quantity, feel the breadth! I’m all about variety and it’s usually the smaller, not necessarily English-speaking films that give the most sustenance. (Not a vintage month in this regard, May; in April I went to Russia, Denmark, Israel, Argentina and Ireland.) I wish I’d never seen The Hangover Part III, for instance; the experience subtracted from my total life experience.

The Illustrated Encyclopedia Of The World’s Great Movie Stars And Their Films

When I was teenager, and first becoming obsessed with films, I started to log them in my diary. At this stage, it was mostly films I’d seen on telly, or on video, and so voracious was my appetite – fuelled by filmographies in assorted film books, like The Illustrated Encyclopedia Of The World’s Great Movie Stars And Their Films, which I got for my 15th birthday, or David Quinlan’s Illustrated Directory of Film Stars, which I got for Christmas in 1981 – a film’s age did not matter. Bring on the films, old and new! Thus it is written that I saw a total of 83 films in 1980, the year my cinephilia almost eclipsed my love of punk rock. My final tally for 1981 would be 121 films. In 1982, when video rental really kicked in, it was 144, and in 1983, I managed a storming 175. As I wrote in Where Did It All Go Right?, I have never stopped being proud of myself for this intense self-education.

As today is the day that Shane Meadows’ Stone Roses documentary Made Of Stone premieres, beamed around selected arthouses by satellite (it goes on general release on June 5), I thought I’d reprint an expanded cut of the review I wrote for Radio Times.

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Shane Meadows, a teenage fan when the Stone Roses shook the world with their potent blend of psychedelic rock and swaggering Mancunian groove in the late 80s and early 90s, never saw them live. Thus, this potentially conventional feature-length chronicle of their 2011-12 reunion becomes something more personal. Shadowing the well-preserved four-piece on the road to triumphant shows at Greater Manchester’s Heaton Park – via bonhomie-fuelled rehearsals, a joyous secret gig in Warrington and some bumpy European warm-ups – Meadows gains access-all-areas, his camera often skulking in corridor and dressing room. The band are at the top of their game, musically (and the sound mix does them proud), but Meadows puts the largely middle-aged fans centre stage; their heartwarming stories dominating the Warrington section as grown men leave jobs, families and errands to get in the queue for a golden wristband. Eschewing obligatory talking heads (backstory is told via archive interview, with some genuinely unseen home movie footage), artfully moving between crisp monochrome and glorious colour, and with footnotes-to-camera by the wide-eyed director himself, Made Of Stone replaces hagiography with infectious empathy. A witty, honest and valuable tribute.

Raymond reviews: bah!

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Well, I went in to see The Look Of Love with expectations at ankle-height thanks to all the below-par reviews, which ran the gamut from lukewarm to cold-shower, enough to give anyone a winter bottom. A straightforward biopic of Soho porn baron and property magnate Paul Raymond, built, or so it seemed, around Steve Coogan’s desire to impersonate him (which he does well), and regular collaborator Michael Winterbottom’s desire to capture to pre-enlightenment days of London’s former sex district, The Look Of Love turned out to be very good.

Maybe the critics turned on it because it seemed to arrive rather engorged with self-confidence, as if asking to be pulled down a peg or two. (The string of TV comedy cameos – David Walliams, Matt Lucas, Miles Jupp, Stephen Fry – may have added to the perceived smugness.) Both Coogan and Winterbottom are prolific, and much admired, so it’s easy to knock them while celebrating their other triumphs. So, too, with screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh, who wrote Control, which was feted across the board and given a Bafta, and Nowhere Boy. I actually wondered if I was going to love it after seeing the trailer; it had the hallmarks of being “perfunctory”, as many reviewers maintain that it is. I respectfully disagree with them all.

Aside from David Sexton’s virtual lone voice of praise in the London Evening Standard (well, it is a very “London” film), few could even strain up to a three-star rating. Philip French of the Observer called it “crude”, “shallow” and complained that Raymond’s world and life lacked illumination by a “larger social context”. He also said it lacked “wit … insight and … detail”. Our own Stella Papamichael in Radio Times named Winterbottom “a co-conspirator in Raymond’s objectification of women.” Emma Jones in the Independent reported from Sundance, saying it “lacked soul” and calling it “an interminably dull orgy”, but at least recognised that this was probably Winterbottom’s intention. Tim Robey in the Telegraph, another trustworthy critic, used the words “perfunctory” and “hollow”, not to mention “flaccid”, and wondered aloud what Scorsese would have made of it. (Again, he’s clever enough to spot that a British porn baron’s tale is never going to have the crackle of Boogie Nights or Larry Flynt.)  The Mail‘s Chris Tookey stamped it a “turkey” and called it “unobservant, unerotic and dull,” and went further with “dishonest”. Though only awarding three stars, Empire at least identified its “healthy sense of naffness.”

Maybe that’s the problem, although not a problem for me: it does not make apologies for Raymond, as he rises from “entertainer” to impressario, and makes his money through property and pornography. He is plainly depicted as a cad and a sexual cheat, unfaithful in a sort of industrial manner to his first wife (Anna Friel) and his live-in girlfriend Fiona Richmond (a frequently nude Tamsin Egerton) by decree. Yes, he took a showgirl for his wife. Greenhalgh’s script presents Raymond as a man of natural charisma and wit, but doesn’t deify him; he made his living in a sleazy business in what was a sleazy part of town (“welcome to my world of erotica”), using tits to put bums on seats in theatrical sex farce and disrobed revue alike, always pushing against the boundaries of what the Lord Chamberlain allowed.

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If he was any part of a libertarian or champion of free artistic impression, this is soon eclipsed by his greed for more flesh as he buys into Men Only (whose coke-snorting editor, Tony Power, is skilfully played by Chris Addison, for whom The Look Of Love may provide a more fruitful shopfront than it ever could for the better-established Coogan, whose Raymond does brings to mind an X-rated combination of Partridge and, as per The Trip, Coogan). It’s grubby stuff, mostly, with any glamour tarnished by a combination of 60s and especially 70s naffness (the space-age telly watched by the almost-beaten 90s Raymond after his daughter’s sad death, brilliantly encapsulates the datedness of that metropolitan notion of James Bond cool that only James Bond could pull off).

In terms of the randy threesomes and the magnetic pull of the shag-pile boudoir, you get the sense that Coogan understands this self-destructive cock-led compulsion. The constant refrain of “house champagne” is a nifty way of exposing the cheapness beneath the largesse. (Raymond does keep insisting he’s the boy from Liverpool who arrived in London with “three bob” in his pocket.) If anything, on occasion, Coogan possibly makes Raymond too amusing and suave, in what must be improvised scenes, including impressions of Brando and Connery. (Maybe he was an excellent mimic, but I doubt as adept as Coogan!)

LookOfLove2

It’s not life-changing. It is, deliberately, unerotic. And it doesn’t tell us anything new about the history of porn, which was done with more seriousness when Our Friends In The North ventured down south. But at least, for all the flesh on display – including a 70s-appropriate bush of pubic hair that’s foregrounded purely for reasons of nostalgia! – it features a strong, driven, successful woman in Richmond, through whom Egerton rises above the exploitation of her own body and compensates for all the insipid, giggling dollybirds, as they used to be called.

If it has anything to say, it’s that a vast property portfolio, enough money and assets to be named the richest man in Britain at his peak (and before the foreign money took over), doesn’t bring happiness. You’ll still be trying to impress people by telling them that Ringo Starr designed your flat (which Raymond does), and measuring your worth via notches on the bedpost. Raymond ends the film sad and introspective, and minus his beloved daughter (Imogen Poots, who steals much of the film with her rounded, likeable, unspoilt portrayal of a beneficiary of nepotism who rose above it, only to fall victim to cocaine and heroin abuse).

It may sound glib to say it’s a bit of fun, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Winterbottom shoots on the hoof, keeping budgets low, on location (Londoners will love, as I did, the sightseeing aspect), and encourages improv, and while Raymond’s story doesn’t have the innate cool or bangin’ soundtrack of 24 Hour Party People, he may happily file The Look Of Love alongside: a breezy portrait of an essentially naff English success story who charmed his way through a number of scams and left his mark. It’s a bit of a useless title, and it’s a pity Ramond’s estate owned the rights to its intended one, The King Of Soho. What about 24 Hour Porno Person?