Category: Comedies

I, Tonya (US 2017)

Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) as a teenager when she first meets Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), photos courtesy of NEON and 30WEST.

I went into this screening with no expectations and came out wondering exactly what I’d seen. I remembered the furore about the figure skater Tonya Harding and her rival Nancy Kerrigan back in 1994 but I was unaware of how it had been covered in the US media. My immediate reaction to the film was that Tonya got a ‘bum rap’ from the authorities, but since the film begins by telling us that it is based on “irony-free, wildly contradictory and totally true” interviews, I don’t know if this is a reasonable position or not. I will say that Margot Robbie as Tonya gives an amazing performance. Allison Janney as her mother gives the kind of performance you expect from a great character actor.

Tonya’s mother (Allison Janney)

For anyone who doesn’t know the background to the story, Tonya Harding in the late 1980s was a working-class girl who had shown genuine skating talent from the time she was a toddler and as an older teenager she was clearly a major talent with athleticism and a real drive to succeed. Aged 14 she was 6th in the American Championships in 1985 and a year later 2nd in the Skate America international competition. But from the start Harding felt she was treated unfairly because of her working-class background and for the next eight years she struggled to gain credibility even when she won or was well-placed in major international competitions. In 1994 she was charged, along with her ex-husband, his friend and two hired thugs that they had attacked Harding’s rival Kerrigan. Harding maintained she didn’t know about the physical attack but she confessed to the charge that she subsequently conspired to hinder the prosecution of the attackers. The whole series of events became a tabloid sensation in the US and when Harding was sentenced she received what amounted to a lifetime ban from skating.

Tonya becomes the first American woman to perform a successful ‘triple axel’

Given the coverage at the time, anyone over 40 in America today knows the story and younger audiences must be similarly aware: Wikipedia informs me that there have been several TV documentaries as well as a play and a musical plus references/spoofs in other entertainment media. Why then should you be interested in this new film? The first reason may well be Margot Robbie’s performance. The Australian actor is 5′ 6”. Tonya Harding is 5′ 1″. Robbie is not a look-a-like stand-in but she is convincing in ageing from 15 to 47. Much of the performance requires world-class skating (and Harding was one of the strongest athletic skaters around). The filmmakers (Robbie was also a producer on the film directed by another Australian, Craig Gillespie) managed to use CGI, literally drawing on Harding’s routines, but even so it is a tour de force by Robbie.

Jeff, Tonya and her trainer Diane (Julianne Nicholson) are approached by a police officer with a report of an anonymous threat

The key to the film’s approach is the choice of ‘mockumentary’ and reality TV as an aesthetic mode, so we are offered ‘straight to camera’ comments by the principals as if they were being  interviewed today (i.e. Robbie is aged to 47). During the historical narrative, the same principals will also turn to the camera and offer observations on the scene as it is unfolding. Several reviews reference Scorsese’s presentation of Henry Hill in Goodfellas (1990) and that’s not a bad shout in terms of the use of music and voiceovers. I’m not a fan of reality TV and though I found some scenes amusing, I was also saddened to see a life marked by domestic violence that is played for laughs. I thought that the array of characters were exaggerated grotesques – only then to discover from the photographs at the end in the credits sequence that at least the actors did look like the real players in this biopic. The mockumentary tropes also get in the way of the other genre features which interest me more. I, Tonya is a sports movie of a specific kind. In the Guardian Anne Billson offers a useful piece in which she points out that the film deals with a sport in which women are not competing in a ‘man’s world’ and therefore we can enjoy a different kind of sports narrative. Billson also offers us brief descriptions of several other sports stories with female leads to underpin her argument, including the Drew Barrymore-Ellen Page film Whiplash (US 2014), which would make an interesting comparison for film students.

Ice skating is one of those sports with a relatively ‘niche’ following of devoted fans, but which occasionally produces a celebrity figure with wide appeal. The Winter Olympics is always a high point and this year it was the Canadian ice-dancing pair Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, three-time gold medallists who wowed a Canadian public who seemingly want the couple to marry. On the same day as I, Tonya‘s release, The Ice King, a documentary about John Curry, the supreme ice-dancer from the 1970s also opened in UK cinemas – unfortunately overshadowed by the American film. Skating fans will no doubt seek it out on DVD or online.

There are several distinct features of skating as a sport. One is difficulty of access and the funding for equipment and training. Entertainment features tend to gloss over this. So, while I, Tonya makes jokes about abuse and the costumes that Tonya and her mother sew at home, it doesn’t represent the very real struggle to compete without adequate funds. The conservative attitudes of the administrators of American skating create another barrier to success. A sport like skating is in one sense linked to equestrian sports in the UK in terms of funding, access and potential class conflict. But in North America they might be linked to geographical isolation and small town communities. I, Tonya is odd in not exploring Harding’s home context in Portland, Oregon. I assumed at first that the Hardings were in the South (and the film was shot almost entirely in Georgia, supported by that state’s film commission). It also misses a trick in not exploring more of Nancy Kerrigan’s background (which may be down to permissions). Kerrigan was also from a working-class background in a small town north of Boston. She wasn’t a privileged skater, though in ideological terms her career success could be seen as the result of ‘hard work’ and ‘family support’ – factors difficult for Tonya Harding to draw on for various reasons.

I, Tonya is a well-made film with some great performances and I was certainly engaged throughout. It does give a sense of the impact of celebrity and tabloid sensationalism as it began to be used on cable TV news in North America, but it misses out on a real story about sport, class and gender. Harding’s life after her conviction could be the basis for a whole new narrative but in I, Tonya it is just a relatively brief coda.

Here is the trailer. It hints at the extensive use of popular songs on the soundtrack, which includes Cliff Richard’s ‘Devil Woman’ and Chicago’s ’25 or 6 to 4′ plus Doris Day and a host of familiar 70s and 80s stuff.

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Room for Let (Kashima ari, Japan1959)

This was a title in the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme screened at the Sheffield Showroom. I think this was the only title screened from 35mm. a good quality black and white print in TohoScope with clear English sub-titles.  The film was directed by Kawashima Yūzō, a director whose work I had not seen before. He was born in 1918 so this is his centenary year.

Alexander Jacoby (A Critical Handbook of Japanese Film Directors, 2008) notes,

Little known outside Japan, the wry, wild work of Kawashima Yūzō is the missing link between the classical Japanese cinema of the fifties ands the modernism of the sixties.

Kwashima started out at Shochiku in the war years. He only achieved a reputation in the 1950s when he moved to Nikkatsu. On a number of his films his assistant and script-writer was Imamura Shōhei. Hi worked in a variety of genres but his most notable films were comedies, a mixture of satire and farce. Room for Let is, apparently, his most characteristic.

The film certainly mixed comedy and farce and (I suspect) a certain amount of satire on 1950s society. The film is set in a multi-room single storey tenement on a hill overlooking the city of Osaka. There are some fine views of the cityscape. The film, to a degree; follows the actions of the various tenants living in the house.

. . . a barbed hilarious portrait of the mostly disreputable characters inhabiting an Osaka boarding house . . . [Programme notes].

This sort of drama, showing the interactions of tenants in a multi-room establishment, is familiar in South Asian cinema, and there are examples in Chinese and Japanese films.

The film does have key protagonists. One is Goro (Sakai Frankie), a jack-of-all-trades around whom the other characters revolve. Opposite him is Yumiko (Awashima Chikage), a potter who rents the vacant room. She is an independent and strong-minded character, as are the majority of female characters in this film.

The ‘room for let’ provides a mechanism for the development in the plots But it is the interactions between the various tenants that provides the comedy. This is often unseemly and the sexual aspect if fairly explicit. The comedy develops slowly. Early on the film has a wry quality, but as the drama develops the tone becomes farcical. There is a splendid sequence as most of the tenants are involved in or observing Goro’s panic-stricken response to a forceful women tenant.

At the same time there are notes of disquiet. A young woman who services some older men in her room suffers the indignity of exposure to her family. Her suicide and the following mourning ritual is sombre.

The cast is excellent, striking just the right note this side of farce for much of the film. Their characters and idiosyncrasies are presented entirely convincingly. The cinematography by Okazaki Kôzô is finely done. He makes great use of the scope frame and there are some fine dollies in the interiors and some fine tracking shots in the exteriors. The music by Manabe  Riichirô for much of the time has a suitably jaunty quality which sets off the often racy visuals.

This is the first Japanese film farce that I have seen and it struck me as surprising but extremely funny. The set pieces are a real pleasure to watch. Unfortunately there were only about a dozen in the audience for this screening. And, as far as I could tell, despite being exactly opposite the University with its Film Studies and Film Production courses, there was a sad absence of academics and students. Equally unfortunate was that the closest this came to West Yorkshire was Sheffield. The Programme Notes list the venues hosting the Touring Programme. This includes towns like Colchester, Kendal and Lewes, all far smaller than Leeds. I read Roy’s comments (in his Glasgow Film Festival overview) about the absence of Asian films  in exhibition. I wonder how we can persuade our local exhibitors to support this excellent provision. I have seen a number of films in recent years in the Touring Programmes and they have all been worth the trip to Sheffield.

GFF18 #12: Madame (France 2017)

Maria (Rossy de Palma) makes an entrance as a Spanish guest

Alan Hunter introduced this screening in the midst of Glasgow’s ‘whiteout’ as a frivolous French comedy perfectly suited to the need to raise our spirits. He was right – it is a very silly film, but also at times very funny and it’s blessed by a performance at its centre by the great Rossy de Palma, everyone’s favourite supporting player in Almodóvar’s films, given a much bigger role.

How to describe the film? It’s a romantic comedy of sorts and also a fairytale, a ‘big house’ story with a tiny bit of social commentary/class consciousness – played as an ensemble piece. The set-up is a familiar ‘Americans in Paris’ story. Anne (Toni Collette) and Bob (Harvey Keitel) are a (supposedly) very wealthy couple spicing up their faltering marriage by taking over a grand house and gardens – somewhere still in the city but also exclusive. Anne has organised a dinner party for some distinguished guests but at the last moment her stepson, Steven (Tom Hughes) has turned up and invited himself. There are 13 for dinner and an extra guest must be found at the last moment. Anne decides to transform her maid Maria (Rossy de Palma) into a mysterious Spanish noblewoman – and instructs her to say little and be aloof. But a nervous Maria can’t disguise her real personality and she makes an unlikely conquest in the form of David (Michael Smiley), an art consultant who is there to attest to the provenance of a painting Bob wishes to sell. You can probably guess much of the rest of the plot of this riff on Cinderella.

Maria makes an impression on David (Michael Smiley)

From the cast list, you will have worked out that this is one of those wholly French films that are made in English for the international market. Writer-director Amanda Sthers joins the likes of Luc Besson and Mathieu Kassovitz in this kind of production. Sthers (real name Amanda Queffélec-Maruani) is a celebrated novelist, playwright and screenwriter in France and this is her second directorial venture. Some of Luc Besson’s English-language films such as Lucy (France 2014) have succeeded and similarly, other EuropaCorp (Besson’s company) productions such as the Taken and Transporter franchises have made money despite poor reviews. These films explore universal genres that appeal directly to audiences. I feel that Madame, though mainstream and accessible, won’t have the same appeal and so far its critical reception has not been great. The film was presented by StudioCanal at GFF and I fear that it may suffer the fate of several other ‘popular’ French films in the UK. StudioCanal tends to open them on a few screens and then rush out a DVD a couple of weeks later. Part of the problem is that the ageing, and therefore shrinking, UK audience for French films will ignore this English-language romcom as being ‘too frivolous’ and the general audience will find the French context slightly too different to their usual Anglo-American fare. Having said that, I noticed that the film has done reasonable business (over $US400,000) in Australia. Is that because of Toni Collette?

If you’d like to read a sympathetic review, I recommend ‘Eye for Film‘. I enjoyed the early part of the film and I did find some scenes genuinely funny. I’m always happy to watch Rossy de Palma. The narrative does depend on a sense of class difference but I’m not sure how well that works. Michael Smiley is a fine actor but I wasn’t convinced that he was as upper middle-class as the narrative suggested and overall the narrative doesn’t seem to be able to sustain itself across 90 minutes and lost its way towards the end.

GFF18 #10: Lucky (US 2017)

Howard (David Lynch) and Lucky (Harry Dean Stanton) in their local bar.

Many of the films I saw at Glasgow this year were ‘picks’ from Cannes, Toronto or other festivals that have already secured UK distribution deals. Lucky is listed as having been acquired by ‘UK Film and TV’, a company I know nothing about but, going by the enthusiastic reception at the screening we attended, it has a good opportunity here to create a ‘sleeper’ or a cult classic. I hope the film will get into cinemas, but I fear it might not. Its USP is that it is a final lead actor appearance for Harry Dean Stanton, one of the best-loved character stars of the last fifty years. Harry Dean died aged 91 last September and, although there is one more supporting role to come in a proposed 2018 release, Lucky will stand as his epitaph, especially as its script incorporates several aspects of Harry Dean’s own life story.

Ironically, the screening we watched took place in Screen 1 of the 18-screen Cineworld complex a few streets away from the Glasgow Film Theatre. Harry Dean made his name first in popular genre features. His role in Alien (1979) is possibly what made him a name to remember, but before that he had featured in a long string of Westerns, war combat and other action genre films since the mid 1950s, often ‘uncredited’. I think it was in films by Sam Peckinpah, Monte Hellman and Walter Hill that I first noticed him. In 1984 he had two major leading roles in Repo Man by Alex Cox and Paris, Texas by Wim Wenders. Later he became associated with David Lynch and his later career was again down the cast list, often in independent productions, often for ‘name’ directors. Seen on a large multiplex screen, Lucky is unusual as a ‘slow’ film with few young characters and very little action. But it has a great cast, a beautifully-written script by Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja and direction by another great supporting player John Carroll Lynch (last seen by me as Lyndon B. Johnson in Jackie) on his first film behind the camera. Photographed by the veteran Tim Suhrstedt, the film is stately in its movements – matching its 90 year-old leading man.

Although this is clearly a low-budget film, it looked great on a big screen. Most of the film was shot in Piru, Ventura County, California. IMDb lists 132 features filmed in this small community since the late 1940s. Shots of the surrounding desert were actually captured in Arizona. The film’s ‘action’ mainly follows Lucky (Harry Dean Stanton) from the time he gets up each day through his exercise regime, his visits to the diner and the store and finally each night to a small bar. The ‘rebel’ of the film is ‘President Roosevelt’, the 100 year-old tortoise belonging to Howard (played with great delicacy by David Lynch) who goes walkabout and nearly steals the film. What’s it about? Well, I guess it’s about growing old and keeping your dignity without accepting the bullshit that comes with lazy assumptions about old age. It’s also great that Lucky is an atheist facing his end – which seems all to rare in American cinema.

Lucky has three facets of Harry Dean Stanton’s own life. He comes from Kentucky, he has had experience of musical performance and during the Pacific War he was a cook aboard an ‘LST’ (Landing Ship, Tank). The one slight mistep in the film for me is when Lucky meets another veteran in the diner one day. Fred, the veteran is played by Tom Skerritt (who appeared alongside Harry Dean in Alien). Skerritt was a sprightly 83 when he appeared in Lucky, but even so he looks too young to have been in Okinawa in 1945 (when he would have been 12 years old). This might seem to be nit-picking but Lucky‘s focus on Harry Dean Stanton’s 90 year-old body is relentless (and refreshing). The scene between the two veterans could still work with Lucky talking about the Pacific War and Fred replying with memories of Vietnam or even Korea.

Lucky sings at a birthday party

Lucky also has music, including an amazing version of ‘Volver, Volver’ (written by Fernando Maldonado) which Lucky sings in Spanish at a birthday party (the title translates as ‘Return’ or ‘Come back’. This is a showstopper and the film ends with Johnny Cash over the credits singing ‘I See a Darkness’. Lucky is a film that represents a world many of us would like to live in. Here is a community where people care about each other. Where it doesn’t matter if you are black or white, anglo or hispanic. It’s a film without violence or unnecessary swearing. But it’s also a world where you can argue, regret and be human in many different ways. It’s certainly worth spending 86 minutes of your time exploring, so I urge you to seek it out.

Downsizing (US 2017)

This title receives its release across Britain on January 24th and should get a wide distribution: Picturehouse and Cineworld both have the film listed. I saw it at a preview screening by Picturehouse at the National Media Museum. This is the new film co-written and directed by Alexander Payne. His earlier films, like Sideways (2004) up to Nebraska (2013), have been relatively successful and critically praised. However, for me this film fell between two stools: it opens as a social satire (and is also science fiction) but in the last third changes into a socially conscious drama. It was that last third that I found increasingly less interesting and less entertaining.

The basic idea that drives the plot has been well aired in reviews, in the trailer and in publicity, so it is not a spoiler to explain this. [But some plot is discussed below]. In the pre credit opening we discover that Rolf Lassgård as Dr. Jørgen Asbjørnsen has developed a new scientific technique that shrinks living beings, including humans, approximately by a twelfth: humans are reduced to about five inches. At a scientific conference this new technique is presented as solution to global problems,including over-population, excess waste and climate change.

Ten years on 3% of the world population have faced this challenge, reduced their size and now live in special cocooned communities. But full-size human society has bought in facilities so that the different types of humans can, to a degree, interact. Matt Damon plays Paul Safranek, an occupational therapist, with Kristen Wiig as his wife Audrey Safranek. They sign up for the transformation. Part of their motivation is that they discover that after the operation they can move to one of the reduced gated communities and that their resources will transform in an inverse ratio to that of their size reduction: they will be wealthy there and have an affluent lifestyle.

Predictably things go wrong and Paul finds himself alone in Leisureland and minus a sizeable amount of his promised wealth. He works in the Leisureland equivalent of a Call Centre. Then he meets his neighbour Dušan Mirković (Christopher Waltz), who throws great parties and makes money in what is the ‘downsized’ black economy. Paul also meets Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a Vietnamese activist forcibly downsized and who ended up as an illegal migrant in the USA. Through Tran, a proper ‘Good Samaritan’ in the New Testament sense, Paul discovers the other side of the track/wall at Leisureland.

In the final third of the film Paul, Dušan and an associate, together with Tran, travel to the original ‘downsized’ community set in a Norwegian Fjord. Here they meet Doctor Jørgen and discover his latest plan to save humanity. The first two-thirds of the film struck me as a very funny satire. There are some very witty lines and some delightfully comic scenes like the opening ‘scientific’ conference. The contrasts between the world of five footers and fives ‘inchers’ is well drawn and makes great play with these. However, the last third, involving the trip to the Norwegian community, is increasingly dramatic rather than comic. The film’s tone changes from satire to a sort of ecological/religious representation. Dušan comments that this community is like ‘a cult’. I agreed with him but the film treats this seriously.

The film is well produced. The cast are fine and Hong Chau is particularly good. The production design, cinematography and editing worked well. I thought some of the soundtrack music was interesting but the credits ran by so fast I did not pick out the songs. The film relies on extensive CGI and special effects but this is well done, and most of the time I was not especially aware of the techniques.

In the early stages of the film my main pre-occupation was with the economic strand. Paul and Audrey find that their limited middle class means soar in value in Leisureland. The rationale for this appears to be that the much smaller commodities there are reduced in monetary value equivalent to their human owners. At one point Dušan point sought that the Cuban cigar that he is smoking costs 50 dollars in the full-size world but only a dollar here. I do not remember seeing a ‘downsized dollar’ but presumably it is one twelfth the size of the standard bill. It would appear that the plot assumes that the cost of reproducing labour power, which determines exchange value, is reduced in the same proportions in the downsized world. That might be so. But, in fact, the commodities in this world rely to a great degree on production in the full size world. And, Leisureland. which seems to be commercial company, operates there. Its source of income is not explained but the exchange values it deals in are ‘full-sized’. It did not add up: not just in Marxist terms but in terms of classical economics. I think someone like Ricardo would have found this puzzling. In the film this is not just a motivation for Paul and Audrey but the basis for the class divisions in the Leisureland complex. Other aspects of the plot are treated with greater care. So only organic matter can be downsized. We see that before the operation people’s fillings and such-like are removed. And we learn that people who have had hip operations cannot undergo the operation.

Even so I found the film very funny, at times witty, at times sardonic. There are accurate shafts at a number of deserving targets. Leisureland is surrounded by a wall, beyond which the proletarian servant class live. Their dark, dingy tower blocks are reminiscent of other dystopian settings. Given that the bulk of this class are Latinos I assume that this was a salvo at Donald Trump’s much lauded ‘wall’. The contrast between the predominately white inhabitants of Leisureland, with some middle-class African-Americans as well, and the ‘proles’ who perform the still necessary junk jobs is notable.

But the film has limitations. Early on, in a throw-away line, we hear that the Israelis are downsizing Palestinians. But the only victim of forcible downsizing central to the plot is Tran, the victim of the Vietnamese. I rather thought this one more barb against Vietnam by the losing side in that historic conflict.

And for the last third of the film the humour dissipates and the film seems to get serious about the ecological issue. But given downsizing would appear to be a fantasy I thought that the story needed something more ambitious that the solution proposed by the film. It does essay a romantic resolution, in fact reversing the break-up of earlier. But the increased level of sentiment in these final sequences does not fit with the satirical tone of the earlier segments.

The film was scripted by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor and their previous work includes Sideways and The Descendants (2011), It seems that they were working on this script between those two productions, seven years apart. This might explain matters. Much of Downsizing offers the wit and humour that made Sideways such a success. But the final third of the film is closer to the drama of The Descendants, including the larger does of sentiment in that film.

The film was shot digitally and is distributed as D-Cinema. It is in colour and a 2.39:1 ratio. The dialogue includes English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Icelandic and Norwegian. Only parts of this have English subtitles but I did not have any problems following the plot on other occasions. I found Downsizing entertaining for much of its two hours plus, and the final sequences are interesting because of what has gone before. But with a darker and still satiric resolution I think the overall film would have been better.

Glory (Slava, Bulgaria-Greece 2016)

‘Linesman’ on the railway, Tzanko (Stefan Denolyubov)

This is the second of a loose trilogy of Bulgarian films about social issues in one of the newer member countries of the EU by the team of Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov. I reviewed the couple’s earlier film The Lesson (2014) here. The second film follows the first in looking for ideas in local newspaper stories which are then used as a stimulus for developing more complex dramas. The first film seemed to me a social realist drama which used some familiar genre tropes at certain moments. I thought this second film was slightly different in bringing together two central characters whose stories mesh in interesting ways and which was mostly coherent in engaging with genre ideas. I’d need to go back to the first film to check, but it might be that the camerawork by Krum Rodriguez is this time ‘looser’ with hand-held shallow focus in the modern style rather than the ‘documentary observation’ of The LessonSome of the same crew and the two principal actors reappear from the first film.

The punning title needs translating to reveal its significance. It refers to both the recognition of a ‘hero’ in the tradition of the worker-heroes of the era under communism and to the object which is used to represent that recognition – a traditional Russian wristwatch with the brand-name ‘Slava’ or ‘Glory’. The worker in this case is Tzanko Petrov, a ‘linesman’ on the railway who checks the track and in particular the rails and their attachment to the sleepers. One day he discovers a pile of banknotes lying on the track. He quickly decides to alert the police. This action is brought to the attention of the ministry of transport and in particular the energetic and relentless Julia Staykova, the head of public relations. She immediately begins a media campaign which will see Tzanko summoned to Sofia where the minister will present him with a new watch. But Tzanko is not ideal PR material. He is a loner with a speech impediment. Julia herself is also distracted by her own personal issues and in particular her current infertility treatment. Added to this is the context of corruption in the operation of the railways – the reason why celebrating Tzanko’s public-spirited action is so important for good PR.

Trousers must be exchanged on the orders of Julia (Margita Gosheva, left)!

Out of this promising mixture of narrative threads Grozeva and Valchanov have created a black comedy which works on many levels, shifting from moments of near farce (more trousers being dropped for non-sexual reasons than I’ve seen for a long time) to sometimes quite sad and sometimes quite brutal episodes. There is an open ending, but one with little hope that all will end well.

Julia Staykova is played by Margita Gosheva, the teacher from The Lesson and again she gives an excellent performance as the driven Julia. Stefan Denolyubov, the moneylender in The Lesson unrecognisable behind long hair and a wild beard, plays Tzanko. His is an equally good performance in a role which, like Gosheva’s, requires a wide range of skills. In the Press Book on the New Wave Film website, the directors suggest that they first thought of the PR boss as a man. I was surprised because in the UK I tend to assume PR people are very often women. I think they made the right decision in the end.

The EU does play a role in the narrative, if only because the corruption on the railways might cause problems for future EU support which is being discussed in the background as the events unfold. Otherwise the main social issue in the film is perhaps the extent to which traditional (or perhaps ‘pre-1990’) Bulgarian society is coping with global modernity, whether it is mobile phones being answered in the fertility clinic in the midst of consultations with a doctor or the frantic attempts of a TV crew to present the best image of the railways in an online news report. Tzanko is a little behind these changes as a rural worker, though possibly only because he still has a human touch. Crucially it is the loss of his Russian watch with the engraving on the back representing his father’s love that he really cares about.

There were just a couple of puzzling moments in the film. At one point a prostitute appears and I wasn’t sure why. And the infertility treatment baffled me as I wasn’t quite sure what was going on. Otherwise I was engaged throughout. I watched the film in a new cinema, part of a multi-purpose arts centre. The disadvantage I discovered was that the removable seating (to convert the venue for theatre and music events) creaked and groaned as people came in late and I lost concentration during the opening scenes. I’m increasingly concerned by the new kinds of auditoria that are being opened – I haven’t yet ventured into an Everyman or an Odeon de Luxe with squidgy sofas and tables. Oh, how I pine for the artplex in Nimes with a comfortable seat, complete darkness and no distractions! Still I was grateful to see Glory in one of the handful of venues to risk a subtitled film in the ‘Awards’ season. Don’t miss it if it comes your way – this director couple have real talent.

The Party (UK 2017)

Bill (Tim Spall) with vinyl and red wine

Why did Sally Potter make The Party? Here’s a film that reached cinemas as a 71 minute black & white drama shot in just two weeks on, I assume, a low budget – though there are quite a few well-known pieces of music and a starry cast to pay for. Apart from the fact that images are composed in ‘Scope, the most ‘cinematic’ ratio, there is little to distinguish The Party from a TV play or a West End play. I’ve not been tempted so far to watch one of the ‘live’ filmed plays beamed into cinemas, but I wonder whether they are very different? To be fair, The Party is shot by Aleksei Rodionov a Russian cinematographer with a very varied list of credits from the sublime (including Potter’s Orlando (1992)) to the much less so. In this case he glides the camera between four parts of a London townhouse and its carefully shielded backyard and provides some startling close-ups, neither of which would work on stage.

I suppose the answer to my question is provided by Sophie Mayer in her Sight and Sound piece. She describes the work as a “brisk, coruscatingly witty farce”. Mayer goes on to see the film as: “. . . a comedy that bites because it is utterly and urgently of our moment”. The subhead to suggests that “Sally Potter probes liberty and the state of Europe’s left”. I’m dubious about these claims.

April (Patricia Clarkson) and Gottfried (Bruno Ganz) are clearly estranged

Let’s start with an outline of the plot. ‘The party’ concerns Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) who has today been appointed to Shadow Minister of Health and she’s giving a drinks party. The only reason to mention the ‘European left’ is that one of her guests is German – Gottfried, an elderly man (played by a sprightly Bruno Ganz) who has become ‘New Age’ in his old age. A practical (and positive) point to make about Potter’s script is that she has provided four female parts and only three for males. Janet’s husband, retired academic Bill (Tim Spall) is seemingly ‘far away’, listening to his music collection with a large glass of red and a puzzled and rather forlorn expression. The other man is Tom (Cillian Murphy) – a young ‘wanker-banker’ as someone refers to him. The women include a lesbian married couple, Martha (Cherry Jones), former colleague of Bill, and pregnant Jinny (Emily Mortimer) and April (Patricia Clarkson) the partner of Gottfried (and long-time friend of Janet). There is also someone still to arrive – Tom’s wife Marianne (who is also Janet’s assistant/advisor). We find out what ails Bill and what drives the manic Tom – and these revelations lead to the whole set of relationships being challenged and recriminations being carried out. Formally, the play is a farce.

April and Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas)

The major problem for Mayer’s argument (and everyone else who sees this as some kind of political satire) is that it is already out of date. Sally Potter is supposed to have written the script in 2015, presumably before or during the General Election campaign. The Labour Party that has emerged since Jeremy Corbyn became leader would be unlikely to include a character like Janet as Shadow Health Minister. Indeed a quick scan through the Shadow Cabinet today shows a significant shift to Northern, often working-class, women rather than the southern middle-class typified by Janet. Sally Potter couldn’t know how these changes would work out and the Labour Party is never named – but the dialogue about health issues makes it difficult to see Janet as anything other than a Labour MP. It felt to me that this was actually quite an old-fashioned play, but that may be as much to do with the form as with the characters. I can see the links to Edward Albee (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf), Beckett (waiting for the arrival of Marianne) and Mike Leigh (Abigail’s Party?).

Unsurprisingly, the film/play is well acted. A friend queried whether I had laughed (on the basis that it was a middle-class play and perhaps you had to know this world to laugh?). Well, I did laugh on several occasions but I also got bored and in the end it didn’t add up to much for me. Bill’s music, an eclectic mix of jazz, blues, reggae, Cuban and tango was very welcome as a distraction – and I don’t think I really considered it as a commentary on the absence of issues of colonial history and exploitation in the script as suggested by Sophie Mayer.

Words and Pictures (US-Canada-Australia 2013)

Dina (Juliette Binoche) and Jack (Clive Owen)

It was a rainy Saturday night with nothing on TV so we rented Words and Pictures. I selected this on the basis that it was a Fred Schepisi film starring Juliette Binoche and Clive Owen and it was described on iTunes as a comedy. This film wasn’t, as far as I’m aware, released in UK cinemas. That says more about assumptions about UK cinema audiences than the quality of the film. And I think that older audiences might enjoy the film. Yes, it’s highly conventional and predictable but Binoche grappling with Clive Owen is always going to be watchable.

The setting is Vancouver standing in for somewhere in New England where Jack Marcus (Clive Owen) is an English honours teacher in a prep school, having once been a promising writer. Things are not going well for Jack. His students are not engaged and his son barely speaks to him (I don’t remember any references to the young man’s mother). As a result, Jack is hitting the vodka and his tenure at the school is starting to look precarious. The ‘inciting incident’ for the narrative is the arrival of a new ‘fine art honours’ teacher Dina Delsanto (Juliette Binoche). She’s beautiful, intelligent, and talented – and she has rheumatoid arthritis which is developing quickly. Jack is woken from his slumber by her arrival and he playfully challenges her with word games. He’s surprised when she promotes her art work over his literature with the students she shares with him. He retaliates with a challenge to show that the old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words is true. (He also recognises that the challenge may produce student work to fill his ailing school magazine – that the principal intends to close down.)

Dina with her most promising student Emily (Valerie Tian)

The setting and plot do perhaps suggest Schepisi’s fellow Australian Peter Weir’s Dead Poet’s Society and in a different way, The Mona Lisa Smile with Julia Roberts. But those films combined the question of what happens to ‘maverick’ teachers with the story of the impact of their teachings on their students’ lives. Words and Pictures is really only interested in the students as devices to develop the storyline about the potential romance between Owen and Binoche. I don’t think that it is a conventional romcom, however. It is certainly witty and there are moments when it seems about to get serious about the afflictions suffered by the two teachers, both of whom struggle to get back to their best artistic endeavours. But in the end, Jack’s alcoholism seems rather too easy to overcome and Dina’s arthritis is similarly suddenly controllable by medication. A conventional ending beckons and this is indeed mainstream entertainment. The pleasure is in the central pairing. I think Clive Owen is a very under-rated actor and here he is presented as dishevelled, bleary-eyed and far from a romantic lead, but he makes the character work. Juliette Binoche produced her own artworks for the film and the scenes of her composing her large paintings despite her disability are very well done. The two leads work well together.

The film seems to have suffered from an unusual limited distribution pattern over the whole summer of 2014 in North America, but only in a maximum of 216 cinemas for a few weeks and the rest of the time much smaller numbers – I’m assuming that for several weeks it only screened in Canada. It doesn’t seem to have been released in the UK or France. I hope it has found its audience on DVD and download – this is the kind of small film that has been most squeezed in the market over the last few years and it’s the kind of film we miss.