Category: Comedies

The Favourite (UK-Ireland-US 2018)

Emma Stone as Abigail schemes to become ‘the favourite’

The Favourite was released in the UK on New Year’s Day and seems to have started the period of, for me at least, the dark days of ‘Awards Season’ when even the most clued-up programmers in specialised cinemas are forced to screen every English language ‘art’ film angling for Oscars and BAFTAs. I fear that The Favourite may be another Three Billboards or La La Land – a film with genuine merits that is taken up by critics, heavily promoted and embraced by a significant audience, but which on closer inspection turns out to be seriously flawed. There are some significant differences compared to the other two titles mentioned above. The Favourite has three strong performances by powerful female actors and it appears to have been embraced by women in particular. It clearly ‘speaks’ to certain female audiences – but what does it say?

I’ve seen only one of the previous films of Yorgos Lanthimos, Dogtooth (Greece 2009), and I had a similar reaction to that film so it was a bit of a gamble to choose to watch The Favourite (but that’s what happens in Awards Season – there is often nothing else to watch). After Dogtooth and one further Greek film, Lanthimos moved into English language films with The Lobster (2015) and The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017). He has maintained an Irish-UK production base and worked with a raft of high-profile actors including Olivia Colman and Rachel Weisz, both of whom signed up for The Favourite.

Rachel Weisz is Sarah Churchill the current incumbent as ‘favourite’

The Favourite has a screenplay written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara and it focuses on the triangular relationship between three women. Olivia Colman plays Queen Anne the reigning British monarch between 1702 and 1714 and Rachel Weisz plays Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, one of the most powerful women in England and Anne’s companion since the two were young women. Now Sarah acts as Anne’s go-between on a daily basis, dealing with Parliament as ‘Keeper of the Privy Purse’ and generally supporting the monarch who is plagued by several afflictions (and who has lost 17 children through miscarriages, stillbirths and infant/child deaths). Anne and Sarah are very close – intimate in fact. In what is in some ways a conventional narrative structure, the ‘inciting incident’ is the sudden arrival of Sarah’s distant cousin Abigail (Emma Stone). Families then were very large and it was not unusual to have little knowledge of some of the large numbers of cousins. Abigail first works as a servant, having lost her status as a ‘lady’. But she is clever and soon she gains royal favour and begins her ascent to eventually rival Sarah.

Olivia Colman is Queen Anne

The triangular relationship was also the basis for the stage play Queen Anne written by Helen Edmundson and first performed in 2015 and again in 2017. Although dealing with the same three characters and some of the same events, the play appears to take a different approach. Deborah Davis, a historian, first started work on her script for The Favourite in 1998 and found plenty of source material. It’s perhaps surprising then that the narrative ignores some of the major events and political discourses of the period. The central characters are all historical and the narrative itself is not that far from the historical record but the presentation of the events and their (lack of) background/context meant that I spent half the film trying to work out why the context was so confusing. It’s not a period I know well but I know enough to feel uncomfortable. I should note here that on this blog we have had some conflicting views about historical accuracy in recent films, especially in Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy’s House and Amma Asante’s films Belle and A United Kingdom. But those films were attempting to comment on specific events which had great historical import. The Favourite is an ‘intimate comedy-drama’ with seemingly no interest in the period or its politics.

I can certainly see why Olivia Colman and Emma Stone were so keen to take on their roles. They both have great fun taking on the challenges of roles which push them through a wide range of physical actions and unusual situations and they are both very good and very entertaining. I think Rachel Weisz has a tougher gig as Sarah, the seemingly colder and harsher character who seemed to me conversely the more sympathetic. I think she is equally good but I expect the other two will get the nominations.

The men are important only because they are useful to the women in the narrative. This is Joe Alwyn as Masham

The triangular drama works effectively but I didn’t find the film particularly funny if that is what it is meant to be. (The comedy is mostly about eccentricity and silliness and posh people swearing – even though Anne’s life has had tragedy.) The film looks very handsome and when you sign up Sandy Powell as costume designer you always get a period piece which at least looks interesting. I’m less sure about Robbie Ryan’s cinematography. Usually I admire it, but here he seems to have been persuaded by his director to use an array of fish-eye and other distorting lenses – as if he was creating images for a 1970s prog-rock album cover (see the trailer below). Similarly, I didn’t much like the mix of various classical music pieces (from different time periods) coupled with some odd jarring sound effects. Lanthimos has said he wanted to make a film as much about ‘now’ as about the early 18th century. I don’t have a problem with the intention and moving away from traditional British realist period dramas is definitely no bad thing. I just didn’t enjoy the mix of ideas here. Robbie Ryan also shot Andrea Arnold’s controversial take on Wuthering Heights (UK 2011) and that worked well. Lanthimos has also stated his wish to make a statement to support the #MeToo movement by creating powerful female characters who are the centre of attention in roles that are often taken by men. Again, no problem with that. But what is the film really about? Is it any more than the rivalry of two cousins to become favourites of a Queen? What does Anne get from her relationships apart from enjoying the distraction from pain and loneliness? That does make a good drama but does it justify the high production values? How do these powerful women have an impact on the people and politics of ‘Great Britain’?

The Tory Front Bench with Nicholas Hoult (centre) as Lord Harley, leader of the Opposition – do they resemble the Tories now?

Let me just suggest a few of the things that happened during Anne’s reign that don’t appear in the film. The English army led by Marlborough is referred to as fighting ‘the French’. The war is treated as an English-French contest important mainly because of its cost. Queen Anne jokes about it as being like attending a party. It’s actually the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-14), a European War involving all the major states of Europe and a colonial war in which Britain fought France and Spain in North America. Marlborough was one of the two Allied commanders in Europe. Britain financed the allies and came out of the war as the major European maritime and commercial power, gaining important territories from Spain and France after the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. The other main event, in 1707, was the Act of Union between England and Scotland so what was originally an English army became a British army. Both these issues were underpinned by the struggle to confirm the Protestant dominance in Britain and to control the Catholics. Anne was raised as a Protestant but her father James II had been a Catholic. Differences between the two political parties, the Whigs and the Tories, were also partially concerned with religious affiliation. None of these issues appear in the film. The film has Anne and Sarah meeting with both Whigs and Tories to debate and decide issues of financing the war and raising taxes. I’m not a constitutional historian but the scenes in the film strike me as unlikely given that Anne was deemed to be a ‘constitutional monarch’ not a monarch with absolute authority – she was the last British monarch to refuse to sign a parliamentary bill in 1707 (concerning the Scottish Militia).

Everyone suffers indignity in this ‘romp’

The film was shot mainly in two locations, Hatfield House, home of the Cecil family, and Hampton Court Palace. Anne doesn’t go into London to Whitehall and Westminster and we never see any of her subjects except for the courtiers and servants. You may argue that none of this matters and I’m sure that most audiences, especially in North America but also probably in the UK, won’t have their enjoyment of the film spoiled in any way if they don’t know the background – even if this story is set only a few years after the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Yes, a film about these three characters can work with only a very hazy notion of life at the start of the 18th century and there is nothing wrong with a personal drama about three women. But if Lanthimos wants to explore women as powerful characters whose activities have an impact on millions of lives, we do need to understand a little more about that society. I’m also amazed that the film never seemed to refer to Sarah as ‘Sarah Churchill’. Especially since the producers had previously made The Darkest Hour and Winston Churchill spent much of his time thinking about his celebrated ancestor as one of Britain’s “greatest military commanders”.

Playing an Elton John song over the closing credits (which are almost impossible to read) will either make or break the film according to taste.

Vivement Dimanche! (Confidentially Yours, France 1983)

Barbara and Julien working together – one of several moments when analogue phone technology comes to the fore (one of several images from dvdbeaver.com)

Christmas Day this year meant our biennial treat at home with a digital projector, a screen and a DVD of the last film by François Truffaut. I’d not seen it before and I thoroughly enjoyed it despite having had too many glasses of wine. I’ve watched sequences again before starting this post.

I realise with horror that it is 50 years since I watched my first Truffaut, Baisers volés (1968), and I’ve grown old with the director’s alter ego Antoine Doinel. Over the years I have been mainly a faithful fan but occasionally I’ve become impatient with what I’ve seen as Truffaut’s failure to leave an adolescent view of women behind (which may also be a fear that I’m just as guilty). In this last film, which was released only a few months before his tragically early death, there are still traces of his adolescent desires but they are explored in a very playful narrative. Added to that, the film stars his then partner the terrific Fanny Ardant and mixes together the director’s ‘personal’ cinematic flourishes with his love for Hitchcock and film noir/pulp fiction- and touches on other ideas about genre. Truffaut’s script, co-written with long-term collaborators Suzanne Schiffman and Jean Aurel, is an adaptation of the ‘hard-boiled’ crime novel The Long Saturday Night (1962) by Charles Williams. It’s appropriate in a way that Truffaut’s final film returns him to the world of noir fiction associated with the idea of the polar in France. Wikipedia suggests that much more of Williams’ work is currently in print in France than in the US. Truffaut’s three earlier forays in adapting similar books are Tirez sur le pianiste (1960, based on a David Goodis novel), La mariée était en noir (1968, Cornell Woolrich) and La sirène du Mississippi (1969 again based on a Cornel Woolrich novel). These last two films both feature femmes fatales in the form of Jeanne Moreau and Catherine Deneuve. The difference in Vivement Dimanche! is that Fanny Ardant’s character is an investigator and we don’t think of her as possibly deceitful (though there are other women in the film who are). The film is also comic and almost surreal in certain scenes.

Like the couple in a Hitchcock ‘romance thriller’, Barbara and Julien don’t always get along . . .

The film is set in Provence and begins with the murder of a duck hunter. We don’t get a good view of who pulls the trigger but suspicion immediately falls on Julien Vercel (Jean-Louis Trintignant) who has been hunting in the same area. He runs an estate agency (real estate) and on return from his hunting trip falls out with his secretary/receptionist/office manager Barbara (Fanny Ardant). The case against Vercel strengthens when it is revealed that the murdered man was sleeping with Vercel’s wife. As coincidences and connections pile up and more murders follow, Vercel is forced into hiding and Barbara becomes the effective investigator of the crimes.

Truffaut decided to make the film, shot by Néstor Almendros, in black and white. According to Serge Toubiana, in the introduction included on the DVD, this decision caused problems with French TV which co-funded the production and at the time was committed to ‘colour-only’ productions. Truffaut felt that colour on his earlier noirs in 1968/9 was a mistake and he was justified to a certain extent in that Vivement Dimanche! was commercially successful. He also urged Almendros to work quickly to create a ‘B movie look’. In doing so he seems to have adopted a certain view of Hollywood film noir (several ‘A movie’ noirs, especially from RKO, seem to have been viewed as ‘B’s). It also confuses Truffaut’s other aim which seems to have been to create a Hitchcockian ‘romance thriller’. This type of film is often defined by The 39 Steps (1935) or its later version, North by North West (1959). In these films the hero is falsely accused, goes on the run and is helped by a woman. The couple fall for each other, but not before they have fought and perhaps deceived each other unsure of the other person’s motives. The 39 Steps was a black & white Hitchcock, as were most of his films until the late 1940s. North by Northwest was widescreen and colour. Vivement Dimanche! melds some typical Hitchcockian use of close-ups and noir shadows with the more pulpish action of 1940s noir. Barbara at first seems to be in dispute with Julien but later becomes the active protagonist positively helping him. Truffaut’s regular composer Georges Delerue provides a score that is effective for suspense and danger but also for ‘romance’.

Supt. Santelli (with the shotgun) at the police station with Julien Vercel

In the polar (roughly defined as the French crime film), there is often a specific relationship between the criminal protagonist and the police Inspector who is trying to catch him. The Inspector is also often a rather eccentric character. In Truffaut’s film, the chief police officer Santelli has his comedy moment when he fails to control the tap (faucet) on a wash basin, an incident which seems to confirm his status. The other added ingredient in the film is an amateur theatre troupe. Barbara is a member of the troupe and as well as comic interludes, her role in the current production provides her with a costume which she finds herself wearing during her sleuthing – and then being forced to cover up with a raincoat. Truffaut reportedly dreamed up the idea of the narrative when somebody said that images of Fanny Ardant in a raincoat in her previous Truffaut film La femme d’à côté (1981) reminded them of film noir.

Julien seems almost transfixed by his wife’s stockinged leg

The capture of the murderer

I think what surprised me most about the film was Jean-Louis Trintignant’s performance as Julien. It seems rather stolid and lacking either the elegance of a Cary Grant or the vulnerability of a Jimmy Stewart in Hitchcockian versions of a similar character. But what it does do (presumably deliberately) is to thrown the spotlight on Fanny Ardant who is elegant, beautiful, resourceful and light-hearted – combining all the qualities of both partners in the Hitchcockian couple. Truffaut is often said to have favoured weak men and strong women and to have argued that stories need to be built around women rather than men. In Vivement Dimanche! he seemed finally to have found his female hero. Perhaps it is significant that at the end of the film, the line which I always associate with Truffaut, “Women are magic!”, is given to the murderer. Earlier in the film, Julien is seen staring at his wife’s legs as she fusses with her stockings a reference back to the almost fetishistic interest shown by Truffaut’s male characters in women who are often older or wiser. Fanny Ardant in heels is also taller than Jean-Louis Trintignant and reminds us of the scene in Baisers volés when Jean-Pierre Leaud’s Antoine Doinel walks with a woman who is a head taller. Other elements in the film linked to Truffaut’s personal interests include a popular cultural reference to pony-trap racing (trotting?) in Nice and a visit to the cinema which is showing Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 film Paths of Glory. Truffaut also repeats one of Godard’s questionable choices- asking his partner to play a prostitute, though in this case Fanny Ardant simply dresses appropriately in order to visit a red light district as part of her investigation.

The original novel was written in the 1960s and because of the choice of black & white and the avoidance of any modern(ist) architecture, I’m wondering if the film is meant to be set in the 1960s or to suggest the era. No doubt car enthusiasts could tell by the models on display. The Provence setting (IMDb suggests Hyères and Var as locations) makes me wonder whether some scenes were shot in the Victorine Studios in Nice (where Truffaut shot La nuit américaine in 1973) but research suggests that the studio was in a very bad way by 1983. Even so some scenes feel like they are studio sets, including Julien’s ‘hideaway’ in the back of his business premises. This is one of the surreal elements in the film as Truffaut’s mise en scène and camera movement makes it impossible to properly place how the back room leads into the front office (in other words it seems obvious that the police would search the building looking for him).

The plot extends the ‘long Saturday night’ or, at least, I think it does. The plotting is so loose that I wasn’t sure of the ‘story time’ or the geography of the events. The English-language title, Confidentially Yours seems almost meaningless. Despite this I think the film works very well as a stylish romp with Fanny Ardant excelling in her role. I must go soon to the previous Truffaut in which she stars as ‘the woman next door’.

Truffaut on the set of the back room at the real estate office with Fanny Ardant

Sorry to Bother You (US 2018)

Tessa Thompson as ‘Detroit’ and Lakeith Stanfield as ‘Cash’

This is an African-American Independent film that has received significant support for a début feature. The director Boots Riley appears on IMDb with a smattering of different credits as a writer and performer and he has had a successful musical career through the rapping collective The Coup, but for his first feature he has recruited Danny Glover, Forest Whitaker and Rosario Dawson in small parts and has Tessa Thompson in the lead female role. His protagonist Cassius (Cash) Green is played by Lakeith Stanfield, also an established actor, and Riley finds himself as the cover story for Sight and Sound‘s December issue. Inside, the interview conducted by Kaleem Aftab reveals that Riley comes from a family of left-wing activists in Oakland, that he went to film school and that he was inspired by Spike Lee. His film was also supported by the Sundance festival and is distributed by Focus Features/Universal in the UK.

I found the film interesting throughout, but there were also moments when I thought it wasn’t working. Adam Nayman’s review in Sight and Sound makes a couple of points that seem relevant to me. The first is to compare Sorry to Bother You to a film like Black Panther (which I haven’t seen) and to suggest that whatever the flaws in Boots Riley’s film, it is straightforwardly honest in its attempt to expose several different but connected political issues. This is quite different from the political impact of a ‘branded blockbuster’ which requires critical attention to reveal its possible political discourses. Secondly, Nayman suggests that Sorry to Bother You bears a resemblance to Jordan Peele’s Get Out from 2017 and that certainly did occur to me (Peele was also to be offered the role of Cassius until he had his own big success). These two connections go some way towards explaining why Sorry to Bother You has attracted attention.

Cash at his phone cubicle with Langston (Danny Glover)

In attempting to ‘read’ Sorry to Bother You, I did feel caught between a sense of missing some cultural references (e.g. rap music) but also being sidetracked by other filmic references. Our hero ‘Cash’ starts the film broke and living in his uncle’s garage with his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson), a performance artist who earns some money as a ‘human billboard’ advertising local businesses. Cash needs a job and is hired by a ‘telemarketing’ company. This explains the title which is the opening line of a standard script for ‘cold calling’. Riley makes the intrusive nature of the business clear by literally throwing Cash into the same frame as the poor unfortunates who answer their phones. Very quickly, Cash learns from an older colleague (played by Danny Glover) that he will be more successful if he uses his ‘white voice’. He also learns that if he shows promise by hitting high sales targets he might be promoted to ‘power caller’ and ascend to the top, exclusive, floor of the building. Meanwhile, references on local TV and billboards to a new social work/housing programme suggest that this is in fact an ‘alternate Oakland’ in which private enterprise is developing a new quasi-fascist system of communal living and working – mostly it seems for African-Americans.

At this point we realise that this isn’t a simple social comedy but some kind of absurdist satire on US capitalism and its dependence on racial divisions. The narrative then has to bring together the telemarketing scam and the work programme and develop Cash’s role as the seeming innocent who will be drawn into the process and will be offered inducements that will persuade him to betray his friends and co-workers. We know that Cash is an intelligent and generally likeable character who could resist, but the lure of riches is strong when you are broke. Riley chooses to develop a plot involving unionisation of the telemarketing drones and Detroit develops a performance piece which savagely critiques the exploitation of African resources and points the finger at US policy and all individuals who buy phones and other technologies dependent on coltan from the Congo (DRC). The stage is set when Cash is promoted and meets the figure behind the work programme (played by Arnie Hammer). At this point the similarity to Get Out becomes apparent.

I don’t want to spoil the narrative but from this brief plot outline it should be clear that Riley is ambitious in his targets and that’s no bad thing. But political satire is very difficult to pull off and the melding of comedy, politics and fantasy is particularly difficult. In the Sight and Sound interview, Riley says that he spent some time with Spike Jonze and Kaleem Aftab the interviewer later suggests that the film is ‘Brechtian’. Pushing together these two sources of ideas about how to present a narrative gives an indication of the problem Riley faces. I’d add a third in that I was reminded of David Cronenberg’s Existenz (Canada 1999) described by some commentators as a ‘science fiction-body horror film’. I might also add that several lesser American independent films flashed briefly across my mind. And for me that is Riley’s biggest problem – a lack of a consistent tone to his film so that it retains its control over an argument. I can see that there is an argument that this very lack of consistency is itself Brechtian, pushing the audience away and making us think about the film’s construction, but I think other elements work against this idea and that overall the narrative is conventional even as it draws on various genre repertoires.

Director Boots Riley with Steven Yuen as ‘Squeeze’

The supporting roles in the film are interesting. The union organiser in the telemarketing company is ‘Squeeze’ played by the Korean-American actor Steven Yeun. I don’t know whether this has any significance in an Oakland context but it does make the multi-racial union of workers a more potent political force. On the other hand, I think that Tessa Thompson as Detroit is under-used apart from her very disturbing performance piece. I thought she was very good in Dear White People (2014) but again under-used in Creed (2015). She’s also featured strongly in a wide range of other major films. Women generally don’t figure strongly in Sorry to Bother You. They are often simply background figures necessary to present a comic sequence (Rosario Dawson is the voice in the lift to the exclusive floor) and that is definitely a weakness. The sense of (in)coherence is my main concern with the film. But perhaps this can be forgiven in a début film? There are enough well-made political points alongside the visual inventiveness and successful comedy scenes plus music performed by the Coup to make this a film to be recommended and to push forward Boots Riley as a filmmaker to look out for in future. It’s an intelligent film and I’ve deliberately not mentioned some of the links to other specific satires to avoid spoilers.

The trailer doesn’t give away everything – which is a relief:

Touch and Go (UK 1955)

Touch and Go is an Ealing film I knew nothing about before I watched it on Talking Pictures TV, though most of the cast and crew were familiar. When I looked the title up in Charles Barr’s Ealing Studios book I discovered that it is one of the prime exhibits in his condemnation of the ‘End’ of Ealing in the 1950s. It’s hard to argue against Barr’s analysis of what the film represents in terms of a studio that appeared to have lost its way and indeed its purpose by 1955-6. To emphasise his argument Barr contrasts the film with The Ladykillers, one of the few successful films from the same period. It’s a legitimate comparison in the sense that both films are shot in Technicolor and located in specific districts of London – and both were written by William Rose. But one has great vitality and a real cutting edge while the other is ‘suffocating’ and ‘stodgy’. My own preference is to try to find something of interest in everything I watch and Touch and Go reveals some aspects of British culture in the 1950s, even if the overall effect is indeed ‘deadening’.

The film’s plot is very simple. Jim Fletcher (Jack Hawkins) is a furniture designer who stomps off from his job because the firm’s head man (James Hayter) refuses to consider expanding production of Jim’s modernist furniture. This is a classic Ealing set-up of traditional v. modern written by Ealing stalwart Rose from an idea conceived by himself and his wife Tania. Jim decides that his family should emigrate to Australia – his wife Helen (Margaret Johnston) and 18 year-old daughter Peggy (June Thorburn) having little chance to object. The main section of the narrative then concerns the last few days before departure from Tilbury. The second ‘inciting incident’ is provoked by the family’s ageing black cat, a cunning brute named Heathcliff, who causes Peggy to meet a young engineering student Richard (John Fraser) and very quickly fall in love with time running out before ship sails. Will they actually get on board? Well, what do you think?

Technically, there is little wrong with a film shot by the great Douglas Slocombe and though it may have been Michael Truman’s first directorial credit he had been an editor on many of the Ealing classics of the late 1940s and a producer on similarly well-known films in the early 1950s. This film is edited by Peter Tanner, also a very experienced Ealing hand. The cast too are fine with Hawkins turning his contrasting avuncular charm and rages towards domestic struggles and occasional comic interludes with his neighbour, Reg (Roland Culver). The plotting includes some important details such as Jim’s recognition that Richard will be facing National Service, a concept most audiences under 70 will probably have forgotten about. Richard also wants to be an engineer and seems enthusiastic about something that was once a British strength. By contrast, the script does nothing with Jim’s designer skills, his role as a designer is a plot point and not much else. Heathcliff is actually the most interesting character.

Richard (John Fraser) and Peggy (June Thorburn) fall quickly for each other, but their passion is represented by a meeting in an ice cream parlour.

The film’s setting is the Fletcher home in a Chelsea house with a basement kitchen. The house is part of a studio set with a pub handy across the road. It’s very quiet and Jim and Reg can stand in the middle of the road in the late evening, drunkenly talking and larking about. A few yards from the set is the ‘real’ London of the Albert Bridge and the Embankment – which is actually quite well-used as the setting for the romance.  Barr’s comparison with The Ladykillers is valid, but the more revealing comparison is with John Ford’s Gideon’s Day (UK 1958). This odd excursion for Ford is a mix of police procedural and family melodrama, filmed in Technicolor with Hawkins as Inspector Gideon and also paterfamilias with a lively daughter played with pizzaz by Anna Massey, a music student who becomes involved with a bright young police constable. Ironically, Ford’s film was co-scripted by the Ealing writer ‘Tibby’ Clarke (writer of Passport to Pimlico and The Lavender Hill Mob). The script is full of comic moments amongst some rather grisly crime stories. My focus in the comparison with Touch and Go is the contrasting characterisation of the daughters. June Thorburn as Peggy is lovely and convincing in her role but she seems a young 18 (she was actually 24) and the script has her attending what appears to be a secretarial school for middle-class girls. The mothers in these films seem to be stay at home housewives even though their children are independent young women. Anna Massey’s music student has the banter of an arts student and the drive and the wit. Peggy looks beautiful on the dancefloor in her rather formal gown, even though the music is trad jazz with a trumpet solo played by Richard’s fellow student. Bill Rose’s script is so timid that the potential in the characters rarely develops into anything. Charles Barr makes the point that the Ealing films in his ‘End’ phase seem almost primed to become TV sitcoms, soaps and dramas. At the end of 1955 the Ealing Studios lot was actually sold to the BBC and, breaking with Rank, Ealing moved to the MGM British lot in Borehamwood in 1957. The Ealing site would now become the production centre for ‘cop shows’. Jack Hawkins made The Long Arm for Ealing in 1956, a ‘police procedural’ film in some ways looking forward to Z-Cars on TV. Pat Jackson’s Ealing film about nurses in training, The Feminine Touch (1956) could also be seen as the precursor for hospital soaps. Following ITV’s Emergency Ward 10 (1957-67), the BBC created Angels (1975-83) focusing on student nurses.

The potential of Touch and Go to tap into the migration narrative of the post-war period seems to have been deliberately ignored and this seems strange given Ealing’s ventures into Australian productions. Between 1945 and 1972, Australia funded an assisted passage scheme whereby migrants could travel to Australia from the UK for just £10. This was part of the ‘White Australia’ policy and was also linked to the movement of children in care, the focus of Jim Loach’s Oranges and Sunshine (UK-Aus 2010). Alongside these dubious policies, Australia also encouraged migration from Ireland and several other European countries. Michael Powell eventually made a film about an Italian migrant, They’re a Weird Mob (1962). I do wonder why Ealing chose to develop drama/action pictures in Australia rather than comedies, especially in 1955? The comedy Geordie (UK 1955) in which Bill Travers plays a Scottish highlander who competes in the Olympics at Melbourne in 1956 attempted to make use of the interest in the games. But perhaps by this stage, Ealing was unprepared to do anything too different? (Ironically Margaret Johnston was born in Australia – and June Thorburn in Karachi). Touch and Go is at best gentle comedy. I laughed out loud just the once.

LIFF#13: Tampopo (Japan 1985)

The ‘helpers’ test the latest version of Tampopo’s ramen

I’m not sure why the Criterion print of Tampopo turned up in the Leeds festival programme but I’m glad it did because I missed it back in the 1980s. I think I probably got more from it now than I would have done then. The film opens with an extended gag about audience etiquette in the cinema featuring a dashing gangster (Koji Yakusho) in his white suit accompanied by his moll. The gangster sits on the front row and threatens the rest of the audience not to talk or eat crackly snacks during the film.

The opening gag is a marker for the unconventional narrative that unfolds in which the central story is ‘interrupted’ (but all in quite smooth transitions) by several unconnected vignettes – two more of which feature the gangster. The main narrative is associated with the Japanese passion for ramen – noodles. Two truckers operating a milk tanker return to their home city in a rainstorm and decide to drop into a run-down noodle bar. The noodles aren’t great but the driver Gorô (Yamazaki Tsutomu) falls for the widow running the joint and determines to help her make it the best ramen bar in the city. Ken Watanabe in an early role plays the trucker’s co-driver Gun. The ‘task’ that the duo undertake will involve various escapades until the widow Tampopo (meaning ‘Dandelion’) played by Miyamoto Nobuko becomes the proud proprietor of the best establishment in town. It will, for instance, mean collecting together a band of helpers – almost like recruiting the samurai in Seven Samurai. In the meantime we revisit the gangster and enjoy other food and class conflict-related vignettes. In the process we learn a great deal about the Japanese obsession with how food is prepared and served. And we laugh at the differences in food culture entertainingly presented in a scene where a Japanese tutor attempts to teach her students how to eat spaghetti without noisy slurping – which at that time was very acceptable when eating noodles in Japan (I’m not sure if it still is in Japan?).

Tampopo (Miyamoto Nobuko) and Shôhei (Sakura Kinzô) one of her expert ‘helpers’

The film is quite rightly celebrated for its comedy, though I’m not sure it is as much of a masterpiece as its reputation suggests. Still, I don’t begrudge that reputation and the film is certainly loved by its supporters. Tampopo is an ’18’ in the UK, partly because of some entertaining eroticism as the gangster and his moll ‘exchange’ foodstuffs, licking them off each other while naked. More importantly, for animal lovers, a small turtle is killed and prepared to be eaten.

Tampopo is directed by Itami Jûzô and photographed by Tamura Masaki who executes a much discussed final shot with a beautifully-arranged zoom to show the most natural form of human food consumption imaginable. It’s a very enjoyable film and reminds me that I haven’t seen enough Japanese cinema from the 1980s (and 1970s). Many commentators have made the link to Italian Westerns, partly because of the cowboy hat Gorô wears plus the music and other elements. The film is available in the UK on DVD and Blu-ray.

Wajib (Palestine-France-Columbia-UAE-Qatar-Germany-Norway 2017)

A trip round Nazareth can take you to strange places . . .

Is there any country in the world with a higher batting average in films produced than Palestine? It’s not even technically a country but an occupied land which, as the funding sources listed above indicate, needs all the help it can get. Yet every Palestinian film I’ve seen has been well worth watching and many of them have been excellent. Annemarie Jacir has made three of the best Palestinian features as director, she also writes and produces (see Speed Sisters) and she acted as curator of the ‘Dreams of A Nation’ Palestinian Film Festival in 2002. She’s a phenomenon.

She wrote and directed Wajib and it is a brilliantly conceived narrative with fabulous performance by the two leads, the real-life father and son actors Mohammad and Saleh Bakri. Palestine is a small country with many people and many more living in exile, as refugees or migrants. The West Bank and Gaza are strips of land a few miles across and on the West Bank penetrated by Israeli settlements. So the obvious solution is  . . . a road movie! Not only that, but a road movie set entirely in the Christian Arab community of the small city of Nazareth, the largest Arab city within the state of Israel after its capture by Israeli forces in 1948. This is truly a narrative of a fecund imagination. It’s also unusual as a narrative with a plot that only covers a few hours – though the story depends on events over many years.

Abu Shadi (Mohammad Bakri) with his son Shadi (Saleh Bakri)

The starting point is the ‘wajib’ or ‘duty’ of Abu Shadi in delivering by hand all the invites to his daughter’s wedding on the Saturday before Christmas. Abu Shadi is not a well man and there are a lot of stairs to climb. Fortunately, his son Shadi has arrived from Italy and the two drive slowly around the city in the family’s old Volvo. Everybody needs imagination living as a kind of prisoner in an occupied city. Abu Shadi is a teacher who has seemingly taught most of the young men he meets has had to ‘keep face’ by inventing stories about his son’s life in Italy but now with a son baffled to learn that he’s meant to be something he isn’t, it’s got a lot trickier. Any single man like Shadi is bound to be asked questions about why he hasn’t married and to be offered every eligible daughter.

I wonder if the slightly smaller audience that the film attracted for its single showing in Hebden Bridge was a result of its relatively low-key presentation of the politics of occupation? We are used in the UK to Palestinian films that involve direct conflict with the Israeli state in some way – often through the military or settlers or movement restrictions. Setting the action in Nazareth doesn’t mean that such issues are not important, but that they are expressed in different ways. There is actually a political discourse but in one sense it is developed in quite subtle ways and in another it is played out in the generational difference between father and son and between ‘staying’ and exile/migration.

The bride Amal (Maria Zreik) tries on dresses for the wedding

I can imagine a similar film being described as a ‘bitter-sweet comedy’ and Wajib does have many small moments of humour, mostly arising from the interactions with friends and relatives who receive the invites. The father-son relationship also functions as a universal story so you don’t need to know that much about life in Nazareth to appreciate the film, but it is so much richer if you delve through the small incidents for their deeper meanings. The father-son relationship does reach a climactic moment which is confidently handled and the film ends at what for me was the perfect moment. To avoid spoilers I haven’t discussed the other characters – present or absent – but be assured there is plenty to enjoy across 95 minutes. Annemarie Jacir’s previous film, When I Saw You (2012) is a must see and is fortunately available in the UK on DVD. Saleh Bakri appears in a lead role in that film and also in Salt of this Sea (2008) which is only on a Region 1 DVD.

SPOILER! The trailer below starts of well, giving a good sense of the ‘feel’ of the film – but then gives away an important plot point. You’ve been warned!

One Exciting Night (a.k.a. You Can’t Live Without Love, UK 1944)

Vera gets an invite to a charity concert – is this her big break?

Talking Pictures TV comes up trumps again with this British film starring Vera Lynn. I’ve always known Vera Lynn as ‘the Forces’ Sweetheart’ because of her war work visiting troops at the front and singing for relatives and friends on her radio show. I also knew about her fabulous recording career in the 1940s and 1950s. But I’d never seen her before in a feature film. This film (under its alternative title) was the third of three wartime features. It’s in some ways an unremarkable mixture of a romance, a crime film and a musical comedy of the sub-genre of wartime films featuring charity music and variety performances (e.g. the ‘Hollywood canteen’ films).

Vera plays a young woman who has volunteered for a women’s auxiliary role supporting RAF personnel on leave in London. But secretly she is hoping to get a break that will offer her an entry into show-business. By chance she gets mixed up with an attempted robbery in a very complicated bit of plotting. The victim of the robbery is Michael Thorne (Donald Stewart) who has been some kind of impresario but now works in a government office. Egged on by her comrades, Vera gets an invite to a charity performance and meets and falls in love with Thorne, eventually winning on three counts – saving him, getting together with him and rescuing him from the crooks.

The film is directed by Walter Forde (known for his earlier work, especially with Ealing (see Saloon Bar, 1940)) and photographed by Otto Heller. It was made for Columbia UK on a reasonable budget and generally looks pretty good. Vera gets to sing six songs and she has a wonderful voice. (Some of the musical numbers follow the convention of an invisible orchestra accompanying Vera.) For me the highlight of the film is a bit of daredevil sleuthing in which Vera has to climb out of a window high above the West End and edge along a narrow ledge in her attempts to save Thorne. She does this in a long evening dress and heels most impressively. I wonder why she didn’t get more roles after the war? She is quite tall (5′ 7″) for the period, especially in heels. She looks very good and moves very well but I don’t think some of the hair and make-up styles suited her as she has a strong distinctive face which makes her stand out against her rather bland rivals for Michael’s affections. She also has a bright, open personality and a sense of grit and determination beneath. The cinema’s loss was music’s gain. I think Vera Lynn is now 101 and I wish her well. Donald Stewart (an American domiciled in the UK) had a small part in the Jessie Matthews musical First a Girl (1935) and I think that Vera Lynn, like Jessie Matthews might have had a successful Hollywood career in other times. She did have a successful music career including hit singles in the US. Here’s one of the songs:

Night School (US 2018)

Kevin Hart as Teddy, Tiffany Haddish as his teacher and Taran Killam as the school principal

The Vue at Leeds Light refused to sell me a ticket for the film showing I wanted as it had ‘gone from their computer’. Given that they regularly run 20 minutes of ads, I don’t think it was unreasonable to ask for a ticket 20 minutes after the recognised start time. Later I realised that I could have bought a ticket for any screening and then switched auditorium. To be fair the tickets are only £4.99 so I plonked a fiver down for my second choice, Night School. I chose it on the reasonable grounds that I’d enjoyed Girls Trip directed by Malcolm D. Lee and starring Tiffany Haddish and the two are together again in Night School. The real star of the film is, however, Kevin Hart, who I knew much less about – OK, nothing at all. My research reveals that he has been a very busy stand-up and film and TV comedian/comic actor who on this film is also a writer and producer. I don’t watch US TV or mainstream films, otherwise he would be very familiar. Comments on Night School from critics and audiences suggest that most of Hart’s antics in this film have been seen before. The ratings for the film are generally low but it has still made a lot of money – $84 million at the time of writing, with the UK and Australia as major overseas markets.

I enjoyed the film but I feel it has one major weakness – it’s far too long at 111 minutes and could lose 10 to 20 minutes quite easily. The problem is in the opening sequence which takes too long to introduce the narrative disruption – and therefore delays getting into what is essentially the ensemble piece which makes the film work. As various commentators have pointed out the film attempts to meld two different but connected narratives. The first sees Teddy (Kevin Hart) as a successful salesman who has wooed a beautiful and highly successful interior designer to whom he is about to propose, but in the process he has put himself into severe financial difficulties. When disaster strikes Teddy finds himself in debt, with no job and no chance of getting another because he left school without qualifications and now he can’t get the high-powered job he needs without passing a GED test (which employers will accept as an alternative to a high school diploma). To get this he decides to go to night school – at the same high school he attended twenty years earlier. The narrative about his romance and the one about his learning difficulties with formal tests don’t really fit together. The night school introduces Tiffany Haddish as Teddy’s teacher and a varied group of misfits as his classmates. There is even a pantomime villain in the form of the school principal who Teddy insulted when they were high school students together.

Special effects are used creatively to give a sense of Teddy’s dyslexia

The night school story seems to me to be well-written and sometimes very funny. It’s a familiar generic narrative but Hart and Haddish and the others make it work. The ‘second chance’ that night school offers easily fits the Hollywood dream promise. Interestingly, although this is an African-American film, the night school student group comprises three white and three black students and one Latino (the story is set in Atlanta). The students are there for different reasons (including one in prison doing the course via Skype). Tiffany Haddish plays quite a different role from the party girl in Girls Trip, although she does get at least one action sequence.

The ensemble cast on graduation day

What struck me most of all was that this film is in many ways quite old-fashioned and draws on decades of similar comedian-led narrative escapades in which the hapless central character works hard and is defeated many times, but eventually succeeds, wins the ‘girl’ and defeats the authority figure (here the school principal). Kevin Hart is short (with a high-pitched voice when his fears are exposed), but he offers a character who is ‘smart’ and attractive on the outside but damaged by a sense of failure beneath. That’s perhaps the modern aspect of the narrative – otherwise it seems to me very familiar from the comedy vehicles of my childhood, the films of Norman Wisdom in the UK in the 1950s and early 1960s that were massively popular.

I was going to add the trailer for the film, but it includes many of the jokes and ‘explains’ the whole film in ways that mean that you may feel that you don’t need to see it. It undersells itself. Why can’t Hollywood make trailers? Still, I think Night School confirms the promise of Girls Trip in showing that African-American cinema can justify a wide release in the UK – and that’s no bad thing.