Fata Morgana (1971)

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It’s not Morgan le Fay but it could be witchcraft or sorcery of sorts. In the sense explored in Werner Herzog’s film it’s a mirage or optical phenomenon that’s observable just over the horizon with objects variously stretching or compressing. This mysterious swirling film consists of pictures of the Sahara accompanied by a narration (which is occasionally frankly nutty) spoken by critic and curator Lotte Eisner, Wolfgang Büchler and Manfred Eigendorf and songs by Leonard Cohen, Blind Faith and the Third Ear Band plus music by Handel, Mozart and Couperin. Divided into three sections – Creation, Paradise, The Golden Age (which breaks into the surreal) – it becomes rapidly apparent that this is a highly ironic disquisition on the future of mankind. If you think this good earth is Paradise – and this was shot 50 years ago mostly from a VW camper van – then you’re clearly being misled as Part III demonstrates. Herzog has said of the film that it takes place “on the planet Uxmal, which is discovered by creatures from the Andromeda nebula, who make a film report about it.” So it’s an exploration of our dying world from the perspective of science fiction. Extraordinary, visionary work from one of the great filmmakers with cinematography by Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein. The mythic wellspring of the Herzogian universe. Invisible is the face of the earth

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The Man Who Wanted to Fly (2018)

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Nothing lasts. Elderly Irish bachelor Bobby Coote has always wanted to fly, He lives with unmarried brother Ernie in rural County Cavan, Ireland where each pursues different interests. Ernie likes CB radio, movies, cultivating a garden and feeding the birds. Bobby likes making and repairing clocks and violins and he finally has the money to buy a microlight which he stores in his friend Sean’s custom-made hangar and they clear a landing strip in Sean’s field which his wife looks upon askance … I wouldn’t want that fella flying over me.  The Coote brothers are enormously engaging, very different characters who think about things but see the funny side too. They live in what one might term genteel squalor but have great TV equipment and nippy little cars. Bobby’s music habit brings him out a little more with evenings at Gartlans’ thatched pub in Kingscourt while Bobby prefers to stay home watching spaghetti westerns. Bobby celebrates Christmas with friends;  Ernie cooks a turkey leg for one and eats it alone.  Ernie has postcards from all over the world from his radio contacts but doesn’t think he’d like travelling;  Bobby worked in England on the motorways for a couple of years but didn’t much fancy the life over there. Their youngest brother fell into a canal in England the previous year. Neither of them has had relationships that might have started a marriage and family. TV interviews with the brothers from forty years earlier show a pair of good looking dapper young men;  Ernie comments on the changes time has wrought. A home movie shows a friend he used to go fishing with who is dead;  Bobby shows family photos of those departed. The midpoint sequence when Bobby gets a call from the microlight centre in Newtownards informing him that he’s been sold a pup requiring an expensive overhaul is understated and moving.  But he doesn’t give up. This story of seemingly unfulfilled lives and loneliness should be sorrowful but instead it’s a triumph of small-scale ambition that eventually soars in glorious skies. The ending makes you cheer. Beautifully made with some stunning overhead photography by Dave Perry. Produced by Cormac Hargaden and Trish Canning and directed by  Frank Shouldice. You’ve got me pulled!

Agnes Varda 30th May 1928 – 29th March 2019

The heroine of the Nouvelle Vague has died. Agnès Varda wasn’t just a director, she was a master of a medium she knew little about when she made her brilliant debut, La Pointe Courte in 1955. She infused all her work – mainly in documentary – with a finessed sensibility that transcends the time in which it is made and her major features, Cleo de 5 à 7 and Le Bonheur are devastating portraits of contemporary womanhood. The later Vagabond was as shocking as her earlier work and made Sandrine Bonnaire a star. Her marriage to Jacques Demy was complex and yielded a wonderful homage, Jacquot de Nantes, a combination of essay with cinephilia that is utterly unique. Documentaries and art installations proved her humanity, flooded with an interest in the marginalised, the unheralded and the quotidian.  She seemed to take great pleasure in finding everyday faces and places. She was making films until quite recently and was a regular visitor to film festivals where I was privileged to hear her speak on occasion. Varda seemed to be able to access her inner child, eternally youthful, questioning and interested, an impression assisted by that French bob she wore until the end. Some critics would claim her films have outlasted those of her male peers:  I wouldn’t entirely disagree. Merci, Agnès.

Three Identical Strangers (2018)

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I guess I wouldn’t believe the story if someone else were telling it, but I’m telling it and it’s true, every word of it.  David Kellman, Eddy Galland and Bobby Shafran were individually adopted by families from differing social and economic classes who had each adopted a baby girl from the same agency two years previously. They came across each other accidentally when Robert was mistaken for Eddy at college;  they eventually discovered a third identical brother. Their celebrity was such that they appeared on talk shows and even got a cameo in Desperately Seeking Susan and opened a restaurant together. We were falling in love with each other. Finally the truth came out:  they had been born (as part of quadruplets – the fourth died at birth, but this isn’t in the film) to a single mother as a result of a prom date gone wrong (supposedly – the birth date doesn’t tally) and were placed as part of a ‘nature versus nurture’ science experiment – the Neubauer Twin Experiment, conducted by a psychiatrist who has since died and whose findings are restricted until 2065; such findings as have been made public have been heavily redacted. A previous film made on the subject was pulled due to unknown forces – maybe the same people prevented this from being Oscar-nominated?  It’s a beautifully made if scarcely credible true story, a modern tragedy stemming from the frankly nutty unethical psychobabble world of the Fifties and Sixties,  including a combination of dramatic recreation, interviews and archive film, and featuring two of the men and Lawrence Wright, the journalist who wrote one account of the story for The New Yorker. The first half is light and amusing, a veritable romcom meet-cute, but things take a very dark turn when the reality of their lives is examined. They finally met their birth mother in her favourite local bar and were not impressed. They were reluctant to discuss her at all. Stunning and desperately sad. Directed by Tim Wardle. I don’t know if this will turn out to be good or terrible

Score – A Film Music Documentary (2016)

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We can make you feel anything we want you to feel. Matt Schrader’s documentary about film composers is a compelling and immersive odyssey which tracks the evolution of the music score from its heyday in classical Hollywood through the present day. Alex North’s debut score for A Streetcar Named Desire featuring jazz stylings is named as the first truly modern score, marking a break from the nineteenth century symphonic style that had dominated to that point. It’s actually revolutionary, say this assemblage of composers, film directors and critics. Then John Barry is cited, the James Bond theme (which he adapted from Monty Norman’s signature) inextricably linked with the spy genre. An array of composers describe and exhibit their collections of instruments, with Mark Mothersbaugh wondering what happened to the toy piano he picked up in the Beverly Center for sixty bucks – he used it to compose the Rugrats theme then returned it and got his money back. Bernard Herrmann was an original, demonstrating that anything was possible:  as the shower scene from Psycho is shown without music, you suddenly see the edits. The emotional effects of film composition are discussed through physiology and eye movement – that’s the science. Jerry Goldsmith’s work is the next signpost to modernity – his work on Planet of the Apes even used kitchen utensils to achieve its particular affect. When writing a new score for Chinatown (after the original had been written, recorded and dumped) he demanded four harps, four pianos, strings, percussion and a solo trumpet:  instant film classic. John Williams dominates because he was chosen by Steven Spielberg, who thought after seeing The Reivers with its pastoral theme he was an old guy:  far from it, he was a hep young jazz cat. When he presented the filmmaker with two notes for Jaws, Spielberg thought it was a joke. Of course those notes triggered a major work, but he was nervous. Then came Star Wars. And E.T., where the gaps are left to ultimately bring the story to a fanfare that is oriented to Elliott’s point of view in an epic story of unique intimacy. Some iconic London recording studios are visited – Air (discovered by George Martin, who converted it from a church building) and where David Arnold has worked for a quarter of a century;  and Abbey Road, also inhabited by Martin with the Beatles but latterly better known as a soundtrack centre with some intriguing engineering and choral setups explored. Danny Elfman was picked to compose for Tim Burton’s Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure because he liked his work with synth band Oingo Boingo and a new, dark universe of music was begun from scratch. With Thomas Newman, son of the great Hollywood composer Alfred, the emotive solo piano comes to the fore:  inimitable, as we recognise in Shawshank Redemption and American Beauty. Hans Zimmer, also part of an Eighties synth group, Buggles, is practically a genre unto himself, Led Zeppelin with an orchestra. As he sits in his Santa Monica studio saying his music exposes him, he reminds us that if it weren’t for film composers a lot of orchestras would be going out of business. And suddenly we swerve into contemporary composition:  experimental work by rock musicians starting with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross on The Social Network. Thus is a new era born, constantly reinventing itself with technology and innovations. The poignant conclusion is a loop back to the ideas presented at the start of the film – that directors generally cannot articulate what they want from a score. James Cameron misunderstood a recording sent to him by the late James Horner for Titanic: Horner described it as ‘a sketch’. It was a musical sketch, for piano, but Cameron thought it was literally for the actual sketching scene when Di Caprio draws Winslet, posing nude. He edited the scene to the music and called Horner. Horner protested it was a sketch. Cameron said it was perfect, he should see it. Horner said he could get the best pianist in the world to play it. Cameron kept it as it was. It’s perfect. All your other work in a film could come to nothing if you don’t get the music right

Williams: Formula 1 In The Blood (2017)

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The accident didn’t just happen to Frank, it happened to everybody. Frank Williams’ career as an F1 team boss didn’t quite end in 1986 as his eponymous team was cresting towards major success but his mobility was brought to a crashing conclusion at a wall in the South of France when he was rushing to the airport to get back home to England. He was in and out of consciousness for six weeks after snapping his spine in two and became a quadriplegic overnight.  His team would come visit him at the London Hospital to regale a man barely alive about the latest intra-team spats between Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell simply to try and keep him going. The man who ran 12 miles a day and competed in marathons was subsequently confined to a wheelchair. This revolves around his refusal to engage with his family’s desire to come to terms with the horrific accident and how they handled it – he simply never mentioned it and got on with things, unable to share a bed with wife Ginny and looked after by a 24/7 carer. Ginny wrote a book (A Different Kind of Life) in 1991 which she recorded in secret with the help of a writer friend. The conflict in the film is this: Frank has never read it while his daughter Claire, now team boss (and says I never expected to be given the keys to the shop) is in tears at the fact that her mother died of cancer in 2013 without the couple ever discussing its contents, namely her anguish at his physical destruction.  Ginny’s absence is the most powerful presence in the story. The narration is primarily excerpts from the book (filmed to her audio as staged reconstruction, like the crash) but visually the film mostly consists of Claire Williams interviewed today and archive footage starting with Williams in his early career as a Northern chancer selling spare parts, obsessed with becoming a driver and sharing a flat with posh Etonians, one of whom, Piers Courage, died in one of his early cars. The film concludes with Claire reading to her father from Ginny’s book and there are perhaps a few tears in the man’s eyes.  It’s a feeble conclusion considering the breadth of his actions. The impact of his own attitudes was borne at far greater price by third parties, the team’s recent failure to achieve podium finishes notwithstanding, a terrible fate for an old school marque. Williams’ imperturbable visage had a quite different, sinister affect when he was introduced (like Count Dracula) in slo-mo in Asif Kapadia’s magnificent Senna, clearly the villain of that tragic piece, when he and Patrick Head forced the greatest driver of my lifetime, who was at the forefront of the F1 driver safety campaign, into a dangerous car to his death, literally cut off in his prime. This is the flipside of Williams’ refusal to engage with humanity, open his mouth and speak. Sadly, when you look at this old, strangely enigmatic quadriplegic, dead from the neck down, you realise that sometimes bad things can really happen to bad people. It’s a vital story in F1 history but it’s hard to care. Featuring interviews with Mansell, Peter Windsor (who was in the crash with Williams), Jackie Stewart and Head. Directed by Morgan Matthews.

Arthur Miller: Writer (2017)

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Filmmaker Rebecca Miller’s documentary about her playwright father is a mesmerising portrait of one of the midcentury’s most important artistes and commentators, utilising home movies, letters, newsreel footage, and interviews she recorded with him and his siblings and her mother and Mike Nichols.  Excerpts of Miller’s recording of his autobiography Timebends are interspersed with Rebecca’s own voice to create a narrative. I.  Origins. I used to think that a play was about what was between the spoken lines. Growing up with a sub-literate fabric cutter Polish immigrant father and flamboyant, gifted mother, the young Arthur Miller was accustomed to wealth and comfort but that was all removed overnight with the Wall Street Crash when their circumstances were radically reduced. He worked in factories and read Dostoyevsky on the subway and his life was transformed. He wrote plays in college and married a midwestern Catholic democrat and his politics altered from communism to liberalism because he couldn’t see a place for the individual otherwise. She wanted an intellectual, a Jew, an artist. And I wanted America. That’s Miller not describing second wife Marilyn Monroe, but his first wife, Mary. Between the lines you get the sense that for him, relationships were somewhat transactional.  His daughter Jane recalls thinking that her conversations with him were material: There were times when he was only interested in something because he could use it. II. Broadway. I knew you were worse than most men, but I thought you were better. Mary was his toughest critic, his first play on Broadway was a failure but his second was All My Sons which he wrote in a wooden hut he built for himself. He wrote the first act during one night, the second in six weeks. Then he sat by the phone, waiting. Nichols states of the work that he believed burned out Miller, It’s so close to the tragedy. It’s so alive.  Miller met Elia Kazan and they formed a friendship or even brotherhood that weathered political storms. Kazan introduced him to his on-off lover Marilyn Monroe on the set of the 1951 film As Young as You Feel and Miller told her, I think you’re the saddest girl I ever met. He used the line in The Misfits a decade later when their five-year marriage was combusting. The big thing is not to make simple things complicated but to make complicated things comprehensible. III. PoliticsArt is long, life is short. I forgot the Latin. He says Kazan was the greatest theatre director of realistic material and was dismayed by his decision to name names but clarifies that it was the fault of the HUAC as well as the studio that said he would never make films again if he failed to do so. For Miller, the victims experience guilt – about other things. The guilt of the victim was interesting to me. That is the subject of the allegorical The Crucible, in which he memorialises Marilyn Monroe in the character of Abigail while his own wife is personified by John Proctor’s wife, Elizabeth. He met Monroe in 1951 and began an affair. When they married, he was pursued by HUAC and she posed for photographs with the Committee, helping expedite his suspended sentence while he felt he was reenacting his own play. Even the fascists have to be entertaining. IV. Home. Miller talks about writing on the verge of embarrassment, revealing things that are essentially secret, even in symbolic fashion. He describes to Mike Wallace his failure to create  significant work during the Monroe marriage with the throwaway line, I was taking care of her. He neglects to mention that she was paying his way and getting him writing jobs. However, he also declares, There’s no explaining a person like that. Terrible. Well.  He describes her as being in some ways the most repressed person imaginable. He wrote The Misfits in tribute to her, allegedly, but of course we know that he and John Huston and Eli Wallach conspired to turn her character into a prostitute and it was Gable who saved her from that indignity.  After the Fall in 1964 was crucified because it was such a direct attack on her, with Maggie her clear avatar, Quentin his. He was trying to make sense of the century’s most famous marriage.  Following her death he married Inge Morath, the Look photographer whose father was a Nazi. Miller’s children from his first marriage say Morath made the Connecticut house (that Monroe bought for him) into a home. Do you think Dad had a weak spot for being adored? Rebecca asks his siblings about his marriages. It’s rhetorical.  V. Out of Place. Other than The Price, the Sixties were not happy years for the playwright and the Seventies were downright barren not due to his output but due to the brutal critical reception in the US. Abroad, he was still admired.  He had few friends. He was a very different man at home to the man interviewed on talk shows. It took Dustin Hoffman’s 1985 revival of Death of a Salesman for Miller’s stock to rise again. Rebecca’s younger brother was born in the mid Sixties with Down’s Syndrome and the Millers had him institutionalised. Miller did not acknowledge his existence or even visit him until he was an adult, leaving all that to his wife. Rebecca intended interviewing her father about this but never got around to it while he was alive. He says to his daughter that sons have it harder because there is an element of competition with the father. His older son Bobby produced the film version of The Crucible that introduced Rebecca to her husband, Daniel Day-Lewis.  Teasing the man she knew from the man perceived in the wider world is what this film does best even if it’s limited by their relationship and the lack of emphasis on the content and style of his playwriting. Children create these definitions, says Miller. They have to.  When asked what he wanted in his obituary, Miller responded, Writer.

Night and Fog (1955)

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Alain Resnais is unique in the French New Wave. He was the sole enquirer into the Holocaust. Every other filmmaker camouflaged and did away with political analysis in favour of winsome, humorous cinematic style and a rhetoric lacking in nerve. Perhaps it was due to the level of collaboration with the Nazi regime and the Vichy government that formed so much of the recent past.  This is not a pretty history. With a script by Mauthusen-Gusen survivor Jean Cayrol and Chris Marker, voiced by Michel Boquet, and a deceptively urgent score by Hanns Eisler, we are brought into the realm of German horror, a genocide manufactured at the behest of Amin al-Husseini. Integrating newsreel footage with contemporary colour film shot in Auschwitz and Majdanek in Poland by Ghislain Cloquet and Sacha Vierny this is a solemn narration of a true crime made all the more significant in a restive period of anti-semitism. This week alone saw the remains of six nameless victims of the concentration camps buried in England, given a dignity they never had in life;  and a cross-party coalition in the Irish Republic brought the Occupied Territories Bill before Parliament in a stark reminder that anti-semitism is overt, the territory of braggarts, and there are many in positions of power who would deny Jews their right to exist and the right of Israel to flourish.  A few years ago the Irish government voted to support the administration of Hamas – an Islamist extremist group whose constitution includes the admonition It is the duty of all Moslems to kill Jews on sight. Israel is rapidly becoming a safe haven for European Jews as Islam’s tentacles reach further afield. It is spreading in Europe courtesy not only of the pernicious Eastern Europeans assimilating in their millions in the British Isles but also because of the unstoppable immigration problem from North Africa and the Near East, with millions flooding in, urged on by a Germany that is constantly on the rise and currently in charge of Europe. Today is the 74th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Let us never forget. L’chaim.

The Eyes of Orson Welles (2018)

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You left no autobiography but you left this. Writer and filmmaker Mark Cousins was given access to hundreds of paintings and drawings by Orson Welles and he uses these as a prism to gain entry into how the man’s mind worked and discusses how this level of visual creativity was fused with narrative to create his films. This is an intensely personal work:  Cousins addresses Welles in the voiceover, doing away with any sense of chronology, making a mosaic of thoughts, inflections, inferences and putting together a narrative that deals with his films, his politics, his acting, his working methods and his extensive romantic life. This is filmic storytelling of a superior type, stressing the way in which Welles’ designs actively structured his cinematic approach, garnering detailed insights from these previously undiscovered and unsung artistic outpourings to make an intimate free-associating portrait of a fascinating man. This is an utterly unique take on a larger than life character whose indelible performances as an actor (with their king or king-like personae) form a parallel or diptych with his directing work. Welles has never seemed more attractive, more interesting, more Shakespearean in scope, more mysterious and dreamlike or yet more relevant. A seer. Featuring his daughter Beatrice Welles, this is executive produced by Michael Moore. You thought in lines and shapes