Film

Partisan Cinema: THE CHILDHOOD OF A LEADER (2015) – A Genesis of Fascism

In a recurring feature called Partisan Cinema, A. J. Black looks at movies from a political slant, gleaning insight from them about how they relate to society then, and indeed now…

The Childhood of a Leader is a fascinating piece of cinema, especially given it’s not only a debut piece of work, but the debut piece of work from an actor best known for playing Alan Tracy in the execrable Jonathan Frakes’ Thunderbirds movie.

Brady Corbet’s film is about the birth of fascism. Not in a political sense of being a historical depiction of the rise of Adolf Hitler, but rather the human genesis of a fascist mind. It plays out in the form of a strange psychodrama, one with almost verite touches in its final moments, strange not just thanks to it’s unusual post-World War One setting but in how it pivots around the key developmental moments of a young boy.

Trying to describe the very premise of The Childhood of a Leader would be extraordinarily difficult, something Corbet was acutely aware of when he started writing the script; he at first pulled back on it, convinced thematically it was “too big” for a debut feature, but his wife Mona Fastvold encouraged him to continue and together they developed the screenplay.

ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI: a stylish, urban black history fable (Movie Review)

First reviewed as part of London Film Festival 2020…

On one calm evening in 1964, in the heart of Miami, four men gathered who would, in their own way, influence not just black culture but 20th century American history.

One Night in Miami… is that story, the ellipsis at the end of the title in service of the urban fable that such a confluence suggests. This quartet reflect four quadrants of experience as the Civil Rights movement was gathering steam in counter-cultural America, each overlapping the other. Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), founder of the Nation of Islam and black power scion; Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), the self-proclaimed greatest boxer there ever is, ever was or ever will be, on the verge of Muslim conversion; Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), NFL linebacker and legend who has grown weary of his path; and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr), one of the greatest voices in soul who ever lived, currently trapped within a sphere of white middle-class appeasement he cannot escape.

Regina King’s debut feature is a contained night in the life; a reckoning between four black cultural and political titans heading in the same direction while treading very different roads to get there.

Partisan Cinema: THE BIG SHORT (2015) – Broken Economics

In a recurring feature called Partisan Cinema, A. J. Black looks at movies from a political slant, gleaning insight from them about how they relate to society then, and indeed now…

America very much feels like a country which has powerfully lost sight of its own morals, ideals and values. This has become apparent over the last two years since the rise of Donald Trump to the Presidency, and there’s an argument it has been escalating and building since the death of John F. Kennedy ushered in a darker era of sociological tragedy for the American experience, as discussed when I talked about 1993’s In the Line of Fire.

If there has been a modern trigger, an encapsulating moment for the loss of American belief in idealism, then it’s arguably the 2008 global recession explored in The Big Short. Though presented as a jet black, if not indeed cold-hearted, satire, Adam McKay’s movie is concerned with reminding American audiences in particular just how close they came to economic Armageddon, and how a group of quite remarkable money men almost got away with the ultimate long con against their own people.

The whole project stemmed from a book, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis, which blew open the biographical tale of the stock brokers and Wall Street financial number crunchers who saw the writing on the proverbial wall when it came to the American, nay global economic market. From a narrative perspective, it’s a goldmine of a story; the ultimate heist tale, in its own way, about a group of somewhat amoral individuals working out a crippling deficiency in the housing market and planning a way to exploit it to make billions–yes, billions–of dollars off the backs of homelessness and unemployment.

McKay’s adaptation, written alongside Charles Randolph, doesn’t shy away from that moral conundrum, but equally doesn’t quite want you to take what is a very serious matter all that seriously while doing so.

Partisan Cinema: DARKEST HOUR (2018) – Mythologised Heroism

In a recurring feature called Partisan Cinema, A. J. Black looks at movies from a political slant, gleaning insight from them about how they relate to society then, and indeed now…

Of all the major historical figures of the 20th century, the British have arguably mythologised Sir Winston Churchill above all others. He was the epitome of fighting, British ‘bulldog’ spirit – a powerful, legendary orator whose speeches have cascaded across the last seventy years of history as a nationalist rally against the forces of darkness. Darkest Hour, therefore, marries the mythological Churchill alongside the romantic fantasy of a righteous war.

Joe Wright’s picture focuses on a very tight three-four week period in the early summer of 1940, in which milquetoast appeasement-favouring Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain is ousted on the back of the German push into Western Europe and up steps Churchill to fill the void, and take on what is considered by most of Westminster an impossible task. Darkest Hour’s entire raison d’etre is to take Churchill from the bullish, anti-fascist old war horse without the backing of his government and King—if not the people—to the proud war *hero* giving the “we will fight them on the beaches” speech in Parliament, his single most remembered delivery in a career filled with verbose oracy. It’s designed as an inspiring call to arms which makes a man, essentially, into a legend.

What this does, almost immediately, is characterise Darkest Hour as much less a historical movie and far more of a dazzling piece of spin driven by an admittedly magnificent central performance by Gary Oldman, who loses himself in his unrecognisable makeup as Churchill, only occasionally letting his native cockney betray the actor within. Wright uses historical truth to construct a fantasy which, while less theatrical than Anna Karenina or less emotional than Atonement, feels no less in keeping with his cinematic style. Wright’s pictures are often confections of sound, colour and lighting, with elegant production design, and Darkest Hour is no exception.

You may just be surprised at the tone it takes, not to mention its relationship with personal and historical truth.

Partisan Cinema: CARNAGE (2017) – Liberal Veganism

In a recurring feature called Partisan Cinema, A. J. Black looks at movies from a political slant, gleaning insight from them about how they relate to society then, and indeed now…

As mockumentaries go, Carnage may well be the first one to genuinely lampoon the culture of veganism while also making a very powerful, liberal prescient point.

Simon Amstell is a British stand-up comedian, probably best known as former host of popular BBC music panel show Never Mind the Buzzcocks. His first film as writer and director, Amstell doesn’t appear but provides near-constant narration as the omnipresent guide through a ‘future history’ where the vegan has inherited the Earth. Set in 2067, in a United Kingdom where the very idea of eating meat is an abhorrent abomination to an almost-utopian, youthful society, Amstell’s fake documentary tells the story of how we went from a savage, carnivorous culture to an enlightened, animal-loving species. If you’re laughing at the absurdity of this, that’s ok. That’s the intention.

And yet, Carnage is noticeably pro-vegan while being enormously capable of mocking the pretension of a following which, historically, has found itself tethered to the hippy, new age trail. Amstell, who wrote as well as directed this, is as keen to highlight the madness of being a meat-eater as well as enjoyably sending up the intense vegan legions who, in this future, are considered the norm.

You may be surprised to hear Amstell, in doing so, utilises almost as much stock footage from a range of sources pre-2017 as he does future scenarios beyond the present day. It helps make his point.

Partisan Cinema: IN THE LINE OF FIRE (1993) – Clint and J.F.K

In a recurring feature called Partisan Cinema, A. J. Black looks at movies from a political slant, gleaning insight from them about how they relate to society then, and indeed now…

In the Line of Fire feels increasingly like a cultural artefact in this day and age.

Though in some ways rooted in the 1990s, in an era divested of the Cold War but away from a future of terrorist uncertainty, there is a political timelessness about Wolfgang Petersen’s movie. It feels at though it exists between two worlds. Barring one exception, this was the last film starring Clint Eastwood in the title role that he didn’t direct and you perhaps feel at times Eastwood wants to jump out of In the Line of Fire and establish his own political sentiments on Jeff Maguire’s script and Petersen’s effective, if at times pedestrian direction.

Eastwood has at times asserted his fairly right-wing political leanings on his filmmaking, most notably in American Sniper, but In the Line of Fire remains essentially neutral in terms of political discourse. The President under threat is never even characterised, beyond the traditional American image of a white, middle-aged man. He could be Reagan. He could be Carter. He could even be Clinton, who was in office at the time. Petersen’s film isn’t concerned with the man Eastwood’s ageing Secret Service agent Frank Horrigan is determined to protect, simply about what protecting a President means.

The film is concerned primarily with age in terms of Frank and indeed America itself. The shadow of John F. Kennedy’s assassination hovers over the picture, given how Frank is, as he modestly describes himself at one point to René Russo’s junior agent, a “living legend”; the only remaining serving agent who was in Dealey Plaza on the day of the President’s assassination in November 1963.

Thirty years after the most powerful event in modern American history, In the Line of Fire focuses on a character who has never been able to escape it. Frank, in many respects, is analogous to America as an entity.

Partisan Cinema: BREXIT: THE UNCIVIL WAR (2019) – The Origin of Cummings

In a recurring feature called Partisan Cinema, A. J. Black looks at movies from a political slant, gleaning insight from them about how they relate to society then, and indeed now…

Brexit: The Uncivil War is current, fascinating, terrifying and quite frankly absurd in equal measure.

It came as no surprise to find out a major consultant on this joint Channel Four and HBO drama was Tim Shipman, the author of All Out War, a comprehensive, forensic exposure of the battle central to Toby Haynes’ film: the Leave and Remain campaign’s divisive, controversial conflict to decide the outcome of the EU Referendum in June 2016, which very quickly became known as ‘Brexit’. For anyone in the UK, there is no word you are more likely to see, read or hear about politically right now than Brexit, save perhaps the surname Trump or the word Covid. It is all pervasive, all-consuming, and Shipman’s book places into clear context just how we ended up where we currently are.

The Uncivil War is, essentially, an adaptation of his non-fiction tale of events from both sides of the camp, though it is framed around, frankly, the far more interesting side of the divide: the Leave campaign. The campaign who won. The campaign with characters far less milquetoast than anyone who fought to Remain. The campaign who fought a dirty war of new frontiers and who the Remain organisation were, almost always, two steps behind. I say this as a firm Remainer—let’s get that pretty clear right off the bat—who thinks Brexit is the single greatest British catastrophe since appeasement.

Nevertheless, The Uncivil War attempts to show us the real story. The story behind all of the news reports, and the political briefings. The story you have heard on fringe websites or even via conspiracy theorists, or slanted from newspapers right and left. The story of how Brexit changed democracy and changed politics, in a way nobody in Britain, the EU or beyond, ever expected. All Out War is teeming with inside jobs, murky suggestions of dark political wizardry, and schemes upon schemes in a battle often outside the minds eye of the public.

What we actually end up with is Brexit: The Panto, with Benedict Cumberbatch as the veritable Peter Pan.

Partisan Cinema: MANK (2020) – Citizens of Ideology

In a new, recurring feature called Partisan Cinema, A. J. Black looks at movies from a political slant, gleaning insight from them about how they relate to society then, and indeed now…

One senses the frustrations of writer Upton Sinclair, erstwhile Democratic nominee for the Governorship of California in 1934 and open socialist, might not have featured so prominently had Mank been made, as planned, in the late 1990s.

The story of legendary screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (portrayed here in wonderfully shambolic form by Gary Oldman) as he furiously raced to complete the screenplay of Orson Welles’ future masterpiece Citizen Kane, was penned originally in the ‘90s by the late Jack Fincher, who passed away in 2003. His son, renowned auteur David Fincher, planned to make the film after 1997’s The Game with Kevin Spacey (remember him?) in the titular role, before Fincher’s own seminal masterpiece Fight Club beckoned, but the stars refused to align. Fincher, after a cinematic break of six years following his adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, has finally—thanks to Netflix—provided viewers with his father’s legacy at the tail end of a year where audiences have been starved of prominent cinema.

Yet Mank, arriving at the end of 2020, has not just fallen in what we might dare to hope are the impending final months of the Covid-19 pandemic, but also twelve months of sweeping social and cultural unrest. This might well be the biopic of a long-dead man in a now near-mythic cinematic age, revolving around the creation of what many have considered for decades to be the greatest film ever made, but Mank’s politics feel heightened for modern audiences. Fincher, borrowing Citizen Kane’s then-revolutionary non-linear structure, flashes back in episodic fashion from 1940 to deeper back into the 1930s and sees his lead character unconsciously crafting the elements of his Oscar-winning script from powerful, influential figures, and political movements, of the previous decade.

Mank positions the brilliance of its protagonist, and the work of genius he creates, within the tussle of polarised political ideologies in a manner that, intentionally or not, reflects the America of 2020.

London Film Festival 2020: RELIC

★ ★ ★

London Film Festival 2020 is running from October 2nd through to October 19th, and I’ll be variously covering a few films from the event this year…

The feature length debut of film short director Natalie Erika James, Relic slots neatly in the pantheon of a new, emerging sub-genre: familial horror.

Picture the quiet, deliberately introverted set up. Set in the woodland wilderness of New Zealand, Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) respond to the disappearance of their family matriarch Edna (Robyn Nevin) from the home she lives in alone, an elderly lady suffering from dementia who has vanished out of nowhere. The eeriness begins as Edna, after Kay returns to a homestead she hasn’t visited in some time and reconnects with her past, suddenly reappears but begins to display strange behaviour that goes beyond her degenerative disease, connected perhaps to the dreams Kay is having of the withered corpse inside an old woodland shack. Is Edna becoming more than just a dying old woman?

Well… that would be telling. The clues are there, however, as Relic dials into creeping terror within the home, using quiet, pastoral surroundings to engage with dread. It doesn’t really do anything new with the material, but it often manages to work.

New BRWC Article: There is only one bad actor in Cineworld’s closure

New BRWC article!

It’s my intention to start writing a little more for other websites alongside the blog here, and I penned a piece last year for Battle Royale With Cheese, who were kind enough to publish an opinion piece on the disappointing news that Cineworld are closing all of their U.K. cinemas for the foreseeable future and laying off staff.

Click beyond the jump for a sample of the piece and a link to the article…