Tag Archives: British

364 – Men

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Alex Garland’s Men is as blunt as its title, with nothing of the profundity it would like to think it possesses. It’s slow and boring, too. Very pretty though. Well done to the cinematographer.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

361 – The Italian Job (1969)

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The Italian Job is a classic British caper familiar to everyone who’s grown up in the UK, so often has it been shown on telly and so embedded in British culture is the iconography of the red, white and blue Minis, the chase through Turin, only being supposed to blow the bloody doors off, and of course, the cliffhanger. Even those who, like Mike, have never watched it from beginning to end, know and love it as an unimpeachable icon of British cinema.

Which may be curious, considering Mike’s dislike of a UK that has left the EU in a storm of angry little Englanderism and British exceptionalism, as that reliving-the-war, one-in-the-eye-for-the-Europeans attitude can be read throughout The Italian Job – but, José argues, it’s a film that conveys affection for the continent, too, in its globetrotting nature and the beautiful scenery it shows off; and after all, its release came just a few years before the UK joined the EEC, which would later become the EU, in 1973. So it’s not quite that simple.

The Italian Job‘s notion of national identity is also conveyed through class, which is clearly delineated here, particularly through its use of Michael Caine and Noël Coward, who each connote specific strata of the class system. Importantly, this is no tale of class warfare – everyone’s in it together for Queen and country, and the gold heist that everything’s leading towards is explicitly given a national purpose. All that gold isn’t being stolen just for fun: who it’s being stolen from and for are key.

While our heads swirl with all these issues and more – including whether the chase is a good as all that, and the sexism of the comedy delivered by Benny Hill’s character – we have a grand old time at The Electric seeing The Italian Job. It falls short of cinematic greatness, but it’s jolly good fun, and those iconic images and sequences, which might only have existed in your mind’s eye for years since you last chanced upon the film on TV, don’t disappoint when you see them once again.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

327 – Mothering Sunday

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A film of surprising delights – certainly for Mike, who hates anything that looks like it could appear on ITV – Mothering Sunday tells the story of one key 1924 day in the life of a young maid. It’s a film filled with grief and lust, beautifully shot and featuring the best of British acting, Colin Firth and Olivia Colman’s performances subtly modulated and multifaceted. It’s imperfect, failing to engage with race as it perhaps should, and a framing device feels rather unnecessary – but it’s a moving and sensitive film.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

325 – Last Night in Soho

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Edgar Wright’s highly anticipated psychological horror, Last Night in Soho, reaches cinemas, and we dive into its themes, its visual magnificence, its relationship to the era and environment it portrays… and its problems. It’s impossible not to admire this film for its lush cinematography, impressive special effects, and the best of its performances, but its screenplay leaves a huge amount to be desired, not just in how it conceptualises the world and people it portrays, but also, more simply, how clumsy it is in telling its story, bafflingly dropping entire character threads that seem like they obviously have places to go, and handling at least one secondary character’s entire subplot very poorly. We discuss the film’s dream logic, or lack thereof; its fear of the very lure of the grimy world it needs to show us, and the moralism that accompanies it; how it trades in nostalgia of Sixties Soho, despite being keen to exhibit is dark side; and the thematic simplicity of almost everything – things are good or bad, to be loved or feared, and room for complexity, there is none.

With all that said, it’s still a very enjoyable couple of hours, a discussion piece, and thanks to its fabulous imagery and in particular the performances of Anya Taylor-Joy and Matt Smith, easy to recommend.

P.S. Mike would like to acknowledge that he is aware that in the course of speaking too quickly for his brain to issue timely corrections, he wildly overstated how much the ghostly figures in Last Night in Soho are referred to as “blank” or “blanks”. It happens maybe once or twice, if he remembers rightly, and in passing. But he asserts that nonetheless, their faceless, amorphous, anonymous design and relentless, zombie-like behaviour does make them a fair point of comparison with the Blanks in The World’s End. So nyah.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

274 – Citadel

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John Smith’s 16-minute short, Citadel, gives voice to the City of London – Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s voice, specifically. Filmed during the first few months of lockdown in 2020, it builds an oppositional portrait of British life under Johnson’s blustery leadership – it’s Boris Johnson vs. the British people, and the City vs. the British people.

But in tying Johnson to the City, it ignores his shockingly unsympathetic stance, for a Tory leader, towards business – summed up succinctly in his overheard comment in June 2018: “Fuck business“. Late on, it depicts the British public as lambs to the slaughter as Johnson decrees they must return to work, but while Smith employs a soundtrack of outdoor construction, the homes he is able to show us are suggestive of the middle class, their inhabitants likely able to work from home.

Still, Smith only has so much to work with, stuck at home as he is, and Citadel is an evocative and concise film, cleverly conceived, shot, and edited. Its simplifications are small in comparison to the pleasures of its imagery, wit and tone. A treat.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

269 – Small Axe: Education

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Small Axe ends with what, based on his 2014 profile in the Guardian, we take to be a tale partially inspired by Steve McQueen’s own childhood. In Education, a young dyslexic boy, Kingsley, is transferred to a school for the “educationally subnormal”, a real practice in the 1970s that disproportionately involved black children. The institution to which he’s sent is barely a school, the children left unsupervised by bored teachers and allowed to run riot – but it’s covertly investigated by a group of activists hoping to fight and end the system.

Mike relates to the film, recognising in Kingsley’s mum the same righteous anger and desire to fight for her son that his own mum showed for him as a youngster, and to its evocation of British school life. (It may be set twenty years prior to his school years, but British kids have had to perform London’s Burning on recorders and tambourines since time immemorial.) The aesthetic evokes the era vividly, the visual quality of the images, the shot selections and editing all perfectly emulating the look of Play for Today, the iconic anthology series. And as with the rest of Small Axe, a concise historical struggle within Britain’s wider racist society is effectively rendered complex…

… up to a point. Though the situation and its effects are complex, the characters are mostly fairly one-note, and the film’s ending is rather pat – even a little phony, though it’s forgivable for this series to want to end on a hopeful note. Still, it’s an intelligent, thoughtful film that fits in perfectly amongst the rest of the series, and as we have throughout, we implore you to watch it all.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

268 – Small Axe: Alex Wheatle

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The theme of assimilation is given a fascinating twist in Alex Wheatle, the fourth Small Axe film. While Mangrove and Red, White and Blue, in particular, depicted black people’s attempts to assimilate into mainland British culture and life and the racism they faced, the title character here is a young black man brought up in an abusive children’s home, orphaned from his parents, and whose move to Brixton sees him culturally dislocated and having to, in effect, learn to ‘be black’.

Cultural and familial dislocation are connected through Alex. The abandonment by his parents led to his upbringing by the state, amongst white Britons, and when an influential Rastafarian he meets in prison expounds on the importance of education and knowing one’s past, to Alex, he’s speaking just as much about his personal past as about the history of the African disapora. This is the most interesting aspect of Alex Wheatle and we focus on it, but there’s more to discuss, including the continued invocation of music as a kind of life-giving force, how Alex learns to be black and British and the spaces in which that happens, and director Steve McQueen’s expressive formal visual storytelling.

Alex Wheatle elegantly tells a unique and complex story, and we continue to urge you to watch this remarkable series of films in its entirety.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

267 – Small Axe: Red, White and Blue

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Another Steve McQueen rendition of a true story, Red, White and Blue examines institutional racism in the Metropolitan Police, as did Mangrove – but from the inside. Leroy Logan, a research scientist, applies to the police with the express intention of combating its attitude and behaviour towards black people, in part because of his father’s own abuse at their hands.

The theme of black British identity runs throughout Small Axe, and here it’s intriguingly augmented by imagery of the Queen; we discuss how it can be interpreted, including as a symbol of the common nationality the Windrush generation ostensibly shares with British-born white people, and a painful reminder of the fact that that shared identity is not truly embodied, and also as an icon of the establishment Leroy hopes to disrupt and improve. We also concentrate on Leroy’s relationship with his father, which frames the entire film, and how their attitudes, experiences and understanding of each other intersect.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

264 – Small Axe: Lovers Rock

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Small Axe continues with Lovers Rock, a stunning musical set in a house party in the 1980s. Hit follows hit on the soundtrack, and José in particular is blown away by how Steve McQueen’s camera observes its euphoric subjects, concentrating on specific body parts, taking as much time as it likes to explore the mood, the resulting experience as sensuous as any we can recall. We discuss the cross-national identity the partygoers occupy, the Christian symbolism conspicuously on display, the open-ended narrative structure, and more, but always returning to the bold and brilliant dancefloor sequences. A masterpiece.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

263 – Small Axe: Mangrove

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Small Axe, Steve McQueen’s remarkable anthology of five films made for the BBC, begins with Mangrove, a dramatisation of the 1971 trial of the Mangrove Nine, a key event in British history in which the institutional racism of the Metropolitan Police was successfully litigated by members of the black community in Notting Hill. While it is undoubtedly key, it’s an event with which neither Mike nor José is familiar, and the film embodies the BBC’s iconic mission statement of “inform, educate, entertain”, doing all three wonderfully.

We discuss the way in which Mangrove both fits into and demonstrates an evolution of McQueen’s filmmaking – it’s as powerful and subtly impassioned as any of his previous work, but, perhaps owing to the medium for which it is made, unusually accessible, less keen to make the audience seek its depths for itself. The long-term implications of the trial in raising the nation’s consciousness about institutional racism are clear to the characters, and they’re not shy about discussing them, indulging in justified and welcome exposition. Mike discusses the differences between the characters, particularly Frank Crichlow, the owner of the titular restaurant, and Darcus Howe, an intellectual who is introduced to us as such, how they play off each other, and particularly the way in which Howe persuades Crichlow of his central place in the West Indian immigrant community and their fight to address the racism they face from the police. And José picks up on McQueen’s style and visual expressiveness, confidently holding some shots for a long time, and carefully composing others with considerations of framing and colour to create striking imagery.

Mangrove is the first of an extraordinary series of films about black British history and the experience of West Indian immigrants and their children in the 1970s and 80s, and our podcasts on the others will follow. They’re on iPlayer and unmissable.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.