Author Archives: Leslie Felperin

Letters from Baghdad review – Gertrude Bell gets the documentary she deserves

Tilda Swinton reads from the letters of the colourful and charismatic explorer, diplomat and archeologist who, along with TE Lawrence, shaped modern Iraq

It is one of the injustices of the universe that the fame of TE Lawrence, AKA Lawrence of Arabia, lives on (probably mostly thanks to David Lean and Peter O’Toole), while far fewer people are familiar with the biography of his contemporary and comrade-in-diplomacy, Gertrude Bell (1868-1926), a character no less colourful, charismatic and compelling than Lawrence. Getting a niche arthouse release, this finely wrought documentary won’t rectify that imbalance in their respective reputations. But it does serve as a handy summary for those who want a cinematic introduction to Bell’s sprawling, singular story, and don’t want to start with Queen of the Desert, Werner Herzog’s dramatised flop that starred Nicole Kidman as Bell.

Related: The extraordinary life of Gertrude Bell

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Who’s Gonna Love Me Now? review – a mission to heal family rifts

This moving documentary finds moments of magic as a gay Israeli man attempts to reconnect with his conservative parents

This affecting and sincere documentary revolves around Saar Maoz, a handsome Israeli in his early 40s who has lived in London for nearly 20 years. He’s found that’s the easiest way for him to keep his mostly conservative family back home at a distance. However, the fact that he’s HIV positive and not in a long-term relationship has made him start to rethink things, even if his role in the London Gay Men’s Chorus is a constant source of joy and solace, for both him and the viewer.

Co-directing brothers Barak and Tomer Heymann elect not to explain everything – such as what, for instance, Saar does for a living – but they’re great at telling detail, as we watch Saar spend time with London friends and his loving but blinkered parents and siblings, who span the empathy spectrum. Especially endearing moments include a shot of Saar locked in an embrace with his crying mother in his cramped London kitchen, slyly leaning over to give the frying potato latkes a little stir so they won’t burn.

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Headshot review – ultra-violent Indonesian action-thriller

Bad guys go on the rampage in this stylish and excessively gory iteration of the action genre

This Indonesian action film unfolds a story as old as time, or at least as old as film noir, in which a bad man (the undeniably charismatic Iko Uwais) experiences a trauma so severe (shot in the head, thrown into the sea) he wakes up with amnesia and somehow a completely different personality (which seems unlikely from a neurological point of view). Nerdy-cute medic Ailin (Chelsea Islan) nurses him back to health in the hospital and names him Ishmael after the narrator of Moby-Dick, which she happens to be reading at the time.

The film-making owes far less to any literary antecedents than it does to the kind of ultra-violent, stylish action films made in Hong Kong and Korea. As such, it’s a very good iteration of the genre, with moody lighting, razor sharp editing and great fight sequences, but be advised that only the strongest of stomachs need apply: it is excessively gory and amoral, even by the standards of such fare, with lots of blood-letting, eye-gouging and murder achieved with assorted implements of destruction including, at one point, a chopstick to the head.

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The Nights of Zayandeh-Rood review – Makhmalbaf’s essential early film returns

The great auteur’s controversial 1990 critique of Iranian society is a rich meditation on family life, the legacy of violence and lost love

A survivor now living in exile, Mohsen Makhmalbaf (Gabbeh, Kandahar) is one of Iran’s most important living auteurs, both literally and figuratively the father of a new generation of filmmakers, given he’s also the dad of Samira Makhmalbaf, Hana Makhmalbaf and Maysam Makhmalbaf.

This early feature, about an anthropology lecturer (Manuchehr Esmaili) and his daughter (Mojgan Naderi) living through the last years of the Shah, the revolution and its painful aftermath, was made in 1990 and shown publicly only once. However, the state censors objected to Makhmalbaf’s audacious critique of Iranian society, among other things, so they butchered the negative, cutting out 20 minutes of footage now thought to be lost for ever. In 2016, someone managed to salvage the surviving 63 minutes and smuggle it out of the country so what’s left could be seen at the Venice film festival.

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Bitter Harvest review – timely but uneven Ukrainian famine drama

Despite honourable intentions, this film addressing the Stalin-inflicted 1932-33 genocide in Ukraine is at times embarrassingly bad

At least Bitter Harvest’s release date is relatively timely, given the recent focus in the news on Russia’s brutally aggressive, expansive ambitions. Putin may be accused of killing, but he’s got nothing on Joseph Stalin who instigated the genocide via famine of some 10 million Ukrainians in 1932-33, an atrocity now known at the Holodomor. This drama by director/co-writer George Mendeluk is one of the very few western films to address the subject, and while one may applaud the intention, the execution is markedly uneven.

Max Irons stars as Yuri, a Cossack’s son with dreamy eyes and notable daddy issues who deeply loves feisty local beauty Natalka (Samantha Barks). Not long after their marriage, Stalin (incarnated by Gary Oliver in cutaway scenes, practically twiddling his bushy, fake moustache) comes to power and the tractors of death start ploughing up the land. The dialogue is at times embarrassingly bad, and the death of practically every principal supporting character is marked by a shot of some prop being splattered with metonymic blood. On the other hand, the period details are impressive and must have cost a pretty kopiyka or two, and the film benefits visually from being shot on location.

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The Fits review – audacious, spectacular coming-of-age mystery

Luminous performances and truly bewitching film-making elevate this uncanny, oestrogen-soaked dance drama

At a Cincinnati recreation centre where almost the entire film takes place, 11-year-old tomboy Toni (Royalty Hightower) has been learning about boxing from her older brother (Da’Sean Minor). However, a glimpse of other girls practicing hip-hop dance moves in another part of the building entirely beguiles Toni, and she joins up and dives in, learning in the process not just different physical skills but the mysterious ways of adolescent girlhood. Unfortunately, an inexplicable outbreak among the cohort of “fits” – spasmodic twitching and fainting, that looks half like dancing, half like demonic possession – threatens the unity of the group and Toni’s place within its strict hierarchy.

This may evoke other explorations of female trouble in all-girl environments (see, for instance, Carol Morley’s The Falling, Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides or Lucile Hadžihalilović’s Innocence). But writer-director Anna Rose Holmer’s debut feature carves out its own unique place in this specialised sub-genre of oestrogen-soaked uncanny dramas, for a start by unfolding without fanfare in an entirely African American milieu. It’s the audacity of the film-making, however, that’s truly bewitching here: the eerie, long tracking shots, the dazzling flares from lighting sources that eclipse the figures, and the spaced-out spookiness of Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans’ score, creating an isle full of noises, sounds and sweet airs. Holmer draws confident, luminous performances from the cast that rise to the occasion but never seem over-coached or phony.

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PS Jerusalem review – Israeli-Palestinian relations seen through a personal prism

Danae Elon’s family history provides the point of departure for an exploration of the political situation

Documentary maker Danae Elon grew up in Jerusalem, the only child of an American Jewish literary agent, Beth Elon, and an Austrian Jewish refugee from the Nazis, Amon Elon, who became a prominent left-wing intellectual, writer and public figure in Israel. This biographical context is crucial to Danae’s latest film PS Jerusalem, just as it was to her previous, Another Road Home, in which she tracked down the Palestinian man who looked after her when she was a child. Here, the director’s personal history becomes a prism through which to explore Israeli-Palestinian relations and family dynamics.

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Le Parc review – first date movie dissolves into sinister surrealism

Two teenagers meet and make out before everything gets seriously freaky in this ethereal low-budget French affair

This slender, ethereal, ultra-low-budget French film, getting a limited theatrical release before it goes to Mubi, starts off sort of dull and becomes increasingly entrancing. There’s something unresolved and formless about the ending, even within the film’s own avant garde terms of reference, but this second feature for director Damien Manivel may herald better things to come from the film-maker and his director of photography/co-writer/collaborator Isabel Pagliai. In a park in an unnamed city, two teenagers meet for a first date. The tall, gregarious boy (Maxime Bachellerie) has just discovered Sigmund Freud and lives with his single-parent mother, a hypnotherapist. The girl (Naomie Vogt-Roby), quieter and more thoughtful, was once a gymnast until she broke both wrists. They exchange relatively banal chit-chat and make out a bit until he leaves, and she stays on as the sun sets. Text messages displayed on-screen reveal a road bump on the course of true love. The girl wishes she could turn back time, and that’s when it all starts getting seriously freaky, moving into the realm of low-key Apichatpong Weerasethakul-style quotidian surrealism. Sobéré Sessouma is particularly impressive as a park keeper who at first seems kindly if a little officious, but who gradually reveals a more sinister persona.

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Danny Says review – a delightful slice of pop history

Music industry figure Danny Fields – who knew Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground – is a wry raconteur full of spit and vinegar in this engaging documentary

Danny Fields is one of those mysterious figures in the music industry you often see in black and white band photographs grinning away with his arms around the talent, too hip-looking to be a venue manager, too square to be a dealer. Turns out, he’s an interesting character, a wry raconteur full of spit and vinegar even now in his late 70s, who has had a varied music business career, and who was canny about keeping recordings of conversations , which enrich this documentary by Brendan Toller. A hyper-smart, gay, Jewish boy from Queens who studied law at Harvard, he became a music journalist and was the guy who reported in the US that John Lennon had said the Beatles were bigger than Jesus. A friend of Andy Warhol’s, Edie Sedgwick and the Velvet Undergound, Fields knew just about everyone in the hippest New York circles. He became a publicist for Elektra records (critic Robert Christgau once dismissively called him the label’s “house hippy”) and took a ton of drugs with Jim Morrison from the Doors, among others. Fields persuaded Elektra to sign MC5 and The Stooges, and eventually he ended up managing the Ramones; indeed, he is the Danny in their song Danny Says who compels the group to go to Idaho. Stitched together from extensive interviews with Fields and his surviving friends, including Iggy Pop, Tommy Ramone and record exec Seymour Stein, this is a delightful slice of pop history.

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Embrace review – Australian body-image doc takes hold of the issues

Taryn Brumfitt fronts a worthy documentary about women’s relationships with their bodies – but seems afraid to use the word ‘feminism’

Cannily scheduled for release at the time of year when gym applications and feelings of self-disgust reach their peak, this Australian documentary examines body-image issues, especially among women, and our inability to embrace ourselves as we are.

The film is both a critique and a product of the social media era, given that director-presenter Taryn Brumfitt first found fame when a pair of pictures – one showing her in body-builder condition, and in the other, naked and softened by child-bearing and contentment – went viral, earning both praise and trollish opprobrium.

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The Young Offenders review – knockabout Irish crime caper

Two teens hunt for a missing stash of cocaine, in a comedy with a workable balance between slapstick and proper storytelling

Cork-born teenager Conor MacSweeney (Alex Murphy) and his best friend Jock (Chris Walley) are a classic little-and-large double act, the disparity in their heights made even more comical by the way they sport near-identical tracksuits, close-shaved haircuts and bumfluff moustaches. Bored with their regular routines of working, in Conor’s case, at the fish stall run by his single mother Mairead (Hilary Rose) and, in Jock’s case, stealing bicycles, they decide to embark on an adventure. Hearing that a €7m bale of cocaine has gone missing on the coast of Kerry, they set off on a treasure hunt, pursued by a garda (Dominic MacHale) determined to bring the bike-pilfering Jock to justice.

As broad and brassy Irish comedies go (there have been quite a few of them lately), this one is reasonably palatable, striking a workable balance between knockabout slapstick, backchat, and proper storytelling and characterisation. The young leads’ crisp comic timing is another plus, though the whole package is hardly original and a notch less funny than seems to think it is.

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The Young Offenders review – knockabout Irish crime caper

Two teens hunt for a missing stash of cocaine, in a comedy with a workable balance between slapstick and proper storytelling

Cork-born teenager Conor MacSweeney (Alex Murphy) and his best friend Jock (Chris Walley) are a classic little-and-large double act, the disparity in their heights made even more comical by the way they sport near-identical tracksuits, close-shaved haircuts and bumfluff moustaches. Bored with their regular routines of working, in Conor’s case, at the fish stall run by his single mother Mairead (Hilary Rose) and, in Jock’s case, stealing bicycles, they decide to embark on an adventure. Hearing that a €7m bale of cocaine has gone missing on the coast of Kerry, they set off on a treasure hunt, pursued by a garda (Dominic MacHale) determined to bring the bike-pilfering Jock to justice.

As broad and brassy Irish comedies go (there have been quite a few of them lately), this one is reasonably palatable, striking a workable balance between knockabout slapstick, backchat, and proper storytelling and characterisation. The young leads’ crisp comic timing is another plus, though the whole package is hardly original and a notch less funny than seems to think it is.

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Holy Cow review – the only way is cowie

Imam Hasanov’s half-documentary, half-fiction tale of a farmer in Azerbaijan who decides to buy a European cow is amiable enough, if a bit stilted

In the sleepy village of Lahic, high in the mountains of Azerbaijan, farmer Tapdig becomes obsessed with the idea of buying a large, European cow that would provide more milk and calves than the puny local heifers. Much to the chagrin of his long-suffering wife, and despite the extremely hostile attitude of the village elders, who believe such imports will erode the moral standards of the village, he succeeds. His strapping black-and-white purchase, whom he names Madonna (“because she’s beautiful like the singer,”) does indeed change his fortunes, although not necessarily in the way he expected. Packing a subtle contemporary resonance given the discussion of Azerbaijan’s relationship to the European Union, this is a pleasant, agricultural fable for our times, although be warned that it moves with the stately pace of a Friesian traversing a muddy field. It has played at various documentary film festivals already, but at times it feels noticeably sculpted for the camera, as the participants self-consciously pretend they aren’t being observed. In other words, this is a bit like one of those postmodern half-doc, half-fiction features that Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf used to specialise in.

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Holy Cow review – the only way is cowie

Imam Hasanov’s half-documentary, half-fiction tale of a farmer in Azerbaijan who decides to buy a European cow is amiable enough, if a bit stilted

In the sleepy village of Lahic, high in the mountains of Azerbaijan, farmer Tapdig becomes obsessed with the idea of buying a large, European cow that would provide more milk and calves than the puny local heifers. Much to the chagrin of his long-suffering wife, and despite the extremely hostile attitude of the village elders, who believe such imports will erode the moral standards of the village, he succeeds. His strapping black-and-white purchase, whom he names Madonna (“because she’s beautiful like the singer,”) does indeed change his fortunes, although not necessarily in the way he expected. Packing a subtle contemporary resonance given the discussion of Azerbaijan’s relationship to the European Union, this is a pleasant, agricultural fable for our times, although be warned that it moves with the stately pace of a Friesian traversing a muddy field. It has played at various documentary film festivals already, but at times it feels noticeably sculpted for the camera, as the participants self-consciously pretend they aren’t being observed. In other words, this is a bit like one of those postmodern half-doc, half-fiction features that Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf used to specialise in.

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Molly Moon and the Incredible Book of Hypnotism review – mirthless and shoddy

This adaptation of Georgia Byng’s plucky-orphan story features a cracking cast but has all the appeal of a disposable Christmas stocking novelty

Georgia Byng’s children’s novel Molly Moon’s Incredible Book of Hypnotism is well admired by many for its vivid heroine and its fresh twist on the old plucky-orphan narrative gambit. This film adaptation assembles a cracking cast, starting with the terrifyingly impressive Raffey Cassidy (the pretty android from Tomorrowland) in the title role, with assists from some illustrious thespians, including Lesley Manville as the mean orphanage director; Emily Watson as a kindly staff member; Celia Imrie as the cook; right down to Joan Collins, resplendent in a red wig and a ton of slap, as an evil criminal mastermind.

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Heritage of Love review – wretched, retchworthy Russian romance

An insufferable love story set in St Petersburg pre-1917 and Paris today, this regressive, saccharine film may have made serious rubles, but it has no merit

So soaked with sentimentality, bogus emotion and cliche, to watch it is to feel as if one is being pelted by a spongiform romance novel soaked in alcopop, this St Petersburg-Paris set drama is the very embodiment of the Russian notion of “poshlost”, a kind of corny vulgarity that Nabokov dissected at length in his book on Gogol. It’s a depressing sign of the times, along with the election of Donald Trump and the vote for Brexit, that this rubbish was one of the highest-earning films in Russia recently. Former Eurovision contestant Dima Bilan plays with equal woodenness two different characters in two different time periods, who both fall in love with Svetlana Ivanova’s simpering blonde princess and her descendent.

During the 1917 Russian revolution, they are separated by wars and pesky, evil Bolsheviks. In 2016, they are separated by their inability to navigate the Parisian Métro system, which is at least understandable. By Russian standards, this allegedly had a huge blockbuster production budget, and yet it looks surprisingly gimcrack and shoddy. At least there are giggles in store watching it tick off the romantic movie tropes, including not one but two scenes where our lovers run towards each other in slow motion.

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The Incident review – pointedly understated middle-class sex drama

A man turns his back on his perfect life and sleeps with an underage prostitute in this well-acted but unlikely dramaAnnabel (Ruta Gedmintas), a gallerist, and her architect husband, Joe (Tom Hughes), are ridiculously good-looking, wealthy enough to af… Continue reading

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Magnus review – chess doc about grandmaster makes all the wrong moves

This documentary about world champion Magnus Carlsen has nothing interesting to say about the state of chess today

Norwegian grandmaster Magnus Carlsen, 25, is the current chess world champion, but if there were a tournament for the best chess movie of all time, this one would get knocked out well before the quarter finals. Why a documentary about Carlsen is hitting our screens at all rather than one about, say, his rival Viswanathan Anand, may have something to do with Magnus’ stolid Scandinavian good looks, chiselled if somewhat bovine features that have made him a bit of a celebrity beyond the chess world. But even though director Benjamin Ree has accessed the family archive of footage showing young Magnus as a socially awkward prodigy through the years and interviewed him directly many times, the film barely dents his inviolate wall of polite reticence. Worse still, there’s scant input from chess experts to explain why he’s so good, what’s unique about his gamesmanship and the like, and the film has nothing interesting to say about chess in general in the modern age. Come back, Bobby Fischer, all is forgiven.

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I, Olga review – wretched Euro arthouse drama stupifies a grim crime

This film, based on an act of violence in Czechoslovakia in 1972, may be in black and white and full of gratuitous lesbian sex scenes but lord is it dull

Even if you go into this film knowing absolutely nothing about the true story on which it’s based – a shocking mass murder that foreshadowed a recent atrocity in France – you’ll sense something dreadful is going to happen because so much of it is crushingly dull. After all, there’s a kind of algorithm that controls the structure of this sort of austere Euro arthouse cinema. The maths dictate that the viewer must suffer through a certain quantity of pointlessly long shots of people driving, smoking or staring blanking into space, suffused with ennui and alienation, before the film will deliver either sex scenes or acts of violence. In this case, both love and death are portioned out through the story of title character Olga Hepnarová (Michalina Olszanska), a 22-year-old Czech woman driven to violence in 1973 after years of bullying and maltreatment by her family and the then socialist state. Olga also happened to be a lesbian, which allows the film several moodily lit but not exactly convincing scenes where she makes out with a series of fetching temporary girlfriends. The sleek monochrome cinematography dilutes the luridness somewhat, as does the mesmerising Olszanska’s committed performance and somehow her feline beauty makes the deranged, Unabomber-like character she’s playing seem even more disturbing.

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My Feral Heart review – a thoughtful portrait of disability

This debut feature has a secret weapon in Steven Brandon, who gives a magnetic performance as a man with Down’s syndrome who is forced into a group home

Luke (Steven Brandon, a gifted performer and the film’s secret weapon) is a very competent young man with Down’s syndrome who singlehandedly cares for his elderly, bedridden mother (Eileen Pollock). But when she dies in her sleep, he’s forced by the authorities to move into a group home with other adults with complex needs, many of whom are much less able than himself. Bereaved, angry and lonely, Luke slips out against house rules to go on long walks, and discovers a mysterious feral girl (played by contortionist Pixie Le Knot, possibly not her real name). She’s been injured by a fox trap and he nurses her back to health in a barn. Meanwhile, Luke gradually grows closer to his care worker Eve (Shana Swash from EastEnders) and a young toff rebel named Pete (Will Rastall) who is doing community service gardening for the home.

There’s a lot to like here, including the thoughtful portrait of disability, director Jane Gull’s knack with performers of all ability, and the shimmering cinematography by Susanne Salavati. But by the end, the script melts into a hot, melodramatic mess leaving whole strands of plot that make no sense whatsoever. Something clearly went very wrong somewhere along the way, perhaps with the financing or in another department. Which is a shame because, for two-thirds of its running time, this is a work of lacy delicacy, and a great showcase for the magnetic Brandon, who hopefully will continue to pursue a career as an actor.

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