Films

London Film Festival 2017

I went to a decent selection of films at this year’s London Film Festival, and overall was very impressed by the range and quality. There are obviously a stupidly large number of films that you can see, and while seeing some big hitters early is always nice, there’s also the opportunity to see films that might never get released in the UK at all.

One overall takeaway I had from this year’s festival is that film makers should be very careful in using non-English speaking actors to speak and converse in English. If an actor can’t really speak the language then it suddenly becomes very stilted and their acting qualities go out the window. Suddenly it’s enormously distracting.

Of course two characters may converse in English because that’s the only language that both speak. But a lot of the time you feel that it’s about producers hoping for better box offices down the line. And that’s a shame.

Anyway, with that little aside, and because I’ll forget what I saw unless I record my thoughts here, here are [relatively] brief reviews of the nine films I saw at the festival.

Ghost Stories

Ghost Stories ran on the London stage for years, although somehow I never quite got around to seeing it. Written and directed by Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson, this adaption changes some things but brings others into play.

While I didn’t see the stage version, I do know that it was presented in terms of a lecture to the audience. In this version, the construct is a character who has made his name in unveiling fakes on TV, investigating three inexplicable stories that he’s presented with by a mysterious character who disappeared from public view many years ago.

This framing narrative allows for a portmanteau structure of three different, yet linked, stories. Each of them is well constructed. We get Paul Whitehouse’s security guard, Martin Freeman’s obnoxious banker, and Alex Lawther’s teenager. All tell their tales, bringing with them plenty of shocks and frights that I won’t spoil here.

And of course, there is more to everything than there might at first seem to be. Great performances all around.

Rift

Rift is a nasty little Icelandic horror film, all shot in a remote region of the country. Gunnar heads off to a remote house, where his ex-partner has left a worrying phone message. Is he going to do something stupid.

It’s the lead-up to Christmas, and the two haven’t really been talking since the break-up. The message suggested that someone was trying to get in. Once in the house, there are strange and disturbing sounds from nearby. What’s real and what’s not?

The film is bleak, and told with a modern horror sensibility. That does mean that sounds are used a little too much to make you jump. But there’s plenty here that’s creepy enough. Figures appearing and disappearing. Knocks on the door in the middle of the night. Where is it going to end?

Our Time Will Come

Set during the war in occupied Hong Kong, Our Time Will Come is the story of a group of resistance fighters, trying to smuggle out those the Japanese are trying to intern or imprison, and disrupting the war effort.

It’s based on a true story, although with a good deal of added melodrama.

Zhou Xun plays Fang Lan, a teacher living with her mother, who also houses some academics. She gets involved with a resistance group led by Eddie Peng Yuyan’s “Blackie” Lau, who swashes more buckles than anyone in cinema since Errol Flynn. Sadly, this also means takes away from the film’s verisimilitude. Fang becomes ever more involved as the stakes get higher.

In the meantime, her boyfriend (Wallace Huo Chienhwa) has started working for the Japanese. Slowly, everyone gets deeper in their involvement, and the danger increases.

I really enjoyed the film, although I couldn’t quite get a handle on the pitch of it. At times it feels all too real, while at other times, it really doesn’t.

The parts of the film that really didn’t work are the faux documentary scenes surrounding the main film. Filmed in contemporary Hong Kong, but in black and white, we are to believe that some of these people were the protagonists of the action during WWII. While one child is explicitly said to be one of the adults, the rest too would have been children, or much older than they would appear here. I’m not sure the scenes add much.

That all said, this is a part of history I really know nothing about – maybe with the exception of wartime Shanghai as depicted in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution. And the performances are excellent.

Call Me By Your Name

Just released properly last weekend, and like many other films getting a release over the next couple of months, attracting some Oscar “buzz”, this film from Luca Guadagnino is based on a novel of the same name. Set in the 80s, Elio (Timothée Chalamet) is the son of liberal academic parents, and is largely bored throughout the long summer holidays in the beautiful part of Lombardy that he lives in.

He is sort of having a relationship with a French girl, but then the household is disrupted when a visiting academic, Oliver (Armie Hammer) arrives for the summer. He’s literally freewheeling (borrowing a bike to get around), and instantly attracts the ladies – especially in a great scene in the local nightclub.

But the young Elio takes an especial interest in Oliver, and soon they are hanging around together a great deal. Elio is 17 and Oliver is older, but their relationship blossoms.

In some curious way, this reminds me a little of a TV series from the late eighties that I loved – Summer’s Lease (from a John Mortimer novel). And you could say too that it shares DNA with Stealing Beauty. All of those feature very middle class families, Italian idylls and coming of age stories.

There are heartbreaking moments in this, and some very funny moments as well. Not a film I think I’d have rushed to see, but one I’m glad I did see.

Winter Brothers

This is curious Icelandic film, although shot in Danish. The film opens in near darkness down a mine, men hard at work in light. Finally they emerge into the light, reaching the minehead. Then we’re introduced to the two brothers, Emil and Johan, and we begin to learn more about their lives.

They live in poor accommodation – perhaps some kind of camp associated with the mine – and there is clearly not much to do. But Emil has a sideline in producing some kind of homebrew spirit which he sells to colleagues. He’s also flirting with a girl in a nearby house. He’s also slightly obsessed with an VHS tape that teaches soldiers how to use their guns.

But one day someone who’s bought Emil’s homebrew collapses and is taken to hospital very ill. Suddenly, Emil’s life collapses around him.

This film is peculiar because it’s an experience as much as a story being told. The 16mm film it was shot on, the stark desaturated landscape, and the nothingness of the place. This might be set in Iceland, but it could be anywhere. At times this could be an experimental art film as much as film in the conventional sense. Yet it remains powerful.

Grain

Grain is something of an epic from Semih Kaplanoglu, set in a dystopian future in which crops no longer grow properly, and people live either within the confines of society, or outside it on the margins.

Jean-Marc Barr plays Erol, a scientist trying to find answers. He decides to go in search of Cemil (Ermin Bravo) who may have the secrets that can help.

The film is visually stunning, filmed in widescreen black and white in locales as distant as Detroit, Germany and Turkey. This is an allegorical film about a quest. Based in part on a chapter of the Koran, it has a philosophical tone throughout, and you are never quite sure where it is heading.

My only problem, as alluded to at the start of this piece, is that English is neither of the two leads’ native language, and it really shows. Perhaps the problem in part is that they’re being asked to speak using words with which they wouldn’t be comfortable in real life. Either way, it distracts from the film despite there being relatively little dialogue overall.

Most Beautiful Island

Ana Asensio has writes, directs and stars in this tale about life in the margins as an immigrant in New York. Luciana is from a non-specific Latin American country having to get by without having a social security number. She picks up various jobs when she can get them, but she’s about to be kicked out of her apartment by her roommate for unpaid rent, and her phone has no credit left. She meets up with a friend one day between babysitting gigs. Her friend Olga tells her that there’s a job on offer which will pay good money if she shows up in a smart dress.

Luciana is rightly reluctant, but in need of the cash to finagles a dress from a shop, and then has to follow a complicated series of instructions to be on time for the party she has to look pretty at.

We the audience are also beginning to get a little on edge. What kind of party is this? It can’t be good, with assignations below restaurants in Chinatown and back alley addresses. And I’m not about to tell you here either. But it’s clear that Olga has not been altogether honest about what’s required.

What this film does show, is perhaps a truer reflection of the diversity of life in New York City, and one that the TV cop shows set there tend to avoid. There are a lot of people in this film who don’t speak English natively, and as viewers, those conversations are not translated for us.

I really liked this film. It’s definitely uncomfortable, because you simply don’t know where it’s going to go. And while I’m not sure elements are a completely accurate reflection on life in the city, you can see how people desperate for money will do things that they mightn’t otherwise choose to do. Furthermore, others will prey on those people.

The Shape of Water

This is the new Guillermo del Toro film, and it’s a delight. We’re in fifties America, and Sally Hawkins is the mute Elisa, living above a cinema in an apartment that reminds me a little of Amelie. This may be the fifties, but Elisa is thoroughly modern even if her job is as a cleaner in a strange military site where strange undersea things are examined. She and her co-worker Zelda diligently go about mopping up the labs even as some kind of amphibious humanoid creature has been captured Michael Shannon’s evil Strickland.

Elisa begins to make friends with the creature, and she becomes more and more uncomfortable with how it’s being treated. The relationship is handled tremendously, Doug Jones playing the creature under layers of makeup. The relationship between them always feels real, even though the story runs perilously close to being silly. Yes – you have to buy into a world where this is possible. But it’s such a beautifully structured and believable world, that isn’t a simple one and has a seamier and nastier underside.

This is a lovely piece of work, and will be well worth watching when it gets a fuller release in a month or so.

Manhunt

This is the return of John Woo, the action director fondly remembered by many for films like A Better Tomorrow and Hard Boiled, before he went to the US for films like Face/Off and Mission Impossible 2. Of late he seems to have been making Chinese language potboilers, and this is his return to the action genre. Hanyu Zhang plays a Chinese lawyer working for a big pharmaceutical company in Osaka, Japan. He’s somehow embroiled in a plot from three years earlier in which he successfully covered something up. But now he’s wanted for a murder that he probably didn’t commit. The ingredients also include an evil boss and his son, two female assassins, a Japanese police inspector and his doting new assistant.

To be honest, this film doesn’t take itself too seriously, but it took me a while to understand that. Yes, Woo’s big action set pieces have always been overly elaborate, but there was a certain serious world view in those earlier films. In this case, you hope, Woo has his tongue firmly in his cheek. But even then, the dialogue is as corny as hell, and it falls again into the trap of having people speak English when they really shouldn’t (the reasoning is communication between a Chinese and Japanese national). The plot is not even worth explaining, since it’s so corny.

There are a few good set pieces, with bad guys being killed in a range of inventive ways. And in one sequence where our two protagonists are handcuffed together (which goes right back to Hitchcock’s The Thirty Nine Steps), we are teased with a dovecote that we know will see the release of dozens of white doves.

The bigger issue for me was probably the video effects that make it feel at times it was a Chinese language soap opera. Freeze frames, and strange wipes, as well as corny video effects that we didn’t need to see. One shot appears to be been made with a consumer drone, and really looked bad on the big screen.

Action films have moved on since 1992, with Bourne and even Bond adapting. Sadly, it doesn’t feel as though Woo, now 71, has stayed up with it.

Thor: Ragnarok

I confess that I feel left behind by Marvel’s Cinematic Universe these days. The films come thick and fast, and I’ve not seen them all by any means. That has begun to instill in me a fear that I won’t actually fully understand a new film because I’ve missed things that happened in the last film.

I’ve not seen Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ant-Man, Captain America: Civil War, Guardians of the Galaxy 2 or Spiderman Homecoming. It’s like stopping watching Lost on TV after three seasons, suddenly realising they’re up to season seven, and not really wanting to watch 60 episodes to get caught up.

But I’d heard enough good things about Thor: Ragnarok to mean that I was happy to give it a watch. In any event, I’d seen Doctor Strange on TV, and that didn’t seem to require much previous knowledge.

Of course, a Marvel film is likely to be very popular. And that means lots of “code violations.” People just can’t keep off their phones (probably not helped by every superhero film being more than two hours meaning in places they can drag).

I had to go and tell one person sitting near the front, and therefore in full view of the entire auditorium, to turn off their phone which they’d been on a full five minutes into the film, on full brightness. Others felt they could WhatsApp with impunity throughout just because they’d turned their brightness down.

And then there were the younger kids. Now I get it. It’s a Marvel film, and lots of 7 and 8 year olds will want to see it. But the certificate is 12A. The BBFC says: “Frequent scenes of fantasy violence include fistfights, aerial dogfights, and use of lasers and bladed weapons. There are brief impalings, but with minimal blood and injury detail. In one comic sequence an alien is melted into liquid, but the scene does not dwell on detail.

“There are occasional mild sex references and innuendo, and occasional use of mild bad language.”

But the point is that it’s a 12A.

The BBFC says of 12A films: “Films classified 12A and video works classified 12 contain material that is not generally suitable for children aged under 12. No one younger than 12 may see a 12A film in a cinema unless accompanied by an adult. Adults planning to take a child under 12 to view a 12A film should consider whether the film is suitable for that child. To help them decide, we recommend that they check the BBFCinsight for that film in advance.” (My emphasis)

Some adults had definitely brought kids who found the film slightly too perilous. The clues are in things like trips to the loo, or shifting in seats.

But one mother and father had brought a toddler so young that the child still had a dummy in its mouth. I’d have said it was a maximum of three. The opening scene of Thor takes place with Thor captured by a hellish fire demon. The child instantly found this scary. It only got worse after that. At first the mother took the child to a seat well away from others at the front – I assume to minimise the disruption. But eventually she left the cinema.

I do think the BBFC needs to legislate that 12A films should not be seen by children under the age of, say 8, in any circumstances.

As for the film? Well it’s pretty decent. The film is directed by Taika Waititi, and it’s probably the funniest Marvel film I’ve seen (Waititi keeping many of the best gags for himself as Korg, a creature made of stones). Cate Blanchett is suitably villainous as Hela, Thor and Loki’s sister (although the costume designers seem a little too “inspired” by Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent). And Tessa Thompson is great as Valkyrie who manages to make a spectacular and very funny entrance. I’m unsure how much of The Hulk is actually motion capture of Mark Ruffalo and how much is simply animation, but Ruffalo’s few scenes are fine.

There’s just enough (but not too much) of Jeff Goldblum, while Tom Hiddlestone hams it up once more as Loki against Chris Hemsworth’s Thor. They too manage to play the comic moments very well.

You don’t really have to think too hard about the plot, but the film keeps up the pace despite its 130 minute runtime.

Obviously it’s full of CGI, and while there’s vast quantities of destruction at the end as is requisite in all superhero films, it’s less overt, and does somehow push the story forward a bit.

Overall, this is easily one of the better superhero films I’ve seen in a long time, and certainly the funniest. It also reminds me that I need to catch up with Hunt for the Wilderpeople (it’s on Netflix in the UK), Waititi’s last film as director. His sensibility really does carry through here.

Dwindling Choices

A couple of weeks ago, Ofcom released its annual Communications Market Report. It’s always stuffed full of information about the UK media marketplace that can be fascinating to dissect.

In 2016, ownership of DVD players (including Blu Ray and games consoles with DVD functionality) was 67% of UK households. This year, it’s just 63% of households. That’s still most homes, but it’s indicative of the way that physical media is in decline as consumers move to streaming services.

Then yesterday, Amazon announced that it was closing Lovefilm. You may recall that Lovefilm was originally the UK’s version of Netflix in that it was a DVD rental by post business (Yes – that was Netflix’s original model too). Their basic service saw users renting films for a flat monthly fee and then posting them back when you’d watched them. In time, Lovefilm added a movie streaming service, so that by the time Amazon swooped in to buy them, it was the streaming service that Amazon was really interested in. That morphed into Amazon Prime Video, but the Lovefilm postal service remained.

And it still worked well, because unlike streaming services, customers had the ability to watch just about any film or TV series released on disc. That included classic films, genre titles and world film titles that never make it onto major streaming services.

And there’s the rub.

We have ownership of machines to play discs falling, and yet digital is not a direct replacement.

It’s all very well have a Netflix or Amazon Prime Video account, but those do not represent a full range of choice. In a Guardian piece bemoaning the death of Lovefilm, the author likened the film selection on the streaming services to the DVD selection in a petrol station. A handful of decent titles – all of which you’ve seen – and a load of trash you’d never want to watch.

That’s a little harsh, but it’s not far from the truth. Yes, the catalogues are slowly improving, but the reality is that on any given day, it’s hard for anyone to actually know what films are available on what services.

Distributors package up groups of films – some are good, some less so – and licence them to the online streamers for certain periods. That period might be measured in months, or it might be measured in years. By and large, the same film is unlikely to be streaming on both Amazon Prime Video and Netflix at the same time. So which do you buy? Both?

The reality is that the all-you-can-eat streaming services offer a fairly meagre range considering the vast breadth and wealth of cinema history. There are a few choice morsels alongside a lot of filler.

Furthermore, you can’t be certain on any given day, that a service you subscribe to will have the film you want to watch available to you.

Ah, but that’s OK. I can get everything else I want to watch from iTunes, Amazon Video (the rent-per-film part) or Google Play Video!

Well, up to a point Lord Copper.

If the film was pretty popular and released in the last twenty years or so, then yes, for around £4.49 for a rental, you probably can stream a copy, with luck in HD. But I think you’ll find there’s an awful lot missing.

Older films, classic films, mid-list films, genre films, TV series and many more.

Question for Film Distributors

If you’re a bit of a film fan like me, then from time to time you suddenly have the urge to watch a film. Assuming you don’t have your own Blu Ray or DVD copy to hand you head to the streaming services and search for it. Only to find it’s not there.

Why in 2017, is not a distributor’s entire catalogue online?

It seems to me that if you own the rights to a film, then you’re deliberately leaving money on the table if you do not at least make it available to purchase digitally in places like the iTunes and Google Play Video stores.

I’m not talking about things you’re holding back to repackage in various ways for maximum revenue – Disney, I’m looking at you!

I’m talking about average films, that if I wait long enough will pop-up once every couple of months on FilmFour or BBC2 anyway. I’m talking about solid mid-range titles, that once upon a time, I could happily find in physical format in a largish branch of HMV or the Virgin Megastore.

Here are a handful of films that I have genuinely wanted to stream but not been able to find on streaming services when I looked, all from within the last thirty years, and all currently or previously released on physical media.

  • Truly, Madly, Deeply
  • The Grifters
  • Rambling Rose
  • Enchanted April

If I started searching for older films then the list would get much longer much more quickly.

What I really don’t understand is that the costs of making catalogue movies available on these services is surely basically nil. You don’t even have to worry whether HMV will give up shelf space to a title, or Amazon warehouse space. You just list the film and let the money run in (or at least trickle in).

In 2017, if you’re a bit of a movie buff, then while the streaming services might sate your appetite a little, you’re not getting the full picture.

What you can’t do is draw an analogy with music. Spotify has a catalogue of ~30m tracks, so perhaps you could ditch your physical music collection and rely solely on their service (I wouldn’t personally, but many do). The same simply isn’t true for films, and we don’t seem to be close to that point.

Indeed if you don’t own a DVD or Blu Ray player, you’re limiting yourself enormously. And that’s before getting into the lack of extras that most streaming or download services offer.

As a consequence of all this, my physical film collection continues to grow.

Dunkirk

Christopher Nolan is clearly one of this generation’s outstanding film makers. From Memento through to his Dark Knight trilogy, to Inception and Interstellar, he does something interesting every time. Not only are his films glorious to watch, shot with large-format film including IMAX for much of his latest, but his films are very successful at the box office. He’s one of the few directors working who can make a $100m+ film not based on a franchise.

Which brings us to Dunkirk – his telling of the story of the evacuation of over 300,000 troops from the beach, where they were pinned down by advancing German soldiers during WWII. This isn’t the first film telling the story of the rescue of so many soldiers against the odds. The 1958 Ealing Studios film was one of their most of expensive, and also one of their last, produced by the famed Michael Balcon. And perhaps the most memorable sequence of Joe Wright’s Atonement, features the lines of troops on a massive scale on Dunkirk beach.

Time is a key component of many of Nolan’s films, from the reversed timelines of Memento to the physics of space and time in Interstellar. In Dunkirk he plays with time once more. Captions reveal that we’re going to see three key stories over a week, a day and an hour.

We follow the troops on the beach across a week, as they are marshalled, amongst others, by Kenneth Brannagh’s naval commander onto the limited supply of vessels able to dock at “The Mole” a wooden pier that allows access to vessels that couldn’t otherwise come ashore.

Mark Rylance and his young crew, are leading a pleasure yacht across the Channel from Dorset, across a single day.

Finally there is Tom Hardy’s Spitfire pilot who’s mission, limited by the amount of fuel he can carry, is limited to just an hour.

These three timelines are played out simultaneously, with the strands linking together at key points.

There’s not a lot of dialogue in this film, but there is a lot of music, much of which is layered within sound. Nolan has worked once again with Hans Zimmer, and even more than in his last two outings with Inception and Interstellar, the music is a vital part of the whole. This is music that is front and centre. And individual music cues run between the different timelines, making the film feel as a single piece. The limited dialogue means that music becomes ever more important. As Zimmer did with Inception, with its deconstruction of Edith Piaf’s Non, je ne regrette rien, so he works skillfully with Nimrod from Elgar’s Enigma Variations.

This is a 12A film, and that’s actually quite important. Saving Private Ryan, for example, is classified as a 15. That films heart-stopping opening changed war films forever, meaning that other films that came in its wake felt the need to mimic its blood soaked verisimilitude. The short shutter speed (actually a 45 degree or 90 degree shutter angle) led to a staccato experience for the viewer. The same effect has since been repeatedly used in large scale action sequences.

But I could never help feeling that Saving Private Ryan was two very different films glued together. That opening, and then a more by-the-numbers war film with a dubious over-arching premise. Band of Brothers, the HBO series that came directly in its wake, seemed to have a more cohesive narrative structure.

Dunkirk has a more even feel to the film as a whole. That’s not to say that you don’t truly believe that anyone could die at any moment. From the opening scene in which Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and his fellow troops pluck a leaflet from the sky warning them that they are surrounded, the action rarely lets up.

The stoicism of Rylance as he heads into the unknown, with just burning ships on the horizon guiding him towards Dunkirk, and the bravery of the Spitfire pilots as they battle to protect ships in the Channel laden with men and being targeted by German bombers.

There have been complaints that the film doesn’t portray everything completely accurately. French troops are largely ignored despite the fact that many of them were holding up the Germany army while the British Expeditionary Force was evacuated. Then there’s the complaint that there are no faces of colour when there were significant numbers of Asian and East African troops serving. In fact, the film does include some black faces, but admittedly not very many. In the end, I would say that the film concentrates on a small handful of soldiers, and despite the scale of the film in places – thousands of extras lined up on the beach – we are mostly dealing with individual characters.

I was fortunate to be able to see Dunkirk in its IMAX film presentation at the BFI Waterloo. The majority of the film, including nearly all the action sequences, were shot on these enormous cameras. Only the very closest scenes – often below deck on ships – was shot on the “smaller” 70mm cameras. What this means is that the film’s aspect ratio is actually close to square for a lot of the film but on such a large scale that it just fills nearly all your peripheral vision. Then it’s “cropped” to a 70mm aspect ratio for some sequences. But strangely, you really don’t notice this except when you’re looking for it. (I recall seeing the final Dark Knight film in this manner, and there the jumps between formats were somehow much more noticeable). The key thing is that all the big set pieces are simply stunning to look at. The aerial combat scenes are some of the most fantastic I’ve seen. Exactly where real planes were employed and where CGI might have been used is impossible to tell. The credits reveal that they definitely did use real planes, and it does feel as though you’re in there with Tom Hardy as he tries to save the lives of troops, as all the while a lack of fuel means that he doesn’t have enough to return to England.

Similarly, when you see ships being attacked and sometimes sinking, they feel very real. I know that real ships were used on the production – lots of them. But we’ve moved to a point where CGI can make real things look very real indeed.

While the nature of Dunkirk means that we know what will happen in broad terms, that doesn’t apply for individual characters, and we are left on the edge of our seats throughout.

Overall a film that left me wanting to go back in and see it again, because seeing it on the big screen is essential – ideally from a film print. Essential.

The Lost City of Z

I first heard about Percy Fawcett back in the late eighties when a friend told me about him. We’d both read Redmond O’Hanlon’s Into the Heart of Borneo detailing his trip with James Fenton, and I think that In Trouble Again, in which O’Hanlon heads into Amazonia, had just come out. Indeed extracts may have been published in Granta which I certainly read at the time.

Fawcett, as described to me by my friend, sounded like a remarkable chap, spending years exploring the jungle, coming across all manner of travails, from dangerous beasts both great and small, to wild local Indian tribes and an inhospitable terrain.

I made a mental note to track down the book he’d written, Exploration Fawcett, and a few years later I came across a copy published in the Century Traveller imprint with an introduction by Robin Hanbury-Tenison. But the book looked like it may be heavy going, and despite my interest, it was always on my, “I must get around to reading that…” list.

In 2009 I heard about David Grann’s book, The Lost City of Z, seeing him interviewed by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. While it’s clear that there has been much literature – indeed an entire industry – about Fawcett over the years, this was perhaps the most mainstream title to date. I picked up a copy.

But I still wanted to read Fawcett’s own book (actually edited by his son Brian) first. So Gann’s title too joined the book pile.

In due course I heard that James Gray was making a film of the book. From time to time you’d hear a little more about it until finally its release was imminent. And so, nearly thirty years after I’d first heard about Fawcett, I read Exploration Fawcett.

It’s a fascinating story detailing briefly Fawcett’s early life in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Ireland as a British Army officer, before he was chosen to carry out some work for the Royal Geographical Society, delineating the borders of Bolivia and Brazil. At the time there was a “gold rush” in rubber production deep in the forests of the Amazon, and knowing which country you were in was suddenly important.

Fawcett’s book begins with some detailed stories he’d picked up over the years, relating to stories that the first Europeans heard about mystical cities of gold. Although the book then leaves these behind, it’s always clear that they remain in the background of Fawcett’s thoughts, as his ideas about the Amazon’s native tribes change into something less Victorian. They are not necessarily “savages”.

Fawcett went on a number of expeditions over a period of nearly 20 years, funding them in different ways, and Exploration Fawcett has a useful map (curiously, neither Gann’s book, nor the film including any maps, which is a shame because they’re really helpful). It’s clear that this part of the world was a real wild west in those early years of the twentieth century, with all sorts of individuals and groups making a fortune from the “black gold” that was rubber. This was the money that ended up building a remarkable opera house in Manaus, the Brazilian city within the Amazon rainforest. Marble was transported from Italy and the building of it must have been a gargantuan task. In due course, rubber trees were grown in Asia, and the bottom dropped out of the market, meaning an end to the rubber economy deep in the inhospitable Amazon.

It is always remarkable that no matter how deep into the jungle, Fawcett was always running into random Europeans who were trading in rubber or otherwise just existing in this remote part of the world. Eveyln Waugh would pick on precisely this, for his novel A Handful of Dust, his protagonist Tony Last becoming a virtual prisoner of Mr Todd, deep in the jungle, where he’s forced to read Dickens novels out loud!

Waugh aside, Fawcett would have quite an impact on popular culture of the time. He knew Conan Doyle, and claims with some justification that The Lost World was based on some plateaus that Fawcett had himself reported seeing. He also knew H Rider Haggard, author of the Quartermain and She novels.

The outbreak of World War I meant that Fawcett had to return to Britain, and onwards to France where he served with bravery throughout the war. Notably he was there are the Somme where so many lost their lives. Like so many others, the war left him a changed man.

Now money for expeditions was harder to come by, and Fawcett felt almost imprisoned living back in Britain. He would eventually move his family to Jamaica, while he returned to Brazil to raise more funds.

Finally, he raised money in the US from a consortium of newspapers and a Rockefeller, allowing him to return to the jungle for the expedition he really wanted to do – and find the city he had named only “Z”.

David Gann’s book essentially retells the story that Fawcett’s younger son Brian had previously edited together in Exploration Fawcett, but adds lots of colour and context. In particular, Fawcett could be very damning of people he didn’t get on with, and Gann is able to fill out those parts of the story. I’m not even sure that Fawcett mentioned his wife by name in his book, while a particularly despised person is simply called the “botanist.”

There’s also the wider picture of what else was happening at the time. In 1911, the American Hiram Bingham discovered (or at least was shown) Machu Picchu, proving that there were indeed still undiscovered cities in South America. And another American, Alexander Rice, was able to lead enormously well funded expeditions into the Amazon, taking shortwave radios and even a plane with him. While Fawcett might not have approved of those methods, taking vast numbers into the rainforest, sometimes leading to massive losses of life, he was probably a bit jealous too.

“Amateur” explorers like Fawcett were slowly becoming a thing of the past, as professionals with anthropologists and archaeologists becoming more important.

Reading Fawcett’s own account, you couldn’t help thinking of his wife, at home bringing up his children, and not seeing her husband for years at a time. Gann tells us that she did a lot of marketing for him, keeping his fame alive.

Which all brings us to the film of The Lost City of Z.

While Gann’s book is retelling of Fawcett’s life, it also details Gann’s own trip to the Amazon. But the film is very much a period dramatisation of his life, with Charlie Hunnam as Fawcett. We open in Ireland where Fawcett is generally frustrated at life in the army, at a time when “getting on” was still very dependent upon your family. Sienna Miller plays Nina, his wife, with his first child already on the scene.

He wins a position mapping the Bolivian/Brazilian border and brings with him across the Atlantic, a man he has recruited via a newspaper advertisement – Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson). They travel to South America, and begin their surveying work amidst a beautiful landscape, Colombia doubling as the various Amazonian jungles.

Guided by some jungle finds, and stories he’s told, Fawcett begins to develop his theory of a civilisation that was far more advanced, and much less primitive than was widely thought at the time. His party is always small, and the jungle vicious with men dying along the way.

Writer and director James Foley does not present a glamourous Amazonian adventure – you can feel the sweat, the heat, and and most of all, the insects. There are perils to be had everywhere, although while everyone else was suffering, Fawcett seems to have had a fairly charmed existence, never coming down with anything major.

The film details three of his expeditions, although in reality there were seven. But there is only so much that you can fit into a two hour film. Foley does take liberties with the story, Costin becoming a constant companion when in fact, different people travelled with Fawcett at different times.

For story purposes, it’s perhaps understandable that Raleigh Rimell, best friend of Fawcett’s son Jack, was excluded from the story, but I think it’s an omission too far. Only three of them went on that final expedition, and while the father/son relationship is one of the arcs of the film, it’s over-simplification, and Rimell should have been included.

There’s a great turn by Angus Macfadyen as James Murray – the “botanist.” He almost causes catastrophe when he refuses to do as Fawcett says, and becomes a serious drain on resources.

And the standout sequence, is that in which Fawcett’s party come under fire from the arrows of an Amazonian tribe, with Fawcett refusing to return fire with their guns – instead using an accordion as part of his peace process! This is all as he recorded it in his book.

While overall I thought the film told the story superbly, sometimes it felt to me that for filmic purposes exaggeration had to be made. The relationship of Fawcett with, in particular, his oldest son Jack never quite rang true to me in the film. And while his wife must have been long suffering, their relationship in the film just feels slightly off.

Perhaps the sequences I got on with the least were those back in London, where the members of the Royal Geographic Society were almost caricatures of a certain type of disbelieving Victorian gentleman. While Fawcett wasn’t altogether believed, he was well supported by the RGS over the years, and this was indeed a time of remarkable exploits. All their gruff behaviour just felt over-egged.

I said at the start, that my copy of Exploration Fawcett had an introduction by Robin Hanbury-Tenison. While he clearly admires Fawcett greatly, he does admonish him for being a teller of tall tales at times. For example, Fawcett relates killing an anaconda that was 60 feet in length, yet the largest anacondas regularly grow to around 17 feet, with the largest ever seen being 33 feet. That would make Fawcett’s twice as large again!

Fawcett also regularly regaled readers with tales he’d heard told by others, when in truth he couldn’t really verify them.

And Fawcett had some serious fantasies about Atlantis, as well as spiritualism, the latter indeed being popular at the time. No less a figure as Arthur Conan Doyle himself was a believer.

Gann’s book never addresses the idea that Fawcett may have exaggerated a little, and neither then, does Gray’s film. That shouldn’t undermine what Fawcett clearly did do, but sometimes the stories do need tempering.

The Lost City of Z was shot on film, and you can tell. The colour pallette of this film is not overly saturated, and while the Amazon is green, it doesn’t glow orange or “pop” in the way so many would grade their image to look. It’s a more washed out tone, that’s in keeping with the grime and dirt of an expedition.

It’s an absolutely fascinating tale, of someone I think relatively few really know about. There’s a through-line from Fawcett’s life, to the adventure novels of Conan Doyle and Haggard, which in turn lead to action heroes like Indiana Jones. We’re more familiar with Scott, Stanley, Livingstone and Shackleton. It’s definitely time for Fawcett’s moment in the spotlight. This is a film that’s really well worth seeing.

Future Shock: The Story of 2000AD

The comic, 2000AD, was launched in 1977 when I was 7 years old. While I read a fair few comics when I was young, I can’t say that I was reading 2000AD from the very start. It was more about The Beano at that time, which I’d begin to buy with my pocket money on a semi-regular basis. I remember that the 1978 Beano Book was the first of their annuals that I owned. It would become very well thumbed, as would be the Summer Specials. Otherwise it might occasionally be the Dandy, or perhaps Whizzer & Chips.

As I got a little older, I progressed to Warlord. Quite why a comic full of Second World War stories was relatively popular in the late seventies isn’t entirely obvious to me now. But as kids we’d eat up Bank Holiday screenings of films like The Guns of Navarone, Where Eagles Dare and The Great Escape. At primary school we’d re-enact scenes from these films, throwing dirt around to create dust cloud “explosions.”

(Warlord, Wikipedia tells me, lasted all the way through until 1986. But perhaps more staggering is the ongoing publication of its DC Thomson stablemate Commando. These comics, in compact form, continue tell tales of derring-do from the second war, each book having a self-contained story.

While I understand that there’s a certain kitsch appeal, which was probably why some compilation books were published a few years ago, and could be seen in Waterstones up and down the country, I can only think that it’s readership now is fairly elderly. It reminds me that Bauer Media had to close down a magazine called Der Landser while it was completing the purchase of Absolute Radio in 2013. That magazine seemed to be aimed at an elderly audience who were proud of their military heritage, but were not – the publisher argued – Nazi sympathisers.

As of 2013, Commando was still selling nearly 10,000 copies a month.

And today DC Thomson is still publishing 4 issues a fortnight, and you can get digital downloads too!)

But back to 2000AD. I’d probably read a few copies of it here and there. My brother had started reading the relaunched Eagle. But sometime around 1984 I started to get into a bit more purposefully. I know it was around this time because the second part of a fantastic story – The Ballad of Halo Jones – was just starting to be published.

I’d missed part one, so I started to hunt it out. I made my first visits to Forbidden Planet, which was then hidden away off Denmark Street.

I started to catch up on Judge Dredd too. Because some of the older Dredd stories were being republished in US editions, I was picking up some of those and reading up on key stories like The Cursed Earth, the Judge Child, and The Apocalypse War. I queued to get a copy of the first compilation of Halo Jones stories signed by writer Alan Moore and artist Ian Gibson, and I had a Halo Jones T-shirt.

By now I was buying plastic bags to put my comics in, because I knew that was the way that you needed to keep your comics pristine.

In the wider realm, I was playing role playing games with my friends, and I bought a copy of the Judge Dredd roleplaying game. You could buy metal figures (I note from my nephew’s models, that today it’s more likely that you’ll be painting plastic). I fashioned polystyrene boxes, found around the back of the local Currys and Laskys, into a section of Mega-City One. I bought the ZX Spectrum Judge Dredd game – although I don’t remember it as being any good.

2000AD got me into comics.

I was more of a British comic reader than anything. But I was aware that changes were afoot. I started to pick up copies of Swamp Thing because I knew Alan Moore was writing it. Then came things like The Dark Knight Returns, Hellblazer and Watchmen. I started to learn who Neil Gaiman was, and would look for Vertigo titles. It was a good time for comics. Forbidden Planet had moved to larger premises and I was visiting it and other comic shops in London more frequently.

My comic habit only really slowed down when I reached university. With less access to comics, and plenty of other things to do, it took a back seat. From then on I became an occasional comic reader – always wanting to know what was happening and who were the big names. But the choice was vast.

And that about sums up my comic reading today. I’ll pick up a graphic novel now and again, or a short run series. I still enjoy a wander around Forbidden Planet (still in roughly the same part of London, but in much bigger premises at the top of Shaftesbury Avenue). And I’m pleased to see that 2000AD still survives even though I’ve not read a copy for quite a while.

This is all a very long introduction to the fact that I’ve recently watched Future Shock: The Story of 2000AD. I’d known that this was coming since over the past 18 months or more, I’ve had a steady stream of emails alerting me to the various interviews that the producers had been carrying out. They really had trawled wide and deep for this definitive history of the comic.

I knew a little of the fact that Action comic had preceded it, and had ended up being shut down after it had created a scandal, but beyond that my knowledge came from years of reading the comic on and off. The documentary details how the comic was created and the lack of support they had from the publishers almost from the start, since this was doing things that other comics weren’t.

In many respects it changed the mold of British comics. Aside from the smart way it could talk to both a younger audience by giving them action and explosions, it also held an older audience with wry takes on the politics of the day. The documentary pretty accurately reflects that.

Some of the stories in the documentary, I vaguely knew. It was certainly unusual that 2000AD credited its writers and artists. But as the film shows, this did mean that the top talent could be poached relatively easily – especially when DC Comics came calling, literally setting up shop in a hotel suite and inviting everyone to come along to them. Of course those same people then led the US comic invasion that completely shook up US comics at the time.

Then there was the fact that lack of intellectual property began to become a much bigger issue. The single most painful part of the film for me was when Neil Gaiman related how Alan Moore had explained to him where future Halo Jones would take the series. The character’s entire life. But he didn’t own the rights – he’d signed these over to IPC (at the time) and if anyone profited from the characters it was the publishers. Moore, of course, had lots of run-ins with comic publishers, notably including DC Comics from whom he refuses to even cash cheques for films like V for Vendetta and Watchmen, when they got made into films. Interestingly, it’s not totally clear that even today, if you create a new story for 2000AD, that they don’t own the rights. More than one contributor said that they hold back their best stuff for a publisher like Image who will let them keep more ownership.

Alan Moore, incidentally, is probably the main person missing from the film which is a shame as he’s such an entertaining character. But this is a film about Pat Mills really – he holds the entire structure of the piece together having been there at the very start, and still contributing to this day.

If there’s one part of the story which is covered – although glossed over quite quickly – it was the late nineties. I’d certainly lost track of the comic at that time, but there seemed to have been an attempt to replicate “lads mags” in comic form. The film is fairly honest about this period, including significant contributions from then editor Dave Bishop, who was not universally liked.

In 2000, the title was sold by its then owners Fleetway, to Rebellion. Primarily a video games developer, they are portrayed – probably quite fairly – as the first owner of the title who really understood what it stood for. It certainly seems to have prospered in that time, and current editor Matt Smith has been editing the title since 2002 – a remarkable period of stability.

The documentary shows how the title continues to develop new writers. Indeed it makes the very valid point that aside from 2000AD, every other comic on UK bookshelves today are franchises meaning that there’s no room left for original characters.

Perhaps the one part of story that seems to be missing from the documentary is the effect it had on the wider comic scene in the UK. There was a period where other titles like Deadline (home of Tank Girl), Crisis and Revolver were being published. While none of these lasted that long, many of the same writers could found working for these titles too. It was an exciting period for British comics.

Overall the documentary really is very good and very even handed. It’s not all wonderful, and it leaves you thinking that perhaps some of the participants aren’t so enamoured of some of the other ones. But the film makes a strong case for 2000AD having strongly influenced vast swathes of what’s come since, up to and including the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

And I came away thinking, I really do need to pick up a few recent copies of 2000AD as the comic reaches its 40th anniversary in 2017.

And if you’ve never read it, then I do recommend picking up a copy of The Ballad of Halo Jones, either in print or digitally. If you’ve ever been intrigued by the favicon I use for this site, it’ll at least explain my “inspiration.”

High Rise

Brunswick

I didn’t think about it until during the film, but could there be any more appropriate location to watch High Rise than the Curzon Bloomsbury (née Renoir cinema) in the Brunswick Centre?

In Ben Wheatley’s superb adaptation of JG Ballard’s novel, his production designer Mark Tildesley has created a modernist* marvel of building. The way that the apartments are tiered in the film is very reminiscent of the much lower Brunswick Centre has tiering for its apartments, all in that same modernist style. The Brunswick Centre was designed by Patrick Hodgkinson who died very recently, and for who the centre was his most famous piece of work, long in gestation before finally opening in the ’70s and getting a revamp in the ’00s.

Recently the below-ground Renoir cinema has been modernised and overhauled, becoming the Curzon Bloomsbury. Although the cinema reopened a year ago, this was the first time I’d been back inside. The main reason for holding off was that the previous cinema had featured two screens, but following the 10 month refurbishment, it now features six screens. It does not take a genius to work out that all the screens are therefore now smaller than they were before, and when I see a film on the big screen, I tend to like that screen to be, well, big!

That’s not to say that the cinema was especially good in its old format. It was originally designed as a single 490 seat screen at the time of the centre’s opening in 1972, but as with so many cinemas in the 1980s, it was converted to become a two-screen cinema – essentially splitting the cinema down the middle. That left each of the two neighbouring screens uneven, with more seats on one side than the other. There were also pillars that you obviously couldn’t sit behind.

Now under its new name, it features six screens, of which only the “Premium Screen” is of a decent size with 177 seats. The other regular screens all seat between 28 and 30, making them feel a little closer to a hi-fi dealership’s screening room rather than a full blown cinema. They’re certainly plushly appointed and the chain has named the screens after now re-branded or closed cinemas from around London (Lumiere, Plaza, Phoenix and Minema). The Bertha Dochouse screen is actually larger at 55 seats. It’s a screen devoted documentaries and supported by a number of groups.

I saw High Rise in the 30 seat “Plaza” screen, and while I have no problems with the cinema itself – aside from a couple of late patrons casting shadows on half the screen as they spent too long finding their seats (another consequence of small screening rooms), I do wonder why I’m paying a premium to see a film on the big screen if home cinema screens are getting close to the same size. I exaggerate a little, but it’s an issue of mine. The seats are comfortable, and there are bars throughout, but paying £15 plus a £1 booking fee for such a small screen experience is galling.

But what about the film?

Well it’s really excellent. If you don’t like JG Ballard, then it won’t be your cup of tea, because this one of his dystopian future novels, in a believable future from around the time they were published. High Rise came out in 1975, and begins with Dr Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) moving into his new apartment mid-way up a brand new apartment block. For him and his fellow aspirant middle-class tenants in the block, this is a self-contained world. They have their own supermarket, a gym and a swimming pool.

But there’s a very rigid hierarchy, within the block. The higher up in the building you are, the greater your social standing. On the very top, in the penthouse, is the project’s architect, Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons).

As Laing settles in, the high rise takes on a life of its own with an endless stream of parties to which you may or may not be invited. Laing befriends Charlotte (Sienna Miller) and her son who live just above him. But below him are Richard Wilder (Luke Evans) and his heavily pregnant wife Helen (Elizabeth Moss). Wilder is something of playboy, his wife seemingly acquiescent.

Higher up are people like the gynaecologist Pangbourne (James Purefoy), an actrees Ann Sheridan (Sienna Guillory) and Royal’s wife Ann (Keeley Hawes) who manages to keep a sheep and a horse on the top of the building.

Slowly and surely chaos begins to ensue as rubbish chutes are jammed, power-cuts hit the lower floors, and finally there is no water. Raiding parties look out for their own areas, yet there’s still a weird normality as some continue to head out of the building each day, walking out across the enormous car park to head off to their jobs.

The chaos gets worse, and there are assaults and all manner of debauchery. Yet somehow the building contains all of this. There’s an amusing sequence when a police car pulls up and Royal assures the policeman (a cameo from Neil Maskell who previously appeared in Wheatley’s Kill List) that everything’s fine. Revolt is in the air, and it’s uncertain how things will play out. The script is both very much in keeping with Ballard’s novel, whilst not afraid to diverge from it. Invariably there is a lot of compression, and fewer characters on fewer floors. And the timeframe seems compressed compared with the novel.

The performances are all excellent with Hiddleston almost gliding through the film, as Laing does in the book. Irons is right the grumpy architect who sort of knows his designed society is all collapsing around him. It’s fun seeing Hawes in yet another very different role – she’s currently very different in both the third series of Line of Fire, and as the mother in ITV’s new version of The Durrells.

You can’t separate the film from the superb production design. As well as the amazing architecture conjured up in CG, there interiors are beautifully delivered. I especially enjoyed seeing the supermarket with all the carefully labelled products (There’s an excellent article in Creative Review detailing this work) and signs.

And Clint Mansell’s soundtrack is also incredibly important, adding layers to the film. Beyond that there is incidental music such as muzack version of Abba’s SOS, later reprised into a fully-fledged song from Portishead. Sadly, it’s not included on the soundtrack, and the band prefers that you hear the song in the context of the film.

Finally, you can’t ignore Amy Jump, Wheatley’s partner in crime. The film credits her equally at the end, her writing, and he directing – the pair of them editing. The film is very truthful to the book, but Ballard is not the easiest author to adapt – there’s a sensibility to his work.

I loved this film, and can’t wait to watch it again and soak up some of the details.

* Or should that be brutalist? I’m afraid architectural doctrines are a little beyond me.

London in B&W-14

Hail Caesar!

A new Coen brothers film is always a cause for celebration. That’s particularly the case when they adopt more of a screwball tone to their films.

Hail Caesar! is actually more of a group of sketches than a fully fledged film – the plot is slight. We follow the action from the perspective of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), actually a real person who was a “fixer” for MGM. Here he’s the fixer at the fictional Capitol Studios, and is called upon to sort out problems with the various stars Capitol has on contract. These include Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) who has got himself kidnapped from the set of his biblical epic, DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) who’s trying to overcome an out of wedlock pregnancy while shooting her Esther Williams-style swimming picture, Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) who’s trying to break beyond the confines of his singing cowboy persona and Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) who’s making a song and dance naval number!

How the whole story stitches together doesn’t really matter. This film is all about the set pieces. In the cinema where I saw the film, the biggest laughs came from Ehrenreich’s appearances as Hobie. There’s a wonderful scene played with gusto by Ralph Fiennes’ Laurence Laurentz where Hobie is trying to transition to a melodrama but can’t lose his western twang. Later the scene is revisited via a cameo from Frances McDormand who’s editing the picture.

Meanwhile Tilda Swinton plays a twin role as gossip columnists for rival publications in the style of Hedda Hopper, last seen, of course, played by Helen Mirren in Trumbo with the same types of hats, but a very different tone of voice. In fact, the comparisons with Trumbo don’t end there, because the writers who form the group that kidnaps Whitlock, seem to be closely related to the Hollywood Ten. And there was an interesting interview with the Joel and Ethan Coen on Radio 4’s Film Programme last week which suggested that the left-leaning writers of the age really were smuggling in communist propaganda into their work.

While faith becomes a key theme of the film, for the most part the film is more of an excuse to have some fun. And for all the control that studios had when the studio system reigned supreme, the breadth of output must have been remarkable.

This isn’t the best Coen brothers film ever – you feel it could have been structured a little stronger in places. On the other hand, the characters are delightful, and the gentle mocking of the studio productions of the time is wonderful.

Now where can I get the eagle sound effect everytime someone mentions the mysterious events surrounding the movie “On Wings of Eagles”? (Stay until the end of the credits if you enjoy this gag).

Trumbo

I’m fascinated about the period of the Hollywood Blacklist – that post-war period, as the Cold War was getting under-way, when virulent anti-communists including Senator Joseph McCarthy started “investigating” perceived pro-Soviet beliefs and output in Hollywood.

Before I went to see Trumbo, I thought I’d watch Fellow Traveller, a 1990 film made by the BBC and HBO. Written by Michael Eaton and directed by Philip Saville, it received a short cinema release in the UK before showing up in the Sunday night Screen Two slot in early 1991. The film did get a VHS release, but as far as I’m aware, it had a single outing on BBC Two and that’s been it.

More to the point, aside from that VHS release, there’s no way to get hold of the film today. I resorted to digging out my old VHS off-air recording and digitising that to enable me to see it. None of my kit is in perfect order, so it’s not exactly a pristine transfer, but it’s watchable.

[For what it’s worth, this is the sort of thing that it would be good for BBC Store to stock. It’s a little off-beat, I grant you, but otherwise the tape is just gathering dust in an archive somewhere.]

As for the film? Well it’s an interesting story of a Hollywood writer Asa Kaufman (Ron Silver) running away from the McCarthy witch-hunt, escaping to London where he needs to take on a false name to get work. ITV is just getting off the ground, and new companies are being set-up, so he becomes scriptwriter on The Adventure of Robin Hood. Meanwhile in Hollywood, movie star Clifford Byrne (Hart Bochner) shoots himself.

The film flashes back to Kaufman’s time in Hollywood with his friend Byrne, and their friends and family, first during the war when they’re raising funds, and later as witch-hunt gets under way. Imogen Stubbs plays Sarah Atchison, once Byrne’s girlfriend, but now back in a deprived post-war London.

The structure of the film is a little off, with the multiple flashbacks meaning that the film jumps around a lot. We even get imagined sequences from the Robin Hood series, with some deliberately heavy-handed dialogue reflecting real-world events. And the music can be a little overbearing at times, with the same theme used repeatedly.

But overall, the film absolutely bore re-watching, and the story, while fictionalised, is true. The ATV version of Robin Hood was written by a number of blacklisted US screenwriters – there’s a good 2006 Guardian piece explaining this, and noting:

There was also another, more direct threat to the anonymity of potential scriptwriters: betrayal. After the blacklist collapsed in the mid-1960s, [Ring Lardner Jr, one of the Hollywood Ten] explained that a TV show about an outlaw who takes from the rich to give to the poor provided him “with plenty of opportunities to comment on issues and institutions in Eisenhower-era America”. But Steve Neale of Exeter University, who has uncovered the names of exactly who wrote which of the Robin Hood episodes, points out that within the scripts’ emphasis on redistribution of wealth there is “a theme that recurs in the first two series: the probability that Robin Hood or one of the outlaws will be betrayed”.

But what about Trumbo?

Trumbo tells the story of Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston). Like many others in Hollywood, he had been left-leaning during the pre-war and war period, and had indeed joined the Communist Party of America. The coming of the cold war led to hysteria in the US and further afield – there might be “reds under the beds” everywhere. And so there’s the suspicion that Hollywood might be spreading sympathetic communist views via popular films.

As hard to believe as that might seem to be sitting here in the twenty-first century, that fear was stoked heavily by the likes of popular Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) and the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, headed by John Wayne (David James Elliot).

And so, Trumbo becomes one of ten screenwriters – the Hollywood 10 – subpoenaed to testify in congress about communist propaganda. Trumbo faces up to the challenge with equanimity and with the support of his family led by wife Cleo (Diane Lane), he goes and treats the committee with the disdain it deserves and in a humbled manner. Yet the death of a Supreme Court judge means that he ends up serving an eleven month prison term.

In the meantime, one some of his friends and colleagues are finding it difficult to support Trumbo and some of the other writers. Notably Edward G Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) ends up naming names to protect his career – he’d not worked for a year at that point. ]

The blacklisting is biting at this point. Trumbo’s friend Arlen Hird (Louis CK) is one of several people really feeling the financial pain. And so Trumbo starts to lead a group of writers who will produce scripts, anonymously, for Frank King (John Goodman) – the producer of cheap and lurid pictures. Trumbo would go on to win Oscars under pseudonyms for both Roman Holiday and The Brave One.

Only by 1960, when Trumbo was at first secretly writing Spartacus for Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman) and Exodus for Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel), did his name get made public, and despite the best efforts of protesters.

It’s a terrible period of America and Hollywood’s history, and this film tells the story really well. Trumbo isn’t painted as some kind of a saint. He was difficult to live with, often writing propped up in the bath, and at times having to churn out so many screenplays that he had time for nothing else. He was a champagne socialist, living in some luxury until the time of his prison sentence. And he wasn’t always a good friend. But he stayed true to his causes.

The film is really good, and the acting is excellent – particularly Cranston. This is clearly a superior film to Fellow Traveller, but they do make an interesting pair to see together.

Although the film details activities in Hollywood between the forties and sixties, it’s actually incredibly relevant today. Most overtly, the death of a Supreme Court judge having a substantive impact on his life. It’s incredible that US politics is so caught up in the judicial system that the highest court in the land is largely defined by the political beliefs of its members. Today we have a court with eight judges split evenly between Republican and Democrat, and a determination from Republicans to block any member nominated in the next 12 months while Obama is still president.

And then there’s the “reds under the beds” fear that means some call for anything to go. Today it’s not communism, but terrorism. I find some interesting parallels in the case Apple is fighting with the FBI over encryption and iPhones. Apple is suddenly the bad guy because Tim Cook believes in the right to privacy – something which strong encryption provides users with. Many governments, including our own, want some kind of “backdoor” into devices to allow law enforcement to get into these devices. If we don’t then the terrorists somehow win!

There’s more to write on encryption, but I think that there are definitely parallels to be drawn. In the fifties and sixties it was fear of communism. Early in the 21st century it’s fear of terrorism. There’s may be and have been legitimate threats from both. But do we give up our ideals and ways of life – our own liberties – to fight these threats? Or do we “win” by showing that we can be bigger and better?

Spotlight

Spotlight tells they story of the Boston Globe investigate journalism unit – called “Spotlight” – who investigated the long-term cover-up of child abuse by a significant number of priests within the Catholic Church in Boston beginning in 2001.

The film is based very much on the Spotlight team in the newspaper itself, and details how the arrival of a new editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) kick-started an investigation into something that was bubbling under but hadn’t truly been properly investigated.

The Spotlight team – played by Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery and Brian d’Arcy James – each take on elements on the investigation, trying to get witness and survivor testimonies, unsealing sealed court documents, and trying to persuade attorneys who have some idea of the scale to let them in.

The film isn’t showy in any way. There are no grand-standing performances where characters get overly “emotional.” It’s not even that cinematic. The week before seeing Spotlight, I re-watched All The President’s Men on DVD, and that film has many more flourishes – Deep Throat disappearing into the blackness of an underground carpark; wide shots across a large open plan news floor.

If the Spotlight team’s offices were as they’re presented here, then they were buried away in the building a bit, with just an outer room for the reporters and an office for their editor.

Nonetheless, you begin to feel the heat of the conservative Catholic hierarchy in Boston, with their fingers in most of the political pies. Nobody wants to own up to the extent of the issue, and how much work the church is doing to cover it up.

It’s not a confrontational film. To a large extent the “villain” of the piece is Cardinal Law, the Archbishop of Boston who eventually had to resign his position in covering up the sheer scale of the settlements the church had made. But we don’t meet many of the abusers themselves. One of the few we do seems to be a doddery old fool who doesn’t even seem to acknowledge that “fooling around” was in any way a bad thing. He hadn’t raped them after all! One of the reporters discovers that a building close to his family’s home is where some of these priests have been put out to water – kept out of harm’s way. He simply puts a photo of the house on his fridge door, with a warning to his kids to stay away.

This is a newspaper story, and some of the elements of urgency that we see come from the need to beat the rival paper to seeing documents that should be available to the public. In the aftermath the investigation is temporarily suspended while all hands are on deck reporting on that.

It’s a really fine film from Tom McCarthy, the actor turned director, who also co-wrote the script. Howard Shore’s score is very subtle, and sparsely used. A really good journalism film at a time when newspapers are sadly shutting up shop.