INTERVIEW: Morgan Neville

Interviewed by Dave Curtis

Morgan Neville is a well-known documentary filmmaker,  he has made numerous films that focus on music and culture. His latest films include Won’t You Be My Neighbour which is about iconic children’s television host Fred Rogers and They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead which tells the story of Orson Welles and his last film The Other Side of the Wind. Whilst he was at the London Film Festival premiering not one, but two new documentaries we got to sit down with him and ask him a few questions about his love for Fred Rogers, Orson Welles and we get into the process of documentary filmmaking. 


Was this a passion project for you or did somebody come to you?

It was my project, I mean it was a passion project in that I loved Mister Rogers as a boy and then I didn’t think about him for decades but every time he came back in my life as an adult it surprised me somehow. So, it was something as an adult, these viral videos would go by as Fred Rogers in America and they always just struck me as a voice that is missing in the culture. And so, the real instinct to make the film was not a nostalgic instinct. I am not a big fan of nostalgia, it was actually ‘how do we get a voice like that into the cultural discussion today.’ So really for me it was a film about the same issues I come back to again and again in my movies which is “how do we find common ground as a culture,” “what happened to all the grown-ups in our culture.” So, I’ve made a couple of films that circle these same issues but it is something I care a lot about and in America, if there is any figure who transcends partisanship then it is Fred Rogers because he was dealing with kids that zero sense of partisanship.

I’ve never seen a program like it, I didn’t know who he was until I told my Canadian wife I was doing this interview and watching the movie and her face lit up and she gave me a crash course in all of it. It bought loads of memories back for her as well which was really exciting to watch.

Did she watch it when she young?

Oh yeah. She watched it with all her sisters when they were growing up.  She was surprised when I said he didn’t really come here. I think all we had was Gordon the Gopher with Phillip Schofield on a Saturday morning, but we never had anything like Mister Rogers It was very emotional watching it with her. Did you cry when you watched it for the first time?

Well I was making it but it was very emotional to make and even when we were watching the mix back for the sound I started crying.

I don’t think you can help it. Especially that last question (when you had to think of someone). Was that always going to be your endpoint?

 No, it wasn’t. He (Fred Rogers) had done that in speeches so I just thought from the first interview I’ll ask people. I didn’t know if it was going to make it in the film, but I just thought let me try it and then it became the ending.

It is a really strong ending. It packs a punch. I could imagine if you saw it in a cinema people would be sobbing everywhere. 

The first screening we had at Sundance, because I didn’t really expect that, you know.

 It’s done really well in the States…

It has been the biggest documentary in five years in America (laughs). So, it has been a smash in America.

I think it just shows that so many people still connect with Mister Rogers and his themes which is good.

It is. It’s interesting because also a lot of people went to see the film who didn’t watch him as a kid but maybe were a  parent at the time. It’s been interesting, it has also played for liberal audiences and conservative audiences which is really rare.

He was a Republican, wasn’t he?

He was. Being a Republican meant something and there were different types of Republicans then,  particularly in Pennsylvania, there were a certain type what they call Rockefeller Republicans which is a Liberal Republican, which seems like an oxymoron now, so he was of a type that doesn’t really exist anymore. But really all of his ideas that you could consider to be liberal were based in theology. So, to him it’s not a big leap to go from won’t you be my neighbour to love thy neighbour.

Is that going to be the sequel?

[Laughs]

Was it emotional talking to the family? Were they all up for it when you purposed the documentary?

The sons had never done interviews before. They had always kept it at arm’s length.

You can tell that one looks like Fred and the one looks like his mother.

They had never done anything or talked about it and Joanne, she is amazing- his widow.  In the beginning, when I told her I wanted to make the film, I said I want to make a film not about the biography but about ideas. She said that sounds like a great idea because Fred had always said if anybody made a film out of his biography it would be the most boring film ever made. Which I don’t entirely agree with. The advice she gave me when she gave me permission to make the film was “don’t make him into a saint.”

I think you succeed with that. You made him very human.

Well, that was the thing, no ever treated him as human, they treated him as a cardboard character. I think that was frustrating for him.

Do you think that bothered him after a while?

I think when bad things happen and he had to talk, I don’t think that bothered him because I think he thought that’s when he was needed. I think the other thing is at one point he got more mail than anybody in America, and he responded to every letter he got. So, he would spend 15 hours a week doing letters.

Obviously all hand written that point.

Yeah, and for him, that was as important as the show. It was like if a child writes to me, you have to write them back and to them, that is a real relationship. Part of his thing was ‘my relationship with a child through the television is real to that child, to that child it is a real relationship’ and he also only ever talked to a single child through the lens, he was never saying ‘Hi kids, he was like, how are you today?’ So if you were a child, you thought he was talking to you. So it was a one on one relationship between you and him.

When did you start the process, are we talking years?

It was probably the very end of 2015 that I started thinking about it, and then really 2016 that we kind of put it together and started production in October 2016, just before the election.

That’s quite a quick turnaround for a documentary.

We premiered it at Sundance in 2018, so that was pretty fast.

How do you go about picking what goes in and out because there must be hours and hours of footage?

There is tons of stuff but I have been doing this long enough that I have refined my process and I feel a lot of times people who are doing archive documentary or documentaries, in general, cut a six-hour version of the film and then cut down it down to four hours, then three hours and I can’t stand doing that.

So, there are no director cuts out there or anything?

Well, there are scenes I cut out but I think the idea, in the beginning, is what is that we really want to say and what are scenes we want to talk about. I put together a list maybe 32 scenes and we cut those first and we had 100 minutes.

Was the animation always intended to go in, because that really works.

Yeah it was intended, just because I didn’t want to just talk about his childhood in an expository way ‘he did this and in this kind of house, he was born here at this time.’ I wanted his childhood to be told from his point of view in terms of how it related to the show and for it to be more in his imagination. So the only idea was to do animation and to come up with something that felt that animation I kind of based on 1940s children’s books and some Orson Welles actually, some magnificent “Ambersons” bit of lighting and things. I was really happy how it turned out.

So you grew up watching Mister Rogers, do I dare ask when that was?

I was born in ’67, the show went on in 68. So I was the first generation. Right from the beginning. Before Sesame Street, in America there was Mister Rogers, so that’s what I watched. So I love the show and I watched it every day. But I barely remember much of it because a lot of me watching that show pre-dates my memory. So it’s interesting revisiting him as an adult because you’re revisiting parts of yourself that you can’t even remember. So it accessing your earliest memories, which you don’t spend a lot of time doing in your modern life, and really trying to think about it. So, it’s all these things that are familiar that come back. You see an image and it reminds you of something.

I know you were very young, but did it teach you stuff that you have carried with you?

It must have done. And I’m sure it did with millions of people, but there is nowhere to gauge that impact which is one of those things about culture. We can’t say the culture is 10% more empathic because it watched Mister Rogers. But anecdotally, I heard story after story from people I’ve met talking about what the show meant to them. Even people who maybe didn’t have a father or had never seen an African American child on television before, or a handicapped child on television before.

That last scene of that clip when he jumps on stage, he didn’t even use the stairs.

Not even without waiting for him to get to the podium, he just jumps up there!

Why do you think this is a story worth telling?

I think its actually critical in that we live in a time where our culture has been built around divisiveness, you know people can get votes and eyeballs by pitting one group against another, stoking resentment. We live this cycle of resentment and it feels nobody is advocating for the opposite of it, reminding us that building societies takes hard work and is a fragile endeavour. So, I just feel like “who’s reminding us of the stakes here?” and what we have in common. So, for me, it was just trying to advocate for the opposite of what I see happening in our culture, in a loud way. 

Well I think it has connected, especially in America.

Well in America it has, so for me I couldn’t think of a message that I wanted to put out there more than this. It’s just my way of dealing with the past couple of years. It was a really therapeutic process to work on this film. It was hugely helpful.

When you were watching it all back did you have any favourite episodes?

Again, it was all dimly familiar and there are episodes that probably won’t mean anything to you like him visiting a crayon factory or these episodes that stuck in my mind but it was more the land of make-believe and the puppets and the trolley and all these things that were very familiar.

My wife loved the little town apparently, she wanted that town.

Oh the model, I remember being so fascinated by that. The model is there in the office and I took my picture with it.

So there are museums somewhere?

There are two museums. All in Pittsburgh. You can see a lot of the things there.

Do you think the film has merit in UK, because he wasn’t really known, but it is a global message?

I didn’t make the film thinking about it, but I’ve screened it for people including for a couple of British audiences and I’ve had a lot of Brits and people see it at festivals that had no idea who he was.

I’ve been telling people at the London Film Festival about it.

I’ve been surprised at how well it has worked for an audience for people that didn’t grow up with him. Because ultimately it is a humanist message. What he was talking about is basic human values and how to treat people and how to treat yourself.

 I can’t believe that there isn’t something on TV now which is similar.

That’s the thing, it’s like the idea he was talking about civil rights or war or hunger to two to six-year olds. Nobody has done that since.

The Bobby Kennedy footage for example.

Yeah that’s unbelievable talking about assassinations!

I’m going to have to ask about ‘They’ll love me when I’m dead’.  How did you get involved in that project?

Another passion project.

So you weren’t approached for it.

There was a book about 4 years ago called Orson Welles Last Movie by Josh Karp who became my producer on the film and when I read that book, I decided if I can ever get my hands on that Orson Welles footage, I would love to make a documentary about it because it was Welles making a film about himself essentially, shooting it for years and years.

When I was young all I knew of Orson Welles was the Transformers movie.

Exactly! So, I actually put a tiny bit of the Transformers movie into Mister Rogers movie with Orson’s voice. That was me doing an Easter egg for myself between the two films.

I love that. So I’ve guessed you have seen the new film (The Other Side Of The Wind).

Yeah I’m such a Welles fan.

Do you have a favourite film of his?

I mean it isn’t his best film, but the film I’ve always just loved was ‘Lady From Shanghai’.

I love the quote in your film when they are talking about ‘Citizen Kane’ being the greatest film ever but it isn’t even his best film.

Yeah exactly.

I guess it was a lot of fun making that.

That was great fun.

Were you making it as the same time as ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbour’?

It overlapped, but we didn’t edit at the same time. Right when I picture locked Mister Rogers we started editing Orson. That was a big gear shift going to one from the other. Although the similarity, because I thought about that this week having both films here (LFF) is that they are both people who didn’t care what other people thought about what was popular and what was good. They each had their own internal guidance for what they thought was important and what is right and wrong. As an artist that is exactly the kind of heroic figure you want, somebody who marches to their own drummer.

One last question. What is next for you?

I am working on some TV shows. I have a couple of shows for Netflix that I am doing.

That seems to be a good partnership at the moment. They are nailing it at the moment, Roma is so good.

It is! What is great is that they just give you a lot of freedom. It’s less of a burden to do a TV show than it is to do a feature. To direct a feature doc just takes so much time.

Are you going to stick to documentaries, are you not tempted to do a full length feature film?

No I love docs, I’ve been doing it for 25 years. I’m trying to find the next subject to fall in love with and part of is that I haven’t had time. I came up with Mister Rogers and Orson Welles just because I was able to read books on vacation.

So really you need a holiday to read books etc.

Yes, because there are a lot of things I’m interested in. I go on holiday and take a pile of books and I usually come away with some ideas.


We’d like to thank Morgan Neville once again for taking the time to chat with Dave whilst premiering both his new documentaries in the UK at the London Film Festival. 

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LFF 2018: A Private War (2018)

Directed by: Matthew Heineman
Cast: Rosamund Pike, Jamie Dornan, Faye Marsay, Stanley Tucci, Tom Hollander
UK Release Date: N/A

Written by Dave Curtis

War, what is it good for? after watching documentary filmmaker Mathew Heineman’s narrative debut the answer is clearly absolutely nothing. A Private War is a biopic which follows war correspondent Marie Colvin through her stellar career.

The true horrors of war are never an easy thing to see and war reporter Marie Colvin had been to them all in the last 20 years or so. She dared to go where others wouldn’t (Iraq, Libera and Syria). Rosamund Pike plays Colvin the award-winning journalist who it seems is more at home on the front line and in danger than when she is at home in London. She is not a likeable person, she struggles in social occasions and only seems to find peace when her life is in danger.

The film begins with an overhead shot of Homs (Syria) in 2012. It is completely destroyed, buildings are barely standing and there aren’t any signs of any life. A voiceover of Colvin can be heard being interviewed on why she does what she does. It quickly backtracks to earlier parts of her career. The film sets off re-playing key points in her life that will eventually lead to that fateful day in Homs.

We have seen films like this before but what sets A Private War apart is that this is so recent. This isn’t years and years ago. This is a conflict that is still happening.  There is no turning away and not showing what is actually happening in Syria, it dares to be truthful (much like Colvin). Strong images of dead bodies of adult and children are offered held for an uncomfortable long time. Heineman isn’t doing this by mistake, he wants you to see it, he wants to put you on the front line with Colvin, to see what she saw, experience what she went through.

Rosamund Pike really does capture the spirt and voice of Marie Colvin. This may be her best performance. It is definitely her best turn since Gone Girl. It is frustrating to watch her slip further and further into depression and PTSD. Marie is not really a likeable character, so being invested in her story can solely be attributed to Pike’s performance

There is also strong support from the rest of the cast. Tom Hollander is Sean Ryan her editor at the London’s Sunday Times. His overly caring but really pushy act is well balanced. He wants the stories, but it is really worth putting Marie in those situations? By the end, you can see the torment all over his face. Jamie Dornan’s plays Paul Convoy Marie’s trusted photographer who will follow her anywhere. Dornan’s Liverpudlian accent is just about passable. In some scenes, it just disappears completely. Stanley Tucci also has a small role but he pretty much plays himself (which isn’t a bad thing).

A Private War really lands when it eventually gets to Syria and the final 40 minutes is as tense and dramatic as anything that has been seen this year. The first hour, on the other hand, is a little clumsy. It bounces around from past to present and then back again in an uneasy fashion. It just needed to be a little smoother. It does get a little confusing which doesn’t help when you are just to connect to characters and the storyline.

When A Private War focuses on Marie Colvin covering at the front it really does deliver, but it is when she back in the UK and dealing with her inner demons that the film really struggles. Thankfully, Pike puts in a barnstorming performance which could attract some buzz when it comes to award season. A biopic on a war reporter may not appeal to many but it is worth seeing for Pike alone.

Dave’s Verdict

3

LFF 2018: Stan & Ollie

Directed by: Jon S. Bird
Cast: John C. Reilly, Steve Coogan, Shirley Henderson, Danny Huston, Nina Arianda, Rufus Jones

Written by Dave Curtis

Back in 1937 Laurel and Hardy were at the peak of their powers but their friendship was starting to creek. Strangely Stan Laurel was out of contact with the studio. He wanted a new and better deal. Oliver Hardy was still under contract and seemed to be happy with his current deal. With the pair at loggerheads it seems they had a dodgy working relationship. Stan & Ollie picks up 16 years later in 1953 where the comedy legends are touring the UK, trying to sort out their differences. They are now dealing with health issues, years of pent up anger and the decline in the size of their audiences. Can they mend their broken friendship, find the old magic and possibly make a new feature film, a Robin Hood parody, Robin ‘Em Good.

Steve Coogan plays Stan Laurel and John C Reilly is Oliver Hardy. Both actors’ careers are known for being funny but both are also to known for there more serious work. Reilly, in particular, has forged a successful career bouncing between the two. Here they are cast to perfection, both capturing the spirit and look of the famous duo. Coogan as Laurel is the businessman of the pair. He writes the scripts and comes up with new sketches. He always wants to be on show. Reilly’s Hardy is more concerned with his life and his wife, he is happy for Laurel to look after the other side of the work.

It is hard to separate the two leads. Coogan and Reilly share chemistry which is hard to fake. It is believable that they have been friends for years. They share good times and they share bad times. You are with them every step of the way. Coogan’s slender build helps mirror Stan Laurel’s persona. John C. Reilly also inhabits Oliver Hardy. He does have some help with decent prosthetics, especially in the later years. At first, it is a little jarring but he builds such a rounded character any concerns are quickly forgotten.

The supporting cast are also excellent. Rufus Jones as British producer Bernard Delfort is excellent value. He does get a lot of the of the best lines. Luckily, Stan and Ollie aren’t the only double on show. Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda almost steal the movie from under everyone. As Delfont says at one point ‘Two double acts for the price of one’. Henderson and Arianda are the famous duo’s wives, Lucille and Ida. The pair turns up midway through and really inject a much-needed boost just at the point when the movie starts flagging.

Director John S. Baird wrings every last drop out of Bill Pope script (he also wrote Philomena with Coogan). This isn’t a film full of jokes. What it does have are funny situations performed by a strong cast. It has nods to their earlier career. A scene where they are dragging a giant truck up a flight of stairs is classic Laurel and Hardy.

Stan & Ollie is tender and funny. It captures real moments of heart, It is a little cheesy in places but the strong cast keeps the film interesting. The film is a great way to introduce a younger audience to real comic geniuses.

Dave’s Verdict

4

LFF 2018: The Old Man and The Gun

Year: 2018
Directed by: David Lowery
Starring: Robert Redford, Casey Affleck, Sissy Spacek, Danny Glover

Written by Sarah Buddery

A legend of cinema since the mid-1960s, Robert Redford has certainly had an illustrious career. Now some 50+ films later, Redford tips a cap to his own career and gracefully retires from acting in the delightful throwback film The Old Man and The Gun.

The phrase “they don’t make them like they used to” could certainly be applied to Redford himself, and it is that mentality that also applies to this film. It harkens back to the capers of yesteryear, and there is an old-world charm to it that makes it the perfect swansong for Redford. With Director David Lowery at the helm, it is evident that there is love, and a real passion for the craft of filmmaking behind this film, as well as an appreciation for the lead actor.

There is a grainy authenticity to the film, and were it not for the now older appearance of Robert Redford, it could quite easily have passed for a film made much earlier in his career! The Old Man and The Gun is endlessly charming, and the care for the making of the film and the story itself permeates throughout.

From the grain of the film and the jaunty soundtrack, everything about The Old Man and The Gun is meticulously put together, and it makes for an incredibly enjoyable watch. There’s something incredibly comforting about it; in fact, it is almost like the film equivalent of curling up in front of a fire with your cosiest slippers on.

There’s a beautiful sense of melancholy to the film as well, with Robert Redford’s Forrest Tucker refusing to put his heist days behind him, but yet also accepting that his age can sometimes be a hindrance. It is also in the scenes with Sissy Spacek’s Jewel, that this film truly sparkles (pun intended!) and they have a delightful and warming on-screen chemistry. It’s refreshing to see an onscreen relationship that features an older couple, who are simply just happy to be in each other’s company. There is the sense that they are truly kindred spirits despite their huge differences and there is something about this which just makes it lovely to watch.

The Old Man and The Gun succeeds in being both an enjoyable throwback caper, as well as a great vehicle for Robert Redford at this reported final stage in his career. It is comforting, delightful, charming and endlessly endearing. Mr. Redford, the world of film will miss you!

Sarah’s Verdict:

4-5

LFF 2018: Outlaw King

Year: 2018
Directed by: David Mackenzie
Starring: Florence Pugh, Chris Pine, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Tony Curran

Written by Dave Curtis

I was once told if you go into a film expecting the worst, you will never leave disappointed. There is some truth in that. Early talk on Outlaw King suggested that it is the film that Chris Pine gets his cock out. Well, that is true. He does go full frontal (only for a fleeting moment), but it is only fair that he does.  Florence Pugh and several other actresses have to show some skin, he is doing his bit for equality between the sexes. Surely you can’t expect everyone to get naked apart from him? Luckily Outlaw King is relying on more than a bit of nudity to be remembered.

The film reunites director David Mackenzie with star Chris Pine (after Hell or High Water) alongside Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Florence Pugh. It is a violent and unflinching portrayal of a bloody tale in history. It is filmed in Scotland which provides a gorgeous backdrop. Scotland really is quite pretty.

Outlaw King is based on historical events (or so it says) of Robert the Bruce, a nobleman who was defeated by the English who was eventually crowned King of Scotland. Just imagine a sequel to Braveheart and this is it. Outlaw/King (the actual name) starts with Robert kneeling to King Edward Ⅰ of England. As a proud Scottish nobleman, he struggles with this especially when the King raises taxes and starts to attack the common folk.

Chris Pine sports a spectacular mullet as Robert Bruce. His accent is very subtle, in fact he barely talks at all. It is a brave decision to cast a non-Scottish actor as one of Scotland’s most famous folk heroes. He looks like he has bulked up (either that or everyone else is really small). Pine carries himself well. He fights, he makes love, he plays with his child and he doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty. He is the ideal man.

Florence Pugh has a bit of a thankless task. She has such strong chemistry with Chris Pine and it is such a shame when she is literally hung out to dry. She plays Elizabeth De Burgh, Robert’s recent wife. This is a very macho picture, not a lot for a female character to do. It’s all men with swords hacking each other down. The little material Pugh’s character has is performed to the best of her ability.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson is one of Robert Bruce’s right-hand men. As James Douglas, he transforms himself to such a degree that he is almost unrecognisable. His accent is flawed but he definitely is committed to the part. His performance is like a guy on a night out who had one too many drinks and taken too many drugs. He is off his head, wide eyes and wired who just wants to dance all night long. It is very entertaining.

The real selling point to Outlaw King are the battle scenes. Its been a while since we seen fights and battles on this scale (and remain entertaining). A fight at night lit mainly with flaming arrows and huge fires show that David Mackenzie has an eye for the dramatic. The costume design is also convincing, from the armor to Florence Pugh’s outfits.

Whereas with Braveheart which had a runtime of nearly 3-hours, Outlaw King is just under 2. Mackenzie cut 20 minutes from it after the premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. This helps with the pacing and makes the film zip along at an entertaining rate. Sure this isn’t anything new but it keeps you interested in the characters and plot.

There are some concerns that this being a Netflix title, it may mean it won’t translate to the small screen. The battle scenes are made to be seen on the big screen. A lot of the shots are so tight that some of the details will get lost in all the chaos and mud.

Surprisingly, Outlaw King is worth the time. The big sweeping bloody and violent battle scenes paired with gorgeous scenery of Scotland and the convincing costume design makes quite a spectacle. This won’t bring any new fans to the genre but it will keep the die-hard fans happy. If you like your big battle scenes then Outlaw King will scratch that itch.

DAVE’S VERDICT:

3-5

 

LFF 2018: Shadow

Directed by: Zhang Yimou
Cast: Chao Deng, Li Sun, Ryan Zheng, Qianyuan Wang

Written by Sarah Buddery

Known for his gorgeous visual storytelling, legendary director Zhang Yimou is back with his follow-up to the disappointing (albeit aesthetically beautiful) The Great Wall (2016), and thankfully back in more familiar territory now with Chinese-language film Shadow.

More akin to his most well-known films Hero and House of Flying Daggers as opposed to the aforementioned blockbuster, Shadow is a story steeped in mysterious Chinese history that sees the director return to his legendary best.

The ‘Shadow’ of the title refers to the mantle given to those who would impersonate and fight in the place of Chinese nobility and Commanders when they were unable to do so themselves. The film focuses on one such ‘Shadow’, Jing (Chao Deng), who pretends to be Commander Yu (also played by Deng), and his journey to reclaim their homeland.

What ensues is a visual feast for the eyes, Yimou choosing a striking monochrome colour-palette for his film, based on the tai chi symbol; commonly known as the yin and yang. Not only does this symbol provide the visual framework but it also forms part of the narrative device, and that helps this film to feel truly unique.

It is a little slow in the beginning, but much care is taken to establish the delicate political imbalances, and there’s some early moments of high tension as those around him start to suspect that the ‘Commander’ is an imposter. Of course, we know he is, but the majority of the characters don’t, and this makes for a tense and unsettling atmosphere way before the bloodshed.

When the violence does come, boy does it come, and Yimou shoots the beautifully choreographed fight scenes masterfully. The muted colour palette means the flashes of red blood are dramatic and impactful, making Shadow one of the most exquisitely brutal films you will see all year.

There’s some truly spectacular moments, as one would expect with a Yimou film, and this ensures that despite the predictability of the film’s plot, that it still stays with you afterwards. This film is truly striking from a visual standpoint, and narratively speaking it is one of the more accessible of Zhang Yimou’s films. Shadow marks a triumphant return to form for the Chinese director and is easily able to stand alongside his previous notable works.

Sarah’s Verdict:

4

LFF 2018: If Beale Street Could Talk

Directed by: Barry Jenkins
Cast: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Colman Domingo

UK Release Date: February 8th, 2019

Written by Sarah Buddery

Despite the on-stage debacle that threatened to overshadow the award itself, Barry Jenkins’ debut feature Moonlight took home the biggest prize at last year’s Oscars, beating the favourite La La Land to Best Picture. Handling the whole thing as admirably as someone could, director Barry Jenkins rode the wave of emotions on the night like a true professional and is ready to have all the attention on him once again with his second film If Beale Street Could Talk.

Where Moonlight was perhaps intentionally cold and distant, Beale Street instantly feels much warmer and likeable, but once again Jenkins delivers a palpable sense of intimacy with the characters that immediately hooks you and draws you into their world. Moonlight felt transcendent, almost hypnotic in places, and despite its slightly more conventional narrative structure, If Beale Street Could Talk is as equally compelling.  

Beale Street tells the story of young lovers, Tish (Layne) and Fonny (James). With Fonny behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit, and Tish pregnant with his child, she desperately tries to prove his innocence so they can enjoy the family life they had always wanted together. Tish and Fonny deserve to go down as one of the best on-screen couples, certainly in recent memory, and watching them together is enough to make your heart soar. Jenkins’ camera focuses in on their eyes, their touch, and the small gestures, the considered silence and pauses speaking louder than words ever could.

Whilst their love story is at the heart of this film, it also has subtle thematic notions running through it that add even more weight. Its backdrop of racial tensions and discrimination, particularly in the attitude of white police officers towards black males, is something which is incredibly potent, but yet it never goes into preachy territory and never totally dominates over the characters and the narrative. Instead, it provides a background to these characters, and its relevance to today means that despite its period setting, we can instantly relate with them and their experiences.

The warmth and love of Beale Street positively radiates through the screen and there is wonderful tenderness to both Jenkins’ direction and his writing. Particularly in the scenes with Tish’s family which are wonderfully written and astutely observed.

Jenkins is undeniably an exciting filmmaker, and he succeeds in following up Moonlight by more than surpassing the unfairly high expectations placed upon him. It is unfair to compare the two films because they are so different, but Beale Street is undeniably more accessible and much easier watch. It doesn’t stray from some hard-hitting topics, and its ending is crushingly bittersweet, but watching this love story play out is a privilege. Awards success may just be beckoning his name once again…

Sarah’s Verdict:

4

LFF 2018: The Favourite

Directed by: Yorgos Lanthimos
Cast: Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone, Emma Delves

UK Release Date: January 1st, 2019

Written by Sarah Buddery

It takes a special kind of director to have already forged such a unique visual style and creative method of storytelling, with relatively few major features under his belt. But Yorgos Lanthimos is one such director and one who has undeniably earned that often used mantle of “visionary” director.

Seconds into a Lanthimos film, you know who the director is, and you also know you’re in for a wild time. His films tend to divide opinion, but it is fair to say that The Favourite is his most accessible film to date. Hopefully, this then opens up the doors into the rest of his filmography and new people can discover the diversity in his films that lies behind it!

The Favourite focuses on three female characters; the petulant Queen Anne (Colman), her devoted friend Lady Sarah (Weisz), and the new servant Abigail (Stone). What follows is a riotous period romp as Lady Sarah and Abigail fight for the Queen’s attention. The Favourite is a film that veers wildly between the grotesque and the sublime, and Lanthimos’ trademark offbeat and jet-black comedy runs right through it.

Lanthimos’ equally unique visual stamp is all over this movie. There are moments of precise Kubrickian symmetry in some of the tracking shots, and it’s full of weird angles, whip-pans and fisheye lenses. The Favourite is a decadent and sumptuous feast for the eyes. This is a playful film, one that toys with you, and also one that feels indulgent, whimsical, and wild. Fans of this director will know what to expect, and The Favourite absolutely does not disappoint in this sense.

It’s possibly the highest possible compliment you could pay, given her career so far, but this is possibly the best performance of Olivia Colman’s career. She is clearly having tremendous fun with the role, but she has a remarkable knack for making the Queen consistently likeable, even in the most outrageous moments. It’s a committed and tremendously physical role for her as well, and she absolutely astounds. Equally, Weisz and Stone give terrific performances and the three of them together have a chemistry that simply lights up the screen.

Where previously his film’s have proved divisive, The Favourite may just be the film that changes people’s minds on Yorgos Lanthimos. Its exceptional A-List cast might be the major draw for some people, but The Favourite has so much more to offer beyond that. Wickedly funny and delectably dark, this is Lanthimos’ strongest film of his career, and one of the best films of the year. Go on, indulge yourselves!

Sarah’s Verdict:

5

LFF 2018: They Shall Not Grow Old

Directed by: Peter Jackson

Written by Sarah Buddery

Back in 2001, director Peter Jackson made huge technological advancements with his groundbreaking fantasy trilogy Lord of the Rings. Similarly, his latest film, WWI documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, breaks new ground from a technical aspect, albeit with a very different subject matter.

Fusing previously unseen archive footage from the Imperial War Museum, and interviews recorded by the BBC and IWM, Jackson has lovingly restored and colourised footage of the Great War to present a vivid, immersive and enthralling documentary, unlike anything you will have seen before.

Marking the centenary of the end of the conflict, this film is also a personal passion project for Jackson, dedicated to the memory of his Grandfather, one of the many who perished during World War I. Narrated by the real voices of those who fought in the war, and through technological wizardry, the flickering black and white images are presented in vivid yet grim technicolour to give an honest and unflinching take on life in the trenches. Working with lip-readers, Jackson has also provided voice and sound to the silent footage, and the result is simply breathtaking.

Beyond its unquestionable achievements in film and technology, They Shall Not Grow Old succeeds in bringing to life the stories which run the risk of being forgotten. The ghostly apparitions of the soldiers on screen, the narration of those who lived through it, and the grisly tales of lice, rats, trench foot and death combine to present a “warts and all” telling of history. This film feels important, yet has no sense of self-importance or condescension. The soldier’s accounts are honest, surprising in many ways, and there is the hope that this film will be viewed for many years to come so that their memory lives on.

The film feels vast in scope, yet also candid and intimate. It covers wide ground right from the outbreak of war, recruitment and training, through to Armistice Day, yet it also maintains the deeply personal stories and accounts from the real people who lived through it. It certainly doesn’t shy away from the horrors of war as well and there are some grisly images expertly juxtaposed with the smiling faces of the soldiers. The effect is undeniably harrowing.

Perhaps one of the most harrowing moments occurs towards the end, however, and it is when the soldiers describe what it was like to return home. Many felt relief, but few felt victorious, and indeed the majority felt that their life no longer had purpose now the war was over. It is a sobering and sombre moment and its moments like this that might just change your perspective as the war is remembered going forward.

They Shall Not Grow Old is a triumph of documentary filmmaking, an entirely unique experience and a fitting tribute to the men who served; both the ones who returned and the ones who sadly did not. In the words of the poem by Robert Laurence Binyon from which the film takes its title, “At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them”.

Sarah’s Verdict:

5