‘The Revenant’

The Revenant

IT IS DIFFICULT TO leave a showing of Alejandro Iñárritu’s savage film, The Revenant, without having the feeling that you’ve personally undergone some sort of violent assault.

Of course, that’s nothing compared to the battering frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) endures as he tries to find civilisation in the 800s9th century American wilderness. Man is pitched against nature in this epic revenge tale based on Michael Punke’s embellished take on the legend of the American explorer, in which Glass survives a bloody mauling by a mother grizzly bear only to see his son (Forest Goodluck) murdered and then be left for dead himself by Tom Hardy’s racist, sociopathic trapper John Fitzgerald.

What follows is a ceaseless, 180-minute macho art film in which the ironically-named Glass risks scalping and shooting and starvation in the name of white-hot revenge against the backdrop of an unspoiled Great Plains and a haunting orchestral score by Ryuichi Sakamoto.

It is, in effect, a double-chase: a roaming group of Native Americans hunt the white man who kidnapped a woman, Powaqa (Melaw Nakehk’o), and because Glass is travelling alone in the wild, he is the most likely to be found; Glass, grieving and angry, hunts Fitzgerald. The wounded Glass, both hunter and hunted, reliant on nature, yet in constant danger from it, moving awkwardly in bear skin, tearing greedily at raw fish and flesh, regresses to an animal state, driven by the very basest of emotions: revenge and the instinct to survive.

The brutality of Glass’s world is juxtaposed with the gorgeous, glorious, snow-covered Great Plains, courtesy of three-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki: the landscape, filmed in Alberta, Canada and Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, is as arresting as any gory shot of Glass stuffing gunpowder into a wound in his neck. But to call The Revenant a purely cinematographic triumph, or to reduce it to a standard revenge tale, is to do it a gross injustice: it is equally a suffocating story of the physical difficulties of mere survival at the dawn of the Wild West, in which frostbite or hypothermia may end your life long before a human or animal gets the chance, and a symbolic story about man and nature, civilisation and savagery, death and rebirth.

Iñárritu’s brutal odyssey is riddled with allegory and reference to the spiritual, at times clumsily expressed, which betray his sympathy for the myriad indigenous tribes who struggled to survive French and American occupation in the 1800s. If The Revenant fails at times, it is in this area. The hunter-gatherers of the Pawnee and Ree tribes take on an otherworldly character which borders on the noble savage cliché; the imagery is, at times, almost laughably opaque––memorably during the dream sequence in which Glass sees his murdered son.

DiCaprio remarked following the release of the film that it had included thirty or forty of the toughest sequences of his career. It shows: it is an imperious performance by DiCaprio, whose bloodied Glass looks perpetually to be on the very brink of death as he tries to survive the beautiful and savage landscape of Montana and South Dakota. Meanwhile the impressive Will Poulter, as the young and naive trapper Jim Bridger, quietly steals the scenes he shares with Tom Hardy.

The symbology in The Revenant is at times heavy-handed, and the ideological hand of director Iñárritu oscillates between elevating the narrative and overwhelming it. But in spite of this it is truly a thrilling film, beautifully told, beautifully shot and beautifully acted––in  relation to the latter it is no surprise that the real-life suffering of DiCaprio for the artistic vision of his director was rewarded with an Academy Award.

What’s more, and put simply, The Revenant is the best film I have seen in quite some time.

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‘The Hateful Eight’

THERE ARE VERY FEW films that come to mind that justify a running time of more than three hours, so I suppose I must have expected something truly spectacular when I sat down to watch Quentin Tarantino’s latest effort, The Hateful Eight. The Godfather II or Schindler’s List it was not. Instead, I and the rest of the audience were treated to a plodding, bloated film that cried out desperately for some good editing.

The Hateful Eight has an Agatha Christie-meets-Reservoir-Dogs sort of plot involving eight “hateful” people who find themselves stuck together in a haberdashery during a blizzard in post-Civil War Wyoming. It takes, however, at least half an hour before we get to the haberdashery on account of lengthy, clumsy expository dialogue primarily between between Samuel L. Jackson’s Major Warren and Kurt Russell’s “The Hangman” John Ruth, and when we do finally meet the other characters we are treated to more of the same.

The dialogue is some of the flattest I have heard in a Tarantino film. It has none of the humour or memorability of the dialogue in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction and the better lines which punctuate the film are delivered with excruciating hamminess.

I suppose The Hateful Eight isn’t a very bad film. During the interval––yes, I was surprised too––I prayed that something would happen in the second act, and when the film restarted I did think to myself for a few minutes, now we’re cooking. But that feeling was short-lived and when we did finally get to the Big Reveal it was a lazy deus ex machina that did nothing to alleviate my irritation at the protracted build-up.

The Hateful Eight is a film comprising Tarantino’s worst excesses: it’s bloody long, it lacks a good plot and it is abundant in gore. It’s worth noting of course that Tarantino has misfired in the past and pulled himself back: after a lukewarm reception to the not-very-violent Jackie Brown, he returned with the ultra-violent Kill Bill films, which, unapologetically plotless gore-fests but also a demonstration of his skill behind the camera. Then came the O.K. Death Proof, which was followed up by Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, both of which I think are fun films.

I left the cinema with the very distinct feeling that Quentin Tarantino has joined Terence Malick and others in that list of directors who need a good reigning-in. We all know just how brilliant he can be provided there is someone around to say, just occasionally, “No”. I think in the hands of a less self-indulgent director, The Hateful Eight could have been a fun ninety-minute flick. As it is, I don’t believe it merits your time nor your cash.

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‘The Lobster’

The Lobster

EVERYONE WILL, AT SOME point in their life, have woken up with a bemused expression on their face, and turned to their other half, and described a particularly bizarre dream. Few of those people, however, will have felt the urge to turn whatever peculiar happenings their subconscious has conjured up into a feature film.

I suppose that is to pay tribute to the creative confidence of Yorgis Lanthimos, whose charming comedy-romance The Lobster is, to employ that overused and badly-used word, as dreamlike as you can get.

The film is set in a dystopian future in which all people must find a husband or wife or be turned into an animal of their choosing. After his wife leaves him for another man, the bespectacled, overweight David (Colin Farrell) arrives at a hotel for singletons, where Hotel Manager (Olivia Colman) tells him that he has forty-five days to find a romantic partner, and asks him, should he fail to do this, if he has thought about what animal he would like to be transformed into. “Yes. A lobster,” David replies, without hesitation.

In the world of The Lobster, everyone talks unsmilingly in a staccato monotone, and romantic relationships are built exclusively on minor commonalities such as short-sightedness or a propensity to bleed from the nose, rather than genuine connection. The sheer strangeness of Lanthimos’s world is funny in and of itself, and made more funny by the interactions of its eccentric characters, played by a fine cast which includes Olivia Colman, Ben Whishaw, Rachel Weiss and Léa Seydoux.

But how much you enjoy The Lobster depends to a great extent on your sense of humour. It has that unique and ridiculous quality you might find in an episode of Monty Python or The Mighty Boosh rather than, say, Yes, Minister.

But it doesn’t always work. In The Lobster’s funniest moments, such as when Limping Man (Ben Whishaw) describes climbing into the wolf enclosure at the zoo (his mother having been turned into one) and being savaged by all but two, and then speculating that his mother was probably one of the two, it is really very funny. But there are other times––and a great deal of them––when the attempts at humour fail miserably, and the random behaviour of the characters is dull, rather than quirky. This tends to happen towards the latter end of the film, when the randomness that made so much of the first half so entertaining starts to become quite predictable, and the need to bring the narrative to a conclusive and satisfying end limits the potential for comedy.The Lobster

There are genuinely tender moments in The Lobster, made more tender by the coldness of the interactions, romantic or otherwise, of other characters, and the social clumsiness of the participants. In this world of forced affection, it is real affection that is palpably absent, so Lanthimos has something to say on the nebulous nature of genuine connection and on the equal loneliness of single life and finding yourself in a passionless relationship (the former, he suggests, still being preferable to the latter.)

Lanthimos must be praised for the sheer ambition of The Lobster if nothing else, but he also succeeds in making a film that, underneath all its strangeness, is funny and genuinely endearing, even if it fades towards the end.

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‘Black Mass’

Black Mass

ANY GOOD GANGSTER FLICK dares, if not exhorts, the audience to find something to admire in its subjects.

The characters may be charismatic, larger-than-life figures, or working-class overachievers who defy the disadvantages of their birth to accumulate staggering wealth and rise to positions of power they could never come to occupy through legal means. Or they’re Robin Hood types: class-war heroes who steal from the rich and powerful so they can fill the pockets of those in their communities (or at least appear to.) But while Scott Cooper’s Black Mass, about the Irish-American crime lord Whitey Bulger, is at times absorbing, it doesn’t quite convince anyone to care about its villainous protagonist.

In south Boston in the 1970s and 1980s, James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp), the leader of the Winter Hill Gang, gathers power, courtesy of an unholy alliance with the FBI and the political disregard of his brother, the Massachusetts State Senator Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch). FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), with whom the Bulger boys grew up, has given Whitey virtual immunity from prosecution in return for “intel” on the Italian mafia operating in the northern part of the city, a deal which permits him to operate unencumbered by the forces of the law. This, Whitey claims, does not mean he is an informant–“there’s informing and there’s informing,” he tells an associate–but what it does mean is that the bonds forged on the unforgiving streets of south Boston disregard obvious contradictions, such as those found in a triumvirate that includes a government agent, a politician and a trigger-happy gangster. It is these delicate relationships–in particular, the relationship between Whitey and Connolly–around which the film revolves. Intimacy, in fact, is a running theme. Closeness might suggest trust, but it also suggests danger–especially if you happen to be part of Whitey’s crew.

Of course, nothing is more befitting a gangster film than a tense exchange over a dinner table and Black Mass reworks Joe Pesci’s “Funny how?” scene from Goodfellas with some success. Black Mass borrows openly from other films in the genre and in this reuse of tried-and-tested tropes, scenes and settings–from The Godfather and The Departed among others–it at times becomes formulaic. But the principal failure of Black Mass is not that it is formulaic: it is that it takes no time at all either to develop Whitey’s inner world. It is frustrating that the writers do not even try to explain why Whitey is the way he is, and how it can be that two brothers can grow up to live such different lives. Consequently Whitey at times seems to be little more that a horror movie villain, an effect aggravated by Cooper’s tendency to luxuriate in the assorted stranglings and shootings conducted by the Winter Hill boys. Scant screen time is paid to creating the psychological complexity that makes gangsters such compelling characters, and for the better part of the film, Whitey does little except prowl around Southie with his thin hair combed back against his scalp and the collar of his leather jacket turned up against the wind. Interestingly, one of the best scenes of the film comes when Whitey dotes on his family in an early scene. Whitey, over dinner, marries the values of the gangster and the family man when he tells his young son, Douglas that “if nobody sees it, it didn’t happen.”

Much of what you think of Black Mass will depend on what you make of its high priest, the blue-eyed, thin-lipped Johnny Depp, but the film really belongs to Joel Edgerton, who turns in a first-rate performance as a man in denial that there is any conflict between his work for the FBI and his friendship with Whitey Bulger.

There are absorbing moments of drama in Black Mass, but they’re sporadic, and the result is an unsatisfying and episodic depiction of an interesting story.

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‘Everest’

Everest

IT HAS BEEN THE enduring mission of man to try to conquer nature, and though the war, as it were, has been won, battles may still be lost.

Such was the case of the 1996 Mount Everest tragedy, which is the subject of Baltasar Kormakur’s film. Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) and rival guided climb operator Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal) lead a group which includes veteran climbers, adrenaline junkies, a former mailman and a journalist to the summit of the highest mountain on Earth. Needless to say, it doesn’t quite go according to plan.

The signs, as they say, were all there. First, Hall’s colleague at Adventure Consultants gives a lengthy speech on the horrendous potential effects of climbing, including hallucinations and pulmonary edema (no prizes for guessing what happens later in the film). Then, the wife of experienced climber Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin) tells her daughter, “I think he’s scared.” Anatoli Boukreev, the film’s token gruff Russian, tells Fischer that “the last word belongs to the mountain.” Hall voices concern at the large number of people with the intention of climbing the mountain at the same time. And if of all that did not persuade you that the venture was doomed from the start, Weathers nearly falls off a makeshift bridge made out of a ladder early on in the ascent.

Naturally, the Himalayan vistas are gorgeous and the quasi-supernatural character of the mountain (“the mountain has its own weather”) is omnipresent. The main force in the story, however, is ego. It drives the refusal of the competing groups to ascend at different times and the conflict between Hall and Fischer; it’s the reason climbers insist on getting to the summit when the odds are stacked against them so heavily. You are hesitant to label those who lost their lives in ’96 as arrogant––and, of course, that does not make their untimely deaths any less tragic––but that is the most fitting description for a person who insists on continuing on to the summit when not only are they are not in a fit state to do so, but their stubbornness will put others in danger, too. It is this which to most people is the most interesting element of climbing: the psychology of the climber. What sort of person puts themselves through hell and risks life and limb to take on the world’s highest peaks? And what sort of person leaves their loved ones at home while they pursue ever more dangerous climbs?

Regrettably, Everest fails miserably in this area. That isn’t to say it doesn’t try––but it tries half-heartedly. Early on in the film the journalist Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly) asks his fellow climbers why, exactly, they climb, but the responses are superficial, and that’s the last we hear of the matter. If you wish to take a closer look into the psyche of these high-risk climbers, look no further than Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s excellent documentary, Meru.

Everest is, unfortunately, standard disaster movie fare. Despite an excellent cast and setting, it fails to hold your interest. It was a misstep not to take more time to explore the motivations and backgrounds of its principal characters, which might have elevated a solid but unremarkable film into something very good indeed.

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‘Winter on Fire’

FOLLOWING IN THE FOOTSTEPS of Jehane Noujaim’s documentary on the Egyptian Crisis, The Square, comes Evgeny Afineevsky’s Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom, a documentary on the 93 days of civil unrest in Kiev which began as peaceful student protests and became a violent revolution.

What struck me most about Winter on Fire was the way in which it captured the ability of ordinary people to mobilise and organise spontaneously and to fill the roles that best fit their skills. We see almost overnight the young people of Kiev erecting food trucks and clothes stalls and places from which to distribute flyers and pamphlets, and later we see the cab drivers form a sort of cavalry, the bravest (or most reckless) demonstrators go to the front line to spar with police and the most articulate and charismatic make speeches on microphones.

Winter on Fire didn’t quite hold my attention in the way The Square did, despite their similarities, and I suppose this might be because I knew what followed the Euromaidan (the Russian annexation of Crimea) and that diluted one of the film’s most powerful messages concerning the power of the people to force out a Government that no longer serves their interests. Winter on Fire fails to address this, relegating any information on the subsequent Crimea crisis and the thousands of lives lost to a line of text on a black screen at the very end. Compare this again with The Square, in which the Egyptian “revolution” also fails in the sense that the Muslim Brotherhood allies with its former enemies and installs Mohamed Morsi–who later went on to proclaim himself “pharoah”–as president. Unlike Winter on Fire, however, The Square ends on a positive note, with the intensely likeable Ahmed Hassan saying, with a smile, that he and his fellow revolutionaries will simply continue to remove leaders from power until the right one comes along. I appreciate that timing and other factors may not have permitted the inclusion of more footage in Winter on Fire, but to end the film in the way it was does leave you with the distinct impression that the 93 days of Euromaidan was all for nothing, or worse–that it inadvertently set the wheels in motion for a bloodier conflict and a new form of oppression far more brutal than the one against which the young people of Kiev were railing.

Where it is superior to The Square is in its depiction of its antagonists, the forces of the Government and particularly the thuggish agents provocateurs, the Tutushkiy. As the protesters rapidly mobilise, the forces of Yanukovych become increasingly more brutal, and become increasingly reliant on the Tutushkiy– mercenary members of the public–to do the things they, by law, cannot. And then there are the individuals within the police and military who seem to recognise the immorality of their actions and their common cause with the demonstrators but feel bound either by loyalty or sense of duty or lack of options to continue to beat and brutalise those on the other side, and Afineevsky portrays these people with some sympathy.

It seems a trivial point but I would rather those interviewed in the film explained the circumstances that led to Euromaidan than a monotone voiceover and computer graphics, computer graphics which, I think unnecessarily, also crop up several times throughout the film to illustrate the location of various places in central Kiev.

I enjoyed the film in any case, but if you want to see one film about revolution by the people on the ground then watch The Square.

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’13 Minutes’

13 Minutes

THERE WERE AT LEAST thirty attempts on Hitler’s life from 1933 until his death, the most well know of which was, Operation Valkyrie, which was popularised–and romanticised–by the 2008 film of the same name, starring Tom Cruise.

Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg and his co-conspirators were, initially, enthusiastic about Nazism and the colonisation of Poland, and only soured towards Hitler and his policies extremely late in the day, when the tide began to turn against the Third Reich. Historians agree that Stauffenberg and the majority of the others were aristocrats and social conservatives who approved of German domination of continental Europe, but wished an upper-class élite to be at its helm, not the leaders of the populist, working-class Nazi Party.

That was not the case for George Elser, around whom Oliver Hirschbiegel’s 13 Minutes revolves. Elser did not have the luxury of co-conspirators with military experience and intimate access to Hitler when he made his attempt on the Fuhrer’s life in 1939. And unlike Stauffenberg, whose actions can be said to be at least in part motivated out of selfish desire, Elser’s motives were practical and, Oliver Hirschbiegel asserts, highly moral.

In the opening scene of 13 Minutes, Georg Elser (Christian Friedel) looks disdainfully at a Nazi flag, having hidden several sticks of dynamite connected to a wooden timing device in the basement beneath a Munich bierkeller, in which Adolf Hitler is due to give a speech.

The assassination attempt is unsuccessful–the home-made bomb detonates, but misses Hitler by thirteen minutes–and Elser is caught attempting to cross the border into Switzerland. The attempt on Hitler’s life is traced to Elser, and the German security services in Berlin first question him, and then torture him, to try to have him reveal the identities of his co-conspirators. Elser insists that he acted alone.

The film is a character study of Georg Elser. Hirschbiegel and the scriptwriters, father and daughter team Fred and Léonie-Claire Breinersdorfer, punctuate–clumsily–sequences of torture with Elser’s former life in pre-Nazified Germany. In the cold and desaturated present, the Kripo thugs beat Elser bloody; in the glowing warmth of the past, he dances joyfully along the banks of Lake Konstanz. Elser is depicted as a charming and creative man content to enjoy the simpler pleasures that life affords and dismayed by the rise of the Nazis. There is a syrupy subplot involving Elser’s relationship with Elsa (Katharina Schuttler), a woman married to a predictably unsavoury and passionately pro-Nazi husband, which does nothing to strip the film of its already mawkish patina.13 Minutes

The film belongs to Friedel, who turns in a very good performance as Elser. And this is to his great credit, because the Elser of 13 Minutes is depicted in an almost impossibly positive light. He is charming and musical, principled and brave, and, to the amazement of the Nazi security officials (“half the roof has caved in!”), technically proficient enough to design one of the world’s first time-bombs to kill Adolf Hitler. His assorted dalliances and relationship with a married woman are justified by the appalling, drunken behaviour of her husband. Hirschbiegel misses few opportunities to train his camera on the concerned face of Elser every time there is mention of a Nazi atrocity. Elser good; Nazis bad, the film tells us. Well yes, but we do not need to be reminded of this at every opportunity.

Nevertheless there is something to enjoy in 13 Minutes, which tells a quite remarkable (and largely untold) story, if in a rather conventional way. It strikes me as an account that Germany recognises should have been told a long time ago, and a belated attempt to give Georg Elser the approbation he no doubt deserves. You feel that perhaps Hirschbiegel played it safe after the awful Diana, which is a crying shame because 13 Minutes notably lacks cinematic flair.  It is confidently made, but hardly subtle, and dripping in sentimentality.
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‘Decision’ by Carsten Holler

FROM 10th JUNE TO 6th September, the latest exhibition from Belgian artist Carsten Holler, Decision, graces the Hayward Gallery on the Southbank. It explores decision-making and perception, and features such installations as pitch-black giant air ducts through which visitors must navigate and goggles which turn the world upside down.

The £15 entrance fee might seem a little steep given the time actually spent in the exhibition, but it was a reasonable price.

If you’re not an art aficionado don’t be deterred. This isn’t one of those exhibitions during which you spend most of your time standing in front of a painting with a bemused expression until you get a headache. It’s varied and interactive, and it’s fun. One of the installations consists of pairs of television sets on which identical twins say subtly different phrases. It’s the sort of thing that leads you to feel that someone has extracted your brain and given it a good shake before popping it back in your skull.

There is a virtual reality world–brought to life by a headset–which slowly begins to split in half, creating a kind of double-vision effect; a pair of beds which never stop moving; a large spinning frame topped with paper mushrooms; a mound of red-and-white pills that drop that from the ceiling every three seconds and a giant die through which children can crawl. There’s also a device that asks the user to pinch their nose and stimulate their biceps with a vibrating rod so that it feels as if your nose is growing larger or smaller; a memory game consisting of 32 pairs of digitally-altered photos; and four flickering TV screens.

You can leave the gallery via the stairs, but it’s far more fun to grab a sack and go down one of two helix-shaped metal slides. How many in times in your life have you left an art gallery via a slide?

Some of the installations may not be to everyone’s taste. Some visitors seemed to find the upside-down goggles nauseating, and others struggled to feel any sensation in the nose-growing installation. Another downside is that you may have to wait forty minutes or more for the Flying Machines installation, which has the participant lie horizontally and be suspended over the edge of the building.

It’s worth the trip and it’s something new and unusual to do at this time of year in London. You may leave feeling thoughtful (if a little disorientated), and at the very worst, at least you got to go down a big metal slide.

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‘What Happened, Miss Simone?’

Review: 'What Happened, Miss Simone?'

LIKE JIM MORRISON or Janis Joplin or Kurt Cobain, Nina Simone deserves to be talked about as one of the artists of the 20th Century who as nearly as possible changed the culture with her artistic talents and force of personality. And like Morrison and Joplin and Cobain and, I suspect, many other creative geniuses––and I use that word sparingly––who never left the dive-bars and entered the mainstream, Nina Simone often burned far too brightly.

The Netflix original, What Happened, Miss Simone?, directed by Liz Garbus, is an attempt to get at why, precisely, everything fell apart for this towering personality, whose music alternately broke hearts and inspired revolution. The film opens with a performance from a later stage in Nina Simone’s career––a jazz festival, in Switzerland, where Simone looks out at an expectant audience with a hard expression for what becomes an almost uncomfortable length of time before breaking into a broad smile. ‘I have decided,’ she says, ‘to do no more jazz festivals . . .’ It’s a clip that gives the viewer an early taste of Simone’s extraordinary magnetism, but also the complexity and inner conflict that so deeply affected her later in her career.


Even the songs from Simone’s body of work which were not explicitly provocative or subversive or political––for instance the civil rights anthem ‘Mississippi Goddam’––carried within their melodies or their lyrics or within Simone’s performance a defiance of, and desire to be free from, the prisons of race and gender and oppressive relationships.


Garbus tells Simone’s story from her childhood in an Alabama marked by severe racial tension, where she showed the work ethic, ambition and desire for freedom which were characteristic of her career. Simone, it becomes clear, placed a premium on freedom––what she defined as ‘living without fear’––and which she experienced only infrequently and usually on-stage, and as her story unravels it’s plain to see how many different forces were exerted on her from an early age all the way through to her death at the age of seventy. Even the songs from Simone’s body of work which were not explicitly provocative or subversive or political––for instance the civil rights anthem ‘Mississippi Goddam’––carried within their melodies or their lyrics or within Simone’s performance a defiance of, and desire to be free from, the prisons of race and gender and oppressive and unhealthy relationships.

The interviews with Simone’s longtime bandmate, Al Schackman––who Simone herself describes as an intensely ‘sensitive man’––are particularly touching and illuminating. Schackman remained one of the constants in the life of Simone, who she described as sharing a kind of symbiosis with her: he was able to adapt instantly when Simone changed key––as she did often and without warning––and there’s a clear suggestion that Schackman was in tune with her emotionally as well as musically. Fittingly, some of the best insights into Simone’s life and character come from him. He and another friend of Simone, the Dutch photographer Gerrit de Bruin, nearly as possible saved Simone’s life in the 1980s when her behaviour became increasingly erratic. (She was subsequently diagnosed as bipolar).


The interviews with Simone’s longtime bandmate, Al Schackman are particularly touching and illuminating. He was able to adapt instantly when Simone changed key and there’s a clear suggestion that Schackman was in tune with her emotionally as well as musically.


Like Mitch Winehouse in Asaf Kapadia’s excellent documentary, Amy, or the tabloid journalist Nick Pisa in Amanda Knox, Nina’s abusive husband Andrew Stroud emerges early on as the designated villain of the story. But while the charge levelled at Mitch Winehouse was neglect, and at Nick Pisa a sort of callous opportunism, the sins of Simone’s husband, as described in the documentary, seem infinitely more direct and deliberate. Simone described in one interview how, after being handed a slip of paper by a man at a nightclub, Stroud beat her ‘all the way home, up the stairs . . . I couldn’t open my eyes for two weeks.’ It is to the credit of Stroud that he agreed to appear at all in the documentary, which casts him as a cruel and manipulative man who wasted no time in taking over Simone’s career and whose sole intention was to make as much money as possible, even if that meant working his wife into the ground. But the lives of complex people are invariably complex themselves, and it is Simone herself who emerges in the latter part of the documentary as a ‘villain’ of sorts, abandoning her family for Liberia and then, upon her return, beating her daughter Lisa so badly that she contemplated suicide.

Lisa, for her part, neither condemns her mother completely nor exonerates her for her shortcomings, choosing instead to remember her in her totality. Garbus, too, tells Simone’s story without bias. The resultant picture which emerges of the woman dubbed the High Priestess of Soul is neither idealised nor degraded. Instead, it is a picture of a brilliant and complex woman with some very dark demons who it seems was never quite able to find the ‘freedom’ that she was seeking.

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‘Tale of Tales’

Tale of Tales

IN THE OPENING FIFTEEN minutes of Tale of Tales, a hunched old man in a black cloak tells a king (John C. Reilly) and a queen (Salma Hayek) that in order for the pair to conceive, they must kill a sea monster and have a virgin cook its heart. And without any further ado, the king straps on a steampunk diving suit and sets off to do just that.

This is the mad and fantastical sixteenth-century Italy of Matteo Garrone’s Tale of Tales, in which elements of the magical cannot be said to be purely incidental, but are opaque enough to reassure that this is a film not about monsters but about people. And–what’s more–there is a suggestion that Garrone is making clear his disdain for the sort of magical realism that excuses lazy writing.

The plot comprises three stories lifted from the tales of the Neapolitan poet Giambattista Basile about three Royal rulers. In the first, the Queen of Longtrellis (Hayek), who is unable to bear children, takes the advice of a necromancer in return for a child. The eccentric King of Highhills (Toby Jones) develops an unhealthy obsession with a flea and starts to neglect his loving and obedient daughter (Bebe Cave) in the second. Meanwhile, the womanising King of Strongcliff (Vincent Cassel) pursues a hideous old woman after hearing her singing in the street and mistaking her for a beautiful teenager.

Tale of Tales, then, revolves around institutions and power, and the mad delusions those things inspire. Garrone grants himself a great deal of artistic licence in his take on Basile—Basile wrote the earliest versions of Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty, and influenced both the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen—but he doesn’t quite pull it off. You wonder, as the film draws to its unsatisfying close, what its point was.

The film’s principal faults are its confused structure and Garrone’s failure to push forward with more forceful pacing during each individual story. It is just as each tale draws you in that Garrone chooses to shift the narrative to the next. It isn’t until at least the midway point that the three tales begin to gather traction (when they do the film improves immeasurably) but there is too little time left. A linear approach, in which the stories are told back-to-back, might have suited better.

Visually, however, Tale of Tales is striking. Its setting is surreal and sometimes sinister, partly derivative of—yet achieving more than—Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods while at the same time borrowing darker features from Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. Set designer Dimitri Capuani and costume designer Massimo Cantini Parrini concoct some gorgeously ornate visuals to contrast in stark fashion with the grotesque elements of the film.

The film’s little humour comes almost entirely from the severity with which all mad matters are treated by its eccentric characters, beginning with the dutiful slaying of the sea monster.

The flea is delightfully revolting (and I say this as someone who sat, stoney-faced, through The Human Centipede and Antichrist). The scenes which Toby Jones shares with the flea are easily the film’s best, and Salma Hayek is excellent as a suitably lugubrious queen. John C. Reilly, however, is bizarrely cast as the king of the film’s opening.

These are fables for lovers of the macabre, and weird and wild antidotes to cleaner takes on similar material and the moralistic fairy tales of Disney. Nevertheless, Tale of Tales rarely surprises or jars or delights, and lurches from story to story in an apparently arbitrary way. It simply doesn’t quite work.

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