Film Festival Review

Review: My Wonderful Wanda (Dir. Bettina Oberli, 2020)

East and West Europe clash in Bettina Oberli’s sly satire My Wonderful Wanda which was included in Glasgow Film Festival’s stellar line-up, and given special mention in the Nora Ephron Award category at Tribeca.

Wanda (Agnieszka Grochowska) arrives by coach from Poland – and does so at the start of each chapter of the film’s structure – clutching as much of her life as she can pack into two pieces of luggage. The most important parts, her two sons, are left behind and cared for by her parents while she earns a wage. She is employed by the Wegmeister-Gloor family (yes, really – translate it) and cares for patriarch Josef (André Jung) who has been left debilitated by a stroke.

His wife Elsa (Marthe Heller) and adult children Sophie (Birgit Minichmayr) and Gregi (Jacob Matschenz) are unwilling to lift him, place him on the commode chair or shower him, their lives either too full or too empty to truly care one way or another. Wanda does it all. Even when Manuela goes back to Portugal, Wanda is asked to take on extra cooking and cleaning. The Wegmeister-Gloors are far from poor with their stunning lakeside home that it makes the fact that she must barter for her wages all the more galling to watch.

Josef starts paying Wanda for sex as another way to supplement her income. Their business transaction satisfying both as his needs are met and she is able to send more money home. Almost predictably, she is then accused of stealing the money and her passport threatened with confiscation. Make no mistake, these are not likeable people but you will have to wait until the final few moments as to whether any of them are redeemable.

When Wanda falls pregnant by the ‘infertile’ Josef that’s when the fun really starts as panic and horror sets in and the realisation of what this may cost the family, both in monetary terms and to their prided reputation. There’s an element of schadenfreude as one watches white privilege implode in a drunken haze and Nancy Sinatra, a protection of assets and a taxidermy funeral (an art installation in the snow), while Wanda remains the taciturn and rational one. Choices are made but not by her – the poor tend not to have those – and Gregi, the youngest Wegmeister-Gloor, finally takes his creepy bird noises with him and flies the nest.

Oberli’s film is nuanced and empathetically shot – the family as microcosm – with its greens and blues symbolising all that is in nature, the façade beneath the picturesque, as well as the cash and the bloodline. Its tone is perfectly measured as it deftly comments on class, the immigrant experience, motherhood, family dynamics (including the multitude of human neuroses that comes with it) and legacy, however, does it with a sense of self-awareness and humour. The inclusion of the cow is genius – both as cast member and visual metaphor – and provides ever more light relief.

My Wonderful Wanda’s strength lies in its direction, screenplay, biting satire, and ensemble cast, with standout performances from Grochowska and Heller. Perhaps, we are all just prisoners of circumstance whether rich or poor.


Review: Selah and The Spades (Dir. Tayarisha Poe, 2020)

Pennsylvania’s Haldwell School sits on vast green grounds on the edge of a wooded area, away from civilisation and governance – although, bless his heart Headmaster Banton (Jesse Williams) tries. He attempts to push School Policy and assert authority but tends to, more often than not, falls short. The elite boarding school is in the hands of five factions (gangs are against the rules): The Sea, The Skins, The Bobbies, The Prefects, and The Spades. The Spades provide the ‘booze, pills and powders’ and business is booming. They all run the school but the most power appears to be in the hands of Queen bee Selah Summers (Lovie Simone) and her closest ally and associate Maxxie Ayoade (Jharrel Jerome).

Selah is in her senior year and should be thinking of college. It turns out it’s only her mother (Gina Torres) with whom she has a terse relationship who actually is, seeking an institution which will “keep you in your place, save you from yourself. Something has to.” The young entrepreneur would rather concentrate on her business and leaving it to a worthy protégée. Enter new scholarship student and keen photographer Paloma Davis (Celeste O’Connor) who appears to take it al in her stride and quickly aligns herself as a Spade.

Near the film’s beginning, The Spirit Squad (cheerleaders) perform one of their routines and it is here that several facts are laid out for us. “They never take the girls seriously… when you’re 17, everybody is telling you what you do with your bodies…” The crux of it is, The Spirit Squad took back that power, they decide the uniforms, routines and how much skin to show. Selah uses that power and runs with it. The control intoxicates with a fine line drawn between leaving behind a legacy and being erased from history, and it during those moments of fear that Selah exhibits the real darkness of her character, and where Lovie Simone comes into her own as we start to see that perfect façade begin to crack.

First time writer/director Tayarisha Poe makes an impressive and memorable feature debut – and a perfect jumping-off point for an original TV series (handy since one has already been commissioned). Selah… is an extraordinary and unique look at young adult life encapsulating satire, surrealism and style in a world of teen politics with razor-sharp dialogue and noir character study. It’s part Lord of the Flies, and Brick (ish) by way of Dear White People, Heathers and Ozma of Oz – that opening quote and the world it belongs to is hinted at throughout via the ruling princess (AKA the one true monarch), school colours, props, costumes even the location within the mise-en-scène, the Factions stand-ins for the Land of Oz’s quadrants.

Certainly Haldwell gives off the feeling of a world far from the emotional ties of home. This is thanks mainly to Jomo Fray’s hypnotic cinematography and Aska Matsumiya’s eclectically composed soundtrack replete with contemporary music and mystical dreamcatcher-like chimes adding an ethereal quality to an already uncanny setting. Colour is vibrant and varied, the use of light sublime and heightened. Make no mistake everything here is, it’s school (eye roll) – despite never actually depicting any lessons or classrooms. While the almost bored-sounding voiceover narratives ground in verisimilitude.

However, the film’s strength lies in its ensemble of characters – “a film by us all” as the credits declare – from poised perfectionist Selah to diet-Margo Tenenbaum Bobby (Ava Mulvey Ten), peacekeeper Paloma, loved-up Maxxie (Jerome continuing his run of multi-faceted characters and solid performances), and immaculate, yet inept, Headmaster. Whether these characters and their respective players turn up in the TV series remains to be seen but Selah and The Spades is an impressive, if fraught, first term in the halls of Haldwell.

Selah and The Spades is available now to stream through Amazon Prime Video.

Film Festival Review

Review: Make Me Up (Dir. Rachel Maclean, 2018)

LFF 2018

For those unfamiliar with Rachel Maclean’s work, the Edinburgh-born multimedia artist created one of the 50-feet portraits of Billy Connolly which adorned the streets of Glasgow for The Big Yin’s 75th birthday. She also submitted a short: Spite Your Face to last year’s London and Venice film festivals. This piece focussed on a Pinocchio-type character – played by Maclean – who chases the lure of wealth within an abusive patriarchal power. It was made as a response to Britain’s decision to leave the EU and Trump’s presidential campaign. Within the mise-en-scéne its colours of choice were (Tory) blue and (Trump) gold.

The artist’s first full-length feature – included in the BFI’s 2018 festival programme – uses bubble gum pinks, violets and blues in every frame, and like its predecessor zones in on the post-Brexit zeitgeist in a similarly confrontational and acerbic manner. Make Me Up begins with the familiar aural tone and visual most Apple users attribute to the Siri application, when a disembodied male voice asks, “Siri, when is the world going to end?” before a woman screams “I don’t know!” and her cries resonate over the black screen.

Siri (Christina Gordon) in this case is a woman, pink of hair, born of a gelatinous lump of flesh. Unsure of how she ended up in such an inexplicable place, she becomes allies with Alexa (Colette Dalal Tchantcho) and is forced to compete against several other women (there’s even a Cortana too) in a hyper-real game show of sorts. All under watchful Orwellian eye(s) which fall from the ceilings and monitor everything and everyone via facial expressions and status updates.

In charge is the Figurehead (Rachel Maclean). An equally magenta-haired woman who schools her audience on the role of women within civilisation and through the history of art. Like her ‘pupils’ she has no voice of her own but is a conduit for the dulcet tones of historian Kenneth Clark, and specifically his 1969 BBC TV series Civilisation. She has other voices in her arsenal, namely those belonging to Andrew Graham Nixon and critics E.H. Gombrich and Robert Hughes, all stored within a device embedded in her arm. Her mannerisms scream Thatcher as her lips sync to the pomposity of the white, male patriarch. The girls before her know to mind their Ps and Qs and if they don’t? Well, naughty girls are punished, pitted against one another before elimination. The winner gets to eat.

Every inch of the film is aesthetically pleasing – although some may find it on the kitsch-side (when is that ever a bad thing?) – from Maclean’s production and costume design (she is also editor and responsible for the compositing and 2D effects) to Grant Mason’s prosthetics and Scott Twynholm’s score; it is all substance and style. Maclean asks us to consider the toxicity of social media, the depiction of women in politics, art iconography and beauty culture. The use of The Woman of Willendorf and the Venus de Milo is particularly powerful to illustrate the evolution of the female image, with nods to the works of Michelangelo, Botticelli, and Munch later on.

Make Me Up is a biting and thought-provoking satire which could not be more timely, not least in its celebration of the Suffragist Movement. It presents the violent and submissive fears, desires, control and pressures surrounding women. It asks questions of the role of women in contemporary feminism and art, as well as realigning the male gaze albeit sardonically amid Freudian visuals (the breast-shaped door handles and phallic dinner meat are particularly delightful). It has aspects of Alice in Wonderland by way of Sucker Punch via Hartbeat.

There is, however, no all-encompassing decorative pink bow of a conclusion – as Siri plots her escape thanks to the support of the sisterhood, you will recognise a few – and some may even find the final shot dispiriting but thankfully women persist. Director/Writer/Artist and all-round multitasker Rachel Maclean has put together something highly intelligent and imaginative. It deconstructs the beauty myth (perfection paint, anyone?) and reconsiders art history, criticism and all with a grin on its face and a knowing wink. More please.


Review: I Am Not a Witch (Dir. Rungano Nyoni, 2017)

Dramatic strains of Vivaldi strings play over the mini-bus crawling along as a tour guide announces to his passengers that they have arrived at their destination. Out everyone pours around the van to view whatever it is they have clearly paid to see, “so exciting, once you see the witches.” The what now? The camera captures what can only be described as a human zoo; behind metal barriers sits a group a women, dressed in blue, partially painted in white, their clownish make-up made more apparent as they howl and pull faces for the benefit of their visitors.

Shula (Maggie Mulubwa) – though she has no name until much later on – is an orphan who’s accused of witchcraft. Evidence is patchy at best, she has the ability to ‘curse’ water, make people trip and fall, and hack off a man’s arm (it miraculously grew back). The fact that she refuses to confirm or deny the charge means she is “cunning and deceiving” and before she knows it, she’s shipped off to government worker Mr. Banda (Henry B. J. Phiri) who oversees the small witch camp as seen as the start of the film.

After consulting a witch doctor who “proves” witchcraft, the little girl is fitted with a spindle and spool of white ribbon, the length of which varies from woman to woman, all to “prevent them flying away”. Shula is then offered the choice of either accepting her label and joining the women or cutting the ribbon and being transformed into a goat. It’s not difficult to realise which she will choose, she’s eight.

While the rest of the colony work tending the fields and hoping for rain, Shula is “witchified” and dressed in a frilly sack, twigs and leaves in her hair, white make-up adorns her face as she taken from village to village condemning thieves i.e. choosing the one she thinks is guilty. It’s ridiculous. The rewards she earns she shares amongst the women and that’s what is so bittersweet, there’s genuine camaraderie and affection between them and Shula now has a family, full of grandmothers – as all of these women are considerably older – sorrow, time and circumstance etched into their lived-in faces.

What strikes most about Rungano Nyoni’s first feature is how strong and self-assured it is. I Am Not a Witch is completely unique and striking in its gendered social critique and satirical rendering of persecuting patriarchal control. Thankfully, the comedy does not overwhelm but punctuates perfectly. The central performance which is mostly a silent one, by Maggie Mulubwa is rendered beautifully, her largely impassive and gorgeous face is often shot in close-up and the slightest expression is subtly mesmerising. The use of colour, which tends to be the odd swatch whether white, blue, red, purple, or the bright orange of the transporting truck is set against the dusty greys, and dirty sepia tones of the earth superbly. The impossible point-of-view shots, long languid takes, and narrative ellipses provide a visual erudition and subtle sophistication to the magical realism and that final shot is absolutely breathtaking.

I Am Not a Witch is a stunning debut, an amusing if poignant fable critiquing a very real social problem and making the Zambian-born Nyoni a filmmaker to watch out for in the future.

Film Festival Review

Review: Chevalier (Dir. Athina Rachel Tsangari, 2015)

LFF 2015

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Economic crisis birthed a Greek New Wave with Athina Rachel Tsangari leading the fore. Historically, she has written, produced and/or directed many of the films associated with the Greek film industry resurgence – Dogtooth, Alps, Attenberg (and acted in Before Midnight too with her lead actor Panos Koronis). She and fellow Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster) screened at this year’s LFF.

Tsangari’s last cinematic outlets Attenberg (2010) and her 2012 short The Capsule heavily featured females and their place in – and on the periphery of – the world around them; the director’s next concentrates on the adult male. In spite of its gallic sounding name, Chevalier is very much Greek. Set upon a yacht amid the Aegean Sea and a palette of pale greys and marine blues, it is like Attenberg in that the look is minimalist playing against the backdrop of the Aegean and the insular interior of the boat.


We never find out what brought these men together, or why they decided on a boat-trip. There are indications as to how they know each other: the Doctor and his handsome predecessor, the Insurance salesman nudist son-in-law, and his loner-genius brother who cannot go into the water (although, we never find out why), the one who spends an inordinate amount of time on his hair, and his pal; they are all friends of sorts. Growing tired of the tedium of card playing and incongruity of asking each other what fruit they see each other as, they decide to make things interesting and create a new game – who is the best in general? They start marking each other on everything, from sleeping posture, the ability to make an IKEA shelving unit, to the size and girth of their erections. The Chevalier of the title is referenced by a signet ring, often worn by French nobility and although its meaning varies depending upon which culture it inhabits, it is also a decoration given by a Patriarch of the Orthodox Church/Knight/Nobleman. You get the gist.

Co-written by Efthymis Filippou (Alps, Dogtooth) which may give an indiction the absurdist direction the film will veer. As to the journey, we’re all along for the boat-ride. To see these men primp and preen is a riot and even I relished (and perhaps snorted) at the male insecurity and ludicrous machismo on display as characters start to examine themselves in the mirror and bemoan the size of their thighs; an anxiety usually associated with female culture.


There is little guidance in relation to interpretation; the film can be read in socio-political terms especially when the game catches on with the boat’s chef and porter but Tsangari never leads one way or another.  Friendships will be tested and manipulated, blood bonds broken and formed as the best man overall is discovered.

Chevalier is a rebellious, brilliantly mordant and shrewd satire of the male ego. It is absurdist, surreal in parts, and hilariously droll from start to finish. It takes an astute filmmaker to hold a mirror up to society and provoke laughter and it will make you laugh. A lot.


Review: Starry Eyes (Dir. Kevin Krolsch and Dennis Widmyer, 2014)


Sarah (Alex Essoe) resides in LA, the sunshiny place of dreams and superficiality and is an actress, or at least wants to be one; is resolute to be one yet throughout Starry Eyes the line between determination, desperation and ultimate destruction is crossed, blurred, eventually rubbed out – and bloodied – altogether. Sarah tirelessly auditions for role after role in between working at fast-food restaurant Big Taters for sleazy, loser-ly manager Carl (a moustachioed Pat Healy). She has friends, none of whom are particularly close except maybe her roommate Tracy (Amanda Fuller). There is Danny (Noah Segan) who lives out of his mini-van and is ‘determined’ to make it as a director and Erin (Fabianne Therese) a wannabe actress who has had minor success and relishes in being well, a bit of a “bitch”.


Gamine in appearance, Sarah has ‘issues’, she suffers from nightmares, self-harms and is extremely body-conscious. She teeters on the precipice of insanity, is emotionally raw and literally tears her hair out at the roots to ease her anxiety. Her vulnerability does not necessarily make her weak but her hunger to be somebody does, it is easy to empathise with her – that yearning; she could be your sister, or daughter. Hell, she could even be you. Desires, primal or otherwise, push people in all kinds of directions. Then comes the call-back from a successful, if odd, audition for an Astraeus feature (the company taking its name from the Titan God of dusk, creator of winds and wandering stars) and the casting directors’ insistence that she lose her inhibitions has surprising results on the leading lady – “If you can’t ever let go, how can you fully transform into something else?”


Starry Eyes is Faustian in nature, a satirical, abject, allegory about the grim underbelly of Hollywood and the true price of fame (there is even a sly swipe at Scientology too). It is emotive in its execution and (bloody) ambition. An almost melodramatic beginning gives way to a glorious and stomach-churning body horror; Matt Falletta and Hugo Villasenor’s practical make-up effects are visceral, disturbing and quite disgusting, in the best possible way, and displayed amid a synth-heavy musical score which sets the mood perfectly. Alexandra Essoe is astonishing as Sarah, she even at the most grim and a gruesome moment, manages to humanise the character and create a filmic-female that breaks the boundaries of the horror genre’s ‘monstrous feminine’.

There is a moment when ‘The Producer’ (Louis Dezeran) refers to the film industry as a plague; a festering pestilence: “hollow be thy name, shallow be thy name.” – Thankfully, Kevin Krolsch and Dennis Widmyer’s unsettling cautionary tale is anything but.

Blu-ray Review

Blu-ray Review: The Congress (Dir. Ari Folman, 2013)

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Robin Wright (the actress playing a version of herself) has made some lousy choices when it comes to her film career and men, or so she is forcefully told by her agent Al (Harvey Keitel) at the beginning of Ari Folman’s The Congress.


Her son Aaron (Kodi Smit-McPhee) has health problems, her daughter Sarah (Sami Gayle) thinks she should ‘do’ a Holocaust film as she can perfectly encapsulate ‘Nazi and victim’. These chalk-and-cheese children are just two of the reasons listed why character Wright ultimately chose life over the film offers and now Miramount Studio executive Jeff (Danny Huston) wants to offer her the chance to sign away the pressure. They wish to own “[the] thing called Robin Wright”; to create an image they manipulate and render in any filmic form as long as she retires from acting altogether. Any initial reluctance is given way to an affirmative and Wright is scanned; every emotion , every line, twinkle and wrinkle (a sequence that is particularly breath-taking, if completely isolating). The viewer is then transported twenty years into the future and the pension-age Wright is thrust into Abrahama City – the animated zone where she meets a 2D Disney-fied Jon Hamm.

The Congress, based upon a Stanislaw Lem story, is relevant, provocative, thematically rich – often to its detriment – and is almost impossible to categorise; part sci-fi, fantasy, family drama, there’s even some speculative dystopian fiction thrown in for good measure. However, what begins as a stinging critique and almost sly satire aimed primarily at the commodification of celebrity disappointingly loses its anger and gestates into something else entirely. The animated world is hallucinatory and disconcerting, a sinister Disney World™ where eagle-eyed viewers can spot Michael Jackson as a restaurant waiter, Grace Jones as a nurse or an exaggerated toothsome caricature of Tom Cruise. It is exhilarating, mesmerising and a little tiresome but perhaps this is the point in a post-avatar, digital-obsessed world? The questions of mortality our protagonist faces are replicated in our own manipulated interpretation; we should beware of the image. While its plethora of ideas and ambition feels relentless and even a little confusing, The Congress finally finds its humanity amid an existential denouement.


In any other actor’s hands, The Congress could have been a huge failure but the luminous Robin Wright delivers a stunning performance thanks, in part, to an excellent supporting cast of Keitel, Hamm, Huston and Paul Giamatti but mainly due to the fact that she is just that damn good. There is one scene in which the forty-plus Wright gazes at herself as Buttercup on a Princess Bride film poster, perhaps nostalgic for youth or the career she might have had, yet aside from the hair and the odd wisdom line, she appears exactly the same. If this film is one of her lousy choices, let’s hope she keeps on making them.