Logan Lucky (2017), dir. Steven Soderbergh


Since his Sundance debut with sex, lies and videotape (1989), helping redefine independent American cinema, Soderbergh walks between the experimental self-reflexivity of Schizopolis (1996), emphasising fictionality and the construction of its characters, and mainstream fare, like heist remake Ocean’s trilogy (2001-07) and Magic Mike (2012). Soderbergh struggles against the established system: as he explains in Film Comment, his experience on Che (2008) led Soderbergh to “simplify my process”, and not make “serious films anymore”. As he comments in The New York Times, Soderbergh “really lost my interest as a director […] in anything that smells important. […] I left that in the jungle somewhere.”

But Soderbergh’s return from retirement is a fallacy. As he mentions in The Guardian, he rejected painting: Soderbergh had been “shooting my mouth off for a long time”, making “declarative statements” he had to “walk back”. Although Behind the Candelabra (2013) symbolised a career end, Soderbergh never stopped working, directing The Knick (2014-15) and his monochrome regrade of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1982) and reedits of Psychos (1960/98) and Heaven’s Gate: The Butcher’s Cut (1980). As Soderbergh comments, he quickly became involved with new projects, directing HBO’s branching narrative app/series Mosaic and executive producing Scott Frank’s series Godless.

Logan Lucky’s model is itself experimental, questioning established distribution models and favouring creative control. As Soderbergh says in Film Comment, the film’s financial structure is “nothing that a studio would do”. The New York Times describes cast working for scale, with marketing money raised through selling digital rights to Amazon. Soderbergh worked with Bleecker Street, editing the trailer himself and refusing to test with audiences; Soderbergh had spent only 15% of advertising 3 weeks before release. As he comments, releasing trailers “four months in advance is ridiculous” within a landscape of consumption. Though “Joseph E. Levine was doing this 55 years ago”, Soderbergh argues cinema has become a “war of attrition”. Speaking in Little White Lies, Soderbergh argues “vertical integration” creates an atmosphere without “turnover in ideology”, unlike the failures of the studio system in the late 1960s.

But Logan Lucky is also positioned against socio-political debates, beyond the working class of Blue Collar (1978) or Norma Rae (1979). Trump’s election has ignited renewed national consciousness around the Midwest and the South, and broader questions of voting rights, gerrymandering, shifting population centres, the growth of cities and decline of industry. Though Ta-Nehisi Coates notes this perception of the white working class is partly imaginary, Strangers in their Own Land and Hillbilly Elegy (2016) feed this narrative, whether intended by its authors. But the South is not a monolith, comprising everyday people with individual issues and stories. Documentaries like Sherman’s March (1986) capture some of those perspectives, reconciling the legacy of the American Civil War with attitudes towards race, sexuality and religion. As Vance writes, though seen as “hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash”, for him they are “neighbors, friends and family.” As Soderbergh mentions in The New York Times, he was drawn towards “empathy for working-class characters who get to be more than caricatures”, though using “stereotypes to set the table”. But as Soderbergh points out in Little White Lies, the “rural, southern audience […] didn’t show up”, with West Virginia near the bottom. Though marketing “ignored New York and LA”, top grossing screens were in both.

Though Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) never strips, he isn’t so far from Magic Mike’s Mike Lane, trying to make a living in a world struggling to support him. A construction worker beneath the Charlotte Motor Speedway, Jimmy is affected by healthcare: walking with a limp, bureaucracy declares Jimmy as having a pre-existing medical condition, highlighting the ridiculousness of bosses never knowing the people working under them forced to make cuts. As Vance writes of the Rust Belt work ethic, workers have a “feeling that you have little control over your life and a willingness to blame everyone but yourself”, unlike “the larger economic landscape of modern America.” The stadium stands above, lights blasting, customers and drivers literally above him. As Soderbergh mentions in Film Comment, screenwriter Rebecca Blunt extrapolated from a news story about “giant sinkholes [that] opened up under the Charlotte Motor Speedway”, creating a “subterranean world”. Soderbergh offers an alternative perspective from what we might presume about the Coca Cola 600, with NASCAR drivers and Fox analyst Jeff Gordon appearing in cameos.

West Virginia strives independence: Jimmy is untethered from the internet, without phone contract or social media account, keeping his phone solely to store images of his daughter. At the bar run by his brother Clyde (Adam Driver), the fight with businessman Max (Seth MacFarlane) is a fight against the tourist eye: Max wants to exploit the bar for Instagram posts, even wanting to turn his burning car, lit aflame by Clyde’s Molotov cocktail, into a social media spectacle. The prison warden, Burns, contends against government intervention, covering up a riot and avoiding official visits. But as Wesley Morris writes, the prison has its own inherent bias, noting the framing of white characters with “black prisoners sat in the distance”. Working in a mobile clinic and delivering tetanus shots with My Little Pony plasters, Jimmy’s school friend Sylvia (Katherine Waterson) is testament to the small world, losing funding and relying upon private donations. Soderbergh is interested in West Virginian unity: school performances, natters in hairdressers, sports, county fairs, beauty pageants. Sam (Brian Gleeson) and Fish Bang (Jack Quaid), spending most of their time on the sofa, might have the pretence of religious faith, as much a product of their upbringing as anything else, seeking moral justification for a federal crime, but their pretence falls apart. In a humorous diversion, a woman drives along in her purple car, demanding she gets to church on time.

Communal identity is also created through music: in the opening, we learn the Logans’ love of Take Me Home, Country Roads (1971), performed on stage by his 10-year old daughter Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie) in an ode to her father during the pageant, replacing her performance of Rihanna’s Umbrella (2007), evoking the audience’s hearts both inside and outside the film’s world. As Karen Han points out, Denver’s music has dominated Free Fire, Okja and Alien: Covenant. As Han writes, each film must be “in line with Denver’s ideals” of “peace and compassion” to receive approval, using “musical shorthand” for “preaching empathy” and provoking “sentimentality”. As artist LeAnn Rimes performs America the Beautiful at the Coca Cola 600, we witness the ritualism tied to musical identity and patriotism, refracted through NASCAR. As Soderbergh mentions on The Empire Film Podcast, he worked with David Holmes on creating the music selection, condensing 350 songs down to 20 and limiting original score, wanting dramatic scenes to play on their own.

Logan Lucky is about the familial and local: Jimmy visits Sadie, negotiating his relationship with ex-wife Bobbie Jo (Katie Holmes), her new partner, and her sister Mellie (Riley Keough). As Soderbergh reflects in Film Comment, he anticipated viewers questioning why he “[came] out of retirement” to create a “light piece of entertainment”, but with a “broader emotional undercurrent” than Ocean’s Eleven. As Soderbergh points out on The Empire Film Podcast, Tatum rarely gets to play these parts; his restrained style revels in intimacy, Soderbergh’s actors never leaving their roles, working for a couple of hours with no break in energy. Clyde’s background relies upon the personal, defending his service in Iraq (a personal note for Driver, who spent two years training in the Marines) against the taunts of Max, his prosthetic arm a reminder and marker of his reliance on forces beyond him. The loss and subsequent retrieval and replacement of Clyde’s prosthetic arm reminds us of the importance of objects beyond items, tied to our very sense of self.

Logan Lucky’s heist conventions may seem implausible, involving Clyde crashing his car into a storefront, sentenced to prison as a means to consult with Joe Bang (Daniel Craig) and shovelling money through the pneumatic tube system underneath the speedway. In a black and white uniform, never an orange jumpsuit, Joe’s masculinity contrasts against Bond: blonde hair, tattoos, his shirtless and naked form and Southern accent. As he licks an egg with salt, he defies us to look at his ridiculousness; he creates explosives out of gummy bears, beyond more cinematic devices in a security conscious world, with Craig somehow achieving his most confident role. The speedway’s levels – vendors at top, evading foreman Cal (Jim O’Heir) through the car park – might allude to the Vegas casino in Ocean’s Eleven, but Soderbergh keeps viewers in suspense even when he’s less flashy. As Soderbergh comments in Film Comment, he had “no desire” for shooting a race”, given the outcome is “unnecessary”, interested instead in the “background” to “create a slice of something without having to eat the whole pie.”

Soderbergh differentiates from Ocean’s Eleven’s faster editing, commenting in The Empire Film Podcast that he refused zooms, interested instead in movement, composition and cutting. The TV news report from the prison enshrines the heist’s crew as folklore heroes as “Ocean’s 7/11”. Though the heist in Ocean’s Eleven had a righteousness, Logan Lucky invokes a moral dimension. Structurally, Soderbergh wanted to avoid direct parallels, avoiding the “explaining scene” but creating an escalating sense of it “happening in front of you”. Our protagonists return to where they were, deploying a cyclical narrative: in montage, we see Joe in the same bed in prison; Sam and Fish laying on the same couch; Jimmy standing by stage edge during his daughter’s spectacular performance lit only in darkness, unable to grasp a larger relationship. As Soderbergh comments in Little White Lies, Soderbergh deviated from the “fantasy films” of the Ocean’s series, interested instead in something more “earth-bound”, allowing the film’s progression to “flip” its stereotypes to allow the viewer to “feel differently about the characters than you did at the beginning”. The team repay their victims to right wrongs, from Naaman’s paper envelope to Gleema Purdue’s birthday cake. Through the final act, with FBI agent Sarah Grayson’s (Hilary Swank), Soderbergh shifts from subversion to formula as Joe uncovers bags of money in the dirt once more, hinting towards an ongoing partnership that brings the band back together: creating the possibility of a sequel whether it exists within the mind’s eye or as a material possibility.

Logan Lucky’s recurring comedic dimension is a manifestation of the strengths of Soderbergh’s style. The scenes in the prison may seem surreal: rioting prisoners make their demands known, wanting library access to George R R Martin’s final volumes in A Song of Ice and Fire (1996-present), only to be shocked to discover The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring haven’t been published yet, tapping into a universal frustration amongst fantasy fans. Soderbergh took advantage of both available and practical lighting. As he details of his process in the Film Comment interview, using the RED EPIC he adjusted the film’s “color space”, avoiding the desaturated projected look in favour of pushing up the colour values. As he muses, every shot “should be a piece of a story”, not as “a sentence arranged poorly with six nouns in a row.” Soderbergh’s approach to digital filmmaking technology is to embrace it, interested in the increasing freedom of the camera, speculating on “a camera that you can just Velcro to the wall”, noting its transformative effect on documentary cinema. Though Soderbergh’s style is largely held together by its simplicity, it is not without directorial voice. Soderbergh’s scenes in the car between Logan and Sadie are masterful, capturing the bond of their relationship without seeking to present anything more.


The Other Side of Hope (2017), dir. Aki Kaurismäki


The Refugee Crisis is one of the most divided issues of the present, a schism between right and left questioning immigration, borders and national identity, encapsulating fears of job security and terrorism. Amid recent events, from blocked travel bans from Muslim majority countries to terrorist attacks throughout the UK and Europe, these questions aren’t going away. Aki Kaurismäki is a singular voice in Finnish cinema, gaining international distribution and recognition where others fail. His style is distinctive, producing the most compelling film about the Refugee Crisis to date by blurring the lines of comedy.

Refugee Crisis cinema has largely been documentary: Fire at Sea (2016) evokes the neorealism of post-war Italian cinema, witnessing the arrival of refugees and national reaction. Series like Exodus: Our Journey to Europe follow refugees first-hand attempting to cross the Mediterranean and settle in Britain, shot with hidden cameras; online media like VICE provide in-depth coverage of what refugees go through. Béla Tarr responded through his exhibition Till the End of the World (2017) at the EYE Filmmuseum, combining photojournalism, multimedia elements and film sequences from his films, closing the distance between post-war migration and the present day. Amid political tensions, journalistic pieces like Welcome to Weimar offer our closest idea to what it means to be a refugee.

Kaurismäki immediately confronts us with the ridiculous: Khaled (Sherwan Haji) appears at port on a coal freighter, covered in black. His eyes peer out, wandering around the ship, noticing the captain in his own world, watching a puppet show on an old TV. Speaking to David Jenkins in Little White Lies #70, Kaurismäki cited the influence of Michael Powell. Powell’s WWII cinema touched upon the notion of the immigrant: in 49th Parallel (1941), Nazi sailors arriving in Newfoundland confront an agrarian Canada built by immigrants, otherised as outsiders. Arriving in Helsinki, Khaled asks for directions, without phone. Bathing in a public shower, combing his hair in a mirror, Khaled becomes one of us, dressed in crosshatched shirt; there is no distance. As Kaurismäki reflects:

In my young days everybody left Finland. One million went to the United States, one million went to Sweden and one-and-a-half million went to Australia. And this is what I’m thinking now. So when all us economical roaches are everywhere, how come we are so impolite now?

Whereas many documentaries and articles focus upon the journey, The Other Side of Hope is interested in arrival, integrating into European culture not at war but at peace. Rather than an abstract mass of refugees or statistics, Kaurismäki focuses upon a constructed personality embodying the crisis. Kaurismäki spent three months researching “every bloody article on the subject”, casting refugees he could not legally credit within the film.

Khaled’s journey is related through exposition, talking about being attacked by neo-Nazis in Gdansk as he hid in a ship bound for Helsinki. Khaled’s narrative is cyclical, a constant target of racism. Khaled escapes deportation, the dream of a refugee, hiding in a shower and breaking the back window, but he cannot escape discrimination. Called a “camel driver”, attacked at the bus stop; drenched in lighter fluid by thuggish far-righters at a bar; stabbed by one of the group in a car park, implausibly surviving. Kaurismäki avoids music, creating a minimalistic approach, never emotionalising events but allowing us to accept them as they are, without partisan bias: the refugee crisis is accepted as reality, without manipulation.

Khaled makes a case for his right to stay amid bureaucracy, kept in a cell by initially welcoming police; describe his experiences and elicit sympathy, every word recorded by tape. In trial, overshadowed by the EU and Finnish flag, Khaled is ordered repatriated, flown to Damascus and transported to Aleppo, told in emotionless tone his home is not dangerous. An unending routine: the judge swiftly orders the next refugee be brought in, likely to receive equal fate. We cut to a group of refugees in the Reception Centre, watching war-torn images on TV: hospitals destroyed, many people dead. Khaled is told home is safe, yet must return to this.

Khaled is kept at a Reception Centre, unable to sleep, embodying silence and emptiness. Identity becomes reduced to objects, lacking home and family: reading books or playing instruments in military-esque beds, little to pass time but a constant stream of cigarettes. Khaled lacks a mobile: a stretch, as mobiles are essential tools for refugees, coordinating with contacts and organising their transportation and arrival. Befriending Iraqi Mazdak (Simon Hussein Al-Bazoon), differences forgiven, allows him use of his ancient brick of a mobile. Security has dissipated to constant instability. Khaled no longer a mechanic; Mazdak no longer a nurse. Mazdak cleans the metro for two months, spending most of the past year out of work, unable to allow his family to stay.

Finland’s dream becomes detached from reality: Khaled feels constant longing, wanting to be reunited with sister Miriam (Niroz Haji). Leaving Helsinki becomes just as difficult as arriving. Kaurismäki interrupts the film with street performers and country and blues music at the bar, as Khaled sits reflecting. As old music legends sing of the Lord and the land, we sense Khaled’s longing for his own land, Syria, in spite of hardship. Kaurismäki reminds us of the complexity of the crisis: the Reception Centre is diverse, refugees from Africa, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, some women in hijabs, others without, culture away from home. Asked of denomination in his interview, Khaled speaks of burying the prophet, but denies having no religion. Khaled relinquishes religious precepts, drinking beers with Mazdak, even as Mazdak dismisses an entire city of “nonbelievers”, attempting to integrate into secular culture.

Kaurismäki contrasts Khaled’s journey with shirt salesman Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen), following each move of a poker game gripped to our seats, winning a wad of euros; acquiring a restaurant, the Golden Pint, drawn from Kaurismäki’s own experience running Zetor in Helsinki. The Golden Pint is a joke, without any kitchen hygiene, serving plates of tinned sardines and potatoes. Wikström benefits from capitalism where Khaled cannot survive; refugee survival becomes defined by economic capability, only affording travel through life savings. As Robert F. Worth writes in The New York Times, the “constant pressure of war” in Syria has “left almost no room for a real economy”, its industrial centres decimated.

Khaled tries to find respite sleeping outside the Golden Pint, but finds compassion and manipulation in Wikström, giving Khaled under the radar work, a fake ID just barely concealing his identity. As officials initiate a security check, Khaled becomes the dog in the kitchen, hiding in the bathroom as the whirr of the vacuum cleaner continues on, still plugged in. Khaled’s bedroom becomes a mattress in a closet, surrounded by supplies; Miriam is even worse off, hiding in a compartment hidden beside the exhaust of a truck.

The Golden Pint attempts to appeal to Helsinki’s minority communities, its Japanese and Indian diasporas as its identity changes through poorly placed signs. Chefs learn recipes from books, adopting Japanese robes worn within the kitchen; a decorative golden cat; sushi bathed within ice cream scoops of wasabi sauce, substituted with haddock as their supplies run out. Kaurismäki gives no explanation: Japanese residents pile in in busloads, but leave in distress. The Golden Pint becomes an Indian restaurant, attempting to make a quick buck by covering every market.

Kaurismäki places anachronisms side-by-side with present reality, interested in the visual: the Golden Pint has a jukebox, looked over by a mural to Hendrix. Wikström’s vintage car sits in a car park of modern cars. As Khaled has his photograph taken by police, a DSLR sits next to a typewriter sitting next to a laptop sitting next to an old-fashioned lamp, measuring Khaled’s height with a tape measure.

Kaurismäki’s comedy is subdued, relying upon absurdity. Where other international comedies fail to penetrate cultural and language barriers, Kaurismäki’s dependence upon silence instead favours visual humour, creating a universal language used not for irreverence but social comedy. Kaurismäki conveys character through objects: Wikström leaving his wife is told through a pair of keys on the kitchen table and her ashtray filled to the brim with cigarettes. Through cinematographer Timo Salminen and his production design, Kaurismäki embodies the same world he began in the early 80s in its visual aesthetic: its distinctive yellow font, long shots, desaturated colours, worn down buildings and concrete. Rather than appeal to a fast news cycle, Kaurismäki creates a timeless narrative that will remain relevant through the generations, without lacking in specificity.

Withnail & I (1987), dir. Bruce Robinson


During the 1980s, George Harrison’s short-lived HandMade Films provided a minor industry for British independent cinema, from comedies like Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) and Time Bandits (1981) to dramas like The Long Good Friday (1980) and Mona Lisa (1986). Even on its £1 million budget, Withnail struggled to get made. Producer Denis O’Brien lacked confidence, not seeing it as humorous. A few days into production, filming was cancelled; Robinson walked off. Many of scenes were paid for out of the cast and crew’s own pockets, not acquiring permission when the car drives around Finchley.

Akin to directors like Mike Mills, Robinson uses cinema as autobiographical narrative, adapting his experience living in Camden in the mid-to-late 1960s with housemates Vivian MacKerrell, Michael Feast and David Dundas, condensed to the space of two weeks. Working as an actor in the 1960s and 70s on films like Romeo and Juliet (1968) and Private Road (1971), Robinson uses cinema because he has a story to tell. As he relates in The Peculiar Memories Of Bruce Robinson (1999), he seeks primacy of authorial voice, wanting absolute creative control, aghast at changes to Fat Man and Little Boy (1989) and Jennifer 8 (1992). Robinson struggles to even allow actors to improvise, with specificity over performance.

Withnail (Richard E Grant) and I (Paul McGann) are unemployed thespians, caught between drama school and achieving acting dreams at the cusp between the 1960s and 70s and their 20s and 30s. In their rat-infested flat, the pair struggles to get by, between antique furniture and postcards on the mirror, suggesting they’ve travelled at least somewhere. A globe sits alone; a union jack is wrapped around a lampshade; I drinks coffee out of a soup bowl, in absence of a clean mug. Without heating and a broken thermostat, Withnail walks around in underwear, modesty protected only by his coat.

In the bathroom, as I shaves, they eat fish and chips, turning the toilet into a bin. Behind him, a poster of Harold Lloyd in Safety Last! (1923) hangs, bathed in anarchic specks of multi-coloured paint from the childlike door and yellow pipes. The pair are in constant battles with the landlord, dealer Danny (Ralph Brown) keeping the checks for himself. Sam Bain, co-creator of Peep Show (2003-15), took influence from the basic sitcom format, framing a dysfunctional male friendship and their interactions with their drug dealer. Driving to Monty (Richard Griffiths)’s house in a beat down Jaguar with a light torn off, navigating the motorways at night with one working window wiper, I can barely park his car vertically. McGann notes on the commentary on the Anchor Bay DVD he had only known how to drive for 3 weeks; Robinson often doubled for him, reality meeting fiction.

Like with Trainspotting (1996), the viewer finds joy in protagonists navigating their addictions. In the opening, as I lights a kettle on an open flame, we sense paranoia and anxiety in insomniac bloodshot eyes. Withnail and I drink in the middle of the day, buying multiple rounds at once.

Grant, a teetotaller, method acted, throwing up violently on an expensive rug. Robinson writes drunk, taking a couple of glasses of wine before injecting his dialogue with serious energy. Withnail has become one of cinema’s most iconic drunks, drinking lighter fluid in pursuit of more alcohol. Driving down the motorway, shot on the M25 two days before it opened, I awakens in a daze, finding Withnail driving between lanes. In desperation, evading the breathalyser by switching his piss with a child’s “uncontaminated urine”, he pretends not to be drunk, telling the officers he’s “only had a few ales”. Danny, in his radically cool sunglasses, seeks ways to distribute merchandise, stuffing shoe soles and plastic babies. Withnail and I arrive home to find Danny and Presuming Ed (Eddie Tagoe) as squatters, smoking the most powerful weed in the western hemisphere.

As a thespian, Withnail imagines himself the greatest actor who ever lived. In the Penrith cottage, he brandishes sword and cigarette, wanting to be the best Hamlet, one of Robinson’s favourite plays. Atop the mountain, he yells out to the town below him, “I’m gonna be a star!”, an image Robinson attempted to recreate with Grant in the final scene of How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1989). Yet Withnail is selective, refusing to shadow a part in The Seagull (1896), speaking to his agent from a telephone booth with frustration. Uncle Monty asks I if he’s published, keeping a constant diary of events; Robinson wrote the unpublished novel that became Withnail back in 1969. I’s worldview is a literary one, expecting villagers to be drinking cider in the garden like in a H.E. Bates novel, unable to escape books, carrying everything from Journey’s End (1928) to David Copperfield (1850) and Against Nature (1884). 

Adopting a performance identity, Grant and McGann touch upon their experience as actors, playing actors, played by characters based on real people who were indeed actors. Withnail and I adopt a dishevelled Camden identity that doesn’t quite fit them; Withnail walks around the mountains, seeking a pseudonym to escape into. In The Mother Black Cap, he creates an Irish accent and fictitious wife when arguing with a patron. Escaping to Penrith, they play roles as journalists as location scouts, unable to understand those around them. Withnail receives a free round, convincing the drunk elderly bartender he served in the forces. In one of the film’s most hilarious scenes, they drunkenly adopt the roles of multi-millionaire entrepreneurs, planning to install a jukebox amid pensioners during afternoon tea, as I scoffs down another scone.

Inspired by a real holiday Robinson went on with Michael Feast, the pastoral landscape becomes actively hostile against them. Withnail and I are fish out of water, yet they were out of water in London. Arriving at the house, I uses a lantern to find his way around. With no heating or food, they acquire logs and a chicken from a farmer, throttling and gutting it for themselves, often left with only a plate of vegetables as they try to find something for their “pot”. Away from their life of drugs, they try and find new ways of living, awoken in the morning by birdsong, putting on a cap and walking stick, using plastic bags as Wellingtons. Monty tries to show the delights of the country as they go on walks, yet I can’t begin to imagine romanticised pastoral life.

Receiving the lead part, I undergoes rites of passage, adopting a new hat and shorter haircut. Withnail is unable to escape squalor, caught between Danny and Presuming Ed as he chants. I avoids the entire culture, refusing a joint or swig of Withnail’s paper bag of wine. Unlike the original ending, where Withnail kills himself with his shotgun, this sequence is far more powerful. Departing in the rain at Regent’s Park, Withnail adopts “the Dane” wholeheartedly, rehearsing his soliloquy as the credits roll amid the wolves. Withnail’s future seems bleak; we know he’s going to die, whilst I has a future. Danny’s drug-blazing skull tattoo might as well be predicting his own demise.

Vivian MacKerrell, the inspiration behind Withnail, died in 1995. As Robinson reflects in the introduction to the 10th anniversary edition of the screenplay:

[I] can’t believe Vivian is dead. He got cancer of the throat and they tore his voice out. And the fellow I’d always thought of as being the biggest coward I’d ever met materialized into the bravest bastard I’d ever known.

In the final months of 1969, the film captures a world in upheaval. The soundtrack is littered with music: a King Curtis rendition of Procol Haram’s A Whiter Shade of Pale in the opening, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, and Jimi Hendrix’s Voodoo Child and All Along the Watchtower, the most expensive yet rewarding aspects of the film. As a wrecking ball demolishes a building to All Along the Watchtower, we see the shifting landscape, the city and country remapped in post-war degradation. Robinson places us at the end of what Danny dubs “the greatest decade in the history of mankind”, before the death of Hendrix and Morrison and a new music scene and counterculture.

Robinson also creates political critique, invoking carries classist undertones: Withnail acquired his tailored suit from Saville Row, whilst Monty only accepts Eton as a place of study. As Withnail and I drunkenly threaten a local teashop with corporatisation, he tackles the destructive effects of capitalism and market liberation in the 1980s. Even Danny touches anti-establishment feeling, comparing the effects of drugs to politics. I sits in a café reading a newspaper in paranoia; Robinson attempts to confront tabloid sensationalism, just as with the twisted marketing promises of How to Get Ahead in Advertising, and the televised images of war in his screenplay to The Killing Fields (1984). I stares closely at an article about Dawn Langley Simmons, a trans woman, whilst judging the woman eating an egg sandwich in front of him, as though she could be the same person; he looks over to the person next to him, reading a News of the World article on a “Nude Au Pair’s Secret Life”.

Perhaps the film’s most controversial element is Uncle Monty, played by Griffiths over a decade before Vernon Dursley as pure camp, acquiring a house of extravagance of paintings, busts, a furnished sofa, endless books and a tightly groomed moustache. His cottage is just as extravagant, with paintings of tsars and expensive bedposts. Monty speaks in double entendre, and gets in strops as his cat becomes a nuisance. Monty likes “firm young carrot[s]”, not petunias; he doesn’t like “touch[ing] meat until it’s cooked”. According to McGann on the commentary, Griffiths was concerned about this portrayal because of his gay friends.

Robinson tries to present the vulnerability of being a young actor, inspired by the abusive behaviour directed towards him by Franco Zeffirelli during Romeo and Juliet. Monty maintains his gaze on I, flirting constantly. Preparing luncheon, he hands him a woman’s apron, trying to bend over him. Monty is a rapist, refusing to accept rejection. He asks if I is a “sponge”, a line lifted directly from Zeffirelli. I repeatedly tells Monty he’s “terribly tired”, yet Monty enters his room in the middle of the night unannounced, blackmailing I. Monty adopts his queerness and abuse as costume, applying blue and red eye shadow to his face. He tries to convince I he’s homosexual; Withnail “need never know”, taking off his dressing gown in a sense of entitlement. Monty is self-aware of his abusiveness, saying he must have him “even if it must be burglary.”

What is so uncomfortable about Monty is not that he is a dated and offensive stereotype. It’s because it’s so familiar. Even within queer and safe spaces, abuse still goes on. Rape is a systemic issue, too often justified, defended through personal desire. Monty’s sexuality is complicated against a culture where it’s “society’s crime”, without support structures or open partners, recently decriminalised yet socially taboo. But Monty’s entitlement cannot excuse rape.

Withnail and I are thespians, carrying inherent queerness; I often plays to femininity, drying himself with a pink towel. Yet the film plays gay panic, within culturally internalised homophobia. In the urinals, I reads graffiti saying “fuck arses” amid the “Kilroy was here” carvings in the wall, running from the pub in fear of being raped as a patron calls him a “ponce”. At the cottage at night, they fear the sounds of a village poacher arriving, sharpening his knife; it turns out to be Monty, just as terrifying, wanting to leave the house as quickly as possible. Withnail and I become laced with homoerotic subtext, sharing a bad in fear in underwear, coats laid on the bed to give warmth, evoking a comic convention of Morecambe and Wise. In Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987), a similar scene is played, as Neal fears his hand is resting on a “pillow”.

Withnail and I must perform queerness to avert Monty’s advances, emphasising monogamy and faithfulness, grabbing Withnail by the waist as he takes him upstairs, creating a cover story. Monty treats them as a couple, holding their hands as he calls them “my boys!” Withnail crafts a yarn to Monty that I was a “toilet trader” on Tottenham Court Road. Yet I’s indignation is not at Monty for being a rapist, but at Withnail, for the mere suggestion he “tell him I love you”.

McGann would be cast as the Eighth Doctor, and there’s a sheer joy to what could have been as he interacts with the Shalka Doctor. I manifests enough Doctor-esque qualities it’s easy to see why McGann was cast: his pacifism, telling Withnail not to “point guns at people”, avoidance of drugs, humanity, introspection. Even Withnail and I’s wardrobes carry a Doctor-esque quality, from Withnail’s long coat and scarf to I’s leather jacket. Yet for all of its problematic invoking of queer stereotypes, Withnail & I remains a wonderful, instantly quotable experience, a cult film for all the right reasons.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), dir. Terry Gilliam & Terry Jones


After five years spent establishing their style on Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Holy Grail represents their first real shift to the big screen (discounting 1971’s And Now for Something Completely Different, which reworked material from the show.) Despite the shift to a feature length narrative, it retains the feeling of a sketch comedy variety show. Whilst the quest for the grail gives the sense of an overarching purpose, we still move between numerous situations and different characters who rarely reappear (if only briefly), that seem to last no more than five minutes each, from gatekeeping knights to evil bunnies.

Holy Grail manages to satirise just about everything, from Ingmar Bergman films, to trade unions and communism, to notions around witchcraft and God, musicals, and far too much to ever cover in one review. Its humour is deliberately anachronistic, transposing the Medieval events of the film against the contemporary 1970s.

We remain aware that the film is constructed. The narrator calls out scene transitions; Patsy notes how the castle is only a model; the chase with the dragon ends when the animator has a sudden heart attack. The editing is anarchic, as we cut back to characters from earlier scenes who break the fourth wall. . When the film ends, the policeman tells a cameraman to turn the camera off, as the reel reaches its end.

But the film also confronts how we perceive of history. It presents us with a different sense of morality, where death is a mere token: killing an elderly man only to make the job of the man who wheels off corpses easier is acceptable. So is throwing your son out of a castle window, or murdering a party of wedding guests. It isn’t wrong, but only a momentary pause to proceedings.

When the film cuts to a historian describing the events of King Arthur’s time, only to have his head cut off, it is making a statement. The historian’s view of history is not necessarily the right answer. This film becomes the definitive history of its time, whilst also decrying the need to be faithful to established history at all. Why there are coconuts or shrubberies in Medieval England does not need a satisfying answer.

But it also subverts our popular perceptions around history. King Arthur is an allegorical figure, enshrined within mythology yet with real doubts to his authenticity. Rather than accepting him, the characters within the film continually question his authority. But the film also subverts the idea of the knight in the shining armour. When 150 women (a bunch of 16-19 year olds) try to pressure Sir Galahad into fucking them, they become seductresses of temptation, yet he spends the entire time very reluctant. They are not celibate, or sexless, or convents of purity and virginity. Neither is it the damsel in distress who needs to be rescued: it is the prince.

Though Monty Python continued to be an established name at the box office with Life of Brian (1979) and The Meaning of Life (1983), Holy Grail remains perhaps their greatest achievement.

Spy (2015), dir. Paul Feig


When my friends decided on watching a film, I desperately tried to shift the choice from Spy to Gone Girl.

So anyway.

Spy is a better film than it has any right being. But does that make it a good film?

Spy succeeds because of its comedy. Melissa McCarthy and Miranda Hart are able to raise what would be a terrible film to something very watchable. But I can’t help but think I prefer when McCarthy plays a relatable and down-to-earth American woman (see The Heat (2014) and Ghostbusters (2016)), rather than as this fish-out-of-water character, complete with an endless supply of cat t-shirts. When Miranda Hart’s character, Nancy, speaks to Susan, I can’t help but imagine the alternative reality where she is playing off of Stevie in Miranda (2009-15). Miranda Hart plays Miranda Hart – not anyone else.

Feig continues his defining trope of sticking a middle finger up to the patriarchy, as one of the feminist masters of the film industry. Jason Statham’s name on the poster sells tickets – but he spends the entire film being inept compared to Susan, who, whilst also inept, manages to rescue him out of bad situations. (Traces of Statham’s character can be found in Chris Hemsworth’s revolutionary role as Kevin in Ghostbusters.) Rick cannot comprehend a woman like her being sent out in the field. Like many women in the workplace, she has found herself forced into a lesser position than she could be capable of, dissuaded from being an active spy.

But Feig then throws everything out the window with a needless postscript scene, where Susan wakes up in bed besides Rick. Because drunk sex is only a joke, and the fact she has spent the entire film pushing away Aldo’s awful advances is irrelevant.

The film’s cinematography and production design is what most lets it down. We travel across Europe from city to city, but none of these countries have their own identity. They are merely setpieces, pulled together only by stock establishing shots. Even Washington DC, where the film holds its core, feels like the set of a TV show, complete with workmanlike camera angles. Despite some moments of brilliance, the film’s visual style rarely communicates the sense of a post-Bourne (2002), post-Casino Royale (2006) spy movie, bathed in bright colours and some truly bizarre, GoPro-esque camera angles during every car chase. The soundtrack is peppered with needless songs that add nothing to the film. The film should embrace the style of the genre, rather than reject it except on a superficial level.

Spy never reaches the same levels of enjoyment as The Heat and Ghostbusters, but it’s still worth a watch – with friends, or with alcohol, or in the middle of the night when you can’t sleep. But it is not a film to go out of your way for.

The Breakfast Club (1985), dir. John Hughes


Before collaborating with John Candy, John Hughes was quickly becoming the voice of a teenage generation, from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off to Pretty in Pink (1986) . Today, the teen movie can become easily formulaic. The shy, isolated teenager whose life is transformed through a series of events. The riotous group of friends who drink, fuck and party, whilst raising a middle finger to the law. The Breakfast Club combines these things into something unique.

How The Breakfast Club became such an iconic film seems improbable. The film is intentionally minimalist, restricted to one building, set over seven or eight hours and focused around five characters (with additional roles for the teacher, the janitor and the kids’ parents). I found half an hour detention difficult enough – why would anyone want to sit through a ninety minute detention, let alone ninety minutes in the cinema of characters talking to each other? It could just about work as a stageplay.

(Fun fact – my GCSE Drama piece was originally going to be an adaptation of this, but when we found our group had no girls, I ended up playing Gordie in Stand By Me and got a measly C.)

Although the film is known for its soundtrack, even the soundtrack is kept to a minimum – brought in at particular moments, when the rigid boredom of the library is penetrated. Scenes breathe with minimal dialogue but the clicking of pens and feet on the floor. For any studio to have any confidence financing that – and an audience responding to that – seems remarkable. Films like 12 Angry Men (1957), known for their use of limited space, light up fans of 1950s cinema and Criterion, but this is a mainstream, critically acclaimed film that everybody knows.

The Breakfast Club would not have worked without the performances of its characters. On the face of it, its characters are stereotypes. Yet they are grounded in reality, and you can just about see them as real people, if a little exaggerated. A brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal. Their individual quirks are communicated as obviously as in their own lunches, from sushi to XXL portions.

But even these terms can be a bit simplistic. A basket case, or an isolated girl with both artistic talent and her own anxieties? A criminal, or a rock music loving, homophobic, sexual harrasser jackass?

Behind these broad character types that litter casting calls and every spec script are real humans with real emotion. We begin to understand these characters as they begin to understand each other, with their own family issues and pressures to be the best people they can be. Brian, on the face of it, is a dork who cares about getting work done and being involved in physics club. But this strips back to a person who emulates Bender’s sassy rapport with Vernon, smokes weed and isn’t just the perfect image of 1950s America. By finding a friendship with Claire, we see that behind Allison’s long hair and sugar and crisp sandwiches is a pretty girl with a newfound confidence and a beautiful dress.

This same technique is applied to the adults as well. Vernon is a hard-line principal, and a mythical figure to the students who don’t know him as anything but a principal. He’s proud of his career and how he is shaping future generations, but this image of himself is removed to reveal his fear for how the next generation will look after him, and deconstructed by the janitor. This has been explored in better ways in other films – Dan in Half Nelson (2006); Henry in Detachment (2011) – but the focus here is squarely on the students rather than the teachers.

The Breakfast Club is a lesson in understanding people complexly. But it can also be read as more than that. Sitting here as a university student, sitting in the library for eight hours on a Saturday doesn’t sound like a nightmare to me, it sounds like a productive weekend. Brian’s parents are even advocating he makes the most of the time. But then we have high school students, forced to sit through classes they don’t want to take, learning very little they will actually use, whilst teachers sit around just as frustrated as the students themselves. Brian makes a good critique of the very act of essay writing in the essay he produces for the group:

“But we think you’re crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are.”

All five characters and transformed over the course of the film – because learning is done through social interaction, not the classroom itself. Teenage identity is a fluid thing rather than a marker of future identity, despite how Vernon sees Bender’s criminal future.

High school is a joke, and this film helps bring back some difficult memories. Rather than add to the “teenagers go wild and fuck each other” film genre, it deconstructs the whole toxic culture of holding sexuality up as a trophy and virginity as a sacred thing. Allison and Claire discuss this double standard when applied to girls, but it’s a universal thing that I can look back at as an asexual kid and thank God that this whole culture doesn’t completely carry over to adulthood.

Perhaps the reason for its success is because it’s so relatable. I see shades of myself in Brian, but I also see shades of my teenage self in Allison’s insular yet creative self. I knew girls who were like Claire; I knew sporty kids who were like Andy; I knew homophobic sexist dickwad bullies like Bender. Each viewer can project themselves onto a different character. There is no singular protagonist, and there is no indiscriminate, identical group of friends.

But looking back a couple of years after high school ended, even the people I knew in high school (that I still have some contact with) are completely different. By the end of it, everyone understands they may never see each other again, and head off on their own separate ways. This melding of different cliques together into one whole is possible – it was always temporary.

Yet I still feel like this is a film that needs to be watched around high school. In high school – as a meta, immersive experimental art piece, with clocks still ticking in the background, and rows of chairs ahead.

It still holds up in adulthood – but it just isn’t the same.

The Dirties (2013), dir. Matt Johnson


Matt Johnson is a filmmaker of deconstruction. His most recent film, Operation Avalanche (2016), appears to deconstruct the conspiracy theories around the moon landing that fuelled Dark Side of the Moon (2002) and Capricorn One (1977), facing their unreality by creating its reality. The Dirties plays as a deconstruction of Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003).

The Dirties starts out as a grindhouse, ‘film within a film’, made for a class project, as the viewer sits watching a film, shot as ‘found footage’, about the boys making a film, its premise transforming into reality. Their teacher denies them to tell the story of them as rogue cops hunting down gangs in the school, shooting him through clever editing and half-given consent; so they, purely by accident, end up making this fiction a reality.


Films are not fiction and films are not reality. Every film is a reflection of society; every film requires speaking words, something ‘real’ in itself. When a film enters my life, it affects me, and becomes a part of my own reality. Then the editing eats up reality as a new reality.

Van Sant’s film touched upon untouchable ground, recreating the events of Columbine only a couple of years after the tragedy, in close-up detail through the eyes of both students, teachers and the shooters themselves. Matt Johnson probably watched that film. Matt and Owen, the protagonists of this film, amongst their massive DVD collection, probably watched it too. Any viewer who goes into this having seen Elephant will perceive it differently than the viewer who hasn’t.

This film takes Elephant and cranks up the absurdity, whilst also questioning its identity as both fiction and reality. In some scenes, Matt wears a yellow t-shirt (with a black bull) and blue jeans, mirroring Alex’s outfit. Van Sant speculated many reasons as to what could compel a killer, and Johnson does the same here: an unending cycle of bullying, girls who refuse to talk to them, the easy availability of guns, the effects of media portrayal, the culture of masculinity, and so on. Matt and Owen are conflicted best friends, similar to Alex and Eric in Elephant. Van Sant hinted at their sexuality when they kissed in the shower on the morning before the shooting; here, it’s at a “that’s gay bruh” level. Matt hangs his testicles out as a joke, or stands around in underwear whilst recording foley effects.


But this does not make Matt an analogue to Alex. Matt, like Matt Johnson himself, represents the obsessive filmmaker. He is a parody of himself, consumed by the media he watches. He creates his own backstory based on pre-existing images of school shootings. He wears awful t-shirts, wondering what they would look like with blood on them.

The Catcher in the Rye, a symbol for disaffected teenagers everywhere in the depths of existential crises, forced to read it for their Eng Lit high school curriculums, is also the book read by Mark David Chapman, John Hinckley Jr and Robert John Bardo. The difference being, the fictional version of Matt is around the same age as Holden Caufield. But Matt also reads Dave Cullen’s oversized history of Columbine. The book stretches further: Stephen King’s fictional Rage (under the pseudonym of Richard Bachman), originating as a teenage fantasy on what he would do to the students he despised, was retracted from print after a number of school shootings through the 80s and 90s were carried out by students in possession of the book. An unreality made reality – yet again made unreality through the press creating their own narrative of events implicating the book, which may either be truth or mere coincidence.


In a moment of parody, Matt plans the shooting in plain sight. They easily acquire the plans to the school from over the counter at reception, pretending it’s for a school project. They tell a girl “we’re just here planning a school shooting”, as she brushes it off as a joke. He walks into school early thanks to a janitor, walking in with a far too obvious oversized bag (see Eric in Elephant). Where Van Sant created a serious world, this film finds humour within a serious subject.

The film’s closing scenes draws the closest resemblance to Elephant. The camera, held by the audience, implicates us within these events through the force of filmmaking outside of our power. We follow Matt from behind as he knocks over lockers, micicking the Steadicam of both Gus Van Sant’s and Alan Clarke’s Elephant (1989), yet reduced to handheld found footage, perhaps one of the most derided methods of filmmaking. He installs Go-Pros above lockers throughout the school to capture the reality as film: just as the CCTV footage captured in the school filmed the reality of Columbine, albeit in black and white, or as Van Sant installed cameras throughout a school to create the fictional reality of those events, or as this film relies on the presence of cameras.


Over a decade and a half after Columbine, those once shocking, and once untouchable events, have descended into memory, as an unlearned lesson for the future. A teenager today, as with the characters of Matt and Owen within the film, probably wasn’t even in primary school when it exploded on the news. It lives on as a dramatised film (Elephant), and within David Cullen’s book about Columbine – as reconstructions of events.

Indeed, recently, Pure Flix, the Christian studio behind God’s Not Dead (2014), released a trailer to another film to add to the canon of Columbine films: I’m Not Ashamed, based on the diaries of Rachel Scott, the first victim of the tragedy. It remains to be seen whether the material was handled sensitively.

Sweet Girls (2015), dir. Jean-Paul Cardinaux & Xavier Ruiz


Screening at the Norwich Radical Film Festival

The dreaded curse of the film festival is when two films are shown at the same time. Two duelling voices fought within my mind. Do I watch Timothy Bottoms’ directorial debut, Welcome to the Men’s Group (2016), about how fragile masculinity is? Or do I watch a film with young female protagonists living on a council estate?

So anyway. I made my decision. I was the only person who made that decision, left to a projector scene in a church hall amongst a couple of event volunteers.

This film feels like the fever dream of a 15 year old just getting into radical politics, coming up with ridiculous, idealistic yet deeply flawed politics and just going with it because YOLO. Our protagonists follow in the footsteps of Che Guevara (although they resist wearing his face on a t-shirt), and apparently solve the housing crisis in the process. Where politicians and urban planners and austerity is unable to tread, two teenage girls solve the crisis in one housing estate that represents a wider issue.

It’s a lesbian love story, where their entire revolution could have been avoided had they not been too shy to express their feelings. So let’s explore how difficult it is to give a queer romance a voice amongst the pressures of heteronormativity through some throwaway scenes and making out, without making it the focus, yet simultaneously integral to the story.

Our protagonists are self-centred dicks, only caring about themselves and only ever thinking in the short term. So like most 16 year olds. Except here, being a self-centred dick includes tearing the elderly apart from their families, suffocating them to death, inducing grief, as if they’re not actual people.

“Old people shouldn’t be allowed to vote! They’re ruining the next generation! Old people are racist! Old people are sexist! Old people are homophobic! They voted for the Tories and caused Brexit! They’ll be dead soon!”

There’s a place to explore the deep divisions between the elderly and the young, not only within a spectrum between left wing and right wing politics, but also in places of relatability, even if in small ways). But this film doesn’t really find a good way to do that.

The film never questions how fucked up their methods are. Instead, it heralds them. Students now have a cheap flat of their own, and don’t have to live with their parents. The revolution succeeds. A new social space is instituted for young people (aka clubbing and sex), who simultaneously subvert stereotypes by pretending to be drug-addicted lowlifes. The elderly find themselves in a sheltered community where, despite the fear of a terrorist attack, become more of a community than ever before.

This film is stupid. But it’s also kind of cool at the same time.

Reality (2012), dir. Matteo Garrone


Reality is more than just a film about reality television: it also acts as a parable on family and obsessive belief. The phenomenon of Big Brother (1997-present) is not merely television, but its sociological implications are fascinating.

For Luciano, Big Brother represents opportunity and fortune: despite his already respectable home, furnished with elaborate lampshades and with the economic power to take his family on holidays, it offers the potential to create the world’s most perfect, happiest family. But the path is not one towards happiness; the myth of fame is the path towards broken families, depression and a shattered community.

There are some interesting parallels to Rocky (1976): in Rocky, we are introduced to an everyman from Philadelphia, whose seemingly impossible journey to winning the title is not out of pure greed, but to make a name for his city and its small, family-owned businesses. Luciano becomes the talk of the town, and as a fishmonger in Naples, is interested in supporting this business. Luciano also achieves his dream – but does he go about it in the right way? Big Brother no longer becomes the path towards his desire, as a stepping stone to a prosperous family, but his end goal.

In another way, it is a satirical take on Christianity – a warning on how modern television becomes a distraction from religion, yet as an empty, meaningless farce. The old myth was religion (immortality and happiness) – the modern myth is the path towards fame. Luciano becomes a charitable saint of sorts, giving his homely possessions and blindly spending on the homeless, beyond the point of sorting their lives out. What will a homeless man do with a lamp or a chair? Later, when he is feeding the homeless at a mission, we see a man walking up wearing expensive headphones – but they are still in the same situation as they were in before. Charity work is a deeply religious, humanitarian act – but Luciano does so in order to be spotted by the programme’s producers, supposed secret agents deeming him a good man worthy of appearing on the programme. An invisible, assumed force offering judgement on one’s acts to gain a reward.

In another scene, Luciano speaks to two women besides a memorial candle, asking if they know if he can do anything more to get into the House – capital H. The women think he means the house of God – offering him that all he needs is faith, and he will be able to enter it. Heaven.

In the final scene, Luciano has made a pilgrimage to the Big Brother house in Rome, and secretly sneaks in. But he remains an invisible force – able to watch through two-way mirrors, the same way the programme’s producers look upon the housemates – and stares into a security camera unnoticed. He has become Scrooge, exempt from the rules of time and space, watching on the people within the house – a Paradise of sorts, full of happiness, music and colour. He has become God.