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Late September, early October
In his latest blog, site editor Slarek gives a shout out to two modern biographical documentaries that recently also became posthumous tributes, frets over the loss of an American Supreme Court Justice, and looks forward to the upcoming London Film Festival.
27 September 2020

Having given the site a bit of a kick up the behind with my last overlong blog – which outlined why content had been so sparse of late – I thought it only right that I don’t then put this blog on hold for another six months and instead actually use it for what it was always intended. I’d like to promise that I’ll make this the weekly event I originally planned it as, but know I’ll be the first to call bullshit on that, given my current daily workload, my colourful and ever-evolving health issues, and the life-changing times in which we find ourselves living. But I’ll give it a shot. On some weeks I’ll have a single release, event or issue to blather on about, on others I’ll have a small selection of things. This week I have two film portraits of recently deceased giants in their respective fields and a certain upcoming film festival to natter about. And yes, there’s a teeny bit of politics in here, but that’s unavoidable given one of the films under discussion.


RBG

You’d have to be deaf to recent American politics not to be aware that legendary Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg recently passed away from pancreatic cancer. There’s little I can add to the many more detailed and learned tributes that have been paid to this giant of a woman, one whose tireless efforts on behalf of the rights of women and ethnic minorities and determination to continue working even through five previous battles with cancer made her one of the most respected figures in American legal history. Her indignation at the inequalities of even the court on which she served was neatly captured by one of my favourite quotes from her: “When I’m sometimes asked ‘When will there be enough women on the Supreme Court?’ and I say when there are nine, people are shocked. But there’d been nine men and nobody’s ever raised a question about that.”

While the death of anyone who has made a positive difference to the lives of so many is inevitably felt far and wide, the potential impact of Ginsburg’s passing is set to very negatively affect the rights of all women in the country that she has served so well. In America, Supreme Court judges are lifetime appointments, and while this notion was well-intentioned when originally devised, it has in recent years been exploited by corrupt right-wing Republicans as they seek to pack the Supreme Court with arch-conservatives (the very worst sort) so that even if the Democrats sweep to power, the highest court in the land will essentially retain a Republican bias for decades to come. It should surprise no-one that loathsome Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, having blocked Barack Obama’s pick for the Supreme Court in 2016 on the basis that it was an election year and it should thus be left for the people to decide, was making plans to fill the vacancy left by Ginsburg’s passing even before she had passed away, despite being only weeks away from an election. With the candidate in question now confirmed as bible-thumping Catholic cult member Amy Coney Barrett, human rights campaigners fear this could result in the feared overturning of the Roe v Wade ruling and ultimately lead to a countrywide ban on abortion, despite the majority of the country being against such a move. As the world tries to move forward, American conservatives seem determined to drag it back into the dark ages. No surprise that the government misled by Dominic Cummings – oops, sorry, I mean Boris Johnson – is keen on installing a similar system of politically appointed judges in the UK.

RBG film poster

Now for the film bit. If you know little or nothing about the life and work of the woman her admirers dubbed ‘The Notorious R.B.G.’, then you’re in luck, as in January 2019 a documentary portrait of Ginsburg hit UK cinemas and is now available on Blu-ray, DVD and streaming services. Directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West, it’s a most engaging feature that explores the life and work of this remarkable individual through a combination of documentary footage of her daily life and work, and revealing and engaging interviews with Ginsburg herself and her friends and family. Some have complained that the filmmakers could have dug a little deeper and perhaps talked to some of her more vocal opponents, if only to show them up for the twerps that they are, and I do get that, but the fact that the film plays at times like a tribute makes it most appropriate viewing in the wake of the loss of its titular subject. Give it a look.


CZECHMATE

Earlier this month it was announced that justly acclaimed Czech filmmaker Jiří Menzel had passed away. I’ll admit that I came late to the delights of Czech New Wave cinema, but Menzel has a special place in my heart as the director of the very first Czech film that I saw, which many years ago in a film studies class during my film school days. The film, of course, was his 1966 international breakthrough feature, Ostre sledované vlaky, which was translated back then as Closely Observed Trains, an intriguing title that is sometimes downgraded to Closely Watched Trains, which somehow sounds just a little less elegant. It’s an utterly bewitching coming-of-age drama set in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, and if you’ve never managed to catch it then I cannot recommend it highly enough. Menzel’s subsequent directorial career is peppered with delights, and he also sidelined as an actor for other filmmakers, including Jura Herz’s superb The Cremator [Spalovac mrtvol](1969), and as late as 2018 was co-starring in Martin Sulik’s comedy-drama The Interpreter [Timocnîk].

CzechMate: In Search of Jiří Menzel Blu-ray cover

Since the Covid 19 outbreak really took hold there have been fewer review discs landing on my scruffy excuse for a doormat, and as I noted in my previous blog, my recent period of isolation-triggered lethargy saw me fail to cover several of those that did arrive. One that I did watch but never got around to writing up was Second Run’s 2-disc Blu-ray release of CzechMate: In Search of Jiří Menzel, a delightfully offbeat but revealing and entertaining documentary portrait of this rightly celebrated filmmaker from Indian director Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, whose 2012 documentary Celluloid Man I absolutely adored. His approach here is a bewitching blend of exhaustively thorough and engagingly playful, with the first hour alone devoted almost exclusively to Closely Observed Trains and the emergence of the Czech New Wave, while Dungarpur’s lighter touch has Menzel at one point interviewed sitting fully clothed in an empty bathtub, in which he is later caught taking a nap. Working both as a detailed introduction both to Menzel’s work and the Czech New Wave in general, it’s release on UK Blu-ray came just three months before Menzel’s death, which again transformed the film into a most appropriate tribute. It also made me glad that Dungarpur had embarked on his quest to document Menzel, his life and his work when he did. I’d heartily recommend this film and especially this disc, which includes two of Menzel’s rarely seen early short films, an enthralling image gallery, and a booklet that includes extracts from Menzel’s shooting diaries. Some may balk at the film’s seven-hour length (yes, you read that right), but its episodic nature makes it easy to watch in shifts if you prefer.

 
THE 2020 BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL

Tomorrow I’ll be posting a detailed press release from the BFI on how this year’s London Film Festival will be conducted (I meant to post it earlier but got distracted and was gently prodded by a press contact for the festival), particularly its new emphasis on digital screenings. Both Jerry Whyte and I have been press accredited to cover the festival this year, and being based in London Jerry may well be able to attend some of the cinema screenings and events taking place. Due to my distance from the capital and my extreme caution when it comes to contact with others, I will not. Fortunately for me, there are a considerable number of digital press screenings taking place in the immediate lead-up to the festival itself. Intriguingly, these are being scheduled very much as cinema-based press screenings have been in past years, with films screening on specific days and times, requiring delegates to log in and watch them at those specific times. This means no second viewings of any films (my preferred approach is to watch a film once then go back and make notes on the second viewing), so I’ll need to keep my notebook handy and practice writing legibly without constantly glancing down and missing a crucial subtitle. I’m also likely to keep the review length down with a view to expanding on what I’ve written should the films in question get a UK release.

BFI London Film Festival logo

Having lost a sizeable chunk of my annual leave at the end of the last academic year, I’m making use of some of this year’s allocation to watch and write about the films I see in the festival. I’m aiming to write at least one capsule review a day, and Jerry and I are obviously coordinating to avoid doubling up, which should ensure we can cover more of the titles on offer. These kick off at the start of October and will dominate my free time, but I am looking to keep the disc reviews ticking over as well. While I’m on that subject, I should humbly admit that I’m a week late now on a disc review that is almost complete but which has been held up due to the prep work required for the festival, but I hope to have that posted in the next couple of days.

As I usually do, I’ve read up on all of the films being screened for the press in an attempt to target those I’m most likely respond to, and for the first time in a while there’s not a single film listed that I’m not enthusiastic to see. A tad frustratingly, the one I’ve been most excited for is not getting a digital press screening, and that’s Brandon Cronenberg’s new film, Possessor. Having been such a fan of his debut feature, Antiviral, I’ve been eagerly waiting his follow-up and was genuinely thrilled to learn it was part of this year’s LFF program. I may have to just get a ticket for the festival screening, although the film’s LFF web page assures us that it’s coming to BFI Player soon. I can hardly wait.