Rich Pickings on Papicha

Set in Algiers 1997 during Islamist state terror we are shown the subjugation of women, in particular the way they dress. But student Nedjna is intent on making a Western-style fashion show, even though this seen as a rebellion against Allah. In her directorial debut Mounia Meddour adds a sense of foreboding underneath the celebratory lives of the group of young university students.

Lyna Khoudri puts in a stand-out performance as a talented designer whose work goes against the grain of Algerian society in civil war. ‘Papicha’ is slang for a cool girl but these times are making even Nedjna hot-headed. She and her friends battle on to the bitter end (no spoilers here but the real side of religious extremism is seen in the violent denouement.)

The candid camera breeds claustrophobia and fear with Nadjna having to sell her clothes in a night club toilet due to their apparent ‘decadence’. Even this seems to be under surveillance. Certainly, by the breath-taking ending we are in no doubt how dangerous a feminist lifestyle has become in the divided country.

Reviewed by Rich Jevons on 6 August 2020. Available on BFI Player from 7 August.

See trailer below:

Rich Pickings on The Traitor

This is the true story of Tommaso Buscetta (in a masterful perfomance by Pierfrancesco Favino) who sang like a canary to bring down the mafia, or as he liked to call it the Cosa Nostra. Buscetta fled to Brazil after his sons and brother were killed in Palermo. But he was subsequently arrested and extradited back to Italy where he betrays all his lifelong loyalty to judge Giovanni Falcone (another great role played by Fausto Russo Alesi).

Marco Bellocchio’s direction is simply magnificent with the benefit of Vladan Radovic’s stunning cinematography and a magical score by Nicols Piovani. The results of his testimony and seven-year trial were over 500 arrests and an enormous number of convictions with many life sentences.

Although the film begins with a truce party this is followed immediately by a bloody killing spree. Later the we learn about Buscetta’s post-trial life and there is a shocking ending (no spoilers here!) but suffice to say he dies at peace in his bed as he had wished for.

The film is well-paced to keep us gripped to the complex plot and as opposed to some of the mafia-glorifying in The Godfather trilogy this a far more gutsy and gritty treatment. An insightful exploration of the nature of penance and forgiveness without moral platitudes or judgements.

Reviewed by Rich Jevons on 1 August 2020.

See trailer below.

Rich Pickings on Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van

National Theatre director Nicholas Hytner brings out an outstanding performance by Dame Maggie Smith as Miss Shepherd (alternately Mary or Margaret) in Alan Bennett’s dry comedy. She is simply the very best actor for the role, and a perfectly crafted one at that. Alex Jennings plays both Bennett the writer and Bennett the man as he uses his barely invited guest as a muse. We find out that he responds to his mother’s depressive illness in the same way, more copy for his memoirs.

For anyone else this might sound callous but Bennett’s writing is so endearing he gets away with it. As with much of his work this is intensely personal, although of course taking artistic licence at times. So he manages to both observe and have compassion for the little old eccentric lady in his driveway. Shepherd has a secret life which is not fully explored, probably because she is reticent if not downright obstructive to talk about the past.

The comedy drifts into more serious territory on the lack of care such estranged outsiders. Also, post-traumatic stress could be an explanation for Shepherd’s antisocial and downright rude demeanour. The comedy there is though is quiet and subtle rather than laugh-out-loud and is beautifully constructed and performed. This is the second in the Rich Pickings tribute to the Armley lad made good (see The History Boys review) so watch this space!

Reviewed by Rich Jevons on 31 July 2020.

Available on Prime Video.

Trailer below:

Rich Pickings on Alan Bennett’s The History Boys

James Corden as Timms and Dominic Cooper as Dakin: the French lesson!

From stage to screen success National Theatre director Nicholas Hytner makes the most of Alan Bennett’s simply brilliant script. The film manages to be both comic and profound with many a true word spoken in jest. It flips between bawdy farce and high-brow intellectual themes seamlessly and sometimes physical theatre and melodrama run simultaneously.

The ensemble performance cleverly uses the original cast: there is Richard Griffiths as the pitiable Hector, a gay English teacher with a laissez-faire approach; Stephen Campbell Moore as Irwin, a supply teacher brought in to ‘up’ the results to get the boys into Oxbridge; and Frances de la Tour as a cynical history teacher, quietly brilliant at her job.

From the boys there are great performances: James Corden cutting his teeth with expert comic timing; Dominic Cooper as handsome devil Dakin who attracts both teachers and boys alike; and Jamie Parker as Scripps, a gay Jew trying to come out of his shell.

Things look bad for Hector when he is caught red-handed groping one of the boys on the back of his motorbike. But Dakin has a word in the Head’s ear that changes things, wanting to avoid a scandal.

Bennett explores the complexities of adolescence with all its tortured angst-ridden pain and sprightly youthful wonder too. We at Rich Pickings are proud to have a season in his honour for putting his birthplace Armley on the map with his life and work and heartily recommend this saucy slice of classic British cinema.

Reviewed by Rich Jevons on 30 July 2020.

Available until 8 August on BBC iPlayer and then on Prime Video for £7.99.

Trailer below:

Rich Pickings on Proxima

Director Alice Winocaur’s feminist sci-fi flick sees Eva Green in a career best (after Casino Royale and Penny Dreadful) as trainee astronaut Sarah Loreau. Sarah has to balance her rigorous training with her mothering of 8-year-old daughter Stella (a revelation in Zelie Boulant). Green manages to switch seamlessly from English to French and her character revels in her lifelong ambition come true: a trip to space.

Matt Dillon co-stars as Mike Shannon, her colleague who is egotistical and hardly helpful in her already difficult training tasks. While her relationship with her long-suffering husband (Lars Eidinger) is fraught.

The involvement of the European Space Agency gives the film a gritty realism with its technical accuracy. The trainees are preparing for a year-long on the ESA space station as a pre-run to an expedition to Mars.

For Sarah there is a conflict between her private life and professionalism which climaxes (spoiler alert!) when she breaks quarantine to give her daughter a glimpse of the ESA rocket.

The film benefits from an atmospheric score by Ryuichi Sakamoto and stunning cinematography by Georges Lechaptois. The ending is a real tearjerker in this seminal sci-fi production that counters the misogyny inherent in the space race industry.

Reviewed by Rich Jevons on 30 July 2020.

Released 31 July and showing at Cineworld and Everyman Cinemas, Leeds, or see imdb.com for a showing near you.

UK trailer below.

Rich Pickings on Fellini’s 8½

Italian master Federico Fellini created a pseudo-autobiographical classic focusing on a film director on the rocks. It is undoubtedly one of the greatest European films of all time for so many reasons: its visual intensity; the complex but absorbing script; the sumptuous but functional design; and the unsurpassable ensemble performance.

Marcello Mastroianni plays Guido Anselmi, Fellini’s alter ego directing the film within a film. No-one has a clue what the self-referential film is about, but this just adds to the suspense and mystery of it all, bordering on obscurantism but not enough to alienate us altogether. There are some fascinating and fantastic dream sequences, flashbacks and forwards and a sideways nod to vaudeville.

This is an art house film with an astronomical budget with huge sets and many minions captured by the candid camera. It is simply beautiful in every sense of the word from beginning to end. Okay, it is a tad frustrating at times but only to tease us with private jokes. Fellini manages to be incredibly personal without naval-gazing. The film benefits from technical brilliance too with stunning cinematography.

It is a poem on creativity and a V-sign to the fickleness of the cinema industry. Yes, there is existentialism but not nihilism, though the Catholic church do come off worse for wear. Everything is on a huge scale with a series of spectacular set pieces. We feel empathy for Guido as he is pestered by producers, actors, writers, wife and lovers alike. The surrealism is not overblown but just subtly creeps in and out with great dexterity.

The overall result is a cathartic and rewarding experience and demands multiple viewings to take in the myriad nuances.

Reviewed on 24 July 2020 by Rich Jevons.

Available on Prime Video. See trailer below.

Rich Pickings on Frida

Director Julie Taymor’s magic realist biopic of artist Frida Kahlo focuses on her tempestuous marriage to her mentor Diego Rivera. Set in Mexico City it follows her life following a tragic trolley crash which leaves her crippled. And it is art itself that she uses to escape the pain with the many self-portraits that are integrated into the film.

Salona Hayek as Frida is played with a powerful passion and headstrong wilful hedonism. While Alfred Malina’s Rivera sees him as a charming womaniser as well as a profoundly brilliant artist. The film consists of a series of biographical vignettes on the subject of art, sex and radicalism and benefits from an emotive soundtrack by Elliot Goldenthal.

If you know Kahlo’s work this will give you a fascinating insight into her artistic and personal world. While for newcomers it will encourage you to go out and see some of her artworks that are timeless and quietly symbolic.

Reviewed by Rich Jevons on 22 July 2020. Available on Prime Video. See trailer below.

Rich Pickings on Radioactive

It was with great pleasure that I had my first lockdown guests round to see this informative and entertaining biopic. Based on the graphic novel by Lauren Redniss and masterfully directed by Marjane Satrapi the film works in a series of flashbacks and flashforwards. This takes us from fin de siècle Paris to 1986 Chernobyl and is both a love story and a study of the scientific breakthroughs made by Curie and her husband.

As Marie Sklodowska-Curie, Rosamund Pike is compelling and utterly believable. While as her husband Pierre, Sam Riley puts in a powerful performance as her partner in both romance and science. Jack Thorne’s screenplay is very inventive and carries the fascinating plot with a simplicity that belies the complexity if its subject (especially for non-scientists!)

Anthony Dod Mantle provides some stunning and sumptuous cinematography and the film benefits from an eerie electronic score by Evgueni and Sacha Galperine. This is a classic period piece that also has great impact on our lives today with the continued use of atomic power and its inherent dangers.

Reviewed on 22 July 2020 by Rich Jevons. Available on Prime Video. See trailer below.

Rich Pickings on National Theatre’s Amadeus

Peter Shaffer’s musical masterpiece can be seen in its 2016 revival version on the National Theatre YouTube channel this week. Director Michael Longhurst is not scared to avoid many of the facets of the film version and the show benefits from a very fine ensemble performance. The three leads really add to the mix with their verve and veracity in creating their well-crafted characters. There is Lucian Msamati as Antonio Salieri, almost bipolar in his mood-swings from moments of gleeful ecstasy to times of damned despair. Then Adam Gillen’s Mozart begins as an infantile juvenile genius-prodigy through to perishing pauper grasping at the last straws of sanity. While Karla Crome as his long-suffering wife has just the right amount of cheeky suss and cynicism, devoted to her partner till the end (but too late was the cry!)

The narrative sees artistic rivalry taken to the point of obsession and has delightful musical interludes by Southbank Sinfonia who are integrated onto the stage. Chloe Lamford’s design is inventive as well as functional while MD Simon Slater leads with excellence. Another gem from the National Theatre archives – catch it while you can and save some Andrex for the final Requiem!

Reviewed by Rich Jevons on 20 July 2020, runs until 22 July.

See the full production below:

Rich Pickings on National Theatre’s Deep Blue Sea

Pic: Richard Hubert Smith

Helen McCrory gives a supremely intense and believable performance as the troubled and tortured Hester Collyer in Terence Rattigan’s 1952 melodrama. The piece was revived in 2016 by the National Theatre and now available on their YouTube channel this week only.

Hester’s failed suicide starts the show, her body found slumped next to the gas fire and pills nearby. Her neighbours Philip and Ann Welch (Hubert Burton and Yolanda ~Kettle) and landlady Mrs Elton (Marion Bailey) are quite dumbfounded and completely useless in their reaction to the tragedy. But Mr Miller (Nick Fletcher), a struck-off doctor who lives above, takes it all in his stride and deals with his ‘patient’ without fuss and some detached professionalism.

It turns out that her lover Freddie Page (Tom Burke), a former RAF pilot turned alcoholic, has forgotten her birthday. But beneath this there is a sense that both he and Hester are mentally unhinged and full of nihilistic hopelessness. Her ex-husband, William (Peter Sullivan) is a High Court judge and can offer her stability. Instead she prefers the passion and excitement of her tempestuous affair, now coming to an end with Freddie leaving for a job in South America.

Terence Rattigan’s script is both poignant and powerful while Carrie Cracknell’s direction is crystal clear and incisive. The ensemble performance is simply brilliant, though it is McCrory who really steals the day with her wilful vulnerability and deliberation.

While the design is to die for, in particular Tom Scutt’s dingy set depicting post-war Ladbroke Grove apartments. A suspenseful and at times agonising production that has stood the test of time and sees Rattingan up there with Orton and Osborne as the stylistic ‘angry young men’ of the 1950s.

Reviewed by Rich Jevons on 11 July 2020. Runs on the National Theatre’s YouTube channel until July 16.