“Write what you know,” students are always told on writing courses, though it’s not advice that should be followed to the letter: fantasy and science fiction would be in a sorry place if everyone complied. Perhaps the past two years of isolation and lockdowns have made everyone more reflective, however, since suddenly any number of established film-makers are returning to their youth for inspiration. Even Steven Spielberg, never previously the most personal of directors, is going autobiographical with his next film, The Fabelmans. Two of this week’s VOD releases, meanwhile, find British film-makers tackling the cine-memoir to very different ends.
Joanna Hogg’s inspired, opalescent The Souvenir Part II (now on all major VOD platforms, but also still streaming on Mubi) sees her continuing the portrait of the artist as a young woman that she began in 2019’s The Souvenir. The first film was predominantly a relationship story, as Hogg’s twentysomething alter ego (guilelessly played in both films by Honor Swinton Byrne) attempted to define herself through the perspective of a doomed, wayward man. The second sees the young film student defining herself as an individual, making a film about that troubled relationship, and discovering her vision in the process. It’s a brilliant work that transcends the specificity of its maker’s experience to say something resonant about the challenges facing any young artist.
Kenneth Branagh’s honeyed Belfast isn’t half as complex a feat of autobiography as Hogg’s two-parter, though Bafta and Oscar voters obviously disagreed. His tale of growing up in working-class Belfast against the roiling backdrop of the Troubles is an earnest work of nostalgia, collating fragments of boy’s-own memories (preteen pranks, first crushes, dimly overheard parental fretting) against a wider historical context. But it never feels altogether personal or specific, down to its expected black-and-white photography and jukebox Van Morrison soundtrack. Its characters, including Branagh’s avatar, “Buddy”, played by the cherubic Jude Hill, feel more like archetypes of the milieu than tenderly remembered portraits.
For better or worse, Belfast recalls a number of other childhood memoirs from British film-makers. John Boorman’s wonderful Hope and Glory (Chili) likewise pits the joys of childhood against the terrors of conflict (in this case, the second world war) with mordant wit and a keen eye for sensory detail, while Terence Davies’s The Long Day Closes (Apple TV+) – of a piece with its gorgeous companion film, Distant Voices, Still Lives, but more specifically autobiographical – pulses with palpable mourning not just for disappeared youth, but a whole way of family life gone by. Shane Meadows’s young-skinhead origin story This Is England (Amazon Prime) powerfully walks a knife-edge between childhood nostalgia and devastation of the far-right corruption of a scene he once embraced; childhood poverty shapes adult poetry in Bill Douglas’s My Childhood (BFI Player), kicking off an exquisite triptych of 1940s Scottish mining village life.
Away from these isles, the French have long traded in vivid screen memoirs, beginning with Zero for Conduct (Mubi), Jean Vigo’s scorchingly angry 1933 recollection of boarding school abuse and rebellion – a key influence of François Truffaut’s indelible The 400 Blows (Amazon Prime), in which we see his neglected, misunderstood adolescent self halfway toward self-appreciation. Italian auteur Federico Fellini had already mastered the cryptic, deconstructed adult self-portrait in 8½, but in Amarcord (Google Play), he turns to his childhood – and the many eccentric figures that formed it – with greater warmth and ribald humour. You can see Paolo Sorrentino straining for the same jigsaw effect in his recent The Hand of God (Netflix), though it somehow doesn’t feel as illuminating.
Spike Lee made the sweetest film of his career with Crooklyn (Apple TV+), an episodic family album chronicling one 70s Brooklyn summer, written with his own siblings. It has the humid energy and street smarts of his more politicised work, turned bracingly inward. The ordinariness of its portraiture is its virtue, in contrast to Cameron Crowe’s delightful Almost Famous (Now TV), a comedy of a high-schooler’s fantasy come iridescently to life – how many teens get to tour with rock bands and write for Rolling Stone? – that mixes authentic memory with a wink of tall-story exaggeration. Write what you know, and then improve on it.
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(Entertainment in Video)
Roland Emmerich’s gaudy, costly sci-fi disaster movie crashed at the box office, but has the makings of a cultish afterlife. Dunderheaded in concept, grandiose in execution and with an honest heart of B-movie cheese, it’s the rare dim-bulb blockbuster that actually rewards ironic viewing, particularly after a couple of beers.
Any parents for whom the first Sing film has been permanently burned into memory may or may not be pleased to know that this perky, crayon-coloured sequel is all but indistinguishable from its predecessor: cute critters, catchy karaoke numbers, spot-the-celebrity voice casting, and a wisp of a let’s-put-on-a-show story to hold it all together.
The film that Jessica Chastain and Penélope Cruz didn’t want you to think about while they were vying for the best actress Oscar earlier this year, Simon Kinberg’s incoherent, over-caffeinated spy thriller wastes an ace international cast – also including Lupita Nyong’o and Fan Bingbing – on a script full of girlboss platitudes and ‘insert chase here’ set pieces.
The Tale of King Crab
Italian documentary directors Alessio Rigo de Righi and Matteo Zoppis make an eccentric, alluring fiction debut with this folkloric adventure tale, in which a dyspeptic drunk is exiled from his Italian village to Tierra del Fuego: cue a gold-chasing treasure hunt in which a certain king crab is a surprisingly crucial ally.