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MLK/FBI review – startling study of the war against Martin Luther King | Film

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The FBI’s secret campaign of bugging, harassment and defamation against Martin Luther King Jr in the 60s is the subject of this startling but sometimes frustratingly reticent and guarded documentary. This poisonous dirty-tricks campaign continued until King’s assassination in Memphis in 1968, a murder that the bureau was somehow unable to prevent, despite its fanatical round-the-clock surveillance of King as well as its loudly proclaimed dedication to crimefighting.

It is now a matter of record that King was a flawed human being and had extramarital sex, but this is an enduringly mysterious part of his public image. (Even Ava DuVernay’s very fine biopic account of King in her 2014 movie Selma, starring David Oyelowo, tactfully romanticises these indiscretions.) The bureau’s audio tapes of alleged meetings in hotel rooms were finally, in 1977, handed over to the National Archives by order of a federal judge but sealed – they cannot be released until 2027 at the earliest. What exactly will they prove? Anything at all? All we have right now are the typescripts of the agents’ highly subjective summary reports.

This film from Sam Pollard, based largely on the work of Pulitzer-winning historian David J Garrow, shows how bizarrely toxic and dysfunctional the FBI’s secret hate campaign was, an ongoing secret war that involved running secret informants within the civil rights movement – a painful and even tragic aspect of this history that probably deserves a documentary of its own. Bureau director J Edgar Hoover was incensed by King’s leftist associations, and by his international celebrity, especially after he was awarded the Nobel peace prize in 1964. After chancing on evidence of his adultery, Hoover hoped to use this to undermine him, and with extraordinary spite circulated the tapes to King’s wife Coretta and even to church leaders and the press, apparently hoping (in vain) that someone would go public.

There was even a suggestion that King was present at a rape – and this film, very gingerly indeed, comes close to hinting that there might one day be a #MeToo case to answer. But wait. Where is the proof here? Where is the naming of names? Surely the bureau, with all the dark powers at its command, could have induced one of King’s alleged mistresses to come forward and go public? Apparently not. It is a question that this film does not fully address, although it certainly gives us a queasily detailed picture of Hoover’s pure paranoid nastiness.

• MLK/FBI is available on digital platforms from 15 January.


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Prominent film industry names sign letter asking for government support for UK cinemas | Film

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A group of the film industry’s most high-profile and influential names – including Steve McQueen, Bond producer Barbara Broccoli and Danny Boyle – have published an open letter calling for more government support for the large cinema chains whose businesses have been threatened during the pandemic.

The letter says that “cinema-going offers proven benefits when it comes to jobs, high-street footfall and community cohesion” but that “the need for direct financial support is pressing”. The letter is designed to support what it describes as the “larger cinema operators”, which include Odeon, Cineworld and Showcase, without whom “the future of the entire UK film industry would look extremely precarious”.

The letter adds: “We very much hope that government will respond to this call. UK cinema stands on the edge of an abyss. We urgently need targeted funding support to ensure that future generations can enjoy the magic of cinema.”

As well as McQueen, Broccoli and Boyle, the letter is signed by directors Amma Asante, Gurinder Chadha, Paul Greengrass and Christopher Nolan, producers David Heyman and Elizabeth Karlsen, and actors Jude Law and Stephen Fry.

Virtually all cinemas are currently shut across the UK under tier 4 restrictions, leading to widespread release delays and sharply reduced revenue, with box-office analyst Comscore reporting a 76% drop in takings for 2020 as a direct result of the pandemic. The larger operators have been hit particularly hard, with the disappearance of Hollywood releases and the difficulties of ensuring their venues are Covid-safe, even when they were allowed to reopen in the summer and autumn.

Phil Clapp, the chief executive of the UK Cinema Association, says: “While all cinemas have been able to benefit from general business support during this time, including the furlough scheme and a business rates holiday, many of the larger operators in particular have been required to continue to pay rental on their commercial tenancies as well as the other costs that come with running physical buildings.”

The Culture Recovery Fund has provided support for smaller independent cinemas, but Clapp says that the large commercial chains – which together generate 80% of the UK audiences – have received no specific support. “As of now, there seems little likelihood that they will be able to open until this coming March, representing almost a year of closure. The resulting ‘revenue gap’ experienced by UK cinemas means that the continued operation of many cinema venues is now in question. We are asking government to look again at the support it has provided to the sector, in particular for the larger operators.

“Given the differing nature of their business operations, there is unlikely to be a ‘one size fits all’ approach, but we are asking the Treasury to come back to the table for further discussions on what targeted funding might help ensure the survival of the industry.”


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About Some Meaningless Events review – attempted murder and the movies | Film

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Here is an intriguing, bewildering fragment of what might be called underground new-wave cinema from Moroccan director Mostafa Derkaoui: a docu-fiction shown once in Paris in 1975, but then immediately banned by the Moroccan government after which it disappeared from view, resurfacing in 2016 when a negative was found in the archives of Filmoteca De Catalunya in Barcelona.

Derkaoui and a group of other young film-makers are shown hanging out in Casablanca, in a bar and on the streets and at the port, interviewing people about what they think cinema should be doing. Long scenes in bars spool past, apparently semi-improvised, in which the film-makers and their interviewees get very drunk, among lots of other drunk people who are always on the verge of an argument or a fist fight They occasionally ask young women in the bar what they think about cinema and shamelessly tell them they are beautiful enough to be in the movies, asking for their contact details.

Then they realise that one of the guys they have interviewed, a man at the port who had claimed to be a teacher, was in fact a dockworker, who had tried to kill his boss – a mob racketeer who was taking most of this man’s pay. And so there are more long conversations (only deadly serious and sober, this time) about whether they can include this footage, about whether this makes them complicit in a crime, or whether this is not an opportunity for precisely the kind of socially engaged cinema they’ve been yearning for.

It’s not clear how much of this is real and how much fiction: the entirety of the “murder” may be a reconstruction of a real case. An interesting archive oddity.

About Some Meaningless Events is available on Mubi from 20 January.


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‘Gekimation’: Japan takes a post-Ghibli leap into another dimension | Animation in film

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Japanese animation is the envy of the globe. From Pixar to Aardman, studios the world over ape its dazzling variety and astonishing creativity. Yet it also finds itself at a crossroad. Now master director Hayao Miyazaki has left the stage, where will the next Japanimation genius going to come from? As it turns out, the country’s most exciting works aren’t coming out of Disney-sized production powerhouses such as Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli, but from a desk underneath a bunk bed at a family home in Kyoto.

This auteur goes by the mononym Ujicha – named after the distinctive green tea grown in the fields near Uji, Kyoto, where he grew up. And, like the verdant plantations that were the backdrop to his childhood, Ujicha’s work, too, is rich with the kind of warm, bright tones you might find on the cover of a children’s storybook. With up to 3,000 lovingly illustrated, hand-sized props crafted by hand for both of his two feature films, his work is certainly painstaking. But it’s the unique, hybrid animation style that is unlike anything else out there.

Any resemblance to childlike adventures is misleading … Violence Voyager
Any resemblance to childlike adventures is misleading … Violence Voyager

A rough guiding point might be the stop-motion, cutout animation of Monty Python or early South Park, but Ujicha’s style goes much further. With a penchant for pocket-size wildlife photography (“I really do like insects,” he says over Zoom), it’s clear where his influences lie. Ujicha’s cardboard miniatures are filmed in real time (on a store-bought FujiFilm camera) and moved by hand across richly textured backdrops. Like a cross between a Punch and Judy puppet show and a children’s pop-up book, these productions boast real dynamism, as fire, water, light and smoke collide with cardboard, creating the kind of theatrics usually reserved for live-action cinema.

Ujicha explains that “gekimation” – derived from the Japanese word gekiga, used to describe adult-aimed manga – started in 1976, a decade before the thirtysomething Kyoto Saga Art University graduate was born, with a TV series called Cat-Eyed Boy. “They wanted to do something different,” he says. But aside from a handful of music videos (such as Denki Groove’s 2008 single Mononoke Dance), the style fell into obscurity. “It was just forgotten about,” Ujicha says. “I wanted to revive it.”

At first glance, Ujicha’s films may resemble childlike fantasies, but The Famous Five they are not. The Burning Buddha Man and Violence Voyager offer something wholly more disturbing. They are visceral, Lovecraftian stories built on grotesque Cronenbergian body horror, whose discomfiting feeling is enhanced by the hybrid animation style. As the trailer for the former suggests, they combine “art” and “nightmare”.

The Burning Buddha Man claims to be the first feature-length gekimation film, taking three years to complete. It is a bizarre, beautiful fantasy in which Buddha statues are given an HR Giger-esque makeover, as Cthulhu-like demons wreak havoc in Kyoto. The film won the excellence award at the Japan Media Arts festival in 2013, but it was with follow-up Violence Voyager that Ujicha staked his claim as a creative force.

Inspired by Jurassic Park and Edogawa Ranpo’s The Strange Tale of Panorama Island, Violence Voyager follows schoolboy Bobby and his cat Derrick on a whimsical adventure into the wilderness, where they stumble on a strange amusement park that seems to be responsible for a number of disappearances. What initially feels like The Goonies soon takes a more sinister turn, as malformed mutants and formidable combat robots begin melting the flesh of innocent children, in a grotesque hybrid of Westworld and The Fly. It’s a mashup of all the things he enjoyed in his childhood, says the director, from trips to Universal Studios Japan to horror movies by Lucio Fulci, John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper, to the gory zombie violence of the Resident Evil video game. The amusement-park-gone-awry scenario is a perfect fit for the strange world of gekimation. “It’s like I’m making an attraction myself,” Ujicha says. “Using my own supplies, and my childhood experiences.”

Ujicha is working on his third full-length gekimation feature (“It’s going to take another three or four years,” he says) but he is not planning to alter his working methods or his rich fantasy worlds. “I’ve left my parents’ home and moved into an even tinier place now,” he jokes. With the backing of major production house Yoshimoto Kogyo, Ujicha may well be on the verge of a mainstream breakthrough.

“Gekimation has not been well known in Japan,” says Violence Voyager producer Kimitsugu Ueno. “But with Ujicha, it will only become more popular – and I’m really looking forward to seeing that.”

• The Weird and Wonderful World of Ujicha is released on Blu-ray on 25 January.


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