Arts & Culture Film, Theatre & TV

Seasonal Screen Magic

  • December 27, 2023
  • 8 min read
Seasonal Screen Magic

Killers of The Flower Moon is the highly praised new film made by America’s widely celebrated filmmaker, Martin Scorsese. The movie is set in the oil fields of 1920’s Oklahoma found in the middle of the mid-west reservations of the then newly ‘oil rich’ Osage Indians. Killers of The Flower Moon falls nothing short of being a truly epic time capsule.

Following on from months of lengthy meetings with the ancestors of the Osage, Scorsese co-authored the film’s screenplay. He went on to co-produce and then direct this COVID delayed movie in 2022. This is about as personal a project as Scorsese has ever undertaken. Clearly made on behalf of the surviving Osage, who had never really had a voice in the mainstream American media, until now.

The film reflects two types of filmmaking. Epic versus intimate. Diametrically contrasting scenes are cross-cut between the two opposing schools of cinematic tradition. For me, the real strength of this film lies in the intimate static locked-off camera scenes. The dialogue sequences set-up between the main two players. Deputy Sheriff William ‘King’ Hale, showing Robert De Niro at his most sinister, in this, his tenth collaboration with Scorsese, sat opposite Leonardo Di Caprio in this his sixth collaboration.

Di Caprio plays a seemingly naive hick called William Burkhart, who has just returned from the trenches of World War One, in order to reunite with his Uncle ‘King’ (De Niro) before meeting and marrying Osage oil heiress, Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone). Mollie becomes our central focus in this truly dark web of intrigue. You’ll be hanging onto every word she utters regarding this oil town filled with tricksters, thieves, and mercenaries. All masterminded by Sheriff ‘King’ Hale. Hale is a crooked, self-appointed Godfather, who is hell bent on hiring bounty hunters to destroy the wealthy, often diabetic, Osage. Add to this, the duplicity of Burkhart (Di Caprio) in the context of his ‘new’ wider Indian family. We witness his secret mercenary ‘killer-for-hire’ instinct. His spirit of betrayal is not only self-destructive, but also on the verge of annihilating the Osage.

So how did a London audience react to this film at The Curzon Cinema, Soho?

Running at well over three and a half hours, I wondered if a beer swilling audience was a good idea? Surely not? Sitting in the front row, I could hear seats flipping-up regularly as people departed to later return. Watching the epic scenes of real vintage cars racing in the muddy streets of this wild frontier town, I recalled an earlier movie in the shape of Sam Peckinpah’s, The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), where a vintage car and motorcycle arrived at a former Stagecoach post in the desert. This too flagged-up the death of the old wild West.

Killers of The Flower Moon also vaguely recalls the bounty hunter ‘Anti-Western’ spirit seen in Robert Altman’s, McCabe Mrs Miller (1971). It was, however, set in the snow-covered mountains of a North Western gold prospecting town.

With an Apple Inc and Paramount Pictures combined budget of $200 million to play with, there is much cinematic wizardry in evidence. Using brand new high-end camera technology, incorporating single-take tracking, panning, and ‘steadicam’ shots, the film is extremely well shot. Some scenes reflect the tradition of the opening one-take scene of Orson Welles’, A Touch of Evil (1958).

Seated in the front row of a huge screen, I watched the on-screen characters as we followed them in long tracking moves, only to see a visually jarring background, with some rear action appearing to jitter, and in some cases, being turned out-of-focus to cover-up for the new camera technology’s ‘camera sensor’ issues.

Back to the cinema audience…

Finally, turning around, I noticed that the weak-bladdered audience were still there but had wholly removed themselves to the rear five rows in order to get as far away from the jarring background errors as possible. Overhearing me discussing this matter, after the film, a young guy introduced himself, “I work in the camera department on feature films. There’s clearly an unresolved technical issue, or error, in the background of some of the more ambitious tracking sequences”.

“Perhaps the background action was being made to look like an old-fashioned hand-cranked silent movie?” I suggested. We both paused. It was midnight. We were being ushered out of the now darkened cinema with torches. We ventured into the night time of a rain-washed and luminous, Shaftesbury Avenue. Reality beckoned.

The magic of the movies was over for yet another night. We night owls headed home. Haunted still by the magnificent owl scenes, lingering – above all else – from Killers of The Flower Moon. The best American movie of 2023. Despite the ‘jitters’.

Beyond Utopia is a gripping documentary mainly focusing-in on the life of a family of five escaping from a totalitarian North Korea. We witness some of the few who have successfully escaped south. They bear testament to the regime’s fanatical ideology for the forced deification of a North Korean leader through daily worship. Images smuggled out of this Soviet-styled dictatorship show a ruthless Police State where every human face is logged by the Military Police. Cameras auto number and log each individual face via facial recognition technology. The borders between South Korea and North Korea are now so impenetrable that incentives for border guards in the North for a ‘shoot-to-kill policy’, result in their being rewarded with a year’s income for every murdered person. Anyone that is captured is imprisoned in a North Korean Gulag till they die.

We get to meet a South Korean preacher who maintains contact with paid fixers in five bordering countries. Couriers who endeavour to aid the escaping families. This involves refugees sacrificing everything prior to a dangerous journey that can take them through China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and into Thailand. With the dubious fixers often selling-out the vulnerable refugees to the local authorities for financial rewards that are far greater than the fees taken from those escaping.

Captured by personal cellular phones, and on the filmmakers’ cameras, we follow the escaping family with toddlers of a primary school age. We observe them at night time crawling through a thorn-filled jungle to eventually make it to a charitable safe house. Chaperoned by the aforementioned preacher and the couriers. Incredible scenes show the glee from the children. Gifts are handed to them upon their arrival inside a safe house. Two young ones are perplexed by the sight of popcorn. They sniff it. They touch it. They feel it. Their faces light-up when they eat it. A truly magical moment.

Proper meals follow this scene.

Later back in South Korea another fixer tells a mother that she had been paying dubious fixers ‘lost money’ to trace her son who’d tried to escape from North Korea. Lying fixers had claimed to have seen him. The fixers are ‘outed’ by the more honest ones. The mother who is now resident in South Korea is seen being told, via a mobile video message, that her son had been captured in North Korea, while trying to cross the border. He was apparently quickly sent to a Gulag ‘never to be released’ nor reunited with his mother. She breaks down. This is the reality of being a refugee.

Beyond Utopia won the audience vote for ‘Best Documentary’ at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. It was showcased at Curzon Bloomsbury’s Bertha Doc House in October-November. It is now streaming online. It’s directed by Madeleine Gavin, and distributed by Lionsgate via Madman films.

Scala is a new Channel X BFI co-production. A documentary about London’s most famous repertory cinema. The venue began its life in the late 1970’s on a corner of Charlotte Street, London. Later demolished in 1981 in order to make way for the then burgeoning new Channel 4 TV station, which began transmitting in the autumn of 1982. Moving to Kings Cross, the Scala Cinema became a venue of cult status and legend.

In the days before Satellite TV, the Internet, and its variant streaming services, the Scala was the only viable alternative for a mixture of cult fayre, underground films, mondo movies, horror, Sci-Fi, alternative comedy, and items of titillation. Returning to the building, now a music venue, filmmakers Ali Catterall and Jane Giles interviewed a raft of former Scala Cinema goers and employees. These included such luminaries as comedians Stewart Lee and Adam Buxton, alongside screenwriter and former Films & Filming Magazine reviewer, David McGillivray. They recalled their own hilarious memories with a considerable amount of wit and panache. These tales are generously flavoured with a diverse range of film clips from the variant movies that screened at the Scala from 1982 until the mid 1990’s. A legal dispute with Stanley Kubrick over a secret screening of his then “withdrawn” movie, A Clockwork Orange, led to the venue’s eventual demise.

The film’s insights and anecdotes are both informative and hilarious. Scala is well paced and filled with surprises. The editing is brilliantly structured with a gauged spirit of comic-timing that’s seldom seen – or even heard of – in most of today’s lofty arts documentaries. So, you’d do well to catch this film. I can guarantee that you’ll leave smiling.

Scala is soon to be released through BFI Cinema Distribution and BFI Player online.

About Author

Henry Scott Irvine

The published author of Procol Harum's hardback Omnibus Press biography, Henry Scott-Irvine's writing began in the script departments of the British film industry. He continued as a Film & TV 'Music & Arts' researcher. He has a long background in published journalism. A radio producer-presenter since 2009 as well as a producer of the award winning documentary film Tales From Tin Pan Alley. He's a successful campaigner for securing listings and preservation for London's music & film heritage sites.

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