Wednesday, 30 March 2011

17th Bradford International Film Festival - European Cinema: Pushing the boundaries

(Temporary home for my Film&Festivals magazine coverage until the new website is up. Please feel free to agree, disagree or anything in between in the comments)

My Wednesday started with an early screening of the NEW EUROPEAN SHORTS. I had heard from some reliable sources following a screening earlier in the week that these were a great collection and not to be missed. I was already down to see them anyway, but these words really did heighten the anticipation. There were six films from five different nationalities and it was an eclectic collection of shorts of all kinds; animation, documentary, straight narrative, avant-garde and some spaces in between. As always with such an interesting collection, there were films that I really liked, along with ones I really didn’t, but they all had something to say. To summarise all the plots would be a little too drawn out, so I will just note my impressions on each film, in order to give an overview of the day and with a hope that some will be accessible at some point, possibly through some kind of online distribution channel.

The first one, and my personal favourite, was a French animation called I WAS CRYNG OUT AT LIFE. OR FOR IT (Vergine Keaton). The film perfectly captures the cyclical repetition of nature. Change is always going to come, and it is only through change (revolution) that things continue. There isn't a narrative of progress, nor particularly of decline, just the recycling nature of things. The sinister mood captures the ferociousness of the wilderness. It is a beautiful and transfixing animation, with the rhythmic pacing aided by the perfectly fitting music.

The second film was the Icelandic Marteinn Thorsson’s PERMILL. This was the first time the film has played outside Iceland and follows a middle aged alcoholic dentist. The film subtly comments on current Icelandic socio-cultural issues and national identity. It does so mainly by casually dropping in anecdotal examples of things that are currently associated with the country. By chance, my sister had recently been to Reykjavik for a weekend getaway and the two things she said that resounded were the price of alcohol (due to Icelandic taxing policy) and the present awareness of the recent economic collapse and Iceland's role within it. Both these things are mentioned, but not dwelled upon, with our protagonist at one point stating that alcohol is getting so expensive that he cannot afford shoes. There is some kind of generational theme, as a younger and more exciting couple enter this alcoholic's life, yet they may or may not simply be a figment of his alcohol abused mind.

The third was quite long compared to the rest in the programme; a Portuguese film from Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt called A HISTORY OF MUTUAL RESPECT. The film featured two intentionally uber-pretentious teenage American boys in a foreign land, entering the jungle in order to find beautiful, ‘clean’ natives to impregnate. The exaggerated pretention and the way the two boys insist that they’re doing this for love, really poked at western hypocritical liberalism, continuing the kind of cultural imperialism that has in the past been taken by force.

The first of two films from the Austrian Johann Lurf was THE QUICK BROWN FOW JUMPS OVER THE LAZY DOG. It had the effect of seeing a whole film strip on screen, complete with soundtrack and perforations. On the film shown was a barrage of images either taken from different films, or possibly the same film, but the point was that none of the images could be singled out or deciphered as they moved at such a breakneck speed. A statement, I imagine, that the bombardment of images in popular culture makes it near impossible to focus on anything. Further, as there is some effort of a soundtrack for the first half, which is abandoned completely as the second plays out in silence; hence, it isn't even possible to listen as these images bombard.

The second of this Lurf double bill was the only one of all the films that didn’t really do anything for me. ENDEAVOUR shows the whole of a shuttle launch and the shell’s descent back to earth. There are three camera angles constantly switched between at a fixed pace, with a complete cycle of about a second. Each angle has a slightly different sound so a steady rhythm was created as the shuttle enters space then comes back through the stratosphere and lands in the ocean.

Possibly the most conventional and accessible of the bunch, THE END OF THE WORLD (Kres świata) ended the programme; a Polish short documentary showing a small village. It very much continues a theme I have seen in many films coming from Eastern Europe over the last couple of years (for instance, the excellent Lithuanian film DUBURYS (VORTEX)). This theme is the coming to terms with the ever changing landscape of an area currently going through the mass migration to urban areas, accelerated by events occurring over the last couple of decades, including the fall of Soviet Union and then followed by European Union expansion. The film featured a bread van that comes into the village periodically, which seems very popular with the villagers. The periodical visits though, become less frequent and there was no order to when it may show. This seems allegorical of the young that have left, maintaining faint yet diminishing ties with their rural roots. One line of dialogue from the film sums it up best: "the young people have all left and the old people are all dying".

The evening’s Polish feature fits in quite well with a morning of European shorts that challenge cinematic boundaries and in some cases express themselves experimentally. Well SAILOR is experimental (to say the least); a sort of avant-garde science-art film with hilariously sarcastic text narration. Not only was it the longest experimental film I’ve seen in quite some time, but there was an extra dimension added as the filmmaker, Norman Leto was in attendance for the screening with a Q&A to follow. I’ve never had the opportunity to speak to an experimental filmmaker about their work; I’m not entirely sure I like the idea, as the whole point is to create your own meaning isn’t it? But this didn’t stop it from adding a bit of spectacle to the event, making me pay even more attention to the mind bending film.

It was a late amendment to my agenda. I have already made clear how important a contribution Neil Young has made to my experience of the festival, as he personally introduced pretty much every film I saw midweek. In doing so, he constantly pushed this event; having seen so many of his other recommendations and in the process seeing some very thought provoking material, I decided I had to give it a go. Knowing that Meek’s Cutoff, the film I was due to see in that slot will be getting a decent distribution anyway, I decided it was worth the sacrifice.

For the first half, despite some of the science deriving from somewhere, and metaphorically making sense, it seemed mostly fabricated and appeared to be mocking the audience for taking this seriously. The provocative tone was accelerated by the miserable sarcasm of the narrator, who constantly broke the fourth wall, referring metatextually to the audience leaving half way through or having to cover certain themes in order to make it at least slightly eligible for film festivals.

Then around half way through, the film introduces the concept of - and showed full diagrams of - people's mathematical life portraits (see images above). They too, following the provocative nature of the first part of the film, seemed completely made up, but the narrator then went into some depth, convincingly justifying the concept by explaining what information is gathered in order to produce such an image. There is a relatively complex collection of questions that can be used to generate a mathematical life portrait for anyone from Stalin to your own relatives, to a man in a coma.

The Q&A following the film was quite informal and didn't reveal a great deal; the language barrier hindered any deep conversation. Leto is intimidatingly good looking and a real charismatic presence; it was cool to be able to chat to the creator of such a fascinating experiment. Although he featured in the film and narrated parts of it, he confirmed that the character in the film wasn't him; he was a fictional character. Most of the questions came back to the fact that the film accompanies a book written by Leto, which deals with the same issues but in much more depth. Unfortunately the book is only available in Polish. I specifically asked him about the science behind this concept of a mathematical portrait, to which he replied that it was all real and is actually how he makes his money; his day job is creating these mathematical portraits on commission.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

17th Bradford International Film Festival: Documenting Africa from the inside

The second thematic post I'm going to include is not quite as comprehensive as the photography documentaries, but two features (although one of these is effectively the collection of four shorts) that are great companions to each other. They are both honest and true insider perspectives on Africa, which is welcome after the bombardment of images during Comic Relief that serve to reinforce dominant Western notions that Africa is wholly comprised of the poor, helpless and characterless. I am not saying that Comic Relief doesn't do some great things or that the things it shows don't happen; it really does and they really do, but when this image is all most see in mainstream media representation of a vast and varied continent, it compounds people’s views as being the only African narrative.

Before this though, just a few words on the accompanying short, WOOD OF VALUE (Bjorn Bratberg - Norway), a warm hearted story of the relationship between Norway and Britain via the annual ritual gift of a Christmas tree to commemorate Britain's support during the second world war. It put a great deal of life and character into this tree, this product of nature; something that many will simply see as an illuminated December gimmick. The woodland that the tree came from appeared unexploited and the whole process seemed heartfelt and genuine. Once the tree arrived in London though, it seemed depleted and limp; this feeling heightened by the miserable wet weather and general urban gloom caught by the camera (a theme you will see is repeated in the films below). Although, once it was illuminated, it seemed to bring joy to those who stood with it. This could be read, that the displacement of trees (or allegorically, people) is sugar coated with decoration and ritual in order to hide the internal suffering or home sickness.

The first Africa themed feature then was a documentary on traditional African medicine called DANCE TO THE SPIRITS (Ricardo Íscar). I was quite sceptical going into this due to it being Spanish produced and directed. I was worried that the film would seem condescending, invasive and exploitative, showing this community as exotic but simple in a really patronising manner. I couldn't have been much further from the truth, as it really did feel honest and genuine; I never felt like anyone on screen was manipulated, exploited, unaware or unduly exoticised. I say unduly, as there were exotic, insightful and enlightening examples of the culture within the tribe, but only in a way to capture their identity from an inside perspective, rather than say 'oh look at these funny people, aren't they charming but simple' as I had sceptically anticipated. A small example is that a scene early in the film saw some of the villagers come back from fishing with the biggest frogs I have ever seen. I can't recall their name, and maybe I haven’t seen enough David Attenborough documentaries, but I have never seen frogs this big; they were as big as toddlers. It's a small example, but one that made me realise I was seeing into a culture that was very different to one I had seen before.

The main contributing factor to its apparent honesty was the doctor, Mba Owona Pierre, with whom the film stays with most of the time. He is far removed from the often stereotyped notion of a spiritual 'witch doctor' or 'sorcerer' - terms that he openly jokes about having been referred to as. He wrote his journals in French, he had a great sense of humour and he wasn't in any way ignorant of, or in denial of physical (western/scientific) medicine. He conceded that this medicine has its place; he often rigorously checked his patients pre-treatment, to see if they were affected by a 'day-world sickness’ and could therefore be treated by the hospitals. If not, if they were suffering from an 'Evu' induced 'night-world sickness' then they must be cured with traditional forms of medicine. His weighted and measured approach makes the case for traditional medicine much better than a blanket damning of western scientific approaches. We all know that there are a wealth of issues that science can nowhere near adequately solve or explain.

A source that the film often unapologetically - and persuasively - singled out as a factor in the dominance of these internal demons, is city life, and the individualistic affluence and accompanying 'dog eat dog' nature that comes with it. The film, without explicitly saying, shows the reverse of this in the village setting, particularly in a charming scene where the villagers go fishing. Working together, singing as they work, they ingeniously build a temporary damn, empty the water out of a section, and then simply pick up the fish, crabs and whatever else is left.

To finalise the film's balanced approach, it isn't entirely nostalgic and in praise of this declining way of life, as the doctor explains that so many people in the village leave without paying. They will stay for their treatment and when they are better, they just leave; therefore it is partly the society's own fault that this system is in decline.

This theme is one in particular that crosses over into CONGO IN FOUR ACTS, which has a much less debatable African origin. The feature collects four shorts from three different Congolese filmmakers, each film covering a different subject within the Democratic Republic of Congo. Throughout pretty much all of them there is the reoccurring theme touched on above; that the people within whatever society depicted are not doing themselves, their people or the rest of their own society any favours, often looking for others to blame or to defer responsibility onto. This is why it is vitally important that this has come from voices within. This subject, if covered from outside would certainly be read (by myself at least) as a problematic statement effectively undermining and denying the damage caused by - not to mention the ongoing legacy of - imperial domination and outside interference.

The first was Wa Lusala and Dieudo Hamada's LADIES IN WAITING, based in a maternity ward. The point was repeatedly made that the husbands of these women were unemployed and that they expected to get their treatment for free, whilst still being pretty rude and obnoxious to the staff. The staff to be fair were quite reciprocal in the hostility and did not refrain from reminding them that this whole process costs time and money, proposing that they shouldn’t expect to receive everything for free without giving anything back. The film therefore not only showcased the general poverty of the region but repeated the theme from DANCE' where people expect to just receive without giving, then wonder why the system doesn't work.

The second, Kiripi Katembo Siku’s SYMPHONY KINSHASA reinforces more points from DANCE'. It is even more blatant in its criticism of a society harming itself, then complaining about it. The film is set in the Democratic Republic of Congo's capital city Kinshasa and at one point, one of the residents remarks that the same people that throw their rubbish straight out on the street will then complain about the pestilence that this brings. Therefore this film reiterates both points made by Owona Pierre made in DANCE’; on the deference of responsibility and on the corrupting and decaying influence of urbanity.

Patrick ken Kalala's SHRINKING PRESS extended upon the disconnect shown in LADIES IN WAITING, between the people and the authorities, although this time it was the police rather than the health service. It basically exposed the police to be a complete joke; at worst corrupt and at best completely ineffectual. One example was that a man, straight to the police officer's face, justified explicitly violent rape by saying that the woman was possessed; that she was a witch. The persuasive argument that DANCE' made, that these ailments are taken seriously, is completely abused by this man and by the authorities for accepting it as a valid reason. This completely undermines the hard work that that Owona Pierre and others like him are doing.

The final film, AFTER THE MINE, another from Kiripi Katembo Siku was similarly bleak as it depicted the joblessness that ravages a community nearby a recently closed down mine. Families have to spend their entire days crushing stones and selling them as gravel, being paid a ludicrously low rate. There was one particularly disturbing shot of a child that couldn't have been older than two helping his mother smash up these slates in the sandy, baron wasteland. Out of the four though, this was the only one that offered any kind of solution and the faintest glimmer of hope. A sheriff had bought some land and employed people to cultivate it. An active statement to the ineffectual and corrupt government who won't do anything; a way that the people themselves, through real employment regeneration will rebuild their region from within.

Friday, 25 March 2011

17th Bradford International Film Festival Day 4: A bit of allsorts, but mainly Bradford After Dark in this post (Stake Land and Hobo with a Shotgun)

(Temporary home for my Film&Festivals magazine coverage until the new website is up. Please feel free to agree, disagree or anything in between in the comments)

I had a particularly busy Saturday in order to make up for my slow start and the fact that I was missing the Sunday. The atmosphere for the whole day was exciting; there was a buzz about the place ahead of Terry Gilliam's arrival and there were a couple of new, very exciting strands taking place. Three of the five Northern Showcase films were playing, of which I managed to catch the first two (INNOCENT CRIMES and HAROLD'S GOING STIFF). I was very impressed with two things: with how well attended they were and with their audacity for getting made in the first place. The two films were striking examples of how to make truly independent films - without even the attachment of any funding bodies - through sheer hard work, passion and dedication. I enjoyed both films, but would just like to single out HAROLD'S GOING STIFF as my real find of the festival so far; it was much more than I had expected. I will have full coverage of both these films along with interviews with the filmmakers up toward the end of the festival.

The interview with Terry Gilliam was in the form of a round table press interview and descended a little into informal chatter. Something that I was fine with considering Film&Festivals had recently featured a comprehensive interview with the maestro in issue 21 . I will put the discussion up as a separate post later in the week.

What I will cover in a little more depth here is BIFF's other exciting new strand, Bradford After Dark. Genre cinema has been conspicuous in its absence in previous years at BIFF. Not that it has been excessively missed, but having this event certainly was appreciated. It wasn't only appreciated by myself, but by the pretty busy screening of STAKE LAND (Jim Mickle) and the even busier midnight screening of the Rutger Hauer exploitation vehicle, HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN (Jason Eisener). These were only the last two features of a programme of five and were brought to BIFF in partnership with Sheffield's Celluloid Screams.

Both features were preceded by a short. I don't have much to say about CLICK, but WHITE HORSE (Michael Graham – USA) was an interesting non linear, expressive art film. It had no clear narrative, but left a vivid impression of a post alien-invasion world. It was somewhere between being an art film and a music video, as all three tracks that played over the respective three chapters were from the same band, Shadow Shadow Shade (free EP )

STAKE LAND was introduced as the anti-Twilight, which prompted a cheer from most in attendance. It is a post apocalyptic road movie, which I am fully aware has been done before, but it is a worthwhile feature none the less. It is unfortunate timing that it has been produced at the same time as, but will be released after, ZOMBIELAND and THE ROAD, to which it is undoubtedly going to be compared. It is clear that it wasn't copying or exploiting their success; it is more a case that this narrative seems to be something that society under current socio-political circumstances is naturally both producing and demanding. To expand this point across media formats, I also saw shades of what is largely accepted to be the videogame of 2008, FALLOUT 3; particularly the way the religious cult has hijacked the airwaves, becoming a constant presence and wide reaching influence.

Mister (Nick Damici) kills a bunch of 'vamps’ (as they are frequently referred to) that have just butchered a rural family. He takes the surviving teenage boy under his wing and they head north, braving the harsh wilderness of post apocalyptic, religious cult and vampire infested America. Along their journey to - the possibly fictional - ‘New Eden’, they pick up some - and inevitably lose some - fellow travellers.

It was introduced as being Romero-esque. I started sceptical of this, but by the time the eclectic group had formed the bonds of a post apocalyptic band of survivors, working as a microcosm of what could be a potential society, I would concur; it is an accurate, vampire variety homage to the master.

The impressive thing is that the film is completely independent of studio funding, but has - at least - the same amount of spectacle and is safe enough to be commercially viable. It didn’t say anything outside of what a studio production could have, but to not have to answer to anyone demanding that they tone it down must have been reassuring.

Where HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN is concerned, I don't really know where to start. It is what it says on the Tin basically and laid its cards out from an early stage. The first decapitation for instance, which prompted a scantily clad woman to instantly start performing a strip tease routine in the fountain of blood that sprayed from the victim's neck was a pretty clear statement of intent.

Hauer plays a simple 'hobo', who rolls into Scum Town (or also referred to as Fuck Town) on the freight train. All he wants to do is save enough money to buy a lawn mower and start his own lawn mowing company (i.e. the concept of the American Dream), but the ridiculously over the top criminal gang leader, who runs the place like a surreal and deadly game show (actual result of the American Dream) won't stop getting in his way; whether killing people or having topless women batter hanging corpses with baseball bats. Our hobo-protagonist is joined by a prostitute, who he repeatedly insists is a school teacher and they fight back, armed with his shotgun to wipe the scum off the streets. Hence, a newspaper headline states "homeless man stops asking for change... starts demanding it".

The whole event took place in Cineworld Bradford’s Delux screen. This comfier than average screen is a little isolated from the rest of the cinema and from what I experienced, it had harboured an enjoyable day long fan friendly atmosphere, with the crescendo being the whoops and cheers involuntarily vocalised throughout HOBO’. The horror fan atmosphere was aided by Gaylen Ross (of Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD fame) having a few words to say before STAKE LAND.

This was a strand I wish I could have made the whole of; a strand that I would be happy to see return and an event that may has convinced me to get down to Sheffield’s Celluloid Screams when it comes around.

17th Bradford International Film Festival: A trilogy of photography documentaries (with some Herzog thrown in for good measure)

(Temporary home for my Film&Festivals magazine coverage until the new website is up. Please feel free to agree, disagree or anything in between in the comments)

The first few days of the week may as well have been called the Neil Young International Film Festival considering the films I had chosen to see. I didn't realise when booking my tickets that these films were pretty much all programmed by - and subsequently introduced by – Neil Young, the festival's international consultant. I learned during last year's BIFF that anything with his name on would satisfy my need for thought provoking films and new cinematic experiences. One of the films that he introduced last year was one that has stayed with me the longest, Gytis Luksas’ Lithuanian DUBURYS (VORTEX).

Over days six through eight there have been a few themes arising, so rather than give the usual bi-daily(ish) update, it seems appropriate to deviate slightly and group films thematically. The most comprehensive and cohesive trend was a trilogy of documentaries looking at photography, with varying styles and to varying effect. I have mischievously also then tacked on Werner Herzog's CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS, tenuously linking cave paintings to a Paleolithic form of photography (clutching at straws maybe).

These three films all deal with national identity, but from an outsider’s perspective. DISFARMER: A PORTRAIT OF AMERICA (Martin Lavut) and AN AMERICAN JOURNEY (AJ) (Philippe Séclier) were both, as their titles may suggest, dealing with notions of America and Americanness and were screened as a double bill as part of the always fascinating Uncharted States of America strand, despite neither being American produced (DISFARMER is Canadian and AJ is French). The third (I will declare now is easily my favourite of the lot), TRACES OF A DIARY is directed by the Portuguese Marco Martins and André Principe and is a journey through Japan via many contemporary Japanese photographers. I guess it goes without saying that CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS is also seen from a cultural outsider's perspective considering the cave paintings featured were painted something like 30,000 years ago.

DISFARMER charts the discovery and subsequent fame (way after his own death) of Mike Disfarmer (born Micahel Meyers) and his ability to capture the natural state of his photographic subjects. He was a real outsider within the Arkansas farming town of Heber Springs in which he lived. Therefore the film was not only an outsider's perspective in the sense that it was Canadian produced, but this notion ran throughout the whole narrative; from Disfarmer himself being an outsider within the society, but more importantly, by dealing with the fascination and potential problems of cultural outsiders assessing art created within a particular society. There seemed to be two different Americas that gave their impressions of Disfarmer. There were those inside the society in which the photography was produced and there were the art collectors, or the artistic elite; outsiders looking in and imposing their own views on this society and Disfarmer's depiction of it.

Through this dichotomy of opinions between those within and those outside of this society, the film framed a nice debate about the nature of art and the subjectivity of its meaning. It furthered this position by raising a familiar issue that plagues the notion of art, which is the hypocrisy of the commoditisation of art and what this means for its cultural value. What becomes more desirable, seeing this fascinating and insightful body of work, or hoarding original prints and negatives for vast amounts of money? It isn't only critical of the outside art world for this, but the way the same principle existed within the society. The film showed how everyone, once they had been informed of the value of these photos, suddenly paid attention to them, and suddenly had a story about their encounters with Disfarmer; even though, as someone in the film alludes to, all their stories fit within the narrow mythological representation that had been created of him through this very process.

In the early parts of the film, I was a little annoyed at the art critics constantly telling me what to think and how to feel about these pictures, rather than giving me space to think about them. Yet, after getting the impression that it was specifically dealing with this issue; that this was more the point of this film than the beautiful pictures themselves, then I realised that it made a poignant statement on art itself whilst making me aware of this great artist. The pictures really are captivating and I see precisely why they have stirred such interest in the art world.

I will come back to AJ after I say a few things about TRACES OF A DIARY. In many ways, it was the antithesis of DISFARMER. Not only was it instantly going to be different as the artists themselves were featured, whereas Disfarmer is long since deceased, but there were no constantly reoccurring talking heads and there were no art critics and collectors telling me what to think and how to feel. I completely concur with what Neil Young referred to in his intro as the ‘documentarian’s dilemma’; that documentaries that are dealing with art need to decide whether to take the straight and easy talking head route, or take the bold route and create an expressive piece of art themselves. Both forms have their merit, but the filmmakers here have certainly taken the latter, the bold route; shooting the whole film on 16mm and capturing Japan from their own viewpoint as well as from the viewpoint of the photographers they featured. Not only could I be introduced to many photographers' work, but I could experience the film's own artistic identity as well. Nobody spoon-fed me what to think; rather, the film tidily introduced the film's subjectivity by going through a photography book in the opening scene, with the narrator going at lengths to concede that art is always subjective, always negotiated.

The whole film became a journey through, and exploration of Japan, traversing different regions and using the chronotopes of travel constantly - literally planes, trains and automobiles, with boats, bikes and all sorts else to boot. All the photographers had different styles and worked in different artistic, cultural and geographical areas. It was a little haunting actually to see a film about documenting Japan's national identity that was made prior to, but seen almost immediately after the tragic events of last month's earthquake. 

AJ was Philippe Séclier’s (French) tracing of photographer Robert Frank’s (Swiss) journey across America, creating his book The Americans. So thematically, with regard to cultural outsiders’ notions of a nation it sits fittingly with the other films discussed, although I cannot say it had the impact that either of the other two masterpieces did. It fell somewhere between; it spoon-fed me the filmmaker’s, and others’ thoughts on Frank, without really informing me much about him. It seemed a little self indulged and a little pointless. I must declare though that it did suffer from being part of a double bill with DISFARMER, as I was still so captivated by what I had seen; still soaking in everything I had witnessed that this film stood little chance of snapping me out of this thoughtful daze. At least I didn’t walk out, which a number of people did. I don’t see why though, it wasn’t in any way offensive, just a little insignificant after DISFARMER.

I won’t spend long on CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS, as it is in pretty wide release and the actual screening wasn’t something that was exclusive to BIFF; although it was a welcome coincidence for it to fall this week. Herzog has managed to gain access to the Chauvet Cave where in 1994, the oldest known cave paintings in the world were found, relatively undisturbed as they still are during the film’s making.

There is a degree of fuss being made about the film’s use of 3D. It must be said, this seems to come from the demographic that consider themselves too good to approve of other 3D cinema: ‘now this is what 3D was made for’ they will say. Well I remain of the same principal I did before; I have no problem with 3D, it doesn’t offend me, but nor do I think it is really necessary. If anything, it is even less necessary in an interesting Herzog documentary where the most compelling features are far removed from the gimmick of 3D and are actually in Herzog’s ability to draw out the raw nature of a subject and find the real humanity within. His voice persistently both amuses and enlightens and the way he draws the character out of the individuals that feature within the documentary has more dimensions than can be added by wearing some glasses. In fact, I still think 3D is better suited to gimmicky theme park ride-esque films, because they need a gimmick, this doesn’t. It detracted nothing from it and I was happy seeing it in 3D but wouldn’t have been missing anything had I not.

Twitter: @destroyapathy

Thursday, 24 March 2011

17th Bradford International Film Festival Day 2 and 3: Hungarian political biopic The Last Report on Anna and Detroit documentary Deforce

(Temporary home for my Film&Festivals magazine coverage until the new website is up. Please feel free to agree, disagree or anything in between in the comments)

The first couple of days were to be a steady start to the festival for various family reasons. I was eased in on the first day with the solitary screening of Márta Mészáros’ Hungarian THE LAST REPORT ON ANNA (UTOLSÓ JELENTÉS ÁNNÁROL), which was preceded by a short called MY LAD (Sami Khan). I love BIFF’s insistence on keeping the majority of the short films interspersed throughout the Moviedrome strand as show openers. It insures them a much greater reach, while there are still some focused and compelling short film programmes.

MY LAD is the spiritual journey of a grieving father, Abdul (Stewart Scudamore) on the day of his son’s funeral. Trying to remain in denial of the gravitas of the situation, he attempts to shut it out, but is haunted by visions of his son pleading with him to do this one thing for him: to be there in order to say goodbye. The aesthetics put you right inside Abdul’s head and Scudamore’s performance was fittingly emotional. What made it particularly strong in my eyes was its British-Asian identity. I feel like I am contradicting myself by highlighting this, as the point I liked about it is that by dealing with the universal issue of losing a child, it wasn’t overtly about being British-Asian. It reminded me of a comment made by Riz Ahmed at a FOUR LIONS Q&A, when asked on the subject of British-Asian portrayal on film he said - rightly so - that it will have come to a more acceptable point when a British-Asian character is not only defined by that one feature. In order to create even more significance though, the last shot flips this again, showing a photo of the boy and his father, which reveals that the son was a member of the armed forces, Union Jack prominent on the photo, and therefore we are led to believe that he was killed in action. Having naturalised the universality of the family’s situation, it then reiterates that this boy - having an Islamic burial - is as British as anyone else living in the country.

THE LAST REPORT ON ANNA felt personal; like it was coming from someone with a point of view, but Mészáros managed to achieve this without coming across too propagandistic or preachy, which is quite an achievement. It utilises real news footage and declares in the opening credits that the story is fiction, but could just as easily be fact. I always wince a little when something is declared to be 'a true story', when it has in fact warped fact to become a dramatic retelling. Well as this declares its position as fiction - as art - inspired by true events, it seems much more sincere. To capture emotion or a structure of feeling (which this film succeeds at) is all that a collection of facts can do anyway.

Within the narrative, Péter (Ernó Ferkete) is the nephew of a man that the influential, outspoken former president of the Hungarian Social Democratic Party, Anna Kéthly (Enikő Eszeyi) was in love with. The Hungarian Communist regime attempts to exploit this relationship in order to gain access to her self-imposed exile, living in Brussels. The film opens in 1991 at the fall of the Soviet Union, with the bulk of the story taking place in Péter’s remembered 1973, and then further flashbacks to various points throughout Anna’s life - the majority of which during the 1956 revolution. She was an inspirational character and Eszeyi did this justice with an appropriately inspiring performance, capturing the passion and the fire in her belly when reanacting specific inspirational speeches in the earlier flashbacks, or getting on a political rant with Péter or the Hungarian ambassador to Belgium in 1973. While achieving this, she still came across human, compassionate and even fragile at times when spending time with Péter. The camerawork aided the latter by really drawing her wise and compassionate eyes out of the screen. Despite some of the speech recreations at times seeming a little like TV documentary recreations, overall it was a successful blend of historical insight and compelling character based drama. It didn't overstay its welcome and it felt genuine and worthwhile; a great way to start the festival.

The second day was similarly steady, again with only one feature and accompanying short. The short, FLUORESCENT GRAY didn't capture my imagination. It’s a conversation between a seemingly insomniac suffering couple. An insight into a relationship that is hardly going swimmingly, but also not full of melodramatic friction. It seemed well suited to a short stage production or a short story, yet there was something about it that didn't seem very cinematic. 

DEFORCE is Daniel Falconer’s Documentary about the complete absence of any kind of regeneration programme or cohesive city planning in Detroit, leaving it to have become a semi-derelict, crumbling landscape. The film goes back to approximately the turn of the 20th century and showcases Detroit as the poster boy for social cohesion through modernity during the first half of the century. It then shows how this influential city, emblematic of 20th century American dominance, has been ravaged by institutional racism and corrupt politicians through the latter half of the century.

The striking similarity with many cities around the world is clear, but the links with Bradford make it apt for this festival. Not only do you have to just walk through Bradford’s city centre to see the many giant craters (a point that Terry Gilliam remarked upon in a characteristically funny quip when I caught up with him on the Saturday) and the eyesore that is the old Odeon, which looked so majestic and grand in the centre before being neglected for the last decade to rot and decay. There aren’t just these instantly visible similarities; there are also historical similarities. Bradford, a formerly prosperous mill town has a similar lack of clarity regarding its identity, since the industry that made it what it was faded away, leaving only the remnants of inappropriately skilled working class families, but without the work. This leads to another similarity; the migration from the Southern states to work Detroit's globally influential car plants echoes the migration of sub-continent workers to meet demand in Bradford's mills. As the film rightly shows, this brings some fascinating cultural diversity, but not without certain racially motivated strains as the work disappears and competition for jobs becomes fierce; the segregated city develops a reciprocal animosity and blame culture.

Tracking more than a whole century did mean that it has to move at a pretty rapid pace. At times I wished it could slow down and dwell on certain instances, expanding on some of the headline statements and sensational facts and figures. I really felt that there could have been about five really focused documentaries in here. Yet having said that, it was the scope of the whole thing that gave it so much character.

The main reason that I wished the film could slow down just a little though, was to allow me to take in the film's most striking feature: the visuals. From high, expansive shots of the city to detailed visualisations of the internal decay of so many structures was enchanting and heartbreaking whilst being poetic and hauntingly beautiful. In comparison, the regimented composure of the photography used of old Detroit perfectly captures the structure and organisation of modernity. Yet when I wanted to just soak this beauty in, there was often the voiceover supplying even more information, while text simultaneously showed up over the image, giving related but different information. Maybe I have a simple mind, but I couldn't process all this information; or at least I couldn’t properly give all these aspect the attention they individually deserved.

An important documentary that embodies the capitulation of the American Dream.

Twitter: @destroyapathy

17th Bradford International Film Festival (BIFF): Opening night gala and Woody Allen's You Will Meet a Dark Stranger

Ah so it is the Bradford International Film Festival (BIFF) once again and the red carpet leads to the entrance of the National Media Museum. It really is a great place to have a film festival; in a museum dedicated to the learning about, and preservation of all forms of media. The event was appropriately grand - black tie and everything. I’m not all too bothered about the fancy black tie type of affair, but it really suited the occasion. More than anything, the grandeur of the event gave me a little breathing space with my wife. The opening night was on her birthday, and despite liking film, a film festival opening night wouldn’t have been her first choice of how to spend the evening, but the allure of being able to wear one of her “only for best” dresses really brought her round. She ended up having a great time, as did everyone we spoke to at the reception following the screening. There was an exciting feeling in the air - aided by the live jazz and free wine - and although I attend film festivals to see fresh new uncovered films and cinematic experiences - so the festival really gets underway for me tomorrow - it is nice to see these type of grand events that everyone can get into and that can create some publicity ahead of the real action.

Preceding the screening were a couple of pleasantly brief but poignant speeches. The museum's director Colin Philpott was up first to talk about the museum's future and ambitions. He acknowledged the upcoming challenges that the museum will be facing: cuts to their public funding, the axing of the UK Film Council and the uncertainty therefore of Screen Yorkshire and the general economic gloom making sponsorship and corporate partnerships difficult. In the face of these things, he conceded that there will have to be cutbacks, but the museum’s ambition would not be diluted. He stated that the museum intends “to be international, not just local or national in our outlook and our impact”. He followed this with the grand reveal of ‘Life Online’, the biggest gallery the museum has hosted for quite some time, due to open next March. It will be the "first museum gallery in the world telling the history and the impact of the internet and the worldwide web”. Philpott thanked all the sponsors but specifically singled out Screen Yorkshire, who he described as "not only a great supporter of this museum, they have done an enormous amount, over the past decade, bringing productions to Yorkshire and creating new talent". This statement was followed by a full round of applause.

After a brief word from the opening night's sponsor, BBC North, came the festival's artistic director Tony Earnshaw, who gave a very charismatic introduction to the festival, briefly mentioning a few upcoming highlights. In his appropriately broad Yorkshire accent, he named and thanked all the programming team; after all, it is films that make a film festival, and those that pick and curate the many films and strands are what make them what they are.

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger

I should start by openly declaring that this isn’t exactly my kind of film. I revel in either end of the spectrum: pulp trash genre cinema or contemplative, thought provoking art house films. You will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger fits into neither; it is a very safe middle brow romantic drama – that happened to have comedic elements. I hesitate to use any kind of term like ‘rom-com’, as this would not give it the credit it deserves. Despite it not being my cup of tea, it is clearly a class above the average Jennifer Aniston vehicle and lacked the most patronising features of the majority of the formulaic Hollywood offerings. Having briefly declared my own underwhelmed impression on the film though, it must be said that it was very well received by the packed auditorium, who laughed on cue, applauded as the credits rolled and had some very generous words for it at the post-film drinks reception. The thing that seemed most appreciated were some of the tiny intricacies of the dialogue. This was where most of the comedy came from and was an example of the type of scripting needed to bring these mostly formulaic stock characters to life.

The film had a lot going on and moved at a snappy pace, where all the characters were introduced by a tedious voice over (where the story could have introduced them perfectly well without it). The first character to be introduced, Helena (Gemma Jones), seemed by far the most popular with the audience, prompting many laughs and best utilising the above mentioned intricacies of the dialogue. The narrative intertwined the fallout of her and Alfie’s (Anthony Hopkins) divorce - and their subsequent relationship attempts - with the deteriorating relationship of their daughter Sally (Naomi Watts) and her husband Roy (Josh Brolin), who were exploring their respective extramarital fascinations. Sally with Greg (Antonio Banderas) and Roy with Dia (Freida Pinto). Usually when a film has such a large cast of characters, it makes it easier to avoid those that are particularly self absorbed, but these were all a pretty indistinguishable level of self absorbed, so not the case here. I would have said that the performances were pretty solid, had it not been for most of the accents; they were either very American or very English. I forgive this on the grounds of the impression I took regarding Woody Allen’s apparent commentary on the changing face of contemporary national relations; therefore having the characters sound as obviously representative of a national identity as possible. The older and the younger couples both comprised of an English woman and an American man. These relationships fell apart for different reasons, but what is interesting is to take a look at their prospective new partners, crushes, infatuations, etc. The most miserably failed and pathetic of all was Alfie’s relationship with the overly vacuous, materialistic, gold digging, Essex bimbo cliché Charmaine (Lucy Punch), who is half his age and a high end prostitute. This relationship was an attempt to recreate his existing relationship (in national terms), but it failed miserably. Admittedly, this failed relationship was the greatest source of the audience's laughter outside of Helena and her blunt and direct criticism of Roy. This marks the steady breakdown of these two nations' 20th century bond. Meanwhile, the younger couples both fell for individuals of different national origins; one from Western Europe, the other - more significantly for contemporary global politics - was Indian. Whereas Helena, the most self satisfied of the lot (possibly deludedly so with the help of a fraudulent mystic and plenty of whiskey) represented the increasing prevalence of national protectionism, post economic crisis, as her ‘tall dark stranger’ was a fellow, similar aged English gentleman.

All in all, the night was a success. Everyone in their black ties or fancy dresses enjoyed the event and despite the negative reaction of me and a few others, most really enjoyed Woody Allen's most recent offering. For me though, the real excitement starts tomorrow and continues for a further 11 days, with features and shorts, both narrative and documentaries; from genre heavy cult-classic hopefuls to the most original and challenging experimental cinema from all around the world, and plenty in between.

You can follow me on Twitter @destroyapathy or the festival as it progresses on #biff2011

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

This Gun for Hire (1942) - A very sinister undercurrent of violence

Viewing context:
Film Noir box set. After having seen some truly great films so far (Out of The Past, The Blue Dahlia, Killers and Double Indemnity), this one didn't quite have the same impact or cohesion.

Directed by Frank Tuttle. I haven't seen anything else from him but it looks like he was much better known for directing comedies. Screenplay by Albert Maltz, who seems to have a more interesting resume, in the Western genre with the Jimmy Stewart fronted Broken Arrow and the Clint Eastwood vehicle Two Mules for Sister Sara and the intriguing noir-looking Naked City (will track this one down). He was joined by another genre film writer, W.R. Burnett (Scarface and The Asphalt Jungle).

What happened:
A pretty intense, morally ambiguous hitman/gangster-type, Philip Raven (Alan Ladd) kills a couple'a people in order to acquire something for his paymaster. After then being set up by said paymaster, he goes after him, to do what a hitman does best. On route (literally on the train - symbolically representing a chronotope of transition) he comes across Ellen Graham (Veronica Lake), an entertainer/magician recently hired by Raven's former employer and to top off the string of convenient coincidences she is engaged to the detective that is hunting Raven.

What I liked:
genuinely sinister violent undertone: Individual shots caught the darkness and the stark contrast representing the fragmented sinisterness of the society depicted. This added to the already strong undercurrent of violence. Not cartoony/Hollywood violence of spectacle, but a really sinister and brutal violence sweltering under society. This was introduced immediately as Raven has no qualms about killing the innocent, unarmed female bystander on that opening job.

What unimpressed:
Back heavy: The first hour or so of the film didn't reveal anything, nor did it have me particularly intrigued as to what may be revealed. Once Raven's upbringing had been revealed and the unpatriotic business transactions that the antagonists were committing were uncovered, the film shifted a gear or two. This just seemed like it was all tacked onto the end though, with the rest of it sort of just plodding through the motions.
Disjointed editing: The editing was unforgivably jarring. I can only imagine it must have been intentional considering its consistency, but frequently when cutting from a medium shot to a closer shot, the characters would almost be in a completely different positions, looking in a different directions or sometimes just appear as if they are in a different scene altogether. It was really strange. It could have been an intentional attempt to heighten the uneasiness or emphasise distraction and that things aren't as they seem, but to be honest it just seemed a bit sloppy. The weird thing is though, that I never really notice this, but it has happened three times this month - see American History X and 25th Hour (once I post them).

Patriotic sociopaths are OK?: You can be a cold blooded sociopath, so long as you are a patriotic one? That's what impression I got anyway, but as eluded to earlier, the end seemed a little shabbily grafted on, so don't know how much to read into that.
A Hollywood film that really attacked the free market: One thing that was very explicit though was the commentary on the free market post WW2. This was a time when central planning and some form of communal responsibility and left leaning sensibility was actually in vogue in the US (as brief a period as this turned out to be). The film exposed the amorality of free market capitalism, while exploiting the nationalistic sentiment that would have been prominent throughout the country, by showing how these individuals will do anything to make a profit, including directly dealing with the enemy of the time. The way the film exploited this nationalistic sentiment to bull up the villainous nature of these free marketeers compared to the revealed patriotism of Raven problematically made his killing of innocents and woman-slapping appear acceptable.

Scene of the film:
The reveal of Raven's troubled upbringing, showing how broken homes - of which there will be many following the war - and violence - that the world had just witnessed plenty of - harbours sociopaths and criminality. Not only did these insights open up (belatedly kickstart) the narrative, but it was performed intensely by Ladd.

Veronica Lake: Apart from that one scene from Ladd, which was the most compellingly acted scene in the film, Lake was much more consistent, fluent, natural and engaging.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Rec (2007) - If this had been English language, I don't think it would have half the cultural caché

Viewing context:
Bought it when I had some spare credit after trading a phone in down' second hand game shop. After getting four pretty decent games I had six quid credit left so had a browse round the world cinema DVD section and I had heard good things about this. Watched it with Tasha on a Friday night.

Written and directed by Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza, with Luis Berdejo helping out with the writing. I always give a film more credit if it is written and directed by the same person (or people in this case); it just makes it seem more raw and that someone has put a lot of themselves into its creation. I haven't seen anything else from these lot, but it seems they have been pretty firmly in the horror genre. Despite not loving this, it did enough things right to convince me that Rec 2 is at least worth checking out.

What happened:
A TV reporter and her cameraman are following the activities of a general night on shift with the fire department. A seemingly dull call to an apartment where somebody has locked themselves in, grows into a much more interesting situation. When they get in the room, they find an old woman, drenched in blood, moaning and shuffling around with her hands held in front of her. To us, the ever-wise viewer, it's pretty clear what is about to happen, but the witless public services, other residents in the building and the aforementioned TV crew proceed to run around screaming incoherently for the rest of the film.

What I liked:
Suspense (in bits): When the film ramped up the suspense rather than just have the camera flailing around with plenty'a screaming going on, I was on edge. Hand on mouth and everything.
Camera placement: The handheld aesthetics worked efficiently at putting you right in there, heightening vulnerability. The limitation of being kept to the cameraman's point of view was used further to heighten intrigue at times where you weren't given the whole picture; only what the camera experienced. Further, the shot was often quite well set up from afar, where it just needed to be a little higher or lower in order to see what was going on. The fact it wasn't bang on added to the intrigue.
Final flurry: It must be said that the film ended with a pretty decent flurry of activity.

Incessant screaming: You may have already picked up on the displeasure I experienced in incessant screaming. The main perpetrator was the lead protagonist who was just needlessly annoying throughout.
Little character: After having set up an interesting situation, and ending with a great deal of intrigue and suspense, the middle section could have been done in five minutes. Yet it was dragged out, doing and saying the same thing again and again, neither moving the narrative along, nor using that time to create any sort of message out of the eclectic mix of supporting characters in the apartment's residents. The main characters barely existed so these lot didn't stand a chance.
Lack of spectacle: Having created few interesting or fleshed out characters, it could have redeemed itself, had the spectacle been hyped up further, but despite getting the few incidents it featured bang on (the body that fell down the middle of the stairwell was a highlight) the rest was a little inadequate. This goes for both gore/shock value, as well as genuine fright or terror. They were far too few infrequent. I reiterate that this wouldn't have been as essential, had the film established some characters.

Voyeurism: The hand held aesthetic and the fact that the people controlling that camera were reporters, worked to both ensure good reason for the action being constantly followed while commenting on society's need to watch such events as spectacle. There is a double standard created where the viewer may think "why do you insist on filming all this", whilst still thinking, "but don't stop though, I'm quite enjoying it". This worked great for Romero's Diary of the Dead, a film with some attempt to create characters (despite it also falling short on spectacle). Rec though, as far as I am concerned, failed to hammer home the idea or make as coherent a comment on the need to voyeuristically record, despite it being the central premise; hence the title rec. As a result , it seems the idea was more of a stylistic gimmick rather than a social comment as was the case in Diary of the Dead.
Information: The main justification that is convincingly given for the continued recording is the conspiracy angle that the film takes, considering that they are quarantined inside the building and it is clear that the 'powers that be' don't want whatever is happening to get out to the public.

Scene of the film:
The sequence at the end, after the furious running around screaming that was the rest of the film has all but ended, we get back to a little bit of intrigue and suspense.

Performance of the film:
Whoever screamed the least.

Final word:
Great premise, flashes of brilliance, but too sloppy most of the time - not in a good way (blood, guts, sloppy... Get it).

Thursday, 10 March 2011

True Grit (2010) - Amazing, despite its false justification of free market principles

Viewing Context:
Dragged my dad and my little cousin to see it when on a rugby league weekend away. Seven live games of rugby league and a Coen Brothers Western is a shit-hot weekend if you ask me.

Written (screenplay) and Directed by the Coen Brothers, I believe I needn't say more. Except, I don't see what people's problems are with Burn After Reading, I thought it was an excellent followup to No Country For Old Men, proving their diversity.

What happened:
A sharp tongued, witty, charismatic fourteen year old girl, Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is in search of her father's murderer, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). She enlists the ageing, one eyed Marshall, Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), to hunt him down and is (loosely) joined by a Texas ranger, LeBoeuf (Matt Damon) who has been on Chaney's tracks since he shot a senator in Texas.

What I liked:
Dialogue: The incessantly quick back and forth was exhilarating and all three of the main characters - along with any of the supporting cast - really sold it. Rooster's bumbling semi-coherent ramblings were hilarious, so they entertained, as well as giving a convenient way to gain insight into his past.
Hailee Steinfeld: What a strong year for onscreen females. Natalie Portman's accomplished, Oscar winning performance in Black Swan, another Oscar winner in Melissa Leo (The Fighter), along with Jacki Weaver (Animal Kingdom) playing the controlling matriarchal older demographic, with Annette Benning and Julianne Moore (The Kids are Alright) covering the caring and maternal side. Then there was the young Jennifer Lawrence (Winter's Bone) to the even younger Hailee Steinfeld here. Then you have Chloe moretz's Hit Girl from Kick-Ass and Emma stone really breaking through with Easy A, both propping up the commercial mainstream market with great performances. There are many more, but I have already digressed some what. Basically, Steinfeld ran the show in this film and completely blew me away.
No black and white heroes and villains: They were all, well rounded individuals (see themes - amorality).
Funny: It was really funny in bits without losing gravitas.

What disappointed:
Grown up Mattie: When Mattie was grown up, she just didn't seem right. I know that's not much of a sophisticated or eloquent way to put it, but that's it, she just didn't seem to me as though she was an older version of the girl we had just spent all that time with.
Free Market justification:This didn't affect how amazing I thought the film was; how beautiful it looked, how witty, punchy and well delivered the dialogue was, but it must be noted how much of a false justification this film makes for free market principles that have been exposed as ridiculous (see themes).

Free market economy: Everything was a transaction; transactions that kept the whole thing going, driving the narrative and dictating the relationships between characters. In fact, there wasn't much of a hint that Cogburn and Leboeuf were doing this for any conception of good, or doing 'the right thing'. Everyone was motivated by financial reward (except of course Mattie's drive for vengence). The film never judgmentally looked down on this or used any caricature of greed, in fact it naturalised that this sort of little narrative obsessed, free market principle makes the world go round and through this system problems solve themselves. This is clearly bullshit; this principal has actually led to massive wealth inequality and the collapse of the Western (pun intended) world.
Amorality of this free market: This justification of an amoral free market ties in with well rounded villains; they just reckon that they can make more money in this line of work. Hence, the scumbag murderer that they build Chaney up to be throughout turns out to not be all that bad. Even more so, Lucky Ned is more than kind and accomodating to Mattie. The same moral ambiguity exists for the film's protagonists: Rooster tells his story of the New Mexico escapade, when he robbed a high interest bank. 'Stealing is stealing' Mattie told him, and he was like yeah that's what New Mexico thought. It must be added actually, that it is a wider concept of value and financial reward than just money; there is a value put on everything: money, time, risk, etc. The villains just take that extra risk, for extra reward.
Strong woman, but only inside civilisation: Mattie unexpectedly ran rings round everyone in the city (civilisation). Not just those that are ingrained in society, like the shopkeeper, but Lebeouf and Cogburn, who are a sort of hybrid of civilsation and wildernss, but only when inside the town - inside civilisation. Once they stepped into the wilderness, she still showed her grit, but it was very clear that she was out of her depth, with her dialogue drastically reduced.

Scene of the film:
When she takes the shopkeeper for all that money. What a way to show how she can control the world of economics and commerce (the controlling language of the western world). It also showed how much of an important role she would go on to have in a world that is increasingly based in civilisation and away from the dwindling wilderness (in which her uncomfort was evident).

Performance of the film:
Hailee steinfeld. I should have made clear above.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

The Fall (2006) - Stunningly Beautiful - the only film I have seen that truly deserves the massive screen Blu-Ray treatment

Viewing Context:
Accidentally ordered the Blu-Ray from LoveFilm, which meant that I had to wait for an opportune time to hijack my dad's Blu-Ray player and ridiculously big TV, but it was entirely worth the wait for this spectacle.

Directed by the visually talented Tarsem Singh, who's 2000 psychological thriller The Cell, similarly based on the inner workings of the mind, is responsible for my incessant defence of Jennifer Lopez on film - despite tripe like Maid in Manhattan. Screenplay by Dan Gilroy (who doesn't seem to have written anything as interesting as this before) Niko Soultanakis (his writing debut but worked with Singh as associate producer on The Cell) and Tarsem Singh himself.

What Happened:
A girl, Alexandria (Catinca Untaru), of Eastern European descent is in hospital in 1920s Los Angeles after falling from an orange tree on the grove where she works with her family. Also in the hospital is a suicidal film actor, Roy (Lee Pace). He tells the girl a story in order to entertain her, get her on his side, then withhold the rest of the story unless she robs him morphine and other pills he can try and overdose on. They strike up quite the unlikely friendship and the story he is telling takes on a much greater significance.

What I liked:
Beautiful. The film was so beautiful that it seemed almost like fate that I had accidentally ordered the Blu-Ray. The music and the exotic locations complemented this beauty.
Convincingly young: The girl did certain things that had me fully convinced that she was just a child talking to this man and listening to a story, rather than simply reading out her lines. This was only clear to me because of my own experiences trying to tell Corey something or getting the truth out of him; especially simple things like what he had for dinner that day. The girl came out with the same kind of imaginative lies, showing how the young mind is so eager to tell and be involved in stories; something the film was predominantly about (see themes).
Strong Relationship: It took a while to get going, but the unlikely pair build up a really strong bond.

Things I didn't quite like:
Took a while to engage me: The characters were really hard to engage with for quite some time. They certainly had won me round by the end, but there was pretty much the first half of the film where I wasn't particularly bothered about the characters in the real world (problematic term I know, but you get what I mean) never mind the characters in the story, but this really strengthened on both fronts in the last act. I think while the characters were difficult to engage, there could have been a little more spectacle to fill that gap (especially seeing as it was so beautiful).

Storytelling: Obviously, on a metalevel, the film itself is a story; Roy was in the movies, themselves a considerably new form of telling stories in the 1920s; but the most important point in storytelling here was the story Roy was telling and the intense significance it held for this girl. It started off as just fun, which is what many (philistines) would dismiss stories as, but as it went on, the filmmaker made a clear point that even the simplest of mystical stories can be so powerful.
Do not sugar coat (Disneyfy) stories: It stresses the importance of including reality in a child's story, as he does not shy away from killing off characters, despite the heartbreak it causes the girl.
Meaning is a two way system: The significance of a story is not only brought upon by the storyteller, but is always negotiated. There are a few specific things that exemplify this. One example is that when Roy introduces 'The Indian', the girls' understanding of the word was a grand looking Sikh, but Roy meant native American; hence, when he says squaw she sees a beautiful Indian woman and when he says tipi she says grand temple looking building. This is one of many pointers regarding the subjective nature of experiencing a story and negotiating meaning.

Scene of the film:
The scene that, more than any other part, gets right inside her head (almost literally). She sees flashes from her childhood mixed up with the present, the story-world and with a sinister stop motion animation sequence of two priest looking puppets removing the top of her head to reveal paper with writing all over; i.e. the stories in her head.

Performance of the film:
The girl, Catinca Untaru, for the reason above (her being so believable as an actual kid rather than just reading her lines).

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Blue Valentine (2010) - Such an honest and genuine depiction of a changing relationship

Viewing Context:
Good old parents did a spot of babysitting so me and Tasha could see it together down at the Media Museum’s Cubby Broccoli cinema.

Written and directed by Derek Cianfranco who is more prolific as documentary filmmaker, which may explain why this film so vividly captures what appears to be reality in these characters (not that documentary equals real; just that the aesthetic invokes a genuine sentiment). He was assisted in writing by Cami Delavigne and Joey Curtis. Curtis also worked on Cianfranco’s first narrative feature, Brother Tied.

What Happened:
The film opens showing the strained and struggling married life of Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams). The film then intermittently moves between this present and the charming story of how they first met and fell in love, steadily revealing the details of this realistically complex relationship.

What I liked:
Honest: The whole thing was a genuine look at married life. It was not harrowing and relentless, nor was it Hollywood convenient; it was just very honest and thus had me completely convinced and invested in the characters.
The close up: It is rare that I specifically point out a technique or particular shot, but I thought that the close up really capitalised on the tremendous performances from both leads. Their face filled the screen so frequently that every inch of them, the tiniest expression, had to be perfectly in character. It had to be subtle and - that word again - genuine.
Steady drip of information: The pace at which the information was given to the viewer heightened the drama and made the big picture steadily clearer (though never too conveniently clear, a la some Hollywood rom-com with a perfectly contained and sealed off narrative). I use the term ‘drip of information’ because the film stays away from the big reveal. It doesn’t play that game with the viewer, where one thing changes the whole dynamic; rather, it is constantly changing each time the story fills in a little more of their initial meeting and a little more of their current life.

Missed opportunities:
It had me all the way through and I can't say I would change a great deal about it.

Well I'm usually more well suited to reading myth in pop culture or socio-political allegory in genre films so it's hard for me to write in the same way about something so mature, measured and nuanced, but some of the impressions I got from the film are below.
Complexity of real relationships: Relationships are more complex than Hollywood would have you believe. An addition to this is that there are no right or wrong ways to deal with the breakdown of a family unit. Both characters have different opinions on what may be best for their daughter, but the viewer is left to make up their own mind on which is right. I know I believe one way, but I know others who would strongly disagree.
Time changes people: Just because things are a certain way at a certain time, doesn't mean that they always will be. This doesn't have to feature any kind of irreversible moment that irrevocably changes a situation, as is the usual plot device. Just time changing people and steadily eroding a relationship, which may have been right at a time; hence, the 'steady drip of information' approach that the narrative utilises.
Suppressed feelings don't go away: Missed opportunities, tiny life choices or minor issues, if suppressed and not properly addressed for years on end, do not simply go away; they manifest in resentment and a serious inability to connect with those who you may have projected the blame onto.
Pretty girls are crazy: Dean at one point in the younger side to the story remarks that pretty girls are crazy. The film, though making light of this comment as one of the character's eccentricities goes some way to attempting to justify what he says. One thing in particular that feeds into this is how Cindy is repeatedly viewed more as a sexual object by members of the supporting cast, rather than as an individual in her own right (this is at its most poignant with the doctor at her work). It isn't done in an overly leery way, but in quite an unfortunately natural way (unfortunate that this happens all too frequently). This must have some kind of effect on her ability to form connections and platonic relationships.

Best Scene:
The features that make this film so good are the close ups, the documentary aesthetic and the perfectly subtle and convincing performances. All these things are at their best in the scene set in the abortion clinic. These features, along with the personal investment in the characters and the intensity of the scene really sum up what this film does well.

Best Performance:
This one's a tough one. By intermittently switching between the two time periods, it was very apparent how complex a performance both needed to put in, in order to account for those subtle changes, whilst still being essentially the same person. I would say Williams just about edges it because her character was a little less alive and therefore had to be much more underplayed. It's still ridiculous that Gosling wasn't Oscar nominated though.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010) - loved the in-jokes and general geekery, but was just a little underwhelmed

Viewing context:
Watched it at home with Tasha. Her not being a big geek like I am, I wondered how she would take it, but she seemed entertained enough.

Directed by Edgar (Shaun of the Dead/Spaced/Hot Fuzz) Wright. His first major outing without the Pegg and Frost duo has done him really well, ratifying his own identity. He obviously knows and loves the source material (comic); all the in-jokes that the comic made chimed with Wright's sensibilities and therefore come out lovingly in the film, rather than being wedged in. Wright worked with Michael Bacall (more widely recognised for his acting than his writing) on the screenplay. The original comic was written by Bryan Lee O'Malley.

What happened:
Geeky 22 year old Scott (Michael Cera) meets a girl, Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Goes out with her despite being too much of a fanny to break up with his adoring 17 year old girlfriend Knives (Ellen Wong). Turns out, would you believe, Ramona has 7 evil Exes that are determined to fight Scott to the death.

What I liked:
Round 1, Fight: The fighting scenes were excellent. It is a common gripe of mine - that you will hear frequently - that action films rarely get actual fights looking good. Usually, outside of Hong Kong, Luc Besson seems the only person who can ensure that this is done correctly. Yet this film’s fighting sequences were smooth, convincing (though obviously by this I don't mean realistic), full of inventive spectacle, imaginative, well paced and shot with many points of contact per cut (essential). This is starkly opposed to the usual Hollywood approach of editing, where there is a cut after every punch, kick or head butt which disrupts the flow, loses the sense of danger, diminishes the spectacle and also confuses the geographic placings of all the characters on screen.
In jokes: The film went out of its way to please geeks like me with videogame nods, comic references and general geekery. I believe this was done without being too elitist, cutting off those not 'in' with the jokes, but it is possible that it didn't and therefore alienated other viewers.
Variety: Considering the amount of exes Scott had to get through, the film managed to not repeat itself. Interesting that this is the very dilemma that a videogame of the same sort often has to overcome.
Oddness and fun: Was very enjoyable to just sit back and enjoy.

Not so good:
Michael Cera: He was such a wet plank, that I couldn't really give a shit about any of it. Whether he beat the Exes, got the girl, found his self respect; I didn’t really care. He never seemed like he was Scott Pilgrim, he was just Michael Cera.

The prevalence of self absorbed individualism: Don't be so self absorbed as to think that your problems matter so much more than anyone else's. Ramona has these eccentric evil exes plaguing her because she heartlessly dismissed them, with little regard to how they felt, a matter that Scott is later critical of. Emblematic of a contemporary 21st century geek-masculinity (See Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network), Scott is so self absorbed that he doesn't care, or take responsibility for the fact that he did exactly the same to Knives and others in his past.
The internal mental workings of a geek: The videogame aesthetics and plot structure set it intentionally in Scott's head, giving a good impression of how Scott views the world. It really fixes the whole narrative then with a focus on a certain demographic; one that will understand all the in jokes and subtleties (although it may not seem from an outsider, that there are any subtleties to a technique that seems... well, as subtle as a brick). For instance, the final ex (what could be termed as the ‘last boss’) was the only one to display some kind of energy bar, a trope commonly seen in many game types' 'boss battle'. What I am getting at with this point is that whatever the film says about people - being self absorbed, extremely image conscious and just a little vapid - it is saying specifically about said generation/demographic, about my generation/demographic, about me. Despite my natural urge to object, to stand up and say 'hang on a minute, we aren't all as vapid and vacuous as this film may make out!’ But I can't say that, because I thought it was cool; it was quite honest in its depiction. We (again speaking from the film's apparent target demographic) like things that are cool, that are a little superficial, so long as they are done so knowingly and with love and care - with passion. This balance between apathy and passion is symbolised by the bands’ comic eagerness and lack of restraint when offered to sign a record contract with the blatantly evil, soulless emblem of the corporate world; thus, quite happily ‘selling out’ their morals and views. This is reinforced and reiterated in a subsequent scene, where the drummer Kim (Alison Pill) begins the song with the line 'we’re the Sex Bob Oms, we're here to get paid and sell out and stuff'. It could be read that Scott, the protagonist we are to identify with, is set away from this impulse to sell out at the earliest given opportunity, as he refused to take the contract. Then again, he did so for personal (again self-absorbed) reasons that affect him, rather than for any wider moral reason.

Scene of the film:
The first fight at the battle of the bands really kicked off the imaginative action, which kept the film going from there. Up until that point I thought it was struggling to establish the characters.

Performance of the film:
Ellen Wong as Knives was the one that sold herself the most. First as the naive and slightly imbecilic younger girlfriend, to the psycho ex-stalker, to the kickass ninja sidekick. I can't see that she has anything else coming up, but I hope she does at some point; something similarly extreme and genre-tastic.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Easy A (2010) - Much better than the shit, throwaway teen comedy that the poster and trailer make it out to be

Viewing Context:
After having completely dismissed it when it was at the cinema, I borrowed a copy from someone at work to watch with Tasha on an evening. I had anticipated it to be an enjoyable-enough teen comedy, but didn’t expect to like it this much.

Directed by Will Gluck, who has previously directed Fired Up and Friends with Benefits, neither of which I have seen and reading the titles, would have dismissed them quicker than Easy A, but I don't know, maybe I should give them a go too, and stop being so presumptuous and judgmental. Having said that, I think this film's strengths were in the performance and the script, therefore I will be keeping an eye on the writer Bert V. Royal.

What Happened:
Olive (Emma Stone) is a high school girl who tells her friend that she slept with some gut (just to shut her up, rather than for any kind of status based peer pressure to lie - or was it?? See 'themes' below). Her uber-christian arch nemesis Marianne (Amanda Bynes) overhears; needless to say, in no time at all, the whole school knows. The lying doesn't stop there as her gay friend asks her to say that she slept with him so that he could fit in. Needless to say, the lying doesn't even stop there as she gets ridiculously in over her head and it all inevitably spirals out of control. Really, it doesn't even sound good writing that, but it is - honest.

What I liked:
Emma Stone - a real rising star: Whether it's the character or the actor, she is one of the most charismatic, sassy and commanding leading women I have seen in this type of mainstream, fun and commercial film. Even the great actresses have put in some dreadful rom-com performances. She is original, fresh and genuinely 21st century. I will have to see her in more in order to ascertain whether it is her or the scriptwriters that deserve more of the praise, but either way she carried this film.
Candidates for best onscreen parents of all time: The parents were less convincingly real, but just as (if not more) enjoyable. The part where the dad turns to their adopted black kid and says, "so where are you from exactly?" cracked me up.
Repetition/variation: Perfect genre model of hitting the right balance; to be familiar enough to be easily accepted by a mass audience, while inverting many presumed myths in order to entertain and make confident comments on teen life.

What I didn't like:
Nothing much to say here: It would be tempting to say that her romantic interest was a bit void of character, but I feel this was deliberate. Either in order to show how she doesn't need an active man to be in her narrative (despite the character conceding that she wished there was), or, by sidelining the need for an active male, it further distances the core of this story from its aesthetic influence: eighties teen movies - by extension, the cinematically male-centric eighties in general. It comes back to what I said above about repetition/variation; it knowingly and lovingly moulds itself as an eighties teen film, but there are fundamental things that have changed in teen society between then and now.

There is no escaping adolescent peer pressure: No matter how smart you are, no matter how sassy, learned, self confident, wisecracking and mentally stable you are, you cannot escape high school peer pressure. It is very convincingly and genuinely ambiguous, as to whether she really does want to fit in, or if she wants to be individual. It's like she knows that she should be above it, and that she wouldn't jeopardise her individuality, but she really would like to fit in. This is most blatantly conveyed through the short lived friendship with her arch nemesis Christian girl.
Lying actually is necessary some times: She confessed that she never felt worse than when she told the truth and tore apart a marriage.
Doesn't need her man: Her struggles are her own; she has her own agency within the narrative and never concedes her individuality for a boy (although she does so for society more generally - possibly more specifically her female peers). If anything, the film makes a point of sidelining his agency (see 'what I didn't like' above). It is similar to what impressed me about both Princess and the Frog and Tangled; they get a balance right where the girl doesn't NEED this heterosexual fairy tale finish, but it doesn't go the opposite way either, this comes off for them incidentally where they have dealt with their own problems already.
Finally, organised religion is redundant and backwards: Repeatedly pokes fun at its double standards and imbecility.

Scene of the film:
Introduction of the Parents: The first scene with her parents was not only hilarious, but it was the film saying ‘look, if you want to have an adolescent daughter that has at least an ounce of self respect, confidence and a mostly positive approach to life, then this is what kind of free and honest atmosphere she has to grow up in’. Clearly it was exaggerated for comic effect, but it certainly set out its point clearly.

Not a second hesitation here; Emma Stone is the greatest thing in an already impressive film. She captures the angst, the yearning, the sarcasm, a little teen-apathy and indecision whilst simultaneously delivering it with wit and an impressively confident self astuteness. Can't wait to see what else she can pull off and I am now at least vaguely interested in the new Spider-man seeing as she will be playing Gwen Stacy.

Final Word:
Best teen comedy... possibly ever; a really honest and genuine air about it.