Thursday, 14 April 2011

February's Films - Blue Valentine was my film of the month. Not often a theatrical release tops the list

February's list of films has finally been compiled and put in order of preference. Simply click on the title for a brief roundup of my opinion and possible justification for why I have put it so high or so low.

This is the first month for a while that a cinematic release is top of the pile. I'd imagine that it's mainly due to the lack of Hitchcock, Leone or vintage Eastwood seen this month.

No severe controversies like my damning of Hurt Locker last month, although most people viciously disagree with my disregard for Rec, which comes pretty much bottom. I know others may take issue with Easy A being above a Spike Lee film, but hey, I can't control what I react to; Easy A is a quality film and an important contemporary social document.

It's a shame to see This Gun For Hire so low, but I think that suffered from me comparing it with, and putting it up against such masterpieces as Double Indemnity and Out of the Past. Hard to stand out against such quality.

I said when putting January's list up that I was going to increase the brevity of the posts this month. Well my interminable need to ramble got the better of me, so that wasn't the case. I do think though, that I have a better formula for uniformed posts, with sub-headings and what not.

March's list shouldn't take half as long, as most of the month was taken up by the Bradford International Film Festival so most films are already written up (although won't be in the usual format).

Most people leave me feedback on Facebook and Twitter, which is really cool, creates a nice discussion and is more than welcome. But in addition, adding a comment at the bottom would be helpful in order to open up the debate.

I don't think I need to stress this, but this list is based on my subjective opinion and my own personal reaction to these films. I know it's cheating but that does mean I can't be wrong:P

Blue Valentine (2010)

True Grit (2010)

Easy A (2010)

25th Hour (2002)

Skeletons (2010)

Tangled (2011)

The Wave (Die Welle - 2008)

Devil’s Backbone (El Espinazo del Diablo - 2001)

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010)

The Fall (2006)

This Gun For Hire (1942)

American History X (1998)

Brighton Rock (2010)

Rec (2007)

Gnomeo and Juliet (2011)

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

25th Hour (2002) - Quite an immediate response to American identity post 9/11

Viewing Context:
By complete coincidence, as I finished watching American History X, I just caught the end of the BBC TV show Who Do You Think You Are? Where surreally, Spike Lee was sat down with an elderly white woman telling her that she was his distant cousin or something. Well in a nifty bit of programming, the Beeb followed this up with 25th Hour. This being another film starring Ed Norton and dealing with issues of imprisonment, I thought it quite apt timing, creating a well curated accidental double bill.

As noted above, it is directed by Spike Lee, though in contrast to his earlier works, where the story was predominantly born from his mind, this is an adaptation of a David Benioff novel. Benioff also wrote the screenplay, which I am always keen to see happen when someone's work is being adapted.

What happened:
Monty Brogan (Ed Norton) has been done for being a pretty big-daddy drug dealer, working with a bunch of Russians. The film charts his final day tying up loose knots and trying to figure out the true state of the situation, along with the betrayal that has led him to this point.

What I liked:
Simplicity: The best thing was to create a relatively simple scenario, yet pack in so much depth and a wealth of cultural commentary, without losing anything from the characters and the relationships. I know that every film should get this combination right, but it is underrated when a film strikes the balance this well. I will touch on both separately.
The relationships: This final day causes Monty to question many things. His paranoia, amplified by his impending incarceration makes him shun his girlfriend Naturalle (Rosario Dawson) under unconfirmed suspicion that she turned him in. This understandable but frustrating scenario builds in such a way to create a convincingly emotional final act (for a soft-ass like me anyway). The relationship with his friends Jake (Philip Seymour Hoffman)and Frank (Barry Pepper) are less straight forward, but equally convincing. The three of them couldn't be more different; they all now live completely different lives. Before they come together they acknowledge that they don't even know why they're friends, yet as the night progresses, the true bonds are illustrated.
Social commentary: What does it mean to be American? There is a great deal of reference to immigrants; there is a lot made of his own Irish heritage, of her Puerto Rican heritage and of course there is the Russian gang (See themes below for more).
Dialogue: The dialogue was constantly sharp and entertaining, but there were a couple of specific monologues that really captivated. (see themes and 'scene of the film' below).

Immigration and Americanness: New York City takes on a real character in the film, as it does in many narratives, where it comes to embody 21st Century city life. Here it seems to be specifically representing 21st century urban American identity. The film appears to be a rather positive response - without being jingoistic - to post 9/11 American identity; the flawed but overall decent spirit of the American dream, and the inability to halt its existence and progress despite setbacks. What really brings this to the fore is the backdrop set as the rebuilding of ground zero. This regeneration is seen in one scene out of the window during a conversation between Jake and Frank, discussing this forthcoming final night together. "It's over after tonight Jake, wake the fuck up", which is the defeatist attitude that could have been taken post 9/11. After the conversation the camera lingers on the urban regeneration taking place outside, displaying the opposite to this defeatist attitude; that what has happened has happened and the future is uncertain, but life goes on and things (be it a city, a group of friends, or society as a whole) are rebuilt.
Immigration/ethnicity: As eluded to in the 'what I liked' section above, along with this sincere yet positive view of American identity, the film goes at lengths to emphasise that America is by its nature made up from a diverse, often hybridised and unfixed ethnic mix.
American dream: Unavoidable when considering notions of Americanness is the idea of the American dream; what are its failings? The film takes such a nuanced and balanced approach. I have said that I thought the film overall was positive about the theory of 'America', but it balances this by acknowledging some of its flaws. There is a scene where Monty's reflection speaks to him, going on a real rant, blaming any other ethnic groups he could think of (Indian taxi drivers, Korean store owners - note that these are mostly entrepreneurial individuals) for pushing him to this point. The scene is vintage Spike Lee, reminiscent of the race based rants in the middle of Do the Right Thing. After this, he simply replies: "No, fuck you Montgomery Brogan. You had it all, and you threw it away, you dumb fuck". This line is later supported by what is frequently acknowledged as being the problem with American individualistic, free market principles: "I Got greedy and fucked myself".
Those that turn a blind eye: In a further comment on this situation, the fact that those who benefit from this greed conveniently don't do anything to stop it, knowing that they are benefiting with little personal jeopardy. Therefore there are characters critical of Naturalle, who undoubtedly benefits from Monty's amassing wealth. This situation has a sly jab at those who criticise - the broad and vague term of - globalisation, whilst wearing their Puma trainers and Gap tops. Governments' blind eye toward cases like the Enron scandal are fittingly used in the film to continue this theme.

Scene of the film:
The above mentioned rant was vintage Spike Lee and said everything the film was trying to comment on the American dream, the deference of responsibility prominent in capitalism and the need to own up to one's own mistakes. It was like poetry; lyrical and direct.

Performance of the film:
Everyone had their place, but Norton carried the whole thing and deserves recognition for that monologue alone. Cameo of the film is Isiah Whitlock Jr, aka Clay Davies from The Wire. He comes complete with what came to be the character's trademark "sheeeeeeeeeeet".

Final Word:
I haven't read the book, but I see that it came out early 2001, so any of my post 9/11 reading must come from Lee's directorial input, or possibly when Benioff adapted it into a screenplay. Either way it was quite an immediate response.

Monday, 11 April 2011

American History X (1998) - Addresses the reality of racism, rather than simplistically saying 'oh those racists are just stupid'

Viewing Context:
Recorded off of Film4 and waited for a time to watch it with Tasha. This is the first re-watch I have undertaken in some time; I hadn't seen it since I was about 14 so it was interesting revisiting it from a completely different point in my life.

Directed by Tony Kaye, who I am not familiar with and haven't seen anything else from, but Black Water Transit is an intriguing offering. Written by David McKenna; a seemingly eclectic writer, who wrote the screenplays for Blow and SWAT, as well as taking a foray into the digital world of videogames with the screenplay for Scarface: The World is Yours

What Happened:

Derek Vinyard (Edward Norton) is a big racist. He kills a few guys, goes to jail and sees the error of his ways. Meanwhile though, his younger brother Danny (Edward Furlong) is becoming deeper ingrained in the white supremacist gang. Derek is determined to keep Danny off the same self destructive path he created for himself.

What I liked:
Spectacle: The brutality was convincingly hard hitting. It was precisely this spectacle that drew me to the film when I was younger. Further, the film was stylised, yet in a way that amplified meaning within the text rather than used for flashy aesthetics. i.e. the use of the wide lens really enhances the social claustrophobia.

Transformation: Derek's transformation is handled fantastically. The symbolic use of black and white when looking back to his pre-enlightened past emphasised how narrow and easily polarised his view was. The sincerity of the transformation was aided by the pace at which new information is revealed about that past.
Rooting for racists: What tells me that the film is well constructed, whilst also being somewhat troublesome, is the way it had me rooting for the white supremacy guys during the basketball game. The music, the pace of editing and the use of slow motion all instructed and manipulated me to want them to win; I had to sort of snap out of it. This seemed the intended response and perfectly captures the way an organization such as their's appeals to what the subject needs to see or hear in order to induct them into their narrative. I emphasise that this doesn't mean that I liked rooting for them, just that I liked that the film was constructed in a way that made me a little appalled at myself for doing so in this instance.

What disappointed:
Editing: The editing is shocking. This could not have been intentional; there are so many minor continuation errors and even some very blatant ones. The one that really took me out of the narrative was when Derek was arrested. The cop grabbed him from behind with his left arm in order for his hand to perfectly and symbolically cover the swastika on his chest. It then shot to Danny's reaction, shot back and it is now his right arm over Derek and not covering the swastika at all. Shot back and back again, it's back to his left hand. I don't usually notice these things, but this one is a howler.

Addresses the reality of racism, rather than just saying 'it's bad': The film investigates those small and seemingly insignificant social factors that create such polarizing and extreme views; that are then used to attract perfectly intelligent people to their way of thinking. It shows how it isn't only delinquents and idiots and therefore steers clear of the usual 'liberal' thing of saying 'this racism stuff is stupid and they're all idiots'. It acknowledges that there are very real social factors that harbour the situation; a situation that isn't logical and doesn't make anyone any happier or fulfilled, but is perfectly real and comes from real circumstances. I.e. It can only be stopped when the seemingly insignificant social infrastructure is addressed, rather than shutting one's ears to the real issues and saying 'oh well people shouldn't be racist'.

Performance of the film:
Ed Norton: For his transformation pre, post and during his jail time. It is impressive how he can be so convincing in both roles in the same text.

Scene of the film:
Winning the court: the basketball scene explained above, for the reasons I gave. Although just a little extra, the whole jail sequence really elevates it and makes it everything it is

Double take:
Different to my usual final word as this is my first revisit post. Although I enjoyed the film this time around, it didn't quite have the impact it had when I saw it originally. It is possible that I have seen more complex films since, or maybe a lot rests on not knowing what happens in the final act. Whatever this may be, I just didn't quite enjoy it as much as before.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Gnomeo and Juliet (2011) - shamelessly taking the money and destroying the whole point

Viewing Context:
Cinema trip with Corey. Thought this looked much more appealing than Yogi Bear, so utilised my best parent manipulation to influence his decision (bwa haha)

The film had a very British feel to it, which surprised me somewhat. Not only a few of the bigger British names, but anybody familiar with British sit-com, One Foot in the Grave, would have recognised the distinctive sound of Victor Meldrew (actor's name Richard Wilson). So when I saw that it was produced by a company I had never heard of called Starz Animation, I presumed this must be a British animation company, but it isn't; It is Canadian. The film was directed by Kelly Asbury (a guy); he has only a directed a few films (including Shrek 2) but has worked in numerous capacities in many other animated features. It was written by pretty much anybody that saw the script by the looks of it, but it seems to have originated from John R Smith and Rob Sprackling, the team behind Mike Basset: England Manager.

What happened:
Don't really have to go over this one; surely it is all in the title. Romeo and Juliet but played out in two gardens; one with predominantly blue decor, one with red. Red girl = Juliet, complete with over protective Michael Caine as her dad. Blue boy = Romeo, complete with arch nemesis Tybalt (Jason Statham). Star crossed lovers, yadda yadda yadda.

What I liked:
Comical use of source material: Played around with the existing text in an interesting way in bits. Not least of all when Gnomeo finds himself in the garden of some kind of manor house, speaking to a statue of William Shakespeare, voiced by Patrick Stewart.

Missed opportunities or what unimpressed:
Plenty in there that kids would care little about: All that I thought was good about it was completely missed on any children watching, as were the unnecessary sexual innuendos. It must be said that there were plenty'a silly things that seemed to entertain the kids, but although Corey didn't give up on it, nor did it make much of an impression on him.
No sacrifice: I know it's a kids' film and I'm not asking for a real depression session or anything, but there are still points that could be drawn upon for emotional substance. But this brighter than life adaptation completely evaded it. At least it made light of the matter, criticising itself as the statue of Shakespeare argues with Gnomeo as to the point of a happy ending.

Star crossed lovers: Well it is Romeo and Juliet, only without the love, the tragedy, the substance, the theatrics or the point.
Hindered growth of femininity: I did like the point that young femininity is bundled up so carefully by older generations, meaning well, but resisting the current trajectory of increasing gender equality. Gnomeo represents a brazen masculinity, but one of equality, willing Juliet to really get into the lawn mowing. That sounds bad, implying that she should be doing the garden work, but in the film lawn mowing is akin to street racing. It had previously been used in the film as an ultimate expression of masculinity in the Gnomeo vs Tybalt alley race.
Kids should have happy smiling endings: The film pretty much said that kids' films are allowed nothing but the happiest of smiley endings. I find this quite patronising, regressive and one of the things that give children such a warped outlook on the world. It contributes to the mythic structure of a liberal concept of right and wrong and happy ever after. I aren't saying there shouldn't be happy endings, but when they are so disingenuous, rewriting an ultimate narrative of real passion, I can't help but be offended by the diluting of kids' spirits as this light, bright illusion is created.

Scene of the film:
The scene where the two met was really playful and quite charming. Kept me engaged with this relationship for a little bit.

Performance of the film:
Great cameos but the Emily Blunt as Juliet was really impressive. She had a unabashed, refreshing and likable attitude about her.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

17th Bradford International Film Festival Final Post: Including Two in the Wave, 13 Assassins and film of the festival LiTTLEROCK

(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 final weekend seemed a stark comparison to the weekend prior. I pretty much crammed as much into the Saturday last weekend as I did for the whole of this weekend. One reason was that half of the films that fell in midweek slots convenient for me, were repeated over the weekend, which is a great opportunity for those not fortunate to have seen them through the week, so I can’t disagree with the move, but on a personal (selfish) level, it left me with less to choose from. Add to this that the Widescreen Weekend had started, taking up the whole of the Pictureville cinema. This strand generates quite an atmosphere, with most showings packed out by delegates hailing from all over Europe as well as Australia and the US. What it doesn’t do though, is help with my search for uncovered independent films. Having said that, what the weekend lacked in quantity it really made up for in quality, as I saw my film of the festival. LiTTLEROCK is another one of those inspiring examples of why it’s so important to scour these festivals looking for the roots of cinematic excellence taking shape. I will come back to this masterpiece after a quick rundown of what else the weekend offered me.

Friday was the busiest day, with three varied films/events lined up. First up, as part of the CineFile strand (dedicated to documentaries specifically about film) I saw TWO IN THE WAVE (Emmanuel Laurent). The film charted the personal and professional collaboration of François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard throughout the origins of what has come to be known as the Nouvelle Vague, throughout the sixties, culminating in May 1968 and then the ensuing strains between the two thereafter. The film was focused enough to give great insight, whilst also being broad enough to cover quite an expansive subject without losing momentum in any particular area. For me, having an understanding of the origins (albeit a limited one), the film didn’t really come to life until it charted the post-68 fallout, as Godard broke convention to new degrees, completely eschewing the mainstream and becoming critical of Truffaut for doing quite the opposite, seemingly embracing his place in the establishment. This split reaches far wider than these two and speaks of France on the whole, or even the whole of the West; the energy and solidarity generated throughout the sixties fractured, with factions going off in all directions or being subsumed by the mainstream.

Speaking only of what the film had to say, their ensuing post-68 directions were in contrast to their early lives. Truffaut, coming from a relatively deprived background seemed happy to be part of this comfortable mainstream. Godard on the other hand, seemed to me, to be suffering from a certain amount of middle-class guilt, having received quite a privileged upbringing, only to reject this bourgeoisie lifestyle completely.

The film should be a perfect balance of entertainment and insight, in order for students and film fans alike to get a sense of this Nouvelle Vague movement, with plenty of inspiration to do more digging themselves, should it spark the interest.

The next event was a controversial one; it was the Amos Vogel event. As opposed to the week prior where one of Vogel’s programmes was recreated, this was an attempt to construct a contemporary programme of ‘film as subversive art’. I can only commend the festival and the programmers for ambition and effort, but I was a little underwhelmed with the end product. I hadn’t read the details for the event and therefore didn’t realise that it was in the form of two relatively short films followed by an hour long documentary (of sorts) set in Bradford called THE BOWL (Peter Ward).

Before justifying my ‘of sorts’ remark I would just like to say that the first short, FLESH (Edouard Salier) was a great find and worth going just for that. It’s an animation which sees a detailed virtual model of New York, complete with twin towers, only with pornography projected onto every building (Sleazy nature of western decadence perhaps). The 9/11 planes then hit, cueing hundreds more planes that bring the whole city down, only for it to rebuild into an even more imposing, mutated structure with the same prominent pornography towering into the sky. I.e. fight an ideology by force and it will simply amplify what you have attacked. This parable would work both ways in the contemporary post 9-11 narrative of conflict.

As for THE BOWL, while watching it, I was increasingly frustrated at the flashes of brilliance as it dug itself right into the underbelly of white, working class Bradford. All too often though, it came across as a senseless, pointless mockumetary with ridiculous characters. I was told in the following days that there was no mock about it and everyone was real - which I am still unconvinced about - but even if this is the case, the film presents it in such a zany, stylised manner that it cannot be taken seriously. Apparently, the post film discussion raised some blood pressures and therefore perhaps it worked as subversive art, but it didn’t particularly offend me, it just seemed pointless.

The reason I didn’t stay for the Q&A (besides just being happy to get out of there, and that I’d be able to catch some of the Bradford Bulls game on the radio) was because I was pushed for time in order to get up the road to Cineworld for Takeshi Miike’s 13 ASSASSINS . Following from my experience at the Bradford After Dark horror day, the multiplex setting once again - despite lacking the technical near-perfection of the Media Museum - harboured a much more exciting atmosphere than most screenings down the road. It was well attended and there was a Friday night Samurai film excitement in the air.

The film itself is pretty much what you would want out of a samurai film: old Japan, stock characters, big build-up, even bigger showdown (oh and isn’t it just), hacking, slashing, decapitating, etc. One distracting feature though, is that it doesn’t quite know whether it wants to take itself seriously or if it wants to be a spectacle-laden genre-heavy bloodbath. The first half built up very slowly, creating a mature approach to death, giving it the gravitas it deserves as a sincere concept. The second half - the showdown half – in stark contrast went nuts, becoming a sort of blood-bath version of Home Alone, only with a village instead of a house; with thirteen samurai (ok, twelve, along with the mischievous, jungle dwelling thief-fighter) as opposed to one annoying kid and 200 royal guards as opposed to the two ‘wet bandits’. Either approach would have been fine separately, but they seemed a little out of place next to each other in the same film.

My natural instinct couldn’t refrain from trying to make some sense of this dichotomy using clues handed by the film itself. The fact that it takes itself so seriously, only to descend into a decapitating farce (albeit a thoroughly entertaining one) seems allegorical of the pointless nature of samurai in general and possibly even Samurai fiction by extension. They’re always held by history and popular culture in such high esteem, but this film shows how they lead such a pointless existence. The film is set in a time of relative peace, toward the end of the Shogun-centric system of control; a time that has little need for these obedient, trained killers. Taking themselves so seriously is their denial of this, as they constantly train in the secret hope that war, or some kind of conflict could break out. A poignant comment cemented my feelings on the matter, coming from the almost ethereal, jungle dwelling Koyata (Yusuke Iseya), who is the silly, camp character that injected some life into the group and into the film. He begins, wanting to join the samurai, this elite group, only to remark later “I thought samurai would be fun but you bore me”. I couldn’t help reading this as a meta-message from Miike, saying that samurai are pointless and a little boring, as is this formulaic Samurai fiction; we should leave them alone as historical relics, possibly even “jump ship to America” (another comment from Koyota). This is why the film never tries to be more than a straight genre spectacle; it would defeat the point.

Literally saving the best for last, Sunday morning brought me my final film, and film of the festival. It was between this and TRACES OF A DIARY, but after a week of reflection it is this beautiful narrative that has stuck in my mind most vividly. LiTTLEROCK is directed by Mike Ott, whose earlier film ANALOG DAYS also played in BIFF’s 2007 Uncharted States of America strand. LiTTLEROCK is written by the lead actress Atsuko Okatsuka, who plays herself, or at least a character of the same name, closely based on herself and her own experiences with small town America. I didn’t know this until the end credits rolled, at which point it made perfect sense, justifying how the film can feel so intimate and sincere. Her brother Rintaro Sakamoto (also playing himself) is fascinated with American culture and is midway through a visit to the area his grandparents had lived up until the Second World War. Their bus breaks down in a small town called Littlerock. Atsuko, who is merely tagging along to keep Rintaro company, has no prior interest in the country and therefore doesn’t speak a word of English, yet she becomes infatuated with this town and its people (who similarly give her a fair amount of attention). When the brother is moving on, she insists on staying, despite not being able to verbally converse with anybody there. The film felt so honest and sincerely sweet, but without being sugar-coated, clichéd or in the slightest bit ‘Hollywood’. Despite its endearingly enchanting sincerity, I for one felt a certain amount of dread throughout, like the whole thing was balanced on a knife edge. This tense atmosphere, along with its charming naiveté and the symbolic inability to coherently communicate, combine to give a fresh and original, poignant and precise depiction of adolescence. When you are that age, going through those changes, communication is just as confusing as - or even more pointless than - speaking in different languages. It is all those other ways in which the film masterfully conveys emotion and the connections between characters that make this film stick in the mind.

It really is the reason I attend film festivals; to see a genuinely independent production carved out of pure heart and passion, then striving to be seen by an audience. Well I know I wasn’t the only one swept away by this film; another person at the same screening (known on twitter as @itv_digital) was seeing it here for the second time this week and subsequently gave it high praise on a local radio station’s festival roundup. I will be pushing this film on anybody I think will have an opportunity to see it and I commend the team at Bradford for getting hold of it.

For a few final words on the festival, one thing I haven’t mentioned a great deal (I didn’t want to dwell on it, but I feel I need to mention), is the atmosphere and attendance for the majority was a little deflating. The headline events, and a couple of other events drew full houses and excitement, but the vast majority of midweek films, especially the earlier screenings were pretty poorly attended and seen by the same people. The festival didn’t reach far in demographic terms, with the same umbrella of society attending the majority of films I saw. Living in Bradford and having a pretty wide reach, through family, friends and work colleagues (past and present), there were few that even knew what the festival was. The reason this is such a shame is that many would love the festival, or at least parts of it.

This doesn’t take anything away from the excellence of programming, with easily enough going on to entertain any varying degree of film fan, but I would be doing an injustice to free press and to Bradford was I not to mention my impressions.

The genre entries were much appreciated and did draw a different crowd, as well as giving the same crowd something a little different. The best thing the festival has done though; a thing I wish I could have seen more of, and that I hope is expanded, or at least repeated, is the Northern Showcase. My interview with the filmmakers behind INNOCENT CRIMES and the film I rate as third greatest experience of the festival, HAROLD’S GOING STIFF, should be in the next issue of Film&Festivals magazine. They are testament to true, self funded, independent films. They have had to beg, borrow, steal (OK maybe not steal, but you get what I mean) and use every ounce of ingenuity and innovation they can muster to get their films made, then have found an outlet for them. Inspiring and precisely what film festivals should be for.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Brighton Rock (2010) - zzzzz

Viewing Context:
I had no natural impulse to see this remake of the David Attonborough vehicle of 1947 (nor have I seen this original), but having recently been appointed a volunteer film discussion facilitator for the senior citizen screenings at the National Media Museum, this screenig was chosen for us volunteers to meet the discussion group. I had no idea how busy the screenings themselves would be, but this was packed.

What Happened:
The boss of one gang gets killed by a member of the another. In retribution, Pinky (Sam Riley) kills said rival gang member in a moment of passion, as the aformentioned gang boss was a father figure of Pinky's. As the rest of the gang give him a fair amount of jip - he wasn't supposed to kill him - he goes on to attempt to take over the whole gang. The thing is, the day that this gang member was killed, there was a picture taken with the gang's second in command, the man to be killed and a girl called Rose (Andrea Riseborough). Rose then receives the close attention of Pinky, seducing her and convincing her that she shouldn’t talk to ANYBODY regarding what she knows.

What I liked:
First half was shot well:
The whole film was shot quite well shot, but the first half in particular looked great as it reproduced many 1940s noir tropes. That's about it; can't say I was particularly impressed with much more of it.

What I didn't like:
Rose: Can't say it was Riseborough's fault, but the character was such a wet fart that I couldn't have any sympathy for her. What a regressive female character.
Continuation: The scar that Pinky receives early in the film moves to about four different positions on his face throughout the film.
Flat final third: Apart from the very end, the last third descended into a mind-numbingly bland sequence of events.

Sixties - youth rising: Pinky represented a new youthful approach, symbolic of the youth rising outside on the streets throughout the film (Mods V Rockers and all that).
Oedipal Complex: The father figure was toppled at the very beginning. Further, there is a lack of anybody else of a father figure age in the narrative. There is either old (Helen Miran and John Hurt's characters) or young (Pinky, his mates and Rose). This reinforces the generational gap, instigating the rising youth mentioned above.
Babyboomer greed: This greed - born from Pinky's symbolic oedipal lack - led to his downfall. Similar to how the babyboomers of the sixties are now the investment bankers of today.

Performance of the film:
Sam Riley: Miran and Hurt were just Miran and Hurt (as good as that is), so I'd say Riley did a better job at becoming this character. He was mennacing but with enough hints of fragility in order to have the sympathies required for a character in a non-complex genre film.

Scene of the film:
The scene where Pinky kills the rival gang member. They are under Brighton Pier; above the pier and to the side, life is going on just like some bright sunny day, with this seedy life going on underneath.

Monday, 4 April 2011

The Devil’s Backbone (2001) - a tense depiction of the suppressed state of a nation during civil war (happens to feature a spooky ghost kid)

Viewing Context:
LoveFilm: I think I put it on the list after watching Cronos.

Antonio Trashorras and David Muñoz both have writing credits, but the film is quintessentially a Guillermo Del Toro written and directed feature. You can really see the same themes arising and progressing through Cronos, onto this and then reaching a level of real maturity with Pan’s Labyrinth.

What Happened:
A kid is dropped off at an orphanage during the Spanish Civil War. The owners and the children are hidden away from the destructive wave of the Franco’s dictatorship. This orphanage is ran by couple of well to do old folk, but not all the adults there have such pure hearts; a younger man, who had arrived fifteen years ago as an orphan is not sympathetic to the cause and is intent on finding the stashed gold that is keeping the orphanage running. Add into the mix a spooky ghost kid and you have a creepy story commenting on the suppressive life of wartime.

What I liked:
No cheap scares: The film created a tense atmosphere, not looking for cheap scares and jumps, but really getting into the psychological conflict of a child locked in this environment.
Social claustrophobia: The presence of this ghost heightens the already claustrophobic atmosphere created by the backdrop of the civil war.
Ghost boy: Though not particularly intimidating (as he wasn't supposed to be), he is really haunting. He is never used as a gimmick; rather, he becomes a genuine character.

Not so keen on:
Flat protagonist: Almost every supporting character was more interesting and had more depth than the lead. As the film goes on, these more interesting characters receive more screen time, but the first half is a bit boring-kid-centric. This doesn't do much harm to the film, but still thought it worth mentioning.

The claustrophobic and fearful nature of the civil war: This tiny secluded society is allegorical for the nation, where the youth are being given no opportunities. They are being protected and watched over by the declining thoughtful sect of the older generations. It only takes the slightest element of greed - symbolically in this film, coming from someone born in this situation; i.e. the same conditions that the situation itself creates - to complete a sort of self fulfilling and destructive cycle of right-wing individualism and greed. In such situations there is an understandable level of repression and fear, which again then brings out the worst characteristics in people.

Performance of the film:
Federico Lupi as Dr Cesares: He added the wisdom, weight and gravitas that the film needed. A man with a heavy heart, doing his best but not feeling that it is good enough. He also starred in Del Toro's Cronos

Scene of the film:
Devastation: After a moment of devastation that drastically changes the picture, the fragility of the situation is put to the forefront. Lupi really carries this scene as he assesses the damage.

Final Word:
Hopefully it doesn’t come to you marketed as a 'scary film' or dare I say a 'horror film', because it isn’t. It is a very tense and affective depiction of the suppressed state of a nation during civil war, which happens to feature a spooky ghost kid.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

17th Bradford International Film Festival - Other midweek films

(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)

Outside of the few thematic midweek posts I have put up were the following films, some of which could conceivably have been wedged into one of the other posts, but it would have been tenuous. HOW I ENDED THIS SUMMER for instance, a Russian film, could have gone in the European Cinema post, though it is aesthetically quite different to the films I had posted that day. CURLING, another film covered here was even closer to what could (in a largely generalised fashion) be termed as a European aesthetic, even though it’s Canadian (the French speaking pushed me toward making this connection I guess). It falls apart completely though with GREENWASHERS, the third film I cover here, which wouldn’t have really fit in anywhere, so I decided to put them all up in the same post as ‘other films’ I have seen this week.

The first one I will touch upon then is Denis Côté’s CURLING; a pleasantly slow paced Canadian film set in a snowy, desolate part of Quebec. The relatively insular Jean-Francois Sauvageau (Emmanuel Bilodeau) goes to some lengths to prevent his adolescent daughter, Julyvonne (Played by Emmanuel’s real life daughter Philomène Bilodeau) from interacting with the rest of society. Post-film, there was a lot made of its similarities to DOGTOOTH (which conveniently I saw in pretty much the same midweek BIFF slot last year), only in a much more conceivably plausible situation, as opposed to the cartoonish, surreal nature of Dogtooth’s Greek lockup. Rather than the over the top societal seal that the characters in Dogtooth live in, Jean-Francois simply imposes his almost lifeless void of a personality onto his daughter, subtly deterring her from taking part in society. Yet, her life isn't completely locked off; she knows of the outside world, but just isn't fully a part of it. Therefore it is a much more complicated suppression placed upon the impulse to act, rather than being completely forbidden from society. Not that the extreme nature of Dogtooth works against it, it’s what makes it what it is. I am just illuminating the difference in tone.

Just as Julyvonne’s life isn't completely isolated, nor are the characters' motivations (as they are in Dogtooth). We aren't spoon fed any sentimental reasoning or anything, but we do see glimmers of what may have motivated this man to want to protect his daughter from some of the darker sides of the world. The film's ability to drop in these almost partial explanations without painstakingly tying up loose ends is what makes it such a measured story involving real characters. Jean-Francois therefore, whilst having some clear flaws, is a compelling, convincing and sympathetic portrayal of somebody who cannot quite handle life; who doesn't have all the answers; answers he perhaps feels pressured to have, being a single father.

The title CURLING refers to others' attempts to let him know that he needs to not be so insular and to let somebody or something in; a hobby of some kind to invest himself in. So he is invited by a co-worker to join their curling team. Not just a hobby, curling is a team activity, a social experience, requiring trusted communication between ends.

There is a wealth of depth in every relationship throughout the film and is well worth tracking down. I know very little about Canadian cinema, which is something I intend to rectify ASAP. I am now even more gutted I couldn't make it to any of BIFF's Canadian strand last year.

The next film shares the snow induced feeling of desolation, but pushes the isolation to further extremes. HOW I ENDED THIS SUMMER (written and directed by Aleksei Popogrebsky) is the story of two men stationed on an island in the Russian Arctic Cirlce, taking temperature readings every day and relaying these back to the mainland. The older and senior Sergei (Sergei Puskepalis) decides he is going to vanish off fishing for a few days (against protocol), leaving the younger, inexperienced Pavel (Grigory Dobrygin) to fill in for him. It is at this time that some distressing news for Sergei comes from the mainland, but Pavel is conflicted as whether to tell him or not.

Having missed this film when it played at Leeds International Film Festival, due to being on the Short Film City jury, I was keen to get it watched here even though I am sure it will be getting a pretty decent distribution. I am really glad I did as well; after remarking that I wanted a few films this week to slow down, I had my prayers answered with this one. The film is such a patient and meticulous build up of tension; the whole thing hangs on a knife edge. To carry a two hour feature with essentially only the two characters in this baron, arctic wilderness, the film has its work cut out, but it is handled with real maturity.

The arctic landscape really takes on its own character and identity as it engulfs the screen, with the camera and the pacing perfectly capturing the desolate feeling of isolation; of being cut off from almost any form of civilisation.

The motivations of the characters are difficult to read, which draws you further in. The way they acted at times seemed irrational, which was refreshing; people act irrationally, especially under extenuating circumstances. They don’t always react in ways we are used to seeing on screen, which is what adds that extra dimension of humanity; the fallibility of human instinct or emotional reaction. This is another thing that gives these characters and this story so much weight and sincerity.

There is a generational difference evident throughout, being that both men were from different lives almost, different breeds of Russian it almost seems. The use of technology played the largest part in this difference. Including Pavel’s videogame playing, the way he teaches Sergei what a smiley is (in the context of text speak). Yet the main factor of this was the whole point of the Pavel being there; to trial a new electronic system of measuring these temperatures, thus eradicating the whole of Sergei’s existence. 

Just a few words to end on here about GREENWASHERS, the final film of this midweek roundup. I don't want to say too much as it somewhat underwhelmed. It is a documentary intending to expose the absurd industry of 'greenwashing'; an industry of consultants that exist in order to help companies 'appear' more green than they actually are.

I was underwhelmed because the subject matter is so important and I just felt that most of the film failed to live up to how it started. It began by exposing the real beliefs of a top CEO within one of these farcical organisations. It then spent most of the film following some mock greenwasher sales representatives, working the floor at a number of green trade shows. This would have been a great approach if they had exposed some people of being into their ludicrous schemes - in the same vein as THE YES MEN - but that didn't really happen. They persistently attacked and mocked working class salespeople, most of which actually trying to do good. They were people at the very bottom of the chain, who need to get paid and have no influence in their company. The amount of people who either actively tell them that what they are doing is wrong, or are too polite to say this so decide to grin and bear it, only served to prove that people at the bottom do care. I would have much preferred this mock approach expose the controlling, influential people at the top. Especially because the mockers were so good at what they were doing, it would have been nice for them to have some meatier opposition.