Archive for November, 2011

Sergei Parajanov occupies a strange place in public perception; lauded to the high heavens by critics and cinephiles as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, yet seemingly unknown to 99% of the population. Perhaps it is his Armenian background, not exactly a hotbed of household figures. Or maybe it’s because of the censorship and imprisonment that hindered his career? Fortunately Parajanov seems to be gaining some more exposure in recent years; there has been an upswell in interest in lost filmic gems, signaled by Scorsese’s film restorations.

Parajanov certainly deserves his reputation, despite any qualms I might have with some of his work. His films have a visual style almost completely unique to any other; how many filmmakers could you say that about? The Colour of Pomegranates is his most famous film. It is an unconventional biopic of the Armenian poet Sayat Nova. Instead of telling a traditional story of Nova’s life, traipsing through his ups and downs, Parajanov uses an elliptic editing style, making use of static tableaux shots and poetic flights of fancy.

In fact, you would be hard pressed to find a distinctive story to grasp onto. We begin seeing through a child’s point of view, flashes of colourful daily life in a rustic town. It is reminiscent of Tarkovsky’s Mirror and the recent The Tree of Life, dwelling on moments of beauty and revelling in Nova’s childlike wonder. Parajanov has little interest in telling a classical story, but creating a piece of work that reflects Nova’s own poetry.

There is little dialogue, and the acting is fairly muted. Having seen a few of Parajanov’s films now, I would say that the performances are less about expressing themselves as human beings, more vessels for Parajanov’s overall vision. Parajanov was influenced by “Armenian illuminated miniatures”, which explains why each frame feels more like a intricate painting than a cinematic image. Costumes and mise en scene are lovingly handcrafted by Parajanov, creating some of the most beautiful frames in cinema.

I have to confess, although Pomegranates is visually stunning, I prefer the swashbuckling, roaming cinematography of Shadow of Forgotten Ancestors, an earlier film. The Kalatozov ( The Cranes Are Flying) style camera work coupled with the mise en scene in that film created some extraordinary sequences. Still, Pomegranates is one of the most distinctive and visually inventive films ever produced; young filmmakers would do well to get educated by it.

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Snowtown, a film based on a series of murders committed near Adelaide, Australia between 1992 and 1999, is a gruelling take on its source material. First time feature director Justin Kurzel casts Daniel Henshall as John Bunting, the domineering serial killer at the centre of the true crimes. Initially Henshall portrays Bunting with a surprising charm and affection towards a family who fell victim to a local paedophile. He takes revenge of behalf of the family, before setting out on a crusade against any person he takes a disliking to. Ultimately Bunting becomes a junky to the violence he creates, enlisting those around him to carry out horrendous acts.

Kurzel’s approach is to maintain a gritty sense of realism, juxtaposed with a heavy dose of tension. He creates a number of particularly violent and disturbing scenes, with characters inflicting shocking acts on humans and animals. He combines these with frequent scenes of characters smoking cigarettes and eating. It creates a sense of squalor in which murder becomes as common place as lunch. Snowtown’s visual motifs bring to mind another recent Australian success, Animal Kingdom. Both films often portray important events in wide shots (sometimes opting for slow motion); this does not overemphasize the intensity of the action and creates a disturbing sense of detachment.

However, despite the comparison to Animal Kingdom being part of the praise for Snowtown, this is also where the film comes unstuck.  Where Animal Kingdom had pace, punctuated by moments of extreme tension Snowtown feels somewhat incoherent and meandering. This problem partly stems from Kurzel’s tendency to create moments with a somewhat contrived sense of tension, relying too heavily on sound rather than action, as well as the film’s passive (though well acted) main character Jamie Vlassakis (Lucas Pittaway).

With its brutal scenes and occasionally difficult pace Snowtown is challenging on several levels. Nevertheless it is well cast and impressively acted, showing moments of great directorial technique. All in all it is a flawed but worthwhile addition to contemporary Australian Cinema, which as a national cinema shows itself capable and willing of taking on tough subjects with creative ingenuity.

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Here is a short (and on the fly) interview I did with legendary Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky (Fando Y Lis, El Topo, The Holy Mountain, Santa Sangre), back in 2009.

Jodorowsky was in London exhibiting works he created with his wife, artist Pascale Montandon. They were kind enough to speak to us at the private view.

This scene makes up part of a short documentary I created around the time covering Guerrilla Zoo’s Season of Jodorowsky.

I hope it gives you a small insight into Jodorowsky and Montandon’s creative relationship and some the the themes that permeate their work.

For more information on the Season of Jodorowsky please visit:

A Season of Jodorowsky IMDb link:

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Undoubtedly one of the most talked about films of the year, Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin looks set to make an impact on the awards season. Ramsay’s adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s controversial novel from 2003 takes a text and makes it irrefutably cinematic. Utilising extreme close ups, bold visual motifs and an intense sound design Ramsay’s film eloquently portrays the story of a failed relationship between mother and son, which subsequently manifests itself in extreme violence.

The film is told in two narrative strands, essentially a before and an after sequence. Both narratives are told from the perspective of Eva (embodied by Tilda Swinton). Both narrative strands are anchored around the high school massacre carried out by Eva’s son, Kevin (portrayed with great charisma and menace by Ezra Miller). Around this pivotal moment we essentially learn about the development of their relationship beginning with Kevin’s conception. We learn that Eva never wanted, and therefore never loved the child.

Ramsay uses the American locale of the story to further her vision of the inside of Eva’s head, rather than to say anything site-specific. She uses the locations of New York and Connecticut to represent Eva’s complete inability to tolerate her life since Kevin’s conception. In New York she juxtaposes the sound of baby Kevin crying with the sound of pneumatic drills, in Connecticut she uses the sound of country and western music to create a subtle and maddening atmosphere.

Ramsay’s decision to internalise every environmental feature into Eva’s psyche makes We Need to Talk About Kevin a slow burning and effective film. Ultimately it is all the more disturbing for the fact that our protagonist seems so off-kilter. This makes us ask ourselves who is the more insane, Kevin for his wild massacre, or Eva for her inability to find love for her first born child.

We Need to Talk About Kevin is an enormously creative and intensely psychological film that succeeds at placing you in Eva’s head. The only question that remains is whether you want to be there or not.

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I’m in two minds about Last Winter, the debut feature from John Shank. On the one hand, you’ve got an accomplished, serious, occasionally visually striking drama about a young farmer coming to terms with the loss of his industry/world. On the other hand, it feels like a film that’s predictable from start to finish, from every single character to every plot movement. There is nothing new here.

We are introduced to Johann (a commanding Vincent Rottiers), who is toiling alone on the farm that he inherited from his dead father. The farm is based in small village in central France, a stark, blustery landscape, bringing to mind some of Bruno Dumont’s film terrains. He is evidently dedicated to his work and revels in the environment. Shank shows him milling in idyllic rivers and tending to sun-glazed animals. He is supported by a local girlfriend, who waits each night for him to climb into bed. All rosy so far.

The edenic existence is shattered, however, by the realisation that the farming co-op that Johann is part of, is suffering. As the head of the co-op, it’s Johann’s ultimate decision whether to give in to Helier (Michel Subor), the middle man between the co-op and the larger foreign companies who want to dictate the farmers work. Johann, ever stubborn, is reluctant to adapt to modern demands.

Coming from a rural background, these issues are not unfamiliar to me, and there are many news reports about farms capitulating under bankruptcy, and even suicides. This is clearly a serious issue and one that I have not seen represented on screen much, if at all. Yet, it might be this familiarity that with the subject that makes the film slightly staid for me.

Perhaps it is because the director Shank, American born, was not already ingrained in the culture that he is depicting; does his outsider status perhaps make the film feel a little inauthentic? Altogether the film feels somewhat by the numbers. His girlfriend is of little or no consequence, barely saying a few words, and then there is the inexplicable presence of his mentally disturbed sibling, a strange staple of independent dramas (What’s eating Gilbert Grape?, Lost Times), whose only role seems to be to inject unnecessary angst to the story and bludgeon home how compassionate the protagonist is.

There are elements of Malick in the idyllic shots of nature and landscape, but these are mostly drowned out by the gloomy middle section. There is a particular sequence which seems indebted to Days of Heaven‘s famous locust spectacle. Bruno Dumont appears to be another reference point, with his stark portrayals of rural French life. Last Winter unfortunately feels like a lite version of these auteurs films, neither beautiful or otherworldly enough for Malick, or gritty and compelling enough to be a Dumont.

By the end I was pleading for Shank to refrain from an ‘open ending’. Once a thoughtful, challenging part of many art films, it now seems to be a weapon for lazy filmmakers unsure of how to end their story. Often there might not be a ‘right’ ending, but I think Last Winter had the choice of two interesting paths. It chose the middle road.

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Elena is the third feature film by Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev. He came to prominence with his startling debut The Return, an enigmatic, visually striking film about a family road trip. His reputation was sealed with an assured sophomore effort entitled The Banishment (you can see he has a penchant for mysterious titles) and whispers of an heir to Tarkovsky were heard. So Elena comes with a hefty set of expectations attached.

This parable-like tale concerns Elena (Nadezhda Markina), a steely housewife, caught between her rich husband Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov) and layabout son Sergey (Aleksey Rozin). Elena used to care for Vladimir, but has now been married to him for 10 years. The couple live in a luxurious city apartment, while Sergey and his family live in poverty in a small deadbeat town. The director effectively juxtaposes these two opposing existences, perhaps making a point about the gap between the wealthy and the poor in modern day Russia.

Sergey urges his mother to acquire money from Vladimir, his stepfather, in order to pay for his obnoxious son to go to uni. Vladimir, a grumpy, stingy man, balks at Sergey’s laziness and refuses to cave in to the demands, not even to sate his wife. Elena is caught between two stubborn men, and when Vladimir starts to fall ill, she faces a dilemma about whose side she is going to take. Added into the mix is Vladimir’s estranged, hedonistic daughter Katerina (a sharp-eyed Yelena Lyadova).

The performances are routinely impressive, Markina especially working with a difficult, nuanced portrayal of loyalty and guilt. The film as a whole feels very enigmatic, very unshowy. At various points there are references to religion, and morality seems to be the major theme of the film. Aesthetically and thematically I would say this this is weaker than Zvyagintsev’s previous two films; the bleached out, expressive landscapes have been replaced with a more banal urban look. Despite this, the film is very accomplished and compelling, the understated moralistic dilemmas leaving it a quiet power.

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There are some films/filmmakers who revel in their weirdness. Audiences going into watch the new David Lynch readily expect an explosion of surrealism. A sinister midget? Cross country lawnmowers? Oh David, you do spoil us. But then again, there are those peculiar films which lull you into a false sense of security, then BAM! A hippopotamus walks across the screen. Yes, you heard me.

Which leads me into Sleeping Sickness, upcoming German director Ulrich Kohler’s Cameroonian set film. The film starts off fairly dryly, with our introduction to doctor Ebbo Velten (Pierre Bokma), who is working in a remote hospital dealing with ‘sleeping sickness’. Sleeping sickness manifests itself with bouts of insomnia and fatigue, causing the sufferer severe disorientation. The film structurally tries to reflect this condition, in its elliptic editing and humid visuals.

Velten and his family are about to return back to Germany, after a long stint in Africa, and one critic has described the film as a representation of the displacement felt by moving between the continents. Personally, I felt it difficult to assign a particular message or theme to the film, such is its surreal, subtle allure. Halfway through the film, without warning, the focus shifts onto a young French-Congolese doctor named Nzila (Jean- Christophe Folly), who is embarking on a similar mission to Velten. He meets Velten there, and sees that the white doctor has become a shell of his former self.

I mentioned David Lynch earlier, and there are some parallels to be drawn with the disorientating structure and fluid, interchanging characters. Yet Sleeping Sickness is perhaps more unsettling because it often feels like a conventional observational drama akin to Claire Denis, then sidesteps you with a moment of absurdism. I can’t say I thought Sleeping Sickness was a great film, because it was slightly unsatisfying in its elusiveness. But this is also why it stays with you after the credits roll.

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In collaboration with London based arts organisation Guerrilla Zoo, I have just released a short documentary I directed covering a powerful and provocative event of theirs this summer. The event entitled Modern Panic was inspired by the work of the Panic Movement, formed by legendary art filmmakers Alejandro Jodorowsky, Fernando Arrabal and Roland Topor in Paris 1962. The event acts as a follow up to Guerrilla Zoo’s Season of Jodorowsky from late 2009.

Still from the original Panic Movement’s performance ‘Sacramental Melodrama’.

Presented by James Elphick Modern Panic explores the work of a number of international artists. The list includes legendary prisoner Charles Bronson (central character of Nicholas Winding Refn’s Bronson), the enfant terrible of Bolivia Gaston Ugalde, Berlin based taxidermist Iris Schieferstein and controversial british artist Kira O’Reilly. As well as these big names the film features a host of remarkable upcoming artists and Guerrilla Zoo regulars. All of these artists come together to create an event in the spirit of the original Panic Movement.

I hope you enjoy the film (but I must note that due to the nature of some of the content it is perhaps not ‘work safe’).

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In the UK 2011 has been quite a year for Ryan Gosling. Blue Valentine was released on the 14th of January, and then in September we saw the release of Drive and Crazy, Stupid, Love. By late October The Ides of March hit the cinema screens, making it pretty hard to deny that 2011 is the Year of Ryan Gosling. Not only has Gosling dominated our screens by number of releases, but it is the quality of the films he has been involved in that really makes the difference. Drive was a directorial tour-de-force by Nicholas Winding Refn, which brought out the badass in Gosling. Blue Valentine was a raw and honest portrayal of the fate of a romance without the necessary maintenance. Crazy, Stupid, Love portrayed another failed relationship; this time Gosling took on the role of ladies man/dating coach, to hilarious effect.

This brings us to The Ides of March, a classy political thriller and George Clooney’s fourth feature as director. Gosling plays Stephen Meyers, an idealistic Junior Campaign Manager for the Democrat’s presidential candidate Mike Morris (George Clooney). Meyers is convinced that Morris is the one man in America who can make a difference to the lives of ordinary people, stating “I’ll do or say anything if I believe in it, but I have to believe in the cause.” And he does believe in the cause, until he meets a young intern called Molly (Evan Rachel Wood) and discovers something equivalent to his worst nightmares. From here all hell breaks loose, both within the campaign and within Meyers’ own system of values.

It is here that Ryan Gosling shows us the kind of rounded performance he is capable of. Having convinced us of Meyers’ integrity and idealism, Gosling soon makes the transition to a revenge driven individualist. Unlike Drive where Gosling internalised nearly every emotion, The Ides of March shows him reaching for more raw emotions; in this sense the film has more in common with Blue Valentine. The Ides of March sees Gosling playing wildly divergent character traits within the same character, to utterly convincing effect. With this film Ryan Gosling seems to have skilfully established himself as an actor of some authority, not just ‘one to watch’.

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