Archive for December, 2011

1) DRIVE (DIR. NICHOLAS WINDING REFN) – USA

Drive is a Hollywood film directed by a distinctly European director. Danish director Nicholas Winding Refn rethinks the Hollywood crime thriller with minimal dialogue, strong colour, offbeat casting and an idiosyncratic soundtrack. While embracing it’s influences Drive also subverts numerous cliches and Refn shows a remarkable talent for crafting scenes that are emotionally gripping and utterly tense.

2) ANIMAL KINGDOM (DIR. DAVID MICHOD) – AUSTRALIA

David Michod’s debut feature feels like the work of an accomplished Australian equivalent to Michael Mann. Animal Kingdom tells the story of a naive young man in the midst of a dangerous crime family and the havoc he causes them. With an impressive cast including Ben Mendelsohn and Jackie Weaver, Michod rarely puts a foot wrong, from the staging of each scene to his choice of music. Not only an extremely impressive debut, but a great Australian film.

3) INTO THE ABYSS (DIR. WERNER HERZOG) – GERMANY & CANADA

Werner Herzog has been working hard lately, with the release of Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Into The Abyss premiering at various festivals in 2011. Out of the two unique documentaries Into The Abyss hits the hardest, with some of the best interviews Herzog has ever conducted. Probing the subject of death row Herzog puts together a restrained, yet unmistakably Herzogian investigation, which places moral  questions centre stage.

4) THE SKIN I LIVE IN (DIR. PEDRO ALMODOVAR) – SPAIN

Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In is an intriguing, intelligently structured and stylish film that successfully pulls the rug from under the audience’s feet in a manner that is as entertaining as it is unsettling. Almodovar blends classic horror with the themes he is famous for and gains great performances from his cast. Antonio Banderas turns in a dark, well judged portrayl and Elena Anaya brilliantly gains the audiences empathy within an utterly bizarre scenario.

5) MIDNIGHT IN PARIS (DIR. WOODY ALLEN) – USA

Midnight In Paris sees Woody Allen at the top of his game. Owen Wilson plays a screenwriter (Gil), who aspires to become a novelist. He falls in love with Paris while on holiday with his fiancé (and her parents) and begins wandering the streets at night revelling in the city’s mythology. Upon meeting a number of unlikely personalities, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemmingway and Salvador Dali among others, Gil becomes far removed from his normal life to wonderfully Allenesque effect.

6) TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY (DIR. TOMAS ALFREDSON) – UK

Where Drive was an American production directed by a Dane, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a British one directed by a Swede. Tomas Alfredson brings a distinctly Scandinavian approach to this classic cold war story. Like his vampire film Let The Right One In, Tinker Tailor makes use of wide open spaces juxtaposed with dingy interiors to create an appropriate paranoia. Alfredson’s remarkable ensemble cast create numerous memorable performances, particularly Gary Oldman as George Smiley.

7) HUGO (DIR. MARTIN SCORSESE) – USA

An ode to cinema by Martin Scorsese, Hugo tells the tale of French film director George Meilies through the eyes of a young boy called Hugo Cabret. Directed with a youthful flare by Scorsese, we follow Hugo’s journey to fix an automaton left behind by his late father, which leads him to a discovery of Meilies forgotten cinema career. The story of a young man discovering cinema and it’s possibilities for the first time is clearly one close to Scorsese’s heart; that’s why Hugo is such a good film.

8) DREAMS OF A LIFE (DIR. CAROL MORLEY) – UK

Dreams of a Life and it’s central character Joyce Vincent captured the hearts and minds of cinema goers this Christmas. Joyce Vincent died in 2003 in her North London bedsit and went undiscovered for three years. She had been a popular, outgoing and successful young woman who became increasingly alienated in the years preceding her death. Director Carol Morley investigates the circumstances that lead to Joyce’s death and meets with friends, boyfriends, colleagues and others to paint a portrait (using excellently performed reconstructions and talking head interviews) of a woman who no one would expect society to leave behind.

9) SNOWTOWN (DIR. JUSTIN KURZEL) – AUSTRALIA

John Bunting, Australia’s most notorious serial killer is the subject of Snowtown. Directed by Justin Kurzel, with cinematography by Animal Kingdom DOP Adam Arkapaw, this film is a gruelling telling of a series of crimes orchestrated by Bunting between 1992 and 1999. The film’s graphic style is tough going even for hardened film viewers, but Daniel Henshall’s intelligent and rounded performance as Bunting demands the audience’s attention. Along with Animal Kingdom, Snowtown shows contemporary Australian cinema in a very good light.

10) PINA (DIR. WIM WENDERS) – GERMANY

Wim Wender’s tribute to the late Pina Bausch contains perhaps the best use of 3D seen in 2011. The film, made after Pina’s death, sees Wenders stage the choreographers work in a manner that complements her work effectively. The juxtaposition of Pina’s choreography and Wender’s choice of locations, camera work and music creates a kind of posthumous collaboration, which functions as both a moving tribute to and preservation of Pina’s remarkable style of choreography.

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Honorary mention:

The Story of Film: An Odyssey (Dir. Mark Cousins) – UK

A remarkable television series for Channel 4 telling the history of film in Mark Cousins’ unique style.

http://www.channel4.com/programmes/the-story-of-film-an-odyssey

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Director Carol Morley’s Dreams of a Life investigates the story of Joyce Vincent, a young woman who died in her London flat in 2003 and went undiscovered until 2006, when she was found decomposed with the television still on. Morley’s film is structured around a series of interviews with friends, boyfriends, colleagues and journalists juxtaposed with dramatic interpretations of her life, performed by actress Zawe Ashton. Rather than opt for a detailed exploration of Joyce Vincent’s death, Morley looks to details of her life to explore the underlying circumstances that could lead a seemingly happy, intelligent and socially mobile individual to disappear without a trace.

Filming on location in and around North London Morley paints a vivid picture of Joyce’s world, portraying moments of her life in sensitively constructed scenes based on memories of her interviewees. We witness an embarrassing occasion where a male stripper arrives at Joyce’s birthday, scenes portraying her early family life, moments spent with her friends as well as particularly haunting, surrealistic scenes of her watching television and riding in a London taxi bearing the advert ‘Have you seen Joyce Vincent’.

By mixing interview with acted sequences Morley creates an emotionally engaging portrait of the complex character of Joyce Vincent. We see a fun loving and lively young woman, combined with a paranoid secretive individual. We recognise how her choices, as well as the behaviour of others, lead her to a premature death and we reflect on how things could have turned out for the better. While Morley never pinpoints precisely what killed Joyce (her body was far too decomposed for a detailed autopsy), she leads us to understand the process of isolation and its potentially tragic consequences. Dreams of a Life is part documentary, part cautionary tale and a beautifully tragic tribute to a person who should never have been forgotten.

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Following our previous post The Dark Knight Rises trailer #2 has been released officially online.

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The second trailer for The Dark Knight Rises (which has appeared in cinemas, only to be leaked online) promises an intense journey for audiences next summer. The trailer features a cynical Bruce Wayne, Catwoman and Bane – perhaps Batman’s most deadly adversary.

Set a number of years after The Dark Knight, the trailer suggests that Bruce Wayne has hung up the Bat Suit and returned to his playboy lifestyle, following his battle with The Joker. It seems that since The Joker’s departure, times have largely been peaceful in Gotham, but with a burgeoning financial crisis angst is starting to boil over into radicalism.

Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman tells Bruce Wayne “You think this is going to last. There’s a storm coming Mr Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches. Cause when it hits you’re all going to wonder how you ever thought you could live so large, and leave so little for the rest of us”.

Bane played by Tom Hardy is the figurehead of the developing chaos.

Despite his brutish demeanour, Bane also appears to be a terrorist-mastermind, detonating an American football stadium. Having caused havoc in public we then witness Bane bent over a bruised Batman. Perhaps Batman has met his match. But the trailer hints that Batman still has some fight left in him, with the emergence of the Batwing and a huge street fight.

While Warner Bros have been careful to protect their assets, fans can witness six minutes of the film in the form of a prologue at IMAX screenings of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. The trailer should be officialy released soon for all to see in high resolution.

In conclusion it seems that Christopher Nolan and his team have taken the third Batman film into exciting territory, with their choice of Bane as the villain. The Dark Knight had many people asking how it was possible to top The Joker as a threat to Batman, but it appears that Bane represents a different form of danger. Bane appears primal yet calculated, where The Joker was anarchic and insane. In addition to Bane’s potential danger Batman/Bruce Wayne appears to have become a shadow of his former self, as suggested by Catwoman. How can Batman live up to his past? No doubt, The Dark Knight Rises will answer many thrilling questions.

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Upon viewing the initial trailer for Martin Scorsese’s Hugo I was sceptical. Had Scorsese made a children’s film, aimed at the Harry Potter generation? As a fan of classic Scorsese (Taxi Driver being my favourite) I was taken aback. It seemed to me that this film didn’t have much to do with what made Scorsese’s previous work great; I expected tough guys, existential crisis, catholic guilt and guns. To me a story of a boy living in a train station, fixing mechanical objects, didn’t seem true to form. Clearly I knew nothing of Scorsese’s work, but Hugo enlightened me.

Hugo entwines the narrative of young orphan Hugo’s adventure to discover a message from his deceased father, and the biographically rooted story of French film director Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley). Méliès made over five hundred films from about 1896 to 1913, only to spend his last years living in relative poverty working at a toy store in the Montparnasse station, Paris. Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) meets the bitter Méliès whilst trying to steal parts to fix an automaton, which he believes will fill the void his father’s death left him.

The automaton becomes a symbol of Hugo’s dreams and the dreams that Méliès once had, which were since crushed. In setting out to fix the automaton Hugo’s boyish aspirations come into conflict with Méliès cynicism. The story of childhood persistence versus adult bitterness is nothing new, but it rings true with a great vitality. Scorsese directs Hugo with a youthful visual approach, employing sweeping long takes and elaborate dream sequences which enchant us into Hugo’s world. This inventive direction is clearly fuelled by Scorsese’s own passion for the work of Méliès and of course cinema itself.

Scorsese is a filmmaker at his best when his work is both personal and driven by his intense passion for cinema. When Scorsese made Taxi Driver in the mid 1970’s, he was often equated with the troubled central character Travis Bickle and this contributed to the film’s authenticity. Like Taxi Driver, Hugo sees Scorsese taking on a character close to his heart. Watching the final scene of Hugo I realised that this film could perhaps be Scorsese’s most profound statement, representing his pure boyish love of cinema in the most moving way to date.

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Andrea Arnold has carved out a promising career as a director of visceral, earthy dramas, including Red Road and Fish Tank. For her third film she has chosen to adapt the classic Emily Bronte novel, Wuthering Heights. After two urban-set contemporary dramas, the film is a departure in it’s period setting and rural environment. Much has been said about Arnold emerging with a modern, refreshing take on the material. I have to confess that I have not read the source material so will review the film on it’s own terms.

A young foreign orphan is found and adopted into the household of the Earnshaw’s, a poor family living in a shabby house in the Yorkshire valleys. The god fearing father of the house baptises the boy and names him Heathcliff. The young Heathcliff (Solomon Glave) is welcomed into the house by the curious daughter, Catherine (Shannon Beer), but finds himself threatened by the remaining members of the family. Much of the drama is derived from this confrontation as the exotic, raw boy unnerves the household

Arnold creates a vivid picture of life on the valleys; the roaming camera and superb sound design conspiring to throw the audience into every gust of wind, every clump of mud and grass between their fingertips. The environment is as important as the characters, a life force of it’s own, much like the streets and high rises of Red Road. The harshness is emphasised by the muted colour pallette, all variations of blue and brown. Heathcliff and Cathy devour the land beneath their feet, both liberated and oppressed by it’s stark, vast beauty. Romantic feelings sprout amongst the jagged hills, yet Heathcliff is downtrodden at home. The situation worsens when the samaritan father dies and the family’s goodwill towards Heathcliff evaporates.

After Wuthering Heights excellent first half, the film unfortunately takes a dip in quality. This can mostly be attributed to the introduction of the older Heathcliff and Cathy (James Howson and Kaya Scodelario), who struggle to replicate the nuanced, natural performances of the preceding young actors. As adult worries come to the fore and the two struggle to adapt to their new lives, the electricity of the earlier episodes begins to disappear. Scodelario in particular feels a little lightweight in her role.

This is a shame because for a large part of the film Arnold has an enthralling, animalistic drama on her hands. It is an atmospheric and sensory experience, and the doomed relationship between Heathcliff and Cathy is touching without being sentimental. It is only in the final parts that the momentum starts to sag and the audience’s attention begins to slip away.

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Melancholia begins with a series of slow motion, ethereal scenes of an apocalypse enveloping the main characters. It is one of the most striking openings you’ll see in a cinema this year, or any other. A ghostly bride is imprisoned by grey flowing threads shackling her ankles. A young boy is cradled by his mother as their feet sink and merge into a golf course like quicksand. A black horse collapses in on itself in front of our very eyes.

Director Lars Von Trier sets the tone for this unusual film, a beguiling mix of disaster movie ala Deep Impact and a psychological drama by Ingmar Bergman. The film is set in a large country house in picturesque grounds by the sea. Guests are gathered together for the wedding rehearsal of a young couple, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard), organised by her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and husband John (Kiefer Sutherland).

Quickly the film morphs into Festen territory at the rehearsal, as cracks begin to show in the family. Justine’s mother (Charlotte Rampling) decries her disgust for marriage, and the presence of her ex-husband (John Hurt) does little to help matters. Meanwhile John and Claire struggle to understand Justine’s erratic mood swings in the midst of their precious arrangements. Justine, we learn is descending into a deep depression, yet finds an odd kinship with an encroaching pale blue planet, aptly titled Melancholia.

This enigmatic, ominous planet occupies a shadowy presence in the film. As Justine’s condition worsens, Melancholia journeys nearer to it’s collision with earth. It is an excellent, effective metaphor for depression, a silent force that takes hold over the victim. Some viewers have argued that Melancholia is a vacuous exercise in prettiness, a work of self indulgence by Von Trier. Yet when you take into account Von Trier’s own vocal struggle with depression, it seems more likely that the elegant, lush visuals only serve to cushion the rawness of Von Trier’s message. Like a Morrissey lyric, Melancholia coats the razor sharp bitterness with beauty.

At first I had my reservations in Dunst’s abilities in conveying such a complex emotional state. However, she has an icy, distant quality which lends itself surprisingly well to a condition that is often elusive and difficult to gage on the surface. The supporting cast are all very good, a mixture of narcissism and misunderstanding permeating through the characters. Gainsbourg in particular radiates existential fret and sisterly anxiety to great effect.

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Ousmane Sembene’s Black Girl is generally regarded as the first feature length film made by a Black African in Sub-Saharan Africa. The pioneering film tells the story of Diouana (played by Mbissine Thérèse Diop), a young Senegalese woman who moves from Dakar to Antibes in France to work as a nanny for a white couple. The film explores the theme of colonialism and illustrates the way in which Diouana is exploited by her employers and the emotional breakdown this causes within her.

Sembene tells Diouana’s story by juxtaposing the present tense with flashbacks to Dakar; this technique illustrates her expectations of a new cosmopolitan life. The contrast of her reality, as a house-bound cook, cleaner and child minder, and her initial hopes of a prosperous and stylish life in France are effectively emotive. Sembene is capable of creating a strong empathy for Diouana, in spite of the relatively clunky technicalities of the script and direction. The film suffers from a somewhat unrealistic sense of time and a lack of motivation for secondary characters; this creates a lack of naturalism and leads to the film feeling overtly staged.

The film is grounded by Mbissine Thérèse Diop’s performance; she subtly creates a downtrodden character with whom we can empathise. Her desire to embrace her idealised life in France is excellently portrayed in the design of her costume. A genuine sense of sadness is created as we realise her nice clothes were simply a bribe, persuading her to move to France. As well as this Sembene uses the visual motif of an African mask, which Diouana gives to her employers and then reclaims; this is an attempt to illustrate the fruitless trade off she had to make for a life in France.

While some of Black Girl’s visual metaphors such as the mask feel a little crude, the film still achieves an authentic sense of power. This power comes from Sembene’s intent on getting the story on the screen and communicating it with a clear-cut voice, as a Senegalese filmmaker.

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Inspired by a recent viewing of Peter Watkin’s biopic Edvard Munch, I will be looking briefly at a number of films about artists. There have been countless films concerning famous painters over the years, but I have narrowed my selection down to a few favourites, an eclectic bunch of films.  I will be focusing my attention on Andrei Rublev, Basquiat, Nightwatching, Love is the Devil, Caravaggio and Life Lessons from New York Stories.

ANDREI RUBLEV  (DIR. ANDREI TARKOVSKY, RUSSIA- 1966)

Andrei Rublev is perhaps the most ambitious film about an artist alongside Edvard Munch. For me Andrei Tarkovsky’s best film, combining dazzling visuals and unforgettable set pieces (the balloon escape, the pagans by the river), with philosophical and religious themes. Anatoli Solonitsyn plays the 15th century painter, struggling in a turbulent period of Russian history. This is painting as a religious experience, mirrored by Tarkovsky’s transcendental cinematic vision.

BASQUIAT (DIR. JULIAN SCHNABEL, USA, 1996)

Directed by Julian Schnabel (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), Basquiat stars Jeffrey Wright as the New York painter.  A penniless street artist, he is discovered by some fashionable art insiders and lauded as the next big thing. Basquiat shows the artist’s fertile imagination and creativity, while strongly evoking hip 1980’s New York. An all star cast including Benicio Del Toro, Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken add to the glamour.

NIGHTWATCHING (DIR. PETER GREENAWAY, HOLLAND/FRANCE/GERMANY/POLAND/CANADA/UK, 2007)

This is essentially a Dutch film about an iconic Dutch painter. Peter Greenaway, a British exile working in Holland, is a huge admirer of Rembrandt’s work. Martin Freeman plays the title character with both dry humour and a hint of resignation. The film is one of Greenaway’s most moving, but what is most impressive is the way that the mise-en-scene and cinematography conspire to ape Rembrandt’s own paintings. The striking use of light and sparse sets almost seem at one with the subject.

LOVE IS THE DEVIL (DIR. JOHN MAYBURY, UK, 1998)

Derek Jacobi turns in an excellent performance as Francis Bacon in this bleak biopic. The film focuses on his relationship with George Dyer (Daniel Craig), a gangster-like younger man who steals (literally) into his life. Their volatile love affair entwines with Bacon’s ugly/beautiful paintings, filled with distorted bodies. Director Maybury signals how Bacon’s masochistic impulses in life filtered into his artwork.

CARAVAGGIO (DIR. DEREK JARMAN, UK, 1986)

The tumultuous life of the Italian painter is brought to screen by Derek Jarman. Actually, Nigel Terry’s portrayal of the artist is fairly tame when you consider the stories of him as a hellraiser. Sure, there are infidelities, assaults and even murder, but Jarman portrays this almost as a natural progression for Caravaggio. The film looks beautiful and stark, similar to Nightwatching. A striking depiction of a life lived on the edge.

LIFE LESSONS  (DIR. MARTIN SCORSESE, USA, 1989)

New York Stories is a little seen trilogy of mini films directed by the finest New York directors of the 70’s. Woody Allen’s comedy is a joy, but Francis Ford Coppola’s segment (co-written by a pre-pubescent Sofia Coppola) is a fluffy, misguided kids film. My favourite is Martin Scorsese’s Life Stories, starring Nick Nolte as a middle aged professional painter. This is the only non-biopic in this piece, but I thought it was worth including because of it’s depiction of the actual practice. Tormented by impatient dealers and temperamental lovers, Nolte’s character throws himself into violent bursts of painting. Scorsese’s camera lingers over the vigorous brushstrokes as the Rolling Stones’ boom out of the record player.

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In tribute to Ken Russell, who recently passed away at the age of 84, we have assembled a series of film stills from some of his most significant works.

Russell was something of a maverick within British cinema. His polarising and extravagant films depicted themes of music, religion, sex and violence with powerful imagery and sound. As a film maker he experienced his heyday in the 1960’s and 70’sIn the later years of his life he found it hard to gain financial backing, due to the controversy of his earlier work. It is likely that with his passing, a new phase of respect for his work will emerge.

ELGAR (1962)

WOMEN IN LOVE (1969)

THE DEVILS (1971)

TOMMY (1975)

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