Archive for January, 2012

For Coriolanus Ralph Fiennes stages Shakespeare’s tragedy about a military leader cast out of his society upon a backdrop that contemporary audiences will not fail to recognise. With recession hitting economies hard, protests and riots, uprisings in the middle east and rebel forces battling dictators Fiennes was clearly inspired to offer an anachronistic take on the story. The film depicts a modern equivalent of ancient Rome, with recognisable conflict between the public and the powers that be. Centre stage is the violent rivalry between the Roman military leader Caius Martius Coriolanus (Fiennes) and Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler), the leader of the opposing Volscian army. In classic Shakespearian style we know one will end up dead by the hand of the other, but we wait to find out which one.

Fiennes’s approach to the original Shakespeare text is nothing short of ambitious. While staying true to the original Shakespearian dialogue Fiennes presents the drama in a verite style comparable to recent combat dramas such as The Hurt Locker and Green Zone. This stylistic angle is due to Fiennes’s choice of cinematographer in Barry Ackroyd, who shot the aforementioned war films with directors Kathryn Bigelow and Paul Greengrass. Adding to the realist tone of the film is Fiennes’s choice of cast who consist of a number of familiar British faces including Gerard Butler, James Nesbit, Brian Cox and Vanessa Redgrave. With British cinema’s reputation as a consistent purveyor of gritty realism we are reminded of the intended immediacy of the piece.

Use of location throughout the film is particularly interesting. Shooting in Serbia Fiennes creates a distinct contrast between grandiose government buildings and desolate spaces occupied by the ordinary people. This location is also key in depicting the crucial part of the story in which Coriolanus is cast out of Rome into the wilderness, when he is rejected by the Roman people. Fiennes also uses the city of Kotor in Montenegro to locate the Volscian army – these locations are suitably striking, yet understated enough to portray Fiennes’s vision of modern Rome. Importantly they enhance the possibilities of visual storytelling in a language heavy film, Barry Ackroyd deserves great credit here.

Ultimately Fiennes’s makes a worthy attempt to bring Shakespeare’s tragedy to the 21st century, but the themes at the heart of Coriolanus do not feel precisely applicable at this moment in time. The rivalry between Coriolanus and Aufidius feels somewhat irrelevant upon a modern backdrop because the political conflicts of recent years have essentially been defined by the masses versus the authorities, rather than individual versus individual. Fiennes’s decision to play the entire film with the original Shakespearian dialogue also makes the film something of a challenging viewing experience, as it can feel long winded and lacking in rhythm. This leaves the film feeling like a worthy experiment and an ambitious debut, but rarely as entertaining or as immediate as it needs to be.

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In light of the British Government’s Film Industry Review and David Cameron’s comments about Britain’s need to compete with Hollywood by producing more mainstream films, it is interesting to consider the theatrical release of Steve McQueen’s Shame, the other key British filmic event of last week. Shame is not by definition a mainstream film, but it is one that has garnered significant interest from both the media and the public in the UK and the USA. The film has become something of a sensation, presumably for two reasons – firstly it’s taboo subject matter of sex addiction and secondly the quality of its execution.

Sex addiction is not a subject that springs to mind when talking about box office success, but Shame had a very successful debut weekend in the states taking $361,181 in just 10 screens. This was the third best limited debut for an NC-17 film ever (following Bad Education and Lust, Caution). This tells us that audiences (specifically American audiences) are happy to pay for British films if they offer something challenging and unique. It’s opening weekend in the UK saw it selling out screens across the capital, with numerous screens in art house cinemas and multiplexes.

Following David Cameron’s statement last Wednesday the Guardian reported how former culture secretary Lord Smith, who is head of a panel evaluating the British film industry, proposed to take a significantly more tactful approach to the industry. With the release of Shame this seems appropriate. The tactic was to market the British film as a brand of quality assurance. Veteran director Stephen Frears reacted to this notion saying: “This country has been making intelligent films, films that are different from American films, for some time… If Lord Smith is now to say we need to keep doing more of the same, rather than trying to recreate Hollywood over here, that sounds eminently sensible.”

Becoming a brand of quality assurance is something that seems natural for British film to achieve at this point in time. With recent films including Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Kill List, Dreams of a Life, Senna, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, The King’s Speech and of course Shame Britain is all set to put a stamp of individuality on the international film scene. It is a question of successfully marketing these projects to an audience outside Britain and developing the stamp of quality for years to come. With the talent currently emerging within the British film industry this seems achievable.

It is greatly encouraging to see the British government taking a serious interest in the film industry as part of the British economy. However, the notion that the British industry should attempt to emulate Hollywood by predicting what will earn the most money seems misguided. While The King’s Speech has been regularly discussed as a shining example of British box office success, it is important to remember that this was not a result of market research, but instead it was an independent film that captured the heart and minds of critics and cinema-goers.

As Shame shows us, British film has the capacity to tackle challenging human subjects with artistic and commercial credibility. Star of the film Michael Fassbender is now a significant Hollywood player, but it is important to remember where he came from. Shame director Steve McQueen’s previous film Hunger also starred Fassbender; this film is where Fassbender really made a name for himself. Britain must continue to provide talent like Fassbender the opportunity to shine in films like Hunger and Shame, because these films can make money and be more than a product of market research at the same time.

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With Hunger, Brit director Steve Mcqueen had the strong foundations of a real life event to draw upon. His reconstruction of Bobby Sands’ hunger strike in a Northern Irish prison cell was startlingly realised and uncompromising for a first time filmmaker. In Shame, he and co writer Abi Morgan have conjured an original story between them, and now we see McQueen working on his own initiative. Shame is another visually striking, stark and chilly film, this time centering on the topic of sex addiction.

Refreshingly, this is a film that doesn’t clutter itself with unnecessary sub threads or issues. It is simply trying to reflect the existence of someone suffering from the condition in the most effective way possible. McQueen and Morgan acknowledge this is an important issue and, perhaps, with the domination of the internet, a burgeoning concept.

The main players are Brandon (Michael Fassbender) and Sissy (Carey Mulligan) two Irish American siblings in New York.  Brandon is a high flying, attractive city worker with a pristeen apartment, while Sissy is a nomadic wild child who drops back into his life unexpectedly. We are quickly informed of their characters; Brandon is a sex addict, a compulsive user of pornography, prostitutes and flings, while Sissy is loose and craves attention. It is clear that something in their background had informed their unfortunate way of living, but we are barely given any hints.

Mulligan is good in her role, but Fassbender is towering. At turns charismatic, pathetic, tortured, and confused, Fassbender is De Niro like in his commitment to the role. You’d have trouble finding a current Hollywood actor willing to put themselves on show as nakedly as Fassbender does here. While his life seems stable and even flourishing, McQueen reveals Brandon as someone unable to practice intimacy, and in his sharp dress and minimalist apartment, someone unwilling to let go. This is perhaps where the film can relate to a wider audience.

Visually McQueen does not quite hit the heights of his previous effort, perhaps reining the stylistic flourishes in to focus more on the characters. Having said that, there is a terrific extended track across the nighttime streets, and like Hunger, the mise en scene is often almost Kubrickian in its sterility. While Shame is a difficult film to love, it transcends its original aim of reflecting sex addiction to create an authentic portrait of two people who are isolated and quietly struggling to function in society.

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The introduction of sound into cinema was something of a bombshell. Today we take for granted an increasingly dense sound design, presented as if it were a natural part of the images, rather than the work of a Sound Designer and their team. However, for the first few decades of cinema this element was simply not present; music would accompany a show, with dialogue expressed via title cards. The Artist takes us back to the moment when sound was introduced into Hollywood and shows us what we now barely acknowledge, through the struggle of it’s silent film star George Valentin.

Valentin is introduced to us as one of Hollywood’s finest silent actors, a master of the craft of expressing and entertaining without the need for words. While working on a production he meets the charming Peppy Miller, a young dancer with a bright future. Just as she begins to make a name for herself sound revolutionises the film industry and she lands the lead role in a talkie. Valentin, being proud regards sound as a passing phase, but soon his career plummets leaving him without prospects, broke and bitter.

Director Michel Hazanavicius perfectly presents this story as if it were a classic Hollywood picture from the 1920s. The choice of film stock, the lighting, the sets and costumes, the cast, the music; everything entirely resembles a film from the silent era. The only give away that this film is a product of 2011 is Hazanavicius’s witty use of sound, which betrays the possibilities of a 1920s film in order to illustrate Valentin’s story, in which he struggles against an industry in transition.

With an utterly brilliant punchline and a completely convincing rendering of 1920s Hollywood, Hazanavicius has created a film which deserves to become a classic in it’s own right (like the silent films that inspired it). But what really makes The Artist so effective is it’s statement about the often bewildering nature of innovation. In the fast moving world we now live in, who’d have thought a silent film could seem so appropriate? Even if The Artist isn’t the most current film of the year, it still manages to be completely relevant.

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Alejandro Jodorowsky, one of world cinema’s most extraordinary directors, has released a pledge to fund his autobiographical feature film The Dance of Reality.

The eighty-two year old, who made such extraordinary films as El Topo and The Holy Mountain back in the 1970s, is looking to produce a film without financial ties to the film industry. He wishes to fund the film and presumably distribute it himself.

See Jodorowsky’s pledge video here:

And if you are so inclined you can donate on the following website:

http://www.ladanza.cl/es/tienda

For more information visit the official Guerrilla Zoo website here:

http://www.guerrillazoo.com/help-alejando-jodorowsky-s-new-film-become-a-reality

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Following the huge international success of the original Stieg Larsson novels, as well as the Swedish films, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo seemed like inevitable source material for a Hollywood remake. With only two years between the release of the original Swedish film and the US version it feels fortunate that the director attached to the project was David Fincher (Fight Club, The Social Network), one of Hollywood’s most creative and consistent filmmakers. However, this does not necessarily guarantee a worthwhile adaptation of the Swedish murder mystery.

Fincher tells the story of computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) and journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) investigating the murder of a young girl back in the 1960’s, using an intense stylisation drawn from its Swedish setting. A near constant barrage of snow and wind fills the mise-en-scene and sound design. This version of the story depicts an exaggerated Sweden, owing to Fincher’s background in music videos and love of digital technology.

Like the Swedish film, this one intrigues us with the disturbed Lisbeth Salander character. Fincher accentuates her features, casting the effeminate Rooney Mara and moulding her into a mohawk wearing chain smoker. Salander’s ballsy intelligence is what created the international sensation and Mara successfully portrays this, but unlike the Swedish film (where Salander was always a step ahead of the audience) Fincher’s Dragon Tattoo feels a little more predictable. As with the exaggeration in style, it seems that the plot has also become more obvious.

While reducing the sense of mystery found in the original, Fincher opts to disturb instead. This places his interpretation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo closer to his earlier films like Seven, but this does not always feel like the right treatment. As a story which works on numerous levels The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo seems difficult to perfect; perhaps this is due to the complexity of the novel, clashing with the need to produce a product that lives up to great commercial expectations. With this in mind Fincher delivers a good effort, but not a career best.

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It’s funny, you wait years for an apocalyptic arthouse film then two turn up within months of each other. While Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia took a metaphorical approach to the genre, using the impending disaster as a symbol of the protagonists mental illness, Take Shelter  opts for a more literal route.  In Jeff Nichols’ second feature,  a white collar family man, played by Michael Shannon, is beset by terrifying apocalyptic visions.

These nightmarish visions strike at the heart of his existence, as his genteel Texas home and family are tormented by vicious storms, accidents and violence. In the real world, Shannon struggles to distinguish between fact and fiction and he drags his work and family into his own personal struggle.

Nichols’ makes pains to establish the solid family foundations, his loving wife played by Jessica Chastain, adding another strong performance to a stellar year, and his deaf daughter. Shannon holds down a steady, macho job as a foreman, and his friend even tells him, ‘You’ve got a real good life’. So the film is all set  up for the inevitable breakdown, which Nichols’ unfolds in a steady fashion.

Take Shelter  is a solid but ultimately unspectacular film that conjures strong performances out of the two main leads, with Shannon now close to perfecting the ‘man on the edge’ character. The film suffers in the same way that Nichols’ debut feature Shotgun Stories did. That tale of two warring families was heavy on atmosphere and brooding machismo, but was weighed down by a thin, literal plot. There seems to be little going on beneath the surface, and while that is not necessarily a killer, the story is often too predictable to work just on visceral thrills.

The film is saved somewhat towards the end, with an electric public meltdown from Shannon and a gripping, stormy crescendo. Unfortunately this is an infrequent strong note in a film that is typified by the CGI visions, a serviceable but crude set of creations.

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1) THE TREE OF LIFE (DIR. TERRENCE MALICK) – USA

A confession– I had been waiting for years for Terrence Malick’s new film to come out, listening out intently for snippets of information on its long production. So forgive my bias, but there is simply no other contender for film of the year. In all honesty ToL is not a perfect film. Some scenes work, some scenes don’t. But when they do work, they soar. I’d take 20 minutes of some scenes from ToL over the whole year in cinema. Pitt and Chastain perfectly convey the complexities of parenthood, while the young boys are a revelation. Lubezki’s roaming camera combined with the beautifully operatic classical pieces is utterly glorious. Malick’s most personal, sincere and adventurous film to date.

2) WUTHERING HEIGHTS (DIR. ANDREA ARNOLD) – UK

Scottish auteur Arnold updates the classic Bronte novel with hyper real cinematography and naturalistic performances. The young Cathy and Heathcliff are excellent as the bruised lovers, while the Yorkshire valleys take on a wild, oppressive life of their own. One of the few British films to use the landscape in a refreshing and exciting way.

3) SLEEPING SICKNESS (DIR. ULRICH KOHLER) – GERMANY & CAMEROON

This beguiling odditiy comes across as a mix of Claire Denis, Uncle Boonmee and David Lynch, combining jungle environment with hallucinatory, surreal touches. A German doctor is working in an unnamed African hospital, where he deals with the ‘Sleeping sickness’ bug, a condition that makes the sufferer feverish and hallucinate. His family have to leave the country without him, and then things start to get weirder on his own…

4) TRUE GRIT (DIR. THE COEN BROS) – US

The Coen’s are so consistently good, it’s almost boring. Here they turn their meticulous hands to full on western, and master the genre in one fell swoop. A remake of Henry Hathaway’s original, the brothers stick to a more traditional approach, harking back to the classic Westerns of the 40’s and 50’s, but with a few of their own surreal touches for good measure. Jeff Bridges seems to be one of the few leading actors of the 70’s not to have settled into semi –retirement, and is a wizened joy here.

5) NORWEGIAN WOOD (DIR. ANH HUNG TRAN )– JAPAN

Based on Japanese author Haruki Murakami’s 60’s set doomed romance, Vietnamese director brings an exquisite visual style to the books foundations. Garnering only luke warm reviews, this is for me one of the more underrated films of the year. Taking his cues from his earlier films, Hung Tran combines lush, sensual cinematography with subtle, restrained emotions. On top of that, it has an excellent soundtrack featuring CAN and The Velvet Underground.

6) SENNA (DIR. ASIF KAPADIA)– UK

Painstakingly compiled from endless hours of footage, Kapadia’s documentary of the golden F1 driver Ayrton Senna introduces a whole new legion of fans to a sport they thought they hated. Or at least for a couple of hours or so he does, anyway. Made up of grainy interviews and races, with only voiceover to compliment them, the film takes on a hypnotic, compelling quality as we follow the charismatic Senna through his highs and lows.

7) MARGARET (DIR. KENNETH LONERGAN)– USA

Kenneth Lonergan’s long gestating follow up to indie hit You Can Count On Me was riddled with studio and editing troubles, and on it’s eventual release it almost went unnoticed. Thankfully a few major critics rallied around it and it looks like it has at least cult appeal. Following a brattish New York teenager, played by Anna Paquin, as her life is turned upside down by a shocking road accident. Regarded as a response to the confusion 9/11 brought to American life, Margaret is a raw, sprawling drama that leaves the audience to work out their own point of view.

8) BIUTIFUL (DIR. ALEJANDRO GONZALEZ INARRITU) – SPAIN

There was a sense that Inarritu was starting to get ahead of himself, with the bloated Babel and the split with writer Arriagas, but with Biutiful the director has gone back to basics. Anchored by a towering, moving performance from Javier Bardem as a people tracker who starts to have a change of heart. Inarritu shows a side of Barcelona that the tourists won’t see.

9) MELANCHOLIA (DIR. LARS VON TRIER) – SWEDEN & DENMARK

Based on Lars Von Trier’s own struggles with depression, this unusual, elegant film is an effective distortion of the Hollywood disaster movie. Kirsten Dunst plays a bride to be in the midst of the illness, and sees a kinship with the hovering blue planet Melancholia that threatens to engulf the world. The lush visuals and subtle performances elevate this above your standard apocalypse film.

10) CONFESSIONS (DIR. TETSUYA NAKASHIMA)– JAPAN

A fairly low key release this year, this Japanese film was a strange mixture of high school drama, thriller and who dunnit. A teachers child is killed by one of her students, and like Battle Royale, the adults end up having the last laugh. Multiple view points tell the story, and the film is notable for its inventive, playful visual style and soundtrack featuring the XX and Radiohead.

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