Archive for February, 2013

Is life just a series of events? Births, deaths, marriages, divorces, jobs, redundancies. Are these the barometers for life, the way in which we measure our existence on earth? Is this all it comes down to? Or are we forgetting something important? Experience. Feeling. Over the past few years I have been more and more drawn to films which celebrate the sensory experience of life rather than boil a story down to a series of happenings. Events can only tell you half the story; the emotions between the lines will linger longer in the memory than the basic details. Which brings me to Terrence Malick, to my mind the most evocative creator of moments working in cinema today.

His latest film, To the Wonder, is arguably his most adventurous proponent of this vision yet. While his earlier films, particularly Badlands, stuck to a fairly linear, conventional Hollywood structure, his films have gradually emerged in a looser, more improvisatory fashion, culminating in To the Wonder. Malick is notorious for changing things on set, rewriting dialogue as the inspiration comes to him and chopping and changing scenes and actors in the edit room. With To the Wonder, there was no solid script, just a set of sketches and notes to work with. The result is a free wheeling, unpredictable melodrama that no one else could have possibly made.

The story is deeply personal to Malick; Neil (Ben Affleck) embarks on a whirlwind romance with Marina (Olga Kurylenko) during a trip to Paris. The stoic Neil is drawn to Marina’s wildfire ways and seeks to bring her and her daughter back to live in his native Oklahoma. Once there the relationship begins to fizzle out, and Neil is drawn back to Jane (Rachel McAdams) his childhood flame. It is difficult to predict how far art imitates life in this case, but Malick spent sometime in Paris, eventually travelling back to settle in Texas. Malick’s previous film, The Tree of Life, was also highly personal, and it would not be outrageous to assume that the reclusive auteur is beginning to reveal a part of himself little seen to the public. With age he seems to be parting the curtains a little.

To the Wonder is unlike any film you will see this year, both in mainstream Hollywood or even the art house circles. It opens with camera phone shots of the newly born couple swirling around Paris in a daze, a blur of neon lights and stolen glances. Marina dances along trains, bridges, city streets, high on the energy of romance, while a rapt Neil follows in her wake. This is perhaps where Malick is at his best, demonstrating the vitality and good in life through sound and image. Regular DOP Emmanuel Lubezki has become an integral cog in Malick’s vision; his fluid, wandering camera capturing the two lovers in a dreamlike manner. Music also plays a huge part in conjuring feeling, and Hanan Townshend’s stirring strings elevate the images to a higher place.

Life details, issues, obstacles come in small snatches; how does Marina’s daughter feel about the move? What will Marina do when she gets there? Will they cope with the change? It is almost as if these are petty details in the whirlwind of love ensnaring the two characters. Once in Oklahoma, things start to change. Malick tells the story almost entirely through body language and landscape. Marina loses her lust for life, her wildness dimmed by the alien surroundings. Malick has often used his native Texan landscape to signal both rapture and despair. The empty suburban streets and golden wheat fields exuding a wistful poignancy; an opportunity for hope and a mournful foreboding.

One element that Malick has taken to new heights is the idea of movement. In The New World, and to some extent The Tree of Life, the main characters moved as if they were in a ballet, their ebbing emotions mirroring the direction of their feet.  Another talented American director, Hal Hartley, also demonstrated this technique in his films, getting his actors to circle each other like a choreographed performance. It brings a physicality and poetry to proceedings that To the Wonder uses to great effect.

There is no doubt that To the Wonder is a beautiful work that utilises cinema to its real nature, its real calling. There are certain moments where all the sensory elements collide to heartbreaking effect, and your whole body tenses in answer. Yet, Malick’s sixth film has its flaws. Although the film is fascinating and keeps on asking questions of the audience, it feels slight compared to some of his other works. The lack of a solid story hinders To the Wonder in a way that it didn’t in his previous films. By the time Neil and Marina’s relationship begins to fizzle, the tension that drove The New World or Days of Heaven ceases to exist. To the Wonder might actually be too personal a project.

Kurylenko captures Marina’s unpredictable nature brilliantly while showing an emotional depth; Affleck however suffers greatly. Never the most expressive of actors, his chisel jawed silence seems jarring compared to the film’s emotive, almost melodramatic style. Malick often manages to extract special performances from lesser acclaimed actors, but here Affleck could be considered perhaps the weakest lead in the director’s oeuvre. It doesn’t help that Neil’s motivation seems unclear. He seems to float along, unwilling to commit to anything and even the work subplot involving the contamination of soil falls by the wayside. Javier Bardem, playing the local priest, lends gravitas to a small but important role. His lonely, doubtful existence about his career path echoing Marina’s own struggle.

Thematically To the Wonder seems to follow the same strains as Malick’s previous films; rationality, intellectualism and pragmatism vs. spontaneity, feeling and real desire. The head vs. the heart. Like Jessica Chastain’s mother character in The Tree of Life, Marina’s character appears to symbolise a part of nature, while Neil represents the masculine opposite. The film also seems to be preoccupied by the notion of love, the conflict between personal love and a greater love for mankind. Malick shows love as a temperamental, fleeting force in our personal lives, but hints towards a higher universal form that Bardem’s priest is so desperately trying to locate.

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While the Oscars, Baftas and countless other award ceremonies scream and shout for attention, life goes on for the films and film makers not boisterous enough to be awarded with a golden prize. One such film quietly tiptoed into UK cinemas this February – Hirokazu Kore-eda’s I Wish. The Japanese director has been plying his trade with quiet aplomb in his home country, turning out a number of excellent family dramas such as Still Walking and After Life. Often described as the heir to Yasujiro Ozu, Kore-eda excels at creating naturalistic and observational depictions of modern family life that do away with any hysteria.

I Wish, like some of his previous films, focuses on children rather than adults. Koichi and Ryunosuke are two brothers living apart in a broken family; Koichi lives with their mother and her parents in Kyushu, while Ryunosuke decides to live with his father in Hakata. Despite the slightly unusual situation, Kore-eda deigns not to dramatise this domesticity in the opening set-up of the film. It just is. Koichi, the older of the two, is desperate to reunite the family. Despite the presence of his two school friends, he leads a boring, sanitised existence with his mother and grandparents. Ryunosuke, however, is a live-wire, enjoying the freedom of his fathers lax lifestyle and the attention of his girl friends.

A flicker of hope arrives for Koichi when news of a new train line between the two cities arrives. The two brothers set about concocting a plan to meet midway, and visit the place where the rail line intersects. There, they can make their wish. The question is, what do they really want most in life? That is the main theme running through the film. Kore-eda creates an interweaving ensemble of characters with their own fears, hopes and desires; from the schoolgirl who wants to be an actress to the grouchy grandad trying to perfect his sponge cake. Kore-eda’s skill lies in his ability to make the audience empathise with the plight of all his characters, even with little screen time.

The film hinges however, on the two brothers performances. Koki and Oshiro Maeda are two precocious siblings who were discovered by the film makers as two budding comedians hoping to become famous, and I Wish will surely cement those dreams. They have a natural chemistry, and can move from drama to light comedy with ease. Much of their interaction at the beginning of the film relies on the use of phones; they talk to each other after school while their parents are away. Their conversations are childish but deeply moving, as they learn little details of how the other is learning and growing without the other.

Kore-eda uses a mixture of static shots and handheld camera to give an observatory feel, and the gentle folk soundtrack moves the scenes along rather than for sentimental cues. The Japanese director makes pains not to sentimentalise the story, which makes the quieter revelatory moments all the more moving. For Kore-eda, less is more. On the surface I Wish is a gentle, innocent film about childhood and coming of age, but beneath that lies some serious lessons about responsibility and compromise.

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On the 7th of Febuary (and with more than a hint of excitement) I boarded a flight from London Heathrow to Berlin’s Tegel airport, to attend the Berlin International Film Festival (Berlinale) for the first time. The Berlinale was founded in West Germany in 1951 and is now one of the world’s most important film festivals. The festival hosts numerous world premiers, press conferences and a project market that allows filmmakers to pitch and ultimately fund their films.

The Berlinale also plays host to the Talent Campus, which offers 300 young film professionals the opportunity to develop their understanding of filmmaking from craft, to business, to publicity. As well as Campus categories for production crew the Berlinale also has a group for upcoming film journalists called Talent Press, run by Oliver Baumgarten and Aily Nash. I was selected as one of seven candidates from around the world along with Adrian (Indonesia), Ankur (India), Irena (Romania), Visnja (Croatia), Ariel (Canada) and Juan (Peru.) Meeting each candidate was intriguing, as it allowed us to share in our borderless love of cinema with all our similarities and differences. We were also gifted with the experienced mentors, Dana Linssen, Derek Malcolm, Stephanie Zacharek and Chris Fujiwara.

Each day (and under the tutelage of Dana Linssen) I was responsible for producing a text on a particular film, event or expert for the official Talent Press website (as well its partners FILPRSCI & the Goethe Institute). As such, my experience at the festival was not the conventional one of a Talent Campus participant, or a journalist covering the event. As a participant of the Talent Press I was lucky to see two sides of the festival: the films and the Campus events.

Harmony Lessons (Dir. Emir Baigazin, Kazakhstan)

The festival features in a number of different categories: Competition, Berlinale Shorts, Panorama, Forum, Generation, Perspektive Deutsches Kino, Berlinale Special, Retrospective, Homage, Culinary Cinema. Each one has a slightly different focal point, with the Competition focusing on films competing for the prestigious Golden and Silver Bear awards, Panorama dealing with more controversial themes and Forum dealing in experimental and documentary films.

Encouragingly the festival featured a number of films made by campus alumni, including the impressive competition film Harmony Lessons by Kazakh director Emir Baigazin, which won the Silver Bear for Outstanding Artistic Achievement in cinematography for DOP Aziz Zhambakiyev. Harmony Lessons was my personal favourite of the festival. It impressed me with its elliptical (almost Kitano-esque) take on the gangster genre. The film follows a young boy who is subject to frequent bullying at school and the cyclical problem of violence that arises from his situation. A Talent Press discussion following the film provoked a particularly rich debate on the film’s numerous thematic concerns (including nods to Darwin and Ghandi) and its strengths and weaknesses.

Danis Tanovic’s An Episode In The Life of an Iron Picker was another favourite. It features a dramatic reconstruction of a Bosnian Roma family’s financial dilemma, when the mother of the family experiences a life threatening miscarriage. As I learned from producer Amra Baksic Camo in a talk entitled ‘Small Wallets, Great Films’, the film was made in a matter of months, with the real family acting as themselves. Tanovic makes excellent use of the family dynamic, making the film feel like an intimate family event. The DSLR cinematography by Erol Zubcevic captures the industrial marred Bosnian countryside with a raw cinematic sensibility.

Soderbergh’s Side Effects was an equally intriguing, albeit structurally chaotic, critique of the drugs industry. While somewhat haphazard in its final act, this film is a brilliantly effective thriller with a staunchly pessimistic outlook on the moral implications of stock trading in medical products. The film has a hyper-modern yet Hitchcockian glaze, within which Rooney Mara, Jude Law, Channing Tatum and Catherine Zeta-Jones weave a timely tapestry of sordid deception. [Second Look: 09/03/2013 – On second viewing my negative feelings about Side Effects‘ structure are annulled, the structure is logical, efficient and dramatic; the film is hugely entertaining and a great success, I was the one in need of a second look.]

I also saw a number of films that did not work so well, though this is not to say that they were disinteresting. Polish director Małgośka Szumowska’s In The Name Of was a bizarre story of homosexuality and religion, in which (the otherwise excellent) Andrzej Chyra plays Adam, a Catholic priest who is torn between his faith and his attraction to a young man in his community. The film is overloaded with taboos including the treatment of the mentally handicapped and lacks focus; this also gives way to one bizarre scene where Adam drunkenly dances with a portrait of the pope.

Something In The Way (Dir. Teddy Soeriaatmadja, Indonesia)

Maladies, starring James Franco and directed by the visual artist Carter, was a great misstep. Dealing haphazardly with the subject of mental illness, the film see’s Franco behaving in a confused, erratic and oddly (and inappropriately) amusing manner, while performances by Catherine Keener, Fallon Goodson and David Strathairn revolve inconsequently around him.

Other imperfect films of interest included the enjoyable (and darkly humorous) low budget Indonesian thriller Something In the Way about a deluded young religious man, who drives taxis and masturbates on a chronic basis. No Man’s Land by director Salomé Lamas was an intriguing yet ultimately impenetrable character study of homeless ex-mercenary Paulo who fought in Portuguese colonial wars in Mozambique and Angola, before working as a contract killer. Wasteland: So That No One Becomes Aware of It was also a beautiful, but ultimately limited story about a group of Syrian and Lebanese children living in secluded asylum in Germany.

And yet some of the most interesting moments were not the films. At a dinner for British Talents Ken Loach offered his critique on the nationalistic branding (and therefore limiting) of British culture by advertising experts, for the Creativity Is Great Britain campaign. Loach described his unease with the use of the Union Jack (which he referred to as “the butchers apron”) and the unsubtle (and grammatically erroneous) campaign slogan. At dinner he discussed the pyramid of executives now pressuring film directors in the British film industry and I drew his attention to Soderbergh’s recent Vulture interview concerning the same issue in Hollywood, which he regretfully found unsurprising. On the final day we participants were also joined for breakfast by President of the 2013 International Jury, Wong Kar-wai.

Also published on the Talent Press website are my interviews with Dutch director Paul Verhoeven (Robocop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct, Turkish Delight), as well as producer Paula Vaccaro and director Aaron Brookner, who are currently producing the film Smash The Control Machine. I also wrote about Walter Murch, who spoke about using sound in storytelling. The experience of the Berlinale Talent Campus was truly a rich one, full of interesting people, events and films (regardless of quality.) It was one of an open and accepting culture, where people from almost 100 countries could meet and engage in the art and craft of filmmaking. To any aspiring and upcoming film journalists, I endorse you to apply for the Talent Press; it was an exciting and formative experience that I will certainly cherish.

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The grizzly horror Containment by Scott Matthew Watson tells the story of doctor Jeffrey Trepman (Chris Sharp) imprisoned by the government, during a viral outbreak. The film does the opposite of most outbreak films (28 Days Later for example), as it focuses on the development of the virus and the institutionalisation of the victim, as he ineffectually attempts to make sense of what is happening.

Containment begins serious in tone, but gradually betrays a sadistic but satisfying dark humour (which arises out of the film’s shocking set piece). Taking place virtually entirely in a disgusting cell (an excellent display of design and lighting), the film gradually amps up the tension as the inevitable horror encroaches.

Particularly interesting is the film’s staunchly subversive outlook. Instead of looking upon Trepman’s imprisonment as necessary, the film provokes us to see it as tyrannical, selfish and cruel on the part of wider society. Trepman, a doctor, is subject to a ruthless social exclusion where he is beyond the point of communication or explanation. It makes us question what part the establishment has to play in the outbreak.

And yet the brilliance of Containment as a short is that it poses these questions, without ineptly struggling to answer them. Instead it hints brilliantly at the world outside of Trepman’s cell, where a Soderbergh-esque feature adaptation would feel right at home. For all its brutal horror, Containment is a brilliantly restrained short film.

[vimeo vimeo.com/19060157]

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In the past decade there has been a spate of film and TV projects chronicling iconic show business figures and landmarks. It seems as if modern audiences are basking in a warm nostalgic glow, and alongside the endless remakes, sequels and prequels, the biopic has provided that irresistible glimpse into the past. In the past couple of months alone, there have been two, that’s right, two Hitchcock biopics. The Girl, a BBC project starring Toby Jones, pecked at the torrid shoot of The Birds, but this new film documents the precursor, the infamous Psycho.

Anthony Hopkins stars as the rotund, devilish auteur Alfred Hitchcock, heavily made up in prosthetics of course. Sacha Gervasi’s film details the origins of Psycho and how the shoot came to affect his relationship with longtime partner/collaborator Alma Reville, played by Helen Mirren. In early 60’s LA, Hitchcock’s magic was beginning to fade with Hollywood producers; they wanted a sleek, commercial hit in the vein of North by Northwest, while a jaded Hitch was keen to spread his wings with a more dangerous project. When the Psycho novel falls into his paunch, he revels in its gruesome depiction of murder and incest.

The studios however, are less impressed, and even Alma has her reservations. Forced to fund it himself, Hitch and Alma put their livelihoods on the line in order to ignite the project. Meanwhile, Alma’s attentions are drawn to the seductive screenwriter Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), as the two work on his new screenplay. Hitch’s eyes are also straying again to his perennial vice; the buxom blonde lead actress, this time Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson). As the shoot goes on, the couple find themselves edging apart from one another.

Hopkins and Mirren are both excellent; Hopkins showing the same pained restraint as he did so memorably in The Remains of the Day, while injecting the film with a bout of much needed humour. Mirren plays Alma as both headstrong and whipsmart, but also someone quietly affected by Hitch’s weakness for his dream woman. The film as a whole though has something of an identity crisis. It starts off as a fairly gentle, witty domestic charade, then descends into worthy relationship drama, mingling misguided fantasy elements along the way. Ed Gein (the serial killer inspiration for Psycho) appears in a series of hallucinations to Hitch, advising him throughout the film. These intermissions feel unnecessary and only muddy the overall tone.

Hitchcock is an enjoyable romp, but has serious issues with drama and conflict. The film never really delves into why the Psycho shoot was so torturous and the obstacles (MPAA, his infatuation with Leigh, studio execs) are dealt with ease. His relationship with Alma doesn’t manage to ignite the audiences fire either, and it started to remind me of another biopic, Control. Was Ian Curtis’ relationship with his wife the really interesting aspect of the Joy Divison story, or was it simply a convenient thread for the film makers to cling onto? I have similar reservations here, in that Psycho speaks for itself as a striking piece of work. We don’t really need to know the story behind it, and here the film makers never convince us otherwise.

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The debate between the advantages of shooting on digital and celluloid is now at the forefront of the film world’s psyche. Filmmakers do not agree on which medium yields the most benefits – Roger Deakins is beginning to favour digital, while Christopher Nolan’s preference for film remains unchanged. While the aesthetic advantages of each format are hotly debated, most agree that digital’s role within the industry will continue to grow. The advantages held by the digital format in economy and practicality are vast, which would seem to suit the studios perfectly – as Martin Scorsese says, “anything cheaper and faster makes sense for the businessman.” However, the champions of film will not be swayed.

Christopher Nolan and his director of photography Wally Pfister assert that digital technology is not yet advanced enough to exceed the visual quality of film, and they are technically right – there is no medium which yields a higher resolution than 70mm IMAX film, which was used in Inception and The Dark Knight Rises. However, filming in 70mm is incredibly costly. Its use is only justifiable in productions with stellar budgets, and even then it is limited to certain scenes. 35mm is still the predominant medium in feature films, and its quality is far more comparable to that of digital. David Lynch and Roger Deakins both consider digital to be equal or superior to 35mm film in its aesthetic, and Deakins even underlines the visual edge the Alexa Arri camera has over film. He explains that the film speed of the Arri allows far greater versatility in extreme light conditions, whether bright or dark. Deakins also believes that the deciding factor in Sam Mendes’ decision to film Skyfall in digital was the clarity that the medium gives the characters’ eyes. Skyfall is among the hot favourites for the Academy Award for cinematography, and if Deakins is successful the tenth time around, it will be a huge achievement for the digital format – three of the last four winners of the award will have been filmed digitally (Avatar and Hugo being the other two).

It would seem, then, that the issue of visual quality is unresolved. Everyone can agree that film and digital stock are vastly different media, and some go as far as to argue that only celluloid constitutes real cinema due to its full, organic look. They certainly have a point: if we reimagine some of the masterworks of cinema in digital – Once Upon a Time in the West, for example – instinct tells us that the result would not be as richly satisfying. Digital is, for now at least, best reserved for certain kinds of projects, whether that be the homemade feel of Cloverfield or the modern, night-time cityscapes of Drive and Collateral. The use of digital in The Hobbit, however, gave the film a sharpness and gloss which felt wrong – film is undoubtedly more suitable for period and fantasy pieces.

Aesthetics are only one of several issues which are central to the debate. The fact that filming in digital is more practical and cost-effective is near undisputable. However, the related issue of the “democratisation” of the filmmaking world is a more contentious one. While the ease of production allows people to create films who would previously have been unable to access or operate the technology, we need look no further than the music industry to see that, once a product becomes too easily produced, it also becomes easily digested and disposed of. There are worries within film circles that democratisation leads to popularisation of the ‘lowest common denominator’. The most viewed filmmakers on YouTube use silly special effects in daft action sequences – and the audience seems to lap it up. On the flip-side, however, a culture in which so many people have the means to produce a film must surely nourish the highest quality of art. Many of the most promising films in this year’s festival lineups were filmed digitally, and it is a fair assumption that some of them would never have been produced if not for the advancement of digital technology.

What must be understood is that film and digital are two entirely different media, and each one can communicate its message in a different way. While the look of celluloid has a certain magic to it, digital cinematography has begun to yield some fantastic results. Selecting the right medium is an artistic choice, and one that directors will hopefully continue to be afforded. The fact that digital technology gives opportunities to a whole new world of filmmakers can be construed in different ways – while it may be too early to tell, it would seem that the democratisation process will simply widen the gulf between true art and mass entertainment. Should we pick sides in what has been called the “battle between digital and film”? Not necessarily – above all we should support intelligent decisions on which medium is most suitable for conveying a particular film’s message.

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In 2012 Norwegian techno artist Todd Terje emerged with a dance track so bouncy that it threatened to put trampolines out of business. Curiously titled ‘Inspector Norse’, the origins of the club smash remained a mystery- until now. Director Christopher Borgli unravels the true story in this 15 minute film, and it all comes down to a loner named Marius.

Terje himself appears onscreen to explain how he came across Marius; a host of youtube videos showing a peculiar young man dancing to a variety of Terje’s songs. Going by his internet alias ‘Inspector Norse’, Magnus inspired the Scandinavian producer to create a track to match this outsiders inimitable bounce.

The film makers track down Marius at his home; he lives with his father in a suburban town, manages their tanning salon business and gets his kicks from impromptu dancing and homemade drugs. But all is not well with Marius. The director notes the Mount Everest pictures lining the walls. Marius explains they are his ‘Whateverest’; an ode to the apathy the outside world has for his music and personality.

This is of course all utter, utter bullshit. There is no Inspector Norse, he is just a sly creation on the part of Terje and the film makers. Inexplicably, viewers have bought into the ruse, even hooking a certain Guardian music critic.

‘Whateverest’ is not a vintage mockumentary, though it leaves you with a wry smile. Marius’ wild antics and subsequent comedowns are too contrived to be laugh out loud or poignant. The film carries a certain charm though, buoyed by the serene, washed out visuals and Terje’s outrageously upbeat music.

Watch it here: 

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Bullhead couldn’t have picked a more topical time to hit UK cinemas. The current media swarm surrounding the horse meat scandal, with countless foreign suppliers coming under new scrutiny, lends this Belgium thriller a pertinent hook. Writer-director Michael R. Roskam’s film has taken a couple of years to finally find release in the UK, but its timing couldn’t be snappier.

The horse meat story has awakened the general public to a little covered subject, and Bullhead threatens to do the same. Set in rural Belgium, the film immerses itself in the world of illegal cattle breeding; the stock are injected with hormones to speed up the process and make them fattier for consumption. The Vanmarsenilles are a farming family who rely on this shady practice for their livelihood, led by the hulking Jacky, one of two sons. In the second sequence we follow his trip to intimidate a local farmer who wants out. Jacky’s tetchy, menacing presence is evident, the message clear to the viewer; cattle farming is serious business.

Jacky is played by Matthias Schoenaerts, who brings his monstrous physicality from Rust and Bone to the fore again. Schoenaerts is singling himself out as a unique actor, someone able to terrify the audience while demonstrating a naked vulnerability. While his brother has a young family to protect, Jacky is left to the seedier side of the family business. One of his accomplices, a veterinarian, suggests a lucrative deal with a West Flemish beef trader, new territory for their low key set up. Jacky is apprehensive; the murder of a detective investigating the meat mafia hangs over them, and he thinks they should lay low. Furthermore, an unwelcome face from the past crops up in the trader’s gang.

Bullhead is not your typical mafia drama. For one, the location and subject lends the film a fresh take on a tired genre. The opening shot is a strikingly beautiful image of a woodland dawn, overlaid with Jacky’s blunt and poetic voice over. Roskam immediately announces this as a film that cherishes character and soul as much as the unsavoury trappings of the genre. There is a complex plot, things start to go awry, violence punctuates the landscape and the protagonist is a bullish hothead with an uncompromising taste for blood. Yet, this is no ScarfaceRoskam makes sure the audience never strays from Jacky’s tormented plight, revealing his past demons through a series of flashbacks.

It is these flashbacks which elevate Bullhead above its gangster peers. Often derided as a clumsy expository device, here they add much needed context to Jacky’s current physical and mental state. One particular sequence will leave the male audience members with nightmares for months. Like Michael Haneke’s Hidden, we see how past events can profoundly affect the present. The film is also remarkable in that it is the feature debut of writer-director Roskam. Not since the Antipodean blitz of Snowtown and Animal Kingdom has a debutante steered a thriller with so much confidence and verve.

Perhaps the only false move comes at the finale; a slightly dubious move into buddy movie territory derails the focus on Jacky’s doomed plight, and edges towards a predictable climax. Up to that point  however, Roskam has the audience wrapped around his finger, conjuring a tale blessed with brutality and tenderness. An offbeat subject matter introduced to punchy character drama, with a smattering of violence. Bullhead marks out Roskam as a talent, and further demonstrates Schoenaerts as a muscular new acting force.

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The hunt for Osama bin Laden begins here in Zero Dark Thirty. This film chronicals a decade of CIA investigations for America’s most wanted. In this post 9/11 climate, we watch Maya (Jessica Chastain), a determined CIA operative, drawn deeper into the hunt for Osama. She tirelessly follows lead after lead of Al Qaeda members, piecing together the bread trail. Her quest takes us through the street of Afghanistan, through the torture cells of undisclosed CIA locations and up into their executive offices where the decisions are made, until finally the actual safe-house of Osama bin Laden, where this film reaches its inevitable conclusion.

Zero Dark Thirty replicates a similar docudrama war aesthetic seen in the director’s previous film, Hurt Locker. This style works well with the genre, adding validity to the drama, as though the audience are spectators in the thick of the conflict. However, unlike Hurt Locker’s rather focused character portrait, Zero Dark Thirty is an event film. It focuses on the events, the facts (as much as a Hollywood film can) in an extremely objective fashion. Because of this there isn’t much room for characterisation or scenes of empathy. The film is consistently surging forward, trying desperately to wade through a decade of CIA searching. In doing so the narrative feels restrained with rigid a check list of events to adhere to.

Furthermore, this lack of characterisation is never more present than in our lead, Maya. While Jessica Chastain does a great job with what she’s given, and while there are certainly some rather emotive scenes pitting her against her superiors, it still just isn’t enough. The character is shaped in such a way that it fulfils a story purpose and nothing more, like a hollow shell. She is a driven woman of action, a lone female cowboy in this Wild West, but very little else. For two hours and thirty minutes we learn absolutely nothing of her personal life, other than how much of a workaholic she is. It almost feels like the subject matter has given Kathryn Bigelow an excuse not to develop the character whatsoever, that we as an audience will automatically empathise with a protagonist coming after Osama bin Laden. In fact you feel far more of an affinity with Maya’s CIA colleague Dan (Jason Clarks), who you see on and off for less than half the film.

On the whole Zero Dark Thirty feels too long, and despite the fact that it is condensing a 10 year period, there is a noticeable mid way lag. It’s a shame as the introduction starts off so well, noticeably carving its way into your retina cavities with its controversial CIA torture of Al Qaeda prisoners. But it fails continue this razor sharp pace. For me this film relies on its grandiose subject matter to carry its mistakes. Zero Dark Thirty fails to entertain.

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Kicking off our shorts column, we turn to the giallo inspired horror Yellow by Berlin based Brit director Ryan Haysom. Looking specifically to the 70’s horrors of Dario Argento (Deep Red, Suspiria) and the violent contemporary thrillers of Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, Bronson), Yellow revels in the violent lineage of European cinema as an elderly man looks for an elusive killer of women.

Adhering to the giallo genre more rigorously than Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio, Yellow feels like the first film to truly capture the highly stylised spirit of giallo in some decades. Perhaps it is ironic that the shooting location is Berlin, not an Italian city, yet the city’s architecture affords an eerie timelessness.

Surprisingly the film was shot on the Canon 5D Mark II DSLR by cinematographer Jon Britt (camera assistant on My Brother The Devil­). Yellow’s rigorous colour palette looks patently separate from many films shot on the 5D, displaying the benefits of a bold approach to lighting for the camera.

The music by Antoni Maiovvi is a real shot in the arm for the film’s giallo stylings. Sounding like a meeting of Goblin (Argento’s staple composers) and Kavinski (who performed ‘Nightfall’ on the Drive soundtrack), it brings the paranoid atmosphere found in Argento’s films to a contemporary audience.

Like much of the giallo genre the plot is not entirely of the essence, which becomes frustrating at times. However, in the tradition of the genre set pieces are key and Haysom handles them well making this a very satisfying short for fans of art house and horror.

See here also for the film’s stunning poster by designer Graham Humphreys (designer of posters for El TopoEvil Dead 2.)

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