Archive for July, 2013

Before Danish director Niels Arden Oplev focused his camera on a culture of woman hating, in Swedish film The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, he directed the child-eyed 60’s family drama We Shall Overcome. The film, which is visually lighter than Dragon Tattoo, tells the true story of a boy who fought his school after being physically assaulted by the headmaster. In spite of its bright colours and rolling hills, We Shall Overcome also hints visually at fascism, and contrasts it sharply with images from America’s Civil Rights Movement. At times the film is dramatically uneven, but Oplev’s strong visual ideas make for interesting viewing.

The film stars Janus Dissing Rathke as Frits, the child at the centre of the story. Frits is something of an outsider, but he still finds the attention of popular schoolgirl Iben (Sarah Juel Werner.) Frits’ mother and father run a farm, but as the film opens we discover that Frits’ father is descending into a bleak bout of depression. When Frits is physically assaulted by his headmaster Lindum-Svendsen (Bent Mejding,) for sneaking into the girls’ changing rooms, he begins a subversive campaign against his institutional oppressor. Supporting him is the liberal temporary teacher, Freddie Svale (Anders W. Berthelsen), who schools him in rock & roll and Martin Luther King.

Although the comparison between the African-American Civil Rights Movement and a group of Danish school children may seem something of a stretch, it makes sense from the film’s childlike point of view. For Frits the words of Martin Luther King serve as a key motivating factor in his protest against the old-school methods of discipline, reliant on a culture of threat to breed conformity, rather than independence, individuality and critical thinking. Oplev works well with his cast, particularly the young Rathke, to evoke the spirit of revolution.

The film’s overtly Scandinavian style, with bright colours and rural locations loudly declares an atmosphere of tradition and conformity. It presents a society in which everything is thought to be perfect and yet within this kind of society unspoken tyrannies can easily exist; the tyranny of accepted norms. This is the conflict which the young Frits attempts to grapple with, as he has not yet learned to accept it unlike the adults around him. Oplev contrasts the visuals with American songs like House of the Rising Sun and the protest song We Shall Overcome, which has a curious resonance when sung by Swedish children.

However, moments in the film, presumably those based faithfully on the facts of the story, actually seems dramatically misplaced. At significant moments characters make out-of-character decisions and an oddly vengeful deus-ex-machina arrives, which contradicts the humanist theme that drives much of the film. These moments give the film a much more by-the-numbers feel than it should possess, as it also exhibits moments of truth and directorial flare. For those expecting a film similar to Oplev’s excellent The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo instalment, We Shall Overcome will not fulfil many expectations, but it shares a contempt for oppression and moments of real emotion.

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The filmmakers behind documentary Smash The Control Machine: Howard Brookner & The Western Lands (director Aaron Brookner, producer Paula Vaccaro and executive producer Jim Jarmusch,) have just launched their IFP Fiscal Sponsorship campaign, to help realise their intimate biography of filmmaker Howard Brookner. The website allows them to accept tax deductible donations, which will help make their fascinating and personal project a reality.

Smash The Control Machine tells the story of Aaron’s relationship with his uncle Howard, the director known for his documentaries Burroughs: The Movie and Robert Wilson and the Civil Wars and the period fiction film Bloodhounds of Broadway (which starred Madonna, Rutger Hauer and Matt Dillon.) Howard Brookner was an early collaborator of directors Jim Jarmusch (Mystery TrainOnly Lovers Left Alive) and Tom DiCillo (Living In OblivionWhen You’re Strange) and he worked with them as his respective Sound Recordist and Cinematographer on Burroughs: The Movie.

Aaron & Howard Brookner

Aaron & Howard Brookner

Tragically Howard Brookner died of AIDS in 1989 (when Aaron Brookner was 7), leaving behind him a wealth of home video and film material, as well as his professional body of work. This vast collection of materials is the starting point for Aaron Brookner, who was inspired to become a director by his uncle. Aaron plans to retell his uncle’s short but fascinating life, in conjunction with his own discovery of the archives. Given Aaron’s relationship with Howard and Howard’s work with Burroughs, Jarmusch and DiCillo, the film promises to be an intimate look at the life of a man central to the creative scene of 1980’s New York.

If you would like to make a tax deductible donation to aid the production of Smash The Control Machine, you can visit the official IFP Smash The Control Machine page and click Make a Contribution. For a short taster of the film, take a look at the intriguing clip below.

For more information on Smash The Control Machine please visit the official Pinball London website.

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If you’d ever wondered what art cinema giant Michelangelo Antonioni would have made of the Perez Hilton generation, then your search has ended. The Italian auteur specialised in reflecting a desperate emptiness in modern life, turning his gaze on the complacent bourgeois lifestyles of the 50’s and 60’s. Cut to the present day and Sofia Coppola stakes her claim as a possible heir to Antonioni’s illustrious throne. The Bling Ring, her 5th feature, carries on her run of films exploring our obsession with celebrity and a general ennui lingering in the Hills.

Strangely, Antonioni’s films have a distinct kinship with the reality TV that stumbled vacantly across our screens in the 00’s. Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie’s coiffured, mannequin-like appearances and banal, empty chat could easily fit into the upper class emptiness of L’Avventura or L’Eclisse. The mindless, rabid obsession with glamour comes to the fore in Blow Up, about a fashion photographer in 60’s London. While Coppola’s film is focusing on a distinct subculture, there is a lineage here which anticipates the craze. The Bling Ring takes its title from a real life set of LA brats, who stole into the news by gatecrashing a number of celebrity mansions and getting away with hordes of bling.

Led by the seemingly sweet Rebecca (Katie Chang), the group of rich kids cotton onto the fact that certain celebrities are leaving their homes empty to attend glossy parties, and decide to try on a different pair of shoes for the night. Marc (Israel Broussard) is the new kid at school and eager to make friends, even if it means stealing. Emma Watson ditches her wizard robes for a Prada dress as the diva-ish Nicki, while another couple of friends tag along. There is scant probing into the psychology behind the crimes, leaving an eerie, unsettling atmosphere to the film.

As a piece of narrative, the film is rather repetitive and episodic, with little development. Like her previous films, specifically Somewhere, Coppola seems to revel in draining all the conflict out of the story in order to present a mundane reality. The Bling Ring is essentially a series of break ins, joyrides and parties, all filmed in a slightly detached manner; but Coppola’s film is nevertheless hypnotic and compelling. While Harmony Korine‘s similarly themed Spring Breakers veered towards poetic pronouncements, Coppola opts for more banal reflections.

Sofia Coppola has always walked a thin line between being self absorbed and genuinely insightful. Her films have often been criticised for being indulgent of her own niche existence, but I would argue that her niche has something to offer to the rest of the world. Not many working film makers can conjure the laconic, wistful atmosphere that she does, and she is an exquisite stylist. Cinematographer Harris Savides, who sadly passed away, captures the action with an observatory eye that is subtly alluring and yet detached, while regular music supervisor Brian Reitzell evokes an eerie night time feel with his mix of brash hip hop and simmering krautrock rhythms.

The Bling Ring is far from Coppola’s best work, and on paper should be thoroughly boring, yet it is oddly engrossing and quietly scathing.

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The result of a collaboration between director Kieran Evans and musician Karl Hyde of Underworld, The Outer Edges is a documentary exploring the characters and geography of the boarder between London and Essex. The surprisingly alluring film, plays out to Hyde’s poetic narration, following a route down the river Roding to the docks on the Thames estuary. Although the film is a companion piece to Hyde’s new album Edgeland, it has a life of its own, which will amuse and intrigue those local to the area and those from beyond.

Director Kieran Evans assembles a visual portrait of the seldom seen side of the East End, comprised of part natural, part industrial scenery and many unique characters. The locations are as diverse as the people, which makes for a continually intriguing 74 minutes. The film opens with a fantastic line from allotment enthusiast Pete, “No politics, no religion, no sex, it’s an allotment,” before looking elsewhere to a diverse cast of individuals, including Bangladeshi woman Shamim, tour guide Maurice, a group of young boxers, Dagenham market trader Chris and ex-cruise ship performer Bonnie. Each character embodies an aspect of the locale, as Evans weaves a surprisingly rich tapestry of culture.

By seeking out and sincerely listening to the array of interesting characters Evans imbues the film with warmth, which seems at odds with the more industrialised locations in the film. Set to static shots framed by Evans, Hyde’s subtle, poetic narration creates an intriguing mental journey through the outer edges. It is clear that the filmmakers are comfortable with their loving view of the strange, melancholy land around the river Roding. For this reason it is easy to become drawn into the world and even revel in the absurdly beautiful scars that the brute force of industry has left on the landscape.

More than a companion piece to an album, The Outer Edges is a necessary look at a diverse environment, which some people rely on, while others commute through. It asks London dwellers to pause and consider the actual breadth of their environment, as well as the unique personalities that reside within. As a closing title for the 2013 East End Film Festival, The Outer Edges is a superb piece of programming. By putting the outer edges of London centre stage it does precisely what the East End Film Festival should do: showcase the treasure within this diverse and sometimes chaotic city.

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In spite of Mike Figgis’ vocal struggle to fund the film in the UK, his psycho thriller Suspension of Disbelief plays like a distinctly British answer to David Lynch’s evocative Mulholland Drive. Shot in noirish tones by the digital pioneer director/DOP, this film treads dangerously into ‘meta’ territory, but successfully envelopes the audience with nightmarish lighting, tight editing (also by Figgis) and an alluring cast headed up by German Sebastian Koch (The Lives of Others, Black Book).

Koch stars as Martin, a feature film scriptwriter, who also works as a screenwriting lecturer. Martin’s wife went missing fifteen years ago in unexplained circumstances, and yet he has a daughter with her, an actress called Sarah (Rebecca Night.) Sarah gets an acting job on a film written by Martin and things begin to get complicated as she becomes increasingly intimate with its unsympathetic director Greg (Eoin Macken, playing a role presumably based on Figgis.) For Sarah’s 25th birthday Martin throws a party in his flat. At the party they meet a young girl called Angelique (Lotte Verbeek) who, like Martin’s wife, subsequently goes missing. The duel-layered plot thickens when Angelique’s twin Theresa (also Lotte Verbeek) arrives to identify the body and simultaneously begins a suspicious flirtation with Martin.

Figgis juxtaposes the murder inquiry with the production of the crime film written by Martin. The investigation is lead by the amusingly (and knowingly) cliché’ detective Bullock (Kenneth Cranham.) Bullock has a penchant for detective yarns and is an aspiring amature screenwriter himself. When he meets Martin he becomes more inclined to receive advice on his writing, than to solve the Angelique case. By working in his character’s obsessions with storytelling Figgis attempts to explore Carl Jung’s “Participation Mystique” concept. The theory posits that the emotional part of the brain cannot distinguish between truth and fiction; hence Suspension of Disbelief. Here, even the detective cannot help himself.

The plot sounds unbearably convoluted, but Figgis is entirely aware of this. Making sense of the intricacy is his precise focus as a director and he does so with enormous dexterity. Each scene is lit and constructed with such generic understanding that we revel in the gradual unravelling of his tangled tapestry (the majority of the film is shot in moody Lynchian tones, while the film-within-the-film is a stark black & white, resembling Sin City.) Lotte Verbeek’s presence in the film lends a mood of smouldering sexuality, as Koch’s Martin finds himself both a mystified suspect and an obsessive investigator in Angelique’s disappearance. The psychosexual intrigue does well to appease the structural head scratching, appropriately countering Figgis’ intellectual impulses with the deeply physical (though never particularly explicit.)

The downside of the film’s meta exploration is that the emotional weight of the work plays second fiddle to rigorous structuring required to explore Jung’s theories. If Lynch’s Mulholland Drive is a movie for dreamers, Suspension of Disbelief is one for the conscious thinker. Figgis completes his intellectual tapestry with musical references to Kid A era Radiohead and photos of film pioneer Godard. For such murky mystery it is a oddly sobre affair, but the sobriety does lend it a certain British charm. It is ironic then, that Figgis had such trouble with the funders.

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The Heart of Bruno Wizard is a raw feature documentary from first time director Elisabeth Rasmussen. The film dives into a little known pocket of the British punk scene during the late 1970’s to find Bruno Wizard, the uncompromising singer of The Homosexuals. In his present state he faces bleak homelessness and serious health problems. The film bares its low budget flaws for all to see and fails to truly dramatize Bruno’s predicament; yet it also captures his life with real intimacy.

The character of Bruno makes most sense when informed by his own amusing words “I changed the name of my band from The Rejects to The Homosexuals, to keep the major labels away from us.” What Bruno specifically strives for never becomes entirely clear in The Heart of Bruno Wizard, but that is less the fault of the film than simply a part of Bruno himself. Bruno knows what he does not want to associate himself with, more than what he does. The tendency to reject the norm is perhaps the characteristic that lead him into homelessness, but it also makes him an endearing and interesting character with real integrity.

Rasmussen’s film does suffer from teething problems familiar in early, low budget filmmaking attempts. The film is constructed with a wide variety of interviews that are assembled haphazardly in awkwardly framed shots. The interviews are informative though and Rasmussen achieves great access, with contributions from luminaries in the British music scene including singer Marilyn, DJ Don Letts and former Homosexuals member Susan Vida, as well as American animator M. Henry Jones. The group place Bruno in context, which makes his present life of illness and poverty all the more affecting.

The finest moments in the film are the snapshots of Bruno now. After some time spent sleeping on the streets, Bruno checked himself into a homeless shelter and gradually managed to obtain his own flat in London. Having finally moved in Rasmussen captures him furnishing his home at a hilariously gradual pace, initially sleeping in a cupboard instead of a bed. Bruno’s enormous appreciation for his cupboard is both touching and humbling, as Rasumssen helps us realise the privilege of possessing such amenities.

Rasumssen is so dedicated in her desire to portray Bruno that she forgoes any distinct style of her own, which could have strengthened the film. There is passion within her filmmaking though and her ability to connect with characters is an essential filmmaking quality. In an interview she said working with Bruno helped her give up her fears; a theme he staunchly endorses. If making The Heart of Bruno Wizard was a process of discovery for her, then she may well be on the way to finding a voice. Lets see where this young director decides to go next.

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Sometimes treasures lurk in the most unlikeliest of places. If you were to walk past one particular council block in Brighton you wouldn’t bat an eyelid. Yet stepping into a flat in this mundane redbrick building leads us towards one Drako Oho Zahar Zahar, the subject of this beguiling documentary. Observed by his filmmaker friend Amies over a few years, this is a fascinating document of a man whose colourful life had trespassed into various artists, dancers and vagrants lives.

Drako was born Tony Banwell but took on the stage name in his twenties. He was recruited as a dancer in London in his youth and embarked on a rather reckless existence amongst the 60’s and 70’s gay crowd. A kind of socialite, he was painted by Dali (which he recounts at every opportunity) and hung out with artists like Warhol. He suffered two near fatal accidents, one a motorcycle accident and the other a car crash, which left him in a long coma. It took him almost a decade to recover, and changed his personality to a substantial degree.

Although this colourful past irreparably defines his character, the documentary focuses on his final years in the cramped Brighton flat. The flat is somewhat of a character in itself, an ode to Drako’s memories and philosophies. It is literally crammed with pictures, postcards, books that Drako has amassed over the years. Pornographic pictures of erect penises vie for space amongst handwritten religious quotes, a veritable jungle of delights. Due to Drako’s accidents, he now suffers severe amnesia and uses notes hanging from the ceilings to remember day to day details, much like in Christopher Nolan’s Memento.

Drako himself is charm personified, an English eccentric with an endearing self deprecation. Covered in tattoos, bald and prone to wearing ‘vibrant’ attire, his occasional forays into the local butchers make for a humorous event. As he struggles to form cohesive thought patterns his anecdotes become recycled, but this is oddly endearing as well. It is clear that Drako is one of a kind, yet director Amies paints a loving portrait of his friend. Although it is strange that such a flamboyant figure has ended up in such a mundane setting, you get the feeling that Brighton itself suits him perfectly; a place that welcomes the slightly unusual figures and cultivates them.

It is an extremely intimate film, based mostly in Drako’s cramped flat. Straight away the audience understands that Amies and Drako have a strong relationship, as Amies asks him chummy questions and queries his general well being. The film is unusual in that Amies has a clear investment in Drako and often acts almost as a carer for him. The line between the subject and the film maker becomes extremely blurred as Drako’s health deteriorates. Is Amies exploiting Drako for his own gain? Perhaps, but Drako, always the exhibitionist, would have wanted it that way. A funny, eccentric, moving documentary.

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This French-Canadian production is one of the first fiction films I’ve seen to report on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Written and directed by Anais Barbeau-Lavalette, it follows the toils of Chloe (Evelyne Brochu), a foreign doctor working in a Palestinian refugee camp on the West Bank. Specialising in childbirth, she makes the trip from her comfortable flat in the Israeli territory to the battle scarred Palestinian area each day. One of her closest friends is Ava (Sivan Levy), who does her involuntary military duty checking papers at the border. Meanwhile on the Palestinian side she strikes up a friendship with the pregnant Rand (Sabrina Ouazani) and her brother Faysal (Yousef Sweid).

Barbeau-Lavalette has immediately set up a meaty conflict here; Chloe’s limbo between Ava, apathetic to the suffering across the border, and Rand and Faysal’s burgeoning militancy. A young Palestinian boy is struck down by a callous Israeli military driver, and tensions begin to rise. Chloe offers to hand out the flyers that Faysal has printed in the boys memory, but her medical superiors order her not to get involved. She is, as the post-punk band Magazine once sang, Shot by both sides. As Rand’s due date looms and Faysal begins to indoctrinate her into their way of thinking, Chloe’s thoughts and motivations begin to change.

There is a lot to admire in Inch’Allah. The script is engaging and enjoyably murky to begin with, with Barbeau-Lavalette keen not to take any sides. It is competently directed and you get a real sense of the hostility of the environment. The performances are routinely strong, Brochu conveying the sense of confusion and futility of her existence, while Ouazani provides much needed humour as the feisty Rand. It would be quite easy to see Inch’Allah being nominated for a foreign Oscar.

Therein lies the problem; there is something rather Oscar worthy about the film that leaves a bitter after taste. In attempting to sum up a deeply complex conflict into a neat 2 hour feature the film comes across as a little preachy and safe. The initial conflict is interesting but the script veers towards contrivances at the end in order to make its point. It’s not quite the sugar coated fluff that props up every Best Picture competition, but it doesn’t feel entirely authentic and nuanced either.

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The zombie genre has had somewhat of a resurgence in recent years, what with all the TV and film projects emerging from the grave. With Halley, Mexican director Sebastian Hofmann might have just ushered in a new era of zombie films – except this time they’re not quite dead yet. This unusual body horror follows loner Beto, a gym security guard, who realises that his body is steadily decaying before his own eyes. Approaching the grisly subject with an abstract, arty aesthetic, Halley is a must for fans of David Cronenberg.

The script, written by Hofmann and Julio Chavezmontes, is rather lean. Beto, in his 30’s, nerdy and rather creepy, decides to quit his job at the gym, informing his lonely boss Luly that his ‘illness’ is ruining his work. It doesn’t help that the toned, machismo gym members provide a painful contrast with his own dwindling health. Back at home, Beto tends to the boils and wounds peppered all over his body. He is literally seeping. In order to fight it he injects himself with embalming fluid, which he combines with his TV watching. He is dragged to the local church to hear the preachers talk about illness as a sign of sin; Beto is evidently unimpressed.

The only form of redemption in his life comes from Luly, who tries to take him out dancing. Lonely herself, their staccato dialogue and Beto’s frigidity will leave the viewer excruciated. The two performances are both strong, although Beto himself doesn’t have much to do. Alberto Trujillo’s performance as Beto brings to mind Napoleon Dynamite if he was having an existential crisis, a stubbornly introspective turn that hardly endears him to the audience.  Luly Trueba as the jaded boss injects the film with much needed warmth and openness.

Aesthetically the film is interesting; fellow native Carlos Reygadas comes to mind in the sterile, cloudy photography (it comes as no surprise to learn that Reygadas’ producers worked on this as well). Hofmann chooses to cut out the faces of many of his characters, creating an abstract, distanced portrayal. Much of Beto is seen from his disease-ridden back. Cronenberg would be delighted. The sound design also plays a big part, as every chew, tear, peel, spit and vomit is captured with uncomfortable accuracy. Unfortunately the film is let down by a script that doesn’t lead anywhere from the intriguing concept, leaving the audience dulled by the episodic, languid narrative.

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