Archive for the ‘Kazakhstan’ Category

1) THE DANCE OF REALITY (DIR. ALEJANDRO JODOROWSKY, CHILE)

From the auteur director who once declared “I like violence, I love violence!” and “I make films with my cojones” comes 2013’s most arresting and emotional film. The Dance of Reality retraces Jodorowsky’s troubled childhood in Chile with a wildly imaginative bent. Re-imagining his oppressive father as a Stalin doppleganger (performed by his son Brontis Jodorowsky) and his mother as an opera singer (Pamela Flores), Jodorowsky re-writes the stale rulebook of the biopic (or in this case the autobiopic) with a film that is as much a testament to his surrealistic voice as a director, as it is to the therapeutic power of cinema.

2) SPRING BREAKERS (DIR. HARMONY KORINE, USA)

The ever-contentious innovator Harmony Korine achieves a bizarre combination of commercialism and radical formalism with Spring Breakers. The film is driven by a plot (written by Korine) that moves efficiently and relentlessly, while maintaining the illusion of chaos. Korine’s work with editor Douglas Crise (BabelArbitrage) is particularly impressive, as they weave together a cyclical, hallucinatory cutting rhythm, with which to sting out Korine’s raw coverage of hedonistic partygoers. Highlights include the opening beach party (set to an unexpectedly tuneful Skrillex soundtrack), a ruthless heist scene and James Franco’s stirring rendition of Britney Spears’ ‘Everytime.’

3) MY SWEET PEPPER LAND (DIR. HINER SALEEM, FRANCE/GERMANY/IRAQ)

My Sweet Pepper Land from Iraqi–Kurdish director Hiner Saleem is a painfully funny film, with a fresh take on the Spaghetti Western. Following the fall of Saddam Hussein, Baran (a Kurdish Independence war hero) leaves the Iraqi city of Erbil to be stationed in a lawless town on the boarders of Iran, Turkey and Iraq where he begins a small, violent, revolution. Unlike many recent American Western, the film does not feel confined to history, owing to its contemporary backdrop of Middle Eastern rebellion. That said, the film still maintains many great Western tropes, making it an excellent contribution to the genre.

4) JODOROWSKY’S DUNE (DIR. FRANK PAVICH, USA)

The greatest unexpected crowd-pleaser of the year was Frank Pavich’s celebratory documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, about Alejandro Jodorowsky’s attempt to turn Frank Herbert’s Dune into a film. With an invigorating, emotive narration from Jodorowsky himself, as well as contributions from many of the key players in the pre-production of the project, Jodorowsky’s Dune ultimately discovers how glorious it can be to fail spectacularly. Jodorowsky tells of his search for Orson Welles, his promise to pay Salvador Dali more money per minute than any other actor and his outrage at Pink Floyd as they munched hamburgers while he pitched them the project. It is also beautifully cut and animated.

5) SIDE EFFECTS (DIR. STEVEN SODERBERGH, USA)

Before Behind the Candelabra was cut from a television series into a film, Side Effects was Soderbergh’s cinematic swansong and it would have been sufficient. A sordid tale of moneymaking in the pharmaceutical industry, Soderbergh dramatises this biting critique immaculately, without selling out an ounce of tension to the film’s social commentary. Working effectively on both levels, the film also provides room for a career best performance from Jude Law, as well as a frighteningly sedate Roony Mara. Supporting roles are cast exceptionally, with Catherine Zeta-Jones and Channing Tatum both making an impression. Soderbergh’s own cinematography also creates an immersive atmosphere of depression, with gloomy tones and a foggy shallow focus captured on the Red EPIC camera.

6) HARMONY LESSONS (DIR. EMIR BAIGAZIN, KAZAKHSTAN)

With Harmony Lessons 29 year old Kazakh director Emir Baigazin announced himself as one of the world’s boldest young directors at the Berlinale 2013. The film tells of Aslan, a thirteen year old boy living with his grandmother in a small village in Kazakhstan. An intelligent boy, Aslan is bullied by the other students at his school, lead by the sadistic Bolat. The film observes Aslan’s descent into violence and sadism, as he transfers his angst towards various animals and insects, rather than his fellow students. The film’s style is boldly rooted in its local aesthetic, while simultaneously recalling the American tradition of the Gangster genre. The way Baigazin deals with violence is powerful and sometimes almost unbearable.

7) GRAVITY (DIR. ALFONSO CUARON, USA)

2013’s best hi-concept film was surely Gravity, a film so simple in its intent, yet so elaborate in its design and execution. Up with Jaws and Alien in its sense of dread, Gravity is a hugely tense thriller that overcomes shortcomings which include crude characterisation (George Clooney’s Matt Kowalski), unconvincing emotional stakes (Sandra Bullock’s Ryan Stone) and silly dialogue, with its overall purpose: the attempt to avoid dying alone in the void of space. If anything the film actually suffers from its efforts to add depth to the dilemma, because its horror is so fundamental and horrifying. That Cuarón rendered this horror so convincingly, with masterful long shots and subtle 3D, is the film’s true power.

8) THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES (DIR. DEREK CIANFRANCE, USA)

An enormously ambitious follow up to 2010’s Blue Valentine for director Derek Cianfrance, The Place Beyond the Pines walks a fine line between cinematic epic and overreaching indie film, eventually emerging as a happy medium of the two. Cianfrance attempts a bold designation of screen time to the film’s four main male characters, defined predominantly by act. This creates a make-or-break situation for the viewer, some of whom will run with it, while others will baulk will the changing allegiances. For those who stay with the film, it has enormous emotional potential and boasts fine performances from Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper, as well as the younger Dane DeHaan.

9) PAPILIO BUDDHA (DIR. JAYAN CHERIAN, INDIA)

Banned in its native India, Papilio Buddha is a fierce, relevant film defending the rights of the Dalit people in the Western Ghats of the country. Poet, turned director, Jayan Cherian brings a sensitive, crafted approach to a story that brims with political anger and injustice. While the film’s primary area of interest is its attack on caste oppression, it also deals with other issues of prominent contemporary concern, including deforestation, women’s rights and homosexuality. The irony of seeing such a film banned, is that it seems so relevant to many current issues of debate. Encouragingly, Papilio Buddha has just earned a place among the Panorama section of the Berlinale 2014, which should give the film the platform it needs.

10) ONLY GOD FORGIVES (DIR. NICOLAS WINDING REFN, USA)

A divisive film if there was one in 2013. For most viewers Only God Forgives was either a provocative success, or an insulting failure. For those who were not phased by the gratuitous violence, mannequin-esque performances, broody long takes and sometimes terrible dialogue, there was an immersive cinematic experience to be had. The film is adorned with Refn’s familiar ‘fetishistic’ elements (bold colours, long takes, minimalist acting, booming soundtrack), but this time he tries something new – he asks the viewer to indulge in his (occasionally crude) symbolism, to assemble the full story. Like it or hate it, each viewer will find something different; this makes Only God Forgives a genuinely refreshing thriller in the contemporary film market.

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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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