Posts Tagged ‘Jim Jarmusch’

As Spike Lee arrives on Vimeo on Demand with the crowdfunded horror Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, there couldn’t be a better time to revisit – and rightly celebrate – the film’s visceral and poetic predecessor Ganja & Hess in original form, directed by revered playwright, novelist, actor and filmmaker Bill Gunn.

What began as a low budget vampire flick – produced to cash in on the success of 1972’s Blaxploitation cult classic Blacula – became a fascinating parable on addiction & redemption. The film can also be seen as a blood relative of subsequent left-field vampire gems, including George A. Romero’s disturbing Martin (1977) and recently Jim Jarmusch’s elegant Only Lovers Left Alive (2014).

Ganja & Hess zones in on anthropologist Dr. Hess Green, portrayed with stoic detachment by Duane Jones, famous for his considerably different and impressively commanding lead role in Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero, 1968). Contradicting the oft-repeated mythology of the vampire transformation occurring due to a bite, Hess becomes immortal when his schizophrenic assistant George Meda (director Bill Gunn) stabs him with an ancient ceremonial dagger.

Ganja, played by the striking and elegant Marlene Clark, then arrives searching for the vanished George and hits it off with the attractively enigmatic Hess. In a similar spirit to Donald Cammell & Nicolas Roeg’s superb 1970 film Performance, the film takes on a dark and sensual air, as the pair hole up in Hess’ remote country house and indulge in a transgressive vampiric lifestyle, feeding on murder victims to satisfy their need for blood. This is contrasted with rousing footage of African American church services and dream sequences of tribal scenes, which accentuate the deathly turmoil of their vampiric state.

But plot does not dictate form in Ganja & Hess; Gunn’s approach to its assembly grew out of improvisation and inspiration rather than pre-ordained logic. It is important to note that this new Blu-ray and DVD release from Eureka Classics represents Gunn’s original cut of the film, which screened in the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes in 1973, to great acclaim. This differs from the much circulated commercial edit, which was (for financial reasons) re-structured adhering to the original script, after predominantly white New York critics slammed the film with the withering reasoning that it “was not the time for a black art film.”

With the perspective afforded by hindsight, as well as the admission that racism played a role in the film’s original reception, it is clear to see that Ganja & Hess was at the cutting edge of American cinema in the 1970’s. The film blurred the boundaries between art cinema and horror and ushered in Bill Gunn as a daring & poetic director of African American cinema. The film can be seen as a relative of Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), or even Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie (1971), in it’s disregard for traditional cinematic form and a need to break through longstanding modes of perception; a mission that is still entirely necessary today.

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1) 12 YEARS A SLAVE (DIR. STEVE MCQUEEN, USA/UK)

An ultra-early release of 2014 in the UK (January 10th to be precise), Steve McQueen’s third film 12 Years A Slave has endured, in my memory, as the most moving cinema experience of the year. Prior to this film McQueen had established himself – with Hunger and Shame – as one of the most important feature directors in the UK, for his ability to merge demanding topics with fresh visual language. With 12 Years A Slave he proved himself capable of this on a much grander scale, earning a Best Picture Oscar, a $187.7 million box office return and widespread critical support. It is essential that we revisit history through the eyes of great artists and Steve McQueen is one such artist.

2) 20,000 DAYS ON EARTH (DIR. IAIN FORSYTH & JANE POLLARD, UK)
In a strong year for cinema documentaries 20,000 Days on Earth expanded the paradigm. Composed of elements from dramatic fiction, observational documentary and the rock film this Nick Cave biopic, set over the course of a day, is an expertly framed Petri dish of fascinating ideas. While the film might primarily appeal to Cave fans, it should interest anyone who creates, or simply wishes to understand themselves and their human impulses. Cave’s transcendental live performances feature prominently, while the meaning of these occasions is explored in moments of fascinating examination, as the frank and eloquent Cave reflects on his life to a therapist and lives out his life in atmospheric Brighton.

3) THE WIND RISES (DIR. HAYAO MIYAZAKI, JAPAN)
The Wind Rises is the final film of Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki and it is a bittersweet achievement, not only about about the cost of innovation, but the cost of dreams. Based loosely on the true story of Japanese engineer Jiro Horikoshi, who was responsible for designing fighter planes during World War II, the film surrealistically captures the glorious freedom of imagination and intellect and contrasts it with the devastation these powers can bring. In line with Horikoshi’s own attitude towards the futility of WWII, the film’s tone is one of profound melancholy. The film presents a man whose talent for innovation and love of flight is tragically undermined by the impulse, in others, for war.

4) ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE (DIR. JIM JARMUSCH, USA)
In the cinema, 2014 was a special year for the more esoteric side of rock n’ roll. With Only Lovers Left Alive, Jim Jarmusch took the horror genre into reverent territory and drew a line straight back through the history of art. The film, which centers around the reunion of a pair of vampire lovers (Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston), resonates with a universe of fascinating culture for those ready to listen. With locations in Chicago and Tangier the film takes us on a poetic punk journey, into a world once inhabited by Shakespeare ghost writers, Nikola Tesla, William S. Burroughs & The Stooges. The film’s soundtrack, featuring Jarmusch’s band SQÜRL, Jozef van Wissem and Yasmine Hamdan is also not be missed.

5) VIRUNGA (DIR. ORLANDO VON EINSIEDEL, UK/CONGO)

This extraordinary film from prolific director Orlando Von Einsiedel is a thrilling piece of journalism and another fantastic expansion on the possibilities of documentary cinema. The film follows the current crisis of the Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as the park’s security team and rangers attempt to hold off an onslaught from Congolese rebels who appear to be collaborating with British oil company Soco. The documentary creates extraordinary emotional stakes by telling the stories of Andre Bauma, who cares for the park’s gorilla population, park director Emmanuel de Merode and journalist Melanie Gouby. These individuals put their necks on the line for the park, which the film depicts as an integral element to the survival and autonomy of the DRC, while the filmmakers capture the unfolding violence and human displacement.

6) THE KIDNAPPING OF MICHEL HOUELLEBECQ (DIR. GUILLAUME NICLOUX, FRANCE)
Back in 2011 controversial French author Michel Houellebecq (Whatever, Atomised, Platform) disappeared during a book tour for The Map and the Territory, leading to media speculation that he had been kidnapped by al-Qaida. The contention created by the author’s works may have justified such a possibility, but director Guillaume Nicloux’s dramatic interpretation of the situation (starring Houellebecq as himself) speculates on a much different – and hilariously funny – scenario. The integral joke of the film is that Houellebecq, in sly deadpan style, rather enjoys the experience, as he encourages his surprisingly benevolent captors to cater to his whims and vices. However you may feel about Michel Houellebecq, this film riffs brilliantly on his dark humour and outsider status.

7) NIGHTCRAWLER (DIR. DAN GILROY, USA)
Hollywood screenwriter Dan Gilroy (The FallReel SteelThe Bourne Legacy) made his directorial debut with Nightcrawler and doing so brought to the screen a career best performance from Jake Gyllenhaal, as aspirational anti-hero Louis Bloom. The film takes it’s cue from the post-recession job crisis, with Bloom as an ultra-opportunistic news cameraman who dispenses with all moral values to succeed in the business. His ambition leads him to film increasingly grisly crime scenes, as he simultaneously loses contact with the reality of what he films. The film is a thrilling romp, starring an unusually manic Gyllenhaal, which also works as a critique of the potentially exploitative nature of American news broadcasting.

8) 22 JUMP STREET (DIR. PHIL LORD & CHRISTOPHER MILLER, USA)
22 Jump Street is an unexpectedly great sequel, to an unexpectedly great feature adaptation (21 Jump Street), of a late 1980’s TV police comedy primarily remembered for kicking off Johnny Depp’s acting career. The beauty of 22 Jump Street is the way in which it comedically writes itself off as a pointless sequel. The irony of the film is that this bold sense of flippancy (embodied through the perfect buddy-chemistry of Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill) is precisely what makes the Jump Street films relevant. After years of terrible sequels, remakes and computer game adaptations, these films are the evidence that someone in Hollywood is finally thinking what the audience has been for a long time.

9) BELLE (DIR. AMMA ASANTE, UK)
Following her 2004 debut A Way of Life, Streatham born writer/director Amma Asante made a strong return with Belle. The film tells the story Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) – the daughter of Maria Belle, an enslaved African woman in the West Indies, and Captain John Lindsay, a British career naval officer – who encouraged her uncle William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield (and Lord Chief Justice) to recognise slavery as illegal in England and usher about its formal end. The film is directed with elegant style and frank sincerity, influenced no doubt by the 1779 Johann Zoffany painting that it was inspired by, in which a headstrong Belle appears animatedly alongside her cousin Elizabeth Murray.

10) THE ROVER (DIR. DAVID MICHOD, AUSTRALIA)

David Michôd’s Animal Kingdom was one of the most striking debuts of 2010, showing Michôd to be one of the most gifted directors of contemporary Australian cinema. The film was a dense and engaging drama of a Melbourne crime family, made with an impeccable grasp of tension and great style. With The Rover Michôd stripped down the scope of his vision, focusing primarily on Guy Pearce’s mysterious protagonist who harbours an undisclosed agenda. The minimalist approach to his second feature pays off, with Michôd delivering a lean, bleak and thrilling film with excellent performances and a beautifully simple central conceit.

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1) IDA (DIR. PAWEL PAWLIKOWSKI, POLAND)

Ida, the Polish nun at the heart of Pawlikoski’s WW2 drama, perfectly encapsulates the lightness and darkness of the film, her beetlebug black eyes framed by a saintly, doll-like complexion. Beautifully played by Agata Trzebuchowska, Ida is told she is a Jewish survivor of the holocaust and must meet her aunt before taking her vows. Shot in austere monochrome, the film is a road movie/coming of age tale, with Ida forced to come to terms with her past and decide on her own future. While a black and white holocaust drama might seem heavy going, Pawlikoski has a lightness of touch which elevates it to something greater than simply a sob story.

2) BOYHOOD (DIR. RICHARD LINKLATER, USA)

rsz_boyhood_momentos_de_una_vida_-__ellar_coltrane_mason_finalLinklater’s much heralded drama follows one boy actor from childhood to adolescence, taking in all the growing pains that come with it. While the film often strays into schmaltz and cliche, it is hard not to be affected by the film and project as a whole. Lead actor Ellar Coltrane may have seemed gawky and awkward as the years passed by, but perhaps that is as accurate a reflection of teenager you can get? Estranged parents Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke provide the acting chops and the pathos of adult instability.

3) STRANGER BY THE LAKE (DIR. ALAIN GUIRAUDIE, FRANCE)

StrangerByTheLake_5_Christophe_Paou_Pi.JPGNo-one does voyeurism quite like the French. By a remote lake in rural France Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) cruises the beach for men in order to sate his desires. His attention is piqued by the athletic Michel (Christophe Paou) and soon his lust for him begins to override his moral compass. How dangerous could Michel really be? Guiraudie’s film is a brooding beast, high on intrigue and psychologically complex. It also has a great sense of place; I can’t think of another film that demonstrates the tranquil joy of lake swimming so much.

4) NYMPHOMANIAC PARTS 1 AND 2 (DIR. LARS VON TRIER, DENMARK)

rsz_1rsz_hero_nymphomaniacvol2-2014-1It is a little sad that Von Trier garners more headlines for his antics than his actual films; Nymphomaniac is another interesting addition to his ouevre. Part of his Depression trilogy this epic double header follows Joe, a young girl hurtling through life with a hard-on, unable to satisfy her desire for human flesh. Ably played by Stacy Martin and Charlotte Gainsbourg, Joe’s travails are often bleak and brutal- this is Von Trier in a self destructive mood. The film gains power in its sheer scale and rawness of emotion.

5) WINTER SLEEP (DIR. NURI BILGE CEYLAN, TURKEY)

rsz_1rsz_p02ckcsmIf Once upon a time in Anatolia was the brooding, silent brother in the family, then Winter Sleep is the talkative, narcissistic sibling. Aydin runs a remote hotel in rural Anatolia with his sloth-like sister and bored younger wife, all the while indulging his intellectual delusions with vanity book projects. Ceylan’s latest film is occasionally too verbose and meandering in its 3 hour length, yet it often finds its way to a point of real epiphany. The characters are so complex and fluid that you find yourself dividing your loyalty between each of them from moment to moment.

6) LEVIATHAN (DIR. ANDREY ZVYAGINTSEV, RUSSIA)

rsz_leviathanBased on a true American news story but with great parallels with contemporary Russian society, Leviathan is the tale of a local fisherman forced to give up his land for a pittance when the greedy local mayor comes calling. Zvyagintsev arrived with one of the greatest debuts of the 21st century in The Return, but his latest film sees the director opting for a more literal, moralistic form of storytelling. The characters and themes are set out in a blunt fashion but the sheer conviction of the actors and the anger of the director shines through.

7) ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE (DIR. JIM JARMUSCH, USA)

This is a peculiar one. While watching the film, and just after, I was left with mixed feelings about Jarmusch’s latest offering. His re-imagining of the vampire genre had a typically thin story, a penchant for sixth form level philosophy and a somewhat nerdy obsession with guitars and literary figures. There were probably a lot more ‘powerful’ and prescient films being made this year, but this one has stuck. The moody streets of Detroit and the gothic twang of Josef Van Wissem’s score has left a lingering atmosphere, while the central relationship between the evergreen vampires played by  Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston is oddly moving.

8) THE PAST (DIR. ASGHAR FARHADI, FRANCE/IRAN)

Film still from The Past by Asghar FarhadiFarhadi’s twisty family drama follows a family’s disintegration in Paris. Ahmad, the estranged father figure, travels to France to meet his ex-partner Marie and sign their divorce papers. However, he quickly becomes embroiled in family tensions as her new partner Samir is causing friction with her offspring. The film is a treasure chest of lies and misunderstandings, Farhadi creating a meaty drama out of miscommunication. While the film may become too tricksy and melodramatic at points, the quality of the acting and the dialogue makes it a very satisfying watch.

9) FINDING VIVIAN MAIER (DIR. JOHN MALOOF & CHARLIE SISKEL, USA)

rsz_211-628x425This excellent documentary unearthed the fascinating story of Vivien Maier, a New York nanny with a secret life as a master photographer. In the 60’s and 70’s, Maier would go out onto the streets of New York and take fantastic photos of everyday life; children, old pensioners, the rich, the homeless. Remarkably her talents were unknown to her well-to-do employers, and she lived a life of relative anonymity. This sparky film documents the discovery of her photographs to her eventual reappraisal, all the while demonstrating what a singular and complex individual Maier was.

10) HER (DIR. SPIKE JONZE, USA)

rsz_1rsz_her-screen-shotProbably one of the greatest films to reflect the ever blurring lines between online and real life, Jonze crafts an unusual and heartfelt work out of a challenging concept. Theodore (Joaquin Pheonix) is a lonely urbanite from the future who falls in love with his OS computer (seductively voiced by Scarlett Johannson), a completely intuitive, human-like system. The film has a woozy, wistful glow to it and Pheonix is excellent as the repressed lead. Jonze deserves all the plaudits, however, for concocting such a prescient, emotional film out of a far fetched conceit.

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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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BURROUGHS - BROOKNER

Aaron Brookner, nephew of the late documentarian Howard Brookner, is currently seeking support to digitally restore his uncle’s famous documentary Burroughs; a portrait of extraordinary and infamous beat writer, William S. Burroughs. The documentary, directed by Howard Brookner features technical work by Jim Jarmusch (director of The Limits of Control) who operated sound and Tom DiCillo (director of When You’re Strange) who operated camera.

The official Kickstarter page for the project, where you can read about the project and pledge to support the restoration, describes the film thus:

Burroughs: The Movie explores one of the greatest American writers and thinkers with an intimacy never before seen and never repeated, featuring Burroughs along with many of his contemporaries including Allen Ginsberg, Brion Gysin, Francis Bacon, Herbert Hunke, Patti Smith, Terry Southern, and Lauren Hutton.  The film was directed by the late Howard Brookner, begun in 1978 as Brookner’s senior thesis at NYU film school before expanding into a feature completed 5 years later in 1983.  Sound was recorded by Jim Jarmusch and the film was shot by Tom DiCillo, fellow NYU classmates and both very close friends of Brookner’s.”

To watch footage from the film and hear Aaron Brookner talk about the project, take a look at the following youtube video:

The official cut-off date for pledges is the 31st December 2012.

You can visit the Facebook page for the project here.

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