Saturday, October 30, 2010

Late review - London Film Fest 2010 Day 4 - CARLOS

CARLOS is a sprawling, intense five hour cine-spectacular biography of the cack-handed, vainglorious terrorist Ilich Ramirez Sanchez aka Carlos aka Carlos The Jackal. Written and directed by Olivier Assayas and originally broadcast as a three part mini-series on French TV, the film was shown in its original length, back to back at this year's London film fest.It is also being released in some countries as a three hour edited down movie. It features a charismatic central performance from Edgar Ramirez who, as Carlos, isn't just IN every frame, but dominates the film.

As the opens we see Carlos as a good-looking, womanising, politically motivated young man living in Paris, hiding weapons in the bedrooms of compliant girls. He moves into the big leagues when he persuades a Lebanese terrorist organisation (the PFLP) to bypass his immediate superior and make him their point-man. Flush with pride and power, he organises a raid on OPEC headquarters in Vienna. The first part of the film ends with the terrorists and their hostages on a plane desperately trying to find an Arab country that will give them permission to land. Carlos thought they would be feted as heroes, but turns out no-one wants to alienate the international community. He is embarrassed and angry, but shows his true colours - when the ultimate sacrifice is called for - he wants life, fame, girls, money - rather than a martyr's death. And so the pattern is set. He isn't a revolutionary. He's a bank robber - self-interested, petty, vain, eager for cash and respect. He hides out in Hungary, festering, brooding, drinking, fucking. He hides out in Sudan. He causes a few more ructions but never really pulls anything off. Basically, he's just a massive pain in the ass. And then, when the Berlin Wall came down, he was a flabby irrelevance, of interest only to Interpol and the vengeful French prison system.

The ironic truth of Carlos' life is established: as a terrorist he's both a failure and a success. In pure terms, he causes little damage - his missions are failures. But in terms of causing terror with his notoriety - he is a roaring success. And this is irony is perfectly portrayed by Edgar Ramirez - in one of the stand out performances of the year - he is everything Carlos is - charismatic, pitiable - good-looking, a physical mess - radical, bourgeois. It's a multi-faceted performance, enabled by the long run-time of the movie - a long run-time, by the way, that simply skips by. The movie is also beautifully directed by Assayas, and while it was financed by TV it really does look tremendous on the big screen. One can only assume that cinematographer Denis Lenoir (PARIS JE T'AIME, RIGHTEOUS KILL) shot the action sequences and that Yorick le Sau shot (I AM LOVE, JULIA) the beautiful vistas of Lebanon. At any rate, however, they sliced up the credits, the film looks beautiful.

There is a rule that states that if a movie is shown on TV anywhere before it's released at the cinema, it can't be eligible for the Oscars. This is a desperate shame because CARLOS would certainly be in the mix for Best Director and Best Actor. It's definitely worth checking out, and ideally in the long form.

CARLOS was shown on French TV in May 2010 and played Vancouver, Cannes and London 2010. It will be released in the UK as two feature films. It is also airing on the Sundance channel as a 3 part mini-series.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Guest Review - ENTER THE VOID (Extended version)

The following is a guest review by Alex, fellow cineaste, and proponent of the Flat White:

If you can leave Gaspar Noé’s excellent Enter the Void (the full extended version clocks in at 2 hours and 37 minutes) without feeling a little tripped out, you may have a pretty serious drug problem. Noé himself has said of the film: “The best and worst response I got from the movie is that when you come out, you feel stoned”.

The frenetic, almost three minute-long opening credit sequence primes the viewer, Pranayama-breathing style, for the coming meditation on life, death, sex, family ties, trauma, and the division between reality and perception.

Brother, Oscar, and sister, Linda, (played by relative unknowns Nathaniel Brown and Paz De La Huerta respectively) live together in downtown Tokyo – he’s a drug-dealer and she’s a go-go dancer who is casually sleeping with her boss. He’s also casually sleeping with his friend’s mother. After Oscar gets high on MBT, a psychotropic drug which, it is hinted, like Peyote, can recreate for the user a near-death experience, his friend betrays him when he finds out about his mother’s liaison with Oscar, leading to a confrontation with the police in which Oscar is shot. At this point reality smudges, and we are unsure whether our man is dead or merely tripping out.

The film, shot up to this point from a first-person perspective, switches to Brian De Palma-like astral shots as we voyeuristically float around Tokyo observing the characters from above. If the psychedelically colourful and geometrical sequences immediately after Oscar takes MBT haven’t put you off or given you a headache by now, you’ll have surrendered fully to Noé and will be enjoying the cinematic device. Switching from a painful first hand point of view to an almost deistic removal from the characters is a powerful tool. We are at once removed from and then put close to the plot.

Expect nothing less than an epic, emotionally raw tale. In particular a car crash sequence which is pivotal to the plot of the film and the relationship between the brother and sister who are the main two protagonists is scouring, but efficiently so. By lingering on its aftermath, placing the viewer in the back seat of the car itself, one is forced to experience the blood-spattered, helpless infants’ trauma first hand. It is effective and feels necessary to the development of the plot and not overly self-indulgent, unlike the aforementioned scene in Irreversible. It’s also key to understanding the sister’s incestuous love for her brother, and the dreamy climactic scene, which is made more credible by the bond they’ve formed out of this shared trauma.

Atmospheric and visceral, in particular the abortion and conception scenes, ETV doesn’t disappoint, toying with ideas of death and life and entertaining us in one fell swoop.

I would hate to think that ETV falls between the cracks of controversy and hippy notoriety. For despite the inevitable comparisons with “2001: A Space Odyssey” (not undeserving and not entirely a bad thing in my view) the film deserves to become far more than a druggie favourite, a sophisticate’s Cheech and Chong. By toeing the line between reality and the trip, I was put in mind of the excellent Shutter Island more than any other film.

Noé is clearly intent on recreating a hallucinogenic experience, and the repetition of certain scenes (watch out for the subtle differences; writing on walls, the colours of Linda’s dresses) and his non-linear style certainly do help, as well as making the film more involving and enjoyable. Ultimately though it is at best the first derivative of a bad trip.

A good movie which also lasts over ninety minutes is one in which I am not tempted to look at my watch until the credits roll. By this measure, ETV succeeds. We want to know if Oscar is indeed dead or just spacing out. Noé ensures that we care enough about the sibling protagonists by investing us in them, inuring us with their childhood experiences and pain.

Many people consider Irreversible his seminal movie, however he has comfortably surpassed it with ETV. His trade-mark fascination with the gritty underworld, drugs and sex (without or without love and often sharply contrasted), everything else which sits outside of society’s norms and his willingness to reel the audience in and out are even more in evidence in the sequitur. Redemptive and intense, ETV is arguably a moral tale, if not cathartic and beautiful to watch.

Cinema-goers who treat films as indulgent escapism, like myself, will not be disappointed. From the very start it is gripping and visually engaging - sit close to the screen, low in your seat, and wallow in its sybaritic splendour.

ENTER THE VOID played Cannes, Toronto and London 2009 in versions of varying length and played Sundance 2010. It went on release in France, Japan, Belgium, Estonia, Germany and Finland earlier this year, and is still on release in the UK, the US and the Netherlands.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

London Film Fest 2010 - Day 16 - Closing Night Gala - 127 HOURS

I don't do extreme sport. I don't really do common or garden sport. In the words of George Burns, 'I never go jogging: it makes me spill my martini.' If some fuckwit decides to go up a mountain or into a canyon on his own, without telling anyone about it, and then gets his arm trapped under a boulder, I basically have no sympathy. I mean, I'm glad said fuckwit survived, but do I really want to watch a dreary, dismal, against-all-odds movie where we basically spend 90 minutes watching a bloke drinking his own urine and then hacking off his arm with a blunt knife? No.

The triumph of writer-director Danny Boyle is that 127 HOURS is NOT that movie. He brings all the energy, visual style and bravura editing of SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE and TRAINSPOTTING to a story that could've been claustrophobic and grim. Better still, he had the faith to cast James Franco in the central role of real-life canyoneer Aron Ralston - an actor who is pretty, no doubt, but also very gifted and only now starting to get roles that show his potential.

The movie begins with a hi-energy, thumping sound-track from A.R.Rahman, and split screen footage of urban life - crowds of people and noise - trading floors and sports stadia. We see Franco's Ralston grab a map, some supplies, his cam-corder, jump in a car, music blaring, and head for the Canyon. This is clearly a guy full of energy, personable, but basically too busy to bother checking in. He's on the move - looking for that perfect outdoor sports high. And Boyle tells us all this without any dialogue - just some bravura editing and a really original approach to the material.

When we get to the Blue John Canyon, we see Aron charm the pants off two lost hikers, showing them the joy of dropping into an underground pool. Again, it's a brief episode but sketches in his character - good fun, witty, and a dare-devil. Tellingly, just as Aron ran out of the store not even turning to wave goodbye but impatient to move on to the next thing, he runs off from the girls, waving without turning. It's all about the next adventure.

Before we've even paused for breathe, Aron's dropped into a canyon, the boulder has crushed his arm, and he's realised, mid-swigging from his water-bottle, that he's "in deep doo-doo." And for the first time, the camera pans out from the ravine, out of the canyon, and there isn't any rock music on the sound-track. It's a great contrast to the first half hour of the flick.

What then follows is some superb acting from James Franco, as he portrays a man who veers from pragmatic, ingenious engineer to delusional, dehydrated hysteria. And Franco is matched point for point by Boyle's inventive use of the camera. From inside-the-water-bottle POV shots, to quick edits of Aron's delusional visions - the movie never loses pace or interest despite the constraints of basically shooting a guy in a ravine. (Admittedly, Boyle is helped by the fact that the real-life Ralston really did cam-cord himself, giving the screenwriters a neat device to break the silence and alter the POV.) In fact, far from being grim, 127 HOURS is often very funny indeed. And, most importantly, by making us enjoy Aron's company, and by making us see what he has to go home to, the movie makes us completely invest in his survival. As a result, when Aron finally has to break his arm and then cut through it to free himself, the audience gasped in horror at his pain, and cheered with joy when he finally escaped the trap. And when he finally saw a family in the distance, and the helicopter came for him, the feeling of relief and catharsis was palpable. I practically bounced out of the cinema on a natural high.

So, whether or not you typically like extreme-sport-survivor movies, you should definitely check out 127 HOURS. To use that most hackneyed of phrases, it really is a feel-good film of the best kind - a movie that earns its warm fuzzy glow by making you identify with its protagonist and taking you through what feels like authentic pain. The resulting film is full of energy, emotionally engaging, brilliantly acted, and technically imaginative. I think it's Danny Boyle's finest film to date, and certainly James Franco's best performance - combining the talent for comedy shown in PINEAPPLE EXPRESS with the ability to show real emotion seen in HOWL and MILK.

127 HOURS played Telluride and Toronto 2010. It opens in the US on November 5th 2010 and in the UK on January 7th 2011.

London Film Fest 2010 - Day 16 - KABOOM

KABOOM is a bizarre little movie set in a surreal day-glo version of a So-Cal college campus. Said campus is populated by horny, promiscuous teens who spend all their time fucking, SMS-ing sucked into the machinations of an evil cult that's trying to bring about the end of the world.

Writer-director Gregg Araki's is exploring similar territory as in his previous work - teenage sexual shenanigans, gay, straight and everything in-between. But instead of the gritty, raw emotion of MYSTERIOUS SKIN, we get day-glo colour, 1980s kitsch stylings and a plot that seems like the spoof love-child of ROSEMARY'S BABY and THE DEVIL'S ADVOCATE. The resulting movie is basically a colourful, inconsequential mess. I didn't care about any of the characters, I didn't find the trying-too-hard-to-be-witty dialogue funny, I wasn't impressed by the sexual candour, and I didn't buy into the spoof-horror plot. This movie just isn't as well-written or as finely balanced as, say, DONNIE DARKO, and it certainly isn't as funny as it needs to be. Pretty much the only person who comes out of it with their reputation in tact is actress Juno Temple. Still, I guess, in the age of banal mainstream movies, you at least have to give Araki props for trying.

KABOOM played Cannes, Berlin and Toronto 2010. It was released earlier this year in the USA and France.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

London Film Fest 2010 - Day 15 - COLD FISH / TSUMETAI NETTAIGYO

COLD FISH is basically insane. It's an insanely conceived movie about insane people. It's hilarious, sexually explicit, ultra-violent, horrifying and ridiculous. It's the sort of movie that you sit through, alternately laughing and nauseous, and when the lights come up you think, 'what the hell just happened here?!'

J-horror director Shion Sono based the movie on a true case of a serial murderer in 1980s Japan, but this is very much just a nod to past history rather than a straight re-telling. In the movie, Sono transposes the action to modern Japan, and turns the serial killer into a Fred and Rosemary West-style couple who get high on sexual power-games and butchering people with an attention to detail that is pretty impressive in a fucked up way. They lure in unsuspecting idiots with their over-the-top courtesy and generosity, find their weakness and then exploit it for kicks. In this case, the killers, Aiko and Murata, alight upon the weedy, emasculated middle-aged man, Shamoto and his dissatisfied wife Taeko, offering to give their teenage daughter a job and a place to stay. Pretty soon, the mischievous old Murata (Japanese comedian Denden) is porking Taeko and forcing Shamoto to be help dispose of corpses. 

There's something brilliantly, finely-balanced in how we are often grossed out and laughing our asses off at the same time in this movie. I loved the gore, the chavvy outfits, the lo-fi gonzo look of the film, the day-glo colours, and the screetching sound-track. This is angry, funny film that sticks it in the eye of bourgeois sensibility, with its social satire of repressed domesticity and inter-generational misunderstanding. I loved it. Even when it made me want to vomit. But at its heart, there is something much more profound going on - a sort of demonic argument for repressed people to act on their impulses and, crudely put, "man the fuck up". What else can we make of a scene where Murata literally forces Shamato to have sex with Aiko, or the fact that Shamato's journey in the film is ultimately one of forced self-empowerment. In order to get to the point where he can physically and psychologically save his wife and daughter he has to become, for a moment, as evil but also as powerful as Murata. Shamato is the cold fish, and he is freezing his wife in suburban hell as the movie opens. Is it better to live, frozen, or die, alive?  Unpalatable truth, maybe.

COLD FISH was released in Japan earlier this year and played Venice and Toronto 2010.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

London Film Fest 2010 Day 14 - HOWL

HOWL is a beautifully made film about Allen Ginsberg's iconic Beat poem, published in 1955. Honest, raw, sexually explicit, Ginsberg described the reality of life on the road in the counter-culture - how young urban hipsters were really living and feeling. That rawness and authenticity - the proud joy at enjoying sex, drugs, literature, music and good company - and the anger at the establishment, the bourgeoisie, still translates. I guess a lot of us can remember a time in our teenage life when we first read Howl, and then maybe Kerouac's On The Road or Burrough's Naked Lunch.

Acclaimed documentarians, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (THE TIMES OF HARVEY MILK) have produced a film that has the authenticity and immediacy of a documentary, recreating iconic photographs of Ginsberg; using a script that is almost entirely based on interviews and transcripts of the court-case wherein publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti was charged with obscenity for having published the poem. This is, however, no court thriller - especially as we know the outcome! Rather, Epstein and Friendman use the court-case as a door through which to explore contemporary reactions to the poem - from prudish shock and patronising contempt through to bewildered admiration and excitement. And that's the genius of HOWL. It's a movie that dares to give us what is, essentially, literary criticism rather than a prurient examination of The Beats' sex lives or a conventional biopic. In other words, the film-makers want us to understand why Howl was important, artistically and socially. And in doing so - in showing us Ginsberg talking about how he wrote, and why he wrote, we get as much of a picture of the man as any straight-ahead biopic would've given us.

Stylistically, one has to give Epstein and Friedman credit for the sterling recreation of the 1950s - from cramped apartments to the costumes. The attention to detail in recreating photos is superb and DP Edward Lachman LIFE DURING WARTIME, FAR FROM HEAVEN) moves with ease from honey-coloured 1950s court-rooms to grungy beat apartments in black-and-white.

We also get an imaginative animated version of the poem that is inter-cut with court-room discussion of the same lines, and then Ginsberg reading them, or explaining them. All this adds up to a rich discussion and understanding of the text, although I personally could've done without the pictures - the words are enough for me. I wish they'd trusted more in the power of the words to carry our interest. The film is also populated with a fine cast of major names even in very slight roles - principally Jon Hamm as the prosecuting lawyer; David Strathairn for the Defence; Bob Balaban as the judge; and Mary-Louise Parker as a particularly amusing defence witness. These actors are all great, but in such small roles I found them to be more of a distraction, and wished that the film-makers had used character actors instead.

However, for all that, I still loved this film. It was an hour and a half of pure literary indulgence. And what really sets this film a cut above is the performance of James Franco as the young Ginsberg, with his perfect reproduction of that bizarre lilting way in which Ginsberg spoke and the physicality of how he carried himself. It was marvellous to see Ginsberg young and striving, rather than as the old balding man, established, that we often remember. Here he was - here the the Beats were - at the creation. It's exhilarating to watch. But a more interesting question is perhaps how far this film will translate to people who aren't as familiar with the poem. Will they be won over to its importance and artistry?  And will they find Ginsberg's speech patterns bizarre and off-putting rather than charming and particular? Evidence from my Gentleman Secretary suggests the latter.

HOWL played Berlin and Sundance 2010. It was released in Italy in August and in the the US in September. It opens in Denmark on November 25th. It opens in Germany on January 6th, in the UK on February 25th and in Finland on March 25th.

London Film Fest 2010 Day 14 - SUBMARINO

Nick and Martin are brothers living in contemporary Copenhagen, struggling to deal with the childhood trauma of their little brother dying of neglect as the result of their mother's alcoholism. Nick has served time, and now passes the day at the gym or drinking and the evenings with a hooker. Martin is a junkie who turns to pushing to support his little boy. Both of them, in their own fucked-up way, try to protect the kids in their lives, as a sort of penance for having failed their little brother.

The movie is austere, closely observed and unrelentingly grim. It is a return, if not in form, but in content, to the Dogme style of film-making that Thomas Vinterberg (DEAR WENDY) originated in. The lead performances are strong, and the stories of the two brothers - who are estranged for much of the film - are deftly inter-twined. However, I am not sure why, but I just couldn't get into the film. Something about the unrelenting self-annihilation kept me at a distance, just as the brothers try to distance themselves from their emotions, with alcohol and smack respectively. As a result, SUBMARINO is a film that I admired rather than enjoyed.

SUBMARINO played Berlin 2010 and was released in September in France, Finland and the Netherlands. It opens in Belgium on November 17th.


SURVIVING LIFE is a classic Svan Jankmajer film: animation interspersed with live footage to create a surreal vision of life - at once a Kafka-esque nightmare, and very, very, funny! In this particular flick, Eugene is a middle-aged, happily married man, who has a surreal dream about a young, beautiful, sexy woman in red (Klára Issová). In his waking life he tries all manner of old-wives tales to recreate that dream, and even resorts to psychotherapy to find herself again. The problem is that the psychotherapist is basically using techniques that answer what the dream is really about and so eliminate it. All under the mocking gaze of portraits of Jung and Freud who alternatively laugh, roll their eyes and applaud.

SURVIVING LIFE is witty, funny, imaginative, surreal but also somehow authentic in how it portrays the way in which we can still be bowled over by a crush way past our teenage years. I really believed that Eugene was captivated by his lady in red, but also that he was a decent guy. And even though Czech art-house animation might not leap out at you, I would encourage anyone who wants a more sophisticated version of a rom-com, with a light touch of the Terry Gilliams, to check this out.

SURVIVING LIFE played Venice and will be released in the Czech Republic on November 4th 2010.

Monday, October 25, 2010

London Film Fest Day 2010 Day 13 - LEMMY

LEMMY is an infuriating documentary. The directors have an all access pass to Lemmy Klimister - legendary Motorhead front-man/bassist; obsessive fruit-machine player; drinker; womaniser; and general all-round bad-ass - and they squander it by producing an unfocused, over-long, indulgent documentary. You can tell this is a bad film because you leave the theatre wanting to know more about Lemmy - about his childhood, his style of playing, how influential he was on other musicians, how far he regrets not knowing his adopted son - and you KNOW that the documentarians could've asked Lemmy about all this stuff - but they didn't. Nope - they were too busy hanging out, filming concert footage and being so co-opted by the icon that they didn't dare make him really delve into his past or his rather disturbing fetish for Nazi memorabilia.

I came out of this flick with as much respect for Lemmy as I went into it with - which is a lot - but no real extra knowledge. We all know how he started off in the Rockin Vickers with a pudding bowl haircut - how he roadied and dealt for Hendrix - how he played space-rock with Hawkwind - got kicked out for being busted by narcs - and then founded Motorhead, wrote Ace of Spades and became a rock legend. And even if we didn't think he was a rock legend, the film-makers give us a parade of contemporary greats - from Dave Grohl to Slash, to tell us that he is. What they don't do, with the exception of Slash, is really talk about his singing style or his playing style, and the mechanics of why he's so good. In other words, no one really gets under the skin of the music.

The result is a documentary that advertises itself as getting behind the iconography and controversy to the truth of Lemmy, but that in reality just glories in that iconography. In other words, this isn't a documentary at all, but hagiography. And superficial hagiography, at that. No one really cares, technically, why Lemmy is great. They're more interested in the legend.

LEMMY played a bunch of festivals and will be released in the UK on December 7th.

London Film Fest 2010 Day 13 - OCTOBER / OCTUBRE

OCTOBER is yet another film in this year's Festival that features a lonely man living an emotionally impoverished life, using whores for release, and finding an unlikely salvation. Frankly, by this point, I'm getting tired of seeing alienating commercial sex, no matter how stylised the framing and how good the acting. Anyways, for what it's worth, in this film, the iteration sees a Peruvian money-lender called Clemente using whores for release and apparently knocking them up fairly often. One day, he finds himself landed with a baby, and while he tries to track down the mother, he hires a middle-aged woman as a child-minder. This sets up an Odd Couple relationship between the quietly subversive child-minder and the emotionally stunted Clemente. In many ways, OCTOBER is an impressive film. The production design, cinematography and performances are all strong and the tone is deadpan and bleak. But I just didn't engage with the characters - the humour wasn't dark enough for me - and frankly, I am pretty tired of the set-up of a soul-less man using whores getting redeemed by meet-cute x. I'd love to see director Diego Vega Vidal addressing another subject.

OCTOBER played Cannes 2010 and is currently on release in Peru and Germany. It opens in France on December 29th.

London Film Fest 2010 Day 13 - THE SLEEPING BEAUTY

Following her previous film, BLUEBEARD, Catherine Breillat revisits the fairy-tale world with her latest film, THE SLEEPING BEAUTY. She twists strands of various fairy-tales into a whimsical, go-where-it-may story of a little girl fearlessly discovering love, becoming a teenager, and exploring her sexuality.

We start in an eighteenth century middle-European castle, with Princess Anastasia cursed in the cradle by a cackling witch to prick her finger and die. So far, so conventional. But the three good witches give her a new escape from her fate - Anastasia will fall asleep for a hundred years but she will do so at age 6 and awaken at 16, and while asleep she will dream marvellous adventures, because "nothing happens when you're a child". The movie thus sets up childhood as a period of latency and boredom until puberty awakens us to our sexuality. The first act of the film introduces us to Anastasia as six-year old fearsome child, who dreams of being a knight, hates frou-frou ballerina dresses, and brooks no opposition. Carla Besainou is absolutely charming in this role. As Anastasia falls asleep we move into Act Two. She journeys through a peasant world that takes on aspects of the story of the Ice Queen and of Alice in Wonderland and falls in love with a little boy called Peter. Once again, it is Carla Besainou's personality that captivates. In Act Three, Anastasia wakes up as a sixteen-year old girl, wearing a Victorian frock, but in present day France. She is courted by a teenage boy and emerges as a liberated young French girl with short hair and a short dress.

THE SLEEPING BEAUTY isn't as good as it should be. Sure, Catherine Breillat has imagination, and a willingness to put female emotion at the centre of the film, but where's the visual wonder of PAN'S LABRYNTH or the fluidity and surreality of Sally Potter's ORLANDO? And, most of all, where is the willingness to truly explore the danger and subversion at the heart of all fairy tales that we find in Neil Jordan's THE COMPANY OF WOLVES. Catherine Breillat's film simply isn't up to their high level in terms of the intellectual content or the visual style. It's fun as far as it goes, but essentially just a bit of low-budget whimsical fluff. There is, after all, a fine line between go-where-you-will whimsy and plain lack of discipline.

THE SLEEPING BEAUTY played Venice and Toronto 2010. It has no commercial release date.

Sunday, October 24, 2010


UPSIDE DOWN: THE CREATION RECORDS STORY is a deeply dull piece of pop hagiography created by fanboys and insiders for nostalgic middle-aged former floppy-fringed Brit-pop hacks. It is basically an homage to Alan McGee, ginger-haired rock impresario who came to London in the early eighties, started putting gigs together, and eventually formed a record label that put out acts that were typically acclaimed in the pages of the NME but sold precious few records. The Jesus and Mary Chain, Primal Scream and My Bloody Valentine are the most recognisable of the bands, and even there, you don't get the idea that McGee's haphazard, drug-fuelled, indulgent mentorship did them any real good. Yes he signed them but often as not he let them drift along before imploding.  The Scream put out one genuinely great album and then disappeared in a whirlwind of their own hype. That's something though. Most of McGee's acts barely got a hit single. 

Creation - ramshackle, do-it-yourself, rude-and-loud - stumbled through the eighties and nineties until something truly amazing happened - and that thing, ladies and gentlemen, was Oasis. Oasis was a rare thing for a Creation Records band: they put out records chock-full of Good Songs. Strong hooks, catchy choruses, stadium-fillers, snarling frontmen. Sure, it might've been good luck to have come onto the scene just at the moment when Britart was causing a sensation. London was swinging again, and the kids from Madchester benefited from the inflated war with Blur. But underneath it all, there were some damn fine songs. And what did Alan McGee have to do with this? Bugger all. He was in rehab, and by the time he got out, the label was wound up. Managing a major pop act needs people who actually turn up to work, sober, and know about the money. You can't both be anarchic and rebellious AND be a mainstream record label making serious cash. Oasis is the best thing Creation ever discovered, but they were the beginning of the end.

Somewhere in all of this is an interesting story about the impossibility of harnessing raw indie energy in a mainstream record label. Somewhere, there is a story about a band who became successful despite the shambolic label they were signed to. Somewhere, there is an honest assessment about how bloody indulgent and forgettable most of these bands were. Because, let's face it, when it comes to seminal acts of the eighties and nineties, Factory kills Creation every time. But we never get that. This documentary badly needs opening out. It needs more context. Director Danny O'Connor doesn't have to agree with me that Factory was more important than Creation, but he needs to talk more about the wider musical context of Creation, as opposed to just showing McGee remembering getting high in the Hacienda. O'Connor needs to remember that he is a documentarian not a hagiographer - he needs distance, cool assessment and to attract an audience beyond the nostalgic core.

As it is, this film is basically not edifying to those of us who were there, and not interesting, I suspect, to anyone who wasn't. If you really want to know what happened, you'd be better off reading John Harris' superb book, "The Last Party: Britpop, Blair and the demise of English Rock."

UPSIDE DOWN: THE CREATION RECORDS STORY has no commercial release date.

London Film Fest 2010 Day 12 - CARANCHO

I found watching CARANCHO to be a rather alienating experience. It's all very well acted, and beautifully filmed. The movie drips with social realist integrity. The central romance feels authentic and the finale builds to a point of genuine tension. But for all that, and I'm not sure why, it somehow just didn't work for me. Maybe it was the unrelentingly dour environment or the lingering sense that writer-director, Pablo Trapero, was more interested in the message than the emotional life of his characters. Maybe I just felt that the two lead characters just didn't "click" on screen. Either way, I found CARANCHO to be a far less satisfying film than his previous London Film Fest entry, LION'S DEN.

The movie is basically a story of redemption set in the grimy urban squalor of contemporary Buenos Aires, much as in LION'S DEN. Ricardo Darin (so wonderful in THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES) plays Sosa, a lawyer who lost his license, now working as an ambulance chaser for a ruthless firm, and not above fabricating claims. He is trying to rebuild his self-esteem and his integrity partly to deserve the woman he has fallen in love with - a paramedic called Lujan, played by Trapero regular, Martina Gusman. She is another vulnerable, compromised character. On the surface, she is straight medic, but underneath she's self-medicating to get through her stressful schedule. Somehow, the complex emotional relationship between these two characters, and the xposé of the ambulance chasing industry should be more compelling than it is.

CARANCHO played Cannes and Toronto 2010 and opened in Argentina and Spain earlier this year.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

London Film Fest 2010 Day 11 - ROUTE IRISH

Ken Loach is one of Britain's most uncompromising directors. His films are political, unblinking, and have a relentless focus on the reality of working class life. Even his most recent film, a comic fantasy called LOOKING FOR ERIC, was firmly rooted in the everyday petty humiliations and victories of life as a postman in a Northern town. It was, then, only a matter of time before Ken Loach gave us his take on the war in Iraq. And with his typical perception for what is at the core of an issue, he goes straight for the one truly unique facet of this war - the widespread use of mercenaries. This outsourcing of state-power - this compromise of the idea that in liberal democracies the elected government is the only legitimate source of violence - because it is only the government that can be held to account for its abuse - is absolutely key to understanding Iraq. It is the abuse of this power, widely reported in the more thoughtful media, that serves as a kind of short-hand for all the abuses of power that have come to characterise the war in Iraq. Power abused, violence unchecked, and all for no end other than the perpetuation of power and the amassing of wealth.

Unfortunately, the insights that Loach and his regular screen-writing partner, Paul Laverty, bring to the Iraqi war have not resulted in a compelling film. In fact, I found ROUTE IRISH to be near unwatch-able - it fails as a thriller; it contains a truly risible love story; and suffers woefully from the heavy-hand of didactism.

The story begins with the death of a mercenary called Frankie on Route Irish - the road from Baghdad airport to the Green Zone. His best friend Fergus, also a squaddie turned gun for hire, decides to investigate the death, convinced that the company they worked for is covering up foul-play. Fergus investigates with the help of Frankie's widow, Rachel, and the translating skills of a local Iraqi refugee. Sure enough, the video on the phone is compromising.

Let's break down why the film fails. First, it fails as a thriller. We all know the mercenaries will have committed some heinous crime against innocent Iraqi civilians and Frankie too - after all, we've all seen wikileaks and it's not like Ken Loach is going to side with the neo-cons, is it? Second, it fails the test of simple logic. Once Fergus finds the damning video, why doesn't he put it on the web? This is what his Iraqi helper tells him to do. It's what Rachel tells him to do. Fergus refuses. He says he wants to get more, better evidence. But we know what's really going on. Loach and Laverty want to extend the film - draw out the narrative - so that they can show Fergus' moral disintegration - show him resorting to torturing a witness. Or whatever. Simply put: in the age of Wikileaks, I can't take any movie seriously that doesn't just dump the evidence on the web as soon as possible.

This brings us to the central failing of this film: the lack of emotional grip at its heart. After all, in a world of wikileaks - years after Brian de Palma's REDACTED - what can a movie like this really teach us? Nothing about the facts. Anyone who wants to know can find out. So the reason to watch a movie like this can only be because empathy with well-written characters can teach us something about ourselves and give us an emotional insight that mere documentary evidence cannot give. But ROUTE IRISH fails on that score too. It's characters are too crudely, thinly drawn to be of interest. I didn't buy into Fergus. I didn't buy into his slow decline into torture. And I certainly didn't buy into his clichéd relationship with Rachel. Mark Womack (Fergus) portrays anger, frustration and guilt by shouting loudly. Andrea Lowe is wooden and two-dimensional as Rachel. The casting of British stand-up comedian John Bishop as Frankie is a distraction.  Too little space is given to the Iraqi refugees. Most damning, one of those characters actually asks Fergus why he is obsessed with the death of one Brit when so many Iraqis are dying. Isn't it just another act of chauvinism to have another film from a Western point of view? Loach never answers this point.

ROUTE IRISH is, then, a complete failure. A failure in execution at every level. I was sadly disappointed.

ROUTE IRISH played Cannes 2010 and was released in Norway in September. It will be released in France on March 16th 2011.

London Film Fest 2010 Day 11 - WINTER VACATION

Contemporary China. A Northern town encased in snow, filled with stark, brutal Soviet buildings. Teenage boys wile away the hours in sparsely furnished rooms, or sit on park benches. Boredom. Despair. Hopelessness. And the blackest of black comedy! Such is the movie that Li Hongqi gves us. Welcome to modern China, everyone! Thousands of miles away from the shiny skyscrapers of the economic miracle here is atomised, brutalised reality - the reality of modern life under Communism. WINTER VACATION is a tough watch because it so resolutely holds out against such easy comforts as a narrative arc or a happy ending. But if you allow yourself to settle into it, and to go with its slow rhythm, it can become as mesmerising as an Aki Kaurismaki movie.

WINTER VACATION played Seoul and Locarno 2010, where it won the Golden Leopard. It has no commercial release date yet.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Overlooked DVD of the month - GREENBERG

Writer-director Noah Baumbach makes excruciatingly well-observed films about financially privileged, neurotic, unsympathetic middle-aged Americans. When his films work, they are masterpieces of razor-sharp dialogue and uncomfortable silences and fleeting moments of sympathy for the fundamentally unsympathetic. His latest film, GREENBERG, features a classic Baumbach character, brilliantly played by Ben Stiller. Roger Greenberg is the definition of the bi-coastal American mid-life crisis. He's a forty-something, neurotic failed pop star turned carpenter who spends his life feeling sorry for himself, using recreational drugs, hitting on younger women and basically being self-indulgent and whiny. He is a walking embarrassment - the Uncle who won't grow up - the brother who won't get himself together - the friend who won't admit to his failures. 

Greenberg comes to LA to house-sit his brother's house and, taking the family's cue, casually abuses the services of their au pair/social secretary/general all round skivvy Florence (Greta Gerwig). The interaction between the passive-aggressive Greenberg and the vulnerable, low-self-esteem Florence is fascinating. She is sympathetic but hopeless. Greenberg is simultaneously repelled by her openness, and inflated by the fact that he has finally found someone in such dire circumstances that even a loser like him can help her. (I've been rewatching the classic 1981 BRIDESHEAD REVISITED recently, and as far apart as these things are, I thought I recognised something of the relationship of Sebastian Flyte and Kurt in Greenberg's attraction to finally being of use.)

I liked GREENBERG. Or maybe it's a film that you don't so much like, or enjoy, but see as a reflection of people you know, and admire for its honesty in depicting a certain slice of life. Greenberg is a profoundly unsympathetic character, but I did care about his journey and find some satisfaction, if not redemption, in the final scenes of the movie. GREENBERG isn't as bitterly funny as THE SQUID AND THE WHALE, nor does it have as interesting a cast of characters. GREENBERG feels more like a character study - a closely drawn, almost claustrophobic, portrait of a man in a crisis. It felt real, and painful and sometimes infuriating. But I was happy to have spent time with its characters and bought into the relationships and narrative arc.

Baumbach is, like Nicole Holofcener, the great chronicler of our decadent, pampered lives. Of rich people who feel guilty for being rich, but want all that being rich gives them. Of emotionally unstable people self-sabotaging. Of people in their thirties and forties who refuse to grow up and take responsibility. Of emotional narcissism and the difficulty of connection. I am grateful that there is room for his kind of cinema, even if it is, by definition, a painful watch.

GREENBERG played Berlin 2010 and opened earlier this year. It is available on DVD and on iTunes.

London Film Fest 2010 Day 9 - THE TILLMAN STORY

Pat Tillman was a pro-footballer who gave up a million dollar contract to serve in the US Army in Iraq and then Afghanistan. He was an interesting guy - seems to have had a lot of integrity and charisma - but he wasn't some bible-thumping, pure of heart, All-American hero. He was a normal kid, very talented at sport, who joined the army. When Pat Tillman was killed, the US Army were keen to lionise him as a Patriot, a Hero and a poster-boy for the war. The story was depersonalised and publicised - Tillman wasn't Tillman, warts and all, but an Archetype. They covered up the fact that his death was the result of friendly fire, and arguably with no extenuating circumstances. And even when his mother and father pushed for the truth, a Congressional hearing only resulted in equivocation from the upper reaches of the chain of command.

This documentary allows the Tillman family to reclaim the Tillman Story from the US Army and to come to some closer approximation of an objective truth. But the project is itself fraught. Because, in using the Tillman Story to expose the PR machine within the US Army, director Amir Bar-Lev is also spinning his own version of the Tillman Story - now to excoriate the forces who originally exploited it. To its credit, I think the documentary is highly aware of this problem and exposes the ambiguity at the heart of the project. As much as the parents have exposed the crimes at the heart of the case, the myth of Tillman is already out there - the statues have been carved, the iconic images imprinted - and you can't put that back in the box. Moreover, as much as they want the US Army to respect Tillman's request for privacy, in agreeing to participate in this doc - by writing a book - in using his name for charitable causes - they are also part of that machine, albeit with earnest and good intentions.

THE TILLMAN STORY is then, a story about a story. It's about authors fighting over a narrative for their own purposes. But, let's be honest, government manipulation of the facts to support government policy is not new in life, and it's certainty not new in film. This shit has been happening since Homer, and in the movies you can watch Preston Sturges' superb HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO. Call me cynical, but there isn't enough new in the US Army using Pat Tillman to be interesting in and of itself. I wanted to see a rougher interrogative technique to make the story grip more. I wanted to see more interrogation of the US Army participants - particularly General Kensinger who was in charge of Tillman's unit. And I needed to be taken through the chain of command in more detail - I wanted to get into the case - other just seeing an org chart thrown up on screen and vague accusations being thrown.

If this story - the story of fighting over the story - is as old as the Greeks - what's new in the Iraqi/Afghani wars is the co-option of the media. That's because this is the first war with a) many competing 24 hour news channels b) embedded reporters and c) unprofitable editorial. In other words, this war happened at a moment of juncture with the commercial death of the old high quality foreign news stringers and the rise of content hungry 24 hours news channels. So, I think Amir Bar-Lev would have been better employed examining the complicity of the media in becoming the mouthpiece of the army in this matter. Sure, he hints at the media's complicity early on, but really, after that, he's going for the army not the journos.

So, often-times, I felt Amir Bar-Lev was asking the wrong questions, or not enough questions of the Army. And I felt his choice of focusing on the Army as a manipulator at the expense of the media as enablers was a misjudgement. But where he really does a great job is just letting the footage roll uneditorialised. Classic examples would include footage of the various ceremonies at which football teams decommissioned Tillman's number. The faces of the family say it all - their disgust and incomprehension. Even better the sheer crass vulgarity of having cheer-leaders cheer in front of them. It's in moments like this where the documentary becomes truly powerful and memorable. But, in not exploring the complicity of the media, this documentary looses the fresh insights of a film like IN THE LOOP, which took on the political-media nexus in all its complexity, and with a foul mouth that Pat Tillman might have appreciated.

THE TILLMAN STORY played Sundance and Toronto 2010 and was released in the US in August.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

London Film Fest 2010 Day 8 - NEDS

The multi-talented Peter Mullan returns to directing with NEDS - a brutal but also darkly comic tale of a smart young kid turning to violence in 1970s Glasgow. The movie addresses head on issues of class prejudice, and the way in which the British education system fails its kids. John McGill starts off as a really smart, ambitious kid, but everything is stacked against him. His dad is a violent alcoholic; his elder brother is a juvenile delinquent; and because of that, he's consigned to a lower stream in school than he should be in. Still, he powers on, does well and is set for success. Problem is that in a summer where he has little to do, he falls in with the wrong crowd. And when faced with middle-class prejudice - people who expect him to be a Non-Educated Deliquent - his inner anger spills over and he gives them what he thinks they want. So follows a tale of self-sabotage stemming from deep, deep inner hurt. It's absolutely tragic to see a nice kid turn bad, partly because it's just incredibly difficult to escape inexorable social forces.

The film is beautifully filmed and Mark Lease's production design perfectly captures the 1970s working class atmosphere. And my word, seeing those kids being taught like that - those old fashioned classrooms, latin exercises and marks read out loud - it took me right back! Peter Mullan takes a basically unknown cast and coaxes performances that feel authentic, and his script is the perfect mix of harsh and light relief. My only critique is that the movie seems to have a natural ending about an hour and fifty minutes in, when the protagonist, deciding to turn himself around, finds himself in a remedial class in a portacabin, and has to face the consequences of his actions. But the movie carries on for another half hour. I can see why - it gives the movie a more definite ending - a more hopeful note in some ways - but I felt it was a bit redundant - a bit too leading us by the hand - literally! Still, for all that, NEDS is a powerful, and entertaining movie, despite the tough content, and definitely worth seeking out.

NEDS played Toronto and London 2010. It was released in Spain in December 2010 and will be released in the UK on January 21st.

London Film Fest 2010 Day 8 - MAMMUTH - Castigat Ridendo Mores

Typically you go to the London Film Fest and when you sit down to a French flick you get existential angst. But this year, with LITTLE WHITE LIES and MAMMUTH, I've had a wonderful, joyful time! After the hard-core psycho-drama of WOMB it was marvellous to watch MAMMUTH - with its warm colours, gonzo style DV photography, hilarious physical comedy, and ultimately uplifting sentiment. Gerard Depardieu plays a complete fuckwit called Serge Pilardosse - he's physically clumsy; sports a mullet that Mickey Rourke in THE WRESTLER would be proud of; basically, he's a walking disaster zone. Dumped into retirement, he realises that, like many working class people, he doesn't have enough money for retirement. So starts a sort of motorcycle road trip in which he tries to gather up the necessary paperwork from his seven previous casual jobs in order to qualify for a state pension. The road trip allows writer-directors Benoît Delépine and Gustave de Kervem to examine the basic injustice of an economic system in which you can work hard your whole life in blue collar jobs but still basically have nothing to show for it. But this social critique is explored with the lightest of touches and with so much good humour! Any film that can show a scene of mutual masturbation that seems utterly cute and sweet (not to mention recalling NOVOCENTO) deserves credit. And any movie that can use the device of a crash-victim (Isabelle Adjani) haunting the driver and not seem hammy also deserves credit. Depardieu excels at this kind of physical humour - and his final scenes are truly inspirational. But it's Yolande Moreau, as his long-suffering wife, who truly steals the picture with her hilarious turn dealing with automated call centres, and vengeful attitude toward the woman who stole her phone. In addition, we get a great little cameo from the evidently mental Miss Ming. What else can I say? This is a movie with a lot of heart, a good message, some first-class swearing, physical comedy and a joyous ending. Parfait!

MAMMUTH played Berlin 2010 and was released earlier this year in France, Belgium, Germany and Austria.

London Film Fest 2010 Day 8 - WOMB

WOMB is a beautifully photographed, beautifully acted, deeply painful movie about an unboundaried relationship between a mother and son. Its entire run-time is basically a wince-inducingly uncomfortable exploration of unconventional emotional relationships - and you emerge from the cinema desperate to breathe. Writer-director Benedek Fliegauf creates - with just a few subtle strokes - a world like our own but with one sci-fi touch - cloning is possible. This is a key idea, but is introduced only after half an hour, and while its ramifications are hinted at, this is not really a sci-fi movie at all. What the concept does is allow an exploration of psycho-sexual transgression. Eva Green - Queen of independent cinema's messed up young women - plays Rebecca. She is reunited with her childhood sweetheart Tommy (Matt Smith - TV's latest Doctor Who). When a car accident robs them of a future together she decides, against his mother's wishes, to birth his clone and raise him as her son - all the while keeping him ignorant of this fact so as not to open him up to prejudice against "copies". So follows a brutal tale of closely observed suppressed emotions. Eva Green is superb - as usual - in portraying the single-minded madness of the thwarted women who comes to confront her guilt - expressing all this complexity with a remarkable stillness. Lesley Manville and Peter White - as Tommy's mother and father - are also superb in small roles.  The atmosphere is morose, oppressive and sinister without relief.  The result is a superb film marred only by one directorial choice - not to have Eva Green age - something that bugged me and brought me out of the movie throughout the second half of the film.

WOMB played Toronto and London 2010. It was released earlier this year in Russia, Germany and Hungary. It goes on release in Singapore on August 11th.

London Film Fest 2010 Day 8 - MIRAL

Julian Schnabel's latest feature, MIRAL, is a deeply frustrating movie. There's a brilliantly tense ticking bomb scene intercut with Roman Polanski's REPULSION; Schnabel's trademark fluid handling of the camera; and somewhere underneath the soap-opera-bad romance there's a genuinely fascinating drama. But man, does it get swallowed up by the hammy dialogue and piss-poor acting that surrounds it.

The movie is set in post-WW2 Jerusalem. Hiam Abbas plays Hind Husseini - the real life educator who sacrificed her personal life and wealth to run an orphanage/school for Palestinian refugees. Her struggle to keep her orphanage is lightly sketched in with a few comments and a rather redundant cameo from Willem Dafoe. Her story is the movie I would have wanted to see. What in her childhood gave her the fortitude and integrity to sacrifice her life? How did she navigate the slippery local politics and raise the money necessary? How did she really feel about never marrying?

The problem is that her story is down-played in favour of the story of Miral - one of her pupils. Miral is the daughter of a deeply emotional disturbed mother (Yasmine Al Massri in a very strong cameo performance) and a sympathetic but floundering father (Alexander Siddig). He places Miral in the school, trying to protect her from radical politics and danger. But as Miral becomes a teenager, she gets radicalised by seeing a village bull-dozed. This could have set us up for a fascinating drama playing off emotions against intelligence - and the very real and important choice between overt action and the longer game. But Rula Jebreal's script (she is the real-life Miral) keeps giving us glimpses of something interesting - say Miral's friendship with a Jewish girl - but refuses to explore it, reverting back to soap opera dialogue and emotional.

So, what do we have in the end? A movie that is a joy to behold, thanks to Schnabel's fluid camera and talent for capturing light - a movie that is earnest in its intentions - but ultimately one that is marred by the fact that it has cast an Indian girl who can't act in the central role, and its incredibly poor script.

MIRAL played Venice and Toronto 2010. It opens in Germany on November 18th and in the UK on December 3rd. It opens in the USA on March 25th.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

London Film Fest Day 2010 Day 7 - MEEK'S CUTOFF

Meek's Cutoff is a real-life trail in Oregon, originally followed by Stephen Meek in 1845. He led a group of pioneers down that route, losing many to dehydration, but eventually helped open up Western Oregon with his trail. In director Kelly Reichardt's (WENDY AND LUCY) movie the story is stripped down and pared back. Rather than hundreds of pioneers we have three families, and rather than epic confrontations with Native Americans we have a single dramatic relationship. Lost, desperate for water, the pioneers capture a lone Native American, and force him to lead them to water. This confrontation brings out the worst prejudices of Meek, and the paranoia of some of the women who have been brought up on vicious tales. But it also brings out the essential decency and courage of Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams) - the moral and emotional heart of the tale. The ultimate idea of the movie is subversive. The trail is named after Stephen Meek, and the pioneers are much to be admired, but as the movie progresses the captive becomes captor. He is still bound up by the pioneers, but they are completely dependent on him to find water and to survive.

I find Kelly Reichardt's films alienating. I find the stillness, the quietude, disturbing and, ultimately, dull. I admire the beautiful cinematography and the acting - but it's a kind of abstract admiration. I suspect that audiences will either love this film - for its visuals and its central idea - or hate it - for its silence, and its oblique ending. I am glad I watched it, even if I didn't really enjoy it. I admire the project, if not the product.

MEEK'S CUTOFF played Venice and Toronto 2010. It does not yet have a commercial release date.