Monday, 31 May 2010

June's 'Flick's Flicks', Dennis Hopper passes away and Del Torro quits 'The Hobbit'...

First things first, Guillermo Del Torro has quit as the director of the upcoming adaptation of 'The Hobbit'. Reaction to this has been split between people who feel glad that Del Torro can now pursue his own projects and those who were eagerly anticipating his take on Tolkien's "Middle Earth" (there is presumably a third group who don't care either way and a fourth group who haven't heard for Guillermo Del Torro in the first place).

I am undecided as to what to make of it: part of me thinks that even though I didn't like Peter Jackson's version of 'Lord of the Rings', I was excited to see what Del Torro would do with 'The Hobbit'. Although a bigger part of me would rather see the Mexican make one of his own, more personal films instead. It is yet unknown who is replacing him as the director for the two planned movies which will tell the story of how Bilbo Baggins meets Gandalf the wizard, comes into possession of "the one ring" and defeats an evil dragon.

Next up, I said a while back that I would soon be hosting some episodes of 'Flick's Flicks', Picturehouse's monthly film preview show usually hosted by Felicity "Flick" Beckett. However, Felicity's imminent maternity leave means that I am taking over hosting duties for the next three shows (July, August, September). To prepare you for those upcoming episodes, here is the most recent installment as Flick prepares us for June:

On a seperate note, I have been busy recently writing reviews for an upcoming volume from Intellect Books which looks at British cinema. So far I have submitted reviews for Mike Leigh's 'Happy-Go-Lucky' (which I love), Mike Newell's 'Four Weddings and a Funeral' (which I don't really care for) and the Ealing comedy 'Passport to Pimlico' (which is really brilliant). I am currently (as in as soon as I stop this blog entry) writing my review for 'Trainspotting', which will be submitted tonight!

I also recently become attached to another upcoming book from Intellect, this time on American Independant cinema. I have been given some really great titles to review and I am really enthusiastic to be a part of it.

Finally, I can't end this post without mentioning the sad passing of Dennis Hopper, who died on Saturday after a battle with cancer, a mere two months after recieving a star on the 'Walk of Fame' in LA. In a long and varied screen career Hopper was seen in such classics as 'Apocalypse Now', 'Rebel Without a Cause', 'Blue Velvet' and 'Hoosiers', working with many great directors along the way (among them Francis Ford Coppola, Nicholas Ray, George Stevens, Sam Peckinpah, George A. Romero and David Lynch). In the 90's, after some time in the wilderness, he became something of an iconic movie villain in the big budget actioners 'Speed' and 'Waterworld'.

But he will rightly be most fondly remembered as the co-writer, director and star of 'Easy Rider' in 1969, a film which helped to establish the so-called New Hollywood of the late-60's/early-70's (along with other films like 'Bonnie and Clyde' and 'The Graduate') and became a key and lasting document of the counterculture of that era. Whilst Hopper's own politics would change significantly in later life (he appeared in the "conservative comedy" 'An American Carol' in 2008), that film still partially defines an era of massive social change and keeps that spirit alive on celluloid fourty years on.

The film, which also starred Peter Fonda, helped to launch the acting career of Jack Nicholson and popularised the Steppenwolf track 'Born to Be Wild' (which would be used in adverts for years, always along with a visual referance to the opening shots of 'Easy Rider'). Not many filmmaker's can really claim to have changed cinema, nor can many films be considered truly "iconic": indelibly becoming part of the popular culture. With 'Easy Rider' Dennis Hopper achieved both and his memory will live on forever with that film.

Dennis Hopper (1936-1910) - a true Hollywood great.

Friday, 28 May 2010

'The Happiest Girl in the World' review: Outstanding Romanian comedy...

Once in a while a film comes along that really surprises you. Completely knocks you back. Fifteen minutes into Radu Jude’s ‘The Happiest Girl in the World’ I came to the realisation I was watching such a film. Romanian cinema has been experiencing something of a critical golden age over the last decade, with the so-called New Wave climaxing in 2007 when Cristian Mungiu’s ‘4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days’ won the Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Anyone who watches Jude’s film will find themselves assured that the good times are not yet over for the former Soviet state’s film industry.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am fond of tightly made little films which focus on a small number of characters and have almost no “plot” in the conventional sense. ‘The Happiest Girl in the World’ is another film in this fine tradition, with relatively little going on in the plot department. A young girl called Delia has won a competition by collecting the labels from a fruit drinks bottle and is entitled to a brand new car, as well as a starring role in an advertisement for the drink. To collect her prize and to film the commercial, Delia and her parents travel to Bucharest from the countryside. We witness the final leg of their car journey into the capital and then we stick with Delia as she gets her make-up done and films take after take of the inane advertisement. Arguing with her parents between takes about what to do with the car (they want to sell it in order to start a hotel business, whereas she wants to keep it do drive around with her friends) the girl is forced to repeat for the cameras (and with increasing irony) that she is the titular “luckiest, happiest girl in the world”.

What we see is a protracted (fantastically acted) family feud, as she argues with her mother, then her father, then the pair of them and so on, until the day is ending, the light is fading and the poor, exasperated commercial director is left trying desperately to coax an adequate performance out of her. Meanwhile, a representative of the drinks company takes exception to every detail of the ad, from the girls speaking, to the amount of juice she drinks in a single take, to the amount of water sprayed onto the bottle by the prop man in order to make it look refreshing (at one point he suggests adding cola to the bottle to make it look better on film). These two parts of the film combine to give us something which is equal parts a poignant (and often quietly funny) family drama about a grumpy modern teenager and her old fashioned parents and a detailed and fascinating insight into the world of making commercials (and by extension filmmaking in general), with every aspect of that world shown in great detail. Apparently Jude was himself a director of commercials and it is clear he knows that world inside and out.

There are so many interesting strands in this film that it is almost impossible to keep track of them all. It is an observational comedy about the gap between generations. It’s also a story about the clash between the new capitalist ideology which prizes personal possessions and consumption over the common good represented by the parents who remember the communist years more vividly and see a comfortable lifestyle as more appealing than a shiny car. You could read it as simply a story of country attitudes coming to the big city, or of the cruelty of the media industry using people and treating them badly (as the commercial makers constantly talk about Delia's physical imperfections whilst she is within earshot).

It is also a film which provoked an incredibly visceral response from me whilst I sat watching it. I felt like I wanted to shout at the girl for being so selfish and giving her folks such a hard time. I wanted her dad to be able to get her signature and sell the car before the day’s conclusion. At times I was gripped with suspense uncommon in this sort of quiet, low-key film as I genuinely worried about what decision the girl would make. But the biggest strength of all is that I wasn’t led to feel that way particularly (or at least I don’t feel as though I was, which is just as good). I can just as easily imagine people wanting the girl to keep her car and I can see people thinking badly of her parents for pushing her into selling it for them (and at one point threatening to disown her entirely and leave the city without her - which come to think of it does sound unreasonable).

Basically, ‘The Happiest Girl in the World’ is one of the most remarkable and surprising films of the last year and I will be very, very surprised if it isn’t in my top ten come January 2011. Go and see it if you can find it playing somewhere.

'The Happiest Girl in the World' is rated '15' by the BBFC and is out today (28th May 2010) in the UK in selected cinemas nationwide (or probably just in London). Jon and I talked about it in the last podcast too!

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Retrospective Review: 'Punch-Drunk Love'

Here is the first in a planned series of retrospective reviews of some of favourite movies. I have chosen to start this series with a look at a movie which is depicted in this blog's heading and which I have frequently mentioned in my posts:

‘Punch-Drunk Love’ (2002) is the fourth feature film directed by Paul Thomas Anderson and stars Adam Sandler, who became a major box-office draw in the latter half of the 1990’s with broad and brash man-child comedies like ‘The Waterboy’ (1998) and ‘Big Daddy’ (1999). But it should come as no surprise that ‘Punch-Drunk Love’ isn’t a slapstick comedy farce, however, as Anderson had come to prominence with such bold and unusual films as ‘Boogie Nights’ (1997) and ‘Magnolia’ (1999) and would go on to make the dark, satirical oil-epic ‘There Will Be Blood’ (2007), which was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar at the 80th Academy Awards and also earned Anderson a nomination for directing (although it was defeated in both categories by the Coen brothers’ ‘No Country For Old Men’).

‘Punch-Drunk Love’ is not an easy film to summarise, although the surface level “plot” is admittedly rather slender. Barry Egan (Sandler) is a nervous and isolated man who is unable to express himself emotionally, a fact which leads to sudden fits of violent rage (a typical Sandler archetype, though played much darker here). Barry soon meets Lena (Emily Watson) and they share a mutual attraction, but Barry feels uncomfortable talking to women and avoids the situation. To confront this issue Barry takes the step of calling a sex hotline, however this leads the hotline’s supervisor (played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman) to attempt to blackmail Barry, with violent repercussions for everyone involved. Against this fraught backdrop Barry and Lena begin a romance. Explaining the story like this will give you some idea of what happens, but very little idea what the film is about.

Whilst Todd McCarthy of Variety found the film to be “marked by audacious strokes of directorial bravado” and Roger Ebert found it “exhilarating”, some critics were less enthusiastic when the film was released, with Lawrence Toppman of the Charlotte Observer expressing the belief that “‘Punch-Drunk Love’ buries a terrific performance by Adam Sandler under a heap of faux cleverness, meaningless symbolism and irritating mannerisms.” The accusations of “meaningless symbolism” and “faux cleverness” are probably directed at the way Anderson’s film uses symbols and visual motifs to represent feelings and themes. For example, early on in the film Barry witnesses a massive, unexplained, unrealistic (and never again referenced) car crash, which is immediately followed by a taxi cab leaving a harmonium on the sidewalk. For me, the car crash represents Barry’s heightened anxiety at the outside world, which he is afraid of and unable to relate to, and the harmonium becomes a method of catharsis during the film's most stressful moments, representing beauty and a reason to keep on. These moments serve to make ‘Punch-Drunk Love’ a genuinely cinematic experience with Anderson painting on a large canvas, covering the emotional rather than the literal.

The real triumph of ‘Punch-Drunk Love’ is that the viewer is forced to experience Barry’s emotional state and to see situations through his eyes. For example, in an early scene Barry attends a gathering with his seven sisters in which he loses the plot and completely destroys a glass patio door. Nothing the sisters say during this sequence is malicious or intended to rile Barry at all, in fact his sisters can’t understand why he acts the way he does towards them. However, the scene is cleverly devised so that the viewer experiences what they are saying the way Barry does: the sisters are loud and their voices overlap as they tell stories about his childhood which they think are amusing and endearing but which he interprets as a personal attack. When he destroys the glass door it is without question a disturbing, seemingly unprovoked overreaction, but one which we are made to understand and empathise with due to the mounting anxiety and hysteria created by the mood to the sequence.

The experience of watching ‘Punch-Drunk Love’ is visceral, emotional and often horribly tense, thanks in no small part to (frequent Anderson collaborator) Jon Brion, whose excellent score plays a huge part in creating the film’s atmosphere which can change quickly from terrified anxiety to pure elation, often within moments. Likewise the cinematography of Robert Elswit (who has worked on every film of Anderson’s since 1996’s ‘Hard Eight’) is breathtaking. The film’s use of colour is stunning with a muted blue colour palette, which contrasts brilliantly with some of the later scenes which display a much more intense, bright and sharply defined use of colour. These elements compliment the stunning multi-coloured visual interludes designed by the late Jeremy Blake, which feel as though they are being painted by Jon Brion’s music. All these elements complement each other so wonderfully that ‘Punch-Drunk Love’ is perhaps the most perfect movie yet by a director who seems destined to be hailed as an American master.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

10 directors who excite me now...

Don’t know why I fancied writing about this today, but here are my top 10 active filmmakers. I don’t mean the “top 10 greatest living directors”, but rather, this is a list of directors whose work I am still excited by and always eagerly anticipate. Of course, the best living directors could include people whose powers have long since diminished: Woody Allen, Steven Spielberg and Jean-Luc Goddard could all be considered “great” directors, but when was their last “great” film? Yes, these guys can still make good films: Woody Allen releases one good film a year, generally. But however good ‘You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger’ is, chances are it won’t hold a candle to ‘Manhattan’ or ‘Annie Hall’, in the same way that ‘The Terminal’ and ‘Munich’ aren’t destined to be remembered as being up there with ‘Jaws’ and ‘ET’.

Of course, this doesn’t mean to say that the next Spielberg film won’t be a classic, but it’s all about expectations, isn’t it? And as far as Spielberg is concerned: unless it’s a fourth Jurassic Park movie, I’m not interested.

I also haven’t included Armando Iannucci (‘In the Loop’), Chris Morris (‘Four Lions’) or Martin McDonagh (‘In Bruges’), because although their films are probably some of the most exciting I have seen in the last few years (and I eagerly await their next efforts) I want to focus on directors whose films have consistently dazzled me. Anyway, with that proviso, on with the list (in no particular order)…

Wes Anderson
My favourite film: 'Bottle Rocket' (1996)

Wes Anderson is possibly my favourite current director. I have never been left disappointed by one of his films (though I know many didn't like 'Life Aquatic' or 'Darjeeling Limited' overly). I love how good-natured his movies are and how the portagonists are vulnerable and childish people, fond of being in teams and of being liked. Anderson's films aren't cynical and they exist as a celebration of life and of colour. I feel moved and uplifted by scenes in all his films to date and whatever his next project after the splendid stop-frame animation 'The Fantastic Mr. Fox', I am very excited.

The Coen Brothers
My favourite film: 'The Big Lebowski' (1998)

A slightly more complicated relationship exists between me and the Coen's, but only slightly. This is only reasonable though: they have made many more films than Wes Anderson after all. Basically, they had a bad patch with 'Intolerable Cruelty' (2003) and 'The Ladykillers' (2004), the latter being a god-awful remake of a genuine classic Ealing comedy, and wisely took a few years off to return in a blaze of glory with the Oscar-winning 'No Country for Old Men' in 2007. Now they are following up my favourite movie of last year ('A Serious Man') with another remake (although they insist it's more of an adaptation of the book than a remake) as they prepare to release 'True Grit' this December. Jeff Bridges (the Dude himself) is taking on John Wayne's own Oscar-winning role as Rooster Cogburn and I am pretty excited. After all, 'No Country' was, for all intents and purposes, a modern Western and it was incredible. I have faith.

Anything written by Charlie Kaufman
My favourite film: 'Adaptation' (2002)

The only writer on this list (although he did direct 'Synechdoche, New York' himself), Kaufman, in his work with Spike Jonze ('Being John Malkovich' and 'Adaptation') and Michel Gondry ('Human Nature' and 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind') has proven himself a genius time and time again. All his films have endless replay value for me, and each time I learn a little more about them. They are probably the most endlessly rewarding films ever made.

Christopher Nolan
My favourite film: 'The Dark Knight' (2008)

Here's a man who has never steered me wrong (so far)! It is a close three-way tie for his best film ('Memento' and 'The Prestige' are just as good as 'The Dark Knight') but his second Batman film excited me the most of all of them. My favourite superhero movie and the first/last time I really got excited at stunts and set-pieces in the last ten years of cinema. I love it! 'Inception' (due out very soon) looks... interesting (the trailer gives almost nothing away), but I have no reason to doubt that Nolan will deliver again.

Hayao Miyazaki
My favourite film: 'My Neighbour Totoro' (1988)

The best living animator. That's all I have to say. 'Ponyo' was great and whatever he makes next will be great. Sorry if that doesn't sound objective, but his films move me and excite me. Like Wes Anderson, there is an innocence and naivety about his work which is charming but never twee. Just too good. Soon he will retire, but I hope we get a few more classics yet.

Werner Herzog
My favourite film: 'My Best Fiend' (1999)

What can I say about the insane genius that is Herzog? Whilst I did enjoy the likes of 'Rescue Dawn' and 'Bad Lieutenant', I proberly prefer his documentaries these days. I suppose that's mainly because he narrates them and because he never tackles any subject matter in a traditional way. When he films penguins it is to find their inherent madness and obsurdity. One of my favourites is a short from 1977 called 'La Soufrière', in which he travels to a volcano that is about to errupt and films it up close, with no regard for his own safety. I am looking forward to whatever he does next, as well as a UK release of 'My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?'.

Paul Thomas Anderson
My favourite film: 'Punch-Drunk Love' (2002)

This guy is just amazing. 'Punch-Drunk Love' is possibly my favourite film of all time and 'There Will Be Blood' (2007) is right up there too. Then we have 'Magnolia' (1999), 'Boogie Nights' (1997) and 'Hard Eight' (1996). Basically he is like no one else, visually and in terms of the way he tells a story. 'Punch-Drunk Love' and 'There Will Be Blood' unite the music and the image like nothing else I've seen. His next film is getting me very excited indeed, especially as 'The Master' stars Phillip Seymour Hoffman.

Takeshi Kitano
My favourite film: 'Hana-bi' (1997)

Probably best known here as the presenter of 'Takeshi's Castle', an odd Japanese gameshow, or as the sinister, evil bloke at the start of 'Battle Royale', but Takeshi 'Beat' Kitano is an institution in his native land. A stand-up comic, turned actor, turned award winning, internationally recognised director. He can do anything, from straight police thrillers like 'Violent Cop' and 'Sonatine', to slapstick comedy in 'Getting Any?' (maybe the maddest film ever), to the more poignant, festival friendly 'Hana-bi' (which won the Golden Lion in Venice in 2007), establishing him as the most internationally relevant Japanese filmmaker since Kurosawa. He also tackled the long-running 'Zatoichi' franchise in 2003, making a damn fine samurai film too. I am yet to see his 'Takeshis' trilogy (released 2005, 2007 and 2008 to bad reviews) which is more autobiograhical, but I am excited to see his latest film 'Outrage', which played at Cannes.

Brad Bird
My favourite film: 'The Iron Giant' (1999)

The second animator on my list (although his next film is 'Mission Impossible 4' in live-action), Brad Bird caught my attention with 'The Iron Giant', an overlooked Warner Brothers animation. That film has such loving attention to detail it is perhaps the best non-Disney, American feature animation ever. He then went on to work for the great PIXAR and made 'The Incredibles' (my second favourite superhero film) and 'Ratatouille' (which also ain't bad). I am not super enthused to see 'MI4', but I would like to see whether he takes a unique visual style into live-action, like animators Burton and Gilliam have in the past. Could be interesting.

George Lucas
My favourite film: 'Star Wars' (1977)

A real wild card pick here! Since 1971's 'THX 1138', George Lucas (a peer of Spielberg, Milius, Coppola, Scorcese and De Palma) has made just five films as a director. 'American Graffiti' (1973) is a classic that inspired many immitators (not to mention the TV show 'Happy Days') and launched the career of Ron Howard (Lucas also gave Howard his first directorial job with 'Willow'). Then he made 'Star Wars' in 1977 and everything changed, for Hollywood movies and for Lucas. He didn't direct the sequels, or his 'Indiana Jones' screenplays, only returning to the director's chair in 1999 with the first of three critically despised Star Wars prequel movies (which I enjoyed). The last of these came out in 2005. But will he ever direct again? Will he ever make a non-Star Wars related movie? You see, that's why Lucas excites me as a director. I am intigued about what he would make and how he would make it if he ever decided to stop riding the Star Wars gravy train. His first three movies were classics, what happened?

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

'Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans' review: Mad men...

‘Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans’, which stars Nicholas Cage, Eva Mendes and Val Kilmer and is directed by Werner Herzog and bares superficial similarity to Abel Ferrara’s 1992 film ‘Bad Lieutenant’ which starred Harvey Keitel (although Herzog has denied that it is a sequel or remake of that film). Herzog is perhaps better known now for documentaries such as ‘Grizzly Man’ and ‘Encounters at the End of the World’ rather than his feature films (his last such movie was 2007’s ‘Rescue Dawn’) but anyone familiar with ‘Aguirre, the Wrath of God’ or ‘Fitzcarraldo’ will know to expect a peculiar blend of profundity and madness. ‘Bad Lieutenant’, for the most part, does not disappoint.

Police Lieutenant, Terence McDonagh (Cage), has injured his back in the line of duty and has to take medication. To further ease the pain he turns to cocaine and, through the film, sinks deeper and deeper into corruption and depravity. Along the way we meet his drug addicted, prostitute girlfriend (Mendes) and his violent and volatile police partner (Kilmer). The story, which sees McDonagh attempting to place a local drug kingpin (played by the rapper Xzibit, best known here for hosting MTV’s ‘Pimp My Ride’) under arrest in connection with the homicide of an entire family, is the stuff of your average police procedural. In fact, the film’s writer, William Finkelstein, is a veteran of that genre on television, having penned episodes of ‘Law & Order’, ‘NYPD Blue’ and ‘LA Law’ (among others).

But what stops this film from sinking into the mediocrity that writing pedigree (and, some would argue, cast) would suggest is the collaboration between the film’s two insane geniuses: Herzog and Cage. Venerable old American critic Roger Ebert has described Cage’s performance as being every bit as good as those of the late Klaus Kinski, in so many other Herzog movies in the past. Cage is manic and gives a fantastic performance which contributes to something of a late critical renaissance for the Oscar winner. He gives a great physical performance as he carries himself with a slight hunch due to his back injury and looks and sounds increasingly on the edge of full-on, drug-induced breakdown. The film hinges on this performance as Cage gives his titular police Lieutenant an air of unpredictability and of self-destructive impulsiveness - but always an underlying kindness and intelligence.

Herzog is an equally pivotal part of what makes this film, largely, successful. It is hard to imagine that anybody other than the German director wrote the film’s closing lines, in which Cage asks “Do fish dream?” It is equally hard to imagine that the shooting script contained ultra close-up shots of iguanas and alligators or the scene in which a dead man’s soul starts break dancing. All these elements must be things which Herzog brought to the party and it is these sorts of touches that elevate the material.

There are also some fantastic lines in this movie. Such as when Cage perplexingly tells two old ladies (that he has just threatened to shoot) that they are what’s wrong with America. Kilmer is a good, if underused, presence and works well alongside Cage, whilst Mendes is required to display just as much of a range as Cage, but with more vulnerability, and does so in a performance which is comparatively low-key, but pivotal to the success of the film as a whole.

My major reservations with the film are hard to discuss in a review, as they relate to things some may consider “spoilers”. I’ll just say that the end 20 minutes seems to tie everything up too neatly. During this time I was expecting Herzog to pull back and reveal that we were in the midst of a drug-induced hallucination, but instead the end is really quite dissatisfying and undermines the whole film. There is an epilogue in which Herzog again takes things somewhere darker and more bizarre, but the preceding scenes have already damaged the film by this point.

Still, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend that you see the film. It is certainly the most interesting film still playing in the UK right now (unless you can find ‘Four Lions’ or ‘Dogtooth’ somewhere). If you haven’t seen a Herzog film before, then there are much better places to start: ‘Aguirre’ probably being the most obvious, or maybe the superb documentary ‘My Best Fiend’ which looks at the Herzog/Kinski collaboration. But if you are familiar with the man’s oeuvre, then you should definitely seek this one out.

'Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans' is out now and rated '18' by the BBFC. You can see it at the Duke of York's Picturehouse in Brighton until Thursday.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Joel Moore interview at OWF

Here is another update for today! I don't want to overshadow my Cannes roundup below, but I just wanted to let you all know that my interview with the actor Joel Moore is now up at Obsessed with Film. Moore talks about his time working with James Cameron on 'Avatar', his time working with Paris Hilton on 'The Hottie & the Nottie' as well as telling me about the DVD release of his directorial debut 'Spiral' in the UK.

Cannes 2010 winners: video roundup

As many (if not all) of you know, the winners of the 2010 Cannes Film Festival were announced yesterday as the event came to its conclusion. Apparently this year has been a little underwhelming with nothing like last year’s ‘White Ribbon’ or ‘Un Prophet’ to shout about (of course, it opened with the terrible 'Robin Hood'), but here is a list of the winners, as picked by a Tim Burton led jury:

Palm d’Or Thai film 'Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives' (directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul) was a surprise winner of the top prize.

Grand Prix The runner up prize was awarded to the French film 'Of Gods and Men' by Xavier Beauvois, which recounts a 1996 terrorist incident in Algeria in which monks were captured and beheaded by an Islamic group... or were they, as the film deals with the idea that perhaps the French army comitted the murders.

Prix du Jury The festival's third most prestigious prize went to another French film, 'A Screaming Man', by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun - a Chadian director.

Prix de la mise en scène The 'best director' award was given to Mathieu Amalric for 'On Tour'. Amalric was seen acting in last year's 'Mesrine: Public Enemy No.1' alongside Vincent Cassel (and also played the baddie in the Bond film 'Quantum of Solace' in 2008).

Prix d'interprétation féminine The 'best actress' prize went to the native Juliette Binoche for her role in 'Certified Copy'.

Whilst the Prix d'interprétation masculine was split between Spannish Academy Award winner Javier Bardem for 'Biutiful' and the Italian Elio Germano for 'Our Life'.

Prix Un Certain Regard was this year awarded to the South Korean film 'Ha Ha Ha' by Hong Sang-soo. This award is always pretty interesting, as it tends to be given to promising, lower-profile filmmakers (last year's winner 'Dogtooth' was outstanding).

East Asian cinema was well rewarded, not only with the above winner and the Palm d'Or sucess of 'Uncle Boonmee', but also with an award for the South Korean film 'Poetry' in the writers category (Lee Chang-dong won the Prix du scénario).

Of the films which competed, but did not win prizes, the following are noteworthy:

Mike Leigh's 'Another Year' was, for many, a favourite for the top prize:

Takeshi Kitano's new film 'Outrage' also played to lukewarm response (although I'm always excited to see a new 'Beat' Kitano movie):

Ken Loach returned to Cannes a year after 'Looking for Eric' with a drama about the Iraq war, 'Route Irish', which was generally well recieved. The veteran director also voiced his concern at Iraq war movies which focus on American soliders, such as the 'Hurt Locker', saying that they ignore the suffering of the population:

Doug Liman showed his thriller 'Fair Game', starring Sean Penn and Naomi Watts:

J-horror legend Hideo Nakata ('The Ring', 'Dark Water') showed his new film, 'Chatroom', which is a UK-Japan co-production, which stars Aaron Johnson ('Kick-Ass' and 'Nowhere Boy'):

Jean-Luc Godard showed off his new film, 'Socialism', in the Un Certain Regard category. Depending on who you believe it was either the worst (Mark Kermode) or best (Mark Cousins) film of the festival:

Finally, Oliver Stone's 'Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps' and Woody Allen's 'You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger' both screened out of competition and got good reviews:

I'll be reviewing most of these films over the next year as they find UK releases.

Friday, 21 May 2010

Q&A with live silent film scoring quartet MINIMA

I have been lucky enough to do an e-mail Q&A with Alex Hogg from the brilliant band MINIMA, who specialize in performing live scores for silent films. I saw MINIMA when they performed at the Duke of York's, doing a score for the German Expressionist classic 'The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari' and was awestruck both by how much more effective such a film is with a good live score (becoming much more of an experience) and also by the fact that the group don't do silent film scores in the classic style (they don't use a piano or an organ at all, using drums and string instruments). Here is what Alex had to say to my blog:

When did you guys first hit upon the idea of scoring old, silent classics in this way?
Minima came out of an experimental project with the theatre collective Shunt. Being part of live theatre is very rewarding but ultimately restricts a band to the schedule of the theatre company. Moving to film was a logical step, especially given our love of film as well as music. One of the band members was working at the British Film Institute at the time and hit on the idea of silent film accompaniment. So in 2006 we played our first performances of The Seashell and the Clergyman, in the underground, labyrinthine corridors of the Shunt Vaults, underneath London Bridge station.

I was surprised there was no one at a piano. How did you decide to use such an unusual array of instruments for silent film scoring?
Our eclectic range of personal influences, gives us what we consider a unique take on silent film accompaniment. We can go from drum ‘n’ bass to tango, and from wall-of-sound to folk lament in the space of a few minutes. We are a four-piece outfit: drums, bass, guitar and cello and although we have no backing tracks and play with no pre-recorded sounds, the instruments are put through an array of effects to give us a very big palate of sounds and voices.

Have there ever been any silent movies that you wanted to do live scores for, which (for whatever reason) didn't work? Does German Expressionist cinema suit your style especially well?
We tend to be drawn to the darker side of cinema. We were commissioned to write a score to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari by the Wellcome Trust in 2008 – they made the connection between the film’s angular stage sets and angst-ridden characters, and our music. But our own choices of film, such as Nosferatu, are edgy and dramatic - and Nosferatu is a great piece of cinema - as this is what inspires us. It also helps that this film is so well known; it is a real crowd-pleaser! It’s good to be asked to do something off your normal radar though – it’s surprising what you can come up with when you’re on unfamiliar ground. We have done a few improvised performances to British silent melodramas and we were very happy with what we came up with as a group when we were put on the spot. We are open to any genre of film and we would also love to work with contemporary filmmakers.

What makes a good silent movie score, in your view?
A good silent film score should not distract from what's happening on the screen - if the audience watch the band too much then it becomes about the band, and you lose the point, which is to watch the film. You have an element of power in performing to silent film: the music imposes a lot of the meaning upon the images, and it sets the tone and the mood for each scene. You have to strike a balance between having an understanding of what the filmmaker intended and having the confidence not to have to follow the images too slavishly. Films from the 1920s have a different pace, and for the uninitiated it can be hard work so a contemporary interpretation by musicians can really help. You can make people laugh, cry and jump out of there seats but we only do this in the name of accompanying the film and helping people to watch the film.

Which score are you proudest of?
Each of our scores has been approached in a different way. The Seashell and the Clergyman was our first and so we’re very fond of it and the attention to detail that we gave it. Nosferatu was written in much more collaborative way and features such a variety of different styles of music. It’s a real romp and matches the film, which is such a rollercoaster and full of now-iconic imagery. Dr. Caligari is in the Minima hot seat at the moment as we’ve just finished a two-month tour with it. We’re now turning our attention to brushing up our score for the Soviet science fiction silent film Aelita, Queen of Mars, which we’ll be playing at BFI Southbank in July.

You guys, obviously, perform live, but I was wondering if you've ever been commissioned to record a silent film score for a DVD release? I know silent movies often get re-scored for new releases.
This is something that's on the cards and we hope that before the end of the year that we might be in talks with DVD production companies to do just this. We have a couple of scores already recorded and ready to go!

Outside of your work, are there any old silent scores you are big fans of? I love Chaplin's 'Smile' from 'Modern Times', personally.
Our musical influences stem from all kinds of genres, as well as film soundtracks. Film composers that spring to mind are Bernard Herrmann, Carter Burwell and Danny Elfman rather than 1920s composers. We tend to write the music for its own sake and enjoy this creative process, rather than feel that we have to stick too closely to the images and the era they were made in.

MINIMA can often be seen touring the countries cinemas. Their current tour dates can be seen here.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

REMAKING THEMSELVES Remakes: They aren't all bad...

Here are an unusal lot, directors who remade their own films later in their careers. Comedy directing legend Leo McCarey remade his own 1939 film 'Love Affair' (itself nominated for 6 Academy Awards) as the 1957 movie 'An Affair to Remember' starring Cary Grant. The remake, which used the same screenplay, is now even better regarded than the original:

Alfred Hitchcock remade one of his British sound films, 'The Man Who Knew Too Much' (1934), during his Hollywood years n 1956, with James Stewart and Doris Day starring (though the original didn't have a bad cast either - Peter Lorre!). Hitchcock felt that his earlier film was the work of a gifted amateur and his remake the work of a professional director. You can watch the original in full here:

Frank Capra remade his acclaimed 1933 film 'Lady for a Day' (which was nominated for Best Picture and Best Director at the Oscars) as the 1961 film 'Pocketful of Miracles'. Ok, so this time the results were not so great, largely due to the fact Capra chose to adapt Robert Riskind's original script and, his last film, it was also the work of a director whose powers had sadly diminished. But regardless, it is still a fun film (apparently Jackie Chan's favourite ever - he remade it in Chinese in 1989 as 'Miracles'):

There is not an embed code, but you can watch a clip for the original here and the trailer for the remake here.

Capra, Hitchcock and McCarey's remakes all share something in common: an old black and white film had been turned into a colour film. In Capra's case, it was his first (and only) film in colour. When the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu turned to colour filmmaking at the end of his career, he also turned to remakes. But in his case they were not just to add colour to his older work, but also sound. In 1959 Ozu remade both his 1932 silent 'I Was Born, But...' and his 1934 film 'A Story of Floating Weeds' as 'Good Morning' and 'Floating Weeds' respectively.

Anyway, an eclectic mix. Let me know if you can think of any other cases of this happening. These are just the ones I knew of. There must be loads.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

FELLINI Remakes: they aren't all bad...

Continuing this week's look at the "remake", I have decided to take a brief look at how the work of another "master" director's work has been adapted and remade over the years: that of Federico Fellini. Interestingly, the two most famous adaptations of his work took very similar routes to the screen, although the results were very different...

Both 'Nights of Cabiria' (1957) and '8 1/2' were remade in the English speaking world as Broadway musicals, before becoming films based upon those musicals. 'Nights of Cabiria' became Neil Simon's 'Sweet Charity' (directed by Bob Fosse in 1969), in which Shirley MacLaine took the lead role:

Of course Bob "Cabaret" Fosse and Neil "Odd Couple" Simon combine with the brilliant MacLaine to turn Fellini's movie into something entirely different, but almost equally good... whereas Rob Marshall (director of the 2002 screen adaptation of Fosse's own 'Chicago') turned the stage adaptation of '8 1/2' (1963), 'Nine', into a big, all-star musical film last year. The results, despite the pressence of a stellar cast (including Marion Cotillard, Daniel Day-Lewis and Penelope Cruz - although the Black Eyed Peas singer 'Fergie' gives the best performance), are truly awful:

I don't know why Fellini has twice been turned into a Broadway musical. Perhaps it has something to do with the percieved glamour and high-fashion of Italian culture. Kate Hudson sings a song about it in 'Nine', funnily enough:

Anyway, more of a mixed bag with Fellini remakes than Kurosawa in any case. The cliche is always the Kurosawa's films have a western (or Western) sensibility - something he disputed. Could that be the reason Kurosawa's films suit American adaptations quite readily?

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

KUROSAWA Remakes: they aren't all bad...

The news that Chris Rock is re-writing Akira Kurosawa's 'High and Low' (one of my favourite movies of all-time) for Mike Nichols to direct, has made me think about remakes. Usually, and probably rightly, remakes are dismissed as rubbish before they have even been released. There is this idea that they are terrible movies by default: that no movie should ever be remade at all. I wish to refute that logic here and now, looking specifically at remakes of Kurosawa films, which generally seem to be quite good...

Remade at the hands of John Sturges and starring Steve McQueen and Yul Brynner (among others), Kurosawa's 'The Seven Samurai' (1954) became 'The Magnificent Seven' in 1960.

Kurosawa would again see one of his finest Samurai pictures turned into a western, when 'Yojimbo' (1961) was unofficially (but blatantly) remade by Sergio Leone a few years later as 'A Fistful of Dollars' in 1964. Some scenes are shot-for-shot reproductions of those from the earlier movie, with the long "three coffins" tracking shot through the town virtually identical in both. Clint Eastwood has also admitted that he heavily based his depiction of the "the man with no name" on Toshiro Mifune's.

It is often said that Kurosawa's 'The Hidden Fortress' (1958) was the main source of inspiration for George Lucas' first 'Star Wars' film in 1977. Lucas has said that the two comedy-relief peasants from the Japanese film were the direct inspiration for R2-D2 and C3P0, as he liked the fact the narrative seemed to be told from the point of view of the lowliest characters. There is also a Princess in peril who the band of heroes must rescue and add to that Toshiro Mifune as 'the General', who is very much a model for Han Solo (an antagonistic rouge with a good heart who wins the Princess with whom he argues - although Lucas tried to cast Mifune as Obi-Wan Kenobi). From a technical point of view, Lucas also borrowed Kurosawa's use of screen wipes and the horse chase sequence seems to have been an inspiration for the speeder bike sequence in the later 'Star Wars' sequel: 'Return of the Jedi' (1983). Lucas' love of Kurosawa movies was made even clearer in 1980, when he and Francis Ford Coppola helped the Japanese master fund his epic 'Kagemusha'.

Of course, there have been some less good ones too...

In 1996 'Last Man Standing', starring Bruce Willis, was a direct remake of 'Yojimbo' which fared rather less well than Leone's:

Many films have been inspired by Kurosawa's 1950 film 'Rashomon', with the so-called 'Rashomon effect' being when the same story is told from multiple, changing points of view, shedding new light on an event. However, one film, 1964's 'The Outrage'
(starring Paul Newman as a Mexican bandit, no less)...

Here is how all that should have looked:

Monday, 17 May 2010

Obsessed With Film Feature: The Best in Film Music...

Just a quick post to say that I've compiled a feature for OWF, which sees the site's staff of writer's telling us their personal favourite film scores and composers.

Go and check it out and leave a comment telling us your own choices!

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Robin Hood at the Movies...

Just a quick post here. After reviewing Ridley Scott's latest version of the Robin Hood legend, I have put up a compilation of videos showing the various cinematic depictions of the English folklore hero in action.

Douglas Fairbanks in 'Robin Hood' (1922)

Fairbanks seems to have set the model for many future screen representations of Robin Hood, with a not too dissimilar costume from that Fylnn would later wear in the 30's. He is super-agile (famously doing his own stunts) and a bit of a prankster: other traits that would define the hero for the best part of the 20th Century.

Errol Fylnn in 'The Adventures of Robin Hood' (1938)

The first Australian to play the outlaw, Flynn clearly keeps a lot of the traits of the Fairbanks hero, albeit with the additional charisma generated by his voice in this talking picture. This film, produced and directed by the same team that would later give us 'Casablanca' (Michael Curtiz and Hal B. Wallis), also boasted some of the earliest (and best) technicolor photography which is shown off in the courtly pageantry of it all. As with the earlier portrayal, Robin Hood is a swashbuckling rouge with a heart of gold. The film also features Claude Rains as Prince John, which you can't really argue with, can you?

The film also inspired a number of Loony Toons animated parodies directed by Chuck Jones, including the 1939 musical short 'Robin Hood Makes Good' and the more famous 'Rabbit Hood' (below) from 1949 which sees Buggs Bunny in the staring role and features stock footage of Errol Flynn (nine years later Daffy Duck would earn the honour, appearing in 'Robin Hood Daffy').

Richard Todd in 'The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men' (1952)

Disney made a fairly poor live-action movie in 1952, starring Richard Todd (the man originally cast as Bond in 'Dr. No') as a more masculine, often shirtless, hero. However, the movie is (as the below clips shows) fairly derivative of the Flynn version above. This version of the tale, shot in the same dull and dreary way typical of all Disney movies from the 40s to the 70s ('Song of the South' to 'Pete's Dragon' all look like this). It would be the last major big-screen 'Hood' for twenty years... until Disney told the story again with an anthropomorphised Fox...

A Cartoon Fox (voiced by Brian Bedford) in 'Walt Disney's Robin Hood' (1973)

Some have found a sort of racism in this animated version, directed by Wolfgang Reitherman. The "bad" animals are all African (elephants, rinos, lions, snakes etc), whilst all the "good" animals are woodland creatures (rabbits, bears, roosters, mice, foxes etc). However, it is far more likely that Reitherman was simply recasting the familiar characters of his 1967 film 'The Jungle Book'. Baloo the bear is clearly the model for Little John (both are voiced by Phil Harris), whilst the Prince John lion and his snake advisor are clearly that film's bad guys: Shere Kahn and Kaa. The result is a re-telling of the myth which is derivative both of older Disney films and of the Fairbanks/Flynn movies, as it retreads many of the same plot points. The clip below shows Robin Hood and Little John fall from a log into some water, in a clear visual nod to both the previous versions seen in the above clip. Here Robin Hood is agile, fast and cunning, with great wit and grace as well as skill, much like the Fairbanks/Flynn portrayals. He is also dressed similarly to those men.

John Cleese in 'Time Bandits' (1981)

Far and away my favourite depiction of Robin Hood is the parody performed by John Cleese in Terry Gilliam's fantasy film 'Time Bandits'. In terms of dress he is clearly inspired by the now established cinematic image of the hero, however Cleese plays on his noble origins as "Robin of Loxley" and turns him into a condescending royal. Brilliantly funny.

Kevin Costner in 'Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves' (1991)

Perhaps the closest thing to Scott's latest adaptation of the tale is this early 90s blockbuster which starred Kevin Costner as the titular prince, who boasted one of the film's many 90s heart-throb haircuts (also see Christian Slater). This film, whilst still fairly light-hearted (famously boasting an OTT performance by Alan Rickman as the Sheriff of Nottingham) this version clearly tried to take the story a little more "seriously", with a similar acknowledgement of the crusades and an attempt at making medieval England look gritty rather than looking like a colourful renaissance faire. It's probably most famous for the Bryan Adam's track that stayed at number one in the UK pop charts for weeks and weeks and weeks...

Cary Elwes in 'Robin Hood: Men in Tights' (1993)

Mel Brooks satirised the whole thing, borrowing elements from every version, with Cary Elwes in the title role of 'Robin Hood: Men in Tights'. This broad farce is hit-and-miss (somewhere better than 'Spaceballs' and worse than 'The History of the World: Part One'), but Elwes has the charm and charisma of the Fairbanks/Flynn-era portrayal and the film lampoons that film's most famous moments, such as the stick fight on the log and the banquet sequence. At other times it is more oviously taking the piss out of the Costner movie (such as Robin's arrival in England, the over-the-top arrow stunts or when he declares: "unlike some other Robin Hoods, I can speak with an English accent").

Russell Crowe in 'Robin Hood' (2010)

I have nothing left to say about this origin story, other than what I said in my review. Crowe's Hood is more gruff, more macho and less inclined to laugh than previous portrayals. He wears less flashy, more practical clothes than Flynn and co too. Some of the scenes are almost stolen directly from the Costner film, as Crowe makes a similar speech to rouse people to his cause and with the grimy looking misse-en-scene (plus they both ditched the hat in favour of looking "hard").

Anyway... those are the major cinematic versions of Robin Hood (I know, I missed out the Frazer 1912 version, but I couldn't find a clip). Hope you enjoyed them.

Friday, 14 May 2010

'Robin Hood' review: Irredeemably terrible, overlong nonsense...

Many Robin Hood films have been made over years from the sublime (1938’s ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’ staring Errol Flynn) to the ridiculous (Mel Brooks’ 1993 comedy ‘Robin Hood: Men in Tights’ in which the role fell to Cary Elwes). Adaptations of the story have seen Robin turned into an anthropomorphised fox (Disney’s 1973 animated version) and, more disturbingly, into Kevin Costner (1991’s ‘Prince of Thieves’). All of these versions of the legend, however flawed, attempted to turn the story into something fun and good-natured, with its hero cast as something of a quick-witted and sprightly rouge. Ridley Scott’s new version of the tale (named err… ‘Robin Hood’), some may be pleased to know, doesn’t re-tread the old ground and submit to this formula, with Scott managing to avoid any of the above.

Yes, ‘Robin Hood 2010’ (as I shall refer to it) is the opposite of fun and its hero is the opposite of sprightly. The "good-natured" part is also glaringly absent, as Russell Crowe's Robin Hood does almost nothing for the poor and robs precious little from the rich, as he mumbles in a generic “Northern” accent throughout the most turgid, bum-numbingly boring two hours and twenty minutes of recent memory.

Here Scott and his writers (‘LA Confidential’ and ‘Mystic River’ scribe Brian Helgeland, along with two of the intellectual heavyweights that brought us ‘Kung Fu Panda’) attempt to do for Robin Hood what Christopher Nolan did (with much better results) for Batman. This, we are told from the off, is the beginning of the legend and the film ends similarly to ‘Batman Begins’: with Hood established and ready for even greater adventures. The key difference, however, is that this film is tumour-inducingly dull from start to finish.

To begin with, Crowe has less charisma than a hellish lovechild of Gerard Butler and Shia LaBeouf. He grunts and mumbles his way through the film, never really raising a smile, flattening any line which might be humorous (and indeed, despite such able writers, we are never treated to ‘Kung Fu Panda’ level hilarity here) as he marauds the English country side looking like a huge, bearded potato on horseback. Flynn might not have played a Hood mired in psychological concerns (“who was my father!?” etc etc), but he was watchable and charming, bringing the character to life in your imagination. Children could (and did) aspire to be Flynn’s Robin Hood, swinging on chandeliers and besting his enemies with his wit as well as his arrows. I can not conceivably imagine anybody growing up wanting to mumble there way through Sherwood Forest as Russell Crowe.

Ok, so maybe that’s the point here: this Robin Hood is not for kids. It’s an adult version, with a tough, wilful Maid Marian played by Cate Blanchett (far from the courtly and mannered presence of, say, Olivia de Havilland) and a rugged “manly” hero in Crowe. Yes, I can see that Crowe is more convincingly a man who could have fought in the Crusades than Flynn or Costner or Elwes ever were. But is that an excuse for boring me with his mumbling presence? To paraphrase Benjmin Franklin: those who would give up essential entertainment to purchase a little temporary realism, deserve neither entertainment or realism.

Scott shoots the film in a bland, uninspired (if technically competant) way: the action sequences are coherent (if uninterestingly choreographed). Though the flashy, high-octane close-ups of people pulling bow-strings and the sped-up helicopter shots of the countryside are just plain absurd in this context. When we see French soldiers they are usually making stereotypically “French” noises in a Pythonesque fashion. I always expected them to mutter “feche la vache” at a key moment and turn the tide of battle in their favour by launching a cow onto the field. Throw into the mix a laugh-out-loud medieval version of the D-Day landing, with the French arriving on an English beach in World War II landing craft (complete with obviously derivative ‘Saving Private Ryan’ shots of arrows hitting soldiers in the water) and you have yourself a contender for “worst film of the year”.

But as obviously, inherently, breathtakingly silly the action sequences are (undercutting the “realism” that necessitated beefy Mr. Crowe in the first instance), I would have found myself far more entertained if the film had been an hour shorter and comprised solely of these scenes (the opening assault on a castle; the liberation of a village; the battle on the beach). Instead we are treated to a litany of awkward scenes that feature Crowe and Blanchett romancing (phwoar!). And when we aren’t being presented with that tantalising prospect, we have a load of historically inaccurate, xenophobic, right-wing gibberish to listen to.

The best thing I can say about this version of the story is that it takes a rather dim view of the crusades compared with other versions which tend to valorise King Richard the Lionheart (this is perhaps unsurprising from Scott, who directed ‘Kingdom of Heaven’). Similarly the church is shown as the wealthy and corrupt organisation it was at that time. Prince John (Oscar Isaac, who is probably the best thing in the film) is allowed to make some good points about his brother’s crusade, even as he sides with the perennially evil Mark Strong. But this revisionist look at the legend is a step in the right direction which is undermined by the extreme crap-ness of the rest of the production.

My brother (Chris Beames) summed it up best when after seeing the film he wrote the following as his Facebook status: “If you’re thinking of going to see Robin Hood. Then I think you should. Because at least that way it is fair.” Don’t worry; I am not yet angry enough at the human race to wish the same upon you.

I will say this: if you really, really liked ‘Gladiator’ (and you actually enjoyed the above trailer), then maybe you’ll want to see Crowe doing his Maximus bit in the woods of England. If, like me, you didn’t even like that film very much (though ‘Gladiator’ is a classic compared with this), then there is nothing for you here whatsoever.

'Robin Hood' is out now and is rated '12a' by the BBFC.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

'Lebanon' review and interview with Sam Maoz at OWF now!

Samuel Maoz's tough, award winning Israeli war film, 'Lebanon', has now been reviewed over at Obsessed With Film by yours truly. I was also lucky enough to interview Mr. Maoz back in late April and that too is now available to read on the site. There is also (and sorry if it's 'Lebanon' overkill over at OWF right now!) a podcast which covers the movie, with me and Jon also discussing 'Life During Wartime'.

Interested in 'Lebanon'? Here is the trailer:

'Lebanon' is out tomorrow (14th May) and is rated '15' by the BBFC.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

'Life During Wartime' review: Honest, devastating, non-judgemental black comedy…

‘Life During Wartime’ is Todd Solondz sequel to 1998’s ‘Happiness’, albeit a sequel with a completely different cast of actors. Solondz makes some unusual but ingenious casting switches too, as he replaces the white Phillip Seymour Hoffman with the black Michael K. Williams, the genius who played Omar in HBO’s ‘The Wire’. Paul Reubens comes in for Jon Lovitz, whilst Allison Janney replaces Cynthia Stevenson. These are clever choices on the part of Solondz, as the film doesn’t feel like a ‘Happiness’ B-team picture, with smaller stars, but rather it feels as though he has chosen to make some interesting changes. Even though the actors have changed completely, the characters somehow remain the same in terms of mannerisms. It’s very cleverly done.

‘Life During Wartime’ reminded me of the Coen Brother’s ‘A Serious Man’ in it’s portrayal of suburban life, with a dash of Woody Allen whenever we meet Jane Adams’ character (Joy), with her east-coast intellectual neurosis. In terms of form, I always enjoy when a director employs a still camera with very composed, stylised shots and this is exactly what we get from Solondz. It is also beautiful to look at in terms of the cinematography; ‘Life During Wartime’ (Edward Lachman) is almost totally distinct from ‘Happiness’ (Maryse Alberti) with a brighter, less dowdy colour palette, which in its own way actually heightens the darkness of the film by contrasting with it. The difference between the look of the two films is clear and especially evident if you compare scenes set on the same locations.

All the performances are good, with Ciaran Hinds able to bring a kind of quiet dignity, as well as a potentially dangerous edge, to his role as the convicted paedophile father, whose past crimes cast a shadow over much of the movie. His unbearably tense and fraught meeting with his (now grown-up) son, Billy (Chris Marquette) is able to convey so many emotions, all of them complicated, some of them contradictory. As in ‘Happiness’, Solondz is able to make Bill a rounded character and not just a figure primed for reactionary moralising and self-righteous indignation. ‘Life During Wartime’ is (like many of my favourite films) deeply humanistic and also offers no easy answers to complicated problems. Solondz doesn’t judge his characters and we don’t either. We are just forced to bare complicit witness the tragedy of their lives.

By far the best reason to see ‘Life During Wartime’ (aside from the performances, the drama and the directorial precision) is for the riotous black comedy. As with Chris Morris’ ‘Four Lions’, some may squirm uncomfortably in their chairs, but I personally found it struck the right note throughout. Solondz never pulls back, never flinches. We are always taken right to the dark core of his chosen subject matter and we laugh along the way. It is often said that if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry – that laughter is the best medicine. In Solondz case this is true, as he examines difficult social problems which, without his wonderfully comic writing, might prove too much to bear.

‘Life During Wartime’ is an excellent film of the very highest calibre. If you can find it still playing, a few weeks into its UK run, then go off and see it immediately. Maybe in a double-bill with ‘Four Lions’, if you can take your comedy without being patronised or cuddled. You owe it to yourself to see both of these films.

'Life During Wartime' came out a few weeks ago and if you can still find it, it is rated '15' by the BBFC.

Monday, 10 May 2010

Reversing my position, plus a new article, an interview and reviews at OWF

I have some new stuff up at Obsessed With Film as of today: a full interview with Lucy Bailey and Andrew Thompson (directors of the documentary 'Mugabe and the White African'), a review of the 'Caligula' Blu-ray release and a review of the documentary 'One Night in Turin', which is screening for one night only across the nation (11th May). Aside from this I also have a load of news stories up on the site and, of course, the podcast.

Speaking of which, Jon and I recorded no less than two new episodes the other night (Jon is going away for a week and we needed one in the bag for then). The first covers 'Life During Wartime' (which I still need to review for this blog since seeing it weeks back) and 'Lebanon', whilst the second was about 'Iron Man 2', 'The Avengers' and a nice Romanian film called 'The Happiest Girl in the World' (which I'll write a review for nearer the time of release).

Anyway, now to the bit about "reversing my position": I wrote this in my review of Chris Morris' excellent 'Four Lions':

"Where the film differs from the rest of the Morris oeuvre is that his work usually combines incisive satire of both form and content. The way things are said is always as rich and funny as what is being said. However, in ‘Four Lions’... this formal and generic parody is absent... stylistically there is none of the directorial wit and experimentation seen in Morris’ series ‘Jam’... there is a sizable portion of what makes Morris pioneering and unique that is clearly missing."

The more I have thought about that since I have begun to change my mind. I saw the film again last night and it confirmed that I was probably wrong about the lack of satire of the form of film itself. (Potential spoilers ahead) I think that actually Morris is playing with the structure of movies and the way in which they can manipulate audiences to sympathise with potentially nasty characters.

I a lot of films you follow a gangster, a bank robber or some other kind of violent criminal (or even violent anti-hero) and the film is constructed in a way which makes you identify with that protagonist. When the police almost catch the crook you get nervous. If the movie was about the police, however, you'd anxiously want them to best the crook.

In 'Four Lions' Morris sticks to a conventional structure where Omar (Riz Ahmed) faces a crisis of confidence just prior to the films third act. In typical movie style he is given a pep-talk by his wife and young son, who persuade him he should, in fact, destroy himself. It's a dark and disturbing scene and the more I think about it the more I think that Morris knows exactly what he is doing by combining that sort of scene with this sort of character. He is playing with convention and structure and highlighting, almost, the dangerous power of film to manipulate an audience. The home-life scenes with Omar are quite sweet and sometimes a little cheesy, but I now think this is part of the satire.

Of both form AND content.

Anyway, that's how I feel about it now.

On a side note, I saw Bogdanovich's 'The Last Picture Show' yesterday and it was amazing from start to finish. Here is the trailer... for no real reason.

Friday, 7 May 2010

'Four Lions' review and interview with Nigel Lindsay

I have reviewed Chris Morris' new film, 'Four Lions' on Obsessed with Film here, and also interviewed one of its stars, Nigel Lindsay, here.

'Four Lions' is rated '15' by the BBFC and is out everywhere now. Check it out!