Wednesday, 30 June 2010

'Tetro' review: Francis Ford Coppola rediscovers his talent...

'The Godfather'. 'The Conversation'. 'Apocalypse Now'. With these three films Francis Ford Coppola had, by 1979, boldly and permanently engraved his name into cinema history. So universally admired and influential are those three films that his years spent as a hired gun in order to pay off debts (making such films as 'Jack' and the second 'Godfather' sequel) have done little to damage his reputation or to tarnish his legacy. With his place in history assured, the elder statesman of cinema is now able to make films (more or less) for his own sake and whenever he sees fit. His output has sharply declined over the last decade, but his recent movies are smaller and much more personal. None more so then 'Tetro', the film released in the US over a year ago (on June 11th 2009 to be precise) and the first to carry a solo writing credit for Coppola since 'The Conversation' in 1974.

'Tetro' stars enfant terrible Vincent Gallo in the title role as a man who has forsaken his past and, to some extent, his future in order to live a life of quiet anonymity. Maribel Verdú plays his supportive and kind-hearted girlfriend Miranda, whilst obscure television bit-part actor Alden Ehrenreich is his brother Bennie. Gallo, in spite of his reputation as a combative and sometimes spiteful man off camera, imbues Tetro with a warmth and vulnerability which is sometimes quite moving. He convinces completely as the suffering artist type and performs with an undeniable intensity.

Equally good is Verdú, who almost stole the show from Bernal and Luna in 2001's 'Y tu mamá también' and is just as brilliant a performer here. It is unthinkable that aside from roles in 'Pan's Labyrinth' and the 2004 flop 'The Alamo' Verdú has not been a regular sight on international movie screens. But happily Coppola has taken notice and in 'Tetro' she is able to showcase her talent: giving Miranda strength and intelligence, but also compassion and genuine sex appeal. Despite these winning performances, Alden Ehrenreich gives the star turn here, being reminiscent of a young Leonardo DiCaprio (with maybe a hint of Brando) in his facial expressions, mannerisms and delivery. Already tipped by some as the next Spiderman actor, Ehrenreich could definitely be a major star in the near future. There is also a small but welcome role for Rodrigo de la Serna (whose most famous role was in Walter Salles' 'The Motorcycle Diaries' in 2004) who is a cheerful screen presence as Tetro's friend Jose.

Mihai Malaimare Jr. (who also worked on Coppola's 2007 film 'Youth Without Youth') is responsible for the film's remarkable black and white photography, mostly shot in Spain and Argentina (where the film is set). You will not see a more beautifully composed and (dare I say) stylishly shot film this year. I was concerned before seeing it that 'Tetro' could turn out to be nothing more than art for arts sake: a pretentious and self-indulgent work and an exercise in style over substance. Yet 'Tetro' is in fact mainly driven by its story and the relationships between its central characters.

The narrative is admittedly slight and could probably be summarised in a few sentences, but the film's form helps to convey the emotional journey undertaken by Tetro and Bennie in coming to terms with the family's past. I don't know enough about Coppola's background to be certain, but this story of the rivalry between a fathers and sons feels as though it is of personal significance to the director. Tetro's flashbacks, which (in an amusing reversal of cinematic convention) take place in colour and a different aspect ratio to the rest of the film, are pretty successful at establishing a very real cause for the character's hurt. They are also somehow among the most convincing "memories" ever committed to film, feeling like incomplete sketches of moments in time. Not so much what happened, but what Tetro feels about what happened from his viewpoint.

Sometimes the film is self-consciously flashy, perhaps to its detriment as it distracts from the action at hand (such as when Tetro is seen speaking to Bennie in silhouette - cool as the image is). There are also colourful, CGI-infused scenes of dance in homage to the great ballet films of old (such as 'The Red Shoes' or 'The Tales of Hoffmann') which, for me at least, fell flat and seemed a little self-indulgent. But for every frame of misplaced virtuosity there is a genuine moment of genius. For example, there is a brilliant and jarring reverse angle involving a motorcycle accident which is powerful and magnificently executed.

Perhaps the film is too serious, too humourless for too much of its running time (which is overlong at just over two hours). It is intensely dramatic, and it is not an exaggeration to say it is almost operatic - not unlike Coppola's 'Godfather' films. This is clearly the desired effect but it leaves me feeling a little cold and disconnected. There are also some interesting themes which are not explored to a satisfactory degree. For instance, Tetro challenges Bennie to murder him in order to make the ending of his play more truthful. This idea about the relationship between art and "truth" and the supposed virtue in linking one to the other might have been better developed.

Despite these flaws there is almost no sensible argument for denying that 'Tetro' is Francis Ford Coppola's most interesting film since 1983's 'Rumble Fish' (with which the film bears more than a passing resemblance). That is not to say it is the most enjoyable or fun since that date, but it is certainly his most complete movie in a long while. It is written, directed and produced by Coppola with clear engagement and real love. In 'Tetro' we may have evidence that one of the medium's most celebrated artists has rediscovered his muse. A fact which we can only hope will lead to more interesting films in the future. If it doesn't turn out that way, then it is at least a respectable closing chapter to an interesting career.

'Tetro' is rated '15' by the BBFC and can still be seen at selected cinemas in the UK. The Duke of York's have two shows left at the time of writing: 13.30 and 18.15 on Thursday the 1st of July.

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Ray Harryhausen is 90 today!

Today marks the 90th birthday of Mr. Ray Harryhausen, the legendary stop-motion animator beloved for his groundbreaking effects work in a number of Hollywood movies from the 1940s up until the 1981 film 'Clash of the Titans' (arguably his most famous work). To celebrate this almighty birthday, here are clips of some of his most admired work:

Willis O'Brien won an Academy Award for Best Special Effects in 1949, thanks in no small part to Harryhausen's work as the animator of the titular ape in 'Mighty Joe Young' (appropriate as Harryhausen fell in love with cinema and animation watching another ape, King Kong, in 1933).

'The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms' (1954) was a real landmark movie, directly inspiring Eiji Tsuburaya's work on the first Japanese 'Godzilla' movie later that same year (and by virtue of that, all of the big monster movies of the 50s and 60s).

Harryhausen provided effects for many more monster movies (such as 'It Came from Beneath the Sea' in 1955) but in the 1956 film 'Earth Versus the Flying Saucers' Harryhausen turned to animating alien invaders. As you can see from watching this clip, the animation in this film was a big influence on Tim Burton's 1996 'Mars Attacks!'.

His first work on colour, 'The 7th Voyage of Sinbad' (1958) started perhaps Harryhausen's most famous work on swashbuckling sword and sandal adventure stories which really allowed him the scope to develop lots of different creatures and action sequences. Harryhausen would work on two further Sinbad films in the 1970s: 'The Golden Voyage of Sinbad' in 1974 and 'Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger' in 1977.

The 1963 'Jason and the Argonauts' contains probably the most haunting and famous Harryhausen sequence of all: the battle with the skeleton warriors. The jerky nature of the animation gives it a visceral quality unmatched in the cleanness of modern CGI. Watch it in full below:

One that always stuck in my mind (probably because of my dinosaur fixation) was the 1966 film 'One Million Years B.C'. I have always remembered the bit where a lava flow falls on top of a woman who is running away. The film is pretty dire, but there are some great effects to be seen, including the historically impossible sight of cave men fighting an Allosaurus with their spears. But you don't go to see a Harryhausen movie for a history lesson!

As mentioned above, the most well-loved of them all is probably the original 1981 movie, 'Clash of the Titans' (like 'Mighty Joe Young', the victim of a shoddy remake). Watch the trailer below, if only to laugh when a man shouts "destroy Argos!".

Anyway, happy birthday Ray and may we be wishing you a happy century in ten years time! Thanks goes to Sam Clements of the Ritzy Picturehouse in Brixton for tweeting Ray the first birthday message and starting this whole thing off. If you're on twitter, follow Simon Pegg's example and join Sam in wishing: #HappyBirthdayRay

If you want to watch some Harryhausen films in full, the BFI Southbank had some signed DVD boxsets for sale last time I was there (last week). So snap one of those up if you are a fan of the great man!

Monday, 28 June 2010

July's episode of 'Flick's Flicks' presented by this blogger...

Out today is my very first episode presenting the Picturehouse film preview show 'Flick's Flicks'. In it I preview 'Leaving', 'Heartbreaker', 'White Material' and 'Inception' and I also talk to Jon (my co-host on the Splendor Podcast) about the Duke of York's fundraising efforts to save a small Nicaraguan cinema. The Cini Esteli is in danger of closure and a special screening of 'Walker' with a video introduction specially recorded by director (and charity patron) Alex Cox is taking place on Sunday the 18th of July.

Here is that episode, so enjoy!

Sunday, 27 June 2010

'Welcome to Collinwood': Devon times (continued)...

Although most of my time in Devon has been spent being driven down identical narrow roads or sitting on beaches (or waiting for my nan outside the Newquay branch of Peacocks), I have managed to see two films on DVD. The first was 'The Men Who Stare at Goats' on Friday night, which I judged to be passable if ultimately disposable fare. However, less amusing (and also featuring George Clooney) was last nights viewing: 'Welcome to Collinwood'. A film not even saved by the presence of Sam Rockwell.

In many ways 'Collinwood' is almost a remake of Woody Allen's 'Small Time Crooks' from two years prior (apparently itself a loose remake of the 1958 film 'Big Deal on Madonna Street'). As in 'Small Time Crooks' a group of ineffectual would-be criminals gather for one big heist that involves using one vacant property to break into another. They share gags too: in both films breaking through the wall leads to accidentally hitting a water pipe. As if to acknowledge these apparent similarities the film's end credits are in the Allen style (you'd know it if you saw it) and the incidental music (by Mark Mothersbaugh) is also a familiar easy going jazz.

This is all well and good. After all, if you're going to steal etc. The problem is not that it's shamelessly derivative, but that most of the humour involves pratfalls and physical business. The thing with that sort of humour is that no everyone can pull it off. You have to a skilled physical comedian to really make falling over funny. Tragically none of the actors here (in an ensemble cast that also includes William H. Macy, Luis Guzman and Michael Jeter) have it in them and the various scenes of peoples pants falling down do not register as much as a smile. I speak, of course, for myself. My nan was in fits of laughter every time somebody fell off a ladder or fell into some water, so what do I know?

Often the film changes gear and strains for poignancy which it characteristically fails at badly. It also tries to develop its own lingo ('mullinsky' and 'bellini' for example) which never takes off and halfway through the film seems to have been abandoned altogether. Writer/directors the Russo brothers (who also directed the 2006 comedy 'You, Me and Dupree') try for something timeless and distinctive here and have good intentions. The film is never nasty, always good-natured and events take place in a spirit of fun. However, no amount of wanting to enjoy this film is enough to actually make you actually enjoy it. Alongside this 'The Men Who Stare at Goats' looks less average (at least there you have the cinematography of Robert Elswit to keep you watching that film). Anyway, there is my two cents. Back into the sun.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

Devon times...

Yesterday I mentioned I was off to Devon and posed the question "which film should I see down here?" Well, in a bit of an anti-climax I didn't go to the cinema, instead spending time on a beach (I know... what a let down). I did watch a film yesterday however, as my nan put on a DVD copy of 'The Men Who Stare at Goats'. It was a passable movie. Some funny moments and it's always nice seeing Jeff Bridges. It was bewildering casting to have Ewan McGregor playing an American (aside from the constant in-jokes about him playing a jedi in Star Wars, it was pointless) as there are plenty of good, young American actors.

Anyway, it's a self-described "quirky" comedy and is inoffensive with some good moments. There is the mild hint of some political commentary as the opening credits contains real news footage of the current Iraq war and the story (supposedly based on true events) is about military stupidity. But ultimately this amounts to nothing of substance. So, if it's on and you've got nothing better to do, then you could do worse than watch 'The Men Who Stare at Goats' (that recommendation wasn't even HALF-hearted).

Other than that I have been reading that book on the cinema Ishiro Honda in my down time. It's been really facinating, but I'll save my thoughts on it for the upcoming review. I'll just say that I have read that he directed two of the best segments of the 1990 Kurosawa movie, 'Dreams'. 'The Tunnel' and 'Mount Fuji in Red' were written and directed by Honda and they are perhaps two of the visually stand-out sequences. Good on you Honda-san!

Friday, 25 June 2010

Going to sunny Devon for the weekend...

Just writing to say I'm on a bit of a last minute trip to Devon this weekend and have just noticed that Picturehouse have a cinema down there in Exeter. I am thinking I may pay them a visit on Saturday but if I do, what should I see? I can choose from the following options:

'Please Give', (which I have already seen and revieved here). Woody Allen's Larry David comedy 'Whatever Works' (which also starts its run in Brighton tomorrow and which I promised I'd see with my girlfriend). Or 'Shrek Forever After 3D' (which I never planned on seeing ever in my life). What will it be? Alternatively, I may see Martin Freeman in 'Wild Target', a remake of a French film from 1993. But that is playing in Barnstaple at the Central Cinema (at some sort of local upstart chain).

What on earth should I do?! Cast your vote. You may just sway me.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

'They Who Step on the Tiger's Tail' review: A brief, but thoroughly enjoyable, early Kurosawa film...

Here is a follow-up to yesterday's post regarding my trip to see a very rare early Kurosawa film at the BFI Southbank. I didn't know quite what to expect from the 1945 film 'They Who Step on the Tiger's Tail' but I was really pleasantly surprised by what I saw tonight. One of the few things I knew about the film before going in was that it based on an old 12th Century Japanese tale and uses aspects of Nah and Kabuki theatre adaptations in its telling. I worried slightly that this may be alienating or (frankly) boring to watch, but actually the film was really well paced and consistently entertaining. Of course, it helped that it ran at a brisk 58 minutes in length.

'They Who Step on the Tiger's Tail' really feels like the simple, effective telling of an age-old tale. What surprised me the most was that, despite the fact the film pre-dates his "golden period", many of Kurosawa's trademark shots and techniques are visible here. There are screenwipes, quick cuts between multiple protagonists and even many of his consistent themes are invoked (humanist values, criticism of traditional values and the emphasis on male characters). Furthermore, the film features a number of actors he would later rely on such as Masayuki Mori ('Rashomon', 'The Idiot', 'The Bad Sleep Well'), Susumu Fujita ('Yojimbo', 'The Hidden Fortress') and the great Takashi Shimura (too many to mention, most famously 'Ikiru' and 'Seven Samurai').

As I wrote yesterday, I couldn't pass up the chance to see this rarely screened film which is unavailable on DVD (at least in the UK). I wondered what the quality of the print would be like for this movie and when it started it was plain to see not only that this piece of film had been around since the film's US release in 1952, but that it was an American version. For one thing the subtitles looked like they had been scratched directly onto the film and, more obviously, the opening credits and titles were all in English. There was also a three page forward giving the context of the story and telling us that "this is a story which is loved by the Japanese". Sometimes the sound went and even the picture cut out at other times, but I found that strangely charming. After seeing the remastered splendour of 'Rashomon' the week before, it was sort of nice to see what a used and abused print looked like. It was a great advert for the likes of Martin Scorsese, who tell us frequently about the need to restore and maintain older films. Hopefully somebody will do the same for this movie before it is worn out of existence!

This is not to criticise the BFI at all. They deserve kudos for finding and screening such an unsung and obscure film as this as part of their Kurosawa season. The screening (admittedly in one of the smaller screens) was pleasingly quite well attended too and the movie played to a good atmosphere, with the comedy of contemporary comedian Kenichi "Enoken" Enomoto going down a storm. Enoken is really exaggerated and campy throughout but his porter character (introduced to the tale by Kurosawa) is what makes the film satirical, as he undermines the heroism and traditional values of the party of soldiers he is in service of. Displaying all the cowardice and opportunism of the lowly pair later seen in 'The Hidden Fortress', the porter delightfully contradicts the earnest Bushido of the rest of the film.

I don't usually go in for plot synopsis here, but seeing as this film is so hard to come by it might be a good idea. Basically, a group of warriors are disguised as travelling monks in order to escort their lord safely into another territory as he is on the run after a dispute with the ruling clan (in another plot element reminiscent of 'The Hidden Fortress'). However, they are expected at the checkpoint barrier and the film mainly involves a stand-off between the head warrior (Captain Beneki, played by the wonderful Denjiro Okochi) and the barrier guard (Togashi, played by Fujita) as he attempts to convince him that the group are the monks they claim to be. It is sometimes funny, sometimes actually very tense and always gripping stuff.

When the barrier guards recognise one of the porters as the wanted lord, Beneki trashes his master with a stick, supposedly to discipline him for being slow. Convinced that a warrior would never beat his master the barrier guard agree to let the men pass. Apparently the debate among Japanese fans of the old tale is whether Togashi knows that Beneki is lying or not, perhaps deciding to let him pass regardless. However here, in this telling, I believe Kurosawa has Togashi convinced by the beating, so stuck is he in an old code of honour now obsolete. Or at least, if not wholly convinced, Beneki breaks all the rules and Togashi is socially unable to accuse another man of his class of that dishonesty and ultimate shame. To deal with his shame at beating his master (in order to save his life) Beneki is shown to drink a barrel full of sake, much like Toshiro Mifune's Kikuchiyo does in 'Seven Samurai' after his own shameful episode.

Despite its brevity there is a lot to take in after watching 'They Who Step on the Tiger's Tail', a complex and thoroughly entertaining film. I had expected to find myself appreciating it more than liking it and had hoped to see the genesis of some of Kurosawa's later work represented in this early film. Instead what I was treated to was a film full of such moments, but which also worked completely in its own right. It was made quite cheaply and is entirely set-bound (with painted exterior backdrops), but it is quite atmospheric all the same thanks to Kurosawa's direction and the photography of Takeo Itô (who later worked on 'Drunken Angel'). Enoken's rampant over-acting may grate with some, so (intentionally) at odds is it with the rest of the piece, but if you get the chance to see it some time in the future then I would recommend you spend 58 minutes watching 'They Who Step on the Tiger's Tail'. Especially if you appreciate Kurosawa's later work.

'They Who Step on the Tiger's Tail' is currently exempt from classification by the BBFC. However, with the complete absence of shown violence or any bad language it would comfortably receive a 'U' in my opinion.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Remember when I told you I would shut up about Kurosawa? I lied!

On Monday I said that my recent flurry of celebratory posts about the films of Akira Kurosawa would com to an end with that review of the incredible reissued print of 'Rashonmon'. Well, predictably I am banging on about Kurosawa again. This time to say that I am going back to the BFI Southbank tomorrow to see a rare wartime film of his which I know precious little about: 'They Who Step on the Tiger's Tail'. The earliest of Kurosawa's films I have seen to date is 1948's 'Drunken Angel' (his first film starring Toshiro Mifune and the film on which he felt he'd discovered himself as a filmmaker). Most of the films which came out after 'Drunken Angel' are readily available to buy on DVD in the UK and so out of his 30 films I have been lucky enough to see 20 to date. However 'They Who Step on the Tiger's Tail' will be the first of his 6 "early period" films which I will have seen. I'm really excited by this rare chance to see a film which is completely unavailable to buy in this country.

Amazingly, although the film was shot in 1945, it wasn't released until 1952 as it was banned by the American occupation (a fact Kurosawa attributed to a "mean-spirited" censor rather than the content of his film). I can't wait to see what all the fuss was about.

On a separate note (but still on the subject of Japanese cinema) I received a book in the post today by an American writer called Peter H. Brothers. He has written a comprehensive book in celebration of the overlooked godfather of the monster movie, Ishiro Honda (best known for the original 1954 'Godzilla'). The book is called 'Mushroom Clouds and Mushroom Men: The Fantastic Cinema of Ishiro Honda' and I can't wait to read it and review it here. Incidently, Honda was a good friend (and one-time assistant director) of a certain Kurosawa. In fact he is known to have directed huge parts of Kurosawa's 1990 film 'Dreams' and was ever-present on the set during his final films.

Here is the trailer to the fantastic 'Godzilla' which stars the great Takashi Shimura and is a much better film than the campy series that followed would lead you to think:

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

'Please Give' review: Intelligently written drama with moments of black comedy...

There is a new Splendor Podcast up now (on iTunes and the Picturehouse website). Episode 18 sees Jon and I discussing the Spanish thriller ‘Hierro’, before taking a look at two quirky American indie films: ‘Greenberg’ and ‘Please Give’. At the time of recording I hadn’t seen ‘Please Give’, but after Jon’s recommendation (given as far back as February after a screening at Berlinale) I had to go and see the film for myself.

Watching the trailer for Nicole Holofcener's 'Please Give' I got the impression I would be going to see a comedy about the affectations of upper-middle class New Yorkers in the vein of Woody Allen. In fact Catherine Keener's Kate, full of well-meaning liberal guilt, recalls Goldie Hawn's Steffi in Allen's 1996's musical comedy 'Everyone Says I Love You'. Add to that the presence of Rebecca Hall whose most famous role up to now was in another Woody Allen film: ‘Vicky Christina Barcelona’. However, upon seeing the film I found something far less comic and far less full of snappy one-liners than the trailer seemed to suggest.

Aside from the lack of jokes, ‘Please Give’ is also markedly different from most Allen films in that the characters are not judged. Usually the Woody Allen character (often, in recent times, played by a surrogate Woody) critiques the other characters, informing the audience what to make of their pretensions and affectations. In ‘Please Give’ people are hyper-critical of themselves, but infidelity and callousness are not punished in Holofcener’s script. Instead they are presented with touching humanity.

‘Please Give’ is occasionally amusing (as when Kate mistakes a restaurant patron for a homeless man and offers him leftovers), but it is often more sad then it is funny. There is a lot of weeping and many pained expressions here. What humour there is is subtle and occasionally quite dark. Happily, the likes of Keener and Hall are joined by Oliver Platt and Amanda Peet in a cast that really understand this material. Keener is perhaps best known for her bitchy, alpha-female Maxine in Spike Jonze’s ‘Being John Malkovich’, but her character here is much gentler but no less convincing. Keener really is a fantastic actress. An assessment obviously shared by Holofcener as this is her fourth film working with Keener. It is also nice to see the likes of Platt and Peet given good roles here as both are often seen in rubbish or playing bit parts.

For me, the real star of the show is Rebecca Hall. Her character (also called Rebecca) is, in many ways, the emotional centre of the film and easily provides the most poignant moments. Hall plays an American here and does so effortlessly. In fact, I completely forgot she was English until after the movie. The film is also really accurate in its portrayal of the elderly. Ann Guilbert plays a brilliantly direct (“you’ve put on weight”) and stubborn 91 year-old lady who rings very true.

The film works best as an allegory for the role of charity in capitalist society. Keener’s Kate makes her money from buying furniture from the bereaved at a low price and selling it on for thousands of dollars. Out of guilt for her lifestyle, Kate gives to every homeless person she sees, neglecting her own family’s needs: especially those of her insecure daughter (played by Sarah Steele, a more convincing teenager than most in the movies). Kate’s guilt leads her volunteer helping the elderly and children with Down syndrome. However, she is quickly dismissed in both instances, as she is incapable of actually helping these people as she bursts into tears at their (imagined) plight. Like most affluent, middle-class people, Kate feels guilt for her lifestyle which she tries to address with the quick and easy giving of money, but not with actually addressing the root cause of problems. Kate will not give up her lifestyle because somebody else would just take her place ripping people off.

There is a lot going on in ‘Please Give’, which is easily one of this year’s most intelligent screenplays. Each character is multi-layered and has an interesting story. I won’t go into each one here. Overall, I found the film could have done with a little more humour. Personally, I always find that the films of people Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach are more emotionally affecting because there is light and shade at all times. Moments of sadness often sit alongside moments of humour. In ‘Please Give’ there is a film which (despite nice moments of comedy) is predominantly focussed on being sad and dramatic. This is fine and the film is very good (well deserving of a second viewing), however it did not hit me on a really emotional level or have me laughing out loud.

'Please Give' is out now on a shockingly wide release for a film without big-name stars. It is rated '15' by the BBFC.

Monday, 21 June 2010

'Rashomon' re-issue review: A much needed big screen outing for a true classic...

I have recently written a fair bit on this blog about the work of Akira Kurosawa. Jon and I recently recorded a special Kurosawa-themed Splendor Cinema podcast, whilst I have also written here about my favourite of his films and about some of the re-makes he inspired. On Friday I visited the BFI Southbank in London where I took advantage of their awesome world cinema shop to purchase a copy of his splendid autobiography and also fill some the gaps in my DVD collection: I found copies of ‘The Idiot’, ‘The Bad Sleep Well’, ‘Drunken Angel’ and ‘High and Low’. Most importantly, I took the opportunity to watch his international breakthrough, the Golden Lion winning 1950 film ‘Rashomon’, now in a glorious restored print which has been re-issued at selected cinemas nationwide.

‘Rashomon’ had previously been a film I admired more than enjoyed. I appreciated how significant it was in opening the eyes of western critics to Japanese cinema and I also understood its influence, the narrative structure (focussing on four subjective accounts of a rape and murder) has been copied by a countless number of films and has also been adapted by science and philosophy – the so-called “Rashomon effect”. But when I saw it on Friday it marked the first time I had seen the film on the big screen and its impact on me was much greater.

Partly this was down to paying the film greater attention than I had possibly done in the past. In a cinema it is just you and the film. You can’t pause it. You can’t look at your phone. You can’t go and get a drink and you hesitate to leave for the toilet. It holds your complete, undivided attention.

This time I noticed the virtuosity of Kurosawa’s camera work, often panning and swooping in elaborate long takes. Just as often it is still and patient with the director allowing the action to move in and out of the frame. It is in many ways a masterclass in how to shoot a film, especially action sequences. Like his hero John Ford, Kurosawa is able to make everything look deceptively simple and made his films with great economy. The film feels tight, disciplined and is basically as close to perfect as any movie could hope to be.

The performances are also fantastic. Toshiro Mifune is at his most cat-like as a snarling bandit accused of murder, whilst Takashi Shimura gives a great turn as a woodcutter who reports the crime, with some scenes of emotional poignancy to rival his more celebrated role in ‘Ikiru’. There are also roles for lesser known Kurosawa regulars such as Minoru Chiaki (who plays a troubled priest) and Masayuki Mori (above) as the murdered samurai. There is also Machiko Kyō, who almost steals the show as the samurai’s wife. Kyō cries and screams with an intensity which renders her performance unforgettable. Like almost every female in a Kurosawa movie, she is also called upon to be somewhat conniving and manipulative which she does with some gusto (representations of women are not Kurosawa’s strongest suit, for that see Mizoguchi, Ozu or Naruse) .

But more impressive than its stars and the great craft of its master director is its typically humanist portrayal of the characters. During the varying accounts of the central murder, what struck me was that the emphasis is not on the practical differences between the accounts, but on something subtler. It is the difference in tone, the different emotional reactions to the event and the changes in meaning which shape this tale and give ‘Rashomon’ its depth. During the trial scenes, in which the characters gather to give their testimonies, the judges are unseen. We are only shown the storytellers themselves talking to camera. Therefore when they lie the implication is that they are only lying to themselves (and perhaps to us).

The bandit wants us to believe he is a hard man, a skilful swashbuckler and a user of women. Watching him speak you feel he has succeeded in convincing himself. The samurai (whose testimony comes via a medium) gives an account in which he dies an honourable death by suicide to compensate for the shame he feels at seeing his wife raped. However the woodcutter’s story (in all details but one final twist taken to be the “true” account) reveals that both men were cowardly: that they fought but that it involved a lot of falling over and scrambling in the dirt. During the encounter Mifune pants loudly: out of breath and full of fear.

They never really cross swords (as in the bandit's version above); instead they swing wildly and run away from each other. The samurai’s final words are “I don’t want to die”. The truth is pathetic, not heroic or romantic. The truth is human. Kurosawa’s point is not that all people are bad or that all people are cowards, but that people are flawed. That we should be suspicious of those who portray themselves as honourable, just as we should of those who promote the idea that they are the opposite. That people are not caricatures: they are complicated.

Happily, for Kurosawa and ‘Rashomon’, there is just as much good as bad in the world. The priest’s faith in humanity is restored by the woodcutter’s decision to adopt an abandoned baby and defend it against a man who seeks to rob it of its few possessions. The woodcutter is told by the man that all people are selfish and that being selfish is necessary to survive (a popular view among capitalists). But the woodcutter rejects this assessment of humanity and, although he already has six children, he takes on the responsibility of another. This final moment sees Kurosawa at his most sentimental, but it is the necessary conclusion to the story and one which gives us hope.

It is hope which is an important final message for Kurosawa and Japan in ‘Rashomon’. Made in the aftermath of the Second World War in a battered and defeated nation, the film is in part allegorical. It opens on a broken gate, a relic from a period of prosperity and cultural richness. The woodcutter and the priest find shelter under this ruin as a heavy rainfall lashes down throughout the film. When the woodcutter adopts the infant the rainfall stops and the duo are able to leave the broken past behind and walk into a more hopeful future, for Japan and for the world. Fitting for a film which heralded a similarly bright future for Japanese cinema.

I, obviously, highly recommend seeking out ‘Rashomon’ in a cinema near you. It is playing at the BFI Southbank until the 8th of July on an extended run and is rated ‘12A’ by the BBFC.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

The worst films of the 2000s...

Soon after compiling a list of my favourite films of the last ten years I was asked what my least favourite films might be from the same period. As you might suspect it has been fairly easy to bring together a “bottom 10” list for the last decade. Within minutes of setting myself the task I had produced a list of some 30 films which stuck in my mind as being terrible.

Like most people, I tend to avoid seeing critically savaged films as a rule. So the universally slated likes of ‘Norbit’, ‘Epic Movie’ and ‘Catwoman’ have escaped being named here. It is definitely the case that there will be many worse films than I have selected here, certainly on a technical level, but these are the ones I hated most. None of the following (with the possible exception of one film) are even “funny bad”. Instead they are irredeemably empty, soulless, waste-of-time experiences.

On the list are a few films that maybe I am disproportionately bitter against because they let me down so badly, with two Disney animations, a Studio Ghibli film and a Coen Brother’s movie included here:

10) Jurassic Park III
Joe Johnston/USA/2001

I was such a huge fan of the first two ‘Jurassic Park’ films (especially as a dinosaur obsessed kid) that the inevitable poor quality of this non-Spielberg directed instalment was a crushing blow (I vividly remember how excited I was when the teaser poster was released). I occasionally watch this film back and for the first quarter of an hour I think “it’s not as bad as I remember.” ‘Sideways’ scribe Alexander Payne wrote a treatment of the screenplay and William H. Macy seemed a sound addition to the cast. However this optimism and goodwill all but evaporates when they set foot back on the island. Soon the Spinosaurus turns up and everyone starts talking to Raptors using bits of pipe. The effects are worse than those in the original, made almost a decade prior, and mumbo-jumbo, pseudoscience is far less convincing than the likes of “T-rex can’t see you if you don’t move!” I, foolishly, still long for a fourth film. But I just can’t take another one like this…

9) A Walk to Remember
Adam Shankman/USA/2002

Ok. This one is at least “funny bad”. A “bad boy” is sentenced to join a drama class to make amends for his bad behaviour. Whilst there he is tutored by a reverend’s daughter. “Promise me you won’t fall in love with me!” she says. One thing leads to another, blah blah blah, and the mismatched pair fall in love. However all is not well as the film reveals in a hilarious twist near the end. This one is not unpleasant to watch, I’ll give it that. On a serious note though, the most contrived, cliché rubbish you’ve ever seen.

8) Home on the Range
Will Finn & John Sanford/USA/2004

The film that finally sunk Disney’s hand-drawn animation department (after years of diminishing success), ‘Home on the Range’ is just so unappealing. Roseanne Barr voiced an anthropomorphic cow in the Wild West, who tries to save a little old ladies farm from being purchased by the local business tycoon. Thankfully Disney are now back on track with ‘The Princess and the Frog’, but thanks to this film we had to endure years of uninspired, sub-Pixar in-house CG films like ‘Chicken Little’, ‘Meet the Robinsons’ and ‘The Wild’ (see below).

7) Tales of Earthsea
Goro Miyazaki/Japan/2006

Between the films of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata Studio Ghibli never put a foot wrong . ‘The Cat Returns’ wasn’t great, but that was a made-for-TV feature Ghibli used to give experience to the next generation of animation talent. However, in 2006 Hayao Miyazaki’s son, Goro, adapted Ursula K. Le Guin’s fantasy Earthsea novels as ‘Tales of Earthsea’. The result caused a very public father and son rift, with Miyazaki senior very unhappy with his son’s efforts. The film was still a huge box-office hit in Japan, but the animation is notably limited (in the sense of re-used cells and scenes of little movement from characters) compared to every other film from the studio. It is also pretty dull and lacks (at the risk of seeming cheesy) the magic or the heart usually associated with the previous output.

6) Intolerable Cruelty
Joel Coen/USA/2003

As a fan, it pains me greatly to put a Coen Brother’s film on this list, but here it is. Made as a favour to the star and producer, George Clooney, the Coen’s did a re-write on a troubled screenplay, attempting to infuse it with their trademark style and humour. Some scenes feel like authentic Coen Brother’s moments, but these are still depressing as they remind you how good the Coen’s can be and make you ponder why you are watching such a broad, vacuous and dumbed-down romantic comedy.

5) Fermat’s Room
Luis Piedrahita & Rodrigo Sopeña/Spain/2007

The worst film I have ever seen at the Duke of York’s, ‘Fermat’s Room’ has a promising enough premise: a group of mathematicians have to work together to solves puzzles or else they will be crushed to death by the walls of the room. However, you quickly discover that there won’t be any clever problem solving here with characters instead falling upon the correct answers with all the sophistication of the ‘Slumdog Millionaire’. Worst of all I couldn’t escape the feeling that the production values made it look like an ITV3 drama rather than a movie. ‘Fermat’s Room’ was only shown outside of Spain because of its high-concept. Other than that it is of no merit.

4) Tropic Thunder
Ben Stiller/USA/2008

Not one solitary laugh in this really long, high-concept comedy which rips off the 1986 gem ‘Three Amigos!’ without even having the common courtesy to cry “remake”. The targets are broad and still all the gags misfire. The thing that really makes this film criminally bad is that the people involved and the concept could and should have been funny. For example, the faux-action movie sequences could have been funny but instead of playing it straight the film goes for all-out comedy and ends up having no atmosphere. Also, any filmmaker that thinks a man in a fat suit singing and dancing badly constitutes comedy gold should have their human rights indefinitely suspended.

3) Knowing
Alex Proyas/USA/2009

The worst in a long line of appalling Nicolas Cage vehicles in that last ten years, ‘Knowing’ is shameful in its use of real life disasters (such as 9/11) for a high-concept, thriller plotline that involves the discovery that these events were pre-determined. The film then lurches from plane crash, to subway derailment in a horrible medley of voyeuristic disaster-pornography. A big fake snuff film with delusions of grandeur, as the cod existential themes discussed fail to lend the film any weight whatsoever. It is also horrifically cringe-inducing as it involves Cage (a scientist) regaining his lost faith in god, whilst the climax (SPOILER) sees his child rescued by aliens (that look like angels) and taken to a garden of Eden to restart the Earth which is destroyed by a bastard god.

2) The Wild
Steve "Spaz" Williams/Canada-USA/2006

The second Disney film on this list (in a decade that started so well with ‘Lilo & Stitch’), ‘The Wild’ is the only film in history that I have wanted to walk out of at the cinema. This film came out the same year as Dreamworks ‘Madagascar’ and boasts basically an identical plot (a mad-cap gang of animals break out of a New York zoo and end up in Africa). But unlike previous similar Disney vs Dreamworks pairings like ‘A Bug’s Life’/‘Antz’ and ‘Finding Nemo’/‘Shark Tale’, this one is actually far worse than its doppelganger. Dull-looking, unfunny and slowly-paced, ‘The Wild’ is the worst Disney animation ever made (a fact reflected in its lacklustre box-office).

1) Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
Michael Bay/USA/2009

Aside from the fact that I found the film to be more than a little racist (have you seen the Autobot Twins?!) and sexist there is also the fact that this movie is just very poorly made on a basic fundamental level. The narrative is incoherent. The fast-cutting nature of Bay’s music video-style direction is disorientating and the film is also overlong, running at 150 minutes! The lead actors have zero charisma and the spectacle of seeing huge CGI robots punching each other quickly wears off. Add to that all the misplaced sex humour in this ‘12A’ certificate movie and a dizzying number of “comedy” sub-plots. I hated the first one, but this easily managed to top it. Forget worst film of the decade, ‘Transformers 2’ is easily my least favourite film ever made.

As with the “best films” list, here are 15 more bad films from the last decade that didn't quite make the cut:
Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005)
Hancock (2008)
Kill Bill: Part Two (2004)
Inland Empire (2006)
Austin Powers in Goldmember (2007)
King Kong (2005)
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)
Gangs of New York (2000)
Planet of the Apes (2001)
Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008)
Superman Returns (2006)
Men in Black (2002)
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002)
The Ladykillers (2004)

Friday, 18 June 2010

Review 'Hierro': An unoriginal Spanish thriller with some nice moments...

Here is a quick update to say that my review of the new Spanish thriller 'Hierro' (from the producers behind 'The Orphanage') is released today and my full review is up on Obsessed with Film.

I haven't been posting much at OWF for a few weeks (since a site re-design). But my review of 'Greenberg' was recently re-located to there and so I figure, why not? Many thousands more people read OWF than read this blog! So it would be a little silly not to post up there when I can. Anyway, go there and read my review after watching the trailer above.

Expect a Splendor podcast for 'Hierro' and 'Please Give' (which I plan on seeing later next week) in the next week. Jon is currently in Holland looking at how cinema exhibition is run over there, so expect a few words on that too...

'Hierro' is released today (18th June 2010) and can be seen at Brighton's Duke of York's cinema.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Review 'The Killer Inside Me': Slow moving, occasionally ultra violent new Winterbottom film...

It was impossible to discuss this film without some spoilers!

Within his latest film, the controversial and ultra-violent thriller ‘The Killer Inside Me’, there are signs that Michael Winterbottom was aiming for something of a black comedy. The quirky, ultra-colourful opening credits and the playful music underpinning a homicidal chase near the film’s conclusion, are placed alongside scenes of visceral and jarring brutality as Casey Affleck’s Texan sheriff, Lou Ford, becomes a psychopathic serial killer.

In an otherwise slow-paced and sedate film, of beautiful period detail, two key scenes of violence against female characters have sparked some outrage from a number of reviewers who found them to be in bad taste. Certainly, they make for uncomfortable viewing but sometimes that is the point. Arguably the hyper-violence of a Tarantino film (or an Eli Roth torture-porn flick) is more troubling as it is sold as entertainment. The violence in this picture is not enjoyable and nor should it be.

It is clear to often chilling (sometimes comic) effect that we are listening to an unreliable narrator in Lou Ford. He gives us a version of events which we know to be incorrect, convincing himself with his own deceit. Of a victim’s father he says “He couldn’t live down that his son was murdered by the hooker he fell in love with” although we know that Lou has killed them both. When he kills off a witness to his crimes by staging a suicide, he later refers to the event in his monologue as though the suicide was for real. “There’s a plot against me”, he tells us in earnest, “I did one thing wrong when I was a kid” he says, downplaying his rape of a young girl during his teenage years. Later, as he is about to frame a poor drunk for the murder of his fiancé he screams “I was going to marry that poor girl!” again seeming to buy into his own twisted lies. This delusional narration puts the comedy and the violence in context, confirming (if it were needed) that Winterbottom’s film is an attempt to really put the audience in the mind of this killer, with flashbacks to his past serving to help explain his route into a world of (often sexual) violence.

Making the tale richer is what for me seemed like a critique of a traditional filmic shorthand: that the rural, southern gentleman is a better sort than the slick city-boy. Last year Michael Haneke’s ‘The White Ribbon’ similarly flipped this convention, turning a seemingly pleasant, pastoral community into something dark and sinister. In this film we are shown a seeming pleasant yet utterly corrupt town where bribery and blackmail are commonplace and where a local tycoon excises total control over the local political machine. Lou Ford is a self-described “gentleman” and talks to everyone pleasantly with all the expected airs and graces associated with being “decent”. When an investigator from out of town finally links him to all the murders calling him a “son of a bitch”, a local law enforcement officer reacts more in horror to the language of this outsider than to Ford’s transgressions: "Don't say a thing about a man's mother!"

It is also a running theme in the film that almost everybody who learns of Lou’s violence and barbarity is willing to overlook it for their own gain, from the drunk to the union official. Even his fiancé, Amy (Kate Hudson), is ultimately willing to forgive Lou, such is his appeal as a gentleman. As Lou says “nobody ever has it coming. That’s why nobody ever sees it coming” and nobody ever sees him coming, even when they are aware of his crimes. In this way the film seems to be a satire of our preoccupation with image over substance.

Perhaps the best argument in support of claims that the film is misogynistic is that Jessica Alba (as the prostitute and first victim Joyce) and Kate Hudson play thinly developed characters and have little meaningful screen time which doesn't see them being punched repeatedly. However, this claim could be countered by the view that we only see them as Lou sees them and not as people separate from his interpretation. Casey Affleck is almost too good at this sort of quietly psychotic role. Anyone who saw him in ‘The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford’ back in 2007 will remember how much of an uneasy presence he is without the need to really do or say very much. There is also a welcome cameo role for Bill Pullman, an actor not seen on screen enough in recent years.

Overall I would hesitate to say that I enjoyed ‘The Killer Inside Me’ or even that I liked it. What I am sure of, however, is that the film is not deserving of some of the critical bile that has been spilled in its direction. The violence is graphic and horrifying – as it should be in this story. Yes, the violence towards men is usually off-camera or relatively quick, but from Lou Ford’s perspective those murders are almost circumstantial. His murder of the two female leads and his behaviour around them is what this film is about. What I have tried to establish in this review is that there is merit to this film and more going on then you would find in a movie which was simply aiming for shock value. I probably won’t be watching it again recreationally, but ultimately it is a solidly made, decently acted film with some interesting ideas, which has the strength of its convictions even when that takes it to uncomfortable, unpalatable places.

'The Killer Inside Me' is rated '18' by the BBFC and can still be seen in cinema's across the UK. Today is its last day at Brighton's Duke of York's Picturehouse.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

My top 10 films of the 2000s...

It struck me the other day that I haven't picked my list of the top 10 films of the last decade (2000-2009). Therefore, here is a list of my favourite films of the last ten years. Note that these are the ones I enjoy the most rather than the "most significant". These films have affected me the most emotionally and given me the most pleasure over repeat viewings. There is certainly a Hollywood dominance over this list with all but two of the films being from the US. There are two Charlie Kaufman screenplays in there and two films at least co-written by Noah Baumbach.

However, the main thing I've noticed from this list is that (with the possible exception of one or two films) all these movies have protagonists many have described as unlikeable. I suppose I like flawed characters, often socially awkward, damaged people. There are plenty of them in this list from Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes to Adam Sandler as Barry Egan.

Anyway, here they are:

10) The Aviator
Martin Scorsese/USA/2004

Controversially, this is my favourite Scorsese film. DiCaprio is great as Hughes in this humanistic, non-judgemental portrait of a flawed genius now best known as a reclusive freak. There is more subtlety here than I usually associate with Scorsese (or Michael Mann who produced the film and started the project) with a detailed and slow development of Hughes' ticks and eccentricities. Also, the film is replete with immaculate period detail.

9) A Serious Man
Joel and Ethan Coen/USA/2009

A slow burner this one. I was unsure after my first viewing of this Coen Brothers' film. However, after seeing it a second time it went straight to the top of last years "best of" poll. Stage actor Michael Stuhlbarg is great in the central role as Larry Gopnik in this rich and funny film which is probably the duo's most cerebral since 'Barton Fink'.

8) Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Michel Gondry/USA/2004

A brilliant screenplay which has a lot to say (as you'd expect from Charlie Kaufman) about memory, regret and human relationships. As with all Kaufman films, there is much to be sad about and plenty of bleak, somewhat depressing ideas, but the conclusion is hopeful and beautiful. The second Kaufman screenplay directed by Michel Gondry, this film is certainly an improvement on the 2001 film 'Human Nature' (which is very good, but not great).

7) Spirited Away
Hayao Miyazaki/Japan/2001

The only animation on this list, this Japanese film from Hayao Miyazaki proved that Studio Ghibli are at least as good as Pixar in terms of being the best animators in the world today. Joe Hisaishi's score is genius and compliments a really heart-warming human story in an imaginative fantasy context.

6) The Dark Knight
Christopher Nolan/USA/2008

Easily the most exciting blockbuster of the last decade, Christopher Nolan's Batman sequel is an intelligent summer movie with a top ensemble cast and jaw-dropping stunts. If Nolan makes another Batman it will easily be the film I am most excited about seeing. I'm even excited about the Superman film he is producing!

5) The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
Wes Anderson/USA/2004

All of Wes Anderson's 00's output could be on this list (but I thought that's be boring) so I struggled and chose this one because I probably find myself quoting it the most. Plus, it's really emotional at times and Murray is great as Zissou.

4) Happy-Go-Lucky
Mike Leigh/UK/2008

Mike Leigh really did something special with this one (which I wrote about recently on this blog). A terrific character study from Sally Hawkins as Poppy in a film which is as much an allegory for differing philosophies on education as anything else.

3) The Squid and the Whale
Noah Baumbach/USA/2005

I recently reviewed Noah Baumbach's latest film 'Greenberg', but before I loved that film I loved 'The Squid and the Whale'. Baumbach co-wrote 'The Life Aquatic' with Wes Anderson and Anderson returned the favour by producing this film which is note perfect in its depiction of the relationship between Jeff Daniels and Jesse Eisenberg as a pretentious father and his admiring son.

2) Adaptation
Spike Jonze/USA/2002

Before the recent films 'Kick-Ass' and Herzog's 'Bad Lieutenant' Nicolas Cage's last film to be proud of was this Spike Jonze/Charlie Kaufman (again) film in which he plays the author and his fictitious twin brother "Donald". Brian Cox is just as great in an almost film-stealing role as a screenplay writer giving a seminar on the craft. His character perfectly sums up artistic pretension (something done less well in the Kaufman directed 'Synechdoche, New York' in 2008). Also, Donald's monlogue near the end moves me to tears every time.

1) Punch-Drunk Love
Paul Thomas Anderson/USA/2002

I won't write anymore about this film as I am always going on about it. Here is my detailed retrospective look from a few weeks back.

Honourable mentions got to the following films which almost made the list. In no particular order here are 15 other great films from the last decade:
Grizzly Man (2005)
Lilo & Stitch (2002)
Up (2009)
There Will be Blood (2007)
No Country for Old Men (2007)
The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
Y tu mamá también (2001)
Humpday (2009)
Amelie (2001)
City of God (2002)
Team America: World Police (2004)
Runnin' Down a Dream (2007)
The Motorcycle Diaries (2004)
This is England (2006)
In Bruges (2008)

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

The first of the "Pantheon series"...

A new Splendor Cinema podcast is up (episode 17), both at Picturehouse and on iTunes. This week Jon and I talk about the life and work of Akira Kurosawa (as mentioned in my previous Kurosawa post) to celebrate his centenary year, as inspired by this month's Sight and Sound magazine.

We give our individual "top 5" Kurosawa movies and discuss stuff from across the legendary director's career. It's an extra long one too (about 42 minutes) so be sure to listen if you're a fan of Japanese cinema or just Samurai.

This podcast is the first in our long planned "Pantheon series" in which we will do a number of one-off specials about "great" directors and ask the question "do they belong on the Pantheon?" We have plenty more planned so watch this space (or subscribe on iTunes).

Monday, 14 June 2010

'Greenberg' review: Moving, well observed and funny too...

My review of Noah Baumbach's 'Greenberg' has been removed from this blog as it is now up on Obsessed with Film here instead. Go and take a look. More importantly, go and see this excellent film whilst you still can, as it's on fairly limited release in the UK. Anyone who like Baumbach's 'The Squid and the Whale' stands a good chance of thoroughly enjoying his latest film too.

'Greenberg' stars Ben Stiller and the marvelous Queen of the "mumblecore" movement Greta Gerwig. It's funny, but also truthful about life and relationships with really rich characters (including a great showing from Rhys Ifans in the supporting cast).

'Greenberg' is rated '15' by the BBFC and can be seen at the Duke of York's Picturehouse in Brighton until the 24th of June.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

So the football has started...

The 2010 Word Cup started yesterday. Yesterday also marked my first "Flick's Flicks" recording, which (I think) went well. I probably won't be seeing as many films over the next month as a result of the football (and soon the Tennis), but have no fear: I will still attempt to maintain this blog as best I can. Next week I will be watching and reviewing Noah Baumbach's 'Greenberg' and Michael Winterbottom's controversial 'The Killer Inside Me', as well as the upcoming Spannish horror film 'Hierro'.

The World Cup has reminded me of a nice football related film I saw last summer. 'Rudo Y Cursi' was directed by Carlos Cuarón, brother of Alfonso and co-writer of the amazing 'Y tu mamá también', and stars that film's lead duo: Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna. They play two Mexican brothers who attract the attention of a scout at a local amateur football match and go on to differing sucess in the top Mexican league.

The film is not as good as 'Y tu mamá también' and as such critics greeted it with lukewarm reviews last year. However, I enjoyed the film quite a bit. It is really fun and high-spirited and the football is some of the best ever seen in a fiction film, really capturing the energy and excitement of the game. Also, Bernal attempts to use his football stardom to become a pop star... which is pretty funny.

Here is a trailer for the film which only very narrowly missed out on my top ten last year:

It's pretty cheap on DVD, so check it out! Anyway, enjoy the World Cup.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

World Cup starts tomorrow! Token football special...

On Monday I mentioned that the Mexican director Iñárritu ('Amores Perros', '21 Grams' and 'Babel') had lent his talent to a amazing Nike soccer ad entitled 'Write the Future'. As the 2010 World Cup is upon us (starting tomorrow afternoon) I thought I'd put some more football related clips up here.

During a period of huge artistic frustration Terry Gilliam (who had not been able to complete a film since 1998's 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas') agreed to direct a series of 2002 football trailers for Nike. 'The Secret Tournament' is the result. The ad is typically bizarre and imaginative, as the world's best players gather on a boat in the middle of nowhere (and under cover of darkness) to play some sort of cage football tournament, under the watchful gaze of Eric Cantona. This ad campaign also popularised a remixed version of Elvis Pressley's 'A Little Less Conversation', sending the track to number one in the UK charts.

In 2008, Guy "Lock, Stock" Ritchie made a typically geezery football ad, again for Nike. 'Take it to the Next Level' shows a first person view of one man's journey from Sunday league football to the big time. It's really very good, getting across the excitement of Premier League football from an angle unfamiliar to most of us as the protagonist plays side-by-side with the likes of Fabregas and Gallas for Arsenal against Manchester United.

I have no idea who directed this one from 2006, but as an Arsenal fan I am putting it up anyway. It shows Thierry Henry running around his house avoiding Manchester United players and even playing a one-two with then-teammate Fredrik Ljungberg. It's nowhere near as visually accomplished as the other three examples, but it's quite fun.

Anyhow, hope that burst of football-related advertising has left you even more excited by the prospect of tomorrow's football (hopefully it hasn't left you feeling depressed or mournful). Just to round things off: here is that 'Write the Future' ad again:

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Is 'Star Wars' Sci-fi?

I assure you I'm not just arguing semantics when I ask: "is 'Star Wars' a science fiction film?" For years I have argued that it isn't (and I know I'm not alone here, just check on google) and that it is instead primarily a fantasy film.

Science fiction is usually allegorical and always involves some sort of genuine theory on where science may take us. 'Star Wars' does neither thing at all (unless you see it as a bland allegory for "good versus evil"). It doesn't try to make any points, instead it is about some heroic knights rescuing a princess from an evil (dare I say Hidden) fortress. Yes, there are laser guns and spaceships and robots, but I would argue this setting is not necessarily sci-fi. On the other hand, 'Star Trek' is sci-fi. Gene Roddenberry used his 60's TV series to make points about issues of the day, such as racism, as well as taking a look at where humanity may go ('Star Wars' with it's "Galaxy far, far away" disclaimer isn't even proposing that). In 'Star Trek' gadgets are always explained using pseudo-scientific terms, often at great length. 'Star Wars' doesn't care about this kind of thing at all. Sure, since 1977 books have been written that tell you how the Millennium Falcon works etc etc. But the films themselves never concerned themselves with science. In 'Star Wars' it is all about escapism and suspension of disbelief (and for my money this makes 'Star Wars' far better than 'Star Trek' too).

But the reason I get into this discussion is because the genre term of "sci-fi" has become more readily associated with a spacey, futuristic setting than with genuine science fiction. So a film like 'Jurassic Park' (featuring "Mr. DNA", above), which is both about the future of science and a morality tale about the potential perils of man playing god, gets labelled up as something else instead. Maybe that's fine. Maybe this just an acceptable evolution of language and something for etymologists to discuss rather than film critics. But I can't help but feel that the genre is being diluted with the meaning it has appropriated, as sci-fi used to be more complicated then that. Most 1950's science fiction used tales of aliens and spacecraft to talk about the cold war and the spectre of communism, for example.

Anyway, that's my two cents on the matter.