Friday, 29 October 2010

'The Arbor' review:

In recent years British cinema has seemingly started to move on from the sort of poverty porn, "ain't life grim" aesthetic that typified past depictions of working class life. Films like 'Cemetery Junction' and, more recently, 'Made in Dagenham' have presented a more palatable and infinitely more hopeful picture of life at the bottom (although both look fondly backwards to the 70s and 60s respectively), whilst even the longtime stalwarts of British social realist cinema have taken a turn for what some might disparagingly term "the mainstream", with Ken Loach last year directing the feelgood 'Looking for Eric' and Mike Leigh increasingly turning his talent to films of great warmth and humanist goodwill. It would be tempting to think that we'd all forgotten how to peer through the net curtains, with tears of condescension in our eyes, at the plight of the nation's great unhosed.

Well fear not, because ably filling this void is Clio Barnard's 'The Arbor', which has just bagged itself a couple of prizes at the London Film Festival and opened in UK cinemas last Friday. 'The Arbor' is a grim watch indeed as it forms a sort of biography of the late Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar (writer of 'Rita, Sue and Bob Too!'), focusing on her strained relationship with her eldest daughter, the mixed-race Lorraine. The film goes beyond Dunbar's death from a brain hemorrhage in 1990, aged just 29, to look at how Lorraine became a heroin addict, a prostitute and, eventually, ended up in prison for allowing her son to die of "gross neglect". To tell this story, Barnard blends together a variety of techniques which include archive news footage, newly staged re-enactments of her first play, The Arbor, shot on location in the Brafferton Arbor area of Bradford (performed by actors, including Jimi Mistry) and, most startlingly, extracts of audio interviews with Dunbar's friends and family, dubbed over the performances of actors.

This latter technique is unorthodox, at least outside of Nick Park's 'Creature Comforts' series of animations - there used for comedy rather than drama - and has received mixed responses from critics, one of the most damning coming from The Guardian's David Cox. Personally, I found it distracting and sometimes even comical, which undermined the films very earnest approach and heavy subject matter. Many of the voices really don't work with the actors, the most obvious being Dunbar's younger daughter Lisa played by Christine Bottomley. The real life Lisa's voice, which is deep and slightly gruff Yorkshire accent, doesn't convincingly come from the mouth of the pretty, youthful looking actress. But such is the undeniable raw emotional power of some of the testimony - specifically regarding the death of Lorraine's child - that some of the film works in spite of this clunky device.

What I can't help but wonder though is this: what is the point of it all? We find out that behind Dunbar's broadsheet friendly persona as "a genius straight from the slums" she was perhaps a less than wonderful mother, by Lorraine's account at least. We also hear how she spent the majority of her time in the local pub, never moving away from the people and the area she immortalised in her stage plays. But does this look at the real life Dunbar and her offspring shed new light on her plays? And does this unusual, experimental device do the story any greater service than a traditional documentary or completely dramatised film might have otherwise done? I tend to doubt it. By straddling the line between documentary and drama, the film functions as neither. Nor does that film try to hard to draw any parallels between the Arbor of thirty years ago and the street as it is today. We see some footage of children playing football in a park, but nothing revealing.

This is not to say, however, that 'The Arbor' is a total failure. After all, it is daring and experimental in a way few films can boast (especially British films) and it is hard to take against that too strongly. For me though, the film is devoid of any real point, other than to take us on yet another grim poverty safari. It is another film about the poor intended to be consumed by chin-stroking liberals, who more often than not frown on the more accessible films enjoyed by the very people they patronise. Honestly, it is as if Preston Sturges never made 'Sullivan's Travels'.

With the demise of the UKFC, and the latest cuts to the budget of the Arts Council and the BFI, it could well be that British cinema makes a return to these sorts of grim portrayals of life for the working poor - low budget films made in a climate devoid of that initial wave of New Labour optimism. I have no problem with seeing those sorts of films at all. I just hope they have a bit more to offer than 'The Arbor'.

'The Arbor' is out in the UK now on a limited release and is rated '15' by the BBFC.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Latest Splendor Podcast covers 'The Social Network'...

It's been over a week now since my last post. In fact October has been the least productive month for this blog since it began earlier this year (with just three film reviews up this month down from almost fifty in September). But that is not to say that I haven't been busy. For one thing Jon and I recorded our 36th Splendor Cinema Podcast, talking about 'The Social Network'. (Since that recording Jon has now actually seen and reviewed the film on his own blog.) Expect us to talk about the film again (in brief) in our next episode.

I've also been busy writing the last bits of programme copy for Brighton's CineCity Film Festival - and I promise that festival, hosted by the Duke of York's cinema - has a cracking line-up, so look out for that.

I also interviewed Darren Aronofsky, Vincent Cassel and Mila Kunis about my favourite film of the year so far: 'Black Swan'. That series of interviews is under embargo until the film's UK release date early next year and will be posted over at Obsessed With Film.

I haven't been able to see very many films this month as I've sought more shifts at my day job (at the Duke's), but I should be able to review gritty, British drama 'The Arbor' before the week is through. So come back for that before the week is out.

Monday, 18 October 2010

'The Social Network' review:

This year few films have intrigued me more than David Fincher's 'The Social Network': a film about the founding fathers of the hugely successful Facebook website based on the book 'The Accidental Billionaires' by Ben Mezrich. The film focuses on the lawsuits filed against Mark Zuckerberg and ever since I read that 'West Wing' creator Aaron Sorkin had penned the screenplay, and that 'Squid and the Whale' star Jesse Eisenberg had been cast as Zuckerberg, I have been excited to see the finished film. Then, at the end of last month, the positive reviews began to come in and are yet to stop. It seemed as though everyone was calling it a masterpiece and awarding it "film of the year" status.

I worried that all this praise, coupled with my own longstanding interest in the film, might raise my level of expectation unrealistically high. After all, earlier this year my headlong descent into a world of hype left me a little underwhelmed by Christopher Nolan's 'Inception' and earlier this month a great weight of expectation probably played its part in my less than enthusiastic response to Palm d'Or winning 'Uncle Boonmee'. I needn't have worried, however, as it turned out that 'The Social Network' was actually better than I had ever anticipated. In fact I saw it for a second time within twenty-four hours.

Aaron Sorkin's reputation as a screenwriter has taken a few knocks in recent years as his TV follow up to 'The West Wing', 'Studio 60 On the Sunset Strip', was cancelled after one season and is generally disliked (though I was in the minority who enjoyed it), whilst he also scripted Mike Nichols' horrible 2007 film 'Charlie Wilson's War'. However his status as one of the best contemporary writers of dialogue has been completely restored as 'The Social Network' is, to my mind, his best work to date by some distance. I have always enjoyed the self-consciously clever and fast-paced style of his character's speech, but if I had one problem with his other work (even the best of it) it was that often it was all too clear who the "good guys" were.

'The West Wing' casts his White House staffers as shining white knights battling the forces of evil - Republicans (until the post-Sorkin addition of Alan Alda) always portrayed as though they are the snarling agents of Satan. Politically I was never upset by this representation, but however much it preached to this particular choir I tend to prefer more nuanced and humanistic depictions of people. In 'The Social Network' all of Sorkin's best qualities as a writer are evident whilst all the principle characters are fully formed and multi-dimensional. Much has been made of Zuckerberg having been portrayed unfavourably by the film - that it is a smear campaign against him - but I disagree with this.

As someone who has never met Zuckerberg (in fact I've never heard him speak) I can't vouch for how accurate the film is. I expect, like the film itself says, 85% of testimony is exaggerated (with the remaining 15% being fabricated altogether). Sorkin has said that his main duty is to storytelling and not to "truth". But regardless of what the truth of this story might be, within the world of the film all of the characters are pleasingly well rounded out. Zuckerberg is not portrayed altogether negatively, in fact I sympathised with him and even at times respected him (for his intelligence, self-belief and single mindedness). In fact the film questions its own validity at several points: set during two lawsuits the film positions all the actual founding of Facebook stuff as coming to us via each plaintiff's skewed testimony and referred to by Zuckerberg, more than once, as "lies".

Even Zuckerberg's best friend Eduardo (played by the new 'Spiderman' actor Andrew Garfield), who is perhaps the most obviously likable and sympathetic character, is not perfect: he is a rubbish businessman when it comes to understanding what Facebook can become and seeks to gain instant, easy profit from it in a way which may have damaged the site. As a counterpoint, Justin Timberlake's character, Napster co-founder Sean Parker, is probably the most obvious "villain" of the piece - threatening to throw Zuckerberg's empire into hedonistic chaos and freezing out Eduardo - yet he is also the one who sees the site's potential and helps to catapult it into the big time.

Then we have Armie Hammer skillfully portraying both of the rich, athletic and popular Winklevoss twins: Cameron and Tyler . Depending on your viewpoint they can stand as the instantly hateful examples of social inequality and of arrogant fraternity boys raised in privilege, but they are also shown to be fairly reasonable and decent people who have a real case against Zuckerberg - who they claim stole the Facebook idea from them. And we can also see why Zuckerberg might honestly believe he owes them nothing: "someone who makes a nice chair doesn't owe money to everyone who ever made a chair". Every character has an angle and nobody is cast as a hero or a villain. This well balanced script is also full of truly brilliant one-liners and more than one self-righteous and indignant tirade from Zuckerberg, delivered with intensity, and with a delicious air of spite and malice, by the ever-excellent Eisenberg.

Another great strength of Sorkin's screenplay is that it never makes any obvious comment about Facebook as a social phenomenon and its impact on our lives - save for one girl's throwaway remark that it's addictive - but plenty of allusions to its perceived evils are made in subtle ways. For example, Zuckerberg's ex-girlfriend played by the up-and-coming Rooney Mara (now confirmed as the star of Fincher's 'Girl With the Dragon Tattoo' remake) lambasts the Facebook founder for writing trash about her on his blog commenting on his need to write everything he feels: "as if every thought that tumbles through your head was so clever it would be a crime for it not to be shared."

As well as the great cast and the gripping, intelligent script, which doesn't shy away from technical detail and fizzes by at a rate of knots (evaporating the films 125 minute running time), there is also the direction of Fincher to admire. He is able to shoot this film, essentially about nerds arguing, in such a way that it plays as an effective thriller. This is aided in no small part by the Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross score which lends an air of foreboding to everything that takes place. The film's colour palette is reminiscent of Fincher's 'Fight Club' (also shot by Jeff Cronenweth) and helps to make every aspect of Harvard campus life seem seedy and undesirable thus enabling the film establish a tone which differentiates it from anything else about American college campus life.

'The Social Network' is a staggering film and an instant classic. It is often very funny and always very clever, with a script that doesn't infantilize its audience. It is also thrilling and exciting... and dark too. As with Darren Aronofsky's 'Black Swan' I am moved to say that this film is quite simply perfect. Historians and technology experts may disagree with the film's take on real events and I have some sympathy with business writer Andrew Clark at The Guardian when he asks: "does a 26-year-old businessman really deserve to have his name dragged through the mud in a murky mixture of fact and imagination for the general entertainment of the movie-viewing public?" Probably not. But whatever the "truth", and whatever the moral implications of this type of dramatised treatment of very recent history, 'The Social Network' is a quite brilliant piece of entertainment and a wonderful example of American cinema at its very best.

'The Social Network' is out now in the UK and is rated '12A' by the BBFC.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

2010: What's left to look forward to?

I haven't done a trailer round-up for a while, but last night I was thinking about the remaining films for this cinematic year and making a note of the ones I am excited to see. One film I've had my eye on for well over a year, David Fincher's Aaron Sorkin penned 'The Social Network', is already out in the US (where it has earned something approaching universal acclaim) and comes to the UK on Friday (15th). The film, for those that don't know by now, is a biographical drama about the invention of Facebook by Mark Zuckerberg - portrayed in the film by Jesse Eisenberg - and it boasts the best tagline of recent years: "you don't get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies."

I haven't been as excited by a trailer since 'A Serious Man' last year. Speaking of which, the new Coen Brother's film has a trailer now. 'True Grit' is a fresh attempt to adapt the Charles Portis novel of the same name about a young girl who hires an alcoholic and violent US Marshal, Rooster Cogburn, to hunt down her father's killer. This book was famously already adapted in 1969 and starred John Wayne (winning him an Oscar), but this one is supposed to be grittier and more faithful to the book and stars Jeff Bridges as Cogburn. I'm a huge Coen's fan so I'm really looking forward to this one. If it comes out in the UK on it's planned 25th of December release, then I'll certainly go out and see it on Christmas Day.

As I've reported before, in a previous trailer round-up, the new 'Tron' film also looks pretty interesting. Like 'True Grit', 'Tron Legacy' also stars Jeff Bridges, here reprising his cult 1982 role as Kevin Flynn. This sequel sees Sam Flynn enter the arcade game, created by the elder Flynn, to find out the truth about his father's disappearance. I love how the retro look of the original has been retained and how Jeff Bridges has been given a CGI makeover in some scenes so as to resemble his 1980's self. This could be fun.

Then there are two films hit it big in Toronto last month: British comic Richard Ayoade's coming of age comedy 'Submarine' and Werner Herzog's 3D cave painting documentary 'Cave of Forgotten Dreams'. There don't seem to be any official trailers for either film yet, so here is an interview with Ayoade in Toronto which has a few clips.

I'm sure to see 'Submarine' before the year is out (it's playing in a lot of festivals), though I don't have any idea when Herzog's film will be playing. However, Mike Leigh's 'Another Year' does have a trailer and a release date (5th of November in the UK). It looks like it could be everything I expect from Leigh: funny; poignant; well observed. Jim Broadbent looks to be in especially good form.

Finally, I've already seen both 'Black Swan' and '13 Assassins' in Venice, but both are coming out in the next month or so in the UK and both are remarkable. Aronofsky is now down to direct the next 'Wolverine' film and I hope to speak to him and his star, Natalie Portman, later this month when they come to London to promote the film ahead of its 11th of February release early next year. Both films (along with 'Submarine') are playing during the London Film Festival this month.

At the very beginning of next year (7th of January) and also playing in London is Danny Boyle's latest film: a true life account of a mountaineer who got trapped under a rock in an isolated cave and had to cut off his own arm to escape. Starring James Franco, '127 Hours' looks pretty good.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

'Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives' review: Great Expectations?

The other day somebody from Sony was telling me how concerned they were that ‘The Social Network’ might be negatively affected by all the positive reviews: the idea being that they could generate a backlash against it. I can understand that concern because, however much I try to black out reviews and awards from my mind, it can be hard to view a film in a culture vacuum. For example, if you go and see a film that has won Best Picture at the Oscars, no matter how good it is, you might easily find yourself saying “yes, it was good. But it wasn't a Best Picture winner was it?”

I had such an experience last week as I saw Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s ‘Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives’ playing at the 4th Kaunas International Film Festival in Lithuania. Having won the coveted Palm d’Or at this year’s (by many accounts subpar) Cannes Film Festival, I went into ‘Uncle Boonmee’ with dangerously high expectations. To me, post-Cannes, it was no longer a little Thai film from an interesting and experimental director. Instead it was inevitably now stacked up alongside the awards past recipients: “Is it as good as ‘Pulp Fiction’, ‘The Wind That Shakes the Barley’ or ‘The White Ribbon’?”

Of course, this is not at all fair. The award itself has nothing to do with the film, and this disperate band of unconnected past winners is even less relevant. A film should really be judged on its own merits. Perhaps this is true: but is it ever realistic? Or even possible?

Most critics will routinely compare a new work alongside others of the same genre or with other films made by the same director. Is this bad practice? I wonder how different the reception to some films might have been had the critics not known anything about the author going in. Would the 'Star Wars' prequels be so universally hated if people compared them to the bland likes of ‘Clash of the Titans’ or ‘Transformers’ as opposed to the original trilogy? And the opposite is likely true also: I can’t imagine ‘Inland Empire’, divorced from the legacy and reputation of David Lynch, would be endured by as many fawning acolytes.

So it was that I watched the Palm d’Or-winning ‘Uncle Boonmee’ expecting great things. 'Uncle Boonmee' follows the titular character as he looks back on his life whilst suffering from a terminal illness. He is visited by the ghost of a previous wife and by his son who has become an ape, whilst he also relives some past lives: most notably during a bizarre protracted sequence in which an deformed princess has sex with a catfish. The film is nothing if not unique.

I am usually a big fan of the so-called "slow cinema" movement. Recent examples like the Romanian 'Police, Adjective' and the Russian Golden Lion entry 'Ovsyanki' have thrilled me greatly. But 'Boonmee' did actually start to bore me with its long, ponderous takes and silent scenes of relative inactivity. And, in part due to its acclaim, I found myself trying to find reasons why it wasn't working for me. Perhaps I don't know enough about Buddhism and reincarnation? Perhaps I'm experiencing slow cinema fatigue after recent trips to film festivals?

Whatever it was, I didn't connect with 'Uncle Boonmee' on an emotional level and wasn't gripped by the folkloric story. It is unquestionably a bold and imaginative film, with the glowing red eyes of the mysterious monkey gods that stalk the jungle a particular visual highpoint. Weerasethakul is also a master of atmosphere, especially in terms of sound design. Earlier this year I saw one of his short art installation films, 'Phantoms of Nabua' (see bottom of review), playing at the BFI Southbank and it has clear parallels with 'Boonmee' in terms of the sharp nighttime cinematography and also in the way that it uses natural sounds which give you a real sense of being in the middle of a real space. Watching both this and 'Boonmee' I felt as though I was in the jungle at times.

It is also true that 'Boonmee' is often laugh-out-loud funny. One photomontage, midway through the film, shows a man in a monkey suits hugging some military men, whilst in another scene Boonmee describes how he killed communists in his time as a soldier commenting that they were a "pain in the ass". Yet these moments only served to raise my enjoyment levels fleetingly during the film's near two hour running length.

Whilst the Palm d'Or win will inevitably lead to wider distribution than the film could otherwise have hoped for, I don't think 'Uncle Boonmee' has the same potential with audiences as last year's Cannes big hitters did (namely 'Un Prophet' and 'The White Ribbon'). It is certainly an imaginative film which is beautiful to watch, yet ultimately, whether or not high expectations or festival film fatigue were to blame, 'Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives' just didn't do it for me on a visceral, gut level. Would I have felt differently had I seen it at that first show in Cannes when it was still an obscure oddity? It's possible, but I suppose I'll never know for sure.

Below is the art installation short 'Phantoms of Nabua'. 'Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives' is released in the UK on the 19th of November and is not yet rated by the BBFC.

Monday, 11 October 2010

'Retreat' set visit + David O Russell's 'Uncharted' movie

Yesterday, courteously of some jolly nice people at Sony Home Entertainment, I visited sunny and beautiful North Wales to go on the set of the upcoming British thriller film 'Retreat'. The film is being shot in a remote cottage near Porthmadog which is doubling up as the Scottish highlands and stars Cillian Murphy, Jamie Bell and Thandie Newton.

I don't know all the details as I only saw one rehearsal and one short (aborted) take involving an action sequence near the film's conclusion, but what I do know is that the story sees Murphy and Newton play a couple who visit an isolated retreat to fix their relationship which is going through a bad time. Jamie Bell apparently enters as the antagonist and tells them that they are the only people left alive due to an airborne virus.

I was lucky enough to have a chance to meet the film's director and writer Carl Tibbetts, who is directing his first movie, as well as the producer Gary Sinyor (himself director of 'The Bachelor' and 'Leon the Pig Farmer') and all three cast members. All were friendly and accommodating despite the fact that they were all exhausted - being at the final stages of an intense four week shooting schedule. Everybody got round to talking to us between takes and re-sets and it was a great opportunity to see the making of what looks to be an interesting film.

It was a bizarre experience: interviewing Cillian Murphy in a temporary mess hall with fake blood on his lip; watching Jamie Bell play guitar and bound onto the set impersonating Stephen Fry - full of energy - and then chatting to him near a lake and some sheep; sitting on the grass with Thandie Newton as her kids ran around the countryside. The interviews themselves will be up on Obsessed With Film sometime next year to coincide with the home entertainment release of the film, which Sony are distributing.

Also, this morning I wrote a small news piece for OWF about 'I Heart Huckabees' director David O Russell being selected to direct an adaptation of another Sony property: the PlayStation 3 video game 'Uncharted: Drake's Fortune'. Is this a good thing? Well, that's basically what I discuss in the article.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Oliver Stone interview + British film set visit!

Yesterday my interview with Oliver Stone was posted up over on Obsessed With Film. The veteran director talked with me about 'Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps' (which opened in the UK on Wednesday) on Wednesday morning at the ultra-plush Dorchester Hotel in London.

Also, I am heading to a film set in North Wales this weekend for an upcoming British thriller film called 'Retreat' being shot in the small town of Porthmadog. I'll be interviewing the film's stars, Cillian Murphy, Thandie Newton and Jaimie Bell, on the set and apparently I'll also be seeing an "exciting action scene" being shot. It's the first set visit I've done so I'm a little excited.

Friday, 8 October 2010

'Made in Dagenham' review:

'Made in Dagenham', directed by Nigel Cole, is the sort of cheery, cheeky, working class comedy-drama that at one time came to typify commercially viable British cinema output: from the likes of 'The Full Monty' to 'Billy Elliott' to Cole's own 'Calender Girls'. These are "uplifting" and "heartwarming" films which aim for mass popularity, whilst retaining a degree of social consciousness, and this latest film is no different. Based on events which took place in 1968, 'Made in Dagenham' looks at the decision of female sewing machinists, at the Ford Motor Company's manufacturing plant in Dagenham, to go on strike and demand to be paid the same amount as their male counterparts. The event was apparently crucial in establishing the Equal Pay Act, which was finally passed into law in 1970.

Sally Hawkins stars as Rita, a likable and forthright worker who leads the ladies on a difficult journey that puts them at loggerheads with their employers, their union and even the British government. Joining Hawkins, in an ensemble cast comprised mostly of British actors, are Miranda Richardson, Bob Hoskins, Rosamund Pike, Jaimie Winstone, Kenneth Cranham, Rupert Graves and John Sessions. The trouble is that, almost without exception, they play their roles as broad caricatures. John Sessions is particularly sub-par, playing Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson as a shallow, comic parody that wouldn't be out of place of 'Stella Street'. Sessions works with the film's authors to undermine Wilson's role in history, suggesting he had limited involvement in the wide ranging social reforms that characterised his time in office.

Miranda Richardson is equally lacking in finesse as Secretary of State Barbara Castle who is presented to us here as a proud member of the sisterhood: a strong woman in a man's world, working among incompetents. She decides to back the women against Wilson's order (whilst he is out of the country) and in the face of the powerful (and very masculine) Ford Motor Company. I presume a difficult juggling act was required: an active and supportive Wilson would arguably have undermined the "sisters doing it for themselves" angle taken by the film. Perhaps as another consequence of this choice; trade unions are also vilified as a working class old boys network. The filmmakers have clearly carved a story out of history which best serves their desired narrative arc.

However, this "girl power" angle is undermined by the film, regardless of these choices, on account of Sally Hawkins' tearful hyperventilating whenever she gives a speech or stands up to authority. I loved Hawkins in 'Happy Go-Lucky' and rate her as an actress, but here she plays Rita as though she is about to burst into tears whenever things get confrontational which would seem to play into the stereotype (popular at the time) that women are irrational and prone to outbursts of uncontrollable emotion. She is as likable and charming as ever, but doesn't convince as the leader we are told she is. By contrast, the real women of the strike (shown in interviews during the end credits) seem to be made of sterner stuff.

A highpoint for me was the presence of American stage actor (and 'West Wing' alumni) Richard Schiff who completely steals the show in a limited supporting role. Not only is he far more intense, naturalistic and authentic than his co-stars, but he also takes a thankless role as "the big Ford guy" and prevents it from becoming two dimensional. When he makes his point to the unions, and later the UK government, that Ford simply can't afford to play female workers the same as men and that, if forced to, they will pull manufacturing out of the UK, he does so in a way which seems reasonable and motivated by a grasp of economics rather than a burning evil at his core (though there is a case to be made that they are one and the same thing). But, sadly, Schiff has stumbled into a film of dick jokes, thickly layered with images of generic 60's cliché: it's less 'Mad Men' and more 'Austin Powers' as Jaimie Winstone struts around the factory in her hotpants.

The thing is though: it somehow works. By the end of the film I was pulling for Hawkins and her friends and found myself having to resist the urge to pump a fist into the air as they overcame the odds. Despite the gloss and its shallow nature, 'Made in Dagenham' is somehow every bit as winsome and heartwarming as it sets out to be. Part of this is down to the film's liberal, socially spirited agenda. It is an overtly political film: a Capra-esque polemic about the little guy standing up against power. It is a film where the good guys quote Karl Marx and our sympathies lie with those taking industrial action. And I'm not about to argue with any of that.

'Made in Dagenham' is also, in spite of its bombast, optimistic conclusion, a sad film in many ways. The Ford man's foreshadowing of a time when industry will leave the UK and go abroad, where labour costs are cheaper, is of course a reference to the world we live in today. It may sound like so much hokum, but there is also a sense of working class solidarity and collective pride which no longer exists: especially in the pessimistic and socially regressive Britain of 2010.

Will Nigel Cole's movie inspire the little man to stand up for himself (or herself) again? Can it transcend the political apathy that is arguably a root cause of our contemporary malaise? Or, paraphrasing the less florid words of Oliver Stone, will it do "a spittle's worth of good"? Better films than this have tried. But it would be churlish of me to deny that I had anything other than a good time watching 'Made in Dagenham', in spite of its many flaws.

'Made in Dagenham' has been out on general release in the UK for a few weeks and is still playing. The film has been rated '15' by the BBFC.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

When in Romuva: An interview with Kaunas International Film Festival Director Ilona Jurkonyte

This week I spent a couple of days visiting the Kaunas International Film Festival, held in a Forum Cinema multiplex at the heart of Lithuania's second city. Only in its fourth year, the event is already gaining steam and able to boast some interesting guests. This year's event is playing host to the venerated Hungarian auteur Béla Tarr - who is coming to talk about his work whilst the festival celebrates his career with a retrospective. I was curious to know how the relatively small town of Kaunas, in an unfashionable corner of Europe, was able to attract such a guest - not to mention put on such an interesting and diverse programme which this year includes international festival hits: such as Thai Palm D'Or winner 'Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives'.

I asked the Festival's Director and founder Ilona Jurkonyte about welcoming Béla Tarr to the festival, and she was unsurprisingly enthusiastic when quoting for me a national film critic, who said: "If someone were to ask what were the two most important moments in Lithuania this year it would be the basketball bronze in Turkey and the Béla Tarr visit in Kaunas." To punctuate the significance of this declaration Ilona says to me: "you should have seen what was happening here after the basketball!" But how exactly did they pull it off? Well, strong links with organisations in the Hungarian film industry (such as the Hungarian Institute in neighbouring Estonia) have helped, but the connection goes a little deeper: "We started our festival with a Hungarian movie in 2007, and now these institutions are happy with what we've done... this is why they've helped us get such a guest as Béla Tarr."

Ilona's considerable coup in attracting such a prestigious guest is made all the more extraordinary for happening in a former Soviet country with few remaining cinema screens and little local film industry. It hasn't been an easy task establishing the annual event and she explained how it was founded as part of an ongoing local battle to save the country's oldest cinema, Kaunas' own beautiful 1930s-built Romuva, from being turned into a casino. I interviewed her the evening she had won an important victory in securing the venue's long term future - and the next day was privileged to be able to undertake a tour of the building itself (along with Splendor co-host Jon Barrenechea, pictured with Ilona inside Romuva below). It seems it is hard to talk about the KIFF without talking also about Romuva.

"We started this festival, with friends, because of cinemas. Cinemas were being closed all over Lithuania. Different countries, at different times, had this wave of closing cinemas, but in Lithuania it happened after breakthrough." "Breakthrough" is what Lithuanians call the moment they declared Independence from the Soviet Union on March 11, 1990 (becoming the first nation to do so). Until breakthrough Lithuania's cinemas had been protected by state ownership and a Russian belief in the importance of the art form as an ideological weapon. But since independence the cinemas were in decline and, according to Ilona, "nobody was taking any notice." It was almost a decade ago that Ilona and her friends "decided to take an active position in this... we started this festival to draw attention from people all over Lithuania to the oldest cinema – Romuva."

Festival directors can be tricky people to interview. I tried to pin down Tony Jones whilst visiting his festival in Cambridge last month, but the job requires so much diplomacy (and many years spent building up relationships with distributors) that they are often understandably reluctant to speak candidly on the record. Ilona is no different, and it is clear whilst talking with her that a few of the subjects of our conversation are not really for public consumption. But she is friendly, polite and passionate about the event which, this year, is three times the size of its 2009 incarnation. And she has every reason to be proud. Just a couple of years ago the situation was a lot bleaker than it is now.

Ilona explains: "There were no screens. There were no Lithuanian films on screens. Lithuanians could not see them at all because the multiplexes did not think they'd be popular. There were no film critics. We'd get, from time to time, these meaningless press releases about a Lithuanian film playing in another festival, but we wouldn't have a chance to see it here." Yet now the KIFF is closer than ever to rescuing a small independent cinema and is screening a Lithuanian feature, 'Eastern Drift' (pictured below), as well as a number of short documentaries and animations. They are also beginning to capture the attention of national press - which is no mean feat outside of the country's capital, Vilnius.

It isn't just press interest that Ilona is keen to encourage, however. She has also been targeting local government, which has been another uphill struggle - but one she appears to be winning: "The first year was hard because nobody knew what we were talking about. I had to go around the town and tell people about the need for audio visual literacy, and it was incredible because politicians knew nothing about cinema: to them it was just Hollywood blockbusters. We invited them, but they wouldn't come very often. But slowly, every year, we get more interest." It has also been difficult to gain the attention of the local community, but Ilona insists "Kaunas is not easy to start moving: but once it falls in love, it falls in love totally. We hope to be an apprectiated event because we really take pride in what we do, so we hope we infect more people!"

However, there is no danger that Ilona will compromise her vision for the sake of easy popularity: "We are not very careful about making our programme amusing and funny, and one year a journalist said “you show so many tough films, will you make your programme funnier next year?” but we've given up on catering for this! So now our slogan this year is “we don't show special effects, we create them” [poster below]. We know we have a pretty tough programme, but we say “take it or leave it”. If it's not for you, it's not for you. But more and more people are joining! Maybe people are a bit tired of this candy look and approach and some people are looking for something real... I also think many people have this demand, but they don't realise it yet!"

So what does the future hold for the KIFF? Ilona is realistic, saying that "a film festival in such a small country as Lithuania is very hard to have such big ambitions". Yet the ambitions she does have are not too modest. As well as saving, renovating and eventually reopening Romuva, Ilona has some noble socially spirited goals: "we would like to create an atmosphere of audio visual literacy in the town. We'd like to have representatives of every film, lots of good seminars and discussions." Ilona places a real emphasis on educating people about the role film can play: culturally and socially. In fact, last year's slogan was appropriately enough “sometimes you have to go into darkness to see the light.” It appears that Ilona and her hard working team are moving in the right direction. "Lithuanian national film history is not yet written" she says. I for one wouldn't rule Ilona Jurkonyte's involvement when that day finally comes.

The 4th Kaunas International Film Festival is continuing in Kaunas until the 10th of October, before moving to Vilnius from the 11th to the 17th. Béla Tarr is attending from the 8th until the 11th.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Where I've been this last week + Flick's Flicks October

I've not updated here in almost a week, probably the longest the site has gone without any "content" since it started back in January this year. So I wanted to post this as a stop gap to provide my excuses.

Basically, since my last post I've been busily writing programme copy for the upcoming CineCity Film Festival. Then I attended one of Europe's youngest and most obscure festivals: Lithuania's Kaunas International Film Festival. I returned to England from that yesterday and today was occupied with interviewing Oliver Stone in London (for 'Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps') before watching 'Made in Dagenham'. Then tonight I worked the bar at the Duke of York's - returning to my day job.

October's edition of Flick's Flicks is up too. I am still hosting the show whilst regular host, Felicity Ventom, is on maternity leave - and I look set to continue into until the new year, which means I'll be recording two more episodes. Here is the latest:

Check back soon for reviews of Palm D'Or winner 'Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives' and Brit movie 'Made in Dagenham', as well as a interviews with Oliver Stone and Ilona Jurkonytė: the director of the Kaunas International Film Festival.