London Film Festival debrief, 2013

So, I saw five films this year. Some quick notes:

Story of my Death [Història de la meva mort].

The LFF said:

Albert Serra’s teasing period-piece sees Casanova and Dracula meeting as Enlightenment reason gives way to the dangerous passions of the Romantic era.

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Which sounded like it might be fun, if perhaps a bit silly. Maybe a trifle camp. In fact it was surprisingly boring.

I like the fact that artier films can allow themselves to be a bit slow-paced, and a use longer takes and longer shots: if nothing else it makes a change from the freneticness of commercial cinema. But allowing yourself to be leisurely, and give the characters room to breathe, doesn’t mean that every scene has to be like that, that every shot has to carry on for several seconds longer than necessary. And if you are going to make a film like that, and it ends up being nearly two and a half hours long, it starts to feel a little bit self-indulgent.

The director said in the Q&A afterwards that he’d never seen any genre films because he wasn’t interested in them, which explained why his handling of the Dracula scenes was so artless; artless mainly in a bad way.

On the positive side: it often looked good, and among the completely amateur Catalan cast, Casanova in particular was excellent.

Portrait of Jason

The LFF said:

Shirley Clarke’s cinéma-vérité masterpiece about a gay African-American cabaret performer and prostitute revealingly restored.

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This is a black and white documentary from 1967; Jason Holliday is interviewed in his apartment about his life as a house boy, prostitute, hustler and would-be cabaret performer as he gets steadily drunk and stoned. He is the only person we see; he replies to questions from off-camera and spins yarns which may or may not be strictly true. It’s very rough-looking; the restorer spent years looking for a good quality print before finding that what was marked as out-takes in the archive was in fact the edited film, which is complete with conversations between the director and the cameraman, moments when the screen goes black, shots out of focus and so on. But apparently there are pages and pages of editing notes to prove that this is a very carefully crafted version of roughness.

I enjoyed it, Jason is a fascinating, charming and rather tragic figure, and the style is interesting too.

My Fathers, My Mother and Me

Paul-Julien Robert’s quietly devastating documentary revisits the former residents of the experimental 1970s free-love commune in which he grew up.

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Paul-Julien Robert didn’t know who his biological father was until he was 12, in 1991, when the Friedrichshof commune was dissolved and as part of the fall-out the various children were given blood tests to determine paternity. In this documentary, he talks to his mother, to the various men who were potential fathers, and to the other children who lived there with him. It is fascinating stuff, especially because the leader of the commune, Otto Muehl, was obsessed with documenting the life there, so the interviews are intercut with lots and lots of footage of the commune in action.

It starts out seeming fun and quirky; slightly bonkers, but free-spirited, well-meaning and optimistic as well. But it gets steadily darker, as it gradually becomes clear that a free-love commune built on the eradication of the nuclear family is not in fact a great environment for raising children. Not, at least, if it is being run by a controlling egomaniac.

It’s fascinating on all sorts of levels, not least the disconnect between the adults’ experience of the commune and the children’s. Apparently it was only really when making the film that he felt able to talk openly about his childhood, and there are some particularly painful conversations with his mother.

Grigris

A Chadian street photographer’s romantic interest in a would-be model lands him in a murky criminal underworld in this smart thriller.

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To be pedantic about it, he’s not actually a ‘street photographer’ as I would understand it; he’s not taking candid shots of urban life. He takes photos for ID cards and the like. He’s also a nightclub dancer with a withered leg.

The thriller-y bits could have been edited a bit more snappily, perhaps, but basically I enjoyed this. It usually looks good, it has plenty of plot, which is sometimes a bit lacking at the kind of films I tend to go to at the festival, and the central performances are good. And a pretty girl and some good dance sequences.

The Eternal Return of Antonis Paraskevas [Η Αιώνια Επιστροφή Του Αντώνη Παρασκευά]

A dark satire on current Greek woes that sees a failing TV personality stage his own kidnapping, only to start to unravel as he holds himself hostage.

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This is an almost silent film. Paraskevas is holed up in an empty hotel alone while the world thinks he has been kidnapped, and for most of the film the only dialogue is from the TV news and videos he is watching. He is already perhaps a little unstable to have thought this was a good idea, but the solitude pushes him further over the edge and the initially comic tone turns darker.

It’s genuinely funny in the funny bits, and the turn to the dark works as well. There are perhaps a couple of mis-steps along the way, but generally I really liked it. Christos Stergioglou is great in the central role; there’s an almost Buster Keaton quality to the way he manages to be silently expressive with a mournful and impassive face.

London Film Festival 2012, personal roundup

I do enjoy the LFF: interesting films, cinemas full of largely well-behaved audiences, and no ads or trailers. I went to five films this year, this is what I thought of them. Obviously.

Reality

An Italian film about a Naples fishmonger and petty criminal who becomes dangerously obsessed with appearing on the reality show Big Brother (or, strictly speaking, Grande Fratello). It’s funny and odd and well acted, and it looks terrific, with Naples providing a backdrop of decayed grandeur. I wasn’t completely convinced by the ending, but overall I thought it was really good.

Helter Skelter

A film about a hugely popular model with a dark secret: her looks are entirely produced by a radical, dangerous form of plastic surgery. On one level it’s a satire, but it does the classic exploitation movie thing of supposedly decrying our cultural obsession with youth and beauty while the camera lingers lasciviously on the face and body of the star.

The messaging is clunkingly heavy handed, and it’s stylistically and tonally very uneven, but it was good salacious fun. Personally I think it needed to be even more unapologetically salacious and exploitative; you could surely cut half an hour of the more ponderous stuff to give a tighter focus on the sex, violence and body horror.

Tey [‘Today’]

A Senegalese film about a man who, for reasons which are never explained, knows that he is going to die at the end of the day. Someone has seen it in a vision or something, and it’s somehow an honour, but it’s never made clear: all we know is that he’s not going to wake up the next morning. I don’t know whether this is a cultural trope that a Senegalese audience would find familiar, or if it’s intended to be as strange as it seems to me.

The film is then about what he decides to do with his last day; some of it mundane, some parts more profound, and all of it freighted with extra significance. Odd but quite effective.

Midnight’s Children

The film of what must be Salman Rushdie’s most popular novel, if not his most famous (somehow I don’t think that one is going to be made into a film any time soon).

It started off well, but lost me along the way. It’s a big fat complicated novel that takes place over multiple generations, and the film failed to hold it all together. It didn’t help that for much of the film, a lot of the heavy lifting is being done by child actors. And because the lives of these children, born at the moment of Indian independence, are supposed to parallel modern Indian history, we get that history explained to us with big dollops of expository voiceover.

Overall, though, it just seemed a bit one-paced. And considering the richness of the original novel and the fireworks of Rushdie’s prose, it was just a bit tame and conventional. Perhaps it was a mistake for Rushdie to write the script himself, or perhaps it needed a different director.

Village at the End of the World

An Anglo-Danish documentary about a village in Greenland. It’s a brutal environment, and life is marginal at the best of times, but also they are dealing with the closure of the small fish-processing plant that was their main source of income, and global warming is making the ice treacherous for hunting in winter.

It’s funnier and warmer than that makes it sound, mainly because they found some great characters. And it helps that it just looks amazing: bleak but beautiful, glowing in the summer, and of course completely dark in winter, with just the windows lit up against in the night.

It’s partially an environmental documentary, and partially a film about tensions between tradition and modernity, and a record of a life that will no doubt be very different, again, in a few years time. But above all it’s beautifully made and enjoyable to watch.

The Artist

I’m just back from seeing The Artist. I was keen it see it just because the idea of someone making a modern silent movie was a fascinating one. In the end, though, it’s not modern, it’s just new.

Because it’s a generally light-hearted film about the early days of Hollywood, in a lovingly recreated pastiche of the style of those films,* there’s an obvious logic to it being a silent movie which means there’s no challenge for the audience to overcome. It’s still impressive how successful it is — there’s a real pleasure in it just as a technical exercise, but it’s also a genuinely entertaining film — even so, in the end it feels like a brilliant jeu d’esprit rather than anything more profoundly boundary-pushing.

I don’t want to sound too churlish about it. The film is what it is, and on its own terms it’s very successful. But it would have been even more interesting if it was a silent film that was full colour, widescreen and in a contemporary setting. That would be a genuine exploration of the artistic possibilities of silent cinema in an age of sound.

*Although to be strictly accurate, a lot of the time it evokes black-and-white talkies rather than silent films. But it’s all part of the same nostalgia for old movies.

London Film Festival: Target and Tahrir 2011

The last two films I went to see at the LFF were Target, a Russian film directed by Alexander Zeldovich, and a documentary abou the recent Egyptian revolution called Tahrir 2011: The Good, the Bad, and the Politician.

They don’t have distribution for Target in the UK at least, so I don’t know how likely you are to get to see it, but if you’re the kind of person who cares about such things I should warn now: SPOILERS.

Target is science fiction, from the philosophical end of that genre rather than the lasers and bug eyed monsters end. It’s set in a near future which is described in the LFF catalogue as ‘dystopian’, although I’m not sure that’s quite right: it’s quite hard to tell exactly what kind of society they live in, because the focus is quite narrowly on a group of wealthy Muscovites. There’s some sign of serious wealth inequalities, government corruption and a trashy media culture; but by those standards, Russia is probably a dystopia already. There are also hints of some kind of odd, bureaucratic, government enforced social hierarchy, but it’s never really explained in detail.

The film centres around a group of people who go out to a site way out in the Russian steppes to have a treatment which is supposed to be rejuvenating; it becomes apparent that the treatment actually stops ageing altogether, but it also makes them slightly mad: full of energy but manic and impulsive. Most of them self-destruct, including two who die and two who have to flee the consequences of their actions.

There were things to like about the film: it often looks great, for a start. One of the characters works as customs on a massive 12-lane motorway packed with heavy goods vehicles travelling between Europe and China, which looks spectacular on screen. And the landscape out on the wilds were they get the treatment looks amazing too, especially in the final shot of the film which is stitched together out of three separate shots, the first of which is, they think, the longest single tracking shot in cinema history. And there are some nice set pieces, including scenes of a trashy celebrity cooking show, manically presented by one of the main characters.

And I rather liked the fact that the film had unlikeable characters and a shortage of happy endings. Although that fact is only noteworthy because the bulk of commercial cinema is quite so incredibly conventional and limited.

But in the end 2½ hours was too long. It almost always is, really; at least at the theatre you get an interval so you can stretch your legs and relieve your bladder. Not that it was a slow film — it’s not 150 minutes of meaningful silences, thank God — there was just a lot of material. Too many subplots. And so by the end I was losing concentration and finding my stiff buttocks increasingly distracting.

Tahrir 2011 is actually three documentaries made by different people and stitched together — hence The Good, The Bad, and the Politician. The first of them, ‘The Good’, is a fairly nuts and bolts telling of what happened in Tahrir Square this spring, which combined interviews with people who took part and lots of footage filmed at the protests. It’s a fairly conventional documentary, but the events were so amazing that it is riveting to watch. Fascinating and moving.

‘The Bad’ is made up of interviews with members of the police and security services, asking for their account of what happened. Potentially that’s a fascinating subject, but it’s less successful than it could be because they obviously found it very difficult to find anyone willing to talk to them — some of the interviews are conducted in silhouette — and the interviewees are obviously very conscious of finding themselves on the wrong side of history, so they are understandably cagey and defensive.

‘The Politician’ is a portrayal of Hosni Mubarak, framed as an attempt to find out how someone who came to power as a liberal, reforming figure ended up as a dictator. It attempts to present it in a fairly tongue-in-cheek, jokey way, broken into a list of ten items with little animated inserts between them, like a Channel 4 list program. But it doesn’t really come off, and by the end I was falling asleep.

» The photo ميدان التحرير يوم الجمعه ٢٩-٧-٢٠١١ is some rights reserved by أحمد عبد الفتاح Ahmed Abd El-fatah.

The Monk

More from the London Film Festival. Le Moine is a film of the 1796 gothic novel The Monk by Matthew Lewis. It’s a long time since I read the book, but I remembered that it was an overblown, melodramatic, sensational novel, so naturally I was keen to see a film version of it.

It lived up to the melodramatic tone of the book, anyway, although it didn’t really try to be shocking by modern standards; they could easily have incorporated a lot more graphic sex and violence if they wanted to, especially since they were messing around with the plot anyway.*

It reminded me of Black Swan, actually: a fundamentally silly paper-thin melodrama masquerading as an art film. It even has Vincent Cassel. It’s set in [early C17th?] Spain, and it looks beautiful, with lots of medieval buildings, arid Spanish landscapes, winding back alleys, and even some gorgeous frocks. Plus an amazing scene of a religious procession through the streets of the town. And the broody Cassel holds the film together as the monk. But no amount of intense acting and beautiful camerawork can disguise the basic ludicrousness of the plot.

Now personally I enjoyed Black Swan, although I know a lot of people hated it, and I enjoyed The Monk. But I think in both cases you need to go in with appropriate expectations: I think a few people went into Black Swan expecting a serious psychological thriller and were irritated to find themselves watching an expensively made horror movie. Whereas I went in expecting it to be a piece of high camp, because I had seen the trailer, and I enjoyed it for what it was. And I enjoyed The Monk on the same terms.

* something I didn’t realise while watching the film — I don’t remember the book well enough for that — but while checking the novel’s synopsis on Wikipedia. I don’t think it’s the kind of book that invites reverential treatment, though.

On The Ice, London Film Festival

The London Film Festival is going on at the moment, and I went to see the first of the four films I’ve booked, which was On The Ice, set in Barrow, an Alaskan town which is the most northerly in the US. It focuses on a pair of Inuit teenagers, and in some ways it’s your classic conflict-between-tradition-and-modernity setup. The film equivalent of a lot of the books I’ve been reading for the Read The World challenge. So they’re living in a world of drugs and hip hop, but also seal hunting and whaling.

The plot revolves around a drunken fight which gets out of hand, and the unfolding consequences. And generally I thought it was very effective. There was a moment in the middle when I thought it was in danger of losing its way, but it pulled itself together and finished strongly.

There’s a particular appeal to these kind of films, made on a microscopic budget with no real prospect of making any money. Not that I have anything against commercial cinema; on the contrary, I tend to think that when an art form ceases to have a real popular following, it dies as an art and becomes a heritage activity, like calligraphy, or hand-weaving, or jazz. Nothing wrong with those things, but their golden ages are behind us.

But still, it seems like there’s a kind of clarity of purpose when a film isn’t even trying to be commercial. It can just focus very straightforwardly on the characters and the story. And while the lack of budget presumably brings its own set of compromises, at least it helps keep the director from being distracted by all the bells and whistles.

Anyway, it’s a good movie, worth checking out if you get the chance.

Afghan Star

Just a quick mention for this documentary, which I’ve owned on DVD for ages but only just got round to watching. It follows season three of Afghan Star, an American Idol type show in Afghanistan. It’s a brilliant idea for a documentary, because the glitz and bombast of those talent shows seem like the very epitome of a certain kind of western consumer culture. And in many ways it seems like the very worst of our culture: vulgar, shallow, manipulative and at least partially fake.

But in a country where quite recently music and television were banned by the Taliban, where people were killed for owning a television, putting on a music talent show — one where women compete against men! — suddenly becomes a powerful thing to do. And its not often that light entertainment gets to take a heroic role, but actually in a country oppressed by dry, moralistic theocrats, I think it is heroic to assert the value of lightness, of entertainment. And it may be the newly democratic Afghanistan, but it’s still the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, and there are still plenty of angry, bearded, conservative men in positions of power, and those Taliban are still out there, and they still have guns and bombs. These people are risking their lives to bring people joy.

And yet, despite all the enthusiastic comments from people about the new freedom the show represents, when one of the female contestants does a little bit of very tame dancing on stage while singing, nearly everyone is genuinely and visibly shocked. Not just the beardy imams, but the other young contestants. The whole thing is fascinating on all kinds of levels.

And I watched it directly after watching some of the current British incarnation, X Factor, and it was intriguing to see something with many of the clichés of those shows — the embarrassingly bad early auditions, the queues of people waiting to audition, the dramatic pauses as they announce the results — but put together by people who are inventing a TV industry from scratch and have almost no budget. Although if you visit the show’s website and see some of the more recent videos, the whole outfit now looks a lot more slick.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams 3D

This is the Werner Herzog documentary about the Chauvet cave paintings in France. It was definitely worth seeing, but mainly, I think, for the incredible paintings themselves, rather than anything Werner Herzog brought to the project.

It is probably the best use of 3D I’ve seen, because although I’ve seen photos of the paintings at Chauvet and Lascaux, the photos tend to flatten out the image; you get very little sense of the highly irregular shape of the cave walls and the way that the paintings are shaped around the contours of the rock. The 3D film really did make all the difference and was very effective.

Which is an unusual view for me, because I basically think that 3D is a rubbish technology. In most circumstances it’s little more than a gimmick, and it seems to be technically rather bad anyway: I find that it looks unnatural and exaggerated, it’s often slightly shimmery or glitchy, it doesn’t work properly if you tilt your head to one side, and it tends to give me a headache. I don’t know if the problem is that I’m wearing prescription glasses under the 3D ones, but that seems to be a lot of downside for very little upside.

Even in this film, I think it would have been better to save the 3D for the places where it really mattered — i.e. looking at the cave paintings. An interview with a paleontologist sitting in an office does NOT need to be in 3D, thank you very much.

And even in the scenes inside the cave, it became clear that some of the film had not been filmed in 3D, but faked up as 3D in post-production. This was particularly egregious in a scene where two scientists were standing in front of a cave painting and talking about it, and something looked very weird; I suddenly realised that when they had faked the 3D, they had cut out the two figures rather carelessly and cut out a big chuck of the surrounding wall as well; so there was a big blob of cave wall which was in completely the wrong visual plane, floating in front of the wall around it.

Such technical gripes aside, the paintings were beautiful and fascinating. And there were all sorts of snippets of fascinating information, like the great scratches on the walls which had been left by cave bears sharpening their claws. Or the two stags painted on top of each other which carbon dating revealed were painted 5000 years apart. I mean, really, 5000 years! What does it mean that there was such staggering cultural continuity?

I was also interested that there was no sign of human habitation in the cave; presumably they used it as a ritual site, or something. It’s all guesswork, of course. There also no humans among the paintings, apart from one image apparently of a woman’s pubic triangle and legs, similar to the famous ‘Venus’ figurines. And no pictures of birds, incidentally; it’s all big game: cave bears, cave lions, horses, antelope, woolly rhino, mammoth, hyena, aurochs.

Of course we have so little of their lives to draw on, so what does survive gains enormous, inflated importance. The paintings are the most vivid connection we have to those people 35,000 years ago, and so we can’t help having them as central to our idea of their lives; but we don’t know whether they were similarly important to the people who painted them. The film did show a few objects found at other sites of the same period that provide a few hints at a broader life; Venus figurines, animal carvings, and most extraordinarily a flute which had been meticulously reconstructed from over 30 tiny fragments of ivory. But mainly we are left with a lot of stone tools and the cave paintings. Anything made of wood, or gut, or hide is long gone, let alone the stories they told, the music they played, the food they cooked.

Black Swan

I have been looking forward to seeing Black Swan for months; I don’t think I’ve ever been so certain I wanted to see something based solely on the trailer. If I’m sure I want to see a film, I try not to read any reviews beforehand, and it was getting difficult to avoid encountering people’s reactions, so I went to see it yesterday.

I think it might be the campest movie ever made. It’s not just the themes — it’s a film about ballet, and mummy issues, and suffering for your art, and the grubby reality behind the glamorous surface, and jealousy and fear of ageing — it’s the fact that it is a trashy melodrama acted and filmed as though it was the Most Serious Thing In The World. It is played absolutely straight, as high drama; I don’t think there’s a single joke in the whole film. Natalie Portman acts the central role with a high-strung intensity that actors normally reserve for films about genocide. It’s a great performance.

I assume that everyone involved knew exactly what they were doing, but because there is never a knowing wink to the audience, the bizarre possibility is just about left open that they really meant it. That they really thought they were making a serious, penetrating psychological drama.

Either way, it is completely bonkers. In the end, as it reached a feverish climax, it didn’t quite take me with it, it didn’t quite pull it off, but I still enjoyed it. It was the perfect antidote to The King’s Speech.

The King’s Speech

I can’t say I was excited by the prospect of seeing The King’s Speech, because I think the British film and TV industry is usually at its least interesting when making middlebrow costume dramas about posh people in country houses.

The genre seems to have a completely unearned prestige which serves as a substitute for things like originality and ideas. And all Britain’s favourite thesps get to stick on some facial hair and a frock coat — or a stiff gown, as appropriate — and do a slightly hammy turn, and everyone oohs and aahs at the costumes and the locations, and it’s all very cosy and boring.

But everyone has been raving about this film, and when someone suggested a trip to see it I thought I might as well. And generally speaking I think it was a good movie. Even a very good one. The prince who has to have speech therapy is a good hook to hang a film on, the script is  often clever and funny and only occasionally resorts to heavy handed historical exposition, and Colin Firth’s performance is excellent, as are most of the supporting cast — although I wasn’t as impressed as some people by Geoffrey Rush as the speech therapist Lionel Logue. And I thought it looked great; I particularly enjoyed the rooms full of old fashioned radio equipment with giant microphones and big dials.

On the other hand it felt like a very basic, meat and potatoes piece of story-telling. It does have a good story to tell, and that is half the battle, but it takes you through it in a very predictable, unadventurous way. And it did feel too emotionally manipulative sometimes. Film is an emotionally manipulative medium anyway; in some ways that is one of its strengths. And this is a thoroughly mainstream film, and I don’t demand that it should be abrasively intellectual and spare and minimalist… but sometimes when the swelling background music was a bit too obvious at telling me what to feel, or when some scene had been too obviously crafted to ram home some message or other, I started to get a bit irritated.

Perhaps the problem is that Colin Firth’s character is just too sympathetic. The whole film is structured around poor prince Bertie and his terrible burdens, and there’s never a hint that he has a nasty or selfish bone in his body. He may have been a good man with a profound sense of duty, but presumably he wasn’t actually a saint.

Anyway, I did basically enjoy it and do basically recommend it. With a few reservations.

Books [and films] of the year 2010

I’ll keep this brief, because if you want to know what I thought of them you can read what I said at the time, but glancing back over the books I read in the past year, I would pick out these five as ones which, for whatever reason, stand out in my memory:

Cities of Salt by Abdelrahman Munif
Gomorrah by Roberto Saviano
The Fortunes of Wangrin by Amadou Hampaté Bâ
The Big Death: Solomon Islanders Remember World War II
The Bleeding of the Stone by Ibrahim Al-Koni

The first two in particular are books I would strongly recommend if you’re looking for something to read.

And while I’m here, some film recommendations, some of which may be a little difficult to get hold of, but hey-ho:

Draquila — Italy Trembles
[which serves as quite a good companion piece to Gomorrah, incidentally]
The First Movie
Skeletons
A Prophet

EDIT: oops, almost forgot:
Four Lions

The London Film Festival

I went to the last of three films I had booked at the London Film Festival yesterday (notes on which at the end of the post). The LFF, for those who don’t know, is the antithesis of a festival like Cannes: instead of being a big jamboree for people in the film business and the media, it is aimed squarely at the public. Basically, it’s a lot of films being shown at a selection of London cinemas.

And it is a LOT of films; 197 features and 112 shorts this year, apparently. All kinds of films: new British films, world cinema, restored classics, documentaries, gala screenings of big forthcoming releases to provide a bit of glamour. Which is great, but what usually happens is that I think ooh, the film festival, I should book some tickets and then I forget to do it.

But this year, I remembered. My instinct was to look for the stuff which was unlikely to get a wide release, so I went to some fairly obscure films, and I found it interesting how full the cinemas were. You might think that showing nearly 200 different films in a fortnight would spread the audience a bit thin. After all, there are cinemas in London that show less commercial films all year round, and I reckon that normally on a Friday afternoon, a Kyrgyz movie would play to largely empty seats; but they had sold out a medium-sized cinema. I guess it’s similar to the way that in a big city, you often find a place where a whole load of, say, shoe shops are clustered together; the value of being somewhere where people go for shoes outweighs the disadvantage of the extra competition.

Anyway, the films; the first was The Light Thief. The ‘light thief’ is an electrician in a village in Kyrgyzstan who we start at the start if the film stealing electricity for villagers who can’t afford it. Without wanting to provide too many spoilers — what is the spoiler etiquette for a film I don’t actually think any of my readers are likely to see? — he gets caught up in village politics. And the film strongly implies that it is an allegory for the wider political situation in Kyrgyzstan, although that’s only an informed guess, given how little I know about the country.

The film looks beautiful; the dusty, windblown, mountainous central Asian landscape looks amazing in it. And there are some very nice embroidered felt hats and wall hangings and things. And it is funny and touching. So that’s a thumbs up.

Winter Vacation is a Chinese film about a group of youths killing time while waiting for their winter vacation to end in some battered, grimy, anonymous Chinese city. It’s well shot, and it has some genuinely funny dialogue, but it was a tiny bit soporific because it communicates the characters’ boredom and disaffection via the medium of long pauses:

Cut to shot of three people standing in the snow, looking at each other. Nobody speaks for a couple of seconds. Someone says something. Pause for another couple of seconds. Someone else replies. Pause again.

Which is quite effective, but it carries on like that for every scene in the whole movie, and it does wear a bit thin after a while. Slow is one thing, but actual stasis tests my patience. Still, there was a lot good about it, and it was listed in the ‘experimental/avant garde/artists’ films’ section, so I knew it might be hard work.

And finally I saw Draquila – Italy Trembles, which is a polemical documentary about Silvio Berlusconi’s handling of the aftermath of the earthquake in L’Aquila in 2009. I would strongly recommend you see this film if it comes to a cinema near you. It is funny and ferocious, and it paints a picture of a completely  acquiescent, neutered Italian media, largely owned by Berlusconi, of an increasingly authoritarian government abusing the law to run roughshod over normal legal processes and rights, and massive, widespread corruption linked to the mafia. It’s not just a damning portrait of Berlusconi and Italy; what I found scary is that it provides a real sense of how a modern democratic country like Italy could slide towards fascism.

I should be clear about that: I’m not saying that Berlusconi’s government is fascist, or is likely to become so. But it does provide a sense of the slippage of normality. Already there is the confluence of government with crony capitalism and (I guess I should say: allegedly) organised crime; there is the eroding of civil liberties, the declaration of states of emergency as a way of bypassing the law, the increasing militarisation of the response to normal events. It is scary stuff.

The First Movie

Just a little plug for The First Movie, which I went to see on Friday. It’s a documentary by Mark Cousins; he visits a Kurdish village which is remote enough that none of the children have ever been to the movies, and puts on a showing of a selection of films in a makeshift outdoor cinema; then he gives the children little digital movie cameras and waits to see what footage they bring back.

It’s a film which looks beautiful and is in turns funny and moving, with a narration provided by Cousins in a very attractive Belfast accent. As I was watching it, I was thinking that, by comparison, nearly everything you see in the cinema has incredibly little faith in the audience’s intelligence or attention. Not that this is some kind of ultra-difficult film, but it’s not afraid to be poetic, to talk about aesthetic issues, to be slow, to hold shots for a long time and let the audience look at them. I really thought it was excellent.

During October it’s on a tour of independent cinemas around the UK. I happened to see the first of these showings because it was at my local cinema. So if you’re in the UK and happen to live near the kind of cinema that might show arty documentaries, check the showing dates and give it a go. And if you’re not in the UK… I don’t know, it might appear at a film festival? Or on Netflix in due course? Well worth a look.

Skeletons

I went to see Skeletons, directed by Nick Whitfield. The IMDB blurb says ‘two exorcists literally remove the skeletons from the cupboards from people’s homes’, which is a particularly daft thing to say since there are no literal skeletons involved — though there are some literal closets. And ‘exorcists’ isn’t quite accurate either, but it gives you the general idea: there is something spooky going on.

It’s darkly comic, moving, understated. It’s hard to know what to compare it to: some people have suggested Withnail and I; I found myself being reminded a bit of Delicatessen. I’m not sure it’s an instant classic, but it’s definitely worth seeing. Any film which is thoughtful and shows real originality has to be worth a plug, especially perhaps a small British film.

Because it is a low-budget film, it’s currently on a limited release in the UK, so catch it while you can. Or if you’re in some other country where it may not get a release, watch out for the DVD.

Kick-Ass

So I went to see Kick-Ass, the generally well-reviewed superhero film. And I enjoyed it, it’s a clever, well-made film. But it did remind me of a quote I posted to Salmagundi the other day:

‘And then I realised that Watchmen was in no way extraordinary but perfectly symptomatic: we are, after all, living through an age in which the fabulous ingenuity of craft is being lavished upon the realisation of a pathologically adolescent imagination.’

You can read the whole of that article (from the games magazine Edge) here.

I don’t know. I actually do think that cinema is often at its best in a populist mode, and I’m quite sure it’s possible to make a superhero movie that transcends the genre, just as it’s possible to make a western that transcends that genre. But I’m not entirely thrilled to be living in the Age Of The Superhero Movie, somehow. Hell, at least SF usually attempts to create a whole new world: superhero movies, set in a contemporary setting, is a form of imaginative fiction that seems strong on wish fulfilment and weak on real imagination.

Having said all that, if you fancy an entertaining evening at the cinema, you could certainly do worse than Kick-Ass. I enjoyed it. I’m just being grumpy.

Un prophète

I went to see Un prophète today, which is, as you can see below, un film de Jacques Audiard. Though obviously I saw the subtitled version.

It’s a gangster/prison drama about a young French Arab, played by Tahar Rahim, who arrives in prison at the start of the film and is immediately approached by a Corsican gang who threaten him and offer him protection in return for killing someone.

The film starts with Malik arriving in prison — we learn almost nothing of his life beforehand — and ends when he leaves, so it’s set in a very grey, constrained, claustrophobic world, and visually it’s mainly a kind of gritty realism. It’s rather Wire-esque, both in that visual style and in the attention to the procedural and mechanical details of prison life.

I thought it was a very good film. It works as a gangster movie — perhaps slightly slower-paced than you might expect from most American movies in the same genre, but none the worse for that. But it’s a gangster movie with an underlying serious-mindedness and darkness, and with other themes running through it, most obviously the French muslim immigrant experience, that give it a bit of heft. And it has a very good, understated central performance by Tahar Rahim.

The Wah-Wah Diaries by Richard E. Grant

This is Grant’s account of making Wah-Wah, his first film as director. Grant grew up in Swaziland and the film is about growing up there, so I read it as my book from Swaziland for the Read The World challenge.

For me, the book is mainly interesting for its portrayal of film-making, which is fascinating but sounds very very stressful: complicated, expensive, highly time-sensitive, and requiring the juggling of dozens of cast and crew, all of whom have other work commitments.

The film was a French co-production, for the sake of getting the right funding and tax breaks; and Grant had an exceptionally bad relationship with his French producer, who comes across in the book as startlingly incompetent and badly-suited to her job. In fact I suspect her first reaction on reading it was probably to call her lawyer.

It was slightly odd to be reading a making-of book for a film I haven’t seen, but it was an engaging read. I’ll keep an eye out for the film.

(and by the way, is it me or does Julie Walters look really weird in the poster?)

Cabaret

I watched Cabaret again tonight. First thing: it really is a very good film, and if by some chance you haven’t seen it, hurry up and do so.

I was struck by how grown up it seems: it touches on serious subjects (Nazis! homosexuality! abortion!) but does so, mainly, in a stylishly, darkly humorous way. It made me wonder when I last saw a new movie which didn’t talk down to its audience.

It also made me want to read some Christopher Isherwood.

In The Mood For Love

I watched In The Mood For Love on DVD yesterday. It’s an absolutely gorgeous movie, set in Hong Kong in the 60s. One of the cover blurbs says it’s ‘like Brief Encounter remade by Kubrick and Scorsese’; I’m not sure about the Kubrick/Scorsese thing, but the comparison to Brief Encounter is very apt. It’s a film about two people not quite having an illicit relationship, or at least not quite having a sexual relationship.

Maggie Cheung

Apart from anything else, it just looks great. it has a real period feel—not than I’m in a position to judge the accuracy of the details. It’s full of colour, but mainly a subdued palette, all greens and oranges and browns, off-whites, soft blues. And nearly all the action takes place in confined spaces, in apartment blocks, offices, alleys, noodle shops, and in artificial light. And it looks cramped: looking through it to find some screen grabs, it was striking how often objects intrude in the foreground.

Tony Cheung

Maggie Cheung drifts through the film looking exquisite and fragile in a sequence of beautiful cheongsams, and Tony Leung is is also extremely watchable, if not quite so fabulously attired. It’s moody and atmospheric and generally a pleasure to watch.

Hwaet?

A big-budget Hollywood version of Beowulf is obviously going to either be a travesty of the poem or commercial suicide.

When you hear that Angelina Jolie is embarrassed about her nude scenes in the movie, I think it’s pretty clear which one.

Helvetica, the movie

I went to see Helvetica today. It is, as the name suggests, a documentary about the typeface, which is 50 years old this year.

Helvetica sample

I enjoyed it. My usual feeling with factual-type documentaries like this (as opposed to narrative-type documentaries like, say, Spellbound) is that they are very slow; that given the same amount of information in written form, you could take it in about ten times quicker. There was something of that in Helvetica, but it’s a visual subject, so it’s well-suited to film. It’s always good to see people talking enthusiastically about their particular area of expertise, and between them the interviewees and the film-makers did a good job of communicating what’s special about Helvetica and placing it in its historical context. It is undoubtedly a remarkably good typeface although the more I saw it over and over again on screen, the more it started looking a bit dated. Not so dated as to be unusable; it’s surely good enough to be a permanent part of the repertoire for hundreds of years. Just a bit tired.

I think you’d need some degree of interest in graphic design to enjoy the film, but you probably don’t need to be a die-hard type geek. My biggest complaint is actually with the cinema; they had the sound too loud and gave me a headache.

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