Wednesday, 26 October 2011

LFF 2011: DREAMS OF A LIFE review

It’s interesting to note that two of the most feted films at this year’s LFF are haunting studies of urban numbness; first the operatic despair of SHAME and now DREAMS OF A LIFE, an even more disturbing film on account of it being, you know, real life and everything.

While I have huge respect for the craft of documentary film-making, let’s face it: most of them live or die on the strength of their subject matter, and DREAMS OF A LIFE first and foremost has an incredible story to tell. It’s perhaps the most remarkable subject matter for a documentary since MAN ON WIRE, yet while that film showcased humanity at its best and most hopeful, DREAMS OF A LIFE is an exploration of an occasion where it comprehensively failed.

In 2003, the body of 38-year-old Joyce Carruthers was discovered in a tiny studio flat overlooking Wood Green shopping centre by members of the council chasing thousands of pounds of owed rent. After doing tests on her body it was ascertained that Joyce had been dead for nearly three years.

So far, so heartbreaking. But the cruel twist in this story is that Joyce wasn’t a loner, or a societal outcast – she was extremely attractive and outgoing, with an active social life and many friends all over London, not to mention four sisters who were alive and well. DREAMS OF A LIFE interviews many of her colleagues, associates and ex-boyfriends, while also dramatising many of the defining moments in her life in an attempt to make sense of her enigmatic, almost contradictory personality, and to explore why she was able to slip off the societal radar so easily.

The case of Joyce Carruthers would seem to suggest a total failure of humanity on a par with the Kitty Genovese incident, where a woman was murdered in broad daylight in front of 27 witnesses. But director Carol Morley seems uninterested in pointing fingers and decrying humanity, instead focusing on providing a comprehensive portrait of Joyce as a person. From the beginning, it’s noted that she was a ‘social chameleon’ – changing up friendship groups and moving to different areas of London regularly – and as the film progresses, it is increasingly hinted at that Joyce had serious issues with trust and commitment, and in the end actively wanted to withdraw herself from everyone. I’m not sure which is the most disturbing – that her friends forgot about her or that she felt alienated enough from them to want to disappear. For those of us who live in big metropolitan cities, the case of Joyce would appear to be a chilling confirmation of our darkest fears regarding our ultimate insignificance.

However, all our evidence on this comes from the people interviewed; these are people who are obviously harboring a significant amount of guilt about the circumstances in which Joyce died, and there’s always the lingering thought that they may be colouring their perceptions of her in order to assuage their own culpability.

It’s in these interviews with the people that knew her that DREAMS OF A LIFE is at its most riveting. There’s an interesting cast of characters who line up to talk about her, though none are more interesting than her two serious ex-boyfriends: the first, a nebbish, white, balding and incredibly good-natured man who was also her longest and closest friend; and the second, a slick, black, dreadlocked music manager who introduced her to Isaac Hayes and Nelson Mandela. The stark contrast between them only reinforces the view of Joyce as a woman who enjoyed trying to ingratiate into vastly different social groups, while committing to none of them.

The interviews are presented as if the interviewees have just walked in off the street – we see them learn new revelations about Joyce’s life at the same time that we learn them. The inter-cutting between the talking heads is skillfully done – there’s a great sequence where the interviewees are all unexpectedly played a tape of her voice that is totally gripping.

I was less convinced about the dramatised aspects while I was watching it, which occasionally seemed needlessly elaborate (the dramatised Joyce watching documentary footage of her real life friends discussing her on her bedsit TV). However, Zawe Ashton gives a good performance as Joyce, and some of the moments are extremely effective – a scene where Joyce sings the entirety of Carolyn Crawford’s ‘My Smile is Just a Frown’ into her hairbrush seemed self-indulgent at first, then tragic in retrospect, and ultimately has haunted me for days afterwards.

It’s become one of the most-talked about films of the festival, and with good reason: it’s an exceptionally powerful and thought-provoking work. The reaction has led to distributors bringing the release date forward to Christmas, which is certainly an interesting scheduling choice, if an appropriate one. Forget THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO – this is the real feel bad movie of Christmas.

LFF 2011: THE KID WITH A BIKE review

THE KID WITH A BIKE is another excellent film from Belgian brothers the Dardennes, and as a study of the awkward purgatory between childhood and adolescence it its right up there with its obvious forebears in KES and THE 400 BLOWS.

11-year-old Cyril (Thomas Doret) spends his days in a children’s home, his mother dead and his father temporarily absent. When he discovers his bike has been apparently stolen, he escapes from the home and sets about searching for it. Whilst on the hunt, he meets a young woman who he forms an immediate and literal bond with (you’ll see) – with his dad still missing, she agrees to look after him on weekends, and thus begins a relationship that proves to be tumultuous but ultimately life-changing for them both.

The reason why THE KID WITH A BIKE is ultimately so successful is in its total disregard for sentimentality – so often films about childhood descend into saccharine, rose-tinted nostalgia that bears little resemblance to actual experience. The best ones, including the films already mentioned along with more recent examples like WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE and THIS IS ENGLAND, aren’t afraid to show that the being a kid, particularly in the nascent adolescent stage, if filled with as much if not more ugliness and confusion than at any point in their adult lives.

Cyril is, essentially, a Bad Kid – he attacks and insults people with a frequency and a ferocity that is startling – but as played by Doret he is an immensely watchable screen presence. His tiny, fragile frame and angelic features play in stark contrast to his anti-social behaviour, and as the film progresses we see that, much like Antoine in THE 400 BLOWS, the Kid just can’t catch a break. And when he’s subjected to some intense emotional abuse in the film (which is often), his gruff exterior dissolves into hurt, uncomprehending confusion in a way that is utterly believable and totally heartbreaking .It’s in these moments that we see that instead of being an inherently bad seed, it’s more that there’s something about Cyril’s nature and background that makes his peers and elders assume he’s trouble: as a result, it’s suggested that his abrasive nature is ultimately the result of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Not exactly breaking new ground with this story, then, but it’s done with a level of sensitivity and piercing emotional directness that we’ve come to expect from the Dardennes that render it a powerful and rewarding experience. There’s also some delightful moments of humour throughout (including a highly unexpected series of nerdy video game references) and some well-judged supporting performances, including Cecile De France as Cyril’s would-be foster mother, Jérémie Renier as the father ill-suited to caring for him, and Fabrizio Rongione as a sleazy local hood.

Overall THE KID WITH A BIKE feels less powerful and affecting than something like THE CHILD, but then given the respective subject matter that’s perhaps understandable. One new element of film-making that the Dardennes explore for the first time in this film is non-diegetic music, with mixed results – the operatic strings occasionally feel out of place and instrusive with the film’s almost documentary like sense of realism. Also, although the film is a brisk 90 minutes the film has one too many false endings – however, the film’s final note is absolutely brilliant and the perfect way to conclude Cyril’s story.

THE KID WITH A BIKE is another brilliant piece of work from the Dardennes, and one that comfortably enters the pantheon of great films about childhood. Be sure to catch it when it goes on limited release early next year.

Monday, 24 October 2011


Probably the most disappointing film of the festival, this – in my eyes, Cronenberg’s track record is nigh-on flawless, and unlike so many horror directors of his generation time hasn’t dulled his knack for getting under people’s skin, with some his most recent films (Eastern Promises and A History of Violence in particular) being among his best. So my hopes were high for this marriage of a fascinating subject (the birth of psychoanalysis), a great cast (Michael London Film Fasstival and Viggo Mortensen in particular), and one of my favourite directors in A DANGEROUS METHOD.

With such a pedigree behind it, what went wrong? It’s hard to say: A DANGEROUS METHOD is just a tepid, deeply average film, with one, egregiously terrible aspect that drags into down into the just plain bad category.

In the early part of the 20th century Carl Jung (Fassbender) tries out Sigmund Freud’s (Viggo Mortensen) controversial new treatment of psychoanalysis on the disturbed young woman Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), admitted after demonstrating compulsive behavior and undergoing violent fits. The treatment proves successful, and Sabina embarks on a career as a psychoanalyst herself. However, she and Jung have embarked on a tumultuous affair, one facilitated by the arrival and persuasive powers of committed polygamist Otto Gross (Vincent Cassell) – this affair leads to a number tensions and recriminations between Jung and Freud, by now both his friend and intellectual rival.

A DANGEROUS METHOD was adapted from a stage play, and it really shows. It’s an extremely talky screenplay – understandably, given the film’s protagonists – but the conversations are surprisingly lifeless and dull - there are also a number jarring shifts between time periods that would work a lot better on stage than on screen. We seem to always jump forward in time by several years every time the story begins to get interesting.

Cronenberg doesn’t utilize the camera to show us anything that we would have been prevented from seeing on stage – for example, the frequent dream sequences that are described – and the material isn’t strong enough to support the film up by itself. It’s bizarre that a director responsible for some of the most memorable cinematic images in history could make such a visually unadventurous film.

The script is also heavy with dramatic irony and references that require a decent rounding in the early history of psychoanalysis to make much sense – on the other hand, the film isn’t enlightening or incisive enough to say anything new to someone already familiar with the basic concepts, which makes you wonder exactly who this film is aimed at.

Fassbender, Cassell, and Mortensen all put in decent performances, and when they’re onscreen the film putters along reasonably enough, and if it was just scenes with them the film would be passable if rarely rising above the level of a good TV movie.

I should probably preface this by saying that I am by no means a Keira Knightley hater – there’s plenty of stuff I’ve really liked her in, like ATONEMENT and NEVER LET ME GO – but her performance in A DANGEROUS METHOD is historically bad. She’s not the only one to blame – clearly Cronenberg told her to ‘go for it’ – but it’s one of the most nails-on-chalkboard irritating things I’ve seen in a cinema for a long time. Her portrayal of madness hinges on a non-stop barrage of flailing limbs, guttural noises, a stammer more over-the-top than Michael Palin in A FISH CALLED WANDA, and relentless gurning, wrapped around a ludicrous Borat-by-way-of-Robbie Coltrane in Goldeneye accent. It’s less a convincing portrayal of madness than it is a cartoonish imitation of someone found wandering around Glastonbury at 6AM on a Sunday morning. It’s not a screen performance – it’s a theatre one. Everything should have been dialled down by about thirty notches, and ultimately Cronenberg has to take as much responsibity for this as Knightley. It’s nothing personal against her, and I’m positive the next film I see her in she’ll be great, but fuck me if she isn’t unwatchable for large swathes of this.

It’s a shame A DANGEROUS METHOD turned out the way it did, because there is little in the film to ultimately recommend it. One day a great film will be made about this subject - but this sadly isn’t it.

Thursday, 20 October 2011


If there’s one generic label guaranteed to make me run for the hills it’s ‘comedy-drama’. I wish people who apply the label would stop being disingenuous and just call out the vast majority of these films for what they are – unfunny comedies. Film-makers- in an absence of jokes from your comedy, fill your film with aimless whimsy, weird-looking actors, avoid much happening for the majority of its running time, toss in a couple of tears and arguments, then hey presto: your film is a nailed on Sundance smash and will be snapped up by Fox Searchlight before you can say ‘charmingly offbeat’.

The only person who consistently makes good movies in the uninspired of realm of comedy dramas is Alexander Payne, perhaps because he infuses his films with a caustic wit that nicely counterbalances the sentimentality that so frequently drags down this genre, writes scripts that are actually funny, and, in perhaps his most overlooked attribute, makes films that actually look great, with a keen visual style. He’s never made a bad film, and I’m pleased to report that he’s extended his perfect record with THE DESCENDANTS.

Clooney plays against type as Matt King, a workaholic lawyer living in Hawaii who, after his wife is put into a terminal coma after a speedboat accident, is forced to take an active interest in his two daughters for the first time. His youngest, a ten-year-old, is hyperactive and destructive, while his eldest, the 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), is an angry young woman, to put it mildly. As Matt attempts to prepare for a life-changingly lucrative land deal while preparing for the last few weeks of his wife’s life, he and his daughters are forced to address their family demons head on.

That description makes THE DESCENDANTS sound pretty formulaic and trite, and indeed if I gave you three guesses at the ending you’d probably be able to figure it out. But the journey that it takes getting there is more unconventional – there’s a twist at the beginning of the second act that sets the film off down a different tangent than the ‘Clooney and his wacky kids’ plot we think we are heading down, and is all the better for it.

There is a surprisingly sensitive and insightful assessment of familial grief alongside some wicked black humour. Payne is the master of making absolutely desperate and heart-breaking moments for his characters laugh-out loud funny, without ever betraying either emotional side for the other. He’s the perfect director for the material, providing some genuinely moving moments without ever descending (hey!) into schmaltz.

The aforementioned keen visual style is also put to excellent use here, with some beautifully composed cinematography of some breathtaking Hawaiian scenery, alongside his brilliant eye for comic detail – everyone in Hawaii wears flip-flops, which leads to hilarious consequences anytime anyone has to run or chase something.

The performances are excellent, with an eye-catching performance from Woodley as King’s abrasive daughter striking just the right note – this is a troubled teenager you can believe exists, rather than the door-slamming clichéd archetype the character easily could have been. There are great supporting roles from Matthew Lillard, Rob Heubel, and particularly Robert Forster, who is always fantastic.

It’s Clooney’s show, though, and at first it’s weird to see him play the subdued, awkward type. He’s deprived of the easy charm and bravado that make him such a watchable screen presence, yet as he portrays a character who has metaphorically had the rug pulled out from him, this actually works in the film’s favour. It’s a great performance – understated, funny, and considered – and it’s hard to imagine another actor pulling the role off so well.

THE DESCENDANTS is flawed – it starts very slowly, with a terrible, exposition heavy voiceover nearly capsizing the film before it begins. Also, while the lack of a more traditional narrative works out in its favour in the long run, there are sections that occasionally feel unfocused.

To say that THE DESCENDANTS is probably the most lightweight film from Payne to date (it’s certainly no SIDEWAYS, but about on a par with ABOUT SCHMIDT) is more a sign of the absurdly high quality of his output so far than it is any slight on the movie itself: on its own terms, it’s an excellent comedy-drama. *shudder*

Wednesday, 19 October 2011


When it’s done well, there’s fewer genres I enjoy more than the psychological thriller. I love in particular the sub-genre of movies where reality (and therefore the narrative of the film) is always treacherous due to the mental state of the protagonist/narrator slowly unraveling. If you’re after a pithy label for these movies, I suppose ‘headfuck’ is as good as anything.

After a heyday in the seventies with Polanski’s Apartment trilogy of REPULSION, ROSEMARY’S BABY and THE TENANT, the genre underwent a renaissance towards the end of the nineties with films like AMERICAN PSYCHO, FIGHT CLUB and PI, before coming to prominence again with the huge critical and commercial success of BLACK SWAN earlier this year.

At the LFF this year we have two high-profile headfucks in TAKE SHELTER and MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE – I haven’t yet seen TAKE SHELTER (I’m currently trying to pull strings to make a screening) but I have seen the excellent if irritatingly titled MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE, and there’s no doubt it’s one of the most interesting and powerful films screening this year.

In the film’s chilly, wordless opening scenes, we see a rural household that is home to dozens of people, and we watch as they go about their business. Right from the off there are clues that something is up – the men all eat together, and only once they have finished and left the dining room are the women allowed to eat. In the small hours of the morning, a young girl (Elizabeth Olsen) escapes the house and runs off into the woods, as a voice calls out "Marcy May!" behind her. Eventually she makes contact with her only remaining family, sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who lives in a grandiose beachfront Connecticut home with an irritable property developer (Hugh Dancy).

We learn that the girl’s real name is Martha, and that she has been estranged from her sister for over two years. We flash back and forth between her new home in Conneticut, where she begins to display increasingly erratic and bizarre behavior as her fragile psychological state worsens, and her increasingly dark and unpleasant memories of the communal home.

It’s interesting how both TAKE SHELTER and MARLENE are set in pastoral middle America – I think this is ultimately a more disturbing film than something like BLACK SWAN (a film I’m a huge fan of) precisely because the psychological horror is presented in such a mundane, grounded context. It’s the David Lynch effect – the foreboding sense that the niceties of small-town USA are plastering over the cracks of a sordid, perverted reality.

There are some genuinely horrible moments in MMMM, but it’s never exploitative, or gratutitous. The camera avoids much in the way of explicit material, and huge amount is implied and suggested, which is ultimately a great deal more horrifying. There’s no operatics, literal or otherwise; no American Werewolf-esque transformation scenes, or softly lit lesbian sex - just a precise, totally credible account of the depths of mental abuse that can be inflicted on a young girl by a charismatic sociopath.

That charismatic sociopath is Patrick, played by the brilliant John Hawkes, fast becoming one of my favourite actors currently working. Here his role is like Teardrop, his incredible character from WINTER’S BONE, pulled inside out – whereas Teardrop was a sensitive soul buried deep within a prickly, violent exterior, in MARLENE he’s…well, you can probably figure it out. In any event he’s just as memorable and effective as he was in that previous, Oscar-nominated role, and continues to prove that he has more charisma in one of his ridiculously bulbous arm veins than most A-listers have in their whole bodies. All I’m saying is that if they ever make an Iggy Pop biopic he’s plainly the only candidate.

As great as Hawkes is this will be a film remembered for two debuts. The first is English-American writer-director Sean Durkin, who has produced a remarkably accomplished film for a debut feature. It’s lyrical yet intense, visually stunning, and crammed with incidental visual clues and details that I’m positive will reward further viewings. He demonstrates a remarkable eye for composition, and a grasp of claustrophobic tension and suspense that would suggest he’s been doing this for years. His storytelling style is occasionally abstruse and difficult – in particular, some of the ending scenes are almost Haneke-like in their sadistic refusal to provide any traditional sense of climax – but also (like Haneke) thought-provoking, intelligent and unsettling. Durkin is certainly a talent to watch.

Undoubtedly another talent to watch is Elizabeth Olsen, younger sister of teen favourites Mary Kate and Ashley. While she has appeared in films before as a child star, this is her coming out party as a ‘serious’ actress, and it is absolutely stunning. It’s a demanding role – due to Martha’s borderline personality disorder she’s required to shift between a variety of personas, whilst still providing the human center of the film, something she does impeccably. At various stages in the film ‘Martha’ is alternately vampish, when meeting Patrick for the first time; child-like, when being taking out for a boat ride; and intense and calculating, when firing pointed and personal barbs at her bewildered sister. Yet all the while her sad eyes belie the paranoia and confusion raging inside of her. It’s a mesmerising performance, and it will be an outright scandal if she isn’t rewarded with an Oscar nomination at the very least.

MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE will likely prove too cold and enigmatic for many – the title alone will scare a lot of people away. However, for those of us who can handle it, it’s a technically brilliant, superbly performed and perfectly executed movie. Headfucks don’t come much better than this.

LFF 2011: THE ARTIST review

Delightful is an adjective that seems to be rarely used any more in a non-ironic sense. Along with ‘lovely’ and ‘adorable’, it’s usually more patronising than complimentary – it seems to suggest an slightness or airiness that mark something as inoffensive yet nothing to get seriously passionate about. Why though? Have we become that cynical that we’re suspicious of anything where the sole intention is to make us happy? Does being delighted make us feel so guilty?

Comrades, let’s reclaim delightful on behalf of THE ARTIST, one of the most delightful films in decades. It mines a vein of unbridled joy left largely left untouched by live action cinema in recent years – in a festival slate of films fueled by rape, coercion and despair; in a world of endless, mean-spirited, jizz-streaked gross out comedies; in a world when THE fucking TOURIST is nominated at the Golden Globes as best musical/comedy, Michel Hazanavicius’ THE ARTIST arrives like an oasis of pure pleasure in a desert of ‘will-this-do?” laziness and morbid navel-gazing.

You’ll find nothing in this review that will give away any of THE ARTIST’s jokes or plot points, as much of the film’s pleasure comes from them being revealed to you – there’s a seemingly endless supply of both visual and comic invention, and all you can really do (on a first viewing at least) is be entranced by the sheer wonder of it all. However, I’ll say this much – THE ARTIST focuses on George Valentin, (Jean Dujardin) a much-feted silent movie star, as he forges his career in Hollywoodland through the 20s and 30s, while the aspiring dancer and actress Peppy Miller (the gob-smackingly beautiful Bérénice Bejo), who he first encounters in a chance meeting, also tries to make it in showbusiness alongside him.

It’s worth noting that while THE ARTIST obviously pays homage to the silent movies of the 20s, it’s spiritual ancestor is clearly SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN – their plots are structured similarly and hit very similar beats, and Julardin even bears a striking resemblance to Gene Kelly. Its biggest similarity with RAIN however is in its sheer exuberant love for movies – it’s arguably the first film since RAIN where movie-making actually feels ‘magic’, and its enthusiasm is infectious.

Dujardin, best know for the incredibly successful James Bond parody series OSS (also directed by Hazanavicius), won the Best Actor award at Cannes and it could not be more deserved – it’s a remarkable performance, mixing elements of Errol Flynn, Gene Kelly, Clark Gable, and Charlie Chaplin into a perfect, raffish hybrid of old-Hollywood leading men. He’s required to do a lot of emotional heavy-lifting in the film as well as light comedy, and pulls it off magnificently. Bejo is equally good and totally convincing in all senses as a 1920s movie starlet, and there are excellent supporting performances from James Cromwell as Valentin’s butler and especially John Goodman as, perhaps inevitably, a cigar-chomping studio bigwig.

I found myself welling up a number of times during THE ARTIST. One a couple of occasions it was due to something poignant happening in the storyline, but mostly it was a result of just being made so, so happy by what I was witnessing. There are moments in THE ARTIST that, in terms of pure on screen magic, are on a par with Gene Kelly’s umbrella dance, Chaplin’s fork and bread roll puppet show, the mirror sequence in DUCK SOUP, and the boulder scene in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. It really is that good.

I could elaborate for pages and pages about my favourite moments in THE ARTIST, and the technical brilliance displayed by Hazanavicius and cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman, the immense production design, and fantastic score, but such is the spell cast by THE ARTIST that it seems wrong to break it down into its fulfilling parts. Don't watch any trailers, or read too many reviews. All you need to know is that it’s another must-see, a future classic, and you will be a better, happier person for having seen it. It’s a film about movies, made by movie-lovers, for movie-lovers - yet it’s a movie that everyone will love. It is delightful.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011


ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA is, first and foremost, a masterpiece, a stunningly composed piece of cinema that stands out in an incredibly strong slate of LFF films as a genuine and singular work of art. As a piece of entertainment, it’s harder to recommend, but it’s nevertheless a towering and intriguing work.

After a short prologue we find ourselves out in the highlands of Anatolia in the middle of a murder investigation. A man and his accomplice have admitted to the crime, and have led a posse of investigators, including a quiet, contemplative doctor, an officious prosecutor, and the belligerent chief of police, out into the wilderness to where the body is buried. The film plays out almost in real time as we stay with the men throughout the night and into the early morning, as the investigation is methodically drawn to a close. In the process we see as the characters undergo personal revelations and philosophical revolutions in a long, dark night of the soul

The prefix “Once upon a time…” suggests an epic, violent drama in the vein of Leone’s films of the same name, but in reality ANATOLIA provides nothing of the sort. There are nods to Westerns (there are moments reminiscent of the more elegiac moments in THE WILD BUNCH, of all films), and some of the static, widescreen photography is easily the equal of anything Leone came up with. But there is very little violence or machismo on display, and revenge, justice and redemption are unlikely prospects for all involved.

So what kind of film exactly is ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA? On the surface of it, it’s one of the most thorough police procedurals ever made, and probably one of most realistic. We see every dead end, every uncomfortable car journey, and every police report dictated and replicated in intricate detail. Paradoxically however, the more detailed the film’s portrayal of police work becomes, the less concerned it seems with the murder investigation itself. 

It turns into more of an exercise in scenic existentialism (bear with me), a picturesque journey in the vein of the Heart of Darkness –inspired APOCALYPSE NOW and AGUIRRE THE WRATH OF GOD. All of these films feature protagonists who are ostensibly searching for one thing (an AWOL soldier, El Dorado, or, in the case of ANATOLIA, a body) but in reality are looking for something inherently spiritual, an answer to make sense of the worlds of uncertainty and chaos they find themselves in – in ANATOLIA, everybody is looking for a logical solution, but at every turn are reminded that life rarely provides any absolute conclusions. 

In this respect the film’s icy sense of dread and nihilistic representation of death, crime and justice is reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s work and particularly the Coens’ adaptation of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. These are men who confront evil and sin not with emotional grandstanding or violent action but with a sense of inevitability and weary befuddlement.  If this sounds unwatchably depressing, it’s worth noting that there’s also a noticeable streak of Coen-esque black humour running throughout that is actually funny, particularly once the body is discovered and the men realise no one has prepared to transport it.

Perhaps the main talking point of ANATOLIA will be its exquisite photography – director Nuri Bilge Ceylan began his career as photographer, and his eye for composition and use of light (with cinematographer Gökhan Tiryaki) creates a succession of achingly beautiful moments: under a red, black and orange sky, we see brilliant flashes of an alien, unusual light that slowly reveals itself to be car headlamps; as one character delivers a monologue, the camera follows an apple as it falls from a tree, rolls down a hill and down the length of a nearby stream; and, in one of the most memorable scenes of the year, the men are stunned into silence by the beauty of a farmer’s daughter when she serves them tea, as they take turns being bathed in the almost celestial light emanating from the lamp she carries on her tea tray. It’s jaw-dropping stuff.

ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA is 157 minutes long and, to be honest, feels longer. This is not necessarily a slight, but it’s important to note that this is a film that demands your attention throughout its running time – your brain needs to be switched on and utterly focused if you’re to get the most out of it, as it is uncompromising in its refusal to adhere to a traditional narrative structure. The upside is that it’s one of the few movies I’ve seen recently that can be called ‘poetic’ without pretension or hyperbole, but the flip side is that it you must be prepared to adhere to its rhythms and withstand its pacing, which at times is borderline glacial.

However, while the tone is generally sombre, this is not a dry and portentous film – the characters are sympathetic and recognisably human, and are even good for some genuine laughs in places. It’s a film that people will be picking over for years, and once you get past the stately pace and the running time, the rewards to be found in ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA are huge. This is incredible cinema.

Monday, 17 October 2011

LFF 2011: DARWIN review

There’s a strong slate of documentaries at this year’s LFF, with new efforts from powerhouses Werner Herzog, Jonathan Demme, Nick Broomfeld and Frederick Wiseman, alongside hotly tipped works from lesse-known film-makers such as DREAMS OF A LIFE, DRAGONSLAYER, and this, Nick Brandestini’s charming and engrossing DARWIN.

Darwin is a town in Death Valley, California with a total population of 35 - previously a mining town that saw a huge influx of workers when silver and subsequently lead was discovered there, Darwin has since been ravaged by fire, labour disputes, and water problems, whittling the population down from thousands to the handful of eccentrics that are left today.

There are no jobs, no social areas, no entertainment, and no services, a fact emblazened on a sign personally erected by residents to dissuade any out-of-towners from stopping by. Brandestini spends the film delving in to the recent history of Darwin, in the process exploring the remarkable lives of the people who live there and, crucially, how they ended up there.

In lesser hands, DARWIN would be pretty unpleasant viewing. It so easily could have been a depressing dirge or taken the easy route of ridiculing and belittling its ‘trailer trash’ occupants. The closest the film comes to this is in its early scenes, including a moment where the proclamation by the local librarian that “we’ve got every kind of book you can imagine in here” is accompanied by a close up of a box of trashy bestsellers, including Peter Benchley’s ‘Jaws’. But it doesn’t feel condescending – instead the amusing opening passages in retrospect feel like they are there to subtly reinforce our prejudices about small-town folk, so that as their contradictions and complex inner lives are unveiled as the film progresses, they are all the more surprising and effective.

These ‘hicks’ prove to be a surprisingly multicultural and diverse bunch. There’s the weary, sardonic postal worker (possessor of the only job in town) who supports Obama and says ‘she’ll never understand bigotry’; the yoga practicing San Francisico hangover (“too young to be a beatnik, too old to be a hippie”); the naturist boogie-woogie man; and, most memorably of all, an aging old coot who sounds like a cross between Grandpa Simpson and the cranky gold prospector from The Onion, yet harbors am incredible skill for painting and sculpture.

Early on, we meet an obese young couple living in a trailer, yet rather than being the braindead consumers that are so often presented as representative of America’s underclass, they turn out to be extremely progressive, multi-faceted and interesting: one professes to like Darwin because of ‘’the lack of proselytizing here”, while the other gives a moving account of their lifetime struggle with gender and identity.

For a storyteller looking to establish a sense of foreboding the town of Darwin is a gift – a town with a history of violent residents, it now resides next to a huge, top secret American military base, with the sound of detonated bombs being a semi-regular soundtrack for Darwin’s inhabitants. It’s no wonder that it seems like the only thing that properly unifies the population of Darwin is the belief that the end of the world is imminent. Some are committed survivialists, armed to teeth and building up food reserves, while others just plan to pull up a chair and watch the fireworks.

The sense of impending Armageddon is strong in DARWIN – even if the Mayans were wrong about 2012, the exodus of young people from the town and the borderline elderly average age means that the end really is nigh for its inhabitants. The new roles, reinventions and redemptions the townspeople are currently undergoing make this ghost town feel even more eerie and purgatorial – a place where people are preparing for death.

If that all sounds a bit heavy, it isn’t: Branadesti is clearly affectionate towards the oddballs of Darwin, and what you come away from the film with is awe at the amount of humanity that pervades throughout both the town and the film-making in some pretty inhuman surroundings. DARWIN is accomplished, entertaining, and thought-provoking, and well worth 90 minutes of your time.

Darwin - Trailer from Darwin Documentary on Vimeo.

Friday, 14 October 2011

LFF 2011: SHAME review

It would have been a (literally) ballsy move to open the LFF with SHAME and therefore a few unflinching minutes of full frontal Fassbender, but once the initial sniggers/murmers of appreciation/raucous applause died down we’d have actually been left with the polar opposite of 360: a genuinely great movie that actually has something to say about the human condition, and says what it wants to say expertly.
Michael Fassbender plays Brandon, a wealthy playboy who fills his studio apartment nights with casual hook-ups, internet porn, empty flirtations, and liasons with hookers. His carefully balanced lifestyle is upended when his brash and capricious sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) turns up in his flat and starts living with him – her own sexuality and demand for affection begins to make him increasingly uncomfortable, and consequently forces him to confront his own hollow existence.

There are a lot of parallels to found in SHAME with AMERICAN PSYCHO – like Patrick Bateman, Brandon has an ambiguous, well-paid job populated by grinning, shallow fuckwits, and there’s a gymnastic threesome scene between Brandon and two prostitutes that is reminiscent of Chritian Bale’s infamous flexing in PSYCHO, only this time Sussudio is replaced with the slightly more respectable sounds of Bach.

Where it most resembles PSYCHO however is in Brandon’s chameleon-like nature, that you feel has been developed over time in order to hide his deep inner torment. He tries on different masks for different situations - the playful, enigmatic suitor on a date; the dead-eyed predator at a bar; the embarrassed, apologetic friend at a club – all with the ultimate intention of establishing the sexual connection that he desperately craves.

Unlike PSYCHO, however, SHAME never alleviates the proceedings with period satire, or ultraviolence, or absurdist touches. While there is humour in SHAME – a surprising amount, actually – this is not the black comedy that PSYCHO is: instead, it’s an intensely sad character portrait that actually says as much about inner-city life in the 21st century as it does about addiction and loneliness.

At one point there’s a beautiful, extended panning shot that shows Fassbender jogging through the streets of New York: as we move with him, we see office blocks, vehicles, clubs, hotels, lights and people come and go in an instant, before he stops at the hub of noise, lights and action that is Times Square and Madison Square Garden. It’s tremendously evocative of that unique inner city loneliness: the feeling of being constantly surrounded by people, but always moving past them, and never really engaging or interacting.

Director Steve McQueen does a great job of presenting us a New York that looks and feels like New York without resorting to shots of steam coming out of drains and the Statue of Liberty. It’s a peculiar love letter to the city – there’s even an extended scene, shot largely in one single take close-up, of Carey Mulligan singing a pared down, rueful rendition of ‘New York, New York’.

There are lots of long takes in SHAME – I suspect this is because McQueen knows he’s got a special pair of performers here, and lets us see how electrifying they both are by refusing to edit around them. Mulligan gives her best performance ever in a career that is already filled with excellent ones – she manages the incredibly difficult trick of portraying a character who is an unhinged hysterical wreck with a controlled performance that never resorts to histrionics. There are also strong supporting performances from Nicole Behare as a potential romantic interest for Brandon, and James Badge Dale as his sleazy motormouth boss.

However, there’s no doubt Fassbender is the real show here. It’s a intensely physical performance (yes, he’s naked a lot), and a fearsome demonstration of screen acting. His scenes with Mulligan are breathtaking, with both actors realizing a supremely dysfunctional relationship in a way that never feels contrived or clichéd – you always sense that they are both skirting around some terrible secret that can never be articulated. He’s also totally convincing when inhabiting all of Brandon’s aforementioned personas, but never lets you forget that underneath he’s a coiled spring, his piercing eyes always belying the confusion and emptiness that resides beneath his carefully constructed façade. It’s a character and a performance so indelibly linked it could only have come from a totally symbiotic vision between director and actor – in this sense and also in its sheer, committed intensity, it’s reminiscent of David Thewlis in NAKED, not coincidentally one of my very favourite performances of all time.

If there are criticisms they might be that the film’s conclusions aren’t exactly revelatory and very occasionally there are moments when the film’s Bach-heavy score comes across as overbearing and portentous (though generally it’s a perfect fit).

Ultimately though SHAME is a shattering experience and a magnificent film – while brutal and draining, this is not a depressing experience (as I previously mentioned, there’s more funny moments than you’d think the subject matter would allow), and stands as a shining example of the currently thriving reserves of British filmmaking and acting talent. It goes straight in alongside MIDNIGHT COWBOY and TAXI DRIVER in the canon of great alienated New York movies, and I also think it’s an important film for what it tells us about men and male sexuality in the 21st century – while few people who watch it will have experienced the more extreme depths (not to mention frequency) of sexual activity that Fassbender’s character indulges in, there are probably more moments of recognition in his search for intimacy and redemption through sexual encounters than most of us, both men and women, would care to admit. It’s not only one of the best films of the LFF (London Fassbender Festival), it’s one of the best, period, in an already stellar year for film.

SHAME screens tonight at 20.15 and 20.30, and tomorrow at 12.15 as part of the BFI London Film Festival. It is released in the UK on 12 January 2012.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

LFF 2011: MISS BALA review

After beginning the LFF coverage with a couple of sniffy reviews (although to be fair, in 360’s case, there was a lot to sniff), it’s probably time to skew things a bit more positive around here, and give you a review of a film I can get genuinely enthusiastic about: the coruscating MISS BALA, the new film from I’M GOING TO EXPLODE director Gerardo Naranjo.

A teenaged girl in the Mexican province of Baja California dreams of escaping her quiet life living with her father and younger brother by being crowned at Miss Bala in the local beauty pageant. However, a night out with her friend at a nightclub frequented by DEA agents and mobsters turns into a gangland massacre, one she is fortunate to escape from with her life. Her luck quickly runs out however, as her status as a witness sucks her deep into the world of Mexican drug crime, and things only get worse when the local crime boss takes a personal shine to her.

MISS BALA wasn’t what I was expecting when I went into – I assumed that the film would be a socio-political actioner that crackles with real verve and energy, like a CITY OF GOD, LA HAINE, or even GOODFELLAS. MISS BALA is most definitely a socio-political action film, and it is spectacularly directed – more on that in a second – but the tone is exceedingly grim and sombre throughout, so that it more closely resemble the nihilistic, washed-out realism of recent crime dramas like GOMORRAH and ANIMAL KINGDOM. Certainly it shares with those films and also the brilliant A PROPHET the basic narrative structure of a morally neutral protagonist submerged in a violent world that they are suddenly forced to adapt to, and it pulls this off well, if not quite with the style of A PROPHET and the intensity of ANIMAL KINGDOM. Be warned though: this can be tough going, as there is little in the way of respite from our fragile-looking heroine finding herself in ever more desperate and unpleasant situations.

Without wanting to sound crass, current day Mexico is certainly a febrile place for setting stories like this – indeed, there are some events in the latter half in the film that might seem over the top were it not for very similar, widely reported crimes actually taking place in Mexico just a few weeks ago. The film really does a good job of capturing a sense of lawlessness and hopelessness that the grip of the cartels has forced onto the country.

In pure film-making terms it is eye-catchingly well directed, with some brilliantly conceived set-pieces, that are oftentimes shot in audacious single takes, reminiscent of some of the sequences in CHILDREN OF MEN, that give the violent action an almost dream-like quality. Naranjo is brilliant about taking moments we’ve seen in dozens of other crime films and shooting them from a point of view that we’ve never seen before.

MISS BALA also boasts a fantastic screen villain in Lino Valdez (Noe Hernandez), the drug boss who takes her under his wing. Although he possesses an Igor-like limp, he lacks any other kind of evil flourishes that we have come to expect from characters like this – he isn’t a hysterical maniac, and he isn’t a dead-eyed psychopath either – instead, he goes about his terrible deeds with an almost bored type of pragmatism that is even more chilling. Actually, I lied about the evil flourishes. He has a really gross moustache as well.

Valid criticisms of the film are that it’s too cold and minimalist – the characters, including Miss Bala herself, are fairly shallow, and the gist of the film doesn’t amount up to more than ‘Mexican drug gangs are bad’, hardly a point that needed re-iterating. But it’s hard to resist a film when it’s executed with this much style and power. Gripping, muscular, and expertly made, MISS BALA is the crime film to beat at LFF.

MISS BALA is showing as part of the LFF on Wed 19th, Thu 20th, and Sat 22nd. It goes on general release in the UK on the 28th October.

LFF 2011: Video Blog - Day 1

LFF 2011: 360 review

"Pull my finger." "Pull your own finger."

In many ways it’s easy to see why 360 was chosen as the opening film for this year’s LFF – established director, British funding, primarily British cast, lots of nice establishing shots of London – but in other, more important ways, it’s a bit of a headscratcher, seeing as it’s an actively bad film.

Taking the vignette template from other, better movies SHORT CUTS and MAGNOLIA, we follow a bunch of tenuously connected stories about failing and burgeoning relationships in Vienna, Paris, London, and Colorado. They occasionally interlock and overlap, we see bits of Jude Law, Anthony Hopkins, and Rachel Weisz, before we – gasp! – come full circle. Helpfully, to make sure we get this whole 'circle' thing - as if the title itself wasn't obvious enough - at the end (VAGUE SPOILERS) first we're shown a direct echo of the opening scene, then the opening voiceover is repeated verbatim, then the title of the film – it’s 360 – pops up on screen: and rotates in a circle. 

The fragmented style of filmmaking employed by the films mentioned has an inherent problem in that because our focus and attention is adjusted from one character to another so rapidly, there is a much shorter amount of time to establish them – as a result, you need to back your vignettes up with some strong writing in order to make us care about them, something that only true cinematic genuises like Robert Altman and Paul Thomas Anderson have the necessary chops to pull off

Unfortunately Peter Morgan, branching out of his comfort zone with a totally Blair-less script, is not in this legendary bracket, and makes an utter hash of the screenplay. Director Fernando Mereilles’ direction isn’t great – it’s hard to believe a film this lifeless came from the man who directed CITY OF GOD, and he clearly edited this film after a caffeine-fuelled Brian De Palma marathon, such is the frequency of split screens – but it’s passable; the script however is where the film capsizes totally.

Obviously the very nature of the premise is reliant on coincidence and as such requires a certain suspension of disbelief, but even taking that into account there are so many improbable moments in 360 that no one clearly even attempted to iron out or give an explanation for, including an absolutely ludicrous scene where a beautiful young girl repeatedly tempts an obviously suspicious man into coming on to her (a rapist who is allowed to travel from prison, by himself, despite still being judged by his therapist as a threat to society, because…er…of an experiment?) in her hotel room, which is as uncomfortable as it is nonsensical.

It’s a real case of characters serving the plot rather than the other way round in 360 – get them introduced then shoehorn them together in order to get to the next theme (religious guilt, grief, lust, greed, temptation) only the film doesn’t have anything new or interesting to say about any of them. It’s also brow-furrowingly serious, with barely a moment of humour or levity in its two hour running time.

One of the few good things about 360, perhaps unsurprisingly, is a lovely turn from Anthony Hopkins, as a loveable old duffer who has been tracing his missing daughter for many years. He does add some genuine heart and humour, and his monologue in the middle of the film about his recent, life-changing encounter with a young girl is easily the film’s highlight – I could watch him relay anecdotes in that avuncular way for hours. Of course, after that scene we never see him again. And, on a slightly shallower note, Rachel Weisz is aging spectacularly well, as a result making her pitifully small ten minutes of screen time some of the most watchable in the film.

There’s a veritable smugness about 360. It clearly thinks it’s saying something profound about the human condition, yet in reality, it has as much depth as the 'It's A Small World' ride at Disneyland.

A poor start to the festival proper, then. But then again, as Peter Morgan’s muse used to be so fond of telling us...

Tuesday, 11 October 2011


The first film I saw at this year’s festival is also the most disappointing so far: as a big fan of Chow Yun-Fat and Asian action cinema in general I had high hopes for LET THE BULLETS FLY. Early reviews have been strong, but as much I wanted to love it I couldn’t help but come away unsatisfied and with the impression that the film is, at best, uneven, and at worst, an incomprehensible mess.

Set in the Sichan province of China in the 1920s, legendary bandit Pockey Zhang (played by director/screenwriter Jiang Wen) executes a daring train robbery on a train carrying a con man posing as a government official, who is making his way to pose as a mayor of a nearby town. Zhang assumes his identity and takes over the town’s mayorship – however, he discovers that the real power in the town belongs to crime boss Master Huang (Chow Yun-Fat), who presides over the town in an enormous, fortified citadel. When Zhang makes it clear that he has no desire to be Huang’s puppet, the two men engage in a back and forth game of deception and one upmanship in an attempt to finally oust the other from power for good.

Anyone who’s seen a few Asian action films will be familiar with the ‘mood whiplash’ – Asian audiences are more preconditioned to accept a mix of extremely broad, slapstick comedy with bloody ultra-violence, whereas Western audiences are still going to find it distracting and weird. I personally never really have a problem with it if it’s done well, (in fact, I’m a big fan of it) but LET THE BULLETS FLY really is all over the place in this regard. The sub-Kung Fu Hustle acrobatic slapstick sit rather uneasily next to the darkly satirical disembowellings (really), and there’s even the world’s most unnecessary rape scene, an unpleasant moment which is followed by a scene (played totally for laughs) where a bunch of guys give snappy one liners as to why they could never be rapists (one’s gay LOL). It's a head-scratchingly pointless moment in a film that is unfortunately full of them. (Fun fact – I have seen four films at the LFF, and all of them have at least one rape or attempted rape scene. I think it might be mandatory for entry to the festival this year.)

Also, for a film titled LET THE BULLETS FLY, the action scenes are pretty disappointing. On the one hand, huge points for not employing a stupid WANTED/THE MATRIX effect for when Pocky actually lets ‘the bullets fly’, but on the other the gunplay scenes are largely pretty lifeless. It’s also an intensely wordy film – the dialog scenes go on forever, with the kind of rapid-fire cyclical banter that would be exhausting even if you weren’t also having to speed read subtitles. It’s overwritten in places to a ludicrous degree, with an excess of twists and sub-plots that drag the film down significantly, and it's unsurprising to discover that the film had five screewriters and reportedly underwent 30 re-writes before filming. 

LET THE BULLETS FLY does way too much telling, and not enough showing, and it's in this sense where it is sorely lacking in comparison to the Kurosawa East-Westerns it is obviously inspired by. A film like SANJURO is a perfect example of how to balance to tone of a comedy-action period flick like this, without letting any of the elements suffer.- LET THE BULLETS FLY can’t help but look amateurish by comparison.

Despite all these flaws you can’t quite write off LET THE BULLETS FLY as a load of sound and fury signifying nothing, as there is some interesting stuff going on under the hood. There is definitely something subversive about the notion of a Robin Hood-like character of Pocky Zhang appropriating a government position and doing a better job than the actual official, and this distrust of government alongside the emphasis the films places on giving political power back to the people is interesting when put in the context of the communist China in which it was made. In its final moments the film’s political message, muddled for a lot of the film, does come together well, with a pointed, clever resolution that could genuinely be described as Kurosawan. Also, Jiang Wen is excellent in the lead role, giving a measured and powerful performance, and Chow Yun–Fat is always good value.

It’s a shame the film wasn’t pared down a great deal – at nearly 2 and a half hours, it’s a tougher film to recommend than it would be had it been leaner, more disciplined film. It’s not terrible, but LET THE BULLETS FLY ultimately frustrates and feels like a missed opportunity. 

LFF 2011: Welcome!

The reason we're all here.

Tomorrow marks the beginning of this year’s long awaited LFF (London Fassbender Festival), and over the next few weeks I’ll be posting my reviews and thoughts from the festival on here as well as via Twitter at @CBatLFF. With a bit of luck, I’ll be able to provide some video content as well, but as I’m a) a time-starved one-man band and b) bumbling and Clouseau-esque this may or may not happen.

I'll do my best to bring you some top notch coverage however - I’m hugely excited to be covering the festival, and I hope to see many of you there or at least hear your thoughts about what looks to be a fascinating slate of films. Over the next couple of weeks you can expect coverage of MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE, THE AWAKENING, MISS BALA, 360, WE NEED A POPE, THE KID WITH A BIKE, SHAME, CORIALANUS, INTO THE ABYSS, REBELLION, MICHAEL, THE ARTIST, WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN, ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA, A DANGEROUS METHOD, and hopefully many more to be confirmed at a later date. If there are any films you would particularly like to see covered then please let me know – demand for tickets means it’s quite difficult to schedule in advance, but I'll do my best to see as many films as I possibly can, and I'd love to know if you've got a good recommendation.

With all this LFF excitement don’t forget that Cigarette Burns itself will be very active over the festival period, with a number of insanely cool screenings to look forward to. Deep breath…first up is cult LARP-ing action horror THE WILD HUNT, screened at legendary record store Rough Trade East on 14th October. Then on the 22nd October come hail the new flesh with us as we screen the magnificent VIDEODROME at the Rio Cinema, before we round the month off on the 26th October with the Lacerated Lovers Double Bill at The Prince Charles; MY BLOODY VALENTINE and ROSEMARY’S KILLER (aka THE PROWLER) back to back, back on the big screen!

You and me both, buddy. You and me both.

On with the fest!