Friday, December 30, 2005

Film review: Fanny and Alexander

Fanny and Alexander is often described as Bergman's masterpiece. But to call masterpiece only one of Bergman's films from his consistently astounding oeuvre is to underestimate the rest of his body of work. For Bergman's whole output is one organic masterpiece. Let's settle for Fanny and Alexander as a synthesis of his cinematic vision.

Released in 1982, Fanny and Alexander is perhaps one of his most accessible works and won four Oscars in 1982, including Best Foreign film. It is a tale about family bonds, but not an imposed type of blood tie. The Ekdahls genuinely love each other and the chemistry of their love is one of the most intense visual translations of affection ever committed to the screen. Most importantly, that is achieved without saccharine orchestral crescendos or larger-than-life displays of emotion. It seems to come from within the film itself, or as one of the characters says, 'from a very deep part of her.'
Fanny & Alexander is set at the beginning of the twentieth century in Bergman's own home town of Uppsala. It starts with a Christmas celebration at the Ekdahl's colourful family home, a thespian clan headed by Helena Ekdahl (Gunn Wallgren). The first part of the film is a long sequence of private moments in bedrooms, which Bergman use to reveal the humanity of several characters that form the intricate narrative tapestry that unfolds on the screen. Among them are the eight-year-old Fanny (Pernilla Allwin) and the 10-year-old Alexander (Bertil Guve), whose lives are turned around when their father Oskar (Allan Edwall) dies. Their mother Emilie then marries the puritanical and evil local bishop (Jan Malmsjö) and the children find themselves locked away in room formerly inhabited the bishop's daughters who drowned in a river with their mother.

The bishop's house is a graphic representation of repression, reminiscent of children's dark fairy-tales, a house inhabited by witch-like spinsters who eavesdrop on other people's thoughts, a drab, anti-life place dictated by the Protestant denial of sensorial pleasures and art. A year passes (this is signified by an ellipsis), by which time Emilie hates the bishop because of his cruel treatment of her children. She's trapped, though, because he won't give her a divorce.

When all seems lost, an old Jewish friend of the family steps into the fray to rescue the children from the clutches of the bishop's iron hand (the bishop already looks quite mad at this point) and the magic realist events triggered off by the Jew's relieving appearance carry the film to its optimistic, soothing end.

It takes someone with a deep understanding of the human condition to make a film like Fanny and Alexander. Although Bergman operates within the realm of his Scandinavian background, his films, and this one especially, is a universal paean to individual freedom and family love, secularism against repressive religion and soul-less Puritanism. Bergman's use of film language is also a wonder to behold: his transition shots are always perfect and laden with poetic connotations; the meditative flow of the film turns the smallest of gestures into eloquent revelations. This film is about magic and it comes from Bergman himself, cinema's greatest magician.

Fanny and Alexander opens on 30 December at the Renoir Cinema in London to 22 January

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Bareback Mountain

Yes, the spoof is out even before the film is out here in the UK ...
Bareback Mountain

Friday, December 23, 2005

Film review: Rize


Fashioning street culture: Super-star photographer David LaChappele makes his directorial debut in the rough streets of LA, but the result is not as memorable as his photographs.

American ghetto culture has for a long time been the source of inspiration and fascination with taste makers working in the mainstream. Take the example of Madonna, who made her career and kept her street cred by occasionally 'mainstreaming' urban dance and style subcultures. She did that with vogueing and more recently used a street dance style called Krumping in her video for Hung Up. Not coincidentally, the video was directed by David LaChapelle, the director of Rize, a documentary that credits itself with having discovered the style.

LaChappele's documentary arrives on the big screen with comparisons to previous classics such as Paris is Burning and Style Wars, but the comparisons are overblown. Although not exactly bad, it is surprisingly bland considering the subject matter. You get the feeling that LaChappele never got fully involved with the scene and never lets the subject matter reveal its full potential. It doesn't sanitise the subject matter but never cuts deep enough either. You also wonder whether Krumping really is the 'phenomenon' that the filmmakers hype it up to be.

Krumping is a hyper-energetic form of dancing adopted by the kids in South Central, Los Angeles as a way out of a life of crime. The dancers jerk their bodies so fast and cathartically that they resemble the participants in Haitian voodoo rituals possessed by a spirit. LaChappele doesn't want us to miss this so he juxtaposes imagery of Nabu tribe members getting ready for fight, painting their bodies etc with footage of the LA kids doing something similar. But he does it in such an obvious way that the mini-thesis he tries to postulate visually looks forced and obvious.

The 'movement' started when Tommy Johnson, also known as Tommy the Clown, created the style as a response to the 1992 Rodney King Riots and named it "clowning”, which then morphed into the so-called Krumping. It's a moving story of social struggle in the underbelly of the American dream. We also get to know some of the key individuals in Tommy's posse, their families and their dreams. One of the highlights of the films is a stadium event where 'rival' gangs meet to outdance each other onstage to a rapturous audience, with Tommy working as a kind of court jester in a rainbow clown outfit. The energy of the place is almost palpable and the aftermath of the event is also one of the good verity moments in Rize.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with post-modern cultural appropriation per se. Subcultures tend to grow out of their original ethos in their crave for attention and that attention will be bigger if a mainstream name lends their hand. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship: the ghetto makes some money and the already-famous gets some much-needed hip cachet.

But Rize is a patchy film that could do without the final sequence that looks almost like a promo clip for LaChappeles's unmistakable style. This is part of the problem. He seems too tempted to dress the film in the Technicolor fantasy world that made his pictures famous and which certainly works for the fashion world. However, in a documentary, style over substance is not necessarily the most adequate method to record reality.

Larry Clark at the ICA, London, 17/12

LarryClarkLarry Clark, the photographer who made his film debut with the infamous Kids (1995), has an unfair 'bad boy' reputation. His publicised run-in with Tartan films supremo, Hamish MacCalpine, only reinforced this image of Clark as well as resulted in Ken Park (2002) never being released in the UK. True, at 62, Clark still exudes a black-clad rock 'n roll demeanour that makes him look younger and urban, perhaps even 'bad boy-ish'. But as soon as he started talking on the ICA stage, it was a softer persona that the audience had in front of them. In fact, tonight he came across as much more friendly than the reputation that preceeds him made me expect, although he did concede to a former aggressive streak smoothed out by age.

Clark ingressed the art world with a book of photographs named after his hometown, Tulsa (1971), in which his drug-addled, crime-prone friends with a gritty realism that influenced Martin Scorcese's Taxi Driver, Francis Ford Coppola’s Rumblefish and Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy. The book was recently re-released after the publishers persuaded him to do so - considering the number of people asking him to sign copies at the ICA, that must have been a financially sound decision. He also has a new film coming out in March (US release) called Wussa Rockers ("it's like Kids ten years later"), set in the gang world of LA's south central area, which is also the area where David LaChapelle's documentary Rize (see reviews) is set.

Clark likes his own film Bully (2001). "I think it's a visually exciting film. I hadn't seen it in years until tonight and I remember the first time I saw it on the big screen. I saw a Hollywood movie on the same day and it looked so dead!' he said at the beginning of the conversation.

Bully is set in Hollywood, Florida amidst a group of teenagers who spend most of the time smoking dope and having sex. Shot in a documentary-style way which is very similar to Kids, it passes no judgement on them. The climax of the film is the murder of the local bully. The murder is shown as banal and reckless and at no point does Clark resort to Manichaeism. They pay the price for the crime and that's it. The acting is absolutely wondrous (the leading cast, Brand Renfro, Tania Milner, Nick Stahl and the superb Bijou Philips, are uniformly compelling to watch), which combined with the jittery camerawork and superb soundtrack, makes for involving viewing.

When questioned about the lifestyle of the kids, Clark said: "I guess it's a very American film. Living in an affluent country, those kids can afford the luxury of boredom. It is depressing, but at the same time most of them will figure it out and grow out of that. I just wanted to show them as human beings because kids are always shown as some kind of slapstick joke. When I made Kids, I wanted it to ring true to the kids who came to see it. And a lot of them said to me: this is like real life, not a film."

Part of the electricity and immediacy of the film comes from the fact that Clark had to shoot it in 23 days. "We had so little money to make this film. We were running around like crazy, shooting transition shots over the weekends. There was also a lot of improvisation. That's the great thing about working with professional actors: it's amazing what they can do."

One refreshing thing about Clark is that he doesn't over-intellectualize about his work. Although his oeuvre fits in an art cinema lineage that goes back to Italian neo-realism, and the way he allows the camera to linger on ugly-beautiful faces of teenagers can remind you of Pier Paolo Pasolini's close-ups on Italian peasants, his art seems to be more based on a very fine-tuned instinct to seek out the holy grail of cinema: the truth.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

The film of tomorrow

"The film of tomorrow appears to me as even more personal than an individual and autobiographical novel, like a confession, or a diary. The young filmmakers will express themselves in the first person and will relate what has happened to them: it may be the story of their first love or their most recent; of their political awakening; the story of a trip, a sickness, their military service, their marriage, their last vacation...and it will be enjoyable because it will be true and new...The film of tomorrow will not be directed by civil servants of the camera, but by artists for whom shooting a film constitutes a wonderful and thrilling adventure. The film of tomorrow will resemble the person who made it, and the number of spectators will be proportional to the number of friends the director has. The film of tomorrow will be an act of love."

This is what Francois Truffaut predicted in the May 1957 edition of Arts Magazine.
And it's happening now.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Review: Blood for Dracula

bloodfordracula As the Christmas zoo- and horror-philia starts with a giant ape climbing the Empire State and Lassie making a comeback to the screens (not to mention Werner Herzog's upcoming Grizzly Man - but that's a different story), fans of cult director Paul Morrissey should not miss the opportunity to catch the screenings of the rare-to-come-by Blood for Dracula (also known as Andy Warhol’s Dracula) and made as a companion piece to Flesh for Frankenstein, which is playing as part of of a season of cult/horror/trash movies called Psychotronic Cinema at the ICA in London. Morrissey, of course, is famous because of his films with Andy Warhol and later in his life he became a bit villified because of his supposed conservative views (he said he made Trash because people who take drugs are, well, trashy).

But conservatism is not to be found in this superb rendition of the Dracula story, which even has a cameo by Roman Polanski. Camp, sexiness and amazing cinematography are on offer here. Morrissey takes the fanged count to the beautiful, soft-lit pastures of the Italian countryside, where he is put up by the aristocratic De Fiore family, headed by no one less than Vittorio de Sica’s (yes, he who made Bicycle Thieves!) marchese.

As it happens, the Fiori are short of money and see in the count a money-grabbing opportunity since they have two daughters to marry off. Dracula headed to Italy thinking he could find virgin blood in the Catholic country. But how wrong he was and he gets sicker and sicker as he tries different girls only to almost puke his guts out (that’s the reaction to non-virgin blood, apparently). With elements of farce, physical comedy, melancholy, art-house-meets-trash cinema aesthetics, Blood for Dracula is an enthralling, enchanting experience.

Like all 'period' films - and especially this type of period film that adopts a very Brechtian method of distanciation and deliberately artificial acting - Blood for Dracula is a very seventies film (it was made in 1975), with all the tongue-in-cheek eroticism that was en vogue in those days. But he had an eye and good taste and the film is always stunning to look at. Kier, with his homme-fatale, chiseled looks, was born to play the role and, like Dracula, will live eternally in our memories with the image of blood dreeping from his craving mouth.


Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Worth the hype: Grizzly Man

I saw last night a screening of Grizzly Man, the much-anticipated Werner Herzog’s documentary on Timothy Treadwell, the puerile eco-warrior who spent thirteen summers with wild Alaskan grizzly bears until he got devoured by one in October 2003. Herzog sculpted the film out of 100 hours footage that Treadwell shot himself and the result is a mesmerising piece, full of compassion, wit and insight into the contemporary human psychology. I’ll write a full review when the film comes out on 4 February, but meanwhile you can catch the trailer.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Beastie Boy's fan movie

What a great idea. My favourite rap band ever, the Beastie Boys created a film by handing out video cameras to 50 audience members at last year's gig at Madison Square Gardens. Dogme 95 meets Manhattan coolness. Sounds good to me.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Larry Clark at the ICA

Director Larry Clark will introduce a special screening of Bully followed by an extended Q&A session after the film this Saturday 17 December. The screening starts at 4.30pm.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Woody Allen's London map

Not happy to be almost an emblem of New York, Woody Allen has set his bespectacled eyes on London as well. In the run-up to the January release of his London-set Match Point, starring starlet extraordinaire Scarlett Johansson alongside Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Film London and Visit London have launched a downloadable map whereby visitors can follow in Johansson’s footsteps to discover some of London’s top shops and restaurants as well as familiar London landmarks such as 30 St Mary Axe (also known as The Gherkin), Westminster Bridge and the Houses of Parliament. The map also highlights some lesser-known sites such as the hidden sanctuary of Mount Street Gardens as well as locations off the ‘tourist trail’ in Belgravia, Chelsea and Covent Garden. Match Point is a drama 'about a young man’s rise in society and the terrible consequences of his ambition'. Filming took place for seven weeks in and around London with the production marking Allen’s first feature film to be made entirely outside of his native New York.


Frederick Wiseman at the Tate Modern

Frederick Wiseman, the doyenne of American film documentary- and probably one of the world's finest - will be introducing the screening of his classic Public Housing, an unsparing look at The Ida B Wells development in Chicago, which falls within the most densely populated public housing district in the United States. The film is described as 'a monument to the dehumanising effects of poverty'. I'll be attending and reporting afterwards so watch this space 'cause it will be worth it.
Sunday 11/12 - Tate Modern 3pm

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Review: March of the Penguins

When the penguins go marching in...

If further evidence that documentaries have become serious box-office business, then the 'blockbuster' icebound penguin saga March of the Penguins should provide it. Directed by French biologist Luc Jacquet, the film has grossed US$70 million in the United States alone and arrives in the UK just in time for the Christmas schmaltzy season.

The film was shot over a period of 14 months and was produced by a pool of organisations that includes by Canal +, Buena Vista, Bonne Pioche and the French Polar Institute. It became a resounding a success when it first opened in France and in America it was appropriated by pro-life groups, which saw in it an example of monogamy and family values that fit in perfectly with the Bush-influenced conservative ethos in the Western world.

Despite technically being a nature documentary, March of the Penguins really is a film about human feelings projected on animals, a Disney-style exercise in anthropomorphisation of unwitting creatures. The 'storyline' should be familiar to most by now. Every winter, emperor Penguins in Antarctica leave behind the safety of the blue waters where they inhabit to set out on a 100km journey to one of the most inhospitable regions in the world in order to mate. The penguins march in a straight line against a blast of icy wind, driven by their instinct to reproduce, with unshakeable determination.

The film is designed to pull at the heart strings, with the help of the voice-over that gives human character to the 'protagonist' family of penguins that lead the emotional narrative. There’s nothing too unusual in that and we probably have seen this sort of approach in Saturday morning animal-world documentaries. But March of the Penguins is an ideologically and aesthetically contaminated film that uses typified nature to unabashedly glorify the human spirit. Yes, there are hints that there is violence in nature but this is glossed over by Jacquet in favour of a more ‘positive' outlook.

The irony is that March of the Penguins is set amidst the continent which has become the focal point of the global warming crisis and it would have been much more useful to highlight that this march may not happen for much longer because of the human destruction of the planet. But instead what we get is a narcissistic manipulation of the natural world in the service of 'values'. Shouldn't nature films attempt to divert our attention from ourselves as human animals so that we contemplate nature more closely and be moved to preserve it? By turning animals into metaphors of the human experience, March of the Penguins sadly reinforces the anthropocentric view of the world that is the main cause of the ecological disaster we are heading towards and therefore betrays the basic role of nature films as a call to preservation.

March of the Penguins is out 9/12

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

St Etienne's Hymns to London - Revisited

Those St Etienne people seem to be obsessed with London and tonight they show another fruit of their obsession at the Barbican Centre: What Have You Done Today, Mervyn Day? (UK 2005 Dir. Paul Kelly 45 min.). The film is set in the 'vast mysterious pylon-covered wasteland that is the Lower Lea Valley, East London, on the eve of the Olympic redevelopment'. Through the eyes of a paperboy on his first day at work, the band and film crew race against time to document buildings, landmarks and people before they disappear to make way for stadiums, spacious plazas and Olympic villages.

I can't decide whether that sounds interesting or not, actually, but I decided to tell the world about it anyway, just in case.

Lady Bunny's new video

Speaking of devil dolls, here's Lady Bunny!

Show me Lady Bunny!

Repertory watch: The Devil Doll


This is a must-see cult classic from Tod Browing, who also gave the world the truly wonderful Freaks (quoted by Robert Altman in The Player). Made in 1936 and starring Lionel Barrymore, Frank Lawton and Maureen O’Sullivan, The Devil Doll is a camp cacophony of mad scientists, mind control, shrinking people and Lionel Barrymore in drag. Paul Lavond (Barrymore) decides to take revenge on his three business partners after being framed and imprisoned on Devil’s Island for 17 years. He hooks up with Marcel, an elderly deranged scientist, whose master plan is to save the planet by shrinking all men and beasts. Lavond simply wants retribution on his crooked bankers and when Marcel unexpectedly dies of a heart attack, he becomes the proprietress of a doll shop, the murderous Madame Mandelip – ready to take on her victims. Delicious!
Curzon Soho Sunday 11 9pm

George Michael says the right thing

George Michael

It's mega-stars documentary season now. After Madonna launched her cheesily entitled I'm Going to Tell You a Secret (really?), now it's George Michael's turn to rip his heart apart to the world in his more cleverly titled A Different Story, which is having advance screenings in London this week.

In a story run by the UK edition of, George Michael is quoted saying he is a difficult person to get on with, at the launch of the documentary.

The quotes were lifted from the trash-pile known as Evening Standard, but I have to admit being smitten by Michael's views which contrast so sharply with the ones dispensed by that other famous English queen, Elton John. Michael said he does not anonymous sex as wrong, or cruising 'dysfunctional... But I don’t cruise anymore, believe me. It is one thing to be self-destructive and then try to be cool about it; it is another for it to happen again and you just look stupid.'

He also said his open relationship with partner Kenny Goss had produced more trust and helped stabilise their relationship.'Gay men don’t have a higher sex drive than straight men; the latter are merely restrained by women,' he said.

But best of all is to come. After rumours circulated that he intended to benefit from the introduction of the civil partnerships, he said that it was something was 'something we might do in the future. I have a different opinion to Elton’s. All I want is the legal protection Kenny and I both deserve. Marriage is such a difficult institution at the best of times…if we were to get married, we would be apeing an institution that is not built for us.'

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Hidden triumps at European Film Awards

Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche in Hidden
Austrian director Michael Haneke'S acclaimed French language thriller Hidden (Caché), starring Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche, garnered five awards at the European Film Awards in Berlin on Saturday (3 December). The awards for were:

Best European Film 2005 - Caché
Best European Director 2005 - Michael Haneke
Best European Actor 2005 - Daniel Auteuil
Best European Editor 2005 - Michael Hudecek and Nadine Muse
Members of the European Film Academy judged 47 films this year. The awards, voted by the academy's 1,600 members, have been handed out since 1988 and are considered Europe's equivalent of the Oscars.
Hidden is released in the UK on 27/1/2006

Monday, December 05, 2005

Film review: The Store

Still from The Store (1982)

Those of you who have never heard of Frederick Wiseman should take yourselves to the Tate Modern for the ongoing mini Wiseman festival that's taking place there in conjunction with the Jeff Wall show. Wiseman is often dubbed the greatest American documentarian and there seems to be truth in that. I saw his classic The Store (1982) yesterday and I was astounded by the intelligence that Wiseman displayed in the construction of this masterpiece. The Store is a fly-on-the-wall documentary about the day-by-day at Neiman Marcus department store in Dallas. Shot on film stock, the camera is never acknowledged and never hand-held as it usually is these days, which creates the impression of this being a fiction film. Wiseman's smooth editing and visual puns manage to create a visual essay on consumerist society that is more beautiful and eerier than anything David Lynch ever made. Yes, life is stranger than fiction, especially in America. Wiseman will be present for a Q&A session on Sunday, 11/12.

La Dolce Vitta in pictures

I just bumped into this fantastic site crammed with pictures taken by Italian post-war photographer, Giuseppe Palmas. A tresure trove of cinematic black and white glamour.