Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Out 24 June/Last update

The other new releases of the week are:
Czech Dream, Evil, A Lot Like Love, In My Father’s Den and Kung Fu Hustle
Please see Where/When link for details of venues and times.

Repertory watch/Mosaique festival + Riverside Studios

The answer blows in the wind: Cazales in Le Grand Voyage

Opening briefly as part of the mini festival Mosaique at the French Institute (see links, Alliance Française), Ismaël Ferroukhi's Le Grande Voyage is a road movie that updates the generation-gap dilemma to contemporary Europe where tradition and modernity often clash. It tells the story of Reda (Nicolas Cazales), a young man living in the south of France, who finds himself forced to drive his father to Mecca a few weeks before his college entrance exams. From the start, the journey is difficult. Reda and his father have nothing in common. Conversation is reduced to the strict minimum. Reda wants to experience the trip in his own way but his father demands respect for himself and expects his son to understand the meaning of his pilgrimage. As they drive through different countries and meet various people, Reda and his father observe each other warily, facing the challenge of creating a relationship when communication seems impossible.///
Further west, the Riverside Studios shows the classic screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby, the jewel on the crown of the genre (Sunday 26 June). Still at the Riverside, Richard Linklater's companion films Before Sunrise and Before Sunset show as a double bill. The Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke -starred romantic, existentialist mini-series are as good as they get these days and if you missed the chance to see them the first time round, now is the time (Thursday 30 June).

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Out 24 June/Terremolinos 73

Action: Cámara shoots to fame in Terremolinos 73

The influence of Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar on other productions made in his native country is not ready to abate yet, as the new film Torremolinos 73 seem to indicate. The star of the film, Javier Cámara, is also an Almodóvar collaborator (Talk to Her, Bad Education), which makes the link even stronger. But Torremolinos 73, like another recent Spanish comedy, Only Human, is much less demanding stuff than Almodóvar’s films.

Director Pablo Berger takes the audience back to 1970s Spain, when it was under the repressive grip of the Franco dictatorship. Cámara plays a down-on-his-luck encyclopaedia salesman whose peachy wife Carmen (Candela Pena, previously seen in Take My Eyes) badly wants to get pregnant.

Luckily, the honcho of Montoya Publishers, Alfredo's employers, suggests Alfredo and Carmen make Super-8 erotic films for the Scandinavian market, an idea that was rejected by older encyclopaedia sales force, but which Alfredo and Carmen welcome (another colleague, who turns out to have a thing for horses, also embarks on the project).

Since he knows nothing about films, Alfredo gets trained by a Swedish man who says he used to work for Ingmar Bergman while Carmen is given lessons in seduction by a Swedish woman who looks like a cross between Farrah Fawcett and the Abba girls.

As chance would have it, Alfredo and Carmen's naive style strikes a chord with Scandinavian audiences and they become household names in the kinky north, to the point when they get followed around by a fan during a trip to a department store. Berger never worries too much about showing how the success happened, focusing instead on the relationship between wife and husband and their fertility problem. It leaves something of a gap in a film that is narrative-driven, but the art direction and the generous succession of gags served up by Berger make up for any temporal discrepancies.

Terremolinos 73 is a retro-fest of hairdos and 1970s prints, as if John Waters had gone on holiday in Spain with Almodóvar as his guide. Berger also uses the Bergman references as a resource of connoisseur jokes - he even brings in Dogme 95 actors Thomas Larsen and Bjarne Henriksen (of Festen fame) to appear in the feature film that Alfredo ends up writing and directing and which is used as the 'film-within-the-film' resolution.

Of course, like Waters, comedy is used a license for rudeness and exaggeration of stereotypes (the Danish film crew swims naked in the sea; one of them is gay etc). But it works, because Berger finds the right balance between irony and sincerity. Cámara proves once again that he's one of the best actors currently working in Spain and Pena is one to watch out for.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Out 17 June/Last update

This week also sees the release of Batman Begins. I haven’t seen this movie yet and wonder what else is left to do with the franchise, although the Batman series has always been one of my favourite celluloid guilty pleasures. /// Bonbon El Perro, Undertow and We Don't Live Here Any More round up the week’s new releases. Click here to find out more about these films.

Out 17 June /L'eclisse

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La doce Vitti: Monica Vitti spearheads the cast of L'eclisse
Re-released in the UK as part of the NFT's Antonioni season (see links list), L'eclisse is the last of the director's black and white trilogy, which also includes L'avventura and La Notte. It bears the trademarks of Antonioni's enigmatic, elliptic and metaphysical works. It’s also funny and extremely fluid.

Antonioni, unlike other Italian neo-realists, was not so much concerned with class struggles and the oppression from the superstructures of power. His films, which often depict the bourgeoisie, focus on the internal struggles and the alienation of man in the modern world. And modern he was in terms of style, often favouring desolate settings like new development buildings in the suburbs of Italian big cities, industrial landscapes and motorways. Antonioni's Italy is a far cry from the bucolic romanticism evoked by Florence. The only classical beauty here on display is that of Monica Vitti and Alain Delon, both in their absolute prime (the film is from 1962).

Vitti plays Vittoria, a translator whose relationship with Ricardo(Fernando Cabal) comes to an end at the beginning of the film. In the next sequence, she is seen at the stock exchange, where her mother is bidding with the help of Piero (Delon). This sequence is a masterfully orchestrated set-piece, the frenzy on the exchange floor interspersed with small asides which Antonioni uses throughout the film as a way to take L'eclisse away from a linear story line. Instead, he creates micro stories and still lives whose significance is constructed from their juxtaposition. His talent for carving out life of the inanimate and random has to be unique in film history.

L'eclisse, like most of his films, is best seen without any attempts to 'understand' it in the traditional sense of the word. On a basic level, it could be interpreted as a film about relationships, but he never tries to analyse them or offer any answers because there are no questions and when any questions come up within the film itself, the reply is ‘I don’t know’. Absence is key to Antonioni's vision, which is purely cinematic, not narrative. It's the non-event that 'fills' his films, contextualised in a world of modernist signs that Antonioni magically rescue from objectivity into pure subjectivity.

Out 17 June/Thirteen Conversations About One Thing

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"Teacher, what does life mean?": John Turturro in
Thirteen Conversations About One Thing

Films set in New York constitute a genre in their own right, one that was made popular and epitomised by that most famous of screen New Yorkers, Woody Allen. A more recent addition to this sub-genre is ‘indie New York’ which includes films like Walking and Talking (1997), Living in Oblivion (1995), Smoke (1996) and Blue in the Face (1996), to name but a few.

Thirteen Conversations About One Thing, which is being released in the UK after a four-year delay, belongs in this small, but influential genre. Director/writer Jill Sprecher, who co-wrote the film with her sister Karen, is in fact a veteran of the indie scene, having worked as production assistant in the 1982 cult movie Liquid Sky and previously directed Clockwatchers (1997).

Thirteen Conversations About One Thing uses the capital of the 20th century as a place which seems to contain all of life, full of people questioning the meaning of life. This more relaxed, flaneurish representation of the city is in a sharp contrast with the real place where much of what that life entails seems to go unnoticed of because people are just too busy with the hustle and jostle of the metropolis.

Sprecher's multi-layered narrative explores the question of the interconnectedness of those millions of lives and how the smallest actions, as similarly suggested by Chaos Theory, always have a consequence. This may sound like the type of conversation you could have in a late-night bar in downtown Manhattan under the glow of a neon light, but Sprecher goes well beyond cod-philosophising with her superbly written and executed film.

Funnily enough, the film does start in a bar where the lawyer played by Matthew McConaughey is celebrating his promotion with the firm where he works at. He has a brief exchange with the insurance manager played by Joseph Siravo. On his way back home, the lawyer hits someone with his car, but doesn't stop to help. That person turns out to be Beatrice (Clea DuVall), a relentlessly optimist cleaner who believes in the goodness of the human spirit. Then we get introduced to a physics professor (the always excellent John Turturro), who is having an existential crisis and is wondering about the possibility of happiness. And so the narrative ripples out into segments peopled by different characters who in some cases turn out to have a connection with other characters from a different strand of the film. We roam these different micro universes with the camera, like an omnipresent god observing humans meditate about the pursuit of happiness and the awkwardness of life.

This is not a film that tries to impress with plot twists and revelations that solve a puzzle at the end. Sprecher is not interested in exhibitionism – this is more akin to Paul Auster’s books than Usual Suspects-type resolution. The characters and their feelings are more important than narrative conundrums, even though Sprecher's attention to detail does impress. It's also a film with focus on atmosphere and mood. Even though the film is set in contemporary New York, it exudes something retro and timeless about it, maybe thanks to its autumnal hues and light. Thirteen Conversations About One Thing is a very charming, humane film that every self-respecting urbane film lover should be talking about at 3am in the glow of a neon-lit bar.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

DVD Watch: The Cockettes + The Nomi Song

These two DVDs have been floating around the Internet and I thought I should start helping spread the news. Both are documentaries about gender-bending artists who also bent genres. The Cockettes (dir: David Weissman/Bill Weber) is a documentary about the San Francisco ensemble of gay men, women and even babies who put on a series of legendary musicals at the Palace Theater in North Beach with titles like Tinsel Tarts in a Hot Coma and Pearls over Shangai. The Cockettes were key players in the San Francisco mutation from psychedelic haven to gay paradise with their dancing extravaganzas, elaborate costumes, rebellious sexuality and carnivalesque chaos. Truman Capote was a fan, but president Nixon may not have been very amused when The Cockettes made a film called Tricia’s Wedding to coincide with Tricia Nixon’s wedding, which featured a transvestite Tricia, a drunken Mamie Eisenhower, a party crashing Lady Bird and a drag Eartha Kitt spiking the punch with LSD.

Fast forward to the late 70s/early 80s New York and you’ll find a German opera singer making a splash in the burgeoning New Wave scene with his outlandish costumes and hyper-camp electro tunes. Sadly, Klaus Nomi’s legacy is also linked with Aids since he was the first celebrity to die of the disease in the early days of 'the plague'. Director Andrew Horn’s The Nomi Song is an amazing collection of rare footage of the legend and you get the impression that you have seen every moving image of Nomi ever made. This is a heart-felt homage to a great singer and fully-fledged performer whose life was nothing short of operatic.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Out 10 June /last update

Café Lumière (Dir: Hou Hsiao-hsien): Japanese pop singer Yo Hitoto plays Yoko, an intelligent, independent young woman who has carved out an unhurried, self-sufficient life for herself in contemporary Tokyo. She has close friends (amongst them soulmate and bookshop owner Tadanobu Asano) and a loving family but on the whole she is content to move at her own pace, resisting the pull of a conventional career or romance. However, an unexpected pregnancy forces her to think about her life in a way she never has before. Hou’s tribute to Yasujiro Ozu is described as ‘understated and contemplative on the surface as one of Ozu’s own masterpieces, yet filled with penetrating observations about its characters and contemporary urban existence. Detail: it was shot by In the Mood for Love cinematographer Mark Lee Pin-bing. At the ICA (see links)///
mrandmrssmith Mr and Mrs Smith (Dir: Doug Liman. With Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt): The much anticipated Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie duet, who recently sent a horde of giraffes in Africa running scared in the savannah, hits the screens in London. Reviews have been surprisingly good; perhaps the critics who wrote about it were in need of some sexual boost and got what they needed from these two bisexually-appealing stars.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Out 10 June/Inside Deep Throat


It's surprising that it’s taken someone so far to make a high-profile documentary about the archetypal porn film, Deep Throat, considering the long-standing interest in vintage porn. Or just porn, full stop. Porn is ubiquitous, and the female body is its canvas. Britney Spears is pure pornography. Pamela Anderson pole-danced her way out of the porn industry and Madonna used it to boost her career in the early 1990s. Porn is ‘chic’, a multi-billion dollar industry that is bigger than Hollywood itself and it will only grow stronger.

Those who are old enough to remember the buzz around Deep Throat, which resonated throughout a good part of the 1970s, will understand better the framework in which the directors Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato ('Party Monster') and producer Brian Grazer inserted their glossy, footage-rich documentary on the most famous porn flick ever. However, they were clever enough to avoid getting trapped in a time capsule and made a film that is more about issues such as censorship and sexual morale than Deep Throat itself.

Bailey and Barbato have patented a genre of documentary that mixes a sense of fun with investigative journalism. It may not be to everyone's taste, but it works, and they seem to be on the money since their World of Wonder's irreverent, zeitgeisty production company is behind a bevy of high-profile documentaries, including Andy Warhol: The Complete Picture (shown on Channel Four, Party Monster: the Michael Alig Story and The Adam and Joe Show.

Made in 1972 for $25,000, it is estimated that Deep Throat may have grossed $600 million. Rather than explore the sex industry per se, the film attempts to present the film as a cultural phenomenon with a huge impact on popular culture and a barometer of the American dysfunctional attitude towards sex. This is pure pop anthropology, crammed with punditry, courtesy from a wide array of well-known personalities. These include Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, Camille Paglia, Hugh Hefner, John Waters, to name but a few.

We also get to know the film's director, Gerard Damiano, a rather sweet old man who these days live in Florida with his very normal family. He comes across as more of a victim (he never made any money out of the film and certainly got a lot of hassle when the FBI went after him), instead of a cigar-munching monster who exploited the film's tragic star, Linda Lovelace.

The late Lovelace, of course, is one of the main topics in the film. The impression you get is that she was a damaged person before she actually got involved in the industry. Footage of her shows an impressionable, deeply insecure woman of very limited intellectual capacity. Even when she was appearing in talks shows, railing against the porn industry, it seemed like that she was just voicing someone else’s thoughts.

Overall, the 70s porn industry is presented as part of the burgeoning movements of sexual liberation, equal rights and questioning of authority that permeated popular culture at the time (in high contrast with the professionally hardcore, commodified industry of today). Deep Throat was the first porn movie to crossover into the mainstream and present a story. This was bound to annoy many of those in the echelons of the powers that be.

Inside Deep Throat ultimately deals with the question: why does sex, despite its pervasiveness in contemporary culture, remain a taboo? Why, for instance, on cinematic terms, it is okay to blow someone's brain up but a fellatio scene is deemed a crime against humanity? The film does not try to answer these questions because probably there is no straight answer to them, but those are good points to make. The departure point in the film to ask such questions is intrinsically American but the fascination is universal.

Out 10 June/Kings and Queens

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Time is so over: Deneuve (right) in Kings and Queens
Nora Cotterelle (Emmanuelle Devos) is about to get married to a wealthy man. At first she looks like a sophisticated art-loving Parisian, talking to art dealers like a lady who lunches. Next she is on a train en route to the town where her father lives she visits her father in Bordeaux. Upon her arrival, her father tells her he’s not feeling well. She takes him to hospital and is diagnosed with a terminal disease. The shock unleashes images and emotions from her past, which come back to her like high definition slide projections.

Ismäel Vuillard (Mathieu Amalric) is an artist who is committed to a psychiatric home where he lives through a series of tragic-comic situations. Nora and Ismäel, we later find out, used to be lovers. That marks the beginning of the merging of the two parallel, kaleidoscopic narratives. What seemed like a jumble of slightly random sequences dovetail into some kind of coherence, although, like life, nothing ever becomes too transparent and clear.

Kings and Queens is an auteurist film (director: Arnaud Desplechin) that tries out some new ways of depicting memories and the non-linearity of time. For that reason, the parallel narrative technique is a perfect meta-device to explore the idea of life as a collage.

We all know that it’s a Hollywood myth (and one much favoured and perpetuated by mainstream film schools) that every narrative fact should be explained and that there is a natural sequence to things, the old beginning-middle-end template that Anglo-Saxon audiences are so addicted to for the illusion of control it gives them. Kings and Queens is composed of a series of sequences which, even though they are not self-contained, they carry their own magic and essence. Together, they give the film a unique energy and capture a very contemporary sensitivity.

In the reality of the mind, which arguably is the only one, such laws of order and logic stop making sense. Desplechin does away with constricted narrative ideas of time and space and creates a film that is fluid, multiple and always stimulating. The result is a sprawling non-genre experiment that is funny, philosophical, weird and emotional, a 150-minute pleasure ride.

Desplechin is also a director of good visual taste and some of the faux-documentary scenes of quintessential French landscapes imprinted on faded film stock are stunning. He also makes a very successful experiment with editing and sound in one sequence when Nora's father is being wheeled into hospital on a stretcher.

Catherine Deneuve has a small part as a psychiatrist at the clinic where Ismäel is interned. Emmanuelle Devos is superb as Nora with her plain/beautiful looks and quirky delivery. Whereas a lot of contemporary French cinema seems to lack oxygen at the best of times, Kings and Queens takes it to more adventurous territory and brilliantly succeeds in doing so.

Out June 10/Baadasssss

Man with a mission: Mario is
Mr Baadasssss

In 1971, Melvin Van Peebles made Sweet Sweetback's Baadassss Song, the first film to feature a black ghetto hero in screen history. Van Peebles's name was known in Hollywood due to the success of his film The Watermelon Man. He used his contacts in the industry to pitch his idea featuring a black man on the run after killing two racist cops.

Unsurprisingly, studio bosses were not ready to steer away from the cinematic clichès of blacks as helpless slaves or 'super-Negroes'. Van Peebles was a man with a mission and he decided he would make his film against all the odds and his effort, besides paying off handsomely at the box-office (Sweet Sweetback... beat Love Story in 1971's rankings, thanks to the endorsement of the Black Panthers) shaped the independent cinema ethos that spawned directors such as Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino. Blaxpoitation cinema was born.

Mario was 11 years old when his father shot his film. His documentary is based on his experience of living with his father during the frantic, nearly maddening period of shooting. Mario appeared in the original as a young boy who loses his virginity. In Baadasssss he plays his father with charm and the right amount of mythologizing. One reading of this film could be of it as a celluloid love letter from son to father.

Baadasssss is an extremely good-looking movie, a staged documentary interspersed with staged accounts of the people who were part of the making of the original. In the end, we get the real characters, which adds an element of verity to the proceedings. Van Peebles Jr steered clear of controversy and opted instead for a celebratory, groovadelic approach. For that reason, anyone who expects a very political film will be disappointed. This is entertainment, played safe from the comfort of historical distance. But why not? It's a story with a happy end and a protagonist who knew want he wanted and got it, ‘by all means necessary’ as he would say. Baadasssss is a boisterous celebration of American black culture and one of the key works that blazed a trail that had been blocked for far too long.

Mario is convincing in his own father's shoes, flares and handlebar moustache. The period reproduction is also good, even though the producers of contemporary films set in the 1970s always seem to forget to tell the actors to stop going to the gym for a while. People in the 1970s were a lot skinnier than today’s gym-buffed specimens - I noticed the same fact in Todd Haynes's Velvet Goldmine. I suppose a bit of muscle slickness makes for good eye candy, and it doesn't really matter. Period films are always more about the epoch in which they are made than the actual period the film is set in. In the case of this one, it makes you wish you could travel in time.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Out 3 June/last update

Adam and Paul (Dir: Lenny Abrahamson): Black comedy set in a period of 24 hours in the lives of two heroin addicts as they roam the streets of Dublin looking for their next fix. Time Out has described it as “mordantly funny and unexpectedly poignant”. /// Brotherhood (Dir: Kang Je-Gyu): From South Korea comes this tale of two brothers. Jin Tae is a shoeshine boy who is soon to be married, and Jin Seok, his bookish younger brother dreams of one day attending university. They are unwillingly conscripted as the Korean War is about to break out. Jin Tae sets about to find a way to discharge his brother and this will lead to a split between them. E-Film Critic wrote that it could think ‘of few anti-war statements more articulate, or images more powerful.’ /// Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst (Dir: Robert Stone, pictured):Documentary about the Symbionese Liberation Army that earned notoriety in 1974 when it kidnapped newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst who ended up joining her captors in a California bank robbery (Hearst is a John Waters regular these days). Hearst does not appear in the film, which leaves a gap, but this is fascinating material that outstrips the film’s flaws. /// League of Gentleman’s Apocalypse (Dir: Steve Bendelack): From the creators of the successful and surreal TV series, crammed with gags that will please the series fans.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Filtered news

Italian film director, Michelangelo Antonioni, the last surviving name attached to Italian Neorealism, is being given a month-long retrospective at the National Film Theatre. Short films, lectures and features will give Londoners a chance to brush up on one of the most intriguing film directors ever/// The British Museum Film Society shows on Saturday (4 June) the film Crumb, a documentary about the cartoonist Robert Crumb, author of Mr Natural and Fritz the Cat.///Jane Fonda lands on the stage of the NFT for a Guardian interview led by Lord Puttnam. The interview marks the launch of Fonda’s biography My Life So Far. The event is sold-out but you can submit a question to Ms Fonda from the NFT’s webcast page.


For further info on the events mentioned, see the links list on the right.

Out 3 June/Swimming Upstream

Directed by Russell Mulcahy and set in 1950s Brisbane, Swimming Upstream is based on Anthony Fingleton's autobiographical novel of the same name. Tony ( Jesse Spencer) beats the odds to become a champion swimmer in spite of an overbearing alcoholic father Harold (Geoffrey Rush ), and his long-suffering but quietly heroic wife Dora (Judy Davis). Overshadowed in his father's eyes by his brothers Harold Jnr and John ( David Hoflin and Tim Draxl), it is only when Tony displays an extraordinary swimming talent that he feels he has a shot at winning his father's heart and maybe even the Olympic gold.

Ed: I haven't seen this movie, this is just a straightforward description.