Monday, January 30, 2006

Immigrants win Sundance hearts

30/01/06Two films examining immigrant life in America, the Hispanic teen drama "Quinceanera" and the Sudanese refugee documentary "God Grew Tired of Us," won top honors Saturday at the Sundance Film Festival.
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Friday, January 27, 2006

Online film site launched

Another day, another on-line film streaming site launched: US-based went live on 16 January 2006 with the aim of addressing "the plight of the independent filmmaker by providing an effective exhibition and distribution environment featuring only independently produced content". The site plans to have online festivals and hopes to attract an audience of millions per month.


Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche in Hidden
Austrian director Michael Haneke's acclaimed French language 'thriller' Hidden (Caché), starring Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche, which garnered five awards at the European Film Awards in Berlin on 3 December), opens today. Haneke's portrail of guilt, the media and French colonial past has a latently contemporary feel to it and captures something about the fear-driven societies we live in. An important film and very interesting visually as well.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Night and Fog: an illustrated lecture at the Ciné lumière

Last night was the launch of Wallflower's book on the 50th anniversary of Alain Resnais' film, Night and Fog (Nuit et Brouillard), the first film to deal with the holocaust, and a seminal piece in the construction of a visual memory of the collective memory of humanity's worst calamity. The screening of the film was preceded by a presentation by the editor of the book Uncovering the Holocaust: the International Reception of Night and Fog, Ewout van der Knaap, who analysed the impact the film has had throughout its 50-year career in Britain, France, Germany, Israel, Netherlands and the USA.

Van der Knaap said that the analysis of the film's reception is like "a litmus test for the memory of the holocaust" and that is it is "central to Jewish American narrative", but not really so in the UK where Hocaust awareness is alarmingly low. Overall, he said, the film has had a huge impact, one that began right after the controversy during the 1956 Cannes Festival, when it was withdrawn by request of the German government, who thought it could hinder the reconciliation process at the time. But after a debate in the German parliament in April of that same year, it was decided that it should be used an educational tool and 200 copies were made to be distributed for educational purposes. Three years later, on 26 April 1959, the film was shown on French television.

The talk was followed by a screening of the film. Silence befell the audience, broken by the occasional gasp of horror, such is the power of the imagery. Resnais used the grass in Auschwitz as a metaphor for memory and a voiceover written by the poet Jean Cayrol, himself a non-Jewish Holocaust who had published the book Poems of Night and Fog back in 1945. Despite the long-standing grudge that the film never mentions the word Jew, Night and Fog has to be one the most powerful essays on the inexplicability and banality of evil.

Film review: Bee Season

Bee Gee! Flora Cross in Bee Season

The documentary Spellbound (Dir: Jeffrey Blitz, 2002) unveiled the world of the bizarre yet compulsive spelling competitions in the USA. The participants, usually children of around 10 or 11 years of age, have to spell their way through local and regional phases of the competition in order to get to the finals of the National Spelling Bee, which is then televised and the winning made into an instant ‘star’. The only-in-America weird thing about the Spelling Bee is how absurdly obscure words some of the words the children have to spell are - I can't even remember them, except for the odd easy ones like origami - but perhaps that's exactly what is compulsive about it. It’s the revenge of the nerds.

Bee Season uses this universe of spelling competitions as the background for its story of spiritual search in modern life, but the overall result is messy and often rather clunky. Based on a novel by Myla Goldberg, it's easy to see that scriptwriter Naomi Foner Gyllenhall (Jake's mother) had a difficult job in her hands, but it is more down to the directors to have made a dog’s dinner of the film.

Set in San Francisco, the film features Richard Gere as Saul, a religious studies professor who is married to Juliette Binoche's Miriam. The couple have two children, the perennially anguished Aaron (Max Minghella) and the sweet, intelligent Eliza (Flora Cross), an excellent child actor who looks like she could be following in the footsteps of Natalie Portland, as she seems ready for a film career (she even looks a like a child version of Natassja Kinski).

When Eliza's super spelling talent comes to the attention of the self-absorbed, slightly dictatorial Saul, the family, that looks at first like professional, arty San Francisco combo, suddenly becomes cold and unhinged: Miriam is seen entering houses and having flashbacks of her parents' fatal car accident that took place when she a child; Aaron ends up in a Hare Krishna centre by invitation of a cute blonde who picks him in a park; and Saul starts coaching his daughter and seeing all sorts of analogies between words and god.

McGehee and Siegel (whose previous efforts include The Deep End) seem fond of obvious visual metaphors: Miriam gives Eliza a kaleidoscope and we surely get a lot of kaleidoscopic screens throughout the film as well as visual references that allude to the recurring motif of the Victorian parlour toy. We also get a special effect of ink turning into millions of little letters floating about.

Gere looks like he's making a huge effort, but it's hard to see him as a believer in Jewish mysticism. Binoche makes the best of her sad Miriam, but it all seems like a workaday job for busy-bee Binoche (who is in another film opening in the UK this week, Caché, which works on every level that Bee Season doesn’t). As the saying goes, the way to hell is paved with good intentions and although this is meant to be a sincere portrait of the breakdown of communication in contemporary life and the search for spirituality - in short, a contemporary uptake of very old concerns- the fragile structure of the film and its pretentiousness do not let it be anything but the cinematic equivalent of new age elevator music.

Bee Season opens tomorrow

Monday, January 23, 2006

DVD review: Harry and Max/Bear Cub

Two gay-themed films are out on DVD today, and despite their radically different styles, both deal with family relations in surprisingly fresh ways.

From America comes Harry and Max (2004), the 'controversial' film by director Christopher Munch (The Hours and the Times) which caused something of a stir at the Raindance festival of that year because of the incestous relationship between the two protagonists that lend their names to the title. However, far from from being a controversy-courting outing, Harry and Max is a cool look at a complicated, but rather profound brotherly relationship.

The excellent Bryce Johnson plays the 23-year-old Harry, an ex-boy band star trying to prove himself in the adult music business. His younger teenage brother Max (Cole Williams) has followed his suit and is at the peak of his teeny-pop fame, although the film never enters the backstage of the music business; the brother's career is mostly talked about rather than shown. Instead, we go with them on a trip to the San Gabriel Mountains of Los Angeles where Max's physical feelings for his brother become evident.

Harry, who is an alcoholic, is not completely surprised at his brother's advances, and it all looks rather innocent. But when they go back to Los Angeles, feelings start to run deeper, the relationship with their mother is complicated and they embark on a journey of growth, which is no easy task when confronted with one of the last great taboos. Munch never flinchs or shies away from creating a mix of quirkiness and apparent aloofness, while developing the story with an elegant narrative economy. It may appear aimless at points, but that reflects the internal world of the two main characters and their evolving feelings. It's an intriguing film steered by a director with a confident touch.
Bear Cub

Treading less quirky territory is the Spanish Bear Cub, a film firmly set in contemporary Spain where gay freedom and visibility is one of the highest in Europe (and probably the world). The bear of the title makes reference to a type of gay man (chunky, hairy, often past 30 years of age), who is extremely popular in contemporary queer culture, perhaps in reaction to the trim-bodied stereotype that marked the 1990s.

However, the bear scene is just a backdrop for a film that alternates between comedy and gentle family drama. Bear Cub tells the story of Pedro (José Luis Garcia-Pérez), a gay man in his 40s who finds himself with the responsibility of bringing up his nephew Bernardo (David Castillo) when his sister is arrested in Asia. Pedro at first worries about the impact that his new-found responsibility will have on his hectic social life in the gay scene of Madrid, which is also his symbolic family. To his surprise, Bernardo proves himself to be a much more perceptive child than he expected and the two rapidly strike a strong bond.

Despite its shortcomings with moments of loose direction and clichéd dialogues, Bear Cub does create a portrait of a new urban situation where friends have replaced family or at least have become as strong as blood relations. Albaladejo emphasises the close-knit ties between Pedro's circle of friends and the way they co-adopt Bernardo with him. It's a naturalist film with a certain kinship to the sitcom genre that shows that gay cinema has definitely evolved beyond the conflict based round on 'being gay'.

Harry and Max and Bear Cub are separately released on DVD today.

Review: Shopgirl

Claire Danes in Shopgirl

There seems to be a mini-genre which the new film Shopgirl belongs in, a bitter-sweet one predicated on quiet optimism, usually set in a contemporary American urban environment (LA seems to be a favourite location) where the leading character (or characters, since these films to be multilayered) are trying to connect to other people and find themselves. Included in the the LA-set canon are Willard Carrol's Playing by Heart (1998) and Miranda July's well-received Me, You and Everyone We Know (2005) while Jill Sprecher's Thirteen Conversations About One Thing (2001) makes a New York contribution to the roster. Shopgirl is the latest addition to the LA batch and features a grown-up Claire Danes, who has morphed into a kind of contemporary version of Lauren Bacall as well as one of the most charming and intelligent American actresses working at the moment.

Based on a novella by Steve Martin and at points dressed like an existentialist fairy tale, Shopgirl is a warm film which, despite its style slippages into genre conventions here and there, is a welcome respite from the norm as far as cinematic depictions of relationships go. Danes plays Mirabelle Butterfield, an aspiring artist who makes ends meet working in the Beverly Hills' Saks Fifth Avenue department store. She has her Cinderella moment when millionaire Ray Porter (Steve Martin) initiates an affair with her. Mirabelle falls in love with the aloof, commitment-averse Porter, a strange, a world-weary figure topped by a shock of white hair.

Hovering around the main storyline hinged on Mirabelle and Porter is Schwartzman's goofy Jeremy, a slacker who sets about to pursue his dream in the music business after Mirabelle gently lets go of him to be with Porter. Jeremy is something of an ugly duck who morphes into a swan towards the end of the film and provides moments of tender, quirky humour (as well as some of the highlights of the film).

Shopgirl is, among many things, a tale of a young woman's transtion into adulthood, propelled by an unrequited love with an older man. An old story for sure, but with Danes's talent and Anand Tucker's honest, elegant touch on the direction, it works. Shopgirl also shows how good actors can light up the screen with realist inner lives. Danes's face and her immense expressiveness alone make this film worthwhile.
Shopgirl is out now

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Film review: 13 (Tzameti)


The word bleak gets a further layer of meaning in 13 (Tzameti), the debut film by France-based Georgian director Gela Babluani, winner of the best first feature in Venice in 2005 (it's showing at the Sundance festival which opens today). Shot in stark black and white, the film has a timeless, vintage arthouse look to it which is only betrayed by contemporary car models and modern trains.

It starts off in an off-beat, but not completely outlandish manner. Sébastien (George Babluani) is working on the roof of a seaside house somewhere in France when the owner of the house, Jean François Godon (Philippe Passon) comes staggering outside until he collpses on the beach sand. A woman comes out running and asks for Sébastien's help. We are informed that the man is addicted to morphine and a few scenes later he dies in the bath.

We notice there's something suspicious about his life and Sébastien gets hold of a letter to Gaston which lands on his bag outside the house after being wind-blown through the window. The letter contains 'instructions', a ticket to Paris and a hotel reservation. Since the laconic Sébastien is left unpaid for his work on the roof, he decides to step into the deceased man's shoes and see what happens in Paris. We get a glimpse of his miserable immigrant household as an implicit explanation as to why he decides to immerse himself into such an obscure journey.

This is how the film is set-up and the noir atmosphere thickens very quickly from this point onwards. Like Sébastien, the audience is still in the dark when he receives a call already in the hotel room, instructing him to pick up another train ticket from a locker in Gare du Nord station. We start to sense that something criminal is what the pretty 20-year-old Sébastien is getting entangled with.

To Sébastien's horror, he discovers upon arriving at a house in the middle of the forest that he is to take part in a deadly game of group Russian roulette where psychotic men bet on human lives. This nerve-wrecking game takes up the biggest chunk of the film. It has to be one of the most brutal, unbearable film experiences I've ever submitted myself to, a cinematic journey to hell, but without pinheads and Freddie Kruger. There's no gory on display - this is a minimalist, visually clean film - but the tension every time the players are to pull the trigger behind each other's head is very disturbing, quite an achievement in this day and age when we are supposed to be immune to shock.

Babluani's film is a taut, compressed piece that feels like a smothering nightmare. As such, it lends itself to Freudian analysis and a possible reading of the lethal game shown in the film is that it is a representation of the male primitive fear of anal penetration. It is an assured debut and an artistic accomplishment of sorts. It has to be recommended with a warning, though, since this is heavy, chilling stuff, like a winter picnic with the Russian mafia.
13 (Tzameti) is out now.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

American life

Here's a good idea: Bucking on the the increasing popularity of online films, internet start-up TurnHere is seeking professional and independent filmmakers who live in the United States to participate in an initiative to chronicle life in American neighbourhoods through two-to-five-minute-long films. The site claims it is attempting to make "the largest documentary on American culture ever made. Films should be artful and high-concept, focusing on the people, culture, history, local businesses and political landscapes across America". Each film gets its own URL so that it can be forwarded via email.

More info on the beta version of the site.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

DVD Review: Dear Wendy

Lars Von Trier misfires in the Thomas Vintherberg-directed Dear Wendy

The Dandies in Dear Wendy

After the original and Brechtian Dogville, Lars Von Trier turned his attention once again to a stylised vision of America in Dear Wendy, which was directed by his Dogme pal, Thomas Vintherberg, the man who gave the world Festen (1999) one of the defining films of the 1990s. While Dogville worked because it was unabashedly minimalist and stagey, and thus allowed the audience to construct their ideas independently of Von Trier, Dear Wendy fails because it's not either artificial or realist enough, and the result is rather dull and half-baked. Dear Wendy is an schematic look at American culture through a hyperreal story set in an American town that is based on our accumulated collective memories of American iconography drafted from film history rather than reality. Carson McCullers' books do a better job at portraying that sort of southern gothic universe.

Dear Wendy is narrated by Jamie Bell's voice-over as his character Dick, a lonesome young man living in the stagey, self-contained Estherlope. The narration is based on a letter Dick has written to Wendy, his pearl-handed six-shooter. Dick is part of a group of pacifists comprised of Mark Webber, Alison Pill, Chris Owen and Michael Angarano. Together they form the Dandies, a group of misfits clad in Victoriana who spend their time practising with and idolising their guns.

Von Trier and Vintherberg try to create a parody of America, a psychotic, delusional country that believes that guns can promote peace, but which of course only leads to violence and death, as it happens at the end of the film during a shoot-out against Bill Pullman's sheriff's men. Most of the world and liberal America knows about the dangers of oil-thirsty, gun loving fundamentalist America that likes to speak in tongues and carry fire arms.

This is the problem of the film. The Danish Dogme duo are simply stating the obvious in Dear Wendy and they do so with a thick layer of pretension. They need to brush up on their politics if they want to add a significant contribution to the anti-violence, anti-war discourse. I was also disappointed with the content of the interview given by Von Trier and Vintherberg as one of extra features on the DVD - their postulations had the depth of a foundation media studies discussion group. Besides, their view of race and masculinity in the film is simplistic to say the least, and they seem to be in thrall of an MTV-style idea of youth; the film's occasional insertion of graphics often seems like ill-judged attempts at being cool.

Still, Dear Wendy does not erode my admiration for Trier and I hope he will restore his wonderful reputation with the upcoming Manderlay. It's recommendable on the basis of his and Vintherberg's past credits, but it will be remembered as a lapse in their filmography.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Brokeback Mountain: The Filter's verdict

Jake Gylenhall in Brokeback Mountain

Brokeback Mountain is one of those films that the film world needs very now and then: those films that everyone loves and few dare to say express a completely contrary opinion lest they sound like spoilsports.

It has its merits:

It shows the true consequence of homophobia: loneliness and violence;

It queers imagery normally associated with staunchily heterosexual values: Marlboro country imagery, masculinity and a type of very middle class 'prestige' type of film, of which director Ang Lee has become the main doyen.

the acting is good, although not as 'amazing' as drooling critics have been shouting about.


A more realistic, less wall-papery style would have suited the subject matter better; there's a discrepancy between content and form;

This is supposed to be a love story and one that survives two decades; it is not convincing that those two men feel something so strong;

Although homophobia exists and is murderous, can we have a gay film where love is fully realised? It's too easy to carry on showing suffering and non-events;

And it's quite boring (by which I don't mean 'slow') and too 'understated', verging on Merchant Ivory fare.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

DVD: The Devil's Rejects

The Devil's Rejects

Rob Zombie's follow-up to House of 1,000 Corpses is an exhilarating post-modern showdown

This rock 'n roll horror pantomime is like a reunion party of clichés that congregate in the diegetic space of the film to celebrate and wallow in blood-splattered references to the wilder corners of pop culture. With no pretence to being 'art' like, say, Tarantino, it nonetheless operates within the same post-modern ethos of pure visual pleasure heavily steeped in Americana.

The brainchild of rock man Rob Zombie, The Devil's Rejects is stuff for adult that refuse to grow up. It seams together elements of 70s schlock horror and the ultra-violence of 80s video nasties, with brief noddings to Natural Born Killers and A Nightmare on Elm Street, and probably others that horror aficionados will be well equipped to spot. The editing makes reference to the construction of a guitar rock song, with some segments arranged like riffs. Pauses and freeze-frames are used as musical silences. And the characters in the film, although grown-ups, lark about like hormonally-charged pubescent teenagers trying to be really bad.

So what's the story? True to the tradition post-modern collage monster, it is a flimsy one and all the better for that - again, this is about pop culture and hypertextuality - and aesthetics is the narrative. We start in a ranch house, exactly as we imagine a Deep South, Mark Twain-esque house to be, except that it's decorated with a macabre collection of objects dangling from the beams of the porch - we even get a pig's head sitting on top of the gate arch. Inside, the Firefly family is sleeping while a procession of police cars sieges the house, led by Sheriff Wydell (William Forsythe). Otis (Bill Moseley) and his sister Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie, a cross between a younger Farrah Fawcett and Sheryl Crow), the self-styled Devil's Rejects, manage to escape the barrage of bullets unharmed. They are joined by their errant father, Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig) and off they go on a killing spree until the film culminates in a showdown with Sheriff Wydell.

The Devil's Rejects is, in fact, a reunion of sorts, since the homicidal, sexually twisted Firefly family was first seen in Zombie's debut feature, House of 1,000 Corpses. Despite the gore, or perhaps because of it, it is a witty pleasure ride with a similar cathartic energy to the best devilish rock 'n roll. The timely Christmas release should work as the perfect antidote for the season's schmaltz. The DVD also includes a bonus disc with over two hours of making-of footage, deleted scenes and a bevy of short fun films.

PS: Attention cult pop aficionados: Andy Warhol's Chelsea Girl Mary Woronov has a bit part in the film.

The Devil's Rejects is out now.