Berlin day 14; Oh Boy

I marched thru the night, looking up to the snow kissed trees, and arrived too late for Cloud Atlas. Half an hour later a film I didn’t know, beyond reading that it was about a student dropout in Berlin, and was Black and White. I dashed back across the road for a thai curry, laden with mushrooms, which I left. I returned in time to get a seat and a small bag of popcorn, hoping this would not be the wrong sort of film for that. They were almost finished by the time it started.

The parallels with Manhattan were unavoidable – story vignettes, monochrome, a director in love with the city, a trad jazz soundtrack, the anxiety and troubles of modern living, the comedy of someone else’s misfortune If there had also been title cards it would have been too much. There was the recurring, failed search for a cup of coffee; I half expected Bill Murray to appear bearing a pot at some stage. It was tender and funny and romantic, and not too much happened, but somehow also a lot did.

It woke me up to the unspoken part of Berlin’s past too. A few months before I had been in a late night Budapest drinking den where the owner waxed in a language I could pick nothing up from, shouting at me, impassioned and excited – the only words I recognised were ‘Heil Hitler’. I left, awkward and uncomfortable. The same words reappear in two scenes of the film, but with – in both cases – a particularly profound context; a shadow of the burdon of the past, the weight of history that no New York story could carry. And no polemic, preachy conclusion – just a space to take your own, after a remarkable series of encounters: the grandmother of the kid who is selling drugs and a touching moment around her high-powered armchair, paid for with the drug-money. But there’s so many characters here I feel like I learnt more of the city than in my time here wondering. Oh Boy is everything I could want from a film, and to watch it in Berlin, with snow in the air and after two weeks of courting the city I couldn’t ask for more.

 

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Why Selma's not a 'challenging race biopic'; it's much more

SELMA: How Peaceful Protest WorksThere's a rather funny viral doing the rounds by UK blog the Shiznit about what if the 2015 Oscar nominations told the truth, following similar posts they've done in previous years. I didn't feel like sharing it however because their poster for Selma ('Challenging Race Biopic: if you don't like it then you basially hate black people') troubled me somewhat. I had to see it to be sure - and no longer on the press list for freebie previews, I got my chance when Pathé's advertising on the #MLK hashtag alerted me to UK previews for Martin Luther King day (a rare case of social media targeted advertising winning me). And I came home compelled to write, because it feels there's a risk people might think the film was a biopic or even specifically about race, as opposed to a story about the universal struggle for justice, and methods to achieve that.

SELMA Shiznit posterTo be clear - I'm not trying to pick the Shiznit up for what it created - it was part of a trio of jokes alongside 'challenging gay biopic' and 'challenging disability biopic' - and perhaps the authors hadn't even seen the film. And of course if we were fool enough to try PC-one-up-manship, well Netribution published Andrew Cousin's spoof about September 11: the Musical barely weeks after the tragedy, while some of the cartoons we ran such as the crucifixion of Lars von Trier cut somewhat crudely - not to mention much of the crap I must have spouted over the years. However, in this year when BAFTA voters refused to grant Selma even one nomination (despite a mostly British cast - from MLK and his wife to Lyndon Jonson and the Alabama governor), and where the Academy Award voters gave it only two - there seems a real danger that people think the Shiznit poster is accurate and don't get round to seeing the film. So for the avoidance of doubt:

  • Selma is not a Biopic. A biopic is the story of someone's life - true for Theory of Everything and Imitation Game - but not Selma. Selma covers one episode in Dr King's life - the attempts to peacefully march between the city of Selma and Montgomery in Alabama to change the law around all Americans' right to register to vote, creating a piece of legislation considered the most effective civil rights legislation in America's history.
  • It's not only about Race. As a white guy I don't  want to labour an "and it's also about us!" angle, but Dr King campaigned almost as hard on poverty as on race, pointing out in the film how the poor white person is encouraged to be racist by the super-rich whites in order to keep the poor in general disunity, a theme as relevent today as migrants get blamed for a financial crisis not of their creation (and a view well expressed by a rapping Warren Beaty in Bullworth).
  • And while it's certainly challenging to watch parts of this film, witnessing scenes of brutal and senseless violence, it's it's also un-apologetically inspiring, showing - at a time where our news is full of scenes of violence, and terrorism - [SPOILER] that non-violence works [/SPOILER]. Massively, and perhaps disarmingly, to some people in power.

And it's this last point - that the film is a genuinely inspiring examination of the power of non-violent resistance, of mass protest in the face of brutal state violence - that should make all of us who care, more sensitive to any efforts to belittle such an important film. Whether that's the backlash from Lyndon Johnson's people that the film didn't present him as faultless (he came off pretty well IMHO), or voters of the awards ceremonies using that as an excuse (as if accuracy stopped Braveheart getting five wins), or even just this casual cynical-but-comic putdown of the film as just another worthy race biopic, as if to say we all need to pay lip service to it only to offset some privilege guilt - rather than, 'here is an inspiring TRUE story of how people uniting and acting peacefully changed the world' - as relevant today as ever, perhaps even more urgently so, given how successful Dr King was back then. And doubtless as unnerving to some people in power as it was then.

Ava Du Vernay by Marie MayeThere is, of course, another reason why the film is inspiring - from the perspective of this website's traditional focus - and that's the story of writer/director Ava DuVernay. Indeed if Netribution was still a weekly magazine rather than an occasional echo chamber for my lingering thoughts, I'd be doing everything I could possibly do to get an interview with her for a future edition - as she seems to represent everything good and inspiring about the independent spirit of filmmaker. It was only in 2008 that she quit her job as a publicist, and taught herself filmmaking while directing a documentary on a micro-budget, before making her narrative film debut in 2011. She self-distributed this and then made another feature - winning Sundance Best Director award (the first time it was ever won by an African-American woman), and self-distributed that as well, creating a distribution network for African American films to find and connect with audiences, creating a network of cities to screen in and group of backers for future projects. In short she's part of a new generation of filmmaker who, using modern tools and technology, and of course considerable hard work and determination) floated straight up through the a number of traditional glass ceiling. She talks inspiringly about how exactly she did this at the Film Forum (video).

And of course, there's still the tiniest of chances that Selma could become the fifth film in Oscar history to win Best Picture without a best director nomination - after Argo, Driving Miss Daisy, Grand Hotel and Wings - the voting doesn't take place for almost another month.

So please see this film and talk about it if you want to believe that change is possible but aren't sure how to achieve it, or if you have any doubt about the power of non-violence. You could also see it if you want to get a little better understanding of someone as significant as Martin Luther King, or even simply to watch a brilliantly-made and gripping film. Failing that, please just see it if you want to witness evidence of how much one person can achieve when they put their mind, body and soul into doing something for all the right reasons, be that Dr King or Ava DuVernay.

 

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LFF preview: No and Grassroots

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Grassroots and No are both political films based on real events that concentrate on the competition: to win a local election in the former film, and to win a regime-changing plebiscite in the latter.
 
The fact that No succeeds as an engaging film to such a greater extent than Grassroots shows that political races on film need to be contested by sharply-outlined protagonists. Furthermore, while there can be laughs, playing the whole contest for laughs kills the anticipation. 

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LFF review: We Need to Talk about Kevin

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Warning: spoilers (as far as I can spoil the plot of a very famous 8-year-old book for you)

Ah. "We need to talk about Kevin." The words that the eponymous Kevin (Ezra Miller/Jasper Newell/ Rocky Duer)'s mother Eva (Tilda Swinton) never manages to say to her sweet, blinkered husband Franklin (John C Reilly).

Lynne Ramsay's fine adaptation of the very unloveable 2003 novel dispenses with the epistolary form of the original, and is instead structured around Eva's life post-massacre, with flashes of the past forcing continually pushing to the surface. Kevin's actions have defined her current situation; the film shows us how.

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LFF review: Shame

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Artist/director Steve McQueen's second feature (following 2008's Hunger), follows the unravelling New York existence of sex addict Brandon (Michael Fassbender). Living alone, he (seemingly) happily picks up girls in bars, orders prostitutes like takeout and masturbates in the work loos after watching porn on his computer. It's a tad compulsive, but his outward charm and ability to just about hold it together is keeping people fooled.

Then, his volatile, attention-seeking sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) turns up to stay in his apartment, and things slowly fall apart.

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LFF opens with Fernando Meirelles' 360

juderachelThe 55th BFI London Film Festival opens tonight! 

Oh. Fernando Meirelles. This is no City of God. This isn't even Love Actually.

It just. Doesn't. Work. So... there's sex trafficking, infidelity, infidelity, people meeting on a plane, loooooads of interminable airport scenes, a brilliant bit of Anthony Hopkins in AA (but his character never rings true), pretty brunettes bringing sad guys redemption through their smiles, a thumping and terribly obvious score (we're with Russian people now, does it sound Russian enough???)... 

It never feels as though there is a meaning behind these superficially interconnected lives. And if there was meant to be a main character, well, giving her a bit of voiceover at the start and at the end... that isn't consistent enough. Sadly.

There are several narrative strands but only one or two will keep you sitting there waiting for more. It's a shame.

Don't worry though; the London Film Festival has a lot more to offer. As for Meirelles? Hopefully he'll get back on form asap.

The London Film Festival is running 12-27 October 2011. For more information, please go to http://www.bfi.org.uk/lff/

suchandrika.wordpress.com

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Is this The Hour? Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

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The interiors of this latest adaptation of John Le Carré's 1973-set novel look and feel like just like the those of the BBC's recent drama series, The Hour, set in their 1956 newsroom. Even the plots are alike - there's a Russian spy in our very English midst, which one is he (it's never gonna be a she)?

The main clues as to which era we're in are found outside - the odd black or Asian person popping up in the corner of a frame, a girl in hotpants, the lovely cars. Inside the Circus [the highest level of  British intelligence], though, it's all closed and brownish and peopled by grey men. The Cold War is still very much on, and this film sets the scene expertly.

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Sheffield DocFest and Money : The Greatest Movie Ever Sold

the_greatest_movie_ever_sold_posterMorgan Spurlock’s POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold officially opened the 18th Sheffield Documentary Film Festival on Wednesday evening, also providing the doc with its European premiering slot. Product placement and chasing sponsorship lolly was the film’s raison d’être, and as I write this I’m drinking a bottle of POM Wonderful itself, dished out free in the delegate centre. Yes, that’s right; the title of the movie is the name of a pomegranate drink.

"Spurlock arrived for the Q and A in a blazer adorned with sponsor logos, like the Lewis Hamilton of doc"

Spurlock does film about excess: too much liver fat in Super Size Me and now too much product placement in POM Wonderful. POM, the company, got the title slot as they gave him the most money to make the doc - $1 million: $400K upfront, £100K for the ad (there were ads through the film for various products including horse mane shampoo) and the last $500K for delivering on rigorous media impression and exposure targets. All the other sponsors, from petrol stations to deodorant brands, made up the remaining half a million. And it was not easy money: Spurlock himself cold-called 600 firms and it took 9 months to get the first yes. With a 1.5% rate of return on the successes versus the no’s, it’s a time investment strategy that’s pretty low yield.

But taking the desire for objects - and the desire to sell them - barefacedly into the ‘transparent’ world of the doc, Morgan seeks to turn the taint of lucre association on its head by dispensing with the secrecy. But the hallowed opinions on screen of no less than Noam Chomsky and various professors of media point out that once you dip your toe into the commodification pool, you’re sucked in to swimming with the sharks and may be ideologically eaten by the monster you seek to parody. Spurlock arrived for the Q and A in a blazer adorned with sponsor logos, like the Lewis Hamilton of doc. A concern is; does high irony shake off the brand association? And Spurlock’s ‘brand’ – what made him an investment option in the first place is - according to an agency who do this stuff - ‘mindful and playful’. With everything up for sale now, even our personalities have a price. Can the ‘objectivity’ of the doc filmmaker as a ‘trust’ aspect of brand be sustained after the immersion in the world of merchandise?

However, the film itself is zippy, pacy and funny. The first third is highly entertaining with knock-backs flying and Spurlock’s pitching sessions to the marketing men a reminder that he’s always a high energy, engaging guy. And, nicely, no-one gets to look bad – it’s the antithesis of a Baron Cohen approach. Spurlock isn’t taking the Michael, and when he’s asked by a would-be sponsor if he’s ‘just blowing sunshine up their ass’ for the money, we know he is – and so do they. With such candour and personality amongst the sponsors, they become doc characters in their own right - they even got a standing ovation at the screening in Sundance.

"With everything up for sale now, even our personalities have a price. Can the ‘objectivity’ of the doc filmmaker as a ‘trust’ aspect of brand be sustained after the immersion in the world of merchandise?"Whether the film does ‘make us more aware’ of placement pervasiveness – Spurlock’s claim in the Q and A - is questionable. Doc audiences are arguably already ‘aware’. It was after all teenagers in US schools exposed in class to ads that provoked the idea for the movie in the first place. His intention is that POM Wonderful follows Super Size Me as an educational resource. We wish him luck in tackling the multi-billion dollar product placement industry and de-programming the craving for brand that so much of modern life is defined by.

But Spurlock was bold in asserting that doc makers can’t be too purist about where money comes from – US foundations doling out money for docs are often funded through business after all. And if even the public-good realm of non-fiction film may seem like a longer shot in terms of return for investors, Spurlock now realises he undersold himself: he not only met all the targets for the money given, he surpassed them. As he said, he didn’t plan for success.

Having been too late for a packed out Just Do It, we went to see Sky’s production of Flying Monsters 3D, first shown on their 3D channel Christmas Day 2010, so this is no journalistic coup. However, the demographically-minded title belies a fascinating, thoughtful and gob-smacking looking film. And here was another documentary with an educational remit – it will show in museums for 2 or 3 years, and has had outings in IMAX and other theatres to date. This was the flip of the shoestring budget doc, so I asked in the Q and A how much it cost. ‘Lots’ was the abrupt and very non-commital reply from the commissioner. An icy air descended in the auditorium. The line producer swiftly attempted to lift the mood with a jolly ‘and more!’ I forgot we were dealing with Sky. We’d been exposed to a culture of transparency and plain-talking with POM Wonderful, so talking about money seemed culturally acceptable – it is why the Festival exists.  But Sky’s remit is to corner and conquer markets – even those with a public service character. I guess the rather fabulous amounts they will pay to dazzle in the 3D world is not an investment they’re comfortable about sharing yet.

Documentary as a Festival phenomenon is, at Sheffield, a success, big or low budget. This year it’s more delegates than before – over 2000 - and more decision makers – over 200. How this pans out with all that austerity around is yet to be seen. But no-one ever went into documentary with thoughts of mega-money on their mind. Apart, possibly, from Sky.

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LFF Preview: Black Swan

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Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan will screen tonight at the London Film Festival's Jameson Gala. Starring Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis and Winona Ryder, this drama/horror is set in the physically and mentally demanding world of New York ballet.

Never thought that a film about ballet would have you on the edge of your seat? Think again. It's less about ballet than about perfectionism, competition and control - the last word comes up again and again. Nina (Portman) is too controlled a dancer, says her over-attentive director, Tomas (Cassel), but, in fact, she is losing control of everything in her life.

 

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The London Film Festival opens tonight with Never Let Me Go

The London Film Festival opens tonight with a screening of Never Let Me Go, an adaptation of the 2005 Kazuo Ishiguro novel, starring Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield. The screenplay was written by Alex Garland, and the movie directed by Mark (One Hour Photo) Romanek.

The story takes place in an alternate England, where medical research has solved most illnesses, and the average life expectancy has passed 100 years old by 1967.

These great developments have come about thanks to the National Donor Programme, where human clones - who cannot reproduce but do think, feel and age just like us - are brought up in institutions and taught to accept their futures as organ donors. They will give away parts of their body, one by one, until they "complete," usually before the age of 30.

Kathy H, our 28-year-old narrator, is a carer watching a donor be put under for his operation. She starts to reminisce about her time at boarding school - a place called Hailsham - and about her time growing up with her friends Tommy and Ruth.

Warning: spoilers ahead

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Son of Babylon - a devastating, breathtaking masterpiece: Ed Film Fest review

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Back in March during the battle between The Hurt Locker and Avatar at the Oscars, much-loved political theorist Zizek waded in with a comparative review of the politics of the two films. His conclusion was that James Cameron's film had been the best attack on the military-industrial complex and US corporate hegemony. Kathryn Bigelow, on the other hand, he argued, legitimised the Iraqi invasion and the actions of American soldiers by normalising them and their life - the Hurt Locker is not a pro-war film, but in making the protagonist soldiers sympathetic it inadvertently supported the politics behind them being there.

To continue this argument thru then, to follow everyday Iraqis in the aftermath of the invasion on film, as Iraqi-born Mohammed Al Daradji does in Son of Babylon, is to support the wider views of the Iraqi people and those one would expect to be hostile to an invasion. Here, then, is the first big revelation of the film. While the American soldiers are called pigs by one character and loom in the background, hovering overhead, the villain threading through this tale is the ghost of Saddam and his Ba'athist party. Indeed, in one of the many lighter moments in the film, it's revealed that 'talking to Saddam' is a way of saying you're going to the toilet. And as the film unfolds and we move from wrecked cities to a giant prison complex to the first of many mass graves, we begin to understand why. As we are told at the end of the film, some one million Iraqis have gone missing in the last 40 years, with between 150,000 and 250,000 dead uncovered so far in mass graves.

Son_of_Babylon_Poster-225x300In short, the film is a devastating, breathtaking masterpiece. With such heavy subjects at its core this would always be a powerful film. But Al Daradji and his team weaves a work of great drama built upon faultless performances and world class cinematography.

We start on an empty road in the middle of the desert. A young boy and his weathered and wise grandma wait in the midst of nothingness. It's a brilliant start which pulls us into the narrative with the deft hand of a skilled storyteller. What unfolds is a road movie, and - like the Illusionist - a child / senior relationship - things that we have seen often before on screen. But they travel across a landscape that we have not seen. Perhaps at the edges of some of war films, but unlike most of these, and almost all films on Iraq to date - this film does not involve the military; there is barely one line of dialogue from a soldier. Instead this is a film about searching, not only for a missing son and father, but for answers, for an explanation and for forgiveness. It's also, somewhat, a search for meaning about death amidst God's seeming indifference.

 

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