Thursday, 11 October 2012

London Film Festival or when films come to Adam and not the other way around

Initially I didn't even plan attending this year's LFF. And then just by accident I decided to take a peek at the program. "...Wow," thought me, "I must have had a stroke or something. This year's selection is yet again pretty damn decent."

And so here it is, below is the list of films I have scheduled to watch during the upcoming two weeks of the festival madness:

11th Oct Thu 15:30 Wadjda VUE7
A female director shooting the film in its entirety in *Saudi Arabia*. It tells a very touching story about a young girl who wants to buy a bike. C'mon, can someone just give this lady (Haifaa Al Mansour) an Oscar already?

13th Oct Sat 14:45 West of Memphis VUE 7
I have not seen any of the Paradise Lost films, but according to the people who saw this doc, the film can be watched on its own just fine. And it got some amazing reviews when it premiered at Sundance earlier this year. So yeah, this one is a must.

14th Sun 15:15 Beyond the Hills CURZON MAYFAIR
It won the award for The Best Screenplay at this year's Cannes, but rumor has it that it should have won Palme d'Or. The stupid me missed it when it was showing in Cannes and now I am absolutely determined to make up for that mistake!

15th Oct Mon 15:00 Midnight's Children OWE2
I am curious how Salman Rushdie's prose will be treated on the big screen. I have my worries (the film didn't get great reviews in Toronto), but I am sure I will enjoy it regardless. Not to mention, it is very likely Rushdie himself will come out for a Q&A!

16th Oct Tue 12:30 I, Anna VUE5 
Truth be told I know very little about this London-set drama apart from the fact that two actors whom I admire very much, Charlotte Rampling and Gabriel Byrne, play the leads. So this is one of my "no spoilers" selections - I know that this will sound a bit tacky, but I find it purifying not to know anything about the film's plot ahead of watching it. It allows me to be a bit more objective about the film I suppose... No preconceived perceptions or hopes about its outcome. Besides maybe that I will be entertained.

16 Oct Tue 15:00 In the House OWE2
One reason and one reason only: FRANCOIS OZON.

16 Oct Tue 18:30 My Brother the Devil OWE1
Possibly this year's best British film. Dark and unsettling drama with strong homosexual undertones - at least that's what we are promised.

17th Oct Wed 12:30 Zaytoun OWE2/ 15:00 Fill the Void OWE2
I love Israeli cinema and LFF's choice of its representatives never disappoints. Last year it was The Footnote, few years before it was Eyes Wide Open and Ajami. Fill The Void's plot reminds a bit of My Father, My Lord, *but* it is directed by a woman and it focuses on the women's hardships in the ultra-orthodox Jewish community in Jerusalem. Zaytoun's story focuses on the 1982 war with Lebanon - an event that was captured on film by Israeli directors many times. Who knows, perhaps it will surpass Waltz With Bashir? (...Nah, highly unlikely.)

18th Oct Thu 12:45 The Red and the Blue VUE7
The Italian Shortcuts? One can hope! Nonetheless, the synopsis seems intriguing.

18th Oct Thu 18:00 Caesar Must Die VUE5
Inmates at a high-security prison in Rome prepare for a public performance of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar." Winner of the Golden Bear at this year's Berlinale (last year's winner A Separation ended up on my list of the best films of 2011) so my hopes are high!

19th Oct Fri 18:00 Our Children VUE5
*Allegedly* the most depressing film of the year. I'm in.

21st Oct Sun 18:00 After Lucia OWE2
It won the Un Certain Regard competition this year, and that is enough of a reason for me to queue for hours to watch this film. Some of my favourite films won UCR in the years past: Dogtooth, The Death of Mr Lazarescu to name a few. It is supposed to present the kind of cruelty that until now only Michael Haneke dared to show. And similarly to Beyond the Hills - I missed this film when it was showing in Cannes and need to make up for my error.

And now let's just mention some of the films that premier at LFF that I already had a chance to see:
Laurence Anyways: D+
Beasts of the Southern Wild: C
Amour: B
In Another Country: D+
Horses Of God: C+

Django Unchained aka The Hobbit's worst nightmare is on its way!

Wow... Looks like The Hobbit won't rule over the Christmas Box Office after all... I am a bit weary of Tarantino's unchanging obsession with the theme of revenge, but I have to say, this trailer gave me chills!

Thursday, 27 September 2012

The Britannic Verses

Salman Rushdie is a busy man lately. Currently traveling across the globe simultaneously promoting his memoir Joseph Anton and the film based on one of his novels for which he wrote the script - Midnight's Children.

The Bloomsbury Theatre in Euston was absolutely packed with Rushdie's fans who wanted to get a glimpse of his infamous persona. Mr Rushdie indulged his audience with an hour long interview and a 30 minute Q&A. 

Joseph Anton is already available on Amazon (kindle edition costs about £10) and Midnight's Children will  have its European premiere during this year's London Film Festival on 14th October.

On the road to Canaan

Quote from Salman Rushdie's Joseph Anton:
"It was curious that so avowedly godless a person should keep trying to write about faith. Belief had left him but the subject remained, nagging at his imagination. The structures and metaphors of religion ... shaped his irreligious mind, and the concerns of these religions with the great questions of existence - Where do we come from? And now that we are here, how shall we live? - were also his, even if he came to conclusions that required no divine arbiter to underwrite and certainly no earthly priest class to sanction and interpret."

Cannot wait to see Rushdie tonight and harass him for an autograph (and a picture of course).

The Tale of Two Cinemas - Foreign Language Academy Awards Submission List

The award for the Best Foreign Language Film is the most interesting award given at the Oscars. Period. There are two stages in selecting the final runner-up films for the award and both are equally tense and exciting. The first stage requires all countries who want to participate in the competition to select one feature-length film which will represent their country. The second stage sees the members of the Academy to vote for the selected films, which will then narrow the list down to the top five. The winner (can you say that any more?) is revealed during the Awards Ceremony early next year.

There are few reasons why the international race for the Oscar is an event worth following very closely.

Reason #1:
It's Political

I think it was Christopher Hitchens who once said that politicising every sphere of our existence is inescapable. At least I think that was him who said that, or perhaps it is something that I concluded by myself and put his face to that phrase, as it very well might have been his opinion as well. In any case, the rather wide spread assumption that arts and politics don't mix (the Hollywood machine is the biggest advocate of such art sans politics hybrid) is nothing else than fiction. The word "representative" (as in the representative films chosen by each country) in itself suggest some kind of political activity as every nation wants to be perceived through the prism of the kind of film they submit for the competition. 

I am particularly interested in seeing what films are chosen to represent countries that have recently underwent or are still undergoing socio-political turmoil, like Egypt or Iran (who won the award last year and this year thanks to Ahmadinejad's government decision to boycott American film industry, will not allow its directors to compete). It is usually hoped by the film directors who have to work under such autocratic regimes that their films will be seen by the western audiences and the stories of social instability will influence change in their countries and elsewhere. Watching these films tricks me into thinking that by enjoying myself at the cinema I participate in some form of political activism. Delusional as it may seem, I truly believe that by solely igniting an intellectual discourse with the cinema-going audience, these films turn the Plato's cave into an agora. Place as good as any for advocating social change.

Reason #2:
It's Entertaining

For someone like myself who comes from a non-English speaking country the quarrels surrounding such distinctive honour as receiving an Oscar nomination for the country you are from is quite a funny thing to experience. There is a lot of bitching around, slamming films from other countries, propagating that the film representing your nation is superior to the ones that were sent by others. Then there is also a lot of internal fighting over why this film was chosen over another one. As an example - Agnieszka Holland's In Darkness was chosen to represent Poland in the competition last year and the moment the film ended up in the final top 5, the media propaganda machine started howling over the masterful incomparable brilliance of Holland's directorial skills and her ability to put together such monumental piece of film-making. Of course the Polish intellectuals who are very sensitive about being dictated what to think and do by media (the post-communist residue of distrust towards ruling classes I suppose), appeared to approach Holland's film with certain scepticism if not suspicion from the moment it got media's attention and international appreciation. A very similar film to Holland's flick was released almost simultaneously in Poland - it was called Rose and it was directed by another cult Polish director, Wojciech Smarzowski. It is a very interesting Polish characteristic that with international fame comes general public dislike, and quite expectedly the people complained that Rose would represent the country much better than In Darkness did. But the moment In Darkness lost its bid at the Oscars, people flocked to the cinemas in support of their almost-winner as if trying to cheer up a beaten up friend.

And that is just Poland. One could write a book about every countries' behind-the-scenes stories surrounding their Oscar nomination. 

Reason #3:
The Films Are (Usually) Bloody Superb

You should always note each film that is placed on the official list of contestants fighting for the Foreign Language Oscar because the possibility that some of them they will blow your mind is quite high. As a case study let's just look back at the nominees from years past.
2010: Dogtooth (OMG! you will never look at cats and lamps the same way ever again), Incendies (brilliant and poignant modern day Oedipus Rex), Outside the Law (meh...), Biutiful (double meh), and In a Better World (decent film) - three out of five were really good, and the remaining two were also note-worthy (sort of...)
2009: The Secret in Their Eyes (conceptual melodramatic political drama. decent choice), Ajami (Israeli-Palestinian co-production. Do I have to say anything else?), The Milk of Sorrow (sad and beautiful, retrospective look at the post-Pinochet Chile), A Prophet (who wasn't cuming over this one?), The White Ribbon (the name of Haneke says it all)
2008: Departures (a bit odd, sad, but funny film about dying), The Baader Meinhof Complex (complex socially conscious portrait of western-bred terrorism), The Class (think The Real Housewives of New Jersey - high school edition), Revanche (ok, it was the one rotten egg in this selection...), Waltz with Bashir (you will watch it, and watch it again...)
...Do I have to continue? The Academy might very often be completely out of touch with the home-grown cinema (Hurt Locker? seriously??), but the Foreign Language Film category never ceases to surprise.

The list of announced submissions is below.
Albania - Pharmakon, directed by Joni Shanaj (Albania)
Algeria - Zabana!, directed by Saïd Ould Khelifa (Arabic, French)
Australia - Lore, directed by Cate Shortland (German)
Austria - Amore, directed by Michael Haneke (French)
Azerbaijan - Buta, directed by Ilgar Najaf (Azeri)
Bangladesh - Ghetuptra Kamola, directed by Humayun Ahmed (Bengali)
Belgium - Our Children, directed by Joachim Lafosse (French)
Bosnia and Herzegovina - Children of Sarajevo, directed by Aida Begić (Bosnian)
Brazil - The Clown, directed by Selton Mello   (Portuguese)
Bulgaria - Sneakers, directed by Valeri Yordanov   (Bulgarian)
Cambodia - Lost Loves, directed by Chhay Bora  (Khmer)
Canada - War Witch, directed by Kim Nguyen (French, Lingala)
Chile - No, directed by Pablo Larrain (Spanish)
Colombia - El Cartel de los Sapos, directed by Carlos Moreno (Spanish)
Croatia - Cannibal Vegetarian, directed by Branko Schmidt (Croatian)
Czech Republic - In The Shadows, directed by David Ondricek (Czech, German)
Denmark - A Royal Affair, directed by Nikolaj Arcel (Danish)
Dominican Republic - Check Mate, directed by José María Cabral   (Spanish)
Estonia - Mushrooming, directed by Toomas Hussar  (Estonian)
Finland - Purge, directed by Antti Jokinen  (Finnish)
France - The Intouchables, directed by Eric Toledano & Olivier Nakache (French)
Georgia - Keep Smiling, directed by Rusudan Chkonia (Georgian)
Germany - Barbara, directed by Christian Petzold (German)
Greece - Unfair World, directed by Filippos Tsitos (Greek)
Hong Kong - Life Without Principle, directed by Johnnie To (Cantonese)
Hungary - Just The Wind, directed by Benedek Fliegauf (Hungarian)
Iceland - The Deep, directed by Baltasar Kormákur     (Icelandic)
India - Barfi!, directed by Anurag Basu   (Hindi)
Indonesia - Tiny Dancer, directed by Ifa Isfansyah   (Indonesian, Banymasan)
Israel - Fill The Void, directed by Rama Burshtein    (Hebrew)
Italy - Casear Must DIe, directed by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani   (Italy)
Japan - Our Homeland, directed by Yong-hi Yang (Japanese)
Kazakhstan - Myn Bala, directed by Akan Satayev (Kazakh)
Kenya - Nairobi Half Life, directed by David 'Tosh' Gitonga (Swahili)
Macedonia -The Third Half, directed by Darko Mitrevski (Macedonian, German, Bulgarian)
Mexico - After Lucia, directed by Michel Franco  (Spanish)
Morocco - Death For Sale, directed by Faouzi Bensaïdi   (Arabic)
Netherlands - Kauwboy, directed by Boudewijn Koole (Dutch)
Norway - Kon-Tiki, directed by Joachim Rønning & Espen Sandberg (Norwegian)
Palestinian Territories - When I Saw You, directed by Annemarie Jacir (Arabic)
Phillippines - Bwakaw, directed by Jun Lana (Tagalog)
Poland - 80 Million, directed by Waldemar Krzystek (Polish)
Portugal - Blood of My Blood, directed by João Canijo (Portuguese)
Romania - Beyond The Hills, directed by Cristian Mungiu (Romanian)
Russia - White Tiger, directed by Karen Shakhnazarov (Russian)
Serbia - When Day Breaks, directed by Goran Paskaljević  (Serbian)
Slovakia - Made in Ash, directed by Iveta Grófová (Slovak, German, Czech)
Slovenia - A Trip, directed by Nejc Gazvoda (Slovene)
South Korea - Pieta, directed by Kim Ki-duk (Korean)
Sweden - The Hypnotist, directed by Lasse Hallstrom (Swedish)
Switzerland - Sister, directed by Ursala Meier (French)
Thailand - Headshot, directed by Pen-Ek Ratanaruang (Thai)
Urkraine - Firecrosser, directed by Mykhailo Illienko (Russian, Ukranian)
Venezuela - Rock, Paper, Scissors, directed by Hernán Jabes   (Spanish)
Vietnam - The Scent of Burning Glass, directed by Nguyễn Hữu Mười   (Vietnamese)

The complete list of submissions will be available in the beginning of October.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Oslo, August 31st - Woody Allen on speed

Joachim Trier's Oslo, August 31st is like a Woody Allen film on speed. 

Trier presents a sentimental portrait of Oslo and at the same time he builds an emotional story-line about a man who travels back to that city to confront his past. The story of Oslo... in a way resembles Allen's Manhattan, as the city of Oslo becomes a character of its own in Trier's film, just like the island of Manhattan did in Woody Allen's picture. But there is more to it. The city itself would not mean much without Trier's on-screen ego - Anders, who carries an enormous baggage of moral anxieties connected to the city and the people who live in it.

The opening sequence where Anders is trying to commit suicide in the lake sets the tone for the entire film. Every step of his journey to reconnect with his past will bring him down more and more to the bottom, just like the stones he puts into his pockets when entering the lake try to pull him under. Anders is a recovering drug addict whose rehab facility allowed him to travel to the city for the first time in months in order to undergo a job interview which might help him turn his life around. He stops by his friends' house and talks about the past and presence, and the things that may still come. Later that day he walks around the city, observes the people passing by, thinking about their lives and their disappointments. He confronts old habits and relationships past, but by doing so he exposes himself to unwanted vulnerabilities that once pushed him onto a path of lies and deception. 

The film is perfectly paced and done with such emotional maturity that Anders' journey inwards becomes our own self-examination. The director masterfully transforms his main character from a helpless being, to a thoughtful intellectual who then ends as a thief and a junkie. The mood changes as morning turns into afternoon; people start rushing home as Anders wanders around the city of Oslo and thinks about what brought him to the state he is in on that late summer day of August 30th. 

The word "poetic" wouldn't give this film justice. Oslo, August 31st is so much more than the beautiful lyricism of image combined with a captivating story. Like Woody Allen's Manhattan, this film captures the time it was made in and turns the voice of our generation into something timeless.

Oslo, August 31st will be released on DVD on June 13th. 

Saturday, 9 June 2012

The Queen of Versailles - trailer available!

Although the UK release date is yet to be named, Magnolia Pictures has just released the first trailer for this award winning documentary The Queen of Versailles.

The Queen of Versailles follows a story of the Siegels - one of the richest families in America whose social status is just about to be boosted by building the biggest single-family house in modern history. Their financial success however gets disrupted during the 2008 economic crisis and we see David Siegel and his wife Jackie having to cut back on their portion of the American dream and redefine what it means to live within your means.

Even though the first impulse tells us to despise the Siegels for the billions they own, their influence in politics, and their detachment from reality that exists outside of their mansion's walls, the story is told with heart and feeling; one can't help but sympathise with these individuals who struggle through their lives, trying to pursue happiness like everyone else.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Prometheus or how Damon Lindelof should be banned from fu****g with sci-fi classics

- It lasts less than two hours
- The special effects are pretty neat, especially the sequence in which the alien spaceship falls from the sky
- Michael Fassbender makes for an awesome droid. His motives aren't always clear (whose side was he really on? Weyland's? The Space Jockeys'? His own?), but that just makes him more unpredictable and intetesting
- Charlize Theron as the mission's commander delivers similarly to Fassbender; if it only wasn't for her lame death... Why run along the trajectory of a giant wheel-like space ship that is coming right at you? Why not just run to the side?
- And last but no least, it has some ummm... nicely spaced credits at the end?

- It got made
- Lindelof was allowed to write the script and ruin the franchise the same way he ruined Lost; starts off as in interesting concept, the film asks some very daunting questions about human existence and the origins of life. But the moment Lindelof starts cutting cornes the whole thing falls apart and it becomes a pro-Christian ideological black hole that sucks the intelligence out of its audience
- Elizabeth Shaw's actions are never motivated by reason, but by blind faith. She states very clearly in the beginning that the mission she initiated should become a success because "she believes so." Her faith is mocked by several characters, expecially by David, who represets the scientific thought and genius, but "lacks the soul." and it is Elizabeth's possesion of soul that saves her in the end. Her devotion to her belief as represented by her attachment to a crucifix she carries on her neck is a virtue which cannot be defeated by the fallibility of scientific endeavours.
- No continuity between Prometheus and Alien. Not only the alien creatures look different than in the original film, the Space Jockey whom we see in Alien, was supposed to have died inside his spaceship, and not inside Prometheus. I know, probably a small detail, but part of the enjoyment I hoped to get out of this film was finding out how Scott was going to piece it all together. Epic fail.
- The dialogue is unnatural, often feels forced and/ or unnecessary; there is almost no character development, especially with the minor characters. Why do we care to see Weyland alive? Why is it important that he is Meredith's father? How come the captain of the ship agreed almost without any hesitation to embark on a suicide mission? Why did the head of the Space Jockey fall off? How did it come back to life? Why did they open the hatch without investigating what might be waiting outside? Why did that dead scientist guy turn into a zombie? Look, I get Scott is hoping to make a sequel, but this film must contain enough information to make it worthwile as a stand alone piece. Again, who allowed Lindelof write this stuff? Did anybody read this thing before it went into production?

Overall I give this film 2 out of 5. I will avoid it's planned sequel if it ever gets made.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Cannes wrap-up

It looks like I have still lots to learn about the whole blogging thing. I need to be way more disciplined about posting about every single film I watch, all up to date, updated right after watching. For now I am on a lookout for a proper blogging app for android - the one I used in Cannes did not upload the pictures properly, which was a shame. 

But that is not what this post is supposed to be about. I just wanted to list the titles of films that I watched in Cannes. And here it is. To rate each one of them I used a scale from 1 to 5, 1 being an absolute piece of shit, 5 being a masterpiece.

Beasts of the Southern Wild dir. Benh Zeitlin  2
Laurence Anyways dir. Xavier Dolan  3
Lawless dir. John Hillcoat  4
God's Horses dir. Nabil Ayouch  4
Love dir. Michael Haneke  5
Children of Sarajevo dir. Aida Begic  4
Like Someone In Love dir. Abbas Kiarostami  5
Killing Them Softly dir. Andrew Dominik  4
In Another Country dir. Hong Sangsoo  2
Le Grand Soir dir. Benoit Delepine, Gustave Kervern  2
La Playa DC dir. Juan Andres Arango  3
For Love's Sake dir. Takeshi Miike  3
Aqui y Alla dir. Antonio Mendez Esparza  3

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Last night in Cannes

Today's 'film surprise' is The Joker directed by Phillipe de Brocca. It is awesome watching a film with the sound of waves in the background.

Killing them softly + it just got sunny!

Without getting too much into details I confirm that Andrew Dominik's newest film is a very solid 4/5. It has one of the best closing lines ever!

Once the screening was over we got a nice surprise - the sun finally came out! Cannes rocks!

The big one!

Got tickets to see Killing Them Softly by Andrew Dominik. If its anywhere near what Dominik delivered with Jessie James we're up for a treat!

Le Grand Soir

First screening of the day was a complete disaster. Le Grand Sour was not intended for international audiences; It's script is filled with jokes and references that only the francophones would be able to fully enjoy. Also, it's punk, anti-capitalist message is presented in a way which I found rather tiresome, although everybody else in the auditorium seemed to have a lot of fun.

So far, the worst film I have watch in Cannes.

Monday, 21 May 2012

In another country

Got the ticket! One hour of begging in front od le palais paid off.

Change of plans

So... The system of reservations and tickets, and then queuing for hours screwed me over yet again. Even though I had Alain Resnais' screening pre booked, they did not let me in.

Silver lining is that I get to see Michael Heneke's Amour. Starts in 2 hours, I'm already in the queue.

The 8am queue for Alain Resnais

A bit sceptical about this film being anything but the usual Resnais, but hey - Matthieu Amalric is in it!

Sunday, 20 May 2012


Salle soixantieme packed!

Laurence Anyways or how to make fun of Cannes

Two years ago during the 63rd Festival de Cannes I stood for two hours in front of Salle Debussy to see Xavier Dolan's Les Amours Imaginaires. Even though I showed up at the theatre considerably early, the number of people who arrived before me was overwhelming to a point where I started to doubt I would manage to get in. The level of excitement ahead of Dolan's nawest piece Laurence Anyways, if judged by the number of people who queued up two hours ahead of the screening, was certainly smaller. Yet as the time went on, more and more people started showing up and the crowd managed to fill up Debussy from top to bottom.

Why is the whole queuing up ritual so important? Well, I think there is some level of anticipation and familiarity with Dolan's craft that his devotees (aka the loosers who waited in front of the theatre for so long) have when going to see Laurence. I am not saying that whomever showed up closer to the time of screening was not as excited, but they probably didn't consider seeing his newest film as such a big thing as I did.

Ok, get to the point Adam. I was simply thrilled to see the film, to know that it will tell a sex change story (topic that was very popular at last year's Sundance), and to see Monic Chikori as one of the leads again. But here's the thing about expectations, the higher they are, the harder you fall. And did I fall hard!

Seems like the old rule about Woody Allen's films: a Woody Allen film without Woody in it is not a Woody Allen film, fits Dolan's craft perfectly. Now that the director was not occupied with acting in his film, he tried to compensate by taking care of post production like he never did before. The film is built in the following way: it is a very long string of segments which all begin with a masterfully aesthetised opening shot accompanied by loud music, and then are followed by a number of slow-mo shots and conversations which don't always bring anything new or interesting to the overall narrative.

The style he adopted for his latest flick is filled with cheesy references to the 80's/90's pop culture showcased by glossy shots and corky costumes. It all captivates very well in the beginning of the film, but as the time goes by, the amount of effects used starts to irritate because a. The aesthetics don't bring any additional commentary to the presented story b. As a stand alone feature of the film they are simply pointless.

So consumed in building the aesthetical scelletone of the film, Dolan naglects the narrative. The story of the main character's sex change is eventually pushed to the background and the story of Laurence's relationship with his girlfriend Frank takes the spotlight. The transition from one story to another has no motivation in the narrative, becomes frustrating as one begs to ask what this film is supposed to be really about.

And the film is more about Dolan then about any of his fictional characters. It is about his over-confidence, about his desire to surprise, about his fascination with Almodovar, and about his affair with impressionistic imagery rather than a story.

But no matter how irritating and dreary this nearly 3 hours long spectacle was, it did not stop the audience of Debussy from giving Dolan a 10 minutes long standing ovation. I like to think of Laurence... as a practical joke: Dolan thought to himself, let's make a long boring pointless film and see if the idiots at Cannes will still clap for me. And they did.

Point of the story: do not encourage bad filmmaking. The joke is on you, Cannes.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Here we go!

On my way to the airport studying the festival programme. This year looks more than promissing! I will kick off with Xavier Dolan's latest film: Laurence Anyways, and that will be followed up with films from Michael Heneke, Thomas Vinterberg, Bernardo Bertolucci, and many others.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Getting ready for Cannes

Sleep-deprived, tired and moody, and yet somehow excited and hyperactive? Oh yes. I recognise this. It's the Cannes prep season. Taking off tomorrow morning for the best film festival on the planet. Woot woot!

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Perfect Sense - no questions asked!

With all its tediousness of an over-evocative montage and a story line that presents some highly improbable scenarios Perfect Sense turns out to be a fairly enjoyable film. Poetic in a way, but too serious about its subject matter, the film equally charms and annoys with its emotive stylistic features and a poorly written script.

The film tells a story of a young couple, Michael (Ewan McGregor) and Susan (Eva Green) who must overcome their emotional fears while struggling to make sense of the outburst of an unusual epidemic during which people start losing their senses. The disease first attacks the sense of smell, and then moves to taste, sound and finally sight. People try to keep on living while their worlds slowly turn upside down. In the foreground to that apocalyptic occurrence, the director David McKenzie plots a love fairytale about two people who overcome all obstacles and learn to understand the true meaning of love. The story sounds banal, but as it may surprise some, that banality is the film’s biggest forte.

When taken seriously Perfect Sense is an incredibly depressing love story. The whole world is heading towards its end; humanity will quite probably cease to exist after the last sense – sight, finally disappears. But only through such magnificent decline of our civilisation we are to understand the true meaning of the titled ‘perfect sense’. All other senses must fail us so that we can appreciate the most important one of them all – the sensation of love.

I wish I could give some smart explanation to McKenzie’s extravagant message, but I can’t. I’m afraid that if I start analysing his film too closely I will start liking it less and less with each question asked. Why is it that such profound suffering must be brought upon people only so that they can appreciate the meaning of love? Why is love to be thought as the ‘perfect sense’? Why does the director sympathise so strongly with the society’s embrace of suffering? Why isn’t anyone trying to find a cure to the ‘epidemic’?

But then, why bother asking? Finding answers to any of these questions won’t make the film any better. So the point of the story is this: ignorance is bliss. Happy Valentine’s Day!

Sunday, 12 February 2012

The self-fulfilling prophecy of artistic decline - Faust, dir. Aleksander Sokurov

There is no way of watching a major film festival winner like Andrei Sokurov’s Faust without having to overcome a set of expectations that being such a highly praised flick would entail. To explain in detail what having these expectations means I would like to spend a moment to examine the circumstances of Faust becoming the winner of last year’s edition of the Venice Film Festival. Viennale’s rickety track record of selecting its winners is a prime example of how the politics of a film festival and the judges’ bias towards certain artists has a power to poison its supposedly fair selection process. The most recent edition that brought a lot of negative publicity was the 2010 festival when Quentin Tarantino famously showered his ex-girlfriend Sofia Coppola and her Somewhere with the most important statuettes. Tarantino’s misjudgement prompted the festival’s organisers to introduce more scrutiny into selection process, which would disable the jury from pulling a similar audacious stunt in the future.

The controversy surrounding the 2010 edition inevitably affected the politics of awarding the films a year later. Even without watching the film one can definitely notice how Faust seems to be a very reasonably safe choice. Aleksander Sokurov is quite a renowned artist whose filmography spans almost 20 feature films, many of which were awarded at a multitude of film festivals in the years past. The director’s lack of affiliation with any of the jurors (Darren Aronofsky chaired the jury that year) and his indubitable directorial skills assured that there would be no disagreement in choosing his film as the winner in 2011. Yet the blatancy of it being such safe, uncontroversial choice diminishes the festival’s status and victimises Sokurov by making him the festival’s agent of propagating political correctness. But before we discuss that point a bit further, let’s look at the film itself.

The story of Faust loosely follows Goethe’s 19th century masterpiece of the same title. Doctor Faust (Johannes Zeiler) is disappointed with life which has brought him nothing but misery. In the book, the character is a God-fearing individual who cherishes knowledge above the well-being of his soul. The Faust that we know from Sokurov’s film already acquired all the knowledge a human can hope to obtain and learned that there was no happiness to be found in science. Understanding how the world works made him vulnerable and nihilistic. Faust then accidentally meets a local moneylender named Mauritius (Anton Adasinsky) who represents the devil from Goethe’s prose – Mephistopheles. Mauritius stops Faust from committing suicide and takes him on a journey around the town. In a public laundry Faust notices a beautiful young girl name Margarete (Isolda Dychauk) who charms him with her laughter. A chain of events, all of which are masterfully manipulated by Mauritius, lead the two men to the funeral of Margarete’s estranged brother where Faust is given a chance to make further advances towards the girl. The two make an instant connection but in order to fulfil his sexual desires Faust is forced to sell his soul to the devil.

The list of differences between Sokurov’s film and Goethe’s novel is too long to consider the source material anything more than an inspiration. Goethe’s character was an archetypically romantic, restless soul whose hunger for knowledge of the world prompts him to resign from  eternal bliss. Sokurov’s Faust is a cold pragmatic who looks at life through the prism of science, believing only in the certainty of material things. That attitude turns him into a nihilist who thinks that life is both absurd and unfair, lacking any sense of meaning. He follows the footsteps of Kafka’s K, who is unable to make any sense of the social injustice. Just like K, Faust is passively led to his doom, constantly pushed around by society, unable to avoid his disastrous fate.

Sokurov obviously has a message to share through his reinvention of Faust. In one of the scenes Faust visits another doctor who runs a very successful practice in the town. The secret to his success is his sensibility to applying just the right kind of treatment so desired by his patients. According to Sokurov, the intellectual elite are in decline as their insight is undermined by the outgrowing consumerist market. Faust’s expertise is unwanted and unnecessary as it goes against the popular concepts. His blind certainty in science pushes him to the extremes and compels him to deny God or any form of the supernatural. Sokurov criticises him for that. He surrounds his main character with the mystique of nature and presents him with the angelic countenance of Margarete, but the man still cannot see below the surface. In the end his ignorance, as is the case for so many characters, is his undoing.

Sokurov’s theme of spirituality vs. science brings us back to the aforementioned point about the festival’s political correctness. The director’s objection towards a consumerist society is clichéd to say the least. Even more, the director makes some astounding assumptions that people’s vain consumerism is the outcome of a spiritual decline which will lead us to atheism and nihilism. His distrust in science comes from a conviction that no scientific formula can describe artistic sensibilities. The jury of the festival stands in full support of Sokurov’s view, no matter how tiresome and over-prudent the perception of spiritual superiority over science might be. But what matters for Viennale is that Sokurov’s film is a poster child for cinema d’auteur. Through the film’s audacious aesthetics, non-linear storytelling, and artistic inter-textuality the festival board proves that they are still able to recognise ‘real’ cinema. And that creates an interesting paradox – Viennale fulfils Sokurov’s prophecy of artistic decline precisely by awarding his film with the main prize.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia - Ceylan's cinematic poem

As it premiered in the UK during last year’s London Film Festival, Ceylan’s latest film Once Upon a Time in Anatolia was rendered as his “most audacious film yet.” When the word “audacity” is used in relation to the Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan one can be sure that his audaciousness will be evident in a complete disregard to the audiences’ expectations of the film. We are tested on many levels with Anatolia. Not only the film’s duration reaches the unexpected 2 ½ hours, its narration seems monotonous at best and the subject of the film potentially unworthy of our investment. And yet it must be said that Ceylan’s uncompromising audaciousness pays off in the end and all of the aforementioned concerns transpire that one’s pre-established conception of a film structure can be damaging to our cinematic experience to say the least. The director takes us on a journey into the wilderness of the Turkish southern parts where we experience mysticism emanating from the region’s rich cultural entanglements.

It is said that Anatolia entices mainly through its surreal dimension. Although its dreamlike quality is definitely noticeable, the film’s artistry is best to be seen through the prism of magical realism. Ceylan’s story while interweaved with a multitude of aesthetical and artistic elements is not meant to be read on purely allegorical level. The amount of detail each character brings into the story requires our attention and full investment into their lives. Through their tales – The Prosecutor’s wife’s death, the Commissioner’s family sickness or the Mayor’s concerns regarding his community, we learn the story of the region. We see the moral struggle of each character through the eyes of the Doctor who silently observes the events of the night and shares his thoughts whenever his guidance is needed. His persona is just as enigmatic as the natural beauty of the region, but just as mysterious and dangerous. He appears to be wholesome and sensible at first, but with the last few minutes of the film our certainty about the Doctor’s characteristics is turned upside down. To call him unethical would be both over-exaggeration and understatement; he fails to maintain his integrity as a fellow human being, but Ceylan uses his moral ambiguity to represent the character of Anatolia. As such the Doctor remains mysterious and complex.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia isn’t necessarily my favourite film of Ceylan, but here more than in any other of his movies, his bold stylistic approach elevates us to a completely new level of the directorial “audaciousness.” His complete disinterest in providing entertainment is both refreshing and venerable. For the first time Ceylan avoids any kind of visual trickery. Instead he composes his film by assembling long, steady shots intertwined with close-ups of characters’ faces and shots of the nature. The journey into the uninhabited parts of Anatolia is a journey back in time. We end up in the fields, with the wind gushing through the tree branches; we come across a small village where the monotonous existence needs to overcome electricity shortages and lack of resources. The film is a mosaic of the beautiful landscapes of Anatolia and the people whose lives are bound with the region’s history. Ceylan’s Turkey thrills and fascinates. And so do his films. 

Bullhead and the European conventionalism's affair with the Academy

Jacky Vanmarsenille has his testicles smashed as a young boy by one of his peers and is subjected to a series of hormonal injections for the rest of his life. Talking about a crisis of masculinity! Jacky’s concept of maleness is from this moment forth reshaped and associated purely with appearances; his need to fill the gap left by the destroyed gland urges him to experiment with new types of hormonal injections to make him appear closer to what he imagines to be a genuine man. Yet the outcome of his experiments is overblown, grotesque. The substance he takes in makes him more aggressive, agitated and emotionally unstable. Jacky compares himself with the cattle that he breeds on his farm which similarly to him is given illegal drugs to boost their mass. He calls himself a beast.

Bullhead is a gangster film which takes a very atypical approach to the usual model of the genre. It revisits the masculine drive for power and re-evaluates the meaning of a macho figure in contemporary West. The Fleming-Belgian setting makes the issue of masculine projections even more vivid. The mutual repugnance of each region is driven by the centuries-long history of violence and political rebellion and continues to heat the relations between the Francophone and Flemish Belgians to this day.

Jacky is caught in the middle of this ongoing conflict, both as a victim and a perpetrator of the wrongdoings. Betrayed by his closest friend when still a child, he is attacked and mutilated by the local Mafioso’s son, and ostracised by the local society. There is a very Shakespearian dimension to Jacky’s tragedy. His fate is determined by the surrounding social disadvantages and Jacky is unable to divert his steps from the path that leads him directly to his own doom. Just like with the bulls who are destined for the slaughter, death is the only possible way out for him.

Why was Bullhead nominated for an Oscar is a bit of a mystery – although it is a decent film, it doesn’t represent anything particularly exceptional. My theory is that the Academy has a thing for all kinds of tragic morality tales and so every year it picks a film that falls into that category... Similarly to last year’s Incendies, or The Prophet from two years ago, Bullhead tries to enquire about the “circle of violence” and its wider, social implications. It is both entertaining and thought-provoking but aesthetically conventional at the same time. I wish more risks were taken in the narrative department, but then that would probably lose the film’s chance for a nomination.  

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Moneyball or how to waste your money on a cinema ticket

Films like Moneyball make me want to quit watching films all together. The carefully crafted story arch is so conventional and predictable that the over two hour long story turns into an endless torture. We are forced to watch one-dimensional, over-inspirational characters struggling through their existence, but whose relentless spirit and wholesome moral code secures their success and sets a positive example for the enthused audience.

The Hollywood producers see stories like Moneyball as certain moneymaking machines that hit the chord with the cinema-going populous who becomes enticed by the award season hype. As if the ‘Oscar-nominated film’ was a genre of its own; these films have such strong conservative structure which is not only banal but insulting to any intelligent being.

Monayball, The King's Speech, The Fighter, Invictus, Milk, Dreamgirls, Capote, Walk the line... How much more can we endure?

Into Eternity - a short-lived depiction

In many respects Michael Madsen's film Into Eternity reiterates a very similar documentary called Countdown to zero. Both films debate on the very same issue of dealing with the sources of nuclear power and depict their subjects from the very same, distrustful angle. Countdown to zero focused mainly on analysing the pros and cons of using nuclear power as weaponry. Into Eternity provides an in-depth discussion over the safety concerns surrounding the growing production of nuclear waste.

Yet the difference that is most striking about the two films is their use of different narrative devices. While Countdown to zero was more of a report whose aim was to raise awareness of the issue and propagate reducing the number of atomic bombs at hand, Into Eternity is an evocative piece which uses a poetic language to emphasise the uncertainty of a world in which the nuclear waste will most probably outlive our civilisation.

The film makes some very excellent points, stressing how difficult it is to speculate over how successful the attempts of concealing the nuclear waste are going to be. We are told that the waste remains radioactive for about 100,000 years and the attempts of the Finnish entrepreneurs to build the first underground facility that is designed to serve its purpose for that enormous amount of time is a herculean task.

As terrifying and eye-opening the subject of the documentary is, the film itself is too vague at presenting the possible dangers of exposing the concealed nuclear waste. That vagueness is probably caused by a very limited amount of research available at the time of making it and so the film is doomed to run out of steam about half way through its duration by repeating the same one-liners and warnings over and over again.

Informative, but not necessarily destined for a cinematic exhibition. 

Thursday, 26 January 2012

The Artist's artistry's art

It is quite telling about the state of Hollywood that the most enigmatic film of the Oscar line-up is a movie that recalls the prominence and glamour of the Golden Age, a period almost a hundred years past. The Artist is a walk down memory lane which reveals Hollywood’s longing for what once was, but even more so it expresses sheer disappointment with the cinema of today.

The film tells the story of George Valentin – a character loosely inspired by a real silent film star of the 1920’s, Rudolph Valentino. George is at the top of his game, making one hit film after another while simultaneously getting praise from audiences and producers. At one of his film premieres he accidentally meets a young aspiring actress and soon-to-be star, Peppy Miller. Her character’s origin is a bit harder to identify than Valentin’s; there is something of Greta Garbo’s relentlessness in her smug attitude towards fame, mixed with the innocence of a girl-next-door type supplied by the likes of Marilyn Monroe. The two make an emotional connection which is tested by a gradual change of dynamics between them as George loses his estate and career while Peppy becomes the most successful star of the ‘talkies’ era.

The film captures one of the most significant moments in the entire history of cinematography – the beginning of the sound film era which radically changed the perception of the cinematic experience. The film’s obvious metaphor is the director’s commentary on where cinema is today. The beginning of 2011 saw some of the most prominent film critics and scholars labelling this decade as the beginning of the age of post-cinema. The most recent transformation of cinematography from a theatre-based projection into an omnipresent virtual stream of audio-visual images is possibly just as revolutionary as the synchronised sound was in the 1920’s/ 30’s. Yet for many of us the invention of services as pay-per-view, iTunes, Bluray or Netflix don’t come as shocking. In the consumerist market we are expected to be prepared for constant improvements of our electronic devices and expansion of services offered to us. Many of us don't even realise how significant these changes are and how different the relationship between films and cinema-goers is now from what it was a few decades ago.

And this is where The Artist comes in. The film is a reflection on all of these technological achievements and more. By utilising the cinema’s most archaic aesthetic devices from intertitles to the over-emphasised body language and facial expressions the film brings our attention to the language of film and its use in engaging with our emotions. It reminded me of what once Michael Haneke once did in his Funny Games when the director crafted a very thrilling and at times terrifying story just to expose our instinctive compulsion to connect with the fictional characters. Of course Hazavanicius’ The Artist is much more subtle that Haneke’s Funny Games. He conveys his critique very appropriately to the era he portrays, through his characters’ overjoyed smiles and positive attitude as well as naive laughter and corny jokes.

The Artist is even more charming when it implements its game of aesthetics – most notably in the dream sequence in which George feels trapped by his inability to speak in a world that suddenly gains sound. The film ends on a positive note with Valentin finally catching up with the new industrial standards of the ‘talkies’ era and taking one step ahead with his female counterpart Peppy by seducing their befriended producer (John Goodman) with an idea for a musical. That scene alone captures cinema's continuous evolution and hybridisation as a conundrum for the industry which keeps re-adapting and reinventing itself. The Artist encapsulates that industrial challenge but at the same time it shows that there is no time to grieve. The show must go on! 

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Bore Horse

It neighs, heroically ploughs the field, knows how to communicate with other horses and it even brings peace for a day between the German and English camps on the fronts of World War I. But what the titled horse from War Horse cannot do is to make its whereabouts worthy of a 2 ½ hours cinematic spectacle.

Spielberg not only proves with his latest film how much he lost touch with reality, but he also demonstrates his cockiness in how little he cares to acknowledge that we don’t live in the year 1950 anymore. The film reminds me of the Lassie series emphasising on all tediousness and banalities of the genre. It tells a story of a boy who feels a profound bond with his horse and not even war can change these feelings and separate these two characters. With its over the top music score and awfully brushed cinematography War Horse runs in the same category as Gone with the wind once did. The problem is, Scarlet O’Hara was turned into a horse and Spielberg deludes himself assuming that people who live in the age of facebook still care to sit through a melodramatic fairy tale of such grand proportions.

Yet many reviews of the film show that there are a lot of people who still truly enjoyed the spectacle. My guess is that the name ‘Spielberg’ did something to their receptoral capabilities. As if the grand master who once directed Jaws was beyond any form of criticism. The critics’ conformism when it comes to challenging the director of E.T. is staggering to say the least. But perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps there are indeed many animal lovers out there who feel the unfathomable need for a rebirth of the dull storytelling of pre-1960’s Hollywood. If so, my sincerest apology to all of you.

But I like to think that this aesthetic experiment with War Horse is Spielberg’s practical joke. He is testing his audiences on the amount of crap they are willing to swallow if spoon-fed by the lord and master who once brought them Jurassic Park. If that’s the case – bravo Mr Spielberg, bravo! It looks like you fooled them all!

Taking sideways with "The Descendants"

I always considered having to watch the line-up of the Oscars potentials a necessary evil. One wants to remain relevant to what is going on in Hollywood and since these films will be the most talked-about flicks for the next couple of months it becomes an unfortunate obligation to watch them.

There was however some hope in Alexander Payne’s latest film The Descendants. Mostly because of Payne’s previous movie Sideways which impressed audiences around the world when it was released in 2004. My personal wish was for The Descendants to prove the same cinematic qualities as Sideways, and according to the initial reception by the critics, Payne’s latest film had a fair chance to even outdo his previous flick.

The film tells a story of Matthew King, a middle-aged lawyer living with his family on the island of Oahu. After an unfortunate boat accident, his wife is put on life support and the remaining members of the family are forced to pick up the pieces and learn how to move on without her. It is a dialogue-driven story that takes us on an emotional journey through Matthew King’s mourning process. Yet for a story about death, there is an awful lot of laughter in Payne’s film. As if the director did not want to spoil the beautiful landscapes of Hawaii with a gloomy narrative, he turns for humour in places where jokes aren’t necessarily needed.

There is very little that can be said about the story arch and the character development. All of it seems so scripted and predictable that it becomes un-sport like to point out every single weakness in this review. Aesthetically the film is just as disappointing; considering the epic scale of the surroundings in which Payne sets his story, very little of that magnificence is used in the film. Matthew King underlines many times throughout the film how profoundly his family is bound with the land of Hawaii as there is Hawaiian blood that flows through their veins. But nothing in his behaviour suggests such exceptionalism.  His attachment to the land is purely sentimental and apart from the thread relating to King’s real estate deals there is nothing truly substantial tying his story to the Hawaiian heritage. The place of the action might therefore be considered purely coincidental, depriving Payne of his enquiry into King’s family being "the descendants." 

What we are left with is a film that is lacking its raison d’être. A quality that certainly doesn’t disqualify it as an Oscar potential, but makes it unworthy of attention for anyone who sees beyond the awards season.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

What is most shameful about "Shame"

Ingmar Bergman had written and directed back in the 1960’s a film called Shame. It was psychoanalysis of human behaviour during a time of war. The film investigates what shameful acts one is willing to commit when threatened with violence.

What Steve McQueen’s Shame tried to portray is slightly different. There is no war where the action of McQueen’s film takes place. Yet the title suggests that even in the time of peace there is still something we should be ashamed of. Brandon Sullivan, superbly played by Michael Fassbender, is a 30-something man living in contemporary New York City. His life revolves around the office work and sex parties after hours. There isn’t much more than that to his existence, sex seems to be Brandon’s only source of entertainment as suggested by his plainly looking apartment where the porn-filled laptop is the usual point of interest.

Brandon’s existence is disturbed by the arrival of his overly-sensitive sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan). She wants to create a bond with her brother by forcing him to spend some time with her while she gets her life back on track. The two are the complete opposites; Brandon is very introverted, expressing himself only through sex, while Sissy gets very emotional with everyone around her, becoming extremely vulnerable to pain and suicidal at times. Very early in the story it becomes rather obvious that Brandon will at some point become inevitably influenced by his sister’s behaviour and that will result in some kind of disturbance in his life.  

The story of Shame is pretty straight forward and there are very few surprises awaiting those who trusted the film’s PR campaign promising some kind of controversial content. The only outrageous thing about Shame is how blatant McQueen is in imposing his insolent morals on the audience. The film not only disappoints as a story with its cheap rom-com moments and predictable outcomes, but it also angered me as a libertarian. The single-handed assumption that the main character’s frivolous life-style deserves some form of moral retribution is shameful in itself. Why should Brandon be condemned by having lots of sex? The director seems to be unable to answer that question himself. I purposefully recalled Ingmar Bergman’s film of the same title, as his investigation into the emotional power of shame had a psychological foundation. There is no such enquiry done in McQueen’s film. Through the character of Sissy we see Brandon’s shortcomings in the sensitivity department and we are probably to assume his lack of moral conduct which transgresses into sex. Far-fetched assumption indeed!