Woman’s Hour’s Film Jukebox

Womans_Hour
Woman's Hour

A London-based swoon-pop four-piece, Woman’s Hour embrace a holistic approach to their songcraft. Their live shows are a crossover of music and art, with meticulously crafted graphic, monochromatic visuals created in collaboration with fine artists Oliver Chanarin and Adam Broomberg. Formed by singer Fiona Burgess and brother William on guitar, with Nicolas Graves on bass and Josh Hunnisett on keyboards, the band see themselves as a collaboration between four different creative people, who each bring a wholly distinct set of influences to the band, from German cold wave to pop rarities and uncompromising singer/songwriters. Their debut album Conversations is released 21 July 2014 on Secretly Canadian, and you can watch the video for the title track. For tour dates over the summer, visit the Woman’s Hour website. Below, Nicolas Graves chooses his 10 favourite films. Sarah Cronin

1. Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)
I love everything about this film. The cast, the soundtrack, the sheer scale of the hallucinatory journey upstream through Vietnam and Cambodia – the horror, the HORROR! The actual making of this epic has gone down in cinematic legend: Martin Sheen’s heart attack, the drugs and Marlon Brando, who turned up on set overweight and totally unprepared, having not bothered to read the script. ‘We had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane,’ said Coppola… ‘My film is not about Vietnam, it is Vietnam’.

2. Leaving Las Vegas (Mike Figgis, 1995)
The enigma that is Nicolas Cage! Before I had seen Leaving Las Vegas, the Cage I knew was the action hero in films like Face/Off or Snake Eyes – enjoyable films in their own right, but hardly true thespian roles. His performance here though – playing an alcoholic Hollywood screenwriter who decides to move to Vegas and drink himself to death – is immense. Upon arrival he meets a prostitute named Sera, and the two build a relationship based on the fact that neither can change who they are. It’s a tragic, emotionally demanding love story set in the neon- (and booze-) drenched desert.

3. Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001)
A couple of years ago I watched Twin Peaks for the very first time and I became excited. Excited because not only had I discovered the music of Julee Cruise (listen to her album Floating into the Night) but I also now had the world of David Lynch to explore. Over a very short period of time I had binged on his films and entered a place both wonderful and strange! I could’ve included Blue Velvet, The Elephant Man or Lost Highway, among many others, but for me Mulholland Drive is (to date) his masterpiece. Lynch’s long-term musical collaborator Angelo Badalamenti again provides the eerie soundscapes.

4. Heat (Michael Mann, 1995)
One of those films that pushes all my buttons. It has a rather standard cops -v- robbers plot, but the way it’s all put together is a thing of real beauty. I love the dream-like feel that Mann brings to the moody, expansive LA cityscape, and how it’s complemented perfectly by the ambient soundtrack. De Niro and Pacino ain’t half bad in it either.

5. Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974)
If it isn’t already obvious, I’m rather fond of films set in Los Angeles. I’ve visited the city on two occasions now, but I’ve yet to really understand the place, and I think this is where the attraction lies – a blank canvas upon which many different ideas can be painted.
The Los Angeles in Chinatown looks stunning, and so does Faye Dunaway. Amidst the backdrop of the Californian water wars. everything conspires to create the perfect neo-noir- mystery. No happy ending here.

6. The Friends of Eddie Coyle (Peter Yates, 1973)
It quickly became apparent when compiling this list that many of my choices share similar themes and styles. Here’s another slice of New American Cinema, adapted from the novel of the same name by George V. Higgins. Hollywood legend Robert Mitchum plays small-time gunrunner Eddie Coyle who, when facing jail time, is forced to snitch on his pals in the Boston underworld. Gritty realism at its finest.

7. Five Easy Pieces (Bob Rafelson, 1970)
Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces explores themes of alienation, worthlessness and the road to nowhere – we’ve all been there at some point in our lives, right? Jack Nicholson is Bobby Dupree, an oil-rig worker who gave up his life as a promising pianist. He’s faced with a return to his upper-class family, and the resulting schism between the world he left behind and his never ending search for something else. It’s classic Americana, complete with road trip and Tammy Wynette’s ‘Stand by Your Man’.

8. The Last Boy Scout (Tony Scott, 1991)
This is best watched with a close pal, a sense of humour and alcohol. Bruce Willis gives a masterclass in cynical deadpan delivery and wise-cracking perfection as a down-and-out private detective who gets mixed up in the murky underbelly of American pro football. It comes complete with camp henchmen, dodgy Senators, and a then record fee ($1.75 million) for a screenplay penned by Shane Black (Lethal Weapon) – worth it for the jokes alone.

9. Medium Cool (Haskell Wexler, 1968)
Set in Chicago during the summer of 1968, Medium Cool combines documentary footage with fiction. There is a (very) loose narrative about the relationship between news cameraman man John Cassellis and a single, lower-class mother who has left her husband. The film’s centrepiece is actual footage from the riots which engulfed the Democratic National Convention that summer. It’s a challenging watch, but provides a fascinating snapshot of the social and political climate of the US during that period.

10. The Parallax View (Alan J. Pakula, 1974)
I’m a sucker for films that explore political paranoia and conspiracy, and these were particularly prevalent during the Watergate years of the mid-1970s (see also All The President’s Men). Starring Warren Beatty, The Parallax View tells the story of a shadowy corporation specialising in political assassinations that create the illusion of a lone, disaffected gunman acting independently. A not-so-gentle nod and wink to the events surrounding JFK’s assassination.

Raindance 2013: Way Out East

The Kirishima Thing
The Kirishima Thing

Raindance Film Festival

25 Sept – 6 Oct 2013

London, UK

Raindance website

The Raindance Film Festival has a history of screening independent Asian cinema, and this year was no exception, with 13 films showing in the Way Out East strand, including the world premiere of Gen Takahashi’s Court of Zeus. Below, Sarah Cronin takes a look at some of the highlights.

The Kirishima Thing (Daihachi Yoshida, 2012)
A polished, intelligent and entertaining film, Daihachi Yoshida’s The Kirishima Thing won the Best Film and Best Director prizes at the Japanese Academy Awards. Taking place over a period of five days, a series of events is revealed from different points of view in this compelling high school drama. The title relates to star pupil and athlete Kirishima, who mysteriously quits the volleyball team and disappears from school, leaving behind a trail of teen angst. He won’t answer his girlfriend’s texts; his best friends, who skip the virtually compulsive after-school activities to hang out playing basketball, are left in the dark; while his replacement on the volleyball team is bullied for not being Kirishima’s equal out on the court.

With its obvious focus on cliques, the films has well-known elements of the American teen drama: there are the attractive, popular kids; the shy, nerdy outsiders (in this case, they’ve all joined the cinema club, sneakily making a zombie film), and the rebels. There’s the popular, pretty girl who secretly wants to join the cinema club but knows she never will, and there are the familiar heartbreaking crushes, and the devastating disappointments of adolescence. But despite these familiar tropes, the film still feels refreshing. Yoshida shines a light on the pressure inflicted on Japanese teens, with the after-school clubs seen as necessary for future success. Ultimately, that’s why Kirishima’s disappearance is so disturbing to his fellow students; it’s like the near-equivalent of suicide.

Sake-Bomb (Junya Sakino, 2013)
There are some genuine laugh-out loud moments in Sake-Bomb (admittedly mostly in the first 30 minutes), an entertainingly diverting film about the insecurities of growing up Asian-American in California, packaged in the form of a road movie of sorts. Sebastian (Eugene Kim) is unemployed, obnoxious, arrogant, and spends most of his time trying to develop a following for his YouTube channel, where he posts endless videos ripping apart Asian stereotypes. Justifiably dumped by his girlfriend, he has nothing else to do when his small-town cousin, Naoto (Gaku Hamada), arrives from Japan on an ill-fated quest to find the love of his life, his former English teacher, who suddenly returned to California without an explanation. As they travel north to San Francisco, a series of encounters with a dizzy cast of characters reveal Sebastian’s spiteful cynicism, which thaws when he meets Joslyn, a cool, equally misanthropic writer always up for fun. But it’s Naoto, charming and likeable, if hopelessly naïve, who eventually makes Sebastian confront the bitterness that he feels as an outsider.

Sake-Bomb is a charming, if slight, film that appears more interesting for its subtext rather than how it’s put together. Sebastian’s rants about the under-representation of Asian-Americans, for example, is spot on, and it’s refreshing to see Japanese-born director Junya Sakino trying to do something to redress that balance in a comedic, painfully honest way.

Watch the trailer for Sake-Bomb :

Court of Zeus (Gen Takahashi, 2013)
Director Gen Takahashi’s follow-up to Confessions of a Dog, shares the same ethos as its predecessor: a concern for the corruption that eats away at any notion of fairness in the Japanese legal system. In turn, Takahashi’s films expose the wider problems with the society at large: deference towards elders, the obsession with saving face, and the treatment of women.

Read Sarah Cronin’s interview with director Gen Takahashi here.

But where Confessions of a Dog was a riveting film with elements from both the action and thriller genres, Court of Zeus is a far less successful courtroom drama, about a newly appointed, work-obsessed judge, Kano, and his young, neglected fiancé, Megumi, who is arrested for murder after an altercation with her lover. While it is disturbing to learn that most cases in Japan are decided before the protagonists ever enter the courtroom, and the film tellingly reveals the misogyny that taints women’s domestic lives (once engaged, it’s impossible for her to work, and even her choice to take a floral arranging course has to be approved by her future husband), stylistically the film just doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. The cinematography is clunky in places and feels rather dated, and there are just too many awkward set-ups that lead to an unrealistic conclusion. Still an interesting watch, but sadly something of a disappointment in view of Takahashi’s promising previous work.

Shady (Ryohei Watanabe, 2012)
Ryohei Watanabe’s Shady initially seems like a middle-of-the-road, coming-of-age story about two high school girls who develop an unlikely friendship. The plain, painfully shy Misa, called ‘Pooh’ by her taunting classmates, clearly has no other friends than a goldfish and pet parrot to keep her company. But suddenly she finds herself adopted by the pretty, cutesy Izumi, and the two soon become best friends.

Shady is released on DVD in the UK by Third Window Films on 24 February 2014.

Although the film gets off to a slow start, making one wonder what direction it is heading in, and how it can remain so tightly focused on its two main characters, it soon becomes clear that this film is far more complex than it first seems. There are a few clues, like the disappearance of a fellow student, that are revealed in the first few minutes of the film, but in the end even the twists might not be what they first seem. Instead, Shady gradually builds into a disturbing, multi-layered drama, with impressive performances from its young leads.

Watch the trailer for Shady:

Sarah Cronin

London Film Festival 2013 – Part 5

Why Don't You Play in Hell
Why Don't You Play in Hell?

BFI London Film Festival

9 – 20 October 2013

London, UK

LFF website

In our final report from the 57th edition of the London Film Festival, we review some of our favourite titles from this year’s line up, along with one of very few disappointments.

Check out Part 1, 2, 3 and 4 of our 2013 LFF coverage.

Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (Sion Sono, 2013)
After a couple of serious post-apocalyptic dramas made in reaction to the Fukushima disaster, Sion Sono returns with a gleeful, mischievously fun, candy-coloured comedic gore fest about wannabe cineastes hired by feuding yakuza to make a film. Humorously violent and deliriously excessive (as is to be expected from Sono) it features some striking scenes, from the yakuza boss’s white-clad young daughter sliding through a blood bath in their all-white living room, to the sexy, sassy, sadistic broken-glass kiss she gives a treacherous lover ten years later. The story takes a while to get to where it is obviously heading, but when it finally does, it does not disappoint: the verve with which limbs and heads are cut off and blood liberally spilt in the final showdown as the fanatic filmmakers continue to shoot is giddily, stupidly exhilarating. After the underlying darkness and complexities of Guilty of Romance, Cold Fish, Love Exposure and Suicide Club, this feels like a return to simpler pleasures and youthful brazenness, which may be due to the fact that the script was written 15 years ago.

Set up as a film within a film within a film, Why Don’t You Play in Hell? is also a warm, exuberant love letter to cinema. It references Bruce Lee through a screaming, nunchaku-wielding action star wearing the iconic yellow jumpsuit, and comically pays homage to yakuza movies, more particularly Kinji Fukasaku’s. And amid all the madcap humour, there is a certain wistfulness about the death of 35mm, projectionists, old-school fights, Japanese culture, and the corrupting influence of money on cinema. Inventive, playful and thrill-packed, it is a vastly enjoyable slice of film-affirming fun. VS

Night Moves (Kelly Reichhardt, 2013)
Kelly Reichhardt’s latest is concerned with three eco-activists Josh, Dena and Harmon (Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, Peter Sarsgaard) who have decided to go further than their documentary-making, organic vegetable-farming compadres and blow up a dam. As they plot to do so, their conflicting characters, backgrounds and motivations are revealed. The operation is a success, of a kind, but has unintended consequences Confident, ballsy Dena becomes an emotional wreck, sensitive, taciturn Josh grows more and more paranoid, and the conflicts become chasms. Reichhardt does good work in setting up her characters and then showing what their crime does to them. She is also is very smart and subtle about mileu and motivation, while the amateur eco-doc we see projected on a white sheet at Josh’s commune is spot on (and is actually shot by producer and horror auteur Larry Fessenden, fact fans!). As is the lame discussion afterwards.

Night Moves has its moments of well-achieved tension, but for me was a disappointment after Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff. There, her ‘less is more’ aesthetic paid off with absorbing, anxiety-inducing films that linger in the mind. Here… I don’t know, we spend an awful lot of the running time looking at Eisenberg’s anxious face, we get an awful lot of silence, and we get a Meek’s Cutoff-style finale that just sort of…ends. I needed more, for once, never feeling as involved as I did with her previous works. All in all, it’s a bit of an unthriller. MS

Watch the trailer for Night Moves:

The Double (Richard Ayoade, 2013)
Richard Ayoade’s second feature film is a very mannered affair, taking pace in its own transatlantic nocturnal bubble, where the architecture is utilitarian, charmless and shrouded in Lynchian gloom, the juke boxes play old Japanese pop tunes, and mobile phones are significant by their absence. Based on Dostoyevsky’s novel, it follows Simon (Jesse Eisenberg), an office drone whose life is a series of frustrations. Nobody notices him, his contributions are ignored, his transgressions are seized upon, and he can barely function when attempting to interact with fellow worker, and romantic obsession, Hannah (Mia Wasikowska). So far so depressing, but then one day Simon’s exact double turns up at work, and immediately begins to climb the corporate ladder. This new version is confident and dynamic, a hit with the bosses and a wow with the ladies; he seems to be a better Simon than Simon could hope to be, and slowly begins to edge the original out of his own existence…

The Double eschews any kitchen-sink naturalism (the default setting for many British filmmakers) for a highly stylised, intricately planned and executed aesthetic. There’s more than a hint of Gilliam’s Brazil here, in its office politics and romantic frustration. Each scene is framed, timed and sound designed to create the maximum humiliation for Simon, and there’s a lot of physical comedy here at his expense (automatic doors particularly seem to have it in for him), while his plight is accentuated by staging that leaves him locked out and blocked off from where he wants to be. Also adding to the ‘movie movie’ experience is the casting, or, what I believe is known in the trade as ‘overcasting’: Ayoade has clearly called in a few favours to fill out his film, and as a result we have most of the actors from his first film Submarine turning up here, as well as a couple of his I.T. Crowd co-stars, and apparently everybody else with a resume he could get hold of. I’m in two minds about the effect of all this on the viewing experience. On one level it’s like another design element (I was reminded of John Water’s stated ambition to make a film where everybody who appears on screen is a celebrity of some kind, and the sets are deliberately fake). On the other hand, it is undeniably distracting to have familiar face after familiar face pop up in the tiniest roles (Chris Morris! Chris O’ Dowd! Paddy Considine! Dinosaur Jr’s J. Mascis, as a janitor, for christ’s sake!) regardless of the quality of their contribution (loved Tim Key’s turn as a heroically unconcerned care home worker, though). I fear that all this stylisation seals the viewer off from total engagement somewhat, and while it plays on common nightmares, it plays as someone else’s.

Whatever… this is bold, intelligent filmmaking. Eisenberg does great work as both unter-Simon and uber-Simon, suggesting two entirely different characters through body language and gesture, often acting against himself in scenes which must have been a technical nightmare. It gets interestingly dark and painful in places, I already want to see it again, and I await whatever Ayoade does next. MS

Watch the trailer for The Double:

Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, 2013)
Remember Alien‘s classic poster tag line ‘In space no one can hear you scream’? It would have also been the perfect fit for Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity which, arguably, is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful and mesmerising films out in cinemas this year. That is, if you are willing to suspend your disbelief at the door and take the film at face value. And most likely, you will. Because from the moment you’ve put your 3D glasses on, Gravity embraces you with its awe-aspiring CGI heart and soul. ’Life in space is impossible’, we are told, along with a summary of plain facts: 372 miles above Earth’s surface, there is no air pressure, no oxygen, and no atmosphere to carry sound. And it’s that very sense of fatal, lonely isolation that Gravity radiates, with an instantly disarming charm and cinematic virtuosity.

Gravity is released in the UK on 8 November 2013 by Warner Bros.

Though essentially a two-hander, with George Clooney as the well-versed astronaut Matt Kowalsky (Clooney being his usual smart, irresistibly charming self) and Sandra Bullock as the overly committed, new-to-space scientist Dr. Ryan Stone, who are caught in an accident while they are out in space repairing a satellite, this is really Bullock’s film. With their shuttle destroyed and all connection to Houston and soon to each other lost, she drifts through the scary, silent darkness of the universe, fighting her way from one space station to the next in the slowly dying hope that she might be able to return to Earth, all alone with her troubled soul on her mission to survive.

Taking the power of long, unbroken takes and seemingly limitless CGI imagery to a new dimension, Cuarón wisely alternates the settings between claustrophobic ship interiors and the boundless expanse of the cosmos, while never losing sight of the incredible beauty of Earth as seen from space, unashamedly putting it all in, from strikingly rendered scenes of sunrises to the northern lights from orbit. But while there is no denying that the film clearly underestimates audiences’ intelligence in terms of plot and character depth, everyone in for a unique cinematic ride against the backdrop of the abyss of outer space will have a fantastic time. PJ

Watch the trailer for Gravity :

The Sarnos: A Life in Dirty Movies (Witkor Eriksson, 2013)
Witkor Eriksson’s affectionate documentary looks at the life and work of Joe Sarno and his loyal wife (and costume designer) Peggy. Dubbed ‘the Ingmar Bergman of porn’ by John Waters, Sarno is responsible for some 75 features, but best known for the run of films he made from the mid 1960s to the mid 1970s. Young Playthings, All the Sins of Sodom, Sin You Sinners, Sin in the Suburbs (do you sense a theme?), Inga, and many more, culminating in Confessions of a Young American Housewife, and Abigail Lesley is Back in Town. These were all self-penned works with a recognisable auteurist signature. ‘They were always about women’, notes Annie Sprinkle, and normally featured headstrong, not necessarily pleasant lead characters bringing about their own doom in oppressively bland contemporary America (or occasionally Sweden). Clearly atypical filth, they have gained a cult reputation over time, featuring in RE/Search’s original Incredibly Strange Films book, and now being screened and discussed at the BFI and other edifices of artistic respectability.

Not that this helps out Joe much, who is 88-years-old here, looking unfit, and a victim of bad contracts and shady deals, who doesn’t own or benefit from much of his substantial back catalogue. The Sarnos spend their life flitting between New York and Stockholm, clearly barely able to keep the wolf from the door. Eriksson follows them as Joe tries to get one last feature together, and investigates a life lived on the disreputable underside of the film industry. The film posits that the films Sarno wanted to make were rendered uncommercial by the arrival of hardcore porn, which effectively destroyed the grindhouse/drive-in ‘sexploitation’ genre. The raincoat brigade just wanted to watch people screw, and didn’t want to sit through his glum psychodramas, waiting for the sex scenes when they didn’t have to. The Sarnos also suggests that he didn’t want to have any part of the hardcore business after the failure of Abigail Lesley in 1975, largely glossing over the interim decades, but a quick glance at his IMDB page tells you that he carried on plugging away with explicit smut, and I wish the doc had asked him more about his (reluctant? regretful?) participation in these lesser works.

That bugbear aside, The Sarnos is fine stuff. It’s oddly delightful to watch this ageing couple having matter-of-fact conversations about absolute filth, while there is plenty of arcane and interesting detail to absorb, and the clips of his 1960s/70s output are tantalising. Joe and Peggy are complicated, charming people, and it’s a study of a long-term relationship as much as it is a treatise on a life in dirty movies. Be prepared to wipe away a tear. MS

Watch a clip from The Sarnos – A Life in Dirty Movies :

The Long Way Home (Aiphan Eşeli, 2013)
Set (and filmed) in East Anatolia, The Long Way Home takes place in 1915, just after the Battle of Sarikamish. A mother, her daughter and their guide, refugees from the conflict, are struggling over the snow-choked mountains when their horse gives up the ghost, and they find themselves struggling through the forbidding landscape, and the remains of war, on foot, passing thousands of frozen corpses to arrive at a burnt-out village not found on their map. Digging in to wait out the storm they find two surviving villagers, and then a couple of soldiers, but as the food runs low, what are they prepared to do to survive?

Aiphan Eşeli’s impressively confident first feature works first as a battle-against-the-elements tale of human persistence, then turns darker and more brutal as desperation sets in, only to turn again in a bit of a coup-de-cinema with a devastating final reel. Powerful, widescreen, intimate/epic stuff. MS

Watch the trailer for The Long Way Home :

The Kill Team (Dan Krauss, 2013)
A few years back, a platoon of US soldiers serving in Afghanistan made the news as ‘the kill team’, amid troubling stories about Afghans pointlessly killed and body parts kept as souvenirs. Dan Krauss’s documentary follows the defence team and parents of one of the accused, Adam Winfield, as he is prosecuted by the U. S. Army, interviewing two other platoon members, Stoner and Morlock, along the way. What emerges is a jaw-droppingly horrible account of apparent sociopaths given carte blanche to kill for fun. Winfield claims that he tried to blow the whistle on the Platoon’s actions, but was stymied by a system that didn’t want to hear it, and had to take part in one of the killings for fear of his own life. The others seem utterly unrepentant, and seem to have taken to indiscriminate murder partly because they had been trained to kill, not dig wells, and Afghanistan wasn’t what they felt had been advertised. ’It wasn’t like what they hyped it up to be, and that’s probably why, y’know, stuff happened…’

The Kill Team may focus too much on Winfield’s trial and not enough on the 5th Stryker Brigade, and it has the gaping hole of platoon leader Gibbs (who instigated the madness, denies everything, and wouldn’t take part) at its centre, but it still opens up a world of darkness to argue over long after its closing credits. Recommended. MS

New World
New World

New World (Park Hoon-jung, 2013)
This is the type of film that South Korean directors seem to do so superbly well: the dark action thriller with a conspiracy twist. Directed by Park Hoon-jung, New World is not nearly as disturbing, bleak and tortured as the incredibly twisted revenge story I Saw the Devil, which was written by Hoon-jung, but it is still a gripping, very well-executed example of the crime genre.

Undercover police officer Ja-sung (Lee Jung-jae) is a mole who has worked his way up in the echelons of Goldmoon, a crime syndicate that the cops have spent years trying to crack. When Goldmoon’s chairman manages to evade a guilty verdict in court, only to be killed in a car accident, a bitter struggle for succession ensues. Ja-sung, who has become a lieutenant to the powerful and vicious Jung Chung (Hwang Jung-min), is desperate to get out, but finds himself manipulated into becoming an integral player in the power struggle by his handler, Chief Kang (the always fabulous Choi Min-sik).

Although it starts out fairly generic, New World gradually evolves into something much more compelling, adding in a series of twists, some foreseen, others completely surprising, that make the story increasingly complex and exciting to watch. With all the brutal back-stabbing going on between the police and criminals alike, there’s plenty of violence and gore on top of the more thought-out plot points. Needless to say that by the film’s powerful and dramatic conclusion, there are few men left standing. SC

Virginie Sélavy, Pamela Jahn, Mark Stafford, Sarah Cronin

London Film Festival 2013 – Part 4

The Witches
The Witches

BFI London Film Festival

9 – 20 October 2013

London, UK

LFF website

As this year’s London Film Festival draws to a close, we review more films from the 57th edition. Some better, some worse.

Check out Part 1, 2 and 3 of our 2013 LFF coverage.

The Witches (Cyril Frankel, 1966)
’Nothing can eat your soul,’ states the voice of reason, Miss Mayfield (Joan Fontaine), just before the mission school she has been running in Africa is attacked by freaky mask-wearing witch doctors and she dissolves into a blubbering mess. Months later she is back in England, supposedly recovered from her ordeal, but still clearly brittle. She is delighted to be offered the post of headmistress in the archetypal English village of Heddaby. Everything seems delightful at first, with colourful characters and rolling fields, but slowly bits of weirdness creep in, and all the locals seem overly concerned that schoolgirl Linda (Ingrid Brett, frankly, hot) should be separated from her would-be boyfriend as soon as possible. When the boy falls suddenly ill, and a headless plastic doll with pins in its chest is found, it becomes clear to Miss Mayfield that something is up, but as she begins to pry, her fragile state comes under strain, and under scrutiny.

The Witches is largely a woman’s picture, with Miss Mayfield (and her oddly Thatcherite hair) at the centre, and Linda and her mum, newspaper columnist/community leader Stephanie Bax (Kay Walsh), pushed to the fore, with the men supporting, at best. Alan Bax (Alec McCowen) is especially useless: ‘I wanted to enter the church but I failed,’ he says, and seems to spend much of the film going silent and sloping off whenever the conversation takes an awkward turn. It’s an atypical Hammer from 1966, adapted from a Peter Curtis novel by the great Nigel Kneale. I’m not sure how much is Kneale and how much Curtis, but the confluence of’ ‘old ways’ hoodoo with modern science is a Kneale trope, and certain lines have that spark of offbeat realism (‘I’ve got veins!’). The way that the full import of the words ’give me a skin for dancing in’ are left to dangle in the viewer’s mind is sublimely horrible. But time and again the full impact of the script is let down by pedestrian staging, and meat–and-potatoes cinematography. There are some nice shots and the occasional visual coup (a writhing, jerking cloth doll on a pentacled floor is authentically nightmarish). But a film in which the lead character may be losing her marbles should look a lot more deranged than this, and the climactic witches’ sabbath looks, unfortunately, like the rehearsals of an off-Broadway musical. All things aside, though, it’s a bit of a forgotten gem, looking ahead to elements of The Wicker Man and Rosemary’s Baby. Occult madness in sleepy England is always a winner, and Leonard Rossiter pops up as a doctor. Well worth checking out. MS

The Zero Theorem (Terry Gilliam, 2013)
Christolph Waltz plays Qohen Leth, a black-clad man in a day-glo world – a loud, irritating future of intrusive technology and automated intimacy. Not that he wants intimacy. He just wants to be left alone at the fire-damaged church he calls home, where he is hoping to receive a phone call that will explain his existence. After a strange encounter with the mysterious Management (Matt Damon) at a party held by his boss (David Thewlis), he is granted his wish to work from home, as long as he works on a hush-hush project, an attempt to assemble a computer model of an insanely complex equation. He makes better progress than most in a task that has driven others to despair, but still begins to lose his mind under the pressure. A therapy programme (Tilda Swinton) proves unhelpful, so sexy Melanie Thierry, as a kind of virtual call girl, and a teenage wizkid (Lucas Hedges), are brought in to keep him working, turning his ordered and isolated life upside down in the process.

Terry Gilliam’s latest is restless in its own skin, feeling like a hugely absurdist science-fiction satire trying to fight its way out of a five-hander play, or an intimate study of modern madness lost in an overactive hyperkinetic playground. Zero Theorem takes you to the edge of a black hole, and the beach of a tropical island at permanent sunset, but still feels claustrophobic. Where the likes of Minority Report are thematically dystopian, but fetishise the gleaming technology, Gilliam has a cartoonist’s eye for bullshit: the street advertisements in his lousy future address passers-by as the wrong sex, the pizzas sing annoying ditties, and digital communications are a great new way to not listen to each other. As you would expect from this director, the environmental detailing, the sheer visual exuberance, is something to behold. I heard ripples of delight spread around me at the screening from some shots, but this is, essentially, a beautiful boat without a goddamn motor. The earlier, kandy-koloured-Kafka scenes evoke a sense of stress and alienation many people in 2013 will be familiar with, but for the most part Leth’s problems, his goals and desires, are just too abstract and peculiar for easy identification (especially when he’s determinedly throwing off the advances of Thierry). Elements of the OTT visual dynamic obscure the storytelling. Forward momentum drops away, and the suspicion begins to grow that nobody knows where this is going or how to satisfactorily end it. It’s a film with many incidental pleasures, but little purpose. A downbeat, pretty, befuddled mess. MS

Watch the trailer for The Zero Theorem:

How We Used to Live (Paul Kelly, 2013)
Filmmaker Paul Kelly has built up a fine body of work over the last decade devoted to chronicling London’s hidden corners and gems, through films such as Finisterre and This is Tomorrow. His latest is a lyrical love letter to London’s post-war past, beautifully composed of footage housed in the BFI National Archives. With just the right amount of narration delivered by a throaty Ian McShane (and written by Bob Stanley and Travis Elborough), the film almost wordlessly lets the audience glide through the transformation of London into a modern city.

A blonde woman in a long white coat wanders lost among the bombed-out ruins of her neighbourhood; wrecking balls smash through the remaining walls of destroyed terrace homes; London Bridge is dismantled before its move to the US. The men in bowler hats commuting to work in the City are replaced by boys with long hair and leggy girls in mini-skirts. In one of the most engaging sequences, a skateboarder threads his way through the crowds crossing a bridge over the Thames to the sounds of Saint Etienne. The excellent soundtrack, composed by the band’s Pete Wiggs, terrifically sets the mood, from some jazzier numbers to more sombre notes, and in many ways it serves as the fabric that binds the interwoven images together. It’s easy to immerse yourself in the hypnotic visuals, and find delight in the little details that fill the frame with every shot. But what is most strikingly revealed in How We Used to Live is how much of the old London remains – shop fronts may have changed, cafés and clubs are gone, but the heart of the city, the people, are still there. SC

Watch the trailer for How We Used to Live:

Sx_ Tape (Bernard Rose, 2013)
Jill is a would-be artist being filmed going about her business by Adam, one of those boyfriends incapable of putting the camera down in films like this. She paints a little, they have sex, shop, eat, annoy each other. Try to have sex again, before being rudely interrupted. He wants to show her something: a huge abandoned hospital where ‘naughty women’ used to be sent to have abortions. The perfect venue for an art show. She breaks in, he, reluctantly, follows and then bad things happen to Adam and Jill and later arrivals Ellie and Bobby, the film’s regulation aggravating, macho arsehole.

It seems a little mystifying as to why Bernard Rose chose this script to mark his return to the horror genre; it’s a late jumper onto the ‘found footage’ bandwagon, passably executed and pretty unpleasant. There’s a theme, of sorts, about the abuse and exploitation of women, but it gets lost among the shock tactics. Too often the illogicalities felt preposterous rather than nightmarish, and the series of endings on offer at the climax of the film (none of which resolve the film’s police station-set opening sequence) seem to confirm that nobody really had a handle on this mother. I’d be lying if I said I was bored. Or that there was nothing here of interest, but films like this need to develop some solid, creepy ideas to really pay off, and this just ain’t working. MS

Jodorowsky’s Dune (Frank Pavich, 2013)
If we imagine a world without Star Wars, we can imagine a world where cinema was not dying as it is now. If we imagine a world where Alejandro (El Topo) Jodorowsky beat Star Wars to the punch with his planned film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction novel Dune, we can imagine him laying the groundwork for a new and different kind of film spectacle, rather than the empty state-of-the-art 80s blockbusters that spawned endless rollercoaster rides masquerading as movies.

Frank Pavich’s feature documentary is as close as we’re ever going to get to seeing what might have been one of the great movies of the late 20th century. A mere five-million-dollars short of becoming a reality, the film was to star Mick Jagger, Salvador Dali and Orson Welles. Seeing this doc is to indulge in the creative excitement that went into every second of preparing this epic motion picture. We experience Jodorowsky’s pride (albeit with a tinge of melancholy) at planting seeds for the future greatness of others from a movie that was never made. The films exists only in a massive frame-by-frame storyboard book with the screenplay and Jodorowsky’s notes – a document used to raise additional financing in Hollywood, but which was instead passed around to one filmmaker after another. Hollywood accepted the genius, but rejected the artist and, sadly, his film. GK

Watch the trailer for Jodorowsky’s Dune:

Pioneer (Erik Skjoldbjaerg, 2013)
A pleasingly paranoid Norwegian thriller from Insomnia creator Erik Skjoldbjaerg. It’s the early 1980s and American and Norwegian diving teams are collaborating on a project which will exploit the oil and gas deposits to be found under the ocean floor in the Norwegian Sea. This is deeper than any diver has been before, and to this end the American team have developed a special breathing mix which should enable the teams to operate below 500m. But things go horribly wrong during the first test dive at sea, and Petter (Aksel Hennie, great), a dedicated diver with little outside life, becomes obsessed with finding out why, bringing him into conflict with political and commercial forces who want the tests over, and the money to start rolling.

As with Insomnia, a standard thriller set up is made much more interesting by a derangement of the senses. Petter is experiencing little blackouts, lacunae in his ability to function, and we are left unsure as to exactly how compos mentis he is – we have already seen him hallucinate a seabird into existence in the dry-run test of the opening sequence – so when he starts throwing accusations around, and breaking into offices to steal medical files, a suspicion remains that this might be all in his head. Decompression chambers here are used as instruments of torture, and places to isolate the inconvenient. Everything is murky, motives are obscure and, as in The Conversation, the evidence is open to interpretation. Pioneer plays games with focus, becoming increasingly woozy and warped as it goes on, and in the closing sections of the film Petter and the viewer have a case of the bends, which is not the best state to be in when unravelling a conspiracy or fending off shadowy killers. Good stuff, with an occasionally wonderful soundtrack by Air.
Potential viewers should be warned that this film contains Norwegian hair. MS

Watch the trailer for Pioneer :

We Are the Best! (Lukas Moodysson, 2013)
For all you punkety rockety girls out there, and those who love them: this is your new favourite film, you just don’t know it yet. With We Are the Best! (which is based on his wife Coco’s graphic novel), Lukas Moodysson returns to the inclusive humanism of his earlier work (Show Me Love, Together), rather than his pass-the-razor-blades phase (Lilya 4-Ever, A Hole in My Heart) or his what-the-bloody-hell-is-this phase (Container). It’s a simple tale: two 13-year-old girls, Bobo and Klara, are outcasts at school, mainly because it’s a bad place and time to be ferociously dedicated to punk rock: Stockholm in the early 1980s. Partly out of spite, they get the metal band Iron Fist thrown out of the practice room at their local youth centre on the pretext that they have a band, and having booked the room, they decide that they might as well start a band for real. Undaunted by their lack of talent, but aware that they ought to have somebody on side who knows what they’re doing, they recruit Hedwig, a Christian and another outcast, on guitar, and the film follows their trials and tribulations as they attempt to get it together for their first gig.

There is very little conflict here (an unfortunate haircut incident, a falling out over a punk boy), just a lot of brilliantly observed business about families and schools and pop culture and all that other stuff you have to negotiate when you’re 13. The girls are adorable, fearless and bulletproof, wide eyed and vulnerable, with their own cool punk chic (it involves a lot of scarves) and Moodysson perfectly captures that age when you can be obsessing over nuclear annihilation one minute and having a food fight the next. There is a great sense of time and place, and fun to be had about the difficulties of being a rebel when everybody’s so tolerant and accommodating (Swedish punk songs of the period seem pushed to find stuff to complain about). We Are the Best! finds time for everybody – youth club workers, parents, and hell, even Iron Fist are people rather than characters. There may not be a great deal to the film other than a little slice of time, but it’s bloody delightful – a warm, spiky hug. MS

Grand Piano (Eugenio Mira, 2013)
The experience of watching Grand Piano is something like wandering around a Victorian folly – a cunningly constructed, visually appealing exterior that knowingly obscures a lack of substance. Directed by Eugenio Mira, this giallo-influenced film stars Elijah Wood as Tom Selznick, a classical pianist who is about to perform in front of an audience for the first time in five years after a disastrous concert led to his retirement. The occasion: a tribute to his mentor a year after his death, and the once-in-a-lifetime chance to play his priceless grand piano before it’s shipped to Switzerland.

Wood effortlessly conveys all the stress and stage-fright that threaten his come-back performance, and his anxiety is only magnified when he discovers that there’s a sniper in the theatre threatening to assassinate his glamorous, movie-star wife if he plays a wrong note during his grand finale. There is a point to the slightly absurd plot, which is finally revealed towards the end of the increasingly bloody stand-off (although Mira does well with delivering an ambiguous ending). But it’s not the film’s premise that makes the movie appealing – it’s simply great fun to watch, an entertaining 90-minute visual treat. The art design is excellent, while the blood red tones that infuse the cinematography lend a terrific atmosphere to the thriller. There’s some clunky writing and ham-fisted acting by the more disposable characters at play, but in the end it all seems like part of the game. SC

The Sacrament
The Sacrament

The Sacrament (Ti West, 2013)
After his slow-burn Satanic chiller The House of the Devil and offbeat ghost story The Innkeepers, Ti West continues on his idiosyncratic path with a faux documentary investigating a religious cult in a far-off land. Presenting itself as an ‘immersionist’ Vice piece, it perfectly captures the mixture of reckless bravery and self-conscious ‘craziness’ that typifies the magazine through the characters of reporter Sam (AJ Bowen) and cameraman Jake (Joe Swanberg). When photographer Patrick decides to visit his former junkie sister Caroline in the commune she has joined, they tag along to document the reunion. Although they are met by intimidating armed guards when their helicopter lands on the island, their initial interviews with commune members seem to paint an idyllic picture of life at Eden Parish. But after a bizarre on-stage interview with Father, the charismatic cult leader, the surface begins to crack, and a far more sinister reality is revealed.

Very restrained in its use of violence, The Sacrament is about a disturbingly realistic kind of horror, recalling the Jonestown Massacre and similar fanatic cults. Key to the film’s emotional power is the complex character development, one of Ti West’s greatest strengths, helped by tremendous performances from the excellent cast. Aimy Seimetz is both unnerving and pitiful as the screwed-up sister who has traded drug addiction for another kind of escape, and Gene Jones is extraordinary as Father, a frighteningly intelligent, creepy, manipulative man, who also desperately believes what he preaches. There is a great sense of human tragedy in all of the characters, including the gung-ho reporters who sober up as they become the unwitting catalysts for horrifying violence. An intelligent, original, category-defying gem. VS

Virginie Sélavy, Mark Stafford, Greg Klymkiw, Sarah Cronin

London Film Festival 2013 – Part 3

The Strange Colour of Your Bodys Tears 1
The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears

BFI London Film Festival

9 – 20 October 2013

London, UK

LFF website

With the 57th BFI London Film Festival now in full swing, Virginie Sélavy, Pamela Jahn, Mark Stafford and Sarah Cronin report on more films being screened over the next nine days.

Check out Part 1 and Part 2 of our LFF previews and come back for more reviews throughout the festival.

The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears (Hélène Cattet, Bruno Forzani, 2013)
As gorgeous as it is oppressive, Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s latest neo-giallo is an ultra-sensuous, hypnotic trip through dark desires and the disturbing, delicious lines between pleasure and pain, madness and sanity, dream and reality. With what has to be the best title of the festival, riffing on the wonderfully convoluted names of the films that inspired it, The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears strengthens the potent aesthetic vision of the directing duo’s 2009 feature debut Amer, focusing entirely on pure sensation. In this hallucinatory, obsessive psychosexual dream, every shot is a marvel of composition, every object and texture is fetishized: leather, gloves, boots, jewels, blood, mirrors, blades. Male and female bodies are repeatedly penetrated, skull wounds are shaped like sexual organs, broken mirror shards enter flesh, as sensual ecstasy becomes deadly and lovers turn assailants.

The narrative is even more minimal than in its Italian predecessors – a man is looking for his missing wife – and it serves as the pretext for an intense distillation of the visual and sonic motifs of the giallo. Just as its masters effortlessly found stunning decors in beautiful, decadent Italian architecture, Strange Colour makes great use of the Brussels art nouveau building in which it is set. With its exuberance of organic round shapes, flowery motifs, voluptuous naked women, twisted stairs, stained glass and golden curlicues, the building is like a living organism, the figures on its walls breathing and moaning with the rapture and agony of its inhabitants.

A baroque film composed of giallo elements that are themselves baroque, Strange Colour constructs a dizzying, infinite cascade of doubles and repetitions, of stories within stories and structures within structures, where everything is mirrored, multiplied and fragmented. While it pays brilliant homage to its models, it is compellingly alluring in itself, and its meticulously crafted world of lush excess, sumptuous sophistication and opulent illusion is deeply seductive. VS

Watch the teaser trailer for The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears:

Harmony Lessons (Boris Khlebnikov, 2013)
Directed by 29-year-old first-time Kazakhstani filmmaker Emir Baigazin, Harmony Lessons was one of the most impressive films in the international competition at this year’s Berlinale. In its essence, the film is a twisted school-bullying revenge drama revolving around introverted 13-year-old Aslan (Timur Aidarbekov), who is targeted by his ruthless classmates. In return, Aslan vents his anger and frustration on cockroaches and other pests and insects that he uses as guinea pigs for the cruel little scientific experiments that he conducts in his room. Things seem to get slightly better when a student arrives from the city and helps defy the bullies, while palling up with Aslan. However, when a murder takes place at the school, the main suspects are easily found, transforming both the characters and the plot into something deeper, darker and more mysterious. With its existential overtones and the creative assurance of a young director who seems to have little to learn from any arthouse veterans, Harmony Lessons is an inventive, genre-defying film located on the borderline between the real and the imaginary, and deserves more attention than it received in Berlin.

Watch a clip from Harmony Lessons:

Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski, 2013)

“War is death, Hell is pain, chess is victory.”

It’s the early 1980s, and a nondescript American hotel is hosting a computer chess tournament, in which various teams will match their machines against each other over one weekend, with the winner to play against a human being for the grand finale. It’s a kind of geek Olympics, which the world, most assuredly, is not watching, and things aren’t going to plan: one of the competitors has failed to book a room and wanders the corridors at night; another team grow concerned as their computer seems determined to commit suicide on the battlefield. Tensions and conflicts grow, and to make matters more uncomfortable, these generally uptight types are sharing the hotel with a touchy feely ‘encounter group’ who have booked the same weekend.

Mumblecore director Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess promises at first to be something of a lo-fi Best In Show, a comic study of a particular group of obsessives in their own environment, a parade of analogue tech and bad hair. It’s shot in black and white, seemingly on a contemporary video camera, and starts in a naturalistic mode. But as the film progresses things get weirder: the late-night chatter revolves around artificial intelligence and the Pentagon, and the apocalyptic uses to which their technology might be put; cats multiply; smart people seem to be consumed by odd ideas; and a whole lot of sex doesn’t happen. There is the suggestion that the work that they are all engaged in may have altered the world in some way. It’s a funny, charmingly strange piece of work in which the unravelling of minds is reflected in increasingly inventive visuals, and massive ideas are conjured on a tiny budget. Cool. MS

Watch the trailer for Computer Chess:

A Long and Happy Life (Boris Khlebnikov, 2013)
City boy Sasha (Aleksandr Yatsenko) is now a farmer employing a handful of locals, and hoping to turn his land into a viable commercial operation when shady developers take an interest in the property. Everyone else seems to be selling out, and the council offers him no choice but to sign and take the compensation, which he is about to do until his workers convince him to make a stand against the powers that be. A deadline approaches, and a showdown seems assured, but while Boris Khlebnikov’s film is inspired by High Noon, it’s a very cynical, Russian take on that scenario. ‘You shouldn’t have listened to us… we’re morons,’ admits one of the more honest workers to Sasha’s face after it all starts to go south, in one of those ‘Hollywod scenes we’d love to see’ moments that world cinema occasionally throws up. A punchy 79 minutes. MS

Watch a clip from A Long and Happy Life :

Trap Street (Vivian Qu, 2013)
Li Qiuming is a naïve, trainee urban surveyor, who develops a romantic obsession with Guan Lifen, a girl he spots on the job, and tries to engineer ways to bump into her again, when not engaged in his sideline of installing secret security cameras. Vivian Qu’s film plays partly as a love story, but takes a darker turn when Li disappears during a date, and all that romantic behaviour is seen in another light. There’s nice play here with streets that don’t exist on maps, and maps that don’t stick to real-world geography, in a China where the truth is whatever the authorities say it is. ‘We don’t arrest innocent people,’ says a policeman at one point, as it all gets a bit nightmarish, in a low-key thriller with shades of The Conversation. MS

Story of My Death (Albert Serra, 2013)
In which an aging Casanova (Vincenc Altaio) moons about a mansion, strains on the toilet, indulges in an odd bit of wenching, and delivers monologues about the nature of the world for an hour or so, before repairing to the country, where Dracula (Eliseu Huertas) shows up. Casanova seems to represent the enlightenment, reason and open sensuality, Dracula something darker and more violent. It doesn’t end well. For the record this Count is hirsute of face, as in the Stoker novel, but sits about in the sunlight, which seems a bit off.

Albert Serra makes proper art-house films of the type that barely trouble art-house cinemas anymore, impenetrable things featuring dialogue with endless pauses, ravishing pastoral photography, gnomic visual metaphors and murky plotting. There’s much to engage with here if you’re in the mood, much to infuriate you if you’re not, but if the world had no room for baffling 148-minute-long indulgences like this, then we’d all be living in a poorer place. MS

Watch a clip from Story of My Death :

Shame (Yusup Razykov, 2013)
Almost certainly inspired by the Kursk tragedy, when 118 men died aboard a nuclear submarine after an explosion and an inept (if nonexistent) rescue attempt, director Yusup Razykov rejects the more obvious approach to the story – that of an on-board thriller – in favour of a slow-burning drama focused on the wives of the men lost at sea. Set in a remote outpost in the far north of Russia, the story mostly revolves around Lena (terrifically portrayed by Maria Semenova), who’s recently moved from St. Petersburg to the bleak, desolate, Communist-era ‘town’ inside the Arctic Circle, where her high-ranking husband has been stationed (though the audience never meets him; the only men left at the base are either the young or those unfit to serve). Lena, in her black high heels, keeps to herself, rejecting the company of the other, more matronly wives, and is seemingly indifferent to both them and her husband. Slowly, painfully, word begins to spread that a tragedy has struck the submarine, sparking a chain of consequences that sweeps through the lives of the devastated women.

Shame starts with an enigmatic mystery, only resolved much later; for the most part, events play out slowly until then, but the film has a compelling rhythm, while the cinematography beautifully captures the cold, heartless environment. What unfolds is a moving, at times heartbreaking, yet redemptive portrait of a woman and a community that exist at the mercy of outside forces. SC

Virginie Sélavy, Pamela Jahn, Mark Stafford, Sarah Cronin

Viennale 2012

Electrick Children

Vienna International Film Festival

25 October – 7 November 2012, Vienna, Austria

Viennale website

This year marked the 50th anniversary of the Viennale, the Vienna International Film Festival, which ran from 25 October to 7 November. Under the direction of Hans Hurch, it was a terrifically eclectic festival, very much aimed at audiences rather than the film industry. And as a city, Vienna is hard to beat for film, with a surprising number of excellent independent cinemas.

To commemorate the anniversary, this year’s retrospective was dedicated to the Vienna-born director Fritz Lang, offering an opportunity to watch both the highs (1955’s Beyond a Reasonable Doubt) and lows (1942’s Hangmen Always Die! ) of his staggering career. There was also a tribute to Michael Caine, and a very special evening with the experimental director Peter Kubelka, who presented his new work, Monumenta, in front of a home audience.

Five female filmmakers were also honoured with a programme devoted to their films, which included the debut from actress Amy Seimetz, Sun Don’t Shine (2012), as well as rare films by the experimental filmmakers Colleen Fitzgibbon and Narcisca Hirsh, Mati Diop and shorts by Kurdwin Ayub. There was also a special focus on horror, ‘They Wanted to See Something Different’ (a line taken from The Hills Have Eyes, 2006), which saw double bills of The Thing (1982) and The Thing from Another World (1951), plus a host of midnight screenings, including Alien (1979) and Deliverance (1972).

Although it was impossible to see even a fraction of the movies screening at the festival, three new features stood out, based in large part on some excellent performances.

Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel’s The Shine of Day (Der Glanz des Tages), which won the prize for best Austrian film, blurs the line between documentary and fiction to cast a light on an intimately revealing encounter between two very different men. Philipp Hochmair (both performers essentially play themselves) is a well-known theatre actor, his life consumed by the demanding roles that he adopts on stages in Hamburg and Vienna; the audience is given a glimpse of a life spent learning lines, rehearsing, performing. For Philipp, acting is a compulsion that overshadows the realities of everyday life. But the arrival of his estranged uncle, played by Walter Saabel – circus performer, knife thrower and bear wrestler – who is trying to reconnect with his family and his own difficult past, and his sudden involvement with a desperate neighbour force Philipp to engage with the real world. There’s a terrific chemistry between the two very charismatic actors, and with much of the dialogue improvised, the film feels like a rare, touchingly honest human drama.

Elie Wajeman’s impressive debut, Alyah, stars Pio Marmaï as Alex, who sells drugs in the Parisian suburbs to make money, mostly used to pay off his brother’s debts. Isaac, fucked up but still charming (perfectly played by the writer/director Cédric Kahn) is a burden, and Alex discovers an opportunity to escape when he hears about a cousin who’s opening a restaurant in Tel Aviv. But first, he has to confront painful family ties and rediscover his neglected heritage in order to pass the ‘alyah’ and move to Israel. It’s a brooding, compelling film that charts its own path between the two poles of French cinema – the gritty, banlieue-set realism and the fairy-tale world of the Parisian elite – to conjure up something surprisingly original.

Rebecca Thomas’s Electrick Children stars Julia Garner as a 15-year-old who has spent her life living in a fundamental religious community in Utah. Her world is turned upside down when she finds a hidden music cassette, with only one song – a cover of ‘Hanging on the Telephone’ – shortly before she discovers that she’s pregnant. Either too traumatised or too naive to acknowledge who abused her, she convinces herself that the singer on the tape must be the father of her child, and runs away to Las Vegas to find him. It’s a compelling film that perfectly captures that moment in your adolescence when you heard that song, or saw that film, that suddenly seemed to change everything. And while the plot might seem a little absurd, Thomas does a brilliant job mixing humour with something much deeper, while Garner beautifully portrays Rachel’s wide-eyed innocence, and growing self-awareness.

Sarah Cronin

East Asian Films at the 56th London Film Festival

Nameless Gangster: Rules of the Time

56th BFI London Film Festival

10-21 October 2012, London

LFF website

Mark Stafford, Sarah Cronin and Virginie Sélavy review the most notable Japanese and Korean films that screened at this year’s London Film Festival.

Nameless Gangster: Rules of the Time

Opening in Busan in 1982, Yoon Jong-bin’s Nameless Gangster is a vastly enjoyable sprawling mob saga that clearly references Coppola and Scorsese in its story of the rise and fall of a would-be godfather, but adds a caustic sense of humour and ironic distance. Introducing the story with the definition of ‘daebu’, it plays on the various meanings of the term, including ‘elder relative’ and ‘crime boss’. Choi Min-sik (Oldboy) gives another fantastic performance as corrupt customs official Choi Ik-hyun, who comes into contact with local gangster Choi Hyung-bae when he is sacked from his job. Hyung-bae turns out to be related to him and Ik-hyun takes advantage of his status as his elder relative to get involved at the top of his gang.

Ik-hyun is a fascinating multi-faceted character: a comical figure who is often ridiculed, a ‘half-gangster’ – as he is called by the brilliantly ruthless prosecutor Jo – who can never really cut it as a crime boss, he is also impressively cunning and resourceful, and despite his shameless lack of scruples and despicable conduct, he has a sympathetic and very human side in his love for his family. One of the big joys of the film is his relationship to the younger, more attractive, scarier, real gangster Hyung-bae (played by rising star Ha Jung-woo), who exudes the sort of power and authority that will always elude Ik-hyun. And yet, despite his menacing aura, Hyung-bae is a man of principle who, unlike Ik-hyun, abides by gangster codes and even traditional social rules (in his respect for Ik-hyun as his elder relative for instance), which puts him at a disadvantage when dealing with his less honourable enemies. This reversal of the usual dynamic between young and old is another of the pleasures of this exhilarating, humorous, smart gangster saga. VS

Helpless

The second outstanding Korean offering of this year’s festival was adapted from a novel by Miyabe Miyuki and directed by female filmmaker Byun Young-joo. Helpless is a captivating, intelligent thriller on the nature of love and identity that takes a hard look at what happens when a victimised character is forced to devise extreme strategies to survive. It starts like The Vanishing: young veterinarian Mun-ho is taking his bride-to-be Seon-yeong to meet his parents when she disappears at a service station. When he finds her apartment has been emptied in a hurry and the police are useless, he asks a relative who is a disgraced former cop to help him find her. As they investigate, her identity becomes more and more mysterious, and they must make sense of her possible connections to large debts, loan sharks and even suspected murder. The many revelations thrown up by their investigation repeatedly throw into question our assumptions about Seon-yeong and build a finely nuanced and affecting portrait of a complex woman. A convincing, tense, insightful thriller in which there is more than one victim, with a deep sympathy and understanding for the kind of dynamic that leads seemingly helpless characters to commit terrible acts in order to defend themselves when no one else will. VS

Doomsday Book

An apocalyptic triptych from Korea, written and directed by Kim Jee-woon and Yim Pil-Sung, the creators of The Good, the Bad and the Weird, and Hansel and Gretel. Part one is an eco-horror of waste and consumption where dodgy food production causes a kind of zombie outbreak. Part three is the tale of a family attempting to survive an impending meteor strike. Both share a wild, freewheeling sense of humour and are dizzy, bizarre satirical fun, especially the pot shots aimed at idiotic TV news coverage.

The side is let down a little by the middle section, where problems arise for a corporation when one of their robots assigned to a Buddhist temple achieves enlightenment. The tale is over-familiar from decades of SF, the robot is a poor cousin to Chris Cunningham’s Björk-bot in the ‘All Is Full Of Love’ promo and a ponderous tone takes over. It’s not bad, just a bit dull, and overall, considering the talents involved, Doomsday Book comes as a bit of a disappointment. Definitely has its moments though. MS

For Love's Sake

For Love’s Sake

Takashi Miike returns with the adaptation of a manga by Ikki Kajiwara and Takumi Nagayasu – filmed many times before – about a rich young girl’s impossible love for a boy from the wrong side of the tracks. The original title Ai to makoto means ‘Love and Sincerity’, which is also the name of the two main characters. Ai is a sweet young girl from a well-to-do family, who was rescued by Makoto while skiing as a child. When Makoto returns to Tokyo for revenge and immediately gets into a fight, Ai does all she can to save him from his delinquent life. An insanely colourful, at times kitsch teen melodrama, it mixes the badass attitude and energy of Crows Zero with the demented chirpiness of The Happiness of the Katakuris. It may not be Miike at his most ground-breaking or daring, but it is wildly entertaining. The director once more demonstrates his boundless inventiveness and impressive visual sense with a variety of animated sequences and (cheesy) musical numbers, as well as great decors, gorgeous colours and brilliantly choreographed fights, all pulsating with his customary high-voltage energy. VS

Helter Skelter

I was a big fan of Mika Ninagawa’s 2008 Sakuran, a fun, gorgeous-looking film with a fantastic female lead. Unfortunately, her second film, Helter Skelter, is a major disappointment. Ninigawa began her career as a fashion photographer, and returns to that world with a story, based on Kyoko Okazaki’s manga, about the unravelling of a top model’s career. While there are some likeable elements in this satire of the fashion industry, the film is let down by its total lack of narrative structure and an irritating subplot, while the riot of colour that made Sakuran so refreshing seems like nothing more than eye candy in Helter Skelter, helping to gloss over the film’s weaknesses.

Erika Sawajiri stars as Lilico, Japan’s hottest model and teen idol. She’s bitchy, tyrannical and stunning – but also a fake. Her looks have been created at an expensive clinic, paid for by her agent, who is still extracting a heavy price for turning her into a commodity. When Lilico is pushed aside by a younger model, her anger and frustrations are taken out on her unfortunate assistant, who’s forced to endure endless humiliations. In the meantime, a team of police, led by an obnoxious, irritating character who spouts trite philosophical soundbites, is investigating the clinic for illegally using human tissue in its patients (a sorely underdeveloped idea – although strange bruises do begin to appear underneath Lilico’s skin.) But rather than use this investigation to add an element of noir to the film, the scenes with the police are mostly shot in a very bland office, with them doing very little. They add nothing to the already fractured narrative, while the dialogue is simply excruciating.

Despite some good moments – Ninigawa does an excellent job capturing the absurdity of the industry, and the public’s obsession with beauty at all costs – the director’s inimitable style can’t make up for the unlikeable characters, needlessly frenetic pacing, and worst of all, the weak script. SC

The Samurai That Night

Adapted by Masaaki Akahori from his own play, The Samurai That Night is the story of a meek factory owner, Nakamura, who is still grieving after the death of his wife and is looking for revenge against the thug who killed her in a road accident five years earlier. The title ironically refers to Nakamura’s vengeance fantasy, which is comically and pitifully deflated in the realistically depicted modern world of the film. The film is indeed anything but an action film: it takes the classical opposition between the wronged good man looking for payback and the unredeemable evil brute but films it as a slow-paced, introspective character study. When – in another nod to the samurai film – the final big showdown in the rain comes, there is no resolution, or even progression, and both characters remain the same.

This could have been interesting, were it not for the excessively simplistic characterisation, the unbearably ponderous tone and the affected, sometimes sentimental quirkiness (the main character obsessively eats custard desserts; while on a date he takes his late wife’s bra out of the pocket of his trousers; when he plays ball with his overly sweet date, just as he used to with his wife, she delivers an exasperating ode to simple things – I could go on). This is a film that is not as deep as it thinks it is and its self-important slowness just makes it tiresomely dull. VS

London Film Festival 2011: part 3

Rebellion

55th BFI London Film Festival

12-27 October 2011, various venues, London

LFF website

Last part of our coverage of the 2011 London Film Festival by Mark Stafford, Sarah Cronin, Lisa Williams, Frances Morgan and Virginie Sélavy.

Rebellion

On April 22, 1988, three gendarmes were killed and 30 others taken hostage in a botched operation by independence fighters on the French colony of New Caledonia. In this fictionalised account, Mathieu Kassovitz plays Captain Philippe Legorjus, the leader of a special operations unit who is sent to the island to negotiate a peaceful settlement, only to find himself outmanoeuvred and sidelined by his own colleagues. The latest from the actor-director mixes docu-drama and action thriller elements to create a wrenching, powerful and intelligent film that exposes the arrogance and brutality of the French elite during the 10-day hostage crisis. Kassovitz opens the film with a tableau depicting the final moments of the stand-off, before piecing together a day-by-day reconstruction of how events went tragically wrong; tension builds quickly, immediately immersing the audience in the politically charged story. It’s impossible not to sympathise with the islanders’ struggle to take back their country from the French; the scenes of the Kanak people performing their endangered rituals are extremely moving, while the unfolding actions of the French army are increasingly sickening (the film ends on a particularly grim note). The hostage crisis took place against the backdrop of the closely fought presidential election between Mitterrand and Chirac, with political allegiances and ambition outweighing any real desire for a negotiated end to the conflict. The politicians back in Paris wanted it over before the elections, and the French army, invading a colony for the first time since Algeria, had enough incentives to ensure the rebels – horribly dehumanised in the French media – were violently suppressed. In Rebellion, Kassovitz has created an impressive and gripping piece of genre filmmaking that is also an indictment of France’s colonial legacy. SC

Dreams of a Life

Joyce Carol Vincent’s body was discovered in her Wood Green flat three years after she had died. Documentary maker Carol Morley has attempted to piece the life of this mystery woman together and has built a portrait, not of the ageing shut-in that most people might have imagined from the tabloid reports, but a pretty would-be singer and bubbly social girl who seemed to hang around in other people’s lives and never quite become herself. Fascinating stuff, with brilliantly assembled material that makes you ponder what effect you have on those around you and what impression you will leave behind. It’s a pity that the long, stagey reconstructions just don’t work and seem to strain for an effect that they don’t achieve, because the talking heads quietly reduced me to tears. MS

Dreams of a Life is released in the UK on 16 December 2011 by Dogwoof.

We Need To Talk about Kevin

We Need To Talk about Kevin is a chillingly apt title as Lynne Ramsay’s latest film contains precious little dialogue. Quite a feat given that it is based on the much-lauded novel by Lionel Shriver in which Eva, the narrator, describes the events leading up to her son committing a dreadful crime and reflects upon its consequences. This format would easily lend itself to a verbatim expositional voice-over in a film adaptation but, as was obvious from her 2002 film Morvern Callar, Ramsay knows the power of silence.

That’s not to say the film is noiseless. In fact, it is charged with sounds which, to Eva, evoke that fateful night when she discovered the full extent of Kevin’s crimes. But, rather than rely on dialogue to tell the story, Ramsay brings out Tilda Swinton’s extraordinary abilities as an actress to communicate Eva’s living hell. We see her close her eyes in almost orgasmic relief when a roadside drill drowns the wails of her crying baby, for example, and – when a doctor tells her that toddler Kevin’s reluctance to talk is not down to autism – what you see register on Eva’s face looks suspiciously like a faint flicker of disappointment.

Combined with arresting cinematography by Seamus McGarvey, and disturbing performances from the three actors who play Kevin from infant to teenager, Ramsay’s restraint elevates into poetry what could have, in the wrong hands, been turned into a gruesome misery memoir. LW

We Need To Talk about Kevin was released in UK cinemas on 21 October 2011 by Artificial Eye.

The Kid with a Bike

Another fine film from the Dardenne brothers, who seem to have a way of making low-budget films about people from the wrong side of the tracks that just don’t run along the same rails as others. Nothing here harangues us about ‘issues’ in society. It’s just the story of Cyril, the hell-on-wheels 11-year-old of the title. Living in a children’s home, but escaping to pursue the dad who put him there at every given opportunity, Cyril’s single-minded, resourceful zeal blinds him to the fact, evident to all others, that his father is a bit of a shitbag. Still, somebody up there must like him, because one of his misadventures throws him into the arms of Samantha (Cécile de France), who agrees to take on the little terror on weekends. Is it possible that she can help Cyril to save himself from the world of pain he’s so energetically chasing? There are no ostentatious camera set-ups or performances here, just lean, intelligent filmmaking that finds the best way to get to the heart of scene after scene. For my money, it’s not up there with L’enfant (which just seemed to have more going on), and I kind of wonder how long the Dardennes can repeat a winning formula. But hell, this is great stuff. MS

The Monk

The Monk

Matthew Lewis’s sulphurous Gothic novel adapted by Dominik Moll, director of the wickedly brilliant Harry, He’s Here to Help, with Vincent Cassel in the role of evil monk Ambrosio: it sounded terrific on paper, but the film did not quite live up to expectations. To be fair to Moll, it is a very difficult novel to adapt: narratively labyrinthine, it relies on the intricate echoes and contrasts between its different strands to create depth and resonance; forced to concentrate on one story, the film feels strangely bare. In keeping with the nightmarish quality of Gothic novels, Moll has gone for a dreamlike, artificial world, which sometimes works (the addition of the mask for the character of Valerio is eerie and chilling; Ambrosio’s recurring dream, which is not in the novel but perfectly fits with its spirit, is strikingly evocative), but too often descends into cartoony Gothic clichés (night outings to the cemetery, gargoyles, thunderstorms, etc.). Vincent Cassel is great as the conflicted monk battling repressed desires, and both he and Moll clearly give their all, but the result of their efforts is oddly paced, narratively meagre and stylistically overwrought. VS

Natural Selection

Amiably filthy road trip, as a childless Christian wife (Rachael Harris) tracks down the junkie fugitive fruit (Matt O’Leary) of her husband’s sperm bank habit, after hubby has a stroke while, well, having a stroke. It’s pretty familiar American indie comedy stuff as the odd couple learn from each other, and you can kinda predict where it’s going most of the time, but the central performances are fine, it makes you care, and the dialogue is foul-mouthed and funny. (‘Maybe we can go see a unicorn take a shit made of lullabies.’) I liked it a lot. MS

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai

Last year, Takashi Miike remade a little-seen 1963 samurai film by Eiichi Kudo, 13 Assassins, which was undeniably a lot of fun, but uncharacteristically conventional for the director, both in its filmmaking style and its attitude to the traditional values of the samurai. Puzzlingly, this year Miike has directed a 3D version of Masaki Kobayashi’s acclaimed 1962 Harakiri (Seppuku), a virulent, powerful indictment of the hypocrisy of Japan’s feudal system and the samurai’s code of honour. Miike is clearly going through a chanbara phase, although he seems a bit unsure of where he stands in relation to the samurai tradition. This may explain why Kobayashi’s searing condemnation of the samurai’s rules of conduct as empty, rigid and inhuman is blunted in the dialogue and weakened by lethargic direction and melodramatic excesses in Miike’s version.

When Miike doesn’t water down the original film, he simply reiterates it. The story of a poor ronin, whose request to commit ritual suicide in the courtyard of a prestigious family’s house conceals a desperate act of revenge, is told through exactly the same series of flashbacks as in Kobayashi’s film. The striking image of the ronin kneeling down in the courtyard surrounded by the almost geometrically positioned samurai simply repeats the exquisite compositions of the earlier film.

Visually, Miike adds 3D, which has the effect of making the colours dull and dark while being completely superfluous, given that there is little action. The most striking 3D scenes are those that show beautiful autumn leaves in the foreground against stony walls in the background, snow falling in the feudal house’s courtyard, and the credits rolling in front of the house’s symbolic samurai statue. Nice, but hardly indispensable. Which is a fairly accurate description of this pointless remake. VS

Shock Head Soul

It’s beautifully shot, and I love the typewriter jellyfish manifestations, but Shock Head Soul renders what seems to be a fascinating psychological case study into an achingly serious, ponderous trudge. It offers no compelling characters or observations of note and I found myself, after half an hour, wanting the whole thing to just shut up, which is possibly not the compassionate reaction to mental illness that the filmmakers were aiming for. Maybe I’m too stupid, too stupid to understand. MS

Mosori Monika

Intimate Visions: Films by Chick Strand

While the LFF closing gala screenings took place on the other side of the river, there was a tiny audience for the NFT’s programme of six films made between the 1960s and 1980s by Chick Strand, the Californian experimental and ethnographic filmmaker who died in 2009. It was a rare chance to see Strand’s work, and we got to sample a few different facets of it, from found-footage pieces that make use of archival material to her poetic, intimate approach to ethnographic filmmaking. The witty and, in the case of Loose Ends(1979), sometimes disturbing montages of old film and audio – in which sound and vision are juxtaposed in a way that recalls the darkly funny audio-visual collages of People Like Us – have dated less well than Mosori Monika (1970), a dreamlike, compelling portrait of a missionary settlement in Venezuela with conflicting voice-overs from a Catholic nun and an indigenous woman. Meanwhile, Artificial Paradise (1986), shot in Mexico, is both a gorgeously tactile, hypnotic piece about human and animal bodies in motion and in close-up – dancing, running, riding – and a comment on the exoticisation of those bodies: an example of having one’s cake and eating it, perhaps, but it’s spellbinding stuff. Strand’s feel for physicality and use of found footage are combined in Angel Blue Sweet Wings (1966), in which a male dancer whirls in the sunshine to the sound of Aretha Franklin’s ‘Doctor Feelgood’, while lights and sequins pulse in joyful sympathy, articulating a feminist vision that’s as sensual and playful as it is critical. FM

360

It’s always nice when the bad guys in an ensemble film neatly take themselves out of the picture, isn’t it? Saves you having to, ooh, I don’t know, write something that might actually happen in the real world. Fernando Meirelles’s latest features a host of fine acting talent (Hopkins! Weisz! Debbouze! That bloke out of The Baader-Meinhof Complex! ummm… Jude Law!) and puts them to work in a series of interlocking scenarios based around travellers from Vienna, London, Paris, Denver and Phoenix. I’d be lying if I said it had nothing going on, with this many characters and stories something was bound to click, and the dissolves and transitions are inventive, but really, this is tossycock of the first order. Tossycock, I tell you! MS

Target

Mentions of the Strugatsky brothers and Tarkovsky in the LFF write-up on this futuristic Russian tale were enticing, but Target turned out to be a pompous sci-fi soufflé, philosophically fluffy, insipid and indigestible. The story follows members of the Russian media and political elite as they seek to obtain eternal youth by travelling to a remote, abandoned astrophysics base and exposing themselves to the cosmic rays channelled into its central well. But the experience is so intense that its consequences are extreme, in a manner both positive and destructive. Unlike its illustrious predecessors, the self-important and portentous Target offers strictly no insights into the human condition, and no ideas of any interest about the future or the universe over its sprawling two-and-a-half-hour running time. The wide screen attempts to convey an epic feel, the sun’s rays over the ‘target’ in the barren landscape are meant to be humbling, the urban settings are as slick and modern as in Hollywood science fiction, and the whole is entirely empty and soulless. And then there’s the sex. Laughably bad sex, made worse by startling outbursts of bombastic music, in case the audience did not quite get how passionate it all is. And in a couple of instances, even dodgy sex, in which the women are barely consenting. This is one Target that is way off the mark. VS

Asshole

With its punkety rockety /sex ‘n’ drugs/ monochrome on the scuzzy streets milieu, Gandu/Asshole kind of put me in mind of the Cinema of Transgression flicks of the 80s and 90s. Most of those films, however, ran for 20 minutes tops. Gandu runs for 89, which is a long time to spend in the company of an unbearable, un-pretty solipsistic douchebag, who smokes smack, nicks money from his hooker mom’s clients, and bemoans his fate as a would-be hip hop star in an Indian backwater that has no need of one. It all looks like photo spreads from Vice magazine, or Dazed and Confused, there’s some of yer actual unsimulated sex, and a datura trip and all kinds of Daily Mail baiting whatnot, but it was only while reading the notes in the programme that I realised that the mother character was supposed to be his mother, which pretty much sums it up. Has its moments, visually and musically, and it has energy to burn, but at the end of the day, it’s bollocks. MS

London Film Festival 2011: part 2

Headhunters

55th BFI London Film Festival

12-27 October 2011, various venues, London

LFF website

Sarah Cronin and Pamela Jahn report on the London Film Festival as it enters its final few days.

Headhunters

A slick thriller with hints of B-movie horror, Norwegian director Morten Tyldum’s Headhunters is an entertaining adaptation of Jo Nesbø’s bestselling crime novel. Aksel Hennie plays Roger Brown, a man who – on the surface, and despite his insecurity about his height – seems to have it all: beautiful wife, stunning home, flashy car. But none of this is really paid for by his job as a renowned headhunter. Instead, Roger is also an art thief, whose wealthy, high-powered clients are all potential victims, including Clas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), an extremely successful executive with chiselled good looks and an inherited Rubens. While some of the early twists in this classic heist film might be predictable, the film soon shifts into some unexpected directions, as Clas turns out to be a terrifying opponent who mercilessly hunts Roger down, completely upending his life.

Some of the plotting does not hold up to close scrutiny, and sympathising with Roger is a stretch (he’s a womaniser as well as a thief), but it’s a well-executed, well-acted film that has enough going on to make it a fun watch. Occasionally gory, sometimes silly, it’s a cut above the usual crime caper. SC

Sleepless Nights Stories

Jonas Mekas’s latest offering is a weird and wonderful mix of short-film montage, essay and film diary that emerged out of a jet lag-induced insomnia. In 20-odd episodes, inspired by the tales of One Thousand and One Nights, the tireless Mekas strolls through the night, meeting old friends and random acquaintances and listening to their stories. Many of the people who appear in front of his shaky digital camera are prominent artists, including Patti Smith, Harmony Korine, Louis Garrel, or a lovelorn Marina Abramovic, who shares her inner feelings with the 88-year-old filmmaker. The more stories, both intimate and eccentric, the film reveals, the more it becomes clear that there is more than one Scheherazade at work here. The episodes, which are introduced by sometimes hilarious, sometimes philosophical, sometimes plain weird intertitles, build a series of devices to avoid desperation and death. But most importantly, what becomes manifest is the fact that sleepless nights don’t pass without a certain amount of alcohol. Mekas drinks, his friends follow suit and the camera totters, suggesting that you are better off picking up a glass of wine (Mekas prefers red) before going into the screening too, to be able to fully chime in with the admirably free spirit conveyed on screen. PJ

Shame

One of the most talked about films at this year’s festival, Steve McQueen’s Shame could have been a great movie. His follow-up to the acclaimed Hunger, it stars Michael Fassbender as Brandon, a man who is pathologically addicted to sex, filling his need with an endless stream of pornography and prostitutes. His (outwardly) tightly controlled, orderly life begins to unravel when his sister, Sissy, played by Carey Mulligan, appears at his immaculate, minimalist flat, begging for a place to stay. While Fassbender puts in a terrifically compelling performance, Mulligan is given much less to work with – her character is the ditsy, manic-depressive blonde, needy and demanding, desperate for attention, leaving endless messages for men that she’s slept with, not understanding that all they wanted from her was sex. While she has a few great scenes – and one in particular, already notorious – her character is a cliché that’s been seen and done before. Predictability is the problem with the film as a whole. The nearly wordless opening and closing scenes that bookend the film are incredibly powerful, but there are times when the dialogue is frustratingly flat, and the depiction of corporate New York and its club scene are too reminiscent of the early 90s and American Psycho. There is real tension in the tormented relationship between Brandon and Sissy, while his uncontrollable, violent outbursts are a shock, but the screenplay just isn’t quite strong enough to make the whole a truly remarkable film – what’s frustrating is that it comes so close. SC

Walking Too Fast

Following hard on the heels of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others, slow-burn Czech psychological thriller Walking Too Fast offers an equally compelling, if less original, glimpse into lives under a communist regime before the fall of the Iron Curtain. Set in Czechoslovakia in the early 1980s, the film draws heavily on the story of its predecessor: troubled agent Antonín Rusnák (Ondrej Malý;) is a loyal, and consequently savage, henchman of the official state security service, whose brutal façade starts to crumble as he develops an obsession with Klára, the young lover of the persecuted dissident Tomáš, whom Antonín attempts to force into emigration. Antonín’s motive, however, is less an urging romantic desire than a desperate attempt to overcome his inner struggle and despair, which makes his character thoroughly unlikable but, at the same time, more interesting and powerful. In fact, his gradual transition from faithful servant to ruthless maverick, who, in his pointless attempts to win Klára over Tomáš, gradually starts to fight on all fronts, is where the film is most gripping. Although the pace lags slightly towards the end, Malý; delivers a solid performance as the cold-blooded spy going astray, and thanks to the chilling electronic score and apt cinematography director Radim Špaček has crafted a film that is both absorbing and subtly unsettling in its own right. PJ

Without

Without

The debut feature from writer-director-editor Mark Jackson, Without was a personal highlight at this year’s LFF. It features an outstanding performance from newcomer Joslyn Jensen as an unstable young woman who’s secretly coping with a terrible loss. Joslyn takes a job on an island off the coast of Washington State, caring for Frank, an elderly man in a near-vegetative state who’s confined to a wheelchair. The set-up – it’s just the two of them, alone, in a remote house in the woods – suggests a thriller, but the suspense and mystery really revolve around her perilous emotional state. There are lots of (sometimes disturbing) comedic moments in the film, but as it unfolds, Joslyn’s charming, seemingly innocent character begins to evolve into something deeper and darker. Her transformation is mesmerising; her treatment of Frank at times shocking. The director hints throughout the film at her reasons for taking the job, but never gives away too much at once, leaving it to the audience to try and piece together the rest of the puzzle.

Jessica Dimmock and Diego Garcia’s cinematography is superb; much of the film is shot with a shallow depth of field, lending a rich, soft-focus look to the visuals, while the warm hues contrast with the darkening tone of the film. It’s a remarkable, original feature that will hopefully get the recognition that it deserves. SC

Restless

Gus Van Sant’s latest film seems like an unlikely choice for the director: a very twee romance about two adolescents who fall in love while coming to terms with both life and death. Enoch (played by Henry Hopper), struggling to cope with the loss of his parents in an accident, likes to crash funerals dressed in gothic attire. His best friend is Hiroshi, the ghost of a kamikaze pilot (why, I have no idea); they like to play Battleship together, but the pilot always wins. Annabel (Mia Wasikowska) is dying from a brain tumour, although she keeps this information to herself when she first meets Enoch at the funeral home.

It’s a classic teen love story, complete with the tragic but uplifting ending and added quirkiness. The problem is that the evolution of their romance is so sickeningly sweet it’s exasperating to watch, while their world is made up of elements from a nostalgic past that lends a painfully contrived air to the film (perhaps trying to recreate Harold and Maude for today’s generation, but failing). She reads books on Darwin and birds, they play Operation, and Enoch toys with a slinky while waiting in the hospital for news from Annabel. They’re completely removed from reality, and the result is that the film has little resonance, or anything believable to say about weighty subjects like love and death.

But despite the film’s serious flaws, I think it will have an audience: it’s the perfect sleep-over movie for tween girls who are too cool for the stuff that passes for romance in Hollywood, and not yet cynical enough to reject screenwriter Jason Lew’s blatant tugging on the heartstrings. SC

Restless is released by Sony Pictures in the UK on 21 October 2011.

Crazy Horse

For his 39th film, Frederick Wiseman has taken a close look behind the scenes of the famous Parisian cabaret club, which, since its foundation in 1951, offers a burlesque show billed as celebrating both beautiful women and the art of the nude. After a first glance into the dressing rooms, a gently moving camera follows a couple of catchy on-stage performances. However, much as in La Danse, in which Wiseman observes the dancers and choreographers of the Paris Opera Ballet as they break the most complex movements down into their component parts, the director’s primary interest here remains in revealing the hard work needed for choreographer Philippe Decloufé and his ensemble to revive and sustain the success of the show. Wiseman records the long, tiring hours of practices, staff meetings and heady discussions about lighting design and budget constraints, and costume-fitting sessions followed by more rehearsals and repetition. Working precisely with the curiosity of an anthropologist and the eye of an aesthete, Wiseman manages once again to achieve what any ordinary observer would fail to do: making the boredom of routine work captivating. Enriched by footage of the ensemble’s most compelling on-stage acts and moments of casual beauty, Crazy Horse is a vibrant, fascinating celebration of dance as a multi-faceted art form. PJ

She Monkeys

Nominated for the Sutherland Trophy at this year’s LFF, She Monkeys is an intriguing debut from Swedish filmmaker Lisa Aschan about the intensely competitive relationship between two young women teetering on the cusp of adulthood. Emma dreams of joining the local equestrian acrobatics team, practising diligently in her sparsely furnished bedroom in the house that she shares with her precocious seven-year-old sister Sara and their father (we never learn what’s happened to their mother, although her unexplained absence is clearly a disturbing factor in their lives). When Emma succeeds in making the equestrian team, she’s befriended by the attractive, worldly Cassandra. It’s soon clear who is in control; Cassandra is a bully, and the prank that she plays on a young man who’s interested in Emma is painfully cruel. But a fatal moment of vulnerability on Cassandra’s part leads to a twist in their power struggle, and the discovery that Emma is perhaps not as innocent and vulnerable as she first seems.

It’s an original retelling of the coming-of-age story, but what makes She Monkeys so remarkable are the performances delivered by the non-professional actresses, Mathilda Paradeiser, Linda Molin and Isabella Lindquist, who is simply astonishing as Sara, a child far too young to be grappling with her sexuality. It’s a compelling, disquieting watch that earned Aschan the top narrative prize at the Tribeca Film Festival. SC

Attenberg: Interview with Athina Rachel Tsangari

Attenberg

Format: Cinema

Release date: 2 September 2011

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: Artificial Eye

Director: Athina Rachel Tsangari

Writer: Athina Rachel Tsangari

Cast: Arian Labed, Vangelis Mourikis, Evangelia Randou, Yorgos Lanthimos

Greece 2010

97 mins

Two women stand against a white wall, their tongues intertwined but their bodies stiff as they stand as far apart from each other as possible. It’s perhaps one of the least erotic kisses seen on screen. Twenty-three-year-old Marina (Arian Labed) has never kissed a man before; she lives in a modernist, failed workers’ utopia that still houses a factory but few inhabitants. Living alone with her father, a disillusioned architect who is terminally ill, she sees life through the prism of Sir David Attenborough’s documentaries, the human species as animal; her relationship with her only friend, the much more experienced Bella, is primitive, physical.

Athina Rachel Tsangari’s film is a beautifully observed, often playful, study of one woman’s alienation; Marina, awkward, naïve, contemptuous, slowly learns that she needs more than just her father and Bella. It’s a refreshing and unsentimental film about sex, relationships and death. Aesthetically, the film mixes elements of the nouvelle vague with touches of performance art, plus a terrific soundtrack (Suicide is Marina’s favourite band); there’s also a brilliant scene sung to Françoise Hardy’s ‘Tous les garçons et les filles’. There’s real beauty in the shots of the empty town and factory, and the clean, crisp modernist spaces inhabited by the actors.

Tsangari also produced last year’s Dogtooth (director Yorgos Lanthimos appears in Attenberg as The Engineer) and while Attenberg is a very different work, it’s exciting to see such original filmmaking emerge from their collaborations.

Sarah Cronin met the Austin-based director at the 2010 London Film Festival, where they discussed intimacy, making films in Greece, and science fiction.

SC: What was the inspiration for Marina’s character?

ART: That is always the most difficult question. What did you think?

It seemed very personal to me.

Did you identify with her at all?

I did, quite a lot. I think it was that feeling that you don’t necessarily belong anywhere.

Yes, that’s it. It’s the first movie that I’ve made in Greece. It took me years to figure out if I could make a movie in my own language and if I did, what it would be. It’s very difficult to see myself as a filmmaker in Greece because I was in America for so long, and it’s difficult to write in Greek. So it was about a girl who does not belong in her environment or in society. It’s something that came very naturally to me. And also, the relationship between father and daughter is primordial, especially in Third-World countries – or Second-World, somewhere between First and Third.

I was quite surprised by the discussion of cremation in the film. Is it true that it’s banned in Greece?

It’s not allowed yet because of the Church. I think they are passing a law to allow cremation, but that’s partly because of the lack of real estate. For someone like the father, who held ideals that were examined and failed, his last act of resistance is to be buried the way he wants to be. The film is structured as a series of negotiations between people, and I felt that it was a fair negotiation, the father asking Marina to help him die in a respectable way – and to ask her to become a bit more human, for her to belong in society.

I thought the love scenes with the engineer were incredibly well handled. They really captured all the fear and nervousness, and Marina’s own insecurities. The scenes didn’t seem gratuitous, but integral to her development.

I liked the idea that Marina would just keep talking while exploring this foreign thing. It was quite nice because there was so much camaraderie between us, we are all friends, and it wasn’t just a matter of directing actors. I think that intimacy shone through. We didn’t really rehearse those scenes very much because it would have been too awkward. It also astonishes me – I’ve been teaching for a while – that girls from the generation after me are so into sexuality and have no fear about their bodies – they’re not quite exhibitionists, but almost. Intimacy is something that’s lost on Facebook.

One of the aspects I liked was this great chemistry between Marina and Spiro and the rapid-fire way in which they speak. Was that all scripted?

In terms of the dialogue, very little was not in the script. It was strictly rehearsed in terms of the lines and also their body language. I have an obsession with screwball comedy, Howard Hawks and films like His Girl Friday. I really don’t like sentimentalism, or naturalist melodrama. In this plan that I had, that everyone had to negotiate something with someone, you also need a third person to work as a catalyst. That was very important to me. I’m slowly trying to develop my own language, this relationship between emotion and distance, and how you can negotiate the two without being far out or artistic and detached, and without being all like… chick film. I don’t like it when people say a movie is a great women’s film. Especially in Greece, it’s amazing: if you’re a woman, you don’t make cinema, you make women’s films. There is this idea that women largely make sentimental movies. It’s not that I totally resist that – I like films across the spectrum that are about women, even Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

Do you think people will be shocked by the opening scene, as well as Marina’s relationship with her friend Bella? Did you want people to be disturbed by it?

No, I don’t – it’s just a kiss. I think mostly men are shocked by the opening scene. I think it’s even more controversial because it’s not a lesbian scene – it’s not about two women being together, loving each other, or discovering that they’re gay. It’s about one girl teaching another how to do something fundamental. It’s like the relationship between the father and daughter, who are trying to be on the same page and be kind of equal, which is very rare in Greece. She has a very close relationship with her dad, but a very antagonistic relationship with Bella.

You’ve started your own production company in Greece and were involved with producing Dogtooth. Are you trying to inject some life into the Greek film scene?

This is already happening. I’m a part of something that’s been going on for a couple of years. The first film that I produced in Greece was Yorgos’s first feature Kinetta. I love to produce my own stuff because it gives me a sense of freedom and independence, and I also take some kind of perverse pleasure in organising and making budgets. I love collaborating, and we do kind of have a collective. Greek cinema is working out right now, it’s very exciting. Some people say that Dogtooth and Attenberg have some things in common, although I don’t really think so, but there is a kinship between Yorgos and I, we’ve been discussing and working together for a long time.

Both Dogtooth and Attenberg have a very modernist feel to them, with the locations in particular.

I went back to the town where I grew up to shoot. It was a company town, built in the 60s. Lots of young engineers moved there in the 70s and moved their families into this kind of modernist utopia, which was half-French, half-Greek, because the company belonged to a huge French conglomerate. We left, and my sister and I kept going back in the summer, so we had an image of it as this place where sexual awakenings happened, like Marina’s – you know, boy-crazy summers at the disco.

I thought the town was very beautiful in a way. There’s the scene with her father when she says that she finds uniformity very soothing.

It is very beautiful, and I definitely find uniformity soothing. I remember the town as very vibrant, and very happy, full of sport and art. It was such a cultural environment. Going back there with the crew in the winter, it felt like a bit of a ghost town, which suited me very well. It fitted with Spiros’s acknowledgement of the failures of the 20th century. But for all of us it was very strange as a crew, shooting in this very empty, uniform town, with all these white blocks – it was like the lunar, extra-terrestrial version of the town, which I liked. It was devoid of anything traditional, of expected beauty.

There’s a very animalistic quality to Marina and Bella, and the scenes of them performing like animals are interwoven throughout the film. Was that an initial element of the film?

We watched lots of Attenborough clips because it was important to me to develop the characters like animals. Each of my actors had a favourite clip and a favourite animal. It was a memory that they had while they were acting. I’m an avid, passionate admirer of all things Attenborough, I’ve been watching him since I was a little girl. He’s near and detached at the same time, like melodrama, as I call it. It really suits me as an aesthetic. He’s so gracious and has so much tenderness towards nature and his subjects. It’s a big example to me, in how to approach characters in cinema.

Do you think you’ll make a film in Austin?

I would like to. My writing partner, Matt Johnson, who is also my editor, and I have just finished writing two science fiction scripts. It’s been something I’ve wanted to do for a long time.

What attracts you to science fiction?

I really like J.G. Ballard. I like stuff that’s like a projected present, or the future of the past, and it has elements of Western, like going to this frontier and discovering yourself. I also really want to make a science fiction movie in Europe. I was recently in Reykjavik – it felt like a combination of a Greek island, Iceland and the Isle of Man. There were all these colours, all this grass, and then this rocky landscape. I loved Duncan Jones’s Moon. I don’t know why it’s so difficult to make genre movies in Europe – it’s like it has to be either art-house or social realism.

Interview by Sarah Cronin

A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews